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

Chapter 2


After 1868 it is difficult to find information on the Trades Council. A main issue in these last years of British industrial supremacy was that of conciliation, arbitration and the sliding wage scale. These are often condemned today as being ‘collaborationist’. But in the Black Country at that time such policies represented the first success, apart from the brute strength of strikes, in making employers sit around a table and talk to trade unionists. So reluctant were employers to negotiate that one of the last references to the Council was in 1868 when Wolverhampton Chamber of Commerce, ‘rejected the offer of a joint committee to consider matters of mutual interest’.

The next we hear of the Trades Council was in 1876 when a report referred to its second annual general meeting, giving an establishment date of 1874. Even stranger is that Trades Council year books before 1965 give the founding year as 1871 and government labour statistics date it from 1873. Light was shed on the matter in 1875 when Joseph Humphries, the first president of the council and then its secretary wrote that the Trades Council had never completely died out, but when a town committee had been formed to support locked out [farm?] labourers a renewal of the Trades Council was urged with the result that it was then stronger than ever.

These years of obscurity from 1868 to 1874 were important ones. They saw a frenzied boom from 1870 to 1874 during which hours for miners were reduced to eight per day and engineers, builders, glassworkers and other well-organised trades won the ten hour day. Wage increases were also won so that the only substantial improvements in living standards of the whole period of industrial supremacy 1850- 75 were achieved. The boom, however, ended with the Great Depression 1875 to 1895 when mass unemployment, poverty and even starvation returned to Wolverhampton and the Black Country.

From 1875 local newspaper reports of Trades Council activity begin to appear and one can see the main issues that engaged the Council. One of the biggest was drink. Liberal strength in Wolverhampton dictated that the Temperance Movement should be very important. The brewers resisted by supporting the Tories and using their great wealth to fight the Liberals. The Trades Council was inevitably drawn into this struggle. In 1875 one of the numerous temperance campaigns attempted to commit the Council to its cause. Humphries linked drinking with the problems of working people in his attempts not to align the council too directly with Temperance. He said that hiring was one of the important causes of intemperance, when people had to sit in public houses and drink before they would be taken on. Another reason was the ‘horrid dens and holes’ of houses in which working people lived. Humphrey continued that wages should be sufficient so that wives did not have to go out to work and there should be sufficient money to educate children instead of sending them out to work. There should be temperance public houses so that if wives wished to leave the house on washing days they did not have to drink beer or spirits. It was finally unanimously agreed to have nothing to do with this temperance campaign. At the 1878 AGM however, it was resolved to move the meeting place of the trades council from the Tiger Inn in North Street to the Friendly Societies Hall. At this meeting the secretary, F.Wetton, said that this would leave only Wednesbury Trades Council in the Black Country meeting in a public house.

The Great Depression was especially bad in the Black Country. This was because it coincided with the decline of the basic industries with the flooding of the coal mines and the closure, or removal to the coast, of the great iron works as ironmasters failed to adapt to the production of Bessemer steel in place of the traditional Staffordshire wrought iron. 1876 to 1879 were some of the worst years.

The traditional initial response to mass unemployment was the opening of Soup Kitchens in the town. When things got worse the Mayor would call a town meeting to raise a fund to provide relief. When all this failed, the Stoneyard would be ‘opened’, i.e. the task of breaking stones which inmates of the Workhouse were always obliged to do would be shared by selective ‘deserving’ unemployed who would break stone for one day a week for a reward of between 1/- and 1s 6d according to the size of their family.

In January 1878 a Distress Meeting in Wolverhampton heard, among many others, of such cases as Mrs X with a delicate husband and seven children. The eldest girl of 14 had been healthy, but was now emaciated from want of food. Another family with seven children had no work. Dried bread was a frequent fare. The mother was so famished as to be hardly recognisable. At this meeting the Clerk to the Poor Law Guardians said that the law did not allow the Guardians to relieve this distress unless families entered the Workhouse. The meeting raised £200 to add to the £40 already available. The next month it was reported that the Mayor’s Relief Fund had met with little success. 1075 x 4lb loaves had been distributed as well as 938 lbs of oatmeal and 1,259 quarts of soup. So much for the cold hand of charity and Victorian values!

