As far distant as the millennium

I owe Peter Cutler an awful lot of beer. He spends hours and hours trawling the net, just looking for stuff that may be of use to the blog, and of interest to the readers. Without his work, and of course, that of other contributors, this blog would be a much poorer thing indeed.

Every so often, along with the very high quality stuff Peter finds, he strikes gold. And so it is with this piece. Found coincidentally to reader Alan Harvey’s request for more Norton Canes, this article on the village, from the Saturday, 30th January 1886 copy of The Graphic, is a remarkable travelogue written by a visitor to a small, dirt-poor community, just before everything changed.

There are telling phrases here ‘…as far distant as the millennium’, ‘Their whole life, from the cradle to the grave, is one series of trouble and toil…’. I had no idea – although it’s logical now it’s been mentioned – that pit-ponies caused so many injuries. The death from lock-jaw (tetanus) is a grim and a sobering reminder of life without modern medicine or the NHS. The optimism about public education is refreshing.

This was our local community, 127 years ago. How far we have come. Never forget that.

Please, do comment and contribute. More Norton to come later in the week. BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com. Cheers.


Norton Canes today is a modern, busy community. Imagery from Bing! Maps.


Last summer I entered a Staffordshire hamlet for the first time. The village I marked out for my visit was a quaint, straggling, little place on the borders of Cannock Chase—the latter a beautiful picture of wild scenery, with banks covered with the longest ferns I have ever seen—and known as Norton Canes. I was unable to note much on my entry, as it was quite dark when I reached the Valley of the Trent, and from Lichfield—immortalised as the birthplace of Dr. Samuel Johnson, and where his statue still figures in the market- place—I had a good seven-mile drive across country. In the morning my first acquaintance with Norton Canes was made, and the first thing I saw was the whole machinery and surroundings of a coal-pit in working order. It was not a hundred yards away from the window at which I stood, and I could stand and watch the frequent revolutions of the chain wheel over the shaft, as the truck-loads of coal were drawn to the surface, or miners descended into the very bowels of the earth. I almost shuddered as I imagined the dangers that awaited these brave men underground.

The village itself cannot he compared with any of the rural retreats that dot the southern counties of England; it is only a crooked little hamlet in unison with its smoky surroundings. It is a village of one street—like the majority of northern hamlets— although from off the parent thoroughfare three or four narrow winding streets branch. Every house is built of sombre red brick ; none of those pretty, slanting-roofed, thatched cottages that you see in Kent or Surrey, with the swallows and sparrows building beneath the eaves, but only dark, square red houses with very little garden eilher back or front to lend them some vestige of beauty. In the course of my peregrinations around the village I only came across two thatched houses, and these were excommunicated from the habitations of miners. For all these red houses are inhabited by the pitmen, many of the buildings being the property of the owners of the various collieries, while some are built and paid for by the colliers themselves out of their savings. The collier’s wife is extremely clean, and her family unusually large. I saw one woman who had had two-and-twenty children and seventeen were now living. Several women are in possession of from twelve to seventeen, and yet these prolific mothers are not verv advanced in years. They marry exceedingly young, men enter the matrimonial state before their twentieth year, and consequently from these early unions spring numerous children.

EPSON scanner image

A postcard of the Conduit Pit. Like Brownhills, Norton was born out of, lived and died early through the black stuff. A great image from David Evans.

How they all live and thrive as they do is one of those mysteries not dreamt of in the philosophy of Horatio. Heaven knows the struggle is very hard for these women to keep body and soul together more especially in the summer, when there is little demand for coal and wages are bad; but they are never the ones to complain and they are endowed with the patience of Job. Their whole life, from the cradle to the grave, is one series of trouble and toil, and experience has taught them to be reconciled to it.

The background of Norton Canes is composed of pits with tall shafts and smoking chimneys, forming rather a rather gloomy picture to the landscape around. Many of the paths are strewn with ashes and the latter, when Boreas is at the height of his play, fly about in all directions, making it very uncomfortable for the pedestrian. There are no buildings of any importance, such as a concert hall or reading-room or library, where men, after their labour, may become intellectual; such benefits as these do not figure in the category of miners’ comforts. Even the church and school are beyond the reach of those who dwell in the most thickly-populated part of the district, being fully a mile and a half away, in the lower extremity of the village, thus preventing many from attending the worship of the Church of England, owing to their refusal to walk so far. However, to console them for the loss of one house of prayer, they have a Presbyterian Chapel in their midst, and a Salvation Army, the latter never failing to make itself heard on every night of the week.

