Educator and Agitator: Charlie Gibbons, 1888-1967

This biographical study of a leading figure in the South Wales syndicalist movement was first published in 1989 in Llafur, the journal of the Welsh Labour History Society.

Charles Leonard Gibbons, during a short but eventful career in the South Wales coalfield, made an important contribution to the Welsh working class movement. Protégé of Noah Ablett, co-author of The Miners’ Next Step, member of the Unofficial Reform Committee and the South Wales Socialist Society, and Rhondda delegate to the Communist Party’s founding conference, Charlie Gibbons is clearly a figure of considerable significance in the history of the South Wales labour movement and of the miners in particular.1

Charlie was born in north London on 23 November 1888, the son of an Islington stonemason, Charles Gibbons, and his wife Annie. Soon after Charlie’s birth his father died, and when his mother remarried the family moved to High Barnet on the outskirts of London. Charlie, who did not get on with his stepfather, ran wild for several years, avoiding his home and playing truant from school. Because of his parents’ inability to control him, when he was eight years old he was committed to a Home for Destitute Children at Chelmsford, Essex. He remained there until 1904, when he reached the age of sixteen and was sent to work on a farm in Cardiganshire. In 1906, the contract which his employers had agreed with the home having expired, a local farmer’s son with whom he had become friendly proposed that they should seek work in the Rhondda coalmines. Gibbons declined the offer, for he was anxious to see his family again. However, finding it impossible to survive in London on a succession of low-paid jobs, in the early summer of 1907 Gibbons decided to follow his friend’s advice and enter the coal industry.

It took him several months to tramp to South Wales, supporting himself by working on farms along the way. On reaching Porth he found employment as an underground labourer at the Bertie pit, one of the Lewis Merthyr group of collieries, where he quickly gained enough experience to pass himself off as a skilled hewer. Gibbons’ eagerness to advance himself in his new trade led him to enrol for evening classes in mining engineering. He became, in his own words, “an earnest mining student, consumed with the itch of wishing to become a colliery official”.

But Gibbons has arrived in the coalfield at a time when young militants in the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF), having rejected the industrial moderation and Lib-Lab politics of the union leadership, were turning to Marxism for guidance in their battles with the coalowners.2 Gibbons first made contact with this movement one evening in 1909 after the unexpected cancellation of a mining class, when he happened to see a wall poster advertising a debate between Noah Ablett and T.I. Mardy Jones on the subject of working class education. This was one of a series of such debates held throughout the Rhondda SWMF lodges during the summer of that year, following the student “strike” at Ruskin College, with Mardy Jones defending the Ruskin authorities and Ablett supporting the students’ demand for a genuine labour college.3 Having nothing better to do, Gibbons went along to the meeting where, he remembered, “Noah Ablett gave a brilliantly clear exposition of the case for Independent Working Class Education and Mardy Jones, in spite of his eloquence, was clearly outclassed”.

At the end of the meeting Gibbons was approached by Ablett, who had been impressed by his contributions to the discussion, and the next day he visited Ablett’s house in Porth. As a result, Gibbons was won over to the cause of independent workers’ education. Ablett recruited him to the local branch of the Plebs League, where he was introduced both to Marxist theory and to men like W.F. Hay, W.H. Mainwaring, Noah Rees, George Dolling and A.J. Cook who were to play leading roles in the SWMF rank and file movement.4

Gibbons established a particularly close relationship with Noah Ablett who, he recalled, had “taken me under his wing intellectually”. When Ablett was elected checkweigher at Mardy in 1910, at his suggestion Gibbons found a job at the colliery and went to lodge in the same house as Ablett. He was thus at Ablett’s side during the crucial period marked by the formation of a syndicalist propaganda group in the area, and by the wave of industrial unrest which culminated in the Cambrian Combine strike. He was also closely associated with Ablett in the syndicalist-inspired Unofficial Reform Committee (URC), which arose out of that dispute.

It was in fact Charlie Gibbons who, at a meeting in Cardiff in May 1911, moved the resolution launching the URC.5 And in August, when the URC resolved to formulate its programme for transforming the SWMF into a revolutionary industrial union, Gibbons was appointed to assist Ablett in writing the Preamble.6 As he later admitted: “My share in the project was very small. It was Ablett’s brain that had mainly inspired the whole thing, and to him fell the task chiefly of laying down in our section the basic principles of the programme.” A draft of the Preamble was read by Gibbons to a URC meeting in September, where it was discussed and amendments made to the text,7 which was to be published early in 1912 as part of The Miners’ Next Step.

By then Gibbons had left South Wales, having successfully applied, at Ablett’s urging, for a two-year scholarship sponsored by the SWMF Rhondda No.1 District to the Central Labour College (CLC) – the Marxist educational institution founded by the Ruskin strikers and their supporters.8 In September 1911 Gibbons took up residence at the CLC’s new premises in Earl’s Court. London, along with his fellow No.1 student Nefydd Thomas and, shortly afterwards, A.J. Cook of the Rhondda No.2 District. He immediately threw himself into promoting the URC’s syndicalist policies at the college, arguing the case for the negative in a students’ debate on whether “nationalisation of industries would be advantageous to theworkers”.9 Indeed, as Arthur Cook’s own biographer points out, judging by the CLC records Gibbons’ contribution to college activities considerably outweighed that of the future general secretary of the Miners Federation of Great Britain.10

The aim of the CLC’s education, Gibbons reported, was to demonstrate that “the interests of the workers are absolutely opposed to those of the employers. Not only so, but it was also shown that all their ideas of what is right, just, moral and legal are and must be entirely opposed. Again, I learnt by hearing it constantly repeated in many ways that between the workers and the employers a fight must be waged until the employers are eventually wiped out, as such…. The lesson was constantly and continually driven home that the workers could only rely upon victory by strong and efficient organisation, by building up a fighting organisation, and not a compromising, conciliating and arbitrating one”.

The main subjects taught were industrial history, which was intended to provide a materialist explanation of historical development, and Marxist political economy. Students were also tutored in Joseph Dietzgen’s “philosophic logic”, in public speaking and in general subjects considered relevant to their work in the labour movement. When Gibbons returned to the Rhondda in the summer of 1912, his speech to the Tonypandy Plebs Club revealed the “splendid progress” he had made at the CLC.11

Instead of resuming his studies at the CLC in September, Gibbons was sent to lecture in the Rochdale district, where a former Ruskin striker named Harold Kershaw had established a thriving organisation of classes, funded by the local trade unions. Gibbons lectured in industrial history, economics and philosophy to classes in Rochdale, Radcliffe, Oldham, Bury, Waterfoot and Manchester, with a total of 128 students in attendance.12 Although previous lecturers in the district had included W.F. Hay and the CLC Assistant Warden, W.W. Craik, Gibbons’ teaching abilities do not seem to have compared unfavourably with those of his more experienced predecessors. The Manchester class reported on the completion of twenty lectures in industrial history that “Gibbons was a treat” and that they had arranged for him to teach an expanded programme of classes during the 1913-14 session.13

In March 1913 Gibbons returned to the CLC,14 which he now attended on a free scholarship.15 During his absence a serious breakdown in student-staff relations had occurred. In November 1912 the students had issued a circular which accused the CLC of wasting funds on overstaffing and condemned George Sims, the economics lecturer, as “totally incompetent to teach”.16 In July 1913, when two representatives from the SWMF Monmouthshire and Western Valleys District (whose sponsored student George Daggar was prominent among the rebels) came to investigate, Gibbons sided with the staff, arguing that the majority of students now had no complaints.17 It was possibly to repair any damage to the CLC’s reputation resulting from this conflict that Gibbons, at the request of South Wales Worker editor W.F. Hay, provided the paper with an article on his experiences at the college, giving the local labour movement a glowing account of the CLC’s activities.

