The Struggle: Owners and Workers; Wages and Welfare

For many people the history of mining is closely linked with the history of industrial conflict, that is of the struggle between mine workers and the employers, whether private owners of mines, or – after 1946 – the nationalised industry.

In its earliest days mining was not a large employer. Indeed, early mine leases often gave specific limitations to the number of workers employed. During the Nineteenth century the scale of mining operations grew; this led to growth in the numbers employed, greater specialisation in the roles of the workers, and regional and even national calls for greater organisation of workers to collectively protect and promote their interests.

The struggle over pay, terms and conditions of service, as well as repeated calls for greater government intervention in the regulation of the industry became regular subjects in the printed press, as the conditions and dangers of deep mining and explosive gases became more widely recognised.

For Hemingfield colliery, the situation was slightly different, at least at first in the 1840s. Industrial relations then were framed in more paternalist tones – as Earl Fitzwilliam owned not just the mines, but also much of the surrounding land and housing in which his workers resided. This created a cosy – yet curious – situation whereby the Earl was portrayed as a considerate employer, and yet resisted any collective organisation amongst his workers. The first signs of this had appeared earlier in 1844 when a nascent union movement, the Miners’ Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (begun in 1842), had tried to press for a restriction in working hours and increase in pay. The 5th Earl’s response was swift, as the local papers reported at the time:

Earl Fitzwilliam’s Colliers

Some weeks ago, Earl Fitzwilliam stated to his colliers that all who joined the union were to leave their work; but, unmindful of this, the men dictated new terms to his Lordship, whereupon he determined to stop the extensive collieries at Elsecar and New Parkgate, the men all being discharged on the 17th ult. The men, however, have since petitioned his Lordship to be allowed to resume their work, and they have accordingly been permitted to do so on the old terms.
Leeds Intelligencer, Saturday 4 May 1844, Vol.XCIX, No.4,705, p.8

This early body had virtually disappeared a few years later. The next organised union amongst South Yorkshire miners did not emerge until 1858, when the South Yorkshire Miners Association was established (initially known as the “Miners Association, Barnsley District”). Even then, however, the ‘Fitzwilliam exception’ applied. A trades unionist description of the 6th Earl’s industrial relations in the 1860s serves to clarify this tension:

“Some of the colliers in the neighbourhood of
Elsecar, who live in cottages belonging to Earl
Fitzwilliam, are nailed as fast to his lordship’s pits,
and the customs of his lordship’s colliery stewards, as
the trees are to his lordship’s park. They have their
cottages, gardens, pigsties, &c.; and though I have been
told by his lordship’s workmen that at one colliery, only
recently, 818 corves of 10cwt each were taken from the men
in one fortnight, yet the men have no resisting power;
they cannot act with their fellows; of the powers of
combination they cannot avail themselves; they cannot act
together for an object against the will of a live lord.
These men are as thoroughly feudalised as were the
Britons in the days of “William the Norman”.

Transactions and results of the National Association of Coal, Lime, and Iron-stone miners of Great Britain, held at Leeds, November 9,10,11,12,13 and 14, 1863, Leeds: David Green, 1864

Reflecting on the history of combination in Yorkshire, and the situation of the Fitzwilliam miners, John Normansell (1830-1875), the Secretary of the South Yorkshire Miners’ Association (SYMA) provided the following explanation to a Select Committee:

“They joined us in 1858, a portion of them, when they got notice of a 5 per cent. reduction, and they struck, and the association took hundreds of them without paying a penny to the association. They supported them over six or nine weeks, and spent about 3,000l. over them, and they lost and had to submit, and they have never joined us since. […]
…he provides them with a very good house, and allows them a good deal of land very cheap, and they make up a nice living out of the land and one way and another. That keeps them at the place.

[…] I have heard many of them say this, that if it were not for their house and garden they would go somewhere else to work

Eighth report of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the organization and rules of Trades Unions and other associations: together with minutes of evidence. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1868, p.24

Normansell had risen to prominence in 1859 after winning the role of Checkweighman at Wharncliffe Silkstone Colliery, in Tankersley, some four miles from Elsecar. Checkweighman was an elected position, ensuring the weight of coal miners were paid for was fair, preventing owners or managers from discounting good coal as slack or dirt and ensuring fair pay according the agreed prices. He was elected Secretary of the SYMA in 1864, a post he held until his death in 1875.

Changing times

Yorkshire Miners Association (Now NUM) building on Huddersfield Road, Barnsley, Warner Gothard image from Borough Pocket Guide to Barnsley, 394 c. 1908

Yorkshire Miners Association (now NUM) building, built 1874, on Huddersfield Road, Barnsley. Warner Gothard image from Borough Pocket Guide to Barnsley, no.394 c.1909, E.J. Burrow, Cheltenham

The 1870s saw an unprecedented boom in coal production and profits. With the boom came also a renewed call of workers to share in the benefits of their labour. Unionism grew again, with local lodges expanding and new ones being established.

