In 1830 the Northern Union of Pitmen, led by Tommy Hepburn, was established. In April 1831 the union refused to sign their annual bonds (contracts) which tied them to a pit for a year and a day. They wanted better working conditions, including a reduction in the working hours for children from 16 to 12 hours a day.
The dispute was bitter but some concessions were gained. In April 1832, the Union again went on strike in April and refused to sign their bonds. On June 11th 1832, William Jobling and Ralph Armstrong, two striking Jarrow Pitmen, attacked South Shields magistrate Nicholas Fairles who died ten days later.
Fairles, prior to his death, acknowledged Armstrong had carried-out the attack and Jobling was an accessory. Jobling was arrested, tried and hung at Durham; covered in pitch and placed in a metal cage, escorted to Jarrow Slake where he was hung on a gibbet seventeen feet high.
Judge Parke, at Jobling’s trial, spoke of the unions as, “the illegal proceedings which have disgraced the county. May they take warning by your fate?” Jobling remained at Jarrow Slake for three weeks until the guards were removed and his friend’s risked transportation and stole his body. Armstrong was never caught. Jobling’s body has never been discovered.
By August 1832, the Union was defeated. Tommy Hepburn was prevented from working in the Pits and forced to sell tea door-to-door. He was eventually allowed to return to work provided he had nothing to do with the union.
In November 1830, Lord Grey formed a coalition, among the government’s aims was to subdue popular unrest. It was said to be an ‘age of unease’ which eventually led to the 1832 Reform Act. The ‘Jobling story’ should be placed in the context of the state of the nation in the early 1830‘s: “England and Ireland was in a very disturbed and excited condition.” (Earl Cowper in his Preface to Lord Melbourne’s Papers, 1889.)
The annual bonds which the Union had fought to have abolished remained in place until 1872. Ralph Armstrong was never apprehended. Isabella Jobling died in Harton Workhouse (now South Shields General Hospital) in 1892, aged, 91 recalling nothing of her husband. Tommy Hepburn (1795-1864) became involved with the Chartist movement in the 1840’s and is buried in St Mary’s Churchyard, Heworth, Gateshead. His grave is tended by the miners’ union to this day and an annual event is held at Saint Mary’s in October commemorating Hepburn’s life.