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Technology, Industrial Conflict and the Development of Technical Education in Nineteenth-Century England

Author(s):Cronin, Bernard
Reviewer(s):Sanderson, Michael

Published by EH.NET (July 2002)

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 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


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).

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII