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

The Birth Pains

“We make a nation of helots, and have no free citizens”, wrote Adam Ferguson in his description of England in 1765. The Industrial Revolution was the furnace in which this class of modern wage-slaves was forged. First to enter the road of capitalist development, Britain was thrust into the privileged position of the leading world power. For the next century and a half, the ruling class of these small islands maintained its world hegemony through its domination of the world market and its Empire. Thanks to this, the British bourgeoisie became the richest, strongest and most far-sighted ruling class in the world. From this position they exuded colossal confidence in their future mission, which they mapped out not in years, but in decades and centuries. “Not for nothing”, noted Leon Trotsky, “has it been said of the British imperialists that they do their thinking in terms of centuries and continents.”[1] 

The British proletariat was created under the hammer blow of events. As this new oppressed class emerged from the womb of capitalism, it was accompanied by violent birth-pains that scarred its consciousness. 

Before the Industrial Revolution, the rise of capitalist economic relations caused the wholesale destruction of the English peasantry and the break-up of the old guild system that had previously assured a certain degree of social stability. The overwhelming mass of peasantry was ruined by the Enclosure Acts introduced by the powerful landowners, and disappeared in a social revolution that created a proletariat ready for the service of the owners of capital, in agriculture and the new industries. 

In the decade following 1717 there were only fifteen Acts of Enclosure, whilst in the two decades from 1797 to 1820, the period of the Napoleonic Wars, there were 1,727 of such Acts. These enclosures threw hundreds of thousands off the land, and created a wretched swarm of landless and propertyless men, women and children – a reserve army of wage-earners “freed” completely from any connection with the soil – made ready for industrial exploitation. 

The mass exodus from the villages into the towns, an essential ingredient in the development of capitalism, provided a plentiful supply of cheap labour-power for the new class of profit-seeking entrepreneurs. Under the incessant blows of capitalist development, the traditional relationship between masters and journeymen began to break down, as artisans lost their independence and were absorbed into the new class of proletarians. 

As the contemporary Sir John Clapham wrote, this proletarianisation was “a kind of hell into which peasants may fall if things are not bettered.” And, of course, nothing was bettered, as everything became worse. The coming of modern capitalism, accompanied by machine production, uprooted the old basis of rural life and ushered in a new shocking world of “nature, red in tooth and claw”. For the toiling masses, it was an alien world, brutalised, and turned upside down, a world bled dry of all compassion.

The radical newspaper Black Dwarf described the awful plight of the new working class: 

“Locked up in factories eight stories high, he has no relaxation till the ponderous engine stops and then he goes home to get refreshed for the next day; no time for sweet association with his family; they are all alike fatigued and exhausted.”[2] 

Marx wrote that capitalism came into being “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”[3] Crushed between hammer and anvil, the infant proletariat, only recently torn from its roots in the countryside, was hurled into the inhuman conditions of the factory system. Their original peasant outlook was ruthlessly burned out by their radically different collective experience at the point of production. From the very beginning, in a battle for survival, the working class was transformed from a passive exploited mass, into a class increasingly conscious of itself. In the words of Marx, the new proletariat was being changed from a “class in-itself” into a “class for-itself”. Collective consciousness, the hallmark of the proletariat as a class, was being shaped under the hammer blows of everyday life, in the factories, workshops and deep in the bowels of the earth. 

The British working class was forced to organise for its own self-defence and self-preservation. Capital is a concentrated social power, while the workers own nothing but their individual labour power. Therefore, the agreement between worker and employer – Labour and Capital – can never be based on equal terms. Under the capitalist system the workers’ strength is continually undermined by competition among themselves. The capitalists deliberately promoted this competition between workers as a means of depressing wage levels and to tilt the balance of forces more in their favour. The only real power the proletariat possesses is its collective strength, and this can only be effectively expressed through combination and organisation. In that sense, the creation of trade unions was the first conscious step of collective organisation, and represented the birth of the organised labour movement. In the cotton districts, factory hands formed the nucleus of the Labour movement. With their newly found collective identity, they formed the vanguard of early trade unionism.

