No End to Tragedy

On 4 September 1902, the Union colliery near Bixlade, which employed about 100 men, was flooded by a sudden influx of water from abandoned workings raising the water level by 30 feet and drowning four men, Thomas and Amos James, Herbert Gwatkin and William Martin. Three others Thomas Cooper, James Gwilliam and James Hawkins were trapped after they had escaped into some old workings. It was not until 9 September that pumping had reduced the water level sufficiently to allow rescuers to enter the workings and rescue them.

Later in the day, another search party found the bodies of Thomas and Amos James in an upright position and hand in hand.  They were also only 15 feet from a passage by which they could have reached the upper airway and safety but having lost their lamps they were unable to see it.  Thomas was 27 and married with one child whilst Amos was only 20 and single.  The body of 26-year-old Herbert Gwatkin was not found until the following Sunday.

The statue by Matt Baker which shows Thomas and Amos embracing was commissioned by the Forest Freeminers.

However, this was not the end of the tragedy. Herbert Gwatkin’s brother, Albert was working in the mine with his brother at the time. The trauma meant that he was never the same again and suffered from anxiety and depression. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1923 and was away from work for about two months. He stopped work in May 1926 as a result of the lockout and did not return in October because he wanted to look after his mother who had become quite ill. After her death in November, he became depressed again. He could not sleep and his other brother had to spend the nights with him as he was up all night in an agitated state. He attempted to return to work on the surface at Cannop but could not cope. Albert Gwatkin committed suicide in May 1927 by cutting his own throat so severely that his head nearly became dislocated from his body.

After the Union pit tragedy, James Gwilliam moved to Cannop colliery and then later worked at Eastern colliery where, in 1937, he was severely injured and was unable to work again. James Gwilliam’s son, Essau Reuben Gwilliam, was killed in March 1925 while working at a colliery in Pencoid, South Wales when a two and two-and-a-half-ton rock fell on his head. He had a young family of eleven children.


Minnie Allen



Minnie Allen (Credit: Gloucestershire Archives)

Minnie Allen (née Ash) was born in 1885 in Bishops Cleeve, the daughter of an agricultural labourer. She married Hubert Allen, a railway fireman, in 1908 and had two children. In March 1925, she was elected as a Labour County Councillor for St Peters, a working-class ward in Cheltenham. Consequently, she became the first woman to be elected to Gloucestershire the County Council.[1]

A condition of Hubert’s job on the railways was that he could be required to move to other districts. As a result, the family moved to Lydney at the end of 1925. Minnie soon became active in the local Labour Party and community politics and worked hard to represent the interests of the poorer sections of her community. In November 1925, she attended a meeting of the Gloucestershire Labour Women’s Advisory Council where she backed a motion to introduce funding from the County Council for feeding children, “particularly in the Forest of Dean area where distress is great owing to unemployment”.[2]

Minnie and Hubert standing at the centre of the back row (Credit: Ancestry)

On 1 May, within a few months of Minnie’s arrival in Lydney, the Trade Union Council called a national general strike in support of the miners who were locked out because they refused to accept a pay cut and an increase in hours. Tin plate workers and railway workers, including Hubert, joined the strike along with other Lydney workers in solidarity. On Thursday 6 May, at a packed meeting at Lydney Picture House, Minnie moved a resolution that assured the Trade Union Congress and the miners that they had the full support of workers in Lydney.[3]

In July 1926, Minnie was appointed as a Labour Representative on the Board of Governors of Lydney Secondary School.[4] In March 1928, she was appointed as an alderman on Gloucestershire County Council where she sat on committees dealing with health, child welfare, education and agriculture. She fought for hard better public services, often having to argue with men who had little understanding of the issues impacting women and children. In April 1928, she was elected as a joint Vice President of the Forest of Dean Labour Party.[5]

At some point before 1939, the family had to move again because Hubert’s job required him to move to Ross which was  just over the county border in Herefordshire. However, Minnie remained as an alderman with Gloucestershire County Council for 33 years. At her farewell speech in March 1958, a year before she died, Minnie remembered how she had to travel around the Forest assessing the needs of young mothers for help with milk and other support.

On one occasion I was asked if I would go out to St Briavels and interview a mother there. I went out on a baker’s cart which started early in the morning. I found the mother and then came back on the baker’s car to Lydney where I was living at the time.[6]

[1] Gloucester Journal 14 March 1925.

[2] Gloucester Citizen 9 November 1925.

[3] Dean Forest Mercury 7 May 1926.

[4] Gloucester Citizen 26 July 1926.

[5] Dean Forest Mercury 4 May 1928.

[6] Gloucester Citizen 1 April 1958.



Class Struggle in the Garw Valley 1893-1922: The Role of John Williams


In 1922, at the age of 32, John Williams was selected for the paid post of agent for the Forest of Dean Miners Association (FDMA) which was the trade union representing Forest of Dean miners. Williams remained committed to representing the Forest miners until his retirement in 1953 and lived in the Forest from 1922 until he died in 1968. However his story began in the Garw Valley where he was born brought up and worked in the mines.

This article explores  Williams’s early life in the Garw Valley from 1888 to 1922 and his role in Garw miners’ struggle to improve their pay and conditions of work. While working in the Garw valley Williams came to believe that, through this struggle, it was possible to create a better world, classless and free from exploitation. This belief and his early experiences had a profound effect on his approach to industrial relations in the Garw and the Forest of Dean.

The early life of Williams will also be used as a lens to study wider events and their consequences for the miners in the Garw valley as they moved from a parochial relationship with their employers into one mediated by class consciousness which was both national and international in character.

John Williams (also known as Jack Williams) was born in 1888 in Kenfig Hill. He started work at the International Colliery in the Garw Valley in South Wales at the age of thirteen. Williams was very much a product of his time, class and place and, just like many other miners, valued education and was committed to improving the living and working conditions of his community and class.

His early experiences led him to loathe the ruling class, the capitalist system and the exploitation that accompanied it. As a result, as a young man, he became involved in socialist and trade union organisations in the Garw valley including the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF) which was the trade union representing coal miners in South Wales. During this period, Williams became influenced by syndicalism, which aimed to use class struggle and direct action rather than parliamentary means to abolish capitalism and replace it with a new social order based on social ownership and workers’ control of the means of production

During his early life in the Garw Valley, Williams’s involvement in trade union activity and politics was framed by local issues which included industrial disputes and organising alternatives to the local Liberal consensus. However, from 1912 national issues became increasingly important particularly the opposition to conscription during World War One and the events leading up to the 1921 lockout. Consequently, the narrative in this article reflects this.

The book, We Will Eat Grass to be published by the Bristol Radical History Group in 2024 is the first of a two-volume history which traces the role of John Williams as the agent of the Forest of Dean Miners’ Association (FDMA) from 1922 to 1953.

The next volume, yet to be published, will cover the Depression, World War Two and Nationalisation (1929-1953).


CLC: Central Labour College

CPGB: Communist Party of Great Britain

DWRGLU:  Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union

FDMA: Forest of Dean Miners’ Association

ILP: Independent Labour Party

MFGB: Miners’ Federation of Great Britain

MP: Member of Parliament

NTWF: National Transport Workers’ Federation

NUC: National Union of Clerks

NUR: National Union of Railwaymen

SDF: Social Democratic Federation

SWMF: South Wales Miners’ Federation

TUC: Trades Union Congress

URC: United Reform Committee 

South Wales and the Garw Valley

In 1917, following increasing industrial unrest in the coalfields of Britain during World War One, the government instigated a Commission of Enquiry into industrial unrest to investigate its causes with the view to maintain supplies of coal and munitions for the war effort. A summary of the findings of the Commission for Wales, including Monmouthshire, provided by Barry Supple reads:

The Commissioners emphasised the extraordinary concentration of labour and the recent violent growth of the coal mining industry, especially in the context of grim social and working conditions in the constricted valleys. They paid particular attention to the fierceness of class antagonisms, tracing the evolution of the trade union movement from the status of a defensive club, in a moderate and liberal setting, to a vehicle for a ‘class-conscious programme’, aiming at ‘the reconstruction of the whole basis of society’, so that the miners’ lodges had become centres of purposeful educational, political, and social activities which infused much of community life. More than this, the Commissioners pointed out that the same spirit, magnified by disaffection and argument, had led the more ‘advanced’ men to deny the efficacy or validity of conventional political action, and to advocate a root and branch reform of the union, leading to industrial unionism and the aim of direct control of production.[1]

This statement gives a flavour of the political, social and economic environment that developed in the South Wales valleys in the early twentieth century when John Williams was a young man working in the coalfield. The events in the Garw valley during this period had a profound effect on Williams’s approach to industrial relations and inspired him to believe that a radical social and economic transformation of society was possible.

International Colliery

John Williams was born in 1888 at Kenfig Hill, near Bridgend, South Wales, the son of Thomas and Margaret Williams both of whom were Welsh speakers. John and his siblings spoke English and Welsh.[2] Soon after 1888, the family moved to Blaengarw in the Garw valley and his father started work as a hewer at the International Colliery.[3] In 1896, the colliery employed 1,015 workers, producing mainly steam coal and some house coal.[4]

North Garw Valley

The two settlements at the head of the Garw valley, Blaengarw and Pontcycmmer, were closely linked and in the late nineteenth century their populations rapidly grew following the development of the three main steam coal collieries; International with about 1000 workers; Ffaldau and Gawr (Ocean)  employing about 500 workers each. Other smaller collieries in the north of the valley included Glengarw (also called Nanthir), Llest and Darran. Lower down the valley there were at least seven smaller house coal collieries.[5] Men poured into the valley looking for work that was better paid than agriculture or in other mining districts such as the Forest of Dean. The census taken in 1881 gives the total number of residents of Blaengarw as 61. However, after the pits opened the population grew rapidly reaching 2462 in 1891, 3799 in 1901 and 4301 in 1911 when about seventy per cent of the male workforce were employed in the pits.[6] 

The two towns consisted of long rows of terraced cottages built along the sides of the valley to house the large influx of workers. The demand for housing meant that there was overcrowding and living conditions often led to poor health, disease and stress.  


John’s brother Emlyn was born in 1893 and his sister Minnie in 1897. In 1901, John, Emlyn and Minnie were living at 2 Mount Pleasant, Blaengarw with their parents along with John’s uncle, 32-year-old William Evans and his six-year-old son Lewis Evans and three boarders.[7] This meant ten people were living in this small house and among these were five miners.

2 Mount Pleasant, Blaengarw Today (credit Ian Wright)


John probably had to share a bed with other members of the family. His mother took responsibility for all the domestic work including cooking, baking, feeding, shopping, cleaning, washing, making and mending clothes and providing a bath for these five men as they returned from work well as looking after the four children. The men rarely carried out domestic work and expected a meal on the table before and after their shift in the pit. Margaret had to manage their receipts from the weekly wage packets, making sure there was money left over for rent and bills.[8]

The day for Margaret would often start at 4 a.m. with lighting the fire, cooking breakfast, and preparing a packed lunch for the men on the early shift.  Then meals and baths had to be prepared for those returning from their shift. The three-shift system, including night-shift, meant that Margaret could be working a seventeen-hour day.

Monday was washing day but for large families, the task could take several days. Washing involved hand-cleaning dirty sheets and clothes thick with dirt, coal dust and sweat. It was back-breaking work, filling a heavy cast iron boiler with water over the fire and then carrying boiling water to the zinc bath, washboard, rinsing tub, starch bowl, mangle and clothesline in the backyard. This busy domestic schedule often had to be carried out during pregnancy or while carrying a newborn baby.

Williams must have been aware of the dreadful burden carried by his mother with its roots in the unpaid service demands of the coal industry. Later, as a young man, he spoke out against the domestic drudgery experienced by working-class women and campaigned for equal rights for women. 


