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The Tonypandy Riots Changed the Welsh Working Class Forever

On this day in 1910, riots broke out between striking South Wales miners and police; days later, Winston Churchill sent in troops to end the strike. For the miners, it was a moment of radicalisation.

Strike pay being handed out in a chapel during the strikes and riots in the coal mining town of Tonypandy, in the Welsh Rhondda, November 1910. (Topical Press Agency / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

The South Wales coalfield occupies a unique place in the history of the British labour movement. These coalfields, which stretched from Pontypool, near the English border, to the Welsh-speaking heartlands of Swansea and Llanelli, were at one point one of the largest coal-producing areas in the world. Rhondda Valley, perhaps the most famous site, produced an astonishing 56.8 million tons of coal in 1914, or 19.7 percent of all of Britain’s coal output.

These incredible levels of productivity were won at a cost: deep coal mining remains one of the most dangerous professions in the world. South Wales coal in particular is extremely difficult to mine, owing to its dry, gaseous nature, which makes it prone to explosion, as the grim list of mining disasters illustrates. The region also contains numerous geological faults, which make coal inaccessible behind layers of rock and shale. Describing these conditions in 1922, one Rhondda miner painted a vivid picture of the dangers workers faced:

Away from the sunlight and fresh air, sometimes in a temperature of up to 90°C, every movement of the day, inhaling coal and shale dust, perspiring so abnormally (usually as few men in other industries can realise) head throbbing with the almost inhuman exertion . . . the roof perhaps 18 inches low, perhaps 20 feet high, ears constantly strained for movements in the strata on which his limbs or his life is dependent.

Becoming the Enemy Within

Prior to 1912, there was no minimum wage in the mining industry. Wages were dependent on how much coal a miner could cut during a shift. In South Wales, and the Rhondda in particular, this had long caused widespread resentment because of the difficulty of extraction. Though a progressive development for many workers, the introduction of an eight-hour day meant that miners, who were not often paid by the hour, had to work harder than ever to make a living. Meanwhile, management, forced by the law to reduce the length of the working day, were under increasing pressure to cut costs. Something was clearly going to have to give.

Because of the difficulties of extraction, it had become commonplace to supplement colliers’ wages with what was known as a con, or consideration payment. This system was entirely at the discretion of management and was subject to widespread abuse. It was this dispute over workplace safety and a new price list for cutting coal at the Ely Pit of the Naval Colliery Company in Penygraig, Rhondda, that sparked one of the bitterest industrial disputes in British labor history—the Cambrian Combine strike.

The chairman of the Cambrian Colliery Company, which owned the Naval, was one D. A. Thomas, later Lord Rhondda. In its opening bid, the company initially offered one shilling and nine pence (£0.15 or $0.18) a ton, plus one pence for stone. The miners insisted that these coalfields were incredibly dangerous, and asked for two shillings and six pence a ton. The haggling went on until the owners decided to force the issue by way of a lockout.

On 1 September 1910, management locked out the entire workforce of the Ely Colliery, some eight hundred men. This naturally angered miners in other areas of South Wales, who responded by balloting for a strike in solidarity through the South Wales Miners’ Federation. On 1 October 1910, twenty thousand men, the entire workforce of the Cambrian Combine Company, went out on strike. By winter, the number was thirty thousand. A confrontation now seemed inevitable.

The majority of the coal owners, some of whom were also magistrates, were hopeful that importing blackleg labour would break the strike. They also had the support of the chief constable of Glamorgan, Captain Morgan Lindsay, who agreed to put his force on standby should they be needed. Law enforcement from Bristol and other cities in South Wales were ready to answer this call. Clearly, battle lines were being drawn, not only by a new generation of militant miners but also within the Miners’ Federation, whose authority this wave of industrial militancy challenged.

On the night of Sunday 6 November, 1910, miners discovered that management had hired scabs to work the Glamorgan Colliery at Llwynypia. On the following Monday, a number of striking miners surrounded the colliery and attacked the police, who were billeted in the colliery buildings. Police reinforcements were quickly dispatched to the Rhondda, and it was here that the worst of the violence took place. The town of Tonypandy, some two miles down the valley, became the scene of a running battle as police fought with miners and their families, using their truncheons freely. Law enforcement smashed windows, and Captain Lindsay sent a telegram to Chester and Salisbury Plain asking the government to send troops to the Rhondda. He also spoke with Winston Churchill, then home secretary, who agreed to deploy troops. In a short period of time, a relatively small local dispute had triggered a national debate in which MPs questioned the future prime minister’s conduct.

