Of all the incidents in the eventful history of the coalmining industry in West Cumberland none was more colourful, or so charged with potential social dynamite than the ‘Bully Smith’ era in the Whitehaven collieries during the early twenties.
History has shown that Watson Smith, to give the then manager of the collieries his proper name, almost certainly meant well for both mines and miners, but at the time the colliers didn’t think so and his efforts to get them to change their ways led first to the strike or lock-out, depending on which side you stood, then to the Whitehaven riots.
Since West Cumberland miners in general and those at Whitehaven in particular, were regarded as the stormy petrels of the industry, the eyes of the mining world were on them.
Since the stormy history of the union in the area more often than not found the men’s side short of cash within a couple of weeks of strike or lock-out being called, the Watson Smith lock-out of 1923 had lasted only a short time when strike pay ended. In a society which had little sympathy with striking coalminers, there weren’t any government hand-outs either.
So the Whitehaven miners decided to see what they could do to raise some money themselves, or rather twenty-nine of them did. They formed a choir and after a few days practice, went on tour.
The tour took them all over North and West Cumberland and across into Northumberland and Durham, mostly on foot singing their hearts out, winning over support and earning a little money when the hat was passed around.
The story of Whitehaven’s twenty-nine wandering minstrels would have passed into local folklore as a mere memory had it not been for one James Michael Holiday, who was appointed official historian for the tour. The leather-bound diary which Jim kept, records in beautiful copperplate writing details of the miners’ tour which lasted nearly two months and resulted in donations given to the struggling miners being brought back to Whitehaven.
The diary has been passed down the generations, first from James to his son, then onto James’ grandson Stephen Holliday, who is still in possesion of the diary to this day.
Stephen has very kindly allowed me to reproduce the diary for this website, below:
We left Whitehaven, twenty-nine of us on the 12th of June and went by train to Workington and it was a wet day. We left our luggage and parcels in the Miner’s offices till night and then we went and sang around the streets and at night gave a concert in the Hippodrome at the last house, with the kind permission of the manager. We then went to the Miner’s offices and we were all allocated for our beds for the night, all of us got put up.
On the 13th June we left Workington by train to Maryport. We sang around Maryport and then walked to Grasslot and Ellenbrough and sang there and we all got put up for the night.
On the 14th June we went by bus to Cockermouth and walked to Papcastle, Broughton, Little Broughton and Brigham and sang around them all and we met Bob Rigg and he gave us all teas and we sang at Mr Williamson’s, the tanner and he asked “if there was any coal hewers among us?” and we said “no“ so he said, “I’m glad because I would not have supported you”. Well we walked back to Cockermouth and all got put up for the night and Allison Mathers left us and Bob Farrer got a telegram to say his Father had met an accident and he went back from Cockermouth on the bus.
Then on the 15th of June, we left Cockermouth by the bus for Silloth, but we did not stop more than two hours in it, there was no money. So we decided to go to Aspatria, a ten mile tramp. So that did not suit some of them and Jack Gibson, H Smith, W Joyce, W Morris and A Cornish went back home. So we went on our way and reached Aspatria about six o’clock and we went up to a little village called Harristown and sang along the rows of houses and Joe Dryden made his first appeal for teas and lodgings and I might say we were all took by the hand and made like their own.
On the 16th June we sang around the streets and met with good response and our tea on Saturday was paid for by the delegate and his chums and at night we gave a program outside of the picture house and it was well attended and then we all went to Harristown to stay another night.
On Sunday 17th June it was an idle day for us. So we went to the Primitive Chapel to hear the children’s anniversary at morning, afternoon and night and a gentleman gave our choir master two pounds for the fund and the church folk were all wanting to take us for our teas. So you see, we had an idle day, but it fetched good results and the two pounds was handed over to James Fearon and I might say Tom Birkett left us at Aspatria on Saturday, he was our advance agent. He said he could not stick it so he went home.
On the Sunday night we all went back to Harristown.
On the 18th June we left Harristown and the good people of it and they were good to all of us. We travelled to Blennerhassett. Mr Bell and the delegate came a little way with us and when they had to leave us they broke down and went away crying like children.
We sang around Blennerhassett, Baggrow, Fletchertown, Mealsgate, Bolton and on to Wigton, another ten-miles tramp. We had our teas in Wigton and then went by train on to Carlisle and arrived in Carlisle at eight o’clock and Thompson Reed and Joe Dryden and J Fearon and one or two more went to a hostel to inspect some beds, where we were to sleep. So they reported to us, ”all nice and clean”. So we had to be in the hostel by ten o’clock or else locked out for the night. So we all gets in and gets undressed and into bed and we had not been in bed five minutes, till there was a knocking at the door. Jim Kendall says, “Are you there marrow,” he says “come and have a look at these,” we had a look and there were bugs as big as blackberries, well the next thing we heard was someone shouting, “ Are you there Shin?” (James Fearon) “come, come and have a look at this,” well there was a bit of a commotion and the fellows what slept there every night was shouting “Get to hell out and let us sleep.” Well we all went out carrying our shoes and clothes in our hands along streets looking for the Trades Hall. We had to knock Jack Wynne up, but he thought nothing of that, so we had our first night in the Trades Hall.
