Wednesday 11 July 2012, 11:25
The industrial history of Wales is studded with strikes, lock outs and riots but one series of violent altercations between striking miners and the forces of law and order that now seems almost forgotten - at least by a large portion of society - is the Ammanford anthracite strike of 1925.
The strike began 87 years ago, on 13 July 1925. For a period of 10 days the Carmarthenshire town of Ammanford was a virtual battleground as the police and miners struggled to gain control of the streets.
In 1925 the mining industry was beginning to encounter severe economic hardship. Cheap coal from the Ruhr basin in Germany - taken by the victorious Allies as part of the reparations settlement after the war - was eating into the profits of the coal owners. In just 12 months Welsh coal exports had fallen by over 20 million tons.
Add in the normal fluctuations of trade when waterways like the St Lawrence froze and thus prevented the import of coal and other raw materials into Canada, and it was clear that the situation was far from healthy. In No 1 and No 2 pits at Ammanford, where some of the finest anthracite coal in the world was mined, things soon became decidedly worse.
Two huge conglomerates, the United Anthracite Collieries and the Amalgamated Anthracite Collieries, owned the Ammanford pits as well as most of other the mines in Carmarthenshire and West Glamorgan and they now decided to ignore the long-established seniority rule.
Last in, first out
This policy of "last in, first out" was partly designed to protect union agitators and officials whenever redundancies were made - as they often were due to seasonal fluctuations in the trade. It had always been understood that men who had been laid off would be the first to be re-employed when things became easier. However, by ignoring the procedure mine owners could now weed out whoever they decided was a potential trouble maker.
Following the dismissal of a man called Will Wilson from No 1 pit, miners took their cause to the Fed, the largest miners Union, and within days a strike was called. Unrest spread like wildfire and soon only two collieries in the whole of the Dulais Valley and the Vale of Neath were working. Fearing civil unrest and major violence, authorities panicked and police were brought in from outside the area and billeted across the town and valley.
Marching through the night
One of the highlights of the strike, which grew gradually more violent and fractious as the weeks went on, was the march by thousands of miners from Ammanford to Crynant, a distance of over 20 miles. The march took place through the night and a few weeks later, on 21 July, was repeated in the opposite direction, over 10,000 striking miners tramping down the valley through the darkness.
Skirmishes between the miners and the police were commonplace. Part of the trouble stemmed from the fact that the police were not local men and had no understanding or sense of companionship with the miners. On 30 July they responded to a gathering of picketing miners at Betws with a baton charge - more charges at other collieries took place later in the day.
The Battle of Ammanford
Worst of all, however, was what has been called The Battle of Ammanford which began when 200 policemen - billeted in the old brewery at nearby Gwaun Cae Gurwen - were ambushed and attacked by miners on the Pontamman Bridge. The police were on their way to deal with a picket at No 2 pit in Ammanford and walked, totally unsuspecting, into the trap.
The "battle" lasted from 10.30pm at night until 3am in the morning before the miners were pushed back and police at last managed to gain control of the area.
And so it went on, skirmish following skirmish throughout the early summer months. Finally, the mine owners gave in and agreed to recognise the seniority rule. Miners returned to work on 2 August.
That was not the end of the story, however. In what was seen by many as an act of retaliation - although it could be argued that this was simply a rationalisation of resources in light of the economic situation - No 1 pit at Ammanford was closed down.
Nearly 200 miners faced prosecution for their part in the riots, 58 of whom received prison sentences of between two and 18 months.
The support of the community for these men was enormous. Each day during the trials coach loads of friends and families set out for the court in Carmarthen and there was wild enthusiasm whenever a prisoner was released. Men and women stood outside the court singing hymns and left wing songs such as The Red Flag.
The physical cost of the strike and riots was immense. One miner had been so badly beaten by the police that he was never able to work again - and yet, not one single policeman ever faced prosecution. Medals and medallions were minted by the International Class War Prisoners Aid Association and awarded to those miners who had served prison sentences.
Once the miners had returned to work and the prison sentences been served, things in Ammanford returned to normal. The fact that most of the police involved had been outsiders undoubtedly helped to restore relationships within the community.
The story of the Battle of Ammanford remains one of the least known episodes in Welsh industrial history - which is a shame as it reflects the fight of Welsh workers for justice and equal rights in the work place. It is part of our history.
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