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Trade Union Records

Nature of Source

Records relating to the activities of Trade Unions. From the 1880s large sections of the unskilled working classes become unionised and organised. A significant amount of women joined the ranks of trade unions perhaps epitomised by the Bryant and May London matchgirls strike of 1888. The starting point of research is to establish which industrial sector the person was working in and then narrow down the possible trade unions he or she belonged to. Also note that many smaller unions amalgamated into larger ones.

One of the first attempts to establish a general trade union as a national confederation covering all workers came with the establishment of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union by Robert Owen in 1834. Although the union folded within a very short time, individual trade unions flourished especially with the emergence and rapid expansion of the industrial sector.

Some 5,000 individual unions have existed since the 19th century and many amalgamated with other unions or folded. The Union Family Trees displays the evolution of individual trade unions in the form of a 'family tree'. The A to Z of trade unions provides a listing of trade unions through the years and the multi-volume set of reference books called the 'Historical Directory of Trade Unions' (see below) provides a comprehensive directory of trade unions.

The type of records worth investigating are admission books, membership cards, membership lists which detail all members at a particular date but are very rare to find, minute books and branch records which name individuals as do branch returns and annual reports. Union journals and union histories can also name individual members.

Very few records exist before the Combination Acts Repeal Act of 1824. The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 effectively banned organised labour movements and the notion of collective bargaining.

Members of a trade union may have been active in other political movements and parties such as the Communist Party, the Labour Party, the Liberal Party or the Independent Labour Party. They might also have been active in the Chartist movement or the Co-operative movement.

See also
Business & Company Records
Friendly & Fraternal Society Records
Occupational and Labour Records (Includes links and guidance on calculating historical wage rates and the cost of living)

Where Found

Individual Trade Unions
County Record Offices
The National Archives (Details of Trade Unions registered with the Registrar of Friendly Societies from 1870 and later from 1971 the Chief Registrar of Trade Unions and Employers Associations)
The National Archives (Various series of records including series LAB 2, Ministry of Labour and Predecessors: Correspondence. Enhanced catalogue descriptions for this series is available at the TNA Discovery catalogue with files on labour and employment subjects including industrial relations, women's equality rights, labour disputes, working hours and health and safety issues. First click on ‘Advanced search’ and then type in the name, place or subject being searched. Then under ‘Search within’ select ‘Enter a reference’ and type ‘LAB 2’)
Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick (The archives in the Modern Records Centre relate principally to industrial relations. They include the historical records of trade unions, friendly societies, employers' associations and a variety of political organisations and pressure groups. Amongst others, they are the official home to the archives of the Trades Union Congress and the Transport and General Workers Union. The centre also holds the British Petroleum (BP) company archive. Many prominent trade unionists have deposited their personal papers at the centre)
Labour History Archive & Study Centre
(The archives are housed at the People's History Museum and include the archives of the Labour Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain, trade unions, Co-operative Society and other left wing political groups and movements. The archives also hold a range of material to add social background such as photos, books, newsletters and pamphlets)
Trades Union Congress Library Collections (The TUC Library is the major research library for the study of all aspects of trade unions and collective bargaining with both historical and contemporary coverage. The Library holds material collected by the TUC up to the end of 1995 including many union publications which might include the names of union ancestors. The Collections also hold the deposited records of the Workers’ Educational Association and the Labour Research Department)
Working Class Movement Library
Bishopsgate Institute Library (Collections include trade union books and pamphlets and personal papers with sections on working conditions, trade unions and labour relations  and Labour biographies. The library holds archives and records of labour movements and political parties including the Co-operative Society and the Labour Party and affiliated organisations. Specialist collections include the archives of the General Federation of Trade Unions)
LSE Library, also known as the British Library of Political & Economic Science (Industrial Relations. The Library holds a pamphlet collection with a section on Trade Unions)

Period Covered

1788 - Onwards

Genealogical Value

Names, ages addresses, marital status, occupations, number of years in trade, date joined union

Further References

Anderson, Janice. Working Life in Britain: Futura Publications, 2007


Crail, Mark. Tracing Your Labour Movement Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians: Pen & Sword, 2009


Fowler, Simon. Sources for Labour History: PRO Publications, 1995


Marsh, Arthur & Smethurst, John (eds). Historical Directory of Trade Unions: Ashgate Publishing, 2006 (Preview available from Google Books)


Reid, Alastair, United We Stand: A History of Britain's Trade Unions: Penguin, 2005


Websites (TUC History Online: The Union Makes Us Strong. Sections include a timeline through 200 years of trade union history; archive from the General Strike; story of the Match Girls strike; TUC Congress Reports between 1868 and 1968. The TUC Library Collections contain books, pamphlets and other material collected from unions, pressure groups and campaign movements) (Working Class Movement Library. The Library records over 200 years of organising and campaigning by Britain's working classes from the beginning of industrialisation to the present day. The collection includes: books, pamphlets, archives, photographs, songs, banners, posters, cartoons, journals, biographies and reports. For family historians information can be found on individuals and general information on occupations, social conditions and campaigns) (TUC Library catalogue) (Trade Union Ancestors: Includes a complete listing of all British trade unions known to have existed over the past 200 years) (Research guides to using sources at the Modern Records Centre) (Early trade unionism) (‘Your Family Tree’ magazine feature: Trade Union Records) (People's History Museum) (Robert Owen Museum) (Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum) (Society for the Study of Labour History) (Chartist Ancestors) (Sources relating to Chartism in the National Archive) (The Luddite Link: the site provides a gateway to information and resources about the Luddite movement in West Yorkshire) (Swing Riots & Rioters: The site is run by Jill Chambers a renowned specialist researcher into the swing riots and transported convicts and includes information on the swing riots of 1830-1831 as well as lists of convicted machine breakers and those held in prison hulks)

Online Databases

Online Catalogues (Listing of online catalogues for the partial whereabouts of records including the National Register of Archives [NRA]) (Trade Union Membership Registers. Digitised images of original records books from 26 different trade unions from the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick. Search for an individual in the records including admission books, annual reports and membership lists and include details about individual members such as payments made, benefits received and the names of spouses) (Trade Union Members, Service & Casualties 1914-1918: Details of men and women from 18 different unions who served as soldiers or nurses in the First World War. The documents include details about individual members such as payments made, benefits received, name of spouse and can include members who did not serve in the war) (The Matchworkers' Strike, lists of strikers at the Bryant and May factory in East London in 1888)

CD Roms (Machine Breakers' Riots and Trials covering a number of counties. Supplied by Machine Breakers News and Swing Riots & Rioters. Requests for individual searches can be made of the Protestors Index via the website for a fee)