The Govan Weavers Society
The Govan Weavers' Society was established in 1756 in what was then known as Meiklegovan, a small village on the banks of the River Clyde that was dominated by their trade. GUAS now hold a number of minute books, cashbooks and rulebooks (DC 52) that tell the story from their earliest days. On the first page of the first minute book is written their aim in forming this society:
"Att Meiklegovan the thirty day of August, seventeen hundred and fiftie six years, att which time and place, the majority of weavers there being mett together, and Considering the Many Straitneing Circumstances some people in this trade, and other trade and Denominations are often Reduced to in divine Providence: And thinking it their duty to exert themselves as far as possible towards the support of the Poor in this place, Are Determined to enter into a friendly Society or Association, And to elect an Oversman, Colector and eight Masters to Represent the Said Society [...]."
Despite the name of the society, its form was very unlike that of the trade incorporations: it was for the assistance of those generally in need in the area and was, despite the name, not only open to weavers. Its inception came at a pivotal time in the history of trade-related organizations and its form and development illustrate perfectly its time.
The trade incorporations had had a monopoly on a particular craft within their burgh from the medieval period, with membership limited to a certain number of craftsmen in their particular field and organised around a hierarchy of major masters and merchants with smaller masters and journeymen wielding less power in the group and with apprentices at the bottom. Their main aim had been to protect the interests of members and effectively control prices by preventing non-members selling or trading their wares at price lower than that agreed between guild members in that place.
However, from their earliest days, the incorporations had also had a strong social function, with feasts being held and areas of certain churches being reserved for members' collective use. Even as their power decreased through the eighteenth century, this remained a strong element of their attraction, and their celebratory aspect would be carried on in other types of groups: the Govan weavers were themselves quick to take up the habit of parading through the village and feasting together, a practice that laid the foundations of the Govan Fair.
The trade incorporations also had a certain benevolent aspect to their activities, with funds being given to support members' widows and orphans on a regular basis, and money being given to craftsmen who were no longer able to work. Again, however, this was solely limited to helping their own craftsmen members and their dependants.
'Box' societies or fraternities
The obvious inequalities and exclusions created by guild rules led to other groups of low ranking or outside workers growing up from the 16th century onwards. They came to form what was known as 'box' societies or fraternities. They too were often (though not necessarily or exclusively) organised along trade lines, with sets of rules and in regional groupings, but without having any power to enforce a monopoly of trade in their area. Their main practical aim was the provision of assistance to subscribers, much in the way that 'friendly societies' would do in the nineteenth century.
This change of focus away from trade regulation (enforced by circumstance rather than members' opposition to the guild structure) was an important step, but fell short of later ideological developments amongst workers' groups. The change that eventually most influenced the Govan weavers when they set up their organisation was less to do with class-consciousness than the ideals of the Enlightenment period.
Societies and enlightenment ideals
By the middle of the eighteenth century when the Govan Weavers' Society was established, master weavers were regarded as men of some social standing in a village and were often small landowners in this pre-industrial period. This made them part of a society that was being influenced by new contemporary ideas of the social contract and related theories on the natural benevolence of mankind. What Adam Smith in his 'Theory of The Moral Sentiments' and Rousseau in his 'Social Contract' were propounding philosophically, ordinary individuals were also practicing.
This meant that the eighteenth century was the time of the explosion in numbers of clubs and societies which were formed to promote the benefits of social interaction as much as to discuss ideas. It also meant there was increasing emphasis on ideas about social responsibility and that meant that such clubs often brought together individuals who considered it their duty to assist their fellow men and women. Parish charity and poor houses were now seen as no longer adequate, either logistically or morally, by members. In following this pattern, the Govan Weavers' Association was a creature of its time: the promotion of benevolence as practical humanitarianism. The 'box' or money collection of the fraternities lived on, but the aims and attitudes were very different.
Society structures and revolutionary 'dangers'
There was also a relatively new aspect to the structure of the group, as laid out in the contract drawn up by the society. It was to be overseen by an Oversman (also known as a Preses or, later, a deacon) to be elected annually on the first Friday in June 'by the voice of the whole society', with eight masters chosen at the same time, four by the Oversman and four by the members and 'who with the Oversman are to Represent the whole of the Community'. There was also a 'Collector' chosen by all members who had responsibility for the gathering and safety of the society's funds and an officer and clerk, also chosen by members.
Those same members were to pay quarterly three shillings cots money, adding one shilling for each apprentice that they employed, with an additional sixpence to be paid into the 'common box' each time the said member swore in the present of the Preses or Masters. Compared to the trade incorporations, this was a relatively democratic organisation. However, as the decades unfolded, this was to prove a potential danger to the organisation. By the end of the 18th century, societies came under close scrutiny from the government in the wake of the French Revolution. The reasons for this were twofold: the increasing number of trade societies and clubs that were beginning to militate for wage increases and the spread of revolutionary political thought through assemblies.
In 1793, the Friendly Societies Act was made law with the aim of licensing friendly societies or 'societies of good fellowship' and outlawing trades unions, part of a series of anti-combination acts that would increase by the end of the century. The textile industry in particular was identified as a particularly radical field. However, the Govan Weavers' Society seems to have been untouched by these developments and its aims remained the same: to provide for the poor of Govan and Partick. It does not appear to ever have taken on the more radical face of the period.
The Govan Weavers' Society was a product of its times. It represented the thinking of the age and its rise reflected the failing power of the trades incorporations. However, it also came into being at the start of the Industrial Revolution; unbeknownst to the founders, handloom weavers were about to become all but obsolete. Its survival into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has as much to do with the fact that it was free from the membership limitations placed on the trades associations.
In this period, and after an internal bid to turn it into a friendly society, it slowly came to have a more obviously social as well as a benevolent role, being instrumental in the revival of the Govan Fair Procession in the 1920s. It avoided the problems encountered by many groups by resolutely refusing to become a politicized representative organisation. It could not be otherwise, as it became a weavers' society without weavers. However, the humanitarian legacy of the Enlightenment of its work was to last far beyond the eighteenth century.
Graham Hill, Secretary
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