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Alexander Macdonald

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Alexander Macdonald (1821-1881), M.P.

Macdonald was born in New Monkland, Lanarkshire, the son of Daniel McDonald and his wife Ann (née Watt). His father was an agricultural worker at that time but had formerly served in the Royal Navy and was later to work as a coal and iron miner. Macdonald, who adopted the longer spelling of his name in the 1870s, had little formal education as a boy, but in his twenties he attended evening classes, learning Latin and Greek. He also managed to fund attendance at winter sessions for students at Glasgow University from work as a coal miner during the summer months.

At the age of eight Alexander joined his father down the mines. Macdonald worked in both coal and ironstone mines for the next sixteen years. Macdonald was one of the leaders of the 1842 Lanarkshire mining strike and after its defeat he lost his job forcing him to find work in another colliery.

From 1849–1850 he worked as a mine manager.

Macdonald’s education at Glasgow enabled him to become a teacher and he opened his own school in 1851. However, after four years he decided to concentrate his efforts in improving the pay and conditions of mine workers.

In 1855 Macdonald formed a unified Scottish coal and ironstone miners’ association and the following year the organisation fought a severe cut in wages. After a three-month strike, the miners were starved back to work and had to accept the lower wages offered to them. Undaunted by this failure, Macdonald continued to recruit members to his union and to try to bring together the various miners’ groups from across the country. A product of this period of his leadership was the Mines Act of 1860, which allowed for election by miners of a check-weighman at each pit to ensure fair payment of wages.

Macdonald’s efforts to unify the miners bore fruit in November 1863 when at a meeting in Leeds workers formed the Miners' National Association and elected Macdonald as president. Macdonald was elected to the first parliamentary committee of the Trades Union Congress in 1871, and he served as chairman of the committee in 1872 and 1873. He lobbied the Liberal government over changes relating to trade union activities in the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1871, and the Mines Regulation Act of 1872. He later sat on the Royal Commission on trade unions which reported in 1875, issuing a minority report calling for wider reform of labour laws than the main report had proposed.

Macdonald's campaigning led him to his later career in politics. In addition to his trade union activism, Macdonald also campaigned through journalism. He wrote many articles for the Glasgow Sentinel, a newspaper in which he invested and in which he later gained a controlling interest.


1881 Obituary [1]

WE have to record the death on Monday afternoon last at his residence at Wellhall, near Hamilton, of Mr. Alexander Macdonald, M.P. for Stafford......

He first saw the light in the month of June, 1821, so that at his death he was rather over 61 years of age.

To begin life in a coalpit at eight years of age, as Mr. Macdonald did, is now an impossibility in this country, thanks to the ardent and persistent labours of the deceased to abolish for ever all slavery and inhumanity in connexion with the coal-mining industry.....[more]


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