The 1913 China Clay Strike
The story of Cornwall’s most turbulent industrial dispute
The South West TUC regional secretary Nigel Costley has written a fascinating pamphlet on a successful strike that helped established trade unions in mid Cornwall and laid the ground for Unite’s continuing presence there today.
One hundred years ago this summer there occurred one of the most important industrial disputes ever in Cornwall. 5,000 china clay workers defied their employers, poverty and the South Wales police, who were sent to attack them, to strike for ten weeks. There actions paved the way for better pay and union recognition that continues today at Imerys UK china clay operations, where Unite speaks out for its members at one of the most important employers in the South West.
The china clay industry was one of many developed across Britain during the early years of the industrial revolution. Based in Cornwall and Devon, production was approaching in 1910 a million tonnes a year, 75% of which was exported to the North American and European paper industries with a smaller amount going to UK pottery factories.
It was better-paid employment than agricultural work but below that enjoyed by coal and tin miners. The hours were long and the work was highly physical, especially for the workers who dug the top layers of soil to get at the good clay.
Disputes in 1875 and 1876 had restored wage cuts but a five-week strike by 2,000 workers was lost after Cornish miners reputation as strike breakers in other parts of the country resulted in little outside aid being raised. Starving workers were forced back to work and mass emigration took miners all around the world to work in the following decades.
In 1911 clay workers in Cornwall began to be recruited by the Workers’ Union, which was formed in 1898 by one of the heroes of the great London dock strike of 1889, Tom Mann.
In December 1912 a 2,500 strong petition was presented to the small number of clay employers that dominated the industry asking for an increase of 5 shillings (25 pence today) a week to take pay up to 25 shillings. (£1.25)
When this was rejected local organisers were given the powers to call a strike and on Monday 21 July 1913 thirty men at Carne Stents near St Austell walked off the job and immediately appealed to workers at other pits to join them in solidarity. By the following week 1,000 were on strike and numbers continued to grow as strikers sent pickets from pit to pit.
With the aid of Julie Varley, sent by the union to support the families of the strikers, large demonstrations were held and the numbers on strike had risen to almost 5,000 in the second week of August. The union was able to pay 10 shillings (50 p) a week strike pay and local tradesman distributed food vouchers.
Vicious police attacks
The employers hit back when following a meeting with the police a contingent of 100 from South Wales were drafted in to support the local force. South Wales police had experience of breaking picket lines and strikers were informed that ‘unlawful assemblies’ were to be much more rigorously enforced.
When pickets formed up 300 strong on 1 September 1913 they were met by a detachment of Glamorgan police who baton charged the crowd hitting anyone that got in their way. Strikers were chased into nearby fields and further brutalised. There was widespread indignation throughout the whole area at the violence with the local Cornish Guardian condemning the police, with shops refusing to serve them and landladies evicting them. The TUC sent its deepest regret to those who had been attacked.
By October the long strike was sapping even the most militant worker and on the 12th it was agreed to return to work rather than prolong the suffering. The strikers marched back to work with their heads held high and aware that many more workers had joined the union and been educated in the need for organisation.
Union recognition and better pay
Despite having failed to win their demands, confidence in the union remained high and on January 12 1914 the largest clay company agreed to recognise the union. Then in February wage increases, that brought pay up to a minimum of 22s 6d (£1.13) with additions for clay working, established pay rates roughly that which the workers had taken action for the previous year. Other clay firms had little option but to follow suit and the workers had won what they had asked for.
The Workers’ Union was to continue to represent clay workers until it merged in 1929 with the Transport and General Workers’ Union, which itself merged with AMICUS in 2007 to form Unite. Britain’s largest union continues to represent workers in the clay industry that are employed in Cornwall by Imerys, a world leader in mining natural resources and which employs around 1,000 people in the county.