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.
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.
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.
The shale collection has a wide variety of political material in our collection, mostly newspaper clippings, and information relating to industrial action. These date back into the 19th century and include the personal notes of heralded local trades union organiser John Wilson.
We also have two leaflets produced by the Midlothian and West Lothian Labour Party candidates standing for Westminster in 1959.
Both men, James M. Hill, standing in Midlothian, and John Taylor, standing in West Lothian, mention shale in their leaflets. Hill effusively promotes the industry, and both note the need to abolish the duty on shale oil. Both Hill and Taylor won their seats comfortably, but with the Conservatives regaining power, the duty on shale oil was never abolished. Two years later the last remnants of the industry (its workforce had reduced from 12,000 to 2,500) would end as cheap imported oil became more attractive.
Taylor would die in office in 1962, leading to the election of Tam Dalyell. Hill would step down at the 1966 election, but would die within months. His replacement was another long-serving MP, Alex Eadie.
In today’s workplace the Trades’ Unions remain an important means of supporting and protecting workers, fighting for fair pay and decent working conditions. But in the 19th century the unions were faced with employers who appear inured to the fact that their workforces were dying in vast numbers.
And so it was that men like John Wilson from Uphall, a man said to look like Napoleon, took it upon himself to fight the mine owners, where he ‘held his ground pugnaciously, and would seldom submit to compromise.’
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.
But whilst the work of Wilson and others like him may have alleviated the problems for the miners, and those in other industries – in 1900, 180 men were killed in Scotland’s mines, in 1930, 123, and in 1960, 38 – it certainly did not remove them. In the early-20th century workers were forced to rise up in Glasgow in an attempt to obtain better working conditions, leading to the positioning of tanks in Glasgow’s George Square. Other strikes were widespread.