[Book] In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism

Into the Abyss of Capitalism

Who is it speaks of defeat?
I tell you a Cause like ours
Is greater than defeat can know;
It is the power of powers!
Songs of the Army of the Night

Francis Adams

The Great French bourgeois Revolution of 1789-94 set Europe ablaze. Its stated ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality, the battle-cry of a new social order, became a beacon to the oppressed and downtrodden everywhere. Following the American War of Independence, which had won widespread sympathy in England, the French Revolution struck terror into the hearts of the British ruling class. While revolution in certain quarters is regarded today as very un-British, at this time the spectre of revolution was of profound concern to the British Establishment. They were petrified that the flames of revolution would spread across the narrow straits of the English Channel and provoke rebellion in England. Their reaction was similar to the ruling class outrage at the Bolshevik Revolution more than one hundred years later. Within a month of the execution of Louis XVI in January 1793, Britain was at war with revolutionary France. This war would last another twenty-two years until the defeat of Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo.

“The awakening of the labouring classes, after the first shocks of the French Revolution, made the upper classes tremble”, Frances Shelley noted in her diary.[1] This fear was reinforced by widespread bread riots and the naval mutiny at Newhaven in the spring of 1795.[2] In the aftermath of its suppression, the ringleaders were either flogged with a lash to the point of death or hanged.

While the masses gave wholehearted support to the liberating ideals that were sweeping France, the British ruling class regarded all home-grown Radicals as no better than foreign agents, bent on treason. A worried Mayor of Leicester wrote to the Home Office: “a fourth of the population would join the French Standard if they had an opportunity.”[3] Mr. Yates, a friend of Sir Robert Peel, also wrote, “the Country is ripe for rebellion and in the most dangerous situation... a Revolution will be the consequence...”[4] An anonymous letter to Benjamin Hobhouse, MP for Hindon states, “I am informed by many that there will be a Revolution and that there is in Yorkshire about thirty thousand in a Corresponding Society.”[5]

These Corresponding Societies were popular radical societies founded in 1792-3 and composed overwhelmingly of working class artisans. They disseminated democratic, radical and Jacobin ideas and literature, some of which even tilted in the direction of socialist views.

“The SWINISH MULTITUDE”, declared a committee of the London Corresponding Society in 1795, “are well aware that it matters very little who are the HOG DRIVERS, while the present wretched system of corruption is in existence.”

Consequently such subversive societies were subjected to government repression and terrorised by reactionary forces in the form of frenzied “Church and King” mobs.

The growth of early trade unionism, inspired by events shaking the Continent, was very much linked in the minds of the ruling class to “subversive” Jacobinism. The ruling class, determined at all costs to prevent revolution in England, were thrown into panic by this new-found menace. The roots of social unrest, however, did not arise from radical agitators, but from the enormous gulf between those at the bottom and the affluent minority of money-grubbers at the top. To finance the war with France, labourers were forced to pay about half their income in indirect taxation. Nevertheless, all threats to the propertied classes, imaginary or otherwise, were silenced by the severest punishments. The government was determined that there would be no repeat of the “Wilkes and Liberty” popular democratic protest movement of twenty years earlier. The Wilkite movement stood for popular control by the Commons and for the assertion of popular liberties against both Commons and Crown. Such seditious ideas had to be eliminated. So the workers’ organisations, which emerged in a whole range of trades, had likewise to be crushed.

Under a series of corrupt Whig and Tory governments representing the English oligarchy, the rebellious lower classes were kept in their place by a callous system of martial law, underpinned by imprisonment, public floggings, transportation and capital punishment. In 1794 William Pitt the younger suspended Habeas Corpus (the right to a fair trial) for the following eight years, resulting in widespread arrests. Thomas Paine, the revolutionary democrat and author of the Rights of Man (1791), was forced to flee to France to avoid imprisonment. Paine can be described as an implacable enemy of tyranny and a citizen of the world. His ideas had scandalised the ruling class, but his attack on the conservative Edmund Burke and his defence of the French Revolution gave him widespread influence in the working class. To the oppressed masses the Rights of Man furnished a telling criticism of the British Constitution, from which they were excluded, as well as the corrupt ruling oligarchy. A frightened British Establishment tried Thomas Paine in his absence, found him guilty and outlawed him. He was never to step foot in England again. Despite all the repression, although men were sent to prison for selling it, some 200,000 copies of the Rights of Man were distributed and sold.

An anonymous 24-point pamphlet, issued in 1794, and typical of the popular propaganda of the time, demanded that “Workmen might no longer be punished with imprisonment for uniting to obtain an increase of wages, whilst their masters are allowed to conspire against them with impunity”, and ended with an attack on the rotten corrupt Parliament: “TRAITORS! TRAITORS! TRAITORS!” To root out this dangerous radicalism, the government came down hard on printers, publishers and sellers of seditious literature. Later they introduced a stamp duty to tax newspapers to price them out of reach of the masses, thus sparking the revolt and defiance of the great “unstamped” press.

Ireland too was a source of great instability and grave concern. It was considered, with much justification, that Ireland would be the base for a French invasion of Britain. The United Irishmen, led by Wolfe Tone, a revolutionary democrat of Protestant origin, based itself on the plebeian “men of no property” in its revolutionary struggle for national independence. Tone looked to revolutionary France for support, and in 1798 the United Irish mobilised and led oppressed Catholic and Protestant in an uprising against Anglo-Irish rule. Although this failed, the event served to add to the general panic in government circles.

In the same year, naval mutinies at Spithead and Nore shook the British Establishment to its very foundations.

“Shall we who have endured the toils of a tedious, disgraceful war, be the victims of tyranny and oppression which vile, gilded, pampered knaves, wallowing in the lap of luxury, choose to load us with”, stated the Manifesto of the Nore delegates to their fellow countrymen. “Shall we, who amid the rage of the tempest and the war of jarring elements, undaunted climb the unsteady cordage and totter on the topmast’s dreadful height, suffer ourselves to be treated worse than the dogs of London Streets?…

“You cannot, countrymen, form the most distant idea of the slavery under which we have for many years laboured. Rome had her Neros and Caligulas but how many characters of their description might we not mention in the British Fleet – men without the least tincture of humanity, without the faintest spark of virtue, education or abilities, exercising the most wanton acts of cruelty over those whom dire misfortune or patriotic zeal may have placed in their power – basking in the sunshine of prosperity, whilst we (need we repeat who we are?) labour under every distress which the breast of humanity can suggest.”[6]

It was out of such atrocious conditions that the mutinies gathered support. As far as the ruling classes were concerned, they would show no mercy. After the mutinies were put down, in a display of cold cruelty, the mutineers were flogged, deported or hanged. One of the Nore sailors was sentenced to be flogged with the cat-o’-nine-tails 380 times, a punishment that no human being could endure.

As part of the general repression, the London Corresponding Society was outlawed, its members arrested and its leaders charged with high treason. However, they steadfastly refused to incriminate themselves, and one of the leaders, named Sharp, an engraver, was particularly obstinate. “Well! We can do without his evidence”, bellowed Pitt. “Let him be sent to prison and hanged with the rest of them in the Tower.”[7] By these savage acts, the Society was driven underground and turned into a conspiratorial body. Oath-taking became common as a consequence.

To counter this phenomenon, and crush the growing social unrest, an act against illegal oaths was introduced in 1797. This was swiftly followed by the introduction of the draconian Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 aimed at completely eradicating the early trade unions.

“Nothing in my opinion,” writes the factory owner Mr. Gray, “is more unwise in any case than to allow the lower orders to feel their strength, and to extend their communications with each other without restraint. Allow them to go on uninterrupted and they become daily more licentious...”[8]

The Pitt government introduced the Combination Acts following a petition – one of many – from the Master Millwrights of London, demanding action against the newly established trade unions. At the instigation of the pious William Wilberforce, so concerned about the slave trade, but regarding trade unions as “a general disease”, Parliament passed a general Act “to prevent unlawful combinations of workmen”. This Act was tightened up the following year, forbidding strikes, union meetings, and the collection of union monies. The anti-union legislation made liable to three months imprisonment, or two months’ hard labour, “any worker who combined with another to increase wages or decrease hours, or conduct any such trade union activity.”

Nominally, the law of the land also prohibited employers’ combinations, but this, of course, was never enforced. In any case the magistrates who administered the laws were either landowners or industrialists. There was no trial by jury. A magistrate would preside over court cases, although this was later amended to two magistrates in a second Act. Under the law, workers (but not employers) were forced to give evidence against themselves or their associates. According to the Hammonds, the new laws “gave the masters unlimited power to reduce wages and make conditions more severe. They established the new industry on a basis of… serf labour and low wages.”[9]

The class interests of the British Establishment were paramount. The full force of the capitalist state was employed to crush the spirit of revolt within the working class and eradicate this “evil” of trade unionism, to use the words of William Pitt. At this time, troops were used frequently to put down local disturbances. “The whole country”, wrote A.L. Morton, “was covered with a network of barracks built so as to prevent contact between the people and the soldiers who had formally been billeted in houses and inns.”[10] A system of government spies, agents and informers were used to infiltrate and terrorise the workers’ groups and radical societies. Informants’ so-called evidence was then used to frame, imprison and prosecute their organisers and leaders. Indeed, prosecution was a lucrative business, a kind of piece-work, as a price was placed on the head of every “conspirator” found guilty.

“Two or more Justices meet daily at one or other of the Manufacturing Towns,” a Home Office emissary wrote from the west of England in 1802, “and as the Combination Act affords a very convenient pretext for summoning and examining upon Oath any suspected Persons I have continually come before them.”[11]

Anti-union Terror

Penalties for defying the Combination Acts not only included imprisonment and hard labour, but also public floggings and even deportation. The compositors on The Times newspaper for instance, were prosecuted for organising a trade union in 1810. In this case, they were arrested and sentenced to imprisonment, with terms varying from nine months to two years. Sir John Sylvester – “Bloody Black Jack” – in sentencing the compositors denounced them for “a most wicked conspiracy” to injure “the very employers who gave you bread”! No doubt, Rupert Murdoch, today’s owner of The Times, who sacked 6,000 trade unionists, would agree whole-heartedly with these early sentiments.

The employers boasted of the success of the Combination Acts in keeping the working class in submission. On 14 August 1818, Henry Hobhouse wrote a note to Major-General Sir John Byng:

“…Matters have certainly been better managed at Stockport than at Manchester. The masters have been more firm, and the convictions under the Combination Act have done great service. The doctrine I have inculcated is that the first object is to show to the workmen that the law is strong enough, if it be but properly enforced, but this principle has not been acted upon in Manchester where the manufacturer seems to rely more on your sword than on any other weapon…”[12]

This reign of state terror unleashed by the ruling class proved to be the midwife of revolutionary trade unionism. Driven underground, these trade unions became conspiratorial bodies that tightly bound their members together through secret oaths and initiation ceremonies. The Society of Ironfounders, established in 1810, met under the cover of darkness on the moors in the Midlands area. Iron discipline was enforced within the organisation in order to keep spies and agent provocateurs out of its ranks. The London tailors had all but a military system. “Their orders come from the Executive and are always obeyed,” stated a contemporary.

The Luddite unrest of 1811 and 1812 – named after the mythical “General Ned Ludd”, in whose name workers desperately turned to machine-breaking – arose from starvation wages and intolerable conditions. The Luddites are portrayed today by historians in the most unsympathetic light as “reactionary forces” desperate to turn back the tide of progress. But under conditions of rampant industrialisation, forcing the workers and their families deeper into destitution, the Luddite struggle was a heroic rearguard battle against those forces that threatened their very existence. The Luddites were fearless class fighters, prepared to risk the hangman’s rope, as they fought with their masters. They hit them where it hurt most – by destroying their machines and property. Their methods were simple and direct, and reflected the primitive stage of the class struggle. But they could not win, as it was not a question of the destruction of the means of production, but of their ownership and control. Today the working class does not seek to destroy machines or capital, but seeks to expropriate them in the interests of all. In fact, it is the capitalists who are the modern-day Luddites, as it is they who close down factories at the drop of a hat, throwing millions onto the scrap heap.

In Yorkshire, the Luddite “croppers” issued a bloodcurdling public appeal urging revolutionary action as on the Continent:

“Generous countrymen. You are requested to come forward with arms and help the Redressers to redress their Wrongs and shake off the hateful Yoke of a Silly Old Man George III, and his Son more silly and their Rogueish Ministers, all Nobles and Tyrants must be brought down. Come let us follow the Noble Example of the brave Citizens of Paris who in sight of 30,000 Tyrant Redcoats brought a Tyrant to the Ground…”[13]

