Posts Tagged ‘Coal mining’

William R Grisdale was an English-born coal miner who had arrived in Bellville, St Clair County, Illinois before the Civil War, and had then served and fought in three separate Illinois infantry regiments until the Union forces were victorious. He then was part of the Grand Review of the Union armies, which paraded in front of President Andrew Johnson in Washington in May 1865. I’ll tell this story at a later date. Here I’d like to jump forward to 1878, when William was about 52.

Grand Review of the armies, 1865

Grand Review of the armies, 1865

Sometime prior to 1878 miner William had arrived with his wife Anna Lee, whom he had married in Belleville Illinois in 1865, to work in the coal mines in Coal Greek and Stringtown, in Wabash Township, Fountain County, Indiana.

The History of Fountain County published in 1881 describes the area thus:

“String Town” is a mining place close to Snoddy’s mill. It is a collection of cheap houses mostly erected by the coal companies to be used by the miners. It is of mushroom growth, and an immense business is done, especially in liquors, there being about seventeen saloons at this point. It is hoped that the better element will become stronger, and that at some time this intemperance will cease. There are about 600 men employed in the mines, and the demand for coal is far beyond the ability to supply on account of the scarcity of conveyance. There are religious organizations here, but mostly composed of foreigners engaged in mining.

Map of Wabash and Coal Creek

Map of Wabash and Coal Creek

It was a rum old place and life was hard for the mostly ‘foreign’ miners. In the excellent Black Coal Miners in America: Race, Class and Conflict, 1780 – 1980, Ronald Lewis tells us the story of some events in Coal Creek in 1878.

At Coal Creek Indiana… black imports were brought in to break a strike of the Miners’ National Association in 1878. It was not long before violence erupted between local residents and some of the new arrivals. On April 18 a company of militia retired to a local saloon after drilling all day. When an altercation occurred between them and several of the scabs, the militia men grabbed their firearms, shot four blacks to death, and wounded a white blackleg named “Buffalo Bill”. The incident quickly polarized the contending factions in the dispute, and the passions of local white citizens were fanned to a white heat. As a precaution, the operators placed seventy-five rifles in the hands of the black scabs with directions to defend themselves if threatened. From the white unionists’ point of view, importing blacks was a loathsome act, and arming them was dangerous, but when the company began to pay the scabs in the all-white town of Knightsville, they added insult to injury by bringing the pariahs into unavoidable contact with the white miners’ families.

Tensions were heightened to the point of explosion the following month during the trial, when Frank Kelly, the leading witness for the defence of the white militiamen, passed several black miners and, without a word drew a revolver, shot one of them dead, and wounded two others. Pursued by the armed blacks, Kelly then ran up a ravine where he took refuge in a friend’s house. The irate blacks surrounded the building and peppered it with bullets, wounding Kelly and another of the occupants. A major race riot appeared imminent as forty-five blacks from Joliet set out for Coal Creek to help the outnumbered blacks defend themselves, but a large number of deputized citizens intervened and arrested the principals in the affray.

The other ‘occupant’ of the house where Kelly sought refuge was William Grisdale, who, as mentioned, was wounded by the black miners.

Indiana Coal Miner

Indiana Coal Miner

Following the events in April when a company of local militia had ‘shot four blacks to death’, we know that Frank Kelly had been the ‘leading’ witness for the defence of the militiamen. We even know the names of three of the four black miners killed: Philip Cozzens, Thomas Cooper and John Miles. It seems that there were fourteen white militiamen who stood trial for the murders, and one of these was William Grisdale. Reporting on the acquittal of the defendants in Covington, the Rochester Independent wrote on 4 May 1878 that William Grisdale was accused of killing Thomas Cooper but despite the fact that the judge probably believed him to be guilty he was released on bail. So the black miners probably held a grudge against William Grisdale as well as Frank Kelly.

Returning to events in June, The Huntington Democrat reported on 20 June 1878:

THE FIRST REPORT.

The Troubles between the White and Colored Miners in Fountain County Renewed. A Bloody Riot Inaugurated by the Black Blood Hounds. A War of Races.

By Telegraph to Indianapolis Sentinel.  Covington. Ind, June 15.

