The Steam Engine Makers' Society:
An Introduction

The records of the Steam Engine Maker's Society are a unique source, providing detailed information about many aspects of individual lives from 1835 to the First World War; details concerning unemployment, sickness, aging and migration which are available from no other source. However, they concern not some 'random sample' from the country's population but the membership of a particular trade union. If we wish to use the SEM data to draw conclusions which relate to some wider group, we must understand the particular place of SEM members within the union movement, the engineering industry, and the wider society they lived in. This document contains:

Outline History

The Steam Engine Makers' Society (SEM) was a union of engineers founded in Liverpool in 1824 which expanded to limited national coverage in the late 1830s. No conventional history of the SEM has been published and what we know of it comes from its own reports and incidental mentions in studies of other unions. It took part in the discussions which led to the creation of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) in 1851 but the majority of the membership rejected the advice of the Liverpool-based executive and chose to stay independent. Although it never achieved great size or prominence, it was always the ASE's greatest rival for its fundamental recruiting base, the skilled fitter and turner. It finally merged with the ASE in 1920 to form the Amalgamated Engineering Union, now the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union and still one of Britain's largest unions.

Table 1: Growth of the SEM

SEM Members
No. of branches
SEM Members
No. of branches
183544210 18804,134 85
184087620 18905,822 94
18502,06852 19008,566 107
18602,10759 191013,401 144
18702,78367 191929,199 225

Source: SEM Annual Reports

Characteristics of the membership

Writing in the 1890s, Galton, research assistant to Sidney and Beatrice Webb and himself a former skilled tailor, described it as always having 'looked more to its organisation as a benefit society than for disputes in the workshop', as a result of which it:

exercised great care in the admission of new members .... It appears always to have consisted of a select body of steady workers, whose interests lay more in securing regular employment for themselves than in raising the minimum rate of wages throughout the trade. (Webb T.U.Coll. E.A. XV f.178)

The best way to characterise the SEM's membership is in relation to the larger and better known Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE). They grew at a similar rate, the mean annual rate of increase of the SEM between 1851 and 1911 being 4.38% (see table 1) while that of the ASE was 4.42%; by contrast, engineering employment grew by 2.04% and the population as a whole by 0.84%. Given that most admissions were of men between twenty and twenty-five, this meant that the age structures of both unions were markedly younger than that of the working population as a whole.

Table 2: Regional distribution of SEM membership c.1890

SEM (end 1890)
ASE (Jan 1891)
Male Mech. Engineers
Total Empl. (1891)
South East20.4517.72 16.0927.36
East Anglia1.960.48 1.133.08
South West0.313.62 3.747.25
West Midlands7.225.58 8.158.08
East Midlands5.754.15 5.166.42
North West40.8528.09 19.9715.33
Yorkshire9.9313.48 13.949.05
North8.9713.58 12.196.09
Wales4.023.29 3.135.30
Scotland0.549.99 16.4912.05
(N)5,72160,487 262,64314,499,732

Sources: SEM Annual Report; 1890; ASE Monthly Report, Jan. 1891; C.H. Lee, British Regional Employment Statistics (Cambridge, 1979)

Table 2 shows the percentage of the SEM's membership in each region and compares it with the ASE, all male mechanical engineers (Industrial Order 7), and the total employed population. Clearly, the SEM was particularly concentrated into the north-west, and barely existed in Scotland and south west England, but otherwise the two unions had broadly similar distributions. Table 3 shows the craft composition of the unions, again very similar. In general, turners would be mainly employed in firms manufacturing machinery while fitters might also be employed in maintenance work by purchasers of steam engines and other machines. These occupations were an elite within the working classes, union standard rates for fitters and turners in 1872 varying from 23 shillings per week in Edinburgh and 24.25 shillings in Greenock through 28 shillings in provincial towns such as Wolverhampton, Reading and Newport to 32 shillings in major northern manufacturing centres such as Sheffield and Manchester and 36 shillings per week in London (Board of Trade, 1908). In the same period, farm labourers were struggling to raise their wages from 10-12 shillings per week, and of course there were no taxes to offset this disparity. Actual wages paid varied around the union standard rate, and if SEM members were the better workmen, and more regularly employed, their earnings would have been somewhat higher.

Table 3: Craft composition (%) of SEM and ASE membership

Fitters59 59
Turners30 26
Pattern Makers5 2
Millwrights1 1
Smiths5 7
Other- 4

Sources: SEM and ASE Annual Reports

Figure 1 presents crude unemployment rates in the SEM and ASE over a fifty year period; the SEM figures here are not adjusted for strikes, so that a lock-out in 1897-8 has a major impact. With this exception, the two unions had very similar experience, dominated by regular cyclic recessions. The SEM seems to have had slightly lower unemployment rates in the trough of most recessions, the exception being 1879. This may indicate that the SEM recruited an elite of workers who employers tried hardest to retain during lay-offs. Regional variation in unemployment has not been analysed systematically for the SEM, but crude rates for individual towns seem to have been broadly similar to those for the ASE: in general, members in northern industrial towns were much more likely to have been affected by cyclical distress (Southall, 1986).

Figure 1: Unemployment in the SEM and ASE, 1865-1914

The industrial policy of the SEM seems to have always been to follow the lead of the ASE. The clearest evidence for this is a series of interviews given to the Webbs by trade union organisers in the 1890s; for example, the ASE organiser for Wales and the south-west said he 'had no objection to the SEM, although he regards it as merely a friendly society. But he says its members here always do what he tells them and act in every way under his orders, and so it does not matter much. The two societies work well together having joint committees in cases of dispute' (Webb T.U.Coll., BLPES, E.A.XV, f.205). Although the SEM always followed an agreed line, in joint votes on industrial issues it was generally more moderate; in five ballots between 1897 and 1908, the SEM membership were consistently more willing to accept employers' or arbitrators' proposals, often by a large margin (Weekes, 1970, pp.103, 106, 114, 224, 254).

