George Odger (1813–4 March 1877) was a pioneer British trade unionist and radical politician. He is best remembered as the head of the London Trades Council during the period of formation of the Trades Union Congress and as the first President of the First International.
George Odger was born in 1813 in Roborough, Devon, England. Odger's father was a miner from Cornwall and the family was an impoverished one, forcing George to be apprenticed as a shoemaker at about 10 years of age. Odger's formal education was limited and primitive, but he was able to expand his intellectual horizons through self-education and reading.
Odger traveled the country in search of work as a shoemaker, eventually landing in London around the age of 20. There he became active in the nascent trade union movement, joining the Ladies Shoemakers' Society, which later became part of the Amalgamated Society of Cordwainers.
Trade union leader
Odger first came to public attention in 1859 when he served on a general committee to coordinate aid for striking workers in the London builders' strike of that year. This led to active participation in the London Trades Council when it was founded the following year, followed by election to the position of Secretary of that organisation in 1862.
Also in 1862, Odger became the Chairman of the Manhood Suffrage and Vote by Ballot Association. A vigorous supporter of the anti-slavery Republicans in the American Civil War, Odger is credited with helping shift the editorial line of the labour newspaper The Bee-Hive from supporting the Confederate States of America in the conflict.
Odger was associated with the Workman's Advocate, which became the press organ of the International and the Reform League, and from 1866–67 he was editor of the renamed Commonwealth. Also in 1866, he represented the London Trades Council at the first conferences the United Kingdom Alliance of Organised Trades, while in 1867, he joined the Conference of Amalgamated Trades.
Shortly after the Reform League's Hyde Park demonstration in 1867, Odger attended a private meeting of a dozen senior members of the league in which the French revolutionary Gustave Paul Cluseret proposed they start a civil war in England. According to John Bedford Leno, George Odger spoke out in support of Cluseret's proposal but this was misreported in the next days issue of The Times. George Odger was in the minority of the league, which rejected the proposal overwhelmingly.
President of the First International
On 28 September 1864 a meeting was held at the St. Martin's Hotel in London to launch an international association bringing together trade union leaders from Great Britain and the European continent, with a view to forestall the ability of employers to use unwitting foreign workers as a means of enforcing lockouts or breaking strikes. As a leading member of the British trade union movement, George Odger not only attending this foundational gathering but was a prominent speaker at the event. The organisation resulting from the gathering would be known as the International Workingmen's Association, remembered today as the so-called First International. George Odger would be named to the governing General Council of this organisation, remaining in that position until his resignation in 1872.
During this interval Odger also remained active in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), he was the Secretary of its Parliamentary Committee, the post later to become the General Secretary, from 1872 to 1873.
Odger put himself forward electorally for the first time in a new electoral district in the 1868 General election — the first held since passage of the Reform Act 1867 that granted the right to vote to part of the male urban working class for the first time. Although his participation had been sought by a great number of local voters, controversy erupted that Odger's participation would split the Liberal vote and he subsequently withdrew from the race.
In June 1869 Odger was one of four Liberal candidates to compete for two seats in the borough of Stafford. Odger would finish in third place in the primary election, with the two Liberal victors defeated in the general election by Thomas Salt and Reginald Arthur James Talbot.
Death and legacy
Odger died on 4 March 1877. He was remembered at the time of his death as a "good, clear writer and a fluent speaker. He was not what is called 'eloquent,' but he was better; he spoke with force, with effect, with a knowledge of his subject."
Henry James wrote of the funeral: "The element of the grotesque was very noticeable to me in the most marked collection of the shabbier English types that I had seen since I came to London. The occasion of my seeing them was the funeral of Mr. George Odger, which befell some four or five weeks before the Easter period. Mr. George Odger, it will perhaps be remembered, was an English Radical agitator of humble origin, who had distinguished himself by a perverse desire to get into Parliament. He exercised, I believe, the useful profession of a shoemaker, and he knocked in vain at the door that opens but to the refined. But he was a useful and honourable man, and his own people gave him an honourable burial."
George Odger is buried in Brompton Cemetery.
A London County Council commemorative Blue Plaque was erected at Odger's former residence, 18 St Giles High Street, in the 1950s. After this house was demolished in the 1970s the plaque was rescued and can now be seen in the lobby of St Giles in the Fields having been placed there in 1974.
- Detlev Mares, Dictionary of Labour Biography, vol.XIII, pp.292-300
- Odger's date of birth is given variously as 1813, 1820, 1829, with most modern sources citing the middle date.
- R.J. Hinton, English Radical Leaders: Brief Biographies. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1878; pg. 330.
- Hinton, English Radical Leaders, pp. 330-331.
- Hinton, English Radical Leaders, pg. 331.
- B.C. Roberts, The Trades Union Congress, 1868-1921. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958; pg. 18.
- Thorn, Gary (1983). The Politics of Trade Unionism in a Sweated Industry (PDF). University of Warwick. Retrieved 8 August 2019.
- Hinton, English Radical Leaders, pg. 336.
- Hinton, English Radical Leaders, pg. 337.
- Hinton, English Radical Leaders, pg. 341.
- Hinton, English Radical Leaders, pp. 341-342.
- Hinton, English Radical Leaders, pp. 342-343.
- "Obituary: George Odger," The Labor Standard [New York], vol. 2, no. 12 (March 17, 1877), pg. 3.
- Keith Gildart and David Howell (eds.), Dictionary of Labour Biography: Vol. XIII.Basingstoke 2010; pp. 292–300.
- "George Odger," Obituary in The Spectator, 10 March 1877; pg. 12.
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