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.
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.
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