‘Poor, harmless’ Frank Mirfield takes a cheap trip to Van Diemen’s Land

On 3 October 1831 the ‘Elizabeth’ set sail for Australia.  On board were 220 men, all going to live in a new country but not through choice.   Amongst these men was a 29 year old weaver from Barnsley.  He was called Frank Mirfield.  Everyone called him Frank … that is apart from the Leeds Patriot and the authorities. To the former he was ‘poor, harmless Frank Mirfield’ and to the latter he was Francis.  Frank had spent eighteen months in a hulk at Sheerness before setting off on his enforced adventure.  He was later to recall how he had defended the weavers against wage cuts ‘and received a cheap trip to Van Diemen’s Land as my reward’.

What exactly had Frank done to deserve his reward?  In Barnsley in 1829 the masters were seeking to cut wage rates. Not good news at the best of times, very bad news when what you got already wasn’t enough.  Frank told the weavers to resist the wage cuts, or, as he put it, ‘to turn up their noses for there was no law against turning up noses.’  He urged them to stick together because that way they could prevail.  So Frank sought to instill hope and defiance into these men.  But these were hard times and these men were frustrated and angry.   That August the weavers turned to violent protest.   The windows of a house belonging to a mill owner were smashed and yarn belonging to men trying to undercut prices was shredded so that it could no longer be used.  Had Frank thrown the stones himself?  Of course not.  Had Frank urged the weavers to do this? Of course he hadn’t.  But inevitably there was an informer ready to help the ruling elite bang Frank up.   And so it was that Frank found himself on the high seas, with fourteen years in Van Diemen’s Land to look forward to.

Frank in fact came home earlier – after eight years.  The Barnsley weavers  did not forget the man who had been their champion.  They organised a petition to secure his return and stumped up the cash to pay for it.  At a celebration dinner at Union Inn in Barnsley  to mark his return in 1840 Frank typically had nothing to say about his experiences in Van Diemen’s Land. He talked instead about the continued injustices facing working people.  No egotist was Frank. What is remarkable about Frank Mirfield is that, in spite of his unpleasant punishment, he did not give up on the working class struggle.

To the end of his days – he was found dead in his bed in 1869 – Frank Mirfield championed the causes of fair wages for the weavers and the People’s Charter.  His loyalty to Feargus O’Connor was never broken. He led a number of strikes against wage cuts. He urged working men to join together in trade unions.  He also became a spokesman for his own people on local affairs, resisting rises in the price of meat and campaigning for a cleaner water supply. When he appeared at meetings at the end of his life, Frank was loudly cheered.  The people loved him.  Of course, they didn’t have the money to put up a statue to him.  But if they had had it, they would have.

Frank Mirfield will be appearing in a future volume of the Dictionary of Labour Biography.

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