The men would rather starve, than work and starve…

An unassuming series of books, but they tell a remarkable story of pre-union mining. Image Kindly supplied by Sean Coughlan.

I am very lucky indeed to have some wonderful contributors to the Brownhills Blog, who work tirelessly in the background ferreting around in local history, responding to new submissions and generally researching and writing new material based on things we’re sent.

The following stunning article by industrial historian eter ‘Pedro’ Cutler, detailing the hardships and hard bargaining around Miner’s wages in the pre-union days is remarkable and has been a real labour of love, months in the genesis, and all springs from the kind donation of some interesting minute books by Sean Coughlan, leader of Walsall Council, longstanding local Labour politician and ex-miner.

Sean generously posted some scans of the books on Facebook, and after chatting about the subject, he kindly loaned them to David Evans who carefully and patiently scanned them, before passing on the scans to Peter Cutler and Andy ‘Captain Ahab’ Dennis for careful scrutiny.

You can actually read the first booklet here – I hope to get the others PDFd soon.

The story here touches on others we’ve posted here before, including the Harrison coal-owning dynasty and the story of Miner’s Hero Albert Stanley MP who was actually a relative of David Evans!

I’d like to thank everyone involved in the writing of this article, and the history it captures, but particularly David for all his hard work, and Peter and Andy whose eye for detail is superb and a joy to see. But real thanks must go to Sean Coughlan, without whose generosity this article would never have happened.

Interspersed with the article are a couple of images of a token found recently by friend of the blog Dickie Weston – we don’t actually know what it is, but it is stamped with the name of the Amalgamated Miners Association of Cannock Chase, and I feel sure it dates from the time of this wage negation, as labour rights and Unions were forming. What do we know about this organisation?

Can you help identify it please?

Thanks to everyone involved, and if you have anything to add, please do: Comment here or mail me – BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com. Thanks.

Reader Dickie Weston has found this check, token or badge whilst metal detecting. Do you know what it is? We’d love to know.

The three booklets shared by Sean Coughlan contain the minutes of the proceedings of the “Miners’ Wages, Cocilliation Board” that took place on the 15th January 1894 (1st meeting), the 24 February, and the 3rd April 1894 (4th meeting) at which the elected Chairman Lord Shane was present.

The booklets in isolation make hard reading, but they are there for anyone who wishes to look in depth into the history of the industrial relations of the coal industry.

Although these were national meetings in London, between on one side the Federated Coalowners, and the other side the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (MFGB), the Cannock Chase Owners were represented by WB Harrison (Captain Harrison) and J Williamson. The Cannock Chase miners were represented by Albert Stanley.

By looking at events for a period before and after 1894 it can give an insight into the relations between the miners and the coalowners, not only nationally, but also that of Cannock Chase. I believe that the events are one example, of many, that contradict the idea that the Cannock Chase collieries were “family run firms that valued their workers, and that the workforce were, to a great degree, contented and happy.”

The Conciliation Board was being set up after the 1893 Lock out…

“The 1893 miner’s strike was triggered by a significant drop in the price of coal. In an attempt to maintain profits, colliery owners tried to introduced a 25% reduction in miners’ wages. This was rejected by the Miners Federation who called for a “living wage”. The result was a lock-out that went on for much of the summer.

The 1893 lock out is considered by some as the first National Coal Strike, although places like Scotland and South Wales had not yet joined the Miners’ Federation. The mine owners brought in troops and police which led to the notorious “Fetherstone Massacre.”

What was the situation in Cannock Chase coalfields? All seems to be well if you look in February 1893. It was announced that “both William Hanbury and William Harrison were sinking new shafts at Coppice Colliery near Hednesford and near Wyrley, both on new mineral area. There is no risk of money being lost. When they are finished the new pits will be probably the largest and most complete in the whole district. The machinery to be laid down is to be the most modern and approved type, and the whole work is, indeed, to be carried out in a style regardless of cost. The production in the last year from Cannock Chase was over 5m tons….equal to the great “boom” year in 1873….the output of the present year will probably exceed it.”

But it seems that coal prices dropped and the Federated Coalowners began their lockout. In July notices were served by a number of Cannock Chase Collieries, and a mass meeting of at least 3000 was held on the Common at Brownhills. There was a strong determination to resist not only the contemplated reduction of 25% but also any compromise or arbitration. Mr Stanley said that more than 15% of the Midland Federation were at present out of work resisting reductions in their wages. He also stated that the miners would rather say to the owners “take 10 to 25% or whatever, but do not give us this farce of arbitration….colliers would let every stick go out of their homes and would face starvation itself….men would rather starve than work and starve.”

