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The railwaymen's strike that became a real labour of love.

Byline: Dan O'Neill DOWN MEMORY LANE

Speaking at the Durham Miners' Gala last month, railway union leader Bob Crow called for a new political party, a left-wing alternative to a Labour Party he considers too close to the Tories. I wonder whether he was aware that 110 years ago, right here in South Wales, his long-gone union predecessor was, in a way, responsible for the first alliance of unions and Labour Party.

His name was Richard Bell, general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (get that "servants"). And in 1903 he signed a cheque for PS23,000, made out to the Taff Vale Railway Co. - a piece of paper signalling not so much a defeat for the railwaymen as a disaster for a union movement not far away from its infancy.

We remember it as the Taff Vale Judgement, a decision, crowed RLG Vassal, Taff Vale chairman, that meant "the power of the unions to promote and engineer strikes has been most seriously crippled". It also meant that the company could continue to treat employees with contempt - and a bit of union-bashing, which is how the Taff Vale saga began.

In July 1900, an Abercynon signalman named Ewington was told he would be moved to another signal box in Treherbert, 16 miles from his home. He pleaded to be allowed to stay in Abercynon, citing a sick wife and 10 children under 17. The company refused. Ewington was an activist for the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants and so, an agitator, a trouble-maker. The move was his punishment and a warning to others.

On July 29 the railwaymen announced that unless Ewington was back in his old signal box by August 6 they'd quit work. The company said no. So 1,227 men began the great Taff Vale Strike on August 19.

Trade At A Standstill, the Echo reported. No coal trains clattered down to the docks, nothing moved and as the strike went on, we reported an escalation in the battle.

"Repeated outrages" were shocking staid citizens with the Cathays yard damaged, signal wires cut between Pontypridd and Hafod, those trains moving attacked by "stone-throwing mobs". Police were brought into Pontypridd, a preview of the even greater conflict South Wales would witness in the town 10 years on.

The Mayor of Cardiff, SA Brain (yes, that SA) tried to get the Taff Vale directors to arbitrate but they refused. Instead they imported men from an organisation called the National Free Labour Association and for the railwaymen these were blacklegs, a word that would return to haunt them.

The man behind the Taff Vale campaign was the general manager, Ammon Beasley. Even The Times, organ of the Establishment, described him as "a strong man whose characteristic fault was a stiffness of backbone which could be carried to extremes". One way of calling him a dictatorial bully. But he was confident. Those "free workers" had broken some 300 strikes in 10 years.

They were recruited from lodging houses, filled with beer, then sent to Cardiff. No beer, though, in Abercynon where, the Echo reported, barmaids refused to serve blacklegs. And there was that word again: blackleg. The Association's fatal mistake was to accuse the company of "decoying men for the purpose of blacklegging". On notices saying DRIVERS, FIREMEN, GUARDS, SIGNALMEN AND BRAKEMEN ARE ALL OUT came the lethal sentence: "Are you willing to be known as a blackleg?" The notice was signed by Richard Bell.

Beasley, aware that to call a man a blackleg was a form of intimidation not permitted by law, no doubt chuckled as he filed the notice away for future use.

Meanwhile, he contented himself by evicting all railwaymen and their families from companyowned cottages. You have to wonder where Mr Ewington, his sick wife and 10 kids ended up.

The strike ended on August 30 and that day Mr Justice Farwell granted an interim injunction against Bell and other Association officials restraining them from all forms of picketing. A week later he announced that the Association could be sued and that was enough for Beasley. That word "blackleg", he said, had harmed the company. He lodged a claim for damages.

He demanded PS24,626, finally accepting PS23,000 to the delight of employers around the country. He was rewarded by an "Employers' Testimonial Committee" with a PS1,000 bonus in 1903, another PS1,000 a year later plus a pair of silver candelabra and a pendant for his wife. That at a time when the Association was trying to get guards 33 shillings a week instead of 26 after six years' service, brakemen hoping for 25 shillings instead of a pound after five years.

The judgement made strikes almost impossible but there was a solution. Ramsay MacDonald, later the first Labour PM, told the unions: "A Labour Party in parliament is an immediate necessity."

In 1901, 41 unions with 375,931 members were affiliated to Labour. By 1904 it was 155 with 969,800 members. In 1906 the union funded 50 Labour candidates in the General Election and 29 were successful. Then came the Trades Disputes Act exempting trade unions from legal action.

So because of a signalman from Abercynon we saw the beginning of the bond between unions and Labour Party. There you go, Mr Crow.



| Union leader Bob Crow

| Above, the Taff Vale Railway and, below, the cheque for PS23,000 signed by Richard Bell and the trustees of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants which discharged the damages awarded to the Taff Vale Railway Company
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Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 27, 2013
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