Black Friday, 1921

The mining dispute of 1921, writes Patrick Renshaw, was one of the most serious industrial conflicts that Britain has faced.

More working days were lost last year through industrial disputes than in any year since the General Strike of 1926. Yet this figure - around eleven million - falls far short of the 38 million working days lost in strikes in 1912.

The strikes of 1912 formed part of the wave of labour unrest that swept Britain before the First World War and, accompanied by much talk of revolution, continued afterwards during the last half century until 1926. It seems instructive to recall these events as this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of ‘Black Friday’ - a crucial event in the history of industrial conflict between the wars.

Black Friday destroyed the ‘triple alliance’ of miners, transport workers and railwaymen, created in 1914 to express and reinforce working-class solidarity. It left the miners to fight on alone for three months, until they were driven back on worse terms than they could have had at the start.

Black Friday also left a dangerous legacy: the need fot some symbolic display of unity to atone for the sins of 1921. It seemed to have come in 1925 on Red Friday - an empty triumph which in turn created a false sense of militant selfconfidence that led straight to the disaster of the General Strike.

Throughout this period, industrial unrest centred on the mining industry. Coal had always been a ‘hating trade’. Mining was unusually hard and dangerous; and though miners were paid more than many workers, their living and working conditions were much worse than most.

Mining communities were usually isolated villages, with their own attitudes and customs not shared by strangers. The colliers were tough, the coal-owners obstinate: disputes were fought without quarter asked or given. Moreover, coal was a vital commodity that entered every branch of industrial life. So coal strikes had a big impact, and sympathetic railwaymen and dockers had no trouble in recognizing ‘black’ coal and refusing to handle it.

Coal was also a symbol of British industrial greatness. It had helped make Britain the workshop of the world, and in the post-war period it was the only industry to employ more than a million men. In 1913 the industry had produced a record 287 million tons, of which 98 million tons was exported.

The owners were anxious to keep control of this rich industry, the miners determined to improve their conditions. The Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, the largest union in the country, had three vital aims: a minimum wage, national agreements and nationalization. By 1914 the M.F.G.B. had achieved the first two and also formed the triple alliance with the railwaymen and transport workers. Then, in 1917, Lloyd George’s wartime Coalition took control of the mining industry.

With the war over, and the election of 1918 won, the Government, owners and miners had to face the problem of post-war re-adjustment. The insatiable demands of the war economy had pushed up prices of all goods. Everyone assumed prices, especially coal prices, would continue to rise, when the rich export markets, closed by the war, were re-opened. Anticipating a bonanza, the coal-owners were anxious to regain their control of the mining industry.

But the miners were equally anxious not to surrender their war-time advantages; and the mere threat of united industrial action by the triple alliance in 1919 was enough to persuade Lloyd George to think again about returning the mines to private ownership. Instead, the Government appointed the Sankey Commission, on which miners and owners were represented equally, to investigate the industry and promised to honour its recommendations.

The Sankey Commission issued four reports in the summer of 1919. All recommended nationalization of royalties - the money that mining companies paid the owners of the land beneath which the coal was mined - improved distribution of coal, and the creation of a ministry of mines. Sankey himself went further and recommended complete state-ownership, on the grounds that the present system, with 3,000 pits owned by 1,500 firms, was inefficient and created distrust and recrimination between masters and men.

The six miners’ representatives endorsed Sankey’s views, but went further in urging workers’ control. The owners and industrialists, of course, rejected nationalization and recommended no change in the system of private ownership.

Their only conciliatory gesture was a nod in the direction of the miners’ claim for pit committees, district councils and a national council representing owners and men. The owners agreed that these should be established to discuss questions relating to the industry, but not conditions of employment in mining - a restriction that would have rendered the councils pointless.

The fourth report, by the industrial engineer, Sir Arthur Duckham, attempted to reach a compromise between outright nationalization and unreconstructed private ownership: in each area all collieries should be acquired by district coal boards and operated by them with a limit on profits. Though this idea was not unlike the eventual structure of the industry after nationalization in 1946, it was derisively dubbed ‘Duckham and water’ by the miners in 1919 and soon vanished into limbo.

