The coal industry in wartime
by Dr Martin Johnes, University of Wales Swansea
Coal was central to the war effort. It not only kept people warm but powered industry, railways and shipping. After the loss of French and Belgian coalfields to the Allied war effort, Welsh coal was all the more important. This meant that the war saw some form of prosperity return to the south Wales coalfield after the long, hard inter-war years.
One in ten eighteen-year-olds were drafted into mines rather than the forces.
25,000 Welsh workers left mining for the armed forces and other jobs between 1938 and 1941. The coal industry moved from having tens of thousands of unwanted men to a serious labour shortage. To combat the problem mining was made a reserved occupation, exempting its employees from military service, whether they liked it or not. The government then took over control of the coal industry from its owners in 1942. The effect was quickly felt as Welsh miners were moved to coalfields such as Kent and the Forest of Dean where labour shortages were more acute.
The labour shortage also led to the introduction of the 'Bevin Boys' in 1943 - named after Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour and National Service. One in ten eighteen-year-olds were drafted into mines rather than the forces, something not popular with the draftees who often felt denied their opportunity to fight abroad. Nonetheless, after some initial culture shock, the introduction of middle and working-class Englishmen into the hard world of the south Wales coalfield did help the sense that the war was a shared experience for the whole of Britain.
The Bevin Boys were not always popular with existing miners.
Fears and complaints
The Bevin Boys were not always popular with existing miners who feared that they might take away local jobs once the war was over. The memory of inter-war unemployment was never far away among the miners and there was a constant worry that such conditions would return. Such fears were made worse by the fact that that unemployment never even completely disappeared during the war. Elderly and disabled former miners unable to work in the coal industry anymore were the most vulnerable. Munitions factories had not been built in the valleys because of a lack of space and transport was often too expensive for ex-miners to travel far to work.
Those miners in work had their own complaints. There was a deep sensitivity about the difference between miners' and munitions workers' wages. Although the latter were better paid, munitions workers were also working 60-70 hours a week, compared to the miners' 47 hours. Nonetheless, discovering that he earned less than his daughter or wife angered many a Welsh miner. There were at least overtime opportunities and with whole families in employment the mining communities were earning more than ever.
A combination of war weariness, fears for the future and the new bargaining power that the labour shortage created for the miners meant industrial relations in coal were often poor. Trade union leaders were committed to the war effort and involved in its planning at a local and regional level. But at the coalface there were tensions, especially when miners were prosecuted for petty offences such as being late for work without permission.
There were 514 stoppages in the south Wales coalfield between September 1939 and October 1944. Most were unofficial like the 1942 and 1943 'pit boys' strikes by young miners who were angry at earning less than older men. In the spring of 1944, 100,000 Welsh miners went on strike over wages. The dispute won the miners a healthy minimum wage but it meant that some saw them as unpatriotic.
The writer and miner Bert Coombes noted that many young miners during the war were bitter about conditions, distrustful of officialdom and often had little respect for older workers and community institutions. He put this down to them growing up in period of idleness and misery. More sympathetically, a miners' agent in the Swansea valleys noted the strikes were as much a revolt against the 'conditions of life during the war' as they were about wages. He pointed out, 'Couldn't get anything, see, you went to the pit, came out of the pit, and that was the end of the bloody day for you. See, you couldn't go down town, or if you went down town, you wouldn't be able to buy anything or spend anything'.
The war showed that coal was still needed.
Towards a better future
During the war, Dylan Thomas wrote a wartime Ministry of Information film which showed footage of unemployed Welsh miners and concluded 'It must never happen again'. In 1943, The Times said that 'Wales faces the future with hope and fear. Will history repeat itself?' The war showed that coal was still needed and that state control could create a situation where both wages and employment levels improved significantly. The determination to ensure those gains were not lost after the war meant that the miners did not let themselves be manipulated in the name of the war effort in every way the government wanted. Welsh mining communities wanted to win the war of course, but they also wanted to win the peace.
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