03 Feb 2014 A Melee for the Relief Fund - Mike Mantin
On 22nd September 1879, the Sheffield Telegraph carried the story of a “Disgraceful Scene at Clay Cross” at what was meant to be a meeting to discuss the fledgling Midland Counties Permanent Relief Fund. Though it never reached the size of similar societies, the Fund shared the characteristics of similar societies in other coalfields: to provide assistance to the widows and families of mining disasters such the 1862 Hartley Colliery Disaster in Northumberland, which killed 204 miners and created what would become the Northumberland and Durham Miners’ Permanent Relief Fund, the first and undoubtedly most prominent of the Funds.
At the meeting in the Derbyshire town of Clay Cross, after speeches from the Midlands Fund’s Chairman and General Secretary calling for the same to be brought to the town, the miner Samuel Smith took to the platform to cheers from sections of the audience and,
delivered a long speech in opposition, in which he affirmed that many of the accidents that occur ought to be called by another name – murder, and asked them whether they would contribute to a fund to help the masters to pay for their murder.
Once Smith had finished, he was followed by Joseph Briggs, a preacher at the local New Connexion Society and member of the Fund, who approached him “in a fighting attitude”, and the meeting descended into a “general melee” with everyone not involved quickly making their way for the exit.
The meeting was by no means entirely typical of the Funds. Paid for jointly by contributions from coalowners as well as subscriptions from miners’ wages, many Funds worked relatively efficiently from the 1860s well into the 20th century, providing financial relief to the families of mining disasters. They also heralded the recognition that the dangers of mining were hardly limited to explosions which killed hundreds of miners, although they were the accidents receiving the media coverage. In 1882, the Chairman of the Monmouthshire and South Wales Miners’ Permanent Provident Society spoke of the need to provide “for those very numerous cases which do not attract attention but which are found by experience to entail ten times as much misery as is caused by the great colliery catastrophes”: injured and disabled miners were as in need of financial assistance, though this was carefully monitored with a constant eye on saving money and avoiding supposed ‘malingerers’.
[Memorial to the Hartley Colliery Disaster in 1862. The Hartley Colliery Relief Fund, later the Northumberland and Durham Miners' Permanent Relief Fund, was set up in response to the disaster. Image: Steve M for Geograph.co.uk.]
However, the brawl in Clay Cross reminds us that the perception of mining accidents as an individual tragedy to be met by charitable contribution – even though compulsory insurance – was not shared by all. Instead of setting up the Fund, Smith’s speech argued that safety legislation should be the priority, correcting and exposing negligence and poor safety instead of setting up to give relief afterwards. Had the coalowners been supportive of improved safety measures, “It was well understood that these accidents could be prevented, and many colliers’ lives saved.” The Permanent Relief Funds were of huge importance, but these debates in their early years revealed the tensions between miners and owners about their own safety. The major impact of major disasters and the collection of funds did not blunt many miners’ worry and anger about the everyday dangers that they faced in their jobs.
The party involved in the fight met the following week to reaffirm their opposition, and agreeing to set up a separate fund in Clay Cross. However, one question remained: the Permanent Relief Funds were often supported by local religious figures, but was it an anomaly that a local preacher taken part in a fight? The last word on this should go to a section in the local newspaper the following week reflecting on the events in Clay Cross, entitled ‘Notes on the Crooked Steeple, by an Old Crow’:
I cannot say whether it is a common practice for local preachers to rush about in fighting attitudes. I hope not; still I wish Joseph Briggs had been preaching in the Clay Cross Chapel a few weeks ago, when a collier had the audacity to enter the chapel tipsy, and forced the minister to leave the pulpit If that minister had been the local preacher Joseph Briggs, it is probable the disturbing collier would not have had matters all his own way. Briggs would very likely have rushed upon him “in a fighting attitude,” and given him the thrashing he so richly deserved.
- John Benson, ‘Coalminers, Coalowners and Collaboration: The Miners’ Permanent Relief Fund Movement in England, 1860-1895’, Labour History Review, 68 (2003), 181–194
- Roger Cooter and Bill Luckin (eds.), Accidents in History: Injuries, Fatalities and Social Relations (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997)
Thank you to John Benson for the sources for this blog.