Josephine Roche’s Coal Mining Tour of Britain and France, 1945-1946

In September 1945, Josephine Roche arrived in London as part of a European trip to investigate coal mining across the Atlantic and to attend the conference of the International Labor Organization, to which she was delegated by President Harry S Truman.

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Josephine Roche – photo credit: Library of Congress

Roche was the remarkable owner of the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, operating several coal mines in Colorado’s Northern Coal Field. Her career spanned everything from working as Denver’s first woman police officer, serving as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and running the United Mine Workers’ Welfare and Retirement Fund.  She promoted workers’ rights, aided immigrants, ran for Colorado governor, supported Progressive Party politics, and fought for social and civic reform.

After Roche’s parents died in early 1927, she inherited her father’s minority holdings of the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company.  After a strike, violence, and six deaths at the RMFC-owned Columbine Mine,  Roche gained majority control of the company. She announced that employee welfare would be a key component in the way the company was run.  The first permanent mutual union agreement ever signed by a coal mining company in Colorado was between the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company and the United Mine Workers in 1928.  This was considered a groundbreaking agreement for coal miners’ rights. Roche became known for her concern for her employees and their rights.

As Assistant Secretary of the Treasury beginning in 1934, Roche was the second woman to serve under a United States President.  She worked in the areas of education, finance, health, and welfare, helping to shape the Social Security Act and the National Youth Administration.  Her work in the realms of health and welfare laid the foundations for Medicare and Medicaid.

Her prominence in the political realm, in labor relations, and in the coal mining industry are all key contexts to her European trip immediately following the end of World War II.  Roche spent several days in London conducting background research, then traveled to Paris to attend the ILO conference.

Thirty-nine countries sent delegates to the International Labor Organization conference, held at the Sorbonne.  In her autobiography of Roche, Elinor McMinn writes of the conference, “The delegates described their wartime struggles to survive and expressed their common concern: to activate Europe’s paralyzed industrial and economic facilities and increase production of food, clothing, coal, and shelter.”  Roche was assigned by the ILO to study European coal production.  Robyn Muncy writes in Relentless Reformer, “Suffering terrible fuel shortages by war’s end, both France and Britain had nationalized their coal industries, and Roche was interested in how nationalization was affecting workers and whether the mines in each country would be able to retool fast enough to provide fuel for winter heating and industrial production.”  Roche also was commissioned by the Department of Industrial Studies of the Sage Foundation to collect information on British coal mining.  In addition, she wrote articles for the Survey Graphic and New York Herald Tribune about her findings and experiences – highlighting the interest in the United States for information about coal mining, industrial, and labor issues abroad.

After the end of the ILO conference, Roche toured coal mines of the Nord and Pas-de-Calais, reportedly becoming the first woman to descend into a French coal mine.  She perceived the French coal mining industry as being in a more positive position than the British because they had regained their pre-war production levels.

Traveling back to Britain, she embarked on a tour arranged by the Ministry of Fuel and Power.  Roche inspected the coal fields of Wales, northern England, and Scotland, going down into at least one mine per day, and discussing mining conditions with everyone from superintendents, engineers, miners, and even the miners’ wives.  She also studied the history of coal mining in Britain from medieval times.  Roche found that the root of current problems in the coal mining industry was the ownership structure, which she believed would have continued repercussions after nationalization.  McMinn writes, “Approximately four thousand families owned all the mines and leased them to many different operators, who all worked simultaneously to produce quick royalty profits for the owners.  Thus, an excessive number of small and poorly designed mines operated with a capacity inadequate to justify the equipment or technical staff essential for efficient mining practice.”  Mines had also been neglected and had inadequate technology, and also produced far less coal per day than American mines.  In addition, there was a postwar shortage of labor.

During her trip, the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act was introduced in Parliament and subsequently passed on 12 July 1946.  The Act established public ownership and control of the coal industry, set up the National Coal Board, and aimed to tackle issues with efficiency in the country’s coal mines.

Roche believed that a better course of action would be to empower the coal miners through strong unionization.  She stated, “The chief need in the English coal mines, where production remains a million tons a week below pre-war levels, appears to be a strong national union headed by a leader who can get results.”  She did not think that organizing coal mines to work in the national interest necessarily would be in the workers’ best interests.  Muncy writes that Roche believed the British Labour Party had betrayed the miners.  She approved of the government taking some role in economic intervention or regional planning, but in this case believed that miners “had simply exchanged one set of employers for another” without having a chance to bargain collectively for higher wages and safer working conditions.

According to Muncy, on this European trip, “what had crystallized for Roche was a belief that, in the achievement of economic justice, the crucial thing was not whether government or private interests operated an industry; the crucial issue was whether workers maintained independent power.”  After returning to the United States, Roche’s views of the European coal mines were part of her speeches on the lecture circuit, as audiences were eager to learn of post-war conditions abroad.

