The Coal Industry: 1914-1921 (Classroom Activity)

On the outbreak of the First World War, the former miner's leader, Keir Hardie tried to organize a national strike against Britain's participation in the war. He issued a statement that argued: "The long-threatened European war is now upon us. You have never been consulted about this war. The workers of all countries must strain every nerve to prevent their Governments from committing them to war. Hold vast demonstrations against war, in London and in every industrial centre. There is no time to lose. Down with the rule of brute force! Down with war! Up with the peaceful rule of the people!"

Arthur J. Cook, a leading figure in the MFGB in South Wales was a strong opponent of the war. He was especially angry about the willingness of the government to spend such large sums on the military where they had been slow to deal with the problems of working-class poverty. In one article for the Porth Gazette, he argued "we must do our duty as trade unionists and as citizens to force the Government, who in one night could vote £100 millions for destruction of human life to see that justice is meted out to these unfortunates".

It was very important for the government to avoid strikes during the war and with the help of the Labour Party and the Trade Union Congress an "Industrial Truce" was announced. A further agreement in March 1915, committed the unions for the duration of hostilities to the abandonment of strike action and the acceptance of government arbitration in disputes. In return the government announced its limitation of profits of firms engaged in war work, "with a view to securing that benefits resulting from the relaxation of trade restrictions or practices shall accrue to the State". A. J. P. Taylor, has described these measures as "war socialism".

Primary Sources

Leonard Raven-Hill, Delivering the Goods (1915)
(Source 1) Leonard Raven-Hill, Delivering the Goods (1915)

(Source 2) Tom Hughes, interviewed by John Simkin about working as a miner (1985)

You go into the cage and then you drop to the pit bottom. You go so fast that halfway down you feel like you're going up again. It's important to clear the men quickly off the surface ... everybody had to be down by seven. When you are at the pit bottom you have to walk about 3 miles to the coal-face. You then pick up your tools - you have to supply your own tools, hatchet, sledge-hammer, a saw if you wanted one and two shovels (one for you and one for your boy).

You crawl down to whatever position you are on the coal-face, usually about 120 yards, dragging your tools with you. You need to crawl because it was only about 2 feet high. I worked in a team of 22 men plus 22 boys. We had to pay the boys out of our money.

(Source 3) Arthur J. Cook, The Merthyr Pioneer (15th April, 1916)

Daily I see signs amongst the working class with whom I move and work of a mighty awakening. The chloroforming pill of patriotism is failing in its power to drug the mind and consciousness of the worker. He is beginning to shudder at his stupidity in allowing himself to become a party to such a catastrophe as we see today. The chains of slavery are being welded tighter upon us than ever. The ruling classes are over-reaching themselves in their hurry to enslave us... Economic conditions are forcing the workers to think; the scales are falling from their eyes. Men are wanted to give a lead. Comrades I appeal to you to rouse your union to protect the liberties of its members. An industrial truce was entered into by our leaders behind our backs which had opened the way for any encroachment upon our rights and liberties. Away with the industrial truce! We must not stand by and allow the workers to be exploited and our liberties taken away.

(Source 25) 12 year-old John Davies at work in the Rhondda (1909)
(Source 4) 12 year-old John Davies at work in the Rhondda (1909)

(Source 5) Arthur J. Cook, The Merthyr Pioneer (3rd March, 1917)

I am no pacifist when war is necessary to free my class from the enslavement of capitalism... As a worker I have more regard for the interests of my class than any nation. The interests of my class are not benefited by this war, hence my opposition. Comrades, let us take heart, there are thousands of miners in Wales who are prepared to fight for their class. War against war must be the workers' cry.

(Source 6) Captain Lionel Lindsay, Chief Constable of Glamorgan, report to the Home Office (24th November 1917)

It was only reported to me by a Recruiting Officer last night that A. J. Cook, the agitator from the Lewis-Merthyr Colliery, Trehafod, Glamorgan, who I have frequently reported for disloyal utterances, without success, openly declared, whilst denouncing the Recruiting Authorities at Pontypridd, that if he decided that a man should not join the Army the Military Authorities would not dare to send him... Anyone with the slightest knowledge of human nature must be well aware that to punish a conceited upstart of this type, especially when he is a man of no real influence, like Cook, always gives universal satisfaction.

Savile Lumley, Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?
(Source 7) Savile Lumley, Daddy, what did you do in the Great War? (1914)

(Source 8) Arthur J. Cook, speech in Ynyshir (20th January 1918)

Are we going to allow this war to go on? The government wants a hundred thousand men. They demand fifty thousand immediately, and the Clyde workers would not allow the government to take them. Let us stand by them, and show them that Wales will do the same. I have two brothers in the army who were forced to join, but I say "No!" I will be shot before I go to fight. Are you going to allow us to be taken to the war? If so, I say there will not be a ton of coal for the navy.

(Source 9) Captain Lionel Lindsay, Chief Constable of Glamorgan, report to the Home Office (24th November 1917)

As promised I enclose a list of the ILP and advanced Syndicalists employed at our collieries, who are really the cause of a good deal of the trouble in this part of the coalfield, not only at our own collieries, but also in the neighbourhood. Of this lot, Cook is by far the most dangerous. As he considers himself an orator he has most to say at the various meetings in the district, and without exception, the policy which he preaches is the down-tool policy, and he is also concerned with the peace-cranks.