Thus there was no clear majority finding, though the reports of Sankey and the miners’ side put together commanded seven out of thirteen votes for outright nationalization. Yet Lloyd George used this lack of unanimity as an excuse for rejecting nationalization.

Instead, the Prime Minister offered some reorganization; but the miners in turn rejected this as a bribe to keep them quiet, and reorganization was dropped too. Wages remained the same, the seven-hour day was imposed by Act of Parliament and Government control prolonged. No one was happy with this kind of compromise. As the historian C. L. Mowatt put it,

‘The bitterness and the troubles of the coal mines for the next seven - or for that matter twenty-seven - years derived in great part from the feeling of both miners and owners that they had been betrayed.’

The owners, furious that the Government had come so close to conceding nationalization, were determined to stand firm and hang on to what they held. The miners, who had hoped for so much from the Commission and had made such an impressive showing at the hearings, felt cheated. Though a strike for the hypothetical cause of nationalization at some undefined future date was clearly impractical in 1919, future trouble was certain.

In 1919-20 strikes on the railways, in the docks, the Yorkshire coalfield and even the police seemed to show that revolution, which had swept Europe after the war, was possible in Britain too. The average number of workers involved in strikes and lock-outs at this time was 2,108,000, compared with an average of 308,100 between 1927 and 1939. Fighting in Ireland and India only added to the general disquiet.

‘Ministers have the “wind up” to the most extraordinary extent about the industrial situation,’ wrote the deputy Cabinet secretary, Tom Jones, at the start of 1920. ‘From a meeting yesterday I came away with my head fairly reeling. I felt I had been in Bedlam. Red Revolution and blood and war at home and abroad.’ Later that year, the threat of a general strike prevented the Government sending arms in the Jolly George for use against Bolshevik forces.

Yet serious trouble did not return to the mining industry until the collapse of the post-war boom in the winter of 1920-21. The expanding world demand for coal proved illusory. Coal exports fell from 98 million tons in 1913 to 70 million in 1930 to 46 million in 1939. The same catastrophic story was, of course, true of other British staple industries, such as shipbuilding, engineering and cotton textiles.

But in the 1920s coal was the only industry whose exports declined in both value and volume. Unemployment in the mines fluctuated between 300,000 and 400,000. As coal prices tumbled at the start of 1921, losses amounted to 5s. a ton, or £5 million a month between January and March. Anxious to divest itself of responsibility, Lloyd George’s Government announced it would hand the coal industry back to the owners when the present agreement expired on March 31st, 1921.

Faced with this situation when they regained control, the owners reacted in a way that seemed selfish, mean-spirited, and grasping. They might have reorganized the industry. But they were incapable of agreeing on a reorganization plan. The only economy the owners understood was lower wages.

Coal-mining was, of course, labourintensive: 75 per cent of the cost of coal was labour cost. So they posted notices at every pithead in the country announcing drastic wage cuts. These cuts - as much as 49 per cent in regions like South Wales, where profits had been hardest hit by the collapse of export markets - were not the only blow.

Worse, perhaps, the new agreement the owners offered would have destroyed the existing system of national agreements and returned to the hated old system of district rates. This meant that miners who worked at inferior pits, like those in the Forest of Dean, would earn much less than those working on richer seams in Yorkshire or Nottinghamshire.

The vexed question of national wage agreements was thus at the centre of the coal crisis in 1921. The miners refused to abandon the sanctity of national agreements; the owners argued that pits in the less profitable regions could not afford existing wage rates. The average wage of the mine-workers in Great Britain in the first quarter of 1921 was at its interwar peak of 89s. 8d. per week, and the owners said that when they resumed control this would have to be cut sharply.

The miners tried to resolve this problem by proposing the idea of a national pool. The main object of the national pool was to fix a levy on every ton of coal raised and so assist the poorest collieries by providing a national fund on which they could draw to cover any losses and meet wage bills. If it really was impossible for a very large number of companies to pay a living wage, as the owners suggested, then the only alternative to closing pits down or cutting wages savagely was to accept the national pool.

