The posthumous autobiography of a great Yorkshire miners’ leader, born in Scotland of Irish parents. Published, with the minimum of editing, from transcripts of tape recordings of Jock Kane (1907-1977) made by radical pioneering broadcaster Charles Parker. With additional material by his widow, Betty (born 1907), recorded by Charles Parker on the same occasion. This book was originally published by Armthorpe NUM Branch.
The original oral tapes were made by Charles Parker (1919-1980), who interviewed and recorded Jock and Betty Kane at their home in Armthorpe soon after the 1972 miners’ strike.
Charles Parker was a Cambridge English graduate and wartime submarine commander who began a career with the BBC in 1948, becoming senior features producer in 1954. As one of the BBC‘s most brilliant and innovative producers, he collaborated with Ewan McColl to create the radio ballads, a series of musical documentaries, each featuring a different section of working people.
He was dismissed in 1972 from the BBC, where his increasing radicalism, professional and political, challenged the establishment. But he continued his work, co-founding Banner Theatre two years later and working with them until his sudden death in 1980.
His work with miners, including recordings for the 1961 radio ballad “The Big Hewer”, had a profound effect on him. After “The Big Hewer”, he took an increasingly radical cultural and political position. From then until his death he maintained links with the coalfields, cultivating close friendships with some of the most militant activists in the National Union of Mineworkers.
His work has been collected to form the Charles Parker Archive, housed in Birmingham Central Library, which includes more than 5,000 hours of recordings and 200 linear feet of files and correspondence. In a leaflet promoting the archive, its trustees write:
“The revolutionary cornerstone of Parker’s approach to radio documentary was the use of ordinary people’s words and music to tell the story of their lives, without the intervention of a commentator or narrator — something made possible by technological advances in the 1950s whose potential Parker was among the first to realise.”
This text has been edited from his tapes, with minimal changes to the speakers’ words, in an attempt to be true to that spirit.
1. The rebel clan
2. The first taste of England
3. The thong and the baton
5. Not a wheel turned in Yorkshire
6. Fresh into the fray
7. The Social Contract
8. Betty Kane’s story
9.“When the locals
came into their own” byEric Browne
10.“A panorama of people’s lives” by Jack Dunn, former General Secretary, NUM Kent Area
1. The rebel clan
I WAS brought up in a family of rebels. There were ten of us in the family — five girls and five boys. Six of them had been born in Ireland, in Connemara, and four of us in Scotland. And my old man, my father old Mick, when he was at home in Ireland, he’d been put in jail just for picking the seaweed that they boil up to make a sort of soup. Did time in jail for that — he got seven days for it.
They’d poach a salmon and they might be eating it and they’d see someone coming that they knew wasn’t right, probably the landlord, the absentee landlord. They would be running, hiding it so that they couldn’t be smelt, so that nobody would know that they had fish, that they had eaten fish — because the only way they could have fish was to steal it, you see, to poach it themselves. So that was the background of my father and my mother. He wasn’t a farm worker in the sense that we have them here. They had their own little bit of stead, living peasant.
My father came over from Connemara and did all sorts of jobs. He worked for the Corporation in Perth. He was working there when my mother came across, with all the family except Mick, who eventually did time as the leader at Harworth pit. (Mick Kane, Jock’s brother, who was later an NUM president at Harworth pit, in Nottinghamshire, where he was instrumental in the defeat of Spencerism, the establishment of a bosses’ sweetheart union rivalling the Miners’ Federation – like the present-day UDM undermining the NUM – which took hold in the Notts coalfield after the 1926 strike. He was arrested with 16 others during a six-month strike for union recognition in 1936 and sentenced to two years’ jail with hard labour.) He was left behind but she came with Tam, Martin, Bridget and Mary. The old man was working in Perth and he was supposed to meet her at the docks in Glasgow when she landed.
She couldn’t read nor write, my mother. My father couldn’t read nor write and none of the children could read nor write at that time, or only very sketchily. They spoke the Gaelic. My father spoke it. He was about 93 when he died and he could sit down and converse with the best Gaelic scholar that you could produce — he’d still got it.
So my mother landed in Glasgow and he was supposed to have been there to meet her to take her up to Perth — but he wasn’t there. Anyhow, she found her way and she was able to get on a train and they passed in the bloody trains, him coming from Perth to meet her and her going to Perth. She landed in a strange town, knowing nobody, with four kids and with not a lot of English. That’s the sort of background that we had.
Then my father went to work in the Foulshiels pit, in the village of Stoneyburn, in West Lothian, where we were brought up. He was always a very good worker — I’ve never known him lose a day’s work in my life. I think he must have supped more whisky than would have floated the Queen Mary, but that never stopped him going to work. And Martin, Tam and Mick were all working as well in the Foulshiels pit. It’s closed now.
I wasn’t working — I hadn’t left school then. I have known my father go up through the fields to the pit to work on night shift — it was only about three-quarters of a mile across the fields — and I’ve been sent by my mother to follow him and watch that he really got to the pit, that he didn’t lie down and go to sleep, he’d that much drink in him. I’d watch him get on the chair, the little cage. I was only four at the time, but I’d watch him get on, you know, and go down the pit and I’d go back and say: “Well, he’s got to work. That’s all right.”
Tam and Martin and Mick were always active, active in the Irish movement, in the troubles in the 1920s, and later in the ILP. They were active in getting munitions and explosives and sending them across. They used to go up on the moors drilling and one thing and another in their twenties.
Tam got arrested. He’d gone on a job to meet some soldiers who were going to flog some munitions to them — maybe a couple of rifles — and they got arrested. The soldiers were in court and jailed for six weeks. He was tried and we’ve got a verdict in Scotland “not proven” and that’s what the verdict was. The judge, or whatever the hell he was, said that he could not believe all the evidence that had been given.
Apparently the trap had been sprung too quick. They were arrested before the soldiers had actually approached them, so he was released. But the house was raided and Mary, one of my sisters who was married and living in an adjacent village, her home was raided by the police and books taken away. They searched everything. They even took out the packets of salt and bowls of sugar and felt through them to see if there were any bullets or sticks of gelignite. Carted everything off.
Then they were in the ILP (Independent Labour Party) so it wasn’t any sudden enlightenment that brought me into politics — I was weaned on it. I can remember as a kid at school going to be a look-out for Tam and them, when they were meeting these soldiers and that sort of thing, so I was in it from the very early days. And I was active in the union. At that time there was a Communist Party branch in the village. They called them “locals” in those days. We called ours “the local” — and it absolutely ran the village. So I was on the pit committee in 1926 when the strike started.
My memory of the 1921 strike is mostly of going to the soup kitchen. I think they made the greyest soup that ever I’ve tasted. I can remember that house; I can see it — the end house on Strafford Terrace. You went in the front door and you came out of the back with a jug of soup to take home. I know things were very bad because there were five sons, you see. And the girls who were old enough went to service in Edinburgh, got jobs, but I don’t suppose the pay would be above about £10 or £12 a year, about £1 a month, because they were getting their keep as well in those days.
Bridget was a very good cook. She had been trained up in service, in the kitchen as a sort of assistant cook in a ladies’ club in Frederick Street in Edinburgh. It was a very posh club and I can remember going there with my father to collect the wages. We were allowed in and taken up and one of the housekeepers — I think that was what they called them, they were from the upper bracket as well — asked Bridget who we were. She said: “They’re my father and brother.”
The housekeeper said: “But I thought you said they worked in the coal pits.” And Bridget said: “Aye, so they do.” And she asked: “Well, why aren’t they black?” I would still be at school at that time, probably 12 years old, so it would be 1917 or 1918. People had that conception then, you know.
At the full, there would be 500 or 600 men working at the pit, all from the village. It was small by present-day standards, 300 or 400 houses maybe. There were plenty of Irish — God, aye — one thing we were never short of in the pits was Irishmen. Anywhere there’s bloody hard work and slavish labour you’ll find Irishmen, won’t you? They used to crack on about my father Mick, that the boys from back home, when they came across and got off at Glasgow, they’d ask “Where’s Mick Kane’s pit?” and find their way to us.
We also had three or four or five Irish lodgers helping to eke things out. Old Mick would take them down the pit, when I was a bit of a boy, because you didn’t sign on or anything then. He’d take them down the pit and have work for them. God, it must have been terrible for them because they were big hunky young men working in the low roads, what they call trammers, or putters in Durham. You brought the tub in and filled it and then took it out you see to where the horse came in and took it away.
That’s the only sort of thing these fellows could do to start with, so they didn’t go on the coal-face. These big strong men were putters in these low roads and their backs ripped to bloody pieces. The tubs would go off the road and they hadn’t the knack of the local boys, you know, to get them back on the rails. I was only a boy, with nine- or ten-hundredweight wooden tubs, but if you got your arse to it you could lift them, but these fellows hadn’t the knack. They would be straining and forcing and lifting.
I’ve seen them come into our house, like Ned Joyce — big young fellow in his moleskins and heavy underpants — and I remember his underpants saturated with blood that he had passed down through forcing, struggling and trying to lift a tub. A terrible life they must have had until they got acclimatised to it.
So that was the sort of life we had. The beds were double-shifted. And my mother, in the early years before I was born, went out working in the fields, aye, stooping corn, tying up sheaves and one thing and another. Bridget would tell you about taking the youngest up to her to be fed in the fields, breast-fed in the fields. So it was a pretty grim background. There was no wonder we were all rebels, you see.
Then the 1926 strike came and, though I’d felt we were bad before, we then had some of the most terrible poverty that I’d ever seen. But there were no hostile forces at all in our mining village, or any of the mining villages. In fact, every time they wrote about our village in the press they called it “little Moscow.”
In the 1926 strike, we were in a mining village, you see, so there was no question of having to stop traffic and we hadn’t a hospital to get food to and there was no feeding at the school, so you hadn’t to issue passes for that sort of thing. There was only the one shop in the village, the Co-op, so anything that was going to the Co-op went, you see, because the workers ran the Co-op in those days.
I’ve been in the Communist Party since those days. My brothers were foundation members of the Party in 1920. I would have come in about 1924 and I’ve been a member ever since. In 1926 we had a marvellous set-up. We had a system there with the soup kitchens and we organised these raffles. We used to get all sorts of prizes from chocolate firms, and McVities would send us a box of biscuits here and there. We’d groups which went out to Edinburgh and surrounding towns selling raffle tickets.
I spent six weeks in Dundee and I went to Edinburgh. When you knocked on the door regular on Friday night or Monday or Tuesday morning, eventually they’d come to accept you just like the insurance man or debt collector. They’d have their tuppence there, or their four pence if they were taking two tickets, and you’d sell them a raffle ticket and they were there, they were waiting on you coming, very poor people.
I’ll never forget it. I went one Saturday night to deliver a prize — a box of McVities biscuits — at one of these tenements in Edinburgh. We always had to fetch the tin back because that was one of the conditions — McVities gave us a tin and took away an empty tin, so we always had to fetch the tin back. I went to this house to tell the woman: “You have won this prize.” I went in and there were rags in the corner and another woman stretched out and two or three kids running about, just little ragged vests on them, and there was a table and a chair and nothing else in that bloody room you know. But they would still find that tuppence.
When the General Strike was called in 1926 there was a terrific feeling. I am talking about the politically conscious section of the miners and the working class who thought about these things a bit more seriously than the ordinary miner, who was only concerned to resist a cut in his wages and the lengthening of his day. The people who took part in the political struggle were aiming to put an end to a system where you are always fighting for wages and against increased hours and so on.
We were uplifted with the General Strike. There was a feeling of elation, you know, that the working class would really show their power and that if we won, all doors were open. If we were able to make the General Strike a real success and we won, we’d obviously demonstrated that this was the weapon — this is the way forward, not only just to defend what we’ve got but actually to extend it. They’d had a terrible set-back in 1921 with the failure of the Triple Alliance, you see. (The alliance of miners, rail workers and transport workers formed in 1915, as a pledge to support each other in dispute. It collapsed at the beginning of the 1921 miners’ strike, when J H (Jimmy) Thomas, general secretary of the NUR, withdrew support for a solidarity strike.)
But that was attributed solely to the leadership — it didn’t give rise to any sort of backlash against railway workers and transport workers. The miners didn’t ask: “Why have you betrayed us?” Among the miners — I can only talk about the mining community — there was a realisation that it was the leadership, the Thomases, who were responsible. (i.e. the likes of Jimmy Thomas.) And there was a recognition among the progressive elements that, if we managed once to get a general strike launched, we wouldn’t be isolated this time because we felt that there would be such a response to it — and there was such a response.
I suppose our feeling was that it would be all out straight away and a real showdown. The strategy that was adopted was so successful in bringing people out that we were elated at the success of the General Strike while it was on. When it was called off, it came as terrible blow to the miners in general — but particularly to the Lefts. I’m talking now about Party people. It says a hell of a lot for the progressives in the miners’ union that they were able to hold the Miners’ Federation together for another five bloody months to keep the struggle going. They had every man’s hand against them at that time, you see.
We were a small mining village, with a couple of pits — one on each side of the village — and the immediate surrounds of the village were mines. But we were outside the mainstream of the life of the country. We weren’t even on a main road where you could go out and stop lorries. A lorry had to come off the main road before starting to find us, so we didn’t have any problem with sending pickets out to stop lorries, except those that were sent down to the main Glasgow-Edinburgh road five mile away.
So I have no experience of the operation of a Council of Action. (First formed in 1920 as an exponent of trade-union solidarity with Russia, then under attack from Poland. Councils of Action were the form of organisation instinctively turned to by locals and councils when the General Strike came. They usually involved the local trades council, strike committee representatives, unions not affiliated to trades councils, Labour Party organisations like councillors’ and women’s groups, the Co-operative Party and socialist societies.) They were restricted mostly to the towns you see, because they had the problems of food distribution, transport, schools, hospitals and all that sort of thing. We didn’t have that, except that their general instructions eventually filtered back to us. We argued that the nine-month subsidy that Baldwin gave in 1925 wasn’t going to lead to a solution in May 1926. Baldwin, we argued, was buying time in order to prepare his organisation to confront the workers in the event of a general strike. The TUC did nothing, you know. As far as I can remember, there were no instructions sent down to get on with the job of forming Councils of Action and being prepared.
They’d to start forming them the day the General Strike was called. The TUC failed to give any leadership or to prepare their forces for the showdown. They didn’t bloody want it. If they could have found any way out they wouldn’t have done it. There was a section of the movement who were critical of their failure and there was this feeling that it would come to a showdown and that the leaders would be forced into the position of taking on the government. It was only because of this that the militants were prepared. They were the people who took the first steps. The Councils of Action weren’t established on the basis of instructions from the TUC or anything like that.
After six months, our activities were relegated to raising money for the soup kitchens and we went to Dundee for six weeks. We took a group up there to sell raffle tickets. The prizes used to be sent up to Dundee and we’d send the money home. Dundee is a marvellous town and the people of Dundee are marvellous. They were absolutely solid because, although we were in from West Lothian, the Fife coalfield is just across the boundary from Dundee, just across the Tay.
We couldn’t go round in the daytime selling tickets because there were only men in the house, unemployed men. The women were the workers in the factories, so we never used to start work selling our tickets until half past five or six o’clock. We would be selling the raffle tickets then till eight or nine o’clock. Then at the weekends we used to have pipe bands, choirs, quartets and close-harmony singers come up from Fife. They’d start singing down on the quayside and when the people gathered round they would go round collecting and there’d be bands parading with their collecting box. The Dundeeans collected thousands of pounds for us, you know — great people! And they kept us for nothing — people who were as bloody poor as ourselves.
In 1926 we’d all sorts of demonstrations. As a family, we got nothing because we were a grown family of sons and the lasses were away in service so we got none of the food tickets. The food used to be given out very sparingly and we never got any. So we used to raid the tatty fields and as an odd sheep went astray on the moors it was cut up and eaten, devoured you know, and we survived till the end of the strike.
Then it was bloody terrible, because Pat, Tam, Mick and me couldn’t get jobs. They started the old man back, old Mick. He got a job, because they knew that if he was working they were getting the rent, rent and a half, and double rent. And they knew that if only old Mick was working, we couldn’t stop because he couldn’t keep us and we were all on the bloody dole.
Old Mick came with us when we got a job down at Polmaise, about November 1927. He came with us — and he was a bugger, you know. He wouldn’t have dole. (Old Mick, i.e. Jock’s father, would personally have been proud to claim his rights under the Welfare in 1955, but would have been reluctant to seek the humiliation of the means test in the Thirties. If he had claimed it then, his sons would have to leave home, as their presence there would be taken into account.)
Eventually they gave him a job at the pit and I went working with him — and, Christ, it was a bloody back-breaking work. It’s what they call “back-stripping” up there. It was a 24-inch seam and it was machine-cut. The day shift would go in and they’d fill what they could and then it was left. It had to be cast back from up the wall down to where the tub was, where the road was, and filled.
When we were on what they call the back-stripping, we went in and we’d to clean up the coal that was left, so that the cutter could get through. All the coal that was left was ten or 15 yards away, because the day shift had filled the easy coal, where it was easiest. You couldn’t fill that anyway until you came to it.
When I worked in the pits in Scotland we never used any other kind of lamp but the oil lamp. After 1926 we’d to move and I moved to a lamp pit, where they’d electric lamps. But up to 1926 I used an oil lamp. You filled a little flask of oil and carried it in, and you always had a horseshoe nail which you’d flattened out a bit so you could pick up the wick. And you had a little square of leather that you used to sew on to the front of your cap, so that the oil wouldn’t be soaking through. You hung it on the front of your cap or else you had this square of wax, a cake of wax that you carried. You just used to fill that and the heat kept melting it and kept the wick lubricated so that it burned — and that’s the only light that you had.
