Monday, January 20, 2020

A Vicar Saves His Flock

By Dr John Little

Dearham in Cumbria (formerly Cumberland) was a mining village in the north west of England and at Easter 1894 that village received a profound shock. The world price of coal had fallen and the owner of Dearham Colliery, Mr Ormiston, could not sustain the costs of keeping the mine open. Over 260 men and boys were thrown out of work with immediate effect. They had never envisaged such a thing because there had been two generations of stable and reasonably lucrative employment; the local steam coal was the best in the world and was in demand by the navy, ocean liners and anywhere that steam engines were in use.  It was also hard to win, the seams being thin and fractured, the mines liable to flooding, and so the end product was expensive; the miners were used to earning among the highest wages in the whole of the UK and were the ‘aristocrats’ of their profession. Certainly there were other collieries in the area but at some distance; unless something happened to employ the miners thrown out of work then their village would empty, the community break up and hundreds would move away; the knock-on effects on local businesses would be calamitous.

Dearham Colliery Brick

The Lord helps often those who help themselves, but the impetus to do something about the plight of the village came from an unlikely source.

The Reverend Thomas Melrose might be seen as an excellent example of late Victorian muscular Christianity. His main claim to fame before 1894 was as an enthusiastic cyclist and he with his entire family were often to be seen bowling along the country lanes for miles around on an assortment of bicycles. He initiated the annual service for the Cumbrian Cycling Association to be held at his own church, St Mungo’s and made of it a local spectacle to which hundreds of people flocked to see what was happening. Dozens of cyclists from all over the county would gather on the outskirts of the village and then would process through the main street led by the Dearham Brass Band all the way to the church. Afterwards Reverend Melrose would bless the machines; on a good day it was a grand fete for people from miles around.

St Mungo's

Shortly after the miners lost their jobs word went round that the vicar had called a meeting in Sinkle Lonning and asked that the men who had lost their jobs would attend. They did so and Melrose announced that he was going to lead an attempt to reopen the mine as a cooperative, owned by the men who worked in it. Cooperatives were not a new idea of course, but the notion of a cooperative coal mine was rather revolutionary. It was favourably received and Melrose gave the men time to think about it by asking that any who were interested could meet in a few days at the local school. There he revealed that he had failed in persuading the colliery owner to keep the pit open, and that opinion among mine engineers was that it could not be done economically. He then offered the bright spark of Hope by revealing that he had asked a mine engineer, a Mr Heslop, to have a look at an old coalmine, the Crosshow Colliery, to see if it was a viable business proposition. On the outskirts of the village this mine had closed years before, but Heslop reported that it was not exhausted; it had closed for economic reasons. Melrose proposed the setting up of a cooperative to reopen this colliery and put forward a scheme for raising £1000 by subscription  for that purpose. The idea was supported enthusiastically. 

Unfortunately within a week or so it became apparent that the money could not be raised among the miners in the village. They did manage to subscribe over £250, a considerable sum, but it was not enough. Melrose was not finished though. The Maryport Cooperative Industrial Society was a large concern in the local area with several large stores in West Cumberland. One of these was in Dearham where it had opened in 1889; profits over a five year period had been in excess of £43,000 which was a considerable return. Reverend Melrose was acquainted to Mr Fawcett, the president of the society and put it to him that it was very much in his interests to maintain his profits. If his customers stayed unemployed then the Cooperative stores would lose customers. On the other hand if the miners stayed employed then the store would stay profitable. It would make sense for the Cooperative society to open a colliery and run it so that there would be wages to be spent. Mr Fawcett saw the point and put it to the members of his committee, who in turn were quite enthusiastic about the idea. It was agreed that the idea was good but the membership of the society would have to be balloted to see if they agreed to the venture.

The word ‘Socialism’ was well known and although this idea predated the establishment of a British Labour Party, there were plenty of people around who would not agree with a move so politically charged as Co-operativism. However because the idea came from a Church of England vicar it was much easier to regard the scheme as an act of Christian fellowship, with members of a community helping each other out in time of need.

