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Barnes, George Nicolllocked

  • Alastair J. Reid

Barnes, George Nicoll (1859–1940), trade unionist and politician, was born on 2 January 1859 at Lochee, Forfarshire, the second of five sons of James Barnes, a skilled engineer and mill manager from Yorkshire, and his wife, Catherine Adam Langlands. The family moved back to England and settled at Ponders End in Middlesex, where his father managed a jute mill in which George himself began working at the age of eleven, after attending a church school at Enfield Highway. He then spent two years as an engineering apprentice, first at Powis James of Lambeth then at Parker's foundry, Dundee. After finishing his apprenticeship he worked for two years at the Vickers shipyard in Barrow before returning once again to the London area, where he experienced unemployment during the slump of 1879. He had a number of short-term jobs before settling for eight years at Lucas and Airds in Fulham. In 1882 he married Jessie, daughter of Thomas Langlands, with whom he had two sons and a daughter.

During his time in London Barnes became an active member of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, a committed member of the co-operative movement, and a keen if moderate socialist, which led him to join the Independent Labour Party (ILP) on its foundation in 1893. Within the engineers' union he was a significant figure in the network of young London socialists who were influenced initially by figures on the far left, but who moved decisively back into the Labour mainstream during the 1890s. He succeeded John Burns on the national executive in 1889, organized Tom Mann's unsuccessful campaign to become the national secretary in 1891, and was eventually elected to that post himself in 1896 after four years as assistant secretary. For the next twelve years he therefore held a key post in the craft-union world, but it was to be a period of turmoil for the engineers since, while the industry was expanding and the employers were becoming increasingly united and aggressive, the union retained a high level of district autonomy which drew it into bitter and costly industrial disputes.

Thus in the summer of 1897 the London district's insistence on pressing for the eight-hour day resulted in a lengthy national lock-out without support from other unions, leading inevitably to a costly defeat for the engineers even if the principles of recognition and collective bargaining were maintained. Then in the course of the next decade Barnes found himself caught between the restrictive terms of settlement which had been imposed after the national defeat in 1898 and a resurgence of district pressure for improved conditions when local labour markets were buoyant. It became increasingly difficult to maintain the integrity of the union's decision-making processes in the face of district committees' refusals to follow the policies of the national executive, and Barnes resigned in frustration in 1908.

As an enthusiastic socialist Barnes had long been a champion of increased political representation for labour: he stood (unsuccessfully) as an ILP parliamentary candidate for Rochdale as early as 1895 and was the Amalgamated Society of Engineers delegate at the conference in London, on 27 February 1900, which founded the Labour Representation Committee (LRC). Standing for the ILP against both Conservative and Liberal opponents, he was elected for Glasgow Blackfriars (later Gorbals) at the 1906 general election, and was among the twenty-nine MPs elected under LRC auspices. He continued to hold the seat largely on the basis of the Irish nationalist vote until his retirement in 1922. No doubt the alternative attractions of an enhanced political career influenced his decision to resign his trade-union post. He went on to become one of the major spokesmen for the Labour position on such key Liberal welfare reforms as old age pensions and national insurance, having studied industrial welfare provision in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and the USA (the latter as a member of the Mosely industrial commission in 1902). For a brief period in 1910 he served as chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Barnes was therefore well placed to continue as a leading Labour spokesman during the mobilization of national resources to fight the First World War. As well as helping to recruit skilled engineers for war work, visiting Canada for the purpose, he sat on a government committee on war pensions, chaired (1916) a government committee on savings, and was appointed as the first minister of pensions in the coalition government of December 1916, in which post he improved both the level and the system of administration of service pensions. In August 1917 he succeeded Arthur Henderson in the war cabinet as minister without portfolio representing the interests of organized labour, in which role he was responsible for a major sympathetic government inquiry into industrial unrest in 1917.

However, this role once again placed Barnes between two conflicting forces as the Labour Party began to move away from the coalition government over the speed and the methods of reaching a peace settlement with Germany. He took the view that he had been mandated to serve as a Labour representative in the government until a peace treaty was concluded, resigning from the Labour Party in order to remain in the cabinet. Consequently he faced increasing criticism from some of his erstwhile colleagues as well as an unsuccessful challenge for his parliamentary seat from an official Labour Party candidate (John Maclean) in the 1918 general election. Barnes, however, had not changed his political views and, as British labour's only representative at the Paris peace conference, he began to use his status to press for international machinery to promote the rights of working people. With the assistance of civil servants from the Ministry of Labour he drafted a set of proposals which, following further consultations with the leadership of the Labour Party and extensive discussions within the Commission for World Labour, eventually became the basis of part 13, or the labour chapter, of the treaty of Versailles. This covered such issues as minimum employment conditions for women and young people, industrial safety, and the right of combination, though Barnes himself saw such general commitments as less important than the establishment of an organization to promote specific reforms: the International Labour Office in Geneva and regular conferences of the International Labour Organization.

Seeing this as the culmination of his earlier choice between his party and the government, and aware that he had become physically very run down, Barnes resigned his ministerial post early in 1920, at which point he was made a Companion of Honour. However, he still attended the first assembly of the League of Nations later that year as one of the three British delegates, as well as remaining a back-bench supporter of the coalition government until his retirement from politics when the Labour Party announced that it would again field a candidate against him in the general election of 1922. As it was clear that the tide would turn strongly towards the official Labour candidates throughout Glasgow, and as he had no wish to serve in any other party, he decided to withdraw from his seat.

Barnes had a long and active retirement, continuing to support the International Labour Organization, serving as chairman of the Co-operative Printing Society, and publishing several books, including his autobiography, From Workshop to War Cabinet (1923), and a History of the International Labour Office (1926). He was a pleasant-looking, mild-mannered man, but little is known about his private life; one of his sons was killed during the First World War. He died on 2 April 1940 at his home, 76 Herne Hill, London, and was buried in Fulham cemetery.


  • ‘Barnes, George Nicoll’, DLB, vol. 6
  • G. N. Barnes, From workshop to war cabinet (1924)
  • J. Zeitlin, ‘Engineers and compositors: a comparison’, Divisions of labour: skilled workers and technological change in nineteenth-century England, ed. R. Harrison and J. Zeitlin (1985), 185–250
  • H. A. Clegg, A. Fox, and A. F. Thompson, A history of British trade unions since 1889, 1–2 (1964–85)


  • BLPES, corresp. with the Independent Labour Party
  • Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester, papers
  • priv. coll., corresp.
  • Parl. Arch., corresp. with J. C. C. Davidson incl. notes on the war
  • Parl. Arch., corresp. with David Lloyd George


  • B. Stone, photograph, 1907, Birmingham Reference Library
  • W. Stoneman, photograph, 1917, NPG
  • W. Orpen, oils, 1919, City Art Gallery, Bradford
  • photograph, 1924, repro. in Barnes, From workshop to war cabinet, frontispiece
  • M. Urquhart, oils, 1934, International Labour Office, Geneva, Switzerland
  • J. Guthrie, group portrait, oils (Statesmen of World War I), NPG
  • J. Guthrie, oils (study for Statesmen of World War I), Scot. NPG
  • J. Russell & Sons, photograph, NPG

Wealth at Death

£3129 18s. 5d.: probate, 7 June 1940, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
J. M. Bellamy & J. Saville, eds., (1972–93)