This month in London history: London Master builders try to destroy unions, by issuing ‘The Document’, 1859.

In 1859-60, London’s builders fought a prolonged struggle to try and reduce the number of hours they had to work to 9 a day. In response to this campaign, the employers in the building trade attempted to stamp out trade unionism in the industry.

“1860 saw a “rebirth of the trade union movement in the building industry. During that year, or shortly before or shortly after, all the trades which had been without effective organisation – which after all included every building trade except masonry – saw the growth of a fairly effective organisation of one kind or another. Organisations which had for a long time been dead‑alive and feeble, sprang into renewed strength, and in trades where all organisation had disappeared, new unions were formed. A series of fairly prosperous years had prepared the ground, and the success of a union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (formed 1852), upon the new “amalgamated ” principles had set the example of a new form of organisation. The great spread of Unionism in the building trades does not, however, come until the need of unionism had been startlingly and strikingly advertised by the great lock-out of 1859 and 1860, which arose from the ‘nine-hour day’ movement.”

(The Builders History, RW Postgate. most of the following post has been taken from this account of the Lockout)

The ten-hour working day had been secured in London since 1834, but no further advance had been made. From time to time the Stonemasons, the only strong building union, had made attempts to reduce the length of working hours. In 1846 stonemasons unions in Liverpool and Lancashire had been defeated in a campaign on the nine‑hours day issue. In 1847 the London lodges petitioned their masters to shorten their hours to 58½ a week (ie to grant a “short Saturday.”) without result. The next two years witnessed several small strikes by the London masons for the short Saturday. In one case (Grimsdale and Trego’s, September, 1848) the employer prosecuted 21 strikers for conspiracy, but dropped the case. Most of these strikes were successful; and by 1855 masons generally in London knocked of at four o’clock on Saturdays. Other building trades generally did not. The north of England followed at the end off 1856. In October of that year a Committee was formed in Manchester of Masons, Bricklayers, joiners, Plasterers, Painters, Paperhangers, and Masons’ Labourers – thus showing a revival of a sentiment of unity which had been lost for years – to demand the short Saturday, and, after prolonged negotiations, arrangements were made by which they knocked off next summer at one o’clock on Saturdays. This victory stirred the emulation of the London masons. who petitioned for Saturday’s work to end at twelve.

In London, an agitation for “nine hours” arose from the trade clubs of the London carpenters and joiners – described as “feeble and scattered” in the 1850s, but linked together by a shadowy Central Board, which presented in the summer of 1858 a formal demand to the employers for a nine-hours day. This the masters emphatically refused. Faced with this refusal, they turned to the other building trades, and a permanent Conference was called together, consisting at first only of delegates of the various carpenters’ societies, the small London Operative Bricklayers’ Society, and the London lodges of the Masons.

The Conference secretary, and the man most responsible for its creation, was George Potter, a well-known trade unionist of this period. Potter was born in 1832, at Kenilworth. He was the son of a carpenter, and, unlike many trade unionists, had received some elementary education. He was apprenticed regularly to his trade, and worked at it during all this period. Going to London in 1853, he became secretary of a small local carpenters’ club, called the “Progressive Society of Carpenters and Joiners,” and in that capacity took over the leadership of the nine-hours day movement in 1857, and remained in general direction of the London Building Trades until 1862.

The first meeting of the Conference was held in September, 1858. It was intended to exist as a permanent body until the nine-hours had been won. Originally it contained carpenters, masons and bricklayers only; gradually unions representing plasterers’, painters and builders’ labourers` delegates were invited. The masons were more interested in the short Saturday than the nine hours. They withdrew for a while, but soon returned. The main aim of the Conference was to awaken the building workers themselves to their own interests. Tactically, at first, Potter chose to not press for strikes or threats of strikes, but to the presentation of memorials to the employers, hoping by this means to get discussion and the revival of interests. Two or three of these were presented, without, of course, any tangible success. Following on this, regular public meetings were organised over the winter and considerable attention, both within and without the trade, was drawn to the new proposals.

In March 1859, Potter arranged large meetings of building trade workers at all points of London, which were to be held simultaneously, and at each the same resolution would be moved by special delegates.

The results of these meetings, and the general effect of this publicity campaign encouraged Potter to refer the question of further action to the rank and file. The Conference balloted its constituents on the further methods to be pursued: more agitation, arbitration, or a strike. For the first voted 1,395, for the second 1,157, for the third only 772. The process of agitation was resumed over the summer, until in June and July a firmer spirit showed itself, both bricklayers and carpenters voting for a strike. The minor trades, however, were still opposed, and so were the masons, and Potter still played for safety: presenting another petition and prepared to wait developments. However pre-emptive action by the masters would overtake his cautious strategy…

The increasing agitation by the various workers’ organisations had put the master builders of London, “a body of men traditionally tyrannous and autocratic, into a fretful and irritated temper; the propaganda by public meetings had made the employing classes at large alarmed and annoyed.”

“How on earth, asked one of the London journals, can a body of uneducated labourers add to the truth on any subject by gathering together into a mob?” [Illustrated Times, August 6, 1859.]

The employers were, in fact, anxious to provoke a struggle which could act as a pretext for reshaping working conditions in their own interests – mainly to get rid of any unionisation and force out any ‘agitators’. The excuse came in July 1859, when a petition for a nine-hour day was presented to a number of London master builders; one of the largest firms, Trollope in Pimlico, sacked the mason who had headed the deputation presenting it. The masons were the most organised body of unionists in London, and their London lodges acted immediately to withdraw all their members from Trollope’s job in Knightsbridge. The nine-hours Conference endorsed this, and brought out all the rest of Trollope’s employees on strike on July 21. The Conference further decided that the strike would last until Trollope’s had granted the nine hours as well as reinstated the discharged unionist. The masters immediately replied by a general lock-out. Every large builder in London closed his shop within the fortnight, and 24,000 men were put on the streets.

