Shropshire & Telford Trades Council set up a Shropshire Trade Union History Group in early 2010 to research into the history of the trade union and labour movement across the county. The group meets each month at the London Road campus of Shrewsbury College of Art & Technology to discuss local research but also undertakes visits to labour history and other archives, such as the People’s History Museum in Manchester, the Working Class Movement Library in Salford and, locally, Shropshire Archives.
Formal trade union activity in Shropshire goes back until at least the early nineteenth century and there is a good deal of evidence of more informal collective action by groups of workers in the county, particularly in mining communities, in the mid to late eighteenth century.
However, early trade union activity is often difficult to trace because early unions had only a semi-legal existence. The Combination Acts of 1799/1800 outlawed trade unions for the first 25 years of the nineteenth century, until the acts were repealed in 1824/25, and prior to 1799 unions in many individual trades had already been made illegal.
The items included here represent some of the “history” the group has so far uncovered. Research continues and new material will be added over time. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org
Collective Action in the C18
Although Shropshire has rarely been in the vanguard of trade union activity, the early industrialisation of east Shropshire in the eighteenth century, following Abraham Darby’s use of coke for smelting iron ore there in 1709, led to the establishment and expansion of iron, coal, glass and ceramic industries in and around Coalbrookdale.
These industries gave rise to the social and working relations associated with industrial capitalism, in turn producing collective action by workers to improve and/or defend their living and working conditions, at a time when any machinery for undertaking or resolving industrial disputes or improving conditions was largely non-existent. In general, workers were expected to fall in line with the “iron laws of the economy” and dozens of Acts of Parliament were passed outlawing trade unions in particular industries, prior to the blanket ban introduced by the Combination Acts of 1799/1800.
However, food riots were a common form of collective action during the eighteenth century, whenever the price of wheat rose especially high – bread was part of the staple diet – and miners in Broseley organised food riots in Much Wenlock as early as 1756, threatening bakers with severe reprisals if they did not sell bread at a ‘Fair” price colliers and their families could afford. And in 1766 colliers from Clee Hill assembled in Ludlow and pulled down a house being used for distilling liquor from wheat in a year of shortage. Interestingly, the miners caused no other damage.
George Rudé, The Crowd in History (1995)
E P Thompson, The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century in Customs in Common (1991)
The single most celebrated industrial action in Shropshire’s trade union history – before the Shrewsbury Pickets case of the early 1970s – was the incident known as Cinderloo, which took place in 1821, when miners in the East Shropshire coalfield combined – at a time when trade unionism was officially outlawed by the Combination Acts – to defend themselves from wage cuts by touring local mines and ironworks to render them unworkable by destroying pithead equipment and attempting to persuade other workers, including ironworkers, to join them.
The miners – up to 3,000 of them in total – were confronted by a detachment of yeomanry on spoil heaps at Old Park and proceeded to hurl cinders at the yeomanry in a pitched battle that saw one miner killed and another fatally wounded. Six miners were arrested and committed for trial. However, as a result of the action some ironmasters reduced the reduction in wages.
During this period mining unions often did not have a continuous existence but organised in response to specific problems, such as wage cuts or changes in working conditions. Further action was taken in 1831 and again in 1842, as part of what became known as the General Strike of 1842, which also coincided with Chartist action for parliamentary reform. The 1842 grievances in Shropshire again included protests against wage cuts, and also against payment in “truck” and the high cost of bread.
A Aspinall, The Early English Trade Unions (1949)
J M Golby, Public Order and Private Unrest: A Study of the 1842 Riots in Shropshire (1967)
Craft unions existed in Shrewsbury from the early nineteenth century. A Shrewsbury Society of Brushmakers, which was part of the National Society of Brushmakers, met at a pub called The Bell in Mardol (located where Pizza Express now is) from at least the 1820s.
The Bell acted as a tramping station for the union, where unemployed brushmakers from different parts of England could stay temporarily as they “tramped” around the country in search of work. The union paid them a daily allowance, plus board and beer money, and Shrewsbury was part of a national network of these tramping stations, with neighbouring stations in Chester and Wolverhampton as well as others throughout England.
The Shrewsbury Typographical Society was another craft union in the town from at least 1835 and met at what is now The Castle Vaults in Castle Foregate. In 1835 the society had a membership of eleven and was affiliated to the Northern Typographical Union, based in Manchester from 1830 onwards – and which also ran a tramping system – until it merged with the National Typographical Association in 1844.
William Kiddier, The Old Trade Unions (1930)
Arthur Marsh & John B Smethurst (eds), Historical Directory of Trade Unions, Volume 5 (2006)
A E Musson, The Typographical Association (1954)
In common with the rest of Britain, trade unionism became far more widely established in Shropshire during the latter part of the nineteenth century and by 1892 there was a total of 3,225 trade union members in the county (out of total population of 254,765). Newly established unions included the Shropshire Enginemen, formed in 1875, initially with 32 members but with 70 members by 1896; the Shropshire Miners Association formed in 1886, which by 1900 had a membership of 850; and branches of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, which recruited members from the county’s various railway companies.
Agricultural workers were one of the most difficult groups of workers to organise because of their working conditions, often with tied houses or living-in commitments and/or insecure patterns of employment. In 1871 the North Herefordshire and South Shropshire Agricultural Labourers Improvement Society was established, supported by a local Methodist schoolteacher. During its life, it recruited members from six counties and had a total membership of about 30,000. It saw its primary task as helping badly paid farm workers move to other parts of the country – such as Yorkshire, Lancashire and Staffordshire – or abroad for better-paid farm work.
Meanwhile, in North Shropshire, an attempt was made to organise agricultural workers by the General Workers Union, leading to a march by a thousand members through Market Drayton in September 1899. However, most farmers refused to have anything to do with the union and workers who were members were victimised.
Philip Bagwell, The Railwaymen (1963)
Richard Hyman, The General Workers Union (1971)
Arthur Marsh & Victoria Ryan (eds), Historical Directory of Trade Unions, Volume 2 (1987)
Sidney & Beatrice Webb, The History of Trade Unionism (1912)
With the spread of trade unionism across Britain, trades councils began to be formed in different parts of the county from the late nineteenth century onwards, sometimes acting as mediators in industrial disputes, but indicating further progress in terms of the acceptance of trade unions as a legitimate part of British industrial relations and British society. Oswestry Trades Council was the first to be established in Shropshire in 1895, followed by Oakengates in 1900, Shrewsbury in 1903, Whitchurch in 1918 and Oakengates (again) in 1916.
The largest single strike action ever taken in Shropshire was during the General Strike of 1926, when the entire national railway network was brought to a halt and most newspapers ceased to appear for over a week. Trade union organiser – and future Labour minister of education in the 1945 Attlee Government – Ellen Wilkinson addressed a mass meeting of striking railway workers in the Quarry in Shrewsbury on Saturday 8 May 1926.
Writing in Lansbury’s Labour Weekly shortly after the strike, she described her experience thus:
“The quiet respectability of a huge meeting under the elms of Shrewsbury’s great park that evening was like going into another world, but the spirit was the same. Some of the Toriest RCA [Railway Clerks Association] members were among the most enthusiastic and efficient of the strike committee. Like everywhere else along these distant routes, the people had nothing but the outrageously coloured wireless messages. They were panting for news.”
Alan Clinton, The Trade Union Rank and File (1977)
Lansbury’s Labour Weekly (22 May 1926)
Barrie Trinder, A History of Shropshire (1998)