John Wilson: A Striking Personality

For many years the West Lothian shale miners, and later the coal miners also, were represented by an Uphall man called John Wilson. Wilson was said to look like Napoleon, and the way he took the miners’ fight to the employers, where he ‘held his ground pugnaciously, and would seldom submit to compromise,’ only further enhanced this comparison.

John Wilson
John Wilson, shale miners’ agent. BP Archive 215305.











In his early life John Wilson considered entering the ministry. However, on passing a miners’ meeting in the mid-1880s he suggested a course of action they should take. Impressed by his eloquence the miners quickly appointed him their agent. On the creation of a Shale Miners’ Association he immediately set out to put the organisation on a sound footing, creating branching across the shale fields. The result of this action quickly proved effective and he won concessions and later a compromise in two strikes in 1887. His writing about these strikes can be seen in his diary.
Aware that his ‘eloquence and power of reasoning’ was proving beneficial to the lives of the shale miners, the coal miners appointed him as their agent also. The following years saw him take an interest in all levels of politics. He was elected to Uphall School Board, but failed in bids to become a councillor on Glasgow Town Council and an MP for Edinburgh Central.
John Wilson died in April 1912 aged 50 years. As the funeral cortege passed through Uphall on the way to the cemetery the streets were lined with hundreds of miners, businesses closed and blinds were drawn, as a mark of respect.

And the miners need someone to fight for them. As an example, in 1926 the miners went on strike and the West Calder Parish Council decreed that no benefits be given to those on strike. This prompted a local activist called Sarah Moore, known as Ma Moore, to stage a protest, along with many other miners’ wives, outside the offices of the council. It was ended by a police baton charge.

Ma Moore at the West Calder protest
Ma Moore (far right) and a number of miners’ wives at the West Calder protest in 1926. Rights: John Kelly.







Miners' wives at the West Calder protest
A number of miners’ wives at the West Calder protest in 1926. Rights: John Kelly.

Below is one of John Wilson’s letters, highlighting his eloquence, as well as his desire to defend those with few rights:

