TAILORS’ PAY AND ‘COMBINATIONS’ IN GEORGIAN LONDON

1820

The journeymen tailors had a history of solidarity dating back at least to the early 18th century.  What nowadays would be called trade unions were then in existence, under the names of ‘clubs’ or ‘combinations’, although they were much more at the local level than trade unions are today.  They met in ‘houses of call’, which were usually public houses.   The first evidence of this militancy was in 1721, when the master tailors of London presented a petition to the House of Commons, complaining of the combination and strike of their journeymen.  These combinations must have been quietly in existence for some years, perhaps starting as friendly societies, for them to have achieved by this time the power to challenge their employers in this way.  On five occasions between 1702 and 1720 the masters had appealed to Parliament, but the journeymen were never mentioned in these appeals.  In February 1721 the master tailors of London and Westminster complained that the combination of journeymen numbered 15,000, and that they were striking for better pay and shorter hours.  A Bill resulted, which received the royal assent on 7th June, 1721, which supported the masters and made it lawful for refractory journeymen to be fined or imprisoned.  The effect of this act was to suppress activity in the combinations for twenty years.

On 25th September, 1744, the master tailors again petitioned Parliament in a similar vein, that the journeymen had again organized themselves into combinations and were refusing to work for the legally enforced wage levels.  The Government response was to target the publicans on whose premises the ‘houses of call’ met, and to prosecute them for harbouring the members of the combinations.  No further action was taken by the Government, but the effect was that much public sympathy was generated for the plight of the journeymen.   Eventually, in July, 1751, the journeymen secured from the Court of Quarter Sessions in the County of Middlesex an order fixing their wages at “2s.6d. per day from Lady Day till Michaelmas and 2s. per day from Michaelmas to Lady Day, in addition to the allowance of three half-pence for breakfast.  The hours of work, however, were not altered and remained at 6 am to 8 pm with an hour off for dinner.”  The journeymen appeared happy with this, but there was soon further agitation, which gained them an hour’s reduction in their working day.  The masters attempted to undo these reforms on several occasions, but without success.  In November, 1763 the journeymen secured a further small daily wage increase, but the combinations continued to fight for better wages, bringing their activities more before the public gaze, and even making them subject to ridicule – an example being Foote’s play: “The Tailors: A Tragedy for Warm weather”, which is described in more detail, with its later consequences, in my blog below: “Injury to insult – The Revolting Tailors”.  The play coined the nicknames ‘flints’ and ‘dungs’ for union and non-union tailors.

The masters got round some of the restrictions of the legal rates of pay by moving their manufactories out of Middlesex, and sometimes by secretly paying their best journeymen additional amounts in cash. The London combination again appealed to the Court in 1772 and received a further wage increase of 6d. per day, and 1s. per day during general mourning (see my ‘General Mourning’ blog).  In 1795, after further appeals, the Government fixed the journeymen’s pay at 27s. per week, with double during general mourning.   Further disputes over wages and hours ensued during the years following, culminating in the events of August, 1805, covered in my blog “Injury to insult – The Revolting Tailors”,  but we are now straying out of Louis’ period.

The source for most of this blog can be found in a very informative book:  Select Documents illustrating the History of Trade Unionism: 1. The Tailoring Trade, by F. W. Galton.

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