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Great Coal Miners Strike

By ROB JOHNSON

The Great Coal Strike of Vancouver Island 1912-1914, was one of, if not the most defining events in Ladysmith’s history. It marked the end of the golden age of Ladysmith. Up until the strike Ladysmith’s future was unlimited. The City had grown by leaps and bounds. It was the second busiest port on the Island, it had an opera hall, 18 hotels, and so much more. Travellers would arrive almost daily from all over the country and the world. It was one of the nicest, cleanest and prettiest communities in all of B.C., especially for being a coal mining community. But that all changed with the 1912-1914 coal strike and the fallout from World War I followed up by the Great Depression.

Miners parade in support of union. Photo Ladysmith Archives

The Strike started in September 1912, at the Cumberland mine of Canadian Collieries, a mine once owned by James Dunsmuir. He had sold the mine to Canadian Collieries a part of Canadian National Railway two years earlier, and was not directly involved in the strike. The strike was between the Canadian National Railway (Canadian Collieries) and the newly established United Mine Workers District 28. The union seized the opportunity to make an issue over the dismissal of Oscar Mottishaw and a man named Smith. Mottishsaw had previously worked at the Extension mine and had been on the Gas Committee there. While in Extension, he had reported gas in the mine which resulted in an area of the mine being shut down until ventilation was improved. Later, the working place assigned him in the mine ran out of coal and he was told that there was no more work for him. He was considered by management to be a disruptive force by strongly advocating the benefits of joining the union and annoying other workers. Daily he reapplied for work in the mine, but he was not rehired even though other miners were rehired, including some who had reported the gas in the mine. Then he moved to Cumberland, where he started work for a contract miner. According to the manager of the mine Mottishaw was being paid 30 per cent more than others working the same job, and they didn’t want to set a precedent. The contractor was ordered by the management of the mine to let him go and didn’t indicate that Mottishaw’s past involvement with the gas committee was an issue.

It was felt that because he worked to create the establishment of the United Mine Workers Union, he was being unjustly treated. The union wanted him another worker who had been let go because the company felt that he couldn’t do the job, reinstated. Those miners that had joined the union decided to have a “holiday” as they could not legally go out on strike.. This “holiday” of support had been declared because they felt that the company had openly discriminated against Mottishaw and other men who were actively involved in organizing a union. It was their intention to be on “holiday “for only one day, but the company had other plans. The next day, the miners were ordered to remove their tools. The company’s position was that the action by those who went on “holiday” was a form of quitting, and locked them out unless they signed a company contract. On September 18 the workers at the Extension mine, where the Ladysmith miners worked, a voted to support their brothers in Cumberland . The vote was close as it passed with only 100 votes to spare. On notice of the vote the company then notified the workers at Extension to remove their tools too. Now 1600 men were off the job.

Militia sent in to quell the two year miners strike. Downtown Ladysmith. Photo: Ladysmith Archives

Militia sent in to quell the two year miners strike. Downtown Ladysmith. Photo: Ladysmith Archives

2007-034-1123 Extension Mine

Extension Mine. Photo: Ladysmith Archives

The strike was only against Canadian Collieries as all the other coal mines on the Island were still working. On May 1 the United Mine Workers of America called for a strike to close all the mines on the Island in spite of the fact that these mines and their workers had legal contracts. Contracts that had been agreed to by the mines and a committee of the men that had been authorized to negotiate a contract on their behalf, as they weren’t represented by a union. The United Mine Workers of America issued its Notice of General Strike saying that the union, with the endorsement of the National Union, were on strike. It went on to say “Anyone going to work in these mines will be branded as ‘a scab’”. This strike in effect even though the most of the workers affected didn’t want to go on strike. They were on strike “Ballot or No Ballot”, according to the union.

By January 1913, the situation in Ladysmith had started to deteriorate as some of the Ladysmith strikers were wanting to return to work, and this was leading to unrest. Ladysmith’s Mayor George Hiller saw the potential danger of this situation. He sent a telegram to Attorney General Bowser asking for at least 25 special police to protect workers who were being harassed while going through the town to and from the work trains. The next day a similar request was made by some of the workers. Later that day Mayor Hillier sent another telegram requesting that the Provincial Police take over policing the City from the Ladysmith municipal police. As a result, the Province sent eight reinforcements to supplement the city’s police force of two. The situation remained calm until mid August. Production levels in the mines were starting to return to pre strike levels and the stress on the strikers was intensified. More and more miners were returning to work and strike breakers were arriving in the area filling the jobs vacated by the strike.

