Memoir by Barnet Kenyon M.P. from The Derbyshire Times, 1925
As I look back upon the hardships of my early days I cannot help thinking that the folk who live in 1925 have a great deal to be thankful for. I am not saying, of course, that there is nothing to be remedied or that England is a Paradise on earth. Far from it. There is much to be done before England becomes the “green and pleasant land” that the poet has written of, but I do say that the workers today have a better lot in life than was the case when I was young. When I tell you that I was 28 and could barely write my own name you will realise in a moment the handicap of the workers children in those days.
We were sleeping three in a bed to keep eachother warm, and I made my way downstairs in fear and trembling to the door.
To my pleasant surprise I found the visitor was not a burglar, but someone from the village butcher’s who had sent some meat and bones. A similar gift was made us each week until the frost had gone. It may only seem a little thing to you all in these days, but I assure you that our plight was such that those scraps of meat and bones seemed a veritable feast in those days. I always think gratefully of that butcher, he was called John Hancock.
When the frost broke there was plenty of work at the quarries again, and the worst of our troubles were over. I always like to remember that in the present House of Commons there is some of the stone my father quarried. As soon as I got to Parliament I enquired about it.
I did not go back to the quarries, but got a job at Kiveton Park Hall- still at 6d. a day. The 6d. was all I got, there were no meals “in “, although I remember that I made friends with the cook, and occasionally she used to give me tasty bits.
My great ambition at that time was to get my mother a load of coal. It seems rather comical now that a lad who subsequently became a collier M.P. should have such difficulty in getting a bit of coal, but there it was. As soon as I had saved sufficient to buy a load I went to a man I knew and persuaded him to lend me a horse and cart. In fact he did more than I asked him, he lent two horses, and no little devil was prouder than I was as I drove along to the pit. You can imagine the rejoicing there was when I arrived home with my treasure, and we had our first coal fire.
When I was about 13 I left home to face the world on my own. It was this way. I came across a cousin who had heard from his mother at Conisborough that Denaby Main was being opened. I knew nothing about pits at that time, but I had heard it said that there was always more money be made at a new pit than at an old one, so I decided to try my luck.
You folk who have been accustomed to long distances, express trains and motor-buses all these years will not realise what an adventure it was for me to go to Denaby. The furthest from home
that I had ever been was to go to Aston for that load of coal. And the journey on foot to Denaby was just as big an adventure to me as was the celebrated journey of Dick Whittington. And it led us both to the same place—London.
I knew nothing at all of the world. South Anston was at that time a remote country village, which, in winter, was cut off from civilisation, and my ignorance of the district in which I lived and of affairs generally was astounding. That was not my fault, of course.
My mother trembled for me as I set off that morning, with all my worldly possessions tied up in a parcel. I can see her now, standing in the doorway waving to me as I trudged off. I walked of course, the distance would be about 20 miles.
At first the manager refused me a job, but I pleaded hard, and at last he softened down, and thus at the age of 13 I began my work in the mines. I was full of enthusiasm for work, despite my meagre diet, and very soon I could skim the pit roads like a swallow.
The first week I drew 27s. It seemed a fortune, I began to fear I had robbed somebody. I did not know what to do with all this wealth, but you will guess I soon decided to send something home to the old people. We were doing an eight hours day at that time, as this part of South
Yorkshire was the first to get the benefit of the shortened hours.Denaby was a hearty spot in those days, and a lad had to know how to fight for his rights.
I remember one collier asking me if I knew how toprotect my nose. I did not grasp what he meant at the time, but before very long I did! Still, they were grand fellows. The collier has always been a grand chap, and the best hearted fellow in the world. And nobody knows it better than I do.
I put in all I knew for three years. I became a rather skilled holer, and I could keep up with anybody on the coalface. Denaby was a terrible pit for gas in those days, and I was gassed over twenty times. We used to take it as a matter of course. I was at Denaby about four years, but was off work for a considerable time, having been badly injured by a fall of roof.
It was at Denaby that I came across my first experience of the tragedy of the miner’s career. I did not see the poor lad killed, but I heard his Irish mother weeping and wailing for her boy. The sound of her weeping is in my ears now, and I remember that on that day I ran home as fast as my legs would carry me.
From Denaby I went to Darfield, and there I met with an accident, which might easily have proved fatal. I was busy at work, when a prop, over seven feet long, fell and struck me on the head, knocking me senseless into the “gob”. Some time must have passed before I came to my senses, and when I did come round I made my way slowly and painfully along the gateway, which was 500 yards long and only about four feet high.
It was a grim journey for me, faint and ill as I was.
When they got me to the surface the doctor put seven stitches in, and I carry the scar to this day. When I was taken to my lodgings my grim old landlady looked at me, and said, “Yes the young ------ does look pale”. Before the doctor came a woman came in who had been a nurse at Lincoln Hospital, and she made me a cup of tea, the nicest I have ever had. Since that time I have seen many a worse accident, but the first serious mishap to me as a lad naturally comes quickly to my mind.
