Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers records (Ref: 171M88/14)
In the late eighteenth and early 19th century, the rapid pace of industrialisation in England altered the very nature of society. Concerns were expressed by the establishment that power was shifting towards the working man. This was considered to be a worrying development that should be stopped at all costs. On 16 Aug 1788, a letter from Thomas Warner [a solicitor and at some time Town Clerk of Romsey] warns Moses Comley, John Carden and Joseph Hewlett, paper makers, of the dangers involved in trying to organise a strike at the paper mills of Mr Sharp at Romsey.
I find that you have formed yourselves into an Association and determined not to return to your work at Mr Sharps Paper mills unless he will advance your wages six pence per week each and that you have bribed one of his workmen to leave the Town, and prevented others from coming into his Service. This being the case and fearing that you might not consider that all combinations are unlawful and too often attended with dangerous consequences, I think it a duty incumbent on me to warn you against continuing in your present unhappy disposition which I fear will not only tend to impoverish yourselves but disquiet your families – And that you may abandon your precipitate shame and be convinced of the folly and danger of it. I refer you to the Act of Parliament on that head which Wm Sharp will read to you, in the penalties of which you are certainly involved. I hope upon a due reflection on the impropriety of your conduct you will, like honest and peaceable men return to your master’s service and thereby prevent the justices and myself from having the trouble and disagreeable office of putting the laws in execution against you.
Your humble servant
Thomas Warner, Romsey 16th August 1788”
The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800, were passed during the government of William Pitt the Younger, and sought to prohibit the formation of unions and collective bargaining by working men. Although acts had been passed as early as the 13th century preventing men from ‘combining’ against their employer, these new acts effectively made most union activities illegal and punishable by a three month prison sentence. The acts also made it easier to prosecute cases as they were now to be heard by Justices of the Peace rather than in front of a jury. Working men combining together in a climate where prices were soaring and the French revolution was still fresh in the memory caused genuine fear that revolution would happen here. A look through correspondence of the time will reveal numerous references to concern felt about the ‘Jacobin’ threat. For example, a letter to Thomas Hall junior from C F Kerby on 7 Nov 1793 gives the news that “I have been informed that the Landlord of the Dog and Star at the lower end of Alresford entertains the French Prisoners & suffers a great deal of the Jacobin talk” (ref: 44M69/F14/1/27/1).
The Combination Acts were repealed in 1824, but replaced in 1825 by another Combination Act which also restricted union activities. The 1820s saw the formation of some of the earliest unions such as the Steam Engine Makers Society. These developments, together with the continued industrialisation of the country which saw working men living together side by side in large numbers, continued to make the establishment very wary of the pace of social and political change taking place. Hampshire Record Office holds a wealth of correspondence that can be used to study the changing face of Britain during this period. For example, on 3 Nov 1830, we can see concern expressed in a letter in the Carnarvon papers from Lady Emily Herbert/Pusey to the Hon. Edward Herbert, about the situation in Manchester, where “rebellion seems ready to burst. The master manufacturers are dreadfully alarmed; some have been obliged to suspend altogether their operations. Every now & then comes one of their workers & with a gloomy countenance demands for himself & co a considerable rise of wages. The master who perhaps has 6 or 7 hundred to pay says that he cannot afford to give it. The man replies ‘Very well then tomorrow at eleven o’clock we stop work and you will not be able to replace us for you will have no coals the colliers will strike at the same time.’ Which they do and the master is ruined therby (sic). The workmen are supported by the funds of the Trade’s Union Society which is composed of all artificers & mechanics from one end of England to the other, for the sake of protecting themselves as they term it from the oppression of the master. Each subscribes 2 sh a week to it & allows the defaulter when thrown out of work 10 sh a week. The society encreases (sic) & becomes more formidable daily – all the north of England is ripe for revolt at Carlisle the Radicals are trained & drilled every night to the number of a thousand. The King’s speech is not likely to allay the discontent I regret that neither a remission of taxes nor a moderate reform is mentioned. The time I fear is come when we must give largely or lose all.”
