Statute of Labourers

In earlier times, much labour was forced labour, dependent on the powers of Lords or other persons with influence in the community. The first Statute of Labourers was passed on the 23rd year of the reign of Edward III.  This was done in consequence of the Black Death which reduced the number of labourers to such an extent that they sought increased wages.

The Act gave statutory force to the forcing of labour.  It declared that every man and woman of England, free or bond, able in body within three score years, not exercising craft nor having his own ground to live nor land to till nor serving any other, should be bound to serve such person as should require him at the wages he or she was  customarily  to be given. He may be committed to prison for noncompliance.  Penalties were imposed on any master paying or workmen receiving more than the wages previously given.


In the 16th century, the sanctions on masters for not paying statutory rate, were lifted so the master could choose to pay a higher rate.  The Statute of Labourers sometimes referred to as the Statute of Apprentices arose from the suppression of monasteries which led to a large number of unemployed persons wandering the country.

Many of the former Acts regulating labour and wages were repealed.   It provided for fixing of new rates that varied annually by justice of peace and sessions.  It fixed the hours of work for workmen in husbandry and declared that workmen must work for whoever required them.  Penalties applied against any labour who should quit his town or county without a permit.  The law fell into disuse in the early 18th century and was eventually repealed in 1814.


The Statute of Apprentices forbade workmen exercising a craft or industry until the worker had been apprenticed for seven years.  It provided that master should employ a fixed number of apprentices proportionate to the number of journeymen they employed.  The Act was disregarded by many masters by the end of the 18th century.

The  Statute of Apprentices was repealed in 1814.

Combinations  Unlawful

Numerous Acts in the 14th century onwards were directed against combinations of different trades for the purpose of increasing wages or reducing hours of work.  The Combinations Act  1800 was aimed at preventing conspiracies amongst  journeymen to raise their own wages.  All benefit clubs and societies were prohibited.

In the 18th century, the fixing of wages by justices had fallen into disuse and employers were at the mercy of masters.  Notwithstanding the suppression of trade unions, workmen in most of the chief industries had established protection associations which later became known as trade unions.  The early association sought to maintain the statutory rate of wages against incursions by employers.

The Combination Acts were repealed in 1824.  The statute repealed 35 Acts prohibiting combinations amongst workmen to raise their wages or alter their conditions of work.  The Act declared, in effect that it was lawful for masters and workmen to associate with the objects of furthering their interests in the trade.

However, the following disastrous economic circumstances, the Act was repealed the following year and trade associations were again subject to common law and thereby potentially void and subject to prosecution for conspiracy.  An exception was made for meetings to discuss rates of wages or hours. In 1857, an Act was passed restricting the effect of the legislation.

Trade Unions Lawful

Trade unions were prohibited and illegal at common law between 1825 and 1871.  Their members were liable to prosecution for and in connection for conspiracy.  They did not recover their own assets and they had no legal rights to obtain money from their own banker. A Royal Commission appointed in 1867 led to the passing of the Trade Union Act 1871 and later amended by Acts in 1876 and 1893.

The Trade Union Act declared that trade union should not be unlawful so as to render any member liable  on prosecution for conspiracy on the ground merely that the objects of the union are in restraint of trade.  Contracts between members and ones between unions and another are for a special disposition of their funds were not to be enforceable.

Trade unions could be lawfully registered provided all of their objects were lawful, properly used and be vested in trustees.  It could sue and be sued in its own name. Contemporaneous with the Trade Union Act 1871, the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1871 declared that certain specified acts committed in furtherance of the objects of trade unions to be unlawful and criminal.

At the turn of the century, the House of Lords decision on Allen v Flood further protected employees from civil liability in respect of combinations even where their motive was malicious.

The Trade Disputes Act 1906 provided the modern law in relation to strikes.

Disputes & Enforcement

By Act of the 20th year of George II, justices of peace were to decide all disputes between masters and workmen arising out of their contract of service.  A breach on the master’s part was punishable by damages. A breach on the workmen’s part was a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment and flogging.

By Act of 1823 justices were given power to deal with and to punish by imprisonment breach of contract on the part of workmen in refusing to enter or quitting the master’s service.  Until 1848, complaints by masters were brought against workers on summons or they were made to appear on warrant.

The effect of common law and statute was that an individual breach of contract by a workman was punishable by statute or constituted conspiracy. In 1867, an Act abolished imprisonment for breach of contract except in the case of aggravated breach of contract.


Following a Royal Commission in 1874, the Employer and Workmen’s Act 1875 and the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875 radically updated and modernized the role of master and servant.  It limited the application of criminal law to the relationship.

The first Act gave jurisdiction to the County Courts and Courts of Summary Jurisdiction in disputes between employers and workmen.  However, they were to be civil and not criminal in nature.  The second Act provided that agreements or combinations to do any act in furtherance of a dispute is not to render the person committing it indictable for conspiracy if such act would have committed by one person would not be an offence.

There were exceptions for breaches of contract having the effect depriving the public of gas and water or breaches of contract where the workmen had reasonable cause to believe would  endanger life, cause serious bodily injury or endanger valuable property. A number of offences in relation to violence, intimidation, besetting was set out and defined.

