In 1851, Great Britain was considered as the ‘ workshop of the world ’ thanks to the Great Exhibition. It was a time of high prosperity, and the Industrial Revolution called on more and more workers. Hence the growth of trade unions. One of the most famous of this ‘Great mid-Victorian period’ was the Amalgamated Society of Engineers known as the ASE. Much later it was defined by the two socialists Syndey and Beatrice Webb as a ‘New Model’ union. Indeed the ASE was not only the first national trade union in Britain, but it seems that it introduced a new type of union which made a profound impact upon the political course of trade unionism in Britain
Trade unionism in engineering first emerged in the 1870’s when a Friendly Society of Mechanics was established in Bolton, Blackburn and Chorley, in the North of England. Then local unions developed in industrial areas, which gave birth for example to the Journeymen Steam Engine Makers’ Society (JSEMS) (1826), early known as the ‘ Old Mechanics ’. It’s only in 1851 that William Allan attempted to create a national union. This Ulster-born Scottish man was already a well-known advocate of amalgamations of the engineering cause. As a child, he was an apprentice in a large engineering firm in Glasgow, and in 1848 he became the General Secretary of the Old Mechanics. The idea of a national union was proposed during a conference about amalgamations held by the Executive committee of the Old Mechanics. Allan was given the responsibility to form the union. Thus the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, Machinists, Smiths, Millwrights, and Pattern makers was created on the 6 th January 1851. Hence the idea of ‘amalgamation’ implying that existing societies have merged.
The ASE was not only the first truly national union created, but also the first in its type. Some of its features had been pioneered by the Old Mechanics. From this latter, the ASE inheritated from the centralisation of power in the hands of the Executive, and from general full-time secretaries paid by the union. Allan was elected the General Secretary of the ASE at every election from 1851 until his death in 1871. He was succeeded by famous leaders such as John Burns (from 1890 to1896), George Barnes (from 1896 to 1908), or Tom Mann (from 1918 to 1921).
Strict rules were also established by the ASE regarding finance. The subscription to the union was very high. One shilling was required per week, which enabled the ASE to build up funds. At this time when the gap between skilled and unskilled workers increased, its membership, which were exclusively composed of skilled engineers, belonged to the ‘ labour aristocracy ’, that is the part of the working class that could afford to take part to an union as an insurance against bad times. Thus the ASE members could be given various relieves, an unemployed for example could be given ten shillings a week, somebody who was sick five shillings a week. It also provided accident disablement and funeral benefits.
Although these characteristics had been features of the Journeymen Steam Engine Makers’ Society, the ASE was new in its type. Not to mention that it was the first truly national union, it had headquarters in London, that is close to the political power which they could lobby more easily. But unlike former trade unions like the GNCTU (Grand National Consolidated Trades’ Union) of R. Owen, the ASE did not want to change the government. Indeed, even if Allan supported the Reform League for the enlarging of franchise, his aims were purely social and economic. He wanted to improve the conditions of the members of this craft union. Another new feature of the ASE was its moderating policy towards strikes. This new form of action had to be used as the last weapon. The trade union was also new regarding its concerns. The Society opposed concepts of works which have long been accepted and struggled for better conditions, as far as wages, working hours and the systems of working were concerned. Its first principle was to ‘ prevent a surplus labour in [their] trade’, as the 1851 Rules stated, by maintaining strict control of the system of apprenticeship. This led to another idea, that is to establish a ‘ well-regulated organisation ’ .
In 1852, the ASE already numbered 10,841 members, but within the first year of its formation, its leaders, Allan and Newton, another key figure in the union, had to cope with a major crisis.
The ASE first tried to resist against the concepts of overtime and piecework , which was thought as boring and too tiring. Newton declared in his journal The Operative , a working class newspaper, that all engineers workers should cease to work overtime and piecework after the end of December 1851.  Thus began the first strike on the 10 th January 1852, in the Lancashire. But , in spite of the workers’ resistance, the employers defeated the union, because the engineers were ordered back to work. The moderation of the union was then pointed at in newspapers and this failure cost the ASE forty thousands pounds, in addition to the loss of some members. Yet this hardship was surmounted by Allan and Musto, the ASE President in 1851. In response to accusations, Allan justified the strike in the Declaration of the Executive Council of the ASE, which was published in The Operative in February 1852.  The engineering ‘ lock-out ’ demonstrated the growing strength of the ASE , which was to influence future trade unions.
After the strike, it was obvious that the ASE needed support to achieve its aims and to expand on a national scale. The Society was indeed accused of intimidation and what’s more it had to face the hostility of the press until the 1860’s. To win a larger and middle class public the ASE associated with the Christian Socialists, through this idea of co-operation. Their aims was to destroy the redundancy in the labour market, as Newton declared . This association lasted a short time, since Allan was soon aware of the need to build a more solid foundation for the ASE. This he tried to do in a more striking way.
