British Parliament Repeals the Combination Acts Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Motivated by a fear of revolution, the government of William Pitt the Younger passed the Combination Acts in 1799 and 1800, outlawing trade unions or any form of collective bargaining in Great Britain. In 1824, active organizing by proponents of unions led Parliament to repeal the acts.

Summary of Event

The last decade of the eighteenth century was a time of turmoil in Europe. The French Revolution French Revolution (1789);aftermath of 1789, rapidly fluctuating prices, and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution Industrial Revolution had combined to create social and economic uncertainty. Manufacturing workers, both those in factories and those still in small workshops, sought ways to improve their lives, particularly through collective action. They sought to improve the wages and hours they worked, but they were beset by legal obstacles, including laws regulating or forbidding collective action by workers in individual industries. Workers continued to band together despite these laws, and the government of William Pitt Pitt, William, the Younger the Younger, fearful that such combinations could become the basis for a political revolution, passed the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800, forbidding the formation of workers’ collective organizations and threatening them with prosecution. Combination Acts of 1799-1800 Great Britain;trade unions [kw]British Parliament Repeals the Combination Acts (1824) [kw]Parliament Repeals the Combination Acts, British (1824) [kw]Repeals the Combination Acts, British Parliament (1824) [kw]Combination Acts, British Parliament Repeals the (1824) [kw]Acts, British Parliament Repeals the Combination (1824) Combination Acts of 1799-1800 Great Britain;trade unions [g]Great Britain;1824: British Parliament Repeals the Combination Acts[1250] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;1824: British Parliament Repeals the Combination Acts[1250] [c]Government and politics;1824: British Parliament Repeals the Combination Acts[1250] [c]Business and labor;1824: British Parliament Repeals the Combination Acts[1250] [c]Social issues and reform;1824: British Parliament Repeals the Combination Acts[1250] [c]Civil rights and liberties;1824: British Parliament Repeals the Combination Acts[1250] Hume, Joseph Huskisson, William Pitt, William, the Younger Place, Francis

At the time the Combination Acts were passed, there were already many laws and rules directed at workers’ combinations. If a group organized a strike that resulted in work already contracted being left unfinished, its members could be prosecuted for breach of contract, particularly because the old apprenticeship rules forbade leaving work unfinished. Under the common law, moreover, such workers could also be prosecuted for conspiracy. The result was that many trade unions went underground, meeting in secret and keeping their membership lists secret. The greatest obstacle to legal action against unions was that, under existing law, an employer had to instigate proceedings before the authorities could intervene.

A second factor behind the industrial unrest of the period was the rapid technological change then occurring, which, by 1810, had begun to spark riots and other mob actions protesting the introduction of labor-saving machinery. This unrest, commonly referred to as “Luddism” Luddites (from the name of a possibly mythical leader of the protest movement, King Ludd), was particularly violent in the Nottingham region, among the makers of stockings. Stocking manufacturers were introducing machines called stocking frames in their factories, greatly increasing their output without any increase in the number of employees. Indeed, in some cases, the increase in productivity led manufacturers to eliminate jobs. Several of the new machines were destroyed by Luddite mobs, until a law passed in 1812 made frame breaking a capital offense. Similar protests occurred in the West Riding of Yorkshire when cloth manufacturers introduced gig mills and shearing frames, which increased productivity in “cropping,” or finishing, cloth. Meanwhile, in southern Lancashire, cotton cloth weavers began to protest the introduction of new, more productive looms.

In response to this industrial unrest, Parliament undertook to modernize the laws on the books governing labor relations. The most important of these was the Statute of Artificers, governing apprenticeships, which dated back to Elizabethan times. Such laws were modernized to respond not only to unrest but also to new economic thinking, sparked in particular by the work of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, who espoused the view that the market was the only force that could properly determine the price of labor. Thus, the old rules that restrained production, such as those governing apprenticeships, needed to go. The Statute of Artificers was accordingly repealed in 1814.

At the same time, despite the restrictions on the formation of unions, activists such as Francis Place Place, Francis , a self-educated tailor who exercised a profound influence on labor relations, began to change public opinion. Place believed that workers ought to have the right to organize unions in order to gain equivalence in their relations with employers, although he doubted that negotiated wages could be sustained if they departed markedly from the prevailing wage determined by the market. Place was particularly influential in publicizing the conditions of labor and in organizing groups asking for repeal of the Combination Acts and the legalization of trade unions.

By the 1820’s, despite or perhaps because of the fact that the national government was dominated by the Tories, who chiefly represented landowners, conditions had become ripe for action on the Combination Acts. Parliament was receiving petitions from groups of workers asking for the right to organize unions. Radical members of Parliament were able to exploit the division in Parliament between the majority Tories, who supported landowners, and the Liberals, who supported industrial employers. These radicals, under the leadership of Joseph Hume Hume, Joseph and working closely with Francis Place Place, Francis , began to introduce legislation that would abolish the Combination Acts and free the workers to organize legally.

When Hume stated his intention to introduce a bill abolishing the Combination Acts, the Tory-controlled government, through William Huskisson, Huskisson, William the president of the Great Britain;Board of Trade Board of Trade, agreed to appoint a select committee of the House of Commons to look into the issue. By carefully selecting the witnesses appearing before the committee, Hume and Place were able to ensure that the committee only heard testimony supporting repeal. A bill repealing the Combination Acts was then introduced into the House of Commons by Joseph Hume Hume, Joseph , and—perhaps because of the careful preparation of the testimony before the committee—it passed in the 1824 session, almost without discussion. The 1824 law did more than repeal the statutes prohibiting collective bargaining: It also abolished the common law rule against conspiracies as applied to unions—perhaps its most important feature. It freed unions as well from prosecution if they called a strike that prevented the completion of work under contract.


The law of 1824 legalizing union activity unleashed a wave of union actions in Great Britain. Notably in Scotland, coal miners Coal mining;in Scotland[Scotland] created a union embracing workers at many mines. This union was able to negotiate substantial wage increases, through strikes or the threat of strikes, in some cases boosting wages by as much as 80 percent. The owners responded by hiring “blacklegs,” or nonunion workers, but they aroused public opinion sufficiently that Parliament was inspired to revise the legislation of 1824. The revised law of 1825 restored the application of the common law against conspiracies to unions and employers in some circumstances, but it left in place the right of the unions to negotiate with respect to wages and hours. Merely belonging to a union was no longer an illegal act. Thus, unions were freed from the risk of prosecution, though their members were not necessarily free from the possibility of legal action being taken against them. Under the still existing Masters and Servants Law, individual workers could be prosecuted for leaving a task unfinished. As long as unions did not attempt to “intimidate” employers, however, they were free to exist.

The repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824, even with the modification in 1825, recognized that the relations between workers and employers would henceforth be determined by collective action rather than the individual relationships that had defined the rules governing masters and apprentices from the Middle Ages. The new laws reflected the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, which grouped together workers in factories rather than the small workshops that had previously dominated British labor. These new laws and their resulting rules and regulations dominated labor relations in Great Britain until a more liberal regime was introduced after 1870.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Halévy, Élie. The Liberal Awakening, 1815-1830. Vol. 2 in A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century. Translated by E. I. Watkin. 2d rev. ed. New York: Peter Smith, 1949. This volume of Halévy’s classic history of Britain during the nineteenth century contains numerous details of the fight to repeal the Combination Acts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harris, Ron. “Government and the Economy, 1688-1850.” In The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, edited by Roderick Floud and Paul Johnson. 3 vols. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Contains a short section under “Regulation” that neatly summarizes British law on unions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miles, Dudley. Francis Place, 1771-1854: The Life of a Remarkable Radical. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. This comprehensive biography of Francis Place is indispensable for understanding the complex public relations campaign that led up to the repeal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rule, John, ed. British Trade Unionism, 1750-1850. London: Longman, 1988. This compilation of a variety of articles dealing with the development of trade unions during this period contains some useful details.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stevenson, John. Popular Disturbances in England, 1700-1832. 2d ed. London: Longman, 1992. Traces the role of worker protests leading up to the imposition of the Combination Acts in 1799 and 1800.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1963. The classic Marxist treatment of modern British history; contains many useful details.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodward, E. L. The Age of Reform, 1815-1870. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1939. Full of useful details, particularly regarding the process of reform in Parliament.

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