Thursday, 11 August 2011

London Society of Compositors

Another research trip, this time accompanying my client to the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick to look at selected items from the archives of the London Society of Compositors (MSS.28). I had never used early trade union records before, and did not know what to expect. We looked at a total of seven files, mostly minute books from the 1820s and early 1830s created by predecessor bodies of the LSC. It was intriguing to read the formal and austere language and see the precision with which the proceedings were recorded; curiously though, a vivid sense of the actual discussions somehow comes through, and this contrasts sharply with modern minutes I have read which tend to be very thin and arid indeed. And of course, in the era of sofa government with its inherent vagueness (handy for buck-passing), the very notion of trying to capture the essence of a discussion and then recording the voting on proposals and resolutions seems ludicrously quaint. But how much more correct these men were in their behaviour, and how useful their records to the historian!

Also worth mentioning how familiar the contents seemed to this particular modern reader: complaints about institutional inertia; money and funding worries; falling membership; the 'what did the union ever do for me?' refrain of the indolent and inactive (who were nevertheless quite happy to accept the benefits won by the union); the exhausting dedication of a few selfless activists ... It would all be wearily familiar to anyone who has ever been involved with union activity. One other thing that did stand out was the apparent insularity of the union; nowhere, amidst the wealth of unbelievably technical discussions about pay scales and work practices (this was early nineteenth-century printing remember!), did we find references to the agitations for political reform, the abolition of slavery or Catholic emancipation. Perhaps the men were too busy trying to scrape a living and organise the union to get involved in these bigger campaigns.