Frank Hodges, the secretary of the Miners’ Federation, who was to play the central role in the drama of Black Friday, had first proposed the idea of a national pool on behalf of the M.F.G.B. at a joint conference between the Government, the miners and the Mining Association at 10 Downing Street. Herbert Smith, the Yorkshire miners’ president, did not like the idea of the national pool.

For him it was too abstract. But he loyally accepted the Federation’s decision if it was the only way to stop crippling pay cuts or thousands of miners being thrown out of work when unprofitable pits were forced to close.

In the opinion of an independent observer, J. Parry Jones,

‘It (the national pool) was a most sensible proposition... a sane and reasonable project in harmony with... the abnormal need of the period... But even its name terrorized the nation. The alternative put forward by the owners... meant... ruthless competition.’

In short, the owners opposed the pool because they believed in the merits of competition and higher profits for the more competitive pits, even if this meant the less profitable pits would have to close and thousands of colliers be thrown out of work.

So the owners rejected the miners’ demand for a national pool to equalize wages; the miners rejected the owners’ new terms; and on April 1st, 1921 - All Fools Day - they were locked out. A week later the triple alliance called a national rail and transport strike in support of the miners to begin on April 15th. This meant more than two million men would stop work. The showdown threatened since 1919 was at hand.

On the Government side preparations for the threatened national strike were far more forceful than in 1919. Lloyd George declared a state of emergency, called up eighty-thousand special constables and made some ominously effective military preparations, placing machine-gun posts at some pitheads. On the union side the prospect looked less pleasing.

The economic situation made 1921 a time for caution. The post-war boom had collapsed, and by the summer two million were jobless. Clearly, this was no time for a national strike. Moreover, the solidarity of the triple alliance was more apparent than real.

True, the transport workers were led by one of the most promising and effective members of the rising generation of labour leaders, Ernest Bevin, whose masterly advocacy of the London dockers’ case had won him the nickname ‘the dockers’ K.C.’ Like J. H. Thomas, the railwaymen’s leader, Bevin was destined to hold Cabinet office in future Labour Governments; like Thomas he was doubtful about the success of a national strike in 1921.

Herbert Smith, the laconic and intransigent miners’ leader, might urge his comrades in the triple alliance to ‘Get on t’field. That’s t’place’; but for all his notorious opportunism (indeed, because of it), Thomas was a much shrewder judge than Smith of the tactical situation in 1921 and the need for the utmost caution on the union side. His own railwaymen were far from united, as the 1919 railway strike had hinted, and the 1924 strike was to make abundantly clear.

Moreover, the railwaymen, the transport workers and the dockers were becoming tired of always having to support the miners. A handful of determined pickets could defend a pithead against strikebreakers almost indefinitely. Goods yards and dockyards, transport depots and miles of railway track were much more vulnerable and impossible to picket effectively for long.

Frank Hodges, the miners’ secretary, recalled that Thomas had declared that he had once led a rail strike which had lasted eleven days and ‘said it as though it were some wonderful and unique experience. It was - for him. But for the miners, whose strikes are very rarely less than three months... the strike or lock-out is no exceptional thing.’ Or, as Thomas put it succinctly, ‘The mines are blackleg proof. The railways are not.’

Despite his fighting talk, Hodges himself was leery about the situation in 1921; and it was Hodges, not Thomas or Bevin, who destroyed the brittle union loyalty and became the Judas-figure of Black Friday. The nub of the whole problem was the miners’ proposal of the national pool. Hodges in fact had been the chief architect of the pool proposal, which had now become M.F.G.B. policy, despite opposition from Herbert Smith and others.

Hodges now seemed to be using the idea for all it was worth. The Cabinet met on April 12th, in the absence of the Prime Minister who was ‘almost entirely occupied with negotiations with regard to the industrial crisis’, now less than a week away.

Deputizing for Lloyd George, the Lord Privy Seal, Sir Austen Chamberlain, told the Cabinet he had seen the Prime Minister, who reported that he had seen ‘Mr Hodges, whose attitude indicated extremist leanings, and who was forcing to the front the question of the national pool.’ Chamberlain said that while a national pool of profits with uniform wages in all districts was quite out of the question, a national settlement with wages varying in different districts could not be excluded.

