Edwards, Ebenezer [Ebby]
- Andrew Taylor
Edwards, Ebenezer [Ebby] (1884–1961), trade unionist, was born on 30 July 1884 at Chevington, Northumberland, one of eleven children of William Edwards and his wife, Esther Fish. His father was president of the local miners' lodge (branch) and a freethinker. After attending elementary school, Ebby, as he was invariably known, began work in the mines in 1896, mainly at Ashington, in Northumberland. In 1908 he left the pit to take up a Northumberland miners' scholarship at Ruskin College, the college for working men at Oxford. Edwards left after ten months because of economic hardship and returned to the mines. In 1909 a student revolt at Ruskin over curriculum content led some of the students and a sacked lecturer, with the encouragement of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain (MFGB), to set up a rival institution. The Plebs League originated from this revolt and established Marxist discussion groups in many parts of the country. From this grew the National Council of Labour Colleges. Edwards sympathized with the 1909 secessionists and, influenced by Marxism, he joined the Plebs League, becoming one of the foremost advocates of radical socialism among the Northumberland miners. He was a leading advocate and practitioner of adult education in the Northumberland coalfield, helping persuade the union to send students to the Central Labour College. In 1906 he joined the Independent Labour Party but left in 1909, thereafter concentrating on union politics. In 1911 he married Alice Reed (d. 1961), a miner's daughter, in Gosforth.
In 1912 Edwards was elected president of the Ashington miners' lodge and identified himself with the politics of Robert Smillie, the Scottish miners' leader. An opponent of the war, Edwards was prevailed upon by the local Labour Party, in defiance of the electoral truce, to stand for Wansbeck in the by-election in May 1918. His opponent, a Coalition Liberal and non-miner, narrowly won the election; Edwards, who continued to work in the mines during the war, lost again in the general election of December 1918. Reflecting his growing reputation in the Northumberland coalfield, he was elected assistant financial secretary of the Northumberland Miners' Association in 1919, and in 1920 financial agent and secretary. In 1926 he was elected its representative on the executive of the MFGB. The events of 1926—the general strike and miners' lock-out—had a searing effect on the miners, their unions, and upon Edwards. While their defeat did not alter fundamentally his political outlook, it did lead him to adopt a more cautious political and industrial strategy. In 1928 Edwards was appointed to the committee which investigated charges made against A. J. Cook, the MFGB secretary, that he had engaged in unauthorized negotiations in 1926. Several executive members who were sympathetic to Cook refused to serve, but Edwards argued this would mean Cook would be totally exposed to his enemies.
At the May 1929 general election Edwards was elected as Labour MP for Morpeth, Robert Smillie's old seat. In parliament he concentrated on the coal industry, advocating nationalization as the cure for the industry's problems. He lost his seat in the October 1931 general election and did not stand again for parliament, concentrating on union work. Vice-president of the MFGB in 1930, he was elected president in 1931. When A. J. Cook died in November 1931 Edwards was elected his successor as MFGB secretary.
During the 1930s Edwards was, perhaps, the key figure in MFGB politics. He was a steadfast opponent of the ‘non-political’ unions in south Wales, Scotland, and Nottinghamshire, and worked constantly for their reintegration into the MFGB. Despite the defeat of 1926 and the economic problems of the 1930s, he believed that even in these unpropitious circumstances significant gains could be made if the objective was realistic and the correct tactics pursued. This underpinned the MFGB's strategy in the wage claim of 1935–6 which secured both a general wage increase (albeit one which varied from coalfield to coalfield) and, most importantly from Edwards's point of view, national recognition (denied since 1926) of the MFGB by the owners' association. Under the leadership of Edwards and Joseph Jones, the Yorkshire leader, the miners won over public opinion by a very effective publicity campaign, secured a huge majority for industrial action, and manoeuvred the owners into a situation where they were forced to make concessions under pressure from Baldwin's government and the big coal users, neither of which wanted a coal strike. This strategy was summed up by Edwards as 'maximum benefit for minimum sacrifice'. In 1935 he was nominated to the royal commission on safety in mines, which was appointed in response to the terrible disaster at Gresford in 1934.
