Taking the research further
A guide to sources and how to find out more about your trade union ancestors
Trade union history is a massive subject area. A website such as this can only hope to introduce family historians to the vast array of archive material, artefacts and resources that will help them to understand the working lives of our ancestors. So having got this far, where do you go next.
If you have managed through this site to identify one or more trade unions to which your ancestors belonged, the next step should be to try to confirm whether or not they were a member. Even if they were not, however, the fact that a union organised in the same industry and among the same groups of workers to which they belonged means that there may still be material that will illuminate your family's history.
Websites – useful resources
The Union Makes Us Strong Go now
Based on material held in the TUC Library Collections held at London Metropolitan University, this is an extremely impressive site with masses of original documents and images – and it is free to access. Highlights of the site include a complete run of conference reports from TUC gatherings since 1868 – all of which, of course, include lists of union delegates and other officials. Other sections focus on the famous Bryant & May matchgirls strike of 1888, the General Strike of 1926, and the home front during the second world war. The site also hosts images of Robert Tressell's complete handwritten manuscript of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
Warwick University modern records centre
Trade unions and similar organisations. Go now
Family history at the modern records centre. Go now
Warwick University holds the foremost collection of trade union archives in the country. The official archives of the TUC and hundreds of individual trade unions can be found here, along with personal papers deposited by a number of prominent individuals associated with them. Most of the individual union entries contain a historical note giving the union's dates and fate (usually merger into a larger organisation) along with details of the centre's holdings. The website also offers a guide to genealogy at the modern records centre, organised by occupation. Although it is not comprehensive, this guide is extremely useful and in some cases gives a great deal of detail about the centre's union material and the information needed to make full use of it.
The National Archives
Registrar of Friendly Societies
Catalogue entry for the Registrar of Friendly Societies. Go now
The Trade Union Act of 1870 gave the Registrar of Friendly Societies responsibility for maintaining a list of trade unions. Registration was not compulsory, but in practice almost all unions of any substance signed up in due course because doing so gave certain tax advantages when they paid out membership benefits. From that date until the Industrial Relations Act 1971 created the Chief Registrar of Trade Unions and Employers Associations as a successor body, registered unions were required to submit annual returns setting out
All of these records can be found in the FS series. Statutory documents submitted by trade unions are in FS 7 , FS 11 , FS 12 , FS 26 , FS 27 and FS 28 . These include lists of individuals applying to register the union and annual returns, many which include details of national and branch officials.ists, indexes and copies of certificates of registration are in FS 25 . Correspondence and certification files are in FS 24 and FS 29 , with registered files in FS 33 . Unsuccessful applications for registration as trade unions are in FS 34 .
Nationalised and regulated industries
Labour history research guide. Go now
With the creation of the National Coal Board and British Railways in the wake of the second world war, government departments took over many of the business records held by the companies that were nationalised. In addition, certain industries had been regulated to ensure safer working conditions and to exclude women and young people since the mid Victorian era. Some of these records have made their way to the National Archives, while others are held elsewhere. There is a useful research guide available online.
Certification Officer. Go now
The certification officer performs many of the functions previously discharged by the Registrar of Friendly Societies from 1871 to the 1970s, including receiving annual returns from trade unions and certifying their independence. Annual returns are broadly similar today to those submitted a century ago, so if you are not familiar with these documents, it is useful to look at modern examples (available online) before heading for the archives.
Websites – individual organisation histories
(NB these pages take you to the history pages on the websites of the organisations concerned)
Trades Union Congress
The History of the TUC 1868-1968
General Federation of Trade Unions
All about us
Transport and General Workers Union
Transport Salaried Staffs Association
Single or Return - the official history of the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association
Union of Shop Distributive and Allied Workers
A Century of Service
Many of the volumes listed here have been out of print for many years. However, if you cannot find them through Amazon (try the Union Ancestors Bookshop), you may be able to track down second-hand copies on Abebooks.
Historical Directory of Trade Unions
Vol 1. Non-manual unions
A Marsh & V Ryan, Scolar Press, 1980, ISBN: 0566021609
Vol 2. Unions in engineering, shipbuilding and minor metal trades, coal mining and iron and steel, agriculture, fishing and chemicals
A Marsh & V Ryan, Scolar Press, 1984, ISBN: 0566021617
Vol 3. Unions in building and allied trades, transport, woodworkers and allied trades, leather workers, enginemen and tobacco workers
A Marsh & V Ryan, Gower Publishing Ltd, 1987, ISBN: 0566021625
Vol 4. Unions in cotton, wool and worsted, linen and jute, silk, elastic web, lace and net, hosiery and knitwear, textile finishing, tailors and garment workers, hat and cap, carpets and textile engineering
A Marsh, V Ryan, J Smethurst, Scolar Press, 1994, ISBN: 0859679004
Unions in printing and publishing, local government, retail and distribution, domestic services, general employment, financial services and agriculture Buy this book
A Marsh & J B Smethurst, Ashgate, 2006, ISBN 978-0859679909
See the names of all unions listed in this volume
Banner Bright: an illustrated history of trade union banners
John Gorman (Scorpion Publishing, new edition 1986)
The History of Trade Unionism 1666-1920
Sidney and Beatrice Webb (1920)
Sharpen the Sickle! the history of the farm workers' union
Reg Groves (Porcupine Press, 1959)
The Story of the Transport and General Workers Union
The Builders' History
RW Postgate (National Federation of Building Trade Operatives, 1923)
The Lancashire Weavers' Story: a history of the Lancashire cotton industry and the Amalgamated Weavers' Association
Edwin Hopwood (Amalgamated Weavers' Association, 1968)
They Also Serve: the story of the shopworker
PC Hoffmann (Porcupine Press, 1949)
A History of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives 1874-1957
lan Fox (Basil Blackwell, 1958)
The Lighted Flame: a history of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen
Norman McKillop (Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1950)
The Foundry Workers: a trade union history
HJ Fyrth and Henry Collins (Amalgamated Union of Foundry Workers, 1959)
Our Society's History
S Higenbottam (Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers, 1939)
The Clerks: a history of Apex 1890-1989
Arthur Marsh and Victoria Ryan (Malthouse Publishing, 1997)
Archives and museums
TUC Library Collections Go now
The TUC Library is the major research library for the study of all aspects of trade unions and collective bargaining. The emphasis is on Britain, but many other countries are represented. The TUC Library was established in 1922 and was run as a joint library with the Labour Party until 1956. In September 1996, the Collections moved to their new home in the London Metropolitan University Holloway Road library. The core areas of the collection are reference and historical works on the trade union movement, union publications, documents relating to working conditions and industrial relations and material collected from the wide-ranging campaigns and policy areas in which the TUC has been involved since its foundation in 1868.
Warwick University modern records centre Go now
Home to the most comprehensive collection of trade union records in the UK, including those of the TUC.
Working Class Movement Library Go now
A collection of English language books, periodicals, pamphlets, archives and artefacts, concerned with the activities, expression and enquiries of the labour movement, its allies and its enemies, since the late 1700s. The library is based at 51 The Crescent, Salford, M5 4WX. Of particular interest is the collection of papers donated by the GMB from its own and its predecessor unions' archives.
People's History Museum. Go now
The museum occupies two sites in Manchester city centre. The public galleries, education services, shop and café are housed in the Pump House on Bridge Street . The Head Office occupies part of the Manchester Mechanics Institute building on Princess Street , which also houses the Textile Conservation Studio and the Labour History Archive and Study Centre . There is also an Online exhibition of banners and other objects.
Society for the Study of Labour History. Go now
Founded in 1960, the Society is the UK 's principal organisation dedicated to the study of labour history, organising events and publishing the academic journal Labour History Review .
Radical Roots Search
To find more trade union and labour resources, use the targetted search box below to find more history focused on radical causes and the lives of ordinary people.