Was there more to 1910 than Tonypandy? The story of the honest Welsh miner betrayed by a hostile government has long fascinated, but were the riots really just a small part of a much bigger picture?
For many people in Wales, an outbreak of rioting in the Rhondda town of Tonypandy 100 years ago is one of the defining moments of modern Welsh history.
The riot has been fictionalised in Lewis Jones's novel Cwmardy. The website "Welsh Icons" lists it as one of the historical events most representative of "Wales and all things Welsh". Local government and community groups in Rhondda Cynon Taf are gearing up to mark the centenary of the riot in November with a programme of activities.
The reasons for the important place occupied by the Tonypandy riot in our memories of coalfield history are not hard to find. For a brief interlude in early November 1910, normality was turned on its head in the mid-Rhondda town. Violence and looting spilled out onto the streets resulting in the widespread destruction of shops and property.
The riot sent a high-voltage charge of fear through Edwardian society and led to the deployment of police and military reinforcements to quell the disturbances. In particular, the role of Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary, in determining the level of force to deploy in Tonypandy, has led to much myth-making, inaccurately characterising him as the "enemy of the miners" and the man who "sent the troops in".
It makes for a compelling story of honest Welsh miner betrayed by a hostile government. It is not surprising that both professional historians and the public have found Tonypandy such a source of fascination.
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The wider 'coal war' But to remember Tonypandy is to remember only a fragment of a long and bitter industrial dispute which extended across much of the South Wales coalfield. The South Wales "coal war", as it was reported in The Times and the Western Mail of the day, consisted of 11 months of strikes and stoppages spread across the Rhondda, Cynon, Garw and Afan valleys, where different sets of grievances led to a series of strikes and stoppages involving well over 20,000 mineworkers from the early Autumn of 1910. The bulk of the strikers worked for one of two colliery companies: the Cambrian Coal Trust in the Rhondda Valley, and the Powell Duffryn Company in the Aberdare Valley. At the heart of both disputes was the determination. of the miners to resist the attempts of the colliery companies to protect their profit margins in the face of ever rising costs of mining coal in the geologically challenging conditions of the South Wales coalfield .
Miners demanded that a day's labour in a difficult seam which yielded little, should be rewarded with a fair wage, just as a day worked in a more productive part of the colliery. In effect, the disputes were about securing a minimum level of wage. Although there were similarities in their grievances, the Cambrian Combine and Powell Duffryn miners went about things very differently. The Rhondda men held a ballot and 12,000 of them went on strike officially at the end of October 1910, after giving a statutory one month's notice. The Powell Duffryn stoppage began on 20 October, when workers at Lower Duffryn pit downed tools.
Theirs was an unofficial stoppage. They received no strike pay and consequently the ensuing hardship cut deep into the community. The Cynon Valley and the 'block strike' Superficially, their stoppage was a protest against the decision of the mine manager, EM Hann, to end the 40-year-old custom whereby miners were permitted to take home blocks of waste timber from the mines for use as household fuel. More broadly it was a reaction to the perceived threat to their livelihoods posed by the colliery company's drive to increase productivity. The workmen marched to neighbouring Powell Duffryn collieries at Aberaman and Cwmbach, and very quickly a stoppage involving some 8,000 Cynon Valley miners was under way.
The "Block Strike" as it became known locally, was every bit as violent as the Cambrian Combine dispute. Some of the key incidents of disorder were played out in late October and early November, at almost the same time as the outbreak of rioting in Tonypandy and yet compared with events in the Rhondda they have been all but forgotten. Only one or two historians have paid it any serious attention and there is limited public awareness outside the locality in question. For large sections of the press, covering the events in South Wales in the Winter of 1910, it was the Aberdare dispute which was regarded as the more dangerous and aggressive conflict.
Numerous disturbances broke out involving not just striking miners, but members of the wider community as attempts were made to enforce conformity to the strike. On November 2, some two weeks into their stoppage, striking workers attacked the houses of a number of minor Powell Duffryn colliery officials in Glamorgan Street and James Street, Aberdare. Suspected strike-breakers were hunted down and attacked by crowds of protesters, including large numbers of women who, in at least one case, "stripped a man of his coat and waistcoat".
