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The Llanelli railway riots of 1911

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 09:55 UK time, Monday, 15 August 2011

One thing you can say about the Welsh - they're a pretty militant lot and they do not take kindly to exploitation. From the rebellion of Owain Glyndwr to the Rebecca Riots, from the Chartist march on Newport to countless miners' strikes at pits and collieries, perceived injustice has often led not just to argument and debate but to active protest and, occasionally, to riot.

Troops camped near Llanelli during the Railway Strike, 1911

Troops camped near Llanelli during the Railway Strike, 1911 (Image from Cardiff Central Library).

One hundred years ago this year, on 17 August 1911, the first ever national railway strike began in the steel town of Llanelli. The causes were many, not least poor wages, a 70 hour working week and compulsory overtime whenever management felt they needed it. 1911 was the year of "Great Unrest" all over Britain and it did not need very much for worker solidarity to assert itself in the industrial areas of south Wales.

When talks between the union and management broke down on 17 August there was an immediate "walk out," the Llanelli railway workers being quickly joined by thousands of tin plate workers from the area. Before long a 1,500 picket was forming a barricade at the two railway crossings to the east and west of Llanelli station. All train traffic was effectively stopped.

At 10am on Friday 18 August the Fishguard Express, taking passengers and goods to the main ferry port across the Irish Sea, was halted in Llanelli station. Striking workmen quickly raked out the fire from the engine's boilers, immobilizing it completely.

There was already a significant force of soldiers in Llanelli but now magistrates panicked and requested more troops from home secretary Winston Churchill. These were duly sent and by late afternoon there were at least 350 of them in the town. Before the end of the day this figure had grown to nearly 700.

The soldiers went quickly into action. After much skirmishing and a bayonet charge against unarmed workers, the eastern crossing was cleared. Unrest went on much of the night but on Saturday 19 August a train, driven by blackleg railwaymen, reached the station.

After standing for some time at the platform the train finally moved off at about 2.30 in the afternoon. A crowd of some 250 people followed it along the track, jeering and shouting, until it was finally forced to stop by the human barricade at the level crossing on the western side of the station.

A detachment of 80 soldiers under Major Stuart proceeded to clear the line, again at bayonet point. The crowd, rather than disperse, surged up the embankment and stood, hurling abuse and the occasional stone at the military. And then, with the Riot Act being read - the last time it has ever been read in mainland Britain - Major Stuart ordered his troops to open fire.

Two men were killed instantly. One, John John - Jac as he was known - was a local rugby star. The other, Leonard Worstell, was on weekend leave from the sanatorium where he was being treated for TB. He had only left the kitchen of his house, where he was shaving, to see what the noise and fuss were all about. There were other injuries in the crowd before the soldiers left, moving back to the station complex to cries of "Assassins" and "Murderers" from the onlookers.

The death of the two unarmed men created a furore that still surfaces in Llanelli, even today. Many local people believe the shooting was nothing more than a wilful act of murder.

Tragically, the strike had already been settled by this time, management and the government caving in - Churchill himself declared "They have beaten us." Railway workers had already achieved most of their demands with regard to pay and conditions before the events at the western crossing. But the shootings had lit a powder keg and in that hot, hot summer of 1911 troubles in Llanelli had only just begun.

As the afternoon and evening went on tensions and tempers grew. There was looting in Market Street and dozens of shops had their windows smashed and goods stolen. The rioting crowd even took materials and items from some of the goods wagons waiting in the railway sidings close to the station. Goods wagons and railway property were destroyed by the rioters.

At one point a wagon carrying explosives blew up, killing one man and severely injuring several more. Before the next morning three of the wounded had succumbed to their injuries, bringing the death toll in what were already being called the Llanelli Riots to six.

Soldiers continued to patrol the town, managing to clear the streets by midnight - but not before many more people were injured.

In the aftermath of the riots there were several notable events. Children at Bigyn School in the town were so appalled that they decided to arrange their own strike. They duly boycotted lessons as a way of marking the unjust killing of two innocent men.

A few days later an army deserter was found, many miles from Llanelli. He was Harold Spiers and the story he told was a frightening one. He had, he claimed, been in the party of soldiers at the western crossing but refused to fire on innocent and unarmed people. As a result he was arrested but managed to escape and flee.

Local legend - though its truth has never been confirmed - declares that Spiers was the Dai Bach y Soldiwr in the song Sosban Fach. Certainly that verse was added to the song after the riots but the truth will probably never be known.

The Llanelli Railway Riots of 1911 were a tragic and unfortunate series of events. Quite apart from the iniquities of the wages and working arrangements of the railway men, six innocent lives were lost. Yes, the strike was an early example of workers solidarity but you have to question the cost.

The story of the Llanelli riots on BBC Wales

Phil Carradice will be chatting with Roy Noble about the Llanelli railway riots on Tuesday 16 August, from 2pm on BBC Radio Wales.

Presenter Huw Edwards returns to his home town to re-tell the story of the Llanelli riots. A century after the death and destruction that marred the town's history, he attempts to set the record straight and bring to an end 100 years of shame. You can catch the programme Llanelli Riots: Fire In The West on Tuesday 16 August at 10.35pm on BBC One Wales.


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