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‘Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely — be content with your pay”.’

Luke 3:14

THERE IS a section of society that is unswayed by the passion of radical preachers. A class prepared to bear hardship and follow a path of negotiation to achieve reform. It is these labourers who prefer to conserve society’s order while relying on the reasonableness of their claim to win over their opponents.


Despite the historic abuses committed by both employer and employees, the destructive mutual antagonism implied by those overused terms ‘Capital’ and ‘Labour’, and the often pejorative application of the word ‘socialism’, the implicit plea for fair treatment of the labourer is inherently just. Indeed, it is underpinned by the Judaeo-Christian tradition of Great Britain.

Addressing the ubiquitous employer, the Apostle James writes (5: 4):


Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.

Thus the power of the trades union movement rests on its moral force.


The beginning of trades unions can be reliably traced to the time when the capital required to establish a given business was more than the skilled labourer could accumulate. A time when his skill alone was valueless, since it was separated from the means of production which, by reason of cost, was beyond his reach.[fn1] In such circumstances the labourer was compelled to hire out himself for a wage, and in doing so was measurably deprived of self-determination.


This dependence of the employee upon the employer is vexing to both. The desire for an even distribution of wealth is, perhaps, justifiable in the light of two universal maxims: that all are born equal, and that the earth can yield sufficient for all. Based on this hope, membership of the trades grew, as a testament to God’s merciful providence to man, and as a proper claim to a share of nature’s bounty.


Combinations Prohibited

In 1797 the crew of HMS Sandwich rose in mutiny while anchored at Nore, in the Thames Estuary. They were encouraged by a revolt a month earlier at Spithead, near Portsmouth, when Admiral Lord Howe had peacefully settled the sailors’ demands for improved pay and conditions. Political agents usurped the Nore negotiations and demanded the dissolution of Parliament and a peace with France. Such radical ambitions eroded support amongst the naval crews and prompted summary justice from a wary British Government. The Nore mutiny was silenced by the hanging of its leaders.


The rumour of treason aroused the government to suspect any association of politically-minded men, and not without cause. Revolutionary France had backed an invasion at Fishguard, Wales, in 1797 and a rebellion in Ireland in 1798. Parliament, after considering the Master Millwright’s petition to prevent combinations among its employees, put into force a more general bill prohibiting all such associations. The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 were prompted by British fears of revolution. Such fears led even fair-minded men like William Wilberforce to support the Act, and so sacrifice civil liberties in exchange for national security.[fn2]


The Acts suppressed the formation of trades unions during the Napoleonic Wars. Only after French forces were defeated at Waterloo did the national interest return to trade. The government, influenced by the writings of David Ricardo, a London stockbroker and advocate of deregulation, adopted a laissez-faire approach to economic policy.[fn3] Britain was in the dynamic early phase of the Industrial Revolution, and the Combination Acts came to be seen as a hindrance to national prosperity. They were repealed in 1824.


Early Unions

The liberty to combine encouraged lodges, societies and unions among working men and women. Some groups were purely insurance funds or friendly societies, some were trade clubs which sold their produce with prices set in proportion to their labour. Others were principally unions that sought to fix the level of wages.


The variety and diversity of groups which sprang up during the 1820s and 1830s was a sign of the youth and vigour of the trades union movement. Names such as the Cotton Spinners Union, the General Union of Carpenters and Joiners, and the Operative Builders Union appear profusely but briefly in the first half of the nineteenth century. The agitation of the unions was sternly opposed by employers, in a knock-for-knock fight. The union struck and factory owners locked out the strikers, the locked-out workers rioted, and the riot was suppressed by armed soldiers. Many of these early combinations disintegrated as their members saw violence as the only outcome of their struggle.


But it was by their struggle that the unions were to learn several hard lessons. Firstly, that public support is won by suffering peaceably. Secondly, that political reform would be required to change the law in favour of working men and women. And since the local unions were easily overcome by cartels of employers, the unions recognised they would need to organise on a national basis.


The First National Unions

The formation of perhaps the first truly national union is credited to John Doherty (1798-1854), the secretary of the Manchester Cotton Spinners. Doherty’s influence in the textile industry established the National Association for the Protection of Labour (NAPL), a super-union that by 1830 was comprised of 200 smaller unions. The Association funded a newspaper – the Voice of the People – which attracted a membership from non-textile trades.


