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.
The 1870s saw an unprecedented boom in coal production and profits, and with them, the call of workers to share in the benefits of their labour. Unionism grew again, with local lodges expanding and new ones being established. In May 1873 SYMA members at the newly-opened Low Stubbin Colliery once more tested the strength of combination and petitioned for the removal of a non-union man.
Once again, the 6th Earl’s reaction was stern and uncompromising; he closed the pit. Addressing the men a month later, he made clear his paternal 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.
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 an overviewer. Elsecar New Colliery was a product of the 1790s, with the Steward Joshua Biram (1759-1835) managing the concerns under 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), 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.
John Hartop (1815-1902) took on the general colliery 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. When the Elsecar ironworks were 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. Under him at Elsecar was Jabez Jackson 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) as manager of the Elsecar pits. John Hartop himself retired in 1886, being replaced by the long-serving Parkgate colliery manager, Thomas Newbould (1846-1933).
Newbould, who began working for the Fitzwilliams under his uncle Thomas Cooper in the 1860s, continued to serve the 7th Earl until his retirement in 1921, 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).
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.
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.
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
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.
EARL FITZWILLIAM’s ELSECAR MINERS
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.
Pickard was followed briefly by William Parrott (1843-1905), and then John Wadsworth (1850-1921).
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.
Strength in numbers
At the turn of the Twentieth Century, the miners’ unions were regularly pressing for improved terms as trading conditions improved. Beyond local ‘lodges’ of members at individual pits or groups of pits, the men 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. Political speeches were delivered amidst a carnival atmosphere – 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.
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’.
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
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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)