The Chartermasters

Most mine owners subcontracted the day-to-day running of the pits to ‘chartermasters’. Two chartermasters were usually employed underground, at each pit, to cover the day and night shifts and, sometimes to oversee coal and ironstone workings separately. Occasionally a third would be in charge of surface operations.

Many of the Madeley pits were known locally by the names of these contractors.

The chartermasters were not responsible for the infrastructure i.e. the winding and pumping plants and the sinking of shaft, but were contracted to supply labour, horses, tools and such items as candles and explosives and even the light beer, which, at one time, was sent down the pit at mid-day. They also organised the work and negotiated with the mine owners regarding rates of pay for the amount of coal produced.

They were also often the organisers of the ‘tommy’ or ‘lobby’ shop system whereby miners were paid, not in cash but in tokens which could only be exchanged for goods sold at the ’tommy’ or ‘lobby’ shops where were owned by the chartermasters. These goods were often of poor quality and sold at inflated prices. In 1842 when John Anstice gave evidence to the Midland Mining Commission which was investigating current unrest among West Midlands miners he told them that he would not allow chartermasters to serve concurrently as publicans and that he had no knowledge of the “evil system” of “tommy shops” in operation in the area. However, it is now known that, within just a hundred metres of one of the family homes (Bedlam Hall) part of an ancient half-timbered barn near the Bird in Hand public house was in use as just such an establishment.

A chartermaster often had a second role as a publican and sometimes insisted that miners collect their wages (either weekly or fortnightly) from his drinking establishment. He would then encourage them to spend as much as possible before leaving allowing little for them to take home. John Anstice did not permit his chartermasters to double up as publicans but doubtless some got round this ruling by taking out licences in the names of their wives.

The chartermasters were certainly a mixed bunch but the best were very knowledgeable. Although some became wealthy, many lived in houses little better than those of the men they controlled, as their contracts were very competitive. They had to bid against each other regularly and unsuccessful bidders soon returned to being ordinary miners or even shopkeepers or full-time smallholders. In Madeley, the more successful chartermasters seemed to come from ‘connected’ families and they all lived around the centre of the town. In the late 1800s at least five of them lived on Court Road or Court Street and a further five lived in Park Lane and Park Street, one section of which was known as ‘Chartermasters’ Row’. All were in close proximity to the Wesleyan Chapel often referred to as ‘the Chartermasters’ Chapel’.

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