Finally on the morning of August 11 the tension between strikers and workers reached a crisis. Two strikers were attacked by four strike breakers resulting in one of them, John Pollock, being stabbed. Rumours were circulating that a number of strikers would be returning to work that day. In Nanaimo these rumours resulted in a crowd of 500 picketers and supporters taking to the streets of Nanaimo to show their support for the strike. By afternoon a mob of 600 to 700 marched to No 1 mine in Nanaimo, chanting and harassing the strike breakers. The next day 1000 gathered at the Reserve mine in Nanaimo. Some of the working miners were attacked, while others hid in the mine until the crowd left. The Mayor of Nanaimo called for more special police. It was reported that these additional special police would arrive the next day by train. When the train arrived, a crowd of 500 plus was waiting. The strikers and their supporters removed badges and guns from the police and threatened to throw them in to the bay. On August 12 strikers in South Wellington attacked the homes of many of the working miners and the managers but they were beaten back when the manager threatened to open fire on them. Meanwhile up in Extension more strikers threatened to march on the mine but the manager had armed about a hundred miners.

The same day, rumours were heard about a march on Extension by the Nanaimo miners so the South Wellington strikers planned to join in. The Nanaimo strikers changed their minds and didn’t go but that didn’t stop the South Wellington strikers. When they arrived at the mine they attacked the pithead and shots were exchanged. Word was sent back to Nanaimo that six strikers had been killed (untrue). Now, the march from Nanaimo began. A party of 600 strikers reached Extension later that day and more violence broke out. Miners’ homes were looted and equipment was destroyed. On arrival at the pithead they were greeted with rifle fire. Strikers broke into a local hardware store and stole guns and ammunition. Now armed, the invading force of strikers from Nanaimo was too strong for the miners to hold off and they fled into the woods. Twelve miners’ homes were burned and 11 others were looted. In addition 18 houses in the Extension Chinatown were looted and wrecked. Many of the families of the strike breakers or working miners were driven into the bush where they hid out for days without food and with only the clothes on their backs. In spite of all the shooting and destruction at Extension during this time only a spectator standing on a nearby hill was wounded by a stray bullet.

When word of the Nanaimo riots reached Ladysmith, and with the arrival of more strike breakers arriving in Ladysmith, a riot started. On the evening of August 12, 200 to 300 of the Ladysmith strikers and their families took to the streets smashing the windows of the homes of the working miners. The crowd grew larger during the evening and ended up in front of the Temperance Hotel on the corner of First Avenue and High Street. The Temperance was where some of the imported strike breakers were being housed. Just after midnight a charge of dynamite was set, resulting in minor damage to the hotel. Later that night a pair of general public supporters of the strike attacked the home of miner Alexander McKinnon who had supported the strike in the early days, and received strike pay. He found that as the strike went on, he couldn’t afford to maker payments on his home, so he returned to work. A homemade bomb was thrown through the window of one of the bedrooms. The sound of breaking glass caught the attention of McKinnon. He found the bomb in the bedroom of his young daughters and while attempting to throw it out the back door, it exploded, causing the loss of a hand, the sight in one eye and hearing in one ear. The following day William Rafter and his three sons were attacked and badly beaten as they attempted to go to work.

This violence led to Attorney General Bowser calling in the militia -150 troops to Ladysmith and another 650 to Cumberland. Martial law was never invoked, but it was obvious that the army was now in full control. He later sent an additional 50 men and two machine guns to support the troops. The strikers weren’t going to back down. It was reported that 1500 armed strikers blocked the road to Extension, but they didn’t take any action against the deployed troops who by that time numbered over 1000 in the area. When the troops entered Extension, they saw much of the town in ruins and mining equipment burned.

Lieutenant Colonel Hall, in charge of the troops, found that the telephone and telegraph operators were leaking confidential information about his plans to the strikers. Even after he replaced these operators with his own men, the strikers learned of his plans as they had tapped into the telephone lines. In order to maintain confidentiality, his orders were relayed by Gaelic speaking solders and restricted communication to authorized personnel. With his lines of communication secure, plans for mass arrest were drawn up. Early in the morning of August 16, striking miners connected with the riots in Ladysmith and South Wellington were rousted out of bed by armed troops and escorted to the waiting police to be charged. In all, 213 strikers from all over the Island were arrested, 58 from Ladysmith. Two of the first from Ladysmith to be tried were union leaders who hadn’t taken part in any violence, but were found guilty of inciting a riot. They were sentenced to two years in the penitentiary. Three youths were also found guilty of rioting, and sentenced to two years in prison, while and additional 23 were sentenced to one year with a choice of paying a $100 fine or spending an additional 3 months in prison. None of the imprisoned miners served their full term, but the union leaders were the last to be released.

These riots and the control by the army along with the prison terms broke the spirit of many of the strikers. Some accepted an agreement that was the same as before the strike. Others held out longer, but more and more men returned to the mines. The labour movement across the province took up the cause, calling for a General Strike. Under this threat and the increased support of the strikers in the public because of the harsh treatment by the government, Premier McBride took the first steps to securing a settlement which was finally achieved almost a year to the day after the riots stated and the army was called in.

In the settlement the strikers were allowed to return to work with basically the same contract in place except that the miner owners agreed that the miners had the right to belong to the United Mine Workers of America if they so chose, but the companies did not have to recognize the union in any respect. What the miners ended up with was a union with no power. The International union failed in its organizing the miners.

This failure of the nnion lead to the withdrawal of the United Mine Workers Union from Island mines with the international union withdrawing its support for the local unions. By 1915 the locals on the island were finished and the area was never re-organized.

