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The Collieries of Wales



Let No Wheels Turn

The Wrecking Of The Flying Scotsman. 1926.

Margaret Hutcherson.

TUPS Books. Tyne and Wear.
ISBN 1-910237-34-6

Margaret Hutcheson researched and wrote this book in honour of her grandfather.
Previously a miner at Wrightson Pit, West Cramlington, he had become the owner of the local general store. With the advent of the General Strike, unlimited credit to his former workmates, debts that couldn't be repaid, he was forced to close the store and move to London. He had brought her up with stories of the strike and the men from his village who had derailed the flying Scotsman. He had saved newspaper cuttings, and his memories stayed fresh. She always promised to one day get the story into print. A promise she has more than fulfilled with this little book.

Many gasped in 1984 when striking miners killed a scab herding taxi driver. Given the press fury and public outrage this produced one can only guess at the reaction of press and parliament in 1926. Ten days into the great miners lock out of 1926 striking miners came close to executing the greatest mass killing in the history of industrial disputes anywhere in the world.
The derailment of the blackleg Flying Scotsmen with a full compliment of hundreds passengers could have went down in history as a far more dramatic event than it turned out. Those brave Northumbrian pitmen who carried out the action could all have faced a mass execution as the state took its revenge. As it turned out despite the total derailment of the engine and tender which rolled right off the track and onto its side, despite the derailment of five of the twelve carriages with the first two carriages turned over onto their side and the second of which rose into the air and off the track, and the others twisted across the tracks nobody was killed. In fact the train had been proceeding very slowly as the driver had been tipped off further up the track by track inspectors that there would be trouble further down the line. I doubt he expected this much trouble

The loco pulling the Flying Scotsman service was the Merry Hampton, it wasn't the planned target. The main bone of contention had been the occasional scab coal train breaking the General Strike, as well as other trains, running scab services down the London North East rail line between Edinburgh and London. These trains were running though 100 miles of bitter strike torn Northumbria, they were cocking a snoop at organised labour in general and the locked out impoverished miners in particular. Cramlington was a coal town, the main line ran through their back yard.

West Cramlington Lodge of the Miners Federation considered the continual scabbing on their patch somewhat of a personal affront and decided to put a stop to it. They decided to dismantle and remove a section of the track. First they raided the railway huts to gather up the tools needed for the job. How many people were involved is not accurately recorded but something up to 40 men joined in the operation with what seems like a great many other spectators in broad day light, it wasn't a secret operation. . Indeed, there seems something of a public act of defiance and commitment to the movement in the operation rather than some desperate act. As luck or otherwise would have it, the first train down the line happened to be a passenger train and not only that but the most famous service in the world.

The Flying Scotsmen was no innocent victim however. The train was operated by Scabs and by middle class student volunteers acting as guards and footplate men. The passengers too knew damn well, what they were risking and that their journey would be both controversial and dangerous. Scab trains had been frequently stoned through the whole passage of Northumberland and Durham and doubtless right through the coal counties en route to London. Many of the businesspersons and middle class passengers were also making a point of public defiance, against the general strike and the actions of the unions. This was illustrated when after the derailment and women folk from the pit villages rushed down to the tracks with medical aid and offers of assistance and were generally abused and insulted by the passengers calling them 'dirty pit wives' and urging them to get back to their 'dirty pit villages' one survivor urging the women to 'wash their dirty selves and wash their dirty homes'. So no love lost there then.

After the action, the village closed ranks. Nobody said anything or had seen anything of the amasing events which had taken place in their neighbourhood. Churchill ; The Home Secretary Sir William Hicks and parliament were blustering for arrests and convictions and the local constabulary were berated for their inaction. In truth, local Bobbies on the ground probably knew far more than they owned up to and were slow to start going through the motions of investigation. The formal clammer caused infiltrators to be planted in the village to pick up information. The investigation went into overdrive and names started to emerge. Despite all the traditions of solidarity and comradeship, informers were found from among the ranks of the activists with the promise of amnesty. The first to crack had been Lyle Waugh a striking miner with an older brother in the Police force, who happened to be in the squad investigating the action, he was also the nephew of the police inspector. Lyle had been involved in the derailment himself but then as people started to be arrested for withholding information fear and the amnesty offer got through to him. The list of names grew and on Saturday 5th June, midnight raids took place around the village. Nine men were rounded up when they appeared at Newcastle Moot Hall, the MFGB had not been informed and the men faced the whole majesty and might of the court without representation. The men had not even been invited to remain silent and said far too much giving away information, which the prosecution had no previous knowledge of. The Jury was not as alleged of 'their peers' but actually of their class opponents. In 26 jurors were not selected from the general population, you had to be a ratepayer and to pay rates you had to own property, most workers lived in rented or tied property. When the judge at length ordered that the jury must judge each case separately and assess each circumstance of evidence as it applied to each individual it was clear the jury had already made up their minds, and took just 30 minutes to find all nine guilty. They were sentences to four, six and eight year's penal servitude.

By November, the Miners Federation was beaten and a return to work was agreed with much bitterness. The MFGB did not however abandon its victimised men banged up in the jails, most important of who were the Cramlington men. They were heartily supported by the CPGB and the Daily and Sunday Worker. The latter actually launched a conspiracy theory that the men had been framed. They blamed instead the fatal inefficiencies of the scab drivers, for the derailment (in fact a number of passengers had been killed in the course of the strike by just such untrained and unskilled drivers of busses trams and trains) the rail had been removed after the derailment to implicate the miners. The theory was probably widely accepted among the wider ranks of the working class simply because they knew that the state was all too capable of it. But actually we now know and most folk in the village must have known, this was an act of class resistance in the ongoing class war.

The book highlights the activities of International Class War Prisoners Aid, to support their families and more particularly to keep the political campaign for the men's unconditional release to the fore. Over the next three years the campaign won widespread support, even among senior union officials and members of the TUC General Council who doubtless felt such support absolved them from their class treachery in sailing the miners off into the wide blue yonder to sink or swim alone.
By Christmas 1929, the campaign was successful and all the men were finally freed just three and a half years into their sentences. They had become generally accepted as hero's of the left if not the union movement in general' and their release seen mass rallies and demonstrations welcoming them as they boarded or alighted from their homeward bound trains.

The chapter dealing with reflections of the 'wreckers' is illustrative, it is titled No Regrets and by en large that is the view of the men then, and the former mining communities today. The book attempts to retain some sense of objectivity and tell the tale of those who were involved regardless of what side of the class line they were sitting on. There is no doubt however where the sympathies of the book lie.

David Douglass.