It was bloody murder, I can tell you, because you’d always be going in the dark if you were a drawer — that is, your father, or whoever you were working with, used to get the coal, and you used to fetch the empty tubs in and fill them and take the full ones out. There was what we call the brattice, you know, a cloth screen to direct the air. Well, when you went through this damp screen cloth, you know, if you didn’t keep your head well down, it would put this bloody light out. You’d find yourself in the dark. And then you’d be scraping about for matches and, if you were working in a place that was wet, you maybe had to push the tub out to where you were going until somebody else came on the scene who could give you a light.
The coal-face worker, the man that was getting the coal, my old man — and me eventually — he’d be holing under the coal. He’d be sat down — you must have seen pictures of it — and you’d have a little heap of holings and you’d take your lamp and you’d put it on top of them so that you could keep getting under, and that was the light that you had. Then eventually this was supplanted with the carbide lamp.
You’ve seen them, bicycle lamps, but there was no glass, just the reflector on the top. There was water on the top and carbide in the bottom, and you’d to carry a tin of carbide to fill it. But it gave a much better light and it would burn where there was no oxygen. This oil lamp wouldn’t burn if there was no oxygen in the air, you see, and it was a warning. If your light wasn’t burning it was a warning it was time to get out — lack of oxygen in the air. But bloody carbide would burn anywhere.
I’ve seen men dragged out for lack of oxygen in the air and they hadn’t noticed it with a carbide lamp. But with the oil lamp, it would keep flickering and it would go out because it wouldn’t burn if there was no oxygen in the air. It was bloody murder for me and him, old Mick, but he would have the work. He was there until they come out on strike and then we flitted and came here.
He was a bugger. I can remember when we were flitting; we were being loaded to go into Stirling to get on the railway van. He’d been across in the Gothenburg (a pub in Stoneyburn) and got himself a couple of pints and he insisted on taking these drills you know — you had to have all your own tackle in those days — drilling machines and ratchet hand-drills, drills from 18-inch to six-foot long, and old powder cans, your own powder cans that you carried your powder in. He insisted on all this stuff — that we were leaving behind. It had to go on the wagon and we dragged all that bloody stuff to England with us when we came here.
He died in 1955 and we reckon he was about 93. So when we came up to England in 1929, he’d be nearly 70, over 65 anyway. He was still wanting to work and signing on the dole. They couldn’t trace his proper age, you see, because there were no records in Ireland. They couldn’t get any records so they just had to take what he said. He used to have all sorts of tribunals and they had a hell of a job shaking him off. But eventually they did. He was 93 when he died and we took him back and buried him beside my mother in Bannockburn. But he never worked after he came here.
He was a great man, a great old worker. He couldn’t read or write but he could stand and take the collections of the boys who were paying into the reform union, years ago when the Scots miners started the reform union, the breakaway that lasted for a few years in Scotland. (The Scottish miners’ organisation was split from 1929 to 1936 in a left-right dispute over democratic rights. The United Mineworkers of Scotland was the formal title of what Jock Kane calls the reform union.) That was after the 1926 strike. They had an election there and Communists won all the seats in Lanarkshire — and they wouldn’t let them take office. They swept the board, won all the positions and the Right wing who were in control, in power in the Scottish miners’ union, wouldn’t let them take office. They were balloted out but they wouldn’t bloody go.
So the breakaway reform union was started by the Communists and the militants and the progressives. Eventually, in the interests of unity, it was wound up and we were all one again. The point that I’m making about old Mick is that he couldn’t read and he couldn’t write but he could stand there and take the tanners, with another man standing with him to mark the cards. Old Mick could take the tanners and look after the money, so he was always ready to have a go.
He had a great saying. He always wanted us to go to school for as long as we could and he’d always say: “Education’s no burden to carry and once you’ve got it you’ve always got it. Get what education you can.” It wasn’t always sweetness and light with him — he was an old bastard in a way. He’d sing to himself bits of songs that he knew, old come-all-ye-s, old words in Gaelic and that sort of thing. “I would be drinking all night until the day comes on and that somehow I’d be jilted by the green leaves of the driving dawn” — and I don’t know what the hell that means! He ever used to keep singing and talking.
There was an old geezer, after we came here, old Johnny, an old Irishman who lived just across the road. Old Mick used to come and visit me here. He’d stop a few days and we’d go up go up into the Taddy (The Tadcaster pub) in Armthorpe, at night. I introduced him to old Johnny and they could both speak the Gaelic. They’d sit there in the Taddy talking away to one another in the Gaelic and the boys would be coming in and looking down at them: “What the hell are they talking about?” They enjoyed that sort of thing — and he had the Gaelic right until he died.
2. The first taste of England
ONE morning in April 1927 my brother-in-law Sanny and I set off at five o’clock, when there was still frost on the ground, to walk to England. (Sanny was Alexander Edgar, Jock Kane’s brother-in-law, who became Area Agent for Scottish Area NUM.)
He was married to Annie and they lived in rooms on the back road with his people. I had to sneak out because my mother would never have let me go to walk to England, but Annie was agreeable for Sanny to go.
When we set off we had a bob between us, one shilling, and we walked down to the main Glasgow-Edinburgh road, at Blackburn, and waited for a lorry. (A bob was one shilling or 12d in old money. In new money, 5p — as in old money, one-twentieth of a pound.)
Christ, lorries were few and far between in those days, not like today. Lorries would come along and he would get on and I wouldn’t, so he’d to get off again, or else I’d get on he wouldn’t. Eventually we both got on a lorry and it took us to the outskirts of Edinburgh.
We walked through Edinburgh and I can remember at this place down Leith Walk where I think we got a slice of bread and a cup of tea for about four pence each, so we had four pence or five pence left. Then we set off again, walking, on our way to England and we walked all afternoon and the whole bloody night. I think about it every time I go through this place called Cockburnspath, on the way to Scotland. There was a railway siding there with some vans and we crept into one of these vans and lay down.
When we woke up, we were that bloody stiff, I can remember it yet, as if our knees would knock. When we got out it was just breaking dawn, about five o’clock in the morning, but we didn’t know the time. We started to walk and the first bloke we met was a farm labourer getting off to work who told us the time. Christ, we were shocked — and we were starving. So when we saw this farm just a couple of hundred yards away, a little old ugly knock-down with smoke coming from the chimney, we went to see what we could beg — though we’d never done anything like that before.
A woman was just coming out as we went up. She would have given us something, but all the men were out working and she wouldn’t be making food or anything until they came in for their breakfast at the back of nine o’clock. Well it was only six o’clock, so we got nowt. Then we came to a little row of houses, I can see them now, and we’d got this four pence or five pence left. So we decided to go and knock at a door and ask the woman would she sell us bread and jam or something, you know, and offer her these coppers — because we’d never beg. She gave us this parcel of scones, Christ, and they were stale you know, but we devoured them. And it was good-hearted of the woman. They were probably all she had in the house — and she wouldn’t take the money.
So we walked on and then we stopped a lorry. Jumping on, I ripped my trousers from the top down to the knee. When we got off, a woman lent me a needle and thread and I stitched it roughly. We jumped on the back of another lorry and the driver kept stopping, trying to get us off, but he couldn’t. So finally he said: “Well, if you’re going to ride you’d better come in front with me — you’ll get me the bloody sack if you’re seen riding.” He took us into Berwick, which was as far as he’d go, and we got off and we thanked him.
We’d got travelling cards to sign on at Labour Exchanges and we had to do this the next day. We stood on a street corner looking around us and by this time it would be about half past nine. This bobby came up, gave us a nudge and said: “On your way — we don’t want your kind here. Get going.” We said: “We’re looking for the Labour Exchange — we’ve got to sign on.” He pointed and said: “It’s down there — and when you’ve signed on, get out.” Just like that. We told him what we thought about him — under our breath of course.
We went and signed on and the bloke in the Labour Exchange asked: “Where are you going to sign on tomorrow?” Because you could nominate where. We said: “Newcastle.” So he replied: “By Christ, you’re going to have to be speedy aren’t you?” I asked why and he said: “Do you know how far it is? It’s 90 miles — you’ll never get there. You can’t walk it.” Road transport then was practically non-existent. I said: “Well, that’s where we think we’re going to sign on.”
We set off and crossed this bridge across the Tweed at Berwick. We hadn’t gone far when a little two-seater car passed us and stopped a bit in front. It was open, you know, with some golf clubs in the back. We hurried up and saw this young fellow in it and asked him for a lift. He asked where we were going and, when we said Newcastle, he said: “All right then, get in.” So we got in and he started asking if we were running away or had done something wrong. We told him we were out of work and we had a pal in Newcastle. Actually we were going to a place called Birtley, in Durham, just outside Newcastle.
He whisked us along until we got into Alnwick, where he stopped to have his lunch. It was just after 12 o’clock and the schools were coming out. He went into this hotel and he came out in a minute and asked if we were hungry. When I told him we were he said: “Well, here, you can have this.” He handed me something wrapped in a paper and, Christ, it was a lump of bloody Gorgonzola cheese. God, the smell of it!
We were hungry, but we couldn’t face that cheese and we couldn’t fling it away because Alnwick’s a beautifully clean-looking place and these school kids were streaming down this beautiful wide main street. So we stuffed it in our pockets. When he came out, he asked: “Was it all right?” “Aye, it was all right, aye.” So he whisked us off again and the next stop was Newcastle. By this time we’d told him that we were going to Birtley, that we’d a mate who worked in the pit there. “Well I’m going to London,” he said, “I’ll go through there and drop you off there.”
He stopped again in Newcastle against another hotel and went in for another feed. A horse-drawn wagon came up, they were all horse-drawn at that time, and he couldn’t get past this car in this narrow street. He’s playing bloody hell in his broad Geordie wanting to know why we wouldn’t move the car. Of course we said we’d got nothing to do with the car, it was not our car to move. He played hell and there was a right uproar until they brought this bloke out. Fortunately he was finished so he got in and whipped us off to Birtley.
We spent a month there and Barney McQueeney was the lad we stopped with, in one of some wooden houses that were built for the Belgian refugees in the First World War. Barney worked at the ‘Cotia pit, but he couldn’t get us set on at the ‘Cotia. (The ‘Cotia is the shortened form of Nova Scotia, as Harraton Colliery, Co Durham, was known because of the large number of Scots working there. It closed in 1965, when it became the subject of the song “Farewell to the ‘Cotia”, by Jock Purdon, who worked there as a deputy.)
There were other pits around Birtley as well. We spent a month walking round pits within walking distance, you know, and couldn’t get a smell of a job.
So we walked back. We didn’t get any lifts going back; we walked every bloody step of the way to Berwick, walked through the night. We crawled into a barn sometime in the middle of the night and took our boots off. I’d got my pit boots, with plenty of room in them, but Sanny had got his best boots and he couldn’t get them on in the morning, his feet were so swollen when we woke up. We walked about three miles, him in his bare feet before he could get his shoes on.
By the time we got into Berwick it was Saturday noon, and we’d been walking since 11 o’clock on the Friday, except for a couple of hours. We didn’t want to be on the road all Sunday. We hadn’t been washed and we felt scruffy. They used to run cheap excursions from Berwick to Edinburgh and from Edinburgh to Berwick. So we went to the station and counted up our money and we had just enough for the cheap afternoon excursion to Edinburgh.
We got to Edinburgh about six o’clock at night and walked down Princess Street, looking a right couple of ragamuffins. We went to Princess Street Station, the station for Stoneyburn, for Addiewell, and we knew we’d see someone we knew to borrow a bit. I think it was about nine pence the cheap fare. And we did — one of the lads that we knew was coming from the train. So we got the train home and got in about ten o’clock on the Saturday night.
We’d been travelling from 11 o’clock the previous day — and I was up on the Sunday morning and marched about five or six miles from Stoneyburn down to Bathgate, carrying two quire of Worker’s Weeklies and flogged them on the May Day demonstration. (Quire is a term used in the printing industry for 25 (formerly 24) sheets, or copies of a single publication.) What about that? I can remember the speaker was Johnny Campbell, speaking from what they call the steelyard in Bathgate. There was a huge demonstration — and they were demonstrations in those days. (Johnny Campbell was J R Campbell, one of a leadership group of 12 Communists jailed in 1925, before the General Strike, in an endeavour to destabilise working class resistance in the coming struggle. Later editor of the Daily Worker and industrial organiser of the Communist Party.)
I was back on the dole. But then we got work down at Stirling and we all flitted. Old Mick went with the sons and we got jobs down at Polmaise pit, just outside Stirling. We had a campaign there for pithead baths. If the men voted in favour of pithead baths, the coal owners had to build them, that was the law. So we’d a campaign, made pithead baths an issue and eventually forced a ballot — and the ballot went against having pithead baths. “It weakens your back,” they’d say. “It’s no good for you, these hot baths when you come out of the pit.”
Then there was a big strike started on a wages issue in 1928. We were out 11 weeks. And during that time there was the first hunger march. The boys started at Aberdeen and came down into Stirling and I was the only one that joined them there. I marched to Edinburgh with them and we slept out on Princess Street a couple of nights. One side of Princess Street is gardens. Somebody had give us a couple of cases of bananas so we had bananas for our breakfast — and every railing had a banana skin on it! And the boys reckoned to be shaving in the plate-glass windows on the other side of the street.
Eventually they found us accommodation in some hall or other and we were there a week or so until the Scottish Office paid our fare back. They were still on strike at Polmaise. When the strike finished some of us got the sack, some of us didn’t get back. My mother died that year at Stirling — and I reckoned that it was 1926 and 1927 that killed her. She’s buried at Bannockburn.
3. The thong
and the baton
SO we came back to England for a second time. In 1929, we found work at Hatfield Main, in Yorkshire, because Barney McQueeney, the lad that we’d gone to in Birtley, had gone down there. (Hatfield Main Colliery, in the Doncaster coalfield, sunk 1911-12 and closed at the end of 1993, having been supposedly “reprieved” earlier that year in trade and industry secretary Michael Heseltine’s White Paper.)
When we were up in Birtley, he’d wanted us to go down to Hatfield. Word had come back from the Geordie lads that you’d get jobs in Yorkshire, at Hatfield. But we were too young to pioneer any more and it broke our hearts, when we went back home, not getting jobs in Durham. But then my brother Mick and Sanny Edgar went to Yorkshire and got set on at Hatfield and we all followed them.
Bridget had come home from America when my mother died, to keep house and keep the family together. She’d gone to America in about 1925 and worked there. She had a good job as a cook, but anyhow she came home to keep house and remained faithful to the family all those years. We were in lodgings at first and then we got a house in Stainforth near the pit and sent for the furniture and it came in one of those railway vans, because we’d a lot of furniture. We had four or five beds, being a big family and always having three or four lodgers. Bridget went to look at this house and, I’ll never forget it, she played bloody hell because it was riddled with bugs. It was a terrible place, Broadway, in those days. (Broadway., the main road at Dunscroft, near Hatfield Main Colliery.)
We came from Scotland on the seven-and-a-tanner train to Newcastle and then got a bus from Newcastle to Chester-le-Street. From Chester-le-Street there was a bus used to run down to Stainforth on a Sunday afternoon and that’s how we came. I’ll never forget that Sunday night, dropping off the bus at the bottom of Broadway and walking, because it wasn’t paved then. It was sandy and full of holes and it’s about two miles long, straight as a die, houses on each side, all pit houses and side streets. You couldn’t hear yourself speak for crickets, the noise of the crickets in the houses.
On a Sunday morning you could see people flitting. There would be an old pram and the table turned upside down and all their worldly possessions. They’d be leaving one house that they’d stripped and burning everything burnable and going into another house. Anybody could get a job at Hatfield at that time. It had a terrible record for accidents.
Anyhow, Bridget wouldn’t go into this house, it was so bad. So we did no more there but went across to Worksop and we got a job at Shireoaks. (Shireoaks Colliery, near Worksop. Sunk 1854 and closed 1990.)
We got an old lorry; this boy loaded the furniture on and set off. There’s a low bridge goes into Rhodesia, that’s the village for Shireoaks, and the flit caught this bridge and everything ripped off. They were tied on with ropes, beds on the top and sideboards, sewing machine, tables, chairs — you’ve never seen such a bloody mess.
There was nothing left. Everything was pulled off. It took them about six runs to pick up the debris and drop it in the front garden. Of course he was a bloke like our bloody selves. We’d taken him for cheapness, you see, and we couldn’t get anything out of him. We had to go into Barker and Wigfalls and mortgage ourselves to get enough furniture to furnish the home to start our new lives in Shireoaks. (Barker and Wigfalls. Local store selling a range of domestic goods and furniture.)
And what a bloody pit that was! I reckon Robin Hood sank it. We were miles out underground and ventilated at the two shafts. One of the shafts was a stock for a furnace in the pit bottom and that was the source drawing the air round the pit. This was in 1929 or 1930. It’s different now but it’s still working. There was always something would go wrong. If ever anything went wrong on the riding shaft — and you only rode on one shaft, because the other was the chimney stock for the smoke — it would be on a bloody Saturday.
Something would happen in the riding shaft and you’d to wait until that other shaft cooled off, because it would be red-hot. You’d be sat in the pit bottom there until seven or eight o’clock on a Saturday night and then you’d get whizzed up past choking sulphur fumes, after it had cooled off down there. I’ve walked down that bloody canal bank from Shireoaks into Rhodesia at half past seven on a Saturday night — no pay for that you know, that wasn’t classed as overtime. What a bloody pit!
Then we all got finished there. We went across to Staveley and we got evicted in Staveley and all the family were in the workhouse — because we were agitators. (Staveley is a town in Derbyshire.) The Staveley company wouldn’t entertain Communists and agitators, you know, and we paid our rent every week because we knew what our fate would be after we’d all got the sack. The boys would hardly be seen talking to you on the bloody street corner. That’s the sort of town Staveley was.
