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J. Keir Hardie
Chapter 2. Journalist and Labour Organiser—“The Miner”

IT is not clear what Hardie’s sources of income were in those early days in Ayrshire. He had determined to work no more underground for any employer. No colliery manager would have the chance a second time to drive him out. There was no miners’ organisation to pay him a wage, though he ceased not from doing organising work. The likelihood is that he had kept up his press connections formed while in Lanarkshire, and that there was some little income from that quarter. He wrote occasional verses, amateurish, but of the kind acceptable in the “Poet’s Corner” of provincial papers, and there would be an odd seven and sixpence for these. He was never a spendthrift, and probably both he and his lass had a small “nest egg” laid by before they joined partnership, and with this were prepared to go on for a month or two until the man could make good. He had great faith in himself, and she had great faith in him, and what more could any newly-married couple want for starting out in life?

Before long the financial question was solved. The pastor of the Evangelical Union church which Hardie joined had eked out a somewhat scanty stipend by writing notes for the local “Cumnock News.” The pastor, in bad health, went off for a holiday, and asked Hardie to write his notes while he was away. He never returned, and Hardie found himself writing the notes practically as a member of the staff, and as he, with his knowledge of the miners’ conditions 2nd a decidedly literary turn of the pen, was just the kind of man wanted for such a paper, he was, by and by to all intents and purposes, acting as editor.

The “Cumnock News,” it should be said, was an offshoot of the “Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald,” which then was, and still is, one of the most ably conducted of Scottish provincial papers. Its editor and proprietor, Mr. Arthur Guthrie, was a man with literary and artistic tastes, and in politics a staunch Liberal, a fact which, however we may regard Liberalism now, was of some democratic value in those days, in a shire largely dominated by the county families. It required some fortitude to stand up against the Bute, the Eglinton and the Dundonald interests, not to speak of the coal-owning magnates of whom the Baird family was the most powerful.

It will thus be seen that Hardie’s first editorial experience was on the side of the Liberal Party. There is no evidence that he took much interest in politics before he came into Ayrshire, but he could not help doing so now, nor could any active-minded working man. The political question of the hour was the extension of household franchise to the counties, and as it was to the Liberal Party that the workers looked for that boon, it was natural that the earnest and thoughtful sections of them should be Liberals. Hardie became a member of the Liberal Association, and, naturally, being the kind of man he was, was an active and prominent member. He was, however, a very complex personality, this newcomer into the social and political life of Ayrshire, and neither the Liberal Association nor the “Cumnock News” could absorb more than a small part of his energies. He was still active in temperance work, and, as a matter of course, became Grand Worthy Chief of the local Good Templars’ Lodge. He took his share of the church work and filled the pulpit on occasions when the absence of the appointed minister made that necessary, and frequently his voice was to be heard at the street corners in Cumnock and in some of the neighbouring villages, preaching the Gospel of Christ as he understood it. He formed an evening class two nights a week for the teaching of shorthand writing, himself acting as teacher without fee or reward, and he gathered round him a group of students, who, we may be sure, learnt more things than shorthand.

At this time his reading of books became more comprehensive if not more systematic. That latter could hardly be with his mode of life. He then read Carlyle’s “Sartor Resartus” for the first time and became acquainted with some of the writings of Ruskin and of Emerson. Fiction does not seem to have attracted him much, except in the form of ballads and folk-lore, though, strange to say, he himself wrote one or two stories when later he had control of a paper of his own. With Robert Burns he had of course been familiar since childhood. “I owe more to Robert Burns than to any man, alive or dead,” he once wrote. As a boy it was the tender humanitarianism of the Scottish peasant poet to which his nature responded, and he has told how the “Lines on Seeing a wounded Hare” thrilled him with pity and anger. He was gaining in mental power and self reliance during these years, though with no settled purpose as to the use he would make of the knowledge and strength he was acquiring, except that all the time he had one fixed immediate object in view: the formation of an Ayrshire Miners’ Union.

This event took place in August, 1886. The exact date is not known nor the place of nativity, early records having apparently been lost. James Neil, of Cumnock, who took an active part in the early work of the Union, has recollections of a delegate meeting in Mauchline, at which Andrew Fisher, of Crosshouse, (afterwards Prime Minister of Australia) was present, and he thinks this may have been the initial meeting, which is not unlikely, Fisher, like Neil himself, being one of the original delegates. Whether that was so or not, one thing is certain. The Union was formed in 1886, and Hardie was appointed its Organising Secretary. Henceforth, the coal magnates of Ayrshire had a new force to reckon with. Hardie’s allowance—it could hardly be called a salary—was £75 a year, but as he was earning his living in other ways, he devoted the money to the starting of a monthly paper, and in the beginning of the following year produced “The Miner,” of which we shall have something to say in due course.

This same year the Scottish Miners’ Federation was formed, and to this also Hardie was appointed Secretary, perhaps on the principle that the willing horse gets the heaviest burden. That he was willing there can be no doubt. Since the days of the Lanarkshire strike, seven years before, he had realised the need for the Scottish miners being united in one organisation, and he was ready to take his share in the work.

There was also being borne in upon him and others a belief that the time had come for organised Labour to consider what use could be made of the new political opportunities which had been presented to it. The passing of the 1884 Franchise Act, which extended household franchise to the counties, brought great hopes to the workers, though it found them, for the moment, unable to take advantage of it. It gave political power to practically all the adult miners in the country, and the leaders of the miners began to take thought as to how it could be utilised.

For the most part they held to the belief that in the Liberal Party organisation lay the medium by which the representatives of Labour could reach Parliament. Liberalism, simply because it was traditionally opposed to Toryism, was accepted as embodying the progressive spirit of the nation. The leader of the Liberal Party was W. E. Gladstone, then in the heyday of his popularity. The workers generally were willing to trust Gladstone, but amongst them were a considerable number who, having begun to imbibe Socialist ideas, had doubts as to the genuineness of the Liberal Party’s professions of goodwill to labour. They knew that although it might be true that the Tory Party was dominated by the landed interests, there were not a few territorial magnates in the councils of Liberalism. They also knew that the Liberal Party policy was directed largely on behoof of the manufacturing and commercial interests, and they felt that, as in the very nature of things these interests must collide with those of the workers, to strengthen the Liberal Party might be like making a stick for labour’s back. Yet, on the whole, they were willing to give it a trial, induced by the knowledge that there were in the Liberal Party a few honest, sincere and able men, friendly to labour—men such as Cunninghame Graham, the Radical Member for North-West Lanark, Conybeare, Stephen Mason, Dr. G. B. Clark, and a few others, who, with Burt and Fenwick and Abraham already representing the miners, were expected to force the pace inside the Liberal Party. In Cunninghame Graham especially, great hopes were centred. He had won North-West Lanarkshire as a Gladstonian Liberal in the 1886 election. In his election campaign Graham had thoroughly familiarised himself with the needs and aspirations of the miners, had wholeheartedly adopted their programme of reforms, and had advocated the passing of an Eight Hours’ Bill, the establishment of a wage court, and the nationalisation of minerals; he had, moreover, made it quite clear that he supported such measures only as necessary transitional steps towards Socialism. Two years later he was to prove his sincerity by introducing the Miners’ Eight Hours’ Day Bill into Parliament, and by going to prison in defence of free speech. He had already, by his originality of utterance, caught the attention of the House of Commons, and the fact that he came of aristocratic lineage added piquancy to his sometimes savage sarcasms against the ruling classes. Altogether, he was a picturesque and dashing Parliamentary figure; and that this man, holding views that were little short of revolutionary, should still be a recognised member of the Liberal Party, helped to sustain working-class faith in Liberalism and probably helped to delay, until the psychological moment was past, the formation of a clear-cut, working-class party. The right moment was at the passing of the Franchise Act.

Keir Hardie, though himself a member of the Liberal Party, was amongst the doubters, and he, for one, resolved to put the matter to the test at the earliest opportunity, and in his capacity as Secretary of the Ayrshire Miners’ Union, made preparations accordingly. In May, 1887, at demonstrations of the Ayrshire miners held on Irvine Moor and on Cragie Hill, the following resolution was adopted: “That in the opinion of this meeting, the time has come for the formation of a Labour Party in the House of Commons, and we hereby agree to assist in returning one or more members to represent the miners of Scotland at the first available opportunity.”

Shortly afterwards Hardie was adopted as the miners’ candidate for North Ayrshire, and immediately there developed a situation which has been repeated hundreds of times since all over the country, and which can best be shown by quotations from a speech delivered by Hardie at Irvine in October of that same year. It is his first recorded political utterance, and defines very clearly his attitude at that stage of his development. It shows that he was not yet prepared to fight on a full Socialist programme, and also that he was not unwilling to work through the Liberal Party, provided its methods were honestly democratic. He was, in fact, putting Liberalism to the test of allegiance to its own avowed principles. He said, “The Liberals and Conservatives have, through their organisations, selected candidates. They are both, as far as I know, good men. The point I wish to emphasise, however, is this : that these men have been selected without the mass of the people being consulted. Your betters have chosen the men, and[ they now send them down to you to have them returned. What would you think if the Miners’ Executive Council were to meet in Kilmarnock and appoint a secretary to the miners of Ayrshire in that way? Your candidate ought to be selected by the voice and vote of the mass of the people. We are told that Sir William Wedderburn is a good Radical and that he is sound on the Liberal programme. It may be all true, but we do not know whether it is or not. Will he, for example, support an Eight Hour Bill? Nobody has asked him, and nobody cares except ourselves. Will he support the abolition of private property in royalties? Well, he is a landlord and not likely to be too extreme in that respect. Is he prepared to establish a wage court that would secure to the workman a just reward for his labour? Nobody knows whether he is or not. Is he prepared to support the extension of the Employers’ Liability Act, which presently limits the compensation for loss of life, however culpable the employers may be, to three years’ wages? Nobody knows. I am not surprised at the action of the Liberal Association in opposing me. This is what has been done in nearly every case where a Labour candidate has been brought forward. I have been asked what course I intend to take, and my reply is, the same as formerly. I will endeavour to have a Labour Electoral Association formed in every town and village in the constituency. When the time comes for an election I will judge how far circumstances justify me in going forward. If the working men are true to themselves, I will insist on a plebiscite being taken between myself and the Liberal candidate, and then let the man who gets most support go to the poll. If the Liberal Association refuses to take this course, working men will then see how much their professions of friendship are worth. I am not specially anxious to go to Parliament, but I am anxious and determined that the wants and wishes of the working classes shall be made known and attended to there. Meantime, I recommend my friends not to pledge themselves to either of the candidates now before them till they see what the future may bring forth.’*

There was nothing revolutionary in all this; Socialism was not even hinted at; Liberalism was not condemned; it was to be put upon its trial, and the test of its sincerity was to be its willingness within its own organisation to provide a fair field for labour. The one thing that does emerge from this utterance and others during this period is Hardie’s class feeling, inherent in his very nature, derived from and intensified by his own life experience, and avowed at a time when he. had probably made no acquaintance with Marxian philosophy.

“I am anxious and determined that the wants and wishes of the working classes shall be made known and attended to in Parliament.” From that fundamental political creed he never deviated during the whole of his life. It was his basic article of faith, the impregnable rock upon which he stood immovable and incorruptible: Loyalty to the working class. The party politicians never could understand this, and therefore they never understood Keir Hardie. The simple straightforwardness and steadfastness’ of the man were baffling to them, and afterwards, in the House of Commons, when he kept at arm’s length all Parliamentary intriguers and even held aloof from some who may have desired from quite friendly motives to be on terms of social fellowship with him, it was ascribed to boorishness on his part. It was nothing of the sort, as those who were on terms of intimacy with him well knew. It was the expression at once of his own individuality and of his class loyalty. He was a man who could not be patronised, and he was jealous for the independence of the working people, of whom he believed himself to be representative. When, many years afterwards, George Bernard Shaw characterised him as “the damndest natural aristocrat in the House of Commons,” there was more truth in the description than Shaw himself realised. If to be an aristocrat is to have pride of caste, Keir Hardie was an aristocrat. He possessed pride of class in the superlative degree, in a much greater degree than the average working man himself has ever possessed it. Hardie was willing at all times to associate with members of the other classes for the furtherance of the objects he had in view—with Fabian middle class people, with clergymen, and artists, and litterateurs, but always on terms of equality. At the first hint of patronage, either on the ground of class or cultural superiority, he drew back and went his own way, alone if need be.

Unforeseen events decided that his first parliamentary contest should be elsewhere than in North Ayrshire, but it was here, in the year 1887, that he first threw down his challenge to Liberalism to prove its sincerity, and called upon his fellow workers to prepare to make use of their political opportunities self-reliantly and with a sense of the dignity of their class. ‘‘So long as men are content to believe that Providence has sent into the world one class of men saddled and bridled, and another class booted and spurred to ride them, so long will they be ridden; but the moment the masses come to feel and act as if they were men, that moment the inequality ceases.” Thus he wrote in “The Miner” at this time. He himself had reached that stage very early in life and in his ownj personality he typified his conception of what the working class ought to be.

The year 1887 was a very busy one for Keir Hardie. He had already acquired that capacity for work which in future years frequently astonished his colleagues of the Independent Labour Party. As already recorded, the Scottish Miners’ Federation had been formed in the autumn of 1886 and he had accepted the position of Secretary. A personal paragraph in the first Annual Report gives only a partial indication of his activities. “Conscious,” he says, “of many defects in the performance of my duties, I have yet tried to do my best. It has been hard sometimes to bear the blame of unreasonable men, though this has been more than compensated for by the tolerance of the great mass. There is scarcely a district in Scotland where my voice has not been heard, with what effect it is for others to say. I find, leaving out the deputations to London and the big conferences, that I have attended on behalf of the Federation 77 meetings, 37 of which have been public, and 40 Executive and conference meetings, involving 6,000 miles of railway travelling. I have sent out over 1,500 letters and circulars, and over 60,000 printed leaflets. This has involved

a very considerable amount of work, but I am persuaded it has not been labour in vain.” A reference to the balance sheet shows under the heading of “Salaries”: “J. K. Hardie, £3 15s.”—a remuneration certainly not commensurate to the work done, but probably bearing some proportion to the earnings of the miners themselves, for in this same report it is recorded that “wages still continue very low, ranging from 2s. 6d. to 4s. per day, the average being about 3s. 3d. Work is, however, very unsteady, and thus the earnings of the men cannot be more than 12s. per week.” Those were hard times for underground workers, and not unduly prosperous ones for their leaders. Another interesting item in the financial statement runs : “Donation from meeting in Edinburgh (Socialist), £11 8s. 6d.”—probably some public gathering under the auspices of the newly-formed Socialist League, willing thus early to help forward the work of industrial organisation. The concluding exordium is in the genuine Keir Hardie vein familiar to all who ever had the good fortune to work along with him. “May the experience of the past not be lost on us in the future. There are a number of young and ardent spirits in our ranks who, if they can be laid hold of, will ensure the success of our movement in years to come. Ours is no old-fashioned sixpence-a-day agitation. We aim at the complete emancipation of the worker from the thraldom of wagedom. Co-operative production, under State management, should be our goal, as, never till this has been obtained, can we hope for better times for working people.” Thus spake the optimist.

He was himself prevented from being present at this first annual meeting of the Federation. The death of his second-born child, Sarah, two years of age, had naturally affected him very keenly, and made it impossible for him at the time to be interested in anything else than this first domestic affliction which came upon him. Two other children were left, James, born in 1881, and Agnes, born in 1885, but as usually happens, the one that was taken had no peer in the minds of the bereaved parents. Another boy, Duncan, born this same year, 1887, helped to fill the gap thus made in the little family circle.

The visits to London mentioned in the report were to interview the Home Secretary in favour of improvements in the Government’s Mines Bill, and of Donald Crawford’s Bill to abolish the truck system, introduced and passed during the Parliamentary session of that year. The miners sought to have an eight-hours clause for boys, together with one making it penal for an employer to keep men in the pit when they desired to get out. Hardie’s deputation colleagues were R. Chisholm Robertson of Stirlingshire, John Weir of Fife-shire, and Robert Brown of the Lothians, all at that time active in promoting organisation in their various districts. They also, on this occasion, did some lobbying of Members to support their proposals, and in the course of this Keir Hardie doubtless got ample confirmation of the need for direct Labour representation, and was strengthened in his growing belief that such representation should be independent of existing political parties. We can also see the effect which the subsequent result, when the Eight Hours Amendment was defeated actually owing to the action of the Liberal-Labour members from mining districts, Burt, Fenwick and Abraham, had upon his attitude to certain of the older Trade Union leaders and both their industrial and political policy.

One notable amendment of the Bill, secured very largely through pressure by Hardie and other outside agitators, was the prohibition of the employment of boys under twelve. “What a difference,” he commented in “The Miner,” “from the time when children were taken into the pit almost as soon as they were out of the cradle.” What a difference, he might have said, from the time when he himself went down the pit at ten years of age! What a difference, we might say, from the present time, when fourteen is the minimum school-leaving age. Verily, the agitators have not laboured in vain.

Reference is made above to “The Miner,” a monthly journal of which he was the founder and editor, and to which, as a matter of fact, he contributed about one-third of the letterpress. Its first number appeared in January, 1887, and it was published for two years, being discontinued at the end of 1888, partly because of the usual lack of support from which all purely Labour journals have suffered, but chiefly because by that time Hardie himself was becoming too deeply involved in political propagandist agitation to be able to give the necessary time to the work of supervision. It was a very remarkable paper, and to those who are fortunate enough to possess the two volumes, it mirrors in a very realistic way the social conditions of the collier folk of that time, and also throws considerable light on the many phases and aspects of the general Labour movement in the days when it was gropingly feeling its way through many experiments and experiences towards political self reliance and self-knowledge.

The journal is peculiarly valuable to us in that it reveals Hardie himself as a man growing and developing, and becoming more and more self-assertive. It began as “The Miner: a Journal for Underground Workers.” When it had reached the second year it had become “The Miner: an Advanced Political Journal. Edited by J. K. Hardie,” thus definitely proclaiming the aim of its controller—if not yet of the workers whose interests it advocated. It was at once the germ and the precursor of the “Labour Leader,” which was to be for many years almost the personal organ of Keir Hardie, and is now the firmly established and influential exponent of the Independent Labour Party, of which he was the founder. In its pages you can discern him, tentatively, but ever more boldly, finding expression for his Socialist convictions, and from being a miners’ leader, steadily aspiring towards becoming a people’s leader. He was quite sure of himself, and of his purpose, but not quite sure of the approval of his readers. “The miners of Britain,” he said in his first leading article, “stand sorely in need of an organ to ventilate their grievances, and teach the7n the duty they owe to themselves. The paper, while dealing primarily with purely mining affairs, will advocate reform in every direction which promises to bring relief to the toiling millions,” and throughout the career of the paper he is found giving a platform to the pioneers and protagonists of schemes of working-class betterment, no matter what their label might be. Land Nationalisers, Socialists, Anarchists, Trade Unionists, are all given room to state and argue their case, and ever and anon he lets it be known where he himself stands and where he is going.

“The capitalist has done good service in the past by developing trade and commerce. His day is now nearly past. He has played his part in the economy of the industrial system, and must now give way for a more perfect order of things wherein the labourer shall be rewarded in proportion to his work.” That is not exactly Socialism, but the idea of evolution in industry towards Socialism has seldom been more tersely stated; nor, indeed, has the general purpose of Socialism been more accurately defined. And again, “The world today is sick and weary at heart. Even our clergy are for the most part dumb dogs who dare not bark. So it was in the days of Christ. They who proclaimed a God-given gospel to the world were the poor and the comparatively unlettered. We need to-day a return to the principles of that Gospel which, by proclaiming all men sons of God and brethren one with another, makes it impossible for often Shylock-like, to insist on his rights at the expense of another.”

There was no lack of idealism in the journalistic fare served up to the working miners who turned to their trade journal for news of the daily conflicts with employers and managers, and found that in plenty, along with the idealism. We have here the manifestations of what I might call the spiritual consistency which formed the fibre of Hardie’s character, and was in large measure the secret of his power to win the allegiance even of those whose belief in Socialism had a more materialistic foundation.

His energy at this time seems to have been inexhaustible. Besides this editorial and journalistic work, he was a member of Auchinleck School Board, and, in addition to his secretarial duties for the Scottish Miners’ Federation, he was still acting as secretary of the Ayrshire Miners’ Union, and in that capacity displaying an amount of vigour surprising to his associates and disconcerting to colliery managers and officials with whom he was perforce in continual conflict. Conducting what are known as “partial” strikes, bringing the men out, now in one corner of Ayrshire, now in another, on questions of wages, on questions of illegal deductions of weight, on questions of victimisation; holding mass meetings, and calling idle days here, there, and everywhere, with a view to enforcing the policy of restriction of output which at this time was the only alternative policy to a general strike in resistance to wage reductions; and in one way and another keeping the whole Ayrshire area in that condition of unrest which was the only possible means of giving active expression to the discontent seething throughout the entire mining community of Scotland. There was indeed very ample justification for this agitation. “With coal selling in Glasgow at is. per cwt., and public works stopped for want of fuel; with mounted policemen riding down inoffensive children nearly to death, and felling quiet old men with a blow from a baton; with the wives and children of thirty thousand men not on the verge but in the very throes of starvation; with all this, and much more that might be named, a condition of things is being fostered which can only end in riot, as unhappily has been in Lanarkshire. This is his picture of the condition of the miners at that time, a picture the truth of which can easily be verified from the columns of the contemporary newspapers. He was in favour of a general strike throughout England, Scotland and Wales, but the unity of organisation which could bring that to pass was yet far away, and guerilla fighting was the only possible tactics. “If the miners were Highland crofters,” he said, “or African slaves, or Bulgarians, people would be found on every hand getting up indignation meetings to protest against the wrongs inflicted upon them by the capitalists, but because they are only miners nobody heeds them.”

The miners have now found means of making everybody heed them, and Hardie and his colleagues had already begun the forging of the weapons for that achievement. It was on a motion from Scotland that, at a Conference in Manchester in April, 1887, it was agreed that “The Federations be admitted to the Miners’ National Union on payment of one farthing per member quarterly, this money to be spent in furthering legislative work and in holding conferences for the consideration of the state of trade and wages, such conferences to have power to issue such recommendations as may seem necessary for the improvement of the same.” Thus was laid the basis of the now powerful Miners’ Federation of Great Britain.

Any account of this period of Hardie’s life would be incomplete without a reference to the colliery disaster at Udston, in Lanarkshire, which took place on th© 28th May, 1887, and by which eighty-five lives were lost. He, immediately on getting the news, hurried through from Ayrshire and joined with the other agents in the relief work and in comforting the bereaved relatives. Many of the men who had been killed were his own personal friends, lads he had worked with underground or companioned in play and sport and sociality when he and they were growing into manhood. He was able to visualise the conditions under which they had met their death in the fiery mine with never a chance to escape, and he believed that it was only the parsimony of the mineowners that prevented the methods being used which would make such accidents impossible.

This belief deepened his conviction that there would never be proper protection for the miners except through compulsory legislation in the framing of which the miners themselves should have a voice. Yet in after years one of his chief difficulties was to convince the miners themselves of that fact, and that they should trust only in themselves for the passing of protective laws. On this occasion, in “The Miner,” he impeached both the colliery management and the Government inspectors for gross neglect of their duties. But of course “The Miner” was read only by miners, and only by a small number of them.

The end of 1887 brought his severance—voluntarily on his part—from the two Ayrshire papers, the “Ardros-san Herald” and “Cumnock News,” with which he had been connected since 1882.

During that time in addition to supplying the news of the district, he had contributed under the nom de flume of “The Trapper,” a weekly article, headed “Black Diamonds, or Mining Notes Worth Minding.” His farewell words to the readers were indicative alike of the character of his work on these local papers and of his aspirations for the future in the wider field upon which he was now entering:—

“I have tried to practice what I preached by showing, so far as I knew how, that manhood was preferable to money. Nor have I the least intention of changing. Circumstances have for the time being directed my course a certain way; for how long I cannot tell, but these make it all but impossible for me to continue writing ‘Black Diamonds.’ ... I feel like giving up an old friend in thus taking leave, but that the great tide of human progress may keep flowing steadily shoreward till it washes away all the wrong and the sin and the shame and the misery which now exist, is now, and for ever will be, the sincere prayer of your friend ‘The Trapper.’ Good Bye.”

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