From the very beginning, the working class bore all the marks and scars of a slave class. However, compared to the old slavery, the worker seems to be free because he is not sold once and for all, but piecemeal by the hour, day or week. But he is still forced to sell himself, “being the slave of no particular person, but of the whole property-holding class”, to quote Engels. Yet, deep in the very being of the working class, deep in its collective soul, was also being born the instinctive will to fight for its own social emancipation. The working class, given its social position in collective labour, is a revolutionary class. It is propelled by the very conditions of life to strive to put itself at the head of society, not to secure a privileged position for itself, but to carry through the abolition of all classes.

The Class Divide

The Industrial Revolution saw an explosion of the urban population, as landless peasants and Irish immigrants sought to escape their wretched existence by flooding into the towns and urban areas of England. Industrial centres such as Bristol, Hull, Manchester, Leeds, Bradford and Liverpool, expanded beyond all recognition, creating horrific over-crowding and insanitary conditions. The sixty years prior to the Reform Act of 1832 saw the population of England almost double in size. If you take the census figures for the years 1801, 1831, and 1851, for some towns of Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire, the pattern and pace of expansion is graphically illustrated:

  1801 1831 1851
Manchester and Salford 90,000 237,000 400,000
Leeds 53,000 123,000 172,000
Sheffield 46,000 92,000 135,000
Bradford 13,000 44,000 104,000
Oldham 22,000 51,000 72,000
Bolton 18,000 42,000 61,000
Blackburn 12,000 27,000 65,000
Halifax 12,000 22,000 34,000

The remorseless speed of change shocked contemporary observers. The towns now had large populations of men and women who had passed within a single generation from the life of the village to the life of the slum – from the occupations of the peasant to those of the urban worker. In scenes that beggar belief, overcrowded slums sprung up like mushrooms overnight, lacking sanitation, clean water and ventilation. Filthy open cesspits, the standard form of primitive sanitation, became a breeding ground for all kinds of diseases such as cholera and typhoid, resulting in periodic epidemics. The polluted rivers, coloured with chemicals and dyes, that ran through these industrial towns were used for both drinking water and sewage. Under these conditions, infant mortality was very high, although reaching adulthood was also a risky business. The average age at death for a labourer in Bolton was 18, in Manchester 17 and in Liverpool 15. 

The seething cauldron of factory life sucked in labour from all quarters, above all from across the Irish Sea. In 1827, for four or five pennies, the Irish could cross the waters to Liverpool. Geographically close to Lancashire, a prime centre of the Industrial Revolution, Ireland was described by Engels as “the mainspring of all the workers’ movements.” By 1841, the Irish population of Lancashire was around 133,000. Within a decade the county had swollen to 200,000 Irish. According to Sir George Cornewall Lewis, “the Irish emigration into Britain is an example of a less civilised population spreading themselves as a kind of substratum beneath a more civilised community.”[4] 

In 1841 this “substratum” composed a tenth of the population of Manchester, and a seventh of Liverpool. After the failure of the Irish potato crop in the Forties, this great flood of humanity became a deluge. 

“During the last two or three months,” wrote the registrar of a Manchester district, “large numbers of the poor from Ireland have crowded themselves in this district, droves of them rambling about the streets seeking lodgings and no doubt being exposed to the severe and inclement weather. Many of the poor creatures have died from cold producing fevers and diseases.” In Liverpool there were “thousands of hungry and naked Irish perishing in our streets,” and in South Wales they were described as “bringing pestilence on their backs, famine in their stomachs.”[5] 

The hungry Irish, desperate for food and work, were cynically used by employers to undermine wages and blackleg on strikes. However, as the Hammonds noted, the same employers regarded the Irish with trepidation, speaking of them in much the same manner as a Roman master spoke of the slaves from turbulent Sardinia. “The Irish,” stated an employer, “are more disposed to turn out, to make unreasonable demands, to take offence at slight cause and to enforce their demands by strikes or bad language.” A Catholic priest noted that Irish workers were much keener to be involved in trade unions. In fact, many union and radical leaders came from Irish stock, most notably John Doherty and Feargus O’Connor. Marx once commentated to the effect that the red blood of revolution flowed through Celtic veins.

