His time might be far better occupied

I am indebted to local history rapscallion Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler for the following piece which I’ve been sat on for ages, but I think in the current political and parochial climate is startlingly appropriate.

The Harrison dynasty and mining operations have been covered here extensively on the blog – mainly by Peter and Andy Dennis, who have spent many days researching these typical Victorian and  pre-nationalisation mineral industrialists. Whilst many local history accounts – some which should know better, to be frank – treat the Harrisons with almost religious reverence, we’ve taken a franker, more inquisitorial line.

Whilst fellow industrialist and innovator McClean was being noted for his achievements whilst undertaking a degree of philanthropy, the Harrisons seemed more concerned with status and social climbing.

This is illustrated well in the following wonderful piece in which W.B. Harrison stands for political office – and fails to be elected, clearly to his surprise. The final paragraphs of his speech suggest a degree of humbug that’s somewhat telling. They reminded me of something more recent.

We’ve covered some of the family’s political aspirations before – including this failure to launch, after which Walsall Wood received a bit of a ticking off… the fact that Walsall Wood Colliery, the major employer of the village, was not connected to Harrison couldn’t possibly be connected with his lack of popularity there, could it?

My thanks to Peter for another window on the social and economic history of Brownhills. Imagine, the probably smoky room, the waistcoats and watch-chains glistening. The glasses raised. The movers and shakers of Victorian Brownhills cheering and backslapping.

And all the while, hundreds of feat beneath them physically, and decades beneath them socially, men toiled in the darkness to extract the coal that made their masters rich.

Peter Cutler wrote:

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The Harrison coal and mineral empire was massive, and built on cheap labour. Image from ‘Around Walsall Wood and Aldridge in old postcards’ by Jan Farrow.

In the year of 1889, when Andy Dennis’s relative Thomas Dennis met his death at Wyrley Grove Colliery, the coal owner, Captain William Bealey Harrison was campaigning to be elected for the administrative county of Staffordshire which was set up under the Local Government Act 1888.

In January things seemed to be going well and the Mercury reported that, a meeting at the Walsall Wood Infant School, great progress had been made with the canvas on behalf of the Captain, and most gratifying results had been obtained. But the Captain had to refute the allegation that he had endeavoured to prevent the wages of the surface workers at West Cannock Colliery being raised.

At the Public Hall in Brownhills the good Doctor Maddever presided and said that the Captain and his father had been the mainstay of the district by their commercial operations. He believed that his interests would be best represented by someone who found his living and found the living of the so many in the neighbourhood, rather by one, who, he believed did not pay a penny of rates in the district..

The Captain, who was received with hearty cheering, disclaimed all personal objects in coming forward… his aim was simply to serve the district to the best of ability… No one could say that he had not thrown himself thoroughly into any work he had undertaken in the past and if elected he would give all the time necessary to the work of the Council…

His opponent (Mr Brawn) and his opponent’s friends made false allegations …He had withstood movements to reduce the men’s wages… Years ago he worked to prevent the workouts been erected at Cannock. For 20 years he served his country as a Volunteer Officer… 10 years ago he took over the management of a concern a a few miles away which employed 200 men; but at present there were 1200 and he was laying down plant and making extensions which made it very possible that in 12 to 15 months they would be 1500 employed.

While the average deaths underground in the coal industry was 1 in 162,294 tons of coal raised, he had in 15 years raised something like 4 million tons of coal, and had had five deaths underground, or average of 1 in 800,000 tons. (Applause) whilst in the last six years there had been one and a half million raised with not one fatal accident on the ground. (Applause) he mentioned this not in a boastful spirit, but in the spirit of thankfulness and with the view of showing that he was not indifferent to the safety and well-being of his work people……. Seeing that two thirds of the rates of the district were on the collieries, it was only right that a colliery proprietor should represent the district.

SHOCKER …Captain WB Harrison was unsuccessful!

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William Roberts was, I think, the better businessman and had a greater penchant for social concerns. He was, however, a shrewd operator and would have wanted politically connected friends. From what I can tell, Old Bill was a big hearted, but canny man and a bit of a rogue on the quiet. Image from ‘Brownhills – A Walk Into History’ by Gerald Reece.

On the 8 March the Mercury reports of a complimentary dinner to Captain WB Harrison and about 200 friends, at Station Hotel and hosted by Mr Roberts. “Welcome to our Captain” and “Long life and health to Mr and Mrs Harrison.”