The advance of the NAPL faltered when Doherty withdrew his support after a dispute with the executive committee. Weakened, the NAPL was overtaken by the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU), with around a half-million members. The success of the Grand National was due in part to its loose federation. Affiliated groups managed their own funds and appointed a delegate to attend to the business of the parent union.


The Tolpuddle Martyrs

It was during the rise of the Grand National Union that some forty workers from Tolpuddle, near Dorchester, in Dorset, formed a lodge of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, intending to affiliate with the GNCTU. They decided to unionise after their employers reneged on a pay agreement.


John Loveless, one of the Society leaders from Tolpuddle, was chiefly responsible for organising the lodge. The farmers, outraged by the activity, induced the local magistrates to issue a public notice, warning that membership of Loveless’s Friendly Society would be punished with transportation to Australia for seven years.[fn4]


Within three days of the notice, John Loveless and five others were arrested. They were tried in March 1834 and charged with administering an unlawful oath. Within four weeks of the trial the Tolpuddle six were in a prison hulk en route to Botany Bay. The men had neither obstructed nor threatened their employers, nor had they made a demand for higher wages, yet they were convicted under a law from Napoleonic times for the prosecution of simple conspiracy.


The March on London

The prospect of transportation unnerved many in the Grand National Union. The case raised a national outcry and the union garnered the public’s sympathy. The GNCTU prepared a petition and organised public meetings in protest at the punishment of the Tolpuddle six. The climax was a procession in London to present the petition to the Home Office.


Robert Owen (1771-1858), humanitarian and founder of the socially progressive New Lanark cotton mill, skilfully organised the day. He anticipated a tough response from the government and so ensured the march was orderly and peaceful. The Times newspaper reported that 30,000 took part in the procession, each trade marching behind its own banner, and each participant decorated with a red ribbon. At the head of the parade was Dr. Arthur S. Wade, chaplain to the Metropolitan Trades Unions, in full regalia. The event was a success, delivering a petition of over a quarter-of-a-million signatures to the Home Secretary.[fn5]


The petition effected no immediate change and it was two years before John Loveless and the others were pardoned. The show of strength and unity simply galvanised the establishment in their opposition to the Grand National. Employers responded by forcing workers to sign a statement disavowing membership of any trades union, and then refused work to anyone not signing the ‘document’.


The excitement induced several of the Grand National’s branches to take direct action, in opposition to the central council’s policy of co-operation. The Tailor’s and Builder’s Unions went on strike, draining the hardship fund. By the end of 1834, the GNCTU had disintegrated, divided internally and exhausted of credit.



The collapse of support for a national union coincided with the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. The Act corrected long-standing abuses of poor relief and was fashioned by modernising minds who saw the factory system as the future. Outside relief was removed, and benefits were paid only to those entering the workhouse. The fear of the workhouse encouraged many working families to be more thrifty, but this social advance was surpassed by the outrage over the replacement of a traditional benefit with a novel punishment. The Poor Law served chiefly to increase agitation for political reform.


William Lovett (1800-1877), disillusioned with Robert Owen’s Co-operative Society, helped to form the London Working Men’s Association – a group intent on parliamentary change – and in 1838 he was instrumental in drawing up the People’s Charter. The Charter made six chief demands: a vote for every man, a secret ballot, removal of the property qualification for Members of Parliament, a wage for the Members of Parliament (MPs), proportional representation, and an annual election.


The Petition Rejected

The poor and dis-enfranchised rallied to support the Charter and by 1839 numbers were sufficient for a convention in London. The convention agreed to petition Parliament to discuss the Charter, with the support of six MPs. In spite of its popularity, the Charter was dismissed by 235 votes against 46. Three years later in 1842, a second presentation also failed to win a hearing in the Commons, dividing Chartism’s supporters. A fiery journalist, Feargus O’Connor (1794-1855), advocated force to bring about the Charter’s aims, compelling Lovett and other supporters of peaceful methods to leave the movement.


