Immigrants in Scottish Mining Communities

A note from the Webmaster - We thought long and hard before adding this section as the majority of historical records on the immigrant mining community are very negative. In particular the influx of Lithuanians (or “Poles”) starting in the late 19th century was treated with great mistrust, with even the Miners’ Union supporting strikes against them due to the perception of wage undercutting and safety concerns. Frequently in accident reports (official and newspaper) these men are dismissed as “a Pole”. Many other reports accuse them of bringing disease and drunkenness to the community. However, we feel it is important to highlight these contemporary views so that families know what their ancestors faced.


A large number of Polish miners have been imported into Ayrshire with the view of defeating a strike of native workmen. The Poles work for 12s. a week. [Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette 24 November 1887]

Keir Hardie in 1889

THE IMMIGRATION OF FOREIGNERS.-Yesterday, before the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the Emigration and Immigration of Foreigners, Mr Keir-Hardie, secretory of the Ayrshire Miners Union, said to number of foreigners in Glasgow and Leith had greatly increased within the last five or six years. At Glasgow they were mostly German or Polish, not English Jews; while at Leith they were of all nationalities. The Glasgow tailors greatly complained of the foreigners were taking their places at lower wages. In reply to the Chairman, the witness said the foreigners when they arrived were always extremely poor, The foreigners were extremely thrifty and sober. The Poles earned 12s. a week, and he had heard it stated that some lived on 4s. The Scotchmen did not mix with the foreigners, and there was a very strong ill-feeling existing between them. He knew instances in Glasgow in which Jew tailors had gone to the city penniless, and had made a great deal of money by becoming sweaters. The number of such persons was increasing annually. Owing to the competition brought about by the foreigners, wages of 24s. per week paid to labourers some few years ago had gradually sunk to 12s. Mr Hardie added that the number of foreigners in Scotland, exclusive of foreign waiters was about 1500 men. [Glasgow Herald 23 July 1889]


Eddlewood Miners - The miners of Eddlewood (John Watson Limited) have suspended work in consequence of a reduction of sixpence per day having been enforced in the Pyotshaw seam, and have intimated than they will not resume until the reduction is withdrawn. Another cause of the friction the employment of Polish miners, who are taking and working places under the average county rates. [Glasgow Herald 4 December 1891]

Polish Workers At Carfin - Work at all the collieries in this district is very fair, all the pits working the full five days. Wages, however, are very low, and, through the overcrowded state of the pits, the men are not able to get their work out. The men in Dixon‘s are lying long hours. It is no unusual sight to see men coming home at six and seven o’clock at night. No effort has been made amongst the men to get themselves organised. The checkwaymen have tried several times to get a meeting, but the men would not turn out. If a meeting were called and some of the agents invited to speak it might be a success. Great complaint is being made amongst the men on account of the number of Poles in this district. If any of the old hands are thrown out of work they may leave the district, for if there is an empty place it is a Pole who will get it. As many as sixteen of them are staying in a single house. The miners are very indignant at the action of these men in working on the idle day, when all the rest of the miners observe it, and have done so for over six years. [The Dundee Courier & Argus 4 May 1896]


21 February 1900

House of Commons - Mr Woods called the attention of the Home Secretary to a fatal accident which occurred to a Polish miner employed in a Scotch coal mine; and Sir M. White Ridley replied that the inspector of the district had informed him that no accidents had occurred through ignorance of the English language on the part of these Polish workmen. The inspector had impressed their responsibility on the mine owners, who caused an extract from the Mines Act and special rules to he translated into Russian for the benefit of these foreign workmen. [Falkirk Herald 21 February 1900]

MINERS' FEDERATION - To-Day's Proceedings

The third day's proceedings in connection with the conference of the Miners' Federation at Southport were entered upon this morning.

