Extract from Mining District Report 1847 (part 2)

by the Commissioner appointed to inquire into the operation of the Act 5 & 6 Vict. c99, (Mines and Collieries Act 1842)  and into the state of the population in the mining districts

On the part of the iron-masters, in particular, the extreme injury which has been, and in many districts still continues to be, inflicted on their trade, by the combinations of their workpeople to raise unduly the price of labour, has given a strong stimulus to their desire to raise the intelligence of the working classes, as the best guarantee against these mutually destructive hostilities between labour and capital. The evil is felt to so great a degree by the ironmasters of Lanarkshire, that I was urgently requested by nearly all the proprietors of the immense establishments of that and other parts of Scotland to recommend the matter to your serious notice ; and many among the most influential of those gentlemen, impressed with the extremely injurious consequences impending over the trade and property of the district in consequence of these combinations, expressed au earnest desire that a Commission might be issued, with power to examine on oath, in order thoroughly to bring out and place before the public the extent of these combinations, the fallacious and short-sighted views on which they are supported, and the wide ramifications of their injurious results, extending through every branch of commerce and trade, and levying a large tax, directly or indirectly, on the whole community. I have, in my last year's Report, given a brief account of the "Miners' Association," by which this combination is organized and directed. The number of colliers and miners in " Union " in 1844 was stated by their authorities to be 60,000. Though much reduced since that period, in consequence of the failure of the great "strike" in Northumberland and Durham in that year, they still claim to number upwards of 30,000 members in Lanarkshire, Ayrshire, Lancashire, and Staffordshire, to which are to be added those who arc in union in Wales and in other mining dis­tricts. In Staffordshire, the combined operation of the union, where it exists, and of analogous regulations among the colliers and miners generally not to work more than a certain quantity of coal, has been to raise the price of coal and iron far beyond their proper level, to the great injury of all the staple manufactures of that important district, and to the ultimate injury of the iron trade itself, as will be seen in the strong testimony to the fact, given in pages 12 and 13, by gentle­men most competent to form a sound and comprehensive judgment on a matter which so closely concerns them. In Northumberland and Durham the com­bination has, for the time, run its injurious course, and is, for the present, exhausted; but efforts are at present being made for its revival. The course which it took in 1844, its progress, and some of its destructive results, I had occasion to advert to in my Report of last year. Some other of its consequences have been brought out in a very able renew of the state of the local trade of those counties, lately published by Mr. T. John Taylor, a gentleman intimately conversant with the whole subject.

The effect of the combination upon the foreign trade of Lanarkshire, as described to me by several of the leading iron-masters, Messrs. Baird, Mr. Wilson, Mr. Murray, Mr. Houldsworth, and others, was in substance as follows. There are large orders in Glasgow for pig iron for Germany and elsewhere, if it could be shipped at 60s. to 65s. per ton. This price would afford a fair profit to the iron-master, and a fair rate of wages to the collier and iron-stone miner; enabling them to earn from 3s. 6d. to 4s. a day by ten hours of reasonable . labour. But by their combination they have so raised the price to the iron­master of the raw material, that he is obliged, to demand 70s. to 75s. for the iron that he ought to be able to produce for 60s. to 65s. The consequence is that out of about 100 furnaces in Lanarkshire, about 15 were in March not at work, and others not fully employed, for want of an adequate supply of mate­rials, or by reason of their high price; and the iron which Lanarkshire does not supply to this demand is made elsewhere; a good deal of it in Germany itself, the production there being greatly stimulated, as also in America, by this combination of the colliers and miners of Lanarkshire.

The extra charge thrown upon capital by the combination is estimated at the large proportion of one-third. This therefore is an additional and important obstruction to the trade, which in itself would be calculated greatly to impede its natural development. Mr. Murray, one of the proprietors of the large Monkland iron and steel works, stated as follows:-

"I have been engaged in the iron and coal trade since 1808. We now employ at our works about 3000 people. From the time I first knew colliers, they have always been in the habit of restricting themselves in their labour. My conviction is, that for the last 10 years the physical powers of all between 20 and 30 years of age have not been exerted to more than two-thirds of their fair capabilities. For the last six years every collier and miner might, without the slightest difficulty, have earned 5s. a week at least more than he has chosen to do. In con­sequence of this restriction of labour, we are obliged to keep one-third more men in our employ, and consequently to build one-third more houses, to sink one-third more pits, with engines, railways, horses, engine-men and drivers, and all the other incidental expenses belonging; to this addition to our fixed costs. All this forms, in the manufacture of iron, a considerable addition to the cost of production. Then they not. only oblige us to incur this charge of one-third more men, &c., but, by restricting the quantity of coal and iron-stone produced, make us pay an enhanced price per ton for both. (Estimated at from 10s. to 15s. a ton on pig iron) All this operates most injuriously against us both in our foreign and home trade, in competing with other producers at home and abroad, who have the benefit of free labour."

