PITY THE POOR BUTTYMAN: The Butty System in the Forest of Dean 1921-1938

It was a vicious and wholly corrupt affair. Under it, one man could exploit several of his mates. It was a paradise for back scratchers, but a wicked hardship for most colliers. The system was simple but very successful for the Coal Owners. One collier would be put in charge of several others. The Buttyman would be paid on a price list while the colliers working for him would only get the District Minimum.[1]

John Williams agent for the Forest of Dean Miners’ Association speaking about the butty system in 1961.


Recent years have seen the growth of sub-contracting, piece work, self-employment, daywork, zero-hour contracts, umbrella companies, minimum wages and the use of agencies in a range of British workplaces in the never-ending attempt by capitalism to reduce the cost of labour and increase productivity.

This is not new. The sub-contract or butty system of working existed in the British coal mining industry from the early nineteenth century onwards until its demise in the mid-twentieth century. In the Forest of Dean, the butty system operated in most of the deep mines from the early nineteenth century onwards until it was finally abolished at Eastern United colliery in 1938.

This is an account of the use of sub-contracting in the mining industry in the Forest of Dean from 1920 to 1938. It examines the impact of the system on workforce cohesion and solidarity and how it increased the rate of exploitation of the workforce to the benefit of the employers. Finally the pamphlet describes how the butty system was eventually brought to end by the miners themselves.

The first chapter will provide a brief outline of the contract system within a national context and highlight the variety arrangements.

The second chapter will give some historical background and outline how the butty system operated in the Forest of Dean coalfield in the 1920s and 1930s. The discussion will be illustrated by oral history statements in Forest dialect from a cross-section of Forest miners to reflect a range of views on the topic which reveal common features but also highlight complexity and contradictions.

The third chapter will describe how the butty system impacted the Forest of Dean Miners Association (FDMA) which was the trade union representing the Forest of Dean miners. The role of Herbert Booth who was the full-time agent for the FDMA from 1918-1922 will be discussed. Booth’s experiences on his return to his native Nottinghamshire coalfield will be contrasted with that of the Forest. Finally, it will describe the role of John Williams FDMA agent from 1922-1953 and the events surrounding the demise of the butty system at Eastern United in 1938.

Chapter One 

The Independent Collier

One of the consequences of investment by mining companies in deep mining in the nineteenth century was a large increase in the number of miners. However, there was a common perception among many historians that miners had now become wage labourers or ‘archetypical proletarians’. By this, they meant miners had turned into a uniform class of industrial wage earners with identical interests and status who, possessing neither capital nor production means, earned their living by selling their labour with little or no control over the day-to-day conditions of work.

Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, contrasts the `independent workman’, on the one side, and ‘the collier’ on the other. The former is represented by the figure of the weaver or the shoemaker, who may still have a property in loom or last, linen or leather. The latter owns nothing but his ability to work, an ability which is seen as being perfectly indistinguishable from that of the ‘common labourer’. If the collier is more highly paid, it is not because he has any skill but is entirely due to the greater hardship, dangerous and difficult conditions and inconstancy of employment which characterises his work.[2]

Miners were perceived as living in occupationally homogeneous communities, sharing common work experiences and pursuing a common interest. As a result, miners were believed to have developed strong solidarity in their conflicts with their employers who struggled to come up with strategies to undermine their demands for improved working conditions.

In 1978, Royden Harrison, Chris Fisher, and others from mining backgrounds challenged this view in their classic study of the nineteenth-century collier in the book the Independent Collier, The Coal Miner as an Archetypal Proletariat Reconsidered in which they explore, amongst other things, the butty or contract system of working in British coalfields in the nineteenth century.[3] 

In most districts in the British coal industry in the nineteenth and early twentieth there were large differentials between the various grades of workers employed in the collieries. The more experienced colliers or hewers who worked at the coal face extracting coal were highly skilled and were paid considerably more than most of the other workers in the mine.

A hewer or collier is a man who extracts coal from the coal face and up to the early to mid-twentieth century, this was done by hand using a pick axe and other hand tools. The normal procedure for hewers was to cut a slot in the base of the coal seam so that coal would drop, or be coerced into dropping down under gravity. The roof immediately above the coal was also liable to fall. Hewers, being in the vicinity of this activity, were often killed by accidental falls of coal or stone.

The hewing teams were paid by the ton of coal sent to the surface under a contract arranged with the colliery management. Timbermen and those involved with opening up roadways and other tasks were also normally paid piece rates under a contract system.[4] The differences between districts on how the earnings were shared out within the teams working on the contract depended on local custom and practice. How this was organised varied considerably from district to district and there was a spectrum of systems, some more egalitarian than others.  

Contract Teams

In some districts, the earnings were shared out equally between all the men in the contract team such as the marras system in Durham.[5] However, in other districts, a buttyman made a contract with the colliery owner and employed a team of day men and boys to carry out the work. Stephanie Tailby identifies three distinctive arrangements: [6]

The big butty system, whereby colliery owners sub-let the working of an entire pit or districts of a pit to a contractor or partnership of contractors.

The little butty system, whereby contracting colliers undertook to work a section of the coalface or a seam at piece rates and paid and supervised a team of men and boys.

An arrangement in which a collier or a pair of colliers working on piecework rates employed a day wage assistant, apprentice or boy.

Tailby has shown that there was a spectrum of systems ranging from those made up of large teams to those made up of one man and an assistant. However, the big butty system had mainly disappeared by the end of the nineteenth century, but the little butty system persisted in some districts into the 1920s and 1930s.

In some districts, such as the Midlands, a single contractor or buttyman might employ a large number of day men working a whole seam and he was viewed by the rest of the miners as very much part of the management hierarchy. This system was imported from the Midlands into the Kent coalfield in the 1920s and survived until the late 1930s.

The puffler system in Yorkshire was similar to the little butty system but, by the 1940s the system had changed so that the leader of the working group was paid an extra allowance by the colliery company rather than profits.[7] Whilst in other districts such as South Wales a pair of colliers might employ just one boy. It is unlikely that, even in the most equitable systems, the boys were paid as much as the men and it is possible there were differentials depending on age and experience. It was common practice in most district for colliers to employ a boy. By the mid-twentieth century in most districts, the butty system had collapsed, and earnings were shared out equally among the adults in the contract team.

Staffordshire Buttyman standing over his men. (Credit

Barry Johnson’s study of the Nottingham coalfield (Who Dips in the Tin? The Butty System in the Nottinghamshire Coalfield) and Robert Goffee’s study of the Kent coalfield (Incorporation and Conflict: A Case Study of Subcontracting in the Coal Industry) illustrate how the hierarchy and inequalities created by the butty system of working impacted on trade unionism by fragmenting the labour force and undermining solidarity.[8]

On the other hand, Dave Douglass’ study of the Durham Pitman has revealed how a unique and more democratic form of organisation within the contract system in the Durham coalfield created a strong sense of group solidarity and equality within small working groups.[9]

This article will attempt to build on these studies by an investigation into the butty system in the Forest of Dean coalfield from 1920-1938 and will explore the role of Forest of Dean miners as skilled artisans and small working masters.

Chapter Two 

Free Mining

About 6000 miners were working the deep pits owned by the large mining companies in the Forest of Dean in the 1920s. However, a small number of independent free miners worked small pits, usually drift mines, operated by just a few men as their ancestors had done for centuries.[10] Free mining rights had been claimed from ‘time immemorial’ by any miner born in the Forest of Dean who had worked a year and a day in a Forest pit. This right allowed any free miner to open a pit anywhere in the statutory Forest of Dean, provided he paid royalties to the Crown, the owner of the land.[11]

The early nineteenth century saw the penetration of, and transformation of, the old free mining coal industry by capitalists from beyond the borders of the Forest. In the years between 1790 and 1830 the mining industry in the Forest of Dean had passed, in the main, from the hands of a relatively large group of working proprietors of small-scale co-operative pits into those of a small group of men, mostly outside capitalists, who brought with them the steam engine, deep mining, railroads and iron furnaces. The rights of free miners were curtailed which meant that in 1838 the condition that free mining rights could only be claimed by a son of a free miner had been removed and mines could be bought and sold by outsiders. As a result, most of the inhabitants of the Forest were now dependent on the money they earned from wages or as contractors working in the new deep pits owned by the capitalists.[12]

Free mining continued, but by the 1920s the output of the free mines was small compared to the deep pits, although free mining remained an important part of Forest identity and culture. In his book, Custom, Work and Market Capitalism, The Forest of Dean Colliers, 1788-1888, Chris Fisher argues that the development of the butty system in the nineteenth century in the Forest had its roots in its tradition of free mining in which some colliers were able to retain some independence as contractors, small working masters and skilled artisans while others were reduced to wage labourers.[13]

In 1870, a government commission was appointed to see if the truck system was still operating in the British coalfields, in disregard of the Acts of Parliament prohibiting such a system. In the truck system  employers paid part or all of the wages in the form of credit notes which could then only be exchanged in the employer’s shops or pubs. During the investigation, it became clear that in some cases in the Forest of Dean, butties and mine owners were paying their men using credit notes for shops and pubs, some of which were owned by themselves or family members, and also paying their men in pubs they owned or managed.[14]  In 1886, Thomas Hale, a buttyman who worked in iron mines owned by the Crawshays, wrote in his diary:

When I was a lad working in the coal pits, the butties used to take us to some public house and cause us to spend some of our money that one had worked very hard for.[15]

In addition, the newspaper reports about the Commission revealed that in some pits the butties at Lightmoor and Trafalgar were employing up to 70 men. This meant that in some cases in the 1870s in the Forest of Dean, the buttymen were in control of whole seams or sections of the mine as they were in Nottingham and Derbyshire. In terms of social relations, there was a significant difference between these contractors and the little buttymen who may only employ one or two labourers.

Nineteenth century buttyman in the Forest of Dean. (Credit: The Gage Library, Dean Heritage Centre.)

Little Buttymen

However, by the twentieth century, there are no records of buttymen employing such a large number of workers. In the Forest of Dean, Chris Fisher characterised the Forest of Dean contractors as ‘little buttymen’ because they usually only employed a small number of men and boys.[16] The term butty system must, therefore, be used with considerable caution as its meaning varied from district to district, pit to pit and seam to seam and changed over time.

By the 1920s, most teams in the Forest of Dean consisted of a butty or a pair of butties with one or two day men and a boy, although some teams were larger and the system varied from pit to pit. In 1929 at Eastern United, the teams varied from about four men up to about nine men.[17] However, in other cases, a pair of buttymen may employ just one boy giving a spectrum of the second and third systems identified by Tailby. Alan Marfell, who worked at Trafalgar Colliery in the early 1920s, remembers:

Will Reed and Frank Arkell were the two buttymen and had several other men working for them, who were paid a daily wage. Any money earned over and above that was shared by the two buttymen. This system was used in all the house-coal collieries at the time.[18]

In the larger deep pits, the buttyman was allocated a ‘stall’ or section of the seam by the colliery. The stall was a rectangular area of coal to be extracted which the buttyman regarded as his ‘place’. Sometimes this ‘place’ was shared with one or two partners or butties. The rate the buttyman was paid per ton of coal extracted was negotiated with the colliery owner locally by the individual buttyman, with the support of the FDMA. The rate was dependent on the conditions at the face, the width and quality of the seam, systems of working and other factors such as faulting, the condition of the roof or floor, water, etc.[19]

Most other tasks in the pits were carried out by men or boys employed directly by the owners. They were paid a day rate and were often referred to as the company men. These included the banksmen, enginemen, blacksmiths, masons, carpenters, pump men, deputies, overmen and surface workers.[20] Also included were men and boys involved with the haulage of coal, maintenance of haulage roads, clearing roof falls, and attending to ventilation.[21]  In some circumstances, such as when the contract rate for a seam had yet to be agreed, the buttymen would work for an agreed standard day rate. However, the employers insisted on tonnage rates whenever possible, as they believed the buttymen and their teams would not work as hard without an incentive.


