The Harrison Family 1849-1877: Shrewd operators and social climbing

Here’s an article I’ve been sitting on for a while, in order that I might run it in the build-up to Gerald Reece’s forthcoming talk on the local history of Brownhills, which is taking place this Friday, 30th November at the Methodist Church Hall in Brownhills. Gerald is certain to discuss mining history, and it’s worth bearing the points made so eloquently in this article in mind.

We are living in a time when the sanitisation of some aspects of our industrial and social history is sadly rife. Reader and top contributor to the Brownhills Blog, Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler, has been doggedly and thoroughly researching the history of the Harrison family and their commercial and social operations for some time. He has written two previous articles,  The Harrison Dynasty (Part One: The Early Years,1763 to 1841) and The Harrison dynasty: Beginnings in Coal, 1849.

This is a follow-on piece, where Peter returns to his feeling that some historians aren’t quite as probing as they should be, and that the family weren’t the socially responsible industrialists they would have liked to have been considered to be.

As ever, I thank Peter most profusely for this remarkable and fascinating work. Apologies for holding it back, but timing is everything. Cheers old chap.

On with the piece…

Harrison Family 1849-1877

The Harrison Family entered the field of coal mining in 1849 via the lease of Brownhills Collieries, on the land of Phineas Fowke Hussey. There is the publication William Harrison Company Limited by the CCMHS (2006) that traces their involvement up to Nationalisation. This is an excellent technical book and provides a time frame for further discussion. However there are several errors, and the conclusion as discussed in article ‘In pursuit of Truth’ article is very much open to question.

(Above: The modern-day location of Norton Hall)

Due much to the work of Andy Dennis we can piece together a picture of the first years. William Harrison Snr had married Sarah Strongitharm in Middlewich in the the year of 1892, and in 1898 William Harrison Jnr was born, also in Middlewhich. Nothing is learned of the family before this date, but they must have been reasonably well off; however, in their wildest dreams they could not have imagined how their wealth and possessions would accrue after moving to Walsall.

The first mention I can see is a record of a William Harrison Snr as Church Warden at St Matthews in 1810. This seems like a good move to become recognised in the local community, and to ally oneself with the established Church. He also has connections through his partner George Strongitharm and the lime trade.

As we have seen it is William Harrison Jnr who was Lime Master in 1841 living in Stafford Street Walsall, which must have been quite close to the Lime Works. At that time there seems to have been a demand for lime, and this must have provided a basis for him to venture into coal. Living with him and his wife were his son William Bealey Harrison (3), who would become known as the Captain. Also other sons John (13) and Edward (1) and a daughter Eliza (6).

I believe this to be Norton Hall. The picture was featured in an article by the Express and Star. Please click on the image to see the photo at source.

1850 saw the death of WH Snr, just after the family had entered into coal [1], and possibly it was this inheritance that provided the finance for the new ‘family home’ of Norton Hall. Norton Hall had previously belonged to a John Hawkins Esq and nothing remains of the Hall today, but the position was situated on the site of a Medieval moat at a point where Norton Hall Lane becomes Church Road. In the 1851 census W Harrison Jnr is now 53 years old and down as a magistrate. His son WB Harrison is now about 13 years old and attending Appleby Grammar School, while his elder brother John, by 10 years, is at Christ College at Cambridge.

It must have been around 1858 that WH Jnr obtained Eastland House in Leam Terrace, Leamington Priors (later Leamington Spa). The House being previously on lease to an Elizabeth Storer. It looks as if he is now in semi-retirement as he is listed as living there in the 1861 census. I cannot find any record of the House in Leam Terrace, but a Flourence House was sold recently for £1.3m! By 1871 WH Jnr was living at Clifton Villas, Leamington with his daughter until his death in 1877. An old ink on paper sketch can be seen here…

Clifton Villas. Retirement home, perhaps? Image from ‘Windows on Warwickshire’. Click on the image to visit the source site.

So from around 1860 the business is being run by WB Harrison and his brother John from Norton Hall. Their business interests also went further afield in 1864, being founder members of the Cannock and Rugeley Colliery Company, and later part of the Sandwell Park Collieries. In 1867 they increased their holdings in the lease of Wyrley Common to include the Deep Seam and 55 cottages, mainly in the Coppice Lane area, at a rent of £3 per annum each [1]. They may of course been involved in many other ventures.

In the article ‘In Pursuit of the Truth‘ I raised several questions concerning the conclusion reached in the CCMHS Book, and so for this particular period I give my alternative views. In the article The Harrison Dynasty: beginnings in Coal, 1849, the dubious idea that they ‘gave employment to thousands’ was discussed.

At this stage, were the Harrison family in the forefront of mining and colliery management? They were certainly in the forefront of mining in a business sense, but It would be wrong to see them in the same way as some of their contemporaries, such as John McClean, who was a true Engineer. At least in the Brownhills area they employed the ‘Butty’ system as can be seen in the article ‘The Truth will out’, concerning the 1861 Wyrley Common Pit disaster.

In the last quarter of the century larger-scale enterprises, and the hostility of the miners combined to bring the Butty system to an end [2]. It is interesting to note that, in 1868, a few years after the Cannock and Rugeley Colliery Company was formed, WB employed John Williamson as the Manager. Another true engineer and innovator he reformed the Company and it became one of the most prosperous concerns in the Midlands[3]. It could be said that any owner with the required intelligence could pick up a great deal from the exceptional persons around them at the time.

The proposal that the family ‘provided housing, a way of life and finance to the community’ suggests a positive influence, and therefore the first thing that comes to mind for this period is the question as to whether, along with the Butty system, they employed the Truck System of Tommy Shops.

We do know that in 1860 the family owned the Station Hotel as they leased, and eventually sold it, to the Big man William Roberts. From this Blog we see that ‘William Marklew is reputed to be the last operator of a Tommy Shop in the UK, and being closed when the Mine ceased operating and the Brick Kiln was closed’

From the CCMHS publication we are told that houses were built in the area near Slough Basin. From the Local History site of Hazel Slade (Hazelslade) we can gain an idea of what they were like, as 144 houses were built by the Cannock and Rugeley Colliery Company.

Cross Street, Hazelslade. Image from the Hazel Slade Local History site.

These were very much Company Houses, and as in other parts of the country, it is said that if a man was killed in the Pit, his widow was given notice. This can be seen at Denaby, near Doncaster.

Up in Scotland, and there seems little reason to believe conditions were any different, a detailed area by area description can be seen on the Scottish Mining Website.

There is a piece from the Falkirk Herald of 25th August 1870:

Eviction of Miners – In consequence of the strike of miners in the Slamanan district, a large number of the men who have left their work have been ejected from their houses. In the Sheriff Court on Monday, decision was given by sheriff Sconce against about forty men who had been served with summonses by their masters. The Sheriff said that as they held their house only as an appendage of their work, they would require to remove by Wednesday at noon, and pay the expenses of the action. In a similar manner in yesterday’s Court the Sheriff decreed against about 140 for the same cause. He trusted that they left their houses with extreme regret for the small cause which had led to their being required to do so, and hoped that they would soon go back to their work again. But in the present action the masters were quite right.

‘In 1861 WB Harrison is listed as Lieutenant and JP, and his brother John also a JP still living at Norton Hall… (this gives a clear indication of the rise in their fortunes and standing in the community, all due to their efforts in the mining of coal.)’ [1] WB had been a member of the Lichfield CC since 1855 and would later become President.

Is there not a tragic irony here? Justice is decided by the very same people who were the ‘masters’?

It was around 1860 that the family began their participation in ‘military life’. The country was gripped with the fear of a French invasion, England being the source of the manufacture of the bomb that was used in an attempt on the life of Napoleon III. Volunteer Rifle Corps sprang up over the country, and a National Rifle Association was formed. The Staffordshire Rifle Association came into existence, and WB Harrison was commissioned as an officer of the 22nd Battalion of the Brownhills Company in February of that year. (He would be referred to many times in the future as Captain Harrison.) They use a full military range on the South shore of the Reservoir. In July he offered a prize of £100 for anyone who could get first prize at the National Rifle Association contest.

William Harrison Limited was a huge concern, and a major local employer for many years. Here, Harrison workers are pictured with his rail wagons at Brownhills, date unknown. Picture from ‘Brownhills and Walsall Wood on old picture postcards’ by Jan Farrow.

My conclusion concerning the Harrison family involvement in mining, for the period 1849 to 1877, would be at direct odds to the short concluding chapter of the CCMHS publication [1]. They were in the forefront of the business, and far from giving employment to thousands, they had an overwhelming advantage in the purchase of labour. The profits of the business allow them to participate in the affairs of local justice, which of course consolidates their power. The houses are very much for the benefit of the Company, and maybe even some shops and Inns!

[1] William Harrison Company Ltd, CCMHS (2006)

[2] The Origins of British Industrial Relations, Keith Burgess

[3] CCMHS web site…the Williamson Family.

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14 Responses to The Harrison Family 1849-1877: Shrewd operators and social climbing

  1. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    a big thank you to Pedro, for his thorough and exhaustive research into this issue. It is thanks to his painstaking work and endeavour that we are all able to gain a clearer and more meaningful picture .
    kind regards and best wishes,
    David

    • I echo that. A lot of work has gone into this research, and it is much appreciated by all us interested parties. This is just the right time and distance from events to start to consider them objectively.

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  6. Pedro says:

    Eastland House…

    William Harrison Jnr had come from Stafford Street in Walsall to purcase Norton Hall around 1850, when he moved from lime into coal. Norton Hall would be left in the hands of his sons John and WB Harrison when he adquired Eastland House in Leamington around 1858, presumably to be in semi-retirement.

    Before it was purchased Eastland House seems to have been used as a Hotel, and after its sale by the Harrison family in 1877, as a Rectory for the vicar of the nearby Church. “Leam Terrace is considered as one of the favourite places in Leamington.”

    On a sale in 1889 it is described as a Freehold residence, Leam Terrace, approached by wide Carriage Drive and Portico entrance and contains a spacious Entrance Hall, four capital Reception rooms, ten bed and dressing rooms, bathroom, ample superior Domestic offices, cellarages.

    Flower Garden, full tennis lawn, Vinery and Greenhouses. Conveniently placed stabling for five horses, large Coach House, well-fitted Harness and Saddle Room, Lofts, Groom rooms, paved yard.

    The whole occupies an area of 2,500 square yards, with frontage of 136 feet to Leam Terrace, and a depth of 165 feet.

    • Pedro says:

      The residence is well built on dry subsoil and is fitted with all modern conveniences. The principle rooms have handsome ceilings and cornices, and are 13 feet high.

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