The 1926 Miners Lockout
Meanings Of Community In The Durham Coalfield
Oxford University Press
The 1926 Miners' Lockout
Meanings of Community in the Durham Coalfield
Barron, Hester, Lecturer in History, University of Sussex
Review by Dave Douglass
I attended a packed launch and presentation at Durham City, Clay pit Library. This was held on the prelude of the Durham Miners Gala the following morning and the crowd had clearly been drawn by the title and anticipation of some new depth of understanding. ( It’s an odd fact but very little work on the 1926 lockout has ever been undertaken, an in-depth description of the seven months of miner’s action has not yet been forthcoming).
Hester tells us of the Gala and its banners “Men and women absorb the heroic image even if they could not grasp the political or social significance, like the old man who came to Durham on gala day to get his ‘reets’ (rights) ‘We dinnat knaa what they are, but we’ve come to get them’” Just why men and women of the coal communities are incapable of grasping the social and political significant of the characters, slogans and historic scenes displayed on our own union banners, is perhaps something only an Oxford graduate can explain to us, except she doesn’t.
Like much else in this book, the author misunderstands the story she is relating, and later the evidence she herself is presenting. The man who doesn’t knaa what his reets are but has come to get them, is the subject of a self directed joke told by the pitman himself. On another level it is questioning the tangibility of what ‘reets’ or ‘rights’ are. Are they stored somewhere in a magic box with a special key, are they written on some ancient parchment? What are they, where are they, are they real and can they be collected or even depended upon ? It’s meant to be a joke, but one demonstrating more political and social understanding than Hester gives us credit for.
I doubt if three people in the room had read the book at this time, and I was taken aback by a bitter attack on the book by a member of the audience who had either read it, or knew what its pitch was. Certainly the depth of his antagonism seemed disproportionate to anything which had been said in the presentation. I did not know at that stage, that this is a revisionist history, an iconoclast rampage through the sacred memories and certainties of what 1926 was all about. Much of which Hester will explain is “constructed”. My own contribution on that evening was to challenge Hester’s use of the word ‘Strike’ to describe the lock-out, something which the old lads who took part in the dispute were adamant about. They weren’t on strike, they wanted to work on the terms they were employed on, but were being prevented by the owners who would only allow them back for less money, and more hours. Nonetheless Hester uses the words ‘strike’ and ‘lock out’ interchangeably throughout the work. I also took issue with her over her suggestion that the scabs both in 26 and 84 were heroes. A claim repeated in the book more than once.
“To walk the gauntlet of booing crowds must actually have required great courage and a strong character; far more so in Durham, where strike-breaking was infrequent, than in some Midland counties where it might be the strikers themselves who were in a minority.” Or it involved hard skinned selfishness to the exclusion of all common values and morality.
Coal miners work in teams, in a tight dependency one upon another, depending on a collective consciousness and concern for each others and the teams’ collective safety. Implicit trust comes to members of the team that each man will be where he is supposed to be and doing what he is supposed to do. This has to be taken for granted, taken as instinctive for the whole operation to work safely and everyone to come back alive. A concern for individualism in this context would be anti social and downright dangerous. The instinct and dependency carried through into collective strength and union organization with joint objectives and collective aims. A scab adopts an entirely alien persona. Gives up membership of a community, turns his back on everything of value and worth. This is not something either admired or ‘shared’ as the figures clearly reveal over a century of mining struggles.
She will not however be outdone on the question of blacklegs, even when her own evidence reveals that a minute and tiny section of the community scabbed “If the number of men who blacklegged in 1926 remained tiny, many more must have considered it in the smallest hours of the night...” For the debunker of ‘myths’ this is the creation of an entirely knew one which is based upon nothing but the authors speculation and is presented without any supporting evidence whatever.
Let’s be clear, there is nothing wrong with challenging the beliefs and assumptions of well accepted history. Any economic history student will tell you of the massive and detailed polemic centered on the assumption that the industrial revolution for example, improved the conditions of the working class in its early years. Volumes of statistics and health reports on meat and dairy intake, and infantile mortality have been wheeled out time and again in numerous books and studies arguing in either direction. Likewise the actual numbers who died in the Nazi holocaust, and from what causes. In Hester’s case, does community exist, is there class consciousness at all, or just a perception placed upon events by leftists?
“…attention has been given to those previously omitted from a union-based account, such as women and (to a lesser extent) groups such as the passive union member, the non unionist, and the coal owner.”
“Tom Griffiths documented the religious, ethnic and occupational divisions that cut across the social worlds of both miners and cotton workers. He concluded that ‘at several points in working class life, from the workplace to the ballot box, class as an influence affecting the choices made, appears to have been secondary at best.” She comments “In the light of such research it becomes harder to understand how collective action could happen at all….” Indeed.
“In Durham in the 1920s other forms of close-knit communal identity also existed, whose character was both more and less than merely class-based; these also affected the way the dispute was played out in the coalfield.”
To what did pit folk of the 1920’s actually identify and associate? Hester goes in quest of “..the variety of different identities that might shape the loyalties of those who lived their lives under the shadow of the colliery wheels..”
