How the Workers are Robbed

Who produces the wealth and who gains most from its production? In a pamphlet written 97 years ago, John Wheatley described an imaginary court case, with a coalmaster, a landowner and several others being charged with “having conspired together and robbed an old miner, Dick McGonnagle." Its basic class analysis remains valid for workers today as they are still being robbed.

Who produces the wealth and who gains most from its production? In a pamphlet written 97 years ago, John Wheatley described an imaginary court case, with a coalmaster, a landowner and several others being charged with “having conspired together and robbed an old miner, Dick McGonnagle.”

The pamphlet, How the Miners Are Robbed, had considerable impact before the First World War. Its basic class analysis remains valid for workers today as they are still being robbed. In the following extracts from the pamphlet, the magistrate interrogates the witnesses. The first person to enter the witness box is the Coalmaster. [Magistrate = M, Prisoner = P]

The Coalmaster

M: What is your name?

P: Frederick Michael Thomas Andrew Sucker, sir.

M: You have a great many names.

P: I protest, sir.

M: I did not ask your occupation. I desire to know how you came to be possessed of so many names?

P: I can’t answer your question, sir.

M: Ah! That sounds suspicious. Now will you kindly tell us how much wealth you possess?

P (Proudly): One million pounds, sir.

M: You must be an extremely able man. How did you come to have a million pounds?

P: I made it, sir.

M: Ah! do you plead guilty to manufacturing coin?

P (indignantly): No, sir.

M: Then will you please tell us what you mean by saying you made it?

P: I earned it in business, sir.

M: How long have you been in business?

P: Twenty years, sir.

M: You must be a very capable worker to have earned such a huge sum in such a short time?

P (indignantly): I don’t work, sir.

M: Ah! this is very interesting. You don’t work and yet you have told us that in twenty years you have earned one million pounds?

P: I own a colliery, sir.

M: What is a colliery?

P: A shaft sunk perhaps a hundred fathoms in the earth; also various buildings and machinery for the production of coal.

M: Did you sink the shaft?

P: No, sir. I got men to do it.

M: Did you manufacture the machinery and erect the buildings?

P: No, sir. I am not a workman. I got others to work.

M: This is an extraordinary case. You say other men erected the buildings, and manufactured the machinery, and sunk the shaft and yet you own the colliery? Have the workmen no share in it?

P: No, sir. I am the sole owner.

M: I confess I can’t understand. Do you mean to tell me that those men put a colliery in full working order, and then handed it over to you without retaining even a share of it for themselves?

P: Certainly, sir.

M: They must have been very rich and generous, or very foolish! Were they rich men?

P: Oh no, sir.

M: Had they many collieries?

P: Oh, none at all, sir. They were merely workmen.

M: What you mean by merely workmen?

P: Merely people who work for others.

M: Surely they must be generous people. Don’t they require collieries themselves?

P: They do, sir.

M: And they own no collieries?

P: No, sir; but I allow them to work in mine.

M: That is very kind of you, but of course not nearly so kind as their act in giving the colliery to you. Do you find you don’t require the whole colliery yourself, that you can allow others also to use it?

P: Oh, you don’t understand sir. I don’t work in my colliery. I allow the workmen to do so.

M: Oh, I see. After those men handed over the colliery to you, you found you had no use for it, and so returned it to them to save them erecting another?

P: Oh no, no, sir. The colliery is still mine, but they work in it.

M: Really, this is very confusing. You own a pit which you did not sink, and plant which you did not manufacture nor erect. You do not work in this colliery because you do not want to work. Those who do not want to work own no colliery, and yet they gave one to you. Did you beg of them to come and work in your colliery, as you had no use for it?

P: Oh, not at all, sir. They begged me to allow them to work.

M: But why beg leave to use your colliery? Why not make one for themselves, as they had done for you? But perhaps you make them some allowance for working in your colliery and keeping it in order?

P: Oh yes, sir. I pay them according to the amount of coal they produce.

M: Well, that seems fair. Then I suppose those men will soon become very rich? They will have the value of the coal they produce, and the allowance you make to them for keeping your colliery in order?

P: Oh no, sir. The coal they produce is mine.

M: What! They turn over the product of their labour to you? Don’t they require the value of this coal themselves?

P: Oh yes, sir. But it is my coal, having been produced in my colliery.

M: My dear sir, you amuse me. Those men sank the pit, put the colliery in working order, and dug the coal. Where is your claim?

P: I gave them permission to do these things, sir.

M: You permitted them to sink the pit, and then you took the pit; you permitted them to erect the plant, and then you took the plant; you permitted them to dig the coal, and then you took the coal. Is that it?

