The miners of the early
1900’s had little employment rights. Prevented by restrictive legislation
they were an unorganised group and numerous attempts to form trade unions
failed. Indeed, in 1831 the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Assembly at Tredegar
condemned trade unionism across the board. A similar decision was taken by
the Assembly at Mold the following year.
Miners wages were low at the time. Evidence heard from a Ruabon collier
before the Children’s Employment Commission in 1820 confirmed he made 3
shillings a day but his working week was restricted to some three and a half
days per week.
Also, during the 1820’s there were recurring periods of depression in the
industry which had a serious affect on wages. Trouble and rioting were on
the increase and the records of the time contained many accounts of the
calling out of the Military, the Yeomanry and the Special Constabulary to
keep the peace.
The following account is drawn from the historical records of the
Denbighshire Hussars Yeomanry and provides details of the Ruabon Colliers
riots of 1830.
These riots occurred in December 1830. It was agreed the principle cause of
the disturbances was the ‘Truck System’ under which miners and other workers
had to take their wages in goods from the ”Truck” or ”Tommy” Shops owned by
the Colliery owners. The men were bound to take such things as cheese,
bacon, wheat, etc, from these shops and often had to sell these goods to
other people in order to obtain the money they needed for other necessities
As you can imagine this unfair system was a great cause of protest and
meetings were held all over the district but little changed, so the miners
of Cefn, Acrefair, Rhos, Brymbo went on strike. A large crowd of Colliers
and other workers then met at Rhos and were determined to destroy the Truck
Shop attached to the Acrefair Ironworks. The Denbighshire Yeomanry were
called out and assembled at Rhos under the supervision of Sir Watkin
Williams Wynn, Mayor Edward Lloyd, and the Vicar of Ruabon, the Rev Rowland
Wingfield. These three spoke to the men and tried to persuade them to return
home. Sir Watkin promised to interview the Collier’s masters and endeavor to
improve the situation if the ‘rioters’ would disperse peaceably.
This may have actually worked and ended the tension had it not been for the
fact that the constables had received orders from the magistrates to arrest
several of the ringleaders. The miners were obviously against this and the
Yeomanry Cavalry was ordered to patrol the local streets in order to
”terrify” the rioters.
This presence had the desired effect and the mob calmed down and showed no
disposition for further violence. Their job apparently done, the
Denbighshire Yeomanry started on their return journey from Rhos, passing
through Gutter Hill.
Along this route by side of the road was a large mound of cinders – churned
out by the neighbouring blast furnace. It is said ‘some thousands of
persons’ were standing on this mound looking at the Yeomanry as they filed
past leaving the village. It was then that a youth threw a piece of cinder
at the passing troops, which hit one of the horses. The rider of the horse
and his comrade at once drew their pistols and fired indiscriminately at the
persons on the mound. Sir Watkin, who was riding at the head of the
regiment, severely reprimanded the troopers for their silly and dangerous
act. Fortunately no one was hurt, though the pistol balls were apparently
heard by some people on the mound ‘whizzing past their heads’. There is
little doubt that Sir Watkin’s prompt action saved a fierce contest with the
miners who were infuriated by the act. The miners then returned to their
homes and the Yeomanry dismissed from duty. However, this affair became much
magnified and known locally as the ”Battle of Cinder Hill ”.
In January, 1831, the colliers from the district again met and marched
through Acrefair, Cefn and Newbridge, increasing in their numbers as they
did so until close on four thousand people were assembled. There aim was to
join the Shropshire colliers and get them to stop their work until better
wages were paid and the truck system stopped. The Shropshire Magistrates had
got word of the intended invasion of their county, and two regiments of
Shropshire Yeomanry were turned out. A large force of the North Shropshire
Yeomanry Cavalry met the advancing colliers at Chirk Bridge on the boundary
between the counties where two local Collier masters talked to the men. This
action was successful and the men returned to their homes. The Shropshire
Yeomanry were no doubt glad enough return homeward without having to
forcible disperse a mob: the recent affair at Cinder HiIl – by now having
been much exaggerated - was on everyone’s minds. According to some accounts,
the real purpose of the Colliers was to advance on Shrewsbury and release
some of their comrades, who had been imprisoned after previous riots at
Ruabon in Shrewsbury Jail.
However, the situation did not improve for the promises made by the masters
at Chirk Bridge were quickly broken and as before, the same unfair custom of
the truck shop still continued. At Acrefair the women and children, who took
the pay notes to the truck shop there, had to wait hours before being served
and it is said many were too weak to walk home after standing for so long.
The Colliers again assembled at Acrefair near the turnpike road close to the
Ironworks to discuss their grievances. Again, the Denbighshire Yeomanry
Cavalry were called out and marched to Acrefair under the supervision of Sir
Watkin and other local gentlemen who advised the masters and men to meet and
try to come to a reasonable agreement. There then followed a meeting of
Collier representatives from all the works and several of the masters at the
Wynnstay Arms, Ruabon, but no such agreement could be reached and Sir Watkin
left the meeting disgusted at the unfairness of the masters. A certain Mr.
Woods, the manager of the Acrefair Ironworks, particularly annoyed the
colliers assembled outside the Wynnstay by laughing and sneering at them
through the window. This foolish act understandably enraged the colliers who
burst open the doors, and one of the colliers armed with a pistol seized Mr.
Woods. Luckily the pistol refused to fire when the trigger was pulled and
the manager escaped from the room, eventually leaving the building disguised
as a woman! However, the consequences of the meeting were positive with some
the masters agreeing to increase the men’s wages to three shillings a day.
Some weeks afterwards, as bad feeling again prevailed in the neighbourhood,
a number of special constables were sworn in, and an attempt was made to
arrest six of the ringleaders, but only two were captured. These two
unfortunates were taken to Ruthin Jail and sentenced to twelve months
imprisonment at the March Assizes. This was considered lenient as the
prosecution had tried to get them transported for life, for attempting to
kill the foolish Mr. Woods.
The Collier owners continued to vigorously oppose every effort to form what
were called ‘Pitmen’s Unions’. These early Unions did have some success and
one supported - a Mr. Sampson Jones of Brymbo, went about with a Bible under
his arm swearing in new members. In addition, the chief organiser of the
main union, a certain William Twist, held a recruiting campaign in June
1831, but these local unions rarely survived a strike and an effective union
was not to be formed for another forty or fifty years.