An updated version of an article originally written for but not published by New Socialist in June 1986.

Behind what was the Lego-like fortress of Rupert Murdoch’s print-works in East London lay a village community of almost 4,000 people.

Wapping is an island. For 150 years the London Docks gave it a special identity. Ships entered and left at high tide when bridges were raised on Wapping High Street, Old Gravel (now Wapping) Lane, New Gravel Lane (renamed Garnet Street, providing the family name for Johnny Speight’s infamous Alf [1] and Fox’s Lane (now Glamis Road).

These who lived ‘inside’ the bridges were the true ‘Wappingites’, bound together by work and family ties, a powerful combination made stronger initially by religious affiliation, and later by trades union solidarity and support for the Labour Party. The community took pride in its isolation and policed itself, despite a notorious reputation.

When Britain’s first police station was sited here in 1798, the militia were called in to stop the locals putting it to the torch. [2]

In 1686 the ‘Hanging Judge’ Jeffreys [3] narrowly escaped a lynching when he tried to skip the country by taking ship from Wapping dressed in women’s clothes, after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ had driven his patron, King James II, into exile. Angry inhabitants had good reason to see through his disguise and he was cornered at The Town of Ramsgate pub. Delivered from his captors he was no doubt glad to see the inside of the Tower of London, where he would die a few years later.

Wapping is now ‘occupied territory’. In recent years the tiny riverside hamlet has gradually been annexed as a fashionable enclave for professional elites, media celebrities and the downright wealthy.

In 1986 it had become a base for the assorted paraphernalia of Britain’s new-style police force. The people of Wapping had to justify their night-time and weekend movements at police checkpoints – checkpoints which police denied even existed. And 30 per cent of the local population watched from the dole queue as Murdoch bussed in electricians from Southampton to work for News International.

Until the Dispute the only division within the community deep enough to break out in skirmishes was between the denizens of the two parishes – Anglo- Catholic St Peter’s, [4] closer to Rome than Canterbury, and St Patrick’s, [5] power base of an Irish Catholic tradition that stretched back long before the parish church was built,[6] or Daniel O’Connell [7] made Wapping his extra-parliamentary base to fight for Catholic emancipation.

In 1780 a makeshift Catholic chapel near the Virginia Street entrance to Murdoch’s new print works was burned by the mob during the Gordon Riots. [8] A dozen years earlier 50,000 people turned out to watch the execution of seven Irish coal heavers [9] sentenced to death for daring to demand regulated wages and the right to form a Fellowship like most of their English neighbours who worked on the river.

They were charged with firing on the house of John Green during a demonstration in Wapping. It was an unconvincing trial. The coal heavers had brought things to a halt on the river. Green, who had been appointed by City Aldermen to implement the much neglected 1758 Act of Relief for Coal- heavers, was organising scab labour from his Roundabout Tavern in New Gravel Lane.

Besieged by angry coal-heavers he had fired into the crowd, killing a coal-heaver and a cobbler in disturbances one April night in 1768. He was acquitted. Not so the Irishmen who were accused of firing back.

Most of the coal-heavers were immigrants who has settled in an area known as Knock Fergus in nearby Cable Street, just north of the News International site. They were at the mercy of unscrupulous publicans who earned a fortune finding them work. When colliery ships came into the Pool of London, their job was to shovel coal from the hold onto the deck then down onto waiting lighters. Those who unloaded the lighters onshore were local folk guaranteed wage rates as members the Fellowship of Billingsgate Porters. [10]

Attempts to break the coal-heavers’ solidarity led to mass demonstrations and violent picketing of landing places along the Wapping waterfront. Troops were sent in and mass arrests were made.

Class solidarity united the coal-heavers with other local workers including the weavers of Spitalfields, both Huguenot and Irish, who also supported John Wilkes [11] campaign for press freedom and the public’s right to know what happened in Parliament, and what the Royal family were up to.

Wilkes audacious journal ‘North Briton’ had been launched in 1762 with the declaration: “The liberty of the press is the birthright of a Briton, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country.” Threatened with arrests driven into exile, and despised by the establishment, Wilkes had a supporters’ club in Wapping. When he returned to England early in 1768 and successfully contested the Middlesex election, the street celebrations were interrupted by his arrest. Coal-heavers joined the protests adding “and coal- heavers for ever” to the rousing cry of “Wilkes for Liberty!”

As the Chartist [12] George Holyoak was later to recall “a free press was never a terror to the people – it was their hope. It was the governing class who were under alarm.”[13] Now the freedom of the press is threatened in new ways by arrogant international media moguls like Murdoch.

In theory new technology may seem to democratise access to the press; in practice ownership of the means of production and control of distribution remains in the hands of a powerful elite. The razor wire and surveillance cameras that surround the News International plant symbolised far more than Murdoch’s desire to keep the print unions out.

When he first announced the move to Wapping there were promises of local jobs, and no disruption from a fleet of lightweight vehicles transporting newspapers to the railheads. But Murdoch had no interest in employing locals, nor in representing their views. Speeding police vehicles, and his massive TNT convoys tore along the very route that Tower Hamlets Council once tried to push through the densely populated back streets of Wapping against concerted opposition.

It was a speeding police car that knocked down a young child in Wapping Lane in 1972 years ago that led to the formation of the Wapping Parents’ Action Group.[14] Its campaigns for an improved environment were punctuated by blockades of local roads, especially the fearful Highway that separates Wapping from the rest of Stepney and has claimed many local lives. [15] Among its more fortunate victims was Patrick Jenkin MP [16] injured there in 1984 when Secretary of State for the Environment in Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet.

In the late 70s the Association of Wapping Organisations led a series of spectacular blockades to stop plans for a new East-West road through the neighbourhood. [17] They also organising the ‘Reclaim our Streets’ marches and blockades to prevent Murdoch’s lorries disturbing their peace.

Small wonder that print workers received a sympathetic response when they put out leaflets to explain their cause. Their fate is all to familiar to the people of dockland.

When the Port of London Authority [18] shut the up-river docks in the late 1960s the media were quick to take up the cry that restrictive union practices made closure inevitable. The facts that new handling techniques [19] favoured the shipping companies preference for larger, deep draft vessels and they had vested interest in making greater use of road transport, were treated as peripheral issues. As many jobs as Murdoch axed when switching production from Fleet Street were lost then. Yet the National Dock Labour Scheme had only just been fully implemented.

It guaranteed registered dockers a decent weekly wage and putting an end to the indignity off ‘bomping on’ [20] for casual labour. And that was 26 years after Ernie Bevin [21] persuaded the War Cabinet to adopt his ‘Dockers’ Charter’

The first steps towards such basic rights began with the ‘Docker’s Tanner’ strike of 1889, [22] which united dockworkers and encouraged the growth off modern industrial unions. The dockers’ protests received financial backing from Australian workers, with the Catholic hierarchy intervening in support of the local community.

Ironically that historic victory was won with demonstrations along the Ratcliffe Highway [23] where, during the Wapping Dispute, massed pickets assembled on Wednesday and Saturday nights to oppose an Australian press baron.

There is little industry in Wapping today. Few local residents can afford the houses springing up on plots doled out to the private sector by the London Dockland Development Corporation (LDDC). [24]

Warehouses that withstood the Blitz [25] and provided local employment until late into the 20th century have been converted into luxury flat – some


selling as ‘good investments’ for as much as £350,000 at the time of the Dispute. [26]

Original Wappingites, 25% of them pensioners, a small Afro-Caribbean community, and the more recent Bengali inhabitants of the worst housing, already felt they have been abandoned when Murdoch set up shop on the London Dock. The ‘village’ that produced generations of Labour politicians and trades union activists (former print union leader Owen O’Brien [27] came from nearly Tower Hill and married a Wapping woman) is now home to pop stars and TV celebrities, would soon be fielding its own SDP [28] and Tory candidates.

Colour supplements in national newspapers promoted the quaint charm of Wapping’s new found fame. One local pub, anxious to avoid the fate of 26 others local alehouses that had in shut down, changed its name to The Caxton in anticipation of The Sun’s arrival – never thinking that it would serve its new patrons under police escort – or that it would have to change its name again when Murdoch abandoned Wapping. [29]

During the Dispute tourists visiting the costly delights of the over- developed St Katharine Docks [30] were faced with an image of Britain they would never have expected. Razor wire fences, surveillance cameras and a heavy police presence adding to the ominous atmosphere generated by the high dock walls. And on some evenings they would see local residents marching in support of the print workers to reclaim their streets from the heavy police presence and Murdoch’s vehicles.

Yet Wapping was no hotbed of revolution despite all it has gone through. There were extremes of poverty and wealth, racists and radicals. Wally Edwards,31 predecessor to Stepney MP Peter Shore [32] may have kept on his council flat while serving in the Atlee government, but one of Wapping’s proudest memories remains the pre-war visit of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s visit to Riverside Mansions and her comments on the well-kept gardens.[33]

She received an equally joyous welcome on her next visit to open the new St Peter’s School, in April 1985, though the erstwhile tenants of the block she had once admired so much have been forced out to make way for private owners.

At the City end of Wapping, and contrary to everyone’s expectations, the Stephen and Matilda Tenants’ Co-operative [34] was still going strong at the turn of the century. Formed in 1975 by homeless families, local tenants and the Tower Hamlet Trades Council, it was the country’s first ever council estate under tenants’ control. Its members, like many local residents resented the loss of civil liberties brought on by Murdoch’s arrival, but they backed the print workers, many of whom had East End roots.

Print unions may not be in the vanguard of progressive thinking but their efforts to win the Right of Reply for those aggrieved by unfair treatment at the hands of the press – the miners, Grunwick strikers, health workers, council workers and teachers – struck a chord that resonated throughout working class communities.


Murdoch may have thought he was safe behind his modern version of the giant dock walls, designed by prison architects to protect the spoils of Empire, but he did not win the hearts and minds of local people, whose ingenuity and determination has done them proud for centuries. They would mount another campaign, after the pickets had gone, in protest at the polluting impact of poisonous emissions from Murdoch’s print works.

When pickets taunted his security with chants of ‘Freedom of the Press!’ they were echoing a tradition that has deep roots in Wapping where the struggle for work and survival had forged a community that does not take kindly to strangers who trample on their rights.


1. Portrayed by Warren Mitchell in a series of award-winning sitcoms which began with ‘Till Death Us Do Part’ in 1965 and ran until 1992, Alf Garnett was the epitome of the foul-mouthed working class racist. He and his put-upon wife Else played by Dandy Nichols lived in what local’s called ‘the honeymoon cottages’, a short terrace of rented houses in which young couples ‘did time’ until their name came up on the council housing list.

2. The West India Merchants and Planters Marine Police Institute set up shop on Wapping New Stairs beside what was then Thames Magistrates Court. After the trial of three local men for theft of coal in October 1798, an altercation led to a crowd of coal-heavers gathering and one of the protestors being shot dead by the police. More shots were fired as things kicked off and Gabriel Franks became the first ever police officer to be killed in the line of duty. His suspected assailant, James Eyers, was hanged in 1799.

3. George Jeffreys, Baron Jeffreys of Wem (1645 – 1689) became Lord Chief Justice in 1683 and two years later was made Lord Chancellor by King James II after presiding over the Bloody Assizes that followed the failure of the Monmouth rebellion. He sentenced hundreds of men and women to death by hanging, burning or decapitation sometimes for the most paltry of crimes.

4. The parish of S. Peter’s London Docks was founded in 1856 as a mission to London’s poor by members of the Anglican Society of the Holy Cross. The church in Wapping Lane opened in 1866 but would later be regarded as so ‘High’ that the Bishop of London was unwilling to visit.

5. The Catholic parish was founded in 1871, and the original church was built on the site of a workhouse from 1877-79.

6. The Catholic parish was founded in 1871, and the original church was built on the site of a workhouse from 1877-79.

7. Kerry man Dónall Ó Conaill (1775-1847) is known as The Liberator for his tireless efforts to overturn anti-Catholic laws imposed on Ireland by Britain. Catholics were forbidden to organise politically and could not stand for public office. After achieving the Catholic Emancipation Act pf 1829 O’Connell took his seat at Westminster. A lawyer, great orator and organiser one of his last acts was to obtain the repeal in 1846 of the discriminatory ‘De Judaismo’ law which required Jews to wear distinguishing clothing.

8. After passage of the 1778 Papists Act which lifted some of the oppressive strictures placed on Roman Catholics, militant Protestants under Lord George Gordon organised demonstrations, the biggest of which marched on parliament in 1780 chanting ‘No Popery’. Things got out of hand and the crowds were fired on by the troops, killing almost 300 and wounding 200 more. Catholic homes and churches were burned down. Although Gordon suffered no consequences, 25 of those he had incited were hanged.

9. Daniel Clark, Richard Cornwall, Peter Flaharty, John Grainger, Patrick Lynch, Nicholas McCabe , and Thomas Murray.

10. The Porters. like others working the river, would usually be paid out in local pubs where they would be expected to take a drink of two on pay day, giving their name to the strong dark ‘stout’ brewed to energise them.

11. Clerkenwell born John Wilkes (1725 – 1797) was a journalist and occasional MP, both pilloried and celebrated for his radicalism and defence of press freedom. His supporters were gunned down in the Massacre of St George’s Field after he was imprisoned for an article critical of the King George III in 1768. In 1780 he would lose favour when he ordered the militia defending the Bank of England to fire of the mobs during the Gordon Riots.

12. The 1838 People’s Charter demanding reforms to make British politics more democratic by enfranchising working people and making MPs more accountable won substantial popular support giving rise to the Chartist movement (1838 - 1857). When parliament refused to consider a petition signed by more than 1 million working people, strikes, demonstrations and riots occurred. Subsequent trial and imprisonments only served to further radicalise the working class.

13. George Holyoake (1817 – 1906), was a newspaper editor, founder of the Secular Review, and chairman of the Rationalist Press Association. A socialist and both a proponent of worker co- operatives and their historian, he is reputed to have coined the terms ‘secularist’ and ‘jingoism’.

14. WPAG was formed by local mums after a spontaneous protest following this accident. At first the police denied liability and visited local shopkeepers to suggest it might be inappropriate for them to make statements. WPAG met weekly on Monday evenings in the (old Fire Station) Youth Club for 7 years, and kept going long after. Each week anyone could come and bring up an issue of concern. The group would invite representatives of the police, London Transport, the NHS, the GLC and Tower Hamlets Council to come and face their critics. Their 50-minute documentary The State of Wapping was the last broadcast by the BBC’s Community Unit.

15. On the night of 10 January 1987, during the Wapping dispute, local teenager Michael Delaney was killed by a TNT lorry at the Highway’s junction with Commercial Road. The police allowed the driver to continue for 25 miles before stopping him, but Michael’s companions were apprehended. The driver, Robert Higgins, was not called to give evidence at the inquest, which ruled that Michael had been unlawfully killed, and the Director of Public Prosecutions did not to proceed to a trial on the grounds of ‘insufficient evidence’. The inquest verdict was quashed in the High Court a year later. The first the family heard about it was on the TV news.

16. The gaffe-prone Conservative MP for Wanstead and Woodford, Patrick Jenkin (1926 - 2016) had been in charge of the abolition of the GLC. A founder of the Bow Group, he was dropped by Thatcher in1985 and joined the House of Lords as Baron Jenkin in 1987. His son Bernard is MP for Harwich and North Essex.

17. The No East West Road campaign employed the ‘moving blockade’ perfected by WPAG, through the simple method of a constant stream of people, including mothers and pushchairs, moving back and forth on the zebra crossing on the Highway at the top of Glamis Road, during the rush hour.

18. The PLA, set up in 1908 to supervise the Port of London and the enclosed docks of the day, remains responsible for navigation on the tidal Thames ad its environment.

19. Notably containerisation and the prevalence of roll-on/roll off (RORO) cargo ships.

20. Registered dockers gathered at the dock gates each day in the hope of getting work. Those who were not called had to suffer the further indignity of turning up at the National Dock Labour Board twice in one day to get their registrations card stamped to prove they had no work and so were eligible for a meagre allowance.

21. Westcountryman Ernest Bevin (1881 – 1951) worked in the Bristol docks before becoming National Organiser for the Dock, Wharf Riverside and General Labourers Union. He went on to co- found the Transport & General Workers Union. Hastily elected as an MP he was made Minister for Labour and National Service in Churchill’s all-party wartime Cabinet. Bevin drafted young men, the ‘Bevin Boys’, into the coal mines to replace the miners conscripted into the armed service, and used his position to improve conditions generally for workers. He went on to become Foreign Secretary in Atlee’s postwar Labour government.

22. A month long dispute which shut down London group of docks in the summer of 1889 led to the formation of a docker’s union under the leadership of Ben Tillett, Tim Mann and John Burns and the achievement of an hourly rate of sixpence (a ‘tanner’ was worth less than 3p). Their success encouraged others to unionise.

23. The original name for The Highway. It gained notoriety after a series of grisly murders in 1811, immortalised in The Maul and the Pear Tree by T. A. Critchley and P.D James

24. The LDDC was a creation of the Thatcher government, an entirely undemocratic body set up by the then Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Heseltine and given control of 6,000 acres of docklands in five local authorities on both sides of the Thames. It was the biggest ‘regeneration’ project in Europe and encountered understandable hostility from local residents who had no say in its decisions as they watched their area transformed into a property developer’s fantasy.

25. Wappingites were left to fend for themselves during the blitz when the docks were targeted and the bridges were raised to minimise damages. Their story is told in ‘Ringed by Fire’, a film made for London Weekend TV by the History of Wapping Trust.

26. 1986 prices. It was not long before some would be worth at least £1million.

27. Owen O’Brian (1920 – 1987) joined the printing trade as a teenager and took part in the anti- fascist Battle of Cable Street in 1936. he joined the National Society off Operative Printers Assistants (NATSOPA) and went on to become General Secretary, with his brother Edwards as Assistant General Secretary. He supported a merger with the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT) and became joint General Secretary of SOGAT ’82 with Bill Keys. Both had retired by the time the Wapping dispute began.

28. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) was founded by the ‘Gang of Four’ Labour MPs Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams in 1981. Their Limehouse Declaration (Owen lived in nearby Narrow Street) attracted more Labour defectors but after less than a decade and limited electoral success the bulk of SDP eventually merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats.

29. Now the St George’s Tavern, at 50 The Highway

30 At the behest of city businessmen, an Act of Parliament in1825 permitted clearance of 1,250 workers' homes and the remains of a hospital established by Queen Matilda. The rubble of the homes was carted away to provide the foundations of houses for the wealthy in West London. Almost obsolete before it opened the dock entrance was too small for the much larger ships now used as cargo vessels, the dock specialised is high value goods from the Empire, notably ivory. The first dock to be closed in the 1960s, developers Taylor Woodrow faced local opposition to their plans for a luxury marina and world trade centre. A good humoured demonstration at the opening of the ugly Tower Hotel led to the trial of the ‘Red Pepper Two'.

31. Local man Walter ‘Stoker ‘ Edwards (1900 – 1964) was Labour MP for Whitechapel & St Georges and then for Stepney from 1942 to1964. The first naval rating to be elected to parliament, he had previously been a docker, active in the TGWU and a Stepney Borough councillor, serving as Mayor during the last year of the World War II.

32. Peter (later Baron) Shore (1924 – 2001) was Labour MP for Stepney, Stepney & Poplar, and Bethnal Green & Stepney from 1964 to 1997. He held various Cabinet positions in Harold Wilson’s governments, and ended his political career in the Lords.

33. Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (1900 – 2002) came to Wapping during one of her visits to the East End in the 1930s as Duchess of York. As Queen she visited the area during the Blitz and was initially met with hostility, but after Buckingham Palace was bombed her reception was again positive.

34. Stephen & Matilda ceased to function as a Co-op in 2012. Named after two ‘walk-up’ blocks built the 1930s in turn named after the 12th century King and Queen of England. The 33 flats in Stephen House were knocked down as part of a deal between the GLC and Taylor Woodrow to make way for an access road to new housing on the St Katharine Dock site.

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *