Repeal of Combination Acts

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Repeal of Combination Acts

Great Britain 1824


The English Combination Acts forbade workers to organize for the purpose of obtaining higher wages or controlling work-place conditions. The acts were repealed in 1824 as the result of a campaign led by the radical London tailor and political agitator Francis Place and the radical member of Parliament (MP) Joseph Hume. The social basis of the campaign was the skilled artisan class, particularly in London, rather than factory workers or laborers. A wave of strikes following repeal aroused organized opposition from manufacturers, and a new version of the Combination Act was passed in 1825. The new act, although it severely restricted the activities permitted to workers' groups, did allow trade unions a legal existence.


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Event and Its Context

The Movement for Repeal

The campaign that eventually resulted in the repeal of the Combination Acts began in 1814, when Francis Place began organizing, collecting information, and using the press to express opposition to the acts. The basis of Place's criticism was that the acts, by rendering workers' organizations illegal, embittered relations between workers and employers (although it did not actually prevent the formation of combinations or unions). Place himself was not a great supporter of workers' combinations, which he believed were essentially useless in increasing wages. A follower of classical political economy, Place believed that wages were influenced by the supply and demand for labor rather than by organization. He also believed that it would be better for workers to be free to form combinations and then realize their weakness for themselves rather than be forbidden to form them.

The social base of the campaign against the Combination Acts was not factory workers but London artisans, particularly those in the skilled trades. A short-lived but influential newspaper aimed at London artisans, the Gorgon, which had been founded in 1818 by John Wade with the backing of Place's friend, utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, joined the campaign against the Combination Acts. More successful periodicals that campaigned against the acts included Thomas Wooler's radical weekly Black Dwarf, which organized a petitioning campaign in support of repeal in January 1824, and Joseph Robertson and Thomas Hodgskin's three-penny monthly, Mechanics' Magazine. Using Hodgskin as an intermediary, Place won the support of the influential Edinburgh political economist John McCulloch, who wrote an article in the January 1824 Edinburgh Review that influenced the thinking of MPs and others among the elite.

Joseph Hume presented large numbers of petitions calling for reform of the Combination Acts and gained approval in principle from government leaders. The situation was complicated by the introduction of an alternative bill supported by the Midlands leader of framework-knitters, Gravener Henson. Henson's bill would have abolished not just the Combination Acts themselves, but many other acts against combination, some of which had become dead letters. Because many of the legal actions taken against workers' groups rested not on the Combination Acts themselves but on other laws or an interpretation of common law that forbade unions as conspiracies in restraint of trade, Place and other activists recognized the need to go beyond merely repealing the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800. The difference between the bill Place and Hume planned to introduce and Henson's bill was that Henson would not only have abolished all laws pertaining to combination, but also would have set up an elaborate machinery to govern labor relations, regulate wages, and settle disputes. Henson gained the support of a Whig MP, Peter Moore of Coventry, who introduced the bill in 1823. Place believed that Henson's and Moore's bill had no chance to pass and merely provoked opposition to repeal of the Combination Acts among MPs and the government. Place and Hume also disagreed with Henson's approach on philosophical grounds, as both believed in orthodox "political economy" with minimal regulation of both capital and labor.

Parliament and the Select Committee

At the opening of Parliament in 1824, Place and his parliamentary allies moved to preempt Henson and Moore and promote their own version of repeal by creating and stacking a parliamentary select committee. Hume moved for the creation of the committee, with the task of investigating the Combination Acts along with other economically restrictive laws, the bans on the export of machinery, and emigration of workmen. Hume chaired the new committee and Place provided witnesses to give testimony against the acts. Place's witnesses excluded both radical trade unionists and the most reactionary employers. There was significant popular support for repeal, as evidenced by workers' meetings, the lobbying of MPs, and petitioning. The committee ended by proposing a series of resolutions rather than a report, and Hume introduced three bills based on the committee's work. One repealed the ban on worker emigration and another consolidated and modified laws on arbitration. The third was the repeal of the Combination Acts. It went further than merely repealing the laws of 1799 and 1800, though, and further than the committee had envisioned. It repealed laws against combination that dated back to the middle ages and also made unions immune from prosecution as conspiracies at common law. It retained the provision for summary trial of those charged with using violence or intimidation to force adherence to a combination. All three bills passed without serious opposition and with the advantage of surprise. Both the prime minister, Lord Liverpool, and the president of the Board of Trade, William Huskisson, later admitted that they had not been aware of the provisions of the act when it was passed.