O’Connor attempted to revive the movement through his newspaper, The Northern Star. Another petition was raised, and a large rally was organised for a procession into London to present the Charter for a third time. The rally took place in April 1848 at Kennington Green, London. O’Connor gave a rousing speech to a crowd of 20,000, claiming five million signatures on the petition, and predicting sure defeat for the government. The police anticipated trouble and closed Westminster to the procession, forcing the petition to be conveyed to Parliament by cab. The House of Commons again dismissed the petition after finding it to contain fewer than two million signatures, a number of which were false or duplicated.[fn6]


Hopes for Chartism had been so high that many in those early unions had believed that it would soon do away with social injustice. But increasing prosperity and the final parliamentary fiasco relegated the movement to obscurity. History credits the Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel (1788-1850) for the free trade reforms that revitalised the national economy after 1850, including the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, which lowered trade tariffs and increased grain imports, bringing down the cost of food.


A New Model Union

The compromises required to achieve a universal union had proven an impediment to real strength. The unions, now disillusioned with national unity, sought chiefly their own interest, fostering the growth of trade-specific unions. A new organisation was forged among workers from the ‘Iron Trades’, a branch of industry growing stronger, thanks to industrialisation and the burgeoning railway network.


The Amalgamated Society of Engineers, Machinists, Smiths, Millwrights and Patternmakers was a collective of wealthy, educated and inventive men. It became known as a new model of union, distinguished by its high subscription of one shilling per week and its detailed and binding constitution. The Society, supplied by a large central fund and united by a common policy, was unrivalled in its power and discipline. The loyalty of its members was assured by a fair distribution of benefits.[fn7]


The strength of the new model was tested in December 1851, when the Society announced its intention to put an end to piecework and systematic overtime. The employers replied, saying that a strike would result in a lock-out of the whole trade. The Society requested arbitration, without success, forcing the men of the Amalgamated to stop working overtime. Seven days later the employers closed every major engineering establishment in Lancashire and Greater London. The strike lasted three months, the factory owners forcing a return to work on their terms. The struggle attracted a large press and in spite of the defeat the Society remained in credit and the membership strong.


The Carpenter’s, Tailor’s, and Printer’s unions were the first to copy the organisation of the Amalgamated by creating central offices with a salaried staff. An administration run by professionals afforded the unions several benefits: an upper hand in negotiations with employers, full-time engagement in parliamentary lobbying and – after dropping the revolutionary rhetoric – a respectable position in Victorian society.


The First Congress of Unions

In April 1868 the Manchester and Salford Trades Council invited fellow trades bodies to a conference. The assembly addressed key issues such as foreign competition, hours of labour and the Factory Act of 1867. The event was a success and the annual gathering became known as the Trades Union Congress (TUC), a powerful pressure group that later succeeded in winning legal recognition for unions and granting them powers to picket.


During the years 1871 to 1875, the power of the TUC increased and trades unions enjoyed a brief golden age, established in every corner of British industry. Railway workers, farm labourers, gas workers and dockers – all carried the union card. It was on this rising tide of union membership and social reform that the first two working class MPs, Alexander McDonald and Thomas Burt, won seats in the 1874 election. Both were miners, a rich vein of political strength for the labour movement.


Keir Hardie and the Labour Party

Coal mining is a skilled trade. Extracting the mineral from the seam in a cramped chamber requires great strength and endurance. Roof falls, floods and explosions make the job all the more hazardous. Between 1873 and 1880, mining fatalities averaged 224 deaths per 100,000 compared to around 30 per 100,000 today. It is not surprising that mining communities are insular and tightly knit – the work rarely attracts outsiders.


In 1885, after a reform of the voting system, six miners were among the eleven working men elected to the House of Commons. Though chosen to represent labour, all eleven became members of the governing Liberal Party, whose interests were closest to their own. It was a further eight years before the mandate was sufficient for a party of the workers. In 1892 a TUC scheme for a labour representation fund stalled, prompting the union activist, James Keir Hardie (1856-1915), to independently pursue his ideal to form Britain’s first Labour Party.


Hardie, a miner from Ayrshire, embodied the qualities suggested by his name – resilience and perseverance. At the age of ten he went to work at the pit and in his spare moments he schooled himself. Hardie’s learning and strong character made him the natural choice to represent his colleagues at a National Miner’s Conference in 1879. After a failed strike at the Lanarkshire colliery he left and took a job as a journalist and trades union official.


