History of Wolverhampton, Bilston and District Trades Union Council 1865-1990

Chapter 1


The Black Country in 1865

When the Wolverhampton Trades Council was formed in September 1865, the Black Country was at the peak of its productive capacity. In that year, 10 million tons of coal was hewn from Black Country mines representing about one-seventh of all coal mined in Britain.

The Black Country was created by Abraham Darby’s invention in 1709 of the smelting of iron with coke. The smelting of iron with coke led to the development of the Black Country coal field. Here was the unique and magnificent 10-yard coal seam rising almost to the surface at some places, but always near enough to the surface to give shallow pits of a depth of only about 300 feet. The great 30-foot wall of coal comprised layers of differing quality coal interspersed with layers of clay, shale or iron ore. The abundant supplies of limestone have their permanent memorials in the fantastic caves and grottoes of the Wren’s Nest at Dudley.

Hence there were all the raw materials to transform the area into one of the greatest industrial complexes in the world. From 1757 when John Wilkinson turned out the first coke smelted iron of the district at his Bradley furnace the green fields disappeared to be replaced by the familiar mountains of refuse from mines and slag from blast furnaces. A permanent pall of smoke descended created by the blast furnace, the myriad steam engines and the never ending piles of burning coal in the process of coking and the smouldering iron stone calcining. Here, travellers said, day was turned into night by thick, acrid smoke and night into day by the flames of the blazing furnaces. This was the Black Country. For a century after 1750 development proceeded by tempestuous bursts of economic activity occasioned by wars and new uses for iron culminating in the building of the railways, first of Britain and then of the world. Between such bursts of expansion came long, catastrophic periods of slump when mines and factories closed and working people starved.

From the middle of the 1860s, the basic industries began to decline. Black Country iron ore production had reached its peak in 1858 and by 1883 the Earl of Dudley was said to be the only iron master using Black Country ore. In 1856 Henry Bessemer invented his famous process of cheap steel. Black Country iron masters would not believe that the days of wrought iron were ended and could not adapt themselves to steel production. The Great Depression of the 1870s completed what Bessemer had started and by 1900 most of the ironmasters had closed their works.

Coalmining was also meeting with insuperable difficulties. The great coal seam had been exploited in an incredibly wasteful fashion. Small, shallow pits were rarely more than 300 yards apart and it was easier to sink new shafts than to build and drain extensive workings from the existing pits. The streams of the area became damaged and the water, instead of being carried off, filled the depressions of old workings and gradually found its way back into the mines. By 1865 50 million gallons of water were being pumped every 24 hours. In 1873 a Mines Drainage Act was passed levying a rate on every ton of mineral raised, but problems worsened. By 1919 sixty-one tons of water was being pumped for every ton of mineral raised. The coalfield, by then resembling a vast, waterlogged rabbit warren, ceased production.

From the above it will be seen that the Wolverhampton Trades Council came into existence at the peak of Black Country development, but from its inception faced the serious problems of an economy in transition.

Working class conditions in the Black Country

The 12-hour shift was usual in most Black Country industries with a six-day week, but by 1860 there was the beginning of a movement to finish work on Saturdays at 4pm. Such hours, particularly in the basic industries, were clearly injurious to health and workers used traditional methods to combat this. Employers complained bitterly of the practice of St.Monday and even St.Tuesday when workers ‘played’ instead of working, but the lack of any living tradition of this ‘restrictive practice’ is strange.

Wages were paid irregularly. Once a fortnight was the normal ‘reckoning’, but this could be extended to a month when times were bad and 7 to 8 weeks was not unknown. This favoured the infamous system of paying in truck which was prevalent in mining and the iron trades, also in the domestic industries. Prices were more than 50 per cent higher in the Tommy shop. Throughout the nineteenth century long and sustained campaigns were waged against these evils, but despite the agitation and the fact that it was always illegal to pay in truck, the Tommy shop seems to have disappeared only with the abandonment of the coalfield.

