The historic union records that survive illuminate the working lives, daily concerns and political attitudes of our ancestors. Trade Union Ancestors aims to help family historians to identify the correct union, to discover the role their ancestor played in it, and to find out more about trade union history.
Website editor Mark Crail stresses that the site is far from comprehensive and he cannot guarantee it is mistake-free. Also, while millions of people have been trade union members over the past couple of centuries, millions more working people were not. At the beginning of the 20th century, just one in ten working people were members. And though masses of union records have survived, much more has been discarded or destroyed down the years.
The site draws material from a range of sources. Among the most fruitful are:
- The first four published volumes of the Historical Directory of Trade Unions. These are a wonderful but incomplete guide to the development of the trade union movement published between 1980 and 1994 by Gower. The first three were compiled by Arthur Marsh and Victoria Ryan, and the fourth by Marsh and Ryan with the help of John Smethurst. Wonderful though they are, the series is incomplete and there are some rather obvious omissions as a result – not least the Transport and General Workers Union. Time has also moved on since they were published, with mergers and amalgamations taking place annually. There is now a fifth and a sixth and final volume available.
- The archive listings published online by Warwick University’s modern records centre. The centre has an unrivalled collection of original trade union papers, including the archives of many long since defunct trade unions deposited by their modern successors.
- A variety of published sources including the potted histories that some unions include on their websites, the books that unions have produced down the years about their origins and developments, and the many general union histories published since Sydney and Beatrice Webb originated the genre with their History of Trade Unionism, first published in 1894 and revised in 1920.
- Government papers and public records – some of them published (such as Labour Market Trends, from which data on this website is extracted) and some stored away in the National Archives waiting for someone with the time and interest in the subject to come along and find them.