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The Liverpool Trades' Council 1880 - 1914

E.L. Taplin
issue number: : 

According to the Webbs trades' Councils were "the political organs of the Labour world". This may have been true of the London Trades' Council but was very much less so in the case of the Liverpool Trades' Council. The primary function of this provincial Council was to provide mutual support for local Societies involved in disputes with local employers. As such its primary function was industrial with an emphasis upon the purported virtues of conciliation and arbitration until the period of serious unrest in Live-pool in 1911. Local political issues were debated, the Council exhibiting a typical Lib-Lab philosophy for most of the period under review.

Industrial Development
Liverpool was the first urban area to form what might be called a trades council in 1848, The Liverpool Trades Guardian Association, a body consisting of skilled trades such as Ship's joiners and brassfounders. In 1861 it was renamed the Liverpool United Trades Protection Association, changing its name again in 1868 to the Liverpool and Vicinity United Trades Council.

Its history from the 1860's to the 1880's was scarcely distinguished. Dominated by a handful of men representing the skilled trades, they represented the prevailing attitudes of the labour aristocracy'. In Liverpool this inevitably meant that the Council represented a small fragment of the working classes. The mass of Liverpool's workforce was to be found along the waterfront and in shipping and insurance offices. Such workers were deemed to be incapable of respectable organisation. Imbued with a policy of quietude the Council was concerned with protecting the interests of the craftsman rather than in encouraging and assisting the development of organisation among the labouring poor. This attitude is illustrated clearly during the great waterfront strike of 1879. Although this strike of dockers and seamen paralysed the port for three weeks, the Council played no part in the conflict other than debating the issue and passing the following resolution:
"This Council deeply deplores the present misunderstanding existing in Liverpool between a large section of the working classes and their employers but is pleased to find that Bone fide trades unionists engaged in the dispute are prepared to submit to a Board of Arbitration, the defensive positions forced upon them; and that this Council will cheerfully co-operate in bringing about a cessation of the suicidal strike, injurious alike to Employers and Employees."

However indifferent the Council was to the fortunes of the unskilled, its own position worsened in the 1880's, deriving from higher rates of unemployment. Indeed the Council became virtually moribund. In 1878, 29 Societies were affiliated; by 1887 this had declined to 14 with an annual income of £10. In the event this proved to be the trough of its misfortunes. The upsurge of new unionism towards the end of the decade benefited the Council. At least it had the sense to support the new developments that were taking place. In November 1888 William Nicolsen, the local Secretary of the National Amalgamated Union of Seamen and Firemen affiliated the two Mersey branches as part of the policy of the union in establishing friendly relationships with the labour aristocracy. The Council responded sympathetically and in the following year the Council appointed trustees from the Liverpool branch of the Seamen's Union, supported the union's agitation for increased wages by providing speakers at demonstrations, and launched an appeal fund for the striking seamen in 1889 which realised over £400. This is in sharp contrast to the £5 sent to the London dockers, followed, incidentally. by complaint of the great difficulty experienced in receiving a receipt!

By the end of 1889 sporadic strikes were breaking out along Vie line of docks which escalated into a major strike by the Spring of 1890. In this case the Council remained on the sidelines, condemning the drafting of the military into the City but playing no active role in the support of the dockers. This might be explained by the more bitter class attack launched by Ed. McHugh, the dockers' leader, and his lack of interest in courting the trades council.

Nevertheless, by the end of 1390 the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) had affiliated to the Council as an organisation bringing in the five Liverpool branches. B." then the Council could claim the affiliation of 47 societies with an aggregate membership of 46,000, the largest provincial trades council.

In 1891 Nicolson of the Seamen was elected vice-president; in 1893 James Sexton of the N.U.D.L. assumed that office, becoming president in 1894. Thus the new unions quickly came to play a prominent role in the offices of the Council. However, the fortunes of the Society fluctuated during the 1890's. The down run of the trade cycle and the decline of the new unions provided a less favourable environment. Internal strife did not help. Sexton withdrew from the Council in 1894 taking the N.U.D.L. with him. It was not until 1906 that they re-affiliated and then by branch rather than the union as such. Nevertheless by then the Council had a membership of 75 organisations and 113 union branches.

