Trade Union Ancestors - a history of the OSM and other stonemsons' unions

Richard Harnott, long-serving general secretary of the stonemasons' society.

Friendly Society of Operative Stonemasons of England, Ireland and Wales
Also touching on the histories of other stonemasons' unions

Early forms of “trade union” organisation among stonemasons can be seen as far back as the 14 th and 15 th centuries.

But while the language and customs of these early bodies may have been inherited by later unions, there is no evidence to show any continuity of organisation, and until at least the late 18 th century, the economic relationships between employers and workers that underpinned later trade unionism simply did not exist.

There is known to have been a short-lived organisation of stonemasons in Edinburgh in 1764 which resulted in a strike over wage rates. And there were similar incidents in London in 1750, 1769 and 1776, as well as in Bristol in 1792. But very little is known about these organisations.

Other small, local bodies offering friendly society benefits also came into existence in the early years of the 19 th century – at Sheffield in 1815 and at Newcastle the following year, for example.

But it would not be until the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824 made trade union activities less hazardous, and the emergence of the Operative Builders Union (OBU) in 1831, that trade unionism would gain a firm foothold among stonemasons.

Although the OBU briefly flourished, its involvement with Robert Owen's Grand National Consolidated Trade Union led to its total destruction within two years.

A less flamboyant organisation survived, however, and as the Friendly Society of Operative Stonemasons of England and Wales (also known as the Operative Stonemasons' union or OSM) became a cornerstone of building trades unionism throughout the 19 th century and well into the 20 th . Scotland , meanwhile, went its own way. The recorded history of trade union organisation among stonemasons is therefore the story of two organisations:

Both unions were founded in 1831 and both eventually merged into the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers (in 1921 and 1923 respectively). Further mergers led to today's Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, as the UCATT family tree on this site shows.

Branch secretaries of the Operative Stone Masons union, 1911 PDF
Family tree of the builders' unions, up to 1921 PDF
Family tree of UCATT, 2006 PDF
United Operative Masons Association of Scotland

Friendly Society of Operative Stonemasons of England , Ireland and Wales
Emerging from the wreckage of the wave of Owenite trade union that briefly swept the country in the early 1830s, the Friendly Society of Operative Stonemasons adopted a strategy of conciliation that kept industrial disputes to a minimum. In this way, it was slowly able to build its strength so that by 1838 it could claim 4,953 members – around 60% of those eligible to join.

Under its next general secretary, however, things went badly wrong. The position of secretary was a powerful one. While he was elected by the society as a whole, the central committee was merely elected by the lodges of the town that happened to be the seat of government that year. Members could keep the same town as their seat of government in successive years, but the rule book said that it had to move on at the end of three years.

After his election in 1838, Thomas Shortt persuaded the society to make some necessary decisions. It withdrew from Ireland , where recruitment was always problematic and restored a sense of solidarity with other building unions.

But an eight month strike which halted work on the construction of Nelson's Column and the new Houses of Parliament almost bankrupted the society. By 1842, there were just 2,144 members still on the books.

Following his departure, the masons once again quietly recovered their strength and by 1845 could once again claim nearly 5,000 members. Even some messy but far from disastrous disputes in Liverpool and Manchester in this decade failed to dent membership growth, and the masons would continue to form the bedrock of building trades unionism for decades.

Under Richard Harnott, who served as general secretary from 1847 to his death in 1872, the society had a leader who thrived on efficient administration and strong organisation. Although the masons never adopted the New Model trade unionism that would later transform the engineers and others into a powerful force, he did clip the wings of the lodges and take more power to the centre.

Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, two issues were to cause major disputes: the campaign for the nine-hour day, and resistance to hourly payment. These battles came to a head in London , when thousands of stonemasons were locked out of their work over the winder of 1859-1860, and across the north of England during 1869-1870, when masons were locked out for the best part of a year.

Through all this, Harnott ruled the union in an increasingly personal and authoritarian style, but one which largely brought success. The society was so devastated by his death, that it resolved to keep his name on the union's membership cards as general secretary.

This affection did not extend very far, however. The builders trade union historian, Raymond Postgate, writing in 1921, noted the society's “shocking ingratitude” when, “two years later they refused to give his widow £50 to keep her out of the workhouse”.

In 1877, the society called a strike in support of its claim for 10d an hour. The result was a total defeat, leading to wage cuts and longer working hours.

From this point on, the society went into decline. In 1886, the Royal Commission on the Depression of Trade and Industry reported that apprenticeship was falling into disuse among stonemasons, with an influx of unskilled workers entering the trade.

Although membership rallied during the building boom of the 1890s, rising to 16,816 in 1896 and peaking at 19,682 by 1899, the growth of subcontracting hit the society hard, and by 1910 it had just 7,055 members.

In the aftermath of the first world war, the society agreed to amalgamate with the Manchester Unity of Bricklayers and the London Order of Bricklayers, and on 1 January 1921 they created the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers.

