Taylor, Eric (1974) The working class movement in the Black Country, 1863-1914. Doctoral thesis, Keele University.

[thumbnail of TaylorPhD1974.pdf]

Download (23MB) | Preview


The Black Country was, and remains, an area characterised by insular and conservative social attitudes. These charactersistics were already strongly evident by the 1860s and thereafter were intensified by the collapse of the area's prosperity consequent on the rapid decline of its two basic industries, coal mining and iron manufacture, and the transformation of its traditional metal using trades by the widespread application of machine methods. The divisive consequences of industrial decline, depressed living standards and social stagnation for working class organisation were compounded by the extreme local particularism of its sub-regions, deriving in the main from an intense localisation of industry. Within this context the progress of the working class movement in the area was uncertain and slow. The first large group of workers to organise were the ironworkers: in the spring of 1863. At this time the impetus to organisation given by a sharp upturn of trade in a strongly cyclical industry proved strong enough to overcome the obstacles inherent in the structure of the industry, and the Associated Ironworkers of Great Britain was formed. The union survived for only five years, but the conflicts which arose with the rival association of the northern ironworkers, the National Association of Ironworkers, during this short time left a legacy of suspicion and hostility between the two groups of ironworkers which long outlasted the two unions. the National Association of Ironworkers narrowly survived the depression of 1867-8 which brought the collapse of the Associated Ironworkers and was re-formed as the National Amalgamated Association of Ironworkers. When the first onset of the great coal and iron boom in 1869-70 brought no recovery of unionism in the Black Country the National Amalgamated Association took the initiative in organising the area and in 1872 its status as the national association for ironworkers was recognised by the Black Country men. Despite the spectacular success of the National Amalgamated Association in the Black Country during the early 1870s the tensions between the south Staffordshire ironworkers and those in the north of England persisted and were again clearly revealed when the dramatic collapse of the iron and coal boom effectively destroyed union organisation in the Black Country. The conciliation movement which had accompanied the rise of the National Amalgamated Association in the Black Country survived the collapse of unionism. The ad hoc South Staffordshire Iron Trade Board which had been established in 1872 broke up in 1875 but was quickly reformed and placed on a firmer institutional basis as the South Staffordshire Mill and Forge Wages Board. Over the next decade leadership of the local ironworkers was exercised by this board, and with its influence in favour of conciliation being strongly reinforced by the continuing shrinkage of the south Staffordshire iron trade the adjustment to decline was made without undue difficulty. The success of the wages board largely obscured the weakness of organisation on the men's side, but intensified pressure on wages consequent on a further marked down turn in trade in the mid 1880s brought into . sharp, focus the importance of complementing conciliation machinery with effective union organisation and the Black Country ironworkers took a leading part in re-forming the National Amalgamated Association of Ironworkers as the Associated Iron and Steel Workers of Great Britain during 1887. The return of union organisation to the south Staffordshire iron trade in turn prompted calls for re-organisation of the wages board and in the following year this was successfully carried through, the change being marked by re-naming the board the Midland Iron and Steel Wages Board. The question of the relationship between the union and the men's representatives on the wages board was resolved at an early stage, and over the next two decades union and board combined to preserve as much as possible of the declining south Staffordshire trade. During this time the position of the Associated Iron and Steel Workers as the strongest union in the iron and steel trade was increasingly challenged by the rise of the British Steel Smelters Association, committed to replacing the subcontract system by direct labour. This development had particularly important implications for the south Staffordshire iron industry, which was organised entirely on a sub-contract basis and while there was no direct challenge to the Associated Iron and Steel Workers in the Black Country the possible consequences of an inter-union clash for the fragile prosperity of the area's industry were dramatically demonstrated at"Hawarden Bridge in 1909- 11. Thereafter such resistance as remained among Black Country ironworkers to the idea of rationalising the industry's fragmented union structure crumbled rapidly and they offered no resistance to the process of union consolidation which culminated in the formation of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation in 1917. The formation of district associations by Black Country miners followed directly from the establishment and initial success of the Associated Ironworkers of Great Britain, and the area was strongly represented at the Leeds conference of November 1863 at which the Miners' National Association was formed. When the National Association failed to support them during a long strike in 1864 the Black Country men rebelled against Alexander Macdonald's leadership and took a leading part in forming the breakaway, P ractical Miners' Association. This organisation collapsed within two years, but doubts about the value of alliances with miners of other areas persisted and were an important factor in shaping the attitudes of Black Country miners for the next half century. These doubts were temporarily overcome during the great boom of the early 1870s. The revival of organisation in the north-east sector of the coalfield was led by the Amalgamated Association of Miners, formed in 1869, and during 1873 the associations of the south-west sector reaffiliated to the National Association. With the collapse of union organisation at the end of the boom doubts revived. Only two Black Country associations affiliated to the ' Miners' National Union, formed in 1875 from what remained of the National and the Amalgamated, and by 1878 both had seceded. By this time a second important characteristic of Black Country miners' organisations, namely marked differences of "temper" between the associations in the northeast and south-west sectors of the coalfield, was becoming increasingly evident. This difference had first become apparent during the great boom when the associations of the south-west sector had acted as pace-setters in the drive for improved wages and shorter hours, but had been largely obscured at that time by the dramatic success of unionism and the wages movement. The collapse of prosperity in 1874 was followed by a long strike as the miners resisted the owners* attempt to impose a wage reduction, and when this ended with the establishment of a sliding scale of wages the difference in temper between the miners! associations of