William Hemingway was one of the key figures at Water Haigh colliery for about 25 years from the 1920s through to just before the coal industry was nationalised in 1947. As a checkweighman, employed directly by the miners’ union, his job was to make sure the men weren’t being cheated by the management. During the 1926 miners’ strike he was prosecuted and fined for allegedly intimidating a group of young men who had gone back to work, but he made a personal and political comeback and was honoured with a knighthood in 1965.
Bill, as he was always known, was the son of a miner and his trade union and political beliefs were no doubt formed from his experiences in the smoke filled back-to-back terraced streets of late Victorian inner city Leeds where he grew up. He was an active socialist and was for many years a Labour councillor and alderman on the Leeds City Council, serving as Lord Mayor for a year in the 1930s.
The Hemingway family’s first home was on Spring Close Street in the Richmond Hill district about a mile south east of the city centre. Bill’s father, Thomas, was 20 when he married Elizabeth Whitelow from nearby Clara Street at St. Saviour’s church in 1876. A daughter, Ella Beatrice, came along in 1878 followed by Bill in January 1880.
They were both baptised at St. Saviour’s, specifically built in the 1840s by the Anglo-Catholic movement to “evangalize the masses” of mill workers and their families living in the slums on land which rose up from the River Aire. Known as the “Bank” it was said, by a typically prim and proper priest who published a short history in 1872, to have been an area where the bulk of the population lived in “gross profligacy” and were apathetic and indifferent to religion.
“In some back lanes there were rooms used for balls, where the young of both sexes would meet after the day’s work was over; and up to late hours of the night, coarse oaths and blasphemies might be heard in the streets, and revolting sights witnessed by the passers by,” wrote the Reverend George Peirce Grantham.
Similar tales of the area in the 1840s and 1850s may have been told to Bill Hemingway by his maternal grandfather, Mark Whitelow. Like many of his contemporaries he had been born into an agricultural community, in his case in 1833 at Partington in the East Riding between Hull and the coast.
With growing industrialisation thousands upon thousands migrated into the cities to find work in the factories and mills and Mark had been brought with his family to Leeds not long after his birth. At first they lived on Kirkgate but then moved to Smithies Garth in the Bank. Mark’s father, William Whitelow, appears to have been a labourer all his life but Mark trained as a blacksmith and went on to be a striker for a whitesmith before becoming a bath maker. As he grew older he found work as a cart driver.
By the time his grandson lived in the area things had got a little better. Cholera outbreaks in the 1850s led to better sanitation, the temperance movement steered many away from the perils of alcohol, and board schools had opened to educate the children. But there were still injustice and poverty. For those in work pay was low and for the unemployed and destitute the workhouses beckoned.
After learning to read and write at Ellerby Lane Council School Bill Hemingway could have left at the statutory age of 10 but stayed on until he was 12. A year later, just after his 13th birthday, he joined his father at Waterloo Main colliery where coal was mined from under the Temple Newsam estate. Thomas was a “hewer” at the coal face but Bill’s first job was as a “trap door boy” controlling ventilation underground.
1893 was probably not the best year to start work in the pits and, most likely, it was being caught up in a national miners’ strike that propelled the young lad on to a lifetime of union and political activity.
In order to maintain profits the colliery owners had given notice of a cut of 17.5 per cent in the men’s gross wages, a proposal rejected by the Miners Federation of Great Britain, resulting in the men being “locked-out” from the end of July through to November. Bill may well have been at a meeting on Friday 21 July 1893 at the Miners’ Institute on York Road as the Waterloo men voted to support the Federation. Feelings were particularly high as 50 of the 600 workforce at the colliery were already in dispute with the management.
Another event he may have witnessed was at East End Park on Tuesday 5 September when 5000 men gathered from all over Leeds and beyond. They were protesting that the Waterloo managers were digging coal near the surface and breaking an agreement to only carry out care and maintenance at the colliery.
Despite being warned against violence by their leaders a group of men broke all the windows of the manager’s house by throwing stones. Some of them were arrested and when the crowd found out they started running towards the pit’s offices. Mounted police carrying cutlasses were called in. They charged and drove the men into nearby fields but there were many injuries to the miners and the police.
Perhaps the most defining moment of the strike though came just a couple of days later when two miners were shot dead by soldiers at Ackton Hall pit in Featherstone. The 13 year old may have heard Keir Hardie, the recently elected Independent Labour Party MP and future Labour Party leader, condemn the shootings when he spoke at a meeting of the miners’ relief committee at Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms in Leeds a few weeks later.
After talks in October and a government promise of a conciliation board the miners returned to work in mid-November. In February 1894 an agreement was reached for a 10 per cent cut in wages.
In 1895 Bill Hemingway moved to work in the Silkstone seam at Whitwood colliery near Castleford but it’s not clear if, as a 15 year old, he went with his father or alone. It would have been possible for them to commute on cheap workmen’s tickets between Hunslet and Altofts stations on the Midland Railway. Whatever the case “after a brief period” they moved to live at Woodville Place just off Woodhouse Hill Road at Hunslet Carr. Both worked as hewers at one of the three pits operated by the Middleton Estate and Colliery Company about a mile away.
At the time of the 1901 census Bill was still living at home with his mother and father along with two younger sisters who were cloth weavers. A 15 year old brother was a pony boy, probably working close to his father and older brother at Middleton.
It was in the close knit community of Hunslet that Bill met his future wife. Not quite the “girl next door” – she actually lived on the opposite side of Woodville Place – Harriet Ramsden also came from a mining family. Her father, Joseph, was a miner and labourer at Middleton and both her grandfathers, Robert Ramsden and Moses Green had worked there. She had also been a cloth weaver so the match making was probably helped by Bill’s sisters.
Bill and Harriet married on Christmas Day 1902 at the Primitive Methodist Zion Chapel on the corner of Jack Lane and Joseph Street in Hunslet. They were to remain committed Methodists and teatotallers for the rest of their lives.
One of the friends Harriet had in the church was Sarah Bolton, the daughter of a glass bottle sorter. She had been a pupil teacher at a Hunslet school before marrying Herbert Henry Bellamy whose father was the founder of the Bellamy confectionery company. Both were leading members of the chapel on Church Street in Woodlesford when they moved to live at Lawrence House in the village in the 1930s from where Herbert commuted by train to his factory at Castleford.
As one historian has noted the Labour Party probably owed its existence “more to Methodism than Marxism” and this seems to have been true in Bill Hemingway’s case. As a young man he spent a good deal of time at the Woodhouse Hill chapel where he was influenced by lay preacher William Ernest Clegg, the Leeds branch manager of the Friends’ Provident and Century Life insurance company.
Without playing to the gallery Clegg’s sermons were said to be “thoughtful and very able, perhaps a little lacking in emotion, but getting home by their deep sincerity.” Clegg wrote for the Primitive Methodist Leader, a national newspaper, and was politically active and much in demand to speak on political platforms. He was asked several times to stand for parliament but declined.
It’s not known precisely when Bill Hemingway became a member of the Labour Party but it was probably around the time of the 1906 general election. They won 29 seats including their first in Leeds where trade unionist James O’Grady took Leeds East. It was to be a reforming parliament dominated by the Liberals but in Leeds South, where Bill lived, Labour came second to the Liberals as many working class voters, including miners, still preferred their policies and leaders. Two years later, in a by-election, there was in-fighting about who should be the Labour candidate and they came a poor third after the Conservatives.
For 8 years Bill was secretary of the Leeds South constituency Labour Party but it’s not known in which year he took on the role. He won his first public election when he stood to be one of the 24 members of the Hunslet Board of Guardians in 1911. The Board met every alternate Wednesday afternoon at an office on Glasshouse Street and was responsible for what was then known as the Poor Law in the townships or civil parishes which made up the Hunslet Union. As well as three wards in Hunslet it covered a wide area to the south east of Leeds including Middleton, Thorpe Stapleton, Osmondthorpe, Temple Newsam, Rothwell and Oulton- with-Woodlesford.
The Board administered the new Hunslet workhouse, infirmary and maternity unit which had been built at the end of Wood Lane in Rothwell in 1903. Children’s homes on Rothwell Haigh were also overseen by them as was “out-door relief,” small payments made by “relieving officers” to people who could prove they were in need according to strict regulations.
As Rule 1 starkly put it: “Out-door relief shall be allowed only to persons of good character who shall satisfy the Guardians that their destitution has not been caused by their own improvidence or intemperance, and that whilst able to work they did all they could to make provision against sickess and want of employment. Those who cannot give a satisfactory statement as to this, shall, if relievd at all, be required to enter an Institution with their families.”
Much of the Board’s work was routine dealing with staffing issues and contracts but there were occassional heated differences of opinion between the newer Labour members and the more established Liberals, Conservatives and Independents.
One of Bill Hemingway’s Labour colleagues was Willie Lunn who was also elected in 1911 to be one of four Rothwell guardians. Willie, a fellow Primitive Methodist who would in 1918 would become the MP for Rothwell, was already well established as a forthright public speaker and local politician. The two would have known each other well as Willie had been at the Broom pit at Middleton since 1889 and was chosen by the men as checkweighman there in 1900. Around this time Bill Hemingway also held office in the Middleton branch of the Yorkshire Miners’ Association as secretary and then president. Both would have been heavily involved in the first truly national miners’ strike in 1912 when the men were out for 37 days from February to April demanding a minimum wage, a concession they eventually won from the Liberal government.
By 1911 the Hemingway family, now including Rhoda, 6, and Ethel, 3, were living at 11 Parnaby View close to the Woodhouse Hill cemetery. A third child, Thomas, was born in 1913 followed by Ramsden in 1915 and another daughter, Maud, in 1916.
Unlike many of his colleagues who volunteered for the Leeds Pals battalion, Bill appears not to have joined the army in the First World War though there’s no evidence he was a conscientious objector. After the initial rush the pits were short of qualified men and it’s possible that if he did volunteer or “attest” his name may have been “starred” allowing him to be placed on the reserve and retained as a miner.
In 1913 Bill Hemingway was re-elected as a guardian then, two years later, as municipal elections were suspended under wartime conditions, he was chosen by the Labour Party to sit as a councillor for the East Hunslet ward on Leeds City Council. He replaced another councillor who was promoted to be an alderman and apart from a year when he was out of office from November 1925 he served continuously on the council for the next forty years.
Towards the end of the First World War the rates of pay and safety conditions in coal mining were reasonably good as the industry was run by the government through the Coal Controller at the Board of Trade. As a consequence there were fewer strikes during the conflict but during 1919 thousands of miners in several parts of the country, along with engineers, railwaymen and cotton workers, were involved in disputes over pay and conditions.
Soldiers and sailors mutinied against being sent to fight against the Russian revolution and in July 1919 three thousand police went on strike. They were all sacked and their union was broken up. The newspapers, which mainly supported the Liberals and Conservatives, were full of veiled references to the “hidden hands” and “sinister anarchist elements” behind the unrest.
There are no reports of Bill Hemingway’s involvement in the events of 1919 but he must have been at the forefront of the miners’ actions in Leeds and at Middleton colliery. First, in January, there was a 24 hour strike of all members of the Yorkshire Miners’ Association demanding that surface workers could all stop work at the same time for a 20 minute meal break. Previously they’d taken staggered breaks.
Then, nationally, the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain demanded a 30 per cent wage increase, a six-hour instead of and eight-hour day and nationalisation of the industry. In what was seen as a clever political move the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, set up a commission headed by a judge, Sir John Sankey. It included miners’ leaders and coal owners.
A compromise was agreed in March for a 20 per cent rise in wages and a seven hour day. State ownership was recommended in June but Lloyd George kicked the idea into the long grass and by then the momentum had been lost for a national miners’ strike.
In Yorkshire, however, the union and the coal owners couldn’t agree on the implementation of the Sankey report and a protracted dispute broke out over the complicated relationship between hours worked and piece rates as the hewers wages were dependent on the tonnage they mined. Around 150,000 men walked out on Tuesday 15 July and stayed out for about five weeks only going back to work after the union’s fund for strike pay had been heavily depleted.
During the strike the union withdrew its cooperation to pump water from underground workings and the government had to deploy over 400 naval ratings, knicknamed “bluejackets,” to stoke boilers and run the pumps at 36 collieries including Middleton.
In June 1920 Bill and Harriet Hemingway were struck by a personal tragedy when their son, Thomas, died. He was only 7 years old and no doubt their strong Christian faith helped them cope. All their other children survived into adulthood.
Bill continued with his work on the council and was at the handover ceremony in July 1920 when the Middleton Park Estate and Colliery Company sold much of its land to Wade’s Charity which then leased it to the Corporation for use as a public park. He also campaigned for a public library to be opened in East Hunslet.
As an ex-guardian another event he attended, along with Willie Lunn and other guests, was a concert given at the workhouse on Rothwell Haigh in honour of the first Labour Lord Mayor of Leeds. One of the party’s pioneers in the city, Tom Duncan had been a founding members of the Shop Assistants’ Union in the 1890s and had risen to be manager of the Grand Pygmalion department store on Boar Lane.
Industrial strife continued in the pits though, despite the miners being given a wage increase in March 1920. In May the government raised coal prices and the Miners’ Federation responded by calling for the increase to be dropped and for a further wage rise for all men, youths and boys in the industry. A series of ballots took place resulting in a three week countrywide strike from mid-October but after Lloyd George got involved a settlement was agreed and the men went back to work on 4 November.
Worse was to come the following year after the government handed back control of the industry to the coal owners. With declining export markets and falling prices the owners refused to pay the same rates as the government had agreed to and demanded a cut in wages. After negotiations broke down the miners were locked out and a three month long coal strike began on 1 April. It’s mainly remembered because of “Black Friday” two weeks later when, at the last minute, the leaders of the other big unions voted against joining the miners in a general strike nationwide, breaking what was known as the Triple Alliance, an informal solidarity agreement which had been in place from before the war.
Despite doubts from their president, Kippax born Herbert Smith, the membership of the Miner’s Federation had voted for a national pool whereby a levy was to be placed on every ton of coal raised. If introduced it meant the more productive pits and districts, like those in Yorkshire, would subsidise wages in less profitable areas like South Wales.
The owners objected to the idea which had been proposed by the miners’ secretary Frank Hodges. They claimed it was a backdoor route to nationalisation. It appeared they were willing to achieve higher profits for the more competitive pits even if the less profitable ones would have to close, throwing thousands of men out of work.
Initially the other unions backed the miners but the government toughened its stance by calling out the army reserve and forming the Volunteer Defence Force. It was a move ostensibly to keep the pits viable by protecting pumping operations during the strike. In reality it was a political gesture aimed at turning public opinion away from the miners.
Then late at night, at a meeting before a group of MPs called on the eve of the general strike so that the miners and the owners could put their respective cases, it appeared that Frank Hodges had unilaterally changed the miners’ position by offering to compromise on the demand for a national pool in return for a temporary wage deal. Raised from his bed Lloyd George immediately offered more talks in Downing Street but amidst confusion and acrimony the miners lost the support of the other unions and the national strike was called off at the last minute on Friday 15 April 1921.
It’s clear that by this time that Bill Hemingway was a prominent and well respected councillor and miners’ leader in Leeds. Just two days before Black Friday he was interviewed by the Yorkshire Evening Post for a story headlined: “Less Wages Here To Help Other Counties.”
The paper, which supported the employers and the government, seemed to want to emphasise a split in the ranks of the miners and said “the impression” was that while Yorkshire men felt they ought to be loyal to the Federation they didn’t all “relish this sharing business.”
“Many of them strongly disagree that part of their earnings should go into a pool for the benefit other districts, some of which, like South Wales, did not put their backs into the effort to increase output, and so earn the output bonus, in the winter months,” claimed one of the paper’s correspondents.
Emphasising his support for national solidarity and union democracy Bill Hemingway said that Yorkshire had been in favour of a return to district settlements but had been overwhelmingly defeated in the Federation. They had therefore fallen into line with the areas which favoured a national basis. “We stand by the national position. Yorkshire miners realise that it means a sacrifice, but as far as I know they are prepared take what is involved in the plan favoured by the Federation as a whole.”
After the acrimony of Black Friday and as the coal strike continued Bill Hemingway was in the thick of the struggle at Middleton. As a union official he was at the forefront of attempts to stop the unofficial mining or “scratting” for coal from seams near the surface on the Middleton estate and in nearby quarries. Speaking at an inquest into the death of Harry Ovenden, a 21 year old “amateur” miner killed in one of the quarries at Spring Wood, Bill said a committee of the miners had visited the quarry and told the colliery officials and police about the unskilled men.
He said he had no objection to “scratting” being allowed on the pit heaps but, as a practical miner, he thought the getting of coal in the quarries by men who knew absolutley nothing about the business ought to be discontinued “for the safety of all concerned.”
A few days later, after a mass meeting on Hunslet Moor, Bill Hemingway and the local miners’ president led over 700 men on to the land to destroy and fill in the makeshift workings and warn off the scratters and carters.
With mining families having to rely on meagre strike pay and with engineering workshops and the steelworks closing because of the lack of coal there was much hardship for local families. As the strike began to bite towards the end of April, wearing his hat as a councillor, Bill Hemingway organised a public meeting on the 30th at the National Church School where residents of East Hunslet were invited “to consider the question of distress in the ward.” As a result soup kitchens were organised, meals were given to children, and a public relief fund was set up “to deal with individual cases of distress.”
There was no sign though that Bill and the Hunslet miners were having second thoughts about their demands. On Sunday the 9th of May about three thousand of them, joined by their wives and supporters, marched from their headquarters at Hunslet Carr to Victoria Square outside the Town Hall in the centre of Leeds. They carried with them the Middleton colliery banner and were headed by the Rothwell Old Prize Band, which would have included several members who worked at Middleton. It’s possible that they were joined by men from Water Haigh and the Rothwell pits.
A separate procession of men living in East Leeds assembled at the Miners’ Institute on York Road and it took a different route to Victoria Square where a mass meeting was held at 3 pm addressed by Bill Hemingway and John Wood, another union leader. A resolution was passed “with acclamation” rejecting the “unsatisfactory offer” from the government and coal owners.
The details of the demonstration and meeting come from the Labour newspaper, the Leeds Weekly Citizen, which reported that a collection for the miners’ children had raised £20. Under the headline “Feed The Children” the Yorkshire Evening Post found space to mention that the collecting boxes had done good business and the money was to be used to open a kitchen “for feeding necessitous children.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its political stance, no mention was made of the speeches and continued unanimous support for the strike.
The miners and their families lived in the same streets as thousands of workers from other industries who were laid off because of the lack of coal so there must have been many arguments, and possibly fights, about the merits of the 1921 strike. In an interview with the Yorkshire Post the vicar of St Mary’s parish church, Calmont Gallacher, noted that on Whit-Monday the normally dirty air above Hunslet was actually smokeless. “It was amazing; not a mill factory chimney smoking, and hardly one house chimney. The foliage on the trees about here was just as fresh as at Roundhay,” he said. “It’s different from the Hunslet any of us can remember.”
Seven weeks into the lock-out Gallacher gave an indication of the miners’ solidarity and reasons why they were willing to continue. “The people are carrying on amazingly. I account for it by the miners having been pretty well prepared for this stoppage. They have earned good wages, and have been fairly provident.
“No doubt, the miners in this district are of a high class type. A few may be thriftless, but 99 out a hundred have been provident and have been pretty well prepared. Certainly, they have not by any means spent their earnings during the last year or two. It is true to say, generally speaking, that the average working man is now much more provident than he was some years ago – or his wife is.”
Gallacher said that many people had money in the Leeds Industrial Co-opertaive Society and were using it as a poor man’s bank during the stoppage. Children’s accounts in school savings banks had been raided and food grown on allotments. The non-miners were able to survive, he thought, because they were living on unemployment benefit, introduced by the Liberal government in 1911. “The dole has broken the back of the distress and has prevented it becoming acute too soon. In many families two or three persons are drawing unemployment pay amounting to £2 or £3 a week, and this has been just enough to keep the whole family going. I never can remember when the whole community has been practically out of work for seven weeks with so little apparent collapse,” he said.
In the end the miners were on strike for three months but they had to go back to work at the start of July on worse terms than on offer before Black Friday. It has been estimated that their average pay fell by nearly 35 per cent across the year.
For Bill Hemingway, and the men who worked at the three pits which made up Middleton colliery, the situation was even bleaker. New Pit had been badly flooded during the strike and the management couldn’t find the money to make repairs and reopen it. As a result over 800 men lost their jobs. Then, at the end of October, the owners claimed that the two Broom pits, employing about a thousand men, were making heavy losses and they couldn’t even pay the wages that had been agreed nationally at the end of June.
The company gave the men a week’s notice that their contracts would be terminated unless a compromise could be reached for them to accept wages lower than the general level in the area. They were unwilling to break the national agreement and were locked out in a dispute that dragged on for another year and wasn’t settled until November 1922.
During the long stoppage many of the younger miners moved away from the area or found work in other industries. Some must have decided to take jobs at collieries to the south of Leeds including Water Haigh which, as a fairly new colliery, was more efficient and able to pay the nationally agreed rates. To travel to work some would take an early morning train from Hunslet station to Woodlesford. Others took the tram service to the terminus at the Black Bull in Rothwell before walking the rest of the way. Buses started running in 1924 and some may have cycled or walked along the Aire & Calder Navigation towpath.
After a period of unemployment during 1921 Bill Hemingway joined his colleagues and at some point in 1922 became one of the two checkweighman at Water Haigh. To perform the role he had to be elected and have his wages paid by a subscription from the union members so it’s possible that levers were pulled within the Yorkshire Miners’ Association and the Labour Party for him to be given the job.
As he began to make the daily journey to Woodlesford both Bill and his wife were given gifts to mark their service for the Labour Party. The presentation was made by James O’Grady who had been re-elected in 1918 as MP for the new constituency of Leeds South East in which they now lived. Bill received a silver watch, an attache case and an umbrella, whilst Harriet was presented with “ a beautiful brooch” and a gold-mounted umbrella.
As reported by the Leeds Weekly Citizen the event took place at the Unity Hall at Hunslet Carr on Saturday 26 August. In a speech James O’Grady said the party appreciated Bill’s “long and patient work for the movement” and “the sacrifice” it entailed for Harriet. Afterwards the “large gathering” of party members was entertained by a double quartette of the Broom Glee Party.
As was the case with most of the other ex-Middleton men at Water Haigh Bill stayed living in Hunslet where he continued as a councillor and was appointed a Justice of the Peace for Leeds in 1924. As such he sat on the magistrates bench trying minor offences and, under the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, was involved in the process of sending people to hospitals like the one at Oulton Hall.
At Water Haigh Bill Hemingway’s name is barely mentioned in the Henry Briggs company’s documents preserved in the West Yorkshire archives. They include copies of letters sent by the managing director and chairman, Walter Hargreaves, and those of his son Dennis Walter Hargreaves, the manager at Woodlesford for many years. The one official who was written to regularly was Thomas Richard Hall, the secretary of the Woodlesford branch of the Yorkshire Miners’ Association from 1914 to 1935, apart from a break of a year during 1926.
Dick Hall was from a mining family. He was born at Ryhill near Wakefield in 1877 but when he was just 3 years old his father moved to the Forest of Dean coalfield in Gloucestershire. Dick’s union activities started there when he was a young miner and continued when he returned to Yorkshire in 1899 to work at Pope and Pearson’s colliery at Altofts where he was elected president of the branch. A year after transferring to Water Haigh, when it opened in 1911, he was instrumental in setting up the colliery’s death and convalescent fund which was jointly administered by a committee of union members and colliery officials.
Most of the surviving paperwork concerns efforts Dick Hall made to obtain fair compensation for men injured in accidents and for the dependents of those who were killed. In the early 1920s he served for three years as a Labour member of the Oulton-with-Woodlesford parish council and appears to have been motivated by a desire to secure better living and working conditions rather than by any kind of extreme political militancy.
More of a firebrand at Water Haigh in the early 1920s was Fred Warburton, a determined and dedicated member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. He believed in “syndicalism,” where industries would be owned and managed by the workers. Prompted by the miners’ leader, Arthur Cook, he was active in the communist controlled Miners’ Minority Movement, part of a wider organisation across all industries which aimed “to convert the revolutionary minority into a revolutionary majority.” At Water Haigh it attracted about 60 members who met each week on Sundays.
It’s clear from Fred’s recollections that Bill Hemingway was the chairman of the Water Haigh branch of the union but was against the communists’ tactics. According to Fred he wasn’t even supportive of the branch affiliating to the Leeds Trades Council but, with the backing of other branch committee members, Fred and another communist from Water Haigh were elected as delegates.
With the first Labour government, led by Ramsey Macdonald, in power during 1924 albeit in a minority, the coal owners were persuaded to give the miners a 13 per cent wage increase. Then in 1925, with the Conservatives in control under Stanley Baldwin, a series of events took place which would lead to the 1926 general strike in support of the miners.
Before the First World War the pound had been valued against the price of gold but this had been suspended during the hostilities. In April 1925 Winston Churchill, as Chancellor, returned sterling to the gold standard. It meant that the value of the pound went up against other currencies making it harder for the coal companies to maintain their exports, a key component of their profitability. Also, in 1924, Germany had been allowed to export “free coal” to France and Italy as reparations for the war and this caused a further fall in prices. British coal output was down to around 200 tons per man from nearly 250 tons during the war and much lower than the peak of 310 tons in the early 1880s.
At Water Haigh the slump in prices began to be felt in April 1925 when the Flockton seam was closed. Compared to the main Beeston and Silkstone seams it delivered a small tonnage, but then on 9 June the management announced that they would be “reluctantly compelled” to suspend work in the Little Coal and Yard seams which produced steam coal mainly for export. A day later 370 men received a week’s notice that they would be laid off. “These will go to swell the large number of men already on the unemployment fund of the Yorkshire Miners’ Association. As the export trade has fallen to very low ebb the management feel they have no alternative but to close the seams for the summer,” reported the Evening Post.
The management said they hoped to find work for some of the unemployed men if it became available in the other seams and were hopeful they could reopen the closed seams in September. As was the case at most other big collieries nothing like full time working had been taking place at Water Haigh for months. Up to Whitsuntide the men were doing four days a week but in the first week of June they had only been allowed to work on three days. 15,000 tons of coal were stockpiled in railway wagons on the colliery surface and there was little room for anymore.
The day before the men were given their notices a large number of those who lived in Hunslet were addressed by Bill Hemingway at a mass meeting on Hunslet Moor. Afterwards he told reporters that they recognised that the stoppage, serious as it was to the men concerned and their families, was due to economic conditions. They hoped “the position would right itself by September.” In the event the Little Coal and Yard seams didn’t resume production until 5 February 1926 and the Flockton stayed closed much longer.
An unnamed source speaking for the coal owners, possibly Walter Hargreaves who was chairman of the West Yorkshire Coal Owners’ Association, said the position was the same all over. He said the export trade was almost dead and men who had spent a lifetime in the industry were declaring they had never known such a slump.
Explaining the decision to lay miners off he said the proprietors were facing “a serious position.” Industrial coal could not be sold at a profit but they had continued production because closing pits down would entail a large capital expenditure to put them in order when a resumption of normal working was possible. “The time was bound to come when collieries could not continue to produce at a loss, and that time war fast approaching, if it had not already arrived,” he said.
“The fact is, all the West Yorkshire pits are losing money, and the only remedy is to produce at a price that will enable to us compete against the cheaper coal from German pits. This could be done even now if the men would put their backs into it.
“Nobody wants to reduce the miners’ wages. On the contrary, if they were to produce more they would be the first to benefit. Unless, however, we can get our exports back, pits will have to close down, and it is a pity that this form of argument has to be applied, for no owner likes it,” he said.
Coal merchant and secretary of the Yorkshire Coal Exchange, Eldon J. Fenton, was willing to be quoted by name and was even more forthright in blaming German competition as the cause of the slump in the export trade. “The crux of the whole matter is that the Germans are adopting the principle of Ford in America in regard to his cars,” he told the Leeds Mercury. “They are getting the output, and the cost is necessarily low per ton.” Referring to the 1919 legislation to reduce the hours miners spent underground from eight to seven, he said: “If we get back to the eight hours a day we shall be able to compete with them and recapture our natural markets.”
Two weeks after the partial shutdown of Water Haigh the owners’ association gave a month’s notice that the existing agreement would end. Wages would be cut and the eight hour day would be re-introduced. Arthur Cook, who had been appointed General Secretary of the Miners’ Federation in 1924, would have none of it and coined his famous phrase: “Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day.”
With a lock-out looming the Triple Alliance was revived and the railway unions said they wouldn’t handle any coal. This opened up the prospect of a separate rail strike in the face of which Baldwin backed down. He promised a nine month coal subsidy for the owners whilst a new Royal Commission, under Sir Herbert Samuel, would look at the problems of the mining industry and propose a way forward. This was announced on Friday 31 July, a day dubbed Red Friday by the Daily Herald as it was seen as a victory for the unions coming four years after the defeat of Black Friday.
With a lock out averted there must have been some hope in the minds of Bill Hemingway and the miners at Water Haigh that the commission would deliver a workable solution. However the more militant men could see the writing on the wall and were starting to prepare for a general strike.
Communist Fred Warburton was amongst them and by this time he had become the Vice President of the Leeds Trades Council. He advocated the setting up of Councils of Action, committees formed of delegates from different unions who would coordinate picketing and other activities. As early as 25 June 1925, a month before Red Friday, and despite opposition from Bill Hemingway, Fred got a majority in the Water Haigh branch of the union to pass a resolution proposing a Council of Action for the Leeds area: “on the grounds that we ought to be ready to act with a committee in being, in case of emergency, because of the gravity and uncertainty prevailing in the transport, engineering and mining industries.”
The Water Haigh resolution was debated at the Trades Council later in 1925 and is now seen by historians as one of the first clear cut indications that a general strike was inevitable. Meanwhile the government weren’t resting on their laurels. They set up an organisation to store food and fuel. It also established a force of volunteers to run trains, trams and buses in the event of a strike.
On 10 March 1926 the Samuel Commission reported back with a clear recommendation for national wage agreements for the miners but they should accept a 13.5 percent pay cut and the government should withdraw its subsidy. Echoing Sankey five years earlier, they called for nationalisation of the royalties paid to landowners for each ton of coal mined which had made some of them, like the Calverleys of Oulton, fabulously wealthy. They also wanted a sweeping reorganisation of the industry but didn’t call for nationalisation of the mining companies.
Neither side agreed to the Samuel report. Digging their heels in the owners offered new terms of employment which included returning to the eight hour day along with wage cuts. After pit head ballots the Miners’ Federation refused the wage reduction and regional negotiation. The scene was set for another lock-out which began on Saturday 1 May, this time with the support of the Trades Union Congress who called a general strike of key workers “in defence of miners’ wages and hours.” It included railwaymen, other transport workers, dockers, iron and steel workers and printers.
Three days after the general strike began Herbert Samuel offered to negotiate with the coal owners and came up with proposals which were accepted by the TUC leadership but rejected by the Miners’ Federation. With divisions inside the union movement and the Labour Party, and in the face of a well organised government, its propaganda machine, and support from volunteers, the general strike was called off after only nine days.
Once again the miners felt betrayed with no alternative but to fight on alone. The government hardened its attitude and in June passed a bill which allowed a return to the eight hour day. Based on this the owners offered new terms. Again they were rejected and the lock-out dragged on throughout the summer and autumn. The strike only collapsed after hardship forced many back to work during October and November. It was seen as a total defeat as they had to accept lower pay and longer hours.
At Water Haigh a brief note in a diary of the output kept by the Briggs company’s official weighman, Ernest Rogers, reads: “181 day strike May 1st to November 29 inclusive. Hours and wages question.” The previous year the colliery had produced a total of 405,576 tons. In 1926 Rogers’ figures show only 228,565 tons with 31,126 “raised during strike,” presumably mostly in the autumn as more men went back underground.
In November 1925 Bill Hemingway had lost his seat on the Leeds council after he was narrowly deafeated by a Liberal by only 47 votes. Despite his differences with communists like Fred Warburton he was heavily involved in the leadership of the 1926 strike at Water Haigh and was a regular on the picket line there and possibly at other pits in the district. During the general strike he was still a justice of the peace so he may have been one of the three justices who vouched for Fred when he was bound over after being arrested by the police for making an “inflammatory” speech.
According to a detailed study by historian Michael Dintenfass, the union branches at Briggs company pits at the start of the 1926 strike “declined to agree on the employment of safety men.” At Water Haigh the move was heeded and no care and maintenance shifts were worked for the first two months. Walter Hargreaves attempted to discredit the union by highlighting the syndicalist views of men like Fred Warburton, accusing them of political motives far beyond the immediate demands for better wages and conditions. To this end he met with some success and safety men went back to work.
There’s no doubt that the 1926 lock-out caused much hardship for the Water Haigh miners and their families but, from brief paragraphs in the Wakefield Express, they appeared to have been well supported in the neighbourhood. In the period after the publication of the Samuel Commission’s report, and before the negotiations broke down, a meeting of the Oulton-with-Woodlesford branch of the Labour Party was held in the Harold Hall on Wednesday 25 March.
It was addressed by Tom Miles, an ex-miner who had been the MP for Spen Valley for three years, and by the branch chairman Frank Barlow Burnley. He had founded the branch in 1920 whilst he was a clerk at Woodlesford station and continued as chairman after he went to work at Normanton in 1923. He appealed to all workers to support the party and accused the government of hypocrisy because, at the same time as it was appealing for peace and goodwill throughout the country, it was urging that the wages of the workers should be reduced and the hours of labour should be increased.
No records of strike pay from union funds at Water Haigh have survived but it’s thought small amounts were available during May and June 1926. As it ran out distress committees were established and they started funds through which companies and members of the public could contribute. A soup kitchen was in operation at Rothwell and Rothwell Haigh on the last Saturday in June when 120 gallons of soup were given to children. The ingredients were contributed by local butchers and tradesmen. On Thursday 1 July a thousand bags of food were handed out.
The committee of the Oulton-with-Woodlesford Children’s Meals Fund was chaired by 54 year old miner and parish councillor William Hoult. He lived in a newly built council house on North Lane after moving from Alma Street in Woodlesford. The secretary was Alfred Sharpe, a grocer and rent collector for the Hunslet Rural District Council. William Ewart Worsley, the vicar at Oulton, was treasurer whilst his counterpart at Woodlesford, Dan Ivor James, and Bentley’s brewery traveller, George Mirfin Abbey, acted as auditors.
Over the course of the strike the fund collected £520 in cash and over £200 in gifts of food and other supplies. The highest amounts came from the Briggs company itself which gave £125 and Bentley’s brewery which donated £105. Major Horace Walter Calverley, by then no longer living in Oulton, chipped in with £50. Smaller amounts were donated from concerts, a jazz band performance, the Woodlesford Working Men’s Club and the Picture House. Individual contributions came from local architect Walter Pelham Peters, the head brewer at Bentley’s, Charles Frederick Badeley, and Dennis Walter Hargreaves. Living at Eshald House, owned by the Briggs company, he would have been able to see some of the deprivation amongst the families of his workforce at first hand.
In Oulton the children affected by the dispute were fed regularly at the Harold Hall. Babies under the age of 18 months were given milk by Nurse Jolly but older children who needed it had to acquire a doctor’s certificate.
There was some sympathy too from the police with the local officer in charge, Sergeant Greenwood, organising a cricket match. It was played at Oulton on Wednesday 30 June between teams from the West Riding constabulary and striking miners. It raised £6 for the fund. Not to be outdone there were two Oulton versus Wooodlesford “ladies” football matches on the Miners’ Welfare pitch. In the second on Tuesday 20 July the Woodlesford women won four nil.
After the strike was over it was estimated that 70,000 meals had been prepared. The local branch of the miners union sent a letter to the committee expressing their “heartfleet thanks to all who had assisted during the dispute.” Master plumber Herbert Burnett was singled out for using his van to deliver food and William Hoult said that in his opinion, no children in the British coalfields had been better cared for.
With time on their hands many of the miners engaged in their traditional outdoor activities like pigeon and dog racing. There would have been some illicit poaching too. There are few reports of convictions for drunkenness during 1926 so perhaps the lack of money kept them away from the pubs and depressed the profits of Bentley’s and Tetley’s breweries. One group, members of the Wesleyan Methodist chapel on Church Street in Woodlesford, kept busy by painting it inside and out. The Wakefield Express said they had received nothing but commendation. “The building looks much improved and in these difficult times the saving to the trust funds is very helpful,” it reported.
On the other hand there was some petty theft with miners seeking to put food on the table and acquire coal ahead of the winter. At 1.45 in the morning on Saturday 24 July two men from Leeds were caught red handed by two police constables stealing coal from railway wagons in the brewery sidings at Woodlesford. Charles Standing and William Ambler, a former soldier, were fined fined 20 shillings each. The coal weighed less than 10 hundredweights and was valued at £1 by the brewery yard foreman, John Hatton.
The picking of bits of coal from the colliery sidings and slag heaps at Water Haigh seems to have been overlooked by the Briggs company during the early part of the lock-out. Some of the men had even been given permits allowing them to pick coal. During the 1921 strike there had been a serious fight, dubbed by the newspapers as The Battle of Woodlesford, when Rothwell miners had objected to what they saw as the Woodlesford men making money by selling scratted coal to dealers from Leeds. Nothing like that happened in 1926 but in October the management, annoyed at the damage caused by the scratters, withdrew the permits and put up notices banning the activity.
As a result six local men were were summonsed for theft and appeared at the West Riding Court in Leeds on Tuesday 2 November. They were John William Biscombe, Horace Jowsey and Arthur Brummitt from Woodlesford and John S. Williams, John Gibson and Ernest Lightholder who all lived in Oulton.
Ernest Rogers, the company’s weighman, lived at Cross Leonard Street overlooking the pit. He gave evidence saying he’d seen the men on the muck stack on Friday 22 October. He estimated the value of the coal taken was 3 shillings and 3 pence and said notices forbidding the picking of coal had been posted on several occasions but they had been torn down. In their defence John Biscombe and Ernest Lighholder said they hadn’t seen any notices. Arthur Brummitt claimed his father was ill and needed coal.
Perhaps with the end of the dispute in sight, and possibly mindful of creating bad feeling amongst the workforce, the police prosecutor, Superintendent Chappell, told the court that the management didn’t wish to press the case. Nevertheless the presiding lay magistrate, John William Morkhill, gave the men a severe ticking off. He said most people were short of fuel but it was wrong to take the coal remarking that the maximum penalty was 100 pounds or six months in prison. He bound them over without a fine but ordered them to pay costs. “It did not mean that everybody would get off so lightly,” he said. Morkhill, who lived at Bell Busk near Skipton, was a Conservative county councillor. His father had been joint partner in the ownership of a colliery company.
By this time it was clear there was a gradual drift back to work and tempers began to flare between those who wanted to stay out and those who said they needed to go back to provide for their families.
On Friday 1 October Charles Baxendale, a 28 year old miner of Hillidge Road in Hunslet, was remanded at the Leeds Police Court for allegedly using threatening behaviour towards safety men who had been working at Water Haigh. Under Section 21 of the Emergency Regulations he was charged with doing “an act likely to impede the supply of fuel.” Superintendent Dalton claimed he’d used obscene language to the safety men, and said they would not be allowed work at the pit. He was said have struck one of them with a pick shaft.
Baxendale was bailed to the following Monday to allow him to secure legal help but when the case was heard by the full time stipendiary magistrate, lawyer Horace Marshall, he was sentenced to 14 days in prison. Marshall said if men interfered with others who were doing what they were entitled to do they would have to take the consequences. During the hearing it was claimed Baxendale had said to one of the safety men: “You won’t go to work tomorrow. There’ll be fifty waiting for you. I’ll murder you, you blackleg.”
A few days later Bill Hemingway himself was caught by the law. On the afternoon of Friday 11 October he was on the picket line on Fleet Lane outside Water Haigh when he met six “youths” who had returned to work and were going home to Hunslet after a shift at the pit. After a conversation one of them reported Bill to the police for intimidation. He was questioned by Sergeant Greenwood and later summonsed under the same section of the Emergency Regulations as Charles Baxendale had been. Time was given for him to prepare a defence.
Meanwhile on Thursday 14 October it was announced that in district ballots the miners had voted by a large majority to support a call from South Wales for a new tougher policy. As well as the call for a return to pre-stoppage wages and hours under a national agreement there was a demand for the withdrawal of safety men. With the leadership split, even the Federation president, Herbert Smith, had been against this knowing the government would bring out the military as they had in 1921.
The day after the vote was announced newspapers reported that 230,000 miners were back at work across the country. The Gloucester Citizen said: “Undue importance is not attached in political circles to the miners’ decision to confirm the South Wales militant policy, as it is believed that it will be impossible to carry out. In the event of any interference with the working of coal mines in any part of the country, however, it is declared that the government will take “adequate steps.” In Leicestershire the union had voted to go back to work and in Nottinghamshire negotiations took place with the coal owners which led to a local agreement and the formation of a breakaway union.
The following Monday a journalist from the Yorkshire Evening Post went on a tour of reopened pits in the Castleford area. He reported that the men had “largely ceased to be affected by calls on them again to cease work.”
After weakened union meetings urging them to stay out more of them were progressively returning to work. 170 men, about a fifth of the workforce, were reported to have been working at Water Haigh on the Saturday. Obviously quoting from management sources he went on: “More men signed on during the weekend, and despite a miners’ meeting yesterday there were more men at the pit today.” Across the River Aire the collieries at Swillington, Ledston, Micklefield and Garforth were all working. The four pits owned by T. & R.W. Bower Ltd. – Primrose, Victoria, Albert and Warren House – were all seeing an increasing number. At Primrose coal was being raised three days a week with 100 men underground and 50 on the surface.
During this period, and despite the return to work, Bill Hemingway was still loyal to the Federation’s cause, although it’s not known if he voted to urge the safety men to come out. He was also campaigning again in the Leeds municipal elections for his old seat in East Hunslet. His trial for intimidation took place on Tuesday 26 October before a panel of magistrates at the West Riding Court in Leeds just six days before the vote.
The courtroom in the Town Hall was crowded with his supporters and the proceedings were fully reported by the Leeds papers, the Wakefield Express, and others around the country. The Express said the case had “evinced considerable interest in local colliery circles.” A large protest meeting was held outside in Victoria Square and various speakers referred to the case as it was taking place. Once again the presiding magistrate was John William Morkhill.
Normally in the court a police officer put the prosecution evidence with the defendant answering for themselves on being prompted by the bench, but for this trial lawyers had been engaged by both sides. John Edward Lightburn prosecuted on behalf of the West Riding County Council and James Milner, a Leeds solicitor and fellow Labour councillor, defended.
The six youths who had been working at Water Haigh when they crossed the picket line on Fleet Lane were named as Thomas Holl, Ernest Bedford Holl, John Bartlett, Harry Bartlett, and Thomas Armitage. The prosecution said Thomas Holl had started the conversation by asking Bill Hemingway for a match and when he provided one he asked how long they had been working. It was then alleged he had said: “I suppose you all know you are doing wrong, and that you will suffer in time to come. We will give you your passport today, and time to consider, and mind we don’t see you tomorrow.”
Holl had replied that they would have to come tomorrow, to which Hemingway was claimed to have said: “If you do, you will have to suffer the consequences. There will be 50 or 60 of us tomorrow and you will know what to expect.” During this conversation the defendant was also alleged to have said. “When the pit starts you will have to take the consequences. You will be out of work through it.”
The prosecution said that when Bill Hemingway had been questioned by Sergeant Greenwood he did not deny he had met the youths: “I did speak to them, but never threatened them, I know better than that,” he had said. When the summons was served he was reported to have said he was sorry.
In the witness box Thomas Holl, of Ward Street in Hunslet, confirmed his statement and in reply to a question from J.W. Morkhill about the effect the alleged remarks had had on his mind he said he was worried and “did not wish to be knocked about.” He said he felt safer when he had been to the police.
Under cross examination it then came out that Holl had been involved in a similar case two weeks previously. Details of the case weren’t given in court and appear not have been reported at the time by the press, but the defence lawyer had obviously done his homework. The clear implication was that it was a put up job and Holl and the other lads had been induced by payment, or some other means, to lead Bill Hemingway into a trap. It’s doubtful if the Briggs management were behind such a move but there were political forces at play during the strike that may have been involved.
Milner put it to Holl that Bill Hemingway had discussed his family circumstances and offered to help but Holl said he didn’t remember the exchange. He was also asked about the meaning of the word “passport” and whether it had been used at all. “It was,” he said.
J. W. Morkhill asked him what he thought about the mention of 50 or 60 men. “I thought he meant they would stop us, because he said they would not stand for us going to work, and if we came tomorrow we should suffer the consequences,” said Holl, but contradicting himself he then he agreed with Milner that he took the words as a friendly warning.
Three of the other youths then gave evidence. Thomas Armitage, of Vincent Place in Hunslet, who worked as a tub filler, said Bill Hemingway had appealed to their consciences. John Henry Bartlett lived at May Place. He was a pony driver and said he got the impression he might lose his job. Ernest Bedford Holl said he thought if he went back to work “the fellows might set on to us.”
In his defence Bill Hemingway said he’d been walking down Fleet Lane with Joseph Ingham, a colliery carpenter, when one of the boys asked for a match. He had said: “I am sorry that you have left the union and left your men. It is a serious thing we are in.” One of the boys had then said his father was dead and he had replied: “I am sorry, but as a union official I have done all I can to assist you during the trouble. I cannot tell you to do this or that, but can only appeal to your reason, and if you care to think it over I will see your mother.”
The union branch treasurer, Harry Grant, who lived on Aberford Road, had joined them and explained he had been in the pit 40 years. He did not want to go back to the “old conditions.” Nothing had been said about 50 or 60 men, and nothing about the consequences when all of them got back to work.That would be a matter purely for the management. He said he had never used the word “passport.”
J. W. Morkhill asked Bill if his case was that the story of intimidation had been made up by the witnesses. He replied: “My case is to tell you exactly what took place. I say to you, as a union official, with 1,800 men down there, that I know better than to threaten a boy.”
In reply to his lawyer he said if the boys hadn’t approached him he wouldn’t have spoken to them. He agreed that the evidence was correct with the exception of the references to the 50 or 60 men, and to the consequences. There had never been a disturbance at Woodlesford. About 500 miners lived not far from Fleet Lane and they had naturally congregated in that area during the lock-out.
Joseph Ingham backed up Bill Hemingway’s story. He lived at Hazeldene in Woodlesford and said he had heard no reference to 50 or 60 men or to the consequences. “I thought that he was talking to them like a father,” he said.
Milner asked for an adjournment so he could provide evidence from the previous case Holl had appeared at but after Lightburn objected he was refused.
Summing up Milner submitted that Bill Hemingway had not threatened the youths. It was incredible that the defendant, an official of twenty years’ standing, should have made the statement that the boys would not get work if the pits were opened. He was just giving fatherly advice to them.
Given the political climate, and possibly because it was the word of six against three, the bench found against Bill Hemingway and fined him £30, a substantial amount equivalent to about three months wages for a skilled worker.
The conviction had no effect whatsoever on Bill’s electoral position and the following Monday he was returned as a Labour councillor for East Hunslet beating an Independent candidate with a thumping majority of 3122. Three days later, as the Liberals joined forces with Labour on the Leeds council for the first time, it was announced he would be nominated as one of six Labour aldermen, a position he would hold for the rest of his political career. Practically it meant that Labour would be the largest party on the council for the first time and have more say on committees, although they didn’t achieve overall control until 1929.
By the end of October 1926 about 700 out the 1900 men normally employed at Water Haigh are believed to have returned to work with 2,300 tons of coal being raised. Walter Hargreaves noted that he thought it was by far the largest output of any of the collieries in the area. What he described as “normal working” began on Thursday 11 November.
On Saturday 30 October Bill Hemingway was back in Woodlesford for a meeting of about 40 miners on the cricket field at the top of Oulton Lane. Also there was Joseph Vaughan, a former Labour mayor of Bethnal Green in London and a founding members of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920. A controversial figure, he had lost the support of the mainstream of the Labour Party and had been expelled 1923. He’d probably been invited by communist supporters amongst the men.
By this stage, as Bill Hemingway’s prosecution shows, the authorities were exercising a much tougher line against anything which appeared to breach the Emergency Regulations and, according to a report in the Yorkshire Evening Post, Superintendent Chappell said that if Vaughan spoke no meeting would be allowed. From the report it’s not clear if Bill Hemingway was in support of this but nevertheless he immediately called the meeting off and the crowd dispersed. The Evening Post was keen to stress that there was no general “banning” of meetings of miners in the West Riding.
The issue appears to have been sensitive enough for the Chief Constable, the grandly named Colonel Jacynth D’Ewes Fitzgerald Coke, to issue a statement saying there was no intention on the part of the police to interfere with “real freedom of speech.” They wouldn’t prevent meetings to be addressed by any of the miners’ leaders unless they thought they might cause a breach of the peace. His main point was that no meetings would be allowed where known communists intended to speak. The statement pointed out that the Yorkshire and national president, Herbert Smith, had been due to speak on the Woodlesford cricket field on the Sunday morning but couldn’t make it so the vice-president, Edward Hough, spoke instead. Another official, Alfred Smith, had spoken at the Picture Palace at Rothwell.
As the national leadership made last ditch attempts to find a settlement another “large gathering” of the Water Haigh men was held at the Harold Hall on Thursday 4 November. Bill Hemingway was in the chair and the speakers were Willie Lunn MP, and Walter Thurwell, a Rothwell councillor and fellow miner. Willie Lunn, who had been a minister in the 1924 Labour government, advised the remaining strikers to stay out for “a few days longer.” He said he felt confident there would be an “armistice” allowing all the men to go back to work together with negotiations to follow.
Referring to the fine imposed on Bill Hemingway the previous week, Willie Lunn said the money had been easily collected to pay it. “It could have been raised twice over,” he said. He thought the victimisation had led to Bill’s “overwhelming” majority in the Leeds election and, taking a dig at what he saw as the politically biased attitude of the lay magistrates, he suggested they “ought to be done away with” and be replaced by stipendiary magistrates.
As it was, just over a month after the strike petered out at the end November with utter defeat for the miners, Bill Hemingway was to find himself barred as a justice of the peace for a number of years. The news came on Friday 7 January 1927 in an official communication from the Lord Chancellor’s office in London. It was a blow for Bill because it meant that, apart from sitting on the bench in the police court at the Town Hall, it prevented him from performing other civil duties, like witnessing official documents, for the people of Hunslet.
It took more than four years of campaigning by the Leeds Trades Council and James Milner, who became the MP for Leeds South East in 1929, for the ban to be reversed. It was only after the second Labour government had been in power for nearly two years that Bill was reinstated in 1931. The decision was authorised Labour’s Lord Chancellor, John Sankey, author of the report into the coal industry ten years earlier which had recommended nationalisation of the coal industry.
The formal swearing in oath took place on Saturday 23 May 1931 before the Leeds Lord Mayor, Dr. Arthur Hawkyard, a man Bill would have known well as a Liberal councillor for East Hunslet and as a chairman of the Hunslet Board of Guardians in the early 1900s.
Interviewed by a reporter Alderman Hemingway said his house on Parnaby View was “an ever open door” for East Hunslet people who wanted advice on all sorts problems “trivial and serious.” Two nights a week were made available for people who needed advice and help on pensions, exemption from vaccination, trade union matters, and sometimes “matrimonial unhappiness.”
After the long dispute of 1926 it took quite a few years for Water Haigh colliery to return to anything like full production and there were many periods of short time working and lay offs in subsequent years. In 1927 weighman Ernest Rogers recorded that 174 days were lost for various reasons and only 188 days were worked during which 376,791 tons of coal were raised. In April Walter Hargreaves reported that across the company’s pits “we are working three days, and some of our pits, 2 and a half days.” In May 150 miners were let go from Water Haigh. In 1928 the situation was much the same with 168 days worked, 145 lost and production at 370,037 tons.
Bill Hemingway took up his role as one of two checkweighman, initially with Richard Charles Walker, a single man who lived on Glanville Terrace in Rothwell. Their day to day routine isn’t known for certain but they would have worked closely with Ernest Rogers on the pit bank. Either they were responsible separately for the coal wound by the two main shafts, No 1 and No 3, or it may have been that they worked shifts and one of them deputised for the other when he was away on union or other business.
No minutes of union branch, or lodge, meetings have survived but a ledger showing the accounts was retained by Charlie Watson, one of the committee members, and he handed it on to his son, Dennis. It starts in 1928 and shows the weekly amounts paid to the checkweighmen as well as other expenses. These included the rent of a room, in one of the local pubs, for lodge meetings and for small amounts for the branch officials and committee members who went as delegates to Yorkshire Miners’ Association meetings at their headquarters in Barnsley.
An amount varying between six and seven pounds was collected weekly from the colliery office. This may have been because there was an agreement with the Briggs company to collect the members subscriptions as deductions from their wage packets. The money was then allocated to the checkweighmen as wages with separate amounts accounted for as health insurance and national insurance stamps. Coal was also bought for them. The wages in 1928 were for about £2 10 shillings a week sometimes rising to £3 3 shillings, the calculation probably based on an the average earnings of miners at the pit.
In December 1928 Richard Walker passed away at the age of 60. He was replaced by the branch secretary Dick Hall. As the years went by other names were recorded in the ledger including assistant checkweighmen Arthur Benson, John William Blair and Tom Briggs. The regular auditors were committee members, Norris Haigh and Phillip Cooper, father of Frank, the founder of Cooper’s Garage in Oulton.
Generally relations between the men and management at Water Haigh are reported to have been cordial, although communist Fred Warburton is believed not to have been allowed back to the pit after 1926. A few years later Briggs’ joint managing director, Donald Henry Currer Briggs, declared the company was not bothered if their employees were in a union. “We do not interfere with the branch officials from organising provided they do not thereby interfere with the proper working of the pit,” he said.
During the lay-offs that marked the economic slump at the start of the 1930s the miners’ association proposed that when a pit was temporarily shut down 10 per cent of the men would be kept on to do safety work on full wages. The management agreed but the deal was nearly derailed when the union wanted a formal agreement in writing. After more negotiations they were willing to accept a verbal promise. It would have at least helped some of the 750 to 800 men who were laid off at Water Haigh in May 1930 after the “falling-off of trade for all classes of coal” had reduced the number of working days a week to just two and a half.
Another separate non-union role for Bill Hemingway, in those years before the formation of the National Health Service, was as president of the colliery committee which raised money for the Leeds hospitals. In 1928 the Water Haigh Colliery (Woodlesford) Workpeople’s Hospital Fund made grants of £52 to the Infirmary, £8 8s. to the Dispensary, and £7 7s. to the Women and Children’s Hospital. £53 was spent on convalescence for sick and injured miners at Southport, Scarborough, Bridlington and Lytham St, Anne’s. Again it’s obvious Bill had a close relationship with Ernest Rogers who was the fund’s secretary. Two miners named Bettany and Tuler were on the committee.
In July 1934, two years after being re-elected as an alderman, Bill Hemingway was chosen, under an agreement between the three parties, as the next Lord Mayor of Leeds, quite an achievement for a council school educated lad from back streets of the Bank. He was selected, with the overwhelming support of his council colleagues, at a conference of 200 trade unionist and party delegates from a list of seven candidates. It was a more democratic method than the Tories method of nomination by their party leader or the Liberals choice of their executive committee.
By that time Bill was 54 years old and the longest serving member of the waterworks committee. With his interest in sport he was also chairman of the parks committee for the fourth time having been deputy-chairman under several Conservative leaders.
The installation ceremony took place on Friday 9 November in the council chamber in the brand new Civic Hall, opened only the previous year by King George V. Sitting in the gallery was Bill’s father, who was 80, and other members of the family.
Moving his formal election as the sixth Labour alderman to fill the post, Alf Dobbs, the Labour leader, said Bill Hemingway had not got through life without a hard struggle. “As a miner it has always been his aim to better the conditions of those engaged in the pits, either down below or on the surface. Ever since he reached the age to understand he has taken his part trying to improve the lot of his fellow citizens by his efforts in public life,” he said.
The Conservative leader, Alderman George William Martin, supported the resolution, as did councillor, Benjamin Waddington Goodall who, in referring to his “many colleagues,” made the audience laugh out loud as he was the only surviving Liberal councillor.
After he had been invested with the chain of office the new Lord Mayor said it was impossible to realise that he, as an ordinary working man, serving ordinary working men, should be elected to this great and dignified office. He still thought it was possible to go out into the city of Leeds and find hundreds who were serving their city in the same way as had endeavoured to do. Members of the council knew him, and exactly who he was, and exactly what he was. He was “proud of the confidence they reposed in him.”
“I am not an educated man and I have never claimed to be one,” he remarked. “I do not apologise for that, particularly, of course, when my father is here.”
Bill Hemingway paid one official visit to Woodlesford during his mayoral year. On Saturday 9 February he was joined by his wife to open a bazaar at the Methodist chapel on Church Street. A prominent report in the Wakefield Express the following Saturday said it was rare for a Leeds Lord Mayor to speak outside the city boundary but Bill Hemingway, who was given a “hearty reception,” had a pride in wanting to recognise the village where he was so well known.
The invitation had come from Sarah Bellamy who hadn’t seen her friends from Hunslet for 40 years. “I wanted him to be a prophet in his own land,” she said. Also there to give a speech in the crowded Sunday school room was Bill’s mentor from the early days, the lay preacher William Ernest Clegg.
Herbert Bellamy explained the purpose of the sale of work was to raise £50 to liquidate a debt on the chapel’s trust fund and to make a start on a £200 fund for building alterations for which he was going to contribute half.
An entertainment was given by children from the chapel’s Sunday school and Elsie Wark and Nancy Jackson handed a bouquets of carnations and tulips to the Lady Mayoress.
During his year in office Bill Hemingway had many official duties to attend to. The Water Haigh branch accounts show he was given a leave of absence from his checkweighman’s role and replaced by John James – “Jock” – Ainsley.
On Monday 30 September, for instance, Bill hosted the Conservative minister Lord Halifax to open a new block of flats at East Street in Leeds and then went to the Elland Road stadium for a charity match between Leeds United and Dublin City. Leeds won by 8 goals to 5. The following day he visited Water Haigh and, although it doesn’t appear in the official record of his activities, a simple note on the front page of Ernest Rogers’ pit diary probably records one of Bill’s proudest moments after all the years of struggle. It simply states: “Tuesday October 1. New washer started. W. Hemingway, Lord Mayor of Leeds.”
As the 1930s progressed Bill continued to combine his union activities and council work. In 1933 he was involved in creating a nine hole golf course in Middleton Park and drove the second ball at the opening ceremony. Six years later, just after the start of the Second World War, he cut the first sod for a 200 yard long communal allotment on the first fairway. “Every golfer here, man or woman,” he said, ”will put in an hour or two at this garden, then the Middleton Park Municipal Golfers’ Club will be able to make a substantial contribution to the city’s food supply.”
In 1946, a year after Clem Atlee’s Labour government came to power, and just before nationalisation of the coal industry, Bill left his job at Water Haigh and began to draw the old age pension. Sadly Harriet Hemingway died the same year so they were deprived of a happy retirement together. Undaunted he continued as an alderman, mainly as chairman of the waterworks committee where he had to manage a water shortage in 1949. In the 1950s he become the longest serving member of Leeds City Council and in 1955, at the age of 75, he was given the freedom of the city.
Still going strong in the 1960s he witnessed the return of Labour to power in 1964 and became Sir William Hemingway when he was knighted on the recommendation of Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the New Year Honours for 1965. He didn’t fully retire from public until just a month before his death, at the age of 87 in a Leeds nursing home, on 30 May 1967. An old people’s home in Hunslet, now demolished, was named in his honour and more recently several streets in the area have been named after him.
On his visit to Woodlesford chapel in 1935 Bill Hemingway made a short speech looking back on the Methodist influences on his life from his youth. It summed up the forces that had shaped and propelled him into the Labour movement and perhaps his words can serve as an epitaph which still has a meaning all these years later. Referring to his mayoral status and that of the other guests he said: “I do not suppose a more distinguished company has ever gathered in this hall before, and I do feel certain that it is an encouragement to the men and women who are doing the work here. I am delighted to be here, with one object only, to encourage you in your spiritual endeavours to keep life sweet, and to assist to make life better with a high ideal – that brotherly fraternal spirit we want so much today.”
SOURCES: Most newspaper references are from www. britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk or the Wakefield Express held at the British Library in London. Many thanks to the staff of the West Yorkshire Archive Service at Morley and Wakefield. The main files referred to are from WYW 186 – the records of Henry Briggs Son & Company Limited, and WYL 853 – Leeds Labour Party and Weekly Citizen. Cuttings held at the Local and Family History section at Leeds Central Library. Minutes of the Yorkshire Miners’ Association held at the NUM Headquarters, Barnsley. National Archives, Kew – LCO 34/32. Books and articles: Managing Industrial Decline: The British Coal Industry Between the Wars by Michael Dintenfass. Black Friday, 1921 by Patrick Renshaw published in History Today, Vol 21, June 1971.