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The Combination Acts, 1799-1800

Mise à jour: 11 octobre 2003.

Gilles Osmont

When the 18th century began, the guild system was still applied. A guild was composed of several kinds of "class" from the merchants (or large masters) to the apprentices. Power remained in the hands of the merchants. Therefore small masters and journeymen began to form unions of their own to protect themselves, as well as their interests.

Nevertheless they failed to obtain incorporation or the right to create combinations. So the wage-earning class was compelled to secrecy. Therefore we can say that the labour troubles of the 18 th century were partly caused by the efforts of this class. But also by the employers who became worried and wanted to find a method to control the emergence of trade unions. Therefore they constantly petitioned the government against a kind of union or another, which finally led the government of William Pitt to put an end to these troubles through the passing of Combination Acts in 1799 and 1800. These acts are seen nowadays as a well-known landmark in the British Trade Union History, even if they were not completely successful or enforced.

The situation of the working class before 1799

Adam Smith considered, in his Wealth of Nations (1776), as a normal fact that the combinations of workmen came into conflict with their employers, since their interests were not the same :

What are the common wages of labour, depends everywhere upon the contract usually made between those two parties, those interests are by no means the same. The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little as possible. The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower the price of labour. (Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, I, pp 74-75)

In other words, the rise of a class of capitalist employers predicated the emergence of defensive labour organisations. Moreover the combination of workmen was the only means at their disposal to save their lives. Their first proposals went no further than the abolition of the most crying evils of the capitalist system and some improvement of the existing conditions of living, since the old method of wage-fixing seemed to have become ineffective. Therefore more and more trade clubs or societies were seeking to fix wages and conditions by collective bargaining. However these efforts encountered the resistance of the employers, who constantly petitioned the government to uphold the ancient law and suppress the "unlawful" organisations of workers.

To illustrate the point that troubles were numerous we should note that 383 disputes had been recorded between 1717 and 1800, but the real figure is undeterminable. Most of these troubles were centred on the wages. The shipwrights of Exeter, for example, in 1766 decided not to work for masters who were seeking to employ them at " less wages than have been from time immemorially paid to journeymen shipwrights ", depriving them thus of " several of their ancient rights and privileges " and imposing them, by the same time, longer hours than had been " usual and customar ".( Devon County Records Office, 146/B add.Z1.) What about the London masons who complained in 1775 that their 50s (£ 2.50) a week had not changed for seventy years ?

However, some combinations were already powerful. Their effectiveness was obvious since they managed to prevent their masters to employ the journeymen they disapproved, or to take anymore apprentices. They also threatened their masters to " strike and turn out " if they did not satisfy their demands. Nevertheless, during the 18 th century, many acts were passed, outlawing combination in one trade or another, without forgetting the previous laws or acts :

- The Bill of Conspiracies of Victuallers, 1548.
- The Statute of Artificers, 1563.
- The Unlawful Oaths Act, 1797.

And a proclamation was issued in 1718 against "unlawful Clubs, Combinations", etc., of wool combers and weavers. The wool combers were said to be a society within the kingdom.

As we can see, the employers became more and more anxious. Their anxiety was express through the numerous petitions that they sent to the government. The government itself seemed to be afraid of that movement, fearing that the unions would become centres of political agitation. Therefore they turned an act intended to be specific to the millwrights into a general prohibition of trade unionism.

The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800

These acts were commonly attributed to the fear that the French revolutionary ideas would spread among the working class. It was expressed through lord Holland’s words when he recognised the dread among the upper class that the lower orders might be seduced by subversive principles (even if he also noticed that some masters were taking advantages of the situation). So the Combination Acts brought the government into a more repressive role against trade unions, although the launch of the proceedings remained in the hands of the employers.

The act of 1799, as we have already mentioned, was originally intended to be an act against the millwrights which was turned into a general prohibition of trade unions. It provided three months imprisonment, or two months of hard labour to anyone who combined in order to obtain an increase of wages, or a decrease of working hours, or to those who solicited one to leave work, or objected to work with any other worker. By the way all workmen’s combinations were proclaimed unlawful. Moreover it was the first time that penalties were prescribed for workmen as a class.

This act over matters of wages and working hours was nevertheless slightly amended in 1800. In fact it was a more cautiously worded act, even if it remained as comprehensive and severe as the first one. Somehow it appeared less unfair than the one of 1799. It extended the prohibition to combine to the employers (providing penalties to those convicted for wage reduction, or for increase the number of working hours or the quantity of work). It also provided that two magistrates were required to prosecute and to pronounce the sentence. Moreover mediation was encouraged even if the arbitration proposed by a party must be accepted by the other. It also added that assisting workers in maintaining men on strike constituted an offence. It also stated that anyone who contributed to the expenses of a person convicted under the act was subject to a fine, and defendants could be forced to bear witness against each other.

So it really appears that the government did not want trade unionism to spread to the newly industrialised regions, especially the Midlands and the North. It was a goal partially reached because things were made more difficult for emerging unions in those areas. However, we can wonder what the consequences of these acts were ?

The consequences of the Combination Acts

Since trade union organisations had been declared illegal, they diverted the attention of their opponents through taking other "labels" as mutual benefit associations or similar bodies. Thus they faced the alternatives of either submitting the law and all the consequences which are bound to it, or breaking it. Since they had scarcely more to lose, on the whole, they decided to defy it and tried by every means to get around its provisions. Therefore there were a large number of secret organisations which carried on the fight against the employers and spurred the workers into resistance.

However, we should say that if the government partially managed to constrain trade union development and activity, they did so more as intimidation than through the number of prosecutions that were undertaken. The fact that the law was available did not mean that masters always, or even often, made use of it. However, the use of the law was capricious, so unions operated in a context of risk rather than of full and constant constraint.

Therefore, thousands of journeymen were convicted under these acts, whereas no one employer was. Should we mention the Times Compositors Union, which was suppressed in 1810 after they dared to ask for a rise in their wages ? What about the workers employed in the new factories and mines which were constantly persecuted, and thus forced to combine secretly (the Ironfounders in southern Wales, or in northern England) ?

These capricious repressions were violently answered by the workmen for two reasons : Their miserable situation resulting from the disastrous development of economic conditions. The pitiless prosecution following even the most modest attempt at improvement of the standard of living. Their resentment was most of the time directed against the introduction of machines. It was particularly obvious in the period between 1811 and 1813 and Luddism (rebellion consisting in breaking the machines). The destruction of the machines ceased only when a new understanding of the matter arose among the workers.

As we can see, this period of twenty-five years of illegality was one of confusion and contrast. Some unions carried on their activities freely while others were subjected to systematic repression. However the campaign led by Francis Place in favour of the repeal of these act will succeed in 1824 with their repeal, even if Place was mistaken when he argued that unions would disappear rapidly.


19e siècle , Droit , Economie , Histoire , Mouvements ouvriers , Royaume-Uni