John Douthwaite and ‘John Powlett’: Trades’ Unionism and Conflict in Early 1830s Yorkshire

Author: John Robert Sanders
This is the abstract of an article published in Labour History Review (2022), 87, (1), 1–38. Read more.

This article examines two of ‘the great [trades’] Unions of the North’, represented by John Douthwaite and the mythical ‘John Powlett’, during the ‘revolutionary era’ of general unionism. These were built on tried and tested organizational forms and operational tactics, and featured traditional ritualistic elements backed up by strong bonds of secrecy. However, they also activated close mutual ties within their broad trades, explored new tactics of cooperative production, and developed strong links with other like-minded trades. The West Riding unions were at the heart of general union developments of the era and were closely involved in key industrial conflicts, the fate of the Dorchester labourers, and the brief life of the GNCTU. Far from a being a separate and largely discrete branch of working-class endeavour, trades’ unionism was intimately connected to other contemporary struggles, notably the fight for the political reform, cooperative self-reliance, and factory reform. The smashing of the Yorkshire unions, following the Dorchester prosecution and a concerted employers’ counterattack using ‘the document’, fed into the powerful narrative of Whig betrayal – through the Reform Act, the dashing of hopes for a ten-hour day, and the new Poor law – that underpinned early Chartism.