Class Struggle in County Durham

Dispatches from the class struggle in County Durham:

What the colliers’ dependence on the exploiters for their homes means in practice can be seen in any strike. For example, the strike in Durham in November 1863. The people were evicted, wives and children included, in the harshest weather; and their furniture was put into the street. Their first problem then was to find shelter from the cold nights. A large number slept in the open; some broke into their evacuated dwellings and occupied them during the night. The next day the mine-owners had the doors and windows barred and nailed up, to deprive the evicted people of the luxury of sleeping through ice-cold nights on the bare floors of the empty cottages. The people then took refuge in setting up wooden cabins, and wigwams made of peat, but these were torn down by the owners of the fields they had entered. A host of children died or were broken during this campaign of labour against capital.

Marx, Capital volume 1, p. 1084.

A clumsy agricultural form of this bondage exists in the county of Durham. This is one of the few counties in which circumstances do not secure to the farmer undisputed proprietary rights over the agricultural labourers. The existence of the mining industry allows the latter some freedom of choice. Here, therefore, and in contrast with the general rule which prevails elsewhere, the farmer rents only such farms as have on them labourers’ cottages. The rent of the cottage forms part of the wage. These cottages are known as ‘hinds’ houses’. They are let to the labourers in consideration of certain feudal services, under a contract called  ‘bondage’, which, among other things, binds the labourer, during the time he is employed elsewhere,
to leave someone, say his daughter, etc., to fill his place. The labourer himself is called a ‘bondsman’. This relationship also shows, from an entirely new angle, how individual consumption by the worker is consumption on behalf of capital; in other words productive consumption’.

Marx, Capital volume 1, 723-24.

‘The lodging which is obtained by the pitmen and other labourers connected with the collieries of Northumberland and Durham,’ says Dr Julian Hunter, ‘is perhaps, on the whole, the worst and the dearest of which any large specimens can be found in England, the similar parishes of Monmouthshire excepted … The extreme badness is in the high number of men found in one room, in the smallness of the ground-plot on which a great number of houses are thrust, the want of water, the absence of privies, and the frequent placing of one house on the top of another, or distri-bution into fiats, … the lessee acts as if the whole colony were encamped, not resident. ‘ In pursuance of my instructions,’ says Dr Stevens, ‘I visited most of the large colliery villages in the Durham Union … With very few exceptions, the general statement that no means are taken to secure the health of the inhabitants would be true of all of them … All colliers are bound’ (‘bound’, an expression which, like ‘bondage’, dates from the age of serfdom) ‘to the colliery lessee or owner for twelve months … If the colliers express discontent, or in any way annoy the “viewer”, a mark of memorandum is made against their names, and, at the annual”binding”, such men are turned off … It appears to me that no part of the “truck system” could be worse than what obtains in these densely-populated districts. The collier is bound to take as part of his hiring a house surrounded with pestiferous influences; he cannot help himself, and it appears doubtful whether anyone else can help him except his proprietor (he is, to all intents and purposes, a serf), and his proprietor first consults his balance-sheet, and the result is tolerably certain. The collier is also often supplied with water by the proprietor, which, whether it be good or bad, he has to pay for, or rather he suffers a deduction for from his wages.’

Marx, Capital, volume 1, 820-821.


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