The Leeds gas-workers dispute

In the summer of 1890, Leeds just stopped. There were no streetlights, the factories were closed, and angry mobs roamed the city. Why? How could this happen?

City life at the end of the 19th century

On the morning of 3 April 1881, a small army of census-takers set out to visit every house in the land. Their mission was to enquire politely who lived there, and what they did. The man charged with covering the area of Bradford just north of Leeds Road was one James J. Murgatroyd, an unemployed clerk in his forties. He worked his way along Barkerend Road - which twenty years before had been known simply as 'High Street' - until he reached the mill. He paused to check the office there, and turned off south down Clayton Place (33 families), along Pit Lane (15 families) until he reached Farrar Square (30 houses, of which 3 were empty). Then he followed Barkerend Fold (24 families already, and with two houses still under construction) until he had reached Barkerend Road once again. He could see open fields stretching off in front of him to the east, which meant that his round of over two hundred dwellings was nearly complete.

plan of Bradford in 1889

Farrar Square in 1881 was a development of thirty tiny terraced houses, each with its own back garden, arranged round three sides of an open space big enough to hold a game of football. John and Annie Hearfield lived at No. 20 with their five children - Samuel (aged 13), Maria (10), Albert (8), John (6), and baby James (1). James was my grandfather.

The sketch of Bradford showing Farrar Square is part of a much larger one (dated 1889) on the Bradford Antiquarian and Historical Society website.

Number 21, next door, was empty, but on the other side at No. 19 lived Julia Blott, who worked at the mill as a worsted twister. She was 30 years old and already a widow, with twin sons aged 8 and a 2-year-old. Two lodgers also lived there - Alf, a joiner, and Fred, a brewer's labourer. These two small houses between them were home to thirteen people.

This was not at all unusual. Many of the families in the square had five or six children, with the older ones - from the age of about 12 - working in the mills as worsted spinners. These children looked after the noisy machinery that converted the raw sheep's wool into yarn, to be woven into the woollen cloth for which Bradford had become famous. Two or three generations earlier the children would have grown up to become agricultural labourers, but now they were an unwitting (and sometimes unwilling) part of the economic miracle that had driven Bradford's growth from a small village to a thriving, expanding city - 'Worstedopolis', some were calling it - with its own municipal buildings, including a splendid Town Hall every bit as grand as the one in Leeds, though not quite as big.

It was a surprise to discover that my grandfather had been born in Bradford. I didn't know that the family had ever lived in the city. Yet the address on his birth certificate was clear, though puzzling. If James was born at No. 17, why was the family living at No.20 just a year later?

James Hearfield birth certificate

James' father John was then 35, and was working - temporarily, he hoped - as a labourer in one of the many factories that made shuttles for the weaving trade. This was not the kind of work he had spent the past twenty years training for. He was a skilled watchmaker, a craft that required both dexterity and an intuitive feeling for how precision machinery worked. His mother's father had been a successful clockmaker in Otley, and John had grown up in his grandfather's house, no doubt spending many happy hours taking things to bits and putting them almost back together again.

John's parents eventually moved from Otley to Hull - where there was an unfortunate misunderstanding in a hat-shop over a 5 note, that I relate here - and when he left home John set up a small watchmaker's workshop in Hull. The business did not really prosper, although he was earning enough to marry Annie, so he had moved his young family to Leeds in the hope of finding more success in a bigger city. He didn't know it, but the days of the small independent watchmaker were almost over. The market was being flooded with cheap mass-produced American watches, and for most people a traditional hand-finished British watch was just too expensive. No-one in Leeds had seemed interested in the service he had to offer, and he had been forced to take jobs in factories, maintaining and adjusting machines.

John was a natural mechanic. He could repair almost any machine from a steam engine to a pocket-watch (and so could his son James, and his grandson Norman - my own father, whose skills also included fixing cinema sound systems and television sets). Since his employers were paying him to mend big oily machines, that's what he did, though it wasn't the career he wanted. Three more children arrived during the six years they spent in Leeds. Then in 1878 his father died - by this time John's parents had a small pork butcher's shop in Leeds - and he must have decided it was time for one last fresh start. Leaving his eldest son Mark to help his mother in the shop, he took his wife and the younger children off to Bradford. He found a labouring job to pay the bills until the clients began to arrive. And then his wife discovered that she was pregnant again. He must have felt trapped, unable to leave his badly-paid job, living in a small rented house in a strange town miles away from his other relatives, with his own family growing inexorably larger and poorer.

Baby James was born healthy, and as the baby grew into a toddler John's confidence returned and the watch-making (or more probably, watch repairing) business began to make a little money. They moved three houses along in the Square - from No. 17 to No. 20. Perhaps the new house had better access to natural light. But then his mother died, leaving his eldest son Mark stranded in Leeds with no job and nowhere to live, so there seemed no option but to return to Leeds and sort things out. The family packed up and moved back to the factory district of Holbeck they had left a few years earlier. They took a house just a few streets away from the main Leeds Corporation Gasworks.

french 19th century poster showing gas cooking is clean

By this time every town in the land had a gasworks. Leeds needed three of them. Gas was a cheap and ubiquitous fuel, as common then as electricity is today, and gas lighting was common in most houses and factories. The first gas lamps were simple naked flames, intended to replace candles (elegant glowing gas mantles came much later). More importantly, gas lamps illuminated the streets. Even in the 1930s, half the streets in London were still lit by gas.

A few brave souls were beginning to use gas for cooking, too, although persuading them to do so had been difficult at first. The earliest gas ovens had made the food taste peculiar. But since the alternative was the smokey and cantankerous wood-burning stove their mothers had been forced to cope with, many young women must have been persuaded to give it a try. This French poster from about 1900 makes the options clear. Here is Madame, young and pretty, who has chosen to cook dinner in her party frock. Unlike her mother, she will not be sweating like a horse and smelling like a bonfire when her guests arrive.

Even trains were routinely lit by gas in the nineteenth century, and later. The gas was stored at a pressure of five or six atmospheres in cylinders carried under the coaches, and given the safety record of the railways at the time, this was really not a good idea. The pipes broke when accidents occurred, then sparks or burning coals lit the escaping gas, and the resulting fires incinerated many travellers who might otherwise have survived. As late as 1915, the troop-train disaster at Quintinshill killed or seriously injured five hundred people, mostly soldiers on their way to fight at Gallipoli. The train's doors were locked. The pile of coaches burned all day and all night.

