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Hensley HensonA Study in the Friction between Church and State$

Owen Chadwick

Print publication date: 1983

Print ISBN-13: 9780198264453

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198264453.001.0001

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The Miners

The Miners

(p.158) 7. The Miners
Hensley Henson

Owen Chadwick

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the career of Hensley Henson as Bishop of Durham during Great Depression in Great Britain and his relations with the miners. It suggests that though Henson was aware of the suffering of the miners in Durham and he tried to help provide meaningful work for the unemployed, he condemned the coal-mining unions' strikes. It also discusses Henson's participation in protests against the government's acceptance of Italy's invasion of Abyssinia and his condemnation of the anti-Semitic policies of Nazi Germany.

Keywords:   Hensley Henson, Bishop of Durham, miners' strike, Great Depression, Italy, Abyssinia, anti-Semitic policies, Nazi Germany

DURHAM DIOCESE sat upon a coalfield. In many villages the men were almost all miners, the vicar and the minister of the chapel might be miners' sons, the shop a miners' co-op, almost the only employment below ground. Durham was one of the earliest products of industrial England. Till the coming of the railway it prospered by sending coal on coastal barges to London. In the mid-Victorian age this dominance slipped. Then came the Great War and the mines of 1920 entered a very difficult time of competition.

Russians no longer bought coal. Belgians and Germans dug more of their own coal. Englishmen improved their methods of producing gas and needed less coal. And everyone began to use more and more oil instead of coal. The Royal Navy alone used nearly 2,000,000 tons of coal in 1913–14 and less than a quarter of a million tons in 1929.

A great industry, one of the foundations of British wealth, was suddenly in direst trouble.

No one adapted easily, nor could adapt easily. The miner's father and grandfather worked happily in his village. He expected to do the same, and fancied that this trouble was a hiccough caused by war. The coal owner lived on the memory of prosperity and export and abundant royalties. In less prosperous conditions the only way to maintain profits was to lower wages. Throughout the 1920s they assaulted the level of wages, and thereby cast the miners of Durham into an attitude of continuous resistance.

Henson arrived at Durham just when the county was set for twenty years of unpleasantness, poverty, unemployment, and social disruption. It remained to be seen how the boy of a Kentish watering-place, the Oxford don, the East London slum priest, and the upper-class London dignitary, would cope with the mountains of slag and idle devastated machinery which stood for tragedy in so many lives.

He had a singular qualification, and a singular disqualification. The qualification was, that he easily got on with everyone except other dignitaries in gaiters. He could walk out into (p.159) his park, sit on a bench with a miner, and converse in equality, with pleasure to both parties. The disqualification was, he was a stalwart member of the Tory Party with obsolescent Tory principles. Whatever was to be done for the Durham coalfield, could only be done – though this was not yet clear – by massive interference on the part of the State. To this friend of Professor Dicey every interference by the State was at first suspect.

The case of the employer ran as follows: if we go on as we are, mines close and everyone will lose their money and everyone will be out of work. To live, we must sell coal. To sell, coal must be cheaper. It can only be cheaper if miners (until better days) accept lower wages or work longer hours for the same money.

The case of the miner ran as follows: we are already near the level of subsistence. We can hardly give a decent life to our wives and children if wages are reduced even by a few shillings. They had the slogan, ‘Not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day’. They could not believe that the coalowner could not afford increase. John Lambton, the Earl of Durham, confessed that in 1918 he drew £40,522 from coal royalties and way leaves, Lord Londonderry confessed that he received £15,334, or about 4½d. for each ton of coal brought to the surface.1

The miner had weapons with which to fight. His union, the Durham Miners Association, was one of the oldest effective unions in the country. But it was not rich, and any prolonged strike looked likely to destroy its reserves of money. It belonged to the Trades Union Congress. And the TUC might sometimes be persuaded to back it nationally.

Secondly, the miner began to acquire defenders in Parliament. In the General Election of December 1918 only two out of seven miners' candidates won seats. In the General Election of 15 November 1922 the Labour Party won ten of the county divisions, and the miner J. Ritson, with whom Henson afterwards had several tussles, beat a Conservative to win Durham. From 1922 the Durham miners had a body of representatives in the House of Commons. Was it possible that they could persuade or force government to pay subsidies to the miners to tide them over till better days?

(p.160) The parish priest of Barking fought the Gasworkers union and drew them all into church and convinced them at last that he was a lover of the working man. This was the experience which from his past he carried into the north of England and the worst industrial troubles ever known to English society. During the summer of 1920, when he accepted the offer of the see of Durham, England looked to him near revolution – windows in London broken by demonstrations of unemployed workers, violent incitements in the radical newspapers, the Bolshevists in Russia held up as examples of the way in which Labour should go, a government hardly able to cope; and Henson remembered his old Barking dreams, that one day he might be killed in a street riot, and wondered whether it could happen to a bishop who became responsible for the most tormented area of English industry. As he watched tension rising, he felt that revolution was almost upon them, since (he thought) the country had a power capable of resisting Parliament, the might of organized labour, which tried even to dictate the nature of the country's foreign policy, yet represented only a minority of the nation.

From the beginning he was harassed by the precedent of successful mediation by a Bishop of Durham in a strike. His predecessor but one, Bishop Westcott, helped to settle the great coal strike of 1892 by summoning miners and employers to Bishop Auckland, bringing them together, and appealing to their better judgements. This mediation got into the history books and was famous. Its existence brought continuous pressure to bear on Henson, made public men ask him to try to bring the sides together, and perplexed his conscience to know why he did no such thing.