Summing-up, the SEM's membership superficially closely resembled that of the ASE, but Galton's comments and other non-quantitative evidence suggests the union consisted of a still more selective group among skilled engineers, themselves an elite within the Victorian working class. However, the SEM Database was built not because of the union's significance for labour relations but because of the benefits it offered its members.

Benefits Provided by the union

The various welfare benefits are discussed here in the order they developed:

Travelling Relief

The only benefit provided under the SEM's initial 1827 rules was travelling relief, whereby a member seeking work could claim from each branch visited 'his supper, one pint of beer, one night's lodging, his breakfast in the morning, and one penny for every mile he may have travelled since last relieved' (article 14). The tramping system this benefit formed part of declined in importance after 1850, and the union supplemented it by the payment of members' train fares when travelling to known vacancies. This aspect of the union's work will not be further discussed here (see Southall, 1991 a and b).

Sick Pay

The SEM, like most artisan unions and also like thousands of small local friendly societies across the country, provided members with an income when sick. The SEM's 1846 rules made the following specific provision for sick members:

That any free Member (namely, who has been in the Society one year) when visited by sickness or lameness, (not occasioned by drunkenness or fighting, or any disease improperly contracted, ...) shall give notice of his disposition in writing ... the Secretary ... shall give him a note ... entitling him to the sum of One shilling and Eightpence per day, for each working day, for the space of Six Months ...; no Member shall receive benefit for less than three days. .... Should a Member's indisposition [exceed] six months, he shall receive the sum of Five Shillings per week for Six Months longer; and should his indisposition continue longer than that period, and he be judged by a physician or surgeon to be incurable ... he shall receive the sum of Three Shillings and Sixpence per week, and be allowed to do what he can for further support. Should doubts arise in the minds of the Members of [his] branch, [they] shall appoint a Medical Adviser to investigate his case at the expense of the Society. (article 25)


The SEM also paid a lump sum benefit of ten pounds on the death of a member, and five pounds on the death of their wife; the same rates applied from 1846 through 1878. This was intended to pay for a funeral, a wake and other immediate expenses, not as long-term provision for dependents.

Fourthly, the 1846 rules provided:

That any person who has been a Member of this Society for the period of Twenty Years from the time he entered, and shall be rendered incapable of following his employment, through old age or any infirmity, shall receive a donation of Four Shillings per week for life, and be allowed to do what he can for further support. (article 34; emphasis added)

The 1865 rules labeled this provision 'superannuation' and varied the rate of benefit with the length of membership prior to it first being claimed (article 35, clause 12):

for a twenty years' membership, five shillings per week for life...
a twenty-five years' membership six shillings per week for life...
a thirty years' membership seven shillings per week for life...

The 1878 rules added further rates of eight, nine and ten shillings per week, corresponding to 35, 40 and 45 years of membership (SEM, Rules, article 31, clause 2). It will be clear that this provision differed significantly from a modern pension because it might be claimed by men in their forties but was conditional on the member's medical condition. Table 4 shows that numbers on superannuation were unsurprisingly low in the early years of the union but became significant in the 1890s.

Table 4: SEM Members receiving superannuation, 1860-1915:

Total Members
No. Superannuated
% on Super-annuation
186020505 0.2
1865252115 0.6
1870278321 0.8
1875387132 0.8
1880413459 1.4
1885506280 1.6
18905822102 1.8
18957085167 2.4
19008566203 2.4
190510645281 2.6
191013401410 3.1
191519664481 2.5

Source: SEM Annual Reports for 1888 (p.34), 1905 (p.xxxvi) and 1915 (p. lxxxvi).

The following figure shows the relationship between superannuation and other benefits over the life course. In particular, as members moved into their late 60s claims on sickness benefit declined as the less healthy members claimed superannuation.

Figure 2: Take-up of benefits from age 50 (data from 1852-72)

Unemployment Pay

Unemployment benefit on modern lines, meaning a weekly payment rather than the aid to job-search provided by travelling benefit, was introduced by the SEM's London branch in 1838 without consulting the rest of the union (SEM, Annual Report, 1837-8 , p.42). This was formalised the following year, London members paying increased contributions to cover the cost (ibid., 1838-9, p.47). The first outside London listing unemployment benefit payments was Manchester, in the 1844-5 Annual Report, and by 1848-9 it was being paid by the branches in London, Manchester, Woolwich, Greenwich, Romford, Stratford (East London), Southampton, Patricroft, and Bristol. The SEM introduced unemployment pay comprehensively following the 1848 recession, when it was seeking to re-establish itself following the defection of large numbers of members to the newly-formed ASE; the ASE took most of its leadership and methods of operation from the Journeymen Steam Engine Makers' Society (JSEM), which had always relied on unemployment pay rather than tramping.

Other Benefits

Other benefits were an accident grant of fifty pounds for any member 'rendered incapable of following his employment, either by loss of limb or eyesight' (Rules, 1846, article 38), a separate 'Contingent Fund' created in the 1870s to provide strike pay, and a discretionary Benevolent Fund which would seem to have been the only provision for widows and orphans. In return for these benefits, members paid two shillings and three pence per month subscription in 1846, raised to three shillings per month in 1851; this was significantly less than the ASE, which charged a shilling per week. There was also an admission charge dependent on age, varying from 10 shillings and six pence for men under 23 to five pounds for men aged 45; men aged over 45 could not join.

(c) Humphrey Southall, 1997

The Records of the SEM

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