History of Sheffield TUC
This history of Sheffield Trade Union Council is very much a work in-progress. Indeed much of the content has been taken verbatim from a single source, a centenary history published by Sheffield TUC (Sheffield Trades and Labour Council, as was) in 1958: Mendelson, J. Owen, W. Pollard, S. and Thomas V. M. (1958) The Sheffield Trades and Labour Council 1858-1958, Sheffield: Sheffield Trades and Labour Council.
This has been supplemented by documents (such as yearbooks and commissioned reports) issued by the TUC in the years following the centenary, as well as the present authors own historical knowledge. It is the sincere hope of both the author in a personal capacity, and Sheffield TUC as a whole, that readers who have knowledge of these subjects will contact us via our website, to suggest significant omissions or amendments to this history, so that as time goes on we will achieve a more substantial and accurate history of this important institution.
Labour movement organisation in Sheffield emerged with the development of the cutlery trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, banding together in clubs and friendly benefits societies, to defend their interests. Although record exists of journeymen trade societies in tailoring and building, Sheffield’s working class history has been dominated by specifically local trades, the production of cutlery and tools, saws and files, and, following the inventions of Benjamin Huntsman and Thomas Boulsover, of steel and silver-plated ware. In the absence of local government and the in the wake of the French Revolution, workers found a Society for Constitutional Information in 1791 to push for democratic reform, which attracted several thousand local artisans into its ranks before falling victim to government suppression in 1795.
In 1817 the drive for democracy by Sheffield workers was re-awakened when a petition for calling for universal suffrage and the redress of political grievances was launched in Paradise Square and ultimately went on to gain 21,500 Sheffield signatures. What was interesting about this episode was the alliance between working and middle class organisations (though at this time, virtually all of Sheffield’s middle class were also without the vote). These efforts continued through local struggles for the Reform Act in 1830-32. While the Reform Act of 1832 and the extension of the vote to the middle classes, led to the turning of these groups against their erstwhile working class comrades, in Sheffield the campaign to extend the vote downwards continued without interruption. When the Sheffield Workingmen’s Association made its first public appearance in 1837, it was at a meeting of the Master Cutler, then the highest public dignitary in the town. Future Chartist leaders of the town, including Michael Beal, a watch-maker, and William Gill, a scale-cutter, were present at the meeting.
The national Chartist movement emerged around the same time, largely based around the new factory proletariat, handicraftsmen displaced by machinery, miners and the London poor. They advocated six constitutional changes that were designed to make possible the election of a working class man to Parliament in an attempt to settle their immediate political grievances (such as the long hours of factory work and widespread unemployment). From May 1839 support for Chartism grew rapidly in town and by July meetings addressed by James Wolstenholme, the Sheffield delegate to the Chartists Convention, were held almost daily. Nonetheless, by late July magistrates had succumbed to pressure from the national government and declared all future Chartist meetings in the town illegal. This warning was ignored and a riot ensued on the 12th August after police arrested two speakers, Peter Foden and Charles Fox, for addressing a Chartist meeting. This culminated in a total of 80 arrests and for the 67 for which we have details, 42 were listed as being workers in the cutlery trades.
Further repression served to weaken the Sheffield Chartists. Local leaders temporarily fled to America and a meeting of the loosely organised Trade Union Council (TUC) of the day (the ‘Sheffield Organised Trades’) voted by 20-12 to turn down a request that they form a joint organisation with the Chartists. Many of the unions involved were afraid of jeopardising their funds. Despite these setbacks, Chartist activities continued, the ban on public assembly being successfully overturned by the staging of ‘silent meetings’, which reputedly drew numbers of up to 10,000. It was in that winter of 1839 that the Chartist movement seemed to lose momentum, but which also saw the single local attempt at organised violent insurrection.
The engineers Samuel Thompson and Thomas and William Booker, along with Samuel Holberry of Retford, and with support from outlying mining areas, planned on the night of the 11th January 1840 to occupy the Town Hall, the Tontine Inn and the Barracks. Their plan was to seize arms from the Barracks and then occupy the rest of the town. The plan was betrayed to the police by James Allen, a Rotherham innkeeper. The trial revealed poor planning in relation to the execution of the conspiracy and those involved received relatively lenient sentences of between one and four years. Nonetheless, when Holberry died in prison in June 1842 his funeral attracted a crowd estimated at between 15-20,000, at that point the largest procession in Sheffield’s history.
The outbreak of the Paris Revolution of 1848, followed by a succession of revolutions around Europe gave a new lease of life to Sheffield Chartism, which had already witnessed the election of the first two Chartists to the Town Council in November 1846, and a further six in 1847). From March onwards meetings of up to 12,000 people gathered to welcome the Revolutions, to call on the Government to resign, and petitioned for the Charter. Neither did the Chartist reversal at Kennington Common in 1848, which led to the eventual decline of the national movement, have an immediate impact upon the Sheffield organisation. However, in 1849 and bereft of the leadership of a national movement, the local Chartists increasingly cam to find their place on the left-wing of a Radical alliance in the city, with whom they would dominate political life in the town for many years to come. While the term Chartist continued to be applied to several town councillors into the 1850s, by 1852 the struggle for an independent working class political party in Sheffield had effectively come to an end.
Organised labour movements in Sheffield during this period were able to exercise relative influence because it was the specialised skills of the workers that were the main factor in local production processes. This was before the arrival of capital intensive industry and coupled with little in the way of competition from outside Sheffield and Hallamshire, it meant that well disciplined unions could exercise considerable influence. Thus they were little affected by the more than forty statutes passed in the 18th century that attempted to make their activities illegal (including the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 attempting to stamp out all trade union organisation). If manufactures prosecuted under the Combination Acts then they might find themselves boycotted by workers, while the sentenced men and their families were supported by their unions. The Acts were not repealed until 1824.
At the same time, given the level of specialisation in the local industries, most unions could only count on few hundred members (at best), their funds were small, they had no full time staff and their organisations frequently collapsed. It was natural then for unions to come together over particular industrial disputes that affected those working in allied trades (for example, the grinders, forgers and hafters of knives). These loose federations and alliances were typically short-lived, but were logical fore-runners of a local Trades Council. Examples of such bodies include the Sheffield Mechanical Trades Association of 1822, the Trades General Union of 1830-31, and from the middle 1830s onwards sporadic meetings of delegates from all branches ‘in Union’ began to be held more frequently. This led to the establishment in 1838 of an Alliance of Organised Trades, which brought together those from the local staple industries with members from general trades. In that year delegates from over 30 unions discussed the attitude of the Alliance towards Chartism and the Anti-Corn Law campaign. Out of this body grew a ‘United Trades Union’, which survived for some years, before collapsing following a loan in 1847 to the table knife hafters society. The table knife hafters society withdrew from the UTU shortly afterwards without paying the loan, and the UTU broke up amidst much mutual recrimination.
Hitherto the various temporary federations of local trade union branches had been dominated by the local staple cutlery and allied trades, but the formation of a permanent Trades Council was the result of a dispute by a branch of national trade union, the printers. The dispute arose on account of the refusal of printers working on the Sheffield Times to accept a reduction from the higher wages payable to the printers of daily papers, to the lower wages payable to the printers of weeklies. In October 1858 the owner of the Times, S. Harrison, was able to recruit non-union labour from London and locked out his local workers, enforcing ‘the document’ (a promise not to join a union) on all of his staff. The local printers staff issued a strongly worded statement entitled ‘The Press Trampling on the Rights of Labour’, leading to Harrison instituting legal proceedings for libel against George Bingham, President, and William Dronfield, secretary of Sheffield Journeymen Printers’ Society. It was this threat of legal action that pushed union leaders to seek wider financial support and to call for a meeting at the Town Hall, leading directly to the establishment of a permanent Trades Council.
The meeting of the 10th November led to the passing of the five resolutions. The first three of these noted that the lock-out was directed against trade union membership as such, and deplored the legal proceedings against the union and the printers of the statement. The fourth resolution, proposed by F. Wood (white metal smiths) and seconded by W. Hydes (sawmakers) read:
“That this meeting cannot separate without the expression of a hope that the working classes will perceive in this case the necessity of banding themselves together, and maintaining a close connexion on some permanent basis, with the view of securing for their labour that protection which will assure it against attacks of a similar character to that now complained of.”
The last resolution appointed a committee to carry out the will of the meeting, and this included many who would go on to play a prominent role in the early years of the Trades Council, including C. Bagshaw and W. Broadhead (saw grinders), H. Ball (Britannia metal smith), W. Hydes, A. Jackson, and R. Marsden (engine fitters), J. Wright, R. Wilde, J. Warren, G. Bingham and W. Dronfield. The Committee went on to enjoy moderate success in mediating in the Times dispute. Harrison was persuaded to withdraw his legal suit against local branch officers, but legal and other costs still totallled some £1,000, a very large sum in relation to the resources of the committee. Most significantly, the fourth resolution was carried out, and at a further meeting on the 7th June 1859, the Rules of the Association of Organised Trades of Sheffield and Neighbourhood were passed. The Rules were confirmed at a special meeting on the 22nd June and the executive of the body was elected at the first quarterly meeting in September.
The officers of the Association, from which the present Sheffield Trade Union Council is directly descended, were Charles Bagshaw, President, William Broadhead, Treasurer, and William Dronfield, Secretary. Dronfield, a printer, was one of the brains behind the organisation, but the membership of the Association was almost entirely made up of craftsmen employed in the Sheffield staple metal trades. There were 17 branches, with 3,100 members, in the Association in September 1858, 22 branches with 3,500 members by February 1860, and in July 160, when the first annual report was issued, there were close to 4,000 in 25 branches. Apart from 11 lithographic printers, 14 cork cutters, 100 stone masons, 129 tailors and 42 carpenters and joiners, all were members of local cutler and related trades, and these men, with their peculiar status often occupying a midway between employer and workmen, their long history of independence and their strong sense of solidarity, were to dominate union affairs until the end of the century.
One early focus for the Association of Organised Trades of Sheffield and Neighbourhood (AOTSN) was discussion of ‘trade outrages’ (industrial sabotage and the intimidation of non-union members), there being an unusually high number of such incidents in the years 1861-62. “Rattening”, the cutting or removal of bellows in forges or driving bands in grinders’ wheels, was a well established practice in the town, designed to maintain the authority of trade societies over recalcitrant craftsmen, but in these years more serious attacks with gunpowder and shotgun had roused public opinion against the local trade unions. While the Association could deny that the outrages were perpetrated in the interests of the unions, it maintained that they were not officially condoned and that elected officers of the unions knew nothing about them. These protests were made less convincing by the fact that the Rev. E. A. Verity, a fire-eating clergyman who appeared to lend moral authority to the outrages in his sermons, received an enthusiastic welcome as guest of honour at the Association’s first annual dinner, and who went on to become a frequent lecturer to trade unionists in the town afterwards.
In the absence of any large manufacturing establishments before 1860, the social structure of Sheffield exhibited certain special features found elsewhere perhaps only in Birmingham. In the local staple trades most men rented their own rooms and power, owned their own tools and set their own hours of work. An exceptionally large proportion of working men were enfranchised, in 1866, of 9,136 parliamentary electors, 2,316, over a quarter, were artisans. In this context, a body such as the AOTSN, was bound to be influential. The local Liberal newspaper, the Sheffield Independent, was favourably inclined towards it and the working class vote helped to transform the town into a Liberal stronghold.
Nonetheless, the list of branches affiliated to the Association had some importnat gaps. Neither the strong new national unions, like the engineers of the ironfounders, nor the largest local society, the filesmiths’, which could spend £11,000 in ten years on unemployment relief for its members, had decided to join, and many of the smaller branches of national and local unions also stayed away, while some of the branches that had joined were lacking in finances and organsiational capacity, and were in constant danger of collapse. As recession hit in 1861, internal squabbling led to the withdrawal of several member branches, and overall membership of the Association dropped.
Growth, Outrage and Crisis
In the 1860s the people of Sheffield retained their independent spirit and interest in progressive politics, most of all in relation to a growing belief in the enfranchisement of the working class, and a growing willingness to confront legal restrictions on the rights of trade unionists to organise in their workplaces. Yet the AOTSN of the 1860s was also typical of its time in its exclusive membership of skilled craftsmen. The technical revolution in steelmaking which went on under their eyes, adding vast new working class quarters to the town and creating such giant works as those of John Brown, Thomas Firth, Vickers, Cammell and Bessemer, each of which employed a working force several times the size of the typical Sheffield trade union, was ignored by the skilled artisans. The steel workers, and the labourers in all other fields of production, were outside the ken of the trade union movement, and remained so until the end of the 1880s.
Trade unionism in the town began to be reinvigorated following a meeting of the Social Science Association in October 1865. The meeting opened with a paper from John Wilson, a local pocket-knife grinder who was became a whole hearted supporter of classical economic doctrine. Though supposedly a paper on conciliation and arbitration, Wilson speech was largely an undisguised attack on trade unions. William Dronfield demanded to be heard in reply, and read a paper in defence of unions, particularly stressing the local experience that unions could raise wages, and that their friendly societies kept their members off the parish poor relief registers. The fact that Wilson’s attack, but not Dronfield’s reply, had been printed in the official record of the SSA meeting made a deep impression locally, and was responsible for the demand that the unions should publish their own papers to be read during national congresses (Dronfield’s reply was later published in the 7th Annual Report of the AOTSN, for 1865-66).
The file dispute of 1866 provided the next significant episode in the history of the Association. The file trades were amongst the best organised in the town, and were led by the respected officials Joseph Kirk and Henry Cutts (full time joint secretaries of the filesmiths) Joseph Rolley (grinders) and Edward Memmott (hardeners). Of these branches, the grinders were by far the best paid, forming a closely knit society of 300 members, while the smiths, with 3,500 members, of whom 3,000 were in Sheffield, formed by far the largest society in the town. Yet the manufacturers also had a strong association. The dispute originated in a wage claim by the grinders, originally made in 1864 and revised a year later in anticipation of a post-(civil)war export boom to the United States. The smiths were in a loose alliance with the grinders and were directly concerned since the employers had threatened a lock-out. They were also none-too-eager to support the claims of the grinders, who already had relatively high wages. Nonetheless, the smiths decided to use the impending dispute to push a wage claim of their own, and the combined strike and lock-out notices took effect on the 24th February 1866.
Altogether nearly 4,000 men, besides 1,500 women and boys and several hundred ancillary workers, such as hardeners and strippers, were affected. A few small firms granted the advance but otherwise the deadlock was complete. The Association attempted to mediate, but during a meeting of masters and men on the 1st of March it became clear that the wage dispute was only the immediate cause of the breakdown in industrial relations, the underlying issue was the question of machinery. In particular, file cutting machines had been sufficiently improved by the early 1860s to become a practicable alternative to hand cutting, and though resisted in Sheffield, had already come into use in the United States, and nearby Manchester, over the border in Lancashire. The AOTSN made one final attempt at conciliation when it organised a public debate on the 22nd March between the leaders of the file unions and three representatives of the File Manufacturers’ Association, held at William Broadhead’s public house, the Royal George, with representatives of nearly 50 other trade unions in the audience. The fact that employers would agree to such a debate speaks volumes as to the high status of trade unionism locally, relative to other parts of the country branches were struggling to gain mere recognition from employers.
At the end of the debate the officers of the AOTSN proposed a compromise: wages were to be settled by arbitration, as proposed by the employers, and the unions were to accept machinery with certain safe-guards, including a guarantee of earnings and preference in manning the machines. Though it is doubtful whether the file unions would have accepted these concessions proposed by the Association, the employers had already sensed that victory was in their grasp, and pushed for unconditional acceptance of new machinery. This the Association would not accept, and the strike went on, with the AOTSN placed under the necessity of finding £1,500 per week in dispute pay for filesmiths and hardeners (the grinders financed themselves). Though frequently parochial in outlook, the Sheffield unions felt that in this dispute they were fighting for common principles of the trade union movement, above all the principle of common defence against lock-outs, arbitration, and a voice in the methods of employment for new machinery. Thus on the 25th of April the Association resolved to put out a call for support to the wider national labour movement.
The response was immediate. Both the London Working Men’s Association and the rival London Trades Council decided to support the file trade, funds also arrived from Manchester, Bristol and other areas, and the Sheffield Association, emboldened by its successes, took up a proposal made by Wolverhampton Trades Council to hold a conference of trades’ delegates from the whole of the United Kingdom in Sheffield. The primary objective of the conference was to devise method of unified action against employer lock-outs. Before the conference could take place in July however, the file strike was ended. Their funds exhausted and the commercial crisis still further weakening their position, the file unions had to entrust their power of negotiation entirely to the Association, and peace was made on the 1st June, almost entirely on the employers’ terms.
Nonetheless, the national delegate conference called for by the Association’s William Dronfield met as planned in Sheffield on the 17th July and sat for five days. There were 138 delegates representing nearly 200,000 members, an impressive assembly of working class leaders. The conference served to strengthen the prestige of the Sheffield Association, which could now claim some 6,000 members. Many of larger national trade unions and county miners’ associations, numerous local unions, the International, and major trades councils sent delegates. Out of this conference came the establishment of a national United Kingdom Alliance of Organised Trades, with its headquarters in Sheffield and its officers the same as the Sheffield AOT (Bagshaw, Broadhead and Dronfield). Its immediate proposals included mutual support in cases of lock-out, support for the International, amendment of the Master and Servant Act, and the spread of the principles of co-operation. The bias of its interests and outlook was clearly that of the Sheffield trade societies, rather than that of the great ‘new model’ amalgamated societies that were unionising vast swathes of semi and unskilled labour.
The national Alliance proved to be short-lived, and petered out after further conference in Preston and Manchester in 1867. In part it was a victim of the struggle played out in London, between the London Working Men’s Association led by George Potter (an enthusiastic supporter of the Alliance), and the rival London Trades Council, dominated by the officials of the new of the amalgamated societies, who inevitably assumed leadership of the movement when the Royal Commission of 1867 appeared to threaten the legal basis of trade unionism. Moreover, the Alliance was also discredited by association with the Sheffield trade ‘outrages’, the basis for which was laid bare in 1867, when it was found that Broadhead, treasurer of the Alliance, had been their chief instigator.
When a can of gunpowder exploded in the house of Thomas Fearnehough, a saw-grinder who had fallen out with his union, on 8th October 1866, the attack, known as the ‘Hereford Street outrage’, though it did relatively little damage, was not permitted to disappear into history as earlier outrages had. By this time, the trade unions, following a period of national prosperity, had suffiecntly grown in strength and political influence so as to be able to inspire fear and hostility amongst wide sections of the middle class, and the outrage was a godsend to leader writers up and down the country, who were able to argue that trade unions are violent and pernicious conspiracies that ought to be prohibited. By the same token, trade union leaders, who believed that the unions had been unjustly accused of complicity in the outrages, were equally eager to prove their innocence. The pressure could not be resisted and a Royal Commission under Sir William Erle was established to enquire into the Sheffield (and some Manchester) outrages.
The picture that emerged was one of systematic terrorism, obtained by members who were paid by union officials according to some recognised rate for their attacks, to uphold the control of the unions. About a dozen unions were implicated, but worst of all was the record of the saw grinders. The saw grinders, a society of 190 members, had kept their wages remarkably high despite the threats in the 1860s represented by the influx of large numbers of non-recognised apprentices, by machinery, and by the formation of the ‘jobbing grinders’ society of dissidents unwilling to pay the unions relatively high subscriptions. Several murders and innumerable minor rattenings were admitted to by them, and the organiser was William Broadhead, treasurer of the AOTSN and United Kingdom Alliance. This led to an outcry by the other officials of the Sheffield Association, and trade unions all over the country, and in the end they were able to convince public opinion that the terroristic methods employed by the old-fashioned trade societies in Sheffield were not representative of the British trade union movement as a whole. In Sheffield, however, opinion was divided, though a majority had condemned the outrages. Broadhead himself was cheered by some, and before long was asked by the saw-makers, whose society had collapsed and who had joined the jobbing grinders en masse, to lead and re-organise their society. Sporadic ‘rattening’ continued for another 25 years.
The depression of the late 1860s had, however, its effects on local trade unions. Many were severely weakened, and others broke up altogether. Financial stringency seems to have prevented the printing of the AOTSN Annual Reports in those years. The Association remained unrepresented at the early meetings of the Trade Union Congress (in 1871 for instance, George Austin, sent by the railway spring makers, was the only delegate from Sheffield), and by 1872 it was felt that new effort would have to be made to represent labour in Sheffield, in place of the now moribund Association of Organised Trades. Nonetheless, by the early 1870s the unions stood to benefit from what was to prove to be the most marked boom in the local heavy and light engineering industries of the 19th century. The good years were to last from 1870 to 1874 and in that time the local unions were not only able to re-establish their own organisation and that of the local council on a stronger footing, but were also able to gain considerable advances in wages and other concessions, many of which proved to permanent gains.
One of the most important of such gains was the establishment of the 9 hour day in the large new steel and engineering works. The engineers of the North-East had been the first to win the 54 hour working week following a protracted struggle, and their demands were quickly taken up by the skilled men in engineering trades in other areas, including Sheffield, where a flourishing industry of machine and waggon making, and the making of mining equipment as well as armaments had been established on the basis of the new large scale steel making capacity of the town. In November 1871, the engineers (members of the ASE, the Steam Engine Makers, Boilermakers and other unions) had won a reduction in working hours after only one or two quick strikes in the major works, and from the 1st January 1872 they joined the ironfounders, who had won this concession some years earlier, in working only 9 1/2 hours per day, and 6 1/2 on Saturdays. Such demands were then taken up by the railway spring makers and fitters, the unorganised yard labourers, metal weighers, iron puddlers and finally the crucible steel melters. Only in steel making, rolling and forging did the 24-hour day continue to be divided into two shifts until well into the twentieth century. And while the Association of Organised Trades had few representatives in the large new works of the East End, and played no major part in these campaigns, the fight for a shorter working week brought into prominent relief the common interests in workers in many and varied trades across the town.
The Liberal Period and the Birth of the Federated Trades Council
During the 1870s most members of the AOTSN were Liberal in politics, but at the same time they nonetheless considered that the task of defeating anti-trade union legislation in Parliament was one that went beyond party politics. When the Commons, with a Liberal majority, repeatedly thwarted the efforts of the labour movement in the early part of this decade, and the trade unions could not get any commitments on the repeal of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, the Master and Servant Act, workplace compensation or the 9-hour bill, the Sheffield unions joined the appeal of the Trade Union Congress (who met in Sheffield in 1874) to make the attitude to labour legislation a test question to candidates of both parties at the next General Election. While it is unclear the extent to which the Conservative victory of the same year was due the greater readiness of Tory candidates to promise to meet the demands of their artisan voters, the incoming government felt itself bound by these promises and the legislation of 1875 finally put trade unions and employees on a legal footing with which they were satisfied for a time.
