Trades Union Act

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Trades Union Act

Great Britain 1871


The British government appointed a royal commission in 1867 to hear evidence from employers and leading trade unionists on the question of trades (labor) unions and to make recommendations. The outcome was legalization of such organizations so that they had a recognized status and could protect their funds. Three of the commission's eleven members signed a minority report that was more favorable to the unions than the majority one; the law was based on the minority report. The Liberal government of Prime Minister William Gladstone brought in the Trades Union bill in February 1871. It included "criminal provisions" that prescribed penalties for any form of picketing; those clauses were eventually embodied in a separate measure, the Criminal Law Amendment Act. Both this and the Trades Union Act became law in June of the same year. The existence of a second act made it easier for trade unionists and their supporters to focus on repeal of the objectionable parts of the law while leaving the statutory legalization intact. Further measures later improved the position of the unions, but 1871 stands as the legal watershed.


  • 1851: Britain's Amalgamated Society of Engineers applies innovative organizational concepts, including large contributions from, and benefits to, members, as well as vigorous use of direct action and collective bargaining.
  • 1853: Crimean War begins in October. The struggle, which will last until February 1856, pits Russia against the combined forces of Great Britain, France, Turkey, and Sardinia-Piedmont. A war noted for the work of Florence Nightingale with the wounded, it is also the first conflict to be documented by photojournalists.
  • 1861: Unification of Italy under Sardinian king Victor Emmanuel II.
  • 1864: Foundation of the International Red Cross in Geneva.
  • 1867: Dual monarchy established in Austria-Hungary.
  • 1871: Franco-Prussian War ends with France's surrender of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany, which proclaims itself an empire under Prussian king Wilhelm, crowned Kaiser Wilhelm I.
  • 1871: U.S. troops in the West begin fighting the Apache nation.
  • 1871: Boss Tweed corruption scandal in New York City.
  • 1871: Chicago fire causes 250 deaths and $196 million in damage.
  • 1873: Financial panic begins in Vienna and soon spreads to other European financial centers as well as to the United States.
  • 1876: Alexander Graham Bell introduces the telephone.
  • 1880: Completion of Cologne Cathedral, begun 634 years earlier. With twin spires 515 feet (157 m) high, it is the tallest structure in the world, and will remain so until 1889, when it is surpassed by the Eiffel Tower. (The previous record for the world's tallest structure lasted much longer—for about 4,430 years following the building of Cheops's Great Pyramid in c. 2550 B.C.)

Event and Its Context

By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, attitudes on both sides of the capital-labor division in Britain were shifting and modifying. On the one hand, "new unionism" meant that large amalgamated organizations would seek to be perceived not as a threat but as a force for progress, fulfilling useful functions in a benevolent fashion. On the other, some enlightened proprietors and manufacturers advocated conciliation and arbitration rather than reacting repressively against any attempts by workers to better their lot. Influential thinkers and writers likewise endorsed a more sympathetic approach on both moral and rational grounds. The existing restrictions on what were coming to be seen as legitimate, necessary activities appeared inappropriate, more so when a new stratum of voters (composed particularly of urban artisans) gained a political voice that was conferred by the 1867 Reform Act.

The Perceived Problem

At the same time, labor engaged in confrontations, strikes, and lockouts that shattered the industrial peace. In 1866 the Sheffield outrages, which involved arson and violent intimidation against nonunion workers, tarnished the unions' public image and led to calls for an inquiry. Meanwhile in the courts, in the case of Hornby v. Close (1867), the Boilermakers' Society was unable to seek redress when a local official absconded with funds. This decision resulted because the society's purpose had been judged unlawful, in spite of its having gone through a registration process. Advocates for the trade unionists attempted to address the anomalies in the unions' legal position in an ad-hoc fashion, using new or amended acts of Parliament.

The Search for a Solution

Against this backdrop, the royal commission that had been appointed early in 1867 by the Conservative government had the task of studying trade unionism in general and seeking a long-term solution. Although the government would not go so far as to appoint a working man (women, of course, were not considered), the commission's 11 members included two who were regarded as allies of the trade unionists: their nominee, writer and barrister Frederic Harrison, and "interested Member of Parliament (MP)" Thomas Hughes. Several employers, notably J. A Roebuck, MP for Sheffield, also served, along with two Lords, Elcho and Lichfield.

Hostile witnesses denounced "restrictive practices," but sympathy for union aims and agreement with their general outlook was apparent in much of the evidence that was heard by the commission. Robert Applegarth of the carpenters union, who also attended as observer on behalf of the unions, and William Allan of the engineers union were influential witnesses. They and three other union leaders had been working together in the group known to historians as the Junta. The Junta's tactics were to focus attention on the big unions, functioning in an organized way and exerting control over their finances and members. An alternative view might have been heard if Thomas Connolly, president of the stonemasons, had not been excluded from meetings at an early stage after an unfortunate public speech; he was the representative nominated by the group organized by George Potter, editor of the labor paper The Bee-Hive, known as a militant advocate of strike action. The others did not necessarily abdicate a class position but made an effort to portray strikes as a last resort. Allan, for example, maintained that there was an inevitable divergence of interests between employers and workers, as the former sought the cheapest labor and the latter the highest wages possible.

The case for working with rather than against the union leaders was put cogently from the bosses' point of view by A. J. Mundella, a successful hosiery manufacturer who had pioneered arbitration as well as improving hours, wages, and conditions in his Nottingham firm. He described the unions as standing between the ordinary workers and the employers, an influence for moderation and progressive change. Parallel arguments were put forth by the workers' representatives, who emphasized respectability and responsibility and claimed to improve working people's characters as well as lives. A consensus was emerging that the existence of unions should be recognized and regulated. Such far-from-radical organs of the national press as The Times and The Economist of London printed moderate or favorable comments. The outcome of the commission was accordingly not implacable opposition to the idea of unions, but its eventual report was too restrictive to be acceptable to three of its members, even after some modification. In the end there were majority and minority reports; the latter, which was to be the more significant, was signed by Harrison, Hughes, and Lichfield.

Changing the Law

Acceptance of the commission's recommendations was not a foregone conclusion, and it was only when faced with the prospect of Mundella and Hughes introducing their own measure in Parliament that the incoming Liberal government of Gladstone put forth a Trades Union bill. This provided for the registration of trade unions that had seven or more members subscribing to union rules. Because of the 1825 Combination Act and their dubious position in law, many unions had been calling themselves Friendly Societies and registering as such, especially since the enactment of the Friendly Societies Act of 1855. In 1869 the list of such societies included engineers, machinists, millwrights, smiths, carpenters, and bricklayers. The 1855 act, like the Companies Act and others, would not apply to trades unions, which were enabled to obtain similar status, legal recognition, and protection of funds through a similar procedure and on the same terms but on a separate register. Notably, however, trade union members remained liable to criminal prosecution if they took direct action in the course of a dispute. The Annual Register for 1871 related that in February the Trades Union bill showed how the doctrine of restraint of trade had been gradually turned to the disadvantage of workers and their societies. Optional registration with protection of accounts was to allow protection of the legitimate interests of workmen, and civil disabilities were to be swept away. The bill not only retained certain offenses, however, but punished some of them more forcefully. Practices seen as essential to effective industrial action could lead to imprisonment, with "molestation and obstruction" defined to include deliberate work slowdowns or hiding tools, for example. Attempts to have the "criminal" clauses deleted only succeeded to the extent of having them taken out of the Trades Union bill and enacted as part of a separate piece of legislation, the Criminal Law Amendment Act.

The cause of labor won the main point, however: "Trades Unions not criminal" reads the unequivocal marginal note to the first clause of the Trades Union Act, which states that the purpose of these organizations was not to be deemed unlawful so as to render any member liable to prosecution for conspiracy or otherwise. The second clause specified that trade unions were "not unlawful for civil purposes" and thus their agreements and trusts were not to be interpreted as "void or violable." Some agreements were not enforceable as contracts in law, but were not unlawful either. The bill defined a trade union, in inevitably gendered language, as a "combination" that regulated relations between workmen and masters, workmen and workmen, or masters and masters, or that imposed restrictive conditions on conduct of trade or business such as would formerly have been deemed in restraint of trade.

The twin acts were passed on 30 June 1871. Their separation made it possible to demand repeal of the obnoxious aspects of the law while leaving intact the basic legalization measure. This effort became a preoccupation of labor law activists over the next few years, during which several groups of workers suffered prosecution and imprisonment. Disillusionment with the Liberal stance on the issue lost them votes, and it was under a new government, Benjamin Disraeli's Tories (and after another royal commission), that labor secured the desired amendments to the legislation. In the mid-1870s different acts placed employers and workmen on the same terms with regard to civil contracts, legalized peaceful picketing, ended the specific criminalization of collective actions, and extended protection of union funds.

Lasting Significance of the 1871 Act

In spite of the limitations of the outcome, the 1871 act stands clearly not as a final solution, but as the definitive landmark in the continuing process of legalization of unions. The Trades Union Act, and the process that led to it, may be seen too as setting a pattern for industrial relations in Britain, with large, powerful unions integrated into the country's public life. The leadership of this type of workers' organization had gained access to the corridors of power, thereby distancing themselves from the shop floor and from any more revolutionary aspirations that might appear among the rank and file.

Key Players

Allan, William (1813-1874): Allan was general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers from 1850 to 1874 and was instrumental in its formation as a national "new model" union. He was a member of the London Trades Council and its "Junta" of trade union leaders and of the Labour Representation League (1869).

Applegarth, Robert (1834-1924): General secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners from 1862 to 1871, Applegarth was the dominant personality in the "Junta" and was active in forming the Conference of Amalgamated Trades (1867). He was appointed to a royal commission on the Contagious Diseases Act in 1871.

Harrison, Frederic (1831-1923): A Liberal-Radical barrister, writer, and founding member of the London Positivist Society (1867), Harrison was regarded as an ally of trade unionists and often gave legal advice to unions in dispute. In 1889 he was appointed to the new London County Council. His books include The Philosophy of Common Sense(1907).

Hughes, Thomas (1822-1896): Hughes trained as a lawyer and was elected as a Radical Member of Parliament for Lambeth, London, in 1865. He served on royal commissions on trade unions and labor laws. His Christian Socialist outlook led him to support reforms and workers' education, self-help, and cooperation. He achieved literary fame with his best known book, Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857).

Mundella, Anthony John (1825-1897): Born in Leicester, ofItalian-Welsh parents, Mundella was an industrialist who introduced reforms and set up a labor conciliation board for the Nottingham hosiery industry in 1860. He became a Liberal politician and minister in the Department of Education and the Board of Trade.

Potter, George (1832-1893): Editor of the labor journal The Bee-Hive, founded in 1861. Potter challenged the dominance of the "Junta" group in the trade union movement. As president of the London Working Men's Association, he opened the Trades Union Congress in 1868. He ran for Parliament in 1874 and 1886 but was not elected.

See also: Second Reform Act.



Browne, Harry. The Rise of British Trade Unions, 1825-1914. London: Longman, 1979.

Checkland, Sydney G. The Rise of Industrial Society in England, 1815-1885. Harlow, Essex, UK: Longman, 1964.

Fraser, W. Hamish. A History of British Trade Unionism,1700-1998. London/Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.

Gosden, Peter H. J. H. The Friendly Societies in England,1815-1875. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1961.

Harrison, Royden. "The Positivists: A Study of Labour's Intellectuals." In Royden Harrison, Before the Socialists: Studies in Labour and Politics, 1861-1881. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1965.

Hunt, Edward H. British Labour History, 1815-1914. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1981.

Pelling, Henry. A History of British Trade Unionism. 4th edition. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books, 1987.

Perrin, Bryn. Trade Union Law. London: Butterworth & Co.,1985.


The Trades Union Congress Web site. "History of TUC, Part1: Early Victories. Section: The TUC's First Victories" [cited 29 August 2002]. <>.

Additional Resources


Briggs, Asa. "Robert Applegarth and the Trade Unions." In Asa Briggs, Victorian People. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965.

Webb, Sidney, and Beatrice Webb. The History of Trade Unionism, 1866-1920. London: Longman Green & Co, 1920.


Potter, George. "Trades' Unions, Strikes and Lock-outs: ARejoinder." Contemporary Review 17 (1871): 529.

—Elizabeth A. Willis