Wages were being reduced and hours lengthened. The local branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants heard of the Wolverhampton porter who had worked 88 hours for £1.

Under these circumstances the Trades Council remained weak. In 1874 Humphries was still the secretary and Gough the president. At a meeting with 14 delegates it was decided to arrange a small festival. The next year G.Paddie was president and W. Ford Secretary. In June £1 was contributed to the TUC Parliamentary Committee for its work in altering the Labour Laws, namely the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1871, the Master and Servants Acts of 1867 and the Laws of Conspiracy. At a meeting in August two delegates tried to prevent a discussion on the withdrawal of the Plimsoll legislation from Parliament on the grounds that the issue was ‘political’. This was countered by other delegates claiming that this affected engineers on ships and a motion of sympathy with Plimsoll was also passed. In September the Council sent a delegate to the TUC. It was actively recruiting, sending deputation’s to the Painters to affiliate and the Steam engine Makers Society to re-affiliate.

A decision to produce an annual printed report lead to C.Laws the secretary reading a full report at what was called the 2nd AGM in 1876, but only nine delegates were present. Petitions had been sent to C.P. Villiers, the town’s MP on Workmen’s Compensation and a Patents Bill. There had been discussion on Hiring and also Productive Co-ops. Solidarity appeals for support had been approved from locked-out coopers at Northfleet and handloom weavers in Paisley who had refused to take a 50 per cent cut in wages.

In 1877 the Hiring Question dominated meetings. At the 1878 AGM in August F.Wetton, the secretary, reading the annual report stated that 1,200 trade unionists were affiliated to the Council. Funds were low so it was decided to send £2 to the TUC instead of sending a delegate.

Once again silence descends on the work of the Wolverhampton Trades Council, but much was going on both industrially and politically. The myriad small trades of the Black Country, beginning with Nut and Bolt workers in 1872, were being organised by one of the most notable trade unionists the Black Country has produced Richard Juggins, into what was to become the Midland Counties Trade Federation. Juggins became secretary of Wednesbury Trades Council and it, together with Walsall Trades Council tended to be stronger than Wolverhampton at that time. In addition, both the mining and steel workers were developing national unions but both remained outside the Trades Council Finally, it was not until 1886 that a decision was made to allow branches of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, rapidly becoming the most important union in the Black Country, to affiliate to Trades Councils.

The Great Depression continued with another wave of mass unemployment in 1884 to 1887. But this time the retreat of the Labour movement was at an end and there suddenly burst forth, for the first time since the Owenite Socialists and Chartists of the 1840s, a new Socialism. The Marxist parties of the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League and also the reformist Fabian Society were formed. In 1893 the Independent Labour Party was founded and this quickly became the largest working class party in Wolverhampton. From this time the main issue became representation of independent (i.e. not attached to either the Liberals or the Tories) working men both to Parliament and all the local bodies of the town council, the School Board, the Poor Law Board, and also working men justices of the peace.

This campaign for independent working class representation came at a time when the local political situation was highly complex. As we have seen, the politics of the trades council was originally Liberal and the Liberals dominated the town. But in 1886 Joseph Chamberlain had led many Liberals in Birmingham and the Black Country across to the Tory party in opposing Home Rule for Ireland.

In addition, the ‘natural leadership’ of the Liberals as the party of industrial capital was coming to an end as the Tories emerged as a party of imperialism. The most important Tory influence of the time was Sir Alfred Hickman who took the Wolverhampton West seat after the town had been divided into three constituencies at the time of the 1884 Reform Act. Hickman was said to have employed 50 per cent of the Bilston work force and also had, of course, the support of the drink trade at a time when elections were dominated in Wolverhampton by the Temperance issue.

The trade union situation was also being transformed. From the 1889 Dock Strike in London, there was a rapid development of organisation of gas workers, labourers and others into the two general unions which were to become the T&GWU and the GMB. These new unions were not Liberal, but Labour and Socialist. Also within the old- established skilled unions there was a struggle to end all forms of Liberal influence and adopt a Socialist programme.

