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Trade Outrages and Trade Unionism

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Sheffield has been one of the chief homes of Trade Unionism ever since the modern period of steam-worked industry began. As early as 1720 there is a record of a Union. It was formed by the tailors and called a sick club, but it had as one of its objects the limitation of labour to twelve hours a day. Similar benefit societies were formed by other trades - the Cutlers in 1732, and the Grinders in 1748. In 1786 there were fifty-two of these societies in Sheffield, and when the Infirmary was opened in 1797, thirty-six societies sent in their names as wishing to join in the procession.

Many of these societies were no doubt a means of association of workmen together for trade purposes in times when "combination" was unlawful. The employers, however, combined in open defiance of the law. Thus, in 1790, the master scissors-smiths combined and subscribed a fund to prosecute scissors-grinders who had combined to raise the price of labour; and five of the grinders were sent to prison on the charge, four for three months, and the other for one month.

In 1814, four hundred merchants and master-manufacturers met and formed the "Sheffield Mercantile and Manufacturing Union." A sum of 6,750 was subscribed, and the members bound themselves not to employ, under a penalty of 100, any workman who could be proved to have contributed to the support of any person who had "discontinued his work for an advance of wages." They also agreed to facilitate the importation of labour, and to ask the overseers of the poor to refuse relief to any men holding out for higher wages. They further (while thus combining themselves) "respectfully entreated the magistrates to put the laws in force against all persons who are found guilty of combinations and conspiracies." Certain grinders were at once imprisoned, and many other prosecutions followed. It is only fair to say there were Sheffield manufacturers who protested against these proceedings. No wonder that when, in 1824, the laws against combination were relaxed, Sheffield was one of the towns loudest in its rejoicing. Later, both masters and workmen agreed as to the advantages of the new freedom that had been granted.

In 1859, all the Sheffield trade societies were formed into a federation under the name of the "Association of Organized Trades," the treasurer being William Broadhead. This society lasted till 1866, when it was merged in the "United Kingdom Alliance of Organized Trades," which had its headquarters in Sheffield, the town thus becoming the national centre for Trade Unionism. William Dronfield was the secretary. It is necessary to explain this to understand how great was the importance of the trade outrages which arose in the city. If anything wrong happened in the Labour world of Sheffield, it affected Labour throughout the whole country, because of the leading part taken by Sheffield.

From 1820 onward there had been outbreaks of violence in the Sheffield district against unpopular employers, and against workmen who were distrusted by the men's societies. This attempt to gain certain ends by force and terrorism - a plan that always has failed and always must fail, for, if it ever succeeded, society would be at the mercy of ruffianism - was practically confined to the grinders. But still it went on. It became worse in the early forties, gunpowder being used to blow up the wheels of unpopular men. The leaders of the men's societies denounced these outrages, and one of the loudest in denunciation was William Broadhead, secretary of the Saw-Grinders. The leaders, however, did not discountenance "rattening," or pilfering the tools of men who would not join the society - a practice that had become something like a custom in the trade.

In 1843 a gunpowder bomb was exploded at the Globe Works, and though large rewards were offered for the discovery of the accomplices, no one was found out. Other similar outrages followed. In 1845 there was a public debate on the subject between masters and men. At this debate forty-four outrages were quoted against the men, who, however, disclaimed the use of violence. But the outrages continued.

At the end of 1846 a determined attempt was made to suppress "rattening," and two razor-grinders were sentenced to seven years' transportation. They threw the blame on four officials of their Union, who were prosecuted and sentenced to ten years' transportation. The offences for which these severe sentences were passed were comparatively trivial, and popular feeling was with the condemned men. On appeal, a new trial was ordered, and the prisoners were discharged on condition that they should come up for judgment if called upon.

The serious outrages died down for a while, but burst out from time to time. In 1854 they took the form of shooting non-unionist grinders, and, in 1866, blowing up houses with gunpowder. In this latter case a united effort was made to discover the offenders, and 1,240 was offered for information. The manufacturers gave 1,000; the Government, 100; the Organised Trades 100; the Saw Grinders, 10; and William Broadhead, who kept a, public-house in Carver Street, 5. Still, nobody was found out.

It was clear that only by the confession of those who were concerned would the mystery of the outrages be cleared up. Early in 1867 a Commission of Inquiry was formed by the Government, and to it, by Act of Parliament, special powers were granted, to enforce full disclosures, but to grant freedom from punishment to all who gave honest evidence, even if they revealed their own guilt. As a matter of fact, some of the trusted leaders of the men's societies, including Robert Applegarth and William Dronneld, were consulted by the Government, and this was what they advised.

The result was a rive weeks' inquiry in Sheffield by three special examiners, which ended in the admission by two saw-grinders that they had been guilty of murder by shooting, of the explosive outrages, and many cases of rattening; and that they had been commissioned to commit these crimes by William Broadhead, who paid them from the funds of the Saw Grinders' Union. Broadhead himself admitted the truth of these confessions.

Out of sixty trade societies in Sheffield, thirteen were shown to be in some degree involved in the outrages or systematic rattening. Of these, nine were Grinders' societies. Nearly all the worst outrages were planned by Broadhead, and the expenses were paid by 200 out of the Saw Grinders' funds. The examiners kept their word, and the guilty men who had confessed were not prosecuted. With this inquiry trade outrages ceased.

The case as it affected the general body of Trade Unionists is fairly summed up by Professor Lloyd in his book, The Cutlery Trades. He says - "Broadly speaking, the result of the outrages inquiry was to vindicate trade-unionism in Sheffield, in the sense that the many grave crimes were shown to have been the work of a few clever and unscrupulous scoundrels such as Broadhead, and they were further shown to be utterly abhorrent to the great body of workers. It must also be remembered that trade-unionism in Sheffield, both before and since, has produced many leaders of the highest type, and that even at this unhappy epoch the principal leader of the local labour movement was not Broadhead but William Dronfield, whose work and whose character were never impugned, but, on the contrary, commanded universal respect and admiration."

It is a sad story of wrong-doing and suffering and failure, which brought only discredit, with no gain, to those who defied the law; as all such violence must do in the end, whenever people try to terrorise men instead of convincing them.

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Sheffield from the Attercliffe Road
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