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Harry Barton

This article traces the life of Harry Barton from the Forest of Dean who started work in the Lightmoor Colliery at the age of thirteen. He fought in World War One, remembers the 1926 lockout, migrated to work in the Yorkshire coalfield and then returned to the Forest to work at Northern United Colliery. He then became an activist in the Forest of Dean Miners’ Association which was the trade union representing the Forest of Dean Miners. During World War Two he joined the Communist Party and encouraged miners to commit to the war effort, campaigned for a second front and a united labour movement.  The main source for the article is from an interview by Elsie Olivey on 7 June 1984 which is held at the Gage Library in the Dean Heritage Centre, Soudley. Additional material is from the Dean Forest Mercury and the Gloucester papers.

George Henry (Harry) Barton (1898 -1990) was born in a house at the bottom of Church Road in Cinderford on 14 July 1898. His father, George Barton married Eliza Merritt on 26 August 1897. Just after he was a born the family moved to the Nags Head public house which the family managed for about six years. They then moved to a house on the corner of Flaxley Street until Harry was about eleven and then back to the house on Church Street. These houses were very close to each other. His siblings were Edith born in 1899 but died in 1903, Charles born in 1903, Ernest born in 1905, Una born in 1908 and Fred born in 1909 but died in 1910. Harry started at Bilson school when he was four years old and remembers:

“I would never get home very early in the evening and our mother used to worry where I had got to. I wasn’t very old but I used to stand watching the blacksmiths in the Triangle, shoeing the horses. And right on the end of that was the mortuary right in the Triangle. It used to frighten us kiddies when we got to know that there was a mortuary there. That’s when my mother used to say to us to go shopping for her, when I got to the Triangle, I used to run like hell past the mortuary, because I used to think of a dead body being in there or perhaps two or three! I wasn’t the only one mind who was frightened of going past there!”[1]

As a child, Harry was passionate about his education and enjoyed school. He won an essay competition and was an avid reader of comics. However, Harry said, “he was never allowed to flourish because of the conditions we lived in”. Most Forest boys at the time left school at thirteen or fourteen and went to work in the pit while the girls went away to work in service.

“I was thirteen because my mother persuaded me to get me down there because she wanted the money. When I walked home from the pit on the first week, I had nine shillings and I thought I had got the world! And my mother gave me threepence pocket money out of that nine shillings and the rest bought the week’s groceries.”[2]

Lightmoor Colliery

Harry’s father was a registered free miner but worked most of his life as a buttyman at Lightmoor Colliery A fortnight after his thirteenth birthday, Harry started working for his father.[3] At this time it was common for buttymen to employ their sons to learn the trade of hewing coal.  Harry described Lightmoor in this way:

“when you got down underneath, you would have thought you were in Fairyland! Because it was all bricked in, all the way round in a circle, like a tunnel that a locomotive would go through – all bricked round like that. And all brilliantly lit all the way up until about 500 yards from the bottom of the pit, all the way round all the districts up to there and then from there it would be in darkness. You had to use acetylene lamps then.”[4]

Harry’s first job was “wheeling coal out in a barrow from the coal face along the road to be tipped up and put into carts”. This was probably the Coleford High Delf which was about 4ft 6in in depth. Harry described the system at Lightmoor working on this seam:

“The coal was cut to the depth of 4ft 6in and each man had got to do a yard and a half of the cut – 4ft 6 deep and a yard and a half wide and that was his share. They used to work in pairs, you were paired with a man somewhere along the face. You did it regularly, he was your butty in all things that you worked on the coal face.

This road was nearly a mile long from the main road which we called Barton’s Road. My grandfather and father worked that road. The next road below was 30 yards on down, then there was another road which was called ‘Morse’s Road, that meant. you were from Ruspidge. On a little bit further was ‘Woolford’s Road,’ named after the Woolfords in Belle Vue Road.”[5]

Minimum Wage Strike

One of Harry’s earliest memories was the 1912 national miners’ strike when the Miners Federation of Great Britain won a minimum wage:

“The following year in March 1912, there was a strike by all the miners in England, a whole strike same as now, but everyone came out, for a daily minimum wage. Because you would go into the pit to work, and you’d find out when you get there, that whatever money you had, if you didn’t make the days wage or what you’d think would be a days wage, you would not get anymore – the boss would not pay it out, and that was prevalent all through the country, you only had what you earned. And very often a man would be in a very very hard place awful difficult to make a living. So they all came out on strike, they were out for a month and they won it. Every miner no matter who he was, when he went down the pit, he was always sure he’d set his money made up then, if he could not get it. That was the first time the minimum wage was paid out in this country in March 1912.” [6]

As a teenager, Harry attended the Baptist chapel and between the ages of 16 and 18, he was given the role of preaching to the younger children.

