The History Northampton Trades Council

Written by John Buckell

John Buckell is a retired teacher and former NUT (now NEU) delegate to Northampton Trades Council, of which he was Minuting Secretary for some years.

John writes and gives talks about local history and is a member of Northampton Radical History Tours.


Part One: Origins and Early Years 1888 to 1892

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Social Democratic Federation Banner: currently held in the Peoples’ History Museum, Manchester.

1888 was an important time in the political life of Northampton. The town was represented in Parliament by the radical Liberals, Charles Bradlaugh and Henry Labouchere, but a branch of the Social Democratic Federation had been formed in 1886, and was making the case for socialism. In 1887 a bitter strike and lock-out in the shoe industry had ended in an unpopular compromise.

Northampton’s shoe workers still did not have full parity of wages with other shoe centres, but their union increased its membership. Nationally, trade unionists were beginning to seek representation on town councils and in Parliament, although for the moment as Lib-Labs, elected as Liberals to represent organised workers.

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Part Two: Growing in Strength 1893 - 1910

The earliest Trade Council meetings were held at the Overstone Arms, but from March 1894 at the latest, the Town hall became the monthly venue.

Meetings were regularly reported in the local press, and whenever the venue is given, it is the Town Hall. Sometimes the actual room is given. The Sessions Court, the Borough Police Court, the old Committee Room and the Magistrates’ Room are all mentioned. In May 1894, this was challenged by Alderman Norman who asked by what authority the Trades Council was allowed to use the Magistrates Room. He thought it unsuitable for “such a large gathering.” Another councillor expressed surprise that this was so. The Mayor, Alderman H. E. Randall, said the Town Clerk had explained that the Trades Council could use the Magistrates Room when the old Council Chamber was engaged and the matter was closed. This small exchange shows that Trades Council meetings at this time were large gatherings and that it had become an important civic body.[1] By 1901 it had 15 affiliated unions and 39 delegates.[2]

As a representative co-ordinating body with delegates from several trade unions in the town, the Council was not involved directly in industrial disputes, but it gave moral and sometimes financial support to member unions when necessary. It also gave consistent support to the movement to limit daily working hours to eight, arguing that a shorter working day would provide more work for the unemployed. Trades Council members were, of course, sometimes directly involved in disputes in their own industries.

Representing the town’s trade union members gave the Trades Council a measure of authority. It could write, lobby and appeal to public bodies and politicians on their behalf. It lobbied the Borough Engineer when tram workers’ wages fell below the recognised scale,[3] and persuaded the Town Council to adopt a scheme for cheap tickets between 7 and 8.30am.[4] Annual reports show that it had members on a number of municipal bodies, such as school governors, the Board of Guardians, the Municipal Charities, the Distress Committee, the local Workers’ Educational Association and the Town Council.[5] It was embedded in the community.

The Trades Council’s concerns were not limited to industrial matters, however. It also supported charities in the town, and in 1895 its Secretary was appointed to the Trustees of the Municipal Charities.[6] A favourite cause was the League for the Blind, which is mentioned several times in the minutes. The Trades Council supported its activities, including demonstrations, and lobbied on its
behalf. The local branch of the League affiliated to the Council in 1907. That same year the Council raised £35.1s.6d for widows and their families.[7]

In the first decade of the 20th Century three Trades Council members became prominent in their union and in politics – Dan Stanton, Edward Poulton and James Gribble. All were shoe workers from humble beginnings, and two of them, Stanton and Gribble, were largely self-educated.

All became councillors and magistrates. Stanton and Poulton both served as Mayor, and all became important national figures in the union.

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[1] Northampton Daily Reporter, 8.5.1894
[2] Northampton Trades Council Annual Report 1901, Northampton Record Office (NRO), NTC 1
[3] Annual Report, 1904, NTC1, NRO
[4] Annual Report, 1905, NTC1,NRO
[5] NTC Annual Reports, NTC 1, NRO
[6] NTC Minutes, 13.12.1895, NTC1, NRO
[7] Annual Report, 1901, NTC1, NRO