On the 19th June we set off and sang around the streets of the city and all our meals were made by the Women’s section of the Labour Party and they done our washing and they were all very kind to us. We slept in the Trades Hall again that night and W Stephenson and Bob Farrer joined us.
On the 21st June we went by train to Brampton, but we did not stop long, in fact we could not buy bread in the spot and while we were there a telegram came for Thompson Reed and he had to leave us to go home and we had a meeting in a public shelter house in the market and decided to carry on and proposed Will Stephenson to act in the choir masters place. We then walked a couple of miles to the station and got in the train for Haltwhistle. We got in touch with the leaders of the Union and half of us got beds and the other half slept in the Scouts Hall and the following day sang around and took collections at the pit and we met with a good response.
On the 23rd June we went by train to Prudoe and had to change at Hexham. We had a look around and by that time it was train time. We landed into Prudoe and we had two collections at the pits and the delegate, old Charlie Nesbitt showed us around the village and we started to sing. Joe Dryden made an appeal but the good people of Prudoe made us all comfortable and some slept in Fred Watson’s and others in the Miners Hall.
On Sunday 24th June we had a practice and at night we gave a concert in the Council field, which was largely attended. Both Dryden and Fearon spoke on the Lockout and then we finished and went to where we had to stay for the night.
On Monday 25th June we walked to Crawcrook and we all got put up for the week by Cumberland people and we made Crawcrook our centre for the week, we sang around Addison.
On the 26th June we walked to Stargate and Crookhill and our choirmaster joined us again and in the afternoon, we had a meeting and decided to go to Newcastle.
On Wednesday 27th June it was the Pitman’s Derby. Well we went and we had four main places to sing, at the Bigg Market, Old Haymarket, Byker Bank and Jesmond Hoppings. But we done nothing smart. Only at the Bigg Market. We had our teas at Byker and then walked to the Bigg Market and sang again at night. We left then for Carkcrook.
On the 28th June we done Ryton and Greenside.
On 29th June we took collections at Addison, Emma, Greenside, Spen and Clara Vale.
On 30th June we walked to Chopwell and sang around the streets and Dryden made an appeal for teas and met with success. At night we all walked back to Carkcrook.
On the 1st July we had a practice and on the 2nd July we went by bus to Blaydon and sang around the streets and at night we gave a concert in the Blaydon Empire, with the kind permission of Ted Hinge, the manager and we all got put up for the night.
On the 3rd July we walked to Winlaton and Bleach Green and Jack McGuiness gave us all our teas, we walked back to Blaydon and stayed all night.
On the 4th July we went by bus to Swalwell and Wickham and sang around the streets, Dryden made an appeal and all got put up for the night.
On the 5th July we went by bus and tram to Gateshead and the Felling and sang around and Dryden made an appeal for teas and lodgings and some kind people gave us our teas outside on a green. We all got put up for the night.
On 6th July we went by taxis to Usworth and we sung around and Dryden made an appeal for teas and lodgings and met with success. At night we went to Old Washington and met Mr Plurs and gave a short program at the JLP Headquarters. We then came up to New Washington.
On the 7th July we sang all around the Colliery Rows and Springfield.
On 8th July we had a practice and at night we gave a concert in the theatre at New Washington and one of the Cumberland executives gave a short address telling the people in his own tin pot way, he said “Smith said that he would starve the bastards into work.” Well the concert passed off all right and met with a good response.
On the 9th July we left Usworth for Birtley and walked all the way. We got to Birtley and came across Ben Oliver who let us put our luggage in his house and then we went on to Kibblesworth and on the road we met a man taking snapshots for a paper, so he was delighted to take us. We then sang around the village and Dryden made an appeal for tea and we all got tea and walked back to Birtley. We all got put up at Birtley for three nights.
On 10th July we sang around the streets of Birtley and at night gave a concert on the green in front of the council houses and Dryden and Fearon both spoke on working conditions at Whitehaven.
On the 11th July we walked to Ouston and sang at the village and walked back to Birtley and had our teas in a big canteen.
On the 12th July we went by bus to Newfield and we sang around Pelton Fell and Dryden made an appeal and we all got teas and put up for two nights.
On the 13th July we walked to Newton Tysdale and Grange Villa and at Tysdale Dryden made an appeal for tea and we all got our teas then we all walked back to Pelton Fell.
On 14th July Hopkins and Kendal left us. We walked to Chester-le-Street. There were two collections at the pits Pelton Fell and South Pelaw and we sang around Chester-le-Street and Dryden and Fearon made an appeal for teas and lodgings, we all got teas and put up for two nights.
On Sunday 15th July we just had a practice.
On 16th July we walked to Lumley and sang there and sang at New Lampton. Joe Dryden made an appeal for lodgings but met with a bad response, it was nearly midnight before we all got put up and if it had not been for Bob Burns of the Warriers Arms taking us in, we should have had to sleep in the fields. Well that passed over.