(Source 10) J. F. Martin, The Government and the Control of the British Coal Industry, 1914-1918 (1981)

In at least two important respects the First World War constitutes an historical turning point for the British coalmining industry. Firstly, coal production, which had increased almost without interruption since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, declined rapidly during the war years. Secondly, it marks the beginning of a period of extensive and unprecedented state intervention in the industry...

There is little doubt that during the course of 1917 the government did begin to show signs of appreciating the seriousness of the labour problems in the coal industry and consequently attempted to persuade the military not to recruit any more miners.

The decline in the amount of coal extracted per man-shift and the reduction in the number of shifts worked per year were part of a common cause, namely the decline in the physical ability of the male workers in the industry. To a large extent this was an inevitable legacy of the recruitment of large numbers of men in the early stages of war. Most of the miners who enlisted were in fact the youngest and fittest members of the industry. Thus it can be rightly assumed that their removal had a disproportionate effect on the remaining men's ability to produce coal, apart from the fact that the industry lost its highest productivity workers.

(Source 11) Earnings and Food Prices for Selected Years: 1900-1922
Year Nominal Wages


Retail Prices

Real Wages

1900 100.0




1912 103.4




1914 107.4




1916 125.7




1918 189.9




1920 278.2 2.4% 301.3 92.4
1922 185.1 15.4% 164.3 81.2


(Source 12) George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)

Before I had been down a mine I had vaguely imagined the miner stepping out of the cage and getting to work on a ledge of coal a few yards away ... If it is a mile from the pit bottom to the coal-face, that is probably an average distance; three miles is a fairly normal one; there are even said to be a few mines where it is as much as five miles. But these distances bear no relation to distances above ground. For in all that mile or three miles as it may be, there is hardly anywhere outside the main road, and not many places even there, where a man can stand upright... Of course, the 'travelling' is not technically work and the miner is not paid for it; but it is as like work as makes no difference.

The time to go there (to a coal mine) is when the machines are roaring and the air is black with coal dust, and when you can actually see what the miners have to do. At those times the place is like my own mental picture of hell. Most of the things one imagines in hell are there - heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air and, above all, unbearably cramped space.

(Source 13) A young boy working down a coalmine (c. 1918)
(Source 13) A young boy working down a coalmine (c. 1918)

(Source 14) Isador Lubin and Helen Everett, The British Coal Dilemma (1927)

If (mine-owners) seldom raise their voices against the hideous unsanitary hovels which every visitor to English and Scottish mining towns has seen; if they never paint the hopelessness of childhood, the lack of opportunity for education, the calamity of illness, accident and old age; if they do not focus on these miseries it is not because they are indifferent to human suffering. The explanation lies rather in the fact that the owners believe that private enterprise yields to the workers as large a measure of the good life as is possible in this moment of civilisation. It is in the labourers' advantage

(Source 15) British Coal Output and Value
Year British Total Output

British Total Value

1910 264.4


1911 271.9


1912 260.4


1913 287.4


1914 265.7


1915 253.2 157.8
1916 256.4 200.0
1917 248.5 207.8
1918 227.7 238.8


(Source 16) Arthur J. Cook, speech (June, 1925)

We want nationalization. First, for the sake of economic security, and secondly, because we want safety. Under private ownership our men are murdered. Safety is not the first consideration, but the last... Sixty per cent of the accidents are preventable. Explosions ought to be a thing of the past... the men who run the mines run them from London simply for profit, and safety is the last consideration.

(Source 17) Recommendation number 9 of the Sankey Commission (1919)

Even on the evidence already given, the present system of ownership and working in the coal industry stands condemned, and some other system must be substituted for it, either nationalization or a method of unification by national purchase and/or joint control.

Questions for Students

Question 1: How do sources 4 and 13 help to explain what Tom Hughes says in source 2?

Question 2: Read sources 3, 5 and 8 and explain why the police (sources 6 and 9) kept a close watch on Arthur J. Cook during the First World War.

Question 3: How does source 7 help to explain why so many young miners joined the armed forces on the outbreak of the First World War?

Question 4: Why were miners exempted from the 1916 Conscription Act during the First World War?

Question 5: Study sources 10 and 15. Explain why there was a decline in the amount of coal extracted per man-shift in 1917.

Question 6: Study source 11. Nominal Wages refers to the amount of money paid to workers such as the miners. Real Wages on the other hand takes into consideration the effect of factors like inflation. For example, if someone's wages went up by 10% (e.g. from £120 to £132 per week) but the cost of living, including Retail Food Prices, went up by 15%, the person would actually be 5% worse off than they were the previous year. How did the First World War effect "nominal wages", "unemployment", "retail prices" and "real wages"? Give reasons for these changes.

Question 7. Arthur J. Cook, was general secretary of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain. Why did Cook and other union members demand the nationalising of the coal industry after the war?

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.