William 'Mabon' Abraham

The growth of trade unionism

Last updated: 24 September 2008

Historian John Davies traces the growth of trade unionism in Wales.

The brilliant historian Gwyn Alfred Williams considered that the Merthyr Rising marked the end of the primitive phase in the history of the Welsh working class. Thereafter, the emphasis was upon organisation.

Trade unionism came to Wales in 1830 when Flintshire miners joined the Friendly Associated Coalminers' Union; Merthyr follows in 1831.

Over the following 50 years, unionism had a chequered history. Attempts by Robert Owen of Newtown, the pioneer of co-operation, to establish comprehensive unionism collapsed in 1834. Craft unions came into existence in the 1850s but they tended to be exclusive.

In the early 1870s colliers sought to create an effective union, but were defeated by the enmity of employers. In the following decade, local unions struck root, particularly in the Rhondda, where William Abraham (Mabon) came to prominence.

In the early 1880s there was a marked growth in 'New Unionism', especially among dockers and railwaymen. In view of the prominence of coalmining in Wales, the key development was the establishment in 1898 of the South Wales Miners' Federation.

The 'Fed' abandoned the moderation of leaders such as Mabon and eventually came to have a larger membership than any other secular institution in the history of Wales.


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