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The Butty System - 1
The butty contracted to deliver coals into carts and wagons at bank at a price per ton.

Researched by John Lumsdon

In North Staffordshire the growing demand for coal from the iron industry led to a steady expansion after 1850. The influence of north country mining engineers like John Headley and iron manufacturing and coal masters such as W.H. Sparrow, Earl Granville and the Williamson brothers led to further expansion. Despite the innovations, Headley said mining operations were conducted generally in a primitive manner. Shafts were sunk 5 to 8 feet in diameter with one rope to draw coals in a shaft without guide ropes. The minimum and maximum raised was between 10 and 450 tons weekly. He said some of the old school prided themselves upon drawing from 6 or 7 shafts with one engine and raising 200 to 500 tons from the lot. Despite the innovations, along with other enlightened people Headley condemned the butty system.


A butty was a man who had come up from the ranks of workmen, saved some money, as his business required capital to provide tools, timber, horses etc. He was a sub-contractor, and an intermediary between master and men. The butty contracted to deliver coals into carts and wagons at bank (surface) at a price per ton.

A butty was not recognised by law, and carried no weight with a government inspector.

He took no responsibility - either for firing shots, or in the supervision of safety.

His duties were to get the greatest amount of work out of the smallest number of men and to keep down the cost of coal and repairs.

His work was sometimes not overlooked for months. This meant the owners and managers did not supervise. It was just left to the butty, and his own devices to the mode of getting the coal.

He paid the colliers, putters etc., who were usually engaged by the week or by the day. Many butties were notorious for paying wages in goods and not in cash.

This practice was known as "Truck" or "Tommy". The goods were inferior goods at higher prices than one would normally pay in towns. In evidence about butties one man said: - "Many accidents were caused by butties, to save a sixpence, and they will let men work that are not colliers. There will be places that would make a collier's flesh shake on his bones to go near and these men get knocked on the head, scores of them in a year."

Many of these accidents happened to men not knowing their work and getting into pits where they had no right to be. The reason was that some colliers, who refused to go in these places, were told to get their jackets and leave the pit.

Headley concluded that, if the local system of conducting mining operations were not superseded by improved methods, a great proportion of the coal would remain un-mined.

The coal owner employed the butty who, in turn employed the colliers. Sometimes the owner deferred paying his buties so that they were unable to pay their men, who consequently had to rely on "Tommy" shops and compelled men, as a condition of employment, to spend so much of their wages in the shop. Another variation when the butties themselves owned the beer shops, where on pay day, wages were paid out with the stipulation that the miners must spend a given amount on drink. In South Staffordshire the practice of paying a proportion of the wages in beer, was known as "buildas."  




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