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‘Socialism’ & the Origins of the Labour Party in Britain, 1870-1900. Part Two – ‘Marxists’, ILP’ers & New Unionists.   Leave a comment

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Keir Hardie – The Harbinger of the Independent Labour Party, 1887-88:

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Keir Hardie, who was to play a major role in the political developments of the next three decades, was born into grinding poverty in 1856 in Lanarkshire, the illegitimate son of Mary Kerr, a farm servant who later married a ship’s carpenter named David Hardie. The first years of his life and his early career among the Ayrshire miners are the stuff of legend, but here we are concerned with how he became a Socialist and his contacts with Marxists in London. He had visited the capital with a miners’ delegation in 1887 and attended several meetings of the SDF, where he was introduced to Eleanor Marx, who in turn introduced him to Engels, who was, by then, critical of both the SDF and the Socialist League in Hardie’s hearing. In the end, he did not join the SDF as he had planned to do before arriving in London, and his reasons for his change of mind are instructive about the state of the Socialist movement in Britain at this time:

Born and reared as I had been in the country, the whole environment of the clubs, in which beer seemed to be the most dominant influence, and the tone of the speeches, which were full of denunciation of everything, including trade unionism, and containing little constructive thought, repelled me.

Hardie’s character and politics were not above and beyond the comprehension of the people from whom he had sprung. On the contrary, he was made of the same stuff as they were, with the same instincts, attitudes, the same religious turns of mind and phrase, the same inability to draw a line between politics and morality, or between logic and emotion. His views had already begun developing under the influence of Henry George, from Liberalism to Socialism; but these views were assimilated into his own life and experience, which was something the London Socialists could not share. As the leader and organiser of a trade union and a federation of unions, weak though these organisations were, Hardie was a valuable recruit to the Socialist cause, and his adhesion brought a less academic and more homely voice to the advocacy of independent labour policy. At the beginning of 1887, he had started a monthly magazine, the Miner, in which he addressed the men in his own blunt style, which contained all the aggressive spirit of economic discontent without any of the catchwords of Marxism:

Party be hanged! We are miners first and partisans next, at least if we follow the example of our “superiors” the landlords and their allies, we ought to be. …

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He was the harbinger of the New Unionists; and it was fitting that, although his career was to be primarily a political one, he should make his entry into national prominence as a trade union delegate. Already he had taken part in political work, as a Liberal; but now, in the autumn of 1887, he was adopted miners’ Parliamentary candidate for North Ayrshire, and in March 1888, when a vacancy occurred at Mid-Lanark, he was selected as miners’ candidate there, but the Liberal Party chose differently. His supporters encouraged him to stand as an independent and he accepted their nomination. The main principle that Hardie stood for, as an independent labour candidate, was the universal one that the working class must build up its own political strength, stand on its own feet and fight its own battles. This note of sturdy independence, which he struck repeatedly in the course of the by-election campaign, had not often been heard in the course of the preceding decade. He was supported by Champion from the SDF office in London, Tom Mann, Mahon, Donald and a host of other Socialists and Radicals who arrived in the constituency of their own accord. But though the canvassing and rallies were vigorous, there was little doubt about what the outcome would be. Hardie was at the bottom of the poll with 617 votes out of the total of seven thousand votes cast. The Liberal candidate was elected, leading the Conservative by nine hundred votes.

It was a disappointing result at the time, but in retrospect, it is seen as an important political turning-point. There and then, there was no reason to suppose that one or other party, Liberal or Conservative, would not allow itself to become the vehicle for labour representation by a gradual process. But the caucus system which operated within the Liberal Party meant that its choice of candidate was firmly in the control of its middle-class members. The failure of the working-class to break through this stranglehold had the concomitant effect that the Liberal Party’s grip on the working-class vote was clearly weakening in the mid-eighties. Yet its leaders still maintained that they served the interests of working people. Champion, for his part, claimed still more strongly his ambitious claim to be the organiser of the ‘National Labour Party’ and Hardie began the task of forming a Scottish Labour Party.

The Fabian Society & The Socialist Revival of 1889:

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The Fabians were also concerned in the task of formulating long-term Socialist policy for the country as a whole. In the autumn of 1888, they organised a series of lectures on The Basis and Prospects of Socialism which were edited by Bernard Shaw and published at the end of 1889, becoming the famous Fabian Essays in Socialism. They provided a distinctive sketch of the political programme of evolutionary Socialism, attracting immediate attention. The first edition at six shillings sold out rapidly and by early 1891, a total of 27,000 copies had been purchased. The seven Fabian essayists, all members of the Society’s Executive, offered a reasoned alternative to the revolutionary Socialist programme. In the first essay, Shaw rejected Marxian analysis of value in favour of a theory of Marginal Utility, asserting the social origin of wealth and reversing the conclusions of laissez-faire political economy from its own premises. In a second essay on the transition to Socialism, Shaw emphasised the importance of the advances towards democracy accomplished by such measures as the County Council Act of 1888. The extinction of private property could, he thought, be gradual, and each act of expropriation should be accompanied by compensation of the individual property-owner at the expense of all.

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Nearly all the Fabian essayists postulated a gradual, comparatively even and peaceful evolution of Socialism, which they regarded as already taking place by the extension of political democracy, national and local, and by the progress of ‘gas and water’ Socialism. They regarded the existing political parties, and especially the Liberal-Radicals, as open to permeation by Socialist ideas. Judged by the circumstances of their time, the most striking omission from their whole general thesis was their failure to recognise the significance of the trade unions and co-operative societies. As Sidney Webb (pictured above)  was later to discover, conclusions could be drawn from the working of these institutions which would dovetail with his general theory of the inevitability of gradualness. Arguing on historical grounds, Webb suggested that Socialism was already slowly winning the day: by Socialism, he meant the extension of public control, either by the State or the municipality.

Annie Besant looked forward to a decentralised society attaching special importance to municipal Socialism. One of the other essayists, Hubert Bland, however,  was hostile on the one hand towards Liberal-Radicalism and on the other towards the ‘catastrophic’ Socialism of the SDF and the Socialist League, but this did not lead him to accept Webb’s view that the extension of State control was necessarily an indication of advance towards Socialism. He could not agree that it was possible to effectively permeate the Radical Left: on the contrary, he predicted, Socialists could expect nothing but opposition from both main parties. His conclusion from this more thoroughly Marxian analysis was that there was a true cleavage being slowly driven through the body politic and that there was, therefore, a need for the formation of a definitively Socialist Party.

Bland’s view was important and, in some ways, future developments confirmed his ideas rather than those of the other essayists. He was certainly more in line with the Championite group, some of whose members were to play a leading role in the foundation of the Labour Party. Among his contemporary Fabian leaders, however, Bland was in a minority of one. The majority, judging national politics from a metropolitan perspective and assuming that the character of Liberalism was the same throughout the country, thought that their policy of permeation was the answer not only for the problems of London County Council but also for the broader sphere of Westminster politics. In the following decades, their association with the metropolitan Liberals was to be the source of great mistrust to the leaders of the growing independent labour movement outside the capital. Consequently, it was not for the immediate political tactics, but for their success in formulating a long-term evolutionary programme, that the Fabians were to be of importance in the eventual foundation of the Labour Party.

Labour Aristocrats, New Unionists & Socialist Internationals, 1889-1894:

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In 1874, the trade union membership recorded and represented at the Trades Union Congress had risen to 594,000; but by the end of that decade it had fallen to 381,000, and it was not until 1889 that the 1874 figure was exceeded. Union membership was almost entirely concentrated among more highly-skilled workers, for the first attempts to organise unskilled industrial workers had been killed off by the depression. The term ‘labour aristocracy’, which was used at the time by Marxists to describe the organised workers, is not inappropriate to point out the contrast between the privileges of their position and the weakness of the great mass of the less-skilled workers below them. Bowler-hatted craft unionists like those seen with their giant painted banner at the opening of the Woolwich Free Ferry in March 1889, shown in the photograph below, enjoyed a measure of respectability and a regular wage, the so-called unskilled lived a precarious existence. Balanced between poverty and absolute destitution, they were feared by the middle classes and despised by skilled and organised trade unionists. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers was the third-largest union in Britain by 1890. In 1897-98 it fought long, hard and unsuccessfully for an eight-hour day.

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In London alone, there were four thousand casual workers in the 1890s, and thousands were unemployed, homeless and destitute, a submerged population of outcasts who not only filled the workhouses and doss houses but slept in great numbers in the streets. Two of the SDF lantern slides (below) show differing aspects of homelessness, a picture of women spending the night on an embankment seat, taken at four in the morning, and a scene of men washing in a night shelter. The scene of women sleeping on the Embankment was would have been a common sight at the time. R. D. Blumenfeld, an American-born journalist who came to Britain in the 1880s, recorded, in his diary, his experience of a night on the Embankment on 24 December 1901:

I walked along the Embankment this morning at two o’ clock … Every bench from Blackfriars to Westminster Bridge was filled with shivering people, all huddled up – men, women and children. The Salvation Army people were out giving away hot broth, but even this was merely a temporary palliative against the bitter night. At Charing Cross we encountered a man with his wife and two tiny children. They had come to town from Reading to look for work. The man had lost his few shillings and they were stranded …

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Charitable institutions were unable to cope with the vast numbers that sought nightly access to their refuges and many of the outcast lacked even the few coppers required for common lodging houses and ‘dossers’. Others preferred the open streets to the casual ward where they ran the risk of being detained for three days against their will and there were hundreds who would chance exposure to the elements rather than submit to the workhouse. After Trafalgar Square was cleared on Bloody Sunday in 1887, the authorities finally banned the Square to the homeless. But the embankment, with its benches and bridges, continued to be used by mothers with babies in arms, children and old people, all spending the night insulated against the cold by old newspapers and sacks. The thousands who slept out were not for the most part alcoholics but honest, poor, unskilled and casual workers, subject to seasonal and trade fluctuations in employment. Salvation Army General Booth in Darkest London quotes a typical case of a Bethnal Green bootmaker, in hospital for three months. His wife also became ill and after three weeks their furniture was seized for rent due to the landlord. Subsequently, they were evicted. Too ill to work, everything pawned, including the tools of his trade, they became dispossessed outcasts. Not all the ‘dossers’ were out of work; many were simply homeless and earned such poor wages that renting rooms was beyond their means. Records from the Medland Hall refuge showed sailors, firemen, painters, bricklayers and shoemakers among those who sought shelter from the streets of the richest city in the world.

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Elsewhere in the country, there were some anomalies in the divisions of workers into ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’: the Lancashire cotton workers, for example, even though comparatively unskilled, ranked with the ‘aristocracy’, while the Yorkshire woollen workers, probably owing to the greater diversity of their occupations, were almost devoid of organisation. Among the miners, too, the degree of trade unionism varied widely among men of comparable skill in different coalfields. The general labourers and workers in the sweated trades, many of them women, had no unions, and their miserable conditions were at once a cause and a result of their inability to defend themselves. At the bottom of the social heap were the casual labourers, thousands of whom fought daily for work at the gates of London’s docks. The following description of dockers waiting for ‘call on’ was written by Ben Tillett in a little pamphlet entitled A Dock Labourer’s Bitter Cry in July 1887:

There can be nothing ennobling in an atmosphere where we are huddled and herded together like cattle. There is nothing refining in the thought that to obtain employment we were driven into a shed, iron barred from end to end, outside of which a contractor or a foreman walks up and down with the air of a dealer in cattle market, picking and choosing from a crowd of men who in their eagerness to obtain employment, trample each other underfoot, and where they fight like beasts for the chance of a day’s work.