Of course the principal institutions, and those on which the surrounding hamlets depend for their existence, are the collieries, and very valuable institutions, from a commercial point of view, they are. Nearly every man and boy in the village and for miles around pass their lives in these deep pits, and toil hard for the coal which makes the poorest home cheerful. We in London do not realise sufficiently the hardships and dangers undergone by these strong, hardy men in their labours beneath the earth’s surface, and how badly they are paid for rendering such a service to the community at large. Such poor remuneration is the cause of frequent strikes. Even while I was there many of the men were up in aims because of the scarcity of wages, and the owner threatened to close the pits unless the contumacious ones accepted his decision. They appeared determined to hold out, and maintained, if they could only get a general strike, that it would be a grand day for them. But I am afraid that grand day for the miners is as far distant as the millennium. Even this little episode illustrates clearly the dissatisfaction existing among the pitmen, and how hard it is for them to make both ends meet. Their rate of wages is one penny per hundredweight, and those who are conversant with the working of the pits can imagine how long it takes before the collier can dig out from the solid, and send up to the pit’s mouth, his ton of coal. There is not only the labour of getting the coal out of its bed but there is the building up again the great gap made with earth and trees, lest the roof should fall with a crash and bury men beneath it. The labour, therefore, is great both ways, and the reward undeniably small.

Conduit 1884 med

A fascinating 1884 plan of the coal workings of the Norton Conduit Colliery and their interaction with the railway above. To see the post this relates to, click on the image.

To those who have never seen a pit a short description may be interesting. On entering the yard you pass by the engine-house and other necessary paraphernalia for the working of the pits, and make straight for the shaft, where the cage is ready to conduct you into the bowels of the earth. Above is the great wheel round which the steel chains revolve and work the cage with almost lightning rapidity. Standing at the brink of the pit’s mouth you look down and there is nothing but total darkness. It is like peeping into the bottomless pit itself. The wooden cage comes up, and you take your stand upon it, and before you can say ‘Jack Robinson,’ the engine is set in motion, the wheel above you revolves and loosens the chain, the lever is pulled, and the cage drops, and in less time than one can write it, you are more than four hundred yards below the surface of the earth. The journey is sudden and decidedly unpleasant, you have a notion that all your breath is gone, and your stomach completely overturned, and when you again touch terra firma you are in a dazed, bewildered, and half-fainting condition. But a little brandy soon restores animation, and after you have collected your scattered thoughts, and regained some of your lost breath, yon laugh and wonder at the rapid journey you have made, and cast an eye upon your underground surroundings. And very dark and dismal ones indeed they are. In all directions run long, narrow roads, so low some of them, in parts, that you are perforced to bend your back if you would save your head. A stick and a safety lamp are given you, so, aided by these valuable articles, you commence your underground pilgrimage. Many of the roads are a mile and a half long, and, although a miner may live opposite the pit’s mouth above ground, yet he may have a mile or more to walk after he has descended into the earth. Like mariners on the sea these workers underground have their various charts, and can tell exactly where they are. They know almost every house they are under; every field, road, and river; and they can tell within a foot if they are approaching another man’s territory. What strikes the explorer more than anything is the number of horses employed in the mines, and their diminished size. In the pit under description there are, in constant work before our eyes, nearly a hundred horses, and it astonishes many how they travel so fast through these dimly-lighted subterranean passages. As each little truck is loaded with the coal, it is borne in the cage without loss of time to the surface. Many of these animals have never seen daylight, having been born and reared in the mine. Even those horses that have at some time or other been the inhabitants of green fields and meadows, have become so used to their perpetual darkness that, were they to be put back into their old delightful haunts, it would take them some four or five days ere they recovered the power of sight. The miners are in great danger through these animals, for the roads are so narrow and low, and the horses come along at such a terrific pace at times, that before the man can steer clear of their path he is knocked down, and perhaps receives some irreparable injury. Accidents are very frequent in the pits, and the roll-call for one year presents a number that is heartrending, and almost incredible. Speaking in the House of Commons in July, last year, Mr. Burt said that the number of people who had lost their lives during the year 1883 was 1,140, thus showing the dangerous and hazardous work these brave miners have taken upon themselves to perform. Even during my short stay in the village a young lad had his foot smashed beneath’a loaded truck, and, after lingering lor a few days in great pain, lockjaw intervened, which soon terminated in death. I saw him buried; a simple, touching burial that could not fail to move the stoutest heart, with the rude but sympathetic miners following sadly their young and unfortunate comrade to the grave.

An early postcard. The architecture is amazing - vey intricate brickwork.

An early postcard. The architecture is amazing – vey intricate brickwork.

Education is the miners’ chief drawback—it cannot be called a fault, for theirs is not the blame—and there are not two men out of a dozen who can write their own name, or read four words out of a child’s school-book. It is disheartening to think that such ignorance should exist among such a fine body of men. If a man is able to read aloud the daily paper he is considered a great scholard – always the d at the end – and reckoned some one of importance among the small fraternity. But the reason is not far to seek why such ignorance reigns in these days of Board School and cheap literature. When they were lads no such facilities were open to them; the Board School was a thing undreamt of, and cheap literature out of the question: so that learning was in every way beyond their grasp.  Almost as soon as they could walk they made acquaintance with the interior of the pits, and at an age wne they should have been wading through their first primer, they were learning the rudiments of a collier’s life. But happily things are changed now; education has spread its light among the dark territories of coal; the Board School opens its doors to the miners’ children; and if the colliers themselves suffer through their ignorance, they have the consolation of knowing that it will not be so with the little ones growing up before them.

And I deem it no idle prophecy that, in the years to come, miners will be an intellectual body of men.

H. H. A.

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25 Responses to As far distant as the millennium

  1. Clive says:

    What a great find Peter, you would`nt get me down that pit for all the tea in China.
    Thanks to all involved.

  2. Edwina says:

    What a fantastic piece of history reading, this should be brought to the attention of all children at school in the area today. To show them how far we have come and at what cost to our forebears the way they lived and how glad we should be that those times are mostly past-times thankfully.

    • Hi Edwina

      Thanks for your lovely words, means a lot.

      I believe that via David Evans, some of this material is working its way into schools, which pleases me greatly.

      The past shapes our future, after all.


  3. David Oakley says:

    Hi Bob,
    Thanks, Pedro, another little gem. I pondered many things after reading the article, and was struck, first of all, by the praiseworthy moral tone which seems to be brought out by the writer, in describing the Norton Canes miner and his family. His praise for the women, ‘never ones to complain’. and ‘the colliers wife is extremely clean, often with a large family’, while the miners are described as a ‘fine body of men’, and regards housing. ‘some are built by the colliers themselves out of their savings. ‘By the sweat of a miners brow’ could be the appellation on many miners houses and not just the property situated in the Paul’s Coppice area.
    Conditions underground were quite dreadful, and were not ameliorated by the paucity of the miners wage. Similar conditions applied in the French coalfields, where drunkenness and licentious were the outcome of such misery, and in the Pennsylvania coalfields in America where the horrors of the ‘Molly Macquires’ spread murder and terror . Thank God the Norton Canes miners were of that peculiar resolute British stock in which a high moral outlook and forbearance ranks high in the list if the admirable qualities of the old mining communities.
    The traditional freedom of the British press was another stepping-stone in the betterment of conditions for miners and other industrial workers. H.H.A. reported conditions as he saw them and were faithfully reported in The Graphic which had, no doubt, a large readership. These social commentators of the day were invaluable to progress, as were the small number of M.P’s with a social conscience who were articulate enough to hold forth on the subject in the House of Commons. Big business concerns in America and the stranglehold of the French coal-owners and aristocracy made it difficult to publicise these lamentable conditions in those countries, hence the completely different approach to the problem.
    The Norton Canes miner and his family, by their conduct and attitude, during this visit, lit their own tiny torch, which would blaze into many homes taking the Graphic and. would, no doubt, play its own small part in the gradual betterment of conditions within the mining industry.

  4. John Hall says:

    I was born in School Lane (dk blob on the map) and walked the 2.0 miles to school at the other end of the village.
    There were two houses at the top of the lane and close to the A5 which were condemned in 1954 , no electricity , outside loos and the only hot water was provided by heating pans on either the gas stove or the open fire.
    I remember on a calm winters night hearing the miners as they toiled beneath us and would spend hours watching the coal tubs being transported on the small rail track through Little Wyrley .
    My family were not pitmen but many of my cousins had fathers who were down one of the many mines in the area, yet the countryside was wonderfully green and the people were friendly and generous to each other.
    Like every other working class village there were problems and I am sure that the neighbours’ did not always get along, but I loved my time at Norton Canes Infants/Primary School and it was a sad day for my family when we moved to Brownhills.
    I found many of my school chums from Norton Canes living in the council estate at Ogley Hay and enjoyed their companionship throughout my youth, but the freedom to roam about the woods and fields (many of them under concrete as the industrial estates and particularly the toll road were built) will always be in my memory.

  5. Pedro says:

    I think we have to take this article in context. It is written for a weekly newspaper in London, which appeals to lovers of literature, music and the Empire; therefore it may be considered to use poetic license.

    David you say,

    “Thank God the Norton Canes miners were of that peculiar resolute British stock in which a high moral outlook and forbearance ranks high in the list if the admirable qualities of the old mining communities.”

    Just what the established order, and those aspiring to gentrification, would like to hear. It took over forty more years for the Commons to stand up to the Coal Owners, and I would never underestimate the role of the Trade Union.

  6. David Oakley says:

    Hi Pedro,
    Can’t quite see the poetic licence in this particular piece. The harshness of life underground is fully explained, as is the limited social facilities within a pit village. None of those
    ‘pretty slanting-roofed cottages with the swallows and sparrows building between the eaves’ the author makes this quite clear, no cosy pink glow can be detected anywhere. If the article was written for a particular market, i.e. lovers of literature, music and the empire, perhaps the middle class of its time, then the author is to be commended for bringing this misery to their attention. and the newspaper for publishing. Perhaps a good example of a free press.
    Regarding the moral outlook and forbearance of the miners, which is what the ‘ established order and those aspiring to gentrification’ would like to hear’ What could have been done to bring about a sudden and violent change to the industry? The burning and destruction of pithead gear and the looting of property, as in France, or the murder of innocent miners by the Molly Mc Quires as in America? Neither of these extreme measures met with any success. Neither did the Luddites, some years earlier with their own acts of property violence. The Norton Canes miners were poorly organised, but they did what they could with frequent strikes in order to improve their conditions. They were not complacent, they did not meekly accept their lot and would play their full part later, when the N.U. M. was formed. Their own conviction ‘…..if they could only get a general strike, that it would be as grand day for them’ speaks volumes for there own militancy.
    It is easy, in retrospect, to lament the slow movement of change in the miners conditions, but that’s how things were, at the time. No matter what industry I examine, change came slowly. I myself was working a 48 hour week in the 1940’s, so were many others, all good trade unionists, but there were limits to what even the most vigorous and militant trade union can do, even in this modern age.

  7. Pedro says:

    David, this article is written in 1886, and therefore taking a timeline up to 1900, was Norton Canes typical of the mining villages in South Staffs, or indeed England in general?

    At the Miners Demonstration of 1872 the Rev Poole of Burntwood wasted no time in lecturing the miners…

    “The skilled and industrious workmen would be well rewarded, and the idle and unskilled would be taught this lesson; that if he desired the happiness of his family or his own welfare, he must not give way to the habits of indolence (Hear, Hear). At present he could not help reflecting that too many made themselves the slaves of Satan” (Hear, Hear).

    In 1874 the Rev RK Bolton of Newbold, Derbyshire, took the opportunity of lecturing workmen of the Sheepbridge Iron and Coal Co, while they were at Church to pay their respects to a deceased fellow workman…

    On the improvident habits of the working classes in general, and the Staffordshire workmen in particular” declaring that when, some eighteen years ago, he left the part of South Staffordshire in which he lived, the country was black, the faces of the people were black, and their hearts were blacker still. He also reproved them for gambling and extravagence of eating and drinking.

    (This did not go down well!)

    Beyond 1900, well that is another story.

  8. David Oakley says:

    The Established Church of England was indeed part of the establishment at that time, and the maxim “God bless the squire and his relations, and keep us in our proper stations” was paramount in their thinking. On that basis, the comments by the two clerics, listed above can best be described in the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies at the Profumo enquiry. “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?, These derogatory comments on the working miner and other Black Country workers are certainly not valid. Not in my book, anyway.

    • Andy Dennis says:

      Is this not why the Methodist and other non-conformist churches became so popular among miners and other working folk?

      It seems that, although striking was one of the few tactics available, almost every strike led to the miners returning to work impoverished by the strike itself and on worse terms than previously. I don’t criticise the miners (or the workers in shipyards, cotton mills, railways, and so on); strikes can work, I even benefitted from one myself and from the threat of others. Nevertheless, the miners were always fighting at a disadvantage when confronted by implacable owners and ultimately a government that was determined to crush them.

  9. Pedro says:

    This article was written in 1886, and it is difficult for anyone to visualise life as it was back then. We have been advised not to judge by the standards of today.

    However, the views of the two clerics would be considered derogatory by most observers, but they do show an opposite view held at the time to that of high moral outlook.

    To say that the article has poetic licence may be the wrong term as it could mean that the facts have been changed, perhaps artistic would be better.

    For example the use of term “the philosophy of Horatio…Boreas is at the height of his play” would appeal to his readership. To highlight the lady with the most children, and use the unequal comparison to villages in Kent and Surrey. He could have compared to a village in Lancashire.

    To mention Mr Burt’s speech in the House praising the miners, while the Pall Mall Gazette calls for his resignation for presiding over wilful manslaughter in other industries.

    • Pedro says:

      Must apologise here it was Bruce, and not Burt, that the Gazette mentions.

      Burt was the MP from the Miners Association, and one of the first from the working class.

      • Pedro says:

        Burt, Thomas (1837–1922), trade union leader and politician

        Burt began work underground at the age of ten, first as a trapper and then as a pony driver, and worked in a number of local collieries before returning with his family to Northumberland, where he was a hewer at various collieries around Cramlingon and Choppington. He became involved in trade unionism from the age of about sixteen, was victimized, and joined the Northumberland and Durham Mutual Confidence Association when it was founded in 1863

        In 1873 Burt was adopted as the Liberal candidate for Morpeth, and in the following year he was returned as MP, retaining the seat for forty-four years until his retirement in 1918, by which time he had become the ‘father of the House’. Like other radicals, Burt supported issues such as Irish home rule, household suffrage, the reform of trade union law, and the disestablishment of the Church of England.

        (From Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

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  13. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    what a very interesting article and tremendous “find” by dear Pedro…and the rich and valuable readers’ comments, too. Here comes my little pennuth..The mention of a presbyterian chapel caught my eye..the first I have heard of a chapel of that denomination in Norton Canes..I wonder where it stood and what become of it.
    My thanks to all who have contributed to this topic and especially to Bob for transcribing, collating and publishing this….no mean task..very much appreciated.
    kind regards

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  16. Pedro says:

    The Graphic October 1889.

    The omnibus and tram men are also combining, with a view to a general strike, unless shorter hours of labour are conceded by the companies employing them. And the children are following the example of the men and women. Schoolboys were demanding shorter hours, no cane, and no home lessons, have been out on strike during the past week in Bermondsey, Kennington, Woolwich, and Finsbury, and in the provinces at Birkenhead, Edinburgh among other towns.

    Gangs of these young desperados have been perambulating the streets armed with sticks and stones, but the severity of the magistrates is having its effect. There has been a serious riot at Bristol, where 600 men out on strike from the gasworks used such violence towards the hands engaged to take their places that they fled in all directions, most of them returning to their homes.

    The agitation is extending in the provinces. The ironworkers in Staffordshire, the Nail and chain hands at Cradley Heath are agitating. The strike is threatened on the North Eastern Railway.

  17. Pedro says:

    On the site for the Burntwod Family History Group, Wimblebury is described as having a population of some 700, and such a number of churches and chapels that it was called the Holy City.

    Jack Harrison talking about the 1920s, in his book “The King of Norton Canes (1990)” says…

    Wimblebury was known to outsiders as ‘The Holy City’, where any stranger venturing along its streets did so at his peril. Most Saturday nights there was a free-for-all come closing time when the two pubs disgorged their customers. Upon the slightest pretext fights broke out between the various factors, which resulted in many a scar for life being inflicted on the faces of the participants.

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