Yours Fraternally: Contesting International Trade Union Solidarity 1914-1919

On 21st July 2021 I gave a paper as part of the Distant Communications conference about the problematic nature of friendship between trade union leaders during the first world war. This blog post is a short version of that paper, and focuses on the narrative of why and how internationalism and solidarity was contested and ruptured by the need to show patriotic allegiance over fraternal kinship.


Trade unions are a space for finding like-minded people that want to improve conditions for workers and families, and who will work together for a common cause. They are also a space for the type of explosive arguments that could rival any episode of Love Island.* This was no less true for the General Federation of Trade Unions in their early years, even though, as a federation rather than a union, they operated slightly differently. They were created by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in 1899 to act as arbitrators and as administrators of a national strike fund. Trade unions could affiliate to them (in addition to the TUC), in order to have access to advice on running their union, arbitrators to step in and mediate to avoid or navigate strikes, and a strike fund for their members to draw on if they needed it. They got off to a slow start, but eventually reached a peak affiliation of 1.5 million workers in 1921.

A snapshot of some trade unions, federations, friendly societies and amalgamations that were on the GFTU’s books in 1914. Source: ‘GFTU Annual Report 1914’ Bishopsgate.org,uk, reference: GFTU/1/14

When we talk about trade unions, we often talk about the culture of social cohesion within them; these are people bound by shared common experiences of particular trades, geography or class. In my thesis I talk about trade unions as emotional communities, having taken inspiration from Barbara Rosenwein‘s framework, as a way of exploring the feelings that bound people together (or indeed, the forced them apart). This was harder for a federation like the GFTU, because they were a group of representatives of disparate trades, from all corners of Britain and Ireland, and with wildly different experiences of organisation, poverty and politics. In 1914 for example, affiliates of the GFTU ranged from unions such as the Amalgamated Weavers’ Association, based mainly in the North West of England with nearly 200,000 members, many of whom were women, or the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, that had branches all across the country, with 115,000 members. On the other end of the scale, there were 31 members of the Friendly Society of Wireworkers in Manchester, and 153 members of the Amalgamated Society of Cricket Ball Makers in Tonbridge, that chose to affiliate to the GFTU. Some unions represented highly skilled, specialised trades, such as the Pressed Glass Makers in Gateshead, or (my personal favourite) the London-based Fancy Leather Workers’ Society. Others represented general labourers, such as the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers’ Union.

With this great variety, came great tension. How do you represent all these different trades – again in 1914, there were 154 affiliated unions – when they all wanted different things? The best and most effective option was to elect a management committee to represent the whole Federation. In theory, they elected 15 delegates to the management committee each year, with a general secretary being the person in charge. In practice, the same people were often re-elected year on year, with the larger unions and kindred trades holding more sway than the smaller unions. The role of friendship networks was therefore integral in the management of trade union organisations, with like-minded people often working together to effect changes to working conditions, to lobby parliament, or to campaign for each other at rallies.

So what happens when they fall out? Some examples – like Jim Larkin, leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and devout catholic, refusing to speak on the same platform as Ernest Marklew, an SDF member that espoused a very unconventional appreciation for free love – are a little more obvious than others. There can be a tangled web of obtuse phrasing in newspaper articles, with vague assertions of ‘personal jealousies’ that are so tantalising for historians trying to figure out why certain people no longer wanted to work together. I wrote a little about the personal animosities that may have precipitated the GFTU’s expulsion from the Joint Board for the SSLH here.

But the example of a dramatic friendship break up I want to tell you about has a very obvious cause; war does tend to tear people away from each other.


William Appleton, born in 1860, was a lacemaker in his native Nottingham before he became a trade union official. He worked his way up to be the general secretary of the Nottingham Lacemakers’ Society, and was then elected to the general secretaryship of the GFTU in 1907. He held that post until he was 78 years old in 1938. When he took over, the GFTU were already established as the voice of British trade unionism on the international stage, and were a hub of information for trade union activity all over the world. Their annual reports included biographies of foreign leaders, statistics of trade union memberships, and evaluations of political advances for the working class. The GFTU were active members of the International Conferences of the Secretaries of National Trade Union centres, which became the International Federation of Trade Unions; friendship between foreign leaders was the glue that held this together. Much of this foundational work towards establishing their international links was done by Isaac Mitchell, the first general secretary, and Pete Curran, the first chairman.

William Appleton (1860-1940)

In establishing the GFTU as the spokespeople for British trade unionists, they worked closely alongside Carl Legien, the German equivalent of Appleton. Legien had been a wood turner before his trade union career, which meant that both he and Appleton had an appreciation for craft unionism that focused on skills preservation and community-based welfare. They both tended to focus on the importance of conciliation over strikes, and came under fire from their more socialist-minded colleagues for readily considering the needs and wants of employers as well as workers (particularly so in Appleton’s case). Every GFTU report since 1901 held at least a mention of German trade unionism, if not a full report, and there were frequent fraternal visits between Britain and Germany. On a personal level, the correspondence between international leaders was also often reported, with emphatic appreciation and admiration being placed alongside statistics and reports as a way of centralising the personal friendships within their professional activities. Even brotherly love was expressed for their foreign counterparts.

Carl Legien (1861-1921)

Their closeness was also reflected in financial solidarity. There were frequent calls to support victimised workers from all over the world, and the GFTU responded by issuing calls for levies whenever they could. During the British Transport Workers’ strike in 1912, the IFTU (through Legien) raised £128,000 in support of the workers. Therefore these international connections of friendship had very material consequences for both the rank and file and the personal connections between labour leaders.

