Enfield Church School for two years but at the age of eleven
began work at a jute mill. In 1872 the Barnes family returned
to Dundee and George found work at Parker's Foundry. When George
completed his apprenticeship he moved to Barrow-in-Furness where
he found work in the town's shipyard.
with his wages of £3 a week, Barnes moved to London in
1879. After ten weeks unemployment he found temporary work and
eventually obtained work constructing the Albert Dock in the
Thames. Barnes was a maintenance engineer and gradually improved
his skills by attending classes in engineering drawing and machine
construction at Woolwich Arsenal.
Barnes obtained better work at the Lucas & Airds in Fulham.
Barnes joined the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) where
he met Tom Mann and John Burns. Barnes attended meetings of
the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League, but
rejected the idea of socialist revolution and refused to join
On the 13th
February, 1887 Barnes attended the demonstration in Trafalgar
Square that turned into the riot known as Bloody Sunday. Barnes
was badly injured when he was trampled on by a police horse.
However, two of his friends, John Burns and Robert Cunninghame
Graham, were arrested and later sentenced to a six-week prison
George Barnes was elected to the executive of the Amalgamated
Society of Engineers. He supported the election of John Burns
as general secretary of the union in 1890. Two years later Barnes
was appointed as assistant general secretary.
closely with other socialist trade unionists and in 1893 joined
with Keir Hardie, Robert Smillie, Tom Mann, John Glasier, H.
H. Champion and Ben Tillett to form the Independent Labour Party
(ILP). In the 1895 General Election the ILP put up 28 candidates
but won only 44,325 votes. All the candidates were defeated,
including George Barnes at Rochdale.
Barnes became a full-time union official when he was elected
as General Secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers.
The ASE was now Britain third largest union and Barnes was one
of the country's most powerful labour leaders. In July 1897
Barnes led the ASE in a long strike in an attempt to win an
eight-hour day. The strike ended in January 1898 without this
being achieved, but one success was the acceptance by the Employers
Federation that it was willing to negotiate wages and conditions
with the ASE.
on a fact-finding mission in Europe in 1898. Although the trip
convinced Barnes that British engineers were the best in Europe,
he also discovered that Britain was falling behind other industrial
nations in wage levels and working conditions. Barnes became
convinced that real progress would only be made when more trade
unionists were elected to the House of Commons.
February 1900, Barnes attended the meeting at the Memorial Hall
in Farringdon Street, London, to discuss the future of the labour
movement in Britain. Representatives of all the socialist groups
in Britain (the Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic
Federation and the Fabian Society) and trade union leaders took
part in the discussions. After a debate the 129 delegates decided
to pass Hardie's motion to establish "a distinct Labour
group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree
upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to cooperate
with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting
legislation in the direct interests of labour."
this possible the Conference established a Labour Representation
Committee (LRC). This committee included two members from the
Independent Labour Party, two from the Social Democratic Federation,
one member of the Fabian Society, and seven trade unionists.
Barnes made a speech at the meeting arguing that not only working
class men should be selected as LRC candidates in elections.
He made the point that people like Frederic Harrison and Sidney
Webb had important qualities to contribute to the labour movement.
Barnes' motion was passed by 102 to 3.
George Barnes formed the National Committee of Organised Labour
for Old Age Pensions. Barnes spent the next three years travelling
the country urging this social welfare reform. The measure was
extremely popular and was an important factor in Barnes being
able to defeat Andrew Bonar Law, the Conservative cabinet minister,
in the 1906 General Election.
George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Liberal government
led by Herbert Asquith was also an opponent of the Poor Law
in Britain. He was determined to take action that in his words
would "lift the shadow of the workhouse from the homes
of the poor". In 1908 Lloyd George introduced the Old Age
Pensions Act that provided between 1s. and 5s. a week to people
over seventy. These pensions were only paid to citizens on incomes
that were not over 12s.
Barnes welcomed Lloyd George's reforms, he argued that the level
of benefits were far too low. They also complained that the
pensions should be universal and disliked what was later to
be called the Means Test aspect of these reforms.
many Labour MPs, including George Barnes, objected to the strong
support that the leadership was giving to the WSPU and the NUWSS
in their fight for votes for women. Barnes argued that the party
was being sidetracked from more important issues. This was one
of the reasons why in 1910 Barnes replaced James Keir Hardie
as leader of the Labour Party.
Barnes strongly supported Britain's involvement in the First
World War. He toured industrial districts making recruitment
speeches. Barnes also went to Canada where he helped to persuade
trained mechanics to work in British industry. Barnes's youngest
son, Henry, was killed fighting on the Western Front in September
1915. This did not change his views on the war and in 1916 was
one of the few Labour MPs to support military conscription.
disillusioned with the way Herbert Asquith was running the country
and in 1916 helped David Lloyd George gain power. Lloyd George
rewarded him by making George Barnes, newly formed Pensions
At the end
of the war the Labour Party withdrew from Lloyd George's coalition
government. Barnes resigned from the party in order to remain
as Minister of Pensions. He remained in the post until he resigned
for reasons of poor health in January 1920.
gain the support from the Labour Party in the 1922 General Election,
Barnes resigned from the House of Commons. Barnes travelled
extensively for the next few years until he retired in 1927.
George Barnes died on 21st April 1940.