The World's First Ca'canny Strike

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The World's First Ca'canny Strike 1889

Social Conditions

The 1889 dock strike took place during a time of extreme poverty among the working class with the dock workers among some of the worst of that army of deprivation. It also took place on the back of the successful “Match Girls Strike” and a time of child labour. One such case of child labour quoted in the “Children’s Employment Commission 1863” is that of 8 year old William Newham. He had been employed for 3 or 4 months, was given half an hour to do one task and is paid one farthing. He starts at 7am. and finishes at 8pm with breakfast at 8am, dinner at 1pm and tea at 5pm. He gets one hour for dinner and half an hour for the other two breaks. He used to learn to read and write but can’t write his own name, only short words like rat etc.. He never did sums, “I know the figures but can’t reckon them up.” He sometimes goes to school on Sundays where they teach him to read, but he doesn’t know what the book is, “It’s a little one.”

“The poor fellows are miserably clad, scarcely with a boot on their foot, in a most miserable state...”

These are men who come to work in our docks who come on without having a bit of food in their stomachs, perhaps since the previous day; they have worked for an hour and have earned 5d. [2p]; their hunger will not allow them to continue: they take the 5d. in order that they may get food, perhaps the first food they have had for twenty-four hours.' Colonel G.R. Birt, the general manager at Millwall Docks, to a Parliamentary committee (quoted by John Pudney in London's Docks, 1975).


Employment on the docks varied considerably from day to day. On some days as many as 3,000 could be employed on one dock and on the next day 200. Though 5d an hour was considered “reasonable” with 1d an hour extra for working between 6pm and 6am. However due to being employed by the hour and from hour to hour, the average weekly wage would vary from 3 shillings to 7 shillings, with luck playing a big part on whether you were employed or not. Many of those that worked on the docks lived in the “Common Lodging Houses.”


From “British Labour Statistics” wages of trades around 1889. Fitters and turners; wkly. 38 shillings for 54 hour week. Bricklayers; 9d an hour for 52½ hour week. Building labourer; 6d an hour for 52½ hour week. Compositors; wkly. 36 shillings for 54 hour week. Agricultural labourer wkly. 13 shillings and 4 pence, hours at the masters discretion.

The Strike and Blacklegs

June 1889, the newly formed National Union of Dock Labourers (formed in February 1889) come out on strike in Glasgow in support of the National Amalgamated Sailors and Firemen’s Union, who had been agitating for months previously for better wages and conditions. Management had brought in hundreds of scabs and blacklegs from around the British Isles to try and break the strike in the Clyde ports. True to form the scabs made a complete hash of trying to do a job that took years to build up any sort of rhythm and skill. It even got so bad that a scab lost his life when he fell overboard while unloading cargo from a ship. By July 5th the newly formed union had run out of strike funds and so agreed to go back to work at the old wage level. The dock employers throughout the strike said they were happy with the scabs work, even though cargo was being lost and dropped and in general was a full four times slower at unloading, ships were also being condemned as un-seaworthy due to dangerous loading. To break the strike the employers had had to keep up a false front and pretend everything was rosy.

Then the Ca'canny strike introduced!

It was agreed by the dock workers when they returned that since the scabs work was seen as acceptable and paid at a higher rate, then it was only logical to keep the same level of incompetence and slowness as well as dropping as many packages in to the water as the scabs but there would be no need to fall in the water in the same manner as the scabs. – and so the the “ca’canny” strike was born.

Within a few months the employers had offered the dock labourers a pay increase if they went back to pre-strike work rate. Workers from Dundee, Tilbury and Leeds once they had found out that they had been brought in as strike breakers all refused to work, even though free tobacco, food and higher wages were all on offer from the hard done by employers!

Article supplied by Stevie Gallagher.

Info from Geoff Brown, “Sabotage; A Study In Industrial Conflict” Spokesman Books 1977. ISBN 0 85 124 282 0

The book Radical Glasgow

Radical Glasgow website