Sanny Edgar and I worked in Bolsover for a bit. (Bolsover Colliery, Derbyshire, though latterly included by the NCB and British Coal in their Nottinghamshire Area. Sunk in 1890, it had a reputation for militancy and was closed in 1993, a victim of Michael Heseltine’s mass closure programme.) We used to come off at knock-off time. But if your face wasn’t cut and wasn’t ready, they’d phone word up to the pit top: “This unit’s not ready.” Something might have happened, there’d been a breakdown and you stopped on the pit top until eight o’clock, half past eight — it would be an hour, or an hour and a half — and you went down the pit and you were expected to work your shift then and fill off your stint before you came out. That was in 1931 and 1932. Of course, we wouldn’t do it — we came out at the proper time.
We were active in the branch and putting forward militant ideas and arguing about wage rates and tonnage rates and one thing and another. We ragged up once or twice and came out. (Ragging up is a Yorkshire miners’ expression for a spontaneous unofficial walk-out, usually over a local pit issue.)
One day we went down and an under-manager sent us straight back up. We went down this morning and there’s a note on the lamp from the deputy: “The under-manager wants to see you.” So we went. He told me and Sanny Edgar: “Your cards and your money will be in the office when they open. Up that pit.”
We said: “No. We’ve got tools in there, shafts and blades. They’re ours.” He says: “Go in and get them and come out and up that pit. You’ve been coming out before. I don’t mind you coming off the bank at two o’clock” — you know, knock-off time, when we hadn’t filled off. “I don’t mind you coming out,” he says,” but when you bring all the bloody rest out with you and leave a face only half filled off, it’s time you were going. Walker‘s your name — off.” And we’d to go. That was us finished at Bolsover — back on the dole.
So that was our reputation there. Then the others got the sack at Ireland and at Markham, you know Markham Colliery where the chair disaster was, by the Staveley Coal and Iron Company, and we were all on the dole again. (Ireland Colliery, in Derbyshire.)
There was an election just round then, when Mosley formed his new party in 1934. Strachey and all that crowd were in it and associated with him, at first. They ran a candidate there. Of course we were campaigning for Labour.
Johnny Hunter was the general manager of the Staveley Coal and Iron Company and he was at an election meeting in the Markham Hall at Staveley and we were there heckling. He finished up red in the face and he says: “As long as this is a company that I’ve anything to do with, there will never be another Kane work under Staveley Coal and Iron Company.” And he was bloody right. And you know the next time I met him was across the table, down at the headquarters of Doncaster Amalgamated Collieries. He’d come across here as general manager and by this time, 1941, I was secretary of this branch. I never asked him: “Do you remember that meeting in Staveley, Johnny?” But I know I remembered.
So we were all out of work and then they took eviction notices out, because the coal-owners wanted the house, they claimed. They were tied houses and they’d say: “Look, we’re not employing you but we want your house.” They lumped us in with a number of people who hadn’t paid rent you know, but we waged a terrific bloody campaign. Harry Hicken was general secretary of the Derbyshire miners then and he had a brother Phil who was in the Party. He was a very good speaker, because he’d been a local preacher. But the evictions took place.
In Poolsbrook, the hot water in the houses was supplied from a central boiler in the middle of the village. (A Derbyshire pit village, between Staveley and Arkwright, serving mainly Arkwright, Markham and Ireland collieries.)
Our family was old Mick, me and the brothers and sisters. Annie was married and Mary was married and we all had houses there. They were also evicted. On the morning of the eviction the bailiffs came and turned off the hot water — so that you couldn’t barricade yourself in and scald the bastards. My brother Martin had been an invalid for years and years — TB and one thing and another — and he was ill at the time. They carried my brother out on a stretcher and whipped him off to the Poor Law hospital, so they could put the furniture out on the street.
People were bloody terrorised. But we had a great demonstration. The Co-op gave us the use of an old hall that they had, to store the furniture, and the bloody Staveley Company sent lorries to move the furniture into this. It was a centre then, you know. We’d lit a fire and we’d cooked a meal in the garden. Then we’d a march up to the officer and made him take all the women and kids into the workhouse in Chesterfield and we marched them into the workhouse. Of course, they wouldn’t take me or Mick or Pat, or Bill Cairney that had come up from Scotland with us and lodged with us, because we were single fellows, but Jock Mac, that was a brother-in-law, and Bridget, Mary and Annie, all went into the workhouse, and Martin, of course, they had him in hospital. We were all separated.
We had such a campaign then to try and get houses. Phil Hicken was speaking at a meeting in Staveley in the Co-op Hall and he was on about people unemployed: “The shops are full so why should you be starving?” People were bloody starving, you know. However he got pinched for this speech, under the 1380 Act, or whatever the hell, 1350 or some thing. (The reference is to the wartime Order in Council restricting strikes.) They had pinched Pollitt and Tom Mann under the same. So Phil gets pinched, so then we’ve another campaign on our hands — Release Phil Hicken! (Harry Pollitt [1890-1960], general secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain from 1929 to 1956, apart from a short period (1939-40) when he stood down due to differences over the character of the war. Tom Man was an outstanding trade unionist, who was at various times leader of the dockers, the AEU and the Workers’ Union. He was a member of the CPGB from 1920 until his death in 1941.
Of course Harry, the general secretary of the Derbyshire miners, was Phil’s brother so he had to be sympathetic. We were waging campaigns and addressing meetings in Mansfield and all over. I can remember I’d been speaking at Mansfield at a “Release Phil Hicken” meeting. I was coming home and, when I got on the bus, the first one I see is Phil. “Christ,” I said. “What are you doing here? I’ve just been speaking at a meeting for your release.”
“Oh,” he said, “I’m out on bail.” I said: “Who’s fixed bail?” He said: “Our Harry.” The Derbyshire miners had fixed bail and he’d got out. They undertook his defence as well — they were very good — and eventually it came to trial in Derby. We went there with witnesses and demonstrations such as we could get together. I’ll never forget it — not a one of us was called, you know. Stafford Cripps appeared for the defence and they’re talking to the judge — and of course you couldn’t hear them where we were sat. Eventually, after all the legal argument and without calling any witnesses, the old judge gave his decision: there’s no right of appeal against that Act and Phil shouldn’t have been out on bail.
By this time he’d served his three months’ sentence and the clerk said: “What do we do with the prisoner now?” The judge said: “That’s your problem. As far as I’m concerned, he’s a free man. There was no right of appeal so he’s been serving his sentence all the time.” And Phil Hicken came home with us, a free man. But then there was a very Tory council in Chesterfield. They decided that able-bodied relief wasn’t their responsibility. It was the responsibility of the parish where you belonged.
So they took them to court, and the kids were all in the workhouse, and they got a court order that they be transferred back to the parish where they originally came from, back to Stoneyburn that we’d left. So then was the campaign to try and stop that. The council wouldn’t give us a house and we were at our wits’ end. We went and saw councillors and these bastards on the Tory bench said: “It’s not fair, you know. We’ve gone to all this trouble. We’ve got it fixed up. They’re going back. We’ve got the railway warrants and all the rest of it.”
A bloke called Jarvis — he was an old Liberal — had a newspaper shop in Staveley and he’d a house that came empty. He sent for us and he said: “There’s a house there and you can have it. Get your families out of the workhouse.” We were very well respected because we’d organised contingents on the hunger marches in 1933 and that sort of thing and we’d a terrific support. He gave us this house and we got them all out and the council played hell because we’d brought them out — it wasn’t fair after they’d gone to the trouble of getting railway warrants and arranging for their transfer. We’d a hell of a job to get them released, but eventually they all came there.
When they were in the workhouse, we’d nowhere to go because we were single fellows. There was a woman — I’ve always got a sneaking feeling for the Salvation Army and she was a great Salvationist — she was a widow woman with about four kids, a couple of them working. We were stood on a corner at the cross in Staveley, me and Mick and Patrick and Cairney, and this woman said to come up. We went up and she took me and Mick in. She had a beautiful home, she was a lovely woman and she arranged to take Patrick and Bill Cairney in as lodgers.
We only had our bloody dole, about 17 shillings and three pence at that time. That woman said: “Well, Staveley Company can’t do anything to me, because I haven’t a soul that works for them.” Her eldest lad worked with a joiner-undertaker and her daughter worked in one of the factories in Chesterfield and she was living in a council house. Because everybody was terrorised. Nobody would dare take you in if they were working at the pit or if they lived in a pit house, but she took us in and we were there for months. It was a bit after that we got all the families out. Eventually we got council houses for our family, for our Mick and Bridget and them, and Mary and Annie got council houses eventually. So that’s our history — and people say you shouldn’t be so bitter, eh?
We had all worked at Harworth for a few months. We worked at Harworth before they got the second shaft in operation — and we all got finished there. After that we went across to Staveley but, a few years after, Mick went back and got a job there. He got back in and, of course, they’d got the Spencer Union, but there were one or two individuals who still retained a bit of a contact with the old Notts miners’ union. (The Spencer Union was the breakaway Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Miners’ Industrial Union, led by George Spencer, who later became an independent MP.)
Them and Mick started to organise and they used to go and collect the money on a Friday night at the house — it had to be kept quiet and all the rest of it.
Eventually things boiled up. There was a strike in 1936 and it became a strike against company unions — Spencerism — and it was a terrific strike. Solid as a bloody rock they were, them lads — and that’s where you saw police terrorism. They brought in all these police. They were stationed because they organised a few scabs and they called them “the chain gang.” They used to march them in — and there were two policemen for every scab, marching them to the pit — and if you were stood at the garden gate they’d give you the thong and the bloody baton.
Mick by this time was president of Harworth Branch — a central figure. They did him for alleged intimidation and he did a three-month stretch. After he came out, they couldn’t break the strike and the national union took a ballot for strike action in support of Harworth, with an overwhelming majority for. They got it settled, but then there was this so-called riot. On the Saturday night the police broke into where the strikers were organising a dance and started to beat them up and there was a right bloody do. So they picked up all the leading lights. Mick wasn’t even there. He wasn’t even at the dance that Saturday, but he was picked up and of course earmarked as the ringleader during the strike.
Oh, it was a terrific strike! We used to have a meeting every Sunday night and every leading light in the country came to Harworth to speak. There was the unity campaign, the People’s Front, at that time. Harry Pollitt, Brockway and Cripps were doing meetings all over the country. (The People’s Front involved the CPGB, the ILP and the Socialist League — supporters in the Labour Party; Fenner Brockway, ILP leader, later Lord Brockway; Sir Stafford Cripps MP, later a Labour Cabinet minister.) They came in one Sunday afternoon when they were at meetings in Leeds or Sheffield; they came in and spoke to the miners. Sybil Thorndyke brought a group in and performed on the village green. (Dame Sybil Thorndyke, famous theatre actor.) Yes, it was terrific.
So there was this battle and the lads were picked up, and a woman as well, and eventually they all got sentences — nine months, six months. But Mick got two years and there was again a great campaign for his release, the same as there’s been for the Shrewsbury Three. (Des Warren, Ricky Tomlinson and John McKinsie-Jones, building workers jailed for conspiracy after successful picketing during the 1972 building workers’ national strike.) I think it was Samuel Hoare who was home secretary at that time and Hoare eventually did let him out before he’d completed his two years. (Hoare was then the Tory home secretary.) He hadn’t much left to do but he did get a release. Jenkins says he can’t release the Shrewsbury Three, but Sam Hoare released Mick Kane before he’d done his sentence under the same sort of circumstances. (Roy Jenkins, Labour home secretary at the time, who later became one of the Gang of Four who defected from Labour to form the Social Democratic Party and ended up a Liberal Democrat.)
The strike was eventually victorious and we smashed the Spencer Union. The company agreed to pension Spencer off. They gave him a job for a time, but Spencer’s union, the non-political union, was smashed. They’d tried to do the same thing down in South Wales, at Bedwas, and it was smashed there. I reckon that’s where we laid the foundation for one national miners’ union. Once they got the Nottinghamshire miners back into the Miners’ Federation they realised that — and of course it eventually did materialise.
So Mick did his two years, or nearly two years, in Lincoln jail. Then he was released — and he never got work until after the war started. Then he got a job back at Williamthorpe pit, one of the Derbyshire pits, at Chesterfield. Eventually he was made an agent for the Derbyshire miners and he was an agent until he died, retired from bad health and died. So we have come through Harworth, come through bloody Hatfield, come through Staveley and all the rest of it — and we’re still here.
4.A man of integrity
IN 1947 the pits were nationalised and there was a tremendous feeling among the miners that this was really a decisive change in the whole set-up. I thought so myself. I was offered the job as NCB labour officer for the Doncaster area — the biggest NCB area in Britain, with the biggest pits and the biggest output. And I took it.
I had spent all my life fighting for nationalisation. Now it had arrived I thought the thing to do was to get in and make it work. I spent three years as labour officer — and they were the most disillusioning three years I ever spent in my bloody life. I found the only change was in name. Now it was called the National Coal Board instead of the old individual owners, like Doncaster Amalgamated Collieries and so forth. But that was the only change.
The same people ran the job and dictated policy. It was a continual fight with them on questions as to what should be done at the pits. They were so much in control at that time that, although we were supposed to be responsible for labour relations, we were a very minor voice altogether and completely subservient to the production side and to management. However, I managed to stick it for three years and then I resigned. The miners were being conned.
I went back to face-work at Armthorpe, back to where I had started in 1936. (Armthorpe was the miners’ name for Markham Main Colliery, in Armthorpe village, used in preference to the formal name and its link with the old coal-owners. While secretary at Armthorpe, Jock Kane made his greatest mark in the NUM.)
I packed in this coal board job and everybody was amazed that anybody could be so silly. I was a wee bit disappointed at the reaction because I published a statement and I was interviewed by the press. They came from far and near. This was absolutely unique, unknown, that somebody should pack in a good job — you know, with a car and all the rest of it.
Most people thought: “He’s a silly bugger, you know, packing that sort of thing in to come back to the pit.” But I did and I think that, gradually, the miners then realised — and have come to realise — the importance of making that sort of stand at that time. I know that, since then, there has been nothing but respect for the person who can make that sort of stand. So I came back to the pit and started work here — and I’ve been here since.
In 1947 when the pits were nationalised, Johnny Hunter was one of the people who approached me to take the job of labour officer in this Doncaster Area, him and Tom Smith who’s an ex-Labour MP. (NCB divisional labour director.)
I think Tom had been an under-secretary or something in one of the Cabinets and they put men who couldn’t make their grade in politics on to the nationalised boards. So I was the first labour officer in this Doncaster Area, the biggest area in the country, greatest manpower, greatest output, biggest pits — and me a Communist.
When I took the job, he said: “We know you’re a Communist but we’ve a great respect for you. We think you’re a man of integrity and you’ll do what’s right.” And I said: “Aye, well, I will as long as I think it is right. And if I don’t think it’s right, you’re the first one I’ll tell.” So I stuck it for three years, till I couldn’t stick no bloody more.
If there was an issue at a pit and they’d not been able to resolve it at pit level, it was referred to Barnsley by the union, and the management referred it to us. I would come in, along with a Barnsley union official, Joe Hall. (Vice-president of the NUM Yorkshire Area from 1925 to 1938 and president from 1938 to 1952.)
But before I came to the office, we had discussed it in Station Road, that’s where the coal board offices were at that time. I would argue as I saw it what I thought was correct and the production boys would say: “No, that’s not it.” And they were the people who made the decision.
I suppose I could have done more, although I didn’t see it at the time and once a decision was taken in there, that was it. So, when I came out, I could only obliquely help the men, you know, or I’d maybe have a few words with Joe Hall on the quiet and put them wise. In the meeting, I can see now that probably I wasn’t as strong as I should have been on this issue. But you’d disagree with the area chairman — he was a pure bastard — and you’d go up and see Tom Smith and tell Tom what the problem was. But it’s: “Ah well, never mind,” he says, “Never mind. They’re having their day but it’ll come right. Never mind.”
So you got no support. This area officer said: “You’d better resign from the Communist Party.” So I said: “Why?” He said: “Well, my people have no confidence in you when they go out with you.” I said: “Well, maybe they haven’t. They’ve not said anything to me about not having confidence.” He said: “They’ll not say it to you, but they’ll say it to me — and you’ve got to resign.” I said: “Well, I’m not bloody resigning.” He said: “Well, I’ll report it to division.” I said: “You report it where you bloody want. They knew I was a Communist when I took this job and I made it clear I would remain a Communist.” So, he didn’t report it, but I asked the other lads if they’d been complaining about my attitude. “No, we’ve never said nothing.” That bastard was making it up.
Then I’d another run-in with them about coloured labour. He wasn’t going to have coloured labour. He wasn’t having any “half-caste bastards” running about the streets of his villages. I said: “You’re a Nazi. We fought a bloody war to defeat bastards like you.” So we’d several up-and-downers like that. As I say, I could go up and see Tom Smith — but that was as far as I got. So eventually I packed in.
The whole approach was: “You’re one of us now, you see. You’ve got responsibilities, you see.” And they are so affable and they’re really very nice fellows personally, you know, and they call you by your Christian name and then you start calling them by their Christian name. That’s something I never could do — call any of them by their Christian name. Even now, with the local colliery manager, it sticks in my throat saying “All right, Jack?” or “How are you going Jim?” I couldn’t do that, you see — it’s got to be “Mister”.
I suppose some people would say that’s an inferiority complex that I’ve got. But they’re such plausible bastards and I suppose they really believe it themselves. That’s what makes them so dangerous, you know. “What we’re doing is what God ordained we should do and things are happening the way things should happen, in the interests of the men more than in our interests. If you can only see it the way we’re looking at it, this is going to be in the best interests of the industry, of the country, and the people who really will benefit are your men.” And that was the sort of thing.
I don’t think you can pinpoint specific instances of where they inveigle you but it’s a sort of a dripping that wears you away. Quite frankly, that’s one of the reasons why I resigned. I could have carried on arguing and arguing and arguing, but I was frightened that I would become like them. I wouldn’t have been able to bloody live with myself. I had to get out. They wear you down — “Hail fellow, well met,” give a lift here and so on — and they never let it rest.
By this time it was 1950 and there was the start then of the big sweep over to increased mechanisation. But there was still a constant struggle at pit level, the same as what there had been prior to nationalisation — attacks on allowances and so forth. The position for miners at that time was that each colliery had its own price lists — and so had its own arrangements for getting coal. You were digging coal for half-a-crown a ton and you couldn’t make wages on the price that was paid for the coal. That price constituted only something like 50 or 55 per cent of your wages — the rest was made up of allowances for other work that you had to do in the process of getting the coal. And allowances were mouth-to-mouth bargains.
They could be cut off at any time and there was constant guerrilla warfare between management and workmen, and attacks on the allowances at pit level. This culminated in 1955 in the biggest strike we have ever had in Yorkshire. It started here in Armthorpe, where we had been constantly subjected to these attacks.
It used to be the case that every Thursday, when you got your big pay ticket, there would be some unit — some body of men — who would find their wages had been cut, through attacks on the allowances. Then they wouldn’t go down the pit — that’s what we call a “rag-up”. This meant that every weekend there was some section of the pit closed down as a result of these attacks on allowances. It came to a head through one of these in 1955. A group of lads had their allowances cut and they refused to go down.
By this time I was back as president of the branch, after coming back to the pit. So we called a meeting and we argued that we would really have to do something definite. We argued that this continual guerrilla warfare — some section of the pit being on strike every week — was getting us nowhere and that this was not peculiar just to Armthorpe. It was a process that was taking place at every pit. What was really needed was a stand being made on this issue of price lists and negotiations.
When you were in for an increase in your price lists, it would take bloody months of negotiating and you would end up with getting a halfpenny a ton or a farthing a ton or something like that — it was just a bloody nonsense. So Armthorpe Branch decided we were not going back until we got guarantees that deputies and workmen would be able to make bargains without being overridden by under-managers at the weekend, that allowances which were established would not be interfered with and so on. We decided we would make an appeal to the panel — Doncaster Panel in those days. All branches had the same problem and it was time that we did something about it.
We took our case to the panel. They gave us a week to try to get it resolved and said that, if we didn’t get it resolved, the whole panel would come out with us. Of course we did not get it resolved — and the panel came out. Then we decided: “The thing to do now is really go to town!” The miners were just waiting for this sort of lead — no difficulty in getting them to support us. So we made the appeal to the coalfield. Within a week we got 90,000 colliers on strike in Yorkshire — and they were running round in bloody circles trying to get us to call it off. They brought Arthur Horner up from London to meet us in Barnsley and try to talk us out of it. We wouldn’t.
Eventually the Area union got a letter — what they call the “Belcher Letter”. It’s gone down in history now. Belcher was secretary to the NCB at that time. It was signed by him, guaranteeing us something never known before. We got a sixpence increase in tonnage for the whole of Yorkshire — never mind negotiating one pit at a time and so on. We got an increase of a tanner a ton — applicable to every pit in Yorkshire — and an assurance that established allowances wouldn’t be interfered with except by negotiation. And we got an assurance that deputies would have the right to make bargains with their workmen and they would be honoured. We were out about three and a half weeks. We scored a complete victory, so we went back to work.
It was true in the early period of nationalisation, this “all pull together — it’s all sweetness and light in the future and there is an assured future and a good future.” It is because I believed that as well, you see, that I took the job with the coal board. But three years were enough to disillusion me and disillusion the men. And they realised that things weren’t panning out as they had hoped, that it was just a change in name. This was instanced by the incidents that led up to the 1955 strike, this continual guerrilla warfare that went on at pit level on the question of allowances and wages and so on. By that time the miners were completely disillusioned with the idea that nationalisation was heralding the bright future.
The NUM was established as a national union way back in 1944. We had the Miners’ Federation before then. There was no national action at that time because appeals were being made that you must not bite the hand that was feeding you — nationalisation. The line they were plugging then was that we are all together, that we are all one big happy family. That was the line, that strikes were the one sure way of putting obstacles in the way of reaching this glorious future. So we did not have any drive for national action.
I have always made a point of this. They used to say: “It’s our industry now. The industry belongs to the nation; the industry belongs to the miners.” It wasn’t true. It isn’t true now. Because when the government took over the industry they agreed to pay this tremendous sum to the coal owners in compensation — but it was not the nation that was paying this compensation. They said: “Yes, the pits belong to the nation.” They did belong to the nation — but the nation did not pay for the pits. The miners had to pay for the pits, because the interest on the money that was advanced to pay the coal owners for the industry had to come out of the miners’ skins. The state did not pay a sausage for the mining industry. The miners themselves paid for it — and it was a millstone round our necks. That argument was used against demands for better wages and so on — that the industry had to be paid for. As I say, the state did not pay for it — we paid for it. The state said: “They are yours now. They are your pits, you see. We give them to you; you have got to make them work.”
5. Not a wheel turned
IT wasn’t really until the end of the Fifties that we had any really big investment in the industry, with the changeover to mechanisation — the thing that Robens takes all the glory for. Previously we had been getting coal in the old ways, wherever we could find it and struggling to get it out. Then there was this investment and the mechanisation.
But it went hand in hand with the new line they put forward: “This industry is carrying too many lame ducks. We have too many pits that aren’t economic. If we could just chop off the uneconomic pits it really gives a chance to the others to surge forward. That’s what we have got to do.” So along with mechanisation you got the introduction of the closure programme. They started to close pits early in the 1960s. That was to be the great saviour — get rid of the deadwood, chop it off, concentrate on the economic pits and then was the glorious future.
Well they got rid of half the pits, they got rid of half the men — but they didn’t solve any problems. We were still in the position where we weren’t economic. Their closures didn’t answer any problems at all — only created a greater sense of frustration. During all the time of the Sixties we were in the position where we were putting in for wage increases like a bob a day, twelve bob a week, fifteen bob.
“That’s all the industry can afford. You can’t strike against it in a period when they are closing pits,” said the leadership. “It’s suicide. They want you to strike. They want an excuse to close pits and you are only giving them an excuse to close more. There is thirty million ton of coal on the floor. How can you strike with this huge mountain of stocks, with pits being closed, with miners unemployed? It is a nonsense to talk of striking to stop closures or striking to increase wages. We can’t do it.”
And so that went on all through the Sixties and, instead of giving us wages, they gave us medals for being the most amenable labour force in the country. “While strikes are happening everywhere, here’s the miners: they’re making conciliation work, they’re solving problems round the table and they’re satisfied with seven bob a week increase.” Every time Robens spoke or some member of the government spoke, it was to hold up the miners as an example of how conciliation works, of how good labour relations works.
But we were sitting on a powder keg, what with low wages and the closure of pits. The big breakthrough came in 1969 because there had been talk about the eight-hour day for surface workers. They had promised it and promised it — but it hadn’t come off. Yorkshire took a decision that something had to be done about the surface workers — if they weren’t getting their eight-hour day we were going to come out on strike about it. And there was a strike, in Yorkshire — and most of Scotland and South Wales followed them. In Yorkshire there wasn’t a wheel turned for a fortnight in 1969. Unofficial strike — and there wasn’t a wheel turned.
In 1969, for the first time in the history of the miners, they got the complete wage award that they asked for. They asked for 27 bob — and they got it, for all the workers. And the surface workers got their promise: “All right — go back to your pits and make arrangements locally. You can do that without us conceding it nationally. But behind the doors you can go back and make arrangements for your surface lads to knock off at the end of eight hours.”
I think that was the biggest shock to Robens, to the coal board and to the government — and to some of our leaders as well. I’m convinced Robens thought he had got us brain-washed and that there would never again be a big strike or a national strike because we couldn’t get off our bloody knees with the weight of the medals they had given us for being good lads.
So in 1969 in Yorkshire not a bloody wheel turned for a complete fortnight. Unofficially, we stopped this coalfield. Scotland came out and South Wales, with the result that we got our wage demand in full for the first time ever. But, of course, they said, it was not the result of the strike. The coal board had intended to do it all along, you see — that’s what they told us. But it was the result of the strike — it really flummoxed them, because it showed the situation in the coalfield. Unofficially, you could sew up a coalfield like Yorkshire, with about 165,000 miners — and not a wheel turned for a complete fortnight. No argument about it, absolutely solid — and that paved the way for 1971 and 1972.
Among ourselves, the boys would say there were only coal-face workers came to the union meeting, because coal-face workers were on piece-work under the old price lists but the wages of surface workers and day-wage workers underground were fixed nationally. So you could have a strike locally, a rag-up, and force concessions out of the management for piece-workers. Maybe you got back without getting anything — but you could fight for the piece-workers at pit level.
But for surface workers: “What’s the good of coming out on strike for surface workers at the pit? Management can’t do anything about it — their wage is fixed nationally.” That used to be the argument: “You can’t do anything about surface workers and day-wage workers because they are under national agreements, different from the piece-workers.” So the lads on the pit top used to say “Why, it’s a piece-workers’ union. What’s the good of us going? There’s only bloody colliers get heard — you can’t do anything for us.”
And in a sense the criticism was true. We were concerned with the piece-workers. They were the lads who came, they were the militants and it was to them that we were able to appeal. Now here are the surface workers who have been kidded on for years. We appealed to the colliers: “It’s time somebody made a stand, they can’t make a stand for themselves, you are the people who can stop the pits — and you’ve got to do it.”
The feeling of unity and, I think, the consciousness of the miners had developed so much as a result of their experiences in the Fifties and Sixties that they recognised they had a responsibility to the surface workers. So when the appeal was made to the colliers, “You are the people who can stop the pits, you are the only people who can make your voices heard,” then they responded.
The NPLA (National Power Loading Agreement) also had an effect, when everybody came on a national wage. It cemented that break between the day-wage workers, the surface workers and the piece-workers. “Now,” they used to tell the colliers if they had a dispute after the NPLA, “it’ll have to go to national level, you see. We’ve got the NPLA. What’s the good of striking? The manager can’t do anything about it even if he wanted to — it’s got to go to national level.” So we all came into the same boat. And we weren’t slow to learn the lessons.
I think it would have diminished the power of local branches if we had accepted that you had got to lie down under it because it was a national agreement. There were arguments about the interpretation you see. Even though it was a national agreement, if we had a grievance about it we still were prepared to take action and we were not prepared to wait. Many of the branches and pits were not prepared to wait until somebody at national level dealt with it.
Because, we argued, the only way to make them so-and-sos at the top deal with it is if something is happening at the bottom. And the only thing that could happen at the bottom that would move them was if you ragged up, if you stopped the wheels. So we very often found that, though it was a national agreement, managements were prepared to find ways and means round the national agreement in order to rectify grievances and anomalies that we brought to them.
The NPLA could have taken power away from the branches if we had accepted it at its face value and believed what we were told. “Now everything is going to be settled nationally round a table and all you have got to do if you have got a grievance is relay it to Area. Then Area will relay it to London and then they will go along and meet the coal board. But you carry on working meantime.”
But the lads would not have that sort of thing, you see — not bloody likely! Long experience had told us that if you want to get something done, you don’t get it done by relaying it through the post box up to London. If you want a grievance curing, then you do something about it yourself at pit level. So it did not detract from the militancy. If anything it added to it because the lads found that, even with the national agreements, they were able to make inroads into them where they had the power at local level.
The flying pickets did not originate with the 1972 strike or with Saltley Gate or with going to the power stations. In 1955 when we had the unofficial strike we sent pickets from here and the Doncaster Panel to the pits in every corner of Yorkshire. And there were all sorts of allegations in the press at that time — flying pickets in taxi cabs, taxi cabs being provided to take pickets across into West Yorkshire and so on, and where is all the money coming from to pay for these taxis for these pickets?
It was a load of bloody nonsense. Odd lads had cars, even in 1955. We used to load up a car with five or six lads and send them off. They’d be at the canteen, where a pit was working, at five o’clock in a morning, meet the lads when they came on and take them back with them. As a result of this we had experience of what is necessary when you come out on strike, experience of how you win strikes. You do not win a strike by saying: “We’ve got all the lads out — now all we have to do is sit back and wait until the employers cave in.” You win strikes by achieving something every day, by extending it, by hitting them with everything you have got.
So in 1955 when we had got Doncaster Panel out, we recognised that we had to get the other areas. We were extending it all the time and going from strength to strength. By 1972 our leaders had come to recognise it as well and they were prepared, once they were committed to a national strike, to divide the country up and give each Area responsibility for power stations and so on. They too had recognised and learned the lessons.
We can say now: “Why the bloody hell didn’t we do this in 1968 and 1967?” Very easy, once you have carried through a successful action — but what about the conditions and the circumstances? There were some of us who wanted to take action then to stop closures — the militants, the active lads. We forced special conferences in London. We attended the special conferences. We raised our voice there. We tried to get the union committed to take action, but we were never able to carry the day. We were crying in the wilderness, but nevertheless it was having an effect, you see. Eventually, when we were able to generate action, the lads recognised: “Yes, this is what we should have been doing years ago.” If anything, it made them all the keener so that in 1969, when we did have the unofficial action, there wasn’t a wheel turned in Yorkshire for a fortnight.
6. Fresh into the fray
IT was a real breakthrough when we were able at a national conference to establish a figure that we would go in for. All the years previously we were going to seek a “substantial” increase and so forth. We got the resolution through that year — stipulating figures — and that put the National Executive Committee on the spot. I remember the meetings we had, because I was on the national executive at that time.
The moderates — as they called the Right wing — they would have settled at any time, if they would have dared. But we challenged them in the executive to accept anything less, when the first offers were made. They said our lads weren’t so keen for a strike and so on — all this bullshit that they trot out. So we said: “All right, but if you accept this then you are the people who must recommend it.”
Despite the fact that they said the lads weren’t ready and they didn’t want it, that they were buying houses and they had got fitted carpets, that they had got cars and mortgages, and that we wouldn’t get the response, they weren’t big enough to say “All right, we’ll recommend it” and accept the three quid or whatever was offered at first.
They were not prepared to do that. So we were able all the time to carry the executive with us and eventually, when the resolution for strike action was put, it became the executive’s recommendation. They could do no other, though if they had wanted to put a stop to it they could have done, because they had a inbuilt majority on the national executive all the time. I was in favour of the overtime ban (imposed from 1 November 1971), while the members were balloting on strike action. It ran until the strike began on 9 January 1972.
. But I also argued that it would not bring anything for us — that if the miners were going to win a decisive victory then they would not win it just by their own efforts. They would need the support of other sections of the working class — transport workers, railwaymen, dockers and so on.
We argued: “All right, the overtime ban is a preliminary. This is turning the screw a bit, but you can’t put an embargo on coal going to power stations. You can’t ask railwaymen to stop running coal if you are working five days a week. How the hell can you ask them to take strike action to stop moving coal when you are producing coal five days a week? So they have only to sit tight and, if all we are prepared to do is to have an overtime ban, then they will wait us out.
“So it’s all right, it’s helping to eat into their stocks but if we want to win we have to be prepared to back it up by strike action.” As I pointed out, you could not go to a railwayman or a lorry driver and say: “You shouldn’t move that coal from a dump to make up for the shortage.” He would say: “All right, what are you doing? If I go home, you are going to get changed to go to work aren’t you?”
Of course it was brought home to them that the overtime ban did eat into their stocks, but they were laughing if that was all we were going to do, because our hands were tied so far as appealing to any other section of the working class. So there had to be strike action. Once the strike was called, we knew we had got pledges of support from ASLEF, railwaymen, power workers — and so immediately our lads went into action. We did not wait to see how things were going.
Previously we had always to wait on Scotland or South Wales and we’d a hell of a job trying to get Yorkshire, because we had a preponderance of moderate, Right-wing officials. But we had started to make a breakthrough, so we had a transformation, you see, showing what I have always argued, down at pit level. If the leadership is good enough at any time, the men are even better — if they are given the lead.
As soon as we were in a position to give a lead in Yorkshire, the miners responded. Yorkshire topped the league in this ballot — and in the action and the movement of pickets. From being a follower-up of Scotland and South Wales, as it were, Yorkshire is now a leading unit in the miners’ union for militancy. Miners everywhere look to see what Yorkshire is doing. There’s been a hell of a hard struggle in Yorkshire. I can remember when you could count the militants on the fingers of one hand. There were about three of us — and it was a bloody struggle.
It’s paid off in the end and, I suppose, coming from the back really enhances Yorkshire‘s position. Scotland and Wales they have this long tradition — no question that they have been the most militant coalfields. But, coming from the rear, fresh into the fray, that is why Yorkshire has surged ahead. And they have done, they’re doing a first-class job. They have got a good militant leadership now.
You then had five Yorkshire Area NUM officials at Barnsley — a president, vice-president, secretary, financial secretary and compensation agent. They were the big five at Barnsley. After the 1955 strike we got a decision taken in Yorkshire to elect agents for each panel area. So agents were elected and each panel area had a full-time official, apart from the officials at Barnsley. Each dealt with his own area and went to Barnsley only if he was unable to resolve it himself. In 1963 I was elected agent for this Doncaster area. There was a terrific campaign against “Kane the Red”. I’ve got cuttings that would make your bloody hair stand on end.
Then in 1966 the financial secretary at Barnsley, Harry Ashman, had to retire and I was elected financial secretary. I was into the big five at Barnsley you see. That was really a breakthrough because it was the first time a Communist was elected to a full-time position. And then a year or two later, the compensation agent was elected as Area secretary and another Communist was elected as compensation agent — Sammy Taylor, who died prior to the 1972 strike.
You have an Area Council meeting every month or whenever necessary, when all the delegates come together. Always then you’d had this united front of the Right on the platform. But now for the first time you did not have a united platform. Now they couldn’t stand up and say: “Us officials are agreed.” They had to get up and say: “Well, as usual we have disagreed. There’s Jock and Sammy — they don’t think so.” We could always carry the day in the Council meeting even though we were out-voted as officials. When we met as officials, it was three to two, but we knew when we went into Council who it was that the lads would follow.
So, I got elected financial secretary. Sammy had been rank-and-file representative on the national executive, with two full-time officials. Then, after I was elected, I was put up for the first vacancy that came up, for national executive, and I got on. Sid Schofield was the general secretary of Yorkshire Area. He was the brains of the moderates, the Right wing. Sid was a very capable fellow, you see, but he was never good enough. When he was elected as vice-president of the National Union of Mineworkers, I stepped into his shoes on the national executive.
So then we’d Sammy Taylor and me and a rank-and-filer, Tommy Burke, (delegate for Barnburgh NUM Branch.) on the national executive. Tommy was a very reasonable sort of fellow, but he would always go with us in votes on the national executive. That meant three Left-wing votes from Yorkshire all the time. And of course that was the position when the strike developed in 1972. In Yorkshire, the president was Sammy Bullough, the secretary was Sid Schofield and the vice-president Jack Leigh. Sammy Taylor had been elected as compensation agent and I’d been elected as financial secretary. So of course we were able to wield considerable influence. When the strike started and Barnsley Panel asked for accommodation at the Miners’ Offices in Barnsley (the headquarters of the NUM Yorkshire Area, on Huddersfield Road, Barnsley – the first purpose-built trade union offices in Britain).
This was absolutely unheard of. Each panel area had to set up strike headquarters and organise its own pickets to the opencast, out to the ports and power stations. I was the paymaster, which helped things, so the lads could get payment for buses, payment for a meal and all that sort of thing. There was never any argument. Everything went smoothly from that angle. The panel areas are Doncaster, Barnsley, North Yorkshire and South Yorkshire. Doncaster was the outstandingly militant area. Barnsley was good, but North Yorkshire and South Yorkshire were usually weak. We did not have as much influence, the Left, in those areas, though we always managed to carry them with us at the crunch.
So Barnsley Panel asked if they could have accommodation at the Miners’ Offices in Barnsley. And of course we agreed, so they moved in and they were in constant session you see, in part of the offices. They were there night and day. Well, Barnsley Panel was Arthur Scargill’s area and Arthur was a leading light in the Barnsley Panel. He was a branch delegate, from Woolley, and he was the most capable lad as well. So they all looked to Arthur for a lead. He’s got very good organising ability. Arthur was the kingpin in the Barnsley area and did a tremendous job. Then, when the call came in for pickets at Saltley, it was taken in Barnsley Panel’s picket headquarters in the Miners’ Offices. Arthur was on the job straight away with two or three bus-loads. Some of those Barnsley lads had already been going down there, you see.
I was in London most of that time. The national executive met quite a lot of the time when this sort of thing was happening. But I can remember, word came through from Barnsley to London that they had sent a couple of buses and then there was another call from Saltley for more pickets when they had gone. I think the lads in the Midlands and the lads from Wales had asked national office to do something about getting support for them at Saltley, so there had been a message relayed from London to Yorkshire to see if they could do anything about getting a couple of bus-loads down there.
As soon as the request was made, of course, that was all the lads needed and the buses went straight away. I can remember we had an argument in London about this, Schofield and myself, because after Scargill got to Saltley he phoned saying they needed even more sending down, to make it a really mass picket. The message was relayed to us in London and I had a hell of an argument with Schofield. He didn’t want to get involved to this extent and thought things were getting out of hand. He was general secretary in Yorkshire and national vice-president of the NUM. President of the national union was Gormley at that time. So in London we had this argument, about whether or not we should authorise an unlimited number of pickets to go. Anyhow, the extra recruits went — with the result everybody now knows.
There was no argument once they went. We honoured every picket that went out, whether we had said “go” or not. Because we had sufficient confidence — at least I had — in the strike committees to know that they were not going out joy-riding. If they went out on a picket it was because a picket was necessary. And at that time, you did not stop to count pennies and see whether you could afford it — that was the least consideration.
We weren’t paying strike pay. We’ve never paid a penny strike pay for years and years. We’d two and a half million pounds in the funds so, if money was going to help to win the strike by getting pickets, all right, we’d spend the money — and we did and got the lads on the job. Mind you I didn’t view Saltley as something on which the strike hinged, as something which was going to decide the outcome of the strike.
Even if we hadn’t closed Saltley the coke would have been gone in a week. The important thing was stopping the power stations, which we were already doing, you see, and what they had at Birmingham really was a drop in the ocean, as far as I could see. But it had a tremendous psychological effect, you know. Here was a dump which the authorities were determined to keep open at all costs and the miners took that as a challenge. We’d closed everything else down and we were not going to be stuck at this. So, it really meant something to the miners to close Saltley.
That’s why the pickets flooded in from Yorkshire, South Wales and from parts of the Midlands and so on — but the miners would never have closed Saltley. It was the workers in Birmingham who closed Saltley, you see, and the work that was done in Birmingham that morning. I wasn’t there, but I’ve heard Scargill and other people talk about it — that morning when those bloody great demonstrations, men and women, came marching along.
That really sealed the fate of Saltley, that stoppage that day when those workers came out on the streets, proving as always that when the workers are united and take action, they can have a thousand police, two thousand — they could have had as many more police there — but they just couldn’t have kept that place open. And it got such publicity in the media. They had built it up so much that when it was finally closed, you know, it really was a tremendous victory for us. It didn’t affect the outcome of the strike, but it was important.
There was a possibility that, if we didn’t throw in our weight and maintain it, there could have been a slowing off and a slackening up and a failure of the stoppage — at Saltley, not of the national struggle. There could have been a toning down, because that was the angle of the moderates. They didn’t want mass pickets because, they said, mass pickets led to confrontation with the police, got us such a bad name and lost us public sympathy when we had the public with us.
So the Right wing weren’t happy about the build-up of mass pickets. It was true about Saltley, it was true about every other issue that cropped up — they weren’t happy. It was the same thing in Scotland. They weren’t happy about mass picketing up in Scotland when the boys got arrested. And whenever there was a confrontation with the police they’d say: “Well, there you are, that’s what it’s leading to, we’re going to lose public sympathy” — which is a load of balls! But, on every issue that cropped up, that was the line of the moderates. So every issue had to be punched home as fully as you could if you wanted to make the most of it. And it was punched home at Saltley. And to the everlasting credit of the Birmingham workers — they are the boys and girls who closed Saltley when they really turned out.
The danger from the Right wing is always there on every issue. If we had gone into the executive on the question of whether Yorkshire should send extra forces down, they’d have said: “No — we don’t think it’s necessary. Leave it to the lads who are there.” I don’t think it would have had any really decisive effect inside the national executive if they had kept Saltley open, because it would not have been a victory for the Right wing. It would have been a victory for brute force if they had been able to keep it open and I don’t think they could have made much capital out of it.
Saltley was important. Of course it was important. When you get a victory of that kind and you are able by mass action to do something of that kind, it’s tremendously important. But it was not decisive for the winning of the strike. We were going to win that strike. We could have had setbacks and we would still have won that strike. Nothing could have stopped us — the mood the miners were in and the feeling there was. We were stronger when we called it off than when we started. Fresh forces were coming in to go picketing. Women were turning out. We were just reaching our zenith when Wilberforce came out with his recommendations.
(On the 33rd day of the 1972 miners’ strike, 10 February, the government announced a Court of Inquiry, in which the union agreed to participate. The inquiry, led by Lord Wilberforce, began sitting on 15 February. When the inquiry ended the following day, 1,400,000 workers were out of work and 12 power stations closed because of the strike. The miners’ case was put by NUM general secretary Lawrence Daly. Although the Wilberforce Report went a long way to recognising the miners’ case, when it was put to the NEC on 18 February, they rejected it, with Jock Kane summing up the majority view: “We have the government on the run, so let us keep it running.” The strike was settled over the next few days on the basis of the Wilberforce Report, with the added settlement of other longstanding miners’ demands. )
I wouldn’t accept that Saltley Gate determined the government’s actions. You see, if you give it that importance, you demote the tremendous work that was done in every other part of the country in stopping power stations. That is what forced the hand of the government — and we had stopped the power stations by the time we stopped Saltley. They were flying in bloody helicopters and all sorts to try and get this thing going at Thorpe Marsh (Power Station, just north of Doncaster) across here at Doncaster. We had really got a stranglehold on them. So, irrespective of Saltley Gate, the government had to do what they did at that time to get off the hook.
Nowhere else did they have the stocks that they had at Saltley, in the centre of a city. Where else had they stocks that they were attempting to move and had been successful in moving? That was the only stock of fuel in the country that they were making efforts to move, because everything else had been sewn up. I don’t think that you can say that if there had been no Saltley there would have been no Wilberforce — that’s a bloody nonsense. That is to denigrate the entire efforts of the Nation Union of Mineworkers and all the other trade unions who had been throwing their weight behind us.
I think the decisive thing was the way the miners went into action, with mass pickets to the power stations in every part of the country, and the way they were backed up by other sections of the trade union movement. That’s what really guaranteed success from the first day of the strike. Saltley Gate is a hillock that we climbed and got over. But it wasn’t the crunch — it wasn’t the Stalingrad. I think that we were absolutely invincible in 1972, the miners, because of the way we went into the struggle, the solidarity and because of the support that was forthcoming and the way we got a stranglehold on the power stations. That’s what counted in the national struggle.
It’s really a bit naive to think that one confrontation with the police is going to completely change the whole attitude of miners, engineers or anyone else who have been brought up and conditioned to see the police in a completely different light. They may think nothing about them, call them “the fuzz”, “you shower of so-and-sos” and so on, but nevertheless there is no understanding of the class role the police play in society, as I see it. There’s no understanding at all by the vast bulk of the people. One confrontation such as Saltley is not going to do away with all the bloody brainwashing that they have had all the years, all the conceptions that they have built up about the sort of society that they live in and the role that the police play.
I bet you — and this village (Armthorpe) is as militant as there is in Britain — you go out and ask the first half-dozen miners, “Do you see the policeman as a weapon in the class struggle?”, they will stare at you bloody gone out. They don’t — they’ve got to be educated. The strike was an education. Certainly the lads who actively took part in it, while it was red-hot, saw and realised, but the lesson does not remain with them unless you have got some way of keeping punching it home, by constant agitation and political work. There’s no other way than what you are doing, showing them the significance of this and that, and the role played by the police and so on.
It’s in the work you do. (Jock Kane is addressing interviewer Charles Parker about his work.) Obviously there’s an end product to it — you’re not talking to me just to pass a Saturday afternoon. There’s going to be plays, there’s going to be poems or songs or a book or something — and you don’t have to colour the picture. Just tell and recount — whatever form it takes, whether it’s the Banner Group (Banner Theatre, Birmingham, of which Charles Parker was the leading founder member) or whatever — what the experiences of the miners were. And tell how they saw the police and tell the truth about the attitude of the police. You can’t paint it up, you can’t manufacture it — you can only tell the truth and hope that in telling the truth you’ll be getting through to someone who will say: “It gives me a fresh insight into these people and how they operate.”
Every form has got to be used in your agitational work, as in the speeches we make. We use Saltley — of course we do — to show that the police aren’t above the struggle, that they will always be brought in. But you can commit the worst criminal act — murder, carve someone up — and what’ll you get? You’ll get 10 to 15 years. But you rob a train and you’ll get 30 years. Why? Because it’s crime against property.
There is a need for culture. But the fact that it is essential and it’s got to be done does not presuppose that, as soon as you appear in public, you are going to have big audiences waiting to drink it in, to learn the lessons. You will have experiences like you (Charles Parker) had at Kellingley Branch (near Pontefract, Parker had just been to visit it). You go up there and you get 20 at a meeting. The Labour Party or the Communist Party could call a meeting up at Kellingley just now and they would probably get the same 20. You go to 90 per cent of your trade union branch meetings in Yorkshire on Sunday morning and you’ll find from 15 to 40.
But if there is an issue on at the pit you’ll not get into the hall. So there is the same necessity to be thumping at them about the need for militancy in the industrial field as there is for you in the cultural field. We have the same problems and we find all along the line we are very often talking to two or three, to the converted. It’s only when some big issue crops up or when you have put in a hell of a lot of work that you get the sort of audience that your message deserves.
I remember Joe Corrie (a Scottish working-class playwright) years ago. He used to do working-class plays in Scotland. We had people doing one of his plays. Now if there was trouble on, during a strike or something like that, you’d get the welfare hall packed. They’d cheer their heads off at the message that was coming across. The same thing applies industrially and politically. But culture is a poor relation because we’ve not paid any attention to it. You didn’t get a very good meeting because the people who know its content probably didn’t do as much work as they should have done to be sure of getting a better audience. In the working-class movement we have been too ready to accept that the fight in the trade union branch or in the political branch is all that matters.
We’ve looked down our nose at the cultural campaign. In the pit, if a lad takes a great interest in good music or if you hear someone talking about Beethoven, most of the lads think there’s something wrong with him, if he prefers that to pop. So we’ve been denied cultural development all our lives — good music, good literature, good drama.
The working class have been denied this all our lives and now we are flooded out with television and all this sort of thing — being brainwashed. It should make us alert to the need to develop our own cultural pursuits, to show the other side, have our own plays and our dramas which will deal with real things — not with this spy drama stuff we get on television or the poor girl marrying the rich mill-owner’s son and all this bullshit.
We need stuff that will reveal things such as what happened at Saltley and draw the lesson of Saltley in relation to the whole of the miners’ struggle — that it’s the development of the miners’ struggle which led up to Saltley. We can have poems and plays which draw the lessons and show the unity that developed out of the miners’ struggle — because the miners had to be on strike before you got the railwaymen, the dockers and the engineers to take part.
We have to show that once the struggle starts there emerges a message which the dullest of the workers realises and that is that he has got a part to play — that if the miners are being attacked and he can help them by stopping coal going from Saltley or from a dockside or anywhere else, he has a part to play and that it will stand him in good stead. When he has to fight, then he will have the support of the miners.
If we get plays which draw that lesson and if the people who are active in the trade union movement set their stall out to make it possible for the lads who are active on the cultural front to come into their midst with the results of their research, with the plays and the poems and the stories they have built up, and if we work to provide an audience for them then of course it can only do good. It is ramming home the lessons which they saw when they were engaged in the struggle. But, once the struggle is finished and they are back to the old humdrum, then of course it is something that can’t happen to us — until it does happen a second time.
But, if we had the development of the cultural work, which was ramming this home all the time to them, then they would begin to have a class understanding of why they are in this struggle and of the fact that, so long as class relationships remain as they are, then we will always be having struggles. We will always be having struggles unless we have a change in class society. The miners will be fighting for wages 20 years from now — the same sort of struggles — and it is only the ultimate development of socialism that would do away with the necessity for us waging this continual guerrilla warfare, in defence of what we’ve got or to try to add a little to what we’ve got.
So anything that helps to rouse the consciousness of the people, to understand that, can only be good. But it’s not a job just for the fellows who go round with the microphone and get you talking on to tape. It’s the boys down in the villages and the pit branches who have got to prepare the way for those people coming in, to show what they have made out of all they have learned from the people they have talked to.
It’s something that you have got to keep pegging away at all the time. You’ll have good results, you’ll have bad results. Sometimes you’ll think: “Well, sod it, is it bloody worth it?” You’ll feel that, very often. I’ve felt that way, 30 years ago in Yorkshire when the Right could say: “We’re going to cut Communism out of the Yorkshire miners as a surgeon would cut out a cancer.” And he was the big noise in Yorkshire then and in the Miners’ Federation.
There were only three or four of us, Christ, and it seemed hopeless. When you look back now — that’s the one thing you can be sure of — no matter how disappointing at the time, you know that eventually you must win, that you are on the winning side, no matter how long it takes. There’s no royal road forward, no broad highway. It’s narrow and it’s precipitous and you keep slipping back. But you’ve to keep trying, you’ve to keep in touch with the lads at the branch, natter them and nag at them, until you get them doing what you want them to do in the way of getting you the audiences that you need.
The 1972 strike really was important in the way in which it made miners realise that they weren’t alone in the world. I’ve known instances in branches where you’ve attempted to get support for other branches of workers who’ve been in struggle. In years past, the militants have always done that wherever there’s been a struggle. And you come up against this argument: “Well, who’s ever done anything for us? Let them get on with it. It’s not our struggle.”
Well that attitude really got a battering in 1972, you see, because some of the lads who said this sort of thing were the lads who went out on picket power stations, who went to towns, down to Norwich, to Yarmouth, East Anglia and met people whose existence they didn’t know about. And they got such a reception, you see, and the fishermen, factory workers and engineers made such a fuss about them.
They went to local trades councils, local Labour Parties and Communist Parties, and everybody went out of their way to make their job easy, to provide accommodation for them. And the lads who went out on picket were full of this when they came back, about the reception they got and how good people were. So that really has built a new conception in the minds of most of the miners.
Mind you, like everything else, it can fade as time goes on but it is bound to leave something that has a lasting hold on them. And now there is a new conception, you know, for example when these lads down here in Doncaster, at the Harvesters (International Harvesters, a Doncaster company manufacturing agricultural machinery), when they were on strike. They came up to the pit gates. Now previously there would have been nobody there standing with them, but the contact has been made, so a couple of committee men stand with them and explain to the miners going in and out what they are doing there and why they are collecting.
And so they get really good collections — something that’s completely new — and that arises out of the miners’ own experiences in 1972 that there is support and that we don’t stand alone, and that it is only if we stand together that we can win. That recognition, you see, is that the other fellow’s fight is my fight because, if he goes down, who do I look to for support when I’m out? That lesson was really rammed home to the miners in 1972. If ever again there is an appeal for support for any section of workers — and if they come across here — the whole village will be put at their disposal. There is no doubt about that, the whole village will be put at their disposal because of the reception the lads got when they went to the docks at Scunthorpe, at Goole and at Hull. They got such a tremendous reception.
A recognition that every trade unionist’s fight is my fight is an extension in class consciousness, you see. In 1972, I had to appeal to engineers, to lorry drivers, to dockers, to everyone. And I got the response. So now I recognise that I have got a responsibility to the dockers, to the lorry drivers, to the railwaymen and if the call comes from them we’ll not be lacking, because we have got now this class consciousness, that we are all in this struggle together.
We pursue different trades but we have all got to fight for wages and we’re all fighting the same bloody gaffer at the end of the road. Because, with your huge firms, your multi-nationals and all the rest of it, it’s the same people who are opposing miners and engineers who are closing down pit wear factories and motor-bike factories. They are all backed by the big banks and by the insurance companies. So we’re not only beginning to recognise our friends but, more important, we are beginning to recognise who are our enemies, you know, and understand what’s got to be done about it.
On the morning the Wilberforce Report was to be made public, the national executive were down there in London. We went across to the Department of Employment, I suppose it would be, and the coal board were in another room, and this Wilberforce Report was to be made public at 10 o’clock — issued to us and to them. So they came and issued this report about these increases — £6, £5, £4. Ah! Marvellous, marvellous! And then the argument started inside the NEC.
I argued that we shouldn’t accept straight away because the strike was stronger then than the first day we called it. We’d really been going from strength to strength, you know, and we’d got things going our way. I said: “It’s them who are suing for bloody peace now, not us, and there are so many other grievances that we’ve got.” I addressed some of these grievances, like the bonus shift, you see, the six-for-five. If you ragged up or lost a shift or owt like that, you lost your bonus shift, you see, and we’d been arguing to have this incorporated into pay for the five shifts. I said: “There’s that, there’s adult rate at 18 that we’ve been arguing for and a number of other things.” I said: “Now’s our chance. We don’t want to run away now. Our lads have really got their tails up.”
So we had a long argument in the NEC and eventually a vote was taken on it. We won by 13 votes to 11, the progressives, for immediate non-acceptance of this report. So there was consternation. Then eventually we were brought face to face with the coal board and I was arguing in there the same as I’d argued in the NEC, to this geezer Ezra and his blokes there. (Derek Ezra, NCB chairman from 1971 to 1982.)
“It’s your people that’s suing for peace now,” I said. “Christ, we haven’t really to started to fight yet, our boys are really going places and we’ve all these other problems. We’re not arguing about the merits or demerits of Wilberforce now and the money that he’s offered us. We’re prepared to accept that, provided you’ll put right some of these other long-standing sores.” And he said: “Well, we can’t do anything. But these other things, we can talk about them. We’re prepared to talk about them when we get settled.”
“Well, that’s never been our difficulty, Mr Chairman, getting you to talk about these things. You’ve never refused to talk, you’ll let us talk ourselves blue in the bloody face but at the end of the talking there’s nothing. So your telling us that we can always talk about it is not solving any problems for us. That’s never been our difficulty, getting you to talk — it’s getting you to act.” That’s when he said: “Well, I can’t go any further. You will have to go and see Heath.”
So we went across to see Heath and we got to see him, eventually, that night — another great list of concessions that cost nearly as much as the six quid did! The shift incorporated the bonus, adult rate at 18 and so on and so forth. So there are brighter moments as well as the black ones, aren’t there? I reckon that was a great achievement, the 1972 strike — greater than the 1974, because they were charting the unknown in 1972. They knew where they were going in 1974 and what they had to fall back on, didn’t they?
7. The Social Contract
LOTS of people are giving lip-service to the Social Contract (the name of an incomes policy of the 1974-79 Labour government, introduced by Barbara Castle and prime minister Harold Wilson), you know, but there are not many people observing it. Obviously, if prices go up and rates go up and rents go up and my wages don’t go up, I’ve had a wage reduction. If they go up 40 per cent and they say, “Well, you only should have a 10 per cent increase in your wages,” then I’m having a 30 per cent reduction in my living standards — and you don’t need to be a bloody genius to understand that, do you?
And so they say: “Well, it’s the Social Contract.” You say: “Social Contract? Well, I read about Esso and BP, and there were the big five banks that made profits that have never been heard tell of in history, fantastic, hundreds of millions of pounds profits. What Social Contract are they on? What have they done?” They say: “Well, we’ve all got to tighten our belts.” We’ve got a belt to tighten but these people haven’t got any bloody belt.
It just shows you. There was a show on our television — they sometimes do some good things. There was a bloke on there and he was being shown at the same time as Mick McGahey, (President of the NUM Scottish Area from 1967 to 1987 and national vice-president from 1973 to 1987) comparing the two ways of life. This boy was saying how he’d stopped all investment in Britain, you know: “It’s a bad bet, you see, so we’re not investing here.”
It shows you his vast palatial home. “How long will this crisis last?” “Oh, three years or maybe four years.” “Well, what are you doing about it?” “Oh,” he said. “I’m all right.” And the bloke who was interviewing him said: “We heard about you doing a very good deal in champagne. You like champagne?” “Oh, yes, yes, yes,” he says. “I did do a very good deal. If this crisis lasts three years — and I’m convinced it will — I’ll not run short of champagne.”
People are being told they’ve got to eat less, they’ve got to spend less — and there’s this bastard here. While Maggie Thatcher’s filling up her cupboards, he’s stocking his cellar. So they ride out the crisis. What does the Social Contract mean to those people? It means nothing to them, so why should it to us? And people are beginning to realise that and, as usual, the miners have blazed the trail. They have established with their increase this year a target for everyone else.
The electrical workers and the railway workers are saying: “What’s the difference between me and a bloke who works on a pit surface? If he gets £51, what’s that got to do with me on £29? What’s the difference? We both go to the same market.” And it’s true — so the Social Contract can’t work. Even if we observed it, it doesn’t work. All it does is makes us poor and the rich richer. Because, if we don’t get it, where does it go to? They don’t build any more schools.
A few years ago, when the last Labour government was in, the building workers got an increase of about three pence an hour. Barbara Castle (Labour MP and Cabinet minister, Betty Kane is talking of the time of the Social Contract, when Barbara Castle was secretary of state for employment) said that it should only have been tuppence and took a penny back. McAlpine and the big boys had paid this out and they had to recover it from the building workers. It meant hundreds of thousands of pounds, this penny an hour.
Now did they build a couple of hospitals? Did they say: “Well, seeing as we are getting this penny, we are going to build you a few hospitals, we’re going to build a couple of schools, we’re going to build some old folks’ bungalows with this penny? It’s not ours — we’ve already given it to the builders — and you say we’ve got to take it back, so what do we do with it?” They put it in their pockets. They didn’t build any schools or hospitals or old folks’ bungalows — not bloody likely. They paid it out in dividends at the end of the year.
We’ve had two different sets of lads round, cleaning windows. The first set were doing it to get a bob or two pocket money because they were waiting to go in the army. They’d volunteered. The other lads couldn’t get a job anywhere. Even the NCB isn’t setting on. That is very unusual, you know, that the NCB shouldn’t be setting on young school leavers, not before October when they might have an opportunity to take them. So there are kids from July to October at a loose end, coming around town, asking can they clean windows, you know, to get a bob or two to be able to spend to go to town, to go to the pictures, to go to a dance hall or whatever. It’s criminal, isn’t it?
It’s doubly shocking, you know, to a miner to think that the coal board is not taking on school leavers. Because there has always been an open door and I have gone round speaking to lads before they left school. Schoolmasters have asked me would I come and give the lads a talk about the union and about the pit and what would happen to them if they came to the pit.
We have encouraged them to come into the industry and I can remember a few years back, before I finished, there was some talk at one period — it must have been during the period with the closures — that they weren’t setting on lads. We played hell about it: “Sign them on and pay them the surface rate until you can fit them in, because otherwise they’ll not be there when you want them.” But now the wheel’s gone full circle again. It’s terrible, I think. And for the coal board of all employers not to be taking in young people, when you consider the age levels in the pits, is terrible.
I assume the union will attempt to do something. They ought to. You see, this is the sort of agitation that the union ought to be taking up now. Money ought to be found to make it possible for the coal board to accept these young people and pay their wages. Christ, I can remember in 1947 we paid wages to thousands of Poles for months and months on end. They never came into this industry and never did a bloody day’s work. As a labour officer for the NCB, I was up to the camps every Friday and paid them out the prevailing rate that was going in the mining industry at that time, pending the miners agreeing to accept them — which they never did.
There were thousands of Polish ex-army men in camps and we used to go up and they were there parading about in the summer time and their bodies all bronzed. A shower of arrogant bloody swine, ex-officer bloody class, and the coal board paid them wages for months on end. There were very few of them that ever came into the industry and when they did come they were only in a month until they found their way about and they were off to Bradford, Huddersfield, everywhere. They found money for that sort of thing, but they can’t find money to subsidise lads that are prepared to come into the industry now — and that they need.
There’s too many people fallen for this line that if you give a year to Britain you are going to solve the problem. I don’t think they will. Probably they will be able to stave off any big upsurge at the moment because there are so many respected trades union leaders who have fallen for this line — Jack Jones, for example, who’s got tremendous respect among all sections of the workers, and rightly so of course, but they think: “Well, if Jack is for it, there must be something in it.”
You might get more criticism of Jack Jones for example among some of the dockers or some other more militant sections of the TGWU, the motor workers for example, but miners don’t know about this sort of thing. They haven’t got an intimate knowledge of it. They see Jack and all his public works, they know he has always been very progressive, he has always been what you call “Left”, they see the work that he’s done on the question of pensions and this has a tremendous effect with people. Everybody knows Jack Jones for this campaign that he has done for pensioners, if for nothing else. So it’s been a great life, all in all, hasn’t it? I still think the best days are to come. The best days are still in front of us — and I hope to live to see some of them.
8. They talk about
women’s right to work – Betty Kane’s story
IN 1926, I was just becoming conscious of politics but I wasn’t in a mining village. I was in Sheffield, so of course the position there was entirely different to what it was in the villages. Sheffield was sort-of on strike and they were all scared but, in a place like Sheffield, the shops were open and it was just the big factories that were on strike, the big factories and the transport. But the workers themselves did see to deliveries of food. They organised that in Sheffield.
I had no contact at all with the miners. There was a great sympathy for them because the owners were trying to reduce their wages and increase their hours. People thought the miners were justified in striking and there was a great sympathy for them, but we had no actual contact. It wasn’t until I met Jock that I had contact with the miners.
In those days, we just lived for the day. There didn’t seem to be any prospects of anything really. Those were the days of three million unemployed and there didn’t seem any prospects — except the revolution. We pinned our hopes on the revolution. We had no personal prospects at all. We couldn’t have any ambitions, because we had no training and limited education. Jock, I think, was a bit more highly educated than me.
If you leave school at 14, you’re trained only for a job in a shop or a factory and your hours are so long that you can’t even attend evening class. I think that’s the tragedy of working class kids having to leave school when they are just becoming interested. I was just becoming interested in learning when it just stopped, except for reading, and that is the tragedy. Who knows? Perhaps we had more potential in life. But there isn’t for the majority, is there?
I was 18 in 1926. But of course I was very green about politics. During the strike I joined the YCL (Young Communist League). My father was a factory worker, an engineering worker in a small factory in Sheffield. He was on strike. He was a socialist — but a bit of an armchair socialist. He went to all the meetings and we were brought up on “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” (novel written by painter-decorator Robert Noonan, under the pen-name Robert Tressell, and first published in 1914. Credited as the first English working-class novel) and Blatchford and “Three Acres and a Cow”, all that sort of stuff. He wasn’t really active himself, but the Communist Party was very active and that’s how I got committed.
I had a personal point of view that society was all wrong, that we were poverty-stricken when other people were extremely wealthy. At that period when I was looking for work — I was about 14, so that would be 1922 — there were no jobs at all. You had to go queuing at the factory to get jobs, day after day, and you were lucky if you got a job. Eventually I got a job working in a grocery shop, Lipton’s, for seven bob a week as a shop assistant, from 8.30 until seven every day — until eight Friday and nine Saturday. Those were the hours and it meant you got out half an hour after that.
Sheffield is chiefly heavy industry and there weren’t a lot of jobs for women, except during the war when they were engaged on munitions and light engineering. It is chiefly heavy industry, steel and iron. Also there were factories like sweet factories, Burdalls factory in gravy salt and small engineering factories. But it wasn’t like Leeds with the clothing industry or Bradford with the woollen industry or Lancashire with the cotton industry. So it was very difficult to get work and, until the Second World War, wages were so bad we were just about as well off on the dole.
The dole was 15 bob for a woman, but shop assistants didn’t get much more than a pound a week. I worked there till I was about 20. They had multiple shops but of course there were small shops in the suburbs. Everybody was poverty stricken. They used to have these relief vouchers. They didn’t give them cash in case they spent it on beer or the horses. They gave them food tickets and of course a lot of our custom was with these food vouchers. They just gave them the necessities, bread and marge, a bit of jam perhaps. You gave them food for the vouchers. I thought it was pretty lousy, that the whole system was wrong and, when the strike came, we all thought the revolution was round the corner.
I was in the shop assistants’ union (National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers – today’s USDAW) because my father was always portraying unions and the Labour Party and so forth. There were very few in the union. They didn’t seem to have a lot of consciousness. They thought things were bad. Their boyfriends couldn’t get jobs so they couldn’t get married and that was chiefly what upset them. So they didn’t question whether the system should be changed. They accepted it, except the few that were sort of class conscious. I suppose the parents accepted it and at that period they weren’t particularly militant. If there’s a great army of unemployed and somebody is waiting for your job, it’s not a period of militancy, is it?
Of course I was quite young when the First World War ended. I was only about 11 when the war ended, so I don’t really know what they expected. The chief ambition was to get married in those days. They hadn’t any ambitions because the jobs they had were so lousy that they couldn’t possibly become independent and, say, set up a flat like girls do today.
The tremendous upsurge in the number of women workers in factories did liberate them to a certain extent but they were older, you see. After the war ended of course they were thrown out of work because the men came back to the factories and they were thrown back into the home or domestic service. You see, Jock’s sisters had to go into domestic service because there was no work at all in the mining villages. What else could they do but accept it?
I think chiefly what affected me was the stuff I read because my dad was a great reader and I had all the socialist stuff. I used to go to meetings with him, first of all Labour Party meetings, ILP meetings, and then later Communist Party meetings. There was great faith that the Labour Party would eventually establish socialism. Of course, there still is, isn’t there? They’re possibly becoming a bit disillusioned but they don’t vote for Communists, do they? They vote for Labour. They acknowledge Communists as leaders in practically every trade union and locally as well they’re the leaders. But if a Communist put up for the council, it’s extremely unlikely that you would win. You see there’s that in-built loyalty to Labour.
Of course the British Labour Party is different from the others, the other social democratic parties. It was formed chiefly by the trade unions which were sort-of affiliated to the Labour Party, whereas the others were just political parties. We thought in the YCL and even in the Labour Party, we thought that this was it, you know, we were about ready to take over. I suppose we were still living in the era of the 1917 Russian revolution and we thought that these Councils of Action would actually be our Soviets. I suppose it was sort of romantic thinking. Then, when the strike was called off, that was a complete let-down to the people.
I’d just come into the political movement at that time and I know that these councils of workers were set up and they dealt with delivering food and they took control of transport and that sort of thing. But of course there were a lot of these middle class elements around that were trying to run transport and run the trains, and the pickets were trying to stop them. The police raided a lot of Communist Party houses for literature, subversive literature, and they picked out all the books with red backs. They thought they must be revolutionary books.
Lipton’s seemed to get their supplies through the normal channels. I suppose it was the workers that organised it, but food was delivered and food was sold. It was in the shop where I was, anyway. It was in a working-class suburb. But it was the trade unions that were organising the delivery of food. People thought it was a great thing that something was moving, that the working class were moving, but the women themselves didn’t seem to have much understanding what it was all about. You see, in those days, women weren’t in trade unions to a great extent. I’ve worked in factories, I’ve worked in shops, I’ve been an usherette and every time, before I can get into a union, I’ve had to form the branch myself.
I went into a factory in Sheffield just before the Second World War in the early Thirties and there was one woman in the trade union — and that was an engineering factory. There were probably 200 women. The women attended the machines and the men were the toolmakers or the setters-up. I didn’t manage to get the machine shop organised where I was. Now, that factory’s 100 per cent trade union. We pass it — Moore and Wrights — going to Sheffield. It’s a very big factory now. Trade union organisation is bad enough now, but in the Twenties and Thirties it was about non-existent for women.
I don’t know what it was like in Lancashire and West Yorkshire, where there were traditionally thousands of women, but in Sheffield it was very, very bad. The AEU wouldn’t touch women — it was a craft union. It was about ten years ago they took women in, the AEU. So they didn’t bother about the women, and the Transport and General Workers’ Union didn’t bother unless somebody chased them up like I did and said: “Organise a meeting and see if we can get them in.” They would do something then, but they never went around canvassing factories, so it had to depend on someone being interested inside the factory to get them into the union.
The management didn’t like it. You had to do it secretly, you know, go and put leaflets in the canteen while they weren’t looking, to organise. When I talked to them personally, they agreed that the women should be organised. They did nothing about it, but they agreed they should be. They weren’t antagonistic. We’d got a group in the factory, only about 20 in the union — that’s the transport union. And I used to collect their dues and pay them in and occasionally they came to meetings. I got the sack at Moore and Wrights. They didn’t say I was sacked for activities at all. They said I was away from work, which wasn’t true. I wanted to leave anyway. Jock and I were married then and I was having a baby. That was 1937.
Jock and I met when I was working in Sheffield in a factory and I was a member of the Communist Party. We had some offices in the Wicker — “t’Wicker where t’watter runs o’er t’weir.” I was in the offices this evening, and Bill Joss, a Scotsman, was the district organiser. He had got a man in with him and he said: “This is Jock Kane. This is Betty so-and-so.” So I said: “What? Another bloody Scotsman? The Party’s full of them.” And that was our introduction. I was probably 26 or 27 then, I think, just before the war, in 1935 or 1936. From then on we became friendly and eventually married.
