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During the years of World War Two, support was growing both inside and outside the coal industry for the mines to be nationalised.
The outbreak of war exposed the coal ownersï¿½ callous treatment of the vital energy source under their control. Indiscriminate colliery closures, investment starvation, safety standards ignored - these were the hallmarks of private ownership.
Consequently, when with the onset of war the Government needed a dramatic increase in coal production, the privately-held industry had been ill-equipped to meet demand.
In this period, regular talks began between Government ministers and MFGB leaders, discussing how best to tackle the industryï¿½s problems and ensure a flow of coal for Britainï¿½s war effort.
For their part, the miners made clear that it was essential for coal to be nationalised once the war was over. Nationalisation was a cherished dream that thousands upon thousands of miners had striven to attain in countless struggles.
No group of workers had been more cruelly exploited by the profit motive and greed which characterised coal owners who had always been able to turn their backs on the suffering of mineworkers and their families.
While campaigning for public ownership, they also began to move towards establishing a truly National Union to replace the federated structure that had operated since 1889.
Initial steps in this direction were taken in 1942, when an MFGB sub-committee drafted proposals ï¿½to merge all the districts and sectional minersï¿½ unions into one national organisation covering all mineworkers employed in and around the collieries of Great Britainï¿½.
British miners had begun drawing up the blueprint for one industry and one union.
The war-time coalition Government had assumed emergency powers and, with a shortage of manpower in the pits, young men were conscripted into the coal industry in the same way as into the armed forces.
These ï¿½Bevin Boysï¿½ as they were known (named after the Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin) came from all walks of life and included people such as John Platts Mills QC who throughout his long career as a barrister (and MP) has remained a solid friend and supporter of British miners.
Despite the desperate need for coal, however, miners; wages remained low, and conditions extremely difficult. How low, and how difficult can be seen from the fact that during the war, miners were prepared to defy the Essential Work Order imposed in May 1941 (legislation which made each colliery a 'ï¿½scheduled undertaking' from which a worker could neither go nor be dismissed).
Miners at Betteshanger in Kent took strike action in 1941 defying not only the law but the court which found them guilty of breaking that law. Their determination to fight for a just wage made the name Betteshanger famous.
In 1944, miners in Scotland, Yorkshire and South Wales also took strike action, and forced the Government and coal owners to agree to the establishment of a national minimum wage which lifted mineworkers from eighty-first to fourteenth place in the wages league.
By their steadfastness, courage and unity, they had redressed the injustice of 1921, and re-established a guaranteed minimum wage.
In that same year, 1944, as the long cherished dream of nationalisation appeared to take shape on the horizon, a founding conference held in Nottingham established the National Union of Mineworkers.
This conference made clear its firm desire to put into effect a Minersï¿½ Charter of demands on behalf of those who toiled in the bowels of the earth. During the 1945 General Election campaign the new Union declared:
Labourï¿½s landslide victory in 1945 cleared the way for passage of the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act. All the rights, assets and liabilities of the industry were to be transferred from the coal owners to the new National Coal Board.
A dangerous trade
Since 1850, more than 100,000 miners have perished in accidents at work. The callous disregard for safety demonstrated by mine owners was most dramatically brought home in the evidence presented to inquests into colliery disasters. The kind of conditions which led to explosions were described after the Gresford disaster of September 22, 1934, by minersï¿½ MP D. Grenfell as follows:
After nationalisation, the union secured some long sought improvements in safety underground. But these did not prevent several major post-war disasters. One of the worst took place at Creswell Colliery, near Worksop, on September 26, 1950. Fire broke out at the junction of two conveyor-belts about a mile from the pit shaft during the early morning shift. Rescue teams fought the blaze but were unable to reach eighty miners, who were tragically killed.
Apprentices taken on that day were handed the grim task of digging a mass grave for the victims.
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