John, Emlyn and Minnie attended the Bleangarw infants’ school where they came under the influence of Helen Gelder, a Yorkshire woman who was headteacher at the school and a strong feminist. Gelder was a close friend of Fannie Thomas who, in 1895, was appointed a headteacher teacher at the nearby Ffaldau Infants’ School in Pontycymmer.[9]

As a young boy, Williams travelled to London to see the first performance of a play by Bernard Shaw and throughout his life, he placed great emphasis on self-education both individually and collectively.  While at school Williams developed a close friendship with a pupil of the same age, Gwilym Richards who was also from a mining family, and they became lifelong friends with similar interests in music, literature and politics.

A letter from Thomas John Jones (age 12) published in the South Wales Echo in 1899. (Credit: Garw Heritage Society)

Dear Uncle Joe,

I am going to write you a description of Blaengarw. First of all, it is the shape of a triangle. It is situated at about 8 miles from Bridgend. In the centre of the town is a triangular park, with some lovely trees growing in it. There are four large chapels and one church, and two more denominations without chapels. There are two large steam coal collieries in Blaengarw. They are called the International and the Ocean. The International is managed by Mr James Picton and the Ocean by Mr D Matthews. The International raises about 1,000 tons a day. The population of Blaengarw is about 3,000 people, Blaengarw was started about 15 years ago. There is a large school here as well. The headmaster is Mr Hargest; the headmistress is Miss H. Gelder. There is a large Workmen’s Hall and Institute, all built by the workmen of Blaengarw. The library consists of 1,400 to 1,500 books of both languages, and a good number of magazines for the young men to read in their spare time. The only drawback to Blaengarw is that there is no railway station here. We have to walk all the way to Pontycymmer which is about a mile away.

 Liberal Party

The Liberal Party had dominated political life in South Wales since the mid-nineteenth century. The Liberals united middle and working-class people around nonconformism, Welsh nationalism and industrial cooperation in opposition to the established church and the English aristocracy. The Liberal Party controlled local government and held the parliamentary seat in Glamorganshire from 1857-1885 when the constituency was abolished and then held the seat in the new Mid-Glamorgan constituency from 1885-1910.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the dominant figure among the South Wales miners was William Abraham (known as Mabon) who advocated moderation, arbitration and an emphasis on parliamentary activity which sometimes stifled rather than realised the aspirations of the rank-and-file miners. No coalfield-wide union existed in South Wales at this time and miners were represented by small local associations.

Miners’ Wages

Wages in South Wales varied from district to district, pit to pit and seam to seam and depended on what task the miner was carrying out, his age, experience and skill. Some miners were paid day rates but others were paid piece rates. 

The men and boys working on the coal face were paid by the ton of coal sent to the surface. The miners often worked in pairs, sometimes brothers, friends or fathers and sons. In most pits, an agreement between the miners’ union and colliery owners included a local price list that listed the tonnage rates for coal produced and a piecework rate for other jobs such as road ripping (paid by the yard), installing and repairing timberwork and associated work such as clearing dirt, which was not directly productive. The hewers shared the earnings among themselves, although the boys were paid less.

Most other tasks in the pits were carried out by men or boys on day rates which varied depending on the job. These included those involved with the haulage of coal, maintenance of haulage roads and attending to ventilation. The craftsmen and surface workers were also paid day rates.

In the early 1890s, any increase or decrease in wage levels in the South Wales coalfield was based on a system called the sliding scale, which automatically linked miners’ wages to the price of coal. Under the sliding scale agreement, a percentage was added or deducted from the piecework rates agreed in the price list. Similarly, a percentage was added or deducted from the day rates in line with the price of coal.[10] The South Wales sliding-scale committee, which was made up of employee and employer representatives, met at regular intervals to agree on this percentage.[11]

However, this system ensured that any control of the standard of living of miners was at the mercy of the vagaries of the market and the levels of production. Consequently, the sliding scale was unpopular with the miners because it could result in sudden and drastic cuts in wages. 

John Thomas

In 1880, the Garw Miners’ Association (GMA) was formed and was made up of lodges organised around individual pits which sent delegates to GMA meetings. The GMA’s main function was to monitor and implement the sliding scale and to represent the interest of its members on matters such as wages, price lists and compensation for death or injury. The district included the lodges representing the steam coal pits in the north of the Garw valley but also the house coal collieries in the further south such as WernTarw, Meiros, Raglan, Ynysawdre and Park Slip.

John Thomas (credit Wikipedia)

In about 1887, John Thomas was elected as the GMA full-time agent whose responsibility was the day-to-day running of the association, recruitment and negotiations with the employers. One of Thomas’s most important jobs was the complex task of negotiating the details on the price lists.

Thomas was a supporter of the Liberal Party and a Baptist who regularly attended the local chapel. He stood for election in the Garw Valley ward at the 1892 Glamorgan County Council election, defeating the incumbent. While on the council, he focused his time on the sanitary and asylum committees and was also elected to the Garw School Board.

Thomas was a strong advocate of the sliding scale and a supporter of Mabon. When the Miners Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) was founded in 1889, on a policy of fighting the sliding scale, Mabon’s opposition ensured that the support for GMA affiliation to the MFGB, at this time, initially gained no more than a small foothold in the South Wales coalfield. 

1893 Hauliers’ Strike.

As new immigrants poured into the valley dissatisfaction with the Liberal consensus grew. This manifested itself industrially with opposition to the sliding scale among rank-and-file miners. Among John Williams’s earliest recollections was a ‘riot’ in 1893 when the hauliers went on strike in South Wales collieries after a demand for a pay rise, because of decreasing wages linked to the price of coal, was rejected by the colliery owners.[12]

The strike started on 3 August and quickly spread and within a week 40,000 miners across South Wales were out of work as a result of the strike.[13] On 19 August 1893, about 2,000 striking miners surrounded the International Colliery because they were suspicious that the management was using about fifty repairmen or safety men to cut coal. It was normal practice for miners’ unions to allow repairmen to maintain the pits during strikes but only on the condition that they did not cut coal. Twenty policemen and a company of the Bedford Regiment were sent to the colliery to protect the blacklegs. After several hours the police and the military managed to disperse the crowd.[14] In an interview in Cinderford with R. Page Arnot in 1961, Williams remembers his father confronting the blacklegs. Arnot records:

He (John Williams) saw the riot, and was in a sense actually in the riot together with his father. He had been with his father as one of the spectators until his father joined up and he remembered his father pushing away at the blacklegs.[15]

At the beginning of September, the hauliers returned to work defeated but it served as a warning that some miners were dissatisfied with the use of the sliding scale and would be willing to take direct action and support each other across the coalfield in pursuit of their demands.[16]

However, at this time, the leadership of most of the mining associations including Thomas remained strong supporters of Mabon and the sliding scale policy to regulate wages remained.[17] In the Garw valley, Thomas worked closely with the new Secretary of the GMA, Evan David who worked as a checkweighman at the International Colliery and the chairman John Morgan who worked as a checkweighman at the Ffaldau colliery.

The checkweighman was elected by coal miners to check the findings of the colliery owner’s weighman when hewers were paid by the weight of coal mined. Therefore, a checkweighman had to be someone whom the men trusted and he often combined this role with that of a union representative. 

1898 Strike

A major turning point was when in October 1897, the miners across South Wales gave notice to end the sliding scale agreement in six months and demanded an increase in wages. This meant that, if their demands were not met, they would go on strike.

At a conference of South Wales miners in Cardiff, a week before the expiration of the notices at the end of March 1898, the International Colliery Lodge delegate was mandated to present a motion of censure in their representatives who sat on the sliding scale committee and demanded they stand aside so others could be elected in their place. The motion also included a demand for an immediate advance of wages of twenty per cent and a rejection of a proposal from the sliding scale committee for the extension of the strike notice.[18] Although the motion did not succeed the miners from the International Colliery were among a group of men:

who decided to ignore the advice of their leaders who wanted to postpone the strike and stopped work at the expiration of their notices.[19]

The International men were joined by most miners in the South Wales valleys. The strike lasted six months but their eventual defeat made clear the need for a stronger organisation. Consequently, in September 1898 the various local associations came together to form the South Wales Miners Federation (SWMF), which was affiliated to the MFGB a few months later. After a vigorous recruitment campaign, the SWMF successfully established itself in the coalfield. One of its first tasks was to bring an end to sub-contracting where individual miners employed other men on day rates which was a common practice in other parts of British coalfield such as the Forest of Dean.[20]

Conciliation Boards

The opening years of the new century saw an increasing embitterment of industrial relations in South Wales. This was particularly the case in the steam coal pits where the colliery owners had to compete in the export market and tried to maintain their profits by attempting to cut wages. In response, the SWMF rank and file fought hard to resist these attempts to reduce their earnings, the purchasing power of which was already being eroded by a steep rise in the cost of living. In 1903, the SWMF was in a strong enough position to finally come to an agreement with the colliery owners to put an end to the use of the hated sliding scale to determine wages.

However, the miners’ position was weakened by their leaders’ support for the new conciliation system whose purpose was the regulation of wages through peaceful negotiation. The system was based on a Conciliation Board composed of SWMF officials and employers’ representatives with a supposedly independent chairman who was usually a member of the local ruling class.

After the abandonment of the sliding scale, the Conciliation Board met at regular intervals to agree on a percentage addition or subtraction on the contract rates and day rates depending on a variety of factors which still included the price of coal. Under the terms of the new agreement, this percentage would not drop below thirty per cent or go above sixty per cent and so avoid the potentially drastic drop in earnings that could happen under the sliding scale agreement.

This system enabled Mabon and agents like Thomas to continue to preserve a relationship with the colliery owners which avoided conflict while ordinary miners found their militancy smothered by the SWMF’s participation in the conciliation machinery. Consequently, the SWMF leadership faced mounting opposition from the rank and file demanding a more aggressive response to the owners’ attacks on their wages and working conditions.

In February 1899, this opposition found expression in the north of the Garw valley when the Ffaldau lodge demanded that a regular ballot should be held for the position of the GMA agent. This was already the case for other GMA officers such as the secretary and chair and for the agents in most other districts.[21]


Tensions were exacerbated when on 18 August 1899, an explosion occurred at the Pontyrhyl house coal colliery in the south of the valley, owned by the Lluest Coal Company, killing 19 men and boys. An inquest was held on 28 August 28th 1899 when all interested parties were represented and lasted for three days when the jury returned the following verdict: 

The jury are of the opinion that the 19 persons who met their death at the Llest pit on Friday, August 18th, 1899, were suffocated as a result of an explosion of gas. They are further of the opinion that gas had accumulated in the stall of Abednego Williams owing to some derangement of the ventilating current during the men’s temporary absence, and that it was ignited by the introduction of a naked light. The jury regrets that safety lamps were not in use at this colliery previous to the explosion, and considers that the management, unfortunately, committed an error of judgment in not introducing them.

However, no charges were brought against the managers or the owners. In 1901, at the age of 13, Williams started work at the International Colliery, where he worked with his father. He was paid one shilling and sixpence a day.  One year later he was also severely injured in an explosion. In this case, his father had bored a hole with a rammer and inserted explosives. However, after the first shot, the fuse misfired. The regulations stated that it was necessary to wait 24 hours before making a second attempt. However, the hewers, working on piece rates, were under pressure to ignore this rule. As a result, Williams approached the face and was severely burned in an explosion. He was lucky to survive but had to spend six weeks in a bath of linseed oil.[22] There are no records of Williams receiving any compensation but, in these circumstances, he would have been entitled to a claim with the support of the GMA.

Williams would witness many serious accidents causing both permanent injury and death over the next twenty years while he worked at the Garw valley. Between 1887 and 1914, fifty-seven men were killed while working at the International Colliery.[23] 

Socialism and Feminism

The use of troops against his father, the six-month lockout and his accident were likely to have influenced Williams’s growing interest in socialist and trade union politics and desire to fight injustice and poverty.

Fannie Thomas  (Credit:

Among his earliest mentors were the teachers, Gelder and Thomas, who were active trade unionists, political activists and feminists. They were central to the development of the National Federation of Women Teachers (NFWT) which acted as a pressure group within the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and campaigned around issues such as equal pay and the marginalisation of women within the profession and the labour movement. Both went on to be President of the NFWT, Gelder in 1909-1910 and Thomas in 1912-1913.

