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from George Barnsby's classic Socialsim in Birmingham & the Black Country
The activities of the tinplate workers in Wolverhampton are well documented and this activity represents a minor epic in the history of British trade unionism.
The activities of the tinplate workers in Wolverhampton are well documented and this activity represents a minor epic in the history of British trade unionism.
The Wolverhampton Tin Plate Workers' Society was formed in 1802. This provides another example of local trade unions being formed in the period of illegality 1799-1825. Its first recorded struggle is a strike in 1819 in the depths of the post-Napoleonic Wars depression and at the height of government repression. The authorities are said to have called in the Bow Street Runners to crush this strike by raiding the rooms occupied by the strikers. They were arrested and charged with the highly dangerous offence of conspiracy. A.T. Kidd tells us that the attack was expected and the „Red Breasts‟ were held off until the records of the Society were destroyed. In this way, only the members in the room could be arrested and five of these were transported to Tasmania.
The question of whether trade unions descend directly from medieval gilds has little relevance for the Black Country which, at this time, apart from Walsall, was a collection of small industrial villages. But the crafts within these villages had developed a set of „industrial relations‟, elements of which persisted as trades unions developed. Some of the most important of these were the Lists of Prices, the sanctity of announcements of changes in the List price whether made by masters or craftsmen, the maintenance of co-operation with the employer side by side with militant action whenever the craftsman's standard of living was threatened, and attitudes to machinery.
With regard to the last, a letter sent to all Tin Plate Societies throughout the country in August 1820 signed by F. Cook at the Black Horse, Horse Fair, Wolverhampton sets out the opposition of both masters and men to the introduction of new machinery:
We have been informed by our employers that there is a man in Sheffield now stamping all manner of articles such as Tea Kettle Tops and Coffee Pot Tops etc. and ready for making up in such style that has not been equalled before. We shall not one half of us be in employ long. This man is offering these items at a low rate to induce our employers to buy, but they like us are determined to set their faces against it knowing in the end it will terminate with the ruin of the employer and the employed. It is the wish of our employers that we should as promptly as possible communicate our joint resolution to you which is that we will not buy or make one article up...
The tin plate workers also maintained a price List which, as we shall see was the cause of future disputes with their employers. They also observed the medieval custom of Tramping of which they were take make effective use.
Through the destruction of the records in 1819, the earliest copy of the constitution of the society is from 1834. The full title was The Friendly Society of the United Operative Tin Plate Workers of Wolverhampton. The rule book contained 24 laws. These included the following. The establishment of a Fund for the mutual support of each other and to maintain the rights and interests of the Trade. Every member must have served a legal apprenticeship and attained the age of 21. Officers were to be President and Vice president each with his Right and Left Hand supporters. There were also to be a Warden, two Conductors, a Tyler Doorkeeper and two Stewards. The Committee was to consist of one representative from each shop in the town. Two marshalls or Ale Stewards were also appointed whose duties were to call for liquid refreshment at the order of the President, to serve it out and distribute it impartially. No member was to be allowed to read, sleep, swear, lay wagers or use obscene language during Lodge meetings. Contributions were 5d. a week.
When the next important dispute with tin plate employers occurred in 1822, the various Tin Plate Societies throughout the country were united in a „Union‟ of federated societies for mutual protection.
In February 1822 the Wolverhampton society sent a report to all other societies stating that they had been on strike for twelve weeks due to a wage reduction of 10 per cent two years before which had netted the masters £700 and who were now demanding another 10 per cent reduction. For nine weeks the strike had been solid and then five workers had „ratted‟. As a result the union had had a placard posted throughout the town headed „Notorious Desertion and Robbery‟. The placard stated that the undersigned had for nine weeks „resisted the grevious oppression of avaricious employers‟ but „alas the weakness and degeneracy of our nature sold ourselves by yielding to the subtle measure of our adversary, thus branding ourselves with Infamy and Disgrace. By this act we have not only robbed ourselves and our families but also our trade and shop mates whose eternal hatred and contempt we must forever expect as a just punishment for our perfidy. ‟ After much more in like vein the placard ends. „If pity can be found for such ill-fated beings... such information will be gladly received by the miserable: Joseph Beards Caribee Island, W. Curtis Horseley Field, T. Shale Hallford, W. Hickman and W. Beckett Dudley St.‟
The report went on to say that the foreman of the second largest manufactory in the town had resigned as a result of the master bringing an inferior „rat‟ into the factory for instruction. The employers had resorted to their old scheme of sending lying messengers in all directions to spread wrong information about the strike and to solicit orders. A financial report showed that £146 had been received from provincial Societies and £150 from the London society towards a strike costing £30 a week. The report was signed by the secretary, F. Stokes.
