Part One - Britain from Gothic Cathedrals to the Tolpuddle Conspirators
By Dr Bob James
January 2001
Revised May 2002

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CHAPTER 1. When is A Trade Union NOT a Trade Union?.


The celebration of Australia's federation took numerous forms, the major events being in Sydney in the first week of the new century, 1901. The centrepiece of the public celebrations was a huge street procession on 1 January. Rank upon rank of 'the gentry' and row upon row of military, the protectors of the Empire, were followed by 'community' representatives, the mounted police, 'trades-unionists' with an Eight Hours Day banner, 'friendly society' leaders in carriages, firemen and so on.

Five days later on 5 January, a further huge parade took place, this time of just the 'common folk'. In the following day's report of the Sydney Morning Herald, this was designated the 'Trades Procession.' It ended, as outings for the common folk were wont to do, with a sports carnival. This second 'peoples' gathering' was designated by the same paper the 'Friendly Societies Sports.' Why the change in title from the procession to the sports?

The second parade, in fact, had two equal parts, one of 'trade' and one of 'friendly' societies. Similarly, the sports included teams from 'trade societies' and from 'friendly societies.' There was clearly a close relationship between these two, however the media dealt with them. But what was the nature of that relationship? And how were they to be told apart?

The official record of the celebrations, published in 1904, introduced the parade of 5 January this way:

The procession through the streets of the city by the United Friendly Societies and Trades Unions presented a magnificent spectacle. Recognising the importance and numerical strength of the combined orders of the respective bodies forming this demonstration, the Government considered it advisable to set apart a separate day for the purpose; and in order that the representation might be in keeping with the dignity and traditions of the various bodies taking part, a sum of money was granted from the Treasury towards the display. 1

The event itself was described:

Dense crowds lined the route of the procession and evinced great enthusiasm at irs artistic character, as the glittering pageant moved on its way. The demonstration was one of dignity and stateliness, and in picturesqueness excelled any previous effort made in Sydney by similar bodies.

Members of Parliament followed the parade to the Sports Carnival which was also attended by the Governor-General and Prime Ministers of both New South Wales and New Zealand. The State organisations of 'Trades Unions' and 'Friendly Societies' also contributed separate 'Banquets' to the festivities, each attended by a bevy of dignitaries. Prime Minister Barton spoke at the second of these of the Federal Ministry's powers:

(So) far as I can judge at present, the passage of a Friendly Societies Act does not come within the scope of the subjects entrusted to the federation..(However) I can assure you that...any legitimate influence I can exercise will be right heartily employed to smooth away inequalities in the law under which these societies operate.

The NSW's Colonial Secretary See asserted:

No institution could do so much good as the Friendly Societies, and he hoped before the expiration of the present Parliament to bring in a Bill to give the relief which they so urgently required.

His call for a Federation of all Australia's Friendly Societies was repeated by EW O'Sullivan, the State Minister for Works:

(The) Friendly Societies..should have a Friendly Societies' Ground on Moore Park (Sydney).., Secondly, they should establish a Friendly Societies' holiday, and hold an annual procession like the Trade Unions. The bank holiday on the 1st August might be utilised for such a purpose. Thirdly, they ought to have a federated Friendly Societies' Hall, in which delegates from all parts of the Commonwealth could meet, exchange views, and hold Federal banquets, and local gatherings. 2

In vain, one searches for any reference to friendly societies, let alone a competent analysis, in Australian histories such as Manning Clark's A History of Australia. Russell Ward makes no mention of them in his 'penetrating analysis of nineteenth-century Australian history', The Australian Legend3, and I searched hard before finding any references to them in the 1988 Bi-Centenary Volumes. So, why and how have they dropped out of sight since 1901?

Over 600 years before, in almost any European city, such a representative expression of a community's clergy, military, gentry, working families and tradespeople, would have been mingled in a single parade and have completed its journey at the cathedral. Surprisingly perhaps, it is in those mediaeval pageants that the beginnings of the answers to my questions are to be found.

Because every level of society had contributed to the cathedral's erection, each social layer's involvement was appropriately recorded in the building's very being, its carved stonework and furniture, its painted frescoes, and in its soaring glass windows.

To mediaeval minds, the cathedral was the theatre, the music hall and concert hall, and 'the focal point of civic aspirations' because it was the embodiment of the 'Grand Architect of the Universe' and His Heavenly Jerusalem. Within its walls, besides praying and seeking assistance, people strolled and chatted openly, 'not hesitating to bring their pet dogs, parakeets and falcons.'

Church liturgy at the time had a strong dramatic element. The building's consecration would have begun with a mock struggle between good and evil, each parodied and played larger than life. When the massive procession came to the closed door the Bishop would have rapped three times with his staff while his congregation would have assailed the barrier with a hymn. Inside, one of the clergy dressed as a devil or a mischievous spirit would have responded: 'Who is the King of Glory?' At which no doubt the crowd roared: 'The Lord of Hosts! He is the King of Glory'. Whereupon, the bolts would have slid open, the evil one would have emerged and slunk off, leaving the Bishop and procession to celebrate the consecration ceremony.

On occasions such as Easter, parables were acted out - a dove trailing blazing tow would be let down from the roof to simulate tongues of fire descending, or smoke and thunder would somehow be conjured up at the climactic moment of Christ rising from the tomb.

The Gothic Cathedral, heart and pulse of the mediaeval society, is linked most directly to the 'craft, trade and mystery' of our times by way of the guilds. That link has been much-debated in the 19th and 20th centuries, some authors seeing the guilds continuing in 'friendly societies', while Wilkinson, historian of 'friendly societies', has asserted that it was the 'modern Trade Union, not the Friendly Society' which was the legitimate successor of the guild. 4 Pivotal UK historians of 'Trade Unionism', Sidney and Beatrice Webb, have asserted that such a claim rested 'upon no evidence whatsoever.'5

Christopher Brook from whom I've taken the above insights into the world of the cathedral builders claimed the religion of the Middle Ages 'was the very antithesis of (20th century) Sunday Worship' but, using the cathedral's art and decoration to explain how 'from birth to grave, religion and life were integrated in one indissoluble unity', uncovered important connections:

Few ages have accorded honest labour greater honour. Work, whether in the cornfield or the sheepfold, the bakery, the smithy, the tailor's shop or the mine is depicted with sympathy and respect; often with humour, never with a hint of condescension or caricature.

Despite a massive shift in the way of religious practice, here is solid connection with the Federation procession and the societies of working people - a regard for 'honest labour.' In closely examining a shared emotional response to working peoples' 'fraternal associations' we will see that more concrete details made the journey across time and space. 6 We will see that, in some cases deliberately, this evidence has been ignored until it is now almost entirely invisible.

In annotating a guild charter document from the year 1200 Gross wrote:

To become a gildsman, was necessary to pay certain initiation fees,..(and to take) an oath of fealty to the fraternity, swearing to observe its laws, to uphold its privileges, not to divulge its counsels, to obey its officers, and not to aid any non-gildsman under cover of the newly-acquired 'freedom.'7

Already in place, here, is the structure of 'brotherhood', on which Freemasons, 'friendly societies' and 'trade unions' rest. The principles of discipline, conviviality and benevolence which shaped 19th and 20th century 'rites of association' are already in place - an oath, secret signs and knowledge, exclusive regalia marking office and achievement, members' contributions kept in a 'common box', and a sense of exclusiveness based on a line drawn between 'insiders' and 'outsiders', a line drawn by the notion of privilege attaching to the 'freedom' of the craft. That O'Sullivan erroneously asserted at the Federation Sports Carnival's luncheon in 1901 that the Federated Seamen's Union was 'the pioneer organisation' among friendly societies in Australia does not invalidate this point. What it does do is spotlight an intense struggle at the heart of myth-making about 'the Australian character'. 8

In tracking the process of transmission and using as evidence much that has been previously dismissed as trivial or irrelevant, including the parades themselves, this study finds ample justification for the conclusion that we have all been very poorly served by our professional and academic historians who, by and large, have written to a political agenda, and have not seriously attempted to let the evidence lead to what we might call its own conclusion.

The Importance of Friendly Societies

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British reformer and long-time power-broker WE Gladstone asserted in the 1870's:

Friendly Societies have become so important and telling a feature in the Constitution of British society in its broadest and most fundamental part that any account of our nation and of the people, to whom we rejoice to belong, would deserve no attention as a really comprehensive account of it if it was wanting in a good and full description of such Societies. 9

Colonial Australia would have had to have been totally unlike the Britain from which its settlers had largely come to justify the fact that Russell Ward's famous argument concerning the sources of 'characteristically Australian traits'10 such as collectivism contains no material relating to such societies.

The Austrian academic Professor Baernreither travelled to Britain in the 1880's to study precisely this 'collectivist' phenomenon. As a result he argued in 1889 that 'the influence exercised by the Friendly Societies, as voluntary fraternities, cannot possibly be overestimated' with regard to the moral and economic 'muscle' of the working classes.

They are also increasing the cohesion of the working class, and welding together elements...into a social power, by creating a union based on brotherly support. 11

By the turn of the century, however, Ramsay Macdonald was equating mutual aid with State welfare12 and even the trumpeter of village-level mutual aid, Peter Kropotkin was giving 'trade unions' a separate, primary place and bundling up in two sentences the countless other associations of working people prepared to 'sacrifice time, health and life if required'. 13 This shift was in the face of the facts. One published survey, of the town of York in 1899, will suffice here. The number of 'Trade Unionists' in March 1899 was 2,539, of 'Friendly Society' members, 10,662. 14

By the 1940's, Kropotkin's essential argument that the world was growingly progressively more attuned to decentralised organisation and toward co-operative principles was easily dismissed by socialist scholars:

On the main issue, this vast multiplicity of voluntary organisations is an undeniable fact; but it is almost the reverse of the truth to regard voluntary associations as possible inheritors of the functions of the State. 15

In a world of centralised 'Welfare States', references by politically-astute historians to citizen-run systems of welfare based on locally-autonomous lodges seemed completely unnecessary. For those committed to State-run welfare and a State-directed economy, pride in one's self-sufficiency such as in the following was at best a joke, at worst a flag indicating bourgeois duplicity:

To provide for a rainy-day, to set aside some tithing from the harvest time of health and strength to meet the requirements of an hour when both may fail, is the duty of every man who values 'the glorious privilege of being independent.' More especially it is the duty of every working man. 16

Less politically-obvious British authors often quoted official figures substantiating the claim that in the 19th century 'the friendly societies' in the UK embraced a larger proportion of the working class than any other institution, eg, four times as many as 'trade unions' in 1872. They could conclude that 'friendly societies' were 'the most typical'17 or 'the most characteristic'18 working class organisation of the period, yet simultaneously dismiss them in a few lines with erroneous statements, often 'borrowed' from earlier authors.

This 'most characteristic' working class organisation was, for example, 'a-political and non-religious'19, or it was a mere rehearsal for 'trade unions'20, or was a 'disguised trade union', or politically and socially irrelevant because it was 'founded from the beginning (!) as (an instrument) of working class amelioration within the existing social system' and therefore was not 'seeking in any way to overturn it.'21 We will see that the only conclusion to be drawn from these assertions is that these authors have not been prepared to do any original research based on even the figures they quoted. The Hammonds were prepared to quote Clapham's belief that 'no less than two-thirds of the men of Lancashire belonged to some Friendly Society in 1847' and to point out that sixteen Friendly Societies, over 4,000 people, marched through one Lancashire town on Whit-Monday in 1884, and yet make no effort to find out the why's and wherefores behind such clearly significant phenomena.22 Could it be they believed they already knew the answer?

The pre-eminence of 'friendly societies' in the UK in the last decades of the 19th century has been argued by a more recent scholar, David Neave. He has set out their centrality, financially, socially and culturally, and agrees their neglect by 20th century historians requires explanation:

Few published histories of towns or villages pay anything but passing attention to friendly societies yet in the century and a half before the First World War they increasingly affected the lives of the majority of the inhabitants of Britain.23 [My emphasis]

Neither excuse nor explanation, Neave has documented the erroneous belief among British historians that 'friendly society membership was confined to "the aristocracy of the wage earning classes" ' and believes that such views can be traced to evidence given to various Royal Commissions, 'in particular to that relating to Friendly Societies in the early 1870's.' The incongruity of the other half of the error, that such artisans were in pursuit of middle class ideals of respectability, alongside the belief of, for example, Reverend Booth that the societies were 'half heathen clubs utterly unlawful for a Christian man', has still not occurred to many.24

Neave's concluding remark on the research situation in the UK can be generalised:

The role of friendly societies in the development of the labour movement in Britain is one of the many aspects of the history of friendly societies that has yet to be explored.25

Anxiety amongst ideologically-committed historians about the truth concerning 'benefit societies' has naturally also influenced portrayal of 'trade unions'. As Johnson observed in 1985:

The welfare policies of trade unions have not received the attention they deserve from labour historians; the student who looks through the standard histories will find little information aside from the accurate but unenlightening generalisation that the 'new' unions paid "'fighting' benefits only", whilst the old craft unions were dismissed by their more radical confreres as 'coffin clubs.'26

The relative importance of the welfare and trade protection functions of UK 'craft unions' in the 1870's has received a little attention but from the point of view of union leaders, so there are few insights into how the membership saw the different benefits. Some contemporary observers certainly believed it was the benefits rather than the politics which attracted and held members.27

Despite its flaws, a major conclusion of Gosden's 1961 work on English Friendly Societies, one of the very few in the 20th century on the subject, can also be generalised further:

One of the most interesting aspects of the history of the development of friendly societies between 1815 and 1875 is the light which it sheds upon the social life and ideas of the classes which joined them.28

It is simply unfortunate that a co-terminous study of 'The People's Health' in the UK such as Smith's should refer to 'friendly societies' not at all, and be so egregiously at error in his only relevant material, that of 'sick clubs', eg:

The GP's also enlarged 'the dignity of our...profession' by raising their fees for sick clubs...The clubs had been created by doctors and local bigwig philanthropists in the 1820's and 1830's and, excepting the miners' clubs', had run on the doctors' terms.29

He doesn't appear to have realised the dangers inherent in drawing 'facts' almost entirely from The Lancet, The British Medical Journal and the Medical Gazette.

