What drove the strikes of 1911?

Like the revolutions in the Middle East today, although on a smaller scale, the industrial and community uprisings of Britain’s Great Unrest of 1910 to 1914 were the result of a complex of interrelated factors.

The 1911 strike wave was a working class response to a nexus of economic, industrial and political pressures and disappointed hopes. The Liberal government had heavily defeated the Conservatives, being elected in 1906 on the promise of widespread reforms. It promised a campaign against “landlords, brewers, peers and monopolists,” as well as launching schemes for national insurance and old age pensions.

29 MPs from the nascent Labour Party had also been sent to parliament with hundreds of thousands of votes behind them, carrying the hopes of many workers. But Labour in Parliament was to prove a huge disappointment,  its MPs tail-ending the Liberal Party 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 were also a protest against capital’s new strategy of  incorporating  labour movement and union leaders. The direct and uncompromising nature of the struggles are due  in part to the fact that they were not contained within the existing union organisation. They were a dual revolt, against employers on the one hand but against the established union leaderships and collective bargaining machinery on the other.

The new strategies, especially the fundamental strategic innovation of the period, the solidarity strike, were developing as ways of exerting maximum pressure by rank-and-file workers. The rising level of struggle created a split  not only between workers and both employers and the state, but also  between the workers and their official leaderships in the unions and the Labour Party.

Direct action seemed to many workers  the way forward. The ideas of revolutionaries – syndicalists like Tom Mann and Ben Tillett, the latter of whom spoke at Llanelli at a demonstration to protest against the shootings – suddenly resonated for many. Next I shall look at the controversial issue of the syndicalists. Who were they? Did they influence the fightback at Llanelli?



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“An open letter to British soldiers…the Idle Rich order you about too…”

Determined efforts were made by the government to bury the case of Harold Spiers. In reply to a question about the fate of the soldier who refused to fire at Llanelli, Colonel JEB Seely, the under-secretary of state at the War Office, twice denied that such a soldier existed. But early in 1912 further events thrust the case of Harold Spiers back under the spotlight.

The use of the military during the rail and transport strikes of 1911 presented the British labour movement with a problem. What attitude should striking workers adopt to soldiers who were being used to break strikes? What strategy would be most effective when strikers were confronted with the armed forces of the state?


At the beginning of 1912 a railway worker named Fred Crowsley distributed at Aldershot barracks a leaflet with the headline “HALT! ATTENTION! Open Letter to British Soldiers.” It said the following: “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.YOU DON’T KICK. WE DON’T. When WE kick, they order YOU to MURDER us. When YOU kick, YOU get courtmartialed and cells. YOUR fight is OUR fight. Instead of fighting AGAINST each other, WE should be fighting with each other.”


Crowsley was arrested and the leaflet confiscated. But then the radical workers’ newspaper The Industrial Syndicalist reprinted the leaflet in full. The chair of the paper’s publishing board, the industrial militant Tom Mann, was now arrested as well, along with the paper’s manager and two printers. They were charged under the Incitement to Mutiny Act, prompting the Labour MP Keir Hardie to refer in the House of Commons to “the Llanelly case, during the recent railway strike, 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 who were on strike, we are trying to save them from the commission of murder.”


Tom Mann was sentenced to 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 Trades Union Congress 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.


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


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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Free Private Spiers!




Harold Spiers, a private in ‘G’ company of the first Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment, came from a family which was proud of the fact that all its men had been soldiers. Harold (second from the left, front row in the photo, probably from 1914) had followed in the footsteps of his father and two older brothers when he enrolled. After serving his apprenticeship in the family’s bicycle business at Redditch, he enlisted as a professional soldier with the Worcesters in July 1909 at the age of 20. Yet 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.” This was in all likelihood John John. He refused to obey the order. Press accounts recounted that he said 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. However, during the chaos after the massive explosion and fire in the goods yard he managed to escape.


He then, it appears, walked from Llanelli to mid-Wales – to New Radnor, on the English border, a distance of nearly 90 miles, eating apples, nuts and blackberries on the way. He threw away his service cap on the journey, but was dressed in the regulation khaki trousers, a shirt and heavy boots when he was discovered by Sergeant Evans on Monday, August 21st by the wall of the Eagle Hotel, New Radnor, exhausted and vomiting blood on the pavement. He admitted that he was a deserter from the army, and recounted the remarkable events that had taken place the previous Saturday in Llanelli.


On Thursday he was handed over to the military authorities and taken to Cardiff Barracks, where on Friday, August 25 he was accused of “desertion whilst in aid of the civil powers.” He insisted again that he had refused an order to fire (at a previous hearing the magistrate had ordered that the reasons for his desertion were not relevant to the court and should be deleted from the public record). He was remanded for a district court martial.


Meanwhile, excited news of the soldier who had refused to fire on workers was spreading, especially through the trade union and labour movement. Next week I shall  look at the campaign which had as its rallying-call “Free Private Spiers!”




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Army v. Strikers


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 shown the problems in militarily suppressing protest. In the “Peterloo massacre” of 1819 in Manchester, cavalry charged into a crowd calling  for parliamentary reform and an extension of the vote, killing 15 and injuring 700. “Peterloo” (so named in ironic reference to the battle of Waterloo, 4 years earlier) was an embarrassment for the government and the military and a huge political issue. “The defining moment of its age,” said the 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 directly suppress protest became more problematic. The capitalist mode of production revolutionised daily work and everyday life, and created a new “working class”, drawing together hundreds of thousands of men, women and children to work in its mills, factories and mines. Modes of protest were likewise transformed. Instead of the food riot or the direct action of small, often clandestine groups like the Rebecca rioters, came the growth of mass action, mass strikes, the mass picket and demonstrations.


Clearly the old tactics of killing, transporting and executing was not going to work any more against an urban working class. The days were gone when a judge could calculate how many rioters needed to be executed to put down a popular uprising. In urban areas, sending in soldiers, who had, after all, been trained to kill, against a demonstration of thousands might well be counter-productive. The problem for  governments lay in the possibility that, by violently suppressing a demonstration and killing protestors it might transform a movement which was calling for reforms  into one which was calling for revolution. There was also the problem that the class divide also existed in the army, with officers drawn from the landed aristocracy. The ordinary soldiers, who came 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.


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. Next I shall look at the man who refused, at Llanelli, to fire on the crowd – “the soldier with the gun at his side”, Private Harold Spiers of the Worcestershire Regiment.





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School kids on strike!

One of the most impressive aspects of the ongoing student rebellion of November – December 2010 was the involvement of school students. The big London demos last year showed multi-racial crowds of youth from Croydon, Peckham and  the council estates of Islington, who knew that the Etonian toffs in government were mashing up their dreams and their life-chances. The superior sniping of Daily Mail columnists and Sky News commentators who make a career out of slagging off ‘apathetic’ students and youth was shown up for the cynical propaganda it was. “We come from the slums of London…”said one of the kids, and you could hear the anger in his voice.


Strikes and protests by school students have an honourable history. People may have heard of the Burston school strike in Norfolk, where in 1914 children went on strike in protest at the victimisation of their teachers, becoming a cause celebre for the trade union movement, and participating in the setting up and running of an alternative school. This strike ran until 1939 – the longest in British history.


In the 1976 Soweto uprising against apartheid oppression it was black school students who braved the bullets of the South African police, many of them dying in the process.


And in the run-up to Blair’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 walk-outs by thousands of school students took place in schools across the UK: London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, Cambridge, Milton Keynes and many parts of Wales including Llanelli, Gowerton, Cardiff, Swansea and Bridgend. In Llanelli over 100 school students walked out, with 15 arrested.


But the first school strikes in Britain took place after the 1911 national railway strike. During August-September 1911 there were strikes by schoolchildren in at least 62 towns and cities, showing the huge impact the rail strike had within working-class communities. In Llanelli the revolt began in Bigyn School, where in protest at a teacher’s punishment the boys left the playground and paraded the streets, visiting other schools and calling on the pupils to join them. New Dock, Lakefield and Old Road Schools came out in solidarity.


At the start of the new September term, the school authorities had apparently detected a new spirit of revolt among the children – they were following their parents’ example! The tactics of the walk-out and the flying picket were being adapted to the playground and the school yard! The chair of the Education Committee was appalled, saying that it was a serious state of affairs to find schoolboys filled with the spirit of unsubordination. “I am inclined to believe,” he said,”it had something to do with the spirit of the times.”




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The ‘roughs’ who locked the level crossing…

A passenger on one of the trains held up at Llanelli on the morning of Friday 18 August, Sir Henry Blake, on his way home to Ireland, spoke disparagingly of “the mob of railway workers, tinplate workers …and roughs who had locked the gates of the level crossing and occupied the road, forming a crowd of from three to four thousand. Down the line poured two to three thousand persons, men, women and children.”

Those that Sir Henry chose to describe as ‘roughs’ – a peculiarly English turn of phrase –  were in fact people from the Seaside and New Dock areas of Llanelli, showing solidarity with the strikers, or just there out of curiosity. There was an euphoric sense of carnival: the local press described how young boys, workers in the cold-roll departments of the tinplate mills, had occupied the first-class carriages of the immobilised train, “lolling in the cushions and smoking cigarettes – a sight for the gods!” In the months following, schools in the main railway centres were hit by waves of strikes as children walked out in protest. Even the paper-boys went on strike!

Many of the families of the workers of the area mobilised in support of the strike. The level of solidarity on display can be seen from the fact that the mass picket of the gates was, at times, 5,000 strong, whereas only 500 people were employed on the railways in the Llanelli area. Of that number, only 300 were in the union. The other 200 were not members because they could not afford the subscription of 3d. a week. But when the strike call came on the evening of Thursday 17 August everyone walked out together. The town echoed to cries of “Streic!” as other workers flooded to join them. The railway station was in a densely populated area, and the crowd was augmented by tinplate workers coming off shift. Thousands converged on the railway station and the gates of the level crossings.

Despite what happened after the shootings, during that first night of Thursday 17 August a carnival atmosphere reigned. Things were peaceful and good-natured, if lively. The picket had turned into an all-night street festival: a mock election was being held outside the Station Hotel, the satirical speeches provoking roars of laughter from the crowd. There was a concert of singing and tap-dancing. Strike leaders spoke, outlining the reasons for the strike and calling for support. Despite some pushing and shoving with the police, the gates were firmly held, the only train allowed through Llanelli overnight being the mail train.  A cattle train was also allowed through by the strike committee, since the cattle had been shipped from Ireland and were obviously in some distress.



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History is written by the victors: how do we tell our story?

One thing we have returned to again and again during the past year, trying to organise a commemoration of the Llanelli uprising, is the question of how you remember such momentous, and controversial, events. The late, great Professor Gwyn Alf Williams, one of the foremost Welsh historians, said the following, in his profound book The Welsh in their history, about the ways we bring the past into the present:

“Some forms of a tradition do not merely encapsulate a past, they sterilise it; they remove it from the historical equation of the present. This is not to cultivate an historical consciousness, it is to get rid of it. The past, in this process, is in fact abolished, in much the same way as the physical fabric of a town.” If we try to depoliticise the past, if we try to seal it up and make it into a holy icon, with no relevance to the present and its struggles, or turn it into some Disney theme-park, we lose it. He was talking about Merthyr Tydfil and Dic Penderyn, but the same is true of Llanelli.

The past is profoundly political, at least as political as the present. I would not expect to understand the present if I did not understand its politics, and this is doubly true of the past. This is not to do the past a disservice, but to recognise that it is contested, a site of struggle. The history as the slave sees it is not the same history that the slave-owner sees. The past is not presented to us on a plate, ready-made. It is a struggle to apprehend it. And which voices from the past are most consistently ignored? Those of the poor and oppressed. History is written by the victors.

The writer and critic Walter Benjamin wrote that “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it ‘the way it really was’. It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” The strike and riots at Llanelli in 1911 flashed up, illuminating shameful things hidden in the darkness: the suffering of the poor and the brutality of the forces sent to suppress them. It is in this spirit that we should commemorate 1911. We should, quite simply, speak truth to power.

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If Tolpuddle can do it, so can Llanelli.

So, would any mention of the strike and riots scare off inward investment from Llanelli? Quite the opposite, I think. Heritage, leisure and tourism is big business now. With a bit of nerve, creativity and thinking ‘out of the box’, this could become a real money-spinner for the town.

Look at the tiny Dorset village of Tolpuddle, another key episode in the history of trade unionism. It was here that in 1832 a group of farm labourers, hit by a ‘double whammy’ of declining wages and mechanisation, came together to form the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. They refused to work for less than 10 shillings a week.

Although trade unions were no longer illegal, the men were arrested. Six of them were sentenced to transportation to Australia, effectively a death sentence, one that could separate a person from their loved ones and their home forever. There was a huge campaign for their release. The men became known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

The authorities in Dorset could have said, “Oh we don’t want to be associated with some depressing story about people being arrested and jailed. Things associated with class struggle will scare off inward investment. No Tolpuddle martyrs, thank you very much.” Instead, they saw the importance of the events. They decided to invest in them, and the place has been reaping the economic benefits ever since.

Despite the fact it’s a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, every year thousands come to Tolpuddle because of its identification with the ‘martyrs’. There is The Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, which features displays and interactive exhibits about the Martyrs and their importance to the labour movement. A monument was erected in the honour of the martyrs in Tolpuddle in 1934, and a sculpture, made in 2001, stands in the village in front of the museum.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival, organised by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), is held annually, featuring a march with trade union banners, a memorial service, speeches and music. Recent festivals have featured speakers such as Tony Benn and musicians such as Billy Bragg, and others from all around the world.  All of this brings in much-needed money, but in some ways more importantly it builds local civic pride in a quite unique way. This place is part of a great battle for freedom and justice and fair play – what in Welsh we would call “chwarae teg.”

If all this were true for Tolpuddle, it is even truer for the dramatic story of our “Llanelli Martyrs.” There is a source of revenue there just waiting to be tapped, if only there were both the imagination and the initial investment to do it.





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Would commemoration of uprising scare off inward investment?

In the aftermath of the uprising it was the visit of King George V which was seen as being put in jeopardy. But even much later, other reasons were found for trying to keep the strike and shootings out of the public eye.


Was it simply ‘inappropriate’ to remember them? In 1986 members of Llanelli Trades Council and the rail unions came together in the first Llanelli Railway Strike 1911 Committee. When they approached what was then British Rail to suggest a memorial plaque on Llanelli Station premises, they were turned down. BR’s Area Manager was quite unequivocal: “I must confess to being rather surprised that the Town Council should wish to commemorate such a violent and lawless event, however significant it is in the town’s history. I regret, therefore, that I cannot agree to the plaque being sited on the Board’s property…”


Or was it ‘too political’? I am saddened to say that the Llanelli Star’s editorial of 20th June 1986 (well before the current editor took over, I hasten to add) was scathing about the Strike 1911 Committee’s plans for a march to mark the 75th anniversary:  “Coming to a street near you shortly – yet another parade, complete with tub-thumpers, banners, and a police escort. And it is one that Llanelli could happily do without…the commemoration of this carnage…This is an anniversary Llanelli would sooner ignore if it means this sort of political junketing…Do we really want to tell the nation of the horror at the station gates in 1911, merely to give the pretext for a political demonstration, when it can only associate our town’s name with the worst excesses of industrial civil war?”


Or would it simply scare away inward investment? In the same editorial, this was the Star’s key point: “…the danger, totally ignored by the organisers, is that Llanelli itself, desperately in need of attracting new investment, will suffer from the backlash of the publicity which the parade and speeches will generate.” This is a comment I have heard myself in the past, and at first glance it sounds reasonable. However, everything that has happened since disproves its logic. The Star’s editorial came out after the steelworks had closed and a year after the miners’ strike had been defeated, giving Prime Minister Thatcher carte blanche to proceed with the process of deindustrialisation which has deepened over the intervening decades, and which has hit Llanelli so hard.


Keeping schtum about the strike and riots has not succeeded in pulling in investment: quite the opposite in fact. Commemorating the railway strike, far from scaring away investors, would actually do the reverse, and attract investment to the town.


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