Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Some Habits and Customs of the Working Classes, by Thomas Wright, 1867 - Part 1 - Working Men in their Public Relations - A Prosperous Trade Union

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(* The substance of this paper originally appeared in Chambers's Journal.)

Much has been done of late years to improve the condition of the working classes, and the working man of the present generation enjoys many advantages that were beyond the reach of his less fortunate brethren of former times. The tommy-shop system of robbery has been abolished, and the payment of workmen's wages in public-houses made illegal. Government enactments and inspections have compelled those who employ men in dangerous occupations to take proper precautions for insuring the safety of those employed; and the law now provides against the overworking of children of tender years. Mechanics' and other institutions of a similar character have been established; beautiful parks have been thrown open to city-pent communities, and a variety of other means taken with a view of elevating the intellectual faculties and social position of the working man.
    But though a wise legislature has suppressed many of the abuses to which the working classes were formerly subjected, and though private philanthropy and public benevolence have striven, and with a considerable amount of success, to improve both their mental and physical condition, yet they (the working classes) are fully and wisely convinced that it is principally to themselves they must trust if they wish to permanently rise in the social scale, or to be prepared, as far as their circumstances make it possible, to meet those [-46-] fluctuations in trade by which they are so often severe sufferers. This feeling led many thoughtful working men to consider how they might best help themselves and the class to which they belonged, and gave rise to the movement which has culminated in the present gigantic system of trade-unions.
    Trade-unions, like other institutions, have their opponents, and some of these assert that "trade societies" are unjust monopolies; that they encourage strikes, and foster a spirit of insubordination among workmen. But such assertions as these are extreme, and are generally made by interested parties, or those who know very little about the subject. Cases can, of course, be brought forward in which men who belonged to trade-unions have attempted to destroy establishments into which some "new-fangled" machinery, which for a time had thrown some of them out of work, had been introduced, and others in which they have ill-treated persons who were obnoxious to "the trade;" and no doubt instances could be pointed out in which a few lazy, brawling pot-house orators have induced the members of a trade-union to strike for some very slight, if not altogether imaginary cause, and to hold out, despite the remonstrances of their real friends, after they have struck. Such cases as these always occur among men with whom the true principle of trade-union has been but very imperfectly developed; and no one deplores and condemns them more sincerely than do the thinking and educated members of the trade-unions. That trade-unions, if upon a comprehensive scale, and conducted in a business-like manner, are extremely beneficial to their members, and favourable to the interests of the employers of those members, will be amply demonstrated by an account of the formation, objects, progress, and [-47-] present condition of one of the strongest, best conducted, and most successful of these unions - The Amalgamated Society of Engineers, Machinists, Millwrights, Smiths, and Pattern-makers. The trades incorporated in this society bear about the same relation to each other as do those of the bricklayer, carpenter, and stone-mason in the building-trade; and members of each branch are generally employed in every workshop, where locomotive, marine, or stationary engines, or any of the numerous machines at present in use, are manufactured or repaired.
    Previous to the year 1851, each of these trades had a society of its own, into which only members of that particular trade were admitted; but as the advantages of the union principle became more fully apparent, the members of these societies, finding that their interests were substantially identical, resolved to further develop the system of trade-unions by uniting their respective bodies, and forming one large one. On January 1, 1851, this union accordingly took place, and they then assumed their present title of the "Amalgamated Society." Their objects are thus set forth in the preamble which precedes their rules. "The object of this society is to raise from time to time, by contributions among the members thereof, funds for the purpose of mutual support in case of sickness, accident, superannuation, emigration, for the burial of members and their wives, and also for assistance to members out of work." Concerning the management of the society, the preamble says: " For the benefit of its members, it shall be divided into branches, which shall be appointed in such numbers and districts as may be deemed necessary, in conformity with the rules provided for that purpose. Every branch of this society shall appoint its own officers, and conduct its [-48-] own business in the manner set forth in the following rules." The rules are thirty-five in number, are all drawn up in plain language, and provide for every conceivable contingency. From these rules we learn the system by which the society is managed, the qualifications necessary for membership, the benefits to be derived from it, and the sum each member has to pay to participate in those benefits. The branches of the society are conducted by presidents, secretaries, stewards, and treasurers; and in branches where the number of members make it necessary, vice-presidents and assistant-secretaries are added. The presidents, vice-presidents, and treasurers fulfil the usual duties of such officers; and the steward takes charge of the book which is usedasachecli uponthe secretary. The principal duties of the secretary are to receive, enter, and sign for the contributions of the members; to see to the payment of members who are entitled to any of the benefits of the society; and to conduct the correspondence incidental to his office. He must write to the general secretary of the society at least once a month, and within the first six days of each month, "reporting the state of trade in his district, the number and profession of the members out of employment, and the probability of men being wanted."
