The London Millwrights and Engineers 1775-1825
This study explores the history of a group of London handicraftsmen, the multi-skilled millwrights, who were power-transmission mechanics and rudimentary engineers, from 1775-1825. It reveals an organised group of old-style journeymen, who had developed a powerful grip on all aspects of the trade itself, not just their terms and conditions (which were in the top bracket of London artisans of the time). This amounted to a power-sharing partnership with their masters who accepted this arrangement for decades of the late eighteenth century because of the millwrights’ unique skills, quality work and organised power as a trade club. The millwrights as individual handicraftsmen varied from ‘rough and ready ‘rule of thumb’ mechanics to ingenious mechanical and civil engineers. Many of these latter could design and erect complex buildings and infrastructure for water, wind or horse-driven mills and install the transmission millwork/gear wheels of the time. They were, in effect, a powerful guild to which many of the masters belonged.
With the growing demand for larger and more complex power sources of the early industrial revolution, this traditional trade came under tremendous pressure to overcome the restrictions imposed by the journeymen millwrights, especially from the businesses who employed the masters as contractors. The study examines the previously unappreciated role of the London brewers, distillers and other manufacturers in pressurising the master millwrights to resist the power of their combined journeymen. It was this pressure which induced the master millwrights to bring to Parliament a Combination Bill seeking to outlaw the London Society of Journeymen Millwrights’ trade club and replace them by wage regulation of the magistrates of the City and neighbouring Home Counties. This wider development is examined in detail.
Those City employers were also prominent in the more successful 1812-14 bid to remove the medieval apprenticeship laws which then underpinned all journeymen’s control of skilled labour supply. But it was the exigencies of the wars with the French from the 1800s which really drove the technological changes which undermined the millwrights’ exclusive control of mechanical work, especially using the new, better quality fabrication of iron and machinery. This development is examined at the Portsmouth naval dockyard in 1805 and the spread of new engineering works in the London area thereafter. A new breed of engineering employer now emerged who were successful in breaking the millwrights' grip on the trade with greater control in larger establishments. They made a practice of employing/training non- or short-apprenticed skilled fitters, turners and a variety of other specialised engineering workers to do aspects of the more expensive and less tractable high-skilled millwrights with what became known as an Engineers’ Economy.
This little-known episode of early British engineering history was illustrated throughout with contemporary prints and drawings and pen-pictures of the key figures who became involved - John Rennie, James Watt and Henry Maudslay, to name but a few. An update and rewrite has recently been produced entitled, The Old London Artisans: the Millwrights 1775-1825.
This thesis was accepted for the degree of Ph D by the University of London in May 1989. The examiners, Dr J.Rule, then Senior Lecturer in History at Southampton University and Dr A. Howe, Senior Lecturer in International History at the London School of Economics stated:
"This study represents an important contribution to our knowledge of early trade union history. It provides both a valuable case study of industrial relations in the London engineering trades and of the importance of the journeymen millwrights in relation to parliamentary legislation, notably the genesis of the Combination Act of 1799. It also indirectly brings out the neglected importance of London in the national economy during the Industrial Revolution. In all these respects, the thesis represents an important advance in knowledge.”