In May 1926 a million miners were locked out by the coal-owners for refusing to accept cuts in pay and a longer working week. The Trades union Congress called a General Strike in their support but, after 10 days, they called it off with no agreement with the governmnet or coal-owners. The TUC had surrendered.
Miners and their families were now abandoned and facing months on strike with few, if any, resources. Starvation stared them in the face. On 19th May the miners’ leader A J Cook asked Marion Phillips, the Labour Party’s chief women’s officer, if it was possible to get a committee of Labour party women together to run a Flag Day for the wives and children of the locked-out miners.
Marion and her comrades took action immediately, holding their first meeting the following day at which they set up the Women’s Committee for the Relief of Miners’ Wives and Children which took over the whole work of collecting funds for relief.
The Chair was Ellen Wilkinson (Labour MP for Middlesbrough), the joint secretaries were Marion and Lilian Dawson, while Josephine Slesser was the treasurer. They were given free premises by the Parliamentary Labour Party at 11 Tufton Street, London where volunteers helped with clerical work. Supporters donated typewriters and even cars. They followed the model of Mary Macarthur during the Bermondsey strikes of 1911 and agreed to raise money for distribution in the form of food and other necessities.
They set up sub-committees: general house-to-house and other collections; Flag days (later the Mother and Babies Committee; and Entertainments;
All the principles which guided us throughout were settled at these first to meetings, and nearly every important question that had to be decided later was an emergency matter that could not have brooked delay. ..New departments grew up as time went on, new workers were absorbed. Some who had started found themselves called by home ties to other tasks, but throughout the period a wonderful comradeship reigned at Tufton Street amongst the sixty or seventy women and the dozen or so of men who gave us their services.
The Committee sent out an appeal on 20th May:
May we appeal to your readers for the miners’ wives and children who are now in desperate straits. Long periods of short time and low wages have exhausted their resources and the lock-out finds them facing actual starvation Some of the mining valleys owing to the bad trade of the last few years, are now practically famine areas.
Collection sheets were printed and were circulated to every labour Party, Women’s Section, and Women’s Co-operative Guilds as well as trade unions, churches and other organisations. Within 24 hours money started to come in. The appeal was taken to the USA by Evelyn Preston who was returning there and it was also circulated by the International Women’s Co-operative Committee.
A Welsh miners’ choir was brought to London in the first week and held concerts to raise funds, the first of many during the seven months. Lansbury’s Weekly organised a meeting on 30th May in the Albert hall to raise money. The first flag day took place on 10th June.
Ellen Wilkinson made tours of Somerset and Nottiinghamshire and from the news that came in from Women’s sections the women realised the immediate needs of mothers and babies.
As the beginning of June we developed our scheme for helping pregnant and nursing mothers, began an urgent appeal for clothes and boots and set on foot a special enquiry as to school feeding and OP Poor Relief. From then on we became both a collecting and distribution centre and our work developed to meet both needs. We had to maintain a constant pressure on public opinion and seek out new sources of contributions; to assist the Labour organizations and keep a flow of new methods of collecting to enable them to combat the efforts of coal-owners, the Government and the Tory press, who kept repeating that the needs were not urgent; to organise distribution for mother’s, babies, and the sick women and children; to deal with supplies of clothes and boots; to step in with emergency relief where the Poor Law withdrew its help; and to maintain our own supply of capable workers without drawing unduly upon the nest workers of the local area.
They raised £6,500 raised within 5 days, but said that they needed “hundreds times as much and next week we are all out to get it. And above all, we rely on the Labour women to help us to get it.”
The Daily Herald regularly featured the appeal, as well as trade union and Co-operative journals and some national press such as the Manchester Guardian. Some of the regional press – even pro-Tory ones – carried letters and press releases. Sybil Thorndike sent out an appeal as did a number of bishops including the Bishop of Manchester.
Marion Phillips estimated that a million leaflets were distributed. Miniature miners’ lamps were made and sold at 240 Lamp Days. 9000 Boots collecting cards were issued with a picture of the actual boots of a miner’s child. Many Women’s sections went door to door, collecting funds, food and other essentials.
By the end of May they were raising over £2000 a day. Donations fell after the lock-out ended so they mounted a special Christmas appeal. The fund closed on 8th January 1927 by which time the committee had raised £313,874 and spent just £10,260 in administration. The amount raised was the equivalent of over £19 million today.
Mrs Malone described the activity of the Entertainments Committee;
Starting with the object of stimulating and assisting the efforts of local Relief Committees to raise funds by means of every kind of entertainment – Concerts, Whist drives, Bazaars or anything that went best in their area – we were soon engaged on a scheme to enlist the help of the general public, outside our own Movement, through the medium of the Music Halls Movement and Cinemas throughout the country. A slide to be thrown on a screen was prepared, appealing in a few very simple, non-controversial words, for help for the women and children in the coalfields. Local Labour Parties were circularized, urging them to approach Music Hall and Cinema proprietors in their area to show the slide and if possible make an appeal from the stage.
Over 50 Miners’ choirs gave concerts and glee parties outside railway stations and factory. A number of miners’ wives from different parts of the country came to speak in London, two of whom worked with the choirs making an appeal to the public. Marion Phillips says that the women:
undoubtedly made profound impression when they spoke of the lives of people in the coalfields from personal experiences, and appreciably increased the collections wherever they went. A magnificent Women’s Meeting, when Margaret Bondfield took the chair and Sybil Thorndike was one of the speakers, was held inat Kingsway Hall in June at which five miners’ wives addressed the audience. This had been organised by the Women’s Section of the National Union of General Workers. Miners’ wives also led the procession of the London Labour women at Hyde Park in July.
A particular focus of the Committee was supporting mothers and babies. Marion Phillips estimated that 1200 babies a week were being born in the coalfields. The lead on offering support was taken by the Labour Party’s Women’s Advisory Council who in June began administering the Mothers and Babies scheme. The instructions were as follows:
“All money to be distributed in kind and, as far as possible in food. Blankets, however, may sometimes be as essential as food.”
“Each women section affiliated to you, which is in a colliery are, to form a small Committee of women, bringing in the Women’s Co-operative Guild and any religious organization they like, and Midwives, etc., they find suitable, This committee, we hope, would find out about any pregnant women of the mining area who are in need, and see that they get any extra food that is required. When the baby is born we ask this Committee to get definite and certain information as to the birth of the child, and then to look after the mother for the next two weeks, making sure that she has food and warmth.”
It was also proposed to make a special grant to invalids and sick women and children, and local bodies were asked to forward information about these. At first there were only two people, afterwards increased to four, dealing with the applications under the Mothers’ and Babies’ scheme:”
…they sat surrounded by ever–increasing mountains of parcel of clothes from the morning until ten or eleven at night, and more forms were showered upon them by every post….The Committee is very proud to recall that their original circular went out on Saturday, June 12th ; they received the first reply by return and the first cheque was posted on June 15th. Messages and telegrams arrived from anxious committees who expected their grants almost before their forms had arrived in the office, but after a time things settled down and as general rule cheques were dispatched on the same day that applications were received.
These are extracts from some of the letters they received:
“One woman came here to seek a nightdress and chemise to be laid up in. She had been in labour all night and had walked up to my house before 8 o’clock in the morning for the things . It took us all our time to get her home again. She had absolutely nothing for herself and child.”
“…I am pregnant. The children have no boots or clothes, and to make things worse we have not a bite of food in the house adn the children are crying for bread…If you visit us you will find things worse than what this letter says we are, but I have no more writing paper to say more – Please believe me.”
One miner wrote: “Your representative called yesterday and was an angel sent to help us…I thought my wife would make herself ill with worry , but since the lady came she is a different woman. My wife had plenty of sympathy, but this is the only help she has had.”
The WAC secretaries were the lynchpin of the support as Marion recorded;
They threw themselves into the struggle…and in many cases the husbands of the secretaries and even the children, took a good share of the work upon their shoulders. Many of them found their houses turned into clothes stores and could never suit down to a meal without being called several times to the door, but they bore it all with wonderful patience. ..many of the Secretaries worked twelve hours a day for weeks on end and wore their strength out.
By the end of January the Committee had distributed over £120,000 for expectant and nursing mothers, sick women and children.
Another major initiative was to provide boots for children. After appeal for funds and the support of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives they purchased over 34,000 pairs. They also set up a boot repairing scheme in September through local committees which repaired some 40,000 pairs.
During the London Dock strike of 1912 a scheme of child adoption had been very successful carried out. As the Miners’ Lock-out went on it was decided to introduce a similar scheme for miner’s children, focusing on the Kent and Somerset mining areas which were small isolated mining communities in rural areas whose Education and Poor Law authorities were vindictive. They then moved on to other areas. In all over 2,000 children were found temporary homes.
It was a complex task as they had to find host families and then arrange for the children to be brought by train with escorts and escorted back. Some children had never been on train before, some children arrived in rags or with no spare clothes. Twelve children from Somerset went to a camp at Storrington during the summer, another five went to Burston Strike School. Many went to the seaside or countryside or even abroad with their host families, with several dozen being invited stay in Norway in December and January where they all learnt to ski and some had learned Norwegian.
Marion Phillips wrote:
The hostesses came from every class of society, from those who owned motor cars to working people living in small flats, but the children seemed to fit in very readily with all. Often when they came “aunts” were very troubled about their food. They had becomes so accustomed to having little, and probably in addition arrived so tired with the journey, that at first they would eat nothing but bread and jam, to the bitter disappointment of the hostess who had been looking forward seeing them enjoy their first solid meal in weeks. One child who had not only suffered a long period of poverty, but whose home had just been burned down, was in such a neurotic condition that we arranged for her to be treated at the Tavistock Clinic for Nervous Diseases and she made a very fine recovery.
Most children were away for two months at the very least, and many did not return until the Lock-Out was over. Those of school age attended schools while they were away. Around 400 stayed on to spend Christmas with their host families. When the children went back home, their mothers often did not recognise them. A small number never returned home.
Marion says that well as improving the children’s health: It has also given people all over the country a far greater knowledge of the conditions of the mining areas. It has created new bonds between the people within and without the coalfields, and established a friendly relation we know will result in many avisit between the families in the future.
The Committee co-ordinated series of marches and procession by woman in many parts of the country in June and July.
29 May WAC West Riding held a joint rally at Hardcastle Crags. Hundreds of women came in charabancs from all over the district. As it was showery the meeting had to be held indoors and the room was absolutely packed. £5 collected for Relief committee.
14 June Over 2,000 women took part in demonstration at Alexandra Palace, Wood Green with women from across Middlesex and Hertfordshire. They came by train, tram and charabanc, bringing their lunch with them. The speakers were Arthur Henderson, MP, and Miss Minnie Pallister. After the speeches there was tea and performances by London Socialist Choir and in the Bijou Theatre by Golders Green ILP Players,
15 June large march of women in Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire with contingents of women who came from all over Nottingham and some from Derbyshire. The chief speaker was Dr Marion Phillips who spoke on the work of the Relief Committee. At the close she was presented with a Davy Lamp whose inscription read “with best wishes from the womenfolk of the Derbyshire and Notts miners.”
15 June Sheerness A procession with numerous banners, “very fresh and new,” started from the station and proceeded through the town to the Hippodrome. At least 2000 took part. Many could get into the Hippodrome. Speakers included Miss Monica Whateley and Mrs Green of Abertillery, a miner’s wife.
16 June 300 women marched in Compton, Surrey. In the morning the women were shown around the Watts picture and pottery collection. In the afternoon a meeting was held on the Common were the speakers were Mrs Bell and Lady Cynthia Moseley. The veteran pioneer Edward Carpenter was present and the women sang “England Arise”.
17 June Over 1000 women marched in Peterfield Hampshire. Women came from all over Hampshire, Southampton, Portsmouth and Bournemouth and even from the Isle of Wight. They marched with banners flying. Minnie Pallister was the main speakers.
Mary Quaile and Councillor Mary Welsh from Manchester spoke at a demonstration in Blackburn organised by Blackburn and District WAC.
With the General Strike defeated, the popular press covered the balls, presentations at court and other meaningless rituals of “The Season”. Labour Woman commented acidly:
The women of the governing classes of to-day have enjoyed the brilliancy of the season. Let them go. After all, they are of the past, lingering on the scene too long. The women of the future, the women who will help to make our country great, not with “seasons” but with all-the-year-round happiness, are to be found in other places. Above all amongst the women in the coalfields. Labour Woman, 1 August 1926
The North Western District WAC reported that “the Advisory Councils and the Sections have been engaged in the relief work in connection with the coal lock-out. In the districts, other than coalfields, the Sections have been raising money, holding pound days, etc to help the distress , particularly to help Bolton, where the Guardians have behaved so inhumanly. Sections have also arranged adoptions of children for the duration, and have made clothes and collected boots, clogs etc.” Labour Woman 1 September 1926
Ellen Wilkinson went to the United States to raise money for the miner’s families, speaking to trade unions and addressing strikers in Passaic. In August a delegation was invited to tour the Soviet union which included sic miners’ wives: Mrs Cook, Mrs Johnson (Nortumberland), Mrs Errington (Durham), Mrs Chester (Yorkshire) , Mrs Eddishaw (Nottingham), and Mrs Green (Wales). They spent six weeks touring the country and addressed many meetings.
Finally, as the leaves fell, the mining communities, many of them starving, were forced back to work on the mine-owners terms. Labour Woman summed up the struggle, finding hope even in bitter defeat.
Helping our Fellow Members
For nearly five months the whole strength of the Labour women of Great Britain has been thrown into the struggle against the coalowners and the Government. Outside the coalfields every effort possible has been made to collect money and clothes and food for the mining areas. Within the coalfields the women have slaved day or night to carry out the work of relief as well as gather whatever assistance they could for the national and local funds. It has been a truly heroic effort, and it has shown no weakening in spite of every force that can be brought to bear by hardship and injustice to break down their spirit. In this epic of Labour and Capital, this most terrible example of class war, Labour women have proved themselves the most magnificent fighters. They have not fought by words, but by deeds. Labour Woman, 1 October 1926
Marion Phillips wrote a book about the solidarity campaign Women and the Miners’ Lockout, The story of the Women’s Committee for the Relief of the Miners’ Wives and Children, published in 1927.The foreword was by A J Cook who wrote:
I feel at a loss to find words to express my thanks for this wonderful effort. The collection of money, clothes and boots, and their distribution to the worst areas, and their distribution to the worst areas, the arranging for choirs, bands, concerts, sales, meetings, etc., was a colossal task.
The Miners’ Lamp has become an historic problem. A new army of trained women workers was born out of the crisis. Their work in our communal kitchens will ever be remembered. When it is known that the sum of over £310,000 was collected, in addition to clothes, under conditions when so many workers were unemployed or working short time and all on low wages, the results are almost miraculous.
It is the women who made the great sacrifice. Therefore, we shall never forget how, led by Dr Marion Phillips, the Labour women all over the country with energy and devotion set themselves the task of feeding the miners wives and children.