The Great Unrest

The Great Unrest

The divisions in Wales continued. The striking contrasts between the depressed rural areas of North and Mid-Wales and the booming industrial South and East became even more dramatic. From 1880 up to World War I it seemed that nothing could stop the expansion of industrial production in South Wales. The coal industry dominated everything, with over a quarter of a million men working in the mines, producing one fifth of the total British production of coal. Cardiff exported more coal than any other port in the world, up to 40 percent of the exports of Britain and 25 percent of world exports. In the frenzy of prosperity it was conveniently ignored that Welsh coal was dependent upon world markets. There was total dependence upon one single commodity: everything depended upon there being a world market for Welsh coal.

Other industries were already in trouble. In the United States, where Welshman David Thomas had helped create the world's largest iron industry, the import of Welsh iron rails completely ceased. In 1891, the McKinley Tariff brought an end to US dependence on Welsh tin plate, creating wholesale reductions in the work force and the resulting depression in those areas that produced it. But the future of the Welsh coal industry, employing one third of the male labour force of the country, seemed secure.

It was conditions in the coal industry that at last created a new force in British politics: The Trade Union.

In 1873, Francis Kilvert, a country parson, and very much a member of the establishment, wrote the following entry in his diary of 1873: "I found old Giles without coal, thanks to that strike of the South Wales colliers and the baneful, tyrannical influence of that cursed union."

Kilvert was echoing much of the prevailing sentiment against the trade unions that were beginning to influence the political life of Wales in the latter half of the 19th century.   We have already noted the failure of the first attempts at organising the workers and the scorn in which union leaders were held. After the execution of the English unionists known as The Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834 and the consequent transfer of union energies to the Chartist movement in the 1840's, unionism seemed dead.

Intolerable working conditions, low wages and complete control of the workers' lives by the coal owner and iron masters, however, meant that the dream lived on.

An editorial in "The Cambrian" as early as April, 1840 stated, "The discontent of the lower and working classes has assumed a new form which threatens to become far more mischievous than mere political agitation, however fiercely carried on. We allude to the institution and spread of Socialism. Under pretence of improving the condition of the poor, Socialism is endeavouring, permanently, to poison their happiness, by depraving their morals, and depriving them of all those consolations flowing from the principles of religion. It is of little use to show that Mr. Owen is a lunatic."

The paper was referring to Welsh-born Robert Owen, the reformer and visionary, who had attempted to improve factory conditions, shorten working hours and educate factory children, throughout Wales, Scotland and parts of the US.  His Grand National Consolidated trade Union, begun in 1834, was the culmination of his attempts to organise labour by providing a peaceable outlet for the aspirations of the workers.

The same edition of "The Cambrian" reported a debate in the House of Lords, where the Bishop of Essex had warned against the dangers of Socialism. In the 1870's there were new attempts to revive the movement; the first union to achieve any success in the fight for improving working conditions and a decent wage was the Amalgamated Association of Miners, begun in Lancashire in 1869. Fierce resistance from the coal owners to a strike in 1875, however, soon bankrupted the union and caused its dissolution.

In 1873, the coal owners had formed the Monmouthshire and South Wales Coal owners Association in which 85 companies owning over 200 mines formed a united front against the unions. The defeat of the miners, two years later, led to the setting up of the system of payment known as the "sliding scale," whereby wage levels were tied to the selling price of coal. The system meant that there was no chance of collective bargaining over wages. However, attempts to form unions persisted, and in the Rhondda Valley the Cambrian Miners Association in 1877 began its efforts, under the leadership of Mabon (William Abraham). The first of the new breed of Welshmen who would become dominant in the coalfields.

