The Coal Miner’s Bond

Lest we Forget – The Miners’ Bond


For those of us Northeasterners with coal mining ancestors, there is another little-known tool available to pinpoint their movements beyond certificates, the census returns, and parish registers – the existence of the Miners Bond. To use this tool, you need not visit any distant record repository or consult any learned tome or index. All you need is a basic knowledge of the history of local mining and the application of four important dates.

The main source for the following notes was: The Miners of Northumberland & Durham”, by Richard Fynes, 1873.

Until 1872 all of the miners of Northumberland, Cumberland and Durham were employed under the hated Bond system whereby they contracted their lives away each year (or each month from 1844 to 1864) to a ‘Master’ in return for a ‘bounty’ and little else of substance. By the terms of the bond, under pain of a substantial penalty, they were obliged to submit to various fines and conditions and to work continuously at one colliery for a whole year. The system was a kind of legalised temporary serfdom. The colliery owner on his part gave no undertaking to furnish continuous employment or indeed any employment at all. After 1809 the annual Bond was usually entered into on/about April 5 when a colliery official read out the rate of pay and the conditions available at the pit to the assembled workers and would-be workers. Those who signed up were given a ‘bounty’ of 2s. 6d. (12.5 pence) to start work. The first few to sign up were given extra money which was usually enough incentive to cause a stampede among the poverty-stricken workforce to ‘make their mark’.

If anyone broke the bond he was liable to arrest, trial and imprisonment. If he struck in an attempt to improve conditions, the law was largely against him. If he stood on a picket line, and even looked at a blackleg, it could be construed as attempted coercion. If he attempted to unionise he was intimidated or dismissed and put on a county-wide black list. If he still gave trouble to the authorities he was liable for transportation to the colonies. For the truly unreformable there was always the ultimate sanction in an age when over 200 crimes theoretically carried the death penalty.

A foreign visitor to Tyneside at the end of the 18th. century was struck by the number of notices placed in local newspapers by the ‘Masters’ offering rewards for knowledge of the whereabouts of runaway miners and threatening to prosecute whoever might employ them. In the years 1839/40 for example 66 pitmen in the county of Durham were jailed for short periods as ‘vagrants’; that is, for leaving their usual places of work. In the same period a further 106 were committed for ‘disobedience of orders, and other matters subject to summary jurisdiction’. The annual termination of one bonding and the start of the next enabled the ‘Masters’ to pick and choose from their former and would-be employees (except when there was a shortage of labour), discarding any known or suspected troublemakers or shirkers in the process. The bonding was also the only point in the year when a miner and his family could lawfully uproot themselves from one wretched pit village and trek to another where the wages were slightly higher, the conditions or housing slightly better, or where the grass was or was believed to be greener.

We have all played the game of ‘Musical Chairs’ in our childhood. The music starts, all of the participants walk round in a circle whilst one chair is removed, and then everyone makes a dash for the remaining chairs when the music stops, the individual without a place to park his or her backside being eliminated. Every year the annual bonding triggered a gigantic game of ‘Musical Houses’ and even ‘Musical Villages’ across the Great Northern Coalfield. The old bond expired, the music began and anything up to a quarter of the mining population of the three counties went on the march to a new start, a new life, elsewhere. Sometimes spies had been sent on ahead to ascertain conditions but usually the ‘Masters’ sent agents round the coalfield to recruit/steal workers from each other. Thousands of families took to the road every April from 1809-1844 and 1864-72 with all of their humble belongings on a hired flat-cart, with or without a pony. Then the music stopped, the new bond was ‘signed’ (usually with a cross) by the working members of the family and the new life began. Many clans moved from pit village to pit village every year or whenever the urge struck them. That is why it is so difficult to keep track of the movements of one’s mining ancestors. The great hope of amateur genealogists is to find some of their ancestors who actually stayed put for twenty years or more and who are therefore mentioned in successive censuses in one place.

Eventually conditions for coalminers became so intolerable that the workers were driven to unite. Most, but not all, of the Northumberland and Durham miners went on strike in 1810. It took the ‘Masters’ seven weeks to starve them into submission. The ringleaders were arrested and their families evicted by bailiffs guarded by troops. Over the following two decades appeals to reason and justice went unheeded and discontent kept boiling up in strikes. An attempt was made at the new (and giant) Hetton Colliery in the early 1820s to create a union but it was crushed by the owners and its leader compelled to emigrate to America.

In 1830 Northumberland and Durham miners united in Hepburn’s Union, named after its founder Thomas Hepburn, another Hetton Colliery man, though originally from Pelton. In 1831 both counties came out on strike for more wages and shorter hours. The annual bond terminated on April 5 and its expiry was the signal to down tools. Hepburn himself advocated non-violence but he was unable to control some of the rowdier elements of his membership. A mob of some 1500 miners caused damage at Blyth, Bedlington, Cowpen and Jesmond Dene collieries. Large bodies of violent and lawless men wandered the country causing mischief and the frightened authorities felt obliged to call out the military and swear in a large body of special constables. Hetton was occupied by troops.

