The Coal Strike of 1912, although only just over a month long, was a breakthrough in terms of the wages of miners. Prior to the Coal Mines Minimum Wage Act, that was passed as a direct result of the strike, miners wages were based on what was known as a price list. These price lists gave set amounts per task and were based on the standard ton of coal got from the face, as well as an increase for working coal seams with large amounts of stone or water, rather than just coal. The problem was that these prices often differed between collieries, companies and districts; there was no standardised minimum wage across the industry. The need to create standard wages was the reason for the strike.
Despite discussions and attempts for government intervention, the strike started in February 1912 at Alfreton Colliery. This is where my own interest comes in. I’ve lived in Alfreton all my life and the site of the former colliery, which is now the Meadow Lane Industrial Estate, is just a few streets away from my house. It’s probably why I wasn’t all that surprised to learn that Alfreton had started this strike. Soon after Alfreton’s action was taken, the strike movement spread across Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. There were attempts in Wales, but outside of the Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire coalfield, there was less enthusiasm.
The miners generally treated the strike as a holiday, as at the time a strike could be seen as illegal. It was termed a ‘holiday’ to try and avoid this, but there was still the serious message of wanting a set minimum wage for the industry. Just over a month later and in the run up to Easter, hoping that the details of any settlement would be sorted out, the men returned to work. That did little to stop the confusion of whether the action was classed as a holiday or an actual strike.
It created uneasiness for the police, who drafted in civilian help for backup in case things got heated. In some places the army were drafted in. It may sound like a reflection of the much later miner’s strikes that are still within living memory, but there were serious disruptions posed by the strike of 1912. Coal was desperately needed to supply the railways and shipping industries and these were badly affected, most notably with the majority of train services being cancelled. This wasn’t helped by the act that the previous year, there had been a railway strike, and also in 1912, a dockers strike. Rudyard Kipling said of the situation that “there is no law in England save the whim of the unions”. It must have felt like that to some extent, and is probably the main reason why the government decided to pass the Coal Mines Minimum Wage Act, hoping that this would pacify any outstanding disagreements. It certainly did, but there were still district arrangements rather than national ones.
Gill, P., National Coal Strike http://www.petergill7.co.uk/pieces/lawrence/national_coal_strike.shtml
Hind, J., When Coal Was King: Ladysmith and the Coal-Mining Industry on Vancouver Island (Vancouver: UCB Press, 2003)
Kipling, J. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling: 1911-19, Volume 4, edited by Pinney, T., (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999)
Mining the Seams is a Wellcome Trust funded project aiming to catalogue coal mining documents, originally held by the National Coal Board, so they can eventually be viewed by the public. Alongside the Warwickshire County Record Office, the project aims to focus on the welfare and health services provided to miners.