Arthur J. Cook

Arthur J. Cook

Arthur James Cook, the son of a soldier, was born in Wookey, Somerset, in 1883. Cook was raised as a Baptist and by the age of sixteen he acquired the title of "the boy preacher". A devout teetotaller he was attracted to Socialism as he saw it as a natural expression of his Christianity.

In 1899 Cook moved to Merthyr Tydfil to seek employment in the coal mines. He joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and became an active member of the National Union of Mineworkers. In 1910 he played a leading role in the Cambrian mining dispute that resulted in the Tonypandy Riots.

According to Christopher Farman, Cook was: "A wild but hypnotic orator, whose revolutionary fervour was flavoured with the religious revivalism of his days as a Baptist lay preacher, his pithead meetings drew crowds even greater than those which had listened to Keir Hardie. Cook was a mirror-image of every miner's frustrations and yearnings. In private conversation often in tears himself when describing the privations of the miners, Cook was able to produce an astonishing effect on an audience." Farman described how Lord Sankey "once stood at the back of a crowded miners' meeting to hear Cook speak. Within fifteen minutes half the audience was in tears and Sankey admitted to having the greatest difficulty in restraining himself from weeping."

Beatrice Webb, one of the leaders of the Fabian Society, was not so kind in her description of Cook: "He is a loosely built ugly-featured man - looks low-caste - not at all the skilled artisan type, more the agricultural labourer. He is oddly remarkable in appearance because of his excitability of gesture, mobility of expression in his large-lipped mouth, glittering china-blue eyes, set close together in a narrow head with lanky yellow hair - altogether a man you watch with a certain admiring curiosity ... it is clear that he has no intellect and not much intelligence - he is a quivering mass of emotions, a mediumistic magnetic sort of creature - not without personal attractiveness - an inspired idiot, drunk with his own words, dominated by his own slogans. I doubt whether he even knows what he is going to say or what he has just said."

Cook was a strong advocate of industrial action and was the co-author of a well-known Syndicalist pamphlet, The Miners' Next Step (1912). It stated: "That the organisation shall engage in political action, both local and national, on the basis of complete independence of, and hostility to all capitalist parties, with an avowed policy of wresting whatever advantage it can for the working class."

A. J. Cook was also a supporter of workers' control of industry: "Today the shareholders own and rule the coalfields. They own and rule them mainly through paid officials. The men who work in the mine are surely as competent to elect these, as shareholders who may never have seen a colliery. To have a vote in determining who shall be your fireman, manager, inspector, etc., is to have a vote in determining the conditions which shall rule your working life. On that vote will depend in a large measure your safety of life and limb, of your freedom from oppression by petty bosses, and would give you an intelligent interest in, and control over your conditions of work. To vote for a man to represent you in Parliament, to make rules for, and assist in appointing officials to rule you, is a different proposition altogether."

Cook was opposed to Britain's involvement in the First World War and took part in the campaign against conscription. He joined the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF) and in 1918 he was arrested and charged with sedition, under the Defence of the Realm Act. He was found guilty and sentenced to three months' imprisonment.

A. J. Cook with Ramsay MacDonald
A. J. Cook with Ramsay MacDonald

In 1919 Cook was appointed miner's agent for central Rhondda. Cook had been impressed with the achievements of the Bolsheviks following the Russian Revolution and in April 1920 he joined forces with Tom Bell, Willie Gallacher, Arthur McManus, Harry Pollitt, Helen Crawfurd and Willie Paul to establish the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). However, in 1921 Cook left the CPGB over disagreement over industrial policy and rejoined the Independent Labour Party (ILP).

In 1924 Harry Pollitt was appointed General Secretary of the National Minority Movement, a Communist-led united front within the trade unions. Pollitt worked alongside Tom Mann and according to one document the plan was "not to organize independent revolutionary trade unions, or to split revolutionary elements away from existing organizations affiliated to the T.U.C. but to convert the revolutionary minority within each industry into a revolutionary majority." Cook and a large number of miners also joined this organisation.

Later that year Frank Hodges, general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers was forced to resign following his appointment as Civil Lord of the Admiralty in the Labour Government. Cook went on to secure the official South Wales nomination and subsequently won the national ballot by 217,664 votes to 202,297.

Fred Bramley, general secretary of the TUC, was appalled at Cook's election. He commented to his assistant, Walter Citrine: "Have you seen who has been elected secretary of the Miners' Federation? Cook, a raving, tearing Communist. Now the miners are in for a bad time." However, his victory was welcomed by Arthur Horner who argued that Cook represented “a time for new ideas - an agitator, a man with a sense of adventure”.

A. J. Cook making a speech
A. J. Cook making a speech

Will Paynter was one of Cook's supporters but admitted that he "did not regard him as a good negotiator at pit level." However, like other South Wales miners he considered him a "master of his craft on the platform... I attended many of his meetings when he came to the Rhondda and he was undoubtedly a great orator, and had terrific support throughout the coalfields."

In 1925 the mine-owners announced that they intended to reduce the miner's wages. The General Council of the Trade Union Congress responded to this news by promising to support the miners in their dispute with their employers. The Conservative Government, decided to intervene, and supplied the necessary money to bring the miners' wages back to their previous level. This event became known as Red Friday because it was seen as a victory for working class solidarity.

The Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, stated that this subsidy to the miners' wages would only last 9 months. In the meantime, the government set up a Royal Commission under the chairmanship of Sir Herbert Samuel, to look into the problems of the Mining Industry. The Samuel Commission published its report in March 1926. It recognised that the industry needed to be reorganised but rejected the suggestion of nationalization. The report also recommended that the Government subsidy should be withdrawn and the miners' wages should be reduced.

The month in which the report was issued also saw the mine-owners publishing new terms of employment. These new procedures included an extension of the seven-hour working day, district wage-agreements, and a reduction in the wages of all miners. Depending on a variety of factors, the wages would be cut by between 10% and 25%. The mine-owners announced that if the miners did not accept their new terms of employment then from the first day of May they would be locked out of the pits.

It soon became clear that Cook would play an important role in the proposed strike. David Kirkwood remarked that: "Arthur Cook, who talked from a platform like a Salvation Army preacher, had swept over the industrial districts like a hurricane. He was an agitator, pure and simple. He had no ideas about legislation or administration. He was a flame. Ramsay MacDonald called him a guttersnipe. That he certainly was not. He was utterly sincere, in deadly earnest, and burnt himself out in the agitation."

Kingsley Martin saw Cook make a speech on 26th April 1926. He recorded in his diary: "Cook made a most interesting study - worn-out, strung on wires, carried in the rush of the tidal wave, afraid of the struggle, afraid, above all, though, of betraying his cause and showing signs of weakness. He'll break down for certain, but I fear not in time. He's not big enough, and in an awful muddle about everything. Poor devil and poor England. A man more unable to conduct a negotiation I never saw. Many Trade Union leaders are letting the men down; he won't, but he'll lose. And Socialism in England will be right back again."

A Conference of Trade Union Congress met on 1st May 1926, and afterwards announced that a General Strike "in defence of miners' wages and hours" was to begin two days later. The leaders of both the Trade Union Council and the Labour Party were unhappy about the proposed strike, and during the next two days frantic efforts were made to reach an agreement with the Conservative Government and the mine-owners.

The Trade Union Congress called the General Strike on the understanding that they would then take over the negotiations from the Miners' Federation. The main figure involved in these negotiations was Jimmy Thomas. Talks went on until late on Sunday night, and according to Thomas, they were close to agreement when Stanley Baldwin broke off negotiations. The reason for his action was that printers at the Daily Mail had refused to print a leading article attacking the proposed strike. The TUC negotiators apologized for the printers' behaviour, but Baldwin refused to continue with the talks. The General Strike began the next day.

The Trade Union Congress adopted the following plan of action. To begin with they would bring out workers in the key industries - railwaymen, transport workers, dockers, printers, builders, iron and steel workers - a total of 3 million men (a fifth of the adult male population). Only later would other trade unionists, like the engineers and shipyard workers, be called out on strike.

On the 7th May, Sir Herbert Samuel, Chairman of the Royal Commission on the Coal Industry, approached the Trade Union Congress and offered to help bring the strike to an end. Without telling the miners, the TUC negotiating committee met Samuel and worked out a set of proposals to end the General Strike. These included: (1) a National Wages Board with an independent chairman; (2) a minimum wage for all colliery workers; (3) workers displaced by pit closures to be given alternative employment; (4) the wages subsidy to be renewed while negotiations continued. However, Samuel warned that subsequent negotiations would probably mean a reduction in wages. These terms were accepted by the TUC negotiating committee, but were rejected by the executive of the Miners' Federation.

On the 11th May, at a meeting of the Trade Union Congress General Committee, it was decided to accept the terms proposed by Herbert Samuel and to call off the General Strike. The following day, the TUC General Council visited 10 Downing Street to announce to the British Government that the General Strike was over. At the same meeting the TUC attempted to persuade the Government to support the Samuel proposals and to offer a guarantee that there would be no victimization of strikers. This the Government refused to do. As Lord Birkenhead, a member of the Government was to write later, the TUC's surrender was "so humiliating that some instinctive breeding made one unwilling even to look at them."

On 21st June 1926, the British Government introduced a Bill into the House of Commons that suspended the miners' Seven Hours Act for five years - thus permitting a return to an 8 hour day for miners. In July the mine-owners announced new terms of employment for miners based on the 8 hour day. The miners were furious about what had happened although the General Strike was over, the miners' strike continued.

Will Paynter remained loyal to the strike although he knew they had no chance of winning. "The miners' lock-out dragged on through the months of 1926 and really was petering-out when the decision came to end it. We had fought on alone but in the end we had to accept defeat spelt out in further wage-cuts." By October 1926 hardship forced men to begin to drift back to the mines. By the end of November most miners had reported back to work. However, many were victimized and remained unemployed for many years. Those that were employed were forced to accept longer hours, lower wages and district agreement. Cook wrote his own account of the strike, The Nine Days (1926).

To many trade unionists, Walter Citrine had betrayed the National Union of Mineworkers. Under the leadership of Citrine, the TUC developed a new approach to industrial disputes. As one historian has argued: "His intention was not, as during the general strike, to coerce the government, but rather to make the unions reliable partners in negotiation with employers and the government of the day."

In 1927 the British Government passed the Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act. This act made all sympathetic strikes illegal, ensured the trade union members had to voluntarily 'contract in' to pay the political levy, forbade Civil Service unions to affiliate to the TUC, and made mass picketing illegal.

Arthur James Cook died aged 47 on 2nd November, 1931.

Primary Sources

(1) A. J. Cook, The Miners' Next Step (1912)

Today the shareholders own and rule the coalfields. They own and rule them mainly through paid officials. The men who work in the mine are surely as competent to elect these, as shareholders who may never have seen a colliery. To have a vote in determining who shall be your fireman, manager, inspector, etc., is to have a vote in determining the conditions which shall rule your working life. On that vote will depend in a large measure your safety of life and limb, of your freedom from oppression by petty bosses, and would give you an intelligent interest in, and control over your conditions of work. To vote for a man to represent you in Parliament, to make rules for, and assist in appointing officials to rule you, is a different proposition altogether.

Our objective begins to take shape before your eyes. Every industry thoroughly organized, in the first place, to fight, to gain control of, and then to administer, that industry. The co-ordination of all industries on a Central Production Board, who, with a statistical department to ascertain the needs of the people, will issue its demands on the different departments of industry, leaving to the men themselves to determine under what conditions and how, the work shall be done. This would mean real democracy in real life, making for real manhood and womanhood. Any other form of democracy is a delusion and a snare.

Every fight for, and victory won by the men, will inevitably assist them in arriving at a clearer conception of the responsibilities and duties before them. It will also assist them to see, that so long as Shareholders are permitted to continue their ownership, or the State administers on behalf of the Shareholders, slavery and oppression are bound to be the rule in industry. And with this realization, the age-long oppression of Labour will draw to its end. The weary sigh of the overdriven slave, pitilessly exploited and regarded as an animated tool or beast of burden: the mediaeval serf fast bound to the soil, and life-long prisoner on his lord's domain, subject to all the caprices of his lord's lust or anger: the modern wageslave, with nothing but his labour to sell, selling that, with his manhood as a wrapper, in the world's market place for a mess of pottage: these three phases of slavery, each in their turn inevitable and unavoidable, will have exhausted the possibilities of slavery, and mankind shall at last have leisure and inclination to really live as men, and not as the beasts which perish.

(2) Will Paynter, My Generation (1972)

The secretary of the miners' union was, at this time, A. J. Cook, an eloquent agitator, who coined the slogan around which all miners rallied: "Not a penny off the pay; not a minute on the day." Cook had been a union leader at the colliery next down the valley to where I worked and we heard much of his exploits there as a fighter for wages and particularly for pit safety. He later became a miners' agent for the Rhondda, and I remember discussing his work as an agent with the officials of the Cymmer lodge some years later, when I became a member of the committee. They supported his candidature for national secretary in 1924, but did not regard him as a good negotiator at pit level. He was, however, a master of his craft on the platform. I attended many of his meetings when he came to the Rhondda and he was undoubtedly a great orator, and had terrific support throughout the coalfields. He frequently said: "When you hear that A.J. has been dining with royalty, he will have deserted you." When he came back to Porth just after dining with the Prince of Wales, he was accused by the men at the meeting of having broken faith with them. These men were largely from the pit where he had previously worked and their accusations must have hurt him deeply.

(3) Christopher Farman, The General Strike: Britain's Aborted Revolution? (1974)

A wild but hypnotic orator, whose revolutionary fervour was flavoured with the religious revivalism of his days as a Baptist lay preacher, his pithead meetings drew crowds even greater than those which had listened to Keir Hardie. Cook was a mirror-image of every miner's frustrations and yearnings. In private conversation often in tears himself when describing the privations of the miners, Cook was able to produce an astonishing effect on an audience. Lord Sankey, a High Court Judge who chaired the Royal Commission on the mining industry in 1919, once stood at the back of a crowded miners' meeting to hear Cook speak. Within fifteen minutes half the audience was in tears and Sankey admitted to having the greatest difficulty in restraining himself from weeping.

(4) Kingsley Martin saw A. J. Cook, the leader of the miners, make a speech on 26th April, 1926. That night he wrote about Cook in his diary.

26th April, 1926: Cook made a most interesting study - worn-out, strung on wires, carried in the rush of the tidal wave, afraid of the struggle, afraid, above all, though, of betraying his cause and showing signs of weakness. He'll break down for certain, but I fear not in time. He's not big enough, and in an awful muddle about everything. Poor devil and poor England. A man more unable to conduct a negotiation I never saw. Many Trade Union leaders are letting the men down; he won't, but he'll lose. And Socialism in England will be right back again.

(5) Beatrice Webb, Diaries, 1924-32 (1912)

He is a loosely built ugly-featured man - looks low-caste - not at all the skilled artisan type, more the agricultural labourer. He is oddly remarkable in appearance because of his excitability of gesture, mobility of expression in his large-lipped mouth, glittering china-blue eyes, set close together in a narrow head with lanky yellow hair - altogether a man you watch with a certain admiring curiosity ... it is clear that he has no intellect and not much intelligence - he is a quivering mass of emotions, a mediumistic magnetic sort of creature - not without personal attractiveness - an inspired idiot, drunk with his own words, dominated by his own slogans. I doubt whether he even knows what he is going to say or what he has just said.