Coal and its role in the political representation of the workers

The bust of Thomas Burt MP at Morpeth Town Hall fails to capture the twinkle in his eye.
The bust of Thomas Burt MP at Morpeth Town Hall fails to capture the twinkle in his eye.

IN the early days, there were only four MPs for Northumberland, two for the county, and two for Newcastle. In 1430, the county franchise was fixed by Act of Parliament. Any man possessing freehold land worth 40/- a-year could vote in a county election. Borough franchises, however, varied widely.

Berwick, which occasionally sent members to the Scottish Parliament, was represented in the English from about 1500, then Morpeth in 1553, bringing the total to eight MPs.

Following the Great Reform Act of 1832, Northumberland was split into two divisions, north and south, each with two members. Morpeth was reduced to one, and Tynemouth raised to Parliamentary status, also with one member, making ten in all.

The county franchise was little changed, merely adding tenants-at-will paying rent of £50 p.a., and occupiers of land with a rateable value of twelve pounds. But in the boroughs the ten-pound householders got the vote, giving England a uniform borough franchise.

A side-effect of the Act was to include Bedlingtonshire in Morpeth for parliamentary purposes. It made no real difference. Morpeth was still the Earl of Carlisle’s pocket borough. Bedlington had yet to show its electoral muscle.

Coal in the Shire has a long history. Boldon Book (1183) mentions only salt pans, but by 1523 there were coal mines at Bedlington, and a jury of 1635 stated that:

“For lead mynes we have none, but one coall pit wherin coals ar wrought, and two other pits sunck but noe coales got as yet, with two trinches drawen; my Lord’s tennents are damnifyed twentie pound and upward by breaking ground, besyd other coalpits hols diged which is not yet filled up.”

The vicar of Bedlington had coal mines of his own on his glebe land. In 1690 the rental for them ‘as well opened as not opened’, was 3s. per ton of coals. In the early 19th Century, the Glebe Colliery, as it was now called, was leased for 21 years at £30 p.a. for the first three years, and £45 thereafter.

Serious development began at about the same time. Stephen Martin describes Bedlingtonshire as ‘rich in coal deposits excellent clay beds and sandstone quarries’.

Bishop Barrington, who held the see from 1791 to 1826, so arranged things that most of the mineral rights passed, either freehold or by leasehold under the bishopric, into the ownership of his relations. In the case of the leasehold estates, the people who worked the mines, quarries or clay pits were technically sub-lessees. They paid two royalties, one to the Barrington family and another to Durham.

Taking Netherton as an example of how the industry grew, the Netherton estate was owned by the Dacres and descended from them to the earls of Carlisle. The moorland north and west of the village was called Pitman’s Moor in the 15th Century, and a map of 1788 shows 14 coal pits. In 1818, the Earl’s agent, Mr Fenwick at Netherton Hall, let the colliery to a Mr William Bell.

Stephen Martin again: “The Earl’s mining engineer, Watson, advised Bell to sink a new shaft at the bottom of the hill on the north side, also to lay a waggonway to Morpeth entirely over the Earl’s property. Bell needed extra capital for all this, and in 1828 took on a partner, Thomas King, a contractor in Morpeth.”

The following table gives an idea of how Netherton and the other collieries in Bedlingtonshire progressed:

Colliery; Date begun; Workers in 1896; Workers in peak year

Netherton; 1829; 36; 851 – 1914

Barrington; 1821; 603; 846 – 1914

Bedlington – Engine Pit; 1838. Doctor Pit; 1854; 1,450; 3,373 – 1935

Bomarsund; 1854 (Flooded out. Reopened as Bedlington F Pit in 1905.)

Choppington; 1857; 488; 1,542 – 1930

W. Sleekburn; 1859; 663; 984 – 1927

Household franchise, meaning that all male ratepayers and many lodgers got the vote, was introduced into the parliamentary boroughs by the Second Reform Act of 1867.

Morpeth was again extended and its electorate rose from under 400 to 1,698.

Miners living in tied cottages were excluded, but in 1873 they too became entitled to the household vote. The electorate increased to 4,916. Of these, only 810 were in Morpeth. There were 2,244 in Bedlingtonshire and 1,862 in Blyth, Newsham and Cowpen. Not surprisingly, Thomas Burt, Secretary of the Northumberland Miners Association, was elected by a landslide in 1874.

Every year between 1872 and 1879, Mr George Trevelyan, later Sir George Otto Trevelyan, brought forward a resolution in the House of Commons to extend the household franchise to the counties.

Mr Burt’s maiden speech in 1874 was in support of Mr Trevelyan’s bill: “In the two Northern Counties, Northumberland and Durham, there are about 50,000 adult miners. Of that number, not more than 5,000 are voters, …

“They seldom remove out of the County. They do remove from one colliery to another, hence this state of things arises. A man may possess a vote one day, and if he removes a few hundred yards he may lose his vote just as much as if he went to the antipodes.

“We have this state of things also. Two men may be working in the same pit and in the same place as mates, and one of them may have a vote and the other may not. Their position is in every respect identical. They are occupying the same sort of house and they are in exactly the same sort of position, only one removes beyond an imaginary line, as the Hon. Member for the Border Boroughs (i.e. Mr. Trevelyan) has told us.

“Sir, I believe that there is nothing that is doing more at the present time to alienate the sympathies and affections of the best and most intelligent of the working class than these invidious and unnecessary distinctions, founded, as they are on no principle of reason or common sense.”

In 1884, Parliament finally accepted the argument, and also the principle of single-member constituencies. A new constituency, Wansbeck, was carved out of South Northumberland. Like Morpeth, it was represented for many years by another miner who began work at the age of ten, Charles Fenwick, a Lib-Lab MP and Primitive Methodist preacher.

Mr Burt stood down in 1918, and except for a few years in the 1930s, Morpeth became a safe Labour seat. Wansbeck constituency was abolished in 1950, and Blyth (now Blyth Valley) created. Morpeth was abolished in 1983, and Wansbeck re-created, the new Wansbeck being largely the old Morpeth. It is fitting, therefore, that Thomas Burt’s current successor as member for the constituency, Mr Ian Lavery, is also the President of the National Union of Mineworkers.

Further reading: The website is good for larger collieries, but less so for anecdotal detail and early coal mines. For this, Stephen Martin’s books in the Bedlington Villages History Series are better. Mr Martin was an overman at Bomarsund and writes with first-hand knowledge. For the general reader, however, the books of Evan Martin are an easier read and better illustrated.