One hundred years today Dublin witnessed the commencement of its greatest labour battle: the 1913 Lockout. Here we look at the events in the lead up to and the first days of the Lockout.
Dublin: ‘A frightful mass of destitution’
At the turn of the nineteenth century with a population of 290,000, Dublin was a largely commercial city which lacked an industrial base. Its port supplied the British Empire with a range of goods, but primarily cattle and other livestock.
The city’s population had expanded significantly in the decades following the Famine. In 1841 the population of Dublin city was 232,726; a decade later it had risen to 258,369. Much of this rise was the result of an influx of rural migrants fleeing poverty and starvation and hoping to secure food, shelter and the prospect of employment.
The records of the North Dublin Union located on North Brunswick Street in Smithfield, described the desperate plight of those fleeing the Famine and seeking sanctuary in Dublin:
“This frightful mass of destitution all flocking to the metropolis in vain hope of relief, impressed with the belief that where the seat of Government is, the noble and the wealthy will be found, but alas, on their arrival sad disappointment is their lot, they find nothing but distress and destitution and see around them, as it were, a making of their wants in the deserted mansions of the noble and untenanted dwellings of the once opulent Merchants, and then in their bitterness of despair hide themselves in this [Bow Street] asylum until hunger drives them to seek the shelter of the poor-house”.
Thus Dublin was home to a significantly larger proportion of unskilled or general labourers than cities in Britain. There were 17,000 such workers in Dublin, whereas in cities such as Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, the figures ranged between 3,000 and 7,000. With just 2,000 men employed in engineering and iron works, Dublin provided little by way of employment in heavy industries.
Given the large pool of unskilled labour, combined with the limited opportunity for employment in manufacturing industry, unemployment and poverty was rife. The living conditions of Dublin’s working class were frightful and were characterised by unemployment; grinding poverty; high rates of infectious diseases and infant mortality; substandard and overcrowded housing.
The 1911 Census of Population recorded the total population of Dublin city at 304,802. It was however a deeply unequal society. From the mid nineteenth century there began an exodus of the wealthy sections of Dublin society from an increasingly decaying and unhealthy city, to the newly developed suburbs of Pembroke, Rathmines and Rathgar.
The flight of the rich impacted the city’s working class in two very important ways. Firstly, it deprived Dublin Corporation of a substantial source of revenue that hitherto funded the city’s public services. Secondly, the fine Georgian homes of the city’s former wealthy residents, built for the Irish gentry between 1714 and 1830 during the reign of British monarchs George I to George IV, were subdivided into tenements, defined as:
“Any house (not being a common lodging house) occupied by members of more than one family and in which the average rent charged to the occupiers shall be less than 7s a week and the lowest rent charged to any occupier shall not be more than 5s a week”.
By 1913, a wealthy investor could have purchased a northside tenement house with stable attached for just £75 and expect a net annual profit on investment of £40. Arnold Wright later described the slums that developed as “a thing apart in the inferno of social degradation”.
This then was the social context in which Dublin experienced its greatest period of labour strife.
Ironically, by 1912 Ireland had actually entered a period of relative industrial calm. The previous year had witnessed significant industrial action, as workers in Dublin port came out in support of the general rail and dock strike in Britain, refusing to work on or unload ships that employed scabs.
In 1911 there had been a bitter six month dispute at Pierce & Company Iron Founders. The company had locked out its workers who had chosen to join the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Founded in 1909, the ITGWU was the union of Dublin’s unskilled workers and was led by the towering figure of James Larkin.
During the course of the Peirce & Company dispute one worker was beaten to death by police. The dispute was finally settled in February 1912 on terms that allowed the men to organise as the Irish Foundry Workers Union and to affiliate to the ITGWU. It marked a significant advance for workers seeking to combine in the union of their choice.
The ITGWU had also been successful in wrenching significant demands from the Shipping Federation, including a wage increase. Larkin observed, that the 1911 strike ‘did a great deal towards developing a confident and militant attitude among the transport workers in Dublin’.
At the opening of 1913 membership of the Union had grown to almost 10,000 and it had commenced publication of its own weekly newspaper The Irish Worker, with an average circulation of 20,000. Significantly, the Union had also secured Liberty Hall as its headquarters, which served as more than just a trade union office. Located at Beresford Place, under the Loop Line railway bridge, it became a focal point for an array of political, social and cultural activities.
Organising the Tram Workers
The decision to organise the tram workers at the Dublin United Tramway Company set the stage for the momentous events that unfolded in late 1913. The Dublin United Tramway Company and Guinness brewery were two of the most significant employers in Dublin at that time. The Guinness brewery employed over 3,000 workers and was run along paternalistic lines, with workers enjoying significantly enhanced terms and conditions of employment in comparison with all other workers in the city. Larkin did not make any serious attempts to organise the Guinness workers, setting his sights instead on organising the tramway men, who laboured under the most appalling conditions.
Owned by Cork business tycoon William Martin Murphy, who also owned Clery’s department store, the Imperial hotel and the Irish Independent newspaper, as well having international commercial interests, the Dublin United Tramway Company employed 1,700 workers and was hugely profitable. Its profitability was achieved on the back of extremely harsh conditions and abysmally low pay for its workers.
