Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Thomas Hepburn

Hepburn[1] was born in February 1796 in the Durham pit village of Pelton. His father was killed in a mining accident, leaving a widow and three children, of whom Thomas was the eldest. Hepburn received a scanty education at the village school, and could read the Bible when he began work at Urpeth colliery at the age of eight; he soon moved to another local pit, at Fatfield. He took every opportunity to extend his education by private study and by attending classes after work. He joined the Primitive Methodists, becoming an active local preacher, which developed his powers of persuasion, public speaking, and organisation. Hepburn married in 1820 and soon afterwards moved to a colliery at Jarrow and then to the recently opened Hetton colliery. This pattern of moves within a small area was typical of the lives of skilled hewers, and Hepburn thereby gained experience of a variety of mining communities. Hetton was a large new colliery, with a newly gathered workforce ripe for the establishment of its own leadership.

Although miners had often shown a capacity for effective collective action, formal trade unionism among them had never achieved long-term success. In 1830, Hepburn became involved in attempts to resuscitate a mining union, encouraged by the existence of a number of grievances, including the long hours worked by colliery boys and the existence of the annual ‘bond’ or written contract of employment which tied miners to a coal-owner’s service for a year. Early in 1831, Hepburn took a leading role in mass meetings at which these grievances were expressed and steps taken to form a revived union. In early April, when the annual bond was due for renewal, thousands of pitmen refused to sign and the northern coalfield was crippled by a major lock-out which lasted more than two months. The coal-owners were unable to maintain united resistance and by the summer the miners had won a major victory, which included the concession of shorter working hours for boys. Throughout the campaign, Hepburn worked hard to keep the men together and present a moderate and law-abiding public front. Some of the other 1831 leaders, including other Primitive Methodist lay preachers, were cast in the same mould; their obvious honesty, moderation, and respectability helped to confer a favourable public image on the union. It was said that Hepburn ‘many times prevented the men from running into excess and extravagance’[2]. The effect of these tactics on the authorities, and on uncommitted public opinion, was crucial in the miners’ victory.

The union remained in existence following the 1831 settlement, and in August 1831, Hepburn was elected as its paid organiser, after a short period in which he had tried to support his family by founding a small school. Thereafter things began to go awry for the union and its leader. Many employers were alarmed at the way in which the coal-owners had been coerced into concessions, fears shared in some influential quarters in local and central government. Hepburn was unable to maintain control of all of his followers. There was a continuing rash of local colliery disputes which imperilled the continuance of the 1831 settlement, since the concessions made had not ensured industrial peace on the coalfield. Another widespread dispute brought most of the northern pitmen out again in 1832, in an atmosphere that turned ugly. There were outbreaks of violence, including attacks on collieries and at least two murders, which played a part in turning the authorities and uncommitted public opinion against the miners. The union’s unity proved fragile, and in face of the coal-owners’ greater determination to resist coercion, and the threat presented by the import of many blackleg miners, ‘Hepburn’s Union’ was broken by the end of the summer of 1832, leaving its leader in serious difficulties. Hepburn tried teaching again, without success, and then selling tea door-to-door in the pit villages. After years of hardship, he made a desperate appeal for employment to T. E. Forster, the manager of Felling colliery. Forster agreed to take him on, but apparently exacted a promise of abstention from union activities. For the rest of Hepburn’s life, Forster supported and befriended him. Successive employments as a deputy overman, inspector of safety lamps, and master wasteman, enabled Hepburn to support his family respectably.

Hepburn’s public activities did not end with the union catastrophe of 1832. Although they coincided with the political crisis over parliamentary reform, there was little broader political inspiration behind the 1831–2 strikes, and the miners’ case was mostly confined to immediate mining grievances. There were sound tactical reasons for this, though Hepburn himself was a keen supporter of political reform. After he had secured his Felling employment, he was prominent in the 1839 Chartist agitation on Tyneside. When the great mining strike of 1844 began, some miners begged Hepburn to join its leadership. His memories of 1832 remained sharp and he steadily refused ‘as he had been forsaken by them and taken care of by Mr. Forster’[3]. In his last years, when Hepburn had been forced to give up work and his mental state had deteriorated, Forster continued to treat him kindly. He lived at Office Row, Hebburn, until he was taken to his daughter’s home three months before his death in Newcastle upon Tyne on 9th December 1864. His funeral at Heworth was attended by few mourners, his part in the events of 1831–2 by then largely forgotten. A few years later, the publication of Richard Fynes’s The Miners of Northumberland and Durham (1873) revived interest in Hepburn’s achievements. In November 1875, a headstone was erected on Hepburn’s grave, extolling the way in which he had striven for ‘shorter hours and better education for miners’. His significance as an early pioneer of trade unionism in that movement’s heroic age has since been widely accepted. In 1974, Hepburn was included in a small group of early labour leaders selected for an issue of commemorative postage stamps.


[1] Sources: J. Oxberry Thomas Hepburn of Felling: what he did for miners, c.1938 and R. Fynes The miners of Northumberland and Durham, 1873

[2] Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, 17th December 1864.

[3] Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, 17th December 1864.

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