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The Age of George III

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The repeal of the Combination Acts (1824)

In 1799 and 1800, during the French Wars, the Combination Acts were passed by Pitt's government. These laws forbade societies or amalgamations of persons for the purpose of political reform. Interference with commerce and trade became illegal. The penalty for breaking these laws was 3 months in gaol. Pitt passed the Combination Acts because trade clubs and societies had effectively demanded wage rises to keep pace with inflation. The government saw wage claims as a clear sign of disaffection. The Combination Acts introduced no new principle into law because unlawful combinations were already unlawful. These Combination Acts offered faster application of the law. They provided for summary trial before a JP instead of awaiting the Assize. The new laws were not widely used because existing, older laws were much more severe, providing a sentence of 7 years transportation. The Combination Acts were passed because:

By the early 1820s the so-called 'Enlightened Tories' in Lord Liverpool's ministry were making reforms and the Combination Acts were virtually a dead letter by this time. Francis Place and the MP, Joseph Hume managed to have a Select Committee of Inquiry set up under the chairmanship of William Huskisson, which found that the Combination Acts served 'to produce mutual irritation and distrust [and] to give a violent character to Combination'. The Committee recommended repeal, which was carried out in 1824. Place said:

I was quite certain that if the bills came under discussion in the House they would be lost. Mr. Hume had the good sense to see this, and wholly to refrain from speaking on them... No inquiry was made as to who drew the bills; they were found to contain all that was needful, and with some assiduity in seeing members to induce them not to speak on the several readings, they passed the House of Commons almost without the notice of members within or newspapers without. (G. Wallas, Life of Francis Place, Allen & Unwin, 1918 pp.214-216)

Overt public disorder occurred 1815-1824 because there was no safety valve through which the lower orders could express their dissatisfaction but the repeal of the legislation was unfortunate in timing. In 1824-5 many TUs flourished and there was an expansion in trade. Union men demanded 'closed shops' and there were many strikes and much violence. Francis Place attacked the government's decision to investigate Trade Union law after the strikes of 1824; most of his criticism was aimed at Huskisson:

Mr. Huskisson commenced his speech by declaring that repealing the Combination Laws seemed likely to be attended with the most inconvenient and dangerous consequences... He complained that the Committee had made no report, and he made several objections to the resolutions. He excused himself for neither having attended in his place in the Committee, nor to the progress of the bill in Parliament, and having thus cleared his way, he fell furiously to work upon his subject. He pulled the Act to pieces; complained of it as an anomaly. It not only repealed the statute law, but forbade the operation of the common law, which had thus introduced a great public evil... The bill had been hurried through the House without discussion. He then drew a false and exaggerated picture of the state of the country, and predicted the most fatal consequences. Liberty, property, life itself was in danger, and Parliament must speedily interfere. (Ibid., pp.224-225)

In 1825 the Conspiracy Laws were strengthened and an amendment to the repeal legislation was passed, limiting the purpose of combinations. Lord Liverpool justified the new legislation in a speech to parliament:

The measure arose almost entirely out of the bill of last session, which had been hastily passed. He had not been aware of its extent, and did not, until it came into operation, know its provisions... It, at one sweep, repealed the whole of the common law respecting the relations of master and servant. Soon after it passed, disturbances and acts of violence took place in different parts of the country; and it became absolutely necessary to pass some act on the subject before the session closed...

This bill not only prevented the combination of workmen against masters, and of masters against workmen, but prevented the combination of workmen against workmen. This was a protection which the honest and good workman had a right to expect. The bill repealed the act of the last session; but in doing so, it also repealed the old restrictive statutes which were repealed by that act, while it restored the common law to its former state. Objection had been made to the clause for protecting workmen which contained the word 'molestation', but that was a word well known to the law, and would have a fair interpretation. (Parliamentary Debates, 2nd Series, Vol.13, (1825) cols.1478-1479)

Although TUs had made gains out of the 1824 and 1825 legislation, their funds were not protected by law; members could be sued for breach of contract or for action 'in restraint of trade'; members could not picket, 'molest' or 'obstruct' while pursuing TU objectives and employers used 'the Document' to prevent collective bargaining.


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Last modified 26 October, 2013

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