by Mike Squires
Killing No Murder by Rob Griffiths unravels a little-known incident that occurred in the Great Railway Strike of 1911. In Llanelli in Wales the army opened fire on crowds, killing two young men and wounding two others. Griffiths relates this fascinating story in a very readable way, using a mixture of archival research and oral history. And this incident, which happened almost 100 years ago, has some important lessons for today.
Railway men and women were amongst the poorest paid workers in Britain – only agricultural labourers were below them on the wages scale. Compared with coal miners they were very much the poor relation. In South Wales most miners earned 30-34 shillings a week, but only 10% of railway workers earned anything like this; for over a third, the wages were less than 20 shillings a week.
Hours of work were no better. In many industries, workers had won shorter hours, and 48-54 hours a week were not uncommon; however, on the railways most workers toiled for 60 hours a week and many worked 72 hours.
Railways were also a dangerous place to work. In the years before the strike, on average 500 rail workers were killed and 15,000 injured every year.
The railway employers were intransigent. These magnates refused to meet, or even be in the same room as, rail union leaders. The profits of the railway companies were phenomenal – so much so that often the payment of dividends had to be delayed for fear of provoking the embittered workforce.
It could not go on. After a number of threatened strikes were cancelled, the rail unions finally called for a national stoppage of work on 17 August 1911. From the start the strikers were vilified in the press (nothing new there), and Churchill, the Home Secretary, circulated a story that the stoppage was the work of a German agent based at a Glasgow railway station. Throughout the dispute the strikers were referred to in the papers as ‘aliens’ – a claim refuted by Griffiths, who draws on meticulous research from court records.
While Churchill represented the belligerent wing of the ruling class, Lloyd George reflected the more conciliatory elements. He wanted to keep the working class wedded to Liberalism, and was fearful that the clutch of Labour MPs, first elected in 1906, might grow.
Llanelli, a Welsh-speaking town in South West Wales, was the backdrop for a sharp and bloody struggle between striking railway workers and their allies, on the one hand, and the forces of the state, with Churchill in the driving seat, on the other. Llanelli had two railway crossings and these two strategically important points were the scene of clashes between pickets and the army. Soldiers, on Churchill’s initiative, and with the connivance of the railway companies, had already been despatched to Llanelli before the strike began.
On the second day of the stoppage, 18 August, there was a stand-off at one of the crossings between thousands of pickets, including the town’s numerous tin-plate workers and miners who were all acting in solidarity, and soldiers from the Royal Worcestershire regiment. Crowds gathered to watch the mêlée and suddenly the order was given to open fire. Four innocent young bystanders, not pickets, were shot. Two were killed and two were seriously wounded. One of the dead was John John, a local rugby star and the other his friend Leonard Worsell.
The news of the shootings quickly spread and the town erupted. Railway carriages were burnt, track torn up, senior magistrates’ windows were smashed, and five residents were injured and taken to hospital.
Churchill had got what he wanted, but who was to blame for the order to open fire? The army denied any accusations of provocation and there the story may have ended, but for the appearance two days later of one Private Harold Spiers of the Worcestershire regiment. He turned up in New Radnor, 90 miles from Llanelli, and was interned for desertion. He claimed that his desertion was caused by a senior officer ordering him to fire on civilians at Llanelli – an order he refused.
Once the story broke Spiers was hailed as a hero by the Labour movement, and a liar by the army. Subsequently, the charge of desertion was dropped against Spiers and substituted with a lesser charge. This, claims Griffiths, was because of Churchill’s intervention, who didn’t want Spiers becoming a cause célèbre.
Demonstrations against the killings occurred on a regular basis in Llanelli and more sporadically in the rest of the country. A government enquiry, weighted as always in favour of the employers, found the killings ‘justifiable homicide’. However, the Liberal press in Wales, with an eye on retaining working-class Liberal support, was critical of the army’s behaviour.
The strike ended with the inevitable short-term compromise. In the longer term, however, the pre-First World War industrial unrest of which the rail strike was a part was to change forever the industrial and political landscape of Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom. In this process the events at Llanelli had played their part.
Within 18 months of the ending of the strike the fragmented rail unions had voted to unite, and formed the National Union of Railwaymen. In the same year, 1913, the NUR formed an alliance with the miners and transport workers – the Triple Alliance. Workers across industries, learning the lessons of the immediate past, were seeing the need to unite with others.
Politically, Llanelli drove a further wedge between Liberalism and its working-class backbone. Unequivocal support for the strikers and condem-nation of the army by the Labour MP for Merthyr Boroughs, Keir Hardie, helped mobilise further working-class support for the nascent Labour Party.
Churchill, who may have triumphed on this occasion, could never again rely on the army to fire on British civilians. This was the last time it was to happen on the British mainland. Lloyd George was left in the netherworld of a fast disappearing Liberalism that within a few years was to be defeated by ‘the forward march of labour’.
Rob Griffiths, by focusing on the railways in South Wales, has shown us that it was not just miners that played a role in developing class and political consciousness in the principality – other sections of the working class were also important.
Most readers with an interest in labour history will have heard of Tonypandy and what happened there in 1910 – not so many will have heard of the shootings in Llanelli a few months later. This book helps to redress that balance.
Rob Griffiths gives us a spellbinding and gripping account of these events and draws valuable parallels with today. Labour history at its best – buy it.
Mike Squires is an historian, black cab driver, and author of 'Saklatvala: A Political Biography'