By Coyle, Geoff
History Today , Vol. 60, No. 12
Chris Wrigley wrote his article on the mining dispute of 1926 against the backdrop of the bitter miners' strike of 1984, which saw the end of large-scale mining in Britain. Workers in the mining industry were always acutely aware of their history, their victories and defeats. Wrigley explains that what had started as a dispute between the Miners Association of Great Britain, the precursor of the National Union of Mineworkers, became a general strike when others, such as dockers, railwaymen and steel workers, came out in support of the miners. The general strike collapsed after about nine days, but the coal miners were locked out by their employers for nearly a year until they were forced back to work by hunger, having had to accept lower wages and longer hours. Wrigley writes movingly of the suffering of the miners and their families but, if anything, he understates the wider implications of the case. He mentions 3,000 men being on strike in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, but that would mean at least 15,000 mouths to feed.
While strikes were nothing new, that of 1926 attracted a remarkable degree of notoriety; so it is worth looking at its origins in a little more detail. In 1914 coal was used on a scale barely conceivable today: as steam generation for mines, factories, locomotives and merchant ships; as coke for steel-making; for domestic heating; for gas lighting; and it was the source of many chemicals, some of which were used for making munitions. With the onset of the First World War, many of these demands boomed so that mine workers who had volunteered for the forces were sent back to the pits. Coal was so vital to the war effort that the government took control of the mines. In 1921, with the conflict over, the mines were returned to their private owners rather than nationalised as the Sankey commission of 1919 had recommended. The miners had won a seven-hour day without a strike, but the returning owners wanted to cut wages to improve profitability. There was concern about Communist revolution too; during a strike in 1921 naval reservists had been recalled to act as infantry in case of trouble. Many were also trade unionists and sympathised with the strikers and there was a minor case of mutiny at New-port. …