THE MINERS' UNIONS OF NORTHUMBERLAND AND DURHAM.*
TrrE Cambridge University Press has done well, though it is no more than we should have expected of it, to publish Mr. Welbourne's essay, which was awarded the Thirlwall Prize, the Seeley Medal and the Gladstone Prize. For many years the two Unions with which the essay deals maintained an independent existence ; they did not federate themselves with the other miners' unions. The others, no doubt, called them backward in their politics, but only those who are personally acquainted with miners can understand how tenacious they are of the traditions of their district, as well as of their trade, and how hard it is to move them against their will.
Mining is the chief among what may be called the hereditary
occupations of these islands. Once a miner, always a miner," is a safe rule. It might be thought that few men would definitely prefer to other callings that of spending a large part of their lives underground, and of being exposed to such disasters as occasionally shock the world. But when the conditions are looked into, they are seen to be rather different from what a first glance takes them to be. The work is performed in an equable temperature, free from the bitter
attacks of the British winter to which the out-of-doors worker is exposed ; there is something like security of employment, and the hours are not excessive. As for the disasters, the mortality among miners is considerably lower than in some trades, where death is persistent but not dramatic. Finally,
miners, in their social habits, are a world apart ; they have their own interests and their own sports, and a man who becomes detached from that highly gregarious life very soon wants to return to it.
One of the chief impressions made on us by Mr. Welbourne's essay is of the solid improvement in the conditions of mining
• Tia Miners' Unions of Northumberland and Durham. By 5, Welbourne, M.A. abridge: at the University rain. 1101, ed? gket,4 which have been achieved under the much abused capitalistic management. Certainly true guidance, firm hands and capable brains have been at work to produce so much order as there is now out of such higgledy-piggledy beginnings.
It was in the early part of the thirteenth century, when the surface coal was almost exhausted, that the pitman—a good northern word—appeared. He dug down until the seam was reached, then the pit was widened in every direction until the unsupported roof would stand no longer. When the roof became dangerous, the pit was abandoned and a new one was dug. In the middle of the fourteenth century deserted workings of this kind, like enormous shell holes, were so numerous near Newcastle that it was dangerous for a stranger to ride into the town. In those days the Church was the pioneer in all mining enterprise, as it was in most other things. Probably the first shipload of coal was sent from Newcastle to the Thames in the reign of Henry III., but it was not until Elizabeth's reign that the coal trade grew to importance. Elizabeth disliked " the foule smoke of the sea-cole," but James I. was less sensitive (and perhaps it was a bad thing that he was), and in the coal boom during his reign there were already threats of the early exhaustion of supplies. The North country pitman was the prince of his craft until quite recent years, and Mr. Welbournc says that even to-day he is apt to look upon the miners of other
districts as navvies rather than as proper miners.
About 1730 the first attempts at ventilation were made.
A furnace was built at the bottom of one shaft and the heat of the fire created an upward current of air ; cold air then rushed down a second shaft. In the eighteenth century a visitor to the North found the pitmen " a rude, bold, savage set of beings, apparently cut off from their fellow-men in their interests and feelings." Before the introduction of steam brought a steady demand for coal the pits worked very irregularly. There was a holiday of about a month at Christ- mas, chiefly because at that season the coal ships were kept inside the Tyne by contrary winds. To mark the temporary closing of the pit, the last hewn corf of coals was drawn up the shaft covered with lighted candles. Two or three times a year a " gaudy day " was proclaimed. There seems always to have been a gaudy on that spring (lay on which the cuckoo was first heard. On his first journey to the North, John Wesley was shocked by the drunkenness and the language of the people. He describes in his journal a miners' village. " It is inhabited by colliers only, such as have been always in the first rank for savage ignorance, and wickedness of every kind. Their grand assembly used to be the Lord's Day, on which men, women and children met together to play at chuck-ball and spun-farthing." Yet a few years later Wesley was able to describe miners in this very district as a pattern to others. They had " no jars of any kind among them, but with heart and soul provoke one another to love and good works." The explanation was that Methodism had taken hold of them. Mr. Welbourne points out how the Methodist leaders were generally the leaders of industrial movements among the miners, and very often the prime authors of the strikes.
The clothes worn by the eighteenth-century miners became virtually a uniform :-
"Though the full rig is rarely seen outside the small Northumber- land villages the traditional working clothes arc not yet abandoned —a pair of short flannel trousers, white or blue checked ; a blue checked shirt, with a red tie ; a jacket to match the trousers ; stout, square-toed shoes, and long knitted stockings of grey wool. But Methodist piety replaced the splendour of the holiday clothes by the respectability of Sunday blacks. The old-fashioned pitman wore his hair long, on week-days tied in a queue, on Sundays spread over his shoulders. At either temple was a curl, carefully rolled in paper over a small piece of lead, so that it would dangle in fantastic shape down his cheeks. Over a white shirt of fine linen was drawn a pair of blue velvet breeches. Next came long stockings, of pink, purple, or blue, clocked up to the knee ; next, buckled shoes. The pitman's coat was of shiny blue, with an even brighter lining. His hat had several bands of yellow ribbon, into which were stuck flowers. But his greatest glory was his waistcoat of brocade, his ' posy jacket,' cut short to shew an inch or two of shirt above the waist-band."
We have been so much attracted by Mr. Welbourne's researches into early history that we shall say very little about the much better kmown times that followed. There is a long record of strikes that failed and of trade unions that went under. The independence, not to say the pride, of Durham and Northumberland always militated against such
a general mining organization as might have conquered. In due time that best of Labour leaders, Mr. Burt, arose, and his moderation as well as his courage and honesty brought about a marked improvement of the conditions. Listen to him speaking to the members of his union as to what his conscience would allow him to do and not to do :—
" I shall at all times claim the liberty of speaking as I think on every question. I will not consent to become the mere tool and mouthpiece of any man or body of men. What I am con- vinced is right, that will I ever advocate to the best of my ability. What I am convinced is wrong, that I shall ever oppose, whether it be popular or unpopular."