From early origins to 1970s miners strikes, Mark Crail delivers a whirlwind tour of Trade Union history. From important strikes, to failed protests. Discover how your ancestors thought for the working rights we enjoy today.
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Trade Unions: A History
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A Spotlight on Mark Crail
Mark Crail launched the Chartist Ancestors website back in 2003, mostly because he thought it would be good to share some of the interesting source material he had discovered while researching his own Chartist ancestor.
He is passionate about Working Class history and is also a member of the Society for the Study of Labour History.
Big thanks to Mark Crail for this incredible resource breakdown.
What kind of resources might you discover? Note that not all of these (indeed not may of these in some cases) survive, and you’ll need to have clearly established the correct union and date range before using most of these resources:
- Admission books – A single line entry on each individual joining the union (eg name, branch, trade, possibly fees paid, maybe an address and/or workplace).
- Membership registers – A snapshot of members at a given date (similar range of info to an admission book).
- Minute books and branch records – look locally as these are rarely in national collections.
- Branch returns and union annual reports – may be in national collections as these are reports submitted by local branches to head office
- Union journals – may include eg lists of local branch officers, stories about what union members have been doing etc
- Union histories – there are numerous books recording the histories of individual trade unions, many of which can be found on eg https://www.abebooks.co.uk or other second-hand sites
- Membership cards, badges, certificates – if you have one of these, it’s a massively helpful starting point for your research as you already know which union to research.
- Trade Union Ancestors website, includes a listing of 5,000 or so unions to help you draw up a shortlist of possible unions.
Archives & Libraries
Along with checking local archives, the following hold significant collections of trade union material:
- Modern Records Centre, Warwick University – the main repository for trade union records in the UK, some of which have been digitised. A fascinating website in its own right with lots of material on trade union history. Some MRC records are also on FindMyPast.
- Working Class Movement Library, Salford – holds many union records, and is especially strong on those unions that merged into today’s GMB union
- Labour History Archive & Study Centre, at People’s History Museum, Manchester (includes the trade union banners collection, and you can watch restorers at work)
- TUC Library Collections, London Metropolitan University – especially good on trade union journals (members magazines and newspapers)
(See also “The union makes us strong” website – unionhistory.info)
- Both the Bishopsgate Institute and London School of Economics hold records, particularly relating to individual trade unionists
- National Library of Scotland and National Library of Wales.
- A History of British Trade Unionism, by Keith Laybourn (Alan Sutton Publishing, 1992): a good general narrative history for background and context.
- Tracing Your Labour Movement Ancestors, by Mark Crail (Pen & Sword, 2009): intended as a guide for family historians, includes both “how to…” and context. (Note this is an affiliate link and I may obtain a small commission should you choose to purchase).
- Historical Directory of Trade Unions. You will need to find a library to consult this. There are now six volumes of this directory with brief “biographies” of more than 5,000 trade unions to help you narrow down where and when they operated.
- Dictionary of Labour Biography Another library resource: now runs to 15 volumes and includes biographies of more than 1,000 prominent trade unionists, labour and socialist political figures (index available at https://sslh.org.uk/publications/dlb-list-of-names/ ).
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