DAVID HOPPER, General Secretary of the Durham Miners’ Association, looks back at the remarkable life of Robert ‘Bob’ Smillie as he reviews a new book on the Labour movement pioneer.
As a lifelong coalminer myself, I was aware of Robert Smillie and when his great grandson, Blair Smillie, forwarded to me a proof copy of this book, I thought I would be reading another typical story of a miners’ leader. How wrong I was.
Because of my own history I have read many books, leaflets, magazines and pamphlets on mining, mining communities and mining men, indeed I hold a collection of hundreds of books which one day I hope to finish reading.
I knew of ‘Bob’ Smillie also because his portrait adorns the banners of Sacriston Handen Hold and Easington collieries in the Durham coalfield. It is a great honour to be recognised by your fellow men, and to have your portrait on a miners’ banner is the ultimate accolade.
What’s more, Smillie was selected to address the famous Durham Miners’ Gala in 1911, 1914, 1919 and 1924, periods of enormous struggle for Britain’s mineworkers, and indeed for the nation.
Bob Smillie was born in 1857 in Belfast. As a young man, to escape the poverty and try to find a new and better life, he moved to join his brother in Britain. Shortly afterwards he made the move to coal mining in the Lanarkshire coalfield in Scotland.
He explains vividly his thoughts and tribulations as a young coalminer; the dangers faced every day in the collieries; the squalid living conditions in the mineowners’ tied cottages; the long hours being worked; and the extremely low wages. These were among the things, I am sure, which made him a lifelong socialist. He relates his rise through the ranks of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, from branch to area level and eventually to the presidency of a union which had over a million members.
During this rise through the ranks he made friends with a fellow Scottish mineworker whose name and deeds are known throughout the world. James Keir Hardie was the first Labour MP and became first leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1906. These two men shared a great friendship until Hardie’s death in 1915. I wonder what they would of made of ‘New Labour’? No prizes for the correct answer.
My late father, who was a coal miner for 49 years, thought the two greatest achievements of the Labour Party were the establishment of the National Health Service and the nationalisation of the mining industry in 1947.
Smillie did not live to see the creation of the NHS but he advocated the nationalisation of the mines and gave evidence at the Coal Industry Commission in 1919 when the Sankey report was adopted. This recommended a number of improvements in wages and conditions for mineworkers, but crucially recommended the nationalisation of the mines. The then Liberal government reneged on this promise and Smillie personally blamed himself. It was to be another 28 years before nationalisation was achieved, but Bob Smillie gave very forceful and skilful advocacy at the commission and played a major part in this achievement.
During his time in the national office of the miners’ union, he also played a major role in the first ever national miners’ strike in 1912, when over a million miners walked out over wages. The dispute ended with the Liberal government passing legislation to give local boards the power to set minimum wage levels in the districts, thereby removing the decisions from the sole control of the mine owners.
These decisions on nationalisation and the minimum wage were great achievements but there Smillie achieved much more for his beloved miners in the tireless years he represented his fellow workers.
He was instrumental in forming the Triple Alliance of Miners, Rail and Transport workers and remained loyal to its principles. He was a convinced pacifist and openly opposed capitalist wars where workers killed and maimed workers from other nations on behalf of the bosses and their quest for profits and markets.
His legacy remains in the institutions he was instrumental in founding: the Scottish Trade Union Congress, the Independent Labour Party, and the National Council for Civil Liberties. These are a measure of the man and his desire to make life better for his fellow man.
After serving the mineworkers so well, and even though he was suffering from ill health, his remarkable talents were still wanted by the miners of Northumberland who persuaded him to become their Member of Parliament for Morpeth.
This book tells of a remarkable journey through a remarkable man’s life and times in the turmoil of the early 20th century when serious industrial conflicts, the first world war, the Easter Rising, and the Russian revolution, were just some of the gigantic events in world history which occurred during Smillie’s watch.
He was also a devoted family man who liked nothing better than to relax with his wife and family back in the mining village of Larkhall.
After reading this book, I now know a tremendous amount about what Robert Smillie stood for: justice, equality, humanitarism, peace and socialism. He cared for all people, not only those he represented. His dedication and effort changed society for the better, and he sought no reward, just a better society.
The book has inspired me to greater effort to try and change society today. When Robert Smillie was in office, the struggle to effect change was very much more difficult than now. His efforts made life much more bearable for future generations.
I would recommend it to anyone interested in social history. Robert Smillie I salute you.
Labour of Love: The Story of Robert Smillie, by Torquil Cowan, is published by Neil Wilson Publishing, ISBN 13: 9781906476618