British Trade Unions

British Trade Unions

Andrew Hughes M.A.  (2015)

Britain’s skilled workers began organising themselves into trade clubs as early as the seventeenth century. Even as far back as medieval times there had been trade guilds.Britain’s agrarian society of the late eighteenth century was transforming into one of increased industrial production. The use of water, and later steam, to drive production was the basis of the new Industrial Revolution. An increasing urban population, through agricultural migration and a natural increase in the birth rate helped establish the growing towns that housed the machines that worked in factories. Naturally, they had to be close to where the coal was, and small villages turned into towns and later into cities. Hundreds of thousands of people were leaving the old declining farming industries and seeking work in the mills, mines and factories of the new towns.

Very quickly, an oppressive culture of long hours developed, with harsh and dangerous conditions, low pay and cruel treatment. Children as young as four went sent into the lethal mines. Children a few years older were working excessive hours in very hot and noisy factories, with dangerous machinery and frequent accidents. Children were in danger, were worked excessively and were frequently injured. It was not until a Royal Commission of 1842 that these ‘difficulties’ were discussed. Factory owners were extremely hostile to any combination of workers, or unionisation, seeing them as drunken mobs intent on causing trouble and challenging workplace authority. The Combination Acts of 1799/1800 made such combinations of men completely illegal, seeing them as a threatening force. The ruling elite were already suspicious of any radical movement after the French Revolution but the twenty-two years of war with France had impacted in Britain by putting up the price of food and creating poverty. For a quarter of a century, workers’ rights were handled by a small and independent trade clubs, doing their best to support workers.

There was a clear link between distress, reform and industry 1815-1850. The working classes were more active in their opposition during times of poor harvests and trade depression. Handloom weavers and framework knitters were particularly active but even artisans were rather vocal. However, as Peter Mathias states (1969) the rapidly expanding labour force,  constant changes in industry and poor wages, all prevented the growth and development of early trade societies. Moreover, a lack of funds prevented careful planning of sustained strike action.[1] Mathias also points out one important change at the beginning of the century, relating to wage controls. Old laws dating back to Tudor times giving JPs the power to control local wages, were repealed by 1814, magically soon after the cloth workers were petitioning for better wages! [2]

In 1824, the Combination Acts were repealed and unions embarked upon an era of rapid development. However, they were still treated as troublemakers and their growth was limited by the newer Combination Act of 1825. However, it remained an era of expansion and growth of unionism, especially in the textile industry. This was despite the fact that they were still not legally recognised. They were first decriminalised under the recommendation of a Royal Commission in 1867 and finally legalised in 1871. Meanwhile, there were several attempts at creating non-specialist trade unions, for general workers, as opposed to those in a particular trade. The Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU), 1833-4 was the most well-known of these.  The Government made an example of six GNCTU members who had collectively asked for a wage rise. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were sentenced to transportation to Australia, although the sentences were later commuted. The situation at Tolpuddle was clearly not all about the fate of individual martyrs or protestors but a bigger picture about the political development of unions In the shadow of the initial GNCTU defeat people turned to short time committees to improve conditions and working hours in the factories. They also concentrated their collective radical efforts on opposing the Poor Law Amendment Act, 1834, that forced the poor into the dreaded workhouses.  Finally, the trade union movement put its energy into the Chartist movement, as no working man had been given the vote, having been greatly marginalised by the limitations of a token Reform Act in 1832, aimed at appeasing revolution. During the 1830s trade union activity reached new heights, with well organised trade associations sharing nationwide aims. Even agricultural workers were adopting new forms of collective action, evident in the Swing Riots of 1830-1831.

New Model Unionism

There was a significant change in the middle of the nineteenth century. The working classes experienced less economic stress. Periods of boom and bust in trade were less severe and less of an impact on workers’ standards of living. The cycle of trade depressions were not as severe, economic growth had become more apparent. The continuous development of industry and methods of manufacturing had seen the extreme decline of most of the nation’s handloom weavers and framework knitters. Some of the main developments occurred in engineering, for example, shipbuilding where highly skilled men could earn much more money.  This ‘labour aristocracy’ established their own trade unions from the 1850s onwards intended on representing the economic interests of artisans.  They differed from the unions of the earlier decades, with higher membership dues, national organisation and full-time officials.

By the 1860s, unions were also used as a way of expressing political interests of artisans throughout the country. For example, in 1864, the radical Reform League had links with a number of trade unions. They worked together during the reform crisis in 1866, demanding manhood suffrage. After the 1867 Reform Act, trade unionism and politics forged a long-lasting link. Leaders of unions wanted to enter parliament as Liberals, so they could change the process and further their demands. Around 300 other political candidates pledged to seriously consider the demands of trade unionists, if elected. The politicisation of unions laid the foundations of being the authority, not just opposing it!

After the 1867 Reform Act the partnership between artisans with the vote and politics per se, was certainly strengthened. In 1869, the Labour Representation League was formed, with union involvement, with the aim of getting artisans elected into Parliament. In 1874, the unions put up 13 Lib-Labism candidates. The first two working men were elected to Parliament. However, from this time onwards, the artisans failed to show much interest in getting the vote for the labouring masses and the divide widened. However, unions as a movement still wanted further male suffrage. The TUC, established in 1868, headed union participation in politics.

Unions campaigned for universal manhood suffrage right up until the 1884 Reform Act. Miners’ unions were particularly instrumental in this as many mining villages in the countryside had been excluded from the reforms of 1867. Meanwhile, the 1871 Trade Union Act was a turning point in union history as it recognised unions as legal entities with the right to be protected under the law. However, picketing was criminalised in 1871 by a Liberal government and de-criminalised by a Tory government in 1875.

New Unionism

Mary Davis (2014) described the union movement of the 1880s as narrowly based but strong.[3] This could be challenged by the fact that new unionism, especially from the 1880s, had offered low-priced subs to thousands of unskilled labourers, dock and gas workers. New unionism, often led by ardent socialists, was strongly focused on work place legislation, regulation of pay and the monitoring of working hours, justice and workers’ rights. Any desire of political involvement and voting rights was merely a means to achieve this as a short term priority. However, F.M.L. Thompson (1988) claims that timing was crucial for the success of new unionism.  He highlighted their emergence during a healthy part of the trade cycle when demand for labour was strong; thus successful strike action by dockers and gas workers, but with domestic servants and labourers still left out. The low subscriptions and open entry for new unions did much to increase membership but new unions struggled to stay alive after the economic down turn in 1891. [4]

The New Unions differed from the older craft unions because they were generally less exclusive than craft unions, attracting more workers to join, keeping contributions at a relatively low level. Prominent New Unions included the Dockers' Union, the Gas workers Union and the National Sailors and Firemen Union. They recruited unskilled and semi-skilled workers such as: Dockers, seamen, gas workers and general labourers but were often regarded as militant. The London match girls strike of 1888 and the London Dock Strike of 1889 were both associated with new unionism. Many of the New Unions had socialist leaders such as Tom Mann, Ben Tillett, Will Thorne and John Burns. Annie Besant was a Fabian socialist.

The London Match Girls Strike, 1888

The London match girls strike became another major event in the history of trade unions. 1n 1888, The East End’s Bryant and May match factory, which paid very low wages, announced monster profits. The radical journalist Annie Besant decided to investigate and waited outside the factory gates to talk to some of the girls. Besant learnt about the exploitation of the workers and her article in the radical newspaper The link also detailed Bryant and May’s blatant disregard for the health and safety of children and young adults in its care, as well as its strict financial fining system. Besant called the article ‘White Slavery in London.’ The consequence was that three girls were sacked for ‘telling lies’ to a reporter. Hundreds of girls flocked to Annie Besant for help and she set up an organising committee for strike action.

Bryant and May threatened to move the factory to Norway claiming they paid wages above the level of their competitors. John Charlton (1999) calls Besant bold, organised, effective and with an understanding of organisation.[5] Besant took a group of 50 workers to Parliament to share their experiences with a group of MPs. She organised marches and rallies with the girls, as well as attracting financial help from middle class sympathisers. Roger Ellis, acknowledging her Fabian and Socialist sentiment, called her ‘wholehearted and fearless in her new cause.’[6] The strike committee called for support from the London Trades Council.

The LTC, formed in 1860, represented the skilled tradesmen of the capital, ignoring the unskilled. But they had a change of direction, donating £20 to the strike fund and offering to act as mediators between the strikers and Bryant and May. The girls stayed on strike for three weeks. The LTC met with Bryant and May who conceded almost all the women's demands. This became a key moment in union success and would be celebrated in socialist history as the New Unionism.

To what extent did Besant become the leading figure in this narrative? Would the match girls have been victorious without her input and influence? The answer is probably no. It was her expert organisational skills, her approach to MPs on behalf of the girls and her hard stance against Bryant and May when they threatened to sue her, that laid the foundations for the girls’ victory. The strength was in the collective power of the girls but without an individual to drive them, they would have been nothing. Besant was driven by her socialist values.

By the turn of the century trade unions had become more influential than ever before. Moreover, the trade union movement developed a long-term working relationship with Britain’s political left after the formation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1893. F.M.L Thompson (1988) identified one of the most important changes in unions in the 1890s; a shift from control and leadership over local issues in various sites, to more generic and industry wide strategies.[7]  The historical irony lays in the fact that the very collective nature of unions gave them the power to challenge authority but it was the individual leaders that orchestrated this opposition. Without the work of Annie Besant (Match girls strike), Tom Mann (Dock strike), Ben Tillett (Dock strike), trade unions may not have enjoyed the success that they experienced. Another example is the Tolpuddle Martyrs, famous as individuals challenging authority in the work place. However, it was the thousands of people who protested against their deportation that made the difference. Alternatively, unionism wants to help the individual, it is led by the individual, but its real power comes from its size and collective power.

Useful figures

Britain’s Trade Union Membership

1850s       100,000 **

1888          750,000 *

1892          1,576,000 *

1901          2,513,000 *

*Source:  Eric Evans, The Birth of Modern Britain, 1780-1914.



[1] P. Mathias, The First Industrial Nation, (London: Methuen, 1969), p.335.

[2] Ibid., Mathias.

[3] M. Davis, TUC History online,, (Accessed 10/01/16).

[4] F.M.L. Thompson, The Rise of Respectable Society, (London: Fontana Books, 1988), p.241.

[5] J Charlton, It just went like tinder; the mass movement and New Unionism in Britain 1889: a socialist history, (London: Redwords, 1999).

[6]R. Ellis, Who’s Who in Victorian Britain, (London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 1997), p.411.

[7] F.M.L. Thompson, The Rise of Respectable Society, (London: Fontana Books, 1988), p.244.