Rapid changes in production forced large numbers of workers out of domestic industry into the newly constructed factories and mills. Cottage industry soon gave way to the factory system of large-scale production. 

“The great mass of people collected in Lancashire, Cheshire, and the western borders of Yorkshire were working in 1830, not for a multitude of small masters, but for a comparatively small number of large masters,” noted the Hammonds. “The Industrial Revolution produced a new powerful rich class, the class of the capitalist manufacturer.”[6] 

This new bourgeoisie strove to assert its domination and concentrate all economic and political power into its hands. Great fortunes made from foreign trade were ploughed back into industry. In their search for greater profits, the British bourgeois rapidly developed the new productive forces of industry and technique. The real history of the period between 1688 and the middle of the eighteenth century was dominated by the capitalist accumulation of capital. In the 70 years up to 1840, the power of production in Britain increased by a remarkable twenty-seven times over. 

“Commerce which has enriched the citizens of England has helped to make them free…” observed Voltaire. Of course, this only referred to the upper classes. The working class lost any independence they might have once held, as old customs, traditions and family ties were shattered by capitalist industrialisation. In place of traditional customs, which even included a rest-day on Mondays (St Monday, as it was called), came the new brutal rigours, discipline and regime of factory exploitation. From the age of seven children in factories were forced to work twelve to fifteen hours a day, six days a week, at best in monotonous toil, at worst in a hell of human cruelty.

“The workman was summoned by the factory bell; his daily life was arranged by factory hours; he worked under an overseer imposing a method and precision for which the overseer had in turn to answer to some higher authority; if he broke one of a long series of minute regulations he was fined, and behind all this scheme of supervision and control there loomed the great impersonal system,” wrote the Hammonds.[7] 

The intensification of labour that accompanied the introduction of large-scale machinery strained the nerves and sinews of the working class to breaking point. They existed solely to work for the masters and the production of surplus value. They had no other purpose in life, but to become an appendage of the machine. “The animal machine – breakable in the best case, subject to a thousand sources of suffering – is chained fast to the iron machine, which knows no suffering and no weariness”, stated James Kay in 1832.[8] 

Work had lost all meaning compared to the past. The workers were alienated from the labour they were forced to perform, as well as from society. “In England,” said Heinrich Heine, “the machines are like men and men like machines.” With this strange “new world”, bitter class hatred developed for the masters who mercilessly exploited them and their families.

This class antagonism was reflected in the tracts that circulated widely in radical circles. In one article we read the following dialogue:

People: What labour do you perform in the society?
Privileged Class: None: we are not made to labour.
People: How then have you acquired your wealth?
Privileged Class: By taking the pains to govern you.
People: To govern us! ... We toil, and you enjoy; we produce and you dissipate; wealth flows from us, and you absorb it. Privileged men, class distinct from the people, form a nation apart and govern yourselves.[9]

The bourgeoisie regarded the workers as little more than pack animals. At the mercy of the owners, they were reduced to so many “hands” for the production of commodities. In the North East of England, in the coalmines of Lord Londonderry and Lord Durham, the miners laboured under conditions of virtual slavery. At the Felling coalmine near Gateshead in the North East of England, boys’ hours were from eighteen to twenty hours a day. They worked in inhuman conditions deep underground, in sweltering heat, from the age of seven until they were physically incapable of work, if they managed to survive at all. For the capitalists, labour power was plentiful and life was exceedingly cheap. The English working class became like the wretched refugees in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables who lived in the sewers of Paris. 