What is absolutely certain is that all revisionists, from Galileo’s revision of the order of the solar system, through Chomsky’s challenge of death statistics in Cambodia during the Vietnam war, to David Irvin, etal are ideologically driven. They all have an underlying political point to score, and historic perspective to advance. None of this is purely ‘neutral or academic’. This is reflected in the way they present their evidence. Class consciousness was “blamed” for the miner’s response to the lock-out Baldwin “had attempted to avert trouble by granting a subsidy to the coal industry but when this expired it was made clear no further help would be forthcoming.” But Baldwin was not trying to ‘avert trouble’ he was putting in place the machinery of repression, volunteers, the armed forces, troop movements, emergency powers, propaganda and all the paraphernalia of class war against the miners and their supporters. When this was in place he ended the subsidy having bought the coal owners and the state time. Barron doesn’t even attempt to tell us why ‘trouble’ was more acceptable than continued state subsidy which cost far less on all measures.
She frequently speaks on behalf of ‘the historian’ advancing skepticism as she attempts to challenge the very idea that the Durham coalfield was a ‘community’ that pitwork engendered class solidarity and class consciousness. That class was the unifying feature of coal communities in Durham. That other identities, gender, religion, politics. Perhaps ethnicity might cut across any idea of class identity or community hegemony. That the history so deeply embedded in working class folk lore is myth and based upon false consciousness and invented memory and invented communities and identities.
“…Roy Church and Quentin Outram reassessed the strike propensity of British miners, focusing on the more frequent local disputes that occurred, rather than the rarer national struggles. They found that one of the essential characteristics of mining strikes was that they were very brief, localized and typically none recurrent.”
Actually tables of industrial disputes and strikes in standard industrial relations textbooks and authorities frequently exclude all but national miner’s strikes, because they skew the overall nationwide propensity to strike. Mining strikes, local, pit based or whatever dwarf all other industrial workers actions. They are brief because they are wildcats, ‘rag-ups’ as we call them. Owners and NCB management will move heaven and earth to nip them in the bud, and usually settle, or else the miners are happy to have made a protest by stopping production. Its hard to know, not having read the original source what ‘none recurrent’ means, the NCB issued the same tables on reasons for disputes and rag-ups from its inception and under those self same heading listed reams and reams of statistics each year. So it’s hard to see them as ‘non recurrent’.
If the specific cause of the dispute was resolved then that specific rag up wouldn’t be ‘recurrent’. The miner works in a changing environment day by day and sometimes hour by hour, this has traditionally affected his wages, and his ability to work, and in turn generated spontaneous and volatile industrial relations.
Hester tells us “such strikes were poorly supported” I take this to mean that they affected only a small section of the colliery workforce at any one time, which doesn’t actually indicate lack of support, simply that the dispute was particular to a small group, and quickly resolved. The point of all this however is to try and shake the notion that the miner was an incurable militant, that perhaps all the strikes weren’t real strikes, that they were inferior strikes and therefore invalid as evidence.
“Yet as one commentator has pointed out ‘as well as the popular myth of the miner as the prototypical working-class avant garde, is another widespread image, that of the miners as repressed proletarian’” why this is myth we aren’t told “In the national imagination, coal mining might summon up romantic images of blackened faces and masculine toil deep beneath the ground, but in Durham one man hated his work with a passion…” But how even if this is assumed to be ‘romantic’ by some views does this contradict the fact of underground labour, or the fact that some men, engaged in back breaking, and low pay toil hated it, contradict the designation of ‘Prototypical working-class’?
“Against Lawson’s autobiography A Man’s Life, can be set Bert Coombes’s account of life in the South Wales coalfield. His title sums up a very different image; These poor hands.” Well perhaps, but the content doesn’t, Coombes was a communist militant writing of his engagement in 1921 and 1926 and his loyalty to union, struggle and community. Lawson’s more folksy and biographical tale hardly contradicts it. “Both representations continue to be seen in romanticized form...”
Well hardly, both write about the harsh realties of pit work and in Coombes case starving with hunger and cold in Welsh hillsides as the disputes wore on. As for the blackened faces, “It could also be a source of shame, and when in 1926 the Samuel Report emphasized the desirability of pithead baths, one reason it gave was the loss of self respect to the miner who had to travel home in dirty clothes...” But if mining was such a romantic calling, so socially asteemed, why would being black be a source of shame, rather than pride? Old Welsh colliers from the 20s and 30s talked about parading in their pit gear to the pit and coming home as the hooter blew, in fact months before they had a job and while they were still at school. In fact we all know, as young pit lads we couldn’t wait to get black, and much blacker than the work we were engaged in would actually make us. The blacker you were the harder you’d worked. My father came home coaly black until the early 1960’s as did all the miners at our pit, they never once expressed ‘shame’ at the visible evidence of their toil or occupation. This is not to say, miners were universally valued, and girls for example who aspired to something better than the village and being a miners wife might well shun the attentions of a collier. While being called ‘a pit yakker’ was insulting, it wasn’t being a miner or coming hyme black which shamed us. It certainly wasn’t “the stigma” Hester assumes.