Thus within Wolverhampton Trades Council at this time were Tory and Unionist influences as well as Gladstonian Liberals known as Lib-Labs supported by what was at that time a Liberal newspaper, the Express & Star.

The new Socialism triumphed over the other trends in 1895 when the Trades Council adopted the policy of independent Labour representation. At the AGM of that year it was stated that the cause of this change over to Labour had been the Depression and mass unemployment.

But the two main problems that had given rise to Lib-Labism persisted. The first was that Labour candidates could only be successful if they were adopted by the Liberal party and supported by them, or if agreement was reached with the Liberals not to stand against the Labour candidate. The other problem was that it was impossible to find the money locally for a Labour parliamentary candidate which roughly amounted to £200 for election expenses and £200 a year salary. To overcome these problems the Trades Council (which represented 2,000 trade unionists but had an income of only f16 at this time) became the centre of a network of organisations to vet and certify that candidates were indeed working men unconnected with the Liberals and Tories and to raise the cash for local contests. From this time its name was changed to Wolverhampton Trades and Labour Council. These functions were eventually taken over by a Labour Representation Committee in the town. Success came with the election in 1906 of the first Labour MP in the town. This was achieved firstly because Fred Richards was a national officer of the Boot & Shoe Operatives and the union paid his salary, and secondly because Richards was one of the famous 29 Labour MP’s returned at that election because of a deal nationally between the Labour Representation Committee and the Liberal Party for the latter not to stand against the specified Labour candidate.

In local politics the Socialists and Labourites had to fight hard to maintain their supremacy on the Trades Council. In 1895 two ILP candidates were endorsed by only 14 votes to 9 and there continued to be respect and sympathy for the MP, C.P. Villiers. By 1897 there were two ILP councillors, E. Evans and H. Gibson, and two Lib-Labs, James Stevenson and F Evans. Three Labour members were also elected to the School Board in 1895.

When Villiers eventually died at the age of 96 after 64 years as the town’s MP, G.R. Thorne, the leading Liberal, was nominated and this was supported by Bilston ILP.

An example of the growing Socialist influence was the annual May Day parade organised by the Trades Council every May Day from 1892. The celebration of May Day as Labour Day had originated with the Second Internationale when it decided that from 1890 there would be demonstrations for the 8-Hour Day throughout the world on May Day.

The Express & Star reported that in 1892 ‘the Unionism of Wolver­hampton asserted its strength and power in a demonstration which has not a parallel in the history of the town’. The various societies met in St. James Square at 2-30pm. ‘The main thoroughfares began to wear an animated appearance long before then. People flocked to the rendezvous and crowds lined the streets. The procession marched round the town to the Market Patch where 7,000 people listened at the two platforms presided over by W. Day, president of the Trades Council and T.Moore of the Brassworkers’ Society and member of the School Board.’ The proceedings began with the singing of the Workers Song written by Joseph Whittaker (trades council member, Labour Church activist and noted local poet) to the tune of Stand up for Jesus:

Lift up the peoples’ banner,

Now trailing in the dust.

A million hands are ready

To guard the Sacred Trust

With steps that never falter

And hearts that grow more strong,

Till victory ends our warfare

We sternly march along.

In fact, the Express & Star thought that the whole of the proceedings had a religious air ‘so effectively was Christian duty emphasised in relation to the daily task.’

‘There was not a single disorder. The police were there in force, but occupied themselves as other men.’ There were few women in the procession, but many in the crowd. ‘One man was brave enough to carry a member of the family, a baby about six months old. He seemed proud of his pretty little charge.’ The 8-hour day Resolution was carried unanimously at the two official platforms which had hurriedly been supplemented by one set up by the Fabian Society for those of the crowd who could not hear the other speakers.

Such demonstrations, some larger and some smaller, called by the Trades Council, were part of the Labour tradition of Wolverhampton until local elections were changed from November to May, after which trade union and party participation in the elections left insufficient time and energy to mount such large scale demonstrations except on special occasions.