P: Yes, sir; but I paid them for doing these things.

M: How did you get money to pay them seeing you do no work?

P: I inherited ten thousand pounds from my father, and I used some of this until the men produced the coal.

M: How did your father earn that money?

P: In the same way, sir, as I have converted that ten thousand pounds into a million.

M: How have you done that?

P: By selling the coal.

M: Did the men employ you to sell the coal?

P: Oh no, sir; the coal was mine.

M: Really, your claim seemed so impertinent that I had not taken it seriously. Did you pay over to the miners the amount you received for the coal, less your salary?

P: No, sir. I merely paid them the least amount I could get men to work for.

M: I must say this is puzzling. Why do these men require to work for you?

P: Because, sir, they can’t work without machinery which costs money. We rich men having the money, and therefore the machinery, and those men requiring to work or starve, they must accept our terms.

M: Surely the State could provide all the capital required in opening up mines; why should the people require to make terms with you?

P: Oh, quite easily sir, but the State is ruled by Parliament, which is composed of men like me. They are not such fools as to injure themselves.

M: I did not think there were such stupid people in the world as you describe those working men to be. How much coal does a miner produce in a day?

P: About three tons, sir.

M: At what price do you sell this coal?

P: At ten shillings per ton, sir.

M: Now, if you will kindly tell us how much per day the miner gets for the three tons of coal which you sell at thirty shillings, we shall be able to judge how you treat him.

P: He receives about five shillings, sir.

M: Are you serious?

P: Oh yes, sir.

M: What becomes of the remainder?

P: A small portion goes to maintaining [the cost of men] and covering depreciation of machinery. The Duke gets a good slice as rents and royalties. The remainder is my profit.

M: What are rents and royalties?

P: A sum charged by the Duke for allowing people to use the land.

M: What! But never mind, I will examine him presently. Is this how you have come to possess a million pounds and this old man is in poverty? You have been selling his coal and holding on to most of his money.

Your father robbed his father in like manner. With the proceeds of that robbery, and the fact that it left him penniless, you have been enabled to rob this man. Were it allowed to continue, your son would be richer than you were, and his son would be as poor as he was.

Therefore the power of your family to make slaves of his family would increase with each generation. Fortunately, this case may end your outrageous scheme.

Stand down until I have examined the others.

When prisoner Sucker had again taken his place between the two constables in the dock, a middle-aged man of stout build and a ruddy, well-fed, well-watered appearance, entered the witness box to be examined. In answer to the Magistrate’s first question, he said his name was:

The Duke of Hamilton

M: Come, come, I asked your name, not your occupation!

P: That is my title, sir.

M: Your title may be a number when this case is finished. I must warn you not to trifle with this Court. What is your name?

P: I don’t use any name, your honour.

M: Do you work?

P: Oh no, sir.

M: What! Are you too a loafer?

P: No, sir. I don’t require to work.

M: No successful robber does. Why don’t you require to work?

P: I’m a wealthy man, sir.

M: How did you come to be wealthy seeing you don’t work, and that wealth is the product of labour?

P: I inherited my wealth, sir.

M: Did your father work for it?

P: No, sir; he too was a wealthy man.

M: Did your grandfather, or your great-grandfather, or any of the family ever do any work?

P: No, sir.

M: How did they get wealth?

P: Oh, just as I get mine, sir.

M: How is that?

P: By allowing people to use my land.

M: How did you get land? Did you create it?

P: Oh no, sir. I believe God created it.

M: Did he create it for your ancestors?

P: I can’t say, sir.

M: Surely you must know if He created it specially for your ancestors, or whether the land was here before your ancestors got possession of it?

P: It was always there, sir. My family got possession of it only at the time of Robert the Bruce.

M: What right had they to take possession of the land?

P: It was given to them by Robert the Bruce.

M: But Bruce did not create the land, nor was it his to give away. He had no right to do so, and you have no moral or legal claim to it. Don’t you work on this land?

P: Oh no, sir. I’ve already explained I don’t require to work. I allow thousands of others to do so.

M: Why don’t they work on their own land?

P: They have none, sir.

M: What! Do you claim all the land in the district?

P: Yes, sir.

M: And must those men use your land or starve?

P: Certainly, sir.

M: I hope you don’t act as the other prisoner does with his machinery. Is your permission granted on condition that they hand over to you a share of what they produce?

P: Oh yes, sir.

M: Do they do so?

P: Certainly, sir. They must do so or starve.

