The Early English Trade Unions: Documents from the Home Office Papers in the Public Record Office

The Early English Trade Unions: Documents from the Home Office Papers in the Public Record Office

The Early English Trade Unions: Documents from the Home Office Papers in the Public Record Office

The Early English Trade Unions: Documents from the Home Office Papers in the Public Record Office

Excerpt

Comparatively little is known about the history of the English trade unions previously to the repeal of the Combination Laws in 1824. Being illegal, they were necessarily underground organisations. The Home Office papers in the Public Record Office contain extraordinarily few references to them before 1790, but that does not, of course, mean that trade unions were then only just emerging. The fact that, at the end of the eighteenth century there were more than forty Acts of Parliament to prevent workmen from combining, is suggestive both of the widespread existence of trade unions over a long period of years, and of the willingness of the Legislature to support the labour policy of the employers. That policy was, in brief, to suppress combination and to keep down wages — low wages being inevitable because of foreign competition. The workers were quite prepared to accept the regulation of wages by the local Justices of the Peace acting under statutory authorisation, in lieu of the right to raise wages by their own efforts. But laisser faire doctrines were gaining popularity both inside and outside Parliament during the last quarter of the century, and were epitomised in the Report of the House of Commons Committee on the State of the Woollen Manufacture in England (4 July, 1806), which declared that 'the right of every man to employ the capital he inherits or has acquired, according to his own discretion, without molestation or obstruction, so long as he does not infringe on the rights or property of others, is one of those privileges which the free and happy Constitution of this country has long accustomed every Briton to consider as his birthright.' Parliament was less ready to acknowledge the rights of the workers than to safeguard the interests of the employers, and Adam Smith's view that liberty of combination ought to be recognised by law was not the view of the Legislature before 1824. The various Acts which directed the Justices at the Quarter Sessions to fix wages were repealed in 1813. Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, remarked that, until lately, their very . . .

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