Wrenthorpe Colliery 4: union officials take swipe at Bishop of Wakefield

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.

Irish Independent
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.”

Wrenthorpe Colliery 3: miners’ gift to pit owner

Here’s a strange piece of news. Is this a one-off example of miners giving their boss a gift as an act of genuine affection? Or are they really motivated by fear for their futures?

Yorkshire Evening Post
Thursday 20 April 1893

PRESENTATION TO A WAKEFIELD COAL OWNER

The miners employed at Wrenthorpe Colliery, near Wakefield, were thrown out of work for a considerable period during the latter half of 1892 by the stoppage the pit for repairs. Mr W T Marriott, of Sandal Grange, owner of the colliery, behaved in a particularly generous manner towards the men during the time they were unable work, and the latter have determined to acknowledge in a tangible manner the kindness of their employer. A subscription list was opened, and as a result a handsomely-chased solid silver waiter [tray] and an illuminated address will shortly be presented to Mr Marriott.

Little did the miners know but they were about to get kicked in the teeth, and by that summer they’d be on strike.

 

When trade unions were illegal

A piece from before the repeal of the notorious Combination Acts which prohibited trade unions. Arendale and Ashton were sent to prison for trying to organise strike action at a local pit.

Leeds Intelligencer
Monday 17 January 1820

COMMITTED TO YORK CASTLE

Joseph Arendale and George Ashton, both of Alverthorpe, colliers, charged upon oath with having severally on the 24th December last, solicited, intimidated, and by other means endeavoured to prevail on Charles Scholes, and Richard Davis, being two workmen in the employ of W Fenton, Esq at his colliery, situate at Potovens Plain [Brandy Carr], in the West Riding, to leave off their work, contrary to the statute. – To be imprisoned 3 months.

Wrenthorpe Colliery 2: air-vent explosion kills two

Two very different reports of an early pit accident at the colliery, in 1844, starting with the Evening Mail’s account.

London Evening Mail
Monday 21 October 1844

ANOTHER FATAL COLLIERY EXPLOSION

On Wednesday night last an explosion took place in the colliery of Messrs Micklethwaite and Co, near Wakefield, at which time three men were at work in the pit. Two of the men were killed by the explosion; and when their bodies were brought to the bank they presented a horrible picture, the flesh on their arms and faces being literally burnt to a cinder. The names of the two men who were suddenly called out of time into eternity are James Brown, a married man, of Westgate Common, and George Powell, unmarried, of Potovens, near Wakefield. Not only were two lives lost, but the coals in the pit were ignited, and remained burning at the time this account was sent off. On Thursday an inquest was held on the bodies, at the Vine Tree Inn, Newton, before Mr T Lee, coroner, when a long and patient investigation was gone into. The facts of the case may be gleaned from the following evidence adduced:

Francis Jagger sworn and said – l am both a miner and sinker; I know the deceased James Brown and George Powell; I am now sinking a pit for Messrs Micklethwaite; I was near the place where the accident occurred about 9 o’clock last night; a lad in the pit came and rang at the rod to let us know; I thought I had heard the explosion about half an hour before; there were but three persons in the pit; as soon as we heard the ringing, we went to the pit and pulled the lad up; he told us what had happened; one of the partners (Mr Carter), and his son, and myself, all went down the pit. We found the deceased men about 150 yards from the pit’s eye; they were both dead and stretched out straight. They appeared to have been suffocated. They were burnt upon their arms and face. They were employed in repairing the air-gate. I have worked in the pit, and consider the ventilation good at present without repairing. They had three lamps in use, two of which we found, but the third, belonging to Powell, is missing; we think he had taken the top off the lamp, which caused the explosion. The coal at the present time is still on fire in the pit. It is necessary that great caution should be exercised in working the air-gate, it is more dangerous than other parts of the pit. Mr Carter manages the workings at the bottom of the pit, and every attention is paid to the ventilation.

Brown was 29 years old, and Powell 19; they both lay on their faces quite dead when found. George Bedford deposed, that when he came out of the pit, about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the ventilation was good. He had been working in the same air-gate. The jury returned a verdict of “Accidentally killed in a coal pit”.

How can the Northern Star and Advertiser’s commentary be so different? Not least, one of the two papers can’t even get the correct names of the two dead men.

Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser
Saturday 19 October 1844

COLLIERY EXPLOSION, NEAR WAKEFIELD – TWO LIVES LOST

On Wednesday night, about nine o’clock, the village of Newton was thrown into a great state of excitement, an alarm being given that the pit belonging to Messrs Micklethwaite and Co had fired, and that four men were at work at the time. Mr Carter, and his son William, the bottom steward, were speedily in attendance, and descended the shaft in the hope of rendering assistance to the poor sufferers. Providentially, however, the cupola man and a boy, who were at work near to the other two men, had made their way to the pit’s eye, and were with the greatest dispatch landed on the surface. The man had not sustained the least injury, but the boy was much burnt about the knees, having also received a severe cut in the forehead. After Carter and his son had remained some length of time, two other men also descended, and at five minutes to ten o’clock one of the men returned, but without any tidings of the unfortunate sufferers. He, however, again descended, taking with him the necessary articles required to enable them to continue the search, which lasted until a quarter past eleven o’clock, when the two Carters ascended the shaft in a complete state of exhaustion, bringing the melancholy tidings that the two men were found, and both dead. The other two men were also brought to the top equally exhausted, when after administering some restorative, they began to recruit their strength, and prepare for a second descent to bring out the sufferers. A little after one o’clock, the bodies were brought up, and a truly horrible picture was presented to view, the flesh on their arms and faces being literally burnt to a cinder, the skin hanging about them like so many rags; they were immediately laid upon stretchers, and conveyed to the adjoining Inn. No particulars have as yet transpired as to how the explosion originated, but it is to be feared that the inflammable air must have ignited at the lamp of one of the sufferers, the same not having yet been found. The other two lamps are in a perfect state. The names of the sufferers are John Whiteley, a lad, residing at Bragg Lane, and severely burnt; James Brown, Westgate Common, a married man, aged about thirty, dead and George Wild, of Potovens, aged seventeen, also dead. Brown has left a wife and one child to mourn his untimely end. At the inquest held on Thursday, a verdict of “Accidentally killed in a coal pit” was returned.

Wrenthorpe Colliery 1: getting their seams straight

The first on a series of ten posts on what was to be the largest colliery in Wrenthorpe (although strictly speaking it was at Newton Bar). First opened in 1838, it was generally known as Newton Pit but formally called ‘Wrenthorpe Colliery’ by the time it was under the ownership of W T Marriott later on in the 19th century.

As we’ll read later on, industrial relations were particularly fraught at this pit but let’s start with the earliest reference to it in the press, the a 30-word piece on the application to sink the pit.

Leeds Intelligencer
Saturday 3 March 1838

NEW COAL PITS

Daniel Micklethwaite, Esq has purchased the coal on the estate of George Lane Fox, Esq, MP, at Newton, near Wakefield, and will commence to work it as soon as circumstances will permit.

A lengthy piece in the Leeds Mercury on the proceedings of the West Riding Geographical and Polytechnic Society from the end of the following year, throws some light on the early history of the mine. Presentations included ‘On steam engines boilers and chimneys’, ‘On the [miners’] safety lamp’ and The northern coal field of Yorkshire’.

Leeds Mercury
Saturday 14 December 1839

GEOLOGICAL AND POLYTECHNIC SOCIETY OF THE WEST RIDING OF YORKSHIRE

We mentioned last week, that the Quarterly Meeting of “the Geological and Polytechnic Society of the West Riding of Yorkshire” had been held on the previous Thursday, in the Hall of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society…

The northern coal field of Yorkshire

Mr Embleton next read his paper, Illustrated by sections – “On the Order of the Coal Seams in the Northern Coal Field of Yorkshire”. The subject of discussion on this paper was continued to a consideration of the order of the various seams found in the Townships of Whitwood, Methley, Stanley, Wrenthorpe, Lofthouse, Rothwell, Ardsley Middleton, and Beeston. Mr Embleton commenced his paper by saying it would be of great importance to the Society if the order of the seams of coal were determined in each district, and that it was the only sure foundation for comparison with distant parts of the coal field. He remarked that it was only by a careful collection of shaft sections that many important questions in local geology could be satisfactorily cleared up. As for Instance, the thinning or thickening of certain seams in particular directions, the existence of seams at one colliery which were not found in an adjoining one, the origin of coal itself. They would also show when that variety of coal called cannel coal, was chiefly found, and whether, as had been often stated, though, perhaps, without much foundation, it was only found in the vicinity of certain throws.

The workable seams in the townships before mentioned, are the Stanley Shale Coal, the Stanley Main Coal, the Warren House Coal, the Lofthouse or Haigh Moor Coal, the Fish Coal, the 40 Yards Coal, the Yard Coal or Little Coal, and the Main or Deep Coal of the Rothwell Haigh and Middleton Collieries, the Eleven Yards Coal, and the Beeston Coal. Of these seams, the 40 Yards Coal, the Yard Coal, the Main Coal, and Beeston Coal supply Leeds with fuel, both for domestic and for manufacturing purposes… The Stanley seams, as occupying the highest positions in the district, were first minutely described. These seams are worked at Hatfield Colliery, Auchthorpe Colliery, and the Victoria Colliery; the seams are usually 17 yards apart; the upper-seam is 2ft. 6in. thick, the under one very variable, and composed of three or more beds separated by argillaceous bands. The next section was at Whitwood, east of Stanley. The strata here were compared with those at Stanley, and the similarity fully established; but there was here another deeper bed. At Wrenthorpe the sinking of the shaft was commenced just at the outbreak of the Stanley Main Coal, and continued to a depth of 185 yards. This shaft passed through the Whitwood Lower Coal, and also the Haigh Moor Coal. By the Newmarket section, the Lofthouse Coal was proved to be the same as td the Haigh Moor and that the lower seam at Whitwood, the middle seam at Wrenthorpe, and the Warren House Coal at Newmarket were also identical…

Dangerous pastimes

London Dispatch
Sunday 11 June 1837

ACCIDENT

On Sunday last, some young men at Potovens, near Wakefield, were amusing themselves by what is called “running the rope”, namely, descending twelve or fourteen yards down the mouth of coal pit, by means of holding with the hands by the rope, and drawing themselves up in the same way. One of them, having tried the experiment several times, had the misfortune at last to lose his hold, and he fell to the bottom of the pit, by which his leg was fractured, he received other contusions.