On Tuesday 16 August, BBC Wales premiered a new documentary, presented by Llanelli’s Huw Edwards, on the events of the Llanelli Strike.
You can watch this on BBC iPlayer here.
Depicted, are speakers in the Spring Gardens, Llanelli, during the 75th. Anniversary of the 1911 Llanelli Railway Strike. They were the Llanelli MP, The Rt.Hon. Denzil Davies MP., Assistant General Secretaries of the Railway Trade Union,Aslef & NUR(RMT), And Joe Jones, Chairman of the 1911 Llanelli Strike Committee, at the time
Below, with the Aslef Banner, is myself, with Black hair, and moustache, along with other Railway Colleagues.
Last Wednesday I was privileged to attend, with other members of the 1911 Committee, Copperworks Infant Nursery School’s musical extravaganza – A Trip Down Memory Lane – an historical journey, through the sights and sounds of Copperworks School and the local area through the years. Mrs Sherlock and her staff had obviously put hours of hard work into this, as had the children, who threw themselves into the performance with gusto.
The musical pieces, such as ‘Cosher Bailey’ took me back to my own childhood, and there was a heart-rending 3-ply tissue re-working of Max Boyce’s Duw it’s Hard. But especially gripping was the children’s portrayal of the rail strike and the shooting of John John and Leonard Worsell. Despite the youth of the performers, the strike and its awful conclusion was sensitively but clearly portrayed, and I was hugely impressed, as well as greatly entertained.
Copperworks School has a long and proud history. Originally built by the philanthropic capitalist Richard Nevill for the children of those employed at the Copper works and the nearby collieries at Caemaen and Box, the school was at the heart of the local industry that serviced the British empire. It took seriously its mission to educate the local community.
It was ahead of its time, even extending itself into adult education. The Copper works had its own dock and built its own ships and the legendary Mr John E. Jones, headteacher from 1863 to 1893, held classes in navigation for the mariners.
In August 1911 of course Copperworks School was the storm centre of the railway strike. Not only did the joint union strike committee meet regularly there, but it was there that the crisis meetings between the strikers, the railway company, the magistrates and the police and military took place. It was at the school that the strikers were meeting when the soldiers managed to push the train through on Saturday afternoon, causing the meeting to break up in uproar.
It was heartening to see local teachers and children so aware of their school’s history – a tribute to how history (a declining subject, or so we are told) can be brought to life with a bit of creativity and imagination. It was also inspiring to see a school which is still so clearly a vibrant and central part of its local community.
Many other schools and colleges have taken seriously the centenary of the railway strike. If your school or college has put on any activities, please contact me on this website’s comments page, or at firstname.lastname@example.org or via the Llanelli Star, with details.
Commemorating 100 Years
Remembrance of a Riot
A Musical Drama
Inspired by John Edwards
Lyrics & Music by Dramaturge
Keira Spencer and Luke Spencer Christopher J Rees
A Community Theatre Production produced by
Llanelli Stage Company, with members from Llanelli Musical Players and Llanelli Youth Theatre, in a concert version of a new musical drama, retell the story of the Llanelli Railway Strike Riots of 1911.
Hall Street Methodist Church
Saturday August 20th 2011
The week from Friday 12 August to Saturday 20th August will be filled with theatre, poetry, jazz and folk, a BBC documentary with Huw Edwards, culminating in a march and rally on Saturday 20 August, assembling at 12 noon at the railway station.
Here’s what we’ve got ready for you so far!
Fri. 12th August – The Performing Arts Department of Coleg Sir Gâr will be performing a show based on the strike in the grounds of Llanelli Town Hall at 6pm
Sat. 13th August – Jazz Night with Wyn Lodwick and band, also supporting band in Lliedi Suite in Selwyn Samuel Centre, 7.30pm – 1am. Tickets £12, including a choice of meal, available at Cadno Music, John Street
Mon. 15th August – Poems and Pints in upstairs bar of Stamps, Station Road. 8pm until late.
Wed. 17th August – Folk Night in the Club, Queen Victoria Rd. 7.30pm until late.
Thurs. 18th August – the Multi Cultural Network will be hosting an exhibition, based on 1911 strike. Lakefield Community Centre 11am – 3pm
This will be followed at 5.30 by a Round Table Forum at Llanelli Rural Council Office , Vauxhall, Llanelli with guest speakers: local historian John Edwards, author of ‘Remembrance of a Riot”, Robert Griffiths, author of ‘Killing No Murder’, Sir Deian Hopkin, historian and writer, Peter Stead, writer and broadcaster, Tim Evans, author of the article “The Great Unrest and a Welsh Town.” The speakers will discuss the strike and the uprising and their relevance today.