Such language sent shivers down the spines of the ruling oligarchy. A frightened Parliament rushed through a law making frame-breaking (already punishable by fourteen years’ transportation) a capital offence. The inevitable result was a further spate of oath taking by workers determined to maintain their organisations in face of merciless repression. According to one Barnsley Luddite, Thomas Broughton, who turned traitor, their oaths included an undertaking:

“I do swear that I will punish by death any traitor or traitors should there any arise up amongst us I will pursue with unceasing vengeance, should he fly to the verge of Statude. I will be gust true sober and faithful in all my dealings with all my Brothers So help GOD to keep this my Oath Invoilated Amen.”[14]

The harsh methods employed by union activists simply reflected the dangerous world in which they operated. In Cheshire, the Commission sentenced fourteen men to death for Luddism. In Yorkshire, six men were given seven years’ transportation for administering illegal oaths. On another occasion seventeen others were hanged and one of their number transported for life. In Lancashire, four persons (including a fifty-four year old woman) were sentenced to death for forcing dealers to lower their prices. Again, fifteen men and boys were sentenced to seven years transportation for accepting or administering oaths. Three men and a boy of sixteen were sentenced to death for burning a mill. The boy, Abraham Charlson, who appeared young for his age, when brought to the scaffold “called on his mother for help, thinking she had the power to save him.”[15] The list of these early heroes and martyrs is indeed a long one.

The consequences of being discovered by the state were so severe, that the early trade unionists were forced to resort to exceptional methods. Secrecy was essential, and in certain unions only the secretary or treasurer knew the names of its members. Thus, if one part of the organisation was discovered or betrayed, other parts remained intact. Oath taking was widespread in such circles. Their morality was a class morality based upon solidarity and self-defence. In Coventry, the Weavers’ Aggregate Committee punished those who broke rules or opposed the union by tying the offender to an ass, face to tail, and parading him publicly through the streets, so that they were “exposed to the ridicule and violence of the mob.” The coal miners of the North-East of England employed the method of “bothering”, which was “so named because the members of the union bound themselves by a most solemn oath to obey the orders of the brotherhood, under the penalty of being stabbed through the heart or of having their bowels ripped up.”[16]

In the early nineteenth century, with the spread of initiation ceremonies and secret oaths, “inside” and “outside” tylers, or doorkeepers, would stand guard at the entrance of illegal trade union meetings often held in inns, peering through a spy-hole, usually with a pistol at the ready. The Wool Combers’ Union described the function of tyler as the person “who keeps guard on the outside of the room”, with another tyler guarding the inside. Once the outside tyler knocks the door, he is asked, “Who comes here to disturb the peace and harmony of this our most worthy and honourable order?”[17] He then informs the union meeting and asks the President for permission to allow the admittance of the new member. The position of “tyler” still exists today in a number of unions and Labour organisations, a relic from their illegal past. Union branches were also known as Lodges, owing something to freemasonry and old guild traditions. Even today, branches of the National Union of Mineworkers are called lodges. In the case of printers and journalists, the local branch organisation is called a Chapel, with local officials known as the Father or Mother of the Chapel, again a relic of illegal organisation.

Colliers and building workers were seen entering inns where “they make a noise as if they were at a military drill, and … forty or fifty pistol shots are commonly fired off in one night. A pistol is fired over every man’s head immediately on his taking the oath…”[18]

Unsung Herdes

The pioneers of trade unionism faced terrible penalties for their activities and made superhuman sacrifices in order to sustain their organisations. Despite these terrible odds, these unsung heroes led a whole series of strikes and battles in the new industries; outstanding amongst them were those of the Scottish weavers (1812), the Lancashire spinners (1818, 1826, 1830), the miners on the North East coast (1810, 1831-2), Scotland (1818) and in South Wales (1816, 1831). The latter also included a successful strike of ironworkers against the imposition of wage cuts.

Under the whip of the employers, the workers groped their way towards wider organisation. In Manchester in 1818, under the shadow of the Combination Acts, representatives of fourteen trades came together to form a General Union of Trades. It was alternatively referred to as the Philanthropic Society or Philanthropic Hercules, both names intended to camouflage and protect the union’s legality. In these precarious times, despite these precautions, its existence proved fleeting.

