On December 11th 1810 nineteen journeymen compositors (typesetters) who worked on the Times newspaper were sentenced to imprisonment for conspiracy, in fact organizing themselves to stick together in their own interests – asking for a rise in wages. The 1799 and 1800 Combination Acts made all trade unions illegal, but in fact prosecution of workers for getting together to campaign for higher wages, better conditions was a long tradition, going back as far as the medieval guilds.
The prosecuting counsel said of the organisation involved:
“It was called a friendly society, but by means of some wicked men among them this society degenerated into a most abominable meeting for the purpose of a conspiracy; those of the trade who did not join their society were summoned, and even the apprentices, and were told, unless they conformed to the practices of these journeymen, when they came out of their times [finished their apprenticeships] they should not be employed.”
The judge who tried and sentenced some of them was the Common Sergeant of London, Sir John Sylvester, commonly known as ‘ Bloody Black Jack.’ … “No judge took more pains than did this judge on the unfortunate printers, to make it appear that their offence was one of great enormity, to beat down and alarm the really respectable men who had fallen into his clutches, and on whom he inflicted scandalously severe sentences.”
Sentences for the men were heavy: Robert Howlett and John Gee were imprisoned in Newgate for two years (and fined one shilling), William Clifton, Stephen Beckett, George Westray were jailed for 18 months (also fined one shilling), Stephen Burley, Henry Byrne, Thomas Wooley jailed for a year; Roderic Paskin, Edward Kidd, William Williams, Corbet Latham, William Coy, James McCartney, John McIntosh, Nathaniel Collins, Malcolm Craig, John Chapman and John Simpson all got 9 months. Malcolm Craig died in prison.
The prosecution of the compositors impressed Francis Place with the necessity of an alteration in the laws on combination, which 15 years later, he was to manage to push through Parliament.
Combinations like the Times compositors’ friendly society were designed to maintain wages and conditions at a rate agreed by the workers; forced underground by acts of parliament, they resorted to persuasion of other workers and apprentices to stick by what was agreed and not work for less or under worse terms, which would undermine the general rate for all. Employers and the courts, parliament, press and church who supported them, all denounced attempts to make agreements among themselves as coercion, both of the bosses by the workers, and of some workers by others, portrayed as agitators. This depiction of how workers attempt to achieve and maintain reasonable conditions and prevent wage reductions is still very much alive in the 21st century, as anti-union laws continue to divide and obstruct us.
In reality there is nothing wrong at all with uniting to coerce the bosses – they coerce us every day into working for them, use force and threat of starvation against us when we object or try to better our lot. To a certain extent also a kind of coercion of opinion against fellow workers who scab, side with the boss against us, is understandable, especially when up against it. When the laws are against you anyway you need to think about how much of the law you obey.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online