The Trades Union Movement in St Neots
Local historians, Charles Tebbutt and Rosa Young, have published extensive research into St Neots’ history. What follows has largely been gleaned from their work.
During the second half of the 19th century many local entrepreneurs made large profits from investing capital (money) into business. With the ending of the war against France in 1815 there was a long period of peace and prosperity. St Neot’s population doubled between 1801 and 1851.
The rural to urban migration of people from the countryside to St Neots, Eynesbury, Eaton Ford and Eaton Socon created a huge demand for rented accommodation. Most local people lived in overcrowded, rented, poor quality, small, old, thatched cottages. New housing was needed.
Entrepreneurs bought land and built two-up-two-down terraced cottages to rent out. These urban houses had no vegetable gardens, pig sties or fruit trees so families had to buy food from stalls or shops around the Market Square.
Local landowners and farmers recognised the profits to be made by satisfying this demand for food. During the Agricultural Revolution they put pressure on parliament to pass Enclosure Acts allowing them to farm much larger fields, often closer to their houses.
They could also invest in the new technology introduced during the Industrial Revolution. Buying steam ploughs, seed drills, grain elevators, threshing machines, cross-bred animals and plants and new fertilisers increased production and brought big profits. People with capital bought or rented out buildings on and around the Market Square and opened shops like butchers, bakers, and greengrocers.
New machinery meant that farmers employed fewer agricultural labourers so, to find work, people had to go into town. Farmers used their profits to buy more machinery, animals, fertilisers etc., build a new farmhouse or renovate old ones. They grew rich whilst their labourers remained poor.
Local industrialists also benefited from the huge demand for goods from the growing urban population. There was also a market for manufactured goods in other parts of the world. Improved technology in the iron and steel industry led to many new inventions like coal-fired steam engines, cast-iron machinery, gears, etc. allowed huge profits to be made.
19th century industries in St Neots included an iron foundry, corn mills, bell works, gas works, engineering workshops, navigation wharves, warehouses, limekilns, saw mills, coal yard, brickworks and builders merchants. Profits were often re-invested in the industry. Many new factories and workshops were built and many men, women and even young children were employed.
Working hours were long. 14 hours a day was common. Six days a week was normal. Working conditions were often dangerous. Labourers were fined for talking. Overseers used a strap to punish employees. There was no compensation if you had an injury at work. Wages were low and employers sacked employees who complained. They could also be evicted from their rented cottage. Some employers sacked people for not going to Sunday Service.
There was widespread dissatisfaction with pay and conditions. Groups of workers combined to put pressure on their employers to improve the situation. Trade Unions were formed. Meetings were held. Pamphlets were published. Letters were written to the local papers.
Evidence of unrest in St Neots appeared in the local newspaper. It reported that in 1871 local labourers in St Neots were supporting the Nine Hour Movement. 80 - 90 of George Bower’s employees at the Vulcan Iron Works met in the ‘Public Rooms’ to demand a 45-hour week instead of the 60 hours they worked.
They also demanded time and a quarter for overtime. Mr Scott, their leader, went with a delegation of workmen to meet Mr Bower. He agreed to their demands and the meeting finished with three cheers for Mr Bower and Mr Scott.
To avoid unrest the other local industrialists eventually reduced the working hours to nine and provided overtime pay. With factory workers getting better pay and conditions agricultural workers started to demand better pay from the farmers. Although they used to get free beer, their annual wage was rarely over £25 – about 10s. (£0.50) a week.
On 25th May the following year, 1872, the newspaper reported a meeting in Yaxley. Mr Savage addressed 1,000 agricultural workers, urging them not to accept a wage of 14s. (£0.70) a week. A number of farmers and their sons attended the meeting and tried to stop people listening to the speech by using bird-scaring clappers. There was a riot that ended up with the labourers taking the clappers and beating the farmers over their head!
The next week a meeting was advertised “to consider what steps should be adopted to induce the employers of labour in St Neots and district to advance the present level of wages, and also to adopt means for social and moral improvement of the working men and their families.”
On 31st May about 800 mechanics, women and children met in St Neots Market Square. The first speaker was Mr Lane who had been employed by the Duke of Manchester. He claimed to have started the labourers’ agitation for higher wages in Huntingdonshire. He stated that over the last 20 years mechanics’ wages had risen 20% but agricultural workers’ wages had only risen by 5%. His aim was to start a branch of the Agricultural Workers Union in St Neots district. He did not support going on strike. Anyone who did was “an enemy of the movement.” He wanted to set up a union “to protect them from the tyranny of capital over labour.” “It is all very well for Ministers of the Gospel to tell us to be contented with our lot but how could a man be contented when he had not sufficient to feed himself and his family? Farmers, as a body were implacable tyrants and their poor labourers only white slaves.”
