An interview with Robert Henry Shepard in 1971
This is an edited version of a number of discussions between Jim McFarlane of the University of Sheffield and Robert Henry (Bob) Shepard.
Robert Henry Shephard, `Bob´ to the men and women of the Yorkshire mining village of Denaby Main, worked for most of his life as a collier at Denaby Main colliery. He started work in 1901the first working day of the year” when he was 13 years of age and retired 50 years later in 1957. He was then 70 years of age. Apart from a break a few years earning his living as a part-time professional footballer, he lived and worked in Denaby and in addition to earning his living in the pit, also became president of the local branch of the Yorkshire Mineworkers Federation (later the National union of Mineworkers) and a local authority councillor, 5 times chairman of Conisbrough Urban District Council.
His life story and his record of service to Coal Miners and the people of Denaby Main covers a long time span and contained some fascinating insights into a working life. Bob’s personal memory of the “bag muck” strike of 1902 is itself sufficient interest the present record of interviews which took place in July – August 1971: Bob was then 83 years of age. These interviews also demonstrate the importance of sport in working-class relationships and as a link with the church and churchmen in the early part of the present century.
Robert Henry Shephard
Where were you born Bob?
I was born on 24 December 1887 at number seven Clay Lane, Mexborough on the same night as the screams at Denaby pit caught fire. Two weeks after I was born my mother and father moved house to number 11, Doncaster Road, Denaby main.
Did your mother and father come from Mexborough originally?
No. My mother originally came from Bentley. My father came to Yorkshire as a boy after his father had been killed in a pit accident. The bottom dropped out of the chair and they had to pick him up from the shaft bottom in a sack. I think my grandmother must have come up to some relatives in this district; she came up to Yorkshire from Maidensbrook, Salop, and Shropshire after she was widowed by my grandfather’s death.
What do you remember of your childhood and school days?
I started primary school when I was three years old, it was at the back of Doncaster road, near the railway line, and we had to pay two pence a week in advance – every Monday. At five years of age I was transferred to Rossington Street School and then, when I was nine, I moved across to the Large Hall School, built by the colliery company in 1898 and one of the best schools in South Yorkshire. This school had a very large hall which had classrooms going off it; the ball was used for a variety of social function and dancing – the end room at the head of the hall was semi circular in shape and was used as the vestry and the school was used as a Protestant church before the present Denaby church was built. I stayed at this school until I was 13 when I left work in the pit.
What date was that Bob?
I started work at Denaby on the first working day of the year 1901
What did you do?
My first job in the pit bottom was coupling tubs, then I went trapping the air doors open and shut for the drivers; these had to be used for ventilation. After that I went lamp carrying. When I was 17 I went pony driving, my pony was called Prince and we worked on the haulage, pulling slack on the tail rope on the main and tail engine, as Prince refused to pull tubs.
What was Denaby main like when you were a boy?
In the 1890s there were only two taps in Denaby, one at the Denaby Lane end of the village and the other at the back of the second block of houses in Cliff View. Some women of the village got together and went to see the pit manager about having water laid on to their houses and the copper boiler so that they could wash their husbands clothes more easily. Mrs Froggatt, Mrs Cartwright, Mrs Ball and my mother were the women who went to see the manager, Mr W.H.Chambers. A reservoir was built on top of the crags by the company and water pumped from the number two shaft at Cadeby main colliery. These same women went to see the manager about having gas lighting in their homes and a gas works was built. With this new lighting it was like a new world to be home at night or in school. Before the gas came we only had candles or paraffin lamps. The village was originally a pleasant parish to living and we used to play opposite the Institute on what we called the Green, but it did not last long. As the pits developed the company built more hours as at a density of 49 to the acre and this took away the open fields of the old village. People from the other places roundabout looked down on you if you came from Denaby Main. The houses were lacking in many amenities, the streets were very close together and the sanitation was poor, the houses had middens for ashes and rubbish and a closet but these had no water to flush them. Then the company laid water on to the toilets and as the years rolled by a sewerage works. Some of the older houses, those in Cliff View, Annerley Street and Thryburgh Terrace, had gardens and you could keep pigs or grow vegetables but the new houses didn’t have gardens, as some of the new building took up the old gardens.
What was it like during the bag muck strike Bob; you must have been working at Denaby when it took place?
As I said earlier I commence work at Denaby in January 1901 and after 15 months the bag muck strike began over payment for filling bag dirt. The Barnsley bed coal seam was over 6 foot thick and in layers; 2’8″ which was called Day beds. Then there was bag dirt over the day beds which ranged from 6 to 18 inches thick. Above the bag dirt was a further layer of coal two foot 6 inches thick and the best seam of coal in the country, both house coal and hards, or should I say steam coal. A top layer of the seam was not worked because it was left to bind the roof to strengthen the rock above for safety reasons. The men had to move the bag dirt to get the coal but the company made no payment for this work. The strike lasted more than six months and during the early days of the strike (lockout as the men stated), there was a lot of trouble. The miners were tenants of colliery houses and had been turned out of their houses and the company boarded up the windows. Families had to find anywhere to live: in the churches, chapels, with relatives or friends who resided outside colliery houses, in tents, in the open fields. It was a terrifying time for our people in the fields or anywhere they could go; then they (the company) introduced black legs and brought in the Metropolitan police to look after the black legs. This did not stop the women and children from throwing stones are anything they could find to pelt the black legs. The miner´s families howled at the black legs and they were militant telling them to leave the pit and go home. There was a great number of tussles with the men as they proceeded to the houses they had provided. These were all in one block to keep them under the protection of the police. After about 10 or 12 weeks there was a fire down the East plane district of the pit, in 70s stall, and the Company asked the Union for men to go back to work to put the fire out. The Union told them to use black legs to do the work, as in the men’s minds they (the company) wanted to break the Yorkshire Miners Federation. Eventually the branch relented and allowed so many men to put the fire out. The owners took the unions to the law courts for damages and the union engage Mr Rufus Isaacs as their barrister – he later became Lord Reading. When the strike was over the men drifted back but some had to get work at other places as their strike pay was negligible. It was surprising how the people had carried on. It was the courage which the women displayed in the damned hard times. They had to put up with soup kitchens and bread given by tradesmen… They made, potato butter, mixing butter and potatoes to make it go further and most of the food there was sent to the children.
Apart from work and industrial trouble what was life like when you had left school and started work in the pit – what kind of spare time activities did you have?
During the strike of 1902 Denaby United joined the Midland Counties football league and that was a big event in the life of the village. I played football myself and in 1905 played with Denaby church team in the Mexborough Sunday school league. I played three years with the church team, then I was given a trial with Denaby United in the last match of the season versus Rotherham County in the Midland league. Then I went back to play with the church team and in 1908-9 season I was playing with Denaby United reserves. We won the Sheffield Association league. In the season 1909-10. I got into Denaby United first-team and in 1910-11.
I was asked by the club if I wanted to be transferred to Doncaster Rovers but I had a good job at the pit and did not want to leave Denaby. The Doncaster Rovers officials waited around the Reresby Arms (a local public house) to see my father when he came home from work. I was in bed at 8:45 pm as I had to go to work the following morning (Saturday) and play for the club in the afternoon. When my father came home he was persuaded to call me downstairs. The Denaby United representatives told me that my work at the pit would be all right (the Denaby club wanted the transfer fees) but when I went to work on the Monday morning I was told to go where I was playing football. I kept going to the pit and was sent a mile and a half to the workplace but could not get more than one shift a week. On only one week out of seven did I manage two shifts so I decided I had enough, getting up at 4:30 am to go and try to get work. I said if they were going to victimise me I would be better off staying in bed. I tried to get work all over the district and I tried all the pits in the area but by being so well-known I was always told that I could have worked if I played football for their team, but I was tied up with the Rovers.
In 1912 I did find work at the Fitzwilliam Colliery at Hemsworth and I was happy there. When war broke out I was still working in the pit and in 1916 I removed back to Denaby for work. My wife was always wanted to come back home, as she called Denaby, so I agreed and we were settled once again. After giving up playing football I took on refereeing and carried on with that until 1938 when I took over the manager’s job at Denaby United.
There were also concerts and other musical items in the village and the teachers Operatic Society held at the Large Hall organised by Mr Moses Sear with Mr Butler and Mr Taylor, choirmaster at the church, as conductor. We had a Bible class on Sunday afternoons with more than 100 members; the vicar was the Rev F.S.Hawkes and the curate was the Rev Kenneth Kirk. I still went to the Bible class after I played for Denaby United: the vicar and the curate travelled home and away games with us and we were delighted to have them with us, they gave a lot of enthusiasm and support and were very highly respected. It was a very sad day when the vicar left the church to go to South Africa, and the curate also left the Denaby church. He was that very kind that he became the Bishop of Oxford. Both of them looked after the welfare of the village and people and they had very good congregations at the church services. I don’t think that the same as being as popular since.
You have talked about football and other community activities. What about your own U.D.C.and union activities?
I was a staunch member of the Denaby and Conisbrough Labour Party and in 1931 ( I had joined in 1920), I was nominated to stand as candidates in the urban district council elections for the West Ward which I won very comfortably. In 1935 I was chairman of the UDC and while in office I had to read the proclamation of King George V Jubilee year which brought me the King George Jubilee medal. I was also elected president of Denaby Main Branch of the Yorkshire miners Association. We had occasion to have a breakdown: the big shaft broke in the winding engine house and the men refused to go down the pit as there was no second way out. (If anything had gone wrong with the second shaft the men would have been stranded down the pit).
The colliery company summoned the men and we had to appear at the West Riding court house; we won but the company weren’t satisfied and they appealed to the law courts in London. Our solicitor was Mr Donald Dunn and we asked him to get us a very good and able barrister. We asked if he could get Sir Stafford Cripps and we had him for our defence. He played on the fact that the men were within their rights and the Lord Chief Justice dismissed the appeal but both sides had to pay their own costs. So we won again against a conviction and our men received their unemployment benefit out of it which gave me a pleasure to the branch – I and Mr Collins, branch secretary had attended the court on behalf of the workmen.
I was chairman of the local authority five times during my term as councillor: my first appointment in 1932 I was asked to raise funds for the bairns and we gave the children something to wear during the depression. The men were only working three days a week, then the company brought in a four-day week and this prevented men from drawing unemployment benefit. We did what we could for the children in the circumstances and provided shoes for the worse off. Then I was asked by the head mistress, a Miss Williams, to try and run dances to raise funds for her nursery school. We helped her make a success of her school and provide beds and rocking horses etc and she was very thankful for our efforts.
One time I was appointed on the committee dealing with pensions for persons of 70 years of age. We had a lot of Irish born men living in the district and we had to get information about how long they have resided in our own area as the registers in Ireland were all burned in 1871. It was an unthankful job to find the people were entitled to the ten shilling pension but I’m sure that the majority were satisfied with our efforts. I was president of the Denaby branch when we became the National union of Mineworkers. It was around that time that the branch secretary and I met the Agent of the Colliery about changing the gas over to electric light in the houses. We brought in Cadeby branch of the NUM to help us and it finished up at the Yorkshire miners officers at Barnsley. We invited the manager of the Yorkshire electricity board from Leeds and he eventually agreed. In all I was president of Denaby branch of the union for nearly 20 years and a local authority councillor for 38 years.
We’ve talked about work and recreation and your public activities – what about your family life?
I think the family is a very important part of a man’s life. I was married in 1911 and my wife died 10 years ago, in 1961, just six weeks short of 50 years of marriage. We had 10 children and seven of them are still alive, six sons and a daughter.
Postscript: Bob now lives alone and looks after himself and the large colliery house which provided a home for his family. He does most of his own cooking and cleaning and remains a very active man.