Gelder and Thomas contributed to the radical culture in the Garw valley which combined working-class politics with feminism.  At the same time, Williams became acquainted with other older and more experienced labour activists in the Garw valley such as Meth Jones who worked at the International Colliery and was President of the GMA lodge at the pit.[24]

Jones was born in 1876 and spent his early life in Tyncefn, Cardiganshire, where his father was employed as a lead miner. His father emigrated to the South Wales coalfield when the Cardiganshire lead mines suffered from depression during the 1870s and 1880s. The family settled at Pontycymmer and Jones began work in the coal mines aged 12. He was a Welsh speaker, proud of his Welsh roots, and he provided a link between nineteenth-century Welsh radicalism and the developing labour movement in the Garw valley where many people, including the Williams family, spoke Welsh.[25]

The political optimism that emerged in the early twentieth century in the Garw valley arose out of diverse traditions and promoted social justice, personal transformation, christian socialism, democratic principles, feminism, trade unionism and new economic theories opposed to capitalism and its brutal consequences. At this time men and women joined forces and campaigned for working-class representation, socialist politics and women’s suffrage.

Over the following years,  a series of well known national figures came to speak in the Garw valley such as  Keir Hardie, George Lansbury and Ethel Snowdon from the labour movement and feminists such as the Pankhursts, the educationalist Elizabeth Phillips Hughes and  the socialist writer Isabella Ford. Consequently, during this period two political parties gained a foothold in the Garw Valley, the Social Democratic Foundation (SDF) and the Independent Labour Party (ILP).

Lib-Labs MPs

The Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 made it possible to contemplate the building of a broad-based party to represent working-class interests independent from the Liberal Party. However, the franchise was restricted by a complex system of registration, residence criteria and the exclusion of paupers. As a result, only about two-thirds of the adult male population was qualified to vote and all women were excluded. This limited the possibility of genuine working-class representation in Parliament.

As a result, up to about 1908, most mining constituencies had no independent political Labour organisation outside their trade union structures. In national parliamentary elections, the miners’ district associations usually supported candidates nominated by the local Liberal Associations. If elected, these MPs accepted the Liberal whip while exercising the right to utilise their experience to speak freely on labour issues. These first working-class representatives within Parliament were known as ‘Lib-Lab’ MPs. The first recognised Lib-Labs were the two mining officials, who were elected in 1874 for Morpeth in Northumberland and Stafford.[26] 

Social Democratic Foundation

In 1881 Henry Hyndman formed the Democratic Foundation which in 1883 adopted a Marxist programme and in 1884 changed its name to the SDF which was Britain’s first socialist organisation. The SDF had a political philosophy based on economic determinism and an orthodox form of Marxism which predicted the inevitable collapse of capitalism.[27]

The SDF opposed the Liberal Party’s claim to represent the labour movement in Parliament and argued that workers should elect working-class MPs to represent their interests independently of the Liberal Party. The SDF was specifically a socialist organisation and remained largely propagandist and doctrinaire in its approach to politics. The programme of the SDF included the peaceful transition to socialism through parliament. Its demands included a 48-hour workweek, the abolition of child labour, compulsory and free and secular education, equality for women, and the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution, and exchange by a democratic state.

Independent Labour Party

In contrast, the ILP was a much larger and more broad-based party also seeking working-class representation in Parliament independently from the Liberal Party but with no coherent ideology. The ILP was established in 1893 to create a working-class organisation politically independent of the Liberal Party.[28] Keir Hardie, an ex-miner, a socialist, an internationalist, a Christian and a pacifist was one of the main leaders of the ILP.

The ILP members came from ideologically diverse traditions. For some, it was a humanitarian necessity or a sort of secular religion combined with ethical socialism or a means for the practical implementation of Christian principles in daily life. For others, it was about protesting against social injustice or a peaceful evolution towards social cooperation.

Consequently, the ILP attracted members from a wide range of backgrounds and owed its success to its apparent contradictions appealing to realists, idealists, dogmatists, pragmatists, christians and secularists. The ILP also offered a political home for socialists, trade unionists, members of the women’s franchise movement and peace activists. These apparent contradictions manifested themselves in different ways in different geographical and industrial locations. However, as it developed, its primary strategy for achieving a better world was working-class representation in parliament to implement social and political reform.

In 1897 an attempt was made to elect a working-class candidate to Ogmore and Garw District Council to represent the Garw ward. The initiative came from a group of miners from the steam coal pits in the north of the valley. These included one of the checkweighmen at the Ffladau colliery, William Davies, and one of the checkweighmen at the International Colliery, Evan David. The candidate chosen was another checkweighman at the Ffladau colliery, John Morgan who was also president of the GMA and described by the Glamorgan Gazette as “the only recognised Labour candidate for the Garw ward”.[29] In the end, Morgan was beaten into third place by two other candidates both of whom were colliery managers.[30]

At the turn of the century, the direction of the ILP shifted further towards establishing a parliamentary Labour party. In 1900, it was instrumental in founding the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) jointly with the SDF, the Fabian Society and some trade unions (but not the MFGB or the SWMF who remained loyal to the Liberals).[31] The LRC’s main function was to support ‘Labour’ MPs in parliament and recommend candidates to stand in elections. The SDF resigned from the LRC in 1901 after failing to persuade it to adopt a specifically socialist programme as opposed to one representing the broad interests of labour through political representation.

Dignity of Labour

In the Garw valley, workplace organisation had pre-dated political mobilisation. However, after the bitter struggles surrounding the 1893 and 1898 strikes, it was understandable that some miners sought an alternative to trade unionism in the form of political organisation and representation. 

With many colliery owners actively involved in Liberal politics, miners also started looking for a political alternative to the Liberal Party and criticising their Lib-Lab leaders as collaborators in their exploitation. In response, there emerged a widespread demand for recognition of the dignity of labour and direct working-class political representation in parliament and as a result, the ILP was able to gain a foothold in the South Wales valleys.[32] The aftermath of the 1898 strike led to the formation of over thirty ILP branches in the Glamorgan valleys and one of the ILP’s first achievements in South Wales was the election of Keir Hardie as MP for Merthyr in 1900.[33]

In September 1904, the ILP organised what the Labour Leader, the newspaper of the ILP, described as the first socialist meeting to be held in Pontcymmer.[34]  The main speaker was Edward Hartley from Bradford who was a member of the SDF but worked closely with the ILP.[35] Hartley was elected as President of the SDF in 1906 but was less rigid in his ideology than Hyndman and worked closely with the ILP. He epitomised the ideological fluidity that existed at the time as socialist ideas were debated within working-class communities.

This was followed by a meeting in October with Bruce Glasier from Scotland who was one of the main leaders of the ILP.[36] Both meetings were small but characterised as a success by the Labour Leader. However, there was opposition and, in October 1904, at a meeting of the GMA, Thomas made it clear he was opposed to any attempt to establish an independent labour group in the House of Commons.[37]

However, the politics in the valley were radically changed when, in the Autumn of 1904, a dispute erupted at the small Darren colliery in Blaengarw resulting in an eleven-month lockout of the whole workforce of nearly 200 men, women and boys. This was followed by a seven-month lockout of about 150 miners at the International Colliery in May 1905 where Williams worked. The lockouts resulted from a dispute over the earnings paid to miners employed on Caedafid seam which was worked similarly at both collieries. The Caedafid Seam was seven feet thick but also contained thin sections of dirt which caused problems for the hewers and meant sometimes drams of coal sent to the surface contained some dirt mixed with slack (small coal). The lockouts contributed to the growth of socialist politics in Blaengarw and Pontycymmer. 

The Darren Colliery Lockout

In September 1904, there was tension at the Darren colliery after William Brookes, a collier working at the mine died because of a roof fall.[38] At the end of November, the miners heard rumours that the colliery was about to close. Consequently, on Monday 29 November, they held a meeting and decided to stop work because they were concerned that they were not going to get paid.[39] At this point, the owners decided to lock the miners out and refused to pay them the money they were owed up to their last day of work on Monday.

The miners had not given notice of strike action as required under the terms of the agreement the owners had with the GMA. Consequently, Thomas did not approve of their action of stopping work without giving notice and told them they would not receive any strike pay. However, appeals went out for donations which soon arrived from across the South Wales coalfield including £20 from the Tredegar miners, £25 from Rhondda and £10 from Merthyr.[40] However, in January, the SWMF Executive agreed to support the men and paid a locked-out rate of ninety shillings a month and a shilling a week per child and told Thomas to try to negotiate a return to work in consultation with the Darren miners.

In January 1905, the ownership of the Darren colliery changed hands but with similar directors and managers. Thomas met with one of the managers of the new company who told him they would only allow the miners back to work if they accepted the introduction of a system called Billy Fair Play which uses a screen to separate the slack and dross from the lump coal. In this system, the coal sent up by the miner was weighed and the gross weight was noted. The coal was then emptied over an inclined screen and the dross and small coal passed through the meshes of the screen, which were 2 inches in diameter, and fell onto a self-righting plate and weighed. This portion was known as Billy, and the rate paid to the miner for this could be as low as 2d per ton or less. The miners received the standard contract rate for the portion which passed over the screen.[41]

This was in contravention to a principle that had governed the mining in South Wales since ‘time immemorial’ because in the past the men were renumerated for the small coal and the slack at the same rate as the lump coal. The manager offered an alternative proposal of reducing the cutting price (the standard contract rate paid to the hewers per ton of coal) from 1s 6d a ton (which was an arrangement that had been in force since the 1890s) to 1s 1d a ton. This meant a reduction in their wages of 33 per cent.[42]

Thomas met with the miners who informed him that this was unacceptable. The miners then agreed to refuse to have any further negotiations with the owners unless they were paid the wages due to them.[43] In March the Darren owners issued a statement to Thomas that unless a compromise was reached with the workmen, they would close the colliery.[44]

Garw ILP

The miners remained locked out and this provided an opportunity for the ILP to present its politics to an audience that was seeking political solutions to their poor social and economic conditions. Consequently, at the end of February 1905, a large ILP meeting was held in Pontcymmer with Keir Hardy and Robert Smillie as the main speakers. Smillie helped to found the ILP in 1893 and was elected President of the Scottish Miners’ Federation in 1894, a post he held until 1918. The meeting passed a resolution declaring:

In favour of Labour representation in parliament, distinct and apart from the capitalist parties whether Liberal or Tory.[45]

This was followed by the establishment of a Garw ILP branch in March 1905 with about 30 members. Meth Jones was elected as secretary and William Davies, a checkweighman from Ffladau colliery, as chairman.[46] In April 1905, the four Labour candidates who ran in three wards in the district council elections were returned with two in Pontycymmer (total of 5 seats), one in Blaengarw (total of 3 seats) and one in Pontyrhyl (total of 3 seats).[47] This included William Davies in Pontycymmer and Evan David in Blaengarw.[48] The ILP had now gained a foothold in the Garw Valley and in August 1905 organised two open-air public meetings in Blaengarw and Pontycymmer with speakers and singing.[49]

Although some chapels expelled members for joining the ILP some Christian leaders gave up their traditional allegiance to Liberalism and equated the values of socialism with their Christian faith. This was the case for Reverend E T Evans, the curate in charge of Blaengarw. In November 1905, the Garw Valley branch of the ILP held a successful meeting at the Pontycymmer Institute on the subject of: Should Christians Join the ILP?  The main speaker was Reverand D. J. Rees, a unitarian minister from Bridgend. This was followed two days later by a lecture given by Gavan Duffy on Slums and Palaces at the Blaengarw Institute. The meeting attracted an audience of 600 people and was chaired by the Reverend E. T. Evans[50]


In 1905, Williams was 17 years old was looking for something more radical than the ILP and so he joined the SDF.[51] It was possible that Williams first encountered the SDF when Edward Hartley spoke at the socialist meeting in Pontycymmer in September 1904 mentioned above.

In 1905 the SDF was already being eclipsed by the ILP in the South Wales valleys but there was a resurgence in SDF membership at this time as some young miners were attracted by its strong socialist and even revolutionary message.

