John Park, 32 the Loaning, Motherwell, North Lanarkshire, Strathclyde, Scotland, U.K. ML1 3HE
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Robert Smillie Working-class hero who helped found labour party, took on might of land owners as miners leader and locked horns with Lloyd George.
Every time I take my grandson, Oliver to his judo class in Larkhall Leisure Centre we walk through this old stone portal. Above the opening in large lettering it says Welcome to the "Robert Smillie" memorial park. I've often wondered what claim to fame this guy had. Now, thanks to Craig McQueen at the Daily Record (08 03 2014) I know it all.
In the history
of the Scottish labour movement, names such a Keir Hardie and James
Maxton loom large but Larkhall miner Robert Smillie is a forgotten hero. A
penniless orphan who moved to Scotland from Belfast as a teenager, he became a
pioneering trade unionist, defending the rights of miners around the UK and
battling against prime ministers and aristocrat mine owners. Robert
Smillie's great grandson, Blair Smillie, it's time for his legacy to be
recognised. Two years ago he he helped publish the book 'Labour of Love'
by Torquil Cowan, which told the story of Smillie's amazing life and career.
But while many modern political operators would regard a figure such as Smillie
as a dinosaur, Blair believes he was a moderate who skilfully maximised the
rights of the workers. Blair 60, from Chester, said :"Robert was a
negotiator. He didn't mind an employer who was fair, and he felt striking was
the very last resort as it hit the strikers harder than anything else.
With this week (08-03-2014) being Scottish Local History Week, Blair came up to
Hamilton with his dad Bob, 85, to give a talk on their ancestor. Blair
said :"In the last two years, I've learned so much about Robert Smillie. His
father died before he was born and his mother died before he was three."
"He went to live with his brother James and Grandfather. His brother moved
to Glasgow to work in a boiler shop and at 14 Robert decided to join him."
"At the boiler shop he experienced his first ever strike and at 17 he followed
his brother again to become a miner in Larkhall." During this time, Smillie's
interest in politics began to develop. Blair said:
"He started to look at things in the Commonwealth and began to get socialist
ideas." Because he was interested in education, he stood against the local
doctor for school governor. The doctor said: "You're just a miner, you've got no
chance" But he got in. He set up classes in mine management for the children, as
he knew most of the boys would go into the mines, and he was also responsible
for getting free school books for the children, only the second time ever had
that happen in Scotland. Before long he was helping to organise some of
the very earliest miners' federations as they battled to improve pay and
conditions. Blair said: "He went from being a union secretary to Branch
secretary of the Lanarkshire Miners' federation and then formed the Scottish
Miners' Federation. After that he
formed the STUC with him being the first chairman. He also co-founded the Labour
party in Scotland, which a lot of people don't know about. After that he
was vice- President of the miners' Federation of Great Britain before becoming
president. That was in 1912 when the first national coal strike took place and
he became the only man to make the prime minister break down in Parliament. That
was Albert Hendry Asquith. "The strike nearly brought down the government and
asquith was intears because of it" said Blair. By the start of
World War 1, Smillie wielded significant power -- and with coal essential to the
war effort, his influence grew. "He was in and out of Downing Street battling it
out with Llyod George." Said Blair. "All the land owners owned all the mines and
the rights to the minerals but the conditions were bad and most of the
inspectors were in the owners pockets. In 1914 the government took control of
all the mines and paid the miners a bit of a war wage but, after1918, when the
men came back from the trenches, there weren't a lot of jobs. They realised they
had been used as cannon fodder and Lloyd George could see there was an impending
revolution, so he set up the Sankey Commission. Robert was
chief Commissionaire and he insisted and he insisted all mine owners should come
to London so they could show their title deeds. He wanted to ask if they had
ever been down a mine or if they had ever been in a miners house. Sir John
Sankey agreed the mines shouldn't go back to private hands and should be
nationalised. But LLoyd George held off and held off, getting other groups out
of the way, such as the railwaymen, before eventually reneging on the deal and
handing the mines back to the owners. That destroyed Robert. His health started
to suffer and he came back to Scotland. By this time he was 62 and thinking
about retirement but he was then asked if he would stand for MP for Morpeth.
Smillie was elected as the first Labour government was formed in 1924 but turned
down ministerial posts because he didn't want to toe the line.
He and his wife Ann, who had nine kids, co-founded the Save the Children Fund
and he was also President of what later became the National council for Civil
Liberties, known today as as Liberty. By the late 1920s, his health
was failing and he left Parliament and resigned from the SMF. The last ten years
of Smillies' life was spent in and out of Crighton Hospital Dumfries before he
died there in 1940. Blair reckons if Smillie had been around today he would have
voted against independence. He added "He saw no difference between Scots and
English workers. He would have wanted them to work together.