The trouble between the white and colored miners broke out afresh this morning at Coal Creek, 10 miles from here. At 11 o’clock the people living In the vicinity of McVey’s saloon were alarmed by shots being fired from guns in the hands of the negroes who came running down the street whooping and hallooing “kill every damned white son of a bitch there is”. The first person who they met in their road was one Frank Kelly whom was a very important witness for the white miners in the trial for the killing of Phil Cozzens last April. Kelly was standing in front of Russell’s store when he was charged upon by ten or twelve negroes armed with Springfield and Henry rifles, who opened fire upon him, and were soon joined by 20 – 30 or more, all fully armed and equipped.

SO ENTIRELY SUDDEN AND UNEXPECTED was the attack that no time was given to effect an escape; but heroic as a martyr he stood his ground, and only fled after emptying the contents of his revolver at the infuriated mob. Three of his shots took effect in as many different negroes. Tom Mims received a wound in the left side, passing through his bowels, from the effects of which he has since died. The other two were only slightly wounded. Immediately after Kelly had emptied his revolver he, with old Billy Grysdale, attempted to seek shelter and safety in the house of Charles Habberton, but with no degree of success, for after gaining an entrance and locking the doors and windows he went up stairs where Grysdale received a wound in the left leg, but not of a serious character.

THE NEGROES SURROUNDED THE HOUSE and completely riddled it with bullets breaking almost every window glass, one end presenting the appearance of a nutmeg-grater. One of the villains more daring than the rest forced an entrance through a window, carrying a bundle of straw saturated with kerosene, which he placed against a door and set on fire, remarking that he would scorch the son of a bitch out and get a fair shot at him, but before he could accomplish his diabolical scheme they were frightened away by the rumour that the sheriff, with a large posse from Covington, were on the road to quell the disturbance. Billy Grysdale succeeded in extinguishing the .fire before any serious damage was done and then fainted from weakness and loss of blood.

THE SHERIFF INTERFERES. At about 2 o’clock in the afternoon Deputy Sheriff Potts, with an efficient posse of twenty men, arrived on the battle field, and without more trouble, succeeded in dispersing the mob, only two or three making any attempt at resistance, but through the coolness and candour of T. M. Rinn and Peter C. McMahon all were disarmed and arrested. Up to the present forty have been arrested, mostly negroes; also Henry Phelps, bookkeeper, and John Barrowman, pit boss of the Fountain coal company, who are now having a hearing in the courthouse.

THE TROUBLE BEGAN more than a year 1 ago, but nothing of a serious nature transpired until last August, when the negro miners made a raid on Stringtown, but did not do any damage beyond frightening the women and children. The trouble last April culminated in a riot, in which three negroes were killed and one wounded, for which fourteen of the white miners were indicted, but upon trial were not convicted. Since then the more desperate of the blood hounds have made repeated threats upon the lives of those who were discharged, saying that if they wanted to live many more days they had better get out of town. Only last week two boxes of arms were shipped to S. W. Phelps, superintendent of the Fountain coal company and marked “DIAMOND DRILL.” This morning 45 negro miners from Brad wood, Illinois, were received by Phelps, most of whom were armed before they had been in the town 20 minutes, and a number have been identified as participating in the shooting. The people of Covington and the surrounding country are on the tiptoe of excitement, but should any further attempt at lawlessness be made there is a sufficient number ready and willing to squelch it. At 10 o’clock everything is quiet. The town is being patrolled by the Wabash guards, under their leader, Captain James Tipton. They are armed with the improved Springfield rifles. The sheriff and assistants have returned with seven or more prisoners, all negroes.

Black Coal Miners

Black Coal Miners

Here we hear again about ‘Old Billy Grysdale’ who had sought ‘shelter and safety in the house of Charles Habberton’, only to ‘receive a wound in the left leg, but not of a serious character’. ‘Billy Grysdale succeeded in extinguishing the fire before any serious damage was done and then fainted from weakness and loss of blood.’

According to this report Frank Kelly was ‘standing in front of Russell’s store when he was charged upon by ten or twelve negroes armed with Springfield and Henry rifles, who opened fire upon him’. This reporter portrayed Kelly as being ‘heroic as a martyr’ because ‘he stood his ground, and only fled after emptying the contents of his revolver at the infuriated mob’.