The campaigns of the early 1870s had re-awakened the concern of the Sheffield unions for a strong local association. At a preliminary delegate meeting on the 31st July 1872, held at a clubhouse of the railway spring makers, it was decided to reorganise the AOTSN and to re-name it, in line with the usage of other towns, the Sheffield Federated Trades Council. The SFTC was formally established at a general meeting held on the 4th October 1872, with William Rolley (steel smelters) as Chairman, James Pryor (scissor grinders) as Secretary and Edward Memmott (file hardeners) as Treasurer.
Close collaboration between the local labour movement and the middle-class Liberals continued into the 1880s. Thus in 1885 the Sheffield Labour Association was formed, with its base at 92 Arundel Street and the role of Secretary going to Stuart Uttley (also Secretary of the file cutters and of the SFTC). The aim of the SLA was to promote the election of working men to public bodies, under the auspices of the Liberal Party. A function was held on the 16th August 1886 that celebrated the appointment of Joseph Mallinson, Secretary of the razor grinders, as the first working class member of the Sheffield bench of magistrates, but the occasion was also used to honour T. R. Threlfall, a working printer of Southport who had unsuccessfully contested the Hallam Division of Sheffield (then a safe Conservative seat) at the recent General Election. The first socialist stirrings of that time left little trace in Sheffield. Ruskin, choosing Sheffield as the headquarters of his Guild of St George, because of the semi-artistic nature of some of the local crafts, founding his communistic farm settlement in Abbeydale in 1876 and establishing his museum at Walkley, had few followers and little immediate influence.
The attitudes of the SFTC in these decades is partly explained by the continued predominance of the local staple trades within it. Some printers’, builders’, tailors’ and engineers’ branches adhered to it, as before, but the majority of delegates and the leaders belonged to industries which were strongly localised. The Sheffield artisans were nearer to the eighteenth century ‘domestic’ worker than the modern proletariat. General trade union legislation apart, they had little cause to identify themselves with the nascent aspirations of the working class, but were much concerned with the prosperity of the local industries. The Rules of the SFTC in 1883 and 1886 laid down that Sheffield members of national trade unions were not entitled to dispute pay from the funds of the SFTC; these privileges were reserved exclusively for the local unions. It was only in 1890 that these Rule were amended and a new preamble stressed the importance of national issues, while there was no longer any special treatment of local trades. This was a portent of fundamental change in the years that followed.
Under the leadership of the local staple trades, the SFTC in these decades focused its attention on three issues: industrial conciliation and arbitration, trade ‘frauds’, and working-class representation on elected bodies. On the first issue the SFTC had only limited and temporary successes (for instance the ‘file money dispute’ of the pocket-knife assemblers in 1874). In 1887-88, following a resolution of the Swansea Trade Union Congress, the SFTC attempted to form joint Conciliation Courts with the Chamber of Commerce and the Cutlers’ Company, as well as the maters’ associations in individual branches, but its proposal met with no response from the employers’ associations.
On the second issue, Stuart Uttley (of the file cutters) was tireless in addressing meetings on the subject, approaching employers’ organisations and appearing before innumerable Royal Commissions and Committees. To some extent, especially where it was a question of protecting the trade and the good name of Sheffield either from foreign makers who falsely stamped their wares ‘made in Sheffield’ or from firms using inferior steel, the campaign enjoyed the support of the local employers, and ultimately succeeded. Nonetheless, the campaign was essentially a continuation of the 1860s fight by the file trade against machinery. Uttley main aim was to force the makers using machines to stamp on their files ‘machine-cut’, which he believed would damn them in the eyes of prospective customers. In 1893, however, the File Manufacturers’ Association openly opposed the SFTC demand for such a stamp, and before long even the filecutters’ society had to admit that such a mark would not deter the purchasers: machine cut files were no longer considered inferior.
On the issues of working class representation on elected bodies, Uttley addressed a letter to the Town Council on the 14th October 1885, who were believed to be considering recommendations for additional magistrates, asking for the appointment of ‘men who have themselves had personal experience of the conditions and requirements’ of the working classes, who so often appeared before the bench. He continued, ‘probably this may be regarded as a new departure, but where representative working men have been placed upon the bench, they have proved themselves to be of great service, and materially assisted in the satisfactory settlement of business’. The Town Council turned down the request, but in the event the Lord Chancellor ignored its list and, as noted above, Joseph Mallinson, Secretary of the razor grinders, was appointed in 1886. At the Town Council elections the SFTC also enjoyed some success, with Uttley elected in 1886, Edward Memmott in 1887, Charles Hobson (a Britannia metal smith) in 1887, and William F. Wardley in 1890. All of these men were elected, and sat, as Liberals.
Nonetheless, the large-scale unemployment and depression of the mid-eighties, which elsewhere formed the background to new socialist societies and a demand for an independent working class party, had little effect on the unions of the established leaders of the Sheffield Federated Trades Council (though there was an upsurge in attendance by Sheffield delegates at the national TUC meeting of 1880). By 1889 however, the rising tide of ‘New Unionism’ (of the unskilled and other unorganised trades), and the sudden accession of strength of the old-established unions, would usher in a new epoch in Sheffield trade union movement history.
New Unionism, the Formation of the Labour Party and the Decline of the Federated Trades Council
With the widely publicised struggles of the match girls, gas workers, and the dockers in London, the ‘New Unionism’ swept through the country in the years after 1889. For the first time, stable unions were established not only for the priviledged ‘aristocracy of labour’, the skilled craftsmen, but also for men of lesser skill and training, and for general labourers. The form of organisation also changed, and side by side with the older narrower craft unions, with a political and social outlook which differed fundamentally from the complacent Liberalism of the craft societies established in the hayday of Victorian prosperity. At the same time, the membership of the older unions also showed a remarkable increase to 1893.
Of lasting importance was the successful organising drive of the general and industrial unions in the heavy steel and other industries. Several steelworkers’ societies, including the Steel Smelters and the Steel and Iron Workers, established or re-formed branches in Sheffield, while local branches were also formed by several unions of engine and cranemen, steelworks labourers and the Tyneside and General Labourers (Later the National Amalgamated Union of Labour) among municipal and other workers. The recovery of the mineowrkers’ unions which followed the establishment of the Miners Federation of Great Britain led to the affiliation of several strong miners’ branches to the SFTC, and in the transport industry there were successful organisations of carters, tramwaymen and several railway workers’ societies. Of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF), it was recorded that membership number 1 was held by a Sheffield man, William Ullyott, on the formation of the Society in 1880. Within a few years, the gasworkers had also formed several strong branches in the city. Meanwhile, the old established skilled engineering unions recorded steady increases in membership, not unconnected with the general growth of heavy industry, particularly of armaments works, in Sheffield after 1889.Most of these branches affiliated with the SFTC, and its membership, for the low point of the mid-eighties, was more than doubled to 13,500 in 1891 and 16,000 in 1892.
At the same time its composition was undergoing profound change, from a body consisting essentially of the local cutlery, too and silver trades, to a more representative trades council in which the cutler and allied ‘light’ trades had become a minority. Of the 135 delegates at the end of 1891, only 66 were from the light trades, 32 from the steel and engineering trades, and 37 from other trades. Three years later, the numbers were 77, 29, and 68 (most of the increase in the ‘other trades’ being due to the affiliation of the miners and railwaymen). Of the four officers, however, belonged to the light trades, with only the Vic-President, a printer, coming from another industry. Therefore, despite the influx of new members, the direction of the Trades Council remained unchanged, with a continued focus on industrial action, legislation affecting labour, and local politics.
In this period the Sheffield Federated Trades Council mediated directly in many local disputes and, failing agreement, gave its full support to the branches on strike, by advice, appeals, credentials and monetary grants. Most of these efforts were made on behalf of the cutlery branches, but others were not excluded, and in the national engineering lock-out of 1897-98, when between 1,200 and 1,400 skilled men, besides labourers, were out in Sheffield, the SFTC collected among its societies nearly £3,200 for the engineers, besides a smaller sum, contributed by congregations in local places of worship, for labourers’ families. It also made collections for strikers in other areas, as in the case of the Clyde and Belfast shipbuilders and the Penrhyn quarrymen, and helped set up the sheep shear co-operative society, as well as other co-operative ventures. The Council was also very active in promoting and supporting legislation affecting local labour. Resolutions for extensions of the Factory and Workshop Acts, Workmen’s Compensation, Eight Hour legislation, the Shops Bill, Education and the Merchandise Marks Acts (particularly the marking ‘machine cut’) occupied much of its energy.
