Archive for the ‘Ebbw Vale’ Tag

The Labour Party and the Left, 1934-39: Case Study I – How Red Were the Valleys anyway?; The Politics of Unemployment, Militancy & Migration.   1 comment

009

‘Red Walls’, ‘Heartlands’ & ‘Little Moscows’:

We may well ask, in borrowing and adapting the title of Richard Llewellyn’s famous 1939 novel, whether Britain’s industrial valleys and towns were really quite so ‘red’ as some made them out to be at the time and over the decades since the Thirties. The myth of Maerdy in the Rhondda as a ‘little Moscow’ has remained a potent one, and has been used to justify the political hegemony of Labour in its ‘heartlands’ and, most recently, to explain the victory of the Conservatives beyond the ‘Red Wall’ of the ‘Northern’ constituencies in the 2019 General Election. In Wales, the metaphor of bridges seems more appropriate, since the Bridgend constituency, in the geographical heart of the region and on the edge of the Coalfield below the Llynfi, Garw and Ogmore valleys, was taken by the Tories (the town and the three valleys make up the County Borough of Bridgend). Maerdy became a myth because it was the base of Arthur Horner, Communist and future leader of the South Wales Miners’ Federation. As such, the intransigence of its miners’ lodge, which it shared with other pit villages, was deliberately channelled by the militants in the ‘Fed’ and the NUWM, giving it a longer life as a ‘little Moscow’. Its styles were present wherever there were some everywhere in the valleys. In the face-to-face conflict with the Labour Party nationally enjoined by the Comintern’s Class Against Class policy between 1929 and 1934, the CPGB took over the Rhondda Labour Party, stood Horner as a parliamentary candidate in 1933 and got within three thousand votes of getting him elected. Horner then renewed working with other left-wing organisations ahead of the ‘Popular Front’ policy adopted by the Communist International the following year.

007

In the Thirties, as the expansion of the Social Service movement sought to ‘irrigate’ the South Wales Coalfield, it was accused by the ‘Left’ in general and Communists in particular, of becoming a form of ‘dope’ for the unemployed, contributing to the process of ‘demoralisation’ in coalfield communities, rather than alleviating it. Allen Hutt took this view, making no differentiation between the efforts of the churches, the Quakers, the ‘social service ladies and gentlemen and other charity mongers’. Wal Hannington, Communist leader of the NUWM, also argued that those who, by word or deed, divert the unemployed from the struggle against the Government were, whether they knew it or not, leading them into demoralisation rather than rescuing them from it, and in so doing, were acting as instruments of government policy. He pointed out that the word ‘demoralisation’ did not only refer to behaviour involving corrupt practices and indulging in mean and contemptible acts but could also be applied to a person being deprived of courage and self-reliance. Both the government and the movement itself remained extremely sensitive to this accusation which was echoed by Labour MPs and therefore could not be dismissed as the babbling of a militant minority. The 1934 Pilgrim Trust Report had suggested that the ‘generous impulse’ of the Nation had gone far to soften the bitterness of spirit that would brook no palliatives and Wyndham Portal stated that, whilst there was…

… no doubt that men were averse … to associating themselves with a club which was subsidised by Government monies, opposition was ‘gradually dying down’. 

However, while the hostility may have gone, the apathy had not, as his own report revealed that though there were a hundred and fifty unemployed clubs throughout the region, they involved only about twelve per cent of the total unemployed. Portal suggested that there should be a settlement with a warden and his wife carefully vetted to ensure that the ‘right type’ of people were appointed who would operate the occupational centres ‘on appropriate lines’. Firstly, they were to encourage transference by fostering a wider sense of ‘citizenship’, breaking down loyalties to class and locality. Secondly, they were to seek out and develop the right sort of leadership for the communities in which they settled. However, those who knew the valleys better could see the contradictions involved in this strategy. Captain Geoffrey Crawshay, the Honorary Secretary of SWMCSS expressed this concern in the Second Annual Report of the Council:

… Leaders in Churches and Sunday Schools, Trade Union Lodges and Workmen’s Institutes, Unemployed Men’s Clubs and Boys’ Clubs change with every month, while ‘Transference’ skims the cream from our community and leaves it with the same burdens of maintenance and ever-deepening problems of social leadership. … The flower of our young manhood, with all its potentialities for leadership is leaving us in a steady flow. 

Several less ‘official’ surveys confirmed that many of the younger unemployed ‘kept away’ from the centres for a variety of reasons. Apart from the obvious association of them with activities preferred by older men such as boot-repairing and upholstery, it soon became apparent that these institutions were not, as they claimed, run in the best traditions of democratic organisation which were the norm in coalfield society. In his survey conducted for the Carnegie Trust in the Pontypridd area, A. J. Lush found that, out of the ten occupational clubs in the area, only two allowed members ‘a fair measure of responsibility for control and management’ and that many of the organisers were ‘stalwart conservative zealots’, chiefly concerned to provide ‘strong moral leadership’ and often ‘terribly ignorant on the most vital subjects inherent in the work… .’ Their lack of understanding of the needs of the unemployed would lead them to organise programmes of lectures which had little or no relevance to their audience. One unemployed miner remarked to James Hanley that ‘these places’ were run like ‘a kind of honest British Working Men’s Club’. Communists were often excluded because it was feared that they might spread dissent and division:

… the Social Centre is not very keen on having you if you’re a Communist. They’re very worried about us, … and they’ll have to worry a lot more soon, for the whole valley is turning that way as time goes on…

Certainly, what one American sociologist, Eli Ginzberg described as ‘mendacious propaganda’ did contribute to the failure of settlement houses and clubs, which were constantly under attack from the ‘Left’. Percy Watkins, of the NCSS, encountered considerable opposition when he visited Rhydyfelin to suggest the setting up of an occupational club in Taff Vale. Communists regularly referred to settlement houses as ‘dope houses’ where injections were administered to the unemployed so that they might more willingly bear their lot. Referring to the Brynmawr Settlement, Ginzberg noted widespread resentment at the statement that Mr Peter Scott, who had first arrived there with the support and under the direction of the Society of Friends’ Coalfield Distress Committee, had taken this little town under his wing. This had led to a deep distrust, not just of the National Government, but also of the Society of Friends and the Council of Social Service, both of which were perceived as being under government control, so that when the populace learned that the Government was actually giving financial support to the Council, its distrust turned into hostility. Another American Sociologist visiting the coalfield, G. H. Armbruster, found a similar antagonism in the Eastern Valley of Monmouthshire:

Passionately class conscious, the population resents the charitable features of the institutions and their origin from the benevolence or deception of a class that tradition has taught them to hate.  ‘They are here to keep us quiet’ is a common oobservation … Individuals  who had long taken advantage of the facilities offered remarked that they initially had to face the derision of and open antagonism of their fellows. ‘Aye, you’d a thought we were blacklegs’ one man saidwho had largely been responsible for the start of construction of an unemployed men’s clubin his community told me. … The trades unions and the Labour Party also initially fed this opposition.

This antagonism was amplified by the way that the new institutions were seen to be in open competition with the miners’ institutes, despite the latter’s acceptance of financial support from the NCSS. Many older unemployed miners would have nothing to do with new Centres because they saw them as weapons in an ‘underground war’ to destroy the institutes. Some Hanley’s witnesses went into flights of rhetorical language on this issue:

Now a lot of miners don’t like the look of things at present, the way these centres and camps are spreading about. And I ask you – why will they bring these damned centres right on top of our own institutes? Many men think they’re out to break the Miners’ Institutes.

013

Even those who attended the clubs shared this scepticism and explained their participation by suggesting that they had every right to whatever ‘crumbs’ they could snatch. Philip Massey, in his survey of Blaina and Nantyglo, concluded that the acceptance of these small benefits did not make people content with their conditions. Indeed, several of the activities started through social service grants were being run by men with firm left-wing views. They had decided that, by the mid-thirties, it was too late to start boycotting the centres and that, though the Social Service movement was ‘a farce’ and ‘a sop’, they should take advantage of the resources available and use them for their own ends. Others, however, continued to feel that the centres were a continual and humiliating reminder of their dependence on this damned charity and that damned charity and that they conditioned the unemployed to accept their worklessness:

… All the Centres have done so far as I can see is to create a lot of jobs for people who don’t really need them. They travel about in cars and ask us how we’re getting on, and we go on mending boots and making tables, and not a thought about work in the air at all.

It is evident from these responses that the majority of the unemployed, both young and old, saw the settlement movement as a further intervention by the State. It was not easy for communities already at the mercy of the means test and transference measures to interpret the actions of these alien social workers in any other way than those of a quasi-official group of officials who had been sent to bring further demoralising pressure to that which they already felt. Referring to the Tonypandy ‘riots’ of 1910, one miner suggested to Hanley that the intention of the government was the same as it had been back then – to break the miners’ spirit. It was this belief that conditioned many of the responses of these communities, families and individuals to unemployment and impoverishment. That is why it is important that one of the major responses ‘from below’, that of voluntary migration, should not be confused with the dominant official response to unemployment, that of ‘Transference’. The migration response has been too readily characterised as one of acquiescence and defeatism rather than one of resistance to, and escape from, the web of state intervention in the coalfield.

001

Equally, it has been too easily assumed that the extent of resistance to state intervention from within the coalfield itself can best be measured by reference to the number and nature of demonstrations and the level of political action within its institutions and organisations. However, it is important to see both migration and militancy as complex responses in the context of the wider political and cultural traditions of coalfield communities, rather than simply assuming that the processes of immiseration led automatically either to widespread and uniform demonstrative action or to abject surrender. Given the diverse conditions of unemployment which existed in different communities, it is understandable that the ‘militant’ response should have been more detectable in some communities compared with others. The older coalfield communities which endured higher levels of long-term unemployment throughout the decade from 1929 to 1939 were those with the greatest propensity to direct political action. Although these ‘eruptions’ were the products of latent frustrations and resentment, they were sporadic events which occurred in response to specific grievances in the local operation of government policy and, although dramatic both in their nature and effects, they were rarely part of a broader political strategy. Therefore, the crude causal analysis of contemporary propagandists such as Donovan Brown when they wrote about the 1935 demonstrations against the new UAB scales, need to be treated with considerable scepticism:

There has always been in South Wales a tradition of militant struggle and extreme radicalism. English bourgeois standards have never penetrated deeply into the villages of the Welsh mining valleys. Steadily worsening conditions have replaced the spontaneous native culture of of the days when miners taught their apprentices the perfection of the Welsh metre, with a vigorous political consciousness. The village forms a perfect unit for unit for militant organisation around the pit; there class consciousness has arisen quite naturally, while the coal owners live many miles away in beautiful manors – we are reminded of the Chartist days when the Welsh mining villages constituted enemy territory  … poverty, and the traditional militancy of the Welsh workers, naturally produced a vigorous opposition … Ceaseless activity has also continued among the unemployed … Marches and demonstrations all over the area had previously been taking place … South Wales is ablaze with indignation.

Whilst the broad brushstrokes of this assessment provide a colourful backdrop to a portrait of coalfield society, historians must painstakingly pick out the details for themselves. Otherwise, they will leave us with stereotypical and distorted images of the communities that composed it. Whilst it is clear that the Communists had been active organisers among the unemployed for some years before the 1935 demonstrations, they did not seem to benefit from this in terms of membership and support for their ‘Class Against Class’ policy. Even when they discarded this policy in 1934, and despite Wal Hannington’s well-known efforts with the NUWM, he still failed to attract any substantial support from the voters of Merthyr Tydfil in the by-election of that year.

011

However, this evidence of a lack of support for revolutionary socialism should not lead us to the conclusion that ‘the unemployed’ of Merthyr were acquiescent about their condition. In fact, they were far from apathetic, but whilst espousing socialist views, had practical priorities and commitments, like ‘GSW’ (the need to demonstrate to labour exchange officials that they were genuinely seeking work) which would simply not allow time for a marked degree of participation in demonstrations and other forms of political action. Though many had to wait at home for hours waiting for a call to work for three days at their collieries, they were also far from physically or mentally idle, dividing their time between the Miners’ Institutes and their allotments, the latter providing a vital supplementary food supply for their families. J. J. Williams, the local correspondent of the Glamorgan Gazette, commented on the juggling of priorities in the Garw valley:

The new Pantygog Allotments have already become known as ‘the little Moscow’, perhaps as a direct challenge to the old Sunday Market. One member who in debates often talks of ‘taking the gloves off to get down to concrete facts’ never touches the spade unless his hands are gloved.

There were many short-lived ‘little Moscows’, wherever the demands of struggle became so intense that a counter-community became necessary. At the height of the battle against non-unionism, described below, Bedlinog, which Gwyn Williams famously characterised as one of those villages where you need magnets in your boots to stand upright, at one time elected a Communist Chamber of Commerce.

Green or Red? Re-painting the Valleys in the Thirties:

002

003 (2)

Graph showing the relationship between average annual unemployment and net out-migration (in black) in given years (July-June).

For Dai Smith pointed out in his book Wales! Wales? (1984), the thirties were ‘laundered’ in the post-war liberal mind to such an extent that their image of ‘passivity and pity’ has obscured the ‘sustaining humour and collective struggle’ that can be found, for example in the autobiographical stories of Gwyn Thomas or in the local newspaper columns of J. J. Williams. For many on the ‘liberal-left’, South Wales became a ‘case-study’. The American sociologist Eli Ginzberg spent some years in the 1930s investigating the social deprivation and institutional response in South Wales for his book, Grass on the Slag Heaps, published in 1942, his title perhaps picking up on the ‘green’ theme from Llewellyn’s novel, published three years earlier. Ginzberg concluded his book with the observation:

It is difficult to help people who will not help themselves, and many of the tragedies that befell the Welsh during the the postwar decades can be traced to their own shortcomings and the shortcomings of their allies, the trade union movement and the Labour party … As early as 1934 Lord Portal called attention to the fact that the leaders of South Wales were noticeably inept, a result of the fact that the most virile and able people had migrated. This kindly interpretation of the ineptitude of Welsh leaders cannot, however, explain … such stupid practices in sending trade union leaders to Parliament as a reward for faithful services to the Federation.

009

The preface to Ginzberg’s book was written by Thomas Jones (1870-1955),  the arch-druid of the ‘Cymric’ liberals, who in the 1930s, with increasing success, began to fill the gap left by the collapse of independent working-class education and the decline of the Miners’ Institutes. The ‘Marxist’ Central Labour College and its offshoot of ‘Plebs League’ classes in the coalfield could no longer be sustained by the Miners’ Federation, much reduced in wealth and self-confidence. As Secretary of the Pilgrim Trust, Jones acted as dispenser-in-chief of aid to the stricken South Wales valleys and Percy Watkins became head of the Welsh section of the NCSS. Between them, they controlled the intersection between social service, educational provision and public guidance. In his memoirs, Watkins wrote of his puzzlement and irritation at the reception given to their attempts to restore ‘standards’ and ‘authority’ in the valleys:

It is a strange thing that these honest efforts of ours to bring cultural opportunities within the reach of the unemployed in the days of their helplessness and hopelessness did not receive the encouragement and support that might have been especially expected from the political side of the Labour movement and from the trade unions. The former preferred to regard the motives of our movement as nothing more than an attempt to provide ‘dope’.

Marching in Step Against the Means Test:

010

The ‘dope’ was not intended to smother working-class militancy, which was patchy in any case, or their institutions, despite the rumours to the contrary. Where these were challenged directly, it was by victimisation, company unions, mass unemployment and mass policing. All of these ultimately failed to control the coalfield communities. The reorganisation and recovery of the  SWMF, the continued agitation of the NUWM, and the fact that more national political and public attention was focused on the contrast between the increasingly prosperous areas and the depressed areas within Britain, all meant that by 1934 protest could be better organised and could produce results. Massive demonstrations against the 1934 Unemployment Act took place when the previously abstract idea of ‘popular front’ politics became a living reality in South Wales in January and February of 1935, as hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated within their valleys. The protest marches were directed against new government regulations that would have reduced unemployment assistance in addition to operating the humiliation of the means test.

On Sunday, 3 February, knots of people gathered around banners: local committees of action, churches, chapels, co-operatives, women’s groups, the Salvation Army and the British Legion, Sunday schools, shopkeepers, shop-assistants, teachers, printers, ministers, the miners, the unemployed, women and children, all brought out onto the streets in a collective cry of anger against the continuing injustice of the unemployment allowance rates and the means test. The defiance was that of a whole community. In and about them moved their organisers, Labour and Communist and ILP, the NUWM, political opponents who had denounced each other endlessly in the previous six years. Bands formed up. Lewis Jones, the Communist spokesman for the NUWM, captured the moment in his ‘documentary’ novel, We Live, based on ‘Cwmardy’, based on the Rhondda:

At the bottom of the hill, before turning into the square which led to the rubbish dump, where the other contingents of the Combine were waiting. Len looked back. His eyes glowed with what he saw. The street behind him looked like a flowing river of human beings on which floated innumerable scarlet banners and flags … Although directly in front of the band, he heard running beneath its thrumming wails the deep monotone of countless boots  tramping rhythmically on the hard road … When the front of the demonstration was two miles advanced  and on the summit of the hill to the east of Cwmardy, people were still pouring into the assembling field. Len lifted his head shaply into the air when he fancied he heard the distant strain of music in the direction left of the demonstration. He turned to Mary and the workman next to her. ‘Can you hear anything?’ he asked. They both looked simultaneously past Len and he, seeing their amazement, turned his head to look in the same direction. He drew his breath sharply and his perspiring face went a shade whiter. The mountain which separated Cwmardy from the other valleys looked like a gigantic  ant-hill covered with a mass of black, waving bodies. ‘Good God,’ the man next to Mary whispered, ‘the whole world is on the move …’ 

On that Sunday, the whole population of South Wales seemed to have turned out on to the streets. There were sixty to seventy thousand in the Rhondda marching to Tonypandy; Aneurin Bevan spoke to thousands at Blackwood; Pontypool saw the biggest meeting it had ever had, twenty thousand listening to Ernest Bevin. There were marches and meetings in Neath, Briton Ferry, Merthyr, even in Barry. Down the Aberdare Valley, fifty thousand people marched to Mountain Ash in a procession two and a half miles long through wind and rain. Men and women wore their Sunday best as if at a ‘Gymanfa Ganu’ (Community Song Festival) George Dugger MPor a Sunday School rally, a cry from humanity for humanity, as a local journalist reported, adding the government cannot refuse to listen. Something of the order of 300,000 people marched that day. One person out of seven of the entire population of Wales was out in those valleys. It was the greatest demonstration Wales has ever known, before or since.

The marches were at their strongest and sometimes most violent at the heads of the valleys, especially in Merthyr and the Ebbw Fach Valley, which by this time had learnt to live with long-term unemployment and had come to regard benefit and relief as due by right, rather than as charity. Nowhere was the latent resentment of the effects of state intervention more visibly expressed than in Merthyr, where the UAB offices were ransacked, despite the imprecations of the previously well-respected Quaker, John Dennithorne. They shouted at him, Come down, Old Bug Whiskers! They would listen only to Ceridwen Brown from Aberdare and a local hero everyone knew as Jack Williams, the Communist from Dowlais. The smashing of the UAB offices horrified even the fiery radical, S O Davies, the Labour MP for the borough. His opinions were such that the Communist Party stood little chance of unseating him. On this occasion, however, he denounced the demonstrators as a rabble and was shouted down by Communists and ILP-ers.

Over in Blaina, the demonstrations also blew up into violence. The children of Nantyglo refused to go to school and the shopkeepers shut up shop. Take all necessary measures, their Labour MP George Dugger told them. In the Ebbw Fach Valley, there were seventy in the Communist Social Club and fifty in the Communist Women’s Club; the valley had Communist district and county councillors. The people unleashed a guerilla war against a tough police force and marched on Abertillery singing We’ll make Queen Mary do the washing for the boys! and Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? at Superintendent Baker. A big demonstration was planned for the offices at Blaina when the after the authorities had refused to listen to the Communist councillor Phil Abrahams. The Brynmawr and Nantyglo contingents met up with the Blaina and Abertillery squads near the Blaina Inn. The police came out of it flailing batons, and there were guerilla battles all over the heads of the valleys. At the ensuing trial, six of the rioters got six months in jail, three Communists in the NUWM got nine months and Phil Abrahams was stripped of his civic rights for ten years. In South Wales as a whole, three hundred thousand were estimated to have come out for demonstrations on three successive weekends. In Lancashire, Yorkshire, Durham and in the other old centres of Britain’s industrial revolution, the same emotion filled the streets.

The National Government was forced to listen. In the Commons, Oliver Stanley announced a stand-still order on their regulations. They did not come into effect for eighteen months, and then in modified forms. It was in the heads-of-the-valleys communities that the unemployed stood to lose the most through the new regulations. This was the only known occasion in the thirties when popular protest, aligned with parliamentary opposition, led most memorably by Aneurin Bevan, actually stopped the National Government in its tracks. South Wales had been at the forefront, and from that moment, despite the continuing horrors, there was a sudden lift in morale in the coalfield communities. Bevan later commented: Silent pain evokes no response.

Staying Down, Striking Back & Reaching Out:

015014

Aneurin Bevan had been elected as MP for Ebbw Vale in 1929, finding himself in a Parliament in which thirteen of the fifteen Welsh Labour MPs had had, like him, an official connection with the SWMF, the miners’ ‘Fed’. During 1933-34, Bevan proposed the formation of worker self-defence militias against the small, scattered pockets of fascists who took root in south Wales. An eccentric Communist in Merthyr had a strong following among the most isolated and depressed communities and became something of a local hero to them and there were regular clashes around the town. There was some drilling of the militias around Bevan’s home town of Tredegar, and the Communists also organised their own vigilantes, but all such initiatives were smothered by the Labour Party.

Towards the end of 1935, a series of stay-down strikes erupted in pits where non-unionists and company-unionists were ensconced. These ‘stay-downs’ fired the imagination; they were a weapon of repossession. Hundreds of men remained underground in their pits across all the valleys of South Wales in an act of collective defiance that ultimately ensured the demise of company unionism. It was a desperate, tough fight to unhinge the ‘non-political’ union, regain members, and establish credibility among the unemployed in an industry being driven by utterly intransigent coal-owners. Gwyn Williams (1985) wrote of this:

It is a story of infinite patience, persistence, care, resolution, and where necessary ruthlessness in what had the makings of a civil war. It is a story of remarkable leadership … with the genius of Horner in the van. The ritual was endlessly repeated, the strikes and arguments, the brass bands, marching crowds, women in the lead everywhere, the police charges, the court cases, the pilgrimage of political prisoners, the banners … The process climaxed in those dramatic stay-downs which caught the imagination of a generation, the long, wretched hours underground, the drama at the pit-head, the upcoming to a triumph.

From 1934 onwards the Fed was reorganised with a rank and file executive, unemployed lodges and a more effective structure. It successfully harnessed the community to its purpose and, in its somewhat shrunken industry, it won. This was one essential core around which the popular mobilisation of 1935 formed. But that mobilisation also demonstrated the limits of the Communist initiative. The CP, with its new Daily Worker offering powerful support for a Popular Front, and a dedicated membership approaching three thousand, moved forward, in the words of Gwyn Williams, with its intelligent, learned, hardened, crusading yet earthily practical men and women with all its dependent organisations, only to run into a brick wall of Labour hostility. The reaction of the Labour party nationally put a brake on the shift towards the popular front in Wales. There was a major rally of the social democratic faithful with the chapels, in particular, setting themselves against the threat of atheistic Communism in the valleys. Following the early months of unity against the UAB and the National Government, throughout the rest of 1935, there was a marked hardening of the Labour position in south Wales. At the General Election of 1935, the Communist candidate in the Rhondda fell well back in the poll.

From the summer of 1936, the Communists in the valleys went on to develop their support for the popular front in the context of the outbreak of civil war in Spain between the populist left-wing Republican government and the Fascist supporters and militias of Franco. In all, 174 volunteers from Wales fought with the International Brigade; thirty-three of them died. The majority of them were South Wales miners, 122 of them, with a further thirty-four of them hailing from the coal ports. Nearly all of them were members or supporters of the CP, for whom serving in Spain was as much a badge of honour as having gone to jail for ‘the cause’. Lodges in the ‘Fed’ raised money and goods for the Republicans and took Basque children into sanctuary. Lewis Jones, the writer of We Live, spent his energies on the cause, dropping dead from exhaustion after addressing over thirty street meetings in support of it in the week that Barcelona fell.

A Royal Command or an Indicative Promise?:

In October 1936, the nervousness created by the mass demonstrations and strikes prompted Captain Ellis at the NCSS to warn against the Royal Visit to South Wales, due to take place in November, at the same time as the revised code of regulations for men on transitional benefits was to take effect. Although the two-day visit to the Rhondda, Merthyr Tydfil and the Monmouthshire Valleys had been planned for some time, on 12 October, Ellis wrote anxiously to Godfrey Thomas at Buckingham Palace:

I feel bound to say first that I think the day is ill-chosen. The new UAB regulations come into force on October 16th. On the whole they tend to affect South Wales more than most places, and it is extremely likely that between the 16th and 19th, which is the first day, there will be a great deal of demonstration against them. It seems to me that if that time is chosen for a visit of the King, the agitators will say that his visit is intended to distract attention from the regulations, and to mark by royal approval what is being done by the Ministry of Labour and other bodies. His visit will then be given a political significance … When Tom Jones saw the announcement of the date in the paper, he asked me to tell you that he felt very strongly that the King should not be taken to South Wales during that week.

003

There was some basis in evidence for these apprehensions. In August, the Merthyr Unemployed Lodge of the SWMF had demanded that there should be a one-day strike, a march on London and a ‘monster petition’ of the whole of South Wales in the campaign against the new regulations. Later that month, the Dowlais Unemployed Lodge had decided to support the boycott of the Coronation, due to take place in the New Year. However, refusing to heed even the warnings of Tom Jones, Edward VIII chose to go ahead with the visit, albeit a month later than planned, on 18-19 November and, ironically, it was in Dowlais, during a tour of the derelict steelworks (that once employed nine thousand), that he made his (oft-misquoted) remark, terrible, terrible, something will be done about this. … to find them work. This may well have been an attempt to head off the kind of criticism which Ellis had suggested might accompany the King’s visit, rather than an attempt to embarrass the Cabinet, as some interpreted it. Whatever the case, his visit did indeed acquire a political significance and certainly did not earn him any friends in a government which was already beginning to call for his abdication. Desperately hungry men and women grasped at the words of the monarch but, on the Welsh Labour ‘left’, as the MP for Ebbw Vale, Aneurin Bevan, was furious. It was an outrage, he said, …

… to organise an expedition to Wales as if it were an unknown, barbarous and distant land, much in the same way as you might go to the Congo.

001

He said that the King was being used to mask persecution and that Ernest Brown, the Minister of Labour who accompanied him,  was the instrument of that persecution. Brown was an unpopular politician, especially in an area that had seen rioting against the Means Test the year before. To counterbalance him and the Minister of Health, Sir Kingsley Wood, the King commanded that Malcolm Stewart, the Commissioner for the Special Areas, dine with him on his train that evening. Stewart had just resigned in frustration at the government’s failure to back him over the introduction of new industries into the special areas. Chamberlain, in particular, was opposed to these measures. Shortly before his resignation, Stewart had published a damning report on the feebleness of existing measures to tackle unemployment. Even before he stepped off the train, therefore, Edward was ‘walking’ into an area of acute political sensitivity. This was made more acute when, visiting a farming co-operative at Boverton in the Vale of Glamorgan, he remarked to an ex-miner working on the farm who said he would prefer to return to the valleys if there were work available, Yes, it is a great pity that something more can’t be done about it. As the tour continued past disused collieries, through maternity and child welfare clinics, into local housing estates, Edward was asked by everyone he met: tell Whitehall to do something for the valleys. The significance of his visit lay in the feeling that someone of importance actually cared.

From Merthyr Tydfil, the King’s party made its ill-fated detour to the Bessemer Steelworks in Dowlais, shut down six years earlier. Just as the closure of Palmer’s shipyards at Jarrow had blighted that town, its plight just highlighted by its well-publicised ‘Crusade’ to London, so the ending of steelworking in Dowlais had ruined that community. Coal mines could be kept running on ‘short’ time work, with miners working three shifts a week, but once a steelworks closed it very quickly became derelict with all its workers permanently laid off. As a result, in 1936, three-quarters of the town’s population was permanently unemployed. Two thousand came out and streamed along the pavements to greet the King on this unscheduled and highly improvised sojourn, and though many of them were radicals supporting the NUWM, they were intrigued to see him and raised their caps, even if they also raised clenched fists. He stood by the defunct blast furnace surveying the scene of desolation, his face drawn and grave, his bowler hat removed as a sign of respect. As he looked on, some of the men, quite spontaneously, started to sing the solemn but beautiful Welsh hymn, Crygybar. The King visibly moved, turned to those next to him and is reported to have said …

These steelworks brought the men hope. Something will be done to see that they stay here – working.

But it was the four words, ‘something must be done’ echoed around the country. Of course, in grammatical terms, there is an important difference between the use of ‘will’ and ‘must’ in his sentence, or phrase, regardless of the context, but perhaps the most important point is that it is expressed in the ‘passive voice’ so that no ‘person’ is specified as the agent of the promised action. Added to this, ‘will’ is expressed in an ‘indicative mood’ as a ‘promise’ and is not an imperative, or a command. It is not the same as ‘shall’ which, when used in the third person or in the passive is emphatic and fulfils the function of an ‘auxiliary verb’. ‘Must’ is a ‘modal’ verb which expresses an ‘imperative’ mood to refer to an obligation, and an internalised one. However, it could only be expressed as a ‘command’ by using ‘have’, as in ‘has to be done’ or, even stronger, ‘will have to be done’. In any case, ‘something must be done’ was a misinterpretation, deliberate or otherwise, of what the King actually said, resulting in an important, if subtle, change in the message he was trying to send out.

These four words, as they appeared in newspaper headlines, became a refrain taken up by those of all political parties who felt that the government had done too little to alleviate the suffering of the poor and unemployed. In fact, in his earlier visit to Boverton, Edward had been careful to avoid appearing to criticise the action already taken by the government and the social movement which, as the patron of the NCSS, he was already well aware of. The King’s words, like the Jarrow March, just ended, gained a significance that transcended the immediacy of the plight to which they referred. His intervention simply reflected the growing consensus that something had to be done to create a more just and fair society by bringing jobs to the ‘Special Areas’. As the King, he was expressing the national mood, and although he had told Baldwin the day before that he was prepared to abdicate rather than give up Mrs Simpson, he was now, buoyed up by the success of his visit, beginning to think that it was part of his destiny to put up a fight both for the people and the woman he loved.

Aneurin Bevan declined an intervention to meet the King at Rhymney the next day, saying that he could not associate himself with a visit which appeared to support the notion that private charity has made, or can ever make a contribution of any value to the solution of the problem of South Wales. But the whole event was turned into another mass demonstration by the coalfield communities visited. The visit to South Wales had demonstrated his immense popularity and ability to empathise with the sufferings of his people. When combined with the politics of long-term unemployment, it made for a heady brew. The King’s opponents became concerned. These escapades should be limited, Ramsay MacDonald commented sternly in his diary, they are an invasion into the field of politics and should be watched constitutionally. Geoffrey Dawson, writing in The Times, called the reported four-word comment of the King, monstrous. He penned a letter in which he dismissed it as a constitutionally dangerous proceeding that would threaten, if continued, to entangle the Throne in politics. The Daily Mail, under the title ‘The King Edward Touch’, praised his visit:

Never has the magic of personal leadership been better shown than by the King’s visit to south Wales. … As few Ministers have done, the Sovereign examined their plight and drew from (the unemployed) the tale of their trouble.

Edward later reflected that his words to the people of Dowlais were the minimum humanitarian response that he could have made to the suffering he had seen. The episode made him all too aware that the modern world had made it almost impossible for a monarch to continue to play the role of the Good King, free to move unhindered among his subjects and speak what is in his mind. His subjects in South Wales certainly did not object to the political tone of his comment. The Royal Archives at Windsor are the repository of thousands of letters addressed to the King during this crucial period, the vast majority of which are positive.  The following sentiments were shared and expressed by many:

You could profess concern and interest and yet stay stay away … but that you do not do, and may God bless you for it.

We like you for the concern you have for the welfare of the poorest and most unfortunate of your subjects. No other King has gone among them as you have done, or shown signs of appreciating their distress in the way you do.

With hindsight, there can be little doubt that the publicity given to the King’s visit and his spontaneous remarks had an important impact in quickening the process of industrial redevelopment. But it took a world war to bring work to South Wales and by then Edward VIII had become the Duke of Windsor and was leading the life of a useless aristocrat in France.

Today We Live: Re-making the Images of the Coalfield.

Rumours that the South Wales Miners were planning a march on London to restore Edward to the throne in 1937 turned out to be just that. These had been heard by David Alexander, who had first gone to South Wales as a Cambridge undergraduate to shoot a miners’ strike, and returned that year to produce a film called Eastern Valley, dealing with the relief work organised by the Quakers at the top of the Monmouthshire Valleys. In this short film, one unemployed miner explains that he was working now not for a boss but for myself and my butties, whilst an ‘old timer’  admits that although mistakes had been made, a new interest in life had been generated by the Quakers.

002

010

The best known Welsh documentary was Today We Live, made in the same year for the NCSS. The Welsh scenes in this film were directed by Ralph Bond and they told a story in which the unemployed miners of Pentre in the Rhondda debate whether or not to co-operate with the voluntary relief agencies. It is obvious that these unemployed miners had been coached: they were told of the gist of what they had to say but put it into their own words. But although, therefore, a dramatised documentary, the difficulty of living on a shilling a day is movingly conveyed and it is not surprising that the film was so well received in the art-houses of London and New York. It was rare to hear the unemployed speak so authentically, but besides the dialogue, the film was also commended for its stunning images of life in the depressed valleys.

009

Donald Alexander was Bond’s assistant on the film and his shot of the unemployed searching for waste coal on the slag heaps, no doubt prompted by his earlier experiences in the Coalfield, was destined to become the most famous image of the Depression years in Britain. The sequence was ‘cannibalised’ in many later documentaries. Alexander’s slag-heap shots became an iconic image of proletarian hardship and played some part for British intellectuals as Dorothea Lange’s monochrome still-photographs of the ‘Oakie’ migrants to California. As the Socialist cause strengthened towards the end of the decade, several groups attempted to challenge the commercial cinema by producing independent films and by arranging their release through independent outlets. In particular, the Communist Party attempted to make its own newsreels to accompany screenings of Soviet classic features. However, these were rarely shown in Welsh halls or even outside London and had little impact on the working classes. Also, they were mostly composed of badly-shot silent sequences of marches and demonstrations.

012

Pursuing a Millenarianism of the Oppressed:

At the same time as all this was going on, the ‘Left unity’ of the early months of 1935 was wearing thin by the middle of 1936. At the Merthyr Conference against the Means Test held in July, the claim for direct representation by the NUWM was defeated and in the Autumn the Trades Council reject the request from the Communist Party for affiliation. Relations between the Dowlais Unemployed Lodge and the CPGB were not good either, even where the issue of Spanish Aid was concerned. In the Garw Valley, however, the Communist Party seems to have garnered much of its support through the role the party played in rebuilding the SWMF in the second half of the decade. It is significant that the peak to that support came in the year in which those communities began to recover, fairly rapidly, from the Depression. Linked with this, it is apparent that whilst the Party had failed to attract any significant support for J R Campbell, a well-known figure who stood as a candidate for them in the 1931 parliamentary election, the Glamorgan Gazette reported how, in the 1937 Council election, the people of Pontycymmer were prepared to vote for a respected local Communist and miner:

The declaration of the poll in Ogmore and Garw Council elections took place amid scenes of enthusiasm on Monday night, culminating in the singing of the ‘Red Flag’ when Communist candidate for the Pontycymmer ward, Mr James Redmond, miner, was announced as having gained the large total of 899 votes, and topped the poll. Edward John Evans (Soc) Schoolmaster, gained the other seat with 830 votes. Mr Daniel Davies (Soc) who has served upon the Council for eighteen years loses his seat, the number of votes in his favour being 814. Mr Redmond is the first Communist to be elected in the Garw Valley … After the declaration the crowd became most excited, and the election proved to be the most enthusiastic and keenly followed for years. 

Redmond’s election came in the same week that a new wages agreement between the SWMF and the coalowners was signed, giving increases in wages of between 2s.2d. and 10s. per week, and at a time when it looked as if the decade-long struggle against company unionism and non-unionism in the valley had finally secured almost a hundred per cent membership of the Federation. It is probable that these ‘victories’ and Redmond’s association with them, played a major part in his success. As in other parts of the coalfield, the growth in the electoral strength of the Party was not primarily a response to conditions of poverty and did not reflect widespread avowal of revolutionary socialism, but was a recognition of the organisational ability of its local leaders in helping the community to regain much of its self-confidence. However, in institutional terms, it was still excluded, as in Merthyr, from the official organisation of the unemployed. In November 1937, a series of protest meetings against the Means Test was organised by the Garw Valley Unemployed Lodge and the Pontycymmer Labour Party, with the CP excluded from these events.

Despite these activities, evidence of the existence of widespread apathy on political matters, particularly among the young unemployed, is found in the social surveys of other valley communities. For example, A. J. Lush’s Carnegie Trust Survey was based on interviews with five hundred young unemployed men in Cardiff, Newport and Pontypridd. Of these, only three per cent had any affiliation to a political party or organisation and in Pontypridd, apart from one Communist who was inexorably certain of the facts of the class war, there was evidence of vagueness about the election which was taking place at that time. Lush found no evidence of a swing either to the Right or the Left. The achievements of the Communists among the unemployed in South Wales have tended to be exaggerated by their own contemporary literature, the content of which exists in sharp contrast to that of the Social Service Trusts. Thus, although the NUWM existed in Pontypridd, a ‘coalfield town’, it showed no great success in organising the unemployed and was, in fact, quite reluctant to recruit the long-term unemployed to their ‘ranks’. As other organisers had ‘discovered’, the  physical and mental conditions of these men, old and young alike, would often prove a handicap to organisations based on active protest, including long-distance marches:

It has perhaps been assumed too readily by some that because people are unemployed, their natural discontent will express itself in some revolutionary attitude. It cannot be reiterated too often that unemployment is not an ‘active’ state; its keynote is boredom – a continuous sense of boredom. Consequently, unless a sense of subjective urgency can be expressed by objective political activity, politics can mean little … These young men, products of continuous uemployment, are not likely to believe that an active participation by themselves in affairs will permanently affect an order of things that has already, in the most impressionable years of their lives, shown itself to be so powerful and so devastating.

It is clear that, from Lush’s interviews and other interviews with ‘coalfield people’, including those conducted by this researcher, that there was no sustained militant response to the conditions of unemployment and impoverishment which involved significant numbers of people in any of the valley communities during the Thirties. The popular image, transmitted by contemporary propaganda newsreels and photographs of coalfield society continually on the march, is a myth. Demonstrative action was sporadic, localised and uneven and, where it involved large numbers, was motivated by immediate concerns and basic frustrations and resentments. These feelings could just as easily, and regularly did, produce a somewhat cynical withdrawal from political action. The unemployed did not adopt a revolutionary or militant outlook as a means of confronting their condition. Nevertheless, the determination of the SWMF leadership in the battle against its rival, the South Wales Miners’ Industrial Union and against non-unionism; of minority organisations such as the NUWM in its continual agitation, and of the general leadership of the institutional life of the coalfield communities, enabled a partial recovery of working-class life from the mid-thirties onwards. The ‘United Front’ which emerged from this, though precarious and transitory in many communities, enabled the people of the coalfield quite literally to find both their feet and their voices in a massive demonstration of their collective resistance to state intervention in their lives from the early months of 1935 onwards.

When Bevan and his colleagues in the ‘Socialist League’ were expelled from the Labour Party in 1938 for their advocacy of the ‘United Front’, the ‘Fed’ came to his defence. Bevan told a meeting in the Rhondda that the Welsh miners were the most class-conscious, the most advanced, the most democratic section of the working class. By then, the power and limits of the Communist Party had already passed its peak in the years of the Popular Front. Its base was the ‘Fed’ which by 1939 represented some 135,000 miners, sponsoring thirteen MPs and maintaining a presence in most local authorities. Its executive council was more powerful than that of the local Labour Party. Communists were entrenched within it; Arthur Horner became its President in 1936, proving highly effective. They had their own miners’ journal. In a wider social context, they also had a presence through their classes, their subordinate organisations, like the NUWM and their activism. They charged the atmosphere around the Labour movement in south Wales with their internationalism and within their own society, they had become a distinctive subculture, hated by many, admired by many others, tolerated as a dynamic force by most. The great majority in the Coalfield remained loyal to the Labour Party, but despite the isolation of the Communists during the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939-41, the surge of pro-Soviet feeling during and after the siege of Stalingrad nearly carried Harry Pollitt to parliamentary victory in 1945. Bill Paynter, its post-war President, later explained the link between Union, politics and society:

The Miners’ Federation Lodges were pillars of the communities because the Miners’ Institutes and Welfare Halls provided places for the social and cultural activity, and their domination of the local Labour Parties decisively influenced local politics. It is not surprising, therefore, that this kind of background produces a loyalty to the Union so strong that the Union is regarded as a substitute for a political organisation.

… It has often been said of me that I was a miner and trade unionist first and a Communist second. … I have to admit that it has a great deal of truth in it. … It was true, too, of Arthur Horner and most leaders who have lived and worked in the mining valleys of South Wales.

Even though many self-styled revolutionaries were directing this ‘fight-back’ and even though the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments were clearly fearful of the potential for serious and widespread disorder, the successes of this leadership were rewards for their dedication as members of mining communities rather than the products of a ‘millenarianism of the oppressed’. In the longer-term, the acceptance of political reality was made palatable by the installation of ‘Labourism’ as an administrative necessity for an unreconstructed economy and society. The objection to the ‘dope’ perceived in the offerings of the ‘charity-mongers’ was partly a residual mistrust of those who elevated ‘citizenship’ above ‘class’. The assumption of the ‘Cymric’ liberal élite was that they could translate the mutuality of these one-class communities into institutional forms ‘better’ served by administering politicians and public servants rather than visionary class warriors. Liberalism shaded into Labourism and the latter became bound by a social and cultural consensus that was addicted to the development of a meritocratic society through education. Neither revolutionary socialism and left-wing social democracy on the one hand nor reactionary nationalism on the other was able to contend politically because they did not see the Depression years as a fall from grace. Those who did were more in tune with popular conceptions and they demonstrated that despite the communal collapse, something could be done. As Dai Smith has put it:

The meaning of the rise and fall of the coalfield society as a collective society was thus undermined from within by a policy of piecemeal accommodation and overlaid by a mythology whose potency derived from its universality as a parable.

003

Regaining Consciousness… To migrate or remain?

Research into contemporary qualitative sources reveals that a complex of economic, social, industrial, political and cultural factors determined the extent, nature and direction of the migration ‘streams’. Not least among these factors was the effect of state intervention. Besides political action, resistance to this intervention was expressed by a refusal to participate in government training and transference schemes and a wider rejection of the demoralisation involved in the invasion of the lives of individuals and families by a host of bureaucrats and social workers. Migration was an effective expression of resistance to this form of demoralisation. Thus, while similar factors influenced both transference and voluntary migration, and although contemporary propagandists frequently confused the two, the latter was far from being an acquiescent response to unemployment for many individuals and families. Their choice was partly determined by these factors and partly by the nature of voluntary migration contrasted with the provisions of the Transference Scheme. The sense of the retention of autonomy through migration was well expressed by one of the older unemployed of the Rhondda in a written statement to the Pilgrim Trust:

For an outsider, who views the situation from the angle of the people in the abyss, or the slum worker out of work, the idea he gets of the depressed areas or Special Areas may be totally wrong. … I want to suggest that our people are fully conscious of the economic principles which have brought change to the valleys. The question is, to migrate or remain? I have chosen to remain. …

004

Migration thus deserves to be treated as far more than a simple knee-jerk response to economic conditions; it was a class-conscious response for the hundreds of thousands who undertook it. The fact that tens of thousands of Welsh migrants were to be found in Coventry and Oxford in the late 1930s, by which time they formed a significant proportion of the populations of these cities, was not simply due to a series of ‘push’ factors operating upon or from within coalfield society. It is still accepted, of course, that the primary causes of migration between the wars were connected with social and economic conditions. Historians of Wales and British historians on the left have continued to follow what might be called the ‘propagandist’ view of migration, i.e. that people were driven out of the depressed areas by unemployment. For instance, John Stevenson argued that miners left the pit villages in Durham and South Wales for no other reason than that they were desperate to find work. However, the sources show that unemployment was not the sole cause of migration, even if we regard it as the major factor.

Certainly, it is unimaginable that migration would have taken place on the scale which it did, had it not been for the onset of mass unemployment in the coalfield. However, other factors were at work in the period which played a significant part in providing the motivation to relocate. These factors were the general increase in geographical and social mobility; the expansion of new forms transport and communications, including wireless radio; increasing expectations among working-class people in terms of wages, working and living standards, especially better housing; the break-up of the ‘coal complex’, i.e. the acceptance of coal mining as the major means of employment. In addition to these factors, there were many secondary social and cultural factors which played significant roles in the nature, extent and direction of migration, including the decline in health standards in the depressed areas, the role of government and voluntary agencies, the growth of a ‘national’ British culture and the dissolution of the ‘Celtic complex’ concerning Welsh language culture, and the impact of fashion. Thirdly, there were several catalysts, including the decisions of friends and relatives, the attainment of insurable age, victimisation and marital status.

Indeed, given the strength of the practical obstacles to migration which also existed in coalfield society, there needed to be strong compensatory factors at work from within the recipient areas. These obstacles included family loyalties, local patriotism – the sense of belonging to a particular community, region and/ or nationality, house ownership (especially in the older coalfield communities), the sense of loss of skill and trade union traditions as a collier, the loss of the sub-economy of the coalfield. Besides these, there were also obstacles in the recipient communities to overcome; the problems of seasonal unemployment in the ‘new’ industries, homesickness, the shortage and cost of suitable accommodation. Besides, psychological resistance to intervention by state and voluntary agencies and the consequent process of demoralisation was also an obstacle to the success of the official transference scheme. These obstacles were overcome by the careful, autonomous organisation of migration networks which were able to supply information and practical support at every stage of the process.

A National Tragedy?

The cultural gap between the ‘old’ coalfield communities and the ‘new’ industrial centres was not, in any case, as wide as was often portrayed, but it was also bridged by the collective retention of the distinctive traditions and institutions of the coalfield in the recipient areas. These institutional networks were themselves important factors in the genesis of migration as well as in the success of the exodus itself. Yet Welsh historians have tended to follow the ‘nationalist’ perspective in representing the mass migration as a national tragedy. For example, Kenneth O Morgan, writing in 1981 book Rebirth of a Nation: Wales, 1880-1980, wrote of:

A steady drift … of young people … leaving their native land every year, leaving their closely-knit village communities to work in more impersonal … English factories, and to live in anonymous suburban housing estates instead of back-to-back valley terraces with their neighbourliness. Almost as a acutely as for the migrant who crossed the Atlantic to the United States in the previous century, it was a violent uprooting and cultural shock. But it was invariably and necessarily a permanent one, since, as Thomas Jones observed in a famous lecture, “the exiled natives (‘yr alltudion’ of Welsh folklore) never returned”.

Here the elements of alienation, culture shock and permanent displacement are overstated by Morgan, just as they were by many ‘Cymric-liberals’ at the time. He also overstated the importance of the transference policy in the migration to many English towns and cities, as we shall see in the second case study. In this, he is joined by several historians on the left, for whom it suits their purpose to treat ‘Transference’ and ‘Migration’ as synonymous.

(to be continued…)

Sources:

Please see the second part for a full list. Additionally,

Gwyn A Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Posted January 22, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in Abdication, Agriculture, American History & Politics, anti-Communist, Austerity, Britain, British history, Charity, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Civilization, clannishness, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Communism, Compromise, Conservative Party, Coventry, democracy, Economics, Edward VIII, Egalitarianism, Ethnicity, Family, First World War, George V, Great War, History, Journalism, Labour Party, Leisure, liberalism, Linguistics, Methodism, Migration, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nonconformist Chapels, Paris, Poverty, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Russia, Second World War, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Spanish Civil War, Trade Unionism, Transference, Unemployment, USA, USSR, Utopianism, Victorian, Wales, World War One, World War Two

Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Recovery of the Labour Party & the Left in Britain, 1934-39: Fighting the Right & the Growth of a United Front.   1 comment

The Long & Winding Road to Recovery:

Following the November 1935 General Election, and Attlee’s subsequent election as leader, the Labour Party was firmly back onto the road to recovery. The components of that recovery were many and varied, but they could be summarised as including the following ten ‘key points’:

  • acceptance of the changing nature, or ‘re-making’ of the working classes, from those based on the older extractive and manufacturing industries to those in the newer, lighter engineering industries, including large numbers of women workers;

  • acceptance of the need to put the ‘National Interest’ ahead of sectional ones, whilst still seeking to develop primary policies to benefit the poorer sections of society, especially the unemployed;

  • giving priority to the needs of the working classes for local and national representation rather than promoting revolutionary activism among them;

  • ending narrow sectarianism and developing a willingness to develop socialist ideas in practice, and across a broad front, and in alliance with other groups, rather than on the basis of exclusive ideological principles;

  • developing co-operative and collective means of organising production, distribution and trade by building coalitions of social and economic organisations, including Co-operative Societies;

  • promoting social justice and equity as long-term aims as well as guiding principles for policy-making;

  • upholding the rights of all to the rights of freedom of association and expression, particularly in their participation in trade unions and organisations;

  • upholding the values of the British people, including ‘patriotism’ and the continuing importance of ensuring ‘thrift’ in programmes of public expenditure by ensuring long-term ‘planning’ of essential public services.

  • upholding the institutions of British Democracy, including its constitutional monarchy and the sovereignty of its people through Parliament, based on universal and equal representation.

  • advancing the cause of ‘municipal socialism’ through the development of local parties committed to encouraging a sense of civic pride and the establishment of social services, especially in health, maternity and education, accessible to all.   

These points are not listed in any order of priority but reflect recurring themes in contemporary sources, rather than the current concerns of sectional and sectarian protagonists within the Labour Party. Clearly, however, there are echoes and resonances which affect our interpretations of past principles and priorities. Of course, these interpretations themselves are not necessarily new, as the Thirties were set in mythology before they even ended. Then, in my lifetime, against the background of economic decline under the final Wilson administration in 1977, John Stevenson and Chris Cook published their ground-breaking book, The Slump – society and politics during the depression, which began the process of de-mythologising the period by attempting to separate the myths, potent as they still were in popular consciousness, from the historical realities.

Certainly, the politics of the immediate post-war era were fought on the record of the National Government in the pre-war years.  As late as 1951 the Labour Party campaigned with the election slogan, ‘Ask your Dad!’, an illustration of the way in which the emotive image of the ‘hungry thirties’ had become part of the repertoire of political cliché. The popular view of the 1930s as a period of unrelieved failure was undoubtedly hardened and reinforced in the years after the war; a view which became sharpened against the background of full employment in the 1950s and 1960s.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when that era had clearly come to an end, the ghosts of the thirties stalked political platforms and the media as a symbol of economic disaster, social deprivation and political discontent.

Contrasting Images of the Thirties:

008

Now we have passed the point of ‘No Return to the Thirties’ and the memories of the decade are no longer first-hand fears, perhaps this process will soon be brought to its conclusion and we will no longer be stuck with the powerful and all-pervasive images of ‘the wasted years’ and the ‘low dishonest decade’, even if the Thirties will be forever associated with mass unemployment, hunger marches, appeasement and the rise of Fascism at home and on the continent. A concentration on unemployment and social distress does not represent an accurate portrayal of the decade. It would, of course, be fatuous to suggest that the Thirties were not for many thousands of people a time of great hardship and personal suffering. At the time, there was a thirst for information on which policy to ameliorate, if not cure this malaise could be based, especially in the Labour Party. However, it took the Party two years until the end of 1937 to set up a ‘Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas’, to produce its report and to agree on a course of action at a special conference in December 1937. This is somewhat surprising, considering that the National Government itself had, in the face of already overwhelming political pressure, passed the Special Areas Act in 1934 to take some measures in four distressed regions to help the long-term unemployed. Commissioners had been appointed and departments created, though Whitehall in-fighting and economic orthodoxy hampered their work.

003 (2)003

But alongside the images of the unemployed must be placed those of another Britain, of new industries, prosperous suburbs and a rising standard of living. Some sectors of the economy grew rapidly, particularly car manufacture, electrical engineering, the paper and publishing industries, and rayon production, all industries heavily concentrated in the Midlands. The output of the UK car industry increased from seventy-one thousand vehicles in 1923 to over 390,000 by 1937, by which time Britain was second only to the USA in the export of motor vehicles. The share of the ‘new industries’ in total industrial output rose from seven per cent in 1924 to twenty-one per cent by 1935. As a consequence of these ‘new industries’, the living standards of people who remained in employment actually improved by about sixteen per cent between the wars. Although the new industries were not sufficiently large to reverse the overall trend of economic decline, they were important in minimising the effect of the Depression for the employed, especially through the migration of workers from the older industries to the new. The economic recovery after 1934 which raised the country out of the trough of unemployment and hunger was limited and precarious. As 1936 progressed, it was recognised that, in part, the recovery depended on a rearmament programme which might ultimately involve Britain in another World War.

002

004 (2)004

As can be seen from the maps above, giving an Index of Relative Unemployment, South Wales was hit harder than any other region by unemployment and poverty. Average unemployment there was thirty-one per cent, compared with twenty per cent in Scotland and twelve per cent in England. Within Wales, there were also huge local variations in levels of unemployment, from eighty-two per cent in Taff Wells, seventy-two in Pontycymmer and sixty-six per cent in Merthyr and Abertillery down to those in the coastal towns and areas below the regional average, if not the national one. By the 1930s, Glamorgan and Monmouthshire had the highest proportion of people on poor relief in the UK, apart from Durham. To combat poverty, the National government had passed the Special Areas (Development) Act in 1934 and followed it with the Special Areas Reconstruction (Agreement) Act in 1936, which provided financial incentives to industry to move to the four distressed areas of the UK. Most of Glamorgan and west Monmouthshire became one of the ‘Special Areas’. The other areas were Glasgow-Linlithgow-Kilmarnock, South Shields-Hartlepool, and Workington. A few new industries were established in each of the areas, but the effects were inadequate.

South Wales –  A Region in Need of a Plan:

In South Wales, the social effect of high levels of poverty was devastating. With poverty came malnutrition and disease. The incidence of rickets and scarlet fever soared, and the death rate from tuberculosis was 130 per cent above the average for the UK. Local shops and services became unviable. Chapels found their congregations dwindling as large numbers of people found themselves having to leave their country, moving to the ‘new industries’ of the southeast and Midlands of England.  Some of the migration continued to be ‘planned’ by the Ministry of Labour, which sponsored the transfer of workers. Between 1921 and 1940, over 440,000 left Wales permanently, eighty-five per cent of them from Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. They either left with the majority under their own steam, or on the Ministry’s schemes, but by the late thirties, it was estimated that as many as one in ten of those officially transferred had taken themselves back to their valleys. Therefore, those experiencing some form of migration from Wales in the interwar years may well have been closer to half a million.

007

In July 1934, Professor Marquand of Cardiff University published an article in The Times arguing for state stimulation of investment by means of a Trust for new industries. But he also admitted that it was unlikely that any government whether socialist or capitalist could do little more than tilt the balance very slightly in favour of regions like South Wales. It was therefore important that the transference policy should be stepped up as the revival of industry in England proceeded. This provoked an angry reaction from y Blaid Genedlaethol Cymru (‘The Welsh Nationalist Party’), the only party wholly opposed to transference at this time, although it advocated resettlement of ‘Welsh’ and ‘half-Welsh’ industrial workers in rural or ‘de-industrialised’ Wales, while the pre-1921 ‘English’ immigrants to the Coalfield could be returned to their counties of origin. The Party accused Marquand of looking longingly towards state aid and admitting that it would never be forthcoming and then hoping that England’s recovery would be sufficient to enable the flower of Welsh manhood to be dumped there. But these were voices heard only as crying in the wilderness of the ‘Celtic fringe’, as Wyndham Portal’s 1934 Report showed that the government continued to advocate transference on the largest possible scale. 

The Portal Report and the continuing emphasis placed on transference by the Government’s ‘Special Areas’ machinery, to the deliberate exclusion of any policy designed to attract new industries did, however, meet with a growing tide of protest and disgruntlement at a local and regional level within Wales. The Nationalist arguments that the ‘best elements’ in Welsh society were being ‘shipped off’, that migration was having an anglicising effect greater than that of the BBC and that the National Government was only concerned to ensure that there there was ‘no trouble’ in Wales, began to have a broader appeal among ‘establishment’ liberals and church leaders alike. They began to accept that transference and migration did not discriminate between the ‘alien accretions’ and ‘the old Welsh stock’, between the citizens of Welsh-speaking Rhymney and those of anglicised Abertillery. The statistical evidence bears this out, as the number of those identifying as Welsh-speakers declined from 155,000 in 1921 to just sixty thousand by 1939. These views were strengthened by the resolve with which the new Commissioner for the Special Areas, P. M. Stewart, set about his task in the New Year of 1935. In his first report, Stewart offered a stern rebuff to the growing tide of national feeling in Wales by suggesting that:

… love of home, pride of nationality and local associations, however desirable in themselves, furnish no adequate justification for leading a maimed life.

In the New Year of 1936, the Government’s policy again came under fire, from a more local perspective, when the Report of the Royal Commission on Merthyr Tydfil was published. The Commission’s recommendations were severely criticised in the increasingly influential journal Planning, as providing nothing that would help solve the bankrupt County Borough’s problems. The author of the review saw two alternative solutions. Either the borough should be subjected to a wholesale ‘evacuation’ or there should be a planned reduction in population and equipment with the bringing in of new industries in order to provide decent opportunities for those that remained. Neither was being pursued with any vigour by the Government, but there was one course of action for which no case could be made. That was:

… the course of raising huge sums of money, locally and nationally, in order to keep Merthyr on the dole … It is this last course which the Government has so far chosen to pursue.

002

In May, the South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service held a special ‘Conference on Transference’ at the YMCA in Barry. Most of the prominent figures in the Social Service movement in South Wales attended the Conference, including Church leaders and MPs. The young Labour MP for Ebbw Vale (a family scene from where is pictured above), Aneurin Bevan called for an end to the policy, attacking the complacent attitude of the establishment Liberals who had set themselves up as the leadership of the Welsh Nation:

… if the problem was still viewed as complacently as it had been, this would involve the breakdown of a social, institutional and communal life peculiar to Wales. The Welsh Nation had adopted a defeatist attitude towards the policy of transference as the main measure for relief of the Distressed Areas in South Wales, but objection should be taken  as there was neconomic case for continuing to establish industries in the London area rather than the Rhondda.

This was the clearest statement to come from the Labour Left to date, but it was quickly countered by members of the ‘Cymric’ liberal élite at the Conference, who suggested that the valleys of East Monmouthshire had no Welsh institutions or traditions likely to be damaged by large-scale transference, as most of the people were originally immigrants who had not been absorbed into local life … However, the majority view of the conference appears to have been that what had been taking place was ‘expatriation’ rather than ‘repatriation’. Later that summer, the Secretary of the SWMCSS, Elfan Rees developed this theme at another conference in Llandrindod Wells, that of the Welsh School of Social Service, taking issue with the recent comments made by Professor Marquand in his recent short book, South Wales Needs a Plan, that a population largely composed of immigrants or the children of immigrants (had) no very deep roots in the soil … a people without roots may be as ready to move away as rapidly as it moved in. Countering this, Rees argued that:

It is not only the young, it is not only the best, it is also the Welsh who are going … if transference was repatriation it might be a different story – but it is expatriation. It is the people with the roots who are going … the unwillingness to remain idle at home … are the qualities that mark our indigenous population. … if this process of… despoilation goes on, South Wales of tomorrow will be peopled with a race of poverty-stricken aliens saddled with public services they haven’t the money to maintain and social institutions they haven’t the wit to run. Our soul is being destroyed and the key to our history, literature, culture thrown to the four winds.

This division among the left-liberals advocates of ‘Planning’ and the ‘Cymric’ liberal élite helps to explain what Bevan referred to as the ‘complacency’ of ‘The Welsh Nation’ over the policy of transference during the previous eight years. The liberal establishment in the Social Service movement had hoped that it would remove, as they saw it, the ‘alien’ activists typified by A J Cook and others in the Miners’ Federation who had robbed them of the loyalty of the Welsh people. By 1936, they were clearly embarrassed by their newly-formed impression of a large number of people of Welsh origin who were leaving the valleys. Rees and others tended to exaggerate this process (the 1951 Census shows that the proportion of Welsh-speakers remained similar to that of 1931), it is clear that the growing awareness of the indiscriminate nature of migration led them to abandon complicity and complacency in the transference scheme in favour of a more patriotic opposition to it. Marquand himself was critical of this hypocritical and manipulative élite and the nationalist passions of persons who hold safe jobs themselves. The response which his overtly political South Wales Needs a Plan received in official circles and the prominence given to it in the ‘responsible’ press was seen by contemporaries as a measure of the extent of the shift which had taken place in national opinion. The journal Planning commented that, had the book been published three years earlier, it would have stood no chance of being taken seriously, and wryly suggested that Marquand was…

… still young enough to have the satisfaction of knowing that if the ideas he put forward were to go on making headway at their present rate, he would live to see most of them forced upon a reluctant Whitehall and Downing Street by pressure of public opinion.

However, the Commissioner, Malcolm Stewart responded by allocating funds to the National Industrial Development Council of South Wales and Monmouthshire for a ‘Second Industrial Survey’ to be made with Marquand as editor. His team of investigators worked rapidly, publishing the report in three volumes in 1937. As there was little prospect of the revival of the staple industries, the Report suggested that the only alternative to continued mass emigration lay in the diversification of the region’s economy by the introduction of new industries, supported by state action. The establishment of trading estates, like the one already projected for Treforest, near Pontypridd, was seen as a means of ensuring the success of these industries. Thus, by the outbreak of war, the economy of the region was slowly being transformed, a process which was aided by rearmament. However, this grudging shift in Government policy did not take place until the end of a decade of mass unemployment and migration. Neither was the Labour Party very far ahead of the government in producing its policies. Its own Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas, appointed in November 1936 under the direction of Hugh Dalton, was not published until May 1937. Despite the fact that the Commission received evidence from a large number of local parties, Labour groups, women’s sections and trade union branches, the report on South Wales amounted to little more than a précis of Marquand’s survey in the form of a thirty-page pamphlet, the cover page of which is pictured below.

001

The Report echoed the ‘sentiments’ of nationalists and ‘Cymric’ liberals in its statements that ‘the strength of the Welsh communities were being sapped’ and that ‘youngsters’ were ‘being torn away from parental care’. But the overall importance of the slim document lay in its drawing together of the current ‘middle opinion’ thinking and the vogue for ‘planning’ into a coherent set of policies for South Wales as a region. It criticised the work of the Special Areas Reconstruction Association (SARA), established in June 1936, over its bureaucratic and onerous financial provisions. Despite the government’s shift in policy, 1937 was the peak year for the Transference Scheme. Welsh nationalists continued to conduct a forceful campaign, often confronting Welsh-speaking juvenile employment officers whom they accused of being ‘determined to force people out of Wales’ and of adopting ‘a fatalistic acceptance of the inevitability of transference’. But by the end of 1937, the new public consensus had finally succeeded in supplanting transference as the main official response to the problem of mass unemployment in the Special Areas. However, this did not mean an immediate end to the continued exodus of older workers from South Wales, especially since the rearmament boom in the Midland factories was swallowing up more and more labour.

006

Above: Pages from the Labour Party’s Report on South Wales, using Marquand’s surveys. 

The Revolutionary Left & The Radical Right:

The interwar years are frequently regarded as radical ones in political terms, characterised by popular and revolutionary left-wing support for the Labour Party, the growth of the Communist Party, and hunger marches organised and led by the Communists’ organisation for the unemployed, the NUWM. Perhaps it was the genuine fear of the street violence and disorderly protests over the means test which encouraged the vast majority of the electorate to continue to vote Conservative in national elections, most notably in November 1935. In 1935, the Communists remained a small party with about seven thousand members, but each member was, according to Robert Graves and Alan Hodge (in ‘The Long Weekend’, 1940), an extremely active centre of agitation and … adept at giving a Marxist turn to every discussable topic. The Daily Worker had doubled its size and greatly increased its circulation. In addition, between 1935 and 1937 nearly a million copies of the Communists’ pamphlets and leaflets were sold. Graves and Hodge summed up the commitment required to be a Communist:

To belong to the party meant devoting one’s time and money so whole-heartedly to the cause and having one’s political and social history so carefully investigated that very few sympathisers with the Communist position either desired to join the ‘corps d’élite’ of the party or would have been accepted had they offered.

The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936 and was at once acknowledged as a show-down between the Left and the Right in Europe. The passionate cry from Madrid in response to the fascist revolt, it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees reverberated throughout the Labour left. While Bevin, Citrine and Dalton won the TUC in September 1936 for the Eden-Baldwin policy of non-intervention, informal discussions were being held by Cripps, Pollitt and William Mellors on the possibility of united action in support of the Spanish Republic. Earlier that summer Victor Gollancz, Harold Laski and John Strachey had launched the spectacularly successful ‘Left Book Club’, preparing the ground for a ‘Popular Front’ spanning the ‘Labour Left’ and the Communists, the latter by then having abandoned their bitterly sectarian ‘Class Against Class’ policy.

A volunteer ‘International Brigade’ arrived quite early in the conflict, including 2,762 British volunteers, 543 of whom died in Spain. Most of the British popular press was on the whole for the Republicans, but for the Conservative newspapers, they were always the ‘Reds’ or ‘the Communists’. To many people of René Cutforth’s generation, the war remained the most significant and deeply felt experience of their lives, little remembered, or read about, by today’s ‘soft’ Communists on the ‘hard Left’ of the Labour Party. Cutforth’s observation was particularly true of the mostly middle-class associates of the Thirties’ intellectuals, many of whom, like George Orwell, went to fight for the Republicans.  In Britain, communication across the class divide was almost impossible, but in Spain, some were able to achieve this. It was quite easy to dodge the non-interventionist authorities as the arrangements were mostly controlled through the CPGB, and once the volunteer presented himself at the recruiting office, he could be on his way into battle within a few hours. But, as Cutforth commented:

… the feelings which drove the Spaniards to massacre each other in droves turned out to have little or no bearing on those which had inspired the idealism of the British Left, most of which was derived from the protestant Christian conscience. … That the public school ethics of fair play and esprit de corps had played a large part in the formation of the minds which launched the Thirties movement is obvious from their works, and the British Labour movement always owed more to Methodism than to Marx.

This conscience-pricking idealism was utterly alien to the Spaniards fighting their private war. … their motives were personal, local, regional and sectarian. Communists had no hesitation in shooting Anarchists to gain control of a local situation. …

The foreign comrades were slow to realise that … the Asturias and Catalonia were not divisions like English counties, but furiously jealous little nations. … hundreds of thousands died by execution on both sides. … This … applied even to men obstensibly on the same side – ‘Trotskyite traitor’ was a common verdict. It was the sight and sound of these daily mass-executions which revolted the civilised Western participants. Was this the Revolution they had willed? Was there any real connection between this vindictive bloody mess and the social justice to which they were committed? 

But most of the British soldiers of the International Brigade were not socialist or communist intellectuals, but autodidactic workers, many of them unemployed miners from South Wales, some of whom I had the privilege of walking alongside in protest against the returning mass unemployment of the early eighties. Their convictions had been built in over generations of deprivation and years of survival underground had made them tough and fearless. Added to this, long-term unemployment had prepared them for the necessary privations of war, even if they were too young to have fought in the trenches like their fathers. To demonstrate their non-sectarian commitment to the cause, one of the two British contingents was named after the mild-mannered former soldier, Major Attlee. When most of the volunteers returned home in the spring of 1937, as the Germans and Italians moved in to support Franco’s side, they and the British Left, in general, redoubled their efforts to rally support for the Republicans in raising funds and producing propaganda. The survivors had had a short, but tough war. Twenty per cent of the entire British force were wounded, and more than three-quarters of the survivors had been wounded. By the time they disembarked from the ferry, the Civil War was already beginning to look like the ‘dress rehearsal’ for something much worse in the Great Confrontation between Good and Evil.

004

While the International Brigade volunteers had been on the front line against fascism, Spain had already become the catalyst that brought a greater degree of united action within the organised labour movement in Britain, than any other political issue of the Thirties. As Michael Foot later reflected:

Spain cut the knot of emotional and intellectual contradictions in which the left had been entangled ever since Hitler came to power. Suddenly the claims of international law, class solidarity and the desire to win the Soviet Union as an ally fitted into the same strategy.

001

Above: Oswald Mosley. leader of the British Union of Fascists, with his ‘blackshirts’.

It was not just the growth in extremism on the Left which alarmed many, but the emergence of radical right-wing groups during the second half of the 1930s. These consisted largely of disaffected Conservatives who demanded a renewed emphasis on imperial unity and tariffs to protect British industry, while at the same time rejecting parliamentary democracy. The financial crisis of 1931 was seen as proof of the failings of the policies of the established political parties. The most notorious of the right-wing groups was the British Union of Fascists established by Oswald Mosley on 1 October 1932. Mosley had been a junior member of Ramsay MacDonald’s 1929-31 Labour Government, rising to the position of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, one of the four ministers charged with solving the problem of unemployment. His colleagues were J H Thomas, Minister for Employment, who had the primary responsibility, George Lansbury and Tom Johnston. Mosley had a clear and practical policy but was totally frustrated by Thomas who had little grasp of the intricacies of economics. Mosley thought him ‘a drunken clown’ and treated him with aristocratic contempt, but he had been unable to convince MacDonald to sack the incompetent minister because, as the former national officer of the NUR, he had strong trade union support and influence within the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Sir Oswald Mosley, baronet, had arrived in the Party via Winchester, Sandhurst, the Harrow Conservative Association and Cliveden so that his rapid rise in the MacDonald hierarchy after 1924 was regarded with suspicion and resented by many of his colleagues. Mosley resigned from the Labour Government in May 1931 when his radical solution to the unemployment problem was rejected by both the Cabinet and the House of Commons. At that stage, both he and John Strachey were both seen as being on the radical left of the Labour Party. Mosley left it to publish his proposals as The Mosley Manifesto, signed by seventeen supporters including Aneurin Bevan and A. J. Cook, the Miners’ leader, along with Strachey and others.

‘They Shall Not Pass’ – Resisting the ‘Blackshirts’:

Mosley formed the ‘New Party’ and was joined by three other MPs, but when this fell apart, they parted ways with Mosley migrating to the authoritarian Right and founding the BUF complete with Nazi-style regalia. His storm troopers were his ‘Blackshirts’, the élite of them housed in barracks at Chelsea, complete with parade ground. Much of his funding came from Lord Nuffield, the founder of the Morris Motor Company, and other wealthy industrialists for some years to come. Lord Rothermere, the newspaper magnate, was a staunch protagonist for Mosley and on 15 January 1934, his Daily Mail appeared with the headline, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’.

002

Above: Anti-Fascists in Limehouse, London. Wherever Fascism was strong, as it was in East London, anti-Fascists were also very strong and could be violent. While Limehouse had a significant fascist vote (see the text below), it was still the safe seat of Labour leader Clement Attlee.

Mosley held military-style rallies, miniature Nuremberg, at which he could posture as a ‘British Führer’. They were also the scenes of mass opposition from the Communists and later, the ‘United Front’. In 1934, at the peak of British Fascist strength, Mosley led three big rallies, at the Albert Hall, Hyde Park and Olympia. At the Olympia rally the blackshirts, anxious to demonstrate their efficiency as storm troopers shocked the nation with the violence of their attacks upon protesters within the hall. The Times reported the next day ( June) on the methods used:

The Fascist meeting at Olympia last night suffered from continuous interruptions, and the interrupters suffered heavily at the hands of the blackshirted stewards, male and female. … It proceeded easily for the first ten minutes before the Socialists made their first move. 

… It was countered with … a uniformity of treatment which suggested a prescribed technique of violence. Stewards at once made for the offenders. If they resisted ejection the incident at once became an affair of fisticuffs and, if the victim remained standing in the end of his resistance, he was seized ju-jitsu fashion and dragged out. Quite a number were borne out limp bodies after the frays. …

… The speech was suspended at every display of force. When it resumed it improved with a brief homily on the need of Fascist methods to preserve free speech and on the British people having become accustomed to ‘red violence’ over a period of years.

It was a strangely mixed audience … people of middle-age who wore neither black shirt nor badge; people with a tired expression of eye and wrinkled brows; some of the people who bore the strain of war and the cost of peace. 

Olympia set the pattern for all of Mosley’s meetings. When the hall had filled the doors were locked and the speeches began. There was a spotlight worked from the platform and if any heckler interrupted, or even if anyone rose from their seat, they would be caught in the spotlight and as they stood there blinded and helpless a squad of ‘biff boys’ would move and give them a savage beating up in view of the audience, before turning the offender out of the hall. As René Cutforth commented, the audience simply sat there as if mesmerised by the thuggery taking place in front of them:

It was an age addicted to psychological explanations, but I never heard the nature of Mosley’s audiences satisfactorily explained. Who were these people who submitted themselves night after night to this exhibition of terrorism and tyranny? They looked middle-aged on the whole and seemed to be enveloped in general and political apathy, yet they kept on coming. Mosley was never short of an audience.

In 1936, about 330,000 Jewish people lived in Britain, less than one per cent of the total population. The East End of London was home to between a half and one-third of them, mostly concentrated into a densely-populated area centred on Brick Lane, so it was a particular target for Mosley and his thugs. He was stirring up racial antagonism in this impoverished area by blaming the Jews for the high rates of unemployment, rent increases and poor wages. During the Slump, it had suffered particularly badly and was a pocket of poverty as bad as anything in the distressed areas of South Wales and the North of England, full of slums, filth and futility. Mosley’s Fascists took full advantage of the general restlessness created by the hunger marches and demonstrations against the means test. They stepped up their parades until the East End felt it was being invaded almost every night. They always marched with a heavy guard of police, who seemed to be as much part of their parade as their own ‘biff boys’. The East End, with its large Jewish community, became the chief battleground of the opposing factions and parties. But there had been ‘skirmishes’ with the BUF at a number of regional rallies. On 12 July six blackshirts at one rally were knocked unconscious by men wielding iron bars. Mosley’s car window was shattered by a bullet as he drove away. At other meetings across the country, anti-Fascists pelted the rally-goers with bricks and stones. and many were injured. At a rally outside Leeds on 27 September, attended by thirty thousand people, Mosley was showered with missiles.

Many of the Jews living in the East End were second-generation, the children of parents who had been forced to flee the pogroms of Eastern Europe for the sanctuary of Britain. Most of the older generation spoke only Yiddish and lived in an enclosed community of crowded tenements, synagogues, baths and kosher butchers. They tended to work in the clothing and furniture trades. They were an obvious target for the Jew-baiters of the BUF, who regularly smashed the windows of Jewish grocery shops, chalked anti-Semitic graffiti on walls and shouted racist insults during street meetings and as they marched through Jewish areas, such as The Yids, the Yids, We’ve got to get rid of the Yids! In the summer of 1936, the more abusive the blackshirts became, the more the police appeared to protect them from their victims. In September there was particular anger in the East End over two incidents. Fascist thugs threw a Jewish boy through a plate-glass window, blinding him. Later, a further horror occurred when a Jewish girl was caught and strapped to an advertisement hoarding in the attitude of the crucifixion. Neither incident led to a prosecution.

Young Jews did not take these attacks with the forbearance of many of their parents and the official bodies that represented them. They wanted to fight back. Even though they were British-born and British-educated, young Jews felt alienated and stigmatised by the anti-Semitism that flourished in British society. Many became Communists, seeing the party as the most vigorous opponent of Fascism. Others joined the Labour Party, although it was much less active in the fight, contrary to the current mythology of a Labour Left riddled with anti-Semitism itself. Others formed their own self-defence groups or ‘street gangs’. At this time, the anti-Semitic outbursts of the Fascists were reaching a climax, and large numbers of people came onto their streets to protest against the BUF’s overtly racist abuse, and there were scenes of mass opposition from the Communists and later, ‘the United Front’.

‘The Battle of Cable Street’:

When the BUF announced that it would stage a mass march through East London to celebrate its fourth anniversary on Sunday 4 October, a coalition formed to confront Mosley. The battle lines were drawn up, leading to the riots in Stepney which became known, famously, as the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ (see the photos below). The prospect of Mosley’s major demonstration, with all the inevitable resistance and ensuing violence, led many to call for it to be banned. Labour MPs and the mayors of London’s boroughs pleaded with the Home Secretary to halt the march. A petition of a hundred thousand signatures was presented to him, but to no avail.

005

Mosley had planned the route of the provocative military march of his uniformed racists to go right through the heart of Whitechapel. The coalition of Communists,’ leftists’ and young Jewish activists set to work organising the opposition. The older generation in the Jewish community was dead-set against them. The Jewish Board of Deputies urged people to stay away. The Jewish Chronicle told readers in the East End to remain indoors and pull down the shutters. But their advice was ignored. The leaders of the Jewish community had lost control of their people. Labour too urged its members to keep off the streets; the Labour-supporting newspaper, The Daily Herald argued with typical pusillanimity that the best way to defeat Fascism was to ignore it. Even the Communist Party at first kept quiet. No official body wanted to be seen encouraging action that would inevitably lead to violence and law-breaking. For most, taking to the streets to stop Mosley’s march was a spontaneous expression of hatred of Fascism. Moseley was not the only public figure to completely underestimate the extent of the determined and deeply-felt opposition to his creed of hate and more than two hundred thousand Londoners, Jews and Gentiles, rallied under the Spanish anti-fascist slogan, They shall not pass! Spain was the constant refrain. For Charles Goodman, an East End Jew who was not a member of the CPGB, it was the motivating factor:

… it was not a question of a punch-up between the Jews and the fascists … in my case it meant the continuation of the struggle in Spain.

Those planning to take part in the counter-demonstration were by no means all Jews or Communists. The bleak turn of events abroad was a mobilising force for thousands with a left-liberal view of the world, whatever their ethnicity or party affiliation, and halting Mosley in the East End had a wider significance, as Harold Smith, an eighteen-year-old office worker and activist at the time, later recalled:

We were young, enthusiastic, Spain was on, Hitler was on the march, it was a British contribution to stop Fascism.

Two East End Communists, Joe Jacobs and Phil Piratin planned the unofficial fightback. A week before the demonstration, the latter arranged a meeting at his house in Stepney for a group of ‘Aryan-looking’ members of the CPGB, who would be able to pass themselves off as Fascists during the march and keep an eye out for any changes to the planned route of the march. In the early afternoon of 4 October a young medical student, Hugh Faulkner, dressed as a doctor and with an empty medical bag, joined the blackshirt demonstration at the Tower of London. He was allowed through the rows of police:

I found myself in the middle of the Fascists and caught sight of a member who worked in my hospital. On the spur of the moment I said “I’ve finally made up my mind. I want to come in with you”. He was such a clot he immediately accepted this … he was absolutely delighted and almost immediately showed me a duplicate sign of the route.

Armed with this latest intelligence, Faulkner ran off to telephone the plan of the march to Piratin and his fellow organisers. Meanwhile, vast crowds had assembled, ready to do battle with the Fascists. They had already built barricades while the blackshirts were being held up by police. The Cable Street riot was not a battle between the blackshirt supporters of Oswald Mosley and his opponents; it was a battle between the police and the anti-Fascists. When Harold Smith arrived at Gardiner’s  Corner at mid-day, where Piratin had placed trams to block the entrance to Commercial Road, he found a sea of people, ‘like the Cup Final’ he said. By then an estimated 310,000 people had turned up to stop the Fascists marching through. Although Communists under Phil Piratin had been the principal organisers of the opposition, it was not a Communist counter-demonstration. In 1936, the Party had only eleven thousand members. But the Party had been able to organise far greater support across a wide cross-section of British society. The police set to work to clear a path through the counter-demonstrators so that the blackshirts could gain access to Commercial Road, down which they had planned to march. They used a combination of brute force and mounted police charges. People everywhere were bleeding from head wounds inflicted by batons and staves. After several charges and forays, it became obvious to Sir Philip Game, the Police Commissioner, that there was no way that Mosley’s men and women could pass through to Commercial Road, ‘short of mayhem and murder’, so he decided on an alternative route, via Cable Street.

005

Thanks to Hugh Faulkner’s intelligence, Piratin quickly became aware of the switch and ordered his ‘flying squads’. As its name suggests, it was close to the docks and lined with ships’ chandlers, lock-ups and warehouses. They were full of carts and heavy equipment which made perfect materials for barricades. As at Gardiner’s Corner, the mounted charges were unable to make headway, and the women in the tenement buildings began throwing everything they could lay their hands on down on the police, forcing them to retreat and, after taking shelter in the lock-ups, to surrender. The demonstrators took their helmets and truncheons and told them to ‘shove off!’ More than a hundred were wounded in the riot, and eighty-three anti-Fascists were arrested. The next day, many of them were sentenced, like Charlie Goodman, to four months’ hard labour. At about six in the evening, the news came through that the march through the East End had been cancelled on the orders of the Police Commissioner, after consulting with the Home Secretary. The demonstrators were elated, while there was despair among Mosley’s followers. They had waited with their ‘Leader’ for almost six hours, ‘kettled’ by the police in Royal Mint Street. The setback was significant, not simply because the march had been stopped, but because of the violence which it triggered.

For the left, by contrast, the Battle of Cable Street was a tremendous victory. The three thousand blackshirts did not pass, as the anti-Fascist demonstrators prevented the police from ushering Mosley’s ‘stormtroopers’ through the East End, a victory which proved a decisive blow from which the British fascists never recovered. It brought together, at least for the following year, a fractured movement that had long been divided on sectarian and ideological grounds on the major issues of the day. It also united people from different ethnic and religious groups and across classes. One of the leaders of the ‘resistance’ recalled that the most amazing thing was to see a silk-coated religious Orthodox Jew standing next to an Irish docker with a grappling iron. A number of men, like Frank Lesser, took such pride in having stopped the Fascist march that they were motivated to volunteer to fight Franco:

It seemed to me that the fight against Fascism had to be fought in England, it had to be fought, and I went to fight it a year later in Spain too. 

The Downing Street Declaration & the Public Order Act:

In the aftermath of the events on Cable Street, the Cabinet met on Wednesday 14 October, with the disturbances at the top of the agenda together with the marches and protests of the unemployed which were happening at the same time. It was not only the disciplined ‘Crusade’ of the men from Jarrow which concerned the ministers. Two other marches were heading through the capital at the same time. One of these was a three-pronged demonstration led by the NUWM against the means test. The prospect of more revolutionaries fighting on the streets of London with the police after the debacle of the previous week in Stepney was more than the politicians could stomach. Some form of action was needed, but it was unclear what the government could do to stop the marches. Stanley Baldwin had recovered enough from a two-month illness to chair the meeting and called on Sir John Simon, the Home Secretary, to report on the situation in general and specifically on Cable Street.

Two days earlier, eight days after the riot, the steely-cold Sir John had produced a Memorandum for the Cabinet that showed the degree of concern that he and his colleagues felt. They had faced an almost complete breakdown of law and order on the streets of the capital. The police had been unable to control the demonstration, nor had the Fascists been able to march, as was their right. More clashes were likely as Communists, buoyed up by success, took to the streets again to prevent further Mosley rallies. and demonstrations. The stopping of the march at Cable Street was a blatant denial of free speech to the BUF, as well as a victory over the legitimate authorities. As Mosley complained:

We were prevented from doing what we had done before, marching through London where we had tremendous support and would certainly have won a parliamentary seat.

Then he told his colleagues that nothing should be done to prevent orderly bands of demonstrators marching where they planned. Perhaps surprisingly, however, those who had stopped the BUF in its tracks and beaten back the police were not the object of Simon’s wrath. Instead, he singled out Mosley and his blackshirts for their provocative behaviour and drew attention to their uniform. There was something essentially un-British about a political party dressing up and strutting around in military-style. The Home Secretary spoke of the intense resentment that it caused in the country at large, with the assumption of authority by a private army. That was bad enough, but what was worse was Mosley’s aping the anti-democratic régimes of Europe, where the wearing of black or brown uniforms led to the overthrow of popular liberties … Sir Oswald makes no secret of his desire to follow the German and Italian examples. Simon told the Cabinet that the men and women who dressed as blackshirts looked much smarter than when wearing their everyday clothes. He thought this added to the appeal of the Fascists among poorer people. There was only one solution: uniforms had to be banned.

He also suggested that, on the subject of ‘hunger marches’, action be taken to minimise the risk of violence and that the newspapers should be made aware of the futility of these marches. Baldwin agreed that selected journalists should be briefed so as to counter the favourable publicity given to the marchers and that no ministers would meet any deputations of marchers. Clearly, the ‘nightmare’ on Cable Street was, in part, what led the government to take its hard-line over the presentation of the Jarrow petition. However, the Labour Party conference’s decision not to back the Crusade made it easier for the government, and the ‘Downing Street Declaration’ echoed the speeches which questioned the desirability of getting ill-fed men to march.

Banning uniforms was just one of several measures needed to deal with the disturbances, Simon said. He also threw in a restriction of liberty. He told the Cabinet that the onward thrust of modernity had made the police’s job impossible. Thousands of people could now be summoned at short notice by radio and newspaper., they could travel quickly by public transport, and they could be harangued by demagogues using microphones and loudspeakers. These developments, combined with ‘the European crisis’ and the hysterical fear that an anti-Jew agitation might gain the mastery in this country, meant that the authorities had to have the right to be able to stop demonstrations in future if they feared they might lead to disorder. The Cabinet agreed.

Despite the limitations on freedom of speech, a bill went before Parliament less than a month later. But to the Cabinet’s frustration, the legislation giving the police powers to ban demonstrations was weeks away from enactment. The government restricted BUF activities by enacting The Public Order Act banning political uniforms and allowing the police to ban marches for three-month periods. A coalition of all sides of the Commons came together to stop Mosley, united in hatred of the blackshirt as a political tool, and in loathing of his politics. It was a thoroughly partial piece of legislation in the first instance. Its practical purpose may have been to prevent the recurrence of violence on the scale of the Battle of Cable Street, but its political effect was to cripple the BUF. Denied their uniforms, prevented from marching purely at the discretion of local police, their extra-parliamentary party went into sharp decline. Mosley had few friends at Westminster and he claimed that the British Government had surrendered to red terror.

This forced the BUF back to using more conventional and constitutional political methods. Electorally, they had some local success in the East End. Although the BUF gained support in Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds, the East End remained its heartland.  In the London County Council elections of March 1937, the BUF won twenty-three per cent of the vote in North-East Bethnal Green, nineteen per cent in Stepney (Limehouse in Clement Attlee’s constituency) and fourteen per cent in Shoreditch. Nonetheless, the fascists failed to win more widespread support. BUF membership (as far as we can tell) rose from seventeen thousand in early 1934 to between forty and fifty thousand by July, organised in four hundred branches. After dropping from that peak to five thousand within a year, it recovered to 15,500 during 1936, reaching 22,500 by the outbreak of war. More generally, the fascists were unable to win parliamentary seats, not even in East London, despite Mosley’s certain declarations that they would. The BUF had no doctrines except jingoism, a professed love of the British flag and the Royal Family, and hatred of Jews and Communists.

In any case, the voting system worked in favour of the two dominant parties. The Conservative Party remained attractive to the middle classes and the BUF was unable to compete with Labour and the trade unions for the support of the unemployed. As the economy improved in the 1930s, the attraction of a political alternative diminished. The Communists and the Fascists met and fought from time to time, but the habit never became a public menace as it had been in Berlin in the Thirties where it was extremely easy for anyone to be caught up in some skirmish between Nazis and Communists and be beaten up or, quite often, never heard of again.

Below: A press picture from ‘The Daily Worker’  of a great united anti-fascist protest in Trafalgar Square in 1937. Mosley and his followers are seen giving the Nazi salute, their demonstration ringed by a great phalanx of anti-fascists, their clenched fists raised in the salute of the ‘United Front’. Interestingly, despite the hatred, each side nurtured for each other, a single line of policemen was all that separated the opponents and the protest passed without violence, Mosley’s speech being drowned out by the mass singing of ‘The Internationale’ and ‘The Red Flag’.  The demonstrators then kept up a continual barrage of anti-fascist slogans.  

006

Below: A counter-rally organised by the BUF in Bermondsey in 1938. May Day was traditionally a Socialist festival. The Fascist salute, taken very seriously by the party, was regarded as richly comic by most of the public. 

A Popular Front – Parliamentary Politics & Protest:

In January 1937, the first issue of Tribune was published, its controlling board including Bevan, Cripps, Laski, H N Brailsford and Ellen Wilkinson. Later that month the United Campaign was launched at a great meeting at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Stafford Cripps, James Maxton and Harry Pollitt appeared on the platform, and Nye Bevan, Tom Mann, Willie Gallacher and Fenner Brockway were among the principal signatories to the manifesto. As the non-interventionist right-wing fought back, the United Front packed meeting after meeting with thousands of Labour, ILP, Socialist League, Communist and trade union supporters, organising practical aid for their Spanish comrades with devoted intensity. Eventually, the Popular Front won wide acceptance, with David Lloyd George and Harry Pollitt sharing a platform and Clement Attlee visiting the remaining International Brigade soldiers in Spain.

From its outset, the Spanish Civil War had absorbed the attention of the international community. It served as a kind of litmus test for whether democracy would survive or Fascism would triumph. In 1938, the outcome of this ideological conflict was more unsure than ever. The official line of the powers, sanctioned by the League of Nations, remained one of non-intervention, a policy willfully ignored by Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union. The extreme polarisation of political forces inside Spain, together with the active intervention of Italy and Germany on behalf of the insurgents and the Soviet Union supposedly championing the cause of the Left, turned the Spanish Civil War into the ideological cause célebre of the late 1930s. Conscious that the conflict accentuated the division of Europe into Left and Right, the National Labour MP, Harold Nicolson inclined towards a more robust anti-Franco line in the belief that the government had been ‘weak and confused over the Spanish question’. At a dinner party, he told Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, that he wanted ‘the Reds to win’. The destruction of Guernica, the ancient Basque capital, on 26 April 1937 by bombers of the German Kondor Legion had reinforced his feelings. He wrote to his wife Vita …

… I do so loathe this war. I really feel that barbarism is creeping over the earth again and that mankind is going backward.

At the end of February 1938, Anthony Eden resigned as Foreign Secretary, ostensibly over Chamberlain’s precipitate and inept handling of Anglo-Italian relations. As a National Labour MP, there was nothing Harold Nicolson could do about the doleful events in Germany, but Eden’s resignation affected him deeply. He had loyally upheld Eden’s handling of British foreign policy, and did not want to become ‘one of Winston’s brigade’. But he had come to the unavoidable conclusion that ‘National Labour’ had ceased to exist as a separate entity. Nicolson was determined to defend Eden, whose resignation speech, muddled and indecisive, had not gone down well. The Foreign Secretary, he revealed to the restless MPs, had resigned not over ‘a little point of procedure’, but on ‘a great question of principle’. He lashed into Italy, …

… a country which has continuously, consistently, deliberately and without apology, violated every engagement into which she has ever entered … our great principles of policy … the rule of law , the theory of the League of Nations, the belief in the sanctity of treaties … butchered to make a Roman holiday.

His speech was warmly received by other critics of Chamberlain’s government, including Lloyd George and Churchill. Supporters of the government thought it damaging to ‘the cause of peace’. But Nicolson had no doubt that Chamberlain was blindly leading the country into a political and diplomatic minefield:

 … their policy is nothing less than the scrapping of the ideas which have been built up since the war and the reversion to the old pre-war policy of power politics and bargaining. This means: (1) that we shall have to buy the friendship of Italy and Germany by making sacrifices. (2) That this frienship will not be worth tuppence once is is bought. And (3) that in doing so we shall sacrifice the confidence of France, Russia, the United States and all the smaller countries.

For many, ‘Tricky Chamberlain’ no longer inspired trust, but nor did the National Labour Party that had behaved like worms and kissed the Chamberlain boot with a resounding smack. But the die-hard Tories were jubilant at having flushed out all the nonsensical notions of the past and having got back the good old Tory doctrines. Nicolson’s pessimism intensified when, on 12 March, German forces crossed into Austria and Hitler proclaimed the Anschluss. Although he still sat on the government benches, he emerged as a leading critic of the government’s foreign policy, claiming that we are going to let Germany become so powerful that she will begin to dictate to us. The Anschluss passed off to whispers of protest, but Spain remained a burning issue. Four days after Hitler’s coup, with Franco’s troops on the offensive, Nicolson spoke out forcefully on the issue. He began by expressing his ‘deepest sympathy’ with the Spanish government and his ‘deepest hatred’ for Franco. A Franco victory, he pointed out, would gravely menace Britain’s interests and security. A free Spain, he stressed, had traditionally been of immense strategic advantage to Britain.

007

Above: A snapshot from a woman Labour Party member of another anti-fascist gathering at Belle Vue, Manchester, early in 1938, showing women Labour Party members, Margaret Whalley and Mary Eckersley, waiting to attend the United Front rally.

May Day 1938 was one of the largest since 1926 and the message was ‘Spain above all’. Herbert Morrison spoke from the Labour platform, reminding his audience of the heroic Spanish people and their fight against foreign invasion. Hammersmith Labour Party carried a banner announcing that it had collected five hundred pounds to send an ambulance to Spain and West London engineers paraded a motorcycle of the type they had sent. Everywhere in the procession were the tricolour flags of the Spanish Republic, and a red banner proclaimed, Spain’s fight is our fight. Tens of thousands assembled at the eight platforms in Hyde Park to hear speakers from every section of the labour movement call for arms for Spain and the end of the Chamberlain government. As the long column of marchers entered the park, the loudest cheers came for the wounded members of the International Brigade, closely followed by a group of women of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee (pictured below), dressed in nurses’ uniforms, collecting to buy milk for Spanish children.

004

Parliamentary Opposition to Appeasement:

In the view of Harold Nicolson, Neville Chamberlain was an ‘ironmonger’ who had no conception… of world politics and was quite unsuited to the task of concluding a successful negotiation with Hitler at Berchtesgaden in September 1938. It soon became apparent that Chamberlain, who didn’t care two hoots whether the Sudetans were in the Reich or out of it, had brought back sn agreement that, in principle, ceded to Germany the Sudeten German areas, provided the cession be achieved peacefully. Anglo-French pressure mounted on the Czechs to accept this arrangement.  At one stage, ‘Baffy’ Dugdale, a National Labourite and member of the Executive of the League of Nations Union, rang up Harold to tell him that she had been sick twice in the night over England’s shame’, and had thrown up again after having read in The Times that the terms submitted to the Czechoslovak Government could not … be expected to make a strong ‘prima facie’ appeal to them. Thereupon, she had resigned from the Party. Nicolson himself penned a note of protest to ‘Buck’ De La Warr about National Labour’s refusal to speak out on the issue: He would consider his position.

Chamberlain returned empty-handed from the second round of talks held at Bad Godesberg on 22-23 September, but he was given a ‘blank cheque’ from public opinion for his peace efforts. Nicolson told Churchill that the international situation would bring about the end of the British Empire. They discussed tactics should Chamberlain decide to ‘rat again’. They agreed to press for a Coalition Government and the immediate application of war measures since war seemed imminent.  On 28 September, the House of Commons convened to hear the PM clarify the chain of events leading to the crisis. As he entered the Chamber he was greeted by shouts of applause from his supporters, many of whom rose in their seats and waved their order papers. The opposition remained seated and silent, as did Harold Nicolson, ostensibly a government supporter. The next day he addressed a meeting of the National Labour group in Manchester, hitting out at the Government and its advisors, which rallied the Chamberlainite supporters against him. Matters worsened when he voted against a resolution of the National Labour Executive pledging to support the PM, leading to accusations of ‘dishonourable behaviour’.

The high point of Nicolson’s parliamentary career was his attack on the government’s foreign policy after the Munich agreement. His stand was uncompromising and brought him much credit from the opposition. Hitler, he stated, had three aims: to swallow the Sudeten Germans; to destroy Czechoslovakia and to dominate Europe. We have given him all those three things, he stated. He would have given him the first of these three, as the Sudetenland was not worth a war. But by Chamberlain’s capitulation on this point, a deadly chain reaction had been set off that led, inexorably, to total surrender. He went on:

The essential thing, the thing which we ought to have resisted, the thing which we still ought to resist; the thing which I am afraid it is now too late to resist is the domination of Europe by Germany … this humiliating defeat, this terrible Munich retreat (is) one of the most disastrous episodes that has ever occured in our history. … The tiger is showing his teeth, the cage door is open; the keeper is gone … we have given away the whole key to Europe. … Germany will have the whole of Europe in a stranglehold. …

… I know that that those of us who believe in the traditions of our policy … that the one great function of this country is to maintain moral standards in Europe, to maintain a settled pattern of international relations, not to make friends with people whose conduct is demonstrably evil … but to set up some sort of standard by which the smaller Powers can test what is godd in international conduct and what is not – I know that those who hold such beliefs are accused of possessing the Foreign Office mind. I thank God that I possess the Foreign Office mind.

There were other powerful anti-government speeches, by Churchill and Duff Cooper (the only cabinet member to resign), but they hardly dented the government’s huge majority. By 366 votes to 144, the House declared its confidence in the government’s appeasement policy. Thirty Conservative MPs abstained and thirteen remained in their seats. Nicolson, a National Labour ‘rebel’ was among them. The dominance of the National Government and the fragmentation of the Opposition, confirmed at the General Election of 1935, meant that the case of the rebels was not strengthened by their counter-proposals – increased rearmament, grand coalitions, a revivified League, or claiming the high moral ground. Without a proper Opposition, the Commons was barren of new ideas. Those preoccupied with making British foreign policy, tormented by the memories of the horrors of the Great War, were inclined, also on moral grounds, to satisfy Germany’s ‘legitimate grievances’, above all conscious of Britain’s defensive weaknesses and the French lack of will to fight. Also using the tiger metaphor, the Chiefs of Staff presented the Cabinet with a paper on 23 September that to attempt to take offensive action against Germany … would be to place ourselves in the position of a man who attacks a tiger before he has loaded his gun.

Winter of Discontent – Sit-in at the Ritz:

The fight against unemployment in Britain continued to the end of the decade. By the winter of 1938-39, the NUWM had changed their tactics from national marches and demonstrations to a series of localised stunts aimed at focusing attention to their demands for winter relief. Their three-point programme called for additional winter unemployment payments of two shillings and sixpence per adult and one shilling per child. They also demanded a national scheme of public works at trade union rates of pay and the opportunity to put their case directly to the ministers concerned. The picture below was taken on 20 December 1938, when two hundred unemployed men made their way to Oxford Street, crowded with Christmas shoppers. They stepped off the pavements and laid down in the roadway bringing the heavy traffic to an abrupt halt. The weather was bitterly cold and snow had been falling as the men covered themselves with posters calling for bread, work and winter relief. Two days later, a hundred men strolled into the Grill Room of the Ritz Hotel, seating themselves at the tables laid for dinner. They followed this by capturing the UAB offices and holding an officer prisoner, flying of a banner from the Monument in the City of London and chaining themselves to the railings of labour exchanges.

005

However, in 1939, the threat of war overshadowed domestic problems. Opposition to the ‘appeasement’ policy after the Munich agreement was a lost cause. So too was the League of Nations Union, which was ‘practically dead’ and the National Labour Party was in no better shape. Nicolson devoted his energies to helping refugees from Franco’s Spain and co-operating with Eleanor Rathbone in her work with deprived children in Britain. He also joined the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror and helped the Zionist cause.

001

For the Labour movement as a whole, the war strengthened the commitment of ‘no return to the thirties’ even before the thirties were properly over. As Harold Nicolson motored home from Westminster to Sissinghurst in Kent on 3 September, a convoy of evacuees overtook them. From one of the trucks, an elderly lady accompanying the children leaned out, shook her fist and shouted: it’s all the fault of the rich! Harold commented in his diary:

The Labour Party will be hard put to it to prevent this war degenerating into class warfare.

Sources:

A. J. Chandler (1988), The Re-making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands, c. 1920 – 1940. Cardiff: Unpublished PhD Thesis.

Denys Blakeway (2010), The Last Dance: 1936 – The Year Our Lives Changed. London: John Murray (Publishing).

Norman Rose (2006), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Joanna Bourke (ed.), et.al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbot: David & Charles (Publishers).

Posted January 12, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in anti-Communist, anti-Semitism, asylum seekers, Austria, BBC, Berlin, Britain, British history, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Church, Churchill, Coalfields, Commemoration, Communism, Conservative Party, David Lloyd George, democracy, Economics, emigration, Empire, Ethnicity, Europe, Factories, First World War, France, George VI, Germany, Great War, History, Italy, Jews, Journalism, Labour Party, liberalism, manufacturing, Marxism, Methodism, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, Mythology, Narrative, nationalisation, nationalism, Nationality, Nonconformist Chapels, Paris, Poverty, Refugees, Remembrance, Revolution, Second World War, Security, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Spanish Civil War, Technology, terror, Unemployment, William Morris, Women's History, World War One, World War Two, Zionism

Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Long March of Every Woman: Gender, ‘Community’ & Poverty in British Labour History, 1928-38   2 comments

Chapter One: The Brambles of Poverty in a Distressed Area.

‘Women’s History’ in Britain has too often been viewed through the prism of ‘Great Men’s History’ by emphasising the roles of well-known individuals rather than focusing on the everyday lives of the masses of working-class women and their families. This is sometimes blamed on the lack of sources with which to describe and analyse these lives, but women and women’s experiences and ‘issues’ were by no means overlooked in the social documents of the inter-war period. In fact, given the pace of change in both working-class life in general and the lives of women in particular, which was of particular concern to social investigators, there is a wealth of relatively unused primary source material of both quantitative and qualitative types. At the time, it took almost a decade before their social surveys to break through the fog of denial which emanated from Neville Chamberlain’s Ministry of Health:

Our observations did not disclose any widespread manifestation of impaired health which could be attributed to insufficiency of nourishment. In this view we are confirmed by the opinions of the medical practitioners who have the best opportunities of watching the physical condition of families.

008

Although women had won the vote in 1928 on the same basis as men, the struggle of working-class women for better rights and conditions in the home, at work and in society was, in many respects, still in its infancy. Much was expected from the first majority Labour government which came to power at the beginning of 1929 under the leadership of Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister. The photograph above, taken by Arthur Lovegrove in Reading in 1929, shows a group of women supporters of The Daily Herald, which became an important campaigning mouthpiece for the Labour movement throughout the years of financial crisis and economic depression which followed in the 1930s. The experience of mass unemployment and widespread poverty in Britain reached into all areas of Britain, including relatively prosperous towns such as Reading, but it was in the older industrial areas of South Wales and the North-East of England where it was most protracted, leaving a lasting legacy of bitterness as well as a determination to fight back by the working-class communities located in these ‘distressed’ areas. But though they were particularly dense and piercing in places, the ‘brambles’ of poverty did not grow evenly throughout the depressed coalfields of Britain in the 1930s.  They did not even grow evenly in the same street, in the same terrace, and neither did they ensnare one individual or family in quite the same way or to the same degree as the next. They grew at different rates in differing places. This diversity of growth has much to do with the nature of the places in which they grew.

It is therefore imperative that historians should move away from the contemporary, stereotypical images left behind by propagandists, investigators and politicians and seek out how working-class communities were defining and redefining themselves during the period. It is necessary to examine the intricate cultural and institutional web of coalfield societies before judgement can be made about the relationships between impoverishment and demoralisation. Considerable evidence has already been advanced that, during the early part of the century, coalfield society developed its own autonomous culture alongside the received one, a culture which rejected values that did not stem from the community’s own sense of economic and social solidarity. This alternative culture reached its zenith during the 1926 lock-out, and, despite the impact of the depression, there was tangible continuity in its institutional life over the succeeding decade.

This alternative culture was allied to a revolutionary counter-culture in other parts of Britain, including London, and increasing involved women. The picture below shows The Women’s Red Army marching through East London to Epping Forest, 1928. This is a rare shot of the LLX, the women’s section of the Labour League of Ex-servicemen. The women and some men, about two hundred in all, had assembled at Gardiner’s Corner in the East End and marched through Mile End, Bow and Stratford, held a rousing meeting at Leytonstone and continued onwards to Epping Forest, closely followed by plainclothes officers of the Special Branch.

009

On practising their marching in a forest glade, an urgent message produced the arrival by car of the Commissioner of Police who accused them of performing military movements. Apparently, they succeeded in convincing him that they were only practising their marching in readiness for May Day and the police withdrew, leaving the ‘red army’ to dance on the greensward and make their way back by bus, having been forbidden to march.The uniform was first seen in public on Sunday 11 March 1928 when thirty-five women, led by Mrs J R Campbell, marched into Trafalgar Square for an International Women’s Day meeting and took up a position on the plinth, along with the speakers who included A J Cook, Marjorie Pollitt, Beth Turner and Hanna Ludewig from Germany. The uniform was officially described as a fawn coloured blouse and serviceable short skirt, stockings to match, flat-heeled brown walking shoes, khaki berets, red tie and regulation armbands. An official Communist Party pamphlet described the LLX as having ‘guarded the plinth’ and it would seem that they and the uniformed men drew their inspiration from the Workers’ Guard in Germany where the Red Front Fighters numbered some three hundred thousand.

The picture below shows the Prince of Wales on his extensive tour of the depressed areas in South Wales, Tyneside, Scotland and Lancashire, where he is shown shaking hands with a worker at Middleton. He met families who had been unwaged for years and seemed sincerely and visibly shaken by their plight. He is reported to have said,

Some of the things I see in these gloomy, poverty-stricken areas made me almost ashamed to be an Englishman… isn’t it awful that I can do nothing for them but make them smile?

010

Eight years later, after his accession to the throne, he made his noted second tour of South Wales and witnessed the effects of a decade of ‘the slump’ in the Rhondda and Monmouthshire valleys. After being shown the derelict steelworks at Dowlais, that once provided employment for nine thousand, he uttered the words that are remembered to this day as something must be done to find them work, though others have argued that his words were more direct, and specifically aimed at the government ministers who travelled with him, something will be done.The young MP for Ebbw Vale, Aneurin Bevan, was furious at the whole event, however…

To organise an expedition to Wales as if it were an unknown, barbarous and distant land, much in the same way as you might go the Congo was an outrage.

He said that the king was being used to mask persecution and that Ernest Brown, the Minister of Labour who accompanied the king, was the instrument of that persecution. He declined a suggestion that he should meet Edward VIII at Rhymney, saying:

I cannot associate myself with a visit that would appear to support the notion that private charity has made, or could ever make, a contribution of any value to the solution of the problem of South Wales.

In 1938, the authors of a Review of the decade-long Industrial Transference Scheme (1938) suggested that it was ‘the clan spirit’ found in the depressed areas of South Wales and northern England which continued to represent the major source of political opposition to National Government policy towards them. The Review characterised these areas as small, self-contained communities in which most of the residents are known to each other and cited their geographical position as a major factor in the intensification of ‘parochialism’. Coalfield ‘communities’ were defined in negative terms by politicians and government inquirers; they were no longer ‘real’ communities with a proper social leadership provided by a resident, benevolent middle class. Neither did they any longer serve any useful economic purpose, but were infamous for their industrial militancy before the world war, and for the obduracy of the miners’ leaders in 1926.

Many of the national voluntary agencies shared these negative stereotypes of the coalfield communities, although their social investigators managed to produce, both in print and on film, a generally softer image than the official one, showing far greater sensitivity to their plight without wallowing in sentimentality. Nonetheless, some of them set about their task as if they were embarking on an anthropological expedition, to echo Bevan’s condemnation of Edward VIII’s 1936 tour of South Wales. The editor of the journal Fact, prefacing Philip Massey’s Portrait of a Mining Town, asserted the need for an attempt to survey typical corners of Britain as truthfully and penetratingly as if our investigators had been inspecting an African village. He stated that, like African villages, mining communities are isolated and relatively easy to study and went on to make the dubious assertion that they were so cut off from the neighbouring townships like Cardiff and Newport that in the latter a ‘collier’ was regarded as a sort of strange being. 

Many of the philanthropists of the 1930s used this image of isolation to justify their concept of social service ‘settlements’ in the valleys, as a means by which the ‘outlook’ of the communities might be ‘broadened’. They were attempting to infuse their middle-class notions of ‘citizenship’ of a wider community extending beyond the boundaries of the valley. The Pilgrim Trust Annual Report for 1936 described each valley as being a self-contained community with its own traditions accustomed to leading its own life in isolation from its neighbours. Stereotypes such as these had as much to do with the projection of an image for specific ends as with reflecting the reality of coalfield communities, no matter how sympathetic the process and product of the investigations might appear. Thus Hilda Jennings, the author of the 1934 book, Brynmawr: A Study of a Distressed Area wrote in a similar vein,

The small town or village environment is predominant. Mining communities, often separated from each other by a bleak stretch of moor or mountain, and dependent on one industry, naturally have a distinctive character. Local attachments are strong, family connections widespread, and modes of thought remarkably homogenous. There are few if any wealthy or leisured inhabitants, and the children of teacher, shopkeeper, and miner attend the same elementary and county schools. Men, women, and children, are so intimately known to their fellows that their doings are invested with a personal interest which gives warmth, colour and drama to day-to-day events. The influence of public opinion and local tradition is correspondingly strong.

Hilda Jennings’ book consisted of a detailed, ground-breaking survey of the coalfield towns on the northern, Breconshire edge of the south Wales coalfield. This most ‘untypical’ coalfield community had been stranded like a beached Leviathan by the receding tide of the coal industry well before the miners’ six-month lock-out of 1926 and the ‘slump’ of the late 1920s. Her survey was conducted in co-operation with the Coalfields Distress Committee of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service (SWMCSS). It first led its readers, not into a Miners’ Institute full of unemployed men, but into the bedroom of a terraced collier’s house:

In one of the older streets containing a large proportion of back-to-back houses with very small, airless rooms, little access to sun, and leaking roof and walls oozing with damp as many as seventeen cases (of consumption) were notified from the twenty-nine houses in the street… In one such case one of the two small bedrooms was given up to a dying girl, while the father and mother and six children crowded into the second bedroom and living room (used also as a bedroom). It is not to be wondered at that two other children contracted the disease, and that two out of three infected children died within two years.

This tragic tale needs no literary embellishment and is a narrative which is typical not just of the older mining towns at the heads of the valleys, with their high rates of home-ownership among once-prosperous workers, but across the steam-coal valleys from Nantyglo in Monmouthshire to Neath and the Swansea Valleys. The ‘Brynmawr Experiment’ was started by Quakers but was not run by them. To understand the problems of Brynmawr Peter Scott, with others, decided to have a comprehensive social survey undertaken.  Scott had served since 1926 the Society of Friends as Field Officer for the Society’s relief work in South Wales. In November 1926, Horace Fleming reported to the Society’s Coalfields Distress Committee on the possibilities which the work in the Rhondda had opened up:

It seems clear that the spirit expressed in and being kept vigorous by the mens’ and womens’ groups, is the living root on which an educational movement may be grafted… Being cul-de-sacs, the mental ventilation of the valleys is poor, with the result that the inhabitants are much more self-centred than non-valley dwellers. This movement (the National Council of Labour Colleges) with its condemnation of existing economic conditions and its doctrine of class war, has spread with remarkable rapidity throughout South Wales… To a people who, for generations, have been dependent on the spoken word, the clergy’s failure has meant the demagogue’s gain.  Nor is this surprising, when it is remembered that the only advocacy, with rare exceptions, of a new world heard in these valleys, was that of the Marxist, even though his new world was only to be entered through war… the present defeat is being traced to the theories of the extremists…

Fleming added that this tide of criticism was beginning to undermine the NCLC and that the Quakers could grasp the opportunity to address the educational needs of adults who were conscious of the failings both of the chapels and the communists. There was, he felt, a desire for a more constructive approach than that offered by the NCLC. The strategy proposed was that ‘a fluid movement’ should be built upon the foundations of the existing groups. Such a movement would not be dependent on bricks and mortar but would flow into the Miners’ Institutes and the chapels. A more sympathetic organisation could follow later, but the immediate priority was to provide a fellowship wider than sect, party or class.

The Quakers who settled in Brynmawr eighteen months later had similar concerns. In the summer of 1928, Peter and Lilian Scott, together with a number of other single male and female ‘Friends’ had gone to the Welsh coalfields due to their concern for the unemployed. They had held Quaker meetings for worship standing in groups in the marketplaces and street corners in the towns and villages they visited, starting in Abertillery, trying to give spiritual comfort and fellowship to the people among whom they lodged, the local unemployed, by first getting to know them and their problems. One of the Quaker women remembered the puzzled reaction of local people to their meetings, which appeared to be so different to their own nonconformist religious services, dominated by male preachers, deacons and hymn-singing:

These open air meetings were held under conditions very different from today. There was little wheeled traffic: the few bicycles and carts made very little noise and motor-cars were rarely seen. In every street, but particularly in market squares and on street corners, there were men in typical ‘miners’ squat’, unemployed and with no money for recreation, just talking, or silent.

During the morning the group of Friends would decide where to hold their meetings and would go to perhaps two places to advertise them, one for the afternoon and one for the evening. Advertising was done mainly by chalking the on pavements, with an occasional handbill in some prominent place.

At the time agreed, the group of Friends, usually six or eight,… would gather standing in silence. The men around would watch, unmoving, until someone spoke. Then by ones and twos the men would get up and gather round to hear what we said, and if held by the speaker would move in closer until there was quite a crowd.

The messages given were mainly concerned with the presence of that of God in each of us, of the love of God for us all, and with the love we should bear to one another in all circumstances. These meetings might be illustrated by a gospel reading, a prayer, a story of early Friends, a personal experience: all the things one might expect in any Quaker meeting… at the end of the meeting men would come to one or another to ask questions – why were we doing this and who were we anyway?

Occasionally there was a hostile reaction. On one such occasion the men crowded around threateningly, interrupting the meeting. ‘Who were we to come talking like this? What did we know of unemployment and the conditions under which they were living, why didn’t we do something for them?     

At Brynmawr, the Quakers faced a challenge from trade union leaders and other local people who also told them, You say you want to help us: prove you mean what you say; stay here and do something for us. So that is what they did. Peter went back to Friends’ House in London and said food and clothes were vital, so Joan Fry from the Coalfields Distress Committee went to Brynmawr and later addressed a public meeting at Golders Green. Brynmawr was a good place to start for a project which, from the start, was concerned with the unemployment ‘black-spots’, by contrast with the earlier ‘settlements’ in the Rhondda. The coal seams were nearer the surface on these northern ridges, and the coal on this higher ground had been mined in ‘levels’ for a century and a half so that they were practically worked out. The deeper, more modern mines further down the valleys were still working, albeit on ‘short-time’ and to keep the pits from flooding. However, they had enough labour in the colliery villages close by, so the heads-of-the-valleys towns had higher levels of long-term unemployment. Those in work were mostly bank clerks, ministers of religion, policemen, shopkeepers and teachers.

Peter Scott was a utopian visionary and his experiment, from the start, was of a different nature to that of the Maes-yr-Haf settlement. He was more interested in the social and economic reconstruction of the town than in the concept of an educational settlement. Nevertheless, both projects were species of the same desire, one which they shared with the liberal-Cymricists, of promoting unifying spiritual values above the interests of the working classes. Both experiments opened up important channels of communication into a crisis-ridden society. The Baldwin Government and its civil servants viewed the approach of the winter of 1928-9 with some trepidation. The Mansion House Fund had begun to deal with the immediate need for relief as well as aiding the work of the newly established Industrial Transference Board. However, they also began to realise that longer-term measures were required to deal with the problems of ‘demoralisation’ and their perceptions of the real threat of social disorder. To the middle-class social workers, many of them Quakers or Oxford graduates, ‘demoralisation’ meant not just the psychological effects of impoverishment, but also the extent to which the workless in these communities would espouse ‘desperate remedies’ in response to their condition, and uphold loyalty to ‘class’ above that to a broader ‘community’ and sense of ‘citizenship’.

Later in 1928, Peter and Lilian made their home in Brynmawr, where they were joined by a few others moved by a similar compassion to share in the life of a suffering community.  Disillusioned as so many were at that period with the existing social and economic order and inspired by a Utopian vision, the Scotts concluded that it was just in those areas where the breakdown of the old order was most complete that there lay the greatest opportunity for the creation of a better one. Margaret Wates arrived in Brynmawr from London at the beginning of December 1928, having joined the Society of Friends at the beginning of the year. She was full of youthful enthusiasm and idealistic socialism.

She was put in charge of the Relief & Service Centre as relief was reluctantly regarded by both government and the social service agencies as an unfortunate necessity in the winter of 1928-29. She was supported by local women, most of whom were twice her age. An empty shop in the main street, Beaufort Street, was adapted for the purpose, to which second-hand clothing came pouring in. She recalled that all her local helpers were neatly dressed, not just Mrs Price, the local policeman’s wife, who was regarded as comfortably off, but also the wives of the unemployed miners.  It seemed to her that the Welsh women were more tastefully and neatly dressed than their English counterparts. They would also clean, brush and put away their husbands’ Sunday clothes on Mondays so that they were ready to be worn the following Sunday. Their working clothes also looked cleaner, now they no longer had to go underground. In these ways, married couples were able to keep up a veneer of respectability and to cover up their poverty. She discovered later that they stitched paper together to make extra bedding for themselves.

Margaret was also responsible for placing girls in service, almost the only work available for women at the time. A few men and boys were also placed through Worthing Friends (the town was twinned with Brynmawr through the Mansion House Fund), and other Quakers helped to find employment in other areas, but most of these returned to Brynmawr in the end. Margaret was particularly involved in the work with women, helping organise them into self-help sewing groups in neighbouring places. It was easier for the outside volunteer workers to get hold of premises and get people to work together, as they were trusted not to have an “axe to grind”. They had gifts of material and sewing machines to help these groups establish themselves. She ran a playgroup once a week for the families of the poorest children in the district, who lived in shacks on the hillside. The idea came to her on one of her evening walks “up the mountain” and saw the pathetic settlements, made of bits and pieces. She talked to the women, who struggled to look after their children in sickness, but discovered that they were, in some ways, better off than the unemployed miners with homes to maintain that they couldn’t afford to keep or sell, or rents that they couldn’t afford. The “tent dwellers” at least had a home of their own, however primitive, each with a little fire.

Margaret Wates had a secretary, Marion Richards, who was younger than her, who called her by her Christian name, which was unusual in professional relations at that time but was the kind of relationship that the Quakers wanted to encourage. The local people were very loyal to the local chapels otherwise and showed little interest in meetings for worship or Quaker business methods. Marion Richards was the youngest of a large family whose men were colliers, her father unemployed. They were heavily involved in local politics and she later became a County Councillor. She helped Hilda Jennings with the Survey. Jennings was an Oxford graduate and a well-qualified and tactful social worker as well as an experienced leader of local committees. Although not a Quaker herself, she shared Peter Scott’s outlook on many things, and he gave her a free hand with her work. The book, published in 1934, was subtitled A Study of a Distressed Area and was said to be a classic of its kind. She later became the admired, loved and respected Warden of Bristol University Settlement, where she worked for twenty years.

The survey was different from the other social surveys done by trained social workers, as it was done by local people themselves. All sections of the Brynmawr community took part in this self-study, in order to understand the long-term effects of unemployment on many aspects of the town. There were two hundred volunteers involved in the Survey Committee which became ‘the Community House’, work starting in the attic. It was divided into eight sub-committees dealing with Commerce, Education, Health and Housing, Industry, Municipal Services, Population and Transport. These were led by people with a professional interest in a special area, chosen not elected. However, the Trade Unions and the Labour Party refused to co-operate with the survey, as they felt their dignity and authority had been undermined; they considered themselves to be the truly representative body since they had been elected. Two models of democracy were in open conflict, and it was a conflict which could not be resolved easily. This was, however, more of a loss to both the Urban District Council and the Miners’ Federation than to the survey itself.

Hilda Jennings insisted on using Quaker business methods, refusing to take votes on difficult issues, although this inevitably slowed down the processes of investigation and the overall progress of the survey. She was undaunted in her belief also in the educational value of conducting the survey by these means, helping to develop open-mindedness and raising people above sectional interests, since pooling experience enriched the common life. The community should raise itself to a higher level because it aimed to give the fullest life to everyone. It could and it wished to work with the elected bodies: this would benefit all, and help to create a more inclusive and harmonious society.

The idealism applied to the means by which the survey was conducted is evident in the ends, the text of the survey. The evidence it presents is both quantitative and qualitative, especially when dealing with family life. Although other surveys of the unemployed contain moving references to the lives of women, they tend to regard their roles as secondary, or adjunctive, to those of both employed and unemployed men. In the Brynmawr Survey, full details are given of how the mothers in these families were the first to suffer privation, and so became dispirited, debilitated and apathetic. The school children had free school meals and free milk provided for them, and there was milk given at the infant welfare clinics. But family relationships were strained. The diet was poor, even when the miner was working, and for those unemployed, it mostly consisted of tea, bread and margarine, with some meat and vegetables on Sundays. Men’s health suffered as a result, making them unemployable and destroying their self-respect, so that women would increasingly ‘go without’ in order to maintain these factors in their husbands in particular, but also in their adult sons, if they still lived at home and were unemployed, as was most likely the case in Brynmawr.

It was difficult for miners of any age to settle in other forms of work elsewhere, as they could only become labourers and unskilled factory workers. They were very proud of the crafts of the collier, timberman, fireman, haulier, etc. They were also proud of their dangerous and manly occupation. They resented having to take work as labourers, road-menders and gardeners, even though such work often required great physical strength, if not the same level of skill as that of a collier. Some work was available in the English coalfields after the General Strike, and some Welsh colliers were prepared to uproot their entire family in order to take it, but from the end of 1929, the trade depression took away much of this demand in, for example, the industrial towns of the English Midlands which had been expanding in the 1920s. When relative prosperity returned to these areas in 1934, most of the available jobs were in unskilled engineering, especially in the automotive industries. Some families moved to cities like Oxford, Coventry and Birmingham, but most of those who continued to leave the coalfields were single men, or at least childless. For the older family men, it was often too late.

The Welsh collier also had very strong roots in his locality and in his loyalty to his family and the wider human relationships within solidly working-class communities. Jennings’ Survey revealed this to be nowhere more the case than in Brynmawr. In addition, the climate at the top of the valley meant that the houses were continually damp. The houses were also older than in many colliery villages further down the valleys. Many were over a hundred years old and in a deplorable condition, unable to give protection from the frequent heavy rains and gales. Walls oozed with damp so that rheumatism, influenza and bronchitis were common complaints. There were 93 back-to-back houses of which there were seventeen cases of tuberculosis in 29 houses. Some unemployed families took lodgers in order to boost family income, but, as most houses had only two bedrooms, this created overcrowding, despite there being a large number of empty houses in the town which their owners couldn’t afford to sell or let.

