Clay Cross takes its place – alongside Poplar – as a hallowed place in the Labour pantheon: a site of struggle and resistance, a town where a Labour-led council fought valiantly for its people, whose socialism was less an abstract ideal than part of its living fabric. All that came to a head in the famous 1972 Rents Rebellion. But it was rooted in a history, community and politics of much longer vintage. This post will look at that at that longer story and try to answer the question why there, why then – and, by extension, why not here and why not now.
In the early nineteenth century Clay Cross was little more than a hamlet at a crossroads. A cross stood at the intersection of Clay Lane and Thanet Street and from that it is said to have derived its name. But its history begins in 1837 when George Stephenson drove a tunnel under the village and discovered iron and steel in the process. Stephenson set up a company to exploit its potential which, after his death in 1848, became the Clay Cross Company.
The population of Clay Cross itself had tripled – to 1478 by 1841. It was a company town and the Clay Cross Company was said to be a paternalistic employer, generous even – its workers’ housing comprised four rooms rather than the two which were typical.
In the mining industry, that paternalism didn’t amount to much. In November 1882, an explosion of firedamp in the town’s Parkhouse No. 7 pit killed 45 men and boys. An inquest jury, comprised of the local middle classes, found no negligence on the part of the Company but recommended that safety lamps be used in future. It naturally also expressed its ‘deep sympathy with all the bereaved ones who had suffered in this calamity’.
Sympathy, however, was in short supply during the Great Lock-out of 1893 when local miners – resisting a 25 per cent wage cut – were laid off for nine months. Nor was it evident in 1910 when John Renshaw led the colliers of Parkhouse in a 14-week strike against the pittance paid for abnormal work. Renshaw was dismissed; his comrades bought him a hawker’s cart so he could somehow continue to make a living.
Politically, resistance was also stirring. Labour representatives held a majority on the Clay Cross Urban District Council from its formation in 1894 to 1906. James Haslam, Clay Cross-born in 1842 and Secretary of the Derbyshire Miners’ Association, was elected as the local MP in 1906 and became its Labour MP when the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain affiliated to the party in 1909. In 1919, John Renshaw, now described as a greengrocer, was elected a Labour councillor. There was much to do.
Although, by 1919, some of the worst slums had been demolished, some back-to-backs knocked through, a small municipal scheme had been built in Broadleys, of 1800 houses in the town only 130 had baths and only 500 had WCs. (2) The Council responded by purchasing an additional five acres of land for a £57,000 scheme to extend its Broadleys estate.
Rents proved to be controversial, however. The Ministry of Health demanded rents of 14s, 11s 6d and 9s (exclusive of rates) which the Council criticised as excessive. In 1922, exactly fifty years before its much more famous rents protest and at a time when miners’ wages were being cut once more, the Council voted unanimously to reduce them. (3)
How Clay Cross miners survived during the nine-month coal strike four years later can only be guessed – their strike pay was exhausted after ten weeks – but poignant evidence is provided below in the image of Brannigan’s Jazz Band: twenty local miners, who toured the district in fancy dress raising money from well-wishers. (4)
In 1931, plans for 16 new council houses on land at Clay Lane were announced. Against those who were critical of such expenditure at a time of austerity, Councillor Renshaw made the essential ethical case for council housing (in the language of his day), as true now as it was then: (4)
If Capitalism has found some easier and better method of investing money other than building houses, then it must devolve itself upon the State and local authorities to provide them and give the working classes that share of comfort which should be theirs by right in a Christian country.
Moreover, because the financial case is just as strong, the Council pointed out that the houses, costing £300 17s to build (‘a great credit to the surveyor and the clerk’), would cost the ratepayer nothing and could be let at an inclusive rent of just 8s 6d. (5)
As slum clearance took off in the mid-1930s, 63 houses were demolished under the 1930 Housing Act, displacing 229 people, and 14 houses built in Holmgate Road for some of those displaced. One year later, in 1936, plans were announced for the construction of 64 houses and 14 bungalows for elderly people on the newly-acquired Angel Fields site.
Thirty new houses would be built on the Estate after 1945 and by 1950 the Council had completed 290 new homes in all. Much very poor property remained – Elbow Row was a terrace of one-up, one-down houses with ‘blind backs’, ‘improved’ in 1960 by the Clay Cross Company by the addition of a single-brick lean-to at the rear. (6) It was demolished in 1973 at the height of the Council’s ambition and radicalism.
This later chapter begins in 1960 when Dennis Skinner (brought up in a council semi on Meadow Lane, Holmgate) was elected to the Council. Local Labour, it is said, had grown moribund in the 1950s when Skinner and others, less celebrated, revived the party. Three years later, in 1963, Labour took all eleven seats on the Council and it would win every contest thereafter until 1974.
Crucially, although tribal voting can be conservative and established councils with a monopoly of power complacent, this Labour success was active and politicised, rooted in its community. In the words of David Skinner: (7)
The council as a unit was strong because it had developed its policies as an expression of the will of the people it served. It knew those policies were right because of the growing political awareness in the town, because it was clear that people had learned to care what happened there, because – unlike in many local authority areas – between 65 and 75 per cent of them bothered to turn out and vote whenever there were elections.
This wasn’t the stuff of revolution. For example, three ‘Darby and Joan Clubs’ were opened in the 1960s for the town’s senior citizens who were also (alongside those with disabilities) given free bus travel in 1971 and free TV licences in 1973.
When Margaret Thatcher abolished free school milk in 1973, the Council kept supplying its primary school children through a penny rate and the diversion of an increased chairman’s allowance. It ran playgroups too and provided (with some help from the Sports Council) a brand-new Olympic-sized swimming pool to replace the near-obsolete one at the Miners’ Welfare and a pitch-and-putt course on a former slag heap.
The opening of new council offices in an old building, a former hotel, on the town’s High Street was a deliberate symbol of the Council’s place at the heart of its community. When Dennis Skinner performed the opening ceremony in July 1965 he declared that the public ‘will be the openers of the new offices. If public service is presented properly, the people will take an interest.’ (8) And they did.
We’ll follow this story to its climax in the famous rents rebellion of 1972 in next week’s post and attempt to understand why Clay Cross has been so unique and distinct in its resistance to unjust laws and a hostile politics.
(1) Fionn Taylor, Parkhouse No. 7
(2) ‘Clay Cross Housing. Prospects in an Old Mining Town’’, Derbyshire Courier, 1 February 1919
(3) Derbyshire Courier, 11 February 1922
(4) John Renshaw, letter to Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald, 19 March 1932
(5) ‘£300 Houses at Clay Cross’, Nottingham Evening Post, 8 June 1932
(6) Cliff Williams, Clay Cross and the Clay Cross Company (2005)
(7) David Skinner and Julia Langdon, The Story of Clay Cross (1974)
(8) Dennis Skinner, Sailing Close to the Wind: Reminiscences (2014)