George Clifton Hughes (b.c 1911): Life & Labour

George Clifton Hughes was born and raised in the mining village of Rhosllanerchrugog (or simply Rhos), but does not disclose any information regarding his occupation as an adult.  The focus of his work is on his education as a young boy; however he does acknowledge his working-class surroundings.  There are many references to teachers who have had an influence on his life, which is important for this section as teaching as an occupation was not particularly well paid.  Despite this, the passion and enthusiasm that these teachers showed, as Hughes described, was inspiring to the students at a time when positivity was needed.  With the First World War coming to an end in his earlier schooling years, there was widespread mourning across the world for the millions who gave their lives during the Great War.  People were in need of a boost in moral, especially within the working-class society, which is why Hughes valued a sense of humour and optimism in the people he met.

The tribute in Wrexham town centre to the miners who lost their lives in the Gresford Colliery disaster in 1934 -
The tribute in Wrexham town centre to the miners who lost their lives in the Gresford Colliery disaster in 1934 –

Wrexham as a town is engulfed in history, with its mining culture being particularly famous across Britain.  The area is especially famous for the Gresford Colliery disaster on the 22nd of September, 1934. It was a horrendously costly disaster, with 266 men losing their lives following a huge explosion.[1]  The men who lost their lives are still remembered by the people of Wrexham and thanks to a sculpture erected in the town centre, the public are reminded of their heroism on a regular basis.

There were a number of mining collieries in the area, and four are mentioned in Hughes’s section entitled ‘The Colliers’.  These collieries were those in Hafod, Bersham, Gresford and Vauxhall.  Despite not disclosing information regarding his own occupation, Hughes does in fact look into the mining culture of the area in considerable depth.  This suggests that he may have had family or friends who were involved in the local mining industry.  During this section, Hughes also looks at the average wages of a coal miner in comparison to the other occupations in the local area.  This is an interesting insight into how wages were varying within a working-class society.  ‘Although wages had risen during the war, they now flattened.  At this time the policeman and the bus driver had jobs carrying a measure of prestige.  They earned four pounds a week and that was well above the average of the majority who worked in one of the four coal mines, Hafod, Bersham, Gresford and Vauxhall.’ (29)  The war hurt both the national and local economy which in turn had an adverse effect on wages and earning potential.

‘There were a few miners on piece work and they were the lucky ones because they had been fortunate enough to work at seams where the coal fell easily.  These men could have been said to have struck it rich, especially when compared to most miners who brought home fifty shillings a week.’ (29)

It is clear that Hughes felt strongly about the treatment of the local coal miners, because despite having not worked in the mines himself, he seems to have a good understanding of the wage structure in the collieries.  It would appear that Hughes had friends or family who worked in the collieries and therefore were able to share their stories with him.  ‘Men on the night shift would be moving off to work at nine o’clock at night to return, barring accident, about six in the morning.’ (29)  This is a dark segment of his memoirs as the reader is able to grasp the danger that faced the workers every single time they went out to work.  There was always the chance that the men would not return home, which considering this was their only means of making money, was a daunting thought.

This point is heightened by the section titled ‘Ponciau Banks Fatalities’.  Hughes describes the pressure on the coal industry as produce was running low. ‘Coal stocks were getting low in the country and the demand was increasing at literally any price.’ (58E) Previously, wages had been low for this occupation; however the increase in demand and sales prices meant that wages increased.  This also meant that the workers were working longer hours and ultimately were in more danger than ever.  ‘Because of inadequate ventilation, first one and then another of these shafts became death traps.  Some men got out in the nick of time.  Others less fortunate were asphyxiated by the damp or gas.’  (59)

Following the years of increased need for coal, there was a dramatic slump in demand which brought major unemployment to an area which, at the time, was so reliant on that particular industry to drive the local economy.   In the section, ‘On the Dole’, Hughes describes the influence of unemployment benefits on the mind-set of working-class workers.  ‘In these years of slack employment one would have thought that four days’ work was better than three.  Paradoxically this was not so because when a miner worked three days or less a week he was then entitled to unemployment pay or ‘the dole’.’ (60) It is fascinating how the introduction of the dole meant that some workers felt it necessary to reduce their work load in order to benefit from this system.  This was a dark time across the country as unemployment grew and the working-classes suffered as a result.

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