But a report suggests that “in Cannock Chase, one of the largest house coal producing centres of the kingdom, a considerable difference of opinion prevails among the owners on the need of the 25% reduction….There were also conditions on Cannock Chase which make it very difficult for the owners to act in the national movement. Several of the larger collieries are withholding their vote.”

Abert Stanley MP – a hero to many miners. Not quite so much to mine-owners. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

In May 1893 a deputation was sent to PM Gladstone from Mining Association of Great Britain. (WB Harrison would be elected President of this association in 1896 and travel twice to the Transvaal). They were against the Mines Eight Hours Bill now before Parliament, and represented £200m of capital and paid £43m in wages. They maintained that the State had a right to interfere only in exceptional circumstances.

Later in July 1893 Cannock Chase District Coal Owners Association decided that “the low prices received a fortnight ago, along with fact that the pits have only been working a couple of days a week on average, a stoppage was absolutely needed unless wages were considerably reduced.”

At the start of August about 10,000 men employed at the various Cannock Chase collieries were out on strike. At a mass meeting of 5,000 men at Five Ways, Mr Hayward said he looked on the present struggle as a lock out, the employers had closed the pits. Albert Stanley put most of the ideas that appear in the booklets to the meeting.

He read letters from two colliery owners in the district stating that a certain unnamed colliery supplied a large quantity of coal to a Railway Co at 5/3d a ton, also expressing the opinion that the present rate of wages should be maintained. He contended that if the owners could pay 10% dividends, and a £10 bonus, there was no need for reduction, as the men were not getting 15s per week at present.

There is a report at the end of August that “in the Cannock Chase district hundreds of miners’ families are starving, and are only being kept alive by the free distribution of bread and other food. Employment before the strike had been very irregular, and no union pay having been received,

On the 1st September 1893 the Lichfield Mercury carries a report, under the heading Cannock Chase Miners, by a reporter from the Birmingham Daily Gazette. The report quoted from an unnamed owner…

“…the men refused to go at the reduction, so everything is at a standstill. How that suits the men I cannot say, but it suits the masters admirably. We are saving money. That is, we loose less than we should if the men were working. At our last meeting we agreed to adjourn for a month, and most of the masters have gone away for a holiday. We are willing to go on for three months rather than give way, reason and right are with us, and the best of the men know it….Their leaders lead them astray, and many of the men know it, and would willingly break away, but they are to some extent coerced by the public opinion of the district and by a set of loafing rascals who won’t work when there is work, but who, in these times of struggle, do not scruple to use threats, which they are quite capable of carrying out. The Union destroys the independence of mind which every man should have, and compels each one to act with the ruck whether he likes it or not….

Life was amazingly hard in the coalfields of Cannock Chase at the turn of the last century. A remarkable image of Wimblebury Colliery from The People’s Archive.

….Some of the owners are putting in new engine pulls, making new tubs and going in for general repairs; and of course they continue the pumping. They are spending three or four hundred a weekend this way, while nothing is coming in. And yet they are much better off than when the men are working….we can play any length of time. The men will have to go in at 25% fall. Some of the Masters say that we must make it 40%, and if the men pass the foolish resolutions, which have characterised other parts of the country, it would almost serve them right, but our miners are good fellows, comparing very favourably with others. We are compelled to insist on our terms, and we must succeed because, while the strike is very hard on the men, it comes as a perfect God-send to the masters. At the same time we all deeply sympathise with the sufferers, and we regret the need which compels us to take this step.”

On the 15 September the extremely biased Lichfield Mercury issued a patronising message to miners. “Not a single policeman has yet been drafted into the District, and the miners may well be proud. We are glad to think that here, at all events, not only do the miners realise that riots and destruction of property are morally wrong, but also their shrewd common sense tells them that they would be the chief sufferers by such doings… there are two points that we especially wish to call to the attention of the men now out of work. The first is to correct the mistaken belief as to the employers demands… but what we especially want to urge is that all those men who have been deceived as to the amount [of the reduction] should reconsider their position in the light of the new facts… The second point is that it is especially important for the working classes to keep in view at this juncture, is with regard to the present state of trade throughout the world. Miners are rather apt to keep their attention too closely fixed on their own affairs, but now they should look around them on all sides… they are only sharing the suffering with others. Let them ask the farmers how it is with them… to thinking men, it must be evident that all must suffer together amidst such wide spread commercial stagnation…”

Mr Pickard MP [the first President of the Miners’ Federation] on the other hand desired that the public should know exactly the wages of all persons underground. “Secondly the public should know what profits the coal owners have, what are the wages of the Colliery managers, and what are the fees of those gentlemen called directors over and above the ordinary profits of the firm, and how those wages and fees swell at the cost of production.”