At this time, the Garw valley had about 20 members in the SDF out of a population of 15,000 people.[52] One of the most successful activities of the SDF was organising socialist Sunday schools which often were criticised by preachers in the local chapels. In his retirement speech in 1953, Williams said:

We were denounced from the pulpits as atheists and free lovers, and they called us a lot of other things too. The colliery managers were often the deacons at the respective chapels very few of us escaped persecution of one sort or another.[53]

Mark Bevir has argued that the influence of secularism within the SDF has been underestimated by historians.[54] 1n 1905 a religious revival swept through South Wales and the SDF may have provided an attractive alternative.[55] Williams remained ardently opposed to organised religion and campaigned against the influence of the church throughout his life.

However, nationally, the SDF never had more than a few thousand members.  Hyndman was an authoritarian who dominated the organisation. He regarded strikes as at best a limited means of improving wages and conditions under capitalism and at worst a diversion from politics which diluted his socialist message. The history of the leadership of the SDF is a story of factionalism and ideological conflict and many of its leading members, from both the right and the left of the organisation resigned.[56]

However, there was more ideological fluidity, more pragmatism and less sectarianism among the rank-and-file SDF activists in South Wales where the SDF was successful in recruiting miners who had little in common with Hyndman and some of the SDF leadership.[57] Some of these men would later have a significant impact on the development of the SWMF. These included William Mainwaring who helped set up the Marxian Club in Blaenclydach in 1907 and Noah Rees who had a long history of union activism starting as a lodge Secretary in Ogmore Vale. These men would become key figures in the strikes which convulsed the Rhondda in 1910. The SDF was instrumental in developing a rich legacy of socialist thinking in the valleys which challenged existing ideas about labour, the role of women and internationalism. In this sense, the SDF’s greatest legacy was intellectual rather than organisational.[58]

International Colliery Lockout

In the Spring of 1905, the coal trade went into depression and the owners were keen to reduce costs further by reducing wages. As a result, in May, they came to an agreement with SWMF and Thomas for a reduction in the percentage addition on the cutting prices and day rates at all the collieries in the Garw valley.[59]

At the same time, the owners of the International Colliery came up with a proposal to reduce wages further by the introduction of Billy Fair Play for the Caedafid seam which would effectively reduce the cutting price significantly below that agreed upon in the 1890s. The owners had complained to Thomas that the men were sending up too much ‘dirty coal’ and issued notices to terminate their contracts unless they accepted Billy Fair Play. Consequently, on 1 May the 150 miners at the International Colliery who worked the Caedafid seam joined the Darren men on the lockout.[60]

The matter was referred to the SWMF Executive on 20 May who agreed to award the men lockout pay and instructed Thomas to negotiate with the owners to settle the dispute over the price list and Billy Fair Play.[61]

Pontycymmer Male Choir. 

Despite the lockout pay, the families of the locked-out miners were becoming destitute so fundraising was important.  Choral singing had a long and creditable tradition in the Garw Valley dating back to 1886 with the formation of the Pontycymmer Male Choir.  The choir was one of the best in the valleys and some of the locked-out miners were members. During the 1898 strike, the Pontycmmer Male Choir toured the northern towns of England, Scotland and London under the auspices of the ILP to raise funds for the striking miners’ families.[62]

As a result, the choir decided to tour the country again and from June to September 1905 they visited most of the major cities in Scotland and the North of England. The ILP was particularly strong in the North of England in Newcastle, Manchester and Huddersfield and their members took the cause to heart providing board and lodgings and organising concerts in halls and outside in the street.[63] 

Rift btween Thomas and the ILP

During the lockouts, a permanent rift developed between some of the miners in the north of Garw valley and Thomas over his opposition to the ILP.  In the Spring of 1905, delegates from the International Colliery and some other lodges argued for a ballot on their proposal for an independent parliamentary Labour candidate. Thomas resisted, but in June 1905 a delegate meeting of the GMA referred the question of a Labour candidate back to the lodges for discussion.[64] Consequently, in August 1905, the GMA lodge delegates voted for a ballot on the matter. However, Thomas resisted and complained that there would be a lot of men who were not owners of property taking part in the ballot and, as they had no right to vote in parliamentary elections, he argued these men should not have a say over who was to be a parliamentary candidate.[65]

The result of the ballot was 1266 for an ILP candidate and 649 against. The International lodge voted 185 for an ILP candidate and 150 against. Two lodges did not ballot as the secretaries said they had already agreed to be in favour of an ILP candidate.[66] This was the first victory in a long campaign to elect a Labour MP for the mid-Glamorgan constituency. 

Resolution of the Disputes

Throughout the summer, while the Pontycymmer choir toured the country, the Darren and International managements remained intransigent. However, after some intense negotiations in October, the Darren miners accepted a proposal from their owners which amounted to a reduction of the cutting price of 2.5d a ton and an agreement that there would be no Billy Fair Play.[67] The Darren miners went back to work in October after one of the longest struggles in the South Wales coalfield. However, they expressed disappointment that Thomas and the SWMF Executive insisted that there was no chance of them winning a legal case through the courts to claim their lost wages from the start of the lockout.

Meanwhile, the International colliery workers remained locked out, but the owners refused to accept an offer from Thomas for a settlement based on the agreement at the Darren colliery.[68]  At a meeting of the GMA in November the International delegate said:

They were determined not to accept Billy Fair Play and the struggle was one of principle. If they accepted the Billy, it would be the thin end of the wedge and the use of the Billy would be extended to all the collieries in South Wales and Monmouthshire coalfield.[69]

At the beginning of January 1906, after seven months on strike, the dispute was finally settled when it was agreed that the hewers would only load large lump coal as far as possible and be paid 1s 6d a ton which was the rate paid at the beginning of the dispute.[70]

The lockouts laid the seeds for further conflict within the GMA over industrial relations and socialist politics. The locked-out miners had received a tremendous amount of support from ILP groups throughout the country and as a result, some miners were keen to support the policies of the ILP in the Garw valley and mid-Glamorganshire.

In 1905 and 1906 the relationship between Thomas and the miners from the steam coal pits deteriorated further after the Ffaldau lodge officials complained that Thomas was not adequately representing their interests.[71] Consequently, the lodge withdrew from the GMA and this decision was confirmed by a ballot Ffaldau miners held in August 1906.[72] The lodge remained outside the organisation until they were persuaded to return by Mabon and Brace at a public meeting in March 1907.[73]

Over the next few years, a whole series of disputes erupted across the South Wales coalfield. Many of these were about the cutting price of coal and often led to groups of workers walking off the coal face in unofficial actions without the backing of the local association agents or the SWMF. In August 1908, the Darren colliery was on strike again.

1906 General Elections in Mid-Glamorgan

In 1906, it appears that Williams left the SDF and joined the ILP because, in August 1906, there is a record of him chairing a meeting of the ILP in Pontycymmer.[74] The ILP had more resources and a larger membership and would go on to have a much greater impact on labour politics and the development of social democracy than the SDF. The ILP became the main political organisation that attracted members of the labour movement in the South Wales valleys who were seeking an alternative to Liberalism. Daryll Leeworthy argues that this was not accidental:

It was a product of a great deal of hard work, intense campaigning and newspaper publishing but it was supported by a ‘culture’ that harnessed traditional working-class outlets such as sport, music and religion to encourage independence of thought and action.[75]

However, in 1906, the SWMF leadership’s industrial moderation still found its political expression in continued adherence to Liberalism. Since the LRC did not yet have the full support of the SWMF Executive, it was not able to field a candidate in the January 1906 parliamentary election for mid-Glamorgan. Subsequently, the sitting Liberal MP, Samuel Evans was elected without an opponent.[76]

However, Evans did not have an easy ride and Liberal Party meetings often descended into chaos as Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) supporters attacked Evans for his anti-suffragist views. [77] The WSPU leader Emmeline Pankhurst spoke at Pontycymer and consequently Fanny Thomas and Gelder became actively involved in the WSPU as it started to make a significant impact in the Garw valley.

The four SWMF MPs who took their seats after the 1906 general election, included Mabon, William Brace and Tom Richards, who were respectively the President, vice-president and secretary of the SWMF. They all remained part of the trade union group in the Liberal Party.[78] The fourth MP, Keir Hardie was the exception. 

The January 1906 national general election resulted in a landslide victory for the Liberal Party. However, 30 MPs endorsed by the LRC were elected. On 15 February 1906, at their first meeting after the election, the 30 MPs decided to adopt the name ‘The Labour Party’.

In March 1906, the annual conference of the SWMF saw Mabon and Brace subjected to unprecedented criticism for their adherence to Liberalism. The pressure was now building from within in the SWMF and outside to abandon the Liberal Party.

The ILP supported universal suffrage and when Emeline Pankhurst spoke at Pontycymmer on 21 September, she criticised the SWMF Executive for not supporting a Labour candidate.[79] Pankhurst became close friends with Fanny Thomas and stayed with her at her house.

On 24 September 1906, a meeting of delegates of all the miners’ lodges in the mid-Glamorgan constituency voted by a large majority in favour of selecting a Labour candidate in the next election with 9846 in favour, 2267 against and 1450 neutral.[80]

As a result of this pressure, in October 1906, SWMF voted in favour of affiliation to the Labour Party by 41,843 votes to 31,527.[81] However, it would be four years before the Labour Party in mid-Glamorgan was able to field a candidate and Evans was elected unopposed in bye-elections in October 1906 and 1908 and defeated a Conservative candidate in January 1910.

Vernon Hartshorne

The ILP’s policy of independent political action attracted to its ranks some younger SWMF militants such as Vernon Hartshorne who argued that miners needed to organise politically as well as industrially. Hartshorne was one of the pioneers of the ILP in Wales and, in 1905, he was appointed agent for the SWMF in the nearby Maesteg district. The campaign to break the SWMF from liberalism was led by Hartshorne and other members of the ILP such as James Winstone, the agent for the Eastern Valleys District of the SWMF, who had become influential in the coalfield since the 1898 strike.

Vernon Hartshorne (Credit: National Portrait Gallery London)

In 1908 the Labour Leader claimed that there were 95 branches of the ILP in South Wales, although some of them were short-lived.[82] In the following year, the ILP, with the support of Robert Smillie, who was now Vice President of the MFGB, was successful in its campaign to persuade the MFGB to affiliate to the Labour Party.[83] In 1909, Meth Jones was elected as Miners’ Registration Agent for the West Glamorgan and East Carmarthen District and campaigned on behalf of the Labour Party.[84]

The political and industrial establishment in the Garw valley felt very threatened by these developments. The Labour Leader complained that there was intimidation and victimisation by colliery managers, some of whom were Liberal councillors, taking place in the Garw valley against some ILP members. As a result, some men lost their jobs which resulted in a drop in membership due to a fear of victimisation.[85] After attending an open-air meeting arranged by Pontycymmer ILP on 7 March 1909, Robert Williams, the main speaker, was arrested and fined 30s.[86]

In October 1908, several of the steam coal lodges presented a motion at a GMA meeting requesting a ballot on the continued employment of Thomas as their agent. As a result,  Thomas threatened to resign rather than subject himself to the “indignity of a ballot”.[87] However, he managed to garner support from some of the other lodges, mainly in the south of the Garw district and survived without a ballot. In 1909 another attempt was made by the lodges in the north for a ballot but their motions were ruled out of order and Thomas remained in office. 

In March 1910, at a meeting in Pontycymmer, John Williams seconded a motion in support of the Hartshorne to stand against the new Liberal candidate, Frederick Gibbons, in the forthcoming by-election for mid-Glamorgan in April.[88] In his address, John Williams made an argument using socialist ethics typical of the ILP at the time. The Glamorgan Gazette reported that:

He appealed to the Federationists on behalf of the destitute in the country and on behalf of the little children who are crying for food to send another Member to strengthen the hands of the Labour Party in the House of Commons.[89]

The campaign for a Labour candidate was acrimonious because it signalled a rupture between those in the SWMF who supported Hartshorne and the supporters of William Brace, a Liberal and the SWMF Vice-President, who opposed the intervention of a Labour candidate. However, Mabon and Richards and most other Lib-Lab MPs from the MFGB now joined the Labour Party.

