In which a young boy learns about the struggles of the coal miners in 19th century Durham to attain better working conditions.
Thirteen year old Bobby Newton stood on the cobbles staring up at the giant equestrian statue looming up into the air above him. The figure astride the horse on the monument was a soldier in a striking hussar’s uniform, staring imperiously down at the busy Durham marketplace. Bobby tugged at his father’s sleeve.
“Dad, who is that man up there on the statue?” he asked.
His father, school-teacher Jack Newton, glanced up for a moment and replied, “That, my son, is Charles William Vane Stewart, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry.”
“So, why is he up there in that great big statue? Did he do something famous?” inquired Bobby.
“Well,” said Jack, pausing for a moment to collect his thoughts. “In a way he was famous. But this statue was commissioned and paid for by his second wife, Frances Ann Vane Tempest four years after he died. The miners who had slaved for him down the pit and whose strike he had broken would have built him no statue. Most of them hated and despised him for his exploitation of their labor. He was extravagantly wealthy while they lived in abject poverty.”
“If he was a mine owner, what’s he doing dressed as a soldier?” Bobby said with a puzzled look in his eyes.
“Ah well, he was a soldier in his early years,” replied Jack. “He was Commander of the Hussars – that’s a kind of cavalry regiment – and he was Adjutant-General to the Duke of Wellington, the famous general who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. He served in the Peninsular War Campaign and he was known as a reckless, brave fighter, and he was nicknamed ‘The Bold Sabreur’ and ‘Fighting Charley’. He was in twenty-five battles during the war with Napoleon, and then he became a diplomat.”
Bobby was proud of his father’s prodigious knowledge of history and was enjoying their visit back to the family’s home in Durham. Jack had left Durham to attend University, and then moved to Manchester to teach. Bobby had been born and raised there, and this was his first visit to his father’s birthplace.
“So how did he become a mine owner, and end up here in Durham?” continued Bobby.
“Simple!” replied his father. “‘Fighting Charley’ married Frances Anne Vane-Tempest, the heiress to extensive land and mining properties in County Durham in 1819. When he retired from his military and diplomatic career, Londonderry was interested in making money and living a life of wealth and luxury, so he moved to Durham and took up his new life as a coal entrepreneur. An entrepreneur, lad, is a person whose goal is to generate wealth and grow rich. And that’s just what he did!”
“So why was he unpopular?” asked Bobby.
“Well, because he wouldn’t share his wealth with his workers. They were paid low wages for back-breaking and dangerous work while he lived in luxury. So they formed a union, and there were numerous strikes. Do you know what a strike is, Bobby?”
“Yes. We learned in school. It’s when workers refuse to come to work until they get more money or better conditions,” replied his son.
“There was a long and bitter strike in 1844,” said Jack, “and your ancestor, Tommy Newton was a miner at that time in Londonderry’s Rainton mine. He and his family suffered terribly from the hunger and cold.”
“How come you and granddad never went down the mines, Dad?” asked Bobby.
“Your great-grandfather wanted something better for your granddad, so he encouraged him to study to become a lawyer, which he did. And then your grandfather sent me away to college and I became a teacher. By that time the mines were being closed by Mrs. Thatcher and her government, and the Durham mining villages were dying. But that’s another story. I thank God I never had to work at the pit. ‘It’s dark and it’s dreary and cold as the grave’, as the old song says, and if you didn’t die in an accident, then you’d often face an early death from pneumoconiosis. Your great-grandfather died from ‘black lung’ disease when he was only 64,” said Jack.
“Tell me more about the miner’s strike, Dad,” said Bobby eagerly. He loved when his father told stories about the history of the family.
“Well, son,” replied his father. “It’s getting cold standing out here, and it’s looking like rain. Let’s find a restaurant and we’ll have some tea, and I’ll tell you some more.”
So Jack and Bobby trudged off down Silver Street in search of a place to eat.
In the backroom of the inn known as the King’s Arms on a stormy night in early March of 1844 sat four men. Three of them could easily be identified as miners. They wore shiny, threadbare coats, and cloth caps lay on the table in front of them. Their weary faces were lined with care and exhaustion, but nevertheless in the eyes and in the set of their jaws could be detected signs of determination and resolve. The fourth man was plainly but smartly dressed, his white shirt, velvet jacket and the pin in his cravat suggested that he was not of the laboring class. In fact he was a solicitor engaged by the miners to represent them in negotiations with the mine owners.
“So tell me, gentlemen,” began the solicitor, “what are the demands you wish to make of your employers?”
“Well, Mr. Roberts,” replied one of the miners, a broad-shouldered man named Sam Crooks, “the contract of all Northumberland and Durham coal miners will expire on the 31st of this month. We wish to renegotiate the terms of our contract. As it is, we are bound to our employer for one year, and cannot seek another position during this time and he is in no way obliged to give us work or wages. If things are slow, men will sit idle with their families in want, and we can do nothing. We are like serfs from times past.”
W.P. Roberts stroked his chin thoughtfully and then spoke.
“How would it be, gentlemen,” he said, “if we required that, under your new contract, owners must guarantee at least four days of work per week for every employee? The contract would be of six months duration rather than a year.”
“That sounds champion, sir,” said another miner named Shotton. “But can ye make those bloodsuckers agree to our terms?”
“Well, gentlemen, let us see,” replied the lawyer smoothly. “Now what other grievances do you have that need to be addressed?”
“At my pit,” stated the third man, Joseph Ward, “they measure the coal not by weight but by the fullness of each miner’s tub. If your tub is not full to the brim or has too much coal dust in it, they’ll fine you or underpay you. We want each man’s coal measured by scale.”
“Aye,” interrupted Crooks, “but sometimes the scales they use are false, and we’re cheated that way.”
“Very well, gentlemen,” said Roberts. “Let us say all coal measured by scales. The scales shall be subject to regular public inspection.”
There was a murmur of assent from around the table.
“What else?” asked the lawyer.
“I think that those are our major grievances,” said Shotton.
“If we can force their consent to those demands, modest as they are, we will have won a major victory,” declared the lawyer. “And so, gentlemen, I will draw up a document outlining your demands and submit it for your approval, and then negotiations with the owners can commence.”
“We thank you, sir,” said Crooks gruffly. “We are grateful that you would help us humble miners. Few men of your class are willing to listen.”
“I have represented weavers in Lancashire and ironworkers in Yorkshire. I believe in the cause of justice, and that I will be steadfast in your behalf you need have no fear,” replied Roberts, rising to his feet.
The four men shook hands, and went their separate ways.
In the palatial dining room of Wynyard Hall, near Stockton, Henry Liddell, 1st Earl of Ravensworth, swirled the brandy around his glass and frowned across the table at his friend and fellow mine-owner, the Marquess of Londonderry.
“There’s going to be trouble, Charles,” he said. “You mark my words. That dratted Miner’s Association in Newcastle has hired ‘Black Jack’ Roberts, the Chartist lawyer, to represent them, and there’s union men down in the villages agitating the workers with talks of a strike.”
“You worry too much, Henry,” responded Londonderry with a smile. “The men know better. We’ve treated them well. They’ll not join. I’m confident they’ll sign for another year without complaint.”
“I’m not so sure,” continued Ravensworth. “My informants tell me that there will be a strike, and that could be catastrophic for our business. It would take weeks to bring in labor from other parts, and a few weeks of halted production could mean economic disaster for us.”
“You need not fear, Henry,” Londonderry assured his friend. “In expectation of such a development, I have already sent words to the overseers of my estates in Ireland to recruit and dispatch workers in case of a strike. In addition, I have been stockpiling coal at my new harbor at Seaham. When and if the strike begins and production ceases, the prices in London will rise, and I will make a tidy killing in the coal market. And I have decided that you, my friend, will share in my good fortune. So fear not. We shall not only survive. We shall prosper.” The coal owner settled back in his chair with a smug look of satisfaction on his face.
“What if the strike results in violence as has occurred in other parts?” asked Ravensworth. “Those union agitators are forever fomenting trouble. They should transport the lot of them to Van Diemen’s Land. Scoundrels! Chartist scum!” The irate earl dashed his glass down spilling expensive French brandy across the linen tablecloth.
“Steady, Henry,” drawled Londonderry in a soothing tone. “You forget that I am presently Lord Lieutenant of the county with the authority to call out the troops in times of civil strife. There are soldiers at Newcastle and Sunderland who could deal sharply with any troublemakers. You remember how they put down the rising in Newport, Wales. Don’t worry, my friend, we hold all the aces. We’ll send these rascals packing and get those miners back to work in no time!”
Ravensworth grunted his approval, and swallowed the dregs of his brandy.