“It is too high wages that many of the criminal habits, so often ascribed to the character of a collier, may in part be ascribed...” states the haughty Rev. Thomas Gisborne. “To economy, he is, in general, an utter stranger.” When he receives his wages, the collier and his family may be seen “indulging themselves in the use of animal food three times a day.”[10] 

The inventions of Stephenson, Arkwright, Crompton, and Hargreaves revolutionised the methods of work, and transformed the factory system. “The age is running mad after inventions”, noted Dr. Johnson. “All the business of the world is to be done in a new way: men are to be hanged in a new way…” 

In contrast to handlooms, the power-looms were massed together in huge buildings, and worked incessantly around the clock. This change was made possible by the introduction of gas lighting into the factories from 1805 onwards. Men, women and children were forced to adapt to the new rhythm of these machines. As stated, conditions in these factories – William Blake’s infamous Dark Satanic Mills – were abominable. The first volume of Capital by Karl Marx graphically describes these hellish establishments. In work, there were very few or meaningful legal restrictions on the exploitation of millions of workingmen, women and children. Nightshift, double-shifts, weekend work, and 24-hour working, seven days a week, which increased absolute surplus value to the absolute limit, were introduced with a vengeance. The thirst for profits by the masters was insatiable. In winter, very few workers saw the light of day. Women workers frequently gave birth on the workplace floor and returned to their job within days. Hungry families, like beasts of burden, were forced to endure excessive hours simply to survive. Human material was used up rapidly. Workmen were called old at forty years.

“Talk of vassals! Talk of villains! Talk of serfs!” complained William Cobbett. “Are there any of these, or did feudal times ever see any of them, so debased, so absolutely slaves, as the poor creatures who, in the ‘enlightened’ north, are compelled to work fourteen hours a day, in a heat of eighty-four degrees, and who are liable to punishment for looking out at a window of the factory!”[11] 

Exploited at work and robbed in the “tommy” shops, workers were also under constant fear of being evicted from factory housing. The tommy shops, or truck system, were stores established by employers where workers were forced to buy their goods at extortionate prices and inferior quality – hence the phrase “tommy-rot”. As a condition of employment men were compelled to spend much of their wages in these shops. Another variation was the employer-owned beer shops, where, on payday, wages were handed out on the stipulation that workers would spend a certain proportion on drink. In South Staffs, the practice of paying a set amount of wages in beer was known as “buildas”. These were deliberate measures not only to swindle workers, but also to increase the domination of the owners over the lives of their hands. Many workers were in debt to these tommy shops, and in the words of the American mining song, “owed their soul to the company store.” The colliers of the North East composed a special prayer: 

“Unto thy care and protection, O most unmerciful master, I commit myself this day. Preserve me from all fines, cheatery, deductions, either by weight or measure, or from anything contrary to the justice of my labour, by they grace assistants, enable me to receive my pay without any subtraction, division or reduction from its true and rightful amount…”[12] 

These were the harsh methods employed to extract relative and absolute surplus value from the unpaid labour of the working class. 

“Machinery, considered alone, shortens the hours of labour,” stated Marx, “but, in the service of capital, lengthens them; in itself it lightens labour, but, when employed by capital, heightens the intensity of labour; in itself it is a victory of man over the forces of nature, but in the hands of capital, makes men the slave of those forces; in itself it increases the wealth of producers, but, in the hands of capital, it makes them paupers.” 

Once the capitalist purchases the labour power of the worker, he puts it to use, squeezing as much surplus labour-time as possible from him. But the length of the working day has certain physical limits. The total daily rotation of the earth takes twenty-four hours. The worker has to rest and eat to replenish his energies, which places a limit both physical and social on the working day. In the course of the Industrial Revolution anything up to eighteen hours a day was not uncommon, ruining the health of men and women, youths and infants alike. As Ferrand, a Member of Parliament, remarked in 1863: “It (the cotton trade) has existed for three generations of the English race, and… during that period it has destroyed nine generations of factory operatives.” The prolongation of the workers’ exploitation served to shorten his life as a whole. “Capital is dead labour, which, like a vampire, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks up,” wrote Marx.

