James Dinn

James Dinn started his career as a child miner in Glace Bay but - remarkably – he eventually rose to be manager of the mine. Here is his story.

James Richard Dinn was born in Carbonear, Newfoundland, on February 18, 1883. He worked as a fisherman and later moved to Glace Bay, Cape Breton, where he started working as a loader in 1900 at the Dominion Coal Company’s No. 4 mine (aka the Caledonia). He was 16 years old.

While child labour is shocking to us today, it was common in that era. Children worked in mines and other industries, such as agriculture and manufacturing, to help support their families. They were seen as an important part of the work force. According to Robert McIntosh’s article, “The Boys in the Nova Scotian Coal Mines: 1873-1923,” there were 5000 people employed at Nova Scotia’s mines in 1890, and over 1100 of them were under 18 years of age.

Fortunately for Dinn and many other miners, the Government of Nova Scotia started mining schools in the early 1900s to educate miners about the “special science and mathematics” used in coal mining, as the 1908 Department of Education annual report put it.

Subjects ranged from “fractions in arithmetics to trigonometrical functions of angles and plane surveying. In addition there are also taught English composition, geology, elementary electricity, elementary mechanics, mechanical drawing and modern mining practice….”

If you think teaching English to mostly English-speaking coal miners seems odd, you will not be surprised to learn that “The miners do not take kindly to the instruction in English because they do not consider this knowledge of any practical value,” as the Department’s annual report put it.

However, “The elementary subjects of English and arithmetic would not be taught unless it were necessary. It is made a necessity, however, by the fact that in colliery [coal mine] districts the boys leave school at a very early age. The classes were conducted at first without teaching arithmetic and elementary English, but it was found that about one-third of the teaching time was consumed in imparting even a simple working knowledge of these subjects before the technical instruction could be entered upon.”

Preparatory classes were provided, and miners’ English and arithmetic had to be at a grade seven level before they could enter the regular coal mining classes.

Classes were held in the evenings in most coal mining towns. Classes were also held during the day in Springhill, Glace Bay, Westville and Sydney Mines for miners permanently on night shift.

The instructors were full time teachers who had worked in mining and therefore had practical knowledge of the subjects.

Miners taking the classes did so to prepare for exams for certificates as colliery managers, underground managers or overmen – managerial positions in mines, in other words.

James Dinn took advantage of the night classes and passed the examination for overman, an underground supervisory position, in 1906. The Glace Bay mining school, where Dinn studied, is pictured below.

According to his obituary, Dinn was appointed overman at the Caledonia mine in 1907. He became assistant underground manager in 1911 and underground manager in 1919. In 1921, when the Caledonia was owned by the British Empire Steel Corporation, Dinn became the mine’s manager – from child miner to manager in two decades.

Dinn’s career continued to flourish. He became the company’s district superintendent in 1936, and chief coal inspector in 1943, a post he held until his retirement in 1956. He was also elected to Glace Bay’s town council in 1912 and 1916.

According to “Punching with Pemberton,” a monthly newspaper published in Glace Bay by J. Earle Pemberton from 1960-1965, the Caledonia mine was sometimes referred to as “Dinn’s College” while under Dinn’s leadership. When "Toots" Boutilier, a former miner at the Caledonia, was asked in 1961 what university he had graduated from, he replied, "Did you ever hear of Dinn's College? Well, I hold a past master's degree in the art of pan-shoveling coal from that institution.”

Despite his extraordinary rise through the ranks, not everything was easy for Dinn. For example, he held senior positions at the company during a period of considerable labour unrest from the 1920s to 1940s.

The British Empire Steel Corporation and its successor, the Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation (Dosco), tried to lower wages and limit miners’ ability to strike during the 1920s and 1930s. It also provided terrible working and living conditions for many miners and their families.

The federal and Nova Scotia governments did little to help establish labour peace. In fact, in every strike in the 1920s and 1930s, the governments intervened on the side of the coal companies, sometimes even using militia and police to end strikes with force, according to an article called “Conscripting Coal: The Regulation of the Coal Labour Force in Nova Scotia during the Second World War,” by Michael D. Stevenson.

The extent of militia and police involvement in ending strikes is illustrated by a gift given to Dinn in 1925 by Georges P. Vanier, commanding officer of the Royal 22nd Regiment and future Governor General of Canada. The gift was a small photo album with an inscription that described Dinn and Vanier as “The Two Managers,” a reference to the fact that the military practically had joint management of coal mines along with companies in the mid 1920s.

There were strikes in 1922, 1923 and a two-month strike in 1924 crippled coal production in Nova Scotia. A five-month strike in 1925 featured widespread violence and property damage but ended with a pay cut for the miners. It was after the 1925 strike that Vanier gave Dinn the “Two Managers” photos.

Tensions continued through the 1930s and led to a total of 39 strikes in 1939 and 55 in 1940, many of them illegal, according to Stevenson.

The most remarkable stoppage in production occurred when miners in Glace Bay went on strike in support of a group of waitresses at the Glory Cafe who had been fired and were being denied their pay until they returned their uniforms. Local unions determined that cafe owner Yee Yen was "in league with other cafe owners in a move to smash the waitresses’ union.” This made full union support of the waitresses mandatory. Two days were lost in the mines as a result of this job action.

As a senior official at the Caledonia mine and in the companies that owned it during this period, Dinn was often cast as a villain by miners and union leaders.

A 1934 article in the Nova Scotia Miner, a pro-union and arguably communist newspaper published by the Progressive Miners of Nova Scotia, called Dinn one of the "mug-wugs who run the mine" during a strike at the Caledonia that year. The article’s headline was “Strike Caused By Boss Stupidity” and it referred to Dinn and mine management as “brainless.”

The Nova Scotia Miner also published this doggerel: “Dinn, Dinn, the dirty man/Sends the splint where e'er he can/Charges high for every load/Dinn, Dinn, the dirty rogue.”

While the coal mining schools gave miners opportunities for advancement and helped improve mine safety and professionalism, James Dinn’s career was an extraordinary example of upward mobility in that era, a testament to his abilities.

Dinn passed away in Glace Bay on January 15, 1963.

Thanks to the Dinn family for assistance with research.

See the story of the Dominion No. 4 (aka Caledonia) mine at https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/dominion-no-4

Learn more about child labour in historical Nova Scotians mines at https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/child-labour

“The Two Managers," Dinn on the left and Vanier on the right.

Dinn's "mining certificate of competency" to be a mine manager.