1910: Cambrian Combine miners strike and Tonypandy riot

Tonypandy miners.

A short history of a strike by miners in South Wales in 1910 which led to a series of confrontations between workers and police, culminating in what became popularly known as the Tonypandy Riot.

The strike marked one of the few occasions in British history that troops have been deployed against striking workers.

The strike began on August 1, 1910, when miners employed by the Naval Colliery Company at the Ely Pit in the town of Penygraig arrived at work to find lockout notices attached to the entrances of the mine. The company and pit made up part of the Cambrian Combine, a business network founded in 1906 of all of the mining companies in South Wales formed to regulate prices and wages while still allowing each individual company to operate independently. The months that followed became one of the bitterest disputes the miners of South Wales were ever to be engaged in, and one that would affect every miner who worked in a Cambrian Combine pit. The build up to the strike had begun the year previously, when the management of the Ely Pit had taken the decision to open up a new seam and have it mined by 80 men for a trial period in order to determine its output. The miners of the pit were employed on the basis of piecework, pay being dependent on the amount of coal extracted by each individual worker. If a miner failed to reach a certain amount, the company would give an allowance to the miner in question to make up his pay to the minimum that was required in order to live. Given the nature of this pay system, the test period of the new seam to determine it's output and to allow the company to set a wage per ton of coal extracted would also determine the amount the company was likely to have to pay miners who would work on the seam in future.

Some months into the test period of the new seam, the company began to accuse the men working on it of deliberately working slowly in order to raise the amount that would be paid per ton of coal once the seam was in production and the miners were working at their "normal pace". The miners argued that this was not the case, telling the company that the seam was particularly difficult to work with many "abnormal places". When the test period was over, a wage was set for the workers on the new seam that was far lower than what could be considered a living wage, and they demanded an increase. The company had recently also been cutting the allowance given to miners, making the money made from piecework alone practically impossible to live on. Angered by the resistance they were meeting from the miners over the new wages, the owners posted lockout notices on August 1. The lockout applied not just to the 80 miners working on the new seam, but all 800 miners employed at the pit. Soon after they had been met by the lockout notices, the miners called the strike, and were soon joined by miners from two other pits owned by the Naval Colliery Company as well as others from several other collieries in South Wales who voted to strike several days later. A conference of the South Wales Miners Federation (SWMF) was held on September 16. 248 delegates attended, representing the 147,000 miners of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain and the decision to support the strikers was made. Several token pay increases still far below what could be considered a minimum living wage were offered by the mine owners and were all rejected by the workers, who were soon to be joined on strike by 30,000 other miners on November 1, the day the strike called by the SWMF officially began.

Picketing began at all of the collieries that made up the Cambrian Combine in the area and on November 7, all pits affected by the strike were being picketed by their workers. A crowd of thousands marched though the Rhondda valley with miners filling the streets, gathering at pitheads and in many cases, entering their collieries to extinguish boiler fires and stop ventilation fans, making the mine unworkable to any scabs who had stayed in. Production was halted by workers in all pits except one in the town of Llwynypia, which had been transformed into a near fortress by its manager, who had at his disposal a large amount of police who had been drafted in by the Chief Constable of Glamorgan as soon as the strike had begun. Production at the colliery at Llwynypia was being kept running by about 60 scabs who had kept the machinery in the pit running with the aid of the 100 policemen from Swansea, Bristol and Cardiff preventing entry by the strikers. The colliery was important to both the strikers and the mine owners, being that it housed the electric generator and pumping station that kept that mines free of water, thus keeping the colliery operational. The owners were desperate to keep it out of the hands of the strikers, being dependent on the contingent of policemen guarding the power station building at the site to be able to maintain a minimal level of production.

By 10.30pm on the evening of November 7, thousands of strikers had encircled the pit at Llwynypia, determined to gain entry and shut the colliery down. Unable to get inside, they began to throw stones at the policemen guarding the power station and heavy fighting soon ensued between the two groups, with some miners breaking off sections of wooden fencing to use as weapons. Some hours later, and after being subjected to repeated baton charges by the police, the strikers were pushed away from the colliery and into the square at nearby Tonypandy where they were further dispersed by waiting police. Sometime during the fighting in the square, the police authorities, worried about losing control of the situation telegraphed Tidworth barracks for army reinforcements, which were promised to arrive the next morning. However, the unapproved reinforcements had been stopped by order of the then home secretary, Winston Churchill, before they had even crossed into Wales. When contacted by an angry police captain, Churchill, fearful of political criticism he would come under if he deployed troops against the miners, maintained that they should only be used as a last resort, but said that he would keep them on standby nonetheless. Instead he sent several hundred policemen from London, including about 70 mounted police.

The strikers returned to the pit at Llwynypia on November 8, and again heavy fighting between police and miners began. Some two hours into the fighting, mounted police succeeded in dispersing the miners into two groups, one of which headed for the middle of Llwynypia, the other heading again for Tonypandy. Fighting intensified in Tonypandy as the mounted police failed to disperse miners in the town, who began to smash shop windows. Homes in Tonypandy were left untouched by the angry miners, and after several hours of running battles with the police, Churchill telegrammed General MacReady, commander of the troops on standby with the message, "As the situation appears to have become more serious you should if the Chief Constable or Local Authority desire it move all the cavalry into the district without delay". Several hundred extra police from London were also promised, but by the time they arrived the next day the fighting had ended with about 500 miners injured as well as about 80 policemen. Samuel Rhys, a miner who sustained head injuries from a policeman's baton later died of his injuries. This series of events over the 7th and 8th of November in Tonypandy made up what became popularly known as the "Tonypandy Riot".

Thirteen miners were arrested and prosecuted for their part in the unrest and the authorities, fearing more trouble, transformed Tonypandy and the surrounding area into a near military camp. The trial lasted for several days and on each day 10,000 men marched through the valley and held mass meetings outside the town in support of their friends in jail, despite the streets being filled with soldiers and policemen. Eventually, several of the miners standing trial were sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to six weeks, while the others were fined and released.

Sporadic fighting continued for several more weeks and on November 22 a group of picketing miners were forced by soldiers with bayonets drawn onto a hillside near Penygraig, where they fought alongside the women of the community for several hours with troops and police. A local newspaper running a story on the event commented on the actions of the women:

"Women joined with the men in the unequal combat, and displayed a total disregard of personal danger which was as admirable as it was foolhardy. But these Amazons of the coalfield resorted to other and more effective methods. From the bedroom windows came showers of boiling water, which fell unerringly on the heads of police, while in one case a piece of bedroom ware found its billet on the skull of a Metropolitan policeman."

Major disturbances were also reported at the town of Blaenclydach in April 1911, where heavy fighting took over the centre of the town with shops being looted as they had been in Tonypandy. The strike however, ended several months later with the miners, feeling the strain of being without pay for so long, being forced to accept a small pay increase. They returned to the pits in early September, exactly a year after the strike had begun.

Comments

sandy hext
Jan 26 2008 17:19

Please could somebody help me trace my Welsh family history. I was born in South Africa but my Great Grandfather was involved in the coal miner's strike which I am asuming was in the early 1900's. Our family passed down patchy details which may or may not be correct. They say he was one of the main instigators in the coal miner's strike and a price was put on his head so he fled to South Africa. His surname was Freig-Hext (not sure of spelling) but dropped the Freig and passed down the family surname "Hext" to my generation. Please could you send any info to critical.cpm@gmail.com.

Sandy Hext

bono
Jun 22 2009 10:51

I have read a book based on this strike called BLACK EYED DEVILS.My great grandfather was in Mountain Ash South Wales during the 1911 19-27 period but for some reason we cannot find any records of him.I wondered if he might have been one of the BlackLegs as I wass told he was of Irish birth.

Mrs Gwladys Evans
Jul 24 2009 00:43

I am searching for a James Foster. According to the 1901 census, he was a miner and lodging in Ystrafodwg. I have been trying unsuccessfully to trace where he was born. I wonder if there is a register available somewhere with either the mining company or anywhere else that can give me the information of where in London he was born.
In 1907 James married and made his home in St Ishmael in Carmarthenshire.

janehope
Nov 6 2010 15:08

Hi Gwladys

I've only justed joined this group looking up the Tonypandy riots and saw your post. I've looked and can see James on the 1901 census and also the 1911 census with wife Gwladys and son Trefor Islwyn who was born in 1910. I don't know how far you've got but would definitely recommend getting the marriage certificate which will give details of his father.

pearlbrit1
Nov 9 2010 21:23

My Grandfather Edward John Davies Lived 105 Charles street Blaenclydach, He is on the 1911 census as working coal miner, was this how it was recorded if he was a striker, He was renown for being a bruiser and was associated with Churchills boxing boothes, He also had a rugby cap which I am told was for playing with Cardiff, 1899, I can,t believe that he was not a striker more like one of the rioters God Bless him.