From pitman to peer: Lord Lawson’s rise from the coalface to the cabinet
Monday, January 27th, 2020
JACK LAWSON, the politician, is one of the great figures of the Durham coalfield, rising from the poverty of the coalface to become Secretary of State for War in Clement Attlee’s government.
But Lord Lawson of Beamish was also a wordsmith, through his speeches, essays, articles and books.
His biography, A Man’s Life, published in 1932 was so evocative of the coalfield that it turned the miner into the backbone of the Labour movement.
When Jimmy Carter became the first US president to visit the North-East in 1977, he was presented with a copy of it by Prime Minister Jim Callaghan. He described it as “an old second-hand book about one of the most famous men who came from this part of the world, Jack Lawson”.
He said: “The book epitomises for me the hardships, the resilience, the courage and determination of the people of the North-East and of the miners.”
The US president is said to have read the book on the flight home.
Now Jack Lawson’s life is being been told in a new book of his own words and the words others have said about him. It has been compiled by Chester-le-Street historian Dorothy Rand with contributions from the current North Durham MP, Kevan Jones.
Jack’s teens were troubled, as he became addicted to gambling, but his love of books and Wesleyanism pulled him through. In 1906, he married Bella, who went back into domestic service and sold all their furniture so he could attend Ruskin College at Oxford.
In 1910, his miners from Alma Colliery, Grange Villa to the west of Chester-le-Street chose him as their checkweighman – their representative who weighed the coal and worked out pay with the management.He was elected to the county council and then, after standing unsuccessfully in Seaham, was elected as Chester-le-Street’s MP in 1919. He held the seat for 40 years, his share of the vote rarely dropping below 70 per cent. He was a crucial voice in the evolution of the Labour Party, but perhaps his most important role was during the Second World War. He foresaw the conflict, writing in a Sunday Sun article in April 1936: “War is coming as night follows day.”
He was appointed deputy commissioner for civil defence in the northern region, an arduous post even without his nine-year-old grandson, Clive, being killed when Beamish was bombed in 1942.
He joined Attlee’s post-war cabinet, and was in charge of the demobilisation of 3.5m soldiers in the Far East. He was in post for 14 months before ill health got the better of him.
In his latter years, he was Lord Lieutenant of Durham – regarded as the first working man, the first miner and the first Labour MP to be appointed to represent royalty in the role’s 400 year history.
He was a partnership with his wife, Bella. He died in 1965, followed by Bella three years later.
Here’s his life in quotes:
“I had arrived at the conclusion that if there were any good life, and freedom from insecurity, and beauty, and knowledge, or leisure, then the men who did the world’s dirty, sweaty, toilsome, risky work, and the women who shared that life with them, ought to be the first entitled to these things. And when I looked round I found that they were the last to have them. Nay, the farther you got away from these things, the more likely you were to have beauty, leisure and knowledge.” – Jack on his political philosophy.The Independent Labour Party “canalised enthusiasm and self-sacrifice all over the land. Shipyard workers, miners, boilermakers, railwaymen, clergymen, navvies and craftsmen of all kinds met together and broke down those barriers. We had kept to our own fields, hardly deigning to look at each other over the hedge… we were a stuck up lot, prejudice against each other oozing out of us!” – Jack explains how the earliest incarnation of the party brought workers together.
“Mr Lloyd George believes that rich people are essential to industry and that is gospel to both of the Tories and the Liberals. Labour believes that the real motive power of modern industry is not rich people but the muscle, the mind and the soul of our people and, without us, even Lloyd George’s genius would not be of much account.” – Telling the 1920 Durham Miners’ Gala why it should support the new party.
“The wind came singing over the fells and whistling at the window. From where I sat, I could see the lights of a village twinkle like a silver rim to the deep, dark void. Over there were homes and fathers and mothers and little children. Was it with them as it was with us? Had I earned what was mine, which was nothing but joy and laughter – which is life’s best pay?” – Jack’s description of his family life in Grange Villas in 1913, with his young daughters, with lots of other, small mining communities about.“To the mothers of Chester le Street. You who have been condemned by the system under which we live to perpetual drudgery and slavery, knitting, darning, sewing, cleaning and nursing, morning, noon and night. Hardly a moment in the 24 hours to call your own. We want you to vote for a Labour man, in order that something may be done to beautify and humanise your lives.” – An appeal by Bob Smillie, a Scottish mining leader, for people to vote for Jack in 1919.
“Noo, ye folk when t’ the booth yer gannin,
Just think of friend Jack Lawson here who never believes in stannin
He’s always thinking out some scheme for folk that’s heavy laden
So make him win this contest like the horse that won at Blaydon”
A 1920s election song, to the tune of Blaydon Races.
“Depression came and good men were unwanted. The blight of idleness fell on whole families. When I saw the loss of spirit in fine characters, then pain and anger took the place of satisfaction in all one’s work… it was the droop of the body, the loss in pride of person. The no hope in dull eyes that had once been bright – it was the decay of the soul when old friends of the pit who were once upstanding, independent men, virile in life and fearless in danger, men who would walk into hell to save another, when these asked you for an old suit or pair of boots, then I too drooped and wondered whether decay had set in for the nation.” – Jack on 1931.“A poss-stick drumming clothes in a wash tub was the village tom-tom on Monday mornings… women never left the house while their men were in the pit, part of the unspoken ritual. Men were sometimes carried back, and to be out then – that was a thing of shame, bitter as death itself.” – From Jack’s 1934 novel, Under the Wheels, set in Durham.
“I would be a traitor, not only as a citizen of this country, but particularly to the working classes if I forgot the treatment which has been meted out to members of trade unions in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and other countries which have been over run… a million working class Poles have been taken from their country as slaves and treated as mere bales of merchandise.” – Jack in 1941.
“The sitting Labour member for Chester-le-Street was Jack Lawson, an ex-miner, simple, courageous. A great gentleman who in theory hated Conservatives but in fact liked nearly everybody. I had met him several times and knew he was unbeatable.” – Viscount Lambton, the Conservative candidate in 1945. He got 23 per cent of the vote against Jack’s 77 per cent.
“Mr Lawson has lightened our darkness as it were. He has seen through the whitewash of the Brass Hats and gained the confidence and backing of all the men out here.” – Signalman RB Walker in September 1945 after Jack, as Secretary of State, had visited soldiers in the Far East.
“Jack Lawson was the first peer of the realm to march in front of a banner into Durham for the Big Meeting. Having done it all his life, he saw little reason for change.” – William Moyes in The Banner Book of 1974. Jack himself wrote long and lovingly about the gala
“Man of humour, honour, honesty and simple truths, a man happy to share confidences with Winston Churchill, Chiang Kai-Shek, Clem Attlee and Monty. Always the smile and the quip. Never a man of anger, but purposeful critic and determined advocate against wrong. Lord Lawson was genuinely loved by the people and they referred to him as “Wor Jack”.” – Chester-le-Street writer Fred Wade on Jack’s death in 1965.
l Lord Lawson of Beamish, Champion of the Working Man by Dorothy Rand and Kevan Jones costs £10 (£13 to include post) from 0191-370-0433 or email firstname.lastname@example.org