Industry too was becoming dependent on gas, to fuel the engines that powered the factories. There were still many die-hard factory owners sticking stubbornly to their tried and tested steam engines, and one or two adventurous souls were experimenting with the new electric power. But for most people a reliable gas supply - for lighting, cooking, heating or to keep the factories running - was just a normal part of life, and something they took for granted. Very few knew or cared how coal-gas was made, and even fewer wondered what it must be like to be a labourer in a gas-works.

Will Thorne

One who did was a man named Will Thorne. He had been born in Birmingham in 1857, and from his sixth birthday onwards he had worked at various unskilled jobs. He was illiterate, and had no education to speak of, but he was far from stupid. By his late teens he was working as a labourer on the brickfields in the summer and in the gasworks in the winter. He gradually came to realise that his life, and that of the men he worked with, did not have to be dictated so completely by their masters. Working men used to have some independence and dignity, and he believed they could regain what they had lost if they could be persuaded to act together instead of individually.

He walked to London, and found work at the Beckton gasworks. Somehow he made contact with Karl Marx's daughter. She taught him to read, and perhaps even more important, she taught him how the system worked. In 1889, at the age of 32, he set up the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers of Great Britain and Ireland - the first successful union.

gasworkers union banner

Its aim was simple: to reduce the length of the gas workers' shift from twelve hours to eight, as the Union membership certificate makes absolutely clear. The usual arrangement was for the workers to put in two weeks of twelve-hour days, then two weeks of twelve-hour nights. Every second weekend, the end of a man's night-shift coincided with the start of his day-shift, so he worked twenty-four straight hours. His wages were 5s. (25p) a day. Thorne, a fit young man, said

... when those twenty-four-hour stretches came to an end, I used to be absolutely exhausted in body and mind. It would be well into the middle of the next week before I began to feel normal again ...

With the men at Beckton more or less united behind him, Thorne presented his demand for an eight-hour day, with, naturally, no loss of pay. To everyone's surprise, it was accepted without much argument. There was no strike. It was something of an anticlimax when the bosses caved in so easily. The Council simply raised the price of gas slightly to cover their increased costs, the gasworks moved smoothly from two shifts a day to three, and life went on as before.

In August 1889, the London dock-workers went on strike. They weren't demanding better working conditions, or even an end to the degrading process by which they were hired - by waiting in a crowd outside the dock gate until a foreman appeared, then scuffling with each other and yelling, trying to catch his eye. They simply wanted their wages increased by a penny an hour. Thorne helped to organise the men. The dispute dragged on for five bitter weeks, and led to sympathy strikes in other ports, and in other trades (including the manufacture of gas) but the dockers were ultimately successful.

How coal gas is made

My school textbook was Intermediate Chemistry - Lowry & Cavell, 1954

retort house for manufacturing coal gas

Manufacturing coal gas is quite a straightforward process. My old school chemistry textbook says:

Coal gas, prepared by distilling coal in fireclay retorts, consists principally of hydrogen (about 48%) and methane (about 32%) with smaller quantities of ethylene, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen. ... A residue of coke is left in the retorts.

A retort house in those days had a structure something like the one shown in this drawing. Coal is loaded into the retorts, which are heated by the furnace, and gas is given off. Six hours or so later the coke is removed and a fresh batch of coal put in its place. The coke was not wasted. It could be burnt in the furnace, or sold to other manufacturers.

It sounds simple, until you begin to think about how the coal gets into the retorts in the first place, and how later on the red-hot coke is taken out. That was the job of the gas stokers, and it must have been truly horrible. To spend your working life shovelling coal into a furnace is hard enough, but these men turned up for work every day knowing that they would earn their few shillings carrying flaming coal and breathing in the fumes, with the ever-present risk of being badly burned if anything went wrong. It was not a job for the weak. Accidents must have been commonplace.

The picture of the workers charging a retort is from an engraving by W J P S published in the Illustrated London News and reproduced on the Science & Society website.

gas workers charging a retort

The picture shows a team of stokers loading a retort at the Beckton works. As the fresh coal goes into a red-hot retort, it naturally catches fire. The stokers wore hats to protect their hair from sparks, but it was too hot to wear many clothes, and of course nobody even thought about trying to protect their lungs.

Will Thorne wrote about a visit made by the Mayor and other senior Councillors to the gasworks in Birmingham where he was then working as a stoker.

The ignorance of the Mayor and his committee of working conditions were shown when he visited the works, accompanied by the Chairman and members of the Gas Committee. When they passed through the retort house, we had just finished drawing and charging a set of retorts, and were having a breather. I heard Chamberlain ask the foreman why we were fooling about and sitting down. As a matter of fact the sweat was rolling off us at the time, and our muscles were aching from the hot fast work of drawing and recharging the retorts.

After the Act which allowed town councils to acquire local gasworks and run them as non-profit businesses for the benefit of all the citizens, most councils had simply replaced the local gasworks' Board with a committee made up of council members. Birmingham Council's Gas Committee was effectively Thorne's employer.

In Leeds, the Gas Committee was chaired by one Alderman Gilston. He and his Committee were successful businessmen. Gilston owned a factory manufacturing glass bottles. As employers of labour, they had viewed the rising tide of unionism with some dismay. Thorne's success at Beckton had triggered an explosive growth in the membership of his union, and gas workers all over the country were demanding - and getting - a shorter working day. When the Leeds men's demand came in autumn 1889, the Committee felt that it had little choice but to agree.

But then during the winter someone on the Committee had a bright idea to claw back some of the ratepayers' money. Since gas was used mainly for lighting, there was less demand for it in summer, when sunset was so much later. So, he suggested, why don't we insist that the stokers sign new four-month contracts, and then in the summer we can sack half of them, and then hire them again the following autumn. And whilst we're about it, let's not pay them for their Good Friday holiday. If we need them to come in to work then of course we should pay them, but it's unfair to the ratepayers if we pay the men to have a day off.

The Gas Committee thought that these were excellent suggestions, and set up a Sub-Committee to do the detailed planning. In due course the Town Clerk was instructed to take the necessary steps to issue new contracts and stop payment for the Good Friday holiday. It was the spring of 1890.

