Croeso Network

Trouble in the Mining Industry

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 of life.

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.


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