Despite the dangers of underground activities, communication between several unions and between different districts was further enhanced. Trade union activists from different parts of the country corresponded with each other concerning their activities, plans and needs. In the boot makers’ strikes of 1802 and 1804, links were opened up between unions in London, Wakefield, York, Bath, Portsmouth and Liverpool. In one of these documents intercepted by the authorities was contained the definition of a blackleg or scab:

“And what is a Scab? – He is to his trade what a traitor is to his country: though both may be useful to one party in troublesome times, when peace returns they are detested alike by all. When help is wanted he is the last to contribute assistance and the first to grasp a benefit he never laboured to produce. He cares but for himself, but he sees not beyond the extent of a day, and for a momentary and worthless approbation would betray friends, family and country. In short he is a traitor on a small scale.”[19]

At this time, party politics began to take a more recognisable and modern form with the establishment of the Tories and Liberals, two parties based on different sections of the ruling class. During the eighteenth century the Whigs, the forerunner of the Liberal Party, had rested on commercial and aristocratic interests. By the time of the nineteenth century, they had increasingly become a party of the industrial capitalists and the urban middle classes. On the other hand, the Tories came to represent the interests of the landed aristocracy. But as time went on, the class basis of these parties would change dramatically. The Tory party was transformed from the party of landowners into the political representatives of the industrial bourgeoisie. Under Benjamin Disraeli the Tory Party became the most consistent champion of British imperialism and the rule of Capital.

These political representatives of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy, like the rest of their kind, had nothing but contempt for the working class. They faithfully followed the biding of their masters. As a consequence, all the Elizabethan legislation fixing the wages and conditions of apprentices was swiftly repealed in 1813, and the following year the apprenticeship clauses were also abrogated. In 1808, the proposed Minimum Wage Bill was thrown out. Laissez-faire economics became the new orthodoxy. The position of the artisan and journeyman weaver was systematically driven down to the destitute levels of the handloom weaver, as their wages were repeatedly cut to the bone. The employing class justified the workers’ slide into absolute poverty with such sobering arguments as “destitution was an essential route to all-round prosperity”!

“It is a fact well known…” stated the author of Memoirs of Wool, “that scarcity, to a certain degree, promotes industry, and that the manufacturer who can subsist on three days work will idle and drunken the remainder of the week… The poor in the manufacturing counties will never work any more time in general than is necessary just to live and support their weekly debauches… We can fairly aver that a reduction of wages in the woollen manufacture would be a national blessing and advantage, and no real injury to the poor. By this means we might keep our trade, uphold our rents, and reform the people into the bargain.”[20]

However, reality was very different. Francis Place, the radical reformer with strong laissez-faire convictions, relates that

“the suffering of persons employed in the cotton manufacture were beyond credibility; they were drawn into combinations, betrayed, prosecuted, convicted, sentenced, and monstrously severe punishments inflicted on them; they were reduced to and kept in the most wretched state of existence.”

The working class would not tolerate this inhuman treatment without a struggle. Despite the threat of imprisonment, deportation or death on the gallows, they had no choice but to resist these attempts to grind them down. Bitterness and anger exploded in periodic rioting, machine breaking and violence against landlords and owners alike. This came to a head particularly in the years 1812-1814 in the Luddite riots centred round the Nottingham hosiery area. Here the introduction of stocking frames had dramatically cut prices, forcing workers into destitution. Machine wrecking became also widespread in the West Riding of Yorkshire and other districts. The introduction of the Corn Laws, which kept bread prices artificially high, added to the bitterness that was sweeping the country. After Waterloo, the transition from war to peace brought with it a period of increased unemployment, misery and starvation. “… the use of the potato… did, in fact, enable the workers to survive on the lowest possible wage… but what was the alternative, surely nothing but bloody revolution,” wrote Jacques Halévy.

The period 1800 to 1815 represented a period of intensified government repression against the working class. There were some 220 offences for which the death penalty could be imposed, including housebreaking, sheep stealing and forgery. Poachers who were caught could be transported for seven years. Machine-breakers were hanged or deported. It was a capital offence to “preach reform to a soldier or to smash a frame.” Although “Luddism ended on the scaffold”, to quote E.P. Thompson, the social and economic conditions that produced Luddism remained, producing social unrest of equal measure.[21]

Following the death of William Pitt in 1806, the government fell under the domination of a group of reactionary upstarts: Sidmouth, Castlereagh, Eldon and Liverpool. Their policy was based upon repression and the mailed fist. Habeas Corpus was again suspended, followed by a whole series of arbitrary arrests and imprisonments. Class war was very much on the order of the day. The aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars from 1815 onwards was characterised by a series of riots and social unrest on a much higher scale than ever before. Tens of thousands of demobbed soldiers and sailors who returned home from the war faced terrible unemployment and profound distress. As a consequence, as the Corn Laws were being introduced through Parliament, troops with fixed bayonets were forced to defend the Commons from enraged London crowds.