Leeds in 1890

At about this time Maria, my grandfather's older sister, was making the acquaintance of the young man she was to marry a few years later. George Clark worked in the tailoring trade, and by the time he married Maria he was a cutter. Suits are stitched together from several pieces of cloth, which are cut from a single length of fabric using cardboard patterns as templates. To save time, as many as twenty lengths of fabric are laid one above another, then the patterns are arranged on top, and all twenty layers are cut at once using a band saw. The cutter's job is to arrange the patterns so as to minimise the amount of wasted cloth. If he makes a mistake he can ruin twenty potential suits at once.

However, George and Maria play no further direct part in this story. The significant fact is that George's father Sam was a gas stoker at the New Wortley Gasworks in Holbeck, which was situated just a couple of furlongs from where he lived.

Plan of Leeds in 1895

Leeds in 1890 was a thriving city (even though its application to become formally known as a City had just been turned down, and would not be granted for another three years). The magnificent and hugely expensive Town Hall had been opened by Queen Victoria in 1858. The Infirmary was built ten years later, and the Yorkshire College - the forerunner of Leeds University - ten years after that. The population had doubled in the previous thirty years and now stood at close to 400,000 people, many of them living in the suburbs which were springing up all around the town.

This plan shows the centre of Leeds as it was then, including the factory districts of Holbeck, on the left - which took its name from the Hol Beck, the small stream running through it - and Hunslet, on the right. These two areas were highly industrialised, with rows of small back-to-back houses squeezed in between the factories. Twenty thousand people lived in Holbeck, and sixty thousand in Hunslet.

It's striking how much land the railways needed, even with the two Holbeck stations (for the high- and low-level lines) stacked almost on top of each other. The tracks crossed Wellington Road on a solid stone bridge about 10 metres high, overlooking the gasworks. This bridge was central to the events that took place on the streets of Leeds in the summer of 1890.

The gas workers discover the plan

gas workers photo

Leeds Corporation owned and operated three gasworks, each less than a mile from the Town Hall. The plants at Meadow Lane in Hunslet to the south and at New Wortley in Holbeck to the east were relatively new, whilst the York Street works, to the north, was smaller and older.

The streets of Leeds had been lit by gas for many years. The Leeds Gas Light Company was established in 1818, and the Leeds New Gas Company in 1835. The Corporation had bought these companies in 1869 at a cost of three-quarters of a million pounds, and from the late 1870s onwards the Gas Committee had been steadily reducing the price it charged consumers. By 1881 the price of gas had fallen to 1s. 10d. per thousand cubic feet. But this policy meant a constant pressure to buy the cheapest possible coal, and in turn led to poor-quality gas being produced. There were allegations that the quality was not being properly measured. Then in 1889 a hole was discovered in one of the gasholders at the York Street works. The Council wrote to the manager - who by then had resigned - and asked for an explanation, which he declined to give. Alderman Spark, a former member of the Gas Committee, claimed that the manager had been forced to make gas of such poor quality that he had deliberately allowed it to vent rather than pass it on to consumers. It emerged later that several Gas Committee members were owners or directors of collieries that supplied this coal to the gasworks.

Between them the three gasworks employed several hundred labourers - stokers to charge and empty the retorts, firemen to look after the retort furnaces, and yardmen and coal-wheelers who moved the coal to where it was needed. Virtually all the men were members of the union.

The Gas Committee published their new regulations on 1 June 1890. They were scheduled to come into effect on 1 July. At this time of year the demand for gas was at its lowest, for it was summertime, the weather was warm, and the evenings were long.

From the outset the Committee anticipated that they would face resistance, perhaps even a strike. They did not expect the new regulations to be popular with the men. So to ensure continuity in the gas supply if the men walked out, they decided to arrange that replacement workers would be hired in London and Manchester. It should not be difficult to find a few labourers. They could be brought in by train to stations situated conveniently close to the Meadow Lane and New Wortley works, and the York Street works could easily be shut down for a few days without causing a problem.

The first sign that there was trouble ahead came in the regular Work and Wages column in the Yorkshire Post of Monday, 16 June, 1890.

A determined resistance to the regulations recently promulgated by the Gas Committee of the Leeds Corporation has been decided upon, and if the opinion of two largely attended meetings of workmen held on Holbeck and Hunslet Moors yesterday may be taken as an indication of the feeling of the labouring classes of Leeds on the points in dispute, the stokers and firemen may count on some degree of outside support.

That evening, and the following morning, the gas workers were served with formal papers stating that, legally, they would not be able to leave work without giving notice, and that if they desired to work under the new regulations they must apply to the manager by noon on Thursday. The stage was set for a fight. The Yorkshire Post commented that

... the leaders look upon the present agitation as a turning point in regard to the conditions under which gasworkers throughout the country labour. It is believed that the success or failure of the mob in Leeds will have a great influence ...

The Gas Committee could see that their contingency plan to import new workmen would soon be needed, so they took the necessary steps. A week later, on the Wednesday (June 25), the yardmen at the New Wortley Gasworks were suddenly taken off their regular duties and set to work clearing out sheds to accommodate the men who would be brought in to replace the soon-to-be-missing stokers. When they realised what was going on, the yardmen walked out in disgust. The purifiers and coal-wheelers followed them. The Gas Committee advertised locally for replacements. The workers picketed the Municipal Offices next to the Town Hall, and patrolled the streets around the gasworks with placards.

By Friday the Committee had stopped the advertisements and were hinting to journalists that they had already signed up all the men they would need. On Friday evening a large crowd had gathered in front of the gasworks' gates. When the Friday night shift reported for work at 10 p.m. they were told to go away again, as they wouldn't be needed. A dozen stokers ignored this and pushed their way inside the works to see what was going on. They were cheered by the men whose shift was just ending. The management was sufficiently alarmed to summon the police, but in the end the men left peacefully, and told the waiting journalists that there was no coal for them to use. Gas pressure throughout the town was low that night, and the street-lamps barely glowed.

When the Gas Committee had conceded the eight hour day, in the previous autumn, they had raised the price of gas by 4d. per thousand cubic feet. This had more than covered the increased labour costs, although Alderman Gilston and his Committee had tried to argue otherwise. The local union leaders accepted in a letter to the paper that some pressure had been put on the Committee, but pointed out that

... had this pressure never been brought to bear, the workmen might have sweated and groaned under their hard conditions for ever ...

and that, despite what Alderman Gilston said, the Committee had unilaterally imposed the new rules without any consultation.

