Durham Miners Boost the Lidice Shall Live Movement -1942

Since the first Lidice Shall Live meeting was held in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, in September, other cities had adopted the movement. By late 1942, most of Britain’s mining Federations were beginning to commit to supporting the cause, having received an official appeal from George Jones of the Midlands Miners’ Federation, stamped and syndicated through the national Federation’s network. It invited their members to follow North Staffordshire’s lead and for miners to pay a levy of half a crown (or 2s 6d) each towards the fund. A show of disinterest could have severe consequences for the appeal.

The Durham Miners' Executive, Taken Around 1940, Featuring Will Lawther And Jas Gilliland On The Steps Of The Durham Miners' Hall
Durham Miners’ Executive, c1940 Jas Gilliland is 4th in the front row; Will Lawther is 2nd from right, 2nd row.

The most symbolic would be the response from the Durham Miners’ Association, the largest trade union in England. With the spirited backing of the Association’s President, former collier and Methodist preacher Jas Gilliland, and former Durham son, politician, and President of the Mineworkers’ Federation of Great Britain, Will Lawther, the Durham Miners’ Association enthusiastically led the way for others to follow. And so, on October 28th, it was reported in the Sunderland Echo that miners’ lodges in the Durham coalfield had been unanimously recommended by the Executive of the Durham Miners’ Association to agree to a grant from the General Funds equal to 2s 6d per member for the Mineworkers’ Federation scheme to rebuild the Czech village of Lidice.

Dr Beneš, visited Durham on Sunday the 22nd of November 1942, at the invitation of the Durham Miners’ Association. On his way to Durham, the well-liked Dr Beneš made several stops, first calling at the Chester Moor and South Pelaw Aged Miners’ Homes, where men straight from the pit had gathered to receive him. After meeting the occupants of the homes, the committee presented the President with a leather wallet.

Beneš also visited Durham Cathedral, where the Dean, Dr C. A. Alington, functioned as a guide. Later, the President called at the Town Hall, where he met the Mayor, Cllr F. A Howard, and the Town Clerk, Mr G. D. Rowland. Later still, Dr Beneš received the honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law from the University of Durham at a special audience in one of the lecture rooms.

Pitman’s Parliament at the Miners’ Hall, Durham – image copyright BBC

Harton Colliery Band signalled President Beneš’s entry into the crowded Miners’ Hall with fanfare, followed by the Czech national anthem. Although reportedly an unemotional man, the Czech President-in-exile was visibly touched by the warmth of his welcome. The men of Durham had pledged themselves to help build a new Lidice in Czechoslovakia after the war and Will Lawther, who presided, said,

“Nothing is more vital than coal for the guns, the tanks, and the planes to avenge Lidice.”

Declaring that they had noted with horror the crime committed at Lidice, Lawther said:

“We shall express that horror, that indignation in a practical manner. We shall do it in such a way that future generations will enter Lidice as a holy place consecrated by humble sons and daughters of toil who lived there until their destruction on the 10th of June 1942.”

Doctor Edvard Beneš, President Czech Government In Exile, Supporter Of The Lidice Shall Live Campaign
President Edvard Beneš

Remarking that he was among friends to whom the Czecho-Slovak people owed a special debt of gratitude, Dr Beneš said,

“In this war the will of the workers is decisive. Behind the superb defence of Stalingrad, you see not merely the “Red” soldiers but the will of the Russian workers, which is breaking the German war machine. This is no less true of the British worker. He, too, has played his part both in the brilliant victory in Egypt and Libya and in the Allied occupation of French North Africa.”

“Personally, I have never doubted that by the late autumn of this year, the main issue of the war would be decided.” said Dr Beneš. “It has been decided. And the mask is now torn from Vichy. We have reached the stage when Frenchmen can, at last, discern their true patriots from the false, and I rejoice to see Frenchmen once more taking an active part in driving the Germans back to their own homeland…The Russians, too, will harry them very soon, as they try, perhaps in vain, to occupy new defensive positions, and the German vitality will be lower. Today the Allied pincers are already doing deadly work.”

After referring to the persistent quarrels among the Nazi generals, Beneš said that the reports his government received told a great deal about the bribery and corruption rampant from one end of Occupied Europe to the other.

“I do not want to under-estimate the great strength of the German war machine even at the present moment: but the Nazi leaders at the top are anything but supermen. Their jealousies and rivalries, their fury, blindness, and terrible fear of the inevitable catastrophe play havoc with their judgment, and they have now made mistake after mistake which they cannot hope to retrieve. I believe that the end when it comes will be speedy.”

Emphasising the need to achieve victory as quickly as possible, Beneš said speed was worth many risks. It did not depend on military actions alone. It still depended very largely upon the workers of Great Britain and upon the workers’ front throughout the world. The British people had done much, and the people of Occupied Europe still depended upon them.

“The time for them to strike out on their own account has not yet come. German difficulties of transport which have hampered them so gravely upon the Eastern Front owe a great deal to the truculence of their slave workers throughout Occupied Europe. But final victory depends upon you.”

Beneš paid tribute to the North East for the role it played in defeating the Nazis. The coalfields of Durham and the industries of Tyneside were some of the most vital sinews of the war. He thanked the miners of Durham and Great Britain for their camaraderie in supporting the people of Czecho-Slovakia during their darkest days.

“You have shown by your adoption of Lidice how closely you associate your own war work with the rescue of the people of Czecho-Slovakia, and I regard every extra ton of coal brought to the surface as a token that this rescue will come quickly.”

The meeting was also addressed by Mr Jan Becko, Minister of Social Welfare in the Czechoslovak Government-in-exile; and an unexpected guest was Senior Lieutenant Vladimir Pchelintsev of the Soviet Red Army, a sniper who, speaking in his own language, described how, in the defence of Leningrad, reputedly killed 152 Germans with 154 bullets.

1942 was also a year plagued with tragedy in the Durham coalfield, as a total of 100 accidents led to 115 deaths, the worst being the Murton Colliery Disaster on the 26th of June, where 13 lives were lost because of a pit explosion. The executive, consisting of Sam Watson, Financial Secretary; Jas Gilliland, President; and John Swan, General Secretary, was preoccupied with the safety of its members and the financial security of the victims’ dependents. These were the daily battles the executive committees of industrial trade unions were fighting to keep Britain’s war effort against the Nazis on an even keel.

Subsequently, it was reported on the 12th of December 1942 that the Durham miners’ contribution towards the Lidice Shall Live campaign would be in the region of £15,000. On the 12th of January 1943, the Yorkshire Evening Post reported news that Will Lawther had recently received offers of collaboration from the miners of Australia and America and that the Mineworkers’ Federation of Great Britain’s executive committee had now formerly appealed to its district organisations to support the Lidice Shall Live fund.

It was formally announced that the Durham miners had agreed to subscribe half a crown per person to the fund. The lead taken by the North Staffordshire Miners and their associates within the Lidice Shall Live campaign had drawn in the largest trade union in Britain except the South Wales miners.

The involvement of Durham gave impetus to other coalfields and was soon followed by the Midland Miners’ Federation with a promise to levy the 2s 6d. George Jones, the Midlands’ General Secretary, remarked that “there is no doubt that the miners of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, and South Wales and elsewhere will co-operate.” These combining factors fuelled very optimistic predictions for the results of the campaign at the start of 1943 that the donations from the miners alone would achieve in the region of £50 – 80,000.

On the 31st of January 1945, it was reported by the Newcastle Journal and North Mail that the sum of £150,569 had been donated by Durham miners to various organisations since the outbreak of the war:

“…principal figures being £83,040 for the Red Cross: £21,637 Aid to Russia; and £13,869 to the Lidice Fund. Two Spitfires and six ambulances have been donated to the war effort and assistance provided for China, the Indian Famine Relief Fund, shipwrecked men, prisoners of war, and Greece. In workmen’s compensation approximately £1,285,959 was paid in 1944, more than double the total of 1943.”

You can find out more about the wartime humanitarian role British miners played in reconstructing Czechoslovakia and Lidice by reading The Path to Lidice, the definitive account of the Lidice Shall Live campaign. Available now online from Amazon in hardcover, paperback, and ebook formats—free with Amazon Unlimited.

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