John Burnett and the origins of official labour statistics

Trade unions were growing rapidly by the 1880s, but it was not until a former general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers took on a new role at the heart of government that the true scale of the union movement came to light, writes Mark Crail.

As trade unions became an increasingly undeniable fact of economic life in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, and both legal and organisational changes put the unions on a sounder and more stable basis, so government interest in understanding the scale and scope of the labour movement grew.

John Burnett in 1890.

From 1855, unions had been able to register as friendly societies, protecting at least their friendly society funds; legislation in 1859 and 1867 lifted restrictions on peaceful picketing and strikes, and from 1871 trade unions were put on a lawful footing and all their finances were protected by law. At the same time, trades councils were founded in Edinburgh (1853), Glasgow (1858), Sheffield (1858), Liverpool (1860) and London (1865), with the national Trades Union Congress following on in 1868. Small wonder that their numbers were growing.

The first Congress meeting, at the Mechanics Institute in Manchester that June, was attended by 34 delegates representing 118,000 trade union members, giving at least some idea of the numbers involved. But it was becoming increasingly clear that no one really had any idea just how many unions or union members there really were. By the late 1870s, there was growing pressure to improve the collection and processing of economic and social data, and matters were brought to a head at a three-day Industrial Remuneration Conference attended by both unions and employers in January 1885, where the issue was raised repeatedly, leading to a debate a few weeks later in the House of Commons.

Moving a resolution that steps should be taken to ensure the ‘accurate collection and publishing of labour statistics’, the Liberal MP Charles Bradlaugh, better known for his secularist and republican views, argued: ‘These statistics, if obtained, would strengthen the hands of the wisest among the trade union leaders when they needed to pacify workers who were short of food in times of hardship and depression; and they would give the moral sanction of public opinion to employers when the latter felt bound to resist some unjustifiable claim. They would not, indeed, prevent all labour strife and labour disputes; but they would diminish and alleviate many causes of irritation and remove the excuses for disputes.’

As to the expense, ‘the few hundreds of pounds which would be required would really be no cost to the nation, but a real saving. If they prevented only one strike or lock-out the whole money would be saved—to say nothing of the crime and mischief which grew out of these quarrels’.

In the spring of 1886, the Board of Trade duly recruited John Burnett to the new role of labour correspondent. Born at Alnwick in Northumberland in 1842, Burnett had been apprenticed at an engineering works, and by the early 1860s was already a leading figure among skilled workers on Tyneside, agitating for the Saturday half day and a shorter working week, and emerging from a successful strike in support of the nine-hour day in 1871 with a reputation for his leadership skills. Four years later, he succeeded William Allen as general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and as treasurer of the parliamentary committee of the TUC.

Statistical Tables and Report on Trade Unions, second report 1888. Click for larger image.

As labour correspondent, Burnett set about collecting data for what would become the first of a long-running series of publications, the Statistical Tables and Report on Trade Unions. Published in 1887, the initial report included information on just eighteen organisations, much of it prised out of unions by Burnett himself, who visited a number of head offices personally, no doubt calling in personal favours. But it had proved to be a useful exercise in establishing a methodology that would work, identifying the difficulties involved, and setting a precedent for future years’ work with both unions and government. As Burnett’s superior, the assistant secretary to the commercial department of the Board of Trade, noted, that first report included ‘a larger mass of statistical and special information as to these unions than had ever been compiled before, and many of the particulars supplied by the report had never before been tabulated’.

Work would begin immediately on the second year’s report. Burnett drew up a standard format table to be sent to each trade union, requesting information on: membership numbers, including separate figures for those who were unemployed, sick or superannuated; subscription rates; annual income and expenditure; and pay rates for members in work. He further asked for copies of each union’s rule book and annual reports for the current and previous years. By the time he started work on this second report, Burnett was aware of 252 trade unions then registered as friendly societies, and a further 60 which were not registered but for which he had addresses. He duly wrote to 312 societies in November 1887 requesting information. By the following March, he had received 24 returns, ‘very many of them being in a most incomplete state’; 16 had been returned undelivered, two societies had been dissolved, and 270 had simply not replied. Burnett sent reminders, but by the time he closed the survey, he had received usable responses from 87 unions, unusably incomplete data from others, and nothing at all from a further 207, ‘but of these several have sent letters explaining why they have not done so’.

Among those failing to provide information, the North Yorkshire and Cleveland Miners, a union of substantial size, ‘consider the questions are of a “prying nature”, and “calculated to do the working class more harm than good”.’ Others blamed ‘illness, pressure of business, want of time at nights, or other difficulties’. And some turned out not to be trade unions ‘in the general sense of the term’ – leaving in all 172 unaccounted for.

Burnett was, nevertheless, happy with what he had achieved, noting that though the numbers fell far short of the total of known trade unions, those that had failed to respond were mostly small in size, and that his report covered 307,180 of the 340,893 union members included in the Registrar of Friendly Societies’ list. In addition to detailed statistical tables and commentary on 70 trade unions, with data tables often going back over a quarter of a century, Burnett’s report included lengthy extracts from the most recent annual reports of 28 respondents to his survey.

As well as these over-arching annual reports, Burnett produced reports on the sweating system in Leeds and East London that make uncomfortable reading, blaming as they did Jewish immigration from Germany and Russia for ‘flooding the labour market’ and driving ‘thousands of native workers to the verge of destitution’. He was also seconded from 1894 to 1896 to serve as secretary to the Royal Commission on Labour, producing recommendations that led the incoming Conservative government to push through a Conciliation Act, which enabled the Board of Trade to use its ‘good offices’ to bring the parties in an industrial dispute together, giving the state a role for the first time. Today this same role is carried out by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, Acas.

As the process of data collection and publication went on from year to year, so the annual report grew in size. Burnett returned from his secondment at the royal commission to a new Board of Trade labour department as chief labour correspondent, working under Hubert Llewellyn Smith, later permanent secretary and guiding force behind the National Insurance Act of 1911.

By the time of the eleventh report, in 1899, there were statistics on no fewer than 1,267 trade unions – four times as many as were thought to be in existence just a decade earlier. The great majority of these unions were small – sometimes representing a handful of workers in very specific roles, or even in a single town or factory. As the report noted: ‘Thus in 1898 it appears that out of the total membership of 1,644,591 of the 1,267 trade unions, 1,043,476, or upwards of 63 per cent., are included in the 100 principal societies, leaving less than 37 per cent, of membership to the remaining 1,167 societies.’

Burnett continued at the Board of Trade until his retirement in 1907 – rumours of his departure drawing a worried parliamentary question from the Labour MP William Wilson that were duly confirmed. He continued to work as a conciliator and arbitrator in industrial disputes, and was appointed to the Tailoring Board in 1909, serving until his death in 1914. The collection and publication of data on trade unions, meanwhile, though much reduced from its twentieth century heyday, is now the preserve of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (itself the descendent of the Board of Trade) and the Office for National Statistics. The annual Trade Union Statistics bulletin recognisably has its origins in Burnett’s pioneering Statistical Tables and Report on Trade Unions first report of 1887.

The image galleries below show sample pages from the second annual report of 1888. From top to bottom: Gallery 1. Statement of the number of members and contributions paid for 70 trade unions; Gallery 2. Summary tables for the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners. Gallery 3. Standard rates of wages and hours of work fixed by the ASCJ in each town.

Mark Crail is web and social media editor for the Society for the Study of Labour History.


  • Several of the reports issued between 1887 and 1900 can be found online here.
  • Burnett, John (1842-1914): trade unionist and civil servant, by Norman McCord and John Saville in Dictionary of Labour Biography, volume II, London: Macmillan, 1974
  • Labour statistics’, Parliamentary Debates (Commons), 302, 2 March 1886, 1769-1804
  • Trade Union Statistics, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy/Office for National Statistics