Dry bread for weeks

I’m not going to dress this one up. This post is grim, very grim indeed. Like Peter, it brought tears to my eyes. This was the society created by Victorian morality, and beware those who think it was a good thing.

If you want some indication of life chez Harrison less that 20 years later, take a peak at the present list from the wedding at Aldershawe.


Strikes were a way of life, sadly. This one, of course, was in 1926. I’m reminded of the Martin Luther King quote, ‘Freedom is never given to anyone. It does not come without someone sacrificing and suffering for it.’ Image from ‘Memories of Brownhills Past’ by Clarice Mayo and Geoff Harrington.

These were not the ‘Good old days’ – this was little more than slavery.

Peter wrote:

Hi Bob,

Following on from David’s article featuring the School Diaries from Walsall Wood, and delving in the Archives, 1893 seems to be a good year to get a feel for life in this period.

The piece below is from the Lichfield Mercury of 13 October 1893, but is a reprint from the Birmingham Daily Post. I had previously noted that the Birmingham Daily Post is much more outspoken concerning the plight of the working people.

I must admit that the article brought a tear to my eye, and more than a little anoyance with the glorification that has been given to some of the Colliery owners of this district by recent historians.

It’s worth reading this previous post, and others in the series for bvackground.



Lichfield Mercury, 13 October 1893

The Miner’s families on Cannock Chase starving

The result of the Sheffield Conference was, (says the Birmingham Daily Post), nowhere awaited with more anxiety than amongst the miners of Cannock Chase, crowds of men were at the railway stations on Tuesday morning before daylight to acertain the news, and those that were in the fortunate position of being able to spend a penny for a newspaper, and, the more fortunate still, to be able to read well, commended the most profound respect. In the gray dawn a body of men might have been seen wending their way towards an open space at Hednesford, all carefully guarding one man who had a newspaper, and had undertaken to read aloud the report of the Sheffield conference.

The information soon became public property, and later in the day the result of Monday’s deliberations formed the chief topic of conversation amongst the men. So far as our representative was able to learn, the miners are not pleased with the suggestion that was put forward. They state that many of them might have gone to work weeks ago at a 10% reduction, but they declined, and they did not feel disposed to come down to lower wages in the cold weather. It is extremely unlikely that the Cannock Chase men, as a body, will agree to return on the conditions suggested, though we believe that several of the employers are willing to restart the new terms.

In most cases the horses are being sent down again, the ventilation of the pits has been kept good but in the majority of instances several days repairs will be necessary before any coal can be sent up. At the present time the only two the pits on the Chase at work are, the East Cannock Company employing about 500 men and Messrs Hawkins’s, of the Old Coppice employing another 300 men. The other pits are still standing, and about 8,700 men are out of work. They have now been idle for 11 weeks. It has been no light matter to find even dry bread for so large a body, in all it is estimated that 32,000 men, women and children in the Cannock Chase district have been affected by the strike.

Just now their position is most deplorable, but amongst most of them there is a good deal of honest pride, which refuses to give a tongue to poverty. These people, when questioned as to how they managed to live during the strike, reply that they have a little bread, in addition to 2s and 6d for 2 weeks now from the Association funds, and with this and the assistance from the shopkeepers, they have managed to “jog along rather moderately.” In the majority of cases it requires some persistence before the actual position of affairs can be acertained, but there can be no doubt that the events of the past 11 weeks will leave their mark upon the district for some years to come.

The local shopkeepers have not only given liberal credit to the customers, but they have, amongst them, subscribed about £250 per week towards a bread fund. This has been distributed at the rate of one 4 pound loaf to each man and wife and two children, three children two loaves, and four children three loaves.

Last week Mr Stanley was able, from the money received, to pay each man 2s 6d and to each pit boy 1s 6d, and on Tuesday similar grants were made.

Many of the miners live in houses belonging to their employees, and when they are at work the rent is deducted fortnightly from the man’s earnings. During the strike no rent has been paid, and it should be stated that there has been no attempt to interfere with the tenancy, though one woman remarked to our representative on Tuesday morning, ‘We shall have to suffer for it when it is over. I expect they will stop the rent before they let us have anything.’ She also explained that only last week a husband who was an engine man at the pit, did a little work, but that he was not allowed to draw anything, as his earnings were set against the rent arrears. It is stated that when the strike took place one of the largest Colliery Companies on the Chase deducted from the last settling up pay, that was received, a fortnight’s rent that was not due.

Women and children are suffering the most acute distress, distress which it would be true charity to relieve. Some of the children are receiving one meal each day at the schools, others are being fed at one of the Collieries. Nevertheless, cases are being met with in which boys and girls do not break their fasts between these meals. The children are described as being reluctant to confess there hunger as their parents are to acknowledge their poverty.

A touching incident was mentioned to our representative. At one of the elementary schools a few weeks after the strike commenced, and when the teachers began to suspect that children were coming to school with empty stomachs, those boys and girls were asked to stand up who had not had any breakfast. No one responded, but later in the morning a little fellow, seven or eight years old, was found hiding in one of the classrooms, eating a tallow candle which he had taken from the caretaker’s candlestick. When driven to it, he confessed that he was hungry, and had not had any breakfast.

One of our representatives on Tuesday visited a few houses in New Street, High Town, Hednesford. Many of the houses belong to a Colliery company. The people do not live in them from choice, but because they are cheap, 3s to 3s 3d a week and because they are convenient, or, as one of the tenents put it, ‘because I suppose we are obliged to if we want to work.’ The walls in many of the houses have no paper on them. There seems to be no system the drainage about the unpaved yards: and the sanitary arrangements generally, well, there are none: or, at any rate, no more than thought necessary when the property was built many years ago. Nor did one require any introduction to the poverty; there were painful evidences of it. Houses have been stripped of almost everything that can be turned into money.


Another image from the 1926 strike – a soup kitchen in Walsall Wood. These were proud, hard people. This must have hurt. Today, food banks are springing up all over. We appear to have learned little. Image from ‘Memories of Old Walsall Wood’ by Bill Mayo and John Sale.

Our representative was taken to the house of a miner in New Street. He had children. The man was out somewhere, and his wife was going out, she did not know where, but with the intention of making something for the children. There was nothing in the house, not even a chair, and the four children, whose ages ranged between 2 and 11 years were almost naked. The oldest girl, with only a rag for a skirt, hid herself behind the cupboard door on seeing a stranger. The women said they had lived on dry bread for weeks, and would be very thankful if they could get that. Since dinner time on the previous day they had not anything.

At another house in the same street a miner, his wife and nine children lived. There were a few sticks of furniture, such as a table, a rough bench, and a wooden chair. ‘We have nothing coming in except the 2s and 6d a week from the association and one or two loaves,’ said the woman, ‘and when that’s gone we have got to starve for the rest the week unless we beg something.’ She held in arms are twelve-month old baby. It was greatly emaciated, and the skin seemed to hang upon its bones. ‘The doctor ordered me to give him brandy and milk, because he was wasting away,’ said the mother, ‘but he might as well told me to give him sovereigns to play with. He can’t eat bread, and I can’t get anything to nourish myself, let alone feeding him as well.’

There were several other children in the house, who, it was stated, had not tasted breakfast. Asked whether it would not be better for her husband to return to work at the 25% reduction than for them all to starve, the woman answered, “I suppose it would not do. Besides it has been a bit better living this last year or two go, and we think If we took the drop we would soon go back to the terrible old days again.

The same story of starvation was told by several other women who were questioned, but everywher there seemed to be an indisposition to put an end to the present state of things by accepting the 25% reduction. One comparatively respectable women, who stood upon her doorstep looking after the rent collector as he went grumbling off down the street, this was not a colliery company house, was spoken to, and her story was as follows: ‘We have had to rough it for weeks. My husband when he is at work does not get drunk, but we have never been able to save anything. In some weeks before the strike he did not get more than 8s, and it was not often that he got moe than 14s because he had got a bad place. It has been months and months since he got a £1 a week.’ She further added, ‘Of course we have had to run up a score at the shop; so has everybody.’ Her husband had gone out without any breakfast, but as they were going to have half a crown from the Union funds that day they hoped to have a bit of bacon with the bread for supper.

As showing the desperate straits to which some of the poor people have been reduced it may be mentioned that last week a letter was received by the secretary of one of the local relief committees from a women with nine children stating that they were famishing, and that unless it was possible to grant her some assistance she intended to commit suicide. In none of the houses that our representitive visited was there a fire, though hundreds of women and children were seen to be digging upon a spoil bank at one of the West Cannock Colliery’s pits in search of fuel. After much digging and considerable personel risk  they were able to fill their bags and buckets with lumps of something which, they said, ‘ if it does not burn well, it will be better than grinning at an empty grate.’

The pawnshop has been the miner’s sheet anchor for some weeks past, but he has now pledged evrything that can be turned into money. Our representitive called at one of these establishments in Cannock Chase district on Tuesday, and the proprietor showed him his stock. Every shelf was weighted down, and the large store-rooms were overcrowded. The broker explained that the past summer had been a very bad one for the miners, and they were ill prepared for a strike. ‘We do not expect them to begin pawning much until the end of April or May, but this year the season was early, and they began in March. They are always short of work in summer, and have to pawn, but they redeem things in the winter. We are now full up; they have got everything in.’

The latter remark was almost superfluous to one who had taken a look for himself at some of the houses. Upon the shelves in the shop and the warehouses were thousands of bundles made up in sheets, and tablecloths, and aprons; dresses and suits of clothes were also very numerous, and, in addition, there were piles of books, scores of sewing machines and musical boxes, and a sufficient number of clocks to start a tradesman in a large way of business. There were between 2,000 and 3,000 watches and chains, and a very large number of wedding rings. ‘When wedding rings begin to come,’ said the pawnbroker, ‘we know that the pinch is very hard indeed.’

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5 Responses to Dry bread for weeks

  1. Warrington Cuthbert smyth. says:

    A very sad read. Our ancestors, did well to keep our family trees going at all through all of that hardship!

  2. Dave Edwards says:

    My ancesters were miners in the late 1800s, this article brings a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye. Good article

  3. Clive says:

    Sad but interesting read Thank you. “The good old days my a**** “

  4. Rob says:

    Families of nine children seemed to be common.

    Hardly responsible given the circumstances.

  5. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    Gulp! a big thank you to Pedro, please. It links with “Harpers, hairbrushes and sucky fish” article, too.

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