On 7 November 1910, thousands of striking miners marched across the Rhondda valley in South Wales. At the front were two scabs they were driving out of the town. The crowd had dressed them in white shirts with notices pinned on, “Take a warning”.
This was the seventh strike day for 12,000 miners working for the Cambrian Combine in Rhondda. They had walked out at the start of the month over mining magnate DA Thomas’s decision to sack the whole workforce at the Ely Pit in Penygraig.
Their fight was part of a huge shift in the working class movement in Britain, as rank and file workers organised not only against the bosses but also against the conservatism of their own union leaders.
It laid the basis for some of the strongest fighting traditions of the British working class. And it was the Cambrian miners’ battle that fired the opening shot in the four-year strike wave by rail workers, dockers and others that became known as the Great Unrest.
Miners working on a new coal seam were asking for a higher wage to reflect the difficulty of their work—a vital issue as they were being paid by ton of coal produced, not by the hour.
The miners’ union leaders negotiated a slight increase and recommended the workers accept it.
But the rank and file were in no mood to do harder labour for lower pay.
After all, the South Wales coalfields had the worst record for mining disasters in the country—on average a miner was killed at work every two weeks.
Thomas issued lockout notices—to the 80 miners on the new seam and all 800 on the site—and tried to bring in non-union workers to replace them.
The Cambrian miners met him with huge resistance, sparking an unofficial strike wave that took in much of South Wales. At its peak it involved more than 30,000 workers.
The strikers shut down all the local pits—with one exception: Glamorgan Colliery in Llwynypia was still running using around 60 scab workers.
The strikers decided to “prevent any officials from [mine boss] Mr Llewellyn downward from entering the colliery yards” and launched a mass picket.
Police Captain Lindsay reported that the scabbing operation was “savagely attacked by large crowds of strikers”, and that, “The strike is totally different to any one I have previously experienced.”
But the real savagery came from the police who repeatedly baton-charged the strikers, driving them back towards the nearby town centre of Tonypandy.
Jesse Clark, a miner, later said of the police, “They were there to beat us and they were government men… Money people come first, you after.”
The police’s violence was the real cause of the events now known as the Tonypandy Riots. The following evening, the miners came out onto the streets, taking out their anger on local shops and businesses.
This wasn’t mindless destruction. The first shop to be smashed up belonged to the local chief magistrate, while workers’ homes were left alone.
There was a carnival atmosphere. A haberdasher recalls: “People were seen inside... handing goods out… afterwards walking on the Square wearing various articles of clothing which had been stolen and asking each other how they looked. They were not a bit ashamed.”
The police attacked the crowds and injured more than 500. One of the miners, Samuel Rhys, later died from his injuries.
The then home secretary Winston Churchill sent in troops against the strikers. Tonypandy and the surrounding areas were effectively put under military occupation.
“We were living like the inhabitants of a besieged city,” said leading miner AJ Cook.
The leaders of the national Miners Federation of Great Britain and the South Wales Miners Federation who came to the area showed little sympathy with strikers. A huge demonstration of thousands demanded a national strike—the leaders wouldn’t budge.
Miners’ Federation vice president WE Harvey said afterwards: “The men are out of hand entirely. The position of affairs has been stigmatised as a reign of terror, and that description is not far from the truth.”
The miners were fighting on three fronts: against the bosses, against the state in the form of the police and
military, and also against their own union leaders.
William “Mabon” Abraham—president of the strikers’ South Wales Miners Federation and Liberal-Labour MP for Rhondda—got involved.
He was known for his approach of resolving disputes by appealing to the bosses’ “reason”.
His first concern was for fellow Liberal MP and mine owner Thomas: “My friend DA Thomas has been suffering from poor health. He will not benefit in health if he were to hear of such a strike.”
Striker Will Mainwaring replied, “Mr DA Thomas may be your friend… He is not our friend.”
“Half a loaf is better than none,” Mabon would often tell them.
Noah Rees of the Cambrian Combine strike committee replied aptly, “We are demanding the bakehouse.”
On 22 November another round of rioting was sparked by the news of scabs being brought in from Cardiff.
In Penygraig, bricks, crockery and chamber-pots rained down from windows onto police and in Tonypandy workers fought the police with tools, iron and flints. One local newspaper reported, “Women joined with the men in the unequal combat.” The police had to be rescued by the troops.
In December, 13 miners stood trial for their part in the rioting. For each of the six days of the trial, up to 10,000 miners marched the five miles to the court to support them.
And they continued to battle the scabs. During one miners’ meeting, a boy suddenly ran in, shouting, “They’re in the dust cart; blacklegs in the dust cart.” A crowd set off surrounded the cart and overturned it, leaving the men lying in the street.
The strike continued for another eight months—but in the end the union leaders managed to force the miners back to work, and to accept the original offer they had negotiated.
The lesson of the strike is not that they fought and lost, but that they laid the ground for a new way of fighting.
Instead of breaking the union, the defeat turned the miners’ attention to dealing with leadership betrayals in the future (see box right).
As it turned out, with the Cambrian miners’ brave battle the Great Unrest had begun.
The Miners’ Next Step: ‘Fight rather than negotiate’
The struggle didn’t end when the strikes did. Transformed by their experiences, the miners went on to set out a strategy for their union’s future in the influential pamphlet The Miners’ Next Step, published in 1912.
South Wales miners and leading syndicalists AJ Cook, Noah Ablett and WH Mainwaring had formed an Unofficial Reform Committee.
Syndicalists believed trade unions, as workers’ organisations, should take over and manage industry.
The pamphlet was their manifesto: a call for one, industry-wide, rank and file controlled miners’ union, powerful enough to pose a challenge to the mine owners’ control over production—“constructed to fight rather than to negotiate”.
It condemned the South Wales Miners Federation’s policy of conciliation and negotiation, calling for a new “policy of open hostility”.
It called for the union to launch a national campaign for a minimum wage of eight shillings, and a seven-hour day.
The draft constitution set up an executive council made up of rank and file workers—no officials were allowed.
Their militant arguments found an echo across the coal industry—but it had flaws. It concludes from union leaders’ betrayals that all leadership is bad, even rank and file leaders. “All leaders become corrupt, in spite of their own good intentions,” it says.
It also does not spell out how it will achieve its aim “to build up an organisation, that will ultimately take over the mining industry, and carry it on in the interests of the workers”.
“The elimination of the employer,” it says, “can only be obtained gradually… If by the force of a more perfect organisation and more militant policy, we reduce profits, we shall at the same time tend to eliminate the shareholders who own the coalfield.”
But it still inspired a generation of miners and other workers. And it remains an inspiration today.
“Missionaries” distributing the pamphlet to coalfields across Britain were a key factor behind the national miners’ strike later that year.
- The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield
- British Syndicalism 1900-1914 by Bob Holton (out of print but available in many libraries)
- Syndicalism and the Transition to Communism by Ralph Darlington
- Read The Miners’ Next Step online at www.bit.ly/a4SCJQ
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