Mabon had vigorously supported the adoption of the sliding scale as a way to avoid conflict and retain jobs for the miners. With his belief that "Half a loaf is better than no loaf," Mabon was able to keep the peace between owners and miners for 20 years. By his efforts, he was able to achieve some concessions for his workers, including modifications to the sliding scale and a holiday on the first Monday of each month, Mabon's Monday. Mabon, the very first miner's representative from Wales was elected Lib-Lab MP for Rhondda in 1885. He firmly believed that the interests of capital and labour were identical and was aided by the fact that the price of coal and the price of commodities did not vary too much at the time.

Standards of living in the coal fields showed a substantial increase in the 1880's and 90's, and more and more immigrants came to settle in the long, narrow valleys that rapidly filled with the characteristic terraces. Without industry, (except for the coal mines and iron works of small areas of Flint and Denbigh and the slate quarries of Gwynedd) and short of land (other than that owned by the few wealthy, dominant families such as the Wynnes and the Mostyns) the men of Merioneth, Cardigan, Montgomery, Radnor and Pembroke left their small holdings by the thousands, to take up residence in the counties of Glamorgan, or Monmouth, or to take their families to England. Poor harvests in Wales over a long period and lack of employment meant that many would never return.

In England, as a response to poor working conditions, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was formed in 1893. At first it had little impact on Wales, where the Liberal Party continued to dominate, but the continuing immigration into the Welsh coalfields, of workers from England and Ireland, created a new generation of miners suspicious of Mabon's faith in the partnership between labour and capital. The year 1889 saw the founding of the Miner's Federation of Great Britain at Newport and although many still supported Mabon and the sliding scale, the federation grew in strength; it argued for the creation of a Board of Arbitration to replace the sliding scale and the restriction of the work day to eight hours.

In 1898, the "Llais Llafur" (Voice of Labour) was begun in Ystalyfera. During the same year, a bitter strike in the South Wales coalfield convinced many miners that the methods of such leaders as Mabon were too conciliatory and that more radical methods were needed.

Following the failure of the strike, the South Wales Miners' Federation came into being. Mabon was its first president, having been persuaded to change his support of the sliding scale to advocating its total abolition, which was achieved in 1903 and the Federation ("the Fed") would attract a quarter of a million members, its activities dominating the lives of the people of the valleys.

In 1900 in the Taff Vale Railway Company dispute, judgement was given in favour of the company and against the striking workers, who had formed the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. The huge costs levied against the union practically ensured the creation of a new party in British politics, the unions saw that they had to have legislation to guarantee their rights. As a result of that action and the visit in 1898 of Keir Hardie, the chairman of the Independent Labour Party, the Labour Representative Committee (LRC) was founded in London to promote the interests of the trade unions. From 1906, it became known as the Labour Party.

The Lib-Lab tradition that attracted such leaders in Wales as Mabon was not radical enough for the majority of workers; they needed their own representative in Parliament. At a time when the pro's and con's of the so-called Boer War was causing deep divisions in the ranks of the Liberal Party, Keir Hardie, a Scotsman, was chosen by the LRC as a candidate for one of the two seats at Merthyr. Knowing how to appeal to his Welsh voters, he adopted the slogan "The Red Dragon and the Red Flag."

Easily elected in the only constituency to return a socialist to Parliament, Hardy was proud to represent the working man in the top-hatted House of Commons by wearing his deerstalker.

For the time being and until MPs were awarded salaries in 1911, which enabled candidates could be from non-wealthy families, it was the Liberal Party that was most effective in bringing much needed changes to Britain. One of the primary architects in those revolutionary changes was David Lloyd George, the solicitor from Criccieth elected in 1890 for Caernarfon Borough.

His rise through the ranks of Parliament was rapid. In 1905 he became President of the Board of Trade and three years later, Chancellor of the Exchequer. During his tenure with the Board of Trade, he acknowledged the role of trade unions in collective bargaining. In 1908 as Chancellor, he introduced a scheme of social security (Old Age Pensions).

In 1909, his scheme to raise the necessary revenue from his "People's Budget", in which he introduced new taxes on the wealthy landowners.  Rejection of this bill, by the landlord-filled House of Lords, ultimately led to the Parliament Act of 1911 that drastically reduced that senior, but now senile body's powers.