Elsewhere on the same evening, a train carrying about 90 to 100 workmen was attacked at the Tonllwyd crossing in Aberdare. Protesters smashed the train windows and pulled men out on to the platform while others fled the scene, pursued by "a hooting crowd which grew in number as it went along". It seems likely that news of what was happening over the hills in the Rhondda Valley spurred the Powell Duffryn men on. The Times correspondent, reporting from Cardiff, suggested that there was a ripple effect. The day after the Tonypandy riot, "as though envious of their comrades in the Rhondda Valley" Powell Duffryn strikers marched to Cwmbach and attempted to attack the power station and adjoining washhouse at Middle Duffryn Colliery. The incident had clear echoes of the attack on the Glamorgan Colliery power station at Llwynypia the previous day. At Cwmbach a contingent of 29 police succeeded in repelling the strikers and their supporters by electrifying the perimeter fence and soaking the approaching crowd with hot water from the boilers.
This incident alone resulted in some 60 injuries. One participant, Wil Jon Edwards, later recalled that the disturbance culminated in a police baton charge which forced most of the protesters, bruised and bleeding, into the muddy shallows of the adjacent canal. 'There is going to be murder' The reputation of the Powell Duffryn strikers as radical and determined was further bolstered by the character of their leader, Charles Butt Stanton. Stanton was the Aberaman-born miners' agent who became the talisman of the Aberdare miners. As early as April 1910 he was singled out as the only miners' leader in South Wales to have refused to sign a new wage agreement with the coal owners (although he later relented). His most controversial act during the dispute, however, was his utterance of a supposed "death threat" to E M Hann, general manager of the Powell Duffryn company. The threat, left in a telephone message on October 29, was widely quoted in the local and national press.
Stanton was reputed to have said of the strike, "if there is going to be any 'black-legging' over this there is going to be murder. My God, I mean it." In a mass meeting the next day on the Plough Tip, Aberdare, Stanton claimed that he had not meant to direct a specific threat to Hann, but rather to convey a general fear for "what would happen if work proceeded on any large scale during the strike". The incident, though controversial, seemed to do nothing to diminish Stanton's popularity with the majority of Cynon Valley miners. When he stood up to speak at a mass meeting at the Market Hall, Aberdare, on November 1, he was greeted with a chorus of "For he's a jolly good fellow". More moderate speakers who tried to counsel against the spread of the strike were heckled and shouted down.
There is some evidence to suggest that Hann didn't really take Stanton's "death threat" seriously. At a meeting with magistrates, military and police commanders on 11 November he passed up an opportunity to ask for a police presence at his own home, but overall the number of police he requested to keep order at the Powell Duffryn collieries greatly outnumbered the corresponding requests made by Mr Llewellyn on behalf of the Cambrian Trust mines in the Rhondda. Not surprisingly, the colliery districts of both valleys were filled with police reinforcements throughout the Autumn of 1910.
The streets of the Aberdare district in particular echoed to the sound of horses' hooves, as mounted deployments conducted daily patrols up and down the valley, which was regarded as more suitable for the horses than the narrow, cobbled, tram-lined streets of Llwynypia. Detachments of troops, likewise, were stationed around the disturbed districts, including a company of the Loyal North Lancashire regiment, stationed at Aberaman. Part of the challenge for the authorities of the day was to co-ordinate police and troop movements over such a wide area with more than one centre of unrest. Tonypandy was just one likely trouble spot. Aberaman was another. TIMELINE (1910-11)
October 20:Walkout at Lower Duffryn Colliery and beginning of Powell Duffryn strike
October 29: Stanton's "death threat" left in a telephone message to E M Hann
October 31: Beginning of official stoppage by employees of the Cambrian Combine mines
November 2: Riot at Aberaman. Colliers' train attacked.
