Socialist Worker

Maurice Foley — 50 years fighting for union rights in the London docks

by Tash Shifrin
Issue No. 1950

Maurice adressing strikers in 1972

Maurice adressing strikers in 1972

West Ham’s rebel history has passed down from the 19th century to today. In 1937 Maurice Foley, aged 14, went to work in the Royal Docks. He spent more than 50 years there as an active trade unionist and still lives in the area.

“TO ME it was the heritage I belong to and it was successful,” says Maurice Foley. “My great grandfather came here about 1850 and became a stevedore [a kind of dock worker] and was on their union executive in what they called the Irish branch.

“My grandfather took a very active role in the 1889 strike. My father was in the dock, wharf and riverside union.

“He had to leave the country — he was accused of firing a gun at scabs coming in over the Beckton marshes in the 1912 dock strike.”

The area was not only home to Irish immigrants such as Maurice’s family, but to some of Britain’s longest standing black and Asian communities brought by ships from around the world that docked there, Maurice remembers.

The tradition of political meetings was part of Maurice’s youth. “On the Barking Road, where McDonald’s is today, there used to be a horse trough. In front of it there used to be someone from the socialist movement — Will Thorne, Jack Jones, George Lansbury — and there would be questions.

“All those people we’re talking about had been hungry. They knew the benefits of socialism, of being together, of being united.”

The docks saw a series of strikes — in 1911 as part of a transport strike that also hit the railways, and in 1912 a 14-week strike that eventually produced an inquiry into working conditions in the docks, a 44-hour week and a guarantee that work would be offered for at least half a day at a time.

In 1926 came Britain’s nine-day general strike.“They introduced the army, armoured cars under the ‘great war hero’ Winston Churchill,” says Maurice. “They escorted vehicles into the Albert Dock.

“My father got nicked. They said he was fighting the police and insulting the army. He got sentenced at Stepney — they sent them all down for six weeks, then they released them. Never got pardoned. My father threw his war medals at the magistrate.”

Maurice also remembers as a child marching behind the leader of India’s national movement, Mahatma Gandhi, who used to visit George Lansbury and a friend, an Indian doctor from South Africa who had a surgery in Beckton Road.

“He used to go and see his old friend and we used to go along behind him. We knew what he was about — home rule for India — because we’d been brought up on home rule for Ireland.”

Dock strikes continued in the 1940s. But there were other areas of concern that began to loom large.

Tenants’ strike

In 1953 tenants in Stratford, strongly supported by local Communist Party members, staged a rent strike in protest at their squalid housing, with the slogan “No repairs, no rent.”

The women and children who had faced down the rent collectors celebrated victory in 1954.

The dockers’ union organisation showed its strength again in 1972. “We were arguing our right to stuff and unstuff containers,” Maurice explains.

Container depots, such as the Midland Cold Storage depot owned by the Vestey family, were attempting to bypass the dockers and their hard won union terms and conditions. “I was chairman of the dockers’ group in London at the time,” says Maurice.

The dockers picketed, but five workers were jailed under anti-union laws. A huge dock strike brought out other groups of workers in solidarity — fleet street electricians, building workers — and the government was forced to let the workers, known as the Pentonville Five, go free.

“Had they been there another week, the country would have been at a standstill,” Maurice says. “Everyone was getting involved. It could have culminated in a general strike.”

Maurice Foley

Maurice Foley

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Thu 5 May 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1950
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