Truck Act

At the commencement of the 19th century, the truck system which signified exchange or barter widely applied instead of payment in cash.  The master might be in goods or commodities on which he himself secured a profit. The Truck Act 1831, 1887 and 1896 sought to end the system of payment in barter.

The 1831 Act required payment of wages in cash.  It updated a sequence of earlier legislation which was easily circumvented.  The act applied to all workmen engaged in manual labour.

Factory Acts

The Factory Acts began in the year 1802. It reflected the mechanization of industry and the setting up of large factories through the United Kingdom.  Large number of women and children were employed in insanitary and ill ventilated buildings under crowded conditions for long hours.

The first Factory Act 1802 applied only to woollen mills and factories where apprentices or 20 workmen were employed.   It provided for cleansing and ventilation by means of windows, supply of clothing to apprentices and instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic.

Several further Factory Acts were passed.  The 1833 Act passed by the first post Reform Act parliament applied to all factories.  It forbade employment of children under nine and limited the hours of work to nine hours a day for children between 9 and 13 years.  It prohibited night work for young person’s i.e. under 18.

Progressively further reforms were enacted.  An 1844 Act provided for an effective  system of inspection by government inspectors and certifying surgeons.  The first regulations were made regarding the fencing of machinery.  Inspectors were allowed to bring actions for damages on behalf of workmen injured.  Statutes in 1850 and 1853 provided a uniform working day.  Between 1861 and 1867 seven more statutes brought many more industries within the scope of the legislation.

The Workshop Regulation Act 1867 applied much of the legislation on factories to workshops.  A workshop was any room or place whether in the open-air or not in which young persons, children or women were employed in any handicraft.

A Royal Commission considered the statutes in 1875 and a consolidating Act was passed in 1878, the Factory and Workshops Act.  The Acts were further amended on regular intervals through the 19th century, so that all places used for trade or business in which any articles were manufactured or altered and where machinery by mechanical powers was used were deemed factories.  Much of legislation also apply to  docks, warehouses, wharves and quays.

By the end of the 19th century, the Acts made detailed regulations in relatMonion to sanitary conditions, temperature, ventilation, fire, overcrowding, fencing, dangerous materials, the employment of young persons, hours of labour and night work. The minimum age at which employment might  commence was 11 years.  However, the education legislation effectively raised this age to 12.

Sectoral Protection

In England and Wales, a range of legislation dealt with work in mines.  An Act of 1842 prohibited the employment of females in mines underground and boys under 10 years of age.  An Act of 1850 instituted a system of inspection of mines.  1855 legislation laid down general rules for the safe working of mines.  In 1872, the existing Acts were consolidated.  The definition of mines was widened.  The Acts were again consolidated in 1887.  They provided stringent regulation of conditions of employment. Detailed rules were provided in relation to health and safety, notification of accidents and inspections.

Other remedial legislation included:

  • The Chimney Sweepers Act protecting the conditions of employment
  • The Merchant Shipping Act, codifying the conditions of work of seamen.
  • Notification of Accidents Act requiring notice to be given to the Board of Trade of accidents in building and engineering.
  • The Wages Attachment Abolition Act forbidding attachment of wages of workmen,
  • the Explosive Acts and Quarries Acts regulating safety of workmen in industries using explosives,
  • Shop Hours Act 1892 to 1895 regulating the hours of work in shops and requiring shops to provide minimum facilities to their employees.

Liability for accidents

In principle an employee could sue an employer for accidents at work arising from negligence.  However, a number of common law principles made this a very difficult proposition in many cases.  In principle, the employer would be liable for the negligence of his employees including fellow employed.

However, in the notorious case of Priestley v Fowler an attempt to make an employer liable was non-suited on the basis of the doctrine of common employment.  Where the person suffering the injury and the person causing it are both in the same employment, the employer was not responsible for the consequence of the injury.

The Employers Liability Act of 1880 imposed liability on employers for defects in the conditions of work, machinery and plant if it was attributable to his negligence or the negligence of persons to whom he has delegated his duty.  He was also made liable for the negligence of his superintendents and those to whom he has entrusted the duty of giving the workmen orders or directions.  The Act did not abolish the adoption of common employment but did make some inroads in certain contexts on it.

Another principle,  that of consent limited common lawsuits against employers for negligence by the deemed consent of employees. The doctrine of consent was restricted by a House of Lords case Smith v Baker in 1891.

Workmans Compensation

In 1897, the Worker’s Compensation Act created new basis of compensation for workplace accidents.  The legislation applied to railways, factories, mines and engineering work in buildings of certain sizes and dimension.  It was not necessary to prove that the injuries were attributable to any negligence.  In the case of  death, compensation was recoverable by relatives under the Fatal Accidents Act 1845.  The accident must arise out of or in the course of employment and not be attributable to serious and wilful misconduct by the injured workmen.

The compensation was roughly three years wages in the case of death (for dependents) and half wages in the case of total incapacity.  Compensation was based on workmen’s average weekly earnings. These Acts work under a system of arbitration generally in the county courts.  The Acts were extended in 1900 to workmen employed in agriculture.


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