Who Do You Think You Are?
‘Maria Was The Miners’ Heroine’
Richard Carr was delighted to discover that his 3x great grandmother struck a significant blow for the rights of coal miners in north-east England, says Gail Dixon
Richard Carr has vivid memories of the coal miners’ strike in the UK in the mid-1980s. “I grew up in a pit village in County Durham,” he reveals. “I remember food collections being held for the striking miners’ families, and throwing snowballs at the ‘scab buses’ that passed our school.”
Richard’s childhood experiences echo an earlier episode in his family history, when a Durham mining community became the epicentre of a fight against oppression. The story revolves around his 3x great grandparents Thomas Carr and Maria Young, who married in 1824. Thomas was a miner and worked at Friar’s Goose Colliery near Gateshead.
A year into his research into his tree, Richard ‘blitzed’ his ancestors’ names at the British Newspaper Archive website ( britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk).
“I was elated to discover that Maria played a key role in a major incident in the early days of the colliers’ union.” Her fame arose in 1832 following a dramatic event that became known as the Battle of Friar’s Goose.
Unrest had been growing for years in the mining communities of north-east England. Workers’ grievances centred mainly on pay, conditions and long shifts.
The owners of the collieries resented the burgeoning power of the unions, and refused to employ men who became members. Those who went on strike were starved into submission, and could be blacklisted by other collieries.
Also, many coal miners lived in tied cottages owned by their employers, which was part of the exploitative ‘bond’ system. If a man went on strike, he could be evicted to make way for a ‘blackleg’ worker. Entire families were made homeless.
In April 1832, a number of miners at Friar’s Goose refused to sign the bond and went on strike. The colliery owner recruited workers from Westmoreland, and ordered the striking miners to quit their homes by early May.
Thirty special constables were drafted in to force the evictions. But miners from other coalfields gathered and began hurling stones at the incoming strike-breakers.
The Carrs refused to leave the home they shared with their three children. “The constables tried to drag Maria out of the house. She said that she was ‘unwell’, and sat down. The officers had to carry her out on a chair, whereupon she perked up, removed a constable’s
cap, ‘Maria removed a constable’s air’ struck him and waved it in the
cap, struck him over the head and waved it in the air, shouting ‘The union forever!’ ”
Following Maria’s battle cry, a riot broke out and gunshots were fired by the constables. Over 40 arrests were made, including Maria who stood trial for riot and assault at the local assize court. She was acquitted, but other protesters were sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour.
“The Battle of Friar’s Goose was so important that it was commemorated in an etching, which shows Maria waving the constable’s cap in the air.
“Maria kickstarted a defining moment in the history of the miners’ union, which was in its infancy. This was the day that mine owners were finally served notice that the unfair system of bonding was unacceptable.”
The Carrs eventually settled 20 miles away in East Hetton, where fortunately Thomas found more work as a miner. Sadly Maria died aged 42 in 1845, after giving birth to her seventh child.
“I’d like to tell Maria how proud I am of her,” Richard says. “Of all the relatives I’ve found so far, she is my favourite.”