In 1900 the voice of Labour was temporarily smothered by the jingoism of the Boer War. But both the Labour movement and large sections of Liberals in Wolverhampton opposed it as an imperialist war fought for the gold and diamond interests, and supported by Joseph Chamberlain as a new way of combatting working class poverty. War fever did not long survive the relief of Mafeking in 1900. The long- drawn out guerrilla warfare which followed during which Britain established the first concentration camps in the world led to the development of a peace movement; a War and Arbitration Society was set up in Wolverhampton in 1901.

1900 had also seen the setting up of the Labour Representation Committee in London. In 1901 a local LRC began to function with the Trades Council an essential part of it. As we have seen, this resulted in 1906 in the return to Parliament of the town’s first MP. In its first year the LRC sponsored two candidates for the council elections -T.Frost of the Trades Council and W.Sharrocks of the ILP. Sharrocks was successful.

The 1906 election had resulted in a landslide win for the Liberals who, under the influence of Lloyd George, had formulated a widespread programme of social reform in a last desperate attempt to keep the working class attached to the Liberals. Some of this programme was supported but not all. For instance the fight for old age pensions was widely supported by, among others, the town’s three MP’s, the Trades Council and the League for the Taxation of Land Values. The pension battle was won in 1908. In a series of subsequent elections called by the liberals in support of their threat to create hundreds of Peers if the House of Lords continued to obstruct their social legislation, Richards, the Labour member, was unseated by the first Tory MP in the town, Alfred Hickman. The 1911 Insurance Act which gave sickness and unemployment benefit to a limited number of workers, but not their families, was opposed by sections of the labour movement. This reflected the fact that in the Lib-Lab period many leading trade unionists had been pillars of the many Friendly Societies in the town and the Insurance Act was seen as leading to a weakening of their position. Nor were Labour Exchanges universally welcomed, despite the scandal of Hiring in the town. They were seen as a way of regimenting workers and weakening the trade unions where hiring was done from the union office.

From 1907 there was another Depression with mass unemployment. There was also considerable disenchantment with the Labour leaders in Parliament for not vigorously enough raising the question of unemployment. The dilemma of Ramsey MacDonald and Philip Snowden was that they could only vote against the Liberal party in Parliament by bringing that government down and having in its place a worse Tory government. The period was to culminate in the Great Unrest of 1910-14 in which syndicalist influences were to grow. Syndicalists believed that socialism would have to be established by trade union activity alone and workers’ control of industry.

It was during this period of unrest that unskilled and semi-skilled workers revolted against starvation wages and, as in the 1880s with the chain workers, national attention was again rivetted on the Black Country.

It began in Bilston in 1911 with a long and bitter lock-out at Fellows. But the real struggles were in 1913 when masses of workers joined the Workers’ Union and struck for 23/- minimum weekly wage for unskilled workers in place of the 18/- usual at the time.

Wolverhampton Trades Council played a leading organisational role in the strike. Harry Bagley, the secretary was deeply involved with the workers’ union, James Whittaker, the president was on the central strike committee and the Trades Council collected large sums of money for the strikers.

In Wolverhampton the workers at Bayliss, Jones and Bayliss were the first to strike. Later in 1913 the spotlight turned to Bilston with Thompsons and other firms out. It culminated at Fellows again with workers attempting to storm the factory gates. By July victory was complete throughout Birmingham and the Black Country. The 23/- minimum wage had been conceded which made such an enormous difference to the lives of tens of thousands of families. But it was also at Bilston where resistance to the settlement as a ‘sell-out’ was strongest and syndicalist sympathies most apparent.

