To one observer, an amending Act in 1800 moderated the more pernicious
elements of the Seditious Societies Suppression Act and added provisions capable
of catching employer combinations and of arbitrating disputes. Maccoby
Thanks to the amendments of 1800, the Combination Act era from
1799 to 1824 was never as oppressive for 'Labour' as has sometimes been
represented. Sheridan [an MP] might have failed to confer a specific legality
upon the 'Benefit Clubs' of the 'Trades' but there is plenty of evidence to
show that they continued to exist, in great numbers, and to organise
demands for wage increases and even to promote strikes...In many trades...the
masters themselves found it useful to keep touch with the clubs.574
To another the 1800 Combination Act was 'reactionary', 'the fruit of and
congenial to panic-stricken toryism' which had overwhelmed the previous period's
Whether the cause or the effect, biographies such as Prothero's of John Gast
show that radical activity was certainly not squelched by legislation or the
myrmidons of the law.
Since a combination to commit a crime was ipso facto a conspiracy, it
followed that a combination for any purpose declared illegal, by, for example,
the 1800 Act was, in 1800, an undoubted conspiracy. An individual worker could
bargain with an employer about wages, but any combination engaging in such
activity was illegal and a conspiracy, any strike was illegal since it
must by definition involve an illegal combination, and any worker joining a
strike was a criminal. The Chairman of a hearing against some journeymen coopers
who deciding to plead guilty were let off 'on their own recognisances' summed
The Chairman said he...hoped the example of this day would operate
to a good effect. He wished to express his entire concurrence with what had
fallen from the learned counsel, that the very beginning of such a conspiracy
ought to be punished with severity; and it should be known that no pressure of
the times, no scarcity of provisions, could justify men in demanding by
conspiracy an increase in wages. The benevolence of their masters or their
country might assist them, but there must be no combination to enforce
assistance. It was a shocking thing to see twenty or forty persons together at
the bar for such offences, but public justice demanded such spectacles.576
This of course is ideologically-biased clap trap flying in the face of 700
years of history, but unfortunately some readers have taken this 'Mr
Mainwaring's' outburst as a guide to reality.
Within 25 years the 1800 Act was opposed by many who originally supported it,
but Dicey contends that it was passed, not by despots but by a parliament, which
included humanitarians like Wilberforce, Fox and Pitt, because it 'precisely
corresponded with the predominant beliefs of the time.'577
The most pitiless factory owner and employer of small, driven children was
under greater regulation and surveillance in 1800 than had been the case in
1700. Women struggling to lift coal baskets up the damp inclines of dangerous
mines in 1850 were healthier and living a higher standard of living than their
counterparts a century earlier. London was showing the way, firstly, by shedding
population and toxic industries but secondly, by being the first to introduce
'modern' municipal administration in sanitation, policing and family welfare,
the results of which spread comparatively quickly to the likes of Manchester,
Leeds and Sheffield, less quickly to Edinburgh, Belfast and Abergavenny.
..The test of the change is in the death-rate, which begins to
fall after 1750 and falls more rapidly after 1780..
In the early part of the century the forces of disorder and crime had the
upper hand [even] in London..By the end of the century we are in a different
Even so, a level of tension existed and not just at the economic and social
margins. A fear that 'all benefit clubs and societies' were to be immediately
prohibited swept the country in 1801 and required positive government statements
to scotch the 'industriously circulated' rumours.579
Many societies feared spontaneous closure from lack of funds as the war with
France forced up prices of basic provisions and rendered many 'brethren' below
the poverty line.580
Colquhoun estimated in 1798 that 1600 'friendly societies' were operating in
and near London, and Wilkinson, has concluded that in 1802 the UK had almost
10,000 'friendly societies', 'of which more than half had sought parliamentary
protection by enrolment.' By 1815, membership of 'registered societies' was
reported to be 926,000.581
Since no count of such societies was kept prior to 1793 useful numerical
comparisons with the 18th century are impossible.
The Leeds Mercury took it upon itself to instruct its readers in how
'Strangers Friend Societies', essentially benevolent funds run by clerics and
other better-off citizens, should be run, and carefully worded its reports of
court cases against trade-based 'conspiracies.' Fifty years later the
'charitable' societies were regarded, even by clerics, as failures, successes
coming where the 'working classes' had organised and run their own
A 'Special, General, Numerous and Respectable' meeting of Journeymen Joiners
and Carpenters in Leeds in 1807 confronted thefts of tools from building sites
by establishing a fund 'entitled The Friendly Society of Joiners and Carpenters'
to assist in the expense of prosecuting those who may be found
guilty of stealing, or unlawfully receiving the tools...and to make good any
loss occasioned by Robbery or Fire, and for the decent interment of the
Other 'brothers', threatened with a criminal prosecution, were agreeing to
defray their employer's legal costs and make a public apology for attempting to
influence wages and work conditions.584
Faced with 'alarming disturbances' in the south of England the House of Commons
passed a further Bill, specifically concerned with so-called 'illegal oaths.'
One found on a 'banditti' member was quoted:
(I will) never betray, or furnish the slightest means of betraying
a brother under the penalty of being blotted out of existence, and that he
would punish any traitor with death, and rather than fail in his object,
pursue him to the verge of nature.585
A House Secrecy Committee set up to report on the extent of the problem found
Sometimes the Rioters were under the control of Leaders; and were
distinguished not by names but by numbers; were known to each by signs and
countersigns...They also took an oath, that while they existed under the
canopy of Heaven they would not reveal anything connected with the present
disturbances, under the penalty of being put out of existence, by the first
brother whom they should meet, etc...586
Charges resulting from 'the Luds affair' were dealt with at special sittings,
at one of which a witness reported being approached by a prisoner who offered to
administer the following oath over 'a common prayer book':
I, ....., of my own free will and accord do solemnly swear never
to reveal to any person the secrets of the Brotherhood, or to discover them by
sign, word or act, under the penalty of being put out of existence by the
first brother I meet. Furthermore, I swear that I will punish by death any
traitors should any rise up among us, and will pursue them to the verge of the
Statute. I will be just, sober, and true, to all my fellows, so help me
God, to preserve this my oath inviolate. [Emphasis in original]
A clause in the latest Act made it possible for conspirators, ie swearers of
an illegal oath, to achieve a pardon by swearing a new, loyal oath and by
informing on their co-conspirators.587
An agitated MP in 1813, no doubt concerned at the uneven judicial response,
rose in Westminster to propose a Committee of Enquiry into 'certain illegal
societies under the denomination of Orangemen' which he claimed were just then
establishing themselves in England. The coincidence of this date with the Union
into one Grand Lodge of the SF 'Antients' and Moderns'and with the beginnings of
a respectability-seeking MUIOOF may be simply that, a coincidence. It does seem
that by then the official Orange Order was firmly in the hands of the gentry:
A grand Orange Lodge was held on Monday at Lord --------'s in
Portman square, when some distinguished personages were admitted Members. The
Orange Institution promises to become universal throughout the Empire.588
This MP believed that examination of the 'Orange' Rules and Regulations being
circulated would show that both the admission oath and that for the Marksman or
Purple Degree remained illegal, contingent as they were upon the King continuing
to uphold the Protestant ascendancy:
This imperium in imperio, an organised society, with inferior
lodges regularly reporting their proceedings to a superior one. Among the
names of high rank, to which he had alluded, there were some belonging to the
army, but if any one thing could be more subversive of all discipline than
another , it was the introduction of secret Societies among the military.
Debate brought out the involvement of Orangemen in arson, murder and worse in
Ireland and that under the terms of the 1799 Act 'the Institution' was certainly
illegal, the House 'agreeing' however that no parliamentary action was required
to curb the activities of loyal supporters of the Crown.
The Order continued to spread with British Army units and wherever Irish
people found positions. An 1807 news item, telling of a street-fight, began:
Monday last being the anniversary festival of several friendly
societies in Manchester, the members of one called the Orange Club, consisting
of Irish Protestants...589
In 1813 the Leeds Mercury reported 'Odd Fellows...under the
designation of an Orange Lodge' parading 'alongside' a procession of the 'United
Loyal Order of Odd Fellows'590
An 1814 Dudley (UK) lodge of odd fellows was both a source of fascination and
of great trepidation among the locals, one of whom joined while the others 'all
united in the task of disgusting him with the society to which he had linked his
fortunes.' The lodge name, 'La Belle Alliance Lodge', was surely begging for a
visit from police agents if not the troopers.591
Neave believed most of his 'first wave' of village societies were in
decline by the early 1830's because of ageing memberships, economic downturns
and a lack of actuarial soundness.592
But the movement of population to the newly-industrialising areas meant 'benefit
societies' experienced another burst of growth which was to, in the main,
persist until the 1914-18 War. Clapham's conclusion was that by the 1830's,
within 'a thick undergrowth of little societies, sick clubs, burial clubs,
goose-clubs and free-and-easies', the 'Friendly Society movement was gathering
power every year.'593
By using capitalisation here, Clapham indicates he's referring to what became
the nationally affiliated, in some cases, internationally affiliated, 'Orders'.
We have already seen that Spry and others have treated 'friendly societies'
as though they were of a distinct type of society which suddenly appeared in the
mid to late 1700's. These authors have only concerned themselves with the
Affiliated Orders, so by extrapolation, one might consider that it was only
these which were of a new form. An argument of this sort would mean that
alongside the continued use of rites of association by 'old' societies
there was an adoption of similar rites by new ones, despite those 'new'
societies insisting at the same time they were 'unique' and 'modern.'
For a wholly new type of 'friendly' to suddenly appear in the 18th century
and then become the only kind of 'friendly' to form federative structures is
most unlikely. If, as I would argue, the major Affiliateds [AFS], the Odd
Fellows, Druids, Foresters, etc had their origins in the same place as
Freemasonry and 'trade unions', no matter when those origins were, there
is a great deal of research still to be done.
We know that what became the Affiliated Orders of 'Ancient Britons' and of
'Free Gardeners' both pre-date 1717. The Ancient Order of Druids dates itself
from 29 November, 1781, when Henry Hurle, William Jones and other friends formed
a lodge at the tavern 'the Kings Arms' in Poland Street, London, for peaceful
'social intercourse.' Historians of this Order have not explored whether this
was a development from something earlier or whether any particular trade or
occupation was involved. They have admitted internal tensions between distinct
classes of 'brethren' with differing goals, and between a London-by-right head
centre and 'outlying' branches.
Less-affluent Druids were more interested in seeing funds conserved for
sickness, death and unemployment benefits, while the 'gentlemen' members
favoured a looser, charity-based form of administration which permitted funds
for the comfort of lodge members, exactly as for the SF. Inevitably, the
internal decision-making processes came under close scrutiny. As a brief account
Both as to basis and administration it was exclusive and narrow
and such was the way in which the policy of the Order was directed that grave
dissatisfaction was created. This culminated in a crisis which brought about
reorganisation in 1833...Due to varying views..there were splits within the
Order which led to formation of the 'United Ancient Order of Druids', the
'Order of Druids' and the 'Sheffield Equalised Order'.594
The 'Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes' was, according to Axelrod, a
totally new 'social order' established in 1822 in 'The Harp', a London tavern.
He asserts that it furnishes 'a well-documented example of the transition from a
drinking club to a full-blown secret society with rituals and
The 'Ancient Order of Romans' begins its 'official' history at 1833, 'All for
One, One for All' its motto, with no connection being attempted with the
Stukeley 'club' of similar name the previous century.596
'The Society of Ancient Shepherds' is happy to see its beginnings at Xmas Day
1827, and claims by the 'Ancient Order of Foresters' (established perhaps 1813)
to be linked with an earlier 'Order of Royal Foresters' have been dismissed
without serious research.597
As already indicated, the historical record of the important 'odd fellows' is
frustratingly problematic. A network of London lodges designated the 'Order of
Odd Fellows' may have been in place from the 1740's, while London working men
are asserted to have established the 'Ancient Order of Oddfellows' and the
'Patriotic Order of Oddfellows' by the 1790's but exactly when and what
connection these had with the earlier groups is uncertain. 'Odd Fellow' branches
are claimed for Baltimore, 1802 and in New York in the USA from 1806.598
What bound these 'odd brothers' - trade, location or ideology - is not
The total number of UK registered 'lodges' alone suggests that the government
could not possibly have had the resources to keep track of even a tiny
percentage of their members, if indeed any attempt at all was made, or to check
that individual societies were adhering to their Rules. It would appear,
however, that no systematic search of government archives for signs of 'Druids'
and the rest has yet been done.
