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Vol. 6 1962

The miners of South Wales. Book review.

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THE MINERS OF SOUTH WALES, by E. W. Evans. Cardiff, 1961.
pp. x, 274. 21s.
This book traces the development of the trade union movement among the
colliers of South Wales down to 1912. In the early years of the nineteenth
century the colliers were a scattered minority. They joined with the iron
workers, at times when dear food prices or depression of trade brought
increased misery, in movements of unrest and spontaneous, shortlived
resistance to wage reductions. This resistance, even as early as the 182os,
flared up simultaneously on a county-wide scale when all suffered from the
same economic pressure of trade recession. Yet there was little real unity,
and such widespread unrest was based on the flimsiest organisation which
had no permanence. The colliers were scattered mountain ridges separat-
ed the valleys and formed an impediment to any coalfield unity leadership
of unions was temporary as to be conspicuous was to court victimisation
the colliers had not the resources to build up unions with financial strength
and where thrift existed it favoured the benefit societies rather than trade
unions. Wage increases in prosperous times were achieved with little fuss,
as employers feared the stoppage of a colliery when trade was good and
prices rising. Yet knowledge of this early period still remains patchy, with
more shadows than light. The working class was inarticulate, and an
account based on the Cambrian, the Home Office papers, and a few manu-
script sources such as the Maybery papers (not Maybury as Dr. Evans cites
them) still leaves many gaps. Probably records full enough to enable
much elaboration of the history of these early unions of despair no longer
survive, and while coal remained a subsidiary industry movements amongst
the colliers cannot be distinguished clearly from the discontents of the iron
In the 186os the possibility of trade unions of more permanence emerged.
However, the Welsh connection with the Miners' National Association was
fleeting, and loyalty was transferred to the Amalgamated Association of
Miners which, in the early 1870s, as the result of a coal boom of unprecedent-
ed scale, had over 45,000 members in South Wales. As boom conditions
gave way to depressed trade so this membership dwindled and the strength
of the union was dissipated in an unavailing struggle to stem the effects of
adverse economic conditions. There followed a slow renaissance of union-
ism, based on district unions possessing local autonomy, of which Dr.
Evans gives a useful account, and many unsuccessful schemes for an organisa-
tion covering the whole coalfield. Yet trade unionism remained weak
until the 1890s. By then new leaders more militant than William Abraham
were emerging, and dissatisfaction with the sliding scale, particularly
because it embodied no minimum wage rate, was mounting. These issues
flared up in the strike of 1898 and the Cambrian strike of 1910-11. Out of
the former emerged the South Wales Miners' Federation and the replace-
ment of the discredited sliding scale by a conciliation board. The latter
revealed the power and temper of the new leadership in South Wales and,
as the issue of a minimum wage for colliers working in abnormal places
merged into that of a general minimum wage, had a significance which
extended far beyond one coalfield.
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