Members of the WSPU such as Fanny Thomas, who was now a member of the ILP, also intervened in the election on the side of Hartshorne.[90] In the end, Hartshorne was narrowly defeated by Gibbons who claimed in his campaign that “Liberalism was the soul of Labour, and Labour was the sinew of Liberalism”.[91]

However, a general election in December 1910 provided another opportunity for Labour to challenge the Liberal consensus. In December meetings were held throughout the Garw valley in support of Hartshorne. On Saturday 3 December, at a meeting in Blaengarw, Hartshorne argued that working men including liberals and socialists should unite in their emancipation by supporting Labour candidates. He said he was not standing as a socialist but as a nominee of the Labour Party and was wary of accusations from some non-conformist ministers that he was advocating atheism, revolution and free love.[92]

Based on this reassurance, the Garw miners’ agent John Thomas changed his tune and urged all trade unionists to unite in support of Hartshorne.[93] On 5 December, in Pontycymmer, a meeting in support of Hartshorne was chaired by Williams who advocated returning working-class men to the House of Commons.[94]  In the end, Hartshorne was narrowly defeated by the Liberal candidate Hugh Edwards.

In nearby East Glamorgan, a rupture had also occurred between Labour and the Liberals. In this case, the Labour candidate and ILP member, Charles Stanton, a militant socialist from Aberdare, was defeated by the Liberal candidate who comfortably won the seat.

From 1906 to 1918, the Labour Party continued to operate as a conglomerate of affiliated bodies, including the ILP, which provided the activist base, the Fabian Society and most trade unions. It was not until 1918 that the Labour Party introduced individual membership. Over this period, the labour movement gradually progressed towards more effective political independence.

Growing Impatience

More significant than these events, however, was the growing impatience among miners with the political system as a whole. It was becoming apparent to men people like Williams and others in the Garw valley that working-class representation in parliament alone would not achieve better working and living conditions for his community.

On 1 June a mass meeting was held on the mountainside near Pontycmmer in an attempt to induce non-unionists to join the SWMF. John Thomas pointed out that non-unionists had received the benefits of the Compensation Acts, the Eight Hours Act and the Coal Mines Regulation Act on the backs of those who had paid into their union. A resolution calling on all non-unionists to join the SWMF proposed by Councillor Evan David and seconded by Gwilym Richards was passed unanimously.[95]

On 1 September 1910 about 3,500 miners at the International Colliery, Garw (Ocean), Ffaldau and Glengarw Collieries in the north of the Garw valley gave four weeks’ notice to strike unless non-unionists joined the SWMF. The Glamorgan Gazette reported:

Mr. Evan David secretary of the Garw district, in supporting the resolution, said that much of the unrest in the coalfield was due to non-unionism. The resolution was carried unanimously.[96]

By the end of September, most of the non-unionists in the Garw valley had joined up and a strike was averted.[97] However, miners walked out on Monday 3 October at the Ocean collieries in the Garw and Rhondda where the hauliers were still in dispute over bonus payments There was trouble at the small Nanthir pit in Blaengarw which employed 250 men. [98]

By now, the rest of the South Wales coalfield was in a state of ferment with about 21,000 men on strike over a variety of issues. This included 800 men who walked out on strike on Monday 3 October at the Cambrian Combine’s Ely pit in the Rhondda in a dispute over the price list. The dispute immediately spread to some of the other pits in the Rhondda owned by the Cambrian Combine involving 2,500 men. Soon all the Cambrian’s dozen or so pits in the Rhondda were shut down with 12,000 men on strike leading to violent confrontations between the miners and the police and military in the Rhondda valley and rioting in Tonypandy.

Dundee Evening Telegraph 3 October 1910


The 1910-1914 period saw the greatest explosion of industrial discontent that Britain had ever experienced. In 1910, strikes and violent confrontations between the community and the police and the army spread through the mining areas of the South Wales valleys. This militancy was particularly acute in coalfields owned by the Cambrian Combine around Tonypandy in the Rhondda and the coalfields around Aberdare. As a result, older union leaders were swept aside as younger and more militant leaders took their place and organised strikes and direct action in support of their demands.

The dispute at the Eli Pit near Tonypandy was a consequence of payment for work in what was known as abnormal places. The issue was that the hewer, who was working on the face on piece rates linked to the tonnage of coal produced, still needed to be paid when little or no coal was being sent to the surface because of working in difficult situations. The dispute started over a price list for a new seam. The Cambrian Collieries Ltd. offered a cutting rate of 1s 9d a ton while the colliers wanted 2s 6d a ton because the seam was particularly difficult with many potentially abnormal places.

The dispute initially affected only a few dozen hewers but resulted in a lockout of over 800 men from this one pit in early October 1910. However, more miners came out in solidarity and by October all of the Cambrian’s dozen or so pits in the Rhondda were shut down with 12,000 men on strike.

In a ballot of the whole South Wales coalfield, the majority of the miners including those in the Garw valley voted to support the Cambrian men by a levy rather than voting for a strike of the whole South Wales coalfield.[99] However, the unrest soon spread to the other parts of the coalfield when 20,000 men from the Cynon valley, Maesteg and Monmouthshire walked out on strike. In Aberdare in the Cynon valley, Charles Stanton, the miners’ agent for Aberdare, led the miners into a confrontation with the authorities which saw some of the most violent incidents of the period.[100] Stanton attacked local labour leaders including the local Labour MP Keir Hardie and the President of the SWMF, Mabon:

the faint-hearted, over-cautious, creeping, crawling, cowardly set who pose as leaders but do not lead (and) are responsible for the rotten condition of things today.[101]

In November, a series of ferocious clashes took place between the police and pickets resulting in about one hundred injuries to local miners with one being battered to death.[102] As more police poured into the Rhondda, rioting broke out in Tonypandy. Over the winter, the Pontypridd and the Rhondda valleys came under military occupation with four separate regiments to try and keep order. The dispute continued until June 1911 when the MFGB rejected the call for a national strike in solidarity with the Welsh miners. A return to work was completed in October 1911 on the terms offered twelve months previously.

However, the strikes and the response from the coal owners and the state had a massive impact on the whole of the South Wales Coalfield. In his October 1961 interview, Williams said he remembered Tonypandy very well. In 1961 he reported that he had worked at various other pits in the Garw area including the Garw colliery owned by Ocean Coal Company Ltd which also owned pits in the Rhondda, so he took great interest in the events surrounding the conflict.[103] In the Garw valley, miners continued to campaign for a minimum wage so they would not have to end the shift with little or no payment for the work they had done as a result of working in abnormal places.[104]

In the 1911 census, the Williams family were still living at Mount Pleasant but his father had died and there was one lodger. Both John and Emlyn are listed as coal miners and they were now the breadwinners for the family so the issue of a minimum wage was important.[105] When, in September 1911, Hartshorne addressed a mass meeting of the Garw Lodges of the SWMF in Pontycymmer, Williams put a resolution to the meeting on the question of non-unionism and the fight for a minimum wage:

This meeting calls upon all the non-Unionists to immediately join the Federation. The Joint Committee has unanimously decided that every lodge must be clear at the end of the month, so that our miners’ leaders’ hands when fighting for a minimum wage, shall be strengthened by united ranks.[106]

The resolution was passed unanimously with the support of Hartshorne.  The focus of the mining community remained on industrial struggles, particularly over the matter of a minimum wage.

One of the consequences of the strike was that some ILP members such as Stanton resigned from the party because they felt that their leaders had forced a compromise over matters to do with class struggle and socialism. Subsequently, in January 1912, some ILP members joined with members of the SDF to form the British Socialist Party (BSP) a Marxist party with similar policies as the SDF.[107]

Noah Ablett

However, when Marxist ideas spread into the Welsh coalfield it was not a political party that was primarily responsible but an education movement based on the Plebs League and Central Labour College (CLC). In 1907, a young miner from the Rhondda, Noah Ablett, started a two-year course at Ruskin College, Oxford sponsored by the SWMF. Ruskin specialised in providing educational opportunities for adults with few or no qualifications but insisted on a formal and orthodox curriculum.

In 1908, Ablett was at the core of a group of students at Ruskin who were instrumental in the formation of the Plebs League, which challenged the lecturers’ opposition to Marxism and, as a result, organised their own independent classes. The Plebs’ League aimed to provide independent working-class education based on the idea that working people should produce their own thinkers and organisers. Ablett returned to South Wales at the end of 1908, where he began organising education classes with the Plebs’ League.[108]

Encouraged by Ablett, the students continued to oppose Ruskin College’s teaching methods and campaigned for a curriculum based on their life experiences, including working-class history and philosophy. In 1909, the students went on strike, refusing to attend classes after the Principal, Dennis Hird, was dismissed for supporting their campaign. As a result, Hird and the students set up the CLC, with the aim of providing independent working-class education outside of the control of the University of Oxford.[109]  Williams was strongly influenced by this development and held Ablett in great esteem, describing him thus:

Outstanding was Noah Ablett. The simplicity and wisdom of his arguments were very attractive. He was rather like Nye Bevan, without Bevan’s speed, but a deeper thinker. He had wisdom as well as swiftness. Ablett was one of the most sincere men I have ever met.[110]

Throughout his career, Williams involved himself in a range of educational institutions, organised classes and placed great emphasis on working-class education.


In 1911, Noah Ablett became a checkweighman at Maerdy Colliery and was elected to the SWMF Executive Committee. He made a considerable impact as part of a new generation of leaders committed to greater militancy. He was hostile to the way that the majority of the SWMF Executive Committee was conciliatory to the coal owners during the Cambrian dispute.[111] One of the results of the strike was that the philosophy of men like Ablett now gained a following within the South Wales coalfield among the younger men like Williams.

In 1912, Ablett along with William Mainwaring, Noah Rees (both ex-SDF), William Hay and Arthur Cook was involved in the production of a pamphlet entitled The Miners’ Next Step. The pamphlet argued that socialists needed to organise from below to gain control of the leadership of the union. It demanded rank-and-file control of a centralised and industrial union, called for antagonistic relations with employers, and rejected the nationalisation of the mines in favour of workers’ control.

An industrial union is one in which all workers in the same industry are organised into one big organisation, thus giving workers in each industry more leverage in bargaining and strike situations. Industrial unionism contrasts with craft unionism, which organises workers along the lines of their specific trades sometimes leading to multiple unions with different contracts, pay and working conditions in the same workplace.

Syndicalism and industrial unionism underpinned the tactics of the newly formed South Wales Unofficial Reform Committee (URC), an unofficial rank-and-file organisation, which was the first miners’ organisation to raise the issue of workers’ control of industry. The URC advocated an aggressive industrial policy that would force the employers out of the industry leaving the mines under the control of the workers. Industrial unions covering all industries of the country would then become the basis of a completely new social structure. Fundamental to the ideology of syndicalism was the belief that a progressive social and political change transformation of society could be achieved by workers taking direct action in their workplaces rather than relying on parliament.

Although men like Ablett who advocated a form of revolutionary syndicalism never numbered more than a few thousand in Britain, their influence was much more widespread leading to widespread use of the tactics of direct action and militant confrontations with the colliery owners, particularly in South Wales.

It was not uncommon that the career paths of some of the militants from this period followed a trajectory that started on the coal face and then election to the role of checkweighmen. This could be followed by an election to a role as an SWMF elected official and finally a full-time agent with a place on the SWMF or MFGB Executives. The Miners’ Next Step advocated that the full-time officials be under the control of the rank and file and their tenure limited by regular elections. The pamphlet argued that there was no contradiction between syndicalism and the concept of leadership, provided the leaders remained under democratic control.

Subsequently, some of its authors, such as Ablett and Cook became full-time agents but continued to support the URC and advocate a form of syndicalism. However other SWMF officials such as Hartshorne distanced themselves from the URC and in time became openly hostile to syndicalism.

Given Williams’s admiration for Ablett, it can be reasonably assumed that he was also influenced by the growth of syndicalism and industrial unionism. This manifested itself in his approach to trade union politics and his relationships with employers and fellow workmen for the rest of his life.

Removal of Thomas

In 1912, Smillie was elected President of the MFGB and remained in position until 1921. The developing militancy across the South Wales coalfield now impacted the Garw valley. By 1912, there had developed considerable friction between Thomas and the larger steam coal lodges in the north of the Garw valley such as the International where Williams worked. The situation was finally resolved by a mass meeting of over 800 miners in Pencoed on 5 March 1912 when Thomas walked out of the meeting saying he was going to sever his links with the district.[112] However, some of the smaller, house coal lodges in the south of the valley and around Tondu did not agree with the action taken by the miners from the steam coal lodges and for a short period they set up a Lower Garw District with Thomas as its agent.

The next task for the Garw district of the SWMF was to advertise for a new agent. Fourteen applicants were shortlisted including seven local men and a ballot took place in May 1912. Subsequently, 24-year-old Frank Hodges was elected with a large majority by a vote taken by the three main steam coal collieries in the north of the valley.[113] William’s friend Gwilym Richards also applied and came third in the ballot with a strong vote from the International Colliery. It was likely that Williams would have voted for his friend because he later claimed Hodges only got the job because of his eloquence rather than his competence.[114]

Glamorgan Gazette 3 May 1912

Frank Hodges

Frank Hodges was born in Woolaston in the Forest of Dean in 1887 and was the son of a farm labourer. When he was a teenager, he moved to Abertillery to gain better-paid work in the mines with his father and brothers.[115] In 1901, at the age of 14, Frank Hodges started work at the Powell Tillery colliery and soon became an active member of the local miners’ union and joined the ILP.[116]

Frank Hodges (Credit Durham Mining Museum)

Like many others, Hodges was politicised by the industrial unrest of this period and as a result, involved himself in self-education and workers’ discussion groups. In 1909 he obtained a two-year union-sponsored scholarship to Ruskin College where he became involved in the Plebs League and the establishment of the breakaway Central Labour College.[117] In 1910, Hodges spent ten months studying at the Foyer de l’Ouvrier, Paris where he became friends with Eleanor Marx before returning to South Wales in 1911 to work on the coalface. 

Soon after his appointment, Hodges started to build a working relationship with Williams and started to reform the SWMF in the district.[118] He gained a position on the Executive of the SWMF where, just like Ablett, he argued for workers’ control rather than nationalisation by the state and advocated industrial unionism. In July 1912 Hodges argued:

When properly developed the business of every lodge in the coalfield will be the business of every other lodge. The whole machinery will be in the possession of the workmen themselves. If there are backward areas, if there are local disputes over price lists etc. the whole force of the Federation will be focused there until we have complete uniformity in conditions and wages. The funds and the fight of the whole will be at the disposal of the one, and this will ultimately extend to the whole Mining Federation of Great Britain until the mining industry will be completely possessed by those who toil in the mines.[119]

One of Hodge’s first tasks was to build support for a national miners’ strike in support of a demand for a national minimum wage. The strike began at the end of February 1912 when nearly one million miners took part. The strike was the biggest Britain had ever seen, and for more than a month, the nation’s pits were closed.  It ended on 6 April after 37 days. The result was a partial victory for the miners after government intervention established the principle of a locally negotiated minimum wage under the Coal Mines (Minimum Wage) Act 1912. In the Garw valley, the strike was solid, and it confirmed Williams’s belief that, with a strong national union organisation, significant concessions could be won by industrial action.

One of the rules under the Minimum Wage Act was that up to two representatives could be elected from each lodge to settle disputes that may arise under the Act. In August 1912, an election was held for the post of minimum wage representative for the International lodge and Williams was one of five candidates nominated. The selection was by ballot and Williams was one of the candidates elected to the post.[120]

In 1912 Mabon stood down as President of the SWMF and was replaced by the existing Vice President William Brace. However, James Winston, a socialist, was elected as the new Vice President and the composition of the SWMF Executive moved to the left.[121] Sometime in 1912, Williams was elected to the additional role of SWMF wage and dispute representative for the International lodge.[122]

Non-union labour

There is no doubt that Hodges was an excellent organiser and continued to make an impact both nationally and locally.[123] At the MFGB conference in 1913, he moved a resolution that established a Triple Alliance of miners, railwaymen and transport workers to support each other in industrial disputes. In the years between 1912 and 1914, he ran a strong campaign against non-unionism resulting in the pits in the Garw valley becoming nearly one hundred per cent unionised. This involved organising house-to-house visits of individual non-unionists and strike action against their employment.[124]

On 2 December 1912, about 3,000 miners employed at the steam coal collieries in the Garw valley, including the International Colliery, came out on strike as a consequence of the employment of non-union labour. On 14 December, the strike was called off after the majority of the 500 non-unionists agreed to join the SWMF or pay up their arrears.[125]

On 1 May 1913, all the mines in the Garw valley were closed again with nearly 4,000 workers on strike because of the employment of 24 non-union workers. On 9 May 1913, the papers reported that the 24 non-union men in the Garw valley were persuaded to join the union after the intervention of the Secretary of the MFGB, Tom Richards.[126]

On 9 June 1913, Frank Hodges introduced the veteran syndicalist Tom Mann to a large meeting in Pontycymmer describing him as “the greatest figure in the industrial life of Europe”[127]. Mann argued that parliament would always represent the interests of the capitalist class and that:

they must declare for industrial unionism with one union for each industry, and all the unions linked together in one organisation.[128]

By June 1914, the situation had deteriorated again and there were now about 500 men who were outside the SWMF or were in arrears in the Garw valley, including 65 men at the International Colliery. As a result, with the encouragement of Frank Hodges, on Saturday 27 June, nearly 4,000 SWMF members went on strike and the six large pits in the Garw valley were closed. Hodges organised a house-to-house canvass throughout the district with considerable success. The strike ended the following Wednesday when most of the non-unionists joined the SWMF, leaving 73 men who were still in arrears or were non-members. Consequently, Hodges arranged for some of his members to be placed at the pit head at the beginning of each shift to scrutinise the union cards of men arriving for work and those out of compliance were sent home.[129] The Glamorgan Gazette reported:

About 20 extra police have been drafted into the place, and about 8 were on duty near the International Colliery, where work was resumed on Wednesday, and the men without clear cards were prevailed upon to return home.[130] 

It was clear that some excellent trade union work was carried out in the Garw valley at this time, but it was unlikely that it was all down to the work of one man. Hodges was able to threaten strike action with the confidence that he would have the full support of the membership. This policy would not have been possible without the grassroots organisations built by miners like Williams on the ground.

Women’s Suffrage and Internationalism

Williams did not confine himself to SWMF politics. He attended a demonstration at Trafalgar Square organised by the Men’s Federation for Women’s Suffrage. After being knocked to the ground by police, he witnessed the arrest of Sylvia Pankhurst.[131]

In 1912 the Labour MP, George Lansbury resigned his seat over the failure of the Labour party to support women’s sufferage. He fought the subsequent bi-election as an indepependent but lost. However when Fanny Thomas presided over a meeting of the Pontycymer ILP, it passed a unanonmous motion in his support.

On 25 February 1914 Williams and his friend from school, Gwilym Richards, helped organise a social benefit for over 500 people in Pontycymmer with music in aid of the Dublin workers who had returned to work defeated and hungry having been locked out for eight months.[132]

Blaengarw Workmen’s Institute

Both Williams and Richards were influenced by the Plebs League and had a strong interest in the arts and literature. Consequently, they were keen to provide educational opportunities for their fellow workers and involved themselves in organising educational events at the Blaengarw Institute where Evan David was elected as chairman in 1911. In, October 1914 Williams was elected as chairman of the Institute committee while Evan David took on the role of secretary.[133]

Blaengarw Workmen’s Hall was originally built in 1893 and opened on 5 March 1894. The prime mover and secretary of this project was Evan Griffiths, cashier at the International Colliery. The finance was funded by contributions of one penny in the pound which was deducted from the wages of employees at four collieries; Garw, International, Glengarw and Darran. The buliding of the Hall was a huge acheivement by the community of Blaengarw and became the focus for its educational and cultural life .  The hall offered a meeting place, a library, benefit concerts, choral singing and education classes which covered such topics as politics and economics to its two thousand members.  In addition, Williams was also active in organising self-education classes at the Ffaldau Institute in Pontycymmer.

Blaengarw Workmen’s Institute Today


In July 1914, Hartshorne spoke at the annual rally or demonstration of miners in the Forest of Dean where he advised the miners not just to organise industrially but also politically to obtain labour representation in parliament. Hartshorne went on to promise “the greatest labour upheaval next year the world has ever seen”. He accused the Liberals of representing those forces in society that exploit the working classes and criticised them for their failure to support the demand for a minimum wage.

The upsurge in working-class militancy, the campaign for women’s suffrage, the development of working-class self-education and a developing internationalism must have made Williams feel that the world could rid itself of injustice and poverty and he could have a role in making this happen. However, by the summer of 1914, any dream of a better world was shattered by war. 

The policy of the MFGB was to coordinate action with all sections of the international working class to prevent war at any cost and to intervene with all means at its disposal to bring any war to an end. Sadly, trade unions and social democratic leaders failed to use the power of the trade union movement and their international organisations to achieve this. Soon military recruitment began within an atmosphere of jingoism and peer pressure which celebrated nationhood and empire.

By the end of August, the Labour Party and the TUC had declared an ‘industrial truce’ for the duration of the war and lent their support to an all-party recruitment campaign. One very important dissenter was Ramsay MacDonald, leader of the ILP and the Parliamentary Labour Party, who resigned from the government and was replaced by Arthur Henderson.[134] By May 1915, there were three Labour MPs in the Coalition Government and one of them, Henderson, was in the cabinet.

The majority of ILP members opposed the decision to go to war. On 6 August 1914, Hardie called on ILP members to resist the nationalist hysteria that was now sweeping the country. In the same issue of the party’s journal the Labour Leader, the young editor Fenner Brockway, wrote:

Workers of Great Britain you have no quarrel with the workers of Europe. They have no quarrel with you. The quarrel is between the ruling classes of Europe. Don’t make this quarrel yours…[135]

Another major dissenter among the trade union leaders was Smillie, the president of the MFGB, who believed the war was an unmitigated disaster for the working class. Smillie was a devoted friend of Keir Hardie and a leading member of the anti-war majority of the ILP.[136] Yet Smillie was careful not to express outright opposition to the war in public and spent the war years negotiating with the government to limit the use of compulsory industrial labour and resisting its attempts to run the mines under a semi-military discipline. At the start of the war, Smillie made it clear to the government that he would not tolerate any attempt to interfere with the civil rights of men employed in the mining industry.

However, there was a wide range of views within the MFGB over the war and many miners volunteered. The recently elected President of the SWMF, William Brace, supported the war effort and was shortly to enter government as the parliamentary under Secretary at the Home Office.[137] Ablett was the only member of the SWMF Executive Committee who argued that the miners should take strike action to try to stop the war, as a part of an international movement.

As a result, on 8 August 1914, the government introduced the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) which gave it wide-ranging powers to introduce a variety of authoritarian social control mechanisms. The Act included the statement that “no person shall by word of mouth or in writing spread reports likely to cause disaffection or alarm among any of His Majesty’s forces or the civilian population”.[138] During the war, the Act was used to arrest and imprison a large number of trade unionists and anti-war activists. 

War in the Garw Valley

Thousands of South Wales miners flocked to the recruiting stations, and by the end of the war, twenty per cent of Welsh miners had served in the military. In Glamorgan, nearly 50,000 volunteered for the army many encouraged Hartshorne who spoke on recruiting platforms.[139] Some of these men may have been influenced by peer pressure or the hope of adventure and a quick victory. Some may have been spurred on by patriotic jingoism or just wanted a break from the drudgery of working in the pit for long hours in unhealthy and dangerous conditions.[140] Poverty was a significant factor affecting recruitment in August 1914.[141] For volunteer miner, William Edwards:

the general belief was that the war would be over in three months, and the period of army service would provide a welcome break from the pits.[142]

In August, 150 reservists left the Garw valley and by mid-September 250 men from the Garw valley had signed up.[143] Another factor impacting recruitment was the temporary rise of unemployment resulting from the closure of some of the steam coal collieries as a result of the loss of the export trade.

During the war, Hartshorne served on the coal trade organization committee, the coal controllers’ advisory committee, and the industrial unrest committee in South Wales. His loyal support resulted in his award of an OBE in 1918.  There is no record of Williams making any statement about his position on the war. He would have known some miners and relatives who volunteered and some who were killed. However, it is reasonable to assume he felt the war was a tragedy for the whole community in the Garw valley and given his admiration for Ablett it is likely he agreed with his opposition to the British government’s decision to go to war.

As demand for coal for the war effort increased and the shortage of labour due to military recruitment impacted the level of production there was huge pressure on the miners to work long hours and through their holidays. Consequently, Hodges and Williams backed the stance taken by Smillie and set about defending the pay and work conditions of their members, resisting attempts to interfere with the civil rights of miners and challenging the profiteering of the colliery owners.

While Hodges was at the forefront of these campaigns, Williams continued to build on the respect he had established with his fellow workmen. In early 1914 he was elected Chairman of the Garw district of the SWMF representing nearly 4,000 men working under the leadership and direction of Hodges. He regularly chaired meetings of the Garw region of the SWMF where Hodges was the main speaker.[144] On 9 October 1914, out of 12 applicants, Williams was elected as checkweighman at the International Colliery.[145] At the same time, his trade union duties were expanded as a result of his election as the SWMF representative at the International Colliery.

1915 Strike

At a special conference of the MFGB on 21 April 1915, Hodges was mandated to speak in favour of an SWMF resolution arguing for strike action to force the employers to grant a 20 per cent war bonus to counteract the considerable rise in the cost of living. He attacked the Liberal government for its partiality towards capitalists’ interests. He argued that the threat of strike action was not the primary responsibility of the South Wales miners because the coal colliery owners had refused to meet with the MFGB to discuss their demand for a 20 per cent advance in wages.

Gentlemen the onus of responsibility will fall on the capitalists in the first instance, and the Government in the second instance, for not having the courage to remove the capitalists’ objection.[146]

Williams chaired meetings while Hodges spoke in support of the campaign in the Garw valley.[147] The owners refused to negotiate, and, so the SWMF gave notice to end all existing agreements. Political mediation failed, and despite opposition from some SWMF executive members including Hartshorne, a delegate conference in July called for a strike. The Executive of the MFGB appealed to the South Wales miners to remain at work, and then the government passed the Munitions Act which made the strikes illegal and the restriction of output a criminal offence.[148] This only aggravated the situation more.

In defiance, 200,000 men went on strike and ships were held up because of the lack of steam coal. It was not possible to arrest 200,000 miners and so within five days, the government pressed the employers to make further concessions, which were duly made. The South Wales miners’ demands were met in full with a new agreement and a 20 per cent increase in their wages. However, during the strike, the miners were accused by the press of being the ‘Kaiser’s Black Guards’.[149] The accusation of treachery by the media was misplaced. The strike was fundamentally about the grievances of the South Wales miners concerning inflation and profiteering by the coal mine owners.

However opposition to the war was building and in August 1915, Williams helped organise an event under the auspices of the International Study Circle at the Ffaldau Institute with Meth Jones speaking on the question of the British intervention in the war. Williams also organised a series of educational classes on economics at the Institute.[150]


In contrast, Hodges and Hartshorne were keen to show their support for the war effort. In November 1915 a delegation of South Wales Miners’ leaders, including Hodges, Hartshorn and Tom Richards visited the Western Front where they assured the men in the trenches that “nothing on our part would be left undone to give every necessary support to ensure victory”.[151]

The presence of non-union labour had become a major concern among South Wales miners and was in danger of leading to more strikes. At the end of November, six thousand miners were on strike in the Rhondda over the employment of a mere handful of non-union labour. The men returned to work after about a week when all the non-unionists joined up. In addition, another 20,000 South Wales miners were threatening to walk out over non-unionism.[152]

In the Garw valley, miners tended notices of strike action over the presence of 60 miners in arrears at International and 30 at the Garw (Ocean) colliery. A mass meeting of miners from the two collieries was held in Blaengarw on 31 November and a decision to organise a show of cards at the collieries forced the men to pay their subscription and a strike was averted.[153]

Government Control

The coal mine owners were continuing to make huge profits out of the war and yet they continued to antagonise the miners over the issue of non-unionism and low wages. In addition, they refused a demand by the SWMF that there should be a joint audit of their books. The government could no longer risk keeping control of the mines in the hands of the owners. The threat of renewed disruption in the mining industry forced the government to take control of the South Wales coalfields in December and the rest of the coalfields early the following year.

Government control meant that `the owners were guaranteed a standard profit and had responsibility for the day-to-day management of the pits. In addition, the MFGB gained a system of national wage settlements which provided flat rate increases to all districts. The system was financed by creating a pool funded by excess profits by the colliery companies and tax receipts by the government. This arrangement suited the districts with low productivity, such as the Forest of Dean, as historically they were tied into district agreements which left them worse off than the more productive areas.

Hartshorn and Hodges were concerned that any more conflict over the issue of non-unionism could undermine their commitment to giving every necessary support to ensure victory in the war. As a result, the SWMF negotiated an agreement that meant membership of a trade union was a condition of employment for the war period.


Williams and Hodges had to work together but there were tensions between the two men as differences over support for the war effort and the conscription of miners became apparent. The first MFGB conference Williams attended was held in Nottingham in October 1915 when he was 28 years old. In his October 1961 interview with R Page Arnot Williams records:

He (Williams) was a delegate along with Frank Hodges, then the agent for the Garw.  There was an incident of Hodges with a girl in the hotel. It was the first time he had ever imagined such a thing could take place.[154]

This quote reflects a strong sense of morality which was characteristic of many young socialists at the time who had come from a background of non-conformism and the ILP which had a strong moral base. Williams did acknowledge in his interview with Arnot: “I was rather puritanical perhaps”.[155] However, it also hints at a distrust of Hodges who, attracted by the trappings of power, was now becoming increasingly ambitious.

In September 1915, Keir Hardy, the pacifist ILP MP for Merthyr, died. In November 1915, Charles Stanton stood in the resulting by-election on a pro-war nationalist ticket and beat the ILP candidate James Winstone.

Since the start of the war, Stanton’s views had radically changed and he had now become a jingoistic national socialist.  The result reflected the divided opinion over support for the war effort within the South Wales mining community. Stanton’s candidature was supported by the Socialist National Defence League (SNDL) whose origins lay in a split, in early 1915, within the BSP over the question of the support for Britain in its war against Germany. As a result of this split, a right-wing minority led by Hyndman left and formed the SNDL while most members remained in the BSP and campaigned for a peaceful settlement with Germany.

One result of Stanton’s success was that the SWMF had to run a ballot for a new agent for the Aberdare district. In December 1915, perhaps wishing to move away from the influence of Hodges, Williams stood in the election for the vacant post but came second from the bottom out of sixteen candidates.[156]

At the beginning of 1916, nationally 282,000 miners had volunteered for the military and the government had become concerned that the loss of labour in the mines could mean there would be a danger of a shortage of coal for the war effort. As a result, Colliery Recruiting Courts were established in each area to monitor the voluntary enlistment of miners to guarantee the maintenance of coal output. Hartshorne sat on the Glamorgan Court as a representative of the employees. 


However, the military still needed more men to replace those being slaughtered on the Western Front.[157]  In January 1916, the British government passed the Military Service Act which specified that men from the ages of 18 to 41 were liable to be called up for service unless they were married (or a widower with children), or else granted exemption because of serving in a reserved occupation such as mining.  There was immediate opposition from such groups as the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF) and initially by the MFGB.[158]

Despite this, in February 1916, the War Office started sending out call-up papers. They warned that those who did not turn up would be treated as wartime deserters and arrested. Most men obeyed the call-up papers and went to their local barracks as ordered.  On 17 April a meeting of the delegates of the SWMF Miners’ Federation at Cardiff adopted a resolution to take strike action if the government introduced conscription of miners.[159]

The conscription of men involved in the mining industry was treated as a special case. The colliery recruiting courts were adapted to serve as special tribunals to grant or withhold exemption on occupational grounds for those men involved in the mining industry. The military appeal tribunals had no jurisdiction over cases where exemptions had been refused by the colliery recruiting court based on occupation or date of entry into the mining industry. Miners could still apply to the local tribunal for exemption based on personal circumstances.[160] Colliery owners were asked to send a complete list of their employees to the local court.

This special procedure for dealing with colliery cases was maintained throughout the war period. The imposition of conscription immediately impacted the mining community as surface workers and those men who were accused of persistent absenteeism could have their exemptions withdrawn and sent to the front.[161]

Hours of Work

The government and the colliery owners continued to put pressure on the men to work long hours. Coal mining is an incredibly hard and dangerous job and miners traditionally needed to rest to recover from exhaustion or injury.  Consequently, the question of working long hours was one of the main complaints Williams and Hodges had to deal with. A mass meeting of daymen (as opposed to the hewers who worked on piece rates), was held on 19 February 1916 in Pontycymmer chaired by Williams with Hodges as the main speaker. The meeting was called to protest about some daymen who worked on Sunday in the face of a resolution requesting them to refrain from doing so. A resolution was passed that:

All underground workmen must be stopped in future from working after the day shift is finished on Saturday until Monday morning, and the resolution must be carried out even to the extent of picketing.[162]

Despite this, Hodges’ attitude to the war was ambiguous and his attitude on working extra hours to increase coal production for the war effort changed as the war progressed. In the summer of 1916, Williams chaired meetings where Hodges started to urge the men to work through their holidays. As a result, the Garw miners agreed to work through their summer holiday and all the collieries in the Garw worked on the 1916 August bank holiday.[163]

A Letter From The Front.

In 1916 Corporal Evan William (Llanfa) Watkins of Pontycymmer and a Royal Engineers Tunneller  wrote:

Here amidst the broken and shattered ruins of villages, the flowers bloom and the hedges are full of greenery– that is to say in a shy sort of way, as if ashamed of all this carnage, blood and devastation. The birds are chirping away merrily enough on occasion too, and in the torn walls and blasted hedges they have built their nests through the roar of bursting shells and incessant machine-gun fire.

The whole countryside is torn with fire and the tramp of myriads of men, but through it all you see Nature trying to assert itself. I suppose Man will tire of this conflict, and that Nature, as usual will be victorious, but it is Mankind that will pay the price.

There must have been something radically wrong with our so-called Civilisation and Christianity itself to demand such a terrible price as that which all Europe is paying now.

Here Civilisation is non-existent; Barbarism to cure Christianity? What a terrible idea. Will Right triumph? If it will, it ought to be good, for we are paying dearly for it, and will continue for centuries to pay. The waste of money from our treasury alone is bad enough, but the terrible drain on our manhood can never be replaced. The cries of widows and orphans, the pitiful condition of the maimed, the halt and blind, the real victims of this cruel and inhuman war, call with great force for the punishment of the instigators of this great calamity.

Well, what about after this war? I am sure we will win, for time is on our side, and it is a formidable ally. Are we going to go back to the old notions of life in our own country? Are we to pay this awful price for nothing? Are we going to have a better Wales? A country where merit not money counts? Are the working classes going to purge their prejudices and petty animosities so as to have a clearer concept of their powers and their limitations?

If, as I trust, we emerge from this conflict with that clearer vision, a vision which sees even in the worst of men that he is not wholly bad, and that the capitalist also will see that he has responsibilities as well as privileges, the price will not be wholly in vain.[164]

In 1917, Watkins was sent home after being badly gassed but sadly he died at the 3rd Western General Hospital, Neath on Friday 31st August 1917. His body was brought back to his home at 20 Albany Road Pontycymmer on Monday evening the 3rd September where a large number of sympathisers attended.

