Unknown history of Wolverhampton Tinplate trade unionists

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Five Wolverhampton Tinplate workers were transported in 1819, before the Tolpuddle Martyrs, for the crime of forming a trade union.
In January 2020 we were informed that Tinplate Workers’ union, now the Wolverhampton Craft branch of Community union, a founder of our trades union council and Wolverhampton, Bilston & District TUC’s oldest affiliated branch, traced to 218 years continued existence is to be closed by Community and it’s members redistributed.
Graham Dodd branch secretary of Wolverhampton Craft branch of Community union and Wolverhampton Council Leader Roger Lawrence, on Fri 15 Feb 2019 were joined by Labour councillors, all the Wolverhampton MPs and delegates from Wolverhampton, Bilston and District Trades Union Council to rededicated and unveil the plaque in its new prominent position in the ground floor Canteen of the Civic Centre.
Historian E P Thompson wrote in his classic work ‘The Making of the English Working Class’:

“History has dealt fairly with the Tolpuddle Martyrs… but the hundreds of men and women executed or transported for oath-taking, Jacobin conspiracy, Luddism, the Pentrich and Grange Moor risings, food and enclosure and turnpike riots, the Ely riots and the Labourers’ Revolt of 1830…have been forgotten by all but a few specialists, or if they are remembered, they are thought to be simpletons or men tainted with criminal folly…Men must be judged in their own context; and in this context we may see such men … as men of heroic stature.”

This plaque is on a wall in the Wolverhampton Civic Centre,.
Originally unveiled in 1987 by Labour council leader John Bird.




The Wolverhampton Craft  

A Brief History of one of the Oldest Trade Union Branches still in existence. 


In 1802 Thomas Jefferson was just settling in as the third President of the United States and Napoleon Bonaparte was still a full two years away from being crowned emperor, and yet in the heart of England, in a still growing market town called Wolverhampton, a group of workers set up an organisation, which incredibly still continues to meet and fight to improve members conditions.

The Friendly Society of the United Operative Tin-Plate Workers of Wolverhampton was started to ‘dispense necessary relief to such of its members as may be out of employ’.

However, trade unions were to be illegal for a further 23 years, after taking part in a strike in 1819 ( probably in relation to the ‘Peterloo massacre’), the society’s meeting room was raided by the Bow Street Runners. Members hoped to delay the police by blocking access to the premises in order for the officials to destroy documents and records held by the society(Consequently the earliest surviving document of the Friendly Society is a printed Rule Book dating from 1834). Despite these valiant efforts the police did manage to break in by force of numbers and arrests were made.

Five of those arrested in the raid were convicted and as punishment were transported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), this being 15 years earlier than the more often cited transportation of the six farm workers from the tiny village of Tolpuddle in Dorset for the same ‘crime’

Despite this blow to the Society its work continued and in 1821 it joined with other societies and formed the National Union of Tin-Plate Workers and indeed was the beneficiary in 1822 of a collection of £944 to aid its members who had been in dispute for seven months against an imposed 10% wage cut.

In 1850, the Society became locked in a Great Strike after a local employer rejected a new piecework price list. The strike ended in defeat for the Society after 18 months.

In 1876 the Society joined the Wolverhampton Co-operative Tin-Plate Workers Society and the Birmingham Co-operative Tin-Plate to become the Amalgamated Tin-Plate Workers of Birmingham,Wolverhamptonand District.

The Wolverhampton Society continued to play a leading role nationally over the next 40 years and was at the formation of the National Amalgamated Tin-Plate Workers of Great Britain in 1889.

In 1902 Iron Plate, Sheet metal workers and Braziers joined the union (National Amalgamated Tin & Iron Plate, Sheet Metal Workers & Braziers.

In 1908 it was renamed the National Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers and Braziers.

In 1920 it became the National Union of Sheet Metal Workers & Braziers

In 1959 further amalgamations once again caused the name to change, (National Union of Sheet Metal Workers & Coppersmiths.

In 1967 the Heating & Domestic Engineers were added to theUnion.

In 1983 the Union merged with T.A.S.S. section of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, and after a relatively short periodthe union joined with the Association of Scientific, Technical & Managerial Staffs (ASTMS) to form the Manufacturing: Science: Finance Union (MSF) in 1988.

In 2001 a merger of MSF, the AEEU, UNIFI and the GPMU created the second largest Union in theUK(Amicus).

On 1stMay 2007 Amicus merged with the TGWU to form UNITE.

In 2012, it was becoming apparent that Unite no longer saw a future for the original ‘Craft’ sector and indeed our own ‘distinguished’ branch, and so in July 2012 Unite the Union dissolved the craft sector and all the branches that served nearly 35,000 members and tried to absorb them into workplace and community branches.