We get a somewhat different, and perhaps fairer, version of events that day from a report in The Republican which also appeared on 20 June:

Another miners’ outbreak occurred at Coal Creek, Fountain county, last Saturday, in which one colored man, named Thomas Mims, was killed, and two colored men and two white men slightly wounded. There are many conflicting statements in regard to the origins of the affray. The negroes say that Frank Kelley, the man who gave the testimony that resulted in the acquittal of the rioters who were arraigned for the murder of Philip Cozzens, last April, commenced the firing without any provocation, and mortally wounded Mms, and slightly wounded two others, after which they ran to their houses, got their guns and pursued him to Habberton’s house, where he took refuge, and they continued firing until he and a man named Grysdale were slightly wounded. Kelley says that he had been threatened with death if he passed between two rows of houses, where he has been in the habit of passing, that he was met by several negroes, who ordered him back and threatened to kill him, he drew his revolver, but before he could use it, was shot in the left arm, that he then fired, mortally wounding Mims. Twenty-nine negroes and eight white men are under arrest. The real cause of the trouble seems to be a determination to drive out the negroes who are working at less wages than the old miners were willing to take.

Also on the 20th June, the Logansport Pharos reported that ‘a warrant was issued against over 30 people for the shooting of William Grysdale’. It referred to 6 other white men being arrested for the killing of John Miles and Thomas Cooper and noted that they were 6 of the 14 who were acquitted last quarter of the killing of Phillip Cozzens.

Things did start to get better in Coal Creek. Ronald Lewis writes: ‘By the following year, however, circumstances in the Coal Creek district had improved dramatically. A union official wrote in the National Labor Tribune that he and a fellow organizer had stopped at Coal Creek, he was proud that:

Organization is progressing there even beyond our most sanguine expectations among both white and colored, for now the two colors meet on the most fraternal terms, and all express their firm determination to pull together and work in harmony for the future, without any distinction of color. This is as it should be, for our interests are identical. We must meet the colored men on fraternal terms, for we must not elevate ourselves by trying to keep them down. We must try to bring them up to our level, and it will not take so great an effort as many might imagine, for to our shame be it said, the colored men (according to their chances) are ahead of our white men in the principles of organization, and they do not seem to be so much afraid of it.

Walnut Hill Cemetery, Belleville

Walnut Hill Cemetery, Belleville

And this is more or less the last we hear of Old Billy Grysdale; almost but not quite. William continued to work as a miner in Indiana despite his wound, but by November 1883, aged about 56, his hard life had caught up with him, and from Indiana he applied for a US Civil War Pension, writing his name William R Grysdale. All his Civil War service is listed on his application. When and where William died isn’t known, it was probably a little before 1890, because on 13 October of that year his wife widow Anna, now back in her home town of Belleville, Illinois applied for a Civil War widow’s pension. Anna died in Belleville on 4 Dec 1895 and is buried in Belleville’s Walnut Hill cemetery.

I’ll return to William’s mining life in Belleville and his Civil War at a later date. There is in fact a link with the first US coal miners’ trade union:

Belleville Illinois around 1865

Belleville Illinois around 1865

‘In 1861, a group of miners met at Belleville, Illinois, and established the American Miners’ Association. This organization was the first nationwide union for miners in the United States. During this period, mineworkers faced numerous difficulties. During the late 1800s, industries were in great need of coal, iron ore, and other raw materials. Many mine owners saw an opportunity to garner great wealth by paying their miners low wages, while supplying other industries with raw materials. Mineworkers commonly earned less than one dollar per day for a twelve to fourteen hour workday. Workers also routinely received no health insurance, workers’ compensation, or vacation time.

To protest the poor conditions, workers formed unions, such as the American Miners’ Association. Before this point, numerous miners belonged to local unions, where the workers of a single mine or for a single company might have formed a collective bargaining organization. The American Miners’ Association hoped to unite miners across the United States together to bring more pressure on mine owners to improve conditions. In 1864, the American Miners’ Association published the following song to publicize its views:

Step by step, the longest march
Can be won, can be won;
Single stones will form an arch
One by one, one by one
And, by Union what we will
Can be accomplished still
Drops of water turn a mill,
Singly none, singly none.

Despite its lofty goals, the American Miners’ Association had limited success…  As a result of its poor membership, the American Miners’ Association ceased operation in 1868. Over the next several decades…, organizations, such as the Ohio Miners’ Amalgamated Association and the United Mine Workers, experienced greater success in uniting miners together.’

