Jack Lawson: A Man’s Life

Review by Harry Barnes

The 1945 Labour Cabinet. Jack Lawson of the War Office is fourth from the right in the back row.

Jack Lawson lived from 1881 to 1965 and wrote his autobiography entitled “A Man’s Life” in 1932, adding a fresh chapter covering the intervening events in 1944. Although he achieved far more in his life than I have and he experienced infinitely harsher circumstances, a surprising number of events occurred to him which I can identify with. The biggest differences between us is that he was born more than half a century before me and worked for 30 years in the pits, starting at the age of 12. These are huge differences between us. They should always be borne in mind in what I say below.

Jack was born in the mining Village of Kells near Whitehaven on the western coast of Cumberland, whilst I was born at Easington Colliery on the opposing eastern coast in County Durham. My paternal grandfather was, however, born only ten years before Jack in a Cumberland mining community, but it was 30 miles inland from Kells. Both Jack and my grandfather later moved with their parents to the Durham Coalfield, where they both started work at 12.

Jack started work at Boldon Colliery, which was situated less than four miles north west of Monkwearmouth Colliery in Sunderland where my grandfather’s own dad suffered a fatal accident from a fall of stone in 1907. Sunderland’s football ground is now built on top of the former Monkwearmouth pit and at one time my wife worked for a firm situated just a couple of streets away from that colliery. My grandfather also lived in differing houses in the vicinity of what was then Sunderland’s ground at Roker Park, with my father being born in one of these houses (next to a pawnbrokers) in 1909.

Reflecting upon the many mining families who settled in the Durham Coalfield and who had come from far and wide to settle in County Durham, Jack states that there ” is only one dialect now, and only Durham people. The melting pot process is complete” (p 43). This description solidly applied to Easington Colliery where my grandparents and their established family finally settled permanently in 1912, just a year after the pit went into full production.

Jack also says that at Boldon, he “lived in the isolation of a colliery” (p51). This was before the days of public transport and also describes early life at Easington. My father was brought into that community when he was two years old and remained solidly part of it for the next 84 years of his life.

Jack adds that most “miners have had experiences which makes one feel that it is only by a ‘miracle’ that they are alive” (p 61). My own father’s miracle occurred in 1951 when he was working in the local pit when 81 men (and then two rescue workers) were killed. His miracle being that he was working in a different seam from the explosion. Yet at home we did not know he was safe until he returned.

Jack became a Methodist lay preacher and he provides a telling description of what he saw as the impact of Methodism in the Durham Coalfield in the early years of the 19th Century. “Their hymns and sermons may have been of another world, but the first fighters and speakers for unions, Co-op Societies, political freedom and improved conditions, were Methodist preachers” (p 69). I also listened to Methodist sermons at least twice (then over three times) a week between the ages of 12 and 18. My mother had been brought up as a Methodist in the mining community of Sunniside in South West Durham and initially sent me to the Sunday School at the Easington Bourne Methodist Chapel. She continued to attend the Methodist services until prevented by dementia in her old age, whilst I deviated during my National Service and came to reject notions of the “other world”. But I sort to retain the moral and political prescriptions which Jack highlights. In a chapter entitled “Little Bethel” (pp 67-74), he gives a classical exposition of the claim that British Socialism was shaped by Methodism rather than Marxism. It was not for several years after I had lost my links with Methodism that I first seriously examined any of Marx’s writings.

In 1904 a Branch of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was founded at Boldon and Jack became an activist, undertaking equivalent tasks to those he undertook as a Lay Preacher around the area’s Chapels, now using a soap box to supplement the pulpit. He was 22 when the ILP Branch was founded. Labour did not set up an individual membership structure until 1918. My equivalent was to join the Labour Party in Easington Colliery at the age of 21, after returning from my period of National Service. I was no speaker, so instead I became Secretary of the Local Branch of the Labour Party, where I persuaded them to invite speakers – for now that I was an atheist I missed listening to socialist sermons. It was to be a further 17 years before I also joined the ILP, although it had just changed its name and some of its practices by becoming a publications organisation – Independent Labour Publications. I have retained links with them ever since then.

At an early stage, Jack became an avid reader and collector of serious works of literature. In Jonathan Rose’s fine book “The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class” (Yale Nota Bene, 2002), Jack is recognised as being a leading example of the autodidactic tradition. Jack had a depth and commitment to books which went way beyond my own, but I stumbled forward. Up to 12, I had got by reading comics, the local football papers, the Daily Herald and my maternal Grandmother’s News Chronicle. But then our teacher at the Secondary Modern School took us into the school library and told us to borrow a book and read it, I choose “Mr. Standfast” by John Buchan and was hooked. I still hold 16 of Buchan’s books, most of which were purchased in the Everyman Edition at 4s 6d (now 22 and a half pence). I am, therefore, pleased to see that a quote from Buchan is used on a cover of an edition of Jack’s book saying that ” ‘A Man’s Life’ should be read by everyone”. When I moved beyond Buchan, I came to purchase the Penguin editions of the plays of George Bernard Shaw with their long prefaces as well as a random selection of easier-to-read books by authors such as Conan Doyle. I was slowly moving forth, but none of this matched the depth and scope of Jack’s reading as a young man. He tells us how he used “orange- boxes painted, with brown paper covering, tastefully cut at the edges” (p 81) to hold his many books. Having failed my eleven plus, then fluffed the key “O” levels of Maths and English Language and even having dropped-out of the piano lessons my mother sent me to (although she had bought a second-hand upright piano), she became keen to encourage my gradual interest in books. She was determined that I would do things that meant I would not need to go down the pit. So she bought me a bookcase and I then succeeded in upsetting the wife of the Methodist Sunday School Superintendent by placing a photo of GBS on top of it. It was the shape of things to come. A ready-made bookcase would have indeed been a luxury for Jack. Our four roomed colliery house met the needs of my father, mother and myself as an only child. A similar four room house had to be shared by Jack’s parents and their ten children. Orange boxes full of classical literature are something which impress me in such a crowded environment.

