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Irish Leaders and the Liverpool Dockers: Richard McGhee and Edward McHugh

E.L. Taplin
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HISTORIANS have long been aware of the importance of the Irish in the growth of Liverpool in the nineteenth century. The Irish connection had a considerable influence on the political, economic and social development of the city which continues to be analysed by scholars. [/] In terms of labour history, the influx of the Irish into the city throughout the nineteenth century was a factor of major importance, though the contribution of Welsh migrants and those from the agricultural districts of Lancashire and Cheshire should not be overlooked. As Liverpool emerged as the second port of the country, acting as the distribution centre for the products of the English industrial revolution, so the waterfront became a major source of employment for the Irish and those of Irish descent. It was to be expected that the Irish would play a prominent part in the development of labour organisation. This was the experience of the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL). Formed in 1889, it became rapidly established on Merseyside and developed into a national organisation with branches in northern England, Scotland and Ireland. A considerable proportion of the Mersey district membership was, of course, Irish or of Irish descent. James Sexton, the general secretary from 1893 to 1922, although born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, had an Irish father and a mother of Irish descent. [2] The most famous or notorious Liverpool-Irish member was James Larkin, Sexton's protagonist in the first decade of the twentieth century, and his brother Peter.

All this is well-known; what is less well-known is the contribution made by two Irishmen, Edward McHugh and Richard McGhee who as first general secretary and president respectively of the union played a critical role in the fortunes of the organisation from 1889 to 1893. In many accounts of trade union development they receive no more than cursory mention and remain somewhat shadowy figures in contrast with their immediate contemporaries who were associated with waterfront trade unionism elsewhere, notably Ben Tillett and Tom Mann. The main purpose of this paper is to examine their contribution to the establishment and development of waterfront trades unionism on Merseyside. Following a brief outline of their careers, an attempt will be made to evaluate their activities as leaders of the dockers' union.


Both men were born in Ulster: Edward McHugh in Co. Tyrone in 1853 and Richard McGhee at Lurgan in Co. Armagh in 1851. [3] Little is known of McHugh's early life except that the family moved to Greenock in Scotland when he was eight years old. He served an apprenticeship as a compositor and worked for a number of years for the Northern British Daily Mail in Glasgow. More is known about McGhee's early life. His father was a tenant farmer on Lord Lurgan's estate, but he subsequently opened a general store in Lurgan in which his sons worked. Richard McGhee moved to Glasgow when he was about twenty years of age and served an engineering apprenticeship. During the 1880s he became a commercial traveller in cutlery and stationery, remaining in that occupation for the rest of his working life.

In Glasgow both became involved in radical politics. They first met and became firm friends at the debates held on Irish and Scottish problems at the Irish Democratic Hall. It was not long before McGhee, in particular, established a strong friendship with Michael Davitt, the Irish radical and founder of the Land League. [4] Davitt's high regard for McGhee's counsel is revealed in their correspondence. [5] Nevertheless by the early 1880s both McGhee and McHugh became closely associated with Henry George, the American radical. His immensely popular book Progress and Poverty, published in 1879, was followed by successful lecture tours of Britain in 1882 and 1884. Both McGhee and McHugh were associated with these tours and became committed Georgeites for the rest of their lives. They were leading members of the Scottish Land Restoration League and McHugh, in particular, was deeply involved in the crofters' agitation of the early 1880s in the Highlands.

It was during the 1880s that McGhee first became involved in trade union organisation. Davitt was by then advocating land nationalisation and sought to unite the Irish peasantry with the working classes elsewhere. [6] He actively supported the efforts of the American Knights of Labor who were, during the decade, seeking to establish local and mixed assemblies in Britain. Henry Pelling [7] has shown that the efforts of the Knights of Labor met with mixed success, but Davitt frequently addressed meetings organised by them in the Midlands where there were many Irish workers; and Me Ghee, following his example, was active among the nail and chain makers of Cradley Heath in the West Midlands in 1887. [5] He was subsequently commissioned by the Knights of Labor as an organiser to develop the movement in Glasgow, although he later claimed that he did not actively further its development. [9]

