Pit Lads Strike – At the Police Court

4 May 1897

Mexborough and Swinton Times May 21, 1897

Denaby Main Pit Lads at The Police Court
They Marched To Rotherham
Play Tin Whistles and Sing Comic Songs On The Way
Nearly All The Seats In Court Occupied By Defendants
244 Summonses

An unusually large number of defendants, all pit boys employed at Denaby Main Colliery, was summoned to appear at the Rotherham West Riding Police Court on Monday to answer alleged offences under the employers and workmen act.

No less than 244 summonses have been issued, and eight of these were withdrawn, leaving 230 defendants, a large majority of whom appeared at court.

They marched from Denaby where most of them reside, playing tin whistles, and singing comic songs, while a few walked on the side carrying collecting boxes. The procession arrived at Rotherham a few minutes before 11, and was immediately followed by a number of waggonettes containing parents and friends, many of whom were unable to obtain admission to the court, owing to the extraordinary pressure on the seating accommodation.

The defendants were arranged on both sides of the court and completely filled up the benches. On the appearance in court of one of the supporters who have championed their case – the defendants greeted him with a hearty round of applause. They appeared to be in a very good humour notwithstanding their journey along the hot and dusty road, and the fact that they were almost certaint to be ordered to pay something for breach of contract.

The magistrates for the day were Mr HW Vereist, who occupied the chair, Mr W Roberts, Mr Marriott Hall, Mr RG Chambers and Mrs WM Jones (Wath).

Owing to the crowded state of the court was thought advisable to have a second, and relegated to it some of the less important cases.

Mr Marriott Hall and Mr RG Chambers left the Bench to attend to these cases. The prosecution was represented by Mr HH Hickmott, and Mr WM Giscard defended. There were also in attendance Mr WH Chambers, general manager for the Cadeby and Denaby Main Collieries are Mr HS Witty, manager Denaby Main. The prosecuting advocate rose at 11:20 to open the case.

The legal gentlemen engaged had a consultation as the best way to lay the facts before the magistrates. It was decided to take the whole of the case except five, the defendants in which were charged with an offence other than that of leaving work without notice. The charges against the other defendants of committing a breach of contract of service on the 6th and 7th inst by leaving work without notice were proceeded with, the name of Alfred Davies been chosen by agreement as a test case. But when the name was called out it was found that Davies was one of the few defendants who had not appeared. The police officers in attendance called out of the name repeatedly without receiving a response amid the smothered laughter of the lads. Mr Gichard intimated that he was willing to go on with the case in the absence of the defendant.

Mr Hickmott said he appeared on behalf of the Denaby and Cadeby Main Colliery Company Ltd and they claimed for the defendant the sum of 10 shilling damages, which are be sustained by them by reason of the defendant absenting himself from the service of the plaintiffs on the sixth or seventh instant. The defendant was a pony driver employed at Denaby Main, and he signed a contract of service which was in writing. Mr Hickmott read the text of the contract, which was signed by the manager of the colliery and the defendant. Both parties by the contract state that they have received a copy of the abstract of the Mines Regulation Act, and the rules and regulations and bylaws established and enforced at Denaby Main Colliery, and they each undertake to fulfil all the conditions therein laid down. The bylaws provide that each party to the contract a give-and-take 14 days’ notice.

The bylaw reads: “Every person employed in on about this colliery shall be engaged subject to the rules, bylaws, and conditions and shall give 14 days’ notice to the company before leaving that employment, and receive the same notice except in cases of offences against any of these bylaws, special or general rules, or any provision in the Mines Regulation Acts, or shall disobey an order of a superior, in which cases he shall be liable to be dismissed without notice.”

The Chairman: Are they at work now?

Mr Hickmott: They have been at work since. He added that on the afternoon of Thursday, the 6th inst, the men in the afternoon shift were about to descend the shaft for the purpose of going to work when the defendants, who were pony drivers, called a hurried meeting in the pit yard, and they then decided that they would not go to work. They made no communication whatever to the management nor had any communication be made to the management by the boys with respect to any advance of wages except then all about that time.

In March, in respect a pony drivers generally throughout South Yorkshire, the miner’s union of which the defendants were members, suggested certain alterations to the management of the various collieries in the district with the result that the joint board of masters and men agreed to take the matter into consideration; and as a matter of fact a meeting had been arranged for some time ago to be held that day in Sheffield on the very subject.

The boys did not make any communication to the management nor did they allege any grievancebut at once took the law into their own hands and set the pit down. The chairman of the Denaby branch of the Yorkshire miners Association, a person of the name of Mr J Nolan, and Mr John Dixon, who is a checkweighman, appointed by the men, when they saw the way affairs were taking at once went and addressed the boys, and pointed out to them that the Union could not support them for a moment in what they were doing, as it was illegal, and they had no right to take the law into their own and is. The lads then tore off from their caps the medals and badges of unionship and threw them in the river and followed Nolan and Dixon down the road jeering. If the lads had any complaint to make if they had anything they were dissatisfied with, they had an opportunity of seeing the management upon the subject, and if the management had not chosen to comply with their request then the defendant had an opportunity under their written contract to terminate their service with the company by giving 10 days notice, whereupon the company would of course have had an opportunity of endeavouring to obtain fresh replacements in their place, and thus obviate the necessity to set down the pit in that matter. The damages were claimed at the rate of five shillings per shift.

The defendant Alfred Davies absented himself on the Thursday shift, and also on the Friday shift, and therefore the company claim from him 10 shilling damages; some of the defendants only stayed away one shift and five shilling damages were claimed from them. The damages claim were merely nominal, the real damages would amount to 6 times the amount claimed. The fixed charges in respect to the coal amount of fraction over 2s 1d per tonne, and in reckoning the charges he had not taken into consideration at all anything in respect of stores nor in the reckon anything in respect of rents, tax rates or profits or interest on capital, or depreciation, or anything of that kind.

He had simply taken the fixed charges per day, the company were bound to pay whether the pit was working on not. One driver worked for one store, and the company had simply taken the actual output for the preceding week on which was a fair way to show the working of the colliery, that showed the actual output per person, per shift to be a little over 15 tons. The result of the defendant not going to work on Thursday the 6th instant was that the store to which he was the driver to had stopped. The coal could not be got out, the men could not work, and the company were prevented from winning, and bringing to the surface 15 tons of coal.

The same remark applied to the shift on Friday. If the company had chosen to insist upon their full claim they would have been entitled to claim a very much larger sum indeed. He would prove that the damage applied for had been sustained in consequence of the defendant breaking his contract. Sometime ago a similar thing had occurred at the colliery and summonses were taken out but were withdrawn on defenders promising not to repeat their conduct.

Mr Gichard objected to the introduction of that matter into the case as the defendants for whom he appeared may not be the same boys referred to by Mr Hickmott.

The Bench upheld the objection

Mr Hickman concluded by repeating that the damages are so were merely nominal, but if, in the future, there was a repetition of the conduct on the part of the lads the company were determined to claim the damages actually sustain and would do so. The boys had ignored the management, and the men and held everybody at defiance.

Henry Sykes Witty, the certified manager of Denaby Main Colliery, gave evidence. He produced the contract book signed by the defendant, also a copy of the bylaws referred to in the contract. He had carefully gone into the expenses working colliery, and the amount sustained per shift per boy was 25 shillings. The country were claiming a nominal sum of five shillings per shift.

Mr Gichard at this stage intimated that he did not dispute the absence of the defendant from work nor did he question the amount of damages claimed.

Addressing Mr Witty he asked: Do you know that for some time past that there has been dissatisfaction expressed by these pony driver at the rate of wages they were receiving?

I have only heard it from outsiders.

Well, you believe it to be correct, do you not?

I can only say I have heard so; they have not mentioned it as a body.

You have heard of it many times, have you not?

There are often cases where they asked for more wages.

I mean as a body?

No; I have not heard from them as a body.

Have the management been approached with a view to the wages been increased? – No.

Are you sure of it? – I am not aware of it.

Say between November 1894 and the present time?

Yes, several times.

But there has been no alteration?

Yes, everybody has had an advantage when he has been entitled.

Are you aware that some of these lads, who are 18 years of age are receiving only 1s 3d per day?

The Chairman: That does not affect the present case.

Mr Hickmott: It does not affect the question

Mr Gichard: My friend has opened now a lot of matters on which I wish to say something.

Mr Hickmott: my friend admits the damages and absence, therefore I’m entitled to the verdict.

