Now that three of the Wakefield newspaper titles in the Archive have been digitalised, it’s possible to revisit some of the previous blog post newspaper articles covered in the regional press to get a clearer picture of what was going on.
Looking again at Knitting Fog, or the 80-year wait, what was the Mines’ Regulation Bill which local ‘Lib-Lab’ MP Ben Pickard had come to Wrenthorpe to speak about? Had the Tories set up their local Association in response to this inaugural Liberals’ meeting? What was it about the proposed legislation which was causing such uproar?
The franchise had been extended in 1885, giving a large proportion of working class men the vote, and creating the Normanton constituency, which was a Liberal (or ‘Lib-Lab’) stronghold. That general election had resulted in a Liberal government which only lasted six months before another election was called, this time won by the Conservatives. Both the main political parties were starting to realise the importance of local branches for ‘boots on the ground’, hence the formation of Tory and Liberal branches in Wrenthorpe. It’s actually the local Tories, with the most ground to make up, who made the first move, holding a meeting at the Royal Oak in April 1886.*
The proposed mining legislation was Tory ‘divide and rule’ politics on the appointment of colliery check weighers, aimed at deliberately causing divisions among the miners. This, despite there already being acceptable weight-checking system in place which had, ironically, been introduced by former Conservative Home Secretary, Sir Richard Cross.
Lengthy coverage of the Liberals’ meeting is given in the Wakefield Free Press. Although the introductory paragraph is of some interest, it suggests the newspaper so rarely covered any Potovens or Wrenthorpe-related news that it has to introduce the article by setting the scene about Wrenthorpe itself. The article’s rather patronising in its attitude towards working men. Why shouldn’t they be just as clued up about the ‘events of the times’? Who does the journalist think was in the vanguard of the major working class movements? And, if anyone was to understand the implications of the new legislation, it’s the men who encounter these issues everyday of their working lives. Pickard, in contrast, is respectful of his audience – his constituents, and values their opinion.
* Wakefield and West Riding Herald, 3 April 1886, p.8.
Wakefield Free Press
Saturday 23 April 1887
LIBERALISM AT POTOVENS
Mr B. Pickard M.P., and the New Mines’ Bill
We prefer the more popular name of Potovens to the strictly legal designation of Wrenthorpe. For one thing, it carries us back to the time when this pleasantly-situated village was a busy industrial centre. The familiar name indicates the trade carried on, and it appears to have been more extensive than most people imagine. Indeed, so important was it considered by the natives themselves, that they called their hamlet Little London! Thoresby, writing in his diary about the beginning of last century, stated that he walked to Pott-ovens, where he stayed a little to observe the manner in which the work was carried on. But the ovens have long since ceased to burn, and the people now find employment, some in coal-mining, some is band-spinning, and others in the market gardens of the neighbourhood. The name Wrenthorpe is supposed to be derived from the Warrens and thorpe, the latter an old term indicative of Danish occupation, and applied to a collection of houses, especially of the poorer class.
It was, then, to this old-fashioned village that we made our way last Saturday evening to “assist” at the annual social meeting in connection with the Liberal Association of the district. Excellent preparations had been made for the event by the committee, consisting of Messrs T. Asquith, G. Brooke, W. Calvert, J. Wilkes, C. Howden, J. Nichols, J. Ramsden, G. Boyce, J. Ainley, and J. Roberts, with the energetic secretary, Mr J. Parkin. General interest appeared to be excited amongst the people, as will be seen from the fact that nearly 300 persons sat down to the sumptuous tea provided in the Board School. This was supplied by Mrs Senior, of Kent House, Wakefield, whose catering was, as usual, most satisfactory. The comfort of the guests was carefully attended to by the following who presided at the tables:- Mrs Hustler, Mrs Howden, Mrs Wilkes, Mrs Calvert, Mrs Kershaw, Misses Calvert (two), and Miss Terry. The scene presented to the eye was a most pleasing one, nearly every person present being decorated with yellow flowers, and the neatly set out tables having a most tempting appearance. Later on in the evening a most public meeting was held. We confess to our surprise at seeing such a large and encouraging gathering. There need be no fear of the decided Liberalism of Potovens, and we almost feel inclined to believe the remark of an enthusiast who, subsequently, on a resolution being put to the meeting, shouted out that “all the Conservatives had left the place except Joseph Thomas.”*
The speeches were listened to with an intelligent interest that proved how carefully the working men followed the events of the times, and how complete is their knowledge of the political position. It was, too, a happy thought to have the meeting in a Board School, for the elementary tuition there given to the young people could not be better supplemented than by their fathers and mothers listening to the excellent addresses delivered last Saturday night. Important historical facts were mingled with caustic criticisms of the actions and speeches of the Tories and their new allies. The chair was occupied by Mr J. H. Cookson, of Stanley, a staunch and consistent Liberal, who gave an excellent tone to the proceedings by his opening speech. He was in Ireland, he said, when the Earl of Aberdeen, the late Lord Lieutenant, left Dublin, and the demonstration he then saw showed the esteem in which that nobleman was held. He considered that the claims of the Irish to Local Self-Government were reasonable in deed. He believed that when the next election took place they would again see the Grand Old Man [Gladstone] in a majority, and that he would live to see this scheme carried out as he had seen many other great measure, which had been opposed quite as much as this (applause).
The Rev C. Bonham, of Stanley, proposed the following resolution: “That this meeting expresses its strong indignation at the proposals of the Government to suppress the liberties of the Irish people by a new Coercion Bill when the necessity for remedial measures has been acknowledged by them, and also declares its confidence in the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone and the policy adopted by the Gladstonian Liberals.” He congratulated those present on the success of the first meeting of the Liberal Association for Wrenthorpe, and was pleased to see such a fine representation of the ladies (applause). Now that they had Primrose Dames [Primrose League] on the one hand, they wanted some Liberal Dames on the other (hear, hear). The Tories made a strong point of boycotting in Ireland, but they did not need to go to Ireland for boycotting, He knew where some took place not 100 miles from where they stood (applause) – most systematically took place, and where shopkeepers dare not declare themselves Liberal for fear of losing their custom (cries of “Shame”). Alter congratulating them upon the presence of Mr. Pickard, he asked where had the Conservatives brought forward a working man’s candidate with any intention of returning him. The fact was that the Tories simply used the working men as tools, and flung them aside when it suited their purpose (applause).
Mr George Thornton, of Horbury, in seconding the resolution, delivered a telling speech, in which he showed the reasonableness of the Home Rule principle, and especially how successful it had been in Canada. When it was proposed for Canada, the cry was raised, as it was in the present case, that it meant separation, but the fact was that to-day Canada was more loyal than ever.
Mr B Pickard, M.P., on rising to support the resolution, was loudly applauded. He said he was glad to be amongst them once more at Wrenthorpe because he was certain of a hearty reception there. Interested as many of them were in mining legislation there was one matter to which he wished to direct their attention. In the late Government of Mr Gladstone a bill had been brought in by Mr Childers upon which there never had been an opportunity of taking a second reading. We had heard a great deal within the last two months about what the Tory Party is to do for the mining population in the bill that they have introduced in the House of Commons. By a little trickery they had got it read a second time, and that without discussion. Before he left London it had been stated in the House that there was an objection to the bill being passed without discussion on the second reading; but some two days after he left town it was stated by the Home Secretary that he fix a day when it would be possible that a fair discussion could be taken on the bill (a voice: “That is the way they do it”). On Thursday morning, however, he was surprised to find that the Home Secretary had persisted in taking the second reading on Wednesday afternoon, when it was impossible that a discussion could have taken place, and in the absence of all the mining representatives, who were away on other business, in the firm belief that the second reading would not be taken before the Easter holidays. They would all agree that an important measure affecting some 500,000 people employed in the mines should be passed without some discussion (applause). He had been told that some of the underviewers were a little alarmed about this bill. He would say that they need not be alarmed because second class certificates would be given to the holders of certificates under the Act of 1882, and they would find that no harm can come to them under this bill. Therefore if any of the underviewers felt alarm, he hoped this statement would appease them. There were, however, certain clauses in the bill which affected check weighmen, and he hoped the latter would read the clauses for themselves. If Causes 13 and 14 became law it was his opinion that check weighmen would have no freedom whatever. In fact we were told by some colliery owners that the check weighmen in the past had had too much to do with politics and matters that did not belong to their ordinary work, and that their toe nails should he cut; and as far as he could judge the toe nails had pared down considerably. That afternoon, at Barnsley, there had been a meeting of 86 check weighmen, representing nearly every portion of Yorkshire, and these men had condemned the changes referred to, asserting that they would sooner be without any clause whatever regulating their conduct, and rely upon the consideration of the men who appointed them and paid their wages (load cheers). As they all knew, there had been a great deal of eulogy passed upon Sir R. Cross’s bill, which was now the law. Under that bill they had power to select a check weigher from any class of workmen they thought fit, and were not confined to the pit bank or bottom. This portion of the clause was still admitted, but a change was made with regard to another portion, according to which, if a majority of the workmen at any colliery agreed to appoint a check weigher, every man would have to pay his proportion for the payment of this check weigher. In the new bill, however, the clause was that only those men who were in favour of a check weigher being appointed should be called upon to assist in paying his wages. That would introduce anarchy at collieries, and they would have nothing but disturbances. For instance, if there were 200 men at a colliery and if 101 agreed upon a man, the remaining 99 would, under this bill, be at liberty, in his opinion, to refuse to pay towards the man’s wages; or, if they selected a man of their own, there would be two check weighers, and if that was net a fine thing he did not know what was. He trusted miners would read the bill carefully, and communicate with him if they had any amendments to suggest. By thus doing they would materially help him to fight this bill so as to make it the best that could be got, for no doubt it would be a bill for this generation and the next (applause). Mr Pickard proceeded to speak at some length on current political questions, and in doing so, was warmly applauded.
The resolution on being put, was unanimously agreed to amid loud cheers.
On the motion of Mr J Marshall, Horbury, seconded by Mr I Mason, of Silcoates, it was agreed to send copies of the resolution to Mr Gladstone and Mr John Morley.
Mr T P Robinson proposed and Mr David Burnley seconded a vote of thanks to the chairman, which was very warmly recorded and acknowledged by Mr Cookson and a similar compliment having been paid to the managers of the school for the use of the same, the proceedings ended.
We may that during the evening a petition against the Bill was unanimously signed.
* Thinking ‘Joseph Thomas’ was a euphemism for nobody, similar to Sweet FA; it’s something of a surprise to find there really was a man called Joseph Thomas in 19th century Wrenthorpe. He was a boot and shoe maker who lived at Bragg Lane End and was elected to the Stanley-Wrenthorpe Township School Board. [More in a future blog].