Friendly Society of Operative Stonemasons

This is the story of the 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 18th century, the economic relationships between employers and workers that underpinned later trade unionism simply did not exist.

Richard Harnott Friendly Society of Operative Stonemasons
Richard Harnott, long-serving general secretary of the stonemasons’ society.

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:

  • the Friendly Society of Operative Stonemasons of England , Ireland and Wales; and
  • the United Operative Masons Association of Scotland.

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.

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, 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.

Related links

Branch secretaries of the Operative Stonemasons union, 1911 – PDF from The Journal of the Operative Stone Masons’ Society

Family tree of the builders’ unions, up to 1921 – PDF (from The Builders’ History, by Raymond Postgate)

UCATT family tree – PDF

United Operative Masons Association of Scotland

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. 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 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.  The 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.

Building trade unions - acronyms and abbreviations

appears as Appendix III to The Builders History
OBUOperative Builders Union (1833)
BWIUBuilding Workers Industrial Union
NFBTONational Federation of Building Trade Operatives
OBSOperative Bricklayers Society (London Order)
MUOB or OSBManchester Unity of Operative Bricklayers, also called Operative Society of Bricklayers (1833), and many other names
GBUPAGlasgow Bricklayers United Trade Protecting Association
OSM, FSOSMOperative Stonemasons (General Union) or Operative Stonemasons (Friendly Society)
SOM or SUOMScottish [United] Operative Masons
OMGWOperative Masons and Granite Workers, Aberdeen
BMWASBuilding and Monumental Workers’ Association of Scotland
AUBTWAmalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers
ASCJAmalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners
GUCJFriendly Society or General Union of Carpenters and Joiners
PJSPreston Joiners Society (1807)
ACJAssociated Society of Carpenters and Joiners
ASWAmalgamated Society of Woodworkers
ASWMAmalgamated Society of Woodcutting Machinists
OUPOperative United Painters (1833)
MAManchester Alliance of Operative Housepainters
AAOPAmalgamated Association of Operative Painters (1860)
GAAHPGeneral Association of Amalgamated House Painters (1866)
ASHDPAmalgamated Society of House Decorators and Painters (London)
NASOHASPADNational Amalgamated Society of Operative House and Ship Painters and Decorators
OPGOperative Plumbers and Glaziers (1833)
FSOPMSTVFriendly Society of Operative Plumbers of Manchester and Salford and their Vicinities
UOPAUnited Operative Plumbers’ Association
UOPASUnited Operative Plumbers’ Association of Scotland
UOPDEAUnited Operative Plumbers’ and Domestic Engineers’ Association
OFPOperative F__________ Plasterers (1833)
NAOPNational Association of Operative Plumbers
SNOPFUScottish National Operative Plasterers’ Federal Union
UBLUUnited Builders Labourers Union
NBLCWSNational Builders’ Labourers and Constructional Workers’ Society
ABLCWS“Altogether” Builders’ Labourers and Constructional Workers’ Society
ASSSAmalgamated Slaters’ Society of Scotland
ASTPSAmalgamated Slaters’ and Tilers’ Provident Society
LBIFLondon Building Industries Federation
LMBALondon Master Builders’ Association

General secretaries of the main builders unions

General secretaryDatesOrganisation
John Embleton 1832-1834?Operative Builders’ Union
J H Dobb1866-1868United Operative Plumbers Association
George May1868-1873United Operative Plumbers Association
Wm Barnett1873-1879United Operative Plumbers Association
George B Cherry1879-1902United Operative Plumbers Association
E E Burns1902-1909United Operative Plumbers Association
J H Edmiston1909-1919United Operative Plumbers Association
Lachlan MacDonald1919-United Operative Plumbers Association
Henry Turff1848-1860Operative Bricklayers Society (London Order)
Edwin Coulson1860-1891Operative Bricklayers Society (London Order)
John Batchelor1891-1919Operative Bricklayers Society (London Order)
George Hicks1919-1921Operative Bricklayers Society (London Order)
Sam Law?-1844Manchester Unity of Operative Bricklayers
J C Lockett1844-?Manchester Unity of Operative Bricklayers
M J O’Neil?-1868Manchester Unity of Operative Bricklayers
Geo Houseley1868-1890Manchester Unity of Operative Bricklayers
G H Clarke1890-1914Manchester Unity of Operative Bricklayers
John Gregory1914-1921Manchester Unity of Operative Bricklayers
C O Williams1861-1885National Association of Operative Plasterers
John Knight1885National Association of Operative Plasterers
Arthur Otley1885-1896National Association of Operative Plasterers
M J Deller1896-1906National Association of Operative Plasterers
T H Oley1906-1922National Association of Operative Plasterers
A H Telling1922-National Association of Operative Plasterers
J Lea1860-62Amalgamated Society of Carpenters And Joiners
Robert Applegarth1862-72Amalgamated Society of Carpenters And Joiners
J D Prior1872-81Amalgamated Society of Carpenters And Joiners
J S Murchie1881-87Amalgamated Society of Carpenters And Joiners
Francis Chandler1887-1919Amalgamated Society of Carpenters And Joiners
A G Cameron1919-20Amalgamated Society of Carpenters And Joiners
W Matson1861-67Associated Society of Carpenters And Joiners
W Paterson1867-Associated Society of Carpenters And Joiners
[Unknown]?-?Associated Society of Carpenters And Joiners
W McIntyre? - 1912Associated Society of Carpenters And Joiners
A Stark1902-11Associated Society of Carpenters And Joiners
Robert Last1862-76General Union of Carpenters And Joiners
[Unknown] Foster?General Union of Carpenters And Joiners
[Unknown] Lindsay? -1883General Union of Carpenters And Joiners
William Matkin1883-1920General Union of Carpenters And Joiners
George Bevan1833-34Operative Stonemasons
Angus McGregor1834-36Operative Stonemasons
James Rennie1836-38Operative Stonemasons
Thomas Shortt1838-43Operative Stonemasons
Thomas Carter1843-47Operative Stonemasons
Richard Harnott1847-72Operative Stonemasons
James E Dyer1872-83Operative Stonemasons
Wm Hancock1883-1910Operative Stonemasons
Wm Williams1910-21Operative Stonemasons
J M'Neil? - 1855Scottish Operative Masons
R Willox1855-59Scottish Operative Masons
John Paton1859-1862Scottish Operative Masons
Jas Hart1862-66Scottish Operative Masons
D McLaren1866-67Scottish Operative Masons
Matthew Allan1867-83Scottish Operative Masons
T Walker1883-85Scottish Operative Masons
John Craig1885-95Scottish Operative Masons
G B Craig1895-1911Scottish Operative Masons
W Gordon1911-13Scottish Operative Masons
H Macpherson and J F Armour1913-Scottish Operative Masons
William Macdonald? - 1866Painters Society (Nasohaspad)
Thomas Sharples1866-90Painters Society (Nasohaspad)
G M Sunley1890-1910Painters Society (NASOHASPAD)
J Parsonage1910-18Painters Society (NASOHASPAD)
J A Gibson1918-Painters Society (NASOHASPAD)
Geo Shipton1873-89London Amalgamated Painters
E C Gibbs1889-1904London Amalgamated Painters
J WildAmalgamated Society of Woodcutting Machinists
[Unknown] LeesAmalgamated Society of Woodcutting Machinists
J SewellAmalgamated Society of Woodcutting Machinists
Thos ParkAmalgamated Society of Woodcutting Machinists
W J WentworthAmalgamated Society of Woodcutting Machinists