A SCOTTISH DISPUTE- At the afternoon session, Mr. Muir (Scottish Federation) mentioned the Ayrshire dispute, and said the block system carried out by the employers there was brutal and unfair, involving men who were not engaged in the dispute. Mr. Smellie moved a resolution condemning the action of the employers and coal owners in Ayrshire in black-listing miners. The Taff Vale decision, he said, placed trades unions in a very anomalous position, and he argued that if employers were entitled to protection against the unions, the latter ought to be protected against the tyrannical action of employers. In Ayrshire the names of men on strike were black-listed throughout the country, and they were prevented from obtaining employment elsewhere in the county. Mr. Sam Woods, who was presiding, said miners had to contend with the same thing elsewhere. Mr. Gilman (Ayrshire) mentioned that in Ayrshire 9,000 workmen were suffering under the tyranny referred to because 20 men were on strike. The resolution was carried.

OBJECTION TO UNSKILLED LABOUR. A discussion then took place on the Mines Regulations Bill. Mr. Roberts (Lanarkshire) moved the following resolution :- "In view of the great influx into the mines of unskilled and foreign labour, this conference disapproves of and agrees to use every effort to remedy the cause in the interests of safety to limb." Unskilled labour, urged the speaker, was a constant source of danger to other miners. There were between two and three thousand Polish miners in Lanarkshire. They did not object to them because of their nationality, but because coal owners seemed to be employing them in mines over the home miner. The Federation ought to do what it could to prevent unskilled labour entering mines unless under proper supervision. Mr. Sullivan (Scotland), in seconding, said that many of the foreigners did not understand the difference between a safety lamp and a tea kettle. Mr. Smellie, answering a delegate's question said they objected to the importation of any men into the mines who did not understand the English language. Mr. Sam Woods said there were hundreds of Poles working in Lancashire mines, and at an explosion which occurred near Wigan about six months ago eight miners were killed because a Polish miner cutting an electric cable did not understand English. They had a perfect right to protest against the practice on the ground of safety and preservation of human life. The resolution was unanimously adopted. [Manchester Evening News 9 October 1902]

21 May 1903

POLISH MINERS IN SCOTLAND - Replying to Colonel Howard Vincent, the Home Secretary said that Aye Polish miners working in Scottish coal pits were not examined as to their knowledge of the British language, and of the laws and regulations for the safety of miners, before being allowed to go down a mine, but steps were taken by the officials of the mines to instruct them in the regulations. No accident was traceable to their ignorance of the English language or mine regulations. [Gloucester Citizen 21 May 1903]

4 July 1903

Ireland is seldom for long without a grievance. The latest complaint is one for which a considerable amount of sympathy can be entertained. It is that the Polish miners in the coalfields of Scotland are adopting distinctly Hibernian surnames, to the smirching of the honour of Ireland. As Poles are seldom absent from the Police Court rolls of offenders, the Irish people strongly object to the practice of such aliens assuming Irish names when they have been a few weeks in the country. [Evening Telegraph 4 July 1903]

“Polish Labour” in the Scottish Mines – From the Miner’s point of view (1907)

A matter that has caused considerable friction amongst the miners of Scotland during the last few years is the employment of "Polish labour" in the Scottish mines. Fifteen years ago there were few, if any, of these people engaged in the mining industry; whilst to-day those employed can be numbered by the thousand. The majority of these have no knowledge of either English or mining. Several mining firms have tried to overcome the language difficulty by having the "Mines Act" and other rules applicable to mining printed in the language of the alien. This, however, made no difference, because only a very small percentage of them could read the language they were able to converse in. Time will, of course, change this; but it will be long before many of the aliens’ children, who are at present attending school, and through whom this change will be effected, start to work. Meantime, the employment of aliens is a considerable source of danger to the other mine-workers.

The employers may have made an honest attempt to get over the language difficulty; but I am afraid that their efforts to surmount another difficulty which the "Mines Act," if properly carried out, places in their way, is not so creditable. I refer to that section of the Act which stipulates that no one shall work in a place alone as a coal-getter until he has worked for two years under the supervision of a skilled workman. [Mines Act, 1886, section 49, rule 89]. This is the only provision that is made, so far as the serving of a term of apprenticeship in the mine is concerned. In addition to this rule, the men have made a sort of voluntary attempt to regulate the number and limit the produce of persons entering the mine. Difficulty has always been experienced in enforcing this rule when grown men entered the mine, and started to work without any previous experience. The idea of the framers in both instances was to prevent accidents through ignorance. But a number of mine-owners, or, at any rate, their agents, have tried to get over this difficulty by employing two workmen who have not served their apprenticeship to work together. In most cases where this has occurred the men concerned have been foreigners. The attention of His Majesty’s Inspector of Mines was drawn to this breach, and when he approached the colliery authorities with the view of having the matter remedied, they did not attempt to deny that the practice had been resorted to. On the contrary, some of them pointed out in extenuation that whilst the "Mines Act" says that an unskilled workman cannot work alone, nevertheless it does not say that two unskilled workmen may not work alone. It is clear to me that in so doing they were guilty of a breach of the spirit, if not of the letter, of the Act, I anticipate, however, that this matter will be remedied by the recently appointed Royal Commission on Mines.

A point that has been much discussed in mining circles in connection with this matter is whether the alien or the Briton is the better miner. I am a British miner myself and may be prejudiced, but my own experience certainly is that the Briton is by far the better workman. Indeed, one mine agent of my acquaintance, when spoken to about giving undue preference to foreigners, had the candour to admit that there was no use putting them into bad places because they would not be able to work them. Hence the native miners have to work the worst places. The truth of this criticism is borne out by others whose experience is more varied than my own. It is but a short time since the miners of a certain Scottish colliery wanted an increase on their rate. They alleged that with the existing rate they were unable to earn the standard wage. When the agent of the colliery was approached by a deputation of the men about the matter he pointed out that a large number of those employed in the mine were foreigners, and he stated that they were not able to earn the same wage, given the same rate, as the British miner.

The foreigners are accused, and very rightly too, of indulging in a very bad habit of bribing petty and other mine officials in order to buy favour. In justice to them I should say that they did not inaugurate this practice, because, prior to their coming, the very same thing was done by native workmen, who were and are still known as mining contractors. It is said that these contractors sometimes earn money very easily, but they are expected to give presents to the mine officials in return. This evil is, I believe, less rampant to-day than it was a few years ago. And it is this pernicious practice, formerly carried on by a few, which the foreigners are now employing in a more wholesale fashion. It is a common observation for the miner to make in conversation that the foreigner has been the cause of reducing his wage. This to a great extent is true, because the vast majority of the Poles who have come to Scotland have drifted into the mining industry. The problem of the distribution of labour, which the working miner has, as a rule, had little time or desire to consider, is being forced more and more upon his notice. But whilst knowing very little about the theory he can generally explain very clearly that he has to produce more now than he had formerly to do, and that his increased produce only enables him to earn the same as before. And thus in his own way he tells how the fresh labour coming into the country is not being properly distributed. This is a very important though much neglected aspect of the Polish labour question.

What I have here stated is, I believe, a fairly accurate account, from the miner’s point of view, of the advent of the foreigner into the Scottish mines. In passing I have tried to give some idea of the alien’s characteristics as they have appeared to me; and in concluding I have just hinted at the economic effect that his coming has had upon the mining community of Scotland.  Francis McLauchlan [The Economic Journal, Vol. 17, No. 66 (Jun., 1907), pp. 287-289]


Relief of Destitute Aliens

The work of administering the payment of the allowances from the Destitute Aliens Grant has continued, but the Grant has been restricted to certain classes only. After 1919 the Grant was payable only to the dependants of Russians who returned to Russia under the Anglo-Russian Military Service Convention, 1917, and to the British-born dependants of repatriated enemy aliens. Aliens of other nationalities or aliens destitute in consequence of the war but not falling within the two specified classes ceased to be entitled to the grant. At 31st March 1920 the Grant was withdrawn in the case of the dependants of repatriated enemy aliens, and in the case of those Lithuanian women who had been offered repatriation to Lithuania at the expense of the British Government but who had declined to accept such offer. In: the case of women of other "Russian” nationalities to whom it had not been found practicable to offer repatriation, the allowance from the Grant continued to be payable as formerly, and it was also agreed by the Treasury that those Lithuanian women who, having accepted the Government’s offer of repatriation, were merely waiting facilities for transport should also continue to receive the usual allowance. The effect of the cessation of the Grant in the case of those Lithuanians who refused the offer of repatriation was to throw a considerable number of them on the poor rates, and with a view to minimising the financial burden which would otherwise have fallen on certain parishes, the Treasury intimated that they were prepared to repay Parish Councils, in respect of such cases, a sum equivalent to 2/3rds of their expenditure in excess of the produce of a poor rate of one penny. The Parish Councils concerned did not consider this proposal to be acceptable, their view being that as the women in question were destitute in consequence of the action of the British Government in sending their husbands to Russia and afterwards refusing to permit them to return to this country, the cost of maintenance should be a national and not a local burden. Representations were made to the Treasury, who on reconsideration of the matter intimated that while they attached great importance to the maintenance of the principle that Government assistance in these cases should be confined to parishes in which the support of such aliens represented an exceptionally heavy burden, and while they could not therefore contemplate any system of grants applicable to parishes in which the total liability was less than the produce of a penny rate, they were prepared to substitute for their previous proposal an arrangement whereby the Government Grant should be at the rate of 12s. 6d. a week for each woman and 5s. a week for each child, with the proviso that in no case should the Grant be greater than the amount required to reduce the burden falling on the parish to the equivalent of a poor rate of one penny. This arrangement was to remain in force until 31st March 1921, after which the Treasury proposed to reconsider the matter.

Early in the year proposals were initiated by the Home Secretary, with the concurrence of the Foreign Office, for the repatriation to Lithuania of the wives and children of those Lithuanian men who went to Russia under the terms of the Anglo-Russian Military Service Convention, 1917. Repatriation was deemed expedient in consequence of the decision of the Government that, of those men who elected to go to Russia under this Convention, only those who could show that they had served with some unit of the Allied forces could be permitted to return to this country. The effect of this decision was to make it likely that a large number of Lithuanian women and children in this country would, on the cessation of the Government Grant for the relief of destitute aliens, be thrown on the poor rates for many years, and- it was thought desirable to make arrangements so that these dependants could, if they so desired, rejoin their husbands and fathers in Lithuania. We were asked by the Scottish Office whether we would be prepared to make the necessary arrangements for the repatriation of these families, and we agreed to do so. The Treasury undertook to bear the expense of repatriation in these cases. We accordingly made arrangements with the Inspectors of Poor concerned to have parties conveyed to Glasgow, whence they proceeded by rail to the port of embarkation. The United Baltic Corporation, Ltd., undertook to despatch parties at intervals on their steamers to the Baltic from London to Libau, from which port the Lithuanians crossed Latvian territory to Lithuania. During the year we despatched eight parties—six from London, one from Devonport, and one from Southampton. The parties leaving Devonport and Southampton were transported by the Ambulance Transport “Dongola," which was proceeding to Russia to bring back British prisoners of war.

The total number of persons repatriated during the year was 200 women and 489 children.

There are still a large number of Lithuanian women and children remaining in this country who are unwilling to be repatriated, but in most-of these cases the women are unaware where their husbands are.

The necessary arrangements for clothing the families, obtaining passports and visas for them, seeing to their railway transport and subsistence an route, etc., entailed on all concerned a great deal of work. The welfare of the families on arrival in the South of England was kindly supervised by Mr W. J. Gable, O.B.E., Secretary to the Society of Foreigners in Distress, and we wish to place on record our special indebtedness to him for the admirable arrangements made by him. [Second annual report of the Scottish Board of Health, 1920]