William Small – Trade Unionist


1947-dixons-at-priestfieldI’ve seen a few inaccurate reports about Mr. William Small, the trade unionist, largely due to errors and misunderstandings because his son was ALSO a trade unionist called William B Small. I’ve set out to make a correct entry online about William Small, as follows:

Small Mr. William – b1845 – d1903 was a 19th Century Englishman. In his younger years, Small ran a drapers’ shop in Glasgow, then moved his business to Cambuslang, and finally to Blantyre. There, he became involved in the land reform movement.

He is most remembered for being a coal Mining union leader and champion of the worker. He was general secretary of Lanarkshire Miners’ Union. He strongly resented the exploitation of the miners and the cruelty of the mines.

His son William Ballsillie Small was born in 1873 and the two men are sometimes confused in historical papers. Alexander Macdonald had been the leading miners’ trade union organiser in Lanarkshire. Alex died in 1881, and Andrew McCowie, who had met Small through the land reform movement, believed that Mr. Small would be McDonald’s ideal successor. Small’s draper business was not going well, and he was persuaded, devoting the remainder of his life to the cause. In 1885, he worked with older activists such as Robert Steel to call meetings of miners in Lanarkshire with a view to founding a branch of the Lanarkshire Miners’ Union. Among those who attended was Robert Smillie, who regarded Small as an early mentor. Smillie noted that Small would rise early in the morning to walk to meetings as much as twenty miles away, and in summer would often sleep outdoors to avoid having to complete the return journey the same day. Keir Hardie led the union, with Mr. Small succeeding as secretary in 1885. He led the union in supporting Hardie’s campaign at the Mid Lanarkshire by-election, 1888, and Small chaired many of Hardie’s campaign meetings. Small also attended the UK-wide miners’ conferences in 1886 and 1889.

In the big strike of 1887, when all the Lanarkshire miners were out, elder Mr. William Small “shut shop” one afternoon to address the miners’ meeting in Blantyre and thus became deelply involved in their struggle for justice in what was to become infamously known one week as the Blantyre Riots. The President of Lanarkshire Miners Union was Mr Robert Smillie, whom in 1890, wrote a foreword about William Small in his autobiography book, My Life for Labour.” It is transcribed here. “We had the able assistance of Mr William Small, who, though not a miner was one of the best authorities of the day on mining matters. A tireless worker, William Small uncomplainingly sacrificed himself for the cause of the miner. He lived for us. I have known him to leave home at four o’clock in the morning on five days a week, holding morning meetings in various parts of the county– at a distance of sixteen or seventeen miles from his house in Blantyre. The use of a horse and trap was completely out of the question on the ground of expense, and this devoted man made those long journeys on foot at all seasons of the year. Frequently, he would be far from home holding meetings at night in summer weather, and it was no uncommon thing for him to sleep out in a field or a wood with a copy of the Glasgow Herald or the Scotsman for his coverlet. In this way he was able to visit one of the collieries in the vicinity early the following morning in furtherance of the cause he had so much at heart.

On one or two occasions I have attended these distant meetings and come up with Mr Small by arrangement at a point on the road. When I asked him if he had come from home, or where he had spent the night, he would take me over to a spot in the wood where his newspaper “bedclothes” lay scattered on the grass. These papers may have been hostile to the miners, but they were at least of some help to the movement by sheltering the general secretary in his greenwood couch. How did you get out here so early, William? I might ask him. “Man,” he would say with a laugh, “I was so tired that I just lay down on the lap of mother earth, and I think I could have slept on a bing of whinstone.” Mr Small was of medium height. Rather heavily built, of ruddy complexion, and wore a short, sandy beard. I never thought he was very robust, but no complaint ever escaped through his lips. Many times he accompanied me to attend conferences in London, and I remember that we paid frequent visits to the British Museum, when he would suggest I take a walk among the exhibits while he continued to search for some old Scottish mining laws which he ultimately succeeded in finding. He copied these old laws out, and had them printed either in the form of letters or articles in the newspapers.”

Small’s politics gradually moved towards socialism, and his cottage became a centre for discussions between leading socialist activists, including William Morris, Henry Hyndman and Edward Carpenter.

Small joined Hardie’s Scottish Labour Party, eventually becoming a vice-president, and was considered as a potential candidate in Dundee at the 1892 UK general election, though he was not ultimately selected. He attended the 1892 and 1893 Trades Union Congresses; at the first, he and Smillie jointly proposed nationalising the mines and also mineral rights.

The county union appears to have dissolved around 1890, but several local miners unions were established in the county, Small leading the Blantyre Miners’ Trade Union. In 1896, this became part of a new Lanarkshire Miners’ County Union. In 1893, Mr. Small was a founder member of the Independent Labour Party, serving on its first national administrative committee. In 1894, he was selected as its candidate for one of the seats in Edinburgh at the next general election, but he withdrew before the contest. He remained close to Smillie, and would accompany him on trips to London; Smillie would attend meetings, while Small would conduct research on Scottish mining law at the British Library.