Hardie was a Christian and a pacifist. His faith shaped his politics and he publicly declared, like several others of his time, that the aims of socialism and Christ’s Kingdom were one. In his own words:


The impetus which drove me first into the Labour movement, and the inspiration which has carried me on in it, has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than from all other sources combined.


Hardie understood socialism to be the fulfilment of the second greatest commandment to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12: 31). He was undoubtedly a father of the Independent Labour Party, established in 1893, and his Christianity gave the Party a foundation of humanitarian ethics, preserving it from the class antagonism of Marxism.[fn8]


The first ten years for Labour were a struggle, with a handful of MPs fighting to keep their seats. A rallying of strength followed the resolution of the Taff Vale case in 1901. A strike by the Amalgamated Society of Railway Workers had brought the trains to a standstill. The Taff Vale Railway Company sued the union and won damages of £23,000, setting a precedent for other companies to file similar lawsuits. The ruling thwarted the union’s power to strike, and provoked a groundswell of support under the guise of the Labour Representation Committee, winning 29 seats for Labour in the 1906 election.


The following years of Liberal government brought in what some historians call the beginning of Britain’s welfare state. Prime Minister David Lloyd George (1863-1945), seeing the swing of popular support for Labour, introduced the first National Insurance payments and similar benefit schemes, such as the minimum wage and old-age pensions. The reforms were in keeping with the growth of socialist feeling among the working class in Britain and continental Europe.

Socialist Vision


Tom Mann (1856-1941) and Benjamin Tillett (1860-1943) were prominent activists of the socialist movement, alive with a vision of a restructured society where workers owned the factories and the factories were managed by syndicates. In 1910, Mann began publishing a monthly journal, The Industrial Syndicalist, which advocated insurgency by the unions to bring about change. To Mann and Tillett, the year 1911 seemed destined to be a year of unrest, and in spite of the promising signs of Parliamentary change, they dismissed democracy as a path to reform.[fn9]


The trouble began in Southampton, where seamen won a pay rise after holding up construction of the liner Olympic. The unrest spread, and Mann’s organisation of Liverpool dockworkers caused a national sensation when, after a week of violence, troops were sent from Aldershot to help control the strike. The railway workers followed with a national strike, which ended only after the intervention of Lloyd George. The following year the excitement increased, when in February 850,000 miners stopped work, cutting off the nation’s coal supply. The shortage disrupted other trades, throwing over a million out of work.


Thus did the twentieth century open to a chorus of discontent. In one hundred years, five of the six demands of Chartism had been put into force, every sector of British industry was united in the TUC, and the newly-formed Labour Party now threatened to displace the Liberals as the party of opposition.

To Be Continued




Citations to Web pages are correct as of the dates retrieved, but sites may expire or be moved.


^[fn1] Sidney and Beatrice Webb, The History of Trade Unionism

(New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1920) 26.

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^[fn2] Henry Pelling, A History of British Trade Unionism

(Second Edn., Penguin Books, 1971), 25.


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^[fn3] J.R. McCulloch, The Works of David Ricardo

(London: John Murray, 1888), 191. Available online:


staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=1395&Itemid=27 >

(retrieved 8 August 2010).


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^[fn4] Sidney and Beatrice Webb, The History of Trade Unionism (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1920) 145. Available online as a pdf:

<> (retrieved 8 August 2010).

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^[fn5] Ibid. 147.

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^[fn6] Chartism was a broad church, whose vision drew in a mixed crowd of supporters.

The campaign for a pure democracy gradually devolved into land reform and self-sustained living.

A collection of historic narratives is available here:

< > (retrieved 8 August 2010).

The 1848 rally at Kennington Green is described here:

< > (retrieved 8 August 2010).


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^[fn7] Sidney and Beatrice Webb, The History of Trade Unionism

(New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1920) 204. Available online as a pdf:


(retrieved 8 August 2010).S


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^[fn8] Bob Holman, ‘Keir Hardie’, Third Way, November 1992, Vol 15, No. 9, p. 21.

Available online:



(retrieved 8 August 2010).


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^[fn9] Andrew Marr, The Making of Modern Britain (London: MacMillan, 2009), 85.


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