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Henry Currer Briggs

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Henry Currer Briggs (1829-1882)

see Henry Briggs, Son and Co

1882 Obituary [1]

Mr. HENRY CURRER BRIGGS was born at Overton, near Wakefield, Yorkshire, on the 2d March 1829. He was almost entirely under private tuition until the age of thirteen, when he went to Dr. Heidenmire's school at Worsop, then newly established on the Pestalozzian system. He remained there for some years, and finally went to Edinburgh University, where he specially distinguished himself in chemistry, making many experiments in the laboratory of the late Professor Wilson, in concert with that distinguished chemist.

His university course at an end, Mr. Briggs returned to his native place, and assisted his father in the management of the collieries at Flockton, near Wakefield, where he made himself master of all the details of underground working. He did not, however, work there long, but, from the time he came of age, devoted his energies chiefly to the management of Whitwood Colliery, near Normanton, then just opened out by his father. After a period of fifteen or sixteen years of earnest and unremitting work, successful for the most part, but frequently disturbed by strikes and disputes with the workmen, be was deeply impressed by the desirability of introducing a system of co-operation between masters and work-people in place of the antagonism that was wont to exist. With this end in view he worked out a scheme which he hoped would do away with all cause of strikes by making the interests of the employer and employed identical.

In 1865 the Whitwood Collieries were transferred to a limited liability company, the capital being taken at the amount standing in the books of the concern. The work-people were specially encouraged to take shares, a preference being given to their applications, and arrangements being made for payment by gradual instalments. In addition to the attempt to interest the workpeople in the success of the concern by making them shareholders, a still more important feature of the scheme was a payment to all work-people and officials of the Company of a bonus on their earnings at the end of each year, the sum to be paid being dependent on the profits of the Company. During the ten years in which the system was in operation, including the inflation of 1873, over £40,000 was distributed to the workmen in this way. For some years the new system worked most successfully, and might have continued to do so, but for the excessively high wages of the two years culminating in 1873, which made the men indifferent to what seemed to them then a comparatively small benefit deferred to the end of the year. Other causes, too intricate to be detailed here, combined to break up the bonus system, and make the shareholders generally unwilling to continue the benefit to those who seemed so indifferent about it. Many of the more thoughtful of the workmen have since deeply regretted the course then pursued by some of their number. To Mr. Briggs, the overthrow of his scheme was a source of great sorrow. He was not at that time managing director of the Company, although he still retained the office of chairman, having become a partner in some jute works in Dundee, where he resided for about four years.

In the year 1870 Mr. Briggs returned to England, and established "The North of England Iron and Coal Company (Limited)," now "The Carlton Iron Company (Limited)," in the Cleveland district, having long had a great desire to try the same principle of industrial partnership in the iron trade which had up to that time been so successful in the coal trade. Unfortunately, however, the great and long-continued depression in the Cleveland district, which commenced before the new Company had had time to become firmly established, prevented the system from having a fair trial; and in 1876, when family circumstances obliged Mr. Briggs to resume his former position at the Whitwood Collieries, the Carlton Iron Company passed into other management, although he retained the chairmanship to the time of his death.

This is not the place or time to discuss the subject of the experiments made at Whitwood and Carlton by Mr. Briggs. It may, however, be remarked that they were watched with deep interest by employers of labour, political economists, and representatives of labour throughout the country; that many looked to industrial partnerships as the long-sought-for panacea for industrial dissensions; and that the Whitwood experiment was. the pioneer of many others of a more or less modified character, tending to the same end.

At the instance of Mr. Briggs, some of Danks' rotary puddling machines were in 1874 erected at the ironworks at Carlton, near Stockton, but with unsatisfactory results. The results obtained at the Carlton Works with the Danks furnace were described by Mr. Briggs at meetings of the Institute,* this being, indeed, the only subject on which he ever addressed the Institute, of which, however, he had been a member since 1872.

That Mr. Briggs' efforts to ameliorate the condition of his work-people were fully appreciated by them is shown by the following inscription on a monument which they have erected to his memory in the churchyard at Whitworth:— "This monument, erected by the workmen and others connected with the Whitwood Collieries, commemorates a master who, by his exemplary Christian character, faithfulness, and diligence in his vocation, and lifelong endeavours to improve the condition of those who worked under him, won for himself their true affection and esteem, and whose sudden death was deeply lamented and deplored." To this eloquent and exceptional tribute little need be added. A friend who knew him well has, however, borne testimony that "his thorough uprightness and straightforwardness were felt and appreciated by all who came in contact with him, and he was especially remarkable for faithfulness in everything that he undertook, however great the suffering or loss to himself."

He died suddenly at Christiania, Norway, on the 21st October 1881.

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