In these actions, the SFTC necessarily came into contact with the national socialist and independent labour movements, making their first hesitant steps on the political stage, and it sometimes found itself at odds with its associates in the local Liberal Party. But in Sheffield, socialism was weak, despite the formation of a small, but active, Independent Labour Party, and the subtle influence of Edward Carpenter of some of the most impressionable minds among working-class leaders. The officers of the SFTC could still safely ignore the socialist challenge, accepting socialists as useful temporary allies, even sending John Davidson to Labour Electoral Congress in Bradford in June 1894, but withdrawing as soon as this alliance threatened rupture with the Liberal Association.
The clearest example of this occurred in 1894, when Charles Hobson was selected by the SFTC to stand ‘in the Labour interest’, for the Attercliffe Parliamentary Division at a by-election. When the local Liberal leaders showed their displeasure, he withdrew at once, and the Independent Labour Party was forced to nominate at the last moment a candidate from London, Frank Smith. To prevent future unpleasantness, the officers of the SFTC drew up a detailed electoral agreement with the Liberal Party, but, significantly, this was rejected by the delegates, who also insisted, against the advice of their officers, in giving moral support to Frank Smith against the Liberal candidate, an employer. The officers of the cutlery unions also ensured that the council refused to subscribe to the Parliamentary Fund of the TUC; they alleged that as small unions they had no influence, that Sheffield could not elect a ‘labour’ candidate, and that they were unwilling to spend their money elsewhere, but the real, undeclared, reason was that they had no wish to quarrel with the Liberals.
For the annual Whitsun (later May Day) demonstrations, which took place more regularly from 1894 onwards, and other public meetings, the SFTC might invite speakers such as Tom Mann and Keir Hardie, but it was equally content to provide a platform to leading Liberals, like Mundella, H. J. Wilson and W. E. Harvey. In City Council elections, Hobson, Wardley and Uttley were returned regularly for working-class wards as Liberal candidates with SFTC or ‘Labour Association’ support. They were joined by J. C. Whiteley in 1895 and John Davison in 1897. Hobson was also elected to the School Board, and, when property qualifications were relaxed, to the Sheffield Guardians in 1894. Among the greatest achievement of the ‘labour’ Liberals of this period was the introduction of the ‘Fair Wages’ clause in municipal contracts in 1891 and 1892 (the School Board had already agreed to it in 1890) and the municipalisation of the tramways in 1895. Such gains would have been impossible without Liberal support.
At the beginning of the new century only a small minority of trade unionists held socialist convictions, and the slow march of the development which was ultimately to identify the ‘Labour’ Party with a socialist programme was foreseen only be a few. The long hard road from Liberalism to Socialism, from an acceptance of the existing social order to the demand for a new one, which so many working-class leaders were about to travel, had only just been entered. The painful adjustments that became necessary, and the struggles of the new against the old, appear with such unusual clarity in the history of the Sheffield Trades Council, as to give the story much more than local significance. There were several reasons for this.
Industrially, the Sheffield trade union movement was clearly divided into three distinct groups: the old-fashioned cutlery and silver trades, organised in small, local unions; the heavy steel and engineering trades, mostly forming branches of strong national societies; and the general and services trades to be found in any large city. Though numerically the old local trades had been swamped by the affiliation of the labourers’ and industrial branches that had emerged from ‘New Unionism, their leaders continued to dominate the SFTC. These men represented an industry carried out in small workshops, with much ‘out-work’ or sub-contract, in which the class struggle made no sense and for which nationalisation was not a practicable proposition. Their political and social status was considered satisfactory, and they could, with good conscience, support many planks of the Liberal-Radical platform, such as Free Trade, the support of the claims of Nonconformity against the Establishment, Irish Home Rule and further electoral reform. It was only on specifically labour questions that they might have their reservations and show their independence, and to this end they were willing to extend their support to the Labour Representation Committee.
By contrast, the huge steel, engineering and armaments works, with their thousands of workers who had lost all personal contact with their employers, formed the ideal breeding ground for socialists. The steel-workers, operating in hierarchical teams with great social and economic differences between the ‘first hand’ and his assistants, graded in order of seniority, formed an exception, but they, in any case, were very poorly organised in Sheffield at the beginning of the century. The solid ranks of the engineering trades, together with other groups working in somewhat similar conditions, like the railwaymen, gas workers and tramwaymen, formed the backbone of the socialist labour movement in the city. If they were dissatisfied with the leadership of the SFTC, they were as yet poorly represented in its councils.
Conforming with this industrial division was an almost equally clear geographical division. The old cutlery and other skilled workers lived in the central wards of Sheffield and in the southern and northern suburbs of Heeley, Walkley and Hillsborough. The great steel and engineering plants, relative late comers in Sheffield’s economic development, occupied the eastern areas of the city and their labour force lived in tightly packed cottages around their works. Whereas in the 1890s most ‘labour’ councillors sat for central wards like St Peters and St Phillips, from the turn of the century labour politics became increasingly centred on the solidly proletarian ‘East-End’, above all the wards of Attercliffe, Brightside and Darnall. For some years, the Liberal Labour leaders believed they could safely ignore the challenge of the socialist, but when the influence of the latter grew in their East End strongholds and elsewhere, a struggle between them became inevitable, and, aggravated by such an exceptionally clear division, it became particularly clear and protracted. It coloured the whole history of the Sheffield Trades Council from 1903 to the unification of 1920 and beyond.
Although the SFTC affiliated early with the national Labour Representation Committee, it was not over-eager to establish a local LRC in Sheffield, and instead maintained its own ‘electoral committee’ to organise the election of trade-union Liberals to the local authority. It was only in 1903, at the request of the national LRC, that it gave into its more militant delegates and opened discussions around the establishment of a local body. After a number of meetings Sheffield Labour Representation Committee was formed and on the 16th October 1903 its constitution was adopted by a General Delegate Meeting of 68 delegates representing 29 unions and branches, one co-operative society, the Independent Labour Party, the Clarion Fellowship and the District Committee of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. The constitution declared the object of the SLRC to be the ‘independent’ representation of the industrial classes on public bodies, and the education of the working classes to defend their own interests.
After the temporary chairmanship of William Black and R. E. Jones, the first President of the SLRC was H. H. Diver, a bricklayer. Vice-Presidents were R. E. Jones, R. H. Meeson (bookbinders) and D. Hagan (steel dressers), the Treasurer was H. A. Stone (bricklayers) and the Secretary was G. H. B. Ward of the ASE. The full Executive Committe revealed a balance very different from that of the Sheffield Federated Trades Council; of the 19 members, 9 were from heavy trades, 2 from the light, 7 from general trades and one from the Independent Labour Party. The SFTC, though invited, was not represented, and not one its leading members attended to represent their own society. In fact, having launched the SLRC, the Trades Council withdrew support in dismay when it realised that the body was obviously falling into the hands of the socialists. Such misgivings only increased as the SLRC started to cast around for a Parliamentary candidate to contest Attercliffe at a future general election, and put up its own President, H. H. Diver, as a candidate in the Darnall by-election of 1904 (where he did creditably well, polling 744 votes against the Liberal candiate’s 1,074). Nonetheless, concerns that divisions would undermine the local labour movement led to fresh attempts at conciliation, and in April a new body emerged, the Sheffield Trades Council and Labour Representation Committee (STCLRC).
