Great Britain’s First Trades Union Congress Forms Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The organization of British trade unions had received a number of setbacks in the first part of the nineteenth century. It was not until 1868 that a small group of trade union leaders were able to call together a small number of delegates from other unions around the country to form the Trades Union Congress, to discuss common problems and concerns.

Summary of Event

British trade unionism enjoyed mixed fortunes during the nineteenth century. At first prohibited, then enjoying a sudden mushrooming growth in the 1830’s, it collapsed in the 1840’s. A much slower growth in the 1850’s by the unions representing skilled craftsmen established a more solid foundation on which to build a labor movement that by the end of the century numbered many millions of workers, skilled and unskilled, from all over Great Britain. The calling of the first Trades Union Congress was a significant event contributing to this later development. Great Britain;trade unions Trades Union Congress Potter, George London;trade unions [kw]Great Britain’s First Trades Union Congress Forms (June 2, 1868) [kw]Britain’s First Trades Union Congress Forms, Great (June 2, 1868) [kw]First Trades Union Congress Forms, Great Britain’s (June 2, 1868) [kw]First Trades Union Congress Forms, Great Britain’s (June 2, 1868) [kw]Trades Union Congress Forms, Great Britain’s First (June 2, 1868) [kw]Union Congress Forms, Great Britain’s First Trades (June 2, 1868) [kw]Forms, Great Britain’s First Trades Union Congress (June 2, 1868) [kw]Forms, Great Britain’s First Trades Union Congress (June 2, 1868) Great Britain;trade unions Trades Union Congress Potter, George London;trade unions [g]Great Britain;June 2, 1868: Great Britain’s First Trades Union Congress Forms[4190] [c]Business and labor;June 2, 1868: Great Britain’s First Trades Union Congress Forms[4190] [c]Organizations and institutions;June 2, 1868: Great Britain’s First Trades Union Congress Forms[4190] Howell, George Allan, William

The Combination Acts Combination Acts of 1799-1800 introduced by the government of William Pitt the Younger Pitt, William, the Younger in 1799-1800 effectively prohibited all unions of working men. When they were repealed in 1824, there was a sudden surge of union activity. Workers formed large local unions, such as the National Union of Cotton Spinners formed in 1829, based in Lancashire. There were demands for higher wages, often backed by strikes that sometimes became quite violent. Robert Owen, a visionary industrialist, tried to unite the unions into his Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, which gained one-half million members in a few weeks after its founding in 1833. It had a radical political program, however, and immediately incurred government hostility.

Cartoon by John Tenniel (1820-1914)—who illustrated the first edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)—published in Punch in 1867. The cartoon is captioned “The Road to Sheffield” and has the policeman (with the face of Punch) saying, “Now, then, stop that, I say! We’ll have no intimidation here.”

In 1834, five members of an agricultural union were arrested and deported for their union membership. The case of these so-called Tolpuddle Martyrs was followed in 1837 by the arrest and imprisonment of the leaders of the Glasgow Cotton Spinners. In response to the realization of their lack of legal immunity, a downturn in the economy, and their own poor organization, the membership of Owen’s union quickly dissolved. Reforming zeal transferred itself to the overtly political Chartist movement and later to the Cooperative movement and the Reform League. The latter succeeded in achieving passage of the 1867 Reform Act.

The British economy did not pick up until the 1850’s, a decade that saw the emergence of “model” unions, formed by the national amalgamation of local unions of skilled workmen. These unions acted more like medieval guilds, protecting the craft element of their trade and eschewing strike action in favor of negotiation and arbitration. Although they avoided political activity, they made contacts with sympathetic members of Parliament and soon gained a reputation for respectability. The leading model union was the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, founded in 1851 and led by William Allan Allan, William . The visionary Robert Applegarth Applegarth, Robert led the Carpenters and Joiners Union, which had ten thousand members by 1870.

Much union activity remained at a local level, where interunion cooperation was organized through local trade councils. The leading such council, formed in 1860, was in London, where many skilled union organizers worked and where many unions had their headquarters. Five leaders emerged, including Allan, Applegarth, and George Odger, leader of the Shoemakers’ Union, a brilliant orator and part-time secretary for the London Trades Council. These were later named the Junta: They met secretly, forming a larger grouping called the Confederation of Amalgamated Trades (CAT). By and large, CAT policy was for unions to register as friendly societies, legal bodies set up for the common welfare of their members. However, not all London unionists agreed. George Potter Potter, George , the militant leader of the Progressive Carpenters, had been involved in strike action in 1859-1860, and in his newspaper, the Beehive, opposed unions registering as friendly societies in order to gain legal legitimacy.

In an effort to heal this division, especially in the light of a hostile 1867 report by the Royal Commission on Trades Unions and Employers’ Associations, the Manchester and Salford Trades Council, led by Sam Nicholson, sent out a letter on February 21, 1868, proposing a “Congress of Trades Councils” and inviting delegates from such councils and also from individual trade unions or federations to a meeting in London on May 4. The meeting was later postponed until June 2, 1868, to provide its participants with more time to prepare. The term “congress” was taken from the Social Sciences Associations’ Congress, which met annually to discuss papers of common concern. Twelve items for discussion were proposed for the first meeting, including regulation of the hours of labor, technical education, arbitration and courts of reconciliation, and the necessity of an annual congress.

Thirty-four delegates accepted the invitation, mainly from the provincial trade councils. The London Junta initially opposed the meeting, as did George Potter, and only two delegates from London attended. No formal organization was set up at the first congress, but it was recommended that the congress be held annually. The Birmingham Trades Council was asked to arrange the next congress in Birmingham, which turned out to be a more successful representation of British trade unionism.

Government and public hostility to unions was being fueled at that time by the “Sheffield outrages,” a set of pro-union acts of violence committed in Sheffield that culminated in an anti-union home being blown up with gunpowder. A labor backlash against the public’s hostility, however, brought disparate union factions together, and both the London Trades Council and George Potter’s group were represented at the Birmingham meeting as a result. All told, the forty delegates present in 1869 represented one-quarter million workers.

The London Trades Council was invited to arrange the third Trades Union Congress, where a basic organization for the congress was established. George Potter became chairman, George Howell Howell, George was made secretary, and William Allan Allan, William assumed the post of treasurer. A political advisory group called the Parliamentary Action Committee was also formed, which was to have great influence at future Royal Commission hearings. The Parliamentary Action Committee of the Trades Union Congress effectively took over from the Junta, which dissolved itself.


A number of significant developments followed the organization of the Trades Union Congress (TUC). At a political level, a number of acts of Parliament followed, most based on Royal Commission reports in which TUC opinion was well represented. The most significant pieces of legislation were the 1871 Trades Union Act, giving the unions a legal basis, although the Criminal Law Amendment Act of the same year still curbed trade union activity; the 1875 Employer and Worker Act, which gave employees equal legal status with employers and decriminalized breaches of contract; and the 1875 Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act, which allowed for peaceful picketing.

In the 1874 national elections, the Parliamentary Action Committee canvassed every candidate on his views on trade unions, and several candidates in that election stood explicitly representing trade unionism. Gradually, individual members of Parliament were elected with the backing of the trade unions. The first of these were Radicals, but in the 1890’s, the unions backed several candidates of the nascent Labour Party.

In terms of union membership, the success of the model unions encouraged semiskilled and unskilled workers to demand unions for themselves. For example, in 1872, Joseph Arch established the National Agricultural Labourers Union. By the 1880’s, such unions had become part of the TUC and led to its rapid expansion. The annual congress became a very significant meeting over the next century. Indeed, in the decades after World War II, TUC meetings could significantly influence government policy, especially that of Labour governments. The TUC secretary general became as important as any government cabinet minister.

Although its influence declined beginning in the 1980’s, the TUC is still a significant influence in British labor relations and legislation. The non-Marxist socialism its founders embraced, its focus on nonpolitical activity, and its mature early leadership contributed to the reputations of British trade unionism in general and of the TUC in particular. The TUC assumed a central and respected place among British institutions and avoided the divisiveness of extreme left-wing politics or the corruption of power that bedeviled the trade union movements of some other countries.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fraser, W. Hamish. A History of British Trade Unionism, 1700-1998. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. A very useful survey of the full extent of the trade union movement in Great Britain and the role of the TUC in that movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, Michael P. Trade Unions. New York: Longman, 1982. A good introductory survey of the history and importance of trade unions with full bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laybourn, Keith. A History of British Trades Unionism. Stroud, England: Sutton, 1992. A history of trade unionism, setting the first Trades Union Congress in its historical context and explaining its significance to the movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Musson, A. E. British Trades Unions, 1800-1875. Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Macmillans, 1972. A more traditional account of the rise of the trade unions and events leading up to the first Trades Union Congress.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pelling, H. A History of British Trades Unionism. London: Penguin Books, 1963. Still one of the best introductory accounts of the subject; discusses the history of the labor movement and the role of trade unionism within the larger movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reid, Alistair J. United We Stand: A History of Britain’s Trade Unions. London: Allen Lane, 2004. An extremely full account of the history of trade unionism and the significance of the first Trades Union Congress.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rule, John, ed. British Trade Unionism, 1750-1850. New York: Longman, 1988. A collection of detailed essays describing the events that led up to the first Trades Union Congress.

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British Parliament Repeals the Combination Acts

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First International Is Founded

British Parliament Passes the Reform Act of 1867

American Federation of Labor Is Founded

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Hardie Becomes Parliament’s First Labour Member

British Labour Party Is Formed

Related Article in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Robert Owen. Great Britain;trade unions Trades Union Congress Potter, George London;trade unions

Categories: History