Amalgamated Society of Engineers

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Amalgamated Society of Engineers

Great Britain 1851


The formation of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) in 1851 was soon seen as a major event in British and world trade union history. Trade unions were in their infancy, but now previously competing unions of skilled workers had united to form a new and larger organization. The ASE became effective, despite the fact that, initially, many potential members had doubts and employers attempted to break it through a lockout. The ASE was one of an influential group of skilled workers' unions that were central to the labor movement between the decline of Chartist political radicalism in the late 1840s and the rise of socialism and the new unionism of the 1880s. It concentrated on developing an effective industrial and political strategy, and its leaders set new standards of administration. The union soon became a symbol of mid-Victorian unionism and controlled its members' terms and conditions of labor until challenged at the end of the nineteenth century. The ASE exported its model by forming numerous foreign branches in North America and the British Empire as its members traveled the world.


  • 1831: Unsuccessful Polish revolt against Russian rule is waged.
  • 1837: British inventor Isaac Pitman devises his shorthand system.
  • 1842: Scientific and technological advances include the development of ether and artificial fertilizer; the identification of the Doppler effect (by Austrian physicist Christian Johann Doppler); the foundation of biochemistry as a discipline; and the coining of the word dinosaur.
  • 1847: Patenting of the first successful rotary press replaces the old flatbed press, in the United States.
  • 1848: Scottish mathematician and physicist William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, introduces the concept of absolute zero, or the temperature at which molecular motion ceases. This value, -273°C, becomes 0K on his Kelvin scale of absolute temperature.
  • 1852: Immigration from Ireland to the United States reaches its peak.
  • 1852: France's Second Republic ends when Louis Napoleon declares himself Napoleon III, initiating the Second Empire.
  • 1852: American inventor Elisha Graves Otis introduces the "safety" elevator, which has a safety brake to keep it from falling even if the cable holding it is completely cut.
  • 1854: Publication of "The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
  • 1858: British explorer John Hanning Speke locates Lake Victoria, which he correctly identifies as the source of the Nile.
  • 1862: American Richard Gatling invents the first practical machine gun.

Event and Its Context


In 1850 British economy, society, and politics had become more stable. After the onset of the Industrial Revolution, Britain had gone through massive social and political upheaval to become the "workshop of the world," and now prosperity was on the rise for skilled workers, who were the aristocrats of the working class. Skilled engineers, the indispensable mechanics at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, enjoyed relatively high wages. Cheap imports and large markets were available throughout England's extensive empire, still untroubled by the first Indian uprising of 1858. International competition, which would emerge as an important factor in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, was relatively weak. Politically, Chartism, a political reform movement, was in decline. The ASE reflected this new stability by creating a durable form of trade unionism for the labor aristocracy.

A New Model Union?

The Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) was formed in 1851, when several skilled engineering unions merged. It existed under that name until 1920, when it merged with the Steam Engine Makers and other unions to create the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU). The ASE was one of a group of "New Model" unions formed around this time. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the first historians of British trade unionism, used this term, because, unlike some predecessors, such unions were coordinated nationally and concentrated on industrial rather than political issues.

These craft unions represented small, elite groups of engineers such as millwrights, turners, and fitters. Membership was rigidly restricted to those who had served an apprenticeship; women and less skilled workers were excluded. Thus, unions pushed up the price of skilled labor by restricting its supply. This was maintained by pride in the craft and the rights of artisans, including the right to a democratic voice in the union. They also fiercely defended craft prerogatives in the workshop by maintaining the right to determine how journeymen worked; by accepting only fully apprenticed men as skilled workers (they described others as "illegal"); and by rejecting systematic overtime and piecework. These unions were known as societies and sometimes as clubs. The durability of this tradition is shown by the use of these terms among AEU members until well into the twentieth century.

These societies used forms of mutual insurance to help members and their families through sickness, unemployment, migration, and funerals. The largest was the so-called Old Mechanics, which by 1838 had nearly 3,000 members. The Old Mechanics had tried to enforce minimum pay rates at district level (district rates). Nevertheless, the legality of trade unions was uncertain, and thus the problem of misappropriation of funds by officials could not be pursued legally. While political agitation was widespread, there was also considerable experimentation in the form and direction of these societies. Consequently, there were many competing societies; they were fluid in form and, because of inadequate coverage, often ineffective and short-lived. The formation of the ASE, however, brought most of these societies together. It consolidated engineering trade unions on a sound basis. It brought a clearer direction and coordination to trade unionism, both in engineering and more widely, so that by the end of the nineteenth century, the ASE enjoyed great prestige among trade unionists. That prestige arose from the organization's national coordination and membership control. Coordination, however, did not mean central control.

Employers Challenge the Old Mechanics

By 1851 technological change had de-skilled some jobs; employers would reclassify a job as "unskilled" and hire "illegal" workers below the district rates. When challenged, they used the law against the societies. A turning point occurred in 1846, when workers conducted a strike at the Jones and Potts Newton-Le-Willows locomotive building works. The strike concerned the employment of illegal workers and was supported by voluntary donations organized by the Old Mechanics. Henry Selby, their general secretary, was arrested along with 26 other members for unlawful conspiracy, a legal action that also threatened trade unionism more generally. Although they were convicted, their convictions were reversed on appeal.