November 8: Riot at Tonypandy. Churchill gives authority to General Macready to move troops into the disturbed districts if needed
November 9: Powell Duffryn strikers attack Middle Duffryn power station at Cwmbach
Jan 2,1911: Powell Duffryn men return to work
Sept 1911: Cambrian Combine strike ends
Feb 1912: Publication of The Miners' Next Step
The Tonypandy Riots 1910-11 A lasting legacy? Given the seriousness with which the Powell Duffryn strike disturbances were viewed in the winter of 1910 it seems odd that, 100 years on, it is Tonypandy that gets all of the attention. Why has the Tonypandy riot come to overshadow the other elements of the "Coal War" to such an extent? There are a number of possible explanations. First among these, perhaps, is our tendency to distil our past down to a number of convenient and familiar reference points. Thus the South Wales coalfield becomes the Rhondda, the "Coal War" becomes the Cambrian Combine dispute, and the epicentre of unrest becomes Tonypandy. Historical memory is all about convenience, and the Tonypandy riot has become a convenient symbol of coalfield unrest in Edwardian Wales.
A second explanation lies in our preference for satisfactory outcomes. The association of Tonypandy with the Cambrian Combine dispute meant that it has been seen as part of a more successful strike movement. The Cambrian men held out until September 1911. Their dispute had some identifiable legacies, notably in the publication the following year of The Miners' Next Step, and the emergence in the leadership of the South Wales Miners' Federation of some of the prominent figures from the dispute like Noah Ablett. In contrast, the Powell Duffryn men returned to work on January 2, 1911 with little immediate reward to show for their protest. They failed to persuade miners in the neighbouring valleys to join forces with them, or to cajole the Executive Committee of the Miner's Federation to endorse their unofficial strike action. Relief payments when they came, were too little and too late, and the heavy police and military presence in the valley had an intimidating effect both on striking miners and on the community at large.
While Tonypandy could plausibly be remembered as part of a proud tradition of labour history in the South Wales valleys, the Powell Duffryn dispute could not. In many ways, the figure of Charles Butt Stanton lay at the heart of the problem. If he was a controversial figure during the strike, this was nothing compared to his reputation thereafter. During the First World War, Stanton re-cast himself, shedding his role as radical left-wing miners' leader and becoming a jingoistic MP of the right. He stood against his former allies in the Independent Labour Party, most famously defeating ILP candidate, James Winstone, to win the Merthyr Boroughs by-election following the death of Keir Hardie in 1915. For a while he rode successfully on a tide of pro-war euphoria. But later, when the anti-German hype of the war years gave way to horror at the scale of the slaughter, Stanton found himself consigned to the political and historical wilderness. With him, perhaps, went the "Block Strike".
TOMORROW Did we truly support the FirstWorld War? Louise Miskell was born in Port Talbot where her interest in history was encouraged at school by a succession of enthusiastic teachers. After nearly embarking on a degree in law she had second thoughts, and instead went to study History at Aberystwyth where she gained a BA and a PhD. Her first job as an academic historian was in Scotland, at the University of Dundee, the city of "jute, jam and journalism". There she worked on a project researching the governance, identity and cultural life of industrial towns in the Victorian period.
This experience paved the way for the development of a new research specialism in urban history. She returned toWales in September 2000 to join the History Department at Swansea University and has since written about the history of Swansea in the 18th and 19th centuries. Of particular importance in her research has been exploring the way in which the town developed both as a successful seaside resort and an industrial centre of world importance, with a thriving copper industry and maritime trade. She now lives in the Cynon Valley where her fascination. with the coalfield disputes of 1910 has been inspired by the people and places of Aberdare and its surrounding area. SO WHO ARE YOU LOUISE MISKELL? Remembering and Forgetting - 100 years on One hundred years after the Tonypandy riots it is worth reflecting on what we choose to remember. The history that we decide to write about, talk about, televise or commemorate says as much about our own tastes and preferences as it does about the past. There is nothing remarkable about this.
Bestowing special significance on particular events and giving them a more prominent place in the long-term historical record is of course an entirely practical, indeed essential, way of getting to grips with our past. We cannot recall every aspect of our history in all of its minute and complex detail. But, occasionally, it is helpful to look beyond the parts which we have carefully parcelled up for preservation for a glimpse of what lies beyond. The history we commemorate might just look a little different as a result.
The Tonypandy Riots 1910-11
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|Publication:||Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)|
|Date:||Oct 8, 2010|
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