Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Kettling for the cause: workers' rights and wedding nights

Cacophony: Depiction of charivari in the early 14th century.

My historical research takes me down some strange by-ways.

I was listening to a radio report on demonstrations in Istanbul where the demonstrators were tin kettling, banging pots and pans together to create noise. I had not heard that phrase for a long time!

I first came across the term reading about the history of the miners’ union in the Lower Hunter, the Northern Coal Districts. This is a long and fascinating story that has had a more significant impact on Australian history than most realize.  

Coal miners were paid under a complicated system of piece rates. While earnings were better than average in good times, the work was hard, often dangerous and insecure.  

Starting with Miners’ Lodges in the 1850s, a concept drawn from the English and Welsh coalfields, the miners tried to organise collectively. For their part, the proprietors also organised, creating what came to be called the Combine.  

The miners’ main weapon was withdrawal of labour, strikes, while the proprietors retaliated with lock-outs and the importation of non-union labour, the scabs. The relationship was far more complex than this simple description, for unions and proprietors would also combine if anything threatened the powerful market position held by Hunter Valley coal.

Tin kettling was a powerful miner weapon in these industrial disputes. As the scabs arrived, the miners’ women and children would greet them by blocking roads and banging on pots and pans, creating a constant and often effective cacophony.

I had thought that this was the end of the story, but when I came to investigate, I found that this was not the common Australian usage for tin kettling. The dictionaries don’t mention the industrial usage. Instead, they focus on tin kettling as a custom in Australian marriages!

I shuddered a bit on this one. When I spoke to female friends, they shuddered too.

Imagine. You have just married. Tired, you come back to your new marital home for the first time after the wedding.

Unknown to you, your guests have all followed you home secretly carrying pots and pans. You are ready to go to bed and suddenly the silence is broken by banging, kettling and drumming accompanied by raucous noise! Ouch.

This is still not the end of the story. Researching, I found the practice of charivari or, in England, skimmington or rough music, a practice that spread to North America. Here performance, vulgarity and loud noise, including the banging of pots and pans, were used to embarrass wrong doers in small communities.

The next time your young child or grandchild gets the pots and pans out and starts banging them, remember they may be an extension of a long tradition!
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 12 June 2019. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015,  here for 2016, here  2017here 2018, here 2019   


Anonymous said...

charivari, skimmington are part of a long tradition of folk practices which eventually influenced, and are widely referenced in literature and drama. Its influence is pretty obvious in eg commedia, where usual mores are often overturned, especially by cunning servants. Twelfth Night - the last day of the Christmas season- used to be celebrated in many ways by overturning usual hierarchies. In some traditions, whoever got the 'fauve' (bean; later a charm) from the special cake, could order the household around for the day. Normality returned at midnight. It is not an accident that Bill the Bard called his play '12th Night',or 'What You Will'. Inversion of usual household practices was also common during childbirth rituals. Noble women were secluded in a birthing chamber for several weeks, but in more modest households, the marital bed (room) would be commandeered. The midwife and her birth helpers and the labouring woman's friends took over the household, until the new mother was churched, usually after about 6 weeks. Usual male/female hierarchies were inverted, and the husband refused physical (ie sexual) access to his wife until after this ritual. The Winter's Tale makes much of this, as Hermione berates the jealous Leontes for denying her 'the childbirth privilege'. Domestic harmony is disrupted by Katarina's excesses in The Taming of the Shrew, until she subsides, and acknowledges male supremacy; or does she? See Act V sc 2; but we possibly do not want to address that, do we?

Anonymous said...

bit of a brain fart, there, JDB. I couldn't quite dredge the major inversory C20 lit movement from the mental recesses. For this enlightenment, as for many others, many thanks to my darling friend and teacher, Adrian Kiernander. It is of course, the idea of Carnival; LIMITED excess/extravaganza/banging tins is really good, but then it's back to order, for societal good. That's the conservative view of carnival, anyway. AK and I had many discussions (it was always most civilised; I will not call them arguments) about this and many other theories I had never met before. He is now very unwell, but do look him up, if only for me when/if you return to A'dale. Now that the kids don't live there any more, I can't see myself ever getting back there. Ditto PSW and JSR.

Johnb said...

Would the long t4ain of tin cans tied to the wedding car count as a displaced tin Kettering ?

Anonymous said...

yes indeed, Johnb, it certainly would, esp if you mean kettling, and now that wedding night consummation is usually a private event, without family and friends ceremoniously escorting the bride to the marital bed, undressing her, and seeing her safely between the sheets, while the groom's mates carried on with lots of noise and ribald raucous carryon while escorting him to the bedchamber, and then hooting and hollering outside the door, again with lots of kettling, while he went about what he was supposed to do. I guess tin cans on the car is much more sedate.

Johnb said...

You can rely on predictive text to change what you genuinely typed.and saw on the page in that microsecond before moving on.
Here’s a Texan version.
Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal 26 May 1892 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article62727740.

Jim Belshaw said...

Sorry for the slow response, but you two have done very well without me! I enjoyed this short thread and JC has given me some more material on the background. And I love the reference to taming, but perhaps we won't go there!

Judi, I didn't know that Adrian was still in Armidale nor that he was unwell. I shall do so. Look him up, that is

Anonymous said...


Adrian has advanced Parkinson's Disease. I last saw him in (I think 2015), when he still looked quite well. He is confined to an electric wheelchair, and has very limited movement. His partner, Kent, is an old friend of DinLaw, Nadia. They talk at frequently infrequent intervals, so she keeps me sort of up to date. Na has taken up medieval illumination, and Kent commissioned her to do a birthday gift for Adrian. Apparently Adrian has a deep interest in RIII, and Na did an absolutely superb boar for A.
Was in Brisvegas w/end before last for g'daughter's 13th birthday. How those years have flown! Do you have a definite moving date yet?

Jim Belshaw said...

Next six weeks I think. I have to be out of here by 20 Sept in any case.On Brisvegas, hi granny. Who would have thought!

Sorry to hear the news on Adrian.

Anonymous said...

I am not granny; I am grand'mère (mémé) on account of being francophone and extremely sophisticated and unconventional.

Jim Belshaw said...

Laughs. And I thought that were but Classical!

Cadman Brandon said...

Hello Everyone,

This is to inform you that our company is presently offering loans to interested persons at an affordable rate with the help and assistance from our banks.

We Offer Long And Short Term Loans to individuals and companies. Are you contemplating a business venture, seeking loans, funding or capital to finance existing hotels, office buildings, multi-family projects, other commercial project?

Do you need a LOAN for Business or you need a personal Loan. You can apply for a fast loan here and get it with ease. We can raise up to 500 Million United States Dollars to finance different kinds of projects.

For more details regarding our LOAN offer, you are advised to contact our office today via Email: triumphantfinanceltd@gmail.com and provide the following:

Your Full Name:
Home Address/Country:
Mobile Telephone Number:
Loan Amount:
Loan Duration:

We are proud to say that, despite global economic uncertainty, we are still one of the World fastest growing independent finance company.

Contact us today for your Business/Personal Loans at: triumphantfinanceltd@gmail.com