The Aristocracy of Labour

  Category: 20th Century
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The Early History of Craft Unions in Printing 

Sidney Webb
Sidney Webb
In their classic History of Trade Unionism of 1894, Sidney and Beatrice Webb came to the conclusion that no institution that could be considered a trade union could be discovered in England prior to the beginning of the eighteenth century: they, therefore, began their history at that point.

Given their definition of trade union – ‘a continuous association of wage-earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment’ – which rules out temporary ‘combinations’ and also associations of those who earned their living other than through wages, it was probably a reasonable decision. However, to fully understand the way that the trade union movement developed in the 20th century in the UK, in particular that certain section that was in no way Marxist and, in many ways, not even egalitarian, rather more needs to be taken into consideration.

The Webbs did, indeed, see the point. They wrote ‘Today when we speak of the ‘Aristocracy of Labour’, we include under that heading the organized miners and factory operatives of the North on the same superior footing as the skilled handicraftsman. In 1800, they were at opposite ends of the social scale in the wage-earning class.’  They were indeed. And there were reasons why they were, and why major elements, within what would become the ‘Labour movement’, were actually pretty determined to keep it that way, doing so with some success right through most of the 20th century. The focus of this article will be upon the roots of that phenomenon as it developed in the early history of the printing industry in London, beginning in 1563 with the passing of the Elizabethan Statute of Artificers and ending, roughly, with its repeal, which happened in stages between 1813 and 1819.

Τhe Statute

As was usual with English Acts of Parliament until modern times, the Act purported to regularize and codify pre-existing and traditional conditions, rights, and obligations rather than introduce something new. Its major impact, however, was to lay down that:

          a) No-one should practice a craft or a trade without having served a set time,
              normally from the age of 14, as an apprentice. As a general rule, such
              apprentices should reside with and be looked after by the master
              craftsman to whom they were apprenticed.
          b) On completion of his term, he, as a journeyman, would be entitled to be
              employed by a master craftsman until such time as he could set up as a
              master craftsman himself.

          c) As a master he could then employ both journeymen and apprentices in
             his own business.

          d) Everything with regard to wages, conditions of work, and prices were to be
              regulated by the members of the craft themselves, journeymen and masters,
              with two ‘justices of the peace’* of the local community to settle disputes
              where necessary, and to lay down standards and prices for the benefit of
              the community.
                 * A local magistrate, appointed by the Crown. Usually a lay person, not a lawyer.
In the printing industry, the term of apprenticeship was set at seven years, and in London, in particular, the Stationers’ Company was made the body representing the craft. The company consisted of Freemen. There were three ways to qualify as a Freeman: to be born to a father who was a Freeman, to serve a term of apprenticeship under a Freeman, or to purchase the right, which was subject to approval, and very expensive. The Stationers’ Company, while a London organization, held the exclusive rights to print books anywhere in the kingdom, except where specific royal licences were granted.

It needs to be noted – since it is somewhat foreign to modern concepts – that anyone who could work in the printing industry at all, employer or employee, belonged to the same Company, or was apprenticed to a member of it, and would become a member in his turn. It is also worth noting that, although the word ‘journeyman’* implies being paid by the day, on the composing side of the printing industry, from very early on payment was on a piecework basis. Journeymen were not so much paid wages: they charged prices.
The cooperative nature of the set-up is illustrated by a number of decrees of the Court of Star Chamber** regarding conditions in the trade, as well as by decisions of the company itself. There are too many to reproduce in detail, but they can be summarized as

             *   From the French ‘journée’
             ** The Court of Star Chamber has had a bad press over the last few centuries, 
                   owing to its misuse by Charles I to investigate charges of sedition. In the early
                   years however it was on the whole benevolent, providing a way for individuals
                   and groups to obtain redress against abuse of power
          a) An employer was not free to decide what he should pay his journeymen,
              since common legal rates were enforced: on the other hand the same
              rates limited the demands journeymen could make.
          b) An employer could not expand or contract his business at will. A decree
              of 1637, for instance, compelled him to provide work for an unemployed
              journeyman, even if the rest of his staff could cope with his workload.
          c) An employer could only employ journeymen who had served their time as
             apprentices, and he was limited as to how many apprentices he could employ.
          d) He was not unconditionally free to decide on what he should produce: for instance
              limitations were imposed on how many copies could be printed from one
              composition: a regulation of 1587 laid down that after 1,250 copies of a book
              had been printed, the type must be reset – whether to maintain quality or provide
              extra work or both is not clear.
          e) Other regulations went into more detail: for instance, type could not be left
              standing more than a certain time, after which the type had to be re-distributed
              and the material reset if required.

Journeymen and masters alike were concerned with things like the introduction of copyright, which limited their freedom to print what they wanted, and, in an atmosphere rather reminiscent of contemporary arguments about copyright protection on the web, frequently complained to the Star Chamber about royal licences being granted to specific masters to print specific books.

The main function of the system was to implement the prevailing ethos of what has become known as the era of mercantilism, notable for its acceptance of the role of government in regulating trade and industry, nominally anyway for the benefit of the country at large.

On the Continent, this led to a concentration on centralized state planning, as associated notably with the name of Colbert in France, but also in Spain and the Empire, and the independent German states where the word ‘Wohlfahrtstaat’ (literally ‘welfare state’, though without the modern connotations) came into use.

In England, and later Britain, where power was never to be as centralized (until modern times) as it was in Europe, the concept was much more decentralized. Goups like the Stationers’ Company were much more left to their own devices, even though they might on occasion appeal to Star Chamber or Parliament for judicial or legislative backing.

The result was the strengthening of a rather medieval sense of kinship among the practitioners of the craft, whether, nominally, employer or employee. Indeed much of the time the kinship was literal. Sons of Freemen could automatically become Freemen – were apprenticed out to other masters, and, in their time, became journeymen. And a master’s apprentice – more than likely the sons of friends or at least other printers - lived with and off him. And, of course, journeymen in their turn, could expect to become masters and Freemen.  Eventually, this cohesion was to break down. But, it broke down in a specific fashion, which significantly differentiated it from the associations of workers at more recently developed industries and crafts.

Adam Smith and All That

Formally, all the provisions of the Statute of Artificers would not disappear from the statute books until 1819, though some elements - the wage-fixing clauses - would be repealed in 1813. Laterally, however, much had been changing. Adam Smith, in 1776, had published the ‘Wealth of Nations’. Free trade and laissez-faire were in the air. The first steam-driven cotton mill and the first power loom were both introduced in 1785. The Industrial Revolution had begun.

The printing industry, however, was less directly influenced than most. Technologically, the first steam-driven printing press would not be introduced until 1814 at The Times newspaper. Mechanical composition was much further away: it did not become at all commonplace until the 1890s.

Setting up an independent business therefore still required very little capital. Elsewhere, technological innovation had replaced the medieval workshop, with its master craftsman working alongside his employees, with the factory, owned by the capitalist whose major skills were the ability to raise money, to organize, and to market. But not in printing.

A wooden hand-press in 1808 would cost some £30. The newly-invented Stanhope iron press cost £75. Type could be expensive, but long-term credit was available. In general, it has been estimated that a journeyman could set himself up in business for £200, or thereabouts, at a time when an average journeyman’s income would be around $100 a year.

Organizationally, everyone working in the industry, including the employers – the master printers - were, with a few exceptions, still men who had completed the full seven-year apprenticeship and, therefore, shared a common experience and understanding of working conditions. Educationally,* they were on a par: to operate a press might require less education than to compose type from manuscript or to read proofs – frequently in Latin or Greek – but all of these were part of that seven-year apprenticeship.

Businesses were still small. In 1818, there were said to be 233 master printers in London, employing some 1,800 journeymen and 800 apprentices – an average of about less than eight journeymen and about 3 1/2 apprentices per establishment.  Comparatively, at least, employees were reasonably well paid. As of 1810, an average compositor employed on setting manuscripts could expect to earn around £2 a week, whereas a factory worker in one of the new industries would be lucky to earn 10 shillings.**
             * The most egregious exception was John Walter I, the founder of The Times, originally 
                a coal dealer and insurance underwriter . The Times was, in those days anyway, always 
                an innovatory establishment.
            ** At 20 shillings to the pound : i.e. half a pound or 50p in modern terms.
‘Expect to earn’ is important here, because journeymen were still paid according to a ‘scale of prices’, rather than by the hour. And the scale of prices was complicated (as indeed it was to remain for nearly another two centuries). The price for setting 1,000 letters in 1810 varied from 5 ¾ d (2.4p) to 7d (2.9p) in steps of 1/4d (a ‘farthing’ – roughly 0.1 p) depending on type size and language, with extra charges for pages with varying sizes, working at night, working on catalogues and large size pages.

Again the importance is psychological. Charging someone a fee for a specific piece of work produces a very different sense of status from being paid for a day or a week during which time you have to simply do as you are told. To settle details of the scale of 1805, the master printers and the journeymen set up a joint committee with equal representation of both, which appears to have proceeded with equanimity rather than hostility.

