CRAFT, TRADE OR MYSTERY:
Part One - Britain from Gothic Cathedrals to the Tolpuddle Conspirators
By Dr Bob James
Revised May 2002
Freemasons, Friendly Societies and Trade Unions Index
Hosted by Takver's Initiatives
To one observer, an amending Act in 1800 moderated the more pernicious elements of the Seditious Societies Suppression Act and added provisions capable of catching employer combinations and of arbitrating disputes. Maccoby commented:
Thanks to the amendments of 1800, the Combination Act era from 1799 to 1824 was never as oppressive for 'Labour' as has sometimes been represented. Sheridan [an MP] might have failed to confer a specific legality upon the 'Benefit Clubs' of the 'Trades' but there is plenty of evidence to show that they continued to exist, in great numbers, and to organise demands for wage increases and even to promote strikes...In many trades...the masters themselves found it useful to keep touch with the clubs.574
To another the 1800 Combination Act was 'reactionary', 'the fruit of and congenial to panic-stricken toryism' which had overwhelmed the previous period's 'Blackstonian optimism'.575 Whether the cause or the effect, biographies such as Prothero's of John Gast show that radical activity was certainly not squelched by legislation or the myrmidons of the law.
Since a combination to commit a crime was ipso facto a conspiracy, it followed that a combination for any purpose declared illegal, by, for example, the 1800 Act was, in 1800, an undoubted conspiracy. An individual worker could bargain with an employer about wages, but any combination engaging in such activity was illegal and a conspiracy, any strike was illegal since it must by definition involve an illegal combination, and any worker joining a strike was a criminal. The Chairman of a hearing against some journeymen coopers who deciding to plead guilty were let off 'on their own recognisances' summed up:
The Chairman said he...hoped the example of this day would operate to a good effect. He wished to express his entire concurrence with what had fallen from the learned counsel, that the very beginning of such a conspiracy ought to be punished with severity; and it should be known that no pressure of the times, no scarcity of provisions, could justify men in demanding by conspiracy an increase in wages. The benevolence of their masters or their country might assist them, but there must be no combination to enforce assistance. It was a shocking thing to see twenty or forty persons together at the bar for such offences, but public justice demanded such spectacles.576
This of course is ideologically-biased clap trap flying in the face of 700 years of history, but unfortunately some readers have taken this 'Mr Mainwaring's' outburst as a guide to reality.
Within 25 years the 1800 Act was opposed by many who originally supported it, but Dicey contends that it was passed, not by despots but by a parliament, which included humanitarians like Wilberforce, Fox and Pitt, because it 'precisely corresponded with the predominant beliefs of the time.'577
The most pitiless factory owner and employer of small, driven children was under greater regulation and surveillance in 1800 than had been the case in 1700. Women struggling to lift coal baskets up the damp inclines of dangerous mines in 1850 were healthier and living a higher standard of living than their counterparts a century earlier. London was showing the way, firstly, by shedding population and toxic industries but secondly, by being the first to introduce 'modern' municipal administration in sanitation, policing and family welfare, the results of which spread comparatively quickly to the likes of Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield, less quickly to Edinburgh, Belfast and Abergavenny.
..The test of the change is in the death-rate, which begins to fall after 1750 and falls more rapidly after 1780..
In the early part of the century the forces of disorder and crime had the upper hand [even] in London..By the end of the century we are in a different world.578
Even so, a level of tension existed and not just at the economic and social margins. A fear that 'all benefit clubs and societies' were to be immediately prohibited swept the country in 1801 and required positive government statements to scotch the 'industriously circulated' rumours.579 Many societies feared spontaneous closure from lack of funds as the war with France forced up prices of basic provisions and rendered many 'brethren' below the poverty line.580
Colquhoun estimated in 1798 that 1600 'friendly societies' were operating in and near London, and Wilkinson, has concluded that in 1802 the UK had almost 10,000 'friendly societies', 'of which more than half had sought parliamentary protection by enrolment.' By 1815, membership of 'registered societies' was reported to be 926,000.581 Since no count of such societies was kept prior to 1793 useful numerical comparisons with the 18th century are impossible.
The Leeds Mercury took it upon itself to instruct its readers in how 'Strangers Friend Societies', essentially benevolent funds run by clerics and other better-off citizens, should be run, and carefully worded its reports of court cases against trade-based 'conspiracies.' Fifty years later the 'charitable' societies were regarded, even by clerics, as failures, successes coming where the 'working classes' had organised and run their own societies.582
A 'Special, General, Numerous and Respectable' meeting of Journeymen Joiners and Carpenters in Leeds in 1807 confronted thefts of tools from building sites by establishing a fund 'entitled The Friendly Society of Joiners and Carpenters'
to assist in the expense of prosecuting those who may be found guilty of stealing, or unlawfully receiving the tools...and to make good any loss occasioned by Robbery or Fire, and for the decent interment of the Dead.583
Other 'brothers', threatened with a criminal prosecution, were agreeing to defray their employer's legal costs and make a public apology for attempting to influence wages and work conditions.584 Faced with 'alarming disturbances' in the south of England the House of Commons passed a further Bill, specifically concerned with so-called 'illegal oaths.' One found on a 'banditti' member was quoted:
(I will) never betray, or furnish the slightest means of betraying a brother under the penalty of being blotted out of existence, and that he would punish any traitor with death, and rather than fail in his object, pursue him to the verge of nature.585
A House Secrecy Committee set up to report on the extent of the problem found
Sometimes the Rioters were under the control of Leaders; and were distinguished not by names but by numbers; were known to each by signs and countersigns...They also took an oath, that while they existed under the canopy of Heaven they would not reveal anything connected with the present disturbances, under the penalty of being put out of existence, by the first brother whom they should meet, etc...586
Charges resulting from 'the Luds affair' were dealt with at special sittings, at one of which a witness reported being approached by a prisoner who offered to administer the following oath over 'a common prayer book':
I, ....., of my own free will and accord do solemnly swear never to reveal to any person the secrets of the Brotherhood, or to discover them by sign, word or act, under the penalty of being put out of existence by the first brother I meet. Furthermore, I swear that I will punish by death any traitors should any rise up among us, and will pursue them to the verge of the Statute. I will be just, sober, and true, to all my fellows, so help me God, to preserve this my oath inviolate. [Emphasis in original]
A clause in the latest Act made it possible for conspirators, ie swearers of an illegal oath, to achieve a pardon by swearing a new, loyal oath and by informing on their co-conspirators.587
An agitated MP in 1813, no doubt concerned at the uneven judicial response, rose in Westminster to propose a Committee of Enquiry into 'certain illegal societies under the denomination of Orangemen' which he claimed were just then establishing themselves in England. The coincidence of this date with the Union into one Grand Lodge of the SF 'Antients' and Moderns'and with the beginnings of a respectability-seeking MUIOOF may be simply that, a coincidence. It does seem that by then the official Orange Order was firmly in the hands of the gentry:
A grand Orange Lodge was held on Monday at Lord --------'s in Portman square, when some distinguished personages were admitted Members. The Orange Institution promises to become universal throughout the Empire.588
This MP believed that examination of the 'Orange' Rules and Regulations being circulated would show that both the admission oath and that for the Marksman or Purple Degree remained illegal, contingent as they were upon the King continuing to uphold the Protestant ascendancy:
This imperium in imperio, an organised society, with inferior lodges regularly reporting their proceedings to a superior one. Among the names of high rank, to which he had alluded, there were some belonging to the army, but if any one thing could be more subversive of all discipline than another , it was the introduction of secret Societies among the military.
Debate brought out the involvement of Orangemen in arson, murder and worse in Ireland and that under the terms of the 1799 Act 'the Institution' was certainly illegal, the House 'agreeing' however that no parliamentary action was required to curb the activities of loyal supporters of the Crown.
The Order continued to spread with British Army units and wherever Irish people found positions. An 1807 news item, telling of a street-fight, began:
Monday last being the anniversary festival of several friendly societies in Manchester, the members of one called the Orange Club, consisting of Irish Protestants...589
In 1813 the Leeds Mercury reported 'Odd Fellows...under the designation of an Orange Lodge' parading 'alongside' a procession of the 'United Loyal Order of Odd Fellows'590 (My emphasis).
An 1814 Dudley (UK) lodge of odd fellows was both a source of fascination and of great trepidation among the locals, one of whom joined while the others 'all united in the task of disgusting him with the society to which he had linked his fortunes.' The lodge name, 'La Belle Alliance Lodge', was surely begging for a visit from police agents if not the troopers.591
The Affiliated Orders and the Better Life
Neave believed most of his 'first wave' of village societies were in decline by the early 1830's because of ageing memberships, economic downturns and a lack of actuarial soundness.592 But the movement of population to the newly-industrialising areas meant 'benefit societies' experienced another burst of growth which was to, in the main, persist until the 1914-18 War. Clapham's conclusion was that by the 1830's, within 'a thick undergrowth of little societies, sick clubs, burial clubs, goose-clubs and free-and-easies', the 'Friendly Society movement was gathering power every year.'593 By using capitalisation here, Clapham indicates he's referring to what became the nationally affiliated, in some cases, internationally affiliated, 'Orders'.
We have already seen that Spry and others have treated 'friendly societies' as though they were of a distinct type of society which suddenly appeared in the mid to late 1700's. These authors have only concerned themselves with the Affiliated Orders, so by extrapolation, one might consider that it was only these which were of a new form. An argument of this sort would mean that alongside the continued use of rites of association by 'old' societies there was an adoption of similar rites by new ones, despite those 'new' societies insisting at the same time they were 'unique' and 'modern.'
For a wholly new type of 'friendly' to suddenly appear in the 18th century and then become the only kind of 'friendly' to form federative structures is most unlikely. If, as I would argue, the major Affiliateds [AFS], the Odd Fellows, Druids, Foresters, etc had their origins in the same place as Freemasonry and 'trade unions', no matter when those origins were, there is a great deal of research still to be done.