Landowners in the south of England were also alarmed and keen to avoid a repetition of the ‘Swing riots’ of 1830. They viewed attempts to form ‘friendly societies’ with great suspicion. In 1834, six agricultural workers in Tolpuddle, Dorset, who had formed the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, were arrested for taking ‘seditious oaths’ under the Mutiny Act. The ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’ were found guilty and transported to Australia. There was an outpouring of public protest in the wake of the sentence, including a massive trade union demonstration in London. Eventually, pressure to indict the King’s brother for administering secret oaths as Grand Master of the Orange Order forced the King to grant a pardon to the men.
In the late 1830s and 1840s trade unionism took a back seat and working men turned to the more overtly political aims of the call for reform by the Chartists. The movement took its name from the People’s Charter of 1838. Although the government did not concede to any of the aims of the Chartists, the movement taught working men a lot about how to lead and inspire a movement that became useful to future trade union leaders.
The Amalgamated Society of Engineers was formed in 1851 and with it the first of the ‘new model unions’. These unions saw the merging of smaller bodies into one larger union that now had a centralised structure, with local branches needing approval from the national body for any action taken. ‘New model unions’ had a national head quarters and full time union officials that transformed trade unionism and set a pattern for the future. Other key developments in the 1850s and 1860s were the founding of the Trade Union Congress and the growth in the formation of local trades councils.
By the 1890s the rise of ‘New unionism’ saw a distinct shift in the labour movement from representation of skilled workers and artisans to these new unions that were there to represent the needs of unskilled workers. Union membership was no longer the exclusive preserve of highly skilled and relatively well off workers.
The years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 saw a great deal of turmoil and industrial unrest in the country. For example, the textile, transportation and coal mining industries all had serious disputes during this period. Below we can see B Company of the Kings’ Royal Rifle Corps on duty with the police during the Hull rail strike of 1911.
(Ref: 170A12W/P/8046/09 – Captain George Rennie; P J R Currie)
Trade unions gave strong support to the war effort once war was declared in 1914, and scaled back on industrial disputes. The Trade Union Congress declared an ‘industrial truce’ for the duration of the war. However, industrial unrest returned after the end of the war, culminating with the General Strike of 1926. For more about the General Strike, see our separate blog linked below.
The first meeting of the Eastleigh Trades Council was held on 19 May 1936 at the Town Hall in Eastleigh. The minutes of this meeting provide a fascinating insight into the unions active in the area in the 1930s. Unions represented are listed along with the names of representatives. The National Society of Painters and Decorators, the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, the Boilermakers Society, National Union of Vehicle Makers, Amalgamated Engineering Union, National Union of Railwaymen (two branches represented for the NUR at Eastleigh), Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers, Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers and the Transport and General Workers Union all sent at least one representative
With the advent of the Second World War, union leaders were quick to show that trade unions were important allies in the fight against fascism. Hampshire Record Office holds a delightful union steward’s guide book published during the Second World War for workers in the key shipbuilding industry. The guide book is keen to advertise, “The proud record of solid achievement, which shop stewards have been able to win because of the active support of their fellow workers, has raised their status. Universal recognition is now given to their sterling cause in the anti-Fascist cause of trade unionism” (Ref: 171M88/14/14).
This book makes interesting reading and has some great illustrations throughout.
This publication goes on to talk about the false opportunities provided to workers by management appointed ‘staff representatives’ as opposed to official union representatives.
“ The Works Council, so beloved of reactionary employers, is set up by them with the purpose of undermining trade unionism, or, hampering its coming into the factories. They do not proclaim this for to do so would defeat their purpose, but it is usually easy to distinguish this type of employer. Their stock arguments are all very similar, something along the lines of ‘we are all one happy family…Any worker can come and see the management on his grievances.’ This ‘happy family’ theme is designed to cover up the dictatorial treatment of the rest of the family by the fatherly directors who do not want to consult the poor relations. Nevertheless, they have to recognise the instinctive urge of the workers to collective bargaining and representation.”
National Amalgamated Society of Operative House and Ship Painters and Decorators contribution card from 1946 (Ref: 64A17/2)
An extract from the Daily Worker of 1940, contained within correspondence of Amalgamated Engineering Union (ref: 121A05/1), gives an interesting insight into the operation of the ‘closed shop’.
“Strikers boo employer:
Strikers at a Lymington, Hampshire factory engaged on Government work are back at work in an atmosphere of complete solidarity. When a man persisted in his refusal to join the Amalgamated Engineering Union last week workers went out on strike. It was at this factory that the management circulated a leaflet declaring that ‘strikes are Hitlerism’”
The firm referred to in this extract was Messrs Wellworthy Piston Ring Co. This interesting correspondence includes legal advice on a steward being charged with a breach of the peace. It also makes reference to alleged ‘Fifth Column’ activities of the union steward.