Churchill’s decision to send in the troops under the command of General Nevil Macready, a career soldier who would later command the infamous Black and Tans during the Irish War of Independence, exhibited a hostility toward organised labour common among members of Britain’s ruling class. The then Labour leader Keir Hardie was horrified by the violence meted out to the strikers. Describing the treatment of a sixteen-year-old boy brutalised by police, Hardie recalled that the child was

beaten across the loins. The police caught him by the legs and threw him back into the canal. He got back to the bank. More police came. The boy said ‘Oh policeman, don’t hit me again. I’ve done nothing.’ But they hit him again and again. He raised his hand to protect his head, and his hand was smashed to pieces.

The violence inflicted on the miners ensured that Tonypandy would become a byword for police brutality. There would be further violence in Tonypandy, and in Penygraig later that month, when Macready sanctioned the use of scab labour.

Developing a Working-Class Consciousness

The Cambrian coalface quickly became the site of a bitter war of attrition. Workers engaged in intense discussions about the best way to maintain the movement’s momentum. Many younger miners, some of them sympathetic to the socialist cause and heavily influenced by the Industrial Workers of the World, began to agitate for a much more militant approach toward the mine owners. The strategy of all-out class war evinced a break with the liberal consensus politics of their leaders, particularly William Abraham, or ‘Mabon,’ an elderly Gladstonian Liberal who had led the South Wales miners since 1874.

In Britain, liberals in favour of taking a noncombative approach to industrial relations have always had a prominent role in the trade union movement. Mabon himself emerged from this Whig tradition, which would merge with the Liberals Party in the second half of the nineteenth century. Like the Conservatives, it initially represented the landowning aristocracy but increasingly became the political representative of the mercantile class. Moderation, stemming from the Calvinist and Methodist background of many of these British trade union leaders, informed this movement’s early philosophy. Its virtues were temperance, sobriety, and belief in the idea that self-help was a means to entering the Kingdom of God.

In Europe, the working class had formed parties of their own much earlier than Britain, whose miniscule Social Democratic Federation only came into existence in 1884, sixteen years before the Labour Representation Committee. The political formation of the British working class therefore had to take place under the guidance of a paternalistic bourgeoisie that stifled the emergence of radicalism among the popular classes. The struggles taking place in South Wales—not only between capital and labour but also between the liberal and radical wings of the trade union movement—represented a decisive moment in the development of the consciousness of the working class.

The immediate issues of the Cambrian strike regarded payments for working abnormal seams, but aside from day-to-day issues, there was a much more fundamental debate going on. This discussion took place within the Federation but also among the leadership and members of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, and concerned the scope of industrial conflict. An ideological gulf was opening up between those who saw the solutions to the mining industries’ ills as being through parliamentary legislation and those who insisted on the indispensable role of working-class militancy.

The end of the Cambrian Combine dispute in autumn 1911, after almost a year, was a bitter blow to all concerned. But out of this crushing defeat and the acceptance of the coal owners’ original terms grew the demand for a national minimum wage, passed by Parliament a year later. The end of the strike, and the lockout at the Ely Pit, also contributed to the downfall of Mabon and the marginalisation of the liberal wing of the trade union movement. In September of that year, he received 13,450 votes as a South Wales delegate to the International Miners’ Federation. His opponent, C. B. Stanton, won 27,008.

Within a few months, Mabon would decide to resign from the Federation on the grounds of ill health. Thus, a new chapter and a new policy for the Federation emerged from the ashes of the Cambrian debacle. The ousting of Mabon would culminate in the publication of the Miners’ Next Step, a document of seminal importance in the history of the British labour movement.

The document’s importance lay in its precise distillation of a set of revolutionary demands allied to the day-to-day tasks of forming a trade union. For example, its rejection of conciliation, which its authors saw as a means to depress wages, and insistence on an all-out class war with bosses, was widely popular among the precarious mining workforce.

Miners’ Next Step’s rejection of the conservative brokerage politics of liberal union leadership, primarily interested in acquiring approval from elites, was motivated by a desire to avoid the return of figures like Mabon. The former union leader was on close terms with coal owners like D. A. Thomas, a relationship incompatible with the development of a radical working-class consciousness. On one occasion, Mabon is said to have asked his workforce not to strike, stating, ‘D. A. Thomas is my friend,’ to which the reply came, ‘D. A. Thomas may be your friend, Mabon. He is not ours.’

It is within the context of the Cambrian strike, the unceasing propaganda efforts of organisations like the Plebs League, the Central Labour College, the Rhondda Socialist Society, and others that we must place the Miners’ Next Step. The scope of its demands was often too broad for a workforce primarily concerned with economic security. But in drawing attention to the need for nationalisation and a political solution to the conflict between labour and capital, it was prophetic.

About the Author

Rob Turnbull is a postgraduate student in history at Edinburgh University. He has written for BBC History Magazine, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Morning Star, and is the author of Left for the Rising Sun, Right for Swan Hunter.