David John Douglass reviews 'Colliers: Northumberland’s pitmen and their Football League team' by Jon Tait (Rough Badger Press, 2021, pp171, £7)
The coalfields of the 1920s were a hotbed of discontent and militant communist agitation. The bishop of Durham, Dr Hensley Henson, said that his Durham diocese was the “most communistic” in Britain - and could anyone wonder why?
In 1928 the Scottish and northern communists of the communist Labour League of Ex-Servicemen (LLEX), dressed in their khaki uniforms, stormed the platform of the Durham Miners’ Gala. The much-respected communist MP, Shapurji Saklatvala, had called from the platform for the Scottish miners to be given the right to speak - something which would never sit well with the deeply formalistic Durham Miners’ Association executive.
It was against such a background - and amidst ruling class fears that the British working class would follow the Soviet example to revolution - that two football teams of northern pitmen were forging their mark on the game: Ashington in Northumberland and Durham City. Both were founder-members of Division Three (North) in 1921.
The standing stones of bitter and epic battles of the union from its inception in 1825 - leaders who dragged themselves and their workmates up by their bootstraps with vision and principle; the great northern coalfield strikes of the Durham and Northumberland miners and national actions over 150 years - all will be well known to many former miners. The major disasters, whose impacts were scorched into the collective memories of northern coalfield communities likewise will come as no surprise to many of my generation, and previous ones. What is novel in this interesting book is the parallel struggles on the pitch, as ‘The Colliers’, through strikes and disasters, lock-outs and unbelievable hard work, battled for their teams.
This is a social, political and sporting tale interwoven in a way I have not seen or thought about before. It features men whose prowess on the field spared them no mercy down the pit at the coalface, where they were all still engaged in punishing shift work. The team interestingly played in black and white stripes - the traditional Northumberland County colours. The author, Jon Tait, retraces both the blow-by-blow action on the pitch and the triumph over many neighbouring teams, and the starry trajectory of some of their players.
The book has a number of interesting insights and cameos, not least the chapter on ‘Little Moscow’ - the red village of Chopwell. One of the most militant pits in the whole northern coalfield, it threw up some giants of men as leaders - not least the Lawther family, whose dynasty in the miners’ and left movement is remarkable still. It produced the first three ‘red banners’, which carried among them the images of Marx, Lenin, Keir Hardie, Arthur Cook and - in the uniform of the Irish Citizens Army, in which he died fighting for Irish freedom - the bold James Connolly. Unique in their far-left trajectory, the banners from Chopwell, Follonsby (Wardley) and Bewicke Main were all from Gateshead.
As for the football overlap, Ashington AFC was the farthest north team in the Third Division North. In the 1926-27 campaign, almost the entire team hailed from Northumberland, with the rest from ‘the toon’ or villages in County Durham. Their key striker and captain, James Price, was, though, a Scot - close enough! I confess to not being a football enthusiast (Father, forgive me!) and this book is something of a niche item for those who are. It records the matches, the scores, the stars, the defeats and the triumphs.
But what makes it fascinating is the social, industrial and political backdrop against which these games were being played: the sparse stands because of pit closures and mass layoffs, a world glut of coal and cheap imports, and the resulting real poverty of the northern population. It is also a remarkable piece of journalism, retracing the games, the images and the atmosphere from so long ago.
Another of the football chapters reveals the extent to which Northumbrian/Tyneside players influenced the birth of the game on the other side of the Atlantic, after first having cut their football teeth with the Colliers. Small world, eh?
I have not, however, in this review greatly focused on those chapters retelling the fortunes of the clubs and players, though they are a rich source of sporting history, with no doubt priceless and little known facts that are thoroughly well researched.
Like any true record of the labour movement on Tyneside, the history records the role of the Irish. James Cuthbert Laird, leader of the Tailors’ and Garment Workers’ Union, was a founder member of Newcastle and Gateshead Trades Union Council in January 1873 and remained its president for 20 years. He was also, remarkably, president of the TUC when it met in the Mechanics Hall, Newcastle, in 1876 with unions representing half a million workers.
Laird had played a leading role in the dynamic Newcastle tailors’ strike in 1854. One tends not to associate Newcastle strikes with tailors, but trade unionism was spreading like wildfire across all trades and skills during this period. The miners of Northumberland and Durham resolved that none of their members or families would deal with any firm which did not agree to the tailors’ basic demands - that would have been some purchasing power and a major incentive to reach a settlement.
Chapter 7 touches on the legend that is ‘Big Jack’ Charlton - a Northumbrian through and through. His family was part of the bedrock of what was known nationally as Britain’s biggest pit village - Ashington. The author declares that Charlton was, among other factors, a major influence over him:
The strike of 1984-85 came during my formative years - a heady mix of football, teenage girls, Adam and the Ants, writing, the CPGB, the NUM and Arthur Scargill. Jack instilled a sense of social responsibility in me, a hatred for injustice and a strong belief in the trade union movement for the good of the wider community and for social change.
A few of the Charltons had been involved in organising the Communist Party in Ashington, and played a leading role during the war years. James Charlton had stood as a communist in the Ashington Urban Council elections of 1948, along with three other CPGB candidates.
The role of the north-east in the fight for Spanish socialism against fascism is perhaps well known - a number of famous northern working class leaders made that stand and many paid with their lives. The author reckons that 100 men and women from the north-east went off to fight in Spain during the 1936-39 civil war.
One of the unavoidable features of the Northumbria and Durham working people’s history is the tendency to physical resistance. This was born of class struggle, of course, but also derived from the highly contradictory influences of both Jacobites and Jacobins. The large presence of Irish republicans in the region ensured the armed-struggle tendencies of that aspiration featured deeply on Tyneside and the coalfields.
So it was interesting to find that this book mentions the story of Percy Gibson, a Seghill miner and member of the CPGB, who had come with an improvised explosive device in 1924 to the Quayside in Newcastle. His target was either the town hall or the cylinders of a power station: by throwing Newcastle into darkness, he would allow the impoverished masses to loot the shops. He thought he was joining forces with some fellow communist insurgents, but sadly, although they were indeed fellow members of the CPGB, they had sold him out to the cops. Gibson went down for ‘the cause’ he thought he was serving.
This is a simple wee book: quietly and honestly spoken, it provides a cameo of the northern working class, how it was composed and what it stood for, and how that was represented on battlefields, picket lines and coalfaces, but also on football pitches. It is insightful and deeply moving in parts. It makes me reflect when people say, ‘Why can’t you forget all that and just move on?’
What is it that we are moving on from? What we had - the depth of that comradeship, hope and vision? And what exactly are we moving on to?
David John Douglass
David John Douglass - anarchist-syndicalist coalminer: reviews and articles appearing in the Weekly Worker.
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