The key point, however, was the defeat of the strike, and some thought that an orderly retreat was required. Others, like William Newton and William Allan, felt that stronger craft controls were needed, which could be achieved only by greater unity. Newton wanted trade protection funds in order to show employers that they had the capacity to win strikes, not simply provide individual benefits. Allan became secretary of a provisional committee intended to form such a society at the beginning of 1851, but many remained opposed. One reason was the high rate of dues, which Allan thought was needed to finance defense of craft prerogatives. Opponents also felt that services to individual members should be the key function of societies and that employers should not be provoked by collective action. Opposition meant there was a real danger that the new society would simply add one more to the already large number of competing "clubs."

ASE began on 6 January 1851 with just 5,000 members, making it smaller than the Old Mechanics in 1850. However, by June 1851, because of extensive publicity by Newton and Allan, there were more than 9,000 members in 100 branches. Several other societies also decided to join the ASE. The publicity had stressed the need to function in a more focused and determined way than societies had done before. Indeed, the ASE could also advance the individual service functions of the old societies. For example, members traveling from one district to another in search of work had always been able to visit members in the new town (if they existed) to help find work or to receive benefits while unemployed. Now there was the prospect of a more comprehensive network. For this reason and to enforce craft prerogatives in every town, ASE elected district committees to consolidate their forces.

The Employers Challenge the ASE: The 1852 Lockout

The ASE built confidence among engineers, which alarmed employers. In December 1851 the ASE instructed members in Lancashire and London to ban piecework and systematic overtime after New Year's Day, 1852. The larger employers locked out many ASE members who tried to implement the ban. As union funds for supporting its members ran out, the dispute became very public, which brought support from other unions. It was not long, however, before all the funds were exhausted. The employers won and required workers to sign their "document," which was a rejection of the union and its rules; many were forced to sign. The ASE was defeated, but, because the dispute involved mostly larger companies, the damage was limited. Also, there was some solace from the fact that international trade union coordination had defeated employers' attempts to import substitute labor from abroad.

Consolidating the ASE

The lockout might have spelled the end for the ASE, and it seemed to confirm arguments that the society would provoke employers into major action. Owing to the work of Newton and Allan and the effectiveness of the union on a local level, the ASE did not collapse and was rebuilt in the following years, and further national confrontations were avoided. The organization's policy was dual; whereas it turned a conciliatory face toward employers and national government, it acted effectively at the local level.

As its key officer, Allan sustained the national organization, maintaining cohesion by informing members through the Monthly Report and working tirelessly to support local activists. He tended to be cautious politically and facilitated the emigration of members. The effects were positive, largely because of a buoyant labor demand, and the union retained power and influence in many districts. While Allan insisted that the union's policy was "defense not defiance," members conducted "guerilla" actions locally to defend craft prerogatives. Employers who insisted on systematic overtime, piecework, or too many adult "apprentices" could be sanctioned by the "strike in detail"; district committees would pull their members from these "black" employers' workshops and support them out of the gradually rebuilt local funds. The employers, by comparison, were poorly organized.

The union created a positive image both among its members and more widely in the trade union movement, not least because it proved effective and durable. Nationally, the ASE was well administered and its accounting was transparent. It had a strong reputation for democracy, based on the ideas that the union was elite and exclusive and that each member had inalienable rights. Thus, while there were elements of coordination at the national level, strong rights were accorded to districts and, indeed, to members in general. This model was significant beyond Britain. The ASE was the first union to incorporate Irish branches successfully; wherever groups of members went, it formed branches. British engineers traveled throughout North America and the empire selling their skills. In some countries, such as New Zealand, this had a real impact on local trade unionism.

Key Players

Allan, William (1813-1874): General secretary of the ASE until his death in 1874, Allan was active in the Chartist movement for political reform. Allan was Selsby's successor as general secretary of the Old Mechanics and a solid administrator. Although a poor speaker, he had the necessary reputation for scrupulous honesty.

Newton, William (1822-1876): Architect and propagandist for the ASE, Newton was active in the Chartist movement for political reform. Newton was a talented agitator, writer, and editor, and promoted the new society through his paper The Operative.

See also: Chartist Movement.



Belchem, John. Industrialization and the Working Class: The English Experience, 1750-1900. Brookfield, VT: Gower, 1990.

Croucher, Richard. Local Autonomy in the ASE, 1889-1914. Master's thesis, University of Warwick, 1971.

Jefferys, James B. The Story of the Engineers 1800-1945. New York: Johnson Reprint, 1970.

Weekes, Brian. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers,1880-1914: A Study of Trade Union Government, Politics, and Industrial Society. Ph.D. Diss., University of Warwick, 1970.

Additional Resources

Arrowsmith, James. "The Struggle over Working Time in Nineteenth Century Britain." Historical Studies in Industrial Relations 13 (spring 2002): 83-118.

—Richard Croucher