The struggle between capital and labour over the length of the working day has existed since the beginning of capitalism. Eventually, as the resistance of the working class developed, restrictions were gradually introduced to regulate the hours of labour. The battles over the working day were the most heroic struggles of the workers’ movement, in Britain and internationally. Most notable were the ten and nine-hour day campaigns, followed in 1856 by the demand for the eight-hour day, championed later by the First and Second Internationals.

Child Labour

Child labour was a key aspect of nineteenth century British capitalism, as was slavery of the blacks in the southern states of America, and remains so today in India, Pakistan and many other Third World countries. In 1797 the wages of a Bolton handloom weaver were 30 shillings and sixpence a week; by 1830 they had dropped to five shillings and sixpence. According to the Chartist Richard Oastler, as the wages of handloom weavers declined, families were reduced to living on the labour of their children. It was not uncommon for those seeking Poor Law relief to be forced, as a precondition for help, to send their children to work in the textile mills. Paupers’ children from London and other cities were apprenticed in the workhouses and later transported in thousands to the cotton mills of Lancashire, Derby, and Nottinghamshire. They were valued for their nimble fingers, capable of keeping up with the fast operations of the power looms.

Prior to the Act of 1833, young persons and children were worked all night, all day, or both, until they dropped. However, even when restrictions were introduced on child labour, they were ineffective due to the lack of government enforcement. The 1833 Act only allowed for the appointment of a mere four Factory Inspectors to inspect the nation’s factories and mills! Also the legal work restrictions only applied to children in textile mills – and even then, it excluded children in the silk and lace-making factories. With impunity to employers, children continued to have their fingers severed and their limbs crushed in unguarded machinery.

Nonconformist mill-owners, with their Methodist over-lookers, would drive their child-labourers till five minutes before midnight on Saturday and then enforce their attendance at Sunday school on the Sabbath. This was part of the Protestant work ethic, which epitomised the penny-pinching Scrooge-like class morality of the British bourgeois.

Young children were not only employed deep underground, but also in the pitch-black suffocating chimneys of industrial Britain. Some chimney flues in which children were forced to work were only seven inches (18 centimetres) square. Their terror of the dark and narrow confines was overcome by the threat of greater terror from below. Chimney sweeps were beaten, stabbed by needles, or deliberately burned as a means of “encouraging” them to carry out their duties. It was reported that in 1848 a child of ten had been sold to different employers five times over. He was a clever worker, and although crippled by his injuries, had cleaned no less than twelve chimneys in a day. At Nottingham in 1850, another boy of ten, Samuel Whitt, was jammed in a chimney, below which a fire was still smouldering. He was eventually torn down by two people standing one upon another, and died in agony. In 1851, near Leeds, George Wilson, aged ten, after cleaning nine chimneys, died in the tenth.

When there were attempts to end this barbarism, the propertied classes howled in protest at the thought. 

“Some boys’ flesh”, said one employer, “is far worse than others, and it takes more time to harden them.” He estimated it would take six months for parts of the body to grow sufficiently “cartilaginous”.[13] “I had myself formerly boys of as young as five-and-a-half years, but I did not like them; they were too weak”, stated a master. 

Six years’ old was described as “a nice training age.” Many were later afflicted by stunted growth, deformities and even cancer. Quite a number were burned or asphyxiated to death. These were children nobody wanted or could ill afford to keep. Some were simply sold to employers and according to the laws of supply and demand, the smaller the children, the higher the price. It was not until 1875 that a Bill introduced by Lord Shaftesbury brought this scandal finally to a close.

In the silk industry, little children would stand for ten hours upon stools to perform their work. Crowded into suffocating spaces, with no ventilation, these work dens became the prison house of infants. The same was equally true of the textile mills where children as young as four and five, and incredibly even toddlers of three, were put to work. In abominable conditions, hundreds of thousands of children, half-ragged and half-washed, were literally worked to death in the shadow of the overseer.

“The punishments for arriving late in the morning had to be made cruel enough to overcome the temptation to tired children to take more than three or four hours in bed”, the Hammonds explained. “One witness before Sadler’s Committee had known a child, who had reached home at eleven o’clock one night, got up at two o’clock the next morning in panic and limped to the mill gate. In some mills scarcely an hour passed in the long day without the sound of beating and cries of pain. Fathers beat their own children to save them from a worse beating by the overseers. In the afternoon the strain grew so severe that the heavy iron stick known as the billy-roller was in constant use, and, even then, it happened not infrequently that a small child, as he dozed, tumbled into the machine beside him to be mangled for life…

“In one mill, indeed, where the owner, a Mr. Gott, had forbidden the use of anything but a ferrule (a metal ring), some of the slubbers (weavers) tried to keep the children awake, when they worked from five in the morning to nine at night, by encouraging them to sing hymns. As the evening wore on, the pain and fatigue and tension on the mind became insupportable. Children would implore anyone who came near to tell them how many hours there were still before them. A witness told Sadler’s Committee that his child, a boy of six, would say to him, ‘Father, what o’clock is it?’ I said perhaps it is seven o’clock. ‘Oh, it is two hours to nine o’clock? I cannot bear it.’”[14] 

The report of the Commission on the Employment of Children and Young Persons, set up by Lord Shaftesbury in 1840, described the horrendous nightmare conditions in the coalmines. 

“A girdle is put round the naked waist to which a chain from the carriage is hooked and passed through the legs and the boys crawl on their hands and knees drawing the carriage after them”, stated the report. Describing girls working in the mines, it continued: “Chained, belted, harnessed like dogs in a go-cart, saturated with wet and more than half naked, crawling upon their hands and feet dragging their heavy loads behind them, they present an appearance indescribably disgusting and unnatural.”[15] 

This was to lead to the introduction of the Mines Act of 1842 and the reduction of hours for women and children in 1844. At the time, the good seventh Earl of Shaftesbury spoke in the House about the appalling slave-like conditions of children in the collieries:

“Labour very hard, nine hours a day regularly, sometimes twelve, sometimes above thirteen hours; stop two or three minutes to eat; some days nothing at all to eat, sometimes work and eat together; have worked a whole day together without stopping to eat; a good many children in the mines, some under six years of age; sometimes can’t eat, owing to the dust, and damp, and badness of the air; sometimes it is as hot as an oven, sometimes so hot as to melt a candle. A vast many girls in the pits go down just the same as the boys, by ladders or baskets; the girls wear breeches; beaten the same as the boys; many bastards produced in the pits; a good deal of fighting amongst them; much crookedness caused by the labour; work by candlelight; exposed to terrible accidents; work in very contracted spaces; children are plagued with sore feet and gatherings. ‘I cannot but think, (says one witness), that many nights they do not sleep with a whole skin, for their backs get cut and bruised with knocking against the mine, it is so low. It is wet under foot; the water oftentimes runs down from the roof; many lives lost in various ways; and many severely injured by burning; workers knocked up after fifty.’ I cannot much err, (says Mr. Commissioner Tuffnell), in coming to the conclusion, both from what I say, and the evidence of witnesses given on oath above, that it must appear to every impartial judge of the two occupations, that the hardest labour, in the worst room, in the worst conducted factory, is less hard, less cruel, and less demoralising, then the labour of the best of coal mines.”[16] 

As today with the recent arguments over the introduction of the minimum wage, attempts at that time to limit the use of child labour were met with howls of protest from the employing class. When Sir Robert Peel introduced a Bill as early as 1802 to reduce children’s working hours and prohibit night work for smaller children, strong protests were sent by mill-owners from Manchester, Glasgow, Leeds, Preston, Keighley and elsewhere. Such actions, they said, would be “prejudicial to the cotton trade” and “would amount to a surrender of all the profits of the establishment.” This refrain was to be heard from the ruling class in response to every measure to regulate working conditions within their factories – right up to the present day with their screams against modern “regulations” and red tape.

The long hours in work endured by children prevented any real formal education. This suited the employing class who regarded education as deeply subversive. Education would only be “prejudicial to their morals and happiness”, and teach them to despise their lot in life. For Mr. D. Giddy, President of the Royal Society, “instead of teaching them subordination, it would render them factious and refractory, as was evident in the manufacturing counties; it would enable them to read seditious pamphlets, vicious books, and publications against Christianity”, and lastly, “it would render them insolent to their superiors.”[17] 

Following the 1833 Act, the government decided to spend £20,000 a year on schooling. However, in the same year it spent £50,000 on the rebuilding of stables at Windsor Castle. It was evident that working class children were valued much less than horses.

These were the social conditions that gave rise to “go-slows” and “turn-outs” (the word “strike” was not used until the early nineteenth century) against the starvation wages, excessive hours and insufferable conditions. By the end of the eighteenth century, under the impact of a developing class war, trade unionism began to take root in the form of trade clubs, established primarily by skilled handicraftsmen: joiners, carpenters, shipwrights, coopers, printers, and others. By the 1790s new layers of factory workers became organised, especially among cotton spinners. 

Without being aware of it, the trade unions became the focal points for the organisation of the working class as a class. Their illegal character had its origins in shadowy societies such as the United Irishmen. Even prior to 1799, more than forty pieces of anti-union legislation were placed on the statute books. As early as 1718 a Royal Proclamation was issued against the weavers’ unlawful clubs and combinations, which were alleged to have evolved into elaborate organisations strong enough to dictate terms to the employers. The men of property could not tolerate such rebellious behaviour, as the following tract revealed:

But lo!
CONSPIRACY and TREASON are abroad!
Those imps of darkness, gender’d in the wombs
Of spinning-jennies, winding-wheels, and looms,
In Lunashire -

O Lord!
My L-ds and G-tl-n, we’ve much to fear!
Reform, Reform, the swinish rabble cry -
Meaning of course rebellion, blood, and riot -
Audacious rascals! you, my Lords, and I,
Know ‘tis their duty to be starved in quiet…[18]

The new Combination Acts were savagely administered in the new industrial districts, rendering trade unions criminal organisations. Under such tyranny, the working class had no alternative but to fight for survival. In self-defence, trade unions were forced to operate in underground secrecy, camouflaging their activities, fighting fire with fire wherever they could. Yet, in this cruel environment of persecution and oath taking was formed the initial cadres from which modern trade unionism emerged. “The working class made itself as much as it was made”, noted the historian E.P. Thompson.[19] The British working class, our forefathers, not only constituted in Marx’s words, the “first-born sons of modern history”[20], but an oppressed class that could never reconcile its gravedigger.


[1] Leon Trotsky, op. cit, vol. one, p.39

[2] Quoted in E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, p.220, London 1968

[3] Marx, Capital, volume 1, page 712, Progress Publishers, 1977

[4] Quoted in Hammonds, The Bleak Age, p.37, London, 1947

[5] Ibid, p.37

[6] Hamonds, The Town Labourer 1760-1832, p.7, London 1995

[7] Ibid, p.19

[8] Ibid, p.21

[9] Volney’s Ruins of Empire, Quoted in Thompson, op. cit, p.108

[10] Quoted in The Skilled Labourer, p.20, London 1995

[11] Quoted in David Thomson, England in the Nineteenth Century, p.12, London 1970

[12] Quoted in Challinor and Ripley, The Miners’ Association, p.58, London 1968

[13] Quoted in The Town Labourer, p. 179

[14] Ibid, pp. 159-60

[15] Quoted in Magnificent Journey by Francis Williams, p.24, London 1954

[16] Quoted in The English Reform Tradition, edited by Sidney Jackman, p.87, New Jersey, 1965

[17] Quoted in The Town Labourer, p. 57

[18] Quoted in Thompson, op. cit.

[19] Ibid, p.213

[20] Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol. 1, pp. 359-60