Denaby Main 1899 – The Worst Village in England

At first I posted this without comment but as I re read it I realise it needs some. Denaby Main was a mining village’thrown up’ to accomodate the incoming miners and their families. A decade after the Denaby MainColliery opened in the 1860’s out of the 166 miners in the area only 1 was born in the village. So there was a tremendous influx of external labour which had to build its own community. The Colliery Company controlled the housing and the public house referred to -‘The Drum’- and paid the workers in the pub. What the ‘special commisioner’ refers to is his subjective view of what he saw and heresay from people he spoke to. As other sections of our web site show Denaby was an extremley hard place to live, survive and work in. But it was a place that could hold genteel dances with 250 people, orchestral concerts attracting quality musicians and vocalists and it could boast of both Football and Cricket teams which were well supported and respected in the locality. Despite what the article says it did have a thriving Church and Sunday School life. ltpossessed many people who were fighting for a better life for themselves and their families. So Denaby Main was certainly not the worst village in England ! The Christian Budget – November 8th 1899 The worst village in England

In the fourth of this series of revelations the special commissioner of the Christian Budget tells the story of the mining community in Denaby Main, in Yorkshire. He described the village when nearly all the men, and most of the women, devote their high wages to betting, where religion is forgotten, home life is shattered, where immorality and intemperance are rife, where wives are sold like cattle, and children are neglected. Apparently incredible it is yet but plain fact, and shows the ultimate effects of gambling on human character.

Sheffield October 25, 1899

I am sitting down to write this article in numb despair, for the mining community I have to describe is so repulsive that many who have never been near it will probably refuse to credit the story. Denaby Main, in South Yorkshire, is not to be taken as a fair sample of the mining villages of the Midlands and the North. It does not stand alone, for there are others as bad; but happily they are in the minority. If the dreams of some social reformers are true, Denaby Main ought to be a paradise. Every man there has ample work, wages are very high, and each family can have a house to itself for a very low rent. The eight hours day has been granted. The country around ranks amongst the most beautiful in England, undulating, well timbered, with bright streams running through it. In Denaby Main no adult need be hungry or ill clad, say through deliberate choice; none has to go begging for work: none can complain of inadequacy of wage. It ought to be an ideal community, but instead it is almost a hell upon Earth. The gambling craze has seized hold on it, and on the district around. With gambling has come a long train of other evils, until today the name of the place is passing into a byword.

Denaby Main is a mining village with about 8000 inhabitants, situated some 7 miles from Doncaster, on the way to Sheffield. The land is divided between two proprietors, the Colliery company and the owners of glass works. The Colliery company is the larger owner, and exercises practically despotic powers in the village. It owns all the houses, having specially erected them for its men. There isstreet after street of little two-storey buildings, evidently put up in very cheap style. The miners are charged between four and five shillings a week (as a rule) for these, and as their rent isstopped from their wages, the company is sure of making no bad debts. The men have little to complain about in the matter of wages. An expert miner there can easily make his seven or eight shillings a day and in some housholds, where father and sons are all employed, the income amounts from £5-£8 a week.

Not a Penny left on Monday Morning

Yet, notwithstanding this high wage, a very large proportion of the families have not a penny left on Monday morning. The regular method of living in Denaby is to pay debts on Saturday and get things out of pawn, spend all the remainder of the wages on Saturday night and Sunday and start pawning on Monday morning again. On Saturday afternoon and evening, in particular, the place is like a pandemonium. When the men get their wages, many of them start playing pitch and toss with it. I know one case where the man lost all his money in this way – several pounds – before he could even reach the public house. Then he drew out his watch. “Coom on,” he cried, “I beant done yet. Who will toss me thirty bob on this? “

Grotesque Horror

The first rush on Saturday it to the public house. The colliery company, with a philanthropy worthy of all praise, has resolved that the poor fellows shall not have far to go. It has built a great public house of its own, and a manager in charge. The profits of this place must be enormous; rumour places them as at 50% of the money invested. The house is full continually, and on Saturdays and Sundays, in particular, the scenes that go on around it are amazing in their grotesque horror. Not long since, the already extensive premises were increased by the addition of a great tap-room or “boozey” as it is locally called. At five o’clock on Saturday the house is by old custom, closed for an hour, to make the men go home and give their wives some of the money. Many of the best inhabitants of the place defend the colliery company for building and managing this public house. They say that if it did not, other people would start public houses, which would be under less control than it is. And if profits are to be made through the drink, why should not the company have the profits as well as any others? No doubt the company, in all its relations with the people, does what appears to it to be right and fair.

