Early industrial unrest and the strike

In the first half of the 19th century, many of the working classes were dissatisfied with their rate of pay, which led to several strikes in Wolverhampton. The first in 1830 was a strike of the iron puddlers, who were paid 2 guineas for every 6 tons of iron they produced, out of which they had to pay 10 shillings to the lad who assisted them. Part of their wages was paid in tokens, which could only be spent in the employer’s ‘Tommy Shop’. In effect this reduced their wages by one third, because everything in the shop was over-priced.

George Benjamin Thorneycroft

The largest employer in Wolverhampton at the time was Shrubbery Ironworks, which was badly hit by the strike. George Benjamin Thorneycroft, one of the owners, insisted that his shop had been set up at the request of the workers, and was there for their benefit.

It was a hard time for the puddlers, who suffered greatly that winter. Money was raised for the setting up of a soup kitchen in Railway Street, which supplied 2,000 quarts of soup and 340 loaves of bread during its first three days in operation. The strike was unsuccessful, and the men returned to work empty handed.

In 1831 another strike took place, this time a more turbulent affair involving the colliers, who struck for higher wages. The employers criticised the unions and stated that in the future they would not employ union men. On the 7th December a large number of colliers marched into Wolverhampton, and were met by the Wolverhampton Troop of the Staffordshire Yeomanry, assisted by a detachment of the 7th Hussars from Birmingham. Although peace was maintained, 3 canal boats were sunk, pit ropes were cut, and several colliers broke into the Bilston lock-up to release imprisoned strikers. By the end of the month the strike ended after slight concessions were granted by the employers.

The tin plate workers’ strike

It was against this background that a hard-fought strike took place in the japanning and tin plate industry in 1850. At the time the industry had greatly expanded, orders were numerous, and profits high. The National Trades Association of London sent two delegates, Mr. Peel, and Mr. Green to the leading Wolverhampton manufacturers to inform them that their workers were dissatisfied with their wages. They visited F. Walton & Company, Shoolbread & Loveridge, Henry Fearncombe, Edward Perry, Richard Perry & Son, and J. Thurstons, to inform them that they would act as mediators between the employers and the workforce.

Rates of pay varied between one employer and another, and the mediators informed them that rates of pay would be standardised. They intended to produce a standard rates book, and when this was done, all employers would be compelled to pay the standard rates. This came as a shock to the employers, who resented the outside interference, preferring to deal with their own workman themselves.

Two of the employers, F. Walton & Company, and Shoolbread and Loveridge decided to accept the new rates of pay, whereas the others were unwilling to accept the terms that were dictated by the union. They decided to play for time before the inevitable conflict, by asking for time to consider the demands. They entered into two-year hiring agreements with as many of their workers as possible to minimise the impact of any industrial unrest.

Two of the employers, Edward Perry, and Richard Perry & Son discovered that their workers were being incited to take industrial action by a workman named Preston, who was instantly sacked. Upon hearing this, the two union delegates demanded his immediate reinstatement, otherwise the workers would be called out on strike. They said that they could keep the strikers out indefinitely because they had a reserve fund of £20,000, and levies from all of the trade societies in the country.

The two employers refused to be threatened in this way, and decided to have no further contact with the delegates. The National Trades Council responded by calling a strike at Edward Perry’s factory.

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growth of japanning
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at Jeddo Works