|Born & education
John Nixon was born on May 10th 1805 at Barlow a village in the northern part of the county of Durham, which was seven miles to the west of Newcastle-on-Tyne, and three miles south of the famous river itself.
When he was an infant nobody could have forseen the directions which is subsequent career was destined to make, He was the only son of a tenant farmer who came from a long family who held the holding for generations. Tough and long-lived, for it is the custom of the Nixon’s to live to a great age, he will succeed his father in the farm, and till it, and flourish in his modest way, like his ancestors before him.” Yet to those who had skill to read the signs of the times it must have been plain that a wholesome spirit of unrest was awake in the county of Durham, and that a farmer’s son who possessed the requisite qualities might go far to the front and win many a victory in the battle of life.
But the sturdy northern farmer seems to have discovered some signs of promising ability in his little boy, for when the lad was still quite young he took the step, a serious one for him, of sending him to Dr Bruce’s Academy at Newcastle-on-Tyne. Whether Dr Bruce’s school was large or small we are not aware, but it is at least certain that Dr Bruce was a teacher of the highest ability, and that quite an extraordinary number of lads passed through his hands to become, in due time, mining- and civil-engineers of the highest repute. Young Nixon did not meet the immortal Robert Stephenson as a schoolfellow, for Robert was twelve years his senior. But Dr Bruce had educated Robert Stephenson, for whose education George Stephenson had made great sacrifices.
So John Nixon determined to make his venture in the great world of business and of commerce, and living as he then did in the middle of the coal district, chose that form of business which lay nearest to his hand. He accordingly apprenticed himself to Mr Joseph Gray of Garesfield, then well known in the colliery world as one of the leading mining-engineers of the North of England, and occupying the position of chief mining agent to the Marquis of Bute. How assiduously Nixon worked, allowing no detail to escape his observation, how deep an impression he made upon his master, Mr Gray, may be seen from the actions of Mr Nixon himself in after life, and from the readiness with which Mr Gray, when the opportunity came, exerted himself to serve the interests of his sometime apprentice. Nixon was to have many connections with the Bute Estate in after years, but during his apprenticeship he was of but little apparent importance to the Bute Estate or to the world at large, and at the expiration of the term of that apprenticeship he was nothing more than a young man with all his troubles before him, who knew his work passing well, but had no opportunity of showing his knowledge or of turning it to profit. So John Nixon, finding no opportunity of an engagement as a colliery manager, did not disdain to accept the position of overman at Garesfield Colliery, at the magnificent remuneration of 3s. 6d. per day, a rate of pay at which the commonest working collier of 1899, in spite of shortened hours, would laugh with scorn. And John Nixon’s hours of work were such that, in order to be in time at the colliery, he had to rise at four o’clock every morning and walk two miles to his work, which ended at four o’clock in the afternoon.
Fortunately for him he was working within reach of the eye of Mr Gray, who not only saw that the young man was industrious and attentive in his work, but knew that he possessed by this time scientific training in addition to his great intelligence. Mr Gray awaited his opportunity of promoting the clever and hard-working young man to better things, or of using his influence to procure for him a position more worthy of his intelligence; but to the young man, particularly as he strode to his work on the cold winter mornings, or trudged home after a day of laborious toil, the time of advancement must have seemed very long in coming. For two long years did he perform the arduous but by no means fascinating duties of an overman; for two long years did he thus receive that practical training which was to serve him so well in later life. And if during these years he came to know all the intricacies of coal-mining and its methods.
First time to South Wales 1839
At last Mr Gray’s opportunity of helping the young man to go out into life with fair prospects came, or seemed to have come; and it was seized with a promptitude which showed how high was the elder man’s opinion of the merits of his sometime pupil. An appointment in connection with the great iron-works of Mr Crawshay Bailey, at Nanty-y-glo in South Wales, became vacant in 1839, and was advertised in the Newcastle papers. In passing, it is worthwhile to notice that the connection between Newcastle and its vicinity, and South Wales and Monmouthshire, rivals in trade as the two districts are, has at all times been close. You may hear Welsh spoken in the great works at Consett to this day; and Welshmen are to be found occupying the highest positions in the industrial community concentrated at Consett, and directing the destinies of the huge enterprise connected with the name of Bolckow, Vaughan, & Company. So, adventurous men from the banks of the Tyne, Sir George Elliot for example, have found their way to South Wales, and have reached the highest places in the commercial community there. The young man of twenty-four, who came from the farm-house at Barlow, was destined to be one of these.
The advertisement appears to have been somewhat vague in its phraseology, but it sufficed to tempt Mr Nixon to become an applicant, and, in his application, he had the cordial support of
It was on a Saturday evening that Mr Nixon reached his destination and became the guest of Mr Crawshay Bailey, who appears to have spent the first evening of their acquaintance in “taking stock,” as schoolboys say, of the young North Countryman. The great iron-master plied him with questions of every kind concerning the details of coal and iron work, with the object, no doubt, of making sure that he had got hold of a man capable of doing the work which was to be entrusted to him; and we may be sure that he obtained the fullest satisfaction, for, above all things, the young man knew his business. Still the evening passed away, and the Sunday also the men were not as prone then as now to transact business on Sunday; before any definite offer was made to Mr Nixon. When it came it was a staggering disappointment. Mr Nixon had come all the way from Newcastle under the impression that the position vacant was that of chief manager of the whole great enterprise of ironworks and colliery, of which the former was far the more important, the output of the colliery being but 250 tons a day.
To his great surprise he found that Mr Bailey offered to him the management of the colliery only, and he did not hesitate to express courteously but plainly his astonishment that he should have been encouraged to come from the far North of England to discuss so insignificant an offer.
Far from being annoyed by Mr Nixon’s plain speaking, Mr Bailey proceeded to unfold his intentions more plainly. He had, he explained, a manager in charge of the ironworks already, but he was not satisfied with the manner in which that gentleman performed his duties. He had never desired that Mr Nixon should occupy permanently so inferior a position as that of manager of the small colliery connected with the works. That was merely temporary; it was no more than an excuse for having him on the spot until the opportunity came for dismissing the manager then in office. To a man of ordinary character Mr Crawshay Bailey’s offer would have presented great temptations. The great iron-master, for Crawshay Bailey was certainly entitled so to be styled, had said to him in effect, “Accept this minor situation as a stopgap, and, as soon as I can see a decent excuse for sending the chief manager about his business, you shall have his place.” This meant that, if he was prepared to enter into this rather false position, he would have every chance of becoming chief manager of ironworks of the highest position and prosperity.
The shrewdness and the insight into colliery affairs shown by the young man had clearly made a deep impression on his mind, and he said frankly that Nixon was far too able a man to be settled in the only position which could, for the moment, be offered to him at Nant-y-glo; and Nixon said that, if he failed to find suitable employment elsewhere, he would return to Nant-y-glo, take that which was offered, and do the best he could for his employer.
But, as the solitary wayfarer crossed Cefn On, his eyes rested on that magnificent panorama which is to be a possession of mankind for ever, since it is presented upon a scale so huge that no work of man’s hand can destroy its lines of beauty. He looked down upon the rich surface of the Vale of Glamorgan; his eye rested on the waters of the Bristol Channel, on the Steep and Flat Holmes, and on the distant coastline of Somerset and North Devon. Little did he think then, as the infant town of Cardiff lay below him some seven miles distant, or when he turned his eyes to the northward over those rugged hills and valleys amongst which Aberdare and Merthyr, with their large industrial populations, nestle to-day, how great was to be his influence in a movement which should change the appearance of all the country-side, and find honest and profitable employment for tens of thousands of men.
The memory of that scene never perished in Mr Nixon’s mind, but at the moment he had his work to do. He still had six miles of hard walking still lay before him, if he was to reach Llandaff and to see Lord Bute’s agent, Mr Robert Beaumont, that evening. Mr Beaumont was the man to apply to, for the appointment of which Mr Nixon had heard (but which might, for all he knew to the contrary, have been filled up) lay within Mr Beaumont’s province. The question to be considered by Mr Beaumont was that of granting a renewed lease of the Dowlais Works to Sir John Guest. Before that step could be taken, it was imperatively necessary that a thorough survey of the workings should be made; and the question of principal interest to Mr Nixon was whether he should be the man to make the survey.
When Mr Beaumont returned matters were soon arranged. The appointment was still vacant: that was one point gained; and although Mr Beaumont and John Nixon then met one another face to face for the first time, Mr Nixon’s abilities and his peculiar fitness for work such as that which required to be accomplished had already been described to Mr Beaumont by Mr Gray of Garesfield. A few minutes of conversation sufficed to indicate the nature of the survey which must be made: it was to include a thorough examination of the coal and ironstone workings, to be followed by a comprehensive report upon their condition, and upon the prospects of their providing food in the future for the ironworks and the furnaces.
Such an examination must necessarily consume a considerable period of time, and the remuneration offered was at the rate of £150 per annum. That remuneration was far from being princely from the modern point of view, though it was handsome then; and it was at least three times as much as Mr Nixon had been making during the two preceding years at Garesfield. Moreover, we may be sure that Mr Nixon was alive to the advantages of entering upon a career in a new country in connection with an undertaking of great importance and responsibility upon an estate of the highest standing. To be employed on behalf of the Bute Estate was then, as it is in these days, a much-prized privilege.
Before accepting the offer which Mr Beaumont made there and then, Mr Nixon recounted to his new acquaintance the story of his negotiations with Mr Crawshay Bailey at Nant-y-glo; and he was soon convinced that his reluctance to accept the position offered to him there had been as prudent as it was certainly honourable. Knowing full well the character of the then manager at Nant-y-glo, Mr Beaumont was able to assure his young acquaintance that, if he had accepted Mr Bailey’s offer and the reasons of his presence at the colliery had become known, as surely must have happened, prejudice against him would certainly have been excited amongst the men, and his work would have been carried on under circumstances of the most unpleasant character and with constant disagreements.
But this revolution was not effected in a day, and we must proceed by steps. When John Nixon went to Dowlais he found Mr Thomas Evans established there in the position of General Manager, with his brother, Mr John Evans, as Assistant-Manager. In sole charge of the entire underground workings was Mr George Heppell, whose lot it became later to have charge of the whole of the Plymouth Collieries; while Mr George Martin looked after the ironstone workings. These were the men upon the conduct of operations by whom, at Dowlais, the young man from the North had to hold inquiry and to pass judgment.
Such, in principle, was the system which John Nixon found to prevail underground at Dowlais, save that there the pillars were left behind altogether, being not considered worth working at all. With his practical and economical mind, however, he was not satisfied to draw a merely vague conclusion, and to report in general terms that there was much waste, but proceeded to make an exact calculation of the waste. The result of that calculation was that not more than forty per cent, of the great wealth of available coal was actually worked and turned to profitable account. In this respect it was hardly possible to blame the Dowlais Company, for no better method of working was known in South Wales at the time, and years were to pass before the “long wall ” system, imported from Lancashire and the Midlands, was established in South Wales.
Such was the opening incident of the business life of John Nixon in his first sojourn in South Wales, during which he lived in hotels at Dowlais and Merthyr, and finally in lodgings at Dowlais. The noteworthy points during that period are the independence and courage shown by him on the occasion of his interview with Mr Crawshay Bailey, and the quickness of insight which led him to perceive at a glance, almost, the disastrous wastefulness of the methods then in use for winning Welsh steam coal. He was soon to leave South Wales without, so far as appearances went, any prospect of returning there; but before we follow him in his wanderings.
John Nixon sees Welsh Steam Coal burning for the First Time
It is pleasant to pause over one little incident, having no connection with the thread of his life at the time, in which his habit of intelligent observation was strikingly illustrated, and from which, combined with a later incident on board a Thames steamer, his great fortune may be said to have originated.
He was standing one day during his nine months of work at Dowlais near the engine at Pen-y-darren pit, in company with Mr Gray of Garesfield. The cast-iron boiler of the engine was working at high pressure, a matter which in itself struck him as remarkable. Just then the stoker had occasion to open the furnace door and to throw coal upon the fire, and Mr Nixon watched him. Never had Mr Nixon seen coal used that produced so intense a heat and he immediately called Mr Gray’s attention to the circumstances.
“Look there,” he cried, “what great heat and no smoke from it either! It is much better coal than we have in the North of England.” Mr Gray asked him why he held that view.
Again, Mr Nixon expressed to Mr Gray his strong opinion of the valuable qualities of this, to him, novel fuel. But a few months had passed since he had left Newcastle; yet, at a glance, he perceived the truth that in evaporative power, in which the value of steam coal consists, the South Wales product was infinitely superior to that of his native county, and that glance was to be the foundation of a great fortune. Year after year in later days, in France and in England, when he was middle-aged and when he was very old, his mind recurred to the scene at Pen-y-darren pit, and the memory of the dazzling glare from the glowing furnace, when the door was thrown open, recurred to him. Of a surety he was not one of those of whom it is written, “Eyes have they, and see not.” His eyes were ever watching, his brain was always working over that which he had seen.
First French Experience
It is probable that, when Mr Nixon had finished his work at Dowlais, he considered that he had done with South Wales, and that there were no immediate prospects of employment for him there. Certainly he can have had no idea of the effect which had been produced on the mind not only of Mr Gray, but also of Lord Bute himself, by the perusal of the complete and masterly report in which he had described and criticised the underground workings at Dowlais. This may be assumed, since Mr Nixon was always as shrewd in matters of business as he was keen in the faculty of observation. He had made a very good start in South Wales; he had satisfied himself, as we have seen, of the great value of the produce of the South Wales coal-field.
If he had thought that there was any hope of a position in the service of Lord Bute, it is morally certain that he would not have shown any alacrity in seeking work elsewhere, or in giving favourable consideration to offers of employment from other quarters. As things happened, the effect of the report upon Lord Bute’s mind was to convince him that Mr Nixon was a man of such capacity as to be worthy of a position of higher trust than he had hitherto occupied, and Mr Gray was instructed to direct Mr Robert Beaumont to offer to him the position of Lord Bute’s mining-engineer in Wales.
But Mr Nixon and his friends had been active in the meanwhile, and, when the offer came, it was not in his power to accept it. Hence came it that Lord Bute lost the opportunity of securing the services of a very remarkable man, and that Mr Nixon, who felt no doubt that the mere offer of so responsible a position to a man of his years was the highest compliment, left South Wales to fulfil his destiny far away and amongst a strange people.
His departure came about on this wise. Very shortly after the work at Dowlais was accomplished, and when he had nothing definite to do, he received a letter from Mr Tom John Taylor, who was then recognised as one of the highest mining authorities in the north of England, in which mention was made of the possibility of his obtaining the post of mining- engineer to an English company interested in a colliery and ironworks in France. A meeting between him and Mr Taylor was arranged in London. Mr Taylor introduced him to the directors, who, after putting many questions to him, and being satisfied that he was amply competent to perform the duties which would be required of him, concluded the interview by offering to him the management of their works in France at a salary of £500 a year. Careful consultation with Mr Taylor, however, ended in a decision that it would be wise to accept the appointment; and he called upon the chairman of the company next day, formally pledged himself to the service of the directors, and promised to sail for France as soon as possible.
