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The Great Labour Unrest: Rank-and-File Movements and Political Change in the Durham Coalfield


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The Edwardian Durham coalfield, the second largest British coalfield at a time when coal was still king, was the scene for an intense and bitter power struggle. Liberal control of the wealthy and prestigious Durham Miners’ Association was being challenged by socialists and revolutionary syndicalists, including anarchists, through rank-and-file movements. The revolutionaries were probably the more influential in Durham than in any other coalfield but South Wales, where the famous Miners’ Next Step was born. Their organisation, ideas and energy helped to inform the debates and developments in Durham coalfield politics in a manner that belied their small numbers.

Drawing widely on a vast and rich body of primary sources, this study charts the course of this conflict during the fascinating and turbulent 'Great Labour Unrest' period, exploring the ideological and generational fractures within the socialist, syndicalist and anarchist challenges to Liberalism and their respective successes and failures as they responded to specific material issues facing miners like the eight hour day and the minimum wage.

This book should interest anyone looking for insights into a past of class struggle, of revolutionary ideas in practice, that can also throw light on the twenty-first century challenges of globalised capitalism, the crisis of neo-liberalism and rise of populism. 


A 'wonderful work of scholarship' that 'employs a formidable wealth of hitherto barely utilized primary evidence to evaluate even-handedly the objective and subjective constraints and opportunities at work'.

Professor Ralph Darlington in Economic History Review

‘written clearly, researched thoroughly, objective and judicious in interpretation. It makes a substantial contribution to the debate on the Great Labour Unrest and will be of immense interest to students of the topic'.

Professor Emmet O'Connor in History

‘This meticulously researched and carefully crafted book makes a significant contribution to the literature on the prospects for Edwardian Liberalism and for Labour as an independent force.'

Professor David Howell in English Historical Review

'Going down the pit of Lewis Mates' Great Labour Unrest and exploring its nooks and crannies is a demanding but stimulating experience you will not regret.'

Dr. Yann Beliard in Anarchist Studies

‘demonstrates convincingly the intertwining of the political and the industrial struggles in the early years of the twentieth century, with the consequences that are with us still’.

Dr. Quentin Outram in Labour History Review

‘There is no other work on this topic of this quality and this will join the spine of books which constitute the definitive accounts in regional and national mining historiography’.

Dr. Stuart Howard in Social History

Activists 'need to draw on material and approaches from studies like this book, presenting them primarily as examples of how historians pose and seek to clarify problems. We need to do this without crudifying the reasoning processes of the historians involved, but to do it, at the same time, in such a way as so far as possible to convince activists who are not academically trained that they too can think historically'.

Colin Waugh in Post-16 Educator

'Mates has produced an important and valuable contribution to the historiography of both the 'Great Labour Unrest' and the 'rise of Labour'. Furthermore, his exceptionally detailed and convincingly argued case study highlights the crucial importance of understanding local conditions and circumstances if we are to fully understand national changes'.

Dr. David Selway in Twentieth Century British History

Hardback (at the paperback price) written by Lewis H Mates, published by Manchester University Press, 2016.

Product Code: 9780719090684

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