He strove for union of all the various union branches in the area, and at the formation of the Lanarkshire Miners’ County Federation in 1893, was chosen as its first secretary, being paid £2 per week.

The miners, as a token of their appreciation and gratitude, had a large, detached cottage, named Olivia Cottage or Olivia Lodge, with an extensive front garden, built for him halfway down Forrest Street at number 14.

It is incorrectly written by others that William was largely responsible for raising funds and building of Blantyre Miners Welfare in Calder Street during 1928. This is not the case, for William died on 23rd January 1903 and indeed it was his son William Balsillie Small that raised the welfare funds. Small was less central to mining trade unionism by the turn of the century, devoting some of his time to an elected post on Blantyre’s School Board.

Upon William’s death, Duncan Mathieson of Castle Street, Hamilton wrote a poem in 1903 dedicated to William Small. As follows: The Man who fought for the rights of Coalminers. In Memoriam of the late William Small Miners Agent: “He died on the field of battle, In the midst of the din and the strife; He gave what the cause had asked for—His energy and his life! He grappled with foes around him, For Justice, Truth and Right, and he died where they first had found him, In the van of a desperate fight! If there’s glory in death, he has won it! Let the halo shine bright round his name! Whatever his duty he done it Regardless of praise or blame! His conscience, true guide to his actions, was free from the guile and deceit that would lure honest men into fractions, that ever must end in defeat. The long weary struggle is ended, the soul of a hero has fled; the cause he so ably defended Must find a new light in his stead! The feet of the martyrs have beaten. A track that will ever remain, their sufferings may yet help to sweeten. The long, bitter struggle with pain!”

On 30th January 1903, the Hamilton Herald wrote, “The death took place, with great suddenness on Friday night of Mr William Small at his residence, Olivia Cottage, Blantyre. The family tea was being prepared, and Mr Small was talking quite cheerily, when he suddenly expired, death being attributed to failure of the heart’s action. Mr Small was one of the bestknown figures in mining circles in Scotland. Commencing in the drapery line in Glasgow, he continued it in Cambuslang. At the time the late Mr Alexander McDonald died, Mr Andrew McCowie, an enthusiastic Scots-Irishman, thought he saw in Mr Small, a successor to Mr McDonald. Mr Small embarked on the uphill work of organising the Lanarkshire miners. For over 20 years Mr Small devoted himself to keeping up the dying flames of unionism amongst the miners, but somehow, as the County Union became established on the present substantial basis, he appeared to be swept aside. He was able and versatile, and did good work in Blantyre as a member of the School Board, and otherwise he was happy in his children—two daughters and three sons. He has died at the age of 57.

On Monday afternoon the funeral of Mr William Small took place from Olivia Cottage to Blantyre Cemetery. The funeral was a public one and, notwithstanding the inclemency of the weather, there was a very large attendance, all the collieries by arrangement, having stopped work for the day at one o’clock in the afternoon. Along with the relatives and friends who assembled at the residence were Councillor Shaw Maxwell, Glasgow; Messrs Smillie, Gilmour, Murdoch, Robertson and Gallocher, of the Lanarkshire Miners’ Union. Mr John Wilson, West Lothians; Mr A. McAnulty, Blantyre and others. The miners and general public assembled in Stonefield Masonic Hall. In the funeral procession were three brass bands, and headed by Blantyre Band playing the “Dead March” the route to the cemetery was along Stonefield Road and Larkfield, blinds being drawn or shops closed all the way. The other bands were Auchinraith Band, and the Salvation Army Band, both of which have also played at intervals. In the vicinity of the deceased’s residence there was an immense concourse of spectators, and the streets were lined along the route. Both at the house and the grave the eulogy was delivered by Councillor Shaw Maxwell.”

The Lanarkshire Miners County Union gave up £100 of their funds, so the miner’s could erect a small monument at High Blantyre Cemetery. A newspaper commented at the time, “it was a pity they had not given the money to Mr Small whilst he was living, but is better late than never.” The Hamilton Advertiser newspaper incorrectly suggested he was 53 when he died, when he was actually 57.

His headstone reads, “William Small – Miners Agent. Died 23rd January 1903. Erected by the Lanarkshire Miners. “In Changeless love to a noble father. For his changeless devition to good for all.”

On his death, his wife and family moved away and an Irish family called Duffy took over the cottage at Forrest Street. Two of his sons followed him into trade unionism, Robert and William B.

Small Crescent in Blantyre was named after him a fitting tribute with so many mining families living there when the homes were built. His banner was unfurled on 6th January 1947 at Dixon’s Pit3 High Blantyre, on the day the Coal Industry was nationalised. (pictured)

From “Blantyre Explained” by Paul Veverka (c) 2016

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