MEXBOROUGH'S INVOLVEMENT IN THE BAG MUCK
This year we commemorate one hundred years since the end of the Bag Muck Strike. An event which stood out so dramatically in the history of Denaby Main Colliery, and burned such a bitter memory onto the minds of our older generation, that they speak of it to this day and tell of the appalling treatment metered out to the miners during their year long struggle. How could I therefore let this event go by without acknowledging those unsung heroes who fought for the rights of the common working person and to whom we owe so much.
Bag Muck was an uneven layer of rock that ran through the seam of Barnsley Coal, measuring from 24 inches to 36 inches in thickness. When thin and soft, the colliers had no objection to digging it out, but when it was hard there was an abundance of it, it cost the miners time and effort to dispose of, time which a miner could spend digging out coal, and therefore earning money.
Bag Muck was not exclusive to Denaby Main Colliery, but it was more pronounced here and although it only directly affected one hundred of the two thousand seven hundred workforce the majority of them had to handle it in some way, and as a consequence the men wanted payment for the extra work involved.
In those days Denaby Main was a 'Pit Village' this means that the same people who owned the pit owned everything in the village, in this case the Denaby and Cadeby Main Colliery Company Limited, even the pubs. This meant that the Denaby Lodge of the Yorkshire Miners Association could not be held there. Therefore meetings of the Cadeby Lodge were held at the Station Hotel, Conisbrough and meetings of the Denaby Lodge were held in the New Masons' Arms, Doncaster Road, Mexborough.
On Wednesday 9th July 1902 a meeting was held of the Mexborough & district Trades Council at which Mr. J. Barker, speaking that night stated that roughly 3,000 men and boys had just been thrown out of work, and he hoped that Mexborough Traders would not be lacking in rendering every possible support to them. It was during these first few days of the strike that the people of Mexborough gave £9. lOs 6d (£9.52), all of which was spent on providing bread and other foodstuffs to the miners and their families.
On Thursday 10th July 1902 a meeting was held of the Denaby Lodge and Collection Cards were distributed. This was to enable the relevant members to show valid credentials when approaching tradesmen etc. for donations to help the men on strike.
On 8th August 1902, which was the sixth week of the strike, the Mexborough & Swinton Times reported that the two branch rooms to be found within the Station Hotel and the New Masons' Arms had successfully distributed no less than 8,000 loaves to the families of striking miners and that soup kitchens had been set up at both the Park and Plant Hotels Mexborough. During the last months of 1902 Mexborough Urban District Council tried to act as arbitrators. A delegation firstly visited Mr. Chambers, the Managing Director of Denaby and Cadeby Main Collieries
Limited, but with little success. Mr. J. Dixon and Mr. EH. Hirst, of Mexborough Urban District Council, then went to the Yorkshire Miners Association Offices in Barnsley. As a result of this the two parties met in Sheffield but without a successful outcome.
Two months after the commencement of the strike the miners began to be put under pressure by the company to make them return to work. Most of the miners and their families lived in the labyrinth of tiny tied cottages that made up Denaby Main. It was at this time that they received a letter from the company stating that unless the miner paid all rent owning to the company before 15th November 1902 then the miner and his family would be evicted from their home.
The miners stood fast on this matter and stubbornly refused to move. It was then on 13th December 1902 that the company applied for an eviction on 750 men. This was adjourned from court for two weeks so the evictions would not take place in the Christmas week.
By Christmas the strike was in its 26th week and in a time when poverty was commonplace the miners and their families were becoming 'desperate. Most of their possessions had been pawned or sold; this included furniture, even the clothes off their backs and shoes from their feet. Denaby was a 'Pit Village' as stated and the managers of shops had been ordered not to allow the miners' families credit, even to buy food, and they had to resort to begging in nearby towns for money to buy food. Coal, which only a few weeks prior had been dug by the men had to be obtained from hawkers, who sold it at high prices by the basket. This meant that three families would pool all the resources they had in order to have a fire on which to cook the meagre amount of food they had managed to obtain.
This was nothing compared to what was to come as on 1st January 1903 the miners received a letter stating that if they had not returned to work by 3rd January 1903 they would be forcibly ejected from their homes. Still the miners refused to move.
Then on 6th January 1903 two hundred police, led by Superintendent Blake of Doncaster, assisted by Inspector Watson of Mexborough, began the evictions. They commenced in Frederick Street and Cliff View followed by Edlington Street. It took roughly one day to evict the 2,000 involved.