Jack also “discovered a certain booksellers in Newcastle” (p 74) where he met “kindred souls from other parts of Northumberland and Durham” (p 75). I found the equivalent (or perhaps the same bookseller) in a Newcastle indoor market when I adopted the habit of visiting the town’s Theatre Royal. On my 17th birthday, I bought a copy of “The Webbs and their Work” edited by Margaret Cole (London: Frederick Muller Ltd. 1949) which contains an article by Jack himself entitled “The Discovery of Sidney Webb”. Jack tells us that in his efforts to find literature about Trade Unions a “steady, thoughtful, elderly miner said he thought a man called Sidney Webb had written a ‘History of Trade Unionism’. There was not one to be found in the colliery, so it was ordered off of a bookseller in Newcastle” (p 187-8 of Margaret Cole’s book). This was how how Jack discovered Sidney Webb, who was to become a fellow Durham County Labour MP and a fellow Government Minister in the First Minority Labour Government of 1924. Indeed Jack was to stand unsuccessfully for the Seaham Parliamentary Constituency (encompassing Easington) in 1918, which Sidney went on to win and to serve as their MP from 1922 to 1929.

Jack’s love life was to have certain similarities with my own. In describing his first meeting with his future wife, he outlines an event at Boldon where “I met ‘Her’. She lived in Sunderland, and was visiting friends in the colliery when I met her with a girl friend whom I knew” (pp 82-3). I first met Ann who became my wife in Sunderland itself where we both worked. A mother of a lad I worked with as a railway clerk worked in the office of a neighbouring store, with Ann. This led to my meeting “Her”. Ann was herself from a mining background. her father was an onsetter at Shotton Colliery which is closer to Easington than either places are to Sunderland.

Methodist meetings and political meetings helped Jack and then myself to develop interests in speeches, discussions and adult education. Jack took the high road via Methodist pulpits, political platforms and then “a group of us …started an adult school…long before the Workers’ Educational Classes” (p 77). I took the low road of being an honorary secretary, first fixing up speakers for the Christian Endeavour at the Chapel, then when I dropped religion there were secular equivalents through which I undertook similar tasks – the local Labour Party and the Peterlee and District Fabian Society. Speakers I arranged for the later included Mannie Shinwell MP and Sam Watson the Secretary of the Durham Miners Association, people whom Jack worked with closely. Sam being his protege. It must be remembered that Sam initially had a much more left-wing reputation than the one he later acquired.

Although he was 25 and married and faced major financial difficulties, Jack undertook two years full-time study in politics and economics at Ruskin College in Oxford in 1907. After selling their furniture, his wife found work in Oxford and he did some domestic work at the college (p 99). 53 years later at the age of 24, I also went to study at Ruskin College. But I had the great advantage of receiving funding from the Durham County Council on which Jack had served. I also had no marriage commitments, it being only between my first and second years at Ruskin when I met Ann. Jack discovered about the existence of Ruskin College when he talked about books and art to his marra, Jack Woodhead. When Jack mentioned John Ruskin, his mate told him about the College which bore Ruskin’s name and encouraged Jack to contact them (pp 93-5). Jack undertook the College’s correspondence course and then went into full-time study with them. Whilst my discovery of Ruskin College arose from my attending a Fabian Society School held there during an Easter vacation.

Although it wasn’t preplanned, I came to use Ruskin College as a stepping stone into university. Jack’s youngest brother Will did the same when he followed in Jack’s footsteps. But Jack himself turned down the Principal Dennis Hird’s offer to help him do the same. Jack returned to the pit at the close of his course and pursued his political and trade union commitments. He acted as voluntary election agent for Labour and for a miner at Jarrow in the 1910 elections. My equivalent was in North East Derbyshire in 1983, when I was agent to Ray Ellis who was President of the Derbyshire Miners. Jack was next elected as checkweighman at Alma Colliery in North West Durham. He tells us that “I soon discovered that my work as check-weighman was a mere detail and by no means my real work. I was their business man, watching closely and attending to every detail effecting their wages and conditions. I was adviser on domestic questions, lawyer and executor. So are all checkweighmen. Pit-craft first, spokesman in the office, much tested guide in meetings…” (p 114). It was the era in which Beatrice Webb came to call the Parliamentary Labour Party “the Party of Checkweighmen” (p 250, “Master and Servants” by Huw Beynon and Terry Austrin. London: River Oram Press, 1994).

