Steam power: boilermakers mark 100 years of trade unionism, 1834-1934

A small green booklet published as a souvenir of the United Society of Boilermakers’ centenary celebrations shows members’ pride in their union’s achievements

By 1934, the United Society of Boilermakers and Iron and Steel Shipbuilders was able to trace its history back a full hundred years, to the birth at a meeting in Manchester of the Friendly Society of Boilermakers. Although the new organisation had just 14 members to start with, within a year it had spread beyond its birthplace in the North West to open its first branch in London and adopted a rule book that established it as an exclusive organisation for craftsmen, charging an entrance fee of a guinea and contributions of 1s 9d a month.

‘Souvenir’: the front cover of the booklet. Click for larger image

To mark its centenary, the union called a ‘national celebration’ at Belle Vue, Manchester; and on 28 August 1934, thousands of members gathered with their families and friends from other unions at Ardwick Green before marching to Belle Vue, where some 1,200 people sat down to tea before a ticket-only ‘demonstration’ in the King’s Hall, where a band played and speakers addressed the crowd. Those present were able to see framed copies of the Society’s early emblems and sign the visitors book, the signatures to be bound and kept as a lasting memento of the occasion.

Later, the union published a small hardback Souvenir of the Centenary Celebrations of the Society, its title page bearing the organisation’s emblem and the motto ‘God helps those who help themselves’. Filled with pictures of the Society’s officials, and of the procession, the booklet, parts of which are shown here, included an account of the day; it reprinted the speeches given by the President, Mark Hodgson, and the General Secretary, John Hill, and summarised those given by guests, including A. Conley, chairman of the General Council of the TUC, and David Williams, MP for Swansea. The final 17 pages reproduced the signatures of those who had been there on the day.

The centenary badge. Click for larger image

Pages from the booklet can be seen below.

The booklet provides a colourful account of a happy day for the Society and its members, gathered ‘to perform a sacred duty to their society’. It reports that special trains and buses had been laid on, enabling ‘hosts of young members, full-time officials (past and present), branch officials, friends and well-wishers’ to gather at Ardwick Green. ‘The centenary badge proudly worn in every coat; officials resplendent in their strikingly outstanding regalias; the Scots easily recognisable by their “burr” bonnets, bagpipes and heather; the “Geordies” from Tyneside, with their travelling companions from Wear and Tees; Ould Ireland hailing from Manchester and Mersey friends; batches from the Midlands, the Humber and the South exchanging fraternal greetings with Welsh enthusiasts, easily spotted by the young leek plants fastened to button-hole by Centenary Badges; forty West Hartlepool travellers sporting carnations gathered from a thoughtful member’s allotment’.

Favoured with fine weather and brilliant sunshine, the procession set off led by the Society’s chief officials and the banner of Bolton branch, the oldest in the union, and by ‘various bands’. The Salford State Coach carried ‘old superannuated members’, and banner carriers were forced to negotiate their way carefully around narrow roads. Then, on their arrival at Belle Vue, ‘after much photographing, the marchers dispersed to spend an hour or two enjoying the attractions at hand’.

Later, at the ‘demonstration’, Alderman F.F. Titt, a former Lord Mayor of Manchester, gave a civic welcome. In the main, he told them, younger trade unionists in 1934 had only seen their unions negotiating over falls in wages; but they should ‘compare the workers’ conditions to-day with those of forty or sixty years ago to realise the tremendous distance the trade union movement had travelled’.

Image from the booklet showing part of the procession
‘The arrival of the centenary procession at Belle Vue.’ Click for larger image

In his presidential address, Mark Hodgson declared: ‘At the end of a century, in spite of progress, we have had to go to the first Emblem, the work of William Hughes [the Society’s first general secretary, appointed in 1835], for the design, the hand grip, for our Badge, and if I were asked for a motto for the future I should need to go to the same source – the preamble to the first book of rules, where it states: “Let brotherly love continue”.

And continue it, or at least the Society, did – until in 1963 it amalgamated with the Associated Blacksmiths, Forge and Smithy Workers and the Ship Constructors and Shipwrights Association to become the Amalgamated Society of Boilermakers, Blacksmiths, Shipbuilders and Structural Workers. In 1982, this new society would in turn merge with the General and Municipal Workers Union to form the General, Municipal, Boilermakers’ and Allied Trade Union. This was sometimes shortened to ‘GMB’, which in 1987 became the official name of the union.

Further information

The Modern Records Centre at Warwick University holds extensive records of the United Society of Boilermakers and Iron and Steel Shipbuilders, including some membership records dating back to the 1830s. See more here.

The Working Class Movement Library in Salford has members’ lists from 1865, annual reports dating back to the 1870s, and a collection of branch records. See more here.

There is an entry for the United Society of Boilermakers, Shipbuilders and Structural Workers in the Historical Directory of Trade Unions vol 2, by Arthur Marsh and Victoria Ryan, Aldershot: Gower, 1984, ISBN 0566021617.

Click pages below for larger images.