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Trades Combinations


Trades Combinations - Strike of the Cotton Spinners' Association at Glasgow - Arrest of the Secret Committee - Organised Assassination- Oath of the Association - The Cotton Spinners' Trial - The Policy of Strikes; Encouraged by the Masters; their General Success - The Darg - English Parties - Ireland the Cardinal Point of English Politics - Meeting of Parliament - The Queen's Speech - Illegal Meetings - Chartism; its Rise and Progress - The Six Points - Speech of Mr. Stephens - Communism - The Chartist Petition - Chartist Demonstrations - Grand Moral Demonstration on Kersal Moor - Chartist Propositions - Chartist Riots at Birmingham - Arrest of Dr. Taylor - More Riots at Birmingham - Chartist Meetings at Manchester - Forced Contributions - Letter of the Home Secretary - The Sacred Month Abandoned - Meeting at Kennington Common - Chartist Trials at Chester - Trial of Mr. Stephens - Dissolution of the National Convention - The Monmouth Insurrection - Frost, Williams, and Jones - Trial and Sentence of the Prisoners.
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It has been well remarked by a Conservative historian that "combinations are the natural resource of the weak against the strong, of the poor against the rich, the oppressed against the oppressors." They have been known in all countries, and in all ages, and have often rendered important services to society. Their natural tendency, however, and, in fact, the condition of their existence, is the bringing the great body of the combined persons under the control of a few ambitious leaders, who are generally as unscrupulous in their measures as they are eminent for their abilities. The system of combination had spread very widely in 1837 and 1838. So great was the terrorism produced, that conviction for an outrage was very rare. The utmost precautions were taken to prevent discovery in committing assassination. Strangers were sent to a great distance for the purpose; and even if they were detected, few persons would run the risk of coming forward as witnesses. The consequence was that in nine cases out of ten combination murders were perpetrated with impunity. In 1837 the great Cotton Spinners' Association at Glasgow struck, to prevent a reduction of wages in consequence of the mercantile embarrassments arising from the commercial crash in the United States. This association had its branches all over Scotland and the north of England. During sixteen years a total of 200,000 had passed through its hands. So extensive was it in its ramifications, that when it struck in the spring of 1837, no less than 50,000 persons, including the families of the workers, were deprived of the means of existence, and reduced to the last degree of destitution. Crowds of angry workmen paraded the streets and gathered round the factory gates, to prevent other people from going in to work; fire-balls were thrown into the mills for the purpose of burning them. At length the members of the association went so far as to shoot one of the new hands in open day in a public street of Glasgow. In consequence of this outrage, the sheriff of Lanarkshire proceeded with a body of twenty policemen and arrested the members of the secret committee, sixteen in number, who were found assembled in a garret, to which they obtained access by a trap- ladder, in Gallowgate of that city. This was on Saturday night, August 3rd. " On the Monday following the strike was at an end, and all the mills in Glasgow were going; so entirely are these calamitous associations the result of terror, inspired in the enslaved multitude by a few daring and unscrupulous leaders."

On the cotton-spinners' trial which followed, there was a full exposure given by the members of the secrets of the organisation, and the terrible machinery by which the decrees of the secret tribunal were carried into execution. It appeared that when a strike had lasted a considerable time without producing the desired result of forcing the employers into submission, the workmen of different factories engaged in the union were summoned by the committee to send delegates to a place of meeting, in order to appoint a secret select committee. Two were summoned from each factory, and there were thirty-seven then at Glasgow. It was perfectly well understood that the object of this committee was to organise violence, intimidation, and outrage. When the delegates assembled, each wrote upon a slip of paper the names of the persons he voted for to form the " secret select," which consisted of five persons. The slips were folded up and given to the secretary, who immediately dissolved the meeting, without announcing the names, which were known only to himself. In the evening he called on the persons who had the majority of votes, and informed them of their election. When it was deemed expedient to perpetrate an assault, or an assassination, an anonymous letter was sent to the person whom the committee had selected out of " No. 61," the division which contained those desperate characters who hired themselves for such purposes. This person came to the appointed place in obedience to the summons. Ushered into a dark room, he was told by one of the members what was to be done - the nature of the assault, whether throwing vitriol into the eyes or committing murder. He was told to put forth his hand and take what he could reach. He put a sum of money into his pocket, and departed to fulfil his mission, lying in wait for his victim till a good opportunity presented itself. Thus a victim fell no one knew by whom, nor could any workman under ban feel sure that he himself would not be the next. When the crime was committed, the perpetrator obtained the means of emigrating, and there was an end of the matter. Even if the assassin informed, he would not be able to identify his employers. So quickly do men become familiar with deeds of blood under such circumstances, and so eager for fresh sensations of horror, that some of the witnesses stated on the cotton-spinners' trial that the members every morning asked one another, "Why was nothing done last night?" "What did you mean by nothing being done?" "Why was no one murdered by the committee?" It was moved at a general meeting, June 15th, 1837, by William Johnstone, and carried unanimously, that the names of all who remained "nobs" (new hands) at the end of the strike should be enrolled in a book, printed, and sent to all the spinning districts in Scotland, England, and Ireland, and that they remain "nobs" for ever; and a "persecuting committee " be appointed to persecute them to the uttermost. The oath taken by the members of the association bound them to execute with zeal and alacrity every task and injunction which the majority of their brethren should impose upon them in furtherance of their common welfare - "as the chastisement of 'nobs,' the assassination of oppressors or tyrannical masters, or the demolition of shops that shall be deemed incorrigible;" and also that they would cheerfully contribute to the support of such of their brethren as should lose their work "in consequence of their exertions against tyranny."