Jock played an important role in the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement and the fight against fascism. He went to the LeninSchool in the Soviet Union and on his return became full-time organiser for the Communist Party in Sheffield. Life was hard and the full-time workers had no security of income, not knowing from one day to the next whether they would be able to eat. A flavour of life as a Party organiser at the time is given in a book by Bas Barker, who succeeded Jock in that position. (Born in 1910, Bas Barker was active in the labour movement from the age of 12, including involvement in the General Strike, the fight against the Spencer union in Nottinghamshire and the unemployed workers’ struggles of the 1930s. During the war, he was convenor at a Chesterfield factory. For many years he was a member of the national committee of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, president of the Chesterfield District Committee of the AEU and of Chesterfield Trades Council. In view of his services to the town, Chesterfield Borough Council granted him the freedom of the borough — the first time in 100 years that a trade unionist received this honour. He joined the Communist Party in 1926 and remained a member, from 1988 in the re-established CPB, until his death in February 1994.)
He describes returning from Harworth with Jock during the dispute there. “When we got back, we decided to scrape together what money we had got and see about getting something to eat. It amounted to something like one shilling and three pence, so we had tomatoes on toast and went back into the office. Waiting for us there was a colleague, George Allison (A Scottish miner who left the industry after injuring his back in a pit accident. In 1927 he was arrested in India where he was trying to organise a trade union movement. After a period in Indian jail, which broke his health, he returned to Britain. He was again arrested and jailed for trying to bring out sailors in Portsmouth in support of the Invergordon Mutiny. He was secretary of the Communist Party’s North Midlands District from the mid-1930s until the beginning of the war. He worked on the Daily Worker and eventually became the Communist Party’s national industrial organiser.) and Jock sat on a chair and put his head into his hands. When George asked him what the matter was, Jock, who was very fond of classical music, replied that he wished he had the fabulous fortune of half a crown so he could go and listen to the concert pianist Moiseiwich who was playing at the City Hall. George was so astonished and outraged, he said: ‘Look, mate. If we had a bloody half crown we’d have a pint of bitter and listen to blind Harry on fiddle’.”
Jock couldn’t wait to get back to his beloved miners. When Bas Barker presented himself as Jock’s successor at the office in Sheffield, Jock simply got up from his desk and said: “Thank God for that. Come in. Sit down there. It’s yours!”
When Jock first came to work in Sheffield as organiser for the Party, I was quite an active Party member. I was on Sheffield Trades Council, on the District Committee of the Party, even on the Central Committee for a short period, and he was the organiser. So of course we did a lot of work together and we became very friendly. It doesn’t necessarily happen — but it evidently did in this case, because we’ve been together now for about 40 years, so it seems to have lasted. When courting, we used the sell the Daily Worker in Dixon Lane at the market on a Saturday night. The girls in the factory thought either I was mad or I was getting paid for it. We used to go to the pictures or occasionally out into Derbyshire walking.
So that was it and we kept on working. I kept on working in the factory, at Moore and Wrights, in Sheffield. And Jock was working for the Party but he was getting very little pay in that period because nobody had any money. He didn’t have a regular wage so, when we discovered we were having a family, he came back into the pits in 1937 and we moved over to Doncaster. Two years later he became the secretary of Armthorpe NUM and so we moved to Armthorpe in 1941 and we’ve been here since. That in a nutshell is the story of our life.
I had three children — one four, one two and a baby. It meant that the character of my Party work entirely altered you see, because that was three children under four, when we decided that was enough. Jock was a trade union official and he was very active in the Communist Party so I really had the whole responsibility of bringing the children up because he very rarely saw them, perhaps at weekends. Of course I couldn’t do much about it. I had to look after the children, but for the Party I started organising things in the home, meetings and the housewives selling the Daily Worker at the pit gates when I had a baby sitter, organising whist drives to raise cash for the Daily Worker. But I wasn’t involved politically like I used to be when I was free.
I didn’t feel it was right but, being working class, I couldn’t afford domestic help so I couldn’t do much about it, could I? Of course, the answer should be that the women should be free to be able to participate, but the position was that Jock’s work was really more important among the miners, or it was considered so. I had to accept that his was more important work. Because I was a housewife, I had no mass base whereas he had. I had a limited mass base in the factory and that. But, now I was out of industry, I hadn’t any particular base, whereas he had not only the 2,000 miners at this pit but the whole of Doncaster and Yorkshire Area, so his work was really more important.
I don’t know whether I had any great ability as a political worker. I don’t know that I would have been anything. But it did mean that my work changed. Before, my work was in the trade union movement, on Sheffield Trades and Labour Council, going to conferences and meetings — well I couldn’t do this. You get out of the mainstream of politics, it becomes limited. I am not so active these days because I’m older. I have done it for so many years that I no longer feel like knocking on doors and standing with the Morning Star selling it, but I still raise money and go to meetings and demonstrations.
Of course that’s what women’s lib is all about, isn’t it? But in those days there wasn’t so much talk about women’s lib, especially in a mining village. It was accepted that the woman should stay at home because the man in those days had quite an arduous job in the pit and I suppose when he came home he didn’t feel like starting to do the chores or cook a meal like perhaps a teacher or an office worker would. So I think in mining villages it is more or less accepted, though not so much these days with the younger women.
A lot of women now go out to work but, of course, life in the pit is easier now than it was when Jock was in — much, much easier than it was. It is still not a pleasant job, but it’s much easier. Women took the lead when the Ford women, the upholsterers, fought and struck for equal pay. And not so long ago we saw a programme on television about a small factory at Inkersoll, a small engineering factory where the women struck for equal pay. They came out on their own and they stayed out about 13 weeks. I think these are the real women libbers — not the bra-burning variety.
As far as women’s lib goes, I’ve always thought that both men and women are exploited and that they have different roles in society. Of course, they talk about women’s right to work. That’s all right for the middle-class women who can afford to get au pairs or domestic help to look after the kids. But you take a working woman with kids who goes out, does a job in a factory and comes home and does the washing, cooking and cleaning. And maybe the husband doesn’t help, unless he is advanced and has ideas that he should help. Well, I don’t think that’s much of a liberation. It’s got to be a joint affair, hasn’t it?
A lot of them seem to take this women’s lib as a war with the men — male chauvinistic pigs and all that. As far as the mining village goes, I think the men have the worst of it, really, going down the pit. I’d rather have a miner’s kitchen in winter than turn out at 4 o’clock in the morning to go down the pit. Of course the women should be free to have lives of their own, but it’s got to start at school and it’s got to start with training, hasn’t it? It isn’t liberating a woman if she is going to do some lousy job cleaning a machine for eight hours a day, but that work has to be done hasn’t it? And that’s the sort of job the women have.
What jobs do the miners’ wives have? They either work in factories doing monotonous repetitive work or they work in the schools, washing dishes or preparing meals, or they are cleaning in hospitals or they are working in shops. Perhaps the younger ones who have had a bit better education are secretaries or something and a few might be lucky and go on to university and become teachers. But the great majority still have lousy, monotonous jobs, haven’t they? So it has to start by them having proper facilities and then, of course, they have to provide the jobs — and capitalism at the moment can’t provide the jobs, can it?
In 1955, I had three children at the grammar school and we didn’t get any grants or anything and Jock was working in the pit, so I said: “Well, I’ll get a job.” So I went and got a job at International Harvesters. I was walking back through the woods and I saw Paddy McKeown, the delegate of the (Armthorpe) branch. I said: “I’ve just been and got a job to try and solve a few of our problems.” He said: “Well it’s just as well — because the pit’s on strike.” So the pit was on strike for the period I worked. Instead of being any better off, it just meant that I didn’t get any social security and we had to live on what little I earned in those weeks. I was operating a machine.
Nearly every time I’ve got a job, there has either been a strike or he’s been off ill or something, so my attempts at improving the finances have never been very successful. And Doncaster is a very bad place for a woman to work. It is surrounded by pits and there’s no work in the pit villages. In Doncaster itself, there’s Burtons and the glass factory and International Harvesters, but it is not a good place for women’s work. So eventually I said: “Oh, to hell with that! I might as well take life easy in my old age.”
9. “When the locals
came into their own”
by Eric Browne
I CONSIDER it an honour and privilege to be asked by Armthorpe Branch of the NUM to write a brief contribution to this book about the lives of Jock and Betty Kane. I have been asked to write about two other outstanding personalities from our village who became miners’ leaders: Owen Briscoe, general secretary of the Yorkshire Area NUM from 1973 to 1986, and Sammy Thompson, who became general secretary of Yorkshire when Owen retired and national vice-president in 1986. These two outstanding comrades were, like Jock, elected to the NEC of the NUM — the highest award for which any member of our union could wish.
Jock had many other outstanding colleagues and friends — too many to record — who, like Jock, Owen and Sammy, are no longer with us. I hope members of their families, many of them still in the village, will forgive me and understand why the NUM branch decided to dedicate this book to three outstanding miners’ leaders, a “troika” that won respect from all sections of the trade union and labour movement. No request for solidarity or help was ever turned down by these three comrades. I was privileged to have worked with them at the pit and in the union branch, and to have known them as comrades and friends.
Along with my life-long pal Ted Hall, I started work at MarkhamMain in 1954. At that time the coal board was advertising for miners to migrate to the big new pits in Yorkshire and Nottingham, with houses waiting for men willing to move. Our first impression was very good. The village was a very friendly community, made up mostly of miners’ families from all over the country. Ted and I came from Lancashire, Jock Kane from Scotland, Owen Briscoe from Wales and Sammy Thompson from Nottinghamshire. We had no problem settling down and, after six weeks in the NCB hostel, we were allocated our houses, next door to one another, so our wives and children soon settled.
Jock makes reference to the “locals” (the name given to local branches of the Communist Party of Great Britain in Jock Kane’s youth) in Stoneyburn during the 1926 strike, organising the village for the benefit of all the inhabitants. I think it would be right to describe the role of the Armthorpe NUM Branch as “the local.” Because of their effort and support, our brass band became the champions of Europe and our first-aid team won the Commonwealth Championship in New Zealand. Their financial help kept the football, cricket and rugby teams going.
The miners’ welfare provides leisure and relaxation to all sections of our communities, a twice-yearly pay-out to pensioners and widows, a yearly pensioners’ sit-down meal with free beer and raffle, the best possible medical care, senior citizen centre and bungalows with a regular bus service. There is an immediate financial grant to help a family suffering bereavement and financial help to visit or attend hospital for out-patient treatment. A convalescent grant was paid to any member, or his wife, pensioner or widow, who attended our convalescent homes in Scalby and Scarborough.
A weekly grant was paid to members who attended the rehabilitation centre at Firbeck. The reason for this payment was that men attending this centre were men who had been off work for months or years because of injury at work and would be short of cash. We also had a large stock of orthopaedic equipment for our members to use, crutches, walking sticks, invalid chairs, back rests, bed guards, bed pans, male and female urine bottles, rubber sheets for mattress protection, inflatable rings for more comfort if a member or wife, retired member or widow, had to spend long hours in bed or was able only to sit for long periods through injury or illness. All this equipment was on loan for 28 days, or as long as it took to get more permanent equipment from Social Services.
All these services were made available because of the socialist vision of our branch officials and committee members who voluntarily gave their services to these various groups. This was putting into practice what socialism should be all about, satisfying the material and cultural needs of our community. They remembered the suffering and deprivation of miners and their families in the Thirties and were determined that it would not happen again. Of course all these provisions had to be paid for and the miners at Armthorpe volunteered for a weekly stoppage out of their wages. In more recent times the profit from the pit shop was used to keep these services going.
With the pit now shut, all this income has now stopped. We are carrying on only because of a surplus from investment which was always kept in case of a strike as in 1984-85. These investments may last for one or two years, then we will be back to the basics so beloved by John Major and his reactionary government. Not content with claiming the pit, they also want to destroy mining communities like Armthorpe, because of the socialist principles practised in these communities. The Tories have a pathological hatred of mining families because of the absolute solidarity in these communities shown during any period of struggle.
The great thing about these three outstanding leaders, all from different social and religious environments and different political organisations, was that they had in common a clear insight that only a caring socialist society, like that in the pit villages, would alter the hardships and humiliations which Jock describes so well in the chapter “The Rebel Clan”. They believed and projected the socialism that helped so much in our struggles, especially 1955, ’69, ’72, ’74, the year-long strike of 1984-85, and finally the 1992-93 fight against closures. Those closures had nothing to do with economics. They were the Tories’ political revenge on the miners, their families and the union of which Jock, Owen and Sammy were so proud.
The first time I saw or heard Jock was at a meeting of the Communist Party in the Corn Exchange in Doncaster. Willie Gallacher was the speaker and Jock was the chairman of the meeting. The way he spoke and organised the collection impressed Ted and me very much. I had already met Frank Watters, the industrial organiser for the Communist Party in South Yorkshire. I gave Frank half-a-crown for a Daily Worker at the pit gates, the change to go to the fighting fund. This put me down as a recruit! Ted and I joined the Party, which at all times was well received in the union because of respect for the activity of other Communists, plus the example of Jock who resigned from the NCB as industrial relations officer when his senior told him to renounce his politics and become “one of the team.”
Jock — like many others who had high hopes from nationalisation — was becoming disillusioned with the people being appointed to run the industry, people with no commitment to implement what was displayed on a notice board at every pithead, proclaiming: “This colliery is now managed by the National Coal Board on behalf of the people.” The team Jock was invited to join wanted to change this to read: “Profit first — people last.” In such circumstances, Jock had no hesitation in telling his senior officer what to do with his job. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall to hear from Jock’s own tongue his indignation at such an insulting demand.
Ted and I were attending every union branch meeting at this time and this is where we made contact with Owen. He was already involved with the branch work, being on the branch committee, the home coal committee and treasurer of the “Death and Divide”. The pit at this time was in turmoil, units were ragging up every week because of the very poor tonnage rates paid at that time. The rate was 2s 6d a ton. Only after the colliers had filled ten tons, which was known as the norm, did extra payment come into effect. So wages were made up with the men’s elected charge-hand and the deputy getting together and taking up. This take-up then went to the under-manager who would stop any payments he thought weren’t justified, leading to trouble every Thursday when the pay note was issued.
So in March 1955, with more than half the pit on rag-up, the branch officials called a special general meeting on Friday evening. By this time they were sick of the weekly confrontations with under-managers over money taken off the note. While they were in the office trying to sort out the mess, the pit yard would be seething with angry men who refused to go to work until their wages were put right. So the Friday night meeting decided enough was enough and that the pit was on strike from Monday.
A special general meeting was called for Sunday morning. This meeting was so big it had to be held outdoors. Alwyn Machen, the Area president, attended and asked the men to go back to work and let the Area officials sort out the problem. But he was shouted down and told we would go back when the problem was sorted and not before. Another meeting was held the next day, even bigger than Sunday, and the Area officials brought voting forms with them. .Jock as chairman would not let them be used until a show of hands had been tried. The show of hands was unanimous and the Area officials were told what to do with their voting forms. Only Jock’s appeal for calm allowed them to walk out of the meeting without injury. At this meeting it was decided to call a special panel meeting of the 13 Doncaster pits and ask for support.
At the panel meeting, Armthorpe were given a week to sort out our trouble and report back. The result was that, once delegates from the panel reported back to their respective pits, the whole of Doncaster Area was on strike. Every pit had the same problem, so all the lads were just itching for a fight. This was when the leadership of men like Jock came to the fore. The disciplined and principled way in which the strike was conducted was a model for any trade union official to study. Of course we had the usual bad press and media coverage, with a woman industrial reporter on the Daily Express playing the “red scare” and naming Jock as “Citizen” Kane. Jock was not in the least bothered until she said that he was a tall Lancastrian! That led Jock to have a quick dram to get over the shock.
The flying pickets were then organised and we went into West Yorkshire. We took our pay notes with us to show the lads over there the terrible wages we were getting — but we had a terrible shock waiting for us. When we produced our notes to help our arguments, the lads we were talking to were amazed. Their wages were worse than ours! So we quickly spread the word not to show them any more. We found that the union was very weak over there. Some lads, who had been at the pit for years, didn’t know who their branch officials were because they had never had a ballot. All this activity not only developed the strike but caused tremors all the way back to the Yorkshire NUM headquarters in Barnsley, where they had no idea they were sitting on a powder keg to which Armthorpe had lit the fuse.
Another good outcome of the strike, apart from the wages settlement, was that the national executive of the NUM agreed to the appointment of area agents, one for each of the eight area panels. This meant that grievances could be dealt with much more quickly, instead of having to wait on Area officials who resented being disturbed in their ivory tower in Barnsley. It also meant that branch officials were able to have more consultation and a better service. We thought Jock was the best candidate for Doncaster Area, 13 pits with about 25,000 members. His decision to leave the coal board and work back down the pit and his leadership of the strike made Jock the outstanding candidate. But, as so often happened, the left could not agree on one candidate, so we had men getting these jobs who had to be dragged into action.
Jock lost the election by just a few votes. One thing that surprised us was the low vote Jock recorded at Armthorpe. We found out that the lads didn’t want to lose Jock to the discredited mob at Barnsley and voted to keep Jock at Armthorpe. This was a major set-back for the left. Jock’s ability and leadership being confined to his own pit. Years later the area agent, Harry Huckerby, died and Jock stood for the job and was elected. Jock’s health was not too good at this time and the job of visiting pits in the Doncaster area on underground visits made huge demands on his health. He never shirked a visit or a meeting but, when the Area financial secretary’s job at Barnsley became vacant, we persuaded Jock to be nominated. He won the ballot, no problem, and went to Barnsley where Sammy Taylor, another Communist, had been elected as compensation agent. So at last we had two men in leading positions in Yorkshire.