In adopting such a proceeding, in fact, the masters and the journeymen were strictly speaking in direct conflict with the law. In 1799 and 1800, the Combination Acts were passed by Parliament in an atmosphere heightened by the French revolution, but equally driven by the replacement of mercantilism by the beginnings of economic liberalism. Interference by the State was becoming unacceptable – at least unfashionable – at the same time as revolution had become a present threat.

In response to this, the Combination Acts made it illegal for workers to take any kind of joint action against their employers, in particular with regard to wages. It also technically made it illegal for employers to combine, but the bias in implementation was invariably against combinations of workers. Under the long established laws regarding conspiracy, some ‘combinations’ had previously been found to be illegal, but, in the mercantilist world, these were usual combinations against the public interest: it was always permissible for combinations of craftsmen, masters and journeymen, both or together, to join to appeal to the courts or the justices for redress of some grievance or other.

The Repeal of the Statute

It was fairly obvious that the passing of the Combination Acts struck at the very foundation of the Statute of Artificers, making it a dead letter, though, with the slowness of most British legislation, it would be nearly twenty years before the entire statute had been repealed.

Yet, in general from 1800 onwards, the printers of London, compositors, and pressmen both* continued to form committees and organizations to negotiate with the masters, and the masters happily (at least resignedly) negotiated with them.
          * The major branches of the printing craft are the compositors who set type
             into forms for the press, and the pressmen (later machine men) who 
             operate the presses themselves. Both emerged, however, from the same 
             apprenticeship, in which they learned both skills, and also ancillary ones 
             like proofreading.
Partly, this was because, thanks to Napoleon, business was booming in the early years of the century. There is nothing like a war for increasing demand for news, and, at that time, news meant print. The employers could, therefore, afford it, and the opportunities for journeymen to set up for themselves were plentiful.

There was nevertheless, one suspects, a feeling around the craft that the Combination Acts was ‘not meant for us’. They were, after all, aimed at agitators and radicals, not at honest craftsmen dealing with one another as equal parties with a common bond. So they went ahead and ignored the law.

Which is not to say there were no disputes. There was a serious one. But it did not revolve directly around ‘prices’ (aka piecework rates). What it revolved around was the issue of apprentices.

The dispute had a number of fronts. One involved the jobs that apprentices were allowed to do (as opposed to learn). A second involved the number of apprentices a master could have at any one time. A third involved hiring boys who were not even apprenticed. In the short term, they all have much the same effect, though some take effect more quickly. There is not much point in negotiating higher wages for journeymen if the effect is only that the employer uses apprentices to do the journeymen’s work, even more so if he can use non-indentured labour.

It wasn’t, by any means, a new problem. Back in 1683, one Joseph Moxon, in his book Mechanick Exercises, had complained: “The press-man sometimes has a Week-Boy to Take Sheets as they are printed off the Tympan. These Boys do in a Printing-House commonly black and Dawb themselves; whence the Workmen do Jocosely call them Devils and sometimes Spirits and sometimes Flies”*.
           * The man who takes the impressed paper off the form is still called a ‘fly-hand’.
             Until recently the name was still used for the man who was employed to do that, 
             even though mechanization had meant he had  nothing to do. But that’s another story.
In the days of the Statute of Artificers, however, the danger could be kept in check due of the provisions of the Statute itself. Even then, however, the number of apprentices that could be taken on by one employer was a subject of dispute, especially in the later years of the 18th century, when the number of apprentices indentured soared, something like doubling over about 20 years.

The masters tried to justify the increase, as the result of the steeply increasing volume of business, so that there were not enough journeymen to cope. The journeymen claimed in response that the masters were simply trying to save money, and were acting against the spirit of the law.

They pointed out that apprentices were expected to live with, and be directly looked after by, the master printer, effectively as part of his family. Moreover, apprenticeships usually had to be bought with a premium charged by the master. However, more and more masters were indenting ‘outdoor’ apprentices, who lived elsewhere, were paid a stipend to cover their living costs, and were engaged with no premium. In protest, the journeymen in 1805 even went public.  One circular printed by them was headed To Parents and Guardians and included “…we deem it absolutely necessary to inform them of the motives which actuate the Master Printers … that they may not be seduced by delusive professions to destroy the future welfare of those who are under their protection by introducing them into a business which is threatened with a redundancy of Journeymen and which will inevitably involve in poverty all those who augment their number.”

