The Lancashire miners’ strike of 1881 began at a time when the colliers were organised in small district unions with no central coordination. The coal owners were better organised and miners’ wages had fallen. Miners worked in dangerous conditions and the colliery owners took advantage of their membership of the Lancashire and Cheshire Miners Permanent Relief SocietyForm of friendly society started in 1872 to provide financial assistance to miners who were unable to work after being injured in industrial accidents in collieries on the Lancashire Coalfield. (LMPRS) in paying compensation for injuries or deaths while at work. After Parliament passed the Employers’ Liability Act, colliery owners insisted their workers remain in the society resulting in a bitter and violent strike that lasted seven weeks. The strike ended with no resolution but the beginnings of the Lancashire and Cheshire Miners’ FederationTrade union founded in the aftermath of a bitter and violent seven-week strike in 1881. emerged.
Between 1869 and 1871, mining disasters in LancashireMining disasters in Lancashire in which five or more people were killed occurred most frequently in the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s. had resulted in more than 300 deaths. More than 500 wives and children were left without a breadwinner, and immense hardship was caused to their families. Many miners had joined the LMPRS after its foundation in 1872. Although not popular, the society guaranteed compensation and regular payments to miners and their families should their breadwinners be injured or killed at work. The society was funded by its members; the miners paid in 75% of the contributions and the rest was made up by the coal owners who controlled its board.
Parliament debated an Employers’ Liability Act that would force negligent employers to compensate their employees for accidents in the workplace. In the coal industry serious injury and death were frequent occurences. In 1876, John Knowles MP, a coal owner in Wigan, had told parliament that passing such an act “would lead to nothing but carelessness and idleness among miners”.
In 1880 the Employers’ Liability Act was passed, and the coal owners who dominated the LMPRS felt threatened because if workers considered the government scheme was better they could opt out. The coal owners insisted that their workers remained in the LMPRS or would be sacked in January 1881. Before the ultimatum, the miners were already considering submitting a pay claim of 15 per cent because their wages had fallen by a third in the previous four years.
William Pickard, the Wigan miners’ agent, tried to avoid a strike and negotiated with the employers who were keen to introduce a sliding scale of pay, linked to the price of coal. He thought improved pay would mitigate remaining in the LCPMRS, but his miscalculation disregarded the miners’ loathing for the society. The coal owners issued a statement expressing surprise that the miners had rejected the package their representatives had negotiated, and that there would be no increase in pay unless the sliding scale was adopted. Pickard left his post after, receiving no support from leaders from other coalfields, and the moderate union leaders were discredited in the view of the union members. Not all miners were unionised, and non-members tended to be more militant and vociferous.
The coal owners’ ultimatum eventually resulted in about 50,000 men and boys at pits throughout the Lancashire Coalfield striking after 1 January 1881. Some strikers were more reluctant than others. At pits where men started work, mobs from other districts picketed the collieries demanding that the men stopped work.
Some employers were more generous than others; the owners of the New Lester CollieryColliery on the Manchester Coalfield opened after 1872 by James and William Roscoe in Tyldesley, Lancashire, England. in Tyldesley offered increased pay and adherence to the Employers Liability Act, and moderate union leaders such as Robert IsherwoodRobert Isherwood (1845–1905) was a miner’s agent, local councillor and the first treasurer of the Lancashire and Cheshire Miners’ Federation. argued for acceptance. The Fletcher, Burrows CompanyOwner of collieries and cotton mills in Atherton in North West England. in Atherton had negotiated a better wages agreement with its workforce than other employers in the surrounding districts, and the company had embraced the Employers’ Liability Act, but Atherton miners stopped work in solidarity with the wider cause.
As the strike progressed it was characterised by mobs of miners picketing working pits. At Wharton Hall CollieryWharton Hall Colliery was in Little Hulton on the Lancashire Coalfield in Lancashire, north west England. in Little Hulton, an 18-year-old collier died during fighting on 25 January. The 18th Hussars and the 18th Regiment of Infantry were sent to Leigh after Howe Bridge miners returned to work after three weeks on strike. Thousands of miners from Ince, Haydock, St. Helens, Wigan and Hindley assembled for a mass meeting in Leigh market place on 28 January. The crowd then headed towards the Fletcher Burrows’ pits at Howe BridgeSuburb of Atherton in Greater Manchester, built as a model mining village in the 1870s by the Fletchers., followed by the Hussars and police and after the Riot Act was read, ended in what became known as the Battle of Howe BridgeRiot that took place on 28 January 1881 against the background of an acrimonious strike by 50,000 miners from pits on the Lancashire coalfield, characterised by mobs of miners picketing working pits. .
The strike dragged on for seven weeks without conclusion, as the miners gradually returned to the pits. As the strike came to an end, the beginnings of the Lancashire and Cheshire Miners Federation emerged. The coal owners had lost two million tons of coal, and competitors had entered their markets.