This cooperation was short-lived and by 1905 the Trades Council had withdrawn from the new body, which reverted its name to the Sheffield LRC. Nonetheless, some form of truce persisted, with the Trades Council focusing on industrial matters, and supposedly leaving questions of political representation to the LRC. The SFTC, consisting exclusively of trade unions, with a membership fluctuating around 15,000, in over 100 branches, was nominally non-political; the delegates assembled at the monthly meetings represented all shades of political opinion (many of them also represented their branches on the LRC), but the council rarely ventured officially into politics, except in issues directly concerned with the working classes, where opinion was seldom greatly divided. Most of the leading members, however, where Liberals, and did not hesitate to canvass for trade union votes for Liberal candidates. The LRC at the beginning of 1904 had about 8,000 members in 60 branches. All but 200-300 members of socialist societies, the Independent Labour Party and the Clarion Fellowship were trade unionists – the left wing of the trade union world. Its interests were exclusively political, above all the election of working-men to public bodies, and here it faced an uphill struggle against the established position of the Lib-Labs.
This uneasy truce was shattered during municipal elections in 1905, when a three way contest in Attercliffe let a Conservative in on little more than one-third of the vote. R. G. Murray of the Gasworkers and ILP was the first successful ‘independent’ Labour municipal candidate, winning at Brightside in November 1905, though not under the auspices of the LRC. The LRC had its first successes in July 1906 when at two by-elections R. B. Padley (Co-operative employees) was elected for Brightside, and T. Hemmings (Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants) for Darnall, both defeating Liberals in straight fights. In November 1906, the LRC put up four candidates, in Attercliffe, Brightside, Darnall and Hillsborough, of whom only Padley at Brightside won, retaining his seat, leaving an unchanged number of three Labour Councillors. At Hillsborough, in a three-way race, the Labour candidature of A. Barton let in a Conservative majority of only 27 over the Liberal.
These electoral successes of 1906 (paralleled on a national level by the Liberal and Labour parliamentary victories, though the SLRC was unable to put up a parliamentary candidate in Sheffield) were based on a remarkable efflorescence of socialist activity in the city. It was led by the ILP, which had had some members in Sheffield since 1893, but increased membership in 1906 from 240 to 700. Its newspaper, the ‘Sheffield Guardian’, established as a weekly in January 1906, was the main organ of information for all sections of the working-class movement, the LRC, for example, after unsuccessful efforts at issuing its own paper, taking two columns of the ‘LRC Corner’, over which it had exclusive control, in every issue from November 1906 onward. The influence of the ILP was all pervasive, nearly all of the leading men of the LRC had, at one time or another, been within its ranks, almost all of its candidates for public office, no matter which trade union actually nominated them and financed their candidature, were members of the ILP, and so were most members of the Executive Committee of the LRC.
Associated with the ILP in the Joint Socialist Commitee were rge smaller branches of other groups and parties, the Social Democratic Party (originally founded as the Social Democratic Federation in 1881), with its own monthly paper, the Sheffield Pioneer, two short-lived Socialist Societies, the Fabian Society in 1908, and the British Socialist Party in 1911. There was also the strong Clarion Fellowship, with up to 1,000 members in its five sections. Inevitably, in a young, buoyant movement, there were many false starts, much changing of allegiance, the creation of many short-lived schemes, but in the years to 1914 this small number of enthusiasts founded several club rooms and centres, at least five Socialist Sunday Schools, and it was they who formed the backbone of the ward committees, who acted as election agents and canvassers, and who did most of the hard foundation work on which labour representation was based. With the exception of the Fabian Society, there were virtually no middle-class or professional members in the Movement in Sheffield. As a purely industrial city, Sheffield had only a narrow professional middle-class, and the literature, the ideas, the drive, were created by the working-classes themselves, often self-educated, who laboured during the day and have their time to the Movement in their leisure hours.
In a wide variety of activities, including the campaign to hold the Corporation to its half-hearted municipal housing scheme at High Wincobank, and the annual May Day demonstartions, it co-operated with the SFTC, and the better feelings between the two bodies are illustrated by the voluntary withdrawl of the SFTC from the national LRC in order to allow the LRC to affiliate to the newly constituted Labour Party, thus duplicating the national division between the TUC and the Labour Party by the two organisations in Sheffield. The latent hostility between them remained, however, and was fanned largely by municipal politics, inside and outside the City Council. It came to a head, leading to the final breach, with the November elections of 1907, when the LRC decided to contest the wards of Attercliffe, Brightside and Darnall, where Lib-Lab councillors were retiring.
Already in the course of 1907 several of the socialist-dominated trade union branches, above all the engineering trades and the railwaymen, had begun to leave the SFTC because of its supine attitude towards the two capitalist parties, thus weakening its socialist element still further. As early as July 1907, two delegates of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and one joiner had suggested amending rule 6 of the LRC’s constitution by abolishing the rights of the SFTC to five seats on the Executive Committee (and so the anomaly of those not elected by the delegate meeting and actively working against the interests of the LRC, still sitting on the Executive), making all EC members eligible for election by the Delegate Meeting, though for various reasons the motion fell.
In the following spring the socialists returned to the attack and with feelings exacerbated by the November 1907 election and by hostilities between the two groups of members in the City Council, they had more success at the Delegate Meeting of 26th May 1908. H. Stockton, of the Tramway and Vehicle Workers, proposed the following radical changes in the constitution of the LRC; the name to be changed to the ‘Sheffield Trades and Labour Council’, the SFTC no longer to eligible for membership, and, together with the political parties, to lose its special representatives on the EC; all EC members to be directly elected by the delegates, the reference to the LRC as an ‘auxiliary’ of the Sheffield Federated Trades Council to be deleted; and the new Trades and Labour Council to take on industrial functions, that is to say, to turn itself into a trades council. By severing all links with the SFTC and acting as a rival trades council, the LRC in its new form was to declare war on the SFTC. In the words of the proposer of the motion, the SFTC had ‘systematically neglected’ its industrial work, it had ‘outlived its usefulness’ and it was to be superseded by a new body, closely identified with the Labour Party and Socialism.
It was a hard blow for the SFTC, particularly for men like Hobson who had worked so long for Labour unity. At the monthly meeting of 10th July 1908, when the Council had to note its exclusion from the LRC and thereby from the national Labour Party, its officials were on the defensive, and found it hard to answer the shrewd comments by delegates who stated that the SFTC had brought the split on itself by concentrating too much on the cutlery trade and by allowing its leaders to be too closely identified with the Liberal Party. These leaders were in sombre mood: they knew that the cutlery trades, on which their strength depended, were stagnant of declining, while the steadily growing membership in the engineering, transport and municipal trades tended to accrue largely to branches in the rival body. For the time being, however, there was little change in relative membership. After a month’s campaign by circulars and emissaries, in which each body tried to bring as many trade union branches as possible over to its side, and a crop of resignations and affiliations, the new alignment was not radically different from the old, while the SFTC at once formally revived its electoral committee.
Politically, the SFTC went its stolid and traditional way, as the recognised working class pressure group within the Liberal Party, in no wise different from the last three decades of the 19th century, when most of its leaders had first entered public life. While the personnel of the Sheffield Trades and Labour Council changed with bewildering rapidity, the SFTC officers were unchanged from 1908 to 1917: Charles Hobson (President), T. N. Maker (Vice-President), W. F. Wardley (Treasurer) and R. Homshaw (Secretary). One of its main interests lay in housing reform, and Tom Shaw and Charles Hobson were tireless in spreading its gospel, visiting national conferences and applying maximum pressure to the slow-moving council. Other interests were unemployment relief (particularly the provision of public works during slumps), educational reform, and much unspectacular work on education, library and distress committees.