Again the good Doctor Maddever presided, and after the usual round of toasts… He had been told by the oldest inhabitant, that some 40 years ago Brownhills was a desert, inhabited by deer and black game, and that between there and Hednesford, there were only a few houses, while today there were various villages in all directions. They ascribed that increase in population, industry and prosperity of the district largely in the first place to Captain Harrison’s father, and in the second place to Captain Harrison himself. It had been said by Ruskin that industrious and energetic men like Captain Harrison had spoilt the face of fair England. It was quite true that in an artistic sense that they had, but they had provided something from which sprang all the joys and also the sorrows of 1000s of the human race.

The land was much more useful when it was devoted to keeping up the human race than went it was devoted for keeping up game for the sport of a few. (applause) Their thanks were due to Captain Harrison for the great service the had rendered to the district…

Mr Jos Owen spoke of the great improvements to the collieries that Captain Harrison had introduced…

Then William Bealey Harrison took the floor…’Brownhills and the immediate neighbourhood owed a great deal to the energy and pluck that his father displayed in that place, which at one time was practically a desert. It was perfectly true that his father introduced certain improvements to the workings of the collieries. His father had been a working man who rose from an humble origin, and entirely by his industry and perseverance acquired a position which any man might be proud of.’ (Cheers)

‘It was very grateful indeed to find that the memory of his father was held in such high esteem by them. As a lad he came to reside in the neighbourhood, and he was personally interested in its welfare, as his children and probably is children’s children would be. (Cheers) Such being the case it was a very pleasant thing, for him to be there that night, and find his name respected in that neighbourhood.’

‘At the counting of votes after the election, he soon saw that he was the defeated candidate but he was glad he was not defeated by the men in the locality in which he lived. (Cheers) He was defeated by the Walsall Wood voters, but perhaps the time might come when they would regret the course that they had adopted on that occasion.’

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This was apparently better than a landscape covered with heath and game. A debatable point. The Grove Colliery was notorious, and saw a 14-fatality disaster in 1930. Image from ‘Memories of old Brownhills’ by Clarice Mayo and Geoff Harrington.

“It was pleasing to find that in the parish in which he had a permanent interest, a far greater interest than anyone else, the men supported him, and if it had been left to them he should have been carried by a large majority. (Cheers) He did not come forward as a candidate for the County Council for his own aggrandisment. He did so because he desired to see persons returned who had some idea of organisation, who had a practical knowledge of business, and who had been associated with big undertakings. He placed his services at the disposal of the voters of that district simply for their protection and also for his own.’

‘He did not regret that he was not returned on that occasion because his time might be far better occupied, but he did say he would never rest satisfied until he saw that division represented by a man associated with the trade of the district. (Loud Cheers) He would not stand himself but he would get someone else connected with the colliery enterprise of the district, as he considered it an absurdity that an exclusively mining area should be represented by a farmer.’ (Cheers)

‘By devoting his energies to the different enterprises with which he was connected he should be able to serve the district better than by attending County Council meetings. Next week he was going to Russia in the endeavour to get trade for that district, and he should at all times do his best for the industries of the neighbourhood.’

‘His old friends there had been true to him, and he was glad to say that he had made many new ones during the election, and he believed that a friendship had sprung up between them that would last for the remainder of their lives. (Cheers) He was deeply indebted to them for the enthusiastic way in which they had received him, and assured them as long as he had health and strength he would devote his energies and capital and industry to that district, in which he had been reared and with which he hoped to be associated with until the day of his death.’

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5 Responses to His time might be far better occupied

  1. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    what a wonderful article. Many thanks to Pedro.
    kind regards
    David.

  2. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    It is interesting to note the report of the meeting at Walsall Wood Infants school. We know that the school had been enlarged..by miners themselves..a few years beforehand. These included quite a few men, who had migrated here from Harrison’s pits, and their working conditions in Cannock Chase coalfield. I dont think they ever went back.
    What do we know of Mr Brawn?
    again a huge thanks to Pedro, and also to your goodself for this excellent article and presentation
    kind regards
    David

  3. Andy Dennis says:

    Nice one, Pedro.

    My father didn’t speak of Harrison in a way that reflected any friendship, either on his part or his father’s generation.

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