But then, of course, came the outbreak of war in 1914.

Most British public figures on the left immediately supported the government at the outbreak of war. There were some notable exceptions, particularly those from the Independent Labour Party, but most decided that patriotic solidarity rather than international allegiances had to be prioritised. The GFTU, under Appleton’s leadership, took on the patriotic mantle with gusto. They were the first trade union organisation to publish a manifesto once war had been declared, and in it they outlined the moral imperative for the working class of Britain to show ‘a real love of [their] country’ by fighting against the ‘outrages on women and children, and the massacres and burnings which have desolated both Belgium and Northern France.’ Appleton confidently quoted the bellicose writings of German militarist authors as evidence of ‘the considered conclusions of the dominant section of [German] countrymen’. This was quite a sweeping generalisation to make, and one that effectively demonised a large proportion of the German population, engendering an ‘us’ verses ‘them’ feeling and mentality. How would the friendship between Appleton and Legien fare? Their letters during the conflict reveal the effect of war on their public and personal friendship.

Sent on the 27th August 1914, a mere twenty-three days after Britain declared war on Germany, the first letter from Legien to Appleton began by lamenting ‘the frightful declaration of war’. After refuting the British press reports of unsavoury conduct by the German government, Legien attempted to reassure Appleton that foreigners in Germany have been ‘treated in the most friendly manner, and [were] well cared for.’Appleton’s reply expressed his ‘profound regret [at] the disastrous effect of the war upon our international relationships’. Blaming the conflict on the ‘arrogance’ of the few, Appleton expressed the hope that once it was finished ‘common people in every land’ would aim for ‘general well-being and happiness’ instead of war, which indicated his commonly shared feeling that the war, though awful, would at least be short-lived. On the matter of how Germans were being treated in Britain, Appleton derided the ‘foolish ones [that] have had to suffer imprisonment or fines’ because they failed to register as aliens, and added that ‘some Germans were in a state of serious destitution, and these were arrested more as a matter of kindness than as a matter of hostility’. By labeling arrests as kindness, particularly as Appleton had not seen the conduct of the arresting officers first hand, he was staking out a level of superiority that he bolstered with a veiled accusation of hostility, in that the Germans were ‘better off than the thousands of Belgian refugees who are seeking the charity and hospitality of London’ after fleeing German aggression. Nevertheless, Appleton ended his letter expressing the ‘hope that it will be possible to resume our joint efforts to secure real liberty, equality and fraternity’. Legien wrote again in December, ‘hoping that [they] may soon again be able to speak of “peace on earth”’ and requesting Appleton’s help in sending German literature to German trade unionist prisoners of war held at Frimley.

From Legien to Appleton, December 1914

Despite the simmering tensions in the letters, there was an administrative problem to contend with. As a tireless worker for the international cause, Legien had been the head of the IFTU and the base had been Berlin. This was now unpalatable to Appleton, and his American equivalent, Samuel Gompers. Appleton wrote to Gompers, saying that although there was ‘very little bitterness or anti-German feeling’ on behalf of the GFTU management committee, there had been adverse ‘opinions expressed that [he] had to combat’ in other quarters of the labour movement. By this point, it was well known that Appleton, alongside management committee members Ben Tillett and John Ward, was among the most overtly patriotic members of the left. Without a doubt, they were the ones expressing those very opinions. Appleton began lobbying for the International Secretariat to be moved to a neutral country, and he asked Gompers to raise this directly with Legien on behalf of the international members. Appleton told Gompers that he was ‘afraid [the war] is going to alter and affect rather seriously the international trade union movement’ because he felt it was now impossible to stop the British people from becoming as ‘bitter as the Belgians and the French’. Appleton expressed ‘the burden of responsibility’ in arranging the transfer of the IFTU secretariat away from Legien, and that he was still ‘most anxious to act without prejudice or ill-feeling’.

Responding to an earlier letter from Appleton, Legien wrote in April 1915 with a detailed account of how well British prisoners of war were being treated in their camps. Legien wanted to give Appleton ‘a description of what he saw and felt at the camp’, specifically to ‘re-establish and even strengthen the trade union bonds again’, which indicated Legien’s very clear desire for the international relationship to continue. Interestingly, Legien also mentioned agreeing with an article in the Federationist, the GFTU’s monthly newspaper, which stresses the connection that Legien still had with trade unionists in Britain; he was making it clear that he still wanted international solidarity to continue, and that he was not an outsider just yet.

Appleton’s response was considerably cooler in tone. Appleton warned:

‘Any efforts [of renewing international friendship] will be rendered more difficult by the methods of warfare adopted. The torpedoing and sinking of the “Falaba”, the drowning of unwarned, unarmed, undefended, and helpless non-combatants, and the useless and senseless firing upon would-be rescuers is begetting a hardness of heart that certainly did not exist previously. In addition to this, there is in circulation amongst the medical profession a number of photographs alleged, upon what is regarded as unimpeachable authority, to have been taken on the actual battlefields in Belgium. These photographs are of Britishers who, having fallen wounded, were brutally mutilated. Amongst the cases there are pictures of disembowelled men, and men whose faces have been hacked and whose brains have been smashed out.