In the autumn of 1913 Gibbons went to lecture in the Manchester district, as had been agreed at the end of his last session there. He taught four classes, in Sale, Hyde, Openshaw and Salford, which attracted 100 students.18 The British Socialist Party (BSP) member Will McLaine, who attended the Salford class, still remembered Gibbons years later as “one of the best lecturers I have ever heard”. McLaine’s notes on Gibbons’ industrial history lectures provide a revealing record of Gibbons’ teaching. Proceeding along lines later made familiar by Mark Starr’s A Worker Looks at History, Gibbons began with a refutation of non-Marxist historical theories before analysing the development of society, from the break-up of tribalism through to contemporary capitalism, on the basis of a distinctly mechanical version of historical materialism. Although these lectures were given at the BSP’s Hyndman Hall, Gibbons ended the course with an uncompromisingly syndicalist exposition of revolutionary theory. Capitalism, he stated firmly, would be overthrown not through political struggle but by the workers developing an increasingly powerful industrial organisation in response to the growing concentration of capital. He concluded with the assurance that “economic development which cannot be stayed is bringing about the downfall of capitalism and the rise of socialism”.19

Gibbons returned to the CLC at the beginning of 1914, in time to put his name to a circular, signed by all the miners’ students and sent to the SWMF executive and districts, which called on the South Wales miners to join the railwaymen in taking control of the college.20 This campaign was not helped by a resurgence of internal strife at the CLC, during which Gibbons again supported the staff and, perhaps with the aim of putting pressure on the students to end their rebellion, decided to publicise the dispute outside the college.21 Although students and staff agreed to ban any further information being issued until negotiations between the SWMF and NUR had been completed, Gibbons’ action does seem to have encouraged a truce between the two sides.22 The dispute was finally buried in August, when the CLC annual meeting overwhelmingly rejected A.J. Cook’s proposal for an independent inquiry into the students’ grievances.23

In the spring of 1914, having finally completed his two years at the CLC, Gibbons arrived back in the Rhondda, where he assisted W.F. Hay in editing the South Wales Worker. The last issues of the paper before it collapsed on the outbreak of war featured a bitter controversy between Ablett and what Michael Woodhouse terms a “maximalist” wing of the unofficial movement headed by Gibbons, Hay, Cook and the veteran militant James B. Grant.24 The conflict centred on the programme to be adopted by the SWMF in negotiating a new agreement with the coalowners in 1915. While Ablett defended the SWMF executive’s claim for a substantial increase in the basic rate,25 for the maximalists this was totally inadequate. Gibbons wrote a series of articles for the South Wales Worker, in which he insisted that the SWMF should accept nothing less than the complete abolition of the piece-rate system and its replacement by a high guaranteed day wage.

Gibbons also rejected the executive’s proposal to increase members’ contributions, a proposal supported by Ablett on the grounds that the lengthy strikes of recent years had been undermined by lack of finance. Gibbons argued that the real problem had been the leaders’ refusal to extend industrial action, which had resulted in long, expensive disputes. Rather than a rise in union dues, he advocated the use of the new Triple Alliance for the classic syndicalist strategy of “a general strike of several industries and services at once”. If the miners, railwaymen and transport workers struck together, he asserted, “no power on earth cold prevent them from realising their demands. Commerce, industry and government would be so rapidly disorganised and demoralised that the employers would swiftly be brought to their knees. A strike of this kind would be over in a week”.26

In June and July a series of coalfield meetings was organised under the auspices of the South Wales Worker League (the paper’s support group), where Gibbons, Hay, Cook and Grant campaigned for this militant alternative to the official programme.27

The war crisis threw the unofficial movement into further disarray. Some former URC supporters took an open pro-war stand, while only W.F. Hay’s pamphlet WAR! and the Welsh Miner expressed unequivocal opposition. More typical was the view that in the prevailing atmosphere of chauvinistic hysteria the role of militants was limited to the defence of workers’ basic rights against the consequences of war. Thus in August 1914 Charlie Gibbons and Arthur Cook held a public meeting at Porth to protest against rising prices. They did so despite midnight visits from the police, who ordered them to abandon the meeting under threat of prosecution. The local paper reported: “Had it not been for those orders there would have been no meeting held at all in the rain, but just to prove that ‘Socialists will not be bullied’, the elements were defied for a short time.”28

Gibbons’ own response to the war was complicated by his difficulties in finding work on returning to the Rhondda. The management at the Mardy colliery, well aware of the purposes of Gibbons’ CLC education, had refused to take him on again. He then got a start at Wattstown but was dismissed as soon as his URC and Labour College connections were discovered. Eventually he was offered a job by a former fellow student from his mining engineering classes who was now manager of the Lady Lewis pit, but only on condition that Gibbons worked the late shift. The manager openly admitted that this was to prevent him attending lodge meetings and agitating among the workforce. Within a few months of Britain’s entry into the war Gibbons enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He did so, he explained, “not because I was particularly patriotic but mainly because it afforded me an opportunity out of the isolation to which work on the afternoon shift condemned me”. Over the next four years he saw service in Egypt and Palestine, reaching the rank of sergeant before being demobilised in February 1919.

The coalfield was in a ferment of industrial and political unrest when Gibbons arrived in South Wales. As a known militant he again found difficulty getting work, despite the coalowners’ assurance in 1914 that volunteers would be reinstated after the war. And when he stood for the position of checkweigher at Mardy, Gibbons failed even to make the shortlist.29 Consequently he remained unemployed for several weeks. This did not stop him joining A.J. Cook and other URC supporters in organising a wave of unofficial strikes in March, following the publication of the Sankey Commission’s interim report, to back up rank and file demands that the union leaders take a firm line in negotiations with the government.30 Gibbons recalled standing at the pitheads, still in his army uniform, urging miners to down tools in support.

Eventually union pressure secured Gibbons’ re-employment by the Lewis Merthyr company. And he soon re-established his pre-war prominence in the unofficial movement, emerging as one of the leading members of the South Wales Socialist Society (SWSS), the organisation launched in February 1919 with the aim of uniting industrial and political militants around the principle of the class war.31 During the Sankey Commission’s second stage Gibbons helped W.F. Hay to write the sequel to The Miners’ Next Step, published by the SWSS in August as Industrial Democracy for Miners, which modified the URC’s earlier opposition to nationalisation, setting out a detailed plan for workers’ control of the coalmining industry within a framework of state ownership.32 But illness then forced Gibbons to leave the coalfield. For on resuming employment he had been given a bad place, working ankle-deep in water, and had developed severe rheumatism. So he decided to take advantage of a government training scheme to study economics, history and finance at Cardiff Technical College, “thus getting the other side of the medal of Marxism”.

It is unlikely, therefore, that Gibbons was working in the coal industry when he represented the South Wales miners at the Shop Stewards and Workers Committee Movement conference in London during January 1920. Nevertheless, he was able to inform the delegates how the URC “manufactured pretexts and created situations whereby the workers were forced into a spirit of antagonism to the employers. As a result there were now 150,000 in the South Wales coalfield prepared to ‘do’ the employers as soon as the opportunity came”.

Moving the resolution on the trade union movement, Gibbons argued that, “in view of the approaching revolutionary crisis”, it was the duty of rank and file militants to fight for official positions in the unions. He was opposed by another South Wales delegate, J. Pritchard, who defended the more typical syndicalist view that “once a man was sent on a central executive body he became a reactionary”. But Gibbons’ approach was in line with the recent thinking of the URC, as illustrated by their decision to stand Mainwaring, Cook and Noah Tromans for the positions of president, vice-president and secretary at the June 1919 SWMF conference.

Also worth noting is the opinion Gibbons expressed on the question of affiliation to the Third International. Despite general enthusiasm for this proposal – several leading figures in the shop stewards’ movement were to attend the International’s Second Congress in Moscow in July – Gibbons himself “considered it more important to work for the revolution here. By that means they could draw the attention of the ruling class off Russia. As long as they worked for revolution here they were doing all that their Russian comrades wanted of them”.33

In the spring of 1920 Gibbons applied for the job of statistical clerk to the SWMF, no doubt anticipating that his period of orthodox education at Cardiff would stand him in good stead. But despite his qualifications he was turned down in favour of the only other applicant. This may have reflected some bias against Gibbons by SWMF secretary Tom Richards, who made the appointment, for objections were raised on the executive council as a result of which Richards’ decision was overturned and the post readvertised.34 But Gibbons had by then secured election as checkweigher at the Ferndale colliery.