Unlike me, Jack fought in a war, volunteering in 1916 and becoming a lead driver of mules in France; finally being demobbed in 1918. My own two years in the forces were mainly served in Basra in Iraq when I was called up for National Service. I was part of a Movements Unit where in contrast to the recent history of Iraq, I was lucky enough only once to hear a shot fired in anger when a prisoner escaped from a neighbouring Iraqi Army camp, but they missed him as he dived into the river. Jack’s brother Will was, however, killed in France during the First World War. Will once having wrote home to say “This is not war: it is a permanent industry of death” (p 145).

Jack moved on to become the Labour MP for Chester-le-Street from 1919 to late 1949. My equivalent was to be the Labour MP for North East Derbyshire from 1987 to 2005. But there were some major differences between us. He spoke from Labour’s front benches during the minority Labour Governments of Ramsay MacDonald and then served in the Attlee Government from 1945 to 1946. At the end of 1949 he moved on to the Lords. I never rose to such dizzy heights. Jack’s autobiography, however, skates over his parliamentary and governmental experiences. His focus is on his mining and mining family background.

He took the title of Baron Lawson of Beamish and also became Lord Lieutenant of Durham. These were unpaid positions and he was obliged to live on income support. But his title turned out to be an appropriate one, for after his death Beamish acquired a substantial Mining Museum, preserving memories of the Durham Mining tradition in a former coalfield where no pits have remained since the closure of Monkwearmouth Colliery in 1993.

Jack knew the Easington Colliery area well (its pit also closed in 1993). As mentioned previously, he was the unsuccessful Labour Candidate for the Seaham Constituency in 1918, when he perceptively (but unhelpfully in electoral terms) campaigned against reparations being placed upon Germany (p 154). In 1944 he addressed the St. John’s Methodist Chapel on “My Travels to China” (p 13, “Methodism in Easington Colliery 1913-1963”, a Jubilee Brochure). Unfortunately, I missed out on his talk as I was only eight at the time and went to a different local Methodist chapel. But his Methodist, socialist and Durham Mining Association commitments are likely to have drawn him into Easington on many occasions.

Unfortunately, Jack’s autobiographical coverage mainly peters out once he becomes a MP. The 1944 edition is 191 pages long, but the years between 1919 and 1944 are crammed into the last 31 pages. There is nothing at all on the 1926 General Strike nor on the 1931 economic collapse. And there is little on his electoral politics, nor on where his victories took him to. Yet if you wish to find out what Durham Big Meeting was like in its heyday, what a bitter fight between two miners was like when surrounded by fellow gamblers and (above all) what life was like for a closely knit mining family, then this is the book for you. For instance; after his brother is killed during the first world his mother searches out a treasured baby’s toy and hands it to Jack for his six year old daughter, saying “Take this home for your babby hinny. My babby’s gone.” (p 150). Then Jack’s own eleven year old son Clive is killed following a bombing raid in 1941 (pp 184-7).

The appeal to me of Jack’s book is not just that I also originate from a Durham mining community, but that I worked closely with miners from South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire for 21 years. Furthermore, I did this in a capacity which links in with one of Jack’s commitments – working class adult education. I was a tutor on day-release classes for trade unionists run by the Sheffield University Extramural Department/Division of Continuing Education. The persistent core of these classes were for members of the Yorkshire and Derbyshire NUMs. Their interests were grounded (like Jacks’) on their lives in their mining communities. Numbers moved on to study full-time in adult education colleges such as Ruskin. Many became, like Jack, avid readers of serious books. My big regret is that I never placed a copy of “A Man’s Life” in the book boxes we took to these classes. It was crafted for exactly such a readership.

When I moved into the Commons after the joy of teaching as an equal in adult education, I became on MP for a Constituency with a similar tradition to Jack’s Chester-le-Street. For 67 of the years between 1907 and 1987 my seat of North East Derbyshire had been represented by coal miners, the pattern was only cut into when the seat fell briefly to opposing Liberals or Conservatives. Three deep mined pits and a drift mine still remained in existence when I went to Westminster. Only the drift mine now survives, but I am thankful to have participated in three campaigns to prevent its closer. The consequences of the end of deep coal mining in North Derbyshire became a key concern on my agenda. I always tried to be accepted as something of a substitute miner.

But Jack outmatched me as a Labour MP also. He represented Chester-le-Street from 1919 to December 1949, when he went to the Lords. It was later replaced by the North Durham seat. Chester-le-Street went Labour in 1906 and (then as North Durham) has continously been Labour ever since.

For me, Jack’s book strikes all the key cords. The thin coverage of his non-mining years does not really matter, as there are plenty of alternative works to turn to by professional historians. It is Jack at the coal-face which matters; whether down the pit, in the community or with his family.

Note : as second hand copies of Jack’s small book cost £25, potential readers may wish to borrow it via the inter-library loan system. I did this for £1.50p.