Against assumed notions of what a miner is, Hester offers evidence to contradict the
“Only about 80% of these men (coalminers) worked underground, and fewer than one third were employed in the popular sense of the word ‘miner’ –hewers working with their picks at the coalface” But whoever this ‘popular sense’ resides with it is certainly not the miners themselves or the miners union. We have always regarded all workers at a colliery above or below ground, at the coalface or outbye as miners, and all categories belong to and have belonged to the miners union. This is one of the numerous ‘straw men’ which Hester sets up only to knock down. Disproving some myth which actually she has advanced herself.
Digging out deeply implanted notions of the Durham miner and the Durham coalfield was never going to be easy. Hester has left no stone unturned, searching and scouring records, minutes, memories, histories and a number of novels; religious and educational records, county records, court reports for counter indicators to the commonly held versions of history. Despite the scholarship of the research, and the quite extensive and exhaustive quest to all possible sources, she also throws in quite trivial ‘examples’ of why the class model and heroic tale is flawed. On occasion throwing in quotes from fictitious novels, as against examples were oral historians get dates and events wrong, thus demonstrating (she thinks) direct memory and monologue cannot be relied upon, and the traditional tale of 26 is just folk myth.
As will be readily understood, for someone like myself, a life long miner whose father and grandfather engaged in this dispute and learned its lore from their knee, this book is highly provocative.
It is shot through with annoying misunderstanding and misinterpretation and ideological spin.
The resistance ended at the end of November, so less than two weeks before the end over 700,000 miners, 2/3rds of the total workforce in the midst of the most bitter deprivation poverty and starvation were sticking it out and standing firm with their union. But it depends what fact you pluck from history to tell what version of the tale.
“But the miners themselves also might be discouraged from identification with a wider community. In some collieries, for example, tight rules governed the employment of men arriving from elsewhere.” This is an example of the local lodge rooted in the community keeping hold of manning, and exercising job control. The strength of the lodge rests on the village, so it is youngsters from that village the lodge seeks to employ. Progression to face work remains under control of the lodge and it is generational union men from the village who will man this strategic position. The endevour is to prevent management flooding the pit with footloose perhaps none union miners with no loyalty to the community union values. But the object of the exercise is not a one in parochialism, on the contrary by maintaining tight local control at each lodge and community the area union is strengthened and in turn the national union. It is this locally based strength which is demonstrated in the overall resilience of the miners in 21, 26 and all the years up to 1993. It is one the private owners have sought to undo wholesale with local miners ignored and debarred from employment at their own pits while those from distant pits and even coalfields or countries are now take on instead. The consequential weakening of job control and manning results in lower membership roles and less union strength.
The misunderstanding continues with supposed ‘ethnic’ differences, (it is unclear how Hester images ‘Ethnicity’. She clearly doesn’t see Celtic and regional roots as ‘ethnicities’ among British coal communities)
“It also hints at ethnic differences, one of the very few comments in oral or written testimony to do so:
Where we lived in Oak terrace was considered one of the more desirable places to live…Further down it got a bit rougher. Our house faced the end of Sixth Street, and we were absolutely forbidden by my father to go beyond Fifth Street. The very bottom, First. Second and Third Streets were known as ChinaTown. That was where the really rough families, the real hard men lived.”
One can only conclude from this that she thinks ‘China Town’ is actually inhabited by Chinese people, rather than a genetic term for a rough end of town. Parts of Winlaton and Blaydon have been for some time known as ‘The Bronx’ but actually few if any black people live there and certain no afro-Americans, its is simply a term borrowed from reputation for lawlessness and violence and has nothing whatever to do with ethnic difference.
Another straw edifice is the straw women of the anti strike, anti collectivist legend.
The suggestion that the women, isolated and non political, concerned only with home and children are anti or apathetic to unionism. Ignoring the fact of village life, and the colliery which lives in the very heart of the living room and haunts the bedroom with early rising, or worse the permanently empty bed. With the pit tip looming over the back garden and a coal black man sitting in a bath in the living room, its rather hard to envisage a women so isolated from the concerns of the mine , a miners income and hours and the politics of the union. The facts confirm in fact that women were wholly supportive of the miners stand. Indeed women in the coalfields have a long record of fighting their corner in all fields of struggle from kitchens to picket lines; we see this time after time from the 1840s to the 1990,s. Despite this and the lack of supportive evidence Hester suggests “It seems plausible to speculate that some women must have broken under the strain and urged their husbands to return to work.” But this is not what she finds among the reams of oral evidence in collections. Talking of the blacklegs “We were as bitter against their wives as we were against the men, and that is how the women felt.” “For the miners themselves…a commitment to wife and family became a reason to support the position of the community rather than defy it.”
Somewhat reluctantly Hester concludes from the evidence that women of the coalfield, seen the position of women, and the operation of gender in politics and society was rooted in class.
“It is useful here to compare Elizabeth Roberts’ study of working-class women in the North West of England in the early part of the century. Roberts discovered frequent indifference toward the early feminist movement, finding that more women were involved within the Labour Party than within suffrage organizations. She believed there was little feeling that they or their mothers had been particularly exploited by men. Many were aware of their limited horizons and opportunities, but also knew that these were shared by their husbands and sons, while ‘those. who perceived their lives in terms of exploitation, saw themselves, and their men, as being oppressed by employers, the rich, the middle class and the bosses…in other words, women who were conscious of exploitation interpreted it in terms of class conflict. The words of one of the founder members of the Durham Women’s Advisory Council suggest that Roberts conclusions may have relevance to
Durham.’ If the Labour movement has to go down in history’ Mrs. Jolly explained to her interviewers in 1970 ‘one of its finest achievements is how the women stood by their men in 1926 and I really believe that.”
