5. Trade Unions

A number of trade unions are known to have been active amongst Bristol and Somerset colliery workers, however little is known about most of them, other than the information contained in the Historical Directory of Trade Unions by Arthur Marsh and Victoria Ryan. (Arthur Marsh & Victoria Ryan (1984: Gower: Aldershot) Historical Directory of Trade Unions, Volume 2) The exception to this is the Somerset Miners’ Association which can be examined in slightly more detail since a large, although incomplete, unsorted and uncatalogued collection of its papers is to be found in the library of the University of Bristol.

According to Flinn, the earliest reported strike by miners anywhere in the UK occurred in the Bristol area in 1738, with further strikes in 1783 and 1792, 4,000 Somerset miners successfully striking for higher pay in the latter year. (Michael W Flinn (1984: Oxford University Press: Oxford) The History of the British Coal Industry Volume 2, 1700-1830: The Industrial Revolution, p. 399)

The earliest sign of a trade union presence in the area, however, is not found until 1875, when John Hobbs, the local secretary of the Amalgamated Association of Miners was to be found at a beer retailer’s premises in Radstock. The AAM was formed in 1869 as a national union and by 1874 it had 71,224 members. It soon encountered financial problems, however, and was wound up in August 1875. It seems to have had a particularly strong influence in the Forest of Dean, the Forest of Dean Miners’ Association merging with the AAM from 1872 to 1875. (E R Kelly (ed) (1875: Kelly & Co: London) The Post Office Directory of Somerset and Bristol, p. 489; Arthur Marsh & Victoria Ryan (1984: Gower: Aldershot) Historical Directory of Trade Unions, Volume 2, pp. 202 & 218)

The level of membership of the AAM in Somerset is unknown, but it, or some other union, seems to have made its mark in the area, since in 1872 James McMurtrie, manager of the Radstock collieries, had written to Countess Waldegrave complaining that “… capitalists, managers and small tradesmen in the provinces…” were being “… ruined in means or worried to death through the tyranny of trades unions…” (Earl Waldegrave (1969/70) “James McMurtrie of Radstock 1839-1914, a Victorian Personality,” Proceedings of the Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, 114, pp. 27-36, 31)

What happened following the collapse of the AAM is unclear. Morgans wrote that, by 1884,

Only in the Radstock part of the Bristol coalfield is there a Colliers’ Union, and this has continued its existence up to the present time, under the able secretaryship of Mr Fish, although its members are not very numerous. (W Morgans (1884: John Wright & Co: Bristol) A Survey of the Bristol Coal-field, p.53)

It is possible that he was referring to the Somersetshire Miners’ Association since Down and Warrington state that it was founded in 1872, although Marsh & Ryan give the date as 1888, The SMA archives are of little help in establishing the truth, since the earliest papers there are some financial records dating from 1889. (C G Down & A J Warrington (nd: David & Charles: Newton Abbot) The History of the Somerset Coalfield, p. 31; Arthur Marsh & Victoria Ryan (1984: Gower: Aldershot) Historical Directory of Trade Unions, Volume 2, p. 247)

Before proceeding to the two most important unions, the Bristol Miners’ Association and the Somersetshire Miners’ Association, it is worth mentioning that a number of other unions were active in the area, although in some cases only their names are known. These were:-

i) Bristol and District Colliery Overmen and Examiners’ Association: listed in The Colliery Year Book 1939. (The Colliery Year Book and Coal Trades Directory 1939 (nd: The Louis Cassier Co: London), p. 24)

ii) Somerset Bailiff and Examiners’ Association: listed in The Colliery Year Book 1939. (The Colliery Year Book and Coal Trades Directory 1939 (nd: The Louis Cassier Co: London), p. 23)

iii) Somerset Colliery Enginemen and Boilermen’s Union: listed in The Colliery Year Book 1939. This is, presumably, the successor to the Somerset Enginemen and Firemen’s Union mentioned by Marsh and Ryan, which was founded in 1894 and had 150 members in 1910. (The Colliery Year Book and Coal Trades Directory 1939 (nd: The Louis Cassier Co: London), p. 23; Arthur Marsh & Victoria Ryan (1984: Gower: Aldershot) Historical Directory of Trade Unions, Volume 2, p. 196)

iv) Somerset Miners’ Industrial Union: gave evidence to the committee investigating the use of the guss when it visited Radstock in 1927. (Report of the Departmental Committee on the Use of the Guss in Somerset Mines, Cmd 3200 (1928: HMSO: London), p. 4)

v) The South Western Counties Miners’ Federation. Marsh and Ryan claim that the Federation was formed by the BMA and the SMA in 1894, although SMA records show that the Forest of Dean Miners’ Association was also a member. The Federation seems to have been relatively loosely organised, with the constituent unions retaining virtually total independence. It was dissolved in 1904. (Arthur Marsh & Victoria Ryan (1984: Gower: Aldershot) Historical Directory of Trade Unions, Volume 2, p. 251; Bristol University Library, Somerset Miners’ Association papers, DM443, minutes of conference 25 October 1894)

5.1: The Bristol Miners’ Association

Apart from one copy of the agent’s annual report, none of the records of the Bristol Miners’ Association seem to have survived. Little, therefore is known of its activities beyond a few details of its leaders.

According to Marsh and Ryan, the BMA was formed in 1887, although a copy of an undated agent’s annual report gives the date as June 1889, which is supported by a newspaper article dated 26 April 1890, which stated that William Whitefield, the union’s first agent had arrived in Bristol from Northumberland ten months earlier. (Arthur Marsh & Victoria Ryan (1984: Gower: Aldershot) Historical Directory of Trade Unions, Volume 2, p. 208; University of Wales Archives, Swansea, SWCC: MNA/NUM/2/4, Bristol Miners’ Association Agent’s Annual Report, undated, but apparently from the 1930s; Bristol Times and Mirror, 26 April 1890, p. 10)

The only membership figures given by Marsh and Ryan are 3,035 in 1892 (although official figures show only 2,558 workers in the Bristol district, the BMA recruited members from the Bedminster pits which were in Somerset for official purposes), 2,167 in 1910 and 320 in 1945. (Arthur Marsh & Victoria Ryan (1984: Gower: Aldershot) Historical Directory of Trade Unions, Volume 2, pp. 195 & 208)

From its earliest days, the BMA’s agents were active in local politics. Following the death of Handel Cossham in April 1890, William Whitefield found his name being put forward as prospective Liberal Parliamentary candidate for Bristol East although he was unable to gain enough support to secure the candidature. He was, however, to have more success at a local level, representing St George East on Bristol City Council from 1906 to 1919 and then serving as an alderman until 1929. (Bristol Times and Mirror, 26 April 1890, p. 10; Spencer Jordan, Keith Ramsey & Matthew Woollard (1997: University of the West of England: Bristol) Abstract of Bristol Historical Statistics Part 3: Political Representation and Bristol’s Elections 1700-1997, pp. 11 & 129)

His successor, Charles Gill, was born in 1871 and started work as a carting boy at South Liberty in 1882, eventually becoming an overman. By 1903 he was treasurer of the BMA and he became the agent when Whitefield retired in 1921. Gill was also a member of the City Council, representing Bedminster West from 1922 to 1931, Bedminster East from 1933 to 1936 and Windmill Hill in 1936, being elevated to the aldermanic bench immediately after the latter election and remaining there until his death in 1956. During his period of office as an alderman he was also elected Lord Mayor in 1947 and 1948. (Miners’ Memories (Bedminster and Ashton) (nd: CLASS: Bristol), p. 45; Spencer Jordan, Keith Ramsey & Matthew Woollard (1997: University of the West of England: Bristol) Abstract of Bristol Historical Statistics Part 3: Political Representation and Bristol’s Elections 1700-1997, pp. 3, 13, 30, 32 & 191)

By 1937, with only one colliery left in the Bristol district, Charles Gill was forced to accept a reduction in his salary. An appeal from the MFGB for funds to supplement a grant which it had made to him met with no response from the SMA in view of the adverse financial circumstances of its own members as a result of pit closures.[Bristol University Library: Somerset Miners' Association papers, DM443, minutes of Council meeting 19 march 1937] On 1 January 1945, with a membership of less than 400, the BMA was absorbed into the newly-formed National Union of Mineworkers.(R Page Arnot (1961: Allen & Unwin: London) The Miners in Crisis and War, pp. 414 & 430)

