Castles of the labour movement: inside the trade union head office building boom

By the early twentieth century, an increasingly confident trade union movement was building statement ‘castles’ in which to house their headquarters. Mark Crail looks at what came close to being a trade union quarter in central London.

As trade unions grew in size and complexity in the 1920s, so increasingly they moved into larger, more imposing, and often purpose-built headquarters – some leaving their original birthplace in Leeds, Manchester and other cities for the capital as officials came to spend more and more time attending meetings with London-based employers and government, often in tripartite bodies.

These ‘union castles’, as Nick Mansfield points out in his book Buildings of the Labour Movement, were not an entirely new phenomenon: in 1874, the Yorkshire Miners Association had built what is said to be the first purpose-built union headquarters at Barnsley, and this ‘architecture of the coal miners’ was to be repeated across the UK’s coalfields – most notably at Redhills in Durham.

Newspaper cutting headlined ‘the new socialist HQ’ showing the Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald handing the keys to Transport House to Ernest Bevin after the opening ceremony.
The official opening of Transport House. Daily Mirror, 16 May 1928. Click for larger image.

Trade unions in other industries followed the miners’ example. Some with roots in the latter years of the nineteenth century grew to an impressive size in the period just before the first world war as trade union membership became widespread in significant industries such as rail and steel manufacture. Meanwhile, the mergers of the 1920s created a new generation of general trade union giants. With scale came bureaucracy as unions recruited more staff to handle membership and financial records, sickness and other benefits, research and support for full-time officials and communications with regions and branches. And that meant having suitable offices in which to house them.

Perhaps the most iconic of the 1920s ‘union castles’ was Transport House. Its grandeur and location close to Whitehall and Westminster in London’s Smith Square was a very solid statement of the Transport and General Workers Union’s presence and ambition – and that of Ernest Bevin, who had become the union’s first general secretary in 1922 and would go on to become one of the most powerful figures in the war-time and post-war governments of the 1940s.

However, while the TGWU was happy to share its well-appointed head office with both the TUC (until the 1950s) and the Labour Party (until as late as 1980), both of which clearly saw the merits of having easy access to the national seats of political power, other major unions chose (through accident, design or cost imperatives) to cluster along the somewhat less salubrious streets around Euston Road and northern reaches of Gray’s Inn Road.

Picture of the imposing front elevation of Unity House described in the main body of the article.
The original Unity House. Source: Fifty Years of Railway Trade Unionism. Click for larger image

Central to what almost amounted to a ‘trade union quarter’ in the then London borough of St Pancras (after 1965, the London borough of Camden) was Unity House, home of the National Union of Railwaymen. Built to the union’s own specifications and opened in 1910, its 534-foot long frontage of glazed bricks and Cornish granite, with doors and windows dressed in Portland stone, was in itself a statement of intent that would not have escaped the attention of the regional railway companies whose trains ran into King’s Cross, St Pancras and Euston stations on the opposite side of Euston Road.

Inside, the staircases and corridors of Unity House were covered with marble tiles, office floors were mainly of oak blocks, while the boardroom, parliamentary secretary’s and industrial secretary’s rooms were laid with parquetry flooring in wainscot oak and walnut. As the NUR’s official history, Fifty Years of Railway Trade Unionism, published in 1922, noted: ‘The building was erected with the best materials, and by skilled and experienced Trade Union men.’

Half a century later, this fine building was demolished to make way for a new Unity House. Opened in 1980, this glass-fronted office building retained some small mementos of the original, including boardroom panelling and stained glass, but much was simply lost and destroyed. The replacement building itself did not last long, and was gone by the end of the decade. The NUR’s successor, the RMT, now occupies a building, also known as Unity House, on nearby Chalton Street.

Two other unions with head offices in the immediate vicinity were distinctly more white collar than the NUR: the National Union of Teachers had built Hamilton House in Mabledon Place for its own use in 1915, and it is still there today as the National Education Union; and the National Association of Local Government Officers, which continued to resist the very idea that it was a trade union until 1920, would later move to the site now occupied by Unison, NALGO’s modern-day successor.

Picture of the ISTC head office building Swinton House.
Swinton House. Source: Men of Steel. Click for larger image

The second part of the cluster of trade union headquarters lies nearby. A short walk past King’s Cross Station and onto Gray’s Inn Road, is Swinton House. Purpose built on a site formerly occupied by the steel smelters’ union, in 1928 it became the home of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation. Excluding architects’ fees, the construction costs came to £43,332. Swinton House would remain the union’s home until 2011, when the ISTC’s successor, Community Trade Union, reportedly sold it for £11.25 million. It would later become a hotel.

Arthur Pugh, the ISTC’s first general secretary and subsequently the author of the union’s official history, Men of Steel, recalled that the basement of the building was strengthened to serve as an air raid shelter during the second world war. Although Swinton House escaped unscathed, Pugh had been in the office on one occasion when a raid took place and a bomb landed on the nearby Whitbread bottling plant, ‘the noise of the explosion, added to the smashing of hundreds of bottles’ causing ‘alarm and panic’ among those in the shelter until Mrs Salter, who shared caretaking duties with her husband, appeared ‘and in a tone quite contrary to being soothing, ordered them to their places and not to “make fools” of themselves’.

The National Union of Agricultural Workers had established its early head offices in Norfolk, but in 1918 it relocated to London, and by 1922 had moved into Headland House, just two doors down from the steel smelters’ building. The union was among the largest in the TUC, and despite the decline in agricultural employment, as late as the 1960s it had more than 130,000 members, by which time it was in need of new premises – and construction work began on a new Headland House. Designed by Michael Gooch, the architect son of Edwin Gooch, who had been the union’s president for more than thirty years, the new building, with a basement, ground and five further floors, opened on 26 August 1966.

The union would remain there until it amalgamated with the TGWU in 1984. For some years the TGWU let floors at Headland House to the Labour Left newspaper Tribune, various GLC- and union-funded campaign organisations and, during the 1984-1985 coal strike, to the Kent Area of the National Union of Mineworkers, who used it as a base for fundraising and campaigning in the capital. In between Swinton House and Headland House stood Acorn House. The National Union of Journalists owned and occupied this building from the mid 1960s onwards, but sold it for £5 million in 2005 and moved next door to Headland House, where it remains today.

With so many unions clustered together, the area’s cheaper eating venues and local public houses, including the Lucas Arms on Gray’s Inn Road and the Queen’s Head on Acton Street, did a regular trade as venues for after-work socialising and political scheming – the two often being indistinguishable. In the early 1980s, members of the informal St Ermins Group of trade union leaders on the right of the Labour Party also met regularly at the ISTC offices.

Photo of plaque and museum entry sign.
The plaque unveiled at the opening of Headland House in 1966 is now at the Tolpuddle Museum

Finally, in this part of London, the National Union of General and Municipal Workers could be found in the early decades of the twentieth century a little further away and somewhat apart from the other unions at 28 Tavistock Square. Like the TGWU, the union had its origins in the London docks strike of 1889 and in the New Unionism among manual workers that followed it. The union later decamped to Claygate near Esher in Surrey, becoming today’s GMB before moving back to central London at the end of the 1980s in a property deal that fell foul of the collapse of the property market and cost the union many millions of pounds.

There was a logic to the decision of so many unions to set up their headquarters in the same small area of St Pancras in the early years of the twentieth century. In many cases, rapid growth in membership had made some sort of move inevitable. Property costs on this stretch of the Euston Road and Grays Inn Road would have been considerably cheaper than in the Westminster location favoured by the TGWU. Yet there was still easy access to Westminster and Whitehall where unions wanted to make their voices heard. And being just a few minutes’ walk from three main railway terminuses, transport connections were good to and from the country’s main industrial centres and trade union strongholds. Members of the unions’ national executives arriving from the Midlands, Lancashire, Yorkshire, the North East and Scotland could step off the train and get where they needed to be after a few minutes’ walk.

Of course, many unions chose not to leave their bases in other cities – especially when the bulk of their members were located in a particular region. And others, some of which had always been London based, found head office buildings in other parts of the city. When the train drivers’ union Aslef left Leeds in 1921 it bought the grand former home of conductor Sir Thomas Beecham in Hampstead. This was to prove a good investment, as when in 2010 a financial crisis loomed, the union was able to sell the building for £8 million. Meanwhile the Confederation of Health Service Employees left Manchester for the small Surrey town of Banstead in the 1950s, choosing to be close to the ‘Epsom cluster’ of long-stay psychiatric hospitals, just outside London, where many of its members worked. No one who worked at Glen House ever thought to describe the functional office building hidden just off the high street as a ‘castle’. The Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians was for many years before its merger with Unite based at Abbeville Road in Clapham, south London. And in a rare example of unions moving out of the capital, when the London Typographical Society merged with the Manchester-based Typographical Association in 1964, the new National Graphical Association compromised on a head office in Bedford.

The building boom that had created the most impressive of the ‘union castles’ effectively came to an end with the General Strike in 1926. There would be some recovery from the 1950s onwards as union membership recovered and headed towards its peak, but few of the new buildings had quite the presence of those built earlier in the century. The main exception, of course, being Congress House, officially opened in 1958 and still home today to the Trades Union Congress: ‘a polished airy essay in Corbusian Modernism’, as Nick Mansfield describes it, ‘the last purpose-built trade union “castle”.’

Sources and further reading
Buildings of the Labour Movement, by Nick Mansfield, Swindon: English Heritage, 2013.
Fifty Years of Railway Trade Unionism, by G. W. Alcock, London: NUR, 1922.
Men of Steel: A Chronicle of Eighty-Eight Years of Trade Unionism in the British Iron and Steel Industry, by Arthur Pugh, London: ISTC, 1951.
St Ermins Group, by Dianne Hayter, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2007.

Picture of the front of Congress House.
Congress House, and Bernard Meadows’ sculpture, ’The Spirit of Brotherhood’.

Mark Crail is web and social media editor for the Society for the Study of Labour History. He once worked in two of the buildings listed above, and has visited many more.