The Combination Act of 1825

Although some warned workers that attempts to exploit the new legal situation to win higher wages would result in new combination laws, the British economy was booming, the cost of living was rising sharply, and upward pressure on wages was high. Repeal was followed by a wave of strikes, particularly in Lancashire, much to Hume's disgust. The Lancashire manufacturers and Thames shipbuilders, whose shipwrights were on strike, lobbied Parliament for the reinstatement of the combination laws, or for new and even more restrictive laws against combination. Newspapers aimed at the middle and upper classes, such as the London Times, attacked what they claimed was trade union criminality and violence. This pressure resulted in Huskisson's taking action. On 28 March 1825 Parliament appointed a Select Committee on the Combination Laws. It was chaired by one of the government's economic experts, the master of the mint, Thomas Wallace. The new committee's mission was to develop very quickly a bill that would satisfy the demands of employers. The committee spent little time on hearings or studying the effects of the 1824 bill. The committee was also strongly biased toward employers and refused to hear trade union representatives, but they paid the expenses of witnesses who would testify against trade unions and charge them with violence and intimidation.

The organized workers met the new committee with massive lobbying efforts, led by Place and the leader of the London shipwrights, John Gast, who was one of the country's leading trade unionists. On 18 April, Gast arranged for the formation of a committee comprising two delegates apiece from many London trades including shipwrights, hatters, brassfounders, silk weavers, carpenters, ladies' shoemakers, and ropemakers. Similar developments were occurring outside London. In Manchester, a meeting of members of different trades on 14 April led to the formation of a Manchester Artisans' General Committee that worked with the Londoners. Groups of artisans in different trades also formed in Birmingham, Sheffield, and Sunderland. Place encouraged provincial workers' organizations to send delegates to London; these included Thomas Hodgson, Henry Woodruffe, and John Beveridge of the Shields and Sunderland seamen and Thomas Worsley of the Stockport cotton-spinners. Others arrived from as far away as Glasgow. The London trade union group met at the Red Lion in Parliament square. Their efforts to win a hearing before the committee were usually frustrated, although eventually the committee heard some representatives from the London shipwrights and coopers. Another petition drive led to the presentation of 97 petitions containing over 100,000 signatures against reimposing the combination laws. These far outweighed the manufacturers' petitions that favored a new combination law. The trades also sponsored the printing and distribution of a pamphlet by Place that attacked a speech by Huskisson.

The government was less concerned with the use of collective bargaining on wages and working conditions than on restrictions on labor mobility and mechanization. The government was also worried about the growth of nationwide labor federations that clearly had a mission outside individual work-places. The bill presented by the attorney general on 17 June did not restore the original Combination Acts. Instead, it made combinations illegal with the exception of those that met solely for the purpose of determining wages, prices, or working hours. Although this exception recognized the legitimacy of trade union activity, it was followed by a clause that forbade the intimidation of any worker by a combination. This clause interpreted any action against workers who undercut union rates as an offense. The act made such charges easy to bring and prosecute and provided for summary jurisdiction by a magistrate rather than trial by jury. Workers were also concerned by the exclusion of matters such as apprenticeship from those that could be legitimately discussed by combinations. The act seemed to limit combinations to a single trade or workplace and endangered the legality of organizations based on delegates from different trades or workplaces. Place, Hume, and others secured an agreement that these problems would be remedied in the final version of the bill, and in turn he and Place agreed to work against public opposition to the bill.

Robert Peel, a Tory politician working with the London shipbuilders torpedoed Initial prospects of a compromise. The shipwrights were still on strike, and Peel threatened that if they did not go back to work, he would modify the bill to once again make combinations prosecutable. The shipwrights did not end their strike. Late June was marked by intense and rather nasty debates, with Peel championing the employers and Hume the workers. The radical Westminster MPs, John Cam Hobhouse and Sir Francis Burdett, supported Hume. There was a see-saw parliamentary struggle over the intimidation clause, with the supporters of the employers seeking to define the forbidden behavior with vague terms such as "insult," which would open the doors for very broad interpretations of what workers were not allowed to do. Place and Gast organized opposition and lobbied both in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The bill in its final form met some of the demands of the trade unions, including providing more safeguards for workers accused of intimidation. Although the bill definitely marked a step backward from 1824, it was not as bad for workers' groups as many had anticipated and was generally accepted.

The struggles over the 1824 and 1825 bills were important for the development of English trade unionism. They brought home to workers the importance of cooperation between different trades and between London and provincial workers. Out of the struggle was born the Trades Newspaper, which was launched in July 1825, edited by Robertson, and in practice dominated by Gast. Actions of organized workers at this time were also a great leap forward in the effective lobbying of Parliament. The most important institutional effect of the new laws was that they protected the legal existence of trade unions, which operated under a variety of restrictions on what they could discuss and what methods they could use to promote solidarity. Many of these restrictions would be subjects of further struggle in the nineteenth century.

