Richard W. Morris was a coal miner from County Durham. There is no doubt that he had political leanings, though he keeps his cards close to his chest. As a working-class miner he was personally caught up in the General Strike of 1926. He has great sympathy for those who went through the hardships of the strike, paying particular homage to the women who ‘were the real heroes of the battle for it was they who had the task of producing meals from literally nothing, and nowhere’ (19). Richard expresses some disagreement with the actions surrounding the strike, which can be seen in his use of language, ‘the General Strike lasted just ten days, Sir John Simons threat to jail the T.U.C. leaders was enough to call it off. Unfortunately, the miners chose to fight on. It was a tragic mistake, with all the consequent misery and suffering of the following nine months’ (19). Use of the words, ‘unfortunately’, tragic’, and ‘misery’ emphasise the dire consequences of such action. However, at no point does Richard say he disagreed with the decision to strike. The fact that he participated would suggest he believed in the Union movement. It could also suggest that Richard felt obliged to go along with the wider mining community, ‘Unions, no longer restricted to a skilled elite, united millions of workers in the labour movement. Experiences in the workplace and conflict with employers reinforced class ties that developed in the working-class neighbourhoods of late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain’ (August, 2007, 122). Thus, Richard’s disagreement seemed to have been with the prolonged strike action, which caused great suffering to those around him, rather than the principles behind it.
He describes in detail how he, and other miners, were forced into a situation where they ‘scraped and scratted every available source, from what was left in the empty trucks to digging in the most dangerous places in the pit tips and hillsides’ (19). Richard explains how their local union leader was able to strike a deal with the local pit owner, to allow the men to take coal from an open seam. This was agreed to as long as it was overseen by someone in authority. He notes that others were not so lucky.
Strike negotiations were discussed to allow miners ‘to go back on the old terms, and get negotiations going for a mutually agreed settlement. Unfortunately, this was stubbornly rejected by the miners’ executive’ (20). There is a sense that though Richard agreed with the strike action in principle, and certainly agreed with standing by his fellow miners, he resented the actions of the Union leaders. He writes,
If there are any of them left, I hope they have long since regretted the folly of that decision. I do not know how deeply the miners’ executive was involved with the communist party, but there is no doubt that A.J. Cook, the miners secretary, was the chief culprit in the whole sad business. If an almost completely National Stoppage could not succeed, there was no chance whatever of one section however important, succeeding. It occurred to me then, and I have had no reason to alter my opinion since, that if a career as a trade union leader, is to be the passport to political leadership, and by this to a seat in the affairs of Government, then heaven help this nation of ours’ (20-21).
What seems clear from this is that Richard felt a distrust of the leaders of union action. That he felt that they did not really care about the working-class workers, but were in it for their own self-development and opportunities. However, many of those leaders came from similar backgrounds, ‘the industry had become associated with very distinctive occupational communities which sent their own representative to parliament, and with early state regulation of wages and conditions arising from highly politicised strikes and colliery disasters. For the first half of the twentieth century, it was a major crucible of socialist politics and the backbone of the Labour party representation’ (Ackers & Payne, 2002, 185). This may be Richard’s very reason for his distrust, he may have felt that those who were supposed to be fighting for them was leaving them behind in their own pursuit for political glory. It is fair to point out here, that these notions are speculative, and that his personal opinions and feelings are rarely revealed or developed. His seeming resentment of the strike and union leaders does not represent all miners. There are many more accounts which hold such leaders in great esteem for their efforts in creating better conditions for working-class people.
