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International Socialism, Autumn 1962


Ken Coates

The Miners Again


From International Socialism, No.10, Autumn 1962, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Derbyshire Miners – A Study in Industrial and Social History
J.E. Williams
Allen and Unwin. 933 pp. 90s.

This is a great labour. Doctor Williams has traced the history of the Derbyshire Miners’ Association up to the end of the 1939-45 war, and for good measure has thrown in a thick and authoritative wodge of their prehistory. He also appends an epilogue which summarises postwar developments. Total, some 900-odd pages; which poses an urgent question: for whom is all this being written? The National Union of Mineworkers already has its three volumes of Page Arnot. Griffin, Machin, Evans, are digging or have already dug in the massy archives of the Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, and Welsh Miners to add their quota to the shelves. Now this. It is no light task to master 900 pages: how many trade union activists will make the time? Surely 200 pages, sharpened, more direct, would strike home harder, to greater effect? But the division of labour is nowadays remorselessly refining itself to the point where even the history of working class movements becomes the exclusive Mystery of a narrowly specialised corps. I hope that this trend can be reversed, and that we are about to enter the hour of the populariser of Trade Union History. Certainly the miners already need their own devoted D.C. Somervell.

Nonetheless, there is much which can be of value to the worker as well as the historian in Dr Williams’ book. For one thing, he makes a far more sustained attempt than, say, Page Arnot, to get behind the official face of Union history, to penetrate to causes, to judge in the light of economic and social developments. Sometimes this attempt goes no further than to give parallel accounts of the same period from different standpoints, and at times we hit a wall between the tracks. For instance, there is a clear treatment of the butty system (or sub-contracting system) as an abstract fact. We are made aware of the butties, as vicious labour-aristocrats, from tune to time through the book. But when it comes to tracing the effects of this system of work organization on the struggles of the Union, we are left to fend for ourselves. Thus we have an account of the Spencer breakaway, which emerged at the end of the General Strike, which does not mention butties at all. Much of the evidence which will help to explain what happened then is not in any minutes, but will need to be coaxed out of participants, or reconstructed from tedious records in the manner now associated with Rudé. Doctor Williams has dug up and presented some very valuable microcosms of National movements, which deserve wide attention. His accounts of the eight-hours agitations of the early nineties, and of the lockout of 1893, are clear, sharp and exciting; whilst no-one who dips into the book should miss its recreation of the General Strike. Not less significant than these highlights is the documentation of social conditions in evolution, treated in two periods: 1880-1914 and 1914-44. In my mind as I read these chapters were the gaunt long blackening rows of colliers’ houses, spawned by money-eating coalowning toads across the bleak hilltop at Poolsbrook, where in the 1950’s I hawked the Daily Worker down the yards between the chapel in one corner and the pub in the other. The spirit of such places has known ‘patience, labour, and the suffering of the negative’ if any spirit has. Now, here in a history book, it peeps out of official reports, amid blistering dearth, soup-kitchens, bitter struggle. But today, Dr Williams tells us, although the social revolution has winked at Derbyshire, its promise has proved ‘neither so swift nor so universal as was popularly imagined’. Poolsbrook, lowering under tele aerials is a living memorial to the truth of this statement. And so is the Palace of the Duke of Devonshire, half a green county away, where a new Annigoni portrait of the Duchess hangs among the Da Vincis.

How long, Oh Lord, how long?

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