Fri. 19th August
2pm unveiling of plaque commemorating the fallen on Union Bridge.
– Huw Edwards to introduce a documentary on the strike at Theatr Elli to an invited audience: organised by Carms. County Council. Contact Carmarthenshire CC for further details of this.
Sat. 20th August – March and Rally. Assemble at 12.00 noon at Llanelli railway station, moving off at 12.30pm. March to town centre for rally. Speakers to include Bob Crow, General Secretary RMT, other TUC representatives, Nia Griffith MP, Keith Davies AM and others. Then moving on to Box Cemetery for wreath-laying ceremony.
Later that afternoon at 4pm there will be a free showing of the documentary in the Entertainment Centre. And Llanelli Youth Theatre will perform a sketch from ‘1911 – Remembrance of a Riot’ in Church Hall, Hall St. at 7.30pm. An Informal evening in the Club, Victoria Rd., 8.30pm till very late will then ensue.
What was really scaring the authorities at the time of the Llanelli Uprising of 1911 was the fact that strikes and riots weren’t just happening in Llanelli. This was the time of the ‘Great Unrest’ – one of the longest periods of sustained industrial rebellion in British history. Industrial militancy was spreading nationwide, and being driven by rank-and-file workers. Beginning in 1910, and initially centered on the South Wales coalfield, workers across Britain and Ireland (and in other countries, including Spain, France and America) – dockers, seamen, miners, transport workers, railway workers and others – became engaged in increasingly bitter confrontations not only with their own employers but with the state machine itself.
In Britain the period from 1899 to 1907 had been a period of industrial peace unparalleled between 1891 when statistics started, and 1933. The sudden wave of strikes bursting out from 1910 -14 caused George Askwith, the main conciliator with the Board of Trade , to write, “One shipowner in Hull spoke of revolution, and so it was. I heard one town councillor remark that he had been in Paris during the Commune but had never known anything like this”. In August 1911 the militancy of the general transport strike in Liverpool impelled the lord mayor to ring Lord Derby at the War Office to say: “this is no ordinary strike riot – a revolution is in progress”. The government rushed two war ships to the Mersey, their guns trained on the centre of Liverpool. King George V sent a message to Winston Churchill the then Liberal Home Secretary: “Accounts from Liverpool show that the situation there is more like revolution than strike…(Troops) should not be called upon except as a last resource, but if called upon, they should be given a free hand and the mob should be made to fear them”.
While a note of hysterical outrage creeps into these reports, the assessment of the seriousness of events was not just the hyperbole of a badly rattled British ruling class. The Russian revolutionary Lenin wrote: “… the railway strike of 1911 displayed the ‘new spirit’ of the British workers…In Britain a change has taken place in the relation of social forces, a change which cannot be expressed in figures, but which everyone feels…the British proletariat is no longer the same. The workers have learned to fight.” His comrade Leon Trotsky, the leader of the revolutionary Red Army, writing in 1924-5, said: “1911 to 1913 were years of unparalleled class battles by miners, railwaymen and other transport workers. In August 1911 a national, in other words a general strike developed on the railways. During those days a dim spectre of revolution hung over Britain.”
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. The syndicalist poster on the left depicts the capitalist system and the way it keeps workers in their place. 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.” 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?
Syndicalists like Tom Mann (pictured below) and Ben Tillett (pictured bottom of page), who was the star speaker at the Llanelli mass protest a month after the shootings, 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 free from oppression, 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. Syndicalists concentrated on the revolutionary potential of working-class organisation, notably the trade unions. The unions would serve both as organisers of class warfare and as the nuclei of the post-revolutionary society.
There is some debate about how significant a factor syndicalism was during the Great Unrest of 1910-1914. Although there was no evidence of the involvement of named syndicalists among the railworkers of Llanelli in the strike of 1911, the dockers’ leader Ben Tillet was active in the area, standing (unsuccessfully) in Swansea in the general election of 1910. He was the star speaker at the Llanelli rally in September 1911, where he said: “Let the labourer rise in his wrath, in his dignity, in his mightiness and say: ‘I will be a man, my children shall be fed, my manhood shall be established or, by God, I will fight the powers that oppress me.”
There was also a strong syndicalist presence on the national railway network, and among many of the miners of south Wales, like Noah Ablett, who, as part of the Unofficial Reform Committee, wrote the influential pamphlet The Miners’ Next Step in 1911, calling for rank-and-file control of a fighting union. Disillusionment with Labour in parliament was feeding the growth of direct action. A syndicalist leaflet called on strikers in the small Bristol coalfield to: “Fight for yourselves…Leaders only want your votes; they will sell you. They lie, Parliament lies and will not help you, but is trying to sell you…. Such sentiments had real resonance for British workers in 1911.