Towards the end of October George Bidder QC, Chairman of the Cannock Chase Colliery Co stated in the Times, with reference to the struggle…”There are but two ways of settling such a difference, the rational way of submitting it to the decision of some impartial tribunal and the irrational way, of settling it by trying which can starve the other out. The owners from the beginning desired to adopt the first method. The Federation trusting to brute force and terrorism, have preferred the second, and have already sacrificed more for the twelve months than the amount in dispute.”

At the start of November a short article had appeared in the Birmingham paper saying that Captain Harrison had asked The Rev Roe to meet him at his residence. This was qiuickly refuted by Harrison in the Walsall Advertiser saying that the Rev Roe had “begged” him to receive a deputation.

Reader Dickie Weston has found this check, token or badge whilst metal detecting. Do you know what it is? We’d love to know.

Eventually in November 1893 the “Great Lockout” was ended by Government intervention under Lord Rosebery at a meeting with the owners and miners’ leaders, it was the first time a British government had become involved in an industrial dispute. The miners agreed to return to work – with their original rate of pay guaranteed until February 1894 – and the government agreed to establish a Conciliation Board, consisting of an equal numbers of miners and mine-owners, and chaired by a government official.”

In November, after the settlement, Albert Stanley addressed a meeting at Hednesford. He congratulated them on having reached the end of the terrible and disastrous struggle… one experience in a lifetime was enough for him, and he hoped, thank God, that he should never have to go through such another four months and to witness the sights and scenes that he had had to witness during the strike… their struggle had been the greatest industrial war that had ever been waged in any country… he noted the wonderful way the public had responded to their call for assistance… the press and the pulpit had stepped forward to help the working men… he expressed his satisfaction at the establishment of the Conciliation Board… they had laid it down that one of the first considerations was to be the advisability of fixing a minimum living wage, below which wages should never be reduced in the future… he did not know whether the employers would fight against it, but he thought not.

At another meeting he said ”…it had been a hard and bitter fight, and he was well aware that many had had only a dry crust to eat, and not much of that; but it was now over… he hoped that through the four months of distress they would be able to depend in the future upon a living wage, and that the children would bless them for having taken the stand they did.”

At the start of December…the Cannock Chase owners fixed the price of coal and slack at 7s below the recent maximum and were inundated with orders and found it necessary to revise the rates, which have been advanced half a crown. As an aside, it was noticed that at some Pits such as Leacroft and the Great Wyrley, there were no mice seen since the return to work, but previously the little rodents had swarmed there….the opinion is that the colonies have been starved.

We now come to January of the year 1894, and the first booklet of the proceedings at the first meeting of the Concilliation Board (CB). My own feeling is that the miner’s representatives nationally, as seen by Albert Stanley’s remarks, genuinely thought that a national “minimum living wage” was within their grasp. Locally it is reported that “Cannock and Rugeley Colliery brought to the surface 3,100 tons in one day during the past week… believed to have been a record… the pressure at the Hednesford sidings has been unusually heavy.”

The booklet from the 15th January shows the minutes of the first meeting to set up the rules of the Commission. The miners wanted the following set within the rules…

A minimum “living” wage.

In case a reduction was sought, that the books should be produced showing the selling prices, profits, and cost of production.

Giving the board a voicing in the selling price to manufacturers, railway companies, and gas companies.

That each colliery owner should deposit with the Joint Committee a list showing the standard rate of wages paid at his colliery in June 1893, the secretary and working men being alllowed to take copies for the use of the men, so that in any question of dealing with prices, they might have documentary evidence of the actual prices paid.

The Harrison empire had an iron grip on miners in the local area. Image from Around Brownhills and Walsall Wood in Old Picture Postcards by Jan Farrow.

The owners rejected that all of the above four points should be put into the rules, and the meeting was adjourned. The Lichfield Mercury reports of the meeting saying “the miners draft rules contained a clause for a minimum wage, but the owners rules were framed so as to leave the Board absolutely free and unfettered in dealing with questions.”