The degree of job control enjoyed by the buttyman was almost complete. The buttyman was autonomous in the organisation of his work tasks and responsible for all aspects of coal extraction with little external supervision. 

In the early 1920s, coal in the Forest of Dean was still extracted by hand and in most cases, the buttymen were directly involved with hewing coal themselves. The buttyman and his team performed the complete operation of coal extraction which included the undercutting of the seams and digging out the coal and filling the drams. They would also be involved in driving new roadways to transport coal and access the coalfaces creating new roads often using explosives and timbering also paid on piece rates. This was highly skilled work and based almost exclusively on knowledge gained through extensive experience in coal extraction in a range of geological conditions. Albert Meek explained:

Then you got rock road to drive and one thing and another; timbering – we were complete colliers we used to do the shot firing. They’ve got shot firing separate these days. We used to do all the timbering and we used to do everything that you could call a collier. You had to be complete colliers at that time.[22]

Since the buttyman was almost in complete control of the labour process and his remuneration was dependent on the amount of coal sent to the surface, he had the power and incentive to make sure his team was fully employed and worked hard throughout the shift which sometimes could lead to bullying and exploitation.

Since the buttymen were paid on piece rates and acted as supervisors, there was no need for micro-management of the teams working deep in the mine. In addition, the buttymen employed their day men, so the colliery owners had no employment obligations such as supervision and the hiring and firing of labourers.  At the same time, the colliery owners received their profits while objurgating responsibility for organising the hewing process and the disciplining of the workers.

However, there was some oversight by underground officials directly employed by the colliery company. The deputies were charged with the supervision of safety, the ventilation of the workings, the inspection of timber work, etc. The deputies were responsible to the overman who was in charge of all the workings and was directly responsible to management. In addition, the daymen were listed on the company books and so colliery owners could be held responsible in the case of accidents and the colliery owners were obliged to pay compensation in the cases of death or injury. This could mean there was no deterrent for the buttymen to take risks.

Bert Bowdler and his assistant undercutting a twenty-inch seam of coal by hand at Lightmoor colliery (Credit: Photo by A B Clifford held by Dean Heritage Centre)

Price Lists

In the majority of pits, an agreement between the FDMA and colliery owners included a detailed price list that listed the tonnage rates for coal produced and a piecework rate for a whole range of other jobs such as road ripping (paid by the yard), installing and repairing timberwork and associated work such as clearing dirt, which was not directly productive.[23]

The price lists were regularly reviewed by the colliery management usually by negotiation with the FDMA and the buttymen. These negotiations took place all the time and often on the spot. If the issue was not resolved the team could down tools leading to a strike involving the whole pit. This was the case in 1909 when six buttymen came out in a dispute over the cutting of a pillar of coal at Flour Mill colliery. When the owners sacked the buttymen, the rest of the 700 men also came out on strike in support. As a result, the owners threatened to close down the pit. However, the men returned to work after two weeks when concessions were made on both sides.[24]

Other tasks such as road ripping and timbering were carried out by individuals working on their own or in pairs but usually still on piece rates. These men were either employed directly by the colliery or by a buttyman as part of his team. At the time of the 1926 Lock Out, a Cinderford miner explained in a letter to the Gloucester Citizen how the butty system operated:

According to the agreement, every collier knows that there is what is known as a basic rate for cutting coal, timbering, etc. This varies according to the seam of coal worked, for instance: the ” Starkey ” vein of coal, which is from 12 inches to 14 inches thick, has the highest price per ton, namely 3s. 9d., plus a percentage, which in any case would not be more than 7s 6d at the rate paid before the stoppage.

The basic rate paid for making a road 10 feet wide by 7 feet high is 10s. per yard, plus of course 80 per cent according to the new terms in this seam. The roof to be taken down would be 5ft. 6in in thickness and 9ft. in width, and if any timber were required the price per pair would be 1s. 9d. plus, of course, percentage, and 2s. 6d. for partong caps, that is timber where two roads are separating.[25]

Trade Unionism

The butty system created divisions within the workforce which impacted the development of the FDMA and its relationship with the colliery owners. The divisions were not only between the buttymen and their daymen but also between the buttymen themselves as they competed for the best workplaces or stalls. This could lead to victimisation or favouritism because some stalls were more difficult to work than others because of water, faulting, soft roofs, etc. At the same time, the buttymen were aware that an experienced day man could always step in to take their place during a dispute with the owners.

In other districts such as Durham, these problems were overcome by the cavilling system where places were allocated afresh by drawing lots every quarter.[26] In contrast, at Lightmoor, a Forest house coal colliery, a buttyman could work the same area of the colliery for many years and the places or roads were often named after him. Harry Barton, whose father and grandfather were buttymen, remembers working for his father at Lightmoor:

This road was nearly a mile long from the main road which we called ‘Barton’s Road’. My grandfather and father worked that road. The next road below was 30 yards on down, then there was another road which was called ‘Morse’s Road’, that meant, you were from Ruspidge. On a little bit further was ‘Woolford’s Road’.[27]

Most Forest buttymen identified with the principles of trade unionism and often were active members of the FDMA who supported them in their conflicts and negotiations with the colliery owners. In particular, it was important that the buttymen did not compete with each other for contracts or undermine each other by offering low contract rates. The FDMA was involved in most negotiations to prevent this from happening. In fact, up to the 1920s, the FDMA was effectively a buttyman’s union and most disputes were driven purely by buttymen’s concerns, such as price list and tonnage rates, the condition of the seams, water in the pit,  the extra allowances for dead work, conflict over dirt in the coal and so forth.[28] In the early 1920s, the majority of the FDMA Executive committee were still buttymen or checkweighmen.


Coal hewed by the buttyman and his team was sent to the pit head in marked drams and then weighed by the employers’ weighmen and also by the FDMA checkweighman. The checkweighman was elected or appointed by the miners or buttymen to verify the findings of the colliery owner’s weighman. Therefore, a checkweighman had to be someone whom the men trusted and he often became the FDMA representative at the pit and was often called upon to resolve disputes over tonnage rates.

One example was Jesse Hodges (1880 – 1964) who was born in Nailbridge, near Cinderford. He started work in an iron mine as a boy and then moved to Crump Meadow colliery where he worked his way up to be a buttyman, employing his son, Jesse Hodges (Jnr), as a labourer and hodder. Jesse Hodges (Snr) was then elected to the post of checkweighman and represented Crump Meadow on the FDMA Executive during the lockouts of 1921 and 1926.

One of the problems for the FDMA was that the checkweighmen were also accountable to the buttymen and as a result, this could divide loyalties in cases of disputes between the buttymen and their day men. As far back as the mid-nineteenth century, there was discontent and conflict over the butty system in the Forest of Dean particularly as it encouraged exploitation and division to the advantage of the colliery owners.

For example, soon after Neddy Rymer was appointed as the full-time agent for the FDMA in 1882 he started a campaign in favour of the buttymen getting paid for work in abnormal places or difficult conditions where it was harder to get the coal, which was not unusual in the Forest of Dean coalfield. The problem was that the buttymen, who were being paid by the ton, could sometimes receive little or no payment for a day’s work while at the same time having to pay their day men. It would not be until 1912 after a national strike that the miners would receive a guaranteed minimum wage. Rymer also argued that the buttymen should end the practice of undercutting each other and taking each other’s workplaces.

However, Rymer soon fell out with some of the more powerful buttymen and checkweighmen at Lightmoor and Trafalgar collieries over his demands that checkweighmen be elected by all the colliers of whatever status rather than appointed by the senior buttymen. He also argued that the daymen should be paid weekly and not in pubs. The issue of weekly pay was contentious because it would mean that the owners and the buttymen would need to agree on details of work done every week including measuring up the yardage for timbering and road ripping as well as the total tonnage of coal mined.[29] The question of how checkweighmen were appointed or elected continued to be a controversial issue up to the 1920s.

Bob Nailing

While the buttymen had a high degree of control over the work process, the day men were reduced to casual day wage workers subject to the whims of the market, the colliery owners and the buttymen themselves. In addition, in the 1920s and 1930s, miners were periodically laid off or were just getting only two or three days of work a week.

You had to listen for the hooter every night and every pit had its hooter and everybody knew their own pit’s sound of hooter. And if there was no work the next day, they would give loud blasts on the hooter for minutes on end – no work tomorrow … that was called a play day.[30]

In periods when the trade was slack, there always was a temptation for the buttymen to take most of the work for themselves and the day men were the first to be laid off. In the Forest, this was called ‘bob nailing’. The depression in the coal trade lasted throughout the 1920s and 1930s and often the buttyman and his team could only work part-time:

In the 1930s unemployment in the Forest of Dean was sometimes over fifty per cent. Bream miners used to hang out by the hard luck tree waiting to see if there was work the next day.

The hard-up tree is next to Bream cross on the right of the picture. Men would gather at the tree to wait for the hooter at the Princess Royal Colliery. If the hooter sounded, it meant that there would be work the next day but if the hooter did not sound the men would remain at the tree and stay hard-up. The tree no longer exists. (Credit:

The hard-up tree is next to Bream cross on the right of the picture. Men would gather at the tree to wait for the hooter at the Princess Royal Colliery. If the hooter sounded, it meant that there would be work the next day but if the hooter did not sound the men would remain at the tree and stay hard-up. The tree no longer exists. (Credit:

If there was work, the buttymen were obliged to pay the minimum rate plus any percentage addition for each category of worker. The actual difference between the earnings of a skilled day rate hewer and a buttyman is difficult to ascertain but in the Forest of Dean in the 1920s and 1930s, both were often working for little above the minimum rates. One estimate for this period gives the buttymen receiving on average 5s to 10s more a week than the hewers he employed.[31] Although in some cases and at times the difference in pay may have been considerably more than this. One of the factors affecting the earnings of the buttymen was the type of working system used and the number of men and boys in his team.

