Hard Times At The Collieries

I found an article in the local press, one among many about parents not sending their children regularly to school, which resonated in two ways.  Most recently the debate about parents who take their children out of school for holidays, and maybe the reason from around 1875-80, why some of Andrew’s Kindred migrated to Derbyshire to find work.

The people named in the article were from Ogley Hay and Brownhills, in southern Staffordshire.

Lichfield Mercury 14 Aug 1885 p5 col6

HARD TIMES AT THE COLLIERIES. — Mr. Passey, School Attendance Officer, summoned the following persons for not sending their children regularly to school:- John Jones, Ogley Hay, fined 2s. 6d.; John Nicholls, Ogley Hay, fined 2s. 6d.; William Hingley, Ogley Hay, 5s.; James Caine, (2), 5s.; Joseph Heath, 2s. 6d.; John Gibson, 2s 6d.; Thomas Poxon, 2s. 6d.; Samuel Poxon, 2s. 6d.; and Jesse Dean, adjourned for three months. In most cases the defendants stated that they could not find the money to pay for their children’s attendance as work was so slack at the collieries, Dean stating that his wages had not averaged 7s. a week since March last. — The Bench advised them to apply to the Board to get their children’s fees remitted.

Note:  the “Bench” meant (as it does today) the local magistrates and the Board was the equivalent of the local Council.

The Board had powers to grant relief to families who could not pay.  I have not been able to find a figure for 1885, but from the Lichfield Mercury in 1889 the fees were:

  • 1st child – 3d. (three pence) per week
  • 2nd child – 2d.
  • 3rd child – 1d.
  • Further children 1d. each.

Bear in mind the things we spend money on today that were not available or required then, such as transport (to the same degree – commuting, school run, etc.), white goods, holidays, dining out or takeaway, Tv, phone,  broadband, VAT, National Insurance, running hot water and less crowded housing.

Still, these miners thought it was something they could or would not pay.  Worse still, they now had to pay fines; where would James Caine find five shillings?

Sir Roy Strong, in The Story of Britain, A People’s History (pp470-41), says that in the last thirty years of the nineteenth century Britain’s industrial supremacy was threatened by what was called the Great Depression (though exports continued to grow).  “In the 1870s Britain was overtaken by the United States and then, after 1900, by Germany.  Britain’s share of the world’s trade dropped from 25% to 14% between 1870 and 1910.”

A search on Ancestry for people born in Brownhills and living in Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire, and South Wales coal mining areas finds quite a lot of miners’ families resident in 1911.

So that explains it.  Well, not a bit of it!

Coal consumption, production and employment continued to rise.  According to Government figures UK annual coal production rose rapidly between 1883-1892 and 1913-1922 from 536 million tonnes (Mt) to 1,036 Mt.; almost double.  On top of that real wages continued to rise (1).  So was there some local economic factor causing 31% of children to be absent from school in 1881 and 23% in 1884?

At another meeting of the Brownhills School Board on 7 September 1885, Mr Passey reported that he had visited parents of children who had not attended school as required:  Norton Canes 102, Ogley Hay 118, Walsall Foreign 109, and Hammerwich 88.  That is a total of 417 children.

But what of the individuals?

1881 census:

  • John Nichols, Norton Canes, children aged 15, 12, 7, 3, and 7 months.
  • William Hingley, not found.
  • James Cain, Pike Helve Row [Pier Street], Brownhills, 9 children including aged 7, 6, and 4 (occupation crumpet baker, 1890 hawker).
  • Joseph Heath, Lichfield Road, Ogley Hay, children aged 7, 4, 2, and 5 months.
  • John Gibson, Chester Road (1891, Ogley Square), children aged  6, 3, and 2 months.
  • Thomas Poxon, Lichfield Road, Ogley Hay, children aged 8, 4, 2, and 5 months.
  • Samuel Poxon, Queen Street, Walsall Wood, children aged 9, 2 and 1.
  • Jesse Dean, only found in 1891 and a family tree, children aged 6, and 1 in 1881 (occupation wharf labourer).

Of the seven found five were miners.  All seven had children who would be of school age in 1885.

At a meeting of the Brownhills School Board in November 1881, Mr Passey reported that he had visited parents of children who had not attended school as required:  Norton Canes 275, Ogley Hay 254, Walsall Foreign 237, and Hammerwich 248.  That is a total of 1,014 children, more than twice as many as in 1889.  Based on Mr Passey’s 1881 report, average absence was 416, so there must have been some return visits?

Based on Lichfield Mercury 11 Nov 1881, p8, col4-5.

The comparable overall average attendance for 1884 was 77% and in 1889 75%.  Does that mean times were harder in 1881?  Maybe not.  Elemetary education between age 5 and 10 became compulsory under the Act of 1870.  Nationally, average attendance was only 82% by 1893.  It seems that Mr Passey’s efforts (and the fines imposed by the Board) helped to gradually increase attendance (3):

“The contacts between the enforcement authorities and the working class population took place on two levels – the informal contacts in their neighbourhood or home, and the formal ones in the attendance meeting or court. Garland has shown that bt the end of the nineteenth century, surveillance and monitoring of the working class family was being undertaken by a bewildering variety of voluntary, charity and official bodies. Of all these, the activities of the school attendance office were the most pervasive and widespread, especially in urban areas.”

Local factors

Were there any factors to indicate why people in this area were struggling in this period?  Those of Andrew’s Kindred who left the area to find work in Derbyshire moved in about 1875-1880.  It might be that large families had outgrown the opportunities available in the Brownhills area and people moved in response to advertisements for labour elsewhere.  I have not found anything to indicate that local pay was significantly different from other places.

Were there circumstances peculiar to the men summonsed and fined in this case?

James Cain and family seem to have been frequently on the wrong side of the law.  In 1878 son James was had up for using a catapult and fined 6s and 12s costs.  At the same Sessions wife Martha was bound over to keep the peace for six months, plus costs, having threatened to give her neighbour “a good hiding”.  In 1879 wife Martha and daughter Ellen were imprisoned for stealing 100 lbs (pounds) (about 45 kg) of coal from Hanbury, the coal mine owner.  In 1890 James Caine, hawker, Brownhills, was charged with receiving goods he knew to be stolen.  Various items in his possession had been stolen by three soldiers from Whittington Barracks, allegedly.

In 1888 John Gibson was again fined 2s. 6d. for not sending children to school.  Others appear in the press for drunk and disorderly behaviour, assault, and theft.  Jesse Dean, wharf labourer, would probably be among the less well paid.


It appears that the overall average attendance rates set out in the 1881 and 1884 reports to the Local Board were at about the regional and national average (2).  It appears, then, that families in Brownhills were just as likely to send their children to school as anyone else, indeed more likely than in Cornwall or the Industrial North, and that other contributory factors, such as truancy, were therefore also average.

In the cases of the men prosecuted in 1885, perhaps there were particular difficulties, but there appears to have been no general decline in local economic circumstances relative to other parts of the region or the country.  It is just the way it was.

Notes / Sources

1. Cook & Stephenson, 2011, The Longman Handbook of Modern British History 1714-2001, 4th ed., p254.

2.  Sheldon, N, 2007,  School Attendance 1880-1939: a study of policy and practice in response to the problem of truancy (a dissertation for D.Phil., Manchester College, Oxford). Online from Bodleian Library, note pp 52 and 84.

3.  As 2, p98.

Various articles in the Lichfield Mercury.

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