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A.J. Cook Tells His Own Story

Arthur J. Cook

This autobiographical account by the then secretary of the Miners Federation of Great Britain was serialised in the magazine Tit-Bits during April and May 1926. The General Strike intervened and the series was never completed.


MY LIFE-STORY, in my own opinion, is worth telling only because it is in its essentials the story of a whole social class. There may be in my career incidents, turning-points, encounters, and even achievements which do not occur in the life of everyone born, like me, in a working-class environment.

I have had a more interesting and exciting life than most, I have lived for days and nights under intense pressure, at the centre of turbulent events; I have been in prison; I have contended against able and powerful men with every faculty of mind and spirit that I possess. I have been ridiculed and pilloried in the public Press more often, perhaps, than any man of my years; I have achieved the final glory of a public nickname – "Emperor" Cook! But all this would matter very little to the world at large if it concerned myself alone. It possesses significance and value only as an epitome of many hundreds of life-stories which will never be written.

I am a soldier’s son. My father was in the 21st Lancashire Fusiliers, and I was born "on the strength" at Wookey, near Wells, in Somerset, in 1884. I was the eldest of ten children. My mother was a wonderful woman. At the age of thirteen she lost her leg in an accident but she married and followed my father from camp to camp, wherever the regiment was stationed, living in the married quarters in barracks, and bringing up her large family of three sons and seven daughters on a soldier’s pay.

My father served the full term of twenty-one years, and retired with the small military pension then allowed to long-service soldiers. Much of my early life was spent in barracks and I began my education in the regimental schools. Part of the time, during my early years, the regiment was stationed in Ireland, and I remember my mother bringing me back on the boat, and taking me to her mother’s home, at Cooksley, a still smaller village in Somerset, near where I was born.

For years I lived with my maternal grandmother, who was also, by the way, my aunt; for, being left a widow, she married a second time, and chose for her husband my father’s brother, thus becoming (by marriage) aunt to her own grandchildren!

Cooksley, where we lived, is a name of some significance to my family. It means "the land of the Cooks", and it was literally so in my grandfather’s day, for he was the squire! I am not exactly a landed proprietor myself, but it affords me an innocent pleasure to think that my ancestors enjoyed that privilege, all the more because my only contact with the land was as a farm-boy, scaring crows, and helping in all the work of the farm.

I went on that farm at the age of twelve. Whilst living with my grandmother I obtained a sort education at the village school, and I am not going to disparage it because it left me to start life very ill-equipped with knowledge. In its modest way it was a good school, and it did its best for me and the other boys and girls of the village. My real education began after I left school. The farmer for whom I went to work was my real schoolmaster. He was a poor man, and a Radical – almost the only Radical in a village of Tories. He took an interest in me, and taught what to read. My first book was one he gave me – Smiles’ Self Help.

I stayed on that farm for some four years working seven days a week for 2s. 6d., and all the spare time I had – I slept on the farm – was spent in reading. My employer had a good many books, among them Shakespeare, some of the writings of John Ruskin, and the speeches of Bright and Cobden. These I read, and talked to the farmer about them, and something of his own vigorous and independent spirit entered into me.

As a Radical, he was not popular with the village wiseacres, or with the local squire and gentry. "Don’t be servile", he used to say. "Stand up for yourself, and give respect to honest merit, not to money and social status." Tame and commonplace sentiment enough, perhaps, but it was bold and revolutionary in those days and it got me into trouble when I practised this teaching upon the agent, or steward, of the local landlord. This gentleman found occasion once to correct my incipient Radicalism with his riding whip. I forget the details of my offence, but I remember the thrashing, and I cannot say that it encouraged me to order myself "lowly and reverently" to my social superiors.

My Radicalism brought me into conflict, too, with the vicar, and through him with practically all the boys of his church. I did not like the vicar. I thought he had chosen the wrong vocation; he should have been a drill sergeant. I liked him still less after an encounter with him one day.

It was his custom, on Ascension Day, to get all the children of the village to church for a service. Meeting me in the road one day he demanded my name. "Arthur Cook, sir", I said, respectfully. "Oh, you are Cook, are you?" he said. "I’ve heard about you, young man! You just remember to come to church on Ascension Day. I’ll have something to say about it if you dare to stay away." I had no insuperable objection to going to church, but I was not going under orders. However, I said nothing, but pulled my forelock in the usual manner, and he passed on.

Ascension Day came, and the boys and girls went to the church. But I was not among them; neither were two or three other boys whom I had led astray by my subversive opinions about parsons who thought they had the right to rule the village. When the vicar discovered I was not in the church he became extremely angry, and as soon as the service was over he came in search of me. I was sitting on a wall with my companions in crime.

"Why weren’t you boys at church?" he exclaimed, as we slid from the wall. "You, Cook, I told you specially! What d’you mean by defying me? You young scoundrel, you’re the pest of the place! You are corrupting the mind of every boy in the village, and I’ll have you driven out. You shan’t stay here."

Emboldened by the presence of the other boys, I muttered: "I’m not bound to go to church if I don’t want to. You can’t make me go." For a moment I thought he meant to strike me. He turned purple in the face with fury, and roared: "Out you go! I won’t have you in the village! I’ll drive you out! You hear, boys? That young scamp’s got to go, and I will not have you talking to him." And he stamped off.

My first fight occurred that same evening. When the vicar had gone I was surrounded by the boys and some of the girls, too, jeering and laughing at me. I was not prepared to fight the entire company of the Church Lads’ Brigade, but I made an offer to fight any one of them, and one boy took up the challenge. We circled round and round amid the yells of the other children, until with a lucky blow made his nose bleed, and that ended the fight.