The chief fault with the book is its methodology. It sets off with a revisionist mission, which in order to make stick, sets up monstrous straw definitions, of community, class and identity. Definitions which cannot help but be demolished.
Like the notion that a class identity excludes other identities of gender or religion or perception. If Hester can only identify that other identities exist then class can’t be
the decisive mover of events. If community isn’t a single set of identities and origins and preoccupations then community can’t exist. But one begs to ask all the way through, ‘who ever said, class or community excluded other identities, or operated on even levels of perception and commitment?’
Hester takes us to evidence from North Hetton Welfare Committee funding a new welfare for the miners of Hazard Colliery, where it was decided to erect two smaller buildings in each of the neighbouring villages of Moorsely and Rainton “owing to its workforce being ‘widely separated’ . Indeed, sometimes a pit will be based upon more than one village, but is this a denial of the existence of a pit community ? Both of these villages will regard themselves as such. Hatfield Main for example, was based on a duel community of Dunscroft and Stainforth two villages quarter of a mile apart separated by a small railway bridge. Sometimes bitter argument raged over community resources and welfare provision between the two villages, ‘t’old bridge’ being designated the cause of perceived imbalances of allocation. With the closure of firstly Thorne pit in the 1950s and then Yorkshire Main in the 1980s miners traveled to Hatfield pit . But both Thorne and Edlington continued as pit communities without their own mine, Hatfield remained a community albeit geographically based on two villages. None of this contradicts self identity as a single colliery community. The same is true of pits which became the source of countless traveling miners in Durham during the Wilson run downs of the coal industry (Wilson closed more mines than Thatcher it should be recalled), the core pit village remained, whilst the communities based round the closed colliery would still house large numbers of miners traveling to distant mines. Their sense of ‘community’ though weakened was not removed. It was the coal industry, and mining, it legacy and culture which laid the base of the community rather than a particular and specific location. But nobody has ever suggested all miners lived in communities of this sort anyway, miners also lived in big cities, in big new council estates with mixed occupancy in the 50’s and 60’s. In the 80’s young miners might live nearer the action in town or city centre bed sits, but the core ‘village’ and ‘community’ is not negated by this.
“During the strike local differences were exacerbated owing to variations in degree of deprivation. Although the strike meant a universal cessation of labour, some colliery villages had already suffered during the 1920’s. …..Chopwell Colliery
had been on strike for nearly a year when the lockout began..” The whole industry had been through the punishing strike of 1921, just four years previously and the year prior to that. But what is the point of this observation, it clearly hadn’t inhibited the determined stand in 1926 which was without exception. Chopwell in this argument should have been less convinced and more reluctant to join than the rest of the county but it wasn’t. It was men from Chopwell who derailed the scab Flying Scotsman, and who marched to the city hall to hoist the red flag. It was Chopwell which at the end of the strike adopted the hammer and cicke and central portrait of V.I.Lenin and Marx after the lock-out was over.
When it comes to the Nottingham break she supports John McIllroy (Nottinghamshire, Industrial Politics) essentially that the National union and the joint offensive against wage cuts and longer hours offered “little future advantage” to the Nott’s miners. Essentially an argument for a dog eat dog, county by county organization with no national union and no national day wage and national minimal terms. Such a conclusion ignores the historical struggle of the miners since the 1840’s and in particular the great strike of 1912 to establish just such a national unit and standardized terms and conditions, in part to ward off ‘ hard cop, soft cop’ playing of one county against another to the overall weakness of all miners. In any case one cannot judge the Nottingham miners solely by the position taken by the yellow dog scab organization. When the national individual ballot vote was taken to end the action or continue, the Nottingham miners had voted to stick it out, by Jan of 1926 the Nottingham area only had 61% of the coalfield organized, one can presume, the bulk of the non members were scabbing from the beginning. The home office claimed 80% of the workforce was back at work by the 2nd week of November led by the strike breaking Spenser, suggesting that only 20% of the unions members were still on strike, but voted nonetheless to stick it out.
None of the references to the ‘non political trade union movement’ come with any explanation of how such an ideology of non resistance and co-operation with the employer and capitalism was ‘none political’ in the first place. Support for this ‘non political unionism’ we are told ‘correlated more readily with the earlier tradition of the independent collier’…’an age before the national politics of the MFGB came to disrupt those of Durham’. But the Durham miners had been deeply engaged in union struggles throughout the 1700’s and efforts to form a national union since the 1830’s and 40’s, at no point did they associate with notions of ‘non political trade unionism’ being branch and root supporters of first Chartism ,then social democracy and more revolutionary working class ideology. Despite having told us how the spirit of the ‘non political union’ correlated to early roots of the independent collier, she then goes on seven pages later to tell us in fact it didn’t.
