Joseph Havelock Wilson

Joseph Havelock Wilson

Joseph Havelock Wilson (16 August 1858? – 16 April 1929) was a trade union leader, Liberal Party politician, and campaigner for the rights of merchant seamen.

He was born in Sunderland and went to sea as a boy, serving somewhere between 10 and 14 years at sea before opening a "Temperance Hotel" in Sunderland and settling down to life ashore at the age of 24. He became involved in a local seamen's union established in Sunderland in 1879 and had become its president by 1885. Wilson pursued a policy of attempting to build branches in nearby ports, which met with some success but led to disagreements within the leadership. In 1887, Wilson broke with the Sunderland union to establish his own National Sailors' and Firemen's Union, which was committed to a policy of expansion. Wilson remained president of the union until his death.

Trade union activities

Wilson rose to prominence in the late 1880s, on the back of the success of his union and his involvement in various strikes, including the 1889 London Dock Strike. Wilson's union suffered in the early 1890s and almost collapsed in 1894. Its revival came in 1911, with the outbreak of a wave of seamen's and dockers' strikes in British ports. Despite his militant tactics, Wilson was a relative moderate whose goal was to establish friendly relations with shipowners and formal conciliation procedures in the shipping industry to enable disputes to resolved without recourse to strikes or lockouts. This goal was steadily achieved after shipowners recognised the union in 1911 and began working closely with officials during the First World War. After 1917, wage rates and conditions were set by the National Maritime Board, which represented the Shipping Federation and Wilson's union. In the 1920s, Wilson's reputation as a 'bosses' man' made him increasingly unpopular in the wider labour movement.

Political career

Wilson's first electoral contest was at a by-election in Bristol East in 1890, at which he did poorly. He won his second contest, at Middlesbrough in 1892, in which he stood as an independent labour candidate in opposition to a Gladstonian Liberal, a Liberal Unionist and a Conservative. Having secured election, however, Wilson moved quickly to align himself with the Liberal Party and existing Lib-Lab Members of Parliament (MPs) such as Thomas Burt and John Wilson. Wilson continued to align himself with the Liberal Party in politics despite the establishment and growth of the Labour Party. Indeed, he was fiercely critical of the Labour Party and of key figures within it such as Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald. He retained his Middlesbrough seat in the 1895 general election but lost to a Conservative in the 1900 election — an election characterised by a considerable swing towards the Conservatives. He won Middlesbrough for a third and final time at the 1906 election. He did not stand in 1910.

He was a founder of the National Democratic Party but stood as a coalition Liberal at the 1918 general election , when he was elected in South Shields. His last electoral contest came at the 1922 general election, when he again stood as a Liberal candidate. Wilson was noted as one of the most vociferous supporters of Britain's involvement in the First World War.



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