Until 1867 Factory Acts applied only to textile and allied industries and except for the prohibition of women and children under 10 working underground in mines, there was no legal check to child labour, hours of work or dangerous machinery in the Black Country. In 1862 children of eight were employed to draw up the doors of iron furnaces for which they were paid 6d and 8d a shift. They were required to work nights on alternate weeks. In the rolling of iron children were only used for small iron. This required more ‘nimble’ people than adults. Owing to the quick and uncertain movement of this small iron, however, this employment was attended with much danger and boys rarely got through many turns without burns of a more or less serious nature. It was estimated that these nine-year old boys ran 11 miles per 12-hour shift. They were paid 5s a week.

The accident and death rate in the factories will never be known. In the mines it was stupendous. In 1860 there were only 20 mines with guidelines in the shaft and proper cages. In all other pits men descended in the free-swinging skip. Death was ever present- by being drawn over the pulley as the skip ascended, by being precipitated to the bottom of the pit, or by the breaking of the illegal single-link chains which snapped without warning. Roof falls which would not be lethal elsewhere were fatal in the 10-yard coal. Men were blown to bits and choked to death by gas. In the 1850s there were 1.89 deaths per thousand miners in Prussia, 4.5 in England but 7.3 in Staffordshire. It was estimated that a miner spent one- fifteenth of his life absent from work by sickness or accident and one-third of all miners died a premature or violent death.

Sanitary conditions were unspeakable. By 1860 only the main roads of Wolverhampton had sewers. In the next 10 years there were serious epidemics of smallpox, typhoid and scarlet fever. Privies were shared by rows of houses and their overflowing contents contaminated wells and other scanty water supplies. In 1873 a Local Government Board inspector could say of Wolverhampton that he had never before inspected a town in which the dwellings of the poor were so unwholesome.

Working class activity in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The working class did not submit tamely to such conditions, despite the fact that the government and employers used their political power to make resistance all but impossible. Until 1824 trade unions were illegal; national political parties were banned under the Corresponding Acts, working-class newspapers were hampered by stamp duty which made their price prohibitive, publishers, printers and readers of the working-class press were liable to prosecution for possessing ‘seditious’ literature. Despite these and other handicaps, working-class activity flourished.

After 1815 when the Napoleonic wars ended, markets disappeared and factories closed. Anyone who advocated reform was called a Jacobin and revolutionary. Thomas Worth is the first considerable working-class leader to be produced by Wolverhampton. He was arrested in 1816 for selling William Cobbett’s ‘Political Register’, and fined £10. In 1819 his house was raided and ‘seditious literature’ seized. He was active in organising the Political Unions and the Reform Associations which were formed in Wolverhampton and other Black Country towns.

[Unknown history of Wolverhampton trade unionists – their members were transported in 1819, before the Tolpuddle Martyrs, for the crime of forming a trade union. Their union branch later became a founder of our trades union council and still exists today. see https://wolvestuc.org.uk/unknown-history-of-wolverhampton-trade-unionists  ]

This period of depression and repression ended with the great miners’ strike of 1822. Soldiers and yeomanry were constantly called out and a military expedition had to be mounted in the middle of the night to arrest the strike leaders who lived in Ettingshall Lane.

In 1826 another long depression began. This was to last until 1833 and resulted in the Reform Act of 1832. This was achieved by the joint agitation of the middle and working classes organised in the Political Unions. It is widely considered that the great Newhall Hill meeting in Birmingham attended by 200,000 people was the decisive event in persuading the House of Lords not to oppose the Reform Bill. More than half of the great crowd for this meeting came from the Black Country; the Wolverhampton contingent mustered at 6am and was joined on the way by the other Political Unions of the Black Country until the mightiest mass migration this area has ever seen was under way. The Reform Act of 1832 gave the vote to the middle class, not to the working class who had done most of the organising and agitating. The middle-class factory owners showed their appreciation by promptly passing the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 which led to the erection of the great workhouses, or Bastilles as they were called. In the Black Country the working class, disillusioned with the results of collaboration with the middle class, took over control of the Political Unions and began the great agitation for the vote for working men known as Chartism.

