Pulled from the depths of a coal mine in Northern England in 1815 was a small tin box tucked into the shirt pocket of a dead seventeen-year-old male, William Thew. The young man used his pocketknife to etch the following words into the back of that tin: “Fret not, dear mother, for we were singing while we had time.” Thew, and scores of other miners, likely suffocated when a torrent of water cut-off their only escape route. The Heaton Main Colliery, not far from Newcastle-on-Tyne, had restarted operations. But older workings located at a considerable depth, “covered over with planks and earth,” gave way and sent a torrent of water through the strata of the “north-west” part of the mine known as the “Heaton Banks.” Seventy-five colliers lost their lives.[1]

Heaton Main Colliery was, however, one among many hundreds of active coal mines that dug into the English countryside in the early nineteenth century. These mines represented Britain’s power, it’s growth as an Empire in the previous century, and Britain’s victory over Napoleonic France in the early part of the nineteenth. Yet, as historian E. A. Wrigley reminds us, Britain’s “dominance did not grow out of the barrel of a gun,” but rather through an obtained ascendency via economics which brought England cotton to its mills, barley and corn in abundance from its rich topsoil, and what lay under its earth: rich veins of coal.[2] Thus, what happened at Heaton Main Colliery, the loss of so many miners was representative of what happened at similar mines over the preceding decades and would, in actuality, continue for decades to come. William Thew’s death was the human toll exacted to provide Great Britain with the resources it needed to compete in an ever-changing world.

1819 Peterloo 1

The Peterloo Massacre (1819), where 60,000 reformers were peaceably assembled at Manchester, UK.

England had emerged from the eighteenth century possessing enormous wealth and power, but it came at a cost. As Mary Shelly put it in her 1818 science fiction novel, “the strange system of human society was explained… division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty, of rank, descent, and noble blood.”[3] When some 60,000 “Reformers” the very next year, at Manchester, attempted to peacefully address working conditions throughout the nation, they were met with violence. A mounted army cavalry charged the crowd with sabres drawn: “persons were slain on the spot, and some scores were dreadfully mangled…”[4] Reformers were stunned. Charles Wright, a prominent landowner and eye witness close to the military’s charge claimed he “did not see any precise object of defiance, and I do most firmly believe that, but very few individuals were injured until a charge was made by the Cavalry.”[5]

By the early nineteenth century, the relationship between owners of capital and that of labor was fairly set. The 1819 Peterloo Massacre in Manchester demonstrated the tenacity to which capitalists and governments functioned in tandem to enforce a status quo, to prevent the labouring class from rising. What reformers asked for in 1819 was the franchise, the ability for all men, not just propertied men, to vote for their representatives to Parliament.

Meanwhile, capitalists turned to governments, again and again, seeking special favors. For example, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company requested from the U.S. Congress permission to “import iron and iron machinery… free of duty,” that is, tax-free. It’s called a subsidy. The B&O Railroad request was not the first congressional request for subsidies, and it certainly was not the last. Pitting the plight of workers seeking reform against companies such as the B&O seeking government favors is done with a purpose, to differentiate the treatment of those with capital against those without.

Nothing hits this point home more than child labor. Children entered into the industrialised workforce mostly because their parents were not paid sufficiently. Substandard pay forced not only women to join their husbands, but children too. The Sadler Report of 1832 shocked the English-speaking world where tales of children who were in “dread of being beaten” at the textile mills exposed the continued underbelly of industrialization as a process.[6]

Also involved in this industrialization process were media outlets, then, in the early-nineteenth-century, the daily newspaper. But who did papers represent? In Ireland, the Dublin Penny Journal supplied an answer. In the last paragraph of an 1834 article entitled “On the Importance of Railways in Ireland,” it is with those “landholders or merchants,” those “landed” proprietors who will be “repaid, in a manifold degree” that benefit.[7] The poor are mentioned in the article, once. The Dublin Penny Journal reported that because of railroads, poor folk in Manchester can have fresh butter “churned in the centre of Ireland” within a day.[8] Riches for the rich, butter for the poor.

England’s “factory wealth,” said Andrew Ure in 1835, was the admiration of the world. And though the Glasgow professor also admitted that industrialization had done “innumerable evils to the people” and caused “revolutionary convulsions” (which it did), Ure nonetheless insisted that “such allegations and fears will prove to be groundless.” On this point, Professor Ure was wholly, and utterly wrong.[9]

If we use the documents to assist us in answering how it was that the West, and England in particular, was able to bolt ahead of the East in global dominance in the early-nineteenth century, indifference to the plight of the poor may be a reasonable answer.

[1] A Letter from the Dead to the Living; or the Collier Boy and his Mother: Being an Account of the Dreadful Inundation of Heaton Colliery on May 3rd, 1815 (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1841).

[2] E. A. Wrigley, “The Divergence of England: The Growth of the English Economy in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: The Prothero Lecture,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series, Vol. 10 (2000), 118.

[3] Mary Shelly, Frankenstein: The 1818 Text, Charlotte Gordon, ed. (Penguin Books), 110.

[4] Manchester Meeting (Manchester: 1819), 1.

[5] British National Archives, TS 11/1056.

[6] Testimony of Michael Crabtree, Sadler Report (London: 1832), 2.

[7] The Dublin Penny Journal, “On the Importance of Railways in Ireland” (June 21, 1834), 404.

[8] op. cite., 402.

[9] Andrew Ure, The Philosophy of Manufactures (Glasgow: 1835), 1.