the southwest and north-east sectors were clearly revealed in attitudes to the scale. The difference intensified through the 1880s. Even the necessity of making common cause against the owners during the long strike of 1884 failed to bring any lasting reconciliation, and by 1890 the rise of a powerful national organisation, the Miners' Federation of Great Britain, and changes in the structure of local unionism had produced a situation where Black Country miners were divided into two hostile camps. The miners in the central districts of the coalfield accepted the authority of the South Staffordshire and East Worcestershire Coal Trade, Wages Board while two militant enclaves to north and south were affiliated to the Miners' Federation of Great Britain. Hostility between the two camps made the 1890s a particularly difficult decade for mining trade unionism in the Black Country, but the growing influence of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain progressively undermined the authority of the wages board until in 1899 the miners of the central districts affiliated and the wages board was reconstituted as a board of conciliation. Resolution of the local position in relation to the Miners' Federation of Great Britain did not, however, eradicate the long standing difference of temper between rival local associations. These persisted to 1914 and beyond and were clearly revealed in differing densities ofiunion membership, differing attitudes to the question of employers' liability and in the different levels at which demands were pitched during the strike for the individual district minimum wage in 1912. The craftsmen of the Black Country were slower to organise than the ironworkers and the miners. The flintglass makers and flint-glass cutters had established strong unions during the 1840s and 1850s, but in the metal using trades no lasting association of workers was formed until 1870 when the nut and bolt workers established a union. This achieved some success during the 1870s, but thereafter its position was progressively undermined as technological change eroded the craft basis of the nut and bolt industry. With other Black Country trades undergoing a similar transformation, in 1886`the Midland Counties Trades Federation was formed to encourage organisation among craft workers, to establish a basis for mutual support and to-press for protective legislation. The Federation had considerable initial success and membership reached 20,000 in 1900, but its conservative leadership never came to terms with a rapidly changing industrial situation and through the first decade of the twentieth century membership and authority steadily declined. The fortunes of particular unions in the main anticipated or reflected those of the Federation, but there were two' notable exceptions. Hollow-ware manufacture and chainmaking remained craft based industries until 1914 and strong unions of craft workers were established in these trades. The process of technological change which brought about the decline of craft unionism was. T. also the main factor in the dramatic "explosion" of the general unions in the Black Country in 1913. Signs of unrest among workers left unprotected against the intensification of work consequent on mechanisation became evident during 1911 and these culminated in a long and profoundly bitter strike in the late spring and summer of 1913. Large sections of industry were virtually paralysed by the dispute, which was only resolved by the direct intervention of the Board of Trade. The central objective of the strike, establishwent of a minimum wage, was achieved and it laid the foundations of effective union organisation in the metal using trades of the Black Country. The late development of a strong basis of trade unionism in the Black Country reflected the vitiation of industrial change in the area, and in turn these were important influences retarding the rise of an independent political labour movement.. In the early 1860s thepolitical affiliation of such "superior" working men as had the vote was strongly Liberals and this was. a main factor in the strength of the Liberal Party in the area. The incomplete nature of the 1867 Reform Act, which in the main enfranchised working men similar in economic status and political attitude to those already having the vote, further strengthened. the position of the Liberal Party, to the point where it was beyond challenge by the Conservatives, and from 1857 to 1880 no Conservative M. P. was returned in any of the Black Country boroughs. This situation was transformed by the far-reaching effects of the. 1884 Franchise Act and-the Liberal Party's adoption of Home Rule for Ireland as official policy. The Franchise Act gave the vote to a type of working man whose status and outlook rendered him more susceptible to the pragmatic appeal of the post-1867 Conservative Party. The, Liberal Party's decision to pursue Home Rule for Ireland alienated many of its traditional supporters among the superior working men, and between these two factors the formerly impregnable position of the Liberal Party was destroyed. 'Following the general election of 1886 only four out of nine Black Country divisions remained in Liberal hands. The social conservatism' of the area and the weakness of commitment to collectivist ideals among its working menmeant that the "socialist boom" which followed the foundation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893 left the Black Country largely untouched. Similarly, the formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 evoked little initial response, but during 1902 and 1903 attempts were made to promote independent labour candidacies in three constituencies. In Wednesbury and Worcestershire North these foundered on the reluctance of working class leaders to abandon their established allegiance to Liberalism, but in Wolverhampton West a Labour Representation Committee candidate was adopted and following the conclusion of a controversial electoral alliance with the local Liberals he was narrowly elected in 1906. Liberal candidates were elected in seven of the remaining eight Black Country divisions, but the revival of Liberalism proved short lived. A strong Conservative counter attack based on the cry of tariff reform was pressed home vigorously and at the general elections of 1910 seven constituencies, Wolverhampton West among them, reverted to Conservative hands. In 1914, despite some important gains in the half century since 1863, the working class movement in the Black Country remained weak. Despite the dramatic events of the previous year there was still little basis of effective trade union organisation in many sectors of industry, and all the parliamentary seats in the area were held by one or other of the two great parties. One incidental result of this weakness is that the historiography of the working class movement in the Black Country is incomplete and unsatisfactory.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain > England—Local history and description—Counties, regions, etc., A-Z—Staffordshire
Divisions: Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences > School of Humanities
Depositing User: Lisa Bailey
Date Deposited: 30 May 2018 09:07
Last Modified: 30 May 2018 09:07
URI: https://eprints.keele.ac.uk/id/eprint/4959

Actions (login required)

View Item
View Item