On the 3rd April 1894 the 4th meeting of the Board took place with Lord Shand in chair. As the miners and owners were at loggerheads he made the decision that none of the miner’s points would be included in the Rules, but could be brought before the Board at subsequent meetings.

It seems that most of the miner’s representatives went along with this thinking that they would make progress. But W Bailey of Notts Miners spoke in strong terms of the action of Lord Shand. He objected to Lord Shand striking out, at his first meeting of the Board, the main contentions of the miners, points they had been agitating for the past twelve months, and leaving in all that the owners required. He based his words sham and hypocrite on the fact that Lord Shand had promised to consider the men’s requests.

It is interesting that WB Harrison, a man who loved to get his two penneth in, and also J Williamson, of the Cannock Owners remained remarkably silent during these meetings. Albert Stanley, representing Cannock Chase Miners, was also silent, but at that time the other representatives of the Miners on the Board were of higher “rank” in Union affairs.

Obviously now discussions were taking place as to a reduction in wages, and it is reported…”the representative of a large Staffs Colliery stated that a reduction of 10% would meet the wishes of his firm, while other collieries reassert of the opinion that nothing less than 20% would prevent the closing of a large number of pits, as it was notorious that, for some months past, many mines had been working at a loss.” When the question of reduction was discussed the Cannock Chase Owners had a meeting and unanimously rejected the proposal as not going far enough, but at the Board the Chairman (WB Harrison) agreed to be bound by the majority.

Albert Stanley addressed a mass meeting of around 5,000 at Five Ways. He warmly commended Asquith and his colleagues with reference to the Employer’s Liability Bill, and declared that the House of Lords were out of touch with people, and dealt with this question, like many others, without any appreciation of the working men of the country…

In June the Cannock Chase Coalmasters stated that they could not compete against the severe competition of the Leics owners who were quoting 4s a ton at pits, for which during the strike they were asking 18s. While best house coal they quoted 9s as against 25s. A 20% reduction in wages was strenuously urged.

In July 1894 the mine-owners put their case to the Conciliation Board for an immediate 10% reduction in miners’ wages – to which the miners eventually agreed, with proviso that this should be reviewed no later than January 1896. There was also an agreement on a minimum wage, 30% above the standard of 1888, and a reduction of 10% for the next 17 months.

A report says…“The owners (Owner’s Federation) on the Conciliation Board have had an even more difficult task to convince their colleagues of the wisdom of the step taken. The private meeting… was one of the most stormy which the owners have ever had… Mr Chambers, as his remarks yesterday show, was personally assailed, and the owners who formed the minority were not content to accept their defeat quietly, for Mr Bidder (George Bidder QC, Chairman of the Cannock Chase Colliery Co.) sent a protest to the Board against the acceptance of the proposed terms…” Mr Bidder was quoted a saying concerning the living wage… “a principle recognised for 10 minutes is a recognised principle.”

At a meeting of Pelsall miners it was said that the owners had had a meeting where some of the proprietors were not very choice in their language towards their representatives for even submitting such a scheme for consideration, let alone accepting it… one or two colliery representatives would not sign it. One was Captain Harrison, their representative on the Board for the District. Not because he disagreed with it, as he fully agreed, but because he was not present at the last meeting of the Cannock Chase employers who had unanimously agreed to reject the scheme.

In January 1896 the owners called for a further 10% reduction and the Conciliation Board collapsed.

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14 Responses to The men would rather starve, than work and starve…

  1. andkindred says:

    Ho! Ho! Ho! Call me Ishmael if you like, but the only type of “whale” I am likely to find will have belonged to a bicycle or pram. Seriously, though, some excellent work here.

  2. Rob Williams says:

    My great grandfather was a representative of the mine workers of Conduit Colliery and was involved in many meetings, alongside Albert Stanley MP, with the mine owners with a view to introducing a minimum wage for mine workers from 1911 onwards. The talks proved fruitless and it was only after the General Strike of 1912 that a minimum wage act for mine workers was introduced. Sadly the act was toothless and largely ignored by the mine owners.

    • Pedro says:

      Sean Coughlan also lent David a booklet of a meeting between the Miners and Cannock Chase Owners concerning the 1912 Coal Act. The details will come in the next article.

      What was your GG father’s name, we may come across him? The rep for the Owners of Conduit at the time was WH Whitehouse.