It was a long time before the vicar’s hostility to me died down. He did his best to give me a name in the village, but my employer gave me protection, and encouraged me to attend chapel as a form of protest against the tyranny of the Church. Later I began to take an active part in the work of the village chapel. I was baptized at thirteen, and only three or four weeks ago I received a letter from the man who baptized me. Before I left the place and – and I was under sixteen when I set out for Wales – I was leader of the Band of Hope movement for the whole county, a school teacher, and a preacher.

I was at that time greatly attracted by the idea of entering the ministry, then the objective of many ambitious, intellectually inclined youths of my age. Politics and Trade Unionism were almost unknown to me, and certainly I never dreamed of a career in connection with either.

My first sermon, indeed, might well have been my last attempt at public speaking if I had allowed failure to daunt me. I remember to this day the trepidation with which I faced the ordeal. But I was in earnest, and I thought I was equal to it. For a week before the date fixed for my first appearance in the pulpit "on trial", I worked at my sermon, writing out every word of it and committing it to memory. What I had written took me fully twenty minutes to read. But when I tried to reel it off in the pulpit the machine stuck and would not let it unroll. I said all that I could think of saying in about eight minutes, and came to a standstill with a mind and memory absolutely empty of ideas. So I sat down. The preacher who, according to custom, was designated to accompany me in the pulpit until had proved myself capable of taking the whole of the service alone, rose to the occasion and took charge of the remainder of the proceedings, whilst I sat enveloped in gloom, recalling – too late – splendid passages I had meant to deliver.

How differently my life might have developed if I had remained in my native village and continued as a farm labourer until I had contrived to find my way to college and so into the ministry of the Church, I can only faintly imagine.

My political convictions were unformed. The ferment of discussion which went on at this time within the organized Labour movement had no significance for me or for the people among whom I lived. We lived in a back-water.

The year of my birth was the year which saw the establishment of the first Socialist organization, but Socialist propaganda did not penetrate to Somerset when I lived there. Such political discussion as I heard, except from my Radical farmer, was concerned with the old political parties – the Labour Party had yet to be born. In the Trades Union Congress, Keir Hardie, Ben Tillett, Will Thorne, Tom Mann, and the other leaders of what is now known as "The New Unionism" were fighting for the new ideas. I knew nothing about the new ideas. I did not even know that there was a Trades Union Congress. I knew by heart many of the Moody and Sankey hymns, but not a word or a note of "The Red Flag". If anyone had spoken to me of the gospel of Marx I should have taken it to be a reference to the New Testament!

But the time had arrived for me to learn about these things. My employer could not afford to pay me the wage I should have been getting as a strong youth of fifteen. Farm work did not attract me and I made no attempt to find it or any other farm in the district. My father had been ill for a long time, and my mother was carrying the burden of a large family. I resolved to seek work in the pits of South Wales, where many Somersetshire labourers sought it when farm work failed.

I had saved five pounds. With this small fortune in my pocket, and with all my belongings tied up in a red handkerchief, I turned my face to Wales and left the green fields of Somerset to spend twenty-one years of hard labour underground.

* * * *


THE MINERS of South Wales, when I entered the coalfield more than a quarter of a century ago, were not as strongly organized as they are today. They were, in fact, divided. Their older leaders like "Mabon" (William Abraham) were at issue with younger and more militant leaders, conspicuous among whom at that time was William Brace, now the Right Hon. William Brace, Labour Adviser to the Ministry of Mines, then acting as a miners’ agent for a small branch of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain in Monmouthshire, with a salary of £1 6s. 8d. a week.

Such matters were, however, too much for me in my early days among the miners. I was a raw farm lad, not yet sixteen, and my first concern was to find work and a lodging. Work I obtained at the Trevor Pit, at Porth, in the Rhondda Valley; lodgings I found, by accident, with a fellow Baptist, who kept me for a time in the old atmosphere of religious activity.

My first day underground made an ineffaceable impression upon me. From the moment I entered the "cage" at the Pit-mouth, carrying my "billy" and "tommy-box" – a can containing cold tea and a covered tin containing food – I was in a state of fright. The sudden sinking feeling at the pit of the stomach which one gets when the cage starts to go down remained with me the whole time I was underground.

On reaching the pit-bottom I was agreeably surprised to find the place lighted, warm, and very secure-looking, on account of the brick archway or tunnel that had been made, beneath which were the stables for the ponies. But the brickwork did not extend far, and when we set off into the workings I soon found myself walking, bent almost double, beneath a jagged, heavily timbered roof, scrambling in places over big boulders, and sliding down inclines to crawl through holes, on hands and knees.

When we reached our stall, or working place, I looked round with amazement at the small forest of timber-posts propping up the roof. In the dim light of the lamps I could see the glistening black seam upon which we had presently to set to work.

But before we began, my "butty" (work-mate) decided that we should have something to eat, and we sat down side by side with our lamps on the ground. I opened my tommy-box" and set it on the ground beside me, and when I turned to it a moment later I was horrified to see that the top slice of bread was literally black with moving creatures, a fearsome sort of cockroach or beetle which gets underground in the pit timber.

My shivering horror attracted my butty’s attention and then he laughed. "Drat the fowls", he said, "they are very greedy today." He warned me never to let my food-box stay uncovered, and always afterwards I held it on my knees; but that did not keep the cockroaches out of the box, for in some mysterious way they seemed to get in even when the box was closed. One got quite used to shaking the loathsome things off the food – and taking care not to bite off a cockroach in a mouthful of bread – though that has happened, too!

After our "snack", we set to work, at least my butty did, with mandrel and crowbar, whilst I stood by and watched; presently I was filling coal into the trains, helping to move stones, and making myself useful.

Then a terrible thing happened. From the next stall came a crash of falling stone and a dreadful cry of agony. My butty stood for a moment motionless, and then, dropping his tools, he rushed out to the next stall. I followed him, and the sight I saw I shall never forget. Beneath an immense fall of rock from the roof lay our neighbour, with his limbs twitching in the last death-throes. Beside the "fall" was his boy, white-faced beneath the grime, too horrified to move.

Other men came hurrying from different parts of the coal face, and the man was extricated from the "fall". He was dead, smashed up. They carried him out into the main roadway and laid him down whilst they waited for the stretcher. None could be found, and at last the poor battered body had to be carried on the shoulders of the men to the pit-bottom. As the news spread through the mine, all work ceased and the workers trooped down the roadways towards the shaft. The body was placed in the cage and we went up with it to the light of day.

At the pit-top a stretcher was waiting and in silence the body was laid upon it and covered with a piece of canvas. Four men raised it upon their shoulders, and the procession moved off, growing longer as the men poured out of the pit, as fast as the cages could bring them up. The heavy tramp of the miners’ feet brought anxious faces to the doors of the houses that we passed-that measured, rhythmic sound which the miners’ wives know is the miners’ passing-bell. I remained with my butty close to the four men carrying the body, and I entered with them the house where the wife of the dead man, her face a mask of tragedy, waited for his last home-coming, with five small children crying broken-heartedly around her.

That scene comes back to me often. The tragedy struck home to me. I spent a sleepless night, picturing in my mind the whole scene afresh, frightened at the thought of having to descend the pit next morning. Nevertheless I went down next day, and so did the poor boy whose butty had been killed before his eyes; men must work and women must weep, for there’s little to earn and many to keep ...

At that time, or a little later, the religious feelings of the population in the mining valleys of South Wales were deeply stirred. It was the period of the Welsh Revival, a strange emotional upheaval which marked the climax of the influence of conformity in the coalfield.

For weeks and months the Welsh valleys rang with hymns and prayers by day and night. This is the literal, and exact truth. Day by day, the miners were at work below ground, the chapels were thronged with their womenfolk and by men working the late shift; by night, the miners themselves, some still in their pit clothes and with the grime of the pit on their faces,, crowded every place of worship. Hour after hour the singing of hymns and impassioned praying went on; there was practically no preaching and the ministers of the churches, at the height of the Revival, were one with their congregations, lost to all sense of time and making no attempt to observe the established order of the religious service.

The pastor of one church, whom I knew, a great preacher in the Welsh tongue, spent thirty-six hours prostrate on the steps of his own pulpit in a total abandonment to the spirit that laid hold of his people at the Sunday morning service. All day long the people stayed in their pews, singing, praying; many never went home for meals till late in the night, others went and returned; and all through the Sunday night and on through Monday into the next night, until the dawn of the Tuesday morning, the preacher stayed, foodless, whilst the chapel filled and emptied and again. There were never fewer than a hundred people there throughout the thirty-six hours, and at times the place was so full that no person could enter. And when at last, in sheer physical exhaustion, the preacher went home, he stopped to join a little circle of praying miners on the hill.

A party of colliers, on their way to work in the morning, would stop on the hillside to hold a prayer meeting, and to pray for the conversion of men by name. The same thing would take place in the pit. And the moving, heart-searching singing and impassioned prayers would echo down the galleries of the mine and reach the men in distant part of the workings until they, too, began to sing and pray.

Only those who participated in the Welsh Revival can realize what a profoundly stirring experience it was. Was it more than an emotional orgy? I am sure it meant more. It had very little intellectual content – the addresses of its acknowledged leader, Evan Roberts, were not remarkable for vigour of thought or depth of understanding; yet the movement had far-reaching moral effects. It swept the Valleys clean of many evils, if only for a time, and many men sunk in drunkenness and debt pulled up and turned a new leaf.

To me, an ardent young preacher, the Revival, whilst it lasted, was all I thought worth living for; it filled my thoughts and kept me tense and absorbed. I am not a Welshman, except perhaps temperamentally, and towards the end of the Revival a certain faculty of scepticism and critical judgement asserted itself in me. I realized that as a popular movement the Revival was an abnormal and aberrant manifestation of the spirit of the Welsh people, and that this powerful current of feeling flowing as a strong tide produced astonishingly little change in the fundamental economic and industrial facts of the miner’s life. It did, indeed, divert the attention of the miners from these facts. And that, as I was beginning to see, was wrong.

I entered the pit soon after the great industrial struggle of 1898, which lasted for six months. Probably not one miner in ten among the 100,000 engaged in the great six months’ lock-out of 1898 belonged to any Trade Union organization. The unions that did exist were for the most part localized organizations covering a group of pits. The Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, formed whilst I was still an infant – I am actually four years older than the Federation of which I am secretary – had a few branches in South Wales, but as the Federation was formed in opposition to the sliding-scale system ruling in South Wales and other districts, it had not made much headway up to the time when I entered the coalfield. One result of the embittered struggle about the sliding-scale was the formation of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, affiliated to the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain.

It is difficult even for me to realize now that great developments were then taking place without awakening in me a true appreciation of their meaning for the Labour and Trade Union movement.

