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Edwardian Labour Unrest and Coalfield Militancy, 1890–1914*

  • Roy Church (a1)

For many years a consensus among historians of the Edwardian age drew a contrast between the essentially stable, liberal society of the late Victorian years, when discussion, compromise and orderly behaviour were the norm, and an Edwardian society in which tacit conventions governing the conduct of those involved in social and political movements began to be rejected – by Pankhurst feminists, Ulster Unionists, trade union militants and syndicalists. This period of crisis was so described in 1935 by Edward Dangerfield in the The strange death of liberal England, a brilliantly evocative title which, despite the lack of precision contained in the argument presented in his book, exercised an enduring influence on subsequent interpretations of British social and political history before 1914. G. D. H. Cole and Raymond Postgate reinforced this interpretation of a society in crisis, and not until Dr Henry Pelling's Politics and society in late Victorian Britain appeared in 1968 was the notion firmly rejected. There he denied that the convergence of the Irish conflict over home rule, the violence of the militant suffragettes, and unprecedented labour unrest signified either connexions or a common fundamental cause. The re-printing of Dangerfield's book in 1980 (and Pelling's in 1979) has been followed by renewed interest in these competitive hypotheses, and has led historians to re-examine the Edwardian age.

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1 For convenient summaries, see Pelling, Henry, Popular politics and society in late Victorian Britain, 2nd edn (London, 1979), pp. 147–9, and White, Joe, ‘1910–1914 reconsidered’, in Cronin, James E. and Schneer, Jonathan (eds.), Social conflict and the political order in modern Britain (London, 1982), pp. 73–5.

2 Read, Donald (ed.), Edwardian England (London, 1982).

3 O'Day, Alan (ed.), The Edwardian age: conflict and stability (London, 1979), pp. 35.

4 Meacham, Standish, A life apart: The English working class, 1890–1914 (London, 1977), p. 219; see also The sense of an impending clash: English working-class unrest before the First World War’, American Historical Review, LXXVII (1972), 1343–6.

5 Cronin, and Schneer, , Social conflict, ‘Introduction’, and especially White, ‘1910–1914 reconsidered’, pp. 75, 93.

6 Clegg, H. A, The history of British trade unions, vol. II (London, 1985), 24.

7 Pelling, , Popular politics, p. 150.

8 Morgan, Kenneth O. (ed.), Edwardian England (London, 1986), p. 97.

9 Stearns, P. N., Lives of labour: work in a maturing industrial society (London, 1975), p. 335; Price, Richard, Masters, unions and men: work control in building and the rise of Labour, 1830–1914 (Cambridge, 1980), chs. 5–7; White, , ‘1910–1914 reconsidered’, pp. 77–8.

10 Holton, Bob, British syndicalism 1900–1914: myths and realities (London, 1976), p. 20.

11 Price, Masters, unions and men, chs. 5–7.

12 White, , ‘1910–1914 reconsidered’, pp. 7985.

13 Ibid. p. 84; Brown, Phelps, The growth of British industrial relations: a study from the standpoint of 1906–14 (London, 1959), pp. 337–8.

14 White, , ‘1910–1914 reconsidered’, p. 79.

15 Meacham, , A life apart, p. 219, White, , ‘1910–1914 reconsidered’, p. 79. Gourvish, T. R. ‘Living standards’, O'Day, (ed.), The Edwardian age, quoted in O'Day's introduction, pp. 34.

16 Knowles, K. C. J. C., Strikes – a study in industrial conflict with special reference to British experience between 1911 and 1947 (Oxford, 1952), p. 145.

17 For analysis of the problems of definition and weaknesses of the official statistics on strikes see Knowles, , Strikes, pp. 299305 and Silver, Michael, ‘Recent British strike trends: a factual analysis’, Journal of British Industrial Relations, XI (1973), pp. 66–9. Also Outram, Quentin, ‘The strike data’, unpublished research paper, School of Economic Studies, University of Leeds, 1981.

18 Davidson, Roger, The labour problem in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain (London, 1985), pp. 8598, provides a detailed account of the work of the labour department of the board of trade and its predecessor the labour bureau.

19 Ibid. pp. 97–8.

20 Davidson, , The Labour problem, p. 113.

22 Davidson, Roger, ‘Llewellyn Smith, the labour department and the government growth’ Sutherland, G. (ed.), Studies in the growth of nineteenth century government (London, 1972), pp. 227–62.

23 Changes in the criteria are documented in the annual report on strikes and lock-outs as a preamble to the statistical tables.

24 See departmental labour correspondent Burnett's, John comment on the relative insignificance of “disputes of pureh local interest of a brief duration, and affecting but small numbers of persons, about which full details may not always be available, but these are so few and so unimportant that they may be treated as a negligible quantity’, Report on strikes and lockouts (1895), p. 9

25 Board, of trade Annual Report, 1897, p. XI; 1902, p. 9.

26 Cronin, , Industrial conflict, pp. 106–7.

27 Ibid, 106–7, 176.

28 Morgan, Kenneth O, ‘A time for miners to forget history’, New Society, 21 02 1985, p. 283.

29 Cronin, , Industrial conflict, p. 28.

31 Brown, Phelps, Growth of British industrial relations (London, 1959), p. 334.

32 Pollard, Sidney, The development of the British economy, 1914–80 (London, 1983) p. 13.

33 Gourvish, T. R., ‘The standard of living’, O'Day, Alan (ed.), Edwardian England (1979), pp. 26–7, 28–9.

34 Church, R. A., The history of the British coal industry, vol. 3, Victorian pre-eminence, 1830–1913 (Oxford, 1986), pp. 499503.

35 Ibid, pp. 522–41.

36 Ibid, pp. 578–80.

37 See below.

38 White, , ‘1910–1914 reconsidered’, p. 76.

39 Gourvish, , ‘The standard of living’, O'Day, Alan (ed.), Edwardian England (London, 1979), pp. 28–9.

40 Church, , History, pp. 254–5.

41 Ibid. pp. 337–8.

42 Ibid. pp. 558–60.

43 Ibid. pp. 420–2.

44 Ibid. pp. 589–90.

45 Ibid. p. 584.

47 Ibid. p. 725.

48 Ibid. p. 693.

49 Ibid. pp. 713–14, 729–30.

50 Ibid. p. 728.

51 White, , ‘1910–1914 reconsidered’, pp. 80–4.

52 Holton, Bob, British syndicalism, 1900–1914 (London, 1976), p. 202; Smith, D., ‘Leaders and led’, Hopkins, K. S. (ed.), Rhondda past and future (1979), pp. 3765; Davies, P., ‘Syndicalism and the Yorkshire mines, 1910–14’ (Unpublished dissertation, University of Bradford, 1977), pp. 150, 156.

53 Holton, , British syndicalism, 1900–1914, pp. 85–8; White, , ‘1910–1914 reconsidered’, p. 90.

54 See especially Jones, G. Stedman, ‘Working class culture and working class politics in London, 1870–1900: note on the re-making of a working class’, Journal of Social History, VII (1974), 460–98; Meacham, A life apart, ch. 7.

55 An extensive literature produced by sociologists pursues this theme, though the thesis is not universally accepted. For an historian's interpretation of mining communities see Storm-Clark, Christopher, ‘The miners, 1870–1970: a test for oral history’, Victorian Studies, XV (1971), 4974.

56 White, J., Limits of trade union militancy, p. 180.

57 An alternative comparative approach to measuring strike proneness as a persistent phenomenon in certain regions excludes the very large stoppages which were either national, inter-regional, or extensive regional. The result showed south Wales and Scotland to be relatively militant regions, but also recorded a high percentage of working days lost in Yorkshire compared with the proportion of miners employed in the region.

58 Cronin, , Industrial conflict, pp. 106–7.

60 Gregory, Roy, The miners and politics (Oxford, 1968), pp. 189–90.

* I am grateful to Drs Alan Hall and John Kanefsky, research assistants, in the preparation of data, for The history of the British coalmining industry, vol. 3, Victorian pre-eminence, 1890–1913 (Oxford, 1986), on which this article draws. Dr Joseph Melling and Dr G. R. Searle made valuable comments on an earlier version of this paper presented at the Economic History Conference at York, 1985, though they bear no responsibility for views expressed here.

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