The Amalgamated Society of Engineers was by no means the first trade union to produce an emblem for its members. But just as the constitution and structure adopted by the ASE in 1851 proved influential among the New Model unions that followed, so the design of its emblem inspired numerous imitators.
James Sharples, a blacksmith and founder member of the ASE (more properly, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, Machinists, Millwrights, Smiths and Pattern Makers), was chosen to design the union’s emblem after a competition held soon after the union was formed. Largely self-taught as an artist, he had taken drawing classes one evening a week at Bury Mechanics Institute while serving out his apprenticeship as a blacksmith; soon after completing it in 1846, Sharples attempted to make a living entirely from his art, but was forced to return to foundry work after fifteen months. He would later achieve a measure of fame though not fortune for his paintings The Forge and The Smithy. Sharples taught himself the process of engraving in order to be able to make copies of his paintings more widely available, so that while both predated his work for the ASE, they became known only towards the end of the 1850s. The Forge, in particular, was favourably reviewed in The Athenaeum and The Art Journal as well as by the critic John Ruskin.
Sharples was awarded the relatively generous sum of £5 for his work on the ASE emblem.
His design draws on classical myths and sculpture, the religious iconography of Renaissance art, and, of course, his own knowledge of the work of different branches of the engineering trade. Helpfully, a version of the emblem held by the British Museum (and reproduced below) also includes a key to its contents, summarised as: ‘1. Fame is crowning 2. a smith and 3. an engineer; the former refuses to mend the broken sword of Mars, god of war, while the latter accepts a design from the muse, Clio; 4. and 5. two kneeling men illustrate Aesop’s fable of the bundle of sticks showing that “Union is Strength”; three portraits show great inventors of the industrial revolution, 6. James Watt, 7. Samuel Crompton and 8. Richard Arkwright; below 9. a phoenix rises from its ashes and 10 – 14. five scenes show branches of the ‘Iron Trade’; on either side are 15 . and 16. views of the “Practical results of Science and Labour” – railways, factories and steam ships; 17. the national flowers – rose, thistle and shamrock – at the base of the design show the unity of British workers.’
It is worth noting that the British Museum’s copy differs from the best known ASE emblem in a number of respects, not least in lacking the scroll across the bottom of the image, with its text reading, ‘Be united and industrious’.
For trade unionists at the time, the acquisition of a trade union emblem was no small matter. Robert Leeson, the author of a now fifty-year-old book on the topic, wrote: ‘For a mid-Victorian worker to pay 3s a copy plus 7s for a frame was quite something, but thousands did. In 1857, the iron-founders’ secretary is reported to have threatened to resign if he did not get a commission on emblem sales.’ Hung on the wall at home, the emblem was a matter of pride: serving as a membership certificate, it was a symbol available only to those who had completed their apprenticeship and were in good standing with their peers. It was, too, a reminder for the union member and his family of the important friendly society benefits that membership brought with it. As Leeson pointed out, such emblems hung ’on parlour and club room walls well into the twentieth century’, but few new examples were commissioned after 1900, and you would be lucky today to find one outside a museum or specialist archive.
The ASE emblem is worth studying in depth, and in relation to both art history and labour history, to uncover the meanings and messages that it conveyed, or intended to convey, to members and to the wider world. Annie Ravenhill-Johnson’s The Art and Ideology of the Trade Union Emblem 1850-1925 provides an expert guide to this and other unions’ emblems for those wanting a better understanding.
The Art and Ideology of the Trade Union Emblem 1850-1925 by Annie Ravenhill-Johnson, edited by Paula James, 2013, London: Anthem Press.
United We Stand: An Illustrated Account of Trade Union Emblems by R.A. Leeson, 1971, Bath: Adams & Dart.
James Sharples (1825-1893) in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription required).
The Archives of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers can be found in the Modern Records Centre at Warwick University.