Still, the militant Trade Union spirit of my fellow-miners began to affect me. Like every other miner in the Rhondda, the great mass meetings held at the "Rocking Stone" on Pontypridd Common held an irresistible attraction for me. What the plinth of the Nelson monument in Trafalgar Square is to the London worker, the "Rocking Stone" is to the Rhondda miner. I shall never forget the first demonstration I witnessed. It was held at night, and the flaring torches carried by numbers of the men flung weird shadows upon the immense concourse. Deep in the heart of the crowd a bell was being rung, and from where I stood on the outskirts of the meeting I could hear, faint and mournful, a human voice. It was too far off for me to hear what was being said, and every now and then it was drowned altogether by the great bell swung by the chairman as a demand for silence.

Standing on the edge of that vast assembly that night, I felt the tremendous force of the mass feeling that a popular orator can arouse. The power of the orator who was dealing with the daily lives and working conditions, the passions stirred in the mass meeting when these questions were the theme, were different from anything had known as a preacher. It was at the "Rocking Stone", at this torchlight meeting, that my ambition, was born.

* * * *


LEADERSHIP, or at least all opportunity to take the initiative in promoting combined action in an industrial dispute, came to me quite early during my life underground. Trouble arose in the pit where I worked over a the supply of timber. We were not getting enough pit-props to enable us to keep our working place safe. My butty and I, with the terrible accident I have described in the previous chapter still fresh in our minds, grew anxious for our own safety. Our repeated applications for more pit-props were ignored. In going to and fro in fruitless search for timber I found that others working at the "face" were in a similar position. I resolved to organize a protest.

"Let’s get out", I said to my butty. He stared at me. "You mean stop work?" he asked; "all of us?" "That’s what I mean", I answered. "Loook here; I’ll go round and fetch the others out" – and off I went from stall to stall, telling the men we had had enough of it and were going to "down tools" until we got more timber.

When we reached the surface, it fell to me quite naturally and simply, young and little-known though I was, to voice our protest. I sprang on a tram of "muck" and as the men, pouring out of the cages, gathered round, I launched into my first speech as a Labour leader. It was not a long speech, but it was emphatic and to the point. "Down there", I said, "we are risking our lives to cut coal. Only the other day one of our fellow-workmen was killed by a ‘fall’, and the same fate may befall any one if us at any moment during the day’s work. We have a right to demand from the management a sufficient supply of timber to our working places safe. If an accident happens and men are killed, the management may be held guilty only of an error of judgement; but we lose our lives."

By that speech I became known to the managers of the collieries round about as "one of those agitators". This was at that time, and for long afterwards – still is, in fact – a favourite term of abuse to fling at those who take the lead in demanding redress of grievances. We won our timber-strike, but I found myself a marked man and was soon "victimized" for the part I had played.

At that time the Miners’ Federation, with its powerful group of able and experienced men who acted ss miners’ agents for the handling of disputes, did not dominate the district. Its machinery of lodges and committees was only just established, and in many pits the Federation was only a name.

Our small dispute about the timber fell within the range of Mabon’s authority, and he hastened to take the matter in hand. With me Mabon (William Abraham) would have nothing to do. "You are too rash, boy, bach," he said; "it isn’t right to stop the pit for a small matter of this sort. You should reason with the management." And he took charge of the discussion between the management and the deputation we had appointed at our pit-top meeting.

I had my opportunity later to heap coals of fire upon Mabon’s head. As agent for the miners in the Cambrian pits, he was getting a salary of £3 a week. I and others decided that he ought to have a rise, and we presented a proposal to increase his salary by £1 a week. But Mabon came to us, very gratified about our proposal, but anxious to get us to withdraw it. "Boy, bach! Boy, bach", he said. "Our funds are not very good. I don’t want more wages. I can get £10 any time I want by delivering a week-end lecture for the Free Trade League. I save your funds that way, and everybody’s satisfied. Let it drop, there’s good boys."

First steps as an "agitator" were followed by others, which brought me into favour as a public speaker on the ILP platform.

Upon the introduction of the eight-hour shift the management in the pit where I worked insisted that men on the Sunday shift, who had hitherto worked only six hours, should work eight. This was not popular. I was still, to some extent, interested in chapel, as were a great many of my fellow-workers, and I went among them and said: "Look here, boys, this Sunday shift is bad enough at the best, but it’s utterly wrong if it means that we can’t go to chapel on Sunday night. We must protest. The Sabbath means a lot to us, and we must save some of it, anyhow. We must stick to the six hours, and get time to go home and bath and dress and go to chapel at night."

This argument prevailed. We organized effective resistance to the eight-hour shift on Sundays, but as a consequence I was a marked man. From that pit I was dismissed, and sought work elsewhere. For several months I went from pit to pit, getting a day’s work, and then being sent off with a day’s, earnings as soon as the management discovered my identity. Thus I had much time to spend in propaganda, and having some small savings I managed to keep going.

For many months before the outbreak of strife at the mid-Rhondda collieries belonging to the Cambrian Combine, controlled by Lord Rhondda, a struggle had been going on between the older and the younger leaders. Not all the older leaders, officials of the Federation, were opposed to us, however; a conspicuous exception was Mr Tom Richards, then and now Secretary of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, and a colleague of mine on the MFGB executive at this moment. Mr Richards opposed our policy in the councils of the Federation, but he never attacked us publicly, as did some of the other leaders. He used all his powers of persuasion and argument to save me from "victimization". Time after time he told managers, "You are treating this young man the wrong way from your own point of view. You are making the men turn their attention to him and listen to what he says, simply because you are victimizing him. Cook will be a leader in the coalfield one day, and you will have made him a leader by the way you treat him. You will have to face Cook in years to come in a more important position, and you’ll find him possessed of a different spirit as a leader because he is being victimized today."