During Jock’s campaign, Ted and I and dozens of other Armthorpe lads canvassed the coalfield. We also became artists with the “Vote Kane” slogan. Ted would start with the letter “E” and work backwards; I would start with “V” and work towards Ted. That way we only had four letters each and whoever was driving the car would keep the engine running so we would be away before anyone knew about it. People would find out only after the paint was dry. The pity of it all is that Jock was so long in becoming an Area official. He was head and shoulders above anyone in Yorkshire — if not the whole coalfield. He would have been the natural successor to Alwyn Machen who died a premature death. If Jock had been president, the young Arthur Scargill would have had a much harder act to follow than he inherited from his predecessor.
Jock’s negotiating ability and chance of revenge was never better revealed than in the crucial negotiations with the Tory government in 1972 when, led by Jock, a small majority on the NEC rejected the Wilberforce Commission findings as grounds for a settlement. Jock insisted that the Tories were wanting a settlement, they were suing for peace and, after the suffering the miners had put up with from 1926, we had to settle long-term problems that the coal board had refused to concede for years. So the union not only got the largest ever wage settlement, they also got rid of the pernicious bonus system where men had to work five consecutive shifts to qualify for bonus. If you lost one shift you also lost your bonus. This money was broken up into the shift rate. Also the adult rate at 18 years was conceded. None of these were covered by the Wilberforce Commission and had been demanded by the union for years. All were conceded on that memorable night. Jock and his comrades on the NEC were unshakeable in their conviction that now was not the time to back down but to get the bastards while we could. How correct those policies were has been proved by history — especially since 1979.
Two years of peace and quiet followed and in 1974 we were back again in struggle. We always had to fight to get anything like a settlement. Here we had Ted Heath who, while we were only on overtime ban, turned off the lights and turned the telly off at ten o’clock at night on millions of workers on short time — all in an effort to isolate the miners and stop us rallying the support we had from the working class in 1972. When all this failed, he dissolved Parliament and went to the country on the ticket: “Who rules the country? The government or the unions?”
This led to a lot of heated discussion in the union, the old cry of “Don’t rock the boat — when we get a Labour government we will be OK.” Some people conveniently forgot the last Labour government’s role in the massive pit closure programme under the genial giant Lord Robens (call me Alf), while he stabbed us in the back. The progressive lads won the day, won the strike and got rid of a Tory government. But the Tories do not forget or forgive a humiliating defeat, especially from the NUM, and that is why we are witnessing the destruction of the British Coal industry today, as well as the attacks on all trade unions and the systematic destruction of anything that seems to be socialist.
Jock retired in 1972. He was interviewed by the press and I had to laugh because he told them he was “looking forward to doing nowt.” We all knew that comrades like Jock never fully retire; they just slow down a bit. Jock died in December 1977 and I’m sure that the family and those of us who were close to Jock died a little too. The whole village turned out the day of the funeral to express their heartfelt thanks to a great man who, after a lifetime of struggle, sought only to be remembered for his work and dedication to his class. In his tribute to Jock, Scottish miners’ leader Mick McGahey said: “I looked on Jock Kane as a tutor, one of the old brigade who taught loyalty to his class. He and his brother Mick demonstrated what it was to be a trade union leader at rank-and-file level and at the higher levels of trade union organisation.” They believed in class emancipation — not self-emancipation.
Jock was reborn again in February 1980 when Armthorpe Branch unveiled their new banner with Jock’s portrait in the middle. Jock’s old comrades from all over the country attended to pay their tributes. One of the best was by Jack Dunn, leader of the Kent miners and a NEC comrade of Jock’s. He said: “Jock and Betty were a team” and “Jock couldn’t have carried on the struggle without this girl here.”
When Jock was elected area agent, he left vacant two positions — president of the branch and secretary-manager of the home coal scheme. Owen was nominated for both jobs and won both ballots. After being president of the branch for only a few months, he was elected chairman of Doncaster Panel which at that time was the most powerful and influential panel in the country. To all intents they were the unofficial leaders of the Yorkshire miners.
Owen was also very active at the time when the coal board used the “fair rent” legislation to increase rents for all their tenants. Owen and Percy Riley formed a joint tenants’ association, which had a representative in every village in Yorkshire. The movement became very strong and there was a call for a strike, but it was thought this would divide the areas and that the strike would slowly break up. So a decision was made to oppose every demand for an increase. Meetings were organised in every village where there were NCB houses. These were always very well attended.
Armthorpe Branch formed a committee with the job of representing every tenant and making sure every tenant signed the objection forms. This resulted in a massive backlog, as the rent officer could only deal with batches of 20 to 30 at a time so, with thousands of objections, the process was very slow. By this method we delayed rent increases for thousands of tenants for years. In the process we found the board had been illegally charging some tenants a deregulated rent, so we challenged these through the rent officer. As a result we were able to win £250,000 back rent for tenants all over Yorkshire. We also finally got Yorkshire Area behind us, resulting in a stormy meeting at Coal House, Doncaster, where Lord Robens, “Our Alf”, had enough sense to see the massive resentment at rent increases and agreed to a rent freeze and a joint examination of the board’s rent policy.
Owen played a leading role in 1969 when Doncaster Panel led the fight for an eight-hour day for surface workers. Again this dispute was because of the coal board’s complete indifference to talks. After months of frustration the panel called a strike. This quickly spread throughout Yorkshire and moved into Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. It was still unofficial but, with the strike spreading all the time into Scotland, South Wales and Kent, the TUC got involved and invited the unofficial leaders to London for unofficial talks with the board. The outcome was a pit-by-pit settlement. Each union branch made their agreement with the pit manager. This is the only time the TUC have met leaders of an unofficial dispute. I remember Owen and the other leaders of the dispute being invited into the Council Chamber, at Barnsley, after the delegates moved suspension of standing orders against the advice of some of the platform. When Owen and the lads walked in, the delegates burst into spontaneous applause, with Jock and Sam on the platform joining in.
Because of his leadership in these struggles Owen became the outstanding candidate to follow Jock as financial secretary and later general secretary. Again we had a split in the left over the choice of candidate but in the end Owen was nominated and was elected in 1974 just after Jock retired. What a pity Jock and Owen didn’t have a chance to work together as Area officials. They would have made the closure programme under the Labour government more difficult, instead of the blind loyalty and “don’t rock the boat.”
Sammy Thompson was starting to emerge as an activist. With the introduction of mechanisation, craftsmen were becoming more and more to the fore. I remember Sam at a branch meeting with about 20 craftsmen. Sam as their spokesman told about dissatisfaction with the union’s treatment of craftsmen and that there was a strong feeling not only in the branch but all the pits in the Doncaster panel for a separate union for craftsmen. The first reaction from the branch officials was to berate the craftsmen for trying to form a separate union, which was understandable at the time. The union had just had a hard fight to get the winders in the NUM, so they were very sensitive towards any mention of breakaway unions.
I spoke in support of the craftsmen, not in forming a separate union but in the request for more recognition, and said that with more and more machines coming into the pit the union had to do something or face a split in the workforce. I’m pleased to say the union was quick to recognise the problem and made provision for a craftsmen’s rep on the committee. As time went on and their numbers increased we had craftsmen being elected branch officials. Sam played a prominent part in this and was the first elected craftsmen’s rep on the committee before being elected delegate for Armthorpe. Sam, while still at branch level, immediately lined himself up with the left so we became good friends and worked well together in the branch. When Sam became area agent and I took his place as delegate, we used to travel to Barnsley together and our wives became friends also.
With Sam’s election as Area vice-president we then had two of the troika in the right position when the 1984-85 strike took place. From the first day there was never any question of other than maximum support from Armthorpe. We stood four-square behind the Yorkshire vote of 81 per cent against any pit closure on economic grounds. This vote was taken in 1981, when Maggie first tried to close pits, and to us at Armthorpe was as solid in March 1984 as it was in 1981 after the ballot. At our branch meeting that Sunday morning in March we asked the men to reaffirm the vote of 81 against pit closures. I have been on the platform at many mass meetings for our branch but that was the biggest I remember. It was also a very joyful meeting. The lads were looking forward to the struggle, especially when they knew they were taking on the most odious of persons, Maggie, who went on to call us “the enemy within.” But I think history has shown and will show in future who was the enemy of the British people.
I heard all the hot air about a ballot. On that Sunday morning we balloted as we have done since 1955, when Jock told the Area officials what to do with their ballot papers. A show of hands is quite a sight from the platform. It can be an emotional moment for officials sat there and seeing a forest of hands go up, then not one against — and then a great roar from nearly every man. They knew we were in struggle again, not for wages or conditions but for our jobs and our communities. Everyone in that room knew that if a pit shuts, then the community goes with it.
During that tremendous year the “locals” came into their own. For a whole year the pensioners and widows, the sick and the lame were supplied with fuel by a stream of volunteers using the home coal wagons to delivered fuel to their door. We went into Sandall Beat, a large wood near Doncaster racecourse where the man in charge let us clean up all the dead trees he had felled. That way we kept the home fires burning for the lads on strike who received no fuel. We had two circular saws rigged up on the welfare football ground. Those saws started up at 8am and never stopped until 1pm every day. Every day a couple of home coal lorries would bring a huge pile of logs and the lads would split them into manageable lengths and then lift them on to the saws to cut them small enough to fit the fireplace at home.
There would be a queue of men and women with sacks, prams, wheelbarrows, bikes, cars, anything on wheels. Some of the contraptions that turned up were truly amazing and were a source of a lot of laughter for the lads doing a hard and dirty job. We used a lot of scrap wood to light the boiler for the football dressing rooms for a hot shower when the day’s sawing was done — and very welcome it was too. We had a soup kitchen which provided a cooked meal for anyone wanting one, a food distribution once a week, clothes and shoes for adults and children. When Christmas arrived every family had a chicken and vegetables for their Christmas dinner. The kids were taken to a pantomime show and to the seaside during the summer months. This was the first time that some kids had been anywhere without their parents, so all this was a delightful experience for them.
After a year of struggle we went back to work without total victory. Armthorpe stayed out for a week longer, the lads being reluctant to go back to work and leave the sacked lads outside the gates. We still have two colleagues sacked at our pit. In the end we had to go back but, if the government and the board thought they had won, they soon found out otherwise. The lads were still willing to rag up at any injustice from the pit officials or under-managers. Two of our colleagues — David Jones and Joe Green — did not even get that option. They died to save this industry. (David Gareth Jones, an Ackton Hall NUM member living in South Kirkby, was killed while picketing outside Ollerton Colliery, Nottinghamshire, on 15 March 1984, just three days after the strike began in Yorkshire. Joe Green, of Kellingley Branch, was killed on 15 June 1984 while picketing at Ferrybridge Power Station. They are commemorated, with all Yorkshire NUM members who have died fighting for their union, in a bronze sculpture of a mining family, created by Barnsley sculptor Graham Ibbeson and unveiled outside the Miners’ Offices, Barnsley, by national president Arthur Scargill on 28 July 1993. On the anniversary of David Jones’s death, the NUM hold an annual march and rally in the South Kirkby area in honour of the two men.)
Owen retired in 1986, already a sick man, and moved back into Armthorpe. Although poorly, he enjoyed his remaining time in the village with a daily visit to the bookies for a bet and then an hour in the club with the lads, until he became too ill to move even that far. Then the lads would visit him at home and were always made welcome by Owen and Joan. The bottle would be out and a discussion would take place about the present situation or there would be an hour of reminiscence about the pit.
Owen died on 3 March 1992. Sammy, a strong and relatively young man, died on 5 August 1988. This was a tragedy, as Sam was now in Owen’s place as Yorkshire Area general secretary, as well as national vice-president after Mick McGahey retired at the 1987 Annual Conference. The ballot in which Sam was elected vice-president was riddled with intrigue. Even the leader of the Labour Party, Neil Kinnock, saw this as the battlefield for the “palace revolution” to dethrone King Arthur. Sammy was seen as a strong supporter of Arthur Scargill and unfortunately some of the left joined Kinnock’s anti-Scargill brigade.
It didn’t work. Sammy was elected but the damage done in splitting the left was profound and ideal fertile soil for the Tories to go for the kill of Scargill and Heathfield, especially when they became aware of the possibility of a transfer of engagements between the NUM and the TGWU setting up an energy section covering all workers in electricity supply. This, in my opinion, would have given the Tories their biggest headache and possibly saved the coal industry. In no way could they take on the NUM if we had, like in 1972, the support of the power workers whose jobs are also in danger with the dash for gas and nuclear power.
I left the industry in 1986 but continued to be active in the branch, especially making myself available to distribute copies of The Miner and Yorkshire Miner. Following British Coal’s decision to end the check-off payment of union subscriptions, I helped out getting the lads to pay through direct debit. Also I collected the subscriptions of retired miners who wanted to keep links with the union. At present I am helping to keep contacts between the branch and Yorkshire Area NUM, because all former branch officials are either working or at college.
This book covers more than 70 years, giving a social history of the hardship of miners and their families under privatisation, the break-up of families, the struggle of the miners and their union to bring the industry accountable to the people, through public ownership, which heralded new hope in 1947. Now that industry, with huge reserves of black gold, is to be abandoned or given away by Tory vandalism as political revenge because our union, backed by its members, fought for decent wages and safety standards.
Then the final body-blow was struck by the real “enemy within”. A Tory government, like previous ones without honour, mercy or humanity, decided to close 31 pits, including Armthorpe. Within days of the pit closure announcement on 13 October 1992, the British people were demonstrating their outrage, with two massive marches in London, each involving up to a quarter of a million people.
Stunned by this uproar, the Tories did a body swerve and announced a moratorium on 21 of the 31 threatened pits. The House of Commons, aware of the public pressure and the social consequences of losing 30,000 mining jobs and up to 70,000 in other industries, asked that the minister responsible, Michael Heseltine, set up an inquiry. At the same time, the Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee began its own investigation into whether there was a market for coal produced by the 31 pits and their economic prospects.
The report identified the rigged market as the cause of the crisis in the deep coal mining industry. The select committee — six Tories, one Liberal Democrat and four Labour — proposed measures which they claimed would end this rigged market, resulting in a significantly increased market for coal and, at the same time, derailing the government’s plans for privatisation. But the Tories — including the six on the select committee — closed ranks and voted to reject these proposals. It was the Tory government that was responsible for the rigged market in the first place, as a necessary prelude to privatisation.
The report created strong differences within the labour movement. But the real culprits, as in the defeat of 1984-85 strike, are the Labour and trade union leaders who rejected the call from the NUM to build a mass movement of extra-Parliamentary action to save the coal industry. I am confident that if we had got support in 1992-93, even a limited industrial action, the Tories could have been forced to do a U-turn and withdraw the closure plans, as Thatcher was in 1981. Instead Labour thought there were sufficient Tory MPs who had been influenced by public anger and could be won. What they failed to understand was what was at stake — the future of the government and, with public opinion on the side of the miners, the prospect that they would suffer a repeat of 1974.
What now about the future? The press is full of false hopes for pits like Armthorpe, Bentley and Hatfield, all with the richest and best seams of coal stretching as far as Germany, to be re-opened by private buyers. But what chances are there even under privatisation if the market remains rigged in favour of gas, nuclear and foreign imported coal? That is what the movement failed to understand and both Labour and Tory governments have a responsibility for abandoning the British coal industry, its workforce and our communities that have a proud record of service in creating the wealth of this nation.
10. “A panorama of people’s lives” by Jack Dunn, former General Secretary, NUM Kent Area
THE history of British coal miners is rich in the evil exploitation of the miners and their communities — a history of continuous struggles, sacrifices, suffering and a hostile environment. Coal cradled the industrial revolution, the age of steam — and a giant leap for capitalism and imperialism.
Jock and his wife Betty were very involved in the problems of contemporary history, but their knowledge, roots and political convictions were deeply embedded in both past and present. Jock came from a family experienced in the savage treatment meted out by the coal owners and was quick to learn about class society. In the 1920s and 1930s, any miner or miners’ leader with a bit of working class spunk was soon to learn about the class system. The sack, eviction, blacklist, poverty and the suffering of their families were the rewards of comrades like Jock, his brother Mick and many others.
However, the coal owners were wrong if they calculated that intimidation would cow Jock and Betty into timid surrender. On the contrary, it strengthened their resolve to fight to change the system and the society that created the problems.
I shared Jock’s company so many times — at many conferences, meetings and forums, political and trade union. I also had a few pints with him and our soul mates, Sammy Taylor, Tommy Degnan and many others during many discussions. In all those meetings, discussions and a few when we two chatted together, I finished impressed and invigorated by Jock’s demeanour, his modesty and his unyielding determination to do everything he could to change conditions for miners.
His concern was much wider. His attitude during the days of early pit closures was meticulously prepared and presented, not only relating to the imminence of unemployment, but also the other factors like what would happen to village life, the shops, the welfare clubs, its community activities, the bands and the choirs. This reflected a whole human being, whose social thinking was a panorama of people’s lives in a mining community and whose political thinking asked: “What needs to be done?”
I am left with a memory of a comrade and a man who reflected before speaking. Although capable of a verbal eruption at times, he nearly always gave careful consideration to his thoughts. That thinking rarely worried about personalities, in spite of very great hostility during his working life. Jock was always guided by a simple principle — what should be done for miners, their families and communities.
That was it! British miners and their history will carry much more about Jock and his contribution to their causes during his busy life working for and with the miners. No tribute to Jock could be true without mentioning Betty, without whose devotion, solidarity and sacrifice Jock could not have made the marvellous contribution he did. I am not alone in saluting his work and memory.
Book Critique A shorter version of this extended review was published at the time of the appearance of the book. The full version is reproduced here for the record. James Eaden and David Renton “The […]
Jock Nicolson Born in Lanarkshire, Scotland, in 1921, the son of a watchmaker who, having fought in Africa, became a railway worker, Jock Nicolson was one of five children. Leaving school at the age […]