By the nineteenth week of the strike the Wolverhampton society was supporting its men by sending some of them on „tramp‟. Several were working in London, three others were being sent to London, three to the North Road (where it was hoped they would be employed in Liverpool) and two to the West Road (where there were Societies in Bristol, Cheltenham and Bath). One of the aims was to allow those societies having difficulty raising their levy for Wolverhampton to find work for these members instead. Also, since the Wolverhampton work was going to other districts it was logical to send the Wolverhampton men to where the trade was flowing. This report from Stokes also stated that one employer had had an order served against him for not completing a customer's order and another employer, who had managed to employ a few „rats‟ had his goods returned, thus fulfilling the prophecy of the Society that the use of strike-breakers would defeat its own object.
In December 1822 when the strike was almost twelve months old, the union was beginning to consider desperate measures. Of nearly sixty men in the Society twenty were working at the old rates of pay and supporting the strikers, twenty had been sent out on tramp and had found jobs, mostly in London. It was now proposed to send the remaining sixteen men with their families on tramp and support them until they found jobs elsewhere. The potential trampers were in complete agreement with the scheme, it was said. A further financial statement showed that £944 had been contributed to the strike including £67 from Wolverhampton. This report also called for strict enforcement of the „Unions‟ rules for tramping to ensure that those with the strikers' Green card received preferential treatment.
This is the last heard of the 1822 strike, but it is likely that improved trade in 1823 made some compromise possible. The Society certainly seems to have survived. In 1842 at the depth of the third of the Long Depressions of the first half of the nineteenth century and in the year of the Chartist miners' general strike, the Tin Plate workers were again out against another 10 per cent reduction. By this time the general tinplate „Union‟ had failed and the Wolverhampton men were relying on voluntary subscriptions from other Societies. However. nothing else has been discovered about this strike either from the Wolverhampton Chronicle or from the Northern Star.
In 1850 occurred the most important strike of Wolverhampton Tinplate workers. Although a renewed General Union of tinplate workers was not in existence, the Wolverhampton workers had the support of an even wider organisation, the National Association for the Protection of Labour which had been set up in 1830 and to which Wolverhampton Tinplate workers had affiliated in 1845. This bitter and prolonged struggle and the legal conflict which followed attracted considerable national attention. The strike is well documented from the employers side and more than usually so from the workers point of view.
The dispute began over a new printed Book of Prices of 136 pages covering 2,650 separate items. The new Book was accepted by all but two of the employers who asked for time to consider it. During this period they made two-year contracts with as many of their employees as would sign and such other preparations for a strike as they could.
The instigator of the strike was Edward Perry who was determined to crush the union. When Perry rejected the List, the strike began. The strike committee took up quarters at the Swan Tavern in Paul Street close to Perry's works which were picketed. Perry advertised for workers outside Wolverhampton and those who came were jeered at as „rats‟ and dead rats thrown at them and hung on the factory gates. The strikers retaliated by calling out the older apprentices, together with those who had originally worked but were now prepared to join the strike, and „tramping‟ them. Some were sent to Ireland, some to Scotland and others to villages remote from railway stations.
Perry, unable to recruit sufficient men in Britain, then sent his nephew George Winn, a journalist, to France to bring strike breakers from there. Twenty eight were brought to England and when they landed were given contracts to sign agreeing to work for Perry for twelve months. They were met at Wolverhampton station by Perry and marched in procession to lodgings near the works. The strikers retaliated by engaging a sympathetic Frenchman named Mageurs who had been taken prisoner at the Battle of Waterloo. He soon persuaded the strike breakers to return to France. Again they marched in procession to the station, this time with flags and banners flying accompanied by a brass band.
Refusing to be beaten, Perry repeated the process with Germans. This time they were accommodated inside the factory and no communication with outsiders allowed. A great solidarity meeting with the strikers was held at the Theatre on 30th. October 1850 with delegates from London, Birmingham and elsewhere. The legal right to picket Perry's factory was stressed and Bartlett, the solicitor for the strike committee, spoke about the injustice of men being brought back from their „tramping‟ destinations and sent to prison.
At this point, Perry appealed to the Mayor for police protection for him and his strike breakers. The Mayor, together with some of the principal magistrates of the town met at the Town Hall the day after the Theatre meeting to hear both sides and try to arbitrate between them. By this time there was considerable public support in Wolverhampton for the strikers not only among workers, but middle class people too, who saw Perry as deliberately obstructive.
On 23rd November Edward Perry addressed a Letter (really a longish pamphlet) to George Robinson who had been the Mayor when negotiations began clearly revealing Perry's intention not only to destroy trade unionism in his own trade, but also nationally. Perry first objected very strongly to Robinson consulting with any trade unions at all on this matter, quoting the interest taken by Feargus O‟Connor's Northern Star and the example of a twenty two week strike in Kidderminster which, he alleged, had led to the carpet trade leaving the town. He then claimed that the Tinplate trade was not tied to Wolverhampton and would be driven from the town. If the strike were successful the „agitators‟ would move on to the „ironfounders, brassfounders and other extensive employers of the town and also the proprietors of the colossal iron and coal works of the area‟, who would have to sustain similar assaults. Already the Northern Star was reporting that meetings had been held with the Wrought Iron Coffee Mill Makers and Iron Braziers in Wolverhampton who had both agreed to join the National Association for the Protection of Labour. Perry then went on to claim that in opposing trade unionism he was acting in the best interests of the men themselves, quoting extensively from the London Times which was then engaged on one of its anti-union campaigns „proving‟ that if trade unionists succeeded in raising wages the working class would be ruined by trade moving elsewhere.
Perry then went on to deal with the workers who had been „tramped‟. According to the statements of five of the wives „obtained by a respectable neighbour‟ of Perry's their husbands had been „made drunk‟ and „spirited away.‟
Finally, Perry devoted a number of pages to his dissatisfaction with the ex-mayor's attempts to bring the two sides together.
Despite his lack of support in the town, Perry intensified his efforts to find where his contracted workmen were and bring them back to be prosecuted under the Master and Servant Acts for breach of contract. His last desperate throw was to indict the strikers for Conspiracy to molest and intimidate his men to leave their employment. It took three trials to accomplish his purpose.
The first took place at Stafford in August 1851. Perry's witnesses included several men who had been „tramped‟ but came back to Wolverhampton to work for Perry.
Each claimed that he had been made drunk – an allegation likely to improve the prospect of obtaining a verdict of „inducement‟. The defence urged that the strike was legal and the picketing was within legal limits. The strike had been instigated by Perry who refused to pay the prices fair to all employers and paid considerably less than other employers in the trade. When questioned about the last point Perry produced in court two colanders. One was made of seven pieces of tin, braised, punched and jointed, for which 12/-d. per dozen was paid; the other colander he produced was made by machinery requiring the tinmen only to fix the handles. For these he paid 1/-d. per dozen and the men made more from these than from the hand made ones. This it seems made a considerable impression in the judge and jury who brought in a verdict of guilty. The defence then appealed for an arrest of judgement on technical grounds and the men were bailed. Perry was then summonsed by the men for statements he had made during the trial. These charges were dismissed. The appeal was heard in November 1851 and rejected. W. Peel, T. Winters and F. Green, delegates from the National Association for the Protection of Labour were then sentenced to three months hard labour as were the local men Rowlands, John Gaunt, George Duffield, Thomas Pitt and Thomas Woodnorth. Charles Piatt was given one month's imprisonment. In this way Perry won the strike, but only by a blatant use of the one sided legal situation which pertained at this period when trade unions were no longer illegal, but neither were they legal, because most of the activities which they undertook could be judged illegal.
The final balance sheet of the London Central Defence Committee showed that £2818 had been expended, most of it on the two trials. It has been held that the Wolverhampton Tinplate strike drained the resources of the National Association for the Protection of Labour and from that time it ceased to play an important part in the trade union movement. The Wolverhampton evidence suggests otherwise. The balance sheet above was signed by William Allen of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and also by leaders of the Cigar Makers, Book Makers and Cabinet Makers, suggesting that the money came from individual trade unions rather than the NAPL. Moreover, the next mention we have of the Wolverhampton Tinplate Makers is in 1856 when they adopted a new, comprehensive set of rules. At this time they were still affiliated to the NAPL which was then called the National Association of United Trades for the Protection of Industry.
Further details of the Tinplate Workers suggest that they were loathe to develop the friendly side of the union‟s activity and it was not until 1867 that sickness benefit was embraced and even this amounted to only 2/-d a week and did not become operative until 1870.
Organisation of Tinplate Workers was not confined to this Society. A Co-operative Tinplate Workers of Wolverhampton meeting at the Red Cow, Dudley Street is known for its rules dated 1848. This was also affiliated to the NAPL and relations between the two Societies were cordial. In 1873 a second Society of the Co-operative Workers of Wolverhampton was formed and was „heartily congratulated‟ by the original Society. In the bad times of the Great Depression the Co-operative seems to have dissolved and over one hundred members transferred to the original Society.
The 1850 Standard Price List continued to be accepted and by 1870 a situation analogous to that of 1850 occurred; a renewed period of prosperity enabled the Tin Plate workers to claim an advance of 10 per cent This time there was no one mule-headed enough to want to resist it, or to wish to crush the union.
The Society survived the first years of the Great Depression and in 1884 a 10 per cent on the 1850 Price List was again conceded. At this time the Wolverhampton society was extended. Birmingham employers were said to be refusing price increases to their men because Wolverhampton wages were lower. The two Societies therefore merged in 1875 to form the Amalgamated Tinplate Workers of Birmingham, Wolverhampton and District. From this emerged the National Amalgamated Tinplate Workers of Great Britain and subsequently the National Union of Sheet Metal Workers of recent times.
The National Union of Sheet Metal Workers (NUSMCHDE) in 1983 joined TASS, which in turn formed MSF with the ASTMS in 1988, which went on to create Amicus with the AEEU and then to become UNITE the union.