Edda Nicolson (Wolverhampton) on the early history of the General Federation of Trade Unions, 1899-1926

My thesis examines the early history of the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) from its inception in 1899 until the general strike in 1926. Created by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the GFTU was a highly influential arbitration committee and national strike fund administrator. Nevertheless, the GFTU has been largely relegated to the historiographical footnotes, as a consequence of being overshadowed by the larger TUC. In order to bring fresh insight into trade union history, I use new emotions history methodologies to consider how feelings were used in their publications, reports and minutes. To frame this, I also include critical biographies of GFTU leaders to demonstrate how important personalities and friendship networks were to trade union culture.

Although most of the GFTU’s records are digitised and available online at Bishopsgate Institute, I had been making use of other labour history archives until the pandemic sadly forced them to close. The halting of the Inter-Library Loan service was also a huge blow to my plans. Thankfully, the SSLH bursary enabled me to purchase a subscription to findmypast.co.uk so that I could view census data and newspaper articles to help me write more about the personalities that led the GFTU.

Pete Curran (1860-1910), known primarily as leader of the Gasworkers’ Union and as a Labour MP, was the founding Chairman of the GFTU. His congeniality and willingness to work with a wide range of people in the labour movement made him the ideal person to oversee the growth of this new organisation. According to the 1901 census he was living in Walthamstow with his wife (Marion Curran, also a trade union organiser) and five children, but also a 74-year-old widow called Ann Duggan. Although she is listed as a ‘general domestic’, she may have been a family member in need of a roof over her head, perhaps in exchange for a little help around the house. Having been born into poverty, this is perhaps an indication of enough rising affluence to be able to help relatives. Similarly, the 1911 record for Ben Tillett, founding member of the GFTU and leader of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers’ Union, shows a clear reason for his passionate calls for social change that defined his early career. Of his nine children, seven had died. Such awful tragedy must have fuelled his passionate agitation to improve the living conditions of the working classes.

Figure 1: Census entry for Benjamin Tillett, 1911.

Most interestingly, the census records have shone light on a woman who played a crucial role at the GFTU. Marie Olive Selfe (1892-1975) was a typist at the GFTU from around 1911. Clerical staff were the invisible glue that held large trade union organisations together; indeed, at this time the GFTU catered for one million workers whilst also representing Britain on the international trade union stage, which would have generated an enormous web of paperwork. Selfe would have been an important cog in that communication machine, but her name never appears in their records.

Figure 2: Census record for Marie Olive Selfe, 1911.

I first learnt about her existence through a conversation with some of the descendants of William A. Appleton (1859-1940), general secretary of the GFTU from 1907–1938. They had discovered that Appleton and Selfe began living together in a large house in Hertfordshire, after he left his wife and six children. Selfe began to use the name Appleton unofficially, and the pair had two children together. This is important, both as a correction of Prochaska’s accidental error in describing William A. Appleton as having never married in her History of the General Federation of Trade Unions (1982), but also as a reminder that labour leaders were not two-dimensional heroes of the working class. They were fallible, imperfect human beings with complex lives that often affected their careers. Appleton continued to host delegates at his home with the ‘unofficial’ Mrs Appleton, so it was an open secret that social lines of respectability had been somewhat blurred. The birth of their first child in 1916 coincided with a very public fall out between Appleton and the miners’ leader, Bob Smillie (1857-1940), and the start of the rapid decline of the GFTU’s national influence. Is it possible that Appleton’s extramarital relationship was a part of this process? There were rumours of personal hostilities as well as professional disagreements; perhaps Smillie, a devout family man, disapproved of Appleton’s living arrangements. Sadly, I do not yet know for sure.

I am very grateful to the SSLH for the opportunity to further reflect on emotions and personalities in the labour movement, and to think about how organisations were often driven by the personal experiences and relationships of their leaders.

Edda Nicolson is a PhD Researcher in Labour History at the University of Wolverhampton.

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