Miners’ Strike of 1896

Lambton Park has been used for many events in both tranquil and troubled times. This month’s photograph from 1896 captures a key moment in a turbulent year for miners and their families.

Steadily rising demand for coal had caused the selling price to reach a peak of 10 shillings per ton in 1890. However, economic depression in 1892-93 combined with increasing production, nearly halved the price by 1896. In February, the proprietors of Lambton mine announced the pit would close unless wages were cut. The miners, believing the company was using this as an excuse to increase profits at their expense, downed tools and called for a district wide meeting.

Nearly 2000 miners gathered at Lambton Park on 29 February 1896, and resolved that unless wages were increased, they would hold a ballot for a general strike. No increase was granted, and in March a majority voted to cease work. Negotiations continued into April, but …

Easter dawns upon us with anything but a happy outlook. The district is threatened with a great industrial strike, which is calculated to bring privation upon many poor families. Already the shopkeepers are complaining about a falling off in business, the housewives evidently buying only the bare necessaries of life.

Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 2 April 1896.

With no settlement reached, on 27 April 1896 …

the strike began in real earnest, no less than 3500 miners and others refusing to continue working under the existing conditions.

Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 28 April 1896.

The economy suffered …

The grocers cannot give credit, and the housewives have little or no ready cash to spend.

Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate

Families were displaced …

Men who have managed to save a little money are leaving the district for Western Australia, New Zealand, Victoria, and Wollongong.

Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate

After 11 weeks it was clear that the coal prices would not increase, and wages could not be raised. On 16 July 1896 the men returned to work, at a lower hewing rate than before. Summing up the futility of the strike, a newspaper editorial stated …

Undoubtedly, when the history of this miserable struggle has to be more fully written, the best feature of it will be declaring it ‘off’.

Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 13 July 1896.
Miners voting for industrial action at an aggregate meeting in Lambton Park, 29 February 1896. Photo by Ralph Snowball. Living Histories, Newcastle University.
Lambton Park in happier times. Christmas Carols, 18 December 2022. Photo by Thomas Freeman.

The article above was first published in the February 2023 edition of The Local.


Additional Information

In the article I talk about ‘the selling price’ of coal. This is a simplification as there was no single value, but the selling price differed between large and small coal, it differed from one colliery to another depending on quality, and it could differ according to contracts agreed between collieries and buyers.

To track the trend in coal prices, I extracted from the Department of Mines annual reports, the quantity and value of coal sold by the Lambton Colliery for each year from 1875 to 1903. From this the average price of coal per ton for each year can be calculated. The trend shows that the price remained close to 10s per ton from 1885 to 1890. However, the following years saw a steady decline to a low of 6.24 shillings per ton in 1896, the year of the miners’ general strike.

Year Employees Quantity
(tons)
Value
(pounds)

Avg per ton
(shillings)

1875 280 148573 94096 12.67
1876 391 160990 103304 12.83
1877 421 164267 not specified ?
1878 436 213332 119881 11.24
1879 440 225788 144088 12.76
1880 453 239234 107655 9.00
1881 269 120563 42416 7.04
1882 358 236168 107238 9.08
1883 416 252044 123857 9.83
1884 446 267096 126842 9.50
1885 460 223030 111515 10.00
1886 510 113972 56416 9.90
1887 400 167355 83677 10.00
1888 469 164048 80304 9.79
1889 505 243256 120134 9.88
1890 440 139375 69751 10.01
1891 480 189382 94024 9.93
1892 480 224498 101373 9.03
1893 435 159100 69840 8.78
1894 412 178495 60584 6.79
1895 304 112368 35092 6.25
1896 173 47505 14813 6.24
1897 210 86340 27378 6.34
1898 208 105219 32602 6.20
1899 196 85932 31650 7.37
1900 196 92145 34383 7.46
1901 197 80945 41437 10.24
1902 190 62419 29175 9.35
1903 170 79663 33699 8.46

From 1904 the Department of Mines annual reports do not contain data on coal output and value from individual mines.

The “Farishes Flat” portion of Lambton colliery was leased to Charles Noble on 3 November 1904, and

Farishes Flat Lambton Colliery, change of ownership. Department of Mines annual report for 1904, page 116.

