In The Women and Men of 1926 Sue Bruley recounts the social history of the mining communities in south Wales during the 1926 lockout. Relying on hitherto unpublished oral testimony as well as other archival material, Bruley investigates how households coped with the lockout and assesses the impact that it had on gender relations. Individual chapters consider topics such as school canteens, miners’ lodges, recreational activities, picketing, and politics.
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About the Author
Sue Bruley is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Portsmouth. She has published widely on women, work, and politics in interwar Britain.
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The Women and Men of 1926
The General Strike and Miners' Lockout in South Wales
By Sue Bruley
University of Wales PressCopyright © 2010 Sue Bruley
All rights reserved.
The British economy before 1914 was heavily dependent on exports. One third of all manufactured goods were for export, with coal, shipbuilding and cotton being the leading export industries. There were over a million miners in Britain in 1914. The rise of overseas competition and increasing use of oil as an alternative fuel was, however, gradually eroding the pre-eminent position of coal. During the First World War the declining fortunes of the coal industry were masked by government protection. After the war the Mineworkers' Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) pressed for the industry to be taken into public ownership and reorganised. The government was only prepared to countenance temporary subsidies rather than wholesale nationalisation. After the speculative boom of 1919–20 collapsed, the export price of coal slumped and the industry was in serious trouble. Government and mineowners sought to restore profitability by imposing wage cuts. The prewar trade union movement had begun to make alliances across industrial sectors to form the Triple Alliance of miners, railwaymen and transport workers, but when it came to the crunch in 1921, the alliance disintegrated. After Black Friday, as 15 April became known, the miners were left to fight alone. After eleven weeks of lockout, the miners were forced to give in and accept wage cuts. During 1923–4 the coal industry made a brief recovery, largely due to the artificial stimulus to production created by the French occupation of the Ruhr cutting off the flow of German exports. There was much unease at this time about the influence of revolutionary socialist ideas. The famous Zinoviev letter in late 1924, purporting to show Bolshevik influence on the British labour movement, was proved to be a forgery, but the damage was done and the Red Scare brought about the downfall of MacDonald's minority Labour government in October and created an atmosphere of increased suspicion of trade union power and fear of communist activity.
By 1925, the industry was again in crisis and to make matters worse the government announced in April a return to the prewar gold standard, rendering British exports overvalued and hence even more unprofitable. There was at this time an upsurge in industrial militancy. It was perhaps the last hurrah of really assertive labour power which had its roots in pre-war industrial syndicalism, war time militancy buoyed up by full employment, and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Mineowners and many in government felt that the deflation (and hence the deliberate creation of unemployment) caused by a return to the normalcy of the pre-war gold standard would be a good method of curbing the growing power of the unions. In June 1925, with the industry losing over a million pounds a month, coalowners posted notices announcing wage cuts of 10–25 per cent. Industrial action was averted by government intervention in the form of a subsidy for nine months and a Royal Commission. The Samuel Commission of March 1926 did not (and could not) solve the industry's problems given the government's rigid approach to economic policy and the determination of both coalowners and government to make the miners pay for the decision to return to the gold standard. New notices of wage cuts, longer hours and an end to national agreements were posted on 30 April.
This time no offers of government subsidies were forthcoming and the Strike, or Lockout as the labour movement referred to it, began from 3 May. Unlike in 1921, the Triple Alliance stood firm and the first line of transport workers and railwaymen came out with the miners, involving just under two million workers. A second line of engineers and shipbuilders was held back, ready to be called out when required. This decision by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) General Council to divide the movement at such a crucial time was criticised by the left wing for undermining the overall effectiveness of the strike. The General Council, unenthusiastic about the strike and carried along only by the Triple Alliance, undertook no preparation whatsoever. Even if the TUC had the will to prepare, there was little in the way of institutional apparatus to draw upon. The General Council had only had had a full-time secretary since 1923. The government, on the other hand, had been preparing for nine months. The Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies was a regional network of volunteers recruited to break the strike. University students and other volunteers ran trams, buses and trains, often causing serious accidents and damage to the transport infrastructure in the process due to lack of training and expert knowledge. Debutantes and other upper-class women were recruited to run canteens and keep up morale for the strikebreakers. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and other members of the Cabinet emphasised that sympathetic strikes were a 'threat to constitutional government'.
Around the country trades councils took over the implementation of the strike in their own localities. There were over 400 trades councils and they varied enormously in their activities during the dispute. In many areas, the main emphasis remained with the individual unions and that was TUC policy, but in others such as the north-east and south Wales the trades councils evolved into councils of action and virtually took over the running of the district, preventing all movement of goods without its authority. By the eighth day it was clear that the progress of the strike was very uneven. There were some signs of disintegration, for example in parts of Birmingham, but in the most militant areas a momentum had been established which led the most left wing elements to refer to a situation of dual power and revolutionary leadership. In reality, it was always an entirely defensive action which the TUC General Council had no interest in fighting. On the ninth day, with the flimsiest of excuses and with no concessions to the miners, the strike was called off by the General Council, leading to shock, bewilderment and cries of betrayal from the most militant sections of the rank and file.
