Thomas Burt – the first working man to make it to Parliament

The Rt. Hon. Thomas Burt, MP, and Mrs Burt.
The Rt. Hon. Thomas Burt, MP, and Mrs Burt.

THOMAS Burt was born in 1837 at Murton Row, near Backworth Colliery, where his father, Peter, was a hewer and an active trade unionist.

In 1844, the pitmen went on strike for the redress of long-standing grievances and refused to sign the bond. The owners evicted them. Candy-men, guarded by police, threw their belongings into the road and boarded up the houses.

Most of the evicted families lived in make-shift tents, but the Burts were provident people and were able to rent a small house, three families in a two-roomed cottage. Thomas helped by looking after his 18-month-old cousin, Mary Weatherburn.

Although they were moderates, Thomas’s father and uncle went to prison for their part in the strike. When they came out, there was no job for them. They moved to County Durham.

In May 1910, when he was 72, Thomas gave an interview to the Penny Illustrated Paper. He began by talking about his dame school:

“I went to that school for two years-and-a-half, and, although my parents wished me to remain longer, I had determined to begin my life as a worker on my own account as soon as I was ten… On my birthday, as a sort of birthday present to myself, I walked manfully into the office of the overman of the mine and told him that I wanted work… The overseer noticed my height and build, and, without asking for my birth certificate... agreed to take me on the next day, and I returned home to inform my mother that she must get my working clothes ready.

“I need scarcely say I was a proud boy when I made my way into the darkness of the mine, in which I was to sit for hours at a time for a wage of tenpence a day. My first work was that of a trapper boy, and my duty was to open a door to allow the men pushing the tubs of coal to get from one part of the mine to the other. … I was nominally at work for 12 hours, but I had half-an-hour’s walk to and from my workplace in the mine… and then I had to walk to and from home.

“It was a tiring life for a little chap, and one day I fell asleep at my post. My door was at the end of a steep descent, and, being asleep, I did not open it when the tubs came down.”

Trap-doors controlled the flow of air round the mine so that every part was ventilated and dangerous gases removed. But having little boys work them was, literally, fatal.

Fordyce’s Local Records tell us that in April 1841, 32 men and boys were killed in an explosion at Willington Colliery:

“The cause of the calamity was attributed to the neglect of a poor little boy, a trapper, who left the trap-door in the north head-way, which it was his duty to attend, to play with two other boys close by.”

In August, another fatal explosion at Thornley, County Durham, ‘was clearly traced to the negligence of one of the boys, who had inadvertently left open a trap door’.

Thomas was lucky. All that happened was that the tubs smashed the door and came off the rails. He turned donkey boy soon after, earning 2d a day extra. At the age of 12:

“I got a job of driving the horses which took the tubs to the shaft, after which I was again promoted to be the manager of an inclined plane where I had to keep accounts and give signals for the starting of the tubs. This was rewarded by eighteenpence a day, and with nine shillings a week I was in a fair way of thinking I was getting rich.”

They returned to Northumberland. Thomas became a hewer at collieries in the Cramlington and Choppington areas, and in 1852 moved to Seaton Delaval:

“It was then that I began to see that the education I had had was entirely unsatisfactory for my outlook in life, and I determined to improve myself.”

Three things had a profound influence on him. One was the Methodist Church. His parents were Primitive Methodists and he went regularly to chapel and Sunday school. Another was reading the biography of an ex-slave, Frederick Douglas, which made him think deeply about working hours. Third was temperance. His father was a Rechabite, a total abstainer. Thomas now followed his example.

Conditions improved and his hours were reduced to eight per day. He became a trade unionist, and at the age of 23 married his cousin Mary, the girl he looked after during the evictions. It was “the best day’s work I ever did.”

They moved to Choppington ‘where I became the secretary of the District Temperance Society and the School Committee, and when in 1863 the Northumberland Miners’ Union was started I became a member, and was soon after elected a member of the Executive Committee’.

He allowed himself to stand for secretary of the Union, and, not entirely to his surprise, ‘I was elected by more votes than were polled by all the other candidates put together’. He was pitched straight into a bitter strike, but came out of it with conspicuous success.

Like many other great events in Morpeth’s history, what happened next was the result of Government policy.

Following the Reform Act of 1832, Morpeth was extended for parliamentary purposes to take in the whole of Bedlingtonshire. Despite its size, the new constituency had only about 350 electors, all either freemen or ten-pound householders. In the 1850s, statesmen began to think once again about reform. Lord John Russell introduced a bill in 1854, and Gladstone in 1866, but it was Benjamin Disraeli, the flamboyant Tory leader, who did the business. The ten-pound franchise was abolished and all male ratepayers in parliamentary boroughs got the vote.

Morpeth was again extended and its electorate vastly increased. Wilson’s Handbook gives the figures for 1868: Morpeth and Bedlington were roughly equal, with 1,159 between them, Blyth and Newsham 166, and Cowpen 373, making 1,698 electors in all.

Most miners lived in tied cottages, did not pay the rates and so could not vote. In 1872, they formed a franchise association, strongly supported by the Newcastle Chronicle. They argued that miners were in the same position as householders paying rent, where the landlord paid the rates on several properties together (‘compounding’).

The Revising Barrister, who adjudicated on the entries in the electoral roll, conceded the point in 1873. Morpeth increased to 810; Blyth and Newsham to 485, Cowpen 1,377, and Bedlington 2,244, making 4,916 voters in all, most of them coal miners.

From this point on, the election of Thomas Burt as MP for Morpeth was virtually certain. Significantly, his adoption meeting was not in Morpeth, but at Bedlington Market Cross, and at the general election of February 1874, the first working man in Parliament was elected by an overwhelming majority.