My next pit was the Old Oaks, Barnsley, and I went there after 1866; when 388 people were killed in a terrible explosion. I helped to get some bodies out, and many is the yarn I have had with the colliers who were familiar with the tragic event. I next went to Ashley Deep Colliery, Dukinfield, which was then the deepest pit in Great Britain with the exception of the Rose Main pit at Wigan. I was anxious to get all the experience that I could, and no doubt this continual moving was a help to me in my subsequent trade union work.
After a short stay at the Ince Colliery, Wigan, where explosions were pretty frequent, I returned to Kiveton Park, where a new pit was being sunk, and it was here that I encountered some of the experiences which moulded my life to a great extent.
It was there I met men whose earnest Christian lives deeply impressed me. The old butty system of working was in vogue at that period, and I worked with two Leicestershire men named Ross. Before they began work in their stall they would have prayers and sing a hymn. They would not think of touching their “snap”until a prayer had been said and one verse of a hymn sung. Few things have made a deeper impression on me than those Godfearing men, and the sound of their voices echoing along the roads in song and prayer. Other men were also devout, and no one dreamed of mocking them.
At this pit each man had a box for his tools, and it was not unusual for a man to keep a Bible in his box, so that at “snap” time he could take it on his knee and read a few verses. I never hear of such things being done nowadays, but we should be none the worse as a people if it was.
I am afraid that before I went to Kiveton I was a sad young dog. I could drink a pint with the rest and the boxing ring found in me an enthusiastic supporter.
I worked at Kiveton Park until 1875, when news reached me that the Southgate Colliery was being opened at Clowne by the Shireoaks Company, and the Barlborough pit by the Staveley Company. I worked at both, but it was with Clowne that much of my life work is associated, as we lived there for 28 years.
I am certain that ifmarried folk who have no children of their own would adopt a few babies they would never regret it, and they would be doing the nation a service. And looked at from a purely selfish point of view, they would never have cause to regret their action. I was not the only miners’ official in those days who did this kind of thing.
It was in these early days of my married life that saw me taking a deeper interest in my work, in trades unionism, in my religion, and in Liberalism.
My conversion dated from before my marriage. Perhaps I can best tell you of that by quoting from a sermon preached some years ago by the Rev. Samuel Barker when he was leaving Clowne. He said:- “Did Christianity pay? Many years ago a young man was led from a lodging house in Clowne into the Church. His clothes were worth nil. His character not much more. But that visit to the chapel was the turning point in that young man’s life”.
That young man was myself.
I became a local preacher at Clowne, and my first sermon was preached at Shirebrook one Sunday afternoon. That was close upon 50 years ago. Since then I have preached on 48 Sundays a year for many years. Most of it has been done in Yorkshire, of course, but I have been in many other counties as well.
I love the work still, although I cannot do so much now as I would like to do. There is no doubt the experience I gained in public speaking was an immense help to me in my work for trade unionism.
Primitive Methodism was undoubtedly the salvation of the miners about the ‘80’s and before that for a long time. Think how many of the old leaders like Ben Pickard were cradled in Primitive Methodism.
I have also taken my share in Sunday School and Brotherhood work. I don’t think I missed my Sunday morning Bible Class more than half a dozen times in 26 years.
At that time, about 1878, the strength of trade unionism was nothing like it is today. The Yorkshire and Derbyshire Association had broken down in the early ‘seventies, and we had to begin again from the beginning.km
In 1880 I was elected checkweighman at Southgate, not at a salary a checkweighman gets today, but at 28s. a week. James Haslam, that grand leader who represented Chesterfield in Parliament from 1896 to his death, had begun a branch at Clay Cross, and in 1880 I met him at my first miners’ meeting at Clowne. We agreed that so far as in us lay we would work together and try to build up an organisation that would help our men to sell their labour nearer to its market value.
Haslam was always a cautious man and I grew to be like him. We had not a hundred men in our union then. He was responsible for those few in the Clay Cross district and I at the other end of the coalfield. Together we did our very best to inspire our class to the great principles for which the Union stood.
Our two greatest difficulties were lack of confidence on the part of the men themselves, because they had been deceived and robbed more than once, and there was a general fear that if they paid a modest threepence a week to us they would never see it again. But we kept steadily on, and then we found ourselves up against managers, deputies, and even the corporals on the road, but by patience, honest and square dealing, we won the confidence of the men, managers and officials at all the collieries.
From my point of view, no finer, more generous and heroic class of workmen ever lived than the class to which we belong. They have proved it to me in a thousand ways.After being elected checkweighman at Southgate, for 26 years I did my best in the pit bank and in the office, and to the eternal credit of those men not a foul or vulgar expression was ever used towards me there.
I wish every checkweighman in this county could say the same now about the men he represents. If he could we should be nearer to a better condition of things in every way.
Barnet Kenyon. 1850 – 1930 Liberal Member of Parliament for Chesterfield 1913 to 1927.