Tillett also told of how these men lived more by accident than design … picking over the rubbish heaps in search of anything eatable and of the furtive storing of refuse rice, the coolies had thrown away. The manager of the Millwall Docks gave evidence at an enquiry, of men who came to work without a scrap of work in their stomachs and gave up after an hour, their hunger not allowing them to continue. They were, said Tillett, Lazaruses who starve upon crumbs from the rich man’s table. On 12 August 1889, two members of Ben Tillett’s little union, the ‘Tea Operatives and General Labourers’ Association’ which had been formed by twelve men in the Oak Tavern off Hackney Road, met at Wroot’s Coffee House and came to Tillett with a demand that they should declare a strike at the South West India Dock. Though Tillett had campaigned for two years at the docks with evangelical fervour, the demand surprised him: Was it possible to strike with men who shivered with hunger and cold, bullied and intimidated by the petty tyrants who took a delight in the brutalities of the call on? The men left Tillett in no doubt as to the answer. Meetings were held under the windows of the dock offices and seethed with tumult. The demands included the raising of wages to sixpence an hour, The full round orb of the dockers’ tanner, as John Burns described it, eightpence an hour for overtime and a reduction in the number of ‘call-ons’, which kept hungry men hanging about the dock gates all day, often in the wet and cold awaiting the next chance to catch the foreman’s eye.

The strike spread rapidly throughout the docks, stevedores, boilermakers, coal heavers, ballast-men, lightermen, painters and carpenters all supporting the dock labourers. With only seven shillings and sixpence in his union funds. Tillett set about raising money to provide relief for the striking dockers and their families. Daily marches with banners and bands around the docks and to the City served to keep up morale, spread the news and keep money pouring into the jingling collecting boxes. From the strike committee headquarters at The Wade’s Arms, Ben Tillett, Tom Mann, Eleanor Marx, John Burns, Harry Orbell and Henry Champion planned the distribution of money. Champion had been expelled from the SDF in November 1888 and threw himself eagerly into leading the practical relief work among the strikers. He persuaded the strike committee to issue one shilling food tickets and got local tradesmen to honour them. Tom Mann took charge of the task and told in his memoirs of how he faced the first crowd of hungry dockers:

I put my back against one of the doorposts and stretched out my leg, with my foot on the opposite post, jamming myself in. I talked pleasantly to the men and passed each man in under my leg!

Tillett wrote of this event:

I can see Tom now, with his back against the door of Wroot’s Coffee House, keeping back a yelling, hungry mob, while Nash and Smith shivered in the pay room. 

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Eight relief centres were established in the East End of London, tickets being issued on production of a union card. This was not only a rational way of issuing relief but served to build the union, twenty thousand cards being issued for the twopenny membership fee. Contemporary reports tell of women and children feeding in the streets and the photograph above shows women with their meal tickets pinned to their hats and dresses, feeding their children outside one of the union centres. At the peak of the struggle, twenty-five thousand meal tickets a day were being issued by the union. Eventually, on 14 September 1889, a settlement favourable to the dockers was reached. The story of the strike for the ‘dockers’ tanner’ is legendary and the engravings from The Illustrated London News of 1889 and a few contemporary photographs of the strikers are familiar enough. However, the photograph from the SDF slide set, entitled women and children of dock strikers being fed in the street was not published until 1980. It is a rare relic from that epic fight which heralded the ‘new unionism’ and the organisation of the unskilled.

The Tea Operatives Union which began the strike with a few hundred members finished it with a few hundred thousand and the ground was prepared for the building of the great Dockers’ Union, ‘the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union of Great Britain and Ireland’. The photograph below shows victorious strikers, greeting the end of the strike, one of the most significant in the history of British trades unionism. The Socialists as a whole gained considerably in prestige from their association with the New Unionism which developed from the late 1880s onwards. The example of devoted leadership that they gave was only rarely spoilt by errors of judgement. As Champion himself recognised at the time, it was not for the purity of their Socialism that they were respected by the workers, but for their willingness to throw themselves into the day-to-day tasks of union organisation. But the political leaders at the dockside were careful not to take advantage of the strike to advance the Socialist cause. Hyndman had wanted John Burns to display a red flag during the dock strike, but Burns had refused because he knew it would be inappropriate to do so.

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John Burns resigned from the SDF after the strike but still regarded himself as a Socialist, and the movement could only gain from his popularity, and that of Thorne and Mann, who now occupied key positions in the New Unions. Furthermore, the principles of New Unionism were socialistic in tendency, basing their tactics on the principle of advancing the interests of the working class as a whole, which is clearly indicated by their willingness to accept all types of workers for membership. This brought the new unionists into sympathy with the basic conception of Socialism and made them favourable to the Socialist demand for an independent labour party in Parliament. The new unionists had nothing to lose and a world to gain by a policy of political action such as the Socialists were advocating. It soon became clear to them that the gains they made by industrial action were not easy to maintain. The success of the Championite Socialists in taking the lead in the formation of the new unions was largely due to the lukewarm attitude of the established ‘craft’ unions. The echoes of New Unionism were meanwhile resounding throughout the country, and struggles of less importance but sometimes greater intensity and bitterness were waged in provincial towns and ports. The letters of Engels reveal something of the intense excitement of the period, especially one he wrote to Sorge in December 1889:

The people are throwing themselves into the job in quite a different way, are leading far more colossal masses into the fight, are shaking society more deeply, are putting forward much more far-reaching demands: eight hour day, general federation of all organisations, complete solidarity. Thanks to ‘Tussy’ (Eleanor Marx) women’s branches have been formed for the first time – in the Gasworkers and General Labourers Union. Moreover, the people regard their immediate demands only as provisional although they themselves do not know as yet what final aim they are working for.

But this dim idea is strongly enough rooted to make them choose only openly declared Socialists as their leaders. Like everyone else they will have to learn by their experiences and the consequences of their own mistakes. But as, unlikethe old trade unions, they greet every suggestion of an identity of interest between Capital and Labour with scorn and ridicule, this will not take very long. …

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Engels’ optimism was based not only on the success of the Socialists in capturing the new unions in London but also on the successful reconstitution of the ‘International’ in the autumn of 1889. There had been two separate Socialist and Labour congresses held simultaneously in Paris: one was backed by the orthodox followers of Marx and Engels, and also attended by a number of British Socialists including William Morris and Keir Hardie; the other, summoned by French reformists opposed to the Engels group, was attended not only by the Fabians and by a number of the craft unionists, but also by Hyndman and other members of the SDF. It was due to Engels’ hostility that the SDF delegates were forced to consort with conservative trade-union leaders and the foreign reformists rather than with the Marxists.

Fortunately, however, for the sake of the future of the movement, the two congresses finally joined together to form the Second International. As a consequence, this was much more real as an organisation than its predecessor of two decades before, embracing strong parties from a variety of countries. One notable outcome of the foundation of the Second International was the decision to make a demonstration of labour solidarity on May Day, 1890. The London Socialists busied themselves with preparations for a great demonstration in Hyde Park on the first Sunday in May, the result being a remarkable display of the forces of New Unionism and its solidarity with the Socialism. The attendance was impressive, and Engels, who watched the scene from the top of a goods-van, was almost beside himself with enthusiasm. He proclaimed in the Vienna Arbeiter Zeitung:

On May 4th, 1890, the English working class joined up in the great international army. … The grand-children of the old Chartists are entering the line of battle. 

A German depiction of the famous phrase "Workers of the World Unite!" from Marx and Engel's Communist Manifesto (1848).

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But in his more sober moments, Engels was well aware of what he called the bourgeois respectability which has grown deep into the bones of the workers. Although the new unionists made an impact on the TUC in 1890, they were not sufficiently numerous to outvote the craft unions, most of whom retained their prejudices and patronising attitude towards the new arrivals. Meanwhile, the Socialist League in London was falling apart. Eleanor Marx, Aveling and Bax were feeling, as Hyndman had done, that Socialism should engage with the parliamentary system. The withdrawal of this ‘Parliamentary’ element caused the Socialist League to fall more and more into the hands of the Anarchists, who voted Morris out of his role as editor of The Commonweal at the 1890 conference.

016 (3)Morris himself became increasingly uncomfortable with their activities until in November 1890 he decided to cut his losses and withdraw from the League, together with the Hammersmith branch, which remained loyal to him. Without his funds and moderating influence, the League then disintegrated. Morris continued to work for Socialism, but at a reduced rate which was all his health permitted; he chaired meetings of what had become the Hammersmith Socialist Society and continued to speak at outdoor meetings. He still hoped for a united British Socialist Party, and negotiated, unsuccessfully, to bring that about in 1892. He was pleased with the election of three ‘Independent Labour’ MPs, regarding…

… this obvious move forward of the class feeling as full of real hope. 

The growth of the waterfront and related unions in the great seaports helped to change the geography of the trade union movement, although their strength ebbed and flowed spectacularly with the trade cycle. In 1891, on the crest of the cycle, officially recorded membership had penetrated deepest into Northumberland, Durham, industrial Lancashire, Yorkshire and Derbyshire, and into South Wales. It remained at a very low ebb across the Home Counties, southwest England, rural Wales and most of East Anglia, despite the rise of agricultural trade unions in the early 1870s. The same geographical pattern applied to the development of consumer co-operatives. By 1870, Yorkshire had 121 societies of varying sizes, and Lancashire had 112, followed by Durham (28), the Northamptonshire footwear district (21), Northumberland (18), and Cheshire and Derbyshire (17). At this stage, there were only six societies within a twelve-mile radius of central London.

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Wherever the Chartist legacy had been strong, and trade union commitment coexisted with hard-working, thrifty Nonconformity, co-operation took root.  Falling prices and rising working-class living standards in late Victorian times made it compatible with popular pleasures like football and seaside excursions, as more people could afford to save and spend, or to save in order to spend. Co-operation became a mass movement and by 1899, 1,531 co-operative societies in Britain had over 1.6 million members, and in heartlands like ‘cotton Lancashire’, practically every household included a ‘co-operator’. London, the great seaports and even the popular resorts were catching up with the older industrial centres by this time. Co-operatives and the trade unions rarely collaborated, except when local societies gave special support to strikers.  As a widely supported movement which drew in women as well as men, the Co-operative Movement, with its proto-feminist Women’s Guild, had an even bigger impact than the better-documented trade unions. The relaxation of draconian anti-union legislation in the 1870s and rising affluence among unskilled workers in the 1890s had enabled them to take part in the union movement, while co-operative societies encouraged ‘Self-help’ by dividing profits among their members. The geographical influence of the two movements is best understood if they are regarded as two sides of the same coin.

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The photograph above shows the Radcliffe Co-op in Lancashire, typical of the early co-operators and their belief in Robert Owen’s great discovery that the key to a better society was ‘unrestrained co-operation on the part of all members for every purpose of social life’. Founded in 1860, the Radcliffe co-operators looked to the established movement in Bury, Oldham and Ashton in for inspiration and advice. The Radcliffe Co-op flourished with reading rooms, educational classes, the Women’s Guild interwoven with the steady growth of baking, coal supply, housing, dairy produce and a growing number of branches.  

The Advent of the Independent Labour Party, 1893-95:

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Although aloof from the fray over these early years of the 1890s, the fact that Morris was known to be speaking not for one faction but for the interests of Socialism as a whole actually increased his influence.

At the beginning of 1893, the inaugural conference of the Independent Labour Party took place at the Bradford Labour Institute. The hall’s history was symbolic of working-class causes both religious and political to date. It had begun life as a Wesleyan Reform Chapel and had later been used by the Salvation Army. It was surrounded by the mills and warehouses on which the trade of Bradford depended. Against this backdrop, the opening of the conference presented like a scene from a novel depicting British political history.

William Morris was not there, but there were certainly many faces to be seen which belonged to characters who had already played major roles in labour politics including Mahon, Donald, and Aveling, Hardie, Tillett and Shaw. Hardie was elected to the chair, and he immediately faced difficulties over whether the two London Fabians should be admitted as delegates. Shaw was one of these, but the ‘permeation’ tactics of the Fabians were unpopular among the rank-and-file of independent labour, especially as it was widely known that they had no intention of abandoning their positions of influence inside the Liberal Party. On the night before the conference, Shaw had addressed a meeting of the provincial Fabian delegates and had suggested that the whole idea of immediately establishing an independent party was premature. Reports of his speech circulated overnight, so it was not surprising that the credentials of these two delegates were disputed and only approved by a margin of two votes. Thereafter, Shaw’s contribution to the discussions was of considerable value. The principal questions with which the conference had to deal were the choice of the party’s name, the drafting of its constitution and programme and the election of an executive. The choice of name was obvious to the English delegates, but the Scottish Labour Party colleagues the title of ‘Socialist Labour Party’. Joseph Burgess and Katherine Conway argued that the new party had to appeal to an electorate which has as yet no full understanding of Socialism. Ben Tillett supported this point, adding that:

He wished to capture the trade unionists of this country, a body of men well organised, who paid their money, and were Socialists at their work every day and not merely on the platform, who did not shout for blood-red revolution, and when it came to revolution, sneaked under the nearest bed.

Tillett followed up this attack on the Hyndmanites with a gratuitous one on the hare-brained chatterers and magpies of Continental revolutionists, a remark which offended Eduard Bernstein, the able London correspondent of the German Social-Democratic paper, who was later given the right to reply. The decision to leave the title as ‘Independent Labour Party’ reflected an awareness of the origins and roots of the party in the local labour unions and parties, some of which were not explicitly committed to Socialism. The primary object of these bodies was to build a Parliamentary party on the basis of a programme of labour reform, and the principal allies of this party were to be, not the existing Socialist societies, but the trade unions, whose leaders were in most cases still to be converted to the independent policy. In this decision the fundamental differences between the ILP and the earlier Socialist societies were revealed: the means of political action were regarded as of primary importance, and the theoretical approach gave way to the practical. But this did not mean that the party was not to be a Socialist party. The proposal to define its object as to secure the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange was carried as a substantive motion by an almost unanimous vote. The conference was evidently strongly Socialist; this was confirmed when the programme came to be discussed and, with the help of Aveling and Shaw, the Marxist and the Fabian, it provided the new party with a concise and clear-cut programme without inconsistency or divergence from basic Socialist doctrine.

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The Bradford Conference had raised high hopes of the new Independent Labour Party, which was intended to rival the Liberals and Conservatives in the fight for Parliamentary power. But the reality of its position fell far short of what its supporters at first imagined was possible. The ILP was able to rely on many of the remnants of the Socialist League, especially in Yorkshire, but the SDF had strengthened itself at the expense of the League in London and had also rapidly extended its hold in Lancashire. In June 1893, the SDF claimed sixty-two branches, a total larger than ever before except for its temporary boom during the strikes of 1887; in August 1894, the official total was ninety-one. Although never as large as the ILP it was always a formidable competitor.

Champion manoeuvred his way back into the political limelight in association with Maltman Barry, described by one rival as that most Marxian of Tories and Toryest of Marxians, now openly boasting his connection with the Conservative Party, as its paid agent, in a letter to the Workman’s Times of September 1892, which made him a sinister influence to the purists of independent politics. The national press was overwhelmingly hostile to the ILP and anxious to misrepresent any indiscretion or sign of weakness, and the agents of both the ‘great’ parties were seeking to break down the policy of independence by offers of financial assistance or by promises designed to satisfy personal ambitions.

Fortunately for the ILP, despite its internal financial and organisational difficulties, political factors in the country were strengthening its position. Hardie’s vigorous propaganda, up and down the country as well as in Parliament was breaking through and stiffening the members’ attitude on the issue of strict independence. The political situation was one of which he could take advantage since the Liberal government were showing no signs of dealing with the relief of the unemployed or of accomplishing important reforms. The problem of unemployment was very severe, with distress on a national scale, and Hardie calculated, with good reason, that there were over a million out of work. Throughout the country, local ILPs took the initiative in forming distress committees to provide food and shelter for the needy and to press public bodies to assist by offering relief work. The SDF methods of organising demonstrations of the unemployed were revived, and many industrial towns echoed to the tramp of their marching feet and the pathetic sound of their song, The Starving Poor of Old England.

But it did not take very much to persuade the Fabians to turn around once more and reassert their alliance with the Liberals. The ILP, they were convinced, could not succeed without official trade-union support. It was in vain that Hardie attempted to explain to them the fighting attitude of the local ILP branches in the north of England. He took part, with Tom Mann, in an informal Fabian-ILP conference in January 1895, and also lectured to the Society in London, telling them:

To reach the masses of the people, something more than academic education and discussion on abstract propositions is necessary. The workers will only rally to a fighting policy.

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After Hardie’s lecture, Curran reminded those present that London is not England, a reminder that, for all their claims of intellectual superiority, they often seemed incapable of fully appreciating. In the 1895 General Election, although the ILP fielded twenty-eight candidates, polling 34,433 votes (1% of the total votes cast), and failed to get a single MP elected. Even Keir Hardie, standing again in West Ham, and his two colleagues lost their seats.

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‘Merrie England’ – Popularising Socialism in the Countryside, 1894-95:

Allied to the ILP in the North and Midlands, journals like The Clarion had a wide appeal because of its brilliant journalism. Robert Blatchford founded The Clarion as a weekly paper in the winter of 1891 to spread the message of Socialism. With a combination of wit, warmth and sound political argument the circulation soon reached forty thousand. It became more than a newspaper, it became a movement. Blatchford’s series of articles inviting John Smith, the typical working man, to join the ranks of the Socialists was published as Merrie England, and when issued as a book it sold twenty thousand copies at a shilling each. Wanting to reach out further he issued a penny edition issued in 1894 and sold three-quarters of a million copies in a year, giving a great lift to the circulation of the Clarion, sales of which reached sixty thousand. The features of Merrie England that made it so popular were its simplicity and directness of style, and its engaging enthusiasm for the ordinary pleasures of life that had been submerged by industrial civilisation, as the following extract from Blatchford’s writing demonstrates:

I would stop the smoke nuisance. … I would have towns rebuilt with wide streets, with detached houses, with gardens and fountains and avenues. … I would have public parks, public theatres, music halls, gymnasiums, football and cricket fields, public halls and public gardens for recreation and music and refreshment. …

015 (2)How could all this be done? Blatchford demonstrated that the working class, who were seven-eighths of the population, received little more than a third of the national income. He also argued, principally on the basis of an article by the Russian scientist Peter Kropotkin, that Great Britain and Ireland could be self-sufficient in agricultural production. The whole problem, therefore, he maintained, could be solved by nationalising the land, industry and commerce, and by limiting industrial production to the extent actually required for the supply of the people of Britain. Thus the doctrines of Marxian Socialism, as transmitted to Blatchford through the agency of Hyndman and the Fabians, were transformed into a policy of national autarky which, at the time it was propounded, could hardly be taken seriously by those who knew anything about Britain’s position in world trade. But the economic arguments in the book did not really matter. Blatchford was not equipped to deal with the practical problems of political administration. He was, however, in his element as a popular journalist who could stir the public imagination with his vivid writings.

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Blatchford found other ways, too, of exploiting the interest in Socialism. Clarion Clubs were formed, informally known as The Fellowship. These were followed by the Clarion Cycling Club, joining the new craze with spreading the gospel of Socialism to countryside villages. Blatchford’s supporters became known as ‘Clarionettes’ and in 1894 he founded the Clarion Scouts, bodies of young Socialist pioneers who were to spread their faith by such original methods as leaflet raids by bicyclists. These propagandising methods both improved the Clarion‘s circulation and spread the idea of Socialism in directions where it had not previously penetrated. He encouraged the formation of a Glee Club, a Camera Club and a Field Club, and for a time ran a special supplementary paper, the Scout, to support their activity. These were followed by numerous cycling clubs. One reason for the establishment of the Clarion Scouts had been to find a way of bringing Socialism to the agricultural areas. In 1895 a few Manchester Clarionettes borrowed a horse and van and set off for Tabley in Cheshire to camp with eight Clarion supporters. The idea of the Clarion vans was born, and, complete with beds and fitted with socialist literature the vans were mobile propaganda vehicles, touring for weeks at a time, until the last one, designed by Walter Crane (1845-1916), the great Socialist artist-craftsman and William Morris’ associate, was built and dedicated in the market square in Shrewsbury, photographed below, just months before the First World War began.

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Blatchford’s conception of Socialism was a policy of agricultural self-sufficiency and the 1895 ILP annual conference followed his lead by adopting a long and detailed list of agricultural reforms including nationalisation of land values and placed these prominently at the head of its programme. These policies aimed at catching the eye of the rural voter, but it was all to little avail: the general picture of the party’s activity in the first year of its existence remained one of great vigour in the industrial North of England, especially the woollen areas, with pockets of strength in parts of Scotland and the Midlands. ; but it remained weak in London and other southern towns, and completely absent from nearly all the rural areas. The ILP Directory, published in 1895 showed that out of the three hundred or so party branches listed, a hundred were in Yorkshire, mostly in the West Riding, over seventy in Lancashire and Cheshire, forty in Scotland, mostly in Glasgow and Strathclyde,  and thirty in the London area. Of the sixty remaining branches, most were in the Midlands and north-eastern counties of England, leaving Wales, Ireland and eastern England virtually without representation. It was primarily an industrial working-class party with a strong presence in particular localities in the textile towns and in the more scattered engineering districts of England. By replacing the cosmopolitan Socialism of the eighties with a national party, the ILP had merely succeeded in establishing itself as a provincial party by the mid-nineties.

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In 1896, Walter Crane had published Cartoons for the Cause, 1886-96, printed by the ‘Twentieth Century Press’ at Clerkenwell Green in London. As John Betjeman, the later poet laureate wrote in his foreword to its reprint in 1976, Crane’s cartoons are of historic interest as period pieces when high-minded Socialism was taken up by the followers of William Morris. Crane was prominent among them, the first Master of the Art Worker’s Guild, an ardent ‘Guild Socialist’ and Positivist. Betjeman also wrote that:

Crane was no William Blake but a brilliant decorative artist. … Walter learned the art of engraving on wood and stone. A hard life among the shabby-genteel of London opened his generous heart. He saw the twentieth century as a golden age ahead, with equal cash and opportunity for all. … 

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The designs which are shown here are taken from Crane’s ‘portfolio’ and were done from time to time over the decade from the summer of 1885 which, as Crane wrote in his preface, had been a period of remarkable progress in the knowledge and spread of Socialist ideas.  They served on different occasions the Socialist movement, appearing in various journals devoted to ‘the cause’, including Justice. The year of publication was marked by the International Socialist and Trade Union Congress in July when workers and Socialists from all parts of the world met in London. It was hoped, as Crane wrote, that the event would …

… be the means of strengthening the ties of international brotherhood, and consolidating those common interests of humanity which makes for Peace and social progress; as well as giving an immense stimulus to the great movement towards the new era, when, society renewed upon a sound economic basis, the earth shall be for man and the fullness thereof.

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Crane continued in the same millennarian spirit:

The possibilities of life on the earth under such a change of system – and it is only a change of system – are as yet but dimly and partially apprehended; but to anyone who can read the signs of the times everything points to the approach of such great economic changes as those indicated, and consciously or unconsciously we may be all, whether rich or poor, factors in their evolution …  

Rival Revolutionaries, 1896-1900:

Meanwhile, the Hyndman group continued to dominate the politics of the SDF, greeting with scorn and vituperation the slightest sign of deviation from an uncompromising hostility to all other parties. Ramsay Macdonald and the Fabian leaders were especially singled out for criticism. When, in 1895, George Lansbury, who stood for Walworth as an SDF Parliamentary candidate, ventured to speak in his manifesto of the transformation of society by peaceful means, he was severely taken to task by Hyndman for his apparent abandonment of what the latter saw as the true revolutionary attitude. Yet in spite of these defects, the SDF continued to provide a serious challenge to the ILP as the leading Socialist party. In 1898 it claimed a total of 137 branches, twice as many as it had in 1893, and roughly two-thirds of the ILP figure.

Since the 1895 General Election, it had gained ground at the expense of the ILP and its leaders were willing to support a merger with the ILP since they knew they would no longer be submerged. It was more overtly ‘Socialist’ both in its title and programme. Members of the Federation were expected to make a real attempt to master the theory of Marxism, and even Lansbury’s Bow and Bromley Socialists wearily struggled with ‘Das Kapital’ and Engels’ ‘Socialism, Utopian and Scientific’. This was far more than the ILP branches were prepared to do. Also, there were many who had joined the SDF because they were hostile to the ILP for a variety of reasons, not least because it was not sufficiently democratic, a criticism shared by Blatchford. It was for these reasons that William Morris rejoined the party a short time before his death in 1896. Morris had come to accept the need for political action but was suspicious of Hardie, dating from the days when the latter was closely associated with Champion. In 1894, a young member of the SDF heard Morris speaking for the party in Manchester:

The last time I saw Morris, he was speaking from a lorry pitched on a piece of waste land close to the Ship Canal. … It was a wild March Sunday morning, and he would not have been asked to speak out of doors, but he had expressed a desire to do so, and so there he was., talking with quiet strenuousness, drawing a laugh now and then from the undulating crowd, of working men mostly, who stood in the hollow and on the slopes before him. There would be quite two thousand of them. He wore a blue overcoat, but had laid aside his hat; and his grizzled hair blew in wisps and tumbles about his face. … In spite of the bitter cold of the morning, scarcely a man moved from the crowd; though there was comparatively little fire or fervour in the speech, and next to no allusion to any special topic of the hour. Many there were hearing and seeing the man for the first time; most of us were hearing from him for the last time; and we all looked and listened as though we knew it.

When Morris died two years later, aged sixty-two, the sense of loss which was felt by fellow Socialists was summed up by Robert Blatchford, the ILP’er and editor of The Clarion:

I cannot help feeling that it does not matter what goes into ‘the Clarion’ this week, because William Morris is dead. And what Socialist will care for any other news this week, beyond that one sad fact?  … He was our best man… It is true that much of his work still lives, and will live. But we have lost him, and, great as was his work, he himself was greater … Though his words fell like sword strokes, one always felt that the warrior was stronger than the sword. For Morris was not only a genius, he was a man. Strike him where you would, he rang true…

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Morris’ greatest contribution to the socialist movement was the inspiration he provided, as Blatchford suggested, more as a man than as a theorist. In fact, the future for British Socialism lay not in revolution, as Morris had thought, but in a gentler, reformist approach, specifically through the election to Parliament of the ILP candidates. Nevertheless, the Socialist League in its short life played a vital role in forming that party; its stronghold was in the north, not in London, and this is was from these roots that the party sprang, whereas the SDF was strongest in the south. Morris did, to some extent, succeed in educating the working classes in Socialism, even though the results were not exactly what he had hoped they would be. It is more difficult to assess his influence on Socialism and socialist thought in the longer term. Recent revaluations suggest that his contribution in this area may have been undervalued and that he was a more substantial political theorist than has been realised. The ‘Marxist’ historian E P Thompson suggests that Morris’ essential contribution to British Socialism was his stress on a moral and humane element, on the importance of community and fellowship, and that this was a necessary complement to the more cerebral Marxist economic analysis.

Poverty & Progress at the Turn of a New Century:

The final years of the century were a time of sharply rising industrial militancy and the ‘imperial issue’ of Ireland: Of all these issues around the world, the issue of Home Rule for Ireland was the one that  roused most interest, not simply because it was the closest to home and mixed with religious differences but also because it divided the Liberal Party as well as the workers. But it was the issue of poverty which began to attract men of social conscience, most notably the shipowners Charles Booth and the chocolate manufacturer Seebohm Rowntree, who began to investigate it, quantify it and to record its reality and extent in irrefutable detail for the first time. At the beginning of the 1890s, thirty per cent of London’ population fell on or below Booth’s ‘poverty line’, which increased to 68% in Southwark and 65% in Greenwich, and Rowntree’s figure for York in 1899 was not much lower than these. Cases of real want could no longer be dismissed as unrepresentative. So low or intermittent were earnings that many families had incomes which were below the level needed for the maintenance of physical health and strength even if excellent housekeepers had been available to ensure that not even a farthing was spent on non-essential items. Rowntree calculated that in York in 1899, almost ten per cent of the population (15.5% of all wage earners) lived in primary poverty, below the ‘poverty line’, and this figure was considered to be not untypical of other provincial towns.  It was small wonder, therefore, that just over a third of those who volunteered for military service between 1893 and 1902 were rejected on medical grounds, and fears of national physical deterioration began to alarm the more conservative elements in the country and allied them with those whose consciences had been stirred by the social investigators ‘arithmetic of woe’.

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Above: A Sunderland slum, c.1889: Squalor was all too often the fate of the industrial working class. By-laws regulated new building, but slums like these were to take another forty years to clear.

The growing urbanisation of the country which many thought was aggravating the problems of the poor also made it possible to deal with the worst social injustices. Towns provided an increasing range of free services and local government expenditure began to increase. Workmen’s trains and, from the 1890s, electric tramcars, together with the availability of cheap, second-hand bicycles, enabled wage-earners to escape from overcrowded town centres to the suburbs. And the spread of multiple shops such as Sainsbury’s and Lipton’s from the 1860s onwards was also an urban phenomenon, as were Saturday afternoon sporting events, excursions by train, and the music halls.

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The preference for smaller families, which became more marked among the middle classes in the later nineteenth century, was beginning to spread to the working classes, thus making the lives of married women considerably better, but this was a gradual change. The photo (right) shows the Gulliver family in c.1899, the children of an agricultural labourer and a domestic servant, on the steps of their cottage in Ufton, Warwickshire. A further seven siblings were added in the following decade. There were also the beginnings of greater employment opportunities for single women. The reforms of secondary education after 1870 led to new grammar schools offering scholarships to bright young people of both sexes, providing them with a better start in life than their parents had had. There was also more time for leisure. C Stella Davies recalled her memories of the Clarion Cycle Club at this time:

At the club-house, after a ride through the lanes of Cheshire or over the Derbyshire hills, we ate an enormous tea of ham, pickles, jam and cake of such solidity that we called it a “tram-stopper” … Washing-up followed, after which we cleared the tables away for either a meeting, a play or a concert, finishing the evening by dancing … By ten o’ clock we were shooting down Schools Hill, bunches of wild flowers tied to our handle-bars, apples in our pockets, the wind lifting our hair …

The State of the Socialist ‘Cause’ & Labour’s ‘Turning Point’:

The Socialists, whether in the Socialist League, the SDF or the ILP, were the only active political group who were interested in bringing an independent working-class political party into being. They alone could provide a programme which would make it distinct and separate from the existing parties. Without such a programme, as Engels realised, there could be no such party on a permanent basis, and every attempt to found one would fail. Even after the foundation of a Labour Party by the coming together of the trades unions with the socialist societies at the beginning of the twentieth century, its political independence remained in doubt until in 1918 it accepted a Socialist constitution. In addition, the Socialists possessed faith in the righteousness and ultimate victory of their cause which acted as a powerful driving force. This ‘faith’ was based, ultimately, on the analysis of society first presented by Marx and Engels in their Communist Manifesto of 1848 and elaborated in their subsequent writings. This analysis was modified by Hyndman and the Fabians and simplified for popular consumption by Morris, Blatchford and Hardie. To its working-class adherents, it gave a sense of purpose and pride in their class consciousness; to middle-class progressives, it afforded the consolation that they were working in harmony with contemporary social change.

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Socialism had the dynamic quality of a faith devoutly held which was capable of conquering social realities. It had this quality for the early members of the SDF, the Socialist League and the ILP. Just as now, it led them into making foolish statements, such as…

If Socialism were the law in England every worker would get at least four times his present wages for half his present work, or this country is capable of feeding more than treble her present population. 

But ‘the faith’ did not stand or fall by the publication of illusory and inaccurate figures: it depended much less on ‘reason’ than on deeper and simpler forces in human nature. G. B. Shaw summed this up in his 1897 article, The Illusions of Socialism, in which he wrote:

Socialism wins its disciples by presenting civilization as a popular melodrama, or as a Pilgrim’s Progress through suffering, trial, and combat against the powers of evil to the bar of poetic justice with paradise beyond.

It was this crusading zeal which drew attention to the Socialists in the eighties and enabled them to have an influence in British politics far beyond what their numbers justified. They made up in energy and enthusiasm for their lack of numbers: in spite of their eccentricities and discords, they formed a political élite.  When it came to fighting elections, speaking at street corners, canvassing and delivering manifestos, the man with the red tie was worth a score of his more easy-going trade-unionists, a fact that the union leaders were obliged to take into account in drawing up the terms of the alliance in 1900. Not all the Socialists, however, could claim to have made a valuable contribution to the formation of the new party. The SDF had originated in a labour revolt against the National Liberal Federation, yet in the course of a few years, it came to embody a sectarian exclusiveness and hostility to all save the adherents to its own narrow creed. Engels himself resented the way it had managed to reduce the Marxist theory of development to a rigid orthodoxy. Hyndman’s was a doctrinaire radicalism, full of echoes of Tom Paine and the Jacobins, but devoid of any astute revolutionary technique. It was primarily to defend his more collaborative strategy that Hardie fought tooth and nail against a merger with the SDF. His attitude was justified by the attitude of the SDF leadership at the critical moment of the formation of the new party and their decision to secede eighteen months later.

The fact was, as George Lansbury understood better than Hyndman, that the British working class as a whole had no use for the concept of violent revolution, and that any leader who failed to recognise this could not expect to win widespread support. Economic grievances could temporarily arouse bitter discontent as they had done in the early period of the industrial revolution: the Norwich shoemakers who joined the Socialist League were, like the Chartist hand-loom weavers before them, making a protest against an industrial system which had no place for their craftsmanship. But fractures and dislocations of this kind were transitory events: a permanent political organisation of the working class needed to disavow the use of violence. Only those who recognised this could effectively move forward to the formation of a Labour Party. The Fabian Society performed the essential service of adapting Marxist theory to a form compatible with British constitutional practice, drawing heavily on indigenous radical and liberal ideas. But the Fabians had no direct involvement in the establishment of the Labour Representation Committee and were never ready to believe that the time was ripe for the creation of a new party. The failure of their policy of permeation, in which they had placed such high hopes, turned their complacency to depression, and by the end of the century, most of the members of the Society were beginning, like Shaw, to distrust existing democratic processes.

Apart from the early efforts of Engels and the Marx-Avelings, it is Champion and his associates who deserve the credit for devoting themselves to the formation of a Labour Party. From 1893 onwards, the ILP began to provide examples of the value of independence. It had the initial support of Engels, and Aveling helped to draw up its programme. Within the limits of constitutionalism, it seemed to be determined to fight its battles without compromise. It governed itself by means of a supreme annual conference, a democratic device inherited from the trades unions, but not at that time adopted by any political party. The ILP also showed that poor as it was, it could fight elections against both Liberals and Conservatives and yet secure polls that were no discredit to the cause. Yet it was clearly a party with a future; and, given the support of the trade unions, it was obvious that the future would be rich in Parliamentary success. The greatest achievement of Keir Hardie and his ILP lay in the capture of trade union support as early as 1900. In the same year, Pete Curran of the ILP Council addressed the Congress of the Second International, striking a self-confident tone about the state of the labour movement as a whole in his critique of imperialism at home and abroad:

Great efforts are now being made in England to convince the trade unionists that the colonial policy is in their interests … But the English trade unionists are not to be caught with those fine words … And if the jingoes rejoice in the fact that England has become a great country on which the sun never sets, then I say that in England there are thousands of homes on which the sun has never risen.

The whole strategy of the ILP from its foundation had been based on the conception of collaboration with trade unionists with the ultimate objective of tapping trade-union funds for the eventual attainment of Parliamentary power. Eventually, even William Morris had to accept that the purity of the Socialist Cause was worth nothing without the power to enact its policies and that this power could only be enacted through parliamentary means and pluralistic methods. That may be a lesson that its current adherents in the Labour Party need to learn afresh. Let’s hope it doesn’t take them a further thirty or forty years to do so; at least they are not building from scratch.

 

Sources:

Christine Poulson (2002), William Morris. Royston: Quantum Publishing.

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

Henry Pelling (1965), Origins of the Labour Party. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Walter Crane (1896; 1976), Cartoons for the Cause, 1886-1896. London: Twentieth Century Press/ Journeyman Press.

Theo Barker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman, 1750-1960. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

John Walton et. al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

 

Posted December 9, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Austerity, Baptists, Britain, British history, Cartoons, Charity, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Colonisation, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Conservative Party, democracy, Demography, East Anglia, Education, Egalitarianism, Empire, Factories, Family, Fertility, History, Home Counties, Ireland, Irish history & folklore, Labour Party, Leisure, liberal democracy, liberalism, Literature, Marriage, marriage 'bar', Marxism, Maternity, Methodism, Midlands, Militancy, Millenarianism, Monuments, Narrative, Nonconformist Chapels, Oxford, Population, populism, Poverty, Proletariat, Reconciliation, Recreation, Scotland, Socialist, south Wales, Trade Unionism, tyranny, Unemployment, United Kingdom, Utopianism, Victorian, Wales, West Midlands, William Morris

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The Long March of Every Woman: Gender, ‘Community’ & Poverty in British Labour History, 1928-38; III.   Leave a comment

Chapter Three: Patterns of Poverty & Kinship Networks.

The predominance of ‘King Coal’ in the valleys of South Wales was revealed in the occupational statistics of the 1921 Census, showing that more than seventy-five percent of the total occupied male occupation in the Garw Valley was engaged in mining, with only five percent engaged in commerce, finance or the professions. An equally important statistic was that only twelve percent of the female population, aged twelve and over, was ‘occupied’ outside the home, with thirty-nine percent of this number engaged in personal service and thirty-seven percent in commerce, finance and the professions. In addition, besides the eight clergymen in Pontycymmer in 1926, there were only three other ‘private residents’. Outside the home, the world of waged work was overwhelmingly male and working class, even more so than in the towns at the heads of the valleys.

By 1931, there was no evidence to suggest that unemployment had prompted a shift in employment patterns in the Garw. According to the industry tables, which excluded the unemployed, more than four-fifths in the Ogmore and Garw Urban District were to be found in mining. There was an increase in the proportion of both male and female workers in commerce, finance and the professions, but only thirty percent of women were to be found in this category; there was still more than thirty-six percent in personal service. These ‘dead-end’ valleys were so dependent upon coal-mining that the ‘knock-on’ effect which unemployment in that industry had upon other industries and trade within them, had nothing to counteract it. Merthyr and Brynmawr, by comparison, could at least offer themselves as shopping, distributive and entertainment centres to a large number of people within a wide radius.

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A Section of the 1921 Edition of the Ordnance Survey Map showing the Garw Valley from Blaengarw to Pontycymmer.

In June 1937, it was reported that the coal industry had been in recovery since January, with each of the three collieries in Blaengarw working at full pressure… with bright prospects of regular employment. In these six months, many new hands had been taken on, resulting in a steady decline in the numbers signing on at the local exchange. Later that year, the new oil-from-coal plant at Wentarw and the beginning of full production at the Bridgend shell-filling factory relieved the unemployment situation still further. The first of these provided work for between two and three thousand workers; the second went on to become the largest ammunition filling factory in Britain, employing 34,000 workers at its wartime peak. It also altered the gender balance in employment, as the majority of these new workers were women and girls drawn from a wide radius around Bridgend and from as far afield as Aberdare. A third means of relief was the establishment of a trading estate at Port Talbot, which also recruited many female workers. By August 1939 there were just twelve percent registered unemployed at the Pontycymmer exchange in the Garw and the insured population had risen dramatically, by fifty-five percent between July 1937 and July 1938, almost regaining its 1926 level. Besides the recovery in the coal industry, a significant part of the increase must have been to the numbers of young women who entered employment for the first time to work in Bridgend.

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Therefore, the coal villages of the Garw Valley, for so long so overwhelmingly dominated by male employment, were undergoing a process of major transformation, which was further accelerated by the advent of war. The Garw valley undoubtedly enjoyed a significant share of these new industries from 1937 onwards, with the economic focus of the valleys as a whole shifting from top to bottom. However, both the establishment of the new industries and the recovery of the collieries still left a residual problem of unemployment among older men throughout the valleys, not just in the communities at the valley heads. In many mining families, like the Allports in Pant-y-gog in the Garw, the wives had also been shop-keepers, taking as much as a hundred pounds a day in the prosperous early twenties. By 1927 this prosperity had turned into a struggle for survival. The children recalled how…

… the shop kept going but people got poorer and unemployment crept in… The amount of money coming into the shops got less and less and we were practically giving the stuff away, making no profit. The windows became empty and the bottles of sweets went. Eventually we stopped taking any stock… the trade in the shop had gone; there was insufficient to live on. The shop was only rented and we gave it up. I think mother had something for the goodwill, not very much because the trade had gone.

Thus, the effects of widespread unemployment and impoverishment were often felt most acutely by shopkeepers in terms of a comparative fall in the standard of living and this was precisely the group which were least able either to ask for or to find support within mining communities. Despite their involvement in institutional activities, especially in chapel life, there would inevitably be a certain ‘distance’ between them and mining families, even members of the shopkeepers’ family worked as miners.

These points are exemplified, in pathetic detail, by events of July 1928 concerning one shop-keeping family in the valley. The Glamorgan Gazette reported how one Saturday morning, Blaengarw was plunged into gloom and overwhelmed by poignant sorrow when the bodies of a married shop-keeping couple, who had carried on a grocery business in Nanthir Road, Blaengarw for many years and were faithful adherents of Tabernacle C M Church. The tragedy became the sole topic of conversation and when the bodies were brought home on Saturday afternoon an immense crowd had collected, women shedding tears at the pitiable sight they witnessed. The couple had commenced on the bottom rung of the ladder and had worked their way up to being ‘comfortably off’ before the strike of 1921. However, since that date, they had given all of their surpluses away in goods to local people and were threatened with bankruptcy. They were both in their mid-forties and had a fourteen-year-old son. The woman was the daughter of a former under-manager at the Ocean Colliery and her brother was a teacher in the Garw. Her husband wrote the following messages for their niece, their son, and the chapel:

Goodbye, Gwyneth fach; always serve God well… Oh! How hard it is to leave you behind, Ewryd annwyl… but we can’t bear the strain any longer…

Christian friends… we have been unable to do our part for a long time owing to financial troubles… Haven’t done anyone wilfully down, but all is against us.

The funeral was reported a representative of every trade and profession in the district. The suicide was seen as a marker of the loss of power and status endured by the community as a whole since it stemmed from the couple’s sense of isolation, demoralisation, and loss of respectability. As the depression progressed, their case was followed by others.

Housing conditions in the valley varied a great deal. Houses in Pant-y-gog, lower down the valley, were comfortable and spacious, with a parlour, living room, kitchen and three bedrooms. Those renting terraced cottages from the colliery companies frequently had three adults and eight children living in fur rooms.  One house in Nanthir Road, Blaengarw not only ad an outside toilet but an outside water supply and pantry as well, no modernisation anywhere. Many of the houses were erected in the 1880s before housing bylaws were introduced to the Garw Valley, and the degree of control exercised over housing stock by the coal companies was far greater than in the heads of the valleys’ towns. In 1926 the Ogmore and Garw UDC had discussed the acute housing shortage within the District, and the following year it heard how a terrace in Pontycymmer was plagued with dampness, extensive dilapidation and cracked external walls which were leaning dangerously towards the road. The report went on:

Movement of the houses is occuring almost daily, as evidenced by falls of plaster from bedroom ceilings. The houses are a source of danger to the inhabitants.

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Porth, in the Rhondda, also suffered continually from ‘subsidence’ because deep pits found their own levels, downwards. According to Gwyn Thomas, who grew up there in the 1920s, these land-slips not only brought houses down, quite literally, but they had a further impact on a community already coming to terms with economic instability:

…the valley seemed like a living gloss on the holy texts. We saw clear signs of God’s wrath in the antics of the sub-soil. When the foundations beneath a house slipped ans set the rooms awry we could not be convinced that the tenants had not been up to something… A whole culture of instability flourished. Constant oratorios were warned that our game of insolence with God had been lost and the final bill would be delivered shortly… it was the malaise underfoot that underscored most of the images that we were to carry through life begetting jokes of exasperating stamina, and giving to us all a sense of absurdity that was far and away the fittest thing about us… These elements in our private myth, under pressure of a wider awareness, created their own kind of psychological subsidence.

Despite the worsening conditions of the housing stock, many families were also threatened with eviction. Much of the housing was privately-owned, and evictions for non-payment were a regular occurrence.  In Council-owned property, rent arrears had reached such crisis proportions by May 1931 that the Ogmore and Garw UDC decided to reduce rent by two shillings per week. Many houses were said to be in a dilapidated condition for want of tenants, so it was hoped that, by reducing rents, the UDC would get these occupied again. The collection of rates was also a difficult issue for the local council. As early as 1928, The Glamorgan Gazette commented that large numbers of people in the district who paid their rates willingly in times of prosperity were finding it impossible to do so under the new conditions of poverty. Arrears were mounting alarmingly and it was therefore with the greatest reluctance that the UDC had decided to summon a number of defaulters. In total 144 people were prosecuted and despite the pathos surrounding their undoubtedly bad circumstances, the magistrates were compelled to make orders. This process kept them occupied for several hours, under circumstances which would have taxed the well-known ingenuity and wisdom of Solomon. Most of those who attended were women, most of them having pathetic stories to tell. 

Besides these fixed outgoings for rent and rates, many residents in the valley also made regular contributions to their own health care, and appear to have continued to do so in spite of the impact of the depression on their incomes. There was a widespread feeling in the valleys that the National Health Insurance Scheme provided inadequate cover in times of sickness. Medical Aid Societies and hospital contributory schemes continued to be popular throughout the coalfield. In the Garw there were 3,519 insured contributors to the Garw Valley Medical Society, with a further 2,800 dependents standing to benefit from this. This form of ‘self-help’ was one of the major strengths of the valley, running through an institutional life which some disparaged as the multiplicity of small clubs and benefit societies. Perhaps due to being ‘hemmed in’ geographically, the community felt the need to provide for itself in terms of a complete range of social services, facilities for cultural activities and entertainment as well as forums for discussion, debate and education.

The Pontycymmer Industrial Co-operative Society was perhaps the best example of this. In May 1927 its members totalled 3,444 members with a further 1,400 dependants, and a modest shop in Pontycymmer had developed into extensive central premises with offices, a bakery, a garage and stables. Although its sales within the valley were considerable, they comprised only a third of its total sales of 63,465 pounds throughout the District and beyond. A dividend of a shilling in the pound was paid to members, amounting to 2,694 pounds in total. Having survived the six-month coal stoppage, the Pontycymmer Co-op Society was in good shape to face the depression years and must have enabled many housewives to survive them.

To many working-class women throughout Britain during the thirties, the ‘divi’ was as important as payday and the declaration of the amount to be paid as a dividend on purchases was awaited with desperate anticipation. The dividend on purchases had been a wise element in the pioneers’ scheme of co-operation, for it was popular with the poor, according to their ideas on justice and equity that those who had been most loyal in shopping at the Co-operative should be better regarded and rewarded as consumers. Despite the depression years the Co-ops flourished, having a close knowledge of the requirements of working-class families and the prices they could afford to pay. The cash dividend would be paid twice a year, varying from Society to Society but often paying two shillings in the pound. To a housewife who had traded steadily during the year, the money could bring an additional week’s wages, arriving in time to buy new boots for the children or provide a few luxuries for Christmas.

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Deep loyalty was bred during the inter-war years between working-class families and the Co-operatives, the movement frequently lending support to trade unions at times of distress, as well as to the Labour Party and its MPs. Free boot repairs for hunger marchers, free bread for strikers’ children, extended credit in the form of food vouchers, interest-free loans to unions during prolonged strikes and constant support for the Labour cause through the Co-operative paper, Reynolds News, could not be matched by the Home and Colonial Stores and The Daily Mail, supporting the Conservative Party. The photograph above shows the ‘divi’ at the Co-operative Union in Manchester in the thirties.