By using such emotive descriptions of the visceral nature of war, Appleton was drawing a clear line between the two friends. Blame for the atrocities was not laid directly at Legien’s feet, but Appleton’s assurance that he would remain ‘uninfluenced by these stories’ is undermined by his use of them in this letter. Indeed, he admitted further on that his feelings were influenced by them, in that they had ‘filled [him] with sadness, because [he] cannot hope that we shall, much longer, be able to keep out of our people’s minds the idea of vengeance which attempts to find expression in reprisals’.


Two days later, on the 23rd April 1915, the friendship between Legien and Appleton was over. Legien had discovered that, unbeknownst to him, Appleton had published Legien’s letters in the Federationist. Appleton’s association with Legien, a high-profile German member of parliament and trade unionist, was something that Appleton felt he needed to distance himself from, and he did so by publishing his correspondence in a bid to ‘prove’ that his patriotic feelings regarding the war had superseded his feelings of international solidarity and friendship.

The Federationist. Source: British Library

Legien’s response was to attempt to convene a conference between all leaders regarding the issue of moving the IFTU secretariat to a neutral country so that the decision was democratic rather than simply at the behest of the British, French and American representatives only. His letter ended with a barb. ‘It need scarcely be pointed out to the officers of the affiliated National Centres’, he wrote, ‘that in view of the conditions under which the conference is to meet, this publication should not be made public’ His annoyance was palpable. By going ahead and publishing Legien’s request to not publish the letters, Appleton showed a clear disregard for Legien’s wishes and feelings.

This chain of correspondance, as well as appearing in their newspaper, also appeared in the 1916 GFTU annual report. The correspondance chain between Legien was this time punctuated with Appleton’s letters to and from Gompers, and other international leaders, to show that he had moved to request the transfer of the International Secretariat office very early on in the conflict. This web of communication, with its contrasting descriptions of anti-German sentiments, but remaining feelings of friendship, indicate the complexity of navigating public camaraderie during conflicts. There followed a clamouring flurry of letters, with different leaders attempting to convene conferences with different aims: some wanted trade unionists to set aside political differences and meet to discuss industrial matters; some wanted to meet only to exert pressure on the German representatives to declare support for the Allies; others, including Britain, refused to meet with any ‘belligerent’ nations under any circumstances whatsoever.


The friendship between all these leaders – from Britain, France, America, Germany, Austria, Sweden etc – had crumbled into factions within the first year of the war. Perhaps this is not surprising, but when taken against the backdrop of the very clear bonds that existed before 1914, it does illustrate the fragility of trade union international solidarity. These organisations, separate from the socialist organisations which are a whole other web of complex allegiances, attempted to be based solely on matters of industrial questions. Their reports dabbled in politics and social reforms, but they mainly stayed on course with matters of workplace arbitration and representation. War put an end to that, with these leaders unable to stay in their industrial lanes whilst also representing their people that gave their lives to the war effort. The GFTU, through Appleton’s leadership, became synonymous with conservative unionism, patriotic support of the government, and wartime jingoism.

Patriotism came first, and international fraternity lost. However, it was the public display of correspondence, and a disregard for the privacy requested from one former friend to another, that acted as the catalyst. Eventually Appleton became the new International Secretariat, but by then the GFTU’s position in the labour movement had irreversibly changed and they found themselves lacking their former levels of influence. The TUC took a renewed interest in international matters, and the GFTU’s important and foundational work in establishing international trade union links was largely forgotten.


Most of the GFTU’s records are digitised at the Bishopsgate Institute.

*Well…perhaps. I’ve never watched Love Island.

On Trade Unionism and Friendship

Labour history is full of extraordinary people that did extraordinary things. I find myself constantly amazed at the fortitude of those that turned early experiences of abject poverty and unsafe working conditions into inspiration for demanding and achieving such huge social, political and industrial advances for the working classes. Many carried the physical scars of their earlier lives; Will Thorne (1857-1946), leader of the Gasworkers’ Union and Labour MP, had acid burns on his hands from working in a munitions factory as a child, whilst many others described similar lasting marks from childhood chilblains, workplace injuries and poverty-related illnesses in their memoirs and other writings.[1] The study of the labour movement is definitely a serious business.

But these labour leaders could also have a laugh.

On the 5th of September 1911, the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC hosted a dinner to welcome the fraternal delegates from America at the Royal Turk’s Head Hotel in Newcastle.

Image: https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/plan-turn-historic-newcastle-building-8135587
The site of the hotel is now Barclays House on Grey Street.

Ben Tillett (1860-1943), leader of the Dockers’ Union and eventual Labour MP, was one of the guests that night, and I found the menu pamphlet in his collection at the Modern Records Centre at Warwick University. The cover, with entwined British and American flags, exemplifies the feelings of camaraderie and friendship that existed between the delegates. That Tillett kept it (his records are scant) also shows how he likely would have valued this type of event. He certainly valued nights out in general.

Source: Modern Records Centre MSS.74/5/2 (the following pictures are all from the same file)

There is a fair amount to say about the role of sociability within trade unionism and politics, and the ways in which certain masculine ideals of camaraderie were valued and served to create specific communities, working relationships and genuine friendships.[2] However, sometimes it’s just good fun to kick back and wonder…

What would William John Davis (1848-1934), founding member of the Amalgamated Brassworkers’ Society and the General Federation of Trade Unions, look like if he had been a jockey instead of a trade unionist? Well, thankfully the menu pamphlet for the evening at Newcastle has all sorts of answers (if you could imagine the questions in the first place).


