From LSHG Newsletter #42 (Summer 2011)
[The following is a compiled and edited version of several short pieces written by Tim Evans for the Llanelli Star about the aftermath of the 1911 Rail strike and uprisingm there, where troops used lethal fire. The story of the strike itself was told in earlier issues of this Newsletter - see here and here. Tim Evans will be speaking on 'Llanelli and the great railworkers strike of 1911' at Marxism 2011].
The Tunisian revolution has set off a chain reaction across the Middle East which hangs in the balance as I
write. Will the popular movement win a famous victory? Will the largely conscripted army swing behind the
people, or will it opt to protect the status quo, ushering in an era of repression, as happened in Chile in 1973? The common factor that links all this today to the clashes that took place in Llanelli one hundred years ago is this: class struggle.
By 1911 British capitalism was restructuring itself. A prolonged world economic upswing was drawing to a close. The loss of Britain’s privileged imperial position and falling industrial productivity forced its ruling class, in order to protect profits, to rationalise the industrial base and cut back on the concessions that had been won by British workers. The ‘new unionism’ of the late 1880s and early 1890s was a direct response to this, and the class movement of 1910-1914 was a qualitative deepening of the process.
By 1911 the police had taken over most of the overseeing of popular protest. But in times of crisis the government still retained the military option.
Using the army against strikers during the industrial rebellions of 1910-14 was always going to be a risky business for our rulers. Earlier clashes had revealed the problems in militarily suppressing protest. In the 1819 Peterloo massacre in Manchester, cavalry charged into a crowd calling for parliamentary reform and an extension of the vote, killing 15 and injuring 700. Peterloo was an embarrassment for the government and the military, “the defining moment of its age”, according to historian Robert Poole.
In the long term Peterloo boosted the reform movement, although, interestingly, the government’s first instinct was to crack down on similar protests. In the aftermath of the killings they rushed through the so-called ‘Six Acts’, labelling any meeting for radical reform an “overt act of treasonable conspiracy”.
With the growth of industry and the factory system, using the military to suppress protest became more problematic. Modes of protest were likewise transformed. The food riot and the direct action of small, often clandestine groups like the Rebecca rioters gave way to mass action, mass strikes, the mass picket and demonstrations.
Clearly the old tactics of killing, transporting and executing would no longer work against an urban working class. There was the danger that killing protestors might transform a movement calling for reforms into one calling for revolution. The class divide also existed in the army, with officers drawn from the landed aristocracy. Ordinary soldiers, from the working class, often endured harsh regimes of punishment and flogging. There was always the fear they would identify with the people they had been sent to suppress.
Harold Spiers, a private in the Worcestershire Regiment, came from a family proud of the fact that all its men had been soldiers. He enlisted in July 1909 at the age of 20. In two years’ time he would be arrested and placed under military guard at Llanelli for refusing to shoot a man sitting on a garden wall.
In his statement to police, he said he had been in the firing party ordered to “defend the railway line against rioters”. He was ordered by his commanding officer: “You see that man on the wall. Shoot him.” He refused to obey the order, saying he would not shoot somebody “in cold blood”. Had the man thrown a brick or a bottle at him, it would have been different, he said. He had been arrested, and after the soldiers had retreated to the railway station he was held there in custody, but during the chaos of an explosion and fire had managed to escape.
He then walked nearly 90 miles, eating apples, nuts and blackberries on the way, to New Radnor on the English border, where he was discovered by Sergeant Evans on Monday, August 21. He admitted that he was a deserter from the army, and recounted the remarkable events that had taken place the previous Saturday in Llanelli. He was handed over to the military authorities and taken to Cardiff Barracks, where he was accused of “desertion whilst in aid of the civil powers” and remanded for a district court martial.
Meanwhile, excited news of the soldier who had refused to fire on workers was spreading. The case became a cause célèbre in the British trade union and labour movement in the month after the shootings. The railway workers of Llanelli and Swansea expressed their admiration for his heroism and called on the nascent Labour Party to campaign for his release.
The Cambrian colliers (who in 1910 had battled the police at Tonypandy) passed a resolution congratulating Spiers for his courageous stand. Penygraig Independent Labour Party recorded “our admiration for Private Spiers for refusing to shoot...we demand his immediate release”.
Ramsey MacDonald, Labour MP for Aberavon, said he would pursue the case. Justice, the paper of the Social Democratic Federation, opened a defence fund. The left wing paper Clarion published a poem called The Great Refusal of Harold Spiers—Hero which contained the lines:
’Shoot straight, boys!’ the officer shouted
The ringleader, there is your man,
These strikers deserve to be routed,
’Twas well till their trouble began...