Nor was this the end of advances in Wolverhampton. In May 1913 the first Wolverhampton Labour movement monthly paper was produced – The Wolverhampton Worker described as the organ of the Trades and Labour Council. Within two months it had a circulation of 17,000. The first number reported that the private landlords in the town, organised in the Property Owners Association, had sent out 9,000 notices of increases of rents. The Trades Council offices in the Labour Assembly Rooms in Queen Square had been besieged by tenants demanding to know what the Trades Council was going to do about it. A Tenants’ Defence Committee was immediately organised on the initiative of the Trades Council and a great mass meeting held at the Empire Theatre the next Sunday. The slogan became ‘Don’t Pay.’ With Whittaker in the chair the main speakers were S.Belcher the secretary, the Rev.J.A.Shaw vicar of All Souls Church, Park Road West (‘the people’s parson, rapidly becoming the idol of the town’), J.Diderage (‘a powerful speaker’) and Lawley (‘the logician’).

[all copies of The Wolverhampton Worker are available to read at http://www.wolvestuc.org.uk/index.php/history-of-wbdtuc/818-the-wolverhampton-worker]

A whirlwind campaign against the rent increase followed. The landlords’ excuse was that rates had risen from 6s11d in 1908 to 11s11d in 1913. This was countered by pointing out that in 1905 rates had been 10s1d but rents had not been reduced when rates went down. Victory was achieved in June. Prominent non-payers were sued in the County court by the landlords. But before the cases could come to court, they were withdrawn and the rent increases cancelled.

Also in 1913 there was a Trade Union Mission Week to recruit trade unionists from the existing estimated low level of 5,000 trade unionists in the town. The weather during the week was appalling, so that planned factory gate meetings did not take place, but there was a mass meeting at the Empire Theatre and other activities which made the week a success, it was claimed.

The Wolverhampton Worker continued into 1914 giving details of Trades Councils meetings and also reporting on the wider Labour movement in the town. As the year wore on, the danger of war was increasing and the paper printed anti-war material such as publicising the enormous growth in military expenditure.

From 1913 some of the year books of the Trades Council have survived. The first one carries an article on ‘The Council 30 Years Ago’ by a Former Secretary. He states that in 1885 when the town was granted three MP’s demands to all of them were drawn up. These included abolition of the property qualification for standing in local government, compulsory extension of the Employers’ Liability Act and the Factory Acts, increases in the number of mine and factory inspectors, free education, nationalisation of the railways etc. Of a total of 11 demands, 8 had been met. ‘Former secretary’ ends by naming those who had taken a prominent part in the proceedings of the Trades Council since 1885. These included C. Ely, G. Sale, F. Badger and W. Day (former presidents), S. Bowyer, J. Scott, G. R. Cocking and W.Mee (former secretaries) and others whose names are given in Appendix A.

Harry Bagley’s report for 1914 showed the recent progress of the Trades Council. Income for 1914 was nearly £134. Forty five societies were then affiliated to the Trades Council. Of the more mundane business of the Council in that year there were protests at the imprisonment of local trade unionist W. Murdoch Adamson for an alleged assault during a Walsall strike, which succeeded in getting him promptly released; and a successful demand for the government to withdraw a circular asking for the enrolment of Territorials as Special Constables in the event of civil or industrial trouble. Two matters continually pressed had been achieved- school clinics and baby clinics in town; some progress had been made on the question of the feeding of necessitous children and the election of a committee for the acquiring of premises for a Wolverhampton Trades Hall and Club.

This report enables us to examine the make up of the Council for the first time since its inception. Engineers predominated. Four branches of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers were affiliated.

There were two branches of Toolmakers and one each of Patternmakers, Ironfounders, Boilermakers, Lock Latch & Keysmiths, Brassworkers, Enginemen and Firemen, United Machine Workers, and Electrical Trades; also two branches of Coachmakers. Construction was represented by Builders’ Labourers, Carpenters (two branches), Plumbers and Wood Machinists. Transport by Tramway Workers, two branches of the NUR, Loco-enginemen and Firemen, and Railway Clerks. Distribution was served by Shop Assistants, Postmen, Co-operative employees, Bakers, Hairdressers and Tailors. General workers were represented by the Workers’ Union (two branches and a women’s section), and Gas Workers (three branches). White collar unions were the Musicians and two branches of Insurance Agents. This list is rounded off with Boot and Shoe Operatives and Coopers.

It is clear that by 1914 the Trades Council had won considerable influence and prestige in the town when the 1st World War broke out and the world changed forever.

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