Writing in August 1873, the Barnsley Times reflected the optimism of the changing fortunes:

“The past year has been one of undoubted prosperity to all connected with the working of colliers and the officials at the meeting of the South Yorkshire association has sufficient reason for the felicitation which heralded the opening of the meeting. The great rise in the price of coal, coupled with the absence of strikes in the district during the year has contributed to make the past one of more than ordinary prosperity. We can heartily rejoice at this. Too long were the brave men who descended into the very womb of mother earth, in a perilous search for the secreted treasures, treated as aliens and outcasts. Truly for them the sun never shone. Day and night so far is the sun and the moon were concerned, were as one to them. Early morning saw them descend into the pits, which under ignorant or careless management, too often proved their tomb and the approach of night beheld their re-issue upon the upper earth, only to spend the time intervening between in hard-earned sleep. They lived the life of moles, groping in the dark during the blessed hours of sunlight, and only looking upon this glorious world, which teems with countless indescribable beauties, when the pale moon, or the far-off stars, glittered in cold loveliness. Times however changed; or rather we should say nature has asserted her rights, and the colliers lot, although not without its risks and its hardships – as indeed what calling is? – has been much and necessarily ameliorated. The advance of science has much reduce the risk to life and limb, and the intellectual and social progress of the country has resulted in the benefits which the collier now enjoys.”
The Barnsley Times and South Yorkshire Gazette, Monday 2nd August 1873, p.4

Riding high, in May 1873 SYMA members at the newly-opened Low Stubbin Colliery decided to test the strength of combination, and petitioned for the removal of a non-union man from their workplace.

6th Earl Fitzwilliam

William Thomas Spencer Wentworth-Fitzwilliam (1815-1902). 6th Earl from 1857-1902. Image adapted from The Sporting Gazette and Agricultural Journal, 6th September 1879

Once more, as in the past, the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam’s reaction was stern and uncompromising; he swiftly closed the pit.

Addressing the men a month later, he made clear his paternalistic rules, as had his predecessor:

“In the whole course of my life I have never read a more iniquitous letter than that. You tried to drive that man from his work by this (showing the letter); and what is more, not content with the power that you had there you endeavoured to make me, his master, an accomplice in your acts – an accomplice in your acts, mark you – that I was to use my power upon him because he declined to be of an association in which he had no trust. I say that letter is not an error, it is not a fault – it is a crime. […]

But this I have to say, and having a great interest and a great stake in this country from minerals and other causes, I wished to identify myself with the labour of those around me, and if there is one thing that I and those who went before me were proud of it was this assurance that throughout our lives hardly a single instance of life was sacrificed from want of due precaution in the pit. […]

But I will go on to tell you that as much as I prize the position of working coal upon my estate I will not work it upon conditions such as have been attempted to be enforced upon me. Every man who works for me shall work as a free man. He may be a member of these unions if he pleases, he may not be a member if he pleases, but let him understand that so long as he works for me he shall receive at my hands the protection which is due from me to him as his employer. It is yet a matter of consideration with me whether I work my pits again or not. What is there I hope will serve for those who come after me, and it is not really my interest to work it now. You understand that. It will always be a firm bank to me and mine, and I will go and draw a cheque upon it just as I find it pays me.”

Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 6 June 1873 (No.5615), p.3, cols e&f

Low Stubbin would remain a hotbed of tensions; in 1875 Earl Fitzwilliam closed the pit for twelve months after the men struck when safety lamps were imposed.

Signing on

The persons whose names are hereunder written respectively agree with EARL FITZWILLIAM, to serve the said Earl

from the dates set opposite their respective names on the terms and conditions set forth and appearing in the Bye-Laws

in force at the said Earl’s Collieries, subject to the Coal Mines Act, 1911, and Regulations, the prescribed abstract of which

they the undersigned acknowledge to have received. The said Earl agrees to engage each of the said persons on the said

terms and conditions, subject to the said Act and Regulations. Each of the said persons hereunder declares whether or not

he is qualified to work otherwise than under the supervision of a skilled workman, in accordance with Section 73 of the said Act.

AGREEMENT between EARL FITZWILLIAM, and the persons whose names are hereunder written.

WHEREBY it is agreed that the said Earl is empowered but not bound to make advances and to supply to any of the said persons

any of the articles, matters, and things, or to perform any work or to make any payments specified herein, and to deduct from any

wages from time to time due to any such person the amount of such advances and the value of any such articles, matters, and

things, or work, or the amount of any such payments, together with the rent (if any) of any house or land occupied by any such person

– such as Coal, Fuel, Cartage-Lamps-Lamp Glasses-Parts of Lamps-Oil-Tools-Repairing Tools-Explosives or Fuse-Motteys,

or for Medical Attendance.