Hampshire Record Office can provide insights in to the long running causes fought for by labour movement too. For example, the Whiteley Committee Staff Side minute book of 1946-1970 tells us a great deal about the labour movements fight for safe working conditions, especially when moving staff to new premises as the extract below illustrates.
“A special meeting solely to discuss the proposals for adaptations of Martin’s Building to house the Telegraph section. The Secretary drew attention to the fact that no mention was made on the plans for strengthening the floors and/or the walls of the building and he asked the member to agree that this should be the first question to be put to the Official Side and that an assurance be requested that the floors etc were structurally sound. Agreed.” 18 Apr 1946 (Ref: 27M96/MN1)
Meetings could sometimes get quite heated. “The general view here was that the Official Side may or may not accept the terms of such a resolution without the staff side being unanimous. At this juncture there was some disorder, followed by Mr Millard giving notice of withdrawal, there being no representative of his branch remaining, and Mr Ripley also withdrew. The chairman brought the meeting to order by proclaiming that deadlock had been reached amongst the Staff Side, all resolutions had fallen, and no decisions had been made.” 1 May 1950 (Ref: 27M96/MN1)
Hampshire Record Office holds the minute book of the Petersfield Association of the National Union of Teachers for the period from 1961 to 1968 (Ref: 112M91/1). Some of the volume is devoted to an ongoing dispute between teachers and the Minister for Education in relation to a pay offer. For example the entry from 7 Nov 1961 states that “Sir Ronald Gould reported that the Authorities wanted us to accept the offer & in return would bring future negotiations forward a year & oppose discrimination against teachers in pay award.”
By 23 Jan 1962 the minutes record that “The Secretary pointed out that much of the earlier correspondence had arrived soon after strike action was called off, dealing with that subject and that it was no longer relevant.”
Holdings at Hampshire Record Office also include papers concerning the privatisation of the electricity industry in the 1980s (Ref: 121M92/11), ultimately leading to the closure of Marchwood Engineering Laboratories in 1992.
National Farmers’ Union (Hampshire Branch) minute book (Ref: 123A15)
You might think that being involved in the labour movement is all resolutions, strike committees and rule books! Being a member of a trade union guaranteed benefits to the union member in times of hardship. However unions were often active organising in the community in order to gain social improvements for all working people. For example, by campaigning for equal pay for women and the introduction of new laws protecting health and safety at work. Union members often collected for charity. Below you can see a photograph of members of the Student Union presenting a cheque to the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, for money collected during RAG week at King Alfred’s College in 1994 (ref: 47M91W/S5/9/67 – copyright Hampshire Chronicle).
A number of HRO’s deposits of trade union records also reveal the social side of belonging to the labour movement. The minutes of the Eastleigh and District Hospitals Branch of the National Union of Public Employees (Ref: 77A10) give us a sense of the value of trade union membership to workers as a means of socialising.
The minutes from Aug 1954 record that, “A good deal of time was taken on the proposed rally to Southsea. It was agreed to obtain tickets at 12/6 each. This included coach, tea and a theatre show in the evening. After some discussion a 32 seater coach was decided upon. The secretary promised to undertake these arrangements.” (Ref: 77A10/1). Some of the forms of entertainment provided would be frowned upon in the 21st century; however back in 1964 the minutes note that “tickets were sold to members who wished to travel to London to see the Black and White Minstrel Show at Victoria Palace”. The minutes go on to mention skittle alley outings, trips to the Royal Tournament at Earls Court, scholarships to the TUC Training College in addition to looking after members who are unwell, “The Secretary informed members of visits to Bro. Goddard in hospital. It was agreed by members present to send a box of fruit and card from the branch to the value of £1.50”, 9 Jul 1974 (Ref: 77A10/1)
Below we can see members of the National Union of Railwaymen enjoying a party together with their families in 1950.
Union members often went away together for an annual outing. Below we can see two photographs of the Fire Brigades Union on their annual outing to Tonbridge in 1909
So whether your interest is in the social history of the area, or you have an ancestor who was active in the labour movement in Hampshire, do come in and see the labour movement records we hold here at Hampshire Record Office.