It remained a running battle, much more of one than any negotiations about wages. John Walter I, in 1786, went so far as to advertise for apprentices in his own paper, The Times, and when the journeymen (with the support of other employers who themselves were not enamored of Walter*) promised that the pressmen employed on the paper would refuse to work with the extra apprentices, threatened them with prosecution for conspiracy, a threat that seems to have worked, despite the journeymen taking legal advice with regard to prosecuting him under the Statute.
          * The proprietors of the Daily Advertiser refused to accept his advertisement,
             returning his money.
They were, one assumes, advised that, in the prevailing climate, they would have little chance of succeeding. However the repeal of the Statute knocked out even that chance.

And, indeed, immediately thereafter, for a period of more than a decade, organized action by the printing craftsmen disappeared. Why, is still something of a mystery, but there are no records of anything like union activity in printing, in London, between 1820 and 1833. What is, however, clear is that when it began to revive again, much had been lost in the way of controlling entry into the trade, both in terms of fixing the number of apprentices and in determining what jobs could be carried out by non-craftsmen.

In the composing room, for instance, by 1833, non-craftsmen were allowed to take proofs of the set type. In the machine room, the only job that continued to be reserved to craftsmen was the supervision of the press itself.  Other ancillary tasks (including that of the ‘fly-hand’) were allowed to be carried out by unskilled labour.

But the true significance of those changes is manifested in the change of attitudes in the relationships between employers and craftsmen. Increasing mechanization and longer print runs required greater expenditure of capital. Journeymen were less and less likely to be able to set themselves up as masters. A barrier was being erected between the two sides.

From being an exception, John Walter I* became the model for the new class of capitalist entrepreneur in the industry, particularly in the fast-growing newspaper business. When trade union activity revived in the 1830s, it was reborn as a rather more familiar nowadays ‘us versus them’ battle, rather than a means of negotiation between two sections of the same cooperating society.

However, and this was to continue and stay important for the next nearly 200 years, the enemy from the point of view of the craftsmen was not merely the employers. The encroachment of unskilled labour that took place in the period following the repeal of the Statute was not to be allowed to continue. The craftsmen were successful in stopping it. The final battle for the preservation of craft status, insistence on employing only those who had completed their apprenticeship, and limitation on the number of apprentices to be indentured was fought in 1852, when the Morning Post and the Sun** attempted to import labour from Scotland and were forced to back down.

After 1833, the ‘enemy’ was not just the employer. It was also the ‘unskilled’ – i.e. non-craft – worker.

In 1809, the London compositors sent a circular to the master printers in which they quoted at length from Adam Smith in their arguments for an increase in prices.

In 1926, when the general strike was called, the London Society of Compositors initially replied that they would have to consult their members. They then reported that, since all the rest of industry would be on strike, ‘including the means of getting to and from work’, they felt they had no choice but to stay out of work anyway.

In 1973, the TUC called a national one-day strike for May 1st against the recently passed Industrial Relations Act. The NGA, into which all the craft unions had by then been amalgamated***, put the call to a ballot of its members, who decided to work. Or, rather, not to strike or work since, with everyone else on strike, there was nothing for them to do. As one union official put it to me at the time, “If we strike, we don’t work and we don’t get paid. If we don’t strike, we don’t work and we get paid. Either way I’ll be joining in the protest march.”
            *    Who had in fact died in 1812, but John Walter II was cut from the same cloth,
            **   Nothing to do with today’s Sun
            *** Except, to be precise, SLADE, the Society of Lithographic Artists, Designers
                   and Engravers, who made the blocks for drawings and photographs, and would
                   not join the NGA until the Thatcherite 'revolution' was making much of this irrelevant.

John Bonfield, then General Secretary of the NGA, told me: “I’m a Socialist. I believe in a socialist world…But we live in a capitalist world, a jungle. And while that is true, we’ll play the capitalist game.”

He was in many ways echoing the words of a compositor’s union official many years before, “Have we not a right to expect that the compositors of London…have learnt that they can never better themselves by the exaction of higher wages than the profits of capitalism can allow, but that they, nevertheless, have a right, as a body, to regulate their numbers as in some degree to proportion the supply of labour to the demand, and, if possible, secure to each member of the trade such a quantity of employment as shall prevent him from being a mendicant dependent on the classes above him?”

Not much of class solidarity in all that. Much less of Marx. But more than a slight echo of the days of Elizabeth I and her Statute of Artificers.

(Unattributed quotations and data are largely from the history of the union published by the London Society of Compositors to mark its centenary in 1948.)