Further Reading:

Leigh Campbell-Hale, “Remembering Ludlow but Forgetting the Columbine: The 1927-1928 Colorado Coal Strike” (Unpublished PhD Diss., University of Colorado, 2013).

Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame: http://www.cogreatwomen.org/project/josephine-aspinwall-roche

Larry Dorsey, “Josephine Roche, a ‘Grand Old Gal,’” Superior Historian 3, no. 3 (Winter 2005).

Elinor McGinn, A Wide-Awake Woman: Josephine Roche in the Era of Reform (Denver: Colorado Historical Society, 2002).

Robyn Muncy, Relentless Reformer: Josephine Roche and Progressivism in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

Viewing Canada Live & Online Pt. 1: The Maritimes

Viewing Canada Live & Online Pt. 1: The Maritimes

Webcams are an older digital technology and are often overlooked in favour of photographs, video clips, and “live” broadcasts on social media, but webcams are still around, sharing live footage of beautiful sites across Canada and abroad. Nowadays most seem to be focussed on two things: weather and traffic reporting. They also have their drawbacks — footage may be stilted, unavailable at times, hindered by weather, or the website might even require visitors to manually refresh the website in order to see a new image (I warned you that this is “old” technology!). Continue reading

In the News: Ben Carson, ‘Immigrants’, and Slavery in America

In the News: Ben Carson, ‘Immigrants’, and Slavery in America

On March 6, 2017, newly-sworn-in Housing and Urban Development secretary, Ben Carson, made a speech to his agency’s employees that confused enslaved Africans for immigrants seeking a better life in America. Word of this mix-up quickly gathered momentum in news outlets, on social media, and the late show circuit.

Regular readers of our blog know that we rarely get political, but in this case I wanted to contextualise Carson’s remarks and hopefully shed some light on why his assertion immediately received such strong criticism. Continue reading

Postcard from York

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York – photo credit: L. Flewelling

I was just talking to a friend (from the US) about York and as it turned out, she had a very similar experience visiting there as me – it’s a city that immediately feels welcoming and manageable and filled with fun things to see highlighting a diverse range of time periods and people (and a vague smell of chocolate in the air).

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York’s City Walls – photo credit: L. Flewelling

History of York website from the York Museums Trust

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Ruins of St Mary’s Abbey – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Visit York

York Minster

York Castle Museum

National Railway Museum

JORVIK Viking Centre

Yorkshire Museum

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Clifford’s Tower – photo credit: L. Flewelling

 

Canada’s 2016 Census: the Long-Form’s Return

Canada’s 2016 Census: the Long-Form’s Return

On May 10, 2016, the most recent Canadian census took place. Of course, Canadians had from the 2nd to complete their forms, but the information given was meant to reflect a ‘snapshot’ of life in the country on the 10th of May.

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Censuses have been conducted in one or more regions of what is now Canada since the mid-17th century. All of the Canadian territories have been surveyed via a census every 10 years since 1851 and every 5 years since 1901. Continue reading

Oscar Wilde in Leadville, Colorado

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Harper’s Bazaar 10 June 1882

I came across this Thomas Nast cartoon earlier this week.  The caption reads, “Wilde on US.  Something to “Live Up” to in America.”

“Mr. Oscar Wilde has lately delivered a lecture in New York on Art Decoration…. In all his travels, he says, the only well-dressed men he has seen have been the miners of the Rocky Mountains.  ‘Their wide-brimmed hats, which shade their faces from the sun and protect them from the rain, and the cloak, which is by far the most beautiful piece of drapery ever invented, may well be dwelt on with admiration.  Their high boots, too, were sensible and practical.  They only wore what was comfortable, and therefore beautiful.'”

At the top of the cartoon are sketches of boxers, a liquor bottle, fighting roosters, and houses with the caption “Leadville.”

You can find more about the history of the Irish in the silver mining town of Leadville, CO in my post here.  As part of his tour of the United States in 1882, Wilde traveled to Leadville, Denver, and Colorado Springs.  He gave a talk to Leadville’s miners at the Tabor Opera House on art and aesthetics, and drank a remarkable amount of whiskey.

In his Impressions of America, Wilde noted:

From Salt Lake City one travels over the great plains of Colorado and up the Rocky Mountains, on the top of which is Leadville, the richest city in the world.  It has also got the reputation of being the roughest, and every man carries a  revolver.  I was told that if I went there they would be sure to shoot me or my travelling manager.  I wrote and told them that nothing that they could do to my travelling manager would intimidate me.  They are miners – men working in metals, so I lectured to them on the Ethics of Art.  I read them passages from the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini and they seemed much delighted.  I was reproved by my hearers for not having brought him with me.  I explained that he had been dead for some time which elicited the enquiry ‘Who shot him’?  They afterwards took me to a dancing saloon where I saw the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across.  Over the piano was printed a notice:

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Oscar Wilde, Impressions of America

The mortality among pianists in that place is marvellous.