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Radical political analysis, commentary and discussion in Wales
Dadansoddiad a thrafodaeth radicalaidd o wleidyddiaeth yng Nghymru
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Llanelli Railway Strike 1911

A shot rings out. The group of young men stand their ground. “It’s blank” shouts one “They won’t shoot.” Another rifle crack. “It’s all right, they’ve only got blank cartridges”. Suddenly, a bullet slams into the throat of a man sitting on the wall, driving him backwards into the garden. Everyone runs, “That’s a bastard shot!” Blood splashes the grass. One of the men cries out as a bullet glances off his thumb, bringing down the man behind him. There is more firing. Three men are down. The two most seriously injured are carried into the house and are laid out, bleeding profusely, on the table in the middle room, where they die. Outside on the railway track Major Brownlow Stuart orders the soldiers of the Worcester Regiment, who have fired the shots, to withdraw to the railway station.

These events occurred not in some beleaguered war zone, but in the back garden of a house in Llanelli High Street on 19th August 1911 during the first ever national railway strike. The last time troops on the British mainland fired on workers during an industrial dispute.

Neither of the two dead men Leonard Worsell and John "Jac" John were railway workers at all. Leonard was not even a Llanelli resident, he was a Londoner suffering from tuberculosis being treated at Alltymynydd sanatorium on weekend leave in the town. Jac was was mill worker at the Morewood Tinplate Works. The tinplaters turned out in force in support of the more poorly paid railway workers and were considered some of the most militant.

After the shootings, strikers, their supporters and other local people rose up, fighting with soldiers and police in a protest at the injustice the community had suffered at the hands of the military. The magistrate who called in the troops who fired the fatal shots, (a shareholder of the Great Western Railway Company) had his shop trashed and looted.

The strike was a rank-and-file revolt over low pay while the railway company was making massive profits. Despite the expanding economy railway workers were low paid . Infant mortality was high, in that year alone 113 babies died in Llanelli. Yet the railway companies were making record profits and handing out substantial dividends to their shareholders. Whilst railway workers often earned less that £1 for working a 60-72 hour, 6-day week.

There were about 500 railway workers involved in Llanelli led by John Bevan, a signalman at Llandilo Junction. However crowds of 5,000 people came out to support the railway workers. Trains were stopped from travelling until soldiers were deployed, the Riot Act read and station gates opened at the point of the bayonet. By the time the strike was over there were 700 soldiers stationed in the town.

Yet the events of 1911 are often unknown to many. Whilst Tonypandy has justly been seared into the consciousness of the Welsh working class, the events at Llanelli a year later were arguably a much more serious confrontation. Both incidents along with the Newport Docks Dispute were part of the Welsh dimension of The Great Unrest.

Although there has been little official recognition of the strike, there is a rich vein of folk memories. Llanelli’s signature-tune has “Sosban Fach”, through some of its words, transmits traces of the dramatic events of those days. The verse “Dai bach y soldiwr/ A chwt ei grys e mas” – “Little Dai the soldier/And his shirt tail hanging out”. only appears after 1911 and is surely a reference to the military intervention and the shootings, which had such an impact on popular consciousness. A reference to the fact that the soldiers were surprised by the strikers and had not had time to dress properly.

The pickets and demonstrators sang “Sosban Fach” as they engaged in the pushing and shoving against police lines, employing serious scrummaging techniques, defeating the police on a number of occasions. There was an euphoric, carnival atmosphere on the all-night picket lines during the first night of the strike, before the soldiers arrived. There were speeches, tap-dancing contests and a mock election.

In this centenary year, the Llanelli Rail Strike Commemoration Committee is organising memorial events. A week of events is planned for 15th - 21st August, details will appear in the calendar. Meetings and a round table discussion will be held, as will a march and rally, a poetry evening and a graveside ceremony. Llanelli Youth Theatre is putting on a play with music, and the internationally renowned director Michael Bogdanov will be directing Liz Morgan’s play “According to the Regulations” at Glenalla Hall. The memory of the working class martyrs of Llanelli will not be forgotten. If anybody has ideas or would like to help or take part, especially if you have experience fundraising, please get in contact.

Further reading
'Remembrance of a Riot: the story of the Llanelli Railway Strike Riots of 1911' by John Edwards
'Killing No Murder – South Wales and the Great Railway Strike of 1911' by Robert Griffiths