The next speaker was Mr Bailey of Offord. He addressed the people as “Christian fellow workers”. He started work at nine and had not got the time or opportunity to educate his eight children. When the sixth baby was born he was only earning 10s. (£0.50) a week. In his opinion “farmers did all they could to crush their labourers.”
Then Mr Cooper, the County President of the Agricultural Workers Union spoke. He said that the average wage in this country was only 11s. (£0.55) a week for the first six months of the year, or, if with piece work (payment for what you produced) 12s. (£0.60). When harvest money was added it made an average weekly wage of 13s. (£0.65). He estimated that the average family bills were: -
1s.6d for rent,
9d. for coals,
9d. for shoes,
9d. for clothing,
3d. for medicine
That left 9s. for food or 3d. per head per day (excluding Sundays) for a man, his wife and four children. In 1862 the wages were only 10s. a week and food was 25% cheaper. He asked any employers to comment. None did. 107 people joined his union.
Later in 1872 the newspaper reported that the union had some success in increasing wages but that housing conditions were “deplorable”. It was sued in 1873 for the value or bread and booths hired at “The great demonstration held at Brampton in the summer of 1872”.
On 28th June 1873 another meeting was held on the Market Square. About 400 people attended. The press quoted such phrases from Mr Lane and Mr Richardson as “We will be putting a bit and bridle on the farmer” and “The labourer should be paid equally as well as the mechanics”. The anti-union editor said this was “blatant rubbish as can only cause a feeling of disgust in the minds of every intelligent person”.
At another meeting on the Square ion 12th November 1873 the union’s slogans were “War to the Knife” and “Stick to the Union”.
A famous man in the Agricultural Workers Union was Joseph Arch. He attended a meeting in St Neots in 1875 and spoke for one hour twenty minutes to between 700 – 800 people. All members of his union wore a blue ribbon or rosette. He stated that “the Guardians of the Poor House spent 24s. (£1.20) a week to keep a man, his wife and four children in the workhouse but farmers refused to pay 14s. for an honest week’s work. How therefore could a family be expected to live on 12s. or even 14s. a week? “
He also attacked the law that stated that only people who owned houses (franchisees) had the right to vote and that it was not right that agricultural workers had no vote in what the government was doing. He told the story of a man who set up as a small market gardener who asked his landlord for a stable and cart shed. He then bought a jackass and this entitled him to qualify as a voter. The jackass got him the vote!
The people were told that he was going to present a bill before Parliament in July 1876 to allow more people to vote. (He did not succeed in getting agricultural labourers the right to vote in elections until 1884 and in 1885 Arch was elected Member of Parliament for West Norfolk.)
Newspapers were often owned by wealthy business people. Many did not want to reduce their profits by giving higher wages. As a result the union activities were not often reported.
Agricultural wages did go up as evidenced in a report of the first strike to appear in the press. It was at a farm in Southoe in 1876. Mr Bowyer of Manor Farm tried to reduce his agricultural labourers’ wages from 14s. to 13s. a week. They all went on strike and the union gave them all 9d. a week strike pay. The outcome was not reported in the press!
Some provision was made for the working people in St Neots. In 1882 George Bower, who owned the Vulcan Iron Works and the gasworks, bought 60 High Street, St Neots and converted it to be used as a Working Man’s Club. He was the chairman and ran it very successfully. In 1894 he suggested that as the majority of members were supporters of the conservative government it should become the Conservative or Constitutional Club. The following year a Constitutional Club was formed to join with the Working Men’s Club and Bower bought new premises on New Street.
Mechanics and artisans (craftsmen) seemed to have been reasonably content with their wages or did not feel strong enough to take industrial action. In 1887 the newspaper reported 30 unemployed marching on the streets.
In 1892 there was a meeting of building workers in the Cannon Inn on New Street to discuss the “1 o’clock movement”. They passed a resolution supporting finishing work at 1o’clock on Saturdays. They also asked employers for an increase in wages from 5d. to 5½d. an hour for carpenters and from 5½d to 6d. for bricklayers. It was stated that employers in St Neots demanded longer working hours from their labourers than in any other local town. As the employers did not agree to these pay increases, a strike was called. Only 22 of the 40 men agreed to join the strike so it was called off.
Source: Tebbutt, C. F. (1978), St Neots – History of a Huntingdonshire Town ,Unwin Brothers, pp.77-80, 247; Young, R. (1996), 'St Neots Past', Phillimore