Before leaving England he went down to Llandaff to see Mr Robert Beaumont, and to acquaint him with the change which had taken place in his position. A short time before he had been without a place and without a salary. When he called upon Beaumont he had an appointment and an income which for a man of his position, in those times, might certainly be reckoned handsome; and now he was to learn from Mr Beaumont that, if he had bided his time, he might have occupied at once high position in the employment of Lord Bute. That employment, indeed, was offered to him there and then; but it was out of his power, even if it had not been contrary to his disposition, to recede from his pledge. John Nixon might drive a keen bargain; indeed, he drove many such in after life, as every man of business must; but he was far from being the man to break an engagement.
So, after one more interview with the directors in London, John Nixon went by steamer to Boulogne, and then entered upon the long pilgrimage, for travelling was no affair of express trains in those days, to his destination in the west of France. First he travelled by diligence from Boulogne to Paris, and there spent two days, which must have been full of strangeness to his un-travelled mind. From the Dowlais of early Victorian days to the Paris of Louis Philippe was as great a change as may be conceived. But Mr Nixon’s heart was set upon his work, and Paris could not keep him away for more than forty-eight hours from his long journey of two days and a half by diligence to Nantes.
John Nixon arrived at Nantes, the great port which was to be the scene of interesting episodes in his later career, Mr Nixon found that his journey was by no means over, and that he must transfer himself and his baggage to a steamer, which would take him to Nort, from which Languin, his ultimate destination, was but three miles distant. The steamer proceeded by the river Erdre, which, being part of the Napoleonic Canal from Nantes to Brest, was rendered navigable between Nantes and Nort by virtue of a twelve-feet dam at Nantes. The scene of Mr Nixon’s operations lay, in short, as nearly as might be in the centre of what is now the department of Loire-Inferieure, and in a remote part of France, which is, even in these days, little known to Englishmen.
The circumstances in which Mr Nixon found himself were the reverse of encouraging, and the more he looked into matters the greater was the call upon his reserve stock of courage. At first, indeed, he had no means of forming an opinion save through his eyes, which showed him that the only road by which products could be transported to the canalised river, three miles off, at Nort, was infamously bad. Of French he knew no more than the few words and phrases which he had been able to acquire during his journey, and these few words, spoken probably with a Durham accent, were not likely to be of much help to him in discussing the technicalities of mining. Of English no person in the place had any knowledge, for the resident mining-engineer happened to be away. Nor, when the mining-engineer came back in a couple of days, were matters much improved.
He could speak English, but he was not likely to be particularly well disposed towards the man who was coming in to a place which he had occupied for some time. From him Mr Nixon was not able to obtain any substantial amount of useful information; but he obtained enough to enable him to start upon his duties, and that stage once reached, John Nixon’s sharp wits and trained skill would do the rest.
The concern was large. The concession granted to the company covered an area of seven miles by three-quarters of a mile, with an extension including the outcrop seams. The veins of coal lay almost vertically. What Mr Nixon had to decide was not whether coal and iron lay within the boundaries of the concession, for that was plain, but whether the enterprise could be worked profitably, and if so, how ? On that vital point he was himself, so far, in the dark; and the company in England, who had found the money, were apparently in much the same stage of knowledge or of ignorance.
Underground the aspect of affairs was no better. In the company of the engineer and the overman,
The results of the survey were not merely disappointing, they were absolutely disheartening, and compelled Mr Nixon to the conclusion that the enterprise, so far as it had been prosecuted up to that time, was utterly hopeless. The sections were “the most horrible he had ever seen.” In some places the coal was forty feet thick, only to be followed by a “leader” for hundreds of yards. The cost of working was enormous; the coal produced was enough to keep the colliery engines going and no more.
His plain duty was to warn the directors that in his judgment they were expending the money of the shareholders to no purpose in prosecuting a hopeless enterprise; that to go to further cost would simply amount to throwing good money after bad. But clear as his duty was, the probable consequences of fulfilling it were not less manifest. The young man who, three weeks after entering upon the examination of a mining venture in which large sums of money had been sunk, should condemn the whole thing and declare the cherished scheme to be such that it could not succeed, could not fail to perceive that, though honesty might be the best policy in the long run, his frankness would certainly place his situation in jeopardy. But John Nixon did not shrink from the ordeal.
To this gloomy report he added a strong expression of opinion that he had felt it to be his unpleasant duty to lay the account of the aspect of affairs plainly before the directors, in order that, before expending more money upon the venture, they might consider the position in a business-like spirit. But it is clear that he felt it to be likely that the directors, knowing his youth and the short duration of his experience, might distrust his report, and might decline to recognise the authority and the weight of his observations. He therefore added a recommendation that the directors should send over another engineer to investigate the workings in the light of his report and to advise the company as to the course to be pursued in a situation which was certainly critical.
The directors confronted him with a highly favourable report of French authorship, upon which, in all human probability, they had relied when they embarked upon their unhappy enterprise. They observed, with perfect truth, that the roseate descriptions and anticipations of the French engineer were in diametrical opposition to the report which Mr Nixon had deemed it necessary to write. They said, in so many words, that they were astonished that Mr Nixon should have adopted in his report so uncompromising and so disappointing a tone.
Then the directors suggested Mr Tom John Taylor, the very man who had introduced Mr John Nixon to them originally. Mr Nixon said that, as they expressed their confidence in Mr Taylor’s ability and judgment, and the serious elements in the situation called for cool judgment above all things, no better man could be chosen, and it was decided that, accompanied by Mr Taylor and the chairman of the company, he should return to France.
The official examination of the property proceeded, and Mr Nixon, anxious to exhibit the virtues of the property as well as its weakness. John Nixon conducted the chairman and Mr, Taylor first to the ironstone deposits. They were excellent. They lay in little hillocks, which, upon being driven into, proved to be of capital quality, yielding forty per cent, of iron (a large percentage in those days when the riches of Bilbao were undiscovered) at the moderate cost of fifteen-pence per ton. At this point all went merry as a marriage bell, and the chairman, with reviving spirits, rallied Mr Nixon, asking whether there was anything in Wales to equal what had been seen. There was not, said Mr Nixon in effect, any ironstone deposit in Wales, or, for that matter, in England, to equal it; but, in the conditions of trade in those days, raw ironstone was not a marketable article, and the vital question, whether the work of smelting could be carried on to a profit on the spot, remained unsolved. To this the chairman very pertinently replied that the concession of the extensive coal property had been obtained mainly with a view to obtain coal for smelting purposes. But Mr Nixon, who spoke with more knowledge than the chairman, in that he had examined personally the accessible portions of the coal-field, whereas the chairman had not, appears to have pointed out that an intention of obtaining coal for smelting purposes was not quite the same thing as that intention realised.
The iron might be cheap, but the cost of producing the coal ate up all the profit which might come from the cheapness of the iron, and a little more besides. It had become a grave question where any warrant could be found for going to the great expense which would be necessary to the development of the enterprise.
The chairman therefore found himself face to face with one of those crises which are among the most trying, even when the person confronted with them has his own interests alone to consider.
It was too strong in this case. That the chairman fully realised the desperate character of the situation had been plain from his suggestion that coal should be brought over sea to the ironstone which had been bought in the belief that it rested upon coal strata amply sufficient for smelting purposes. But the company had gone far with the scheme; the directors were not prepared to face the bitterness of retreat; they were determined, the chairman told Mr Nixon, to go on with the business. To secure the coal necessary for smelting purposes alone many pits would have to be sunk; to provide engines for these pits would involve great expense; and, unless the whole thing were done on a large scale, and large quantities of coal were worked, the cost of production would be enormous.
And Mr Taylor knew Mr Nixon’s straightforward character. When, therefore, Mr Nixon stated that, after making out his sections, he estimated the average of the three seams taken together as two feet six inches only, Mr Taylor, albeit much surprised, indeed almost shocked, for his reflections cannot have been comfortable, accepted the statement as authoritative. What, then, in his judgment was the course to be pursued? What would the company be well advised to do? He at first hesitated to express an opinion, but upon being pressed to speak out, he said that there was no room for two views upon the matter. So the warning knell of the cherished enterprise at Languin tolled once more.
In due time the engine, with seventy-inch cylinder and ten-feet stroke, came from Cornwall, and a foundation having been sunk, was placed on the metamorphic rock. Mr Nixon was then in a position to try the property for coal in every conceivable way ; nor did he delay so to do. At first things looked better than he had dared to anticipate, for, after sinking to the depth of 150 feet, the depth of the previous workings, he drove across the veins, and at one point came across what appeared to be a continuous six-foot seam, which, if it had but been regular, would have gone far to establish the prosperity of the colliery; but, after thirty yards had been worked in one direction and ten yards in the other, the six-foot seam disappeared, and the dreams of prosperity vanished, not indeed into thin air, but into worthless rock. Still Mr Nixon persevered driving on to the other seams, but no valuable discovery was made. Then he went 150 feet deeper, and repeated the operations which he had carried out in the upper cross cut, but the result were as disappointing as before. At that point manifestly coal could not be worked profitably Three hundred yards away from the pumping-pipe a fresh trial was made; and again, at another spot 300 yards to the eastward, he sunk to the depth of 300 feet. Here some kind of tradition promised forty feet of coal, but trial proved not only that the forty feet did not exist but also that the earth concealed no workable treasures in that part. This tract of the concession was obviously barren, and further sinking in it could mean nothing but futile expenditure. Still far away to the westward was an old pit, with pumping- and winding-engine, which had been exploited before the company had acquired the property.
It needs hardly to be said that, as each costly investigation ended in failure, the directors in
South Wales Again
We have seen that business of a merely episodic character, the necessity in fact of discovering whether coal could be transported from South Wales to Languin and used profitably there, had caused John Nixon to go straight to South Wales from Brittany; and in South Wales he remained for a time, possibly because he had nothing better to do, and was as likely to obtain an outlet for his energies in Glamorgan as anywhere else.
But it was in London, when he was navigating the foul waters of the Thames; it is the almost incredible fact that they were worse than now, that Mr Nixon’s inspiration seized him. He was there upon some casual purpose of business which may have seemed important then, but which in itself had no material relevance to his life’s story, and he happened to go on board a Thames steamer. A little time before these steamers had used coke for fuel; but, so early as 1829.
The stoker threw coal on to the fire; no volume of black smoke was vomited forth by the funnel. Now, John Nixon, as a North Countryman who well knew the regularity with which the miners of his native county traded in coal with London, naturally supposed that the coal in use on a Thames steamer would surely have come from Newcastle.
He also knew enough of Newcastle coal to be convinced that, unless it were coaxed with infinite tenderness and subjected to special arrangements for complete combustion, that fuel would certainly not conduct itself in this amiable and pleasing manner. Under ordinary conditions it would belch forth a cloud of murky smoke. Thereupon John Nixon, always keenly observant, just like the favourite terrier of his old age, who seemed always to be saying, “What is that?” congratulated the captain, in an interrogatory tone, on the excellence of his smoke-consuming apparatus. The captain, who was probably no better than the rest of the captains of Thames steamers are at this day, answered bluntly that “there was no smoke in the coal.”
Now a fire without smoke was in those days quite as remarkable a thing as smoke without a fire, and the captain’s reply served but to set John Nixon’s intelligent curiosity more awake than ever. At once he said that he would dearly like to be an eye-witness to the process of stoking, and the captain assented, on the terms that the usual half-crown should be paid for “footing.” John Nixon was willing to pay on the terms that he should be permitted to throw on some of the coal with his own hands, and, the captain not caring two straws who threw on the coal so long as he was not asked to do it himself, an agreement was reached, and Mr Nixon went below.
Once in the stoke-hole, once face to face with the great lumps of coal with their queer crystallisation, which he had seen at Pen-y-darren, John Nixon recognised at once that the coal which produced these excellent effects had never come from the bowels of the earth in the north of England, but was the same fuel as that which he had noticed, in the company of Mr Gray of Garesfield many years before, in use to heat the engine at Pen-y-darren.
From this apparently casual conversation great consequences were to follow. Familiar with the conditions under which shipping and manufacturing industry were being carried on at that time at
A couple of days had passed before John Nixon was at Cardiff inquiring into the matter; and in a very short time he learned that a certain Mr Marychurch had coal for sale, and him he visited. Mr Marychurch in his turn stated that he had little coal to spare, since all he could get was sold in London; but he seems to have informed Mr Nixon readily enough that his supplies, such as they were, came from the Graig pit, Waun-y-Wyllt, at Merthyr, the property of Mrs Thomas; and to the Graig Colliery Mr Nixon betook himself accordingly, feeling no doubt, that a trade in which the demand far exceeded the supply, although the supply might easily be increased, was precisely the kind of trade which was to be sought out by an ambitious man.
On arriving at the Graig Colliery, Mr Nixon found himself in the midst of the idyllic period of the coal trade. Mrs Thomas as she may was called “the mother of the coal trade”, was held to be carrying on a very good business. She sat in her office, a wooden hut near the pit’s mouth, and traded for cash, placing in a basket over her head the moneys which she received for her coal. Her cleverness, her witty tongue, her pleasant manner were known to all the countryside. At her pit’s mouth it may be said that the poetry of the Arcadian world joined hands with the prose of a busier time to come. “Laughing girls,” like those who trod the wine-press of old (save that they were grimy with coal-dust), handled the coal, sorting it by hand and picking out the lumps, which were afterwards placed on boats, “as carefully as if each lump was an egg;” and Mrs Thomas was then raising the amount, considerable in those days, of 150 tons by the day.
John Nixon, however, got no encouragement from Mrs Thomas. Asked if she would be prepared to produce more coal and to supply some to him, the old lady, perfectly contented with her business as it stood, made mention of the “appalling” quantity of coal she was even then -extracting from the bowels of the earth. She added that, after supplying the wants of the town of Merthyr and its neighbourhood, she found a ready market with Mr Marychurch for the entire surplus. Finally, she informed Mr Nixon that she would not undertake to produce more coal, or to spare to him any coal at all. Nor was the attitude which she adopted in the least degree narrow minded. For the moment, at any rate, the placid immovability of old Mrs Thomas sufficed to check even the restless ambition of John Nixon.
Learning from Mr Nixon that anthracite was already in use in South Wales for foundry purposes, he asked for full and detailed information as to the cost of transporting the anthracite and of manufacturing the pig iron. Mr Nixon, after consideration and after paying due regard to the fact that the production of pig iron in France was then encouraged by a heavy duty levied upon imported pig iron, expressed his opinion that the material could be produced at Nantes, under the favourable conditions which then existed, at the handsome profit of £1 per ton.