In 1911, Lloyd George managed to further upset the landed gentry and endear himself to the workers by establishing National Insurance, against sickness and unemployment. Known to many in England as the curse from Wales, the energetic Welshman was able to convince his Liberal-led government to pass such important legislation that restricted the miners' hours of work to eight hours a day, counteracted the effects of the Taff Vale Judgement, established labour exchanges and safeguarded the interests of exploited workers. In the face of all these achievements, the Labour Party could only stand on the sidelines; it had to wait for what has been termed the Great Unrest to establish itself firmly in the Welsh political scene. For now, socialism was still tarred with the brushes of immorality and treason.

The Great Unrest was felt throughout the industrialised world. In Wales, it manifested itself most prominently in two areas. In the north West, many of the most productive slate quarries were owned by Lord Penrhyn and the growth of unionism among his quarrymen was fiercely resisted by Penrhyn, who in his magnificent castle on the shores of the Menai Straights demanded submissiveness and obedience from the workers in the slate quarries on his estates.

The quarrymen had traditionally worked through "the bargain" system by which an agreement with the management gave them some measure of autonomy as contractors. In order to retain these rights, the workers struck on 22 November 1900,  in what was to become the longest-lasting dispute in British history, and one that ended in complete defeat for the workers. Even underground, in the most appalling working conditions, the miners had met in discussion groups or impromptu eisteddfodau. Sadly, the bitterness engendered between strikers and "blackleg" miners divided whole communities and they never recovered their sense of solidarity. Thousands of young men left for the coal mines of South Wales, or for work in English cities, such as Liverpool. By the time World War I began, cheaper roofing materials were entering the world markets and the slate industry, at its peak employing 18,000 men, would never recover.

In the South, however, because of the vast numbers of workers involved, the Great Unrest produced the most dramatic results. The South Wales coalfield, in particular the Valleys, experienced the greatest upheaval during the years 1900 to the beginning of the First World War. In an area that saw unprecedented population growth, the real value of the miners' wages had been declining drastically due to inflation. The mine owners, in order to save money, were reluctant to invest in labour-saving machinery and safety measures, so mining remained a dangerous manual industry in which life expectancy was very short. Explosions, such as the one at Senghenydd in 1913 that killed 439 men and boys, totally devastated local communities.

Resentment at the owners seemingly callous disregard for the welfare of their men served to increase the agitation for social and political change. Hostility to capitalism and an embrace of socialism created a new political climate in South Wales, that abandoned the Liberal Party and made the whole region epitomise the general unrest. A more radical form of politics entered the picture. Men such as Noah Ablett were not satisfied with the slow progress of either the Independent Labour Party or the South Wales Miners' Federation.

A dispute in 1909 in which Ablett played a prominent role, led to the formation of the Central Labour College in London that was patronised by the South Wales Miners Federation (the "Fed") and the National Union of Railwaymen. Teaching socialist, even Marxist theory, the college educated many Welsh workers, including James Griffiths, Aneurin Bevan and Ness Edwards, who became pivotal figures in the struggles of the miners. They were taught that industrial action was necessary to achieve ownership of the mines and control of the whole system of production. To help achieve these aims, the Unofficial Reform Committee met at Tonypandy, Rhondda, in 1911. It was there that a disagreement over pay began a series of strikes that affected the whole South Wales coalfield. The miners unions' demanded legislation to ensure their rights to a fair wage for working difficult mines.

Under pressure from the miners in the Rhondda, the Miners Federation of Great Britain, to which the South Wales Miners' Federation were affiliated, persuaded their members, in all British coalfields to join the strike in 1912. The effect of so much disruption of labour led to the government passing the Minimum Wage Bill in the same year; furthermore, it gave the miners a sense of power and attracted many more to their cause.

Mabon's influence was now completely dead and the period was marked by much violence, with the Tonypandy Riot symbolising much of the turmoil in the coalfields. The presence of armed soldiers, sent by Winston Churchill as Home Secretary, created a hatred of the English government and generated support for the more radical elements of socialism. The Tonypandy miners were joined by strikers in the mines of the Cynon Valley, by seamen in the docks at Cardiff, and by railwaymen at Llanelli. All were resisted by the authorities and all resulted in riots, property damage, and some loss of life. Then came the Great War of 1914 to 1918 and Wales was once again to undergo a dramatic change.

Welshmen joined to fight the enemies of Great Britain. Like the Irish volunteers, the Welsh responded to give their lives in the service of another country. It certainly helped the cause that Lloyd George, their favourite son, had a meteoric career during the course of the conflict, becoming Minister of Munitions, Secretary for War and Prime Minister. Many fellow Welshmen, hanging on to his coat tails, profited from the War by gaining important posts at Westminster. Propaganda from the Government and the pulpit ensured that war hysteria and patriotic fervour were well fuelled. In Wales, there were not too many who opposed the War; fear of being branded as cowards, or worse still, as traitors who would turn their backs on the need to help the small defenceless nations of Europe stand up to the German military machine stifled much dissent. In the mad rush to arms, it was conveniently forgotten that so often in her history, Wales herself had seen all efforts at gaining independence crushed by a powerful neighbour for whom she was now willing to fight. Germany was portrayed as a great evil that no Christian could tolerate, and Socialists and Nonconformists in Wales marched happily to the colours singing their stirring hymns.

Welsh regiments were proud of their part in this great Crusade. Over 280,000 Welshmen shared experiences with soldiers from all parts of Britain and the Empire; it was inevitable that much of their provincial outlook would be broken down. It was hard to think of Welsh independence when sharing the trenches with Irish, Scots, English soldiers all united in a common cause. The continuance of that Anglo-Welsh identity begun in the Valleys that so dominated Welsh life in the 12th century, certainly found an ideal breeding ground in the mud of Flanders. In the meantime, the great loss of life in the senseless battles led to military conscription being introduced in 1916. By that time, disillusionment with the progress of the War and the massive carnage in the trenches, in which 40,000 Welshmen were killed, was beginning to profoundly affect attitudes. The battles of the Somme and Ypres did not turn the tide of the War, but they left a bitter resentment of British leadership at home.

On the home front, socialist ideas continued to grow; leaders such as Arthur Horner, from Merthyr, appeared. He argued that the Germans were no worse an enemy than the mine operators and coal owners of Wales. (In 1920, Horner became a member of the British Communist Party). Unrest began to spread throughout south Wales, supplier of most of the coal upon which the navies of the British Empire depended so heavily. Aware of their importance in the war effort, in which demand for coal appeared to be endless, the miners of the Fed voted to strike in opposition to the Conscription Bill. The refusal of the government to accede to many of their demands only served to increase membership of the union; more and more miners joined with their comrades to fight for and keep their progress in obtaining better working conditions and decent wages. The increase in their social militancy served to exacerbate hostility towards capitalism, and the gap between worker and owner continued to widen. The days of Mabon, with his belief in the benefits of mutual co-operation seemed gone forever.

The government response, in a time of War, was predictable; it took over control of the coal industry. Events in Russia, where the Tsar was forced to abdicate, encouraged the south Wales miners to embrace socialistic, even Bolshevik ideas; many a revolutionary song found its way into the repertoires of the Valley choirs. Under the circumstances, the Labour Party flourished and became a full-time party which was setting itself to do battle in all the Welsh constituencies. A report commissioned by Lloyd George to look at conditions in industry concluded that events of an explosive nature could be expected at the conclusion of the War, for the majority of the miners had adopted an attitude that was completely hostile to their employers and to the whole economic system.

