March on Gateshead

On 17 January 1910 up to 10,000 miners from South Moor, Tanfield Lea, Annfield Plain and Stanley area of the Durham coalfield marched on Gateshead, on the south bank of the Tyne. Parading the town’s streets, they chanted slogans in opposition to John Johnson, a Durham Miners’ Association (DMA) fulltime official (who was now standing for Labour) and in support of Johnson’s Liberal rival. On the march up, a breakaway of up to 400 miners attacked Marley Hill colliery (which was working), looting and smashing windows for about an hour before moving on. On the return home from Gateshead, another group of miners attacked a colliery in Birtley, only to be surprised by a contingent of 100 police and men employed by the Birtley Iron Company waiting for them. Fierce fighting and serious injuries inevitably resulted.

These riots foreshadowed the more sustained and (in)famous incidents in Tonypandy, in the South Wales coalfield later the same year. Their repercussions were serious for Johnson, who lost his seat, polling behind the victorious Liberal and a Liberal Unionist candidate. The local press suggested that the miners’ demonstrations had had a significant impact on the result. Some historians depicted this result, and the defeat of William House, a second DMA agent and Labour candidate (who also faced hostile, but not riotous crowds) in Bishop Auckland constituency as emblematic of the Durham miner’s continued Liberal sympathies after the national federation had opted to affiliate with Labour. While it is clear that some of the leaders of the rioters in Gateshead were and remained committed Liberals in spite of the DMA’s now official Labour endorsement, these election riots were rather more about a document that these two fulltime DMA officials had signed, along with the rest of the union executive, in 1909. This was the Eight Hour Agreement, that laid out how the new miner’s eight hour day, legislated by the Liberal government, would work in the Durham coalfield. In order, the DMA executive claimed, to protect the Durham hewers’ 7-7½ hour working day (the hewer was the main coalface worker and at the peak of the miners’ hierarchy), they had accepted that colliery owners could require hewers to work an extra shift as well as to draw coal for many more hours daily. The so-called three-shift system, although already operating in about twenty newer Durham collieries before 1910, was tremendously unpopular with miners who were used to working a two-shift system. There were concerns about too much coal now flooding the markets and depressing wages (which were linked to the price of coal), about the lack of safety of working any coal mine for so many hours each day, and about the negative impact that proliferating shifts of hewers and other underground workers would have on the womenfolk expected to feed and support their men, leaving and returning home for maybe twenty hours of every day.

Given no opportunity to review and endorse and very little time even to digest the Agreement before it came into force (very likely a deliberate DMA executive tactic, the constitutionality of which was contested between protesting miners), there was widespread anger at the Agreement and mass strikes against the new three-shift systems across the Durham coalfield ensued as soon as work started in January 1910. Specifically, officials like House had been criticised for shirking his work on the Agreement in order to further his putative parliamentary career. Derwent lodge (local DMA branch) followed up criticism of this kind by urging miners in constituencies where officials were standing to think seriously before voting. On 12 January of ninety lodges represented at a mass meeting, fifty-one were striking in protest at the three-shift system, and another thirty-nine were either working ‘under protest’ or working their fourteen days’ strike notices. (Even then, the coal owners claimed that the coalfield was at 68% of normal production). These strikes were unofficial and thus placed some miners against their own fulltime union officials as well as those who continued to work, hence the fighting between fellow miners on 17 January. The South Moor miners’ leader Robert Neal vigorously defended himself from DMA officials’ claims that he was a mob leader, the protesters maintaining their verbal attacks on the DMA executive for refusing to organise a special union meeting to discuss the hated Agreement. By the day of the riots, the strikes themselves were, however, subsiding. Speakers at a protest meeting of nineteen lodges represented that day at Meadowfield recognised the dilemma for those miners still striking, many of whom had no fires in their grates and hungry children to feed. They were receiving no strike pay from the DMA. And by now even the strikers admitted that around 80% of Durham collieries were working the Agreement in one form or another.

The fall-out from the conflict, of which the riots were but part, fed ongoing coalfield discontent for years after. There was division as the lodges affected tried (unsuccessfully) to take the DMA executive to court to force it to pay out the union strike allowance that they had been denied. The DMA’s Liberal leadership, which only narrowly survived a vote of ‘no confidence’ in 1910, was left weakened and discredited as were some of the older generation of new converts to Labour like House. But the local younger Independent Labour Party activists in the coalfield also had to rethink. Their eight hour day, so positively impactful in coalfields like South Wales, had been a political burden among Durham’s coal mines’ idiosyncratically organised workforce. The minimum wage campaign of 1911-12, emerging from the conflict in the South Wales coalfield in 1910, offered them an excellent vehicle to harness this discontent and move it onto much safer and effective ideological ground.

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)

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