- Alastair J. Reid
Ashton, Thomas (1841–1919), trade unionist, was born on 15 August 1841 at Lees Hall, Oldham, the son of William Ashton and his wife, Sally Mellor, both of whom were cotton workers. His parents were poor and, as his mother became seriously ill when he was still a baby, he spent much of his first five years with an aunt near Ashton under Lyne. At the age of nine he started at a cotton mill himself, gradually working his way up from the position of half-time piecer to that of minder of a self-acting mule. In his teens he became increasingly preoccupied with furthering his education, eventually becoming an evening class and Sunday school teacher, and even leaving the cotton industry to set up his own day school in 1868. After only a few months, however, he was persuaded by a number of his old colleagues to stand in the election for the secretaryship of the Oldham Provincial Association of Operative Cotton Spinners. He won the competition comfortably and held the post until his retirement in 1913.
The Oldham Spinners in the late 1860s was a loose federation of nine smaller local bodies, each controlling its own funds, and only coming together to raise special levies in support of wider industrial disputes. Among the districts producing the lower-count yarns for export Oldham had relatively high wages, but because the union was weakly organized and poorly financed the employers had the upper hand and continued to fix wages and working conditions in their own mills. The early 1870s saw a patchy recovery of the industry from the ‘cotton famine’ caused by the American Civil War, and in this relatively favourable period Ashton led his members in pressing vigorously for major concessions: a one-o'clock finish on Saturdays was gained following massive local demonstrations in 1871; a standard list of earnings, involving increases for most of the local spinners, was gained in 1872; and a renegotiation of this list, resulting in a further increase of 6.5 per cent and incorporating the piecers, was gained after a six-week strike in 1876. However, the Oldham Spinners was poorly placed to face the period of depression beginning in the late 1870s, and it became a matter of some urgency to centralize decision making, regularize and increase subscriptions, and recruit a higher proportion of the local workforce. Having carried out these internal reforms, Ashton was able to lead his union in resistance to a local wage cut through a thirteen-week strike in 1885, and then in playing its part in cotton's first industry-wide lock-out which lasted for twenty weeks in the winter of 1892–3, once again over a wage cut. This major dispute was brought to an end by the famous 'Brooklands agreement', which was largely favourable to the unions and was in effect an extension of the practices Ashton's union had achieved in Oldham into industry-wide wage lists and conciliation procedures.
By the 1890s, then, the spinners in Oldham and throughout Lancashire had established themselves among the best-organized skilled workers in the country, with a 90 per cent closed shop and the highest welfare benefits of any trade union. They combined restraint in striking over minor local issues with a willingness to undertake major industrial action to secure their strategic position: indeed, while many of the individual spinners remained conservative in politics, as a group they had a relatively high tendency to engage in district-wide and industry-wide strikes. They also combined an assertive pursuit of their own sectional interests with a willingness to participate in wider labour movements. Thus Ashton himself not only served as president of the Lancashire Spinners' Amalgamated Association from 1878 (in which role he collaborated particularly closely with its secretary James Mawdsley of the Preston spinners), but was also a leading figure in the political pressure group, the United Textile Factory Workers' Association, a regular contributor to the Cotton Factory Times, secretary of the Oldham Trades Council from 1886 to 1893, and a JP from 1890. In terms of party politics he was a Liberal, but gave at least passive support to the formation of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC): indeed he was initially willing to stand as the first LRC candidate in Oldham, though he withdrew before the 1906 general election, for reasons which were never stated.
Thomas Ashton was a man of imposing appearance and a blunt, outspoken nature. He and his wife, Alice (1843/4–1919), a former weaver, lived in Oldham, and had one son. During his lifetime Ashton was a prolific journalist, and in some years his income from writing exceeded £3000. He invested wisely, often in cotton enterprises, and was quite a wealthy man at the time of his death. He died on 15 September 1919 at his home, 39 Belmont Street, Oldham, his wife's sudden death the day before having worsened his own already failing health. They were buried together on 20 September in Chadderton cemetery, Oldham.
- Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester, corresp.
Wealth at Death
£13,047 12s. 1d.: probate, 23 Oct 1919, CGPLA Eng. & Wales