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William R Grisdale was an English-born coal miner who had arrived in Bellville, St Clair County, Illinois before the Civil War, and had then served and fought in three separate Illinois infantry regiments until the Union forces were victorious. He then was part of the Grand Review of the Union armies, which paraded in front of President Andrew Johnson in Washington in May 1865. I’ll tell this story at a later date. Here I’d like to jump forward to 1878, when William was about 52.

Grand Review of the armies, 1865

Grand Review of the armies, 1865

Sometime prior to 1878 miner William had arrived with his wife Anna Lee, whom he had married in Belleville Illinois in 1865, to work in the coal mines in Coal Greek and Stringtown, in Wabash Township, Fountain County, Indiana.

The History of Fountain County published in 1881 describes the area thus:

“String Town” is a mining place close to Snoddy’s mill. It is a collection of cheap houses mostly erected by the coal companies to be used by the miners. It is of mushroom growth, and an immense business is done, especially in liquors, there being about seventeen saloons at this point. It is hoped that the better element will become stronger, and that at some time this intemperance will cease. There are about 600 men employed in the mines, and the demand for coal is far beyond the ability to supply on account of the scarcity of conveyance. There are religious organizations here, but mostly composed of foreigners engaged in mining.

Map of Wabash and Coal Creek

Map of Wabash and Coal Creek

It was a rum old place and life was hard for the mostly ‘foreign’ miners. In the excellent Black Coal Miners in America: Race, Class and Conflict, 1780 – 1980, Ronald Lewis tells us the story of some events in Coal Creek in 1878.

At Coal Creek Indiana… black imports were brought in to break a strike of the Miners’ National Association in 1878. It was not long before violence erupted between local residents and some of the new arrivals. On April 18 a company of militia retired to a local saloon after drilling all day. When an altercation occurred between them and several of the scabs, the militia men grabbed their firearms, shot four blacks to death, and wounded a white blackleg named “Buffalo Bill”. The incident quickly polarized the contending factions in the dispute, and the passions of local white citizens were fanned to a white heat. As a precaution, the operators placed seventy-five rifles in the hands of the black scabs with directions to defend themselves if threatened. From the white unionists’ point of view, importing blacks was a loathsome act, and arming them was dangerous, but when the company began to pay the scabs in the all-white town of Knightsville, they added insult to injury by bringing the pariahs into unavoidable contact with the white miners’ families.

Tensions were heightened to the point of explosion the following month during the trial, when Frank Kelly, the leading witness for the defence of the white militiamen, passed several black miners and, without a word drew a revolver, shot one of them dead, and wounded two others. Pursued by the armed blacks, Kelly then ran up a ravine where he took refuge in a friend’s house. The irate blacks surrounded the building and peppered it with bullets, wounding Kelly and another of the occupants. A major race riot appeared imminent as forty-five blacks from Joliet set out for Coal Creek to help the outnumbered blacks defend themselves, but a large number of deputized citizens intervened and arrested the principals in the affray.

The other ‘occupant’ of the house where Kelly sought refuge was William Grisdale, who, as mentioned, was wounded by the black miners.

Indiana Coal Miner

Indiana Coal Miner

Following the events in April when a company of local militia had ‘shot four blacks to death’, we know that Frank Kelly had been the ‘leading’ witness for the defence of the militiamen. We even know the names of three of the four black miners killed: Philip Cozzens, Thomas Cooper and John Miles. It seems that there were fourteen white militiamen who stood trial for the murders, and one of these was William Grisdale. Reporting on the acquittal of the defendants in Covington, the Rochester Independent wrote on 4 May 1878 that William Grisdale was accused of killing Thomas Cooper but despite the fact that the judge probably believed him to be guilty he was released on bail. So the black miners probably held a grudge against William Grisdale as well as Frank Kelly.

Returning to events in June, The Huntington Democrat reported on 20 June 1878:

THE FIRST REPORT.

The Troubles between the White and Colored Miners in Fountain County Renewed. A Bloody Riot Inaugurated by the Black Blood Hounds. A War of Races.

By Telegraph to Indianapolis Sentinel.  Covington. Ind, June 15.

