Thursday, 9 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Thomas Dunning

Dunning[1] was a trade unionist and was born in London in 1799, but nothing else is known about his early life. He learned the trade of bookbinder, a small trade that participated in the great nineteenth-century expansion of printing and publishing and which, despite the growth of mass production and the mechanisation of some stages of production, remained a skilled occupation.

In 1820, Dunning joined the London Consolidated Society of Journeymen Bookbinders, and he quickly became a leading member of lodge no. 5. Elected to the society’s committee in the late 1830s, he came to the fore in the great industrial dispute in 1839, writing a number of the society’s addresses on the struggle. His desire for an agreement with the employers was opposed by the majority, however, and he resigned from the committee, only to become one of the negotiators of the final settlement. He then led the reorganisation of the society, with the merger of the different lodges into a unitary London Consolidated Lodge of Journeymen Bookbinders, which for a brief while also joined the new national union, with Dunning as chief secretary until London was forced to leave.

Dunning’s condemnation of wasteful celebrations and strikes, and domineering and sometimes unscrupulous behaviour at meetings led to many attacks on him in the 1840s, culminating in a purge and schism in 1850, leaving him the unchallenged ruler thenceforth. He was also a leading figure in wider movements among the London trades, such as a campaign around 1830 against machinery and orthodox political economy, in connection with which he wrote in The Advocate, or, Artizans’ and Labourers’ Friend. He helped to establish The Charter newspaper in 1839, to which he contributed, and also campaigned in support of the London stonemasons’ strike of 1841–2. He was active in the formation of the National Association of United Trades in 1845, though he soon led his society out of it, and campaigned in the early 1850s in support of the prosecuted Wolverhampton tin-plate workers and the Preston strike, and over the Friendly Societies’ Bill of 1855. He was also a good singer and musician, and took part in activities to help the blind.

In 1850, Dunning persuaded his society to establish the Bookbinders’ Trade Circular, which he edited for over twenty years. He was also examined in 1856 by a select committee of the House of Commons on arbitration of labour disputes, and in the 1860s produced a number of pamphlets on trade unionism, and papers to the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, being the sole trade union member of its committee that in 1860 produced an influential report on trade unions and disputes. His most famous work was his pamphlet Trades Unions and Strikes: their Philosophy and Intention (1860).

In the 1860s, Dunning was one of the most prestigious trade unionists in London, but he led his society out of the London Trades Council, which he regarded as too political, and he joined with George Potter (1832-1893) in his quarrel with that body, his criticisms of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers as a mere benefit society, and campaigns for reform of the master and servant law and arbitration, though he was sceptical over positive legislation in favour of working men because of the social bias of parliament and law courts. He also contributed to Potter’s Bee-Hive newspaper. Although he was a member of Potter’s London Working Men’s Association, he had little interest in parliamentary reform, and his conviction of the inferiority of black people led him to oppose the campaigns in support of the north in the American Civil War and against the conduct of the governor of Jamaica. In 1869, he was prominent in the Labour Representation League.

In 1870, Dunning was leader of an amalgamated committee of the three London bookbinders’ societies, but a street accident in 1871 left him partially paralysed and he had to resign as secretary of his society, though he remained editor of the Circular until his death from ‘apoplexy’ on 23rd December 1873 at his home, 65 Napier Street, Hoxton New Town. He was buried in Abney Park cemetery. His wife Susannah, whom he had married on 28th June 1824, survived him.

As head of a strong trade society for thirty years, he was an influential figure in the London trade union world, but he is not easy to classify. He was a trade union reformer who induced his society to cease meeting in public houses and to establish a library and a journal conducted by him, which discussed general trade union and economic questions. While being a constant advocate of conciliation with employers and a Chartist who opposed trade society involvement in political questions and campaigns to secure legal status for trade unions, he nevertheless opposed the new amalgamated forms of trade unionism and the ‘junta’, and publicly justified strikes.


[1] Sources: The Bee-Hive, 8th November 1873, S. Coltham and J. Saville ‘Dunning, Thomas Joseph’, Dictionary of Labour Biography, volume 2, E. Howe and J. Child The Society of London Bookbinders, 1780–1951, 1952 and S. J. Webb and B. P. Webb The history of trade unionism, 1666–1920, 1920.

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