THE concept of history repeating itself is not a new one. There have been numerous examples over the years but perhaps none so relevant today as events surrounding the national miners’ strike of 1912.
It was at a time when the distribution of the wealth derived from the pits was disproportionately in the favour of the rich who owned the mines. Salaries were set on a sliding scale – when the price of coal went up wages did slightly. When the price of coal went down salaries plummeted.
The period leading up to it from 1901 has been described by some historians as the Edwardian summer, a romantic period of long sunny afternoons and garden parties with businesses thriving. But the divide between rich and poor widened.
By 1910, well meaning Liberal reforms to deal with this divide were came to an end. Even prior to 1910 grievances had accumulated over poor working conditions, discipline at work, and the failure of wages to keep pace with rising prices. Wages had ceased to grow from the turn of the century and had declined by 10% by 1910. In the following years retail prices rose while wage rates stagnated, which led to a period of industrial strife known as The Great Unrest.
The breadth and spontaneity of the action that occurred throughout 1911 and 1912 shook the political establishment and even caught trade union leaders unaware, many being as dead set against industrial action as their members were for it.
Former miner turned historian Dave Douglass, of South Shields, says: “It was an extremely important period. People have talked about the situation in 1912 when we came very, very close to a revolution. It was the high tide mark of industrial unionism – the idea you could achieve social justice on the streets.”
There were 872 different strikes in 1911. Even school students were affected by the militancy of the times. That September, school students in Llanelli, Wales, protested against the caning of a boy. Within days pupils in more than 60 towns across Britain took to the streets to express their grievances.
There were dock strikes and rail strikes as the labour unrest continued beyond 1911. The Times newspaper warned: “The public must be prepared for a conflict between Labour and Capital, or between employers and employed, upon a scale as has never occurred before”.
During 1912, hundreds of thousands of workers engaged in industrial action, including Lancashire cotton weavers, Dundee Jute workers, London dockers and carters.
The Government was forced to intervene directly in negotiations while deploying troops against striking workers. The union leaders struggled to regain authority and control over unofficial action as workers rejected their attempts to reach what they saw as inadequate agreements with the employers.
Then came the miners’ strike.
In 1911 a long-running strike in South Wales – caused by a dispute over tonnage rates to be paid on a new difficult seam at the Ely pit owned by the Cambrian Combine – had ended in defeat after the Miners Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) refused to call a national strike.
Despite losing their dispute, the action of the Cambrian miners had served to force the leaders of the MFGB, whose president was the newly-elected Robert Smillie, to conduct a national ballot on establishing a minimum level of earnings.
In January 1912 miners voted four-to-one for a national strike. The fact the Durham Miners Association voted to take part was not as expected as we might think these days. Its ballot result – about two-thirds for industrial action – was the lowest in the country.
Even more surprising to some today is the fact that the Durham miners were regarded as moderates and their union was dominated by Liberals.
The Durham Miners Association, formed in 1869, had long been based on liberalism and methodism, which sought co-operation between the men and the mine owners. They rejected to the polarised 2-class view of capitalism, the spirit of ‘we’re in it together’, as it were.
As Dr Lewis Mates, tutor in history and politics at Durham University, explains: “In Durham the Liberal economic notion that coal price decided what the miners took home had gone unchallenged since the 1880s. Most of the Durham coal went overseas where the market was very unpredictable and prices fluctuated so they really felt it when prices dropped.”
The Durham Miners Association leader John Wilson was also a Liberal MP who staunchly backed the status quo and was vociferously against a minimum wage and strike action. “He said it was a waste of time and bombarded the members with arguments against it,” says Dr Mates. “The Durham Chronicle, which claimed to be the miners’ paper, backed Wilson. Miners were also being leant on by owners to sign affidavits that they would not claim a minimum wage.”
However, thanks to the rallying call of visiting delegations from the South Wales Miners Federation and the work of the likes of local activists like Will Lawther and George Harvey as well as representations from socialists in the rapidly growing Labour party, the Durham miners turned away from their leader.
Dr Mates said: “Wilson increasingly marginalised himself. He had a common interest with the mine owners and not the miners.”
As a result the prominence of the Liberal party in the region faded rapidly.
Nearly one million miners took part in the strike, which started on March 1, 1912. The Times declared the strike: “The greatest catastrophe that has threatened the country since the Spanish Armada”. One Tory MP advocated siege rations and martial law to defeat “socialist trade unionism”. In Conservative circles there was talk of revolvers being stockpiled to be used against working class revolt.
Fearing widespread civil unrest, the Government abandoned its stance of non-intervention. Within a month the Government had rushed a minimum wage bill through Parliament. A week later, prime minister Herbert Asquith broke down in the Commons under the strain.
The bill provided for arbitration to settle the level of minimum wages, district by district. This was rejected by miners in a second ballot, but citing the smaller majority for continuing the strike action, and fear for the unity of the federation, the executive called off the strike.
Not all the district settlements gave miners the increases they had sought, but the union had been strengthened and it had demonstrated that action could force concessions.
Dr Mates says: “The result was disappointing for the miners although it wasn’t a complete failure.
“For the Labour party it was a crucial time.
“It put a lot of work and effort in building a mass rank and file movement and explains how it came to supplant the Liberals in the region.”
And with last week’s Budget, he says, there were echoes of the battle fought a century ago. “There’s the demand for a fairer share and the working people getting a bigger slice of the cake. Last week’s Budget was another give-away to the super rich.”
TIMES TO REMEMBER
TWO events are to be held in the region to mark the 100th anniversary. The first is on April 21 at the Sacriston Working Men’s Club. The event will be hosted by Mike Elliott and the Durham Miners Brass band will perform.
Refreshments are available and the event lasts from 7.30pm to midnight. Tickets cost £2 and are available by calling 0191 384 3515.
On April 22, the Bridge Hotel, Newcastle, will hold a series of talks about the unrest in South Wales and Liverpool in the run up to the strike as well as a presentation on the Durham Coalfield in 1912 followed by Sunday dinner.
It was an extremely important period. In 1912 we came very, very close to a revolution