Unlawful Oaths - Document from the Enoch Wood Scrapbook

Move your pointing device over the image to zoom to detail. If using a mouse click on the image to toggle zoom.
When in zoom mode use + or - keys to adjust level of image zoom.

Date:1st of June 1831

Description:Twenty Pounds Reward

Notice from the North Staffordshire Coal Masters offering twenty pounds reward for information leading to the prosecution of anyone breaking the law under the Unlawful Oaths Act.

Abstracts from the act are quoted on the notice.

A law devised to deter naval mutiny

The Unlawful Oaths Act of 1797 was initially enacted during the early period of the Napoleonic Wars to curb mutinous behaviour in the navy.

This act was not repealed when the war was over.

Used against organised labour

Agitation began to set in during the early 1800s as workers started to realise the potential benefits of uniting to improve their working conditions and pay.

They began to organise themselves into 'combinations' or 'associations' for the purpose of collective bargaining.

Workers made demands for better conditions and increasingly withdrew their labour in an attempt to achieve this.

The masters had the upper hand

The unions were barely recognised by the mine owners or the government.

In most disputes industrial action was futile. It disrupted operations in the short term but workers generally could not sustain the action. They were already close to, or below, the subsistence level when they were in work!

They also feared the prospect of being barred from employment permanently.

Some industrialists, in a bid to suppress organised labour, would dismiss anyone invloved with a union and would only employ those who would sign a declaration that they were not, or would not become, a member of such a union.

Some groups of workers resorted to organising in secret. Of course, a great deal of trust was required on the part of the members. They would often have to take part in a ceremony and take an oath in which they would be sworn to secrecy.

In 1834 the government attempted to crush the early unions, the most famous case being that of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs

The act printed on this document was dubiously cited in the famous case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, six agricultural workers who were found guilty of 'administering illegal oaths' and transported to Australia and Tasmania.

Public outcry lead to the men being pardoned and discharged.

It could have been the Stoke, Burslem, or Hanley Martyrs!

This document shows that industrialists and government had been using this act as a threat to organised labour for at least three years before the Tolpuddle case.

It could quite easily have been a group of Staffordshire miners, or local potters, who were transported to the penal colonies in a bid to make an example.

About this Document

This document was printed by W.H. Hyde, High Street, Newcastle, Staffordshire. It was collected by local industrialist Enoch Wood and is now part of the collections at Stoke-on-Trent Museums.


Link to this resource

Donor ref:(136/17050)

Copyright information: Copyrights to all resources are retained by the individual rights holders. They have kindly made their collections available for non-commercial private study & educational use. Re-distribution of resources in any form is only permitted subject to strict adherence to the usage guidelines.