Today in London’s radical history: striking tailors riot in the City, 1792.

The journeymen tailors had a history of solidarity dating back at least to the early 15th century.  What nowadays would be called trade unions were then in existence, under the names of ‘clubs’ or ‘combinations’, although they were much more at the local level than trade unions are today.  They met in ‘houses of call’, which were usually public houses. 1721 was a notably militant year: the master tailors of London presented a petition to the House of Commons, complaining that the journeymen in the trade had formed a combination and gone on strike.  The tailors’ combinations seem to have been quietly in existence for some years, perhaps starting as friendly societies, for them to have achieved by this time the power to challenge their employers in this way.  On five occasions between 1702 and 1720 the masters had appealed to Parliament, but the journeymen were never mentioned in these appeals.  In February 1721 the master tailors of London and Westminster complained that the combination of journeymen numbered 15,000, and that they were striking for better pay and shorter hours.  The result was a Bill passed in June, 1721, which supported the masters and made it lawful for journeymen striking or found to be part of a combination to be fined or imprisoned.  The effect of this act was to suppress overt activity in the combinations for twenty years. But the eighteenth century in the London tailoring trade was a tale of journeymen forming intermittent organisations to struggle for shorter hours and higher pay, and the masters enlisting their class allies in Parliament to repress these combinations.

In 1744, the master tailors again petitioned Parliament in a similar vein, that the journeymen had again organised combinations and were refusing to work for the legally enforced wage levels.  The Government response was to target the publicans on whose premises the ‘houses of call’ met, and to prosecute them for harbouring the members of the combinations.  No further action was taken by the Government, but the effect was that much public sympathy was generated for the plight of the journeymen.   Eventually, in July, 1751, the journeymen secured from the Court of Quarter Sessions in the County of Middlesex an order fixing their wages at “2s.6d. per day from Lady Day till Michaelmas and 2s. per day from Michaelmas to Lady Day, in addition to the allowance of three half-pence for breakfast.  The hours of work, however, were not altered and remained at 6 am to 8 pm with an hour off for dinner.”  The journeymen appeared happy with this, but there was soon further agitation, which gained them an hour’s reduction in their working day.  The masters attempted to undo these reforms on several occasions, but without success.  In November, 1763 the journeymen secured a further small daily wage increase, but the combinations continued to fight for better wages, bringing their activities more before the public gaze.

The masters evaded some of the restrictions of the legal rates of pay by moving some manufacturing out of London and Middlesex, and sometimes by secretly paying their best journeymen additional amounts in cash. The London combination again appealed to the Court in 1772 and received a further wage increase of 6d. per day, and 1s. per day during general mourning (see my ‘General Mourning’ blog).

In this context, another combination was formed, and a strike took place in 1792, both in London, and also in some other tailoring areas, such as Oxford. During this dispute, there was some riotous trouble in the City on February 25th.

In 1795, after further appeals, the Government fixed the journeymen’s pay at 27s. per week, with double during general mourning.   Further disputes over wages and hours ensued during the years.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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