Miners, Martyrs and the Palace of Westminster

This is a transcript of episode 38 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, Celia Richardson, Norma Gregory, Billy Reading and Ross Forbes as we continue our journey through the history of power, protest & progress in England.

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Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Welcome to Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places. I'm your host, Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, a historian based at the University of Roehampton. In these programmes we're exploring 100 locations selected by ten different judges from thousands of nominations sent in by you. Each of these remarkable sites represents a pivotal or pioneering development in the history of England or has a special story to tell about our country. In this episode we continue the Power, Protest & Progress category, judged from your nominations by historian and broadcaster, David Olusoga.

Last week's podcasts looked at different forms of protest. In today's episode we'll be focussing on power and the places that represent this in different ways. To take a journey through these locations, I'm joined by Celia Richardson; the historian, Norma Gregory; and Billy Reading, welcome to you all.

Our fourth choice in the category of Power, Protest & Progress is the Pitman's Parliament in Durham, home of the Durham Union of Miners. The official name for the Pitman's Parliament is the Council Chamber. It's a purpose-built trade union meeting place at the heart of the Grade II listed Durham Miners' Hall. For almost a century it was the scene of important debates that shaped the lives of mining communities in the vast Durham coalfield. Each miners' lodge sent an elected delegate who would sit within this great room in a given seat and speak on behalf of the colliery workers, representing the interests of their area and shaping the lives of their communities. In order to find out more about its role in democracy, we paid a visit.

Ross Forbes:
Well, this is it; this is the Pitman's Parliament. Built in 1915, it's the Council chamber for all of the union delegates covering the whole of the Durham coalfield. Here, and it's built in the style of a Methodist chapel, which is not surprising because the people who founded the Union were liberal Methodists, you'll see on the back of each of the seats there is a number. That number relates to the colliery and there are 298 of these seats in this room, telling you that at the time it was built there were 298 collieries in the county of Durham. It was one big coal mine, from the south bank of the Tyne to the north bank of the Tees. It's the biggest coalfield ever in the world. In the time this was built, there were roughly 225,000 coal miners alone in the county and they were serviced probably by five people for each coalminer. So, you can get an understanding of the scale of the industry.

This building was described by the surveyor, who now is the surveyor of all surveyors with the National Trust, as "a palace built by workers for workers". And if you look at the wood and the joinery, the level of skill- all of this is fashioned out of Austrian oak, strangely enough, but it just glistens and shines even now, 102 years after it was built. You have a front stage which is essentially where the Union leaders would address the Parliament and it's set in a beautiful sort of arced layout, running back probably about 20 metres. It has the acoustics of power.

Well, here we step up to the stage which, again, is beautifully crafted by very, very skilled joiners. This is where the Union leaders would address the mass delegates of the Durham coalfield and they would be discussing things of high political importance. They would have discussed the Coal Nationalisations Bill in the mid-1940s, they would have discussed the price of coal, production levels. More importantly, what they did discuss was health and safety in the mines and from this building they allocated their own money because they raised everything through subscription to build out in the coalfield aging mineworkers' homes so that when you're injured or finished in the colliery, you had somewhere to go because prior to nationalisation you used to be turfed out of your house.

They built community hospitals, they built reading rooms, they built welfare halls. They built, really, the prototype of the welfare state from here using their own money that they'd raised themselves. It's a phenomenally socialising force. The origins of the Pitman's Parliament are seated way back in the 1830s. In 1831 Thomas Hepburn organised the first strike of the Northumberland and Durham colliers and they won it and what they won was a reduction in the hours of the working day of boys, and they were boys who were under 12. And they managed to get the working day down from 16 hours a day to 12.

From that the liberal Methodists built up and challenged a lot of the abuses, really, of Victorian capitalism, particularly in the coalmining industry. At that time, in the 1830s and right up until the formation of the Durham Miners' Association in 1869, you were bonded to the coal owner and the colliery by a yearly contract whereby you had signed up, you could not move your labour no matter what the circumstances and you were stuck to that colliery.

So, the early liberal Methodists who built the foundations of the Union fought against that bond to allow mineworkers to have that freedom of movement of labour which we now think is an inalienable right. Then it wasn't, clearly. So, out of that tradition comes this radicalism, comes this social campaigning, comes the building of social fabric done by the people who organise labour and that's the important part about all of this.

There is something about the atmosphere of this room in particular that is just so evocative of its day and even now it's possible to see the ghosts of the miners sitting in these seats. It doesn't take too much imagination to understand what sort of canny debates went on here, the passion and the belief that you could do something different with the world.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So, what was the driving force behind forming a Parliament? Why did miners feel the need?

Celia Richardson:
Primarily it was because at the time coalminers were suffering from a lack of rights. So, until 1872 all the miners of Northumberland, Cumberland and Durham were employed under this bond system, including some of my ancestors- I'm a Durham miner's granddaughter. And a lot of the sort of tales that were passed down through our family were about the cruelties of the bond system. You were owned, really, by the mine owner, whether or not there was work for you. You were obliged to submit to various fines, harsh working conditions and the idea was that you had to stay at the colliery for a whole year.

There were long working hours. Sometimes workers were paid in tokens that could only be exchanged at the mine owner's shop. I think one of the most difficult things was that if anybody protested or complained, they were seen as a troublemaker and then they were subjected to blacklisting and they were made to leave the colliery. And I think we just need to stop and think for a second about what that means because, you know, if you're working in a community, in an industry where the labour is very hard, where it's very dangerous, you are depending on those bonds between yourself and your neighbours and possibly your family. And, you know, often you risked early death, your wife could be widowed and made to look after children and she had no means of guaranteeing her income.

So, the need to live in communities, the need to stay in trusting communities when you're in that sort of industry and you're facing those sort of threats is quite high. So the breaking of those bonds, the threat, because obviously all the housing is also owned by the mine owner, so you're really living quite a precarious life at the whim of somebody who, if your face doesn't fit, if he doesn't like your behaviour, you're moved on.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So, that was what happened with the bond system if, after the year had elapsed and you had done something to cause trouble during that time, they could move you on to the next...

Celia Richardson:
Yes, but what would happen was you'd be blacklisted from the whole county.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So, presumably it was impossible to protest against bad conditions.

Celia Richardson:
Yeah, it's one of the ways that you were stopped from making much progress. The annual termination of the bonding, you know, enabled the mine owners to pick and choose who they wanted. So, following years of dispute and unrest, the great strike of 1844 saw the miners crushed and their Union was destroyed. And then the mine owners introduced a monthly bond, and this was a punishment and it remained in place for the next 18 years and the idea was that miners were only guaranteed work for a month at a time at this point, which actually in some ways... You know, the intention was to enable the owners to take action against troublemakers but they recognised, you know, in time that the new arrangement actually benefited the miners as it gave them some more freedom. It introduced more freedom of movement between different districts.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Community would have been very important to them and forming this Parliament would have been a big step. I mean, how and when did it happen?

Celia Richardson:
Building started just before the outbreak of the First World War, when the country was at its most productive from coal- 1913 was its most productive year. And it was 1913 when the Durham Miners' Association bought the site from some nuns, in fact, and it opened in 1915. The county's coalfield was employing 200,000 men at the time and it must have been incredibly difficult to finish that building during the war. But one of the things that happened during, you know, both of the wars in the 20th Century is that the miners rarely went to war. They had to keep producing the coal, so, you know, a lot of their communities actually remained intact.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And why is this building still important today?

Celia Richardson:
First of all, it's quite an act of chutzpah to build your own Parliament, you know, for your county. That's quite a thing. And it's arresting. It's beautiful. It's made of good stuff. The pit owners always had very, very large grand statement houses at the top of the hill, usually, and the miners lived below. Having a place where they came together, they raised it by subscription, it was a grand place where they could actually meet pit owners on equal terms. That's very special. I mean, for me it's also just, you know, an incredibly beautiful building.

Norma Gregory:
I visited there last year- I went to the Durham Miners' Gala. They've been having a gala in Durham, a massive gathering for over I think 133 years now, 134 years and last year, July the 8th, they had a fantastic meeting there at Pitman's Parliament and Ken Loach spoke. It was packed full and it was just a beautiful building, beautiful wooden panels and many of the colliery banners, because each colliery has its own flag, massive flag, with depictions of its history on that flag and it's carried through the centre of Durham every July on this massive gala weekend. So, it's absolutely fabulous to go to and I thoroughly enjoyed myself there and I was very welcomed there as well.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
It seems to me a bit of a hidden gem, the Pitman's Parliament, which is what this series is all about. Well, we move from one important symbol of the trade union movement in county Durham to another in the south of England. This one is a tree. In 1834 six farm labourers from Tolpuddle in Dorset, who had been barred from church halls or other indoor spaces, sheltered under the spreading branches of the sycamore tree in the heart of the village of Tolpuddle. They gathered to discuss their long hours and their small wages. They formed an outlawed workers' association or friendly society, which made them pioneers of the trade union movement. We talked about coal miners and now we're thinking about farm workers. What was life like for farm workers at this time?

Norma Gregory:
Dorset farm workers and many farm workers in general lived in poverty. In fact, their wages had decreased from nine shillings a week to seven shillings, six shillings is about 30 pence in today's money, with the prospects of further cuts to come. Rent and a basic diet of tea, bread and potatoes would typically cost a family around 13 shillings a week.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So, we're talking about not being able to make ends meet and that the wages were terribly, terribly low. So, who were the Tolpuddle Martyrs? What were they trying to achieve then? Greater wages, I suppose!

