Editorial from the February 1911 issue of the Socialist Standard
Once again the murderous nature of capitalism finds glaring exemplification in a wholesale slaughter of workers, and 344 miners (including a child of 13) are deliberately sacrificed on the altar of Cheapness. Scarce had the tragedy of Whitehaven ceased to occupy men’s thoughts when, at Westhaughton, near Bolton, an even more dastardly outrage was perpetrated on the working class. As with Whitehaven, the first thing to be noted is the fact that several warnings had been published before the disaster, regarding the dangerous atmospheric conditions and the consequent likelihood of escapes of gas in the mines. In such circumstances a sane system of society would have suspended mining operations, but capitalist idlers must have their profits regardless of who perish. MONEY BEFORE MEN is their motto, and the workers must do and die or starve and die. That the gas was there the miners knew. Fear of the “sack ” and the boycott kept them quiet, and fear of a hungry Christmas for wife and child kept them at work.
Of course we are told that this particular pit was “one of the best” and considered very “safe,” but the men knew otherwise. “In this respect ” says the Bolton Chronicle (14.1.11) “the fact that men have long known that this reputedly ‘safe’ mine was in reality a centre of peril and have not conveyed the information to those who would listen is disquieting.”
But who would listen? Not the owners—full well they know the dangerous conditions under which they exploit the men ; full well they know that “regulations” are ignored, because the interests of the dividend hunters must not be sacrificed to provide safety conditions for Labour.
Equally futile would it have been to approach the Labour “leaders”—these gentlemen are more concerned with the House of Lords, and boosting up Free Trade Liberalism, with the hope of Government jobs for themselves, than with the enforcement of Mines Regulations Acts in the interest of those from whose beggarly pittance, earned under awful conditions and at appalling risk, they meantime draw their comfortable salaries.
And so those martyrs of the mine went down to their doom, consciously daring death by explosion because to speak their fears meant the terrors of the boycott.
From the evidence given at the inquest on some of the victims we quote the following :
“ Robert Boardman, Seddon-st., Westhoughton, identified his brother, George (23), who had worked on the conveyor. He said he had complained of gas, and came home twice a week for it. It was only a fortnight before that he was carried out because of it." “ Edith Seddon, Cemetery-st., Westhoughton, testified to her husband James Seddon (23), who, she said, had come home every night unable to eat because of gas."
Many other witnesses testified to complaints of gas in the mine during the three weeks prior to the disaster while others had complained of sparks flying from the conveyor. It thus seems clear that an explosion of gas took place, but at the meeting of the Westhoughton District Council one of the councillors declared : “In this case and in every case where there had been an explosion, if the first general rule had been carried out, there could have been no explosion. He spoke rather feelingly, but the first general rule said that ‘an adequate amount of ventilation shall he constantly produced in every mine to dilute and render harmless noxious gas, so that the workings, etc., shall be in a fit state for working and passing therein.”
Again at the Conference of the Colliery Engine Winders’ Federation, held in Manchester, Mr. Forshaw, the President, said :
“They must make the public realise that a great proportion of accidents were preventible. After nearly every explosion they got evidence that for weeks and sometimes months before the explosion the gas produced in the mines had not been dealt with and rendered harmless in accordance with the Mines’ Act. If the rules were strictly adhered to explosions through gas would be impossible. The ventilation of some working places in many mines compared to what it should be under the rule was simply disgraceful”
Here, then, is clearly shown the double danger and futility of “reforms.” These are passed and serve to make popular those who pass them. Their existence on the Statute Book lulls the workers into fancied security—from which explosions serve only to temporarily awaken them—they are “administered,” or quietly ignored, as best suits the interests of the master class. Further striking proof of this is found in the alarming increase of “accidents” in the mines. In 1909 there were 1493 fatal accidents, an increase of 148 over 1908, while non fatal accidents were 154,268, an increase of 11,482. In 1910 the fatal accidents total 1769. Thus in every working day more than five men are killed procuring coal which might be got as safely as digging potatoes—only it would not pay.
Could greater condemnation of this cursed capitalist system be pronounced than this —men are murdered because it pays ? Answer, you Liberal and Tory, anti-Socialist working men! Can you look one of those bereaved of Bolton in the face without shame, knowing that you have voted into office the supporters of production for profit—the murderers of their loved ones—and will again? Will you never understand that these “regrettable incidents” are the inevitable fruits of the brutal system you sanction at the ballot-box, and that you are therefore jointly responsible for those callous crimes against your class? Or is the philosophy of capitalism—“One man dead is another man’s bread ’’— good enough for you?
Coming so soon after the Whitehaven horror, and amid the “ unrest ” in the coalfields generally, there was the possibility that this affair might be the signal for trouble, or, more serious still, that the survivors might arrive at class-consciousness by brooding over their lot. So in the interest of “law and order,” the preservation of profit and property, the thoughts of the sufferers had to be diverted from the cause of their grief. The aid of charity and religion was invoked; pennies and prayers were lavishly distributed and countless eulogies delivered on the devotion of the dead and the loyalty of the living. A relief fund was opened so that
“the charitable sneak
To lull the cry of toil might spare a trifle
from the spoil
He had wrung from the wreckage of the weak.”
£50,000 was asked for, but so great was the alarm felt by the master class that over £100,000 was quickly subscribed, and the fund had to be closed. Meanwhile the representatives of the Church, in the sordid interest of their capitalist paymasters, strained every nerve to prove that God was responsible for the disaster,and that the money-grabbing mine-owners were the most innocent and loving of men. From the deluge of demoralising drivel directed on this doubly unfortunate people we quote, in extenso, the following letter from the Bishop of Manchester:
“My Dear Friends,—Being unable to be present with you at your memorial services, I am writing to express in a few words what I should have tried to say if I had been with you. It has pleased God to suffer an overwhelming affliction to fall upon you. Your homes are desolate and your hearts are broken and your eyes have witnessed sights too horrible for words. Almost all the ordinary consolations of death and bereavement have been denied you, but in all this trial God has been with you, granting such a full measure of faith, patience, and courage to overcome your sorrow that has been a wonder to all, and especially to those who have been trying to minister to you. For this we can all thank God. He who has given you this supplication will not fail you, not even in the long dark hours that lie before many of you. He will comfort the widows, the sweethearts, brothers, sisters, and fatherless children in their sorrow; the grief is there and no words of ours can take it away, but you will try to trust him more and more and to believe that promise .‘WHAT I DO THOU KNOWEST NOT NOW, BUT THOU SHALT KNOW HEREAFTER.’ May God be with you all and bless you. Yours in deepest sympathy and respect, E.A. Manchester.”
Evidently the clergy did their dirty work well, for the vicar is able to say in the January issue of the “Westhoughton Parish Magazine,” “We cannot but thank God for the spirit of submission and resignation which has been shown by the bereaved."
And no doubt the mine-owners again loll comfortably in their clubs, while the miners again go down to the death-traps. Meantime, let us do well the work of enlightening our fellow-workers to the necessity of replacing the present murderous social system by one in which life shall be valued above coal. Our work for this end is the measure of the only genuine sympathy for the sorrow-stricken of Bolton and the poor oppressed slaves of capitalism everywhere. From the supporters of capitalism charity is an insult and sympathy a mockery. Stupified with the chloroform of religious cant and humbug, misled and ignorant through the teaching of their false friends the Labour “leaders” and professional politicians, some of the workers may forget and forgive; but we place it on record that the Bolton butchery is another of those brutal incidents in the infamous career of capitalism which shall neither be forgotten nor forgiven save in the day of Revolution and the triumph of Socialism.