Aristocrats of Labour

by northumberlandia

Aladdin's Cave

“The working man belonging to the upper-class of his order is a member of the aristocracy of the working-classes. He is a man of some culture, is well read in politics and social history. His self respect is also well developed.”

George Potter, 1870

“To have saved thy life, I would have parted with

My lands for years three,

For a better man of heart, or of hand,

Was not in the north country”

The Ballad of Chevy Chase, 14th century

It’s now a year since my grandfather died. Ken Lawton had been a coalminer for 38 years, and on Christmas Eve 2013 I watched that burly and battered body of his, blue-veined and strong right until the end, finally succumb to multiple illness and plain exhaustion. We were very close, and after my own grief passed I’ve spent time brooding on what his death meant to me and, to an extent, why I think it signifies a watershed in the history of the North East of England.

For this past year also saw the passing of Norman Cornish, that supremely gifted pitman artist who recorded the culture of the Northern Coalfield and represented, with my grandfather (who was also an artist) the noble tradition of the working class autodidact, schooled in that ‘underground university‘ that saw the coal miner as the elite vanguard of the working class.


Norman Cornish at a display of his work

And the pitmen of the Northumberland and Durham did think of themselves as the aristocrats of the working class, and took enormous pride in their skill and stamina. That was certainly true of my grandfather, and he was great on the romance of it all. The newspaper report above appeared on the front of the Coal News in 1966 when he and his marra Tommy Rutherford discovered a quartz-lined cavern “the size of a cathedral’ near Blyth, and he loved nothing better than baffling us with impenetrable talk of “windy-picks”, the “bull’s heed’ and “driving the caunch”. (Watch Richard Burton here on his father’s pitman swagger and passionate love for the ‘Great Atlantic Fault’ coal seam.)

New Hartley Pit Disaster Medal, 1862.

New Hartley Pit Disaster Medal, 1862.

To be sure, many people were terrified by working ‘doon the pit’, but not him; he loved every single moment, relishing the physicality, comradeship and even the dangerous thrill of mining for coal while the North Sea creaked and groaned above your head. Between 1850 and 1950, 85,000 British coal miners were killed at work (there were pits in the North East nicknamed the Slaughterhouse and the Butcher’s Shop), and Ken – who started work at New Hartley Colliery, where, in 1862, 204 men and boys had been killed – was badly mangled several times, saw men die underground and was present when his best pal lost an arm. Indeed, it only struck me after he’d died that his usual words on parting – ‘watch what your deeing’, or ‘keep a howld’, grew from the fear of loss as described by the pitman poet Joseph Skipsey:

“GET UP!” the caller calls, “Get up!”

And in the dead of night,

To win the bairns their bite and sup,

I rise a weary wight.

My flannel sudden donn’d thrice o’er

My birds are kiss’d, and then

I with a whistle shut the door

I may not ope’ again.

Over the centuries a Geordie work ethic crystallised into a code of honour that still has some cultural purchase in the only English region with a positive balance of trade. A Stakhanovite cult of hard work certainly prevailed among Ken and his pit marras, but for men like him who did ‘piece work’ it had a practical benefit too: as higher productivity meant higher pay – summed up nicely by this hymn to the output of the toiling Durham collier ‘Ee aye, aa cud hew’. Hard work was reinforced by the unique ‘cavil’ system that held sway in the North East (a sort of lottery that meant each squad of miners had a fair chance of a turn at the most profitable seams). This was a great motivating factor, and any perceived slacking was dealt with harshly, in-house, without recourse to any HR department. Eric Hobsbawm described how workmen like him emerged in the 1850s and acted as the ‘agents of capital’ in supervising, ‘pace-setting’ and disciplining the rest of the workforce. This meant refuelling was taken seriously, and Ken was famed for his prodigious appetite for his ‘bait’ and talent for imbibing lagoons of Federation Special – ‘the pitman’s pint’.

The concept of the ‘Labour Aristocracy’ gained a bad name in Marxist circles, where miners in particular were seen as ‘Liberalism’s fifth column’. Lenin himself, upon studying the British working class, criticized the ‘the petty bourgeois craft spirit which prevails among this aristocracy of labour’ and their ‘insular, aristocratic, and philistine’ trades unions. But on that last point at least Lenin was wrong, these were the least philistine proletarians in the world. For all the hard-drinking tough-guy stereotype of the Geordie workingman, what has made this workforce so appealing to me was their strong intellectual tradition.