The trouble between the white and colored miners broke out afresh this morning at Coal Creek, 10 miles from here. At 11 o’clock the people living In the vicinity of McVey’s saloon were alarmed by shots being fired from guns in the hands of the negroes who came running down the street whooping and hallooing “kill every damned white son of a bitch there is”. The first person who they met in their road was one Frank Kelly whom was a very important witness for the white miners in the trial for the killing of Phil Cozzens last April. Kelly was standing in front of Russell’s store when he was charged upon by ten or twelve negroes armed with Springfield and Henry rifles, who opened fire upon him, and were soon joined by 20 – 30 or more, all fully armed and equipped.

SO ENTIRELY SUDDEN AND UNEXPECTED was the attack that no time was given to effect an escape; but heroic as a martyr he stood his ground, and only fled after emptying the contents of his revolver at the infuriated mob. Three of his shots took effect in as many different negroes. Tom Mims received a wound in the left side, passing through his bowels, from the effects of which he has since died. The other two were only slightly wounded. Immediately after Kelly had emptied his revolver he, with old Billy Grysdale, attempted to seek shelter and safety in the house of Charles Habberton, but with no degree of success, for after gaining an entrance and locking the doors and windows he went up stairs where Grysdale received a wound in the left leg, but not of a serious character.

THE NEGROES SURROUNDED THE HOUSE and completely riddled it with bullets breaking almost every window glass, one end presenting the appearance of a nutmeg-grater. One of the villains more daring than the rest forced an entrance through a window, carrying a bundle of straw saturated with kerosene, which he placed against a door and set on fire, remarking that he would scorch the son of a bitch out and get a fair shot at him, but before he could accomplish his diabolical scheme they were frightened away by the rumour that the sheriff, with a large posse from Covington, were on the road to quell the disturbance. Billy Grysdale succeeded in extinguishing the .fire before any serious damage was done and then fainted from weakness and loss of blood.

THE SHERIFF INTERFERES. At about 2 o’clock in the afternoon Deputy Sheriff Potts, with an efficient posse of twenty men, arrived on the battle field, and without more trouble, succeeded in dispersing the mob, only two or three making any attempt at resistance, but through the coolness and candour of T. M. Rinn and Peter C. McMahon all were disarmed and arrested. Up to the present forty have been arrested, mostly negroes; also Henry Phelps, bookkeeper, and John Barrowman, pit boss of the Fountain coal company, who are now having a hearing in the courthouse.

THE TROUBLE BEGAN more than a year 1 ago, but nothing of a serious nature transpired until last August, when the negro miners made a raid on Stringtown, but did not do any damage beyond frightening the women and children. The trouble last April culminated in a riot, in which three negroes were killed and one wounded, for which fourteen of the white miners were indicted, but upon trial were not convicted. Since then the more desperate of the blood hounds have made repeated threats upon the lives of those who were discharged, saying that if they wanted to live many more days they had better get out of town. Only last week two boxes of arms were shipped to S. W. Phelps, superintendent of the Fountain coal company and marked “DIAMOND DRILL.” This morning 45 negro miners from Brad wood, Illinois, were received by Phelps, most of whom were armed before they had been in the town 20 minutes, and a number have been identified as participating in the shooting. The people of Covington and the surrounding country are on the tiptoe of excitement, but should any further attempt at lawlessness be made there is a sufficient number ready and willing to squelch it. At 10 o’clock everything is quiet. The town is being patrolled by the Wabash guards, under their leader, Captain James Tipton. They are armed with the improved Springfield rifles. The sheriff and assistants have returned with seven or more prisoners, all negroes.

Black Coal Miners

Black Coal Miners

Here we hear again about ‘Old Billy Grysdale’ who had sought ‘shelter and safety in the house of Charles Habberton’, only to ‘receive a wound in the left leg, but not of a serious character’. ‘Billy Grysdale succeeded in extinguishing the fire before any serious damage was done and then fainted from weakness and loss of blood.’

According to this report Frank Kelly was ‘standing in front of Russell’s store when he was charged upon by ten or twelve negroes armed with Springfield and Henry rifles, who opened fire upon him’. This reporter portrayed Kelly as being ‘heroic as a martyr’ because ‘he stood his ground, and only fled after emptying the contents of his revolver at the infuriated mob’.

