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A society of brushmakers

G.D.H. Cole once described the Brushmakers as " the ancient home of trades unionism". If the records of the various Brushmaker societies deposited at the WCML for safe keeping by GMB are anything to go by, that statement is certainly true. The deposit contains some of the earliest records of the trade union movement to have survived the records show that the first local society of brushmakers was the Manchester Society formed in 1747. this was quickly followed by a number of other local societies . William Kiddier in his book, " The old Trade Unions", refers to a directory published by the London Society in 1829 which gives the names of secretaries and Clubhouses of 40 independant societies.

The Local societies

Bewdley first mentioned 1829
Birmingham - formation date 1782
Blackburn first mentioned 1829
Bolton first mentioned 1829
Bradford first mentioned 1829
Bristol - formation date 1782
Bury St. Edmunds first mentioned 1829
Chester - first mentioned 1828
Coventry first mentioned 1828
Derby first mentioned 1828
Diss first mentioned 1828
Exeter first mentioned 1828
Gloucester first mentioned 1828
Hull first mentioned 1828
Ipswich first mentioned 1828
Kettering first mentioned 1828
Kings Lynn formation date 1786
Lancaster first mentioned 1828
Leeds formation date 1791
Leicester formation date 1785
Litchfield first mentioned 1828
Liverpool first mentioned 1828
London first mentioned 1806
Macclesfield first mentioned 1831
Manchester formation date 1747
Norwich first mentioned 1828
Plymouth first mentioned 1828
Poole first mentioned 1828
Preston first mentioned 1828
Salisbury first mentioned 1828
Sheffield first mentioned 1828
Shrewsbury first mentioned 1828
Southampton first mentioned 1828
Staveley formation date 1815
Tewkesbury first mentioned 1828
Witham first mentioned 1826
Wolverhampton first mentioned 1828
Worcester first mentioned 1828
York first mentioned 1828

Although at first the Bristol and Manchester Societies were dominant, it was not long before the London Society took over as the Head Office, advising the others and later operating the Brushmakers Benevolent Institution established in 1828.

As early as 1805 the country was divivded into six principle locations where negotiations between the masters and the journeyment regularly took place for an agreed list of prices for the various types, styles and mixes of hair and fibre in the endless variety made by the brushmakers.a number of early price lists from Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds, London, Manchester and Sheffield have survived giving a major insight into the trade.

The pan - shop rather than the factory was the brushmakers traditional workplace and in the early days the master worked together with their journeymen and apprentices. They were probably members of the local society as well. Brushmakers were paid by piecework and , according to William Kiddier, the Brushmakers historian, the rate of pay was based on the number of knots completed. In London in 1805 the rate was one penny for twenty knots. In Manchester, in 1866 the rate was down to 25 knots per penny.

Early rules and articles of association indicate a high entrance fee of £1.00 and an equally high contribution of one shilling in Birmingham and sixpence plus quarterly levies in Manchester. The lists of " legal" members of each Society were circulated giving dates of the commencement and completion of apprenticeship. There was a strict control over entry into the trade which may well have varied from local society to local society. Certainly most Societies produced lists of "legal" journeymen and apprentices employed by "legal " employers in "legal" pan - shops.

There is in the Brushmaker Collection at the WCML an emblem of the Independent Society of Brushmakers. Formed in 1810 it was apparently dissolved in 1825. Nothing further is know about the organisation. It could well have been set up locally as a rival to one of the local societies listed above.

The Dublin Society of Brushmakers is known to have existed by the 1840s. There were close links with the English societies.. It became a branch of the National Society of Brushmakers in 1917 but broke away from the National in the 1950s and joined the Workers Union of Ireland.

National Organisation

The United Society of Brushmakers was formed in 1839 as result of amalgamation of a number of local societies. It is not known which local societies went into the new national body but it is known that a number including Leeds, Bristol, Chester, Kings Lynn, Macclesfield, Staveley and Witham remained aloof. The likely constituants of the national organisation were probably the small local societies such as Shrewsbury, Bolton and Bewdley - but this is only supposition. The fact that a number of local bodies remained outside of the national union also suggests that the benfits of amalgamation were not that great - certainly there was already a well established tramping system which was supported by all Brushmakers regardless of the autonomy of their local Society.

A further organisation appeared in the 1840s. The Painting Brushmakers Provident Society claimed formation date of 1842 and dissolved in 1952. This was probably a specialist London based society. It is known that members worked in Hamilton's in Harrow, North London in the 1860s.

Changes in technology

in the late 1880s there appears to have been a growth in unionisation on a fragmented basis. This was possibly due to the mechanisation of some processes which entailed a shift away from the small unit of production, the pan - shop , to factory based production. There were also changes in the raw materials used, the continued decline in traditional bristle and baleen and a rise in the use of bass. Women were also more fully invoved in the trade and as indicated elsewhere in this Bulletin,men were becoming increasing aware of the role of women in the trade and the need to organise women workers.

The Female Brushmakers Amalgamated Society was moted in the early 1890s but may not have got further than the discussion stage!

The Bass Dressers Society was registered in 1890 [ Reg. No. 876T ] with 76 members in 1892. by 1901 the society had ceased to exist either by dissolution or amalgamation. Similarly the Brushmakers of Scotland Protection Society was formed 1889 and dissolved in 1896. This date coincides with the removal of the United Society headquarters to Glasgow and possibly the two organisations merged. A conference of small local societies in 1898 resulted in the remaining local unions, Leeds, Bristol etc entering the embrace of the United Society.

The Amalgamated Society of Brushmakers was formed on 17th December 1889 and registered as Reg. No. 869T The union had male and female membership in Page's of Norwich. The ASB amalgamated with the United Society to form National Society of Brushmakers. It may have been an East Anglian union but more likely sought to recruit workers previously ignored by the United Society. Many of the firms with sites in East Anglia tended to concentrate on machine made rather than hand made brushes.

Finally, the Ivory and Bone Brushmakers Trade Protection Society was formed in 1892. The members refused to join in with other brushmakers to form the NSB and the Society was still in existance in 1929. It had however gone part way towards closer unity by taking part in the Federation of Trades Unions in the Brushmaking Industry set up in 1912. This body had an Executive comprising three representatives of the United Society, the Amalgamated, the Paint Brushmakers and the Ivory and Bone Brushmakers. The Federation was obviously intented to be a first step towards a full amalgamation but only the United and the Amalgamated completed the process uniting in early 1917.

The new union, the National Society of Brushmakers successfully represented male and female members, 2800 in 1921 through the Brush, Hair and fibre Wages Coucil until a name change in 1971 when the union added "and General Workers" to its title.

In 1983 with a membership of 700 the union transfered engagements to the Furniture, Timber and Allied Trades Union.


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