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More than 3.4 million trade union records have been uploaded to the web for the first time.
Digitised from material held at the University of Warwick’s Modern Records Centre, the collection, on findmypast.co.uk, contains membership files kept by several unions that were active across Britain from the mid-1800s, including the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers, the General Union of Carpenters & Joiners and the National Union of Railwaymen.
Accompanied by a scan of the original document, searching the dataset can reveal the date on which a member joined, their address, marital status and whether they moved between union branches. In some cases – especially if the individual was a prominent member – the records may also offer an obituary, biographical sketch or photograph.
Furthermore, the fact that some organisations operated branches overseas means that researchers may also be able to track down kin who disappear from UK records. A membership list for the United Society of Boilermakers & Iron Shipbuilders, for example, shows 20 members working in the Spanish city off BilbBilbao dduringi theh 18901890s. WiWithh theh bulk of records dating from the late-19th century, the collection represents a period in which trade unions first began to attract wider membership, having previously been the preserve of highly skilled workers in the engineering, print and construction industries. According to labour movement expert Mark Crail, overall figures rose slowly from the end of the Victorian period, reaching a peak around 1920 with 40 per cent of workers belonging to a union.
However, Mr Crail – who runs the website www.unionancestors.co.uk – said that although he was excited about the online collection, he feels it “barely scratches the surface”.
“Despite the enormous amount of paperwork that has survived the years, far more of it has been destroyed,” he told Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine. “But if you are lucky enough to find an ancestor, the records should prove truly fascinating.
“The types of record will differ from union to union and from era to era, but may help you see not just the date and location at which someone joined, but any payments they received from the union during periods of unemployment or after an accident.
“I very much hope that this is the start of a process of making trade union records more accessible. There is so much in them that can help us to develop a real understanding of our ancestors’ lives.”
When approached by Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine, a spokesperson from the Modern Records Centre said that, while the release was the result of a pilot project, the organisation “would be very happy to work with Findmypast to digitise further material.”
If you are lucky enough to find an ancestor, the records should prove truly fascinating
The set mainly comprises union membership registers
Theh releasel i includesld records created by the National Union of Railwaymen, whose Bermondsey branch is pictured here in 1900