6 best websites for tracing your trade union ancestors like Ricky Tomlinson

By Jon Bauckham, 24 December 2016 - 4:27pm

Inspired by Ricky Tomlinson's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? and want to trace your trade union ancestors? Thankfully there's plenty of handy material online, writes Jonathan Scott...

1. Trade Union Ancestors (link)

Trade Union Ancestors has recently been given a blog-style makeover. The homepage links to Striking Stories, Further Research, and Trade Union Family Trees.

These latter pages can be very useful as it’s estimated that around 5,000 trade unions have existed at one time or another. The trees show how unions formed and amalgamated over time – handy for finding out where the records of a particular union may reside.

There’s also a simple A-Z of unions (from Abbey National Group Union to the Zinc and Copper Roofers and Tin Sheet Metal Workers Society), union histories, plus links to archival collections.

Union Lives also has biographies of important figures in the trade union movement.

2. Working Class Movement Library (link)

The Working Lives section of the Salford-based library’s excellent website has trade union histories and records grouped by occupation.

Elsewhere on the website there are interesting objects of the month, plus articles relating to individual collections, such as the records of the Association of Women Clerks and Secretaries, which was acquired by the library in 1999.

The Family History page helpfully details what kind of records survive and what they can tell you: “If they were an active officer within a union… their details may appear in annual and quarterly reports or their contributions might be recorded in the minutes of meetings or other reports of events.”

3. The Union Makes Us Strong (link)

This dated but interesting site from London Metropolitan University tells the story of the TUC.

It’s aimed at social rather than family historians, with sections on the General Strike, Match Workers, and material exploring the impact of the 1914 novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists.

The website has three sister websites: Workers’ War, Winning Equal Pay and oral history platform Britain at Work (1945-95).

Researchers can also find out more about the TUC Library Collections, which are currently housed at London Metropolitan University.

4. Trade union membership registers (link)

This Findmypast collection provides online access to more than three million membership registers held in the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick (see no. 6, below). These include digitised images of record books from 26 unions, plus admission books, annual reports and membership lists.

The value of the records does vary, but quarterly membership returns, for example, record the amount each member contributed to the union and any out of work or sick benefits paid, while admissions books can tell you your ancestor’s number of years in a trade, marital status, and whether they transferred to a new branch.

5. Bishopsgate Institute Library (link)

Easter Rising Dublin

The Bishopsgate Institute in London holds records of various labour movements, including the General Federation of Trade Unions.

A digitisation project started in 2013 has resulted in the GFTU Digital Archives, illustrating “the essential part that the Federation has played in the labour movement since its inception in 1899”.

The various digital resources on offer include minutes, annual reports, proceedings, financial records and copies of the journal Federation News.

6. Expert's choice: Modern Records Centre (link)

Chosen by Mark Crail, unionancestors.co.uk webmaster and the author of Tracing Your Labour Movement Ancestors (Pen & Sword, 2009)

“Trade unions went on a long journey from illegality to respectability during the 19th century.

"By 1900, there were more than two million members in some 1,300 different unions in existence, and membership had expanded beyond the skilled crafts to cover new types of workers, including the emerging white-collar occupations, unskilled jobs and female workers.

"The Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick is by far the largest repository of trade union records in the UK – and what a wealth of information they have for those researching our ancestors’ lives!

"Records vary from union to union and from one year to the next, but among the treasures at Warwick you may be lucky enough to find membership registers, information on the benefits paid out during periods of sickness and unemployment, records of local branch meetings, social events, national conferences and even some surviving apprenticeship certificates.

"Relatively little of this vast archive has been digitised – although some records are now available through Findmypast – so the website mostly offers detailed descriptions of the types of information available rather than specifics about great uncle Ernie’s membership of the Amalgamated Widget Makers’ Union.

"But the centre does offer a family history research guide online and there’s sufficient detail available to help you decide whether a trip to Warwick is likely to prove fruitful.”


A version of this article appeared in the December 2016 issue of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine

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