Edwards was an internationalist, a committed anti-fascist, and anti-appeaser. He was treasurer and then secretary of the Miners' International Federation (a post held by his son in the 1970s), committing both that organization and MFGB to anti-fascism, both internationally and domestically. In the Second World War he strongly supported the production drive in the pits, serving on the Coal Production Council from 1940. As well as negotiating for the MFGB he was central in establishing the more unified National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which came into being on 1 January 1945. He served as the NUM's first general secretary. In 1944 and 1945 he was chairman of the TUC, and in 1946 received the TUC's gold medal; he attended the United Mine Workers of America conference in 1944 and, in 1945, the United Nations in San Francisco. He also represented the miners and later the National Coal Board (NCB) at International Labour Office meetings.
While the NCB made no concessions to worker representation an attempt was made to show that management structures were now open to workforce influence. After a great deal of heart-searching, and a commitment from the NUM that his pension rights were secure, Edwards was appointed to the NCB in July 1946 as its labour relations member. His successor as general secretary, Arthur Horner, who frequently faced Edwards across the negotiating table (an experience Horner described as 'interesting', as Edwards knew intimately both the NUM and NCB cases), believed Edwards 'did an amazingly good job' for the miners and the industry at a very difficult time. Not only did he contribute to putting coal on a sounder footing, but miners' conditions improved. One of Edwards's first tasks was to negotiate the implementation of the miners' charter, which he had written while NUM general secretary. In common with all miners' leaders of his generation, Edwards was deeply committed to making nationalization a success. As an NUM and then NCB official, Edwards criticized indiscipline in the pits, especially unofficial strikes; he believed they undermined what the management and unions were trying to achieve. When Edwards retired from the NCB in 1953, some contemporaries felt that he had become disillusioned by his experiences.
Edwards was undoubtedly a man of the left. Not a charismatic leader in the Cook mould, he was convinced the MFGB must recreate itself so as to deal on equal terms with the employers and the state. While he was determined never to repeat the experience of 1926, he did not conclude that this entailed never striking. He also believed that while conferences laid down policy, its achievement was the responsibility of leaders, who should be permitted to modify policy according to the circumstances, subject to approval by the membership. Acutely aware of the dangers of the left–right factionalism which lurked beneath the surface of union politics, he was well placed to bridge the gap between left and right in the union. This valuable role was acknowledged by communists and non-communists, but led to considerable ill-feeling between Edwards and Will Lawther (MFGB/NUM president) who, moving rapidly to the right in the mid-1940s, came to regard Edwards as soft on communists. Personal animosity and growing left–right factionalism may have influenced Edwards's decision to join the NCB.
Those who worked with Edwards commented on his good humour, intelligence, and calmness; and a Conservative secretary of mines contrasted favourably his tactical sense and flexibility with the coal owners' intransigence. 'Stocky, thin featured and clean-shaven, often cloth-capped, with humorous blue eyes' (DNB), he looked in many ways the archetypal miner of the period. He never forgot his origins and never accepted a knighthood, mischievously telling Arthur Horner that what put him off was seeing how Walter Citrine was always overcharged after receiving his knighthood. In retirement Edwards lived quietly with his wife; he died a month after her, at Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne, on 6 July 1961.
- The Times (8 July 1961)
- R. P. Arnot, The miners: a history of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain, 3: … from 1930 onwards (1961)
- R. P. Arnot, The miners, one union, one industry: a history of the National Union of Mineworkers, 1939–46 (1979)
- A. Horner, Incorrigible rebel (1960)
- A. Moffat, My life with the miners (1965)
- A. J. Taylor, ‘“Maximum benefit, minimum sacrifice”: the miners' wage campaign of 1935–1936’, Historical Studies in Industrial Relations, 2 (Sept 1996), 65–95
- Mineworkers' Federation of Great Britain, reports and proceedings
- National Union of Mineworkers, reports and proceedings
- photograph, 1918, repro. in R. P. Arnot, The miners: a history of the Miners' Federation (1961), 33
Wealth at Death
£5603 19s. 6d.: probate, 17 Oct 1961, CGPLA Eng. & Wales