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Unrest rolled out across the Valleys

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Welsh workers’ struggles from the mid-19th century onwards were very powerful, writes Siân Ruddick in the second part of our series
Issue 2134

T he 19th century saw the development and growth of workers’ struggles and organisation in Wales. The emergence of Chartism—which demanded the vote and political representation for workers—galvanised people across Britain.

Chartism developed into a mass movement and posed a sharp challenge to the ruling class.

It radicalised the relatively new industrial working class in Wales, where some of the movement’s most violent and spirited clashes took place.

London police were called to Montgomeryshire in 1839 to quell unrest that had developed over opposition to the workhouse, where impoverished workers were forced to reside.

The police intervention was unsuccessful—by the next week the Chartists had taken control of the town of Llanidloes.

This unrest continued and a few months later 20,000 workers marched to Newport where some of them attacked soldiers.

Even after the defeat of Chartism in 1848, radical journals, papers and debating societies lived on among the working class of South Wales.

The miners of South Wales played an astounding role in the production of the world’s fuel in the second half of the 19th century. France, Spain and Italy in Europe and Egypt, Argentina and Brazil further afield were all dependent on Welsh coal.

Industries, railways and ships were all powered by coal from the Valleys and Cardiff was the world’s most important port by 1890.

Migrants powered much of this production.

Migration has been a central part of Wales’s history, both through movement from rural areas to the new industrial centres in the south and the arrival of people moving there from all over the world.

Wages in the pits were linked to the price of coal, and were reduced if it went down.

Conditions in the mining communities were grim. Harsh working conditions were coupled with poor housing. The bosses and dignitaries held vast feasts while workers were barely able to feed themselves.

The years 1889-91 saw a massive growth in union membership as everyone from rail workers to shop staff came together. This was part of the “New Unionism” that swept Britain.

The level of strikes soared, but by 1897 the price of coal was falling. When workers demanded a minimum wage, the bosses locked them out of the pits.

Yet by 1910 the workers were ready to fight. When 70 miners refused the wage offered to them in the Cambrian Combine mines, management responded by locking out all 950 miners.

Within two months, all 11,000 workers at Cambrian were on strike. This grew to 30,000 as the strike spread across the coalfields.

Then home secretary Winston Churchill sent troops and police to put down the dispute. Police attacked pickets at Tonypandy, killing one of them.

The miners were eventually defeated, but many were keen to find a way forward. They launched The Miners Next Step pamphlet, which called for rank and file control of unions and of industry.

In 1911 militant miners pulled other pits out on strike and into activity in an unofficial strike. Seamen also struck at Cardiff docks in the same year.

The Great Unrest, which saw workers rock the bosses across Britain between 1910-14, was ended by the wave of patriotism that accompanied the outbreak of the First World War.

But when workers took power in the 1917 Russian Revolution it radicalised millions around the world who were sickened by the war’s slaughter. Wales was not untouched.

There was major class struggle between 1919-26. In January 1919 miners across Britain voted to strike. The government feared that transport and industry would come to a halt as there were no reserve supplies.

But despite the power of the workers, by 1921 bosses in the pits had reclaimed control. When miners rejected wage cuts of 45 percent they were locked out.

There were calls for a general strike, but the “Triple Alliance” of railway, transport and miners’ unions failed to follow this through.

On Black Friday, 15 April, union leaders quashed all hopes of solidarity and victory. The miners stayed out for three months nonetheless but went back defeated.

Strikes declined but by 1925 the unemployment of miners stood at 26 percent.

A mood was growing among workers to take action in Wales and across Britain.

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