St Mewan: clay captains and class struggle

St Mewan in mid-Cornwall just west of St Austell was a mining parish in 1861 when a half of its men worked in the local tin mines. Another one in eight were clay labourers, this proportion increasing while that of miners shrank over the rest of the century. With the decline of mining, St Mewan folk had to be prepared to be flexible and seize whatever opportunities presented themselves.

Ellen Geach was born into a mining family in the parish in 1850. However, she married a shoemaker – James Martyn, also from St Mewan, in 1873. The pair set up home at Carthew, now the location of the Wheal Martyn clay museum, in St Austell parish after a short time spent in Truro. In the 1880s they moved a lot further, to Llanwonno in the heart of the South Wales coalfield between the Rhondda and Cynon valleys. James continued his trade as a shoemaker but Ellen had the extra task of keeping their house clean with two teenage sons working in the coal mines. However, in the new century one of her sons had become the manager of a small hotel in Llanwonno, where Ellen was staying at the time of the 1911 census.

William Henry Hooper migrated to England rather than Wales. He was the son of a clay captain in St Mewan. It’s unclear what William was doing in 1871 and 1881, although he seems to have been extremely mobile. His marriage in Plymouth to Susannah Stoneman in 1875 might indicate some time in the navy or possibly work at the dockyards. A child was born to the couple at Tottenham in London in 1879 while another arrived in Guernsey in the Channel Isles in 1881. By 1884 they were back in Plymouth but a year later another child was born, again in London. By 1886 they had moved to Gravesend in Kent, returning to Deptford in London in 1887. This migratory odyssey had come to an end by the 1890s. In 1891 William was recorded as a stoker at a gas works at Greenwich, possibly the East Greenwich Gas Works which supplied most of south London. He remained there for the rest of his working life.

Municipal gas works had started to appear in the 1810s in the big cities of Britain. Public buildings and streets were lit by gas from the 1840s but the strong smell and high consumption of oxygen by early gas lighting delayed its introduction into people’s homes. An improved mantle in 1887 which used less gas and produced more light was the breakthrough that enabled domestic gas lighting to became widespread after the 1890s.

In the meantime, London’s gas works had been at the forefront of the struggle to form unskilled workers’ trade unions. In 1872 they had gone on strike for the eight-hour day but failed, some strikers being convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to  jail with 12 months hard labour. The right to strike was legalised in 1875 and after a successful strike of the gas workers at the huge Beckton Gas Works north of the Thames opposite Greenwich, the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union was formed in 1889. Within months it had 3,000 gas stoker members, one of whom may well have been William Henry Hooper from St Mewan.

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