We know that what became the Affiliated Orders of 'Ancient Britons' and of 'Free Gardeners' both pre-date 1717. The Ancient Order of Druids dates itself from 29 November, 1781, when Henry Hurle, William Jones and other friends formed a lodge at the tavern 'the Kings Arms' in Poland Street, London, for peaceful 'social intercourse.' Historians of this Order have not explored whether this was a development from something earlier or whether any particular trade or occupation was involved. They have admitted internal tensions between distinct classes of 'brethren' with differing goals, and between a London-by-right head centre and 'outlying' branches.
Less-affluent Druids were more interested in seeing funds conserved for sickness, death and unemployment benefits, while the 'gentlemen' members favoured a looser, charity-based form of administration which permitted funds for the comfort of lodge members, exactly as for the SF. Inevitably, the internal decision-making processes came under close scrutiny. As a brief account says:
Both as to basis and administration it was exclusive and narrow and such was the way in which the policy of the Order was directed that grave dissatisfaction was created. This culminated in a crisis which brought about reorganisation in 1833...Due to varying views..there were splits within the Order which led to formation of the 'United Ancient Order of Druids', the 'Order of Druids' and the 'Sheffield Equalised Order'.594
The 'Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes' was, according to Axelrod, a totally new 'social order' established in 1822 in 'The Harp', a London tavern. He asserts that it furnishes 'a well-documented example of the transition from a drinking club to a full-blown secret society with rituals and ceremonies.'595 The 'Ancient Order of Romans' begins its 'official' history at 1833, 'All for One, One for All' its motto, with no connection being attempted with the Stukeley 'club' of similar name the previous century.596 'The Society of Ancient Shepherds' is happy to see its beginnings at Xmas Day 1827, and claims by the 'Ancient Order of Foresters' (established perhaps 1813) to be linked with an earlier 'Order of Royal Foresters' have been dismissed without serious research.597
As already indicated, the historical record of the important 'odd fellows' is frustratingly problematic. A network of London lodges designated the 'Order of Odd Fellows' may have been in place from the 1740's, while London working men are asserted to have established the 'Ancient Order of Oddfellows' and the 'Patriotic Order of Oddfellows' by the 1790's but exactly when and what connection these had with the earlier groups is uncertain. 'Odd Fellow' branches are claimed for Baltimore, 1802 and in New York in the USA from 1806.598 What bound these 'odd brothers' - trade, location or ideology - is not known.599
The total number of UK registered 'lodges' alone suggests that the government could not possibly have had the resources to keep track of even a tiny percentage of their members, if indeed any attempt at all was made, or to check that individual societies were adhering to their Rules. It would appear, however, that no systematic search of government archives for signs of 'Druids' and the rest has yet been done.
The IOOF,MU in 1814 set out a system of signs and passwords, while also seeking the high political ground, 'making' its first 'honorary member', Henry Brougham, later Lord High Chancellor.600 Their 'executive' also settled upon 'a proper system of regalia, aprons and paraphernalia' in 1814. It's known that in 1824 a further 'series of honorary signs and passwords' were apportioned to past officers according to their ranks. Surviving numerous internal crises in the interim, IOOF,MU appears to have been the first to replace 'Grand Lodge' with a Board of Directors (1827). By the late 1830's the ranks of odd fellows were expanding at an enormous rate, but it is not clear how many actually belonged to which grouping. About the time MUIOOF most stridently emphasised respectability and financial rectitude over the 'riotous proceedings' of its origins it was claiming its membership had reached the hundreds of thousands. It was still an illegal organisation but its own lecturers believed:
(Now) instead of the ludicrous ceremony once performed over the timid and fearful, at their making, we, amongst Odd Fellows, receive a solemn and impressive charge, teeming with exhortation to morality, christianity and obedience to the ruling powers; and calculated, if properly followed out by the individuals themselves, to elevate the christian character to the highest point of excellence.[Original emphasis]601
So, the odd fellow's story wherein we must seek for the answers supporting or rebutting the Webb's central claim, alleges a new organisation established new rites considered adequate to attract gentry, but just 20 years later, those same rites were thrown out as 'ludicrous.' And that period of 20 years straddles the events which are the key to the Webb thesis!
Place, much closer to these events, argued that higher wages had derived from increased production and trade during the war with France and from the succesful strikes of what he saw only as 'trade clubs'. In 1834 he wrote of:
the increased knowledge, of the sobriety, of the comfort, of better manners and better conduct than previously existed among workmen; of an end being put to riotous proceedings, public indecencies and gross conduct of all sorts, the extent of which is known to none but those who can remember the state of the journeymen tradesmen thirty or forty years ago.602
Among labourers, casual workers, street sellers and the mass of beggars, thieves and prostitutes, even during the depression which followed the end of the war in 1815, Place observed improvement. In 1826 after touring the poorest areas of London, he wrote:
Everywhere improvement has been going on and is still going on. Real wages have not increased, but frugality, sobriety and better management and self-respect have greatly increased.603
Other observers agreed, eg, in 1828:
This state of things is clearly proved by the vast number of neat houses of the smaller class arising in every part of England, in exchange for the crowded and filthy dwellings formerly inhabited...604
Poverty and economic exploitation had not been banished. Working people still expressed their need for solidarity and for security in ways that made sense to them. The greater legislative emphasis on Rules, elected, accountable officers - secretary, treasurer, trustee and auditor - and on managerial systems were new only in their detail. Useful in saving money and preventing malfeasance, the need for disclosure, and for evidential substantiation ate into what were often pitifully small stores of members' funds. Whether the administrative reforms were resisted or not, the private rites of association must have remained a comfort for they continued to survive.
But did the times generate a new kind of public 'paraphenalia'? Both Prothero and Thompson exploited the artisinal street ceremonial on show in this period but both imply, by not considering its past, that it was of recent invention, perhaps part of the burgeoning 'trade union consciousness'. Neither, in fact, made any attempt to contextualise the 'paraphenalia' they described.
Peterloo and Early 19th Century Lodge Workings
Extending the 1793, 1799, 1800 and 1812 Acts further, an 1817 Act ordered suppressed, 'under heavy penalty', all societies except the Freemasons and the Quakers, 'whose members took any oath not required by law' or 'which possessed branches' and which were not strictly religious or charitable in purpose.605 In that same year, 1817, a Parliamentary Committee on the Poor Law praised 'friendly societies' and argued for compulsory parish support for them. Nevertheless, constables 'forcibly entered' a number of lodges which had been 'duly opened' and demanded persons named in warrants. The charges included being part of a meeting of over 50 persons or belonging to an illegal association 'administering illegal oaths, and using signs and passwords.'
The post-Bonaparte trade slump resulted in a jump in unemployment, rioting and executions for property crimes. The social distress, widespread agitation for parliamentary reform and high levels of suspicion meant that the Government sought proof that conspirators were threatening death and destruction. It suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus, closed down 'Union Societies' and continued to subsidise spies and agent provocateurs. One informer, a carpenter called Oliver, was also Secretary of a small SF Lodge. He organised delegates and then 'helped' them to draw up plans for an insurrection. When the innocents set off with their pikes and torches, they were arrested.606
Henry Hobhouse, Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, wrote to a magistrate in August, 1818 about the heightened level of alarm in the country saying among other things:
You cannot please me better than by turning your attention to the Friendly Societies, by which I have no doubt the system which is the bane of your country is in a great degree supported..607
Again capitalisation. Richard Carlyle, author of a very interesting Masonic expose published as the Manual of Freemasonry and himself jailed for reform activities, was an eye-witness when, just outside Manchester, on 16 August, 1819, four people died and over 600 were injured by cavalry, special constables and others 'intervening' in a massive demonstration seeking parliamentary reform, the so-called 'Peterloo Massacre'. Walmsley's later exhaustive enquiry Peterloo: The Case Reopened examined every possible piece of written evidence to establish, he claims, a balanced view of the event's causes. That is, he sought evidence about the existence and extent of conspiracy, threat and violence on the Radical and the Conservative side.
His major thesis is that the demonstrators were not the 'peaceful and unarmed' multitude they have been by-and-large assumed to have been, that they presented a threat, that some of their number came prepared to do violence, and that therefore the Radicals must carry at least some of the responsibility for what occurred. He makes no attempt to pursue the organisation behind any such intent nor to decipher the cultural code present in the reformers' display. That is, he has almost nothing in his 500+ pages about the internal workings of reform societies, where any necessary decisions that he seeks information about might have been taken.
The key to this omission, and here we hark back to a major element of EP Thompson's argument, seems to be that the threat, if any existed, was perceived to be that of 'open insurrection' by rampaging, mindless mobs, by definition, devoid of any significant organisational or philosophic 'content'.608 There is one passing reference to 'Orange Societies' on the authorities' side, and a satiric mention of 'a body of Freemasons, marching in "military array" with banners and other emblems of turbulence' passing the office of the Manchester Observer, but neither is followed up.609
Walmsley's account refers to 'flags and banners', 'colours', 'appalling insignia', and 'civic emblems.'610 Except for one band of musicians, no uniforms or distinctive apparel are mentioned. A number of contemporary etchings are unclear as to regalia, something very apparent 15 years later at Copenhagen Fields.
A great deal, however, can be made of the 'military precision' with which the 'divisions' came to the Peterloo meeting space. A capacity to march in step 3 or 4 abreast and to wheel on command, plus the numbers of sticks, the odd pike and Cap of Liberty, were sufficient to convince the authorities they needed to assemble many mounted troopers. Unreferenced tid-bits of information suggest that delegates were in attendance as a result of appointment at district meetings with prepared resolutions to deliver to the crowd. This is only marginally useful at present, because it remains undeveloped, but it does match earlier information, from the 1790's mutinies, for example.
Descriptions of the banners carried by the marchers are a little more useful. Of various colours and sometimes of silk they appear to have been locally made. An active participant, a weaver called Bamford, later arrested and jailed, told of the preparations with which he was directly concerned. During drilling exercises pennies and half-pennies were collected in a hat by the 'company commander' to pay for a 'colour'. On the day, their part of the procession was led by 12 'most comely youths' each with a sprig of laurel signifying peace. Then came:
Bamford did not describe any of the banners, but a number carried telling symbols. One in particular - described by The Times reporter as 'by far the most elegant' on the day - was carried by members of 'a club of Female Reformers'. It was of white silk with
in one compartment...Justice holding the scales in one hand and a sword in the other; in another a large eye...On the reverse...were..two hands, both decorated in shirt ruffles clasped in each other.611
These only sometimes appear on SF regalia, all appear often on 'friendly society' and 'trade union' artefacts. The banner that excited most adverse comment was jet black with white letters, 'Equal Representation or Death', the clasped hands with cuffs, and a heart with the word 'love' all in white. This was created for the 'Saddleworth Reform Union.'612 Even this slight evidence strongly suggests that even village-level 'benefit societies', including women's groups, were aware of and using a common symbolism. The working people at Peterloo may have been recently dislocated from other regions to the Manchester area but they were already in societies, many of which had 'Union' in their name and used guild symbolism.