M (soliloquising): I now see the need for an Eternal Hell. What share of miner’s coal do you claim?

P: I usually obtain in Royalty on each man’s work a sum equal to half what he gets for working.

M: That means when a miner produces three tons of coal he gives you one?

P: Yes, sir.

M: If there be twenty thousand miners working on your land, each man must give you every third hutch he fills?

P: Yes, sir.

M: So that again assuming you have twenty thousand miners working on your land, it takes ten thousand of them to earn as much as you draw?

P: Yes, sir.

M: And these ten thousand men must risk their lives in the bowels of the earth while you may be enjoying yourself anywhere?

P: Yes, sir.

M: What sort of men are they?

P: Hard-headed, intelligent men, sir. (Loud laughter in Court, which was instantly suppressed.)

M: Why don’t they take over the land themselves—nationalise it? Then you could no longer rob them of one third of what they produced?

P: Oh, that would never do, sir. That would be Socialism. They prefer to continue paying royalty to me.

M: But even to take advantage of their simplicity is a terrible crime. Are you not ashamed to do so?

P: Certainly not, sir. It is within the law.

M: Who made the laws?

P: The class to which I belong, and they made no mistakes, sir.

M: If they have not, you make one if you think that this Court will judge your class by the laws they made. Why a community should permit itself to be infested by characters like you passes my comprehension. Please take your place in the dock until I have heard the evidence against you.

The first witness called was the complainer, Dick McGonnagle.

Old Dick’s Evidence

M: What age are you, Dick?

D: Fifty-two, your honour.

M: Dear me! you look eighty at least!

D: I’ve had to work very hard, your honour.

M: How long have you worked in the mines?

D: 40 years, your honour.

M: Have you worked regularly?

D: On an average five days a week, your honour.

M: How much coal do you produce each day?

D: About three tons, your honour.

M: Dear me! You should be a very wealthy man. In 40 years you must have produced something like 30,000 tons?

D: I am not good at figures, your honour.

M: I am told that this coal is sold at ten shillings per ton?

D: I don’t know, your honour.

(Council explained that it would be proved the prisoners divided it amongst them, and even robbed the old man afterwards, of that part of the small share he had received.)

M: Then I suppose you are not aware that the market price of the coal you have produced would be £15,000?

D: I was not aware of that, your honour.

M: What wages have you received?

D: On an average, 25 shillings a week.

M: Great heavens! That means you have been swindled out of nearly £12,500!

What became of that £12,500 of which you have been robbed?

D: I don’t know, your honour.

(Counsel explained that it would be proved the prisoners divided it amongst them, and even robbed the old man afterwards of part of the small share he had received.)

M: Are you still employed in the mines?

D: Yes, your honour.

M: Don’t you find it difficult even to walk to the pit?

D: Yes, your honour. I must now leave half an hour earlier than formerly, as I have to rest for breath at every 100 yards.

M: How do you get to the coalface after descending the pit?

D: A young man wheels me in a hutch, your honour.

M: And dumps you down there to dig your coal?

D: Yes, your honour.

M: And when you have dug it these men steal it from you?

D: Yes, your honour.

M: Have your fellow-workmen ever stolen from you?

D: Only once, your honour. A man ‘pinched’ a hutch of mine, and he was hunted from the pit. This man called the Duke has ‘pinched’ every third hutch I have filled for 40 years, and I think he should be hunted.

(After hearing evidence from a ‘Socialist’ against the prisoners and from a Clergyman in their defence the Magistrate rose to deliver judgement.)

He said he had no difficulty in finding the prisoners guilty. They had admitted their guilt. He felt, however, that no punishment which that Court could condemn them to would be sufficient for such terrible crimes.

He would, therefore, send them to the Lowest Court for punishment, and ordered that they be taken there at once.

Court Officer: Where is the Lowest Court, your honour?

Magistrate: I forget exactly. Ask the clergyman.

---

This is factory life as portrayed by George Cruickshank in 1832, in the equivalent of today’s tabloid journalism. Child workers were often shown in etchings – not photographs – clearing out waste cotton while the Spinning Mule was in operation.

However, it’s a ‘myth’, says Josselin Hill, curatorial director of Quarry Bank Mill near Wilmslow, that many children were seriously injured. Children may have been employed for their nimbleness and their tiny fingers, but in fact, the Mule was stopped for the children to clean it. Admittedly, the mule spinner was paid by the number of ‘draws’, and didn’t want to wait too long. They would shout ‘Get out!’, and the child would have to scramble.

In 1865 13-year-old John Foden died at Quarry Bank when his head was caught between the roller beam and the carriage.