The Featherstone Massacre: Lessons For Today
Originally published in the Morning Star
SOME events leave an indelible mark on a community. They live long in the collective memory of a town and shape who we are, sometimes without us even realising it.
The Featherstone massacre of September 7 1893 is one of those events. Let me tell you what happened.
In the year 1893 the price of coal plummeted by 35 per cent. The owners of the mines feared this would reduce their profits and proposed to cut their workers’ wages by a quarter.
Poverty was already rife in mining communities at this time. A 25 per cent cut in wages was certain to have devastating consequences for the miners and their families. The mine owner’s proposal was one the workers just could not accept.
At a demonstration in Wakefield the Yorkshire Miners’ Association leaders showed their defiant spirit, saying: “No reduction will be submitted to. We intend to stick to what we have got. We got it by conquest and it will have to be taken away from us by conquest.”
In June 1893, the mine owners locked the workers out across West Riding’s 253 pits. Around 80,000 miners stopped work.
The lockout began peacefully but events took a violent turn when the owners brought in strikebreakers to move coal.
Miners began assembling at the collieries where coal was being loaded onto railway wagons.
On September 7 word spread across Featherstone that coal was being moved at Ackton Hall pit. Local people assembled outside the pit to confront the managers.
It turned out that the local police were out of town as they had been sent to Doncaster for the races, so soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment were drafted in to maintain order.
The Riot Act was read by the local magistrate, Bernard Hartley, and the soldiers were deployed to disperse the crowd.
By this point in the strike the miners and their families were suffering from hunger, yet their determination remained intact.
The crowd is said to have greeted the arrival of the armed soldiers by chanting “we would rather be shot than be hungered to death.” The crowd refused to disperse.
The soldiers were instructed to fire warning shots above the crowd’s heads. But the second volley of shots wounded eight people. Two young men were killed, 22-year-old James Gibb, and 25-year-old James Duggan.
The massacre at Featherstone sparked outrage across the country. Despite the Liberal Party government’s claims of social progress, these events demonstrated the British ruling class was still prepared to go to murderous lengths to protect its own interests and suppress working people.
Not long after the massacre the Labour Party leader, Keir Hardie, spoke in the local area. The decline of the Liberals had begun. In the following decades, the Labour Party emerged as the political voice of the working class.
These events go down in history as the last time that soldiers opened fire on their fellow citizens in England.
But comparisons can still be drawn between the circumstances of our forebears and of workers in our country today.
Right now workers are facing an assault on their pay, terms and conditions by employers attempting to “fire and rehire” their staff on more exploitative contracts.
Some of the biggest employers in the country are trying it. British Gas, British Airways, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Argos, Weetabix and Jacobs Douwe Egberts have all been in dispute with their workers over fire and rehire. These employers are using the cover of the pandemic to snatch money from the pockets of workers. Sound familiar?
Just as the mine owners in Featherstone in 1893 decided to pass the cost of crisis onto those who can least afford it, some of the biggest companies in our country are trying the same today. Conservative government ministers have denounced fire and rehire as “bully boy tactics,” but they refuse to take any action whatsoever to defend the workers falling victim to these exploitative practices.
Fire and rehire has been banned in Ireland, Spain and France, but our government believes workers in our country are not entitled to the same rights as workers elsewhere.
Just like the miners in Featherstone, the workers of today have no choice but to stand together and get organised against those who’d rob them blind if given half the chance.
My community remembered this lesson in the strikes of 1926, 1972 and in 1984/85. You only need to speak to your neighbours round here to see the spirit lives on.
Solidarity is the greatest weapon working people have. The history of my town proves it.