Systems of Work

The pillar and stall system was used on the thicker steam coal seams found at a deep depth such as the Coleford High Delf vein. In this system, the stalls were about 3-5 yds wide and the seams were up to about 2 yds in depth. Pillars of coal were left behind to support the roof as the seam moved forward and then usually removed at a later stage. The thickness of the seam gave sufficient height for the trams to be brought practically right up to the face where they could be loaded with coal and taken by the trammer to the main road.[32]

The buttymen often worked in a partnership of two or three men (butties) to cover two or three shifts in the same stall and with just one day man on each shift and usually a boy working as a trammer and labourer. Forest miner Len Biddington described the system:

There’d be three butty men, one for mornings, one for evenings and another for nights, for each stall and two men at a stall. The butty man would have a man he’d pay day wages, the butty men were paid on the coal and the yardage and all the overplus would be shared out between the dree butty men.[33]

The longwall system of working was used in the house coal collieries on the upper, thinner house coal seams. This system of extracting coal involved driving two advance tunnels or headings about 100 yds to 120 yds apart and extracting the coal from between the two headings. The width of the stalls or sections of the seam to be worked by each team was could vary from about 15 to 40 yds. Rubbish was thrown into the gob which was the empty waste area back behind the face, which was allowed to gradually collapse in a controlled manner as the face advanced.[34] Alan Marfell described the technique at Trafalgar colliery in the 1920s:

Sometimes the seam was only eighteen inches high (or even less) to work under. You had to learn how to work under that height, how to lie out to use a pick, how to use a sledge for driving a wedge to bring the coal down after undercutting, and how to use a shovel to put your undercutting in the ‘gob’ behind you.[35]

The thinness of the seams meant that teenage hodders were employed to drag the coal out from the face under a roof, which sometimes was only about 18 inches high, and then along a small trolley or hod road to a larger road that ran parallel to the face.

The system usually required more day men including at least two hewers, hodders and possibly a trammer or filler on each shift, although in some instances two butties would work with one hodder. In 1922, J W F Rowe described the Forest of Dean longwall system in this way:

The stalls usually extend 15 to 20 yards each side of the ‘trolley’ road, or gateway leading back to the main road. In each stall, there are two, three, or four hewers, who do all the work at the face. When the coal is broken out, it is collected by a ‘hod boy’. The trolley road is often very low as it nears the face, and the hod boy may have to take his hod a considerable number of yards down the trolley road before emptying it into the trolley. When it is full the trolley is pushed by hand back to the main road, and then it is emptied into a tram or large truck, which is taken by horses to the shaft. The tram is loaded by a filler, and the hand-putting of the trolley may be done either by him or by the hod boy. The hod holds about two scuttles-full, the trolley about 8 to 10 hundredweights, and the tram anything from 20 to 30 hundredweights …. Two of the hewers or sometimes three, share equally, and employ other men at the face, together with the hod boy and, the filler, all on day rates.[36]

The buttymen and the hewers were regarded as the elite of the workforce but they worked in the most difficult and dangerous conditions and this was particularly so for those working the thin seams in the house coal pits. Life for the day wage hewer was hard but an inspection of inquest reports into deaths in Forest mines reveals that most buttymen were also directly involved in the physical work on the coalface. According to Jesse Hodges (Jnr), who worked for his father who was a buttyman, the work in the house coal collieries was particularly hard:

You had to lie on your side, you dragged on your side in a way or on your belly, to get the coal out. I’ve seen men, “Mollie” Morris he was a great big man, he used to work in thirteen inches, he used to squeeze his stomach right in. He worked on his side and it was wet, water coming down all the time in that seam, and you dragged yourself in and you dragged yourself out and men worked in that. They lay on their sides to work, hauling the coal out. There was hardly any room to use your pick … And that’s how that was done. That’s what I said, we were animals. We were classed as animals and treated as such. They were bad old bosses in those days. They were the boss and you had to beg for bread.[37]

Forest miner, Eric Warren, described the difference between the men working on the face in the house coal and steam coal pits:

You could always tell a house coal collier from a steam coal collier. The house coal collier was thicker in the shoulder. He had to lie on his back to work. He did everything from that position. There wasn’t a tougher man in Britain than the house coal collier, he worked hard, played hard and drank hard.[38]


Hodding was used in the house coal pits to transport coal from the coal face to the drams in a hod which was a large wooden box on skids.[39] Most of the hodders were teenage boys and in the 1920s they would start on about 20d a day, but their pay would improve with their ability skill and age. Those who volunteered may have preferred hodding to other jobs such as working on the screens, or ‘road zwippin’ where they would only get 10d a day. In addition, hodding provided an opportunity to learn the skills of a hewer and the status involved.

Bill James of Cinderford demonstrating hodding at Lightmoor. (Credit: (Credit: Photo by A B Clifford held by Dean Heritage Centre)


Hodders had to drag the hod along by hand and knees using a chain attached to a leather harness that ran between their legs and over their shoulders. Some of the seams were only about 12 to 18 inches high, so the work often resulted in injuries to their back, knees and private parts.[40] Fred Warren started work as a hodder at Foxes Bridge Colliery in 1913 and described his first day at work as follows:

Oh, I d’ aim I was 14 or more, just about 14, because we had to go up to the pit in the morning, stand by the cabins and see all the men go down and if there were two butties on there and they hadn’t got nurn a boy, they would come out and look around at you. You were like cattle in a market. They would look at you and if your backside did stick out a bit, they did say “he might be able to do a bit of hodding”.[41]

Similarly, Albert Meek who was born in 1898 and started work at Crump Meadow in 1911 said:

You’d cry all day and you would cry all night. You would get sore shoulders; you would get sore knees. And you would say to your parents “what would you do for my sore knees?” “Put them in the jerry!”[42]

In 1983, Harry Roberts provided an account of his first day working as a 14-year-old hodder for a pair of buttymen at New Fancy, a house coal colliery, in 1928.[43]

My ‘Butties’ were looking for me and I was looking for them. A voice said, “Bist thy name Roberts?” and I said, “Oy it is”, then another voice said, “we be thy Butties let’s go to work”. The eldest was Car short for Cornelius and his brother was Charlie, this was their introduction.

My memory of the events of 1928- 1930 remain indelible, I still see my two Butties with their blue-tinged scars puffing and wheezing to get their breath, the trilby hat of Cornelius, the tattered cap of Charlie, and the voice of one or the other saying, “Come on old Butt we be waiting for thee and thy ‘odd”. There ‘Car’ chiding God because handling extra dirt was losing us money.[44]

Harry Roberts points out that the brothers were constantly being taken advantage of by the owners of the colliery and work was often held up and earnings lost because of a shortage of drams or timber. In some cases, the management adjusted the price lists so that the rates earned from piece work were only marginally above the statutory minimum day rates, the coal sometimes was rejected because it had too much dirt or small coal in it or mistakes were made in checking the number of drams at the pit head.

The Hod Boy is by John Wakefield and is situated between Soudley and Ruspidge. It was inspired by Erik Warren, Fred Warren’s son who was the last hod boy at Lightmoor Colliery who started work at the age of 13. (Credit: Ian Wright.)

The dangers of making generalisations about the hierarchy of exploitation of the contract system within the Forest coalfield or elsewhere is illustrated here when Harry Roberts expresses some affection towards his old ‘butties’. The case illustrates that in some cases the difference in status and earnings between Cornelius and Charlie and that of a skilled day wage hewer were probably marginal. Harry Roberts remembers:

The Butty system of getting coal was mainly a piecework system, and the two brothers were to be paid just over 18.5d a ton for the winning and loading, the average capacity of each tram being 1.25 tons. …. Sometimes we had an extra day’s pay at the end of the week due to increased tonnage then the job was re-priced, it fell from 18.5d decreasing four times in six months to about 14d a ton for cutting and loading and because of it we could not get our money so the Company was obliged to make it up to the statutory amount.

On Fridays there were arguments at the pay office where men having kept account of their drams sent up during the week found they were short and consequently the tonnage was down, most miners lost two or three like this so the little extra they worked so hard for they didn’t get in spite of the ‘checking’ by the checkweighman, and the miners considered the ‘lost’ tonnage was stolen from them.[45]

While working for the brothers, Harry Roberts got to know Mr Parker and his son and son-in-law who were being paid by the cubic yard to drive a new horse road using explosives. Mr Parker occasionally employed an old collier to help him and one day he spoke with Harry Roberts:

“Bist thou the boy ‘oddin ‘fer them Evans’s?” I assured him I was and he replied, “Then thou bist lucky, I done ‘oddin’ when I was thy age fer 6d a day, and 10 ‘owers on’t, and we didn’t ave such a good odd strap as thee, I ad one around the waist with a chain at the back o’nt and it pulled thee spine and crippled some of the boys, and thou’s get paid vower bob  per day fer only 8 hours.”

I told him things had improved in the last 50 years.[46]

However, conditions were still poor at New Fancy where hodders working the Brazzilly seam sometimes had to work in up to two-foot of water in a three-foot space. Mr Parker’s son worked there for a while and when Harry Roberts returned eighteen months after leaving the pit, he discovered the boy had died of rheumatic fever.[47] The use of teenage boys to work in these conditions was perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the butty system.

Fathers and Sons

Attitudes towards the buttymen differed. Some viewed them as exploiters and others viewed them as highly skilled men who deserved to be paid more for their extra responsibilities and skill than the less experienced and often younger daymen. Molly Curtis, born in 1912, remembers that her father who was a buttyman earned more than the daymen but complained about his responsibilities:

They used to have “places” and then they had to share out the money and dad used to say “Oh, ‘I hate it on a Friday when I can’t give those men as much as I feel they earned ‘…….Dad was the keeper of the place, you know it was his “place”. He had a lot of responsibilities, you know, and sometimes he used to say if he couldn’t get enough coal out, then he used to have to go back grovelling to the manager and they didn’t like grovelling.[48]

It was quite usual for young boys to start their mining career working for their fathers and often hewing teams were made up of fathers, brothers and sons. It was likely that many young skilled miners aspired to follow in the footsteps of their fathers to become their own working masters with their own stalls or section of seam to work. Harry Barton started work for his father just before World War One. After serving in the military he returned to the pit and later became an active member of the FDMA and a member of the Communist Party:

Now when I was about 17 my grandfather, who was a ‘Butty-man’ with my father, he retired when he got old, he got the coal dust on his lungs. And father said to me one day he was going to take me in with him as a ‘butty’, so I was a butty. That was all right by me because we paid the men who were working for us and we shared the money out between us afterwards. I used to work it out what the men’s wages were who were working for us. And I used to work it out on paper the night before, on the Thursday night. Well, when we were at work the next day I would go to the main office after we came out of the pit and draw the money out from there. I’d put it down on paper what these men were due to be paid out of the money I had picked up. Whatever was left over I shared between my father and me, that was the butty system.[49]

Hierarchy of wealth

The butty system created inequality in earnings and status. The buttymen were usually respected members of their community with the status and authority of highly skilled artisans.  Some miners, particularly the buttymen, owned more than one house and maybe managed or owned a pub or a shop and some land, while the daymen were more likely to be tenants or lodgers with no other extra means of support. In fact, there was a long tradition of buttymen owning or managing pubs in the Forest.  Harry Barton was born in Kings Head Hotel in Cinderford which was managed for about six years by his father who worked as a buttyman at Lightmoor colliery.

As a result of the hierarchy of wealth and status among the miners themselves, there were significant differences in levels of poverty within the community.  Winifred Foley in her account of a 1920s childhood in the Forest of Dean recalls:

The women from the better-off end of the village and a sprinkling of the husbands were regular chapel-goers. Not so the other end. All too often the poorer women ‘hadn’t a rag to their backs good enough for chapel!’[50]

However, when it came to big industrial disputes which threatened the whole mining community, the buttymen and the daymen usually stuck together. The Forest miners remained solid throughout the three months 1921 lockout, though later in the 1926 strike this united front would begin to falter.


In the late 1920s and 1930s, some colliery companies in the Forest of Dean introduced mechanical coal-cutting to undercut the coal and conveyors were installed to transport the coal from the face.  Coal-cutting machines were principally adapted for longwall applications and so were only used in the districts of a colliery where the geological conditions and depth of the seam allowed the machinery to be used to cut a continuous length of working face. Consequently, the mechanisation process was slow and uneven, but in time the old pillar and stall method of coal extraction was gradually displaced.