“And now, Henry,” continued Londonderry, “you must try these marvelously fragrant Cuban cigars I have just received. You will find them quite magnificent, I am sure.”
At that very same moment, as the two aristocrats enjoyed their brandy and cigars, a quite different scenario was unfolding at the Quaker Meeting Hall in Rainton. A Miners Association representative, named Nathaniel Paxton, stood waiting to address a group of coal miners. He glanced around the hall at their expectant faces, weary and drawn with care, but with a gleam of hope in their eyes. This time, as always, it was their bodies rather than their faces that he particularly noticed. Such a strange mixture of strength and weakness! Most of them had powerful arms and torsos, their muscles developed by long hours of hewing coal with their picks. In contrast, their legs were thin and crooked, their knees and feet set at strange angles, bent and deformed from years of crouching in the cramped confined spaces of the mine. Many were stooped over, revealing spinal curvature caused by their restricting working conditions. Some of the older men, probably in their forties but prematurely aged by their labors, would periodically cough and spit into rags and handkerchiefs, betraying signs of incipient lung diseases that would prematurely claim their lives. A miner’s life was short and brutally tough, but they were proud working men who labored to support their families, and as he watched them, he felt a tug at his heart as he remembered his own father coughing his life away at the age of fifty. He deplored the abysmal conditions in which these men were forced to work, and he had become a union organizer precisely to try to change these conditions.
“Brothers,” he began, “My name is Nathaniel Paxton, and I represent The Miners association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I know that some of you are already members of our union, and I hope that others of you will join us in the struggle to improve working conditions of miners across the country, to win justice and fair treatment for all. We believe that the expiration of your annual contract on March 31st is an opportune moment to demand some concessions from your employers. Your contract is clearly unfair and must be revised.”
A murmur of agreement rippled through his audience at this last statement.
“We propose that the current contract be amended to one of six months duration with a guarantee of at least four days of work per week for all employees,” continued Paxton. A roar of approval greeted his words. “We have engaged the bold and renowned solicitor, Mr. W.P. Roberts, as our legal advisor. He will assist us in presenting our demands to the mine owners, and will defend us from retaliation. He has experience all over England, protecting workers and their rights. He has obtained release for over 30 unjustly convicted strikers in this area alone, and himself went to jail for his efforts in Devizes, Wiltshire. We are confident he can help us, but we need the support of all of you to force the owners to accept our demands.”
“You don’t know Londonderry. He’s a cold-hearted, ruthless man who’ll never talk to the union,” interrupted a grizzled old miner from the back of the room.
“If you are all prepared to strike, to withhold your labor, to stop production, you will hurt him in his pocket. You can cut off the source of his wealth and power and force him to bargain,” replied Paxton.
“If we strike,” declared another man, “How shall we feed our families? What will we eat? Grass?”
There was a ripple of ironic laughter at this remark, but the serious expression never left Paxton’s face.
“The union will support you,” he said. “We have a strike fund that will pay each family 2s and 6d weekly to buy food for the duration of the action. Brothers, we can win this action if we only stand firm and steadfast against those who exploit us. Your local union representatives will keep you informed of the progress of negotiations, and you can also read ‘The Miner’s Advocate’ newspaper which they will distribute to you. Anyone who is not yet a member of our union, pray speak to me immediately following this meeting. I thank you.”
Vigorous applause followed Paxton’s last words, and several miners pressed forward to shake his hand.
Tom Newton called goodnight to his ‘mates’, and left the hall to walk home through the darkness. He had almost reached his destination when he spotted a body lying by the side of the road. As he drew closer, he recognized his teenage brother, William, who had just completed a grueling shift at the pit, dragging the heavy wheel-less tubs of coal across the uneven floors of the mine. His shift ended, he had obviously succumbed to extreme fatigue before reaching his home.
Tom shook the drowsy fourteen year old awake, and supported the dazed boy the last few steps to the door of the modest mining cottage. The two staggered inside, and Tom helped William to his bed in the corner where the boy collapsed exhausted and fell into a deep sleep.
“Well, gentlemen” declared W.P. Roberts, “what do you say to our conditions. Can you accept them?”
The solicitor sat at an oak table, flanked by two officials of The Association of Miners. Facing him across the table were the Marquess of Londonderry, the Earl of Ravensworth, several other mine owners and their various legal advisors.
“We cannot and will not accept your high-handed and unreasonable demands,” replied Lord Ravensworth, his face black as thunder. “What is more, we will never recognize or negotiate with your illegal and infernal union which is misleading our workers and disrupting our industry.”
“Come, sir. It is not ‘my union’,” responded Roberts mildly. “I am merely its temporary legal advisor. Nor is the union composed of outside agitators. Its members are your very own employees who wish only for you to consider their reasonable demands.”
“Reasonable demands, you impudent rabble-rouser!” snapped Ravensworth angrily. “Your reputation has preceded you. You are nothing but a traitorous Chartist. You are cut from the same cloth as those treasonous rebels who rose up against Her Majesty in Newport, Wales, and were transported for their pains! We want no revolution such as happened in France back in ’89!” spluttered the indignant earl.”
“What think you, your Lordship?” asked Roberts turning a respectful glance towards the Marquess of Londonderry.
The Marquess sat stroking his jaw, and then with a thin-lipped smile he spoke:
“I think, gentlemen, we need a little more time to consider your proposals and their implications. Would you have the courtesy to afford us such a period of reflection.”
Roberts glanced at the union men who nodded.
“Of course, your Lordship,” he replied politely. In his mind he was thinking, ‘This is a cagey old bird’.
After Roberts and his deputation had left, Ravensworth turned furiously to Londonderry and exclaimed:
“Charles! Really! I expected more support from you!”
Londonderry smiled. “My dear Henry, we must be canny and circumspect. The more time we gain, the more advantage we acquire. Time is most assuredly on our side. Once I was a rash and hasty young man like you. As a soldier, I was known as ‘Fighting Charley’. As I have grown older, I have learned that it is better to be cautious and cunning.”
As it was, March 31st, arrived with no further movement in the negotiations, and 40,000 miners across Durham and Northumberland laid down their picks and the mines stood empty and abandoned.
The strike proceeded for three months with little incident. Union funds supported the striking miners adequately enough to avoid hunger or real suffering. Roberts and Paxton circulated amongst the mining villages of the two counties urging the miners to act responsibly, to eschew any violent conduct or damage to mining property.
“The authorities are looking for the slightest excuse to send in troops to break the strike by force,” declared Paxton to his members. “Do not give them that excuse. Exercise restraint at all times.”
This restraint was put to a severe test in July when the first groups of ‘scab’ labor began to arrive.
Tom Newton was standing with a group of fellow miners at the side of the road when a cart-load of Irish laborers swung past.
“Don’t you know you’re taking the bread out of our children’s mouths?” shouted a one of the miners.
“Sure and our families have to eat too!” responded a tall, haggard looking man standing upright in the cart. “We don’t like this neither. But we’re from Londonderry’s estates, and he threatened us with eviction if we didn’t come here to work!”
“You’re still a wretched bunch of scabs!” shouted the miner, reaching down for a rock. Tom Newton placed a firm hand on his arm.
“Not that way, Bert,” he said. “Remember what Paxton said. Don’t give them an excuse to harm us.”
Reluctantly the man let the rock fall, and contented himself with shaking his fist at the disappearing cart.
When Tom Newton walked through the door of his cottage, he could see immediately from the worried expression on his wife’s normally placid face that something was wrong.
“Why, what’s the matter, pet?” he said softly.
“Oh Tom,’’ she said. “The man at the union says there’s no money for us this week. The strike fund’s dried up. Some families have had no money for two weeks. The woman-folk are getting frantic. Bessie Leadbetter was over to Seaham to buy bread, and the shopkeeper told her he couldna give her credit ‘cause Londonderry told him there’d be trouble for him if he did.”
“That sly old bird!” hissed Tom. “He’s bound and determined to starve us back to the pit!”
“And then one of his Lordship’s men delivered this,” said Mary Newton, handing her husband a sheet of paper.
Tom glanced at the paper. He read it slowly.
“I have been amongst you,” it said, “I have reasoned, I have pointed out to you the folly, misery, the destruction awaiting you by your stupid and most insane union. I gave you two weeks to consider whether you would return to your work, before I proceeded to eject you from your houses. I found you dogged, obstinate and determined; indifferent to my really paternal advice and kind feelings to the old families of the Vane and Tempest pitmen who had worked for successive ages in the mines…You heeded me not. I have now brought forty Irishmen to the pits, and I will give you all one more weeks notice. And if by the thirteenth of this month a large body of pitmen do not return to their labor, I will obtain one hundred more men, and proceed to eject that number, who are now illegally and unjustly in possession of my houses: and in the following week another 100 shall follow.”
“Oh Tom, what will become of us?” wailed Mary, tears coming to her eyes.
Tom Newton stood helplessly clenching and unclenching his fists, a weight of care suddenly fallen upon his broad shoulders.
The evictions began promptly as promised. They were accomplished by groups of ‘candymen’, armed thugs employed to forcibly eject people from their homes. They were often accompanied by a couple of soldiers to ensure that there would be no resistance. The ‘candymen’ were without mercy or compassion. Women, children, the old and ailing were cast into the cold and rain without compunction. On one infamous occasion a woman in the pangs of childbirth was dragged from her bed by a ‘candyman’ who left her lying in the mud by the roadside. In spite of all these cruelties and provocations the striking miners and their families offered only passive resistance, and no incidents of violence were reported much to the disappointment of the Earl of Ravensworth. Evicted families set up makeshift camps in the open air in surrounding fields and woods. Some were in the open for eight weeks. Some were arrested for trespass, and punished with excessive fines or time on the treadmill.
At last, the strike collapsed. The miners could resist no longer. They were forced to renounce their union, and accept the owner’s terms. The contract would not be revised for 25 years. However, in the face of defeat, something had changed. The miners had shown courage, intelligence and coolness in face of the owners’ intimidation. They had resisted the temptation to violence, and had maintained discipline and enthusiasm in the pursuit of their rights. A seed had been sown in their hearts. Gradually they would organize a growing resistance to injustices and in the coming years would accomplish many reforms.
A terrible explosion in September, 1844, at Haswell Colliery and W.P. Roberts subsequent investigation of its causes focused national attention on mine safety reform, and much to Lord Londonderry’s chagrin, inspectors arrived with ever-increasing frequency to examine conditions in his mines. The Marquess was never again able to re-establish his old paternalistic, feudalistic relationship with his workers. They would never forgive him for his cruel evictions, or for the fact that whilst eight year old ‘trapper boys’ labored in the darkness of his pits on a twelve-hour shift for 10d, the good Marquess was spending lavishly (over 2.5 million pounds over 35 years as head of the family!)
Bobby and his father left the restaurant and headed back through the Durham market-place. Lights were coming on in the windows. Jack was finishing his story.
“The coal industry grew and prospered to its peak in the 1920s when 170,000 miners were working in Durham’s pits. It was still dangerous and hard, but by this time they could make a decent living to support their families. They had nicer houses, and some leisure time to tend their marrows, race their whippets or take care of their pigeons. It was a strong culture. But the coal began to dwindle, and the pits began to close, and finally there was a big battle between the union and Thatcher and her mob. The last pit in County Durham closed in 1992, and, guess what, Sunderland Football Club built their ‘Stadium of Light’ on the site. The disappearance of the mines ripped the heart out of many a Durham community, but, as we now know, coal is a terrible polluter, poisoning the air and the water. We have to look for newer, cleaner sources of energy.”
“Aye, I know all that from school, Dad,” said Bobby impatiently.
“Well, here’s one more story for the road that you might not be aware of, ‘Mr. Know-All’,” laughed Jack, punching his son in the arm. They were once again passing by the equestrian statue of the Marquess of Londonderry. “Raffaelo Monti, the Italian architect who made this statue was so proud of his work that he challenged the public to find a single flaw. Hordes of people examined the statue minutely for any sign of a defect, but it seemed perfect from the details of Londonderry’s hussar uniform to the muscular dimensions of his horse. Then one day a blind man came to town, and he found the flaw in the statue!”
“Aw, come on, Dad, tha’s kiddin’,” scoffed Bobby. “How could a blind man find what all them folks had missed?”
“Simple!” replied Jack. “The people helped him to climb up on the plinth, and he ran his fingers all over the outside of the statue, just like a blind man does when he’s feeling a person’s face. And when he got down, he said to the people, ‘The horse’s mouth is wide open, but he has no tongue!’ And this was the only flaw in the perfect statue. And they say the sculptor was so distressed that he took his own life.”
“Oh yeah, right, Dad. I’ll believe that one!” said Bobby skeptically.
“Well it makes a grand story,” said Jack. “Anyway it’s too dark to verify about the missing tongue.” He peered up into the gathering gloom at the horse’s mouth. “It’s time we made our way back to your uncle’s house. He’ll be wondering what’s become of us.”
And after a brief parting glance at the man on the horse he set off with his son down the hill towards Framwellgate Bridge.