Mr Nixon, he said, knew more of the business than any other man. John Nixon must be their engineer, and the money needed to start and carry out the works on a large scale must be found in England. He never failed to see the disadvantages of every design, to recognise the dangers which must be encountered by the vessel of adventure before the harbour of prosperity could be reached. He insisted that the capital required would be very large. He pointed out how serious a matter it would be to build great iron-works, and then to run short of money before attaining the position in which they could work profitably. He suggested that, in order to obtain a market, it would be necessary to cut down prices and to undersell competitors at the outset. But his French friend was persistent. Present in his mind was the fact, of which he was reminded afresh every time that he required a new supply of the raw material of his business, that the duty upon imported pig iron was prohibitive. Animated also by a species of municipal loyalty, he declared that if extensive iron-works could be established at the beautiful old town of Nantes, it would become the most important business centre of the west of France.
John Nixon’s circumstances of his next visit to South Wales were merely incidental, and of quite minor importance; but accidentally they contributed largely to shape the course of his after-life.
He was called from the North of England to advise Mr Robert Beaumont, the same Mr Beaumont of Llandaff Cardiff, for his ordinary business as a mining-engineer. The unfortunate Mr Beaumont, unfortunate because he was embarrassed by pecuniary difficulties from this time forward, was working the Tophill Colliery, and had unwittingly committed an underground trespass on the adjoining property, and he asked Mr Nixon to come down to South Wales to look into the matter from his point of view. Mr Nixon made his survey, formed his estimate of the amount of coal which had been improperly worked, and then inquired into the position which had been adopted towards the aggrieved person. That position was, to put it bluntly, no position at all. The injured colliery owner had made claims; no attempt had been made to meet those claims; he was threatening proceedings at law, and there could not be a particle of doubt that, if he carried out his threat, he would recover heavy damages from Mr Beaumont. Acting upon the time-honoured saying, “Agree with thine adversary quickly,” Nixon persuaded Robert Beaumont that the matter should be entrusted to some trustworthy friend or agent with a view to the arrangement of the best terms possible with the owner of the invaded colliery. The advice was certainly sound, and, from the moment when he gave it.
But the accidents of the visit were of the highest importance in deciding his subsequent career.
John Nixon, on the other hand, was in the happy position of the man who, having long been convinced that he could find the market, since he knew where it was, had at last, he hoped, found the wares to place upon that market. All his old desire to open the French market to Welsh steam coal, and of course to make money for himself, was revived: he saw the opportunity and made use of it with promptitude. But, prompt as he was and ready to see every promising opening, he was not rash or precipitate. He did not fling himself into Mr Powell’s arms, so to speak, or expatiate without restraint upon the golden future that he saw before him in his visions. On the contrary, he took steps to visit Mr Powell’s No. 1 pit at Abernant-y-groes, and to satisfy himself of the quality of the coal before he made any movement towards approaching the owner with an offer.
As to the quality of the coal, he soon perceived that there could be no particle of doubt. The question was how he should contrive to obtain a sufficient supply upon terms reasonably advantageous to himself, and how he should scheme to place enough of it on the French market in the face of the prejudice which was sure to have to be encountered in a district which was a stranger to its virtues. It was, be it remembered, no inferior stuff, such as is produced in the Pas de Calais that was to be displaced. Newcastle coal was already in large use on the lower reaches of the Loire, and in the foundries and sugar-refineries of Nantes. The very words “Newcastle coal” implied in those days a guarantee of high quality.
The very expression “Cardiff coal,” which now gives an extra price to the coal which is shipped at Cardiff, was unknown. “Murther (Merthyr) coal “was seldom heard of, except among those employed on the small passenger steamers of the Thames. On the whole, the enterprise which
It was in some such mood as this, and clearly with a mind fully resolved to risk his all in the great venture, if he could secure a satisfactory agreement and make arrangements for an adequate supply, that John Nixon went off to the Gaer, Newport, to see Mr Powell. That journey, and the interviews which followed, were the turning point of his career. To Mr Powell, in judging the character of whom he was, as the sequel will show, slightly mistaken, he talked at length. He referred to his experience of former years in the west of France; he spoke of the great opening which he believed that there was for Welsh coal in France and so forth.
Mr Thomas Powell who had already an output of 150 tons a day, and was on the point of opening a new pit, seemed exactly the man for his purpose. They discussed the matter from every point of view; they bargained, they chaffered, perhaps they even haggled, for Mr Nixon was always a keen man in making a bargain; but in the end, as always happens when one man has a commodity which he desires to sell and another man wishes to acquire that commodity and cannot obtain it elsewhere, an agreement was reached.
It was to the effect that Mr Thomas Powell was to supply the coal when the market was opened at such prices as he might be able to obtain from the French consumers, and that for a term of three years he should pay to Mr John Nixon nine-pence for every ton exported to the west of France, and sixpence for every ton exported to Havre, or to any port to the eastward of Havre.
There need be no hesitation in saying that the bargain was highly advantageous to Mr Thomas Powell. He took no risks, and Mr John Nixon, on the face of the agreement, took a great many. If no coal at all had been ordered, Mr Powell would have been not a pin the poorer than he was before, save perhaps for a few hours expended to no purpose in conversation with Mr Nixon. The latter, on the other hand, practically undertook to act as commercial traveller, and to plant a new article of commerce in a district where it was unknown, and in which a very tolerable substitute for it was in constant use. He was to go out as a missionary, so to speak, to preach the virtues of Welsh steam coal, and Mr Powell was to reap the lion’s share of the profit. He was to go out at his own expense; he was to receive no salary, but merely a very modest commission; and when the term was over the commission would end, and the customers secured by him would be Mr Powell’s customers, and no commission at all would be payable to him.
John Nixon first great adventure 1841-1843
What, then, was he to do? The Frenchmen certainly would not buy the coal on hearsay.
The venture was to be John Nixon’s own. Accordingly, slender as his means were, he chartered a vessel of one hundred tons to convey a cargo of coal to Nantes. He paid for the cargo, he paid the freight, he made all the arrangements, and it was ever the honourable and familiar boast of his later and un-chequered years that he was the first man who ever ventured to export a ton of Welsh coal to France. He himself proceeded by a more direct route to Nantes, to make preparations for the reception of the coal; and when it came, and was placed alongside one of the wharves, one may well fancy that the shrewd young North Countryman’s mind was full of hopes and fears.
In this critical situation Mr Nixon’s previous acquaintance with Nantes stood him in good stead. Long before, when he was trying to make bricks without straw at Languin, perhaps some evening at dinner in the well-known hotel which still stands in the central square of Nantes, he had made the acquaintance of a gentleman who held office in the Government factory and engine-building works at Andrette. This gentleman was also an intimate friend of the then Minister of Marine. Their talk had been of coal generally and of Welsh coal, with the merits of which John Nixon had always been deeply impressed, in particular.
Clearly his Andrette acquaintance, a man in the public service, a man familiar with the society of Nantes, and possessing influence in the highest quarters, and in those most suitable for the purpose in hand, is the man to apply to. To have convinced him, to compel him to admit the superior qualities of the Welsh coal, to induce him to talk about those merits among his friends will be to have won the first battle of the campaign.
To Andrette accordingly John Nixon went, and there he met the friend of earlier days. To him he said that he had a cargo of Welsh steam coal at the river-side, and that there was nothing that he desired more than to see a searching trial of it and of North of England coal, with the view of testing their comparative merits. He made no secret of his desire to substitute the Welsh for the Durham and Northumberland coal, which was then in use at the Government factories in and about Nantes. The French friend demurred for a while. He was not, he said, capable of making the experiment, nor did he possess the necessary apparatus. But Mr Nixon was not to be deterred from prosecuting his ambition. He observed that his friend was, by virtue of his position and of his long acquaintance with
He begged him to bestir himself in the matter, and to inform all or any of these gentlemen that a sufficient supply of the precious cargo was at their disposal gratis for the purposes of experiment.
On the day of the crucial experiment the allotted task of work for a day of twelve hours was finished by four o’clock. Nor was the reason of this huge economy far to seek. With the Newcastle coal it had always been necessary to cease work, thus permitting steam to go down and interrupting the boiling of the sugar in the middle of the day, for the purpose of cleaning out scoria. With the sharply crystallised and keen, burning Welsh coal there was no scoria at all, there was no call to clear out the furnaces; the work went on without hindrance or interruption; the attendants of the furnace had not nearly so much work to do as previously. Ten hours of fire from the Aberdare Valley were unquestionably proved to be worth twelve hours of fire imported from Tyneside. For a first experiment it was a tremendous and welcome triumph.
Then came the long-desired order, and in a few minutes John Nixon’s bold and costly experiment had borne fruit, and the first order for steam coal to be exported from South Wales had been given by a French consumer. “I should like,” said the French sugar- refiner, “to have a cargo of it. Can you guarantee that future shipments shall be of the same quality as this?”
“You cannot think me such a fool that I would come over with a good cargo, and then, upon getting an order, would send you inferior coal. I have incurred a great deal of expense in coming over and presenting you with the coal, and I certainly should not have done so if I had not had confidence that it would be an advantage to consumers to use it instead of that which they have been using.”
However, the French sugar-refiner insisted upon his guarantee, and obtained it, and gave his order. With that order a trade in Welsh coal, destined to be very great, and to continue to the present day, began. That great achievement may fairly be placed to Mr Nixon’s credit.
He created the trade between South Wales and France. Others, no doubt, would have been the pioneers if Mr Nixon had not come to the fore; in the same way somebody would have discovered the principle of gravitation if Newton had not. But the honour belongs to him who is first in the field and not to the hypothetical persons who are anticipated; and certainly few great developments of commerce have owed their origin to men of humbler circumstances than those of Mr Nixon in early days.
The sugar-refiner, no doubt, talked amongst his business friends of the wonderful fuel which was introduced by the young Englishman, but he did more, and that which he did led to great results. He wrote a report of the experiments, and of this report a copy was sent to John Nixon’s friend at Andrette. This gentleman had possibly felt in the beginning that, holding an official position, he was precluded from encouraging Mr Nixon as he wished.
But, with the sugar-refiner’s report before him, the Andrette official, already well disposed towards Mr John Nixon, felt that the time had come when he could lend a helping hand without being snubbed at headquarters. So he wrote a pleasant and welcome letter to Mr Nixon, and the effect of that letter was that, as Mr Nixon had clearly proved that his coal was superior to that which they had been using, he thought it only fair to give him an introduction and a recommendation to the Minister of Marine. That the letter delighted the recipient needs hardly to be said, since it showed that, in an almost incredibly short space of time, the virtues of the coal on which he had staked so much had obtained substantial recognition. But, assured from the beginning of the good disposition of his friend, he thought he saw a better way of securing his ends.
He was apprehensive of the effect which might be produced upon the Minister of Marine if a stranger and a foreigner presented to him a mere letter of introduction. And he was wise; there are few men in high place who do not know too well the “gentleman with a letter of introduction;” and there are many men in high place who have a very pretty facility in getting rid of that gentleman. Mr Nixon therefore suggested that his purpose would be served infinitely better if his friend would be kind enough to certify directly to the Minister with regard to the good quality of the coal which he had at his disposal.
The certificate was despatched, and he shortly learned that his friend had received a reply stating that, if the superiority of Welsh coal for steam purposes was believed to be more or less established, the Minister considered that the matter was one which the Government ought to investigate and to verify for themselves. In these circumstances the Minister had written to the manager of the works at Andrette inquiring how the trial might best be made, and upon receiving a reply he would write further. This promptitude in a Government official was, from the English point of view, quite marvellous; and the letter, full of good tidings as it was, not only rejoiced Nixon’s heart, but set him thinking on the best way of using his opportunity.
Full of such thoughts as these, he called upon the manager of the Andrette foundry, and from him he learned for the first time that a letter had been received from the Minister of Marine in which a trial of the Welsh steam-coal was actually required and commanded. Here was news indeed. Hitherto Mr Nixon had heard of nothing more than a request for information as to the methods of trial. Now he knew that the much -desired trial was actually to be made. Moreover, the manager, like the sensible man that he was, asked the introducer of the coal, as the man who knew more about it than anybody else, what methods of trial he would suggest.
The manager demurred for a while, pointing out that the apparatus required would be costly. So it would have been if it had been necessary to purchase and erect it de novo. But John Nixon was not to be denied. The weighing machines were there in the yard already; his keen eye had- observed them as he entered the foundry. As for the boiler, a small one would serve their purpose every whit as well as a boiler of large dimensions. So the engineer was sent for, and when Mr Nixon had explained his wants to him, he in his turn explained that they were already in possession of just such a boiler as was required. In the face of these facts the manager no longer demurred, and it was arranged that the apparatus should be ready and the trial made in a fortnight.
At that all-important trial Mr Nixon was, of course, present, for the issue, which manifestly was no less than the question whether Welsh coal should be adopted in the French navy and Government works, was of the utmost consequence to him. He watched the whole trial with anxious care, and personally superintended the operations.
Trial having been made of the Welsh coal, an equal quantity of Newcastle coal was submitted to an identical test. Between the combustion of the two coals there was a world of difference. The Welsh coal was practically smokeless, and, when once fairly kindled, required no labour on the part of the stoker. The Newcastle coal, of course, was very far from being smokeless, and the stokers were called upon to exert themselves considerably while it was in process of combustion. But the true ordeal was that which took place by means of the weighing machines. Here the result was startling to all the watchers except Mr Nixon. Smoke and constant labour on the part of the stokers might be disagreeable, but nothing more. If the Welsh and Newcastle coals, employed in identical quantities, had produced pretty nearly the same results in the way of evaporation (which is but another way of writing “power”), Mr Nixon’s triumph would not have been signal. But the weighing machines, accurate and incapable of bias, established as an impregnable truth the statement made by Mr Nixon to the sugar-refiner after the first serious experiment. The Welsh coal was found to produce a result; 33 per cent, and a trifle more-greater than the Newcastle coal. In a word, its substantial superiority was established beyond the possibility of doubt.
It was a great day for John Nixon, and it is easy to realise the feeling of exultation which must have possessed him when he witnessed the virtual triumph of his darling project. After this conclusive demonstration there could be no room for doubt of ultimate success. Nor were the French officials slow to act upon the information which this trial provided for their use. The Andrette manager reported the result of the trial promptly to the Minister of Marine.
Without delay that official ordered a cargo to be sent from South Wales to Brest for actual and practical trial on board one of the frigates of the French navy. Nothing could have been better. On the other hand, since success in this second trial could mean nothing less than the certainty of a prominent position in the French market, it was of supreme importance that the coal used in it should be handled with skill and knowledge of its requirements. John Nixon accordingly went in person to Brest, and impressed upon the naval stokers and firemen those instructions, puzzling to the uninitiated by dint of their absolute simplicity, which must be obeyed if the best results were to be obtained. At last an exhaustive trial was made it extended over two days, the frigate being six hours under steam during each of those days.