Indeed, on returning to Glasgow both he and McHugh became involved in the newly-formed National Union of Dock Labourers and from then until 1893 their energies were absorbed in that enterprise. This episode will be examined later. Not long after their joint resignation from the NUDL they became associated with the International Federation of Ship, Dock and River Workers which Tom Mann founded in 1896. McHugh was despatched to the USA on behalf of the Federation where he established the American Longshoremen's Union in October 1896, an organisation largely confined to the dockers on the New York waterfront. Success was shortlived however. Following a scandal involving the general secretary, Franch J. Devlin, the union collapsed in 1898 and McHugh returned home much disillusioned. [10] He settled in Birkenhead and devoted the rest of his life to the Georgeite movement. In addition to lecturing on Merseyside, he was an important figure on the United Committee for the Taxation of Land Values which was formed in 1907 by amalgamating the Land Restoration Leagues of Scotland and England undertaking lecture tours and organising campaigns on its behalf. Nevertheless by 1913 his health was failing and following a long illness he died at his home in Birkenhead in April 1915 at the age of sixty-two years.

In the meantime McGhee had become more directly involved in the nationalist movement. Despite his activities among the waterfront workers his enthusiasm for the nationalist cause remained unimpaired. Davitt persuaded him to stand for parliament and in 1896 he was elected as Nationalist MP for South Louth. It was a surprise when he lost his seat in 1900 but ten years later, in the second election of 1910, he was selected by John Redmond, the Nationalist leader, to stand for the Mid-Tyrone constituency which he won with ease. He retained his seat until 1918 when, following the redistribution of Irish seats, the four Tyrone constituencies were reduced to three and McGhee did not stand. His record as an MP was undistinguished; he loyally supported Redmond on all occasions and one suspects that following the decline of the constitutional movement during the First World War he had little taste for continuing as an MP. By then he was 67 years of age, and until his death in 1930. he devoted much of his time to the seamen's union. He had become an honorary trustee of Havelock Wilson's union in 1911 and accepted the responsibility until his death although it is doubtful if he played more that a passive role in the 1920s.


We now turn to their activities as union leaders of waterfront workers. The National Union of Dock Labourers in Great Britain and Ireland was formed in February 1889 during a seamen's strike in Glasgow initiated by Joseph Havelock Wilson who had, in 1887, formed the National Amalgamated Sailor's and Firemen's Union. During the strike Wilson encouraged the dock labourers to form a union to work in unison with the seamen on a federated basis. Hugh Johnston, a quay labourer who "spoke with a strong Irish accent'', [11] responded to Wilson's plea, formed the union and within a week or so invited McHugh and McGhee to become general secretary and president respectively of the new organisation. It was an inspired move. Both were well-known and respected in Scottish radical circles with a record of organisational work for working-class people in both Scotland and England and had established reputations as men of acute intelligence with high levels of debating skill. They were associated with popular causes, especially Irish Home Rule, an important factor on the Glasgow waterfront which contained a considerable proportion of Irish Dockers. They accepted the invitation with enthusiasm and devoted themselves to establishing the union presence in Glasgow and in spreading its influence to other ports in Scotland, to Ireland and to England. By June 1891 there were no less than thirty-four branches, including three in Liverpool, one in Birkenhead and one in Garston. [12] The first Merseyside branch had. been established in the spring of 1889 and so popular was the union there that the central office was transferred to Liverpool in 1891, Glasgow henceforth being designated branch No. 1. [13]

Between 1889 and 1893 the new union led a precarious existence. It survived two strikes in the first thirteen months of its formation. The first, in Glasgow, took place in June 1889 and was partly in support of the seamen who, once again, were in conflict with the shipowners. In addition the union sought an extra Vid. an hour for all dock workers, a claim dismissed by the employers who promptly imported blacklegs that led ultimately to the collapse of the strike. During the conflict, however, the employers had publicly praised the blacklegs and expressed confidence in their efficiency. Me Hugh seized upon this and once the strike was over advised his members to "work like the farm workers worked'' who, as temporary dockers, had apparently so pleased the masters. Thus McHugh introduced the tactic of "ca'canny'', of working as slowly and as inefficiently as scab labour. Before long the employers were prepared to concede the wage rise if the men would work normally. [14] This success led to ca'canny becoming the "distinctive policy of the union''. In their Executive Report of 1891 McHugh and McGhee wrote at considerable length on the matter concluding: the employer insists upon fixing the amount he will give an hour's labour without the slightest consideration for the labourer; there is surely, therefore, nothing wrong in the labourer, on the other hand, fixing the amount and quality of the labour he will give in an hour for the price fixed by the employer. If employers of labour or purchasers of goods refuse to pay for the genuine article they must be content with veneer and shoddy. This is their own orthodox doctrine, which they urge us to study.

