Showing posts with label Falkirk. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Falkirk. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The Free Colliers - the original Bravehearts

Continuing our little bit of Scots history

Until the end of the 18th century the Scottish collier was a serf, bound in servitude to his master, the coal owner, almost as tightly as any slave on the cotton plantations of the Americas. Although he could not actually be sold as an individual, he and his family were ranked with any other article attached to the colliery to be bought and sold along with lengths of rail or stacks of timber. Once bound to a pit they had no right to move to another place of work and could be brought back to face severe punishment if they tried. Many did just that and were returned in manacles to face the wrath of the owners. Convicted criminals, beggars and other homeless people were gifted as 'perpetual servants' to the masters and, children born to collier families were, on payment by the owner of a small sum of money, bound like their fathers to the owner and his pit for life. No surprise then that few outsiders would volunteer to join the ranks to labour in Scotland's dangerous pits even when the industrial revolution increased demand for coal and pushed up wages. It was with a good deal of reluctance that the colliers were granted their freedom in grudging stages, first the new recruits in 1775 and twenty four years later the whole workforce.

But their new found freedom did not bring justice.

 In the early decades of the 19th century conditions in Scotland's mines were deplorable with women and small children working long hours alongside the men in dark, cramped and dangerous conditions. Attempts by the colliers across the country to organise into trade unions were strenuously opposed by the authorities and the owners and even the repeal of the laws forbidding union activity did not protect workers and their families from the threat of dismissal for taking action or encouraging others to do the same. In 1856 the coal owners combined to reduce the colliers' wages from five to four shillings per day and a widespread strike followed. In the Falkirk area the Redding (In 1923 40 miners lost their lives in a pit disaster) colliers took the lead and on more than one occasion troops and special constables were sent to the area to disperse marches and demonstrations. Amid great hardship the strike dragged on for twelve weeks before the defeated colliers returned to work for the lower rate. Similarly, in the early 1860s, the establishment of a General Association of the Operative Coal and Ironstone Miners, Reddsmen  and Drawers* in Lanarkshire was crushed by an employers' lockout which lasted for six weeks and ended in a humiliating return to work and reduced wages. * reddsmen clear the way for the colliers, drawers transported the coal.

Soon after the anniversary of the Battle of Falkirk which had been fought near their homes in 1298 colliers they began an annual march from pit  to pit under the banner of their hero, William Wallace,  to the spot near their village, the Wallace Stone, where he is said to have viewed the battle. Such associations or brotherhoods among the miners were not unusual at the time but the annual demonstration and the association with Wallace marked out the Redding colliers from the rest.

It was obvious that a new defence was needed to mobilise the colliers and reassert their rights and this came about the following year. In 1863, at Redding, James Simpson who had been a trade union activist in the area before and during the 1856 strike, realised that he had in the annual William Wallace marchers a ready made army of volunteers, and on February 3rd he and his colleagues constituted themselves as the first Lodge of Free Colliers pledged to take up the struggle. Within nine months there were lodges in Slamannan and Bo'ness and the movement spread to the Lanarkshire and Ayrshire coalfields. By the end of the following year there were sixty-five lodges in a network covering the whole Scottish coalfield and uniting miners by the thousand. Some areas like Stirlingshire and Lanarkshire were more enthusiastic than Fife and Midlothian but no area was without its lodge. The lodges usually bore the name of a Scottish noble from  the romantically remembered  past  - John de Graeme and Robert Bruce, the Lord Andrew Moray and the Young Boswell, the Duke of Gordon  and the Sir William Baillie

One of the weaknesses of previous union activity had been its openness, which the masters had exploited. Many miners claimed they were frightened to speak out at open meetings for fear of their employers. To ensure that the actions of the Free Colliers remained secret and the new lodges adopted many of the trappings of freemasonry, binding each to the other by oaths of loyalty and using coded signs and language to preserve their unity and secrecy. Simpson himself became Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. 

The actions of some of the Free Collier lodges especially in the west of Scotland led to considerable internal argument and many union members outside the movement felt that the secrecy associated with the lodges could be counter productive. Their very Scottishness was seen by many as potentially devisive in an industry where a growing number of the colliers were immigrant Irishmen and where solidarity of all workers was essential. The Free Colliers insisted that their ranks were open to all miners but hostility and suspicion remained. Just four years after their birth Free Collier membership began to decline and many of the lodges which had bloomed so quickly began to wither away. In east Stirlingshire, in the last of the lodges,  the role of representation passed and eventually to the National Union of Mineworkers.