Although most ‘respectable’ women in coalfield communities would never go into a pub, and children were not allowed to visit houses where a woman was known to drink, there was a ‘rough’ or ‘common’ sub-culture in public houses and clubs, which does not seem to have suffered unduly from the depression. Judging from the fairly frequent reports of drunkenness in the local press, there were a large number of people in the valley with enough surplus money to be able to buy alcohol on a regular basis. Thomas Baker Williams, the Licensee of the Royal Hotel in Pontycymmer, was summoned for permitting drunkenness on his premises on more than one occasion. At his appearance in Court in June 1928, evidence was given of a night on which the Bridgend Road was, by ten O’clock, crowded with men and women many of whom were drunk and the men were shouting and quarrelling. Two women had started to fight in the jug and bottle department and had used the most filthy language. In all, there were some 250 people on the scene, many of them under the influence of drink. Williams defended himself in somewhat comical style by saying that the cause of the trouble was the fact that he sold the best beer and thereby drew the biggest crowd.

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The Rhondda writer Gwyn Thomas’ 1979 lecture told of how drunkenness in Porth was of a savage intensity, especially on a Saturday night when his family’s street that ran a thousand feet up the hillside filled with a roaring rout of inebriates from the five or six local pubs. There was such frequent and fierce fighting that it was a wonder that murder was not more often done, probably due to the difficulty of placing a good punch on the sloping ground. Thomas recalled a particularly devout and zealous chapel-going neighbour who lay in wait in her little front garden that overlooked the swaying tide of reprobates:

She swung a brass-bound Bible at any heads that came near and if she brained a drunkard or two her week was made. Repairs to her Bible were done free by a pious locksmith. The desperate infantilism of the drunks was easy to understand because the contract with reality was never more bleakly reaffirmed on the Sabbath than between those hills… The anguish of intelligent, overburdened men with hangovers must have been considerable as the marvellous valley acoustic brought home to them the rub of folly in a double-dealing and wholly inadequate world. The plight of women in that time of dark philogenetic romps and squalors is something from which I still turn my mind.

The choice was clear for women: if you went to the pub, to the ‘snug’ at least, you couldn’t go to the chapel. Nevertheless, much of the social life of the valley continued to revolve around the chapels, despite the financial and other difficulties which beset them. Each of the seventeen places of worship in the valley supported choirs, each with a reputation, and the Tabernacle Welsh Congregational Church Choral Society consisted of over a hundred voices and performed before crowded audiences. Choral festivals, Eisteddfodau and Gymanfa Ganu (Community Singing events) continued to attract huge congregations throughout the thirties. Thus, although many chapels felt at first hand the full impact of the impoverishment of a large number of its members, they were certainly not abandoned by them and left to stagnate in a process of terminal decline. Nor, in turn, did the chapels abandon their unemployed members. In fact, The Gazette reported that the chapels were continually vying with each other in efforts for the alleviation of the widespread distress. 

It was the musical tradition established in the chapels which laid the basis for the Garw’s claim to be one of the most musical valleys in South Wales.  Its musical organisations included the Garw Operatic Society, the Garw Male Voice Society, which enjoyed success at the National Eisteddfod, Garw Ladies’ Choir, the Blaengarw Kit Kat Operatic Society and the Pontycymmer Choral Society. Some of these societies had more than two hundred members and the Male Voice Society had a membership of twice that in 1926. Both Blaengarw and Pontycymmer had orchestral societies and silver bands. The valley also produced individual vocalists of considerable ability, including Jennie Ellis who won ‘the National’ six times. In addition, the valley had a strong amateur dramatic tradition which was enhanced by the writer Jack Jones during his brief sojourn in the valley. Perhaps partly due to his departure, these societies declined after 1931, and some of the orchestras also merged, probably due to the extent of migration from the valley.

From 1928, the predominance of the Labour Party in local politics was strengthened through the active participation of women, who formed themselves into a Women’s Labour Section. Although still in its infancy in 1928, it had over a hundred members. It was pre-dated by a Women’s Section of the ILP, one of whose leading members was Mrs Sarah Jones of Pontycymmer, a pioneer of the ILP and the Suffragette movement, the Chairman of the Party in the valley and a member of the English Congregational Church. The level of political organisation of women in the valley was undoubtedly an important resource for the community, particularly during the 1929 dispute, but also throughout the thirties.

Elsewhere in depressed Britain, Salford in Manchester was aided by the women of Chichester, as a fund had been inaugurated by their Bishop in 1933. The ‘Five Silent Ladies of Sussex’ as they were known, lived in Salford for three months, collecting data. Shortly afterwards, two men’s centres and a woman’s centre were opened. Called “The Challenge”, the women’s centre did not succeed as a centre for single unemployed women, but when it invited married women to join, it was swamped with women and children. They had to cope with the problem of distributing second-hand clothing fairly.  Garments were altered by women who had been mill hands since the age of fourteen but had not learnt to sew. An instructor taught them on two afternoons per week, and the women earned their garments by the number of hours they worked at alterations, as well making bedding. The centre opened a ‘shop’ to organise the distribution of the garments, and Christmas parcels.

Tyneside had about seventy thousand unemployed in 1936. It also had some of the worse housing conditions in Britain, far worse than those in most areas of South Wales, including an incidence of overcrowding which was three-time the national average. It also had an even lower standard of living among the unemployed, but the conditions were more accepted by the local people, since mass unemployment had not been so long-term, resulting mainly from the closure of the shipyards, which did not occur until the 1930s. Social surveys proved scientifically the extent of the social murder in the towns. In 1932, the local branch of the National Council of Women launched a Tyneside Housing Crusade Week in order to present the facts about housing, the cost to the community of bad housing, to stimulate building, relieve unemployment and to demonstrate modern possibilities of living efficiently. Ten Local Authorities out of seventeen took part.

The General Election of 1931 was one of misery for the Labour Party as they fought the most divisive contest in the history of the movement, before or since. Pledged to solve the problem of unemployment, in 1929 the newly-appointed Minister for Unemployment, J H Thomas, had boasted, I have the cure, as he hob-nobbed with bankers and watched the number of registered unemployed soar from 1,163,000 on taking office to 2,500,000 within eighteen months. Wal Hannington, the Communist leader of the workless, remarked sarcastically that as Minister for the Unemployed, J H Thomas is a howling success. The government ignored the arguments of the TUC that cutting expenditure and wages would only cause further unemployment, and accepted the advice of the May Committee to cut expenditure by ninety-six million, two-thirds of which would come from cuts in unemployment maintenance. Ernest Bevin and Walter Citrine led a delegation to the Cabinet Committee and declared total hostility to the cuts. McDonald formed his National Government with the Conservatives and Liberals and the fight was a straight fight between the Labour Party and the other parties in office led by McDonald. Labour representation in the house was cut from 289 to 46. Ernie Bevin, pictured on the left in the photo below, contested the supposedly safe seat of Gateshead (Labour majority 16,700) and lost to the National Liberal, by 12,938 votes.

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At Gateshead, Rev. Maldwyn Edwards, Methodist Minister ran a centre for the unemployed connected to his church, the Central Hall, which he based on a questionnaire completed by its members. This meant that his knowledge and understanding of their problems was outstanding. He later wrote a book which was never published, but it gives an evocative insight into conditions among local families in the 1930s. In 1932, he recorded, there were three and a half thousand families living in one room and nearly thirty percent of the population lived in officially overcrowded housing. In spite of this, most houses were clean, with curtains at the windows which showed a desire for colour and beauty, but these could not hide the grim if silent battles going on inside:

The families had a constant struggle against sickness and poverty, so hope died and they became apathetic. Rats were a real problem in some areas, and the mortality from epidemics in some parts of the town was twice that of other parts.

The diet was inadequate, but most housewives baked their own bread: fresh milk and butter were rare. Breakfast was tea, bread and margarine with a little fried bacon once a week. Dinner on Saturday night might be a hot joint, stew or pot pie, then Monday cold meat, then the rest of the week peas pudding, leek pudding, occasionally fish and chips, or tripe, or just bread and margarine, always with plenty of tea… 

Clothes and household necessities could not be bought outright, so the only thing to do was to get on an agent’s list, so everything was more expensive to the very poor. In 1933 there were thirty-seven children without shoes and stockings, and 138 children with unsatisfactory footwear, so the children least nourished and therefore least fortified against the weather were worst clad.  Secondhand clothing was not easy to come by, but the Personal Service League had a huge emporium for distribution… Some insurance was organised by slate clubs which met in pubs rent-free, but there were also Brotherhood Thrift Clubs and Friendly Societies which had many members and were on a sounder basis…

But many of the unemployed did not belong to a friendly society, but went to the doctor when illness occurred and paid him weekly afterwards. Then there were dispensary letters given to contributors to hospital funds and distributed. But the amount given was half that collected: these were most wasteful of money, time and energy. The Nursing Association of Gateshead supplied a good and cheap service: the householder paid a penny a week which ensured visits from a nurse in time of need.

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It was his first-hand experience of the failure of the friendly societies to organise health insurance schemes which convinced Aneurin Bevan, as a young MP in Ebbw Vale, that there must be a free national health service funded by taxation.

There was a ‘penny in the slot’ gas meter in most homes in Gateshead: most cooking was done over the fire, however, as there were few cookers and practically no electricity installed. Families with pit connections were extravagant with coal, but people who lived in dark and damp houses needed extra heat and light. Sudden illnesses, deaths and emergencies created further expenses which could not be met; debts might mean court proceedings and belongings seized:

A desperate situation might result in a “moonlight flit”. These things were not always the result of improvidence: those who needed a doctor most could not afford to have one. The poor have a monotonous routine: they cannot have a holiday: they pay more for what they need.

The men at Edwards’ Centre were not ‘typical’ as they all belonged to a club in which drinking and gambling were not allowed, but, as the minister himself pointed out, there was no such thing as a typical unemployed man anyway. In general, there was a large amount of street betting, also an interest in boxing, football and dogs, with an alarming growth in the football ‘Pools’. The men at the centre spent an average of threepence ha’penny per head on amusements plus about a shilling per week on tobacco. They may have had a day in the country or at the seaside once or twice a year. There were daily papers provided at the Centre and there were fellowship rambles, cycle rides, services, Brotherhood meetings, young men’s classes, billiards and a mission reading room. But most men could only make use of the club after they had been out looking for work in order to earn their unemployment benefit or allowance. One of the men had been out of work for fifteen years, ever since his demobilisation. ‘Genuinely Seeking Work’ for up to twelve hours a day took its toll on bicycles as well as boots, which restricted the number of bikes available for pleasurable community rides. Often father and son had to share one bicycle in two daily shifts.

Nevertheless, the Centre helped to improve the quality of life in the family, if not the standard of living. One man said that since going to the centre he did not nag his wife and children so much. Another said that walking in the sunshine built him up to face the winter:

Being unemployed is a nightmare, but somehow I thrust away the worried feeling I used to endure, but I lack concentration as work is always at the back of my mind.

Several men gave regular times to help to help their wives, have family walks, and visit their parents. A few visited the Training Centre to do cobbling on a regular basis. One man had done extra-mural university courses, but he too found it difficult to persevere due to…

… the haunting sense of insecurity and the continual worry of not being able to balance the family budget; in times of stress he could not concentrate on subjects of only academic interest, saying, “The stomach does not give the soul a chance!” Unemployment is not leisure: the latter implies peace of mind, a quiet place to retreat, so education for leisure cannot help the unemployed very much if men have acute financial, family and work problems.

