Combination Acts

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Combination Acts

Great Britain 1799-1800


Under the conservative leadership of Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, the British Parliament passed the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800. These acts were part of the government's reaction against radical workers and the French Revolution; they also expressed the conflicts between owners and workers in many industries. They prohibited all organized activity intended to improve working conditions or wages. They also prohibited organized activities by the masters, but those laws were never enforced. There were other legal weapons available to employers, and most prosecutions of organized labor in the ensuing years took place under other laws. These acts never came close to destroying organized labor in Britain, but they did contribute to government and employers' repression of trade unions. They were repealed in 1824.


  • 1775: American Revolution begins with the battles of Lexington and Concord, and delegates from each of the 13 American colonies meet for the Second Continental Congress.
  • 1787: The Constitution of the United States is signed.
  • 1789: French Revolution begins with the storming of the Bastille.
  • 1790: The first U.S. census reports a population of about 3,929,000, including 698,000 slaves.
  • 1793: Eli Whitney patents his cotton gin—a machine that, by making cotton profitable, spurs the expansion of slave labor in the southern United States.
  • 1800: The world's population reaches 870 million.
  • 1800: The United States moves its federal government to Washington, D.C.
  • 1800: British astronomer William Herschel discovers infrared rays, and Italian physicist Alessandro Volta develops the voltaic cell, an early form of battery.
  • 1802: France, under the direction of Napoleon Bonaparte, revokes a 1794 decree emancipating the slaves of Haiti; reintroduces slavery to that colony; and imprisons slave revolt leader Toussaint L'Ouverture.
  • 1803: Administration of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson negotiates the Louisiana Purchase from France, whereby the United States doubles its geographic size, adding some 827,000 square miles (2,144,500 sq km)—all for the price of only $15 million.
  • 1808: U.S. Congress bans the importation of slaves.
  • 1810: Revolts begin in South America, initiating the process whereby colonies will win their freedom from Spain and other European colonial powers.

Event and Its Context

Political and Economic Contexts

Increasingly, during the latter part of the eighteenth century, organized workers in certain trades pressed for higher wages and improved working conditions. This activity increase further at beginning of the French revolutionary wars, particularly as food prices increased steeply. Employers increasingly sought the help of the government to limit workers' demands.

At the time, the British government was at war with the French Republic and was extremely wary of domestic revolutionaries, "Jacobins," sympathetic toward France. There had been a great mutiny in the navy in 1797, and the following year a French army landed in Ireland to collaborate with Irish rebels. The government had been moving in the direction of greater repression from the beginning of the war with France in 1793. It suspended habeas corpus; broadened the law of treason; banned secret societies through the Unlawful Oaths act of 1797; established tight control over the press with the 1798 Newspaper Act; and, with the 1799 Corresponding Societies Act, suppressed political correspondence societies.

The First Combination Act, 1799

The movement that led to the Combination Acts began with a petition to the House of Commons from master millwrights; they complained about an organization (or "combination") of journeymen millwrights in London and the surrounding area. The House of Commons referred the petition to a committee, which was standard practice when a labor dispute was brought to Parliament. The committee suggested repression of the combination and that wages be fixed by local magistrates. The role of local magistrates in the fixing of wages, however, had been shrinking steadily during the eighteenth century.

William Wilberforce, a friend of the prime minister, suggested that Parliament pass a law of general applicability, providing prompt legal recourse for masters when confronted by workers' combinations. The first Combination Act was brought before the House of Commons on 17 June 1799 and passed quickly, receiving the royal assent on 12 July. Also passed on that day was the Corresponding Societies Act, another attack on "subversive" political groups. The act attracted little attention in Parliament, and the only recorded speakers against it were in the House of Commons by Benjamin Hobhouse and in the House of Lords by the Whig leader Lord Holland. There was also little opposition elsewhere. Except for the London calico-printers, workers seemed unaware of the hastily passed bill.

The act of 1799 canceled all previous agreements, written or unwritten, between workers and employers. It forbade workers, on pain of two months hard labor, from combining to press for improvement in wages and working conditions. This was, in fact, a relatively mild penalty by the standards of the time. Workers were also forbidden to encourage other workers to quit or to object to working with anyone else. The act attacked worker solidarity by a fine of ten pounds for anyone caught contributing to the expenses of a person convicted under the acts subject; the person receiving support was liable to a fine of five pounds. The act also made it possible to force defendants to testify against one another. Charges would be brought before one or more magistrates, allowing employers to move quickly against workers without going through a long court process. If convicted, workers were sentenced to two months hard labor. Appeal could be made only to quarter sessions, which met four times in a year. The act confirmed magistrates in their power against employers' combinations but did not enhance them or provide any new means of enforcement.

The Second Combination Act, 1800

After its passage, the act aroused organized working-class opposition. A coordinated campaign led to a flood of petitions to Parliament, protesting the act and demanding its repeal. The petitions were from workers in English cities, including London, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, and Nottingham. The petitions were presented to Parliament in June 1800, and the government decided to modify some of the Combination Act's more obnoxious features. The provisions of the final version of the Combination Acts prohibited workers from organizing to increase wages or decrease hours, In response to criticism of the original act, the penalties had to be imposed by at least two magistrates in agreement, and it was required that they not belong to the trade in question. Penalties, however, remained relatively mild—three months imprisonment or two months hard labor. The act went beyond the 1799 act by explicitly forbidding employers' combinations, but these provisions were never enforced. In 1811 the northern trade union leader Gravener Henson carried on a long, ultimately fruitless, campaign to enforce the acts against employers.

The 1800 act also differed from the 1799 act in setting up a system of arbitration—perhaps the last appearance of the old notion that magistrates had a role in setting wages and prices. Both sides of a dispute could nominate an arbitrator, and if the arbitrations did not produce as mutually satisfactory solution in the three days, the dispute would go before a magistrate, though the three-day deadline could be extended by mutual consent. This arbitration procedure was seldom used. The Combination Act of 1800 became law on 29 July.

Effects of the Combination Acts

The legal environment, already tilted heavily against organized labor, was not drastically changed by the combination acts. Also, they did not apply to Scotland, which had a different, even more repressive, legal system. Nevertheless, Scottish magistrates managed to crack down on workers without the benefit of the acts. In England enforcement of the acts and other antiunion laws varied tremendously in different regions and industries, particularly in areas where the magistrates—often rural gentry or Church of England clergy—and masters came from different social backgrounds. The burden of initiating a legal action under the acts lay on the masters, who were varied. In some stable, small-scale artisan industries, masters accepted the existence of trade clubs among their skilled employees. Repression was far greater in large-scale industry, whether it involved factory or contract workers. Given the relatively mild penalties under the acts and the ability of workers to delay the proceedings by appeal to quarter sessions, they were not the best legal tools the masters had. Rather than using the acts themselves, most antiunion legal activity continued use the common law concept of conspiracy or the Elizabethan Statute of Artificers.

The acts did not end workers' combinations by any means. A few kinds of worker organizations were still allowed. Benefit societies, for example, which provided mutual economic assistance for members, were allowed to meet legally, and trade union activity was able to continue under their cloak. Workers could also organize to petition Parliament or to appeal to a local magistrate in a wage dispute. Many trades unions already in existence, such as the wool combers, shipwrights, and tailors, continued relatively unchallenged throughout the period of the acts. New unions also came into existence, and, because they had to work underground illegally, they were often closely allied with radical political groups. Secrecy thus became deeply ingrained in the culture of many unions. The fact that the acts included all trades may have encouraged workers to organize more broadly, rather than each trade battling separately for improved conditions. The acts were repealed in 1824.

Key Players

Fox, Henry Richard Vassal, third Baron Holland (1773-1840): Lord Holland entered the House of Lords in 1796 and was the principal representative there for the Whig party during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He supported progressive causes—including the abolition of the slave trade, despite the slave workers on his West Indies plantations. Holland was chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster in Whig cabinets 1830-1834 and 1835-1840.

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 a legal case against the masters under the Combination Act in 1811, but the magistrates refused to take action. He lobbied Parliament unsuccessfully for legislation that would benefit the framework-knitters in 1812. It was rumored that Henson was connected with the Luddites, and he was imprisoned during the suspension of habeas corpus from 1817 to 1818. He presented a new plan to replace the Combination Act in 1824.

Pitt, William, the Younger (1759-1806): Pitt was British prime minister from 1783 to 1801, and again from 1804 to his death in 1806. Although Pitt was initially sympathetic to reform, the reaction against the French Revolution and the necessity of keeping the favor of King George III drove him, often against his will, in a more conservative direction. He is frequently considered the founder of the modern British Conservative Party.

Wilberforce, William (1759-1833): Wilberforce was the leader of the British abolitionist movement for many years. He was an original founder of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and served in the House of Commons from 1780 to 1825. He retired from active involvement in the antislavery movement around that date. He died a few weeks before the passage of the Abolition Act. A political conservative, Wilberforce also supported repressive policies against British workers including the Combination Acts.

See also: Repeal of Combination Acts.


Ehrman, John. The Younger Pitt: The Consuming Struggle. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Pelling, Henry. A History of British Trade Unionism, 3d ed.New York: Penguin, 1976.

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

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

Additional Resources

Aspinall, Arthur. The Early English Trade Unions: Documents from the Home Office Papers in the Public Record Office. London: Batchworth, 1949.

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

Rule, John. The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England, 1750-1850. New York: Longman, 1986.

Trade Unions under the Combination Acts, five pamphlets,1799-1823. New York: Arno, 1972.

—William E. Burns

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The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 struck a blow against the legal formation of trade unions in Britain. While the acts banned combinations of workers as well as employers, in practice they were used only against workers who bargained collectively for shorter hours or higher pay. The immediate cause of the 1799 act was a petition by employers frustrated by the successful combination of London millwrights. Instead of regulating just one trade, the government of William Pitt adopted the suggestion of the abolitionist member of Parliament William Wilberforce and proposed a ban on all combinations. According to the 1799 act, which became law on 12 July, workers could do none of the following: join together to demand new wages or working conditions, encourage anyone to stop working, refuse to work with others, prevent an employer from hiring, or attend meetings or collect funds for illegal purposes. As a result, trade unions were effectively declared illegal. The act also called for "summary jurisdiction" and thus targeted the often slow legal process about which employers complained. Rather than trial by jury, a magistrate would issue a ruling and could sentence convicted workers for up to three months in prison or two months of hard labor. Workers submitted petitions against the act to Parliament. The amended 1800 act, which became law on 29 July, addressed the workers' grievances, although the bulk of the 1799 act remained intact. Most notably, the 1800 act declared combinations of employers illegal (to prevent decreased wages, additional hours, or increased work); required two magistrates instead of one; and prohibited employers from acting as magistrates in cases involving their own trade.

A convenient way to understand the historical debate over the Combination Acts is to consider whether the acts marked a minor or major shift in British labor history. Arguments in favor of continuity point to several features. First, it can be argued that the acts merely rationalized and extended what had already been established in statutes and common law across the eighteenth century. Bans on combinations had long been in force in particular trades and locations through legislation that affected, for example, tailors in 1721, woolen workers in 1726, hatters in 1777, and papermakers in 1796. In fact, most anti-union prosecutions were based not on the Combination Acts but on older legal restraints like breach of contract, the 1563 Statute of Artificers punishing unfinished work, and the common law for conspiracy. The Combination Acts were thus nothing exceptional or new. Moreover, the acts did not prevent the formation of trade unions, which despite the need for secrecy continued to grow. Nor did they prevent episodes of "collective bargaining by riot," most commonly associated with the machine-breaking activity of the Luddites. Combinations survived in part because of sympathetic magistrates, aristocrats, and gentry more concerned with preventing disorder and preserving the social structure than with upholding the precise letter of the law; because of difficulties in distinguishing illegal combinations from legal self-help or friendly societies; because it was still legal for journeymen to organize for the purpose of petitioning Parliament and magistrates; and because the burden of prosecution fell on employers who risked the loss of skilled workers and income. Yet strong arguments also support the opposing view, that the Combination Acts represented a major change in British policy. Regardless of the number of prosecutions under the acts, they could nevertheless promote a climate of fear among workers and of confidence among employers. The threat of prosecuting workers was real, whether or not legal action was ever taken. The Combination Acts can also be seen as a reaction to elite fears of political sedition during the Napoleonic Wars. On this reading, the acts were an anti-Jacobin measure meant to intimidate political reformers as well as workers. And lastly, it can be argued that the acts embraced market forces at the expense of an older paternalism. Magistrates arbitrated existing contracts but no longer regulated wages, and they could also approve the hire of nonapprenticed labor. The historiographical debate outlined above demonstrates that the Combination Acts accompanied the transition from a commercial to an industrial economy. The paradox of trade unions and the Combination Acts existing side-by-side helps to explain why the acts' repeal, promoted by the well-organized efforts of Francis Place and Joseph Hume, came so easily in 1824. A subsequent outbreak of strikes resulted in an 1825 law that restricted the rights of trade unions. Consequently, unions occupied contested legal territory for much of the nineteenth century.

See alsoGreat Britain; Luddism; Working Class.


Orth, John V. "English Combination Acts of the Eighteenth Century." Law and History Review 5, no. 1 (1987): 175–211. A detailed description of trade-union legislation, including the 1799 and 1800 Combination Acts, with a summary of the historical debate and relevant sources.

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

Elisa R. Milkes

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Combination Acts, 1799–1800. These Acts were directed against trade unions (combinations of workmen) when the government feared unrest and even revolution. Combinations were in fact already illegal under both common law and statute; the Acts were intended to simplify and speed up prosecution by summary trial. The Acts failed to crush the unions, consisting mainly of skilled artisans, but did force them to operate circumspectly or secretly. Repeal of the Acts came in 1824–5 after a campaign master-minded by Place and presented by Joseph Hume, and was followed by an immediate upsurge in trade union activity.

John F. C. Harrison

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Combination acts British Acts of Parliament of 1799 and 1800 making combinations (trade unions) of workers illegal. The government feared that such organizations were potentially subversive. Trade unions nevertheless multiplied after 1815, and in 1824 the acts were repealed. A later Combination Act (1825) restricted the right to strike and, as the Tolpuddle Martyrs (1834) demonstrated, trade-union organizers could still be prosecuted.