Sir Archibald Alison, who was the sheriff that arrested the committee, and who therefore speaks from personal knowledge, thus describes the circumstances attending the trial: - "First, a printed placard was widely posted in every manufacturing town of Great Britain and Ireland, on the same day, denouncing the conduct of the sheriff of Lanarkshire in apprehending the committee as tyrannical in the highest degree, and calling on all the combined trades to co-operate in defeating the measure. Next, that magistrate was assailed by anonymous letters three or four times a week, from the time of the apprehension till the trial came on, five months after, from all parts of Great Britain and Ireland, threatening him with instant death if the accused persons were not immediately liberated. The Crown witnesses, eleven in number, were so threatened that, on their own petition, they were committed to gaol till the trial, and then sent out of the country at the public expense. At the trial, which lasted six days, the utmost efforts to disturb the course of justice were made. Five-and- twenty jurors were challenged by the prisoners - not one by the Crown. A crowd of two or three thousand Unionists surrounded the court every evening when the trial was adjourned, which at length increased to such a degree that five thousand persons were assembled, and military assistance had to be sent for. Under these circumstances, it was hardly to be expected that a verdict according to evidence could be obtained. The jury found the prisoners guilty of conspiracy, and they were sentenced to transportation, but the murder not proven - a result which excited some surprise, as the evidence was thought to have warranted a general verdict of guilty. This was, two years after, followed by their being all liberated from confinement by Lord Normanby, then Home Secretary."

The effects of this trial were of a permanent character; the excesses to which combinations might lead, if guided by ignorance and passion, were perceived by all, especially when the evidence taken on the subject by a parliamentary committee was published. No legislative measures were, however, considered necessary; and, though strikes have from time to time since occurred, then- leaders have always deprecated acts of intimidation and outrage; and the good sense and increased enlightenment of the working classes have, in such cases, generally preserved them from a violation of the laws. One of the consequences of strikes is the substitution of machinery for manual labour; - that of the cotton spinners led to the adoption of self-acting mules, which, by rendering male operatives almost unnecessary, has put an end altogether to strikes in that branch of manufacture.

Sir Archibald Alison makes some important admissions with regard to the policy of strikes, and gives some curious information about their origin, which throw a good deal of light on the question of combinations. Government, in general, does not trouble itself about strikes, because they are not directed against itself, and because these? local disorders " do not immediately threaten the exchequer. No religious party heeds them much, because they involve nothing polemical, and are concerned about temporal interests. Landed proprietors shun the discussion, lest they should terminate in assessment. "But," says Sir Archibald Alison, " the working classes cling to them as their palladium, their Magna Charta, and regard them as the only means within their power of making wages rise in proportion to the profits of trade and the requirements of their families. Even the masters employing the combined workmen are far from being averse to strikes; on the contrary, they sometimes secretly encourage, generally largely profit by them. The cessation of production in any branch of trade of course makes the stock in hand more valuable; and it is often no small comfort to them, when a monetary crisis has occurred, and prices are generally falling, to see the value of their own article continually rising, while, at the same time, they are relieved from the disagreeable necessity, during a period of disaster, of paying their workmen wages." It is stated, in illustration of this fact, that during the great colliers' and miners' strikes in 1856, in Scotland, one coalmaster cleared 20,000 by a mass of dross, which before it began was absolutely unsaleable, and another 25,000 by the same means, the price of coals having, at the same time, risen from 12s. 6d. to 25s. a ton.

This mode of obtaining redress, by which the workmen endeavour to counteract, by their united efforts, the advantage which the employer possesses over them by his capital and his influence, is found to be, in the majority of cases, successful. The mechanic, it is true, suffers great privations during the struggle, and great loss is often entailed by it on society - the strike of the cotton spinners referred to cost the country 230,000, and that of the colliers in Lanarkshire 400,000; but in the end, he generally gains the victory. In a great number of cases, the majority of which are never known to the public, the master succumbs: impelled, at least, by a sense of his own interest, which is frequently affected in a serious manner by the contest. If the markets ' are rising, and he is allowed a reasonable margin for profit, he yields without much difficulty; but if the market is falling, it is otherwise - production is then far more important to the workman than to him, and he may endeavour to hold out until the resources of his opponents are exhausted. The legislature, by repealing the laws against combination in 1824, has admitted the principle, that workpeople have a right to enter into a mutual agreement not to work for less than certain wages, nor more than a certain number of hours in the day or the week; but, while this is most justly permitted to them, they are not allowed to influence others by force or intimidation, since this would subvert the very foundations of society, and not only injure the manufacturer, but in the end ruin the workman himself. The change, however, which has taken place in the mode of conducting disputes between operatives and their employers of late years, is evidently due to the superior enlightenment which is at present observable among the working classes, and which is a consequence of the increased facilities afforded for mental culture. This augmentation of intellectual power has led, as a natural result, to the workman understanding better both his own rights, and the legitimate methods of enforcing them. Some remains indeed, of the mistakes formerly made, and the injustice once practised, in the attempt to control others, still exist - for example, the regulations among the colliers and miners called darg. The workman is prevented by it from raising, in a day, a larger quantity of mineral than could be easily raised by the inexperienced or unskilful; the very best is thus reduced to a level with the worst, and he is obliged to be content with little more than half the amount which he could easily earn.

The chronic state of English parties since the passing of the Reform Bill may be expressed thus - The Whigs able to hold office, and the Tories able to prevent their making any use of it for the benefit of the country. While Sir Robert Peel lived, his judgment and moderation, his loyalty and patriotism, restrained the party spirit that animated the opposition. In this he was steadily supported by all the weight of the Duke of Wellington's great character; and with their assistance ministers were enabled to overcome from time to time, but only to a partial extent, the difficulties which beset legislation in such an evenly balanced state of parties. But if the progress of useful legislation was thus impeded, movements or rash and dangerous innovations were at the same time arrested, The power of obstruction which the Conservatives possessed might in other hands have been employed to the great detriment of the country. But there was this restraint always operating upon both Whigs and Tories in opposition, that the leaders in each case hoped to be shortly able to pass over to the Treasury benches, and they did not wish to commit themselves to any course which would fetter their action when in power. This state of things was rendered more perplexing by the condition of Ireland, and its relation to the two political parties. A public writer in 1839 truthfully remarked: -

"Ireland is still the cardinal point of English domestic politics. At this moment their government of that part of the empire may be said to form at once the strength and the weakness of the present ministers. On the other hand, we believe the warmest friends of Sir Robert Peel cannot but entertain some misgiving as to the manner in which, on his return to power, he would be able to deal with that part of our public administration. One thing, indeed, seems certain - if it be an anti-papal or anti-Irish cry that brings him into office, the necessary reaction of it on the sister island will make it hardly possible that he will retain it long. The experience of every year affords fresh evidence how impossible it is for this country to continue the government, even of its remotest dependency, on principles unpopular with the mass of the inhabitants. Nothing, therefore, can be more wild than the imagination that the connection of Ireland with Great Britain can be maintained on any other thin grounds of mutual interest and goodwill. The only alternative is a military occupation, which, if there were no higher objection to such a measure, would be demonstrably not worth the trouble and expense of it. We do not dissemble to ourselves the many and grave sacrifices which under the happiest circumstances must attend the solution of this political problem; but it should be remembered that grievous as they may be, it is not for England to complain of them. Her connection with Ireland originated in conquest, and for centuries was maintained only by force of arms. For the embarrassments, therefore, which yet beset that relation, she is herself properly and exclusively responsible; and, indeed, may be said to be only now suffering the rightful retribution which sooner or later ever follows the infliction of wrong."

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