The 1890 Liverpool strike was far less successful, the men being driven back to work on the employers' terms after a three week stoppage despite desperate efforts by McHugh to salvage some concessions by securing the help of Davitt to negotiate with the employers on behalf of the men. [75] Nevertheless the employers did not succeed in destroying the union's presence or its popularity. But during the early 1890s the employers' counter-attack gathered pace and although McHugh advised ca'canny, rising unemployment and the employers' determination led to its abandonment. By that time new unionism was in retreat nationally and policies of retrenchment had to be devised to survive in the less favourable climate of the 1890s. It was during this period that McHugh and McGhee resigned. In 1893 James Sexton was elected to the post of general secretary and Michael Connolly became president. This was clearly the end of the first phase of the development of the NUDL.

In evaluating the contribution of McHugh and McGhee to the development of the union an appreciation of some of the problems that faced them is necessary. One of the more persistent difficulties was to encapsulate the fierce sectional loyalties on the waterfront within a union structure that embraced all dock workers. Although mass unionism at the docks had failed to take root for variety of reasons, (sectionalism being one potent factor), nevertheless the dockers were ripe for organisation by the late 1880s. Many possessed skills that could not easily or quickly be replaced if their labour was withdrawn suddenly; grievances had been accumulating for many years during the prolonged depression of the 1880s; joint stock company organisation that was becoming more commonplace among shipping concerns in the 1870s and 1880s was making employers more remote and less sympathetic to the rapid treatment of complaints; and the impact of technical change was being felt in many jobs. With the upturn of trade in 1889 trouble was to be expected among disgruntled work groups irrespective of a union presence. Following the foundation of the NUDL McHugh and McGhee had to indentify causes that affected all workers to avoid sectional claims and, hence, the emphasis on basic wage rates, meal breaks and compensation for accidents at work. Even so the 1890 Liverpool strike exposed the precarious position of the union and its leaders. Despite the enormous support for the union, or, perhaps, because of it McHugh had to adopt policies developed by branches that he had little taste for. His advice on a number of issues was ignored or rejected; and he was forced to adopt an ambivalent stance on some matters. In any case the union did not call the strike; it escalated from a sectional dispute involving grain workers alone in November 1889 to a wave of strikes along the whole line of the docks in March 1890. McHugh was forced to support a militant approach to maintain the credibility of the union. The organisation was carried along by the enthusiastic militancy of the men rather than directing a disciplined force in support of defined and agreed goals. Similarly the union had little control over the guerrilla activity that broke out once the strike had ended. Branch autonomy and sectional jealousies persisted. If McHugh and McGhee had hoped to bind men together in the union, subject to policies hammered out by the executive and debated at congress they signally failed.

Nevertheless some successes were won in 1890. The union was established on a permanent basis with a large, if fluctuating, membership. In the favourable conditions of the latge 1880s this might be thought a relatively easy task. It should be borne in mind, however, that previous efforts to introduce mass unionism on Merseyside had been unsuccessful and there were, in any case, other organisations seeking to capture the dockers' interest. The most important was the American Knights of Labor which had established a presence on Merseyside before the first branch of the NUDL had been formed. The rivalry between the two organisations was briefly quite serious and McGhee's earlier involvement with the Knights of Labor in the Midlands potentially embarrassing. In the event of the somewhat lofty ideals of the Knights of Labor and their reluctance to develop militant policies allowed the NUDL to sweep them out of the docks during 1889-90. [16] There was also a dockers' organisation at the south end of the line of docks, the South End Dock Labourers' Association (SEDLA), of some antiquity. It had been formed in 1849 and although little is known of its policy and membership, it was probably primarily concerned with welfare though it had sought with some success to develop amicable industrial relationships with firms of master stevedores and master porters. SEDLA was, nevertheless, a somewhat passive organisation and the development of the NUDL did not lead to acrimony . It is probable that joint membership was accepted. The union also had to contend with rumours spread around by disgruntled individuals and groups who, for one reason or another, sought to discredit McHugh and McGhee. Although these were, in the event, minor irritants they took up time, money and energy. For example, in one case a scurrilous pamphlet forced McHugh to sue T.B. Kierman, the author, for libel and to claim that the employers were financing opponents to discredit the union. [27] Nevertheless the recruiting drives held in the autumn and winter of 1889-90 were as successful as could be hoped for. As tension rose at the docks a rapid increase in membership became urgent if the union was to be able to speak for the men should a dispute arise. Membership figures were scarcely accurate in the hectic early months but of the 27,000 men seeking work at the Liverpool docks some 10,000 were members by 1890-91. If we assume that the union appealed primarily to the regular dockers rather than to the large fringe element of drifters who sought work only on an occasional basis who were likely to be uninterested in joining any organisation, this figure is highly respectable, particularly^ we remember that the normal daily demand for labour varied from 15,000 to 18,000. These figures, incidentally, illustrate the considerable number of non-union men who were potential blacklegs though they tended to be the least efficient and reliable of those who sought work at the docks. Nationally membership of the NUDL reached a high point in 1890 of 25,000, though it subsequently declined to 10,000 during the 1890s. Of course the drive for membership generated its own momentum as local dockers influenced friends and those who were reluctant to join increasingly suffered the disaffection of union colleagues.

A second success was the recognition of the union by the employers at the south end of the Liverpool docks, a matter of supreme importance for the next twenty years in that preference of employment was granted to union members and union port working rules adopted. In addition, despite the persistence of sectionalism, some measure of loyalty to the union was consolidated by the union badge or button. It was devised by McGhee, worn in the member's lapel and proclaimed his allegiance to the union and, more importantly, advertised those who were not members. So influential was the button that Cunard and other major north-end steamship companies were driven ultimately to ban its display at the stands, announcing that those wearing it would not secure work. That edict, together with mounting unemployment, effectively drove the union from the north end of the docks for over twenty years.

Despite these adverse factors the NUDL survived although with a substantially reduced membership and fewer branches when nationally many of the new unions formed in the late 1880s were collapsing. In Hull the unions of dockers and seamen destroyed in 1893; and in London Tillett's union was virtually extinguished. It would have been understandable if the NUDL had degenerated or collapsed in similar fashion. To be sure, when McHugh and McGhee departed in 1893 the union was weak and it required strenuous efforts by Sexton to reduce the abuses that beset the organisation at branch level. They were, however, able to hand over a union still functioning as a national organisation despite the severe setbacks of the previous two years. At local level they had withstood the loss of membership and the unbending hostility of the prestigious north-end shipowners, ensuring that the union presence on Merseyside had come to stay although largely confined to the south end of the docks itil 1911. What factors account for their achievement?

Both were good orators able to command the attention of a mass audience; and their working-class backgrounds ensured they spoke a language the dockers could understand. They were resilient enough to shrug off defeat and rise above the problems of sectionalism, branch waywardness and internecine jealousies. They brought to their task an ebullience and determination that encouraged the more faint-hearted. They were dedicated to the survival of the union so that ultimately recognition would be secured to deal with the grievances of pay, conditions and casualism that reduced most dockers to a life of bare subsistence. What sustained them was their devotion to the message of Henry George. This is most clearly perceived in their executive reports to congress. These normally contained an extended commentary on the role of the dockers as members of the working class opposed to the excesses of landlordism in all its exploitative forms. The following extract from the Executive Report of 1892 illustrates the point.

Man is born free, and everywhere multitudes of men are bowed down by the chains of poverty and slavery. The Free-born Briton is not free to enjoy the roadside, causeway, or the pavement of the street, for if from want of work he seeks charity, he is punished as a beggar; or if, without a better shelter, he sleeps upon the palace steps, he is imprisoned as a vagabond, and the bill of legal expenses incurred in prosecuting him is sent for payment to his fellow-workmen. The rent question is inseparably linked with the wages question, and until the rent of the nation's land is appropriated for the benefit of the people who produce it, no enduring progress can be made in lowering house rents and increasing wages. Nothing but the restoration of the natural rights of the wealth producers to the products of their labour will put an end to labour disputes. It is with labour unions as with individuals—He who knows his powers seldom fails; he who is ignorant of them hardly ever succeeds.

Sustained by such beliefs, they brought to the NUDL a wide perspective that prevented the organisation from being narrowly based and introspectively concerned with the problems of one port. From the outset they attempted to develop a national organisation and, additionally, actively sought federation with other sympathetic unions such as the seamen, the Tyneside and National Labourers' Union and the Miners' Federation. At the time, however, their effrots met with no success owing probably to the indifference of congress. Nevertheless their activities within the NUDL were perceived as being part of a national, indeed international, crusade for the advancement of the working class.

Such a commitment, though it gave strength and direction, was insufficient to conceal over time their shortcomings as leaders of a dockers' union. They were unable to eliminate the sectionalism endemic at the waterfront. They were forced by circumstance to grant a greater measure of independence to branches than either would have ideally liked so that the NUDL was virtually a federal organisation from its inception. Of greater significance was their lack of technical knowledge of dock work. Neither of them had been dockers but in the frenetic years of union building this scarcely mattered as they were carried along on the wave of new unionist enthusiasm. But when that wave had receded their ignorance of dock work became more evident and their critics grew in number and acidity. Confidence in their ability waned as their inexperience was exposed. Moreover McHugh was no administrator, he was a man committed to extend men's horizons rather than a typical trade union leader enveloped in committee and office routine. McGhee, part-time and unpaid, could not devote his energies exclusively to the task even if he had the taste for it. Thus by 1893 they felt they should give way to officers more qualified to tackle the problems then facing the union. It was hastened by the growing conflicts within the union. McHugh and McGhee became increasingly the scapegoats for all the alleged failings of the union. There is no reason to quarrel with the comments that Sexton made in his Autobiography:

Various circumstances combined to lead them to resign. They felt that their mission had been accomplished; they realised that they were handicapped by lack of technical knowledge of the docker's labours; and a treacherous intrigue had been started against them by office seekers whose chief argument was that only a practical docker could be a dockers' secretary... Lack of technical knowledge of the work of a docker was unquestionably a handicap upon the work of McGhee and McHugh, but nevertheless they had succeeded in wielding a weapon of offence and defence against almost inhuman employers and conditions which were entirely indefensible... Their names are probably unknown to the present generation of dockers, but they will never be forgotten by those who worked with them and had some small share in the task they tackled with such indomitable, almost superhuman courage and inexhaustible energy. [18]

This brief examination of the contribution of McHugh and McGhee to the organisation of the Liverpool dockers encourages an evaluation of the long-term significance of their experience. The NUDL had an independent existence until 1922 when it was one of the major participants in the creation of the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU). Throughout its history many of the strengths and weaknesses and some of the successes and failures that McHugh and McGhee experienced persisted.

The national perspective that McHugh and McGhee had encouraged from the outset remained. Despite sever vicissitudes the NUDL never degenerated into a local union of port workers, although the Liverpool branches became increasingly the nucleus of the organisation. In the 1890s and early years of the twentieth century most branches led a precarious existence but the number stabilised at around fifteen. There were, however, some important losses. The relationship between the executive and the Glasgow branch, for example, became increasingly stormy and ultimately it collapsed in 1910. Most of the Irish branches were lost following the controversy between Sexton and Larkin and the foundation of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union. But between 1911 and 1918 the union was immensely strengthened and by the end of the First World War there were thirty-five branches covering northern England, the east coast of Scotland, North Wales and even seven branches in Ireland. Moreover the interest shown by McHugh and McGhee in associating with other unions was continued by the NUDL executive. Very little progress was possible in the years of retrenchment but the creation of the National Transport Workers' Federation in 1910 was immediately supported and union policy had long been in favour of some form of amalgamation with other transport unions, a policy that was fulfilled with the creation of the TGWU in 1922.

The fierce enthusiasm for the union that McHugh and McGhee witnessed between 1889 and the early 1890s on Merseyside was, of course subject to ebbs and flows and for the twenty years from the early 1890s until 1911 the union presence at the north docks was insignificant. But the events of 1911 revived memories of 1890. The transport strike of that year was characterised by rank and file determination as had been the case in 1890 and the union was carried along by a wave of enthusiastic militancy that it could scarcely claim to have created. Unlike 1890, however, the union emerged

victorious, immensely strengthened and recognised by employers throughout the port.

Nevertheless, as McHugh and McGhee had discovered, the strong loyalties of dockers could often degenerate into sectional divisions and petty jealousies. Just as they were unsuccessful in channelling that enthusiasm in directions that supported and strengthened the union organisation so their successors experienced similar difficulties. Although efforts were made to bind branches together and to end unilateral activity by the acceptance of the authority of the executive and congress they met with limited success. The NUDL remained throughout its history a quasi-federal organisation although the creation of districts just before the First World War led to some measure of regional policy. But rank and file dockers remained suspicious of authority whether it was exercised by employers or union officials and it was an inheri- tence that Ernest Bevin had to come to terms with in the inter-war period.

This paper began by referring to the importance of the Irish in the growth of Liverpool in the nineteenth century. Both McHugh and McGhee were Irish and both, though more importantly McGhee, were involved in the Irish Nationalist movement. To what extent was this of importance in their leadership of the NUDL and its development between 1889 and 1893? There is no doubt it was a marginal factor only. It was a bonus in that many dockers were Irish but from the outset their appeal was directed towards dock labourers as members of the working class irrespective of nationality or religion. The first Rules of the NUDL contained the phrase that it was a fundamental principle of the Union that 'All Men are Brothers'. [19] They succeeded where others had failed not because they were Irish but because they had demonstrated a deep commitment to radical reform; were prepared to devote themselves to meeting the industrial needs of a grossly under-privileged and exploited work force; and were ideologically impelled by the universal message of Henry George.


1 The latest study is P.J. Waller's, Democracy and Sectarianism. A Political and Social History of Liverpool 1868-1939 (Liverpool, 1981).

2 Sir James Sexton, Agitator. The Life Story of the Dockers ' M.P. An Autobiography (London, 1936), pp. 17-18.

3 Full biographies of McHugh and McGhee are to be published in J. Bellamy and J. Saville (Eds.)—Dictionary of Labour Biography Vol. 7 (London, forthcoming).

4 T.W. Moody, Michael Davitt and the British Labour Movement 1882-1906, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th Series, No. 3 (1953), pp. 61-62.

5 Davitt's letters to McGhee are in the possession of Mr. Richard McGhee of Shef- and I am grateful to him for permitting me to read them.

6 T.W. Moody, op. cit., p.61.

7 H.M. Pelling, the Knights of Labor in Britain, 1880-1901, Economic History Review, Vol. IX, No.2 (December, 1956).

8 Seafaring, 11 April 1891, p.6.

9 Bootle Times, 22 February 1890.

10 C. Barnes, The Longshoremen (New York, 1915), p.lll ff.

11 Glasgow Herald, 6 February 1889.

12 NUDL. Executive Report for 1891.

13. E.L. Taplin, Liverpool Dockers and Seamen 1870-1890 (Hull, 1974), p.81.

13 G. Brown, Sabotage. A Study of Industrial Conflict (Nottingham, 1977), p.5.

14 E.L. Taplin, op.cit., p.72ff.

15 R. Bean, a Note on the Knights of Labor in Liverpool, 1889-90, Labor History, Vol. 13 (1972).

16 The pamphlet was T.B. Kierman, the National Union of Dock Labourers in Great Britain and Ireland. Astounding Exposure of the Chief Officials and Organisers; also the Executive and Branch Officials... (Liverpool, 1890). The libel proceedings were reported in Liverpool Weekly Post, 20 December 1890 and the Liverpool Daily Press 22 December 1890.

17 J. Sexton, op. cit., pp. 107-108

18 Rules of the National Union of Dock Labourers, 1889, Rule XVII.