Butty System

When he was 17, he started to work as an assistant butty with his father:

“Now when I was about 17, my grandfather who was a buttyman with my father, retired when he got old, he got the coal dust on his lungs. And father said to me one day he was going to take me in with him as a butty, so I was a butty. That was alright by me because we paid the men who were working for us and we shared the money out between us afterwards.

“I used to work out what the men’s wages were who were working for us. And I used to work it out on paper the night before, on the Thursday night. Well, when we were at work the next day, I would go to the main office after we came out of the pit and draw the money out from there. I’d got it down on paper what these men were due to be paid out of the money I had picked up. Whatever was leftover I shared between my father and me, that was the butty system.” [7]

Harry added that he didn’t think the system was fair:

“those men were as good a workmen as I was or my father. But it was just the system involved and it was a system that the old men of the Forest of Dean used years and years ago.”

Harry said he worked on other seams at Lightmoor which were only 18 in to 2 foot thick which meant lying down to undercut the coal with a pick. The coal had to be dragged out to the main roads by hodders, usually teenage boys, crawling on their hands and knees.

“There were districts in there – there was one to the left of the colliery called “Lowery”, there was a district called the “Rocky” there was a district called the “No Coal” there was a district called the Coleford High Delf and a district called the “Brazillary”. They were all different seams of coal.”[8]

At this time the Forest of Dean Miners’ Association (FDMA) which was the trade union representing Forest miners was quite weak:

“Well, the Union at the time I was in Lightmoor was very poor. G.H. Rowlinson was the agent for the district when I was in there, I didn’t think much of him, we’d come out and have a meeting up by the pit head and he’d say, “Men, as far as I am concerned, we must put our shoulder to the wheel.” Him, “put his shoulder to the wheel”, he didn’t do damn all. I used to laugh my head off, I used to tell my father, “I have heard some things in my life, I can’t see him putting his shoulder to any wheel.”[9]

World War One

In August 1914, war was declared and the majority of the European working class responded to the call of arms. At first, miners were exempted from conscription which was introduced in 1916 for the majority of young men over 18 years.

“You had got the choice as a young man, you could either work in the pit – if you had never been in a pit before you were always accepted because you could be trained. If you didn’t go in the pit when you was directed by the Government you was in the Army.” [10]

Although he was already working at Lightmoor Harry decided to volunteer for the army because “I was a bit tired of pit work.” He added his father” didn’t like it but he had to put up with it”.  However, he regretted his decision because he said “I had a bit of a rough time out there but I don’t talk much about it, I got over it.”  Harry said:

“I was a driver in the Garrison Artillery, I was what they called the Wheel Driver which meant that I was in command of that gun and I’d got three pairs of horses in front of me. There was eight horses to a big gun because it was the heavy artillery. Those drivers in front had to do what I told them to do, I was in command of that gun and if anything happened to it I would be responsible not those who were in front.”


On his return in 1919, he started to work back at Lightmoor:

“I went to work in the pit a bit and I had Nephritis which was the first stages of Bright’s disease and I was in bed for two months, that was from exposure in France you see. I got stronger and better and I went back to work in the pit.”[11]

After two or three years, he moved to Leicester to work in a die casting foundry to be near his future wife Helen Popejoy, also from Cinderford, who was working in a factory there. He worked in the factory for eighteen months. He described how they first met:

“She came up the street, Cinderford street, up from where she worked in the drapery shop at the Co-op. She had her friend with her Miss Reed. Our boy was waiting for her, Will Woolford, they came up together and after a while, I asked her “will you come for a walk with me?” That’s how we started.” 12]

1926 Lockout

He then moved back to the Forest and was working at Lightmoor before the 1926 lockout and tells the following story:

“But just above the Dilke Hospital there used to be an old colliery up there. Woorgreen, they called it. Now I got to find out that they were digging for coal up there, when the strike was on, and selling this coal, so one of my friends, a chap called Sid Cooksey, (he married my cousin Lil Young). He asked me one day if I’d go up with him. I said, “What for?” He said, “To see if we can get some coal.'” He wanted it for his home look. So he could sell it and get some for his home look. and I said, “I don’t want the money, I’ve been alright, looking after my money.” But he was a married man look, so anyway I said, “I’ll go”, so we took another man called Stan Rogers up with us he was a relation – he married a cousin of mine. We went up there and searched around and there was sure to be a hundred miners up there digging holes to get their coal out. Anyway, we looked around, well we thought, they had all got the best of the plots, we got no chance at all.

There was a siding in there, where they used to run the heavy wagons, (where they used to fill them) all the way up. There was the rails still there and the siding, I went across there on my own, they were looking round other places trying to find a place to start. I started scraping down between the sleepers and I hit the coal! 18″ of coal: It was all the way up that railway line, other blokes had been digging their hearts out and they didn’t know that. I just called my mates over, quietly I said, “come on over here I want you a minute.” They came over, they saw it and I said, “let’s rip this all across there.” We got three and a half tons of coal out from there in about 5 hours.

We sold it to ‘Westbury Union (the workhouse) and sold it for £3.10s. Of course, coal was cheap then. Well, I didn’t sell it, Stan Rogers he went down and got theirs and we had £3.10s between us. It wasn’t so much as I wanted the money, I was alright. I could have lasted a long time. I looked after mine, well, I was saving up to get married, that’s the reason, but unfortunately, it (the strike) took a lot of it away, we had to delay it (the wedding).”[13]


Harry then moved to Yorkshire and found work at Askern Main Colliery near Doncaster and, in 1928, married Helen:

“When we got married, I was out of work. We’d got one another that’s all that mattered with me. We had to live with this landlady for 6 months, then the Colliery built a lot of houses and we were allocated one. This was in Yorkshire then. In those days when you were young, you don’t really notice the lack of money, because in those days everyone was in a similar position. When we first got married and started off on the Monday, we didn’t have a half penny. We were buying our home and that, but we could always go down to the Co-op to get our groceries and pay on the Friday.”[14]

Harry explained that at Askern Main, there was the danger of explosive gas which was not present in the Forest of Dean coalfield where the outcrop of the coal seams come to the surface. He added that, unlike Henry Crawshay and Co. who owned Lightmoor, the Askern Main colliery owners invested in new technology. Harry said he was working on belt and pan faces:

“As time went on, I was in charge of a belt face, the belt was continually running and men were flinging coal on it …  I was in charge of a coal face up there with about 40 men on there and it was a gas mine and my job up there was to go on the coal face and before any men got on there I took the ‘Davey Lamp’ and tested all around to see if there was any gas. If there was gas around they wouldn’t be allowed on there.” [15]

He returned to Cinderford in about 1938 and he started to work at Northern United and remembers the difference between the two pits:

“when I came back from Yorkshire to work in the Northern Colliery. They had got the cutters in there and the pan faces working in there. But they had not got the pan faces working like they did in Yorkshire. When I was up there the pans that were on the face would come up and down shaking the coal down into the tub down on the end. Now at Northern Colliery the ground where they were working was so steep, they had no need to shake the pans, they just put the pans down and chucked the coal on and it slid all the way down to the tubs, it was all on the slope. It was all hard work regards walking.” [16]

After a year Harry was elected as the Secretary of the Northern United pit committee which was made of FDMA members who were elected to deal with day to day disputes and relations with the management. He was then elected as the Northern United delegate on the FDMA Executive. One of his jobs was to collect the entrance fee for the annual Forest of Dean Miners’ demonstration at Speech House in July.

“As a general rule, I was on the gate I just looked after the money as I was Finance Officer of the Miners Federation … it was really a day for all the miners in the district to meet up, and to have, or talk at least, a chat by the agent, Mr John Williams – see people used to congregate, and stand up outside and listen. And he had to tell them what he thought about the Forest and how they were getting on in the mining trade and also what they should do in the future and things like that, trying to make it entertaining as he possibly could.”[17]

World War Two

In May 1940, Harry was elected as the Northern United representative on the Forest of Dean Coal Production Committee which was made up of workers and colliery managers to discuss ways of increasing output in conjunction with the pit committees to support the war effort.

In September 1940, it was agreed the FDMA should join the South Wales region, whose President was Arthur Horner, and would now be called the No 9 area of the SWMF.[18] In a ballot of all the membership, Harry was elected to be representative of the Forest of Dean on the South Wales Miners’ Executive. He won the election by 2000 votes, He had to spend one or two days down in Cardiff at South Wales offices each week and held this position for two years. Harry said:

“When I was working at Northern Colliery, I used to earn 12 shillings a day. But when I went down there, I got 34 bob”. [19]

After this he was also elected as finance officer for the FDMA Executive:

“I held that job for 9 years and I was handling anything up to £100,000 a year from 5 pits, that was working then. A magnificent salary of £75 per annum. That’s all I had. I was allowed one day off to do all the balance sheets and I had to draw up 12 balance sheets a year…. at the end of the year, I had to make it all into one big one. And I had to take those books to Gloucester every year to be audited by the auditor in Gloucester.” [20]


The SWMF Executive now had a significant minority of delegates who were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) including its President Arthur Horner.  In addition, some of the Labour Party members on the SWMF Executive were sympathetic to communism. At this time the CPGB was quite influential, particularly in mining areas.  This was not surprising as many British communists had a reputation as good trade unionists and some miners were attracted by the spirit of internationalism and working-class solidarity advocated by the CPGB. Russia was an ally in the war against fascism and the outcome of the war was dependent on its ability to defeat the Nazis on the Eastern Front. Many British communists like Horner did not strictly follow the party line emanating from Moscow and this allowed for a degree of ideological fluidity. Consequently, Harry joined the CPGB and in 1942, was elected chairman of the Cinderford Communist Party where he worked closely with other local communists such as Len Harris and Tim Ruck.

Communists campaigned for miners to commit to the war effort and for a second front to be established in the West to take the pressure of the Soviet forces in the East. Harry would have worked closely with Horner while he was in South Wales who was often invited to speak at meetings in the Forest. In September 1942, Harry was appointed as the FDMA representative on the Welsh Regional Board under the Ministry of Fuel and Power.[21]

Throughout 1943, regular meetings were organised in the Forest by the CPGB where they put their case for a united labour movement, a second front and increasing production for the war effort. The arguments in favour of affiliation were put forward in the letter’s pages of the Dean Forest Mercury by Harry and his CPGB comrades who often debated with Labour members over the issue of the second front and CPGB affiliation to the Labour Party. Harry argued that the role of the production committees was not to force the men to work harder but to secure the experience of the men to work cooperatively to increase productivity.[22] In a letter to the Dean Forest Mercury the Harry argued:

“A united labour movement with clear political leadership could secure such measures as coal rationing; a National Government for India; better conditions for members of the forces and their dependents; Trade Union recognition and production committees in every factory; and full mobilisation of the Nation’s resources for the speedy opening of the Second Front.”[23]

The Labour Party and CPGB were united on one point summed up by Harry In November 1943:

Coal is the basis of victory and peace … Give the miner a square deal and he will produce enough coal to bury Fascism.[24]

In September 1944 Harry was elected as secretary to the Forest of Dean Trades Council which was made up of delegates from most of the main trade union branches in the Forest to discuss and campaign on issues of mutual concern.[25]

Post – War

In January 1947 George Jenkins was elected as the Forest of Dean representative on the SWMF Executive replacing Harry. However, Harry continued to work for the union and in June 1949, he was elected as secretary of Cinderford Miners Welfare Association which was responsible for the Miners’ Hall in Cinderford.[26] It is unclear when Harry retired but Northern United, the last deep mine in the Forest of Dean, closed in 1966 when Harry was 67 and it is unknown if this was the end of his working life.

In June 1984 Harry gave his interview to Elsie Olivey which has provided most of the material for this article. In the interview, Harry said he remembered Arthur Horner as a communist but did not mention that he was himself a member of the CPGB. After the end of the Second World, the nature of Stalin’s regime became public in the West including his use of show trials purges and work camps. This combined with the developing Cold War meant that the membership of the CPGB declined and at some point, Harry, like many others resigned from the Party.

Harry ended the interview by talking about his marriage to Helen:

“I’ve got the best wife a man ever had, and that’s no joking, we’re very happy, and she knows it.”[27]

[1] Harry Barton interviewed by Elsie Olivey on 7 June 1984, Gage Library, Dean Heritage Centre.

[2] Ibid.


[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. George Rowlinson was the FDMA agent from 1888- 1918.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.


[17] Ibid.

[18] Gloucester Journal 21 September 1940.

[19] Barton, Gage Library.

[20] Ibid.

[21] South Wales Gazette 4 September 1942.

[22] Dean Forest Mercury 19 February 1943.

[23] Dean Forest Mercury 26 February 1943.

[24] Dean Forest Mercury 12 November 1943.

[25] Dean Forest Mercury 22 September 1944.

[26] Gloucester Citizen 25 June 1949.

[27] Barton, Gage Library.

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