Working-class organisation in mid-Victorian Britain
By the 1870s most of the characteristic institutions of the modern British labour movement were already in existence. The granting of the vote to a section of the urban working class in the Reform Act of 1867 symbolised the emergence of an arena of political and social freedom within which a small elite of working men could claim citizenship and corporate status. The claim was staked out partly in the language and politics of popular Liberalism, partly in the intricate expanding network of working-class organisation - co- operatives, friendly societies, clubs and, above all, trade unions. The previous quarter century had seen the widespread establishment of local Trades Councils and, in 1868, the TUC. Modern unions in the engineering, building and other craft industries are the direct ancestors of national organisations first established between 1850 and the 1870s. In cotton, coal and iron stable trade unionism and collective bargaining first developed in these years. And it was in the early 1870s that the unions, for the first time, secured a satisfactory legal status. What sort of people inhabited this emergent 'world of labour'? What were their beliefs and aspirations? And how did they negotiate a place for themselves and their institutions within the larger structures of inequality, exploitation, poverty and oppression which characterised the social order of mid-Victorian Britain?
The mid-Victorian economy presented an anarchic mixture of the old and the new. Steam power and the factory had revolutionised the division of labour in the textile industry. But the dream of the 1840s, of the self-acting machine which would finally liberate capital from its dependence on the skills of intractable human beings, proved elusive. Even in the textile factories skilled labour was not eliminated. Often, steam power worked to increase, rather than reduce, the demand for both skilled craft labour and brute muscle power.