It would of course have been easy to accept this undistinguished end to a proud chapter in union history and to sit back and reminisce about the longevity and activism of our craft branch. However members inWolverhamptonand outlying districts refused to see the death of one of the oldest continuing union branches in the world and remembering a lesson from our founders, rose up, reorganised and vowed to continue the ethos of the branch under a new union banner.

With a proud history like ours it was only right that Community the union came forward and recognised the value and special nature of the ‘Craft’ branches and offered a new home. The branch committee knowing the good work that Community undertake on behalf of members unanimously agreed to accept Community’s offer and no break in continuity occurred during transfer. And so was born the Wolverhampton Craft Branch of Community 

So from the Wolverhampton Tin-Plate Society to the present day Wolverhampton Craft Branch of Community, we have 210 years of a continuous functioning and active branch and in 2019 will remember the 200thanniversary of our founding members transportation.

Many thanks to our Branch Secretary Graham Dodd and Nick Kelleher (Sec of Wton/Bilston TUC) for their research and interest in this little known event.

Ian Brookfield ,Wton Craft (Community)

 History of Wolverhampton website information on tinplate workers


William Wilberforce MP, later famous for his role in the banning of the trading of slaves, had argued that trades unions were “are a general disease of our society” and in 1799 a bill was introduced and rushed through Parliament in the last 4 weeks before summer closure. This became the Combination Act which banned trade combinations or as we now know them, trade unions.
The following information is taken from:
 “Men of Good Character, a history of the Sheet Metal Workers, Coppersmiths, Heating and Domestic Engineers” by Ted Brake 
and gives some background to the origin of possibly the oldest trade union branch of continued existence in Britain, Wolverhampton Craft branch of Community union.
“ ‘Impartially’ the Combination Laws forbade combinations among masters as well as among workmen but magistrates turned a blind eye on employers combining to reduce wages – in fact there was hardly a manufacturer in the country who was not a member of a combination. 
An opponent of the Act pointed out that only journeymen were to be sent to prison and that the Act did not allow them the right to be tried by jury. This taking away of an Englishman’s basic right was the main objection raised in Parliament to the Bill. 
Although the penalty in cases tried by jury could be two years imprisonment, against three months in a magistrate’s court, journeymen felt they had a better chance of getting justice from a jury than from a magistrate who was perhaps an employer himself or at least came from the same social class. 
The rightness of this opinion was shown in a trial, in the Middlesex Quarter Session of 1812 of 17 journeymen tin plate workers, who worked for a firm in St Pancras – then a centre of the tin plate trade. 
According to one account they ‘threw caution to the wind’ and went on strike when one of their shop mates was sacked for asking for a wage increase, in what appears to have been an organised attempt to increase piece-work prices. They first told the employer to take back the sacked man – who had been with the firm for three years – and when this was refused they demanded that not only should he be taken back but also given the increase he had asked for, which should also be paid to themselves and all tinmen employed by the firm. When the employer persisted in his refusal the men ‘unlawfully’ refused to work on any job normally carried out by their sacked colleague – in good trade union style – and were said to have harassed another workman and stopped him working at the old prices. 
The 17 were tried, not under the combination laws but at Common Law, for conspiring to raise wages and carrying out harassment and injury to their employer. They were all found not guilty by a jury which included a printer, a baker, a grocer and a butcher, and acquitted. 

Tin plate workers who a few years later took part in a ‘great strike’ at Wolverhampton in 1819, also prosecuted at Common Law, were not so lucky as their London colleagues. The employers were said ‘to have called in the’ Robin Redbreasts’ or ‘Bow Street Runners’ to crush the strike.

Members of the Wolverhampton Tin Plate Workers Society, ‘hearing whispers that the Society’s club house was to be raided,’ stationed themselves in front of the entrance, delaying the police as long as possible while officials of the Society destroyed documents and records within. When the police did manage to break in by force of numbers, all evidence had been destroyed. Nevertheless, all on the premises were said to have been arrested and some, if not all, being found guilty, were transported to Van Diemen’s Land.


Strikes continued throughout the period of the combination laws and in many cases no charges were preferred, probably because, with no prosecuting authority, it was left to the employer to bring proceedings against the strikers, and as they would frequently have to employ the strikers after the proceedings were over they would not do so. This was particularly the case with the many small masters who worked alongside their journeymen, which would have been the case with tin plate workers. Moreover, if the strikers were sent to prison, the employer had to find replacements.”
The National Union of Tinplate Workers was founded in 1821 as a federation of certain local societies including Wolverhampton’s. Over £944 was collected in all in solidarity by members for a seven month dispute in the tin plate trade at Wolverhampton in 1822. This dispute, which was only partially successful, was over a 10% imposed wage cut. 

Horesfair wolverhampton

In 2019 it will be the 200th anniversary of their transportation.

Wolverhampton Horsefair in 19th century; now Wulfruna St; site of the arrest

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