Mr Gichard in defence, admitted that the lads are no right to act as they did. These youths had a grievance, which, from their point of view, was a real one, which the colliery company might possibly consider only a fancy one. But these lads thought that their grievances ought to be immediately dealt with. Ever since 1888 the act complained of their rate of wages, and had often endeavoured to get their grievances redressed, but had been unable to do so. The defendants had also complained of the conduct of some of those persons upon which they thought they had a right to rely on in these matters. He insisted that the defendant had not acted out of pure wantonness, but in the belief that they were taking a right course towards obtaining their rights. The lads had now gained their point, and the matter would have to be thrashed out. The meeting which was to be held that day would discuss the matter as affecting the whole of the lads in the district. On behalf of the lads, and also for the sake of the companies coming up some arrangement would be come to that a repetition of such conduct might be prevented. The grievances complained of were over the whole of the district, and they would have to be be seriously considered by the powers that be if further consequences were to be avoided. The lads expressed to the company, through him, there regret that they had not taken the course of legally terminated their contracts instead of taking the course that suggested itself to them.

The chairman, after short consultation with his colleague, without leaving the Bench, said: in this case the bench think the boys were very rash very wrong in taking the course they did. If they had any legitimate grievance what they ought to have done was to have handed their notice and waited for 14 days to see if the management would have made any alteration, or they might have gone elsewhere. Instead of which without notice they threw up their tools and did considerable damage. Now if the Masters had done that to them they would have been entitled to come to the court and cleared damages from the master for and treated them in that way. We shall make an order for the payment of five shillings per shift; there will be no fine, but you will have to pay the costs.

Mr Gichard said he would consent to all the other similar cases been dealt with in the same manner.

Among the pit that someone were John Phipps, Thomas Falk in hand, Henry Kelly Dean, Tom Peplow and Tom Tranter, was charged with another offence under the Employers and Workmen’s app. Mr Hickmott intimated that he would take the case of Peplow as typical of the rest. Peplow did not appear.

PC Midgley said he said defendant was summoned on Wednesday the 12th, but defendant had had to go up with the militia, of which he was a member, for the annual training.

Mr Hickmott said in that case the same complainant as before – the Cadeby and Denaby Main Company, claimed from the defendant the sum of 5 shillings damages sustained by the company in consequence of a breach of contract on the part of the defendant on the 6th inst. Defendant was a filler, and on the day name he refused temporary working in another part of the mine as other employment than that in which he was engaged when requested to do so by the complainant. A bylaw, which was referred to in the contract of service signed by the defendant, provided that “Any workmen employed shall in the cases of urgent necessity work at another employment of a temporary nature than that for which he was engaged, and may be removed from one pit to another at the discretion of the manager without notice.” That bylaw was framed to meet cases of that kind. In the case of a pit being set down by pony drivers it would enable the company to call upon the fillers to act temporary as pony drivers. The defendant denied to comply with the provisions of the bylaw and the company was determined to enforce it.

At this stage loud cheers were heard proceeding from the crowd waiting outside the court, it was surmised that the decision in the case of the pony drivers have been made known.

Enoch Sheldon, deputy stated that the defendant Peplow was a filler at Denaby Main, and on the 6th inst, in consequence of the pit suddenly becoming short of drivers he requested the defendant to go and fill in another bank, and he refuse to do so. By the refusal company sustained damages to the extent of five shillings.

Mr Hickmott on this evidence asked for an order. He said he had a price list in his hand, which had been agreed upon by the management on the one hand and the Yorkshire Miner’s Association on the other, which provided for fillers when called from the face to be paid at the rate of four shillings per day and defendant would have got the 30% on top of that.

The Chairman: We shall make an order for the payment of five shillings damages and the cost.

Mr Hickmott said the summonses in the case of Phipps, Falkingham and Calladine, through a clerical error wrongly described the charge preferred against them as one of “staying away.” The summons would have to be withdrawn and fresh ones issued for refusing to work in another place. In the case of Tranter he applied for an adjournment.

Mr Gichard said it was not the fault of the defendants that there was an error on summonses, and he would ask for their costs for the day.

Mr Hickmott, after consulting Mr Gichard said they had come to an arrangement with regard to costs in the cases mentioned.

The business of the court was then suspended for a few minutes while the lads were allowed to leave the building. They clattered along the passage and down the stone steps evidently highly pleased with themselves and seemed to regard the whole affair as a good joke.

There was a small demonstration in College Square, the lads were not long in been re-formed into a procession, and headed by one of their number, who carried a small bugle they set out to march with their faces towards Denaby.