Gem From The Archives: Miners’ Relief Fund – photograph album

Paul Stebbing, BMBC’s Archives & Local Studies Officer, examines a 19th century photograph album created in Barnsley

Being a coal miner in 19th century Barnsley was a dangerous business. Conditions were poor and accidents frequent. An explosion at the Oaks Colliery near Stairfoot in 1866 claimed the lives of more than 380 miners and rescuers, and ranks as one of the worst mining disasters in Britain. The earlier Huskar disaster at Silkstone in 1838 had claimed the lives of 26 children, and smaller accidents were extremely frequent.

A vicar say at a small table with a writing implement in hand
The Rev’d Henry J Day, Rector of Barnsley, vice President

The Reverend Henry Day (1833-1890), the Staffordshire-born Rector of Barnsley from 1863-1878, had witnessed first-hand the devastation of the Oaks disaster, with hundreds of local families being affected. He was instrumental in creating an insurance scheme for those that toiled beneath the ground. He wrote a letter to the Barnsley Chronicle appealing for a fund to be set up to help miners in the event of an accident or their families in the event of their death. The West Riding of Yorkshire Miners’ Permanent Relief Fund Friendly Society was the result of his endeavors, being formally established on 23rd January 1877, just 13 months after a further 143 had lost their lives at Swaithe Main Colliery.

A double page spread from the Swaithe Main Colliery Explosion Relief Fund
Swaithe Main Colliery Explosion Relief Fund

The first president was the Earl Fitzwilliam and the Society operated from offices in Church Street. The Society provided, by contributions from ordinary members and by donations from honorary members, payment of a sum at death for fatal accidents to widows and orphaned children. It also provided financial assistance to members suffering from non-fatal accidents or industrial diseases such as nystagmus. Barnsley followed other areas of the country, with the first Miners’ Permanent Relief Fund having been set up in Northumberland and Durham in 1862 after the Hartley Disaster of that year, which had claimed the lives of 204 men. However, it took the Reverend Day’s hard work and desire to help the miners of the West Riding to really push the idea forward – an idea that had been discussed for some years.

A man stood next to a small table which has a top hat rested on the top of it
The Right Honorable Earl Fitzwillaim. Lord Lieutenant of the West Riding of Yorkshire

The vice presidents and officers of the Society were made up of the great and the good of Barnsley, including Day himself. Such was the immediate success of the Society, that it had attracted some 2000 members within just two months. In recognition of his achievement of forming and establishing the Society, and to mark his departure from the town, the Reverend Day was presented with a huge embossed photograph album by friends, members and supporters of the Society in 1878. The album, which survives in the collections of Barnsley Archives and Local Studies, contains 39 portraits of officers and committee members. These include Edward Jones, the manager of the Oaks Colliery; Alexander Paterson, the editor of the Barnsley Chronicle; Earl Fitzwilliam; and the Reverend Day himself. The album provides a fantastic photographic record of some of the key figures in Barnsley, from a time when photography was still in its infancy. It also shows just how valued the hard work undertaken by the Reverend Day was. His immense support for local miners and their families was not forgotten.

A man with a bushy beard, seated and looking towards the camera
Mr Alexander Paterson, Editor of the Barnsley Chronicle

The West Riding Permanent Relief Fund flourished, long after Day’s departure from the area, continuing for over a century until 1988. The entire archive was saved and donated to Barnsley Archives and Local Studies. One of the largest single collections held by the Service, it contains administrative and financial records of the Society, including minutes of meetings, annual reports and conference papers. It also crucially contains contribution books detailing payments made to miners and their families – a rich source of information for those trying to trace coalmining ancestors, as well as those interested in the area’s coalmining history.

the album really is a Barnsley who’s-who of the 19th century!

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