Cyclists introduce Labour Party to Wrenthorpe

A seemingly odd piece from 1910, explaining how the Wrenthorpe branch of the Labour Party came about.

Labour Leader
Friday 8 April 1910

OUR CYCLE SCOUTS

An encouraging letter, full of fire and swing, has been sent by A E Stubbs, Secretary of the Scouts in Yorkshire. He opens thus:

I am glad to learn from the Labour Leader this week that we are to have a National Army of I.L.P. [Independent Labour Party] Cycling Scouts to convey the gospel of Socialism to our toiling brothers in the country, and I write these few lines to welcome its inception. The agricultural labourer is ignorant of Socialism and what it means to him, and the Scouts can do a great work. They have done some good work already in Yorkshire. Organised last May, we have had forty runs, held twelve meetings, established one new branch of the I.L.P., and there are two more in the making. Leaflets, Labour Leaders, and Pamphlets were distributed in the homes of the people, and some of the seed fell on good ground. The Yorkshire Scouts have commenced work already for the season, and are about to form a new branch at Wrenthorpe, near Wakefield. Several other places on the Yorkshire Coalfield are down to receive attention from the Scouts.

Stubbs concludes his letter as follows:

I am an old racer, but I never raced in such a hurry nor enjoyed any race so much as the race I am now engaged in, namely, the race to win converts to Socialism.

The idea of teams of cyclists spreading a political message has got lost in time. Before the First World War, ILP cycle scouts took socialism to English villages, distributing literature to households.* Local MP Frederick Hall (Normanton), had stood as a Labour candidate for the first time at the January 1910 general election, following the MFGB’s (miners’ union) political affiliation with the Labour Party the previous year.

* Griffiths, Clare V J, Labour and the Countryside: The Politics of Rural Britain 1918-1939, Oxford University Press, 2007, pp.110-111.

Striking miners opencast coal protest

In the early 1990s as many deep coal mines were being closed, opencast coal workings at Kirkhamgate and off Jerry Clay Lane whipped up controversy. Something similar was happening in the 1920s, just a month after the General Strike when the coal miners hadn’t gone back to work.

Opencast sites in the area were being used to produce coal during the national miners’ strike. Local unemployed men were coerced into working at these sites or they forfeited their dole money. And opencast work paid a much lower rate than a typical coal miner’s wage.

Sheffield Daily Telegraph
Thursday 24 June 1926

OUTCROP SCENES
Wakefield Demonstration

Another demonstration by miners in the Wakefield district against day hole and outcrop coal workers was made yesterday at Kirkhamgate, a village three miles out of the city. Miners on strike turned up several thousand strong, and paraded past each working headed by a brass band. The day hole workers, however, were missing for the time being, and the demonstration was a peaceful affair.

After the march round, the miners gathered in the old quarry on Lindle Hill, and were addressed Mr Walter Dyson JP and Mr Tom Smith, ex-MP for Pontefract [and later MP for Normanton]. Mr Dyson, in opening the meeting, said they objected strongly to the working of day holes, not that the amount of so-called coal produced was of any great consequence, but they stood out against the principle the thing, and protested also against the Government affording the men police protection. The Labour Exchanges were sending men to day-hole work under the classification of “navvying” and such men were practically compelled to take up the work or lose the dole.

Wrenthorpe Colliery 7: the 40-week strike

Less than two years before the General Strike and the prolonged 1926 miners’ strike, the miners at Wrenthorpe Colliery were embroiled in a dispute which lasted for 40 weeks.

Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer
Friday 18 July 1924

THIRTY WEEKS’ STRIKE OF YORKSHIRE MINERS
OFFICIAL SETTLEMENT IGNORED
(By our Labour Correspondent.)

Mr Herbert Smith, President of the Yorkshire Miners’ Association, has intimated that unless there is an early settlement of the prolonged strike at the Wrenthorpe and Low Laithes Collieries, he will consult his Association the policy of taking county action.

The strike turned upon certain demands respecting payment for men in abnormal places, and it began in December. To enforce their point of view, the Yorkshire Miners’ Association called out the men at Soothill, although the only connection was that one gentleman happened to be a director there, as well as at Wrenthorpe. Operations at the third pit were soon resumed, but at the two others no coal has been got for thirty weeks. Wrenthorpe is a fairly large colliery, and the output there and at Low Laithes will be well over 400,000 tons a year. The serious loss turnover in local wages and trade, resulting from the stoppage, can be conjectured.

There have been many joint conferences about the strike, and they resulted in terms of settlement being agreed upon weeks ago between accredited representatives of the Owners’ Association and the Miners’ Association. Both sides agreed to recommend the terms for acceptance the men and by the colliery company respectively. These terms were as mutually fair as it was possible to devise. They were accepted by the Low Laithes men and by the company, but rejected by the Wrenthorpe men.

At that time the Yorkshire Miners’ Association might have intervened to the great advantage of the community, and of their own funds, by advising the Wrenthorpe men that their original claims could not conceded by any company, and that the terms offered were the best that could possibly be obtained. The Wrenthorpe men, however, seem to be retained on strike pay as a means to establishing a precedent that a claim to the effect that place is abnormal must carry extra allowance. All such claims, anywhere, must be investigated, and subjected to conditions. It seems lamentable that an arrangement agreed to by officials from the Association at Barnsley should be ignored, and the strike prolonged.

Plans to end the longest dispute in the pit’s troubled industrial history were drawn up in September 1924.

Leeds Mercury
Wednesday 3 September 1924

FORTY WEEKS’ STRIKE ENDS
WAKEFIELD MINERS TO RESUME
2,000 AFFECTED

It is announced that the long-drawn-out dispute at the Wrenthorpe (Wakefield) and Gawthorpe pits, belonging to the Low Laithes Colliery Company Ltd has at last been settled.

About 1,100 men and boys were employed at the Wakefield Colliery, and about 450 at Gawthorpe, and they downed tools on December 4th last year. After waiting for two or three weeks many of the men succeeded in finding work at other collieries, but a large number have been idle for the past forty weeks. During this period Mr Herbert Smith, the President of the Yorkshire Miners’ Federation, and prominent local colliery officials have been making efforts to bring about a settlement, but an agreement could not be arrived at with regard to the points at issue.

Yesterday, however, it was reported that an agreement had been reached on practically all the points under dispute, and the men’s representatives regard the terms as satisfactory.

During the long time the pits have been idle many falls have taken place in the workings, and much cleaning up will be necessary before coal-getting can be proceeded with. It is hoped, however, that in the course of a few days all the men will be fully employed.

Wrenthorpe Colliery 6: the 1919 lockout

Even during the First World War, industrial relations at the pit did not run smoothly.

Leeds Mercury
Friday 26 October 1917

WAKEFIELD STRIKE SETTLED

The strike at the Wrenthorpe Colliery, Wakefield, which has been in progress for the past seven weeks, has now been settled, and the men and boys, to the number of about 1,800, will resume work next week.

The dispute arose owing to the demand of the bye-workers to be supplied with coal at the same price as the, miners, the latter receiving their coal six shillings per load, whilst the bye-workers had to pay eight shillings.

The management have now acceded the bye-workers’ request.

Sheffield Daily Telegraph
Tuesday 23 April 1918

MINERS’ COUNCIL MEETING

A meeting of the Council of the Yorkshire Miners’ Association was held at Barnsley yesterday, Mr H Smith (president) being in the chair…

The Council decided to grant lock-out pay to members at the Wrenthorpe Colliery, near Wakefield, in consequence of the engine winders refusing to lower men, and also decided to deal with the question at a future Council meeting, with a view to taking action to avoid similar stoppages.

And as demobilised men returned to work at the pit they were dogged by a dispute caused by a rival trade union.

Leeds Mercury
Monday 21 April 1919

LOCKOUT PAY
THE STOPPAGE AT WRENTHORPE COLLIERY

A special meeting of the Council of the Yorkshire Miners’ Association at Barnsley on Saturday considered the dispute at Wrenthorpe Collieries, near Wakefield, and decided to grant lock-out pay to members who have been out work about a week.

Mr Smith (president) said the dispute had been forced upon the Association by another organisation, and was not the fault of the men at the colliery. He pointed out that over 700 men at this colliery enlisted, and eighty-one were killed. There was an understanding between the owners and that Association that men who were recently set should be dismissed in order to make room for men returning from the Army. Under this agreement 146 members of the Association had left. A blacksmith belonging to another Association received notice, but when that expired the remaining pick sharpeners, seven or eight, left, and the miners were told that they could not continue working because there were no sharpened tools. The Association would have to consider whether they would work any longer with a few members belonging to another Society, as this showed that it was necessary that the whole industry should be organised in one body.

“The effect of the action of a small section,” added Mr Smith, “is that we have to pay lock-out pay to 1,800 men and boys.”

Wrenthorpe Colliery 5: summer of strikes and enlisting

The colliery closed in 1900 but reopened seven years later, trading as part of the Low Laithes Colliery Company Limited.

Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War the mine was called which lasted for much of the summer. It’s traced in the Yorkshire newspapers.

Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer
Saturday 6 June 1914

STRIKE AT A WAKEFIELD PIT

The employees, numbering between 1,200 and 1,300 at Wrenthorpe Colliery, Wakefield (Low Laithes Colliery Company), have now been out strike over week, and the pit ponies have been drawn out. The sudden cessation of work arose through the men at the coal face being requested to hew coal to the depth of one yard six inches instead of one yard ten and a half or eleven inches, as before. This, the men contended, was contrary to the existing agreement. The management, on the other hand, confess that they are somewhat a loss to understand the attitude of the men below ground. It is understood that a deputation of the Yorkshire Miners’ Association will interview the management on Monday with the view of arriving at a settlement of the trouble.

Sheffield Daily Telegraph
Saturday 13 June 1914

STRIKE WRENTHORPE PIT

At an adjourned meeting, yesterday, of the employees of the Wrenthorpe Colliery, Wakefield, who have been strike about a fortnight, the question of returning to work on the old conditions in accordance with the offer of the management was further considered. In the course of the meeting, however, it was stated that the deputies had gone on strike for an increase in wages, and this practically broke up the meeting. Deputies’ pickets were afterwards put out in the neighbourhood of the pit. It would thus appear that the settlement of the trouble is now as remote as ever.

Leeds Mercury
Thursday 18 June 1914

WAKEFIELD MINERS’ STRIKE

The strike at Wrenthorpe Colliery, near Wakefield, still continues. Yesterday pickets of the miners met the surfacemen on their way to work and endeavoured to persuade them to stay away and throw in their lot with the strikers. In some cases they were successful. Out of the sixty-one top men who went to work Monday, fewer than a score remain.

By mid-June the colliery’s owners came up with a tactic to break the strike. They issued summons to about half the pit’s workers, suing them for breach of contract, as they left work without giving 14 days’ notice.

Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer
Monday 22 June 1914

THE COLLIERY STRIKE: NEARLY 600 SUMMONSES

Arising out the strike at the Wrenthorpe Colliery of the Low Laithes Colliery Company, several weeks ago, through which between 1,200 and 1,300 men and boys have been rendered idle, summonses have been served 583 of the employees for breach of contract, and these are returnable before the county magistrates to-day.

Our Wakefield correspondent learns that as the strikers allege the management have been guilty of a breach of agreement requesting the men hew six inches less coal than formerly (thus throwing wrong the prices list agreed upon), it is the intension of the Yorkshire Miners’ Association to make it a test case for the whole the county.

The Yorkshire Evening Post describes the scenes as the miners marched from the Colliery Newton Bar to the Court in Wood Street. And the union’s trump card – to file a counter claim.

Yorkshire Evening Post
Monday 22 June 1914

MINERS’ PROCESSION TO POLICE COURT
WRENTHORPE STRIKE SEQUEL
OVER 500 COLLIERS SUMMONED AT WAKEFIELD

Strange scenes were witnessed at Wakefield to-day in connection with the prosecution of 583 miners, employees at the Wrenthorpe Colliery, where a strike progress. As early as eight o’clock the summoned miners, with their womenfolk and children, and other sympathisers, gathered the gates the Wrenthorpe Pit, which is owned by the Low Laithes Colliery Company (Limited).

Two hours later several thousand people had assembled. The men passed the time by cheering and enthusiastically greeting various prominent “deputies” and leaders as they arrived on the spot, and subsequently a brass band attended, and a procession was formed, and headed by the band and the branch banners of the Yorkshire Miners’ Association marched into the town via Northgate.

Interested crowds of people lined the route, and when the procession reached Wood Street there was soon a crowd of many thousands outside the West Riding Court House. A large force of police officers was in the vicinity, but there was no disorder. The miners cheered lustily, and then the procession broke up, the summoned men filing into the Court House in an orderly manner.

By the time the defendants were accommodated the court was crowded. Mr Percy Tew, the Deputy-Lieutenant of the County, presided on the Bench, and among those present the well of the court was Major Atcherley, Chief Constable of the West Riding.

Mr G E Blakeley, solicitor, of Dewsbury, prosecuted; and Mr A W Willey, of Leeds, appeared for the defence.

Mr Blakeley said the summonses had been issued under the Employer and Workman Act of 1875 against 583 workmen, and the claim in respect of each was a sum of £3 for damages sustained by the company in consequence the breach of contract by the various defendants leaving work without giving the necessary fourteen days’ notice.

OBJECTIONS TO THE SUMMONSES

Mr Arthur Willey submitted that the summons and the claims were bad, because they were deficient, not giving the date of the alleged breach of contract. It was true, he was informed, the contract was broken by notice not having been given; but some of the men had worked at the colliery for fifteen or twenty years.

How could he file a counter-claim on behalf of any one of those men? Any counter-claim filed two days before the hearing the case, and it was impossible to do it on particulars which he had not got.

“I am,” he added, “acting for nearly 600 men in regard to a dispute which has been going since May 21. People who bring 500 people here indiscriminately ought to let me have full particulars. These men work in different shifts. Thirty of them have prodded me with medical certificates to prove their inability work on certain dates, but how can I produce them when I do not know the date on which they are accused of breaking the contract?”

QUESTION OF COUNTER-CLAIM

The claim was too general, he added, and was entitled particulars and an adjournment to give him an opportunity of counter-claiming.

“With regard to the men having broken a contract,” he observed, “the plaintiffs have broken theirs, but I cannot yet frame my counter-claim, etc. As a matter of fact, one man who is summoned has not worked at this pit for two years. (Laughter.) Another man has never worked there in his life.” (Loud laughter.)

The gist of the claim, Mr Willey also said, was for damages. The plaintiffs were asking for fifteen or sixteen hundred pounds’ damages, and these would have to be proved because the magistrates could not give them “moral and intellectual” damages. (Laughter).

Mr Blakeley said one knew better than the defendants, the date on which they deliberately “threw down”, and that it was the unvariable rule and law to give 14 days’ notice, and when the notice was not given that it was open for the colliery company to sue for damages. The defendants also knew that the damages meant 5s. a day for twelve days following May 26th, the date on which they struck work. There was no reason at all why, if they had any, the defendants should not have put in counter-claims, without single date.

AN ADJOUBNMENT GRANTED

Mr Willey said he expected the date to have been June 8, because there was a week of negotiations after May 26. There was also a settlement after that, but other circumstances arose and the negotiations came to nothing.

The Chairman said the magistrates did not think the summonses were legally bad. The Court could amend them and give leave to the defendants to put counter-claims, but, under the circumstances, they thought it would seem fairer to allow an adjournment.

Mr Willey: It is extremely probable I shall have 500 counter-claims to file and that means good deal of clerical work and time.

After a consultation between the solicitors the case was adjourned until Thursday, July 2nd.

A further adjournment was agreed in court in early July and by the 10th of that month, it was reported that the miners had gone back to work.

Sheffield Daily Telegraph
Friday 10 July 1914

RETURN TO WORK

The miners at the Wrenthorpe colliery, Wakefield, who have been on strike for about six weeks are to resume work. They complain of the very little financial support they have received from miners in other districts.

After a consultation between the solicitors the case was adjourned until Thursday, July 2nd.

Less than four weeks later Britain was at war and Wrenthorpe Colliery miners were keen to enlist.

Leeds Mercury
Tuesday 8 September 1914

MINERS TO THE FORE

Eighty-four miners from Wrenthorpe Colliery, near Wakefield, have joined the colours, and about 100 have gone from Park Hill Colliery.

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.”

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.