“Hands across the sea”: Strikes, solidarity and diverging outcomes in port cities in Britain and Australia in the late nineteenth century

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This article advances the historiography of port cities, waterfront trade unionism and imperial solidarity by comparing two distant places that, despite their colonial connections, are rarely juxtaposed: Britain and Australia. It investigates the relationship between the metropole and the periphery via the Great Dock Strike of 1889 in London (a 5-week dispute that ended in victory for the dockers) and the Australian Maritime Strike of 1890 (a 12-week strike that ended in defeat for the workers). This research shows how the responses to the strikes from the other side of the world reflected the characteristics of port cities and their waterfront workers. They were also largely determined by three neglected themes - the extent of colonial ties, the uses of the new telegraph network, and the impact of trade cycles - and how these themes influenced each other. The first theme develops and complicates Bernard Porter’s argument that Britons were indifferent towards imperial affairs. On the one hand, this article confirms his position by showing the asymmetry of imperial relations between the outward-looking Australians and the mainly inward-looking Britons. On the other, it demonstrates how imperial connections led to solidarity, and how Britain’s working-class leaders embodied an elitist imperial mindset. In doing so, this article draws new parallels between Britain’s working-class leaders and colonial administrators. Despite their different roles and educational backgrounds, both groups - imbued with a sense of imperial superiority - demonstrated a similarly paternalistic approach in their work overseas. Therefore, imperial solidarity in port cities is a prism through which the prevalence and impact of the British imperial ethos - a far wider subject - can be illuminated and assessed.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages22
JournalCoastal Studies and Society
Early online date29 Feb 2024
Publication statusEarly online - 29 Feb 2024


  • Ports
  • Strikes
  • Trade unionism
  • Solidarity
  • London
  • Australia

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