He immediately took up a leading position on the Ferndale lodge. At the May Day rally in Ferndale Workmen’s Hall, Gibbons moved the resolution expressing solidarity with all national liberation movements and pledging support to the Workers’ Republic in Russia.35 Gibbons headed a campaign by the lodge against a decision by the Rhondda Urban District Council (RUDC) to implement the Addison Act’s scheme for financing council housing through the issue of bonds. He successfully moved a resolution withdrawing the lodge’s payments to Councillor Abel Jacobs, a Ferndale miner who as chairman of the RUDC had refused to support the lodge’s policy that housing should be subsidised out of the employers’ profits.36 This, however, was Gibbons’ last contribution to the Ferndale lodge before he was dismissed as checkweigher after only a few months in the job.37

On his return to the Rhondda, Gibbons had become involved in the unity campaign which led to the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Disagreements over this question produced a split in the SWSS, which was almost certainly the reason why in June 1920 Charlie Gibbons and Arthur Horner replaced D.A. Davies and W.F. Hay as secretary and chairman of the SWSS.38 It was on behalf of the Society’s Ferndale branch that Gibbons attended the Communist Unity Convention, held in London during July 31-August 1, which established the CPGB as the official section of the Third International.

This might appear surprising in view of Gibbons’ earlier opposition to affiliation to the Communist International, but it may be that he went along with the prevailing mood in favour of revolutionary unity. At any rate, Gibbons’ contributions to the convention made it clear that he was entirely out of sympathy with many of the founding principles of the new party. In the opening discussion on workers’ councils he revealed the gulf which separated his syndicalist views from the Leninist conception of soviets as the basis of political power, proposing instead a strategy whereby workers’ councils would seize the means of production while soldiers’ councils carried out the overthrow of the capitalist state.39

Further differences between Gibbons and the majority of delegates emerged during the debate on parliamentary action. He failed to see the logic of a policy which, although declaring for the soviet system and repudiating the reformist illusion that bourgeois democracy could be the vehicle for the establishment of socialism, nevertheless advocated Communist participation in parliamentary elections. Gibbons insisted that the Communist Party’s limited resources should not be squandered on political action, and he called on the party to utilise “every man, every penny, every ounce of enthusiasm, and every moment of time in the vital work of the educational and industrial field”.40

The resolution endorsing Communist affiliation to the Labour Party provoked another anti-political speech from Gibbons. He referred in scathing terms to the record of the Labour-controlled RUDC: “Every section of the working class at Rhondda, after working for the municipality, had been on strike against it during the last twelve months. That fact had done more to discredit the Labour Party in the eyes of the workers of the Rhondda than anything we could do either inside or outside … and he and other delegates from that district dare not go back and tell the people there to go into the Labour Party.”41

There was thus so little common ground between Gibbons and the CPGB that, although a Ferndale branch of the party was formed immediately after the convention,42 it is difficult to believe that he could have become a member. In any case, soon afterwards he left South Wales to lecture in industrial history for the Liverpool Labour College, where W.F. Hay was economics lecturer.43 In the spring of 1921 financial problems forced the college to dispense with Gibbons’ services, and he returned to Wales, teaching a successful class at Cardiff attended by 73 students.44 He then worked for several months as finance officer at the Ministry of Pensions at Mountain Ash, before being re-elected to his old position of checkweigher at Ferndale, probably at the beginning of 1922.

He returned to a South Wales coalfield very different from the one he had left eighteen months before. The miners’ defeat after Black Friday, and the subsequent decontrol of the mines amid the collapse of the post-war boom, had led to wage cuts, mass unemployment, a drastic decline in union membership and widespread demoralisation. These developments, and the wreckage of their syndicalist strategy for seizing the mines, had a devastating effect on many of Gibbons’ comrades in the unofficial movement. Noah Ablett retreated into alcoholism, W.F. Hay abandoned socialism to take a job lecturing against temperance legislation on behalf of the breweries, while A.J. Cook became a vigorous champion of the SWMF executive’s policy of co-operation with the coalowners to increase productivity. In October 1921 Cook, in his capacity as Rhondda No.1 District agent, had successfully urged acceptance of this policy on the Ferndale lodge, with the support of its leading figure Noah Tromans.45

To Charlie Gibbons this was a betrayal of everything the unofficial movement had fought for, and at his insistence Cook returned in February 1922 to explain his position to the Ferndale lodge.46 Why, only the other day, Cook argued, Mr Gibbons himself had admitted to him that even if the miners now had control of the mines, in the present economic climate they would still have to work harder to maintain the financial viability of the industry.

“Was it treachery to admit facts?”, Cook demanded. “Reparation coal had hit us, America had got into the markets, to get work at all we had to produce coal at a price. The foreigner wanted coal, but he couldn’t buy it at the price. We have sent more coal to France than we have ever sent before. We have captured the South American market; but it has been due to reduced costs of production.”47

Determined to fight this retreat, Gibbons put a motion to the lodge condemning the co-operation policy and instructing the committee to ballot the workforce on the issue. Supporters of co-operation, he argued, were acting as the “unpaid officials” of the mine owners, and anyone who advocated such a course must be “mentally weak”. But following an opposing speech by Noah Tromans, Gibbons’ motion was defeated by 44 votes to 15, a result which indicates the extent to which the militancy of the immediate post-war period had now evaporated.48

Gibbons also retained his syndicalist hostility to politics, arguing forcefully against the lodge contesting the Urban and County Council elections. This question was the subject of lengthy debates, with Gibbons assailing “people who made a fetish of political action”. Where Labour-controlled councils had effected improvements in social conditions, Gibbons stated, this had been at the workers’ own expense, and now the same local authorities were cutting their expenditure and imposing wage reductions on their employees. But a cogent defence of political action by Tromans persuaded the lodge to reject Gibbons’ arguments.49

Gibbons resigned from the lodge committee in February 1922,50 and after his failure to rally support for a militant syndicalist policy his contributions to general meetings became increasingly infrequent. In September, with A.J. Cook present, Gibbons did propose that the lodge put a motion to conference calling for a down tools policy, but Cook told him that he was wasting his time, as the motion would certainly be ruled out of order.51

Towards the end of 1922 the SWMF leaders, including Cook himself, abandoned the co-operation policy, having been forced to recognise its futility, while an economic revival in the coal industry opened up the prospect of renewed militancy on the industrial front. Indeed, 1923 was to see the launching of the Communist-organised Miners’ Minority Movement. But Gibbons was not to participate in this revival of rank and file activity. In addition to his isolation to the Ferndale lodge, by his own account he had found difficulty in adjusting to work in the coalfield after his experience as a Labour College lecturer. Early in 1923 he resigned his position as checkweigher and thus brought his involvement in the South Wales coal industry to a close.52

Gibbons then worked briefly as assistant publicity agent for Cardiff Corporation until he lost his eyesight for a year. On recovering in 1924, he was employed by the Central Labour College as lecturer in evolution. And before the CLC’s year ended in the summer he was recommended by the executive committee of the National Council of Labour Colleges (NCLC) Edinburgh District to replace their organiser, J.P.M. Millar, who had taken over as general secretary.

Gibbons’ appointment was not without incident, though, for a district committee meeting voted to accept the nomination of a Communist Party member, William Joss. Millar, who was intent on restricting the number of Communists working for the NCLC, attempted to overturn this decision, accusing a CPGB activist named Eva Harris of packing the meeting. He was unsuccessful, and the selection was eventually reduced to a straight choice between Joss and Gibbons. Miss Harris’s objections to Gibbons “on account of his being in the army” did not, however, prevent his selection by a substantial majority. He took up his post in August. Later Eva Harris sufficiently overcame her aversion to Gibbons to become his wife.53

Within the NCLC, Gibbons acted as a loyal supporter of J.P.M. Millar, under whose guidance the independent working class education movement was transformed from an avowedly revolutionary rank and file organisation into a more conventional educational service to the trade unions. As for Gibbons’ own ideological development, the experience of 1926 seems to have led him to reassess his syndicalist views – by the following year he was lecturing on “The Limitations of a General Strike”54 – and to accept the necessity of political action. Although maintaining a theoretical adherence to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, in practice he appears to have accommodated himself to reformism, joining the Labour Party and working on occasion as an election agent.