The result was a most favourable report, and an official statement that, although no scientific tests were applied; after the trial at Andrette, indeed, such tests were no longer necessary, the quantity used per hour was obviously much less than when Newcastle coal was employed. Subsequent trials were made, by order of the French Government, at Havre, Cherbourg, Toulon, and Bordeaux, a man acquainted with the use of the coal being sent by Mr John Nixon in each case, and always the result was eminently satisfactory. Then came the climax, which may be stated in a very few words. The French Government definitely adopted Welsh coal, boldly introduced to France by a young and comparatively unknown North-Countryman at his own risk.
It is hardly necessary to say that John Nixon armed with the official reports of the trials to which his coal had been subjected, reports which he caused to be printed and circulated. Soon found a ready market for his coal in Nantes and its neighbourhood. In particular, the sugar-refiners, who at that time made Nantes the centre of their industry, were attracted by the saving of as nearly as might be one-third in fuel consumed, and of an immense amount of labour, which the Welsh coal offered. The steamboat proprietors were at first less ready to take the Welsh coal into favour. What was sufficiently satisfactory to persuade the Government to oust Newcastle coal was not enough for them.
The opposition which Mr Nixon had to encounter in this connection was of the most obstinate description, but the persistence of Mr Nixon was at least equal to the obstinacy of the Frenchmen. Calling one morning upon the owners of a line of steamers plying between Nantes Paimboeuf, to whom he had supplied coal for experimental purposes on the usual conditions, he learned to his horror that a vessel had been sent out with his coal for fuel, but without any competent person to instruct the stokers in the manner of using it.
Well knowing what would happen, he reproached the owners with their neglect of the stipulations he had made, and went anxiously down to the quay-side, at the time when the vessel was due back from Paimboeuf, to await her arrival. An hour passed and no vessel was seen: a serious matter this, for Paimboeuf, now a place of decayed importance, lies at no great distance from Nantes. Another hour passed, and still no vessel appeared. It was not until three hours after her time that the steamer came crawling and labouring up to the wharf, while a perfect storm of “sacre’s ” hissed and rolled from the crew.
As she drew alongside, the captain pointed out John Nixon as the Englishman who had supplied the coal, and the said Englishman had a narrow escape from being mobbed and from having his career cut short on the spot. But he was made of more sturdy stuff than to be affected by intimidation, and instead of going away; he went on board and had matters out with the engineer, beginning thus:
“I see you have been using Welsh coal.”
“Yes. Do you call this stuff coal? Our name for Wales is ‘Pays de Galles,’ but it ought to be called ‘ Pays de Gale ‘ (‘ the country of the itch ‘), for the coal we have here is every bit as bad as the itch. Just look at these bars; the fronts are all down, and I think you ought to pay for them.”
“I did not know that, and I am surprised that the coal was put on board under the circumstances, without my being told anything about it. It is a pity you gave the coal, for it has done a lot of damage, and I could not get up steam.”
“You could have got up steam if you had started the fires a quarter of an hour earlier. And I am sure you will agree with me that it is a lot better to have no stoking or poking to do, as is customary with the coal you have been using in your steamer until now.”
“Well, it seems to me we shall never get steam with that coal, as we have tried it in every way, and there will be a pretty state of things when our people learn that we have burnt out all the bars, which will alone cost £15 to renew.”
Finding nothing very encouraging on board the ship, Mr Nixon then called upon the manager of the line of steamers, whom he found in the most unpleasant mood. As for the coal, it was, in his opinion, quite worthless, and he wanted to know whether Mr Nixon was aware of the cost of renewing the bars. One knows the demeanour of a Frenchman, his vociferous volubility, and his passionate desire to say the fault lies anywhere except where it does lie, in the face of a misfortune of this sort. “Nous sommes trahis,” was the Frenchman’s feeling; and he was convinced that Mr Nixon was the betrayer. But the French manager had to deal with a cool and unimpassioned Englishman, who, while he was quite ready to be at the expense of replacing the bars which had been destroyed through lack of skill and knowledge, was none the less determined that the Frenchman should be compelled to see, whether he desired or not, where the fault lay.
First, he was reminded that in sending the coal out on the vessel without John Nixon or his representative, he had been guilty of a distinct breach of the understanding upon which the coal had been supplied to him. Then he was informed that the whole of the mischief was due to the poking of the fire, which had caused the coal to drop under the bars and consume them. At last, on the terms that John Nixon would supply new bars, and that the manager would make no trial without the presence of Mr Nixon, a new trial was agreed upon. At that trial Mr Nixon was present, and the desired success was achieved.
But the achievement was far from easy. The men in the stoke-hole were nervous and fidgety; they were perseveringly anxious to poke the fire; they declared to Mr Nixon that if more steam were required they were bound to poke the coal; and it was only by giving bakshish, as well as by addressing to them every kind of command and entreaty, that Mr Nixon was able to induce them to desist from a habit of stirring the fire which had almost become instinctive. It might be imagined that it was easier to leave a fire unpoked than to go to the labour of poking it; but habit is powerful, and the writer well remembers that a magnificent fire of coal from the four-foot seam at Dyffryn, Lord Aberdare’s seat, once presented to him just the same temptation as that which the simple stokers on the Loire found it almost impossible to resist.
Returning to the manager, John Nixon did not at once vaunt his wares, but simply told him to ask his men what they thought of the Welsh coal after proper trial. In a few days, however, Mr Nixon had the gratification of receiving from the manager of the steamships a letter stating that inquiries among the men had convinced him of the superiority of the coal, of its smokelessness, of the saving of labour to stokers which it involved, and of its economical character. He talked of ordering a cargo, but thought that the price ought not to be heavy. Mr Nixon called on him and informed him that the price would be two shillings higher than Newcastle, but that, at this price, seeing that 67 parts of Welsh coal produced as much steam as 100 parts of Newcastle, there would be a considerable economy; and after a while a cargo of between one and two hundred tons was ordered.
John Nixon’s reward was very little, the immediate future it was very small, it was indeed even less than he had honestly earned as commission upon the coal ordered from Thomas Powell by French customers. For when the term of three years ended, John Nixon called upon Mr Thomas Powell by way of obtaining some; £300 due to him as commission under the agreement already mentioned.
Thereupon Thomas Powell threw his hands up in the air and refused payment, on the ground that
“Now, Mr Nixon, I was never afraid of the law. I have had a lawsuit with Lord Bute and I beat him, and I will beat you too. To hear you talk about agreements! I have never in my life made an agreement that I could not get out of, and all that are against me I get out of.” With a man of that temper it was wasteful, as indeed it almost always is, to go to law, and Mr Nixon no doubt was well advised to let the matter drop. It is a matter of no great interest now; it is over and done with; it is enough for us to say that “the gratitude of Mr Thomas Powell”.
Werfa Colliery – John Nixon’s first mine
John Nixon then he returned to South Wales from France, Lord Bute had taken a lease of the Werfa property from Mr Thomas of the Court. The objects of this transaction were two. First, it was desired to prevent the Aberdare Iron Company from working the Werfa coal to the exclusion of the Bute coal; secondly, it was desired to ensure the shipping of the Werfa coal at the Bute Docks.
These objects are in themselves of no great moment in relation to our present purpose, but the transaction is relevant because, Lord Bute having taken the property, it passed under the hands of Mr W.S. Clarke, who was his principal agent in the area. Now Mr W.S. Clarke had enjoyed, as has been mentioned at an earlier point in this volume, the opportunity of recognising John Nixon’s ability as a mining engineer at an early period, and the return of Mr Nixon gave him the chance of consulting him about the Werfa property.
This chance was not missed, and in a short time Mr Clarke and Mr Nixon inspected in company the Werfa estate. Into the interior of the earth of the estate they could not penetrate as yet, but it was possible for them to inspect the workings on either side of the Werfa boundaries. On the one side the Aberdare Company were working what is known as the Abernant level (No. 9), and upon going through this and the workings immediately adjacent to Werfa, Mr John Nixon found the coal to be of excellent quality.
Having reached to this conclusion John Nixon promptly called upon Lord Bute’s agent with a view to arriving at an agreement, offering the same price as Lord Bute was paying, that is to say, ten-pence per ton for the four-foot seam. No hitch occurred in the negotiations; but in the midst of them, quite uninvited, the Mr Robert Beaumont whom we have met earlier in the course of this narrative, asked to be permitted to take a share in the colliery. Mr Nixon assented, subject to the express condition that, as the work of sinking progressed, Robert Beaumont should bear his share in the expense. To this condition Mr Beaumont would not agree, although he must have known perfectly well, indeed he was distinctly told, that Mr Nixon was not in that financial position which would enable him to carry out the undertaking alone.
In spite, however, of the unsatisfactory nature of Mr Beaumont’s attitude Mr Nixon carried out the negotiations alone, and the terms of an agreement were eventually fixed upon between him and Mr Clarke. Then, and apparently not before, Mr Clarke was informed of Mr Beaumont’s desire to participate, and of Mr Nixon’s willingness to accept him as a partner, provided only that he paid his share as the work proceeded. But Mr Clarke had been in South Wales while John Nixon was away in France. He knew how some men had thriven whilst others had gone back in the world; and at the mention of Mr Beaumont’s name he said little, but he shook his head, and there was a world of meaning in the gesture. Still, at the suggestion of Mr Nixon a copy of the agreement was sent to Mr Beaumont, and Mr Beaumont replied that he must consider the matter before signing. When pressed upon the point repeatedly, he contrived to postpone it; and it appears that in the long run he never did sign the agreement.
Such was the relation between Mr Nixon and Mr Beaumont, a relation indefinite and unsatisfactory to the last degree, when the sinking of the first pit on the Werfa property began, and as things went on the prospect grew not brighter but more-gloomy. True it is that in due course of time John Nixon struck the yard seam; equally true that all the neighbours thought that the four-foot coal had been reached. But, although no less an authority than David Williams of Ynyscynon, who was working coal at an adjacent spot, was convinced that this was the four-feet seam, John Nixon had his doubts, and when he proceeded to test them they became certainties.
To the northward and to the eastward the seam diminished in thickness, and the top was very poor; moreover, it was found to be from ten to twelve yards higher in point of elevation than the known level of the four-foot coal. It was about this time, when the so-called four-feet seam had virtually been proved to be simply the yard seam, that Mr Beaumont came up to Aberdare to make inquiries into the affair; and the result of those inquiries was that Robert Beaumont was remarkably well satisfied with himself for having postponed his signature to the agreement.
But the time arrived when a change came over the spirit of Mr Beaumont’s dream. The man who was his partner or not his partner in connection with the Werfa estate, it is really rather difficult to say definitely what their relations were at the time, was one of the class of men who, refusing to acknowledge the possibility of defeat, always persevere until success is assured. John Nixon went on sinking and, the ten or twelve yards of rock and loose shale having been pierced, struck the four-feet at the same level as in Abernant. Still, at the outset, the prospect was not encouraging, for to the northward of the pit the rock between the two seams grew gradually thinner, until, at a distance of 150 yards from the pit, they were merged. Farther on, however, the two seams parted, fell into their proper sections, and placed a very different complexion upon the enterprise after a while. But the work of sinking for coal must always be a trial to the nerve and courage of a man. Of its presence he may be all but certain scientifically; but that his money will last he can never be assured; and if the money does not last, that was the end of this venture.
We may therefore envy Mr Beaumont who, without paying anything at all, waited up till the last moment to consider whether he would join in the enterprise at all. Success was in fact assured when Mr Nixon pressed him for payment of the money which, if he considered himself in any sense a partner, was unquestionably due from him. It was not until the four-foot seam had been proved that John Nixon, who was by this time well entitled to repudiate any sort of agreement with Mr Beaumont, peremptorily demanded payment. It was not until the profits, which had been problematical, appeared to be certain, or until after Mr Nixon had borne the burden and heat of the day, that Mr Beaumont made any kind of attempt to meet his liability. From our modern point of view it would seem that John Nixon erred on the side of generosity in giving him a chance even at the eleventh hour.
The attempt to pay, when it came, was not calculated to assuage of John Nixon’s feelings. He had spent his own hard money in paying the workmen as the pit was sunk. His so-called partner, whom he had trusted, gave him three months bills, upon which the Aberdare Bank positively refused to advance so much as sixpence. John Nixon then asked for money, the moiety of what had been expended in the enterprise, and declared that, unless money were produced, Mr Beaumont should have no share in the colliery. Mr Beaumont replied that the bills would be met at maturity. But, in the face of the action of the bank, the statement carried no weight; for these local banks know, far better than is possible in the case of London banks, the circumstances of the neighbouring men of business; and when they refuse to advance money on a man’s bills it is vain to expect money when the bills mature. In this stress of circumstances Mr Nixon took legal advice, which was given in the only form possible. Beaumont was not liable to pay anything, since he had not signed the agreement as required. Beaumont was not entitled to anything, for he had neither signed the agreement nor parted with any money. No point of law could be plainer; and as for merits, it was quite clear that Beaumont could not show so much as a shadow of them.
But Robert Beaumont was not done with yet. On hearing of Mr Nixon’s determination to be rid of him, he went to see his friend Cartwright, the same gentleman whom we have seen obtain possession of the Tophill Colliery, and again wrote that the bills would be met when mature, and that money had been deposited at the bank at Bristol to meet them. Also he claimed half the colliery. Desperate as his affairs were, he saw that he had missed a great chance, and that a share in Werfa might set him right with the world again. But Mr Nixon, who had certainly shown very great forbearance, had made up his mind as to the course to be pursued. He wrote finally to Beaumont, pointing out that he had kept studiously aloof until all the risk was past and the coal had been proved and found; that he had not paid a penny of the cost, and that he certainly should not have any share in the colliery. Beaumont, in effect, had tried to assume the position of a speculator on the Turf who should endeavour to get a share in the proceeds of a wager after that wager has been proved successful, without previously paying any part of the stakes or acknowledging that he was liable to pay.
But Beaumont had yet another tune to play. He went to see Lord Bute, and endeavoured to induce him to use his influence upon Mr Nixon; but the latter heard of this proceeding and took prompt measures. Calling upon Lord Bute’s secretary (Mr Collingdon), he requested that he might be confronted with Beaumont; and when both sides had stated their case, Mr Collingdon administered to Beaumont a severe and well merited reproof. He had not, said Mr Collingdon, a leg to stand upon; he had been treated with the utmost generosity; even after the risk was past he would have received half the colliery if he had paid his moiety of the expense; but instead of that he had given two worthless bills. If Lord Bute mentioned the matter, Mr Collingdon would not fail to give him the true history of the affair. Nobody of plain mind will question that this was a just decision. No man familiar with the ways of the impecunious will be surprised to learn that Beaumont and Mr Nixon parted with loud threats of legal proceedings (which came to nothing) on the one side, and with contemptuous repudiation on the other. Beaumont had rendered all amity impossible for the future by trying to prejudice Lord Bute against Nixon behind his back.
