History of ASLEF
The railway boom produced by the industrial revolution brought both benefits and hardships for the workers employed on the railways. Of all the grades in the railway workforce, the engine driver enjoyed the highest pay and status of all but the chief engineer and stationmaster. On the other hand, no other industry brought together such a potentially lethal combination of heavy machinery, fire, steam, accelerating speeds and exhaustible labour. The result was an industry in which death and injury rates exceeded those of every other with the occasional exception of coal mining.
When the Great Western Railway restructured pay scales in October 1879, its longest serving drivers and firemen found their wages cut and their working hours extended. The enginemen got no support from the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) who, at that time, believed that disputes should be settled through arbitration, and never through costly, irresponsible and disloyal strike action. So the enginemen took their case direct to Sir Daniel Gooch, the GWR Chairman. Examining their petition, he is said to have exclaimed: “Damn the signatures! Have you got the men to back them up?”
Enginemen Charles Perry, Evan Evans, Tom Harding, Tom Roderick and others spent the next two months contacting their colleagues in Sheffield , Bristol, Pontypool, Newport and Birmingham. On February 7, 1880, William Ullyott of Leeds and 55 colleagues formed the first registered lodge of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen in Sheffield. The founding delegate conference of the new Society was held in the Falstaff Hotel, Market Place, Manchester on January 3, 1881.
ASLEF was founded in the middle of an economic crisis and a wage-cutting offensive by the railway companies. “The Great Depression” lasted from the mid-1870s until nearly the end of the century. It was, like most of the unions which had survived up to that point, a “craft” union.
Within a year, ASLEF had established a central executive –based for convenience on the Leeds branch – and had registered under the Trade Union Acts, its head office being the Commercial Inn, Sweet Street, Holbeck, Leeds. Its first general secretary –on a salary of £2 a week, was Joseph Brooke, while George Rushworth received 30 shillings for his assistance. By 1884, membership had exceeded 1,000.
In the course of the next two decades, the union’s membership grew from the hundreds into the thousands. ASLEF held its first strike on the Midland railways in 1887.
By 1904, when the union had 12,000 members and £123,000 in the bank, train drivers and firemen had mostly achieved a ten-hour day everywhere except Scotland and Ireland, where shifts of 12 hours remained common. The special dangers and responsibilities borne by those at the front of the train have produced craft union with a militant history, from the great national railway strike of 1911 to the flexible rostering dispute of 1982.
In 1911, at the peak of a year of industrial unrest also involving seamen and dockers, railway workers walked out in pursuit of better pay. In one incident in Lllanelli in South Wales, troops, called in to restore order, shot dead two men after pickets halted trains entering and leaving the town.
Proudly independent and self-sufficient, ASLEF has also displayed exceptional solidarity with other workers, from its 1919 strike to help the NUR win standardised pay and conditions to the 1984-85 miners ‘ strike when ASLEF members refused to transport “scab” labour.
* ASLEF triptych - unveiled in May 2003 by John Monks. Artist Mike Jones.
Modern Records Office at Warwick University
The Modern Records Office at Warwick University holds a vast range of important trades union archives for the study of social, economic and political history, mainly from the mid-19th century onwards.
The ASLEF collection has recently been catalogued and includes items such as
- Annual reports from 1881-1990
- the papers of Percy Collick, Assistant General Secretary
- papers relating to the Clapham Junction crash enquiry of 1989
- minute books, accounts and other papers from over 97 branches over the years 1884-1993.
For a full list of the records available, click Warwick University records
There have been three histories of the union written:
Engines and Men (1921) by J. R. Raynes (available here)
The Lighted Flame (1950) by Norman McKillop
Driven by ideals (2005) by Robert Griffiths
A list of when branches first opened can be found here: Branch history