No management heeded Mr Richards’s counsel, and when the big struggle came arising of the Cambrian strike I was in the thick of it.

The battle, which was to spread over the entire coalfield, and to lead to riots, pillage, baton-charges by police, and the entrance of the military upon the scene, started with the lock-out of 900 miners at the Naval Colliery on account of a dispute over the fixing of price-lists for a new seam. It was the only stoppage.

As the struggle developed I found myself involved as a member of the rank-and-file movement, scenes which grew more and more violent. We were at issue not only with the owners but with executive of the South Wales Miners’ Federation. It was a genuine mass-movement, proceeding at once in several directions: there was the strike the Cambrian pits, involving 12,000 men; there were stoppages at most of the collieries in Rhondda, Aberdare, Garw, and Maesteg valleys account of non-unionism. Over 23,000 men were idle in October of that year, and 15,000 more were working under notice.

Prominent among the militant leaders was C.B. Stanton, then miners’ agent in the Aberdare valley. A man of striking appearance, picturesque, genial, reckless, with an artistic streak in him, he was often in trouble because of his defiance of established rules of leadership and his indifference to the conventions. It was he who suggested that the most effective way of meeting a charge mounted police was for the miners to borrow their wives’ clothes-props and to wait the charge with these weapons held at a particular slope.

What roused the passions of the miners to fever heat was the discovery that the mine-owners were importing workers, "black-legs", and keeping them on the colliery premises, along with a certain number of non-unionists and officials, under the protection of the police.

One serious incident in which I participated, more or less as a spectator, lives in my memory. The knowledge that the mine-owners had imported surface labour led the miners to determine upon an attack on the collieries in mid-Rhondda, and their assault eventually concentrated upon the Glamorgan colliery, where for a full night, from ten in the evening until twelve the following morning, the police were besieged in the colliery yard and offices. A hundred or more police, mounted and on foot, were on duty and stuck stubbornly to the position they held throughout the attack.

From the hillside, in the darkness, a great body of miners, armed with improvised weapons, directed their attack upon the power station. Street lights were extinguished. The fight went on in the dark. Stones were thrown, batons were used, heads were broken, clothes were torn. The defenders were rushed from their position, and retreated to the power-house, where they fought desperately. The arrival of reinforcements, composed of the Cardiff City police and a squad of Glamorgan constables, who entered the colliery premises when the fight was in progress, saved the place from destruction.

Driven off by these superior numbers, the miners, now completely out of control (if at any time outbreak so spontaneous and general could be said to have been under control), surged back through the main street where the events known as the Tonypandy riot began. In Pandy Square, where the strikers from Llwynypia had gathered in great numbers, there was a scene of pandemonium. Shop windows were broken and there was some pillaging. Women as well as men took part in the riot and many were injured. The police did not distinguish between women and men, or between, spectators and active participants.

Eventually order was restored and the miners had leisure to take stock of their injuries. More than 500 miners, it was officially acknowledged later, received injuries, and at least one was killed by a fractured skull. In the House of Commons, later, Keir Hardie charged the police with deliberate brutality and demanded an inquiry into their behaviour, but it was refused.

An incident in which I was involved happened when I was addressing a meeting. In the middle of it a lad ran up sbouting, "They’re in the dust-cart; blacklegs in the dust-cart." In a moment the crowd, amongst which there was a large number of women, turned to the new excitement, and in a few seconds understood that the management were trying to smuggle half-a-dozen men into the colliery buildings in a dust-cart. Once there, of course, they would he under the protection of military and the police. To prevent this, the crowd set off down the street, surrounded the dust-cart, and overturned it, emptying out four or five frightened men who had been hidden under tarpaulins spread over the cart.

In this the women insisted on dealing with the blacklegs themselves. Women were, by the way, in the forefront of our "white-shirt" parades – a method of dealing with non-unionists still practised in South Wales. The procedure is to go in a great procession to the house of the non-unionist, to clothe him in a white shirt, with or without other clothing, and to lead him through the town and send him off up the mountain.

I offer no comment upon these events beyond the remark that it was an unorganised and quite spontaneous upheaval on the part of the miners, suffering under a deep sense of wrong and driven to desperation by the conviction that the authorities were on the side of the owners in the struggle and were using all the forces at their command to defend the latter in their strike-breaking activities. It was a terrible time. Grave errors were committed on both sides. But only, those of us who lived through the struggle, can realize the depths of the passions that were excited, and how bitter were the memories it left behind.

* * * *


THE STORMS and tumults described in the preceding chapter were as I have already hinted, only the visible manifestations of a profound mental conflict among the South Wales miners. It was in this period that the Liberal Party lost its grip upon the working people. It was not the war, neither was it the coalition activities of Mr Lloyd George that destroyed the Liberal Party. Liberalism was broken in Wales first of all by the miners.

The miners were practically the last of the great of the great organized masses of wage-earners to join the Labour Party. Among them there was a strong minority of Liberal supporters, and when the Miners’ Federation decided in 1909 to affiliate to the Labour Party they brought over fourteen "Lib-Lab" Members of Parliament. That was the end of "Lib-Lab" politics in the Trade Unions.

All this is necessarily preliminary to my story of the great intellectual revolution which took place among the miners, involving my own career. It brought me to an important turning point in my life. I ceased to be a miner, and for twelve months enjoyed the experience of being a college student.

We who were regarded as the leaders of the rank and file were all young men, most of us unknown outside the Rhondda area. We were opposed not only to the established leaders 1ike "Mabon" and Tom Richards, Alfred Onions, and others; we were also at odds with the national leaders of the miners – the late Enoch Edwards, then president of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, Thomas Ashton, its secretary, and other officers of the Federation.

Representatives of the Miners’ Federation, W.E. Harvey and Thomas Ashton, with members of the South Wales executive, went up to the Rhondda Valley to endeavour to persuade the local strike leaders to agree to a ballot being taken on proposed terms of settlement in the Cambrian dispute. Their visit evoked a tremendous demonstration against the official leadership.

When they reached Tonypandy they were met by thousands of strikers. With difficulty, surrounded by this seething mass of excited men, the four leaders made their way through the street to the meeting place, where the strike leaders were waiting for them. On their way they must have realized that what they had to deal with was a genuine popular revolt, not an artificial agitation kept alive by "rebel" leaders in defiance of established authority. Cries of "No ballot", demands for a national strike, shouts of "Go back to England", "Keep your £3,000" greeted them. Long afterwards W.E. Harvey told me that in all his long career as a Trade Union leader he had never had such an experience. "I really believed", he said, "that at one time we were going to lose our lives. It seemed to me the strikers were entirely out of hand."

How deep the feeling was can be measured by those shouts about the £3,000. For a long time MFGB had contributed £3,000 a week, raised by a levy of 3d. a member in all the districts, to assist the South Wales miners. And certainly they needed help. The strike had then lasted eight or nine months. We were living like the inhabitants of a besieged city.

Sheep from the mountain-side used sometimes to come down into the streets – and never go up the mountain again, There was a man who used to scatter grains in his garden to attract the sheep, and then pray that a sheep should be sent that way. I have known animals thus captured to be killed in the vestry of tile chapel, and the carcass to be used in our soup kitchens. Our womenfolk went long distances on begging expeditions, bringing back vegetables, meat, and bread for the soup kitchens.

It is perhaps not surprising that the atmosphere of hostility and tension between the "rebel" leaders and the officials of the Federation continued after the strike was settled. It led to a group of us settling down to frame a scheme for the reorganization of the Federation and the framing of a militant policy. This was the group that produced the famous pamphlet called The Miners’ Next Step.

There were four of us in this group, forming what we called the Unofficial Reform Committee. Two of the four are miners’ agents in South Wales – Noah Ablett and W. Mainwaring; and with both of them I was associated at the Labour College later. The third member of the group was W.F. Hay of Reading. I was the fourth.

We came to the conclusion that what was needed in the workmen’s organizations was more direct control of the "leaders" by the rank and file; we decided that the "leaders" were only responsible for the conduct of negotiations, and that the terms of an agreement must be left to the rank and file, who must be given complete control of the results of collective bargaining. The workmen, we said, must be the "bosses", the "leaders" were to be servants.

A dozen years have passed since that pamphlet was written. But I do not think there is much in it that I would wish to unsay, or even to rewrite. I still hold the view that what a "leader" owes to those who placed him in office is the best advice, judgement, and knowledge he can give; but it is not his business to dictate to the rank and file, to threaten resignation if his advice is not accepted or if his policy is repudiated. Only when the "leader" finds that he has failed to interpret the wishes and intentions of the rank and file can there be good reason for resignation; in such circumstances no man has a right to remain in office. But to resign, or to threaten resignation, simply because the rank and file refuse to accept your policy and insist upon their right to decide their policy for themselves is not democratic leadership as I understand it.

I have no respect for a man who refuses to believe that it is possible for him to be mistaken in his judgement of affairs. A "leader" is quite entitled to think he is right, but when he finds that the rank and file do not agree with him he ought at least to consider the possibility that he may be wrong.

The Labour College in London was, and is a remarkable institution, founded by a remarkable man. It originated in a revolt of students at Ruskin College, Oxford, against the type of teaching they received, and the Principal of Ruskin, Dennis Hird, shared their sympathies. He wanted a more robust and militant type of Labour leader than he thought Ruskin was calculated to produce.

Accordingly Dennis Hird and a number of Ruskin students headed a college strike, seceded, migrated to London, where in a house at Earl’s Court they established themselves, on a monastic basis, as the Central Labour College. The students did all the work of the house, cleaning, washing and cooking, making beds; no woman was permitted to enter. We were a jolly family, or rather a band of brothers, and Dennis Hird was our Abbot, father-confessor, guide, philosopher, and friend.

At the Labour College we had some remarkable visitors. Among them I remember being greatly excited by the presence of Malatesta, the Italian anarchist. Malatesta made a great impression upon me, as a man who had sacrificed everything for his beliefs. He gave up a brilliant career as a physician and a considerable fortune, and for many years he literally did not know from day to day where he would sleep at night or whether he would have a crust of bread for his supper. He sold sherbet in the London streets to get money for food and lodgings, and at night he wrote articles for Italian papers.

But the man I got most from in the way of immediate experience was Jack London. He came to the College on one of his visits to London, and took much interest in our work. He liked our way of doing things, our independence of women’s help in housework, cooking and cleaning. What attracted him to me, I think, was the joy he got in watching me darn my socks, with a glass in heel of the sock to put the worsted across. He laughed – and lie had an infectious laugh.

He used to come in to watch me mending clothes, sewing buttons on; not having learned the use of the thimble, I used to press the needle through by pushing it against the table. We talked a good deal, and he was pleased because I told him I had had to borrow fifty pounds to enable me to get to College – buying clothes and books, and keeping some for pocket money – and meant to pay it back (as I did) when I returned to the pit.

Jack London and I went slumming. He had come over from the United States with the idea of writing a book about the East End of London. One evening we set off to spend the night in a doss-house. He told me that he meant to go "right under", and get below the surface of East End life. He had dressed for the part; we were both of us, in fact, qualified by our appearances either for the doss-house, the "spike" (workhouse), or the jail.

On our way down Jack asked me how much I had with me. I had a shilling and a few coppers. "That’s all right," said Jack; "I’ve got about that much. But feel here!" And he placed my fingers on his coat. I felt a hard round object.

"It’s a sovereign", said Jack, "in case of accidents. I couldn’t bring myself to come away without real money, so I sewed this up in the lining of my jacket. I’m almost sorry, though ; you can feel a real ‘down-and-out’ with a sovereign." As a matter of fact, I think Jack London had the problem of the sovereign solved for him that night or soon after; someone stole his coat, and probably found the coin – and Jack had to take some ragged garment the thief had left behind.

We got to the doss-house about ten o’clock. It was a filthy place. For sixpence each we got bed: the beds were narrow, coffin-like receptacles laid in rows on the floor. Before we went to our coffins we had supper. On our way down Jack London bought some eggs, and we went into the common kitchen of the place to cook them. There were a lot of lodgers in the kitchen, all getting supper, and we were greeted with an indescribable medley of smells from the cooking that went on at the great fire in the room.

Presently we found room at the fire, and London broke the eggs into a frying-pan and started to cook. In the midst of the operation somebody attracted his attention and he turned away from the fire and began to talk to this person. This was an opportunity not to be missed, and a great bulking fellow at the fire, a navvy I should think, seized Jack’s fried eggs and was making off with them. He was not quite quick enough. Jack turned back to the fire just in time.

"I’ve slept in 793 doss-houses", Jack drawled, "and I know enough not to argue; there’s only one thing to do in a doss-house – that’s this." And he raised his fist and struck the navvy under the jaw, knocking him over.

Instantly there was a terrific uproar. My experience of a "rough house" was much less extensive than Jack London’s, and I was honestly rather scared; but he squared up, and his sturdy frame and jutting chin evidently impressed the man who stole the eggs, for he made no fight. But we lost the eggs – the floor of the kitchen was hardly clean enough to eat from, and we contented ourselves with the loaf of bread and some cheese Jack had brought in with the eggs.

Each student was pledged on entering the College to return to his work when he had finished his training, and to devote himself to teaching and lecturing among his fellow-workers whilst earning his living as a worker. In due time I went back to the pit myself and joined in the extraordinary activities of the classes, group meetings and demonstrations which went on all over the coalfield under the inspiration of the Central Labour College. This work of teaching and lecturing on economics was the motive-force behind the great Labour revolt of 1912-13, the underlying factor in the first national strike of miners, with which I shall deal in the next chapter. It brought me into contact not only with Prime Ministers, such as Mr Asquith, but with fascinating personalities like Gaylord Wilshire and Upton Sinclair – both Americans, and one well-known to the general public, the other a singular figure in the Radical movement. I will try to tell something of these people next week.

* * * *


IN THE development of my career I have experienced the educational advantages of prison I have been in prison twice.

I was still a student at the Central Labour College in London when the first national strike of miners occurred in 1912. The South Wales miners made me one of their delegates in the national negotiations. As a consequence, I was brought closely in touch with the leading personalities in that great industrial struggle, and had my first experience of discussing mining questions with Prime Ministers and members of the Government face to face in Downing Street.

Lord Oxford and Asquith was Prime Minister during the 1912 miners’ strike. It was, I believe, the first strike in which he was directly involved as a negotiator. Unlike later Prime Ministers, he was not used to meeting strike leaders on a familiar footing. Some of the miners’ leaders he knew personally, like the then president of the Miners’ Federation, the late Enoch Edwards, a fellow Yorkshireman; but he was not on more tban nodding terms with any of them, and, in fact, most of our people stood rather in awe of him .

Whilst our dealings with him were good-humoured and free from anything in the nature of personal rancour or bitterness, there was none of that intimate, informal, and friendly atmosphere which Mr Lloyd George was able to create in our meetings with him when he held the office of Prime Minister. Mr. Baldwin, too, has a remarkable power of evoking a genial and good-natured spirit in his dealings with trade union leaders. He is entirely frank, unaffected, and kindly in his manner, with an engaging candour and open-mindedness. With him, as with Mr Lloyd George, there is no stiffness, coldness, or excess of formality.

Mr Asquith, on the other hand, was more unapproachable, graver, remote, and ceremonious. He did not unbend. And I am pretty confident that at no stage of our long and frequent conferences with him did he ever condescend to use the Christian names of any of our leaders as later Prime Ministers have been known to do.

I shall not re-tell the story of the 1912 strike. It was an historic struggle, in more than one respect. As a result of it we obtained recognition of the principle of the minimum wage for mine-workers. It marked, further, the beginning of that new phase of industrial relations in this country whereby the Government itself became a party to negotiations.

As I have said, it was a new experience for Mr Asquith to have such direct and personal relations with the miners’ leaders. At one point he and I came into contact; and I wonder still what he made of me.

I had felt it necessary in the course of discussions to get up and tell the Prime Minister that he did not understand the miners. "You do not know", I said, "anything about the new spirit that is working in the coalfields. The miner today is better educated, and he is not content to remain a hewer of wood and drawer of water for the employing class. The younger men in the coalfields are not going to accept the conditions their fathers were willing to put up with, and in future you will be dealing with the real rank and file of the miners, not merely with their leaders in Parliament."

Mr Asquith listened to my somewhat excited speech with an indulgent and rather ironical smile. When I had finished he remarked, in his imperturbable way, that I had made a very interesting contribution to the discussion, but that I was still very young and very enthusiastic, and my ardour would no doubt he tempered with caution after I had had a few years’ experience of responsibility in the Federation.

He said, in fact, very much what our president Enoch Edwards kept on saying at intervals the strike – that we young men would be different when we were older. He bore his responsibilities rather sadly; all the leaders, indeed, were grim and gloomy during the strike. I recall only one lighter incident.

Our miners’ meetings were held in what was then the Westminster Palace Hotel, where most of the leaders stayed. One evening in the interval of negotiations a few of us were sitting in the smoke-room of the hotel, among us being Robert Smillie. As we talked, the door opened and one of the miners’ members – who is still in the House by the way – entered the room. He was wearing evening dress for some reason. Robert Smillie looked up at him without glimmer of a smile, and said, "Waiter, bring more coffee, will you?" Our colleague, taken aback, stared at Mr Smillie, stammered something, and fled from the room amid roars of laughter. Mr Smillie resumed the conversation with a sardonic chuckle, and we saw no more of our friend in evening dress that night.

After the strike, at the end of 1912, I went back to work in the pits. I had intended to spend another year at the Central Labour College and had borrowed sufficient money to carry me through. But when I went to the manager of the colliery who had promised to keep my place for me until I had finished my college career, I found that he had changed his mind. "If you go back to that place for another year you don’t come back to this pit", he said. "You’re bad enough as it is, Cook, and what you’ll be like if you get another year, Heaven only knows; there’ll be no arguing with you – we shall all have just stand round and listen!" Well, I owed money for my college training, and I did not care to face the prospect of being unable to get work when I went back to the coalfield, so I decided to forgo my second year at college.

I was working as a miner when the war broke out. Thousands of men left the pits to join the Army – so many that in the early days the recruiting machine broke down. It was a common sight in Cardiff to see the collier boys asleep under the wall of the barracks, waiting to join up, and kept waiting day after day.

My first prison experience came during the war. One of our propaganda groups decided to hold a public debate, with the idea of raising funds. We cast round for a topic for debate, and chose question: "Whether compulsory food-rations are good for the working class?" or some such subject. I was asked to take one side and another member of the group agreed to take the opposite side.

We tossed up a coin to settle who should have first choice and I lost. I had therefore to speak against compulsory rationing, knowing there was some risk of offending DORA. In the debate I said the obvious things against the rationing system and talked of the unfairness of conscripting men without conscripting wealth and all essential supplies needed by the civil population. Police were present at the meeting taking notes, and as a result of my speech I found myself on trial for seditious utterances. I was convicted and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. My opponent in the debate was complimented by the judge for having taken the patriotic line; but if the coin we spun had come down differently he would have been sentenced and I should have been praised!

However, there I was – due to depart for Cardiff jail. On this first occasion I was spared the humiliation which I experienced on the second occasion, in 1921, when I was haled along the station platform, handcuffed to other prisoners, in the sight of train-loads of business men on their way to their offices. That sort of thing happens still, and it is a needless cruelty, whether the prisoners are political offenders or thieves.

In prison I was not unhappy. I was given oakum to pick, and later was set at sewing coal-sacks and mailbags. For the first month I had only the Bible and prayer-book to read, and I read them both through. The Bible is an extraordinarily interesting book. I have read it more than once, but never enjoyed reading it so much as, on this occasion. After the first month we were permitted to have one book a week from the prison library. I chose Thiers’ History of the French Revolution. My experience is that there is something soothing and satisfying in a long, slow-moving historical book to read in prison; it takes one’s mind away from the present; it does not excite the mind too much and make one wish for active intellectual exercise. Several of my friends who have spent time in prison for various political offences have told me the same thing. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a favourite book – the sort of book one always intends to read but can never find time for when one is free to read anything.

The worst privation in prison is the lack of human intercourse, the "rule of silence", which I regard as one of the most barbarous forms of torture. It is absolutely deadening in its effects, a foretaste of death itself – the most obvious characteristic of a dead man is his taciturnity! The stillness of a prison, the enforced silence of its inmates, and the grim self-suppression of the warders will tell sooner or later upon the strongest and most vivacious mind. The only man who is likely to be happy under such conditions is the mathematician, and even he requires something more than the slate and pencil supplied, by the prison authorities.

Of course, the " rule of silence " is broken. It is most often broken in chapel. The prisoners naturally join heartily in the singing of hymns, and produce a considerable volume of sound. And they become very clever in adapting to the tune they are singing questions and answers addressed to their neighbours, such as "What are you in for?" "Pinching a ticker." "Got any bacca?" and so on. There are splendid opportunities for such interchanges when the psalms are being chanted.

I spent three months in prison on this first occasion, and was then released. There was a good deal of unrest in the mining valleys caused by my sentence – and the authorities feared an outbreak of strikes. Accordingly, having earned the maximum good conduct remission of sentence, I was let off half my sentence, and once more found myself a free man.