Rev. Maldwyn Edwards wrote that the gap between the real needs of people and their actual purchasing power had to be understood: Production does not reach saturation point until every man, woman and child have sufficient for their needs, so it is purchasing power that is needed. People needed goods but could not buy them. He also pointed out that there was important work to be done amongst the wives and children of the unemployed, who often needed more help and support than the men. There were women’s institutes and ‘sisterhoods’ in most towns and villages in the country, but the problems of juveniles, both male and female, needed more thought, especially those of school-leavers, who did not all take advantage of scouts, guides and similar organisations. Mr Edwards thought that no club was better than a church club wisely conducted, since, at the very least, it could offer housing and heating. Some in his congregation thought that the men would not respect the rooms, but Edwards found this to be false and argued that a church should open its doors to the community and make its premises useful to club members who in return may develop an interest in the church.

Men in particular thought that the church was an ally of the ruling classes and dope for the workers. And yes, it was possible to keep talking about the Christian ideal of service without ever doing anything: man cannot live without bread, but he does not live by bread alone. The church’s role was to restore self-respect by showing that each of us is known to God and each of us has an individual destiny to fulfil. But there was no credal test for the membership of the club and the only activity the members of the club were obliged to attend, but which was not compulsory, was the weekly brotherhood meeting every Tuesday afternoon, lasting for ninety minutes and consisting of popular hymns, solos and a devotional address. Naturally, no drinking or gambling was allowed, and card games, whist drives and dancing were forbidden. These prohibitions meant that some men would not associate with the Methodist club, but it was still the largest Centre on the whole of Tyneside. Edwards argued that many other churches could have run an unemployed centre without great extra cost, since the church premises had to be moderately heated anyway, ready for church use. For Edwards, however, the imperative for the church’s involvement lay in the psychological and spiritual effects of unemployment on men and their families:

No one is quicker than the unemployed man himself to feel the loss of his old status, so those who try to help must be careful not to increase his sense of inferiority… The overstrained unemployed man may break out in his family circle, later he may attend classes in economics to try to understand his position, but he feels puny and unavailing… especially if he is over fifty years… it is very difficult to persuade men to cobble shoes, to undertake carpentry, to use the workshop, to continue to attend keep fit classes, because they have lost their initiative and perseverance. The many clubs and centres only touch the fringe of the problem: most unemployed remain behind the curtains of their own rooms in loneliness and bitterness. The black-coated workers are probably in the worst position as they do not come to the Centre or mix with others. There is the fruitless search for work and looking at advertisement files for the thousandth time. It was a particularly galling situation when a son or daughter’s wages were virtually supporting the family. It was hard for the young people but most humiliating for the parents. Employment gives direction to a man – a life without direction is like driftwood upon the sea.

In the midst of mass unemployment, trade depression and crippling poverty, private landlords continued to exact a terrible tribute from the working classes. The conditions in which the vast majority of industrial and agricultural workers lived were appalling, crammed into dilapidated houses that were breeding grounds of pestilence. The slums of Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester and London ranked with the worst in the world and the landlords had first call on the wages of the workers, exacting an average of twenty percent of their income, always enforcible by the power of eviction. In the London Boroughs of St Pancras, Holborn, Finsbury, Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Poplar, Bermondsey and Southwark, four hundred thousand were living more than two to a room. In Shoreditch alone, a hundred thousand people were packed into one square mile. Workers lived in nineteenth-century tenements, like the one shown below, sharing lavatories and taps. Baths in working-class houses were virtually unknown. Others continued to live in basement flats, in a world of perpetual twilight while those fortunate enough to live in a terraced house invariably took in lodgers to meet the rent or shared the house with married sons or daughters.

In 1930, the medical officer of Hammersmith told of a man with a wife and four children living in three rooms, his income forty-five shillings a week, his rent one pound. In St Pancras, where wages were nearer fifty shillings per week, the average rent was eighteen shillings and sixpence. These did not represent the worst instances, neither were they isolated examples, since the stories could be repeated in thousands of homes throughout the land. Poverty, overcrowding and slum conditions existed not only in the ‘depressed areas’ but also, in pockets, throughout the towns and cities, including those in London, the south-East and the Midlands of England. Back-to-back houses with narrow allies between, where a dozen families shared a single communal tap like that depicted in the photograph below of Long Bank, Sunderland, were common in the north of England where overcrowding was endemic. The effects of bad housing and chronic overcrowding of the working classes were accurately reflected in the disparity between the figures for infant mortality and disease for the lower paid against those of the better paid. Tuberculosis, rickets, scarlet fever and diphtheria proliferated among the poor, rotten housing combining with undernourishment to take a wicked toll on the health of working-class children.

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In 1931, the Newport School Medical Officer found that boys at the age of fourteen at the High School were two inches taller and five pounds heavier than their contemporaries at the elementary school while the girls at the municipal secondary school were four inches higher and twenty-one pounds heavier than girls at the elementary schools. In May 1937, the South Wales Report of the Labour Party’s Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas argued that,

Special and immediate attention must be paid to nutrition. All children at school, and all juveniles and young persons receiving education or industrial training under public authorities, should receive a ration of milk and at least one good meal per day, all the year round, free of charge.

Under the maternity and child welfare services, similar provision should be made for children under five, and free milk and food should be available for expectant and nusing mothers wherever needed.                                                                           

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The Commission consisted of Hugh Dalton, MP, George Dallas, JP and Barbara Ayrton Gould, JP., as well as George Hall (MP for Aberdare) and Arthur Jenkins (MP for Pontypool), members in respect of South Wales. Written and/or oral evidence was received from Women’s Sections and Women’s Organisations from all over South Wales. The Commission also issued reports on West Cumberland, Durham and the North-East Coast, Mid-Scotland and Lancashire. A final report dealt with the problem of the Depressed Areas as a whole.

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In earlier surveys of poverty, Booth and Rowntree had developed their own definitions of poverty, but in 1933 the British Medical Association had appointed a committee to determine the minimum weekly expenditure on food which must be incurred by families of a varying size if health and working capacity are to be maintained. In the years before the war (1937-39) this minimum diet cost roughly 7s 6d per week for an adult man, with a lesser cost for women and children. In Bristol, the average cost per man in 1937 was 7s 4d, per woman 14-65, 6s 3d, and for an unemployed man or woman, it was 4s 5d. The cost per child aged 10-13 was 6s 3d, aged 5-9 4s 7d, and aged 0-4, 3s 8d. Thus, for a family made up of a man of forty with a wife who was at home looking after three children aged twelve, eight and four, the cost of the minimum diet necessary to maintain the family in health was 28s 1d. If the family spent less than this on food its health would suffer.

It was from these figures that most investigators in the second half of the thirties built their definitions of poverty. Broadly, they decided that where a family, after paying for rent, the barest minimum for clothes, fuel, lighting and cleaning, had not enough money left to buy this minimum diet, then the family was in poverty. If in the example given already, the man had been earned fifty shillings a week and paid ten shillings for rent, 16s for clothes and 5s 3d for fuel, lighting and cleaning, there would have been available 28s 9d to feed his family of five, they would have been considered to be above the “poverty line”.  Each of the main surveys modified this method of definition slightly; fundamentally, however, they all used it. When applied to a 1928 Survey of London, it was found that nearly ten percent of all working-class families in the city had to live on less than the BMA minimum. The fundamental and persisting causes of this poverty were found to be old age, the absence of a male earner and largeness of family. In addition, thirteen percent of the children and twenty-two percent of all those over sixty-four years of age in London’s working-class families were in poverty.

In any particular week, however, the numbers of those chronically impoverished would be substantially augmented by those falling temporarily below the minimum income line as a result of unemployment or illness. In any selected week of the generally prosperous year of 1928 almost ten percent of London’s working-class was in poverty, and of these thirty-seven percent were children under fourteen, and thirteen percent were over sixty-four; twenty-eight percent were wage-earners, aged fourteen to sixty-five, mostly unemployed. Practically all the balance of twenty-two percent were the women dependents of the unemployed. The relative importance of the causes of poverty found in the investigation week (out of ten) was unemployment, six, illness or absence of a male earner, three, full employment but on earnings insufficient for the size of the family, two, and old age, one.

In York in 1936, thirty-one percent of York’s working men failed to reach the meagre standard set by Seebohm Rowntree, which was below the BMA standard. The wages of adult males in the city were not, however, abnormally low compared to the rest of the country, but they were too low in relation to the numbers of mouths to be fed. What was judged adequate to remove adequate to remove poverty at most periods of the working man’s life was substantially inadequate when between the ages of thirty and forty-five, he added two or three children to his household. The average family in poverty because of inadequate wages had two dependent children. Children’s allowances at a flat rate of five shillings for every child would have lifted practically the whole of this group over the poverty threshold and wiped out nearly three-quarters of the city’s poverty. Without such an allowance in the 1930s, long years of poverty was the price a low-wage family had to pay for containing three or four children. In addition, nearly fifteen percent of all poverty in the city was caused in families where the elder members were “too old to work”. Their available income was only sufficient to provide seventy percent of the minimum diet. Two-thirds of the people in these households were aged sixty-five or over, and the bulk of their income came from state pensions and Public Assistance. Half of all the old age pensioners in York were, at the time of the survey, living in poverty.

Similar surveys were also carried out on Merseyside (1929), in Southampton (1931), Bristol (1937), and Birmingham (1939). Using the BMA’s London minimum standard, found that up to twenty percent of all working-class families in these centres were living in poverty in the week of the investigation. None of these centres was in the depressed or ‘Special Areas’ and some, like Bristol, were centres of new engineering industries. Summarising the findings of these six surveys, including London and York, the Fabian Society drew the following conclusions on the pattern of poverty in Britain between the wars,  as part of a study published in 1945:

1. In the decade before 1939, even during periods of trade boom, at least fifteen to twenty percent of all working-class people were unable, in spite of all the help of our inter-war social insurance schemes, to afford a diet that would save them from ill-health; but this figure is arrived at only if  we assume that the bottom half of the working-class is sufficiently austere to spend absolutely nothing on the comforts and pleasures of life. If we drop this unreal assumption, then it is certain that more than twenty percent were, in fact, not obtaining the minimum diet.

2. Approximately one-third of this poverty was due to the fact that unemployment benefits were inadequate; approximately another third was due to the fact that the ordinary worker’s earnings, even when he was in full and regular work, were often insufficient to feed, clothe and house more than two or three people. About half the remaining poverty was due to the fact that many working-class people, once they had passed the age of sixty-five, had little to live on except an inadequate old age pension.

3. Probably not less than twenty-five percent of working-class children were born into families that could not afford the BMA minimum diet. As they and their brothers and sisters grew up and started work the family’s hardships diminished… Often, however, this was only an interlude of comparative prosperity for the working-class man; with old age… he was left with declining earning capacity to face a degree of poverty even grimmer than that in which his grandchildren were starting life.

4. The evidence collected from half-a-dozen great cities in the ten years before the war shows that the way out of this dreary cycle is not, for the most part, in the hands of the individual worker.

Richard Titmuss’ studies in Poverty and Population, published in 1938, also looked back over the previous decade in an attempt to survey the extent, character and causes of social waste and relate the findings to the problem of an ageing and diminishing population. These studies had to be quarried from hard factual bedrock in order to break through governmental apathy and ineptitude. Titmuss set out to analyse two factors which were of great significance:

(1) that those regions suffering from economic under-privilege and most exposed to malnutrition-inducing conditions contain by far a higher proportion of our children; and…

(2) that it is only higher fertility in these regions that has prevented an earlier and probably calamitous fall in the size of the population.

He produced statistics showing that in 1936 over ten percent of deaths in south Wales occurred in children under four, compared with 8.5% in the south East of England. Infant mortality was sixty-three per thousand deaths in south Wales, compared with just forty-seven in south-east England. He calculated that five thousand excess deaths occurred among infants under one in the North of England and Wales during 1936, amounting to approximately excess deaths in the five years since the slump of 1931. Deaths from measles were twice as high in Wales as in England and Wales as a whole, implying a widespread prevalence of rickets… malnutrition and poverty. In the period 1931-35, whilst south-east England showed a considerable improvement in the number of infant deaths, South Wales showed a continuing deterioration.

Similarly, maternal mortality rates in south Wales were well over twice those in south-east England and Titmuss felt able to state that if the maternal mortality rates in the North of England and in south Wales had been the same as those for Greater London, the lives of nearly six hundred mothers would have been saved in those regions. Female deaths from tuberculosis in the 15-35 age range in south Wales were seventy percent above the average for England and Wales as a whole. From this series of statistics, Titmuss went on to calculate that the number of avoidable, premature deaths among women in the North of England and Wales in 1936, a year of relative prosperity, was 54,000 and that the number over the previous ten years was probably of the order of half a million.

These high levels of infant, child and maternal mortality can only be fully understood when it is realised that forty percent of the total child population in England and Wales was concentrated in northern England and Wales at this time, compared with thirty-eight percent in south-east England. H W Singer’s 1937 unpublished study for the Pilgrim Trust, Unemployment and Health is helpful in separating out the economic and social causes of mortality. It isolates the effect of the general trade depression of 1929-34 from the long-term factors related to climate, housing and the quality of social services in the different regions. Correlating the unemployment statistics for these five years with a range of health indices for seventy-seven boroughs throughout England and Wales, Singer identified a rise of twenty percent in infant and maternal mortality resulting from rising unemployment and poverty during this period.

None of the data examined by Singer failed to exhibit some sort of correlation with unemployment, and it was certainly the view of those who visited south Wales that, anecdotally, there was a direct qualitative correlation between the economic distress of the population and their health. They reported that levels of health and welfare provision in south Wales were greatly inferior to those in other regions though varying considerably within the Region itself. In his 1937 Portrait of a Mining Town, Philip Massey pointed out that the majority of the unemployed in Blaina and Nantyglo, a coalfield community with one of the highest recorded unemployment levels throughout the thirties, could be described as having a diet which was inadequate for perfect health in all the constituents considered by Sir John Orr’s standard, set out in his 1936 report, Food, Health, and Income. Those families whose weekly expenditure on food was five to seven shillings per head would have a diet which was adequate only in total proteins and total fat. Those families with members in work were able to afford total expenditure of up to nine shillings per head on food, providing a diet adequate in energy value, protein and fat, but below standard in minerals and vitamins. 

Massey also confirmed the view of Titmuss, Singer and others that it was the women in these coalfield communities who suffered most in terms of health in a variety of ways. Whilst the men seemed to look their age, except for those obviously suffering from industrial diseases, the women generally looked older than they were due to the hour by hour strain of making do and the lack of holidays or any opportunity to leave the home apart from the weekly shopping or the occasional visit to the cinema. Women were often reluctant to enter a hospital, in cases of childbirth and illness, as they thought that the household would get into a muddle in their absence. Massey also noted that there was no birth control clinic in the district and that many women, fearful of having to rear more children on the dole, would undermine their health by the use of aperients. Even in those households with men in work in the mines, the reliance of the mine owners on the shift system to keep the pits open took its toll on the women in those homes, as a Durham miner, Monty Lowther, later recalled for the BBC:

We lived in a colliery house, and me mother, she was such a conscientious woman she would never go to bed except on a Saturday, because you had me father in one shift, our Jimmy in another shift, me in another shift and Tommy in another.

And it sometimes meant the clock round, one coming in and one going out, and she was so conscientious that if there was an hour or two hours to spare between one and the other, she would just sit in the rocking chair in front of the fire, and I’ve known for months on end the only time me mother got to bed was a Saturday night when there was no work at the pit.

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This account is very similar to the personal recollection of Alice Pattison, the daughter of a miner from Horden in Durham who, in turn, found the photos above and below a mirror of her own memories of life in a miner’s cottage during the late twenties and thirties. Her grandmother had five boys, ‘all in the pit’, and because they worked on different shifts, she was tied to a treadmill of endless toil to feed and care for her sons.

Working between the fore-shift (5 a.m. to 1 p.m.), the back-shift (1 p.m. to 9 p.m.) and the night shift (9 p.m. to 5 a.m.), her grandmother also slept at intervals in a rocking-chair by the fire. As each shift ended she had to boil water in the copper pan on the range, or in a bucket on the hob, in readiness to fill the tin bath in front of the fire. She would carry the hot water in an enamel bowl to the bath where the men would kneel beside it, washing away the coal dust from their top half first, all but their backs. They believed that the coal dust strengthened their backs, protecting them from the rock above the narrow seams.

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While her father bathed, Alice would ‘dash’ his pit clothes, banging them against the yard wall to remove the loose dust and then hang them to dry. In some cottages, there was a brass rail fitted above the fire as shown in the second picture. Sometimes there were families of eight or nine working in the colliery, albeit in separate shifts. Usually, the Dad bathed first, then the eldest son down the line to the youngest. Sometimes the children in the household had to go out into the street while their fathers and brothers bathed.

On Thursday nights, Alice’s mother would let the fire die out to clear all the dead ash and clean the range. The range would be blackleaded, the firebricks whitened and the back of chimney polished with blacklead as high as the arm would reach. The brass fender would be shone, the poker polished and ashpan burnished and for a few hours, the altar of family life would be as she loved it to be, spotless. All the cooking would be done on the fire and in the ovens on the range, with working-class ingenuity stretching the meagre pay to provide appetising and nourishing food. ‘Panackelty’ was a favourite dish made of layers of potato, onion and corned beef covered with ‘Oxo’ gravy. Other dishes would be leeks fried with bacon, a thick broth made from soaked peas, bacon and stock and thick stew with barley and dumplings.

The life of a miner was hard, but the life of a miner’s wife was no less so, if devoid of danger. The daily round of unremitting housework, childbearing and caring for the men, husband and sons, on wages that at the best of times were never enough to provide for more than a life of subsistence, took a heavy physical toll. Alice Pattinson recalled that her grandmother, having reached the ‘grand old-age’ of fifty-four, told her one day that she was tired out and would go and lie down for a little while. Within the hour, she was dead. No illness was recorded on the death certificate. The doctor said she was simply worn out.

It was especially hard for the mother where men were working in wet places. These were not only found in the older steam coal areas. My own grandmother, who also worked as a ribbon weaver, recalled my grandfather returning from work at Newdigate Colliery near Coventry covered with boils all over his body. His moleskin trousers were so caked with sweat, dust and mud that they stood by themselves in front of the fire without need of a chair to support them. As the working clothes dried, the muck from the colliery would dry and drop off all around the house on the old stone floors, which made it very difficult for the housewife to sweep it outside, especially on wet days. Of course, detergents were unknown in those days, so that most of the dirt had to be removed by vigorous use of a dolly tub and a rubbing board (see photo below). One Rhondda miner’s wife, born in 1895, commented:

Strong soap, you know, and soda. Any amount of soda to boil them, init? There was no other washing powders like they’ve got today… Handful of soda until your hands – there’s no wonder we haven’t got nice hands, init?

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One woman from Dowlais, near Merthyr, born in 1896, estimated the value of washing the miners’ clothes at two pounds per week. A miner from the same village, born 1893,  recalled:

Women used to cry when you brought working trousers home to them, because with the sweat and everything, they’d get as hard as iron. They had to patch them, didn’t they? You’d see great lumps of soap by the side of them – they’d push the needle into the soap first. And they had to have a strong needle to do the job as well.   

The girls in a family went to work as maids, unless there were a number of them in a family, in which case the eldest daughter had to stay at home, to help the mother. Some might also go out washing or sewing. If there was a seamstress in the village, the daughter would sleep over at the customer’s house, sewing only for that family for three days, but providing their own machines, carrying them from house to house. Some women ran parlour shops, using their front rooms to sell produce like meats which she had cooked herself:

My father’s health broke down, d’you see, and she just had to do something, you know. And that’s the way she kept going. Talk about smells, they were gorgeous, because she cooked everything. She sold all kinds of sweets – like a kind of tuck shop, you know. She also sold butter and biscuits and cooked meats. But the most of the cooking was done by herself. I think it maybe broke my mother’s heart to give up her sitting room, but I mean, she coped. Because we didn’t get unemployment or sick pay in those years, you see.

The combination of poverty, poor housing and overcrowding experienced by a large proportion of South Wales’ population took its disproportionate toll upon the health of its women. In Merthyr in the late 1930s the number of women suffering from tuberculosis was nearly two-and-a-half-times the standardised average for England and Wales; among men, it was one and a half. One infant in every five died before the age of five, and malnutrition, rickets, diphtheria and pneumonia were widespread among schoolchildren. While the provision of basic welfare services may have mitigated the effects of poverty on the health of children, they were almost non-existent as far as the adult population was concerned, because they were often under such great financial pressure themselves. In 1928 a small deputation led by George Hall, MP pressed the case of Blaina Hospital to the Ministry of Health. The hospital’s income was dependent upon weekly contributions from the miners so that the disastrous effect of the closure of all the mines in the district had suddenly deprived it of all its funds. Its account was already overdrawn by two thousand pounds and whilst income for the forthcoming year was estimated at 2,500 pounds, costs were expected to rise to four thousand.

The fact that South Wales maintained a low crude death rate throughout the inter-war period enabled it to end the period with an age-structure roughly comparable to that of England and Wales as a whole should not blind us to the overall loss of population from south Wales by avoidable deaths and migration which may have involved as many as a million people over the period 1920-40 as a whole. The problems created by this loss were further compounded by the fact that the bulk of those who moved away was in the age group which would produce the next generation, and that those who left also left behind an increasing proportion in the population of those who were economically inactive.

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The only choice that the individual worker had was whether to remain in their home area or to move away to more prosperous towns in the Midlands and South-East of England. For the most part, the migrants were young and adaptable individuals in pursuit of economic opportunity. Those who passed their years in these parts of Britain had seen not only a constant growth in total numbers, due largely to migration but also an appreciable increase in the number of young people getting their first jobs and starting married life. In Wales, where with the dereliction of that accompanied unbroken depression not only did total numbers decline but, between 1921 and 1938, those under twenty-five years of age fell by twenty-five percent, only the ranks of the aged expanded. Gwyn Thomas described the impact on his Rhondda in graphic terms:

A half the valley’s population drifted away. It was a Black Death on wheels conducted with far less anguish… The great mass moved south to Cardiff and east to the Midlands and London, and the permanent guard on all the trains operating the great dispersal bore the name of Thomas Malthus, who warned the migrants about humanity’s way of concentrating huge battalions in tasks seemingly secure for eternity, then suddenly changing the scenery and telling the extras that they are in the wong picture.

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The next chapter will be examining the two important factors in the migration which took place from South Wales. In the first place, the majority of people who chose to go did so without assistance from the Government, despite the offer of payment of rail fares, removal expenses, initial accommodation and, in the case of juveniles, wage subsidy. Secondly, the migration which took place on a voluntary basis was not so much a ‘dispersal’ as Gwyn Thomas suggested, as an ‘exodus’. In some cases, it was organised through kinship and communal networks which extended far beyond normal family ties.

For instance, a 1937 Survey of Oxford found that 150 or one in six of the 1,200 ‘foreign’ employment exchange books in Oxford which came from Wales were from the Pontycymmer employment exchange, whereas considerably larger communities such as Bargoed and Ferndale sent only sixty-nine and sixty-six migrants respectively. The flow from the Garw Valley to Oxford appears to have started during the coal stoppage of 1926 when a few young men made the journey on foot and set up an informal kinship, institutional and communal ‘network’ so that in the period to 1930 to 1936, 270 out of 1,841 people whose employment whose unemployment books were transferred to other exchanges (15%) went to Oxford (Cowley) and it was estimated by local observers that in the previous four-year period, 1926-30, the proportion was as high as 25%.

This tendency towards ‘collective’ migration was noticeable only in the case of South Wales among the depressed areas. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that Welsh women were at least as instrumental in the organisation of migration streams from the valleys as their militant menfolk. In this way, it can be seen that migration cannot be characterised as a desperate rush for the lifeboats. In its organisation on a network and largely voluntary basis, as an alternative to the official Transference Scheme, it became a form of coalfield resistance and a uniquely autonomous ‘institution on wheels’.

( to be continued…)

 

 

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