The advent of mass political parties

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

Interesting Proceedings
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].

Working class men get the vote

The 1885 general election was the first in which a large proportion of working class men could vote. Wrenthorpe now formed part of a new constituency – Normanton – and leading mining trade unionist Ben Pickard successfully fought the new seat as a ‘Lib-Lab’ (Liberal) candidate, remaining its MP until his death in 1904. The seat was seen as a shoo-in for the Liberals, and Free Press believed the Potovens district was overwhelmingly supportive. Alderman Milthorp was a ‘local boy made good’ character – an industrialist who’d served as Mayor of Wakefield in 1881.

Wakefield Free Press
Saturday 21 November 1885


Continuing his successful tour of the Normanton Division, Mr B. Pickard, the Liberal candidate, visited Wrenthorpe (Potovens), on Wednesday evening, arriving from Durham shortly before the time of the meeting, which took place in the Board School [later Wrenthorpe Council School]. There was a large attendance of working men, and we believe that in this part of the Division the voting for the Liberal candidate will be three to one for his opponent. The Rev. W. Field, M.A., of Silcoates School, presided, and in opening the proceedings delivered a brief but appropriate address. He described the Tories as the Jumbo party, seeing that they would not get out of the way of the approaching express train, thus acting like the well-known elephant when it met with its death.* Mr Edward Cowey moved the usual resolution approving of Mr Pickard’s candidature and pledging the meeting to support him by all legitimate means. This was seconded by Alderman Milthorp, of Wakefield, who met with a flattering reception, he being a native of the district. He said that it gave him great pleasure to be present on that occasion in his native place, although he must say that at one time he never expected to be able to stand there and congratulate them on having a vote. For the first time in English history working men throughout the country could be called citizens of their country, and he proceeded to point out the manner in which the Liberal party had worked in order to secure the people their rights. Mr Gladstone, he said, had done more for the country than any man, living or dead, and he was prepared to work for the future. As for the Tory party they never initiated or carried a measure in favour of the people (hear, hear, and applause). Mr Pickard, on rising, was received with loud applause, and he spoke at some length in explanation of his views and the position be took. Very telling were his remarks when, on speaking of free education, he referred to the fact that he and others in a similar position in life, had not when young the chance of acquiring a good education. They had had to pick up their knowledge in after years as best they could, and he remembered with gratitude the kindness of a schoolmaster who used to come from Castleford to Kippax in the evenings to instruct another young man and him. That young man was now a Wesleyan minister, and he (Mr Pickard) was where he was. The resolution on being put to the meeting was adopted amid great enthusiasm with only one dissentient, and the proceedings closed with a vote of thanks to the chairman.

* An odd contemporary reference to a Barnum circus elephant who had been struck by a locomotive in Ontario a couple of months before.

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


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

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

(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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.


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?”


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.


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


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


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


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


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 – affection or fear?

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


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 to 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.



The following article’s come to light about a meeting of the Yorkshire miners’ union in June 1892. It seems that Marriott, far from making the first benevolent move, reacted in response to calls from the miners’ union. And, judging by the grievances behind the 1893 strike, he sat by when working practices were introduced at the colliery which drastically reduced the typical miner’s pay.

Huddersfield Daily Examiner
Saturday 18 June1892


A meeting of the council of the Association was held at Barnsley, on Monday, and Mr E Cowey presided. The Miners’ Federation of Great Britain having decided that, the strike being over, no further levy need be paid on behalf of Durham, it was shown that there were still many men out of work…

Seventy or eighty men have been thrown out of work owing to necessary repairs to the fan shaft at Wrenthorpe Colliery. They are not entitled to relief from the funds, and as the repairs will take a month the men’s case was ordered to be laid before the district.

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


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.