(Part Two: The Colliers' March of 1816)

by David Cox

The period between 1815 and 1822 was one of the most difficult and troubled in British economic and social history - George Barnsby refers to it in his classic book, The Working Class Movement in the Black Country 1750-1867 as the 'Long Depression'.1 The wars with France had finally ended, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers and sailors had returned to the home country, thereby increasing the scarcity of food and employment.

In 1816, although over 16 million tons of coal were mined, over one half of the total public revenue was immediately swallowed up by payment of interest on the National Debt. Brian Murphy, in A History of the British Economy 1740-1970, remarks that '1816 and 1817 were grim years for the iron-masters. More than one splendid fortune turned to dust…' 2 This obviously had a concomitant effect on those employed by the iron-masters. Once again, the scene was set for public unrest at both the price of staple foods and the scarcity of employment. However, the form of protest was gradually changing - George Barnsby states that: From 1815, permanent and highly sophisticated forms of organization appeared whose members and leaders were working class people. The "mob" continued to play an important part in political and economic struggles, but response to injustice and repression was no longer entirely dependent on the vagaries of mob reaction. 3

The reaction of the Bilston colliers and ironworkers seems partially to substantiate this view; although a "mob" was still involved in the immediate protests, the subsequent creation of relief funds for the downtrodden does seem to indicate a more sophisticated form of organization - however, these funds seem to have been largely the response of the concerned middle class rather than the working class.

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth century had been a time of particular unrest and uncertainty with regard to food riots - as Douglas Hay remarks:

The industrial region of South Staffordshire was particularly likely to erupt in food riots…[There was] also a heavy concentration of occupations (such as that of collier) which had a reputation for collective direct action, in the form of riot, sabotage or other direct intimidation of employers and authorities, and the concentration of particular trades in certain parishes helped generalise the phenomenon. 4

Increasingly intolerable distress faced by the colliers and ironworkers of the Black Country finally caused their despair to spill over in mid-1816, when groups of unemployed colliers decided to drag waggons containing Black Country coal to London and Liverpool in an effort to publicize their plight. Three waggons, each weighing in excess of two tons, were dragged by hand from the outskirts of Bilston to Oxford. From there, the three groups split, with one heading to Maidenhead, another to St. Albans, and the third to Beaconsfield.

The Times of Friday 5th July 1816 contained the following account of the 'Colliers' March':

The colliers and labourers in the iron-works from Bilston, who have advanced towards London, have, it is said, at length been stopped by messengers from Government, advising them to wait at some distance from town until the result of their petitions shall be known. Government will doubtless give every possible attention to their petition; but it is utterly impossible that such wild projects should be attended with any beneficial result, which might not be much better obtained by remaining at home, and stating their grievances in writing to those who have it in their power to afford them relief. What good can possibly be obtained by losing many days labour, and incurring the expense of a long and tedious journey, it would puzzle the promoters of this ill-advised scheme to say. The waggon which was to proceed by the route of Oxford, has already reached the vicinity of Henley-upon-Thames; and another was reported yesterday to have reached the neighbourhood of St. Albans. In all that is stated about these unfortunate men, we do not learn that they have any wish to encourage riot or disorder. They foolishly entertain the opinion that the Prince Regent can order them employment, and they pride themselves upon being willing to work for an honest livelihood. Such is the curiosity excited to see these extraordinary petitioners, that many persons have actually left town in the expectation of meeting them.

This was the first of a series of reports that The Times carried on the 'Colliers' March'. On Saturday 6th July 1816, it published an 'eyewitness' account of the progress of the waggon that had reached Maidenhead:

Yesterday morning (Thursday), Mr Birnie from Bow Street, accompanied by 2 officers, arrived at the Sun inn here, and after consulting with Sir William Hearn, and other Magistrates of this place, swore in several extra constables; and as a matter of precaution, ordered a party of military to be under arms. (see Figure 1) This done, they sent forward the officers from Bow Street to meet the waggon that was approaching from Henley; it was met on Maidenhead Thicket, […] and the crowd attending it, on being informed that they would not be permitted to proceed, instantly stopped, and conducted themselves with the greatest propriety. The waggon, which was 2 ton, 6cwt and 12lb, was drawn by 41 men; and a leader or overseer rode on horseback and directed the whole. As soon as it was understood by the magistrates that the party wished to act in the way most agreeable to the lawful authorities, a negotiation was entered into, and the coals were permitted to be brought in here by four of the party and their leader, and were deposited with Wm. Pyne esq., who will distribute them among the poor of Maidenhead […] The men refused to sell the coals, but gave them up as requested to Mr Pyne, and received a very handsome present instead. Mr Birnie, Sir Wm. Hearn, Mr Pyne etc went out and negotiated. The poor fellows were perfectly satisfied, but refused to go until the magistrates signed a paper that they had conducted themselves properly. At Henley, the day before yesterday, they behaved so well that the Mayor permitted them to go wherever they pleased in the town, and they had upwards of £40 given to them at that place. They left Bilston with three waggons in company, and parted at Oxford. One waggon was to be at Beaconsfield last night, and the other at St. Albans […].

These accounts of the good behaviour of the protesters helped publicise their cause, and seemed to prick a few middle-class consciences. Letters from middle-class gentlemen from Coseley and Birmingham appeared in The Times, carrying accounts of the terrible suffering being endured by the colliers and ironworkers:

When I have told these poor creatures that the parish must find them food or labour, they have replied, 'Sir, they cannot do either', and some […] have said, 'We would rather die, Sir, than be dependant on the parish'. […] Some, I believe, have really died of starvation […]. An insufficiency of wholesome nourishment […] produced diseases which terminated in dissolution.

The picture on the right is of Sir Richard Birnie, Chief Magistrate of Bow Street 1821-32. According to most accounts, Birnie was a dedicated and reasonably humane magistrate during his tenure at Bow Street.

Further letters of support and thanking those who had donated to the relief of the poor of the area were published on the 29th and 31st July.

Sir Richard Birnie, Chief Magistrate of Bow Street 1821-32


On 5th August another letter was received:

The distress, Sir, is beyond everything that has been described […]. I know, Sir, that other districts are in distress; but our sorrows are of an earlier date, and consequently of longer standing than those of any other county. Before the peace was concluded our staple manufacture - our iron-works - began to fail; and without help the pressure on our neighbourhood is insupportable.

Richard Smith, of Tibbington House, near Birmingham, was the author of this letter. He, along with Reverend B.H. Draper of Coseley, helped co-ordinate the relief fund that had been created to help the distressed. Despite funds being received from such illustrious donors as Francis Freeling, Secretary General of the Post Office, the distress unfortunately continued unabated throughout the rest of the year. George Barnsby remarks that 'in Christmas week the Wolverhampton soup kitchen was issuing 4,200 quarts of soup weekly'. 5

In the following year the Reverend Doctor Luke Booker, JP and Vicar of Dudley, warned of seditious material '…designing demagogues scattering their noxious notions over the prurient minds of an unwary people'. 6

Although the popular agitation in the Black Country area did diminish by the end of the decade, unrest in the area flared up again spasmodically throughout the second quarter of the nineteenth century. The most serious unrest took place in 1831, sparking real fears of a nationwide revolution and these riots are covered in depth in a three-part article by J. Robert Williams (The Blackcountryman vol. 7 nos. 3 & 4, vol. 8, no. 1, 1974/5).

With the benefit of hindsight, this popular agitation can be seen as the early stirrings of working class demands for a fairer and more democratic society. That there was no popular widespread revolution in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century is perhaps somewhat surprising; despite the popular image of working class unrest, the majority of the population remained remarkably law-abiding and deferential to their unfortunate lot in society.

George Barnsby, The Working Class Movement in the Black Country 1750 to 1867 (Wolverhampton: Integrated Publishing Services, 1977), p. 4
2 Brian Murphy, A History of the British Economy 1740-1970 (London: Longman, 1973), p. 444
3 George Barnsby, The Working Class Movement in the Black Country 1750 to 1867, p. 4
4 Douglas Hay, 'Manufacturers and the Criminal Law in the Later Eighteenth Century: Crime and "Police" in South Staffordshire', Past and Present Colloquium: Police and Policing (1983)
5 George Barnsby, The Working Class Movement in the Black Country 1750 to 1867, p. 4
6 ibid, p. 6

University of Birmingham Library
Dr John Archer, Edge Hill College, Ormskirk

© David Cox 2002 


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