The IOOF,MU in 1814 set out a system of signs and passwords, while also
seeking the high political ground, 'making' its first 'honorary member', Henry
Brougham, later Lord High Chancellor.600
Their 'executive' also settled upon 'a proper system of regalia, aprons and
paraphernalia' in 1814. It's known that in 1824 a further 'series of honorary
signs and passwords' were apportioned to past officers according to their ranks.
Surviving numerous internal crises in the interim, IOOF,MU appears to have been
the first to replace 'Grand Lodge' with a Board of Directors (1827). By the late
1830's the ranks of odd fellows were expanding at an enormous rate, but it is
not clear how many actually belonged to which grouping. About the time MUIOOF
most stridently emphasised respectability and financial rectitude over the
'riotous proceedings' of its origins it was claiming its membership had reached
the hundreds of thousands. It was still an illegal organisation but its own
(Now) instead of the ludicrous ceremony once performed over the
timid and fearful, at their making, we, amongst Odd Fellows, receive a
solemn and impressive charge, teeming with exhortation to morality,
christianity and obedience to the ruling powers; and calculated, if properly
followed out by the individuals themselves, to elevate the christian character
to the highest point of excellence.[Original emphasis]601
So, the odd fellow's story wherein we must seek for the answers supporting or
rebutting the Webb's central claim, alleges a new organisation established new
rites considered adequate to attract gentry, but just 20 years later, those same
rites were thrown out as 'ludicrous.' And that period of 20 years straddles the
events which are the key to the Webb thesis!
Place, much closer to these events, argued that higher wages had derived from
increased production and trade during the war with France and from the succesful
strikes of what he saw only as 'trade clubs'. In 1834 he wrote of:
the increased knowledge, of the sobriety, of the comfort, of
better manners and better conduct than previously existed among workmen; of an
end being put to riotous proceedings, public indecencies and gross conduct of
all sorts, the extent of which is known to none but those who can remember the
state of the journeymen tradesmen thirty or forty years ago.602
Among labourers, casual workers, street sellers and the mass of beggars,
thieves and prostitutes, even during the depression which followed the end of
the war in 1815, Place observed improvement. In 1826 after touring the poorest
areas of London, he wrote:
Everywhere improvement has been going on and is still going on.
Real wages have not increased, but frugality, sobriety and better management
and self-respect have greatly increased.603
Other observers agreed, eg, in 1828:
This state of things is clearly proved by the vast number of neat
houses of the smaller class arising in every part of England, in exchange for
the crowded and filthy dwellings formerly inhabited...604
Poverty and economic exploitation had not been banished. Working people still
expressed their need for solidarity and for security in ways that made sense to
them. The greater legislative emphasis on Rules, elected, accountable
officers - secretary, treasurer, trustee and auditor - and on managerial systems
were new only in their detail. Useful in saving money and preventing
malfeasance, the need for disclosure, and for evidential substantiation ate into
what were often pitifully small stores of members' funds. Whether the
administrative reforms were resisted or not, the private rites of association
must have remained a comfort for they continued to survive.
But did the times generate a new kind of public 'paraphenalia'? Both
Prothero and Thompson exploited the artisinal street ceremonial on show
in this period but both imply, by not considering its past, that it was of
recent invention, perhaps part of the burgeoning 'trade union consciousness'.
Neither, in fact, made any attempt to contextualise the 'paraphenalia' they
Extending the 1793, 1799, 1800 and 1812 Acts further, an 1817 Act ordered
suppressed, 'under heavy penalty', all societies except the Freemasons and the
Quakers, 'whose members took any oath not required by law' or 'which possessed
branches' and which were not strictly religious or charitable in purpose.605
In that same year, 1817, a Parliamentary Committee on the Poor Law praised
'friendly societies' and argued for compulsory parish support for them.
Nevertheless, constables 'forcibly entered' a number of lodges which had been
'duly opened' and demanded persons named in warrants. The charges included being
part of a meeting of over 50 persons or belonging to an illegal association
'administering illegal oaths, and using signs and passwords.'
The post-Bonaparte trade slump resulted in a jump in unemployment, rioting
and executions for property crimes. The social distress, widespread agitation
for parliamentary reform and high levels of suspicion meant that the Government
sought proof that conspirators were threatening death and destruction. It
suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus, closed down 'Union Societies' and continued
to subsidise spies and agent provocateurs. One informer, a carpenter called
Oliver, was also Secretary of a small SF Lodge. He organised delegates and then
'helped' them to draw up plans for an insurrection. When the innocents set off
with their pikes and torches, they were arrested.606
Henry Hobhouse, Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, wrote to a
magistrate in August, 1818 about the heightened level of alarm in the country
saying among other things:
You cannot please me better than by turning your attention to the
Friendly Societies, by which I have no doubt the system which is the bane of
your country is in a great degree supported..607
Again capitalisation. Richard Carlyle, author of a very interesting Masonic
expose published as the Manual of Freemasonry and himself jailed for
reform activities, was an eye-witness when, just outside Manchester, on 16
August, 1819, four people died and over 600 were injured by cavalry, special
constables and others 'intervening' in a massive demonstration seeking
parliamentary reform, the so-called 'Peterloo Massacre'. Walmsley's later
exhaustive enquiry Peterloo: The Case Reopened examined every possible
piece of written evidence to establish, he claims, a balanced view of the
event's causes. That is, he sought evidence about the existence and extent of
conspiracy, threat and violence on the Radical and the Conservative side.
His major thesis is that the demonstrators were not the 'peaceful and
unarmed' multitude they have been by-and-large assumed to have been, that they
presented a threat, that some of their number came prepared to do violence, and
that therefore the Radicals must carry at least some of the responsibility for
what occurred. He makes no attempt to pursue the organisation behind any such
intent nor to decipher the cultural code present in the reformers' display. That
is, he has almost nothing in his 500+ pages about the internal workings
of reform societies, where any necessary decisions that he seeks information
about might have been taken.
The key to this omission, and here we hark back to a major element of EP
Thompson's argument, seems to be that the threat, if any existed, was perceived
to be that of 'open insurrection' by rampaging, mindless mobs, by definition,
devoid of any significant organisational or philosophic 'content'.608
There is one passing reference to 'Orange Societies' on the authorities' side,
and a satiric mention of 'a body of Freemasons, marching in "military array"
with banners and other emblems of turbulence' passing the office of the
Manchester Observer, but neither is followed up.609
Walmsley's account refers to 'flags and banners', 'colours', 'appalling
insignia', and 'civic emblems.'610
Except for one band of musicians, no uniforms or distinctive apparel are
mentioned. A number of contemporary etchings are unclear as to regalia,
something very apparent 15 years later at Copenhagen Fields.
A great deal, however, can be made of the 'military precision' with which the
'divisions' came to the Peterloo meeting space. A capacity to march in step 3 or
4 abreast and to wheel on command, plus the numbers of sticks, the odd pike and
Cap of Liberty, were sufficient to convince the authorities they needed to
assemble many mounted troopers. Unreferenced tid-bits of information suggest
that delegates were in attendance as a result of appointment at district
meetings with prepared resolutions to deliver to the crowd. This is only
marginally useful at present, because it remains undeveloped, but it does match
earlier information, from the 1790's mutinies, for example.
Descriptions of the banners carried by the marchers are a little more useful.
Of various colours and sometimes of silk they appear to have been locally made.
An active participant, a weaver called Bamford, later arrested and jailed, told
of the preparations with which he was directly concerned. During drilling
exercises pennies and half-pennies were collected in a hat by the 'company
commander' to pay for a 'colour'. On the day, their part of the procession was
led by 12 'most comely youths' each with a sprig of laurel signifying peace.
- the district's men in rows of five
- the band
- the 'colours'
- one of blue silk with golden lettering - 'Unity and Strength', 'Liberty
- one of green silk, golden lettering - 'Parliaments Annual', 'Suffrage
- a 'handsome cap of crimson velvet, with a tuft of laurel, embroidered with
Bamford did not describe any of the banners, but a number carried telling
symbols. One in particular - described by The Times reporter as 'by far
the most elegant' on the day - was carried by members of 'a club of Female
Reformers'. It was of white silk with
in one compartment...Justice holding the scales in one hand and a
sword in the other; in another a large eye...On the reverse...were..two hands,
both decorated in shirt ruffles clasped in each other.611
These only sometimes appear on SF regalia, all appear often on 'friendly
society' and 'trade union' artefacts. The banner that excited most adverse
comment was jet black with white letters, 'Equal Representation or Death', the
clasped hands with cuffs, and a heart with the word 'love' all in white. This
was created for the 'Saddleworth Reform Union.'612
Even this slight evidence strongly suggests that even village-level 'benefit
societies', including women's groups, were aware of and using a common
symbolism. The working people at Peterloo may have been recently dislocated from
other regions to the Manchester area but they were already in societies, many of
which had 'Union' in their name and used guild symbolism.
Suggestions that the clasped hands and the Eye (of Providence), etc, first
appeared in France in the 1790's are ignorant of the long history these icons
have, the handshake, for example, being found in Roman and Egyptian
It was part of Roman Law for the purpose of establishing faith and confidence in
a contract or agreement, and has a similar place in the culture of most other
civilised peoples. The Roman goddess Fides, Fidelity, was represented by two
right hands joined, or sometimes two female figures shaking hands. The Eye has
an equally long heritage.
Wherever there was a need to represent group trust and fidelity, in other
words 'fraternity', then it was likely the symbol of the clasped hands would
appear. It has been sighted on the sheilds of mediaeval knights in many parts of
Europe. Shaking hands also had conspiratorial connotations. In lodge, grip
variations were learnt as a means of testing for spies and recognising friends
or colleagues, including the simplest handshake which in public could hide the
transmission of a coded message, or pass a slip of paper.
Bamford claims every 100 marchers had a leader, distinguished by a sprig of
laurel in his hat, and that over these were other leaders. Overall was a
'principal conductor' (also a lodge term) heading the column with a
bugleman who sounded his (the conductor's) orders.614
For Bamford this was the event which first displayed a committment to orderly,
disciplined protest. He believed that that was the point of the drilling, and
that the marchers were determined on this particular day to counter the tory
charges of 'mobs, riotous, tumultuous and disorderly.'615
Historian Prothero asserts that it was participant Gast's idea for
demonstrators in 1820 London in support of Queen Charlotte to wear 'white silk
Perhaps because Gast said so? The fact that the paraders also had white wands,
'colored clothes, some with aprons, others with silk-coloured
handkerchiefs...many wearing sprigs or leaves of laurel' and all walking in
pairs behind two of their brethren carrying 'an address' receive no sourcing
asides at all. Prothero, in another place, described a second procession:
Three thousand assembled in Stepney and proceeded on foot, and
there was full expression of their love of pageantry and a show to express
pride in their crafts, and benefit society rituals and decorations were
Thompson had it in his hands to alter the whole direction of LH. He could say
on one page:
But the friendly society and the trade union, not less than the
organisations of the masters, sought to maintain the ceremonial and the
pride of the older tradition.
and on another:
This growth in self-respect and political consciousness was one
real gain of the Industrial Revolution...We can find abundant testimony as
to the steady growth of the ethos of mutuality in the strength and
ceremonial pride of the unions and trades clubs which emerged from
quasi-legality when the Combination Acts were repealed.618
Unable to untangle 'maintenance' from 'emergence', he is grudging at best
when faced with contemporary 'facts':
(There) is a sense in which the friendly society helped
to pick up and carry into the trade union movement the love of ceremony
and the high sense of status of the craftsman's guild.
These traditions, indeed, still had a remarkable vigour in
the early nineteenth century...
Thompson was, at least, acknowledging the evidence of the 1825 woolcombers'
strike displays, the 1802 Preston Guild, the 'Bishop Blaize' feast day
processions, and the Nantwich shoemakers' parade of 1832, a report of which,
according to him, included reference to a banner and a:
full set of secret order regalia, surplices, trimmed aprons ...and
a crown and robes for King Crispin.
For Prothero, Thompson, et al unfortunately, these are mere signs of artisans
and masters celebrating pride in 'the Trade.' In 1833
Nearly 500 joined in the procession, each one wearing a white
apron neatly trimmed. The rear was brought up by a shop-mate in full tramping
order, his kit packed on his back, and walking-stick in hand.619
The original source of this information, the memoirs of Thomas Dunning,
shoemaker, does not actually say the recently-purchased 'secret order regalia'
was worn in the street parade, with 'trimmed aprons'. And he doesn't say whether
these latter are work or lodge aprons. Does 'trimmed' indicate edged with
colour, as with ceremonial aprons, or 'trimmed' as in edges cut off? If work
aprons, why would they be trimmed, in either sense? If 'secret regalia' was worn
in the street with 'King Crispin', his 'royal regalia' and a 'tramping
kit', would that not signify something more than craft pride and/or a love of
display? In his near-thousand pages, Thompson has 3 brief references to
'tramping', all of which involve the alleged extension of trade organisation
forced on workers by the Combination Acts in the period 1799-1825.620
Kiddier's 20th century reconstruction of early 19th century 'journeymens
societies' cannot, fairly, be assumed to apply before the 1800's but his
detailed description is certainly indicative. Using records only of the
Brushmakers' Society he was nevertheless satisfied he was speaking for the
generality when he wrote in 1930:
There was a time when the Brushmaker out of work tramped from town
to town with a BLANK in his pocket. This was a small book to be signed by the
Stewards at the various towns where his Union was established. With the BLANK
he got his tramping money for the next stage. He must tramp on and on, and do
some twenty or thirty miles a day. His Union kept him on the road until he got
a job or had done the whole journey around the TRADE.621
Not that members at the time referred to their association as a 'Union':
The Brushmakers of bygone days did not call themselves Trade
Unionists. Before the word UNION entered their records the Society had been
established a hundred years or more...(They) called their body a
Society...More to the point they called themselves LEGAL MEN; and the Master
that paid List wages and conformed to Trade regulations as to number of
Apprentices was a LEGAL Master and his Shop a LEGAL Shop...An old precept was
this. Workmen's Societies maintain it always.622
The number of young men wanting to be trained in this particular craft was
always greater than could be supported. Thus, there were always skilled men
being forced out of their positions or 'ILLEGAL' apprentices being created:
For this sole reason the Society originated. The getting together
of men earning a little and men deprived of the means of work was the first
purpose. The bond between those who had a job and those who had not was the
solid bottom they hit upon. Paying a little by those in work: for relief of
those out of work, was at once the simplest and greatest covenant men ever
What is called ON THE BOOK [receiving benefits]...is the essence of the
Brushmakers' Articles. To read the text forgetful of the dismal fact of
UNEMPLOYMENT is to read muddle-headed.623
Cries of 'Reform! Reform!' before 1832 split the Society. Whereas previously
'LEGAL' Masters and Journeymen had stood side by side now employers were being
seduced by the thought of a parliamentary voice, a process which would leave
their erstwhile 'brothers' marked from then on as 'lower beings.'
Kiddier's 'memoir' of a few temporarily lucky exceptions strengthens my
In those days a working man with a vote was a curiosity: so scarce
was he. He was a Freeman. A class to itself was that: held together by Royal
[Note the capitals]
The Freeman Journeyman was one who had served seven years' apprenticeship to
a Freeman Master, and who could thus, at the successful end of his time,
simultaneously celebrate becoming an adult, attaining Freeman-hood and receiving
Now, the point is the many favours attaching to the vote. A
working man with a vote was well looked after. In the workshop he got the best
job. And when jobs were scarce any other man was discharged to give him room.
But the man with a vote was of particular interest to politicians at election
The Freeman with his vote would not go on tramp. What could the
Tramp do with a vote? As Citizen he must remain in the City and be ready for
dissolutions of Parliament. The Party relying upon the vote saw to it that the
man had employment in his own city. It was the business of Member of
Parliament to see Employer. Room was made for the man with vote: any non-voter
in the way was pushed out.
The wretched business was given a name. The Brushmakers' Society called it
THE FORCING OF FREEMEN...
Neither Parliament nor politicians were interested in the Societies' method
of distributing labour such as tramping but they were interested in any attempts
at counter-organisation, of any centres of decision-making other than their own:
ATTENDING TO TAKE VOICES meant that the Secretary went to the
Clubhouse and received (a) Box containing votes upon (a) matter. The Box had
been AROUND THE TRADE. Sometimes they said ROUND TO THE SHOPS.625
This was a second secure box, usually a tin box, small enough to be carried
un-noticed in a man's coat from 'shop' to 'shop'. To get in touch with the
appropriate person to receive the Tin at each station on its route, the carrier
would whistle a five note tune, 'the Brushmakers' Call.'626
Besides carrying messages needing to be dealt with urgently the tin box
contained 'three things always: Price List, Society's Articles, List of Legal
Shops'. Many of the messages were from other Societies under pressure or from
Another little document issued by his Union was called THE
TRAMPING ROUTE. This gave the list of towns to be visited, the number of miles
the man had to walk, and the exact money due at each stage.
The first thing he did when entered a town was to make for the Clubhouse -
a tavern registered by his Union...The journey around THE TRADE was well over
a thousand miles...The Society's Accounts in the various towns show how well
the matter of tramping was managed. To pay the tramps was the business of the
Stewards. The Societies in the small towns received money from the larger
ones....The figures show that 95 per cent of income was paid to tramps. [His
This last statement does not mean that there were no other significant
(Too) often the Box contained no funds. Then the Landlord put his
hand into his own pocket and gave the Society the loan of ten or twenty
pounds, or more.
The London Society of Brushmakers have owed the Landlord as much as two
Hard times were those: but, be it said, the loan was free of interest. The
Landlord saw the Accounts with his own eyes. The Out-of-work Monies, and
Monies paid to Worn-out-Men, and Funeral Monies...But the Landlord knew his
loan was safe. The Brushmakers never failed to pay back...
Another act of brotherhood was that of GRANTING A PETITION. This was a
thing apart. Club money and Levies were sums fixed by the Union for all to pay
alike: whilst the PETITION was for voluntary subscriptions...There was poverty
and POVERTY. The PETITION was for the exceptional case...627
Kiddier was clear about the integrated nature of the Society:
At Clubhouse Meetings the Brushmakers were a lively body with
endless duties. The variety of matters in hand would have baffled any faculty
but a body of working men...The business was higher than that of Parliament or
law court because it was more intimate. In the course of the meeting they were
a domestic tribunal, a Friendly Society, a Trade Union; and all this was done
By 1824, when common law restrictions on combinations concerned with wages
and working conditions were repealed, enough MP's had accepted that the 'right
to combine' should extend to wage-earners. It was realised that what Gilbert and
others had been saying in the 1780's and 1790's was correct, that 'combinations'
could more productively be dealt with if brought inside legal and judicial
ambit. But there were three elements to what amounted to an unspoken trade-off -
that all forms of intimidation and violence on the workers' part were to be
outlawed, that the need for secret proceedings was to be declared obsolete, and
the reserves of enabling funds in 'friendly societies' were to be quarantined
from 'industrial' uses.
The working through of the process can be seen in the Place records629
and in two Parliamentary Committee Reports, the second inquiry having as one of
its terms of reference to look into
the state of the law (re 'Friendly Societies', ie the 1793 Act)
and its effects, so far as it "relates to the Combination of Workmen and
others, to raise wages or to regulate their wages and hours of working."
This Committee's politically expedient language has played a part in seducing
readers into the 'disguise' claim, that is, that 'most alliances to raise wages
cloaked themselves under the rules of Friendly Societies.'630
Having examined numerous sickness and burial 'clubs', and having looked into the
effects on parish rates of welfare payments, collapsing societies and defaulting
officers, the Report's conclusion was phrased differently:
These clubs were, in very many instances, composed of persons,
working at the same trade; the habits and opportunities of association,
which the Friendly Societies gave to them, doubtless afforded facilities of
combination for raising wages and other purposes, all of which were then
unlawful, connected with their common business.631
The other Committee, inquiring into the 1824 Combination Law with a view to
its possible repeal, was, as Clapham commented:
evidently surprised, and much impressed, by the very regular
system of government in all the societies into whose organisation it
penetrated, with president, secretary, committee and printed regulations, 'by
which they are ostensibly governed.' This all suggests old traditions in what
may already be called the trade union world.632
They were impressed by, for example, the 'all but military' system of the
London Journeymen Tailors, while the London Hatters had sick, burial and
out-of-work benefits, used the tramping ticket, voted assistance to non-hatters
on strike and restricted apprentice numbers.
This Committee selected a number of societies for a closer look - the
'Coopers Union'; the 'South Shields Shipwrights Union Society'; the 'West Riding
Fancy Union'; two branches of the 'Seamens' Loyal Standard Association'; the
'Association of Journeymen Woollen Weavers, Man Spinners, and Others'; the
'Friends of Humanity'; the 'Shipwrights Provident Union of the River Thames';
the 'Coal Miners' Union of Sheffield and Neighborhood'; the 'General Association
of Weavers in Scotland'; the 'Ayrshire Colliers Association'; and the
'Journeymen Paper Makers'.
These 'official' titles, with one exception, are quite explicitly
combinations of workers in single trades or clusters of related trades, and can
only be said to be attempting disguise as 'friendly societies'if by carrying out
the ostensible duties of a 'friendly' they actually did something not covered by
their rules. Their registered Rules, setting out the commonly-felt providential
concerns, must have been approved by the authorities, and these can only be a
disguise if they obscure from view something other than providential intentions
The name 'Friends of Humanity' alone does not indicate a restricted
membership nor a disguise. Established in 1799, its Rules described it as an
'Amicable Society' 'for relieving the aged and otherwise afflicted members
thereof, and for allowing certain sums of money for loss by fire, and at the
death of members and their wives'. (p.40)
The Coopers who met at the same London pub described their 'combination' as a
'Philanthropic Society' to relieve its members out of employment 'through the
depression of trade or other casualties that may occur in the vicissitudes of
life'. [My emphasis] This wording appears in other Rules. Another source
tells us that 'The Good Samaritan' and 'The Philanthropic' were parent bodies
for 'branch' societies of London coopers. In the case of 'The Philanthropic',
the branches were the 'Hand in Hand', the 'Brewhouse Coopers' and the 'Runlett
Coopers.' Was this 'Grand Lodge-type' arrangement formalised?633
Research is deficient here also, but the 'Hand in Hand' and 'The Philanthropic'
continued into the 20th century when they were still setting prices and
restricting the inflow of apprentices into their trade. A 'Coopers Mutual
Association'[NB: still not called 'trade union'] which 'grouped together a
number of local societies' insisted in 1891 that membership required the issuing
of piece work price lists.634
The shipwrights on the Thames were clubbing together to 'better the condition
of the working shipwright', the coalminers of Sheffield 'to support the welfare
of the profession', the cotton jenny spinners 'to promote our best interest'.
Many rules explicitly include the supporting of wages and the prevention of
lowering of wages within generalisations of this sort. It was part of what today
would be called 'an integrated approach' because it seemed perfectly obvious and
natural to members that wages and working conditions were intimately connected
with, but were not always the prime movers in 'vicissitudes of life.'
The Rules of the 'South Shields Shipwrights Union Society' stated that
members were combining to form themselves into a 'Friendly and Benevolent
Association', yet called their 'combination' a 'Union Society'.635
Their Article 4 used the word 'free' in the same way that we have already seen:
That persons entering immediately on the expiration of their
respective apprenticeships, may become free members on paying the sum of five
shillings entrance money.(p.24)
Near to identical wording can be found in much earlier rules, eg of the 'Free
Butchers', 'Free Scriveners' or 'Free Tylers'.636
A ship-owner from the South Shields area explained in detail to the enquiry
members the rules of the 'Seamens Loyal Standard Association' which, supposedly,
had almost complete control of shipping movements there and concluded:
I cannot deny it is a benevolent society. I also assert it is a
combination; and I think it is a combination of a much more fearful nature
than was ever experienced before...
If and when societies were being established to only support or raise
wages they were seen, by the members, as temporary and the funds they
subscribed in lodge as short-term investments. Whether a strike failed or
succeeded, they expected that part of the exercise to last only until a
resolution was reached. The ship-owner, Heath, went on:
The dangerous feature of these unions is that they really are
benevolent societies, and as such they will necessarily accumulate funds,
giving the members a contingent interest in those funds...and therefore if a
man should wish to retire from them as combinations, he is held by his
interest in them as a member of a benefit society, and consequently they must
always be in operation. (p.103)
That is, it is the benefit arrangements which provide the continuity and any
permanence the society achieves. Some witnesses believed the guilds 'of old' had
continued as 'eating and drinking' clubs, forcing the formation of newer,
'industrial' combinations with new approaches to the numbers of apprentices,
training and so on. (pp.12-13.) Dublin coach-maker Robert Hutton, asked about
the privileges and power accruing to an apprentice-become-journeyman as opposed
to someone never apprenticed, believed trades that had no apprentices did not
have to suffer combinations. He was asked:
On what do those privileges rest?
On corporation charters I
You mean privileges connected with the guilds?
Did you understand it to be that gentleman's opinion that combinations
would be much less frequent if all those guilds were abolished?
He did not
put it in that way, but that while there was any advantage whatever to be
derived from serving an apprenticeship in any way, it would have a tendency to
keep up combinations. 637
The Committee members heard both employers and employees say that they knew
very little, if anything, about the 1824 Act and that the combinations had not
resulted from that change. A number of the examined 'Associations' had issued
their first Rules in 1824, but whether this signified an actual beginning or an
emergence into the light is debatable. The Committee concluded that especially
in Ireland, the 1824 Act had encouraged a 'greater degree of openness and
Societies which were trade-exclusive would naturally be more concerned with
work details than less-exclusive combinations. The 'Combinations' Committee,
without realising the built-in bias in their selection, angrily observed of the
societies they had examined:
Their objects appear to be in most instances the regulation of
wages, combined with the assumption, in certain particulars, of a power of
dictation in the conduct of the business in which they are engaged; the effect
of which, if submitted to, would be totally to subvert the independence of the
masters, and deprive them of all the means of resistance to the further
demands of their workmen, of whatever nature those demands might eventually
The Committee found reprehensible that the claimed 'power of dictation'
included intimidation and physical violence, most often 'beating opponents with
sticks, sometimes to death.' It became very agitated about evidence of employers
colluding with 'combinations' to obtain commercial benefit, and about
combinations of different trades supporting one another and even, as again in
Ireland, formalising that association.
Yet the Committee considered it would be 'a measure of objectionable severity
towards the workmen' to restore the status quo by reinstating the repressive
statutes removed by the 1824 Act. They recommended repeal of the entirety of
that 1824 Act but wished that an exception should be made to previous common law
in favour of meetings and consultations amongst either masters or
workmen, the object of which is peacably to consult upon the rate of wages to
be either given or received, and to agree to co-operate with each other in
endeavouring to raise or lower it, or to settle the hours of labour;
This exception, they thought, would allow achievement of a balance of
interests and prevent dictation of either side to the other 'least of all that
assumption of control on the part of the workmen...which is utterly incompatible
with the necessary authority of the master.' The Committee recommended that
legislative provisions along these lines should insist that they apply only to
'parties actually present, or personally consenting'. Neglect of this limitation
would allow 'a dangerous opening to the operation of influence of the most
pernicious kind' and remove the protection of 'that competition which arises out
of the perfect freedom of individual action.'
This is all the freedom in respect to Combination, that seems
essential for any beneficial purpose; and your Committee are of opinion, that
all Combination beyond this should be at the risk of the parties, and open as
heretofore, to the animadversions of the common law, and to be dealt with
according to the circumstances of each case.638
Spies frequenting the 'combinations' had been providing examples of oaths to
the authorities since 1802 according to evidence to the 1825 Enquiry. But
neither they nor those involved in the later 1834 'oath' trial were concerned
with separating out different types of oaths or in determining clear maps of
The oath and the rites are, of course, linked by the notion of secrecy.
Behind the swearing of any oath there is the penalty for breaking it. Before
1730 the fearsome punishments for a 'mason' should he break his oath were:
my heart plucked from my Left breast, my tongue plucked from the
roof of my mouth, my Throatt cutt, my Body to be torn to pieces by Wild
Horses, to be buried in the Sands of the Sea where the Tide flowes in 24
Houres, taken up and burnt to Ashes and Sifted where the four winds blow that
there may be no more Remembrance of me.639
SF oaths vary from degree to degree as the ritual and regalia vary. Those
sworn by the 'Entered Apprentice', 'Fellow Craft' and 'Master Mason' include
penalties of this kind, though the number of penalties diminish as the
The generality of the SF oath refers entirely to the keeping of secrets. As in:
I, Mr ...., in the presence of the Great Architect of the
Universe, and of this warranted, worthy and worshipful Lodge of free and
accepted Masons, regularly assembled and properly dedicated, of my own free
will and accord, do hereby and hereon, most solemnly and sincerely swear, that
I will always hale, conceal, and never reveal, any part or parts, point or
points, of the secrets and mysteries of....(etc)
I further solemnly promise, that I will not write those secrets, print,
carve, engrave, or otherwise them delineate, or cause or suffer them to be
done so by others, if in my power to prevent it, on anything moveable or
immoveable, under the canopy of heaven, whereby or whereon any letter,
character or figure, or the least trace of a letter, character or figure may
become legible or intelligible to myself, or to any one in the world, so that
our secrets, arts, and hidden mysteries, may improperly become known through
my unworthiness...[thence a recounting of the penalties as above]
That this contains such explicit wording is intriguing. That it contains many
more than enough mechanisms for delivering death to a transgressor can be put
down to a perceived need to terrorise beforehand, not because more than one
would be considered necessary in practise. On the other hand, the listing of
possible mechanisms that someone could use to record or to pass on secrets
sounds more like an attempt to cover all contingencies, embellished over a long
period, when it seemed oath-breakers had escaped punishment because they used a
means not thus far included. Swearing to 'never reveal' might have been thought
sufficient for all contingencies, and the extension of the oath to cover various
means of putting down legible marks including printing, as opposed to oral
transmission, suggests an educated elite making the extensions. But it does not
rule out the master masons of operative lodges.641
From guild times swearing an oath was a common social phenomenon,642
and courts, Royal and civil, often handed out penalties or warned witnesses and
others in very similar terms to the above.643
Other oaths contemplating violence, for example one of a Scottish combination
quoted in the House of Commons in 1825, that of the Orangemen or the alleged
Luddite (above) oath, are totally different in wording to one another and to
others here detailed.644
The SF oath does not require of the swearer that 'he' accept the need for murder
and/or generalised mayhem.
Activist framework knitter, Gravenor Henson, believed that 'English craftsmen
had been long inured to secret combinations' and 'binding themselves by
A shearmen (or 'cropper', ie of the fibre in the loom) told the MP's he had
sworn in his Bradford association 'to be true to the shearmen, and see that none
of them are hurt, and not to divulge any of their secrets'.646
A colliery engineer from Durham testified that he believed 'a most solemn oath'
recently used by colliers, carpenters, sawyers and blacksmiths was 'a branch of
the same system (used) in 1810, called 'brothering':
Q What was the nature of that oath? They bound themselves to obey
the orders of the brotherhood at the peril of their lives, on the penalty of
being stabbed through the heart, or their bowels ripped up.
Q How did you come to a knowledge of the oath? I bribed a fellow in 1810,
by which I came at the nature of the oath, and the manner of making a brother,
as they called it.
Q On what account do you say that you think the present oath is the
same..It is mere suspicion on your part? It is information from petty officers
that the men talk to at times, and say, "we are members of the Union, and we
are bound by an oath."647
Aspinall within an otherwise useful discussion, advanced the notion that:
The evidence given before the Select Committee of 1825 on the
Combination Laws shows that Freemasonry, with its signs, passwords and
oaths of fidelity, familiarised trade unionists with the idea of organising
themselves as a secret society, and so did the Radical Societies like the
United Irishmen and the London Corresponding Society. The Methodist movement,
together with these democratic Societies, acquainted trade unionists with the
ideas of representation, delegation and federation.648
He provided three footnote references, one each for the claims about
'Freemasonry', 'Radical Societies', and the 'Methodist movement.' The third
mentions Methodism not at all, but quotes that part of the Preamble to the 1799
Treasonable and Seditious Practices Act which asserts that the London
Corresponding Society and the United Irishmen 'are composed of different
divisions, branches or parts' and have delegates and secretaries, etc. The
second reference is to correspondence suggesting the government enquire into the
political motivations, ie Jacobinism, of workers wishing to combine. The first
reference is the only one to the 1825 Report into Combinations, viz page 76, but
is equally worrying. It is in relation to the evidence of William McAllister,
'operative collier' at Kilmarnock Coal Work and Secretary of 'the Kilmarnock
miners' association.' The relevant questions and answers are:
Q When those (Rules) were printed, and the association formed, were there
any other rules formed than those which are printed? - No.
Q No private Bye-laws? - No.
Q No secret resolutions? - No.
Q No secret oath? - No.
Q Any secret signs by which you know one another? - Yes, but that does not
belong to the association.
Q What does it belong to? - That is the Brotherhood of the Colliery, that
has nothing to do with this association.
Q What is the nature of that Brotherhood of the Colliery? - It is the same
Q How far does it extend? - It extends just among colliers themselves.
Q What is the intention of it? - Just to make them friendly and true to
Q Has it anything to do with striking? - Nothing in the world.
Q Has it nothing to do with supporting one another in case of a strike? -
Q Of what number may that Brotherhood consist? - It may consist of every
collier in the world.
Q Do you mean to say that every collier is expected to belong to it? -
There is no compulsion, he may or may not.
Q Would you know the oath if you saw it? - I think I should.
(McAllister was then shown an oath presented previously by his employer, a Mr
- There is nothing of that in it.
Q Can you state what the oath is? - No.
Q Are you under secrecy? - We are under secrecy to one another.
Q Do you conceive it the same as Freemasonry? - It is the same.
Q Are you a Freemason? - Yes.
Q You are quite positive that the Brotherhood has nothing to do with the
measures of the association? - No, they are quite distinct one from the other.
McAllister may be lying but his evidence, as presented, shows only that one
collier, he himself, was a member of three quite distinct entities - an SF
lodge, a colliers' 'Brotherhood' and a colliers' 'Association'. It goes no
distance towards proving that 'Freemasonry familiarised trade unionists etc,
etc'. The minor tragedy is that the relations between these three, their
similarities and differences, and their individual histories, were not explored
then, and remain unexplored.
Guthrie, the colliers' employer, who also may be lying, was being asked about
what might be the 'Brotherhood' concerned, the 'Clydesdale Operative
Brethren' [my emphasis], when he handed up the oath he said was current in 1817.
He said 'the Brethren' had caused previous trouble but he knew nothing further
about it. The oath read:
I, GDE, do solemnly vow and swear, before God and those who trow,
that I will haill, conceal, and never reveal this secret of word, sign and
grip; that I will not write it, cut or carve, print it or engrave it, mark or
stain it, upon anything that will bear a mark, or the meaning of a letter; and
I will always assist a brother collier in anything that I can help him in, if
consistent with my own safety; and I will assist the Glasgow Clydesdale
operative brethren, if consistent with reason, equity, and justice, and
consistent with the laws of my country; and that I will not make, or see any
made, under the number Three, and not then until represented with a good moral
character. Now, as I have sworn, may the Lord enable me to perform this my
The pass word is 'Mizpah.'
The signs are, to touch the right ear with the right thumb and forefinger,
and answered by the other person putting down his right hand by his left side,
in allusion to Malchus's ear being cut off, and to Jesus's enjoining Peter to
put up his sword.
