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Thomas Glassey Arrives in Bedlington

Extract from the book "Some men, Murders and Mysteries of Old Bedlington" by Evan Martin. 


When people talk of living a full life there cannot be a better example of the ideal than Thomas Glassey. He lived 92 years and it is difficult to imagine even one of them being mundane. Glassey wasn't Bedlington born. He arrived here with his wife in 1867, a young man of radical principles, via Northern Ireland and the Scottish coalfield. 

He was born into a poor family at Market Hill, County Armagh. His personal happiness wasn't helped by his mother's death while he was still an infant and his father's subsequent re marriage. 

At the age of six, he found work in the local linen mill, helping hand loom weavers for the munificent wage of one penny a day and a meal thrown in (possibly literally). His family had no clock, so young Glassey, desperate not to lose his job through arriving late, gauged the mill opening time by the dawn's light and in Winter often stood outside the dark mill gates an hour before opening, his feet nestled inside his cap to keep warm. 

Even in those murky Dickensian days, Factory Acts were in force and on the rare occasions inspectors called, young Thomas was secreted in a packing case and told to hold his tongue until they'd gone. The penny a day, for a twelve hour day was so precious, young Thomas did as he was bade, but he was influenced even at that early age by the desirability of shorter working hours. 

At the age of eight, Tom was promoted to messenger, at sixpence a day, a job he held for five years. 

In the middle of the nineteenth century, many young men left Ireland to seek their fortunes in the coalfields of Scotland and Northern England. Thomas thought he saw the possibility of social and financial advancement in coalmining and at the age of thirteen he and his brother Sam left for the Scottish coalfield. 

Glassey's ten years in Scotland saw him flit from mine to mine. He took an active part in miners' societies and joined the ranks of the `advanced thinkers', agitating for better conditions, shorter hours and higher wages. He was never one to shirk a confrontation with the bosses and was regarded as a great orator by his fellow workers, but as a poison by management. As a result, Glassey was never in one place for much time, but along the may he taught himself to read and write and in 1864 married a young mill worker, Margaret Ferguson White, who for thirty years was his staunchest supporter. 

Whenever Thomas moved into a new area he tried to form a union, but the strength of the Coalowners Association was so overpowering, he was effectively blacklisted. 

Forced to seek work out of Scotland, Glassey moved across the border in 1867 with seven shillings in his pocket and settled at Choppington. He found work at both the High and Low Pits, before working at the Becllington 'A' Pit.

It didn't take long for Glassey to show his qualities of oratory and organising ability. He soon became union organiser and conducted many of the negotiations between the men and the owners. 

The coalowners in the Bedlington district were far more liberal than those in Scotland had been. Glassey became quite friendly with some of the local managers and spoke freely before them. There were times miners feared his vigorous action and outspoken words would cause trouble, but they never did. The employers were impressed by his honesty and as each side treated the other fairly, a co-operative spirit was maintained. 

Public life had now become as necessary for his constitution as the food he ate. In 1871 with Dr. Trotter and others in the newly formed Miners' Association, Glassey helped provide better water and sanitary conditions in Choppington and by 1876 fresh water was pumped to most parts of Bedlingtonshire from the new water works at Humford Mill. Privies and ashpits were provided for households in the area, but it was not until the 1880's that an attempt was made to install main sewers and provide means for household sewage disposal.

Glassey, together with his colleagues, was involved in the establish-ment of the Bedlingtonshire Gas Company in 1876. They also influenced the creation of local building societies, co-operatives, schools and reading rooms. 

Such was Glassey's involvement with the Miners' Association and his other political activities he rarely .w his family by daylight, for months on end. Eventually this total involvement caught up with him. He was never a robust man and in 1877 his health broke down completely. On the advice of Dr. Trotter he went back to Ireland to Dublin Hospital for recuperation. This was only made possible by the generous contributions of his many friends and well wishers.

After a few months Thomas returned to Bedlington. He couldn't work in the mines but worked variably at Sleekburn Co-op., later set up a small auctioneering business, had a dabble in brickmaking and sold woollens on a commission basis. So bad did Glassey regard trade and living conditions in the 1880's that he decided his family should grow up in a healthier and decidedly more encouraging environment than Bedlington. He had read much of Australia, Queensland in particular, and toyed with the idea of taking his family to the new land. He was finally persuaded to take the plunge by a Mr. Randall, who worked in England for the Queensland Government. Glassey really didn't need a lot of convincing and in September 1884 he and his family sailed on the steamer "Merkara" for a new life in Queensland. The Glasseys arrived in Brisbane in late 1884. He was forty years of age and at the prime of his life. The parochial fame Thomas had earned in Bedlingtonshire was nothing to the National renown which was to be his in Australia. 

No sooner had the Glasseys arrived in Brisbane than Tom got a job as a postman and soon organised his colleagues. On their behalf he forwarded a petition containing a list of grievances and requests and was promptly sacked by the head postmaster. 

For two years after the postman episode, Tom its an auctioneers' business and after this he returned to minor politics, organising pitmen in the Bundaberg district of Brisbane. His persuasive oratory and keen mind soon got him to the forefront of Queensland's Liberals. He stood for, and was elected to, the Queensland Legislative Assembly in the General Election of 1888. His ticket was a Liberal one, but he always claimed he was Labour and maintained he was the first Labour candidate to be elected to that Assembly. 

At the end of that first session of the Legislature, there was no doubt as to Glassey's political persuasion. He had succeeded in bettering the lot of the Railwaymen, had exposed the use of cheap coloured labour on mailboa., tried to restrict the entry of cheap Chinese labourers and wished to impose a poll tax on those already there. The subsequent publicity he received made the aggressive trade unionists realise that, in Tom, they had a gem.

There followed a period in Glassey's life when he lost a lot of support because of his unbending principles and hardheaded attitude (this had happened in Bedlington with some of his Liberal associates in the early 1880's). 

Glassey took the side of the sheepshearers during the 1891 strike and was ridiculed, his motives questioned, his honesty impugned and his sincerity doubted. Yet he bounced back and was leader of the Queensland Labour Party in their unexpected political successes of 1893. For the next seven years he served Labour with all the fervour he had shown in the Bedlington coalfields twenty years before. Then in 1901 Glassey stepped up a political class. He was elected as a Labour member of the Federal State Government of Australia, but was never the force he had been in the smaller pool of Queensland State.

Thomas visited his former stamping ground at Bedlington only once, in 1912. He was 67 years of age and found some of his old colleagues had passed away. He was to live another 24 years and on his death on September 28th 1936, many tributes were passed from colleagues and opposition alike.

Australian diplomat, A. Bernays, summed up Glassey's character: "We know him now for what he really was - a conscientious, kindly, big-hearted, big-voiced reformer, who laid foundations broad and wide, upon which Labour has built its present edifice, which is an enduring monument to this pioneer".

Glassey's memory is perpetuated in a memorial cairn just out of Brisbane and less delicately in a street of houses back at Bank Top, Bedlington, where his political teeth were sharpened.  

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