In May 1816 agricultural Luddism broke out in the Eastern Counties and then spread rapidly to neighbouring counties. In December the Spencean Riots in the Spa Fields, London, turned into a desperate attempt to seize the reigns of government. This danger of revolution, so prevalent in these years, gave rise to an orgy of state repression. Finally, under the hammer blows of the government, the Reform movement collapsed. William Cobbett, the writer who had played the greatest single part in organising a revolt against the aristocracy, was forced to follow in the footsteps of Thomas Paine and flee to America.

In March 1817, a mass march from Manchester to London of “Blanketeers” – named after the blankets they carried – was undertaken to present a petition appealing for relief to the Prince Regent. But frightened by the growing unrest, the marchers were arrested before they got anywhere near London. In June of that year, the Derbyshire Insurrection, provoked by government agent provocateurs, was put down by a score of dragoons. On 7 November, their leaders, Brandreth, Turner, Ludlam, “were drawn on hurdles to the place of execution, and were hanged and decapitated in the presence of an excited and horror-stricken crowd.”[22] Talk of insurrection was widespread in every industrial town of Britain. At this time the activities of many illegal trade union centred round mass drilling with pikes and staves in preparation, according to the authorities, for rebellion and revolution.

Peterloo Massacre

In 1819, a giant working class rally assembled at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester. The crowds numbered between 50,000 and 60,000 strong, carrying huge banners inscribed with the slogans “Suffrage Universal”, “Annual Parliaments” and “Liberty and Fraternity”. The radical orator Henry Hunt addressed the excited throng. Fearing trouble, the authorities ordered the arrest of Hunt and a company of the 15th Hussars was sent into the crowd to take him. In the melée, the demonstrators were brutally attacked by sabre-wealding cavalry, resulting in the cold-blooded murder of eleven unarmed demonstrators and a further 400 being badly wounded. News of the massacre spread like wild fire across the country. The immediate reaction of the government to the “Peterloo Massacre” was to rush new repressive legislation onto the statute books. Six Acts were pushed through Parliament to strengthen the swathe of laws already in the hands of the government. But the events at Peterloo, which lived on in the minds of workers, served to fuel the growing revolutionary resentment within the working class. A popular toast of the time proclaimed: “May the Tree of Liberty be planted in Hell, and may the bloody Butchers of Manchester be the Fruit of it!”

The revolutionary poet, Percy Shelley wrote The Masque of Anarchy in protest against the massacre soon afterwards, although it was not published until 1832, some ten years after his death, for fear of government repression:

I met Murder on the way –
He had a mask like Castlereagh –
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him:

All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew,
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermine gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to millstones as they fell;

And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.

Clothed with the bible as with light,
And the shadow of the night,
Like Sidmouth next, Hypocrisy,
On a crocodile came by.

Between 1815 and 1820, given the violence and social unrest sweeping the country, many contemporaries believed that Britain was on the verge of a revolutionary explosion. Agent provocateurs were at work everywhere. In 1820 a conspiracy was hatched to murder ministers and overthrow the government. Betrayed by agent provocateurs that had infiltrated their ranks, the leading conspirators were arrested at Cato Street, off the Edgware Road in London. They were subsequently charged with treason and hanged for their part in the “Cato Street conspiracy”. Similarly, government spies and agents were used to urge Scottish miners in Bonnymuir to take up arms against the authorities, only to betray them. Once again their leaders were executed, including a certain Andrew Hardie, a relative of Keir Hardie, the future leader of the Labour Party.

Despite these bitter years of state repression, astonishing advances were made in the formation of national trade unions – the Calico-printers, the Ironfounders, the Steam Engine Makers and the Papermakers – as well as the drawing together of different local organisations. Against all the odds, trade union activists continued to organise clandestinely, recruiting workers in small groups to their cause. This was the only way they could hope to survive, let alone succeed. They risked everything, but as the Communist Manifesto later stated, they had nothing to lose but their chains, and much to gain. They began to realise that held the future in their blistered hands. It was through this baptism of fire that untold numbers of nameless heroes established the deep roots of British trade unionism. We should never forget, and that applies more so to the leaders of the movement, that it is thanks to their sacrifices that we have the powerful organisations we have today.