      • Rob says:

        He was Edward Williams, of Green Cottage Norton Canes. He was elected as a checkweighman and that led to him representing the mine workers. I pieced together the story of his involvement from articles in the Lichfield Mercury, which regularly reported on the dispute. He was part of a deputation that met the mine owners at Birmingham’s Midland Hotel on the 24th November 1911. The meeting lasted for six hours and was adjourned. He was also actively involved in The Foresters, and his house was used as an office for the paying of sick pay,

        • Pedro says:

          The 1912 Minutes Booklet contains, as a kind of preview, the meeting previous in the October of 1911 and your GG grandfather is listed. I will keep a special eye out for Conduit Colliery.

          • Rob says:

            I look forward to reading anything you turn up. Personally I think there’s a good book to be had out of this, not only about the plight and the struggle of the mine workers but how these small associations became federations and eventually the NUM. The people you’re writing about, from the Albert Stanley’s to minor players like my Great Grandfather, were making history and creating a better future for us. We all owe them a massive debt.

  3. morturn says:

    Pedro’ Cutler, always digs that little bit deeper onto he past and often goes beyond the comfort zone of other to produces some remarkable stories that writes of history don’t really want told.

  4. I was born in the 1926 strike As you can guess .I knew very little about it. What I do know by what my Father told me years late was that the great Winston’s Churchill got the troops out, with orders to SHOOT any miner who tried to damage mining property. No wonder the miners loved him so much. I have a wage packet of my father’s from 1936 for six and nine pence for a shifts work, that is sixty five pence in today’s money. That was for slaving you belly out for about seven hours the waist. At the time that was to keep a wife and two children for a week, Then he would get a few coppers dole money. No wonder they went on strike My very first recollection in life is picking coal at the back of Bug Row, that was a row that stood down Coppice lane.

  5. Sorry for my mistake I was born in 1921. I was coal picking with my father in 1926.

  6. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    a huge thank you to Peter who once again has taken the wealth of information ,then has painstakingly sifted through it all, and has brought to our attention an accurate, detailed record of those events, which seemed to have been at risk of being forgotten, or misunderstood.
    Another huge thanks to Mr Sean Coughlan for offering the contemporaneous short hand transcripts of the national and local meetings . From a very personal view it has only been with the effort, kind- ness and diligence of these good folk and others that I have been able recently to learn about an ancestor and his times.
    My personal thanks also to your goodself, Bob, for editing and presenting all the information in this
    exceptional, wonderful article.
    My kind regards

  7. JIM says:

    The brass miners association badges were usualy sewn on to a miners cap or jacket to show that he had paid his fees for the year and for that reason most of them are stamped with a year. The associations were localized mining unions which were the precursors to the national mining union these type of badges were common from the 1880s and into the 1920s. Locally there were the Pelsall miners association and the Cannock chase miners association i’ve personally found dozens of them while metal detecting the earliest i found was 1903 and the latest date was 1919.

  8. Pedro says:

    It doesn’t seem that anyone has tried to tell the history of Trade Unionism in the Cannock Chase coalfields. There is little info before, say, 1870. But here are a few comments on the timeline…

    1872 there is a national Amalgamated Association of Miners and the Cannock Chase Miners have a district branch. One of the Badges appears in the second picture. (That could probably date it before 1889?)

    1876 there is a formation of the Cannock Chase Miner’s, Enginemen’s and Surfacemen’s Association.

    1886 the above join the Midland Counties Federation of Miners

    1889 the above join the Miner’s Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) which had been established a year earlier. The local lodges, or branches, are still autonomous and may be refered to as the Cannock Chase (and Brownhills) Miners Association.

    The National Union of Mineworkers did not appear until 1945.

  9. aerreg says:

    ime not quite sure of my facts this time but years gone by on norton bridge there were two old cottages down a long garden and in my mind i think one of them was a lodge for either the forresters or odfellows or the miners union ive got my father in lawers union card and several bits and pieces of theminers world it was not a job itwas a dedication they were technitions as well pit props took skill the afternoon and night workers skilfully moved the coal face forward to get it ready for th
    e day shift and we must not forget the bonkies in all kinds of weather on a mountain slag heap keeping the tubs on the road theyy were proud men and proud of their individual pit god bless them

  10. Pingback: Sweet reason and the sourness of hypocrisy | BrownhillsBob's Brownhills Blog

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