The Prime Minister agreed wholeheartedly, and a document had been prepared arguing that while a compulsory pool was impossible ‘without the resumption of complete and permanent control by the State of the Mining Industry’, a voluntary pool would break down. In any case, the document continued, pooling must result in inefficient and uneconomical working of the industry.

National negotiations, it concluded, combined with varying district rates of wages was the only practicable method of dealing with the present difficulty. In consequence, when the triple alliance reassembled the following day, it was faced with a complete breakdown of negotiations. The miners were still demanding a national wage settlement and the pooling of a proportion of the surplus as an indispensable condition of such a settlement.

The Government had definitely ranged itself alongside the owners against national settlement and in favour of district settlements, while denouncing the demand for a national pool as an attempt by the miners to use industrial action to secure a political end: the nationalization of the mining industry.

In these circumstances there seemed nothing for the triple alliance to do but to re-issue the strike call and set the date for April 15th. The Government claimed this was really a political threat.

Announcing plans for calling up the Reserve and forming a Volunteer Defence Force, Lloyd George argued that ‘the desperate character of this policy’ revealed itself in the M.F.G.B.’s refusal to give adequate guarantees about the safety workers and pump men. In fact, all the miners had done was to refuse the Government’s demand that the safety question must be settled before negotiations could be resumed.

The safety question, like the political strike, was another Lloyd George canard, a turnip-ghost with which he hoped to terrify public opinion. Despite reports from some coal-owners that ‘miners were going about in gangs of 2,000 strong... frightening the men at the pumps’, the safety men worked normally almost everywhere throughout the three-month mining strike of 1921.

In the same way, to the workers, support for the miners in 1921 (and later in 1925 and 1926 itself) was simply sympathetic action on a large scale, not a deliberate political threat like the projected general strike of 1920 during the Jolly George affair. But the Government had stumbled on the ‘constitutional issue’, which was used with such potent effect during the General Strike.

Despite this, public opinion in 1921 was clearly swinging behind the miners. The abortive negotiations had at least had the result of making the actual wage reductions which the owners were trying to impose on the miners more widely known.

They were too drastic for anyone reasonably to expect that they would be accepted. Even the Minister of Labour, Dr T. J. Macnamara, agreed in Cabinet. ‘A drop from 80s. to 44s. is a bit thick,’ he told Chamberlain. ‘Give them the hope that their case is going to be examined.’ Yet the Prime Minister went on talking in apocalyptic terms.

‘It is plain,’ he told the Commons, ‘that the Executive Committee of the Miners’ Federation are resolved to let the mines go to destruction in the belief that they will intimidate the Government into surrender to their demands...

The nation is, for the first time in its history, confronted by an attempt to coerce it into capitulation by the destruction of its resources, and this menace is apparently now to be supplemented by a concerted plan to suspend the transport services which are essential to the life of the country.’

Lloyd George concluded, ‘The cause of the present dispute is being represented in some quarters as a deliberate attack upon the wages of the worker. There is no justification of any kind for this suggestion. The Government have never pronounced any opinion, nor have we formed any, upon the rates of wages which have been offered to the miners by the coal-owners.’

But in private the Prime Minister was singing a different tune. Discussing the appeal for a Defence Force in Cabinet, Lloyd George told his Cabinet colleagues, ‘Must be careful in saying “not out to break wages down” - sooner or later got to have wages down’. Yet at the same time Lloyd George was clearly working, as only he could, for some kind of settlement. He was well aware of the doubts and divisions on the union side.

‘I don’t think J. H. Thomas knows where he is,’ he told the Cabinet, ‘or he would have been along to see me. He wants no revolution. He wants to be Prime Minister. He does not want to be a commissary for Bevin.’ His opinion of his fellow-Welshman was not very flattering. ‘Thomas is all for peace,’ he declared, ‘he does not want a row to please Hodges. I have complete confidence in Thomas’s selfishness.’

Lloyd George’s prediction proved remarkably accurate. Only two days before the strike was due to start Thomas, on behalf of the railwaymen, had written to the Prime Minister conveying his union’s unanimous decision to strike on Friday, April 15th, at 10.0 p.m.

The imminent strike threat stimulated would-be mediators to try to bring the two sides together again. An influential group of Unionist M.P.s, who feared the House had played too small a part in trying to resolve the crisis, invited owners and miners to argue their case before them. So on Thursday, April 14th, two meetings took place at the Commons.

In the afternoon Evan Williams, chairman of the Mining Association, put the owners’ case, but his over-bearing manner left many members dissatisfied. In the evening, however, Frank Hodges put the miners’ case and created a much more favourable impression. He laid stress on the demand for a national settlement backed by a national pool and temporary aid from the Government. He dealt faultlessly with a barrage of questions until about 11.30 p.m., almost at the end of the meeting.

Then came the crisis-point of the whole dispute. In reply to a question (which Hodges afterwards said he believed had been carefully prepared) he was understood to say) that the miners were prepared to consider a temporary settlement of wages quite apart from the question of the national pool. This answer was in flat contradiction to the policy of the M.F.G.B.; but none of the members of the miners’ executive present dissented.

Hodges believed he was helping the triple alliance to support the miners. The triple alliance had never liked the pool; and simplifying the conflict to a dispute over wages might make it easier for the railwaymen and transport workers to back the miners. But his answer had the reverse effect. Some M.P.s, scarcely able to credit what Hodges had said, rushed round to 10 Downing Street and woke the Prime Minister.

Sitting in pyjamas and dressing gown, and shaking the sleep from his head, Lloyd George quickly got his shrewd tactical brain to work and dictated a letter to the miners’ executive which would exploit this new split in the labour ranks under the camouflage of offering to re-open negotiations immediately. He invited them to meet representatives of the Government and the mine-owners the following day at 11 a.m.

At 9 am - thirteen hours before the strike was due to begin - railway and transport union executives met at N.U.R. headquarters in Unity House. It was an ironic choice: unity was about to dissolve. The miners were conferring in another room and would join them shortly. At first, there was optimism in the air. Hodges’s vision the night before still seemed attainable; the potential power of the triple alliance might have done the trick, as it had in 1919.

But as the minutes slipped by, optimism slowly waned and was replaced by deepening gloom. The miners failed to meet the Government and the owners at 11 am Forty-five minutes later the crucial miners’ meeting broke up angrily: Herbert Smith announced that they were turning down the Prime Minister’s offer to re-open negotiations and were returning to their Russell Square headquarters to draft a reply. All Smith would say by way of explanation was his old favourite, ‘Get on t’field. That’s t’place.’

It transpired that the miners had repudiated Hodges’s statement of the night before, but only by a majority of one. Unity House was now in the grip of bedlam, with angry miners, railwaymen and transport workers pacing the passages shouting at each other. Hodges was slumped over a desk weeping. Thomas pursued Smith across the Square; but the miners’ leader was past persuading. Later Thomas, Bevin and other union leaders, completely demoralized, called on Cabinet representatives.

The miners themselves were so deeply divided that there could be no question of a sympathetic strike. Facing these defeated men, the Prime Minister passed Tom Jones a note, ‘It is not enough to have a good cause’. Jones replied, ‘You must have good leaders’, and Lloyd George responded sanctimoniously, ‘I’m sorry for the miners - they’re a patriotic lot. I’m not heartless enough for this sort of thing.’

By the afternoon a semblance of calm had returned to Unity House and at 3.0 p.m. Thomas trotted blithely down the steps to greet eager reporters with the news, ‘It’s all off boys.’ It was not hard to tell that Thomas was relieved. Such was Black Friday: it was the end of the triple alliance.

After the collapse of the triple alliance the way was open for the rise of a new body which could claim to speak for the mass of trade unionists. So the general council of the T.U.C. became more important. Thomas knew that with the mines no longer under Government control his railwaymen and Bevin’s transport workers could no longer be used to get the miners better terms.

They could not coerce the mine-owners as they had once coerced the Government. They could threaten the Government; and the Government could offer to mediate between owners and miners. But that was all. Thomas and Bevin had been as eager as Lloyd George for new negotiations. The refusal had come from the miners.

But Thomas and Bevin knew also that the triple alliance lacked the unity to make the threatened strike a reality in April 1921; and, like Hodges, they were blamed for this realism. With their aggressively working-class manner, they were sufficiently buoyant to survive the flood-tide of hostility that came crashing down on them after Black Friday. Pursued at public meetings with cries of‘Jimmy’s selling us’, Thomas would turn to his would-be tormentors and say,‘I’ve tried boys, believe me I’ve tried. But I couldn’t get a buyer.'

Bevin for his part, suspicious of the new authority of the general council of the T.U.C., tried to revive the triple alliance, but without success. But Black Friday was the end of Hodges as far as the miners were concerned. He resigned as M.F.G.B. secretary to enter Parliament and take a junior post in MacDonald’s first Labour Government. When the Government fell at the end of 1924 his place had been taken by A. J. Cook - a man who was as militant as Hodges was moderate.

Hodges later received a sinecure on the Central Electricity Generating Board, became a director of several coal and iron and steel companies, and died a rich man in 1947 - ‘an interesting example,’ as A. J. P. Taylor puts it, ‘of how THE THING, as Cobbett called the entrenched English system, looks after its own. What discredited Hodges with the miners was his making in other circles.’

Although this is a familiar episode, several problems remain. Who asked the crucial question at that meeting of Unionist M.P.s which elicited the fatal answer from Hodges? If, as Hodges later concluded, the question was carefully prepared, who took part in the preparations? Was it Bevin and Thomas? Or was it Lloyd George? Or was it all three together? Or did Hodges himself plant the question?

Since a question about the national pool was certain to come up at the meeting, why had Hodges and Smith not prepared an agreed answer? And if Hodges’s reply that night was such a repudiation of M.F.G.B. policy, why did Smith and the other miners’ representatives present at the meeting not repudiate Hodges? In the end came the extraordinary spectacle of Hodges undermining his own policy on the pool and Smith, who had always opposed the idea of the pool, defending it to the bitter end.

The miners fought on alone for three months through the summer of 1921 and then were forced back to work on far worse terms than they could have had before Black Friday. Their average pay fell from 89s. 8d. a week in the first quarter of 1921 to 58s. 10d. in the fourth - a drop of 34 per cent in nine months. They never forgave Hodges. In a way they were wrong to blame him.

The view of Black Friday as a date of shame was romantic - understandable, in view of the desperate, doomed struggle that the collapse of the triple alliance forced the miners to undertake - but romantic all the same.

In reality, Black Friday marked a clash between two kinds of labour strategy - the old strategy of class-war, harsh and implacable, fought without quarter asked or given on either side; and the new strategy of compromise and even of partnership, heralded by the rise of the T.U.C. general council in place of the triple alliance after 1921. It took the failure of the General Strike in 1926 for the new approach to be tried in the Mond-Turner talks.

For the moment, the past seemed to have triumphed. Hodges, Thomas and Bevin, who spoke for the future, appeared to have been discredited. Smith, and Hodges’s successor, A.J. Cook, who both spoke for the past, had won a kind of victory, albeit a Pyrrhic one. When the miners were forced back to work in July, the only remnant of Government concern they salvaged from the wreck of their hopes was a subsidy of £10 million, which lapsed in September before it had all been spent.

The coal industry was now firmly back in private hands; Smith and the intransigents were leading the miners; all seemed set at some future date for a fight to the finish. By the end of the year it was clear that Black Friday had set the pattern. Wages fell heavily in every industry during the ‘employers’ offensive’ - the only period in British industry when money wages fell at all fast.

For what the miners, indeed what the entire labour movement, needed desperately after 1921 was some triumphant display of unity to wipe out the shame of Black Friday. It came four years later on July 30th, 1925 - Red Friday. But this apparently effortless victory was not the end of the story. This came with the General Strike in 1926 and ended in crushing defeat for the miners and organized labour.

1 Since no shorthand note was made there is some doubt about what Hodges actually did say, though none about the effect it had on certain M.P.s. For a full account see Frank Hodges, My Adventures as a Labour Leader (London, n.d.), 133-4, Hodges’ testimony at the Miners’ Special Conference, April 22nd, 1921, and G. D. H. Cole, Labour in the Coal-Mining Industry (London, 1923), 211-12.