Technology and Industrial Conflict in Britain

Review: Sanderson on Cronin

Bernard Cronin, Technology, Industrial Conflict and the Development of Technical Education in Nineteenth-Century England. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2001. xiii + 301 pp. $99.95 (hardback), ISBN: 0-7546-0313-x.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Michael Sanderson, Department of History, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK.

Most writing on the subject of English technical education in the later nineteenth century relates it to the question of Britain's relative economic decline. Bernard Cronin takes a different and original approach in placing the resistance to technical education in the context of the clash of interests between employers and unions over technical change in mechanical engineering. His argument is that handcraft in engineering was revolutionized by the introduction of more precise measurement and the introduction of machine tools by Maudslay, Nasmyth and Whitworth. Most important was the turret lathe enabling the carrying out of a range of formerly skilled operations by relatively less skilled labor. The process was helped on by the work of F.W. Taylor with his techniques of scientific management, slide rules, stop watches, work control and rate fixing with "assembly" replacing the more skilled "fitting." In consequence there was a change in the balance of labor from the skilled to the unskilled. This suited the employers as cheapening labor and raising productivity. Also since the "aristocracy of labor" unions controlled entry to trades through apprenticeship, any lessening of the need for long apprenticeship weakened the power of the craft unions. With machine tools a de-qualified, non-unionized, young labor force could be drawn into machine manning. All this led to the "decline of apprenticeship" much deplored in contemporary writing of the 1890s and 1900s. This culminated in the long and widespread engineering strike of 1897-98, resulting in victory for the employers who increasingly came to articulate the view that their management and administration mattered more than the manual labor of their artisans in the creation of wealth.

All this had implications for education and the employers' attitudes towards it. The victory over the 1897-98 strike reinforced employers' negative view of technical education. They were increasingly suspicious of apprenticeship as a racket leaving too much power in the hands of their skilled employees. On the other hand they were skeptical of technical education in technical colleges as a separate sphere from the workplace, controlled by college lecturers with a dubious grasp of manufacturing practice. What they preferred was limited part-time evening class work minimizing the diversion of workers' time or employers' cost. Few employers were interested in the Royal Commission on Technical Education or the subsequent Act of 1889 placing technical instruction in the hands of local authorities and not to include "teaching the practice of any trade or industry or employment." The state's assumption, and that of the City and Guilds of London Institute, was that complementary practical training was carried out by industry itself. Yet Cronin argues that it was not, since employers were more concerned to weaken the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and apprenticeship than reinforce technical training. Looking forward to the present Cronin finds echoes of these nineteenth-century problems in the Finniston Report's criticism of the neglect of technical education by employers and the linked further decline of apprenticeship and the trade unions in the 1980.

Two elements in the argument give me pause. Firstly, while one can see the employer suspicion of apprenticeship, it is not clear why they did not wholeheartedly pursue the alternative strategy of building up the technical college as the alternative to undermine the apprenticeship system and skilled artisan control. This reliance on publicly funded, large colleges with high prestige was much more a feature of the French and German systems where unions were weaker anyway. Also the English trade unions were suspicious of technical colleges and their qualifications, which they saw as a threat to their own hard won, controlled entry, craft skills with the wage differentials they enjoyed in consequence. The long dispute of the Plumbers Union and the City and Guilds was indicative of this. Linked with this I was not quite convinced by Cronin's assertion that the workers themselves were keener on technical education than the employers were. Yet the evidence he cites tends to be institutions short lived or provided by the middle classes.

One of the strengths of the book is that before becoming a tutor with the Open University Cronin was himself a five-year apprentice-trained engineer with a first hand knowledge of tools, metal types and procedures. Historians who find some of his exposition of this a bit detailed and technical in the early pages should nonetheless persevere.

The book is well researched. attested by its thirty-two page bibliography. But I sense that Cronin is not so well briefed on more recent secondary literature of the 1990s since use could have been made of several items (Evans and Summerfield, Divall, 1990; Elbaum, Divall, Gospel, 1991; Guagnini, Gospel, 1993), which would have enriched his theme. Above all there should have been some reference to the seminal article by Stephen Nicholas of 1985 on the dilemma of college and apprentice training.

But this is a good and interesting book in a valuable series, which expertly explores a further dimension of a much-visited subject.

Dr. Michael Sanderson is Reader in History in the University of East Anglia with an interest in educational history. Recent publications include The Missing Stratum: Technical School Education in England, 1900-1990s (Athlone Press, 1994); Education and Economic Decline, 1870-1990s (Cambridge University Press, 1999), and The History of the University of East Anglia, 1918-2000 (Hambledon and London Press, 2002).

Copyright (c) 2002 by EH.NET. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.NET Administrator (; Telephone: 513-529-2850; Fax: 513-529-3308). Published by EH.NET Jul 12, 2002. All EH.Net reviews are archived at