A history of Welsh protest

Tuesday 29 November 2011, 14:15

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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The strike by public sector workers planned for Wednesday 30 November 2011 threatens to be the largest organised withdrawal of labour for many years. Without going into the rights and wrongs of the matter, it demonstrates, if nothing else, the deep feelings of unease and unrest felt by most, if not all, ordinary working men and women regarding their working conditions and pension entitlements.

In Wales there has been a long-standing history of protest against perceived injustice. That sense of rankling, of being unjustly treated, certainly lay at the root of the Owain Glyndŵr rebellion in the closing years of the 14th and early part of the 15th centuries.

Tonypandy after the strike 1910

Tonypandy after the strike 1910

When Lord Grey appropriated part of Glyndŵr's land at Glyndyfrdwy in north Wales, the Welshman initially took the matter to court, intent on staying within the law. It was only when he was met with the off-hand and insulting comment "What care we for barefoot Welsh dogs" that Glyndŵr knew it was time for drastic and dramatic action. The rest, as they say, is history.

The story of Wales and her industrial heritage is littered with incidents of miners, iron workers and quarrymen being pushed to the margins of society and, as a consequence, feeling that they had no option other than to withdraw their labour and make a formal protest.

Only very rarely was there any intention of deliberate and systematic violence, at least not to begin with - that, unfortunately, came almost as a by-product. The Rebecca Riots of the 1840s are, perhaps, an exception as the intention of these, largely, agricultural labourers, pushed beyond all reason by a variety of economic factors, was always to destroy the toll gates and the workhouses in rural areas.

In the main, however, the intention of public gatherings and the occasional withdrawal of labour was simply to protest and show the unhappiness of the workers. The last half of the 18th century, for example, was marked by a series of disturbances centred on the availability of food, right across the country from Pembrokeshire in the west to Machynlleth and Bangor in the north.

It was a time of harsh corn laws and while food supplies were actually quite adequate, much of it was marked down for sale and export to foreign buyers. And sometimes, desperate to feed their families, the initial protest spilled over into fighting and violence.

As early as 1740, while the industrialisation of Wales was still gathering momentum, a group of miners gathered together in Rhuddlan to protest against low pay - the low funds with which, of course, they had to pay rent and feed their families. The military was sent in to disperse the groups of miners and violence erupted. In 1758 a similar protest by the quarrymen of Cilgwyn saw a mass march on the town of Caernarfon in an attempt to seize corn that was being held there prior to shipment abroad. This time two of the protesters were killed.

The Napoleonic Wars might have brought a degree of prosperity and economic growth to the industrial parts of Wales but the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815 ensured a long period of peace in Europe. And that, of course, brought a decline in the amount of iron required by the armed forces and a consequent decrease in wages and, in some areas, unemployment.

In 1816 the riots in Merthyr and Treorchy were so serious that troops were brought in to disperse over 5,000 protesters. Ironmaster William Crawshay was forced to take refuge in a farmhouse while his compatriot Josiah John Guest barricaded himself into his fortified house rather than face the wrath of his workers.

This was also the time of enclosures, farmers and sheep herders losing the land they had worked for years as land owners, many of them in-comers to the area, tried to change the face of the countryside. The War of the Little Englishman, which took place in rural west Wales saw 500 farmers and agricultural labourers attempting to stop one wealthy Englishman enclosing what had previously been common land.

Newport mural

Chartism in Wales - Newport Rising

The story of the Merthyr Riots, the Scotch Cattle and the Chartists - in particular the raising of the Red Flag on Hirwaun Common prior to the Merthyr Riots and the Chartist march on Newport in November 1839 - are too well known to warrant recounting here.

However, the protests and, in many cases, the riots that accompanied them, were all symptomatic of an oppressed people for whom debate and discussion, argument and reason, had led nowhere. There was, literally, nothing else to do but strike. And as the 19th and 20th centuries unfolded, things did not get any easier.

Such was the strength of feeling amongst north Wales quarrymen that in 1896 they embarked on a one-year withdrawal of labour. The hardships endured by the men and their families are barely imaginable. Not even the pressing needs of the British war machine could prevent south Wales miners, unhappy with their working conditions and wages, coming out on strike in July 1915 and it required all the skill of Lloyd George - and important government concessions - to get the miners back to work.

The story of the General Strike of 1926 is well known but not many realise that the nation-wide stoppage was followed by a 10 month coal strike as the miners refused to submit to government pressure. In the mining valleys of Wales the strike brought terrible hardship and anxiety but, in the minds of most miners, it was a battle that had to be fought.

And so it went on, throughout the 20th century, ordinary working men and women feeling that they had no option but to strike in order to get their views and feelings understood by the country as a whole. In 1935, for example, over 250,000 people took to the streets to protest against a reduction of unemployment benefit - it certainly made people sit up and take notice but, ultimately, it had little overall effect.

Miners wives at protest

Welsh miners' wives attend a protest rally

It was the same with the Miners Strike of 1984-85. A doomed attempt to curtail the actions of the National Coal Board, which had announced its intention of closing 20 mines, it was a battle that brought hatred and bitterness to the Welsh coal mining communities. In the opening month of the strike Wales was firmly behind the action, with nearly 100% of miners refusing to work - the largest stoppage anywhere in the country.

Even when the strike ended the following March, Wales still had the strongest support for the protest with almost 95% of miners off work. The death of taxi driver David Wilkie, killed while transporting a working miner to the Merthyr Vale Colliery, was one of the factors leading to the end of the strike. And of course, ultimately, losing the fight meant losing the mining industry - as Arthur Scargill and the other miner leaders knew only too well.

Wales has a noble tradition of resisting oppression, whether it be from individuals or from Government. Violence should never be condoned but the right to make peaceful protest against iniquity and wrong decision making is something that lies deep in the heart of all Welsh people.

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    Comment number 1.

    I remember the ’84 – ’85 strike well Phil. I was working in the mining industry at the time but the Union I was in was not allowed to strike for mine safety reasons. We did get picketed though, but the miners were good hearted with us as they understood the position we were in.

    On a personal note I remember it caused me some problems. Our village had no gas supply at the time and hot water and heating was all by coal. My coal stock dwindled and I could get no more until I was left with a pile of ‘slack’ (‘small coal’, ‘duff’) in the bottom of the bunker. I resorted to digging clay out of bank and rolling it into ‘balls’ (‘pelau’, ‘stums’) mixed with the slack coal to burn. That brought back memories of my childhood!

    When that ran out, it was getting wood from wherever one could to burn. Whilst trying to salvage a log that had washed down the local river, I conspired to drop it onto my right hand causing a serious injury. So I was off work for 6 weeks whilst that healed up. We had to buy 2 bottled gas heaters to keep warm, and an electric tea-urn to heat water to bath the kids!

    Another memory is that I visited Pembrokeshire sometime during that strike, and that awful oil fired power station they had built in West Pennar Pill was going full blast. When the sun went behind the yellow sulphurous plume from the chimney it was like looking at the world through yellow tinted spectacles.

    We all knew it was the death knell of the industry and in less than 10 years thousands of us were made redundant. I never had what I would consider a ‘proper job’ again.

 
 

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