Suggestions that the clasped hands and the Eye (of Providence), etc, first appeared in France in the 1790's are ignorant of the long history these icons have, the handshake, for example, being found in Roman and Egyptian ceremonial.613 It was part of Roman Law for the purpose of establishing faith and confidence in a contract or agreement, and has a similar place in the culture of most other civilised peoples. The Roman goddess Fides, Fidelity, was represented by two right hands joined, or sometimes two female figures shaking hands. The Eye has an equally long heritage.
Wherever there was a need to represent group trust and fidelity, in other words 'fraternity', then it was likely the symbol of the clasped hands would appear. It has been sighted on the sheilds of mediaeval knights in many parts of Europe. Shaking hands also had conspiratorial connotations. In lodge, grip variations were learnt as a means of testing for spies and recognising friends or colleagues, including the simplest handshake which in public could hide the transmission of a coded message, or pass a slip of paper.
Bamford claims every 100 marchers had a leader, distinguished by a sprig of laurel in his hat, and that over these were other leaders. Overall was a 'principal conductor' (also a lodge term) heading the column with a bugleman who sounded his (the conductor's) orders.614 For Bamford this was the event which first displayed a committment to orderly, disciplined protest. He believed that that was the point of the drilling, and that the marchers were determined on this particular day to counter the tory charges of 'mobs, riotous, tumultuous and disorderly.'615
Historian Prothero asserts that it was participant Gast's idea for demonstrators in 1820 London in support of Queen Charlotte to wear 'white silk rosettes'.616 Perhaps because Gast said so? The fact that the paraders also had white wands, 'colored clothes, some with aprons, others with silk-coloured handkerchiefs...many wearing sprigs or leaves of laurel' and all walking in pairs behind two of their brethren carrying 'an address' receive no sourcing asides at all. Prothero, in another place, described a second procession:
Three thousand assembled in Stepney and proceeded on foot, and there was full expression of their love of pageantry and a show to express pride in their crafts, and benefit society rituals and decorations were drawn upon.617
Thompson had it in his hands to alter the whole direction of LH. He could say on one page:
But the friendly society and the trade union, not less than the organisations of the masters, sought to maintain the ceremonial and the pride of the older tradition.
and on another:
This growth in self-respect and political consciousness was one real gain of the Industrial Revolution...We can find abundant testimony as to the steady growth of the ethos of mutuality in the strength and ceremonial pride of the unions and trades clubs which emerged from quasi-legality when the Combination Acts were repealed.618 [my emphases]
Unable to untangle 'maintenance' from 'emergence', he is grudging at best when faced with contemporary 'facts':
(There) is a sense in which the friendly society helped to pick up and carry into the trade union movement the love of ceremony and the high sense of status of the craftsman's guild.
These traditions, indeed, still had a remarkable vigour in the early nineteenth century...
Thompson was, at least, acknowledging the evidence of the 1825 woolcombers' strike displays, the 1802 Preston Guild, the 'Bishop Blaize' feast day processions, and the Nantwich shoemakers' parade of 1832, a report of which, according to him, included reference to a banner and a:
full set of secret order regalia, surplices, trimmed aprons ...and a crown and robes for King Crispin.
For Prothero, Thompson, et al unfortunately, these are mere signs of artisans and masters celebrating pride in 'the Trade.' In 1833
Nearly 500 joined in the procession, each one wearing a white apron neatly trimmed. The rear was brought up by a shop-mate in full tramping order, his kit packed on his back, and walking-stick in hand.619
The original source of this information, the memoirs of Thomas Dunning, shoemaker, does not actually say the recently-purchased 'secret order regalia' was worn in the street parade, with 'trimmed aprons'. And he doesn't say whether these latter are work or lodge aprons. Does 'trimmed' indicate edged with colour, as with ceremonial aprons, or 'trimmed' as in edges cut off? If work aprons, why would they be trimmed, in either sense? If 'secret regalia' was worn in the street with 'King Crispin', his 'royal regalia' and a 'tramping kit', would that not signify something more than craft pride and/or a love of display? In his near-thousand pages, Thompson has 3 brief references to 'tramping', all of which involve the alleged extension of trade organisation forced on workers by the Combination Acts in the period 1799-1825.620
Kiddier's 20th century reconstruction of early 19th century 'journeymens societies' cannot, fairly, be assumed to apply before the 1800's but his detailed description is certainly indicative. Using records only of the Brushmakers' Society he was nevertheless satisfied he was speaking for the generality when he wrote in 1930:
There was a time when the Brushmaker out of work tramped from town to town with a BLANK in his pocket. This was a small book to be signed by the Stewards at the various towns where his Union was established. With the BLANK he got his tramping money for the next stage. He must tramp on and on, and do some twenty or thirty miles a day. His Union kept him on the road until he got a job or had done the whole journey around the TRADE.621
Not that members at the time referred to their association as a 'Union':
The Brushmakers of bygone days did not call themselves Trade Unionists. Before the word UNION entered their records the Society had been established a hundred years or more...(They) called their body a Society...More to the point they called themselves LEGAL MEN; and the Master that paid List wages and conformed to Trade regulations as to number of Apprentices was a LEGAL Master and his Shop a LEGAL Shop...An old precept was this. Workmen's Societies maintain it always.622
The number of young men wanting to be trained in this particular craft was always greater than could be supported. Thus, there were always skilled men being forced out of their positions or 'ILLEGAL' apprentices being created:
For this sole reason the Society originated. The getting together of men earning a little and men deprived of the means of work was the first purpose. The bond between those who had a job and those who had not was the solid bottom they hit upon. Paying a little by those in work: for relief of those out of work, was at once the simplest and greatest covenant men ever made.
What is called ON THE BOOK [receiving benefits]...is the essence of the Brushmakers' Articles. To read the text forgetful of the dismal fact of UNEMPLOYMENT is to read muddle-headed.623
Cries of 'Reform! Reform!' before 1832 split the Society. Whereas previously 'LEGAL' Masters and Journeymen had stood side by side now employers were being seduced by the thought of a parliamentary voice, a process which would leave their erstwhile 'brothers' marked from then on as 'lower beings.'
Kiddier's 'memoir' of a few temporarily lucky exceptions strengthens my central thesis:
In those days a working man with a vote was a curiosity: so scarce was he. He was a Freeman. A class to itself was that: held together by Royal Charter.624 [Note the capitals]
The Freeman Journeyman was one who had served seven years' apprenticeship to a Freeman Master, and who could thus, at the successful end of his time, simultaneously celebrate becoming an adult, attaining Freeman-hood and receiving 'THE VOTE.'
Now, the point is the many favours attaching to the vote. A working man with a vote was well looked after. In the workshop he got the best job. And when jobs were scarce any other man was discharged to give him room.
But the man with a vote was of particular interest to politicians at election time. Thus
The Freeman with his vote would not go on tramp. What could the Tramp do with a vote? As Citizen he must remain in the City and be ready for dissolutions of Parliament. The Party relying upon the vote saw to it that the man had employment in his own city. It was the business of Member of Parliament to see Employer. Room was made for the man with vote: any non-voter in the way was pushed out.
The wretched business was given a name. The Brushmakers' Society called it THE FORCING OF FREEMEN...
Neither Parliament nor politicians were interested in the Societies' method of distributing labour such as tramping but they were interested in any attempts at counter-organisation, of any centres of decision-making other than their own:
ATTENDING TO TAKE VOICES meant that the Secretary went to the Clubhouse and received (a) Box containing votes upon (a) matter. The Box had been AROUND THE TRADE. Sometimes they said ROUND TO THE SHOPS.625
This was a second secure box, usually a tin box, small enough to be carried un-noticed in a man's coat from 'shop' to 'shop'. To get in touch with the appropriate person to receive the Tin at each station on its route, the carrier would whistle a five note tune, 'the Brushmakers' Call.'626 Besides carrying messages needing to be dealt with urgently the tin box contained 'three things always: Price List, Society's Articles, List of Legal Shops'. Many of the messages were from other Societies under pressure or from destitute workmen:
Another little document issued by his Union was called THE TRAMPING ROUTE. This gave the list of towns to be visited, the number of miles the man had to walk, and the exact money due at each stage.
The first thing he did when entered a town was to make for the Clubhouse - a tavern registered by his Union...The journey around THE TRADE was well over a thousand miles...The Society's Accounts in the various towns show how well the matter of tramping was managed. To pay the tramps was the business of the Stewards. The Societies in the small towns received money from the larger ones....The figures show that 95 per cent of income was paid to tramps. [His emphasis]
This last statement does not mean that there were no other significant benefits:
(Too) often the Box contained no funds. Then the Landlord put his hand into his own pocket and gave the Society the loan of ten or twenty pounds, or more.
The London Society of Brushmakers have owed the Landlord as much as two hundred pounds.
Hard times were those: but, be it said, the loan was free of interest. The Landlord saw the Accounts with his own eyes. The Out-of-work Monies, and Monies paid to Worn-out-Men, and Funeral Monies...But the Landlord knew his loan was safe. The Brushmakers never failed to pay back...
Another act of brotherhood was that of GRANTING A PETITION. This was a thing apart. Club money and Levies were sums fixed by the Union for all to pay alike: whilst the PETITION was for voluntary subscriptions...There was poverty and POVERTY. The PETITION was for the exceptional case...627
Kiddier was clear about the integrated nature of the Society:
At Clubhouse Meetings the Brushmakers were a lively body with endless duties. The variety of matters in hand would have baffled any faculty but a body of working men...The business was higher than that of Parliament or law court because it was more intimate. In the course of the meeting they were a domestic tribunal, a Friendly Society, a Trade Union; and all this was done by candlelight.628
The 1824 'Combination' Repeal Act and the Enquiries of 1825
By 1824, when common law restrictions on combinations concerned with wages and working conditions were repealed, enough MP's had accepted that the 'right to combine' should extend to wage-earners. It was realised that what Gilbert and others had been saying in the 1780's and 1790's was correct, that 'combinations' could more productively be dealt with if brought inside legal and judicial ambit. But there were three elements to what amounted to an unspoken trade-off - that all forms of intimidation and violence on the workers' part were to be outlawed, that the need for secret proceedings was to be declared obsolete, and the reserves of enabling funds in 'friendly societies' were to be quarantined from 'industrial' uses.
The working through of the process can be seen in the Place records629 and in two Parliamentary Committee Reports, the second inquiry having as one of its terms of reference to look into
the state of the law (re 'Friendly Societies', ie the 1793 Act) and its effects, so far as it "relates to the Combination of Workmen and others, to raise wages or to regulate their wages and hours of working."
This Committee's politically expedient language has played a part in seducing readers into the 'disguise' claim, that is, that 'most alliances to raise wages cloaked themselves under the rules of Friendly Societies.'630 Having examined numerous sickness and burial 'clubs', and having looked into the effects on parish rates of welfare payments, collapsing societies and defaulting officers, the Report's conclusion was phrased differently:
These clubs were, in very many instances, composed of persons, working at the same trade; the habits and opportunities of association, which the Friendly Societies gave to them, doubtless afforded facilities of combination for raising wages and other purposes, all of which were then unlawful, connected with their common business.631 [My emphasis]
The other Committee, inquiring into the 1824 Combination Law with a view to its possible repeal, was, as Clapham commented:
evidently surprised, and much impressed, by the very regular system of government in all the societies into whose organisation it penetrated, with president, secretary, committee and printed regulations, 'by which they are ostensibly governed.' This all suggests old traditions in what may already be called the trade union world.632
They were impressed by, for example, the 'all but military' system of the London Journeymen Tailors, while the London Hatters had sick, burial and out-of-work benefits, used the tramping ticket, voted assistance to non-hatters on strike and restricted apprentice numbers.
This Committee selected a number of societies for a closer look - the 'Coopers Union'; the 'South Shields Shipwrights Union Society'; the 'West Riding Fancy Union'; two branches of the 'Seamens' Loyal Standard Association'; the 'Association of Journeymen Woollen Weavers, Man Spinners, and Others'; the 'Friends of Humanity'; the 'Shipwrights Provident Union of the River Thames'; the 'Coal Miners' Union of Sheffield and Neighborhood'; the 'General Association of Weavers in Scotland'; the 'Ayrshire Colliers Association'; and the 'Journeymen Paper Makers'.
These 'official' titles, with one exception, are quite explicitly combinations of workers in single trades or clusters of related trades, and can only be said to be attempting disguise as 'friendly societies'if by carrying out the ostensible duties of a 'friendly' they actually did something not covered by their rules. Their registered Rules, setting out the commonly-felt providential concerns, must have been approved by the authorities, and these can only be a disguise if they obscure from view something other than providential intentions or activities.
The name 'Friends of Humanity' alone does not indicate a restricted membership nor a disguise. Established in 1799, its Rules described it as an 'Amicable Society' 'for relieving the aged and otherwise afflicted members thereof, and for allowing certain sums of money for loss by fire, and at the death of members and their wives'. (p.40)
The Coopers who met at the same London pub described their 'combination' as a 'Philanthropic Society' to relieve its members out of employment 'through the depression of trade or other casualties that may occur in the vicissitudes of life'. [My emphasis] This wording appears in other Rules. Another source tells us that 'The Good Samaritan' and 'The Philanthropic' were parent bodies for 'branch' societies of London coopers. In the case of 'The Philanthropic', the branches were the 'Hand in Hand', the 'Brewhouse Coopers' and the 'Runlett Coopers.' Was this 'Grand Lodge-type' arrangement formalised?633 Research is deficient here also, but the 'Hand in Hand' and 'The Philanthropic' continued into the 20th century when they were still setting prices and restricting the inflow of apprentices into their trade. A 'Coopers Mutual Association'[NB: still not called 'trade union'] which 'grouped together a number of local societies' insisted in 1891 that membership required the issuing of piece work price lists.634
The shipwrights on the Thames were clubbing together to 'better the condition of the working shipwright', the coalminers of Sheffield 'to support the welfare of the profession', the cotton jenny spinners 'to promote our best interest'. Many rules explicitly include the supporting of wages and the prevention of lowering of wages within generalisations of this sort. It was part of what today would be called 'an integrated approach' because it seemed perfectly obvious and natural to members that wages and working conditions were intimately connected with, but were not always the prime movers in 'vicissitudes of life.'
The Rules of the 'South Shields Shipwrights Union Society' stated that members were combining to form themselves into a 'Friendly and Benevolent Association', yet called their 'combination' a 'Union Society'.635 Their Article 4 used the word 'free' in the same way that we have already seen:
That persons entering immediately on the expiration of their respective apprenticeships, may become free members on paying the sum of five shillings entrance money.(p.24)
Near to identical wording can be found in much earlier rules, eg of the 'Free Butchers', 'Free Scriveners' or 'Free Tylers'.636
A ship-owner from the South Shields area explained in detail to the enquiry members the rules of the 'Seamens Loyal Standard Association' which, supposedly, had almost complete control of shipping movements there and concluded:
I cannot deny it is a benevolent society. I also assert it is a combination; and I think it is a combination of a much more fearful nature than was ever experienced before...
If and when societies were being established to only support or raise wages they were seen, by the members, as temporary and the funds they subscribed in lodge as short-term investments. Whether a strike failed or succeeded, they expected that part of the exercise to last only until a resolution was reached. The ship-owner, Heath, went on:
The dangerous feature of these unions is that they really are benevolent societies, and as such they will necessarily accumulate funds, giving the members a contingent interest in those funds...and therefore if a man should wish to retire from them as combinations, he is held by his interest in them as a member of a benefit society, and consequently they must always be in operation. (p.103)
That is, it is the benefit arrangements which provide the continuity and any permanence the society achieves. Some witnesses believed the guilds 'of old' had continued as 'eating and drinking' clubs, forcing the formation of newer, 'industrial' combinations with new approaches to the numbers of apprentices, training and so on. (pp.12-13.) Dublin coach-maker Robert Hutton, asked about the privileges and power accruing to an apprentice-become-journeyman as opposed to someone never apprenticed, believed trades that had no apprentices did not have to suffer combinations. He was asked:
On what do those privileges rest?
On corporation charters I believe.
You mean privileges connected with the guilds?
Did you understand it to be that gentleman's opinion that combinations would be much less frequent if all those guilds were abolished?
He did not put it in that way, but that while there was any advantage whatever to be derived from serving an apprenticeship in any way, it would have a tendency to keep up combinations. 637
The Committee members heard both employers and employees say that they knew very little, if anything, about the 1824 Act and that the combinations had not resulted from that change. A number of the examined 'Associations' had issued their first Rules in 1824, but whether this signified an actual beginning or an emergence into the light is debatable. The Committee concluded that especially in Ireland, the 1824 Act had encouraged a 'greater degree of openness and audacity.'
Societies which were trade-exclusive would naturally be more concerned with work details than less-exclusive combinations. The 'Combinations' Committee, without realising the built-in bias in their selection, angrily observed of the societies they had examined:
Their objects appear to be in most instances the regulation of wages, combined with the assumption, in certain particulars, of a power of dictation in the conduct of the business in which they are engaged; the effect of which, if submitted to, would be totally to subvert the independence of the masters, and deprive them of all the means of resistance to the further demands of their workmen, of whatever nature those demands might eventually be.
The Committee found reprehensible that the claimed 'power of dictation' included intimidation and physical violence, most often 'beating opponents with sticks, sometimes to death.' It became very agitated about evidence of employers colluding with 'combinations' to obtain commercial benefit, and about combinations of different trades supporting one another and even, as again in Ireland, formalising that association.
Yet the Committee considered it would be 'a measure of objectionable severity towards the workmen' to restore the status quo by reinstating the repressive statutes removed by the 1824 Act. They recommended repeal of the entirety of that 1824 Act but wished that an exception should be made to previous common law practice:
in favour of meetings and consultations amongst either masters or workmen, the object of which is peacably to consult upon the rate of wages to be either given or received, and to agree to co-operate with each other in endeavouring to raise or lower it, or to settle the hours of labour;
This exception, they thought, would allow achievement of a balance of interests and prevent dictation of either side to the other 'least of all that assumption of control on the part of the workmen...which is utterly incompatible with the necessary authority of the master.' The Committee recommended that legislative provisions along these lines should insist that they apply only to 'parties actually present, or personally consenting'. Neglect of this limitation would allow 'a dangerous opening to the operation of influence of the most pernicious kind' and remove the protection of 'that competition which arises out of the perfect freedom of individual action.'
This is all the freedom in respect to Combination, that seems essential for any beneficial purpose; and your Committee are of opinion, that all Combination beyond this should be at the risk of the parties, and open as heretofore, to the animadversions of the common law, and to be dealt with according to the circumstances of each case.638
Spies frequenting the 'combinations' had been providing examples of oaths to the authorities since 1802 according to evidence to the 1825 Enquiry. But neither they nor those involved in the later 1834 'oath' trial were concerned with separating out different types of oaths or in determining clear maps of their provenance/usage.
