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NELHS Second Tuesday at Redhills: Huw Beynon will speak on “‘The Little Dictator’ and ‘The Three Musketeers’: The NUM Durham Area at a time of Nationalisation and Cold War”

9 July 2019 @ 19:00

In 1937 Orwell visited a coal mine in Lancashire and was exhausted by the time he had walked to the coal face. He marvelled at the endurance of the miners and wrote of how you could “easily drive a car right across the north of England: and never once remembered that hundreds of feet below… The miners are hewing out coal. Yet in a sense it is the miners who are driving your car forward. Their lamp lit world down there, is necessary to the day light world above as the root is to the flower” Writings like Down the Mine together with films based in South Wales (The Citadel, 1937) and Durham (The Stars Look Down 1939) helped place the coal miner symbolically at the centre of the distress and hardship associated with the depression.

The war changed much of this – coal was needed as never before and once-redundant miners were encouraged to work hard long hours – six shifts a week – earning money regularly for the first but with nothing to spend it on. DMA President Will Lawther, described “a mood of sullen resentment and anger on the coalfield” supporting the view that “coal was the conspicuous failure in Britain’s war time economy and the greatest threat to the compact that Bevin and the TUC had forged since 1940 (Field 2011: 119). This is revealed in the data on unofficial strike activity during the war years 46.6% of all recorded stoppages took place in the coal mines and that the industry accounted for 55.7% of all days lost though strikes. Furthermore almost 60% of the entire work force was involved directly or indirectly in strike action, almost all of which were spontaneous and local to a particular mine or colliery.

In the transition to peacetime, this militancy was the source of problems for the incoming Labour Government. At that time the UK was a single fuel economy and the national plans for economic reconstruction rested entirely upon sustaining high levels of coal production. In this, the demands of the miners’ union for nationalisation were irresistible and “The Board”, as it became known was established under the Nationalisation of Mines Act of 1946. In its operation it called upon the support and assistance of a trade union (The NUM) which had been formed just two years earlier. Members of the Communist Party held important official positions within the new union and at a time of “cold war” this was to be a source of concern, particularly to the US government. In its construction of the Marshall Plan of economic aid it envisioned an aggressive ideological response achieved through “the exporting to Europe of the anti-communist, productivist consensus which had already achieved hegemonic dominance over American labour”

The leadership of the Durham Area of the National Union of Mineworkers was strongly supportive of both these aims. Sam Watson (“the little dictator”) played a critical role both locally and nationally by controlling strike action and critical debate at home and in the part he played on the NEC of the NUM and the Labour Party where he was chair of the International Committee. He was followed by “The Three Musketeers” (Alfred “Tess” Hesler, Charlie Pick and J.C. “Kit” Robinson), a triumvirate praised by the NCB for their help in steering through the NCB’s closure programme in the sixties. The talk will explore the origins of these leaders and the nature of the role they played within Durham and the NUM. Occasional comparisons will be drawn with the situation in the South Wales Area during the same period.

Huw Beynon is Emeritus Professor of Social Sciences at Cardiff University. He is the author of Masters and Servants: Class and Patronage in the Making of a Labour Organisation: The Durham Miners and the English Political Tradition (with Terry Austrin) and he was the editor of Digging Deeper: Issues in the Miners Strike.

His new book (with Ray Hudson) The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the end of industrial Britain will be published by Verso next year.


9 July 2019


The Miners’ Hall, Redhills, Durham
Flass Street
Durham City, DH1 4BE
0191 384 3515