Primitive Methodist miners’ leader, born at Snitter, near Rothbury, Northumberland on 13 July 1855. He was not baptized until he was 6 years old because his parents had no church connections, but was converted at a Bible class at the Bedlington PM chapel, led by the miner and trade unionist John Davison. He was soon a local preacher, claiming that ‘Methodism amongst miners freed their souls and taught them to express themselves.’ Moving from Liberalism to Labour Socialism, which he regarded as ‘Christianity applied’, in 1879 he was elected as Delegate from the Widrington Miners’ Lodge, then as Agent to, and in 1905 Thomas Burt’s successor as, General Secretary of the Northumberland Miners’ Association. Nationally, he became a confidant of Keir Hardie, Ramsay Macdonald, Sir Charles Trevelyan and Jennie Lee.
He was successful in ending the three-shift day in Northumberland mines and negotiated six-hour hewing shifts while the rest of the country’s mines still worked eight-hour shifts. Following the Second Report of the Royal Commission on Coal Supplies (1907), reinforced by the Mining Industry Act of 1920, he led the protracted struggle for pit-head baths and finally achieved some success in the Northern coalfields in the 1930s, which acted as a catalyst for change throughout the country. He instigated research, completed by J.B.S. Haldane, on coal dust as a cause of explosions.
From 1908 to 1926 he was a member of the National Committee of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain. Unusually for a trade union leader, he argued consistently against strikes, knowing that they resulted in costly lock-outs: ‘Revolution too often leaves the people more enslaved.’ But the Northumberland miners obliged him to become involved in the 1926 General Strike, commenting to the press: ‘The treatment of miners cannot be economically correct if it is morally wrong,’ and ‘Truth can never be quenched.’ As trade unionism’s principal witness to Sir John Sankey’s 1919 Royal Commission on miners’ wages, working conditions and Nationalisation, he endured three days of questioning by the mine owners’ lawyers.
At international level he attended his first Miners International Congress (in Salzburg) in 1907 and was soon on the Executive of the Miners’ Federation of European Miners’ Leaders. As a Christian pacifist he joined in the unsuccessful attempt by British, German and Austro-Hungarian miners to prevent the First World War. For this he was pilloried in the British press and three of the Northumberland Lodges pressed for his resignation, though to no avail. He was made a CBE in 1930.
Largely self-taught, his faith in God as Creator gave him a serious and life-long academic interest in botany and horticulture. His ‘Monthly Circulars’ to the miners’ lodges from 1913 to 1935 were liberally sprinkled with biblical quotations and unashamed Christian comments. He also wrote and collected Northumberland dialect poetry. A firm advocate of teetotalism, he was a frequent speaker at Temperance meetings and in 1917 wrote ‘Sugar for Brewers Only: a national scandal’.
He died on 31 December 1941 and his funeral service took place at the Gosforth West Avenue (now Gosforth Trinity) Methodist Church. His obituary in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle stated: ‘He guided the miners through many crises and was perhaps the outstanding figure in trade unionism in the north east. He is commemorated by a plaque on what is now the Burt Building of Northumbria University, unveiled by the Lord Mayor in 2007.