Smaller unions
In addition to the main stonemasons' unions whose histories are given above, the Historical Directory of Trade Unions lists the following organisations:

Amalgamated Operative Marble and Slate Masons Trade and Benefit Society – a London-based organisation operating from 1893 to 1912, when it was dissolved. The society was launched with 65 members, rose to 121 by 1900, but fell back to 61 by 1910.

Bristol Operative Stonemasons Society – which appears to have come into existence around 1832 and continued until 1849, when it merged with the main Operative Stonemasons' organisation.

Dundee Stonemasons Union – which was active in Dundee gas works in 1837, and in 1862 advertised in the press advising masons not to take work in the town. Some records exist in Dundee Public Library's Lamb Collection.

Edinburgh Masons Association – a shortlived combination which in 1764 struck for higher wages, demanding 1s 3d in summer and 1s in winter. The magistrates ruled their actions “illegal, tumultuous and unwarrantable” and ordered a return to work.

Glasgow and District Marble Masons and Fixers Society – first mentioned in 1919, and later merged with the Building and Monumental Workers Association of Scotland.

Glasgow Operative Masons Friendly Society – formed in 1824 and known to have been in existence in 1842 because its rule book for that year survives.

Glasgow Operative Masons Society – known only from a letter sent by the society to Henry Lord Brougham in June 1835.

Granite Workers Union – formed in Aberdeen in 1831 and dissolved in 1835, its members joining the United Operative Masons Association of Scotland.

Huddersfield Operative Stonemasons Society –the precursor and parent lodge of the Friendly Society of Operative Masons.

Newcastle Operative Masons Society – extant around 1816, its rules laid down that 2d per night must be spent on beer by every member (presumably a measure to keep the landlord of the inn at which it met happy).

Northern Union of Operative Masons – an Aberdeen breakaway from the United Operative Masons Association of Scotland in 1842, it survived until 1870, collapsing into bankruptcy after being defeated in a strike over wages and conditions.

Operative Stone Cutters Society of Stepaside – founded 1860, and with a membership which hovered around 100 until 1904, after which it went into decline and was dissolved in 1912.

Scottish Stone Carvers Association – with just 21 members when it was founded in 1895, and never recruiting many more, it joined the Stone Carvers Trade Association in 1898.

Sheffield Stonemasons Friendly Society – in existence in 1815, with 693 members and a fund of £1,852, according to trade union historians Sidney and Beatrice Webb (History of Trade Unionism, 1894)

Society of Operative Stonemasons – registered 1887, certificate withdrawn 1910.

Stone Carvers Trade Association – established 1873 with 173 members, details of its sick fund, accident fund and strike fund were recorded in Board of Trade reports. The society's registration was cancelled in 1912.

United Operative Masons and Granite Cutters Union – founded as the Aberdeen Operative Masons and Stonecutters Society in 1888, it had changed its name by 1892 and by 1894 had nearly 2,000 members – nearly all of those eligible to join. Its agreement with the Aberdeen Granite Association guaranteed that only members of the union would be employed, and it continued in operation until 1919, when it amalgamated with the United Operative Masons Association of Scotland to form the Building and Monumental Workers Association of Scotland.

Warrington Operative Stonemasons Society – a minute book of 1832 lists those who joined the union at a cost of 11s. The society pledged support for the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, but after its failure membership fell from 114 to 17 by the end of 1834. It became part of the Friendly Society of Operative Stonemasons.

Building trade unions: acronyms and abbreviations
The following list is appears as Appendix III to The Builders History

OBU Operative Builders Union (1833)
BWIU Building Workers Industrial Union
NFBTO National Federation of Building Trade Operatives
OBS Operative Bricklayers Society (London Order)
MUOB or OSB Manchester Unity of Operative Bricklayers, also called Operative Society of Bricklayers (1833), and many other names
GBUPA Glasgow Bricklayers United Trade Protecting Association
OSM, FSOSM Operative Stonemasons (General Union) or Operative Stonemasons (Friendly Society)
SOM or SUOM Scottish [United] Operative Masons
OMGW Operative Masons and Granite Workers, Aberdeen
BMWAS Building and Monumental Workers’ Association of Scotland
AUBTW Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers
ASCJ Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners
GUCJ Friendly Society or General Union of Carpenters and Joiners
PJS Preston Joiners Society (1807)
ACJ Associated Society of Carpenters and Joiners
ASW Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers
ASWM Amalgamated Society of Woodcutting Machinists
OUP Operative United Painters (1833)
MA Manchester Alliance of Operative Housepainters
AAOP Amalgamated Association of Operative Painters (1860)
GAAHP General Association of Amalgamated House Painters (1866)
ASHDP Amalgamated Society of House Decorators and Painters (London)
NASOHASPAD National Amalgamated Society of Operative House and Ship Painters and Decorators
OPG Operative Plumbers and Glaziers (1833)
FSOPMSTV Friendly Society of Operative Plumbers of Manchester and Salford and their Vicinities
UOPA United Operative Plumbers’ Association
UOPAS United Operative Plumbers’ Association of Scotland
UOPDEA United Operative Plumbers’ and Domestic Engineers’ Association
OFP Operative F__________ Plasterers (1833)
NAOP National Association of Operative Plumbers
SNOPFU Scottish National Operative Plasterers’ Federal Union
UBLU United Builders Labourers Union
NBLCWS National Builders’ Labourers and Constructional Workers’ Society
ABLCWS “Altogether” Builders’ Labourers and Constructional Workers’ Society
ASSS Amalgamated Slaters’ Society of Scotland
ASTPS Amalgamated Slaters’ and Tilers’ Provident Society
Note also:  
LBIF London Building Industries Federation
LMBA London Master Builders’ Association

General secretaries of the main unions

John Embleton 1832-1834?  
J H Dobb 1866-1868
George May 1868-1873
Wm Barnett 1873-1879
George B Cherry 1879-1902
E E Burns 1902-1909
J H Edmiston 1909-1919
Lachlan MacDonald 1919-
Henry Turff 1848-1860
Edwin Coulson 1860-1891
John Batchelor 1891-1919
George Hicks 1919-1921
[First secretaries unknown]  
Sam Law ?-1844
J C Lockett 1844-?
M J O’Neil ?-1868
Geo Houseley 1868-1890
G H Clarke 1890-1914
John Gregory 1914-1921
C O Williams 1861-1885
John Knight 1885
Arthur Otley 1885-1896
M J Deller 1896-1906
T H Oley 1906-1922
A H Telling 1922-
J Lea 1860-62
Robert Applegarth 1862-72
J D Prior 1872-81
J S Murchie 1881-87
Francis Chandler 1887-1919
A G Cameron 1919-20
W Matson 1861-67
W Paterson 1867-
[Unknown] ?-?
W McIntyre ? - 1912
A Stark 1902-11
[First secretaries unknown]  
Robert Last 1862-76
[Unknown] Foster ?
[Unknown] Lindsay ? -1883
William Matkin 1883-1920
George Bevan 1833-34
Angus McGregor 1834-36
James Rennie 1836-38
Thomas Shortt 1838-43
Thomas Carter 1843-47
Richard Harnott 1847-72
James E Dyer 1872-83
Wm Hancock 1883-1910
Wm Williams 1910-21
[First unknown]  
J M'Neil ? - 1855
R Willox 1855-59
John Paton 1859-1862
Jas Hart 1862-66
D McLaren 1866-67
Matthew Allan 1867-83
T Walker 1883-85
John Craig 1885-95
G B Craig 1895-1911
W Gordon 1911-13
H Macpherson and J F Armour 1913-
William Macdonald ? - 1866
Thomas Sharples 1866-90
G M Sunley 1890-1910
J Parsonage 1910-18
J A Gibson 1918-
Geo Shipton 1873-89
E C Gibbs 1889-1904
J Wild  
[Unknown] Lees  
J Sewell  
Thos Park  
W J Wentworth  

Sources and notes
Historical Directory of Trade Unions, vol 3, Arthur Marsh and Victoria Ryan (Gower, 1987).
The Builders' History, Raymond Postgate (National Federation of Building Trade Operatives, 1923).
The Journal of the Operative Stone Masons' Society, bound volume, 1911-12

Further information
The modern records centre at Warwick University holds the most extensive surviving records of the Friendly Society of Operative Stonemasons of England, Ireland and Wales (external link). These include:
accounts, 1833-63;
audits, 1863-1920;
fortnightly returns, 1834-1910;
blacklists, 1834-56;
journal, 1911-21;
rulebooks, 1881-95;
some branch records, 1832-1905

The Working Class Movement Library in Salford (external link) has copies of the society's annual audits for the following years:
1865 - 69,
1873 - 77,
1878 - 81,
1885 - 87,
1888 - 90,
1894 - 1918

Audits run mostly from December to December but in later years from November to November. Audits contain a great deal of information about income and expenditure locally and nationally, membership numbers and union property. Items of particular interest to family historians, include:

  • Table of accident provision giving members' name, age, date of accident, nature of accident and amount of benefit received
  • Table listing names of deceased members, date of death, cause of death, age and amount of benefit paid out
  • As above with names of deceased wives of members
  • Lists of illegal payments made by branches, with details of discrepancy

Over the years there were modifications in the way the audit was presented to include:

  • Deaths of members' children giving location, number of deaths, benefits paid - from 1867
  • Frauds committed, by lodge, name of member, amount of default - from 1868
  • Working hours and rates of wages by lodge - from 1867
  • Hospital subscriptions by district - from 1869
  • Accident provision by lodge with members' name, date and nature of accident and benefit paid: from 1874
  • List of superannuated members by lodge with age, date granted and amount of benefit: from 1895
  • Addresses of lodges: from 1906

From January 1912 until December 1913, the society published a fortnightly journal.
Contents include:

  • Names of deceased members and wives/widows, with age, cause of death, place of death and date of death
  • Names and location of members receiving sick benefit and accident benefit
  • Names, age and district of new members
  • Minutes of EC meetings
  • Letters to journal
  • Names of members in "travelling book".
  • Names and branch of members emigrating with dates and destination
  • List of projected new buildings in the "provinces" and cost of project.

For general history resources visit

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