The Oxford Companion to British History

By John Cannon | Go to book overview


labour aristocracy. Top 10-15 per cent of manual wage earners in the 19th cent., characterized by relatively high and regular earnings, membership of a trade union, and respectable life-style. This élite of skilled artisans -- engineers, cabinet-makers, printers, cotton-spinners, and the like -- set the tone of working-class leadership between the 1840s and the 1890s. The gulf between the labour aristocracy and the mass of unskilled or semi-skilled workers was precise and virtually unbridgeable; but at the upper end of the social stratum the labour aristocracy merged with the lower middle class. The strength of the labour aristocracy rested partly on its control of entry to a trade (usually through apprenticeship) and the custom of subcontracting. Some historians have suggested that a labour aristocracy with a conservative ideology and a stake in the status quo may help to account for the social stability of mid-Victorian Britain; and Marxists have used the concept of a labour aristocracy as a partial explanation of the non-revolutionary character of the British working class. However, the labour aristocracy maintained a distinctive working-class ideology through its unions, and also provided the leadership in some radical reform movements.


Labourers, statute of, 1351. The statute was an early attempt at a wage freeze, rarely a popular policy. The scourge of the *Black Death led to an acute shortage of labour and in June 1349 the council issued an emergency ordinance (23 Edw. III s. 1) imposing restraint. When Parliament met in 1351 there were complaints that 'out of singular covetise' the ordinance had been disregarded, and the statute (25 Edw. III s. 1) was passed. Men were to work at pre-1349 wage levels, which were laid down, and masters were forbidden to offer more. Persons below the age of 60 not in employment were not to refuse offers of work. Prices were merely to be 'reasonable'. Despite determined efforts to impose the policy and the appointment of special justices of labourers, it proved difficult to enforce. Even the carpenter at Knightsbridge who made the stocks to hold offenders had to be paid over the odds. But resentment played a part in the grievances leading to the *Peasants' Revolt in 1381.


labour history is an important specialism which has greatly extended its scope in the last fifty years. Scholars' perspectives, apart from exceptions such as J. L. and B. Hammond, concentrated on institutions and activists within them or the very poor. Moreover, it was widely believed that sentiment clouded scholarly judgement when in other branches of history researchers were attempting to adopt and adapt techniques pioneered in the social sciences. Labour history has come to terms with these techniques and recognized the importance of work undertaken by social anthropologists, labour economists, historical demographers, and business historians. Consequently, subjects for investigation have changed, and methods of analysis have become more rigorous and less open to the charge of subjectivity and political bias.

There has also been a marriage between the 'old' labour history and the 'new'. Union histories often tend to follow the narrative style set by the *Webbs in their History of Trade Unionism ( 1894) but are more analytical in their treatment of issues such as wage movements, labour productivity, and labour markets (which were either ignored in earlier work or passed over quickly). The past is not interpreted by sole reference to the trade union officials or activists at local level as it would have been earlier; rather, labour history has become concerned with the whole experience of workers.

Treatment is uneven and patchy; urban workers and their experience have received more attention than workers in factory villages and small towns. However, it might be reasonably argued that the big battalions are more representative and more important. Some subjects have prompted massive debate and swamped the periodical literature, notably the standard of living between 1790 and 1850; more work needs to be done on other periods. In most periods the majority of the labour force has not been unionized; good work has been done on female, seasonal, and casual labour for some areas of Britain, but geographical and occupational unevenness is a problem. For instance, the very important category (up to 1914) of domestic servants has increasingly attracted scholarly attention, but female clerical workers in the 20th cent. have been neglected.

On the positive side, excellent new work has been done on working-class agitations and movements. *Chartism, for example, which in the 1950s seemed to demonstrate only two characteristics -- moral and physical force and a national homogeneity -- has been exposed as essentially a diverse local and regional movement. Structural changes in the demand for labour have been clearly analysed, taking account of labour productivity, and the history of groups such as hand-loom weavers has been much improved. Machinebreaking was simply seen as a blind reaction to industrial


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The Oxford Companion to British History
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Ppreace vii
  • Contributors ix
  • Acknowledgements xi
  • Note to the Reader xii
  • A 1
  • B 71
  • C 149
  • D 273
  • E 318
  • F 363
  • G 399
  • H 445
  • I 503
  • J 523
  • K 541
  • L 553
  • M 602
  • N 666
  • O 701
  • P 717
  • Q 782
  • R 785
  • S 831
  • T 907
  • U 941
  • V 951
  • W 960
  • Y 1008
  • Z 1015
  • Subject Index 1034


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