Celia Richardson:
Yes, to protect their rights, to demand better wages. They came together to form a friendly society and entry into the society involved the payment of a shilling and the swearing of an oath under a sycamore tree but swearing an oath was illegal and this is what got them arrested. So, they were tried before an all-male jury. The jury men were farmers and the employers of the labourers who were being tried and the farmers rented their land from the gentry who were very opposed to the idea of labourers uniting.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And what, therefore, happened to them? They went on trial?

Celia Richardson:
Well, this is very interesting because one of the things about the Tolpuddle Martyrs is how quickly news of what was happening to them spread and how very, very widespread, right across the country, support for the Tolpuddle Martyrs was, and part of this is because they were tried in the old Crown Court in Dorchester. The trial was one of the first in the country to be held with a press gallery. Because of this press gallery, news of the conviction spread very quickly.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So, they were found guilty and the punishment they were given was they were being sent to the colonies, is that right?

Celia Richardson:
Yes. So, after a two-day trial the judge, Baron Williams, found them guilty. He said the safety of the country was at stake and they were sentenced to seven years in a penal colony in Australia. And it was the maximum sentence they could have had and they realised immediately, of course, that they'd been made an example of.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
But because of that press gallery, word got out and how important, therefore, were they and was their fate in driving forward the trade union movement?

Celia Richardson:
Well, I mean, hugely important. During the three years while they were away, and a bit of a spoiler, yes, they were only away for three years, the trade union movement sustains the martyrs' families by collecting voluntary donations and eventually, after the three years, the six men are given a complete pardon and returned to England. But it's that sustained campaigning on behalf of the trade union movement and the determination to keep their families going back here and to have them returned and to have them pardoned, which did eventually happen.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Unsurprisingly, only one of them remained in Dorset after that point. Most of them emigrated to Canada. You can sort of understand why, can't you?

Celia Richardson:
I don't think you'd fancy returning but, yes, one of them is buried in Tolpuddle, that's George Hammett (sic) [should be James Hammett] and, yes, the others emigrated to Canada. But, yes, their courageous actions helped pave the way across the world for the creation of trade unions and the protection of employees' rights.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So, what was the legacy of the Tolpuddle Martyrs?

Norma Gregory:
Well, trade unions were not legalised until the Trade Union Act of 1871. So, I think from that day the unions developed. I mean, today we have Unite, we have Unison, obviously when the miners were around they had the National Union of Mineworkers. So, unions really support people's rights and help to kind of strengthen community and develop the workplace for the better.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And the Tolpuddle Martyrs are, of course, the beginnings of this sort of movement or at least an important step along the way.

Our final choice for this episode really had to be in the top ten because it's a building that encapsulates power, protest and progress! It's an international symbol of democracy and has been at the heart of our national life for 900 years and it's, of course, the Palace of Westminster. Commonly known as the Houses of Parliament, this is the meeting place of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the two houses of Parliament of the United Kingdom.

It lies on the north bank of the River Thames in the city of Westminster in central London. The name, the Palace of Westminster, is derived from the neighbouring Westminster Abbey and it refers to two structures, the old palace, a medieval building that was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1834 and its replacement, the new palace that still stands today. And the only part of the old palace that remains is Westminster Hall. So, let's try and cover lots of history. Let's think about the early stages of democracy in the UK and the role of this site in it.

Billy Reading:
This is the most fantastic site in London, I think. It's the embodiment of democracy. It's a symbol of power and hence it attracts protest but it's the history, the tangible history, which is really exciting. The Palace started its life as a royal palace built by Edward the Confessor, who was the penultimate Saxon monarch of England and soon after his coronation in 1042 he begins building Westminster Abbey on Thorney Island, which is a small island at the confluence of the River Tyburn and the Thames.

He threw all of his energy into building the abbey but he wanted to be close to the sites to keep an eye on the building project, so they identified a small bit of land on a side of the island, right up against the Thames, and there Edward the Confessor built his own palace, which is the Palace of Westminster, shoehorned right in between the river and the abbey. And he didn't live to see the completion of either building properly. He was buried in the abbey in 1066 and then in 1097 William Rufus, the son of William the Conqueror, he built the Great Hall in New Palace Yard, which is still there. It's over 900 years old and it's a space that you can go and stand in today, which is astonishing, really.

So, in those days the government would follow the royal progress. The King, the monarch, would move around the country and with him would go all of the government departments. They would follow the progress. But, increasingly, through the 10th and 11th Century various institutions begin to break away from the royal household and actually settle at Westminster and that's why Westminster becomes the seat of power for the government.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And, of course, we see Parliament gradually developing power, going from being a sort of occasional King's Court, through the 16th Century we have the reformation Parliament of 1529 to 36 which, of course, was what was challenged and defended a century later in the Civil War. We, of course, have got Charles I having a terrible relationship with Parliament, crucially dismissing Parliament in 1629 and ruling without them for 11 years, which wasn't illegal but was highly unusual.

And when forced to recall Parliament because of a war with Scotland for which he needed money, instead of being granted money, Parliament sent Charles the Grand Remonstrance of November 1641- a list of 204 complaints about how he was running the country. And, to cut a long story short, on the 22nd of August 1642 the King of England declared war on Parliament. So, this is quite a big moment.

And then we have the Civil War, ultimate consequence of which is that in 1649 Parliament put the King on trial in Westminster Hall that you were just describing there, Billy, and eventually he was executed just down the road, in front of the Banqueting House. We can't even really begin to imagine how much history this building has seen. Tell me what we can see if we go and visit it today.

Billy Reading:
Today you'll see a fantastic building by Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, which is really a Gothic fantasy palace. It is astonishing. It has over 100 staircases, more than a thousand rooms, three miles of corridors and passages and huge ceremonial spaces. They elected to build it in the Gothic style which, there was a lot of debate about this at the time and it really stimulated what we call the "Battle of Styles" in the 19th century- whether the classical or Gothic architecture was the best to represent our nation.

The Gothic style is really looking back to a pre-industrialised medieval society. It's a style infused with traditional ideals and values. It enshrined the values of the craftsman, the humble craftsman, and celebrates those. They're giving stability and continuity through architecture by using the Gothic language. And how they're using it as well! They really went to town! The designers go right the way through from the building envelope all the way down to door handles, fingerplates, everything. Everything is Gothic and everything is over the top.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And, of course, it is the centre of power. So, how many MPs do we have today, 650?

Norma Gregory:
650, and mainly men still. It obviously started off with all men. It took many years, obviously, for women to have a say in Parliament.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
It has, of course, Parliament itself, long been the focus of protests as well. Most marches follow a route around the city and end up arriving next to, we call it Big Ben, the Elizabeth Tower, named after the bell in it. So, what are the recent protests that have taken place around the Palace of Westminster?

Celia Richardson:
Well, gosh, I think almost all protests do end up going somewhere near the Parliament and why not! But I used to love Brian Haw. He camped in a very small tent on Parliament Square for years and years and years, protesting against the Iraq War. He just became part...he almost became part of the building. I think people were quite affectionate about him. He had all these wonderful handmade signs which I think were collected in the end. I think a selection of them were taken into the V&A, is that right?

I just think he was a perfect example of just somebody who sort of really fit in with the ambience. He was just a really important part of democracy for quite a long time. So, he was a very famous protester but, oh, my goodness, there've been so many! When I was growing up I think Fathers for Justice became the ones- they were always, you know, dressing up in superhero outfits and chaining themselves to something and they sort of were always appearing in Batman suits. And I loved the three lesbian demonstrators who abseiled into The Lords during a debate on Section 28.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Protesting, of course, against the piece of legislation that banned the "promotion of homosexuality" in schools.

Celia Richardson:
That's right. And, you know, there's been fox hunting protests of all descriptions. The Countryside Alliance had a long period of organising marches. All the Iraq war marches, there's just, you know...I think each generation sees this going on.

Norma Gregory:
Yes, and it always seems to be a place where things are always happening. It's often...you know, you see it on the news. There's always something dramatic happening there but now I think it's more the media that are often in Parliament Square now, you know, delivering the news and it seems to be a fitting backdrop for all the kind of drama that we're kind of seeing in the world today.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Before we move on, let's just finally think about the architecture again because it is so extraordinary and the way in which Westminster has been such an important part of the story of democracy. Do you think those things are inextricably linked in your view, Billy?

Billy Reading:
Yes, I…the word iconic is so overused but it is the iconic symbol of power, of democracy and it's recognised all over the world as that. It's a repository for all of these protests, for all of the laws that have been made and argued and these important national debates.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
The Palace of Westminster is really the heart of our national life, even if it does not or cannot represent all our opinions all the time. So, that's the second of our podcasts, looking at power, protest and progress. Thank you to my guests, Celia Richardson, Norma Gregory and Billy Reading and, of course, our judge for this category, David Olusoga. Next time we'll reveal two more locations in England's story of power, protest and progress. In the next episode we'll be looking at power and conflict, so stay tuned. If you want to tell us about an important place on your doorstop, you can always get in touch using the hashtag 100 Places. That's the number 100. Don't forget to hit subscribe so that you get every episode and follow the story as it unfolds. I'm Suzannah Lipscomb, thank you for listening. I hope you'll join me next time.

Voiceover:
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