Return to Recent Articles menu

Remembering the Newry dock strike of 1907

Chris Patton

November 2018

On Friday September 27 1907 a mass meeting of dock workers was held in Newry Town Hall. Spirits were high and the meeting was described in the local newspapers as “quite emotional”.

This meeting was part of the rising class tensions that gave rise to the Belfast Dock strike. Addressing the meeting was James Fearon, from Newry, Michael McKeown originally from Drumintee and James Larkin. The meeting was held to address atrocious conditions on the Newry Docks but had been prompted by the attempts by the State to crush the strike in Belfast using sectarian provocations and military force. Two people had been killed by the British Army in attempts to crush resistance and stir up sectarian divisions on the Falls.

James Fearon chaired the meeting and put a resolution in support of the “condemning the Government of Ireland in allowing the Lord Mayor of Belfast, an interested party, to bring British troops into Belfast for the purpose of intimidating the workers”. The main aim of the Townhall meeting was to form a branch of the National Union of Dock Labourers of which Larkin was the secretary.

Michael McKeown secretary of the Belfast branch gave an account of the bitter struggle taking place there and a list of the grievances on Newry docks, chief of which was a hatred of the Stevedore system. This was a system of casual labour which meant that when the flag went up at the flagstall signalling the arrival of a boat into Carlingford lough Newry labourers had to assemble on the quays in the hope of being picked by one of the stevedores. It was a brutal and unfair system in which those lucky enough to be picked ended up “treating” the stevedore who picked him in cash or in kind when the wages were paid in the local pubs at the end of the day. Workers were expected to “reimburse” the stevedore for the privilege of slaving all day for him in cramped and dangerous conditions.

Not only did the labourers that unloaded the ships face uncertain employment they were also cheated out of the pay for work they had carried out. They were given a price per ton of cargo but the true weigh was seldom if ever paid. They were constantly cheated out of their fair share, partly by telling them that the ship had a reduced payload and then doubling down on this by the same method used in Dundalk port of dividing the payments into 22 shares when only 17 or less worked on the boat. Where the 5 excess shares went on one knew.

Carters were also well represented in the crowd. The carting business was grim, they also depended on the docks for trade but had a modicum of independence from the stevedores but their pay was also very low, 14 Shillings as compared to the 26 Shillings paid to carters in Belfast which was considered “grossly inadequate”.

Carters who worked for Newry council fared a little better at 15 Shillings but still were living in extreme penury and this could be worsened by any accident that resulted in breakages of their load which the carter had then to pay for. A study which found that “twenty two shillings and five pence was the minimum necessary to maintain a man, his wife and three children, without setting anything aside for holidays, doctor’s bills and furniture or making provision for old age” gives an idea of the conditions for Newry families. Housing was very poor, overcrowded and unsanitary with poor water supplies and nothing in the way of healthcare. Conditions which contribute to the death toll from the flu outbreak of 11 years later.

Giving an idea of the arrogant attitude towards the working class the Council awarded their Surveyor a raise of £30 a year, just £9 short of a carter’s annual income immediately after refusing the carters a raise of 2 Shillings a week.

These frustrations were continuously bubbling up and on Friday 27th of September 1907 they resulted in the formation of the Newry workers into a branch of the NUDL and a courageous decision to fight back was taken.

Return to top of page