At this time John Nixon was staying at the Angel Hotel at Merthyr. To the same hotel, very frequently, came a Mr Evens. Now Mr Evens, who was a man of means, was on the look-out for a colliery investment, and mentioned the matter to the landlord of the hotel, whose name was David Williams. David Williams, in his turn, had enjoyed many conversations with the lessee of Werfa. Hence came it that eventually the man who wanted capital to work an enterprise which was more than promising, and the man who was willing to lay out capital if he saw the opportunity of doing so to advantage, were brought together in the dining-room of the “Angel” at Merthyr. The preliminaries did not take long. Mr Evens wanted a share in Werfa, and said so frankly, asking the terms. John Nixon would not come to terms until Mr Evens had employed an independent engineer to inspect and value the property. Mr Evens commissioned Mr Heppell to inspect and value; Mr Heppell valued at £20,000; and after a little haggling, but not more than is usual in such cases, Mr Evens became owner of the fourth part of the colliery. From that moment onwards the colliery throve and prospered, for the £5000 from Mr Evens were employed by Mr Nixon to such excellent purpose that the annual yield of the colliery soon became £6000.
Mr Evens thus obtained an admirable return, £1500 per annum, upon his £5000, and Mr Nixon was rewarded for his enterprise and perseverance. Pleasant also is it to be able to record that, in the flush of prosperity, David Williams of the “Angel” was not forgotten. His constant kindness to Mr Nixon, and his readiness in bringing the two men together, were rewarded by a present of a twentieth share in the colliery, or £300 a year. At a later date Mr Heath, an accountant at Bristol who audited Mr Evens’s business accounts, was admitted into partnership, and, with the aid of his two partners, John Nixon was able to construct those very necessary means of coal transport, a long incline from Werfa to the railway, and a communication with the canal.
Deep Duffryn and Navigation Mines
Mr Nixon, became associated with Mr William Cory in a scheme of far greater magnitude than that of Werfa. Their design was to open a large colliery “to the deep,” in the Aberdare Valley, and to sink deeper than any other colliery owners had yet sunk. To this end they leased, from Mr Bruce Pryce, Mr Allen, and others, a large tract of minerals, christened it by the name of the Navigation Colliery, which is now known all over the world, and began the long and arduous business of sinking. That was still in progress, it was in fact destined to go on for years, before any result was obtained, when the colliery to the northward of Navigation came into the market.
Its owner, Mr David Williams “Alaw Goch”, had met with difficulties in the way of ventilation which seemed to him insuperable. He had been warned by the Home Secretary, on the advice of Mr Mackworth, Inspector of Mines, that the colliery was unsafe by reason of the defective ventilation, and that the responsibility for any accident that might occur would lye upon his shoulders. Hence came it that Mr Williams offered the property known as Deep Duffryn to Mr Nixon and Mr Cory. Now Mr Nixon had ideas, which took shape in his patent ventilating apparatus, concerning ventilation. The associates bought the colliery, Deep Duffryn, for £42,000 in 1856.
The story of Nixon’s Navigation was not, and had not been expected to be, one of rapid and immediate success. From the very beginning the ambition of John Nixon and William Cory had been to sink to an unprecedented depth, and that of itself was an operation which must take much time. But as the work progressed it became clear that the difficulties of sinking were to be of abnormal and unexpected character, for the Pennant rock, overlying the coal, turned out to be of exceptional hardness, and the work was laborious and costly in the extreme. The weight of steel tools used by the workmen in boring was, it was computed, five times the weight of rock removed in a shift. Contractor after contractor considered the various obstacles that were to be overcome, and laid his tender before the indomitable owners; and one contractor after another found, when his tender had been accepted and he had worked to the best of his ability, that there was no money, but rather heavy loss, to be made out of the operation of sinking in Nixon’s Navigation. Year after year the weary business of boring continued. Contractor after contractor tried his hand at it, and emerged in a state of crippled finance.
At last things reached such a pitch that Mr Nixon himself had to undertake the colossal task of sinking, and it was long before he achieved success. In fact, the rich coal which lay under the surface cost John Nixon. It was not until the seventh year of boring and of paying out money without obtaining any in return that the upper four-foot seam was proved, and subsequently the seams below in due course, in excellent section and of good quality. This was a great reward for untiring labour and dauntless perseverance; it was indeed by far the greatest work of its kind which had, up to that time, been accomplished in South Wales.
But Navigation Colliery did not satisfy Mr Nixon’s soaring ambition, if indeed that ambition can be described accurately as soaring which has its object far beneath the surface of the earth. Sometimes, indeed, the limits of his high ambition seemed invisible, and the apparent daring of his schemes frightened his associates. He proposed no adventure without the full conviction that, if carried out in a thorough spirit, it would succeed; but, having proposed an adventure, he declined to be compelled to relinquish it by any natural hesitancy or timidity on the part of his colleagues. If his comrades shrank from a risk which he proposed, he was always ready to carry out the enterprise at his own cost; and not less ready, when results had proved the absolute justice of his calculations, to allow his associates to share in the fruits of his enterprise.
Merthyr Vale Colliery
The story of the Merthyr Vale Colliery is a strong case in point, this enterprise commended itself to John Nixon after the Navigation Colliery had been in fruitful working for some little time; and his colleagues being unwilling to extend their operations at the time, he undertook the whole scheme, and carried it out at his own risk and cost. Far beneath the surface of the Merthyr Valley, some miles to the southward of any coal that had been proved in the district, and “to the deep” of the coal hitherto worked, a large tract of coal was believed to lie. It had attracted the notice of others before Mr Nixon turned his attention to it.
And so, after negotiating successfully for the extensive tract, Mr Nixon did prosecute it, in the face of obstacles entirely unsuspected, which called forth all his inherent mechanical ingenuity before they were overcome; for in the course of the tedious operation of sinking the men struck into mass of running silt, which may be taken to be as troublesome an obstacle as the sinkers of pits can encounter. First they tried, under the advice of Nixon & Co.’s agent Mr Brown, a North of England device by way of overcoming the running silt; that is to say, they followed the sinking with four suspended side walls of timber to prevent the silt from running in. Twenty yards were accomplished in this way, but after that relentless nature vanquished man, and the whole apparatus collapsed.
Others were for yielding on the spot, and for commencing operations elsewhere. But that was not Mr Nixon’s spirit. Opposition, whether of the forces of nature or of men, served but to brace his nerves and to strengthen his determination. He cast about him to discover what device might succeed where the suspended walls of timber had failed; and, as was his habit, he availed himself of the material which lay under his eye, and was to be obtained at small expense. He had observed, lying by the railway hard by, a quantity of worn-out Barlow rails belonging to the Great Western
At every six feet driven the ground was cleared away inside, and a curb was introduced to keep the rails straight. So, steadily persevering, fighting the semi-fluid silt foot by foot, the sinkers won their way at last through the viscous and treacherous stratum to the solid rock, and had their pit completely timbered up to that point. The work that remained to be effected was laborious and costly, although in the light of Mr Nixon’s experience in penetrating similar rock at Navigation it was plain sailing But it was a long voyage. He who goes sinking for coal must wait more than many days before he can hope to see the return of the bread which he has cast upon the waters.
Five weary years of labour, of struggling against the forces of nature, of expenditure which must long remain un-remunerative, passed away before the valuable coal was struck and the pit became a rich colliery, fitted with the most expensive and effectual machines, and equipped with that patent ventilating apparatus which was among the most useful of Mr Nixon’s many inventions.
At this point John Nixon’s generosity, a quality more often shown in great things than in small, was strongly illustrated. When he began operations, as we have seen, his partners deemed the enterprise hazardous, and he alone backed his own judgment with his own money. Almost simultaneously with the proving of the coal in the Merthyr Vale came an improvement in the coal trade, and his partners saw at once that the venture was certain to turn out well. But in subsequent times, lest he should be in a position of having interests in conflict with those of his partners, he voluntarily released them from this obligation; and this act amounted to presenting them with from £6000 to £7000 a year out of his own pocket.
In a very few years after the opening of Werfa and Navigation, the output of Nixon & Company was 60,000 to 70,000 tons by the year. In has now reached the colossal figure of 1,250,000 tons annually, and, on favourable days, as much as 5800 tons has been raised from the combined pits. Moreover, deep as the pits are, there have been no serious accidents from explosions.
It was inevitable that Mr Nixon, an employer of labour on an increasingly large scale year after year, should be brought into close contact with the British working-man, as an individual and in masses; and it may be said without hesitation, that no crisis in life tests the qualities a man more severely, or shows more decisive led the stuff of which he is made, than that in which he finds himself running directly counter to the wishes of the men in his employment, and yet feels that he is in duty bound to persist in the course which he has chosen.
His very loyalty and conservatism of mind make him difficult to deal with. To of methods, to the system which his father and grandfather followed before him, he clings with a persistent affection, which develops by was of excess into prejudice. He cannot be weaned from the old ways. He becomes the sworn enemy of every change or reform in the arrangement of his work. He regards it with suspicion, not so much because it is beyond his intelligence, as because it is new, and because it is not in accordance with his habit to use any effort to understand it.
John Nixon was emphatically such an employer. He spared no expense in sinking his pits; no scheme was so gigantic as to frighten him; no machinery was so costly but that, assuming it to be effective in proportion to its cost, his collieries were equipped with it. He saw from time to time various changes, certain to result in improvement, which might be made. His attempts to introduce them wen fought to the very last ditch by the men. These attempts were always successful, for by fairness no less than by firmness, he always carried the day, and his efforts resulted in every case the benefit of workman and employer alike. All his battles he fought practically single-handed, for in his early days there were no serious federation of employers. The story of his conflicts with labour, and of the issues which were involved in them, is, therefore, interesting.
Deep Duffryn Court Case
The first dispute arose in Deep Duffryn, the history of the acquisition of which is given in the preceding chapter. David Williams, Nixon’s predecessor in title at Deep Duffryn, had worked the coal on the pillar and stall system; that is to say, he had driven the headings three yard wide, the stalls six yards, and had left six yards of pillar. Necessarily, when the pillars came to be worked off, the great weight which they had been called upon to support had rendered them exceedingly friable. As for the stump that was always left next to the heading, it had naturally becomes so greatly crushed that the coal of which it was composed was unmarketable by itself, and every attempt to work it off with other coal elicited serious complaint from buyers. In a word, fully twenty -five per cent, of the available coal of the first quality was wasted, or depreciated in value, before it came to the pit’s mouth.
It did not take a man of Mr Nixon’s business instinct long to make up his mind, that if a better plan existed this extravagant state of things could not be permitted to continue; and he proceeded at once to study the ” long wall ” system, which was then in vogue in Lancashire and the Midlands, although it had never been adopted, or even tried, in South Wales. With this object in view he visited Mr Dickinson, the Government Inspector of Mines for Lancashire. Mr Dickinson, it may be added, was the man of all others whom it was wise to consult, since he was not only intimately acquainted with the Lancashire system, but also conversant with the practice of South Wales, seeing that previous to going to Lancashire he had been engaged in colliery work in South Wales.
With him Mr Nixon discussed the whole subject from every conceivable point of view. He found that the Lancashire and South Wales coalfields had one important characteristic in common, and that a characteristic which no other coalfields possessed; that is to say, the roofs in the collieries of the two districts were of very similar character. As for the pillar and stall system, it was held in Lancashire to be of no sort of account, to be obsolete, old-fashioned, and extravagant. Upon careful consideration he saw no reason why the long wall system should not be introduced into South Wales, and a great many reasons why it should be introduced; and he returned to South Wales resolved that it should be introduced in Deep Duffryn as soon as possible.
His next move was marked by acute diplomacy. The men were in the act of driving two headings into a splendid section of the Four Feet; the roof was comparatively good, and John Nixon, without arousing the men’s feelings by expatiating on the great change which he was going to make, quietly instructed his manager to leave a pillar of three yards only, instead of six as formerly. For three months on end the men worked on, seemingly blind to the fact that an entirely new system had been inaugurated, and, as a matter of fact, Mr Nixon found that before long the two stalls worked into one another. The men, in fact, found it far more convenient to clear away all the coal as they went along. But at the end of the three months it seems to have occurred to some of the men that they had been living in what they would have regarded as a fool’s paradise, and signs of rebellion began to appear. One of the men who used to go next the heading and win a stall declared that he, for one, would not enter a heading unless a six-yard pillar were left.
Confronted with Mr Nixon, the man said that the system was new, and the men would not work at it. It was pointed out to him that, in fact, they had been working at it for three months, and that by working off the three-yard pillars which they had been told to leave, they had actually done more than the management had asked of them. But argument was of no use, it seldom is, and the man, remaining obdurate, was eventually discharged. And here followed a strange result. The mere fact that the man had, or thought that he had, a claim for a month’s wages, made room for a County Court suit; and the judgment in that suit decided the question as between “pillar and stall” or “long wall ” in South Wales.
Judge Faulkner was the County Court judge before whom this apparently trivial question, whether a discharged collier was, or was not, to receive a month’s wages in lieu of notice, came for trial. But the real issue was of the deepest importance; for the true question was, whether the “long wall” system was so far reasonably safe that an order given by master to man to work on that system was a lawful and reasonable order. The plaintiff’s case admittedly was that he had disobeyed such an order, but that he was justified in his refusal to obey because the system was new to South Wales and dangerous in the last degree, since no pillars were left and the roof was only sustained by “little bits of props.”
To those who sat and listened, in full consciousness of the gravity of the question, it seemed that the learned County Court judge was deeply impressed by the evidence of the plaintiff. He well might have been so impressed. Before him was a practical collier, a man who seemed to have had no other inducement to leave his work in a first-rate colliery, and there appeared to be no conceivable explanation of his conduct, save that he honestly believed—in truth, he probably did believe, and felt thoroughly convinced, that the “long wall” system was dangerous. But the searching process of cross-examination put a different complexion on the business. The plaintiff was forced to admit that he had worked three months on the system without raising any objection that he had not said a word concerning any danger, and that during the whole three months nothing worse had occurred than some slight falls from the roof.
Plaintiff, however, protested that as the heading advanced the danger would become greater, and unless pillars were left, the entire roof would collapse bodily. “In that case,” said counsel in effect, “how did you venture to work away the three-yard pillars which you were directed to leave?” To this, of course, there was not any convincing answer. The supporters of the “pillar and stall” system had rendered their case hopeless by their own action; they had gone ahead of their master’s orders, if not of his intentions; and a rough and ready explanation that a three-yard pillar was no better than no pillar at all, and therefore might just as well be worked away as not, served no useful purpose. It was, indeed, too manifestly absurd. If pillars had been of any value, or necessary to safety, then a pillar nine feet in diameter would have been of very substantial service. The address of Mr Nixon’s counsel clinched the business. He was not able then to point out how much easier ventilation was under the “long wall” than under “pillar and ‘stall,” but he was able to emphasise the fact that the system which the plaintiff condemned as dangerous was in universal use in the Midlands and in Lancashire, and that the idea of protesting against it had come to him as an afterthought only when he had worked under it for three months.
