Robert Applegarth, the son of a sailor, was born in Hull on 26th January 1834. Apart from a short period as at a dame school Robert had no formal education and at the age of ten started working at a local shoemaker's shop. This was followed by other jobs where he learnt the basic skills of carpentry.
Applegarth moved to Sheffield where he met and married Mary Longmore, the daughter of a farmer. Unable to find well-paid work he moved to America. He had a variety of jobs including that of a station master. He was appalled by slavery and while in America met Frederick Douglass, one of the leaders of the emancipation movement. Confident that he could make a good living in America, he sent for his wife, but Mary was in poor health and refused to travel.
Applegarth returned to England in 1858 and was reunited with his wife in Sheffield. Soon afterwards he joined the local carpenters' union. He eventually became secretary of the branch and in 1861 agreed that the Sheffield Carpenters Union should join the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners.
The following year Robert Applegarth was elected to the full-time post of general secretary. He rented a house at 64 York Street in Lambeth which also served as the union's headquarters. Applegarth also became a leading figure in the London Trades Council. Applegarth was a strong believer in negotiated settlements and disapproved of the militant approach advocated by George Potter, the owner and editor of the trade union journal, Bee-Hive. Potter took the view that any group of men who decided to strike knew the rights and wrongs of their own case, and therefore deserved the full support of the newspaper. However, Applegarth believed that Potter was not just reporting industrial disputes but was in fact a "manufacturer of strikes".
The Bee-Hive was the official journal of the London Trades Council (LTC). As a member of the LTC executive, Applegarth investigated the Bee-Hive Potter and in 1865 he accused Potter of personal dishonesty through the maladministration of the newspaper. He also claimed that reports of a recent industrial dispute in North Staffordshire were largely inaccurate. These charges were looked at by a London Trades Council committee and as a result George Potter lost his seat on the executive and the Bee-Hive ceased to be the organisation's journal.
Applegarth's early experiences in America made him a loyal supporter of the North during the American Civil War. A proponent of universal male suffrage, he was a leading member of the Reform League and a executive member of the Labour Representation League.
When Robert Applegarth became general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners, the union only had 1,000 members but over the next eight years it grew to over 10,000. Each member paid one shilling a week. Although the union provided generous benefits to those members who were sick or out of work by 1870, the union had accumulated funds of £17,000.
After the Sheffield Outrages in 1867 the head of the Conservative government, Earl of Derby, decided to set up a Royal Commission on Trade Unions. No trade unionists were appointed but Applegarth was chosen as a union observer of the proceedings. Applegarth worked hard checking the various accusations of the employers and providing information to the two pro-union members of the Royal Commission, Frederic Harrison and Thomas Hughes. Applegarth also appeared as a witness and it was generally accepted that he was the most impressive of all the trade unionists who gave evidence before the commission.
Frederic Harrison, Thomas Hughes and the Earl of Lichfield refused to sign the Majority Report that was hostile to trade unions and instead produced a Minority Report where he argued that trade unions should be given privileged legal status. Harrison suggested several changes to the law: (1) Persons combining should not be liable for indictment for conspiracy unless their actions would be criminal if committed by a single person; (2) The common law doctrine of restraint of trade in its application to trade associations should be repealed; (3) That all legislation dealing with specifically with the activities of employers or workmen should be repealed; (4) That all trade unions should receive full and positive protection for their funds and other property.
Applegarth led the campaign to have the Minority Report accepted by the new Liberal government headed by William Gladstone. He was successful and the 1871 Trade Union Act was based largely on the Minority Report.
In 1871 Robert Applegarth became the first working man to be invited to be a member of a Royal Commission. He accepted Gladstone's offer to join the team investigating the workings of the Contagious Diseases Act. The executive of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners objected to Applegarth working for the Royal Commission. Accused of neglected union duties, an angry Applegarth decided to resign his post as general secretary.
After his work on the Royal Commission came to an end, Applegarth found work as a commercial traveller for a French firm that had developed breathing apparatus for use in mine rescue and underwater exploration.
Applegarth also took out the English patent for the Jablochkoff Candle, an electric lighting system invented by a Russian, Paul Jablochkoff. The product was fairly successful and by 1890 he was running his own business based in Epsom. Eight years later he took up poultry farming in Bexley and introduced a new breed of hen from France.
Applegarth retired to Brighton and in 1917 David Lloyd George offered to make him a Companion of Honour. He declined the offer, preferring to remain, as he wrote in his letter of refusal: "plain Robert Applegarth". He also left instructions that there should be no religious ceremony at his burial. Robert Applegarth died on 13th July 1924.
For the year 1869, £5,008 16s 4d was expended in sick pay; £8,802 18s 10d was allotted to members out of work, and for travelling expenses; £829 10s 0d was expended in funerals. The whole expenditure amounted to £21,355 15s 2d. The Income was £21,802 13s 7d; Reserve Fund £17,626 14s 6d. Sums up to £100 are granted to members rendered incapable of following their employment for life, either from accidents or other causes, and in 1869 the sum of £500 was so devoted.
Various amounts are granted for the relief of members who are in distress, also to their widows and children, and in 1869 the sum of £436 3s 9d was so distributed, and £101 7s 9d was expended in sending members to situations, and £423 7s 10d was expended in buying tools for members, and £60 4s 4d was granted for superannuation in weekly sums of 8s, 7s and 5s.