The 1872 Edinburgh Lamplighters strike: creating James Connolly

I’m going to do some posts on James Connolly in the run up to the anniversary of his execution next week, in particular some of the unexplored experiences that may have shaped his politics and values and created the James Connolly that emerges in his later writing and politics. I’m going to start by looking at the 1872 lamplighters strike in Edinburgh. Obviously, the strike is interesting in its own right, but I’ll get to the relevance to Connolly (who was born in 1868) at the end.

Briefly, in August 1872 the Edinburgh lamplighters (the men who lit and extinguished the street lights, among other duties – they were sometimes called ‘Leeries’) went on strike over pay and conditions. Almost immediately, a Peter McBride and three other lamplighters were made an example of by the town council, seemingly as ringleaders. In the end, the four were fined for breach of contract but within a week or so the strikers demands were met (the account below is mainly taken from The Scotsman during August 1872, except where indicated).

To start with, the lamplighters worked seven days a week on a ‘beat’ where they had to light and extinguish all the lamps as well as other duties. The lights sometimes had to be extinguished as early as 3:40 am after extinguishing others at midnight. A worker also had to issue a four week notice to leave their post or miss a day while they could simply be let go. And typically many of Edinburgh’s thirty lamplighters were let go in May each year and some rehired each September although the Inspector of Lighting and Cleaning in 1872, Mr Patterson, claimed they were issued with four weeks’ notice if being let go in May (these details came out in McBride’s trial, see press on 17 August 1872). The terms and conditions of their employment appeared to be completely weighted in favour of the Lighting and Cleaning Committee of the town council. They

There were also tensions over lamplighters being obliged to train new ‘hands’ with the trainers potentially being laid off in May and then replaced with the trainées in September. Lamplighters had to sign a contract confirming their working conditions. Peter McBride had done so in September 1866. However, as he pointed out in court, McBride and others hadn’t been asked to sign up to those conditions since 1866 or each year after regular breaks in their employment and there was no copy posted up anywhere that the lamplighters could read.

Not that the lamplighters’ pay demands appeared out of the blue. In mid-July 1872, immediately before the lamplighters’ strike, the one hundred and forty Council ‘scavengers’ in Edinburgh had gone on strike (‘scavangers’ was the term used for dustmen and street cleaners). After around a week the scavengers strike committee met with the Council and their requested pay increase of 2s was met. A number had initially been prosecuted for going on strike and given two days to return to work before being penalised. But the agreement with the Council specifically included protection for those prosecuted or dismissed during the strike. The agreement that concluded the strike was made on 20 July 1872 (see North Briton, 24/7/1872). The lamplighters seem to have originally have submitted a collective request for improved pay and conditions of 2s per week in a petition to the Council as early as mid-July 1872, possibly in tandem with the scavengers. Lamplighters had been typically paid 3-4s more per week than the scavengers. The lamplighters’ request was referred to Patterson and his Committee who dismissed it as ‘informal’ despite being in line with the similar to requests for pay raises that were being met by council.

An Edinburgh lamplighter at work (1928, photographer unknown)

As a group, the lamplighters then ‘formally’ wrote to the Inspector of Lighting and Cleaning on 5 August with their request for improved pay and conditions and threatened to go on strike on 13 August. They quickly withdrew the strike threat after being advised that the Lighting and Cleaning Committee would discuss their request. But by Friday 9 August, though, an issue had arisen over a lamplighter, George Leslie, refusing to train new ‘hands’. That day the lamplighters re-instated the threat to strike on the morning of the Tuesday (13 August) if their request for improved conditions was not met or if any of them were punished over the threatened strike action. The timing of the strike threat was not incidental. Queen Victoria was to be in Edinburgh during the threatened strike. According to the Glasgow Herald (14/8/1872), it was difficult to say whether the royal visit or the lamplighters strike was exciting the most interest among the public.