The miners refused to accept defeat and fought on alone. The mineowners became more entrenched and insisted on an eight-hour day, district settlements and wage cuts.
The dispute developed into a war of attrition with both sides possessing a siege mentality. With stockpiles of coal and no effective method of preventing imports, the dice were heavily loaded against the miners, but they were amazingly resilient and determined to hold out. The first cracks began to appear in August with a drift back to work, particularly in the more prosperous coalfields where in the early stages of the dispute coalowners had been much more modest in their demands. One such area was the Midlands where a breakaway 'non-political' union sprang up as a rival to the MFGB. Although Winston Churchill, as Minister of the Board of Trade, made some effort with the mine owners on the whole, the government did little to try and effect a compromise. Finally, in September, Baldwin offered a faint hope of preserving national agreements if the miners accepted longer hours and wage cuts. The miners responded by calling out the pit safety men whose duties were vital to keeping the mines open for work. Numbers of men returning to work drifted steadily upwards during September and October, and in November what began as a trickle became a flood so that by 29 November, the MFGB had no choice but to tell local federations to accept whatever terms they could get for a return to work. Early in December the miners resumed work on the mine owners' terms, defeated and demoralised.
The General Strike and the epic struggle of the miners which followed have long been regarded as seminal events in the history of the twentieth-century labour movement. It is remembered as perhaps the greatest episode in working-class solidarity in British history. Historians writing from a left wing perspective have also been drawn to the leap in class consciousness which occurred in some local areas, transforming the Strike/Lockout from a struggle to defend wages and living standards to the exercise of real workers' power. The vast specialist historiography on this topic, much of which emanates from the 1970s and earlier, focuses very much on the politics of industrial conflict as played out at both national and local levels. Writing in 1990, Keith Laybourn summarised the historiography of the General Strike by reducing it to three debates: first the causes of the dispute; secondly the overall effectiveness of the strike and the notion of a 'betrayal' by the General Council; thirdly the consequences of the failure of the General Strike for the labour movement. This emphasis on traditional labour history left women either invisible or on the margins of the conflict, although attempts were made from a women's history approach by Sarah Boston and Shiela Lewenhak to include women in the General Strike in their more general narratives. Despite the advent of gender history from the late 1980s, there have been no major studies of the social and gender impact of the 1926 dispute, although recently both Ian Haywood and Maroula Joannou have addressed gender aspects of the General Strike through the literature of the period. Ellen Wilkinson's novel Clash is perhaps unique in that it develops a socialist-feminist perspective through her heroine, labour activist Joan Craig, who is committed to preserving her independence within marriage. A recent journalistic account by Anne Perkins reflects the decline in labour history since the 1970s by focusing on personal narrative and the absence of violence and serious public disorder during the nine days of the dispute. She underplays class conflict and makes much of good-humoured incidents such as the football match in Plymouth between strikers and police which was watched by a crowd of 10,000. Tapping into recent debates about national identity, she attributes the failure of the strike to the idea that in Britain there is a notion of 'Englishness' which overrides class conflict.
Virtually all the studies of this topic focus heavily on the nine days of the General Strike with little consideration of the seven month Lockout which followed the collapse of the General Strike on 12 May 1926. Until recently the only specialist work on the Lockout was Gerard Noel's forgotten text The Great Lockout of 1926. This impressionistic account attempts to incorporate social aspects of the dispute, although even here women make only a fleeting appearance and there is no serious attempt to examine the position of women in the coal field communities. More recently McIlroy, Campbell and Gildart have provided the most serious academic work on the Lockout to date. This edited work brings together an analysis of the conflict and up-to-date scholarship on the various regional struggles in 1926, and breaks new ground in examining other aspects of the dispute, such as the role of women which is the origin of the present book. It was writing the chapter on women and gender in 1926 in the above book that convinced me this topic deserved a more detailed study.
The fundamental aim of this book is to provide a gendered history of the General Strike and Miners' Lockout of 1926. This topic necessitates a detailed account of gender relations before, during and after the Lockout and this must necessarily be grounded in the more general social history of the dispute. Upon embarking on this research it was immediately obvious that mining communities in Britain were enormously varied in socio-economic composition and cultural practices. It made sense, therefore to make a detailed case study of one particular coalfield. South Wales was chosen as it was the largest and most militant coalfield at this time and has developed a rich historiography. Due to its near mono-industrial base the south Wales coalfield was also the most cohesive. By 1926 it was in decline, which meant that class confrontation was more pronounced than elsewhere. I set out to explore the prevalent notions of masculinity and femininity in south Wales mining communities before the Lockout and to find out if the experience of the Lockout altered these perceptions. To explore this topic I have used a wide variety of sources. I have made use of official records such as Rhondda Urban Council minutes held in the Glamorgan Record Office in Cardiff. I was also fortunate in having access to the South Wales Coalfield Collection held at Swansea University with its invaluable collection of miners' archives. Extensive use has also been made of the contemporary press and autobiographical accounts. The problem for the gender historian is that these written sources very much reflect the male-dominated society of the time. Gender history and particularly the experiences of women cannot be easily accessed from written documents. Women's lives in coalfield communities dominated by heavy domestic labour and patriarchal cultural practices were to a large extent submerged, making the task of uncovering their lives challenging for historians. For this reason, doubts were expressed to me as to whether this project could make a book. What has made this book possible is oral testimony. Hywel Francis has written of the 'secret world of the south Wales miner' revealed by the use of oral testimony. Dai Smith has also written of the exciting potential of oral history in creating an 'imaginative repossession of the past'. This form of integrated history would go beyond narrow institutional-based labour history and depict life for the whole community, capturing
what it was like to stand in drizzling rain in Kenfig Hill in 1928, waiting amongst bankrupt boarded up shops for an infrequent stuttering bus; how peeling, green-distempered Institute walls smelled; what it meant to buy spectacles from a job-lot in a penny Bazaar by a squinting process of trial and error, and how good a day out at the vulgar, gimcrack seaside was after years of being hemmed in by the brown-varnished houses and black tarpapered sheds.
The creation of a history from below or total history as advocated by Hywel Francis, Dai Smith and others, owes something to the Annales school in France as well as Antonio Gramsci's theoretical concept of 'hegemony'. It is a powerful concept in researching gender and social aspects of the Lockout. Fortunately, a great deal of oral testimony was available for this project. The South Wales Coalfield History Project headed by Hywel Francis and R. Merfyn Jones conducted a large number of interviews in the 1970s and early 1980s, as well as salvaging miners' written archives. This priceless collection is focused on the world of men and particularly the miners' lodge but Francis and Smith went beyond the boundaries of traditional labour history in an attempt to embrace the whole community. They were particularly keen to document the experience of women and this is evident in their book, The Fed: A History of the South Wales Miners in the Twentieth Century which contains much valuable information for the gender historian. Where possible, I have also accessed other oral history collections such as the Valley and Vale project in the 1990s which produced a publication based on people's recollections of life in the Llynfi, Ogmore and Garw valleys. Sadly, the women and men of 1926 are no longer with us, but many of the children and young adults of 1926 are still alive. With this in mind, I conducted my own small-scale oral history project in 2004. Working through personal contacts and wardens of sheltered accommodation, I interviewed 23 people. Amazingly, I discovered that two of my respondents had significant family backgrounds; Nancy Wood is the daughter of Mark Harcombe, leading Rhondda councillor in the 1920s and Lizzie Davies, now sadly passed away, was the daughter of Sam Davies, secretary of both the Maerdy Miners' Lodge (approximately 2000 members) and the Distress Committee in the 1920s. Again, doubts were expressed to me about the usefulness of material gathered from elderly people who were children in 1926. It is certainly true that in conducting this research I felt I was working at the limits of viable oral history. It is evident however from reading this book that it has been greatly enhanced by the addition of this new testimony.
Dai Smith made a passionate case for the use of oral testimony. He also recognised that the mediating influence of the historian was crucial and that oral history could become a form of 'human antiquarianism' if oral testimony was treated with 'exaggerated respect'. Since Smith made this pioneering statement in 1975, oral history methodology has developed and we now have a greater understanding of the complexities of using oral testimony. Alessandro Portelli has indicated that debates about the reliability of oral testimony can be misguided, as oral history 'tells us less about events as such than about their meaning ... there are no false oral sources ... untrue statements are still psychologically "true" ... these previous "errors" sometimes reveal more than factually accurate accounts'. A useful illustration of this point is the weather in 1926. Oral history accounts frequently mention the summer of 1926 as being unusually hot and sunny. In fact, as Steven Thompson has shown, meteorological records indicate that the weather in 1926 was not exceptional at all. This does not mean that the oral testimony is unreliable. More likely is that locked-out miners whose lives were no longer dominated by work underground in the dark regardless of weather, would notice the sunshine when it appeared and make the most of it. This would in turn make them more likely to remember the warm weather when asked to recall events of 1926. The important point is not what the meteorological records say but what miners and their families believed about the weather. In essence, oral history is based on subjective accounts and it is this very subjectivity which makes it fascinating for the historian.
Excerpted from The Women and Men of 1926 by Sue Bruley. Copyright © 2010 Sue Bruley. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Table of Contents
Map of the South Wales Coalfield
2. Gender and Family
3. Collective Eating and Public Authorities
4. Having Fun, Getting By and Outside Help
5. Women, Politics and Pickets
6. Defeat, Aftermath and Legacy
7. Last Word
Appendix: Biographical Notes