“History, it is said, repeats itself. Be that as it may, today's proceedings were somewhat reminiscent of occurrences in the “Hungry Forties,” when St Just miners marched to Penzance. Then it was to demand bread and to protest against the high price of corn. Today it is to protest against the high price of butter, milk and coal, and to demand a decrease in the cost of living.”
This is an extract from an article entitled, The Price of Butter: St Just Miners' Protest, published in the Cornishman of 11 February 1920. On the same page another short piece reported that the price of butter at Goldsithney had been fixed at 3s 6d per lb but the price being cited by some of the St Just men was 4s 6d and later was widely reported as 5s. Also on the same page in the Cornishman was a short piece advising that the price of bread may be about to increase by 6d per loaf due to a poor exchange rate against the dollar which was also likely to lead to an increase in the price of other staples such as bacon and rice. These price rises came as price controls which had been applied during the war were lifted. The protest was targeting a price of 2s 6d per lb.
The background to the unrest is perhaps best expressed by Arthur Wilkens, St Just and Pendeen organiser of the Dockers' Union, of which the men were members. “We have been told for the past five years that we have been fighting a despotism that would enthral this country in slavery. Our women have given their sons and husbands to go out and fight against this horror. The Prime Minister and other responsible Cabinet Ministers have come out and said: “Come and save this glorious country of ours. We know very well we have not done justice to you in the past, but, forgive and forget it in the shout of our despair. Come together as a nation and fight this horror.” And the call was responded to. They also said: “When the fight is finished we will recognise you as the wealth builders of the nation and we will make this country a fit place for heroes to live in.”
“I have always wanted a fit country for every human being to live comfortably in.”
“But has there ever been in the world's history a law laid down, written, unwritten or spoken, that there should be one class of people born into this world who must work, work, work, and then barely live, with no beauty in life, no recreation, but like worms and earwigs, simply crawl through life , and at the end be thrown on the scrap heap. And today we find this horrible vicious circle growing up around us, squeezing us just as the juice is squeezed from an orange, and throwing the peel away. If they could have their way they would not bury you: they would make gutta percha out of your entrails and buttons out of your bones.”……………………………."
"Let us tell these people that milk, butter and coal are the three essentials of life”
Wilkens' whole speech is recorded in the Cornishman. It's pretty strong stuff but he also advocates peaceful protest and negotiation, he's not a revolutionary.
The St Just protest began on Friday 6th February when the “town cryer” went around St Just and Pendeen announcing that miners belonging to the unions were to assemble at Geevor the next morning in order to demonstrate against the high price of butter. At 7am on the Saturday a large body of men were assembled at Geevor and made their way to Levant where a meeting was held in the dry and the Levant miners joined the protest. They made their way to St Just, picking up more men at Holman's Foundry as they passed, and were then addressed by the Mayor of St Just, Alfred Kellow who stressed the need for good order as they made their way to the Sanatogen factory at Stable Hobba. From St Just the protest moved on to Balleswidden where they were joined by the clay workers to give a total company estimated at about 1000 men and women. The march passed through New Bridge at about 10 30 am. It's important to be aware that this was in fact a strike, Saturday morning was a working day so they were foregoing a morning's pay in order to make their point, something not lightly undertaken.
Following a meeting with the directors of the Genatosan Company at Stable Hobba (subsidiary of Sanatogen and a big milk consumer) the demonstration made its way into Penzance where there was minor trouble when the marchers were confronted with a milk lorry bound for Genatosan. A few churns were thrown into the harbour but order was soon restored and the demonstration concluded peacefully.
The men were back at work on the following Monday and the Genatosan directors agreed to meet with representatives of the protesters and a deputation of farmers.
On Wednesday 11th February another meeting was called, this time in Penzance and presided over by H. W. George of the National Union of Railwaymen. Butter, he said, was now at 5s per lb in St Just and it was the consequence of profiteering. Asking for more more money was pointless because prices would immediately go up so their aim was to bring down prices. Jasper Richards, assistant Dockers' Union organiser for St Just and Pendeen, said that their aims were peaceful but that if the government did not take any notice there would be trouble as the protest of the previous Saturday had found support all over the country and miners in South Wales were now demonstrating in the same cause. In fact, the same issue of the Cornishman which reports on this meeting (11 February 1920) also reports on a public meeting over the price of butter in Camborne while the Gloucestershire Echo of 28 February reported “lively scenes” in Redruth where some ex-soldiers and youth “indulged in riotous conduct”. The Penzance gathering on 11th February, which was also addressed by A. E. Craft of the Metalliferous Miners' Union, was told that there was to be a meeting with the farmers the next day.
On Saturday 14 February, according to an agreement reached with Genatosan, a lorry laden with butter to be sold at 2s 6d per lb arrived at Geevor, going on to Levant, Holman's and the St Just Liberal Club. On Wednesday 1 February a question was asked in the Commons of the Food Controller, Mr Fred. Green. Was he aware that 1000 Cornish tin miners had marched 16 miles from St Just to Penzance and back to demonstrate their indignation at the current prices of milk and butter?
On 1 March The Cornishman reported that a conference in the Alverne Hall had agreed to a Government inquiry into the costs of local food producers while in the mean time local producers would continue to supply miners with butter at 2s 6d per lb. At Penzance market butter was fetching 3s 6d per lb on Thursday 26 February. The inquiry was commenced immediately.
The last report on the butter issue was in the Cornishman of 10 March 1920 when the paper declared the inquiry's calculations “not worth the paper they're written on” . The inquiry had found the cost of producing butter in west Cornwall was 5s and a halfpenny but the farmers had offered voluntarily to supply butter at 3s 4d which the paper asserted was a pretty good index of the actual cost and “far more reliable than fancy calculations based on confessedly inadequate statistics”.