The oath and the rites are, of course, linked by the notion of secrecy. Behind the swearing of any oath there is the penalty for breaking it. Before 1730 the fearsome punishments for a 'mason' should he break his oath were:
my heart plucked from my Left breast, my tongue plucked from the roof of my mouth, my Throatt cutt, my Body to be torn to pieces by Wild Horses, to be buried in the Sands of the Sea where the Tide flowes in 24 Houres, taken up and burnt to Ashes and Sifted where the four winds blow that there may be no more Remembrance of me.639
SF oaths vary from degree to degree as the ritual and regalia vary. Those sworn by the 'Entered Apprentice', 'Fellow Craft' and 'Master Mason' include penalties of this kind, though the number of penalties diminish as the obligation lengthens.640 The generality of the SF oath refers entirely to the keeping of secrets. As in:
I, Mr ...., in the presence of the Great Architect of the Universe, and of this warranted, worthy and worshipful Lodge of free and accepted Masons, regularly assembled and properly dedicated, of my own free will and accord, do hereby and hereon, most solemnly and sincerely swear, that I will always hale, conceal, and never reveal, any part or parts, point or points, of the secrets and mysteries of....(etc)
I further solemnly promise, that I will not write those secrets, print, carve, engrave, or otherwise them delineate, or cause or suffer them to be done so by others, if in my power to prevent it, on anything moveable or immoveable, under the canopy of heaven, whereby or whereon any letter, character or figure, or the least trace of a letter, character or figure may become legible or intelligible to myself, or to any one in the world, so that our secrets, arts, and hidden mysteries, may improperly become known through my unworthiness...[thence a recounting of the penalties as above]
That this contains such explicit wording is intriguing. That it contains many more than enough mechanisms for delivering death to a transgressor can be put down to a perceived need to terrorise beforehand, not because more than one would be considered necessary in practise. On the other hand, the listing of possible mechanisms that someone could use to record or to pass on secrets sounds more like an attempt to cover all contingencies, embellished over a long period, when it seemed oath-breakers had escaped punishment because they used a means not thus far included. Swearing to 'never reveal' might have been thought sufficient for all contingencies, and the extension of the oath to cover various means of putting down legible marks including printing, as opposed to oral transmission, suggests an educated elite making the extensions. But it does not rule out the master masons of operative lodges.641
From guild times swearing an oath was a common social phenomenon,642 and courts, Royal and civil, often handed out penalties or warned witnesses and others in very similar terms to the above.643 Other oaths contemplating violence, for example one of a Scottish combination quoted in the House of Commons in 1825, that of the Orangemen or the alleged Luddite (above) oath, are totally different in wording to one another and to others here detailed.644 The SF oath does not require of the swearer that 'he' accept the need for murder and/or generalised mayhem.
Activist framework knitter, Gravenor Henson, believed that 'English craftsmen had been long inured to secret combinations' and 'binding themselves by oath'.645 A shearmen (or 'cropper', ie of the fibre in the loom) told the MP's he had sworn in his Bradford association 'to be true to the shearmen, and see that none of them are hurt, and not to divulge any of their secrets'.646 A colliery engineer from Durham testified that he believed 'a most solemn oath' recently used by colliers, carpenters, sawyers and blacksmiths was 'a branch of the same system (used) in 1810, called 'brothering':
Q What was the nature of that oath? They bound themselves to obey the orders of the brotherhood at the peril of their lives, on the penalty of being stabbed through the heart, or their bowels ripped up.
Q How did you come to a knowledge of the oath? I bribed a fellow in 1810, by which I came at the nature of the oath, and the manner of making a brother, as they called it.
Q On what account do you say that you think the present oath is the same..It is mere suspicion on your part? It is information from petty officers that the men talk to at times, and say, "we are members of the Union, and we are bound by an oath."647
Aspinall within an otherwise useful discussion, advanced the notion that:
The evidence given before the Select Committee of 1825 on the Combination Laws shows that Freemasonry, with its signs, passwords and oaths of fidelity, familiarised trade unionists with the idea of organising themselves as a secret society, and so did the Radical Societies like the United Irishmen and the London Corresponding Society. The Methodist movement, together with these democratic Societies, acquainted trade unionists with the ideas of representation, delegation and federation.648 [My emphasis]
He provided three footnote references, one each for the claims about 'Freemasonry', 'Radical Societies', and the 'Methodist movement.' The third mentions Methodism not at all, but quotes that part of the Preamble to the 1799 Treasonable and Seditious Practices Act which asserts that the London Corresponding Society and the United Irishmen 'are composed of different divisions, branches or parts' and have delegates and secretaries, etc. The second reference is to correspondence suggesting the government enquire into the political motivations, ie Jacobinism, of workers wishing to combine. The first reference is the only one to the 1825 Report into Combinations, viz page 76, but is equally worrying. It is in relation to the evidence of William McAllister, 'operative collier' at Kilmarnock Coal Work and Secretary of 'the Kilmarnock miners' association.' The relevant questions and answers are:
Q When those (Rules) were printed, and the association formed, were there any other rules formed than those which are printed? - No.
Q No private Bye-laws? - No.
Q No secret resolutions? - No.
Q No secret oath? - No.
Q Any secret signs by which you know one another? - Yes, but that does not belong to the association.
Q What does it belong to? - That is the Brotherhood of the Colliery, that has nothing to do with this association.
Q What is the nature of that Brotherhood of the Colliery? - It is the same as Freemasonry.
Q How far does it extend? - It extends just among colliers themselves.
Q What is the intention of it? - Just to make them friendly and true to each other.
Q Has it anything to do with striking? - Nothing in the world.
Q Has it nothing to do with supporting one another in case of a strike? - No.
Q Of what number may that Brotherhood consist? - It may consist of every collier in the world.
Q Do you mean to say that every collier is expected to belong to it? - There is no compulsion, he may or may not.
Q Would you know the oath if you saw it? - I think I should.
(McAllister was then shown an oath presented previously by his employer, a Mr Guthrie.)
- There is nothing of that in it.
Q Can you state what the oath is? - No.
Q Are you under secrecy? - We are under secrecy to one another.
Q Do you conceive it the same as Freemasonry? - It is the same.
Q Are you a Freemason? - Yes.
Q You are quite positive that the Brotherhood has nothing to do with the measures of the association? - No, they are quite distinct one from the other.
McAllister may be lying but his evidence, as presented, shows only that one collier, he himself, was a member of three quite distinct entities - an SF lodge, a colliers' 'Brotherhood' and a colliers' 'Association'. It goes no distance towards proving that 'Freemasonry familiarised trade unionists etc, etc'. The minor tragedy is that the relations between these three, their similarities and differences, and their individual histories, were not explored then, and remain unexplored.
Guthrie, the colliers' employer, who also may be lying, was being asked about what might be the 'Brotherhood' concerned, the 'Clydesdale Operative Brethren' [my emphasis], when he handed up the oath he said was current in 1817. He said 'the Brethren' had caused previous trouble but he knew nothing further about it. The oath read:
I, GDE, do solemnly vow and swear, before God and those who trow, that I will haill, conceal, and never reveal this secret of word, sign and grip; that I will not write it, cut or carve, print it or engrave it, mark or stain it, upon anything that will bear a mark, or the meaning of a letter; and I will always assist a brother collier in anything that I can help him in, if consistent with my own safety; and I will assist the Glasgow Clydesdale operative brethren, if consistent with reason, equity, and justice, and consistent with the laws of my country; and that I will not make, or see any made, under the number Three, and not then until represented with a good moral character. Now, as I have sworn, may the Lord enable me to perform this my obligation.
The pass word is 'Mizpah.'
The signs are, to touch the right ear with the right thumb and forefinger, and answered by the other person putting down his right hand by his left side, in allusion to Malchus's ear being cut off, and to Jesus's enjoining Peter to put up his sword.
The grips formerly used were few in number, called the Clerk, the Boards or shovel, the pick, the wedge and the mell; but of late a new one has been formed, called the reversed sign, which is done by the one person putting up the right-hand middle finger, while the other holds his hand out and right middle finger down.649
Again, this contains details which some people would say they recognise as 'masonic', but which comparison with actual SF oaths does not support. These colliers would seem to be drawing on a similar operative history to that fuelling the 'masonic' rites, as were the smiths, bookbinders, etc, mentioned above. Grips are not usually printed, even today, in books of ritual, SF or any other, thus sensible research requires familiarity with the topic, not heresay.
Two references to 'disturbances' by weavers appear in the 1825 evidence by Scottish colliery management about a man called John Falhouse Wilson, a weaver allegedly travelling the country organising colliers, in particular, into the 'Clydesdale Operative Brethren'.650 Here could well be the basis of the Webb's dismissive remarks and their 'origin' claim. Tracking the alleged 'evidence' for their claim, through Hobsbawm and through their references has produced, as the apparent final source, a discontented ex-'brother' who had claimed that the Leeds Clothiers Union had borrowed their initiation ceremony almost word for word from a lodge of Rochdale Oddfellows 'who were flannel weavers' and who had been using it for some time to enrol new members.
This is bizarre enough, in itself, to warrant further exploration, but joining the 'Wilson' story would imply a non-collier but trade-specific lodge or 'Order of Odd Fellows' had determined on a policy of organising coal miners! far and wide, at least from Leeds to the Clyde!651 Interestingly, Home Office papers disclose that information had been received on 'a shadowy weavers union'
said to stretch "from London to Nottingham, and from thence to Manchester and Carlisle" bound by the strictest secrecy, with different degrees of oaths at different levels of the organisation...652 (My emphasis)
Could this have been a network of odd fellows? Mentions of organised weavers have peppered the present account, from pre-reformation times to the 19th century, for readers to conclude there is a trail here worth following. It's a pity the Webbs and Thompson, et al, did not bother.653
What the Webbs might have argued had come from SF ritual is the Eight Hour Day. By the early 1800's a candidate for entered apprentice degree, ie the very first SF degree, was invested with 'working tools' the first being a 24" gauge. The Worthy Master handed it over with the words:
The twenty-four inch gauge, an instrument with which operative Masons measure and lay out their work; but we as free and accepted Masons, make use of it for a more noble and glorious purpose. It being divided into twenty-four equal parts, is emblematical of the twenty-four hours of the day, which we are taught to divide into three equal parts; whereby are found eight hours for the service of God, and a worthy distressed brother; eight for our usual vocation, and eight for refreshment and sleep.654
A Select Committee of the Houses of Parliament was also commissioned to 'consider the Laws Respecting FRIENDLY SOCIEITIES, and to report the same' in 1825. Its Report began with a reference to '(some) curious information respecting the antient [NB spelling] history of Associations for mutual support' in Eden's History of the Poor, but went quickly to a summary of the 'legislative interference or regulation of these societies' beginning with the Rose Act of 1793.
