This is the story of the United Operative Masons Association of Scotland, also touching on the histories of other stonemasons’ unions in Scotland.
Early forms of “trade union” organisation among stonemasons can be seen as far back as the 14th and 15th 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.
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, as the UCATT family tree on this site shows.
Where England is built of brick, Scotland is constructed of stone, so masons formed the backbone of the Scottish construction industry. Even so, the early years of the Scottish stonemasons’ society were difficult ones.
The United Operative Masons Association of Scotland was formed in 1831, but was always week, with individual lodges retaining most of the funds, and by 1840 it still had just 433 members.
When a delegate was sent by the society in 1842 to “uplifet all the Funds from any Branch, not a Vestage to remain” to support stonemasons on strike in Glasgow , the Aberdeen lodge promptly shut him out and broke away. It formed a Northern Union of Operative Masons but little more was heard of it.
The trade union historian Raymond Postgate, in The Builders’ History (1923) says that this northern union had three branches – in Aberdeen, Peterhead and Pitsligo – each was “utterly independent financially and their relations were little more than fraternal”.
He adds: “The members regularly divided the surplus funds as a dividend, and there was no chance of their accumulating a sufficient fund to become a national union, had they so desired. Little, indeed, can be recorded of the Aberdeen movement, except the foundation (1846), as a result of a joiners’ strike, of one of the earliest permanent Trades Councils, the Aberdeen ‘Delegated Committee of Sympathy’.”
The northern union were able to win a number of concessions from employers, including an early finish on Saturdays. But in 1868, it embarked on a lengthy struggle which its resources could not support. The fight was lost, the union bankrupted, and in 1870 it was dissolved.
Elsewhere in Scotland , by 1846, the English society had become so concerned at the absence of any activity on the part of its Scottish equivalent, that it opened its own lodges at Dundee and elsewhere. The following year, an experienced organiser was despatched from England to Glasgow , and a new Scottish society was built up on the English model.
By 1854, there were 10 lodges, mostly grouped around Glasgow, and fewer than 1,000 members. The first full time secretary, John M’Neill, took office in September 1855 on the same rate as a working stonemason. By the end of that year there were some 31 lodges and 3,000 members.
Despite the departure of M’Neill and the disappearance of his successor with the union’s funds, the union flourished. In 1861, a campaign to win the nine-hour day succeeded in Edinburgh , and was taken up all over Scotland . This early success was repeated all over Scotland , and the shorter working day was universal by 1866. By now membership stood at 6,606 in 64 lodges.
Under Matthew Allan, secretary from 1867 until his death in 1883, membership rose in the building boom of the 1870s to 13,759 and the number of lodges to 116 by 1877. Wages were rising, the nine-hour day had been retained and all appeared well.
Disaster struck the following year. Postgate writes:
“Just as the boom had passed its height in the autumn of 1878, when the schools were all finished and the speculative builders troubled about letting their houses, the City of Glasgow Bank failed for twelve million pounds. The whole Scottish building trade ceased, paralysed for seven years. Master builder after master builder was ruined. Emplyment could hardly be got by any operative: the trade had to try to exist on odd jobs or repairs.”
The United Operative Masons Association of Scotland was ruined. It lost more than £17,000 in the bank’s crash and was left penniless overnight. Although it eventually got back around one-third of its money this was not enough to fight battles in defence of its members. All over Scotland , employers now sought to cut wage rates and lengthen hours. Allan exhorted the lodges to “give way”, and only narrowly succeeded through a policy of retreat in saving the union.
By 1883 membership was down to 6,105, and the union’s £18,000 had fallen to £1,800. Allan died in office at the age of 58, a broken man.
Uninspired central leadership in the years that followed saw individual lodges go their own way, and membership fell still further. By 1886, the union was unable to continue paying funeral benefits, and was forced to wind up its sick fund. Membership went on falling.
By the early years of the 20 th century, the stonemasons were in a dire position in Scotland . The ten-hour day had been reintroduced in some towns, and labourers under the title of “machine men” (stone planers) were taking masons’ work at lower wages.
Recovery would not begin until 1911, and would be slow; membership was boosted by the Insurance Act of that year which made benefits dependent on membership of either a union or insurance company, but these men were at best lukewarm trade unionists.
In 1919, at the instigation of the TUC, the union amalgamated with the United Operative Masons and Granite Cutters Union and two other small stoneworkers societies to form the Building and Monumental Workers Association of Scotland.
Smaller unions in Scotland
In addition to the main stonemasons’ unions whose histories are given above, the Historical Directory of Trade Unions lists the following organisations:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 modern records centre at Warwick University holds papers from the Glasgow and suburban lodges of the United Operative Masons Associaion of Scotland from 1899-1904 (external link)
It also has a roll of members of the United Operative Masons and Granite Cutters’ Union from 1888-1933 (external link).