June 26th 1886

Shale Miners Agitation

Sir,   Would you be kind enough to give me a small space in your valuable paper, to inform the public regarding the Shale Miners Agitation, as we think the time has come when they ought to know and consider the various grievances from which they suffer, and from which they see deliverance.  The Shale Miners are, many of them, like miners in general and other tradesmen.  Many of them spend part of what they earn upon that which satisfieth not profiteth less, and thus rendering those of them who do this, less able to work for their rights.  But the folly and helplessness of an individual or company of individuals, furnishes no legitimate reason or cause for them being taken advantage of, by those who may happen to have them in their power, but ought rather to awaken their sympathy, and lead them to push forward a helping hand, to induce their workmen to be wise in the spending of their earnings.  This latter, however, is not the case, for the present state of matters abundantly shows that these oil Companies use the poverty and helplessness of many of their miners as a means at least to attain these two ends, 1st to keep them silent regarding their affairs or the sort of treatment they receive; and 2nd, to obtain the labour of the men directly and individually and at the lowest price in order that they may have the greatest possible profits, and it is perhaps, one of the saddest sights that can be witnessed in a civilized country, to see hundreds of working men with their families entirely at the mercy of companies of men, many of them already wealthy, and seeking to add to it, while others of them are pushing their fortune as hard as they can, regardless of the means by which it is achieved.  Now, we wish it to be distinctly understood that it is not with the prosperity or success of the Broxburn Mining Company or any other Company that we miners have to do, or have any right to interfere with, as success or prosperity in life is what every sane man ought to aim at, and what men in general do aim at.  But with the means used to attain this success, we are concerned and we intend to make it our business to see that only honest and honourable means are used, let the end or profits be what they may.  And the Company or Companies that will in any way hinder us from doing this in a lawful and honourable manner, plainly indicate that they wish to use dishonest means; that they are making dishonest profits; and that is obnoxious and detrimental to their interests that the means they use be known to the public, submitted to arbitration, or in any way interfered with.  To show the necessity for this action on our part, all that requires it be done, is to refer the public to Mr Steel’s address, and the 9th annual meeting of the Broxburn Oil Company, from which we quote the following facts:‐ A Balance at the credit of the profit and loss account of £57,040 1s 9d. They paid a dividend of 25 per cent, with £49,939.  They added £300 to their reserve fund, making it £25,000, and they carried forward a balance of £4,100 to next year.  Mr Steel said that the sum they had at the disposal of the profit and loss account was larger than that of any previous year, notwithstanding very heavy expenditure in connection with improvements and extensions of the works.  He also said that the directors last year estimated the savings from the decreased cost of manufacture during the then cur‐ rent year, through improvements that were introduced into the works, at something like £30,000, and he had pleasure in telling them that that sum had been more than realized.  Nor what we miners have to say regarding this large saving is this, that improvements in the works outside of the mines may account for a good deal, but we are positively certain that the conduct of the mining manager and the oversman, in taking advantage of the helplessness of the miners, and making them do their deficient work for nothing, or for a quarter, and the half of the payment they should receive, and did formerly; the conduct of the Crawpicker, through the manager, in helping a whole hutch of shale off a miner, because there may be from ½ to 2 cwts. Of unproductive materials in it, as they always do, and in such a wholesale fashion that it is a daily occurrence, at two of the mines inclusive, for from 10 to 40 hutches, and some days more, to be kept off the men collectively, and all the satisfaction they get is to be shown a piece of shale or other material, as the case may be, about the size of their two hands and a number upon it.  The rest of their materials are almost uniformly put into the retorts, and they have to be con‐ tent with the state of matters or leave the work.  We have previously referred to the weight, which is from 1 to over 2 cwts. Less for the same quantity of shale in their hutch as compared with 12, 18 months and 2 years ago.  This, we are bound to say, accounts for a good part of this large sum of over £30,000, and we leave it to the public to judge regarding the morality of the means which, if a miner says a word about it in public, he is dismissed from the work.  If we are not mistaken, Mr Steel, in a previous address some years ago, and upon a similar occasion, told the shareholders that they need not expect their profits to remain at the then present high rate, as the cost of producing the shale would necessarily be increased, as the miners would have longer roads to draw, which is absolute truth; but there is a fact of still greater meaning for them, the miners having to leave three and four times the amount of shale for stoops or pillars to support the surface; at least this is the reason the employers assign, but a very important reason is that they afterwards get the shale wrought for 4d per ton less, and compared with 9, 10, 11 +12 years ago, the miners have to leave from 30 to 40, and in many cases over 55 times more.  The figures are for 9, 10, 11 + 12 years ago the number of square feet was 12 x 6=72, and sometimes less, whereas now, and since that time, the figures are – 15×6=90; 40×30=1200; 80×50=4000 square feet.  These products be height of working will give number of cubic feet in the whole stoop, which meant a reduction to the average miner to a ton a day, and a great deal harder work besides.  Mr Steel, however, has changed since that time. Notwithstanding these disadvantageous conditions, he is for decreasing instead of increasing the cost of manufacture, which means for the miner a great deal harder work and a great deal less wages.  For he expresses himself thus, that notwithstanding a universal depression in trade generally, American, Russian, and home competition, stronger than ever before existed to contend against, he ventured to express the hope that by the exercise of the most rigid economy, and a further reduction in the cost of manufacture, the company would maintain its proud position on the future.  We thank Mr Steel for the timely notice he has given us, although we neither admit nor appreciate the moral means the Company are using and intend to use for the purpose of maintaining their proud position in the future.  We ask the world to take cognizance of these means, and every miner to unite with his fellow‐ workmen to consider and speak their minds about a fair days work done in proper time and for a fair days wage and consider the best means for redressing present grievances and resisting future injustice as these Companied have no thought but for how they can make money, and what is the most efficient method for purchasing the labour of the working man at the cheapest possible prices

I am, &C.,

John Wilson, Secretary

Linlithgowshire Miners Association

Crime and punishment

We recently posted about the daring hold-up of shale employees carrying the weekly wages, and the subsequent capture and jailing of the guilty men. Whilst this was a major incident, it was one of only many crimes that beset the shale oil industry, and those that worked in it.

Three robbers
Three men in the dock after a daring hold-up, with the intent of stealing miners’ weekly wages

Fighting, assaults, theft, murder. You name it, some shale employees were taking part in it. There was even another hold-up, in 1913, when Andrew Muir was robbed of the Trades Union collection. And why openly rob someone when you can simply embezzle the funds of the local Reading Room, as shale miner Thomas Brown did at Gavieside!

