Month: August 2020

When Coal was King But Far From Proud

The troubles started in Extension, a small mining community a few kilometres south of Nanaimo in August 1912. Two coal miners were fired when they complained to management that unacceptable levels of explosive gas existed at the coal face. One of the workers headed north seeking a job in the mines of Cumberland only to find he had been blacklisted – not just in Cumberland but throughout Vancouver Island.

When the Cumberland miners heard of his plight, they proclaimed September 16th, 1912, a study day and downed tools to discuss the challenge to already hazardous working conditions. The following day they found themselves locked out and were informed they would remain locked out until they signed contracts vowing to end job action, quit their union, return to work and never again engage in trade union activity. 

The agreements, contemptuously called “yellow dog” contracts, saw the Cumberland miners stay off the job – and every other miner at every other pit on the Island followed in support of what the history books would call Vancouver Island’s Great Coal Strike.

It was a time when coal mining was the primary industry on the Island with large and small operations digging for the vital fuel from Ladysmith to Fort Rupert (Port Hardy). For months, mine owners were content to leave their mines silent, but by August 1913 – with stockpiles depleted and demand from ships, railways, and steam-driven heavy industry growing – they needed to get back into production. But their miners, concerned for decades about safety on the job as well as poor pay, were in no mood to compromise.

Their memories of a seemingly endless stream of disasters, from single deaths to the 150 dead in the Nanaimo No.1 mine explosion and fire in 1887, kept them implacable in their demands for greater safety. The workers were not always right in their beliefs or justified in their demands, which included an irrational ban on Chinese workers. But, their cries for more excellent safety and better social conditions in the mining communities were hard to deny.

But, deny them the mine owners did and, with the tacit agreement if not outright support of government, they brought in small armies of strike-breaking miners from San Francisco and as far away as Italy. Striking miners living in mine-owned houses were ordered to vacate and were evicted by “special constables” if they refused. The strikebreakers were to be the new occupants and were encouraged to defend what they were offered and provided with sticks and clubs and told to fight back when threatened.

In Europe WW1 was raging with horrendous battle casualties. On Vancouver Island striking miners and imported strike-breakers engaged in mine-head or street corner clashes with miniscule fatalities but many broken heads and limbs.

On August 5th, a group of strikebreakers attacked and stabbed a striking miner. The assailants were subsequently arrested, but only after demands from a delegation of miners who complained of double standards in the enforcement of the law. On August 11th, a large rally virtually took over Nanaimo to protest the presence of strikebreakers, and the following day, 800 strikers and their families marched in a similar protest in South Wellington. That protest led to the expulsion of “the scabs” from the Wellington area and encouraged the protesters to march on to Ladysmith, where, as August 13th dawned, the protest turned violent.

When one protester began to sing “Hurray, hurray, we’ll drive the scabs away,” he was arrested and jailed in Ladysmith. A report published by the Simon Fraser University Labour Studies Program tells us the miner was freed by his wife, “a veritable Amazon in build, vigour and strength” who rallied a group of strikers and marched to the jail where “wielding an axe she freed her husband.”

Rioting continued through the night with homes and other mine company property destroyed. It culminated in a bundle of dynamite being thrown into the home of strikebreaker Alex McKinnon who was badly injured as he tried to protect his children from the blast. It took more than a year before two perpetrators were brought to trial, and it was revealed that they were neither strikers nor strikebreakers but two citizens “who were drunk and had allowed their participation to go too far.” They were sent to prison.

On August 20th, 2011, (when I wrote this original column) – there was a day of remembering Vancouver Island’s mining industry at the Morden Colliery Historic Park a few kilometres south of Nanaimo.

Morden had never earned a high degree of fame for production or notoriety on the mine-tragedy scale. And only the weather and time damaged head-frame at the pithead of Morden Colliery plus a few other structures remained as bleak ruined monuments of British Columbia’s coal mining industry, gaunt reminders of the men who had worked the coal seams – and all too often, in their hundreds – died in the dark.

In April 2019, the provincial government approved a grant of $1.4 million to restore and preserve the Morden Mine coal tipple, the only one surviving in Canada and one of only two remaining in North America.

It remains a work in progress but is open to visitors this summer. Google “Friends of Morden Mine” or go to Facebook or Morden Colliery Historic Provincial Park for how to get there, and up to date visiting times. If you would like a fuller picture of what life was like when coal was King and coal barons brutal, find a copy of Three Dollar Dreams by Lynn Bowen – and understand why a restored coal tipple is a worthy monument.

When “for ever” Is Sometimes Shorter

When, in the late 1600s, the government of England proclaimed the 29th day of May should henceforth, “be kept forever as a day of thanksgiving for redemption …” it was voicing bizarre evil.

The English Civil War (1642-1649) was fought between the royalist forces loyal to King Charles I and the parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell. The Royalist were defeated at the Battle of Naseby in 1645 and Cromwell declared Britain a republic and went on to become it’s Lord Protector. Following his death in 1658 the monarchy was restored and Charles II became king on May 29, 1660.

We can be thankful that, although it remained unchanged for 200 years, it doesn’t seem to have been more than a brief tear drop in the great clock of time. I am not referring to today’s traditional month of May holiday celebrated these days on the “Monday preceding May 25” and so ordered by Queen Victoria.

My lament is much more dramatic with a dazzle of handsome cavaliers, superbly mounted, riding through the night to protect a bonny Prince Charles from Oliver Cromwell’s hard-faced “Roundheads.”

Early morning – 3 a.m., the record keepers say – Prince Charles with a party of 60 loyalists is on the run, survivors of the Battle of Worcester hoping to find a night’s rest with sympathizers. Instead, they are advised Cromwell’s troopers are already searching for them locally.

The Prince and two officers are advised to select one of the large nearby oak trees in which they could hide throughout the dawning day before continuing what was now a dash for the coast and the safety of a ship to Europe. It was some 30 years before Charles – then King Charles II – could tell his story to the great diarist Samuel Pepys.

A local supporter led them to “a great oak in a plain place where we could see all around us. It had been lopped some three or four years before and was grown out very bushy and thick and could not be seen through. And there we sat all day …”

The only facts history can guarantee for that night of high adventure are that Charles was on the run in that specific area; that he did avoid capture; and that he found sanctuary in Europe. And, there are claims that acorns from oak trees in the geographic area of the incident provide positive genetic links.

One day, an enterprising tree specialist may track down such a link and plant a clinically proven seedling out Elk-Beaver Lake way – a bona fide descendant of King Charles II confirming the early settlers’ approval to the name given to the chosen district of Saanich on today’s map. It was known as “the lake district’ when they moved in, changed to Royal Oak by common usage as they settled in.

But, then again, there’s a “but” for everything and quite a few to attach to the Glamourous Charles II, who came back to England from exile in 1660 to finally claim the crown he was denied when he hid in the oak tree.

His nemesis Oliver Cromwell had died during Charles’ exile in 1658 and was honoured by a state funeral at Westminster Abbey equal in magnificence to any bestowed on any Monarch before him. His son Richard replaced him, but an army revolt quickly ended his leadership career, and Charles II was back home, king at last.

The new king moved fast on a fearsome journey of revenge. One of Parliament’s first decisions under Charles II was a response to royal demands that Cromwell, dead and buried in Westminster Abbey two years earlier, be disinterred and brought to trial for the murder of King Charles I.

Two of Cromwell’s advisors, John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton, followed the same Parliamentary fates. All three were found guilty. Their corpses beheaded and placed on 6.1 metres (20-feet) poles at the entrance to Westminster Hall, where the trial had been held.

And what has all or any of the proceeding to do with the opening paragraph of this piece that May 29 “be forever kept as a day of thanksgiving for our redemption from tyranny …”

It is interesting to wonder what Queen Victoria was thinking in 1859 when she authorized “the full and formal abolition” of the Bill to Celebrate the Birth of Charles II and basically replaced it with the holiday and birthday party for whoever sat on the English throne.