In the more general area of what Clawson has called 'the construction of brotherhood', the last two decades or so of northern hemisphere scholarship have seen some significant steps towards correcting the errors of the past. English academics have begun examining welfare statistics from an associational point of view while some excellent work is being done by social history curators such as Nicholas Mansfield, Andy Durr and others into the reality of pre-20th century mutual aid by way of surviving memorabilia.30

A similarly interesting project has been the examination of 'ethnic fraternal benefit associations' in the United States of America. A Finnish-American scholar concluded in 1981:

The mission of the fraternal-aid society - to provide "for mutual moral and material assistance" - took it far beyond a simple economic function. It assumed a vital role in the new ethnic communities. Along with the church and the newspaper, it served to create and sustain group identity and cohesion.31

Unfortunately, and despite the insights of de Tocqueville and others32, researchers in that country will need to do battle with a strongly-held belief that Americans invented the 'fraternal beneficiary society' in the 1860's.33

Franco has suggested that reliable historical studies of fraternal organisations in America are rare because of intensity of feelings about them, but she noted a recent change in attitude among scholars inclined to see 'fraternalism' sociologically. Mary Ann Clawson's 1989 Constructing Brotherhood has traced the development of fraternalism from early modern western Europe through eighteenth century Britain to nineteenth century United States of America.34 She defined fraternalism in terms of four characteristics - 'a "corporate" idiom, ritual, proprietorship and masculinity.'35 She is less concerned with whether benefits were paid than with an explanation of a phenomenon she can hardly credit has been ignored:

(When) we consider the range of organisations that made use of fraternal identity, it is remarkable that it has gone unexplored for so long...Over centuries of European and American history, fraternalism exerted a persistent appeal...(Scholars') lack of awareness is most pronounced in the study of nineteenth century American society, where a Masonic type of fraternalism served as the organisational model for trade unions, agricultural societies, nativist organisations, and political movements of every conceivable ideological stripe, as well as for literally hundreds of social organisations.36

In Australia benefit societies other than 'trade unions' have been almost totally invisible to historians. Their invisibility has endured despite the obvious need in this colonial society for extensive mutual aid and self-help systems, and despite the fact that their relevance, albeit much weakened, has continued to the present day.

The role of benefit societies in the delivery of health, and death services in particular was pivotal in Australia. Cromwell and Green, virtually on their own, have realised that in this country 'friendly societies were always foremost amongst organisations raising funds for the local hospital' and they record the establishment of medical institutes and dispensaries by Friendly Societies acting in concert. Some understanding of this has trickled into 'Health Care History' where acknowledgement is sometimes made that:

The (friendly) societies developed as the main source of medical services for the working class in the late nineteenth century.37

If mentioned at all in Australian 'welfare history', the contribution of 'friendly societies' is usually confined to the provision of benefits, for which purpose they are treated as unique and separable from other similarly treated kinds of benefit providers, eg, building societies and co-ops. A Senate Select Committee on Health Legislation and Health Insurance reported in 1990 that:

Australia has a long tradition of private hospital and medical insurance, which had its origins in nineteenth century friendly societies, churches and charitable organisations.38

Earlier, Kewley had written:

A feature of the Australian colonies, often remarked upon by outside observers, was the extent to which the colonists joined together in societies for their mutual benefit...At the end of the nineteenth century the charitable relief activities of the Government were less extensive than the co-operative efforts of the people themselves, many of whom joined together in friendly societies.39

In neither case, do the author/authors refer to a single study of the phenomenon which they are implying they have examined, for the very good reason that there have been no studies. And though this is the world of THE POOR, THE UNEMPLOYED, THE NOT-RICH, the world on which the 'labour tradition' has been constructed, it is a world which has not, thus far, penetrated that area of Australian scholarship known as Labour History (LH).

Only a very small number of Australian professional historians have recognised a need to re-focus working people's history. Geoffrey Blainey's extensive education had not adequately prepared him when he was commissioned to write an account of one 'affiliated friendly society', the Independent Order of Oddfellows, [IOOF]. After completing the task to his satisfaction he recorded his own initial blindness, and the change of attitude to which the evidence led him:

I started with no view about friendly societies. I knew so little about their history and activities. More and more I became impressed. Here were tens and thousands of Australians...trying to prepare for the difficult times which were likely to come at some stage or other. Their motto was simple: help each other. In many ways they could teach us a lesson.40

Nancy Renfree, an unpublished student of such societies around Castlemaine, Victoria, supported these contentions.41 She noted a widespread acceptance of friendly societies from the 1840's across nationalities, occupations and backgrounds.42

The authors of the only published, general study of Australian Friendly Societies43, Cromwell and Green, point out that what became the affiliated Orders arrived quite early in all parts of the colony and that they spread quickly, achieving broad coverage of the working population:

By the 1860's the (friendly) societies were a major presence in every Australian town. They were known for their organisation of medical services, for organising the supply of medecines, for their sick pay, and for the help they gave those who fell on hard times. They were known, too, for the social life they offered, often providing the only organised social activities in the early years of colonisation.44

Cromwell and Green provided figures to show that at least twenty-five per cent of the population of all States was directly benefiting from friendly society benefits before 1914. In some States and in some areas the percentage was well over half:

It was thought...[in the 1890's] that throughout Australia eighty to ninety per cent of manual workers were members of friendly societies.45

Most recently, Brian Stevenson has privately published two very useful accounts of the Protestant Alliance Friendly Society in Queensland and Victoria46 and Beverley Kingston has inserted a number of sensible insights into the 1860-1900 volume of the Oxford History of Australia, including the following:

(In 1880) Mortimer Franklyn (an American) thought the fondness he perceived for formal observation of status and procedure, especially in Masonic, friendly societies and trade unions simply typical of English-speaking peoples.47

Franklyn was by no means alone. British visitor James Inglis wrote in 1879:

One characteristic feature of the social economy of our Australian cousins is the system of mutual assurance which so largely prevails in all the towns...These societies are principally organised and supported by the working classes.48

Thus, the notable presence of 'friendly societies' as representatives of the people in both major Federation processions. Again: how and why did they drop so completely from sight?

Problems With the Terms

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The term 'friendly society' is useful as shorthand in certain situations, as the term 'trade union' sometimes is, but like that term has many shortcomings when one is attempting to be accurate, logically correct and consistent. Thus I keep both in inverted commas, much of the time. We shall see that ambiguities in the literature range from the confusing use of a variety of terms for the same situation, to the use of the same term to cover a range of situations. For example:

Charles Dilke, well-connected visitor from the UK and whom Kewley (above) was quoting, used 'provident societies' in referring to the 'remarkable' spread of what I would call 'benefit societies' in Australia and other colonies of Britain.49 At precisely the same moment, Timothy Coghlan, NSW Statistician and author of a series of volumes on the wealth and progress of that State could find no place in his text, even in his index, for 'friendly society', 'benefit society' or 'provident society.'50 Putting the AMP Society and the Mortality of Life Tables into the section on 'Population and Vital Statistics', along with fire risks, life assurance and savings; and land, building and investment companies into the 'Finance and Public Wealth' section, he further separated 'Food Supply and Cost of Living' from 'Social Conditions and Charities' - all of which left no place at all for 'benefit societies.'

On the other hand, the use of 'friendly society' has ranged from meaning just 'Friendly Societies', ie, with caps, the nationally-federated or 'Affiliated Orders', to meaning the full range of related institutions, where the more inclusive 'benefit society' is more accurate. Similarly, the term 'trade union' has experienced bouts of such elasticity in application as to make it well-nigh useless in serious studies of working peoples' combinations.

Despite the long-standing focus on one particular relationship in working people's lives, ie the employer-employee relationship, and despite the fact that certain characteristics have been attributed to one particular association which claims to define itself through that relationship, ie the 'trade union', there is enormous ambiguity around the terms that are used to describe and analyse that relationship, especially and most relevantly, around the term 'trade union' itself.

Don Rawson, a longtime and respected student of labour affairs, argued in 1986, that after decades of the dominant work-based approach to Australian labour history, scholars still had no agreement about definitions, in particular of 'trade union'. He preferred that offered by the Australian Bureau of Statistics that:

...a trade union organisation consisting predominantly of employees, the principal activities of which include the negotiation of rates of pay and conditions of employment for its members.51

Notice the qualifiers 'predominantly' and 'principal'. For Hagan there was no need for any definition52, while many other Labour Historians [LH's] have sheltered under that provided by the Webbs a century ago without always being aware that these UK Fabians had significantly altered their key definition between editions of their book The History of Trade Unionism. In 1976, Ian Turner chose the narrower of their alternatives:

A trade union is, in the classic definition of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, 'a continuous association of wage-earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment.'53

This is the wording which appeared in the Webb's 1894 edition, the first edition. In the second, 1920, they replaced 'conditions of their employment' with 'conditions of their working lives', a much broader definition.

Turner acknowledged the shift in a footnote but contended that only 'in their earliest days' did 'trade unions' confine themselves to the limited field implied by the definition he'd adopted. Very quickly, he says, they realised the need to advocate 'political' not just 'economic or 'industrial' strategies, a change he believed in line with the words of the second definition.

The Webbs say they adopted the broader definition in order not to give the impression that they thought that workers would always be wage-slaves. I will argue that the struggle between these definitions has affected the whole of LH/'the labour movement', that the struggle is on-going, that the issues involved are many and varied, and that not even the issue apparently separating 'trade unions' and 'friendly societies', ie that of benefit payments, is as clear-cut as it seems. We shall see that the Webbs wrote that friendly society benefits, what they called 'Friendly Mutual Insurance', have been the oldest form of 'Trade Union' (NB their caps) activity 'in many industries', and been adopted 'by practically every (trade) society which has lasted.'54

We will see that the Webb's stated reason for their change, as well as the change itself, was ideological, career-driven and future-oriented, while Turner's is a claim about past historical fact. That is, that the Webbs provided the essentials for Turner's 'interpretation' as part of an argument, but that he and other Australian Labour Historians [ALH's] have treated those essentials as unarguable 'facts'.

Because the Webb's overall approach suited them, LH's generally have not reflected on the dynamic context the Webbs were alluding to, and have built their accounts on rhetoric rather than substance. If they had carefully read and then thought about all that the Webbs said, LH's, in Australia and elsewhere, might have saved the 'labour movement' from its 20th century decline. In 1897 the Webbs pointed out that:

If the reader were to seek out, in some tavern of an industrial centre, the local meeting place of the Foresters or the Carpenters, the Oddfellows or the Boilermakers, he might easily fail, on a first visit, to detect any important difference between the Trade Union branch [NB caps] and the court or lodge of the friendly society.[NB no caps] (They) all seem 'clubs' managing their own affairs. Every night sees the same interminable procession of men, women and children bringing the contribution money. When the deliberations begin, they all affect the same traditional mystery about 'keeping the door', and retain the long pause outside before admitting the nervous aspirant for 'initiation'; they all 'open the lodge' with the same kind of cautious solemnity, and dignify with strange titles and formal methods of address the officers whom they are perpetually electing and re-electing.55

Nearly a century later, one European scholar summarised debate amongst LH's as follows:

The emergence of trade unions and labour parties has been moved within the past thirty years from the history of institutions into their social setting. In the [new] study of the 'formation of the working class', economic, social, socio-cultural and political stages have been distinguished and have provided an influential framework for transnational comparisons, especially of the early phases of class organisation.56

While this summary would be understood and accepted by Australian LH's, they are unlikely to admit that the reconsideration should have been unnecessary.57 But precisely because it was necessary, those formulating the latest round of changes in 'Labour History' have been unaware of the full extent, let alone the significance, of their original blindspot. This has resulted in a continuing, but confused struggle between narrow and broad definitional contexts for 'the movement' and its history, and a raft of ill-informed, unreflective claims by LH's. Some of the genre's most powerful practitioners continue to assume that 'the movement' and therefore its history can only be valid if it is aligned with their, largely unexamined, assumptions. Quite apart from winners or losers in any 'Cold War' or whether one rendering of Marxism is superior to another, this is poor historiographical practice.

The Importance of Freemasonry

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The evidence accumulated in this study strongly suggests that students of 'the labour movement' need, at the very least, to come to grips with the phenomenon of Freemasonry/freemasonry. Beverly Kingston's 1980's summary of a religious essence fueling the nascent Australian movement (in the 1890's) is useful as an indicator:

After stripping away all belief in the supernatural, what was left was a simple system of ethics, which reappeared in several guises - in the bushman's creed of mateship or WG Spence's idea of the New Unionism.

As a result, she argued, quasi-religious organisations flourished. She quoted an estimate of 10,000 Freemasons in 185 lodges in 1890 just for NSW. She then made the relevant leap, but did not remark its significance:

Memberships were probably overlapping, but taken together, the numbers accepting the rules and principles of Freemasonry, the friendly societies, and trade unionism suggest that the male population had begun to develop organisations which either augmented or substituted for the traditional churches.58

She believed that 'brotherhood, self-help, mutual responsibility and protection of the weak' were values compatible with both Christianity and democracy, but that they were 'more suited' to egalitarian than to hierarchical organisation. This last is a most contentious issue, but one that must be debated.

Little primary research has yet been carried out and some errors of fact and theory are being recycled by those authors and scholars who are attempting the revisionist task. Even a comprehensive map of exactly what is involved with 'benefit societies' remains to be drawn.

Nevertheless, it is possible to say that many, many societies shared the heritage here referred to by my main title. Further, that neither the heritage nor 'benefit societies' has died out as white, 'modern' society has urbanised, though individual lodges and Orders have peaked and declined over time.

Because the practice of individual members has often contested the then-perceived boundaries of decency, reason and the law, many lodges have been divided internally over detailed Rules which paralleled the external societal disciplines drawn up to govern lodge structure and activities. The strongest or the most flexible lodges/Orders have thrived, ensuring that clear and definite ideas about democracy, station in life and what are now seen as the elements of Australia's national character have been carried by lodge brothers and sisters into every corner.

The many parallels, overlaps and shared memberships of the three major 'strands' of benefit societies - Freemasonry, 'friendly societies' and 'trade unions' - are generally unknown, mainly because the first two strands are substantially under-studied. Before one of the earliest versions of political correctness descended upon us, the knowledge that many working class men and women were Freemasons was not considered incredible. In comparative terms, quite a few remain so, notably in industrial 'heartlands'. One important Masonic historian has called Freemasonry a network of 'self-help unions'59, while an English author wrote in 1824:

It is not a little curious this celebrated association [Freemasonry] which reckons among its members, kings, princes, nobles and gentlemen, should have been originally framed by a number of POOR WORKMEN, for the purpose of keeping up their wages.60 [Author's emphasis]

Freemasonry today invites a knee-jerk reaction from many persons who like to see themselves as radical/progressive. By their lights the Freemasons were and are either quaint and anachronistic or else were and are one of the chief bastions of the conservative Establishment. By others, Freemasonry is perceived to be a unique, semi-secret organisation of adult males who practice arcane ritual for purposes of sociability, out of which sometimes comes a substantial capacity to raise funds for charitable and welfare schemes. For the Vatican, and for some other religious authorities, Freemasonry remains a threat, pure and simple, to them and to 'their' Christianity.

It has been argued61 that the mythology of secret societies enabled them to 'exercise their greatest power' in the period 1789-1848 but that the nonsense contained in 'unscientific, sensational, frivolous, infatuated publications' attempting to map this influence into the 20th century has turned many serious historians away and has obscured important realities.

It was no doubt believed by certain Scottish villagers in 1696 that a local 'Mason's house' was haunted because he had 'devouted his first child to the Devil' when 'he took the Mason's word'. This secret 'word' is central to Speculative Freemasonry (SF) and SF authors simply assume this man to have been one of them. But it is at least arguable that, on the evidence, 'he' was an operative stone-mason, not a speculative 'Freemason'. Note that 'the word' was first defined in labour terms, then in symbolic, viz:

a term used primarily to differentiate the pay and assignments of workers, but also, the ritual implied, bearing deeper, mystical significance.62

In the over-heated, expose literature 'secret societies' are those which hide their existence and attempt to bring down 'Church, State, Morality, Property, (and) the Family'. Disraeli apparently believed in 1870:

It [the Age] is the Church against the secret societies. They are the only two strong things in Europe, and will survive Kings, Emperors or Parliaments.63

Conspiracy theorists have often lumped together a number of organisations which won't find a place in these pages, yet some of their favourites will, and it is Freemasonry which sits at the point of overlap. I am concerned to show the function of secrecy within a package of benefit society principles and should that take me into the world of the Illuminati, Sinn Fein, Zionism and Bolshevism, the political uses to which that package may have been put is (largely?) irrelevant. As it happens, the great percentage of societies falling within my definition of 'secret society' will be publically-known and sanctioned organisations.

Historically, even among Freemasons, there has been a great deal of contention about the origins of Freemasonry, as there is about the organisations' significance, and whether or not it has had or still has a hidden, politically conservative agenda.

At various times over at least 200 years, debate has raged as to whether Freemasons are or can be Christians, whether Freemasonry is a separate and unique religion and/or to what extent its practice has matched its theory. Some of the anti-Masonry literature is selective and hypocritical, being premised on alleged opposition to the secrecy all fraternal Orders practice as a matter of course, and which Freemasonry's opponents also practice when it suits them. A different criticism, from Christians, is based on the view that Freemasonry has tried to be 'all things to all men' and has diminished, even dismissed certain essential Christian elements.64

Within Labour History, the slight wave given to Freemasonry in explanation of a perceived difference between 'old' and 'new' 'trade unions', has been more often than not disguised through use of references to a 'craft union tradition' or 'mentality' which was somehow, somewhere replaced by allegedly more modern, progressive industrial unions.

This situation may be beginning to unscramble. John Sheild's article on 'Craftsmen in the Making', in the work he also edited, All Our Labours, illustrated the point reached by a few courageous academics in the early 1990's when the word 'craft' was virtually code for everything not taken seriously by the custodians of LH. He argued that '[the] scenario of decline [of skill, postulated by earlier historians like Hobsbawm and Braverman] has seriously under-estimated the historical resilience of the craftsman, his institutions and his culture.'65 He backgrounded 20th century initiation of apprentices and of supposedly anachronistic practices such as 'tramping for work' and concluded that:

For better or for worse, then, the craftsman's culture has profoundly influenced the fabric of working life in twentieth century Australia and the shape and texture of the Australian labour movement.66

This is a useful first step, and my larger text attempts further clarification, including the need to re-examine the hostilities between craft and industrial unionism, and the accounts of such struggles, both of which appear to derive their substance from factional struggles within the labour movement. We will see that the lodge movement has had a major role in the production of working people's solidarity, whatever the organisation involved, and that the 'craftsman's culture', 'much of it traceable directly to the pre-industrial craft guilds', as Shields devined, has been arguably the major conduit of what has been loudly trumpeted by the 'industrials' as working class consciousness.

Tom Mann, in a 1920 journal (UK) of the Amalgamated Engineers, responded to charges that the ASU stood for 'craft unionism pure and simple':

Many [members] who cheerfully extend the hand of fellowship to sections of tradesmen who formerly were not counted of the elite find themselves unable as yet to look with satisfaction upon a form of industrial organisation that will cater for every section in an industry, irrespective of skill or sex.67

During his time at Broken Hill, and no doubt elsewhere, this doyen of revolutionary syndicalists, happily wore lodge regalia, in street processions, and elsewhere.

A perceived 'gulf' between a 'first, elitist wave' of 'trade unionists', and the 'real, blue-collar, battling trade unionist' has been the site of extensive name-calling and grand-standing, but it is not necessarily well understood. The so-called 'aristocrats of labour', the 'Gentlemen Jims of the workshop', those defined by their claiming the right to determine how many apprentices, what trade rankings, what pay and conditions will hold in their 'craft', have been stigmatised for seeking negotiation and compromise between capital and labour, rather than direct struggle and conflict. They have been assumed to be the only combinations concerned with guild-related paraphenalia, and have felt forced into asserting their 'true-blueness' by, among other things, disavowing any concern for that 'superstitious baggage.'68

Thus, dismissal of oppositional politics and agendas within 'the movement' can and has been bolstered and the tradition of the 'true believer' built up by sneering dismissals of the contextualising heritage of all trade combinations. Any 'worker' who appeared interested must be at best half-hearted and superficial in 'his' allegiance, has no doubt been bourgeois-contaminated, and is probably a Freemason, if not a total class-traitor. Where necessary, evidence pointing to a different conclusion has been ignored or deliberately suppressed.

We will see that the Webbs, without the beginnings of an understanding and with no research base to speak of, in effect pronounced on one of the most contentious bundle of issues in the story of western civilisation -

The choice of the class analysis path has, among many other things, denuded LH of much of its real life passion, it has denied LH its historical connections to a rich world of symbolism and non-material meaning, and it has attempted to locate LH beyond criticism by de-contextualising it.

'Modern' society has suffered greatly from the gaps in its cultural consciousness, including the connecting of people's life experiences to the shaping of their cities, towns and villages and to the development of their civic administration. The gaps are doubly tragic in the context of claims of the special significance of the labour experience.

The circumstances which made voluntary benefit societies crucial to their memberships are the very same circumstances explaining struggles over wages and conditions, the struggles taken in isolation by LH and 'the labour movement' as representative of the complete history of working people. Clawson has this:

In the case of Masonic fraternalism..the image of one particular social actor, the artisan, dominated the reality-defining drama/discourse of fraternal ritual...Masonic fraternalism valorised craft labor and material productivity. In traditional liberal fashion it justified social inequality by presenting it as a system open to talent, a ladder that anyone and everyone could ascend. But it simultaneously recognised the dislocations of capitalist development through its promise of mutual aid. It thus offered the vision of a society in which individual advancement and social solidarity were complementary rather than antagonistic - and attempted to create that society in miniature.69

The Way Ahead

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Some readers will seriously contend that in what follows I am fighting a war well and truly consigned to the dustbin of history. Since an acknowledgement of 'social history' by LH's around the world and by journals of LH, they will say, the narrowness and the attempted monopolisation of the LH agenda are themselves historical relics of limited usefulness. For the following reasons I don't accept this approach:

It appears to be the 'invisible' material, about benefit societies other than 'trade unions', which most irritates and worries LH's. They have certainly spent a lot of time trying to explain it away. Ian Turner, one of the earliest and most influential shapers of Australian LH, told the story of the labourers transported to 'Australia' in 1834 this way:

Men who joined unions were declared criminals; thus, the six Dorsetshire farm labourers known to trade union history as the 'Tolpuddle Martyrs' were transported to Van Diemens Land for swearing an illegal oath of loyalty to their union.70

This brief account manages to not fit the facts on a number of grounds and is better described as overblown rhetoric rather than History. For Turner it seems any workers' combination was a 'trade union', and most importantly, it was not something else. The society in question was actually called the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, and I discuss it in detail below. More generally, and this applies to most if not all LH's, his fundamental belief linking 'unions' and this transportation was that 'the labour movement' was the response by workers to 'the new society which had grown out of the Industrial Revolution - capitalism'. This claim has been made or implied thousands of times with regard to Australia without that country's 'industrial revolution' having yet been proven, mapped or analysed.

The 'response' connection is in itself arguable, but to claim that 'trade unions' were the only response is totally far-fetched. This error has created both, what might be called, internal and external difficulties for LH's.

Externally, there has always been a tension around the emphasis since the most broadly-accepted definitions of 'trade union' have been based on the employer-employee relationship and therefore have always been in competition with reality. The totality of working peoples' lives is much more than that relationship, even if individual working people have sometimes so defined themselves, ie 'I am a boiler-maker at BHP, etc.' There has always been more to people than their 'employee-ness'. It follows therefore that the emphasis on that relationship in LH has been at odds with the stated aim of LH's and Labour Movement activists to represent the lives of those working people. The internal difficulty is that numerous working people have continued to feel 'invisible' and unrepresented.

Anyone seriously attempting re-assessment of (Australian) LH and the arguments sustaining its literature would be struck by the number of times references are made to four points of apparent tension. Two relate to the UK heritage - firstly, the period 1829-34 at the end of which the so-called 'Tolpuddle Martyrs' were transported to Australia, and, secondly, the work of UK historians Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The two other points of tension relate to the struggle by politically-active historians in Australia to make that heritage 'fit'. The first concerns the decade of the 1850's, the other the period of the 1880's - 1890's.

The tension within these 'hot spots' has superficially to do with the problem of what a 'trade union' is or is not, and it is around this issue that the present work is constructed. Out of a reconsideration of this dynamic will flow the story of benefit societies and thus a more complete understanding of the contribution of ordinary working people to modern Australia.

Their need for survival strategies was the ultimate reason for the spread of benefit societies, not the exoticism of the rites of association or even their encouragement of a necessary sense of fraternity, but their role as support mechanisms in the real lives of real people. What I, after Durr, call the 'rites of association' could not fail, therefore, but have deep impact.

The Contribution of the Webbs.

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In the 1920, revised edition of their The History of Trade Unionism, Sidney and Beatrice Webb observed that in the 30 years since 1890 the (UK) 'Trade Union Movement' (NB the capitals) had gone from including 'scarcely 20% of the adult, male, manual- working wage earners' to over 60%. The clear implication was that 'adult, male, manual-working, wage earners' comprised the only group which could be the source of the 'Trade Union Movement' and of 'Trade Unionism.' This, on page v, constitutes their 1st definition.

They subsequently introduced other criteria in shifting through what amount to a further ten definitions. It is useful to note two things immediately: one is that there would be no need for this concern with definitions if the titles of relevant 'combinations' were self-explanatory and discrete, ie if all 'trade unions' titled themselves 'Trade Union' and if only 'trade unions' did so. Secondly, the Webbs, throughout, claim to be proving their definitions when in fact they are making arbitrary and not evidence-based decisions about the content of groups they are attempting to define.

Introducing the first of the new criteria, 'continuity', the Webbs remind us that recent claims made on behalf of a re-vitalised LH are anything but new. The Webbs wrote before 1920:

In spite of all the pleas of modern historians for less history of the actions of governments, and more descriptions of the manners and customs of the governed, it remains true that history...must, if it is to be history at all, follow the course of continuous organisations.[My emphasis]71

In going on, they introduce two further criteria crucial to later debates - 'the State and 'democracy':

The history of Trade Unionism is the history of a State within our State, and one so jealously democratic that to know it well is to know the English working man as no reader of middle class histories can know him.[My emphasis]72

This introductory statement contrasts a 'modern' image of 'trade unions' with the emotive 'old branches or ancient local societies', 'old-fashioned societies', 'archaic chests with three locks', 'long forgotten societies', 'musty records' and so on.73

In beginning their first Chapter, the authors provide what has been a most influential definition incorporating some, but not all, of the criteria mentioned so far:

A Trade Union, as we understand the term, is a continuous association of wage-earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their working lives.74

In a footnote, they point out that at the comparable point in the earlier, 1894 edition they concluded this key definition with the words 'of their employment' and that they had changed it to 'of their working lives' because of objections that the original implied 'eternal wage slavery.'

The shift could imply that the Webbs wished their new definition of 'trade unionism' to encompass all and every aspect of the lives of working people, whether male, whether manual, whether always employed, whether white, at work or not, etc, etc. However, their stated intention was not to widen the original definition at all but rather to accommodate their more 'revolutionary' acquaintances who wished the definition to encompass an altered work-relationship.

In relation to the 1920 definition they assert that 'This form of association has...existed in England for over two centuries and cannot be supposed [even then] to have sprung at once fully developed into existence.'75 One presumes this means that 'trade unions' had already come into being by 1720, and that the titles of such 'combinations' cannot be used as a guide.

From this notion they have excluded, they say, 'ephemeral combinations' even if engaged in strikes of labour because no permanent associations were produced and because the strikers 'were not seeking to improve the conditions of a contract of service into which they voluntarily entered.'76 That is, they wish to exclude strikers who were slaves, or were born into oppression or into a labouring caste. This phrasing constitutes their 3rd definition.

Why voluntaryism is of crucial importance to the Webbs is not immediately clear but it does seem clear that they did not consider the criteria's implication. Is the nature of the 'working class' anything other than that its members are born into it? What would be left of the conception of 'the working class' and how many members of the class would there be if this criteria were seriously applied? And how many members of officially sanctioned 'trade unions' today would be permitted into the definition if voluntary membership were to be a rigorously-applied criteria?

(After) detailed consideration of every published instance of a journeyman's fraternity in England, we are fully convinced that there is as yet no evidence of the existence of any such durable and independent combination of wage earners against their emloyers during the Middle Ages.77

Now, apparently, to be a 'Trade Union' an association has not only to be 'durable' and 'independent', it is also required by a 4th definition to be 'against their employers.'

Then they insist on the association being much more than just 'continuous' or 'durable', it must be 'permanent.' They explain that the prospect of obtaining economic advancement by which they mean becoming a Master - 'engaging in profitable arrangements over Apprentices or Materials' - prevented the production of long-lasting combinations of 'wage-earners.' But there were some, eg 'Masons' who had 'yearly congregations and confederacies' before 1425 when they were expressly prohibited by an Act of Parliament.

It appears probable, indeed, that the masons, wandering over the country from one job to another, were united, not in any local guild, but in a trade fraternity of national extent.78

But then they say:

(Of) combinations in the building trades we have found scarcely a trace, until the very end of (the 18th) century. If, therefore, adhering strictly to the letter of our definition, we accepted a mason's confederacy as a Trade Union, we should be compelled to regard the building trades as presenting the unique instance of an industry which had a period of Trade Unionism in the fifteenth century, then passed for several centuries into a condition in which Trade Unionism was impossible, and finally changed once more to a state in which Trade Unions flourished. Our own impression, however, is that the 'congregations and confederacies' of the masons are more justly to be considered the embryonic stage of a guild of master craftsmen than of a Trade Union.

That is, because some of the descendants of the operative masons prohibited in 1425 from meeting, gradually and to some degree or for some period of time became employers of labour (they offer evidence from 1735) the pre-1425 situation must be pre-something, an 'embryonic'- something, and not something that can be allowed to undermine their process of elimination. They opt for it having been a 'master craftsmens guild'. This constitutes their 5th definition, and here the notion of a 'modern' 'trade union' first appears.

When...the capitalist builder or contractor began to supersede the master mason, master plasterer, etc, and this class of small entrepreneurs had again to give place to a hierarchy of hired workers, Trade Unions, in the modern sense, began, as we shall see, to arise.79

Note the sudden appearance of capital letters. They point out that it is not in these institutions that the origin of Trade Unionism [caps again] has usually been sought. 'For the predecessor of the modern Trade Union, men have turned, not to the mediaeval associations of the wage-earners, but to those of their employers...the Craft Guilds.' The Webbs reject these on the same grounds as before - guilds were not made up of wage-earners.

Along this path, they assert that 'Trade Unions' were not for brain workers, only for 'manual workers' who were not in any way controlling the processes of production. Because the 'modern Trade Union' has only one of the functions of the craft guild it could not possibly have evolved from the craft guild. They then say that it is easy to account for the popular argument that it did so evolve. Firstly,

there are the picturesque likenesses which Dr Brentano discovered - the regulations for admission, the box with its three locks, the common meal, the titles of the officers and so forth.

The phrase 'picturesque likenesses' is a linguistic dismissal akin to those already used in their Introduction. The Webbs, however, also attempt a more sophisticated dismissal:

But these are to be found in all kinds of associations in England. The Trade Union [caps] organisations share them with the local friendly societies, or sick clubs which have existed all over England for the last two centuries. Whether these features were originally derived from the Craft Gilds or not, it is practically certain that the early 'Trade Unions' took them, in the vast majority of cases...from the existing little [!] friendly societies around them. In some cases the parentage of these forms and ceremonies might be ascribed with as much justice to the mystic rites of the Freemasons as to the ordnances of the Craft Gilds. The fantastic ritual, peculiar to the Trade Unionism of 1829-34...was, as we shall see, taken from the ceremonies of the Friendly Society of Oddfellows. But we are informed that it shows traces of being an illiterate [!] copy of a masonic ritual. In our own times the Free Colliers of Scotland, an early attempt at a national miners' union, were organised into 'lodges' under a 'Grand Master' with much of the terminology and some of the characteristic forms of Freemasonry. No one would, however, assert any essential resemblance between the village sick club and the trade society, still less between Freemasonry and Trade Unionism. The only common feature between all these is the spirit of association, clothing itself in more or less similar picturesque forms.80 [My emphasis]

This key passage has 5 important points:

  1. The 'local friendly societies and sick clubs', in existence, by their reckoning, for 200 years, provided the early 'trade unions' with the 'picturesque likenesses' which Brentano believed derived from the craft guilds, and which the Webbs call 'forms and ceremonies';

  2. In the momentous years, 1829-34, 'Trade Unions' took up rites 'peculiar' to them;

  3. An 'early attempt' at a national miners' organisation in late 19th-early 20th century was organised under a 'Grand Master';

  4. Freemasonry is mentioned as the possible source for all three of these ceremonial/organisational 'forms'; and

  5. Friendly societies were the possible go-betweens in two cases.

Already, I think it's fair to say that the Webbs appear to believe in some essential quality held by 'trade unions', something not conveyed by or inherent in the 'forms and ceremonies' of local societies established by working people, despite a 'common spirit of association' carried over hundreds of years by these 'similar forms.'

It is also abundantly clear that their argument around this issue is very, very ambiguous. Beginning their discussion which led to the above conclusion, they make a number of statements implying they are intent on opposing 'the popular idea of (an) actual descent of the Trade Unions from the gilds'. The process behind the common acceptance 'that the Trade Union had... really originated from the Craft Gild' is according to them 'undefined'. And yet on the same page, they enlist the aid of a knighted author and his conclusion:

My own impression is that we shall by and by find that...(as in Germany)..the trade clubs of eighteenth century England were broken-down-survivals from an earlier period, undergoing, with the advent of the married journeyman and other causes, the slow transformation from which they emerged in the nineteenth century as the nuclei of the modern Trade Union. 81

Their problem seems to be that

If it could be shown that the Trade Unions were, in any way, the descendants of the old gilds, it would clearly be the origin of the latter that we should have to trace. (My emphasis)

Such a digression is clearly not to their taste. Later, we discover why. And so, despite the suggestion of Sir William Ashley of 'a slow transformation', and their own grudging acknowledgement of a 'common spirit of association' conveyed by 'similar picturesque forms', they still need to assert, as fact:

The supposed descent in this country of the Trade Unions from the mediaeval Craft Guilds rests, as far as we have been able to discover, upon no evidence whatsoever. (My emphasis)

This is more than a denial of a direct and unbroken line of descent, this is a denial of any kind of descent. It is the necessary denial if 'Trade Unions' are to be boosted as modern, unique creations. At a time when the spirit of rational secularism made them easy to ignore, the 'picturesque likenesses' were the key target. The Webbs would have done well to study Brentano's text and Freemasonry more closely.

However, given that they, consciously or sub-consciously, avoid the obvious possibility that the widespread rites and practices are themselves the necessary evidence of a long-standing, organic culture, the Webbs are bound to use organisational distinctions as transportation for their case. One reason why the 'little' sick clubs and 'little' friendly societies can't have been the originators of 'trade unionism' seems to be that these associations (sometimes) accepted workers from different trades, a criteria not ruled out by the early definitions, but which becomes the 6th definitional requisite:

So long as they were composed indiscriminately of men of all trades, it is probable that no distinctively [!] Trade Union [caps] action could arise from their meetings.82

They argue that combinations of 'hired wage earners' multiplied during the 18th century, until prohibited in 1799, yet subject it to no analysis since it is by their lights the only form of association working people can or need look forward to:

If we examine the evidence of the rise of combinations in particular trades, we see the Trade Union [caps] springing, not from any particular institution, but from every opportunity for the meeting together of wage-earners of the same occupation.83 [My emphasis]

They discuss public houses as 'houses of call', where workers gathered collections for future benefits, and where their 'groups' could 'turn into' Trade Unions, if and only if membership had already been restricted to one trade:

Local friendly societies giving sick pay and providing for funeral expenses had sprung up all over England during the 18th century. Towards its some parts at any rate, every village ale-house became a centre for one or more of these humble [!] and spontaneous [!] organisations. The Rules of upwards of a hundred of these societies, dating between 1750 and 1830, and all centred around Newcastle-on-Tyne, are preserved in the British Museum. At Nottingham, in 1794, fifty six of these clubs joined in the annual procession. But in some cases, for various reasons, such as high contributions, migratory habits, or the danger of the calling, the sick and burial club was confined to men of a particular trade. This kind of friendly society frequently became a Trade Union.84 [My emphasis]

Their reasoning here is as astray as that concerning the stonemasons (above) to which I return in due course. What a pity they didn't ask why 56 'sick and burial clubs' were marching in Nottingham in 1794, why such a huge gathering was an annual event and why small, local societies had Rules before they had been asked to register by the authorities. For the moment, it's enough to know that the emphasis in their search for criteria is now on 'becoming'. A number of associations are canvassed but because it is still not yet the right time for 'real Trade Unions', these are labelled 'in the making' or 'becoming' Trade Unions.85 Labels such as 'a network of local clubs' and 'the early unions', always without capitals, are used to maintain the distance between these 'embryonic' associations and 'the Real Thing'.86

They then assert that the sort of combination they are reserving the title 'Trade Union' [caps] for, came about only when a separation opened up between the decision-making in a trade or industry and the carrying out of those decisions. This separation meant the journeymen could no longer think of becoming employers themselves, the costs involved having outdistanced their wages. They therefore began to combine in order to improve their wage-earning situation.

This separation, seemingly a result of the Industrial Revolution, was, they acknowledge, not a result of technology or the factory-system, since it's possible to point to the existence of 'Trade Unions' in trades where such revolutions had not yet occurred, eg, the hatters from 1667, Tailors from 1727, wool operatives from 1675. With this 7th definition, of 'lifelong wage earners'87 with nothing to sell but their labour, we are back to the 1894 definition supposedly repudiated.

But even for these the Webbs are loath to use the capitalised label 'Trade Union', preferring to call them 'continuous associations', 'local trade clubs' or 'permanent trade combinations.' The Old Amicable Society of Woolstaplers dating from 1700 approx. formed a 'federal union' in 1785, but is still in lower case because it was not 'modern.'88

A 'durable Trade Union' did appear among the stockingers in 1780, but the Webbs have further, narrowing requisites to deal with them. It was also necessary, in order to meet the definition, that protections enjoyed by journeymen relating to limitations on apprentices and commonly agreed rates for work for example, be removed by legislation:

It was a change of industrial policy on the part of the Government that brought all trades into line, and for the first time produced what can properly be called a Trade Union movement.89

They quote Brentano - 'Trade Unions [caps] originated with the non-observance of the Elizabethan Statute of Apprentices', his argument being that the primary object of these associations was to attempt to force the Government to apply the still-extant law1 - and they assert:

It is often assumed that Trade Unionism [caps] arose as a protest against intolerable industrial oppression. This was not so...(Along with the woolcombers) the curriers, hatters, woolstaplers, shipwrights, brushmakers, basketmakers and calico-printers, who furnish prominent instances of eighteenth century Trade Unionism, all earned relatively high wages, and maintained a very effectual resistance to the encroachments of their employers.91

They had earlier written:

When these regulations (legal or customary, protecting their interests) fell into disuse (in the 17th and 18th centuries) the workers combined to secure their enforcement...In this respect, and practically in this respect only, do we find any trace of the gild in the Trade Union.92

And so they go on from the use of Brentano:

It appears to us from these facts that Trade Unionism would have been a feature of English industry, even without the steam engine and the factory system. Whether the association of superior workmen which arose in the early part of the [18th] century would, in such an event, ever have developed into a Trade Union Movement [caps] is another matter.

So, the argument has changed again. No longer is it a search for 'Trade Unions' but for 'the Movement'. A further, 8th definitional criteria emerges:

The typical 'trade club' of the town artisan of the time was an isolated 'ring' of highly skilled journeymen, who were...decisively marked off from the mass of the manual workers.

For having already organised themselves and adopted attitudes emphasising the rewards that organisation can bring, these 'town artisans' are to be punished - in this case a further definition puts them outside the sacred area, which now must be where 'the mass of manual workers' is. It was further necessary that 'the mass' think and act in a certain way, which, of course, these artisans did not:

Enjoying as they or customary protection, they found their trade clubs of use mainly for the provision of friendly benefits, and for 'higgling' with their masters for better terms. We find little trace among such trade clubs of that sense of solidarity between the manual workers of different trades which afterwards became so marked a feature of the Trade Union Movement.93

Beatrice Webb explaining 'class consciousness' in her autobiographical My Apprenticeship wrote:

So long as each section of workers believed in the intention of the governing class to protect their trade from the results of unrestricted competition no community of interests arose.94

Parliament since the 18th century had been the arbiter of wages and work conditions because of the importance of product to trade and thus to 'the Empire.'95 Thus, societies which found themselves harassed and their leaders arrested and jailed were mostly ones judged to be in 'restraint of trade'. The 'prohibition of combination' was 'only a secondary feature.'96 Any disputes the 'trade clubs' had were more like 'family differences than conflicts between different social classes.' This further, arbitrary extension is the point at which the heroic nature of the whole construction enters:

(The trade clubs) exhibit more tendency to 'stand in' with their masters against the community, or to back them against rivals or interlopers, than to join their fellow workers of other trades in an attack against the capitalist class. In short, we have industrial society still divided vertically trade by trade, instead of horizontally between employers and wage earners.

And this from authors who have just finished arguing that if workers in different trades joined together their association could not be a 'trade union'. Nevertheless, referring to the horizontal division they say:

This latter cleavage it is which has transformed the Trade Unionism of petty groups of skilled workmen into the modern Trade Union Movement. [caps]

As a result, therefore, they argue:

The pioneers of the Trade Union Movement were not the trade clubs of the town artisans, but the extensive combinations of the West of England woolen workers and the Midland framework knitters.97

All of these definitional manipulations are in the first fifty pages, and are but a prelude to dealing with the problem represented by the Owenite period, 1829-1834.

Their Second Chapter, 'The Struggle for Existence, 1799-1825', points to many combinations which continued safe from interference by the authorities after 1799. This despite the Act of that year which 'expressly penalised all combinations whatsoever' and the clamor of some employers who sought an Act 'for the prevention of conspiracies among (any and all) journeymen tradesmen to raise their wages', ie, as The Times put it, 'all benefit clubs and societies are to be immediately suppressed.'98

It is rarely acknowledged that the immediate problem the authorities had was not the problem the manufacturers perceived. In an 1819 case against cotton spinners arrested as they met to collect 'funeral contributions' it was argued successfully that 'all societies, whether benefit societies or otherwise, were only cloaks for the people of England to conspire against the State.'99

Under the shadow of the French Revolution, the English governing classes regarded all associations of the common people with the utmost alarm.100

At this point in their argument the Webbs return to the distinction between 'town artisans' and 'the mass of manual workers', distinguishing between societies covering the 'skilled handicrafts, long accustomed to corporate government', and 'the new machine industries.'

They assert that 'even under repressive laws, no unlawful oaths, seditious emblems or other common paraphernalia of secret societies' came to light in their researches of the former group, while steady degradation of 'the Standard of Life' amongst the latter group 'led to the prevalence among them of fearful oaths, mystic initiation rites and other manifestations of a sensationalism which was sometimes puerile and sometimes criminal.'101

These two claims exemplify the quite serious flaws in their scholarship. But note that the former group of societies, the town-based 'skilled handicrafts', are those which they previously said had adopted 'forms and ceremonies' from the 'little friendly societies and sick clubs.' Note too, the 'seditious' ones adopting the 'mystic rites' include the Luddites, and are the same 'extensive combinations' (above) which were proposed as the true 'pioneers of the Trade Union Movement'.

In opening the next Chapter, on the period 1825 to 1834, it seems they regard each of these societies, town-based or not, as a 'Trade its modern sense.'

So far, we have been mainly concerned with societies formed in particular trades, nearly always confined to particular localities, and known as institutions, associations, trade clubs, trade societies, unions and union societies. We have by anticipation applied the term Trade Union to them in its modern sense; but in no case that we have discovered did they call themselves so.102

Which is why definitions are so important. The participants can't be expected to label their organisations correctly, they have to be told, later, what they are.

Detailed information about 'the [to them puerile] mystic rites' of the rash of combinations which come to public attention in these few years now becomes crucial to their, and my, analysis. The Webbs provide the following, mostly in footnotes:

The Webbs concluded that 'it seems probable that the regalia, doggerel rhymes and mystic rites of the unions [lower case] of this time were copied from those of an Oddfellows lodge, with some recollections of Freemasonry.' They cite the 1891 book, Mutual Thrift, to the effect that the 'initiation ceremony' of the Patriotic Oddfellows 'corresponds in many characteristic details with that of the Trades Unions.'[Caps] They finish this section with the ambiguous: 'All the older friendly society 'Orders' imposed an Oath, and were consequently unlawful'.103

Taking this material with points 1.- 5., above, would seem to produce these conclusions:

This is indicative but clearly unsatisfactory. The Webbs don't ask themselves:


We will see that relying on any of the scholarship relating to the odd fellows was a bad choice, especially any claiming to know the ritual after a time lapse of 100 years, however that centring on the 'Operative Stonemasons Friendly Society' could prove very productive.

In the context of their later statements the ironies of the Webbs' other assertions about the 'Masons', ie the operative stonemasons, having 'a trade fraternity of national extent' which held 'yearly congregations and confederacies' before 1425, (above) become almost too delicious to bear. I return to these and questions concerning the 'village ale-clubs turning, under certain conditions, into 'trade unions', in the following sections.

The Webbs' text now applies the value judgements from their Introduction to separate the physicality of the shared 'mystic rites' from their organisational function by describing the former as 'sensational' and 'fantastic' and likely to produce consequences not in keeping with 'modern' Trade Unionism:

Although in the majority of cases the ritual was no doubt as harmless as that of the Freemasons or the Oddfellows, yet the excitement and sensation of the proceedings may have predisposed light-headed fanatical members, in times of industrial conflict, to violent acts in the interests of the Association. At all events, the references to its mock terrors in the capitalist press seem to have effectually scared the governing classes.104

The Webbs, at what was probably the key dramatic moment in their whole story, overwhelm with mock whimsy the allegation that 'extension of new lodges in previously unorganised trades and districts was enormous'. They use the Stonemasons' version of the ceremony of 'making' a new member to provide some sense of the rite. Hymns and opening and closing prayers fortified the initiation done in question and answer (catechism) form, in 'quaint' doggerel, after which the oath was sworn in front of the lodge officers (wardens, tylers, conductors, president and secretary). For the Webbs this was not a natural process:

Ceremonies of this kind...were adopted by all the national and general Unions of the time...105 (My emphasis)

They dismiss the axes, cutlasses, masks, etc found by police in various parts of the country, by describing them as 'fantastic', by saying they have 'mystic properties' and thus implying this is sufficient explanation for 'shop assistants' and 'journeymen chimney sweeps' being, in their words, 'swept into the vortex':

Numerous missionary delegates, duly equipped with all the paraphernalia...perambulated the country...a positive mania for Trades Unionism set in...Whether the (GNCTU) was responsible for the lodges of 'Female Gardeners' and 'Ancient Virgins' who afterwards distinguished themselves in the riotous demand for an eight hours day at Oldham (1834) is not clear.106

The Webbs are attempting to argue that these 'ceremonies' were used entirely and only for short-term impact, an artifice of stage-management to impress unsophisticated newcomers. The Tolpuddle labourers' 'playing with oaths' is their pivotal example.107 Under this treatment the organisational function of the rite simply disappears, being rendered undeserving of any further exploration. The oaths and the rest cannot, therefore, be part of a living culture reflective of the needs, anxieties, expectations or desires of the people using them. They can have no history of any significance and can only be a temporary aberration in the evolution of 'the trade union movement.'

With such a culture, its history and its context, dismissed, only a belief in certain arbitrary organisational 'points' is needed to acquire the awareness necessary for there to be 'real' 'trade unions.' Committment and belief in this organisational 'type' becomes the sine qua non of 'class consciousness.'

The Webbs appear to believe that the whole ritual package was abandoned if not immediately then shortly after 1834, the year of the Tolpuddle trial. They have found few supporting statements to this effect, and these relate most clearly to oath-taking.108 If oaths, regalia, initiations, etc, did actually cease at that time whether because of stress, lost popularity or perceived irrelevance, the same package should not have reached the 'labour movement' in the USA or in New South Wales decades after that date, as it did. Very interestingly for this author who has looked closely at the Knights of Labor, the Webbs assert that the GNCTU

closely resembles in its Trade Union features, the well known "Knights of Labor"...for some years one of the most powerful labour organisations in the world' and whose place was taken by the American Federation of Labour, with exclusively Trade Union objects.'109

It is not clear what 'Trade Union features' or 'objects' might mean but the Knights began life in 1869 as 'The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor'. As a 'purely and deeply secret organisation' it drew heavily on Freemasonry for its ideas and procedures,110 according to the author to whom the Webbs refer. That man, Carroll Wright, who was at the time US Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor, went on to say that a major change took place in 1881 when the Order's General Assembly, agreed that for the first time the Order's name and objects would be made public and its initiating oaths abolished. He did not emphasise the fact that the ritual continued, including the use of a square altar and a red triangular altar.

The long time leader of the K of L, Terence Powderly, was a devout Christian and an open Bible was always present during meetings of the Assembly. He had earlier been a member of the 'Industrial Brotherhood' which also used ritual. That 'Brotherhood' coalesced with and passed on its Preamble and Constitution to the emerging K o L. In his autobiography, Powderly also referred to the (US) 'Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers', the (US) 'Order of Machinists' which had an emblem very similar to that of Freemasonry and to the (US) 'Knights of St Crispin' which was the 'combination' for shoemakers. I also mention here the (US) Knights of Columbus, formed in the 1880's and known as 'the Catholic Freemasonry', and that Friendly Societies in the US retained all their ritual well into the 20th century.111

In 1883 the titles of the K o L central executive officers were altered from 'Grand' to 'General', viz, from 'Grand Master Workman', 'Grand Secretary,' 'Grand Treasurer', 'Grand Venerable Sage', 'Grand Worthy Foreman', and 'Grand Unknown Knight', etc to 'General Master Workman', etc.112 When this 'Order' was secretly brought to Australia in (approx) 1890 its codes, passwords and elected officers and its titles came too. The 'Secret Work and Instructions' issued for the Freedom Assembly which operated secretly in Sydney during 1891-3 and which had as members numerous well-known labour movement figures such as William and Ernie Lane, WG Spence, Arthur Rae and George Black, contained directions for initiates passing through Outer and Inner Veils, for secret hand-signs and for ritual use of a globe, lance, triangles and other shapes. An 1893 (approx) photograph of Dr W Maloney, Labor MP in Melbourne for many years, shows him wearing a Knights of Labor collar.113

According to the Webbs, subsequent to the rise and fall of the GNCTU, a reaction against 'reckless aggression', and, by extension, against strikes set in amongst the 'combinations'. 'Extorted oaths and physical force' were replaced with 'stately' Parliamentary-type proceedings, concern for self-education and information outlets, such as trade journals. Temperance, reason and conciliation became the new watchwords:

Such was the 'New Spirit' which by 1850 was dominating the Trade Union world.114

The Webbs argue that attempts to control the number of apprentices, to close the trade to new-comers and to encourage emigration of surplus tradesmen were new strategies. They either do not know or cannot guess that these have always been fundamental to labour organisation and to the 'rites of association.' The whole point of the medieaval 'tramping allowance', for example, was to get stonemasons away from one job site to another.

What is relatively new by the 1850's is the limiting of local lodge autonomy by increasingly centralised administrations of larger and larger trade amalgamations. The 'power of declaring war on employers' was specifically taken away from the local 'branches' and detailed Rules were developed to ensure conformity in action and control of expenditures. The movement to conformity was already appearing with the Rules of the supposedly 'spontaneous' funeral and sick clubs which the Webbs noted in the 18th century. Because the 19th century Rules were so precise in spelling out their role in the overall scheme of things local officers sometimes felt that they were able to continue operating with independence. However, while these Rules certainly allowed differing degrees of discretion real power over policy was going, if not already gone.

The core of the arrangement and the site of the constant struggles was control of the society's funds. If allowed, local control of members' contributions obviously threatened starvation of the whole body and negation of any overall policies. In the key decade of the 1890's the Webbs were arguing:

The paramount necessity of a central fund, available for the defence of any branch that might be involved in industrial war, has become so plain to every Trade Unionist [caps] that society after society has adopted the principle of a common purse.115 [echoes of Wm Lane's 'common purse.']

Thus, the Webbs closed their Chapter on 'The Revolutionary Period' (1829-1843) with an ideological gloss on this phenomenon:

For the next quarter of a century we shall watch the development of the new ideas and the gradual building up of the great 'amalgamated' societies of skilled artisans, with their centralised administration, friendly society benefits, and the substitution, wherever possible of Industrial Democracy for the ruder methods of the class war.116

The printing trades claim to have begun developing along these lines in the 18th century but historical pride of place is given by the Webbs to the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) which by 1851 had become 'the largest and most powerful Union' ever in the engineering trades, 'far exceeding in membership, and still more in annual income, any other trade society of the time.'117

Eleven thousand members were paying 1/- per week, not for specific benefit funds (funeral, sickness, etc) but to generally maintain the Society, the executive of which developed very generous benefit systems by administrative decision. The Webbs bury in another footnote the key information that

It must be remembered that the previous ephemeral associations of the cotton-spinners and miners, which often for a time counted their tens of thousands of members, were exclusively strike organisations, with contributions of 1d or 2d per week only. The huge associations of 1830-34 had usually no regular subscription at all and depended on irregularly paid levies.118

It also must be remembered that these 'ephemeral associations of the cotton-spinners and miners' were previously acknowledged to have been locations of the rites of association resembling those present among Freemasons and Odd Fellows. Now they are 'exclusively strike organisations'.

Regular contribution is yet another fundamental and long-standing element of lodge structure. The 'huge associations' of 1830-34 apparently had the 'mystic rites' but not the members' contributions towards benefits. This lack of subscriptions clearly refers, not to the founding 'clubs' or benefit societies, but to the amalgamations suddenly thrown together in those turbulent years. We will see that the 'rites' were easily formalised since they were already largely shared and already had forms applicable to district levels of organisation, but that there was no perceived need for the GNCTU to extend the collections made at the local level. Subsequently:

What impressed the working men [who sought to copy the ASE 'Model'] was...the admirably thought-out financial and administrative system, which enabled the Union to combine the functions of a trade protection society with those of a permanent insurance company, and thus attain a financial stability hitherto undreamt of.119

The large and regular income from thousands of members not only provided benefits 'which were on a scale at that time unfamiliar to the societies in other trades' but an accumulating balance 'which could be drawn upon for strike pay.'

For many years the union of friendly benefits with trade protection funds, now considered as the guarantee of a peaceful Trade Union policy, was denounced as a dishonest attempt to subsidise strikes at the expense of the innocent subscriber to a friendly society insurance against sickness, accident, and old age.120

The Webbs conclude that scarcely a trade existed which, between 1852 and 1875, did not either attempt to imitate the whole ASE constitution or to incorporate one or other of its characteristic features.121 I shall pass over the 1868 opinion of Mr Finlaison of the National Debt Office, 'perhaps the most competent living witness on the subject', that the ASE was unsound, having far greater liabilities than income.122 But it is perhaps worth noting that this 1868 writer had no doubt that

Every trade's union is a society for aiding members who are out of employment on strike or otherwise; and it is also a benefit society, agreeing to allow its members certain sums of money in case of sickness or superannuation.

'In a certain sense', the Webbs say in their 1897 Industrial Democracy, 'it would not be difficult to regard all the activities of Trade Unionism as forms of Mutual Insurance.'123 [My emphasis]

By the phrase 'Mutual Insurance'...we understand only the provision of a fund by common subscription to insure against casualties; to provide maintenance, that is to say, in cases in which a member is deprived of his livlihood by causes over which neither he nor the union has any control.

Trade Union Mutual Insurance, thus defined, comprises two distinct classes of benefit: 'Friendly' - provision of sick pay, accident benefit, superannuation allowance, and/or 'burial money'; and 'Trade Benefits'- especially 'Out of Work' payments.124

In Industrial Democracy, the Webbs refined their 'common purse' argument. A common purse in itself does not necessarily involve a central executive wielding all administrative power. Local branch administration 'may be as efficient and economical' as any central authority where precise rules are in play for the carrying out of business and no discretion is allowed where policy creation is concerned:

In all matters of trade protection (including the conduct of a strike) it passes the wit of man to prescribe by any written rule the exact method or amount of the expenditure to be incurred.125

'It follows' they argue, that 'the larger and most distinctive part of Trade Union administration' must be left to the discretion of the central executive. This is the only way, they insist, 'by which those who have contributed the income can retain (through their elected representatives) any control over its expenditure.' This development necessarily entails the loss of branch autonomy in issues of policy, in the expenditure of 'their' part of the common income, and in decisions likely to involve the society 'in war.'126

'This cardinal principle of democratic finance' according to the Webbs, 'has been only slowly and imperfectly' learnt and 'a lack of clear insight into the matter' still produces 'calamitous results' in large and powerful organisations. They cite a situation wherein the ASE, itself, found 'its prestige and honour' involved in a great industrial conflict without its central executive having considered the point at issue at all. This came about because 'Out of Work' payments were distinguished from 'Strike Pay' and as thus being within the province of a local branch or District to determine as a 'friendly' benefit. Such a payment may well be considered sufficient back-up by employees at a single works for them to put down their tools and walk out:

The incapacity of the Engineers to make up their minds whether or not they desire local autonomy in trade policy, has more than once placed the society in an invidious and even ludicrous position.127

The Webbs, here, opened a theoretical gap between 'trade protection' and 'friendly benefit' functions of a 'trade union', and gave a pre-eminent position to the first of these. In practice, the new 'structure' refused to congeal:

The same conflict between centralisation of finance and the surviving local autonomy of the branches may be traced in the rules of most of the unions in the building trade.128

The authors claim that the (UK) United Society of Boilermakers 'has found a way to combine efficient administration of friendly benefits with a strong and uniform trade policy.' The Rules stipulate that a 'donation benefit' can be paid to someone 'thrown out of employment' by certain causes excluding disputes for which only strike pay can be advanced. Here, the problem has been solved, they say, by 'an absolute separation, both in name and in application between the trade and friendly benefits.'129

They explain that the continuing importance of the 'Trade Union branch' is in its capacity to act as the 'jury' by providing local and even personal information to 'protect the funds from imposition.' 'Is a man sick or malingering? Has an unemployed member lost his situation through slackness of an employer's business or slackness of his own energy? (etc, etc.)' These are questions best answered by people 'who are acquainted with the whole circumstances of his life.'130 (My emphasis)

No wonder class warriors have wanted to bury any understanding of the role of benefit payments. Going into 'the whole circumstances of his life' could be very tricky!

The utility of this jury system...may be gathered from the experience of other benefit organisations. It is..significant that the great industrial insurance companies and collecting societies, with their millions of working-class customers, and their ubiquitous network of paid officials but without a jury system, find it financially impossible to undertake to give even sick pay, let alone out of work benefit. The Prudential Assurance Company, the largest and best managed of them all, began to do so, but had to abandon it (because of fraud). 131 [My emphasis]

In the same footnote, they illustrated the point that those Friendly Societies [my caps] which have retained local lodge autonomy have the lowest rates of sick payments. The closing footnote of this section on 'The Unit of Government' disclosed that the attractions of having the benefit funds available to the 'war chest' have resulted in many 'national Trade Unions' centralising even the friendly benefit side of their administration.132

On another related point, 'disastrous' inter-union rivalry, the Webbs disclosed an attitude I would applaud, despite an unhelpful 'merely':

The evil will be equally apparent whether we regard the Trade Union merely as a friendly society for insuring the weekly wage-earner against loss of livlihood through sickness, old age and depression of trade, or as a militant organisation for enabling the manual worker to obtain better conditions from the capitalist employer.133

Twenty years after writing this, they provided an illuminating interpretation of the 'New Unionism' of the 1890's, which was of particular importance to them personally, to their ideology and to the 'modern' British labour movement which had captured them. Most relevantly here, they sought to undermine the 'more enthusiastic apostles' of the 'New Unionism' who wanted to portray the decade's unionisation of unskilled labourers 'unencumbered with friendly benefits' as an unprecedented departure:134

Throughout the whole history of the movement we find two types of societies co-existing. At special crises..we see one or other of these types taking the lead and becoming the 'New Unionism' of that particular period.

In the 1830's, they explain, commentators deplored the newly-formed 'trades unions' without friendly benefits as a 'mischievous innovation' when they were nothing new. Twenty years later, the 'new model' of an elaborate 'trade friendly society' was widely embraced by working people and roundly denounced by employers as a fraud. This in its turn became the 'Old Unionism' of 1889 when 'progressive spirits' saw a need to eliminate the 'enervating influences of friendly benefits.'

Further, to see in this phenomenon a 'rhythmical alternation' would be to see an illusion. Certain industries have persisted with a 'purely trade society' over decades while others have adhered to the 'trade friendly society.' Some have changed from one to the other over time. The repeated surge of enrolments amongst the less-skilled invariably involved the 'purely trade society model' simply because it was necessary to 'make no greater tax upon their miserable earnings than a penny or twopence a week.' Thus, levies for friendly benefits are eschewed. However, the record shows that very soon in the life of the organisations, first, funeral benefits and then sick and accident funds are added.

Here, they compare the 'extreme and complicated sectionalism' of the earlier period with the 1890's when there was a 'more generous recognition of the essential solidarity of the wage-earning class.' Internationally, the renowned 'insular conceit' of British labour representatives gave way to a greatly increased cordiality. They do not claim that the famed unwillingness to engage in open debate changed. Referring to the period before 1885 they are prepared to be quite explicit:

On all questions of policy or principle before the (Labour) Congress the delegates were generally unanimous. This was brought about by the deliberate exclusion of all Trade Union problems from the agenda.135

In a 'graphic' personal memoir which they quote extensively to illustrate the emergence of the labour bureaucracy, it is abundantly clear that while 'the mystic rites and the skeleton mummery' had allegedly disappeared very little of organisational substance, the way lodge business was conducted, had changed. What had changed, of course, was the observers' terminology. Previously, the 'initiation' of new members had been a window onto the 'rites of association'. Now, the 'business of the lodge' is the frame through which the 'combination' is to be viewed. Tylers still guard the door against strangers, non-members and drunk or recalcitrant members; initiates still 'pledge' allegiance to the Rules and the society; individual contributions are still made and recorded; issues are still discussed and voted on; 'tramp' cards are still used to find work, and willing workers still 'go through the chairs' and on to Branch and District Officer level.136

In Industrial Democracy, they set out the changes they believed had wrought 'modern'out of 'primitive' democracy. The earlier where 'everything which concerns all should be decided by all', leads either to 'inefficiency and disintegration, or to the uncontrolled dominance of a personal dictator or an expert bureaucracy.' The modern replaces rotation of offices, mass meetings, referenda and strict mandating of delegates, with 'the elected representative assembly' which appoints and controls 'an executive committee under whose direction the permanent official staff performs its work.'137

So, despite some insightful conclusions and a sophisticated approach, it's clear the Webbs ultimately failed to understand the integrated nature of the heritage which provided them with so much. They would not 'see' that the homely, apparently stagnant continuities of 'lodge' and the 'modern' shifts in organisational decision-making were parts of a single process. That these Fabians assured readers that they would be hard-pressed to distinguish between the various lodge meetings going on in the trades hall on different nights, whether oddfellows, druid or the boilermakers, should have been enough of a dig in the ribs to dislodge the political scales from their eyes, but it was not.

British LH's coming after them, have appeared to be reiterating the Webb's approach very closely. Perhaps emphasising the 'Masonic' nature of that heritage a little more, they have gradually lost sight of the historical detail and adopted a much blunter approach. The later authors particularly lose touch with the idea of fashions in 'trade union' thinking about benefits, but then the Webbs forgot in the 1920 version some of what they had argued in the 1890's. For example, that the only visible distinction between 'the trade union branch and the court or lodge of the friendly society' was the power of the central executive to tell the local membership what to do:

..But if the visitor listens carefully he will notice, in the Trade Union business, constant references to mysterious outside authorities...the visitor will be surprised to find that this characteristic Trade Union business is not in the hands of the branch at all, but is being dealt with by another outside authority, the 'district', on instructions from the general secretary.138

They argued that this centralisation was 'based from the outset on the principle of the solidarity of the trade.' They said that single, local lodges 'always' helped others and that it was simply assumed with a national union 'that any cash in possession of any branch was available for the needs of any other branch.'139 This, of course, glossed a most contentious issue, and they failed to see that this 'principle' is merely another form of mutuality.

Australian LH'ns, have unfortunately absorbed very little of the Webbs' insight or the detail from them or their contemporaries, apparently being interested only in fragments they considered useful for their preconceived theoretical framework. The 1920 'trade union' definition is often quoted and the raw version of the 1890's 'new unionism' adopted as organisational norm for 'the movement', and then treated as though it developed in a totally unique fashion, independent of UK influences.

At the same time, LH, the area of study, has been significantly restrained in Australia by the definitional circularity which developed out of the Webbs' assertions, and carried into this country most forcefully by Eric Hobsbawm and EP Thompson. The former's 1960's collection, Labouring Men, especially the last essay 'Labour Traditions', clearly illustrates this for anyone prepared to closely examine the 'logical' connections apparently sustaining it.140

The attempts to remove 'friendly societies' and the more general concept 'benefit societies' from history of 'the movement' are simply wrong headed. A 'trade union' continues to be a benefit society', indeed a 'friendly society', because it cannot help but do so. By the second half of the 19th century the centralising process was rendering unworkable all supposedly autonomous lodge structures, however inside 'trade unions' interest in and knowledge of the 'rites of association' was being maintained by way of common memberships with other 'benefit societies', ie, resurgent Freemasonry and Friendly Society Orders [my caps].

The Webbs' Legacy - Modernism and Discipline

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LH's predilection for asserting the 'modern' labour movement was a new thing was made easier by British Whig historiography positing an inertia, a time of relative stasis from 1688 to 1832, and the 1st Reform Bill. There is more of relevance to this phenomena (see below), but as Clark, 1987, had it, from Buckle's 1857 History of Civilisation in England onwards, the tune was the same - 'progress' of the 'English intellect', 'shaking of ancient superstitions', 'the great movement of liberation' - on which he commented:

If it were the case that society evolved along rails ultimately forged by an economic determinism, the historian's task would indeed be easy.

The left-leaning 'radicals' and 'progressives' of the 1960's placed capitalism at the centre of their picture but, Clark exclaims, they were 'rivetingly derivative'. Targeting the different 'fashions' in LH, he concluded:

(The) heirs to the Whig interpretation of history have remained within the framework of assumptions and priorities established by the Webbs, the Hammonds, Tawney, Laski, GDH Cole.141

A great fuss has been made about a further shift in LH's emphasis said to have occurred in the 1980's and 1990's, towards something called the study of time and place. Its use of post-modernist jargon and some rhetorical flourishes about 'the community' to claim a further great leap forward will be considered in due course. Here it is sufficient to say that this born-again LH appears to have nothing to offer the current study.

Confining the ambit of their first definition of 'trade union' to 'of their employment', the Webbs said, implied the inevitability and permanence of the wage-system, whereas 'of their working lives' allowed the inclusion of 'aspirations towards...change in social and economic relations.' [My emphasis]

Their updated 1920 text remained confined to wage-relationships and said nothing about social relationships. But neither did their argument say that the changes they were describing were inevitable. Their texts do legitimate central executive dominance but they are quite clear that:

The extreme centralisation of finance and policy, which the Trade Union [caps] has found to be a condition of efficiency, has been forced upon it by the unique character of its functions.142 [My emphasis]

LH, subsequently, has assumed that that dominance was inevitable and has made little attempt to understand its dynamic, in particular the influence of the lodge structure and the 'rituals of association.' The Webbs were wrong about the uniqueness of the functions of 'trade unions', but ensuing LH's have missed the point entirely. The changed definition should never have been necessary - 'industrial' never was and never could have been separated from the 'benefit' function precisely because the work place never was and never could have been separated from its social context.

The Webbs worked hard to give the impression that 'modern' societies completely jettisoned the rituals of association, but they were unsuccessful since even those they observed did not. The rites happen to be the Webb's only textual link with 'the social'. However, the created impression appears to have been sufficient for later LH'ns to assert that the category 'Trade Union'/'trade union' was itself the manifestation of a quantum leap forward from superstitious, 'pre-political' societies into progressive modernity and 'political' involvement.

The Webbs keenly wanted to be seen as modern as, akin to being 'cool' today, it was an aspiration with psychic as well as economic and political status.143 Since 'modernity' in the circumstances implied rationality and liberalism as well as centralised administration the 'simple' difference explained in the Webbs' brief first footnote about the change in their key definition carried with it an array of assumptions, often contradictory, but it is upon this base that LH has been built.

For example, LH has needed to assert that 'the workers' chose to be disciplined by centralised, hierarchical organisation while 'becoming aware' of their capacity for independent action. We will see this most clearly in the work of EP Thompson. To be 'the working class' required that working people show a sudden or new or different awareness, a personal psychic-political breakthrough, and simultaneously agree to give up all claim to exercise it, except through 'legitimate channels' endorsed by the collectivity.

This renunciation of personal autonomy just at the point an awareness of it is achieved was needed because the LH mythology requires that working people's aspirations be thereafter carried forward by that 'modern' organisational form, the 'trade union', its executive and by any other 'nominated' representatives, up to and including a Labor Prime Minister. Henceforth workers were not to be under the influence of any other disciplining force, but were to voluntarily and knowingly create their own limits, to which they would express loyalty and solidarity, not subservience. This is, of course, not just the LH story, but the story of modernity, of 'the Rights of Man', of the 'democratic' 19th and 20th centuries. It is also the Judaeo-Christian concept of free-will being exercised properly only through voluntary subservience to providence.

In context, one 'old' discipline which had to be replaced was that of organised religion. The apparent problem for LH's of the increased influence of Methodism in the 19th century presented no difficulty in practice, since the varied sects were in urgent opposition to all gaudy display and ceremonial and seemed obsessed with the lowliest individual having his or her own voice heard by the highest power, thus, in practice, were on the side of centralised, collective 'democracy' despite an expressed interest in local autonomy.

In need of more careful explanation was the eruption of fervent 'unionising' in the years 1829 to 1834 associated with Robert Owen and the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union and, later, its replacement on the public stage by the Chartist reform movement (1835-1848) in which 'trade unions' appear to have played only a minor part. None of this 'fitted' LH ideologies. The ideas and the events are all too early and imply emotion, not rationality, while the nature of the organisations involved suggest that, if 'trade unions', they were not a spontaneous response to industrialisation. Worse still, if they were 'trade unions', why did they have to be re-invented later?

It is to the decades after the collapse of the Chartist campaigns in 1848 that LH's committed to the pre-eminence of 'trade union's' have looked for the rise and rise of the 'real' labour movement. Since 'The Communist Manifesto' appeared in 1852, the idea of dismissing anything prior was especially attractive to the ideologues who created LH. Also attractive were ideas that their historical 'explanation'could be based on theory alone, not drawn from an organic culture, and that it could project itself as a bold new start.

But while the Webb's general approach has been adopted holus-bolus, the date at which LH's have insisted this totally new, 'modern' form of (labour) organisation suddenly appeared, and its manner of appearance, have varied in interesting ways.

Before the Webbs' second version was published, Postgate's 1906 study of 'new unions' taking over from 'the old' suggested an 'urban mode of social action' coming to centre stage after 1850.144 Most of his details would not have troubled the Webbs, but his emphasis on the use by 'new unionists' of the Bible to further central management and control may have.145 In a later study of just the building unions, in 1923, Postgate concentrated on the morality of the man he saw as the most important agent for 'the complete change of policy, ideas and personnel (which) came over the whole of the British Trade Union movement after the great lock-out of 1860':

Applegarth and his colleagues consciously and carefully reconstructed the trade union movement...(They) removed every trace of the old unionism that seemed to reflect a class-war basis.146

Applegarth's 'sermons', published in his paper The Beehive included the notion that because the 'old' unionist was lewd, drunken and untidy, the duty of Liberal MP's was not to repeal laws repressing workers but 'to diminish the growing passion for sensual indulgence.'147

In his 1959 Primitive Rebels Eric Hobsbawm also put the approximate date of transition from 'the primitive pre-political movements' to 'the modern labour movements' at 1850.148 He argued that because 'bourgeois revolution' was fought and won before secular ideology had reached the masses or the middle classes 'it was natural for the common people to use religious language to express their first aspirations.'149 Eventually they learned 'the rules of the game.'

He also argued that in the period 1789 to 1848 there was a development, along with 'trade societies', of 'ritual organisation, (in) secret revolutionary brotherhoods', which used Masonic or quasi-Masonic symbols and paraphernalia.150 Marx (praise the Lord) allegedly eliminated such 'superstitious authoritarianisms' from the Rules of the League of Communists, which thence elected all officers, made them subject to recall, and was therefore democratic: 'For practical purposes it was a wholly modern revolutionary organisation.'151 Hobsbawm clearly equated ritual with secrecy, and lack of it with being 'modern', and believed Marxism 'created stronger emotional committments among a larger number of people than the quasi-masonic conspiracies.'152

He had called for a fresh look at Friendly Societies in 1958 in Industry and Empire153. In his 'Ritual in Social Movements' essay in Primitive Rebels he noted four elements in what he called the 'formalism of primitive social movements' - namely, initiation, ceremonials of periodic meeting such as processions or shared acts of worship, 'practical rituals' such as 'secret and formal recognition signs', and symbolism. Although amusing, his account not only dismisses all such 'primitive' elements as 'pale and degenerate', but says they 'practically always ended in drink' and were only likely to attract the 'uneducated and politically undeveloped'. It is clear that he, like the Webbs, is equating 'modern' with secular and rational and putting content before form without exploring either:

(M)odern social movements are surprisingly lacking in deliberately contrived ritual...what binds their members together is content and not form...In organisations whose spontaneous development is less inhibited by rationalism than labour movements, the urge to create ritual may flourish like tropical undergrowth. But the fact that men give ritual significance to their of secondary importance. What holds Communists together is the content of the party they join...

EP Thompson's argument in The Making of the English Working Class asserted that the 'new kind of organisation' had come into being with the London Corresponding Society (LCS) in 1790. It had 'a working man' as Secretary, a low weekly subscription, an intermingling of economic and political themes, 'realistic' attention to 'procedural formalities' and above all 'an unlimited membership rule' implying

a new notion of democracy, which cast aside ancient inhibitions and trusted to self-activating and self-organising processes among the common people.154

This rule, a 'commonplace today' was, according to Thompson, 'one of the hinges upon which history turns.' It 'meant the LCS was turning its back upon the century-old identification of political with property rights.' Collectively, these are "features which help us to define the nature of a 'working-class organisation.'"155

Given that none of these 'features' were, in fact, new, and that the claimed 'political rights = property rights' correlation before 1790 can only be true if 'political' is defined in certain, circular ways, much of his 'hinge' argument falls to the ground. When rebutting George Rude's assertions about the demonstrating London crowds in the 1760's and 70's he added 'self-awareness' to his list of new features:

(It, ie the crowd) had scarcely begun to develop its own organisation or leaders; had little theory distinct from that of its 'managers'; and there is a sense in which it was manipulated and called out by Wilkes (in the interest of his wealthy supporters).156

Despite an apparent difference with Hobsbawm, all of this is aimed at the same conclusion - that the mid-19th century organisation, to which he wishes to attach the label 'trade unionist', was a bold new start. Because of this, and despite what he's claimed for it, the LCS became yet another 'proto-something', an almost-something. It was a mere 'harbinger', while the class-in-the-making was still in the thrall of industrial discipline and Methodism:

Throughout the week, God was the most vigilant over-looker of all - the 'All Seeing Eye'...Work was the Cross from which the 'transformed' industrial worker hung.'157

But by the 1830's, through their own efforts according to Thompson, working people had made themselves into 'the working class'. Secularism had ended Methodism's influence and freed workers from internalised guilt:

There was a profound difference between disciplines recommended for the salvation of one's own soul and the same disciplines recommended as means to the salvation of a class.158

Quoting Hobsbawm, he argued that 'Secularism is the ideological thread which binds London [!] labour history together' from the Jacobins to the Fabians.159 This is despite his need to locate the source of the relevant organisational skills and experience in the 'dissenting sects', in particular, amongst 'the self-sustaining Methodist societies in trading and market centres, and in mining, weaving and labouring communities.'160 He claims that it was Methodism which was the source of 'the methodical collection of penny subscriptions' and the 'ticket', by which he means, presumably, the card members carried with them showing that they were 'good on the books.' He credits the Moravian sect with, among other things, the 'yearning for communitarian ideals expressed in the language of 'brotherhood' and 'sisterhood.'161

The several reform crises and the 1832 Reform Bill are his study's cut-off point. The 'disorderly and ragged rabble' who protested in the 18th century have by then, he says, become 'morally effective' demonstrators, systematic, orderly and quietly determined:162

Now, 100,000 may be collected together and no riot ensue, and why?...The people have an object, the pursuit of which gives them importance in their own eyes, elevates them in their own opinion, and thus it is that the very individuals who would have been the leaders of the riot are the keepers of the peace.163

As one contra-argument on just this point, Hibbert, in King Mob, the story of the 1780 'Gordon Riots' in London, emphasised the efforts put into orderly assembly and disciplined marching by the mass of over 50,000 demonstrators and petitioners, whose movement was taken over and sabotaged by wreckers and looters:

To practice the arrangements for this march, the crowd was divided up by the organisers into four divisions...Three or four times they made a circuit of the Fields practising the discipline of marching; keeping in line and in step with remarkable success.164

Of course, many of the organisers here belonged to the Protestant Association and therefore would be at odds with Thompson's 'secular' thesis, and, no doubt, with his 'political' argument as well. M Dorothy George's 1930 conclusion matched Hibbert's. She set out the parameters of a marked decrease in the levels of social vice and disorder in London in the second half of the 18th century.165 She put this down to declining rates of death, disease and public danger, because of better policing, better public administration and a change in attitude:

(In) the early part of the [18th] century the forces of disorder and crime had the upper hand in London...By the end of the century we are in a different world...we see a revolution in opinion comparable with conversion - with that change of heart which is a phenomenon of individual experience.166

She reminded us that Francis Place, speaking over a century before her about the time-period, 1790-1830, made the very argument which is the spine of Thompson's thesis:

The progress made in refinement of manners and morals seems to have gone on simultaneously with the improvement in arts, manufactures and commerce (etc).167

And when Place looked to a decline in mortality, he saw discipline, too, but one with a Christian tone, not one of militancy:

Much of this is attributable to the increased salubrity of the Metropolis, much to the increase of surgical or medical knowledge, much also to the change that has taken place not only in London, but all over the country, in the habits of the working classes, who are infinitely more moral and more sober, more cleanly in their persons and their dwellings, than they were formerly, particularly the women...168

As part of his preamble to the new forms and the new self-awareness of the fabled 19th century 'working class community' Thompson also asserted 'a high degree of conscious working-class endeavour...far back (in) the eighteenth century' in the lodge structure and the rituals of association of 'box-clubs and friendly societies.'169 He quoted the 1750 Rules of the Manchester small-ware weavers 'already' showing 'meticulous attention' to procedure and to etiquette. The committee-members must sit in a certain order, the doors must be kept locked and the 'box' carefully safe-guarded.

In these Rules, as the Webbs did, he saw the 'code of the self-respecting artisan' and 'the ethos of mutuality' which spread to ever-wider sections of working people as the Industrial Revolution advanced. So, again, it turns out, working people were responding to industrialisation by becoming sober and organised. And since it was tradesmen who were politicised, basically by being forced into illegality by the Combination Acts around the early 1800's, so the newly-formed class was represented only by the 'trade union'. 'Friendly societies' simply disappear from his text via a linguistic dismissal similar to that used by the Webbs:

In the simple cellular structure of the friendly society...we can see many features which were reproduced in more sophisticated and complex forms in trade unions, co-operatives, Hampden Clubs, Political Unions and Chartist lodges.170

This series of non-sequiturs is most unfortunate. As it had led the Webbs, his 'Trade Union' bias has led him away from insights which could have seen him build on the work of George, Unwin and others. Admittedly, he would have had to read outside the selective, sacred ground of LH.

Not that George, in detailing the 18th century development of public health measures, the spread of hospitals and dispensaries accessible by the poor and the in-house treatment by doctors,171 connected these developments to the 'friendly societies' of these very same decades. Nor did she wonder whether these societies had suddenly appeared as has often been assumed or whether they were being noticed more often by commentators increasinglty concerned about social welfare.

The societies, surely, are the source of what she called a people's 'change of heart (resulting from) individual experience', just as they are, factually, the source of Thompson's 'methodical collection of penny contributions', the 'ticket', and the systematic and orderly participation in demonstrations, in other words the 'disciplines as a means to the salvation of a class.' George does allow, very late in her account, that:

The great development of friendly societies (in spite of the convivial and speculative character of many of them) shows that there was a growing spirit of providence and independence.172

While, as we will see, the 'rites of association' and the 'lodge ethos' come from earlier times, the nature of the threats to the survival of working people changed in the 18th century, so that the nature of their solutions changes. That is, in response to the crowding together in larger and larger conglomerations, which were the conditions to which the municipal authorities were responding, working people altered the Rules of their long-standing 'benefit societies' to reflect the greater importance of unemployment, sickness and burial benefits. They were responding, too, to the slowly slackening grip of 'the Church' and an increasing need for their Rules to be publically available and comprehensive and to advocate accountability.

Desire for control over work practices and decisions amongst workers was not, as a result, diminished. Neither was there a sudden loss of religious faith, the gap suddenly filled by a secular, disciplined rationality. In the Rules surviving from Saxon and Norman times there is emphasis on correct religious observances alongside concern for the welfare of travellers. The first was the means for communal conviviality as well as for observance of saints days and the tension between these two elements is a constant over a thousand years.

The Rules concerning travellers reflect the particular perils to be met with by anyone venturing outside the city walls in the 10th century, as do also the Rules of the 18th century. The language has changed, the basic ideas have not. The Rules are always work-oriented if not work-specific, since that central tenet of existence has not altered either.

In the face of that history, Thompson referred readers to Primitive Rebels for 'the masonic tradition, and for the role of ritual and initiation ceremonies generally'.173 So, despite 900+ eloquent pages of fascinating detail, he has been unable to bring the LH story any further than the Webbs or Hobsbawm. Despite his 'far back in the 18th century' reference, the rituals of association remain mere decoration, in his text only for their entertainment value, as necessary but rather absurd cast-offs. So, though he makes aspects of their procedures central to his whole thesis, 'friendly societies and box-clubs' remain only 'the sub-culture out of which the less stable trade unions grew'.174 When he does address directly the rich and complex culture of 'the working people whose formative experiences' have been his subject,175 he discusses only printing presses and literacy, songs, theatre and the consciousness-raising ideas of political economy, abstinence and self-improvement.176

Despite the question - what is a 'trade union'? - being of central importance to his whole text and to a number of his key arguments, (including solidarity; discipline; the idealisation of work; secrecy vs public display and ceremonial; perceptions of democracy and individual worth; group organisation; funds' management; accident, sickness and mortality rates) his preconceptions meant he was no more interested in untangling the threads than the Webbs were and so he glossed the crucial issues.177

Adequately explored, the material he brought together is precisely that which would have justified his and his supporters'claims about a changed, inclusive LH. But he appears to believe that he's writing The Making of the English Trade Union, thus it is not surprising to me that, despite the applause that greeted this 'most imaginative post-war work of English social history'178 and its reference to 'the formative experiences' of working people, the narrownesses and blindspots of an earlier LH remain.

In 1980, Hobsbawm and George Rude claimed to add further detail to the established LH/Webb approach. They examined the 'Captain Swing' protests among agricultural labourers of southern England, of the late 1820's and early 1830's. Locating the organisational form used, they exposed further elements of LH's 'Trade Union' ideology:

(The) organisation of the Swing movement was entirely traditional.[?] It rested on informal consensus...It was not enough for modern trade unionism. Modern forms of organisation have to be learned like anything else. Strikes may be the spontaneous products of the wage-labourer's predicament, but unions are not. The modes of modern, ie urban and non-agricultural action, took time to penetrate the hinterland.179 [My question mark]

A flock of recent UK scholars, claiming to be followers and developers of the Hobsbawm approach have, in the last quarter of the 20th century, included discussion of 'friendly societies' in their seriously-researched studies of 'working class culture'. In the hands of the more Leninist of these, 'friendly societies' exemplify the clear imposition of bourgeois ideologies on the emerging leadership of the labour movement:

Hobsbawm has reminded us that Lenin's views on the labour aristocracy are often misunderstood, because they are not sufficiently related to his more general view of the limitations imposed on a 'spontaneous' and 'economistic' working class movement by the ideological hegemony of the ruling class. A movement limited in this way, Lenin suggests, will be unable to move beyond defensive, and often narrowly sectional, responses to capitalist exploitation. The labour aristocracy is a special case of this more general phenomenon, and it emerged under the historical conditions of later nineteenth-century Britain.180

According to Gray and Foster this section of working people made up the bulk of 'friendly society' brethren, and were therefore by definition, both amenable to capitalism and determined on a reformist path flagged by injunctions to be thrifty, disciplined and respectable:

Any account of the culture of the artisan must consider the extent to which he attempted to solve the pressing problems of economic survival by the individual exercise of thrift, restraint, economic prudence in personal and family decision-making.181 [My emphasis]

Tholfsen,182 a little more interestingly, allows the 'friendly societies' the status of 'the most representative of working class institutions', purposes beyond a 'modest' sickness and life insurance and a role in the establishment of other 'mutual improvement' institutions. 'Even', he acknowledges, conviviality contributed to 'higher purposes esteemed by the culture'. He quotes an 1858 manual of Oddfellowship:

The lodge is always considered as sacred ground; and no sooner do those who, in any other place might meet together as enemies, enter into its precincts, than their bad feelings seem to vanish..(etc)..183

Of course this is overly positive and of course the tendencies of such an approach towards acquiescence and passivity are obvious. But to generalise from the expression of such views to the behaviours of a mass of the population is poor historiography. Tholfsen works his way through the issues and the sentiment to conclude:

Despite their total commitment to concensus values, the friendly societies had by no means abdicated their critical faculties or abandoned their quest for genuine independence...Along with the cloying rhetoric went a stubborn determination to stick to their principles in the face of middle-class resistance and hypocrisy.

The function of the friendly societies brought them into the most direct contact with the harshest side of middle-class social attitudes: treatment of the poor.184

As for the individual sister or brother: '(His) class consciousness was fostered by contrasting him with his social superiors..'.185 He understands the liklihood that a cult of success and respectability inherent in this process will tend to lead workers away from their own. He does not discuss whether this is a good or a bad thing, and he does not discuss whether the struggle for survival necessarily implies the possibility of succeeding.

Prothero, in 1979, continued what will be Thompson's only lasting achievement, a respect for artisinal agency. But he, like his mentor, is unable to break the grip of terminology rendered obsolete by his own material. An acknowledgement of his major subject's central role in 'the benefit societies,...the co-operative movement and anti-Christian propaganda', the fact that he, John Gast, worked at being shipwright, dissenting preacher, and publican, as well as organiser and agitator, all of this is insufficient to push Prothero to recast distinctions or to re-think underlying concepts. When he quotes Gast's belief in the centrality of labour and 'the trade' to his political aspirations I believe he mis-reads the evidence. Most crucially, the 'colours and the emblems' arrrayed in procession on the street remain, for Prothero, mere window dressing, a sign that 'the workers' loved to make a show. No matter how rich the tapestry, Prothero still makes 'trade unionism' the key, the only important thread, and he will see as central motif only the LH 'myth':

The artisans played an important part in the campaign, and the basis of their organisation was the trade societies.186

In 1982, Brown made a number of the critical points I have made about the Webbs' 'treatment of early union history' yet his residual awe is palpable. He will only say that their 'great classic work' has to be approached with 'some caution'. More importantly 'his/their' terminology also remains unaltered, as in:

All in all, then, there is ample evidence that, contrary to the Webbs, trade unionism did have a pre-industrial origin.187

Leaving the terms in place means that the underlying concepts remain intact, because unexamined. In other words, his assertion, just quoted, might have logically led to the conclusion that a study of 'trade unionism' and a study of the guilds cannot be separated by any words with 'pre-' in front of them.

In the 1980's, too, Kirk188 delved into the real-time lives of working people to show that the 'labour movement' and improvements in living standards, greatly increased recognition and status advancement achieved in the 19th century by the memberships of benefit societies, were regarded at the time as necessarily co-terminous. But the one still remains the inferior, stepping-stone to the really important other:

(In) turning towards temperance (and Co-operation) ... Chartists were exploring, in the light of the setbacks and defeats suffered by Chartism in 1848, other means whereby the 'emancipation of the working classes' could be achieved...And the cultivation of moderation or temperance signified allegiance to certain qualities - independence, self-respect, self-control and discipline - which were absolutely essential to the creation of successful labour institutions and which would enable workers to fashion their own destinies irrespective of any concessions handed down to them by their betters.189

In a collection sub-titled 'Essays for Eric Hobsbawm' two non-English scholars showed that they were marginally less inhibited by the great man's legacy. In a discussion of early 19th-century, French working class 'sociability' Maurice Agulhon assumed no barriers between 'trade' societies and 'mutual associations', he took them together and accepted both their involvement in strikes and wage disputes and continuity of their essential features from mediaeval origins.190 His major, under-researched, contention remained stuck in the groove, however - that the sociability learnt by workers in tavern-based benefit societies - 'who share the same workplace, who know one another, who are likely to have faced the same setbacks' - led on to the 'great trade union organisations (of) today.'191 In the same volume Jurgen Kocka made similar points with regard to German workers.192

Since the early 1980's there seems to have been a hiatus, a time taken by LH's to sit back and reflect. In the late 1990's at the (UK) Open University a Research Group specifically for 'Friendly Societies' has determined to research these institutions seriously. A bias towards their welfare aspects, could prove another cul-de-sac, however.

In his 1985 Saving and Spending: The Working Class Economy in Britain 1870-1930, Johnson argued that the real time dynamic of balancing income and outgoings and 'the set of saving and lending institutions' which evolved around working people 'have been largely neglected by social and economic historians:'

There is no work on retail finance - the development of hire-purchase and other forms of credit - and no study of money lending...The problem of paying rent or the doctor's bill may appear to be less interesting than the great historical moments of wars, elections and strikes, but for most people these conflicts were passing distractions from the real business of life...193

He recognised there was more to this dynamic than records of money paid and money held. Whether counted by some as a cut above the labourer or the navvy the so-called aristocrat of labour was in no better position when it came to treading the fine line between stinging poverty and money in hand. 'Symbolic' consolations often affected decision-making:

Because financial security was difficult for most working-class households to achieve before the First World War, individual attempts to promote such security by some form of accumulation acquired a social symbolism often out of all proportion to their true economic worth [for example] saving designed to permit the ritualistic wearing of a Sunday suit or the ostentation of a 'decent' burial...194

He notes that statistics distinguishing memberships of societies by occupation, location, continuity, etc, etc, are difficult enough to assemble but the position is made far worse if, as has often been the case, researchers use terms such as 'friendly society' very carelessly.

RA Leeson's 1979 Travelling Brothers has been a more than useful introduction to what is, in the context of this study, the location of expert opinion - the serious guild literature and the research of historians of Freemasonry and 'friendly societies'. Leeson acknowledged the continuing resonance of the Webbs' work on the history of 'trade unionism' up to and including his own time:

Their work has remained a landmark and a monument...Each reassessment (has left) The History basically unchallenged...(Their) general view of the 'origins and early struggles etc' has been repeated more times than can be counted. Because of them the nature of trade union origins has been declared without hesitation and fear of contradiction.195

He reminded us, however, that their research was conducted and published 'during a period of fierce contention between opposing notions of what the trade union was about and what its future aims should be.' Their definition of 'trade union' was part of a polemic, he asserted, designed to deny any past for the 'New Model Unions' in particular and to claim that 'trade unions' in general were a 'more or less spontaneous response' to the Industrial Revolution by a 'new class of lifelong wage earners.' Leeson observed that the Webbs were particularly concerned to counter the 'reactionary and divisive' views of George Howell, MP, Fellow of the Statistical Society and author of the Handy Book of the Labour Laws and Conflicts of Labour and Capital. In the two editions of the latter Howell argued for a clear and logical distinction between 'friendly societies' and 'trade unions' devoting the overwhelming bulk of his 500 + pp to 'trade unions'. But he, Howell, also believed:

Modern trade unionism cannot be properly understood, or rightly appreciated, except by a careful study of their early prototypes, the English guilds.196

Howell was scathing about 'some "new trade unionists" (who):think they have discovered how to get rid of capitalists, abolish profits and do away with wages and yet promote the welfare of the masses.

They denounce trade unions and co-operation alike when it suits their purpose, he said:

They look to the State for aid. But history shows, especially industrial history, that self-reliance, self-help, by individual effort, and mutual help, by associative effort, are the only practicable means whereby the condition of the people can be permanently improved.197

'New Trade Unionists' condemn the 'friendly benefits' which, to his mind, 'are a conspicuous feature in the modern trade union of the better class.' He is thinking especially of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, and asserts that experience has shown that 'trade unions' built on the older, discarded form of combination, ie, for 'trade purposes only', to which advocates of 'new unions' want the movement to return, were weak and inefficient and 'unable to bear the strain of successive struggles.' To abandon the ASE model

would be to return to the infancy of trade unions, to the ruder and cruder stages of their development; to the period when they were under the ban of the law, when they could not freely and openly organise, and when their funds were unprotected and at the mercy of any unscrupulous officer who was dishonest enough to embezzle them.198

Leeson said that he had no quarrel with the Webb's view that what are understood today as 'trade unions' date from the late 18th century only, nor with much that the Webbs 'established' as wisdom about 19th century developments. But in addressing their central question in a different way, he, perhaps unwittingly, broke open the whole issue for reconsideration. He asked:

(If the 'unions') were only the product of the conditions of the Industrial Revolution, if they were formed spontaneously in answer to present need with no reference to previous 'institutions', why did they adopt and hold onto past forms of sanction, long after reason might have indicated a change?199 [His emphasis]

He had in mind sanctions on new workers to 'the trade'. He went on:

Why not immediately adopt the method of getting all workers, irrespective of how they entered the trade, into their organisation. This approach was adopted reluctantly by the craft unions...only towards the end of the nineteenth century, and then chiefly under pressure of competition from the 'new' unions.

Rather than separating 'trade unions' from 'friendly societies' his is the slightly more logical but eventually just as confused approach of subsuming everything under one heading, in his case that of 'trade union' without caps. In an earlier work he argued:

Two conflicting views of the trade-union movement strove for ascendancy in the nineteenth century: one the defensive-restrictive gild-craft tradition passed down through journeymen's clubs and friendly societies,...the other the aggressive-expansionist drive to unite all 'labouring men and women' for a 'different order of things'...200

In Travelling Brothers Leeson insisted:

I think that the journeymen, or rather the hard core of them had access to a form of organisation continuously throughout the period [ie, from the 13th century], and that that form, however unlikely it seems, was the craft company.201

Many of the Webbs' conclusions seemed to him anomalous. One example: that the reason Dublin bricklayers, 'a mainly Catholic body', proudly displayed a 1670 charter document 'given to the exclusively Protestant incorporation of working masters' was that 'a love of the picturesque' was a 'trait of Irish character.'202 Leeson asked: 'What character trait marked the English curriers, or for that matter every other English craft union which did exactly as did its Irish brothers?'

Objecting to the Webbs' manipulative use of words like 'ephemeral', 'continuous' and 'sporadic', he rejected their attribution of 'the picturesque likenesses' to the 'little friendly societies' of the time. While he believed that some 19th century 'unions' invented mottoes and coats of arms in order to resemble those 'societies' which already had such things, he asked why 'the hard-headed men' of the trade societies would bother, and why they would go outside their 'craft' for 'emblematic devices'?

We will now see that attempting answers to these questions can provide what is missing from Leeson's otherwise admirable work and further evidence of why the Webbs were so keen to dismiss Howell.

Of course, the Webbs were also keen, after 1914, to dismiss the ideas of the 'Guild Socialists', including George Cole and others. How these supporters of a hybrid model of industry, somewhere between State collectivism and full-blown syndicalism, came to see themselves as heirs to mediaeval guilds is unclear. They built their advocacy of 20th century industrial democracy on the idea that 'trade unions' could, with the help of 'the State', be in an analogous situation to that of the guilds. Their literature need not detain us,203 but their 'missing the point' of the guilds is certainly part of the tragedy.


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