In 1910 the SFTC stole a march on the STLC when it invited the Trade Union Congress to Sheffield for its annual conference, and while co-opting many other labour bodies on to the Reception Committee, studiusly ignored the STLC. The Parliamentary Committee of the TUC, which itself leaned far to the Liberals, was only too happy to administer this snub to the ‘independent labour’ branches, despite the fact that it was the STLC which contained most of the branches of the national unions represented at the TUC, while the SFTC was made up largely of local societies. The STLC with remarkable restraint, decided not mar the meeting by bringing its greivances into the open, contenting itself with a (fruitless) protest against the attendance of TUC leaders at a reception given by the Lord Mayor, Earl Fitzwilliam, who had recently had some serious disputes with miners in his collieries and who had a large interest in the Simplex Motor Works at Tinsley where the ‘document’ was alleged to be operating against members of the ASE. At the outbreak of war, the SFTC joined in the patriotic appeals of most other organisations, adding only a mild rider to the effect that the liberties and political gains of the working classes should not be lost in the struggle.
The STLC meanwhile suffered for some years after the split, not only from the general trade union slump, but also from the special financial difficulties of the Osborne judgement of 1909, which held that trade unions could not collect levies for political purposes, and which severely restricted its regular income. This lack of funds impacted upon the STLC’s ability to put forward Parliamentary candidates, and so was limited to the panels of trade union candidates funded by the national unions, many of whom were Lib-Labs. The STLC decided to concentrate on Attercliffe Division in the first place, but had great difficulty in finding and keeping a candidate, even for that one division. Nonetheless, in 1908 Joe Pointer, a Tinsley patternmaker, was selected through a parliamentary panel of his national society, and when the seat un-expectantly fell vacant in April 1909, Pointer was duly elected, defeating two Conservative and one liberal candidate.
Despite the fundamental disagreements with the SFTC, the STLC found itself in a natural alliance with the other trades council on many individual issues. The two bodies co-operated closely in campaigns for health and housing, the Poor Law, trade union and labour legislation, in May Day demonstrations and in educational work, particularly the creation of local classes under the auspices of the Workers’ Educational Association. After the Sheffield meeting of the Trade Union Congress in 1910, when Pointer, addressing the delegates, held out an ‘olive branch’ to the SFTC, and during the temporary absence of the ILP (who had withdrawn from the LRC), early in 1911 serious attempts were made to reunite with the SFTC and end the labour split in Sheffield which weakened the trade unions as a whole and caused serious concern to national leaders.
However, in the last years of peace industrial relations over the whole country became increasingly bitter and social relations in industrial areas were increasingly strained. A series of protracted negotiations between the two trades councils broke down due to a lack of agreement over the role-distinctions between industrial and political work. The basic cause of these strains was the failure of real wages to rise above the levels of 1897-1900 even in the good years, but there were other causes, such as the replacement of skilled labour by machines operating in many industries. The period was marked by some serious national disputes including the engineering and boilermaking trades, the railwaymen and miners. In all of these, as well as the local disputes of moulders, carters and tramwaymen, the STLC and its members were directly involved. With the increasing militancy amongst its rank and file, the STLC found it impossible to separate industrial from political issues, and became more strongly drawn into national and international political affairs than the SFTC, which remained remarkably parochial in outlook.
In home affairs the STLC was swept into the tide of industrial unionism and syndicalism. As early as 29th June 1909 the STLC debated a motion of the cabinet makers in favour of a single union, organised in industrial sections with local industrial committees for combined action and a single political party, in order to meet the unified employers’ federations. The motion read as follows: ‘Industrial unionism is class consciousness in character, revolutionary in method, with the General Strike in the background, but when that is possible victory is won and it would not applied’; in the transition period, trade union action was more important than political activities. In the debate that followed it was agreed that the first steps were to perfect the existing societies, to break down the antagonism between skilled and unskilled men, and to carry propaganda for industrial unionism into the branches. The motion was ultimately carried by 55 votes with none against and only a handful of abstentions.
In December 1912 the Sheffield Trades and Labour Council again adopted a motion (from the Railway Clerks’ Association) in favour of the amalgamation of all trade unions in any one industry into one industrial union in order to secure immediate improvements and ‘ultimate emancipation from wage slavery’. In the following June an ‘Industrial Committee’ of the STLC was formed, consisting of five members and the Secretary, with the right of calling Delegate Meetings without the prior sanction of the Executive Committee, and with the duties of mobilising all trade unions at once in case of a dispute and to collect information on wages and working conditions in order to be able to make authoritative statements about any dispute the moment it broke out. The syndicalist tendency was also apparent in the decision in August 1913, to give moral support to the Railway Nationalisation Society, but with the proviso that there would be little value in it unless, ‘the workers are responsible for the administration of the machinery’.
As industrial tension increased in the last years before the war, the STLC found itself driven into greater opposition against the authorities. For several years the STLC had campaigned against the Park Committee’s ban on May Day celebrations in the City’s parks, and tempers were roused still more by the prohibition of labour meetings on the traditional site of the Queens Monument in 1914. There were vigorous protests against the proposals for special constables at the end of 1911, as these were intended to be used against strikers, and a plan for a special working class constabulary was drawn up. There were also further protests against the imprisonment of Tom Mann in 1912 and George Lansbury in 1913, and against the police violence in the Dublin strike of 1913. In all of this work, popular support for the Council, which had declined between 1908 and 1911, was obviously growing. In 1914, with a new record of 20,000 affiliated members, the STLC had high hopes for the November municipal elections, but at this point the war intervened to impose a political truce and to fundamentally alter the conditions in which the trades councils had to work.
The Great War
On the outbreak of hostilities, the large works in Sheffield’s East End, always dependent to some extent on armaments orders, were turned over entirely to the production of munitions for war. Sheffield became one of the main arsenals of the Entente, and, economically speaking, the whole city became little more than one vast supply organisation for the armaments works. The working-class population of Sheffield had to bear all of the burdens of war imposed on the population elsewhere. 50,000 men from the city joined the armed forces, and there were food shortages, housing shortages, long lists of casualties and many other grim reminders of the costs of total war. In addition, the rapid expansion of the local munitions industry, including the ‘dillution’ of skilled labour, the absorption of thousands of female workers, the abrogation of trade union rules, and the breakdown of old barriers, created special problems for the workers in the heavy metal industries not met with to the same extent in other occupations.
In contrast with the STLC, many of whose officers joined the forces (including the Chairman, E. G. Rawlinson, in 1916), the leading personnel of the Sheffield Federated Trades Council were well over military age and remained largely unchanged between 1914-1920. For the whole of the war years the SFTC stood solidly behind the Government in the war effort, accepting without demur the hardships and the abrogations of cherished trade union principles that it entailed. Britain, it declared in its Annual Report for 1918, had entered the War ‘in defence of weak nations as a high duty imposed upon her by the supreme laws of humanity and righteousness’. Its political interests remained largely local and were concentrated on housing, public health, education and pensions. Its representatives did much good work on the local War Pensions Committee and Food Control Committee, and loyally co-operated with the local War Aims Committee. The general attitude of that Council was also illustrated by the alacrity with which it joined the National Alliance of Employers and Employees in 1917.
Despite its resolution of 1912, calling for general strikes in case of war, the STLC also rallied to the flag in 1914, though with some exceptions and some reservations. A substantial section of the Independent Labour Party and some other socialists held to their convictions, and in the midst of almost universal patriotic enthusiasm remained loyal to their former ideals. The Sheffield Guardian, under the editorship of Richard Hawkin, courageously opposed the war from the beginning, on the grounds that it would benefit only the armaments manufacturers, and on the 28th of August called for maintaining contact with German socialist leaders. Though this attitude found much sympathy in the ranks of the STLC, which protested vigorously against the persecution of pacifists and conscientious objectors, including one of its own delegates, A. Samms, who was sentenced at first to two months and later two years imprisonment, it remained very much a minority view in 1914 and 1915. The Guardian itself ran into increasing difficulties and had to be wound up in May 1916.