On May 5 1830 a large meeting took place at Black Fell, where the miners were met by none other than that great coalowner General the Marquess of Londonderry, accompanied by a military escort. Londonderry asked the miners to disperse and promised to meet their delegates, to which the men agreed. At that meeting however nothing was achieved and the situation continued to deteriorate. On May 17 a large body of men descended on Hebburn Colliery and threw machinery down the shafts to the terror of the blacklegs working below. Only the arrival of a magistrate and marines saved the situation from becoming extremely ugly. In the middle of the following month the owners suddenlycapitulated, the first unmistakeable victory the miners had ever achieved. One of the fruits of their triumph was the establishment of a working day of 12 hours for boys, instead of one almost without limit. They did not long enjoy their unprecedented success.

At the end of that same year of 1831 another stoppage took place at Waldridge Colliery, near Chester-le-Street. On Christmas Eve over 1,000 working men below the ground were placed in some danger by strikers who threw machinery down the shaft. The government promptly offered a reward of 250 guineas and a free pardon to accomplices in return for information about the ringleaders. Six men were betrayed and received prison sentences of up to 15 months for their part. These punishments and the owners plan to deny work to any union member were to be the catalysts for a second strike across the Great Northern Coalfield.

The miners strike of 1832 also began in April, to coincide with the Bond, and within a few days all of the collieries in Northumberland and Durham were again at a standstill. This time however the coalowners had an effective strategy – they brought in blacklegs from all over the kingdom and began evictions of strikers and their families to make way for the newcomers. Soon thousands of strikers and their families were living in fields whilst their villages were full of alien policemen and soldiers.

The terror had its intended effect and the strike eventually petered out. So many strangers had been introduced to the region that the supply of labour was overstocked and the owners could pick who they liked from their former servants. The position of the former strikers was desperate but fortunately for them the demand for coal soon picked up and most of them eventually found employment. Not so the leaders and Thomas Hepburn in particular. He was ultimately reduced to selling tea in the colliery villages but even then the mining folk were too intimidated by the owners, led by Lord Londonderry, to dare buy anything from him. He was driven to starvation and had to beg at Felling Colliery for work. He was forced to consent to have nothing further to do with the union before he was taken back on. Thomas Hepburn kept his word to the ‘Masters’and died in abject poverty on Tyneside in 1864. For the time being at least the miners of the northern counties were leaderless and without any effective union or hope. Twelve years would pass before the next serious unrest.

Before 1809 the time of binding was in October. From 1809 to 1844 the binding took place on/about April 5. After 1809 the time when the contract should be renewed was made changeable and uncertain – sometimes a month or 6 weeks before the old contract ceased. This was of course entirely beneficial to the owners.

In 1843 the men of Thornley Colliery came out on strike in protest at the harshness of their Bond conditions. On November 23 the owners caused arrest warrants to be issued against 68 men for absenting themselves from their employment. All of these informed the court that tried them that they would prefer to go to jail rather than work under the Bond. The magistrates duly obliged and sentenced all 68 to 6 weeks imprisonment. Immediately afterwards however their lawyer Mr. Roberts obtained a writ of habeas corpus and the imprisoned men were removed to the Court of Queens Bench in London where, upon an informality (a techicality), they were acquitted. They all returned to County Durham as heroes but the Bond remained.

The following year saw the ‘Great Strike of 1844’. Once more the miners were crushed and their union destroyed. As part of the punishment a monthly bond was introduced which remained in place for the next 18 years. The intention was to enable the owners to discard troublemakers as soon as they were detected but eventually it was concluded that the new arrangement benefited the miners by giving them undue freedom of movement. The owners could no longer guarantee a stable working force with the mining clans moving on every month without notice. At the end of 1863 the owners collectively advised their workforces that the annual bond would be reintroduced with effect from the following April 5. Disunited and without a union the miners were obliged to accept. The Bond survived for 8 more years until 1872. The prospect of its abolition was the catalyst for the creation of the Durham Miners Mutual Association (D.M.A.) in 1869.

How can all this help amateur genealogists with their research ? Simply apply logic and the known dates to the following fictitious example of a census return at Seaham Colliery in 1871:

23 California Row, Seaham Colliery, 1871 (April) Census
James Hogarth, head of household, married, 48, Coal Miner, born in Long Benton, Northumberland
Sarah H, wife, married, 40, Haswell
James H, son, 4, Haswell Colliery
John H, son, 3, Seaham Colliery

From this we can see that the family moved from Haswell to Seaham at some point between the birth of James junior at Haswell Colliery in 1867 and the birth of his brother John at Seaham Colliery in 1868. The certificates for these births will give us two precise dates (let us say Feb 2 1867 and Jan 17 1868). Applying our knowledge that the Bond was usually signed on /about April 5 in this period we can conclude that James Hogarth senior must have signed the Bond at Haswell in April 1866 and at Seaham in April 1867. Therefore the family must have moved from Haswell to Seaham in April 1867. The same logic can be applied to parish registers in the period before registration of births, marriages and deaths began in 1837.The crucial dates for the Bond are:

  • Before 1809 the Bond was signed in October.
  • Between 1809 and 1844 the Bond was signed in on/about April 5.
  • Between 1844 and 1864 there was a monthly Bond.
  • The Bond was finally abolished in 1872.

© Tony Whitehead 1997