Labour History Review

Flying to the Moon: reconsidering the British labour exchange system in the early twentieth century

Labour History Review (2001), 66, (1), 24–40.

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M. Mansfield, ‘Labour Exchanges and the Labour Reserve in Turn of the Century Social Reform’, Journal of Social Policy, 21, 1992, pp. 435-68 ‘Labour Exchanges and the Labour Reserve in Turn of the Century Social Reform’ Journal of Social Policy 21 435 68 Google Scholar

P. Alden, The Unemployed. A National Question, London, 1905, p. 54 The Unemployed. A National Question 54 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

Beveridge first articulated this idea in three articles published in the Morning Post in the summer of 1907. See P. Hennock, British Social Reform and German Precedents. The Case of Social Insurance 1880-1914, Oxford, 1987, pp. 157-60 Google Scholar

The idea that labour exchanges were supposed to deal with ‘frictional unemployment’ is an erroneous interpretation of Beveridge's work. For Beveridge, purely economic connections defined in terms of velocity and volume of labour-power would have undermined industrial efficiency. On this point see M. Mansfield, ‘Labour Exchanges’. See also B. Showler, ‘Political Economy and Unemployment’, in B. Showler and A. Sinfield (eds), The Workless State. Studies in Unemployment, Oxford, 1981, p. 3 Google Scholar

The link between irregular labour, immobility and poor housing conditions was a major finding of the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes of 1885. See G. Stedman Jones, Outcast London. A Study in the Relationship between Classes in Victorian Society, Harmondsworth, 1984, pp. 197-215. See also J. A. Yelling, Slums and Slum Clearance in Victorian London, London, 1986, pp. 51-8 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

For an analysis of the importance of local peculiarities in the definition of ‘industrial districts’ see J. Zeitlin, ‘Historical Alternatives to Mass Production: Politics, Markets and Technology in Nineteenth Century Industrialization’, Past and Present, 108, 1985, pp. 133-76 ‘Historical Alternatives to Mass Production: Politics, Markets and Technology in Nineteenth Century Industrialization’ Past and Present 108 133 76 Google Scholar

W. H. Beveridge, Unemployment. A Problem of Industry, London, 1909 p. 146 Unemployment. A Problem of Industry 146 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

B. Zimmerman, ‘Naissance d'une Politique Municipale du Marché du Travail. Strasbourg et la Question du Chômage (1888-1914)’, Revue d'Alsace, 120, 1994, pp. 209-34 ‘Naissance d'une Politique Municipale du Marché du Travail. Strasbourg et la Question du Chômage (1888-1914)’ Revue d'Alsace 120 209 34 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

See J. Peck, Workplace. The Social Regulation of Labor Markets, London, 1996, pp. 15-16 Workplace. The Social Regulation of Labor Markets 15 16 Google Scholar

R. Salais and M. Storper, ‘The four "worlds" of contemporary industry’, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 16, 1992, pp. 169-93 ‘The four "worlds" of contemporary industry’ Cambridge Journal of Economics 16 169 93 Google Scholar

The decentralised organisation of trade union labour exchanges - ‘Bourses du Travail’ - in France facilitated the deepening of such connections. See M. P. Hanagan, The Logic of Solidarity. Artisans and Industrial Workers in Three French Towns, 1871-1914, London, 1980, pp. 88-9, 91-3 and 100-8; J. M. Merriman, Limoges, la ville rouge. Portrait d'une ville révolutionnaire, Paris, 1990, pp. 328-9 The Logic of Solidarity. Artisans and Industrial Workers in Three French Towns, 1871-1914 88 9 Google Scholar

The tramping system is described in great detail in R. A. Leeson, Travelling Brothers. The Six Centuries' Road from Craft Fellowship to Trade Unionism, London, 1980, chapter 7 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

See the evidence of Knight, Secretary of the Boilermakers, in the Royal Commission on Labour. Minutes of Evidence, Group A. C. 689-VII, questions 1893-4, p. 41 Google Scholar

Leeson, Travelling Brothers, chapter 14; S. R. Southall, ‘The Tramping Artisan Revisited: labour mobility and economic distress in early Victorian England’, Economic History Review, XLIV, 2, 1991, pp. 272-96 Google Scholar

The use of ‘fair wage clauses’ drew on the example of London County Council in 1889. This stimulated the interest of trades councils in the local elections of the early 1890s. The success of the Manchester Trades Council campaign in 1890 led to the adoption of ‘fair wage clauses’ in Salford, Liverpool and fourteen of the largest towns in Lancashire. Sheffield followed suit in the same year. See H. A. Clegg, A. Fox and A. F. Thompson, A History of British Trade Unions since 1889. Vol. I. 1889-1910, Oxford, 1964, pp. 255-88 Google Scholar

See J. Néré, La Crise Industrielle de 1882 et le Mouvement Boulangiste, PhD, Faculté de Lettres de l'Université de Paris, 1959, pp. 57-9; S. Rudischhauser, ‘Salaire Minimum et libre concurrence. Le rôle de la Demande publique dans la constitution d'un marché national du travail. France-Allemagne 1890-1914’, in C. Didry, P. Wagner and B. Zimmerman (eds), Le Travail et la Nation. Histoire Croisée de la France et de l'Allemagne à l'Horizon Européen, Paris, 1999, pp. 199-210 Google Scholar

The contrast between labour exchanges and ‘out of date’ demands for doles from the Exchequer, mayoral appeals, stone yards and attempts to relax the rigours of the poor law is heavily underlined in W. Beveridge, ‘Unemployment and its Cure: The First Step’, Contemporary Review, 93, 1908, pp. 385-98 Google Scholar

For Beatrice Webb, the national labour exchange network would operate as a huge clearing-house. Unemployables and casuals would be sifted out and subject to retraining. This view assumed a particular construction of unemployment: ‘the surplus of labour power which already exists in the partial idleness of huge reserves of Under-employed men … will for the first time stand revealed and identified in the complete idleness of a smaller number of wholly displaced individuals’, Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and the Relief of Distress. Vol. III Being the Minority Report, 1909, p. 268 Google Scholar

These points are discussed in N. Whiteside. ‘Definer le chômage: traditions syndicales et politique nationale avant la Première Guerre mondiale’, in M. Mansfield, R. Salais and N. Whiteside (eds), Aux Sources du Chômage 1880-1914, Paris, 1994, pp. 381-411 Google Scholar

Note the decision taken by Llewellyn Smith in the autumn of 1911 when he agreed that insured workmen could insist upon the standard union rate under the following conditions: ‘that it be made clear that … where the workman through incompetence is incapable of earning that rate, the individual test shall prevail. It would I think be regarded as very unjust that an incompetent waster who had never earned and never expected to earn the standard rate, should nevertheless be able to make that rate an excuse for idleness while battening on the fund’ (quoted in J. Harris, Unemployment and Politics. A Study in English Social Policy 1886-1914, Oxford, 1984, p. 331 (my emphasis)) Google Scholar

A standard administrative overview is provided by H. Wolfe, Labour Supply and Regulation, Oxford, 1923 Google Scholar

N. Whiteside, ‘Concession, Coercion or Co-operation? State Policy and Industrial Unrest in Britain, 1916-1920’, in L. Haimson and G. Sapelli (eds), Strikes, Social Conflict and the First World War, Milan, 1990, pp. 107-23 Strikes, Social Conflict and the First World War 107 23 Google Scholar

On this point see A. Reid, ‘Dilution, trade unionism and the state in Britain during the First World War’, in S. Tolliday and J. Zeitlin (eds), Shop Floor Bargaining and the State. Historical and Comparative Perspectives, Cambridge, 1985, pp. 46-74 Shop Floor Bargaining and the State. Historical and Comparative Perspectives 46 74 Google Scholar

C. Wrigley, ‘The First World War and State Intervention in Industrial Relations’, in C. Wrigley (ed.), A History of British Industrial Relations. Volume II: 1914-1939, Brighton, 1987, pp. 23-70 A History of British Industrial Relations. Volume II: 1914-1939 23 70 Google Scholar

Minutes of Evidence taken before the Committee of Enquiry into the Work of the Employment Exchanges, Ministry of Labour, Cmd xi. 589, 1921 (hereafter Barnes Report) Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 2316, p. 138 Google Scholar

One example is the catering trade where recruitment took place through fee-paying private agencies operating under local authority licenses. Controlled by hotel operators, these agencies were often run by individuals with little knowledge of the trade. Abuses included favouritism based on the payment of higher fees. See the evidence of John Allen and W. Hogarth of the United Catering Union, Barnes Report, questions 4514-671, p. 259 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 3534-7, p. 210 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 3537-93, p. 210 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 2639, p. 163 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 7800, p. 427 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 7717-26, p. 427 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 4350-52, p. 427 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, pp. 224-5 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 3814, pp. 225-6 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 4330, p. 252 Google Scholar

The cost of administering unemployment and sick benefit for 300 members was estimated at around £2 10s a year (Barnes Report, question 4363, p. 253) Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 4978, p. 280 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 4993, p. 282 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 4985-98, pp. 281-2 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 4987, p 282 Google Scholar

G. Whittam quoted in Barnes Report, question 7795, p. 429 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 7774, p. 429 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 7760, p. 428 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, p. 192 Google Scholar

See A. Deacon, In Search of the Scrounger. The Administration of Unemployment Insurance in Britain 1920-1931, Leeds, 1976 In Search of the Scrounger. The Administration of Unemployment Insurance in Britain 1920-1931 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 2658-730, p. 166 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 2201, p. 138 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 2605, p. 163 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 6474-80, p. 359 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 2952, p. 177 Google Scholar

A detailed description is provided in the evidence of E. J. Fair, the Manager of the London Central Building Trades Exchange (Barnes Report, pp. 301-9) Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 1759-61, p. 117 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 3256-61, p. 199 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 3268, 3308-43, p. 199 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 3283-300, p. 199 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, p. 302 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 5263, p. 301 Google Scholar

M. Mansfield, ‘Labour Exchanges and the Labour Reserve in Turn of the Century Social Reform’, Journal of Social Policy, 21, 1992, pp. 435-68 ‘Labour Exchanges and the Labour Reserve in Turn of the Century Social Reform’ Journal of Social Policy 21 435 68 Google Scholar

P. Alden, The Unemployed. A National Question, London, 1905, p. 54 The Unemployed. A National Question 54 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

Beveridge first articulated this idea in three articles published in the Morning Post in the summer of 1907. See P. Hennock, British Social Reform and German Precedents. The Case of Social Insurance 1880-1914, Oxford, 1987, pp. 157-60 Google Scholar

The idea that labour exchanges were supposed to deal with ‘frictional unemployment’ is an erroneous interpretation of Beveridge's work. For Beveridge, purely economic connections defined in terms of velocity and volume of labour-power would have undermined industrial efficiency. On this point see M. Mansfield, ‘Labour Exchanges’. See also B. Showler, ‘Political Economy and Unemployment’, in B. Showler and A. Sinfield (eds), The Workless State. Studies in Unemployment, Oxford, 1981, p. 3 Google Scholar

The link between irregular labour, immobility and poor housing conditions was a major finding of the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes of 1885. See G. Stedman Jones, Outcast London. A Study in the Relationship between Classes in Victorian Society, Harmondsworth, 1984, pp. 197-215. See also J. A. Yelling, Slums and Slum Clearance in Victorian London, London, 1986, pp. 51-8 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

For an analysis of the importance of local peculiarities in the definition of ‘industrial districts’ see J. Zeitlin, ‘Historical Alternatives to Mass Production: Politics, Markets and Technology in Nineteenth Century Industrialization’, Past and Present, 108, 1985, pp. 133-76 ‘Historical Alternatives to Mass Production: Politics, Markets and Technology in Nineteenth Century Industrialization’ Past and Present 108 133 76 Google Scholar

W. H. Beveridge, Unemployment. A Problem of Industry, London, 1909 p. 146 Unemployment. A Problem of Industry 146 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

B. Zimmerman, ‘Naissance d'une Politique Municipale du Marché du Travail. Strasbourg et la Question du Chômage (1888-1914)’, Revue d'Alsace, 120, 1994, pp. 209-34 ‘Naissance d'une Politique Municipale du Marché du Travail. Strasbourg et la Question du Chômage (1888-1914)’ Revue d'Alsace 120 209 34 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

See J. Peck, Workplace. The Social Regulation of Labor Markets, London, 1996, pp. 15-16 Workplace. The Social Regulation of Labor Markets 15 16 Google Scholar

R. Salais and M. Storper, ‘The four "worlds" of contemporary industry’, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 16, 1992, pp. 169-93 ‘The four "worlds" of contemporary industry’ Cambridge Journal of Economics 16 169 93 Google Scholar

The decentralised organisation of trade union labour exchanges - ‘Bourses du Travail’ - in France facilitated the deepening of such connections. See M. P. Hanagan, The Logic of Solidarity. Artisans and Industrial Workers in Three French Towns, 1871-1914, London, 1980, pp. 88-9, 91-3 and 100-8; J. M. Merriman, Limoges, la ville rouge. Portrait d'une ville révolutionnaire, Paris, 1990, pp. 328-9 The Logic of Solidarity. Artisans and Industrial Workers in Three French Towns, 1871-1914 88 9 Google Scholar

The tramping system is described in great detail in R. A. Leeson, Travelling Brothers. The Six Centuries' Road from Craft Fellowship to Trade Unionism, London, 1980, chapter 7 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

See the evidence of Knight, Secretary of the Boilermakers, in the Royal Commission on Labour. Minutes of Evidence, Group A. C. 689-VII, questions 1893-4, p. 41 Google Scholar

Leeson, Travelling Brothers, chapter 14; S. R. Southall, ‘The Tramping Artisan Revisited: labour mobility and economic distress in early Victorian England’, Economic History Review, XLIV, 2, 1991, pp. 272-96 Google Scholar

The use of ‘fair wage clauses’ drew on the example of London County Council in 1889. This stimulated the interest of trades councils in the local elections of the early 1890s. The success of the Manchester Trades Council campaign in 1890 led to the adoption of ‘fair wage clauses’ in Salford, Liverpool and fourteen of the largest towns in Lancashire. Sheffield followed suit in the same year. See H. A. Clegg, A. Fox and A. F. Thompson, A History of British Trade Unions since 1889. Vol. I. 1889-1910, Oxford, 1964, pp. 255-88 Google Scholar

See J. Néré, La Crise Industrielle de 1882 et le Mouvement Boulangiste, PhD, Faculté de Lettres de l'Université de Paris, 1959, pp. 57-9; S. Rudischhauser, ‘Salaire Minimum et libre concurrence. Le rôle de la Demande publique dans la constitution d'un marché national du travail. France-Allemagne 1890-1914’, in C. Didry, P. Wagner and B. Zimmerman (eds), Le Travail et la Nation. Histoire Croisée de la France et de l'Allemagne à l'Horizon Européen, Paris, 1999, pp. 199-210 Google Scholar

The contrast between labour exchanges and ‘out of date’ demands for doles from the Exchequer, mayoral appeals, stone yards and attempts to relax the rigours of the poor law is heavily underlined in W. Beveridge, ‘Unemployment and its Cure: The First Step’, Contemporary Review, 93, 1908, pp. 385-98 Google Scholar

For Beatrice Webb, the national labour exchange network would operate as a huge clearing-house. Unemployables and casuals would be sifted out and subject to retraining. This view assumed a particular construction of unemployment: ‘the surplus of labour power which already exists in the partial idleness of huge reserves of Under-employed men … will for the first time stand revealed and identified in the complete idleness of a smaller number of wholly displaced individuals’, Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and the Relief of Distress. Vol. III Being the Minority Report, 1909, p. 268 Google Scholar

These points are discussed in N. Whiteside. ‘Definer le chômage: traditions syndicales et politique nationale avant la Première Guerre mondiale’, in M. Mansfield, R. Salais and N. Whiteside (eds), Aux Sources du Chômage 1880-1914, Paris, 1994, pp. 381-411 Google Scholar

Note the decision taken by Llewellyn Smith in the autumn of 1911 when he agreed that insured workmen could insist upon the standard union rate under the following conditions: ‘that it be made clear that … where the workman through incompetence is incapable of earning that rate, the individual test shall prevail. It would I think be regarded as very unjust that an incompetent waster who had never earned and never expected to earn the standard rate, should nevertheless be able to make that rate an excuse for idleness while battening on the fund’ (quoted in J. Harris, Unemployment and Politics. A Study in English Social Policy 1886-1914, Oxford, 1984, p. 331 (my emphasis)) Google Scholar

A standard administrative overview is provided by H. Wolfe, Labour Supply and Regulation, Oxford, 1923 Google Scholar

N. Whiteside, ‘Concession, Coercion or Co-operation? State Policy and Industrial Unrest in Britain, 1916-1920’, in L. Haimson and G. Sapelli (eds), Strikes, Social Conflict and the First World War, Milan, 1990, pp. 107-23 Strikes, Social Conflict and the First World War 107 23 Google Scholar

On this point see A. Reid, ‘Dilution, trade unionism and the state in Britain during the First World War’, in S. Tolliday and J. Zeitlin (eds), Shop Floor Bargaining and the State. Historical and Comparative Perspectives, Cambridge, 1985, pp. 46-74 Shop Floor Bargaining and the State. Historical and Comparative Perspectives 46 74 Google Scholar

C. Wrigley, ‘The First World War and State Intervention in Industrial Relations’, in C. Wrigley (ed.), A History of British Industrial Relations. Volume II: 1914-1939, Brighton, 1987, pp. 23-70 A History of British Industrial Relations. Volume II: 1914-1939 23 70 Google Scholar

Minutes of Evidence taken before the Committee of Enquiry into the Work of the Employment Exchanges, Ministry of Labour, Cmd xi. 589, 1921 (hereafter Barnes Report) Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 2316, p. 138 Google Scholar

One example is the catering trade where recruitment took place through fee-paying private agencies operating under local authority licenses. Controlled by hotel operators, these agencies were often run by individuals with little knowledge of the trade. Abuses included favouritism based on the payment of higher fees. See the evidence of John Allen and W. Hogarth of the United Catering Union, Barnes Report, questions 4514-671, p. 259 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 3534-7, p. 210 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 3537-93, p. 210 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 2639, p. 163 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 7800, p. 427 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 7717-26, p. 427 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 4350-52, p. 427 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, pp. 224-5 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 3814, pp. 225-6 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 4330, p. 252 Google Scholar

The cost of administering unemployment and sick benefit for 300 members was estimated at around £2 10s a year (Barnes Report, question 4363, p. 253) Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 4978, p. 280 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 4993, p. 282 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 4985-98, pp. 281-2 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 4987, p 282 Google Scholar

G. Whittam quoted in Barnes Report, question 7795, p. 429 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 7774, p. 429 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 7760, p. 428 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, p. 192 Google Scholar

See A. Deacon, In Search of the Scrounger. The Administration of Unemployment Insurance in Britain 1920-1931, Leeds, 1976 In Search of the Scrounger. The Administration of Unemployment Insurance in Britain 1920-1931 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 2658-730, p. 166 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 2201, p. 138 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 2605, p. 163 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 6474-80, p. 359 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 2952, p. 177 Google Scholar

A detailed description is provided in the evidence of E. J. Fair, the Manager of the London Central Building Trades Exchange (Barnes Report, pp. 301-9) Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 1759-61, p. 117 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 3256-61, p. 199 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 3268, 3308-43, p. 199 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 3283-300, p. 199 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, p. 302 Google Scholar

Barnes Report, question 5263, p. 301 Google Scholar

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Mansfield, Malcolm