Monday, 30 June 1890

The weekend passed without incident. On the Monday morning, some factory owners whose operations depended on a reliable gas supply found that their gas-engines wouldn't start, their gas-heaters wouldn't work, and their gas-lights were too feeble to be any use. These factories were forced to close, and more people joined the crowds on the streets.

The first real confrontation took place on Monday afternoon. It was the last day of June, and the new regulations were due to come into force at midnight. Recognising that their newly-hired workers at the Meadow Lane site would need somewhere to sleep, the Gas Committee had arranged to hire a marquee. It was supposed to be delivered to the gasworks and erected in the yard, but when the crowds outside the gates realised what it would be used for, they pulled the delivery men off their wagon and beat them up. One needed hospital treatment afterwards. Nobody could be arrested, as the few police in the neighbourhood were greatly outnumbered by the crowd.

The authorities were alarmed. A few protesters on the street was one thing, but open riot and mob rule was something quite different. The Council told the Chief Constable that it was his job to keep the peace, and to see that the marquee was delivered that night no matter how many protesters tried to stop it.

By nine o'clock that evening, a force of nearly seventy policemen had been assembled at Hunslet Road police station. A wagon had been loaded with the tent and provisions for the fresh workmen and was ready to go. The Chief Constable rode up in full uniform, accompanied by another half dozen police on horseback, and the procession arranged itself with the mounted officers at the front, followed by the wagon, and the remaining police marching behind in rows of four. When they neared the works the crowd parted to let then through, and although there was some booing and stone-throwing, the wagon entered the works without serious incident. The marquee and provisions were unloaded, the procession returned back the way it had come, and Phase 1 of the Gas Committee's plan was safely completed. Phase 2 was scheduled for later that same night.


Union leaders addressed a crowded public meeting in a hall near York Road that evening. The local Liberal Club had passed a resolution condemning the action of the Gas Committee. The meeting was sympathetic to the gas workers' cause, and laughed when a union official observed that "the speeches would have to be brief, as they wanted to get to the works and try to keep away the scum and dregs of other towns. In his opinion there was enough scum at the Municipal Buildings."

The speakers wanted to make it clear that the present situation had come about as a direct result of the Gas Committee's refusal to negotiate with the union. The local secretary of the union said that he had led a deputation of the men to meet the Committee when the new regulations were first made public. The Committee kept them waiting for an hour and fifty minutes, and then sent word "that they would not see anyone but their own workmen." Weeks before, the union had written to the Committee to ask why the Good Friday's pay had been stopped, and they had received no reply. "Rotten!" shouted someone. The meeting called on the Committee to reinstate the men forthwith, on the terms that had been agreed the previous October.


The Meadow Lane gasworks happened to be located just across the road from the Midland Railway goods station. This was too convenient to ignore, and the Gas Committee had planned accordingly. They had arranged for a special train to stop at this station and unload several hundred replacement workers brought in from Manchester. With the police present in strength to keep the way clear for them, nothing could stop the fresh hands from being quickly settled into their new workplace. By dawn the Gas Committee hoped that the works would be once again producing the gas the city needed.

However, one of the local union leaders had heard that a number of blacklegs would be arriving by train in the middle of the night. He arranged to have this information chalked on pavements across the city. That night, a crowd gathered to wait for the train.

Additional policemen had been instructed to report to Hunslet Road police station, and the force that assembled there in the pouring rain at two o'clock in the morning numbered over 120 men. The Chief Constable had returned to his headquarters in the Town Hall.

The police marched to the gasworks and cleared the street. They formed a solid barricade at each end of the road, leaving the way clear from the gates of the railway goods yard to the gates of the gasworks. Then they waited. The special train was due at half past two. When a train was heard arriving at the station, the crowd began to yell and push the police, but it turned out to be simply a normal goods train. Three o'clock came and went. Finally, at half past three, the human barricades began to break up as the police moved away, heading for the Town Hall and fresh instructions. For some reason the train carrying the hundred or so new men was not going to turn up that night. The crowd cheered in triumph, and some of them went home. It was still raining.


Even the most carefully thought-out battle plan will not survive first contact with the enemy, as a general once wryly observed.

I think it was Field Marshal Von Moltke who talked about the fallibility of battle plans.

The train had reached Leeds all right, but for some reason it had been routed to the city centre rather than to the goods yard in Hunslet. The men were escorted to the Town Hall and lodged temporarily in the Crypt. The union pickets on duty outside called for reinforcements, and soon Victoria Square, in front of the Town Hall, was full of people. They stayed there all day. The Yorkshire Post said that the "strangers"

... up to 6 pm yesterday were so closely besieged in the Crypt of the Town Hall that they were unable to leave for the work which they had come from London or Manchester to perform ; the police unequal to the task of coping with the dangerous aspect of affairs, the military had been summoned from Strensall to assist and for the greater part of yesterday Victoria Square was in the possession of a howling mob.

However, these were not the only "strangers" the Gas Committee had arranged to bring in. Another train carrying 150 men had arrived - from London this time - at five o'clock that morning at the Midland Station. It was met by the Chief Constable on horseback leading a force of over 200 policemen. The men were marshalled into a column, completely surrounded by police, and marched down to Meadow Lane. As they drew closer to the gasworks the crowds grew larger and the opposition became stronger and bolder, with some angry onlookers trying to attack the "strangers" with their sticks. Finally, the crowd surged forward and broke the police line, but the police rallied and kept moving, fighting their way through the crowd until they reached the works. The gates opened and the replacement workers stumbled inside. Then the Chief Constable ordered his men to form up again and charge the crowd, which fled in all directions.

Numerous people were injured in the struggle that took place before the men entered the works and in the charge made by the police. The pavements were smeared with blood, and lying in the thoroughfare were hats and caps and policemen's helmets.


The gas stokers had by now not been at work since the previous Friday, and gas doesn't make itself. On the previous night the street lamps had not been lit. "THE TOWN IN DARKNESS" reported the Yorkshire Post gravely, adding that

... success, and success alone, would justify the forcing of a struggle such as Leeds has just seen begun. It is too serious a matter to be entered upon half-heartedly and inadequately prepared, and on the evening of the first day of the contest we do not like the look of matters.