It was not until the industrial unrest of 1911 that the Council was able to play an important role. The 1911 Transport strike -greatest strike in Liverpool's history - was supported from the outset.. by the Council. This strike embracing all transport workers in the City was prolonged and bitterly contested. The Trades Council did not seek to lead the strike. Tom Mann controlled the entire strategy of the episode as president of the Strike Committee. Nevertheless a number of members of the Trades Council were on the committee, including the president, Joseph Summersgill. By lending support the Council ensured that the weight of all organised labour was behind the struggle of the Seamen, ships stewards, dockers and railwaymen.

Political Developments.
From its foundation the Trades Council sought to be free of association with political parties and concerned itself with trade union affairs only. Nevertheless, the emergence of new radical ideas in the 1880's and the growing criticism of the prevailing economic and social system forced the Council to reconsider its position. Change was slow however, W. Markin of the General Union of Carpenters and Joiners,was the first sponsored candidate in the Liverpool elections of 1889. In succeeding years the Council sponsored candidates although it remained wedded to the concept that candidates should stand as trade unionists. This led to some confusion. Sam Reeves, for example, protested when T.R. Threlfall was sponsored in 1892 as he was a known Liberal. In 1093 Sexton sought unsuccessfully, to move the affiliation of the Council to the I.L.P. By the end of that year the Liverpool Labour Representation Committee had been formed and the Trades Council played a prominent part in its activities until support was withdrawn in 1896. Thus as Socialist Societies flourished in the City and men like Sam Reeves, Bob Manson and John Edwards became well known, the Trades Council tended to stand to one side. In 1904 J. Wolftone Morrisey became the first Labour councillor, followed, in 1906 by J. Sexton. Neither were supported by the Trades Council.
It was not until after the 1911 Transport Strike that the Council through its support behind the Labour cause in the November Liverpool elections. There were 19 vacancies, with 40 candidates including 15 Labour men. Six new seats were won, four of the successful candidates being members of the Council, including James Stephenson, the Secretary. For the first time there was a Labour group on the Liverpool City Council.

Compared with the mid-18801s the Trades Council had made enormous progress by 1914. Nevertheless it still possessed critical weaknesses. Firstly, it had no premises of its own. This may appear a triviality but nevertheless the possession of its own building would have allowed it, more easily, to develop as the hub of the trade union movement in Liverpool.
Secondly, the major groups of the City had never looked upon the Trades Council as a premier organisation deserving allegience. These major workers groups were to be found along the waterfront: seamen, ships' stewards, dockers, coalheavers, warehousemen, bargemen, tugboatmen and the like. Of course their unions could demand the first loyalty of the men, that was to ,be expected, but. by 1914, a new organisation had emerged (founded in_1910), the National Transport Workers Federation, whose district-Council in Merseyside could claim the second allegiance of union officials and the rank and file. In most Cities with a more diversified occupational structure, the Trades council might be looked upon as the hub of united ' trade union activity. This was Very much less the case in Liverpool: behind the branch and the unions, stood the Transport Workers Federation rather than the Liverpool Trades Council.


The Liverpool Trades Council
W. Harding, A short History of the Liverpool Trades Council 1848-1948 (Liverpool 1948)
T.L. Drinkwater, A History of the Trades Unions and Labour Party in Liverpool (University of Liverpool, B.A. Thesis, 1940)
S. Maddock, The Liverpool Trades Council and Politics 1878-1918 (University of Liverpool, M.A. Thesis, 1959)

The records of the Liverpool Trades Council are held in the Record Office of the Liverpool City Libraries, William Brown Street. The Library has published a list of records held. This covers the period up to 1929. Fron that date the records remain in the possession of the Trades Council. Some annual reports
are held in the British Library of Political and Economic Science (London School of Economics) and in the Library of the T.U.C.

Other relevant material

Trades Councils and the Labour Movement to 1900. Bulletin No 14 (1967) of the Society for the Study of Labour History).
The Mistor of Trades Councils/ Bulletin No. 29 (194) of the Society for the Study of Labour History)
The Liverpool General Transport Strike 1911 (Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, Vol.113, 1961
Liverpool Dockers and Seamen 1870-1890 (Hull 1974)

Search the NorthWest Labour History Society website