Howell, George (DNB12)
HOWELL, GEORGE (1833–1910), labour leader and writer, born at Wrington, Somerset, on 5 Oct. 1833, was son of a mason, who fell into financial difficulties. Howell was sent to farm service when he was eight. Two years later he became a mortar boy, assisting masons. In 1847 he became a member of a Chartist society; he was then an eager reader of books which he borrowed from the village library. At the age of twenty he went to Bristol, where he worked as a bricklayer; he continued to spend his spare time in reading and was one of the first members of the Young Men's Christian Association. In 1854 he journeyed to London, where he came to know William Rogers (1819-96) q v.], who helped him with his studies. In London he increased his political activities, making the acquaintance of Mazzini, Kossuth, Ernest Jones, and other prominent democratic leaders, and he developed an interest in trade unionism. He was prominent in the historical nine hours' struggle (1859) in the building trade, and gradually took his place with men like William Newton and William Allan as a trade union leader. While still working at his trade he was threatened by an employer with imprisonment under the Master and Servants Act, and that threat he never forgot. In 1864 he ceased to work as a bricklayer.
Meanwhile trade unionism was entering politics, goaded by the civil disabilities under which labour combinations suffered (1860-75). Howell joined the body of unusually able men, including Alexander MacDonald, George Odger [q. v.], and Robert Applegarth, which, known as 'the Junta,' directed trade union affairs at the time. He became secretary to the London trades council (1861-2), and was secretary to the Reform League (1864r-7), in which capacity he was one of the marshals of the procession that broke down Hyde Park railings in 1866. He was secretary to the parliamentary committee of the Trade Union Congress (1871-5) and to the Plimsoll and Seamen's Fund committee (1873). A leading spirit in the Garibaldi and Polish agitations amongst the London workmen, he served as a member of the council of the International Working-men's Association (1865).
The best service which Howell did to the trade union movement was as a parliamentary lobbyist. He became known as 'the champion bill passer.' Year after year from 1870 he buttonholed, interviewed and pulled wires in parliamentary lobbies. He saw the old Master and Servants Act drastically amended in 1867 and repealed in 1889, and the Trade Union Acts of 1871 and 1876 were passed largely owing to his efforts. In his 'Labour Legislation, Labour Movements, and Labour Leaders' (1902) he gave a lively account of those years. His first attempt to enter parliament was in 1868, when he contested Aylesbury as a liberal trades-unionist and polled 942 votes, but was defeated. A similar result attended another contest in the same constituency in 1874, when he polled 1144 votes. In 1875 he addressed election meetings at Norwich but did not persist in his candidature. In 1881 he contested Stafford but was rejected with 1185 votes. He was successful, however, in 1885 at Bethnal Green. In 1886 he urged the issue of a cheap official edition of the statutes of the realm. His suggestion was adopted, and his part in initiating the useful enterprise was acknowledged in the preface of the first volume. He represented Bethnal Green until 1895, when he was defeated. He did not seek to enter parliament again. He remained a liberal, and opposed the movement among trade unionists (the controversy lasted from 1890 to 1900, when the labour party was formed) for the creation of a political party which would be independent of the existing parties.
In 1897 a public subscription was raised for him, and in 1906 he received a pension from the civil list of 50l. per annum. In 1906 his library, largely consisting of works on economic and social questions, was purchased for 1000l., also raised by public subscription, and was presented to the Bishopsgate Institute, London.
He died at 35 Findon Road, Shepherd's Bush, on 17 Sept. 1910, and was buried at Nunhead cemetery.
Howell's works, to whose value for students of trades union history Mr Sidney Webb bears witness, are:
- 'Handy Book of the Labour Laws,' 1876; 3rd edit. 1895.
- 'Conflicts of Capital and Labour Historically Considered,' 1878; 2nd revised edit. 1890.
- 'National Industrial Insurance and Employers' Liability,' 1880.
- 'Trade Unionism New and Old,' 1891.
- 'Trade Union Law and Cases' (with H. Goheo, K.C.), 1901.
- 'Labour Legislation, Labour Movements, and Labour Leaders,' 1902.
Howell also edited the 'Operative Brick-layers' Society's Trade Circular' (1861); wrote 'Life of Ernest Jones' for the 'Newcastle Chronicle,' Jan. to Oct. 1898 (not published separately); compiled quarterly abstracts of parliamentary bills, reports, and transactions (1886-7); prepared (with A. J. Mundella) the chapter on 'Industrial Associations' in vol. ii. of T. H. Ward's 'Reign of Queen Victoria' (1887), and that on 'Liberty for Labour' in Thomas Mackay's 'A Plea for Liberty' (1891); and contributed a preface to Lord Brassey's 'Work and Wages' (1894).
Two portraits hang in the Bishopsgate Institute, one by Mr. George A. Holmes and the other by Mrs. Howard White.
[Works cited; Beehive, 10 May 1873 and 19 June 1875; Millgate Monthly, August 1908; Webb's History of Trade Unionism; Howell Library, Bishopsgate Institute.]