One of the memories that Richard shares, from the General Strike, is that of ‘the meeting at Burnhope addressed by A.J. Cook’ (31). He writes about how there was a ‘morale boosting campaign’ (31), during the middle of the strike led by the miners’ executive with members of the Labour party. This included the miners’ secretary, A.J. Cook. They toured the local mining areas, giving talks and speeches. Richard states that he heard them speak three times, indicating his interest in events of the time. He calls Cook a ‘propagandist’ who took off his jacket and rolled his shirt sleeves up when addressing the crowds. He says that he ‘did not know [Cook] was a member of the communist party until about the middle of the strike, I somehow feel I ought to have guessed he was. The communist party had a very little support in the Durham mining areas, although it is possible that the influence of a tiny minority might have had a good deal more effect than many of us realised’ (32). Richard declares that it was those who wished the struggle to continue that brought Cook to tour, in order to influence others. It is difficult to determine why Richard developed such dislike or distrust of those higher representatives of miners and unions. He does not delve into his own political beliefs deep enough to be able to determine where his opinions and affiliations rest. Instead, Richard focuses on the affects to the people of his community. He dwells on the hardships they faced during such extreme times.
Richard refrains from discussing politics in any intricate way. He shies away from any intentional reference to his own affiliations, or specific agreements or disagreements with political institutions. It is only in the closing pages of the memoir that Richard is drawn on the events of the day. Writing his memoir in 1972, he expresses concern most explicitly with nationalisation. He believed it a bad thing for miners and their communities and blamed nationalisation for the decline of the pits. Other miners were in favour of nationalisation, some like Harold Heslop (see here) had strong socialist leanings and believed nationalisation would be great for the mines.
Writing in 1967, Clinton E. Jencks suggests that ‘[w]ages, working conditions, fringe benefits, day-to-day labour- management relations, housing, recreational facilities, and educational opportunities all sharply improved after nationalisation’ (301). However, the feeling surrounding nationalisation was in large part dependent on how miners felt as working-class individuals. Jencks noted that ‘most miners still feel they are rated lower in the social scale than they are entitled to be by the nature and importance of their work’ (1967, 301). Thus, ‘appreciation of gains’ and ‘resentment of shortcomings’ lead to interpretations ‘that nationalisation has not worked’ (1967, 301). This may be why Richard feels so strongly about nationalisation. What Richard fails to acknowledge is that ‘[t]he nationalised coal industry exploited a diminishing, non-renewable resource that was increasingly costly to extract and faced growing competition from other energy sources’ (Acers & Payne, 2002, 208). I think it would be fair to say that Richard felt the hardships of strike action and nationalisation on a very personal level, in an emotional way, due to their effects on his loved ones and community. In this respect, he struggles with the wider implications of prolonging strike action and fails to see the greater effects of nationalisation. Unfortunately, due to other economic pressures and modern technology, the coal industry was already losing its strength. It was literally falling apart at the seams.
Richard speaks loosely regarding other issues toward the end of his memoir, including the hardships of the Welfare State and what was being broadcast on the BBC. Yet, he does not give his own political leanings or beliefs away: though he maintains concerns regarding communism which ‘marches on insidiously spreading its tentacles everywhere’ (157).
(See Harold Heslop for more on working-class miners.)
(See Edward Cain for more on mining and strike action.)
Ackers, Peter, and Jonathan Payne. ‘Before the Storm: the experience of nationalization and the prospects for industrial relations partnership in the British coal industry, 1947–1972 -rethinking the militant narrative’. Social History, 27:2 (May) 2002: 184-209.
August, Andrew. The British Working Class, 1832-1940. Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2007.
Jencks, Clinton E. ‘Social Status of Coal Miners in Britain since Nationalisation’. The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, (July) 1967: 301-312.
MORRIS, R. W., ‘Autobiography of R. W. Morris’, TS, c.350pp. (c.140,000 words). Extracts published as ‘A Boy goes down the pit’, Bulletin of the Durham County Local History Society, No. 20, Oct 1977, pp. 4-12 (edited by G. Patterson). BruneI University Library.
‘R.W.Morris’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:520.
‘Cabinet Papers: Strike Build Up’. Nationalarchives.gov.uk, n.pag. N.d. Web Accessed 14/04/2017.
Featured Image: ‘The Leader Who Got Left’ – Punch
Miners of the General Strike – Independentlabour.org.
‘Under Which Flag?’ (Punch) – Fotolibra.com.
A.J. Cook – Warwick University.
‘Miners Leaving at the End of a Shift’ by G Palmer. Englishhistoryauthors.blogspot