Robert Smillie

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Smillie in the early 1900s.

Robert Smillie (17 March 1857 – 16 February 1940) was a trade unionist and Labour Party politician in the United Kingdom.

Biography[edit]

1878[edit]

Born into the city of Belfast, the second son of John Smillie a Scottish Crofter. Until into his adult years he spelt his name as Smellie; he spelt it like this even on his wedding certificate in 1878. In his early years he was orphaned and subsequently brought up by his grandmother who in turn taught him to read and write. By the age of nine he was working as an errand boy and by the age of eleven he was working in a spinning mill, fortunately he was able to obtain some reading material of authors such as, Dickens, Burns, Shakespeare. However his education suffered due to the need of providing to the family income.

By the age of fifteen he left Ireland for Glasgow where he managed to secure employment in a Brass Foundry however he left for the Mines of Larkhall which in later life would bring him to be the leader of British Miners. He was first a hand-pumper at the Sumerlee Colliery which involved working twelve hours a day with no human contact. He married on 31 December 1878 to Ann Hamilton and began to educate himself on an evening and eventually worked his way up to check weigh man.

1885-1897[edit]

Smillie became secretary of the Larkhall Miners’ Association in 1885 after presiding over a mass meeting which ended in its formation and later when a county federation was formed he became the president in 1893. After some short lived attempts at its formation he became the president of the Scottish Miners’ Federation in 1894. Employers in a number of districts demanded wage reductions, some partial strikes began as a result of this. Following a special conference of the Miners Federation of Great Britain a full ballot was taken, in turn a strike followed which lasted June to October 1894. Controversy arose between Chisholm Robertson which came to head in 1900 with a debate at Glasgow Trades Council which undoubtedly Smillie won. The strikes left the Scottish miners in a greatly weakened position, they suffered further wage cuts in 1895 and 96, in 1897 less than twenty per cent of the workers were organised.

A founder member of the Scottish Labour Party in 1888 and of the Independent Labour Party in 1893, Smillie was a close associate of Keir Hardie during their early careers and remained a friend until Hardie's death. He campaigned for Hardie in many of his election contests, including the first in 1888; and Smillie himself stood for parliament on seven occasions between 1894 and 1910. Later, he could have had the nomination for winnable seats in Glasgow but chose to remain with his work for the miners.

His early commitment to socialism was moderate, LIB-LABs were predominant in the leadership however this clashed with the miners political views. Nevertheless Smillies qualities of leadership brought him to the forefront of the miners’ struggles, and with the growth of militancy amongst certain sections, opinion changed to his favour.

1899[edit]

In 1899 Smillie compelled the Scottish owners to set up the Conciliation board after much trouble and he was also an active part in setting up the Scottish Trades Union Congress. The setting up the TUC was the work of the British which made him such an outstanding activist. At the first STUC meeting in 1897 he came second in the ballot for president but at the first meeting of the committee he was appointed chairman. Eight out of eleven of the delegates were in fact ILP.

1908-1915[edit]

By 1908 he made the resolution that the MFGB should affiliate to the Labour Party, by 1912 he was elected vice president and remained in this position until 1921. By 1910 his miners group was the largest organised labour group in which he was already a very powerful and influential figure. All the coalfields of Great Britain went on strike in 1912 and the Triple Alliance was set up which in 1915 Smillie became president of. He also fought to keep the miners outside the provisions of the munitions act. He had risen to such a position by this point that it was his duty to chair the one-day Leeds Convention and also in 1918 resigned the position of president of the Scottish Miners Federation. He vigorously condemned conscription and was the president of the National Council Against Conscription when it was formed in 1915.

All this time Smillie had been trying to gain more than just industrial action, he also wanted political. His first attempt was in 1894, he ran in the by-election at mid-Lanark followed by Camlachie in 1895 as the ILP, 1901 by election in Lanarkshire, 1906 as a Labour Candidate for Paisley Cockersmouth and in 1910 Mid Lanark. All of these attempts were failed, he eventually did enter parliament in 1923 for Morpeth but however refused office in the Labour Government 1924 due to ill health. 1922-28 he further presided the Scottish Miners' Federation resigned in 1928 due to ill health.

1940-1942[edit]

He died in 1940 followed by his wife in 1942; they were survived by seven sons and two daughters.

Notes[edit]

References[edit]

Attribution

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
John Cairns
Member of Parliament for Morpeth
19231929
Succeeded by
Ebenezer Edwards
Trade union offices
Preceded by
New position
President of the Scottish Miners' Federation
1894–1918
Succeeded by
John Robertson
Preceded by
Sam Woods
Vice-President of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain
1909–1912
Succeeded by
W. E. Harvey
Preceded by
Enoch Edwards
President of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain
1912–1922
Succeeded by
Herbert Smith
Preceded by
John Robertson
President of the National Union of Scottish Mine Workers
1921–1928
Succeeded by
James Doonan