The first Engineering societies (Unions) were formed in the United Kingdom during the early 19th century and it was not long before they came into conflict with the judisciary. In 1809 it was reported that a group of London compositors were sent to prison for belonging to a combination described in court as being 'a most wicked conspiracy to injure the most vital interests of those very employers who gave you bread'.
Turning on a Traditional Wooden Lathe
However, it was not until the 1840s that the strength of the Unions began to grow significantly.The Engineering industry had been transformed through the advent of technology, engineering machinery changed radically from the traditional wooden lathe to steam driven machinery capable of producing precise components. This in turn transformed the labour force and gave rise to many new specialist trades including, turners, vice-men, fitters, patternmakers, founders and smiths. The growth in skilled tradesmen led to the formation of one of the largest early unions, The Steam Engine Makers' Society, formed in Liverpool in 1824.
The early aims of the union (much as today) were to increase the wages of the workers and improve conditions, but because the government viewed the early societies with suspicion the unions early emphasis was placed upon providing financial assistance to members suffering hardships such as sickness and unemployment. But the Unions went further in supporting their members and their members families introducing benefits such as travelling allowances for members seeking work, funeral benefits, lump sums for accidental disablement and even an old age pension for superannuated members in 1846.The hostility the unions felt towards them is clearly demonstrated in the first page of the cashbook of the Huddersfield branch of the Steam Engine Makers' Society (1831) where the items purchased included a pistol, a bible and curtains. The items were purchased for the members initiation into the union where, behind closed curtains, the member swore his oath on the bible with the pistol pointed at his heart.
Many of the unions formed at this time served the interests of local members, but it became apparent that in order to avoid conflict between societies of a similar nature and to standardize wage rates and working conditions that amalgamation was the way forward. Although not without its dissenters, in 1838 the Yorkshire Mechanics' Friendly Union Institution and the Friendly Union of Mechanics in Manchester formed the Journeymen, Steam Engine and Machine Makers' Friendly Society (more commonly known as the 'Old Mechanics').
Further amalgamation was inevitable and in 1851 William Allan called a conference to discuss the possibilities with sixty delegates from seven different societies. Finally, after sixteen days they agreed that a new society should be formed. This society was to be called the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, was to have an appointed executive committee and be situated in London under the stewardship of William Allan and William Newton. However, many societies believed that this route could only dilute their power and they subsequently refused to join leaving the union to form with only 5000 members. However, the initial hostility gave way to rapid expansion and by June 1851 the union could boast 9000 members in over 100 branches.
No sooner had the Amalgamated Society of Engineers formed than their very existence was threatened. Engineers employed at the Oldham firm of Hibbert and Platt had demanded the end of systematic overtime, of piecework and of the employment of unskilled labour to work machinery. The firm agreed to all the conditions except for the removal of unskilled labour when the employers locked-out 3500 engineers and 10,000 labourers in an attempt to break the union. The employers insisted that if the men wanted work then they would have to sign a declaration stating that they would not engage in any union activity. A three month stand off between the Union and the employers ensued during which time the Union's funds were nearly exhausted. The three month stand off exhausted the union?s funds and eventually the men signed their declarations under duress ???????????????????
The Union was a founder member of the Trades Union Congress in 1868 and through the depression filled years of the 1870s to the 1880s began pursuing its members? interests through a national, political voice, first through the Labour Representation League and in 1893 through the Independent Labour Party (founded with Tom Mann, one of the leaders of the Great Dock Strike of 1889 and later General Secretary of the A.S.E and the A.E.U, as the party?s Secretary). The Amalgamated Society of Engineers eventually won the nine hour day for its members and set its sights on the eight hour day.
Work on the catalogue began in February with a conversion of the paper catalogue into digital format followed by the sorting and listing of all un-catalogued material. Overall, some 4000 items have been individually listed to produce a catalogue of 180 pages incorporating records that have been deposited piecemeal in the Modern Records Centre since 1984.
This large and complicated collection contains the papers of some thirty-five trade unions and spans a period of 170 years from the 1820s until the 1990s. The earliest records come from the Journeymen Steam Engine Makers’ Friendly Society or ‘Old Mechanics’ and include minute books from the Greenock Branch dating from 1835 and an interesting collection of apprenticeship agreements dating from 1822.
Although many of the smaller Societies listed contain only one or two items, extensive records exist for the larger bodies such as the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (1851-1920), the Amalgamated Engineering Union (1920-1968) and the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (1970-1986), and authority records have been updated or created for some thirty-five Unions.
Although the cataloguing of the papers has come to an end work on promoting the papers as part of the Pay and Power project continues with Training Sessions and Workshops on the catalogue due to take place in early 2006. Articles for Union journals will be forthcoming later this year and it is also hoped that a dedicated web-page along with information on the genealogical value of the collection will be completed soon.
The catalogue can now be viewed online at http://www.warwick.ac.uk/services/library/mrc/ead/259aeucol.htm. Thanks should also go to Elizabeth Bird for her contribution towards the work on the catalogue.