“A working-class hero is something to be…”

Posted by on July 8, 2011

 

Much to the embarrassment of the authorities, the case of Private Harold Spiers – the soldier who refused to fire on the Llanelli strikers – rapidly became a cause celebre in the British trade union and labour movement in the month after the shootings. The railwayworkers of Llanelli and Swansea expressed their admiration for his heroism and called on the nascent Labour Party to campaign for his release from custody.

 

…the colliers called 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 went on record to “record our admiration for Private Spiers for refusing to shoot…the courage displayed by him deserves the highest praise… we demand his immediate release.”

 

Ramsey MacDonald, the Labour MP for Aberavon, said he would pursue the case. Justice, the paper of the Social-Democratic Federation, opened a defence fund. In the left-wing newspaper Clarion a poem appeared 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.”

 

Spiers was emerging as a working-class hero. The authorities realised they had to put a stop to this: they were already on the defensive as far as the bungled military operation in Llanelli had gone – six people dead, many injured, the property of the Great Western Railway Co set ablaze. As John Edwards shows in his excellent book Remembrance of a Riot , some sort of deal was clearly struck, for when Spiers was at last court-martialled on Friday 22nd September – his defence lawyer paid for by Llanelli Trades Council – the army had dropped the charge of ‘desertion’, to be replaced by a charge of “absenting himself without leave” – a much less serious charge. Spiers served only fourteen days military imprisonment. Although, as I will show next week, the government and the army took very seriously the danger of mutiny by soldiers who were sent to suppress industrial disputes, they clearly decided that this case needed to be brushed under the carpet as quickly as possible. The last thing they needed while strikes and rebellion were spreading across the country was another ‘martyr’ – another campaigning focus for people’s anger.

 

Harold Spiers’ parents wrote a moving letter to the Llanelly Mercury thanking “the Llanelly people for their kindness towards our son” and for paying for his defence. “We are sure people that we had never heard of nor seen turned out to be the greatest and best of his friends.”

 

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