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.

School Board Election2


[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

Part Three: Trades Council and Birth of Northampton Labour Party

In February 1910, F.O. Roberts of the Graphical Association was elected Secretary of the Trades Council. Frederick Roberts was a member of the Independent Labour Party, and two years earlier had been present at the founding of the Northampton branch of the ILP.

Also at that meeting was a fellow Trades Council member, the Quaker chemist John Flinton Harris.[1] The ILP had been founded in Bradford in 1893 with the objective of securing independent Labour representation on local bodies and in Parliament.

In 1900 it was instrumental in creating the Labour Representation Committee, soon to be renamed the Labour Party, an alliance of socialist groups and trade unions.

In 1910 the Labour Party still did not have branches in every town, and F. O. Roberts committed himself to forging a socialist/trade union alliance in Northampton.

At the March meeting in 1910 he proposed a resolution, seconded by W. Robinson: “That all delegates be asked to take the opinion of their societies as to whether they would favour the Trades Council taking independent political action.” Discussion followed and at the April meeting delegates reported some opposition but a good majority in favour.[2]

In his Annual Report dated 30thJune 1910, Roberts was able to state that despite much bitterness in the past, “the step was taken.” However, opinion was found to be evenly divided and the matter stood adjourned.[3]



[1] Northampton Daily Reporter (NDR), 31.3.1908
[2] Trades Council Minutes 16.3.1910, NTC2, NRO
[3] 22nd Annual Report, 30.6.1910, NTC2, NRO

Part Four: Women and the Trades Council

As will already be apparent, the early Northampton Trades Council was a very male dominated organisation. In this it was no different from the wider Labour movement of the time, nor indeed from society at large.

Women did not have the vote nor the same access as men to education and well paid employment. Although middle class women often had the leisure to pursue charitable and political interests, the number of working class women whose names appear in reports of public bodies is very small. For example the Northampton Board of Guardians, responsible for the Poor Law, contained eight women, some of them also active in other causes, such as the Liberal Party and women’s suffrage, but all of them were middle class.

The few politically active working class women, on the other hand, tended to be involved in trade union and related causes.

In 1896 the Clarion newspaper reported that of 450 members of the Northampton Social Democratic Federation (SDF), only 4 or 5 were women. [1]  The Trades Council had no women delegates until 1913. In January of that year the Daily Echo reported, “For the first time in the history of the Trades Council, lady delegates were present.” They were Mrs Burton and Miss L. Austin, both representatives of the women’s section of Number 2 Branch of NUBSO.

The President, Dan Stanton, extended a hearty welcome. His words give an insight into the manners of the time. “The members of the Council are only working men,” he said, “but they are gentlemen in the best sense of the term, and they would treat the ladies as ladies should be treated.”[2]


[1] The Clarion, 25.1.1896
[2] NDE, 16.1.1913

National Federation of Women Workers

Part Five: The Lilford Strike and the First World War

Before events in Europe propelled the nations to war, a smaller conflict was brewing in Northamptonshire.

In the north east of the county a large number of farms belonged to one landowner, Lord Lilford. The labourers on these farms earned fourteen shillings a week. When, in April 1914, they joined the Agricultural Labourers Union, and demanded a two-shilling rise, Lilford threatened them with dismissal. Losing their jobs meant losing their homes, which were “tied cottages,” tenancy being conditional on employment by Lord Lilford. Despite this, the workers remained firm, so Lilford began a lock-out and brought in bailiffs to begin evictions.

The villages affected were Thorpe, Thorpe Achurch , Lilford, Aldwincle, Wigthorpe and Tichmarsh, and included Lilford’s Home Farm and 24 others held by tenants.[1]

That summer Northampton Trades Council was working to establish branches of the Agricultural Union in the villages around Northampton, aiming to create a chain of unionised farms around the town.

In May it held recruitment meetings in Harleston, Hackleton, and Brafield with speeches by Trades Council delegates.[2]

The campaign had begun in February with a meeting in Weston Favell, chaired by F. O. Roberts, at which the Vice-President of the union, Mr W. Codling, had spoken, although he was now fully occupied with the Lilford dispute. Housing and a minimum wage were among the subjects of his speech.[3]

On the 20th of April the Mercury reported a great protest meeting on the green at Thorpe. Speakers included F. O. Roberts and the two Northampton Liberal MPs, Charles McCurdy and Hastings Lees-Smith. Several trade unionists cycled from Kettering, Wellingborough, Rushden and Raunds to join farm workers from the adjacent villages. In all, more than 2,000 gathered to sing the labourers’ hymn, Lift High the People’s Banner.


Liford Street Protest


“Never before had such a gathering been seen in that part of the country,” reported the Mercury.[4] On the 27th W. Codling spoke to a large crowd on Northampton Market Square.[5]



[1] Northampton Mercury (NM), 15.4.1914
[2] NM, 22.5.1914
[3] NM, 13.2.1914
[4] NM, 20.4.1914.
[5] Northampton Daily Echo (NDE), 27.4.1914