Key Players

Gast, John (1772-1837): Gast was the leader of Thames ship-wrights in the early nineteenth century. He founded the Hearts of Oak Society, a benefits society for shipwrights that erected almshouses for retired shipwrights, and the Thames Shipwrights' Provident Union, one of the first groups of workers anywhere to use the word union to describe themselves. Gast was a leader in the attempt to form a general union of London's skilled workers, the "Philanthropic Hercules." He was also active in radical London politics and religion.

Henson, Gravener (1785-1852): Henson was a leader of the framework-knitters movement in the Midlands and the author of History of the Framework-Knitting and Lace Trades(1831). He tried to bring an action against the masters under the Combination Act in 1811, but the magistrates refused to take action. He lobbied Parliament unsuccessfully to pass legislation to benefit the framework-knitters in 1812. Henson was rumored to be connected with the Luddites and was imprisoned during the suspension of habeas corpus from 1817 to 1818.

Hodgskin, Thomas (1783-1869): A retired naval lieutenant, Hodgskin was a colleague of Joseph Robertson in the Mechanics' Magazine and the founding of the London Mechanics' Institution. He wrote Labour Defended against the Claims of Capital (1825) under the pseudonym "A Labourer" and Popular Political Economy (1827). He was one of the earliest English writers to advocate the overthrow of capitalism in the interest of the laborers.

Hume, Joseph (1777-1855): Hume was a radical London member of Parliament but tended to support the doctrines of orthodox political economy, emphasizing the evil of government restraints on trade. For this reason, he opposed the movement for a 10-hour workday.

Huskisson, William (1770-1830): Huskisson was a politician and economic expert in the Tory Party. He served as president of the Board of Trade and treasurer of the navy from 1823 to 1827 and as secretary for war and the colonies from 1827 to 1828.

Peel, Robert (1788-1850): Peel was a Conservative politician who served as prime minister from 1834 to 1835 and 1841 to 1846. He was active in the repeal of the Corn Laws.

Place, Francis (1771-1854): Place was a leader in London radicalism for decades, organizing a strike in 1793 and agitating against the sinking fund from 1816 to 1823. Despite his strong anticlerical and antiaristocratic opinions, he was never a revolutionary or a democrat. Place served as an intellectual point of contact between working-class movements and the world of middle-class utilitarian reformers. Along with Robertson and Hodgskin, he was a leader in the 1823 founding of the London Mechanics' Institution, devoted to scientific and technical education. Place had a prominent role in organizing popular support, even to the point of insurrection, for the Reform Bill of 1832, and assisted in the drafting of the People's Charter.

Robertson, Joseph: Robertson, along with Thomas Hodgskin, launched the Mechanics' Magazine in 1823. Robertson was an advocate and organizer of the London Mechanics Institution, although he and Place disagreed about the program of the Institution and became bitter rivals. Robertson was the first editor of the Trades Newspaper.

Wade, John (1788-1875): Wade was a woolsorter by profession and founder in 1818 of the Gorgon, the first newspaper to cover extensively the affairs of trade unions. Although it only lasted until 1819, it defended striking Manchester cotton workers and drew upon Utilitarian philosophy and working-class experience to make detailed analyses of the position of different trades. Wade later wrote History of the Middle and Working Classes (1835).

Wooler, Thomas (1786-1853): Wooler was a printer from Yorkshire who founded and managed the Black Dwarf (1817-1824), one of the most popular papers among British radicals. He consistently supported open radical organization aimed at peacefully taking power over violent and clandestine organizations.

See also: Combination Acts.



Pelling, Henry. A History of British Trade Unionism, 3rd ed.Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1976.

Prothero, Iorwerth. Artisans and Politics in Early Nineteenth-Century London: John Gast and His Times. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class.New York: Pantheon Books, 1964.

Woodward, Llewellyn. The Age of Reform: England,

1815-1870. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962

Additional Resources


Miles, Dudley. Francis Place, 1771-1854: The Life of a Remarkable Radical. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Repeal of the Combination Acts: Five Pamphlets and One Broadside. New York: Arno Press, 1972.

Rice, John, ed. British Trade Unionism, 1750-1850: The Formative Years. London: Longman, 1988.


Thompson, W. S. "Francis Place and Working-Class History." Historical Journal 5 (1962): 61-70.

—William E. Burns