MINERS AT WAR
In 1914 there were 60,000 people working in the coal industry in Monmouthshire. The industry continued to be dogged by poor industrial relations. At the time war was declared, 500 men at the Arrael Griffin colliery, Six Bells were in the fifth week of a strike against the “unreliable and erratic” lamps issued by the management. At South Griffin Pit, Blaina, 900 men were on strike over allegations that the owners were ignoring safety regulations.
George Barker, the Miners’ Agent for the Western Valleys, defended the decision of the South Wales Miners Federation to refuse to advise its men to accede to a request from the Admiralty to work on the bank holiday in order to supply additional steam coal for the nation’s warships.
Nevertheless, the strikes were quickly settled and most miners fell in with the rest of the population in supporting the war. Many showed their support by joining up. By March 1916, of the 7,810 men employed in the pits owned by the Ebbw Vale Steel, Iron and Coal Company before the outbreak of war, 1,584 had voluntarily joined the forces. By contrast, only 177 men had joined up from the pits owned by the Blaenavon Company, which in March 1916 employed 2,514 men. It was claimed that, amongst miners, this was the lowest recruitment rate in the country.
The simmering state of industrial relations in the pits was reflected by the fact that a number of stoppages took place, albeit on a much lower scale than before the war. In January 1915 900 miners from Nantyglo and Brynmawr took part in a one day stoppage in protest at their train home being late the previous evening.
By April 1915 there were clear signs that the miners were not prepared to accept rising food prices without a corresponding increase in wages. Blackwood Trades and Labour Council organised a public march through the town to protest against the increases in food prices. The marchers were addressed by William Brace, the local Labour M.P., who blamed the problem on selfish businessmen and coalowners. At a mass meeting of miners from Abercarn and Cwmcarn it was argued that coal prices were at the highest level in history and that owners profits had trebled. The SWMF had submitted a claim for a 20% increase, but the owners had offered only 10%. The meeting urged the Miners Federation to give fourteen days notice of strike action if the demand for 20% was not met.
In July 1915 the situation boiled over. Following a delegate conference in Cardiff the whole of the South Wales coalfield was called out on strike. Attempts by the SWMF Executive to cut the strike short on its first day were rejected by a further delegate conference. The following week Lloyd George, Minister of Munitions, came to Cardiff to meet the miners’ leaders. He accepted most of the miners’ demands and, after a seven day stoppage, the men returned to work. Nevertheless, the dispute rumbled on. In August, following accusations that the government had reneged on Lloyd George’s promises, there were a number of local stoppages, including at Llanhilleth and Six Bells.
In spite of their opposition to conscription, trade union leaders were normally keen to show their support for the war effort. In November 1915 George Barker, the Abertillery Miners Agent had joined a SWMF delegation to France and Belgium. He spent several hours in a front line trench with the 3rd Mons and witnessed heavy shell-fire. He also threw his weight behind a local appeal for funds for ambulances.
By November 1916 fresh trouble was brewing in the mines. The South Wales miners were demanding a wage increase of 15% to keep pace with rising prices, while the South Wales Coalowners Association was calling for a 10% wage cut, arguing that production costs had increased. The deadlock that followed looked set to bring about another coalfield strike that would severely impede the war effort and severely test the government’s ability to apply the Defence of the Realm Act. The crisis gave rise to a remarkable editorial in ‘The Times’ Predictably enough, the editorial attacked anti-war elements as “pro-German agitators who have ceaselessly striven, under the pretence of promoting peace, to assist the enemy and damage the national cause ever since the war began”, but it went on to argue that “primary responsibility” for the dispute rested with the coalowners “and everybody knows it in South Wales”.
Several days later the government announced that it was breaking the deadlock by using its powers under the Defence of the Realm Act to take control of all mines in South Wales. It is hard to resist the conclusion that the Times editorial was deliberately planted to prepare the ground for this move.
The appointment of Lloyd George as Prime Minister in December 1916 led to fresh attempts to unite the nation, in particular the industrial workers, behind the war effort. A Commission of Enquiry into the Causes of Industrial Unrest was duly appointed. The Commissioners in South Wales concluded that the workers had many genuine grievances, including long hours amongst railwaymen and the system of casual labour amongst dockworkers. While stressing the strength of socialist ideology amongst the miners as a cause of industrial conflict the Commissioners were also adamant that the patriotism of the miners could not be questioned and that, given fair treatment, they would contribute fully to the war effort. Nevertheless, it was pointed out, the miners were determined not to have their patriotism exploited by what they perceived to be profiteering coal owners and food distributors. The Commission made a series of recommendations which, if implemented, would have been highly advantageous to the workers, but with the economic and social pressures of war growing relentlessly, the enquiry did little to stem the rising tide of industrial unrest.
In May 1918 unrest again boiled over into a strike that was to involve 50,000 men across South Wales. It began in Monmouthshire when the Tredegar coal owners docked the pay of men who had left work to take home the body of a colleague who had been killed in a pit accident. It rapidly turned into a dispute over the employers’ refusal to recognise the newly formed Tredegar Combine Committee, comprising lodges whose members were employed by the same company. The Executive of the SWMF tried to mediate and to persuade the Tredegar men to return to work pending negotiations but this was rejected by a mass meeting. “Missionaries” were sent from Tredegar to pits throughout the coalfield to win support. The Tredegar strike brought to the surface discontent relating to a number of issues, including food shortages and conscription, and a wave of sympathy strikes followed. Amongst the “missionaries” sent from Tredegar was the newly-elected 20 year old vice-chairman of the Combine Committee –Aneurin Bevan.
THE MINERS REJECT A CALL TO WORK DURING THEIR HOLIDAY (LETTER FROM GEORGE BARKER TO THE SOUTH WALES GAZETTE 7TH AUGUST 1914)
There were hundreds of full wagons of steam coal on the sidings waiting to be shipped, and if the Admiralty wanted coal they should take that…As workers we have absolutely nothing to gain from war, and we had no part or lot in making it, but tens, yea, hundreds of thousands of men who have no quarrel with anybody may be slaughtered like dumb cattle
GEORGE BARKER, SPEAKING TO A MEETING OF MINERS AT ABERCARN, APRIL 1916 (SOUTH WALES GAZETTE 16TH APRIL 1915)
“The miners had shown exemplary patience, for they did not want in any way to embarrass the Government in this grave time, but they could not –and would not- have their patriotism exploited by the coalowners.”
A GWENT SOLDIER RESPONDS TO A THREATENED MINERS’ STRIKE (LETTER TO SOUTH WALES GAZETTE 30TH APRIL 1915)
Have they given a thought to their kith and kin who are out here fighting for life in the trenches and what it will mean to them if their resolution carries … Try other means to get 20% advance, but ‘don’t stop the wheels’ is the cry of the 3rd Mons.