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THE EARLY DAYS OF TRADE UNIONISM IN STAMFORD

AND THE LABOUR DISPUTE AT MESSRS BLACKSTONE & CO IN 1890


Chris Hunt 2024


Before the birth of the Labour Party the interests of the working classes was disjointed and badly organised in a world where the machinations imposed by the Poor Law and the threat of the Workhouse was ever present. Of course the ‘lower class’ was split into various groups, no more so than the differences between skilled and semi-skilled workers. The new Unions in the 1880’s and 1890’s were set up to protect the interests of skilled workers against semi and unskilled workers, as well as to improve their members pay and conditions,


In Stamford the major industrial firm was Messrs Blackstone & Co. (Rutland Ironworks). The move from their cramped site on St Peter’s Street to a more expansive site on Ryhall Road and allied with becoming a limited company in 1889 was the foundation for the next hundred years of progress.


At this period in the firm’s history it almost solely build agricultural and sundry equipment, it was not until 1896 with the employment of the Carter Brothers and the introduction of the lamp start oil engine that the company diversified away from horse drawn farming equipment.


On Friday May 23rd 1890 Blackstone’s workers met at the Oddfellows Hall on All Saints Street to discuss their grievances. Five years previous during a period of agricultural depression the workforce had been offered a choice of a wage cut or having to work an hour longer every day (except Saturdays). The men preferred working the extra five hours a week, thus raising their time at work from fifty four to fifty nine hours per week. Unfortunately the firm later also reduced their wages, in some cases by a shilling and in some cases two shillings in the pound.


Previous to the meeting, foremen from the various department in the Works had met Mr Blackstone to raise their concerns and it had been felt that his reply was to some extent unsatisfactory. This was the reason, for what was a private meeting, at which Mr Alfred Clark (Moulder) was appointed to chair the meeting, Mr Arthur Smith (Fitter) the treasurer, and Mr Edwin Johnson (Iron planer and shaper) the secretary. Views were aired and a deputation was elected to meet Mr Blackstone, which they did on the Saturday afternoon. It was made up of Messrs A. Clark (chairman), Mr A. Smith (treasurer), Mr E. Johnson (secretary), G. Hill. R. Ringham and C. Hardy.


As a result, a further private meeting of Blackstone workers was held on Tuesday, again at the Oddfellows Hall when the deputation reported back on their meeting with management. The workers were demanding a reduction in their working week back from fifty nine to fifty four hour hours and an increase in wages back to the previous levels for those who had been employed when the pay cuts had taken place. It seems that Mr Blackstone had agreed to forego the percentage on piece work and to the increase of wages asked for, but refused the reduction of time. The latter part did not go down well with those at the meeting and it was further agreed that the deputation should talk again to management. One thing to the workers advantage was that there seemed to be plenty of orders at the time, as it was reported that the works was busy.


As a result of these discussions the workers got a pay rise, but no reduction in their working week. Unfortunately for Mr Blackstone and the other engineering companies in the town the dispute at Blackstone’s had galvanised the working men in the town.


On Saturday June 14th 1890 an open public meeting was held in the Oddfellows Hall, with approximately 120 working men present. Mr A. Clarke presided, supported by Messrs E. Johnson (secretary pro.tem), W. Walden (treasurer pro.tem), G. Hill, H. Ringham, and C. Hardy, together with Mr Broadberry (president) and  Mr Swain (vice president) of the Grantham branch of the Amalgamated Engineers and Mr Hopkinson, the secretary from the Grantham branch of the Tyneside and National Labour Union.


The Chairman said he thought that Stamford was the last town in the county not to have some kind of labour association and that it was quite time one was formed. Those present were informed of recent success amongst workers on Tyneside, in Leeds, Doncaster and Grantham. The men at the meeting were also reminded that fifty four hours per week was now the norm across England.


Mr Hopkinson informed the meeting that the contribution to the Tyneside and National Labour Union was 3 1/2d a week, with a 1s entrance fee. That the Union had been established for sixteen months and had 30,000 members. And that there was no sick benefit, but there was an accident benefit, and also a dispute benefit. At this stage the meeting was informed that there might be a labour dispute at any time, especially in Stamford, which brought an amount of laughter from those present. And that it was about time that there was one, which got cheers from those present. Other benefits included a death benefit, £4 0s 0d at the death of a member and £2 0s 0d at the death of a member’s wife.


Those present were told that if they joined the Union they would be helped until they had won their cause. And reminded that one of the problems in Stamford was that they were disunited, and that it was possible that improvements could be made to their working lives without necessarily going on strike.


After further discussion Mr E. Johnson moved “That having heard Messrs Broadberry and Hopkinson, we, the working men of Stamford, resolve to at once form a branch of the Tyneside and National Labour Union.” Mr Ringham of the Rutland Ironworks, seconded and the motion was carried unanimously. About one hundred men then joined the branch.


The issue of the working week and the reduction of hours had however for Mr Blackstone not gone away and clearly further talks took place for on Monday September 1st 1890 just before their dinner hour the workers were summonsed by the ringing of a bell to a meeting outside the Workshop. They were addressed by Mr Blackstone, chairman of the directors, he thanked them on behalf of the directors and the shareholders of the company for their co-operation during the past year, especially at the busiest of time. The request for the reduction of an hour a day in the time of labour had received the attention of the shareholders at a special meeting, and it had been decided to grant the nine hour system. And that this new arrangement would take effect at once.


This was met with loud cheers.


So in future the working hours would be from 6.00am to 5.00pm Monday to Friday, on Mondays to Fridays; and 6.00am to 1.00pm on Saturdays. (Of course meal reliefs and breaks were unpaid).

So from that Monday evening the staff went home at 5.00pm instead of 6.00pm.


So began the gradual organising of union labour in Stamford.




A print version can be downloaded HERE

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