Less than six months after the presentation of the silver tray to colliery owner, W T Marriott, local miners are embroiled in the first ever national miners’ strike. Colliery owners had passed on falls in the price of coal to their workers’ by slashing wages. Lock-outs took place as miners’ rejected this erosion in living standards.
The first of these two pieces from September 1893 is about a strike breaker at Wrenthorpe. It was published only a couple of days before the Featherstone Massacre.
Yorkshire Evening Post
Tuesday 5 September 1893
AN INDISCREET NON-STRIKER
To-day a large number of people made their way towards Wrenthorpe Colliery (Mr W T Marriott’s), expecting that there might a scene consequent upon the action of a byeworkman employed at that pit. It seems that it was arranged when the lock-out took place that two of the byeworkmen should continue working in order to attend to the pumps. The miners, we are informed on good authority, thoroughly approved of this course, but one of the individuals in question has acted in a very indiscreet manner. It is said that he has not only jeered at those who are out work, but has gone [to] the length of exhibiting in the window of his house piece of beef with words attached to the effect that they could strike who liked, but that was going provide for his wife and children. The result has been that has been accompanied to and from his work by an improvised concertina band and a large crowd of women and children. Affairs became so threatening last night that a number of policemen were sent escort him home, and the feelings of the people have been so aroused that the individual in question deemed it advisable to absent himself from work to-day.
Finally, a great piece of journalism from the London Daily News (republished in the Irish Independent). It not only gets to grips with the hardships caused by the pay reduction and strike but also the factors behind the glut of coal and drop in productivity of the skilled miners. And three union officials from Wrenthorpe Colliery heavily criticise the Bishop of Wakefield for interfering in the dispute.
Saturday 16 September 1893
THE COAL STRIKE
(FROM THE DAILY NEWS SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT)
Wakefield, Thursday Evening
In so far as I have been able to judge from a visit to Featherstone, Newtown [sic], Stanley Village, Outwood, Wrenthorpe, Castleford, Normanton, and other places in the district of which Wakefield is the centre, Normanton, Featherstone, and Castleford are those in which the pressure of poverty is the most severe. No more in this than in other districts are there are any signs of what one understands by excitement. The scores of collieries that one passes are silent and deserted. The men are, as they call it, at “play”. In outward appearance the strike region is as dull and decorous as Gower Street. There is no picturesqueness about it. A stranger forgetting the day of the week would imagine it was Sunday. That is only the outward show, but in every miner’s house I have been in to-day there is either great poverty or all but positive starvation. The families that suffer most are naturally those to which no strike pay comes.
A miner’s wife told me in her house to-day at Newton Hill that she had only had four fires in the last fortnight. “It is fortunate for us,” she said, “that this is not the winter time. If it were winter we should perish of cold.” At several of the collieries which I have passed grown-up people and young children were searching the pit rubbish for fuel. “There is none to be had if we had money to buy it with,” says a miner’s wife, who tells me that she has just been compelled to sell foe fifteen shillings a sofa which not long ago cost three pounds. She and her family have for the last two or three days been reduced to a little dry bread once a day. Every family in the little street where she lives depends on the strike money doled out once a week. I find that, as a rule, this dole runs out one or two days before the weekly distribution.
In their treatment of their poor customers the small shopkeepers display not merely much forbearance, but a great deal of self-sacrificing at charity. The mistress of a small shop tells me that 15 miners’ wives who in ordinary times are fairly well off and free from debt, have called open her within the space of three hours for relief. Many of these small shopkeepers are very badly off in consequence of the continence of the strike. “This strike has stopped my business,” says a miner’s widow, who in London would be called charwoman. She used to assist her neighbours in various household duties, earning in this way 7s or 8s a week. Bat now, as all the families are idle, there is nothing for her to do, and she depends for her scanty subsistence on the kindness of her neighbours, who are themselves in sore straits.
Near Wrenthorpe Colliery I met miner who was carrying two loaves rolled up in a napkin for the relief of his daughter, a widow with five children. “They ate their last meal yesterday,” he said and I am going to let them have this,” tapping his parcel. Two of the worst cases I have come across are in Newton village. Two houses in it have twenty-three inhabitants between them, counting parents and children, and the weekly dole of “strike brass” is their only means of living.
I have spoken with many miners whose worst hardships began long before the strike – men who, though willing to work, could not get more than one day’s or two days’ work out of the six. One man tells me that several times during the last sixteen weeks he has come home at the week’s end with less than six shillings. “And I am not man,”’ says he, “to spend a farthing in drink.” Says another miner – “I have not seen the colour of a sovereign in my pay since Christmas, and I could tell you many who could say the same thing themselves.” The miners as a class declare that they are not better off now than they were in 1888 [five years before], before the rise began.
I have had a conversation this afternoon on this particular matter with three miners who hold official positions at the Wrenthorpe Colliery. “What,” they ask, “is the good of the higher rate if our chances of earning it are so small? There are too many hands after the 40 per cent rise since 1888. Since that year 40,000 new hands have come to work is the mines of a few counties, and there is not enough for us all.” One the three condemned very strongly what the miners call “indirect reductions” and the unfairness of compelling skilled miners to take unskilled hands into their “partnership”. Work with a man not fully skilled means, to his skilled mate, loss of time and earnings; and if the skilled man refuses to work with the new comer the manager is as likely as not to order him to bring in his tools and to walk off. If he does walk off, he may have to tramp the country for weeks in search of work at some other mine. A man will rather submit to injustice rather than ran that risk.
The three representative miners agreed in saying that the Federation [miners’ union] never would agree to arbitration. In whatever way the strike might come to an end, it would not be by arbitration. “The Bishop of Wakefield is jawing away about arbitration. Let him mind his own business. How would he like if we arbitrated about his wages? Would he wipe away a tear with the corner of his apron, or would he flare up like any other sinner? I wish the Bishop had to depend on me for his wages. I should see to it that he got something more useful to do than to arbitrate about other people’s wages. If I am only worth 26s a week (when I can get it), is the Bishop of Wakefield worth all them thousands a year? I say no man in England is worth a thousand a year. I don’t care who he is, but he is not, and he can’t be worth a thousand a year if we miners are worth no more than what we get.” Who will dare deny that the miner who spoke in this way was right? They are religious men, these three representative miners but I fear they have a poor opinion of the Episcopal Bench. “The bishops are a useless lot. Their faces don’t get worn as ours do from poverty. I don’t want to starve ‘em but I’d like to knock 40 per cent off their pay.”