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Arch, Josephlocked

  • Alun Howkins

Joseph Arch (1826–1919)

by Barraud, c. 1890

Getty Images – Barraud

Arch, Joseph (1826–1919), trade unionist and politician, was born at Barford, Warwickshire, on 10 November 1826, the son of John Arch (b. c.1793), a shepherd, and Hannah Pace (c.1783–1845). Before her marriage his mother worked as a domestic servant in Warwick Castle, and she and John Arch (her second husband) were married on 12 October 1818 at Barford.

Arch was the youngest of four children, and his childhood, though by no means easy, was not marked by the terrible poverty of some of his contemporaries. Although his father was occasionally out of work, the fact that the family (unusually) owned their own cottage probably saved them in the region of £3 per year in rent, and the large garden that went with it gave them a degree of independence. As a result, Joseph was able to attend Barford endowed school for three years from the age of six until nine, and there learned to read and write. However, like those around him he was then forced to work scaring crows. After a year he became a ploughboy and later a stable-boy. During these years, and for many afterwards, he continued his education at home, deriving his learning, with his mother's aid, from the Bible and The Pilgrim's Progress.

Arch's mother was a strong-willed and determined woman, and her death in 1845 affected Arch deeply. In February 1847 he married Mary Anne Mills, a domestic servant, the daughter of Isaac Mills, a carpenter. Between their wedding and 1864 they had seven children, four boys and three girls. Marriage forced Arch to look for better-paid work and in the late 1840s he became a hedger and ditcher. At this he excelled, winning prizes in agricultural shows in the early 1850s. Additional work as a self-employed roofer and carpenter, allied to the freehold of a cottage, gave him real independence of master and squire. Soon after his marriage he became a Primitive Methodist preacher, and in 1849 he was involved in the purchase of land for a Methodist chapel in Barford: an act which angered local churchmen and farmers. In the 1860s he became active in Liberal politics, especially at the election of 1868 where he used his freeholder's vote for the first time, and, more importantly, seems to have built up contacts with local Liberal ‘grandees’.

In 1872 Arch's name, already probably well known in his own area of Warwickshire, was pushed into national attention. On 7 February that year, at the invitation of a group of labourers, he addressed a meeting in the nearby village of Wellesbourne with the object of forming a trade union for farm labourers. The meeting was a great success and in the next two months Arch, who gave up his other work, tramped around north Warwickshire addressing meetings and building the union. In this his local contacts with Liberalism helped. J. E. Mathew Vincent, Liberal proprietor of the Royal Leamington Chronicle, gave detailed coverage of the meetings in the pages of his paper. At the end of March the Daily News sent Archibald Forbes, its best-known correspondent, to cover the movement, ensuring Arch national coverage.

The movement grew rapidly, especially in the midlands and East Anglia, and often raised wages on a local basis. However, a number of tiny local disputes and strikes ended in bitterness and defeat. On 29 May 1872 at the new Hippodrome, Leamington Spa, a conference was held to create a national union with Arch as president. In the next year the National Agricultural Labourers' Union (NALU) spread through much of midland and eastern England, bringing into its fold many of the local organizations created spontaneously in the early months of 1872. By mid-1873 it had 71,835 members and by the following year 86,214. In addition there were probably another 30,000–40,000 unionized farmworkers in other organizations. In all this Arch was a central figure. He was a superb orator, who drew on the common culture of the King James Bible and religious nonconformity which had shaped him and many of his hearers. He was also an able publicist, seizing any opportunity to use a local injustice or disagreement to push forward the union's cause. The growth of the union had something of the fervour of a religious revival in these years.

In the spring of 1874, however, a group of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk farmers decided to take on the union. In response to a local strike at Exning in Suffolk in February 1874, the Newmarket Farmers' Defence Association, which extended throughout the eastern counties, instructed its members to sack all trade unionists. By 23 March 2500 men were locked out, and by May this figure had grown to 5000 nationally. Despite a ‘procession’ of locked-out labourers to the major industrial areas and widespread support from the urban labour movement, Arch came increasingly to believe that the battle was lost. By August the lock-out had cost the union the enormous sum of £24,432 and Arch and the committee urged the men to return to work. It ceased to issue strike pay on 10 August. The bitterness of the eastern counties' lock-out broke the union as a national industrial force, and the movement was split, with many members returning to local unions and blaming Arch for over-ambition. In consequence, the membership of the NALU declined rapidly and by 1880 had fallen to less than 20,000. Continued problems and the onset of agricultural depression in 1879 further weakened its resolve; and despite a brief revival in the early 1890s it collapsed totally in 1894 and was formally dissolved in 1896.

Arch himself, however, became increasingly involved in national politics. As early as 1868 he had been attached to the Liberal cause in Warwickshire and prominent Liberals had been supporters of the union movement from the start (Frances, Lady Warwick, became a friend and, effectively, a patron). With the increasing demand for the enfranchisement of the farm labourer this mutual support was obviously beneficial to both. In 1880 Arch stood unsuccessfully for Wilton in Wiltshire, a borough seat which nevertheless contained a fair proportion of farm labourers who had the franchise under the 1867 act. During the next three years Arch pressed on other political fronts, most notably land reform and game law reform, but it was the vote for the rural labourer, granted finally in 1884, which most concerned him and the union. At the general election of 1885 he successfully contested North-West Norfolk as a Liberal, beating Lord Henry Bentinck by 640 votes.

Arch's parliamentary career was cut short by the defeat of Gladstone's ministry in June 1886. Arch returned to fight North-West Norfolk to find, as elsewhere, that his support of home rule was not as popular as he had thought, and he was beaten by Bentinck by twenty votes. The defeat was a blow and for the first time a note of bitterness at what he saw as his betrayal by the labourers began to creep into Arch's speeches. To him the place in parliament and the friendship of the powerful and great was the logical end of what had begun in Wellesbourne and to be denied it angered and hurt him. He continued to speak and act for the union but many began to feel his personal style was becoming autocratic and vain. He easily regained North-West Norfolk in 1892 and this time he stayed, holding his seat against national trends in 1895. As an MP who stood firmly within the Liberal Party, Arch believed, like other so-called ‘Lib–Lab’ members, that the interests of the working classes were best served there rather than with independent labour representation.

In parliament, however, Arch made little impact. His genuine power as a speaker seems not to have worked in the chambers of Westminster and he became little more than an ornament to the Liberal Party. He was also ageing and the years of struggle were beginning to make their mark. In March 1894 his wife died and the continuing decline of the union threatened to remove his only source of finance. That at least was dealt with by the purchase of an annuity of £157 presented to him by his Liberal friends in 1897. In 1898 he published his autobiography, edited for him by Lady Warwick. He continued in parliament but in May 1899 The Times spoke of him as 'exceedingly feeble and aged' and he retired at the dissolution of 1900. He was succeeded by Sir George White, also a Liberal, when Norfolk as a whole went against the national trend in the ‘khaki’ election.

On 27 December 1899 Arch married his former housekeeper, Miriam Blomfield, and they returned to the cottage of his birth, living there until his death. In his retirement Arch withdrew completely from politics and grew bitter about the labourers who he claimed had deserted and betrayed him. He showed no interest in the re-forming of the union in Norfolk in 1906, and in fact dismissed it as temporary. Significantly, he also broke his connections with Methodism. He had ceased to be a trustee of the Wesleyan chapel in Barford in 1890 and his second marriage took place in the Church of England.

Arch was a remarkable man with a striking appearance: tall and powerful, with a beard outlining his jaw, he always wore a tweed suit and billycock hat to parliament, marking himself out by his origins. His contribution to the history of the rural poor was fundamental, yet has often been exaggerated. Vanity led him to overestimate his role, and this has been reinforced by the reliance placed by many historians on his own account of his life and the union published in 1898 as Joseph Arch: the Story of his Life. Nevertheless, the men and women who followed him forgave that. As a Norfolk labourer, Josiah Sage, a member of his union and its successor, wrote, 'never before the days of Arch, nor yet since, have the ranks of the agricultural labourers produced such a man' (Sage, 50). Arch died at The Cottage, Barford, Warwickshire, on 12 February 1919, and was survived by his second wife.


  • J. Arch, Joseph Arch: the story of his life, ed. countess of Warwick (1898)
  • P. Horn, Joseph Arch (1826–1919): the farm workers’ leader (1971)
  • A. Howkins, Poor labouring men: rural radicalism in Norfolk, 1870–1923 (1985)
  • J. Sage, The memoirs of Josiah Sage (1951), 50
  • Frances, countess of Warwick, Life's ebb and flow (1929)
  • d. cert.


  • U. Reading, Rural History Centre, diaries
  • Warks. CRO, diary at Westminster


  • Barraud, photograph, 1890, Hult. Arch. [see illus.]
  • B. Stone, photograph, 1897, NPG
  • Spy [L. Ward], chromolithograph caricature, NPG; repro. in VF (26 June 1886)
  • two woodcuts, NPG
  • wood-engraving, NPG; repro. in ILN (20 April 1872)

Wealth at Death

£349 13s. 11d.: administration with will, 15 March 1919, CGPLA Eng. & Wales