The situation was becoming critical. The displaced workers showed no sign that they might simply give up, and the crowds besieging the Town Hall all day Tuesday had caused such alarm that a company of Carabiniers from the 6th Dragoon Guards had been summoned to the city from their barracks at Strensall on the other side of York. They could certainly clear the streets - presumably by shooting the protesters, if that seemed the only way to do it.

Meanwhile, at Meadow Lane the newly arrived stokers had begun work. The union men outside the gates could not get inside to talk to them, so they climbed onto the walls and shouted down to them from there. Conversation was difficult, but it emerged that the men brought in by train had been told that they would be coming to a newly-opened gasworks. Nobody had mentioned the lock-out. When the true position was explained many of them said that they did not want to stay, but they feared the mob outside would tear them to pieces if they left. The union men assured them that, on the contrary, the crowd would be delighted to see them leave, and just before lunchtime thirty or forty men put down their shovels and walked out. The crowd cheered. Later in the afternoon another group decided that they too would quit, leaving in the works only (it was said) some 46 men out of the original 150.

The men from London were escorted to the union offices in Kirkgate. They understood now that they had been brought to Leeds under false pretences, and they wanted to go home. A deputation went to ask the Gas Committee (which was meeting in more or less permanent session) to pay their train fares. The Committee refused, and told the deputation to make their own way back to London as best they could. That evening half a dozen of them were seen passing though Pontefract. With no money for the train fare, they were walking home.

One of the men was asked by the press if he had signed a contract. "Yes," he admitted, "but it was never read over to me."


The soldiers were on their way, but there was no possibility of moving the hundreds of men from Manchester out of the Town Hall into the New Wortley gasworks until they arrived. The "strangers" had been released from the Crypt and shepherded into the Victoria Hall - the very grand hall which normally housed concerts and large public meetings.. They were fed on cocoa and sandwiches whilst they waited, and given tobacco for their pipes. A hastily-arranged organ recital was laid on to entertain them. Councillor Hunt of the Gas Committee even turned up and sang to them, but his renditions of "Auld Land Syne" and "Rule Britannia" did not raise their spirits for long. They were effectively prisoners, guarded by policemen in the corridors outside, and curtly refused permission to go out even to "buy a postage stamp and post a letter". They were rough labouring men, and amused themselves as best they could by playing pitch-and-toss, smoking their clay pipes, and spitting on the floor.

Whilst everyone waited for the military, the authorities took what steps they could to prevent a repetition of the morning's riot on Meadow Lane. Notices signed by the Mayor and the Stipendiary Magistrate were posted around the town asking the public to keep the peace, and warning them of the serious consequences of "assembling in any violent, turbulent, or threatening manner". And just in case the citizens chose to ignore these warnings, the Council brought in additional police from Bradford, Huddersfield and even York, as well as another company of armed foot-soldiers from the Leeds barracks at Chapeltown.

At about half-past seven in the evening the cavalry arrived, a hundred strong. They quickly moved the crowds away from the Town Hall, and the police formed a cordon to keep the space clear. The labourers emerged and were formed up in fours in the centre of the road, with a solid wall of police and cavalry around them. Another sixty soldiers joined the lines, each man armed with a carbine. Half a dozen dignitaries, including the grim-faced Mayor, the Magistrate, and the Town Clerk came out of the Town Hall and climbed into waiting cabs. The procession was ready to go. The scene may have reminded some onlookers of Queen Victoria's visit twenty years before, when the Town Hall was officially opened.

This illustration showing the Queen opening the Town Hall in 1858, and the picture of Holbeck junction in 1868, are from Leeds City Libraries

Leeds Town Hall in 1858

All was well as the cavalcade moved along Park Lane, down into West Street, and onto Wellington Road, with the crowds from the Town Hall following on behind. Such opposition as they met along the way was easily dispersed by the cavalry, and it began to look as though the strategy of overwhelming force was going to work as planned. Waiting for the procession at New Wortley gasworks was a contingent of fifty police inside the walls, and another fifty just outside the gates, holding back a much bigger crowd of protesters.

But then, with their destination in sight, the head of the procession passed under the railway arch on Wellington Road and it all started to go wrong. The union leaders had realised - as the police had not - that the railway bridge could serve as a fort. Safe on the top, thirty feet above the road, vengeful men hurled missiles down on to the procession. Huge stones, bottles, bricks, lengths of timber, iron pipes, lumps of coal and whatever else was to hand came raining down from the sky. Those on the road below could do nothing whatever to protect themselves.

The sketch "An impression of the battle of Wortley Bridge during the big Leeds gas strike" is from Will Thorne's autobiography My life's battles.

the battle of Wortley Bridge

The military escort were riding towards a yelling mass of several thousand angry men, whilst close behind them another surging crowd threatened to cut off their retreat. With drawn swords, the cavalry turned and charged. People fled for their lives. One young soldier was knocked from his horse, lost his helmet and sword, and was trampled by his comrades' horses. Dazed and bleeding, he limped back to the procession. Many police were struck on the head and arms by flying missiles. Superintendent McWilliam was badly hurt. Some workmen too suffered serious cuts and bruises. But the gasworks gate was now only yards away, and the procession finally reached it. The Dragoons formed a guard around the gate, and as it swung open the new workmen ran inside. The crowd surged forward again, and the police inside the works fought to keep them out. Will Thorne said,

The soldiers made guard near the gates, but as soon as they were opened and the blacklegs made to enter, the crowd rushed in. I was with them. We charged at the blacklegs, who in their terror made a rush for a wall, over which many of them escaped. The police counter-attacked. I received a terrible blow on the back of the neck and went down like a bullock.

The gates were immediately closed again, but only half the "strangers" had reached safety. The battle continued as the remainder struggled towards another gate, which was finally opened to let them in.

Inside the gasworks yard the men found refreshments waiting for them in the form of tea and sandwiches. Over a hundred beds had been erected in the covered portions of the yard, and newly-imported piles of coal stood ready to be converted into gas. Meanwhile the tens of thousands outside the walls were howling their frustration. The men inside were bewildered, and angry, and frightened by what they had been through. Some blamed the city authorities for not having cleared the bridge. Others said bitterly that the Leeds police had shown themselves totally unfit to cope - the police in Manchester would never have allowed the situation to disintegrate into riot like this. Men stood around the yard in small groups, discussing what to do. Would it be safe to sleep here when the mob outside seemed to want to kill them?