When he asked himself why Henson could not do what Westcott did, he was inclined to minimize Westcott and to think that the achievement was only possible because the sides were ready at the moment to settle; to say that the circumstances of the 1920s were very different from the circumstances of the 1890s; to diagnose the labour movement as more extreme, and more organized, than the miners' leaders of Westcott's day; and sometimes he added, when he wanted to defend himself, that parsons ought not to interfere in what they do not understand and they do not understand economics. (p.161) He did not mention one big difference in temperament. Westcott thought opposites always nearer than was supposed, Henson saw no possibility of harmonizing opposites. The one was a mediator by instinct, the other by instinct thought mediation impossible. Henson saw the miners' leaders as wrong. Such a mood had no place for mediation.

The miners started by being friendly to Henson. When he went walking in the Park, and sat with strikers upon benches, or upon the grass, or escorted them to see the chapel, and enquired into their opinions, he met with nothing but courtesy.

From 31 March 1921 was a lock-out, which grew more bitter as time passed.

Sunday, 1 May 1921, which was Labour Day, was a turning-point. Miners and mine owners gave Henson a chance to mediate. They organized a large meeting at the Empire Theatre in West Hartlepool, and asked Henson to speak on a platform with employers to his right and miners to his left. He was warned that Communists were likely to heckle his speech but no one interrupted as he went on for forty minutes and the audience listened decorously.

Westcott, reconciler to his marrow, suspicious of clarity as superficial, would have poured out a series of elevated, charitable, and unintelligible obscurities. Henson could not be obscure if he tried and thought it immoral to try.

Since this speech was fatal (if it is fatal for a bishop to be unpopular among miners) we must give a summary. It praised the unemployed miners, unemployed through no fault of their own. Many served their country nobly in the war, many are among the best of our citizens. But now the miners were using a weapon which ought to be ruled out of civilized usage. They were loyal, and generous and kindhearted, but were isolated, and did not realize the effect upon the community. A great strike is like a blockade from within; as though an enemy blockaded our ports. After a dreadful war we have to build this country again into prosperity; and a prime condition is, not demanding higher wages than an industry earns. Increased wages means depreciated values. What is the good of an artisan having large wages if he can buy nothing with them?…A strike is the worst business in the world. You may gain sixpence, you will certainly (p.162) spend half-a-crown in gaining it. And then he said (it was not necessary to his argument but this was a moralist denouncing immoral behaviour when he saw it) that one effect of the minimum wage was to stimulate shirking of work, ca'canny, which in southern English meant go-slow. He said that some men went down the pit and cut only so much coal as equalled their free allowance. And then he rose to a noble appeal, for an end to false ideas of a class war, and a working together by all the community to maintain the leading position of Britain in the world.

The audience, mining or owning, were pleased. The committee asked if they might print the speech as a pamphlet (printed as The Blockade from Within). Press reports fastened, not upon the praise of miners but on shirking and ca'canny. From Friday 6 May the newspapers filled with controversy. The word shirking roused miners to resentment, as though he applied it to all of them and not to a few. Henson wrote to the newspapers to defend himself (Durham Chronicle, 13 May 1921). He had no doubt, he said, that the majority of miners worked honestly and shared his disgust at shirkers.

The police started to take unobtrusive measures for the bishop's protection.

At Wingate on the Sunday after Ascension (8 May) which was locally known as Trades Sunday, the miners refused to attend to hear the bishop. In the streets they stared at him as he passed in the car but did not look unfriendly. He found the miners forthcoming whenever he talked to them as individuals, and wished he were a rich prince-bishop so that he could feast them in crowds. When on 10 May he confirmed at Cassop, two or three police constables attended in case someone demonstrated, but nothing happened.

At Ferryhill on 12 May 1921 he confirmed eighty candidates in an overcrowded wooden church. As he left the miners demonstrated, jeering and booing. He stopped, and standing up in the car started speaking to the crowd. They heckled him as he went on for half an hour, but when he got back into the car and drove away, no one booed. The police inspector's report was even friendlier to Henson:

By the time he had finished speaking, a crowd of about 500 persons had collected, and they were so pleased with what he said – and he (p.163) did not mince matters – that they cheered him loudly. The bishop then left in his car. I believe the bishop did more good by that speech than all the speakers who have come to Ferryhill since the strike started.

The local papers next day printed accounts under ‘Jeers and Cheers’.

Three years later (15 May 1924) he confirmed again at Ferryhill – 138 people in a low-pitched building once a skating rink, a dense crowd in the over-hot church, close attention, candidates reverent; and as he drove away, nothing but friendly greetings. This kind of occasion was very moving to the outwardly stern and inwardly emotional Henson. At Trimdon Grange (15 May 1924) the sight of these big pit-lads bending their heads for the laying on of hands, with a look of resolute purpose on their faces, is a spiritual tonic. At Consett (4 April 1923) he preached at the funeral of some killed pit-workers and found himself weeping in the vestry afterwards with their families. He quite fell in love with the miners as individuals. He found them the most attractive of men, polite, cheerful, generous, but not amenable to argument.

So continued this curious harmony between private compassion and affection for individuals, and mutual respect when bishop and miners met, with public denunciation of strikes and biting phrases, for Henson was an orator, and understood the dictum of the old Roman who said that if your speech is to move to action it is not enough to prick with your needle, you must drive the needle home into the flesh.

