There was a widespread movement among London workers to democratize their gilds and companies in the Civil War and Commonwealth period (1640 - 1660). This met with its greatest successes among the river and transport workers of the Thames Valley. Apart from the watermen, who appear to have been the most successful, the street porters, Billingsgate porters and carters all achieved some measures of self-determination vis-a-vis their ruling authorities. In contrast the handicraftsmen and traders of London were generally unsuccessful in their attempts to democratize their gilds. A bright exception to this were the weavers, who introduced elected representatives into the government of their company in the 1640s and 1650s. The historian Margaret James cast doubt on the efficacy of these representatives, however. She was also unable to find any trace of a democracy movement in the published records of gilds outside of London.
In 1605 the City government attempted to introduce some order into the street porters' trade. They formed them into a society headed by twelve rulers drawn from among the porters' own ranks. But a year later, because of 'diverse disorders' in the society, they dissolved it. The City next hit upon the idea of combining the street and tacklehouse porters into a single society, with the tacklehouse men in a superior administrative position. The 1609 Act laid down that the twelve rulers of the new society were to consist of equal numbers of tackle and street men. But in addition the Lord Mayor was to appoint (from time to time, as necessary) a 'register' or clerk to keep the society's accounts. This officer was to be a tacklehouse porter. The Aldermen appointed two of their own number as 'governors' with supreme authority to settle any disputes. As a means of identification, the street porters were thenceforth required to wear tin badges or 'tickets'.
The tacklehouse porters had been given an influence out of all proportion to their relatively small numbers in the society. The street porters resented this domination, and in the 1620s began a campaign for separation from the tacklehouse men. But nothing was to come of it until the English Revolution.
In July 1640 the street porters brought various grievances to the Court of Aldermen. In view of the rise in the cost of living, the Aldermen decided to grant them marginal increases in the rates paid by the tacklehouse porters. But, at this stage, they were not prepared to consider their main aspiration, for separation. The street porters said they would not agree to anything less. The Aldermen ordered them to submit themselves.
But freedom was on the march. In July 1641, after a new representation on behalf of the Ticket porters (as they had now begun to call themselves), the Aldermen were prepared to reconsider their grievances against the Tacklehouse porters. By the spring of 1642 the Aldermen were even prepared to reconsider their desire to be 'admitted as a society or fraternity of themselves distinct from the Tacklehouse men'.
Committees were appointed to discuss these matters, but there is no record of them reporting back. But now, official proceedings took a back seat to direct action. Over the next few years, as a result of these disputes, the government of the united society broke down. The Act of Common Council of 1646, which reformed the society, acknowledged as much in its preamble:
diverse Controversies and Differences have heretofore been between the Tacklehouse Porters of this City and the Ticket Porters ... insomuch that their Government heretofore Established hath of late been Discontinued, to the great Disadvantage [sic] of the said Porters.It is possible that Ticket porters simply threw the small elite of Tacklehouse porters out of the society. In the mid 1640s the society was simply referred to as the street porters, the Ticket porters, or even just the porters; the Tacklehouse men were not mentioned.
There is practically no evidence on the porters' grassroots organization at this time. The only fact we know is that porters' gangs, the basic units of labour organization, originated in the mid-seventeenth century.
The governorship of the society seems to have fallen into abeyance. In June 1644, upon the petition of the Ticket porters, the Aldermen appointed one of their number, John Gayre, to be their governor. It is not stated that he was the porters' specific choice. In October alderman Sir John Wolleston was appointed the other governor (again, for the 'Company of Ticket Porters').
Meanwhile, the Ticket porters switched their case to the court of Common Council. Perhaps they thought that this more popular body would be more sympathetic to their aspirations. They were no doubt disappointed to discover that, as far as their desire for separation was concerned, this body was no more amenable than the Court of Aldermen. However, they did achieve important concessions. A report of April 1645, confirmed by the Act of October 1646, reformulated their government. The report found it 'very requisite that the Government [of the old society] be in all points speedily settled between the two parties ...'. It was, however, prepared to allow certain modifications.
