Colonel G.R. Birt, the general manager at Millwall Docks, gave evidence to a Parliamentary committee, on the physical condition of the workers:
The poor fellows are miserably clad, scarcely with a boot on their foot, in a most miserable state ... These are men who come to work in our docks who come on without having a bit of food in their stomachs, perhaps since the previous day; they have worked for an hour and have earned 5d. [2p]; their hunger will not allow them to continue: they take the 5d. in order that they may get food, perhaps the first food they have had for twenty-four hours.
Prior to the strike, few dockers were organised, but once it began, the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers' Union recruited a substantial section of the London docks workforce. The principal demand of the agitation was for the 'dockers tanner' - a rate of 6d an hour. The strike was noted for large, peaceful processions which impressed middle-class opinion and won sympathy for the strikers' cause from figures such as Cardinal Manning. Cardinal Manning was the meditator between the striking workers and the dock owners. He was seen as fair and impartial by both sides. Upon the resolution of the strike, the dock workers collected 160 pounds for Manning in appreciation. Manning donated the money to a local hospital for a bed. Notable organisers who came to prominence during the strike include Ben Tillett, John Burns, Tom Mann, Will Thorne and the seamen's leader Joseph Havelock Wilson.
The London Dock Strike was preceded by several other developments which marked the emergence of a new mood amongst the unskilled. The strike of match-girls at the Bryant and May match strike, and the successful organisation of London gasworkers by Will Thorne were amongst these omens. The dockers' strike was more dramatic than these disputes however, because of the sheer number of workers involved, the poor reputation that dockers previously enjoyed, and various other aspects of the dispute.
From the Catholic point of view, Cardinal Manning's involvement in the strike, as a mediator trusted by both sides, could be seen as foreshadowing the encyclical Rerum Novarum ("Of New Things") issued by Pope Leo XIII two years later (on May 15, 1891). Addressing "the condition of the working classes", the Church policy set out in that encyclical explicitly supported the right of labor to form unions, but rejected socialism and affirmed private property rights. ("Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity".)
Robert Speaight, the biographer of Hilaire Belloc, noted that Cardinal Manning's involvement in the Dock Strike made a major impression on Belloc, 19 years old at the time - who was to become a major speaker for the Catholic Church during the early Twentieth Century. As retrospectively told by Belloc himself in The Cruise of the Nona (1925), the example of Cardinal Manning influenced him to become a trenchant critic both of unbridled capitalism and of many aspects of socialism.