One Brynmawr volunteer remembered visiting a house near the town centre with the living room, as was traditional, opening directly off the street: it had a tea-chest as a table and some boxes to sit on and was miserable-looking beyond belief. Many of these houses had shared yards and toilets, and rarely had gardens, so their occupants were unable to improve their diet by growing fresh food unless they had access to an allotment. Yet family pride meant that with local traditions of polished brass hangers and black leading inside and colour washing outside, plus the need to keep the fire burning day and night, mainly using coal dust, these homes seemed more weathertight and snug than they were in reality.

Moreover, as there were no collieries in Brynmawr, just the ‘levels’ cut into the hillsides, this meant that there were no colliery companies and therefore no company houses available for miners to rent, or as “tied houses” in Brynmawr. There was a Council-run housing estate as well as some more modern, bigger hoses that miners had built for themselves in more prosperous times. If a family owned or expected to inherit a house, they would, therefore, be far less willing to move away to find work. Some unemployed house owners had to mortgage their houses before they could claim poor relief, later known as Unemployment Assistance, which was all that the long-term unemployed could claim after using up the insured benefits they were entitled to. The Council tenants who were unemployed had also been allowed to accumulate very large rent arrears. Since these could not be collected, the Urban District Council, already deeply in debt due to the local poor rate system, could not afford to repair these houses, thus adding to the general dilapidation and deterioration of the housing stock.

By 1928, as Margaret Wates recalled, there were already youths of eighteen who had never worked, having left school four years earlier. They went about in groups up the mountain, or out in the streets after dark, as they did not want to be seen in their shabby clothes. She knew a mother and daughter who shared one pair of shoes so they could not go out together. One family of ten members had two cups between them, so the children were always late for school! When savings were exhausted there was nothing left for sickness or replacements, or even to do repairs.

The Brynmawr experiment, under the dynamic leadership of Peter Scott, maintained a certain independence in its operation. Scott insisted that anything done must spring from the community and not be imposed from the outside. His determination that the work should not be controlled by any outside committee led him into direct conflict with the Friends’ Coalfield Distress Committee to the extent that,  at the end of 1929, he severed his connection with the official Quaker undertakings in the area, thereafter working independently with a group of volunteers. In December, a general town’s meeting was called, chaired by the local MP, with two thousand people in the hall. The rather emotional approach taken by Scott’s group alienated the hard-headed trades unionists, but it was successful in rallying several hundred people of different backgrounds to volunteer to community service over a period of three years, including hard manual work. Significant opposition to this was raised by some unemployed on the basis that the only commodity they had for sale was their labour. They did not want to surrender this right and ruin their chances of future employment, or of losing their dole if they did voluntary work.

A compromise was agreed that the unemployed miners would always be deemed available for, and thereby genuinely seeking work as far as the employment exchanges were concerned. Nevertheless, the Labour Party and the Miners’ Federation continued to shun the scheme. They insisted that all labour should be paid for at trade union rates. They were also suspicious of a group of English Quakers with middle-class backgrounds interfering in the town, even if they supplied help that was desperately needed. Thus, the claim that the work at Brynmawr sprang from the community was not borne out by reality. The cautious welcome which Brynmawr had initially given to the Scotts’ activities soon waned and his group’s relationship with the local community deteriorated. The newcomers were never fully integrated into the town’s civic life and, as a result, the Quakers became known, disparagingly, as ‘the BQs’ – ‘the Bloody Quakers’! 

Soon after the big meeting, and despite the ostracism of voluntary workers, their wives and children, a small group of local men started work on a piece of land near the railway station, converting it into a garden, and planting trees on a nearby ‘tip’. The men slept in the two large empty rooms above a shop, while the women shared another large building. They had meals on site – the food was plain, plentiful and cheap. Local women helped with the cooking as well as with the laundry, mending, cleaning and first aid, in addition to doing colour washing and gardening. There were also men’s and women’s clubs. By 1936 these were ‘vigorous’ and would have expanded had they had more accommodation. The men repaired furniture, tapped boots, made bows and arrows for an archery range, and wove scarves. The men did not make much use of the boot repairing and carpentry facilities, but the women’s club had seventy-five members and joined the Federation of Women’s Institutes and the Townswomen’s Guild. Needlework and foreign language courses were started in 1931. The women made leather gloves and other useful and ornamental things. There was also a demand for cookery classes, including food values. The keep-fit classes were crowded out.

In January 1934 some of the group around the Scotts formed themselves into ‘An Order of friends’, choosing to dedicate themselves to the new community of their vision, as expressed in Jennings’ book, published the same year. Thereafter all the Scotts’ undertakings were carried on in the name of ‘An Order’, though in fact its members never had more than a nominal responsibility for its administration. The most successful efforts made were in the two new industries of furniture and bootmaking. These conformed to the accepted pattern of industrial life and were more readily tolerated by local people on that account. Subsistence Production, the largest, most costly and most visionary of Scott’s undertakings, diverged too far from the current industrial mores to be readily accepted. The theory which lay behind it stemmed from J W Scott (no relation to Peter), a Professor of Philosophy at University College Cardiff, who in the 1920s had worked out an elaborate theory for producing and distributing goods as far as possible free from the constraints of the monetary system. He had envisaged groups of men, each working at his own trade without wages, producing goods for exchange within the group.

The Welsh tradition of spontaneous community singing, Gymanfa Ganu, was also revived. Brynmawr and the heads-of-the-valleys towns were usually more culturally, if not linguistically Welsh, than the anglicised colliery towns further down the valleys where many English ‘immigrants’ had settled. There ‘Welshness’ was based on the surviving Welsh-medium chapels founded by the earlier Welsh immigrants. Margaret Wates remembered one old lady who gave Welsh lessons to the English volunteers at the Centre using her Welsh Bible. For many of the older women, their lives outside the home, when time allowed, continued to revolve around the chapels, whether services and activities were in Welsh or English. Many men had long-since abandoned the chapels in favour of the Workmen’s Institutes, built earlier in the century. Since membership of these was based mainly on colliery employment, the institutes had been built in colliery villages, rather than in the heads-of-the-valley towns. Their activities were almost exclusively male until well into the 1930s, and in this respect, they were slow to adapt to the impact of mass unemployment on the social lives of men and women. On the other side of the northern outcrop, Resolven Institute near Neath was one of the first to allow women access to certain ‘new’ activities, as one local woman recalled:

 In Resolven now there was a reading room, you see. There was a lot of debating. You could say that the Reading Room was the House of Commons of the village. And I remember the first wireless coming. It came to the Reading Room. And women were allowed to listen to the wireless for the first time. It was a very important evening!

The new clubs were, therefore, had a more immediate practical purpose for women than for their unemployed men, since the latter were able to maintain their access to the local Miners’ Institutes through continuing to pay their subscriptions to the Miners’ Federation, which set up Unemployed ‘Lodges’ in parallel to those for miners still in work. Women were also more receptive to the new cooperative ideas than men, however. Nearly all the men over forty-five in Brynmawr had been unemployed since 1921. They were more regular volunteer workers than the younger men but regarded the Subsistence Production Society (SPS) as second best. Faith in Socialism as a Utopian form of Christianity, if not Marxist Communism, was almost universal. They had a strong family life and were resigned to lower standards of living, but they were opposed to the means test, and to irregular working hours and differentials in wages. Their outlook was set in the industrial unionism of the pre-1914 years, and these traditions were fiercely maintained among them. They distrusted “An Order of Friends” and the SPS, which they regarded as they did any other large industrial undertaking, as fundamentally capitalist and therefore automatically opposed to the interests of labour. At the same time, it was not quite real, but a pastime, so they were not prepared to work so intensively on it. The principles behind the scheme were either not understood or not trusted by many of the older men. To those behind the SPS, they meant benefiting people according to their needs.

The women, by contrast, wanted the cheap milk and other necessities provided by the SPS. The opposition of the men lessened as time went on, but few were interested in creating a new order of society through the schemes, as Jennings and the Quakers advocated. Other groups, not just the Communists, the trades unions and the Labour Party were opposed to the SPS, but even the Co-ops and the and the shopkeepers, who were also fearful of the involvement of government. A Viennese psychologist, Dr Marie Jahoda, concluded (after a four-month local sojourn and study of the Cwmavon Scheme in 1937/38) that while the SPS was ‘a valiant experiment’ and ‘a heroic attempt to tackle a problem at the right point’, it was doomed to failure because the leaders’ eyes were blinded by their glorious mirage of the future to the extent that they were unable to see the numerous pitfalls of interference from outside the normal development of the community.

Marie Jahoda noted that the scheme could never surpass the limits of charity. In the absence of a sufficient number of idealists from other social classes who would resign voluntarily the advantages offered to them by their privileged position, it was necessary to employ technical staff at normal rates of pay. As long as this remained the case it was not possible, she argued, for the organisers to preach the necessary idealism and to create a common ‘ideology’ within the scheme while maintaining a standard of living high above that of the members. Without this community of interest there was no chance of making the experiment fully successful; without paternalistic supervision, there was no chance of making it work at all. Nevertheless, she concluded, the SPS was small enough to be understood in its general operation by every member and big enough to provide an insight into various social processes and a comparison with normal social life:

The colliery system with its problem of export trade and finance, extending over the whole world, is far too complicated to allow the average miner to understand its working; the family unit or a handicraft job is too small for the same purpose in the modern world. The amount of collective social experience represented by the membership of the SPS is one of the main positive effects.

This was no doubt why Dai Payton of Nantyglo, an unemployed miner, and his wife Phoebe, who had a fine family of eight children themselves, remained sympathetic contributors to the Brynmawr schemes. Margaret Wates came to know the family well during and after her brief sojourn in Brynmawr and the Eastern Valley:

They lived in a company room at Nantyglo with one bedroom and one living room, no ‘parlour’. This one-up-one-down had a spiral staircase joining the two rooms, which was dangerous for their small children. They had a ‘longish’ yard in front of the house with a gate to the main road through a low front wall. Next to this was the coal-shed and toilet!

Just inside the front door was flimsy wooden partition with a shallow stone sink beside it. They had a blackleaded oven which went under the stone stairs and was also used for drying the wood. The fire was kept going with a few lumps of coal to the front and dust to the back, carefully flattened, where the teapot could be kept warm. The fire irons were kept polished. I think there was a good-size table, a few upright chairs and boxes.

I visited Phoebe when she was ill, and found there were two double beds and an upright wooden chair… there was a cheap curtain between the beds, but it was very Spartan. Phoebe’s parents lived at the back of them, so some of the children slept in their house…

… every morning they had toast and margarine, and tea with condensed milk: on Easter Sunday they had half an egg each and fresh milk, which wasn’t bottled, but scooped out of the milkman’s churn on wheels. For tea on Sundays they had rice pudding. On Friday they had four faggots and sixpence worth of peas for dinner – “it was delicious”. On Sundays some of them had dandelion pop or nettle pop, a sort of home-made wine. The family never went hungry.

The children had school dinners, after the forms had been filled in about earnings, etc.: these were called “feedings”, and they had a half-pint of bottled milk a day at school. The school attendance officer… would call at the house if a child had been away from school for only two days.

Dai always gave his wife his unopened pay packet. She would buy his tobacco, pay his bus fare and his union subscription, and might give him tuppence to go into the welfare ground to watch a match. She would be responsible for paying the doctor when necessary…

Dai and Phoebe had been given a striking clock as a wedding present, which must have been the only thing of any value they possessed.

There was a traditional “Grace”… before meals, that was sung to a Welsh tune… remembered in 1930:

O Lord have mercy upon us

And keep us all alive;

There’s round the table nine of us

And food enough for five. 

Dai and Phoebe were exceptionally strong people, working so hard to ensure that their family survived under such difficult conditions. Despite all their best efforts, one of the children did not survive, however, a little sister who died at the age of four. Phoebe seems, in some ways, to correspond to the image of the ‘Welsh Mam’ that recent historians have become somewhat obsessed with, based on Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel, How Green Was My Valley:

As soon as the whistle went they (the women) put chairs outside their front doors ans sat here waiting till the men came up the Hill and home. Then as the men came up to their front doors they threw their wages, sovereign by sovereign, into the shining laps, fathers first and sons or lodgers in a line behind. My mother often had forty of them, with my father and five brothers working.

This image is not exclusive to the south Wales valleys, however. It was a regular practice in mining families throughout Britain for the woman to collect the wages of the men, before they were given back their beer and tobacco money. At Binley, near Coventry, if the men went to the pub on the way home, the children in the house would be sent out to intercept them and bring home the sovereigns. This practice continued into the 1940s. Neither did women scrub their husbands’ backs, which were generally left coal-black in order to harden against conditions underground. What perhaps typified the ‘Welsh Mam’ as compared with miners’ wives in other coalfields was that they never worked outside the home, except as shopkeepers, whereas in Coventry many women did shifts in textile factories, working around their husbands’ shifts and depending on whether sons were also miners. In Coventry, they usually became car-workers and engineers in the 1930s.

The ‘Mam’ was, of course, primarily a wife and a mother, clean and pious, and had the responsibility in and for the home. She was certainly as prevalent in other depressed areas where industrial work outside the home was essentially the province of men. By the end of the thirties, this pattern was beginning to change among the younger generations, especially at the southern end of the valleys, but in the heads-of-the-valleys, it remained the same throughout the thirties.  Here, it was women like Phoebe Payton of Nantyglo who continued to scrimp and go without.

As Gwyn A Williams and Dierdre Beddoe have pointed out, although aspects of the portrait of the ‘Welsh Mam’ were dominant in coalfield communities into the inter-war period, the image was essentially a nineteenth-century creation. In Wales, there was nothing really comparable to the industrial out-work done in domestic settings across the West Midlands of England by weavers, chain and nail-makers. Moreover, the British middle-classes were alarmed by the Chartist demonstrations and uprisings of 1831-51 into thinking that there might be a revolution, similar to those which had happened in France, in Britain. One of the chief ways that the middle-class sought to bring about stability was through the strengthening of the idea and role of the family. They advocated a bourgeois view of the family: male breadwinner, dependent ‘domesticated’ wife and dependent children. It was this version of the family that the middle class wished to impose upon the working classes and which working-class families came to aspire to: the dependent wife was to become the symbol of working-class male success. This message about the woman’s role was essentially domestic was trumpeted from the pulpit and reinforced by religious tracts, poems, magazines, paintings, prints and manuals of behaviour for women.

One of the myths which emerged from this stereotypical image which mining women aspired to conform to was that women and men had equal power and that, with the onset of male unemployment, women became the dominant power in unwaged households. The handing over of the sovereigns to the wife is often cited as evidence for this, but this act also involved the passing over of the burden of managing the household. Women’s authority was entirely limited to the private, domestic sphere. Not until the end of 1928 were working-class women able to exercise the vote in parliamentary elections on the same basis as men, but even then very few had access to the public sphere of politics. Besides this, they still had no control over their bodies and its reproductive functions. Miners were oppressed by coal-owners and poverty. Their wives were doubly oppressed by poverty and patriarchy. As one woman said, we were slaves because they were slaves to the coal-owners.

Of course, this does not mean that all miners treated their wives badly, either physically or psychologically, whether in work or out of it. Neither did they consciously ‘enslave’ them. If anything, there is a sense in the evidence that unemployment often brought about a more equal relationship between husband and wife. On the other hand, the poverty it brought often placed great strains on the household, and men, by their own admission, sometimes took out their frustrations and loss of personal pride on their wives.  Dai Payton worked at the level at Coalbrooke Vale for the SPS. A Brynmawr resident had transferred the lease of the level, a mile from Brynmawr, which supplied work for forty older men for eighteen months. After twelve months the management was handed over to the men, but in 1931 the Miners’ Federation called a strike, so the co-operative was also asked to join the strike, although they were both workers and owners. If they had agreed, they might have ruined the small enterprise, since they had not yet established if the plans of the old workings there had been correct. When they refused, they were called “blacklegs” and “traitors”, showing how difficult it was for co-operative ventures and trades unions to work together. The unemployed miners overcame all the technical difficulties, but the coal seam did not yield as much as was expected, though the group struggled on with courage and patience. By 1934, Dai Payton, together with a ‘butty’, made a success of it for a time, until nature forced them to retire. The unemployed were forced accustomed to going up “the mountain” to get a sack of coal, which they would bring back long distances on their backs. Working cooperatively decreased unnecessary physical strain, enabling the group to achieve a more rational way of working as well as running a successful if small, industrial enterprise for some years.

The Brynmawr Experiment was an attempt, unique in Britain, to encourage a whole community afflicted by desperate levels of unemployment, averaging 75% throughout the period 1928-38, to fight back on a number of fronts, tapping an entire range of resources, from the enterprise of volunteers to social service agencies and central government. The national network provided by the Society of Friends was crucial to the work as it supplied management and technical skills and money to get things done. But a community that has suffered such levels of long-term unemployment needs even more than a revivalist inspiration to overcome its paralysing effects. Immediately, it needed relief work, as an absolute necessity. In the medium-term, reconstruction projects were put in place, including a swimming pool, a park and a nursery school. Then the industrial decline had to be offset by starting small co-operative enterprises in boot and furniture making, which by the end of the period were achieving considerable success.

Another enterprise was stocking-making, in which a dozen women worked under a trained forewoman, making long, thick miners’ stockings, but mass production and keen competition proved too much for the group. They produced fine quality socks for a time but had to close down in the end. A further group of about a dozen women and girls made Welsh quilts of silk material, padded with lambswool, to traditional Welsh designs. They also made tea-cosies and other products to order. They worked in a big room above an empty shop for a period of a couple of years. As these ventures received no government support for five years, they had to be funded over this period by grants from private individuals and charitable organisations. The aim was not to replace the volume of jobs lost in the coal industry, but, in the words of Hilda Jennings, to…

… build up a new and better community in which the human spirit will be released from bitterness and divisions, and find outlets for creative energies in craftsmanship and right human relationships.

(to be continued)

%d bloggers like this: