When Thomas Davis and his wife Annis and their family from Pillowell in the Forest of Dean decided to emigrate to Canada in 1890 they could not have known that their choice would have tragic consequences or that their personal tragedy would be remembered in Canada to this day. One of their boys, Thomas, would be killed in one of the worst mining disasters in Canadian mining history and another, William, would be shot dead by the police in one of the most violent strikes in Canadian labour history. In commemoration of William Davis’ sacrifice, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) designated the day in his honour, with miners in Nova Scotia vowing to never work on “Davis Day” ever again. His memory continues to be celebrated within the Canadian labour movement.
William Davis was born in Pillowell on 3 June 1887, the son of Thomas Davis, a miner, and his wife Annis Duffy who married in Parkend in 1865. The family also included seven children. These were, Sarah, Elizabeth, James, Alice, Thomas, Clemantina, and Bertha. They all emigrated to Nova Scotia in 1890 where there were opportunities to gain work in the rapidly developing Canadian coal mines. They settled in Springfield and the men and boys started work in the mines. Another daughter, Beatrice was born in 1896. However, on 21 February 1891, just a year after they arrived, tragedy struck when Thomas, aged 14, was killed, at the Springhill Mine Explosion. The disaster occurred when a fire, caused by an accumulation of coal dust, swept through the mine killing 125 miners and injuring dozens more leaving behind 57 widows and 169 fatherless children. Some of the dead were between 10 to 13 years old. The scale of the disaster was unprecedented in Canadian mining history. One eyewitnesses described the blast as being:
preceded by a sudden gust of wind, which swept like a tornado through the dark passages, hurling timbers and clouds of dust and flying missiles before it. This was followed in a few seconds by balls of fire, large and small, and then came a solid body of fierce flame that filled the passages and literally roasted everything in its path.
In the tunnels, the rescuers had to brave the threat of continuing fires and further explosions, as well as afterdamp which is a lethal mix of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen. Despite the shock of the accident, the mine returned to operations less than two weeks later.
When William Davis reached adulthood he gained work in the Cape Breton coalfields, also in Nova Scotia. In 1908, he was living in Dominion, Cape Breton where he married Myrtle McPherson who was born in Springhill. There was a long history of industrial unrest in the region. In 1876, 1882, 1904 and 1909 military forces had been sent to Cape Breton from the mainland to deal with disorder. However, after World War One, two new protagonists appeared on the scene. One was District 26 of the UMWA, representing 12,000 miners in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick which quickly became under the control of a number of fiery, articulate trade union militants. The other was the British Empire Steel Corporation (BESCO), the largest industrial consortium in Canada at the time. In the 1920s, there was a worldwide depression in the coal industry. As a result, between 1920 and 1925, BESCO had continually cut wages and this combined with the deplorable conditions in the mines led to 58 strikes between 1920 and 1925. In one strike, in August 1921, the settlement reached was hardly suggestive of a lasting peace. The union President later commented:
The wage schedule was accepted by miners under the muzzle of rifles, machine guns and gleaming bayonets with further threatened invasions of troops and marines, with warships standing to. The miners, facing hunger, their Dominion and Provincial governments lined up with BESCO. . . were forced to accept the proposals.
In March of 1925, Cape Breton coal miners were receiving $3.65 in daily wages and had been working part-time for more than three years. They burned company coal to heat company houses illuminated by company electricity. Their families drank company water, were indebted to the company store and were financially destitute. Local clergy spoke of children clothed in flour sacks and dying of starvation from the infamous “four cent meal”.
At the end of February, strikes flared when BESCO announced plans to further cut wages. Initially the strike affected only a few pits but BESCO inflamed the situation more when it refused credit to unemployed miners at its company stores and further reduced days of work at the collieries a full scale strike was inevitable. BESCO continued to refuse to concede to UMWA demands to maintain existing wage levels and insisted that it could not run the mines at a profit unless wages were reduced. BESCO was controlled by President Roy M. Wolvin and Vice-President J.E. McLurg who defended these conditions by stating:
Coal must be produced cheaper in Cape Breton, poor market conditions and increasing competition make this an absolute necessity. If the miners require more work, then the United Mine Workers of America District 26 Executive must recommend acceptance of a 20% wage reduction.
On 6 March 1925, the UMWA called out its 12,000 members in the region. UMWA strategist, J.S. McLachlan, argued a 100% strike was necessary to do battle with BESCO and called for the removal of all maintenance men from the collieries. He stated that if the company would not negotiate an end to this deprivation and hunger, the mines would slowly fill with floodwater and die. BESCO immediately cut off the sale of coal to miners houses and mounted a vigorous public relations campaign to blame the miners for their own predicament. Andrew Merkel, a reporter with the Canadian Press interviewed J. E. McLurg, then Vice-President of BESCO. In describing the strike, McLurg boasted to Merkel:
Poker game, nothing, we hold all the cards. Things are getting better every day they stay out. Let them stay out two months or six months, it matters not, eventually they will have to come to us. They can’t stand the gaff.
The UMWA lobbied for intervention from the Liberal Provincial and Federal governments to no avail. The strikers picketed the pits to prevent blackleg maintenance men entering the pits to operate the pumping systems with a view of exerting pressure on BESCO to negotiate with the union. In early May, strikers smashed a pumping system for three of the pits with sledge hammers leading to the flooding of the pits. In early June, about twenty pickets were arrested on the picket line. On June 3, 1925, the UMWA withdrew the last maintenance men from BESCO’s power plant at Waterford Lake. However, BESCO responded by turning off water, power and food supplies to New Waterford forcing the strikers and their families into near starvation. This action left the hospital filled with extremely sick children without power or water. For more than a week the town mayor, P.G. Muise, literally begged company officials to restore electricity and water to his townspeople. BESCO ignored his requests.
At this time, William Davis and his wife had 9 children and another one on the way. Davis was a skilled worker and had become active in his union. Thirty thousand men, women and children were now dependent on relief.
On June 11th, the UMWA called a meeting which was attended by miners from Glace Bay, Dominion, Sydney Mines and New Waterford. The union leaders agreed to send messages to both the Federal and Provincial Governments demanding they force the company to restore power, water and food supplies to the townspeople. Later in the day, drunken company police decided that they would teach the people a lesson and charged down Plummer Avenue on horseback, beating all who stood in their path. They rode through the schoolyards, knocking down innocent children while joking that the miners were at home hiding under their beds. At this time, company police were little more than hired thugs. It was the last straw. The miners and their families had little choice but to take the matter into their own hands.
On 14th June, 3,000 miners and wives marched to the company’s power facilities outside New Waterford, in an attempt to restore power and water. When the march approached the power station they were confronted by mounted company police who charged through the crowd at the same time firing over 300 shots. William Davis was shot dead and many other miners were injured.
The miners ran into the surrounding woods as if they were taking flight but in fact were maneuvering behind the police, surrounding them and blocking them from returning to the power plant. As the fighting continued the police were knocked off their horses and attacked. The police fled in every direction, pursued by miners and their families. As a result, the miners were able to get into the power plant to switch on the power to the town. They then cut the electricity supply to the pits bringing to a halt the pumping operations. The miners dragged the beaten and captured policemen back to New Waterford and took control of the town helping themselves to food from the company shops. The police were then held on the street, where according to the Halifax Herald, the women “belaboured them with their fists and sticks and other weapons”. The police were then taken to the town jail for their own protection and later sent to Halifax to avoid being lynched. Although a victory was won, the casualties were great. One man’s treatment by the police resulted in a broken back, another was shot in the arm, one was shot in the stomach and 22 policemen and 30 miners were injured. William Davis was dead. The next day’s Sydney Post described the event as:
the result of five months of government inaction, corporation obstinacy, and the accumulated desperation of hungry men….
In the weeks following the shooting, company facilities were looted and vandalized, despite the deployment of the provincial police force and 2,000 soldiers in what remains Canada’s second-largest military deployment for an internal conflict (after the Northwest Rebellion). Practically all the available troops from Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario were sent to the scene. The authorities were particularly concerned about reports that the workers were in possession of a machine gun and that while there was no ammunition, a man had apparently left for Sydney to pick up extra munitions. The violence continued in spite of the presence of the military who were unable to take full control of the town. By 20 June, 175 warrants were issued for the arrest of persons on various charges of rioting and looting. The destruction was not wanton as only BESCO property was targeted. Most of the company stores were looted and several were burned to the ground. A similar fate befell BESCO warehouses, a coal bankhead, and two antiquated wash houses about which the miners had complained for years. In all, there were twenty-two fires, the last occurring on 30 June. Damages were between 500,000 and 1,000,000 dollars.
In early August, the government came up with a set of proposals as a basis for a temporary agreement including an interim contract based on 1922 wages and 1924 working terms. Also, it recommended a commission of enquiry into the coal industry in the province with the brief of providing a long term solution. Both parties agreed to these terms and the majority of the miners voted for a return to work. This represented a significant victory for the miners. Soon, quiet returned and, on 15 August, the troops departed. In the end, the only person charged as a result of the disturbances was the policeman accused of killing Davis and he was acquitted. After a brief renewal of looting at BESCO company stores in January 1926, itself an indication of their desperation, the miners paused to digest the recommendations of the Commission. They had to swallow the original wage-cut.
Over 5,000 people attended Davis’ funeral. In commemoration of his sacrifice, the UMWA designated the day in his honour, with miners in Nova Scotia vowing to never work on “Davis Day” ever again. For the remainder of the 20th century, the pledge of never working on June 11 was maintained and Davis Day was observed as a holiday in the Canadian mining communities. Since the closure of Nova Scotia’s last coal mine in November 2001, Davis Day has evolved to become a remembrance day for all workers killed in mines in the province.