December 2015 – Pudding vs Principle, or, The Gas Stoker’s Cheer, December 1889

Pudding vs Principle, 1889In 1888, the Match Girls at the Bryant and May factory went on strike followed by the Great Dock Strike in 1889, both against low pay and working conditions.  These strikes inspired a rise in ‘New Unionism’ among unskilled workers and in December 1889 the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers went on strike.

Will Thorne had established the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers in March 1889, along with Ben Tillett and William Byford.  Within three weeks, 3,000 members had joined.  Gasworkers were subject to bad working conditions, long shifts, low pay rates and the threat of being laid off when gas was not in demand.  Often the workers would arrive to their 12 hour shifts, and were made to work 18 hours without warning.  Thorne started to campaign for an eight hour working day, and this was won in June 1889.

Next, Thorne started to campaign for changes to Sunday work.  He wanted the abolition of working on Sundays or the introduction of double pay instead.  Employers agreed to this but stated that they would only pay double pay between 6.00am and 6.00pm.  George Livesey, the chairman of the South Metropolitan Gas Company also suggested a bonus scheme in which workers would get a 1% profit share if they met a certain standard of productivity.  However, workers would have to sign an annual contract which had a clause that strikers would be made to forfeit their share of the profits.  The majority of gasworkers rejected the company’s offer but despite this Livesey introduced the bonus scheme.

Thorne gave out strike notices demanding it be withdrawn and on 5 December 1889 the gasworkers went on strike.  This anti-union cartoon shows one of the union leaders John Burns walking into the extravagant Cafe Royal in London, whilst an impoverished striker and his family are left outside.  He asks when the strikers can come in and Burns replies ‘Another time dear boy.’  The cartoon suggests that Burns is benefitting from the union subscriptions, being able to afford meals in fancy restaurants while the union members are starving.  Above them is the image of a worker and his wife who are enjoying their Christmas pudding, which they can afford because the husband is not on strike.

As this cartoon shows, the gasworkers’ strike did not get much support.  ‘Blacklegs’ had been brought in on 12 hour shifts to cover for the strikers and with 2,000 men out on strike, the union was paying over £20,000 in strike pay.  The strike was ineffective, and was called off in February 1890, when the London Trades Council intervened and made the company reintroduce the eight hour working day.

  • You can see this object on display in the Workers section in Main Gallery One.