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The Home Front

By E. Royston Pike.
The War Illustrated, Volume 7, No. 167, Page 374, November 12, 1943.

Of our prison population of about 13,000 rather more than half are now doing useful work for the War effort. This eminently satisfactory fact was revealed by the Home Secretary, Mr. Herbert Morrison, in a recent talk at the Ministry of Information. The prison workshops are as busy as can be. In the four years ended last March a range of 160 articles, some seven million units, was undertaken by prisoners for the fighting services; the value of this output was about £920,000. In addition, a range of 240 articles, with an output of nine million units, was undertaken for other Government departments, representing a value of nearly £2,000,000, and there was the normal very large output of clothing, furniture, and other prison stores.

As farmers, too, the men and youths in prisons and Borstal have done splendidly. Some 5,000 acres are now under their cultivation; and as well as providing nearly the whole of the vegetables required for the prisons and Borstal institutions national food production has been helped to the extent of 8,200 head of cattle, 2,400 tons of fruit, 600 tons of sugar beet, and 60 tons of tomatoes. A party of convicts from one prison has been employed during the past year on War Office land some distance from the prison making military rods, etc., thereby saving many thousand man-hours of soldiers' time. Boys from a Borstal institution have been similarly engaged on work for the Army and Navy. In 1940 they worked many a time under machine-gun fire from enemy planes and suffered some casualties. But they carried on, and the degaussing apparatus that they produced sufficed to fit out 325 ships. Nor have the Borstal girls been behindhand; the nimble fingers which in peacetime were sometimes a little too clever are now engaged in making parts for planes and tanks.

Do you know what the Fiduciary Issue is? In an explanation issued on the occasion of the Issue being raised to the new highest level of £1,050 millions the Bank of England tells us that it is the total of the notes which the Bank of England is authorized by Parliament to issue against Government debt and securities, as distinguished from notes against gold (precious few nowadays!). One reason for the latest increase is the carrying of unnecessary notes by private individuals. Notes should not be hoarded but paid into a bank. "Many minor tragedies (we are told) occur every year through the loss or destruction of hoarded notes; and on grounds of safety alone, it is in every one's interest to pay all the money they do not require for immediate use into a bank or savings bank."

But hoarding is not a complete answer to the question. Where do the notes go to? The amount in the bank tills is known, and also the amount paid out in wages weekly. The amounts in the shopkeepers' tills, in the pockets of the people, and used as petty cash by business houses, are also capable of approximate estimation. But the difference between all these added together and the amount of notes in circulation is far too large to be accounted for by "hoarding". Where are the missing notes? It sounds like a financial thriller; and indeed, if we could give a proper answer to the question we should be let into many an exciting by-path of strange and occasionally nefarious activity in wartime.

Still the coal situation is the only piece of Home Front news to claim the right to appear on the front page of the newspapers side by side with latest cables about the fierce struggles on the Dnieper and the Volturno. Early in October the Ministry of Fuel asked the Mineworkers' Federation to agree to the working of a full Saturday shift each week in every coalfield, to make arrangements to ensure that the coal face should be cleared at the end of every shift so that the new shift can start without delay, and to agree that, in certain circumstances, a coal-getting shift should be put on one Sunday in four. The miners' leaders received these suggestions coldly enough. They estimate that 4,200,000 tons a week is the minimum output required to meet the nation's needs, and that 3,750,000 tons is the maximum that may be expected from the industry under existing conditions. With the present man-power of approximately 705,000, producing at the rate of 5½ tons for each person a week, an additional 85,000 men would be required to produce the extra 450,000 tons a week. But the Federation is of the opinion that it is impossible to raise the man-power above 720,000, with a liability to make good the wastage of 30,000 a year.

Given 720,000 men, could the industry increase their weekly output by 10 cwt. for each worker? Yes, says the Federation – provided that the Government assumes full financial and operational control of the mines, so that colliery managers and technicians may become the direct servants of the State; that pit committees are strengthened; that mechanization is accelerated and equipment improved; and that the minimum wage for men working underground shall be £6 a week, and for adult surface workers, £5 10s. (The present minima are 83s. and 78s. respectively.)

For two days (October 12 and 13) the House of Commons debated the situation. Major Lloyd George, Minister of Fuel and Power, stated that though 60,000 ex-miners had been returned to the mines – 48,000 from industry, 9,600 from the Army, and about 1,600 from the R.A.F. - and a considerable number of volunteers had come forward, it was clear that it would now be necessary to call men up for mines just as they were called up for the armed forces. Mr. Will Lawson, most prominent of the miner M.P.s, alleged that the extent to which miners had been kept in the forces doing practically nothing was a scandal; he knew of miners who had done little beyond peeling potatoes and cutting grass... The real truth of the matter was that the miners had lost confidence in the future of the industry.

On the second day of the debate Mr. Churchill himself defended the Government's policy. There could be no nationalization of the mines without a general election, he said, and that would be harmful to the war effort. He refused to take a gloomy view of the outlook. "We survived last winter; not a single factory has had to stop for lack of fuel, and our stocks are higher now than last year. We are told of the great unrest in the mining industry. I think that is a little unjust to the miners. Only 750,000 tons of coal have been lost during the last 12 months by strikes, out of upwards of 200,000,000 that have been produced. Loss by strikes and stoppages has been not more than two-third of half of one per cent." As the House looked puzzled, the Premier went on:

"If you like, make if .05 – two-thirds of .05..." But then, since the matter was still not clear, Mr. Churchill turned to his colleagues, and in an aside that all could hear asked. "That's right, isn't it? Neither I nor my father was ever any good at figures." The House roared its appreciation, recalling the oft-told story of Lord Randolph Churchill's query, "What's the meaning of these damned dots?" made when he, forty years before his son, was Chancellor of the Exchequer. So in a spate of good humour the coal situation was left where it was – in the hands of the consumer.


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