One of the more contentious issues in the history and folklore of mining communities is that of strikes and protest – we all know they happened, but for some historical retellers and gatekeepers the actuality has always been a wee bit too raw, rough and ready for their liking, so the stories are often given a subtle cast to better align with delicate sensibilities.
Local history rapscallion Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler has again been busy crate digging in the archives and turned up this interesting bit of history relating to a remarkably tense protest at Littleton Colliery, Cannock, in 1912 – and he finds the historical coverage seems a little disparate.
Thanks, as ever to Peter who consistently ruffles feathers with his investigations into such matters. His coverage of the Old Hednesford Pit Disaster has certainly been ruffling a few feathers…
Littleton Colliery 1912, another Battle of Orgreave?
Anyone interested in the coal industry around the time of the Geat War can gain a great deal from the Sankey Commission of 1919, available and searchable online. It was called by Lloyd George, probably just to buy time, and to examine the future of the coal mining industry. At the conclusion recommendations were made, but just as Cameron and Leveson it was confined to the dustbin.
Searching for anything of local interest reveals very little except a mention of Littleton Colliery. Thomas Bailey, who was a prominent adviser to many royalty owners, sited the Colliery as being an example of capital risk taken by the royalty owner Lord Hatherton; being ten years before any dividend was paid. He was of the opinion that risk like this would not be taken under State control.
To check out Littleton Colliery I turn to the ‘trusted’ publication by the Cannock Chase Mining Historical Society (CCMHS) – ‘The Cannock Chase Coalfield and its Coal Mines‘ and an occurrence under Confrontations in 1912 caught my eye.
During the strike some 6000 men from Heath Hayes, Cannock, Hednesford and Chadsmoor marched to Littleton Colliery to demonstrate against the Company with regard to their grievance about money. Thousands of pounds of damage was done at the colliery; local police facing a barrage of missiles resorted to a baton charge to disperse the crowd.
Strike breakers working underground were ordered to the surface and accommodated at the colliery for the evening with a guard for their protection. The striking miners were seen as a threat to law and order so a Company of 500 soldiers was brought in to liaise with the police. The soldiers of the 1st West Yorkshire Regiment were stationed at Whittington were only in the vicinity for a short period 26 March to 6th April.
It is obviously difficult to tell the whole story in a couple of paragraphs, and so I turned to the ‘trusted’ local papers the Lichfield Mercury and the Walsall Advertiser for more detail, and quite a story evolves.
The gathering was part of a national dispute. The crowd had gathered on learning that 80 stallmen were working underground while the management maintained that the men were only keeping the roads open, but were not believed. Several hundred women were in the crowd and they were among the noisiest. There were threats of violence and it was evident the police would be utterly powerless if the strikers got out of control. The pressure of the crowd was so great that 2000 were forced up to the pit head. A number of youths were stated to have threatened police, stones and other missiles were being hurled. The miner’s agent appealed for the crowd to be peaceful but was drowned in noise.
The Police Chief, Spendlove, said that the crowd later increased to 9000 and were armed with bludgeons, sticks, hedge sticks and stones. He advised that the men be kept down the pit as the crowd were around the pit mouth and he believed that the men’s lives were in jeapody. Troops were called the same night but within 48 hours everything was quiet. 33 policemen were injured.
It appears that 26 men were arrested but only 8 were sent to the Assizes, where one man was discharged and the remaining 7 were tried and found guilty by a jury. The jury had recommended mercy on account of their youth and the excitement that had prevailed at the time.
But Justice Horridge was having none of this, he would take no notice of character references given by the MP Mr. A Stanley, and stated that it was a terrible crime against society; it should be known throughout the length and breadth of the country that the law would not have violence and rioting accompanying any trade agitation. 3 men were given 6 months hard labour, and the others 4 months hard labour. The Mercury report that during the delivery of the sentences a young girl in the public gallery broke out into loud lamentations, and it was some time before she could be removed. But in the Cornishman the report differs by saying that it was the mother of one of the defendants who shouted out to her, ‘Don’t cry mother, it won’t kill us.’
Mr. Stanley (MP) wrote to the Home Secretary with a petition pleading for a reduction in the sentences, but the the Home Secretary found insufficient grounds for interfrence. Three of the convicted men asked for the right to appeal but only one was successful. At his appeal his sentence was quashed as the conviction had been on the evidence of one witness, and he had a credible alibi. The witness said that he had asked the defendant for a match but was told that the last one had been used to fire the cabin. It was also said that the witness had been overheard in a pub to say that he could get the defendant 5 years penal servitude!
November 1912, Chadsmoor….Two of the young men who on July 8th were sentenced to imprisonment for rioting at Littleton Colłiery, returned home on Saturday, and the occasion was made one of great rejoicing, the streets being gay with flags and bunting. At intervals of a few yards there were streamers hanging across the road, and flags were pushed out of many windows. Thousands of chrythanthemums of all colours had been used to add to the decorative effect. At Blackfords, a little distance away, were similar decorations.
[On the same page of the CCMHS publication it says that 1913 saw the opening of the Central Rescue Station at Hednesford, which had been financed by the Cannock Chase Coal Owners Association. According to the Mercury it was set up in order to comply with the provisions of recent mining legislation, and initially the cost was borne by the CCCOA]