Sample text from early Twentieth century signing on book for Earl Fitzwilliam’s collieries,1916-20 (Courtesy Private Collection)

The Earls Fitzwilliam and mine management

The 2nd Marquis of Rockingham, Charles Watson-Wentworth (1730-1782), first began to manage the coal mines on his own estate in the 1750s, employing Thomas Smith as Banksman, or viewer. Having moved away from leasing estate minerals to others, his estate steward Benjamin Hall (1720-1805) developed his own experience in sinking and working pits on the estate. Elsecar New Colliery was a product of the 1790s, with the Steward Joshua Biram (1759-1835), Hall’s nephew, taking over for the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam (1748-1833). The 4th Earl transformed the industrial undertakings on the Wentworth Estates, supporting, further ironstone mining, ironworks, collieries, coal tar experiments and canal extensions.

The tenure of the 5th Earl Fitzwilliam, Charles Wentworth-Fitzwilliam (1786-1857) from 1833-57, saw a further extension of the area’s industrial activity, supervised by Joshua’s son, Benjamin Biram (1803-1857). In the 1840s-50s he oversaw the sinking of Low Elsecar and Simon Wood collieries, and the coming of the railway to Elsecar itself. Working under him at the Elsecar and Park Gate collieries for much of this time were the pits ‘top and bottom stewards’ James Uttley (1796-1862) and Thomas Cooper (1823-1886, left in 1870), respectively.

The Earl was also active in Parliament in support of movements to improve mines inspection and ensure better ventilation – something he learned about from the Oaks Disaster of March 1847, Darley Main Disaster of February 1849, and directly at the explosion at Elsecar Low Colliery in December 1852. Both the Earl and Biram died in 1857.

After Biram John Hartop (1815-1902) took on the general colliery, ironstone and central works management responsibilities for the 6th Earl. Hartop had previously overseen the Elsecar ironworks and developed the Tankersley ironstone workings at Skiers Spring, taking over from his father Henry Hartop (1785-1865) who had leased the Milton ironworks in 1822, and was later employed by the Earl to manage the Elsecar Ironworks for some years after John Darwin’s bankruptcy in 1828. When the Elsecar ironworks were later leased to the Dawes brothers in 1849, John Hartop also took on the ‘New Yard’ – the central Elsecar workshops for Earl Fitzwilliam established in 1850.

Hartop inherited substantial growth in the Elsecar and Parkgate collieries, with booming demand in the local ironworks and the profitable new railway traffic to London, although the contract for supplying the Dawes was a source of tension and loss until the mid 1860s. Industrial action at the Park Gate collieries had severe consequences on output.

Total coal worked (in long tons) at Elsecar and Park Gate Collieries (incl. slack) from figures in John Hartop’s ledger (RALS 291/B Box 2)

Under Hartop at the Elsecar Collieries was Jabez Jackson (1823-1883) who began working for the Earl in the 1830s, and had taken over from James Uttley as top and bottom steward in 1862. Jackson retired due to ill health in 1882, being superseded, albeit briefly, by Charles Herbert Cobbold (1854-1929) until 1883 when he resigned and Newbould took his on position as manager of Elsecar Collieries.

W. A. Durnford was appointed Commercial Manager in 1885. John Hartop retired in 1886, being replaced as Agent and General Manager by the long-serving Thomas Newbould (1846-1933).

Thomas Newbould (1845-1933)

Thomas Newbould (1845-1933) General Manager of Earl Fitzwilliam’s Collieries 1886-1920

Newbould, who began working for the Fitzwilliams under his uncle Thomas Cooper in Rawmarsh in the 1860s, continued to serve the 6th and 7th Earls in several roles until his retirement in 1920, a period which saw huge change for the Fitzwilliam’s mines – including the closure of most of the older pits, alongside the opening of two new ones: Elsecar Main (began sinking in 1905) and New Stubbin (1913).

Newbould was superseded as Agent and General Manager by Herbert Danby (1884-1953) in 1920.

William Charles De Meuron Wentworth-Fitzwilliam (1872-1943) 7th Earl Fitzwilliam (1902-1943)

William Charles De Meuron Wentworth-Fitzwilliam (1872-1943) 7th Earl Fitzwilliam (1902-1943)

The managers of Earl Fitzwilliam’s collieries would receive miners deputations; groups of men who presented demands for changes in wage or conditions. The concerns could be passed to the Earl directly, and indeed the Earl himself received deputations.


Earl Fitzwilliam’s Collieries at Parkgate and Elsecar were run as a single business, with separate daily management

This arrangement was perhaps best demonstrated in 1911 when the 7th Earl’s son and heir, Viscount Milton was christened. Miners representatives from Elsecar, Low Stubbin and Hemingfield were present as Thomas Newbould presented a silver bowl, a bowl used at the christening at Wentworth.

Earl Fitzwilliam, Thomas Newbould and a deputation of miners, including men from Hemingfield, Elsecar and Low Stubbin in 1911.

Earl Fitzwilliam, Thomas Newbould, W.A. Durnford and a deputation of miners, including men from Hemingfield, Elsecar and Low Stubbin in 1911.

As the Earl himself put it…

“…this concern, the mineral estate of Wentworth, is on quite a different footing: it is on almost a unique footing, and for that reason I am doubly proud. I am not a big company, I am one man, a member of a family, and you and your forefathers have for centuries worked in the employment of one family. You have from time to time doubtless had points which necessitated re-arrangement. These points have always been re-arranged with perfect amity, and, so far as I am concerned, always shall be arranged with perfect amity. If you carry on in this way with my family as I hope you will, and as I feel you will, and as I assure you I shall endeavour to do also, we shall be able in the future as we have in the past to keep a good, clean, and healthy record which ought to be an example to all employers and their employees.”
“When he was a boy it was always impressed upon him that he must of a necessity during his life be concerned in mining, and in matters which appertained to mining. He was encouraged to learn even as a small boy what little he could of the mining trade. Even at the age of ten or twelve – he did not know if he was breaking the law – he went down Low Stubbin Colliery, the first he went down. Since then he had been down many others.”

Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Monday 13th February 1911, No.17,347, pp.7-8

Contested Authority

Sometimes, however disagreements were vented in the press. In 1892, after a serious of anonymous letters, Thomas Newbould directly addressed the question of wages after the introduction of machinery, known as a fairplay machine, or ‘billy fairplay’ to test the size of the coal.

To the Editor,

I have noticed a letter in the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent on March 3rd, in which the miners held a meeting to hear the report from the deputation which had waited upon Mr. Hartop, the general manager of the collieries, and myself, as to the proposed alteration of wages, being the results of their interview with Earl Fitzwilliam, the terms offered have not met with approval by the men although on their own showing under the proposed scale of payment they would have gained by last week’s output at Hemingfield Colliery £2 17s. 2d., this would be for three days’ work. On the 26th Februay they produced a statement at the mineral office, showing a gain to the men over ten pounds for the past seven weeks, in which the pit only worked 24 days, which they did not explain.
Now, sir, as there has been so much said against the “Fairplay Slack Machine,” especially as it is said it operates so unjustly on posters, I will give you the earnings of some who work in the very worst district, “that is where the coal is crushed the most, and otherwise inferior and small”, and it will be seen if such a class of men have any real grievance, as it would appear from statements made through anonymous letters that miners could not make a fair day’s wage at these pits.
Wages drawn last week for two colliers in a post, after paying trammer, amounted to £3, 2s, 3d.; for five days each is 6s. 2 1/2 d. per day.
Two miners in a post, amount drawn, after paying trammer, £2. 16s. 4 1/2d., for two colliers, five days each, leaves 5s 7 1/2d per day.
Another comparison. – Amount drawn (after paying trammer), £3. 11s. 4 1/2 d. for two colliers, worked 5 days – 7s. 1 1/2d. per day; and there are others receiving even more wages than this.

The above are wages received at the Hemingfield Pit, so much referred to of late, which proves that neither the deputation nor the check-weigher have a correct knowledge or have any means of ascertaining the earnings of such workmen, who have special advantages in doing their own packing &c., &c.
Now, sir, I will add, to show that fair wages can be earned by some, if not all, by giving the wages of a miner in a bank, which was 6s 3d. per day, and that of two miners who are headers, who work together, who received 3s 2d. per day.
I give these figures to show not as the average but that fair wages can be earned, and will leave the public to judge whether or not during the last few months the wages question at these collieries referred to by anonymous letters, has not been very much exaggerated, as I think it only fair that as so much has been attempted at the dark side to give a little on the light side of the question. Thanking you in anticipation for the insertion of this letter, – I am, yours respectfully,

Thos. Newbould, Certified Manager, March 5th 1886
Sheffield Independent, Vol. LXX, No. 9830, 6th March 1886, p.2, col. e

In 1892 dissent grew among the working miners

“A largely attended pit-gate meeting was held at the Hemingfield Colliery, belonging to Earl Fitzwilliam, yesterday. Mr Joseph Adamson presided. – A miner proposed the following resolution, which was seconded and carried unanimously:- “that, seeing after all our efforts to induce the men to join the Miners’ Association, there yet remains a few who have not the common honesty to join, we resolve that on and after Tuesday 19th, to refuse to ride down the mine with any non-unionists.” It was very freely discussed as to whether the pit work five days per week, so as to restrict the output of coal, after which it was decided, “That we go in for the proposal to work five days per week, that the markets may be cleared of their stock of coal.”

Sheffield Independent, 19 January 1892, p.6

The Union Men


Early union organisers had mixed success until the coming of the South Yorkshire Miners’ Association in 1858. Richard Mitchell (1825-1870) was the first SYMA secretary from 1858-1864, and involved in several attempts to form a national movement, before also becoming secretary of the National Miners Union in 1863. He was dismissed from SYMA in 1864 due to organisational failures and an unfortunate legal action against him.

The popular checkweighman John Normansell (1830-1875) replaced Mitchell as secretary the same year, and went on to represent the association at the Trades Union Conference of 1869, giving evidence to Parliamentary Committees and becoming a very visible advocate of miners’ interests. At national level was elected Vice President of the Miners’ National Union.

John Frith (1837-1904) served as SYMA Secretary from 1876-1881 when the South Yorkshire Miners Association merged with the West Yorkshire Miners Association to form the Yorkshire Miners Association.


The first Secretary of the Yorkshire Miners Association was Benjamin Pickard (1842-1904). Pickard served from 1881 until his death in 1904. In 1888 he oversaw the YMA’s participation in the newly-created Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, known as the Federation, becoming President from 1889-his death, and bringing a truly national focus to union activities. During his presidency the total membership from affiliated district unions grew from around 38,000 in 1888 to 350,000 in 1900.

Benjamin Pickard, from The Science and Art of Mining, Vol.IX, No.8, 10 Dec 1898, Wigan: Thos Wall & Sons, p.170

Benjamin Pickard, from The Science and Art of Mining, Vol.IX, No.8, 10 Dec 1898, Wigan: Thos Wall & Sons, p.170

By the late 1890s the Yorkshire Miners Association Consisted of over 150 lodges or branches:

1 Wharncliffe Silkstone
2 Kippax
3 Wombwell Main
4 Methley
5 Swinton
6 New Hall & Middleton
7 Strafford Main
8 Foxholes
9 Snydale No.1
10 Hoyland Silkstone
11 Glasshoughton
12 Wheldale
13 East Gawber
14 Featherstone Main
15 Dewsbury Moor
16 Darfield Main
17 Good Hope
18 Aldwarke No.1
19 Newland
20 Lundhill No.1
21 Morley Main
22 Sharlston
23 Carr House No.1
24 Leeds Central
25 North Gawber
26 Tinsley Park
27 Waterloo Main
28 Manor
29 Grange
30 Topcliffe
31 Church Lane
32 Hollingsend
33 Nostell
34 Bruntcliffe
35 Altofts No.1
36 New Oaks
37 Altofts No.2
38 Monk Bretton
39 Mirfield
40 Stubbin No.1
41 Liversedge
42 Woolley
43 Elsecar
44 Roundwood
45 Pontefract
46 Darton Hall
47 Wrenthorpe
48 Mitchell’s Main
49 Whitwood Mere (Briggs)
50 Cortonwood
51 Fieldhouse
52 Rockingham No.1
53 Fryston No.1
54 Carlton Main
55 Wath Main No.1
56 Soothill Wood
57 Allerton Silkstone
58 Swaithe Main
59 Acton Hall
60 Barrow Hematite
61 Stanhope Silkstone
62 Thorncliffe No.1
63 Wharncliffe Silkstone No.3
64 Houghton Main
65 Wharncliffe Silkstone No.2
66 Aldwarke No.2
67 Frystone No.2
68 Rawmarsh
69 Marsden Main
70 Nunnery
71 Wharncliffe Woodmoor
72 Woodhouse
73 Gawthorpe
74 North Staveley
75 Old Silkstone
76 Thorncliffe Victoria
77 Halton
78 Old Thorncliffe No.1
79 Orgreave
80 Lidgett
81 Ryhill Main
82 Snydale No.2
83 South Kirkby
84 Denaby Main
85 Thrybergh Hall
86 Park HIlls
87 Treeton
88 Lofthouse
89 Manvers No.1
90 Manvers No.2
91 Hemsworth
92 Rockingham No.2
93 Kiveton Park
94 Stanley Main No.1
95 Grimesthorpe
96 Shireoaks and Steetley
97 Thornhill
98 Woodlesford
99 Bowers No.1
100 Bowers No.2
101 Bowers No.3
102 Chickenley Heath
103 East Ardsley
104 Monckton Main
105 Rothwell
106 Millbridge
107 Crigglestone
108 Bowling
109 Grenoside
110 Mount Osborne
111 Shawcross
112 Stourton Grange
113 New Haigh Moor
114 Newmarket
115 Robin Hood
116 High Town, Liversedge
117 Flockton
118 Ravensthorpe
119 Parsons Pit
120 Middlestown, Caphouse Colliery; Prince of Wales, Denby Grange
121 Hodroyd Colliery, South Hiendly
122 Haigh
123 Wortley and Farnley
124 Birkby Brow
125 Grange Moor
126 Clayton West
127 Netherton
128 Emley
129 Wakefield Manor
130 Meadow Hall
131 Scholes
132 Batley No.1
133 Hartshead
134 Ossett Roundwood
135 Churwell
136 Old Thorncliffe No.2
137 Mickefield
138 Lundhill No.2
139 Wyke
140 Greasbrough
141 Stubbin No.2
142 Garforth
143 Saville Pit
144 Beeston Manor
145 White Lee
146 Rylands Main
147 Kirkheaton
148 Carhouse No.2
149 Batley No.2
150 Cadeby
151 Rotherham Main
152 Adwalton
153 Old Oaks
154 Tong
155 Hickleton Main
156 Low Laithes
157 Deepcar

Pickard was followed briefly by William Parrott (1843-1905), and then John Wadsworth (1850-1921).

William Parrot (1843-1905) Assistant Secretary to the West Yorkshire Miners Association. Appointed Agent of the Yorkshire Miners Association on the amalgamation of the South and West bodies in 1881. MP for Normanton 1904-5

William Parrott (1843-1905) Agent of the Yorkshire Miners Association, becoming Secretary and also MP for Normanton 1904-5 following the death of Ben Pickard. (Source: Sheffield and District Who’s Who, Sheffield: W.C. Leng, 1905, p.272)

Vice President, President and Secretary of the Yorkshire Miners Association, and Liberal and Labour MP from 1906-1918

John Wadsworth (1850-1921) (Source: Sheffield and District Who’s Who, Sheffield: W.C. Leng, 1905, pp.15-16)

John Wadsworth was born in West Melton, just down the road from Hemingfield. He was a key figure as one of the Miners’ Representatives in the Joint District Boards for South Yorkshire established under the Coal Mines (Minimum Wage) Act, 1912. Vice President, President and Secretary of the Yorkshire Miners Association, and Liberal and Labour MP for Hallamshire 1906-1918.

Strength in numbers


Miners Demonstration at Barnsley, 17th June 1907 Attendance estimated at around 50,000

Beyond local ‘lodges’ of union members at individual pits, or groups of pits, the members showed solidarity and pressed their case through annual demonstrations, when tens of thousands of miners from across Yorkshire paraded through town, with music, banners and their families. In 1873 no less than 20,000 people were reported to have congregated in the Queen’s Grounds in Barnsley for the South Yorkshire Miners Association.

“The Miners Demonstration.

It is with intense pleasure we record the annual demonstration of the South Yorkshire Miners’ Association. Since its formation and first demonstration it has increased into a mighty association, numbering upwards of 20,000 members. Labour has triumphed, and is now reaping its reward. During the past year, the wages of the artisans have increased some 50 per cent., and the results have been exhibited to-day in the improved appearance of the members, and in the comfort, happiness, and prosperity that evidently prevails. The society has prospered equally, it has ramified itself into Derbyshire, and is now one of the most prosperous associations in the country. It has paid away during the year to the sick, to the injured, to the widows and orphans, to funerals and to charitable purposes, no less than £11,133 8s. The total receipts of the society amount to £42,871 5s. 5½d.; it has saved £15,032 12s. 2½d.; and is now worth £34,411 2s. 2½d. Such results tell their own tale and speak for themselves. […]

The proceedings on the day were of a most satisfactory nature, and each may congratulate himself on their success. The union, while strong and mighty, is eminently practical and conciliatory. The tone of the speeches breathed nought of defiance, or of strife, peace and good will. May its conduct in the future be as marked by prudence, intelligence, and moral worth as heretofore; may it still continue to educate its workmen, to cultivate arbitration, and the powers of reason to settle differences, and to further its interest; then a bright future is in store, we shall be saved the horrors of strikes, the unpleasantness of contentions, labour and capital will go hand in hand, and all will be peace and prosperity.”

The Barnsley Times and South Yorkshire Gazette, Monday 2nd August 1873, p.4

By 1907 around 50,000 people gathered in the town for the Miners Demonstration. Political speeches were delivered amidst a carnival atmosphere, although superintended by mounted police to maintain order.


The revenues of the Fitzwilliam collieries are well documented the annual household accounts of the Wentworth Estate, in the Wentworth Woodhouse Muniments, available to researchers on application at Sheffield Archives. There are also records at the Archives and Discovery Centre, at Experience Barnsley. However, details of individual colliers, and their working wages are not always straightforward to find, or interpret over time.

Under the Earl men were usually paid every fortnight in what are known as ‘reckonings’. The amounts paid do not necessarily reflect the final wage individuals received – as some worked in groups, dividing the labour and also the rewards. As the local and mining historian John Goodchild has written, “Surviving records are, to say the least, patchy and often unsatisfactory in the information which they provide” (British Mining No.96, 2013, p.14).

In 1836 the Earl’s colliers received 4s 6d for a 10 and a half hour day. By 1853, at Elsecar, the basic rate was much the same, though increased tonnages and additional payments could bolster earnings, alongside which, as we have seen, the Earl provided land and accommodation at reasonable rents.

Yorkshire Miners’ Association Price List for Earl Fitzwilliam’s Elsecar Collieries lodge (Private Collection)

Payments varied with the working practices and conditions within and between pits, as collieries were opened out, encountered problems or became exhausted. Different roles required different skills and hardships and therefore different rates, e.g. colliers were usually the best paid as facing the hardest work and most dangerous conditions at the face, whereas some men were paid a low ‘daywork’ fee for labouring jobs or ‘datallers’.

Yorkshire Miners’ Association Price List for Low Stubbin lodge (Private Collection)

The consolidation of regional unions from the 1860s onwards, and the establishment of effective national union organisation through the Federation in the 1880s enabled more substantive negotiations to take place between Miners representatives and Coal owners on common terms and conditions of pay, without which strike action and restriction of production were the miners’ resorts. No side had outright victory as there were wage gains but also reductions over time, and specific differences in conditions in different coalfields tended to divide the miners’capacity to combine on a national scale.

Until the 1880s Sliding scales had been preferred in many areas of the country – they reflected an economic reality that wages should reflect prices, and the fluctuations of the market. However in the 1890s-1900s, under renewed pressure from the Miners Federation of Great Britain Parliament legislated to regulate the working day (the Eight Hours Act of 1908), and to provide a form of minimum wage, at least regionally (the Coal Mines (Minimum Wage) Act 1912. Local Joint Boards consisted of Coalowners representatives and Miners’ representatives and determined the pay Rates and Rules for the district. The General District Rates for South Yorkshire for each class of underground worker were:

Class 1. – Qualified coal getters (hand or machine) 7s. 3d. per day

Class 2. – Trammers and/or Fillers 6s. 3d. per day

Class 3. – Leading bye-workmen (those in charge of pit bottom or otherwise entrusted with superintendence) 6s. 6d. per day

Class 4. – All other workmen (over 21 years of age) 5s. 6d. per day

Class 5. – Boys:

14 years of age – 2s. 2d. per day

14 1/2 years of age – 2s. 4d. per day

15 years of age – 2s. 7d. per day

15 1/2 years of age – 2s. 9d. per day

16 years of age – 3s. 0d. per day

16 1/2 years of age – 3s. 2d. per day

17 years of age – 3s. 5d. per day

17 1/2 years of age – 3s. 7d. per day

18 years of age – 3s. 10d. per day

18 1/2 years of age – 4s. 0d. per day

19 years of age – 4s. 3d. per day

19 1/2 years of age – 4s. 5d. per day

20 years of age – 4s. 8d. per day

20 1/2 years of age – 4s. 10d. per day

21 years of age – 5s. 0d. per day

Collieries in the district were divided into 2 special groups which also had their own rates for classes 1 & 2 underground workers:

Group 1 – Class 1: 7s. 0d.; Class 2: 6s. 0d.

Shireoaks and Steetley, Messrs Charlesworth’s Collieries, Dalton Main, John Brown and Company’s Collieries,Wharncliffe Silkstone Collieries, Barnsley Main, Ryhill, Goldthorpe, Thurcroft, Wath Main, New Monckton, Earl Fitzwilliam’s Collieries and the Aston Coal Company’s collieries.

Group 2 – Class 1: 6s. 9d.; Class 2: 5s. 9d.

Tinsley Park Company’s Collieries, Sheffield Coal Company’s Collieries, Newton, Chambers & Companies’ Collieries, Stocksbridge, The Rother Vale Company’s Collieries at Fence, Orgreave, and Treeton, the Strafford Company’s Collieries, the Nunnery Company’s Collieries, Hodroyd, Kendal Green, Woolley, North Gawber, Old Silkstone, Stanhope Silkstone, Church Lane, Barugh, Barrow, Central Silkstone, Haigh, Hoyland Silkstone, Monk Bretton, Harbro’ Hills, Wentworth Silkstone, Wharncliffe Woodmoor, Hound Hill, Pyewood, Victoria, Mount Vernon, Mann’s Colliery at Dodworth

Signs of the times

The parish notes in neighbouring Tankersley reflect the economic and social changes in the area and the effect on the work and welfare of local people:

“TRIP TO BRIDLINGTON. – Nowadays people have plenty of opportunities of spending a day by the sea. All through the summer excursions are organised, inviting the inhabitants of this neighbourhood to exchange for a few hours their smoky atmosphere for a refreshing whiff of the ocean.”

Tankersley Parish Notes, September 1889

“We have entered “the nineties” – the last decade of the nineteenth century! […] As we look back on the last twelve months we feel that, though to many individuals in the parish and neighbourhood the year has been one of anxiety and sorrow, yet generally it has been a time of happiness and prosperity for the country and for this district. Better times have come than have been known for for sixteen years, and 1890 opens with very bright prospects for trade.”

Tankersley Parish Notes, January 1890

“AT WORK AGAIN. – Thank God, this long and most disastrous strike is over – once more the Collieries are in full swing, and the homes are supplied with abundance of food and fuel. It has been a terrible sixteen weeks, and most earnestly do we trust that our country will never again experience such another rough and unsatisfactory way of settling a dispute. Much is hoped for from the new-born Board of Conciliation. May it indeed prove a peace-maker!”

Tankersley Parish Notes, December 1893

“Here in our own Parish we have very much to be thankful for. It seemed at one time as if there would be a most serious stoppage of work, and that the closing weeks of the year would find many amongst us out of work. But wiser counsels prevailed – would that at such a time they always prevailed! – and after a very short interruption all went on as before.”

Tankersley Parish Notes, January 1897


Arnot, R. Page, The Miners: a history of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, 1889-1910, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1949

Baylies, Carolyn, The History of the Yorkshire Miners, 1881-1918, London: Routledge, 1993. [ISBN:0415093597]

Church, Roy, The History of the British Coal Industry. Volume 3: 1830-1913: Victorian Pre-eminence, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986, Chapters 7 & 8 [ISBN:0198282842]

Goodchild, John, ‘Colliers’ wages in the West Riding coalfield, ca.1610-1930′, British Mining, No.96, Memoirs 2013, pp.2-15. [ed. Richard Smith], Northern Mine Research Society [ISSN: 0308-2199]

Hodges, Frank, ‘The Miners Federation of Great Britain. Past and Present’, In: Shedden, Charles T. (ed.), The Iron and Coal Trades Review. Diamond Jubilee Issue, 1867-1927. A record of sixty years’ progress in the coal, iron and steel industries. London: Industrial Newspapers, Ltd., 1927, pp.120-121

Machin, Frank, The Yorkshire Miners: a history, Volume 1., Barnsley, N.U.M., 1958

Mee, L.G., Aristocratic Enterprise: The Fitzwilliam industrial undertakings, 1795-1857, Glasgow: Blackie, 1975 [ISBN:0216900506]

Yorkshire Miners Association, Agreements 1920 etc. Barnsley: Yorkshire Miners’ Association (Courtesy of Private Collection)

Yorkshire Miners Association, Price Lists (c.1896) . Barnsley: Yorkshire Miners’ Association (Courtesy of Private Collection)

8 thoughts on “The Struggle: Owners and Workers; Wages and Welfare

      • My Grandfather Robert Hudson worked underground in the 20s,30s,40,and early 50s.I know he was buried twice in falls ,the last time he was saved by a tumbler prop that acted as an air vent ,he said that if it was a wooden prop he would have suffocated.Leslie Hudson my Uncle also worked underground along side his father ,I’m not sure what years he worked at the pit,,I’m 76years old and I was in my early teens when I last had a proper discussion with them.The family lived in Piccadilly Swinton,The family was on my mother’s side.I was evacuated there during the war,and as boy spent my summer holidays there,train spotting in Kilnhurst(the family are buried there.I can still have a South Yorkshire accent when I meet people here where I live (Spain)


  1. Hi. I have found that my great grandfather lived at 30 Fitzwilliam Street in May 1917. He was a coal hewer all his life. His son , my grandfather Henry Adams Oakley was discharged from the Durham light infantry at that time with TB of the knee And had possibly taken work there on discharge , he had been an underground fan operator previously .. There were several other children all with the surname Adams who likely worked In the coal mines. If you have any info I’d be interested I have one document with the address from the army. Kind Regards and many thanks. Sally Oakley


  2. Hi. My Great grandfather William Henry Adams His wife Elizabeth and their large family lived at 30 Fitzwilliam st in May 1917. He had been a coal hewer all his life. My grandfather Henry Adams Oakley had that same month been discharged by the Durham light infantry due to tuberculosis of the knee and went back home. He had previously worked in coal mines as a fan operator. There were many other children all with the name Adams living there and likely working in the coal industry. If you do know of any info I would be appreciative. Thanks for all your hard work in compiling this. Kind regards. Sally Oakley


    • Hi, thanks for your message. From the information you mention, it seems that the family you mention were living at Fitzwilliam St Kinsley, which is in West Yorkshire, nearer to Wakefield. In the 1911 census it looks like they were at 20 Joseph St, Grimethorpe, near Barnsley (near Hemsworth really) having originally come from Stoke seemingly. The pits there were not at that time owned by the Fitzwilliam collieries so we don’t have much information regarding that area, although the minerals may have been leased from them by one of several companies working around there. Possibly books on the West Yorkshire coalfield may be of interest there. I think there are family trees listing this family on the Ancestry website. It is possible that if Henry Adams Oakley was a coke oven assistant that he may have been working for the South Kirkby, Hemsworth and Featherstone Collieries Limited perhaps on their Simon Carves plant which by 1915 was managed by Cornelius Philip (C.P.) Finn. We don’t know if there are staff records for those works, but there may be records in West Yorkshire Archives offices.


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