The Colliery Medallions of U. A. Ritson & Sons Ltd. of Co. Durham and Northumberland

Does anyone have any information about the types of medals or fobs illustrated below. The examples illustrated have both been produced from the same die and measure 26 mm diameter. The first, engraved on the reverse to "P. Lee" of Preston Colliery (North Shields),  appears to be of gilt base metal while the second, engraved "M. Dobbs" of Burnhope Colliery (County Durham),  is of hallmarked (Birmingham, 1917) silver. Both bear the signature of  the makers Vaughton & Sons of Birmingham, in small embossed letters on their obverse. 

Over the past few years I have come across at least four of these medals/fobs. Two examples, one gilt the other silver, have been issued to men from Burnhope Colliery a third to a man from Preston Colliery and a fourth to an unknown recipient of South Pontop Colliery. Each of the four examples known to me have had the same obverse design with a crossed pick and shovel above a flame safety lamp.  Above in green enamelled letters are the initials "U.A.R & S" while below the date (also in green enamel) "1917".
Given the list of collieries from which these medals have emanated it is possible to identify the initials on their obverse as being those of the colliery owners U.A. Ritson & Sons Ltd. At the time the medals appear to have been issued (i.e. 1917) Ritsons owned three collieries - Burnhope and South Pontop in Durham plus Preston on the Northumberland side of the Tyne.
On first encountering these fobs I believed them to be tribute medals issued by Ritsons to colliers who had been in their employ who had served in the Great War. Similar tribute medals are known to have been issued by other coal owners, examples of which include the Wath Coal Company, Mitchell Main Colliery Company and Rosslyn Collieries in Fife. However, if the fobs were tribute medals why wasn't the date on their obverse not stated more generally as 1914 - 18 or alternatively either 1918 or 1919. What was the significance of the year 1917? An alternative suggestion was that the medals may have been issued in tribute to colliers who had all signed up for military service during one of the major government enlistment campaigns instigated towards the end of the war (i.e. 1917) when new recruits were urgently needed.  What ever the exact explanation I felt sure the fobs were some sort of Great War tribute medal. This was the belief I had held for several years until very recently when I had to totally dismiss my previous assumptions. Knowing of my interest in the Ritson medals a fellow collector in County Durham contacted me to say that he had just acquired a "Roll of Honour" issued by U.A. Ritson & Sons Ltd. listing the names of all their employees who had served in the Great War 1914 to 1918. The roll of honour, like similar ones I have seen issued by other colliery companies, gives details for each man listed such as his military regiment and rank etc., which pit he had served at before enlisting  plus whether or not he was injured (fatally or not) or served for any period as a POW.
Armed with the names of the three individuals (J. Hopkins and M. Dobbs of Burnhope Colliery plus P. Lee of Preston Colliery) for whom I knew had been issued with Ritson medals all that was now need was to find their listings in the "Roll of Honour" to prove my previous assumptions as to the medals' function. Unfortunately none of theses individuals could be found listed anywhere and as such their was no basis what so ever for regarding the fobs as Great War tribute medals. So if not tribute medals what were the Ritson medals issued for and why were they produced in both gilt and solid silver varieties? Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
Submitted By : Mark Smith 
Date: December 2002
I have one of the Ritson medals referenced above. While displaying this item on my Durham Coalfield Memorabilia Display at the Durham Miners' Gala last year a gentleman approached me after recognising the Ritson Medal in one of my display cases. The gentleman claimed to be a native of Burnhope where many of these medals must have originated. He claimed to have a similar medal in his own possession a reported to have researched the item. The gentleman reported the medals to be a 50 years long service medals issued to miners in Ritson's employ, presumably around the year 1917. Unfortunately he disappeared back into the crowd before any further details could be obtained off him.
Submitted By: John Kitching (Webmaster plus Curator of the Brandon & Byshottles Archive)
Date: April 2003
Response to Reply 1
I think the idea of these medals being long service tributes issued by Ritson's to there various employers in Co. Durham and Northumberland is very plausible other than the one fact that the design of all of them incorporates the specific dated of 1917. If they were general issue long service medals they wouldn't all be dated  the same? Surely the date must have specific meaning as regards the fundamental reason for the medals' issue. (Mark Smith)
I also don't believe these items are tribute medals. However, they may possibly have served one of the following suggested purposes;
A) They may have been possibly issued to commemorate an anniversary of the company which occur in 1917 such as the occasion of its 25th or 50th year of operations?

B) They could have been presented by the company to men in their employ who had had to return home owing to injury during the Great War. I have seen similar silver wounded medals issued by other British companies of the period.
C) They may have been a form of company war service badge. Such badges are known to have been issued by various armaments factories and ship yards etc. during the Great War. They indicated that the owners were serving their country and not dodging war service or conscription, which commenced in 1916. The different types of medal may have been to distinguish the different mines under Ritson's ownership?
Submitted By: Robert Watt
Date: February 2004
I also have one of the U.A.R.&S medals that is similar to the ones shown above. It belonged to a member of my wife's family, Mr. J. O. Kirkup, and is inscribed with his name plus that of "Burnhope Colliery" where he presumably worked.

Mr. Kirkup was born in 1893 and died in 1954 and was from a family of miners who lived in the Chester-le-Street district. His medal is still housed in the Vaughton's presentation case in which it was originally issued. However, this particular medal (see image below) is different to the others so far discussed in that it;

Unfortunately this particular medal does not help answer any of the original questions raised about this particular series of issues. In fact if anything it has added to the mystery in that it is now apparent that not all the medals bear the date of 1917 and that at least one other date (i.e. 1918) is commemorated on them. What the significance is of this medal being struck in solid gold is also a mystery. There would appear to be a hierarchy of medals from gold, silver to gilt base metal. The significances of this is also a mystery.

Submitted By: James Elder
Date: May 2005

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