Of Human Bondage

Freiburg, Miner (1310), credit Wikipedia

Of Human Bondage

William Hartley mourns inconsistency

Extracts from John Watson’s Journal, April 19th/20th 1771;

“This morning about seven o’ clock I set forward with Thomas Dodds in order to take four of the deserted men which (by information) now working at Frankland Colliery….got to Durham past ten where I got of Wilkinson the constable…took the men and set homeward”.

Newcastle: “This morning three men appeared before Mr William Locase (whereupon promise of good behaviour for the future) and also gave a promissory note for £3 jointly and separately payable to His Grace [presumably the Duke of Northumberland] on account of the expense incurred for their desertion”. Note Watson’s use of the military term ‘desertion’. These were in fact miners who were ‘bound men’ and Watson’s job was to assemble a posse and get them back and in front of a magistrate.

The British public are currently held culpable for many of the world’s ills. The Guilt Police are examining National Trust properties for associations with slavery. Places in which retired couples could once mooch harmlessly around may have a pall of slavery hanging over them. This must be exposed and confronted before people can view the property in the correct light. Even Chartwell, sometime home of Sir Winston Churchill, is under suspicion.

Yet curiously, the definition of slavery is kept in narrow parameters. It is restricted to West African slavery and those evil profiteers who transported their hapless cargoes to America and the Caribbean. One would look hard for exposures of East African slavery involving Arabs, or that carried on by the Ottoman Turks against Europeans. In terms of posterity, the Royal Navy laboured in vain to stamp out other varieties of a trade which at one time permeated so many societies.

Then consider the difference between forced labour (slavery) and coerced labour. It is arguable that slavery was a more humane way of treating people. Better, it has been suggested, if people were formal slaves than be subject to the wage slavery of the free market. The former were chattels with some value. For the latter, it was a case of being hired or otherwise starve.

Watson was a mine viewer in the Northumberland and Durham coalfield. Back in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, well before slavery was abolished in the British Empire and long before its abolition in the United States, the Industrial Revolution was stirring into life in Great Britain and it needed fuel. It had long been the custom in English agriculture to hold annual hiring fairs, whereby the farmer acquired the labour he would need for the coming year. Agriculture and coal mining had close links in the pre industrial era, so the practise of binding a man readily migrated into the coal trade, even though operating conditions were vastly different. Being bound was a legally enforceable arrangement, hence Mr Watson and his posse. It was said by critics that the documents used to bind men were ‘couched in legalise’ and had to be read out to the mostly illiterate miners by an agent. Signatures were simply crosses on a paper. By this device the miner was bound for a year to his master’s service and it was also how his family would get a roof over their heads via a tied cottage.

The first hostile reaction to binding occurred as early as 1765 when there was a strike in parts of the Northumberland coalfield against the practise of miners having to obtain a ‘leaving certificate’ before being allowed to seek employment at another colliery. Binding prompted another strike in 1810 when the owners sought to move the date for the annual binding from October (convenient for agricultural practise) to January. By the 1820s, if labour wasn’t getting organised, the owners certainly were. In Newcastle, the grandly named ‘Committee of the Coal Trades’ was formed. Essentially this was a cartel seeking to put a limit on production to keep prices high in the London market. Apart from operating in an atmosphere of mutual mistrust, the Committee sought to regulate labour. Among its many rules was one stipulating that ‘no binding money to be allowed’; presumably inducements to be bound to a particular colliery. No colliery was allowed to operate with unbound men, although some owners were willing to break this rule when it suited them. It was also a case of bring your own gunpowder and candles to work, since owners didn’t supply these.

Much has been written about the appalling working conditions underground. ‘Inflammable air’ as it was termed could be a problem especially in mines known to be ‘fiery’. Sometimes it was a case of balancing this risk against the need to eradicate water with primitive steam pumps called fire engines, which involved lighting a fire at the bottom of a shaft. In Cumberland, Carlisle Spedding, a noted mine viewer, came up with an invention to reduce the risk. Spedding’s Steel Mill was a rotating hand held device which gave off sparks rather than a flame. Spedding contended this would lessen the risk of an explosion. The miner would work whilst a small child operated the mill to provide illumination of sorts. Fiery air was one problem; not getting enough to breathe could be another. Back in Northumberland, Watson noted in his journal the dismissal of several troublemakers at a colliery, who had refused to work due to the foulness of the air. Even he had to apologise on one occasion for being unable to inspect a shaft, since his candle wouldn’t stay alight for want of air.

Disruptions to trade often occurred. The sinking of a ship laden with coal might cause a sudden surge in demand. The mutually suspicious members of the Committee often complained about unbound men being brought in to augment the labour force at a rival colliery, in order to meet increased demand. Attempts to unionise were punished both by dismissing the miner and then evicting his family from their tied cottage. Local farmers were often prevailed upon to provide furniture storage facilities. Coal owner the Marquis of Londonderry took a dim view of this and issued thinly veiled threats should his agents discover evidence of the practice.

As if binding wasn’t bad enough it took another strike in 1831 to finish off the pernicious practice of not actually paying wages in money. Truck shops had hitherto operated of which owners or their friends were the beneficiaries. It wasn’t unusual for a miner to find all or part of his wages confiscated to pay off a balance owed at the shop. The 1831 strike also saw the working day reduced from 17 hours to 12 for boys. In that year, the April 5th edition of the Tyne Mercury carried a lengthy leader approving this gesture. Whilst stressing that it didn’t take sides in the dispute, it warned of dire consequences to miners should they still refuse to be bound.

Bound labour saw men and boys sent to work in difficult and dangerous conditions. They were legally obliged to remain in servitude with the threat of fines or imprisonment if they breached their conditions. Since exposing past connections with slavery is now considered so important, perhaps the descendants of the aristocratic coal owners should apologise for their ancestors’ misdemeanours.

Bill Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service                                                                 

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