To start with coalmining was not just about brute force: being a pitman was a highly skilled job, and alongside the region’s great innovators such as Stephenson, Armstrong, and Parsons, there were legions of brilliant mining engineers and ordinary pitmen who had to understand maths, physics and chemistry to be able to do their job. They may have been patronised by W. H. Auden as ‘lurcher loving colliers, black as night’ but their keen practical intelligence made for curious minds, and the autodidact from a humble background is a common trope in Northumbrian history, beginning, perhaps, with Caedmon, and takes in the brilliant engraver Thomas Bewick, the radical Thomas Spence, Britain’s first working class MP, the Tyneside pitman Thomas Burt and the working class novelist Sid Chaplin. ellington The archetype here is the Durham miner Jack Lawson, who ended his career in the House of Lords (via Ruskin College) after serving as Attlee’s Secretary of War. Lawson’s marvelous autobiography ‘A Man’s Life’ describes how, from his early teens, this ordinary pitman from Boldon Colliery immersed himself in great literature and philosophy. In wonderful lucid prose Lawson paints magical vignettes of pitmen discussing the finer points of Nietzsche and Thomas a Kempis at the coalface, or Lawson himself reading Milton to his new wife in their pit cottage. For Lawson, book-learning and exposure to the best of art and culture was a simple matter of justice

I had actually arrived at the conclusion that if there were any good life, and freedom from insecurity, and beauty and knowledge, or leisure, then the men who did the world’s dirty, sweaty, toilsome, risky work, and the women who shared the life with them, ought to be the first entitled to these things … I held that no man needs knowledge more than he who is subject to those who have. That if there is one man in the world who needs knowledge, it is he who does the world’s most needful work.

Note where the coal was: British coalfields at the turn of the century

Note where the coal was: British coalfields at the turn of the century

The self-improving workingman steeped in Samuel Smiles was a commonplace in Victorian Britain, and this culture found unusually fertile ground in the Great Northern Coalfield. The North East has been a seat of learning since Bede wrote the first history of England at Jarrow, and into the early modern period literacy levels in the region were the highest in England, and Newcastle was second only to London as a centre for printing and journalism. The growth of Methodism helped to cascade this tradition of Northern literacy to the new industrial working class, and Methodist Chapels and Workingmen’s Institutes came to fulfil the same role as Yeshivas did for the Jews of Eastern Europe (nor should we forget the remarkable degree of religious literacy among the Irish Catholic working classes in Britain in the era of the ‘penny catechism’). In the winter of 1883, over 1,000 miners lost wages and paid fines for missed shifts to attend workers’ lectures in Newcastle on science, history and political economy, and the North East became an early hotbed of the Workers Education movement where ‘the only qualification was an enquiring mind’.


Newcastle Public Library Reading Room, 1910

The light-from-darkness possibilities of all this has provided a rich seam for dramatists. Starting with Michael Redgrave attempting a Tyneside accent in The Stars Look Down (1940), Alan Plater and Alex Glasgow’s Close the Coalhouse Door (1968) and Lee Hall’s modern classics, Billy Elliot (which no Geordie can watch with dry eyes), and the peerless Pitmen Painters, those Ashington miners represented what was probably the high-water mark of the North East working class’s culture of self-improvement and intellectual curiosity. That workingmen should have an intellectual hinterland was as surprising to modern theatregoers, as it was to baffled art professors and mass observers in the 1930s. One review I read criticized Hall for ‘dabbing the otherwise solidly working-class vocabularies of his characters with randomly refined verbs and adjectives’, thinking it unlikely that miners would use a word like ‘gallivanting’. But my own grandparents speech was exactly like this: unalloyed ‘pitmatic’ Geordie, with frequent Dickensian flourishes, like gallivanting (a word they used all the time for some reason) and their everyday conversation was littered with words like vexed, reconnoitre, transpire, decidedly and (my grandmother’s favourite) impertinent.

But again we should not forget the deep roots of Geordie literacy: there had always been a highly developed oral culture in the North East, where chapbooks, printed songs and broadsides sold in spades, and where the ‘the crack’ (whose Hibernicisation into ‘the craic’ is a modern development) was vital and good talkers were celebrated – think of Bobby Thompson’s witty monologues, Viz comic’s surprisingly erudite toilet humour, or how Sid Waddell, the Ashington miner’s son who went to Cambridge, peppered his unsurpassed darts patter with surreal classical illusions “When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer … Bristow’s only 27!”

A prominent leitmotif in dramas like these is another trait of the North East, namely unashamed toughness softened by a certain sentimentality: think of Billy Elliot’s macho father weeping at the picket line, the little girl sat on an Armstrong gun barrel in Iron and Coal, Ralph Hedley’s ‘Geordie Ha’ad the Bairn’, or the touching farewell scene in the midst of grim-visaged Northumberland Fusiliers marching to war in The Response.

(c) Laing Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Geordie Ha’ad the Bairn, by Ralph Hedley

Indeed, writing of the Border Reivers, the historian G. M. Trevelyan noted that

like the Homeric Greeks, they were cruel, coarse savages, slaying each other as the beasts of the forest; yet they were also poets who could express in the grand style the inexorable fate of the individual man and woman, and infinite pity for all the cruel things which they none the less perpetually inflicted upon one another.

It was useful for Britain that men of the same stock were available to inflict cruel things on the Nazis centuries later, and it’s no coincidence that the famous 50th Northumbrian Division were the last British unit off the beach at Dunkirk, and the first to land at Normandy four years later (note well how these films from 1944 and 1945 play up the sentimental in their tribute to the region’s hard working and hard fighting men). An Anglo-Scottish friend of mine from Barrow is less impressed by all this and likes to mock ‘lachrymose Geordies’, greeting at the slightest provocation and it should come as no surprise that Gresford, the weepy ‘miners hymn’, although written for a Welsh mining disaster, was composed by a Tyneside pitman.)


What did all these cultural strains mean for North East politics? Broadly speaking in the post-war period the ‘Old Labour Right’ prevailed. The unions were instinctively conservative, with a narrow focus on their own hard-won rights and privileges. Membership of the European Coal and Steel community was rejected, in Herbert Morrison’s memorable words, because the “the Durham miners won’t wear it.” With nationalisation of their industry in 1947 many miners thought that the grim industrial battles of the last 100 years had been won. And who could blame them? When Harold McMillan claimed that working people had never had it so good, this Butskellite ‘politics of contentment’ was echoed by men like the powerful Durham Miners Leader Sam Watson (allegedly at the instruction of his CIA handlers), and stalwarts of the Labour right like Newcastle MP like Ted Short (who taught my grandfather in Blyth in the 30s), who ‘ran the Parliamentary Labour Party like the Durham Light Infantry’. Slide1 And real progress had been made. Some older pit communities had been declared as bleak as Belsen itself, but the miners’ satisfaction at this new world of the National Coal Board, NHS and well-built council housing was well summed up by the pit banner of Ellington Colliery (designed by Oliver Kilbourn of the Ashington group) ‘Close the Door on Past Dreariness. Open up to Future Brightness’. Indeed, the Northumberland Coalfield that my mother grew up in in the 1950s and 1960s came as close to Nye Bevan’s ideal of working class ‘serenity’ as any other time in its history. Life was good, communities were incredibly strong (even claustrophobically so), enforcing codes of decency and industriousness, and reached standards of living that Tommy Hepburn could only have dreamed of. By the early 70s, when the miners helped Ted Heath to answer his question ‘who governs?’, NUM leader Joe Gormley was arguing that miners should have “a Jag at the front of the house, good schools for the kids and a mini for the wife to go shopping”, and a contemporary Coal Board ad paints an impossibly glamorous picture of pitmen as well-heeled lounge-lizards.

NCB But was it sustainable? Leaving aside the economics of nationalized coal production, there were other pressures on traditional community structures. Geordie miners traditionally saw their role as chief breadwinner, bringing home enough money so that their wives did not have to take on paid work. This was, ostensibly at least, a man’s world where the only concession to femininity was the names of the mines themselves (in my own village there was a Gloria and Hester pit, and we used to pay football against Isabella Colliery). Men were even fed first (as they needed the calories) while the women hung back, a tradition maintained by my grandmother right up until the 2000s. However the archetypal strong woman was also celebrated in North East culture – from Cushie Butterfield and Grace Darling to Winslow Homer’s brawny Cullercoats fishwives – and in places like South Shields where men were either underground, away at sea or in the pub, women really did rule the community.  Yet the truth was that this world of full employment lit by a flame of workingmen’s self improvement was already dying as early as the 1960s, caught by a pincer movement of laissez-faire social and economic liberalism so brilliantly analysed by the late Norman Dennis.


Saturday Night by Oliver Kilbourn

I am just old enough to have witnessed the glowing embers of this culture – of old men in dark suits straight out of a Norman Cornish painting at the bar of Seaton Terrace Club, of well kept council estates and allotment gardens, and women in headscarves going to the ‘hoosy’ (bingo hall). But what a privilege it was to be born into that world and be brought up by loving parents and grandparents who valued hard work and education for its own sake.

Nineteenth century balladeers may have sung that ‘Delaval is a terrible place [where] they rub wet clay in the blackleg’s face’, but growing up in the area and spending time with my grandparents on the Seaton Delaval ‘coonsul estate’ where they lived, childhood was pretty idyllic. We were possibly the last generation to ‘play out’ unsupervised, roaming our burned out corner of the Northumberland coast, a Kes-like landscape of open fields studded with pigeon crees and rusting lumps of Victorian machinery, and only returning home panting and hacky when our tea was ready. Breathing in the coal smoke at Beamish still sends me into a Proustian reverie and some of my happiest memories recall time spent with my grandparents – listening to Ken cheerfully singing show-tunes in the kitchenette at 4 Coronation Road, or watching him toiling away in his allotment (which he treated like a full time job after leaving the pit – partly at my grandmother’s insistence to get him ‘oot the hoose’).

Pitmen in Drag, Seaton Delaval Gala, 1959.

Pitmen in Drag, Seaton Delaval Gala, 1959.

It’s from Ken that I learned about the immense worth and dignity of the ordinary working-man and woman. For my grandfather this was reflected in everything, from his politics – and the respect and fellow feeling he often talked about for working people all over the world – to him always wearing a collar and tie wherever he went.  My grandfather may have worked with his hands but this was a man with a deep intellectual hinterland. Omnivorous in his interests from Egyptology to American Westerns (he was great to watch films with), and a ferocious reader always devouring books on history and politics. He was a devoted family man first and foremost, but he was also a tremendous singer, a highly skilled craftsman, a champion leek-grower and allotment gardener, an amateur poet, and an accomplished, self-taught artist.

My Plot, by Ken Lawton

My Plot, by Ken Lawton

It was his appetite for knowledge that partly explains another of his characteristics: for he was a man of real principle. A proud Labour man (my mates called him ‘Red Ken’) a rock-solid Trade-Unionist, who always stood his ground on unfashionable causes. He refused to accept pension credits as he thought his income from the state and Coal Board was “quite sufficient”, and he even turned down the chance to buy his council house when he had the chance – because, as he said to me at the time, “another family could use that home when I’m gone”.

Bill Brandt, 'Coal Miner at his Evening Meal', Northumberland, 1937

Bill Brandt, ‘Coal Miner at his Evening Meal’, Northumberland, 1937

I learned so much from him: from his half-joking advice to “never work shifts, and never put the same numbers on the football pools” to more fundamental values like working hard, looking after your family and never, ever, letting other people tell you what to think. But perhaps what made the biggest impression on me was his fierce anti-racism. Despite the prevailing Labour politics in the region this was still unusual amongst people of his generation, and he would always, always, confront bigotry (to the extent of getting into scraps with racist loudmouths). In fact, in the early 70s his nephew married a black nurse from the Caribbean and this being the era of ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ she’d had a hard time. I met her for the first time at Ken’s funeral and to see how upset she was when recalling how kind and welcoming he’d been back then was an incredibly poignant moment for me.


Now Geordies can be as be as tediously chauvinist as the most boring Yorkshireman, but as Harry Pearson put it recently, Newcastle’s ‘atmosphere of almost pathological friendliness and good humour’ stems from ‘one simple thing: all Geordies believe themselves blessed to have been born here.’ I certainly feel that and for all the region’s enduring strengths, I do grieve for the loss of that working class culture, for the pitmatic dialect, for workingmen’s clubs that aspired to more than just selling beer, and for men like my grandfather Ken Lawton.

Ken Lawton, 1924-2013