In September 1890 dock workers in Southampton were on strike seeking agreement for union labour only to be employed in the docks and for agreement on wages. Their demands were not met and they had to concede and return to work only to find that the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co and the Union Steamship Co had granted concessions to the Seamen’s and Firemen’s union.
As a consequence angry dock workers intimidated and assaulted returning workers at all of the dock gates such that the local magistrates fearing the police could not cope sent to the Commander of the Portsmouth Garrison for military assistance. 250 men of the 19th Regiment and 12 officers arrived in Southampton in the evening and marched into Canute Road where the dock workers had congregated. Police and soldiers were pelted with stones and two soldiers and an officer were injured.
The Mayor Mr James Bishop read the riot act which authorised the authorities to declare any group of twelve or more people unlawfully assembled to disperse or face punitive action. The words he read out were as follows:
Our Sovereign Lady the Queen chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the Queen!
If the group failed to disperse within an hour the authorities could use force to disperse them. Anyone assisting with the dispersal was indemnified if any of the crowd was injured or killed. After two hours of unpleasant street brawling the fighting had not ceased so the soldiers fixed bayonets and were ordered to charge the crowd. Several Dockers were wounded by the advancing soldiers and the crowd quickly dispersed leaving the rioters’ leaders to be arrested and charged. Agreement was eventually reached regarding wages but the employers insisted that employment would be open for all.
It is often said that once the Riot Act had been read the monarch would not visit a place again. This may be why Queen Victoria failed to visit Southampton again rather than the matter of the invoice for the red carpet but that story is for another time.
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