Coal Face-offs

Conflict has always been integral to capitalism. The contradictory relationship between employers and employed erupts periodically into often bitter, at times deadly, conflict. Workers have banded together to fight for their mutual interests only to be met by intimidation and even physical force on behalf of employers, often by the forces of the state.

2024 is the 40th anniversary of the most recent protracted struggle against a blatantly determined government bent on nothing less than breaking the power of trade unions in general, the National Union of Mineworkers in particular.

Miners have long been at the forefront of struggles for better wages and working conditions. An industry bedevilled by very obvious dangers benefitted from the close communities generated. However, such social, and political, solidarity was always perceived to be a threat by mine owners and state alike.

One hundred and fifty years previous to the Great Strike, in 1832, the Durham and Northumberland coalfields were riven by collier strikes and belligerent responses to those industrial actions. An instance of this was the Battle of Goose Green in Gateshead. A strike by miners was met by a direct attempt to break it by employers bringing in unemployed lead miners from other areas of the country. They needed to be housed, so the owners resorted to evicting the striking miners and their families from their tied housing. Unsurprisingly there was determined resistance which resulted in armed special constables being deployed to enforce the evictions.

When some of that force were disarmed by miners, who then had weapons they could use, they became a significant threat. This resulted in troops from a barracks in Newcastle being sent to extinguish this act of rebellion. A clear example of the state deploying its forces to protect the interests of capital, in this case, mine owners.

In the same year, Cuthbert Skipsey, a pitman at Percy main colliery, near Tynemouth, was shot and killed outside The Pineapple, a pub in the village of Chirton, North Shields. It was an incident highlighting the difference in treatment a miner might expect from the authorities, compared with when a victim was of the authorities, such as a magistrate.

Cuthbert Skipsey was generally regarded as quiet and inoffensive. A meeting of striking miners taking place in Chirton was confronted by special constables and what was described as an affray ensued.

It seems that Cuthbert stepped forward intending to diffuse an explosive situation. Whether his action was genuinely misunderstood or there was malice, one of the constables, George Weddle drew a pistol and shot Skipsey.

The death of the respected collier, and the subsequent plight of his wife and eight (or 6, accounts vary) children was, unsurprisingly, the cause of outrage in the community. This resulted in Weddle’s arrest. His trial, on 3 August, and conviction for manslaughter lasted 12 hours and led to a sentence of six months imprisonment with hard labour.

Previously, on 1 August, another collier, William Jobling, was found guilty of killing Nicholas Fairless, a magistrate. He was sentenced to death, his body to be hung in chains near the location of the crime.

The death of Cuthbert Skipsey had a rather unlikely outcome. His family was plunged into poverty, his children being expected to do whatever they could to ease their dire circumstances, such as gathering nettles for the cooking pot.

Newly born around the time of his father’s death, Joseph Skipsey, aged 7, became employed, in what had been his father’s workplace, Percy Main Colliery, as a trapper. Twelve hour shifts underground opening and closing trapdoors used to control air flow to, hopefully, prevent the build-up of gases.

As it was just hewers digging the coal, the only work activity that was actually directly paid, at the face who had any light. So a trapper would spend his or her shift in complete darkness. A situation from which a phrase was coined that is still in use; ‘so-and-so’ is not worth the candle.

From such an unpromising beginning Joseph went on to become a poet, friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Oscar Wilde and others of the literary world. He became secretary of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society, Custodian of Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford upon Avon and recipient of an annual pension awarded by Queen Victoria.

There was a somewhat tenuous link between Joseph and the Queen. On 16 January 1862 at Hartley Colliery, near Whitley Bay, the huge arm of the steam pumping engine sheared off and fell into the single shaft of the pit, effectively sealing it.

204 men and boys were trapped and perished. Joseph Skipsey marked this tragedy by writing The Hartley Calamity, a 25 stanza ballad poem. He toured the area giving readings to raise money for the widows and orphans. Queen Victoria, on learning of this tragedy, pressed her ministers to legislate to outlaw single shaft pits. From then all mines had to have at least two ways in and, more importantly two ways out.

A life that began in tragedy commemorated one tragedy amongst so many in that industry. Coal mining serves as an exemplar of the impact of capitalism on working class lives, too often the premature losing of those lives.

Of course, the situation in mining changed from the nineteenth century to the twentieth, as it did in wider society. Engels had recognised when he wrote about the condition of the labouring masses that the state would have to intervene to bring some stability to capitalism by curbing its worst excesses.

While the depredations of capitalism were mitigated they have not been, and cannot be, erased altogether. The nationalisation of coal mining did a great deal to improve the conditions in which miners laboured. However, the portrayal of nationalisation as a socialist act was and is grievously mistaken. It could not be possible for miners to take strike action in 1972, ’74 and then 1984-5 if they, as workers, were the owners of the industry. They would have been striking against themselves.

Even if miners had become the mine owners, the rest of the working class would have been excluded from that ownership, which would have been effectively private. A non-mine worker wanting coal to meet a need for fuel would not have had free access to it.

The miners’ strike laid bare how the state and its legal system will always be stacked against the working class acting on its own behalf. Until that is workers realise that only by dispossessing capital of the means of wealth production and deploying those means mutually to meet their own needs.

Until that happens then, in the words of Joseph Skipsey:

Not rest or peace, but toil and strife,

Do there the soul enthral;

And turn the precious cup of life

Into a cup of gall.

(From The Stars are Twinkling)


Next article: Horrorscope revisited ⮞

One Reply to “Coal Face-offs”

  1. I looked up the ‘ Battle of Goose Green’ and, naturally, the internet just spat out reams and reams of info about the Battle of Goose Green which occurred during the Falklands War in 1982. If you are wanting more info about the 1832 event, look up the Battle of Friars Goose.

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