After the strike the community of Ladysmith was never the same. It had lost many of its businesses, and those that were still here had suffered. Many miners and their families left town looking for work in other parts of the country. Those that stayed, faced the tension that still remained long after the strike. It took a long time to mend fences. In the 1960’s, an author writing a book dealing with the strike invited some of those involved to the Travellers for an interview. Fist fights broke out between men who were in their senior years. Years later a worker’s son wanted to marry the daughter of one of the strikers. The daughters father said “ No daughter of mine will ever marry the son of a scab.” Memories of the strike run deep and long.

War would soon break out and many men left. After the war the Depression hit and the mine at Extension which had been struggling closed in April 1931. Ladysmith’s population dropped from 3295 in 1911 to 1400 in 1934. The City’s tax base dried up with many homes reverting to the City for unpaid taxes. At one point it was estimated that 60 per cent of the lots were now owned by the City.

Sam Guthrie, who was President of the Ladysmith local of the Mine Workers Union, and who was sentenced to two years in prison, never lost his desire to help the working man. After being released from prison, he took up farming and politics. He was first elected to the Provincial Legislature in 1920 serving for four years then in 1933 he was again elected to the legislature.

Another man arrested during the strike was Joseph Mairs, 21. He was sentenced to 16 months, but three months into his sentence, died of medical complications. On the day of his funeral union supporters and friends made a line a mile long proceeding to his funeral. Today he is seen as a martyr and his death is remembered annually at his grave site here in Ladysmith by the Nanaimo Duncan and District Labour Council.

 Acknowledgement:

Ladysmith Archives and Museum

Ladysmith District Historical Society

The Great Coal Strike a essay by John Alan Wargo UBC thesis 1962,

When Coal was King JR Hinde 2003,

Ladysmith’s Colourful History Ladysmith Historical Society 1985

Royal Commission “Coal Mining Disputes on Vancouver Island (1913) Samuel Price Ministry of Labour

READ PART 2 and the conclusion here

About the author: Rob Johnson

Rob Johnson

Born and bred in Ladysmith, Rob tells it like he sees it. And that's why we love him.

6 comments

  1. This article faithfully follows the Employer’s perspective.
    Not mentioned are the many explosions which killed so many in these mines in the period lead up to the confrontation. A walk through the Ladysmith Cemetery, past the obelisk of Joseph Mairs, reveals grave after grave of those killed in these mines.
    The workers had a well found concern about health and safety in the mines. Too many had died in too many incidents. This struggle was about safety verses profits. The militia and Seaforth Highlanders tipped the balance to the profit side.
    The Joseph Mairs Memorial Committee (JMMC) is an independent society I founded to honour Joseph Mairs and his fellow miners. Under the theme, ‘Our Common Condition’, the JMMC links the struggle of those miners before the Great War to our present day challenges for justice and democracy. We face the same adversary today, global monopolies, as did Joseph Mairs a century ago. Workers and their Unions have made many advances but the essential power relationship remains the same between owners, fixated on profit, and workers looking after their families.
    Though the Nanaimo Duncan and District Labour Council have played a major role in our commemorations, they are one of many organizations in British Columbia who have contributed to keeping the spirit of those brave miners alive.

  2. Eric Ricker says:

    This otherewise very interesting and detailed account errs by suggesting that the CNR was somehow involved with Canadian Collieries at the onset of the strike. The CNR, cobbled together from a number of failed and/or failing railway lines, wasn’t formed until 1917.

    • Rick Morgan says:

      Eric is correct in saying that the CNR had not been formed at the time of the strike which began in 1912 at the former Dunmuirs operations in Extension and Cumberland and was followed by all coal mine companies on the island coming out on strike the following year.
      That said, one of the railways which would later become part of the Canadian National System was very much involved with Canadian Collieries. Canadian Collieries (Dunsmuir) Ltd was a wholly owned subsidiary of Canadian Northern Railways owned by Mackenzie and Mann. Mackenzie was the first President of the new coal mining company which was in charge of the the former Dunsmuir mines at Extension and Cumberland all during the strike.
      By 1918 Canadian Northern Railway was near bankrupt and on September 6, 1918 in response to public concerns, the Canadian government assumed majority ownership of the company. At the same time the Canadian Northern was also directed to assume management of other Canadian Govenment railways including the Intercolonial Railway, the National Transcontinental Railway and the Prince Edward Island. On December 20, 1918 the federal government created the Canadian National Railways-a title only with no corporate powers.
      On March 7, 1919, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway also fell into financial difficulty when its parent company the Grand Truck Ralway defaulted on repayment of construciton loans to the federal government. The government took over operation of the GTPR until July 12, 1920 when it too was placed under the CNR. The Canadian National Railway was organized on October 10, 1922.
      (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_National_Railway)

  3. brendan ashworth says:

    my grandfather Patrick Mulgrew of Maryport Cumberland England was involved.
    Any one with information please contact me at
    brendanashworth [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] uk

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