The nine days of the General Strike in May 1926 shook the foundations of British society as over 1.5 million workers across the country downed tools. For many in the trade union movement it was a simple act of solidarity with the miners who had seen their wages and terms and conditions progressively driven down in the years following the end of the First World War. It is estimated that, by 1926, miners’ pay had fallen by a third from the 1919 levels. Proposals to further reduce wages and extend the working day produced the famous response from the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, ‘Not a penny off the wages and not a minute on the day’. The decision by the TUC, in May 1926, to call out the transport workers, printers and iron and steel workers in sympathy with the miners met with almost total support from the unions and their members across the country.
In other quarters the TUC’s decision was seen as a General Strike and a challenge to constitutional government. With the shock waves from the Bolshevik revolution in Russia still fresh in the memory, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, called the Strike ‘a challenge to Parliament’ and ‘the road to anarchy and ruin’ [The British Gazette, 6 May 1926]. Well before the strike was announced, the Government had preparations in hand to maintain key services across the country to be run in each area by a centrally appointed Civil Commissioner. In South Wales, the Earl of Clarendon was installed on May 2 1926 in Dominions Building in Cardiff to work with the local authorities to maintain law and order, transport and food supplies. He also had at his disposal the local arm of the Volunteer Service Committee established to recruit local men and women to keep the docks and local transport services operating and, if needed, bolster the police force. In all, the local Volunteer Service Committees recruited over 12,000 volunteers in South Wales. Small numbers of men were used to provide a skeleton service on the railways and in the docks . The impact of the volunteers was perhaps most evident in urban areas and, in particular, in Cardiff, where they were used to run tram and bus services. Although the TUC urged its members to avoid confrontation, the Government was determined to maintain essential services and stationed troops in most cities and towns along with naval vessels in key ports.
Glamorgan Archives holds material that tells the story of the General Strike in south Wales from the perspective of the unions, local volunteers and those running the Volunteer Service Committees. Records, such as the school log books, also trace the impact on local communities.
Over the past month we’ve explored the stories of a railwayman and trade union official from Aberdare, an officer of the Volunteer Service Committee, and the volunteers themselves. Today we look at the impact of the Strike on the communities of south Wales.
The school log books for south Wales provide a further and very different perspective on the General Strike of 1926 and its aftermath. The story of the strike is often see through the graphic accounts of clashes between those on strike and those who rallied to the Government’s call for volunteers to maintain essential services. The focus of such accounts is naturally on the dramatic events of the nine days of the strike. However, for many in the mining communities of south Wales the General Strike was just one episode in a long running dispute with the mine owners that led to years of hardship and poverty. The log books for schools in the south Wales valleys tell of the hardships endured by local people during this period and how local communities came together to combat the shortages faced by most families. An excellent example is provided by the records kept during this period by the Headteacher of the Maerdy Boys’ School held at the Glamorgan Archives.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Maerdy records is just how little comment there was on the nine days of the General Strike. In the lead up to the strike, declared on 3 May 1926, it was business as usual at the school:
May 3 1926. The schools were closed to celebrate Labour Day which fell on Sat. the first of May. The children were entertained to tea at the Workmen’s Hall and free Pictures. The projected excursion to Penrhys mountain was abandoned because of the rain [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 p246].
Two days later, on 5 May, there was the one and only reference, during the nine days of the General Strike, to wider developments:
May 5 1926. This is the first week of a General Strike affecting the whole country. Trains have ceased running here and newspapers have been banned [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 p246].
A strike that aimed to paralyse local and national transport systems was a new and dramatic event for the major towns of south Wales. Strike action and lock outs, however, were nothing new for the mining communities of south Wales given that the unions had been in dispute with the mine owners over terms and conditions since the end of the First World War. Nevertheless, the collapse of the General Strike, called in support of the miners’ resistance to the coal owners’ demands for a reduction in pay and an increase in hours, must have been a hammer blow to communities such as Maerdy.
If the collapse of the strike was the end of the matter for many people, for those in the mining communities it signalled a new and more difficult phase as the miners were left to continue their dispute with the owners without support. Pits across south Wales were closed as the owners insisted on agreement to reduced terms and conditions as a precondition for a return to work. Often denied access to unemployment benefit, families had to fall back on poor relief along with money and food provided by local distress funds. The most immediate problem was the provision of food for the children of local families. As with other areas of south Wales, the school in Maerdy and its staff were at the centre of measures put in place 5 days after the collapse of the General Strike to help local families.
May 17 1926. A school Canteen had been opened under the Necessitous Children’s Act for the feeding of the children during the present stoppage of the pits. Two vestries are used – Ebenezer for the Boys and Infants, Siloa for the Girls. Two meals a day, dinner and tea are provided [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 p247].
24 May 1926. The numbers fed on Mon last were 106 boys, 104 girls, and 78 infants. This gradually increases up to Friday when 287 boys, 258 girls and 229 infants were fed. Sat and Sn were days of lower attendance [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 p247].
25 May 1926. Because of the large numbers fed in relays it is found impossible to get the children back in time for the afternoon session and on several occasions less than half the boys of the middle school have been on time [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 p247].
The local authority in the Rhondda made funding available to schools across the district to set up canteens to provide at least two meals a day, seven days a week, for children identified by head teachers as in need. At the height of the strike it is estimated that approximately 18,000 children were fed each day in the Rhondda.
Not surprisingly the provision of meals significantly improved school attendance, in part due of the quality of the food but also because the canteens reduced the need for children to miss school to help parents in the search for food and fuel.
7 June 1926. The AO called today. His list is short once more for the attendance has improved lately – due to good weather and the opening of the Food Canteens [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 p248].
June 8. Mr A Taylor and Mr T Jones, two School Inspectors, visited the Canteens this morning, tested the Bread Pudding, and Blanc Mange and Red Jelly and expressed their satisfaction of the good fare provided. The week’s menus are varied and include meat, sausage, potatoes, bread, cake, jam, rice, jellies, bananas, buns, scones, salad (veg) [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 p248].
The schools were just one element of the efforts made across the community to provide for local families. A network of canteens and soup kitchens was established in the mining towns and villages of south Wales to provide meals each day for the men locked out of the pits. Unlike the schools, the kitchens relied heavily on local contributions. Funds such as the Maerdy Distress Fund were vital in drawing together local partners, often under the umbrella of the local Trades Councils and working with the Miners’ Lodges, to raise money. In most areas, however, only union members and, therefore, men were fed with women being expected to manage on the home front drawing, where available, on poor relief.
July 1 1926. An attendance half holiday was granted today when the carnival and sports were held in aid for the Maerdy Distress Fund [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 p248].
By the end of July, with no sign of a solution to the dispute, it was decided that the canteens would have to be kept open during the summer holidays. It is difficult to image the pressure that this decision must have placed on the school, with teachers expected to supervise the canteens seven days a week throughout the holiday period. To an extent, this was achieved through the use of rota systems and promises of time off after the end of the dispute. For many, however, the connections with the mining communities were so strong that there was no question of not helping out.
July 22. Closed at 4pm for the Midsummer Vacation. This is a week earlier than usual, five weeks have been granted to cover the Whitsun week which was not given this year because of the ‘Feeding’ and the usual four weeks of the summer holidays. The Feeding will be carried on through the holidays, the teachers taking charge in turn [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 p249].
As the new school year began in September there were signs of new and more radical measures, with the decision being taken to send children to live with families willing to care for them until the end of the strike. As the entry below indicated, this must have been quite a challenge for all parties, given the distances involved in some cases.
Sept 3 1926. A few boys have been sent to London for the period of the Strike. They are being adopted by different families [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 p249].
With winter approaching, the problems presented in keeping children warm and dry came increasingly to the fore. In particular, providing sound boots for children was a major issue for families across the mining communities.
Sept 9 1926. A boot repairing establishment has been set up in the Workmen’s Hall. The leather is supplied free by the Society of Friends and a dozen men under the supervision of a skilled bootmaker are engaged in repairing the children’s boots. [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 p250].
Oct 1 1926. Two ladies representing the Liverpool Society of Friends visited the school this afternoon and brought a dozen pairs of trouser for distribution. Moneys have also been received from the Council Chairman’s Fund and London NUT Association (Lambeth?) including Battersea Grammar School towards boots for the children. Over 50 children in the three departments have been supplied with new boots [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 pp250-1].
Nov 3 1926. The AO called this morning. The wet weather tells upon the attendance now for many boots are quite unfit and some sixty to seventy boys are wearing boots which are beyond repair. Another small sum of three pounds has been received from the Chairman’s Fund [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 pp251-2].
Nov 17 1926. The weather has been very wet during the past three weeks but the attendance has not suffered greatly. The Canteens undoubtedly help a good attendance. The boots of many – 70 or 80 at least – are in a bad condition in spite of the free repairs and new supplies that are occasionally received. The Head Mistress of the Girls’, after a recent visit to her home, brought a number of good boots and children’s garment which were a boon to several [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 p252].
