Anyone familiar with the histories of strikes and economic downturns in Britain (and abroad) will have encountered the soup kitchen and the boot repair stalls set up to help provide emergency essentials to thousands of people. During the 1926 Miners’ Lockout, for example, as many as 6,000 people were receiving food from soup kitchens in Merthyr Tydfil every week. They had omnipresence in the South Wales Coalfield, the last line of defence from absolute destitution for tens of thousands of men, women and children.
Fast forward sixty years, to the miners’ strike of 1984-5, and one of history’s sharpest, clearest echoes was heard. In mining communities from Mardy in the Rhondda to Blaenddulais near Swansea, families stared into empty cupboards. ‘We thought we’d need to give out food parcels,’ recalled Barbara Williams of Mardy, ‘so a couple of women went round with trolleys, going round to shops and door-to-door […] we were weighing potatoes, counting tea bags – sugar was like gold dust’. In Newbridge, women organised a soup kitchen in the miners’ institute. ‘They [the union] asked us if we would make pasties for the men that were going away picketing and it developed from there’, explains Dot Philips, ‘we started doing breakfast. It grew so big and so fast that we didn’t realise what was happening […] we found that we were having tonnes and tonnes of baked beans and corned beef. All Sunday I’d be making corned beef pie which developed into making dinners for the men’.
The 1984-5 strike bore witness to the supreme hate governments (and their supporters) can throw at their own people. Changed regulations deprived families of benefits (striking miners were, in the government’s minds, in receipt of strike pay – not true in practice) and left many surviving on the one handout that could not be stripped: child benefit. One miner’s wife had to support her family on just £6.50 a week – adjusted for inflation that amounts to just £16 by today’s standards – she was by no means alone in that. Single miners were thrown onto the resources of their immediate families, even where that meant supporting three or four people on the income of a state pension.
We’d like to think that those days are far behind us. Yet a glance of the newspaper headlines reminds us that it simply is not true. In the Guardian on 19 December 2012, Suzanne Moore recorded 2012 as the ‘year of the food bank’. Eerily, and with the steadfast hatred evinced by the National Government of the 1930s and the Tory Governments of Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, the past has come back to life. Whether this is the ghost of Christmas past, Christmas present, or the Christmas that has yet come to pass, the queues at food banks – their very existence at all – invites reflection on the volunteers that ensure there is a last line of defence against the raw wind of absolute poverty for everyone.
The Voluntary Action History Society (VAHS) has spent much of 2012 cutting against the grain of misinformation, mythology, and plain ignorance to highlight the significant contribution played by the voluntary sector in maintaining the structures of welfare that so many people rely upon to survive. In pausing to reflect on how 2012 will be remembered by historians of voluntary action in the future, I found myself drawn inevitably to this constant echo of the past. Soup kitchens, captured in the grainy black and white photographs of the inter-war years, ought to have been consigned to the history books long ago. That they have not been shows, I think, the catastrophic failure of this country to live up to the promises laid down decades ago.
And for people in their twenties, even with their i-phones and gadgets that distract from the harsh realities of the outside world, the echoes of the past are equally strong. Asked by a BBC journalist how many of his friends had been out of work, one striking miner then aged just twenty-six, explained: ‘eighty per cent of them are unemployed, they’ve worked, then get laid off, get a job and work a month, then get laid off […] it’s ridiculous […] I’m twenty-six years old and this is my third pit I’ve worked’. How many of us can say that with exactly the same pain today? Many doesn’t begin to cover it. Perhaps the last words of this post should go to Barbara Williams, whose prescient comments in an interview with a BBC journalist in July 1984 might stand as an epitaph of Britain’s failed promises:
If you’ve got children and they’re willing to stay in school, get an education, you keep them in school and you know damn well at the end there’s nothing for them. That’s hellish hard to take.