Political and industrial crisis : the experience of the Tyne and Wear pitmen, 1831-1832
/The coalfield of North East England was at the forefront of the industrial revolution in the early nineteenth century, in terms of both technological expertise and managerial experience in business practice. Labour relations were a source of intermittent conflict, and the conjunction of industrial unrest at the collieries, a major cholera epidemic, and the parliamentary reform campaign of 1831-1832, brought an unusual crisis. Prompted by economic deterioration, a new Tyne and Wear pitmen’s union, known after its chairman as 'Hepburn's Union', conducted a successful coal strike in the summer of 1831. But as the pitmen consolidated their victory, the House of Lords' rejection in October 1831 of a second parliamentary Reform Bill caused a major outcry, and locally raised the profile of the 'Northern Political Union', a Newcastle-based pressure group embracing all shades of pro-reform opinion. Many local pitmen gave demonstrable support to the NPU, not least at its May 1832 reform meeting in Newcastle. Meanwhile however, the previously complacent coal owners had consciously set out to destroy the pitmen's union, and after establishing an indemnity fund, provoked the pitmen into strike action in April 1832. The resultant dispute was marked by evictions, the recruitment of outside labour, and by violence and even murder: but with state support from the army, navy, and magistrates, and financial and moral support from local bankers and newspapers, by mid-September 1832 the pitmen's resistance was broken. Along with their leaders' interest in attempts to form general industrial unions, the pitmen's support for parliamentary reform during 1831-1832 suggests the political and industrial aspects of their behaviour were not mutually exclusive, but overlapping and complementary. And though ultimately defeated, Hepburn's Union was most significant in that it became a model for subsequent pitmen's unions.