Black Country Chartism was extremely strong, on occasions the strongest in Britain. Its greatest strength was in Bilston and later Dudley, but Chartism in Wolverhampton was very influential and lasted from 1839 to 1858.

With the failure of Chartism to gain its immediate demands — manhood suffrage — the working class turned again to industrial action and the building up of trade unions. It is against this background that the Wolver­hampton Trades Council was formed.

The formation of the Wolverhampton Trades Council

In the ‘good’ decade of the 1850s when the only slump was during the Crimean War, trade unions grew quickly. The new model Amalgamated national societies flourished in the engineering, building, glass and iron industries of the Black Country. In the 1860s the economic picture changed. Industry was depressed for most of the decade and the employers made desperate attempts to break up the unions. The open class warfare of the previous decade returned.

The employers’ offensive began in 1858 when the glass masters took on the United Glass Makers’ Society which had been established as early as 1844.

From 1859 to 1862 the domestic nail and chain makers fought a battle for their existence using the weapons of bellows cutting, and the blowing up of workshops. A national chainmakers’ union had been formed in 1859. When it demanded price increases the masters retorted by demanding that the men withdraw from the union or be locked out. The men accepted the challenge, but after 20 weeks they were defeated, and the union was broken up.

The 1850s in mining saw the establishment of unions operating throughout the coalfield and the beginnings of the formation of a national miners’ union. In 1864 there was a general strike in the coalfield with the coalmasters determined to finish with the unions. The military were called in, blacklegs were blown up and mine installations destroyed. The union survived.

In 1865 the building employers tried to enforce the Document, a signed statement by the worker that he was not a member of a union. The employers were decisively beaten in a lockout which lasted less than a month.

Finally there was the lockout in the iron trades in 1865. On this occasion the iron masters of South Staffs joined with those of North Staffs to try to defeat the unions. After several weeks’ lock-out the South Staffs ironmasters were released from their promise to support the North Staffs masters and the iron works reopened.

In struggles such as these the new unions, financially stronger than the old ones, gave each other considerable financial support. Herein lay the need for a Trades Council to co-ordinate the activities of all the unions in the town, to recommend to its affiliated members which industrial actions were worthy of solidarity and support and to initiate actions on matters which affected all trade unionists. In similar circumstances, the London Trades Council had been formed in 1860 and had become the clearing house and information centre for the whole trade union movement. Wolver­hampton Trades Council was to play a similar role locally.

The great issue which united all trade unionists in Wolverhampton and the Black Country was the Masters and Servants Act. Of all the disabilities under which workers suffered none was more galling and none had served the employers better than these acts which went back to 1720. The main provisions of the Acts concerned breaches of contract and default of duty. The former concerned the giving of proper notice before leaving employment, normally 14 days. The latter concerned the spoiling of materials being worked or damage to machinery and plant. If the employer was in default he was subject to a civil action and damages could be claimed from him. If the employee was at fault, however, this was a criminal matter, the worker was hauled before a magistrate (who might be his employer) and was liable to three months hard labour. Between 1858 and 1867 there were 10,000 prosecutions in Staffordshire under these Acts. Many of these would be mass prosecutions involving up to 50 men. Wolverhampton had a higher incidence of these prosecutions than any other borough in the country.

The ways in which these laws were invoked almost defy belief. No strike could take place without 14 days notice. This alone made protection against victimisation almost impossible. Workers had no certainty that they would be paid for the work they did and if a master defaulted, few men would have the money or the confidence of receiving justice to risk prosecuting the offending employer. Militant workers were sitting ducks for the Master and Servant Acts. For instance, in 1860 Edward Gough went on a deputation to his butty. He was instantly dismissed with 40s in wages unpaid. He sued the butty, but was told that he had broken his contract by not being in the pit and he lost his case. What happened when an employer was on the bench was illustrated in 1853. Twenty-six ironmakers were prosecuted for leaving their work. They claimed that the management sacked at a moment’s notice and they were entitled to leave the same way. James Bagnall, the magistrate, was also an ironmaster. He sent William Hunt to jail for 21 days. Bagnall said that Hunt was one of the ringleaders and he knew from personal observation that Hunt was a dangerous fellow to be connected with any iron works!

