Miners' Wives: The Ladysmith Strike of 1913
Ladysmith was a company coalmining town in British Columbia owned by Canadian Collieries. The men, members of the United Mine Workers of America, went out in May 1913. The problems included issues of wages, working conditions and the firing of 2 union men – purportedly for daring to report gas in the mines. The strike was peaceful as both sides dug in. However, in August, what became known as “The Big Strike” turned violent.
Problems first arose when Charles Axelson, a scrawny but tough mineworker sat down at a bar. Becoming somewhat intoxicated, he began to sing an anti-scab song. The next thing he knew he was in the local jail. His wife, who was attending a Ladies Auxiliary meeting at the time, heard about his arrest. A large, determined woman, - described in the press as a “veritable Amazon in build, vigour and strength,” she did not hesitate. She seized an axe from the back of the meeting hall and marched over to the jail.
Once there, she held up the axe and waved it around. Her point was clear. She wanted them to release her husband immediately. Her demands for his release were answered. She walked away with Mr. Axelson in tow. Her deed seems to have been the start of what was a violence-packed few nights. Miners, their wives and supporters, rioted throughout the town destroying shop windows and the homes of scabs and strike breakers. The militia arrived, eventually arresting 179 miners, holding them without bail. The militia remained on guard in the city until the start of WWI.
Against The Norm
Women such as Mrs. Axelson sent shock waves through polite society. One Pinkerton agent believed the men were “ignorant and savage,” but he felt the women of Ladysmith were worse. They were the antithesis of every feminine norm of behaviour. However, in court, despite the prosecutor’s firm belief that Mrs. Axelso, and by extension all the miners’ wives and female supporters, were simple as well as uncultured, she proved this not to be the case.
When the prosecutor put Mrs. Axelson on the stand, he thought to degrade her – to point out her lack of refinement. To do this, he demanded she sing the song responsible for her husband’s incarceration. It was a petty ploy, but one, Mrs. Axelson overcame. She stood up and proved his perception wrong. She did so in what one witness, Lempi Guthrie, wife of arrested miner, Sam Guthrie, recorded as a “lovely, trained voice, and in a short time, the whole large audience wholeheartedly joined in.”
Mrs. Axelson and other wives and women did not receive a sentence from the judge – although he firmly believed she had been a ringleader in several of the events of that night. He did not prosecute or sentence any woman who took part in the riots in Ladysmith. Instead, Judge Howay increased the severity of the punishment for their men. Later, he condemned their behaviour as unnatural, displaying characteristics that belied the ideal he had of women as being “sympathetic and kind” instead of singing along with their men to the tune of “Drive the scabs away” while throwing stones and urging further acts of aggressive destruction.
Charles Axelson appeared in court for sentencing on October 14, 1913. Mrs. Axelson was called on by the defense – Mr. Bird, to provide evidence he had not taken part in the rioting. She stated after she released him from jail, he returned home with her and remained at home for the entire evening. Sentencing of the men was recorded in The Islander on Saturday, October 25, 1913. Judge Howell divided them into 3 classes. The first group of “ringleaders” consisted of 5 men. All received 2 years. Those who fell into the second class numbered 23 – Charles Axelson and Joseph Mairs fell into this group. They got 1 year and $100 fine. The final group of 11 received 3 months only. The judge did not factor in “time-served” in to their sentence.
Of all the men Judge Howay one, at least, did not come back. His name is Joseph Mairs. His sentence was 16 months. He died from lack of medical attention before 3 months had passed in Oakalla Prison Jan. 20, 1914. His funeral took place in Ladysmith. The funeral procession stretched a mile long. To raise money for his memorial, attendees purchased a postcard featuring the young miner in his other role as a prize-winning cyclist. A wreath laying ceremony took place in Ladysmith Cemetery in 2004 at a cairn, reminding people of his death and his strength at fighting for workers’ rights and unions. His memorial is a simple one. It reads, "A martyr to a noble cause - the emancipation of his fellow man."
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