The South Wales Miners: 1964-1985

The South Wales Miners: 1964-1985

by Ben Curtis


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780708326114
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 08/15/2013
Series: University of Wales Press - Studies in Welsh History Series
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Ben Curtis is a research associate in the Department of History and Welsh History at Aberystwyth University and part-time history tutor at the Centre for Lifelong Learning at Cardiff University, both in the UK.

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The South Wales Miners 1964-1985

By Ben Curtis, Ralph A. Griffihs, Chris Williams, Eryn M. White

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2013 Ben Curtis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78316-555-1



Throughout modern British history there have been few trade unions with as strong an engagement with political activism as the NUM South Wales Area. The focus of investigation in this chapter is on the constituent aspects of the politics of the south Wales miners: the effect of the Area's structure, geographical considerations, the role played by the various hues of activist within the South Wales NUM, together with the interaction of all these factors.

union structure

The politics of the South Wales NUM can be understood as the product of the interaction of the leadership and the rank and file. Organisationally, the Area inherited the structures established by the reorganisation of the SWMF in 1933, and which were designed to put as much power as was practicable in the hands of the rank-and-file miner.

The colliery lodges were the basic framework through which the miners were organised and it was through these that collective rank-and-file opinion could be expressed, articulated via elected lodge committees. Lodge leaders could wield considerable influence. Although they never attained high-ranking office, men such as Cyril Parry (Morlais), Bryn Williams (Cwm), Mike Griffin (Penrhiwceiber) and Tal Walters (Bargoed) were prominent figures within the Area and important advocates at conferences of their particular political viewpoints (which ranged respectively, in these examples, from communism to right-wing Labour loyalism). In addition to this, lodges had a significance within their community derived from the fact that the miners looked to their union as the first point of contact for resolving their work-related grievances. Consequently, the local prestige of someone like Bill King, who was Merthyr Vale lodge secretary from 1962 until 1985, was considerable – and his position was by no means unique. In the view of one former lodge official, 'I think the leadership was very good in south Wales, because each pit had a recognised leader ... And one person that stick out tremendous is Mike Griffin. From Penrhiwceiber ... [They were] good orators, they could speak – and ... they was genuine trade unionists and they fought hard in what they believed in.'

The district committees operated in the space between the Area leadership and the lodges. According to Area rules, these committees met every two months to receive reports from the respective miners' agent for the district. Although it was not their ostensible purpose, they provided a ready-made forum for any combined activity between their constituent lodges; throughout this period, the Aberdare joint lodges committee was generally the most active in this respect. These district meetings were valued by the lodge committees, as a way of both obtaining a more detailed picture of the wider situation within the coalfield and also providing a forum for developing the next generation of lodge leaders. Nevertheless, they were never as significant a sphere of influence in the workings of the South Wales NUM as the executive council, the Area conferences, or the individual lodges themselves.

The supreme policy-making forum of the Area was its annual conference, held in the late spring. Additionally, special conferences could be convened as appropriate, to take the key decisions facing the Area. The voting in these conferences reflected the mandates given to the lodge representatives by their respective committees, to whom they were accountable. In this way, voting patterns reflected the balance of opinion in the coalfield reasonably accurately. Nevertheless, there were a few occasions when this proved conspicuously not to be the case, for example, the grassroots rejection of conference decisions to strike in February 1980 and March 1984.

The central governing body within the Area was its executive council (EC). It was composed of rank-and-file union members elected, on a triennial basis, to represent one of the Area's five districts: Swansea, Maesteg, Aberdare-Rhondda-Merthyr, Rhymney Valley, and Monmouthshire (later Gwent). Each district was represented by two executive members (or three if its membership exceeded 18,000 – a situation which rapidly ceased to be the case anywhere as the 1960s progressed). Given that each was of approximately equal size, this did not cause disparities; it also meant that no single district could dominate decision-making within the Area.

The most senior figures were the Area officials: the president, general secretary, vice-president, and the miners' agents. With the exception of the vice-presidency – which was decided triennially by a mandated card vote at the Area Annual Conference – these posts were all full-time and were elected via a membership ballot, after which their incumbents stayed until they retired or stepped down. Although these were the leaders of the south Wales miners, the Area's structure ensured that they were not able to dominate policy-making without securing the support of the EC, a body directly in touch with and responsible to the membership.

Political geography

The large number of lodges within the south Wales coalfield, together with the relatively small number of men who were Area officials or EC members, makes it problematic to generalise about the influence of individual lodges within the South Wales NUM as a whole. Typically, most lodges only provided one individual who became an Area leader during the period studied here, not least because of the geographically-based representation of the executive structure. There were exceptions to this pattern though, and these help to characterise some of the more significant lodges in the coalfield, whether by size, political influence, or both. Measured thus, some of the key south Wales lodges in the later twentieth century (together with their leaders) were: Maerdy (Emlyn Williams, Haydn Matthews, Arfon Evans), Coedely (Don Hayward, Ron Saint, Mike Banwell), Lady Windsor (Will Fortt, Emlyn Jenkins), Oakdale (Dan Canniff, Gary Woolf), Brynlliw (Evan John, Terry Thomas, Eric Davies), Fernhill (Cliff True, George Rees), Celynen North (Tom Jones, George Pritchard), and Cynheidre (Tommy Walker, Islwyn Rosser).

Although it is difficult to assess the influence of individual lodges within the Area, the picture is clearer when considered at district level. Ever since the formation of the SWMF in 1898, there was a broad tendency for the leadership of the south Wales miners to be drawn from the central valleys of what became Mid Glamorgan. In the early twentieth century, almost all of the famous leaders had come from the Rhondda valleys: Noah Ablett, A. J. Cook, Arthur Horner and Will Paynter, 'intellectual giants in the trade union movement, of the highest political integrity and outstanding orators'. There were exceptions, the most notable during the period studied here being Dai Francis, from Onllwyn in the Dulais valley. Similarly, Aneurin Bevan was the most high-profile exemplar of south Walian radicalism in British politics in the 1940s and 1950s and he hailed from Tredegar. Nevertheless, the general pattern was pronounced: for example, Will Whitehead, Emlyn Williams, George Rees, Des Dutfield and Don Hayward came from lodges in or around the Rhondda. The significance of this tendency becomes even more marked if we consider that all of these rose to prominence on the basis of their reputations as militants, whether as Communists or Labour left-wingers.

These people were products of their backgrounds. Consequently, it should not cause surprise that the majority of radicals in the broader Area leadership were generally from this part of the coalfield. Ron Saint and Emlyn Jenkins (EC members and lodge secretaries at Coedely and Lady Windsor respectively), for example, personified the personnel 'overlap' between the official leadership and the unofficial movement, providing a conduit from these lodges through the Area structure. At Area annual conferences throughout this period, it was lodges such as Fernhill, Coedely and Maerdy that submitted most of the militant and political motions for debate. Reflecting on this 'traditional radicalism', Emlyn Jenkins later commented that 'I'm probably very biased because I'm from the centre [of the coalfield], but I think all good things stemmed from the centre!'

A corollary of the militancy of the geographical centre of the coalfield was the relative inclination towards moderation in its eastern and western regions. Although this too is a generalisation, it is confirmed by the weight of evidence, in terms of conference reports, Area minutes and oral history testimony. The explanation is the fact that the fringes of the coalfield had never been as completely dependent on the coal industry as the central valleys had been, with steel manufacturing in Gwent and agriculture and tinplate in Carmarthenshire providing employment. The social consequence of this was that the lodges were never quite as hegemonic in their respective communities, so that the radicalism that characterised the Area as a whole was not as ingrained as it was elsewhere. Politically, most of the Gwent district could be characterised as right-wing Labour: this was the case with, for instance, Celynen South, Oakdale, Beynon, Abertillery New Mine, and Cwmtillery. Correspondingly, Gwent collieries were less strike-prone than other south Wales pits: for example, they were essentially unaffected by the unofficial strike-wave that swept large parts of the coalfield in 1969 and were reluctant participants in the Area-wide strike a year later, which they saw as 'unofficial' since it was not sanctioned by the national NUM. It was a similar picture with the west Wales lodges. There, industrial and political quiescence had been accentuated in the early 1960s by the influx of around a thousand men from Durham, to help to fulfil the manpower requirements of new 'super pit' projects. The main embodiment of these trends was Cynheidre. Ever since mining began there in the early 1960s, Cynheidre had had a reputation for 'moderation', a tendency reinforced by its 'receiver pit' role. Commenting on this, an executive member for the Swansea district (which included Cynheidre) later observed: 'I mean, the trouble with Cynheidre: it was a lodge of mixtures. Historically it wasn't a sound lodge ... It was a mixture of people coming from different collieries that had closed down.' The other Swansea district EC member concurred, stating that 'they were a bloody odd lot down there ... [T]here was a sort of an anti-[Area] ... leadership element in Cynheidre colliery.'

While this overall pattern persisted throughout the period studied here, there were variations. Although operating within the same general political, social and economic environment as other collieries in south Wales, the outlook of each lodge was also the product of its own mix of factors: geological considerations that could promote either pacific or militant industrial relations; the influence of charismatic or respected individuals; and the role of lodge tradition and history in creating a particular political milieu. Consequently, although the Rhondda traditionally had the highest proportion of left-wing lodges, it was not true that the district was everywhere a hotbed of radicalism: for example, Tymawr remained steadfastly moderately Labour in outlook until its closure in 1983. Correspondingly, there were several militant lodges in west Wales, Brynlliw and Morlais for instance, while the upper Dulais valley was something of a Communist stronghold before the closure of its collieries in the early 1960s. Similarly, Six Bells had one of the few Communist lodge secretaries in Gwent; likewise, Celynen North was generally reckoned to be more left-wing than most other pits in that district, something which prompted a brief falling-out between it and neighbouring Celynen South over the latter's lack of enthusiasm for the 1970 strike.

The traditions described above were not immutable and were capable of change, given the appropriate circumstances. The main external catalyst for a shift in a lodge's outlook was the threat of closure. Throughout the period, there were occasions when lodges known for their pacific industrial relations and political moderation were spurred into an unofficial strike by news of the closure of their colliery. One of the most prominent examples of this was Coegnant in February 1981; it succeeded in galvanising the rest of the coalfield into action. The primary internal means of change was the election of lodge leaders who held markedly different views to those of their predecessors. One of the most notable examples of this was the replacement of the politically moderate Phil Stafford as lodge secretary of St John's in 1978 by the militant Ian Isaac. By the same token, it was only after Mike Richards replaced Tommy Lewis as lodge chairman at Lewis Merthyr in the early 1970s that the lodge began to be seen as a radical one.

Political parties

The main point about the party politics of the South Wales NUM is that, as with the trade union movement in general, it retained institutional links with the Labour Party and most of its members who were politically active were Labour members. Consequently, the whole strategy of the Area was framed around Labour as the primary vehicle for effecting political change. In this respect, throughout the period the attitude of the South Wales NUM (indeed, that of the labour movement in Britain in the twentieth century) towards Labour was defined by a mixture of support for the Party and pressuring it to adopt the policies advocated by the Area. The relative prominence of these two strategic imperatives naturally fluctuated according to the broader context of the moment. When Labour was in opposition, the Area's principal political goal was the return of a Labour administration; once this was achieved, the focus was then to press the government to carry out the policies it wished to see implemented. In this way, the sharpest tensions between the Labour Party and the unions in this period emerged during the Wilson and Callaghan administrations in the 1960s and 1970s. Nevertheless, this reliance on the Party as the political wing of the labour movement prevented these disagreements from reaching crisis point. Whatever its disappointments and grievances with these governments, the South Wales NUM acknowledged that ultimately it had no other alternative but to continue to support Labour.

A key ingredient in the traditional radicalism of south Wales was the important historical role of the Communist Party. In sheer numbers, it was dwarfed by the Labour Party, which was a hegemonic political presence in most valleys communities. Nevertheless, there was a definite symbiosis between south Wales miners and the CPGB. The valleys were one of the few areas where the CPGB put down serious long-term roots; similarly, a clear majority of Communists in south Wales were also NUM members – whilst local miners' leaders such as Allan Baker, Ron Saint and Cliff True were long-term stalwarts of the Party's Welsh Committee throughout this period. By the 1960s, the CP was not as potent a social force as it had been in preceding decades, largely as a consequence of the Cold War. Despite this, south Wales remained a Communist stronghold. In the view of one lodge activist and former CP member, 'the South Wales NUM was more or less run by members of the Communist Party ... [T]he Labour Party members would say that's wrong, but if you look at the officials you had at the time ... they were all members of the Communist Party'. Whilst this is an exaggeration, a sizeable proportion of the Area's leaders were in the CP, for example, Will Whitehead and Dai Francis (Area president and general secretary, respectively). Indeed, as the Western Mail commented, '[i]t is as traditional that a Communist be president of the South Wales NUM as it is that the chairman of the Cheltenham Women's Institute be a Conservative'. However, the significance of the CP presence in the Area leadership was not so much in terms of numerical dominance as in their influence over the left-leaning Labour members on the EC, who shared many of the political viewpoints of the Communists. Throughout the later 1960s, for instance, Labour men such as Will Woods and Ben Davies, from the Rhondda and Dulais valleys respectively, were keen supporters of the campaign for increased wages and a tougher line against colliery closures.

The Communists' prominence within the Area hierarchy was not an infiltration of the organisation by 'shadowy subversives' but reflected the position in a significant minority of lodges. Admittedly, CP members from the coalfield met periodically to discuss Area policy, although this was scarcely a secret and Labour caucuses operated in an identical fashion. In south Wales, the Communists were most prominent in lodges in the Rhondda area. In Coedely, for instance, the lodge chairman, secretary, compensation secretary and assistant compensation secretary were CP members; in Maerdy and Fernhill, the majority of committee members were Communists. Beyond this, it was possible for there to be a Communist presence even in the more moderate lodges: for example, Jim Morgan was a CP member and lodge secretary at Coegnant until 1966, during which time the lodge bought the Daily Worker and distributed it in the canteen. Similarly, Brian Elliott was Penallta lodge secretary from the mid-1970s until after the 1984–5 strike and also a CP member. In many cases, the relative popularity of Communists reflected their perceived staunch defence of miners' rights. Their profile in the Area gives credibility to the claim of one former activist that the CP were 'a small force but we were a very influential force ... [W]e were presenting policies and resolutions which would enhance the miners' case ... The miners themselves recognised that Communist miners' leaders were men of integrity.'


Excerpted from The South Wales Miners 1964-1985 by Ben Curtis, Ralph A. Griffihs, Chris Williams, Eryn M. White. Copyright © 2013 Ben Curtis. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Table of Contents

Series Editors’ Foreword



List of Illustrations

List of Maps

Note on Capitalisation

Introduction: ‘an historical mission to lead in class struggles’

I. The Politics of the South Wales Miners

II. Closures: 1964-1970

III. Struggle: 1970-1974

IV. Interlude: 1974-1979

V. Confrontation: 1979-1983

VI. The Strike: 1984-1985




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