As the war progressed, however, with its horrors and sacrifices, its disregard of human values and ancient liberties, as the glaring contrast between the distress of the many and the profiteering of the few, and between the noble sentiments uttered in the recruiting campaigns and the selfish, grasping war aims which formed the reality of policy, became clearer, the small minority became a large majority within the ranks of the Sheffield Trade and Labour Council. The workingmen of Sheffield were gradually sickened of the war. Their representatives in the Trades Council became increasingly critical of the Government and the governing classes, and increasingly sought for the enemy at home instead of abroad. As the Government replied to disaffection with repression, the discontent grew, and so did the violence of the official resolutions of the Council. From 1917 on, it’s not too much to say that the leaders of Sheffield labour considered themselves to be at war with their own Government, critical of almost every single one of its actions, hostile to almost all of its intentions, groping towards an almost treasonable new loyalty towards an international socialist movement instead of the Government of their own country.
This mood of revolt, which lasted well into 1919, is perhaps best illustrated by the changing attitude to the conduct of the War itself. In August 1914 the pacifists were still in a small minority when the Council voted by 28: 5 against a motion to boycott the recruiting campaign of the three national parties (including the Labour Party). In the following year the balance was beginning to change: in August the Council, by a vote of 28: 16 dissociated itself from the anti-war action of A. Samms (though it protested against his harsh sentence), but in September, hardly more than a year after the first favourable vote, there was a small majority of 52: 48 against joining the recruiting campaign of the three national parties and in favour of devoting the Council’s efforts to work of more use to labour.
Throughout 1916 the forces of the ‘patriots’ and the ‘internationalists’ remained roughly in balance. The Council opposed the introduction of conscription, organising a mass meeting with Tom Mann as the chief speaker, and in April it protested in strong terms against the imprisonment of the Clyde workers without trial, but it also refused, by a vote of 35: 29, to join the Peace campaign of the British Socialist Party (though it also protested against the prohibition of the party’s peace meeting), and in June the EC decided to abstain from the Peace campaign of the ILP, as being unlikely to lead to any concrete results. In September, three delegates were sent to the Peace Negotiation Society.
By the early months of 1917, the ‘patriots’ had become a small minority that was soon destined to disappear entirely. At a tumultuous delegate meeting held on the 1st of April 1917, the Council called for the resignations of Sir William Clegg (the local liberal leader) from the Chairmanship of the Sheffield Munitions Tribunal, as his biased decisions were causing unrest; it congratulated the Russian people on their Revolution, adding the hope that it would be ‘an example to the world to rid themselves of their oppressors and usher in the Federation of the Free Nations of the World’; and, by a vote of 52: 11, it called on the Government to renounce all schemes of territorial acquisition, ‘as our emancipated ally, Russia, has done’, and to declare its willingness to enter peace negotiations in order to avoid further bloodshed.
Early in July, the President of the STLC, A. E. Chandler, was elected district delegate to the Yorkshire Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council, meeting in Leeds, and later in the month four delegates were sent. When the Leeds Council was suppressed by the Government, the resolutions of the Executive Committee to call for a Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council in Sheffield was at once accepted in August, with only one dissentient, thought the decision had to be rescinded in September as the EC explained in a secret session that it would lead to widespread arrests and the breaking up of working-class organisations in the city.
In October, a unanimous resolution was sent up the EC to the Labour Party Conference to the effect that since the chief object of the Labour Party was to destroy the political domination of the ‘ruling capitalist order’, no member of the Party should accept a post in a Government ‘representative of either of the Capitalist Parties’. In December 1917 the Council passed, with only one dissentient vote, a British Socialist Party resolution congratulating ‘the Socialist Proletariat of Russia on their present achievement (i.e. the Bolshevik Revolution) and wishing them success in their endeavour to build up a real Socialist Commonwealth’. It also petitioned for the acceptance of the German Peace proposals.
The invitation to join the Alliance of Employers and Employees, accepted with such alacrity by the SFTC, was rejected by STLC by a vote of 60: 11 on the 2nd of October 1917. The resolution declared the Council’s belief:
”[…] that the efforts of all working, industrial and political organisations should be directed towards the securing for the workers the full fruits of their industry. That in as much as this object necessarily conflicts with the interests of the employing class, the Council declares its uncompromising hostility to the National Alliance of Employers and Employees which the Council regards as an attempt to divert the efforts of the workers from the objects set forth above by glossing over the fundamental antagonism between the interests of the two classes involved.”
Meanwhile, the campaign to hold down the cost of living and end the scandals of food distribution was entering a phase of growing acerbity. From the early weeks of the war onwards, the Council had urged the authorities to control the distribution of food and peg rents and food prices (as well as increase war pensions and widows’ allowances). In part, these demands had been met, while rising prices were offset to some extent by rising wages and more generally by the higher earnings in the long hours worked in wartime. By 1917, however, it was the chaotic state of food distribution, and the biased actions of the local Food Committee, dominated by middle-class interests, which caused growing resentment. The Co-operative Societies were systematically penalised in the distribution of coal and food allocations according to an earlier base year instead of according to current demand, while shops in the working-class quarters in general were kept short of necessities, and there was little effort in evidence to regulate the distribution or end the long food queues. The local co-operative societies had been forced to set up a Food Vigilance Committee to end the worst abuses, and in an emergency National Congress in 1917 the Co-operative Movement had decided to enter politics in order to protect its interests and end the patent discrimination against its shops. In November 1917, the STLC joined the Food Vigilance Committee and in Febraury 1918 it merged its own Food Control Committee with it.
In 1918 the political agitation was intensified. In February the Council supported Litvinov’s appeal to the British working classes, and in March it protested vigorously against the Japanese invasion of Siberia. The resolution of the STLC at the May Day demonstrations of the 1918 reaffirmed the Council’s belief in the international solidarity of the workers of the world, and its hope of a new era, when mankind will be freed of ‘parasitic beings and capitalists’ and instead co-operate for the welfare of the whole human race. The President, A. E. Chandler, in his Foreword to the Annual Report of the SFTC for 1917/18, wrote:
”The workers of all the belligerent nations are sick of the whole business and are almost unanimously of the opinion that a military decision cannot be arrived at. That being so, it is a thousand pities that the lead of our Russian Comrades was not followed by the proletariat of the other countries. There will be no peace until the workers take the whole matter out of the hands of the ruling class.”
In May 1919, the Council unanimously expressed its ‘horror and indignation’ at the supply of arms to Kolchak and to the armies of Finland and Roumania. It noted that:
“[…] the Government which is attacking Russia is also responsible for the sending of tanks and troops to Glasgow, and for the recent circular to commanding officers asking for information as to whether their men are willing to act as strike breakers.”
And called for the Triple Alliance (of miners, railwaymen and transport workers) to take imemdiate action, and the Parliamentary Labour Party to obstruct all business until satisfaction was given. As the supply of arms to the counter-revolutionary forces turned to direct military intervention, Sheffield became one of the most active centres of the ‘Hands of Russia’ campaign, which ultimately caused the Government to desist from further action. At the same time, in April 1920, the Council with only one dissentient, sent fraternal greetings to the German workers, and extended its sympathy to their attempts to overcome the effects of war and of ‘ruthless exploiting capitalism’. It was, perhaps, not surprising that STLC was one of the first to protest at the Labour Party’s decision not to admit the Communist Party; several of its leading members, and two of its municipal candidates, had joined the British Communist Party on its foundation.
Sheffield Trades Council in the Twenty-First Century
2006 saw the election of Sheffield TUC’s first President from a black or minority ethnic background, John Campbell, a Labour councillor and UNISON representative at the Northern General Hospital, who went on to become Lord Mayor in the years 2011/2012.
Mendelson, J. Owen, W. Pollard, S. and Thomas V. M. (1958) The Sheffield Trades and Labour Council 1858-1958, Sheffield: Sheffield Trades and Labour Council.
By Dr Bob Jeffery