The Great Unrest 1910-1914

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.”


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Working for the Revolution


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?







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Who were the syndicalists?

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.




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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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