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1893 Featherstone Massacre

This week I look in detail at some of the entries in the Wakefield Collection

Since the launch of the burial registers for the cemeteries of Wakefield Metropolitan District, I have been looking further  into some of those recorded on the Deceased Online database. I was interested to find entries for two young men named James, who were buried on 12 September 1893. Today they are both remembered in Featherstone, Wakefield District and the wider mining community as victims of an unjust attack on a pit protest. The events surrounding their death are now referred to simply as the 'Featherstone Massacre'.

In 1893 Featherstone was a small West Yorkshire pit town with two coal mines, Featherstone Main and Ackton Hall. The owner of Ackton Hall was the Bradford textile magnate and inventor, Samuel Cunliffe Lister, First Baron Masham (1815-1906). Like other mine owners in the summer of 1893, Lord Masham tried to protect his interests against a fall in the price of coal by reducing the wages of his employees. Across the country 250,000 miners, led by the recently formed Miners Federation, stood firm in their demand for a "living wage" (a phrase used at the time). Masham and other mine owners had stockpiles of coal and were able to lock-out the miners until they agreed to the proposed reduction in wages. Without an income, the Featherstone miners were unable afford to pay their rent or buy food.

By September, groups of starving miners gathered daily at the pit side. On 5 September, riots began in pit villages in Derbyshire. Other protests spread across the country. The Featherstone miners gathered to face men loading coal for Lord Masham's textile business - the vast Lister's Mill in Bradford. Angry at what they considered a betrayal and that Lord Masham was profiting whilst they went hungry, the miners and their families blamed the pit manager, Alfred Holiday, who was assisting in the movement of coal. Holiday claimed this was for the pit engines rather than the Bradford mill, but the people disagreed. On 7 September, a group of men attacked Holiday and those loading the coal. Panicked, Holiday rushed to the local Pontefract police for assistance, but was sent to Wakefield. There he chanced upon Lord St Oswald, another local pit owner, who was seeking protection for his mine. He recommended to the Wakefield police that troops be brought in.

That afternoon, twenty-nine soldiers of the 1st Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment, under a Captain Barker, arrived to face a growing crowd of miners and onlookers. Angry at the presence of the troops, the crowd demanded their withdrawal. A later Report alleged that some of the mob threw stones and others set fire to timber. Flames could be seen "for miles round". As the afternoon passed, thousands more spectators appeared; many from outside Featherstone. 

By evening, fearful of the 2000-strong mob, the local magistrate Bernard Hartley JP took the drastic step of reading the Riot Act. This meant that anyone in the crowd remaining after one hour could be arrested. Accounts differ but it is believed that before an hour was out Hartley panicked and ordered warning shots be fired. Still the crowd remained. Mistakenly, they believed the troops were firing blanks. The troops shot again, this time injuring eight. Two of those injured would die of their wounds. They were twenty-two year old James Gibbs and twenty-five year old James Arthur Duggan. Both were passive bystanders. Both were miners, although Gibbs reportedly also volunteered as a Sunday School teacher in Normanton.

The entries for James Gibbs and James Arthur Duggan in the burial register of Featherstone Cemetery (Deceased Online)
Even though the two men had not been protesting, a Wakefield inquest concluded that Duggan's death was "justifiable homicide". The inquest into Gibbs' death took place in Featherstone itself. Here the jury blamed the lack of police and Holiday's overreaction. The difference in the verdicts led to a Parliamentary Commission being set up by the Liberal Home Secretary, H. H. Asquith. As a result of a speech by Keir Hardie, Gibbs' and Duggan's families received £100 but no compensation was awarded to the six injured, and the Government accepted no responsibility for the deaths. 

This screenshot from the Deceased Online website shows that James Gibbs was buried in the same grave as his father, Rowland Gibbs, and his young niece, Laura Gibbs.
The Report concluded:
It cannot be expected that this view should be adopted by many of the 
 crowd in Green Lane who were taking no active part in the riotous 
proceedings. Such persons had not, at the time, the means of 
judging of the danger in which the troops and the colliery stood. 
But no sympathy felt by us for the injured bystanders, no sense 
which we entertain of regret that, owing to the smallness of the
 military force at Featherstone and the prolonged absence of a
 magistrate, matters had drifted to such a pass, can blind us to 
the fact that, as things stood at the supreme moment when the 
soldiers fired, their action was necessary. We feel it right to 
express our sense of the steadiness and discipline of the soldiers 
in the circumstances. We can find no ground for any suggestion 
that the firing, if it was in fact necessary, was conducted with 
other than reasonable skill and care. The darkness rendered it 
impossible to take more precaution than had been already 
 employed to discriminate between the lawless and the peaceable, 
and it is to be observed that even the first shots fired produced 
little or no effect upon the crowd in inducing them to withdraw. 
If our confusions on these points be, as we believe them to be, 
correct, it follows that the action of the troops was justified in law.
This Report of the Commission drew national attention to the events of 1893. Across the country, particularly amongst the working classes, Asquith's popularity fell and he was nicknamed 'The Featherstone Murderer'.

Despite the tragedy, the miners' struggles continued. It was not until November 1893 that they were able to go back to work. In the aftermath, the pit manager Alfred Holiday's reputation was ruined. He died nearly thirty years later, aged 65. He was buried on 11 February 1921 at Featherstone Cemetery, not far from the graves of Gibbs and Duggan.

In 1993, the centenary of the events was marked by local people, many of whom drew parallels between the events of 1893 and their recent struggles with the colliery strikes and pit closures of the 1980s. The President of the Nation Union of Miners (NUM), Arthur Scargill, dedicated a memorial to the victims of the massacre in Featherstone's market precinct. The memorial reads:

The Featherstone Massacre 1893. 
This memorial records the centenary of an incident on 
September 7 1893 when, following a disturbance in 
Featherstone, the Riot Act was read and in the ensuing 
military action troops opened fire on the demonstrators, killing James Gibbs and 
James Arthur Duggan and wounding several others. This 
was just another chapter in the struggle by miners for better pay 
and working conditions.

Were your ancestors present at the Featherstone Massacre? Or did any of them work as miners in the Wakefield area? Have you found any miners in our collections? We'd love to hear from you! Please contact us in the Comments box below, or on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

Sources:
Report of the committee appointed to inquire into the circumstances connected with the disturbances at Featherstone on the 7th of September 1893 [C.—7234].
Lumb, Tony & Lewis, Brian, Featherstone & Its Disturbance (Briton 1992)
Nicoll, David, 'Bullets for Bread? The Featherstone Massacre' in The Anarchist: A Revolutionary Journal of Anarchist Communism (1896)
Scargill, Arthur, The Featherstone Massacre (1975)
Terrett, J. J., The Right Hon. H. H. Asquith, M.P. and the Featherstone Massacre (1906)
Home Office: Minutes of evidence, with appendices, taken before the committee appointed to inquire into the circumstances connected with the disturbances at Featherstone on 7th September 1893. (H.M.S.O. 1893)
http://www.wakefield.gov.uk/CultureAndLeisure/HistoricWakefield/FeatherstoneMassacre/default.htm

Comments

  1. My great grandfather was living in Featherstone in 1895 when he married and was a winding man at Ackton Hall Colliery. My grandfather also worked at Ackton Hall and played cricket for the colliery! I have supported Featherstone Rovers since 1960 and when my wife and I go to the matches we park virtually outside where the colliery was. I give talks on a number of topics and am so effected by the events of 1893 that I am now including the Massacre as a topic.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you very much for letting us know about you family's connection to the colliery. It would be interesting to hear one of your talks. Please do let us know next time you give a talk related to Featherstone.
    Emma.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you; I gave my first talk on the Massacre a couple of weeks ago to the Ackworth Probus Group; ironically Ackworth being my great grandfather's birthplace! I have been asked to give a talk to the Wetherby Rotary Club in May.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Well done, Robert! Good luck with your next talk.
    Emma.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi there, would it be possible to find out if my grandfather, Samuel Bird worked at either of the two collieries in Featherstone ? I often heard my grandmother speak of Featherstone and the hard times they had there, a long shot I know but would really appreciate any help or advice. very many thanks.wendy delaney

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Betty,
      Have you found your grandfather in the Deceased Online records?
      Emma.

      Delete
    2. Thanks for your response Emma, not very techie I'm afraid, how do I find them ?

      Delete
    3. Hi Betty, you just need to complete the search boxes on the Deceased Online database at www.deceasedonline.com. Have a look at this blog post: http://deceasedonlineblog.blogspot.com/2012/10/how-to-find-your-ancestors-in-deceased_5.html This walks you through how to find your ancestors in the database.
      Let me know if you have any problems!
      Emma.

      Delete
  6. Does this massacre have any form of link towards the rose and crown in Ludlow uk? Only today i went for a meal with my family my mother went upstairs and immediately felt a male presence this made her feel very uneasy not long after she had chest pains.As a sensitive, em-path and a wicken she knew this was a paranormal incident occurring. A location seemed to yell in her mind 'Feather Stone Alley', she has never heard of this location before it was very strange. I have been researching this location for a little bit and nothing seemed to come up this incident you have written on your page seems to fit with the persona of who my mother thought she met. The strange goings on apparently have been since the new owners have began to renovate the property by knocking down walls and other things. One report was the cleaning lady set out the beer mats went outside and came back in they had all been thrown onto the floor, she has also reported that a little girl had been spotted on the stairs running down like she was scared, this girl didn't seem like she was alive (more like a pale figure kind of situation) the little girl didn't seem whole. Please get back to me as soon as you can, this incident was extremely concerning, we asked the lady working if anyone else had reported this and she told us a few people who had been there during the time since re-opening had also seen strange things happen like things moving and people who were not really there. I cannot stress this enough for you BETTY to get back to me about the rose and crown in ludlow town this is an urgent matter as it seems like it is a evil presence trying to hurt anyone it can grip onto

    ReplyDelete

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