Working Conditions at the Dublin United Tramway Company
Conductors at the company were paid just 21 shillings 6pence a week, while drivers earned just 28 shillings. They worked between 9 and 17 hours per day and received just one day off in ten. Their pay amounted to 25 per cent less than their equivalents in Belfast and Liverpool. The company’s deployment of the ‘spare-men’ marked it out as a particularly odious employer. Company policy dictated that new employees spent their first year of employment turning up for work every day, including Sundays and holidays, where they waited from 7.00am till 12 noon to see whether they could fill in for a sick or absentee worker.
The ‘spare-men’ earned a paltry weekly wage of 9 shillings. Significant deductions were made for such items as the company uniform and rule book. New employees received no pay for the first six weeks of their employment. In addition, workers could be reported for petty infractions of the company’s strict code of conduct and so incur deductions on their already meagre wage. Given the conditions under which the tram workers laboured, Larkin described William Martin Murphy as ‘the most foul and vicious blackguard that ever polluted any country’.
The Bosses Respond
When Murphy became aware of the ITGWU’s attempts to organise the tram workers he moved to head them off. At midnight on 19thJuly he called a meeting of the workers during which he castigated the Union and offered a wage increase of 1 shilling and marginal improvements in working conditions.
Several weeks later, on Friday 15th August, dispatch workers in the Irish Independent were ordered by management to leave the union or face dismissal. Forty workers were immediately dismissed. Consequently, the newspaper boys refused to sell the Evening Herald and the van drivers at Eason’s blacked the Independent the following day. As a result they were locked out by management and scab drivers were brought in. On Sunday 17th August Murphy dismissed 200 tram drivers who refused to leave the ITGWU.
The following day the Dublin United Tramway Company issued an ultimatum to workers not to join the ITGWU:
“As they [the DUTC] believe that the prevailing distress among casual labourers is due to the effects of the operations of the ITGWU, they will not employ anyone on these new works who will not undertake that he does not belong and will not belong to that Union as long as he remains in that employment”.
August 26th 1913 – Tram Drivers Walk off: Lockout Commences
The company’s attempts to intimidate workers from joining their union of choice failed. On Tuesday 26th August just before10am as their tramcars drew up near Nelson’s Pillar on O’Connell Street, the motormen and conductors, all wearing the red hand badge of the ITGWU, abandoned their cars. The conductors made their way to company offices and handed over tickets and cash boxes. The greatest labour battle witnessed in Dublin had commenced.
There was much excitement around O’Connell Street with crowds milling about the Pillar as almost 70 cars were abandoned. Given the extent of abandonment Lower Abbey Street began to back up with empty trams. An estimated 200 workers were involved in the initial action. The Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) and the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) were quickly deployed and set about clearing the street.
A statement from Larkin was posted on hoardings throughout the city regretting the inconvenience caused to commuters, but stating that the dismissal of 200 men by the Dublin United Tramway Company “for no justifiable reason” meant that the men “were compelled to take action in defence of their rights”.
Murphy issued a statement that was contemptuously dismissive of the significance of the action taken by the Union: “Mr. Larkin’s so called strike was the feeblest most contemptible attempt that was ever made”. While he may have been dismissive, nevertheless the company was forced to halt the trams at 7.00pm that night.
Within hours of the strike commencing, a huge force of police was stationed outside the Ringsend power station, where earlier fitters and boiler workers had come out in sympathy with the conductors and motormen. Murphy offered his gratitude to the police, “the only things we have to guard against are attacks on the men and outrages to the company’s property, both of which we hope and believe will be fully protected by the authorities, whose actions the company gratefully acknowledge”.
Seven of the men who had left their trams on O’Connell Street were charged by the company for “wilfully causing obstruction, danger and inconvenience to the public”. The men were arraigned before the Police Courts later that day. A young newspaper boy, John Farrell, was charged with intimidating another newspaper boy, Martin Mooney, “with a view to preventing him selling the Irish Independent” and tearing a placard advertising the paper. He was fined 20 shillings, or 14 days prison, and bound to keep the peace for 12 months.
There were pickets throughout the city that day and workers marched through O’Connell Street. Sporadic fighting broke out in various locations and trams driven by scabs were attacked and windows broken. Once again the police were mobilised in force, supported by officers on horse-back. However, despite the large police presence, the trams were taken off the streets at 7.00pm.
A huge public meeting was held outside Liberty Hall, which was addressed by Larkin and William Partridge. Larkin asked why, if Carson could resist Home Rule with arms, could not the workers arm to protect themselves from the police who attacked them. It was an ominous declaration. Just days later the police brutally attacked a demonstration on O’Connell Street, leaving up to 400 people requiring hospital treatment. Over the course of that first week of the Lockout two workers, James Nolan and John Byrne, were killed by police. By Stewart R
Stoneybatter and Smithfield People’s History Project is marking the collapse of tenements on Church Street during the Lockout which killed Hugh Salmon, a 17-year-old locked out member of the I.T.G.W.U. You can find a full list of events here.