Roy Venables, who was the Secretary of Rossington History Group at its closure in 2016, contributed this piece about the 1926 strike. He gives a background to the strike, and how Rossington miners held out when the rest of Britain returned to work. This year recognises the 90th anniversary of that strike. We will add appropriate pictures as we find them.
ROSSINGTON: THE GENERAL STRIKE AND THE LOCK-OUT.
“Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day!’
On the sunny Monday afternoon of 12 June 1912, when Mrs Deacon turned the first sod with the silver spade at the site of the proposed Rossington Colliery, no one present could have predicted the events that would occur between that date and 1926.
Lord Aberconway, the Chairman of the company stated that he and the directors were showing their confidence in the British coal trade and in that of South Yorkshire. He confidently predicted that the coalfield would produce 12 million tons of coal annually within a few years, and Rossington would contribute 1.5 million of this tonnage. He was glad to be able to say that model villages like New Rossington, built according to the most recent town planning ideas, were springing up.
In 1914 the sinking of the shaft was proceeding well. Despite national anxieties about the Irish Question, the only military activity in the area in July 1914 was the departure of the local territorials of 5 KOYLI to their summer camp for 14 days at Whitby. Few of this happy band would return unscathed to their civilian employment in 1919.
As the news suddenly became ominous, the colony of sinkers living at Harworth from Austria, France, Germany and Italy departed to carry out their patriotic duties in their respective countries on 7 August. By the end of August 1914 Austria/Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany, and Turkey were at war with Belgium, Britain, France, Russia and Serbia.
When the first Rossington coal was won on 17 July 1916, the Doncaster area was receiving details of local men lost at the naval Battle of Jutland and a few days later local people would learn of their contribution to the list of 60,000 casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in France. The total British and French casualties in that battle would exceed 620,000 by November 1916. Zeppelins frightened the public by bombing locations in Lincolnshire and Derbyshire. By 30 November the coal mines were controlled by the Board of Trade with powers to fix prices, wages and profits as part of the huge national effort to organise and boost war production. During this period of nationalisation the seven-hour shift with one hour’s winding time was negotiated. This was enthusiastically welcomed by miners who had previously worked eight hours after successful negotiation in 1908, but who had worked much longer shifts prior to that year.
On 11 November 1918, the Armistice was signed to end “The War to end all wars”. 871 men worked at Rossington Colliery by this time.
The strife was not over though and a long stoppage in the Yorkshire Coalfield occurred in 1919. The miners struck again from 18 to 28 October 1920. The hopes which founded the settlement of this dispute proved illusory. Lloyd George was enabled to introduce a far-reaching Emergency Powers Act in case of a future domestic crisis.
By 1921, because Britain’s coal had been diverted during the war from export markets, customers had either become self-sufficient or had been compelled to buy elsewhere. Large regular imports of coal from Germany by way of war reparations distorted the home market. A Royal Commission had recommended that the mines remain under national control with seven-hour shifts and 10p per day on the pay. The dominance of the Conservatives and the duplicity of Lloyd George meant that the report of the Commission was set aside. The mines were returned to their owners on 31 March 1921.
The owners felt compelled, in order to be competitive, to renege on wage and hours conditions conceded during the war, in order to reduce costs. They insisted on an immediate cut in wages and enforced a lock-out. Despite appeals in April 1921, the allied railway and transport workers failed to support the ensuing three-month stoppage by coal miners. The bitterness caused by being forced to return to work on the owners’ terms meant that the miners and the TUC were keen to avoid such a “betrayal” again. 15 May 1921 was to go down in Trade Union history as “Black Friday”.
