1900 and before

Overview

The formation of the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union (AMU), the forerunner of the Musicians’ Union, in 1893 has to be viewed in the context of both the organisation of workers and musicians.

The late 1880s had seen the revival of trade unionism in the UK, with the type of “new unionism” described by Clegg et al as “one of the most colourful and baffling phenomena in British trade union history.” Clegg attributes the growth of trade unionism at the time as being in part due to the upturn in trade since 1887 and the growing support for the Socialist movement. He characterises some of the main characteristics of these unions as being their members being unskilled and low-paid workers; their political militancy and their willingness to use force against non-members and perceived “blacklegs.”

While the AMU emerged at a time of increasing unionisation, musicians hardly seemed like typical workers, as compared to, for example the dockers, sailors and firemen who had combined in The Great Dock Strike of 1889. Part of the Union’s initial challenge was to overcome what David-Gillou describes as the desire of musicians to “do all they can to distinguish themselves from mainstream workers.” Similarly, she notes that the default position of the Orchestral Association was “the notion that musicians “could only improve their situation by keeping a low profile.”

Issues

The Union was primarily driven by the desire to improve not only pay, but equally importantly, working conditions for musicians – particularly those working in the theatre orchestras. The founder of the Union, Joseph B Williams, called a meeting of musicians on 7th May 1893, to which around twenty musicians showed up. Williams described the Union as “a protection Union. One that will protect us from unscrupulous employers and protect us from ourselves.”

At its outset, one of the major debates was about who was eligible to be a member of the Union. Other societies for musicians (for example, the Royal Society of Musicians (RSM) and the (London) Orchestral Association (OA) had strict criteria for who could join. The original rules of the AMU stated only that musicians needed to proposed by 2 existing members of the Union and pay the entrance fee and subscription.

Unlike other professional bodies for musicians, rule 4 stated that “amateurs will be admitted to the society on payment of the entrance fee and the half-yearly subscription. There were, however, limits on the musical activities of the amateur members. Rule 5 stated that “No member must send to any engagement a non-member. No member must send an amateur member as a deputy if a professional is disengaged. No amateur will be able to take a regular engagement.”

This meant that from the beginning, the Union was an “open” society, though this was an issue that was to reappear throughout its history, particularly in times of high unemployment among its professional cadre.

The Union in Numbers

The Union’s membership grew to 1029 members at the end of its first year; at the end of 1900 it had 3286 members. There was a high turnover in membership, with many being expelled for non-payment of subscriptions or breaking Union rules, while new branches brought in members from other cities and towns.

The initial monthly subscription to the Union was 1 shilling per month. This had risen to 1s 3d in 1898.

People and Places

Joseph Bevir Williams, the founder and first General Secretary of the Union, was initially derided by opponents because of his youth (he was 21 at the time) and his relatively lowly orchestral position, but was to become the dominant figure throughout the first three decades of the Union.

The Union’s first office was at 61, Bold Street, Moss Side, Manchester (1893-1895) before they moved to 1, Stockton Street in Moss Side (1895-1901).

After the amalgamation of the Manchester and Birmingham unions, the first branch of the AMU outside of these cities was in Dundee (formed on 8th June 1893), with others following in Glasgow (2nd October), Liverpool (10th October) and Newcastle (1st December). The Union’s initial strength was in the North of England and Scotland.

Key Dates

1874

Formation of the Manchester Musical Artistes’ Protection Association (MMAPA) . By the time JB Williams formed the AMU in 1893 it was reported by Teale that “Williams came much in contact with the pioneers of this old society,” suggesting that it was an influence on the formation of the AMU. The MAPA was the first attempt by musicians in orchestras to organise along trade union lines and succeeded (to a point) in creating a closed shop among orchestras, predominantly in Manchester and the North-West. Significantly, it allowed amateur musicians to join: something that other organisations for musicians didn’t – concentrating on working musicians.

1875

Birmingham Orchestral Association – another short-lived organisation was formed to represent interests of orchestral musicians. Birmingham, Manchester and London were the cities most involved with the early attempts of working musicians in the UK to organise.
Orchestras in Blackpool and Southport also joined MAPA.

1876

With fewer members attending meetings, MMAPA was dissolved in May,

1882

Professional Society of Musicians formed in Manchester

1892

Professional Society of Musicians renamed the Incorporated Society of Musicians, for “composing, teaching and performing” musicians. The Society grew in size and set up its own examination system, but its rules excluded the vast majority of working musicians. The Society is still active today, now describing itself as “a professional body that will actively campaign and lobby on behalf of the music industry and can offer advice, resources, information, invaluable contacts and discounts. We offer a full range of benefits to all organisations with a working interest in music.”

1893

formation of the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union (AMU) on 7th May in Manchester by Williams, who was a twenty year old clarinettist at the Comedy Theatre, Manchester, supported by “his mother and a few enthusiastic musicians.” Shortly afterwards the Manchester unionists amalgamated with a group of Birmingham musicians who had, earlier in the year, also organised to achieve better working conditions.

The AMU was the first organisation for musicians to specifically label itself as a trade union.

The first branch outside Manchester and Birmingham opens in Dundee, closely followed by others in Glasgow, Liverpool and Newcastle.

The Orchestral Association – which was based in London – and which was at pains to present itself as a professional organisation and not a trade union – was formed around the same time as the AMU, catering for those musicians working in the profession in London. Its presence meant that the AMU was slow to make any inroads in London.

Nevertheless, the AMU showed its ambition in this area by making friendly gestures to the OA, including an attempt at affiliation/ a working agreement in 1895, but these were usually rebuffed. Many differences existed between the two organisations, notably in their relative militancy, the backgrounds of their members and contested issue of whether to admit amateurs.

1894

The AMU continued to grow with 17 new branches, primarily in the north of England.

First AMU directory of members was published. Directories and the Monthly Report – which was first published the following year – were essential to the Union’s ability to organise and communicate with its members: printing was a huge proportion of its initial expenditure. The Union’s first rule book was also published.
The first Congress of the AMU branches took place in December, by which time the Union had over 2000 members and a cash balance of over £1000.

1895

The first major conflict within the Union came in the form of a dispute between the Manchester branch and the Executive Committee of the Union. At this point, all of the Executive Committee were also based in Manchester, although Teale noted that “a great deal of controversy had taken place from time to time regarding the position of the General Office, and the area from where the EC should be drawn.” Significantly, the Manchester branch was comprised mainly musicians from prestigious local orchestras, while the EC was made up of what Teale describes as “mainly Music Hall and Theatre musicians, plus what was considered a boy General Secretary.”

A Delegate Conference in Leeds (May) resulted in a vote of confidence in Williams and penalties for the Manchester branch.

The AMU reached out to the wider labour movement and was, from its inception, affiliated with local Trades Councils and was represented at the 1895 Trades Union Congress (TUC) in Cardiff. The Union also paid a subscription fee to the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC.

The Union made its first representations to the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC over the competition from Army Bandsmen – something which, along with Police bands, were to be a bugbear for most of its existence.

Benevolence and members’ welfare were to be another focal point of the Union’s work. Proceeds from sales of a Directory of members and occasional benefit concerts went towards the Union’s Benevolent Fund.

The Union began to offer funeral grants to families of deceased members: the first documented going to the widow of T.Kingston from Cheltenham. For example, the Union provided support for the musicians in Glasgow who were unemployed as a result of a fire at the Theatre Royal in 1895.

Similarly, a major dispute at the Grand Theatre in Leeds saw striking members being supported by strike pay from the Union’s General Fund. As the strike dragged on and became a drain on the Union’s resources, it was voted that a levy of 1/- per member per month be raised pay strike pay. 24 musicians were placed on the Union’s blacklist for strike breaking. The dispute was eventually resolved after 15 weeks of strike action.

Williams’ salary was set at £100 per annum.

1896

The Executive Committee (EC) of the Union was expanded to include representatives from outside Manchester.

Williams visited London with a view to opening a branch, but response is limited by mistrust among musicians of the term “union” and the existence of the Orchestral Association.

Williams proposed the advent of unemployment and instrument insurance through the Union though branches are generally opposed on the grounds of extra cost to members.

Williams attended TUC Congress in Edinburgh and proposes two resolutions – one opposing “army, navy and police bandsmen,” the other opposing the Street Noises Act, asking that it should have an exemption for “properly qualified bands (composed of Englishmen) to perform in streets or other places, with permission to collect.”

Strike action by AMU members at the West Pier in Brighton created conflict with the OA when it was reported that some of their members were taking the place of AMU members in the orchestra.

ES Teale was appointed Assistant General Secretary of the Union as a result of the pressure of work on Williams. Salary of 25/- per week for working a seven-hour day.

The Union’s publication of a black list was subject to a legal challenge, resulting in a compromise that names could only remain on it for 12 months.

Unemployment and Instrument Insurance funds were set up – though the former had to be dropped due to lack of funds.

1897

A dispute with Orchestral Association over a handbill published by the AMU during a dispute at the Theatre Royal, Ashton-under-Lyme, ends in court. The AMU was fined £70 for libelling the theatre owner, Mr. Revill. Orchestral Association claims this “may have done the Union a favour,” arguing that it may bring them “one step nearer the end of the regrettable squandering of hard-earned money” by the Union. In response, Williams refers to the Association as the “Association for the the Supply of Blacklegs,” highlighting the tension in the relationship between the two organisations.

The Union also complained to the Secretary of State for the Colonies over the importing of foreign musicians – the Blue Hungarian Band – to play at the Jubilee Celebrations of Queen Victoria.

The first AMU badges were issued to members.

1898

In response to competition from military bands, AMU members began to form their own “Professional” military bands, dressing in uniforms for performances. After the success of the Liverpool Professional Military Band, a similar one was formed in Bristol.