The designer of the pamphlet took the ‘IF’ from ‘International Federation’ and just… ran with it. Every page is an ‘If’ question. So, if C. W, Bowerman (1851-1947), secretary of the Parliamentary Committee from 1911 until 1921, had been Joan of Arc…

… he would have cut quite a fine figure, apparently.

Enoch Edwards (1852-1912), former miner and Lib-Lab MP seemed to be a bit more suited to the church…

…than the more lively former docker James Sexton (1856-1938)…

I have to admit that I thought this one of Alfred Gill (1856-1914), general secretary of the Bolton and District Operative Spinners Association, was a little lazy…

*groan*

But there really was no other way to portray William ‘Mabon’ Abraham (1842-1922), MP, first President of the South Wales Miners’ Federation and legendary orator…

When he wasn’t at ILP, Fabian, SDF, GFTU, Cabinetmakers’ Society or Labour Party meetings, James O’Grady (1866-1934) was often found partaking in his favourite sport…

By this time, Will Thorne had joined the SDF, established the National Union of Gasworkers’ and General Labourers, been a member of the TUC Parliamentary Committee, and been elected as MP for West Ham. He had also become a father to twelve children.

Ben Tillett of the Dockers’ Union seemed to have struggled to grow facial hair…

Whereas William Brace (1865-1947), Lib-Lab MP and former miner, never struggled in that department…

As you can see, I had quite a journey through Edwardian humour during my last archive visit. We often talk about the role these people played in the labour movement, and their alliances or factions, pacts or disagreements, but I am fascinated by how they interacted with one another on a more social level. Some of these people held wildly different political beliefs, and I don’t know how much of that spilled out into their social scene. Also, these pictures are just really, really funny.

There are far too many of these to share in one blog post, and there are even another two booklets of the same style. One portrays the delegates as Dickens characters (James Sexton is the Artful Dodger), the other as Shakespearean quotes. The person responsible for these fantastic early photoshop pictures is Joseph Williams (1873-1929), founder of the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union. He knew it was best to poke fun at himself too:

There are many anecdotes about the nightlife around the conferences of the TUC and the Labour Party (with Ben Tillett at the centre of most of the stories, come to think of it) so it is no wonder that Beatrice Webb disdainfully lamented that the trade unionists “spent most of their time eating and drinking” on a delegation to Paris in 1918, and that “the position of privilege, irrespective of capacity… is becoming the most scandalous circumstance of the labour movement”.[3] Whether or not Beatrice approved, social events like this were integral to bringing together the people leading the movement. This little insight into the shared humour that brought them together is a really good way of looking at them as not just MPs or trade unionists, but as friends that knew how to celebrate their achievements. Their friendship was an important bond that kept he labour movement lumbering forwards, and pictures like these show their relaxed ‘out of office’ sides that we don’t often get to see in trade union minutes or parliamentary speeches. I wasn’t expecting to find these, but I’m so glad that I did.

Oh go on, one more, because this one is my favourite:

[1] A particularly interesting source on this is the 1938 Veterans’ Causerie. Sir Walter Citrine had gathered some of the older generation of labour leaders together to discuss their lived experiences in order to commemorate the anniversary of the TUC, and their descriptions of their younger years give a small indication of the conditions that they fought so hard to improve; for more on Will Thorne, see Callow, J. (ed) Will Thorne: My Life’s Battles

[2] For more on sociability among women trade unionists, see Hunt, C., ‘Dancing and Days Out: The Role of Social Events in British Women’s Trade Unionism in the Early Twentieth Century’, Labour History Review

[3] MacKenzie, N and MacKenzie, J., (eds) The Diary of Beatrice Webb Vol III, p297

Isaac Mitchell: First General Secretary of the GFTU

Born in 1868 in Roxburghshire, Isaac Haig Mitchell was the fifth child of Alexander (b. 1817) and Isabella (b. 1833) Mitchell. By the time he was three years old, his eldest two siblings – Alexander and Violet – had joined their parents in the woollen trade, whereas the younger siblings – Isabella (b.1862) and Margaret Douglas (b. 1865) – were at school. Although the cotton industry had flourished in Scotland, the Mitchells worked in their home in Hawick rather than in one of the large factories around Glasgow. By the time that Isaac was born, it is likely that the family were suffering financially after the American civil war had disrupted the imports of raw cotton. Nevertheless, the local skills endured, and Hawick is still known for its textile design history.

Textiles group buys stake in Hawick Knitwear

For work, Mitchell did not follow in his family’s footsteps, although there is some discrepancy here. According to the 1881 census, he became a Clerk’s apprentice by the age of 12, but his short biography given ahead of his run for the Darlington parliamentary seat in 1906 insists instead that he was kept at his Church school as a pupil teacher for ‘many years longer than is generally the privilege of working lads’, and omits the apprenticeship. Perhaps the latter version was thought to be more acceptable to the electorate than the former. Nevertheless, he did end up apprenticed to a millwright before he was 21.

By 1891, Mitchell was 23, living in Newcastle and working as an engine fitter. At some point his family had adopted a young lad by the name of John Murray that was three years younger than Isaac. Maybe they were close, as they lodged together in a house on Bolingbroke Street.  A widow by the name of Jenie Stewart, along with her two daughters – Elizabeth, a dress maker and Jane, a teacher – rented what was likely a very small room in their terraced house to Isaac and John, as well as fitting in another young girl (described as an adopted daughter) called Emma Whaley. This arrangement may have been a little too cramped for Mitchell, because in 1892 he was onboard the ship State of California, destined for two years working as an engineer in New York City.

