A friend to the miners
While updating the Rapper Online website, I wrote a page on the Cowen Trophy, awarded to the winners of the traditional sword dance class at the North of England Musical Tournament from 1921 onwards. The Trophy was a silver cup decorated with designs taken from the Lindisfarne Gospels, and was donated by Jane Cowen of Stella Hall in memory of her late husband Joseph Cowen. But who exactly was he? Some research needed.
The Cowen family were originally from Lindisfarne, and came to Tyneside in the eighteenth century to work in Sir Ambrose Crowley's steelworks at Winlaton. Crowley was an exceptional employer for that era, and kept his workers' best interests firmly at heart; he provided free schooling for the children of the village, and paid for a doctor to treat his employees and their families. Crowley also established a fund to support workers forced to stop working due to age or disability as well as their dependents. Joseph Cowen's grandfather was the last of the family to work for Crowley, whose factory closed in 1816. Crowley's practices clearly had an impact on the Cowens, as will be seen.
Joseph Cowen's father, also called Joseph, worked initially as a blacksmith and then as a brick maker in Blaydon Burn. The brick business was successful, and expanded, with Joseph Cowen senior eventually becoming a mine owner and turning to politics, becoming leader of a group called the Radicals of Blaydon and Liberal MP for Newcastle upon Tyne from 1865 to 1873 with an agenda for reform. In 1871 he was knighted by Queen Victoria for his public service.
Joseph Cowen junior was born in Blaydon Burn on 9th July 1831, educated at Ryton School and the University of Edinburgh, where his already liberal political background was radicalised by events such as the secession of the Free Church from the Church of Scotland. On return from Edinburgh, he took over the family brickworks and became involved in local politics.
During the mid-nineteenth century, the Chartist movement sought a “People's Charter” to bring in democratic reforms such as universal voting by secret ballot - things we take for granted today. Over most of the United Kingdom, this movement was successfully suppressed, but its aims continued to be pursued around Newcastle by the Northern Reform Union, founded on 3rd January 1858 by William Cook, R. B. Reed and Joseph Cowen.
The Northern Reform Union went out into the towns and villages around Newcastle to instruct pitmen, ironworkers and agricultural works in political agitation. Joseph Cowen was a leading light in this movement and did much to encourage miners to campaign for better conditions of employment and against corruption by officials as well as for better political representation.
In 1859 Joseph Cowen bought the Newcastle Daily Chronicle and Newcastle Weekly Chronicle from Mark Lambert, and used these newspapers as vehicles for his reform ideas. They often carried articles about the grievances of the working classes, especially those of miners. Under Cowen, these newspapers developed a left-wing but non-partisan ethos which to some extent continues to this day.
The Representation of the People Act in 1867 sought to further extend voting rights, but it did not go far enough and the majority of miners in the North-East were excluded from the suffrage due to a peculiar type of tenure. Cowen, among others, considered this to be unjust and when attempts to reform this failed, he organised a mass demonstration on the Town Moor in Newcastle on 12th April 1873 which was attended by over 40,000 miners.
Cowen was the founding chairman of the Blaydon Co-Operative Society, modelled on the Rochdale Society, and the first Co-Op in the region. Cowen's other efforts to improve conditions for the working classes included reforms of the Blaydon Mechanics Institute, making it attractive as well as instructive by including music and entertainment as well as the standard lectures, and the opening of the Newcastle Public Library.
Joseph Cowen succeeded his father as Liberal MP for Newcastle in 1873, and remained in office until 1886, continuing to campaign for reforms until his death in 1900. A statue of Cowen was erected by public subscription at the junction of Westgate Road and Fenkle Street in Newcastle in 1906. His widow Jane Cowen remained supportive to his causes, and always welcomed sword dancers when they called at Stella Hall at Christmas.
- Evan Rowland Jones: The Life and Speeches of Joseph Cowen M.P. London, n.d. [?1885]
- Richard Fynes: Miners of Northumberland and Durham. Newcastle upon Tyne, 1873