In the Forest of Dean, there is a report of New Fancy colliery installing compressed-air powered cutters in 1884, probably the first in the West of England, and then in 1914 they installed electric plant for pumping, haulage, and coal cutting.[51] However, given the geological conditions at New Fancy, the general lack of investment in the pit and the novelty of the technology, it was it is unlikely mechanical cutting was used extensively.

In 1911, Cannop drift pit was using two compressed air coal cutting machines.[52] In the early 1920s, Norchard experimented with an electric coal cutter but had limited success.[53] Dave Tuffley has revealed that on 4 April 1922, Thomas Macey, age 43, died after a coal cutter severed his right foot at Princess Royal colliery. However, Graham Field claims it was not until 1935 that mechanical cutters were widely used at  Princess Royal.[54]

In September 1927 John Harper, the checkweighman and FDMA representative at Waterloo, reported to the FDMA Executive that the Waterloo pit committee had just negotiated a new price list for conveyor work. The agreed rate for workers on the conveyor was 1s 10d a ton.[55]  By 1928 Waterloo colliery was completely electrified in 1928 with mechanical coal cutters and conveyor belts also being installed. This enabled the Coleford Highdelf steam coal seam which was 4 ft 6 inches thick to be undercut by electric coal cutters along a longwall face varying from sixty to one hundred yards in length and then loaded onto conveyors.[56]

There is a reference to Lightmoor colliery buying coal cutters in May 1928 and the photo below shows a coal cutter and a team of colliers using it on one of the thinner house coal seams at Lightmoor.[57]  In 1935 only one coal cutter was being used at Northern United but the Crawshay Board  planned to buy two more to operastional by 1936.

Miners at Lightmoor colliery in 1935 with Bert Bowdler sitting on the coal cutting machine smoking. (Credit: Photo by A B Clifford held by Dean Heritage Centre)

A regional survey by the Ministry of Fuel & Power found that in 1930 only two Forest mines used mechanical coal cutters with a total of five machines cutting 41,598 tons. This was a mere one-thirtieth of Forest’s total coal output of 1,303,000 in 1930.[58] Eastern United did not introduce its first coal-cutting machine until February 1939.

It is possible that in some pits the butty system continued to be used after mechanisation and there is no reason to assume buttymen could not supervise the use of machinery. However, the novel and expensive machinery was owned by the colliery and so the supervision and oversight of the work of the colliers and the new equipment became increasingly under the control of the underground officials.

In addition, the introduction of mechanisation meant a revision of the price lists which then provided an opportunity to restructure how the work was supervised. Therefore, one consequence of mechanisation was the gradual centralisation of managerial control and the diminution of the buttyman’s authority.

Although mechanisation undermined the butty system, the slow pace of its introduction during the 1920s and 1930s in the Forest cannot fully explain the decline of the butty system during this period. In general, the end of the butty system in the Forest of Dean preceded widescale mechanisation and its demise appears to have been, at least in part, a result of opposition from within the mining community itself. 

Chapter Three

The campaign to end the butty system in the Forest of Dean

Herbert Booth

The most influential person in the FDMA was the full-time paid agent who was responsible for all the main tasks carried out by the union. George Rowlinson was the full-time agent from 1886 to 1918. He worked closely with the checkweighmen and buttymen who dominated the FDMA Executive during his years in office. However, in March 1918 Rowlinson was voted out of office by the FDMA membership and Herbert Booth was elected to take his place.[59]

During his election campaign, Booth was vocal about his opposition to the butty system. This was based on his experiences campaigning against the butty system while working in his native Nottinghamshire where he ran into conflict with moderates in the Nottingham Miners’ Association (NMA) who supported the butty system and included its President George Spencer who was General Secretary of the NMA from 1918-1926.[60] In Nottinghamshire, the buttymen employed larger teams working longer sections of seams compared to the ‘little buttymen’ of the  Forest of Dean and they wielded considerable power. Booth said in 1924:

By 1916 the rumblings of dissent were to be heard on every hand. As yet no organisation appeared to fight the evils which corrupted the working life of the miner. Appeals to the Association were of no avail. The Council meetings were still made up of butty delegates and checkweighers, the branch committees were strongholds of the system. The opposition took the form of an unofficial movement.[61]

Booth was also aware of how the buttymen used a variety of tactics to increase the pace of work such as the use of a monkey butty which was a day man paid a few extra pence to set the pace of work.

The butty often had little need to set the pace himself, rather it could be set by a monkey butty.[62]

Divisions within the NMA continued but in 1918 a younger generation of activists led by men like Booth was successful in persuading the NMA to reach an agreement with the colliery owners on the introduction of an ‘all-throw-in’ system, under which all adult workers in a team would share their earnings equally. At some pits, however, where the buttymen were prominent in the NMA lodges, the agreement was not implemented or was implemented only for a short time.[63]

After arriving in the Forest in 1918, Booth started to build up a network of younger day-wage miners and encouraged them to get take on roles within the FDMA. He even persuaded the FDMA  to sponsor a couple of young miners to attend the Central Labour College in London.[64] However, during the 1921 lockout, the whole mining community had to unite to fight a determined battle against the imposition of huge wage cuts and the possibility of pit closures.[65] Therefore, the issue of differentials and inequalities among working miners was put on hold.

In March 1921, the government passed the wartime control of the collieries back to their owners who then announced a reduction of wages which in the Forest of Dean amounted to about fifty per cent. The miners across the country refused to accept this and, as a result, were locked out. They were forced to return to work in July 1921, defeated and demoralised.

After coming to terms with the devastating impact of defeat following the lockout many miners, including some buttymen, in the Forest found themselves working for minimum rates and discontent with the butty system grew.

The 1921 Agreement

An agreement reached between the Miners Federation of Great Britain and the colliery owners in July 1921 provided a new principle for the determination of earnings. The terms of the National Wages Agreement of 1921 laid the foundations for wage structures in the industry until the Second World War.[66]

The 1921 agreement provided for a minimum wage determined locally and based on earnings received in 1914 in that particular district for the different categories of day workers, giving a minimum wage for a hewer in the Forest of Dean in December 1921 of 7s 5d. This rate was considerably lower than in most other districts. In contrast, the rate for a skilled hewer in Nottinghamshire in August 1922 was approximately 11s a shift.[67] Percentage additions were added to the minimum wage depending on the profitability of all the mines in the district, established by a joint audit every three months.

The majority of the miners, including those employed by the buttymen, were paid day rates down to this guaranteed minimum plus the percentage. The buttymen were also paid the minimum day rate plus the percentage if their piecework earnings fell below this minimum. This could be the case if the team was working in abnormal places.

However, the day wage for the craftsmen, general labourers surface workers was considerably lower than for the hewers. In December 1921, the minimum day rate for John Ballinger, an adult surface worker at Princess Royal colliery, was 4s 10d.[68]  In 1922, at the age of 14, Percy Bassett started on the screens at New Fancy colliery and was paid 9d a day. He then worked as a hodder at 11d a day before being promoted to work on the pumps at 2s 6d a day.[69]

As in the case of the day rates, the 1921 agreement linked the piecework rates (base rates) to the wages paid in 1914 plus a percentage addition depending on an audit of the profitability of all the mines in the district. The piecework base rates diverged considerably between different areas, pits and coal seams, depending on local conditions and negotiations. New piecework rates were settled when new conditions arose or new seams or faces opened up. In the Forest of Dean, in the 1920s and 1930s, the profitability of the collieries was low and consequently so were the percentage additions.[70]

This meant that for periods many miners in the Forest, including at times the buttymen, were working for the statutory minimum day rates. Forest miner, Eric Warren, explained the system thus:

Two butty men would take the main headings and two butty men would take the stalls off the main heading. The butty men were paid so much for coal got out and so much per yard for rippin’ the roadways and they were responsible for payin’ the men. The minimum wage was seven and fivepence per day, less stoppages and the butty men would share out. If not enough coal was got, the company guaranteed the butty men seven and five pence per day.[71]

The Miners Annual Demonstration day at Speech House in July 1921. Top row fourth from left is Herbert Booth. Front row second from left is James Wignall M.P., third from left is Ernest Bevin and fourth from left is David Organ. (Credit: David M. Organ, the grandson of David Organ and


At the beginning of 1922, with the FDMA still in disarray, Booth handed in his notice and returned to Nottinghamshire. The Nottingham miners were not so severely hit by the defeat compared to other areas as they were able to negotiate better terms because of higher productivity. However, they were very demoralised, and this allowed the colliery owners to extend the butty system and introduce company unionism.

Booth got a job as checkweighman at Annesley colliery and found out that the butty system in Nottingham had started to re-establish itself and “the proportion of daymen to butties was now any number from one to twenty”.[72] In other words, the buttymen were employing teams of up to twenty men and boys which was significantly different from the Forest of Dean. He also discovered:

the lodge or branch committees were almost exclusively made up of buttymen’s interests, all the union’s activities bore the impress of their aspirations. and office on a branch committee went hand in hand.[73]

The buttymen often employed large numbers of daymen and sometimes did little work in the pit themselves. Tom Mosley, writing of his pit, reported:

before the stoppage of 1921, Gedling was one of the best-organised collieries in Notts. Of three thousand men who worked at this pit a relative few were non-members of the NMA. After the 1921 debacle, no colliery suffered more from disorganisation and demoralisation. Many and varied factors brought this about … (including) a return of a vicious form of bullying … while after the return to work the branch committee was dominated by a ‘caucus club’ that … stood for a positively immoral system of “sub-contracting” which meant a few exploiting the many.[74]

Despite this, the left still had a strong presence within the NMA and had its organisational base around Mansfield. However, the butties had their organisation as well and with the backing of the colliery owners met with a measure of success in re-establishing the butty system. It was this which allowed Spencer to form a nucleus of miners who would become a base for a non-political company union that would oppose strikes and consolidate the butty system.

When the inevitable conflict over wage reductions came in 1926, Spencer made it clear he was against any stoppage. The General Strike started on 1 May 1926 but only lasted two weeks and was followed by the miners’ lockout which lasted the rest of the year. On 5 October, Spencer negotiated a return to work deal with the local colliery owners at the Digby pit near Eastwood.  However, this brought him into conflict with Booth and the MFGB, who wished to maintain unity. Unhappy with the influence of the MFGB, Spencer, supported by moderates, led a breakaway union from the NMA and set up the Nottinghamshire and District Miners’ Industrial Union (NMIU). The breakaway union was strongest in those pits where the butty system operated and where the buttymen dominated the union. Of the 1926 miners’ lockout, Les Ellis, who after the Second World War became Nottinghamshire Area treasurer of the National Union of Mineworkers, wrote that:

the coal owners, desperate towards the end of the struggle, carefully analysed Notts. and came to the conclusion that a break in the miners’ ranks could be affected, (1) because the long-established butty system lent itself to this purpose and (2) because of the spineless nature of the leadership of Spencer, Varley and Co.[75]

In December 1926, an anonymous miner stated:

the cause of the breakaway in this county I put down first of all to the butty system.  This only prevails in the Midlands, and it was in the Midlands that breakaway first took place. The first breakaway took place at one of the Bolsover pits — Clipstone, where the butty system is at its worst.[76]

Booth remained loyal to the NMA and MFGB and continued to oppose the butty system and was elected NMA Vice-President in 1926. In a ballot in 1928, the Nottingham miners voted 9 to 1 in favour of the NMA.[77] Booth was elected President of the NMA in 1932. After a long struggle the NMA and NMIU were reunited and in 1945 Booth was elected as General Secretary of the  Nottinghamshire Area of the National Union of Mineworkers when he was able to oversee the final removal of the butty system from all the Nottingham pits.

John Williams

Meanwhile back in the Forest of Dean, in March 1922, John Williams was appointed as the new FDMA agent. Williams was born in 1888 at Kenfig Hill, in the Garw Valley, South Wales. His father worked as a hewer at the International Colliery, Blaengarw.  In 1901, at the age of 13, Williams was sent down the pits to work for his father under the contract system. This was a common practice in most mining districts where boys often worked with their fathers from whom they learnt their hewing skills.

John Williams. (Credit: Richard Burton Archives.)

One year later Williams was involved in a terrible accident. His father had bored a hole with a rammer and inserted explosives. However, at the first shot, the fuse misfired. The regulations stated that it was necessary to wait 24 hours before making a second attempt. However, the hewers, working on piece rates, were under pressure to ignore this rule. As a result, Williams approached the face and was severely burned in an explosion. He was lucky to survive but had to spend six weeks in a bath of linseed oil.[78] Consequently, he had a deep knowledge of the dangers of the piecework system even though in this case he was working for his father.

The system used in South Wales when Williams was working there as a young man was based on an arrangement where the piecework earnings were, in theory, shared out equally between the men in the team. This was called the share-out system (sometimes the all-throw-in system), although there may have been differentials in the bigger teams depending on age and experience and one man was usually responsible for the workplace.

Soon after his appointment, Williams ran into conflict with some of the older checkweighmen on the FDMA Executive, partly because he was hostile to the butty system. In particular, he was concerned that in some pits there appeared to be a cosy relationship between the buttymen and the managers. However, he soon built-up support within the wider mining community and recruited day men onto the FDMA Executive who started to challenge the use of the butty system. At the same time, nationally the system was coming under criticism by economists like J W F Rowe who wrote in 1923:

It is hardly necessary to point out in detail the iniquities of sub-contracting systems; in coal-mining the difficulty of adequate supervision from the owners’ point of view is obvious, and the butty system saved a lot of trouble. But since the butty’s profits depended very largely, if not entirely, on the amount of drive which he could put into the men, the system involved much bullying and moral and physical degradation. Moreover, it was most unjust that a man should not get a reward commensurate with his efforts even if those efforts were not given freely, but extorted by force majeure.[79]

Campaign Against the Butty System

Williams helped to rebuild the FDMA after the 1921 defeat and led the Forest miners through the 1926 Lock Out and the depression of the early 1930s. In this task, he was helped by David Organ who was elected President of the FDMA in 1919 and remained in this role until 1939. Organ started his working life as a hodder at New Fancy but by 1913 was working as a checkweighman at Norchard colliery. [80]

As a result, resentment against the butty system grew and pit by pit, seam by seam, the system was abandoned.[81] Forest miner, Alan Drew, remembers:

Three shifts – one man in charge of each place. All money earned was paid out in the butty man’s name, and then he shared out – they were sub-contractors, taking on the job of getting coal out and hiring men. But it wasn’t the men doing the work who was getting the money; the butty men had the biggest helping. The system wasn’t liked.[82]

And for another Forest miner:

Well, actually I was only a boy under the butty system……..What was happening, in them days was that you’d get three buttymen, one on each shift, and if you was thick with a manager or an under-manager, they put three boys on with you so that you could get above five bob a day. There were a lot of dirty things going on as well, mind. As it happened, during my period, in my teens then, I was lucky enough to get along with decent blokes, like, and although the amount of my money was about five bob a day, my first wage for six shifts was two-and-eleven per shift and they give I  three bob. During my teens, I worked along with blokes and they’d pull me right, so I was all right. Say my money was about five bob a day, I might get seven bob a day, you know. If I done all right, they might give I seven bob a day, something like that……….There were a lot of trouble with this butty system, a lot of trouble, haggling and swarming out with these trucks. I used to get out on a Friday: they’d all get down into little groups, you know, sharing this money out. One butty-man would even try to do his mate, another butty-man, you know. It was a very unfair lot altogether, although I wasn’t mixed up in it really. But it was terribly unfair. It was a lot better when that was abolished.[83]

Share-Out System

The butty system was gradually replaced by the ‘share-out’ or ‘all-throw-in’ system. However, the money was still usually collected by the most senior man and the men referred to each other as butties or buttymen. Jesse Hodges (Jnr) remembered how his father campaigned against the butty system at Crump Meadow and the share-out system was introduced:

There was a time when my father helped to break the butty system whereby every man would have an equal share of the money that was earned on the face in the mine. The boy had a fair amount, the hodder and the men shared the residue between them which was a fair share. The men did at Crump Meadow and at most pits, but at Crump Meadow in particular the money was paid out at the Bilson Offices, which today belongs to Roberts’ shop. The wages used to be paid out to the head butty like my father and the men used to come and squat all round down by the offices and in their little groups from each place and these butty men did then bring the money and share out between them. The stall or place was in the butty name and the pay bill was also in his name and then he used to pay them out, share it up and that was how it was.[84]

Sharing out the Earnings. (Credit: National Coalmine Museum of England)

At first, boys were often still employed as hodders and trammers and sometimes there was little difference between the two systems. Fred Warren described the process of how two colliers would get their own stall or section of seam but would still employ a hodder and a trammer (filler):

Oh well, the two would be I and Alan, look. We’d be at the top of the pit and there’d be a place a going in a seam look, there were lots of different seams a going and you would go and ask the overman about a start on your own and him would say “Oh yes, we can give you a start on your own” if they thought you were qualified and him would say “We’ll give you three bob a ton to get this”.

And each cart that do come out, you did have a number that was registered on top that your cart had gone by, tonnage, etc. These various places was called headings, we foresters called it the “Dip Yud” and the others was called the “stall”. Probably a couple starting off from new would have a stall, the old colliers would have deep heading and they drove the roads, you know the main headings. That’s how it went on and they did employ a hodder and a filler. The hodder did heave the coal out in the trolleys in the stall because you had to trolley that coal down to the main road look.[85]

In the 1920s, the first pits to abolish the butty system were the steam coal collieries Princess Royal and Cannop where the owners tended to be more enlightened. They invested in their pits, and they were the most modern in the Forest at the time.

Consequently, the FDMA was able to negotiate independent agreements through collective bargaining which included a detailed price list, day rates for different grades of workers and other issues such as variations in shift pay. The hewers were still paid on tonnage rates, and the piece rates for other work such as timber work and road ripping were set out in the price list. An example of this was the new agreement negotiated by Herbert Booth and Reuben James at Princess Royal colliery in January 1922.

In contrast, the pits owned by Henry Crawshay Company Ltd, Eastern United, Lightmoor and Foxes Bridge, tended to lack investment, continued to operate the butty system and often refused to negotiate with the FDMA.

1926 Lockout

During the 1926 Lockout, the Crawshays were able to break the solidarity within the Forest coalfield by attracting a handful of men back to work after about four months of the lockout.  The buttymen who returned first would get the best stalls and daymen who returned first would get preferential treatment. Men who had inherited their places of work from their fathers could lose them forever. Naturally, this led to bitterness and recrimination and no wonder there were cases of threats, intimidation and violence against those returning to work.

The buttymen were dependent on the checkweighmen and could only get back to normal work if the checkweighmen were at work as well. After being out on strike for about five months, some of the buttymen and checkweighmen joined the general drift back to work. As ‘employees’ of the buttymen it was unlikely that the checkweighmen would have taken this action without their knowledge and encouragement.

The policy agreed at the beginning of the lockout was to expel any member who returned to work in opposition to FDMA and MFGB policy. The FDMA had no alternative but to stick with this policy, particularly if it applied to members who were on its Executive and were checkweighmen.

On 4 October, Daniel James and Harry Hale, checkweighmen at Lightmoor were expelled from the FDMA for returning to work.[86]  On 29 October, Frank Mathews the checkweighman at Cannop was expelled from the FDMA and on 17 November, Enos Taylor and Thomas Brain, the checkweighmen at Foxes Bridge were also expelled.[87] Taylor, Mathews and Brain were longstanding FDMA Executive members and their expulsions reflected the state of crisis and desperation within the FDMA. In his 1961 statement, Williams acknowledged:

this was the beginning of the end of the strike in the Forest of Dean. Nearly every day now I was called to most of the collieries to deal with men returning to work. The workmen had been out of work for over four months. They had not received a penny strike pay out of our funds. We had no funds. The only payment received by the workmen of this district was one payment out of what was described as “Russian Money”.

By the end of five months, all the workmen in two collieries had gone back to work and a considerable number at the other collieries as well. Some of the workmen had no food to take to work and were without any until pay-day. I managed to keep two large collieries idle to the end of the strike. The situation was a nightmare for me, and when it was all over, I had to start from the beginning again to organise the district.[88]

After about three months after the end of the lockout, Taylor and the other checkweighmen were reinstated into the FDMA and onto its Executive.  However, the membership of the FDMA was severely diminished after 1926. This led to the danger of the buttymen or teams of hewers competing for contracts which was highlighted in early 1930 when Williams discovered a price list had been agreed upon at Norchard colliery without the agreement of the FDMA.[89]

In January 1927, the average earnings of Frederick Burge who was a buttyman at Eastern United were £3 17s a week (12s 9d a day) and the average earnings of Charles Close buttyman at Foxes Bridge were £3 4s a week (10s  7d a day). In January 1927, the minimum day wage for a hewer working for a buttyman was 9s 10d.. As a consequence of the agreement between the FDMA and the Forest colliery owners following the 1926 lockout, all these rates would be tapered down to give a day rate for a hewer of 7s 7d by May. (ref Gloucester Journal  29 January 1927).

In January 1927, the average earnings of Frederick Burge who was a buttyman at Eastern United were £3 17s a week (12s 9d a day) and the average earnings of Charles Close buttyman at Foxes Bridge were £3 4s a week (10s  7d a day). In January 1927, the minimum day wage for a hewer working for a buttyman was 9s 10d.. As a consequence of the agreement between the FDMA and the Forest colliery owners following the 1926 lockout, all these rates would be tapered down to give a day rate for a hewer of 7s 7d by May.[89b]

Crump Meadow Colliery

A dispute at Crump Meadow colliery reflected the changing roles of the checkweighmen who had traditionally seen their role as ‘employees’ of the buttymen but increasingly had become FDMA representatives for all the miners working at the pit. At the end of March, Ambrose Adams retired from his job as senior checkweighman at Crump Meadow Colliery. Joseph Holder and Jesse Hodges, both long-standing FDMA activists claimed they had the workmen’s support to take over the role of senior checkweighman from Adams.

The situation was complicated by the fact that Holder was appointed by the buttymen in 1899 to work at a third pit head and when this was closed, he job-shared with Adams, working alternate days. Subsequently, in 1925, Hodges was elected as an assistant checkweighman to Adams.

In early 1927 a meeting of the buttymen and their workmen, attended by about 50 people, voted in favour of Holder. However, Hodges who was now blacklisted for his role during the 1926 lockout and unemployed, appealed to the FDMA Executive arguing there should be a ballot of all the workmen employed at Crump Meadow. He argued that the checkweighmen should be accountable to the FDMA and represent all the miners at the pit.