“Even in the aftermath of 1926 the Northumberland and Durham Non-Political Trade Union was unable to make inroads and had not attracted many more than 4000 members by the end of 1928.” In January 1926 the DMA listed 155,773 men in full membership and total union density.
Hester comes to the somewhat bazaar proposition that the 1926 lock-out was essentially a Durham miners dispute, and the rest of the country was brought into conflict essentially to back them up. “Rather than simply appealing for help, the Durham miners gave the impression that they were fighting for Durham very much on their own terms.” To support this absurd suggestion she offers the fact the Durham miners were uniquely defending the 63/4 hour shift its hewer worked. But this had been a standard established through strong trade unionism and granite conviction not to move from it. It was a bench mark for the whole industry, and even the official Sankey Commission had used it in promoting the idea of a 7 hour day nationwide for coalface workers. Hester calls it “a privileged position”. Which in turn is a basic acceptance of the owner’s arguments that rather than cut profits, rather than demand state subsidy, the workers should take up the slack, with those on the best conditions paying the highest price. Apart from which she seems to overlook the fact that no coalfield was given an exemption from the cut in wages and lengthening of hours?
Hester misrepresents the position of the hewers and the six hour shift, as a privileged minority. In fact, the Hewers were ‘graduates’ of the whole mining process in Durham. Lads started at the pit and worked their way through various outbye, through back up services, at length graduating to the rank of hewer. It was not exclusive at all; it was the expected destination of every lad who signed on at the pit. The hewers worked the hardest, and were exposed to the worst and most dangerous conditions; they had the shortest life expectancy and the highest propensity to serious injury, which is why their shifts were shorter. When he became too old for such work he would work his way back to the tasks of his youth and sometimes end up on the surface. By far the majority of men outbye from the face were either destined to become hewers or had been hewers, as had some surface men, retired there through age or injury. It is telling that during the dispute and disaffiliation of the northern miners from MFGB over the question of the 8 hour day, the Durham hewers would have accepted this imposition and longer hours, if it had likewise applied to the boys and older workers outbye. This was not on offer and whilst the hewers were expected to accept longer shifts, the boys and outbye men would still be required to work twelve.
The book goes on to inform us that during the general strike the armed forces “was briefly responsible for maintaining the peace...” With navel destroyers sailing up the Mersey, the Tyne and Clyde, and marines dispersing strikers from Newcastle and Glasgow, and armored cars and tanks on the streets of London, one can only wonder what ‘peace’ it was maintaining, and on whose behalf
In 1984/5 “community of the earlier period was imagined and consciously emulated” But the pit villages and coal communities of Britain were not ‘imagined’ they still existed, and with the exception of the Selby coalfield actually existed in 1926 too. That other less tangible less geographic based ‘communities’ of miners also existed in isolated housing estates, in bed sits and flats, in cities and big towns is a fact, but not one that contradicts the identity of distinct put villages and communities centred around the mine.
“If the popular conception of the miner remains a romantic one, the events of 1926 prompt a similar reaction. Despite recent academic revisionism, in the popular imagination, ‘1926’ conjured up an image of heroic struggle, in the face of immense suffering and inevitable tragedy. To one old man speaking during the 1984-5 strike, such conflict was a time when lads saw ‘what it meant to be a miner’ . In focusing on one of the longest labour disputes in Britain has ever seen, and a year still resonant with meaning, this study hopes to avoid such romanticization on its own part, while acknowledging the role that such imagery played in shaping the response of participants and other contemporaries. Perhaps it is pertinent therefore to begin with a reminder ,that even at the time, not every miner saw either the strike in particular or collective action in general in such epic terms, though he might be on strike with his fellows and endure with them to the end. In the 1920’s the Durham Chronicle ran a column in which it published ‘original local anecdotes’ sent in by readers. The truth of many of these ‘anecdotes’ is dubious to say the least, but there telling is revealing….One was sent in from Sherburn in June 1926 and recorded that conversation of two strikers;
Bill: ‘Me feyther (father) says this bloomin coal strike will torn the world upside doon’
But it is not just in popular imagery that the miners faced immense suffering in both 21 and 26, that is a fact which in noway is ‘romantic’ neither was the outcome ‘inevitable’ . The outcome had laid in the hands of the TUC and the working class movement . Who has ever alleged that all miners were equally committed to the action and why does Hester consider the joke to be anything more than support for the action and ‘a world turned upside down’ ? A little later quoting from one of the miners who derailed the scab flying Scotsman is attempting to defend his actions. Clearly he didn’t succeed in Hester’s view .
Religion, Class and Community.
There is not space here to cover in detail the book’s, novel and thorough investigation into the various religious denominational responses to the lock-out, especially the responses of the lay member and the religious hierarchy. Suffice it to say that this chapter like the others is framed by yet another ‘straw’ proposition.
“The significant role played by religious bodies in the coalfield raises questions about the potential conflict between a confessional identity and a class one.”
