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taken from H. Pelling, A History of Trade Unionism.
The more long-term intentions of the founders of the 'Grand National' (as we may call it) were to rationalise the structure of combinations, to achieve a general control of movements for an advance of wages, and to co-ordinate assistance for strikes, especially strikes against a reduction of wages. Such assistance could either be financial, in which case it might take the form of a general levy upon the membership, or it could be organisational, such as by making arrangements for co-operative production by those thrown out of employment. The 'Grand National' grew with great rapidity, and may have temporarily numbered as many as half a million members; but only a tiny proportion of these ever paid any fees to its headquarters, so the figures have little real significance. At least there appears to have been some widening of the boundaries of combination at this time, to include previously unorganised groups, such as agricultural labourers, and even a few women, such as those who joined the 'Lodge of Female Tailors'. Within each trade the local clubs were to be organised nationally under a 'Grand Lodge'; and the naive enthusiasm with which many such clubs joined in the movement is well illustrated by an account which we have of the behaviour of the Nantwich shoemakers.
After paying entrance fees our society had about forty pounds to spare, and not knowing what better to do with it we engaged Mr. Thomas Jones to paint for us a banner emblematical of our trade, with the motto 'May the manufactures of the sons of St. Crispin [the patron Saint of shoemakers] be trod upon by all the world', at a cost of twenty-five pounds. We also purchased a full set of secret order regalia, surplices, trimmed aprons, etc., and a crown and robes for King Crispin.
The 'secret order regalia' and the denomination of the local clubs as 'lodges' indicate the prevalence at this time of various mystic rites probably based on masonic practice. At a time when unionists could easily be victimised by their employers for the mere fact of membership, such ritual no doubt played its part in maintaining the privacy of the proceedings. It had the disadvantage, however, that it persuaded the Government that a conspiracy was afoot; and consequently the police were required to take action against any persons suspected of propagating it. A couple of 'delegates' of the union were arrested by the police at Exeter and held when found to be carrying
'two wooden axes, two large cutlasses, two death masks, and two white garments or robes, a large figure of Death with dart and hourglass, a Bible and Testament'.
The concern of government at this time was heightened by the incidence of a good deal of rural unrest, including rick-burning and machine breaking, which could easily be attributed to the growth of unionism among the agricultural labourers. In 1834 Lord Melbourne, who was Home Secretary in the Whig government, chose to make an example of six labourers from the village of Tolpuddle in Dorset, who had been found to be using a form of ritual, though it was not one derived directly from the 'Grand National'. The six men were tried at Dorchester and were found guilty under an Act of 1797 which forbade the 'administering or taking of unlawful oaths' for seditious purposes. This was straining the statute, for there was no evidence that the labourers had a seditious purpose in mind; nevertheless, they were given the maximum sentence permitted under the Act - transportation for seven years, and they were all duly shipped off to Australia. The harsh treatment of the Dorchester labourers, or the 'Tolpuddle Martyrs' as they have often been called, aroused vigorous protests all over the country; and even The Times felt moved to declare,
'The crimes which called for punishment were not proved - the crime brought home to the prisoners did not justify the sentence
An enormous procession of trade unionists, all carefully marshalled behind their respective banners, marched through the streets of London to present a petition to Lord Melbourne at the Home Office. The demonstration had no immediate effect, but it set a pattern for peaceful political agitation in the metropolis.
This, however, was the prelude to a rapid decline of the 'Grand National' and of unionism in general. The 'Grand National' began to break up owing to its inability to provide adequate support for sections of its membership who were on strike. This was especially unfortunate at a time when the very principle of trade unionism was so much on the defensive. Taking advantage of public alarm about the spread of unionism, many employers tried to eliminate it from among their own employees. In the London building trades, for instance, a good opportunity occurred when some craftsmen employed by Messrs. Cubitt were locked out owing to having boycotted beer supplied by a non-union brewery. All the London building contractors united to demand that their employees should sign 'the Document' - a pledge not to join or belong to a trade union. In the Leeds area, the same practice was being adopted; in fact, it was common form in trades where the small master was no longer predominant. Owen, who had not previously been a member of the 'Grand National', after the Dorchester trial accepted the office of president, but he could not hold the union together, and its final collapse came at the end of the year, when the treasurer absconded with most of the remaining funds. The Builders' Union faded away at about the same time. The Dorchester labourers were given a free pardon in 1836, and gradually made their way back to England; but this concession was probably due more to the change of Home Secretary - it was now Lord John Russell - and to the greater dependence of the Whig government on Radical support in the Commons, than to any extra-parliamentary pressure. In the collapse of their high hopes of general organisation and co-operative manufacture, and in the worsening trade conditions of 1837, the skilled artisans fell back where they could on the local clubs and craft societies, which had existed within or outside the 'Grand National'. They had learnt their lesson from the failure: henceforward we hear comparatively little of co-operative production or of the industrial union of all trades, and even less of secret oaths and ritual.
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