Of this Enquiry and those of 1827 and 1848 it is fair to say that the overwhelming concern is with actuarial calculations. The need to reduce taxation on welfare weighs most heavily, combinatorial conspiracies hardly at all. The witnesses called are almost all actuaries, sponsors of the newly-emerging insurance companies or clergy connected with 'respectably patronised' societies, these being just about the only 'friendly societies' which had newly registered since the 1819 Act. Then the paternalist ideology was already set fair, concentration of that Bill being on the potential for frauds and abuse of funds within societies. By the time of the 1827 Enquiry the Committee's only brief was
(to ascertain) the necessary payment to be made by persons of the poorer orders contributing in youth and manhood to a fund established to provide annuities for them in old age.
Names such as the 'British Provident Annuitant Society', the 'Guardian Insurance Coy', the 'Southwell Friendly Institution' and the 'Totness, Devon 3rd Annuitant Society' provide the flavour of proceedings. Eden in 1801 calculated that 5-6,000 'clubs' had had their Rules approved in the period since 1793, yet not one artisan was called to any of the enquiries up to and including that of 1848. In that later year the first of the affiliated societies to gain recognition, the 'Manchester Unity', was received, with only one exception, by the participants, which included Tidd Pratt the Registrar, as though it was the only Order of odd fellows.
One task placed upon the 1825 Committee was to consider what effect the various laws relating to 'friendly societies' had had upon attempts to raise wages, until 1824 an unlawful aspiration. The Committee spent almost no time upon that concern, partly excusing itself by saying that it expected the concurrent enquiry into the Combination Laws to more effectively relate to that matter. But it also commented upon a resolution referred to it by that other Committee that
societies legally enrolled as Benefit Societies, have been frequently made the cloak under which funds have been raised for the support of combinations and strikes, attended with acts of violence and intimidation.
This 'second' Committee used its Report to respond:
Neither the evidence which has incidentally been given upon it [the Resolution] before your Committee, nor the evidence appended to the Report referred to them [by the other Committee] appears to justify an apprehension that the statement of the Resolution is extensively true. And even if some of the older societies have been in a degree perverted to the purposes of combination, Your Committee have no reason whatever to believe that any such abuse has occurred, in a society formed under the last Act.655
Prothero wrote of working people's reaction to the legislation resulting from the 1827 Enquiry:
The societies were very angry that (Chairman) Courtenay's committee did not hear representatives from any artisan societies at all...And their fears were confirmed when it reported in November in favour of restricting societies purely to benefits for infirmity, old age, funeral expenses and the endowment of children...The Bill that Courtenay introduced in 1828 was as bad as they expected, seeking basically to take control away from members so as to establish financial rectitude.656
Prothero has recounted the 'resultant campaign' of 'national' agitation co-ordinated by delegates from 108 London societies. So effective was it Courtenay stepped away and the societies themselves drew up and had accepted by the parliament what became the 1829 Act. Prothero's comment appears apposite:
The 1829 Act is regarded as a landmark in friendly society legislation, in its appointment of a registrar (Tidd Pratt) and abandonment of efforts at paternalistic control, though the fact that it was the work of artisans is totally ignored...(It) seemed to dissolve some of the tensions and antagonisms of 1825-7, and the London delegate committee urged full co-operation with the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge over its questionnaire and efforts to draw up guidelines for tables and rules.657
Tolpuddle and the Webbs
We have seen that the Webbs' ideological assertions about LH rested heavily on their dismissal of the rites of association seen during the period 1829-34. With a clearer idea of the context we can now return to those flawed assertions. The dismissal had three elements:
Subsequently, Hobsbawm and others claimed the 'fantastic ritual' came suddenly upon 'trade unions'659 and that the Tolpuddle conviction caused it to vanish almost as quickly.660 A common fourth leg to this hegemonic construction has been that the Tolpuddle labourers, like many others, were disguising their 'trade union' as a 'friendly society'.
The reader will recall I highlighted information the Webbs had provided, albeit mainly in footnotes, as follows:
The reader will also recall that evidence presented here does not support the contention that what we have of oddfellows' ritual resembles in any more than a very superficial way that set out in the 1834 Operative Stonemasons' literature. If, of course, that document was drastically altered as a result of the events about to be described, then the 1737 'Friendly Society of Free and Accepted Masons' (above) comes into play or the even earlier-established but longer-running 'Worshipful Society of Free Masons, Rough Masons, Wallers, Slaters, Paviors, Plasterers and Bricklayers', which, of course, we have found to have had a very long run, even to (approx) 1900. If determined to find an SF source for GNCTU rites this is surely the place to look. But we have seen that the latter Society had a totally-integrated seven degree structure which bears absolutely no similarity to oddfellow ritual or organisation. We will see that it had no similarity either to that followed by the Tolpuddle conspirators.
The Tolpuddle 'brethren' were charged with the swearing of an illegal oath. Some historians have claimed that this too was a transitory aberration. For example:
(The Tolpuddle transportees) had in fact only been guilty of a comparatively trivial mistake into which early trade unions had fallen, the adoption of oaths of secrecy. Such oaths were indulged in, partly perhaps to avoid the scrutiny of the public and the long arm of the law, but more often in order to fascinate the imagination of the illiterate.661
One thing only made the Tolpuddle oath illegal - that it was not of the form sanctioned by the authorities. To be lawful an oath was to be one required by law, and sworn in public in front of a suitable JP, magistrate or court official. It was, of course, deliberate that the 'lawful' form excluded any attempt to keep information from those same authorities. The 'Tolpuddle' oath was, by definition, one that bound its swearer not to disclose that it was sworn. The Society and its Rules had no intrinsic need to be secret, as we will see, but it was the oath's intention to keep itself secret which caused certain authority figures to regard it, the Friendly Society for which it was sworn and its members as dangerous.
The particular wording used by those authorities to set up the 1834 trial came from the 1799 Seditious Societies Act. Amounting simply to keeping one's activities to oneself, the version put to the 1834 Dorset jury ran as follows:
purporting to bind the person taking the same not to inform or give evidence against any associate or other person charged with any unlawful combination, and not to reveal or discover any such unlawful combination, or any illegal act done or to be done, and not to discover any illegal oath which might be taken.662
The circularity of the 1799 prohibition is plain, as is the intention of the authorities in introducing such prohibitions. Although numerous 'experts' could be found to conclude that any attempt at secrecy indicated a conspiracy and that any conspiracy to raise wages brought the persons involved within the range of this Act, such a combination was, since 1824, lawful. If secret, it had not, however, been 'lawfully constituted', ie registered, therefore any oath it required not legitimately sworn was, by definition, unlawful.
But since such a society and its rules were intended to be kept secret, neither it nor its rules could be said to have been a disguise. LH's cannot have it both ways. They cannot claim that it was a disguised 'trade union', and that its members knew they had to keep it secret, and therefore labelled it a 'friendly society'. The title and the Rules (see below) were part of what was intended to be hidden and could not be a disguise for anything.
Perhaps the title of EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class was a disguised joke, referring to the ritual at the centre of fraternal history, but the Tolpuddle Society in question was for him a 'trade union' without qualification or suggestions of a disguise.663 On one occasion he asserted quite definitely: 'scores of tavern friendly societies were formed during the (Napoleonic) Wars, many of which were undoubtedly covers for trade union activity'.664 Not far away is the less certain:
While some of these societies were select sick-clubs of as few as twenty or thirty artisans, meeting at an inn, others were probably covers for trade union activity; while at Newcastle, as at Sheffield, it is possible that after the Two Acts the formation of friendly societies was used as a cover for Jacobin organisation.665 [My emphasis]
The 'Jacobin' could have taken him to Freemasonry. His index, without explanation there or in the text, refers searchers after 'Friendly Societies' to 'Benefit Societies' under which one finds 'Sunday School pupil's burial clubs'666, 'Female Trade Societies', all manner of artisan's 'sick clubs' and the following direct evidence about Luddite-era meetings:
Sometimes they were termed 'benefit societies', sometimes 'botanical meetings', 'meetings for the relief of the families of imprisoned reformers, or 'of those who had fled the country'; but their real purpose, divulged only to the initiated, was to carry into effect the night attack on Manchester.667 [My emphasis]
There is a vast difference between a meeting being held under a specious name and a society registered as a friendly society while being actually a 'trade union'. Government spies are unlikely to have been fooled by the publicised intention of a meeting if the objects of their attentions were involved. The 1801 'Second Report of the Committee of Secrecy' asserted that in Lancashire
Dangerous meetings were disguised as in London, under the appearance of friendly societies for the relief of sick members: the persuasion of a general revolution shortly to take place, and consequently the inefficacy of all resistance, was studiously diffused. 668
Maccoby dismissed this as 'a typical piece of unqualified Anti-Jacobin alarmism', in other words LH's have to recognise that the disguise argument started out in life as government propoganda.669
Also among the 'disguise' weaponry were letters to the Home Office from persons concerned that funds of 'benefit societies' were being used to carry members through times of no-work and/or to finance organisation. A draft Bill was circulated in Manchester in 1813 having for its object 'to prevent the Friendly Societies from being perverted to purposes of public mischief.'670 Rather than a sign of duplicity, argument within lodge over usage of funds is a sign of contention about the functions of 'benefit societies', a debate still running. 'Memorialists' insisting that meetings to consider 'trade' matters were being held under the pretext of being 'benefit societies', simply don't understand the phenomenon.
One such letter, dated 1802, tells of work committees of shearmen 'meeting every Wednesday' in a 'club' with stewards, clerks and president, where they naturally enough spoke angrily about their poor standard of living. The 'clerk' was the person in charge of issuing tramp cards for use throughout the Kingdom as well as collecting monies.671. Another, an 1817 letter from Kidderminster, asserted:
There are many Sick Clubs in this town, and nearly the whole of the men are members of them, and the funds are placed in the hands of the manufacturers and others at interest. As soon as the men struck, most of this money was called in for the purpose of maintaining the weavers out of employ, and it is feared a deal of it is spent.672
These are not disguises or frauds, these are instances of 'clubs' doing what their rules allowed, and intended. They were probably not registered and probably hoping the authorities wouldn't notice but that's a different issue.