Throughout 1923 and 1924 there was a relative upturn in the economy but even so, miners’ wages were, in real terms, below pre-war levels. When German mines closed as a result of the French occupation of the Ruhr in 1923 and a miners’ strike occurred in America in 1924. exports of coal from Britain increased. The pressures returned when the French withdrew and German coal production resumed. The Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, said in 1925 that, in order to put industry on its feet, every worker had to expect a reduction in pay. The coal owners quickly responded by proposing a wage reduction and stating that any increases would be granted only if the miners accepted an increase to the working day. The TUC agreed on mutual support and, as a result, the Government introduced a nine-month subsidy for the coal industry which it had previously refused to contemplate. Wages were untouched and a further Royal Commission was set up which resulted in the miners’ strike being cancelled on 31 July 1925 – “Red Friday” thus removing the stigma of “Black Friday”. For the time being, the crisis was averted.
The Trade Union unity which led to “Red Friday” did not last and in January 1926, the Government held a number of conferences at national and local level to co-ordinate its activities in the event of a confrontation with the unions.
The Royal Commission had no representatives from working class organisations, consisting of Sir Herbert Samuel, a Liberal, Sir William Beveridge, another Liberal, General Sir Herbert Lawrence, a banker and
Kenneth Lee an industrialist. It reported on 6 March 1926. The Samuel Commission rejected nationalisation and regarded the subsidy as indefensible. The management of some pits was praised but many mines were considered to be badly planned, with defective equipment and poor management. Some were too small to be profitable. It supported district wage agreements and failed to oppose an increase to the working hours. Reorganisation was proposed but this was a project which would take years to achieve. To achieve profitability, the Commission recommended that wages should be reduced immediately, but by less than the employers had suggested.
The report suited the Government and the owners and, at the same time, provided a lifeline to those within the Labour movement who were keen to find a compromise. A series of unsuccessful meetings took place but, with the refusal to accept a wage cut and the end of the subsidy on 30 April 1926, the mine owners declared a lock-out from that date.
Members of the National Union of Operative Printers at the Daily Mail, angered by a leading article headed “For King and Country”, which said that the strike was a “revolutionary movement” stated to the editor that this was contrary to the Prime Minister’s plea for ” a cool head”. The editor declined to modify it and the printers declined to print it. The Government demanded that the TUC repudiate the actions of the printers. The General Council of the TUC failed to support the printers and expressed opposition to “independent” and “unauthorised action” in a letter on 3 May 1926 to the Prime Minister but the Government had already decided that negotiations were at an end. In 1925 it had been fearful that a General Strike would succeed – in 1926 it was confident it would fail. The Government could safely let it happen, an indeed made sure that it did. The Government was well prepared and the terms of the Emergency Powers Act were invoked. All military leave was cancelled and troops were despatched throughout the country. The BBC came under police protection and the medium was put to produce a flow of anti-strike propaganda and appeals for volunteers. Anyone who sought to bring the opposing sides together like the Archbishop of Canterbury found it impossible to broadcast. With the printing unions on strike, the Government published the “British Gazette”, edited by Winston Churchill, to promote its case. The TUC countered by publishing the “British Worker” but the Government diverted supplies of paper to the “British Gazette” which caused the “British Worker” to reduce its pages by 50 percent. Several months earlier, the Government had appointed ten Civil Commissioners throughout England and Wales. They were given the tasks of recruiting volunteers and distribution of supplies.
In Doncaster by 5 May, the railwaymen and the workers at the LNER Plant Works were on strike, together with the Wire Works. A Volunteer Corps was formed to perform essential services. Thirty charabancs and lorries packed with Scottish troops drove through the town heading north. The streets were packed with strikers but, with police assistance, the vehicles passed through.
The TUC began by calling out the key industries of railwaymen, transport workers, dockers, printers, builders, and iron and steel workers in support of the miners. Only later were engineers and shipyard workers to be called out on strike. On 7 May, Sir Herbert Samuel, the Chairman of the Royal Commission on the Coal Industry, approached the TUC and offered to help to bring the strike to an end. Without telling the miners, the TUC met Samuel and worked out a set of proposals to end the General Strike. These included
- A National Wages Board with an independent chairman.
- A minimum wage for all colliery workers.
- Workers displaced by pit closures to be given alternative employment.
- The wages subsidy to be renewed while negotiations continued.