At this point some of the crowd of protesters managed to climb onto the gasworks wall. The police were powerless to stop them. They shouted down to the Manchester men - as they had to the London men - that the quarrel was with the Gas Committee, not with them, and if they left now they would be safe. After an hour of this, some of the braver souls made up their minds to leave. They climbed the wall and jumped over. A wave of cheering spread though the crowd, then another, as group after group scaled the wall. Within a few minutes half the men had gone.


Meanwhile at the York Street gasworks all was quiet. The Gas Committee, mindful that the works "was located in one of the roughest parts of the town" (as one of them confided to a reporter), had decided to close it during the dispute. The York Street works manager had arranged to build up a large stock of gas during the previous few days, though this had meant getting his foremen to work for 16 or 20 hours shifting the coal into the retort houses when the yardmen and wheelers had walked out, and the works could produce no more until the situation returned to normal

But across in Hunslet that evening the situation was far from normal. Another major battle was going on in Meadow Lane. A crowd estimated at ten or fifteen thousand people had besieged the works, 'howling and hooting at the policemen in charge', and hurling bricks and bottles at them. At about half past ten the crowd succeeded in forcing the gates open. They surged inside. The police defending the site drew their batons and counter-attacked, driving them back out and securing the gates. The forty or fifty "strangers" who remained on site continued with their work, whilst the hundred police defending them bandaged their wounds and waited for the next assault. It did not come. By midnight the streets were empty again.

Many of those injured in the battle at New Wortley needed hospital treatment. The Yorkshire Post reporter wrote that "the Infirmary ambulance was several times telephoned for during the evening" which is a good deal more surprising to find in 1890 than it would be now. The telephone was still very much a new invention. The first ever telephone directory (for London, naturally) had been published just ten years before, listing 250 subscribers, and there were probably less than 250 telephones in Leeds in 1890. The industry was still in an experimental stage. Automatic switching wasn't even dreamt of. Nobody knew how many wires there should be to a telephone (two) or whether the battery should be at the telephone or the exchange (the latter) or even quite how the signals propagate along the wires (they are carried along by little goblins). Still, the gadget seemed to work somehow, and it proved very useful that night.

Not everyone caught up in the maelstrom of fighting had meant to be part of it. Alfred Warnes had a corn-dealing business in Wellington Street. When his gas-engine wouldn't start he went along to the works to see what was going on. He ended up at the Infirmary, where he told a reporter:

"I reached the works when the police arrived, and stood in the crowd. The policemen commenced to push the people back, but the crowd would not move, and the police began hitting anyone they could with their staves. They used their weapons freely upon anyone, women and children included. I was struck half a dozen times at least by the police, and my head was spilt open and my face was covered with blood. I was then taken by some one to the doctor's. I had nothing to do with the disturbance, and had not said or done anything."

The town was still without a gas supply. Even though town gas was normally distributed inside houses and factories at the astonishingly low pressure of around a tenth of a pound per square inch (atmospheric pressure is about 15 lb/sq.in.) the pressure in the pipes was by now too low to be useful. The lamp-lighters turned out at dusk as usual, but found that the streetlights could not be lit. Letters were sorted by candle light in the Post Office, and that night's Yorkshire Post was written by candle light. Very Dickensian, one might say - except that Dickens had gas light to work by - so, pre-Dickensian, then, and rather inconvenient for all concerned. The authorities wondered if the darkness might provoke a crime wave to add to their troubles, but fortunately it didn't happen.

So far, the only good news for the Gas Committee was that they no longer had the problem of how to transfer the excess workers from New Wortley to Meadow Lane. There were no longer any excess workers at New Wortley - they had all escaped. Many of them had spent the night at the Gasworkers' Union offices, and had then caught trains back to Manchester, with their tickets paid for by the union.

And a meeting of the South Ward Liberal Association held that night wished to

express its dissatisfaction at the action of Councillor Hunt in entertaining men brought into the town under false pretences to frustrate the efforts of our own townsmen in defending their own position from the unscrupulous actions of the Gas Committee.

Poor Councillor Hunt. He was only trying to help.


At two o'clock in the afternoon of the following day, the Town Council met as usual. Unusually, the Stipendiary Magistrate and the Vicar of Leeds chose to attend the meeting, and the public gallery was packed. The 23rd item on the agenda was "That the Council approve of the proceedings of the Gas Committee".

The Mayor rattled through the agenda at great speed, and the first 22 items were disposed of in just half an hour. But when it was time for the chairman of the Gas Committee - Alderman Gilston - to move his motion, he was not there. He had been delayed. It was decided to adjourn the meeting for an hour and a half in the hope that he would be free to attend at four o'clock. The Mayor knew where he was, but no-one else did.

Alderman Gilston finally arrived just before five o'clock. He told the Council that he did not propose to make more than a brief statement. His conscience was clear, and what he had done was in the discharge of what he believed to be a public duty. His Committee had done honestly the best thing possible under the circumstances. They were serving the public as best they could, and he wished all members of the Council would strive to do the same. ("Hear, hear.")

Then he explained what had been happening to delay him. That morning the Gas Committee had been visited by two gentlemen, Mr Beckworth and Colonel Harding, respectively the President and Vice-President of the Chamber of Commerce. They had been considering for some weeks the feasibility of setting up a Board of Conciliation to assist in the settlement of labour disputes, and it had occurred to them that although this Board did not yet exist, it might be a good idea to bring the two sides in the present dispute together and see if some agreement could be reached.

Mr Beckworth and Colonel Harding had visited the union offices to ask whether representatives of the men would be willing to meet the Committee "for the purpose of considering the condition of affairs with a view to bringing about an understanding which should be honourable alike to both sides and lasting in its results". The men said cautiously that they were "not indisposed" to meet the Committee, and so next Mr Beckworth and Colonel Harding came to ask the Committee whether they would have any objection to a meeting. They had no objection. The meeting between the two sides had been duly arranged for two o'clock that day at the Chamber of Commerce, and had ended a few minutes earlier. No agreement had been reached, but they intended to meet again in the morning.