So in the long run, for the judge wisely took time to consider his judgment, and delivered it in writing, the decision went in favour of the “long wall” system; and that system was adopted, without opposition from the men, in the general body of the steam-coal collieries of South Wales. It saved trouble, and increased remuneration for the men; it gave landowner and colliery lessee at least twenty-five per cent, more coal to receive royalties upon and to sell in the market; it raised the proportion of large coal, which is valuable, to small coal, which is not. In short, it was a beneficent change, and the credit of it is principally due to John Nixon’s fixity of purpose and to his quiet and tactful diplomacy.
For many years the introduction of the system of the double shift was dear to his heart, and he succeeded in enlisting the cooperation of several leading colliery owners in South Wales. It is admitted on all hands that, from the point of view of safety, the double shift is much preferable to the single. But politics apart, there is no conservatism in the world to be compared with that of the workingman, and in this case this conservatism, which might even be described as obstinacy, was too much for John Nixon.
There is, however, nothing more amusing, now that the trouble is all over, in the many experiences of John Nixon’s life, and nothing more conspicuously illustrative of the difficulties with which employers of labour are called upon to deal from time to time, than the story of what may be called “the great Cropper question.” Hand-picking by “laughing girls” was the old rule in the days when an output of one hundred and fifty tons per diem was held to be appalling; but as output increased with increasing markets, screens came into use. In those days, be it remembered, small coal was of absolutely no value, and “large” alone was paid for. In these days the “small” can be, and is, utilised to a great extent in the form of compressed fuel. The manner of estimating the proportion of large coal to small was primitive in the extreme, and left room not merely for the display of favouritism and its opposite of spite, but also for the suspicion of the one or the other; and the suspicion, as may readily be imagined, was almost as troublesome as the reality.
By each screen stood an official termed a “cropper,” whose occupation consisted in making a guess at the amount of small coal, stones, or rubbish which had been brought up. “Croppers” were naturally in a most invidious position. They were accused of treating their friends with special favour, sometimes justly, sometimes on mere suspicion. Not only were the “croppers” hated by the majority of the men, but the system also involved constantly recurring annoyance and loss to the master. It was no uncommon event for men to refuse to go to work, thus leaving capital and plant idle, and the colliery exposed to danger, by reason of alleged excessive cropping of their trams.
One cannot imagine a more irritating or a more objectionable system, or one more certain to lead to friction. Any reasoning being, unfamiliar with the ways of the working-man, might imagine that a scheme for the abolition of the “cropper,” and for the substitution of certain justice and fairness in his place, would have been welcomed on all hands. But John Nixon’s experience shows plainly that any such conclusion would be utterly erroneous, and that the workingman prefers to suffer the ills he knows when the alternative is something new of which he cannot, or will not, understand the principle and the exactitude.
At Deep Duffryn these disputes about the “cropping” were of constant occurrence. Hardly a pay-day passed without angry remonstrance, and many temporary strikes occurred. At last things came to a climax. On the Monday morning following a Saturday pay-day Mr Nixon went up to the colliery. Instead of industry he found idleness. The winding-engines were not at work; the men, instead of being engaged in winning the coal from the depths of the earth, were “playing” upon the surface. A conversation with his manager soon placed him in possession of the facts. Pay-day had been too much for the feelings of the men; their indignation against the “cropper” had passed from words to open violence, and they had pitched him neck and crop into the canal. What was more, when the unfortunate wretch was well in the water, his persecutors showed no disposition to let him return to dry land.
Monday morning had come, and no man could be found to take the “cropper’s” bishopric. It was all very well to hold a position of authority, but if the price was to be that of being half-drowned, the lot of a “cropper” was not happy enough to be choice-worthy. The moment was critical; it called for that rapid thought followed by prompt action which characterises the able general on the battlefield, and is no less valuable in other walks of life. In ten minutes’ time John Nixon’s mind was made up, and he had determined irrevocably upon a plan which was to introduce a valuable improvement into every steam colliery in the country.
It is true that the plan involved the invention of an unknown machine; but it can hardly be doubted that thought upon the innumerable disadvantages of the “cropper” system, upon its possible unfairness to the master no less than to one man as contrasted with another, and upon the continual quarrels that had arisen from it, had caused Mr Nixon to think of an alternative plan. Be that as it may, he spent but ten minutes in reflection, and then called his men before him to hear from his own lips his unalterable determination. He spoke in severe terms of the savage treatment which they had measured out to the unhappy “cropper.” He informed them, in a tone which can have left little room for doubt of his resolution in their minds that his mind was absolutely made up that no man amongst them should go to work in the pit again under the “cropper” system.
A condition precedent to working in Deep Duffryn Pit for the future must be the signature by each collier of an agreement assenting to the employment of a machine of exact precision which would render the “cropper” system obsolete and unnecessary, by determining to a pound’s weight the amount of large coal on each man’s train. Such, in outline, was to be the effect of the scientific apparatus which he had resolved to substitute for the fallible and possibly corruptible human agency of the “cropper.”
The men, however, were far from jumping at the offer. They pointed out, perhaps with some appearance of justice, that no such apparatus was in existence or in operation in any colliery. They declared themselves willing to work upon the same terms as men in other collieries, but they were clearly averse to a leap into what was, to them, the dark and unknown abyss of the mysteries of mechanical science. All that they desired was a new “cropper” in place of him whom they had accused of corrupt favouritism and sentenced according to the principles of lynch law. But John Nixon showed no disposition to change his mind. He gave them clearly to understand that they had seen the last of the “cropper” system, to which they had themselves dealt the final blow by half-drowning it living representative amongst them. Further he assured them that he would guarantee that when they had once seen his projected apparatus in operation, they would be compelled to admin its unvarying and invariable fairness.
The men, however, were not to be persuaded. The demand made upon their faith was perhaps too severe. At any rate they positively refused to sign the proposed agreement, and Mr Nixon in a manner equally positive, informed them that if this was their mind, they might go away, and that it would be useless for them to return to him until their views had undergone alteration, They went away, but after a fortnight had passed they returned to complain of the hardships which they and their families were suffering. They re-asserted their willingness to work under a “cropper” as before. But this was mere futility. John Nixon had made up his mind then, as many employers have to make up their minds now that he would manage his own business in his own way, and his answer was shortly to the effect that there appeared to be nothing to discuss, and no reason why he or they should waste time in idle talk.
Then came the first sign of wavering, the first indication of a desire on the part of the men to apply their intelligence and to try to understand something of the principle of the machine which they had condemned recklessly and without thought. They began to ask questions, sending two or three of their number to inquire how the projected machine would act, and so forth; and Mr Nixon in his turn, willingly enough, explained his intention of affixing to each screen a dial which would indicate precisely the amount of coal passing through the bars from each tram.
For the moment, at any rate, the delegates appeared to fail to understand, and they went away. But the explanation had evidently produced some impression upon them, and discussion upon the subject with their comrades had convinced them that there might be something in the suggestion of their employer. Hence came it that, even before he left the colliery that day, Mr Nixon found himself again face to face with the delegates. They informed him that they had decided, a pretty word that “decided “, to return to work on the morrow, and to wait until the machine was complete and in position under their eyes before signing the agreement upon which John Nixon insisted.
But they had reckoned without their host. If the right to decide whether they would work lay with them, the right to decide whether they should be allowed to work lay with their ex-employer; and he told them plainly that they should not go to work upon those terms, that he would guarantee the accuracy of the machine, and that he would not entertain any temporary arrangement which raised doubts concerning the precision of his projected apparatus.
To men who look back over a vista of years, well as they may know the proved precision of the apparatus which then existed in John Nixon’s brain only, it must none the less appear that there was something to be urged on both sides. If the men had not put themselves in the wrong at the outset of the contention by half-killing the “cropper,” it would not have been unreasonable on their part to refuse to buy a pig in a poke, to decline to trust themselves to the tender mercies of a machine that had not been proved in any way. Taking the matter in another way, it would certainly have been far better, if it had been possible, for Mr Nixon to have produced his machine and to have demonstrated its accuracy before the men’s eyes.
By their brutal and cowardly treatment of the “cropper” the workmen forced their employer’s hand, and they could not expect to be heard when they demanded the temporary reinstatement of an institution which they had rendered impossible. Nor, most likely, would it have been feasible to obtain a new “cropper” for Deep Duffryn after what had occurred.
In any case, Mr Nixon’s judgment was soon proved to have been right, for, on the very next morning, a message came from the manager that the men desired to meet him again, and he met them at once. At first there were the same old arguments, but the immovability of Mr Nixon was plain. Of the fairness of the machine he was absolutely convinced; of the firmness of the man recognition had been forced upon the workmen. On dispersing, they gathered not in one great assembly, but in groups and clusters, and of these first one and then another came forward and submitted to sign the agreement. Thereupon the book of agreement was made out and signed by all the men, and an important lock-out was always a distressing affair, whatever the rights or wrongs may be-was over and done with.
Of the machine, which shortly came into almost universal use in South Wales; not only in steam collieries but also in iron-works, in connection with the coal used at the furnaces, and later in other districts, it is only necessary to say that it was no sooner erected than it secured universal admiration. The “small” from each tram passed through the screen, was weighed, and its weight was immediately recorded on the dial. The quantity of “large” and “small,” thus ascertained without doubt, was recorded by the weigher in the weighing-machine book. Certainty took the place of the irritating uncertainty of the past, sure confidence was substituted for angry suspicion, and the “cropper,” the most fruitful cause of disputes between master and man, Mr Nixon’s invention was, in short, of great service to the whole body of coal owners.
One little incident; however, remains to be noted. Mr Nixon, who was a stern fighter when convinced of the justice of his cause, and, after all, if you fight at all, there is no use in doing it in kid gloves, had accompanied the lock-out of his men with a circular to the colliery proprietors in the Aberdare Valley. In this circular the circumstances of the dispute were explained, and the colliery owners were asked to abstain from employing any men from Deep Duffryn during the progress of the dispute.
Amongst the replies which he received back was from a gentleman whom, for reasons which will be apparent in a very few lines, it would not be kind to stigmatise by name. This gentleman answered that Mr Nixon’s insistence that the men should agree to abide by a machine which was not in existence, so far as he knew, and certainly not in Wales, was unfair and tyrannical in the last degree. He, at any rate, was not inclined to support Mr Nixon in his arbitrary proceedings, and he would make a point of employing every man from Deep Duffryn who applied to him for work. But this gentleman was also curious concerning the construction of the machine, which John Nixon had not patented.
Therefore, before forwarding his abusive letter to Mr Nixon, he ordered his engineer to go over to Deep Duffryn to inspect Mr Nixon’s machine, which, with the exception of the trough under the screen to catch the small, was practically complete. The engineer was received courteously. He sketched the machine, he examined it minutely, and all the information he desired was afforded to him. The result was that a faithful copy, upon a smaller scale, of John Nixon’s machine was actually erected and in operation a few days before Mr Nixon’s machine was quite ready. The colliery at which this small machine was erected was the colliery whose owner had been so ready to criticise Mr Nixon’s action, and it was at that colliery that the machine obtained the name of “Billy Fairplay,” by which it is now known all over England and Wales.
John Nixon’s promptitude, in the application of his mechanical knowledge to the needs of the moment. In the few pages to which this chapter will be confined an indication will be given of some of the principal illustrations of that mechanical ability which he was able to give in the course of his long life. Of these, some were on a small scale and some on a large scale. Sometimes he would see the one little improvement that was necessary to make perfect a design already in existence; sometimes he would create in his mind the machine capable of meeting an open and notorious difficulty; and sometimes, having weighed his opinion well, he would withstand the opposition of the most distinguished engineers of his day; and, in one supremely important case of that kind, it has to be recorded to his credit that his ideas were adopted to the lasting benefit of the community, and the results proved him to be entirely correct in his judgment.
In the invention of “Billy Fairplay” Mr Nixon appears to have shown that rare gift of the inventor, which may be described as the capacity to perceive and to fulfil the obvious needs of the situation. There was, it may be taken, nothing mysterious in the mechanism of a machine which merely applied well-known principles in the simplest possible fashion.
Let us give another illustration. The following extract from the minute-book of the Glamorganshire Canal Navigation, of the 5th June 1850, explains itself, and points to a crying mechanical need of the time:
Extract from Minute-Book of the Glamorganshire Canal Navigation
A committee of the Glamorganshire Canal Navigation hereby give notice that they are desirous of adopting a plan or device for loading coal into vessels lying afloat in the canal from barges alongside, and that they will give a premium of one hundred guineas for the best model or exposition of such plan or device, provided that it meets with the approbation of the committee. And notice is hereby also given that the committee will meet on the 31st day of July next, at the hour of eleven in the forenoon, in the Cardiff Arms Inn, Cardiff, to receive and examine such models and expositions as may then and there be presented to their notice; and the principal freighters of coal upon the said Canal Navigation are hereby invited to attend the said meeting and inspect the said models and expositions. It will be necessary that all models, plans, and expositions be delivered at the Cardiff Arms Inn by nine o’clock on the morning of the 31st July; and application for further information will be attended to by John Forrest, clerk to the said Navigation, at the Navigation House, Cardiff. — June 5th, 1850.
The advertisement offering this prize was published generally as well as locally, that is to say, in the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, Herapath’s Railway Magazine, the Builder, the Mechanics Magazine, Artisan, Newcastle Advertiser, and Mining Journal. The committee were clearly determined, not only that their invitation should reach the South Wales mechanicians and the engineering public generally, but also that a special invitation should be addressed to the Newcastle-on-Tyne district, the classic home of inventors. Their foresight was justified. The committee met on the 31st of July, as arranged; and, inasmuch as Mr Nixon had been largely instrumental in pressing upon the
“That model,” said Mr Nixon at once, “is the best of them all, but it is capable of improvement;” and he then proceeded to point out that, inasmuch as the movement of the arm of the machine was horizontal, it must come in contact with the rigging of the vessel, and so be prevented from reaching a point immediately over the hatchway into which the coal had to be shipped. Mr Armstrong was thereupon summoned, and, after half- an -hour spent in thought, said that he saw his way to making the desired improvement; and Mr Nixon, without entering into detail, pointed out the vast improvement which would certainly be effected by substituting a vertical for a horizontal movement. So, subject to the fulfilment of a promise to introduce the vertical movement, the prize was allotted to Mr Armstrong, and in a speech at the banquet which followed in due course,
It remains only to add in this connection that Mr Armstrong fulfilled his promise to the letter, and that two of the improved cranes were erected on the Glamorgan Canal Company’s Sea Lock Pond. The tipping arrangements of to-day are greatly improved, mainly by virtue of an apparatus designed by Sir William Lewis; but these cranes did their work for a long time, until Messrs’ Nixon and Powell established special apparatus of their own for transferring coal from barge to vessel.
Another example Mr Nixon’s mechanical ingenuity to be mentioned consisted principally, like the last-named, in the improvement of an existing idea. The winding-engines introduced by him for the equipment of the Navigation Colliery were very much larger and more powerful than any which had been previously in use in South Wales, and the problem to be solved was how to place in the hands of the enginemen such power as would enable them to control the heavy valves, indispensable in the case of these large engines, as easily as in the case of small engines.
The idea seems to have occurred to John Nixon when he inspected two large engines belonging to Mr Maudslay, which had been made and used for the purpose of exhausting air in connection with Brunei’s atmospheric railway in South Devon. That the engine should be controlled by hand for winding purposes was, it was manifest at first sight, out of the question. But reflection suggested to him that it might be possible to make one small engine, easily controllable by an engineman, control another and a larger engine. The idea took definite shape in his mind, and in a very short time we find John Nixon writing to Mr Nasmyth (whose name, like that of Brunei, conveys a whole biography to the mind), describing the form which his idea had taken, and asking whether anything of the kind was in use elsewhere. The scheme of his invention was that the starting and stopping of the great engines should be effected through a small steam cylinder which the engineman could easily handle.
John Nixon bought the two engines from Mr Maudslay, put them in place at Navigation, and fitted them with his new apparatus, and found that they worked in so satisfactory a fashion that he was induced to apply the same principle to the engines at Merthyr Vale Collieries, where there were two 85-inch cylinders. But there had to be some little trouble and discussion with the professors of red tape before, even at Navigation, the apparatus was allowed to work. The men seemed to have made no complaint, and to have been entirely free from the apprehension of danger. By this time, indeed, they must have seen enough of Mr Nixon to be assured that any suggestion of his was, because it was his, safe, sound, and trustworthy. But the Inspector of Mines and after all is said one cannot question his motives, took a different view.
He called and warned Mr Nixon that, inasmuch as the arrangement was entirely new and untested, he must as a matter of duty protest against its being used to lower men into the pit or to raise them from it. Indeed, he went so far as to insist that the men must make the ascent and descent by means of the Deep Duffryn engines, a proceeding which would have involved them in an extra walk of a mile underground every day. Mr Nixon expostulated, with some vigour we may imagine. He explained the apparatus over and over again; he argued, and his argument, we may be well assured, was doggedly persistent. Still the Inspector would not consent that the apparatus should have a human load. Stung by this obstinacy, Mr Nixon challenged the Inspector to accompany him, and to be let down into the pit with him and by the new machine.
The Inspector declined the invitation, without thanks, and renewed his protest. Perhaps it would hardly be just to the Inspector to censure him on this ground. John Nixon was confident; the Inspector did not share his confidence, and did not relish the prospect of descending into the pit with all the accumulated force of gravitation in case Mr Nixon’s best-laid plans should gang agley. As for the consent, it does not seem ever to have been gained before the first experiment was made; for Mr Nixon simply gave formal notice to the Inspector that, as soon as the arrangements were complete, he would himself descend into the pit with the first batch of men. Descend he did, with the result that his own confidence, and the ready confidence of the men in him, was completely justified.
Another improvement in colliery working,, thanks for which are due to Mr Nixon, is the spiral cylindrical winding-drum, with which nearly all the deep collieries of South Wales were equipped. The object sought after, and secured in designing this apparatus, was to neutralise the great weight of the ropes when starting the loads from the bottom of the pit. It is perhaps worthy of mention that Mr Nixon encountered many difficulties in trying to have this apparatus constructed in precise obedience to his designs, and that it was eventually made at his own works out of wrought iron, specially rolled for the purpose at the Plymouth Works, thanks to the assistance of Mr T. W. Lewis (Lord Merthyr’s father) the engineer of those works.
Important as the machines and inventions which have been mentioned must be admitted to be, they are certainly rivalled in value by Nixon’s patent ventilator, which was fitted to Deep Duffryn at about the same time as the spiral drum, and at Navigation Colliery. The essential part of this invention of Mr Nixon’s is that it consists of two pistons, 30 feet by 20 feet, which are worked in horizontal cylinders by two 30-inch cylinder six feet stroke horizontal engines; and the best testimonial which can be given to the apparatus is a bare statement of its history. Nixon’s ventilator was also in use at the House of Commons.
But there is yet one great important action of Mr Nixon’s life which, although it is illustrative of some of his other useful qualities, is none the less significant as an illustration of his mechanical and engineering ability. In the course which he pursued with regard to the construction of what was afterwards known as the Bute East Dock at Cardiff, we cannot fail to recognise the accuracy of his forecast of the development of the South Wales coal trade, and the justice of the attention which he paid to the evolution of steamers and sailing-vessels alike in the direction of larger tonnage.
East Bute Dock
In the year 1853 that John Nixon, still less than forty years of age, induced sundry leading persons in the South Wales coal trade to join with him in petitioning the trustees of the Marquis of Bute to provide suitable dock accommodation in addition to that which already existed. The principal ground for the petition was not only the growth of Cardiff as a coal-exporting port. That growth had in itself been amazing. From 1843 to 1853 it had risen from 274,000 tons odd to 903,000 tons and more.
The petition was eventually successful; that is to say, the Bute Trustees, whose office forbade them to consider the matter solely from the point of view of the coal trade, decided, after mature consideration, that it would be consistent with their duty and to the ultimate benefit of the estate to construct a new dock. It would be pleasant to pause for a few moments here, to point out how generous a view has been taken of questions of this kind by successive Marquises of Bute and successive bodies of trustees, and how, if the estate has profited in the long run and indirectly in consequence of the colossal expenditure upon the docks, others have been able to reap where the Bute Estate has sown.
Be that as it may, the trustees resolved to construct the new dock, and appointed was the well-known, Sir John Rennie; as engineer, and Mr Plews, as resident engineer. It fell one day that Mr Nixon went down to look at the sinking operations, and, ever given to indulge in intelligent curiosity, asked the foreman on the spot how much farther it would be necessary for them to sink for the sill of the dock. He learned that the work of excavation was over, and that it was not intended to lay the sill of the new dock any deeper than the sill of the existing West Dock. Astonished, almost horrified, he hurried off to the contractor to hear that the foreman’s statement had been only too correct. If that was the plan, he saw clearly that half his exertions in securing the new dock would have been entirely thrown away. Already the small depth of water over the sill of the West Dock was driving numbers of vessels away from the port. Better accommodation and a greater depth of water over the sill were the things of paramount necessity, and John Nixon determined on the spot that he would strain every nerve to prevent this great error from being committed.
Straightway he wrote to Mr W.S. Clarke, the Bute agent, informing him of the facts, and asking him to come to Cardiff to consult upon the matter. Hot foot upon the receipt of Mr Nixon’s letter Mr Clarke came to Cardiff, and, at the suggestion of Mr Nixon, wrote to the trustees to point out the fatal effects upon the port which must follow from laying the sill of the new dock at this totally inadequate depth. The trustees, in their turn, wrote to Sir John Rennie, and he came to Cardiff to go over the works with Mr Plews.
No great gift of imagination is needed to picture the state of mind of the great engineer. What he was asked to do was, in effect, to go over work performed in exact obedience to his own plans, the said plans relating to a department of engineering in which reputation assigned to him special skill and knowledge. He had to decide, in effect, whether his matured design was of any value, having regard to the special needs of the shipping. That cannot have been a pleasant position for an engineer of high standing in his profession, and Sir John Rennie’s feelings were not likely to become less bitter when he remembered that this request to pass judgment upon his own work was made to him at the instigation of a man comparatively young, and, in matters connected with the construction of docks, a mere amateur. Most painful of all must have been the ever-present consciousness that in the main contention, namely, that a dock with a sill of even depth with the West Dock would be of little or no advantage, Mr Nixon was unquestionably right.
The position adopted by Sir John Rennie was no doubt taken up in good faith, and the opinion which he expressed was unquestionably honest. He reported that it would be impracticable to lay the new dock’s sill at a greater depth than the sill of the West Dock; that he would not undertake the responsibility of making the attempt to take the new sill to a greater depth; and that if any such attempt was made the walls of the West Dock would be imperilled. But it is necessary to point out that Sir John Rennie was between the horns of a dilemma; he was compelled either to admit that his plans were inadequate to the needs of the shipping, which were well known, or to pronounce an opinion that Mr Nixon’s desire for greater depth was impossible of attainment. He chose the second alternative. But he had reckoned without the persistency of John Nixon, and little knew of that North Countryman’s quiet confidence in his own judgement. No sooner did John Nixon hear of Sir John Rennie’s report than he was with Mr Clarke again, urgent in season and of season upon the paramount necessity of greater depth. Mr Clarke, very naturally and properly, was at first disinclined to run counter to the advice of so eminent an authority as Sir John Rennie; but John Nixon, to use a familiar expression, kept on hammering at him, declaring that he could see no substantial reason for the apprehensions of Sir John Rennie. Finally, he persuaded Mr Clarke, and through him the trustees, that at any rate it would be worthwhile to postpone further operations until they had taken the opinion of another of the pupils of Bruce’s Academy in Newcastle, of no less a person, in fact, than Robert Stevenson himself.
That prince of engineers, at home and abroad, in connection with railways and bridges alike, creator of the High Level Bridge at Newcastle, the Victoria Bridge at Berwick, the Conway Railway Bridge, the bridge across the Nile, the Britannia Tubular Bridge which spans the Menai Straits, and the Victoria Bridge across the St Lawrence, was at that time in Canada engaged in the superintendent of the last named work. Six weeks had passed before he could come to Cardiff; but when he came, and after going thoroughly into the subject, he reported that the work could be done according to Mr Nixon’s requirements, that three feet more depth could be given without endangering the safety of the adjoining dock, and that it certainly ought to be done. It was a bitter moment for Sir John Rennie and for Mr Plews, who protested again and again against the decision of the trustees to follow Stevenson’s advice; and it was a proud moment for John Nixon, who had declared from the very beginning that the design, which he considered imperative, was also perfectly practicable. The result proved him to have been right, for all was done as Stephenson had directed, and none of the terrible things prophesied by Sir John Rennie happened at all. The West Dock walls indeed stand to this day.
Another conflict with the engineers remained for Mr Nixon in connection with the construction of the East Dock. Having carried his point about the sill, he discovered that the engineers were constructing the dock itself upon a scale which was, in his judgment, not likely to be adequate to the needs of the future. They were making it 200 feet wide only, and that did not satisfy John Nixon.
That East Dock was 1000 feet long at the outset. For that 1000 feet John Nixon insisted on a width of 300 feet. The dock has been extended since then to meet the needs of the trade. It is now 4300 feet long, and, beyond the first 1000 feet, is not 300 but 500 feet wide. It is difficult to speak in terms of too high praise of the services which Mr Nixon did to Cardiff when he stood forth boldly, and by his insistence defeated Sir John Rennie.
|Railways, “Rings”, Sliding Scale
Mention has been made of machines and apparatus which he invented in the whole or in part to facilitate the winning or the shipping of coal, of his relations with workmen, and of his methods of dealing with them. He pursued the fine coal, of which he thoroughly appreciated the capabilities, from the surface of the earth into the far interior. His object was to extract it in the most work-manlike and economical fashion. When it was raised he traced it from the pit’s mouth to the port of shipment or to the main line of railway, and he would no doubt be the first man to protest that the primary object of his inventions and of the suggestions he made to others who had control over the means of transport or of shipment was the advance of his own increasing business.
Very conspicuous was the public benefit resulting from John Nixon’s successful efforts to persuade and even to coerce the railway companies feeding and feeding upon South Wales and Monmouthshire to fall in with his wishes, and to enable him to develop his trade to its fullest capacity. It is an old-world story now, in some of its details almost inconceivable, and to the man interested in business full of quaint and almost antediluvian interest. Firstly, and as a matter of course, he had to persuade the railway authorities of South Wales, as a preliminary to persuading the authorities controlling French railways, that steam coal could be substituted for coke as a fuel for locomotive engines, and with good results.
This person protested that the Aberdare coal would not serve, that it burned the bars of the furnace and injured the tubes of the boilers. Nor was he appeased by Mr Nixon’s assertion that the main object of the trial was to secure the French railway market for coal in place of coke; for he cannot have failed to see that if Welsh coal was better than coke for a locomotive in France, it would also be more suitable than coke to a locomotive running in Wales. Nevertheless the trial was made, and ended satisfactorily, although a desire on the part of Mr Fisher to have the fire poked when the steam generated was already amply sufficient, reminded Mr Nixon of his old experience in France. Mr Fisher, however, did not recommend the adoption of the coal, stating as a reason that, although no harm had been done at the trial, he was convinced that prolonged use of it would be injurious to bars and tubes, particularly to the tubes.
So the Taff Company, although by no means flourishing in those early days, continued to burn coke, at double the expense of Aberdare coal, until the time when a Mr Tomlinson became locomotive superintendent. Then a sudden scarcity in the supply of coke caused Mr Nixon to suggest a new trial, with the addition of some broken bricks in the centre of the furnace, so as to obviate all suspicion of danger to the bars. This trial again was successful. The Taff Vale Company adopted steam coal, with an enormous saving of expense, and their example was soon followed by the remaining railway companies of South Wales.
The news of this test spread everywhere; indeed, it must have spread; but it was accident, combined with a readiness to seize opportunity, that brought to John Nixon as customers the first great English railway company. Through mere chance he travelled down from London to South Wales in the company of some directors and the manager of the West Midland, then recently constructed. Their conversation soon revealed that they were going down to South Wales on a journey of discovery, with the object of seeing whether Welsh coke could be obtained in sufficient quantities for it to be worth their while to attempt to develop the traffic in it. In that conversation John Nixon, as a man who knew all that was worth knowing about the coal trade in South Wales, joined. He informed the strangers that little coke was produced in Wales, and that, as a coke-making coal, Welsh coal was inferior to that of the North of England, since more Welsh coal went to the manufacture of less coke. But, he observed, Aberdare coal could be used with advantage in locomotive engines, and the strangers were astonished. It was extraordinary, they said, if this were indeed so, that Welsh coal had not been turned to this use before. In a word, they doubted him, and challenged him to prove his assertion. But he, nothing daunted, offered to supply them with a truck of coal, and a man to explain its use, with the final result that Welsh coal came into regular use, not only on the West Midland, but on the Midland system also.
As the inland trade developed, the necessity for rousing the railway companies to action as carriers of coal naturally increased, and Mr Nixon took a leading part in the process of arousing them. Let us follow his proceedings in relation to the Great Western Railway. “He made it his business”, when he did so, he had a way of carrying his point, to call upon Mr Saunders, then the general manager of the company. He pointed out to Mr Saunders that Welsh coal had been proved to demonstration to be the best coal for steam purposes that was produced in Great Britain. The demand for it was increasing daily, and a great quantity was sent to London by sea. Coal from the North of England was transported to London not only by sea, but also by rail, at a rate of one halfpenny per ton per mile or thereabouts. There was, he argued, no reason why the Great Western should not treat the coal owners and merchants of South Wales as generously as the coal owners and merchants of the North were treated by the railways which served them. Assuming proper facilities, the traffic in coal upon the Great Western line would be very great. Mr Saunders, however, was not dazzled by the golden prospect, and his answer was, from our modern point of view, astonishing. “Our line,” he said in effect, “is a passenger line of the first quality. We run at great speed, and we keep our line in the best of order, so that we may be able to maintain these fast passenger trains. The Great Western Railway Company is in no need of coal traffic; it would rather be without it; we will certainly not reduce our rates to encourage the traffic which you foretell.”
But Mr Saunders was immovable. The smooth track of the Great Western should not be degraded into a mineral line, and he would certainly not advise his directors to reduce the rates. Whereupon Mr Nixon threatened that his company would build a large steamer for their London traffic, and he was as good as his word, for Messrs’ Cory, Nixon, and Taylor did build a vessel, the William Cory, of 1500 tons burthen, which plied between Cardiff and London in the coal trade for many years.
William Cory 1857 – 1900
|But the Great Western Railway had by no means seen or heard the last of John Nixon. In 1863 we find him as a leader among the colliery proprietors complaining that upon receiving a train of laden trucks, all destined for one port of shipment, say Birkenhead, the railway company would split up the train and divide it between many luggage trains. From this senseless proceeding as a matter of course followed endless delay and inconvenience, and it was owing to Mr Nixon’s tireless persistency that it was done away with. With the improved system of despatching the trains directly from the colliery to the port of shipment there was great gain in the way of expedition, and a more ready market was consequently obtained.
Yet again the Great Western encountered John Nixon as an opponent and a teacher. The Vale of Neath Railway, built on Brunei’s broad-gauge system, found itself in difficulties, owing to the increasing competition of the Taff, and the Great Western Railway Company desired to acquire the line. To secure this end Parliamentary sanction was necessary; but Mr Nixon opposed the Great
To the end, Mr Nixon well remembered the time when the chairman of the Taff Vale Company, which afterwards attained great prosperity, seriously proposed that the whole plant and property of the company should be offered to its creditors in liquidation of their claims, and when the interests of the shareholders were saved only by the public spirit of the directors, who pledged their personal credit to secure a large advance from the bankers. At about the same time the Bute Docks were in such difficulties that the then Lord Bute offered to sell them for a guaranteed interest of 3 per cent, upon the outlay. In a word, men’s ideas had not yet widened sufficiently to realise the certainty of the future prosperity of South Wales, and the Canal was the only flourishing property among the carrying companies. Many forces, quite independent of John Nixon, were at work to make the great for a greater future.
Fluctuations in prices, rapid and great, are the primary evil, and the worst effect of that evil influence is that it tends to produce numerous disputes between masters and workmen. With rising prices workmen, following the proper ambition of every man to do the best he can for himself, demand advances of wages; with falling prices employers insist, sometimes prematurely, sometimes opportunely, sometimes too late, upon reductions of wages. In the industrial community of normal organisation, neither the advances nor the reductions come without a struggle, which involves, in most cases, cessation of work, and in all cases some bitterness of feeling.
These fluctuations were worse in the South Wales of the 1850’s and 1860’s than they are now; for then the producers had to rely for transport, or did rely, principally upon sailing-vessels, which were, in the nature of things, uncertain in their coming and going. For the difficulties and the quarrels which ensued, Mr Nixon, with other coal owners, sought a remedy; and the first remedy suggested was that which is now boasted as novel, but is really as old as trade itself, the regulation or the restriction of the vend or output of each colliery. The scheme had a superficial fascination, but it depended on several fallacies, which must have caused it to break down. It cannot, however, be said that Mr Nixon and his friends did take it into consideration until they had been taught by experience. Still it is something to the credit of Mr Nixon that he submitted to the lesson of experience, and that he became in due course a strong opponent of the ring system.
He and other colliery proprietors of South Wales fought, and fought hard, to establish control of output or vend. They had many meetings. Finally, an independent engineer was appointed to inquire into the capacity of each colliery, and into the circumstances affecting the power of output of each colliery, with the object of assigning to each colliery a maximum output, and so adjusting the supply to the demand. There is no doubt that the coal owners were earnestly desirous of arriving at agreement in the matter; but the result was precisely what might have been expected. “When the engineer’s Report was presented to the employers, embodying his views of what should be worked by each colliery or set of collieries, such dissension was created among them that the scheme was abandoned, and each one allowed to ‘gang his own gait’ and sell his coal as best he might.” Of course there was dissension, and, to be plain, it is well that it came in the beginning, for it must surely have come very soon. Moreover, if the rule that a contract in restraint of trade shall not be enforceable means anything at all, it is difficult to see how the first man breaking away from the agreement, if it had ever been entered upon, could have been proceeded against with success. He might have snapped his fingers at his colleagues, and have made his fortune with impunity.
Stain glass dedicated to his wife Elize
|The next scheme, which took the form of a society or association of which Mr Nixon was president, had for its object the periodical fixing by agreement among the coal owners of a minimum price for coal. This expedient has been tried in many trades with the same result in every case. That is to say, the mean man breaks away, makes his own bargain, and leaves his comrades out in the cold. It happened, as a matter of course, and in rather an amusing form, in the case of Mr Nixon’s society.
Complaints reached him that one of the members had quoted a price below that which had been fixed by the associated coal owners, and he was asked to call a meeting to consider this gentleman’s conduct. Prudent in this matter as in all others, but resolved to be firm when he had the opportunity of exposing the traitor, he declined to call the meeting until he was placed in the possession of incontrovertible evidence. It was forthcoming eventually in the form of a letter written by the accused man.
Long after, when the affair was many years old, it was interesting to hear John Nixon recount the story of the exposure of the underhanded coal owner, before his brethren, in full meeting assembled. Mr Nixon himself undertook the duty of cross-examination, and very effectively he performed it, until at last he forced a full admission from the shame-faced culprit.
This person’s excuse was delicious. Having been engaged in another walk of life before he “commenced coal owner,” he cried out at last, “It is always done in the flour trade.” It is done in every trade whenever agreement on prices is attempted, from the humble costermonger’s trade to that of the princes of commerce, and the ex-flour-merchant’s condemnation was the end of that futile experiment.
|The Sliding Scale System
These experiences were not lost upon John Nixon, and the best fruit of them is to be found in the readiness with which he lent himself to the support of the sliding-scale system in South Wales and Monmouthshire. Of that system it may be written without any hesitation at all, that, taken with its surroundings, it has for more than twenty years emphatically proved itself to be the most effectual device for avoiding friction between workmen and their employers that has ever existed in this country, and that it has worked steadily, and without serious interruption, to the mutual benefit of employers and workmen.
The real inventor of that system, the man who, after six months spent in thoughtful calculation, produced the scheme which for so many years gave to South Wales and Monmouthshire practical immunity from labour troubles, was Sir William Thomas Lewis, whose services to the South Wales have been twice and justly recognised by the Sovereign. But he would, however, be the first to protest that, if the idea was his (as it certainly was), his success in launching and establishing it was due in large measure to the support which he received from John Nixon; for, by the time the sliding-scale was introduced, Mr John Nixon was the recognised leader of the coal owners, and chairman of the Coal Owners Association.
This sliding-scale system, as established in South Wales, is so important a matter, and the various circumstances which make for its strength are so little understood by the public at large, that a few words may wisely be devoted to an explanation of its principles. In devising his scheme, Sir William Lewis decided to adopt the wages or rates paid in the various collieries in a particular year as a standard. Observe those words, “in the various collieries.” Different rates, determined by various circumstances, such as the ease or difficulty with which coal is won, prevailed in 1879, and still prevail in different collieries. But in each colliery, under the old system, disputes were liable to occur whenever prices rose and men demanded increased rates, or prices fell and employers declared a reduction of rates to be necessary. Now attempts, as we have seen, had been made to control the fluctuations of prices. We have seen also that these attempts always failed, and sometimes failed ludicrously. The first great merit of Sir William Lewis’s design was that, perceiving the futility of all attempts to regulate prices or to eliminate fluctuations, he saw that it might be possible to formulate a scheme which would meet fluctuations of prices automatically, without interrupting the relations between employer and workman. Allowing a certain standard, he enunciated in a definite form the principle that wages ought to rise and fall in proportion to prices. After long deliberation upon the proportion of wages to prices throughout the South Wales coal field, he determined upon the percentage by which wages ought justly to rise and fall, whenever, over a given period, the price of Welsh coal, free-on-board at Cardiff, Swansea, or Newport, rose or fell by the amount of one shilling or more.
The period first fixed upon was six months. It has since been shortened, but the principle (even after the recent and disastrous conflict) remains the same. A joint-committee of men and masters, each equally represented, and each section elective and representative, was appointed to administer the affairs of the sliding-scale arrangement. The committee-men on either side are, of course, elected periodically, and the agreement which binds both parties is subject to six months’ notice. Such notice has frequently been given, and there have often been disputes upon the question of percentage and upon the periods between times of audit. But a provision for six months’ notice leaves ample time for negotiation and repentance, and, after many notices given, the sliding-scale survives up to the moment of writing.
Standing alone, the sliding-scale system might not perhaps have been permanent. Much must in any event have depended upon the statesmanship and self-restraint of the leading men on either side of the joint-committee. In this respect acquaintance with both sides and with the history of the committee justifies the writer in saying that both masters and men have been excellently well served for many years. But the wisest statesmanship on the part of members of the joint-committee would hardly have served to keep the peace for so many years if other influences had not been at work. First amongst these may be placed the Miners’ Permanent Provident Fund, founded by Sir William Thomas Lewis, to which Mr John Nixon was, in the course of his great career as a coal owner, necessarily a very large contributor. Of that fund, which provides various benefits, the men provide 75 per cent, of the funds roughly, and the masters 25 per cent. This fund, which pays in every case and never provokes litigation, is almost entirely in the control of the representatives of the men, and its existence does away with the necessity for a Trade Union regarded as wholly or partially a benefit society.
But a very potent factor remains in the Monmouthshire and South Wales Coal Owners’ Association, of which John Nixon was for many years the chairman. Without undue revelation it may be said that this association is, and is known to be, very wealthy and powerful. It works, so to speak, on parallel lines with the sliding-scale which regulates the payments in the various collieries.
The strong support which was constantly given to the sliding-scale system by Mr Nixon as one of the wisest courses of policy pursued by that sagacious man in the course of his long life; and with the account that has been given of that system, sufficiently to enable its principles to be visible, but without overloading of statistical detail, this volume may well draw to a close. Other matters might have been mentioned. Something, for example, might have been written of his success in inducing the British Admiralty to adopt Welsh coal, a success achieved on the strength of elaborate experiments made at Cardiff, and in spite of great pressure brought to bear upon the Government in the interests of North Country coal owners.
Cardiff Shipping Intelligence
“The Times” of Saturday last, under “Naval Intelligence States” The final speed trial of the armour- plated screw frigate Royal Alfred, 18 guns, 800 horse power, Captain F. A. Herbert, flagship of Sir George Rodney Mundy, K.C.B., took place on the previous day, over the measured mile course in Stoke’s Bay, near Portsmouth. The ship weighed her anchor from Spithead, drawing 23ft. 7in. of water forward, and 27ft. 2in. aft., being complete in all respects for sea, with 430 tons of coal in her bunkers, and 30 tons of Nixon’s Steam Navigation Coal supplied for use on the trial. Six runs were made with full-boiler power and four with half-boiler power, the result being an important gain in speed over that of her last trial on the 22nd ult. Ten men were at the wheel on the full- power circles, and twelve on the half-power. The in. creased rate of speed attained by the Royal Alfred yesterday as compared with the speed she attained on the 22nd ult., together with the increase in the indicated power of her engines, is solely attributable to the superior quality of the fuel burnt in her furnaces. The superior evaporating power of the Nixon’s Navigation Coal has induced the Admiralty to order its use on the more important trials of her Majesty’s ships over the measured mile of Stoke’s Bay, the Warrior’s trial being the first occasion on which it was so used, although it had been supplied for some time previously to that date to her Majesty’s yachts. The results of this second trial at load draft, as compared with the former experiment, may be summed up as follows:—
The Royal Alfred
|The excess of speed attained is entirely attributed to the fact that 30 tons of picked fuel, known as Nixon’s Navigation Coal; were used to urge the engines to their greatest efforts. That this was so the increased indicated power, above enumerated, sufficiently proves. The extra half-knot at full-power and the knot at half-power resulted from Nixon’s coal and from no other cause. It is to the coal the more satisfactory result is attributable, and not to the engines.
The Shipping Gazette corroborates the above statement. The Navigation Steam Coal was wrought solely from the Aberdare upper four feet seam. Taking into consideration the relative evaporative power of the two descriptions of coal and the first cost, freight, and other expenses, the saving is far greater than is represented by the difference in the selling prices at ports of shipment.
|John Nixon’s Funeral
It will be satisfactory to his employees and the inhabitants of the district generally to know that his remains will be interred in the locality where he spent the earliest and most active years of his life. The funeral will take place at Mountain Ash on Thursday. The body will be conveyed there on Wednesday, and will remain in St. Margaret’s Church for the night.
Funeral of Mr John Nixon
The remains of the late Mr John Nixon, was for many years chairman and director of Messrs. Nixon’s Navigation Company, were interred at Mountain Ash Cemetery. The funeral took place on Thursday, and was the occasion of a great public demonstration of sympathy and respect. As already announced, the body was brought by special train from London to Mountain Ash on Wednesday evening, and was placed in St. Margaret’s Church.
The coffin was covered with beautiful wreaths and crosses, one of the latter being from Sir W. T. Lewis, Bart. The workmen employed in the collieries with which deceased had been associated took a holiday for the purpose of attending the obsequies.
St. Margaret’s Church was recently extended in memory of the late Lord Aberdare and it was here the funeral services of that statesman, and later on that of his widow, the Dowager Lady Aberdare, were gone through. There was a huge concourse of people outside the church and at the cemetery, and hymns were sung with much fervour by the surpliced choirs of the parish and a united choir, led by Mr T. Glyndwr Richards; while the Mountain Ash Male Voice Party rendered the “Dead March” in “Saul.”
The officiating clergymen were the Rev. B. Lloyd (vicar), the Rev. T. W. Moore, and the Rev. H. J. Fish (curates). The inscription on the coffin was “John Nixon. Born 10th May. 1815. Died 3rd June, 1899.” The grave was decorated, as also was the church. The coffin was taken to the grave in a beautiful glass hearse, drawn by a pair of Flemish horses specially brought from London. Prominent among those at the funeral was Sir W. T. Lewis, Bart. The services throughout were most impressive.
John Nixon’s Grave Mountain Ash