The history of modern trade unionism tends to leap from the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in the early 1830s to the first meeting of the Trades Union Congress in 1868 with barely a pause for breath.
In fact, the intervening years saw the emergence of trade unions in many industries, some of whose direct descendents can be traced today – most notably the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, which was founded in 1851 and now forms part of Amicus Unite.
The historian Eric Hobsbawm makes the point in his book Labouring Men (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1964) that many workers remained excluded from trade unionism in this period because their work had not yet become sufficiently “proletarianised” – they lacked the direct employer-employee relationship that would typify later factory work – or were simply so socially excluded that all forms of organisation were doomed to failure. It was often among these two very different groups that the Chartists were most successful in finding support: the skilled artisans whose economic situation was often one of self employment or small employer, and the great mass of workers whose principal fear was of the new workhouse system
Nevertheless, many of those drawn to trade union activism were similarly attracted to the political message of Chartism, even if the more single-minded Chartists wre frustrated by the unions’ unwillingness to throw themselves whole-heartedly behind their cause.
This issue was to come most sharply to the fore in the general strike of 1842, during which, after much vacilation, the leadership of the National Charter Association, then in conference in Manchester, tried to steer the striking mill and factory workers of Staffordshire, Cheshire and Lancashire (whose main grievance was about wage cuts) in the direction of the Charter. In the eventual government crackdown, both Chartists and strikers were to find themselves under arrest, imprisoned, and in the case of those unfortunate enough not to find themselves on trial alongside public figures such as Feargus O’Connor, transported to Australia.
There is little to suggest that O’Connor himself had much interest in trade unionism other than as a source of support for Chartism. For the increasingly socialist George Julian Harney, O’Connor’s editor at the Northern Star, however, trade unions were potential allies in a broader cause. Both at the Northern Star and later as editor and proprietor of the Red Republican, Harney was to go to some lengths to ensure regular coverage of strikes and to invite contributions from trade unionists.
In the years since the collapse of Robert Owen’s Grand National Consolidated Trade Union and the transportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, there had, however, been little to hold together the often small and geographically widely spread trade unions. In 1845, the first serious attempt to form an umbrella organisation was made.
Under the patronage of the radical MP for Finsbury, Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, delegates from local and national trade unions assembled on Easter Monday 1845 in the Great Hall of the Parthenium Club-house in St Martin’s Lane, London, for the opening of a “Labour Parliament”. The Northern Star, which reported the conference at some length, noted that “the space alloted to visitors was crowded with anxious spectators”.
Duncombe was called to the chair, and opened proceedings by reading a prepared speech (“to prevent prejudice either to himself or the Delegates from unfounded statements”). In it he congratulated the organisers from excluding “political topics” from their deliberations, but expressed his confidence that should the day arrive when it became clear that “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” could be achieved only by representation in Parliament, then his countrymen would not shrink from demanding such representation.
At this stage, trade unions were severely hampered by the law. Although legally permitted to exist, their members still faced criminal proceedings for conspiracy, and were liable under common law for “restraint of trade” should they try to take any form of industrial action. Thus barred from either political or industrial action, the delegates to Labour’s Parliament found themselves largely reduced to promoting the virtues of “a good understanding between the employer and the employed” of their mutual interests. It was not an inpiring rallying cry, and arguably the conditions were not yet ready for the trade union movement to develop beyond this stage.
The conference itself would not lead to a great deal. Only the later Trades Union Congress, first convened in Manchester in 1868 with 34 delegates, would prove to have the staying power as a national co-ordinator and promoter of trade unionism that delegates to the 1845 conference wanted – and it took the passing of the 1871 Trade Union Act to ensure that unions had the legal protection they needed to pursue their members’ interests without fear of prosecution.
Even so, it would be a shame if the early efforts of these trade union pioneers were forgotten, or for the sympathetic if sometimes uneasy relationship between early modern trade unionism and the Chartist movement to go unnoticed.
More information on trade union history can be found on the Trade Union Ancestors website.
Delegates to the National Conference of Trades – Easter 1845
LONDON BOOT AND SHOEMAKERS
Mr James represented the City Men’s Men, to the number of 600. His instructions were to take measures to resist aggression, to abstain from politics, and to cordially co-operate in establishing a better system of organisation.
Mr Wm. Smith represented the West-End Men’s Men, to the amount of 700. He had no particular instructions.
Mr Robson represented the City Ladies’ Shoemakers. They were 200 in number. His body did not give him any particular instructions. However, they were aware that he had a “crotchet” of his own, which he intended to submit, but he would like to hear others first.
Mr Smith represented the Shoemakers of the borough and Clapham. United they numbered fifty-nine. They did not give him any particular instructions.
Mr L King represented the Tower Hamlets Shoemakers.
Messrs Charles and Dockeray represented the Stepney Shoemakers.
Mr Perry represented the Shoemakers of Hyde-street, to the number of fifty. He had no particular instructions.
Mr John Skelton, in conjunction with his friend Mr Christopher, represented the West-end Ladies’ Shoemakers to the number of 400. His body was opposed to strikes – in favour of restricting the hours of labour – also of withdrawing the “surplus of labour” from the market and employing the same beneficially for their own advantage (cheers).
THE LONDON BOOKBINDERS
Numbering 600, were represented by Messrs Robertson and Dunning. They had instructions to steer clear of politics and to support a better and a general organisation.
Messrs Lockett and Fox especially represented the bricklayers of London, but generally of the whole kingdom. Their number in London was 450. They had no project to submit.
CARPENTERS AND JOINERS
Mr Jonas Wartnaby represented the King’s Arms Society of Carpenters. They numbered 120 – had received no particular instructions.
Mr Evans represented the second section of the same society, also numbering 120 members. Like his friend Wartnaby, he had no particular instructions.
Mr Lambert represented the Dun Horse Society in the Borough. They numbered 72. “Keep clear of politics” was the only instruction he received.
Mr J.Bush represented the General Union of Carpenters of Great Britain and Ireland, to which he had the honour to be secretary. Their Union was divided into sections. The particular section to which he belonged numbered 150. His instructions were to do all in his power to support a general organisation, and resist aggression whether it sprang from the Government or the Capitalists.
Mr White represented the Society at the Sun, London Wall, to the extent of fifty members.
Mr Barry represented the Artillery Arms Society of Carpenters. They numbered 150. They gave their delegate no particular instructions.
Messrs Caughlin and Bicknell represented the Teetotal Society of Carpenters (Great Suffolk-street, Borough). Their body was small at present – only numbering forty-four. The only instruction they received was to co-operate strenuously in any measure for the good of all.
Mr Cave represented the Barley Mow Society, numbering 150 members. He had no special instructions.
Messrs Gimlett and Bovell represented the King’s Arms, Ebury-street, Pimlico Society, which numbered 120. Their instructions were of a general nature.
Mr Toop represented the second Society of Carpenters at the Lord Nelson, numbering 340. Instructions general.
CARVERS AND GUILDERS
Mr Williams represented the Green Man Society, Berwick-street. They were favourable to a General Union. They numbered fifty.
Mr Paragon represented the Three Tuns Society. Their number was thirty-one; and they were likewise favourable to a General Union.
were represented by Mr Read Go Here.
A second Society of Engineers was represented by Mr Booth. Each of the above numbered 120 members.
The Greenwich Branch of Engineers was represented by Mr Edward Wilder, and the Steam-engine makers by Mr Fairbrother. The aggregate number of the above bodies is 1,000.
THE MASONS, PAVIOURS’ ARMS
were represented by Mr Wood and Mr R Christopher. Their number in London is 200. Altogether, throughout the country, they were some 3,000 or 4,000. They were favourable to a General Union.
THE SILK HATTERS
were represented by Mr Cox. Their numbers were 180.
Messrs Arch and Jones sat for the Protective Society of Silk Hatters, numbering 176. They had general instructions.
Mr Hill appeared as the representative of the Sawyers of Surrey.
MOROCCO LEATHER FINISHERS
Mr Gardener appeared as the representative of 156 members of the above trade. The instructions were to co-operate in upholding the rights of labour.
WOOLSTAPLERS OF ENGLAND
Messrs John Cornish and Stephen Langridge represented the Woolstaplers South of the Trent. The Parent Society in London consisted of 500 members. They were there to resist aggression, and to assist in obtaining the greatest amount of good to the greatest number.
THE TIN-PLATE WORKERS
were represented by Mr Allen. They numbered 300. He was instructed to resist aggression.
TAILORS OF LONDON
Messrs Moody and Prior attended as their representatives. Their enrolled members were 1,600. Their instructions were to resist the “onward march” of the “Slop-shop” capitalists. That business, as at present carried on, was very injurious to health. Their Society had paid £998 in sick money alone in one year.
THE NATIONAL TYPOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY
was represented by Messrs Thompson and Edwards. They represented the whole of that fraternity in England; and had over the last few days gained a glorious victory over the combined capitalists. (Loud cheers.) They were favourable to a General Union.
Mr Firth appeared as the representative of this body; and had no particular instructions. The body in London alone numbered 200.
were represented by Mr T Barratt. Their society extended throughout the United Kingdom and was well organised.
MANCHESTER TRADES PLUMBERS
Mr James Taylor appeared as their delegate, especially; and generally for the Building Trades of that town. Their numbers were 1,133 in that district. They thought “short time” beneficial.
THE SHOEMAKERS OF NORTHAMPTON
to the amount of 260, were represented by Mr James Horton. He had no particular instructions.
THE BOOT AND SHOEMAKERS AND OTHER TRADES OF HUDDERSFIELD
were represented by Mr William spur. They were in favour of a general organisation and would like to have a permanent Watch Committee, or Executive, and at the same time each trade to manage its own local affairs.
THE BRADFORD UNITED IRON TRADES
were represented by Mr R Sedgewick. They numbered 1,000.
THE MASONS OF BRADFORD
were in favour of shortening the hours of labour, and of taking land on which to employ the “surplus labour,” (Cheers.) The Masons numbered 135.
THE WOOLCOMBERS OF BRADFORD
numbering about 3,600, were represented by Mr Mullins. His instructions were the same as the Masons.
THE IRON MOULDERS OF TODMORDEN
were represented by Mr [A space appears in the original newspaper – Editor]. They numbered fifty-eight, and gave no particular instructions.
THE UNITED TRADES OF NORWICH
were represented by Mr Walker. Their number was 550. His instructions were general.
Mr Wm Evans represented 2,000 men. He was sent there especially to advocate the land as a means to beneficially employ the surplus labourers. Their Society had £1,000 in hand already for the purchase of land. They thought the Government might make a beneficial use of the land in their possession by employing the now surplus labour in the market on it. (Cheers.) His constituents were opposed to strikes.
THE MINERS OF LANCASHIRE
were represented by Messrs Berry, Pasquil, and ——- [As it appears in the original report – Editor]. They were the representatives of 10,000 men, and were in favour of restricting the hours of labour, and of a General Union for the mutual protection of all.
THE LINEN TRADE OF BARNSLEY
to the amount of 3,000 was represented by Mr Frank Mirfield. They were in favour of a general organisation. He had received no instructions as regards politics. “No politics” had found the Linen Trade out, and if other trades did not find out, politics depend on it, they would find them out too. (Hear, hear.)
UNITED TRADES OF HULL
Mr William Webster had been elected at a meeting of 9,000 persons in the town of Hull. They were in favour of restricting the hours of labour, and of establishing a fund for the employment of the unemployed labour in the market.
COTTON SPINNERS OF BOLTON
Mr Brindle appeared as the representative of 5,000 Cotton Spinners in Bolton, and the counties of Chester and Lancashire. They were in favour of restricting the hours of labour; of General Union; and of resisting all aggressions on their just rights.
Mr G A Fleming represented the United Joint Stock Company of Journeymen Hatters, of Denton, Cheshire. Their number was 150, they had a working capital of £700, by which they supported some sixty or seventy persons, and paid a good dividend on the capital. They wished to see the same principle generally adopted by the Trades, and the surplus hands thus obtain employment.
THE SPITALFIELDS WEAVERS
were represented by J S Sherrard. They numbered 1,000, and were in favour of a Local Board of Trade.
THE HAND-LOOM WEAVERS
of Leigh, Middleton and Wigan, to the number of 900, were represented by Mr Lowe. They were in favour of Local Boards of Trade, constituted equally of masters and men.
THE QUEEN’S HEAD SOCIETY OF CARPENTERS
were represented by Mr Hore. They numbered 80. He had no particular instructions.
THE MANSFIELD FRAMEWORK KNITTERS
were represented by Mr Helkin. They numbered 2,000, and were in favour of General Union and a restriction of the hours of labour.
THE NOTTINGHAM FRAMEWORK-KNITTERS
were represented by Mr B Humphries. Their number was 2,000. They were in favour of a restriction of the hours of labour and a better system of organisation.
THE WOOLCOMBERS OF BRADFORD, YORKSHIRE
were represented by Mr G White. They numbered 10,000; 3,000 of them were in Union. They were in favour of a General Union, also of restriction of the hours of labour, and wished to see established an efficient land plan.
Source: Northern Star,
29 March 1845