In 1858 miners refused to enter a pit because it was dangerous. They were prosecuted for neglect of work. The Inspector of Mines sent word that he would not be able to inspect the pit for several days. The magistrates ordered the men to return to work.

The above are only a few examples of the infinite variety of ways in which these laws were used by the employing class to exercise a legal dominion over their workers. In 1863 a campaign against these laws was initiated by the Glasgow Trades Council. Local committees were set up including one at Wolverhampton. This was one of the first problems which the Wolverhampton Trades Council tackled. The laws were amended in a very half-hearted way in 1867 and repealed entirely in 1875 when they were replaced by the Employers’ and Workmen’s’ Act.

But the immediate cause of the setting up of the Wolverhampton Trades Council was an entirely local issue.

Wolverhampton at this time was still the centre of the lock trade. Among the many variety of locks made was the plate lock. These were made by only four masters employing 240 men. The men complained that for years they had been ‘sorely oppressed’, their wages averaging 15s a week for a 14-hour clay. A strike had taken place and the employers had agreed to raise wages, but when the day came to implement the agreement the masters went back on their word. The men, therefore, formed themselves into a Plate Locksmiths’ Co-operative Society. Funds were raised by the locksmiths themselves, loans were floated, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and the Tin Plate Workers’ Union gave financial assistance and a gentleman in the town built a large manufactory for them. For a time the employers and the Co-operative coexisted. But the logic of the situation was that if the Co-operative flourished it would eventually absorb all the plate lock workers in Wolverhampton. The employers clearly understood this and the men complained that after a time the employers prevented them from getting orders, tried to prevent the Co-operative from buying materials, spread false reports about the management of the Co­operative, discharged large numbers of their workmen thus hoping to embarrass the Co-operative which would feel morally bound to try to employ them and finally reduced their selling price so much that both employers and Co-operative were selling below cost. At this time the Co­operative was employing 80 of the 240 men.

In these circumstances the whole working-class movement in Wolverhampton rallied to the locksmiths. Between April and June 1865 at least two conferences of trades took place and in the middle of June a public meeting was held at the Agricultural Hall. A Committee to assist the locksmiths was set up. In October Joseph Humphries, the chairman of this Committee, stated that one good result of their labours had been the formation of the Wolverhampton Trades Council and had it been in existence before, the masters would have thought twice about attacking the locksmiths.

The early activities of the Wolverhampton Trades Council

The Wolverhampton Trades Council was in existence by October 1865. No report of its inaugural meeting can be found either in the Wolver­hampton press or the working-class paper ‘The Beehive’, but it can be stated with tolerable certainty that the Trades Council’s first meeting took place in September 1865, for its first annual general meeting was on the 18th September, 1866.

The Council met every other Tuesday evening at the Noah’s Ark Inn, Lichfield Street.

The officers of the Trades Council were very experienced trade unionists. The first president was Joseph Humphries. He was also president of the Society of Operative Carpenters and Joiners in the town and chairman of the committee formed to assist the Co-operative Locksmiths. He was a great champion of arbitration in industrial disputes. The vice-president was Edward Davis, delegate from the Tinplate Workers’ Union which was active in supporting the Locksmiths. He resigned from this office in February 1866, but became president two months later, when Humphries resigned. Vice-president after February 1866 was R.C.Jarrett of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners. The secretary of the Trades Council was Thomas Owen Crumpton, who was the delegate of the Amalgamated Society of Plasterers and Joiners. He was also secretary to the Master and Workmen’s Act Committee, which was set up on the initiative of the Trades Council. The treasurer was Samuel Godber, a delegate from the Boilermakers’ Society. He was also treasurer of the Master and Workmen’s Committee.

Thomas Whittall was another influential delegate. He was secretary of the Operative Carpenters and Joiners as well as secretary of the Locksmiths’ Co-operative Committee. Thomas Jones, the secretary of the Locksmiths’ Co-operative, was their trades council delegate. H Law was a delegate from the Painters’ Society. Thomas Skett belonged to the Carpenters and Joiners. Edward Wooten and John Robinson represented the Tailors’ Society. R.Diggory was the other Tinplate Workers’ delegate. A second Boilermakers’ delegate, William Cheers, joined the Council in March 1866. Other delegates whose unions cannot be identified were Messrs. W. Rowley, David, Harrison, Cull, John Williams, Jackson and Oliver.

The total number of delegates in the first year, therefore, seems to have been 20. Average attendance of Council meetings was about 12.

The Trades Council seems to have represented the smaller trades. There were no delegates from the miners or ironworkers and the Amalgamated Society of Engineers was not represented.


The Trades Council soon took upon itself the function of clearing house with regard to industrial disputes, and if strikers either in the area or outside wanted solidarity or financial assistance they had to win the support of the Council

In November 1865 an appeal of the Military Gun Trade at Birmingham was brought before the Council, but it was held that the Gun Trade was not an organised body and an appeal could not be entertained unless an organised deputation wait on the Trades Council. A fortnight later a deputation was received from the Military Gun Makers and after they had withdrawn, it was resolved that their cause was worthy of support and recommended them to all societies affiliated to the Council. A further resolution was carried that the expenses of the delegation be paid, including their railway fare and refreshment.

In February 1866 there was a special meeting of the Trades Council to hear a deputation from the Pattern Makers Society of London. The Council recommended their case to the sympathy and support of the trades of Wolverhampton. In April the Council heard an appeal from the Sheffield File Trade who were locked out. They also were recommended to the sympathy and assistance of the trades. A further resolution was passed urging that steps be taken to ‘rebut the lock- out system now so prevalent with the capitalists’ and recommending a meeting of the trades. This conference took place in June in Sheffield.

A fuller description of the procedure adopted in a local issue may be of interest. In February the following notice appeared in the Wolverhampton Chronicle:

Notice from the Operative Tailors at the Freemasons’ Arms, Horsefair, to the Master Tailors. We most respectfully request an advance of wages from 24s to 27s. The increased cost of living renders this absolutely necessary. Employers in other trades have already conceded an advance. Many hours we labour compared with other trades. The Committee will meet at the Tiger Inn, 26th of February, when we hope to have your presence as we must have the matter settled by the 10th of March.

W.Dimberline (Secretary).

The employers failed to attend the Committee which the union regarded as ‘sentiments of contempt, therefore the responsibility rests with themselves’. The tailors took their dispute to the Trades Council where it was considered that the employers by their ungentlemanly and uncivil manner had thrown down the gauntlet of defiance with no other view than to rake up the ashes of a ‘strike’. A resolution was then passed stating that the Trades Council viewed with extreme regret the proceedings of the master tailors in refusing to comply with the invitation of the operatives to discuss with them a rise in wages. The Council pledged itself to all normal and legitimate means to support the tailors in their just demands.

At the next Council meeting the tailors reported that there had been no reply from the Trades Council’s circular. It was then agreed that a deputation from the Council of Humphries and Crumpton should meet the masters and put to them the following points.

That their ungentlemanly conduct was calculated to create feelings detrimental to the interests of masters and men.
The tailors were prepared to submit their claim to a Conference.
If a Conference could not agree they were willing to submit the claim to arbitration. They were willing to submit their claim to arbitration. They respectfully drew the employers’ attention to the fact that the carpenters and joiners of Wolverhampton had adopted the principle of arbitration for a considerable period with perfect success.
If no progress had been made by March 24th, they would use every legitimate means to enforce their demands.
The masters failed to respond to this and the men were forced to strike. This was successfully concluded in the first week of April.

