Lewis Merthyr Colliery, Rhondda. Note the NCB plaque - 'this colliery is now managed by the National Coal Board on behalf of the people’. Via the People's Collection Wales.
Lewis Merthyr Colliery, Rhondda. Note the NCB plaque – ‘this colliery is now managed by the National Coal Board on behalf of the people’. Via the People’s Collection Wales.

70 years ago today, 1 January 1947, marked the formal transfer of the coal industry from private hands to the public sector. Two years before, on 1 January 1945, the National Union of Mineworkers had also come into being. The day was known simply as Vesting Day, and was marked at collieries all over Britain with a ceremony – the running up of the flag of the National Coal Board. Lodge officials, workmen, and perhaps even some interested members of the local community, gathered at the start of the day shift to conduct this peaceful transfer of control. At Ynysybwl, typically, the responsibility of running up the flag was given to the longest serving member of the National Union of Mineworkers, John E. Morgan. In a short address, he reminded those present that for almost fifty years, since the foundation of the South Wales Miners’ Federation in 1898, it had been the dream of socialists, the ‘few visionaries who were then considered cranks’, in his words, that coal would be nationalised. And so, as the flag rose to the top of the pole, it was. A plaque also told them that ‘this colliery is now managed by the National Coal Board on behalf of the people’. The people owned Lady Windsor Colliery until 1988, when it closed.

It is, of course, far too easy to look back at Vesting Day and see it just in terms of the transfer of ownership. Indeed, that would be to place much too rosy a complexion on the moment. For the late 1940s were anything but a happy time in the mining industry, with debates about migrant labour, most of it from Eastern Europe, raging, and there remained the many after-effects of the hard years of the 1920s and 1930s and the industrial turbulence of the 1940s. Nor was it a happy start for nationalised coal, given the shortages that amplified that harshness of the winter of 1947. The minister responsible for overseeing the establishment of the National Coal Board was Manny Shinwell, a radical Scot who sat, like Aneurin Bevan, on the left-wing of Attlee’s cabinet. Shinwell had previously been minister of mines in the short-lived Labour governments of 1924 and 1929-1931, so was a familiar figure to the mining industry. His handling of the fuel crisis in the winter of 1947, however, led to his reshuffle that October and his removal from cabinet; he was replaced as minister by Hugh Gaitskell – an appointment that forever marred their relationship. As Gaitskell lamented in 1950, Shinwell ‘never loses an opportunity of picking a quarrel with me, sometimes on the most ridiculous grounds’.

Reading the cabinet papers during the crisis one theme emerges very clearly – the battle between production from the pits and the needs of power stations on the one hand and industrial production on the other. Such a battle would remain a constant for a number of years, with the fateful decision made by the Conservative governments in the 1950s to begin the transfer of energy production from coal to oil, gas, nuclear, and even hydro-electricity in the north of Scotland. That, in turn, enabled the Coal Board to begin its pit closure programme ultimately leading to the showdown between the Coal Board and the NUM in the years after the ‘October Revolution’ of 1969. In many ways, the contribution of Herbert Morrison to cabinet on 7 January 1947 is prescient. He argued for incentivised pay, something which came in in the 1970s when regional wage structures were effectively reintroduced; he argued for a major rethink over how electricity was produced; he encouraged importation of coal over seemingly limited domestic production; and he pressed the need for migrant labour to fill immediate labour shortages. Cabinet also discussed the relative merits of electrical appliances in the home over traditional coal-fired stoves, concluding that their use ‘enabled economies to be made in the consumption of domestic coal’. Although it is important not to overstate this change in consumer habits, since there had been several previous attempts, not least during industrial turbulence of the early 1920s, to wean the public off coal-powered domestic appliances. Nevertheless, the trajectory for domestic appliances after the Second World War was away from coal.

There are, of course, a great many ironies about coal industry between, say, 1945 and 1985, and it has long been the case that the first two decades are seen in the light of the second two. This is hardly a surprise when we consider just how much of the secondary literature, from the iconic The Fed by Hywel Francis and Dai Smith to Vic Allen’s The Militancy of the British Miners to Tony Hall’s King Coal, was written in the 1970s and published at the start of the 1980s. The turning point, on which they all agree, was 1969. This, wrote Hall, ‘was probably the most important year in the history of the NUM’. He continued:

It was the year that provoked what some in the union called the ‘October revolution’, when the frustrations of a decade and more boiled over in a strike the like of which had not been seen since 1926.

The surfacemen’s strike, which began in Yorkshire and quickly spread to other militant sections of the coalfields, which gave rise to the nickname and to Arthur Scargill, tends to get underplayed by historians these days but that is a mistaken revision. 1969 really was a turning point, and set in motion what happened in 1972, 1972, and ultimately 1984-5. The question is not really about the militancy of the 1970s and 1980s, so much as the apparent lack of urgency amongst the miners of the late-1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Allen posited the ‘depoliticisation’ of the miners in those years and Tony Hall pointed to the ‘ascendancy of the Right’. You might look at things like that, I suppose; but there is another way and it is with this alternative that I want to finish today’s post. It can be summed up in one word: internationalism.

Now, you might be forgiven for thinking that the internationalism pointed to by historians like Francis and Smith (the post-1947 chapter of The Fed was written by Francis, it’s worth saying) rings with more than a little communist propaganda to it. Certainly, it echoes the fellow travelling enthusiasms of many of the leading NUM officials at district and national level, men such as Dai Dan Evans and Arthur Horner. But. And this deserves being stressed. That on its own does not explain the remarkable engagement of the NUM in international affairs from the peace movement and anti-Vietnam demonstrations, to support for workers in Spain and Greece, to the anti-Apartheid movement, to attempts at reconciliation between Communist East and Capitalist West in Europe. This internationalist perspective, signified by the stress placed on fellowship and solidarity on lodge banners – the two outstretched hands locked in embrace, the comradely greeting of a ‘white’ miner and a ‘black’ miner, and so forth -, is the great consistency of the miner’s union. The list of moments of solidarity ranges from the locked out workers of Dublin in 1913 to those on strike in Barcelona in 1917 to Spain in 1936 to Lidice in 1942 to Paul Robeson and Hungary in the 1950s to Vietnam and South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. These were, very often, radical stances to take and they certainly exposed the distance between the left-leaning opinion of the coalfields (most consistently the South Wales and Yorkshire Coalfields) and mainstream British politics.

So perhaps as we look to re-write the history of miners and the British coalfields we should stress the importance of both the international and the domestic to their development. I don’t mean this in terms of export figures and how coal travelled around the world, an important story, to be sure, but rather in terms of the politics of the coalfields and the people who live in them (then and now). Therein lies, I think, an important message for our times – that the people of the coalfields, particularly the miners, did not stand in the shadows and ignore events going on elsewhere but they stood in the light and said we’re on your side. Those who watched Pride on Boxing Day, whether for the first time or the 47th, will recognise the significance of that solidarity. A few of those involved in the Neath, Dulais and Swansea Valleys’ Miners’ Support Group, which was twinned with LGSM, travelled to Prague in 1986 in order to say thank you for the support during the 1984-5 strike that they had received from Czechoslovakian workers. It was just one small way of saying thank you for a truly pan-European act of solidarity in 1984-5. And that’s the point in the end, isn’t it? That from Vesting Day to the very end of the coal industry itself, the British coalfields were more than just a little bit European. Let’s not forget that as we march, unhappily, out the door.