Election Violence, or Political Violence during an Election?

One hundred and ten years ago this month, County Durham witnessed a rather different form of political turmoil to that experienced in the December 2019 general election. On the evening of Wednesday 26 January 1910, Horden miners attacked the colliery manager’s residence. Police protecting the building baton-charged miners, leaving one man seriously hurt. An imprecise press report added that a boy was ‘injured by a gun shot’. The managers’ house was ‘much damaged’ and his car was ‘hurled over a cliff’. Though the police managed eventually to repulse the attack on the managers’ house, disorder continued and ‘it was deemed advisable to secure the arrival of the military by special train’. As during the Gateshead riots, the pithead was also attacked with baulks of timber, coal tubs and other debris hurdled down the pit shaft. Rioters proceeded to loot the miners’ social club, smashing every window and breaking up its fixtures. As Horden had no pubs, the social club was the only place in the village that sold alcohol. The rioters ‘made a raid on the liquor’, carrying off  small casks and bottles and opening the larger casks in the cellar. Many of them were soon ‘the worse for liquor’. The caretaker’s house was also wrecked. The next day, Thursday 27 January, a number of men returned to the looted social club and set fire to it, for good measure. This was the final act of the 1910 Horden riots.

Horden was a new settlement a few miles north-west of Hartlepool and a model of the new, more productive eastern seaboard Durham colliery working deeper, richer, coal seams. Only recently opened, by summer 1907 it was drawing 1,500 tons of coal per day from two pits, an output which was expected to more than double when fully operational. Its lodge, like those of similar new collieries dotted along the North Sea coast (such as Dawdon, and, from 1911, Easington) were soon controlled by militants (and ordinarily identifiable ILP activists). In 1908, Lambtons, the colliery owners (the fourth earl of Lambton had been a Liberal MP for the constituency since 1880, moving to the Conservative party via Liberal Unionism by 1910), opened a social club. Costing them around £8,000, it offered local miners the opportunity to engage in various leisure activities. Its destruction in the January 1910 riots was a graphic symbol of the breakdown of paternalism in the locality.

The first day of riot, 26 January, was also polling day in the South-East Durham constituency, and the local press attributed the Horden riot to election violence. But, like the disturbances in Gateshead, Marley Hill and Birtley nine days earlier, the Horden riots cannot be understood outside of the industrial context which informed them. While most miners were angry at the imposition of the new three-shift system (see my earlier blog), Horden was one of four Durham collieries (along with Shotton, Murton and South Hetton) on strike against new shift systems that were even more onerous (and domestically disruptive) – the so called ‘three-and-a-half’ and four-shift systems.

By the time of the Horden riots, there had already been trouble at Murton, one of the largest Durham collieries, with almost 4,000 men and lads. On Thursday 13 January, a handful of police prevented a crowd of up to 700 from raiding the colliery coal heaps. A week later, more coal raiding provoked violent disturbances between the police and miners, with several involved sustaining serious injuries. Naturally, these disturbances, not on polling day, were not dubbed election violence.

These four collieries stayed out longer than any others in the unofficial (i.e. not central DMA supported) strike movement against the new shift systems. On 14 March, Shotton became the first of the four to return to work after 65.3 days on strike (65 days plus one of the three hewers’, or coal getters shifts per day), essentially accepting the owners’ terms. Horden did not agree to return to work until 20 April 1910. There were recriminations in the aftermath aimed at the DMA officials for allowing the anti-four shift miners to be ‘starved into submission’, in spite of the unofficial support of individual Durham lodges and other sections of their communities. Another rank-and-file cause was supporting those imprisoned over the Horden riots and their families, manifest in funds and a petition calling for a reduction of the rioters’ prison terms.

While the riot had resulted in the loss of their building, the Horden miners simply took out a central DMA loan of £2,000 in June 1911 to pay for their own miners’ building. But they failed that year in an effort to make the DMA more militant by reducing the requirement of a two-thirds to a simple majority vote of miners to take united district strike action. Leading Horden activists remained prominent, however, in the ILP’s campaigns for a minimum wage and, when it was won in 1912, for it to be increased significantly. In April 1914, there was a meeting of the ILP-led rank-and-file ‘Durham Forward Movement’ in Horden, protesting at the freezing of the minimum wage at a time of rising miners’ wages. The Horden lodge chairperson remarked ‘I don’t believe in strikes but I say this, if we cannot get on constitutionally, I would say “Strike, men, before we starve” (applause)’.

For more on the 1910 conflicts in the Durham coalfield, what happened next, and its significance to wider debates about the rise of Labour, see Lewis H. Mates, The Great Labour Unrest: Rank-and-file movements and political change in the Durham coalfield (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016) https://manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781526145604/

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