The “Battle of Woodlesford” has long been forgotten. Nobody locally remembers the event but buried deep in the newspaper archives are several accounts of what must surely be the worst incident of its kind ever to take place in the Rothwell district.
And we’re not talking here of some ancient contest from medieval times. This was 1921, just over two years after the end of the First World War, during a bitter national miners’ strike over wages when hundreds of local colliers fought a pitched battle along what is now the sleepy backwater of Eshald Lane in Woodlesford.
The three month long strike began on 1 April 1921 after the mine owners had refused to pay the same wages as miners had been getting when the industry had been under government control up to that date because of the war. Internationally coal prices had dropped as Germany, Poland and the United States had increased production and started to make inroads into British markets. The miners faced big reductions in their take home pay but the owners were adamant they couldn’t afford to continue the same rates as the government had been paying.
Feelings also ran high because of “Black Friday”, two weeks into the strike, when the leaders of the railwaymen, seamen, and dockers’ unions, voted against joining the miners, breaking what was known as the Triple Alliance, an informal solidarity agreement between the unions from before the war.
It all came to a head in Woodlesford on Thursday 28 April 1921 over the practice of searching for lumps and bits of coal on pit slag heaps, known as “scrattin” or “scratching”. It appears that miners who lived in Rothwell objected to the men from Water Haigh selling the coal on to dealers. By that time, a month into the strike, a substantial trade had developed with enterprising hawkers and coal merchants from the surrounding areas travelling to Woodlesford to buy supplies of “scratted” coal from Water Haigh men.
Quite why they objected is unclear. It could have been based on a political view that the strike would be shortened if all supplies of coal could be cut off. Another explanation could be that the Rothwell colliery owners, J. &. J. Charlesworth, were less sympathetic than the Water Haigh management to the practice, and the Rothwell miners were jealous of the Woodlesford men making money.
In any event a large meeting was held at the Rothwell Labour Club after which the Rothwell miners marched to Woodlesford ready for a fight. The subsequent “Battle of the Brick Kilns” is described below in extracts from the Yorkshire Evening News and the Yorkshire Post.
BATTLE OF THE BRICK KILNS. Rothwell and Woodlesford Miners in Big Free Fight.
TROUBLE OVER SURFACE-SEAMS. Yorkshire Evening News, 29 April 1921.
What has already become known as the battle of the brick kilns has created a tremendous sensation in Woodlesford, Rothwell, and the surrounding district.
It appears the news that a hundred Woodlesford miners were working night and day at the pit hills of the Water Haigh colliery, the property of Messrs. Henry Briggs, Son, and Company, Limited, reached Rothwell, and the miners there, after an angry discussion resolved to march to Woodlesford and stop by forcible means any further digging.
Each miner carried with him a hefty stick. Reports differ as to the number of men who took part in the march, but 120 seems to be somewhere near the mark. The men marched in perfect order, looking grim and determined, until they came to a spot about half a mile from the pit-head, where the Woodlesford miners were working.
Here, near the brick kilns, they encountered a number of carts and motor vehicles laden with coal.
Without any hesitation they set upon the vehicles, and upset the loads. As the drivers did not show any opposition they were left untouched, but the punishment they would receive if they “repeated the offence” was explained in the strongest possible language. Elated by their “victory”, the Rothwell men cried out: “Now for the Woodlesford men.”
A Woodlesford pit youth told a Yorkshire Evening News representative today that as soon as he saw the little army of miners pull up the carts he dashed off to the pit hill and breathlessly informed his mates of the impending attack. The Woodlesford miners, numbering several hundreds, ceased digging, and seizing their picks and shovels started off in a body to repel the attack. To use the words of one of the Woodlesford men who took part in the affray, “We marched or ran in extended order and met the Rothwell chaps at the brick kilns.”
STICK AND SHOVEL FIGHT.
Here the battle took place, and the wonder is that no one was killed. The Woodlesford miners were filled with a terrible anger at being interfered with, and they set upon the Rothwell men with their implements. The Rothwell men met the attack and the air resounded with shouts, and the sound of sticks meeting metal shovels. Considerably outnumbered and suffering from minor injuries, the Rothwell men, after putting up a game flight, eventually turned and raced across the fields with the opponents hot on their heels.
Little groups of miners were in conflict from time to time, and miniature battles were fought to a finish. When at last the Rothwell miners were well out of harm’s way they rallied their forces and turned their attention to the coal carts going to Leeds.
Even children with little hand carts and perambulators were held up and their coal upset by the wayside. Later the police arrived on the scene, and the Rothwell men left for home, threatening that they would return with a larger force today.
Up to late this afternoon, however, there was no sign of them, and the Woodlesford miners were peacefully prosecuting their search for coal, but in lesser numbers.
They set guards at the corner of the lane leading to the pit..
EXTRA POLICE DRAFTED.
There were few carts arriving today, the owners apparently being reluctant to risk a repetition of yesterday’s events. Those who had the courage to make the journey were escorted by police.
One man from the York Road district of Leeds turned up at four o’clock this morning and returned to Leeds unmolested. There were many extra police in the district.
The Woodlesford miners contend that the Rothwell men displayed a very mean spirit in seeking to prevent them digging. The opinion was expressed that if the Rothwell men came again they would “get the sharp end of the picks.” One miner was badly injured yesterday and had to receive medical attention
MINERS IN CONFLICT AT WOODLESFORD. COAL “SCRATTIN” RIVALRIES.
Yorkshire Post, 30 April 1921.
There was no repetition yesterday of the melee which took place on Thursday at Woodlesford, near Leeds, between miners “scrattin” for coal and a number of their fellow strikers who did not approve of the operations.
At the Water Haigh colliery of Messrs. H. Briggs, Son, and Co. (Limited) there is a big “muck stack” from which local miners have been getting coal since the strike began. On an average about 50 tons a day have been taken out and carted away in lorries, hawker’s carts and other vehicles – sometimes numbering 200 a day – to Leeds, Methley, Rothwell, and other places in the district.
“Scrattin” under present conditions is a process that does not commend itself to many of the Rothwell miners. So on Thursday morning from 80 to 100 of them, after holding a meeting, marched off to Woodlesford, about a mile and a half away, and finding a number of coal carts either already laden, or awaiting their turn, peremptorily told the drivers to “clear out.”
An order with such a strong force behind it could hardly be disobeyed. What was happening soon reached the ears of the “scratters,” some distance away, and, determined not to tolerate this interference, a number of them started out, armed with sticks, staves, and shovels along the road. Other Woodlesford men followed, on until that side numbered 300 or 400.
The two unequal forces were soon in close conflict and many blows were exchanged; in fact, it was a free fight. Some were hit on the head – one man’s head was bleeding – and others got black eyes, but no one appears to have been seriously injured. The stronger force prevailed, and many of the interlopers incontinently fled while others sought the shelter of a backyard, from which they were dragged out to get a taste of the Woodlesford men’s weapons.
In the afternoon about 400 Rothwell men assembled, evidently to resume operations at Woodleford on more equal terms. But learning that there were 700 or 800 miners on the “muck heap” they altered their plans, and marching to the crossroads near the top of John o’ Gaunt’s Hill – about a mile and a half from the scene of the previous day’s “battle” – they stopped all vehicles returning to Leeds with coal, throwing the fuel on to the roadway, and turning back empty lorries and carts going back in the opposite direction.
A few of the drivers recovered their coal, or a part of it, but others were not so fortunate. The arrival of Police Superintendent Charles Woodcock from Leeds and about 30 constables soon put an end to the trouble, and the men went away quietly.
During yesterday a few Rothwell miners were to be seen hanging about the neighbourhood of the colliery and in the main road, by the sight of policemen stationed at different points was ineffective check upon any mischievous intentions that may have been entertained. The “scratters” were at work as usual, and a number of vehicles took coal away, but the traffic was smaller than usual.
Footnote: The 1921 strike had a serious impact on coal production at Water Haigh. The enginewright’s records for 1920 show a total of 404,000 tons which fell to 336,000 tons in 1921. Days worked fell from 282 to 196. During 1922 there was a recovery with the pit producing 509,000 tons from 271 days worked.
The effect of the wage cuts and strike on individual households can also be seen in the case of Albert Harris, a Woodlesford miner, who was prosecuted at the West Riding Court in Leeds on 23 July 1921 for not paying maintenance to his estranged wife. By that time he owed £34 but told the court he hadn’t earned anything for 17 weeks during the strike. He was now on £4 a week as against £6 when the maintenance order was first made. He had 15 weeks of arrears of 35 shillings a week for his own board and lodging. The case was adjourned but he was ordered to make an initial payment of £2 2 shillings a week.