On 29 March the FDMA Executive agreed to organise a ballot at Crump Meadow on whether the checkweighmen should be appointed by ballot of all the members or by the buttymen and their workmen. The ballot was held on 7 April and the result was announced the next day showing 105 in favour of a ballot of all the miners and 128 against and so the issue was resolved in favour of Holder.[90] The buttymen would have been keen to keen to maintain their control over the checkweighmen whom they viewed as their employees. The result reflects the power and influence the buttymen still held at Crump Meadow colliery at this time. 

Hours of Work

One of the main campaigns of the MFGB and FDMA after 1926 was to reduce hours of work, to reduce unemployment and prevent overproduction. However, in 1930, the introduction of legislation to reduce hours of work in mines to seven-and-a-half hours became a thorny problem in areas where the butty system operated.  The buttymen were concerned about the loss of earnings and were keen to get as much coal weighed in at the pit head before the end of the shift and often put pressure on the trammers to work extra hours in contravention of the regulations. Clearly, this suited the mine owners, but not the trammers and union men like Williams who were concerned about their unemployed members. Booth was having similar problems in Nottingham. As a result, the first resolution presented to the MFGB conference in August 1930 by Booth, proposed that:

The Miners’ Federation of Great Britain Committee take the necessary steps to make the butty system illegal.[91]

Booth described the system as one that created a cleavage between the men, not only in the pits but in social life. Williams backed Booth up and said:

only districts that had experienced the system had any idea what an abominable thing it was. Not only did it corrupt the relation of men with employers, but it corrupted the relations of workmen with one another. As a rule, a butty was a man who was a sort of boss without the status of one.  He was a driver and a forcer and a man who often did little work himself. It was usually, as a rule, to find that where the system worked there was a low membership.  At one colliery where the system works in my district, the average membership is less than 50 per cent. In a neighbouring colliery a mile away, where the system does not work, the membership, over the same period, is in the neighbourhood of 75 per cent.[92]

The resolution was carried unanimously. The colliery referred to by Williams with an average membership of less than 50 per cent was probably Eastern United where the butty system was still being used. By this time the steam coal pits, excluding Eastern United and Waterloo, and most of the house coal pits had gradually changed over to a system where the labourers, trammers, and hodders were paid directly by the colliery owner and the colliers in the team shared the money out amongst themselves.

Tramming Dispute

However, there were still anomalies leading to disputes between the owners and the colliers over who was responsible for certain jobs as this could impact piece-rate earnings. At Waterloo, a steam coal colliery, the colliers had traditionally done their own tramming either themselves or by employing a day man. However, at the beginning of November 1935, the men gave notice to the management that they no longer would do this. As a result, on Saturday 9 November, the seven men who acted as leaders in this dispute were dismissed.  On Monday morning 11 November, when the seven men turned up for work they were turned away and as a result, nearly the whole workforce of 650 men walked out on strike. A mass meeting was addressed by Williams and it was resolved that the strike would continue until the seven men were reinstated and the company agreed to provide the labour for tramming. This was the first significant strike in the Forest of Dean coalfield since 1926.[93]

The men returned to work on the following Thursday including the seven who were dismissed and on condition the employers took no action in the courts against any workmen concerning the strike and undertook that there shall be no victimisation. It was agreed that a scheme would be mutually discussed with the view to ending tramming by colliers and that such a scheme to be in operation within three weeks. The wage rates of trammers would be discussed at the same time.[94]

Following this on Monday 18 November, forty miners received a notice to terminate their contracts based on a reduction in the number of seams available to be worked. As a result, the workmen walked out on another lightning strike.  John Williams organised a mass meeting of the men in Cinderford. The men were transported to Cinderford in buses from all around the district, and the meeting lasted about three or four hours. As a result, Williams sent a message to Joseph Hale, Secretary and Director of Lydney and Crump Meadow Collieries Ltd. asking for certain assurances.[95]

Hale agreed that the forty men would be employed in other parts of the pit, half of them immediately and the remainder as soon as they could be absorbed. An assurance was also given that no men would be prosecuted in connection with the strike and victimisation would not be countenanced by the company. It was agreed that the tramming dispute itself would be relegated to the Conciliation Board if no agreement could be reached and all the men would return to work the following Monday.[96] In the end, Hale agreed that the company takes responsibility to pay wages directly to the trammers rather than the colliers having to pay them or do their own tramming.

Eastern United Colliery

In the 1930s Eastern United was producing about 330,000 tons of coal annually mainly steam coal but some for household use. The principal seam was the Coleford High Delf which produced steam coal and was approximately 5 feet thick. The workforce included 750 men underground and 120 above ground. The pit was owned by Henry Crawshay & Co. Ltd., which also owned Lightmoor Colliery where the butty system had been abandoned. The company was also in the process of developing a new pit at Northern United. No machines were used at Eastern at this time.  About 150 buttymen employed small groups of men to work at about 60 places on the coal face using traditional manual techniques.

The Managing Director was Frank Washbourn and he was assisted by David Lang who had been a manager at the Parkend collieries. Lang and Washbourn were the only directors who knew anything about mining. The manager Ted Oakley was appointed in January 1926. He had worked as an under manager at Lightmoor. The other Directors were descendants of Henry Crawshay who had invested heavily in mine and ironworks in the Forest of Dean from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.[97] These directors generally spent their time hunting and fishing or on genteel leisure pursuits such as studying nature, painting landscapes and writing poetry. In 1961, John Williams said that at Eastern United:

Not more than a dozen workmen were in the Union at this colliery. No workman dared mention the union at this colliery. Most of the Buttymen were undercover agents for the management, and the Managing Director was as tough as they make them.[98]

One of the workers at Eastern, Wallace Jones, was keen to bring the system to an end.  Jones had been elected onto the pit committee, which was made up of representatives of workmen from different jobs and parts of the pit. In particular, Jones had built up support among the day men who worked for the buttymen. He was also the FDMA Executive member for Eastern United.

Wallace Jones

Wallace Jones was born in Cinderford in March 1894, the son of a grocer. He left school at the age of aged thirteen to become an apprentice baker. The 1911 census lists him as working as a woodman on the Crown Estate in the Forest of Dean. Soon after he moved to Aberdare to work in one of the Powell Duffryn collieries.[99]

Wallace Jones in 1933. (Credit: Gloucester Journal 28 October 1933.)

In 1914, at the start of the First World War, Jones joined the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and served with them in France and Belgium. In December 1916, he was buried by a shell explosion and was the only one to survive among a group of six other men. He was invalided home to England. He was then billeted to the Labour Corp where he was promoted to the rank of corporal.[100]

He was discharged from the army on 13 May 1919. He then worked for a short time in a local timber yard before joining the Eastern United Colliery where he remained for 30 years in roles that included trammer, road repairer, face worker and then for sixteen years as a master haulier.[101] In the late 1920s, as was the case for many of the more experienced colliers, Jones worked as a buttyman.

Mass Meeting

In November 1937, Jones and Williams decided to bring the butty system at Eastern United to an end and so met to discuss tactics.  At the end of November 1937, they called a public meeting at Cinderford Miners’ Welfare Hall and to their surprise, most of the Eastern United workers, including the buttymen, turned up.[102] David Organ president of the FDMA chaired the meeting. Williams explained to the men the reason for calling the meeting:

I am told there is dissatisfaction at Eastern United Colliery that is extensive and very deep. There must be a cause for it. I am told that one of the causes is the existence of the butty system, and it is significant that the butty men themselves are against it. Many years ago, the system was at least popular among butty men, because they earned big money at the expense, of course, of those who worked for them. Now things have changed, and a process of cutting has been going on so that butty men are getting money that they could earn on a wage basis. They know that under a share-up system, they would get more than they are getting at present.  I submit that under a share-up system, workers at the coal face ought to be earning between 14s   and 16s a day, and in some places, they ought to be earning up to 18s a day. All the men would receive decent wages, and output would undoubtedly increase. I dare say some of you might be unwilling to part with such an old friend as the butty system, but when you look at the question straight, it will be far happier for you if it goes forever. Is it reasonable to expect a man on wages to extend himself as he would if he were paid on a share-up basis, and so benefiting from his own increased efforts?[103]

The meeting agreed that the miners employed at Eastern United Colliery would decide by ballot whether the butty system shall be abolished or not. Jones also informed the meeting of the details of the price lists in operation at Cannop and Princess Royal Collieries and set out the rates paid for different classes of work. There was not one dissenting vote when the resolution to organise a ballot at Eastern United was presented to the meeting. It was also decided to authorise negotiations for rates of pay for dead work based on the rates paid at Cannop Colliery.

Dilly-dally methods

The ballot resulted in 336 votes in favour of abolition and 46 for retention. A miners’ deputation supported by Williams then met the owners just before Christmas to discuss the results of the ballot. However, the owners put off making a response until after Christmas and then used a series of delaying tactics to obstruct the implementation of the men’s demands. In response, Jones and the pit committee at Eastern United asked the FDMA Executive to consider strike action because of the “dilly-dallying methods adopted by the company over this issue.”[104]

Consequently, a miners’ meeting was held on Sunday 23 January in St Annals Institute, Cinderford where Williams gave an address expressing his frustration at the delaying tactics of the management. Since the butty system question had arisen, another dispute occurred at the colliery, concerning fitters. The fitters at the colliery were being asked to do work other than the work properly assigned to them.[105] As a result, the tension between management and workers at the pit was increasing. In due course, another meeting was arranged with the Directors. However, this time the Directors insisted they would only accept the results of an independent ballot.[106]

The FDMA Executive agreed to this demand. However, the Directors continued to be obstructive and tried to delay the organisation of an independent ballot. In addition, they sacked Jones and two other workmen. As a result, on Monday 21 February, the Executive Committee of the FDMA met, and it was decided that the workmen at the colliery should tender notice on Monday 28 February with the view to take strike action the following week. In the meantime, it was agreed that Williams would continue to attempt to settle the dispute peacefully.[107]

Williams told a Gloucester Journal reporter that two main reasons influenced the Executive in its decision to approve a stoppage at the colliery:

(1) The refusal of the Company to carry out an undertaking mutually agreed upon between the workmen’s representative and the Company, namely, that the results of the independent ballot should form the basis of the negotiations for the abolition of the butty system.

(2) The dismissal of Jones, the FDMA’s representative at the colliery, and two other workmen.