    From these reports, the general secretary compiles a monthly report of the state of trade throughout the country, and a copy of this report is furnished to the secretary of each branch. Secretaries are thus often in a position to materially assist members who may be out of employment, as from the monthly report they can at once inform them where trade is good or bad, and where men of any particular trade are wanted. The books of each branch are audited every quarter by members who are elected (as are all the officers of [-49-] the society) by the remaining members of the branch; and each secretary has to forward the quarterly accounts of his branch, duly signed by the auditors, to the office of the general secretary. There is an executive council, consisting of twenty-five members, who are appointed from as many different branches, and are elected by the members of those branches. This council acts for the society in cases of emergency, fulfils the functions of a court of appeal, and appoints auditors to examine the books, receipts, &c., of the general secretary, and report upon the state of the same to the council. The central office of the society is in London, and its business is conducted by the general secretary, whose time is exclusively devoted to the affairs of the society. Such is an outline of the general system upon which this society is conducted- a system that, after fifteen years' experience, has been found eminently satisfactory and successful, and which has been productive of the most beneficial results. In a society like this, "union is strength," the greater the number of members, the greater will be its stability and importance, and it is to the interest of all members to enrol as many as possible in their society. But still it is necessary to the continuance and well-being of the union that each person admitted should be a "fit and proper" one; and to insure this, each candidate for admission must be possessed of certain qualifications, which are set forth in the rules of the society.
    No person is admitted who is under twenty, or above forty years of age, except in the case of candidates who have formerly been members of the society, and who wish to rejoin it, in which case they are admitted up to the age of forty-five years. No person is eligible for admission unless he has worked five [-50-] years successively at the trade which he professes, or has served five years to it before the age of twenty- one. Each candidate for admission must be proposed, seconded, and recommended by two members of the branch which he wishes to join; the proposer and seconder must be prepared to state (and if necessary, prove by evidence) that the party whose election they are proposing is possessed of good abilities as a workman, is of steady habits, and good moral character; and every one who is elected must be a member twelve months before he is entitled to the benefits of the society. The avowed objects of this society are to render support to its members in cases of sickness, accident, &c., and likewise to give them assistance when out of work; and I will now proceed to show how these objects are carried out.
    First, with regard to members who are out of work, the rules of the society provide that, "should any free member be thrown out of employment under circumstances satisfactory to the branch to which he belongs .... ;  he shall be entitled to the sum of l0s. per week for fourteen weeks, 7s. per week for thirty, and 6s. per week so long as he remains out of employment - making a total of  191. 18s. in one year." And these donations are so calculated that no member can receive more than that sum in any one year; though it seldom occurs that members are out of employment for so great a length of time as a year, when trade is in anything like an average state of briskness. If a member who is out of work wishes to travel in search of employment, he receives from the secretary of the branch to which he belongs a travelling card, which is filled up in accordance with rules existing for that purpose. This card establishes the identity of the travelling member, and enables him to draw the dona-[-51-]tion which is due to him in any town in which there is a branch of the society; and the secretary of each branch which he may visit directs him to where he (the secretary) thinks he is most likely to find employment. The rules of the society provide for the distribution of its other benefits in an equally just and comprehensive manner. Any member who, in consequence of sickness or lameness, is unable to follow his ordinary employment, must send a written notice to that effect to the secretary of his branch within three days of his indisposition; and he is then entitled to a sum of l0s. per week for twenty-six weeks, and 5s. per week for as much longer as he may continue ill. Provision is likewise made for members who may fall sick while travelling in search of employment; and should the exigencies of the case require it, the officers of the branch in which any travelling member falls sick, apprise the friends of the sick member of his condition, and send the member to those friends at the expense of the society. Any member who, through accident, blindness, imperfect vision, apoplexy, epilepsy, or paralysis, is rendered incapable of following any of the branches of trade connected with the society, receives the sum of 100l.* (* It is, of course, provided that no member shall receive this or the sick benefit if the. accident has been caused through, or the disease brought on by, intemperance, or other improper conduct of the member.)  Members who are fifty years of age or upwards, and who have been eighteen successive years in the society (the time to count from the date of their entrance into the society of which they were members previous to the amalgamation), and who are not in regular employment, can, if they choose to apply for it, have a retiring allowance of 7s. per week for life. At the death of a [-52-] member, his widow or next of kin receives the sum of 12l. to defray his funeral expenses; or, at the death of his wife, any member, by applying for it, may receive the sum of 5l., leaving 7l. to be paid to his representatives at his own decease. In addition to these specified benefits, there is a benevolent fund (taken out of the general funds of the society), and from this fund any particular or unusual case of distress is relieved, upon the recommendation of the branch to which the distressed member belongs.
    The revenue of the society is derived from the entrance-fees and contributions of its members, each member upon his admission into the society having to pay an entrance-fee varying from l5s. to 3l. 10s., according to his age at the time of entrance; and all members, when in employment, pay a fixed contribution of one shilling per week. Thus, for a weekly payment of one shilling, the working mechanic can assure himself of assistance when out of employment, or in case of sickness or accident; he entitles himself to a pension, should he be unable to work in his old age; and he has the pleasing assurance that at his death the last rites of humanity will be decently carried out. Small as this contribution of one shilling per week may appear for carrying out so many benevolent purposes, it is, nevertheless, amply sufficient when a feeling of co-operation animates the directors and members of such institutions. The society of which I have been speaking annually issues a blue-book, which, for accuracy and completeness, is equal to anything of the kind that leaves the press. The one for 1866 (the latest issued at the time of writing) is now before me, and from this may be gathered some interesting facts concerning the operations and extent of the society which have an interest for all classes, as they serve to [-53-] show what may be effected by association. At the close of the first year of the amalgamation of the several societies which now form the present one, the total number of members was 11,829, and in December, 1865, they had increased to 30,978. The society, at the date of the report from which I am quoting (which gives the transactions of the society from December, 1864, to December, 1865), consisted of 295 branches, 230 of which were in England and Wales, 31 in Scotland, 11 in Ireland, 8 in the United States of America, 6 in Australia, 5 in Canada, 2 in New Zealand, 1 in France, and 1 in Malta. The income of the society for the year was 77,3731. 5s. 6?d., the expenditure, 49,1721. 6s. 2d., and the total balance in hand at the end of December, 1865, was 115,357l. 13s. 10?d., exclusive of arrears. In years of anything like an average state of good trade the society, after paying all claims upon it, is enabled to add in a greater or lesser degree to its reserve fund; but its stability and beneficial character will perhaps he more satisfactorily demonstrated by showing its working under extraordinary pressure.
    Owing to the "cotton famine" and other causes, the year 1862 was one of the most disastrous in the annals of trade, and the calls upon the funds of the society (which then numbered 24,234 members) were consequently much larger than the average of former years, the total expenditure of the society for that year amounting to 63,565l. 18s. 5?d., being 21. 12s. 5?d. per member; since 1853, the greatest expenditure ever reached in one year previous to 1862, only came to 1l. 13s. 10?d. per member; while some years it did not amount to even half of that sum per member. But, notwithstanding the great demand upon the resources of the society in 1862, they had at the end [-54-] of that year a fund of 67,615l. 16s. 6d. in hand. The principal items of expenditure for the year were Donations to members out of work, 38,881l. 16s. 4?d. Sick benefit, 10,430l. 2s. 7d. Funeral benefit, 3,031l. Superannuation benefit, 2,654l. 5s. Grants to members who, through accident, blindness, or any of the diseases previously mentioned, had been rendered incapable of following their employment, 1,200l., being twelve grants of 100l. each. Grants from the benevolent fund, 1,086l., being 241 grants, varying in amount from 8l. to 2l. Working expenses, 3,219l. l0s. 3?d. This item includes the salaries of all branch officers, secretaries, auditors, trustees, and the members of the executive council, besides the expenses of all committees and delegations; and when we consider the magnitude and extent of the society, and the variety of purposes which it fulfils, it is a surprisingly small one. Printing, stationery, postage, and parcels, 1,149l. 12s. 4?d. Rents, rates, gas, and coal, 700l. 2s. 2d. In looking at this item it must be borne in mind that, in addition to central offices in London and Manchester, each branch of the society has to rent a room in which to transact its business, and as many of the branches number upwards of 300 members, some of these rooms have to be of tolerably large dimensions. Loans to other trades, 2401.; and gifts to other trades, 154l. 11s.
    The income of the society in 1862 was 57,783l. 13s. 11d.; their balance in hand, in December 1861, was 73,398l. 1s. 0?d.-making a total of 131,181l. 14s. 11?d.-which the society had in hand to meet the demands upon them in 1862; so that, after paying away in that year the sum of 63,565l. 18s. 5?d. - and by far the largest sum ever paid by this or any similar society in one year - they had a balance in [-55-] hand of 67,615l. 16s. 6d. The rapid growth and success of this society, and the important position to which it has attained, are sufficient proofs, if proofs were required, that trade-societies, if conceived in a just and liberal spirit, and carried out with no other object than the protection of the lawful interests, and alleviation of the unavoidable distresses of their members, are the most beneficial to which a working mechanic can belong.

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