GDH Cole once described the Brushmakers as "the ancient home of trades unionism".1 If the records of the various Brushmakers' Societies at the Working Class Movement Library are anything to go by, that statement is certainly true. The records contain some of the earliest records of the trades union movement to have survived.
Local Brushmakers' Societies
The historical documents show that the first Society of the Brushmakers was the Manchester Society formed in 1747. This was quickly followed by societies in Bristol (1782), Birmingham (1782), Kings Lynn or Lynn Regis (1786), Sheffield (1700s), Leeds (1791) and London (1806). William Kiddier in his book, The old trade unions: from unprinted records of the Brushmakers, refers to a directory published by the London Society in 1829 which gives the names of secretaries and Clubhouses of 40 independent societies. Manchester played a significant role in the development and unification of the societies into a trades alliance known as 'The United Society of Journeymen Brushmakers'.2
In the early days, the old Brushmakers, proud of their craft, banded together for protection from exploiting and sweat-shop employers. At that time there was intense hostility towards trades unionism and the Brushmakers had to be careful not to antagonise their employers in the delicate relationship that existed between them. Although at first, the societies in Manchester and Bristol were dominant, it was not long before London took over and acted as the head society advising the others and later operating the Brush Makers' Benevolent Institution established in May 1828.3
As early as 1805 the country was divided into six principal locations where negotiations between the masters and the journeymen 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 the early Lists of Prices from Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds, London, Manchester and Sheffield have survived giving a major insight into the trade.
The pan shop rather than a factory was the Brushmakers' traditional workplace and most masters worked together with their journeymen and apprentices. Brushmakers were paid by piecework and, according to William Kiddier, the Union's historian, the rate of payment was based on the number of knots completed. In London in 1805 the rate was one penny for 20 knots, but by 1866 in Manchester the rate was down to 25 knots per penny
The early rules and articles of association indicate a high entrance fee of £1.00 and an equally high contribution of 1 shilling per week in Birmingham and 6 pence per week plus quarterly levies in Manchester. The list of the 'legal' members of each Society were circulated giving the dates of the commencement and completion of apprenticeship. All apprentices appear to have been indentured to the trade. There was a strict control over entry to the trade which may have varied from local society to local society. Certainly most societies produced lists of 'legal' journeymen and apprentices employed by 'legal' masters in 'legal' workshops.
The loosely knit but highly organised federal structure of the United Society of Brushmakers also operated a tramping route system of relief for unemployed journeymen who were prepared to seek employment in other districts. This system operated over a 150 years before the state organised Unemployment Benefit. The route covered 44 towns from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Plymouth where the travelling journeymen were paid relief. If the whole route was covered, at least 1,210 weary miles of hard walking would have been undertaken. The tramping was mainly done during the day and when he reported to the appointed centre in the town, he would be given a list of legal shops where he might gain employment. He was given a meal and a bed for the night and if unsuccessful in getting a job, he was sent on his way to the next stop on route. The system of tramping was once scurrilously attacked in the Daily Express under a headline "TRAMPS WITH BEER MONEY - whatever will our Socialist friends think of next?".4 What they omitted to tell their readers was that it had been in operation for centuries.
There is, in the Brushmaker Collection at the Library, 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.
In 1839 The United Society of Brushmakers issued an emblematic certificate similar to that used by most of the other trade societies. It contains the arms of the Brushmakers flanked by a Russian peasant and a boar. This was because the bristles came from the hairs of the boar and were imported from Imperial Russia. The influence of the London Society is evident with the view of St. Catherine's Dock where the imports were unloaded.5
Brushmakers' Benevolent Institute
Throughout the 19th century the Brushmakers' Benevolent Institution (founded in 1828 and reorganised in 1844) provided sickness and hardship relief for the Brushmakers in all societies. It was an Approved Society and provided Death Benefit of £10 for the member and £5 for his wife. It later assisted members unable to find employment in this country, to emigrate. Assisted passages were provided of £15 to Australia and £10 to America and Canada. The Society also maintained correspondence with its former members through the Australian Brushmakers, Millets Broom Makers and Horse Hair Workers and the Brushmakers' International of New York.