In 1905, his colleague Pete Curran would tell Ramsay Macdonald that Mitchell had joined up with the De Leonists, a libertarian Marxist organisation run by Daniel De Leon, during his time in the US. Although this seems unlikely given Mitchell’s later trajectory away from socialism, he did have a background in trade union agitation. He had joined the Newcastle branch of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) after seeing the social and labour conditions of the city when he first moved there, and ‘quickly recognised what loyalty to his fellow workmen required of him’, before joining the Newcastle Trades Council. His subsequent experience in New York probably built on some burgeoning ideas of the need for workers to organise, but he did not seem to have any particular burning desire for the type of Marxism espoused by De Leon. Instead, Mitchell worked briefly as a millwright in Scotland after his return from America, and he told his later prospective voters that he spent this time devoted to the quiet study of political and social matters.

He was back in the fray in 1895, this time in Glasgow, and was elected as the Scottish ASE representative to the 1896 Trades Union Congress (TUC), as well as being active on his local strike committee. He was again the Scottish ASE representative at the 1898 TUC in Bristol, where the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) was voted into existence for the following year. The GFTU were created to be a conciliation committee that could mediate between employers and workers, and to collect and administer a national strike fund in the event of strikes and lock outs. Mitchell was elected to serve as this new organisation’s first General Secretary from 1899, with Pete Curran as the Chairman. The same year Mitchell married Margaret Hunter, also from his home-town of Hawick. In 1901 he became a father to Nancy, whilst also taking in his two nephews, 12-year-old Alexander and 17-year-old William. As General Secretary to a national organisation, Mitchell’s salary could now provide a home life that was likely to be quite different to the one he had whilst growing up: the 1901 census shows a ‘monthly nurse’ (an older term for a woman that came to assist new mothers after they had given birth) living with them shortly after Nancy had been born. Within a decade, Mitchell’s family also included a live in domestic servant called Olive at their home in Surrey.

Isaac Mitchell, 1905

Mitchell and Curran were both members of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) when they began running the GFTU, although it was already clear that Mitchell was more comfortable with the old Liberal alliances than he was with the socialists.  Curran, a committed socialist, close friend of Keir Hardie and a member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), seems an unlikely colleague for Mitchell. They did occasionally travel together as part of their arbitration duties, sometimes co-authored reports on strikes, and certainly attended GFTU management committee meetings together. Mitchell displayed some talent as a diplomat: he was pivotal in setting the GFTU up as the voice of British trade unionism on the international stage, and was crucial in smoothing things over with the Secretary of the International Federation of Trade Unions, Johannes Sassanbach, after their disastrous 1903 conference in Dublin. The starkest difference between the two men was the drink. Mitchell was a committed temperance advocate, whereas Curran drank himself to an early grave in 1910.

Nevertheless, the two men complimented each other. In the GFTU reports, where Curran was energetically calling for the spirit of solidarity to bring workers closer together, Mitchell was calmly advocating for greater understanding between employer and employee. They both wanted the GFTU to be a success, and in their own ways, they worked hard at it. As trade unionists, they were undeniably on the same page; it was politics that muddied the waters.

Mitchell was adopted as the Labour candidate for Darlington in 1903, but from the beginning objected to any move that would delineate the new Labour Representation Committee (LRC) as a separate political party. After Pete Curran had moved the ‘Newcastle Amendment’ at the LRC conference that same year, Mitchell initially refused to sign it. The amendment forbade any LRC candidates – as Mitchell now was – from promoting the interests of any Liberal or Conservative parties. This was a problem for Mitchell, as he had moved away from the ILP and was now in search of a ‘progressive alliance’ with the Liberal party, however informal that had to be. After some wrangling between Mitchell, G. N. Barnes and Ramsay MacDonald, Mitchell first offered his resignation as parliamentary candidate before being persuaded to stay on and sign the LRC constitution in return for being allowed to meet with the Darlington Liberal Association.

What conversations happened between Curran and Mitchell over the latter’s reticence to sign the former’s LRC amendment can only be guessed at, but there was one very public disagreement that hints at underlying tensions. In the last quarterly GFTU report in 1904, Pete Curran published an article called The Labour Representation Movement. In it, he extolled the general enthusiasm for the principle of political representation of labour, celebrated the ‘tightening’ of the constitution in 1903, and concluded with Crane’s motto: ‘The Unity of Labour is the Hope of the World’. Although the article itself was unsurprising, it was article that followed it that caused the controversy.

Mitchell had written his own article, called ‘The Political Organisation of Labour’, and had it printed to follow Curran’s. The message and tone could not have been more different. Firstly, he admonishes the LRC for including socialist organisations like the Fabians but excluding the SDF due to ‘petty quarrels’. The second barbed attack is a barely veiled accusation levelled at Curran himself:

              “Frequently one hears the statement made by Trade Unionists that they are Socialists first and Trade Unionists afterwards. The surprising thing about the Trade Union official of this type is that he does not devote all his time to the advancement of the movement he holds first in importance. Why, if Trade Unionism is a mere makeshift, does the Socialist-first-Trade-Unionist condescend to accept the fleshpots of Trade Unionism and devote so much time to Trade Union work?”

