SWIFT, HENRY, coal-miner, mine manager, and jp; b. 1 Nov. 1848 in Bickerstaffe, England, son of Edward Swift and Alice Culshaw; m. 16 March 1872 Sarah McLeod in Stellarton, N.S., and they had five children; d. 21 Feb. 1891 in Springhill, N.S.
Like many coal-miners, Henry Swift was following in his father’s footsteps when at the age of 12 he first went to work in the pit in one of the Lancashire mines operated by the Rainford Coal Company. In 1869 he emigrated to the United States, where he found work in the coal-fields of Pennsylvania and Maryland. About two years later he came to Nova Scotia, working first at the mines in Stellarton until 1874, and then at the new, thriving coal village of Springhill. An ambitious and diligent employee, he gradually rose in the mine hierarchy until, on 5 March 1890, he became manager of the colliery department (general manager) of the large Springhill mines. Swift was an active member of the Presbyterian Church and the masonic order, a justice of the peace, vice-president of the Nova Scotia Institute of Mine Officials, and president of the local relief fund for the benefit of sick and injured miners. On 21 Feb. 1891 a powerful explosion in the west side of the East Slope killed Swift along with 124 of the more than one thousand men and boys he supervised. An inquest found that the explosion was caused by an unusual flame from the shot used by miners to blast down the coal and attached no blame to the management.
Swift was seen by his fellow engineers and by commentators in the local Trades and Labour Journal as the epitome of the self-made man, whose determination and discipline had carried him to the top. However, he was regarded by others as an autocratic and inconsistent boss. Criticism of him began in earnest when he was underground manager in 1888 at a time when the new management was intent on introducing sweeping changes in the mines. His detractors were particularly vocal during a bitter strike in 1890 that the coal-miners won by bringing out all the workers in the mine and thus causing its lower levels to flood. Both interpretations of Swift are borne out by his remarkable letter-books; the letters are most frequently to his superior, John R. Cowans, concerning the daily life of the mine. Swift’s great preoccupation was with systematizing and making scientific the entire underground operations of the mine. On 20 Jan. 1890 he wrote, “What we want about the Colliery is a good Code of Rules & Regulations for the guidance of all parties and those strictly enforced.” His letters show that he also demanded a rationalization of the recording of information in the mine, and he compiled an impressive account of the physical assets of its owners, the Cumberland Railway and Coal Company, with a note on future problems. He also kept careful track of the “standing orders” of the pit, attempted to introduce a system of bonuses and deductions to give colliers an incentive to produce more coal of better quality, and dealt with the entrenched union, Pioneer Lodge of the Provincial Workmen’s Association, according to his philosophy that “the Management reserves the right to employ and discharge who they think proper.”
His admirers and detractors captured the two sides of Swift: the conscientious and dedicated mining man who walked many miles every day and at night found the time to compile his detailed letters and to negotiate with the frequently rebellious colliers and pit-boys, and the ruthless innovator who undermined time-honoured pit traditions, helped to create a polarization of classes in Springhill that would lead eventually to a 22-month strike in 1909–11, and failed to act on the mounting evidence that something was seriously amiss in the shot-firing methods used in the mines under his supervision. Swift’s letter-books not only document these two views but also reveal the strains and anxieties that beset individuals involved in building industrial capitalism. “My Mind is at all times fully occupied with thoughts to Make the Work a Success enough of worry to Kill a Man,” Swift wrote to his superior in November 1890. In another environment, Swift’s capitalist program of scientific management might have succeeded. In the mine it could be defeated by the miners, by the difficulties of bringing into one comprehensive design the wide range of processes required in underground work, and by the sheer uncertainty to which Swift’s letters bear eloquent witness. “All in order So far as I Know,” wrote Swift to Cowans on 20 Feb. 1891. They were his last written words; he died the next day in the great Springhill explosion.
PANS, RG 21, A, vols.32, 35 (Henry Swift, letter-books). The great colliery explosion at Springhill, Nova Scotia, February 21, 1891: full particulars of the greatest mining disaster in Canada, with a brief description and historical sketch of the Springhill collieries (Springhill, 1891). R. A. H. Morrow, Story of the Springhill disaster: comprising a full and authentic account of the great coal mining explosion at Springhill mines, Nova Scotia, February 21st, 1891 . . . (Saint John, N.B., ). Trades and Labour Journal (Springhill; Stellarton, N.S.), 1880–91. Ian McKay, “Industry, work and community in the Cumberland coalfields, 1848–1927”