So shoot for old England, your mother,
Deserters the world will deride’
He answered ‘I shoot not my brother’
And stood with his gun at his side.
The authorities realised they had to put a stop to this: they were already on the defensive after Llanelli—six people dead, many injured, Great Western Railway property set ablaze. As John Edwards shows in Remembrance of a Riot, some sort of deal was clearly struck, for when Spiers was at last court-martialled—his defence paid for by Llanelli Trades Council—the charge of ‘desertion’ had been replaced by ‘absenting himself without leave’—a much less serious charge. Spiers served only fourteen days.
Although the government and army took very seriously the danger of mutiny by soldiers sent to suppress industrial disputes, they clearly decided that this case needed to be brushed under the carpet as quickly as possible. The last thingthey needed while strikes and rebellion were spreading was another campaigning focus for people’s anger.
Determined efforts were made by the government to bury the case. In reply to a question about the fate of the soldier who refused to fire at Llanelli, Colonel JEB Seely, undersecretary of state at the War Office, twice denied that he existed. But early in 1912 further events thrust the case back under the spotlight.
At Aldershot barracks in 1912 a railway worker named Fred Crowsley distributed a leaflet with the headline:
‘HALT! ATTENTION! Open Letter to British Soldiers.’
YOU ARE WORKING MEN’s SONS. When WE go on Strike to better our lot, which is the lot also of YOUR FATHERS, MOTHERS, BROTHERS, and SISTERS, YOU are called upon by your officers to MURDER US. DON’T DO IT!...The Idle Rich Class, who own and order you about, own and order us about also. They and their friends own the land and means of life of Britain…When WE kick, they order YOU to MURDER us. When YOU kick, YOU get courtmartialed and cells. YOUR fight is OUR fight...
Crowsley was arrested and the leaflet confiscated, but then TheIndustrial Syndicalist reprinted it in full. The chair of the paper’s publishing board, Tom Mann, the paper’s manager and two printers were arrested under the Incitement to Mutiny Act, prompting Labour MP Keir Hardie to refer in the Commons to “the Llanelly case…when two men who were not participating in what happened and when there was no riot in any legal sense of the word, were shot dead...in giving advice to the soldiers not to shoot their brethren”.
Mann got six months’ imprisonment. The case attracted much publicity, and after seven weeks of militant campaigning by the labour movement he was released. In September 1912 the TUC demanded a public enquiry into police and army excesses at Llanelli and at Liverpool, where another two men had been shot dead during the transport strikes.
The 1911 strike wave was a class response to economic, industrial and political pressures and disappointed hopes. The Liberal Government had heavily defeated the Tories, having been elected in 1906 on the promise of widespread reforms, including a campaign against “landlords, brewers, peers and monopolists”, launching schemes for national insurance and old age pensions. 29 MPs from the nascent Labour Party had also been sent to Parliament, carrying the hopes of many workers. But Labour in Parliament was a huge disappointment, tail-ending the Liberals on most issues. Wages did not increase, nor did the position of the mass of workers improve. In fact, by 1911 things were getting worse.
The 1911 strikes were for better pay but also a protest against Capital’s new strategy of incorporating labour movement and union leaders. The direct, uncompromising nature of the struggles was partly because they were not contained within existing union organisation. They were a revolt on two fronts, against employers and state on the one hand but against the established union and Labour Party 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. Direct action seemed to many workers the way forward. The ideas of revolutionaries, syndicalists like Tom Mann and Ben Tillett— the latter was the star speaker at the Llanelli demonstration against the shootings—suddenly resonated for many.
Mann and Tillet were part of an international revolutionary movement. Revolutionary syndicalism swept many parts of Europe, the USA, Latin America and Australia between the 1890s and the 1920s. Its aim was to overthrow capitalism through industrial class struggle and build a new socialistic order in which workers would be in control. Change would come neither through parliamentary pressure nor a political insurrection leading to state socialism, but would be achieved through direct action and the general strike, winning workers’ control over the economy and society.
A hundred years later the blatant attempts to stuff the pockets of the bankers while driving the poor into deeper poverty is causing a worldwide class reaction that may yet see a revival of the spirit of Britain 1911.
[Tim Evans continues with a discussion of syndicalism and of why Llanelli 1911 has been largely “airbrushed from history” below]
Working for the Revolution [from Llanelli Star #17]
The question of syndicalism is central to understanding what went on in Llanelli in August 1911. Not because there were specific syndicalists who were active in Llanelli during the strike, but because for a few brief
years, syndicalism cut with the grain of the experience of many workers, not just in Wales but across Great Britain and, indeed, the world. The great British class confrontations of this time, whether in Llanelli, Liverpool or Hull, are classic revolutionary syndicalist scenarios.
The French word syndicalisme simply means trade unionism. But the syndicalists had a quite specific take on trade unions: they wanted to turn them into organising centres for class struggle and revolution. Syndicalists quite correctly saw the power which could be wielded by organised workers, fighting independently and for themselves. They also saw the tendency of the so-called ‘leaders’ of the labour movement, whether in parliament or the unions, to muzzle and deaden that movement’s fighting edge.
At its peak, British syndicalism influenced many. Sales of the Industrial Syndicalist Education League’s paper, The Syndicalist reached 20,000 in 1912 and two conferences organised by the paper represented 100,000 workers.
But there were weaknesses too. The syndicalists failed to create a political dimension, seeing their industrial strategy as all-encompassing, and distrusting ‘politics’. This meant that they could not engage with other radical movements such as the fight for women’s emancipation or the Irish struggles. Crucially, it meant they had not built up a network of activists who could co-ordinate resistance as world war approached.
But, for those all too brief years before the war, syndicalist scenarios were fought out across Britain. It is this which accounted for the influence of revolutionary syndicalism – not that workers read about and absorbed Marxist and anarchist theories, but that they found themselves engaged directly in class battles which proved the truth of those ideas and strategies.
Bob Holton, the historian of British syndicalism, and Deian Hopkin, who wrote the first serious assessment of Llanelli 1911 (and who will be speaking in Llanelli in August at the Railway Strike Forum) mention the phenomenon of “proto-syndicalism”. Workers on the mass picket or in the streets shared “the aspirations of syndicalism without articulating, or even being aware of, its theoretical framework” [Deian Hopkin, Welsh History Review 1983 p 511]. Workers learned from their own experience that the state was on the side of capital, that their leaders could not be relied upon and that solidarity and direct action worked. Could trade union consciousness become revolutionary?
What about the workers? [From Llanelli Star, # 18]
In the 1980s , when I first began to research the Llanelli strike and uprising, what struck me immediately was how few people had ever heard of it, considering the significance and high drama of the events. Why was this? Why was the story so invisible, so “hidden from history”?
In general terms, there has always been a tendency in the mass media to play down aspects of people’s experience which relates to collective work. Rarely will you see workers portrayed as powerful, as possessing a collective sense of class identity, or even as existing at all. Just think of the last time you saw somebody in Eastenders at work. They are all shopkeepers, bar staff, stallholders, car mechanics – your classic small businessmen and women – the petit bourgeoisie. In the soap world, nobody ever goes to work in a factory, an office, a school, a call centre, or in construction or transport (except for a few cabbies).
When TV news items seek for comment or opinion how often do they actually speak to workers themselves, or to their trade union representatives, except impossibly briefly? Over the past few months I have seen plenty of politicians, bosses and bankers talking about the necessity for cuts. But the number of workers and union leaders asked for their opinions I can count on the fingers of one hand.
Yet, even after the mass redundancies of the last three decades our trade unions still represent millions of people – they are the biggest voluntary organisations in Britain, into which thousands of people pour hours and hours of unpaid effort. The recent Trades Union Congress march in London brought half a million onto the streets, and was quite rightly widely reported and celebrated by many. But for most of the media most of the time the world of trade unionism is ignored, unless it is to do a hatchet-job on a ‘selfish’ strike!
As Marx pointed out, those who control the means of production also control the means of production of ideas. The media barons, from Northcliffe and Beaverbrook to Murdoch, have always been fabulously wealthy, and it is the ‘world-view’ of this ruling class which is projected onto our screens and newspapers. If working-class people appear on our screens at all it is as the crazed, dysfunctional families of the Jeremy Kyle Show. One could be forgiven for believing, on this showing, that the entire British working class was either morbidly obese, incestuous or chronically alcoholic!
Sir Alan Sugar, meanwhile, and the ghastly venture capitalists of Dragon’s Den are held up to us as awesome examples of dynamism and competitiveness that we should all strive to ape. In this topsy-turvey world, workers’ collective power doesn’t get a look-in.
Welsh Workers Writing Their Own History [From Llanelli Star # 19]
One of the reasons that events at Llanelli in 1911 have not been awarded their real historical significance is because there were not really the resources available at the time to analyse the events from a working-class perspective.
In his book on Llanelli 1911, Killing No Murder, Rob Griffiths argues that the labour movement in Wales in 1911 had neither the ‘class consciousness’ nor the resources ‘to produce and utilise its own history.’ Indeed, “the study and manufacture of Welsh history was only just beginning to be rescued from Celtic antiquarianism; and the first modern Welsh historians – products of Oxford University and the fledgling University of Wales – were Liberal, petty bourgeois and ‘Welsh Nationalist’ in their outlook and preoccupations.”
The term ‘Welsh Nationalist’ is meant here, I assume, not in the electoral sense but in the ideological, and it is true that even today the interpretation of the Llanelli events can take a nationalist turn, focussing on the English regiments and on Churchill’s role, while playing down the villainy of the local crachach such as Thomas Jones and the other two J.P.s who read the Riot Act – F.R.Nevill and Henry Wilkins.
Interestingly, too, the first march and rally to remember the two shot men (if you discount the one in September 1911) was initiated in 1981 not by the Labour party or a trade union, nor by Plaid, but by the short-lived Welsh Socialist Republican Movement – a group that attempted to marry socialist and Welsh nationalist ideas. Those wanting the events to be commemorated today often come from a perspective which is influenced by ‘left’ nationalism, however you might want to define that term.
I think Rob is rather sweeping in his rather down-beat assessment of the ‘class consciousness’ of the Welsh labour movement in 1911. Certain South Wales radicals, influenced by syndicalism, were attempting as early as 1908 to set up study groups. At Ruskin College, Oxford, the programme of working class education was supported by the South Wales Miners Federation. The college aimed at educating individuals to promote social reform ‘without class bias’ rather than the training of working class leaders for revolutionary class conflict, and the curriculum was therefore sharply orientated against marxist ideas. In 1908 radical students and staff went on strike in protest, later breaking away to form the Central Labour College and the ‘Plebs League’.
In January 1909 the South Wales Plebs League was set up, with the syndicalist miner Noah Ablett playing an important role. However, the Plebs were an activist rather than an academic network and Rob is probably correct that they were not in a position to produce “substantial accounts of...(the Welsh working class’s) own past written from a ‘class struggle’ perspective.”
A Deafening Silence [from Llanelli Star #20]
Last week I began to look at just why so few people know about the events which occurred in Llanelli in August 1911. These days the mass media pay very little attention to the history of workers’ self-organisation, or to anything which might reflect any sense of there being a “working class”. Especially since the collapse of the eastern bloc states from 1989 and the global turn to ‘free market’ economics, there has been, media-wise, a systematic ignoring of the ideas of “class” and “socialism”. It is only now, as the economic system lurches once more into crisis, that the contribution of Marx in explaining capitalism is beginning to be recognised once more.
But the deafening silence surrounding the Llanelli events cannot be explained away simply in these terms. After all, the strike and riots at Tonypandy a year earlier were also class struggles. The name of Tonypandy has been quite rightly seared into the consciousness of the Welsh working class. So why the lack of traction for the Llanelli story?
First of all we need to acknowledge a debt to those who kept the story alive – who ‘kept the flame burning’, who realised the importance of the events in Llanelli in 1911 and put pen to paper to keep this on record. The foremost of these are: Deian Hopkin, John Edwards and Robert Griffiths, all of whom will be speaking at the Rail Strike Round Table Forum in Glenalla Hall on Thursday 18 August this year, during the centenary commemorations.
Deian Hopkin’s essay, published in the Welsh History Review of 1983, was the first attempt by an historian to focus exclusively on “The Llanelli Riots, 1911”. In it Deian stresses the strange silence around the Llanelli events: “...the memory faded and all but disappeared. Occasionally, historians have resurrected the events to illustrate...the period of profound industrial unrest before 1914, but Llanelli itself became remarkably reticent about this dazzling moment in its otherwise uneventful history.”
John Edwards agrees that “the story of the riots is largely untold, often misrepresented by historians, and almost completely unknown to the people of Llanelli...the town...has suffered a kind of corporate amnesia.” Robert Griffiths too states that: "the traumatic killings in Llanelli were rarely if ever recalled by any section of the Welsh labour movement ...The graves of John John and Leonard Worsell were allowed to fall into disrepair, the inscriptions on their headstones to fade and crumble.” Why did the name of Tonypandy become synonymous with Welsh class struggle while the arguably more serious events at Llanelli a year later became airbrushed from history?
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