These terms were accepted by the TUC negotiating committee but rejected by the executive of the Miners’ Federation.
On 8 May, 200 miners from Armthorpe gathered on Thorne Road and, armed with sticks, iron bars and forks, they attacked two food lorries. A driver and his passenger were dragged out and assaulted. The sudden arrival of a bus load of policemen prevented the mob from burning the vehicles.
On 11 May the TUC decided to accept the terms proposed and to call off the General Strike. On 12 May the TUC General Council visited Downing Street to announce to the Government that the General Strike was over. At the same meeting the TUC attempted to persuade the Government to support the Samuel proposals and to guarantee that there would be no victimization of strikers. The Government refused.
The General Strike having ended on 12 May, Doncaster was returning to normal by 21 May, the processions of lorries marked “Food Only” which had become familiar were no longer to be seen in the streets. The railways were sorting out the accumulation of parcels and consignments of perishables. Emergency Powers regarding the use of fuel were still in force and it was expected that large consumers would be restricted to half of their normal usage as long as the miners remained on strike.
On 21 June, the Government introduced a bill that suspended the miners’ Seven Hour Act for five years – thus permitting a return to the eight-hour day. The miners were furious and although the General Strike was well and truly over, the miners’ lock-out continued. The Mayor set up a Relief Fund and a pit pony race took place in July at Doncaster Racecourse to raise funds for needy children. Nationally, the plight of the miners, in the euphoric aftermath of the collapse of the General Strike, ceased to be of news value. Meanwhile, in Rossington, the annual Somme Sunday services were held. Ominously, for those miners who believed that they would be the victors in the struggle, 120 men returned to work on 16 July at Harworth which formed part of the less militant Nottinghamshire Miners’ Association. This was by agreement with the owners in order to raise coal to fuel pumps for the water and electricity supply to the village. This poem appeared in a Sheffield newspaper (the Sheffield Independent) around this time appealing to the public to make donations to a ‘Feed the Children’ fund.
“You may sympathise with the miner
And think his cause is just.
You may feel sorry for the owner Whose profits may go ‘bust’.
You may weep for the poor old dealer
Who’s got no coal to deal.
You may pity the hard hit tax-payer
Who’s got some cause to squeal.
But think of the innocent kiddies
Whose laughter is turning to a sob.
They’re hungry, ill clad, starving
For them – we want a ‘bob. ”
On 20 August it was reported that there were unmistakable signs that men were tired of inactivity and of anxiety for a settlement, but that in the Doncaster area generally there was no doubt of the loyalty of the miners to their union. Miners had received about £1 per week “Union Pay” from their Miners’ Association. The district Miners’ Associations did not have big resources. They had not recovered from paying out £381,693 in strike pay in 1921. The Yorkshire Miners’ Association had pawned all its assets for £44,000 on 17 July. Negotiations re-opened and by 27 August thousands of miners were returning to work in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire but this was not the case in Yorkshire. Hopes were dashed by 17 September when the owners refused to discuss a national settlement. The Miners’ President, who was also the President of the Yorkshire Miners’ Association, Mr Herbert Smith addressed the miners at the Welfare Hall in Rossington at the end of
September. He spoke for two hours and tears were seen in the eyes of the President when he spoke of the ingratitude of Frank Hodges who had attacked the miners’ leaders. Frank Hodges was a Socialist VIP who had been, until 1924, the Secretary of the Miners’ Federation. It was Herbert Smith who had coined the slogan at the head of this article. He was also famous for his stock expression to the employers of “Nowt Doing!” At another meeting around this time he said to his audience “I am not frightened to let the decision to return rest with you or your wives. But once you get back to eight hours you will not get back to seven hours in fifty years”.
Farmers protested at rates increased in October in order to provide funds for relief and by this time, miners at Askern, Bentley, Markham Main, Hatfield, Harworth, Bullcroft and Yorkshire Main were working. Nationally, a quarter of the miners had returned to work but at Rossington there was no change. A “disorderly incident” was reported in Rossington on 1 October when a motor van bringing safety workers from Armthorpe pit was stoned by a large crowd. On 22 October the owners “threw open” Rossington pit and between 80 and 90 men signed on to begin work. The terms offered were the same as was being applied elsewhere in South Yorkshire which was a 7.5-hour day and a reduction to the piece workers’ percentage to 6.1. The Strike Relief Fund, which had been loaning cash to feed families, ran out of cash and 50,000 more men nationally returned to work. The Rector of Rossington lamented the sad result of the bitter feelings he observed at the Armistice services in November. An article was published in the Doncaster Chronicle on 12 November entitled “Rossington’s Double”. It stated that a “piquant position” had arisen with two sets of officials representing the miners. One looked after the interests of those who had gone back to work on the terms offered by the Sheepbridge Coal and Iron Co and the other, the recognised officials of the Yorkshire Miners’ Association, was concerned with the men who are still on strike. About 400 men were said to be at work and that the management could not deal separately with each man on matters like house rent stoppages, repayment of relief, the doctors’ fund, and the pick sharpening fund. There was also the need for the working miners to have a representative in the weigh box to check the coal coming out of the pit.
The strikers’ view of this topic were, not surprisingly, at odds with this. A YMA official said “Our information is that 239 men came up Pit Lane and from our knowledge 183 of these were working at the coal face before the stoppage. Men who have not been down below for many years are doing this class of work. We have had a meeting of genuine coal-getters – 900 of them who were working at Rossington on 30 April and they have unanimously decided to remain loyal to the Miners’ Federation and to support Messrs MJ Bramall and J O’Malley in the position of checkweighmen”
The Chronicle reported “Rossington Railway Raid” on 26 November. In this incident the police were transported by special train to apprehend some hundreds of coal pickers.
“Rossington colliery village was thrown into a state of excitement on 26 November by reason of a raid by police on a party of coal pickers. Some members of the Special Reserve of Police received injury from stones thrown by the pickers.
It appears that miners together with their families have been gathering coal for some time from a tip or embankment adjoining the main LNER line. They have been repeatedly warned to desist both by the police and the local leaders of the miners’ organisation. Many offenders have been prosecuted, for not only is the tip railway property but the digging threatens the permanent way.
A special train with a carriage load of policemen left Doncaster and when opposite the spot where the picking was taking place the engine was stopped, and out came the policemen. At the same moment, the local police rushed to the spot.
There was a scramble by the pickers to get away. Some succeeded, but a number were caught. Some of the pickers ran into a neighbouring wood, and three of the policemen were cut off and had a rough experience.
According to some of the pickers they resented the methods of the police and from the cover of the wood, and the Welfare grounds, the crowd pelted the police with stones. More people gathered to the scene and the crowd was ultimately estimated at 2000.
The position became ugly and a bus load of policemen and mounted police were rushed through. When the police examined the scene, they came across a man who had hidden in one of the holes and had not budged. During the scramble a youngster had to be rescued by police as he was wedged in a fence. About 100 bags of coal together with picks and shovels were recovered. ”
“I am sorry to say that these people were creating a terrific disturbance at the police station until midnight. They were making it most uncomfortable for the other occupants” said Chief Constable Clayton. 31 persons including a woman were changed with trespass and willful damage. 27 defendants were fined £l and the others who were boys were bound over and ordered to pay costs. The Chairman said the Bench had decided to deal as leniently as possible with the defendants, as the strike was over.
The last major event concerning the miners’ strike was recorded on 17 December when 1500 miners marched in fours from the Welfare Hall to the centre of the village where they dismissed after singing “The Red Flag”. The two “lively” meetings which preceded this were described as follows: “The wrecking of a meeting by malcontents was followed by a livelier meeting and a threat to decline to return to work. A miners’ leader was knocked unconscious by a thrown stone”.
Rossington had returned to work before a Yorkshire agreement was reached and because of the large numbers at work it became necessary to appoint a negotiating committee to act between the management and the miners. This committee was distinct from the YMA committee which operated before the strike. The new committee agreed upon the allowance for dirt for each tub sent out. This varied considerably from that in force before the strike.
Notices were posted to call a meeting in the pit yard to explain this and about 1500 men attended, more than could get into the shed. Most men present were unwilling to return to work until a Yorkshire Agreement was reached.
The meeting was very noisy and there were frequent interruptions from those who could not get inside. Eventually it was decided to adjourn and to resume at the Welfare Hall. There, the atmosphere was described as being “charged with electricity and having an air of mischief in it”.
A motion was put forward that work should not resume until the new dirt agreement was cancelled. The meeting was then adjourned again to allow a deputation to go to Barnsley to interview the permanent officials of the YMA. It was after this that the march took place and in a separate incident Mr Mettham, who had been acting as checkweighman, was attacked by a party estimated at twenty strong and knocked unconscious by a stone. The deputation returned to the adjourned meeting which had been waiting for over two hours, having also met Mr Baxter, the colliery manager, and recommended a return to work on the following day. In Yorkshire on 27 November, the Yorkshire Miners’ Association had agreed to a 7.5-hour shift with no reduction in pay. Most areas in Britain had to accept large wage reductions and eight-hour shifts.
There were other, less stressful, activities in Rossington in 1926. In the same week that the Miners’ President addressed a large crowd, the United Methodist Thanksgiving Service and the St Luke’s Church Harvest Festival took place. At the latter event, despite lean times financially because of the stoppage, the service was a great success. Gifts of fruit and flowers and the collection exceeded expectations.
A visitor to Rossington History and Heritage Group, Mr Eddie Oliver recently described his arrival in New Rossington as a five-year-old boy riding with his family and their furniture in the back of an open lorry on 5 November 1927. Mr Oliver’s father had been a miner from a small village near Durham. The District Owners’ Association in Durham had proposed harsh terms, including a 26% reduction in pay.
The Doncaster Chronicle noted a visit by Durham miners to Rossington at the height of the strike in 1926. The miners said they had been made welcome but they had been advised to leave Rossington before dark.
In December 1926 there were reports of Northumberland and Durham miners arriving at Hatfield, Thorne, Hickleton and other places in South Yorkshire. The managements of these collieries assured the reporter that the prompt employment of some of these applicants would not mean the displacement of regular employees. However, whilst managers sympathised with the aspirations of these men, a “sudden migration on wholesale lines was to be deprecated”
The men had travelled by charabanc and train but some had walked from their home area to South Yorkshire. The reporter encountered a score of disappointed men who had arrived overnight at Hickleton Colliery. They found themselves “stranded save that they hoped to stay the night in empty houses assigned to the fortunate thirty men who had secured work the day before”. Although they “did not know which way to turn” they were resolute that they would not return to County Durham.
“We set off about a hundred of us from Ryhope and Silksworth last night. We took buses to Sunderland and then the train to Doncaster. Some who had booked to Frickley had to get out at York and sleep on the station. We who came through to Doncaster arrived at about 2.20 am. A few of us started off to walk to the collieries but others of us stayed at the station until the first buses ran at 5.30 am. We had brought food with us in handkerchiefs, and we sat by fires at the brickyards, which was better than waiting in the cold. Then the manager came out and said that he could not sign any of us for another month. Now we don’t know what to do”. They were cold and shivering.
One lad had left home with six others by bicycle. They plodded through York during the day and rested for a few hours in the railway station where there were others they knew. “We shall linger a bit and see if we can find something either here at Frickley or some other pit. Hungry! Yes; but we shall meet with some friends”.
Thus ended 1926, with the miners failing to bring the owners to their knees. 250,000 miners did not get their jobs back as the stoppage had disrupted Britain’s trade. Foreign competitors had availed themselves of the golden opportunity presented by the strike. Many pits had to close because they were uneconomic to run.
 A bob was the term for one shilling which is 5p now
 Mr Oliver became an overman at the pit and lived in The Circle