The grips formerly used were few in number, called the Clerk, the Boards or
shovel, the pick, the wedge and the mell; but of late a new one has been
formed, called the reversed sign, which is done by the one person putting up
the right-hand middle finger, while the other holds his hand out and right
middle finger down.649
Again, this contains details which some people would say they recognise as
'masonic', but which comparison with actual SF oaths does not support. These
colliers would seem to be drawing on a similar operative history to that
fuelling the 'masonic' rites, as were the smiths, bookbinders, etc, mentioned
above. Grips are not usually printed, even today, in books of ritual, SF or any
other, thus sensible research requires familiarity with the topic, not heresay.
Two references to 'disturbances' by weavers appear in the 1825 evidence by
Scottish colliery management about a man called John Falhouse Wilson, a
weaver allegedly travelling the country organising colliers, in
particular, into the 'Clydesdale Operative Brethren'.650
Here could well be the basis of the Webb's dismissive remarks and their 'origin'
claim. Tracking the alleged 'evidence' for their claim, through Hobsbawm and
through their references has produced, as the apparent final source, a
discontented ex-'brother' who had claimed that the Leeds Clothiers Union had
borrowed their initiation ceremony almost word for word from a lodge of
Rochdale Oddfellows 'who were flannel weavers' and who had been using it for
some time to enrol new members.
This is bizarre enough, in itself, to warrant further exploration, but
joining the 'Wilson' story would imply a non-collier but trade-specific lodge or
'Order of Odd Fellows' had determined on a policy of organising coal miners! far
and wide, at least from Leeds to the Clyde!651
Interestingly, Home Office papers disclose that information had been received on
'a shadowy weavers union'
said to stretch "from London to Nottingham, and from thence to
Manchester and Carlisle" bound by the strictest secrecy, with different
degrees of oaths at different levels of the organisation...652
Could this have been a network of odd fellows? Mentions of organised weavers
have peppered the present account, from pre-reformation times to the 19th
century, for readers to conclude there is a trail here worth following. It's a
pity the Webbs and Thompson, et al, did not bother.653
What the Webbs might have argued had come from SF ritual is the Eight Hour
Day. By the early 1800's a candidate for entered apprentice degree, ie the very
first SF degree, was invested with 'working tools' the first being a 24" gauge.
The Worthy Master handed it over with the words:
The twenty-four inch gauge, an instrument with which operative
Masons measure and lay out their work; but we as free and accepted Masons,
make use of it for a more noble and glorious purpose. It being divided into
twenty-four equal parts, is emblematical of the twenty-four hours of the day,
which we are taught to divide into three equal parts; whereby are found eight
hours for the service of God, and a worthy distressed brother; eight for our
usual vocation, and eight for refreshment and sleep.654
A Select Committee of the Houses of Parliament was also commissioned to
'consider the Laws Respecting FRIENDLY SOCIEITIES, and to report the same' in
1825. Its Report began with a reference to '(some) curious information
respecting the antient [NB spelling] history of Associations for mutual support'
in Eden's History of the Poor, but went quickly to a summary of the
'legislative interference or regulation of these societies' beginning with the
Rose Act of 1793.
Of this Enquiry and those of 1827 and 1848 it is fair to say that the
overwhelming concern is with actuarial calculations. The need to reduce taxation
on welfare weighs most heavily, combinatorial conspiracies hardly at all. The
witnesses called are almost all actuaries, sponsors of the newly-emerging
insurance companies or clergy connected with 'respectably patronised' societies,
these being just about the only 'friendly societies' which had newly registered
since the 1819 Act. Then the paternalist ideology was already set fair,
concentration of that Bill being on the potential for frauds and abuse of funds
within societies. By the time of the 1827 Enquiry the Committee's only brief was
(to ascertain) the necessary payment to be made by persons of the
poorer orders contributing in youth and manhood to a fund established to
provide annuities for them in old age.
Names such as the 'British Provident Annuitant Society', the 'Guardian
Insurance Coy', the 'Southwell Friendly Institution' and the 'Totness, Devon 3rd
Annuitant Society' provide the flavour of proceedings. Eden in 1801 calculated
that 5-6,000 'clubs' had had their Rules approved in the period since 1793, yet
not one artisan was called to any of the enquiries up to and including that of
1848. In that later year the first of the affiliated societies to gain
recognition, the 'Manchester Unity', was received, with only one exception, by
the participants, which included Tidd Pratt the Registrar, as though it was the
only Order of odd fellows.
One task placed upon the 1825 Committee was to consider what effect the
various laws relating to 'friendly societies' had had upon attempts to raise
wages, until 1824 an unlawful aspiration. The Committee spent almost no time
upon that concern, partly excusing itself by saying that it expected the
concurrent enquiry into the Combination Laws to more effectively relate to that
matter. But it also commented upon a resolution referred to it by that other
societies legally enrolled as Benefit Societies, have been
frequently made the cloak under which funds have been raised for the support
of combinations and strikes, attended with acts of violence and
This 'second' Committee used its Report to respond:
Neither the evidence which has incidentally been given upon it
[the Resolution] before your Committee, nor the evidence appended to the
Report referred to them [by the other Committee] appears to justify an
apprehension that the statement of the Resolution is extensively true. And
even if some of the older societies have been in a degree perverted to the
purposes of combination, Your Committee have no reason whatever to believe
that any such abuse has occurred, in a society formed under the last
Prothero wrote of working people's reaction to the legislation resulting from
the 1827 Enquiry:
The societies were very angry that (Chairman) Courtenay's
committee did not hear representatives from any artisan societies at all...And
their fears were confirmed when it reported in November in favour of
restricting societies purely to benefits for infirmity, old age, funeral
expenses and the endowment of children...The Bill that Courtenay introduced in
1828 was as bad as they expected, seeking basically to take control away from
members so as to establish financial rectitude.656
Prothero has recounted the 'resultant campaign' of 'national' agitation
co-ordinated by delegates from 108 London societies. So effective was it
Courtenay stepped away and the societies themselves drew up and had accepted by
the parliament what became the 1829 Act. Prothero's comment appears apposite:
The 1829 Act is regarded as a landmark in friendly society
legislation, in its appointment of a registrar (Tidd Pratt) and abandonment of
efforts at paternalistic control, though the fact that it was the work of
artisans is totally ignored...(It) seemed to dissolve some of the tensions and
antagonisms of 1825-7, and the London delegate committee urged full
co-operation with the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge over its
questionnaire and efforts to draw up guidelines for tables and rules.657
We have seen that the Webbs' ideological assertions about LH rested heavily
on their dismissal of the rites of association seen during the period 1829-34.
With a clearer idea of the context we can now return to those flawed assertions.
The dismissal had three elements:
- that the ritual adopted in those years was 'fantastic', (ie, irrational,
superstitious, of little value);
- that it was peculiar to that time;
- that it had come originally from the Freemasons via the 'Friendly Society
Subsequently, Hobsbawm and others claimed the 'fantastic ritual' came
suddenly upon 'trade unions'659
and that the Tolpuddle conviction caused it to vanish almost as quickly.660
A common fourth leg to this hegemonic construction has been that the Tolpuddle
labourers, like many others, were disguising their 'trade union' as a 'friendly
The reader will recall I highlighted information the Webbs had provided,
albeit mainly in footnotes, as follows:
- certain 'trade clubs' of carpenters and joiners, formed in 1799, became
the Friendly Society of Carpenters and Joiners in 1827 and joined the Builders
Union in 1833;
- the Builders' Union, predominantly stonemasons but joined for a short time
by other building tradespeople, became the Operative Stonemasons' Friendly
Society in 1834, the rules and rites of which 'closely resemble those of
contemporary unions [small 'u'] among Yorkshire woolen-workers;
- the 'constitution and ceremonies' of the Stonemasons Friendly Society and
the Friendly Society of the Carpenters and Joiners 'are nearly identical with
those adopted by many of the national Unions [capital 'U'] of the period, and
were largely adopted by the Grand Consolidated Trades Union of 1834';
- details of the rites, ritual and organisational procedures of the
Builders' Union were set out in the 'Character, Objects and Effects of Trades
Unions' in 1834 and 'ordered' to be taken from the 'Making Parts Book'
of the Operative Stonemasons 'by all lodges of the Builders' Union';
- the ritual, etc, was also 'the same as practised for years by the flannel
weavers of Rochdale', not as flannel weavers but as Oddfellows.
The reader will also recall that evidence presented here does not support the
contention that what we have of oddfellows' ritual resembles in any more than a
very superficial way that set out in the 1834 Operative Stonemasons' literature.
If, of course, that document was drastically altered as a result of the events
about to be described, then the 1737 'Friendly Society of Free and Accepted
Masons' (above) comes into play or the even earlier-established but
longer-running 'Worshipful Society of Free Masons, Rough Masons, Wallers,
Slaters, Paviors, Plasterers and Bricklayers', which, of course, we have found
to have had a very long run, even to (approx) 1900. If determined to find an SF
source for GNCTU rites this is surely the place to look. But we have seen that
the latter Society had a totally-integrated seven degree structure which bears
absolutely no similarity to oddfellow ritual or organisation. We will see that
it had no similarity either to that followed by the Tolpuddle conspirators.
The Tolpuddle 'brethren' were charged with the swearing of an illegal oath.
Some historians have claimed that this too was a transitory aberration. For
(The Tolpuddle transportees) had in fact only been guilty of a
comparatively trivial mistake into which early trade unions had fallen, the
adoption of oaths of secrecy. Such oaths were indulged in, partly perhaps to
avoid the scrutiny of the public and the long arm of the law, but more often
in order to fascinate the imagination of the illiterate.661
One thing only made the Tolpuddle oath illegal - that it was not of the
form sanctioned by the authorities. To be lawful an oath was to be one
required by law, and sworn in public in front of a suitable JP, magistrate or
court official. It was, of course, deliberate that the 'lawful' form excluded
any attempt to keep information from those same authorities. The 'Tolpuddle'
oath was, by definition, one that bound its swearer not to disclose that it was
sworn. The Society and its Rules had no intrinsic need to be secret, as we will
see, but it was the oath's intention to keep itself secret which
caused certain authority figures to regard it, the Friendly Society for which it
was sworn and its members as dangerous.
The particular wording used by those authorities to set up the 1834 trial
came from the 1799 Seditious Societies Act. Amounting simply to keeping one's
activities to oneself, the version put to the 1834 Dorset jury ran as follows:
purporting to bind the person taking the same not to inform or
give evidence against any associate or other person charged with any unlawful
combination, and not to reveal or discover any such unlawful combination, or
any illegal act done or to be done, and not to discover any illegal oath which
might be taken.662
The circularity of the 1799 prohibition is plain, as is the intention of the
authorities in introducing such prohibitions. Although numerous 'experts' could
be found to conclude that any attempt at secrecy indicated a conspiracy and that
any conspiracy to raise wages brought the persons involved within the range of
this Act, such a combination was, since 1824, lawful. If secret, it had not,
however, been 'lawfully constituted', ie registered, therefore any oath
it required not legitimately sworn was, by definition, unlawful.
But since such a society and its rules were intended to be kept secret,
neither it nor its rules could be said to have been a disguise. LH's cannot have
it both ways. They cannot claim that it was a disguised 'trade union',
and that its members knew they had to keep it secret, and therefore
labelled it a 'friendly society'. The title and the Rules (see below) were part
of what was intended to be hidden and could not be a disguise for anything.
Perhaps the title of EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working
Class was a disguised joke, referring to the ritual at the centre of
fraternal history, but the Tolpuddle Society in question was for him a
'trade union' without qualification or suggestions of a disguise.663
On one occasion he asserted quite definitely: 'scores of tavern friendly
societies were formed during the (Napoleonic) Wars, many of which were
undoubtedly covers for trade union activity'.664
Not far away is the less certain:
While some of these societies were select sick-clubs of as few as
twenty or thirty artisans, meeting at an inn, others were probably
covers for trade union activity; while at Newcastle, as at Sheffield, it is
possible that after the Two Acts the formation of friendly societies was
used as a cover for Jacobin organisation.665
The 'Jacobin' could have taken him to Freemasonry. His index, without
explanation there or in the text, refers searchers after 'Friendly Societies' to
'Benefit Societies' under which one finds 'Sunday School pupil's burial
'Female Trade Societies', all manner of artisan's 'sick clubs' and the following
direct evidence about Luddite-era meetings:
Sometimes they were termed 'benefit societies', sometimes
'botanical meetings', 'meetings for the relief of the families of imprisoned
reformers, or 'of those who had fled the country'; but their real purpose,
divulged only to the initiated, was to carry into effect the night
attack on Manchester.667
There is a vast difference between a meeting being held under a specious name
and a society registered as a friendly society while being
actually a 'trade union'. Government spies are unlikely to have been
fooled by the publicised intention of a meeting if the objects of their
attentions were involved. The 1801 'Second Report of the Committee of Secrecy'
asserted that in Lancashire
Dangerous meetings were disguised as in London, under the
appearance of friendly societies for the relief of sick members: the
persuasion of a general revolution shortly to take place, and consequently the
inefficacy of all resistance, was studiously diffused. 668
Maccoby dismissed this as 'a typical piece of unqualified Anti-Jacobin
alarmism', in other words LH's have to recognise that the disguise argument
started out in life as government propoganda.669
Also among the 'disguise' weaponry were letters to the Home Office from
persons concerned that funds of 'benefit societies' were being used to carry
members through times of no-work and/or to finance organisation. A draft Bill
was circulated in Manchester in 1813 having for its object 'to prevent the
Friendly Societies from being perverted to purposes of public mischief.'670
Rather than a sign of duplicity, argument within lodge over usage of funds is a
sign of contention about the functions of 'benefit societies', a debate still
running. 'Memorialists' insisting that meetings to consider 'trade' matters were
being held under the pretext of being 'benefit societies', simply don't
understand the phenomenon.
One such letter, dated 1802, tells of work committees of shearmen 'meeting
every Wednesday' in a 'club' with stewards, clerks and president, where they
naturally enough spoke angrily about their poor standard of living. The 'clerk'
was the person in charge of issuing tramp cards for use throughout the Kingdom
as well as collecting monies.671.
Another, an 1817 letter from Kidderminster, asserted:
There are many Sick Clubs in this town, and nearly the whole of
the men are members of them, and the funds are placed in the hands of the
manufacturers and others at interest. As soon as the men struck, most of this
money was called in for the purpose of maintaining the weavers out of employ,
and it is feared a deal of it is spent.672
These are not disguises or frauds, these are instances of 'clubs' doing what
their rules allowed, and intended. They were probably not registered and
probably hoping the authorities wouldn't notice but that's a different issue.
There were certainly 'cover-ups' happening in these years. A known Luddite
tried to become a Freemason 'for recruiting purposes' but was expelled.673
Activists were said to be 'worming' their way into 'convivial societies of every
The Minutes of the 'Grand Committees of the Independent Order of Oddfellows,
connected with the Manchester Unity' record an 1814 resolution 'That the Blucher
Lodge be fined one guinea for making several characters, knowing them to be
Luddites' and that 'the said characters be expelled from our Order, as also the
Blucher Lodge, until the said fine be paid.'675
Williams in Merthyr Rising makes pertinent comment on the paradox that
'friendly societies' are often dismissed by LH's as 'respectable' and therefore
irrelevant, and on the other hand are described as disguised 'trade unions.' In
Wales, Williams, suggests, there were some societies which were 'generally
favoured by ironmasters and magistrates as agents of respectability', there were
some which on closer examination, 'may not have been as innocuous as they look'
and there were others which would fall into both camps or neither.676
Summaries of alleged pre-1834 rites provided by the Webbs and Thompson is too
general to be very useful. Using Thompson's version - the intending member being
blindfolded, asked for the password, threatened with a sword, jostled about
while 'thunder' sounded and 'lightning' flashed, exposed to an image of a
skeleton and a Bible during which the members groaned, stamped their feet and
sang hymns - contains precisely the elements which appear to be the most common
to all but SF rites. The oath in this case, to the effect that for anyone
violating its bonds of secrecy 'his soul may be burnt in the lowest pit of hell
to all eternity', is similar to part of the oath allegedly sworn by GNCTU
members (see below).677
Secrecy had been an essential element, from earliest times, of the process
whereby authorised workmen, (such as 'Master Workman' and 'Fellow Craft')
maintained an eye on the numbers and quality of persons entering the trade, and
weeded out any considered unsuitable or superfluous, thus maintaining wages and
working conditions at a preferred level. This process, dependent on small, but
regular contributions which also assisted in stabilising or lifting wages678,
needed internal disciplines.
Inside a combination, the methods used to obtain secrecy no doubt varied -
to use of the Bible to an ingrained respect for community customs learned over
generations. Oaths were and are just one part of a process of secrecy and
must not be separated from the accompanying passwords, ritual, regalia or the
panoply of lodge officials who all have a part to play in the maintenance of
discipline. While the details of the process may vary over time - surplices,
death's heads, chains and ghostly noises - these are not the whole of the
process, indeed are among the minor props. Nor do they, by themselves, tell us
anything about the function of secrecy.
Details of the 'Tolpuddle' process of swearing are scanty in the transcripts
of evidence but what there is aligns with the Thompson summary. An oath The
Times says was 'taken by the men who become members of the Trades Union', by
which is meant the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU), appeared on
the very day the Tolpuddle arrests were made, 24 February. It contains some
similarities to an SF oath in its prohibitions and penalty which is
precisely where it's at odds with the 'Tolpuddle Rules'. Again, however,
notice the use of 'loyal', 'legal/illegal' and the lack of any charge to
do violence to any other person:
I do before Almighty God, and this loyal lodge, most solemnly
swear that I will not work for any master that is not in the Union, nor will I
work with any illegal man or men, but will do my best for the support of
wages, and most solemnly swear to keep inviolate all the secrets of this
order; nor will I ever consent to have any money for any purpose but for the
lodge, and the support of the trade; nor will I write, or cause to be wrote,
print, mark, either on stone, marble, brass, paper or sand, anything connected
with this order, so help me God, and keep me steadfast to this my present
obligation. And I further promise to do my best to bring all legal men that I
am connected with into this order and if ever I reveal any of the rules may
what is before me plunge my soul into eternity.680
The authorities of 1800 were unconcerned which 'combinations' were the enemy.
They would have banned chapel choirs if they thought that these were influencing
their constituents' economic advantages adversely. By 1834 such fears were seen
by all but a few to be unnecessary. To those few the cities were probably
already lost, at least were too hard. The Dorset labourers in combination
threatened the power of one particular land-owner, who also happened to be the
local magistrate. James Frampton was an extreme enthusiast for the status quo,
he was related to the (then) Home Secretary Lord Melbourne who was also an
arch-defender of the established order, and he, Frampton, had seen vigorous
action as a 'Captain Swing' magistrate a few years earlier. Dorset then had been
affected by disturbances and a Special Commission sitting there in 1831 had
sentenced 12 men to transportation.681
The available evidence shows clearly that Frampton's 'group' which included
magistrates, Established Church clergy and land-owners, cruelly and vindictively
pursued their mostly Dissenting prey, that the juries (a Grand Jury and a
'petty' one) were stacked against the defendants, that the trial process was
manipulated, that the Judge was hand-picked, and that the charge was contrived
after the arrests. That Judge instructed the jury as follows:
If you are satisfied that an oath...was administered...by means of
the prisoners, you ought to find them guilty...If you are satisfied from the
evidence respecting the blinding, the kneeling, and the other facts proved,
that an oath or obligation was imposed...you ought to find the prisoners
guilty; and if you come to that conclusion, I wish you to state whether you
are of opinion that the prisoners were united in a society.682
When the sentencing of the seven was announced The Times stated the
crime to be 'administering unlawful oaths to promote the ends of that criminal
and fearful spirit of combination which has seized like a pestilence on the
working classes of this country.'683
The sentencing judge believed that no less than 'the security of the country and
the maintenance of the law' were at issue:
Of the intentions of men it is impossible for man to judge...but
there are cases in which...the necessary effect of the act done upon the
public security is of such a nature that the safety of that public does
require a penal example to be made; and if there is any case in which that
observation applies, it surely is in a case where it is the object of men to
withdraw themselves from the authority of the law, to submit themselves to no
examination, and to have their conduct kept private and secret from the
knowledge and observation of the rest of the world, including those persons
who are bound by their oaths to maintain and administer the law.684
One question of moment here is whether the Tolpuddle society was, or was
intended to be a one-off, ie what was the function of the secrecy? One
presumes from the isolated rural setting, the small numbers of 'brethren'
involved and the evidence seeming to show that Loveless and the others asked for
and received their Rules from someone 'higher up', that this 'society' was just
one, not-very-significant unit in a much larger whole, and that that whole was
made up of a lot of similarly small, by themselves insignificant units. Thus, we
might presume the 'Tolpuddle' Rules would be exactly the same as the Rules in
those other units, except, perhaps, for a change of title and some reference to
farm workers. The Rules 'captured' in Dorset might therefore provide a clear
picture of what was happening, or was intended to happen organisationally, in
many different parts of the country as the alleged 'mania' for combination took
And because the Rules cannot be a disguise, and were communicated secretly,
what they show must be what the society's initiators, whoever they were,
believed was appropriate to their circumstances at the time. Marlowe's account
says that Loveless went about 'collecting information about Friendly Societies'
and that 2 delegates from the GNCTU addressed an October, 1833 meeting of
Tolpuddle labourers and read out 'the Rules.'685
The Tolpuddle Rules as published run to 24 'General Laws' and 12 'By-Laws.'
They are calm, logical and comprehensive, and relate directly to Dorset. They do
not appear to be town society Rules, hastily and roughly adapted to 'the bush'
and they do not assert that this is to be the 'Tolpuddle branch' of something
larger. Quite the opposite - their appropriateness and the ambitious plans
outlined mean that either Loveless worked on the model provided in line with his
own intentions or that the people behind the larger enterprise were organising
many similar, rural 'Orders' each of which was to be headed by a 'Grand
The Rules stipulated a 'grand committee' meeting in 'grand lodge' was to
change in personnel every 3 months. They insisted on a need for legality while
talking of 'standing out', ie striking. They emphasised each worker's
responsibility to act with integrity and they described a non-violent penalty
for breaking the oath of secrecy. The first Rules are:
1. That this society be called the Friendly Society of
2. That there be appointed a general or grand committee of management, not
less than seven, and to that body shall be confided the affairs of the whole
order, and nothing shall be legal or binding which does not proceed from them,
or receive their sanction. One of the committee to be appointed corresponding
secretary; one half of the committee to be elected every three months.
3. That the grand lodge shall be held at Tolpuddle.
The steady nature of the wording does not support the idea that Loveless was
carried away with inappropriate enthusiasm. 'The Friendly Society of
Agricultural Labourers' was clearly intended to be a separate and unique
'Order', with a 'Grand Lodge' akin to 'Grand United Order of Odd Fellows', or
the 'Ancient Order of Foresters' but occupation-specific. This is supported by
4. That there shall be a lodge appointed in every parish, and a
local committee, in order to insure regularity in the payment of allowances to
families who may be standing out, and to prevent any kind of disappointment,
to act under the general committee.
Note that it is families who 'stand out' (ie, go on strike) not society
5. That at their grand lodge all remittances shall be made of all
making money [ie, initiation fees] and contributions, after deducting the
necessary expenses of each lodge...(more).
6. That the contributions be fixed at 1d per week...(more).
9. That no member shall be required to pay contributions during the time he
may be sick or out of employ.
11. That in all lodges there shall be a president, vice-president,
secretary, treasurer, conductor, warden, outside and inside guardian.
14. That all lodges be opened once a fortnight for the transaction of
15. That there shall be one pass-word into all lodges after this order, to
be changed once a quarter, and to proceed from the grand lodge.
16. That no obscenity shall be tolerated in either songs or toasts, and
that no political or religious subjects be introduced during lodge hours.
19. That no place shall turn out for an advance of wages without the
consent of the grand lodge.
20. That if any master attempts to reduce the wages of his workmen, if they
are members of this order they shall instantly communicate the same to the
corresponding secretary, in order that they may receive the support of the
grand lodge; and in the meantime they shall use their utmost endeavours to
finish the work they may have in hand, if any, and shall assist each other, so
that they may all leave the place together and with as much prompitude as
21. That if any member of this society renders himself obnoxious to his
employer soley on account of his taking an active part in the affairs of this
order, and is guilty of no violation or insult to his master, and shall be
discharged from his employment soley in consequence thereof, either before or
after the turn out - then the whole body of men at that place shall instantly
leave the place, and no member of this society shall be allowed to take work
at that place until such member be reinstated in his situation.
22. That if any member of this order shall divulge any of the secrets or
violate the objects of the same, his name and a description of his person and
crime shall immediately be communicated to all lodges throughout the county,
and if such person gets work at any place where a lodge is established, or
where men belonging to this order are working, they shall decline to work with
such an individual, shall instantly leave the place, and shall receive the
support of the grand lodge as if they were turned out against the reduction of
23. That the object of this society can never be promoted by any...acts of
The By-laws relate to internal lodge workings, such as pass words, 'inward
signs', regalia, the box with multiple keys and when the word 'brother' shall be
used. In Van Dieman's Land later in 1834 Loveless said that the Tolpuddle lodge
password had been 'Either Hand or Heart'.686
There are no resemblances here to SF except in very general terms and there
appears to be only one rite - that of admission - thus no degree structure, let
alone seven. The 'Tolpuddle' regalia was not given in detail but does not appear
to have involved aprons. His confident use of white surplice ('loose, white
linen vestment' - dictionary) at the 1834 initiation, and his preparation,
locally, of a painting of Death/Father Time beforehand indicates Loveless was by
then at least conversant with the role of common, basic items of admission into
'benefit societies'. That he and a number of his 'brothers' were Methodist
lay-preachers and happily conducting ritual, perhaps in 'ludicrous and grotesque
dresses', just when the public wearing apparel of even the most 'gay' man was
diving from colour and adornment into severe, conformist black is more
surprising. The titles of the lodge officers - president, vice-president, etc -
strengthen the argument about a non-SF line of evolution, which nevertheless
employs 'Grand Master, Grand Secretary, etc' in a 'Grand Lodge.'
If these are the Rules of a 'trade union', then 'trade unions' were
normally organised in this way, ie with 'grand lodges', 'makings',
'inward signs' [ie grips] and were normally called 'Friendly Society.' If it's
disguised to resemble a 'friendly society', the mask is extraordinary. The third
option is that it is what it says it is, both a 'trade union' and a 'friendly
society', ie a trade-specific 'benefit society'. A captured letter from Loveless
to someone living close by who carried out the 'making' ceremony,687
shows that no-one involved was surprised by any of the society's features:
We met this evening for the purpose of forming our committee. There was 16
present, of whom 10 was chosen - namely a president, vice-president,
secretary, treasurer, warden, conductor, three outside guardians, and one
inside guardian. All seemed united in heart, and expressed his approval of the
meeting. Father and Hallett wished very much to join us, but wish it not to be
known. I advised them to come Tuesday evening at 6 o'clock, and I would send
for you to come at that time, if possible, and enter them, that they may be
gone before the company come. I received a note this morning which gave me
great encouragement, and I am led to acknowledge the force of union.
No-where in the contemporary material about the 1834 trial is there
any suggestion that the Dorset labourers were operating a disguised 'trade
union.' The authorities, and propogandists such as The Times, invariably
use the word 'combination' to refer to all workers' organisations. Palmer's
Index to the Times for this period provides no entry for 'friendly
society' at all. The Tolpuddle case is listed under 'Trades Union'. Numerous
contemporary pamphlets and review articles refer to 'combinations' or 'Trade
Neither was there was any suggestion of a disguise where it might have been
expected, amongst the supporters of the aggrieved. The first protest meeting,
just days after the sentencing, was publicised as the 'Grand Meeting in Favour
of the Agricultural Unionists Convicted at Dorchester.'689
And before the massive petition for release was presented to Parliament a
printed pamphlet was circulated extolling the virtues of a 'Grand Union Mart'
stocked 'with every article on which Labour could employ itself' by way of the
'Union Fund' at present being used to feed unemployed or sick members.690
All of which suggests that 'friendly society' and 'trade union' were not
differentiated by the participants on either side of this industrial conflict.
The questions of whether and why a legal 'trade union' would disguise itself
as a 'friendly society' and whether the shared, fraternal history occupies more
than a handful of years, can be further tested by asking about the location of
power within the network of 1830's combinations, specifically whether Owen or
one of the Central Committee could dictate what each and every individual lodge
officer and ordinary member was to do across the length and breadth of the UK.
If logically it is seen that even the Committee as a whole could not have done
so, even had it wished to, then some other source for the ritual, oath, aprons,
etc, has to be found. And if it is accepted that the shared history was in place
prior to Owen and the GNCTU, prior even to 1799, then to have 'Owenism' manifest
so broadly and with so little apparent organisational effort requires that the
source be of long-standing cultural proportions and derived from deeply-held
societal beliefs and attitudes.
Owen's philosophy has been labelled 'Co-operative Socialism' but he was
uninterested in parliamentary reforms or the minutiae of daily struggles.
Strongly opposed to all established religion he was interested in a new religion
of Enlightenment values and natural law. This would suggest to some an exposure
especially as residents of New Harmony, a major Owenite settlement in the USA,
produced a Philanthropic Lodge of (Free)Masons.692
Harrison's excellent book on Owen and Owenism, does not mention Freemasonry, but
notes Owen beginning to use biblical expressions from 1816, and declaring that
while he did not know what meaning people would attach to the term 'Millenium',
he was sure that a society 'free from crime, poverty and misery was universally
feasible.' According to Harrison, for most practical purposes it made little
difference whether an Owenite was 'a deist, a Freethinker or a member of some
rationalist Protestant sect' - the foundation of their belief was 'the
application of natural law to religion.'693
More specifically, in 1833 Owen intended that
national arrangements shall be formed to include all the working
classes in the great organisation...All trades shall first form
associations of lodges...[My emphasis]694
This was 'his new conception of future developments' in October, 1833, and
while what Harrison calls the 'trade union phase of Owenism' had been building
over the five years, 1829-1834, the GNCTU itself was not established until
February, 1834. Harrison shows that it was only in late 1833 that 'all trade
unions, co-operative societies, benefit societies "and all other associations
intended for the improvement of the working classes" were advised to form
lodges'. This can be seen either as an 1833-imposition or as an attempt to bring
all new combinations to a situation already occupied by 'old' ones, in other
words an attempt to reinvigorate the guild system.
Owen's reported comment that prevailing lodge ritual was 'wrapped in relics
of barbarism' does not necessarily conflict with Postgate's claim that he
'pragmatically' wrote ritual into the Rules of the GNCTU and for the same reason
accepted the title of 'Grand Master'.695
Bestor's study of the United States-based Owenite communities argues that the
period of 1829-34 was an unwanted distraction in Owen's advocacy of
communitarianism and that as soon as the trial was behind him he returned to
Since it seems pretty clear they didn't come from him, his use of lodge rites
and structure show his pragmatism over-rode any distaste and that he simply
adopted what was already available.
Rule 1 of the GNCTU 'Rules and Regulations', printed 1834, reads:
Each Trade in this Consolidated Union shall have its Grand Lodge
in that town or city most eligible for it; such Grand Lodge to be governed
internally by a Grand Master, Deputy Grand Master, and Grand Secretary, and a
Committee of Management.697
The 'Tolpuddle Grand Lodge' according to the above letter did not include
'Grand Master', 'Deputy Grand Master', etc. The Tolpuddle arrangement does not
conflict with the GNCTU advice, but it remains difficult to see Tolpuddle as the
'city or town' most eligible for a 'Grand Lodge.' In any event, it would appear
that Loveless, whether he really began 'collecting information on friendly
societies' quite innocently late in 1833 or not, became caught up in the
frenetic whirlwind of Owenite activity that quickly over-reached itself and had
already collapsed by August the following year, when he arrived in chains in Van
However, it is simply not possible that a complex lodge structure, its ritual
and all the trappings highlighted at this time could have been invented by Owen
or his Committee and imposed without comment or controversy. Whatever control of
its hundreds of thousands of members Owen or the collective GNCTU might have had
- Harrison describes membership as locally autonomous with 'distinctive
(district) organisation and leadership'698
- there is no way that Owen himself or his most ardent followers could have
created, distributed and/or paid for the multitude of differentiated collars,
ribands/sashes, wands, surplices, rosettes, etc, etc, in use by April, 1834.
Neither is it possible that the language of 'lodges' and 'Grand Lodges' could be
accidentally common to trade societies and non-trade societies
alike, nor that it could simply drop out of the sky, as in a bright idea,
Owen had no background in radical politics and his 'trade union phase' could
not have occurred if he had not been prepared to listen to and meld with people
in the area of work-related politics, for example, the two architect
co-operators, Hansom and Welch who persuaded 'their' Grand Lodge of the
Builders' Union in September, 1833 to give Owen a hearing and to work in with
his plans by forming the Grand National Guild of Builders.699
Remember the earlier letters, eg, one to the Home Office in 1817 gave
detailed information about the 'clubs' of London Tailors meeting every Tuesday
to elect delegates who then met every Thursday to decide resolutions which went
back to the 'club' meetings the following Tuesday. Sentinels at the door,
passwords and codes maintained secrecy. Further:
Upon any extraordinary occasion each union of trade [sic] elect
confidential delegates to meet and form a Grand Union of all the
Clubs of journeymen, of different trades, who then select of
their number, one confidential as representative of their trade, which trade
may have 80 Clubs. These delegates or representatives of each trade then
communicate their Resolutions to their constituents.700
Despite all these clues, it is extraordinary that Owen's personal involvement
in fraternities before 1829 has not yet been explored, nor that of the people
with whom he was working, even though his theories have been exposed to lengthy
and repeated scrutiny.
On the street, his vision of a world in which all 'men' were treated equally,
for him meaning a reconciliation of employer and employee into an harmonious
co-operation of mind and body, was alien to many of his listeners by being
overblown, soft-headed and unnecessary. The vision's organisational details, on
the other hand, were understood immediately by lay-preachers, trade activists,
readers of Thomas Paine or Freemasons, that is to say, by advocates of disparate
approaches that have come down to us as incompatible.
Ultimately, the Government did very little to suppress 'combinations', Lord
Melbourne believing, along with Place, that 'trade unions' would die out if left
A letter to the then Prime Minister supports the idea that it was the returning
dilemma of the Orange Societies in 1835 which opened the way for a pardon of the
Tolpuddle transportees. The then Home Secretary, Lord John Russell admitted that
'To be sure the Duke of Cumberland and the Duke of Gordon [both high Orange
officers] are far more guilty than the labourers, but the law does not reach
them I fear.' As Prescott says, 'The labourers were pardoned shortly
The Tolpuddle Trial was not the last in which workers received transportation
sentences for belonging to an 'illegal' combination, but later prosecution
shifted to concern for alleged murderous and vicious behaviour by strikers,
rather than with any oath-swearing. A case dismissed in July, 1834, involving 16
Exeter men and 'an illegal oath'703
is further proof that the six at Tolpuddle suffered more from an unfortunate
combination of circumstances than a systematic, Government policy.
Maccoby as above, p.519. See also I Christie, Stress and Stability in Late
Eighteenth-Century Britain, Clarendon, 1984, p.147.
Dicey, Law and Public Opinion, Papermac, 1963, pp.96-98.
The Times 12 Jan, 1813.
Dicey, 1963, as above, p.99.
George, London Life in the XVIIIth Century, Kegan Paul Etc, 1930, pp.3,
Leeds Mercury, 10, 24 and 31 Jan, 1801.
a 'conspiracy' which intended to have its own flag, Leeds Mercury, 9
Aug, 1800. For 'Strangers Friend Societies' see LM, 23 Jan, 1802. For
lack of resources among the societies see LM, 14 June, 1800 (Benevolent
Strangers Friend Society).
Frome Wilkinson, Mutual Thrift, 1891, p.30. Much of what follows is
from his Chapter 2.
'Grand Soiree at Leeds', Oddfellows Quarterly Magazine, Vol 9, 1847,
Leeds Mercury, 2 May, 1807.
Leeds Mercury, 13 Oct, 1810 (case of Stephen Watmuff); 22 Dec, 1810,
(case of Cheshire colliers).
Leeds Mercury, 9 May, 1812.
LM, 11 July, 1812.
LM, 29 Aug, 1812.
The Times, 9 June, 1813, reprinting from a competitor. See The
Times angry response at 14 June, 1813.
Leeds Mercury, 18 July, 1807.
LM, 3 July, 1813; 6 Aug, 1814.
Editorial, 'Memoir of William Candelet, PPGM', The Quarterly Magazine,
IOOF, MU, April, 1846, p.58.
Neave, as above, p.14. See, also, the example of the Helpmates Society, The
Times, 20 Dec, 1820.
Clapham, as above, p.589.
Swords & L Newlands, Druidism under the Souther Cross, UAOD, NSW,
Axelrod, The International Encyclopedia of Secret Societies & Fraternal
Orders, Facts on File Inc, 1997, p.37.
Wilkinson, as above, p.21.
Cordery, 'Fraternal Orders in the United States', in van der Linden, 1996, as
above, p.84. For detail see P Donaldson, The Odd-Fellows Text Book,
Moss, 1852, Ch2.
Rickard, p.184. His article is a useful summary of some of the debates about
origins but he is one who refers to a single 'Order of Oddfellows'; see also R
Nevill, London Clubs, xxx, xxx, p.33, for a reference to an 'Oddfellow
'Benefit Societies', Oddfellows Quarterly Magazine, Vol 9, 1847, p.270;
see also 'What is the Manchester Unity' at p.337; and 'Legalisation of the
Order' at p.393.
Trade Unions Condemned, Trade Clubs Justified, 1834, quoted in George,
as above, p.209.
Quoted in George, p.211.
Jacob, 1828, quoted in George, as above, p.402, fn.134.
Marlow, The Tolpuddle Martyrs, Deutsch, 1971, p.59.
Leeds Mercury, from 1 March-12 July, 1817, especially 14, 21, 28 June,
5, 12 July. See also 26 July, for report of similar case from Edinburgh.
Oliver's lodge expelled him - 30 Aug, 1817. See 26 April for editorial on
literary, scientific and philosophic societies closing or being closed.
Hobhouse to Lloyd, 21 Aug, 1818, in A Aspinall, The Early English Trade
Unions, Batchworth, 1949, p.274.
p.331 for some discussion of this by contemporary observers.
Walmsley, Peterloo: The Case Reopened, Manchester UP, 1969, pp.151-2.
Bamford, as above, p.149.
some history at I Evans (ed), The Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase and
Fable, Wordsworth, 1993, p.504; G Rothery, Concise Encyclopedia of
Heraldry, Senate, 1995, p.87.
Bamford, Passages in the Life of a Radical, (orig 1844), McGibbon &
Key, 1967, pp.138-46.
Bamford, as above, p.256.
Prothero, as above, p.140.
Prothero, as above, p.141. He also has as Gast's idea the traditional bundle
of sticks on a pole, 'to symbolise strength from unity' - p.145.
Thompson, The Making..., as above, p.466, p.464.
last quotations from Thompson, as above, pp.466-7.
espec. Thompson, The Making..., p.550, also p.267, p.311; see also his
Customs in Common, Merlin Press, 1991, espec pp.60-64.
Kiddier, The Old Trade Unions, Allen & Unwin, 1931, p.13.
Kiddier, as above, p.52.
easily perhaps in Ch 8, G Wallas, The Life of Francis Place, Allen
& Unwin, 1951 edn - Place was the person most centrally involved in the
deliberate, decade-long program aimed at repeal of the anti-combination laws.
Rickard, 'Oddfellowship', Ars Quatuor Coronati Lodge Transactions, Vol
XL, 1928, p.179
British Parliamentary Papers, 'Insurance - Friendly Societies Sessions,
1825-48', Irish University Press Volumes, Dublin, 1968?, copy at NSL NQ
Clapham, An Economic History of Modern Britain, CUP, 1952, pp.208-14.
Thompson & E Yeo, (eds), The Unknown Mayhew, Pelican, 1973, p.512.
For the shipwright sawyers' 'Good Samaritan', see p.392. For more on coopers'
'benefit societies', one of which, 'Friend of Humanity', claimed 700 members
out of a total London work-force of 1500, see Maccoby, 1786-1832 Vol, p.509.
Gilding, The Journeymen Coopers of East London, History Workshops
Pamphlet No 4, 1970?, from p.49.
p.14 for 'Index of Appendix' which show the page numbers of individual 'Rules'
and related documents, 'Report..on Combination Laws, 1825', as above.
discussion in Jones, 1950, as above, pp.148 subseq.
Evidence of Robert Hutton, 20 April, 1825, to Parlt Enquiry into Combination
'Report from the Select Committee on Combination Laws etc', 16 June, 1825',
British Parliamentary Papers, Irish University Press, 1968, pp.3-12,
Knoop and GP Jones, quoted at B Jones, 1950, as above, p.279.
R Carlile, Manual of Freemasonry..(etc), New Temple Press, 1835?, p.8,
p.43, p.66 for the full degree rites.
an interesting 15th century Italian example of the architect/stonemason
conjunction, see R Goldthwaite, 'The Building of the Strozzi Palace: The
Construction Industry in Renaissance Florence', Studies in Mediaeval and
Renaissance History, Vol 10, 1973.
Flinn, Men of Iron: The Crowleys in the Early Iron Industry, Edinburgh
Uni Pubs, History Philosophy and Politics No 14, 1962, refers to oaths taken
by the members of the Works Management Council when taking office, p.195, and
by clerical staff, p.201. See Thompson on 'secret oaths' pp.556-561, p.635,
Jones, 1950, as above, p.279.
Maccoby, English Radicalism, 1786 - 1832, Allen & Unwin (UK), 1955,
Durr, as above, p.94, quoting Gravenor Henson whose History of the
Framework Knitters appeared in 1831, reprinted David and Charles Reprints,
Aspinall, 1949, as above, p.49. See B Bailey, The Luddite Rebellion,
NYU Press, for evidence of considerable organisation amongst these
dis-employed men, their use of travelling delegates and the principles behind
their societies, eg, 'to bar unapprenticed and unskilled workers from the
trade' - p.13, about the shearmens' 'Brief Institution'.
Evidence of Mr John Buddle, 18 April, 1825, p.2, in 'Report from the Select
Committee on Combination Laws', British Parliamentary Papers, Irish
University Press, 1968.
Aspinall, 1949, as above, p.xxiii.
Evidence of Mr A Guthrie and Mr W McAllister, 27 April, 1825, contained in
'Minutes of Evidence, Report of the Select Committee on Combination Laws etc'
British Parliamentary Papers, Irish University Press, 1969, p.73, p.76.
'Report of the 1825 Select Committee into Combinations, etc', British
Parliamentary Papers, 1968, as above, p.65, p.73.
S & B Webb, The History of Trade Unionism, Longmans Green, 1920
edn, 1950, pp.19, 127, fn1.
Thompson, p.651, fn1 - undated but the context is of the Luddites.
some inconclusive statistics on weaver membership of the IOOF, MU Order,
Manchester District, in the early 1800's in N Kirk, The Growth of Working
Class Reformism in Mid-Victorian England, Croom Helm, 1985, p.198. Note
that Kirk assumes this and other 'Orders' he associates because of his 1980's
understanding of them were, apparently, always 'respectable' and always,
(prob Richard Carlyle), A Ritual and Illustrations of Freemasonry
Accompanied by Numerous Engravings and a Key to the Phi Beta Kappa,
Reeves, London, nd, 1820, (approx), p.14.
Report of the Select Committee Appointed to Consider of the Laws Respecting
Friendly Societies...(etc), 1825, p.23, 'Friendly Societies - 1825-27',
British Parliamentary Papers, Irish University Print, Dublin, 1971(?).
Prothero, Artisans and Politics in Early Nineteenth Century London,
Dawson, 1979, pp.233-4.
Prothero, as above, p.236.
such organisation has come to light, but it is not impossible.
Hobsbawm, Worlds of Labour, p.71, quoted in A Durr, 'Rituals of
Association and the Organisations of the Common People', Transactions of
Quatuor Coronati, Vol 100, 1987, p.89. See also His Primitive
Rebels, espec Chapter on 'Labour Sects', 1959, pp.126-149 and 'Ritual in
Social Movements', pp.150-174. Also Hobsbawm and T Ranger, The Invention of
Tradition, 1983 and the Webbs, (1920) 1950 edn, p.172 for stonemason claim
and p.182 for more general claim about 'the abandonment of unlawful oaths'.
Hobsbawm, 1959, as above, p.161.
Hurst, 'The Dorchester Labourers, 1834', English Historical Review,
Jan, 1925, p.65.
The Times, 20 March, 1834.
p.459; see also the use of 'might' on p.265.
Thompson, The Making..., as above, p.714.
Quoted by S Maccoby, English Radicalism, 1786-1832, Allen & Unwin,
Evidence showing how this strategy worked itself out, for example, in
'Friendly Society' legislation after 1825, will be found in Part 2 of this
Aspinall, as above, p.156; see also p.161, p.196, p.214, p.244, p.300, p.361.
letter, 'James Read to Lord Pelham, 1802' in Aspinall, 1949, as above, p.49,
Aspinall, as above, p.244.
Durr, as above, p.91, quoting a Masonic source.
Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, 1980,
Minutes (etc) of the Grand Committees of the Independent Order of
Oddfellows, connected with the Manchester Unity, from Jan 1814 to Dec 1828,
incl, Manchester, 1829, entry for 22 Aug, 1814, Resolutions 2, 3. Copy
held at MUOOF Office, Pitt St, Sydney.
Williams, The Merthyr Rising, 1978, pp.78-81.
Thompson, p.559; Webbs, as above.
A Somerville, The Autobiography of a Working Man, orig 1848, Turnstile
edn 1951, p.58, for an example from 1828, but which nevertheless has to be
taken with a grain of salt, as the author may have been a spy for the Home
The Times, 24 Feb, 1834, quoting the Worcester Journal.
Marlowe, pp.55 on; H Evatt, Injustice Within the Law, Law Book Co,
Quoted in Evatt, as above, p.55.
The Times, 21 March, 1834.
The Times, 21 March, 1834.
Marlowe, p.43, and fn.
Marlowe, as above, p.43, and fn.
evidence was presented about this.
Review Article of 4 pamphlets at Edinburgh Review, July, 1834, as
Marlowe, The Tolpuddle Martyrs, Panther, 1971, p.113.
No 28880, 'FKS', 'Trades Triumphant', London, 1834, mfm, Goldsmiths Kress
Library of Economic Literature.
Rude, Revolutionary Europe, Fontana, 1966, pp.181, 194, 198, 259.
Bestor, Backwoods Utopias, Uni of Penn, 1950, p.168.
Harrison, Quest for the New Moral World, Scribner, 1969, pp.86-93.
Harrison, Quest for a New Moral World, Scribner, 1969, p.211, quoting
Owen in October, 1833.
Marlowe, as above, p.46; R Postgate, The Builders' History, 1923,
pp.62-3, quoted in Durr, as above, p.99.
Bestor, Backwoods Utopias, U of Penn Press, 1980, p.88.
Webbs, p.160 and from p.725 for the GNCTU Rules.
Lloyd Caldecott's Statement', 17 March, 1817, in A Aspinall, Early English
Trade Unions, Batchworth, 1949, p.233, (Item No 212).
The Times, 24 March, 1834; see discussion of attitudes among
Government, Aspinall, 1949, as above, 'Introduction'.
Prescott, 'The Spirit of Association', Lecture, May, 2001, as above, p.17.
Marlowe, as above, p.118, or Leeson, as above, p.117.