We get a somewhat different, and perhaps fairer, version of events that day from a report in The Republican which also appeared on 20 June:

Another miners’ outbreak occurred at Coal Creek, Fountain county, last Saturday, in which one colored man, named Thomas Mims, was killed, and two colored men and two white men slightly wounded. There are many conflicting statements in regard to the origins of the affray. The negroes say that Frank Kelley, the man who gave the testimony that resulted in the acquittal of the rioters who were arraigned for the murder of Philip Cozzens, last April, commenced the firing without any provocation, and mortally wounded Mms, and slightly wounded two others, after which they ran to their houses, got their guns and pursued him to Habberton’s house, where he took refuge, and they continued firing until he and a man named Grysdale were slightly wounded. Kelley says that he had been threatened with death if he passed between two rows of houses, where he has been in the habit of passing, that he was met by several negroes, who ordered him back and threatened to kill him, he drew his revolver, but before he could use it, was shot in the left arm, that he then fired, mortally wounding Mims. Twenty-nine negroes and eight white men are under arrest. The real cause of the trouble seems to be a determination to drive out the negroes who are working at less wages than the old miners were willing to take.

Also on the 20th June, the Logansport Pharos reported that ‘a warrant was issued against over 30 people for the shooting of William Grysdale’. It referred to 6 other white men being arrested for the killing of John Miles and Thomas Cooper and noted that they were 6 of the 14 who were acquitted last quarter of the killing of Phillip Cozzens.

Things did start to get better in Coal Creek. Ronald Lewis writes: ‘By the following year, however, circumstances in the Coal Creek district had improved dramatically. A union official wrote in the National Labor Tribune that he and a fellow organizer had stopped at Coal Creek, he was proud that:

Organization is progressing there even beyond our most sanguine expectations among both white and colored, for now the two colors meet on the most fraternal terms, and all express their firm determination to pull together and work in harmony for the future, without any distinction of color. This is as it should be, for our interests are identical. We must meet the colored men on fraternal terms, for we must not elevate ourselves by trying to keep them down. We must try to bring them up to our level, and it will not take so great an effort as many might imagine, for to our shame be it said, the colored men (according to their chances) are ahead of our white men in the principles of organization, and they do not seem to be so much afraid of it.

Walnut Hill Cemetery, Belleville

Walnut Hill Cemetery, Belleville

And this is more or less the last we hear of Old Billy Grysdale; almost but not quite. William continued to work as a miner in Indiana despite his wound, but by November 1883, aged about 56, his hard life had caught up with him, and from Indiana he applied for a US Civil War Pension, writing his name William R Grysdale. All his Civil War service is listed on his application. When and where William died isn’t known, it was probably a little before 1890, because on 13 October of that year his wife widow Anna, now back in her home town of Belleville, Illinois applied for a Civil War widow’s pension. Anna died in Belleville on 4 Dec 1895 and is buried in Belleville’s Walnut Hill cemetery.

I’ll return to William’s mining life in Belleville and his Civil War at a later date. There is in fact a link with the first US coal miners’ trade union:

Belleville Illinois around 1865

Belleville Illinois around 1865

‘In 1861, a group of miners met at Belleville, Illinois, and established the American Miners’ Association. This organization was the first nationwide union for miners in the United States. During this period, mineworkers faced numerous difficulties. During the late 1800s, industries were in great need of coal, iron ore, and other raw materials. Many mine owners saw an opportunity to garner great wealth by paying their miners low wages, while supplying other industries with raw materials. Mineworkers commonly earned less than one dollar per day for a twelve to fourteen hour workday. Workers also routinely received no health insurance, workers’ compensation, or vacation time.

To protest the poor conditions, workers formed unions, such as the American Miners’ Association. Before this point, numerous miners belonged to local unions, where the workers of a single mine or for a single company might have formed a collective bargaining organization. The American Miners’ Association hoped to unite miners across the United States together to bring more pressure on mine owners to improve conditions. In 1864, the American Miners’ Association published the following song to publicize its views:

Step by step, the longest march
Can be won, can be won;
Single stones will form an arch
One by one, one by one
And, by Union what we will
Can be accomplished still
Drops of water turn a mill,
Singly none, singly none.

Despite its lofty goals, the American Miners’ Association had limited success…  As a result of its poor membership, the American Miners’ Association ceased operation in 1868. Over the next several decades…, organizations, such as the Ohio Miners’ Amalgamated Association and the United Mine Workers, experienced greater success in uniting miners together.’

Matterdale is a rural land-locked valley community in the lake district of Cumberland. But Cumberland has another side to it; the flat coastal plain was until comparatively recently a major maritime and industrial entrepôt. Thus it’s not surprising that many members of the Grisdale family have from time to time made their way to the coast, to find work and perhaps to make their fortunes. One such was Matthew Grisdale, who might possibly have been present in Whitehaven, Cumberland, when Benjamin Franklin paid a visit in 1771 and when the Scottish, turned American, naval captain and privateer John Paul Jones raided the port in 1778.

Whitehaven harbour in the nineteenth century

For much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the town of Whitehaven was a major ship building hub, trading port and coal mining town. It only lost its position slowly as Liverpool rose to prominence. Whitehaven was created in the seventeenth century by the powerful local Lowther family, the Earls of Lonsdale. It remained for a long time a sort of company town. The Lowthers also started, owned and developed an extensive coal mining business in Cumberland, particularly in an around Whitehaven where deep coal seems extended far out to sea. Hundreds of ocean-going ships were built by Whitehaven’s ship-builders and vessels carried on a trade in coal, tobacco, corn and even slaves with America, the East and West Indies, Ireland, the Baltic and Africa. It was quite a hive of bustle and business.

It needs to be said that the working conditions of the men and children in Lowther’s Whitehaven coal mines were horrific. In a previous article on The Wild Peak Blog, I gave the description of a Whitehaven trained slave ship Captain, Hugh Crow, of this “white slavery”:

Think for instance of the poor fishermen, during the winter season – some of the greatest slaves in existence. Think of the miserable beings employed in our coal-pits, and in our iron, lead and copper mines – toiling underground in unwholesome air, which is constantly liable to fatal explosions! Think of all the men, women, and children, confined by hundreds, in heated factories, their health rapidly wasting, and their earnings scarce sufficient to keep soul and body together! Think of other slavish employments – often under masters quite as arbitrary and unfeeling as the planters!  Think of the thousands who are rotting in jails for petty offences, to which many of them are driven by want and starvation! Think of the thousands that have been imprisoned – ruined for killing a paltry hare or a partridge! Think of the wretched Irish peasantry! Think of the crowded workhouses – and do not forget to think of poor Jack, who after devoting himself to a life of toil and danger in a vocation to which his country owes much of her prosperity, is dragged by the hair of his head to shed the blood of his fellow creatures at the hazard of his own life; or, perhaps, to wear out an embittered existence in foreign stations, far from those who are nearest and dearest to his affections!

Martindale, Westmorland, Where Matthew was born

Probably quite a change then for a young Matthew Grisdale when he first arrived in the town, probably in the early 1770s. Matthew was born in the rural Westmorland valley of Martindale in 1753, the tenth and last child of parents Solomon Grisdale and Anne Lowther. Martindale is just across Lake Ullswater from Matterdale, and Matterdale-born Solomon farmed there at a place called Hen How. (If you are interested in which Solomon Grisdale of Matterdale was Matthew’s father, please write to me).

Whether Matthew arrived early enough to be present when Benjamin Franklin came to town in 1771 isn’t known, but I like to imagine he was. Franklin came with:

Sir John Pringle on a sort of voyage of scientific interest. It was suggested he visited William Brownrigg, considered one of the greatest scientists of the day, who by then had given up his medical practice in Whitehaven to concentrate on his scientific endeavours at his home of Ormathwaite, near Keswick. Whilst at Keswick, Benjamin Franklin and William Brownrigg carried out an experiment on Derwentwater to investigate if it was true that oil could calm troubled waters. They found that due to the surface tension oil would spread out to a monolayer on the surface of water and thus a surprisingly small amount could reduce the waves over a considerable area.

After his visit Franklin wrote to his wife Deborah:

In Cumberland I ascended a very high mountain, where I had a prospect of a most beautiful country, of hills, fields, lakes, villas, &c., and at Whitehaven went down the coal mines, till they told me I was eighty fathoms under the surface of the sea, which rolled over our heads; so that I have been nearer both the upper and lower regions, than ever in my life before…

Saltom Mine, Whitehaven, where Benjamin Franklin visited

In a letter the following year he wrote to Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg:

On the nature of sea-coal. To M. Dubourg: I visited last summer a large coal-mine at Whitehaven in Cumberland; and in following the vein, and descending by degrees towards the sea, I penetrated below the ocean, where the level of its surface was more than 800 fathom above my head; and the miners assured me that their works extended some miles beyond the place where I then was, continually and gradually descending under the sea. The slate which forms the roof of this coal-mine is impressed in many places with the figures of leaves and branches of fearn (sic), which undoubtedly grew at the surface, when the slate was in the state of sand on the banks of the sea. Thus it appears that this vein of coal has suffered a prodigious settlement. B. F.

