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Disability and the Trade Boards

Trade Board records can give us a rare glimpse into the experiences and treatment of individual workers with disabilities or chronic illness in the early 20th century.

Permits of exemption

The Trade Boards Acts of 1909 and 1918 included exemptions which allowed employers to pay less than the statutory minimum wage if employees' ability to work was regarded as being "affected by any infirmity or physical injury":

"If a Trade Board are satisfied that any worker employed, or desiring to be employed, on time work in any branch of a trade to which a minimum time-rate fixed by the Trade Board is applicable is affected by any infirmity or physical injury which renders him incapable of earning that minimum time-rate, and are of opinion that the case cannot suitably be met by employing the worker on piecework, the Trade Board may, if they think fit, grant to the worker, subject to such conditions, if any, as they prescribe, a permit exempting the employment of the worker from the provisions of this Act rendering the minimum time-rate obligatory, and, while the permit is in force, an employer shall not be liable to any penalty for paying wages to the worker at a rate less than the minimum time-rate so long as any conditions prescribed by the Trade Board on the grant of the permit are complied with."

The permits of exemption (from paying the full rate of wages) were issued by the Trade Boards to workers who were regarded as having physical or psychological disabilities which affected the speed or quality of their work. The request for a permit could be initiated by the employer or worker, or suggested during a factory visit by the Trade Board inspector. Permits were usually issued for specified wage rates and working hours, and covered a set period of time. Once the time period expired, the case would be re-assessed and the permit could be renewed.

In the majority of applications included in the Trade Board papers at the Modern Records CentreLink opens in a new window, the individual applicant is not identified by name. Information is given about the age, work and health of the employee, and the name and location of the employer. In some cases additional information about the background of the worker can be included, for example references to their family, education or previous employment.

Digitised records which contain information about hundreds of individual cases can be read in Warwick Digital CollectionsLink opens in a new window. We are also in the process of indexing applications for permits and statements of permits to make the information that they contain more readily available. Indexes relating to the following Trade Boards are currently available online:

Contact us if you would like a copy of the Excel spreadsheet which forms the basis of these indexes.

Applications for permits

Applications for permits of exemption were usually submitted in the form of a short, summarised report. The reports start with brief information about the case, usually including the case number assigned to the individual worker (their names were only occasionally given), the name and address of the employer, the age and gender of the worker, a brief summary of the reason for the application (the worker's 'infirmity'), the number of years worked in the trade, the type of work they do, and details of the proposed pay and number of hours to be worked.

After the basic details have been given, the summarised applications can include short notes about the case. These vary in detail but can include extracts from reports by the investigating officer, information taken from interviews with the employer, worker or family members, extracts from doctors' reports, and information provided by schools or other involved organisations. The notes can include information about attitudes of the employers (including whether the worker will be sacked if the reduced wages aren't authorised), the extent to which workers' 'infirmities' affect their work, whether the employers have made special provision for the workers, and the attitude of family members and the worker themselves towards the application.

The exampleLink opens in a new window shown below is an application for the renewal of a permit by the Tailoring Trade Board in 1919.

Example of application for renewal of a permit of exemption

Statements of permits

Statements of permits granted tend to be less detailed than the summarised applications and often follow the format shown below, with key information given in tabular form. Information provided is usually the case number assigned to the individual worker, the name and address of the employer, the age and gender of the worker, a brief summary of the reason for the application (the worker's 'infirmity'), the type of work they do, and details of the pay, number of hours to be worked and period that the permit has been granted for.

The exampleLink opens in a new window shown below is an extract from a statement of permits granted by the Boot and Shoe Repairing Trade Board in 1924.

Extract from statement of permits granted

Other sources


The minutes of the Trade Board Administrative Committees can contain references to permit cases, including extracts from supporting documents such as letters or reports. Only a small quantity of minutes have been digitised as part of this project (many more undigitised minutes are available onsite) - a 1926 exampleLink opens in a new window from the Boot and Shoe Repairing Trade Board provides an illustration of the type of additional information that can be included.


A small number of short reports and collections of statistical data relating to permits of exemption issued by individual Trade Boards are included. These are:

Correspondence and circulars

The Trade Board files at the Modern Records Centre were compiled by J.J. Mallon, Secretary of the Trades Union Congress' Trade Boards Advisory Council, and workers' representative on many of the boards during the 1910s and 1920s. The files include a mixture of papers circulated for Trade Board committee meetings and material relating to the administration of the workers' sides of the boards. Correspondence and circulars relating to individual permit cases and broader policy regarding treatment of disabled workers can be included within these files. Examples include:

Disabled ex-servicemen

The Trade Board records include information about individual cases of ex-servicemen wounded (physically and psychologically) during the First World War, as well as some sources on broader government policy towards disabled ex-servicemen.

Several workshops established specifically to provide employment for disabled veterans are represented in the Trade Board records:

Lord Roberts' Memorial Workshops:

Longton Disabled Soldiers and Sailors' Cardboard Box Factory, Staffordshire:

Reports, memoranda and circulars: