Robert Smillie

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
Jump to: navigation, search
Robert Smillie in the early 1900s.

Robert Smillie (17 March 1857 – 16 February 1940) was a trade unionist and Labour Party politician in Great Britain, especially Scotland. He was a leader of the coal miners, and played a central role in moving support from the miners away from the Liberal Party to the Labour Party. He had a firm commitment to socialism as an ideal, and militancy as a tactic.[1]



Born in Belfast, the second son of John Smillie a Scottish crofter. Until his adult years he spelt his name as Smellie including on his wedding certificate in 1878. In his early years he was orphaned and brought up by his grandmother who 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. He was able to obtain some books by authors such as Dickens, Burns and Shakespeare but his education suffered as he had to provide income for the family.

By the age of fifteen he had left Ireland for Glasgow where he secured employment in a brass foundry but left for the Mines of Larkhall which later in life led him to be the leader of British mineworkers. He was first a hand-pumper at the Sumerlee Colliery which involved working twelve hours a day with no human contact. He married Ann Hamilton on 31 December 1878 and began to educate himself in the evenings and worked his way up to be the colliery check weigh man.


Smillie became secretary of the Larkhall Miners' Association in 1885 after presiding over a mass meeting which ended in its formation and when the county federation was formed he became its president in 1893. He became the president of the Scottish Miners' Federation in 1894. Employers in a number of districts demanded wage reductions resulting in strikes. Following a special conference of the Miners Federation of Great Britain a ballot was taken and the strike that followed lasted from June to October 1894. Controversy arose between Smillie and Chisholm Robertson which came to head in 1900 with a debate at Glasgow Trades Council which Smillie won. 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.[2]

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 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, Smillie's 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.


In 1899 Smillie compelled the Scottish mine owners to set up a conciliation board after much trouble and he played an active part in setting up the Scottish Trades Union Congress 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 supporters of the ILP.[3]


By 1908 he resolved that the Miners' Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) should affiliate to the Labour Party. By 1912 he was elected vice-president of the MFGB and remained in position until 1921. By 1910 his miners group was the largest organised labour group. All the coalfields of Great Britain went on strike in 1912 and the Triple Alliance was set up. In 1915 Smillie became president of the Triple Alliance. He fought to keep the miners outside the provisions of the munitions act. 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.[4]

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.[5]


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


  1. Wrigley (2004)
  2. Wrigley (2004)
  3. Wrigley (2004)
  4. Wrigley (2004)
  5. Wrigley (2004)

Further reading

  • Bellamy, J. M. and J. Saville, eds. Dictionary of labour biography (vol 3 1976)
  • Loads, David, ed. Readers Guide to British History (2003)2: 1190-91, historiography
  • Wrigley, Chris. "Smillie , Robert (1857–1940)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004) accessed 8 November 2014 doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/36126

External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
John Cairns
Member of Parliament for Morpeth
Succeeded by
Ebenezer Edwards
Trade union offices
Preceded by
New position
President of the Scottish Miners' Federation
Succeeded by
John Robertson
Preceded by
William Muirhead
President of the Scottish Trades Union Congress
Succeeded by
George Murdoch
Preceded by
Sam Woods
Vice-President of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain
Succeeded by
W. E. Harvey
Preceded by
James Crinion and George Henry Roberts
Trades Union Congress representative to the American Federation of Labour
With: James Andrew Seddon
Succeeded by
Thomas Greenall and Ivor Gwynne
Preceded by
Enoch Edwards
President of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain
Succeeded by
Herbert Smith
Preceded by
John Robertson
President of the National Union of Scottish Mine Workers
Succeeded by
James Doonan