Coal Owners’ Association

Meanwhile, in addition to the three men dismissed, three more had been given notice. Negotiations continued and Organ, Williams and Jones worked day and night to resolve the dispute. In an attempt to get a settlement, the talks now involved representatives of the Forest of Dean Coalowners Association which included the managing Directors from Cannop and Princess Royal. In the end, the threat of strike action resulted in the company making a new offer which included the abolition of the butty system subject to a few minor conditions.[108]

However, the offer included a clause which stated that the three men under notice and the three men who received notice could no longer be employed at Eastern United. The Company said they would find work for them at another of their pits in the Forest but with no guarantee of the type of work. This was not acceptable to the FDMA and representation was made for their retention at Eastern United in their old jobs. Williams reported to the Gloucester Journal:

We were worried about these terms, and we determined to make further efforts to get them revised. A further meeting was held with the owners on Thursday 3 March when we made certain suggestions. I must say that a very strained atmosphere prevailed at this meeting. When the Directors had considered our suggestions, during which we had retired, we came back to an attitude of take it or leave it. With regard to three men, it was stated that one could have a job at Lightmoor, that another, Wallace Jones, could be given a job at the coal face, and that the other should also be given a job at the coal face. The men were not used to the work which was proposed to them, and I knew the offers would be unacceptable.[109]

This meeting was followed by a further meeting of the FDMA Executive and pit committee, at which it was decided the terms could not be accepted:

I asked the Executive to give me the authority to write to the company the next morning to tell them we were going to take strike action, not slyly but openly, so that it could be said we were doing everything above board.[110]


The negotiations continued until Saturday 5 March when Williams sent a final letter to Washbourn and Lang. There seemed to be little hope of averting a stoppage. However, the outcome of William’s letter resulted in a meeting early on Saturday evening between members of the FDMA Executive, the pit committee, Williams and the Directors of Eastern United. At this meeting, the owners made a new offer regarding the dismissed men and the employment offered to the men was deemed to be reasonable. In his November 1961 statement, Williams paid tribute to Jones’ contribution to the success of the campaign:

As a result of his activities in organising opposition to the Butty System, he was sacked. I got him work at another colliery belonging to the same company, and in the meantime, he was appointed Checkweigher at his colliery, and throughout he gave signal service to the union of this district. The credit for this success belongs mainly to Mr Wallace Jones.[111]

Williams explained the result of the various negotiations between the FDMA and the Company at a mass meeting at the Miners’ Welfare Hall on the evening of Saturday 5 March. The Hall was filled to capacity, and hundreds of miners sat or stood for three hours while Williams detailed the negotiations with the Company. The news that the owners had revised their attitude, and that the significant points in the dispute had been settled were received with cheers[112]. In his November 1961 statement, Williams explained:

The colliery was like a prison before. Things changed drastically, after this, and the membership increased rapidly, and I was able to improve the conditions under which the men worked. For example, the workmen had to work in bad air. There was hardly enough air to burn a candle. One candle would last a whole shift. This state of affairs shortened the life of miners tremendously. I was glad to get the chance to put this right. I brought the terms of the Mines Act to bear on the situation, and soon we got the foul air removed from all the coal faces.[113]

Individual Wage Packets

This was not quite the end of the story because the social relationships based on privilege and inequality continued with the allocation of places to work. Miners could easily be victimised by being given places to work on poor seams and wet conditions where less money could be earned under the piece-rate system. It was under these circumstances that it was important to be a member of the FDMA to provide protection from the management and to negotiate the price lists according to the conditions.

During the Second World War, the FDMA and Williams fully supported Forest miners when they took strike action over issues relating to pay and conditions. However, in January 1942, Williams had to deal with the threat of industrial action at Eastern United over the issue of individual pay packets. The dispute had its roots in the butty system.

In most cases of teams working on piece work, one person was still often responsible for the stall or section of seam and had continued to collect a joint wage packet for the team to share out on an equitable basis. The problem was that it was unclear how much money any individual was being paid or whether the butty system had continued in some form or another with the money not being shared out equally.[114]

In addition, this arrangement caused problems with income tax since there was no record of actual earnings by any individual miner working in the team. Consequently, some members of the team may have been paying more or less tax than they should. Also, injury compensation was based on earnings and if the company had no record of actual earnings then the benefit would be difficult to calculate.

As a result, on 31 December 1941, in response to requests from its members mainly in the pits in West Dean, the FDMA presented a proposal to the colliery owners that in future all the workmen should be given a separate wage packet setting out their earnings and deductions individually. The owners agreed but on the condition that the extra clerical work would mean payday being put back by two days. On 16 January 1942, some men at Northern United and Eastern complained about the new arrangement and at Eastern, this led to a threat of strike action. Williams was appalled and issued a statement which included:

Fellow Workmen. For some time now an agitation has been on foot among you and there has been some talk of going on strike, and a lot of talk about taking a ballot on the settlement reached between the coal owners and the Miners’ Executive on the miners’ demand that each workman should be given a separate pay packet. I am ashamed that there are miners to be found who are so short-sighted, and in some cases so mean, as to associate themselves with this stupid agitation.[115]

The increasing authority of the FDMA meant that Williams was able to prevent an unnecessary and reactionary strike and from now all the workmen would receive individual wage packets. In February 1942, Williams negotiated an agreement with the colliery owners that all miners would be required to become members of the FDMA.


It would be difficult to fully comprehend the history of trade unionism in the Forest of Dean coalfield without an understanding of the butty system. This also applies to other coalfields, yet in the classic labour histories of the British coal mining industry, the butty or contract system hardly gets a mention. This is the case of R Page Arnot’s three-volume study of the history of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain.

The butty system in the Forest survived for over a century, not only because it suited the colliery owners, but because its persistence depended on its acceptance by the mining community.  The buttyman epitomised the ideal of an independent collier. The amount of money a buttyman could earn was dependent on his skill, effort, experience and his capacity to extract labour from his workforce.

As small working masters, the buttyman attempted to reclaim some degree of control over his labour process and with it a degree of authority, dignity and respect. The ambition of many young skilled colliers was to be allocated their own ‘place’ and this was understood as a natural career progression after completing their ‘apprenticeship’ with a buttyman.

Many Forest buttymen probably treated their workers well and there would have been a strong sense of loyalty and solidarity within the teams. After all, a skilled collier would not work for a buttyman who treated him badly. At the same time, it was likely that some buttymen were bullies and exploited their employees and it was the abuse of teenage boys that was the most brutal aspect of the system.

However, after the defeats of 1921 and 1926, the rates of pay for all miners in the Forest, including the buttymen were reduced to minimum rates or just above, and this continued into the 1930s. The loss of any significant differential in wages between buttymen and day wage hewers was one of the reasons that led to the demise of the butty system. In the end, it was the system itself that became unpopular and it was ex-buttymen such as Jesse Hodges and Wallace Jones with the support of John Williams who helped to finally rid the Forest of a system that only benefitted the colliery owners and their shareholders.

However, the differentials remained and hewing teams, working on piece rates, continued to earn significantly different rates from each other and other workmen in the colliery depending on seam, pit or district. This remained the case until the Forest collieries closed in the 1960s. In 1983, Harry Roberts returned to the Forest and reminded us of a bygone age of 1928 when, at the age of 14, he arose at 5 am, cycled several miles to the pit to queue up to get a place in the cage to descend into the pit ready to go to work for his buttymen:

The Banks Man gave the signal to the operator in the engine house and the downward journey began, soon water began to pour out of the sides of the shaft, everyone got very wet as there was no roof to the cage, soon a fairly large tunnel came into view it had whitewashed walls, and electric lights showed up the well made brickwork. Men were sitting on their heels each side of the tunnel, they called it quatting (they did not sound the letter s), and men and boys were searching for the men they would be working with. The names of them seemed to belong to another age, there were Ezekia (Kia), Zackaria (Zac), Corneilias (Car) and Emmanual (Mann).

“Bist thou ready for work old Butty?.” “Oy I be”. “Well let’s goo then bring the bwoy along”. ” I be agwain to get the blades vram the blacksmith oust”

There would be a long walk to the coal face, and there would be water to walk through and air doors to open and shut, all the men in the mine were still wet from the journey down the shaft … The two men and the boy now ready for work crawled on hands and knees to the coal face the distance depending on how far the coal face had moved forward due to the amount of coal extracted.[116]


The sub-contract system is still prevalent in many industries in Britain today and provides an effective way for large companies to manage their workforce, extract labour value and weaken trade unionism. A building site today has an uncanny resemblance to a Forest of Dean colliery in the 1920s with small teams of workers operating independently, competing for contracts and undermining solidarity.[117]

A form of the butty system still operates in agriculture and food processing where migrant workers are exploited by an officially sanctioned system which uses gangmasters to supply labour. Delivery drivers are now often self-employed and earn less than the minimum wage.  Daywork, sub-contracting, self-employment, zero-hour contracts, minimum wages and the use of agencies and umbrella companies are the consequences of a never-ending attempt by capital to reduce the cost of labour.  

Barry Johnson (1931 – 2020)

It was with sadness that I found out about the death of Barry Johnson. Several years ago, I bought a copy of Who Dips in the Tin from the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Labour History Society and after it arrived in the post, I discovered he had signed it for me with best wishes. His book is excellent and highly recommended and has been a great help to me in writing this article. This is from the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign. 

Barry Johnson, former President of Chesterfield & District Trades Union Council and trustee of Derbyshire Unemployed Workers Centres sadly died at the end of January 2020 after a long illness.  Barry was involved in politics from an early age, as his father had been blacklisted from the pits after the 1926 dispute, while his mother was active in the Unemployed Workers Movement of the 1920s and 1930s. He was a trade unionist throughout his working life. As an USDAW activist, he was a member of Nottingham Trades Council for many years. He worked at Chesterfield College from the mid-1970s and developed the Trade Union Studies unit. Barry retired in 1991 when he moved to live in Chesterfield.  As a delegate from the College Lecturers Union, he became President of the Chesterfield & District Trade Union Council, helping to establish the Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centres based in the town.  He also served on the Regional Executive of the Midlands TUC for an extended period. He was an accomplished orator, having the experience as a young man of drawing an audience while standing on an orange box in Nottingham’s Slab Square. Barry was the master of ceremonies at Chesterfield’s May Day celebrations during the 1980s and 1990s.  He had a long association with the mining industry and gave unstinting support to the miners during the 1984-5 strike.  He worked tirelessly during the strike in support of the Miners both at Linby in Nottinghamshire near his home, and in Derbyshire where he worked.

On retirement, Barry took the time to study for an MA in local history and produced two short books, one on the General Strike in Mansfield and also a study of the operation of the ‘butty system’ in the local coal mines.  Barry also played an important role in starting the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Labour History Society, serving as Chair.  His continued support for the Unemployed Workers Centres was crucial and he served on both regional and national committees gaining the respect of people throughout the country. Barry also took an active part in the secular humanist movement, having been a founder member of the Sheffield Humanist Society and serving on its committee for several years.

[1] A statement of conditions in Forest of Dean coalfield by John Williams sent to R. Page Arnot on 23 November 1961, Richard Burton Archives SWCC/PHO/NUM/2/1. Most of the statements printed in the text were recorded a considerable time after the demise of the butty system and so it is important to be cautious in assuming that they reflected the views of miners at the time the butty system was still in use.

[2] Royden Harrison, (Editor) The Independent Collier (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1978) 2.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Timber was used to stabilise the roof and the walls to prevent collapse.

[5] See Dave Douglass, The Durham Pitman, Raphael Samuel (Editor) Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers, History Workshop Series (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1977) for a description of systems used in Durham and Yorkshire.

[6] Stephanie Tailby, Labour utilization and labour management in the British coalmining industry, 1900 — 1940. A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the degree of PhD in Industrial and Business Studies, University of Warwick, December 1990.

[7] Douglass, The Durham Pitman and Barry Johnson, Who Dips in the Tin? The Butty System in the Nottinghamshire Coalfield, Chesterfield: Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Labour History Society 2015 Johnson, Who Dips in the Tin.

[8] Johnson, Who Dips in the Tin? and Robert Goffee, Incorporation and Conflict: A Case Study of Subcontracting in the Coal Industry, Sociological Review Vol. 29 No. 3. 1981. 

[9] Douglass, The Durham Pitman, 207-295.

[10] Drift mining is a process of accessing coal or ore by cutting into the side of a hill or bank, rather than tunnelling directly downwards.

[11] At this time, Forest of Dean mining companies paid approximately 6d a ton to the Crown in royalties.

[12] Chris Fisher, The Forest of Dean Miners’ Riot of 1831 (Bristol, BRHG, 2020) Chapter Four.

[13] Chris Fisher, Custom, Work and Market Capitalism, The Forest of Dean Colliers, 1788-1888 (London: Breviary, 2016).

[14] Gloucester Journal 31 December 1870.

[15] Diary of Thomas Hale, Gage Library, Dean Heritage Centre.

[16]  Chris Fisher, “The Little Buttymen in the Forest of Dean”, International Review of Social History, 25 (1980) and Fisher, Custom, Work and Market Capitalism.

[17] Eastern United Notebook for 1929, Gage Library, Dean Heritage Centre.

[18] Alan Marfell, Forest Miner, A Forest of Dean Collier remembers life underground during the 1920s, (Coleford: Douglas McLean Publishing, 2010) 24.

[19] A fault is a fracture in the seam that may be significantly displaced up or down meaning extra work.

[20]  A banksman works at the pit head and is in charge of loading or unloading the cage, drawing full tubs from the cages and replacing them with empty ones.  The deputy is a colliery official charged with the supervision of safety, the ventilation of the workings, inspection of timber work, etc. The overman is a supervisor in charge of all the workings and is directly responsible to management.

[21] The duty of the haulier is to drive the horse and tram carrying coal from the face, where the colliers are hewing the coal, to the mouth of the level or the bottom of the shaft.

[22] Albert Meek, interviewed by Elsie Olivey on 6 April 1983Gage Library. A shot is an explosive charge used to dislodge coal.

[23] Road ripping is the process of removing two or three feet of the roof as the coal face advances so carts can be brought closer to the coal face to be filled with coal.

[24] Gloucester Journal 2 October 1909.

[25] Gloucester Citizen 16 July 1926.

[26] Dave Douglass, The Durham Pitman. Cavilling was a system of allocating stalls in the Northumberland and Durham coalfield by drawing lots out of hat which gave every hewing team an equal chance of being allocated a good or bad stall. The draw took place at regular intervals so no team would have to remain working on an unproductive or difficult stall for a long period of time.

[27] Harry Barton interviewed by Elsie Olivey on 17 June 1984, Gage Library.

[28] Dead work refers to work that is not directly productive of coal or listed in the price list such as clearing stone and earth and is usually paid on a day rate.


[29] See Fisher, Custom, Work and Market Capitalism, Chapters Four and Five.

[30] Harry Toomer interviewed by Elsie Olivey and Helen Nash on 9 February 1984, Gage Library.

[31] Cyril Hart, The Industrial History of Dean (Newton Abbott: David and Charles, 1971) 240.

[32] A trammer is a person who moves the full or empty drams or carts of coal underground.

[33] Humphrey Phelps, Forest Voices, (Stroud: Chalford) 1996, 49.

[34] J. S. Joynes, Description of seams and methods of working in the Forest of Dean, British Society of Mining Students, Journal X1 1889. Copy in the Gage Library at the Dean Heritage Centre.

[35] Marfell, Forest Miner, 14.

[36] J.W.F. Rowe, Wages in the Coal Industry, (London: 1923) 151-152.

[37] Interview with Jesse Hodges (Jnr), interviewed by Elsie Olivey on 16 May 1983, Gage Library.

[38] Phelps, Forest Voices, 86.

[39] A dram was an underground cart used for transporting coal.

[40] The No Coal Seam in the house coal pits was only 12 inches high in places, and the Brazilly Seam was only 18 inches in places.

[41] Fred Warren interviewed by Elsie Olivey on 16 March 1983, Gage Library.

[42] Albert Meek, Gage Library.

[43] Henry (Harry) Roberts was born in Cinderford in 1914. His father was killed in the First World War and Harry started work at New Fancy Colliery in 1928 at the age of 14. In 1930 his mother decided to return to London with the family, so he ceased work at New Fancy and started a new life in London. He returned to the Forest of Dean some 45 years later and provided an account of life at the New Fancy coal face to researchers at Dean Heritage centre in 1983. He died in 2005.

[44] Harry Roberts, Memoirs, Gage Library.

[45] Harry Roberts, Memoirs, Gage Library.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Molly Curtis interviewed by Elsie Olivey on 20 April 1983, Gage Library.

[49] Harry Barton interviewed by Elsie Olivey on 17 June 1984, Gage Library.

[50] Winifred Foley, Full Hearts and Empty Bellies (London: Abacus, 1974) 46.

[51] Fine Forest of Dean Coal, The Lightmoor Facsimile Series No. 2. p 26.

[52] Ian Pope, Bob How and Paul Karau, Severn and Wye Railway, Forest of Dean, Volumes 2, (Bucklebury: Wild Swan Publications, 1985) 239.

[53] Graham Field, A Look Back at Norchard, (Self Published: Forest of Dean, 1978) 46.

[54] Field, A Look Back at Norchard, 56.

[55] FDMA Minutes 21 September 1927 and 16 November 1927.

[56] Fine Forest of Dean Coal, 22-24

[57] Information supplied by Jeff Jones.

[58] Field, A Look Back at Norchard, 56.

[59] Ian Wright, Coal on One Hand, Men on the Other, The Forest of Dean Miners and the First World War 1910 – 1922 (Bristol: Bristol Radical History Group, 2nd Edition, 2017) 6.

[60] Alan. R. Griffin, The History of the Nottingham Miners 1881- 1914 (Nottingham: Nottingham Printers Limited) 39-40.

[61] Herbert Booth, The Butty System in Notts, The Mineworker, 10 May 1924 quoted by Johnson, Who Dips in the Tin 9.

[62] Herbert Booth, The Butty System in Notts quoted by Johnson, Who Dips in the Tin 16.

[63] Tailby, Labour utilization and labour management, 181.

[64] W.W.Craik, Central Labour College, A Chapter in the History of Adult Working-class Education (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1964). The Central Labour College was established to provide independent working-class education to working-class people and was financed in the main by the mining and railway trade unions. It functioned from 1909 to 1929 and taught a variety of subjects including working-class history and Marxism.

[65] Ian Wright, God’s Beautiful Sunshine (Bristol: BRHG, 2017)

[66] Ian Wright, God’s Beautiful Sunshine, (Bristol: BRHG, 2020).

[67] G. D. H. Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1923) 241, Nottingham Evening Post 14 January 1922 and Alan R. Griffin, The Miners of Nottinghamshire 1914 – 1944, (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1962) 112-113.

[68] Sungreen ( and the Stuart Ballinger family archive.

[69] Percy Bassett interviewed by Ms Parfett in May 1983 in Blakeney, Gage Library.

[70] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 241.

[71] Phelps, Forest Voices,50.

[72] Herbert Booth, The Butty System in Notts quoted by Johnson, Who Dips in the Tin, 7.

[73] Herbert Booth, The Butty System in Notts quoted by Johnson, Who Dips in the Tin, 19.

[74] Barry Johnson, Who Dips in the Tin, 1 – 2.

[75] Johnson, Who Dips in the Tin, 1.

[76] Ibid. Note that Clipstone is in Nottinghamshire, though the pit was owned by the Bolsover Colliery Company.

[77] Griffin, The Miners of Nottinghamshire, 1914 – 1944, 224. (32,277 votes for the NMA and 2,533 for the NMIU)

[78] Williams, A statement.

[79] J.W.F. Rowe, Wages in the Coal Industry, (London: 1923) 63-64.

[80] David M Organ, The Life and Times of David Richard Organ, Leading the Forest Miners’ Struggle, (Cheltenham: Apex, 2011).

[81] The exact sequence of events in this process is unclear but is the subject of further research by the author.

[82] Phelps, Forest Voices, 49.

[83] Christopher Storm-Clark, The Miners: The Relevance of Oral Evidence, Oral History (Vol. 1, No. 4, 1972) 74 – 75.

[84] Jesse Hodges (Jnr), Gage library. 

[85] Fred Warren, the Gage Library.

[86] FDMA Minutes 4 October 1926.Richard Burton Archives, SWCC/MNA/NUM/3/8/20a-h.

[87] FDMA Minutes 29 October 1926 and FDMA Minutes 17 November 1926.

[88] John Williams, A Statement.

[89] FDMA Minutes 29 March 1930.

[89b] Gloucester Journal  29 January 1927.

[90] Dean Forest Mercury 8 April 1927.

[91] Western Daily Press 14 August 1930.

[92] Western Daily Press 14 August 1930.

[93] Dean Forest Mercury 22 November 1935.

[94] Dean Forest Mercury 22 November 1935.

[95] Gloucester Journal 14 December 1935.

[96] Dean Forest Mercury 6 December 1935.

[97] Richard Crawshay Heyworth became chairman of Henry Crawshay & Co. Ltd. in 1932 but took little interest in mining. He was born at the Crawshay manor house at Oaklands in Newnham. His mother, Emily Crawshay, was the daughter of Henry Crawshay.  Major Leonard Corfield Bucknall of Creagh Castle, Co. Cork. Bucknall was born in Kent, the son of a steamship owner. He married Dorothy Crawshay who was the granddaughter of Henry Crawshay. Thomas Fortesine Crawshay-Frost was indirectly related to Henry Crawshay.

[98] Williams, A statement.

[99] Information provided by Sheila Bowker, the granddaughter of Wallace Jones.

[100] Ibid.

[101] Ibid.

[102] Gloucester Journal 27 November 1937.

[103] Gloucester Journal 27 November 1937.

[104] Gloucester Journal 29 January 1938.

[105] Gloucester Journal 29 January 1938.

[106] Gloucester Journal 5 February 1938.

[107] Gloucester Journal 26 February 1938.

[108] Gloucester Journal 12 March 1938.

[109] Gloucester Journal 12 March 1938.

[110] Gloucester Journal 12 March 1938.

[111] Williams, A statement.

[112] Gloucester Journal 12 March 1938.

[113] Williams, A statement.

[114] Dean Forest Mercury 23 January 1942.

[115] Dean Forest Mercury 23 January 1942.

[116] At the end of each shift, the picks were sent to the blacksmiths for sharpening.

[117] A team of men made up of two skilled bricklayers and a labourer could now typically charge 50p per brick laid. On a very good day in perfect conditions, the team could earn £750 if they laid 1500 bricks. This could be divided up so the labourer received £150 and the bricklayers £300 each. There would be no earnings on rainy days, sick days, holidays, unemployed days, etc, etc. The foreman could choose to put the men on minimum day rates for difficult jobs such as building arches and pay £150 to a skilled bricklayer. A good bricklayer can now earn about £30,000 per year.


One reply on “PITY THE POOR BUTTYMAN: The Butty System in the Forest of Dean 1921-1938”

Such good reminder of so many wonderful mining families I knew when working as district nurse / midwife from 1961-1996 inCinderford and surrounding area. A dear elderly lady from Worrall Hill told me of saving a few coins in a jug to buy shoes for her child but her husband needed it to pay his butty. They had hit rock and needed to make safe the roof so no coal had been mined therefore no money.She talked of the hardship.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *