Back to top

Trade Union Emblems

Edmund and Ruth Frow
issue number: : 

A few years ago, a woman phoned the District Office of the Union which represents the engineering workers and asked the Secretary if he was interested in her father's emblem. When he indicated not only interest, but considerable enthusiasm, she invited him to a house in Ardwick which stood in an area of abandoned desolation waiting for the final visit of the bulldozer before it joined the folk lore of industrial slums in Manchester.

In the house, the woman explained that the emblem was her father's proudest possession. It had hung on the living room wall beside the fireplace and even in the worst days of ill health and unemployment it was never taken to the pawn—brokers with other household effects because "that's me emblem." Whatever else went, the emblem, badge of craft and pride in being one of the "skilled" men, remained to bolster the family's morale. She thought that it was hardly suitable to take to a new modern flat on the overspill estate which she had been allocated but she did not want the emblem to join the bricks and mortar in the wake of the bulldozer.

Emblems were one of the traditions taken from the medieval craft guilds and accepted by the "new model unions" when they began serious organisation from the 1850's. Earlier craft unions began the process of taking the trappings that had developed over centuries in the Gilds; the initiation ceremony, the apprenticeship of young boys and the armorial appearance of their badges of office and adapted them to suit the different requirements of a trade union. As the Craft Gilds became increasingly the preserve of the Masters or in modern terms, the employers, so they ceased to represent in any way the interests of the journeymen. By the eighteenth century the journeymen had lost whatever participation they might once have had in the London City Companies and therefore set up their own protective societies to serve their trade interests. The same pattern can be traced in provincial towns. The Webbs are prepared to assert with confidence that "in no case did any Trade Union in the United Kingdom arise, either directly or indirectly, by descent, from a craft gild." That said, however, it can clearly be seen that the ceremony and impedimenta of the developing trade unions owed something to the dying Gilds.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century the tin plate workers were proving reluctant to join the Worshipful Company of Tin-Plate Workers. This indicates that they had already formed an organisation of their own. The arms of the Worshipful Company included the motto, "Amore sitis uniti", ( Unite in Love). The same motto was used by the Wolverhampton Society of Tin-Plate Workers, The Liverpool Tin-Plate Workers' Society, The Glasgow Society and the Scottish Tin-Plate and Sheet Metal Workers and Braziers' Society. When the national Tin-Plate Workers' Society was formed in 1862 with Headquarters in Manchester, the same motto was incorporated in the emblem together with the symbolic figures which, by that time, had become the accepted design by the metal trades. These traditional figures were in some cases, 'Mars' who vainly petitioned the workmen to mend his broken sword, juxtaposed with the goddess of peace who is graciously received by a man typical of the trade which the emblem represents. On others 'Justice', with drawn sword and balance, indicating the adherence of the union to the principles of honour and right, balances 'Clemency' who having sheathed her sword -offers the Olive Branch as an indication of her peaceful intentions. It is perhaps, worth no more than a passing thought that the craft unions which admitted no women to their ranks, used male figures to indicate the 'baddies' and female to convey those positive attributes which they wished to emulate.

Many craft emblems show the Aesop fable "The Bundle of Sticks" together with wording "Union is Strength". In many, the acknowledgement to deistical influence is shown by an opening in the clouds through which shine "the beams of Providence" offering "Goodwill Towards Mankind presumably the men of that particular trade rather more so than others.

Many craft emblems portray the extent of the work undertaken by the members of the union. The later amalgamations naturally include a varied selection of trades. The Tin-Plate Workers include a picture showing the sea, shipping„a railway and a factory. The Foundry Workers include three pictures showing aspects of foundry work flanked by examples of the work done in them, the plough, shipping, a bridge and a factory. On top is shown a miner kneeling in a restricted seam extracting the necessary ore without which the foundrymen were unable to work.

Acknowledgement is made on mid nineteenth century emblems to the fathers of modern industry such as James Watt, improver of the steam engine, Samuel Crompton, inventor of the spinning mule and Sir Richard Arkwright, inventor of the Spinning Frame, who are framed atop the scenes of factory life beneath them in the emblem of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. This Society was the original 'new model union' and it set the pattern on which the craft unions modelled themselves. Towards the end of the century the influence of the pre-Raphaelites is seen in the flowing robes and curvaceous females which entwine themselves around the decorative floral embellishments of the National Society of Amalgamated Brass Workers, established in 1872.

When unions of labourers and 'unskilled' workers began to develop under the influence of the early Socialists, Tom Mann, Will Thorne, Leonard Hall and Ben Tillett, few adopted the 'badge of craft', but those that did showed more interest in the practicalities of daily life than the more remote acquisition of virtues. The National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers of Great Britain and Ireland established in 1889, included the scenes where labourers would be found, the medieval wight trying to break a bundle of sticks, but also added a modern time-keeping clock with the slogan "Eight hours Labour"..

Early emblems were printed in black and white and were hand coloured. The fortunate owner of an example of one of these emblems will display it near to the later colour-printed version and the difference will reflect how dearly we have paid for the advances in technique. It is unlikely that many collectors will be able to do this because early examples are few and far between. The latest emblems produced by unions representing modern trades such as the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives and the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen are more simple and direct in their design. They are also more brash and lurid in their colouring and lose considerably in their impact.

The woman who passed her father's emblem to the A.U.E.W. for safe keeping, acted in a most responsible manner. The emblem will be treasured and carefully preserved. But she missed, by handing it over, an opportunity of keeping it in her own home to adorn the walls and act as a reminder of the tradition and pride which each succeeding generation of workers inherits. Emblems grow on one. What begins as an exercise in archive retrieval, ends as an appreciation of an art form which has not yet been fully documented. There are still emblems to be saved and we would urge historians to be aware of this and act quickly before it is too late.

Search the NorthWest Labour History Society website