The Lighting and Cleaning Committee then met twice on the Monday (12 August) but refused to even consider the pay demands only considering the terms on which lamplighters could resign. Instead some of those involved were dismissed and a policeman sent to their house to instruct them not to extinguish the lamps on the Tuesday morning and to return their tools to the Committee. Those dismissed included Peter McBride and at least three others, Charley Riley, John Fegan and George Leslie (these were the four charged and brought to court on the Friday, 16 August). The lamplighters then posted placards around Edinburgh advising the public of the strikes and their petition to the Council for an increase in wages. A reference to the placard in The Scotsman on the Wednesday implies that the strike was being directed by a committee (possibly made up of the four dismissed lamplighters).

In response to the dismissals, strike action then began on the Tuesday morning and, without lamplighters, the Council had to suffer the embarrassment of leaving the lamps burning all day while Queen Victoria was in town. The lamplighters’ petition was discussed by the Council that day. Before dismissing it, the Council debate was interrupted by at least one member of the public, an old woman dressed in mourning clothes who demanded the right to address the council (what she said wasn’t reported). The police also had to prevent ‘public-spirited citizens’ from extinguishing the lamps on the Tuesday. With strike taking place, there would be no lamplighters to put a flame to them again that evening and the town streets would be left in darkness. But on Wednesday, the Inspector of Lighting and Cleaning, Mr Patterson, advised the council that he had hired new ‘hands’ to cover every ‘beat’ of those on strike. He had also instructed the Sherriff to issue the warrants against McBride and the others for ‘desertion of service’ under the Master and Servant Act.

Attempts to simply replace the lamplighters were resisted. On the Tuesday evening, Patterson had already dispatched some new lamplighters to try and re-light some of the lamps leading to confrontations and violence. Presumably these were lamps that had been extinguished that morning, either by the ‘public-spirited citizens’ or lamplighters who hadn’t gone out on strike (as yet). A carter named George Thomson received ten days in prison for trying to prevent a lamp being lit on the Tuesday evening in Cockburn Street while Alexander Clunas was fined 5s for intimidating a lamplighter on High Street. In both cases the lamplighters were new ‘hands’ and Thomson and Clunas had tried to dissuade them from breaking the strike.

Previous lamplighter strikes had taken place in Glasgow (1855), Blackburn (1867), Limerick (1870) and Brussels (1871) and strike action in general was not uncommon in August 1872. On 14 August, for instance, The Scotsman and other papers reported strikes in Glasgow (miners), Dundee (shoemakers) and Hawick (spinners), while compositors were also out on strike. The Scotsman even sued a London compositor that it had hired as a strike-breaker for breach of contract when he refused to break the strike (eg Shepton Mallet Journal, 6/9/1872). It is also notable that new lamps had just been tested in Glasgow in July-August 1872 which took less time to light the globe. Trials suggested an eighty-five minute route could now be completed in fifty-five minutes. It was being proposed that the cost of introducing the new globes would be offset by reducing the number of lamplighters by a quarter. The report was submitted to the Council in Glasgow just after the strike but the trials must have taken place before the strike began and knowledge of the results may well have spread to the lamplighters in Edinburgh (eg see Glasgow Herald, 27/8/1872). Notably a lamplighter strike also followed in London later in 1872.

As with the posting of handbills to explain the strike action, the lamplighters were also ready for the court action against McBride, Riley, Fegan and Leslie on the Friday. That day, a letter was published by The Scotsman, from ‘a lamplighter’. It was entitled ‘Duties of Lamplighters’ and read:

Sir, as the public generally imagine that the duties of a lamplighter only consist of cleaning, lighting and extinguishing a certain number of lamps, would be so kind as to give space to the following correct statement of the duties which a lamplighter is compelled to perform? 1st. In addition to cleaning, lighting and extinguishing our lamps, which is considered sufficient work for any man when it is borne in mind that, for eight months in the year, we have to turn out at 12 o’clock each night to extinguish half the lamps, we are compelled to water the streets in dry weather, which every one is eye-witness to. 2nd. To work with the blacksmith, tinsmith and joiner; and, in fact, any other work that our inspector may send us to.

