“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.” W.Kendall The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-1921 1969 p26 quoted Haynes 1984 p 101
“In August 1911… a general strike developed on the railways. During those days a dim spectre of revolution hung over Britain.”
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. The shops of the magistrates who brought in the troops were stormed and comprehensively looted. 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.