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Reference group
Junta (act. 1862–1871) was a small group of London-based trade unionists who played a leading part in labour politics during a decade when unions were the subject of intense public scrutiny and achieved a remarkable degree of acceptance as national institutions, signified by their legalization in 1871. The label ‘the Junta’ was first coined by the Fabian socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb, in their History of Trade Unionism, published in 1894. Although a retrospective designation it was consistent with evidence of their joint activity, both in public and private, and reflected the allegation of their opponents that the small group formed a ‘clique’ or ‘coterie’ or were ‘the Dirty Pack’ (Tate, 13). For much of the time they were defined in relation to their foremost critic, George Potter, proprietor of the Bee-Hive newspaper, and his adherents, in a rivalry that divided the labour movement during the mid-1860s.

In the Webbs' account the Junta comprised five individuals, the ‘foremost’ of whom were William Allan and Robert Applegarth, general secretaries respectively of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners. Both of those organizations have been described as ‘new model unions’ on account of their centralized constitutions and extensive welfare provision. Daniel Guile was corresponding secretary of the Friendly Society of Ironfounders, which was longer established than the amalgamated societies, but similar in constitution and policy. Edwin Coulson (1828–1893) was general secretary of the Operative Bricklayers' Society from 1860 to 1891, running the union with an autocratic pugnacity and expanding it from its London base into a national organization. The fifth member of the Webbs' Junta, George Odger, continued to work at his trade, as a ladies' shoemaker, and was prominent in—but was not an official of—his union. As secretary to the London Trades Council from 1862 to 1872 he exercised considerable influence in forwarding the Junta's policy.

Odger's predecessor as secretary to the trades council, George Howell, was not included in the Webbs' Junta, but acted with them; he belonged to the Operative Bricklayers' Society, but never succeeded in ousting Coulson, his bitter rival, from the secretaryship. Robert Skirrow Danter (1824/5–1893), an engine smith who was president of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, and John Damrel Prior (1840–1923), a member of the executive of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners and Applegarth's successor as general secretary, were both sufficiently active and prominent in the Junta's activities to be treated as part of the grouping. In some accounts William Randal Cremer, one of the founders of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners and of the trades council, is treated as a member of the Junta, mainly through his involvement with them in radical politics.

None of the Junta was born in London; all but one is known to have arrived in the capital after 1850 (Odger probably arrived shortly before then). Though Chartist ideas had a general influence, a common formative event was the dispute in the London building trade in 1859–60 that had led to the foundation of the London Trades Council. Constituted in 1860 to watch over the interests of labour and to issue credentials to strikers seeking financial support from the London unions, the trades council came to be dominated by the Junta, though the point has been made that the members of the Junta were never actually on the council at the same time (Fraser, 47–8). Although not formally constituted until 1867, the earliest activity of the Junta can be dated to 1862, when Odger became the council's secretary and when he, along with Applegarth and Howell, instigated the trade-union demand for manhood suffrage. That trio, with Cremer, spearheaded the trade-union involvement in radical movements, notably the campaigns in support of the north in the American Civil War, and Polish and Italian independence, culminating in their participation in the International Working Men's Association, founded in September 1864. Potter regarded the International as a creature of the Junta (Collins and Abramsky, 63).

The Junta's rivalry with Potter arose from personal animosities, differing leadership styles, and competing claims to represent organized labour in a period when the Junta was forming links with middle-class Liberals, and seeking to demonstrate that trade unions were respectable and legitimate institutions of working men. The Junta regarded Potter as a ‘speculator’, associated only with a small local union, who got up agitations to promote his own interests and those of the Bee-Hive newspaper. They hastened to correct Gladstone when, in 1864, he described Potter in parliament as ‘the far-famed secretary of the trades unions’ (Fraser, 155). Their belief that Potter's activities discredited unions and therefore compromised the achievement of the London Trades Council in securing for the unions ‘the esteem and good-will of the most intelligent persons of the age’ (The Bee-Hive, 1 April 1865) underlay their move to censure him formally in April 1865. Howell was brought in to indict Potter for convening an unauthorized meeting of the trades council to support the Staffordshire puddlers whose refusal to accept arbitration had led to their repudiation of their own union executives. Potter's action was condemned by a committee comprising Allan, Applegarth, Coulson, Danter, Odger, and James Cope of the boot closers. At a counter-meeting it was asserted that ‘to call such a coterie a Trades' Council is a farce’ (ibid., 8 April 1865). For industrial reasons Guile sided with Potter, and in 1866 helped Potter to form the London Working Men's Association, to organize trade-union support for parliamentary reform. The rest of the Junta threw their weight behind the Reform League, of which Howell was secretary.

In January 1867 the Junta took an institutional form when its members created the Conference of Amalgamated Trades, in response to the court decision in Hornby v. Close, which denied the amalgamated engineers and carpenters, the bricklayers, and the ironfounders a special remedy they had managed to obtain, along with a handful of other unions whose rule books indicated that their purposes were essentially the provision of welfare, to prosecute fraudulent officials quickly and cheaply. Allan, Applegarth, Coulson, and Guile were those whose unions were directly affected, and they formed the core. Odger belonged, as representative of the trades council; and the Liberal MP and Christian socialist Thomas Hughes attended the founding meeting. Although styled a ‘conference’, it was a private gathering, constituted by invitation only, which met at Allan's office in Stamford Street. The early phase of the conference was really the point when the Junta became a narrow clique, despite its claim to represent 59,000 members with accumulated funds of £184,000. Initially the Junta lobbied for the restoration of its members' own particular legal privilege, allowing Potter to organize a much more widely representative campaign aimed at protecting the interests of all unions. That wider constituency—belying the Webbs' caricature of Potter's group as ‘a body of nondescript persons of no importance’ (Webb and Webb, 238)—went on to form the Trades Union Congress (TUC), whose first two meetings, at Manchester (1868) and Birmingham (1869) were not attended by the Junta as a group. The Junta's public standing was raised by the impressive appearances of Allan, Applegarth, Coulson, and Guile as witnesses before the royal commission on trade unions, between April and November 1867, in which they put the union case (Danter also gave evidence on the narrower question of a mission that he and Odger had undertaken in 1866 to investigate union complicity in the Sheffield outrages). The Webbs' contention that the Junta in this period functioned as the ‘effective cabinet’ of the union movement was founded both on this marshalling of evidence and their role in promoting law reform through links with a group of sympathetic lawyers, including E. S. Beesly, Henry Crompton, Frederic Harrison, J. M. Ludlow, Godfrey Lushington, and William Shaen. The Junta promoted a plan for legislation drawn up by their lawyer advisers, which was adopted by most of the rest of the trade union movement, including Potter himself.

Their patient lobbying and quest for acceptance did not involve a compromise of what they regarded as vital interests. One of the Junta's last independent actions was in December 1868, when the inner group of five (with W. Robson, Danter's successor as president of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers) signed a letter, addressed to the royal commissioners, warning that any attempt to impose the sort of restrictive legal settlement on unions advocated by some employers would be regarded as ‘an open declaration of war between classes’ (Curthoys, 96). No government attempted to do so. By early 1871 the Junta was working with the TUC, which met in London and assumed many of the Junta's functions. This marked the end of the Junta's separate existence; the Conference of Amalgamated Trades was formally dissolved in September 1871, the statute legalizing unions having been enacted that summer. As individuals they also went in separate directions: deposed from his secretaryship by an internal coup, Applegarth left unionism; Coulson, by contrast, concentrated on the affairs of his own union; Allan, Guile, and Odger subsequently held office on the parliamentary committee of the TUC (of which Howell was secretary), but they ceased to function as a recognizable group within it.

As much as their achievements, the Webbs admired the Junta members' integrity, self-respect, correctness of expression, personal propriety, ‘and remarkable freedom from all that savoured of the tap room’ (Webb and Webb, 222). Almost all were married men; Coulson alone seems to have had no children. Odger was the only one whose wife is recorded as being in paid employment. None of them had received formal education beyond the age of twelve, but all had acquired, by some form of apprenticeship, a craft skill. Allan, Applegarth, Coulson, and Guile successfully ran what were in effect large insurance organizations, requiring careful financial management. Those four had offices in Southwark, where geographical proximity seems to have strengthened their common purpose, though it is questionable whether there was as much personal friendship as the Webbs suggested (Leventhal, 27). Their reluctance to endorse strikes led the Webbs, and subsequent writers, to criticize their undue caution in trade matters. Personally, however, they had all either been, or supported, strikers.

The Webbs' definition of the Junta has proved remarkably resilient, as subsequent writing has used the group as a point of reference, though inevitably with refinements as to personnel, chronology, and interpretations of their activity. Their significance as ‘an important and influential group, highly intelligent, efficient and articulate, and able for the first time to carve out a central place for their organizations in British public life’ (Reid, 87) remains. As the founders of labour institutions that endured into the twentieth century their personalities, policies, and wider outlook have necessarily been viewed in the light of subsequent preoccupations, ranging from the character of British industrial relations to the pre-history of British Marxism (through their involvement in the International). More recently they have been restored to their original context of radical politics, while their achievement has been reappraised as contributing to a distinctively masculine form of industrial citizenship.

M. C. Curthoys


S. J. Webb and B. P. Webb, The history of trade unionism (1894) [with bibliography by R. A. Peddie] · minutes of the Conference of Amalgamated Trades, BLPES, Webb trade union collection, section B, xviii · F. E. Gillespie, Labor and politics in England, 1850–1867 (1927) · [G. K. Tate], London Trades Council, 1860–1950: a history (1950) · B. C. Roberts, The Trades Union Congress, 1868–1921 (1958) · S. Coltham, ‘George Potter, the Junta, and the Bee-Hive’, International Review of Social History, 9 (1964), 391–432; 10 (1965), 1–85 · H. Collins and C. Abramsky, Karl Marx and the British labour movement (1965) · R. Harrison, Before the socialists: studies in labour and politics, 1861–1881 (1965) · F. M. Leventhal, Respectable radical: George Howell and Victorian working class politics (1971) · W. H. Fraser, Trade unions and society (1974) · J. A. Filkins, ‘Coulson, Edwin’, BDMBR, 3.220–24 · E. F. Biagini, Liberty, retrenchment and reform: popular liberalism in the age of Gladstone, 1860–1880 (1992) · C. Hall, K. McClelland, and J. Rendall, Defining the Victorian nation: class, race, gender and the British Reform Act of 1867 (2000) · A. J. Reid, United we stand: a history of Britain's trade unions (2004) · M. Curthoys, Governments, labour, and the law in mid-Victorian Britain: the trade union legislation of the 1870s (2004) · census returns, 1851, 1861, 1871