The politics of food: gender, family, community and communal eating in the general strike and miners' lock in south Wales in 1926

Sue Bruley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article features the General Strike and Miners’ Lockout in South Wales in 1926. It examines the Lockout from the perspective of social and gender history, focusing on communal eating which was a central feature of community survival and resistance. It documents the extensive network of soup kitchens for miners, which was established across the South Wales coal field during the seven months of the Lockout. In addition school feeding and the involvement of both central and local authorities is analysed. The article highlights the opportunities that arose from the Lockout, particularly through communal eating, for a reduction in gender segregation and a challenge to male dominance. It concludes that overall, women in these mining communities were concerned to maintain class solidarity with their men rather than to make advances for women. Maintaining the masculine identity of the militant miner, which necessarily incorporated male bonding and women's subordination, was regarded as an essential feature of the class struggle. The General Strike, and the epic struggle of the miners which followed, have long been regarded as seminal events in the history of the twentieth-century labour movement. It is remembered as perhaps the greatest episode in working class solidarity in British history. Historians writing from a left wing perspective have also been drawn to the leap in class consciousness which occurred in some local areas, transforming the Strike/Lockout from a struggle to defend wages and living standards to the exercise of real workers’ power.1 The vast specialist historiography on this topic, much of which emanates from the 1970s and earlier, focuses very much on the politics of industrial conflict as played out at both national and local levels.2 This emphasis on traditional ‘labour history’ left women either invisible or on the margins of the conflict, although attempts were made from a ‘women's history approach’ by Sarah Boston and Shiela Lewenhak to include women in the General Strike in their more general narratives.3 Despite the advent of ‘gender history’ from the late 1980s there have been no major studies of the social and gender impact of the 1926 dispute, although recently both Ian Haywood and Maroula Joannou have addressed gender aspects of the General Strike through the literature of the period.4 Ellen Wilkinson's novel Clash is perhaps unique in that it develops a socialist–feminist perspective through her heroine, labour activist Joan Craig, who is committed to preserving her independence within marriage.5 Virtually all the studies of this topic focus heavily on the nine days of the General Strike with little consideration of the seven-month Lockout which followed the collapse of the General Strike on 12 May 1926. The only specialist work on the Lockout is Gerard Noel's forgotten text The Great Lockout of 1926 (1976).6 This impressionistic account attempts to bring in some social aspects of the dispute, although even here women make only a fleeting appearance and there is no serious attempt to examine the position of women in the coalfield communities. It is hoped that this article will begin the process of establishing a gendered approach to the General Strike and Miners’ Lockout. Research on this question necessitates a detailed local case study methodology rather than a broad national survey. This article concentrates on Britain's largest (by number of miners) and most militant coalfield, South Wales, which also, unlike most other coalfields, possessed a distinctive separate identity from the surrounding area. Chris Williams has acknowledged that gender history in Wales is still at an early stage.7 In a recent article Paul O’Leary argues that whilst major advances have been made to map out the experiences of women in modern Welsh history, the overall emphasis on community cohesion (rather than social divisions such as gender and ethnicity) has inhibited the development of an integrated approach, often leaving women's history as an ‘add on’ to the dominant narratives.8 The historicization of men in Wales, on the other hand, has scarcely been recognized. O’Leary goes on to make the case for the centrality of gender for research in Welsh history.9 This involves collapsing the public/private divide, being attentive to family dynamics, acknowledging the pivotal role of women's unpaid labour to the local economy, and recognizing both femininity and masculinity as essential components of any historical enquiry. Using this approach, this article will analyse in depth one aspect of the dispute which was central to community survival: food and communal eating.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)54-77
Number of pages24
JournalTwentieth Century British History
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2007


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