Curran had repeatedly declared himself as a ‘socialist first’ during GFTU meetings. Quite why Mitchell chose to make such a public statement of fundamental disagreement with his colleague is unclear, but he may have been anxious to appeal to the Liberal base in Darlington. Perhaps he wanted to remove all traces of his radical past? What is clear is that Mitchell now firmly believed that trade unionism and political representation of workers ought to be entirely separate. He called on the LRC to become a purely trade union organisation, or to at least give the trade unionist affiliates a fairer representation on the committee. Instead, he provoked MacDonald’s ire, who complained to Curran about Mitchell’s blind and bigotted [sic] antagonism’. Curran responded:

              “… Yes, Mitchell’s article is a spiteful attack on the whole movement but the articles are not the affair of the Federation [GFTU] as they are written on an individual basis. My impression is that the local LRC at Darlington and the EC of the ASC should take the matter in hand as they are responsible for his candidature and it is also my opinion that you as secretary of the National Movement are within your rights in calling the attention of these bodies to this article… He is anxious to show now that he is not a Socialist but a trades independent only while he claimed to be an extreme Socialist until he got his present position.”

It is very interesting that Curran claimed ignorance of the GFTU’s report contents. Mitchell was in charge of compiling the reports, articles, biographies and statistics that appeared in them, and it would have been his choice to print both articles. I am sure that Curran knew this. What I think is more likely is that Curran would rather action be taken on the political side to censure Mitchell, rather than at the expense of their trade union work at the GFTU. Indeed, for the ILP, Mitchell had lost whatever thin ice he had been standing on. John Bruce Glasier pointed out in their newspaper, the Labour Leader, that Curran’s celebration of greater unity appearing alongside Mitchell’s desire for the disassociation of trade unions from socialism would ‘cause consternation’ in Darlington and in the wider movement. From this point, Mitchell’s contributions to GFTU reports were much quieter.

Cartoon published in Darlington 1906

Mitchell campaigned for Darlington in the 1906 election, receiving enthusiastic support from David Lloyd George as the ‘progressive candidate’ that would allow ‘Liberals and Labour [to] work together for common ends’. He had equally enthusiastic support from the local radical newspaper, and he did not mention being a Labour candidate or an LRC candidate during his speeches. Despite this, and the electoral agreement entered into by MacDonald with the Liberals that would ensure Labour’s 1906 breakthrough, Mitchell failed to get elected. Apparently lacking the tenacity (or bull-headedness) of Curran, who was finally elected on his fourth attempt, Mitchell abandoned politics entirely.

As part of his role with the GFTU, he travelled to Belfast in 1907 in order to assist with the dock strike after the National Union of Dock Labourers’ (NUDL) General Secretary James Sexton requested their help. James Larkin, an organiser for the NUDL, probably would have preferred Mitchell to have stayed at home. After speaking with the employers, Mitchell announced to one group of striking workers that the employers had met their demands. It was only after the dust had settled, and the men received a printed copy of the agreement that had been reached, did it become clear that Mitchell’s promises had no resemblance to the deal that had been struck. H R Stockman, writing in the Labour Leader, wrote that ‘there can be no doubt that the men have been shamefully tricked. How far the responsibility for this trickery is divided between Mr Isaac Mitchell and the employers I cannot say’.

It is not clear where the blame lay, but by this point the matter was moot. Mitchell had been offered a new job at the Board of Trade, and the GFTU were looking for his replacement. His arbitration experience was put to good use by his new employers, most notably during the 1911 Dockers’ and Seamen’s strike in Hull. Mitchell lived quietly, and never responded to the occasional attacks on him by the more fervent figures in the labour movement that occasionally appeared in the press over the coming decades (Harry Pollitt thought he was the epitome of a government sell-out). His change of position came with a change of name, as he preferred to use his middle name ‘Haig’ instead of Isaac. He died in 1952, at the age of 84.

Note: I am very grateful to the North East Labour History Society, particularly Peter Nicklin, for sending me a copy of Bill Purdue’s article ‘Isaac Mitchell and the Progressive Alliance 1903-06’ from their 1977 NELHS Bulletin. I am also indebted to Katherine Williamson at the Centre for Local Studies in Darlington for her speedy photocopies of Mitchell’s campaign materials. The information provided has been invaluable for my thesis, and only a small part is represented in this blog.

1921 Snapshot: Trade Unions and Societies at the GFTU

Today is the second and final day of the 2021 BGCM of the General Federation of Trade Unions. Current circumstances mean that it is of course online, but there is still plenty of important business up for discussion. I was particularly happy to see unanimous support for the Social Workers’ Union and the Association of Educational Psychologists’ motion to give children in England the same legal right of protection against physical punishment at home as children in Scotland and Wales. That is a fantastic step forward. Also, it is wonderful to see the indomitable Sarah Woolley being voted in as vice-President of the GFTU. When I first began this PhD, Sarah was particularly warm and inviting, and I’ve watched her make such a real difference for young trade unionists and for her own members over the past four years. I’m very excited to see what her plans are!

In honour of the 2021 BGCM, I have compiled a list of the affiliated unions of 1921. These affiliated unions relied on the GFTU as a centralised body that could represent their interests, give advice on union management and conciliation, and provide strike benefit should industrial action be taken. I think lists like these – with membership numbers and locality of their offices – really highlight how the world of work has changed over the last one hundred years. The types of trades that were represented also shows how the GFTU was at this point leaning towards specialist unions for highly-skilled craftspeople.