Newspaper articles

Article Date Event DateNotes
14 Jun 1890"The Associated Colliery Proprietors are considering the advisability of reducing the selling price of coal … from 11s to 9s per ton … Under their mutual agreement the coal from the associated mines is sold at 11s per ton, and each mine has a stipulated output or vend for the year. No such agreement, however, exists among the other companies, many of which are now selling their coal at a price in some instances as low as 9s per ton. That this is the main reason why a reduction is mooted there can be no doubt. The majority of the larger collieries, and nearly all the older ones, belong to the association, and at present they raise about 70 per cent. of the total district output, but new mines are opening constantly, and, so far, none of them have shown any inclination to become parties to the Associated Proprietors agreement. "
22 Feb 1896
21 Feb 1896
"A special meeting of the delegate board of the Miners' Association was held at the Trades Hall for the purpose of considering principally the position of the Lambton miners. It was also decided to hold an aggregate meeting on pay-Saturday, the 29th instant, at the Lambton Park, at 11 a.m. , to discuss the whole situation as it affects the miners."
22 Feb 1896"Mr. Thomas Croudace, the general manager of the Scottish-Australian Mining Company, says it will be impossible for him to re-open the Lambton pit while he has to paying a hewing rate altogether out of proportion to the selling price of the coal … the miners hold a very different view from Mr. Croudace. They contend that the action has been decided upon solely for the purpose of reducing wages"
28 Feb 1896Letter from Amalgamated Miners' Association to miners … " it has been resolved to hold an aggregate meeting of miners in the Lambton Park on Saturday, 29th instant, to consider the advisability of seeking an advance in the hewing rates. It is needless to remind you of the successive reductions in wages during a period extending over two years, and the imposition of the most exacting and degrading conditions it has been possible to impose at many collieries."
28 Feb 1896"There is no movement with regard to the Lambton Colliery and no apparent prospect of work being resumed. Of the 182 miners who cameout against the reduction in the yardage rates 96 have either succeeded in obtain work at neighbouring collieries, or have left for Western Australia, some 20 having sailed for that colony, leaving 86 still without employment, although some of those remaining are also making preparations for going west. This pleasing result, after barely two weeks' idleness, is hailed with satisfaction in the town, not unmixed, however, with regret that the bone and sinew of the place should be driven from their homes to seek scope for their energies elsewhere."
29 Feb 1896"The result of the aggregate meeting of miners at Lambton Park is anxiously looked forward to by all in the coal trade. It is anticipated that the principal resolutions will be in favour of a ballot being taken as to whether a general strike shall take place or not. Very unpleasant rumours now fill the air.”
1 Mar 1896
29 Feb 1896
Report on the aggregate meeting, where about 2000 persons were present. Two resolutions were moved and passed unanimously.
  1. Demand for hewing rate of 3s 6d per ton
  2. "That in the event of a refusal for the advance in terms of the foregoing resolution within one week from March 9 by the proprietors, a ballot be taken as early as possible after March 16 as to whether 14 days' notice shall be given to cease work until such advance is agreed to.
2 Mar 1896
29 Feb 1896
Detailed report on the miners' aggregate meeting in Lambton Park.
2 Mar 1896Lengthy editorial report on the miners’ aggregate meeting. "Every representation that can be made will not restore a nearly-worked-out mine to its pristine condition, neither will it raise the price of coal in the markets of the world, in which we are now competitors. While we admit the ruinous undercutting of the selling price which has been going on for some time past, the broad fact stares us in the face that any attempt to remedy that state of affairs by the mutual action of the proprietors or their co-operation with the miners has proved ineffectual."
14 Mar 1896"The [Lambton] mine still remains closed down, with no apparent signs of a resumption of work. Consequently, matters are very gloomy in the town. It is, however, gratifying to learn that out of a total of 182 miners thrown out of employment 120 have succeeded in securing work elsewhere in the district, or have left for Western Australia."
16 Mar 1896"The members of the Miners' Association will be asked to ballot for or against a strike, and on this point even the non-unionist miners in the district are to be invited to express an opinion. The history of past struggles of a like kind is of so depressing a character that it is hoped men will not commit themselves to another of a similar nature without giving ample consideration to all the surroundings of the case."
18 Mar 1896"The time having expired for the colliery proprietors to reply to the demand made upon them by the miners for a hewing rate of 3s 6d per ton … the situation is, therefore, now before the miners themselves, who are to be asked to decide by ballot whether there should be a general strike. To bring about this end it will be necessary to have a two-thirds majority of the votes of every miner, whether unionist or non-unionist. Ballot papers are now being distributed throughout the whole of the district."
25 Mar 1896"The question of a general strike, will be placed before the delegate board of the Miners' Association today. In deciding upon this great and serious question they will have before them not only the result of the ballot, but also all the letters sent by the proprietors ... Mr. Thomas Croudace, for instance, suggests an eleventh hour attempt at a conference."
26 Mar 1896
25 Mar 1896
Result of the ballot: 2624 for a strike; 587 against a strike. Miners called to hand in their 14 days notice on 6 April. An invitiation is extended to the mine proprietors to meet the miners in conference before 2 April, in order to avert a strike.
2 Apr 1896"Easter dawns upon us with, unfortunately, anything but a happy outlook. The district is threatened with a great industrial strike, which is calculated to bring privation upon many poor families. Already the shopkeepers are complaining about a falling off in business, the housewives evidently buying only the bare necessaries of life."
4 Apr 1896
2 Apr 1896
Conference between the miners assoication and the colliery proprietors, in an effort to avert a general strike. The conference was relatively amicable, but in the end of little consequence, owing to the absence of proprietors from three of the large coal companies.
8 Apr 1896Miners at 15 collieries have now handed in their 14 days notice to cease work. "If the notices sent in should be carried into effect after Saturday week, there will be something like 4000 miners on strike."
11 Apr 1896"From all the information procurable on the local mining situation every thing points to the strong likelihood of a cessation of work at many collieries in this district on Saturday, 18th inst."
14 Apr 1896"The proposal unanimously adopted was that the members of the [municipal] conference, accompanied by the members for the district, meet the Premier to-night on his arrival at Newcastle en route from Queensland for the purpose of representing to him the advisableness of appointing without delay a court of arbitration in relation to the matters now in dispute."
15 Apr 1896"The miners had given in 14 days' notice on a ballot of a five to one majority to strike." The Premier (George Reid) is asked by alderman of Newcastle Council to intervene to avert the strike.
15 Apr 1896"The fervent hope expressed by many is that at this late hour a strike may be averted; but to suggest means to that end is a difficult matter, as so many of the proprietors refuse to meet the miners' representatives in conference as requested by them."
28 Apr 1896
27 Apr 1896
"The strike began in real earnest yesterday, no less than 3500 miners and others refusing to continue working under the existing conditions. "
16 May 1896"With the exception of some Sea Pit miners, the majority of the strikers seem more than ever determined to stand out. Old residents who have grown weary of strikes in this district declare that they have seldom, if ever, witnessed a more stubborn resistance between capital and labour."
13 Jul 1896"A moderate estimate of the loss of wages alone is £100,000, without taking into consideration the indirect effects of the stoppage to the general community, which is therefore poorer by the above amount than it would have been if there had been no strike … Undoubtedly, when the history of this miserable struggle has to be more fully written, the best feature of it will be declaring it 'off'."
17 Jul 1896Lengthy editorial reflecting on the lessons of the strike … "The principal lesson taught by the result of the strike is one which is not a personal matter between employer and employed. It is the fact that if consumers cannot give a higher price to those having coal to sell, the latter are unable to increase the earnings of those who have the work of winning it."

2 thoughts on “Miners’ Strike of 1896

  1. Anthony,

    thanks for your comments and questions
    > “Lambton colliery was leased to Charles Noble on 3 November 1904”. Can you please elaborate on this interesting point?

    My information about Charles Noble leasing the mine came from the Department of Mines annual report for 1904. However when I checked I saw that it was only the “Farishes Flat” portion of the Lambton mine leased to Noble, not the whole mine. I’ve corrected the article.

    > Was Thomas’ son Frank Croudace the Lambton Colliery Manager when this 1904 decision was made?

    I think so – the annual report for the year 1905 shows Frank Croudace as manager of Lambton

    My original wording was also misleading in that it suggested that it was the lease to Noble that resulted in the cessation of figures reporting Lambton coal output. That was just a coincidence – the reports from 1904 onwards do not contain figures for any of the mines individually.

    > Do you know the basis of this significant business decision by the Scottish Australia Mining Co (SAM) to lease the mine? 

    My understanding is that by 1904, after 40 years of operations, a lot of the easily accessible and profitable coal had been extracted from Lambton mine and it was on the decline, and the S.A.M’s Lambton B colliery at Redhead was growing.  A quick sampling of Department of Mines reports in the years 1900-1925 seems to show that the number of employees at Old Lambton was on the decline, while the number of employees at Lambton B was on the rise.  It would be interesting to extract the employee numbers for each year and graph them.

    I put together a spreadsheet that has links to the Dept of Mines annual reports if anybody wants to do this.

  2. Dear Lachlan,
    You state above: “Lambton colliery was leased to Charles Noble on 3 November 1904”. Can you please elaborate on this interesting point? Do you know the basis of this significant business decision by the Scottish Australia Mining Co (SAM) to lease the mine? We know Thomas Croudace was still alive in 1904 (died 1906). Was Thomas’ son Frank Croudace the Lambton Colliery Manager when this 1904 decision was made? As you well know Charles Noble had a very long employment history with the mine, even prior to him losing an arm in his youth, in a wagon shunting accident. I recall he died in 1921. I hope you can fill in some gaps about the mine’s operators between 1904 and 1921.

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