Peer survey

In continuation of his fascinating exploration of the Harrison mining dynasty in South Staffordshire and particularly, Brownhills, Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler has ferreted out a rather interesting report on the operations of one of Harrison’s primary competitors, the respected and notable John McClean.

This is essential reading for anyone interested in working conditions of the period, and I thank Pedro for his generous work and remarkable writing for readers of the blog.

Cheers, old chap.


William Harrison employed many men, but just how did their conditions compare to those of his competitors? Image from ‘Aldridge and Brownhills in old picture postcards’ by Jan Farrow.

During my delvings into the role that the Harrison Family played in the coal mining of the area, I came across the Dudley Geological Society’s Journal for July of 1864. One of the field trips included a visit to the Cannock Chase Colliery held by John McClean. There have been Posts on the Blog to which this would add interest.

Chasetown, Burntwood and surrounds, mid 1800s

Curious electric

In pursuit of the truth

It has also been pointed out to me that any discussion about the role of the Harrison Family would be more meaningful if compared to their peers, but more of this after the article…

‘As the Cannock Chase Colliery is certainly one of the best conducted in South Staffordshire, a brief description thereof will be interesting.

The area of minerals demised to the Company is 2200 statute acres. and the minimum royalty is understood to be £5000 per annum. The winter yield of coal is 2000 tons a day, on an average. An amount so enormous necessarily involves ample facilities for transit, as it is entirely a Sale Colliery. The old Hammerwich canal, (which reaches the embankment of the Norton reservoir), being of course insufficient, it was deemed expedient to open a direct communication with the South Staffordshire Railway; and as Mr. McClean was formerly the lessee of that important line, he possessed every facility for obtaining so desirable a junction of interests. The Company therefore retain good canal accommodation for local traffic; whilst the Railway branch, which is connected with the four extensive plants, and admirably ramified with convenient landing and loading stages, affords a ready outlet for markets in all parts of the kingdom.

The Geological Society also found the Branch Railway a novel and rapid mode of communication from one Colliery to the others in succession during their inspection.

The Coals of the district dip to the west; and thus many of the Wyrley and Essington seams crop out in the surface before reaching the Brownhills.

The Coals wrought by the Company are the Yard Coal, Bass Coal, Shallow Coal, and Deep Coal: the two former however are, at present. rather limited in extent of workings although of useful quality. The value of the Shallow and Deep Coals is well known and widely appreciated for household purposes, indeed they are often brought into competition with the celebrated coals of Denbighshire. Mr. Beckett appears to have investigated this district minutely and he is of opinion that all the Brownhills Coals will eventually be found at Wyrley; but at a considerable depth in that side of the Coal Field.

There are four independent Plants in operation in the Cannock Chase Colliery, viz. Nos. 2, 3, 4, and 5. No. 2 has an upright high-pressure engine, with 30~inch cylinder, and 5-feet stroke; with sundry small engines for pumping, saw mill, and Blacksmiths’ fan blast, Nine boilers are attached.

At No. 3 we found a coupled horizontal high-pressure engine, with 25-inch cylinder and 5-feet stroke; also a pumping engine, with 86-inch cylinder and 5-feet stroke. Seven boilers are connected with this plant. The Shafts (which were descended by some of the party.) are 18 feet 6 inches diameter; average depth to Deep Coal, 165 yards. Another engine is in progress of erection at this plant. No. 4 has a high-pressure engine, with cylinder I8 inches in diameter, and a 4ft stroke, with two boilers. This apparatus has somewhat of a South Staffordshire primitive look about it! No. 5 has a pair of horizontal coupled engines, agreeing in character with No. 3. It has 4 boilers erected. and two more in course of erection.. With the exception of No4 all the machinery is bright and in admirable order. Messrs. Thornywell and Warham were the Contractors for engines. Buildings are massive and good. Gas is being introduced into the pits as well at the surface. As a whole, the arrangements connected with this Colliery both above and below ground are unexceptionable. The greatest length of underground haulage is about three quarters of a mile. The Butty system-the curse of South Staffordshire, is studiously avoided. 1500 men and boys are employed. No allowance beer is introduced at the works, and no contractor is allowed to keep a Public-house.

In addition to a Colliery well developed in all its scientific details, it is pleasing to add, that the spirited Proprietors are fully alive to the moral. educational, and religious improvement of their people. Good Schools with a Free Library attached have long been provided, and are working well. A noble Church with residence for the Incumbent are also rapidly approaching completion, and will doubtless prove a blessing to this interesting community.’

The whole Journal for July 1864 can be seen here

There a a few points of interest to me in the above field trip, but none more than mentioned in the last ten lines, which ties in with the ‘Pursuit of Truth‘. McClean and his partner Richard Chawner entered Coal maybe four years later than Harrison family, in 1854.

The Butty system is studiously avoided in his Pits, however in the disaster of 1861 (The Truth will Out) at the Wyrley Common Pit, owned by the Harrison family, Butties are mentioned at the Inquest. No contractor was allowed to keep a Public House, however in 1860 the Harrison family owned and then leased the Station Hotel to William Roberts.

In 1864 the Church at Chasetown was approaching completion and it was concidered that there were good schools with a free library, however Brownhills according to Mr W Lunt was still without a library at the time of the Clock in 1912.

I may well be wrong but I have not come across the same involvement, up to 1870, by the Harrison Family, but as always on the Blog I stand to be corrected!

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5 Responses to Peer survey

  1. Andy Dennis says:

    Great work again, Pedro!

    I will have to look at the full report later, but it occurs that the butty system can only recently have been abandoned because on 28 September 1861 one Joseph Dennis was “Killed by an explosion of Firedamp in a Coal Pit of the Uxbridge Colliery Company Limited”. This was Cannock Chase No. 2. This according to the entry of death, which gave his occupation as butty.

  2. Good delvings, Pedro. Thank you very much for sharing your work.

  3. Clive says:

    Nice one Pedro.

  4. david oakley says:

    May I offer my grateful thanks to ‘Pedro’ Cutler, together with Brownhills Bob and Andy Dennis for the work they have done over the past few months in researching both the Harrison’s and John Mclean. both who really made a mark on West Midland industrial history more than a century ago.
    I have been enthralled as each little nugget of information came to light, and like good historians, each bit shrouded with its own little piece of objectivity, for us to make up our own minds as to the light in which we regarded these erstwhile employers of our grandfathers and other family relatives from those distant times.
    Plenty of food for thought there. And I thought of the Stafford Street enterprise of the early
    Harrison, a truly Victorian entrepreneur and contrasted it with the university graduate background of the brilliant international engineer, John Mclean. I would consider there would be a divergence of pilosophy here, at the outset of their respective careers and that this philosophy, root and branch, would manifest itself throughout the different activities both were engaged in, taking on employees of a similar mind to themselves, so that their philosophy would permeate into the farthest corner of the undertaking.
    John Mclean was a confirmed Liberal, at a time when the Liberal party was the confirmed radical party and many efforts were made, by statute, to ease the lot of the workers. Mclean himself became a member of parliament ot one time for a Staffordshire constituency.
    Perhaps my main point is that, among the “Dark Satanic Mills” of those days, and remember, it was harsh Victorian times, enlightened employers perhaps such as the Fry’s, Cadbury and others of that ilk, we might even include John Mclean, together with the early Trade Unionists, provided such a beacon of hope and light that other workers working in dreadful conditions, found inspiration hoping their own turn would come in due course and thus took their own part in the biggest Industrial Revolution the world had ever seen.


  5. Pingback: A spectator writes… | BrownhillsBob's Brownhills Blog

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