5.2: The Somersetshire Miners’ Association

Marsh and Ryan claim that the SMA had 2,000 members during the period 1892-1896 and that this had increased to 4,310 by 1910 before declining to 2,600 by 1945. (Arthur Marsh & Victoria Ryan (1984: Gower: Aldershot) Historical Directory of Trade Unions, Volume 2, pp. 195 & 247) It is not possible to comment on the accuracy of these figures since the SMA records only give details of the total membership in certain years between 1923 and 1930.

The SMA’s records regarding strikes are disappointingly brief, consisting largely of the minutes of meetings which give only a broad outline of the points discussed. Most of the detailed information relates to financial matters. Thus, for example, it is possible to provide a brief sketch of the material consequences of the 1926 dispute, although there is insufficient material to attempt a detailed description of the local view of the political issues.

The SMA entered the strike with funds totalling £4,747. There were 4,470 full members and 200 half members, with 4,000 children under 14 between them. It was resolved to pay strike pay of 8/- to each full member, 4/- to each half member and 2/- for each child under 14. In the first week the total paid was £2,174. By September the rates had fallen to 2/6 for full members and 1/3 for half members. [Bristol University Library: Somerset Miners' Association papers, DM443, minutes of Council meetings 10 May, 14 May & 2 September 1926]

On 16 October it was reported to the council that 204 men had returned to work, and by 22 November this had increased to 1,559. By 23 November, funds had dwindled to £166 and on the following day it was decided to call of the strike and return to work. [Bristol University Library: Somerset Miners' Association papers, DM443, minutes of Council meeting 16 October, report to Conference of Lodges 22 November & minutes of conferences 23 & 24 November 1926]

The SMA still retained the confidence of its members, however, since the following resolution from Pensford and Bromley was carried at a conference of lodges on 27 November:

That this meeting of Pensford and Bromley miners desire to place on record its hearty thanks and appreciation of the President, Agent, and Council for the very capable and loyal manner in which they have conducted the fight on behalf of the men during the dispute and further pledges its continued loyalty to the SMA in the hope that it will be re-built on an efficient and strong basis so that ’ere long it will be able in conjunction with the MFGB to not only retrieve the severe losses sustained but to vastly improve the general conditions of all miners. [Bristol University Library, Somerset Miners' Association papers, DM443, report of Conference of Lodges 27 November 1926]

The strike had been an extremely expensive enterprise which had cost the union £26,364 in strike pay, although this fell far short of the £37,442 which had been paid in 1921. In addition to this, there were still 285 men out of work and entitled to unemployment pay in May 1927. [Bristol University Library, Somerset Miners' Association papers, DM443, Report and Balance Sheet for the Quarter ending 31 December 1921, Report and Balance Sheet for the Quarter ending 31 March 1927, minutes of Council meeting 20 May 1927]

The history of the SMA during the 1920s and 1930s is dominated by its agent, Fred Swift, whose life story parallels that of Charles Gill in many ways. Swift had commenced work at Upper Writhlington colliery in 1886 at the age of 12. He became pit representative for the carting boys at the age of 20 and later went on to represent all the men at the pit. He was appointed financial secretary of the SMA in 1904 and agent in 1917. He was also one of the founders of the local branch of the independent Labour Party in 1906 and president of Frome Divisional Labour Party from 1918 to 1938. He was elected a county councillor in 1919 and was also a magistrate. [Bristol University Library: Somerset Miners' Association papers, DM443, letter from Geo Robbins, under manager, Writhlington Collieries, 1906 (exact date illegible), programme for Frome Divisional Labour Party presentation supper for Fred Swift, 26 March 1938]

Following its absorption into the National Union of Mineworkers, the SMA appears to have maintained a dual existence, since, continuing to be known by its original name into the 1960s, although it was actually part of the South Wales Area of the NUM. (Penny Bonsall (1989) “The Somerset Coalfield, 1947-1973: Attitudes and Responses to Pit Closures in the Post-Nationalisation Era,” Southern History, 11, pp. 114-130, passim)

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