The schools and local chapels providing the canteen facilities were by no means immune to the shortages of food and fuel and recorded frequently the problems presented by lack of coal.
Nov 18 1926. The Vestry had no fire today the coal being used up [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 p252].
Dec 3 1926. Fortunately the neighbouring pits are being re-opened and better supply of coal and coke is received but our own pits have not been entered [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 p253].
Dec 6 1926. Steam has been raised in the Collieries today for the first time for many months for the Safety Men have not been working here. Preparations are being made for a resumption of work [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 p253].
The reference to the pits being reopened followed the decision by the Miners’ Federation, at the national level, to recommend a return to work on the 19 November 1926. It was an admission of defeat and although the South Wales Miners’ Federation, as in other areas, attempted to negotiate an orderly return to work with the re-employment of union men, it was clear that the owners had the upper hand. As a result, alongside the reduction in wages and the lengthening of the working day, thousands of union men lost their jobs as employers took the opportunity to reduce numbers and retain men who had worked throughout the strike.
It is estimated that in the following 12 months the number of miners employed in the south Wales collieries fell by over 20,000.
As might be expected, the school records suggested that the return to work in Maerdy was protracted and fractious. The local authority, under pressure from central government and local ratepayers, saw no option other than to close the canteens from the end of the year now that the national strike had ended. As the school records indicated this caused enormous hardship for local families in areas such as Maerdy where the union was still attempting to negotiate with the mine owners.
Dec 23 1926. The school was closed this afternoon at 4 for the Christmas holidays but the canteens are being kept open until Thurs the 31st inst. [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 p253].
Jan 10 1927. Reopened after the Christmas Holiday. A number of women – about 15 – called here today to protest against the smallness of the amount of money paid out for the feeding of their children [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 p254].
Jan 18 1927. The AO called today. The majority of the absentees complain of bad boots. The local pits have been open for some time but few have returned to work as the local Miners’ Lodge rules that no man was to take another mans’ place or another mans’ job. This ban was removed on the 14th inst. The children are being provided for either from the Unemployment Fund or by Parish Relief [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 p254].
As in other areas, the miners were eventually forced to return, where employment was still offered, on reduced terms and conditions.
To some extent the log books for 1927 suggested a return to something more akin to normality for the pupils, including a number of visits organised for the boys.
July 5. A considerable number of boys from the sixth and seventh standards have undertaken an educational journey today to Castell Coch and Cardiff for the Castell and National Museum [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 p260].
July 25 1926. Pupils of the upper standards had a charabanc outing to the Wye Valley going to Maesycwmmer, Pontypool, Usk and Monmouth where the old bridge gate, Church, monuments of Henry V and the C S Rolls, the airman, were visited. Then to Tintern for the Abbey and home through the Wye Valley. A charge, quite moderate was made for visiting the Abbey but this, so it is said, could have been avoided if application were made to the First Commissioner of Works [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 p261].
It has to be noted, however, that the problems presented by the ongoing run down of the coal industry were never far away.
Sep 9 1927. The attendance has been fairly good during the past fortnight. All the pits have been closed here for many weeks and boys occasionally go to the tips during school hours to carry coal home. There are others who absent themselves on wet days for their boots are very poor [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 p262].
During this period there was a particular interest in the impact on the health of the children.
Apr 29 1927. Maerdy is more liable to epidemics than many places in the Rhondda Valley. The School Medical Officer is not certain as to the reason for this unfortunate condition [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 p257].
Oct 3 1927. The Attendance Officer called today in a Special Mission. He wanted to inquire into the physical condition of the children. Every teacher was questioned as to whether he ascertained that each child received food regularly or not. The answer in each case was to the effect that inquiries – direct and indirect – were occasionally made and that so far no child came foodless unless it were due to a rare case of lateness. This testimony is supported by my own inquiries and that of the mothers who sometimes call here. They complain of the inadequacy of the dole which they spend almost entirely on food and their inability to provide boots. ‘No boots’ is the prevailing reply on the absentee notes [Maerdy Boys’ School, log book, ER23/5 pp263-4].
The response was similar to that provided by other schools in south Wales. During the 1920s poverty and hardship were constant factors in the lives of the south Wales mining communities. Due to the efforts of the schools, the local authorities and the wider community it was perhaps ironic that during the 1926 lockout many children had been provided with a better and more varied diet than in other periods. This was very much a testimony to the strength and resilience of the local communities. It was resilience, however, that was to be tested time and time again with the ongoing changes in the mining industry in the interwar era.
Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer