The Great Unrest and a Welsh town

Issue: 131

Tim Evans

The trade union leaders, almost to a man, deplored it, the government viewed it with alarm, the Independent Labour Party regretted this untoward disregard for the universal panacea of the ballot box, the Social Democratic Federation asked, “Can anything be more foolish, more harmful, more…unsocial than a strike”; yet disregarding everything, encouraged only by a small minority of syndicalist leaders, the great strike wave rolled on, threatening to sweep everything away before it.1

In August 1911…a general strike developed on the railways. During those days a dim spectre of revolution hung over Britain.2

The key confrontation of Britain’s first national railway strike—for better pay and an end to an unfair arbitration system—occurred on Saturday 19 August 1911 in Llanelli, a tinplate-producing town in south west Wales. The strike was part of one of the longest waves of sustained industrial rebellion in British working class history—the “Great Unrest” of 1910 to 1914. Unofficial rail strikes in Manchester and Liverpool spread elsewhere until the union leaders were forced to call a national stoppage. This hit the whole transport network: south Wales, because of its coal, tinplate and steel production and transport links to an insurgent Ireland, was a crucial area for British capitalism. In Llanelli mass picketing brought all rail traffic to a halt. Soldiers were drafted in as tinplate and other workers came onto the streets in solidarity, joining crowds of people from the railway and dockside communities. As strikers attempted physically to prevent a train passing through, soldiers of the Worcester regiment opened fire, killing two men and wounding others.

Instead of being cowed by the carnage, the workers’ districts rose up in anger. Despite accusations of purposeless rampaging by “the mob”, there was a high degree of purpose and direction in the targets attacked. A magistrate who brought in the troops saw his shop looted and arson attacks made on two of his farms. Another magistrate’s shop had its windows smashed. A crowd of 500 attacked the police station where a scab engine driver was being held. Strikers and their supporters engaged in pitched battles with soldiers who tried to clear the streets at bayonet point. Many protesters received bayonet and baton wounds, avoiding hospital for fear of arrest. At the height of the disturbances the soldiers stood back and refused to engage, at one point penned in the railway station while crowds attacked it, smashing all the windows. For hours the authorities seemed paralysed, unable or unwilling to intervene as the trucks and sidings of the Great Western Railway Company were assailed, looted and torched, triggering an explosion which killed another four people. One soldier refused to fire on the crowd, was arrested, escaped from military custody and went on the run, raising the authorities’ fears of a wider mutiny.

These events occurred in a town not especially noted for militancy. Llanelli was not viewed as a potential flashpoint by the authorities. It was said that in 1911 political violence there had been unknown since Liberal Party supporters had lobbed a brick through the windows of the Conservative Club during the 1885 General Election campaign.3 Although the miners of nearby Trimsaran had been locked out nine months prior to the strike, with rioting in the village in January, Llanelli itself had not been affected by the wildcat strikes on the railways that had been breaking out elsewhere since the beginning of August. So sanguine had the authorities been that 15 local police officers from Llanelli had been sent to Tonypandy, to police the continuing unrest in the coalfields of the Cambrian Combine. And on Wednesday 9 August another 25 officers left to augment police numbers at Cardiff, where seafarers, dockers and transport workers had been on strike.

In Llanelli politics the Liberal Party was hegemonic, epitomised in the personage of W Llewelyn Williams, chair of the Baptists’ Union, barrister, scholar, historian, golf partner of David Lloyd George and the Liberal MP for Llanelli. When the House of Commons debated the shootings, he was nowhere to be found, citing illness as an excuse: the local press complained about his complete silence. In fact his first words on the subject were not uttered until 9 October 1911, when he blamed the uprising on “hooligans and casual labourers”. For the Llanelli establishment, this would be the pattern for the future. The inappropriately-named Tarian y Gweithiwr (The Worker’s Shield)—a Liberal paper—thundered that “[Llanelli] from now on…will not be known as a peaceful town, but as the abode of rioters, thieves and drunkards”.4 So terrified had the authorities been by events, the military so compromised by its mistakes and inept tactics, that attempts were first made to smear those who had fought back, focusing on the “shameful” rioting and sentencing those found guilty of looting to hard labour. This was followed by a determined campaign to blot out all memories of what had happened. People will have heard of the rioting at Tonypandy in 1910—quite justly seared into Welsh working class consciousness—but not of the arguably more serious battles at Llanelli a year later. The shootings were the subject of an official cover-up. Despite regular calls for a public inquiry and compensation for the families of the dead men, the government stonewalled all appeals. The authorities quite literally got away with murder.

Mass rebellions

In 1911 the continuing industrial insurgency was shaking the British ruling class to its core.5 The period from 1899 to 1907 had been a period of industrial peace unparalleled between 1891, when statistics started, and 1933. Many commentators believed that in British society the potential for continental-style revolutions had been neutered by the British trade union system and the “traditional common sense of the nation6“. The great wave of strikes blew all that away. Driven by rank and file workers, it swept aside a horrified union leadership, and was characterised by direct action, widespread industrial solidarity, community involvement and physical confrontation with the forces of the state. Its far-reaching effects went beyond the purely short-term economic: it was identified as a major precipitating factor in the ongoing breakdown of the Liberal consensus. Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, in their history of the Labour Party, point out that, “Labour’s final emergence from the cocoon of Liberalism owed nothing to its own efforts, or even to those of the left. It arose from the second, and far more serious alternative to Labourism, the ‘Labour Unrest’ of 1910-1914…[in which] the working class returned to the stage of history with a ferocity which terrified the Labour Party as much as the ruling class”.7 These convulsive struggles might have coalesced into a serious challenge to capitalism, had it not been for the outbreak of war. As it was they shaped working class politics for decades to come.

The strike wave was a class response to a nexus of economic, industrial and political pressures and dashed hopes. The Liberal government had been elected in 1906 on the promise of widespread reforms, in what was a landslide defeat for the Conservatives. It promised a campaign against “landlords, brewers, peers and monopolists”, as well as launching schemes for national insurance and old age pensions. At this time Labour was essentially a trade union sponsored appendage to the Liberal Party, having signed a secret electoral pact with the Liberals three years earlier. This was how it secured its first substantial representation in parliament. But voters were to be hugely disappointed. Wages did not increase, nor did the position of the mass of workers improve. In fact, over the next few years the opposite occurred.

British capitalism was centralising and restructuring itself to meet changing global circumstances. By 1910 a prolonged world economic upswing was drawing to a close. This period represented the peak of British imperialism’s power, which was now being challenged by Germany and America. The loss of Britain’s privileged position, and its falling rates of growth of industrial productivity, forced its ruling class to rationalise its industrial base and cut back on the concessions that had been won by organised workers. The New Unionism of the late 1880s and early 1890s had been a direct response to these new conditions and the class movement of 1910-14 was a qualitative deepening of the process.

The strikes were also, crucially, a protest against capital’s new strategy of incorporating labour and union leaders. Mike Haynes relates the direct and uncompromising nature of the struggles in part to the fact that they were not contained within the existing union organisation.8 They were a dual revolt, against employers on the one hand, and the established union leaderships and collective bargaining machinery on the other. The new strategies, especially the fundamental innovation of the period, the solidarity strike, were developing as ways of exerting maximum pressure by rank and file workers and excluding the leadership. The rising level of struggle created a sharp polarisation not only between workers in relation to their employers and the state, but also between workers and their official union leaderships.

Bob Holton contrasts the features of earlier periods of working class militancy, such as 1871-73 and 1889-91, with 1910-1914:

There is…a vivid contrast between the London dock strike of 1889, when dockers marched peacefully through the City of London to gain public sympathy, and the 1910 Welsh miners’ strike when miners clashed violently with civil power at Tonypandy and elsewhere… “the evangelistic organising campaigns of the dock strike period” as against the “mass rebellions” of the later explosion… The spirit of compromise fostered within collective bargaining mechanisms was being replaced by direct action.9

The strikes represented a militant challenge to the bosses, the mainstream leadership of the trade unions and the political system as a whole.

The culture of direct action was liberating. Sabotage and action against blacklegs, employers and magistrates developed within the context of what Haynes calls “a belligerent working class self-confidence”. The slogans and songs used during the course of strikes, free speech campaigns and other public demonstrations clearly express such a mood. In the Black Country strikes of 1913, “strikers marched from factory to factory singing with considerable intimidation what became their theme song ‘Hello, hello, here we are again’.”10 At Llanelli pickets battling police and the military sang the warlike Llanelli rugby song “Sosban Fach”, as did the crowd which ransacked and trashed the shop of one of the magistrates who had called in the troops.11 At the all-night mass picket which occupied the town’s level crossings, stopping all rail traffic, proceedings became a “carnival of the oppressed”, with not only songs and speeches but tap-dancing contests and a mock election.

With the arrival of the military at Llanelli railway station the mood changed to defiance. A soldier of the Worcester regiment said that after a warning shot was fired, “the crowd took no notice…and simply jeered and called out, ‘We don’t mind your shots’.”12 Strikers not only physically blocked the passage of moving trains or boarded them to argue with or attack scabs but also tore up track to make movement impossible, placing obstacles on the line and damaging telegraph systems. This was characteristic of the railway strike on a national level, where official recognition of spreading unofficial action was not enough to head off the “explosive” character of rank and file grievances in many strike centres. “The advice of local officials to remain calm was often rejected by the strikers, many of whom had…no experience of union membership and discipline…there developed many instances of industrial aggression and collective violence”.13 These included attacks on scab labour, particularly at signal boxes. At Portishead near Bristol 1,000 people attacked a signal box that was still working, with similar occurrences at Llanelli, where blacklegs were chased out of signal boxes and the windows smashed. Confrontation with soldiers took place at many other key points like Liverpool where another two men were shot dead as they attempted to free imprisoned rioters, and Chesterfield, where the station was set ablaze, and the West Yorkshire Regiment repeatedly attacked the crowd with bayonets.

The revolutionaries

The explosive character of the strike was in part an expression of the way in which in 1911 strike activity itself represented a radical challenge to the existing political system, and to the extremely restrictive limits of what constituted political activity in Edwardian Britain. As Haynes points out, at a time when playing street football was a major “crime” of working class youth14, the willingness of strikers to engage in street politics, to undertake mass picketing, or to march several miles at a moment’s notice to bring out another factory, constituted major defiance in the face of what was regarded as “acceptable” politics. For many workers this developed into a more conscious and coherent critique of the nature of the system itself. The strategy of independent direct action solved the problem of the cowardice of the conservative trade union leadership, and for many the ideological framework which contextualised and supported this was that of revolutionary syndicalism. This can be characterised as a series of distinctive social movements that existed in many parts of Europe, the USA, Latin America and Australia between the 1890s and the 1920s. In broad terms, syndicalism aimed to overthrow capitalism through revolutionary industrial class struggle and to build a new socialistic order free from economic or political oppression, in which workers would be in control. Change would come neither through parliamentary pressure nor political insurrection leading to state socialism, but would be achieved through direct action and the general strike leading to workers’ control. Rank and file trade union bodies would serve both as organisers of class warfare and as the nuclei of the post-revolutionary society.

The organised syndicalist presence in Britain was not negligible: it included internationally known industrial militants like Tom Mann and Guy Bowman, John Maclean in Scotland, In Wales Noah Ablett, Will Hay, Sam Mainwaring and AJCook, and in Ireland Jim Larkin and James Connolly. In 1912 the arrest, trial and six-month prison sentences handed out to Mann and Bowman under the Incitement to Mutiny Act made syndicalism a household word up and down the country. Sales of the Industrial Syndicalist Education League’s paper, the Syndicalist, reached 20,000 in 1912 and two conferences organised by the paper claimed to represent 100,000 workers. Syndicalism was rooted in the workplace, the picket line and the streets, tending to an “ouvrierism” which stressed an exclusive reliance on mass working class experience and action, rejecting “outside experts” and parliamentary intermediaries. Holton talks of “proto-syndicalist behaviour…forms of social action which lie between vague revolt and clear-cut revolutionary action”.15 Deian Hopkin takes up this idea, arguing that events at Llanelli showed many workers there sharing “the aspirations of syndicalism without articulating, or even being aware of, its theoretical framework”.16 Tens of thousands of workers learned from their own experience that the state was on the side of capital, that their own leaders could not be relied on and that solidarity and mass direct action worked. In Llanelli in 1911 class lines were sharply drawn, and the class role of the state’s armed bodies of men was posed particularly starkly. This is not to argue that all or even the majority of workers were somehow syndicalist, but that syndicalist ideas resonated with the daily experience of many.

Syndicalism on the railways

By 1890 south Wales had one of the most densely developed railway networks in the world. But this existed in a context of widespread poverty and hardship for workers. In his account of the Llanelli events, Remembrance of a Riot, John Edwards says that:

In 1911…almost a third of all adult males earned less than 25 shillings a week, about the absolute minimum required to keep a family and three children. Most workers worked 12 hours a day for this kind of money and their daily lives, apart from Sunday, consisted of going from bed to work, and from work to bed…even a small measure of income above the minimum made a striking difference to living standards.17

Although the railway companies were flourishing and their shareholders receiving very healthy dividends, their employees were less well looked after. Two thirds of the workforce worked for at least 60 hours a week over six days, with most of the others working 72 hours. Rob Griffiths, in his study of the 1911 strike, Killing No Murder, estimates that for this,

A porter, platelayer or general labourer at the Great Western Railway’s Llanelli station…would have been rewarded with 17s…a shunter would be entitled to 20s. Even the engine driver, upon whom so many lives depended, would earn little more than 28s a week—less than the average coalminer. From these miserable sums a total of 1s 2d would then be deducted for sick pay, pensions and widows’ and orphans’ funds—all administered by the company…the directors of the railway companies pointed out that employees benefited from such “indirect advantages” as free or cut-rate travel…and tips.18

It was dangerous work—between 1897 and 1907 some 5,238 railway employees had been killed and 146,767 injured in industrial accidents.19

Yet the amount of capital tied up in Britain’s growing railway network had increased from £860 million in 1890 to £1,229 million in 1905: total receipts from freight and passenger traffic had rocketed from £73 million to £250 million a year.20 In 1907, for example, the companies spent £30 million on wages while making £45 million in profits.21 In August 1911 the publication of the railway companies’ half-yearly financial reports showed that they were making record profits and handing out substantial dividends. On 10 August the Great Western Railway Company raised the dividend rate on its ordinary stock from 4 percent (already up from 3.5 percent in 1910) to 4.5 percent in the light of “buoyant” profits—an increase which on its own could have funded a 5 percent pay increase of one shilling a week for most GWR employees.22

The leaders of the rail unions—the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS), the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) and the General Railway Workers’ Union (GRWU)—had in 1907 accepted a scheme, heavily promoted by the Liberal MP for Caenarfon Boroughs, Lloyd George. The scheme established

several sectional boards in each [railway] company, each board to consider the wages and hours of the grades within its remit; should the workers’ and company’s representatives fail to agree, the matter would be referred to the company’s central conciliation board and then—if necessary—to outside arbitration. Agreements and arbitration verdicts would be binding for at least 12 months, with the overall scheme to run for an “experimental period” of seven years.23

The rail companies in return were not even obliged to accept the principle of trade union recognition. In the years immediately following their introduction, the conciliation boards became hugely unpopular, being recognised by railway workers for what they were, a mechanism intended to tip the balance of power firmly in the direction of the rail companies. So much were they hated that when the first, unofficial, walkouts took place in early August 1911, railway workers were striking not only for higher pay but for an end to the conciliation boards and the whole arbitration system.

Syndicalist railwaymen were present across Britain before the strike, including Sheffield, Manchester, Wakefield and Gateshead, the most prominent being Charles Watkins of Clay Cross and later Sheffield, a strong supporter of the Industrial Syndicalist Education League (ISEL), a national propaganda and activist organisation, and the Plebs League. In ISEL’s monthly journal, the Industrial Syndicalist, Watkins criticised the 1907 railway settlement for keeping wages down and made an explicitly syndicalist case for revolutionary change—not nationalisation but workers’ control, to be achieved by an aggressive policy of offensive industrial action, undermining the passivity of the trade union leaders by direct action and the taking of the union as well as the railway system under the control of rank and file workers.24 The experience of the 1911 strike boosted syndicalism on the railways. Dockers’ leader and quasi-syndicalist Ben Tillett spoke at a rally in Llanelli to protest against the shootings, and in 1913 the platform at the mass rally at Swansea to celebrate the second anniversary of the 1911 strike was dominated by syndicalists, notably Guy Bowman and George Hicks.

The “40 political cowards”

The Labour Party at this time was, as we have seen, a trade union pressure group closely allied with the Liberals. The major gain made by the formation of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) was organisationally to detach the trade union leaders from the Liberal Party: they now owed political allegiance to their own creation. Although in one sense this represented the direct entry of the trade unions into politics, it was also a retreat from trade unionism and from the belief that collective organisation could defend itself. For many of the trade union leaders who affiliated their organisations to the LRC, parliamentary activity became a substitute for trade unionism.

The turn by many workers to direct action was a response to the problems this posed. A delegate told the 1912 Trades Union Congress: “Let us be clear as to what syndicalism really is…a protest against the inaction of the Labour Party”.25 In Lenin’s wonderfully astringent prose, writing in 1907: “In Western Europe revolutionary syndicalism…was a direct and inevitable result of opportunism, reformism, and parliamentary cretinism… Syndicalism cannot help developing…as a reaction against this shameful conduct of ‘distinguished’ Social-Democrats”.26 Although the 1906 general election had sent 29 Labour MPs to parliament with 346,000 votes behind them,27 the Weekly Despatch of 10 March 1912 could say that the parliamentary Labour Party “has no effect on the matters most important to Labour; wages did not rise, the price of necessities of life increased… It is enough to state that [the Labour Party] has no influence on those vital issues.” Furthermore, “The fact is that the Labour representatives, from their own point of view, become demoralised when they enter parliament… Their friends in the constituencies who expect so many things from the Labour Party are disappointed… They realise, though, rather late, the Labour Party is but an appendage of the Liberal Party”.28 As the Liberal chief whip reported in 1910, “Throughout this period I was always able to count on the support of the Labour Party”.29

This tail-ending of the Liberals created widespread demoralisation among Labour supporters. Whether it was the House of Lords blocking Liberal social reforms, unemployment or the Insurance Act, Labour MPs took positions indistinguishable from or sometimes to the right of the Liberals. The Weekly Despatch of 10 March 1912 reported, “The Labour members…talk valiantly on platforms about their independence…but in the House itself they are as obedient as trained poodles”.30 A rank and file Labour activist wrote a poignant letter to the radical Labour MP George Lansbury: “We feel the most fearful disappointment, the kind of hopelessness that creeps over us after years of organising to get men into parliament only to be sold at every turn like oxen…if the 40 political cowards [Labour MPs] had the pluck of a mouse all might be different”.31 A syndicalist leaflet called on strikers, “Fight for yourselves… Leaders only want your votes; they will sell you [a reference to the outcome of the 1911 railway dispute]. They lie, parliament lies and will not help you, but is trying to sell you”.32 These sentiments had real resonance, and fed the growth of direct action.

Parliamentary socialists?

On the eve of the Labour Unrest the left consisted of three main organisations: the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) which became the Labour Party. The oldest and most radical was the SDF—a “Marxist” organisation but an extreme form of the arid and dogmatic Marxism of the main parties of the Second International embodied by Karl Kautsky and mediated in Britain by the foibles of its founder HM Hyndman. It was incurably sectarian and ignored the value of trade union activity. Having said this, it had survived a number of breakaways—including that in 1903 of the Socialist Labour Party,33 which played a significant part in the development of syndicalist ideas among industrial militants, particularly in Scotland, despite its even more profound sectarianism—and in 1909 had a membership of over 10,000. The more moderate ILP had been founded in 1893 and now had some 30,000 members. Although formally socialist, its leaders had always been ready to “subordinate their socialism to the task of winning seats in parliament”.34 They did not regard themselves as a Marxist organisation and contained a wide spread of socialist opinion. George Lansbury, who had an excellent record campaigning for workers’ rights, for example, was a Christian Socialist bitterly opposed to Marxism. Their electoralism led them to act as the midwife to the founding of the Labour Representation Committee in 1901. As we have seen, a parliamentary Labour Party became viable after the 1906 elections in which the LRC won 29 seats.

Although there were important differences between these parties, they were all focused primarily on winning seats in parliamentary and local government elections. Not only were they ideologically committed to parliamentary methods, but their structures had developed to support this. This meant that they were ill equipped to respond to a strike wave which was essentially extra-parliamentary and whose militants denounced parliament as a sham. The parties were “blind to working class actions such as strikes, a politically ‘disruptive’ activity to which they were either indifferent or opposed”.35 With a largely middle class membership capable of quite anti working class sentiment, they were a part of the labour movement but they did not organise within it. The result was that the left parties entered the strike wave without any organisation capable of capitalising on the revolt. It was out of this failure that dissatisfaction with the lib-Lab policies of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) began to crystallise, together with an awakening among sections of the SDF and ILP of the need for a more determined struggle for socialist objectives. In 1911 a merger of the SDF with a number of ILP branches and Clarion Scout groups led to the official launch of the British Socialist Party (BSP) in January 1912.

The unofficial character of the rebellion of 1910-14 struck at the heart of the carefully constructed alliances on which the Labour Party was based. As Haynes points out, “MPs found themselves faced with the choice of defending the officials whose unions paid them or supporting the actions of the workers whose support they rhetorically invoked.” Although Keir Hardie declared, “Syndicalism is the direct outcome of the apathy and indifference of this House towards working class questions, and I rejoice at the growth of syndicalism”, his was a solitary voice, and many of the current or former union leaders among the Labour Party MPs remained silent. Worse was to come. In 1911 Arthur Henderson, Leader of the Labour Party from 1908-1910, together with other senior Labour MPs, proposed a parliamentary bill to make strikes illegal without 30 days notice. Any worker who went on strike illegally would be fined between £2 and £10 for every day or part of a day they were on strike (at a time when the average weekly wage was £1). Phillip Snowden, elected as Labour MP for Blackburn in 1906 and known as the “English Robespierre” for his radicalism, came out against all strikes and won an accolade from the Wolverhampton Express just as the strike wave in the Midlands was building up momentum: “We are quite at one with Mr Snowden in his condemnation of syndicalism and the general strike”.36 The role of the PLP as a bulwark against revolt and revolution was made explicit by Lloyd George. “Socialism”, he said, meaning the Labour Party, would destroy syndicalism. “One microbe can be trusted to kill another, and the microbe of socialism, which may be a very beneficient one, does at any rate keep guard upon the other, which is a very dangerous and perilous one. I have, therefore, no real fear of the syndicalist…the best policeman for the syndicalist is the socialist”.37

Blood on the tracks

In Llanelli the funerals of the shot men were huge affairs, with thousands turning out to pay their respects, and many factories closed as the workers poured onto the streets. On Sunday 10 September the town saw a massive working class demonstration to protest against the use of the military, at which the main, black-edged banner, which had also been carried in a London demonstration, declared that the workers, like others in Britain, had been killed in the interests of capitalism. A crowd of between 5,000 and 10,000 gathered in the town centre—not bad for a town of less than 32,000. In September the impact of the uprising in the local community was reflected in the wave of school strikes, where children from Bigyn, New Dock, Lakefield and Old Road schools walked out and called on others to join them. Even the newspaper boys went on strike. In November a mass meeting held the town’s magistrates responsible for the deaths, condemned the use of troops and called for a public inquiry. The Swansea railwaymen and the miners of the Cambrian Combine passed resolutions in support of the soldier who had refused to fire on the crowd and was awaiting court martial. Yet despite the resonance in many sections of the working class, socialists in the town and elsewhere failed to make the shootings an issue around which the left could unite. There had been an ILP branch in the town from 1906, which had, with little trade union support, managed to achieve a respectable vote of nearly 13 percent in the second general election in 1910, with the radical Labour MP George Lansbury speaking at a Llanelli ILP meeting in May 1911. Yet the efforts of the BSP and socialist Victor Grayson, ILP MP for Colne Valley from 1907 to 1910, to set up a branch in Llanelli in the autumn of 1911 were unsuccessful. Candidates at two by-elections in 1912 stood against the shootings but failed to gain credible votes around the issue. In one, the independent socialist candidate Frank Vivian got 149 votes, against the sitting MP’s 3,836.

Although initially some court appearances in Llanelli of individuals charged with riot or looting were attended by noisy crowds cheering the defendants, gradually the continuing official denunciations of rioting and particularly looting began to have their effect. In the absence of an organisation on the ground which was willing and able to counter the “official” version of events, and argue the case for the uprising, Liberal orthodoxy prevailed. Although the Liberals nationally were in long-term electoral decline, this did not happen more quickly in Llanelli than elsewhere. And, as we have seen, despite Keir Hardie’s criticisms of Churchill’s use of troops, in speeches and in his pamphlet Killing No Murder, the rapid growth of militancy scared the living daylights out of most Labour MPs. The dominant narrative in Llanelli became the bourgeois counter-offensive, in which the Liberals joined forces with the chapels and the newspapers first to smear and then to expunge any memory of independent working class action.

The chapel, despite the decline of the Welsh Methodist revival movement of 1904-5, still had influence among older workers. Based fundamentally on the vested interests of property, it saw militant trade unionism as a threat, and as the organisational expression of the Liberal Party in south Wales it denounced movements towards an independent working class politics. The Free Church Council of Llanelli was quick to denounce the “riotous behaviour that brought such a cloud of dishonour on the good name of our town”. The Llanelly Guardian talked of “a howling, reckless, lawless mob bent on riot, destruction and plunder.”.38 The attitude of the Liberal Party can be seen in the attitude of the MP W Llewelyn Williams, who condemned the rioters as “casual labourers and hooligans”.

As for the Labour Party, it faced both ways. Largely irrelevant to the progress of the strikes on a national level, party leader Ramsay MacDonald could say in 1912, “If we had been consulted first of all we should have advised the [strikers] to begin with parliamentary action, both on the floor of the House of Commons, and in ministers’ private rooms.” ILP leader Bruce Glasier called striking “culpable, incomprehensible fatuity”, and the May 1912 issue of the ILP’s journal Socialist Review described strikes as “an apocalypse” and supporters of direct action as “mentally defective”!39

Beyond electoral politics

Yet in the events at Llanelli can be seen aspects of the Great Unrest which went beyond the limits of electoralism, pointing the way towards an insurrectionary challenge both to state power and to the inertia of the reformist leadership in the trade unions and the Labour Party. Two things in Llanelli in particular stand out: solidarity action by other workers and the support of the community in the working class districts. The leading role of the tinplate workers at Llanelli has already been mentioned. The Liberal Party’s support for a reduction in US import tariffs meant that politically it retained the support of many tinplate workers in south Wales. Nevertheless, once the railway workers walked out on Thursday 17 August, the tinplate workers—the foremost industry of the town—came out on the streets in numbers. There were only 500 railway workers in Llanelli: yet over the next two days the mass picket numbered ten times as many. Speeches of solidarity were delivered on the all-night picket from the tinplate workers: they were seen as the most militant in their confrontations with the civil authority. At the height of the confrontation a telegram from the military to the Home Office stated, “The trouble [at Llanelli] comes from the tinplaters, not the railwaymen.” One of the shot men—John John, who was said to have bared his chest and dared the soldiers to fire—was a tinplate worker at Morewood’s mills. The tinplate industry was expanding in Llanelli: new mills were opening in 1911. On average, the tinplate worker’s wage was double that of the railway worker.

Haynes stresses the importance of the “changing consciousness” of this period, and says: “For contemporaries the most notable aspect of the explosion of consciousness was the sympathetic strike.” There was a “new sense of confidence spreading through informal channels…[particularly benefiting] those workers in parts of industry which had never been able to strike before. Here the victories of the strong gave new courage to the weak”.40 Haynes shows that the average length of strikes in Britain began to fall in this period, especially in the very smallest disputes, where the falls were most dramatic, indicating quicker victories. This registers not just a change in workers’ attitudes but also a fall in employer confidence.

What were being developed in places like Llanelli were high profile, high visibility actions that sustained the militancy and gave power to rank and file workers and their supporters, creating a stronger unity than before. Haynes describes the way this was done: “Mass picketing was commonplace, daily strike meetings, frequent demonstrations led by brass bands in a carnival atmosphere and often directed against specific targets.” On the streets of Llanelli, as elsewhere, resistance was led by the rank and file. It was from the start the mass picket at the railway crossings that determined the ability of the Great Western Railway Company to run trains. The authority even of the joint union railway strike committee, meeting in Copperworks School, was superseded by that of militants on the ground. The core strikers were railway workers, but others involved in the action—tinplate workers and others—were not. Even on the Friday night the chairman of the strike committee appealed unsuccessfully to the mass picket to let trains through. Democratic control was being thrashed out through the process of confrontation with the railway company and the armed forces of the state. As solidarity action extended, bringing in protagonists not employed on the railway, control passed from the hierarchy of the railway strike committee to the activists on the street.

The “official” account of the uprising, in the newspapers and on the pulpits, spoke of a mindless drunken rampaging mob. But what is clear is that, even more so in Llanelli than elsewhere, the targets for retribution were firmly associated with the civil power. This was not “anarchy”: informal groupings were evidently able to decide on a course of collective action, besieging the military in the railway station, storming the police station and attacking the property of the Great Western Railway Company and the magistrates. Clearly decisions were being made at street level, perhaps utilising the “informal channels” Haynes talks about, and attempting to escalate the conflict. For example, a group of young men attempted unsuccessfully to break into the Volunteers Armoury in the Markets area on the Saturday evening: in a number of other British towns Territorial Army weapons were removed for fear they would be turned on regular troops.41 As the situation polarised, the branch-level union officers were pressurised into attempting to limit the uprising. John Bevan, chairman of the Swansea Branch of the Associated Society of Railway Servants and leader of the strike in Llanelli, was persuaded to intervene after the shootings to dissuade the miners of the Gwendraeth and Amman Valleys from coming to Llanelli in support of the railway workers.42

Another factor that augmented the control of informal groupings and strengthened the insurgency was the support of the working class communities. Solidarity with the railway workers came not only from the tinplaters and miners but also from the communities of Glanymor and Tyisha around the railway and the docks. Haynes argues that reactions to strikes in this period very often became community reactions not just because strikers came from those communities but because community issues, such as rent strikes, often linked into industrial struggle. This is what fed the dynamic of the uprisings in Tonypandy, Hull and Liverpool. Strikers often assisted the process by taking their demands into the communities, holding house to house collections and evening meetings, involving those not on strike, other workers, women at home and schoolchildren. When the state reacted with violence “this only served to intensify solidarity against what was seen as a hostile force whether represented on the ground by troops or the police”.43 In Llanelli this solidarity had a memorable effect: a soldier—private Harold Spiers—refused to fire on the crowd. The initial charge against him, of “desertion while in aid of the civil powers”, was commuted to one of going “absent without leave”, and he served only 14 days military imprisonment.


The consequences of the railway strike in immediate industrial terms were disappointing. The uprising in Llanelli terrified the union leaderships and half an hour before the explosion in the railway sidings on 19 August the strike was called off by union leaders after government mediation. All grievances were to be brought forward to a Royal Commission: in the meantime no wage increases were to be offered and the hated Conciliation Boards were to remain intact. This angered many railwaymen, and areas like Manchester and Newcastle stayed out on strike. Even after a general return to work, dissatisfaction with the settlement continued: the syndicalist critique of conciliatory trade unionism was vindicated by the manner of the settlement.

Militancy continued, as did the growth of support for syndicalism on the railways. Swansea and 101 other ASRS branches unsuccessfully called for a special general meeting to discuss the actions of its officials, and ASLEF branches in Swansea and Llanelli were among those censuring their union’s executive.44 At the same time joint action by different grades of railwaymen at rank and file level stimulated the movement towards industrial trade unionism as a means of maximising trade union strength. Syndicalist pressure for one union of railway workers played an important part in the foundation of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) early in 1913 as an amalgamation of the ASRS and several smaller unions. It was also out of the struggles of 1911 that the Triple Alliance of miners, railwaymen and transport workers came together in an attempt to maximise union power.

Rob Griffiths traces some of the aftershocks of the uprising and the development of the political consciousness of its protagonists. In November 1913 when Dublin transport workers, led by Jim Larkin, were locked out by their employers, Llanelli railwaymen took action alongside workers in Liverpool, Birmingham and Yorkshire in support of the Irish workers and in protest at the inactivity of the British Trades Union Congress. On 7 November driver George James was suspended and then sacked at Llanelli for refusing to drive a train laden with Dublin cargo. A few days later his colleague driver Reynolds took action in solidarity with James and was also dismissed. A member of the NUR executive warned the press: “Llanelly is the one district in South Wales where we have had the most trouble recently. The men there are the most advanced in our ranks, and some of them would strike on the slightest pretext.” Official and unofficial strikes spread across South Wales, the action winning complete reinstatement for both men. 45

The political failure of the militants of 1910-14 to mount a political challenge which could oppose the drive to war in 1914 has been widely discussed. The syndicalist ambiguity about politics, and the orientation of its leadership upon a purely industrial militancy meant that they were unable to fuse this together with other political struggles of the time, for example the rebellion in Ireland and the fight for women’s suffrage. Nor, despite the opposition to the war of individual syndicalists like Tom Mann, had they built up a network of people who, in 1914, could launch political strikes or refuse to handle war-related goods. But in a sense this is to criticise the syndicalists for not being Bolsheviks. Haynes argues that the problem with looking around at groups and individuals at this time to find the “origins of British Bolshevism” is that it claims both too much
and too little:

It claims too much in the sense that no one had found the model of a revolutionary political party that could steer between the twin dangers of sectarianism and simple liquidation into the parliamentary activities of the ILP and the Labour Party. It claims too little in the sense that it obscures what Bob Holton has called “an indigenous dynamic” that was leading a whole series of diverse rank and file elements towards the need for a political party along the lines of that created by the Bolsheviks in Russia.46

The First World War and the Russian Revolution acted as a catalyst to cause these elements to fuse together. But this should not prevent us from recognising the importance of the militancy of 1910-14 in creating the elements in the first place. It was this, together with the growing revulsion against the war, which created the platform for the next period of revolt in 1919. This took British workers beyond the limits of 1910-14 into being for a time part of a general European revolutionary wave.


1: Kendall, 1969, p26.

2: Trotsky, 1974, p8.

3: Griffiths, 2009, p41.

4: Tarian y Gweithiwr, quoted in Griffiths, 2009, p55.

5: Not just the British ruling class. From 1907 to 1913 many countries, including Spain, Sweden, Argentina, France, Ireland and America, saw industrial rebellions.

6: A Clay, quoted in Holton, 1976, p73.

7: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p47.

8: Haynes, 1984, p93.

9: Holton, 1976, pp73-74.

10: Wolverhampton Express and Star, 30 June 1913, quoted in Haynes, 1984, p93.

11: This folk song became the song of the Scarlets, Llanelli’s rugby team. Sosban Fach-Little Saucepan-refers to the tinplate manufacturing which was the town’s main industry. One of the verses, which refers to “Little Dai the soldier, with his shirt-tail hanging out”, is a direct reference to the shootings and the riot.

12: Griffiths, 2009, p48.

13: Holton, 1976, p104.

14: In 1911, 132 out of 605 children in court for non-indictable offences were there for playing street football-Haynes, 1984, p114.

15: Holton, 1976, pp76-77.

16: Hopkin, 1983, p511.

17: Edwards, 1988, p20.

18: Griffiths, 2009, p10.

19: Figures on pay, working hours and accidents were collected by the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants in its Green Book, 1907. Quoted in Griffiths, 2009, p10.

20: Griffiths 2009, p10.

21: Griffiths, 2009, p10.

22: South Wales Daily News, 11 August 1911-quoted in Griffiths, 2009, pp29-30.

23: Griffiths, 2009, p14.

24: Holton, 1976, p107.

25: Quoted in Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p47.

26: Lenin, 1962, p166.

27: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p37.

28: Weekly Despatch, 10 March 1912, quoted in Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p48.

29: Quoted in Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p43.

30: Weekly Despatch 10 March 1912-quoted in Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p43.

31: CG Rowe to Lansbury, quoted in Holton, 1976, p184.

32: Times, 8 March 1912, quoted in Holton, 1976, p116.

33: What makes the SLP important is the fact that it, alone among the political groups, had a serious industrial orientation. Haynes points out that at the Singer factory on the Clyde in 1911 it briefly held perhaps 1,500 out of 10,000 workers in its trade union organisation.

34: Haynes, 1984, p102.

35: Haynes, 1984, p104.

36: Quoted in Haynes, 1984, p106.

37: Quoted in Haynes, 1984, p106.

38: The spelling “Llanelly” was an anglicised form used until 1965.

39: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p49.

40: Haynes, 1984, p97.

41: Haynes, 1984, p99.

42: Edwards, 1988, p79.

43: Haynes, 1984, p98.

44: Griffiths, 2009, p82.

45: Griffiths, 2009, p97.

46: Haynes, 1984, p110.


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Griffiths, Robert, 2009, Killing No Murder (Manifesto Press).

Haynes, Mike, 1984 “The British Working Class in Revolt: 1910-1914”, International Socialism 22 (winter).

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Hopkin, Deian, 1983, “The Llanelli Riots, 1911”, Welsh History Review, volume 11, number 4 (University of Wales Press),

Kendall, Walter, 1969, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 19001921 (Littlehampton Books).

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