Name of OrganisationMembershipGeneral Secretary
Amalgamated Society of Anchorsmiths200C. H. Sitch, MP – Cradley Heath
London Jewish Bakers Union110Cllr I. Sharp – Stepney
Barge Builders Trade Union470T. Challis – Greenwich
Basket, Skip and Hamper Makers FederationNewly seceded 
Midland Counties Hosiery Finishers Federation4435G. A. Kenney – Leicester
Amalgamated Block Roller and Stamp Cutters358F. Rennie – Manchester
Boilermakers and Iron and Steel Shipbuilders103945J. Hill – Newcastle-On-Tyne
Rossendale Boot, Shoe and Slipper Operatives90224A. Taylor – Waterfoot
National Glass Bottle MakersNewly merged with the National Glass Workers Trade Protection Association 
National Glass Workers Trade Protection Association4000J. Thompson – Castleford
London United Brass and Metal Founders456J. S. Lucy – Barking
London and Provincial Union of Hand Sewn Boot and Shoe Operatives438J. W. Dickson – London
National Federation of Builders Labourers1330W. T. Mabbot – Nottingham
Mansfield Builders Labourers180W. A. Hopkins – Nottingham
Liverpool Carvers and Gliders30J. C. Mulligan – Liscard
Amalgamated Society of Carriers EmployeesLapsed 
Dundee Calendar Linoleum and Dye Workers3300J. Cunningham – Dundee
Amalgamated Card and Blowing Room Operatives79448W. Thomasson, J.P. – Manchester
Cleckheaton Card Dressers Society85L. Archer – Cleckheaton
Card Setting Machine Tenters Society261J. Midgley – Huddersfield
Associated Chain Makers and Strikers1520T. Sitch – Cradley Heath
National Union of Cigar Makers and Tobacco Workers4177A. Senton – London
Industrial Union of General Cigarette Workers160A. Dembovitz – London
National Union of Commercial and Industrial Employees157P. Rockliff – London
National Union of Vehicle Builders27267J. Nicholson – Manchester
London Society of Compositors15400T. E. Naylor – London
Amalgamated Society of Coopers4300R. W. Mann – Burton-On-Trent
Curriers and Strap Makers Union250A. E. Dowell – Cleckheaton
National Association of Coopers1560G. Harrison – London
Amalgamated Operative Cotton Spinners54886H. Boothman – Manchester
Amalgamated Society of Cricket Ball Makers270H. Belcher – Tonbridge
Ornamental Decorators Society56A. Young – London
Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers’ Union133132B. Tillett, MP – London
Radcliffe Dyers, Bleachers and Sizers569J. Hardman – Radcliffe
National Society of Dyers and Finishers15329A. Shaw – Bradford
Electrical Trades Union59000J. Rowan – Manchester
Engineman Cumberland Iron Ore, Firemen and Electrical Workers’ Association130H. Simpson – Cumberland
Iron Safe Engineers168A. Hill – Birmingham
Enginemen, Motormen and Firemen’s Association536J. T. Griffiths – Chesterfield
Progressive Society of French Polishers188R. H. Wood – Harrow
Amalgamated Furnishing Trades Association30901A. Gossip – London
Glass Bevellers’ Society 362H. J. Collins – Birmingham
Amalgamated Trade Union of Tailors and Garment Workers89730A. Conley – Leeds
Glasgow Gilders’ Society16R. Lockhart – Glasgow
London Society of Glass Blowers811J. Stokes – London
National Flint Glass Makers780J. Husselbee – Brierly Hill
Pressed Glass Makers Society258T. Melville – Gateshead
National Union of Glovers1070W. H. Tavener -Yeovil
Loughborough Hosiery Union1580W. H. Smith – Loughborough
Hinckley Hoisery Menders’ Association1012D. Young – Hinkley
Hemmers, Veiners and General Women Workers1500R. Levin – Lurgan
Amalgamated Leicester Hoisery Union8800Ald. J. Chaplin, JP – Leicester
Ilkeston Hosiery Union7600H. Bassford, Heanor
Denton Silk Hat Trimmers and Stitchers75F. Robson – Manchester
Amalgamated Society of Journeymen Felt Hatters4149Cllr T. Mallalieu, JP – Manchester
Journeyman Hatters Fair Trade Union459J. J. Hall – Ruislip
Amalgamated Felt Hat Trimmers and Wool Formers3665Cllr T. Mallalieu, JP – Manchester
Hosiery Warehouse Association315D. Young – Hinckley
Hollowware, Galvanised Sheet Metal Workers and Braziers’ Association1690Cllr S. Webb, JP – Stourbridge
North of Scotland Horse and Motorman’s Association1700P. Gillespie, JP – Dundee
Hinckley Hosiery Union3060J. Bailey – Hinkley
Hosiery Framework Knitters7361W. Hartshorn – Nottingham
Scientific Instrument MakersAmalgamated to the A. E. U. 
Hand Mill and Horizontal Warpers Association119W. Stewart – Glasgow
Iron, Steel and Metal Dressers’ Trade Society3550C. W. Davidson – Manchester
General Iron Fitters Association1812J. Fraser – Falkirk
National Union of Foundry Workers55761A. Todd – Manchester
Amalgamated Society of Ironmoulders645T. Charles – Llanelly