Henson was not critical of social reformers. He was critical of Christians who said that the first duty of the Church was social reform. For Henson the first duty of the Church was to change souls, to make consciences sensitive, to keep wills moral. Its duty lay with individuals. Its doctrines were no more useful to determine economic policy than any other general principles out of relation to the predicaments of an age. He noticed that the reformers – he especially criticized William Temple and the COPEC Conference of summer 1924 – exaggerated the evils of the present to promote, if not a better, at least a different future. One of the COPEC men described the working men as ‘bled white of all true humanity by exhausting toil’; and Henson read the phrase and then (p.164) looked at the miners whom he saw walking in the Park and thought that he had never met a more vigorous and cheerful set of men. The language seemed to him absurd.

But it was not only a fear of pretentious words. Henson was a Victorian individualist. He never accepted the belief that you can make men better by law. The growing body of evidence, which showed that if you altered the structure of society you could further moral growth, was not evidence for Henson. You cannot make men better by changing society, you can only make society better by changing men – that was a traditional belief which Henson carried with him to his grave.

But now came a calamity.

The Dean of Durham did not approve of his bishop. Dean Welldon was a man with a distinguished past, a young head-master of Harrow, a Bishop of Calcutta. Nevertheless he was unscholarly, and liked jests in the pulpit, and enjoyed playing to the gallery; at least, that was what Henson thought, but Henson by nature disapproved of bishops and, being diminutive, specially of bishops when they were large in stature. Bishop Welldon had 6 ft 5 ins of height, a waist of 63 ins, and a tiny voice. He had a rollicking gait and exploded with gusts of laughter. On a visit to the royal family, Henson was told by little Princess Elizabeth that when she went to the zoo she most enjoyed the rhinobottomus. This became Henson's nickname for his dean. Welldon was not Henson's kind of dean, and Henson was not Welldon's kind of bishop.

Two men cannot appear to differ because one is small and the other gigantic, or because one likes and the other hates popularity, or because one mind trundles over undulations and the other mind darts straight ahead. The difference between dean and bishop came to centre on a point of policy: drink.

Dean Welldon was a leader of the temperance movement. And at this moment of British history, in the idealism of the aftermath of war and the new confidence in the votes of women, it was powerful in politics. Henson loathed the idea of prohibition. His experience of the United States made him realize it to be politically disastrous and unenforceable and a recipe for crime. He resented it on principle as an attempt to make men better by coercion.

(p.165) Dean Welldon found it hard that his bishop should be the ecclesiastical leader of the campaign ‘for drink’; hard that Henson should make speeches in the House of Lords or on Sunderland platforms; hard that he should turn to a gloomy and silent Bench of Bishops in the House of Lords and tell them that no one should manufacture sham sins; hard that the brewers claimed the Bishop of Durham as their champion; hard that he should hear his bishop called by the nickname The Liquor Bishop; hard that Henson should revive the Victorian cry, in a new and amused form, that he would rather see England free than England sober. These griefs led the dean into a sin which deans ought not to commit. He made a speech against his bishop.

Every July or August the Durham miners held their gala. This was a celebration half a century old. Thousands of miners crammed the streets, escorted by wives and children, with brass bands and a flag for each colliery. It was a festival, yet intended to demonstrate the solidarity of the miners. At the gala of July 1924 Dean Welldon attended, and was invited to speak; and said that he looked to the Labour Party to solve the drink problem in Britain, and criticized Henson because he was the Liquor Bishop; so that the Northern Echo (21 July 1924) gave the affair a headline, ‘DEAN'S ATTACK ON BISHOP’.

During the summer of 1925 the discord between owners and miners grew angrier. Coalfield and government moved into that conflict which led to national crisis all over the land. On 30 July 1925 the coal owners gave notice that they would end the wages agreement on 31 July and that an eight-hour day (instead of a seven-hour day) was essential.

While fury raged, Henson wrote an article for the Evening Standard (8 July 1925). It appeared under the headline ‘The Coal Crisis: an Explanation and a Warning’, with a photograph of a young and well-groomed bishop.

Not a compulsive seeker after print like his friend Dean Inge, he nevertheless enjoyed appearing in the newspapers. At that moment he was engaged on a series of articles for the Evening Standard. His conscience – whether it was the donnish conscience or the episcopal conscience – was not quite at ease over writing a series of articles for the Evening Standard. He felt the need to justify them to himself. He pleaded that he used the (p.166) money, first to repair the historic church at Escomb, and secondly to pay for the education of one of his ‘sons’. But the awkwardness of promising a series of articles lay in the need to pronounce on the issues of the hour; and the issue of June 1925 happened to be the demand of the miners for a living wage.

In his article Henson paid the Durham miners, as human beings, warm tributes. But of a living wage, he said that it was plain folly to insist unless the industry could pay. Otherwise to insist meant closing mines, throwing men out of work, wrecking the industry. And he accused the miners' leader, A. J. Cook, of wanting to bring the mines to deadlock. He asked for a ballot act for trade unions as the only way of preventing a minority from dominating the majority of honest workers.

When he read his own article in the Evening Standard he was dismayed. I am not sure whether it can do any good. I am disposed to think it may do harm. Why then did I write it?

It did harm. In the House of Commons the Durham miner MP Ritson referred rudely to Henson and begged the Tory Party to keep him in order and talked of bishops drawing huge surpluses in coal royalties. ‘The day has passed when we had to take off our hats to the squire and bow to the bishop, whether it was Welldon or the other.’ Outside the House Cook told Henson to mind his own business, and accused the Church of propping capitalism.

Two and a half weeks later, on Saturday 25 July, the miners held their annual gala. The speaker was a past and future prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald. The public houses were open most of the day, candy-rock was sold in gargantuan quantities, sword dancers leaped, gas balloons soared into the sky, drummers twirled their drumsticks, a hundred brass bands escorted the miners to the race course by the River Wear, banners were carried from different localities, one from Chopwell with the names of MacDonald, Lenin, and Marx, another ominous little banner inscribed ‘To hell with bishops and deans! We want a living wage!’ On the platform at the race course Ramsay MacDonald talked in his speech of the recent article in a London newspaper and contrasted Henson's attitude with Westcott's. Just at that moment a vast bishop was seen approaching. It was Bishop Welldon, the Dean of Durham, escorted by Canon Lillingston. As a leader of teetotalism (p.167) he had been invited by the miners' temperance group to address a smaller meeting after the main assembly. Cries went up, ‘here he comes!’, and hisses and boos.

Quickly the cries changed – ‘Keep him off’ – ‘Put him in the river’ – ‘Duck him’ – and some miners made a headlong rush at the dean. Welldon smiled and waved them away. They swept onwards, driving dean and canon out of the enclosure and on to the river bank. Stones and sticks were thrown, the dean's top hat and umbrella disappeared into the mass and then the hat sailed through the air into the river, the dean was struck on the head and kicked in several places. He was borne relentlessly to the river. The police arrived just in time, hailed a motor launch which happened to be passing, and got Welldon into the launch and away down river, threats shouted after as he was rescued.1

That evening the dean said that he could not understand the attitude of the miners, because he had always been in full sympathy with them in the struggle for the improvement of their condition. The Labour leader Emanuel Shinwell took a different view. Next day he addressed a miners' demonstration at Chester-le-Street. He ‘deplored’ the incident but seemed not to deplore excessively. ‘Little blame’ he said ‘attached to the miners, for with no other means of curbing the tongue of a dean, it was the sort of thing that they might be expected to do.’

To throw a dean in the river seemed so out of keeping that another theory was soon floated – the miners thought the dean to be the bishop. No one ever knew whether the miners intended to throw Welldon in the river or whether they meant to throw Henson, or whether they just felt a need to throw a gaitered dignitary in the river and did not mind whom. People assumed that they thought themselves to be rabbling Henson.

Henson was unsympathetic to his dean. He only gets his deserts. He has given abundant provocation by his incessant and untimely talking: and his folly in appearing at the demonstration was in all circumstances gross. But he worried at the increased risk of physical assault upon himself. Unlike a dean, a bishop must go (p.168) about among crowds. He thought his article in the Evening Standard to be hard for the miners to accept, but not impossible. When read in the light of what the dean said, it became an offensive attack on the working man. By the end of the month there was public rumour that Henson had said, in the mood of Marie Antoinette when she was alleged to tell the people to eat cake when they had no bread, that a shilling a day is enough for miners. Henson was forced to contradict the absurdity.

Henson believed the rabbling of the dean to be a disaster for himself. It was too dramatic. A handful of miners united with the rashness of a dean to make the world think that the working people of Durham hated their bishop. He thought this to be untrue. When he went in the Park and talked with the miners, he knew it to be untrue. But meanwhile the world believed it true; and in believing it true, destroyed what political influence for peace he might be able to exert. No moment of this terrible thing was later allowed to appear in his frankest of autobiographies.

Durham had a few revolutionaries. But this incident helped to make the rest of England think the county to be seething with revolution, the red heart of the class war.

On 31 July 1925 Baldwin's government stepped in to avoid the stoppage of the mines. They agreed to maintain the miners' wages at their existing levels until 1 May 1926; and during the nine months a royal commission should issue an impartial report on the future of the mines. Henson regarded this subsidy from the taxpayer as a Danegeld; a bribe by which the government bought nine months of peace, and forced themselves to fight in May 1926 when they should have fought in August 1925.

In March 1926 the royal commission reported that a continued payment of the taxpayers' money was indefensible, and assumed that a reduction of wages was inevitable. Government also used the nine months to prepare ways of keeping the nation going if they were faced with a General Strike.

Henson watched the two sides sparring warily before the battle, and ruefully looked at his own busyness as the Church argued heatedly over the revising of the Prayer Book. Nero's fiddling was by comparison an act of grave and responsible importance. He found the world about him growing strange to what (p.169) he stood for. I am filled with fear as to the possible development of this coal-strife. In the best event, it means a further dwarfing of all that the Bishop of Durham symbolizes, represents, and expresses in that great population. And in the worst event?

On 30 April 1926 the miners struck against reduction of wages. Four days later the workers in transport, gas, electricity, printing, building and heavy industry struck in sympathy with the miners, and Britain faced the General Strike. Ports and shipyards and power stations stood still. The distribution of food and milk was allowed.

The country disliked this method of bringing pressure to bear upon the government. The leaders of several unions were opposed to the strike. After only nine days it was called off, leaving the miners to fight on alone.

At no moment of Henson's life was illness more of a blessing to his mental comfort and even to his safety. It silenced him at the most tense moment of the Durham conflict.

At a Congregational chapel in Westminster (7 March 1926) he preached a sermon in an asphyxiating atmosphere (like Nebuchadnezzar's furnace) with bad toothache and a neuralgia to split his head. Earlier in the day he had preached in Westminster Abbey and was already exhausted. Half an hour into the sermon, and only three minutes from the end, his voice dropped and he fell forward onto the desk of the rostrum. He was brought water but could not drink. Then he tried to continue, but the words were meaningless, and a doctor came forward to stop the sermon.

A doctor in Harley Street diagnosed excess of work and strain together with poisoned gums. All Henson's teeth were removed, and he found false teeth the most disgusting experience in the world. He was not therefore in good shape when the strike broke out; ordered by the doctor to spend more hours than usual in bed and always to have an hour's rest after lunch and take a whole day off every week.

On the morning of the General Strike he walked round to the County Court Office to offer what help he and his could give in the strike. They told him that he could probably go on with his confirmations, and that the strikers of Durham County seemed to have small enthusiasm. He went back to his study, and sat at his desk, and could not work: the utter futility of (p.170) everything on which I have been engaged, and to which I am pledged, overwhelmed me. In the evening he motored to Trimdon and confirmed. The miners who gathered about the entrance were civil. But he thought the strike to be criminal, and very likely to end in civil war. He hated it when other bishops made mediating noises, for they seemed to condone the strikers. When Bishop Winnington-Ingram of London offered Fulham Palace as a neutral meeting-place between strikers and employers, Henson only commented, feather-headed prelate. He himself felt as useful as one of the posts in his Park.

To sit and remain silent for long was impossible. On 8 May he wrote a letter to the Northern Echo to the effect that no one could gain by the General Strike and that to call it off was necessary before negotiations could begin and that mean-while all good citizens should support the government, especially all Christian citizens. But this was a more wary Henson than usual, for he sent it to the editor asking him only to print if he thought it advisable. If the editor decided not he would have done no harm, if the editor decided yes he would increase his chances of a martyr's crown and have delivered his soul.

The editor refused to protect Henson and indeed the article said just what the editor wanted and which few other public men had the courage to say. In a newspaper largely typewritten, and full of reports of hooligan outbreaks and police using batons, Henson's article occupied the very centre of the page, the first thing upon which the eye fell, under the headline ‘Who can possibly gain by it?’ The article ended: No Christian man is free in conscience either to break contracts, or to molest his neighbours, or to resist the lawful requirements of the State.

Bishops must motor, and motors met pickets. The Durham miners tried to stop traffic. They felled trees across roads. Several cars had tyres slashed, others had ‘blackleg’ scrawled on them in large capitals, by 8 May no traffic moved in the areas of Chop well, Houghton-le-Spring, or Annfield Plain. But Henson, out in a car nearly every day, met no trouble before 9 May.

Henson asked himself whether a General Strike could be justified as a moral act. He compared it to one of the Pope's interdicts, and condemned it as liable to the same objection, (p.171) that it hurt all the innocent with the guilty. It also overrides all the reconciling influences of neighbourhood and personality…. Will the tyranny of the Trade Unions perish as that of the Popes perished under the disgrace of its own excesses?

He was silenced in his diocesan journal the Bishoprick because the printers struck. He loathed the ending of freedom to speak and print. He loathed equally the sense that he must think several times before he said anything. What I have to consider when I make a speech is not whether my words shall be true and relevant, but whether they will embarrass the government, or even endanger my own safety! The last consideration might be ignored, but hardly the first.

For the evening of 9 May he had to prepare a sermon at All Saints, Bishopwearmouth. This was in Sunderland, where violence had occurred. He was forced to put his head into the lions' den and growl at the lions and not look nervous. He found it hard to draft. The feeling of incongruity between bishop and poor man popped up its head again. He said to himself that this would be easier work if he lived not in Auckland Castle but like John the Baptist in the wilderness, clothed not in gaiters but in leather and camel hair, feeding on locusts and wild honey. The address must tread a narrow line. He must say that he abhorred the whole idea of a General Strike. Yet he must not appear to be the paid apologist of the capitalists, as A. J. Cook had scornfully asserted. He felt unusually anxious about drafting this sermon for Bishopwearmouth. In crises where something must be said and nothing said too plain, politicians know no gift more useful than bumble. Henson could not bumble. He used too many long words but never too many words.

By the afternoon he was feeling ill. He travelled to Sunderland in pain, the pain increased during the service, and when the time came to mount the pulpit he could only crawl out of the church on his chaplain's arm, and be driven back to Bishop Auckland in agony. There the doctor ordered immediate operation for appendicitis. Late at night he was driven, for the third time that day, along the road to Newcastle, still in agony – it was truly a via dolorosa. The doctor and the chaplain, who went with him, knew that the road was picketed by bands which were stoning vehicles and blocking roads with railway (p.172) sleepers. Henson refused to ask for police protection. They kept passing knots of strikers. As they passed through Birtley, where strikers and police had been fighting, and police had made several baton-charges, strikers stoned the car. No one was hurt. The doctor later gave evidence that Henson gave no sign of indignation but was grieved that miners should be so misguided. The appendix was gangrenous, his life was for a time in danger, his weight went down to seven stones ten ounces. In Durham Cathedral they prayed for his life. He spent several days in semi-delirium. Always in his nightmares he travelled along in a car between rows of watching miners.

A week later he came out of the worst and was able to sit up and take an interest and start to convalesce. But he was immobile during the worst part of the General Strike. He started to worry about clergy in mining parishes – the parson at Dawdon who wrote letters against the coal owners as capitalists, the parson at Hamsteels who denounced Socialism and whose miners stopped or insulted parishioners going to his church, the parson at Shotton who retained all his popularity and to whose wife the miners brought bags of coal. By 3 June, from his bed, he was able to write another letter to the Newcastle Journal (also a letter which he repented after it was posted), this time not against the miners but against the well-meaning efforts of the Archbishop of Canterbury to mediate in the dispute.

Archbishops of York may be what they like, but Archbishops of Canterbury ought to be reconcilers by nature as well as by grace, and Davidson loved peace and harmony in the nation. As early as 7 May he presided over a small meeting of bishops and free churchmen to consider whether they could issue an appeal. They asked for a renewal of negotiation, on the basis of an end to the General Strike, a temporary renewal of the subsidy to the miners, and the withdrawal by the coal owners of the proposed reduction in wages. Archbishop Davidson planned to make the appeal on the radio that evening. The dictatorial Director-General of the BBC, John Reith, banned the broadcast. He pleaded that he was afraid lest government take over the BBC. Winston Churchill refused to print the appeal in the British Gazette, the strike-breaking newspaper. In shortened form it got into the shortened Times. Lloyd George (p.173) attacked the ban in the House of Commons and finally it was broadcast four days late, on 11 May. But, engaged in winning the battle, government insisted that the strike must end before they would negotiate. A lot of Conservative stalwarts were very angry with Archbishop Davidson. A lot of Labour stalwarts were surprised and delighted.

Henson could not dress or shave without help. He was in bed most of the day and felt rotten. He read Scott and Trollope and Trevelyan's History of England, but he had not enough to do and missed his ministry. His illness gave him a jaundiced view of everything, nation, democracy, miners, Church, bishops, and himself. He could not preach in interruptible pulpits or speak from hecklable platforms. However, he could still write letters to the newspapers, and his suffragan Bishop Knight worried that this prostrate man could still put the windows of Auckland Castle at risk by writing a letter from his bed.

A vicar from West Auckland came to visit the sick man and disturbed his moral sense. The vicar met a railwayman on strike and said, ‘You are a churchman, how can you reconcile your conscience to breaking the contract under which you are employed, and joining in action which you know to be illegal and suspect to be calamitous?’

‘You see this house’ replied the railwayman, ‘it is my own, and represents the savings of years. If I were to stand out of the strike it would be wrecked, and I myself might be knocked about.’

This story shocked Henson. Men who had no wish to strike were forced to strike by fear of illegal violence. Was this a free country? The trade unions, he told himself, and soon told the world, have got off their true purpose, and have grown into a formidable menace both to industrial freedom and to public order. They have come to be the mocking caricatures of anything that could be described as democratic. What sounded persuasive under the name of peaceful picketing, was a sordid and hypocritical form of organized bullying. He wanted government to take strenuous measures to reform the system. He refrained from saying how.

When he was fitter and on a convalescent holiday, he went to see the prime minister at Bewdley. He told Baldwin that it (p.174) was absolutely necessary to reform the laws of trade unions. Baldwin agreed, but did not see how.

Orators in London talked of the many mining royalties which that capitalist the Bishop of Durham received from the Durham mines. At a mass meeting at Rainton in the county of Durham the miners' leader Cook jested that Henson denounced subsidies but lived on subsidies all his life. (The Ecclesiastical Commission received £400,000 a year in coal royalties, much of it from the Durham mines. Only a tiny bit of this came back to Henson.)

Nevertheless, the contrast between Christ's poor and Christ's bishop kept troubling his spirit. He always reached the conclusion that he was in a straitjacket. The scene was encumbered when he arrived. He had to make what good he could out of what he found. Once, outside his diocese in Scotland, Ella and he got out of the car to picnic by the roadside, and afterwards gave the rest of the sandwiches to two lean and hungry men who looked more like unemployed than tramps, and who took the sandwiches eagerly. Their appearance cast a shadow on my mind, and oppressed my conscience with a grossly offensive paradox — Christ's declared representative at his ease in a Wolseley car, making holiday, confronted by Christ's true successors, the outcast poor, sitting homeless and hungry by the roadside. He could not see any way out of the dilemma. It can spoil one's earthly happiness: it cannot suggest any way of escape.

Meanwhile, from bed or from convalescence, letters did what could be done to hamper other bishops who wanted to mediate in the coal strike.

For the good of the country Baldwin must win. For the prosperity of the county of Durham Baldwin must win. To keep mines from closing Baldwin must win. To feed the young miners of the future Baldwin must win. Any attempt to mediate made the miners think that Baldwin might yield and so prolonged the strike. That was how Henson saw the scene. To the miners' leaders he looked ultra-Tory, a capitalist, the coal owners' friend and the miners' enemy. To himself he felt the burden of the future – these miners when they are older, and their children when they grow, will have no mines to work in unless they lose their misguided strike. His head never wavered. His belly was not quite so sure. My heart with the men, (p.175) my head with the masters; or again, I am personally the woefullest man in the world, for my mind is with the economists, and my conscience with these fatuous Socialists.

In August 1926 miners in other parts of England began to drift back to work. In October Durham miners began to drift back, not without violence against blacklegs at Silksworth colliery. The strike was breaking, and the leaders knew. On 30 November 1926 they called off the strike.

Certainly, as the miners at last settled, there was an anti-clericalism in their leaders:

  • Have you heard the parson preaching,
  • Have you listened to his teaching,
  • How the slaves in Egypt suffered long ago?
  • But you heeded not his patter
  • As you felt it didn't matter,
  • For of mining how could any parson know?

The time had its discomforts for the inhabitants of Auckland Castle. Watts, the Anglo-Catholic Vicar of Shildon and a fervent Christian Socialist, held a meeting of miners and their wives at Ferryhill, where five years before Henson was jeered and cheered, and took Henson's philosophy to pieces, point by point, not without insult. Then the coal in the Park of Auckland Castle gave anxiety. The miners were in the habit of digging illegally for open-cast coal in the Park. Above the River Gaunless is a steep slope, known as the Cliff, with narrow seams of coal. They usually came in the early hours after midnight, and used the timber of the Park for props in their workings, and left unsightly marks on the face of the hill. Patrols of police occasionally caught two or three, the magistrates would fine them 10s. and a few shillings costs, and the miners clubbed to pay the fines.