The Master and Servant Acts

The Wolverhampton Trades Council took vigorous action to end the monstrous Master and Servant laws. In October 1865 Humphries stated that the Trades Council proposed calling a conference on these Acts, and a hundred copies of circular inviting organisations in the area to attend were ordered. A delegate conference took place on November 16th, where it was resolved to support the Glasgow executive committee which was leading this agitation and meet again on November 28th. The Glasgow committee was now sponsoring a Bill in Parliament and in December a public meeting was held at the Noah’s Ark in support of this Bill. From this meeting a committee was set up which consisted of Godber, Rowley, Williams, Wooten, Jackson, Armstrong and Crumpton- most of them members of the Trades Council. The Bill in question never became law. Instead a Royal Commission was appointed and in May 1866 Wolverhampton Trades Council appointed John Dewes, president of the Co-operative Plate Locksmiths’ Association to give evidence for Staffordshire. The laws were amended the next year.

Other activities

The Co-operative Locksmiths continued to receive the support of the Trades Council. In June 1865 the losses of the Co-operative amounted to £585. In October Humphries told the Locksmiths’ Committee that the Co­operative was still suffering from the competition of the masters, but their work was superior and they had hopes of getting all the trade into their hands. In August 1866 the situation was reported as much better. After facing gigantic obstacles for two years the men would soon be receiving a full wage. Their motto must be Malice towards None, Charity to All. The Council actively recruited in its first years, sending delegations to wait upon the various clubs to explain the aims of the Council. Domestic troubles reared their head in October 1865 when Mr Whittall was written to demanding that he come or write to the next meeting explaining why the report of the Council meeting on October 10th was not forwarded to the press. In the same month the Council was involved in the dog-fight between George Potter, the manager of ‘The Beehive’ newspaper and the London Trades Council. Perfect confidence was expressed in Potter with full determination to render him every assistance ‘against the efforts of an envious clique to damage him’.

In April 1866 a resolution was passed agreeing that the next meeting should discuss the International Working Men’s Association. Unfortu­nately, the report of this meeting is missing. The motion was moved by Davis, the Tinplate Worker, and Rowley. The function which attracted most trade unionists to the 1st International was that of preventing the import of foreign blacklegs in times of strikes. It is significant that the Tinplate Workers had had experience of these blacklegging activities. It is not known whether any Wolverhampton unions were affiliated to the I.W.M.A. but the Wolverhampton Operative Bricklayers’ Society contributed to the funds of the International and it is therefore more than likely that this branch was affiliated.

As has been mentioned, the Wolverhampton Trades Council played an initiating role in calling the Sheffield Conference to consider measures of defence against lock-outs. The Conference failed in its main object, largely due to the fact that depressed conditions made the raising of money difficult. There was formed, however, the United Kingdom Alliance of Organised Trades, which lasted until 1870. The executive sat in Sheffield and it was always strongly supported by Wolverhampton Trades Council.

The Reform Act of 1867

This Act is one of the great milestones of working-class advance. It extended the franchise to all householders in towns, and thus gave the vote to some of the working class. From 1866 there was an immense agitation in the country for this Act and the Wolverhampton Trades Council was involved from the beginning. In April 1866 a committee of artisans was set up to press for reform and it included Trades Council delegates such as Edward Davis. Within a week, a petition had been signed by 5,000 people in Wolverhampton. At this stage the Wolverhampton Working Men’s Liberal Association was leading the agitation with Trades Council officials such as Crumpton prominent. Wolverhampton’s contingent to a monster Midlands demonstration for Reform in August 1866 was organised by the Liberal Association. The Liberal Association, however, included people such as Alderman Fowler, who although sympathetic to working-class aims, were not prepared to support Manhood Suffrage. The working class, therefore, broke away from the Liberals and formed a Wolverhampton branch of the Reform League. In January 1867 a large meeting at the Agricultural Hall was arranged by the Reform League with the participation of the Trades Council. In April 1867 there was another monster demonstration in Birmingham and the agitation continued until August, when the Bill was passed.

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