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 constituents 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 benefits 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.
Amalgamation of Brushmakers' Unions
In the late 1880s there appears to have been some fragmentation of the industry. This was possibly due to the mechanisation of some processes which entailed a move from the pan shops to a factory.
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 involved in the trade and 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 mooted in the early 1890s but may not have got further than the discussion stage.
Several new unions of Brushmakers came into existence. The Bass Dressers' Society was registered in 1890 with seventy six members in 1892. Whether this Society was of older origin as its name suggests is uncertain, but by 1901 it had ceased to exist either by dissolution or amalgamation.6
An Amalgamated Society of Brushmakers was established on 17 December 1889 and registered on 17 November 1893.7
A Brushmakers of Scotland Protection Association was registered in 1889. It operated for about seven years before being dissolved in 1896. That date coincides with the move to Glasgow of the United Society of Brushmakers who negotiated a price list with the Glasgow employers. Possibly the two Societies merged.8
In 1897 The United Society of Brushmakers held a conference for discussing amalgamation of the various independent Societies. This resulted in a number of them joining together in the United Society of Brushmakers.9
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.
A Federation of the Trades Unions in the Brush Making Industry was formed in 1912 and funded by quarterly levies of the memberships. It had an Executive Committee of three representatives from each of the Painting Brushmakers' Provident Society, the Ivory and Bone Brushmakers' Society, the Amalgamated Society of Brushmakers and the United Society of Brushmakers. This led to the formation and registration of a new union, the National Society of Brushmakers from an amalgamation of the Amalgamated and United Societies, following a conference held in Birmingham on 25 March 1916. Two small unregistered independent societies of Brushmakers, the Painting Brushmakers' Provident Society and the Bone and Ivory Brushmakers' Society refused the merger and carried on independently.10
In 1930 William Kiddier produced a book, The old trade unions: from unprinted records of the Brushmakers, researched from the unpublished records of the Brushmakers. In it, he firmly established their position as one of the oldest unions in continuous existence. Kiddier had worked at the trade and had a thorough understanding of the industry. He described the Brushmakers as "men with a trade in their fingers". The book was widely reviewed both here and abroad as the file of reviews in the deposit show.11
Although by 1938, the trade with only 2,300 members was in decline, it continued for many years controlled by the Brush, Hair and Fibre Wages Council. In 1971 the union added 'and General Workers Union' to its title.
In 1983 the National Society of Brushmakers and General Workers' Union transferred its engagements to the Furniture, Timber and Allied Trades (FTAT) with a membership of 700 on its books. Finally, FTAT merged with the General, Municipal and Boilermakers who generously deposited the records in the Library in 1994.
The deposit is warmly welcome. It is a continuation of GMB support for the Library as a major haven for trade union archives.
1 GDH Cole, British trade unionism to-day: a survey (1939) - Shelfmark: B32
2 Although the earliest item in the collection of the London Society is the Rules 1806 it is known from the Records contained in the FS2/955 file at the Public Record Office that the London Society was formed as 'The Friendly Society of Brushmakers' meeting at the Craven Head Inn, Drury Lane, Middlesex with Rules first registered 31 October 1799.
3 Articles of Association of 'The Brushmakers Benevolent Institution', 1834 - Shelfmark AF Brush Box 2
4 Daily Express, 23 September 1930.
5 See copy of original emblem in the Library emblem collection.
6. Register of Friendly Societies Report on Trade Unions, 1892 and Board of Trade Report on Trade Unions, 1901.
7 Register of Friendly Societies Report on Trade Unions, 1893.
8 Arthur Marsh and Victoria Ryan, Historical directory of trade unions Vol 3 (1980) - Shelfmark: R03
9 Board of Trade Report, 1897.
10 United Society of Brushmakers' Report. 1912.
11 William Kiddier, The old trade unions: from unprinted records of the Brushmakers (1930) - Shelfmark: B33
based on an article by John Smethurst, originally published in Working Class Movement Library Bulletin no 5, 1995
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