There were certainly 'cover-ups' happening in these years. A known Luddite tried to become a Freemason 'for recruiting purposes' but was expelled.673 Activists were said to be 'worming' their way into 'convivial societies of every kind.'674 The Minutes of the 'Grand Committees of the Independent Order of Oddfellows, connected with the Manchester Unity' record an 1814 resolution 'That the Blucher Lodge be fined one guinea for making several characters, knowing them to be Luddites' and that 'the said characters be expelled from our Order, as also the Blucher Lodge, until the said fine be paid.'675
Williams in Merthyr Rising makes pertinent comment on the paradox that 'friendly societies' are often dismissed by LH's as 'respectable' and therefore irrelevant, and on the other hand are described as disguised 'trade unions.' In Wales, Williams, suggests, there were some societies which were 'generally favoured by ironmasters and magistrates as agents of respectability', there were some which on closer examination, 'may not have been as innocuous as they look' and there were others which would fall into both camps or neither.676
Summaries of alleged pre-1834 rites provided by the Webbs and Thompson is too general to be very useful. Using Thompson's version - the intending member being blindfolded, asked for the password, threatened with a sword, jostled about while 'thunder' sounded and 'lightning' flashed, exposed to an image of a skeleton and a Bible during which the members groaned, stamped their feet and sang hymns - contains precisely the elements which appear to be the most common to all but SF rites. The oath in this case, to the effect that for anyone violating its bonds of secrecy 'his soul may be burnt in the lowest pit of hell to all eternity', is similar to part of the oath allegedly sworn by GNCTU members (see below).677
Secrecy had been an essential element, from earliest times, of the process whereby authorised workmen, (such as 'Master Workman' and 'Fellow Craft') maintained an eye on the numbers and quality of persons entering the trade, and weeded out any considered unsuitable or superfluous, thus maintaining wages and working conditions at a preferred level. This process, dependent on small, but regular contributions which also assisted in stabilising or lifting wages678, needed internal disciplines.
Inside a combination, the methods used to obtain secrecy no doubt varied - from intimidation679 to use of the Bible to an ingrained respect for community customs learned over generations. Oaths were and are just one part of a process of secrecy and must not be separated from the accompanying passwords, ritual, regalia or the panoply of lodge officials who all have a part to play in the maintenance of discipline. While the details of the process may vary over time - surplices, death's heads, chains and ghostly noises - these are not the whole of the process, indeed are among the minor props. Nor do they, by themselves, tell us anything about the function of secrecy.
Details of the 'Tolpuddle' process of swearing are scanty in the transcripts of evidence but what there is aligns with the Thompson summary. An oath The Times says was 'taken by the men who become members of the Trades Union', by which is meant the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU), appeared on the very day the Tolpuddle arrests were made, 24 February. It contains some similarities to an SF oath in its prohibitions and penalty which is precisely where it's at odds with the 'Tolpuddle Rules'. Again, however, notice the use of 'loyal', 'legal/illegal' and the lack of any charge to do violence to any other person:
I do before Almighty God, and this loyal lodge, most solemnly swear that I will not work for any master that is not in the Union, nor will I work with any illegal man or men, but will do my best for the support of wages, and most solemnly swear to keep inviolate all the secrets of this order; nor will I ever consent to have any money for any purpose but for the lodge, and the support of the trade; nor will I write, or cause to be wrote, print, mark, either on stone, marble, brass, paper or sand, anything connected with this order, so help me God, and keep me steadfast to this my present obligation. And I further promise to do my best to bring all legal men that I am connected with into this order and if ever I reveal any of the rules may what is before me plunge my soul into eternity.680
The authorities of 1800 were unconcerned which 'combinations' were the enemy. They would have banned chapel choirs if they thought that these were influencing their constituents' economic advantages adversely. By 1834 such fears were seen by all but a few to be unnecessary. To those few the cities were probably already lost, at least were too hard. The Dorset labourers in combination threatened the power of one particular land-owner, who also happened to be the local magistrate. James Frampton was an extreme enthusiast for the status quo, he was related to the (then) Home Secretary Lord Melbourne who was also an arch-defender of the established order, and he, Frampton, had seen vigorous action as a 'Captain Swing' magistrate a few years earlier. Dorset then had been affected by disturbances and a Special Commission sitting there in 1831 had sentenced 12 men to transportation.681
The available evidence shows clearly that Frampton's 'group' which included magistrates, Established Church clergy and land-owners, cruelly and vindictively pursued their mostly Dissenting prey, that the juries (a Grand Jury and a 'petty' one) were stacked against the defendants, that the trial process was manipulated, that the Judge was hand-picked, and that the charge was contrived after the arrests. That Judge instructed the jury as follows:
If you are satisfied that an oath...was administered...by means of the prisoners, you ought to find them guilty...If you are satisfied from the evidence respecting the blinding, the kneeling, and the other facts proved, that an oath or obligation was imposed...you ought to find the prisoners guilty; and if you come to that conclusion, I wish you to state whether you are of opinion that the prisoners were united in a society.682
When the sentencing of the seven was announced The Times stated the crime to be 'administering unlawful oaths to promote the ends of that criminal and fearful spirit of combination which has seized like a pestilence on the working classes of this country.'683 The sentencing judge believed that no less than 'the security of the country and the maintenance of the law' were at issue:
Of the intentions of men it is impossible for man to judge...but there are cases in which...the necessary effect of the act done upon the public security is of such a nature that the safety of that public does require a penal example to be made; and if there is any case in which that observation applies, it surely is in a case where it is the object of men to withdraw themselves from the authority of the law, to submit themselves to no examination, and to have their conduct kept private and secret from the knowledge and observation of the rest of the world, including those persons who are bound by their oaths to maintain and administer the law.684
One question of moment here is whether the Tolpuddle society was, or was intended to be a one-off, ie what was the function of the secrecy? One presumes from the isolated rural setting, the small numbers of 'brethren' involved and the evidence seeming to show that Loveless and the others asked for and received their Rules from someone 'higher up', that this 'society' was just one, not-very-significant unit in a much larger whole, and that that whole was made up of a lot of similarly small, by themselves insignificant units. Thus, we might presume the 'Tolpuddle' Rules would be exactly the same as the Rules in those other units, except, perhaps, for a change of title and some reference to farm workers. The Rules 'captured' in Dorset might therefore provide a clear picture of what was happening, or was intended to happen organisationally, in many different parts of the country as the alleged 'mania' for combination took hold.
And because the Rules cannot be a disguise, and were communicated secretly, what they show must be what the society's initiators, whoever they were, believed was appropriate to their circumstances at the time. Marlowe's account says that Loveless went about 'collecting information about Friendly Societies' and that 2 delegates from the GNCTU addressed an October, 1833 meeting of Tolpuddle labourers and read out 'the Rules.'685
The Tolpuddle Rules as published run to 24 'General Laws' and 12 'By-Laws.' They are calm, logical and comprehensive, and relate directly to Dorset. They do not appear to be town society Rules, hastily and roughly adapted to 'the bush' and they do not assert that this is to be the 'Tolpuddle branch' of something larger. Quite the opposite - their appropriateness and the ambitious plans outlined mean that either Loveless worked on the model provided in line with his own intentions or that the people behind the larger enterprise were organising many similar, rural 'Orders' each of which was to be headed by a 'Grand Lodge'.
The Rules stipulated a 'grand committee' meeting in 'grand lodge' was to change in personnel every 3 months. They insisted on a need for legality while talking of 'standing out', ie striking. They emphasised each worker's responsibility to act with integrity and they described a non-violent penalty for breaking the oath of secrecy. The first Rules are:
1. That this society be called the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers.
2. That there be appointed a general or grand committee of management, not less than seven, and to that body shall be confided the affairs of the whole order, and nothing shall be legal or binding which does not proceed from them, or receive their sanction. One of the committee to be appointed corresponding secretary; one half of the committee to be elected every three months.
3. That the grand lodge shall be held at Tolpuddle.
The steady nature of the wording does not support the idea that Loveless was carried away with inappropriate enthusiasm. 'The Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers' was clearly intended to be a separate and unique 'Order', with a 'Grand Lodge' akin to 'Grand United Order of Odd Fellows', or the 'Ancient Order of Foresters' but occupation-specific. This is supported by the next.
4. That there shall be a lodge appointed in every parish, and a local committee, in order to insure regularity in the payment of allowances to families who may be standing out, and to prevent any kind of disappointment, to act under the general committee.
Note that it is families who 'stand out' (ie, go on strike) not society members.
5. That at their grand lodge all remittances shall be made of all making money [ie, initiation fees] and contributions, after deducting the necessary expenses of each lodge...(more).
6. That the contributions be fixed at 1d per week...(more).
9. That no member shall be required to pay contributions during the time he may be sick or out of employ.
11. That in all lodges there shall be a president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer, conductor, warden, outside and inside guardian.
14. That all lodges be opened once a fortnight for the transaction of business.
15. That there shall be one pass-word into all lodges after this order, to be changed once a quarter, and to proceed from the grand lodge.
16. That no obscenity shall be tolerated in either songs or toasts, and that no political or religious subjects be introduced during lodge hours.
19. That no place shall turn out for an advance of wages without the consent of the grand lodge.
20. That if any master attempts to reduce the wages of his workmen, if they are members of this order they shall instantly communicate the same to the corresponding secretary, in order that they may receive the support of the grand lodge; and in the meantime they shall use their utmost endeavours to finish the work they may have in hand, if any, and shall assist each other, so that they may all leave the place together and with as much prompitude as possible.
21. That if any member of this society renders himself obnoxious to his employer soley on account of his taking an active part in the affairs of this order, and is guilty of no violation or insult to his master, and shall be discharged from his employment soley in consequence thereof, either before or after the turn out - then the whole body of men at that place shall instantly leave the place, and no member of this society shall be allowed to take work at that place until such member be reinstated in his situation.
22. That if any member of this order shall divulge any of the secrets or violate the objects of the same, his name and a description of his person and crime shall immediately be communicated to all lodges throughout the county, and if such person gets work at any place where a lodge is established, or where men belonging to this order are working, they shall decline to work with such an individual, shall instantly leave the place, and shall receive the support of the grand lodge as if they were turned out against the reduction of wages.
