Joe Cowley, along with his close comrade Ted Dickens, were long-standing Communist dockers, active in the community of London’s east end as well as in the port of London.
In the run up to the Battle of Cable Street on 4th October 1936, although the Stepney Communist Party was to the fore in the struggle to stop fascists marching through the east end, largely due to the significant number of Jews in its membership, all Communists played their part. Joe Cowley and Ted Dickens cut their teeth, along with many other non-Jewish Communists.
Towards the end of the term of office of the first post-war Labour Government, it faced an unofficial wages strike by dockers in a number of ports. In response, it sought to use war time regulations to smash the strike. Their leaders were charged with conspiracy to incite dockers to take part in strike in contravention of the employment and national arbitration order number 1305. This order had been introduced in July 1941 as a wartime measure. It had set up a National Arbitration Tribunal, with legal powers to enforce awards. It prohibited strikes unless the Minister of Labour had not referred the dispute for settlement within twenty-one days. [Pic: M Walker]
Seven `ring leaders’ were identified – most of them Communist Party members. Joe Cowley and Ted Dickens (pictured below) showed that their earlier involvement had continued all these years after Cable Street. They were joined by Harry Constable and Albert Timothy, also from London, along with Bob Crosby from Liverpool and J “Nudger” Harrison, and Bill Johnson from Birkenhead.
On 9th February 1951 police raided the White Hart public house Ratcliffe Highway, Stepney (see below for a pictorial dramatisation of the event) where a meeting of the Unofficial Port Workers Committee was taking place: “suddenly the doors of the committee room burst open and in stepped five hefty six-footers, up spoke the chairman “I don’t know what sector you’re from, but I’ve never seen you on the committee, who are you ?
“We are the Law” said one of them “and it’s a pinch.”
“A pinch” said Wally Jones the Chairman “What on earth are you talking about? We are a strike committee!”
“That’s it”, said the police spokesman “We are arresting seven of your members under Order 1305, strikes and lockouts are illegal and you have contravened the Law”
In response 7,000 dockers stopped work in London and 11,000 on Merseyside, on their first day in court 17,000 dock workers struck, after that London Dockers came out seven times on 24 hour protest strikes, under the slogan “If they’re in the Dock, we’re out of the Dock !” See pic left
Dockers turned up to support the men throughout the trial, Vic Marney Secretary of the Unofficial Liaison Committee was arrested forobstruction . Finally, 8,000 men turned up to support the men on the day the verdict was to be announced, singing Land of Home and Glory, Rule Britannia, Sons of the Sea and a moving rendition of Kevin Barry by some Irishmen present. The seven were duly acquitted on all counts and were carried shoulder high through police lines, leading to the “hostile” Police organising a mounted “cossack” style assault on the dockers.
Pic below: police raid the dockers’ meeting