The 1926 Miners' Lockout: Meanings of Community in the Durham Coalfield

Alan Campbell unearths the complex attitudes among mining communities during the lockout

April 22, 2010

The 1926 mining lockout was the biggest British industrial dispute of the 20th century. At the end of April, 1 million miners refused to accept swingeing wage reductions. A hesitant Trades Union Congress called the General Strike in their support but, after nine days of unprecedented solidarity, ignominiously surrendered. For the miners, this was merely a prologue: the majority of them fought on alone until December. Their defeat cast a bitter shadow over the industry for the rest of the century. The union leaders who led the miners to victory in 1972 (the first national coal dispute after 1926) and to catastrophe in 1985, men such as Lawrence Daly and Mick McGahey, were the sons of militants victimised in that bleak, impoverished Christmas of 1926; and they never forgot it.

It is the melodrama of the General Strike that has caught the eye of historians. Until recently, the lockout was neglected. The volume that I co-edited with John McIlroy and Keith Gildart, Industrial Politics and the 1926 Mining Lockout (2004), was a first attempt at academic excavation; it urged further work on areas such as Durham.

Hester Barron's study is therefore welcome as the only book-length treatment of the lockout in a major coalfield. Eschewing address of high politics or national union strategy, its concern is "to understand collective values and behaviour tensions between identities based around class and occupation and the rival identities that could disrupt the creation of a cohesive community". It does so through careful scrutiny of an impressive range of primary sources including hitherto unexploited oral archives.

As is now conventional, Barron rejects the stereotype of miners' militancy flowing unproblematically from their occupational communities. But she contests recent conclusions regarding working-class differentiation which suggest that British colliers "struggled to identify with any sense of collective identity". The outstanding feature of the lockout in Durham was solidarity: at its end, a lower percentage of miners there had returned to work than in any other major coalfield.

That said, Barron teases out the complex, sometimes contradictory, sometimes complementary, layers of overlapping identities that may render such solidarity fragile. In chapters addressing tensions of class and region, political and union loyalties, gender, religious affiliation and educational settings, the varied attitudes and experiences of miners, their wives and children as well as those of colliery owners, shopkeepers, clergy and schoolteachers, are imaginatively recuperated.

Barron skilfully weaves individual vignettes into her collective narrative: the blackleg son of a vicar in "red" Chopwell, who suffered a nervous breakdown after being marched home from the pit by a mocking crowd singing Lead, Kindly Light; an old woman's recollection of being carried home at the age of six by her brother after their friend was killed when the waste heap on which they had been foraging for coal collapsed, her brother clinging to their precious sack of coal with his other hand.

In some ways this is an "old-fashioned" text - and I employ the term as praise - in its awareness of social structures and the constraints on action that they imposed, its willingness to quantify where the sources permit, and its ambitious, theoretically informed analysis of communities and their specific cultures, in contradistinction to the trivial content of much contemporary cultural history.

The final chapter, "Memory and experience", strikes a more fashionable note, through its engagement with how earlier recollections influenced the lockout and how the lockout in turn was mythically recreated and remembered. The 1926 Miners' Lockout represents a significant contribution to mining and regional historiography; it also demonstrates how innovative exploration of traditional topics can revitalise and refurbish labour and working-class history.

The 1926 Miners' Lockout: Meanings of Community in the Durham Coalfield

By Hester Barron

Oxford University Press

330pp, £65.00

ISBN 9780199575046

Published 10 December 2009

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