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Timeto Remember: WORKERS' STRIKE BLOW; The cheque that rewrote our history.

Byline: Dan O'Neill

SO WHY are we printing the photograph of a cheque for pounds 23,000, dated March 18, 1903, made out to the Taff Vale Railway Co. and signed

by Richard Bell, general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants?

Because it was much, much more than a cheque. The country's triumphant employers claimed it as a document of surrender crippling the young unions. But also, and this was something they could never have guessed, when Richard Bell signed his name a century ago he was signing a treaty between the fledgling Labour Party and the unions, beginning an alliance which still (barely) lasts.

When Catherine Zeta Jones can call a million no more than small change, pounds 23,000 doesn't sound a lot. But in 1903 it was well over 400 years' pay for one of those railway ``servants'' led by Richard Bell. So to the union the cost of the ``Taff Vale Judgement'' was colossal.

It had begun two years earlier when managerial muscle and anti-union tactics triggered the troubles that would bring one of the bitterest strikes in our history. An Abercynon signalman named Ewington - first name now lost - was an active recruiter for the union. So he had to be taught a lesson, said Taff Vale's general manager Amman Beasley. The agitator was moved to a signal box in Treher-bert, 16 miles from his home. Ewington, who had a sick wife and 10 children, desperately needed to stay. Treherbert or out, said Beasley.

This was the spark to ignite the blaze. The men gave management an ultimatum. If Ewington wasn't back in Abercynon within a week the entire workforce would quit. Fine, said Beasley. So 1,227 men began the great Taff Vale Strike on August 19, 1901.

This was a time when coal was king, when millions of tons left our valleys, when our docks boomed. But to move that coal from pits to docks meant trains. No trains.

TRADE AT A STANDSTILL the Echo announced. Nothing was moving in Cardiff docks and few pits were working. We also reported ``Repeated Outrages'' including at-tacks on the Cathays Yard by strikers while signal wires were cut down in the valleys and trains were stoned. Inevitably, police were brought in to protect those few trains still running.

Cardiff's Mayor S A Brain - yes, that one - asked the Taff Vale directors to arbitrate. Their contemptuous answer was to bring in men from an outfit called the National Free Labour Organisation. To the workers - blacklegs; today - scabs.

The union claimed men were ``recruited from cheap lodging houses'' as far away as Scotland, ``filled with beer'' and then sent to trouble spots. As tension increased Beasley was described even by that organ of the Establishment The Times as ``a strong man whose characteristic fault was a stiffness of backbone which could be carried to extremes.'' In other words, a stubborn tyrant. But he was confident. His ``free workers'' had broken up some 300 strikes in 10 years. Before this one ended on August 30, Beasley contented himself by evicting all railway workers from company cottages.

Then he played his ace. The union had used the term ``blackleg'' in posters and newspapers. By law this was a form of intimidation, said Beasley, and had harmed the company. He sued and agreed to accept the famous pounds 23,000.

Employers around the country rejoiced. The court decision meant ``the power of unions to promote and engineer strikes had been most seriously crippled''. And they were grateful.

Beasley's reward was a pounds 1,000 bo-nus in the spring of 1903, another pounds 1,000 a year later plus a pendant for his wife from an ``Employers' Testimonial Committee''. Compare that with the pound a week Beasley's brakesmen got after five years' service.

The unions were impotent, strikes made almost impossible. Ramsay MacDonald, later the first Labour Prime Minister cashed in. ``A Labour Party in Parliament is now an immediate necessity,'' he told the workers. He got it.

In the 1906 General Election union money elected 29 MPs who would push through the Trades Disputes Act exempting trades unions from legal action. So in the end that pounds 23,000 might have looked a good investment. When Richard Bell wrote that cheque, he was helping to write history.


AGE OF STEAM The Taff Va e Railway brake van at the Cathays depot, Cardiff, in 1900. On the right is the guard, Richard Jones, whose name is on the side of the van.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Mar 14, 2003
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