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Railway Strikes

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Essay i
Prose: Leading Article i
Subjects Associations; Institutions; Clubs; Labor Unions
Railroads
Work; Work and Family; Occupations; Professions; Wages
Details
Index
Other Details
Printed : 11/1/1851
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume II
Magazine : No. 42
Office Book Notes
Memo-
Columns6
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Views : 1233

Dickens is here responding, as he makes clear, to a report in The Times of 27 December (p. 5, cols 5–6) of a meeting of the engine-drivers and firemen of the southern division of the London and North Western Railway, held at the Railway Tavern, Hampstead Road, on 26 December. The meeting was to hear delegates from the northern division and to decide whether to support them in threatening to strike. Delegates from the Great Western and other lines also attended. The northern men's grievances seem to have centred around the Company's decision to require three months' notice from employees wishing to leave its service. Simpson, a GWR driver, counselled caution and compromise: 'The more strikes there are the worse for ourselves, for we always find a certain set of men who have no character while things are straight, but who are taken on to supply the places of honest men if a strike occurs.'


Alluding to a recent strike on the London and Eastern Counties line, he said that good men had been 'dictated to and led astray by bad counsel and by the advice of men who ought not to be relied upon'. The letter from the Bedford men cited by Dickens similarly argued for compromise and the avoidance of a strike: 'Look at the consequences of losing and the ruinous result of defeat to so many families.... Mr Carr Glyn [presumably the locomotive superintendent of the LNW] has always been favourably disposed towards us....'
      Railway strikes were, in fact, very rare during the first forty years of the industry's history (see P. W. Kingford, 'Labour Relations on the Railways 1835–75', Journal of Transport History, Vol. I [1953], pp. 65–81) and this particular conflict was settled without one. Given the intensity of public concern about railway safety (accidents were quite frequent and widely reported – four are described in The Household Narrative for January 1850, for example), Dickens's characterisation of a railway strike as 'rather a murdering mode of action' would have struck a chord with his readers.
      Dickens's contention, expressed here, that industrial workers were often misled by 'designing persons', who sought to involve them in 'a system of tyranny and oppression', looks forward to his presentation of Slackbridge, the manipulative trades union official, in Hard Times just over three years later.

Author: Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume II: 'The Amusements of the People' and Other Papers: Reports, Essays and Reviews, 1834-51 (1996). DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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