Underground assaults were commonplace. In June 1872 two miners took an argument with the signalman, John Demsie, a step too far, when they ‘attacked him with great ferocity, knocking him down, and unmercifully beating him.’ They were given their just desserts – 30 days each in prison. Demsie can perhaps count himself lucky – many assaults were aided with the use of implements close to hand, such as shovels and even a snibble.

Snibbles, similar to that used in an assault down a shale mine. LVSAV.1984.001

And miners often took their aggression into the family home. In 1893 shale miner William Easton took a miners’ pick to his wife, cutting a deep gash in her upper arm. He was committed to prison. His wife can perhaps count herself lucky – murders were not unheard of in the shale villages, or even down the mines.

But the most common cause for the police becoming involved appears to have been theft. If it wasn’t nailed down it appears that a small number of those living in the shale villages would try to purloin it for themselves. Coal, shale, beer, brushes, the list is virtually endless. One of the most striking cases is that of the Ferguson sisters, one so young she could not be charged. In 1874 they were stealing lamps and shades from Young’s Oil Works and then selling them to shops in the West Port area of Edinburgh. In the best traditions of Scooby Doo, they would have got away with it too if it wasn’t for the pesky Works’ manager. Passing one of the shops he recognised a lamp that he knew had been stolen and after some investigation the full story became clear.

Young's oil lamp
A Young’s oil lamp, similar to that stolen by the Ferguson sisters. LVSAV1984.117

Equal Pay for Women

Equal pay for women is an issue that, rightly, every now and again raises its head in the news. Most recently it made the headlines when it was revealed that two-thirds of the BBC’s highest-paid employees are male. If trends continue as they currently are it could be another 50 years before equal pay is achieved.

equal pay demand

But during the First World War the shale industry was, it can perhaps be argued, a trailblazer in this respect.

Many men had left the industry to fight and, in many cases, lay down their lives. This left a shortage in the shale industry workforce, despite many being recalled from duty in late 1917, due to the national demand for oil exceeding output.

James Boyle
Sapper James Boyle of Philpstoun, one of the many employees in the shale industry who signed up to fight. He was killed in April 1917, just months before all shale miners were recalled from the front.

From an earlier date in the war, women were employed to fill the gaps, but the Scottish Shale Miners’ Association (SSMA), the trades union of the shale miners and oil workers, demanded ‘equal wages for an equal amount of work’. In July 1917 a conference was held with the industry body – the Scottish Mineral Oil Miners’ Association (SMOMA) – to determine whether women should be paid the same as their male counterparts. Robert Simpson of the SSMA summed up the background:

The war has been responsible for bringing many changes into various industries. Our own industry, for instance, has seen the introduction of female labour on nearly all the mine-tops in the shale field.’

Female shale workers
R14-00034.002 Mistresses of the Lamp. The women employed by Young’s at Uphall during the First World War to fill and paint the oil barrels used to power the lighthouse lamps around Britain’s coasts.

At the conference, trades unions and employers thrashed out a deal whereby women over 18 years of age would be paid a weekly wage of 20 shillings. The SMOMA agreed to this proposal and women quickly saw their wages raised to the same level as their male colleagues.

Robert Small
BP Archive: 215305 Robert Small was one of the union leaders who would have fought for equal pay for women during the First World War

Whilst praise must be given to the shale oil industry for raising female wages to the same level as their male counterparts, it must be asked what other option they had. The demand to produce vast quantities of shale and oil to aid the war effort was coming from the British Government. The SSMA were aware that women were a necessary cog in the production wheel. Should they withdraw, or go on strike, the required levels of shale and oil would not be met. It is likely that the SSMA went in to the meeting and used this threat, either subtly or overtly, to further the case for equal pay.

After the end of the hostilities many of the jobs were once again filled by men, and the women returned to what many saw as their rightful place in the home. But even as they returned to their home they were invigorated by a new sense of their place in society. This found a voice in the post-war suffrage movement. In later years some women even found more senior roles in the industry.

Pumpherston chemists
LVSAV2013.073.001 Male and female chemists in the laboratory at Pumpherston Oil Refinery, c1970