The Harrison dynasty: Beginnings in Coal, 1849

Regular reader, commentarian and contributor extraordinaire Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler sent me this article some weeks ago now, and I’ve been waiting to finish the Pelsall Boiler Explosion series, so it has a clear deck. This is a continuation in Peter’s investigations and ruminations on the Harrison empire, and  his musings on the nature of employment in the coal industry.

Peter feels, as I do, that it’s important to strip away the veneer of romance and rose-tint that often colours descriptions of the collieries, their workers and dependent communities. It is therefore essential, then, that we record and analyse the history warts and all.

I’d like to thank Peter here and now, not just for this fine and well researched post, but for all of his contributions, which are always a joy.

That said, on with the show…

It is very hard to imagine, from our position of comfort and relative security, the hell, danger and day-to-day pressure men like these endured to power the Industrial Revolution, all the time bolstering an emergent, new industrial feudalism. Image from ‘The South Staffordshire Coalfield’ by Nigel A. Chapman.

The Harrison dynasty entered into the field of coal mining in 1849, via the lease of Brownhills Collieries, on the land of Phineas Fowke Hussey. One of the questions I posed in the article ‘In pursuit of the Truth’ was…’Did they give employment to thousands?’

Firstly I need to check the state of affairs in the South Staffordshire coalfields around the time of the entry of the Harrison Dynasty, and the thing that sticks out like a sore thumb is the existence of the Master and Slave Legistlation (1834). This Act made employers and employees unequal before the law, if the employer broke the contract he was liable under civil action, but if the employee left work without notice he was subject to criminal prosecution. It was not until 1875 that equality was fully recognised.

For an idea of the conditions and working of the pits around that time an interesting read is the Children’s Emloyment Commission of 1842 for South Staffs.

The commission tells of trips to local mines near Dudley, and gives an idea of how Inquiries were carried out in those days. Like some in modern times it could be considered a whitewash, and even in those days the industry was being portrayed in a romantic manner…

‘It is a fine sight to see the miners congregated at dinner, in a large dining hall cut out of the coal. There they sit, naked from the middle upwards, as black as blackamoor savages, showing their fine, vigorous muscular persons, eating, drinking and laughing.’

Providing the fuel for a revolution was remarkably dangerous. Miners died young and suffered a myriad of health problems. Image reproduced from ‘The South Staffordshire Coalfield’ by Nigel A. Chapman.

Some proprietors ran the mines on their own account, but the greater let them to tennants on the conditions of royalties, the tennant undertaking to bring up a certain amount a year, and if not doing so would still pay the royalty. The tenant has the expense of sinking the shaft..

The contractors who do the work in the mines (Staffs) are charter masters or butties. They provide the capital to run the mines. the water is drawn off at the expense of the employer. The Butty is paid by the ton, and men paid every two weeks.

To get an insight into the Butty System I read The Butty System, Researched by John Lumsdon.

He (Butty) was a sub-contractor, and an intermediary between master and men. The butty contracted to deliver coals into carts and wagons at bank (surface) at a price per ton.

A butty was not recognised by law, and carried no weight with a government inspector. He took no responsibility – either for firing shots, or in the supervision of safety. His duties were to get the greatest amount of work out of the smallest number of men and to keep down the cost of coal and repairs. His work was sometimes not overlooked for months.

This meant the owners and managers did not supervise. It was just left to the butty, and his own devices as to the mode of getting the coal. He paid the colliers, putters etc., who were usually engaged by the week or by the day.

Many butties were notorious for paying wages in goods and not in cash. This practice was known as ‘Truck’ or ‘Tommy’. The goods were inferior goods at higher prices than one would normally pay in towns.

In evidence about butties one man said: – ‘Many accidents were caused by butties, to save a sixpence, and they will let men work, that are not colliers. There will be places that would make a collier’s flesh shake on his bones to go near and these men get knocked on the head, scores of them in a year.’

The Morning Chronicle Commission who visited Staffordshire in 1854 was also dismayed commenting:

The change from Northumberland and Durham to those of Staffordshire seems like going back at least half a century in the art of mine engineering. On the banks of the Tyne and Wear, science the most profound, and practical skill, the most trained and enlightened, are brought to bear upon the excavation of coal. The pits are worked under constant superintendence of regularly educated viewers, (managers) each of which has a staff of assistants, more or less scientific and with practical skill, to carry his directions into execution.

There were twice as many pits in Staffordshire as in Northumberland and Durham – 584 against 270 according to the mineral statistics for 1856 but they produced less than half the tonnage of coal.

After the 1872 Coal Mines Act the ‘butty’ system disappeared.

Another document of interest is the Evidence from the Report of the Midland Mining Commission of 1842, concerning the Colliery Strike in the South Staffs Coalfield:

It was after this on September 1st that Colonel Clive, of the Worcestershire yeomanry, I (Lord Dartmouth) and Mr. Willett were at the Dartmouth Hotel at West Bromwich on ordinary justice business and the constable told us that a body of colliers perhaps a dozen were wishing to see us and we immediately desired them to be shown in… This deputation represented the complaints of the thick coal colliers. They were all bona fide colliers and not chartists. The spokesman was a Methodist preacher as were three or four of the rest.

Collier, in reply:

But our masters will not meet us because we are poor labouring men. Instead of meeting us they walk about the ground where we meet and talk to their butties. They cannot know the state of the case unless they talk with the men that have suffered. We want to go and send men from the pits to the masters to settle. There are 30 pits and we want to send a man from each.

Hughes, another collier:

The oppression, my lord, upon the colliers is very great. We are 12 hours in the bowels of the earth and that is too much. We are kept in complete darkness and our children will be the same. We have no means of learning, nor grace or light for ourselves. We hardly see daylight for the most part of the year.

Shelton then stated the grievances under which the miners laboured:

The masters employ butties to get the coal. These butties employ the men and pay them what they please. They make them work half a day for a quarter’s wages. The ale given them for drink is not fit for swine, though the masters allow the butties 3d a quart for it. The butties are tyrants and ill-use the men. If a man spoke to or offended one of them he told another butty and the poor man was sure to be turned away. Worst of all they have the truck system in many places so that a man could never count upon his wages. Now he thought the masters must be ignorant of all that and that was what they wanted to state and get removed.

Some of the evidence above is a little before the Harrison Family ventured into mining, but little could have changed, as change took place slowly. It can be seen that the market for labour was far from a free market. The ‘buyers’ had the weight of the law and the means to keep the upper hand, while the workers depended solely on their labour to feed their families. They sold their souls to the Company Store!

And so the scene is set for a Family Dynasty to enter the arena, as employers who would ‘give employment to thousands, provide housing, a way of life and finance to the community from 1849 to 1947, some 98 years.'[1]

[1] William Harrison Company Limited, published by the CCMHS (2006)

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8 Responses to The Harrison dynasty: Beginnings in Coal, 1849

  1. David Evans says:

    HI Bob

  2. Clive says:

    Nice one Bob and Pedro, tell it as it is!

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  4. SPITFUL says:

    Hi bob
    just seen the google map showing norton hall and it was a bit out. Behind all the houses on the lefthand side of norton hall lane heading towards the A5 is a wooded area which is the location of the hall.I think there was a plan to build houses on the site when it was delayed due to access.
    The wooded space was going to be left as an open space for the new estate in the latest plans.
    The reason it was demolished was because it was said to be built on the edge of the ecclesiatical piller and when the ground sank due to the pits causing part of the hall to sink and break in half.
    The piller was said to allow only a small amount of coal from under the church, what remained a few years back were some foundations and waste dumps or pits all overgrown.

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