Gibbons’ responsibilities as Edinburgh District organiser were extended in 1928 to cover east Scotland, and he continued in this position until a serious ear infection forced his retirement in 1945, after which he became an examiner in the NCLC’s postal course department. He also performed the role of “Millar’s hatchet man”, as he became known in the movement,55 acting vigorously on behalf of the general secretary against erring NCLC organisers. In 1956, when Millar removed the Yorkshire organiser John Archer, it was Gibbons who took over Archer’s post and rifled through his private correspondence for evidence that he had been “carrying out Trotskyist intrigues in the labour movement”.56 Gibbons was taken ill at the end of 1966, and died the following March. At his funeral in Edinburgh the oration was given by one of his ex-students, local Labour MP E.G. Willis, who paid tribute to “a great teacher and a good comrade”.57

A proper evaluation of Gibbons’ role in the NCLC is beyond the scope of this article; it would in any case require an analysis of the NCLC itself, a not insignificant aspect of working class history, no adequate study of which has yet been published. But it seems reasonable to conclude that, rather than his decades of work for the NCLC, it is Gibbons’ relatively brief period of involvement in the industrial and educational activities of the SWMF which stands out as his major contribution to the labour movement. The aim of this article has been to give that contribution the recognition it deserves.


1. Quotations and biographical details, unless otherwise stated, are from the following writings by Gibbons: “The Central Labour College: my experiences and impressions”, South Wales Worker, 5 July 1913; “Reminiscences”, “Reminiscences”, Edinburgh Clarion, July 1942-November 1945; “Some Facts on which to Base Public Interview of Charles L. Gibbons”, unpublished typescript, c.1942; “Recollections of the Movement for Independent Working Class Education, 1908-1914”, unpublished manuscript, 1959, NCLC records, Acc.5120 (Additional Papers), Box 7(5), National Library of Scotland; Letter to E.D. Lewis, 1959, quoted by I.A. Hamilton, “Education for Revolution: The Plebs League and Labour College Movement, 1908-1921”, M.A. thesis, Warwick University, 1972. Copies of Edinburgh Clarion and NCLC writings in South Wales Miners’ Library.
2. For the development of a Marxist current among the SWMF rank and file, see M.G. Woodhouse, “Rank and File Movements Among the Miners of South Wales, 1910-1926”, D.Phil. thesis, Oxford University, 1969.
3. See R. Lewis, “The South Wales miners and the Ruskin College strike of 1909”, Llafur, vol.2, no.1. 1976.
4. Gibbons is no doubt the “T. Gibbon” who, along with Ablett, Hay, Mainwaring, Rees, Dolling, Cook and others, attended a Rhondda Plebs meeting in June 1910: Plebs Magazine, July 1910.
5. URC meeting, 29 May 1911, minutes in Mainwaring Papers, National Library of Wales. The relevant sections of URC secretary W.H. Mainwaring’s notebook are published in D. Egan, “The Unofficial Reform Committee and The Miners’ Next Step“, Llafur, vol.2, no.3, 1978.
6. URC meeting, 27 August 1911.
7. Ibid., 3 September 1911.
8. Gibbons was not the district’s original choice, the two successful candidates being Nefydd Thomas and William Carpenter (Rhondda No.1 District meeting, 12 September 1911, minutes). Presumably Carpenter was unable to take up his place and Gibbons was accepted as a late replacement. (All SWMF records cited are deposited in the Coalfield Archive, University College Swansea.)
9. CLC students’ debating society, 6 November 1911, minutes, NCLC Records Acc.5120, Box 70(4).
10. P. Davies, A.J. Cook (Manchester, 1987), p.16.
11. Rhondda Socialist, 31 August 1912.
12. Plebs Magazine, October, November 1912.
13. Ibid., April 1913.
14. List of students, 1912-13, in CLC minute book, 1909-15, Workers’ Educational Association headquarters.
15. Rhondda No.1 District committee meeting, 19 September 1912.
16. Plebs Magazine, December 1912. For the student-staff conflict at the CLC, see J. Atkins, Neither Crumbs nor Condescension (Aberdeen, 1981).
17. CLC Board meeting, 5 July 1913, CLC minute book.
18. Plehs Magazine, January 1914.
19. “Notes by W.M. McLaine of 20 Lectures on Industrial History Given by C.L. Gibbons in Hyndman Hall, Salford, in 1913”, CLC Records, Acc. 5120, Box 37 (1-2).
20. Letter from miners’ students, 12 February 1914, in CLC students’ house meetings, minutes, 1913-14, NCLC Records, Acc.5 120, Box 70(1).
21. CLC students’ house meetings, 24, 25, 26 March 1914.
22. Agreement between students and staff, 27 March 1914, in CLC students’ house meetings, minutes.
23. Plebs Magazine, September 1914.
24. Woodhouse, op. cit., p.111.
25. South Wales Worker, 4 April 1914.
26. “The Miners’ New Programme and Policy”, ibid., 16, 30 May, 13, 27 June 1914.
27. Ibid., 30 May, 13, 27 June 1914.
28. Porth Gazette, 15 August 1914.
29. R. Page Arnot, notes of discussion with Arthur Horner, 1962, in Page Arnot collection, University College Swansea; Mardy No.3 Pit Workmen’s Committee meeting, 31 March 1919, minutes.
30. Lewis Merthyr Joint Committee meetings, 25 March 1919, minutes.
31. Sylvia Pankhurst names Gibbons, D.A. Davies, Mainwaring, Hay and Cook as leaders of the SWSS: The Home Front, 1932, p.413.
32. See M.G. Woodhouse, “Mines for the Nation or Mines for the Miners? Alternative Perspectives on Industrial Democracy, 1919-1921”, Llafur, vol.2, no.3, 1978.
33. Shop Stewards and Workers Committee Movement Conference, 10-11 January 1920, typescript notes and report, Tanner Papers, Nuffield College Oxford.
34. Ferndale lodge general meeting, 18 April 1920, minutes; SWMF executive council meeting, 9 April 1920, minutes.
35. Ferndale lodge general meetings, minutes.
36. Ibid., 30 June 1920.
37. “The dismissal of checkweighers” is referred to (Ferndale lodge committee meeting, 1 July 1920), but no reason is given. Gibbons himself states that he was dismissed because of a change in the method of calculating wages.
38. C.L. Gibbons, letter to Workers’ Dreadnought, 17 June 1920.
39. Communist Unity Convention, 31 July-1 August 1920, Official Report, p.8.
40. Ibid., p.12.
41. Ibid., pp.40-41. For the hostility of militant miners to the RUDC, see C. Williams, “‘An Able Administrator of Capitalism’? The Labour Party in the Rhondda, 1917-1921”, Llafur, vol.4, no.4, 1987.
42. The Communist, 12 August 1920.
43. Plebs, November 1920.
44. Ibid., April, July 1921.
45. Ferndale lodge general meeting, 25 October 1921.
46. Ferndale lodge committee meeting, 16 February 1922.
47. Ferndale lodge general meeting, 26 February 1922.
48. Ibid. 7 March 1922.
49. Ferndale lodge special committee meeting, 13 February 1922; general meeting 21 February 1922.
50. Ferndale lodge committee meeting, 16 February 1922.
51. Ferndale lodge general meeting, 27 September 1922.
52. He last appears in the lodge minutes in January 1923.
53. Edinburgh District, Scottish Labour College, executive committee meetings, 15, 30 May 1924, district committee meetings, 22 May, 21 June 1924, minutes, NCLC Records, Acc.5 120, Box 77(6); Plebs, August 1924; J.P.M. Millar, The Labour College Movement, 1979, p.81.
54. Plebs, August 1927.
55. Conversations with former NCLC organisers Frank Ward and John Archer.
56. NCLC executive sub-committee, 7 June 1956, minutes, NCLC Records, Acc.5120 (2nd Deposit), folio 33.
57. Funeral Address by E.G. WilIis MP at Warriston Crematorium, Edinburgh, 14 March 1967, NCLC Records, Acc.5 120 (Additional Papers), Box 20(3). See also the obituary by J.P.M. Millar, Plebs, June 1967.