At an open meeting of the Cooperative society it was proposed that the mine be run by a manager appointed by the 'Coop' (pronounced coh-op). Shares would be sold in a limited liability company with the aim of raising £8,000 of capital. £1000 of this would come from the Coop itself, £200 in shares and the rest as a loan. The colliery would aim to produce 75,000 tons of coal a year and would also supply coal to an associated brickworks which would yield a profit of £400 a year. The return to shareholders would be set at 6% per annum. The motion for a ballot was carried by the members and 2900 ballot papers were sent out; votes were to be placed in sealed boxes in each of the Cooperative’s five shops. Two weeks later 1,071 people had voted; 398 against the proposal and 673 in favour.

Within a very short time a management board was appointed and Mr Robert Steel, the duly appointed manager descended onto the site of the old Crosshow colliery. By late August, just four months after they had fallen unemployed, the first miners went down the shaft and began to cut coal. It quickly became apparent that the old shaft was not big enough for modern equipment so a new one would need to be sunk. New and powerful pumps were installed at a cost of £450 to cope with a persistent water problem and on Tuesday 15 January 1895 Reverend Melrose came to the colliery with his wife and a ceremonial spade. The Vicar’s wife had been invited to cut the first turf where the new shaft was to be sunk.

It was not expected that the new mine would make a profit in its first few years and it did not, a fact which caused some trepidation in the Cooperative Committee. However it had to be admitted that profits from the Dearham store had held up, so the nerve of investors held. The mine was never far short of making a profit in its first years, but never quite got there. It did however employ 111 men and Dearham village kept its heart. The only moment of real drama came in 1897 when the hewers were digging along a seam close to the surface and breached the bed of the Barley Beck, a sizable stream near the village. A considerable amount of water entered the workings causing the miners to evacuate extremely quickly, some of them almost naked. Outside it was March and a cold day; looking like a platoon of imps newly released from Hell the shivering of the miners was alleviated quickly by the shawls of their anxious wives who had heard that there had been an incident at the mine and hurried up to find out what was going on. Mr Steel the manager, a man of great pluck, descended the mine shaft on a rope to find that the bottom was dry and that the stream water was flowing down to the bottom of the works from where the pumps were expelling it. Full production was resumed within a couple of days and no one was hurt.

Dearham Coop

By 1902 the Crosshow Colliery made a handsome profit, the first year it had done so and its future looked secure. Unfortunately globalism is no new phenomenon, and mining, like all industries, is subject to the vagaries of the world market. Mines in the USA, German and Poland were flooding the stock exchanges with cheap coal produce by modern methods and machinery. However good the Dearham coal was, it was hand hewn and expensive. The world price of coal slumped at the beginning of 1903 and it became evident that Crosshow Colliery was going to swallow far more money that year than it could produce. Members of the Cooperative Society began to agitate in favour of pulling out and cutting their losses.

Reverend Melrose was no longer living in Dearham. In 1896 his ten year old son had been on the way home from school and attempted to board a moving train at the station in Maryport. He had been dragged along between train and platform and had died very quickly. Such a thing can only bring grief and sadness. Whatever the reason for his decision Melrose had moved away and was now Vicar of Westward, not far from Wigton. There was no eloquent advocate to plead the case for Crosshow Colliery. The manager did his best. Over eight years they had produced a million and a half tons of top quality steam coal. All debts had been paid off and wages of over £40,000 had kept a community alive. There was a strong case to be made for tiding the business over until the price of coal improved. There was no ballot of Coop members on the decision; this time it was voted on solely by the committee. By 39 votes to 29 the society decided to pull out; 150 men were thrown out of work again and the mine closed.


Dr John Little spent almost forty years teaching in various schools in London and the South East. He was head of History at Meopham School and Rochester Independent College. He gained the first History PhD  awarded in the University of Westminster.
He has written nine books, mostly novels, and has settled into historical fiction as his favoured genre. His work is based on real evidence, people and events contained in plausible narratives. He also gives talks and presentations on the topics about which he writes. His great grandfather was a Dearham miner and John wove his tale into that of Thomas Melrose and wrote an historical novel, The Collier's Daughter, about the extraordinary venture of a Church of England vicar in the 1890s. 


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