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John Charlton

The Lancashire and Cheshire Miners

(January 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.74, January 1975, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Lancashire and Cheshire Miners
Raymond Challinor
Frank Graham, £3.75

COLLIER militants around the country tend to look with disdain at the record of Lancashire miners in recent battles with government and employers. Perhaps unjustly, they have been collectively associated with the attitudes projected by men like Sidney Ford, Sid Vincent and Joe Gormley – passive acceptance of anti-miner policies and downright collaboration with the boss. But it was not always like this. As recently as the 1940s and ’50s Lancashire miners were in the forefront of militant battles over wages and notably for concessionary coal. Indeed, in September 1950, a Sutton Colliery, St Helen’s miner, was gaoled for refusing to pay damages arising from an unofficial strike. St Helen’s miners struck immediately till he was released.

Certainly in the 19th century Lancashire miners were as militant in pursuit of their rights as those on any other coalfield. Neither were they reluctant to involve themselves in solidarity with workers in other industries – or broader political agitation, such as Chartism. However, the cornerstone of all their activity was the struggle to fashion the union, firstly at pit and district level, then at County level and finally to participate in the emergence of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain.

The desperately few men of foresight, courage and determination had to overcome tremendous obstacles; the crude arrogance of the coal owners, the nervous and arbitrary brutality of the forces of the state, the treachery from within their own ranks and the demoralising tendency for districts to fragment from local prejudice.

This is the story which Raymond Challinor tells with much analytical skill, sympathy and power. For an exciting picture of a major strike, the ebb and flow, the conflict of interests, the reconciliation of differences, see the chapter on the now forgotten seven week strike of 1881. You will discover that Arthur Scargill did not invent the flying picket! And that the leading reactionaries in Parliament for savage government retaliation were – the Irish Nationalist MPs, the ‘heroic’ Parnell advocating ‘buckshot’ against the forces of darkness.

He forces us too, to examine the widely held belief that mining communities hang together because they are isolated, introverted, stationary and stable. Not so in 19th century Lanes. Ex-hill farmers, Pennine weavers, Irishmen, Welshmen and Staffordshire men rubbed shoulders at the same pit-heads with the natives of Wigan and St Helens in a period of rapid expansion of the industry. In exactly opposite conditions a similar phenomenon exists now – in South Yorkshire, Notts, Warwick, Staffs and Kent.

Less exciting – perhaps inevitably so, since he is dealing only with the actions and attitudes of the leaders – is the coverage of the shifts in political allegiance at the fag end of the century as the Labour Party begins to emerge. Even then it is fascinating to learn that Lib-Labism had a very fragile existence among Lanes miners, not so much that there was an overwhelming demand for Labour independence but that so many miners were intransigently Tory – in a county dominated by Liberal capitalists.

Diverging from the main theme, a chapter on the miner’s social life raise first a perhaps macabre sniffle then a gale of hilarity. There is the detailed coverage of the collier’s major sport, ‘purring’ or kicking – organised for money. This was a game of football played without the unnecessary complication of using a ball. Two men just kicked each others’ shins until one stumbled and was then battered into insensibility. Clogs were worn with ‘wooden spies with narrow toes bound with iron or tin’.

Would that all Chief Constables would suffer the fate of the Wigan worthy who was dismissed for drunkenness and misconduct while on duty. ‘I thought it was not proper of him,’ said Martha Seddon, ‘to put his hand on my bosom drunk.’

The only disappointment with the book is that Ray Challinor was not able to continue his narrative into the twentieth century. We badly need someone as free as he is from the blinkers of the ritual bowing to the bureaucrats – of left or right – to bring the story of the Lancashire Miners up to date – not to mention the broader job on the NUM since 1945.

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Last updated: 24.3.2008