In these centralizing days the Park belonged, not to the Bishop of Durham, but to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in London. By a mischance of timing the secretary of the commission told Henson (26 June 1926) that they needed to take action to satisfy the police but did not like to act without his approval. Henson cannot have welcomed this request that he approve prosecution. But confronted with the need to decide, (p.176) he was sure that prosecution was right, they owed a duty, both to law and order, and to the protection of the landscape for posterity. During the remaining months of that year of the General Strike twenty-three men were prosecuted and fined. If only twenty-three were caught it is not hard to imagine the number who stole. It made no difference. The only sensible deterrent was to blow in the workings whenever they were discovered. When caught the miners made remarks like this: ‘We are married men with three children each, and on the dole, and we haven't a bit of fire on.’

The miners were hazy about the difference between the bishop who was the nominal owner and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners who were the real owners of Auckland Park. Henson was uneasily aware that he sanctioned the prosecutions. For a few weeks he found no miners to talk with on his walks in the Park.

In that autumn of 1926 Archbishop Davidson fell ill, and instantly the rumour was widespread that Henson would be the new Archbishop of Canterbury. The rumour was natural. Baldwin was prime minister, and this was the single bishop who stood up against ‘meddlers’ in the strike like William Temple of Manchester. The gossip appeared in Canadian newspapers, even in Berlin. In England it had about it a breath of the Tory extremist. Someone wrote to him to say that hundreds of thousands of English Christians were praying, ‘May you be a second Latimer, and be true to Israel against his enemies, and you will never know Latimer's martyrdom. It will be to us a sign that God has not deserted us when he raises you to the see of Canterbury.’ All this was distasteful to Henson, especially when the Daily Express (16 November 1926) ran him as its leading horse in the race. Its philosophy of selection ruled out the other leading bishops because they were greasy with the oil of mediation between miners and coal owners. It printed a photograph of Henson, looking young, alive and bristling. It called him ‘one of the great forces in the Church’.

After the failure of the General Strike Durham County was quiet but not happy. The stoppage impoverished families. Unemployment rose steadily, the Communist Party gained adherents, more men and boys were made redundant – 172,026 (p.177) miners in May 1924, 107, 938 miners in December 1931.1 On 1934 figures the average weekly wage of the Durham miner was lower than that of any other miner in the country. The cottages were some of the most overcrowded in Britain, though, or because, many lived there rent free. The sanitation of these houses was primitive and caused worry to the officers of health. Some villages had privies standing in a row like sentry-boxes down the middle of the street, and when not wanted for the needs of nature they were used by the children as a playground and sometimes as a theatre, costumes made from toilet-paper. At Birtley 2,000 people lived in huts built for Belgian refugees during the First World War. In Henson's own Bishop Auckland, more than half the insured workers were unemployed by 1934 when government designated the region as a Special Area, with a fund for economic development. The children grew used to being unemployed. One child, asked what he wanted to be, said that he wanted to be on the dole like his father. To grow up in an atmosphere where father and elder brothers hung about waiting for and not finding work was not good for the boys. The men had the pink ‘un, a bet on whippets, and sipped long beer; the teeth of the children were looked after because of the school; and mostly the mood was listless.

In April 1928 the Lord Mayor of London launched a fund to aid the distressed in Northumberland, Durham, and South Wales. The government gave £150,000 and promised £1 to every £1 subscribed. These welfare schemes brought in large sums of money. Institutes were erected, sports fields laid out, boys' clubs started, reading-rooms opened. They helped the boys and women. The adult unemployed miner took little notice. The increase of pithead baths after 1926 made much difference to the comfort of miners who still worked.

For everyone who cared about men's souls the age-old problem tormented the conscience. Henson knew that charity must help. He started to organize a lot of charity. But he knew that charity applied in certain ways could destroy character. It troubled him that the nation fancied itself to solve the ills of Durham by keeping everyone alive, when the only solution to be more than temporary was to create work. He began to (p.178) move away from his origins and to demand action by the State. From early in 1929 he issued a series of warnings on the danger of the dole to the character of the nation and a demand – a neo-Tory demand from a Tory – that the State should act to make work.

These utterances were more courageous than popular. To say aloud that dole is bad for the character when so many men live on the dole is a message likely to cause resentment even when it is true. His most unpopular utterance was a lecture to the Individualist Club at Northumberland Avenue in London (18 June 1930) and printed under the title The British Lazzaroni, the Lazzaroni being the beggars of Naples. This brought him many hostile remarks, a shoal of anonymous letters, and two abusive Open Letters, one from a future Labour cabinet minister. His repute was of hardness, as though he said, dole corrupts, take away dole. This was not what Henson said.

Meanwhile he did what he could to encourage the charity which he condemned as not enough. He lent part of the Park as a sports ground for the unemployed and paid anonymously for the equipment. He appealed in The Times (13 December 1932) for money to help the unemployed with boots or shoes and won many donations or gifts in kind, and took his chance to voice his admiration of the way in which the Durham unemployed maintained their standard amid adversity. He opened work centres for unemployed, visited camps for unemployed boys, directed public attention to an organization for opening sports fields, and an institute where the unemployed were trained to make furniture and to cobble shoes, and a public scheme for creating allotments, and another scheme for the keeping of poultry, and a fishing boat available at Hebburn for the use of unemployed men.