The prediction found itself coming to fruition in the turmoils that began in 1919. The rising militancy of workers all over Europe, aided by the immensity of the problems of demobilisation and the repressive measures of the government and the police forces, could only mean strikes and industrial unrest that could paralyse the economy for not just days, but weeks at a time. During the War, circumstances had ensured that the state took control of much of people's lives. All areas of agriculture and industry were controlled by government boards; mines and railways came under public control, and there was a great expansion of much-needed social provisions such as hospitals, improved sanitation and other facilities concerning public health. Throughout the War, prices were controlled, food was rationed, and in general, living conditions greatly improved.

When the War ended, there was no great rush to revert to the old system. Encouraged by their recent gains and by their strength, the miners pressed for more: they demanded an increase in wages, improved working conditions and a shortened working day; they believed that a nationalised industry was the only way to accomplish these goals. When the South Wales Miners' Federation proposed nationalisation, the Miners' Federation of Great Britain eagerly accepted the proposal. A national strike to achieve their ends put the coal owners in a dilemma; they did not want to lose a lucrative business but did not want to yield to the unions. Lloyd George's compromise was to set up a commission to examine wages and work hours, the Royal Commission on Coal of 1919. Under the chairmanship of Judge Sankey, a mixed body of commissioners meant that the report of the miners and economists sympathetic to Labour supported the Federation's demands; that of the coal owners completely rejected them. Consequently, the commission failed to present a clear, unified position, and the government rejected a policy of nationalisation. The miners were infuriated; they felt betrayed. Lloyd George's name became anathema in the coal fields of South Wales and the Labour Party continued its rise in popularity as possessing the only voice the workers could trust. Another strike took place in 1920 supported by the railwaymen.

From then on, the coal industry could no longer exercise its muscle by virtue of its near-world monopoly. The mines of France and Belgium got back into full production; they were joined by a huge increase in the number of Polish mines, all able to sell coal much cheaper than south Wales. In addition, the United States was expanding its export coal market in Europe. Welsh coal, difficult to mine and costly to purchase, could no longer compete. In less than one full year, the price of Welsh coal fell by one half. The government, which had partly nationalised the mines during the War, gave full control back to the owners, whose first action was to introduce scales that drastically cut wages. The strike that followed lasted three months; it was a complete failure. The great promise of the Fed and the early exuberance of its many thousands of members began to dissolve in bitterness, its funds were exhausted.

The situation improved temporarily in 1923 when disputes in the US and in the Ruhr once again created an international demand for Welsh coal, but that was the last great year for the industry and for the prosperity of the Valleys. Unemployment in the south Wales coal fields became the norm; the depression beginning in 1925 reversed a century and a half of rapid, unparalleled industrial growth. The over-dependence upon a single industry had its dire results; there seemed to be no way out of the dilemma especially when, in the 1930's oil replaced coal as the fuel for the majority of the world's navies. Total collapse of the economies of many of the Valleys took place. When the government returned Britain to the Gold Standard and the value of the pound reversed to what it had been before the War, production costs had to be cut so that goods could be sold overseas. After the mine owners had taken appropriate steps to accomplish these measures, the miners responded in the General Strike of 1926, the so-called "Nine Days" in which all major trade unions co-operated. When the strike ended, the 230,000 plus Welsh miners stayed out.

During the next few months, with bitter feelings on both sides, there was a resurgence of activities by groups who resurrected the name Scotch Cattle, but bit by bit the resistance of the miners crumbled; they were forced to accept wages that amounted to one half of the pay received for the same work five years earlier. The Fed was once more weakened through disillusionment of its members, and a new breed of leaders arose such as James Griffith, more eager to work through the political system than through confrontation. The General Election of 1929 returned to Parliament one of Girth's classmates at the Central Labour College, Enron Bean, from Tredegar. An international crisis brought on by the New York Stock Market Crash brought further troubles to Welsh industry, still heavily reliant upon world markets. Unemployment was rampant; despair was everywhere and the government, prey to the international financial system, seemed totally unable to act. The mass migration from the Valleys began in earnest. This was the situation up to the Second World War.