Not all the Council members were prepared to let it go at that. Councillor Gordon led the attack. He moved an amendment that the Council "deeply regrets the arbitrary manner in which this Sub-Gas-Committee has carried on its relations with the Leeds gas stokers and expresses its entire disapproval of their actions up to noon today". (The Sub-Committee had been set up to handle the change in the employment contracts with the gas stokers.) Rather diffidently, the Mayor suggested that perhaps the Council should adjourn for 24 hours and see what settlement might be reached. Councillor Gordon was not falling for that one. He said the Gas Committee had "disgracefully mismanaged the matter", and he wanted to move his amendment. The Mayor was rescued by the Town Clerk, who pointed out that as a matter of strict law the Council could not discuss the actions of the Sub-Committee. Councillor Gordon wanted to discuss this. The Mayor said he couldn't. Councillor Gordon said that was exactly what he'd expected, that discussion would be smothered. He went on to move another resolution disapproving the appointment of the Sub-Committee, in the course of which he made it clear that he disapproved not so much of the dispute in itself, but of the clumsy way it had been handled. Eventually the Mayor politely asked again if this could not all be discussed on the following day, and although many on the Council wanted to see Alderman Gilston suffer, they reluctantly agreed to adjourn.


At Meadow Lane the "strangers" were at work. There were only about 40 of them left by this time, and although they were willing to do the job they had been hired for, the retort houses had cooled down so much that it was not actually possible to make gas. The retort-house furnaces were being fuelled again, but it would be some time before the gasworks was fully productive. During the evening more and more people joined the throng outside the gates and threw stones over the wall. Eventually, the police inside decided to disperse the mob. They threw open the gates and charged out, wielding their batons. The crowd retreated, but during the struggle one of the gates was ripped from the wall and carried off in triumph. The police later claimed to have recovered part of it.

The situation at New Wortley was slightly better. Here the 70 or 80 men - all that remained of the several hundred who had been escorted to the works the previous evening, and not really enough for the task - had been organised into three shifts and were being kept busy. The manager's house had been turned into an impromptu hospital for the wounded, and there was still a large police presence both inside and outside the yard, but the gasworks was beginning to function again. The crowd in the streets around the New Wortley works had not gone away. It was rumoured that they planned an invasion. The Chief Constable gave orders that his officers should be armed with cutlasses, and should meet force with force. As the crowd continued to grow, the police Superintendent sent for reinforcements. Fifty more constables arrived, and despite being pelted with stones they managed to push back the mob and erect barricades to clear the street.

The Mayor felt that the situation was slipping out of control. He had to act. Together with the Town Clerk he went by cab to Wellington Bridge, and having called for silence, he read the Riot Act:

"Our Sovereign Lady the Queen chargeth and commandeth all persons being assembled immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations or to their lawful business upon the pains contained in the Act made in the first year of the First King George for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God save the Queen."

Reading the Riot Act aloud was much more than symbolic. It was a clear legal warning that if anyone was still standing there one hour later, they would be shot. The Dragoons were summoned once again, but by the time they arrived the protesters were drifting away and going home.

It was frustrating for the Gas Committee that they had managed to keep so few of the men who had been imported with such great trouble. Some of the Committee reckoned that with another fifty men on site they could turn the situation around and force the stokers to submit to the new regulations. Actually getting them into the works might be rather difficult, of course, and the Chief Constable might not want to risk the lives of his men again, but maybe it would be worth a try. Other Committee members, however, could see that the fight was effectively over. They had lost. The only course left open to them now was to negotiate a settlement.

Alderman Gilston himself by this time had become almost universally hated. He had been under police protection since an unfortunate incident a couple of days before, when he had been surrounded in the street by a group of union sympathisers who had loudly pointed out the error of his ways. This drew a crowd, and the crowd attracted a policeman, and one thing led to another until the policeman drew his baton and started hitting people. The crowd threw missiles. Alderman Gilston scurried into the Liberal Club for safety. On the Wednesday morning a large crowd had assembled outside Gilston's bottle factory in Hunslet to make their views known to him once again, but the Leeds detective division had anticipated that something of the sort would happen. The Chairman's cab "was got to Victoria Square by a ruse", and the crowd was disappointed.

Thursday and Friday

Friday morning's Yorkshire Post brought news of how the London papers viewed the turbulent events of the past few days. They were scathing. The Daily News said that

The Corporation of Leeds have ... brought [the town] to the very verge of riot ... and their defeat will exasperate their friends even more than their foes ... they yielded to the besetting sin of weak men by being firm in the wrong place.

The Standard said

When the working classes once see that those who are charged with the responsibility of putting the law into force allow it to be broken with impunity, as if doubtful of their own power, we have nothing to expect but what has now occurred and what will assuredly occur again if similar irresolution is displayed.

The Yorkshire Post was equally bitter. The lead article began:

Leeds has in the last three days suffered severely but in reputation and purse. Portions of the town have more than once been practically in the hands of a mob - life has been endangered and property, public and private, destroyed ; scenes of disorder have been repeatedly witnessed, humiliating to every respectable citizen ; the civil power has had to call in the aid of the military to quell riot ; a long list of injured has been the result of contact between the elements of disorder and order ; money has been spent in thousands, and the bill is not yet settled, thousands of workpeople have been thrown out of employment, and all this for - nothing.

By then, everyone knew what had happened. The Gas Committee had met the stokers' representatives on Thursday morning to try to reach a settlement. Both sides had arrived at the Chamber of Commerce at ten o'clock, as agreed. Each side was shown into a separate room. Mr Beckworth and Colonel Harding acted as messengers, shuttling between them. By half-past twelve agreement was close and the Gas Committee moved into the Arbitration Room to join their employees and the union representatives. A few minutes later Mr Cockayne (the local secretary of the Gasworkers and General Labourers' Union) emerged and told the waiting press that they had come to terms which he felt satisfied would be accepted by the men.

Mr. Beckworth's statement amounted to the same thing, but took longer to say:

"The Gas Committee and the men's committee have met here today at ten o'clock along with myself and Colonel Harding. We have gone over again the questions in dispute, and have seen our way to a mutual arrangement upon the new rules. The men on their side have promised to recommend their fellow-workmen to accept the conditions which have been mutually agreed upon, and the Sub-Gas Committee have also agreed unanimously to recommend the Gas Committee, which meets at three o'clock today, to accept the same conditions."