Another important strike known as ‘ the Sheffield Outrages ’ took place in October 1866. This latter aroused public concern, since it provided an image of violence regarding the ASE and put the issue of the legal status of trade unions in general. After a saw grinder failed to pay his dues, members of trade unions blew up his house. A scandal broke out in the press, and it resulted into a public investigation. On the 23 rd May 1867, the Royal Commission on Trade Unions met in London, where the ‘Junta’, the five main leaders of Amalgamated societies, was located. A report was made and condemned the trade unions’ methods. ‘Rattening’ was particularly blamed , and unions were depicted as violent .  The issue of their legal status was questioned. During this meeting, Allan, who became a national figure, defended its union, never losing sight of the aims and objectives for which the ASE was organised, that is the workers interests, as he said in a famous statement.  Finally, the Commission gave way to the Trade Union Act in 1871, enacting that all trade unions should receive protection for their funds.
In the 1870’s, the ASE was more impressive. It counted thirty three thousands members in 1866 in three hundreds and five branches and with funds of 138,113 pounds. It expanded throughout the country. The salary of Allan as the General Secretary increased to three pounds and ten shillings a week in 1860. An assistant General and a national officer were even added to the ASE between 1863 and 1866. After the Trade Union Act, trade unions could enjoyed more liberty regarding the law and so developed. It also encouraged further struggle for the ASE. Thus a campaign to reduce the working hours to nine hours a day began, led by John Burnett, the successor of Allan in 1875. The success of this engineers’ strike encouraged workers to demand more advantages. Burnett’s will to change the law for better conditions was emphasised. The ASE was now playing a role at a national level.
That’s why the ASE turned out to be much more militant in the 1880’s. Demonstrations were organised, and important figures were involved. T. Mann, J. Burns, and G. Barnes for instance took part in a violent demonstration called the ‘ Bloody Sunday ’. They gathered at Trafalgar Square on the 13 rd February 1887 against the policies of the Conservative Government headed by the Marquess of Salisbury.
Some protesters were arrested by the police, like J. Burns who was sentenced to six weeks of prison. As for G. Barnes, he was badly injured.
These two leaders became national figures. Burns was elected the General Secretary of the ASE in 1890. Barnes replaced him in 1896 and thus became the full-time secretary of the third largest trade union of Britain. In 1897 this latter continued the struggle by leading the ASE in a long strike in an attempt to reduce the working hours to eight hours a day. In the end in January 1898, it failed, but the Employers’ Federation accepted some negotiations of wages and conditions with the ASE.
The 1870’s and the 1880’s were very pregnant with events and demonstrated the success of the ASE. In addition to the nine working hours a day struggle, the Society mostly contributed to the Trade Union Act of 1871. The 1875 Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act also testified to the influence of the union by legalising strikes provided no violence, which made workers and employers equal before the law. The success of the ASE was first due to its impressive nation-wide size, and to his public profile. Besides, The Operative journal published by Newton also contributed to develop a positive image of amalgamations, since it devoted most of its pages to the ASE. The Society’s stability and organisation were obviously a major factor for its success. Allan, its founding Secretary, was a very skillful and strong-willed administrator. Hence a profound influence of the ASE exercised upon later trade unions, such as the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiner (1860), led by R. Applegarth. Allan supplied documents and rules books to enable the carpenters to copy the model of his union. The success of the ASE was all the more obvious, that the union continued to exist and even became more important when it merged with the Steam Engine Makers’ Society (SEM) to create the Amalgamated Engineers’ Union (AEU) in 1920. But even in this association, the original principles of the ASE were not to be forgotten, as one could read through the terms written on the AEU members’ badge.
To conclude, the ASE had a major impact on the political course of trade unionism in Great Britain from the 1850’s onwards. Not only did the Society embody a new stage in the British labour movement, later known as the ‘new model union’, but it also acted in a struggle for legal recognition of trade unions, which was mostly achieved by 1875. The ASE was nevertheless limited regarding its membership, exclusively composed of male skilled workers. It’s only with the development of ‘new unionism’, the next stage to labour movement, that the unskilled had access to organisations. Today the ASE continues to exist through the Amalgamated Engineers Electrical Union, the former AEU, and it’s still one of Britain’ largest unions.
The Operative, January 1852 (in : booklet)
The Operative, 7th February 1852 ( in : booklet)
The Annual Register, 1867 ( in : The Dictionary of Labour Biography, and in : 19 th Century Britain, Home Affairs Key Documents )
sites internet :
BELLAMY, SAVILLE, The Dictionary of Labour Biography, London : MacMillan, 1972
Clive BEHAGG , Labour and Reform, Working class movements 1815-1914 , Hodder and Stoughton, 1990.
W.H. FRASER, A History of British Trade Unionism, 1700-1998 , England, McMillian, 1990.
Claire CHARLOT, 19th Century Britain, Home Affairs Key Documents, 1815-1901 , Paris, Ophrys-Ploton, 1995
V.L. ALLEN, The Sociology of Industrial Relations , London, Longman, 1971
CLEGG, The System of Industrial Relations in Great Britain , London, Basil Blackwell, 1976
sites internet :
 Newton’s instruction for the Engineers Lock-Out, The Operative , 1851 .
‘ All engineers, machinists, millwrights, smiths and pattern makers cease to work systematic overtime and piecework after the 31 st December 1851.’
 The Engineering Lock-Out of 1852, from the The Operative, February 7, 1852
Declaration of the Executive Council of the Amalgamated Society
‘ In consequence of the demands of the intentions which have been attributed to the Amalgamated Society, the Executive Council have thought it necessary publicly to declare what they have done and publicly to deny what they have not done. They have not demanded the discharge of unskilled workmen. They have not endeavoured to throw the skilled operative not belonging to the Society out of work, nor have they recommended others to do so. Neither have they countenanced a system of intimidation having that object They do not seek to fix or to equalise wages but hold the doctrine that wages should be settled by individual agreement. They do not endeavour to prevent the introduction of machinery but by their skill and labour perfect and multiply it.
They do not attempt to attempt to bring about any of those things ; but in their Circular to the employers carefully limit themselves to the questions of overtime and piecework - To these they still rigidly confine themselves, and they conceive that the reasons for asking for the practices are sufficient to justify them.
They look upon overtime as both a privilege and an evil. A privilege because it holds out to men an opportunity of making more money ; an evil, because that money is made at the expense of their own health, strength, mental powers, and happiness, as well as the independence of others .[...] They know it deprives them of rational enjoyment, prevents them from using opportunities for culture, and weakens their physical powers. They feel that their well-being is not a thing to be bought and sold for so many shillings a week. [...].
With regard to piecework, they wish it to be fully understood that their objections are to the system as it is, not as it ought to be. The Executive Council will continue to oppose piecework as it now is, not as it ought to be. The Executive will continue to oppose piecework as it now is, for the following reasons : -The price is arbitrarily fixed by the masters or the middle men, and often piece masters or sweaters are introduced, who take a portion of that price themselves ; thus making the workman pay out of his wages for the cost of direction and management. If the workman should, by dint of his own expertness and working very hard, earn much more than an ordinary week’s wages, the price which was arbitrarily fixed is as arbitrarily reduced for the profit of the manufacturer, who refuses to pay the price originally agreed upon. [...]The Executive Council feel that their justification might well stop here, [...]The Executive Council of the Amalgamated Society hope that this explanation of their views and acts is sufficient to demonstrate that while they assert the right of their members, and endeavour to secure their welfare, they do not attack the just claims or peril the prosperity of any other class.
By order of the Executive Council,
Jos. MUSTO, President.
WM ALLAN Secretary
 Newton about co-operation
‘ In the opinion of this meeting, the resistance of labour against capital is not calculated to entrance the condition of the labourers. We therefore advise that all our future operation should be directed to promoting the system of self employment in associative workshops as the best means of regulating the condition of labour. ’
 The Sheffield Outrages
From ‘ Trades Union Commission, Sheffield Outrages Inquiry ’
‘...The first subject which engaged our attention was that of “rattening. Rattening is a mode of enforcing payment of contributions to and compliance with the rules or the Union. [...]
The practice of rattening is well known to be illegal, and persons detected in illegally taking frequently been convicted and punished. The excuse offered by the unions for this system is, that, in the absence of legal powers, rattening affords the most ready means of enforcing payment of contributions and obedience to the rules of the union.
Many articles of Sheffield manufacture require for their completion the labour of various classes of workmen. [...]
The system of rattening has generally proved successful in effecting its object. If, however, the person rattened continues refractory ; he commonly receives an anonymous letter warning him of the consequences of his obstinacy. If this warning is disregarded, recourse has been had to acts of outrage, the nature of which will be understood from a perusal of the cases actually investigated by us.’
 Report presented to the Trades’ Unions’ Commissioners on the Sheffield Outrages, reproduced in The Annual Register , 1867, London
‘ An attempt was made to blow up the house in which Robinson, his wife, his son, and four daughters were living. Three ginger-beer bottles, filled with gunpowder and nails, with lighted fuses attached, were thrown at a chamber window [...].
An unsuccessful attempt was made to burn a haystack, [...] close to a stable in which were his cows and horses. [...]
One of his horses was found dead in his field. During the night it had been stabbed in the side by a pointed instrument.
The perpetrators of these outrages have never been discovered, although active steps were taken by the police at the time. The secretary stated to us that he believes these outrages were done by the Union. 4
 Allan’s statement at the Royal Commission on Trade Unions 1867
‘ Every day of the week I hear that the interests ( of the employer and the employed ) are identical. I scarcely see how be while we are in a state which recognises the principle of buying in the cheapest and shilling in the dearest market. It is in their interest to get the labour done at as low a rate as possible, and it is ours to get as high a rate of wages as possible, and you can never reconcile these two things. ’