Of miners, gory horrors, and socialism at the sharp end

Row of miners' houses, with piles of uncut coal in the street by each door

We were in Wales for other reasons, and in Trehafod in particular only because there happened to be accommodation available there. Well, they say the best lessons are those learned by accident. We had a free morning, and went for a coffee in the Trehafod mining museum. I knew Welsh coalmining was interesting, dreadful and hugely significant to our history but now I know a whole lot more that I will never forget – The Dead Man’s Bath for a start. In amongst all the lists – lists of accidents, of deaths, lists of lock-ins, lock-outs and worse, stands this old bath, with a canvas stretcher thing. It was used to wash off, and check the state of, a man who comes up out of the mine probably dead or mortally wounded – you can’t tell, you see, until you’ve washed him off.

Trehafod mine museum

I also learned a lot we need to think about right now – about migrants, about what solidarity means, about what builds community, and what inspires socialism.

Did you know that people came from all over the world – places listed include India and Sicily – to work in the Welsh mines when the industry got going. Did you know that, when work drained away, the people whose parents and grandparents had come from all over the world to join in forging the culture of the valleys dispersed again to just about everywhere, taking some astonishing ideas with them?

Did you know that, in a way, it was the experience of the miners in the Welsh valleys that created the NHS? Here are some of the words of Gwyn Thomas, on display at Trehafod:

Across my childhood lay the eerie silence of the two great strikes. The summers of 1921 and 1926 were entranced. Soft young minds took deep print from the quietness of threatening machines quite still at last, the pleasure of long, sunlit talk with men who would normally have been working down in the dark.

When there was no work, he said, …

Many drifted away. The guard on the train operating the great dispersal warned the migrants about humanity’s way of concentrating huge battalions in tasks seemingly secure for eternity, then suddenly changing the scenery and telling the extras they are in the wrong picture.

Thomas wrote about how the “volcanic social experience” of living and working in the mining communities of the valleys created the politics and the music they are renowned for. About the chapels and friendly societies, the choirs, the drama, the solidarity, about how mining communities built and ran hospitals for the workers.

That’s why, when Bevan, son of a Tredegar miner, was working on the founding of our NHS, he said his goal was to “Tredegar Britain”.

The picture at the top of this blog is of coal delivery day in one of the mining villages. I don’t know much about it – it was on the wall in a pub or somewhere – but when you’ve finished imagining the struggles – both physical and political – of the mine workers, imagine getting your coal delivered in great lumps like that, and dumped in the street. Imagine coming home from a shift in the mines to spend your time off breaking up and bringing in your own coal. Or maybe mum did it, whilst one of the little-uns held the baby. A small thing? But did the pit owners’ coal get dumped in the street in great lumps like that?

Mine chimney and wheel by night

I will think of it as one of the many factors that fuelled a fierce determination to change the world. I’m reminded that in Selina Todd’s Snakes and Ladders, I read about how miners’ societies set up libraries so, despite long hours underground, miners provided themselves with both health and education services that the mine owners reckoned there was no need to provide. Let’s have a think about just how many things we’re doing for ourselves, or doing without, whilst our so-called leaders enjoy their parties and their war-games, and let’s remember that the miners didn’t ‘just’ do it for their own communities, some of their children grew up to be the politicians who founded those services for the whole of Britain, those services our current crop of politicians are closing and selling off.


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