The Diaries of Henry Fothergill: Labour relations and the Aberdare strike of 1861

It is difficult for us today to fully comprehend the power of the South Wales coal owners and ironmasters in the mid-19th century or the length of their reach. Many behaved like Lords of the Manor whose actions affected every aspect of their workers lives – employment, homes, sustenance and health. However, owning and running an ironworks was not for the faint hearted – an ironmaster needed strong business acumen, nerves of steel, technical ability and social standing to succeed.  And lots of capital. Huge profits were ready for the taking if you were wealthy enough, ruthless enough and brave enough to ride the vicissitudes of the iron trade.

Henry’s early diaries (1860-64) give us a fascinating insight into his relationship with his workers, providing a contemporaneous account of early 1860s industrial disputes from an ironmaster’s perspective.

To an ironmaster employing huge numbers of colliers and ironworkers, seemingly minor reductions to an individual employee’s weekly wage could mean the difference between profit (and dividends for hungry investors) and loss. Understandably, those who toiled in the mines and ironworks, under terrible conditions for meagre reward, bitterly resented any wage cuts. The notoriously volatile iron trade, where iron prices fluctuated dramatically and unpredictably, didn’t help matters. When the price of iron was high, workers expected higher wages but were reluctant to accept reductions when iron prices fell again. This proved a real headache for proprietors trying to balance employee and investor expectations in an uncertain economy – a familiar predicament for the Fothergills.

Newspaper reports of the 1831 Merthyr Riots claim they …originated from a recent reduction in the men’s wages at Merthyr, arising from the depressed state of the Iron Trade, and from the pernicious and oppressive nature of the Truck Shops in the surrounding districts [The Cambrian, 11 Jun 1831]. Henry’s uncle, Rowland Fothergill, then managing partner of Aberdare Iron Company, was targeted by the rioters who rampaged over the hill from Merthyr to Abernant, ransacked his house and …with clubs and menaces compelled him under penalty of his life, to sign a paper, stating that he had not declared that the miners of Mr. Crawshay were getting 5s. per week more than his own [The Cambrian, 11 Jun 1831].

The subsequent rise of Chartism and unions made disputes and strikes more common. Understandably perhaps, Rowland Fothergill did not tolerate political agitators. The Welshman, 8 Jul 1842, wrote, Some of the leading men from the Aberdare Iron Works, connected with the Chartists, have been dismissed from works in consequence of their political views. The Distress everywhere is great.

Fast forward to January 1860, when Henry’s diaries begin. Henry’s brother Richard’s extension and refurbishment of Abernant House was almost complete and Henry himself was moving into his new home, Canal House in Cwmbach, Aberdare.

We don’t have to read far into the first diary [D553/1] to find evidence of Henry’s ruthless streak:

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p.43, Thu 12 Jul 1860, The 2nd Heaters in no 1 mill standing out because I make them turn the piles twice properly so I stopped the mill for rest of week and shall send all the Puddled Iron to Taff Vale.

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 p. 44, Mon 16 July 1860, By first train to Aberdare mill men wanting to work again, won’t let them begin yet as a slight punishment

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p.84, Thu 13 Dec 1860, Called on James 8 a.m. about a man trying to obtain money from me in the County Court under plea of my having hit him which I did do with a good will as he was neglecting his work, after breakfasting Edwards and James went with me to see Rees of the County Court and left the matter of the lad in his hands to compromise the matter and so end it.

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p.120, Thu 25 Apr 1861, …caught a puddler stealing a long puddled Bar from Railway. Collared him and made him beg to pay and have stopped against him 20/- for the trick.

In Jan 1861, Henry complains of a downturn in trade. By April, workers are anxious of wage cuts and angry that the Fothergills are still operating the Truck system, despite having been heavily fined for doing so 10 years previously.

With a costly strike looming, Richard Fothergill, Henry’s brother, tries to collude with other Welsh ironmasters to fix the wage reduction at ironworks across South Wales. He was keen for workers to see themselves as being treated equally, particularly in the Merthyr and Aberdare Valleys, to try to avoid disputes.

The Dowlais Iron Company Collection contains correspondence between Richard Fothergill and George Clark, Dowlais  manager:

16 Apr 1861 – Richard Fothergill to Clark [DG/C/5/9/2]:

I am favoured with your letter of yesterday and note all your remarks. I quite agree with you in your opinion of the Trades and also that the selling price of Iron must leave a loss in the manufacture only to be mitigated by a reduction in the rate paid for labour: a readjustment of wages such as you and I have discussed would sensibly relieve cost, for owing to the improved appliances of the day and the changed system of manufacture that obtains; the Firemen generally are in receipt of wages preposterously in excess of the other classes of workmen, who ought also though “to take” (as you most properly urge) their share in the distress……

Individually I am old fashioned enough to think a good deal of a sovereign spent in vain, it is therefore to my mind very trying to see so many of my hard earned sovereigns swilled away each Pay Saturday, and though our Wages account of £3,000 a week looks small alongside your operations; 20 percent in Firemen and 10 percent with Colliers and others would save us upwards of £20,000 a year.

Richard’s attempts fail – the ironmasters cannot agree whether the reduction should apply to colliers in addition to ironworkers and the workers strike [D553/1].

p.119, Tues 23-Wed 24 Apr 1861, To Cardiff, I mean Merthyr, with A Hankey & arranged with Menelaus of Dowlais to give notice of a reduction generally!!!

p.127, Tues 7 May 1861, Mill going badly short of men.          

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p.131, Wed 29 May 1861, Message sent over – Rhymney etc, would only reduce 10% forges and mills our men all out still.

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p.132, Mon 3 June 1861, Aberdare – heap of puddlers round me at my office wanting discharges, I refused to give them.

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p.133, Thu 6 June 1861, Telegraph from Richard to blow out remainder furnaces which is consequently being done No 2 Abernant is now going out only two will then be left and those are at Aberdare.

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p.134, Fri 7 June 1861, Wrote to Rich asking consent to light should the men wish to work (Puddlers).

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p.134, Sat 8 June 1861, Meeting with James in office, after discussion gave orders to Evan Evans to blow out No 2 Aberdare immediately- Puddlers being still stubborn.

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p.134, Mon 10 June 1861, Showery- Train to Aberdare – called at James in James’ office No2 furnace now out therefore only 1 furnace out of the six is now in blast which is No1 Aberdare mill men at Taff Vale.

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p.135, Wednesday 12 June 1861, …out in works about 2 o’clock –“very slow” – nothing going on except gradually blowing out the blast furnaces and sending off coal for sale….

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p.136, Thursday 13 June 1861, walked to Eaglesbush [home of the Miers family]….A splendid, Lobster, Ham Strawberries etc for breakfast.

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p.137, Friday 14 June 1861, …deputation of Puddlers wanting to work again “but on their own Terms” – I refused to entertain the idea.

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p.139, Wednesday 19 June 1861, Telegram from Richard – “start one” forge and only one, and keep furnace at Llwydcoed ‘in’….Arranged with John Evans to light mills at No 3 forge tonight.

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p.139, Thursday 20 June 1861, Wrote to Richard in London. No 3 forges started 20 furnaces, and mill 4 on 2 Morayshire Rails slow.

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p.141, Monday 24 June 1861, Started No 3 and 4 forges No 1 mill 6 on 3 –No 2 mill 2 on 1 saw Richard by the office.

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p.144, Monday July 1 1861, To Abernant with Richard and I went through the various degrees of reduction with regard to the workmen.

p.145, Thursday July 4 1861, At the office went through the proposed different reductions with John Evans, in the works late in the evening.

A later diary entry [D553/6] confirms Henry’s animosity towards the Unions:

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p.109, 11 Mar 1864, In the mill at 9.30am trying a yield & pricing on the work, in one furnace especially (David Darby a lazy plotting “Union” man)

It’s hard to find a better illustration of Henry’s sense of entitlement than his boast of eating lobster, ham and strawberries for breakfast while his workers were being starved back to work.

By October of that year, everything seemed to have settled down. Labourers were well employed and the iron ore from the Hirwaun Ironworks closure in 1859 had been processed. But the peace didn’t last long and the Aberdare Iron Company, along with many other Welsh collieries and ironworks, were plagued with strikes for many years to come.

Corinne Evans, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

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