I am, etc Lamplighter.

In court on Friday 16 August, Peter McBride was found guilty for his role in the strike and fined £5 plus a guinea costs (his weekly wage was 19s) or, in default, ten days in prison. The others received similar sentences. The Council though, by the next Wednesday, was reported to have revisited the petition the previous day and authorised that the pay and conditions requested by the lamplighters be accepted.

Peter McBride, who seemed to be regarded as the ringleader of the strike, lived in Carrubers Close. McBride, was also a Sergeant in the Army Reserve, having joined the 26th Foot, the Cameronians in 1855. He and his wife were later recorded running a coffee stand in 1881 when both their birthplaces are recorded as County Monaghan. McBride had spent nearly four years in Bermuda while in the British army, leaving full-time service in 1865 shortly before he began working as a lamplighter in Edinburgh in 1866. The address he lists as his intended residence is Corrybreany, Ballybay, presumably Corrybranan on the southern side of Ballybay in County Monaghan. His sons, Robert, Thomas and John, were likely playmates of James Connolly’s older brothers John and Thomas as they were around the same ages. The Connollys lived next door to the McBrides in Carruthers Close in 1871 and John Connolly, James’ father, was himself a lamplighter. John must have been on strike with the lamplighters too (this may well be the strike that various James Connolly biographers mention). Legend has it that Connolly and McBride both lost their jobs soon after the strike, which is consistent with later census records.

What is more, various biographers mention Connolly’s ‘uncle’, variously mentioning the names ‘Peter’ and ‘McBride’. He is claimed to have walked many paths along which his nephew James followed: this ‘uncle’ was a socialist and Fenian who had joined the military under a false name. Some remembered an older uncle who was a socialist and Fenian who seemingly introduced Connolly to left wing activism in Edinburgh from 1890. James Connolly’s daughter Ina also mentions (in a witness statement to the Bureau of Military History) an ‘uncle’ Peter in Edinburgh, his father’s brother, who came over to Belfast and tried to get James to come to Monaghan to sign over a family farm to him in 1912.

Peter McBride’s marriage record names his parents as Robert McBride and Margaret McBride, née Connolly. His military records provide no next of kin information but he gives his address as Corrybranan, Ballybay, Co. Monaghan. The dates of his military service are consistent with dates for other ex-servicemen who joined the Fenians (and Edinburgh had ‘green scares’ in the 1870s over a mobilized ‘Irish’ vote and ‘Fenianism’). His socialist and syndicalist credentials are shown by the 1872 strike. He is very much the almost mythological figure conjured up by James Connolly’s biographers. Was he just a neighbour of John Connolly’s? A fellow lamplighter? Another Monaghan lad he met in Edinburgh? McBride enlisted in Edinburgh in 1855, roughly when Connolly first arrived in the city. John Connolly’s mother was named Mary and his father John (or Owen). Perhaps Peters mother was John Connolly’s mother’s sister (‘uncle’ being meant as an older male relative rather than, strictly, as a brother of your mother or father). Maybe McBride’s ancestry was entirely fictional as he was indeed John Connolly’s brother (there is a lesson there I’ll come back to in a future post). Ina Connolly also gives her father Ballybay roots – but Corrybranan has no obvious candidates to match McBrides father or mothers name in Griffiths Valuation or the Tithe Applotment Books, so that is yet to be confirmed.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter as it is now clear that the socialist ‘uncle’ Peter, possibly a Fenian too, was a very real figure rather than a romantic device concocted by Connolly’s later biographers to explain his political formation. McBride’s (and John Connolly’s) involvement in the strike was surely retold down the years and may have ingrained in James Connolly, who was only 4 in 1872, that it was a template for successful industrial action. Both Peter McBride and John Connolly rapidly lost their jobs as lamplighters after the strike, so they may well have borne the real cost of a successful action for workers.

Next up, James brother John…

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