First it approved of a register to be appointed yearly from among the six Ticket-porter rulers, subject to the approbation of the governors. He was to jointly supervise the society's financial transactions alongside the Tacklehouse porters' register. The method of this officer's choice was not specified, but from later records it can be seen that he was elected by the body of the Ticket porters. This thus seems to be another quietly-democratic concession on the lines of the watermen's elector-assistants.
Possibly a broader democracy was ushered in at this time. The eighteenth-century historian Maitland states that the fellowship of Tacklehouse and Ticket porters
was constituted a fraternity by Act of Common Council, anno 1646, with a power of annually choosing from among themselves Twelve Rulers, viz Six of each Denomination (two whereof to be Registers) ...There is, however, no other evidence in support of this claim. Maitland may simply have been in error. We cannot tell.
The report of 1645 and Act of 1646 also raised the rates payable by the Tacklehouse porters to the Ticket porters by 25 per cent over those set in 1640.
True to its style of reasserting control by conceding a great deal, the Council recognised the state of anarchy in the trade. Contrary to the Act of 1609, many of those working as street porters were 'foreigners', i.e. outsiders not free of the City or the society of porters. The Council offered an 'amnesty' to those who had been so working for a year or more, provided they applied to join the society within three months. But in future any such porters were to be fined the extremely heavy sum of £5. In November 1646 the society's governors heard from the rulers that
as well upon their several Court days as upon their general Days of Search ... The said Rulers their Assistants and officers are threatened, miscalled and abused by a number of loose irregular Porters that are questioned for the breach of [the society's] orders.The governors authorized for the future an increasing scale of punishments for both society members and 'irregular' porters. For a first offence they were to be fined 3s. 4d, for a second double the amount, and were to be dismissed on the third occasion. (It is not clear how they proposed to dismiss porters who were not members of the society.)
The combined Tacklehouse and Ticket Porters' Society survived into the nineteenth century. Rulerships were definitely elective later on, as evidenced by the late-eighteenth-century constitution of the society, for example.
In spite of their opposition to the street porters' interests, the tacklehouse porters were themselves susceptible to the spirit of democracy of the English Revolution, and took advantage of the opportunities offered in that period. In 1642 it was reported that the master porters of various companies were 'entering into combinations' to raise their fees. Some companies experienced manifestations of independence and disobedience amongst their tacklehouse men. A report on the Drapers' Company in November 1645 found that (contrary to an order of 1641) recently-admitted master porters had refused to put in security, being too poor to do so. There had been 'much disagreeing' between the masters and their servants, and the latter had been very negligent in their work, causing a reversal of their former excellent reputation.
And of late the master porters themselves would have had their servants and themselves all made equal, and divide the gains between them all."The report recommended that the masters should put in adequate security in future. In July 1647 it was ordered that all new master porters should put in £100 security.
The Grocers' Company also had problems with the master porters of their tacklehouse and weigh-house. In December 1642 certain merchants complained of the masters' 'negligence, intemperence and want of attendance' at the quayside. On this occasion the porters were let off with a warning. But in a report of October 1645, the company heard that the master porters of their weigh-house were disrespectful to the master weigher and disobedient to the regulations. The regulations hung in the weigh-house had been spirited away, the porters knew not how. In March 1647, after failing to make their customary appearance before the company, all the masters of the tacklehouse were suspended. But the following year no complaints were heard against them.
Foremost among the independent-spirited Grocers' porters was Bartholemew Edwards. He was an assessor on the Committee for the Advance of Money. This committee had been set up by Parliament to levy compulsory payments on all those who had failed to lend money voluntarily to Parliament's cause. It had power to sequester the property of those who failed to pay, returning it once they had done so. Edwards also worked for the Committee for Compounding. He was seldom at his post in the weigh-house, pleading his government work as a reason, and he employed a deputy in his stead. The Grocers objected to this practice, and 'many times' suspended him for it. Edwards claimed that he was anyway answerable to the Lord Mayor, not the company. But, in spite of intervention on his behalf by the Committee for the Advance of Money, the company finally sacked him in 1646.
A little while later, Edwards was dead. During his tenure at the Committee for the Advance of Money, he had lived in the house of Sir Richard Young, which the committee had sequestered from him for failure to pay his levies. It was valued at £200, and Edwards held it on a seven-year lease from the committee at £10 a year rent. After his death his son continued to live in the house. But in 1648 the committee, considering that Edwards's lease 'was only for his dwelling therein', ordered the son to hand it over to Young, who had come to an agreement with them.
The Act of Common Council of 1620 (confirming a committee report of the previous year) laid down a maximum membership of 400 for the society. It also specified a kind of democracy for the company. The membership were empowered to elect assistants to the society's government. The assistants were to participate in the annual elections of the society's rulers. This 'democracy' was strictly limited, however. The assistants were to serve for life — they were not subject to re-election at regular intervals — and their votes were only counted alongside those of all rulers past and present.
In July 1641 the Common Council heard the petition of 'diverse citizens trading in salt ... against the salt porters for their neglect to discharge the ships laden with salt, whereby they lie at charge of demurrage to the great hindrance to the shipmasters and the petitioners'. It nominated a committee of aldermen and councillors 'to examine the grievances and to consider of reasonable rates [of pay] for the labour of the said porters'. Reading between the lines, the porters were on strike for higher rates — to some effect, it would appear.
The matter was eventually resolved in October 1642, when the committee reported back recommending a swingeing 50 per cent increase in the porters' rates over those set in 1620. However, it also ordered that a ruler should be appointed to supervise the porters in their work.
The next knowledge we have of the Billingsgate porters is for 1654, when an Act of Common Council introduced further important reforms. The Act authorized a further huge increase in the salt porters' rates — a full 100 per cent over those of 1642. It also inaugurated a seventh ruler, to be known as the collector. He was to be elected by the whole membership yearly (not for life, as the assistants were), and was to have extraordinary powers. Besides collecting quarterage, he was to be the ruler responsible for supervising the porters at their daily tasks. He was also to manage the society's administrative and financial transactions — in fact to be its executive officer. The institution of the collector was a long-term gain for the mass of the porters.
Some popular struggles must have led up to these concessions, although we do not have any details of them. The salt porters' success in increasing their rates of pay is to be contrasted with the elite corn porters, who received no increase until 1678, and then only a modest one.
In April 1641 the carmen brought a bill for rectification of their grievances to Parliament. They asked that the car-rooms be recognized as their chattels once more, and that they have fair representation among the Woodmongers' rulers. This was to be done by traditional order of seniority, however, not by a more democratic method. The bill was sent to a committee, and not heard of again. The carmen kept up the pressure on Parliament by bombarding them with petitions.
But now legislative measures took a back seat to direct action. The carmen commenced a legal war with the woodmongers, suing them when they next attempted to redistribute car-rooms 'made vacant' by the death of their holders. Over the next decade they brought 'continual and Vexatious suits and troubles' to the woodmongers. They also refused to acknowledge the orders or financial demands of the woodmongers. In 1649 the woodmongers had incurred £250 in debts because 300 carmen had refused to pay their customary dues. 'Diverse carmen' broke with the set prices for cartage and charged their own rates. Many unauthorized carters operated in the streets.
By 1649 the carmen wanted to form their own company. A committee of the House of Commons reported in favour of the idea in 1650. but the vested commercial interests of the City opposed it, and the necessary legislation was blocked.
By 1653 the Woodmongers' Company was re-asserting its authority. In this and the following year, around fifty carmen put their marks and signatures to a document of submission. In 1654 the London Common Council drew up a detailed set of regulations, reinstating the old rules of working. The carmen were to pay all outstanding dues. But there were concessions. The disposal of car-rooms was hereafter to be determined by a joint committee of the Woodmongers and the Common Council.
The quarrel between the carmen and the woodmongers continued in the later 1650s. In 1661, after the restoration of the monarchy, the woodmongers were temporarily restored to their pre-revolutionary position. But this reunification with the carmen was short-lived. Public opinion had been aroused by the woodmongers' monopoly of the coal trade. A City committee of inquiry decided that competition was the best way to keep prices down. This led in 1668 to the formation of a separate incorporation of carmen, and this time the solution was permanent.
1. General studies among the craftsmen and traders:- George Unwin, Industrial Organisation in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1904), pp.204-10; Unwin's Gilds and Companies, pp.335-6, 339-43, 353; Margaret James, Social Problems and Policy During the Puritan Revolution, 1640 - 1660 (1930, reprinted Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966), pp.193-223, 375 n.106. Manning covers the early movement, 1641-42 (pp.167-69); R Yarlott, 'The Long Parliament and the Fear of Popular Pressure 1640 - 1646', unpublished University of Leeds M.A. thesis (1963) pp.138-40, covers the same period, but draws on the original Lords MSS. A more recent account is Norah Carlin, `Liberty and Fraternities in the English Revolution. The Politics of London artisans' Protests, 1635 - 1659', International Review of Social History, XXXIX (1994), 223-54.
2. James, pp.*, 373 note 3. Back to text
3. Stern, Porters, p.50. Back to text
4. Rep.54, fos.334b-335a. Back to text
5. Rep.26, part 2, fo.521b; rep.29, fos.41b-42b; Stern, Porters, p.47. Back
6. Stern, Porters, p.53. Back to text
7. Rep.54, fos.196b, 334b-336a; rep.55, fo.16a&b. Back to text
8. Rep.55, fos.165b, 416b, 438. Back to text
9. Act of Common Council, Oct. 1646, text printed 1717, CLRO, P.D. 32.16, p.3. Back
10. Rep.57, part 2, fos.2b, 168b, and 10 Sept. 1645. Back to text
11. Stern, Porters, p.62. Back to text
12. Rep.57, part 1, fo.151b. Back to text
13. Rep.57, part 2, fo.2b.Back to text
14. Journal, XXXX, fo.104b, 6 Sept. 1644.Back to text
15. Journal, XXXX, fo.126b seq. Back to text
16. Cf. Act (1717), p.4. Back to text
17. Rep.80, fo.237, regarding the Ticket Porters' election of their register for 1675-6. Back
18. William Maitland, The History and Survey of London (1739), p.610. Back
19. Act (1717), pp.5-6. Back to text
20. Act (1717), pp.8-9. Back to text
21. GL, MS 3,455, Tacklehouse and Ticket Porters' order book, fo.21b. Back to text
22. GL, pamphlet 8349, Act of Common Council, 1798, p.13. Back to text
23. A H Johnson, The History of the Worshipful Company of Drapers of London (4 vols, Oxford, 1914-22), II, p.165; III, pp.189-91; Stern, Porters, pp.38-40.
24. Johnson, Drapers, III, p.191. Back to text
25. Drapers' Hall, rep.+132, 'Minutes & Records 1640-67', fos.10, 60a, 77b. Back
26. GL, Calendar of the minutes of the Grocers' Company, IV, part 1 (1640-49), pp.70, 144, 173, 176-82, 219, 255, 278, 289.
27. Ibid, pp.154-5,176-82, 184, 186-7, 194-5, 197-8, 205-8, 212-14, 218; Mary Anne Everett Green (ed.), Calendar of the Proceedings of the Committee for Advance of Money (1888), pp.351, 696.
28. GL, MS 4790, pp.4-6. Back to text
29. Journal, XXXX, fo.5. Back to text
30. GL, MS 4790, p.17 et seq; cf. rep.56, fos.46a-50b. See Stern, Porters, p.105. Back
31. GL, MS 1703, p.38 et seq, Act of Common Council of March 1653/4; see Stern, Porters, pp.89-90, 104, 264.
32. Cf. Second Report on Municipal Corporations (London, 1837), I,181. Back
33. Lords MSS, 26April, 10 June, 19June, 2 July 1641, 6June 1643. Eric Bennett, The Worshipful Company of Carmen of London: A Short History (privately produced, 1952, reprinted 1961), chapter 3, describes the carmen under the woodmongers' government in the earlier seventeenth century; chapter 4 deals with the conflict between the carmen and the woodmongers in the English Revolution.
34. Bennett, pp.47-8; journal, XXXX, fo.104b; rep.56, fo.149b; The Woodmongers' Remonstrance (1649).
35. Bennett, pp.48-9. Back to text
36. Bodleian Library, MS Rawl.D.725B, Woodmongers' Register 1605-60, fo.64 et seq; Bennett, pp.49-51.
37. Bennett, pp.51-4. Back to text