But of course it need'nt, and the Durham coalfield in particular demonstrates the solid base of class identity and consciousness on top of which can stand all sorts of other religious and cultural identities. Hester is aware of, but doesn’t seem to have given much weight to Lewis Mates, study of the coalfield during the Spanish Civil War and in particular the attitude of religion, especially the Catholic miners. (Durham and South Wales and the Spanish Civil War) “An exploration of the tensions between a confessional and class identity amongst the small number of Catholics the coalfield must await another historian.” But Mates has already looked at aspects of this potential conflict of religion against class, with the church overtly supporting Franco, and the left and labour movement supporting the republican government and anti Franco forces. The miners mindful no doubt of the words of the carpenter ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, followed their class loyalties and supported the anti Franco forces, while continuing to attend mass as good catholic workers. The British branch of the church gradually softened its line and moved over to humanitarian aid to both sides in the conflict mainly due to the strong class instincts of its working class congregation one suspects. Lodge banners are famous for such compromises with the fiery political slogans of revolution and workers power on front, and scenes from the bible and religious themes on the back, the lodge often being a composite of either and both views. Incidentally Hester misses her real chance here to explore ‘ethnic’ penetration and challenges to the community, in the form of the largely Irish catholic mining families, communities and lodges, and their impact on the culture of the coalfields and the union. Although there had been well known examples of Irish workers shipped over by Lord Londonderry in particular as scabs, Irish workers rapidly integrated into the main stream political class struggle of the coalfields. Being deemed more radical and less moderate than their Methodist counterparts by owners and bureaucrats alike.
“He (Robert Moore, Pitmen Preachers and Politics) suggested that the language of the chapel, the activities it organized and the cementing of communal relations by, for example high rates of intermarriage, all contributed to a specifically Methodist outlook which was able to erode a class or occupational identity”
But Hester knows, by the evidence accumulated and quoted in her own book, that this isn’t actually the case. The Methodists did not erode class identity; indeed many of them fused class and religion into a new brand of socialist perspective and rock solid trade unionism. (My Da included) The hell fire preachers of socialism and unionism strayed very little from the tracts they also employed in the chapel.
“Pease dynasty; strong Quakers who operated a vigorous paternalistic control and were rewarded by a compliant workforce with good relations with a moderate union leadership” Is just not true, although Hester suggests 1926 killed this process it wasn’t true before that either. Pease and Partners owned Wardley Colliery, which was described as ‘the worse behaved colliery in the county’ in the 1880s. Its leadership from 1910 was the famous revolutionary industrial unionist George Harvey. Their Lodge banner was the most revolutionary in the country, bearing the pictures of Lenin, Hardy, Harvey, Cook and James Connolly in the uniform of the Irish Citizens Army.
At length anyway Hester comes to demolish the straw structure herself:-
“While both religious and secular identities remained important within the coalfield they never threatened to override a more fundamental loyalty to the strike or a wider occupational consciousness rather they might be appropriated for such ends.”
Right the way through this book we will find the evidence which Hester has so exhaustively piled together supports not the proposition of myth or romance but indeed confirmation of earlier perceptions of class, consciousness and community. Its major failure is to understand the evidence she has worked so hard to accumulate.
“David Gilbert has argued that the separateness of local mining communities meant that in the autumn of 1926 just as in the winter of 1984 , people trusted the evidence of their own eyes rather than the messages of imminent defeat suggested by the national media, and so could believe they were winning the strike.” But then why shouldn’t they ? The press was presenting images and ‘analysis’ which were contradicted by the visual evidence of the miners themselves, tiny fractures in the strike were being blown into breaks in the dam and pit communities could see it wasn’t true. The fact was that on three occasions in 1984 the miners were within a wisp of winning, but the press continued to peddle the story it was all a forlorn exercise.
Yet another frankly foolish proposition “whether the schools of County Durham were seen as alternative centres of community in competition with a specifically mining identity; or whether they were absorbed into the dominant culture shaped by pit and union lodge…the wider implications of education might also affect the way in which both children and adults viewed their surroundings, through the aspirations created and the social mobility engendered.”
Is this a fair and logical proposition, a school in the heart of a dominant community posing as an alternative community? Social mobility from a 1926 pit village, when boys left school at 12 to work in the mine almost as a matter of course? Even as workers education evolved at the turn of the century, Ruskin College, the NCLC, the WEA, workers, miners in particular seen education as a tool in class war, not an escape ladder from it. Virtually all Ruskin students in years preceding 1926 returned to their trades or back down the pit.
Memory and Experience
In this chapter Hester seeks to devalue memory of struggle, the tales of struggle, as somehow invalid and untrustworthy. Citing ‘Mythological events at Tonypandy’ . It is true old miners did confuse dates and events particularly those of the 20s which seen three periods of strikes and lock-out in a six year period and to many were continuations of one from the other. Troops were deployed in 1910 at Tonypandy during the radical Cambrian Combine dispute a prelude to the great 1912 strike.
But it was railway workers who were shot not miners, and that was during the National Rail Strike of 1911 in llanelli. Troops had been called out throughout the country in 1912 and miners were shot down and killed, notably in Featherstone.
But miners were also killed at Tonypandy albeit by police with billy clubs. In 1921 the miners felt bitterly betrayed by the failure of transport and railway workers to meet the obligations of the Triple Alliance. The railwaymen took the brunt of the criticism, and were likewise blamed for failures of solidarity in 1926. In 26 it was Thomas the leader of the railway workers who was seen as the chief opponent of continued solidarity with the miners and the general strike. So one can see why, forty fifty sixty years on, old miners and their wives telling the tale as they recall it with nothing more than their memories, could merge the whole period into one long bloody war, as someone once called it. Does that make them ‘mythologized events’ ?
“The dates of the national strikes in 1893, 1912, 1920-1, 1926, 1972-4 and 1984-5 are ones that echo loudly within the collective memory of the mining communities. At local level the dates of the most terrible Durham pit disasters also resonate; 1880 when 164 men and boys were killed at Seaham; 1909 when 168 were killed at Stanley; 1951 when 81 were killed at Easington….care must be taken in the analysis of oral and written memoirs which could reflect the romantic framework. Indeed in their uncritical use of such material academics have occasionally been guilty of the same. One historian recently claimed that in 1926 ‘family and neighbourly solidarity was very evident from the oral history respondents. When I asked “Jean” (born 1913 Pontycymer) how people managed during the Lockout she said “everybody clung together and shared”.
Here we see something of the rationale of this book. Something about class identity and class history which framed it, especially in the mining context clearly rattles Hester, it cant be real, and if it is its ‘romantic’ and somehow distilled from a wider more complex context which would deaden the radical conclusions and perspectives if included back into the mix. As to the quote above, she can’t suggest the events are not real and not deeply rooted in what is in reality a collective history and identity particularly for those of us and our families who experienced all of these things. Yet somehow they must be taken with some historic pinch of salt. “Jean” would have been 13 in 1926, either already left school and already working or else on the brink of doing so. The events would be etched into her adolescent memory as are the memories of 1984 on my own daughter who was 12 at the time, yet the passage is included here as being implausible in some unspecified way.
She goes on to cite other examples what she considers mythical memories Quoting Mark Hudson (Coming Back Brockens) Mark had been brought up with tales from his pitman Dad, of hardship and foul conditions. Later in the 1990’s he visited Horden “He spoke to the current manager at the pit and was told that the narrowest seam at Horden was two and half to three feet-hardly comfortable, but ,as far as the manager knew Horden had never been a colliery in which a miner lay on his side to hew coal. Hudson felt almost cheated: ‘another image from my ancestral mythology was casually shattered’.
It would defy the whole rational of this work to actually consider that it would be the manager speaking decades after the events who was wrong and not Mark’s father who actually was doing the work, but let us examine the facts. ‘Coming back brockens’ is a Northumbria mining expression which refers exclusively to ‘bord and pillar’ work. This would involve small ‘marraships’ of men, two or three in each workplace served by a putter pushing, or else driving pony led tubs into the face. The face would be ‘nicked’ or the bottom six inches of the seam, picked out to a depth of at least a yard under the seam, perhaps 20 ft wide and ‘spragged’ with timber. This indeed would involve laying flat to pick out the space, how else would one in even a three foot seam, pick out the bottom ? The purpose of the operation by the way is in order to create a space for the blast to go after having bored the coal and then fired it. Without the ‘nick’ the impact of the blast would simply fire back into the gate or tunnel leaving the coal block largely unmoved. Let us image alternatively a long wall face with conventional jib cut, hand bored , fired and filled coal seam which Mark certainly in his life would have encountered. Two and a half feet high, 120 yards long. Measure two and a half feet on a table leg and crawl into the space, now image at least two thirds of that space filled with loose coal after shot firing, can you stand , can you kneel ? No, you would have to lay down and shovel, and indeed pick at remaining slabs of coal on the roof until the space was cleared enough to perhaps kneel if that was more comfortable than laying. So ‘hardy comfortable’ indeed and given that Horden was a coastal pit working under the North Sea was doubtless waterlogged too. We don’t need to imagen these conditions and Mark’s Da’s tale is certainly more likely to be accurate than the Colliery managers professed ignorance of it. What is crucial here though is that Hester needs to cite it as an ‘imagined identity’ and goes on to describe 1926 as ‘romanticized story passed down in collective memory’.
When it comes to direct parallels between 1984/5 and 1926 it is Hester who is the author of mythology, suggesting that we had some form of pathological death wish to repeat the earlier defeat. (pages 228 -229) “the keystone to a militant, heroic, and tragic past”. Except it was to the colossal victories of 1969, 1972 and 1974 to which we referred and were freshest in our memory (and the governments). These victorious events were just a decade previous, why on earth would we ‘collectively’ forget these events and jump back instead sixty years into the past to find a memory of historic defeat ? Besides which, not everyone recalls 1926 as ‘tragedy’ anyway,
many young lads reveled in the freedom it gave for courting and sport. Families although hard pressed were uniquely together and opportunity for all sorts of exploration and joint sorties and games opened up. Not least men were not exposed to death and serious injury they would otherwise have been exposed to, and of course they weren’t sweating their bollocks off down some dark hole for a fat coal owner.
Hester’s ability to ignore her own evidence is breathtaking at times “Other activities might also create happy memories and distract from grimmer realities of depression and lockout.” Then seven and half lines further on “Indeed 1926 as a year of suffering at all was challenged by contemporaries just as it has been debated by historians.”
Also up for challenge in the mythical memory of 1926 was the weather. Without exception miners and their families will recall that it was a blazing summer and the sun starved coal communities enjoyed it in full measure. Hester has checked “June almost exactly matched the interwar average; and only in July and August and September did temperatures exceed the usual for the interwar years” So with the exception then of June which was normally hot, the other three months of summer were exceptionally hot ! Not much of a myth there then, plus the fact of course, that for miners usually confined to the dark cramped spaces of underground labour through all but two weeks of the summer, any summer in any sunshine would have been exceptional. As it turns out the records establish that this was another memory which was true to fact. Still not to be outdone Hester goes on to prove it was actually a colder winter ! “Yet despite the meteorological record the weather remains important to a romanticized image of the strike.”
Soup Kitchen Myth ?
“At least one Durham poor law union provided relief entirely in kind in order to prevent women from sharing money with their husbands, providing stark contrast to the traditional, romanticized image of the soup kitchen in popular memory as a symbol of communal help and solidarity.” I confess to not understanding what the point is here, clearly communal kitchens were popular examples of community solidarity and collective resistance, and just why that is a ‘romanticized’ image I fail to see. Is the point that not everyone was fed in them , well yes, children especially in the North East might well have been better fed during 1926 since the labour controlled councils had opened up the schools to three meals a day for them. But what is being challenged or rather why this particular well documented feature is being challenged is unclear .
In concluding the author praises other recent revisionist histories of coalfields as ‘more imaginative’ but warns “a romantic tradition still pervades historical studies of 1926.” She uses the word ‘romantic’ throughout the work to describe essentially notions of class struggle and class consciousness. Nothing in this work however uproots or seriously challenges a class analysis of 1926 and the coal community’s responses to it. She sets up through the work a series of straw proposition based upon crass perceptions of Community, Class, and Identity, then not very convincingly knocks them down again. The fact that no-one would ever perceive community as a single homogeneous entity , or that class identity for example absorbs and overlaps with other ideological and cultural identities escapes her model. Searching high and low for some example of the divided community, she brings forward, the Sinn Fein versus Orange Lodges of the Lanarkshire coalfield. But even here, she can’t demonstrate that class struggle was superseded by their presence, both wings of the community, both dominant religious groups belonged to the same miners lodge, and both turned out united during the lock-out. Class struggle does not presuppose total uniformity of identity or influence.
In her conclusion Hester tells us mysteriously
“Militancy is not the same as solidarity” one supposes she means by this that not everyone agrees, and not everyone is as militant as everyone else, and not everyone is as committed as everyone else. In which case, OK, who said it or they ever were?
She concludes that in 1926 “ideologies could come together however tenuously” but “The mining settlements in which men and women lived and worked meant that an occupational consciousness was constructed within strict geographical boundaries, which tended to militate against the development of wider working class identity.”
The experience of 1926 suggests something a lot stronger than any ‘tenuous’ unity. The most bitter part of the struggle of the miners was in rejecting district wage negotiation and wage rates, in defence of national structures and nationally negotiated wages. The great strike of 1912 and the earliest strikes of the 1840s had been fought around this very perception and principle. Likewise the mass growth of the Communist Party and other far left, revolutionary working class politics among the mining communities demonstrates how inaccurate the above conclusions are.
She concludes that we have ‘constructed a usable past’ and “ But the imagined community of miners was so powerful both to insiders and outsiders because a memory of the past was also being formulated at a much more basic and unconscious level” However the evidence of this book contradicts the conclusion of the book, every chapter pays tribute to the richness and veracity of the Durham coal communities, such that nothing at all needs to be left to some Marxist or ‘romantic’ construction or imagination. Not so much not seeing the wood for the trees, as not seeing the trees either. She further concludes “However in the light of the conclusions of this study it is worth rethinking the concept of community itself.
Rather than the ideal type of mining community being one in which a homogeneous occupational identity existed to the exclusion of all others, it seems that the essence of community lay in its ability to subsume and integrate other categories of identity. Multiple identities still existed in the Durham mining villages of the 1920’s, but they
complimented each other, and men and women rarely found themselves forced to choose between them.” “Rather than a homogeneous entity the mining communities of Durham therefore consisted of interlocking layers of identity, placed one on top of the other” Well halleluiah, but since this conclusion was drawn before
the thesis was submitted and before the book was published why wasn’t the whole work re-looked at in that light ? Hester it seems finally came to a concept of Community and Class and Identity we all had in the first place. It was only ever her revisionist purest model which didn’t match up to the realities of the 1920s or the present day for that matter. The book is published with the central challenges to class, class consciousness and their impact on the Durham coal communities intact.
The allegations, the cynicism the revisionism all stay in place, despite the fact all the evidence of the book frankly confront this at every page. Despite the fact the final conclusion comes to the realization that communities and identities don’t in fact operate in the way the author has based the whole proposition around. Perhaps the author who frequently quotes works of fiction as sources of evidence throughout the book, thinks the book benefits by the trajectory of a mystery which is only made clear in the final pages? Who knows, it earned the author a Doctorate from Oxford, and a published book. What it informs the rest of us we didn’t already now, other than how reactionary this form of anti working class revisionism is I’m unsure.
She is right though on one conclusion in the light of this ‘new’ discovery of how community and class work, perhaps she should consider rewriting the book.