It has been suggested that Franklin was starting to think about plate tectonics years, indeed centuries, before they were suggested. In 1782, he wrote again about his Whitehaven visit:

It seemed a proof that there had been a great bouleversement in the surface of that island, some part of it having been depressed under the sea, and other parts, which had been under it, being raised above it. Such changes in the superficial parts of the globe seemed to me unlikely to happen, if the earth were solid at the centre. I therefore imagined that the internal parts might be a fluid more dense, and of greater specific gravity than any of the solids we are acquainted with; which therefore might swim in or upon that fluid. Thus the surface of the globe would be a shell, capable of being broken and disordered by the violent movements of the fluid on which it rested.

John Paul Jones’ Raid on Whitehaven

But a few years later, after the outbreak of the American War of Independence, Whitehaven got another, not so friendly, American visit from Scottish-born John Paul Jones, who was by now one of the first captains in the fledgling US navy as well as a privateer for his own account. Perhaps with the encouragement of Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones, in command of the USS Ranger, conducted a brief raid on Whitehaven – the last time a British port was attacked. At 11pm on 22 April, 1778:

Commander John Paul Jones leads a small detachment of two boats from his ship, the USS Ranger, to raid the shallow port at Whitehaven, England, where, by his own account, 400 British merchant ships are anchored. Jones was hoping to reach the port at midnight, when ebb tide would leave the shops at their most vulnerable

Jones and his 30 volunteers had greater difficulty than anticipated rowing to the port, which was protected by two forts. They did not arrive until dawn. Jones’ boat successfully took the southern fort, disabling its cannon, but the other boat returned without attempting an attack on the northern fort, after the sailors claimed to have been frightened away by a noise. To compensate, Jones set fire to the southern fort, which subsequently engulfed the entire town.

Jones knew Franklin well and perhaps he had his permission for this raid. He orders read: “You shall judge best for distressing the Enemies of the United States, by sea or otherwise.

After the raid Benjamin Franklin and John Adams wrote to Jones:

We shall recommend the men who landed with you at Whitehaven, to the favor of Congress, because we think they merited it; but lest our recommendation should miscarry, we wish you to recommend them, and enclose in your letter an extract of this paragraph of ours. As they have done to themselves so much honor in this expedition, perhaps Congress would approve of the deduction of the advance at the time of entry, which they all received from me, being made from their wages in America, that the men may have their prize money here.

Mercants’ Houses in Irish Street – Like the one Matthew lived in in 1811

Whatever the case, Matthew Grisdale had established himself well enough in Whitehaven by 1783 to marry. His wife was Esther Fletcher. Matthew had become a “corn factor” i.e. a trading merchant. Eight children soon followed: John (1785), Joseph (1787), Lowther (1790), Thomas (1792), Ann (1792), and William (1793), Jane (1798) and Mary (1801).

Things obviously were going well for him because by 1811 his business acumen had enabled him to be living in a fine merchant’s house in Irish Street, Whitehaven. By 1828 he was living, presumedly in an even finer house, in Lonsdale Place and by now was called a “Gentleman”.

Matthew died aged 86 in June 1838. In his will dated 13 June 1837, we can see how wealthy Matthew had become. He divided his estate (unequally) between his children. In cash and government debt he bequeathed around £10,000, plus extensive properties, including his house in Lonsdale Place plus warehouse and shop in Roper Street and extensive household goods. He had done very well!

Many of Matthew and Esther’s children had interesting lives themselves: John became a grocer in Whitehaven, Lowther went to university, became a clergyman and school-master, and was for 28 years the headmaster of Bolton Grammar School in Lancashire, Thomas moved to Liverpool and became a pawn-broker, while William became, like his name-sake Benjamin Grisdale, the manager of Whitehaven’s Customs House. But those stories are for a later date.