The masters put it abroad that no worker would be re-hired who would not sign the Document, an anti-union pledge. Drafted by the Central Master Builders Association, the new form of the “Document”, had been prepared and printed in the form of a cheque book, with counterfoils which could he filed. It read as follows: “I declare that I AM NOT now, nor will I during the continuance of my engagement with you, become a MEMBER OF OR SUPPORT ANY SOCIETY which directly or indirectly interferes with the arrangements of this or any other Establishment OR the HOURS OR TERMS OF LABOUR, and that I recognize the right of Employers and Employed individually TO MAKE ANY TRADE ENGAGEMENTS ON WHICH THEY MAY CHOOSE TO AGREE.”

The masters were surprised by the reception of this precious piece of paper. They had expected that their yards would be quickly refilled by men who had signed it; instead, they could hardly secure even any general labourers. “Nine-hour missionaries” were sent out by the Conference into the provinces to block the arrival of worked or raw materials for the building trade. The masons were naturally supported steadily and regularly now that they were locked out.

However, press support and public opinion was divided, and the masters found their position under attack from a number of newspapers. Some papers of course wholeheartedly supported the employers, others the workers. On the whole, the master builders found themselves lacking support they had expected for their position.

“They therefore took the step of withdrawing the written Document and substituting a verbal declaration in the same terms. This was a false move. It did them no good, and got them no workers, while it looked like a half-hearted confession of error….”

The workers resolve to continue the dispute wavered as the stalemate dragged. “It was doubtful whether a third of the strikers, even including the masons, were in unions of any kind, and finances were most insecure.”

But divisions among the workers’ leaders threatened to derail the struggle…

The Stonemasons society judged the strain on their finances of strike pay sufficiently serious that they attempted to abandon the nine-hours claim and make a separate deal with the masters. Masons leader Richard Harnott spent the last half of September trying to persuade the master-builders to withdraw the “declaration” in return for the abandonment of the nine-hours claim. The obdurate masters, however, considered and mostly rejected his attempts to make a separate peace. One firm alone agreed to them, and there the masons went back to work.

Harnott had attempted to sell the other trades out for a deal for his own workers; George Potter, while holding to a united line, agreed that Harnott was to some extent right, in that the best thing was to drop the “nine-hours” and concentrate on fighting the document. The Conference, therefore, on November 9, formally called off the strike at Trollope’s, and abandoned the nine-hours. The employers, however, remained obstinate and held to the document, and the struggle was prolonged over the winter and into the new year.

“The Conference was in a grave financial situation. The masons alone punctually supported their members. The other trades were in a very bad position. Most of the locked-out men were not in a union at all, and had to be supported somehow. The painters and carpenters had no national unions at all ‑ the General Union did not touch London – and their funds disappeared almost at once. The Operative Bricklayers’ Society (London Order) was small and poor: it had to pay over £3,000 in all to its own members, and could only raise £580 for non-union men. Plumbers’ organisations hardly existed, and though a Builders’ Labourers’ Union was formed, with thirteen London Lodges and nearly 4,000 members, its funds were negligible. All told, one week’s payment of the 24,000 on the pay-roll would have eaten up most of the funds of all the unions.”

But solidarity from other unions and workers’ societies, beginning to organise as proto-Trades Councils, raised hundreds of pounds in collections and sent it to the London strike funds. A Glasgow Committee raised £257, Blackburn £271, and Manchester as much as £545. (Remembering that this money was worth much more at the time, and also that workers were relatively poorer). Numbers of London Societies sent in very heavy sums. The London Society of Compositors put up £620 by itself, and the Pianoforte Makers and Shipwrights sent £300 each. “The greatest sensation, however, was caused by the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, which astounded the Conference and the employers by presenting the lock-out funds with a thousand pounds every week for three weeks. Such a subscription had never been heard of before, and its moral effect in encouraging the men and flabbergasting the employers helped very greatly in defeating the attack.”

“The result was that only one section of the strikers gave way. The labourers, for reasons that are unrecorded, broke away in the beginning of December, and Potter struck them off the pay roll on December 3. Their union was already falling to pieces. Funds were just at that time fairly low, and, as they heralded their breakaway by beating the delegates sent to pay them, it is probable that some question of money was behind it…

It was generally now recognised that the struggle would not end soon, unless the masters gave way. Lord St. Leonards, therefore intervened with a proposal that the master‑builders should substitute for the document a long summary of the law on combinations, to be hung in all workshops – that is to say, that they should admit defeat. Harnott immediately instructed the masons that they were to agree to this, and the Conference did so also. The master-builders, however, living up to their general reputation for unusual obstinacy and autocracy, refused it, and held out for two months more, until on February 7 they unconditionally withdrew the document. On February 27 Potter paid the 27th and last instalment of lock-out pay.”

“The impression which the struggle had made on the mind of every worker was deep. It was only a half-victory, but it had shown to the non-unionists how a very powerful, wealthy and obstinate association of employers could be defied. It had also shown to the unionists how ineffective their own organisations were. They had, in fact, been nearly helpless in the earlier stages of the movement. The direction of the movement fell into the hands of the delegates of mass meetings, and the majority of those attending were non-unionists. Their own resources (and their votes showed they knew it) were not sufficient to support a strike for the nine-hours. When they were finally locked-out they were only saved from disaster because they were able to bring into the fight the whole trade union resources of England and Scotland. Thus we find, as a result of the lock-out, both a great influx of members into existing unions, and a movement towards the reconstruction of existing societies upon a new basis.”


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


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