This underground struggle ran parallel with widespread public agitation for the repeal the anti-union laws, under the direction of the energetic John Gast (general secretary of the Shipwrights’ union). Combined with the work of radicals like William Cobbett, Francis Place, and George White, this mass agitation was to eventually culminate in the repeal of the hated Combination Acts in 1824. It was a tremendous victory for the working class. But the repeal was granted by the ruling class for varied reasons, not least the hope of destroying trade unionism!

Despite his hallowed place in Labour history, the pragmatic Francis Place, a London tailor, who manoeuvred the repeal through Parliament, was no friend of the trade unions. He believed the Combination Acts made relations between the classes even worse than if there were no such laws. For him, the Acts simply aggravated the ill feeling between labour and capital and encouraged the growth of trade unions. “If the cause were removed,” argued Place in front of the Parliamentary Committee,

“the effect would cease… Men have been kept together for long periods only by the oppression of these laws; these being repealed, combinations will lose the matter which cements them into masses, and they will fall to pieces. All will be as orderly as even a Quaker could desire.”[23]

The Committee accepted the reasoned arguments of Francis Place, and the Combination Acts were repealed. The ruling class was seemingly unaware of the powerful forces it was unwittingly about to unleash.

The repeal precipitated a flood of strikes, which terrified the employers. They immediately demanded action to stop this deluge. Consequently, new legislation was rushed onto the statute books that modified the previous Act. The Act of 1825 was born and placed severe restrictions on picketing and the activities of unions. “Molesting” or “obstructing” persons at work was outlawed, and the definition of “legal” trade union activities was limited strictly to questions concerning wages and hours. In spite of this, the law continued to uphold the rights of combination against common law prosecutions for conspiracy.

The trade unions were finally legal. That made all the difference. The ruling class had been at last forced to concede new rights to the working class. Despite the intentions of the likes of Place and his colleagues, the underground trade unions, rather than withering away, had burst out onto the scene. Hundreds of new unions and associations were formed and brand new sections of workers became organised. Others simply emerged overnight, like mushrooms, from their underground world, and even changed their forms. Nothing could stop them now. A stormy strike wave swept through the industrial areas of Britain as workers, with their newly found freedoms, began to flex their muscles and pursue their demands. A new chapter opened up for trade unionism, characterised by class battles on an unprecedented scale. The history of these times, wrote the Hammonds, “reads like a history of civil war.”[24]


[1] Quoted in Thompson, op. cit, p.60

[2] See Dudley Edwards, The Soldiers’ Revolt, Spokesman pamphlet no.62

[3] Quoted in Hammonds, The Town Labourer, p.80

[4] Hammonds, The Skilled Labourer, p.66

[5] Ibid, p.173

[6] Selected Documents, Revolution, from 1789 to 1906, edited by R. W. Postgate, 7- New York, 1962, p.73-74

[7] John Hostettler, The Criminal Jury Old and New: Jury Power from Early Times to the Present Day, p.93, Waterside Press 2004

[8] Quoted in Cole & Postgate, The Common People, p.157

[9] Hammonds, The Skilled Labourer, p.101

[10] Hammonds, The Town Labourer, p.141

[11] A.L. Morton, A People’s History of England, London 1938

[12] Quoted by Hammonds, The Skilled Labourer, p.176, London 1995

[13] British Working Class Movements, Selected Documents 1789-1875, ed. Cole and Filson, London 1967, p.103

[14] Quoted by Morton & Tate, The British Labour Movement, London 1979, p.37

[15] Quoted in Thompson, op. cit, p. 633

[16] Cole & Postgate, op. cit, p.184, London 1938

[17] Webbs, History of Trade Unionism, p. 90

[18] Cole and Filson, op. cit, p.277

[19] Quoted in Thompson, op. cit, p.558

[20] Quoted in The Town Labourer, pp.264-5

[21] Quoted in Thompson, op. cit, p.306

[22] Ibid, p.540

[23] Dowden’s Life, quoted in Shelly’s Socialism by Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx, p.35, London 1975

[24] Quoted in Class and Conflict in Nineteenth Century England 1815-1850, edited by Patricia Hollis, London, 1973