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160 years of engineering trade unionism

The year 1851 saw the formation of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE), one of the most significant trade unions in British industrial history.

  • The ASE, whose full name was the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, Machinists, Smiths, Millwrights and Pattern-Makers, was formed by the amalgamation of several specialised engineering unions and was born from a desire to organise all workers in the various sectors of the industry on a national basis in order to strengthen their bargaining position with employers. This has been one of the main themes of trade union development ever since.

  • This is the on-line version of an exhibition which was held at the Centre in November and December 2011 to mark the 160th anniversary of the ASE's formation. It illustrates the development of the ASE and its successors from the 1850s to the 2000s.

Click on the 'thumbnails' to see larger versions of the images.

Foundation and progress

 Extract from ASE minute book"Be united and industrious": minutes of ASE executive, 26 Oct 1852

This was the phrase adopted by the executive as the motto for the Society’s emblem, after they had rejected "Industry merits reward" and "Union is the harbinger of Civilisation". Later in the meeting the executive considered a suggestion to invest £6000 for superannuation purposes and heard a statement on emigration to Canada by the secretary of the Canadian Land and Railway Association.

ASE archive: MSS.259/ASE/1/1/2


1885 delegate meeting 

Members of delegate meeting, 1885

By 1885 the ASE had 430 branches in Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, Malta, the United States and France.

ASE archive: MSS.259/ASE/12/1

Photograph of CommitteeCommittee appointed to draw up the rules of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, 1919

This committee prepared the way for the next great amalgamation (described in section 2). Tom Mann is fourth from the left in the front row.

ASE archive: MSS.259/ASE/12/4


Lock-out and recruitment


  • On 1 July 1920 the process of consolidation begun by the ASE in 1851 went a stage further when the ASE and nine other unions merged to form the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU). Tom Mann, one of the giants of the union movement, was its first general secretary.

  • More local and specialised unions joined the amalgamation between 1944 and 1965, and when the Amalgamated Union of Foundry Workers did so in 1968, the Union changed its name to the Amalgamated Union of Engineering and Foundry Workers (AEF).

Cover of pamphlet on engineering lockout 

Photograph of Coventry meeting 

Above: AEU pamphlet stating their position in the engineering lock-out of 1922.

Left: Jack Leckie addressing a meeting at Radford Road in Coventry during the lock-out

Although this crowd seems fairly good-humoured, the dispute was a bitter one. It arose over the interpretation of a clause about overtime in an agreement between the AEU and the Engineering Employers’ Federation. The pamphlet accuses the employers of wanting to weaken trade unionism in the industry generally.

AEU archive: MSS.259/AEU/12/4. Trades Union Congress archive: MSS.292/251/8

 Recruiting leaflet  Recruiting leaflet 


Recruitment leaflets featuring 'Henry Dubb', 1950

These tell the tale of the hapless Henry's misadventures arising from his failure to join the AEU: unsupported in a dispute with management leading to his sacking; humiliation after rejecting collective action in favour of the football pools as the path to financial security.

AEU archive: MSS.259/AEU/4/9/2-3



Recruitment leaflets aimed at women, 1950 Recruiting leafletRecruiting leaflet

The Second World War had seen an influx of women into engineering and when peace came the AEU worked to consolidate their position in the industry.

AEU archive: MSS.259/AEU/4/9/8 & 12

Trouble and strife


  • In April 1970 the AEF amalgamated with the Draughtsmen's and Allied Technicians' Association (DATA) and the Constructional Engineering Union to form the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW).

  • One of the potential drawbacks of amalgamation, the inability to reconcile different interests, was illustrated in 1985 when the AEUW Technical, Administrative and Supervisory Section left to form TASS.

  • On 1 May 1992, the AEU (as it had been renamed) grew in another direction by amalgamating with the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunication and Plumbing Union to form the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU).

Photograph of picket line

Photograph of picket line 


Industrial battles, 1969

Police versus pickets during the dispute at the factory of BSR Limited in East Kilbride.

Associated Press photographs.

AEU archive: MSS.259/AEU/12/7/11-12

 Industrial Relations Bill leaflet


Above: political battles: AUEW leaflets stating the case against the Industrial Relations Bill of 1970 (left), and in favour of retaining its political fund (right), c1985

The Conservative government’s Industrial Relations Bill, which became law in 1971, aroused strong opposition throughout the trade union movement and was repealed by the Labour government in 1974. Compulsory ballots on the retention of political funds were part of the Conservatives’ renewed efforts to restrict union power in the 1980s.

AUEW archive: MSS.259/AUEW/7/R/2 and 7/P/1


Left: internal battles: AUEW Broad Left attack on right-wing union leaders, c1975

The struggles between left and right within the union had been going on since at least the 1950s, when the staunch anti-Communist, Bill Carron (later Lord Carron), became president. Here he is seen as having been a reactionary autocrat. ‘Truemid’ was the Movement for True Industrial Democracy, another bugbear of the left, as was Colonel David Stirling (pictured) of the "strike breaking anti-trade union GB75 Force".

Papers of Dick Etheridge, Communist and AEU/AEUW official: MSS.202/5/25


Looking back, looking forward


  • On 1 January 2001, the eventually abortive amalgamation of 1970 was in a sense restored and extended when the AEEU merged with the Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union (MSF), itself the product of a merger between TASS (formerly a part of the AUEW) and the largest ‘white collar’ union, ASTMS, to form Amicus.

  • Amicus’s membership became still more diverse when the Union for the Finance Industry (UNIFI) and the Graphical, Paper and Media Union (GPMU) merged with it in 2004.

  • The process begun in 1851 by the ASE whereby trade unions have become ever bigger and more comprehensive culminated (for now) in 2007 with the merger of Amicus with the Transport and General Workers’ Union to form Unite, Britain’s biggest union.

  Front page of radio script 

  Centenary brochureCentenary brochure

Pages from AEU booklet marking the centenary of the formation of the ASE, 1951.

This containscomparisons between the position of the working class in 1851 and 100 years later and is now itself something of a period piece.

AEU archive: MSS.259/7/H/5a.

“Well, lads, are you all set up with beer?”: script of a BBC schools history radio programme on the history of the AEU, 1949

An evocation, complete with local dialect, of a meeting in Manchester of the Friendly Union of Mechanics, one of the main predecessors of the ASE, which had been formed in 1826.

Trades Union Congress archive: MSS.292/1.9/2

Amicus magazine

Article in Amicus magazine on the proposed merger with the Transport and General Workers’ Union, winter 2006.  

Suggestions for the name of the new union are solicited. In 2007, when the merger was approved, ‘Unite’ was chosen.

Amicus/Unite archive: MSS.530/4