Friday, September 16, 2011

Millwall not scabs shock

Millwall are playing at home to West Ham on Saturday in case you didn't know, and the police have promised a massive operation across South London to deal with it. Let's just say there's a bit of a history between the two clubs, and when they last met in 2009 there was some pretty heavy fighting.

One oft-repeated bit of football folklore is that this rivalry dates back to the 1926 General Strike. Here's what the Daily Mail said:

'Millwall, formed in 1885 by dockers and shipbuilders on the Isle of Dogs gained support in the surrounding areas and were then the best team outside the FA, nicknamed the 'Lions of the South'... Tensions reached their peak in the 1920s when Thames Ironworks moved to a new home and adopted the name West Ham United. As Millwall struggled, West Ham's star was rising. Fighting broke out during the 1926 general strike when the West Ham dockers were on strike while Millwall carried on working' (26 August 2009).

Or The Telegraph (28 August 2009): 'To the north you had the workforce of the Royal docks (drenched in the claret-and-blue of West Ham) and to the south, the Millwall, London and Surrey docks (Millwall 'til they died). When the Millwall shipyard broke the 1926 dockers' strike, the outrage over the water raised tensions to tipping point'.

This gets endlessly repeated across wikipedia etc. But is it true? By 1926 Millwall had been based in New Cross for 16 years, having moved from the Isle of Dogs in 1910. Doubtless Millwall had many supporters employed in the docks on the South of the River and presumably some still working across the Thames on the Isle of Dogs. But during the 1926 General Strike, the dockers across London seem to have been solid. Looking through quite a few books** on the matter, I can find no mention of South London or Isle of Dogs dockers being strikebreakers.

On the contrary, at Surrey Docks only seven people turned up to work out of 2,000 on the first day of the strike. A mass picket at the gates of the Dock kept it effectively closed, and even the Port of London Authority clerical staff walked out - their first ever strike. The only attempts at strike breaking involved the use of students and naval ratings to unload ships. There were clashes between police and strikers in Tooley Street as these strikebreakers were brought in to Hays's Wharf (source: Nine Days in May: The General Strike in Southwark, Past Tense Publicaitons). But none of this involved dockers, Millwall supporters or otherwise, in strike breaking.

I am afraid the myth of the Millwall scabs seems to be a vicious slur on the South London proletariat! This will no doubt come as a relief to the team's most well known supporter today: Bob Crow of the rail workers' union.

** for instance 'The General Strike of 1926' by Keith Laybourn (Manchester University Press, 1993) does not mention Millwall, or any strike-breaking at any docks except that undertaken by students and the military. 'A Very British Strike' by Anne Perkins likewise does not suggest that the dockers across London were anything other than solid in supporting the stirke, indeed she makes the point that the London docks were seen as the centre of strike militancy with the police setting up a HQ at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich especially focused on the docks (Pan, 2007).

[update 18 September 2011: this myth got yet another airing yesterday on the BBC's Football League Show with the presenter saying that in 1926 there were 'differences of opinions between the rival docks about whether or not to support the General Strike' and some interviewed West Ham fans repeating a similar line. Apart from anything else it is not true that there were rival docks in 1926 - all the main docks on both sides of the river including East India, West India, Millwall, Surrey and Royal Albert were taken under the single management of the Port of London Authority in 1909]

[update 18 November 2013: the myth is also repeated in Running with the Firm, James Bannon's book about being an undercover cop in the Millwall Bushwackers - see here]


Kevin said...

Thanks for the blog. Do you have the names of books on the subject?

. said...

I have updated this with references to a couple of books on the subject.