More days in May

With the forecast decidedly dodgy, the Friends postponed on site activities for another week. In the event the rain was later than anticipated, but still it allowed time for some additional wanderings and wonderings. Continuing the series of historical reflections on some more days in May…

The rain falls mainly on the Main

Venturing out against prognostic advice, the inevitable downpour came, dampening spirits and soaking shoes. The dark clouds overhead set a suitably solemn tone to the scene of this week’s wandering: the site of the former Elsecar Main Colliery.

A rain-soaked tarmac road leading up to the blocked former entrance to Elsecar Main Colliery. An old concrete lampost marks the entrance.
Entrance to the site of Elsecar Colliery, May 2021

Situated just down the road from Hemingfield Colliery (Elsecar Low), at the corner where Wath Road meets Linthwaite Lane, the pit was the last of the several Fitzwilliam collieries to cease work. It is also the only Elsecar pit to have been worked in living memory; ironically perhaps it is also the most extensively removed from the modern landscape.

The overgrown site of the former Elsecar Main Colliery, with a concrete shaft marker pillar surrounded by hawthorns. To the distance on the left is the spire of Elsecar Parish church and the village whose residents it employed for most of the Twentieth Century
Overgrown shaft marker at the site of Elsecar Main Colliery, May 2021

Closed in October 1983 and demolished in the following years, during and after the bitter Miners Strike of 1984-5, it now stands barren, its vast expanse of concrete pads slowly disappearing under spiky brush and weeds, and the margins of the site marked out with brick rubble.

Levelled and lost: overgrown concrete and rubble at the former Elsecar Main Colliery site, May 2021

The ‘tabula rasa’ or blank slate of the site today hides many stories. One such is the tale of the Price List of May 1911, a dispute over the prices to be paid for working the coal at the then-new Elsecar Main Colliery, and the confrontation between the workers, their union representatives, and the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam.

Struggles past: the Crisis at Elsecar Main 1910-11

On Saturday 27th May 1911, a mass meeting was held at the Ship Inn, Elsecar, just next to the parish church. Chairing the gathering was Alfred Oldknow, local branch president of the Yorkshire Miners Association. Joining him were Herbert Smith, the President of the Yorkshire Miners Association, and John Hoskins, the Treasurer of the YMA.

Photographic portrait of John Hoskins, Treasurer of the Yorkshire Miners Association
John Hoskins, Treasurer of the Yorkshire Miners Association (from Sheffield and District Who’s Who, W.C. Leng & Co. Sheffield Telegraph, 1905)

The meeting was the culmination of 8 months of negotiations between Earl Fitzwilliam, his Collieries Manager Thomas Newbould, and his miners over the price list of wages to be paid for working the Parkgate seam at Elsecar Main, at the time the newest colliery.

Thomas Newbould (1845-1933) General Manager of Earl Fitzwilliam’s Collieries 1886-1921

Mr John Hoskins was visiting Elsecar for the first time, having been one of the two representatives appointed for the men as arbitrators over the prices for work in the Parkgate Seam at Elsecar Main.

Image if the printed Elsecar Main colliery price list for working the Parkgate seam as agreed between arbitrators for the owner Earl Fitzwilliam and for the working miners.
Elsecar Main Parkgate seam Price List as agreed 25th May 1911 (Courtesy Private collection)

The dispute had kicked off in the late Summer of 1910 when the Earl gave notice to the men that a new tonnage price list would be brought into operation for the new pit after the initial day rates for the heavy work of opening it out. After some back and forth with the Earl increasing the offer of 1s 4d a ton to 1s 5d, no further agreement was reached.

Pressing on, the Earl had posted notices announcing that his new price list would come into effect on 8th September 1910, and anyone who did not accept the terms would be free to seek alternative employment. The YMA members had voted to reject the prices. The Barnsley Chronicle reported that at stake were 114 surface and 570 underground workers (reported 3rd Sept 1910). The day came and the union miners took their tools home, setting down the pit for a week.

Embarrassment of riches: Sheffield Trades Union Congress 1910

Whether deliberately or not, the 8th September 1910 was not an opportune time for the Earl to press any advantage. In September that year the Earl was serving as Lord Mayor of Sheffield, and the city (since 1893) was playing host to the Annual meeting of the national Trades Union Congress.

Photographic portrait of the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam, Lord Mayor of Sheffield in 1910 during the Trades Union Congress held at Sheffield that year.
Earl Fitzwilliam, Lord Mayor of Sheffield, 1910 (pictured in the 1910 TUC souvenir programme)

His preference to treat with his employees directly and not their union representatives, however politely their requests were answered, had been a continual source of friction with labour leaders. Indeed it fed some of the rhetoric early in the dispute, as YMA President Herbert Smith urged the men to stick by their union, and its leaders in order to win their wage claims:

There must be unity of purpose in their fight at Elsecar. Whether they won or not depended on themselves. They must remember they were fighting a battle, not only for themselves, but for generations to follow. Let them fight unitedly. Had they forgot their Pickard, their Cowey, their Parrott. What these men had done, let the men of Elsecar take up the torch and fight for themselves and their fellows.

Penistone, Stocksbridge and Hoyland Express, 16 July 1910, p.2

Smith doubtless saw the opportunity to press home the advantage, bringing the Elsecar dispute to the wider public and political stage by raising the matter as a pretext for the TUC Parliamentary Committee to forego the invitation of the Earl (as Lord Mayor of Sheffield) to the Civic Reception given to all attendees of the TUC.

Trades Union Congress Parliamentary Committee, 1910

The stand-off brought the attention of the entire TUC to the Elsecar dispute, including the entire local Sheffield Reception Committee. Although a rather embarrassing situation and snub to himself and Sheffield, the Earl offered a concilatory way forward, providing amicable terms to the pit dispute, which also allowed the TUC – ‘Labour’s Parliament’ as it was sometimes known, to proceed unimpeded.

Sheffield Trades Union Congress Local Reception Committee, 1910

The Earl’s proposals

1. That with reference to the present dispute (at Elsecar) the employer will try to settle with his employees first, if possible. 2. Failing such settlement then the employer is willing to call in arbitrator, before whom employer and employed shall be represented they please. 3. That the name of such arbitrator shall be agreed upon by both sides to the dispute. 4. That the points of difference to be considered and determined by the arbitrator shall be agreed upon in writing by both sides to the dispute before the arbitraton is entered upon.” (Terms cited in the Barnsley Chronicle, 17th Sept 1910, p.8)

Ultimately, with the TUC behind them, an arbitration process on the new list drew out for several months beofre the final agreement in May 1911.

Final page of the 1911 Elsecar Main price list, listing the last of 54 clauses and including the names of the miners and Earl Fitzwilliam’s representatives. (Courtesy Private collection)

It was not the end of the story: 1911 saw further disagreements about the implementation of the new Elsecar Main price list. Nationally the picture was also changing with demands for higher wages and better conditions. Readers interested in the wider labour fervour and intrigues of the period should read chapters 8-14 of Catherine Bailey’s Black Diamonds: the rise and fall of an English dynasty, her esteemed work, first published in 2007, on the Fitzwilliams of Wentworth Woodhouse.

But for at least one day in May agreement was reached and work had resumed.

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