On the 17th July we walked to Shinney Row and sang and Dryden made another appeal for teas. We then walked on to Fence Houses, Newbottle, New Harrington and on to Sunnyside. Dryden made an appeal at Sunnyside for tea and we all got our teas. We then walked on to Houghton-le-Spring. We met Fearon and he told us we had to all appear at a Lodge Meeting of the Houghton Miners, we all went and gave a short program and Fearon and Dryden spoke of the situation at Whitehaven and we were all well received. We retired so as to let them discuss their business and were told to come back and they told us they had decided to send a hundred pounds to Whitehaven and to give us two and six a man for ourselves. Then Stephenson sung a solo and got a good applause. We all got put up for the night.
On 18th July we had an idle day, just to practice.
On the 19th July it was raining and we just got a little singing around the streets.
On the 20th July we went by train to Helton Downs, Helton Lines, Hetton-le-hole and Easington Colliery. We took a collection at the pits Helton Downs and Helton Lines and then sang around the streets and Dryden made an appeal for lodgings and tea, some got put up and ten of us had to sleep in the Miners Hall.
On the 21st July we sang around and Stephenson had to leave us and went home, so we still carried on.
On 22nd July we had an idle day.
On the 23rd July we walked to Murton and sung around the streets and Fearon made an appeal for teas and lodgings and met with success.
On the 24th July we walked to Dawdon and Seaham Harbour and sang around the streets. We met plenty of Whitehaven people who were very good to us.
On the 25th July we went to the Ryhope by bus and sang around. Ben Bolton gave us all drinks as we were leaving the village and Joe Dryden made an appeal and met with success.
On the 26th July we went to Silksworth by tramcar and sang around the village and Dryden made an appeal for teas and lodgings and met with success.
On the 27th July we left for Durham City and when we got there we had a practise for the Gala on Saturday. Then we set off to sing around Gilligate and came back to Durham City and Fearon and Dryden were run off the feet looking for lodgings for us. Well some got put up and others had to sleep in a wash house.
On the 28th July we all met at ten o’clock and proceeded with our banner down to the field, taking collections on the way. We got into the field and had a pitch singing till the speakers started. We then had something to eat and then went onto number two platform after Jack Jones and Frank Hodges had spoke and Stephenson and Hopkins joined us. We sang on and both Dryden and Fearon made splendid speeches and then we went for tea. Standing outside waiting for our tea, Houghton-le-Springs band and banner and lodge comes along and Tom Newton sees us and he stops the band and the whole of the procession and he says, ”Give the Whitehaven lads a tune, they are fighting our battles” and they gave us a tune. There were two hundred banners and one hundred and eighty bands and we gave three cheers and away they went and we went for our teas. After tea we sang outside the Town Hall and in one of the main streets and then finished for the night. Some went to Murton and the rest stayed in the city.
On the 29th July we had a rest, went to see the great St Hilda Band play in the park.
On 30th July we were ready for leaving, when a man came and took our photos at a big monument. After that we went by bus to Sherburn and Sherburn Hill and sang around the two villages and all got put up for the night.
On the 31st July we walked to Thornley and sang around and everything was provided for us.
On the 1st August we walked to Wheatley Hill and sang around and everything was provided for us there.
On the 2nd August we walked to Wingate and it was a wet and very wild day. We sang a little at night. Some got put up and some slept in the Comrades Club and the steward was a good sort.
On the 3rd August we had a collection at Wingate Pit and then walked on to Shotton Colliery. We sang around the village and all got put up for the night.
On 4th August we walked to South Hetton and sang around the village and all got put up for two nights.
On the 5th August we had a days rest, heard Shotton Prize Band in the field.
On the 6th August had a meeting and it was decided to finish at the weekend and fulfill all our permits and contracts and then go home. Well Joe Dryden asked to be let go home that day and it was agreed to. So we went to the station, Joe was going one way and us the other and Joe’s train came first and we sang ‘Comrades in Arms’ as the train was going out and poor Joe’s heart filled. Well we went on to Trimdon, Trimdon Grange and sang around the village and it was nearly midnight before we all got put up and met with a poor response.
On the 7th August we walked through Old Trimdon to Fishburn and sang around the village and met with a good response, for being such a little place Fearon’s appeal had not been in vain.
On the 8th August we went by bus through Bishop Middleham, Sedgfield, Thornyhill, Broom and into Spennymore, we had our dinners and then started to sing around the streets, but alas we were getting no money and it was coming on to rain so we decided to have a meeting and we decided to go home at once. So we got a bus to Durham City from there we got taxis to Low Fell, from there the tram to Central Station Newcastle, got the train to Carlisle and got train to Whitehaven and landed in at eleven fifteen and that was the finish of our tour.
The following is a list of people in the front of the diary, whom we assume helped them on this tour, possibly with food and accomodation (in alphabetical order):
The following are song titles written in the back of the diary:
The following is a separate list of dates written in the back of the diary: