John Varley – From miner to manager

This is a post about one of my ancestors whom I’d like to have known (although he may not have been quite the paragon pictured in his obituary).


John Varley

John Varley,  my great great grandfather, was a miner in Eastwood in Nottinghamshire, the son and grandson of miners whose sons were miners in their turn.

Eastwood is D H Lawrence country –  the landscape of “Sons and Lovers”, “The Rainbow” and “Women in Love”.  Great Great Grandad’s view from his window on Walker Street is described in Sons and Lovers.  Chatterley is the name of a fellow miner I found when I was looking up baptisms in the parish registers but is not a local name although Mellors is.

The world of miners was a very close-knit one – miners’ daughters married miners’ sons – whole extended families moved lock, stock and barrel to pit cottages at a new mine sometimes in another county – and D H Lawrence tried to describe the feelings of being an outsider in this environment in the semi-autobiographical “Sons and Lovers”.  He was scorned as a “mummy’s boy” according to one of my female ancestors, his contemporary, perhaps because he was different and did not intend to follow his father’s occupation but to use his intelligence to earn a living instead.

David Lawrence’s father Arthur was born in 1848 in Old Brinsley the same year that John Varley was born in Eastwood only a few miles away and both men were widowed by the time of the 1911 census.  Their lives must have run parallel in many ways both marrying a wife from another area but Arthur Lawrence remained a coal face worker whereas John Varley worked and studied hard and went into Management.

A coal miner by 13

John was a coal miner like his father by the age of 13 as can be seen in the 1861 census when the family lived in Old Brinsley.  His parents were Edmund Varley and Mary Hand (although by 1861 his mother had died and his father had married Elizabeth Limb) and he was born on 6 February 1848 in Eastwood.

His occupation was given as a Collier on the  marriage certificate in 1872 when he married Mary Farmer (who was from Castle Donington in Leicestershire) at the Baptist Chapel in Basford near Nottingham.  However by 1873 when he had to give evidence at an inquest into a fatal accident at the High Park Colliery where he worked he was described as a Deputy Underviewer (Supervisor).

This inquest into a collier called Joseph Parkinson, who was injured at work  and subsequently died in hospital, was reported in the Nottinghamshire Guardian of 6 June.  Parkinson and another man had been cutting a new road to some coal when a part of the roof fell on him breaking one of his legs.  According to the article John Varley said that:

“the head-way was about three yards wide, and they had gone about three yards.  There was plenty of timber near the work but no sprags had been put up at all.  They put up the props when they thought it needful.  In this instance he had sounded the roof and considered it perfectly safe.”

Mining Engineer and Under Manager

John joined the Chesterfield and Midland Counties Institute of Engineers in 1887 as an associate member and was now described as  an Underviewer.  By 1891 he was again testifying at another inquest into the death of a man who had been slightly injured in a roof fall and who subsequently died of blood poisoning he was Under Manager at Moorgreen Colliery.

Moorgreen Colliery

Moorgreen Colliery

His wife Mary died in 1903 and he himself died 16 years later aged 72 on 22 November 1919.  The local paper, the Eastwood and Kimberley Advertiser, of 28 November printed an account of his  funeral and an obituary which is a family historian’s dream.



His obituary

“Mr Varley was a native of Eastwood, being born in the year 1848, in an old cottage which then stood in Spa Meadow, near Eastwood Hall (since demolished).  He was the worthy son of a worthy sire, and the third generation of Varleys in this district.  Edmund Varley, born 1777, came to work at the Eastwood collieries as far back as 1795 when the Barber family were the sole proprietors, and filled an official capacity during his latter working days.  At 80 he retired on a pension and died at the ripe old age of 92.  Deceased’s father, also named Edmund, whom a few residents in Eastwood still remember with feelings of great respect, spent the whole of his working days under the firm of Barber, Walker and Co., and in like manner Mr John Varley spent the whole of his time under the firm.  In the year 1874 and at the age of 26 years he was appointed as a deputy and served in the capacity of head deputy for 13 years, and then when a new Mines Act came into operation, he received an appointment of under-manager at Moorgreen Colliery, which office he honourably filled until some eight years ago, when the duties became so extensive and arduous with a greatly increased output that the management has to increase the official staff, and henceforward and up to about three years ago Mr Varley’s duties were confined to the deep hard seam.”

Not only that but the published account of the funeral named all of the mourners – family, colliery officials and workmen – who attended and described the floral emblems and inscriptions culminating with a letter of appreciation by a J Birkin on behalf of the colliery employees.

“I feel sure he is sadly lamented by all the miners of this district…………..”

“All the men loved him……………he exercised tolerance, disinterestedness, unselfishness and deference to the opinion of the workers and let me state above all, a beauty of disposition and amiability of purpose and intention, and possessed a great personal charm…………..”

“The son of humble parents, with a large family, he had persevered and triumphed.”

I am proud that he worked so hard to better himself and succeeded against the odds.

Jacqui Kirk