23. That the object of this society can never be promoted by any...acts of violence.
The By-laws relate to internal lodge workings, such as pass words, 'inward signs', regalia, the box with multiple keys and when the word 'brother' shall be used. In Van Dieman's Land later in 1834 Loveless said that the Tolpuddle lodge password had been 'Either Hand or Heart'.686 There are no resemblances here to SF except in very general terms and there appears to be only one rite - that of admission - thus no degree structure, let alone seven. The 'Tolpuddle' regalia was not given in detail but does not appear to have involved aprons. His confident use of white surplice ('loose, white linen vestment' - dictionary) at the 1834 initiation, and his preparation, locally, of a painting of Death/Father Time beforehand indicates Loveless was by then at least conversant with the role of common, basic items of admission into 'benefit societies'. That he and a number of his 'brothers' were Methodist lay-preachers and happily conducting ritual, perhaps in 'ludicrous and grotesque dresses', just when the public wearing apparel of even the most 'gay' man was diving from colour and adornment into severe, conformist black is more surprising. The titles of the lodge officers - president, vice-president, etc - strengthen the argument about a non-SF line of evolution, which nevertheless employs 'Grand Master, Grand Secretary, etc' in a 'Grand Lodge.'
If these are the Rules of a 'trade union', then 'trade unions' were normally organised in this way, ie with 'grand lodges', 'makings', 'inward signs' [ie grips] and were normally called 'Friendly Society.' If it's disguised to resemble a 'friendly society', the mask is extraordinary. The third option is that it is what it says it is, both a 'trade union' and a 'friendly society', ie a trade-specific 'benefit society'. A captured letter from Loveless to someone living close by who carried out the 'making' ceremony,687 shows that no-one involved was surprised by any of the society's features:
We met this evening for the purpose of forming our committee. There was 16 present, of whom 10 was chosen - namely a president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer, warden, conductor, three outside guardians, and one inside guardian. All seemed united in heart, and expressed his approval of the meeting. Father and Hallett wished very much to join us, but wish it not to be known. I advised them to come Tuesday evening at 6 o'clock, and I would send for you to come at that time, if possible, and enter them, that they may be gone before the company come. I received a note this morning which gave me great encouragement, and I am led to acknowledge the force of union.
No-where in the contemporary material about the 1834 trial is there any suggestion that the Dorset labourers were operating a disguised 'trade union.' The authorities, and propogandists such as The Times, invariably use the word 'combination' to refer to all workers' organisations. Palmer's Index to the Times for this period provides no entry for 'friendly society' at all. The Tolpuddle case is listed under 'Trades Union'. Numerous contemporary pamphlets and review articles refer to 'combinations' or 'Trade Unions'.688
Neither was there was any suggestion of a disguise where it might have been expected, amongst the supporters of the aggrieved. The first protest meeting, just days after the sentencing, was publicised as the 'Grand Meeting in Favour of the Agricultural Unionists Convicted at Dorchester.'689 And before the massive petition for release was presented to Parliament a printed pamphlet was circulated extolling the virtues of a 'Grand Union Mart' stocked 'with every article on which Labour could employ itself' by way of the 'Union Fund' at present being used to feed unemployed or sick members.690 All of which suggests that 'friendly society' and 'trade union' were not differentiated by the participants on either side of this industrial conflict.
The questions of whether and why a legal 'trade union' would disguise itself as a 'friendly society' and whether the shared, fraternal history occupies more than a handful of years, can be further tested by asking about the location of power within the network of 1830's combinations, specifically whether Owen or one of the Central Committee could dictate what each and every individual lodge officer and ordinary member was to do across the length and breadth of the UK. If logically it is seen that even the Committee as a whole could not have done so, even had it wished to, then some other source for the ritual, oath, aprons, etc, has to be found. And if it is accepted that the shared history was in place prior to Owen and the GNCTU, prior even to 1799, then to have 'Owenism' manifest so broadly and with so little apparent organisational effort requires that the source be of long-standing cultural proportions and derived from deeply-held societal beliefs and attitudes.
Owen's philosophy has been labelled 'Co-operative Socialism' but he was uninterested in parliamentary reforms or the minutiae of daily struggles. Strongly opposed to all established religion he was interested in a new religion of Enlightenment values and natural law. This would suggest to some an exposure to Freemasonry,691 especially as residents of New Harmony, a major Owenite settlement in the USA, produced a Philanthropic Lodge of (Free)Masons.692 Harrison's excellent book on Owen and Owenism, does not mention Freemasonry, but notes Owen beginning to use biblical expressions from 1816, and declaring that while he did not know what meaning people would attach to the term 'Millenium', he was sure that a society 'free from crime, poverty and misery was universally feasible.' According to Harrison, for most practical purposes it made little difference whether an Owenite was 'a deist, a Freethinker or a member of some rationalist Protestant sect' - the foundation of their belief was 'the application of natural law to religion.'693 More specifically, in 1833 Owen intended that
national arrangements shall be formed to include all the working classes in the great organisation...All trades shall first form associations of lodges...[My emphasis]694
This was 'his new conception of future developments' in October, 1833, and while what Harrison calls the 'trade union phase of Owenism' had been building over the five years, 1829-1834, the GNCTU itself was not established until February, 1834. Harrison shows that it was only in late 1833 that 'all trade unions, co-operative societies, benefit societies "and all other associations intended for the improvement of the working classes" were advised to form lodges'. This can be seen either as an 1833-imposition or as an attempt to bring all new combinations to a situation already occupied by 'old' ones, in other words an attempt to reinvigorate the guild system.
Owen's reported comment that prevailing lodge ritual was 'wrapped in relics of barbarism' does not necessarily conflict with Postgate's claim that he 'pragmatically' wrote ritual into the Rules of the GNCTU and for the same reason accepted the title of 'Grand Master'.695 Bestor's study of the United States-based Owenite communities argues that the period of 1829-34 was an unwanted distraction in Owen's advocacy of communitarianism and that as soon as the trial was behind him he returned to it.696 Since it seems pretty clear they didn't come from him, his use of lodge rites and structure show his pragmatism over-rode any distaste and that he simply adopted what was already available.
Rule 1 of the GNCTU 'Rules and Regulations', printed 1834, reads:
Each Trade in this Consolidated Union shall have its Grand Lodge in that town or city most eligible for it; such Grand Lodge to be governed internally by a Grand Master, Deputy Grand Master, and Grand Secretary, and a Committee of Management.697
The 'Tolpuddle Grand Lodge' according to the above letter did not include 'Grand Master', 'Deputy Grand Master', etc. The Tolpuddle arrangement does not conflict with the GNCTU advice, but it remains difficult to see Tolpuddle as the 'city or town' most eligible for a 'Grand Lodge.' In any event, it would appear that Loveless, whether he really began 'collecting information on friendly societies' quite innocently late in 1833 or not, became caught up in the frenetic whirlwind of Owenite activity that quickly over-reached itself and had already collapsed by August the following year, when he arrived in chains in Van Dieman's Land.
However, it is simply not possible that a complex lodge structure, its ritual and all the trappings highlighted at this time could have been invented by Owen or his Committee and imposed without comment or controversy. Whatever control of its hundreds of thousands of members Owen or the collective GNCTU might have had - Harrison describes membership as locally autonomous with 'distinctive (district) organisation and leadership'698 - there is no way that Owen himself or his most ardent followers could have created, distributed and/or paid for the multitude of differentiated collars, ribands/sashes, wands, surplices, rosettes, etc, etc, in use by April, 1834. Neither is it possible that the language of 'lodges' and 'Grand Lodges' could be accidentally common to trade societies and non-trade societies alike, nor that it could simply drop out of the sky, as in a bright idea, suddenly imposed.
Owen had no background in radical politics and his 'trade union phase' could not have occurred if he had not been prepared to listen to and meld with people in the area of work-related politics, for example, the two architect co-operators, Hansom and Welch who persuaded 'their' Grand Lodge of the Builders' Union in September, 1833 to give Owen a hearing and to work in with his plans by forming the Grand National Guild of Builders.699
Remember the earlier letters, eg, one to the Home Office in 1817 gave detailed information about the 'clubs' of London Tailors meeting every Tuesday to elect delegates who then met every Thursday to decide resolutions which went back to the 'club' meetings the following Tuesday. Sentinels at the door, passwords and codes maintained secrecy. Further:
Upon any extraordinary occasion each union of trade [sic] elect confidential delegates to meet and form a Grand Union of all the Clubs> of journeymen, of different trades, who then select of their number, one confidential as representative of their trade, which trade may have 80 Clubs. These delegates or representatives of each trade then communicate their Resolutions to their constituents.700 (My emphasis)
Despite all these clues, it is extraordinary that Owen's personal involvement in fraternities before 1829 has not yet been explored, nor that of the people with whom he was working, even though his theories have been exposed to lengthy and repeated scrutiny.
On the street, his vision of a world in which all 'men' were treated equally, for him meaning a reconciliation of employer and employee into an harmonious co-operation of mind and body, was alien to many of his listeners by being overblown, soft-headed and unnecessary. The vision's organisational details, on the other hand, were understood immediately by lay-preachers, trade activists, readers of Thomas Paine or Freemasons, that is to say, by advocates of disparate approaches that have come down to us as incompatible.
Ultimately, the Government did very little to suppress 'combinations', Lord Melbourne believing, along with Place, that 'trade unions' would die out if left alone.701 A letter to the then Prime Minister supports the idea that it was the returning dilemma of the Orange Societies in 1835 which opened the way for a pardon of the Tolpuddle transportees. The then Home Secretary, Lord John Russell admitted that 'To be sure the Duke of Cumberland and the Duke of Gordon [both high Orange officers] are far more guilty than the labourers, but the law does not reach them I fear.' As Prescott says, 'The labourers were pardoned shortly after.'702
The Tolpuddle Trial was not the last in which workers received transportation sentences for belonging to an 'illegal' combination, but later prosecution shifted to concern for alleged murderous and vicious behaviour by strikers, rather than with any oath-swearing. A case dismissed in July, 1834, involving 16 Exeter men and 'an illegal oath'703 is further proof that the six at Tolpuddle suffered more from an unfortunate combination of circumstances than a systematic, Government policy.