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J. Keir Hardie
Chapter 1. The Making of an Agitator


JAMES KEIR HARDIE was born on August 15th, 1856, in a one-roomed house at Legbrannock, near Holytown in Lanarkshire, amongst the miners, of whom he was to become one, and with whose interests he was to be closely identified all through life.

His father, David Hardie, was not, however, a miner, nor of miner stock. He was a ship carpenter by trade, drawn into this district by the attractions of Mary Keir, a domestic servant, who became his wife and the mother of the future labour agitator. Both parents .were endowed with strong individuality of character, of a kind not calculated to make life smooth for themselves or their offspring; but it was undoubtedly from the mother that the boy inherited that resourcefulness and power of endurance which enabled him, through a full half century of unceasing strife, to develop and, in some measure, realise those ideals of working-class independence and organisation with which his name is associated.

Not much is known of Keir Hardie’s years of infancy, but that they were not overflowing with joy may be surmised from the fact that in his eighth year we find the family—increased in numbers—living in the shipbuilding district of Glasgow in very straightened circumstances even for working folk.

Latterly, the father had been following his trade at sea, but was now trying to settle down to work in the shipyards, not an easy thing to do at a time when trade was dull and employment scarce. This may account for the fact that the home was, now on the Govan side, now on the Partick side, and never got itself really established as a steady going working-class household. A brief period of regular employment was broken by an accident which incapacitated the breadwinner for many weeks, during which there were no wages nor income of any kind, and as a consequence there was an accruing burden of debt. Those were not the days of Compensation Acts and Workmen’s Insurance.

At this period we get our first real glimpse of the boy Keir Hajdie and of the conditions under which his character developed. Hardly had the father recovered from his illness and started to work when a strike took place in the shipbuilding trade. One of Hardie’s earliest recollections was of attending a trade union meeting with his father who advised against the strike on the ground of lack of funds and slackness of trade. During this dispute the family were compelled to sell most of their household goods, and what was worse, to enlist the boy of seven as one of the breadwinners. His first job was as a message boy to the Anchor Line Steamship Company, and as school attendance was now impossible, the father and mother devoted much of their time in the evenings to his education, and were at least able to teach him to read, and to love reading, which is the basis of all education.

After a short time spent as a message boy, he was sent into a brass-finishing shop, the intention being to apprentice him to that trade, but when it was learned that the first year must be without wages, brass finishing was abandoned, and his next place was in a lithographer’s in the Trongate at half-a-crown a week. That did not last long and we find him serving as a baker’s message boy at three shillings a week. From this he went to heating rivets in Thompson’s shipyard on a fifty per cent, rise in wages, four shillings and sixpence a week. He would probably have continued at this employment and Clydeside would have had the nurturing of a great agitator, but a fatal accident to two boys in the shipyard frightened the mother, and once more he became a baker’s message boy.

All this experience was crowded within the space of two years and while he was still but a child. Many other working-class children have had similar experiences. Several generations of them in fact, have been denied all knowledge of the natural joys of childhood in order that the present industrial system might be founded and run. Whether that tremendous historical fact finds any reflection in the mentality of the present day British working class need not be discussed here, but it is undoubted that these child-time experiences left an indelible mark on the character of Keir Hardie. It was a period of his life to which in after years he seldom referred, but always with bitterness. The manner of its ending forms the theme of one of the few autobiographical notes which he has left us, and for that reason, if for no other, his own description of it may be given.

There had been a great lock-out of Clyde shipworkers lasting six weary months. The Union funds were soon exhausted. In the Hardie household everything that could be turned into food had been sold. The boy’s four shillings and sixpence a week was the only income. One child, next in age to Keir, took fever and died, and another child was about to be born. “The outlook was black,” says Hardie, looking back upon it, “but there was worse to come, and the form it took made it not only a turning point in my life, but also in my outlook upon men and things. I had reached an age at which I understood the tragedy of poverty, and had a sense of responsibility to those at home far beyond my years. I knew that, despite the brave way in which my mother was facing the situation, she was feeling the burden almost too great for her to bear, and on more than one occasion I had caught her crying by herself. One winter morning I turned up late at the baker’s shop where I was employed and was told I had to, go upstairs to see the master. I was kept waiting outside the door of the dining-room while he said grace—he was noted for religious zeal— and, on being admitted, found the master and his family seated round a large table. He was serving out bacon and eggs while his wife was pouring coffee from a glass infuser which at once—shamefaced and terrified as I was— attracted my attention. I had never before seen such a beautiful room, nor such a table, loaded as it was with food and beautiful things. The master read me a lecture before the assembled family on the sin of slothfulness, and added that though he would forgive me for that once, if I sinned again by being late I should be instantly dismissed, and so sent me to begin work.

“But the injustice of the thing was burning hot within me, all the more that I could not explain why I was late. The fact was that I had not yet tasted food. I had been up most of the night tending my ailing brother, and had risen betimes in the morning but had been made late by assisting my mother in various ways before starting. The work itself was heavy and lasted from seven in the morning till closing time.

“Two mornings afterwards, a Friday, I was again a few minutes late, from the same source, and was informed on arriving at the shop that I was discharged and my fortnight’s wages forfeited by way of punishment. The news stupefied me, and finally I burst out crying and begged the shopwoman to intercede with the master for me. The morning was wet and I had been drenched in getting to the shop and must have presented a pitiable sight as I stood at the counter in my wet patched clothes. She spoke with the master through a speaking tube, presumably to the breakfast room I remembered so well, but he was obdurate, and finally she, out of the goodness of her heart, gave me a piece of bread and advised me to look for another place. For a time I wandered about the streets in the rain, ashamed to go home where there was neither food nor fire, and actually discussing whether the best thing was not to go and throw myself in the Clyde and be done with a life that had so little attractions. In the end I went to the shop and saw the master and explained why I had been late. But it was all in vain. The wages were never paid. But the master continued to be a pillar of the Church and a leading light in the religious life of the city!”

A poignant reminiscence for any human being to carry through life, and explanatory of the ready sympathy for desolate children characteristic of the man in after years; and also of his contempt for that kind of hypocrisy which covers up injustice under the cloak of religion.

The upshot of it all was that the father in sheer despair went off again to sea, and the mother with her children, removed to Newarthill, where her own mother still lived, and quite close to the place where Keir was born.

Thus there had arrived, as he himself has said, a turning point in his life, deciding that his lot should be cast with that of the mining community and determining some other things which, taken altogether, constituted a somewhat complex environment and impulse for a receptive minded lad growing from boyhood to adolescence.

Both parents had what is called in Scotland a strictly religious upbringing, and had encouraged the boy to attend regularly at Sunday School. The Glasgow experience had changed all that. They were persons of strong individuality. The mother especially had a downright way of looking at life, and had no use for the forms of a religion which sanctioned the kind of treatment which she and those she loved had passed through. Henceforward the Hardie household was a free-thinking household, uninfluenced by “kirk-gaun” conventionalities or mere traditional beliefs. Priest and Presbyter were not kept outside the door, but there was free entrance also for books critical of orthodoxy or secular in interest, and on the same shelf with the Bible and the Pilgrim’s Progress might be found Paine’s “Age of Reason” and works by Ingersoll, together with Wilson’s “Tales of the Borders” and the poems of Burns. All the members of the family grew up with the healthy habit of thinking for themselves and not along lines prescribed by custom.

Almost immediately on coming to Newarthill the boy, now ten years of age, went down the pit as trapper to a kindly old miner, who before leaving him for the first time at his lonely post, wrapped his jacket round him to keep him warm. The work of a trapper was to open and close a door which kept the air supply for the men in a given direction. It was an eerie job, all alone for ten long hours, with the underground silence only disturbed by the sighing and whistling of the air as it sought to escape through the joints of the door. A child’s mind is full of vision under ordinary surroundings, but with the dancing flame of the lamps giving life to the shadows, only a vivid imagination can conceive what the vision must have been to this lad.

At this time he began to attend Fraser’s night school at Holytown. The teacher was genuinely interested in his pupils and did all he could for them with his limitations of time and equipment. There was no light provided in the school and the pupils had to bring their own candles. Learning had now a kind of fascination for the boy. He was very fond of reading, and a book, “The Races of the World,” presented to him by his parents, doubtless awakened in his mind an interest in things far beyond the coal mines of Lanarkshire. His mother gave him every encouragement. She had a wonderful memory. “Chevy Chase” and all the well-known ballads and folk-lore tales were recited and rehearsed round the winter fire. In this manner and under these diverse influences did the future Labour leader pass his boyhood, absorbing ideas and impressions which remained with him ever afterwards.

The father returned from sea and found work on the railway then being made between Edinburgh and Glasgow. When this was finished, the family removed to the village of Quarter in the Hamilton district, where Keir started as pit pony driver, passing from that through other grades to coal hewing, and by the time he was twenty had become a skilled practical miner, and had also gained two years’ experience above ground working in the quarries.

He was in the way however of becoming something more than a miner. At the instigation of his mother he had studied and become proficient in shorthand writing, and through the same guidance had joined the Good Templar movement which was then establishing itself in most of the Scottish villages. He became an enthusiastic propagandist in the Temperance cause, and it was in this sphere that he really began to take a part in public work. His habit of independent thinking too, had led him, not to reject religion but only its forms and shams and doctrinal accretions, and he was associating himself with what seemed to him the simplest organised expression of Christianity, namely the Evangelical Union. He was, in fact, like many another earnest soul at his time of life seeking outlets for his spiritual vitality. Because of the part he was now playing in local public affairs his brother miners pushed him into the chair at meetings for the ventilating of their grievances, and appointed him on deputations to the colliery managers, posts which he accepted, not without warning from some of his friends in the Temperance movement as to the dangers of taking part in the agitations going on in the district—warnings which, to a youth of his temperament, were more likely to stimulate forward than to hold back. Without knowing it, almost involuntarily, he had become a labour agitator, a man obnoxious to authority, and regarded as dangerous by colliery managers and gaffers.

The crisis came for him one morning when descending No. 4 Quarter pit. Half-way down the shaft, the cage stopped and then ascended. On reaching the surface he was met by the stormy-faced manager who told him to get off the Company’s grounds and that his tools would be sent home. “We’ll hae nae damned Hardies in this pit,” he said, and he was as good as his word, for the two younger brothers were also excommunicated. The Hardie family was having its first taste of the boycott. Keir now realised that he was evidently a person of some importance in the struggle between masters and men, and a comprehension of that fact was perhaps the one thing needed to give settled direction to his propagandist energies, hitherto spent somewhat diffusely in movements which afforded no opportunity of getting at close quarters with an enemy. By depriving him of his means of livelihood, the enemy itself had come to close quarters with him. He had been labelled an agitator and he accepted the label.

The mining industry was at this time in a deplorable condition from the men’s point of view. The few years of prosperity and comparatively high wages during the Franco-Prussian War had been followed by severe depression, which, as usual, pressed more acutely upon wages than upon dividends. The West of Scotland miners, perhaps through lack of the right kind of leadership, had not taken advantage of the prosperous years to perfect their organisation, and when the slump came were completely at the mercy of the employers. In the attempt to resist reductions the Lanarkshire County Union, after some desultory and disastrous strikes, had collapsed. A chaotic state of matters existed throughout Lanarkshire. There was no cohesion or co-ordination, each district fighting for its own hand. During these black years the miners were crushed down to 2s. per day in the Quarter district where Hardie was now boycotted, and to 1s. 8d. and 1s. 9d. in the Airdrie district.

Here then was Hardie in the reawakening of the need amongst the miners to reorganise for self-preservation. A large-scale strike was impossible. Limitation of output was the only alternative, and that meant a still further reduction of the weekly wage already at starvation point. Yet men and women, disorganised as they were, made the sacrifice all over Lanarkshire. The miners, always good fighters, were beginning to lift their heads again. What was wanted was leadership. By driving Hardie from one district to another the employers themselves made him a leader of the men. The family moved to Low Waters, near the Cadzow collieries; and here

Hardie began to show that resourcefulness which in future years was to carry him through many a difficult situation. He opened a tobacconist’s and stationer’s shop, while his mother set up a small grocery business. His painfully acquired shorthand proficiency now also came into play, and he became correspondent to the “Glasgow Weekly Mail,” for the Coatbridge and Airdrie district, thus modestly making his first entrance into the world of journalism, a sphere in which he might easily have made great progress but for the insistent call of the labour movement. The appointment at least gave him greater freedom to carry on his work among the miners.

In the month of May, 1879, the masters had intimated another reduction of wages. This had the effect of quickening the agitation. Huge meetings were held every week in the Old Quarry at Hamilton, and at one of these meetings on July 3rd, 1879, Hardie was appointed Corresponding Secretary. This gave him a new outlet and enabled him to get in touch with representative miners all over Lanarkshire. On July 24th, three weeks after his appointment, he submitted to a mass meeting rules for the guidance of the organisation. These were adopted, and at the same meeting he was chosen aq delegate to attend a National Conference of Miners to be held in Glasgow the week following. Speaking at a meeting of miners at Shieldmuir in August of this year, he declared that over-production had been the ruin of the miners, and said that he held in his hand a letter from Alexander Macdonald, M.P., reminding the Lanarkshire miners that they were in the same position as in 1844 when, by united action, wages were raised from 3s. to 5s. per day. The following week, at a mass meeting, he was appointed Miners’ Agent, with a majority of 875 over the highest vote cast for other candidates. He was now twenty-three years of age and he had found his vocation. He was to be a labour agitator.

Probably he himself did not realise how uphill and thorny was the path he had entered upon, nor how far it would lead him. Almost immediately a curious and well-nigh unbelievable incident brought home to him some of the difficulties of his task.- On September 4th, a huge demonstration was held at Low Waters at which Alexander Macdonald was the chief speaker. Hardie moved the resolution of welcome to the veteran agitator, and in a somewhat rhetorical passage, excusable in an immature platform orator, he spoke of Macdonald as an “unparalleled benefactor of the mining community,” and compared his work for the miners to that of “Luther at the rise of Protestantism.” He had said just exactly the wrong thing to an audience, two-thirds of whom were Irish Roman Catholics, to whom the name of Luther was anathema, and Protestantism more obnoxious than low wages. There were loud murmurs of disapprobation, and Hardie had actually to. be protected from assault. How often has this tale to be told in the struggle of labour for justice and liberty! These sectarian quarrels have now partially died out in Lanarkshire, but for many years they were of the greatest service to the employing class.

At another National Conference held at Dunfermline, on October 16th of the same year, Hardie was made National Secretary, an appointment which denoted, not the existence of a national organisation, but the need for it. The Scottish Miners’ Federation was not formed till some years later. Hardie’s selection at least indicates how far he had already advanced in the confidence of his fellow workers.

As a result of all this agitation, sporadic strikes took place early in 1880 at several collieries in Lanarkshire the most memorable of these being at Eddlewood, where there were conflicts with the police and subsequent trials of pickets for alleged intimidation. In connection with this strike Hardie made his first visit into Ayrshire to warn the miners there against coming to Lanarkshire. The hunger of the women and children drove the men back to work, but deepened the discontent, and in August, against the advice of Hardie, another strike, general over the whole of Lanarkshire, took place and lasted for six weeks. How it was carried through without Union funds it is difficult to imagine. Public subscriptions were raised. The colliery village bands went far afield throughout Scotland and even across the border, appealing for help. No strike money was paid out but only food was given. Hardie with the other agents got local merchants to supply goods, themselves becoming responsible for payment. At his home a soup kitchen was kept running, and all had a share of what was going until further credit became impossible. In the end there was a sum unpaid, but the merchants, some of themselves originally from the miner class, did not press their claims too hard and freed the agents from their bond. The strike was lost, but the Union, though shaken, remained, and Hardie, having fought his first big labour battle, emerged from what seemed defeat and disaster, stronger and more determined than ever to stand by his class. He accepted a call from Ayrshire to organise the miners there, and, as will be shown, made good use of the experience gained in Lanarkshire.

At this time, he also added to his responsibilities in another direction. He became a married man. His agitation activities had not prevented him from taking part in the social life of the countryside, nor from forming the associations which come naturally to all healthy human beings in the springtime of life. He was not then, nor at any time, the austere Puritanical person he has sometimes been represented to be. A Puritan he was in all matters of absolute right or wrong, and could not be made to budge from what seemed to him to be the straight path. But with that limitation he was one of the most companionable of men. He could sing a good song, and dance and be merry with great abandon. He had his youthful friendships and love affairs, more than one, culminating as usual, in a supreme affection for one lass above all the others; and so it came about that, just before migrating into Ayrshire, he was married to Miss Lillie Wilson, whose acquaintance he had made during his work in the Temperance movement. The two young folk settled down in Cumnock to make a home for themselves, neither of them probably having any idea that in days to come the male partner would have to spend so much of his life outside of that home, returning to it periodically—as a sailor from his voyaging or a warrior from his campaigning—to find rest and quiet and renewal of strength for the storms and battles of a political career.

The labour movement owes much to its fighting men, and to the women also, who have stepped into the furies of the fray, but not less does it owe to the home-keeping women folk whose devotion has made it possible for the others to do this work. Such was the service rendered by Mrs. Keir Hardie in the quietude of Old Cumnock. The home was at first an ordinary room and kitchen house, and later a six roomed cottage and garden known to all members of the I.L.P. as “Lochnorris.”

Hardie had come to Cumnock nominally as the Ayrshire Miners’ Secretary, but there was really no Ayrshire Miners’ Union. To get that into being was his task. The conditions were similar to those in Lanarkshire. At most of the collieries there were a few rebel spirits, keeping the flame of discontent alive and ready to form themselves into Union committees if given the right stimulus and support. It was from these the invitation to Hardie had come, and it was through co-ordinating these that a move could be made for general organisation. The first skirmishes are always won by the few pioneers who have the stout hearts and the burning vision.

It took nearly a year to get the organisation together, and by the beginning of August, 1881, a demand was formulated, on behalf of the whole of the miners of Ayrshire, for a ten per cent, increase of wages. The demand was refused. There was no alternative but to strike or go on working at the masters’ terms. In the latter case, the Union would be destroyed before it had begun to exist. The question was, could the men all over the county be got to strike? Would they risk a stoppage, knowing that there could be no strike pay? Mass meetings were summoned in various parts of the county to be addressed by Hardie and other speakers to decide the question: “Strike or no strike”? but the question settled itself almost intuitively.

The present writer has heard old miners, who were young men then, describe what happened. It is interesting as a comparison with present day methods of calling a strike. On the Saturday, at the end of the rows and on the quoiting grounds, the talk was: “Would there be a strike?” Nobody knew. On the Sunday coming home from the kirk the crack was the same: “Would there be a strike?” On Sunday night they laid out their pit clothes as usual, ready for work next morning, but for ten long weeks they had no use for pit clothes. On Monday, long before dawn, there was a stir on the Ayrshire roads.

At two in the morning the Annbank brass band came playing through Trabboch village and every miner, young and old, jumped out of bed and fell in behind.

Away up towards Auchinleck they went marching, their numbers increasing with every mile of the road. On through Darnconner, and Cronberry and Lugar and Muirkirk, right on to Glenbuck by Aird’s Moss where the Covenanter Martyrs sleep, then down into Cumnock, at least five thousand strong. Never did magic muster such an army of the morning. It was as though the fairies had come down amongst men to summon them to a tryst. Over in the Kilmarnock district similar scenes were being enacted. The bands went marching from colliery to colliery and

“The rising sun ower Galston Muir,
Wi’ glorious light was glintin’’

upon processions of colliers on all the roads round about Galston village and Hurlford and Crookedholm and Riccarton, making, as by one common impulse, towards Craigie Hill which had not witnessed such a mustering of determined men since the days of William Wallace.

Ere nightfall a miracle had been accomplished. For the first time in its history, there was a stoppage nearly complete in the Ayrshire mining industry. At last the Ayrshire miners were united and, win or lose, they would stand or fall together. The fields were ripening to harvest when the men “lifted their graith.” Ere they went back to work the Cumnock hills were white with snow, and by that time Keir Hardie was at once the most hated and the best respected man in Ayrshire. It was the Lanarkshire experience over again—an experience of sacrifice and endurance. The bands went out collecting money. The women folk and the children went “tattie howkin’ and harvesting. Thrifty miners’ families who had saved a little during the prosperous years of the early ’seventies, threw their all into the common stock. The farmers, many of them, gave meal and potatoes to keep the children from starving. Here and there was an occasional break away, and the pickets were out, and the police and the military, and there were skirmishes and arrests and imprisonments. Hardie toiled night and day directing the relief committees, restraining the wild spirits from violence, advocating the men’s claims temperately and persuasively in the local press, addressing mass meetings all over the county and keeping the men in good heart. “God’s on our side, men,” he declared. “Look at the weather He’s giein’ us!” And it seemed true. It was the finest fall of the year in Ayrshire within the memory of man, and, but for the pinch of hunger, was like a glimpse of Heaven to men accustomed to sweat ten hours a day in underground darkness. Whoever wants to know why it is so easy to get the miners to take an idle day, let him try a few hours “howkin’ coal” and he will understand.

So the fight went on from week to week, till at last the winter came as the ally of the coalowners. Boots and clothes and food were needed for the bairns, and for the sake of the bairns the men went back to work. But they went back as they came out, altogether, maintaining their solidarity even in defeat. Nor were they wholly defeated. Within a month the coal owners discovered that trade had improved, and, without being asked, they advanced wages, a thing unprecedented in the coal trade. That ten weeks’ stoppage had put a wholesome fear into the hearts of the coalowners, and they had also learned that a leader of men had come into Ayrshire. Here ended the second lesson for Keir Hardie the agitator. In the impoverished condition of the miners, the formation of the Union was for the present impracticable, and, recognising this, he settled himself down quietly as a citizen of Cumnock, and bided his time.


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