A sailor’s life – 12. Coronation and seamen’s strike, 1911
Hammering and stitching on parade floats and fancy dress was in full swing up and down the British Isles, commemorative medals had been struck, and “meat teas” were being cooked up for the deserving poor. By the time Bertie Sivell, cabin boy, left Pernambuco in Brazil on 2 June 1911 bound for Southampton aboard the RMS Nile, the coronation of George V was barely three weeks away.
In the Solent, ships were gathering – hundreds of ships, private yachts and warships, cheek by jowl. Ticket sales for steamer trips round the assembled fleet were booming; from 1s 6d the week before the grand coronation fleet review, to a week’s pay – £1 10s – on the day. For an extra 6d, trippers could enjoy an hour aboard the visiting US battleship Delaware “by kind permission of the commander”.
No one expected the motley collection of nationalities crewing the ships to be able to unite in common cause for the seamen’s strike threatened on the 14th. No one expected a docks strike that would bring Britain to a juddering halt. But down in Southampton the trouble kicked off early, among the coal porters called to fuel the first of the White Star’s state-of-the-art new ocean liners for her maiden voyage.
Titanic was still under construction in Belfast, but her huge twin, Olympic, was bound for New York, booked solid to bring back half a hundred American millionaires for the coronation spectacle. If it seems an insane moment for the shipping companies to chance their arm with their workers, that’s because it was.
The coal porters were labourers, working in filthy black gangs of five men for up to twelve hours a day lifting mountains of coal into ships of all sizes for a penny halfpenny a ton. They had been called to standby the grand new Olympic at 6am the day after Nile left Brazil, but were kept waiting, unpaid, for five hours. When they were at last allowed to start work at 11am, they asked for a “monetary consideration” for the half day lost, suggesting five shillings each. When it was summarily refused, the men downed tools.
By mid afternoon, the colliery firm had realised its mistake and revised its response, offering first three shillings, then four, and eventually the full five. But by then the coal porters had thought of other grievances and conditions, and more men were joining them. By Tuesday, the strike was declared official and a union organiser arrived from London – together with the first contingent of blackleg labour.
Harry Orbell had 28 years’ experience of industrial disputes. He opened the meeting by thanking the authorities for letting the men meet behind the Seamen’s Mission, and he called for calm – no rowdyism, no causing trouble in town, he said, and he urged the strikers to remember that “whatever happened” the police were only carrying out the laws made by representatives of the people themselves. He didn’t blame the heads of the colliery firm, Russell Rea and his son, whom he said he knew personally and had always found to act as gentlemen (“hear, hear” roared a voice from the crowd). No, he said, the fault lay with the whippersnappers who got their pay rises by “winking at the boss’s daughter”.
The demands Orbell eventually laid before Rea & Co were for an extra halfpenny a ton per man, plus 7s 6d to work through the night, 6 shillings for working Sunday mornings, (4s for Sunday afternoons), and reasonable notice for overtime. Union recognition was almost an afterthought, but the firm still said no.
By Thursday the strike had spread to the steamers and yachts gathering in Southampton Water to run coronation cruises, after their owners too refused to pay the higher coaling rates. The striking coal porters waived their own picket lines for two vessels: one of which had put into port in distress and on fire, and the other “so as not to inconvenience the general public” as it contained only household coal, the Southampton Times & Hampshire Express reported. Reports of the strike were well back in the paper, on page 10.
But time was running out for the liner companies. Seamen on the US liner St Paul were offered $750 dollars to coal the ship themselves, even the ship’s stewards were approached, but they all refused. In New York there were railway presidents and bankers waiting to be picked up. All the £800 state rooms for the return passage were booked. Olympic’s maiden voyage – carrying the directors of both the White Star line and the ship builders Harland & Wolff – looked doomed. (Both they and Olympic’s commander, Captain Edward Smith, should have taken note. All three sailed on Titanic’s maiden voyage the following year. Only one survived.)
So, White Star capitulated. And then the seamen seized their chance, “heartened,” as the local paper reported, by the coal porters’ success. On the morning of the day the international seamen’s strike was to be declared, Olympic’s crew struck, demanding parity of pay with the rival Mauretania – and the White Star directors settled again, allowing Olympic to finally steam out of Southampton at noon on June 14th, leaving seething industrial unrest in her wake. The New York Times reported: “Strike of seamen ordered for to-day. Has already begun at Antwerp. English owners appear unconcerned.” Men refusing to board their vessels in the US would be deported and jailed, it said.
By evening the unionist leader Tom Mann in Liverpool had “declared war” on the shipping companies for £5 10s a month minimum wage and union recognition, but not before the Liverpool organisers had issued a message dismissing the strike in Southampton as premature. “This probably explains why some of the London papers did not awake to the fact that there was a strike until Thursday morning,” wrote the Southampton Times, sniffily. Premature or not, a week before the coronation thousands of seafarers in all the large ports had responded, and the strike had spread to the shore gangs. Atlantic sailings were cancelled, and even the cross-Channel service was threatened.
As ship after ship arrived in port, more seamen joined the strike. The stewardesses on the Union Castle liner Briton joined, the ship’s bandsmen followed, and on shore even ships’ printers were agitating for more pay. In the commotion, the Union Castle laundry girls – who worked nine hours a day for a pittance of 6s a week – approached their manageress for news of their own outstanding claim. When she rather rashly responded that the officials were far too busy to consider “such a matter as that”, they too walked out, leaving the linen for several thousand bunks unwashed.
It rained in Southampton on the day of King George’s coronation, a steady drizzle. As wet processions trailed through the town, the negotiations continued.
Having bowed to force majeure twice, White Star had jibbed and withdrawn its liner Majestic from the coronation pageant, ceding her place to St Paul, whose crew, because signed in the US and therefore not yet discharged, could be compelled to sail. Majestic had been laid-up in the river, where she was now joined by other laid-up liners as scheduled sailings began to be cancelled and cargoes diverted. Four days before the Coronation, the frantic managers of the Royal Mail and Union Castle made it known that they were offering “liberal terms” to anyone willing to crew the ships in the review that Saturday, but the seamen refused, pointing out that it was more important to be adequately paid for all the other days of the year.
The talking continued right up to the afternoon before the review, and White Star was the last to settle. At ten past two on Saturday 24th June 1911, the Southampton seamen’s strike was over: the shipping companies having agreed to a pay rise of 10s a month for deck hands and men in the stoke hold, and the shore gangs all getting an extra 1s 6d a week.
Olympic arrived back packed to the railings with millionaires. Forty or fifty of them, with an “aggregate wealth of £60m!” reported the Southampton Times. But it was too late for the Royal Mail, which had had to pull four fully-booked ships out of the royal parade, including Asturias and little Oruba. Four Union Castle ships had also been pulled, including the Armadale Castle.
Bertie Sivell arrived back in England that evening, just in time for the illuminations. Four days later he was laid off, when a national docks strike was called, crippling trade through every port up and down the country. Nile’s next sailing was cancelled, so on June 28 1911 Bertie went home to his mam and dad on the Isle of Wight.
By August he was apprenticed – in sail.