The statements of the other leading iron-masters was to the same effect. Messrs. Baird, the proprietor of the largest works in Lanarkshire, and nearly the largest in the kingdom, having on one spot 20 furnaces in operation, pro­ducing each, on an average, about 80 tons of iron per week (or in the aggregate 83,200 tons in the year), stated to me that they feel themselves under the necessity, in order to protect themselves in some measure against the com­binations of their men, to resort to the extraordinary measure of keeping on hand a stock of coal and iron-stone, and pig-iron, enough to supply their orders for a whole year. Some .idea may be formed of the obstruction to trade, and the individual and national loss occasioned by these combinations, by this one instance. In the first place there is the floating capital necessary to carry on an enormous establishment of this kind, locked up for a whole year, and use­less ; part of it, indeed, suffering diminution, as the coal deteriorates by keeping. In the next there is the enhanced price of the coal and iron-stone, estimated, as above shown, at from 10s. to 15s. per ton on pig iron; which enhanced price falls chiefly on the home consumer, limits the foreign demand, and calls into existence the most formidable foreign competition. Over and above this is the additional individual and national loss arising from the unproductiveness of the capital sunk in the number of furnaces standing, as above mentioned, in con­sequence of the deficient supply or the high price of the raw materials.

In my Report to the Secretary of State, for 1844, I have given at much length the details of the combination of colliers, &c. in Lanarkshire, as it existed at that time. I stated, that "the combinations, so far from declining, have extended, and their fatal effects have been brought more near." Three years have since elapsed, and the injurious consequences are now so apparent, that most of the iron-masters are urgent that a Commission should be issued to bring them thoroughly before the public, by examination on oath of all parties concerned. Up to this time, facts and arguments appear to have been of no avail to bring the colliers and miners, and their well-meaning advisers, to a comprehension of the short-sighted and self-destructive policy they are pursuing, by, as much as in them lies, destroying the very foundation of our national advantages as a manufacturing people,- the cheapness of coal and iron, crippling the capital that keeps in motion this vast system of manufacturing industry, encouraging foreign competition, rendering nugatory the superior intelligence of the manufacturer, and his varied and wonderful applications of science, paralysing the energy and enterprise of the merchant in seeking out, at great risk and labour, foreign and distant markets, and dragging down and extinguishing the very trade that is their mainstay for future employment. I thought it desirable to endeavour to ascertain, by personal examination, what were the precise ideas and views of the chief leaders and promoters of these combinations, and the reasonings on which they defended them. I, therefore, requested four or five of the persons bearing office in or under the "Miners' Union," to allow me to put such questions to them as might serve to place the matter in its proper light. It appeared from this inquiry, that the leaders of this Union refuse to admit that any evil consequences can ensue from it, either those obstructions and injuries to the trade and commerce of the country, above pointed out, or the further one, to,themselves, of bringing one-third more hands into the trade than its needs legitimately require, and therefore storing up for themselves a severer competition for employment when trade slackens. They appear to keep their eye steadily fixed on one and one only result of their combination, namely, that at the present time they are getting higher wages for less work. The ultimate consequences of this, to themselves and others,: they either are unaware of or are unwilling to see.

John Hall
, Secretary to the "Miners' Association," stated as follows :

"The Association is directed by a committee of management, consisting of a president, secretary, treasurer, &c., all of whom were working men. The Association was formed 7th November, 1842. On the 26th March, 1844, it numbered 60,000 members, colliers and miners. The numbers in union with us have declined, since the unsuccessful strike in Northumberland and Durham, in 1844, to between 20,000 and 30,000 ; chiefly colliers and miners of Lanarkshire, and Lancashire and Cheshire. There is also a union in South Staffordshire; and the colliers, &c. in Wales have formed a union, and applied to us to send them a delegate. The total number of colliers in Lancashire and Cheshire is about 10,000. Of these, about 6000 are in union with us. The combination enables the colliers to regulate the markets, and raise the price of coals. The price of coal has been raised 5s. or 6s. per ton, by the combination, where the restriction has been adhered to. The colliers of Lancashire are earning 4s. a day, on au average, working five days in the week. They are about nine hours down the pit.*
I admit that, in consequence of the high price of coal for the last four years, 'a vast' of new collieries has been opened in Lancashire, especially in the neighbourhood of Wigan.
If a period arrives when trade is bad, and the demand for coal declines, we propose to keep up the colliers' wages, by regulating the supply, and keeping coal dear; so that they will still earn, say, 3s. 6d. a-day for a less quantity of coal."

(* In Lanarkshire, according to their own statements, they can do their work in eight hours; in Staffordshire, in between eight and nine; but the employers maintain that the amount of work done could generally be got through in much less time.)

William Cloughan stated:

"I am clerk to the union for the Holytown district, Lanarkshire. Including all in union in the county of Lanark, there are more than 18,000, colliers, miners, drawers, and pitmen of all descriptions. The day's work is restricted to 26 or 29 cwt, according to the seam, and the distance the coal has to be drawn. The men can do this day's work in eight hours. The restriction has had the effect of bringing into, and keeping in employment all the young hands, and any evil it has done, has been to prevent some of the younger colliers getting into other employments."

It will be observed, that it is an avowed object to keep coal dear even in times of bad trade, when it is especially the interest of all, the colliers included, that it should be cheap; and that the statement that the reduced day's work can be done in eight hours (able colliers could do it, according to the assertion of their employers, in much less time), confirms the calculations of the masters who state that they are obliged to employ one-third more capital than they need, in supplying themselves with coal and iron-stone.

As the statement of Mr. Murray, that the colliers have been for some years past working to the extent of two-thirds only of their fair capacity, and only five days in the week, is, I am inclined to think, from very extensive inquiries, applicable to a large proportion of the colliers in the kingdom, it may be reasonably asked what benefits they have derived from their high rate of wages, and their opportunities of leisure, one of the most precious gifts to a labouring man, if rightly used? The testimony is undoubtedly very general that the number of prudent and well-conducted colliers and colliers' families has, in every coal district, increased of late years ; that more among them are becoming accessible to reason ; that better and more cleanly habits are making progress; that more are disposed to make some little sacrifice for the education of their children ; that small savings are being invested in the savings' banks, or in houses, or additions to furniture or dress ; that the greater attention now paid by proprietors to provide them with ample and decent accommodation in and about their houses, and to establish good schools near them, has much promoted this progressive amelioration. On the other hand, it is equally asserted in every mining district, and, I believe, with perfect truth, that there are still great numbers, perhaps the majority, who derive no moral advantage whatever from their higher wages and less work. The universal observation and complaint of all persons interested in and attentive to the moral condition of the labouring classes in those districts is, that the higher the wages the more they spend in mere sensuality and extravagance, to a degree incredible to those who do not witness it; so much so that individuals and families in the constant receipt of from 20s. to 30s. a-week and upwards (as I have verified in numerous instances from the pay-books submitted for that purpose to my inspection), are, on the slightest interruption to their work, obliged to have recourse to the assistance of their wealthier or more prudent neighbours, having habitually spent within the week the whole of their earnings, and being also frequently in debt. To the men thus disposed, and indulging in these habits, their short-sighted and self-destructive policy of restricting their labour during their years of youth and strength, in obedience to the commands of their Union, or by independent agreement in particular localities, is merely productive of present indulgence, to the utter neglect of the future in every one of its inexorable requirements.

It is not to be disguised that these combinations arose originally out of a feeling, founded probably on a common experience, that wages were not raised by the masters, in good times, in proportion to the rise in the market price of coal. This may have been the case in many instances. A far better disposition, however, has of late arisen, and in all the coal districts it is now indisputable that a much more equitable feeling prevails among the employers, and a con-sequent readiness to admit their colliers and miners, as early as possible, to a participation of the benefits of higher prices. But granting that the evils of the existing combinations are the retributions of past injustice, they are not less formidable as undermining manufacturing prosperity, as has been shown, in different parts of the mining districts. Also it is to be borne in mind that it is not always and solely the combination of the men to raise wages, but that of the masters to raise prices, that forces up the market price to a point too high to be permanently to the advantage of either party.

A very intelligent gentleman largely engaged in the iron trade stated to me as his opinion that wages having within the last few years been raised 30 and profits 20 per cent, in his district, an injury had been done to the trade; which, on the contrary, would have been permanently enlarged, and all parties benefited, had the rise of wages and profits been only 15 per cent. each.

It has been seen that the iron-masters of Lanarkshire, considering the magnitude of the interests concerned, are desirous that a stringent and searching inquiry should be made into the effect of these combinations upon the trade and commerce of that part of the country. The theory on which the repeal of the Combination Laws was founded was, that these evils would, by the aid of increasing intelligence and knowledge, eventually cure themselves. It is plain that any efforts hitherto directed to this end have fallen short of the need. Among the measures requisite to aid this curative process may be reckoned one hitherto overlooked, namely, such an annual return of numbers and quantities as may place in the hands of all persons interested, the very elements of the great problem they are seeking to adjust among themselves, i.e., the numbers employed, the powers of production, the quantities produced, and a few other points, an accurate knowledge of which would serve in many cases at once to determine controversies between employers and employed, or, by clearly indicating sources of danger to both, would prevent many struggles and false steps that clearly involve mutual injury.