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Silk workers' unions archive contents

by John Percy

The towns of Macclesfield and Leek developed from the 17th century onwards as the major centres of a silk goods industry which also took in other parts of east Cheshire and west Staffordshire.  It is not surprising that these two towns became the headquarters of the trade unions set up to protect and advance the interests of the workers of what became in the l9th century primarily a factory-based industry.

The archive described here was deposited in the Working Class Movement Library by the Union of Textile Workers through the good offices of the General Federation of Trade Unions.  Some of the material in the collection was used by Frank Burchill and Jim Sweeney for their 1971 centenary history of the Amalgamated Society of Textile Workers and Kindred Trades1.  The archive has been organised into 34 boxes. This is an attempt to draw attention to some of its highlights.

The Amalgamated Society of Textile Workers and Kindred Trades (now the Union of Textile Workers) was formed in 1919 and has been based since its inception at Foxlowe, Leek. This union developed from the merger of most of the unions which in 1907 set up the Leek Textile Federation. The surviving minute books of the constituent unions and the Federation date back no further than 1907, although the ASTWKT dated its centenary back to the formation of the Associated Trimming Weavers Society in 18712.  Therefore almost all of the collection consists of 20th century material.

The first seven boxes contain minute books of the pre ASTWKT unions and the Federation. Notable among these is box 5, which contains the minute book of the Amalgamated Society of Women Workers. Material from women-only unions is quite rare. The boxes also have incomplete runs of annual reports and a set of apprentices indenture forms for the trimming weavers.

By 1907 several of the unions shared in the services as Secretary of William Bromfield. This facilitated the federation and amalgamation process, and Bromfield held the post of Secretary of the ASTWKT from 1919 to 1942, setting a trend for long service carried on by his successors, Herbert Lisle and Alfred Hitchmough. In 1918 Bromfield was elected Labour M.P. for Leek, and, with the exception of 1931 to 1935, held on to the seat until 1945.

There were trade unions which chose not to join the Federation and/or the ASTWKT. The most significant of these was the National Silk Workers Association, originally known as the Macclesfield Power Loom Silk Weavers and General Silk Workers Association. This remained separate until merging with the ASTWKT in 1965. The NSWA was based in Macclesfield and probably remained the major union for the silk workers there, although the ASTWKT did have a Macclesfield branch, and research needs to be done into the relationships between the two unions.

Boxes 8 to 20 carry ASTWKT material and boxes 21 to 24 that deriving from the NSWA. ASTWKT material includes Executive Council minute books and synopses, rule books, annual reports, material sent to members (headed Textile Voice from 1970), records of inter-union disputes, and branch minutes. In addition to Leek and Macclesfield, branches existed at various times at Cheadle (Staffs), Congleton, Great Yarmouth, Mayfield, Sandbach and Tean. The NSWA material also includes executive minutes, reports and accounts, records of inter-union disputes, and minute books for the branches at Macclesfield and Dunfermline.

The rest of the collection records the external relations of the silk workers' unions, including material on claims and arbitrations (Box 25) and disputes with specific companies (Box 26). Boxes 27 and 28 facilitate long-scale study of economic conditions of the workers because they document, respectively, the wage rates and price agreements negotiated in the industry. The price agreement material contains the only significant holdings in the archive from the 19th century. The earliest document is a list of prices for Manchester smallware weavers for 1873, and information for Leek and Congleton starts from 1877.

The final part of the archive deals with representation on other bodies, notably the Joint Industrial Council for the Silk Industry and the Joint Industrial Council for the Narrow Fabric Industry.  Of interest to anyone studying the history of Leek will be box 34, which has the minute books for the Leek Trades and Labour Council from 1909 to 1934.

by John Percy, 1999

Full details of the archive can be found in our online catalogue

You can find more detail about the occupation of 19th century silk workers here


1. Frank Burchill and Jim Sweeney, A history of trade unionism in the North Staffordshire textile industry, University of Keele, 1971.
2. A slightly earlier date for the centenary would have been achieved if the Amalgamated Society of Silk Twisters (established 1866) had not decided to stay independent from the ASTWKT. For an account of earlier attempts at unionisation in the silk industry, see Arthur Marsh (ed.), Historical directory of trade unions, vol. 4. Scolar, 1994, pp. 324-327.

Other Sources

* W. Henry Brown, The silken glow of Macclesfield. Manchester: Co-operative Printing Society, 1938 (Jubilee History of Macclesfield Silk Manufacturing Society Ltd).
* Louanne Collins and Moira Stevenson, Silk sarsenets, satins, steels and stripes: 150 years of Macclesfield textile design. Macclesfield: Museums Trust, 199-.
* Gail Malmgreen, Silk town: industry and culture in Macclesfield, 1750-1835. Hull U.P., 1985.
* Jill Norris, Well fitted for females: women in the Macclesfield silk industry. In: J.A. Jowitt and A.J. McIver (ed.), Employers and labour in the English textile industry, 1850-1939, 1988, pp. 187-202.
* Frank Warner, The silk industry of the United Kingdom: its origin and development. London: Drane's, 1921.