The Oldham Miners’ Strike Medallion.
As collectors of mining memorabilia most of us are familiar with the huge series of badges which emanated from the coal miners’ strike of 1984/85. This series of badges leaves us a unique record not only of those pits and unions that took part in the year long dispute but also the various local and national miners’ support groups which issued their own badges as a sign of solidarity and support. The purpose of such badges was generally two fold;
I had always considered the issuing of strike badges by British miners and their supporters to be a product of the twentieth century. In addition to the huge series of badges produced during the 1984/85 strike, which total well in excess of 900 different examples including those issued in different colour variations, a very small number of badges are also known from earlier miners’ strikes. These earlier examples emanate principally from the miners’ disputes of the early 1970s. However, at least one much earlier badge, a miniature flame safety lamp suspended from a lapel pin, is known from the infamous General Strike of 1926.
I had always believed that the General Strike miner's badge was the earliest of its type known from the United Kingdom. However, I recently had to change this supposition when a fellow collector informed me of yet an earlier example which pre-dated the famous 1926 issued by nearly 70 years! My friend had recently come by this item at an antiques fair and on first inspection had overlooked it believing it to be a Victorian period Agricultural Show Prize Cow Medal! It wasn’t until after having been persuaded by the dealer selling it to take a closer look at the item that he realised its true significance as a rare piece of mining memorabilia.
The badge in question takes the form of a white metal medallion with a small hole from which it had no doubt been suspended and worn using a pin and chain or alternatively a ribbon and pin assembly. Although not strictly speaking a badge in the modern sense this medallion would have been the nearest equivalent of such given the era (late 1850s) from which it came.
The Oldham Miners' Strike Medallion/Badge of 1858.
The medallion measures 31.5 mm in diameter and bears designs and legends on both its obverse and reverse. A description of the piece is given below and illustrated on the adjoining page.
Representation of an ox standing facing left in centre of field surrounded by the legend "The Labourer Is Worthy Of His Hire". Below in four lines the legend "Roast Whole / Oldham / Nov. 22nd / 1858".
The reverse bears the legend in eight lines "In / Commemoration / Of The / Feast To The Colliers / Given As A Mark Of Public / Sympathy & Respect / For Their Conduct On / Strike".
The medallion was intriguing to both its new owner and myself. There was obviously an interesting story behind it. What was the background to the strike this medallion commemorated and what was the significance of the ox roast? These questions begged answers and thanks to the help of the "Internet" and the many genealogical and local history research groups that operate through e-mail discussion groups these questions soon found answers.
After circulating information about the medallion on various coal mining history and Lancashire genealogy e-mail groups a reply quickly came back with the full history behind the strike and the enigmatic ox roast. Most of the information supplied came from an article in the Oldham Chronicle of 1982. This article in turn had been based on contemporary reports of the strike from the Oldham Advertiser of November 1858.
The fascinating story behind the Oldham miners’ strike of 1858 and the feast given them by the local public in sympathy and thanks for their good conduct while on strike is outlined below.
In 1858 over 600 Oldham and district miners went on strike demanding shorter hours and more pay. They had a good case.
The wages of two of the typical striking miners are given below. Each had worked 186 days between January and July that year. One had earned £29.1s.3½d and the other £22.7s.7d, making an average weekly income of 18s.4½d and 16s.7d respectively. They had to pay 1s.9d a week each for lamp oil, sharpening picks and shovels etc. and this was said to be above average.
The strike was sparked off in the July when the coal owners tried to put the colliers back on 1849 wages. This meant a reduction in pay of two pence in the shilling. In those days it was customary for wages to slide up and down with the price of coal, but sometimes when the price went up wages stayed the same.
It was stated at a meeting at Ashton that the coal masters sold fuel too cheaply to make a profit and then lowered the miners' wages. Many masters were willing to help the men if only they had been able to raise the market price of coal.
The miners wanted £1.16s for a six-day week, a proper apprenticeship system, and a levy of a penny a ton on coal to pay for the education of miners' children and to keep the wives and families of men killed in the pits.
In early December 1858 the miners returned to work victorious. Although they hadn’t got all they had been campaigning for, of course, their return to work was carried out without any particular bitterness despite the great hardship they must have endured over the 20 weeks of the strike.
On Monday 22nd November 1858, a month prior to the end of the strike, the hardship felt by the miners was to be temporarily forgotten during a day of celebration. This was the occasion when public sympathy and respect for the good conduct of the striking miners was to be expressed in the form of a banquet paid for by public subscription. The great feast in honour of the miners was held on Tommy Field, behind the covered market at the end of Curzon Street in Oldham.
High boardings were used to enclose a large area of Tommy Field, the entrance to which was gained through the old market hall. Four lines of tables (boards on barrels) were laid out, half in the open air and half under a huge marquee. Six of the tables were labelled with the names of the collieries taking part in the strike. Each place at table was marked by a piece of bread, pint pot plus a knife and fork. Each knife was etched with the legend "The labourer is worthy of his hire", and they were much admired. Admission was charged for people who wished to watch the feast and it must have been a fascinating spectacle.
The menu for the feast comprised of plum pudding followed by roast beef and potatoes all washed down with a pint of beer. The ox selected for the feast was bought from Dunham Park for £21 and was described as "a gradely fat un". It weighed upwards of 12 cwt and was roast on a 14 foot long spit. The plum puddings provided were also substantial. Each of the 100 puddings weighed 5lb.
Roasting of the ox commenced at 2.30 a.m. and spectators began to arrive from 5 a.m. until pressure from the crowd around the fire was something fearful. A contemporary report of the feast comments that short people amongst the spectators jumped up above the crowd to catch a momentary glimpse of what was going on. In addition many youths got on to the roof of the market to secure a better view of the whole affair. Meanwhile innumerable "urchins", who did not possess the spectator’s admittance fee, flattened their noses against the boards and peeped through the chinks under the impression that it was better to see the crowd that saw the ox roasting than to see nothing of the event at all.
The process of carving the beast began at 1 p.m. Slices were cut off the ox and put into dripping-tins for further cooking. The cooks had to shield themselves from the immense heat of the open fire.
Meanwhile, the colliers were marching through the town headed by a brass band and a flag bearing the inscription "The Labourer is Worthy of his Hire". The procession started off from Tommy Field and arrived back there at 2.30 p.m. The miners then took their places at the tables according to pits at which they were employed. There were over 60 collieries in Oldham at this time.
Once seated the miners were served with their first course, plum pudding. Next came the beef, roast potatoes and ale. After finishing the miners left the tables and were replaced by 200 to 300 wives and children. After the wives and children came the turn of those who had worked to prepare the feast and by that time it was late in the evening. A meeting followed, laced by a series of speeches. It was not largely attended though it went on until far into the night and even the Oldham Chronicle reporter became weary.
The conduct of the miners’ during the entire day had been impeccable. There had not been a single case of drunkenness and there had been only one casualty. One man broke his leg but luckily this it turned out to be only a wooden one.
Receipts from onlookers at the feast amounted to £52. 6s.9d. Although it is not known how much was charged to gain admittance as a spectator it could only have been a few pence.
On the Thursday after the feast the organising committee met at the Rock Tavern in Oldham. Here they were served with their own celebratory dinner. The after-dinner speeches were self-congratulatory. One speaker reminded the committee of all the original objections to the feast, which had been surmounted. Some had said the feast would be a blackguard and drunken affair. Others had said that it would be impossible to carry out. Some of the tee-totallers had protested that it would have been better if they had not given the miners ale while the vegetarians objected to the beef and to the puddings because they had suet in them. Others amongst the committee had denounced the serving of potatoes at the feast as a "nasty weed". As the speaker pointed out if all these objections had been heeded all the miners would have been served was bread!
At the end of the evening a profit of £35 pounds was handed over for distribution to the striking miners. The toast was "The health of the miners and may the differences between them and their employers be speedily and amicably arranged".
The miners’ feast had been a day for all to remember. Oldham had certainly seen nothing similar to the grand event since the victory celebrations after Wellington’s success at the Battle of Waterloo some 43 years earlier in 1815.
Some 642 colliers and 300 women and children had dined at the feast and the next day an additional 50 to 60 heads of families were served with enough provisions so that each family member had one good meal. By the end of Wednesday evening the remaining surplus had been distributed to 91 mothers with food enough for 450 children. It was reported that there had not been an ounce of meat wasted in any shape or form.
It is not clear from the contemporary accounts to whom the commemorative medallions had been issued. However, two scenarios seem likely;
In my opinion the latter of the above two options seems more likely. Based on this assumption I believe this medallion can truly claim to be the earliest type of British miners’ strike support group badge so far recorded in the United Kingdom. As such it should probably be regarded as the forerunner of the entire series of miners’ strike badges that were to follow in the twentieth century.
I would like to thank Mary Pendlebury for providing me with the primary references and and many of the background details regarding the celebrated Oldham miner's Ox roast of November 1858.
1) The Oldham Advertiser. Dated 27 November 1858.
2) An article regarding the Oldham Miners' Ox Roast by Kenneth Hirst taken from a 1982 edition of "The Oldham Chronicle". This article is on file in Oldham Local Studies & Achieves Department.
Based on an article in NMMA Newsletter No.21, Spring 2001. © Mark Smith