Arthur Horner, the Incorrigible Rebel

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As far as most people in Wales are concerned, these days the name of Arthur Horner is virtually forgotten. Yet in the immediate pre- and post-war periods he was one of the most successful and powerful trade union officials – left wing and proud of it – Wales and Britain had ever seen.

Horner's 1960 autobiography "Incorrigible Rebel" was aptly titled for a man who was adamant in his beliefs and in his championing of the working man. He was a rebel all his life, a man who truly believed all men were equal and that capitalism was the scourge of the working classes. He would spend his life trying to defeat the iniquities of the class system.

Arthur Horner was born in Merthyr Tydfil on 5 April 1894. He was the eldest surviving son in a family of 17 children, only six of whom lived past infancy. His father was a railway porter but mining ran in the family on his mother's side.

On leaving school Arthur worked, first, as a delivery boy for a local grocer, then spent some time in Merthyr's railway yard before moving to the Rhondda Valley and finding work in the mining industry around Maerdy. Even then, it was the lure of trade union activities and the radical nature of what unions stood for that really appealed to the young Horner.

To begin with, Arthur Horner was a socialist – as you might expect in a town that had elected Keir Hardie as the country's first Labour MP – but after his move to the Rhondda he became more and more radicalised and fell increasingly under the influence of Noah Ablett. Horner was an avid attender at the classes in Marxism that Ablett ran in the Maerdy area.

At about the time of his move to the Rhondda, Horner renounced the strong religious beliefs he had previously held. Membership of the church had taught him many things, not least how to speak in public, but now his way was set. Politics and, in particular, the rights of working people, became his guiding principles in life.

Horner was strongly opposed to the jingoism of 1914 and what he saw as false ideals of the Great War. When he was called up he simply ignored the demand to join the army and fled to Ireland. There he became involved in Irish politics, grew friendly with many of the men and women who took part in the Easter Rising of 1916 and even joined the Irish Citizen Army.

When he returned to mainland Britain, Arthur Horner was arrested and served a six month prison sentence in Wormwood Scrubs. On his release, because of his activities, he was refused the amnesty that was awarded most conscientious objectors and was again arrested.

This time he was sent to Carmarthen jail where he soon began a hunger strike. This, combined with a campaign run by the South Wales Miners Federation, led to his release in May 1919.

In 1921 the now fully-radicalised Arthur Horner was a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Five years later he was elected onto the executive committee of the South Wales Miners Federation (the Fed) and, as you would expect, was incredibly active during the 10 month lock-out of miners that followed the General Strike of 1926.

Horner was so outspoken in his views that, for a while, the Communist Party of Great Britain even considered expelling him, accusing him of what they called 'Hornerism'.

He had no time for any form of compromise with the mine owners and was clear that he would fight to his last breath to improve the miners' conditions. This did not sit well with some of the British communists and Horner even went to Moscow to gain the approval of Stalin's government for his stance. In the end, the move to cast him out of the party was dropped.

In 1932 Horner was again imprisoned, this time on something of a "trumped up" charge of unlawful assembly. He used his period of incarceration to read widely and became opposed to what he called indiscriminate industrial action.

If strikes and things like working to rule were to be effective, he said, they had to be planned – and everyone had to become involved. It was "all out" or no-one out as far as he was concerned.

Unsuccessful in the 1933 Rhondda by-election, by 1936 Horner had become President of the South Wales Fed and when World War Two broke out he was instrumental in working with the government to ensure a regular supply of coal – in return for improved working conditions and wages for all miners.

He was one of the leading figures in drawing up the Miners' Charter which, among other things, demanded a five day working week, two weeks paid holiday a year and pensions at the age of 55. The coal mines were nationalized in November 1947 and, much to Arthur Horner's joy, by 1955 all 12 points of the Charter had been implemented.

In 1946, Horner was elected as General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers. It was the pinnacle of his career and was a job he continued to hold until his retirement in 1959. That same year he was elected Freeman of the Borough of Merthyr Tydil.

Arthur Horner continued his interest in politics and workers' rights up until his death on 4 September 1968. His name might now have slipped from the consciousness of many, but his place in Welsh history is assured as one of the most significant and influential trade unionists this country has ever produced.

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