The worst trouble for this master of the mordant phrase came in July 1932 through an unmordant utterance in the House of Lords. He had no need to make, and should not have made, that speech. He was politely clapped at the end, and the Lord Chancellor (Sankey) beckoned him to the Woolsack and congratulated him that he had never heard a better speech, nor a speech that more completely captured the House. The Labour minister Philip Snowden hobbled over on crutches to the Bishops' Bench and said ‘Your speech won't please your (p.179) friends in Durham; but it was all true. You are a courageous man to speak like that.’

If these eminent peers did not flatter – and neither Sankey nor Snowden was famous for butter – this evidence shows something of Henson's oratory. In the cold record of Hansard which is all that the historian can see, it was not much of a speech; not very coherent in structure, nor cogent, nor spiritual, nor persuasive. The Lords debated public expenditure, and Henson attacked the extravagance of local councils, and said that Durham was now equipped with main roads far better than it needed, and that the ruin of great empires came from financial mismanagement.

Henson hardly expected this to offend. He had said far more unpalatable things at the time of the General Strike. But this charge of extravagance and mismanagement mortally offended the members of local councils in County Durham. The Labour leader George Lansbury said that the Durham miners ‘hated’ Henson. A Labour MP attacked him in the House of Commons and the Conservative MP for Houghton-le-Spring, who was a man of character and heard his conscience whispering to him to rise to defend the bishop, did not dare. In John Bull Hannen Swaffer printed a caricature of Henson sneering down at a frightened little man, under the heading ‘Why despise the common man?’. In his final apostrophe he besought Henson: ‘Come out on the people's side, my Lord! You have the brains to help them to the things they want. Speeches such as yours will not only retard progress; they will bring down, amid the ruins of many other things, the Church of which you could be such an ornament.’

The nastiest attack of Henson's life came that autumn in the Weekend Review. This represented the Bishop of Durham, sitting remote behind castle walls, a Dives caring nothing for the sufferings of Lazarus at his gate, cold and heartless, occupying his time writing pharisaic letters to The Times. If there were truth in Henson's doctrine that a faithful apostle is always unpopular, during the second half of 1932 he was at his most apostolic.

Normal abuse he endured with a measure of equanimity. If he were worth all this spattering of powder and shot he must count. But he was miserable under the lash of George (p.180) Lansbury that the miners hated the Bishop of Durham. In the depths of melancholy he went out into the Park and found two little blackguard boys floating a little ship in the beck. He stopped, and joined the game; and as he gave out a sixpence, said to one of them Do you love the bishop? The boy said, ‘O yes, I always did’. Henson pathetically set the boy in the Park in the scales against Lansbury. Less than a week later his morale was back. I could almost wish that the miners did hate the bishop, for their hatred would at least indicate a consciousness of his existence.

For all that Henson did for the unemployed in the county, the conflict was never stilled so long as he was Bishop of Durham. In Durham, men said, bishops always stood against the tide. Tunstall tried to stem the Reformation, Morton fought against triumphant puritanism, Van Mildert resisted the reform of the parliamentary constitution. And now Henson was an old-fashioned individualist in an age when individuality perished, a man who distrusted majorities in an age when the committee was infallible, a mind which never went with the crowd in an age when the crowd fashioned the public mind. And he did not realize that courage and clarity and refusal to conform could win another kind of respect and even an affection and in the long run a different kind of ‘popularity’.

A weighty authority on the history of Durham has expressed the view that Henson's time as bishop was a calamity for the Christianity of the working population of the country and that he should never have been made Bishop of Durham, because the Church still suffers from the gulf between worker and clergy which he helped to dig – perhaps, did most to dig. Another equally weighty authority has taken a contrary view, that miners care nothing about opposition in the long run and give their allegiance, though not their agreement, to a stout heart and sincerity and compassion.

The question has no answer and yet is of importance. In human history a dramatic moment comes to symbolize the underlying social movements of an age. Jenny Geddes threw her stool at the preacher and divided Scotland from England – the theory is too naïve, for Mrs Geddes would have been ejected as a brawler unless her brawl symbolized what Scotsmen felt but had not expressed. The Roman Pope's (p.181) ambassadors marched to the altar of Santa Sophia and laid upon it a shocking excommunication of the Patriarch of Constantinople and all his supporters; and so divided East from West for ever – and yet the high drama only focused long and heart-felt differences which over four centuries drew East apart from West. A lone knight errant, without even a Sancho Panza for his groom, Henson went into battle with the trade unions of England, on moral grounds – the sanctity of a contract, the wrongness of breaking it because other men order it to be broken, the interference with liberty necessary to picketing, the encouragement of social bitterness and class struggle, and the self-interest of a powerful minority of the community without regard for the interest of the total community. Whether the high drama that ensued – the attempt to pitch a gaitered dignitary in the river, or the public statement by the leader of the Labour Party that miners hate their bishop – dug down the trench which divided Church from working man, or was only a symbol of a trench which was dug over decades, perhaps for two centuries or more,1 is a question which men of guesswork must try to divine. The bias of the historian expects underlying movements over decades to be more likely to determine a course of events than the moment of drama. To throw a bishop into a river was to throw a bishop into a river. In the parishes miners still brought bags of coal to their vicar's wife.


(1) Garside, 109.

(1) Good accounts (e.g.) Durham Chronicle 1 Aug. 1925; Northern Echo 27 July 1925. Welldon had made an alarmist speech against trade unions at the Bishop Auckland Rotary Club on 21 July.

(1) Garside, 248.

(1) Stanhope 1818; affray between the keepers of the Bishop of Durham and the Weardale lead miners. The bishop's men arrested two poachers and their friends rescued the poachers, knocking out the eye of a bishop's man and injuring severely three others, kicking them as they lay on the ground and hitting them with their gunstocks. The bishop was Shute Barrington.