George Clifton Hughes (b.c 1911): Politics, Protest & Class

Rhosllanerchrugog (or simply Rhos) is a large village on the outskirts of Wrexham, a town in North East Wales.  Wrexham is famous for its mining heritage as it has a number of collieries spread across the area.  This area was also home to the author of the memoirs that I have been studying, George Clifton Hughes.  Despite not disclosing his own occupation as an adult, Hughes gives an in depth account of the life of a miner.  This suggests that he had friends, family or both working in the industry as he has a good understanding of their day to day lives and even the wages they were earning.  He was most definitely brought up in a working-class environment and seems proud of the place he calls home.

This picture was taken in Ponicau Banks in 1921 during the coal mining strike -
This picture was taken in Ponicau Banks in 1921 during the coal mining strike –

The memoirs do not simply give information regarding the usual structure of a coal mining village; he also looks at certain incidents that took place.  In the section ‘Ponciau Banks Fatalities’, Hughes looks at the first long coal strike which took place in his area.  Ponciau is a small village between Rhos and Ruabon and is where Hughes spent much of his time in education.  In the past, coal mining had taken place in Ponciau Banks but had since been considered too dangerous to work there.  ‘An additional critically serious hazard was the ‘damp’, the term used to describe the subterranean gas or gases met with in the mines.  On the Ponciau Banks the danger could have been Blackdamp, chokedamp or stythe, found chiefly in old workings or in badly or [non-ventilated] headings.’  (58E) However, following a strike in some of the local collieries, some workers took a serious risk in order to continue making money.  ‘During the first long coal strike, some of the miners formed small teams of three or four partners and set about re-opening some of the old pit shafts on the Banks.’ (58E) This was at a time when coal was in high demand and according to Hughes ‘the inferior nature of the coal hardly seemed to matter.’ (59)  This meant that the men were willing to put their lives at risk in order to continue earning, due to striking in the local collieries.  A number of men were killed due to the hazardous nature of their surroundings, which once again showed the brutality of their occupation.

Hughes also looks at some characters in the village that were involved in local politics.  The area was largely dominated by its mining culture and was therefore a predominantly working-class society.  However, as Hughes points out, there were a few people who found themselves slightly higher in society.  ‘A few prominent members of a local political party had managed to find employment outside the mines.  They had elevated themselves into what would now be called executive positions through the instrumentality of politics.’ (30)

This section then looks at a politician that he knew who had become an ‘executive on the committee’ (30) and was earning ‘£8 a week’ (30).  This was a substantial amount for that area as Hughes mentions.  ‘There’s money for you: double that of a policeman or a bus driver and way above that of a miner.’ (30) There is a tone of bitterness behind Hughes’s writing, especially when he looks at this man’s abilities in school, ‘…his arithmetic was known to be so atrocious that in common parlance he couldn’t give change for a shilling.’ (30)

The main political figure according to Hughes was Lord Howard de Walden, who had himself worked in the coal mining industry. ‘If the village had acquired urban powers then surely he would have been perpetual mayor.’ (31) This man had incredible power in the local area, ‘His influence ranged from local to district to county council government.’ (31)  He was clearly thought highly of in the community and Hughes looks at him in an especially positive light.  It is clear that Hughes respects Lord Walden’ intellect and drive, meaning that if success is warranted then working-class could perhaps understand their superior wealth.

The main focus of Hughes’s memoirs is his time in education, and he attended school during an era when educational reform was not a rarity. The Balfour Act of 1902 was particularly important as it provided funding for schools across the country through the local councils who were now in control of the schooling in their area.[1]  In 1907 a scholarship scheme was introduced which, as the readers of Hughes’s memoirs will know, benefited our author greatly.  Previous to this, there were thousands of children who were intelligent enough to continue attending school but were unable to afford to further their education.  This scheme gave working-class children the chance to better their education and give them better prospects for work in the future.  By the time Hughes started his time in Ruabon Grammar School, the country had a very well organised education system, which clearly benefitted Hughes’s era of working-class children.

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