Weekly Procession to the Pawnshop

An old Irishman who lives in the neighbourhood once well summed up the situation. He was so troublesome on Saturday night that the policeman had to take charge of him. Then going along with the constable, he turned reflective “This is a funny place, he said “first we go to the office to get the money, then the company gives a place where we can pay the money back to them, and then, when the money is gone, it provides you to take care of us.” There is no need here to describe the scenes in the village on Saturday and Sunday, the drinking and tossing everywhere, the foul language from children and adults of both sexes, the attacks on policeman when they tried to arrest a specially indecent or dangerous wretch. “Don’t let him take you, Bill,” they cry. “Kick him. Knock his `ead in!” that may be imagined. On Monday morning the village wakes up. The drinkers, of course, do not go to work on that day. Work on Monday when they can earn all they want in four or five days a week? Not they. Saint Monday is sacred, and often Saint Tuesday too. But on Monday morning the wives start their work. They begin the weekly the procession to the pawn shop that continues till Saturday morning. They want money not so much for food as for drink and bets.

There is no secret at all about the gambling at Denaby or in the neighbouring township of Mexborough. The bookmakers stand openly at certain well-known spots, and they are the best-known characters in the village. They were, most of them, once miners themselves, and still wear the rough pitmen’s dress.

Fierce and Persistent Gamblers

On the most moderate estimate, at least half the women of Denaby are fierce and persistent gamblers. Their one question is,”Have you a tip for us?” “Do you know anything for today? They will have money at any cost. Towards the end of the week some of the houses are stripped of almost everything on which money can be raised. Then hawkers step in and find their opportunity. Some of these make it a business of lending shillings to the women, eighteen pence being paid back on Saturday, or 50% interest. The debt is charged as groceries of vegetables when necessary, to save trouble with the husbands. But it is rarely the husbands can make trouble, for they are too deeply bitten with the mania themselves. Strange things are taken to the pawnshop in search of money. “If they have nothing else, they can put in a shift (i.e. a petticoat) or a sheet,” one pawnbroker told me.

A short Life and a Merry One

“What is the use of our trying to stop?” The women cry if you talk with them. “If we don’t do it, the men will. We might as well spend the money as anybody else. A short life and a merry one, say we” the betting and the drinking go ltogether, and it is hardly possible to separate them in considering the subject. For what is the effect of it all on the life of the people? Careful enquiry has convinced me that among its main results have been the sacrifice of children, ruin of home, destruction of the most elementary morality.

Too Busy with the Bookmakers to Care for the Bairns

The ruin of the children is especially sad. Whe first thing that impressed me when walking down the main street of Denaby was the large number of children with sore eyes. I saw more ophthalmic girls in the street in 20 minutes then I see in the slums of London in 20 days. “We have had an epidemic of it about for some months,” people in the village told me, as though that explained everything. Yes, but why do epidemics of ophthalmic primary come? Because the home life is defective, and because the children are not properly and individually cared for. This is a point on which I suppose every authority about children is agreed.

“It’s the dirt as does it”, one man frankly told me. “Our womenfolk are too busy with the bookmakers to care for the bairns.” I could see that for myself. The proportion of ragged and dirty children amaze me. When I remembered that all that parents were learninghigh wages, the rags that cover them could be only accounted for by the one explanation.

They Learn to Swear as they Learn to Talk

But if physical shortcomings were all, it would not be so very bad. Children can put up with much, and they do not complain too loudly when their mothers regularly stint their meals, or give them crusts daubed with dripping for dinner in place of meat and potatoes. But the injury goes down deeper. The moral nature of the children is warped. I am told by those who mix freely with them, and whose make them know the children as a whole intimately, that an enormous proportion of them seem quite without the usual childish sense of honour. One need only listen in the street to hear their language. Brought up from babyhood amidst oaths, they learn to swear as they learn to talk. They can pour out the most horrible language with a fluency and abundance that leaves some experienced adults hopelessly behind. The boys seemed to take to betting more readily than the girls, and one local teacher tells me that he found a pupil, 11 years old, making a book amongst the boys of his class. These children are taught, almost as soon as they can toddle, the way to the pawnshop and to the book maker, and it is safe to say that 4/5 of them enter the pawnshop far more often than they go to church.

Keen Yorkshire Love of Home

As a general – though not universal – rule, where the wife gambles there is at once the ruin of the home. This rule, as I have said, does not always apply, and in some cases, whether women have not got to the greatest lengths in the craze, they can still care something for comfort. But it applies in nine cases out of 10. There are families living in Denaby, with incomes of about three pounds a week, where the only furniture in the living room is a box and a table, the box serving as a chair. One finds little of the keen Yorkshire love of home and of home treasures there. Perhaps part of the reason of this is that many of the miners at Denaby are not Yorkshireman, but rather a set of immigrants from elsewhere. The place has sprung up so quickly that it has not had time to develop those qualities of local patriotism which do so much in other districts. Nine years ago it had only 1600 people; since then the inhabitants have increased five fold.

The lack of home life is accompanied by most utter thriftlessness. Many other people get their stock from hawkerswho come round, fromvendors of meat who run in with barrows on Saturday nights. The colliery company has limited the number of shops by refusing house room to new comers. There is a cooperative store, which pays back a dividend of no less than five shillings in the pound. But the cooperatives store shares the general lowness of tone in one respect. It does what is a rare thing for industrial cooperative societies to do stop it has an off-licence and sells enormous quantities of liquor, making about one third of its total profit from its beer and wine trade.

The general lowering of the moral tone of the people is remarkable. As one tradesman in the district, who admitted to betting himself, put it to me, “I’m sick of the place. It’s all very well for the man to have a bit on his fancy, but when it comes to women, it’s a bit too thick. And besides, it’s real bad for business. We find in our business that the women who gamble much will stick at nothing. They’ll cheat and lie, and do anything to get a sixpence. You can’t trust them in Denaby. The only way to do is to take in the things they order on Saturday, and not to leave the goods unless they plank down the money. Betting folks are the worst folk we have.”

This testimony does not stand alone. The miners themselves joke together about “Packy´s puzzle,” a maze of streets meeting together in which every house is alike. The chief merits of “Packy´s puzzle” according to some of the miners is that you can get a Hawker to leave you some valuable while staying in one house, and then change into another and he will never be able to find you again.

Marriage considered unnecessary

There is a point on which I touch on with some hesitation, but yet which any description of the general demoralisation would be incomplete without mention. Various people in the neighbourhood, miners, shopkeepers, and others in responsible positions, all independently mention one thing to me in conversation. “You know´” said they, “marriage ceremonies are generally considered unnecessary here. Our people live `in tally´, they don’t see why they should bother church or registrar.” Of the various estimates of the number of couples living together unmarried, none was lower than one half of the miners.

A wife sold for a shilling

If all the stories about the village of true, one finds that there is some ground for the old French tales of Englishmen selling their wives. Several stories that came to my ears, I quote one as a sample. “Joe got tired of his wife, and sold her to his lodger for a shilling. Then he went out looking for lodging, but as he couldn’t find any he came back to his old house and asked his old wife to take him in. “You must ask my new man,” she said. The new husband was quite willing; so Joe came as a lodger into his old home. For some time the arrangement worked very well, till at last the new husband started ill treating the woman. Then Joe, and his wife joined together again, attacked the new husband, gave him a good thrashing, and threw him out of doors, and set up once more as husband and wife again.” Joe and his wife live in the village today they say.

Love of literature, love of the beautiful, seem almost entirely absent from the minds of the people. Women have not even self-respect enough to spend money on dress. Beer and bettingare their all. I doubt if there is another place in the country of the same size where less literature is sold.

Where are the churches?

In Denaby we have a remarkable example of what betting will lead to, of how it will corrupt every part of life. Are we willing to have it do the same for all England? Today it is easy enough to laugh at the danger, but in England which can suffer a Denaby to exist without protest is not safe from itself becoming a Denaby.

Where are the churches? It may be asked. There are churches in Denaby, but they seem tohardly touch the local plaques. In this place the churches are not in possession. Yet surely here is as great feel for missionary endeavour as ever land presented.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.