Furness Iron Miners’ and Quarrymen’s Union1293W. Lewney, JP – Dalton-in-Furness
Association of Ironmoulders of ScotlandFused with the National Union of Foundry Workers 
Iron mould is central Association6910H. Murdoch – Falkirk
Insulator China Furniture and Electric Appliances and Turners’ Association124L. Ravenscroft – Fenton
Dundee and District Union of Jute and Flax Workers15700J. F. Sime – Dundee
National Amalgamated Union of Labour161217J. N. Bell, JP – Newcastle-on-Tyne
Lace Pattern Readers’ Society47E. A. Barnett – Nottingham
Male Lace Workers Auxiliary Society328G. Simpson – Nottingham
Midland Leather Trades’ Federation500G. Power, MBE – Walsall
General Union of Associated Loom Overlookers9446E. Duxbury – Bury
Rochdale Machine Engine and Iron Grinders’ Society728J. Asquith, JP – Rochdale
Mill Sawyer’s and Wood Working Machinists Trade Society170J. G. Haycock- Tottenham
Midland Counties’ Trades’ Federation1428J. Taylor, JP – Dudley
Arboath Mill and Factory Workers1700C. M. Phimister – Arboath
Brechin Mill and Factory Operatives’ Union1150J. C. Hendry, JP – Brechin
Amalgamated Moulders’ Union3500J. Ryan – Manchester
Mule and Ring Spindle Makers Operatives327W. Walsh – Oldham
Tile, Faience and Mosaic Fixers’ Society180D. W. L. Sharp – London
Public Works and Constructional Operatives’ Union6434J. Ward, JP, MP – London
Amalgamated Scottish Aberdeen Painters456G. Sim – Aberdeen
National Society of Operative Painters and Assistants15755Cllr G. A. Isaacs, JP – London
Wallpaper Workers’ Union2500C. Kean, JP – Manchester
Amalgamated Scottish Dundee Painters390J. Kenneth – Dundee
Scottish Federation of Powerloom Tenters800J. Burt – Dunfermline
Tobacco Pipe Makers Society36
National Association of Operative Plasterers’ Labourers120P. Kenney – Leeds
National Society of Pottery Workers44974S. Clowes – Hanley
Scotch Power Loom Carpet Trades4268T. Wilson – Renfrew
National Association of Silk Workers3354J. Hadfield – Macclesfield
Portmanteau, Bag and Fancy Leather Workers Amalgamation1303C. Hyde – London
Amalgamated Union of Block Printers687R. Black – Ayrshire
Cumberland Limestone Quarrymen’s Association620W. Cowen, Whitehaven
North Wales Quarrymen’s Union6990R. T. Jones – Carnarvon
Amalgamated Quarry Workers and Sett Makers8967J. Slevin – Leicester
Liverpool Riggers’ and Mariners’ Trade Society127R. Reid – Liverpool
Screw, Nut, Bolt and Rivet Trade Society654F. Garner – Birmingham
Shipconstructive and Shipwrights’ Association46996Ald. A. Wilkie, CH, JP, MP – Newcastle-on-Tyne
Amalgamated Society of Shuttle Makers591T. Hurley – Blackburn
Surgical and Elastic Bandage Makers130F. Godfrey – Derby
Milford Haven Steam Trawler Engineers’ Union175J. C. Wilkinson – Milford Haven
Operative Spindle and Flyer Makers Society1404C. H. Whitehead – Leeds
Stevedores’ Labour Protection League5564J. B. Ruark – London
National Union of Stove Grate Workers4353Cllr A. Hutchison, JP – Rotherham
Amalgamated Society of Stuff and Woollen Warehousemen3469M. Titterington – Bradford
Leven Textile WorkersW. Robertson – Leven
Scottish National Textile Workers’ Federation3500J. Nairn – Kirkcaldy
United Tank Makers’ Society209A. Meager – London
London Ladies’ Tailors’ Machinists and Pressers970J. L. Fine – London
Dunfermline Textile Workers’ Union2250Miss Frew – Dunfermline
Portadown, Banbridge and District Textile Workers Trade Union2145L. Dell – Portadown
Newmilns and District Textile Workers’ Union3732W. Archibald – Newmilns
National Association of Theatrical Employees11496T. Cannon – London
Tin and Sheet Millmen’s Association2800Ald. I. H. Gwynne, JP – Swansea
Edge Tool Trade Society1027L. E. Thomas – Birmingham
Toolmakers Amalgamated SocietyAmalgamated to A. E. U. 
Tobacco Strippers Mutual AssociationMerged with National Union of Cigar Makers and Tobacco Workers 
Amalgamated Union of Upholsterers7124L. Leckie – London
Athletic Wood Turners and Machinists455J. T. Norris – London
Amalgamated Union of Watermen, Lightermen and Bargemen6991H. Gosling, JP – London
Northern Counties Amalgamated Weavers Association224219J. Cross, JP – Accrington
General Union of Textile Workers84910A. Gee, JP – Huddersfield
Ulster Weavers and Winders’ Trade Union500W. O’Neill – Lurgan
Guernsey Workers’ Union381H. J. Field – Guernsey
Wool, Yarn and Warehouse Workers Union3356F. Egan – Bradford
Weavers’ Handloom Association200S. Wheeldon – Macclesfield
United Friendly Society of Wire Weavers43S. Ogden – Manchester
Wool Shear Workers’ Trade Union87R. Reed – Sheffield
Wheelwrights and Coachmakers’ Operatives’ Union4370G. E. Ball – London