Mr Cockayne and his members returned to the union offices in Kirkgate, where close to five hundred men were waiting to hear what kind of deal had been struck. They were told that the requirement to sign four-month contracts had been withdrawn, and replaced with the stipulation that each side should give 28 days notice, and also that the Gas Committee had agreed to pay the Good Friday wages that had been previously withheld. In other words, the Committee had surrendered completely.

As a face-saving gesture, the Committee had managed to extract a couple of small concessions. The future production target would be to carbonise 60 cwt. (3,050 kg) of coal per man per shift instead of 55 cwt. (2,800 kg). The men readily agreed to this. And second, the promised week's holiday (part of the settlement reached the previous October, and which none of the men had taken) would be reduced to four days - Christmas Day, Good Friday, Whit-Monday, and August Bank Holiday. This too was agreed.

The one remaining problem was the "strangers". The stokers were adamant that the replacement workers must all be gone before they would return to work. If they stayed, there would be bloodshed. This stipulation put the Gas Committee in rather a difficult position, because the new men had been persuaded to sign contracts of employment lasting three, six or in some cases twelve months. If they were fired after two or three days for no fault of their own, they would be able to claim wages for the whole period.

Mr Cockayne said breezily that he felt sure that the "strangers" would leave quietly if they were given their travelling expenses and a small gratuity, but then it wasn't his problem. The Gas Committee felt far from sure. What would happen if the "strangers" refused to leave? After some ineffectual wrangling, they decided to leave it to the Council to sort out.


The Council met on Thursday afternoon at four o'clock to resume the session they had adjourned the day before, and once again Alderman Gilston rose to speak. His self-confidence had clearly been shaken by the events of the morning, and this time he made no attempt to justify himself or his actions. He explained that an agreement had now been reached with the men, and praised the part played by Mr Beckworth and Colonel Harding. He claimed that the Committee had originally asked for the opinion of the men on the new regulations, and that when they had not replied, "we were forced in consequence of that silence to take the steps we have taken to prepare and prevent the town, I may say, being in darkness."

He then outlined the main points of the agreement, laying great stress on the reduction in paid holidays (and somehow not mentioning the missed payment for the previous Good Friday). On holidays, he said

... it is not unreasonable to point out it is somewhat of a hardship that men with perhaps no more than 15s., 16s., or 18s. a week, who have to pay gas bills, should have to pay for a holiday for men who are better paid than themselves.

He then explained that the Gas Committee had decided to leave the Council to resolve the question of what to do with the imported men.

Not surprisingly, the Council wanted to know the terms and conditions on which the men had been recruited. In particular, how many of them had been hired for twelve months? Alderman Gilston said doubtfully "that if necessary he could get the figures, though he was of opinion the information would not lighten the labours of the Council or lessen the difficulty to hand."

Councillor Harland rose to say that he was neither a lawyer, nor the son of a lawyer, but he was the father of one. (Laughter.) He knew of no law that would justify sending men away after being engaged for a fixed period without paying them for that period, and that the cost would be in the region of 5,000.

Alderman Ward, the ex-Mayor and a member of the Gas Committee, spoke of "the anxiety and difficulties that had been experienced by the members of that body during the past week in the discharge of very arduous duties", and with regard to the imported workmen "he believed and hoped that a scheme would be drawn up honourable and satisfactory to all parties". He did not offer any suggestions as to what form it might take.

In the end, the Council couldn't agree on what should be done, so they delegated the problem. They asked Mr Beckworth and Colonel Harding, together with Alderman Gilston and a couple of members of the Gas Committee, to come up with a solution.


Early the following morning Mr Beckworth and Colonel Harding went to the union offices to make quite sure that the stokers understood the terms of the settlement. Reassured, they went to sit in on the Gas Committee meeting, and shortly afterwards led a small delegation from the Committee to the Meadow Lane gasworks.

The men there knew that the dispute had been resolved and were busy discussing what compensation they should demand. Some felt that each man should be given 10 on top of the wages he had earned, whilst others argued that since some of them had been hired for twelve months it would be no more than fair to meet their employers half-way and ask for six months' wages. At the same time the police presence in the yard and the noisy crowd outside were a constant reminder of how precarious their position really was, and many of them just wanted to go home.

Mr Beckworth called the men together and addressed them. He explained the situation, and then proposed that each man should be given his railway fare home and a lump sum in compensation. Those who had been engaged for twelve months would receive 7 10s, those engaged for six months 5, and those who had no written agreement, 2 10s. The men broke into hearty cheering when they heard this offer, and it was immediately accepted. The delegation moved on to the New Wortley works, where the men were equally happy to accept Mr Beckworth's proposal, and then went back to the Town Hall to settle the final details. It seemed best to move all the men to Holbeck station, just a couple of hundred yards from the New Wortley gasworks, and put them on the five o'clock express to Manchester. Two 'large conveyances' were hired to transport the Meadow Lane men to the station.

the high-level station of Holbeck junction, 19th century

The delegation returned to the works and issued tickets and cash. Then amidst a strong police presence - including, this time, police on top of the railway bridge - the New Wortley men were marched to Holbeck station. The people watching them go were unsure whether to cheer or boo, so they did both. There was no stone-throwing. The Yorkshire Post reporter wrote,

At five o'clock the Lancashire and Yorkshire express for Manchester entered the station, the men took their seats in it, and a few minutes afterwards they left Leeds, cheering heartily and waving their hats as the train moved out of the station. There was general congratulation among the gentlemen left on the platform that the Leeds gas dispute had ended in such a peaceable manner.

An hour later, the evening shifts reported for duty at Meadow Lane and New Wortley as usual.


Will Thorne, the general secretary of the Gas Stokers and General Labourers' Union, went on to become an MP and a darling of the Bloomsbury set. Friedrich Engels even presented him with a copy of Marx's Das Kapital, inscribed "to the victor of the Leeds battle."

Colonel Harding became Lord Mayor of Leeds in 1898 and was largely responsible for the creation of City Square. He himself paid for the statue of the Black Prince.

My great-grandparents John and Annie Hearfield died in Holbeck a few years later, rather earlier than anyone would have wished. He was 48, and she was 49. Their daughter Maria married her tailor's cutter and the young couple set up home in Holbeck. After his parents died, my grandfather James, together with his two younger brothers, moved in with Maria and her husband.

Copyright John Hearfield 2006