On the day of the evictions there had been a severe frost there was also a downfall of snow and an icy north wind blew. The miners and their families, having sold their clothing and shoes, in order to buy food were inadequately clothed and shoed, many without shoes on their feet. Their was a report of a woebegone family of twelve individuals, the oldest being no older than twelve year wandering the streets looking for somewhere to shelter from the cold. The police were almost in tears as they threw the people out of their homes.
The people of Mexborough tried to help where they could and accommodation was provided for them wherever possible; in old stables, haylofts, pigsties, wash-houses, or the kitchen floor. The Parish Church gave the old Tithe Barn, Church Street, which was used at that time as a Parish Hall. While Mexborough Urban District Council gave the old Smallpox Hospital, Church Street and a schoolroom.
Tents were provided by other Yorkshire Collieries and were quickly put up on Sparrow Barracks, this was once situated at the bottom of Doncaster Road opposite the present day Miners' Arms. But they had not been occupied long when a violent wind got up and therefore they did not provide much protection for those within from the weather. Everywhere was overcrowded and as sanitary arrangements were less than desirable it was not long before smallpox broke out. This was not isolated to the miners and their families as those who were actively involved with their aid also contracted the disease. This we discover when reading the Log Books of Doncaster Road and St. John's Schools, both of which tried to help their pupils.
There was a justifiable outcry as to the inhuman treatment of the miners received at the hands of the pit management. Many local and national newspapers covered their story, one headline reading; "Concentration Camps at Denaby" and animated pictures depicting the evictions were shown at Montgomery Hall, Sheffield.
Following the evictions the miners were put under even more pressure. Mr. Chambers, the Managing Director of Denaby & Cadeby Main Collieries Company Limited, placed recruiting advertisements in newspapers and wrote letters directly to men in other coalfields, these stated that the collieries under his control were to reopen. It was not long before workers began to arrive from other areas in order to take up the promise of accommodation and employment offered by the firm.
This angered the striking miners, as they believed the newly recruited workers were taking their jobs. Angry scenes could be seen where stones and abuse were thrown at the workers, who had to be escorted to and from work by police. Even children took part in this and Mr. Brown, Headmaster of Doncaster Road School, was quite angry when it was reported to him that boys from his school had taken part in this. He strongly denied that this could happen.
Angry scenes became ugly demonstrations and on 23rd February 1903 between two and three thousand men "augmented every step of the way by excited women" marched from the Masons' arms, Doncaster Road, Mexborough, towards Denaby Main Colliery in time to meet the workers coming out of the mine. Police on foot and horseback broke this up.
The Denaby & Cadeby Main Collieries Company Limited discovered that the union was in breach of a ruling and were successful. The union then instructed its members to return to work, as they could no longer, lawfully provide them with any money. Then on 22nd March 1903 the men capitulated and returned to work after their union was sued for damages of £150,000 by D.C.M.C.L.
Many of the men discovered that their jobs had been given to others and four weeks after the end of the strike 1,000 men had not been reinstated. This, they stated, was because safety repairs were needed.
The Rev. Jesse Wilson, the Primitive Methodist Minister of Mexborough, who worked so tirelessly to help the miners, and wrote a book entitled 'The Story of a Struggle 1902-1903', wrote a letter on 20th April 1903 in the Mexborough & Swinton Times in which he states:" there are still roughly several thousand people affected by the strike even though the dispute is over. I am proud to have been able to find them shelter, food, clothing, and to have put shoes on their feet. But still children were going to school unfed. We must keep them alive, I appeal on behalf of these poor women and children for help in money, boots, clothing, or food, for their sakes".
By 20th June 1903 five hundred men has still not been reinstated and it was said that if they tried to find work at other collieries and it was discovered that they were ex-employees of D.C.M.C.L. that they would be told "Well we don't want you here" and a report came forward stating that " a goodly number would have to look for another sphere of labour". Mr. Chambers also refused to re-employ anyone who took an active part in the strike.
Our coalfields are no more, but the events surrounding the Bag Muck Strike, and other similar strikes, are indelibly stamped upon our culture leaving the people of these areas with a particular strength of character known as 'Yorkshire Grit', which is to be found nowhere else in the world.
Bibliography: The Bag Muck Strike Denaby Main 1902-1903 by J.E. MacFarlane. A Railway History of Denaby and Cadeby Collieries. School Records of Doncaster Road and St. John the Baptist Schools.