England History. The Luddites and the Combination Acts

Resolutions of the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the Combination Laws, 21 May 1824

Source: University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth;
Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, New Series, XI, 811-813; in A. Aspinall and E. Anthony Smith, eds., English Historical Documents, XI, 1783-1832, New York: Oxford University Press, 1959,.pp. 752-54. A Parliamentary Committee appointed to inquire into laws against the emigration of artisans was used by Francis Place (1771-1854) and Joseph Hume (1777-1855), both Parliamentary Radicals and proponents of laissez faire, to repeal the Combination Acts in 1824. This made trades unions legal in Britain.

1. That it appears, by the evidence before the Committee, that combinations of workmen have taken place in England, Scotland and Ireland, often to a great extent, to raise and keep up their wages, to regulate their hours of working, and to impose restrictions on the masters, respecting apprentices or others whom they might think proper to employ; and that, at the time the evidence was taken, combinations were in existence, attended with strikes or suspension of work; and that the laws have not hitherto been effectual to prevent such combinations.

2. That serious breaches of the peace and acts of violence, with strikes of the workmen, often for very long periods, have taken place, in consequence of, and arising out of the combinations of workmen, and been attended with loss to both the masters and the workmen, and with considerable inconvenience and injury to the community.

3. That the masters have often united and combined to lower the rates of their workmen’s wages, as well as to resist a demand for an increase, and to regulate their hours of working; and sometimes to discharge their workmen who would not consent to the conditions offered to them; which have been followed by suspension of work, riotous proceedings, and acts of violence.

4. That prosecutions have frequently been carried on, under the Statute and the Common Law against the workmen, and many of them have suffered different periods of imprisonment for combining and conspiring to raise their wages, or to resist their reduction, and to regulate their hours of working.

5. That several instances have been stated to the Committee, of prosecutions against masters for combining to lower wages and to regulate the hours of working; but no instance has been adduced of any master having been punished for that offence.

6. That the laws have not only not been efficient to prevent combinations either of masters or workmen, but, on the contrary, have, in the opinion of many of both parties, had a tendency to produce mutual irritation and distrust, and to give a violent character to the combinations, and to render them highly dangerous to the peace of the community.

7. That it is the opinion of this Committee that masters and workmen should be freed from such restrictions as regard the rate of wages and the hours of working, and be left at perfect liberty to make such agreements as they may mutually think proper.

8. That, therefore, the Statute Laws that interfere in these particulars between masters and workmen, should be repealed; and also that the common law, under which a peaceable meeting of masters or workmen may be prosecuted as a conspiracy, should be altered.

9. That the Committee regret to find from the evidence, that societies, legally enrolled as benefit societies, have been frequently made the cloak, under which funds have been raised for the support of combinations and strikes, attended with acts of violence and intimidation; and without recommending any specific course, they wish to call the attention of the House to the frequent perversion of these institutions from their avowed and legitimate objects.

10. That the practice of settling disputes by arbitration between masters and work-men, has been attended with good effects; and it is desirable that the laws which direct and regulate arbitration, should be consolidated, amended, and made applicable to all trades.

11. That it is absolutely necessary, when repealing the Combination Laws, to enact such a law as may efficiently, and by summary process, punish either workmen or masters who, by threats, intimidation or acts of violence, should interfere with that perfect freedom which ought to be allowed to each party, of employing his labour or capital in the manner he may deem most advantageous.