Watkins had fought in the South African War and had re-enlisted at the outbreak of the Great War. He served as a tunneller with the Royal Engineers for 11 months in France before being gassed. He had worked as a Collier at the Glenavon Colliery Blaengarw before his enlistment. He left a widow and no children. He was buried at Pontycymmer Cemetry along with another unfortunate soldier who had also died of wounds and had left six children fatherless.[165]

Conscription of Miners

In early 1917, the government had to face up to huge losses of men at the front mainly because of the disastrous Battle of the Somme in 1916.  The military needed more healthy young men to continue to fight the war so resorted to the conscription of miners to replace the men lost. Faced with the prospect of compulsory removal from the mines to the front, disaffection among miners increased significantly.

This heightened tensions in the Garw valley between those who believed that pressure should be brought on the government for a negotiated peace and those who believed the war should be fought to the bitter end.  In the South Wales valleys, the URC became the focus of anti-war activity and started to campaign for peace through negotiations between Britain and Germany and against the conscription of miners.[166]

On 26 January 1917, the government issued a warning that up to 40,000 men might be released from the mines for service in the military. However, the government acknowledged that it could not implement a scheme to conscript miners without the support of the MFGB. It had learned from experience that antagonising the miners could lead to strike action and that could undermine their military campaigns. Despite this, the military started to visit each pit in the Garw valley to inspect and register all those medically fit and eligible for recruitment.[167]

On 1 February 1917, the Executive of the MFGB met with the Home Secretary to discuss details of the scheme and agreed that exemptions would only be cancelled for men who entered the mining industry after August 1914, having been previously engaged in other occupations.[168] This was called the comb-out.

In response, the URC initiated a campaign against the conscription of miners regardless of their status. A delegate conference of the SWMF was held on 13 February to discuss the comb-out proposal and the discussion which lasted for over five hours became very heated.[169] In a ballot, most of the delegates voted to resist the conscription of miners and supported the demand for a general policy to negotiate an honourable peace with Germany. A card vote with each delegate representing 50 workers resulted in 1092 accepting the comb-out scheme and 1626 against it. This was effectively a vote of censure against the MFGB Executive. However, the SWMF Executive insisted that the conference be adjourned to the following Monday to give delegates time to consult further with their lodges.[170]

Both Hodges and Hartshorne were highly critical of those miners in the Garw valley who supported the URC and had voted against the comb out.  On Sunday 18 February, Hodges spoke at a mass meeting of miners in Pontycymmer, chaired by Williams,  where he made a scathing attack on the Garw delegates whom he claimed had voted against the government’s scheme without properly consulting with the members of their lodges. The Glamorgan Gazette reported that:

Mr Hodges said that it was on the records of the Federation that he had strongly opposed the introduction of conscription, but when he found that he was in a hopeless minority at the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain and Labour Party conference and the Trades Union Congress, he recognised that it would be futile for the South Wales coalfield to go in the teeth of the decision of the organised workers of the country. It was stated that two lodges in the Garw district had already passed resolutions regarding the adjourned conference. One decided to accept the Executive’s report, and the other to adhere to the rejection. The meeting thereupon demanded that all the lodge delegates must take their mandate from this mass meeting. A resolution was passed by a very large majority instructing the Garw delegates to vote at the adjourned conference for the acceptance of the Executive’s report or in the alternative for a ballot of the coalfield on any general policy. [171]

The conference was re-convened on Monday 19 February when the vote was taken again resulting in a small majority accepting the stance taken by the MFGB Executive. This time there were 1828 in favour of the scheme and 1309 against giving a majority of 519 in favour.[172]

However, the government remained cautious and as a temporary measure, on 16 March 1917, it issued a notice asking for volunteers from the mines. The inducement offered was that volunteers could join the regiment of their choice. As a result, nationally, the government enlisted 19,000 miners, including volunteers and conscripted surface workers. One reason for this was that young miners were warned that they would soon be conscripted anyway and by volunteering they could at least join a regiment of their choice and avoid an infantry posting. Others had their exemptions cancelled by the colliery recruiting courts for reasons such as alleged absenteeism or poor behaviour. If they appealed, they were told that in such cases the tribunal had no jurisdiction. 

Since the result was only partially successful, on 4 April 1917, the MFGB was asked to attend a meeting with the military to assist in the scheme for the conscription of 21,000 miners to reach the figure of 40,000. This would mean that approximately 4500 aged 18-25 men would need to be conscripted from among the South Wales miners. However, it was decided to wait and see if it was still possible to raise the required number voluntarily from among the young and single men.

A few days later, on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917, Allied troops went over the top on the first day of the Battle of Arras. This offensive would take 160,000 British lives.  On 17 April the SWMF delegate conference met to discuss if the MFGB should be actively involved in assisting the government in its latest comb-out proposals.[173] The majority of the delegates with the backing of the Executive passed a resolution: “That we do not take part as a Federation, in respect of the matter.” [174]

On 6 May a mass meeting of miners from the Garw valley was held at the Talbot Institute in Kenfig Hill where Hodges explained his support for the position of the MFGB. It became apparent that there was a division of opinion amongst the men over the issue. In the end, a resolution was passed by a large majority that stated if there was conscription of miners the men who should be first called up were those who had entered the mine since August 1914.

In May, the government proceeded to make arrangements with the MFGB for the immediate release of all men who were of military age and had entered the pits after August 1914, except craftsmen such as enginemen, winding men, electricians, fitters or mechanics. On 20 June, the MFGB national conference voted in favour of accepting the comb-out scheme just for men who had entered the pits during the war with 114 votes in favour and 17 against. Most votes against were from South Wales. The colliery owners also agreed and a joint letter from the MFGB and owners was sent out to the coalfields on 14 July that began:

During the present year, the War Cabinet has so far decided to take 40,000 men from the coal mines for the army. Of this number so far only about 19,000 have been found; and it is imperative that the balance amounting to 21,000 should be forthcoming.[175] This would mean 4575 from South Wales and 3021 from Glamorgan.[176]

Immediately opposition developed, particularly in South Wales. At a delegate conference of the SWMF on 2 August, the scheme was rejected by 236 votes to 25 despite Frank Hodges and most of the Executive arguing strongly in favour of the scheme.[177] The conference decided to hold a ballot over the question of the SWMF taking strike action to resist the implementation of the scheme in South Wales. It was agreed that the ballot be held in October and over the next two months the SWMF Executive including Hodges, the media and the government mounted a vigorous campaign  against strike action.

The conference also passed a resolution to ascertain the opinion of the organised labour movement of this country on the question the establishment of a peace movement in the belligerent countries and compelling the government to make a statement on its war aims.[178]

A general feeling of the inequality of sacrifice endured by the working classes and disgust at the profiteering by the capitalists had continued to be widespread. Consequently, the conference also discussed a resolution to take industrial action against food price profiteering. A motion to that effect failed, but the delegates did call on the government-appointed Food Controller to take drastic action.[179]

In the Garw valley, young men who had entered the pits after August 1914 were having their exemptions cancelled by the colliery recruiting courts and being sent for training in the front. However, the military was still demanding more men but the government was concerned that it would be dangerous to extend the scheme to conscript miners who had started working underground before the start of the war. So in August, the government put the scheme on a temporary hold and decided to consult further with the MFGB who insisted that only those miners who had entered the pits after the start of the war should be conscripted.[180]

On 19 August, a large meeting with Frank Hodges as the main speaker and chaired by T Jenkins at the Hippodrome in Pontycymmer on the question of sending delegates to the Stockholm conference which was supported by the SWMF Executive.[181]  The Stockholm conference was an attempt by the socialist parties among the allies in Europe including the British Labour Party to come up with a peace formula. It failed partly because the British and some other allied governments refused to support the initiative.

This was followed the next day by the monthly meeting of the Garw district where a motion was passed approving the principle of the Stockholm conference. Hodges reported the comb-out scheme had been suspended until 8 September. It was also decided to support a resolution from the Executive of the SWMF that the machinery of the MFGB not be used for recruiting.

Hodges put forward a proposal of a one-day strike against profiteering to be put to the SWMF Executive.[182]  However, the SWMF leadership attempted to forestall such a policy, and the introduction of a bread subsidy temporarily delayed the emergence of a more serious campaign for direct action on the food question.[183] On 7 September The Glamorgan Gazette reported that Hodges had been appointed as a magistrate.[184]

The newspapers were full of reports of casualties, particularly during the disastrous attempt by the British to end the stalemate during the Passchendaele offensive between July and November 1917. At the time Lloyd George declared in private that “if people knew the truth, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course, they don’t know and can’t know”.[185] However, war deaths and injuries could not be hidden. Local hospitals were overflowing with the wounded. Nobody wanted to be sent to the front and dissent was in the air.

The government was still struggling to raise enough men and continued to pressure the MFGB. On 7 September 1917, the MFGB Special Conference had before it two motions. The first, “that the MFGB take no part in assisting in the recruitment of miners for the army” was defeated with the main support for the motion coming from South Wales, Scotland and the Forest of Dean. The second one was, “that the suggested new scheme be not put into operation until all persons of military age who have entered the mines since August 1914, have been combed-out and who were not bona fide miners before August 4 1914”. This motion was carried, but South Wales abstained.[186]

In South Wales, the industrial militants, including Hodges and Ablett, were already in control of their Executive. However, the SWMF Executive was still divided over its attitude to the war and the conscription of miners. Winstone was now strongly in favour of a negotiated peace settlement but against taking strike action. Hodges and some of the older men such as Hartshorne and Richards were keen to support the war effort and opposed to taking industrial action against the comb-out. As a result, the increasing power of the SWMF delegate conference, which reflected the opinion of rank-and-file miners in the lodges, led to conflict between delegates and the Executive over conscription and the war.

An additional factor in the growth of opposition to the comb-out was that the removal of men from the pits resulted in increased pressure on the remaining older men to maintain productivity and impacted safety and working conditions. 

Consequently, over the next few weeks, sporadic unofficial strikes spread through the South Wales coalfields against the comb-out.[187] At a delegate conference of the SWMF on 8 October 1917, a resolution was agreed that the SWMF take no part in assisting in the recruitment of miners for the army or navy and the ballot should go ahead on the issue of strike action against the comb-out scheme. The Executive Committee of the SWMF, frightened of the implications of a confrontation with the government, strongly recommended to its members to vote against strike action. In addition, the Executive only allowed men over the age of eighteen the right to vote and so excluded those more likely to be conscripted in the future from the right to voice an opinion.

Despite this five weeks later a significant minority of 28,903 voted for strike action with 98,946 against it.[188] In the Garw Valley, most miners backed Hodges and the SWMF Executive with 707 miners voting for strike action and 4,068 against it. As a result, there was no strike, and the conscription of young miners continued.[189] However, the government accepted the MFGB standpoint and agreed to continue only to cancel the exemption of all “who were not bona fide miners before 4 Aug 1914”.[190]

Food Control Committees

Meanwhile, about four hundred ILP candidates had been elected in South Wales to a variety of public bodies including Boards of Guardians and district and county councils. More than three-quarters of these people were members of the SWMF.[191]

In August 1917, Lord Rhondda made the establishment of local Food Control Committees (FCC) statutory throughout the country. The FCCs were established under the jurisdiction of the local town or urban district council. Most were comprised of sitting members of the local councils, elected before the war so the Labour Party was usually under-represented and the councils were dominated by Liberal and Tory interests.

In October 1917, Williams spoke at length at a meeting under the auspices of the Garw Trades and Labour Council to protest against the lack of Labour representatives on the Food Control Committee of Ogmore and Garw Council. A resolution was unanimously passed endorsing Williams’s demands.[192]

Consequently, in mid-November, the Bridgend Council received a request from Gawr Trades and Labour Council for Frank Hodges to replace a retiring member of the FCC. One of the councillors, backed by the acting chairman, George Bevan, the agent for Lord Dunraven, proposed that the request be refused and argued that as Hodges was of military age, he should be in the army. Bevan argued Hodges represented a class that derived benefit from exploiting the public. On the casting vote of Bevan, it was decided the request from Gawr Trades and Labour Council should be rejected. When interviewed by the press, Hodges noted the irony of the miners being called ‘exploiters of the public’ by the estate agent of the Earl of Dunraven.

The Garw valley miners rallied to the defence of Hodges. The International Lodge, Blaengarw, argued that the high coal prices were due to excessive royalties (which were paid to the owners of the land under which the coal seams lay) and colliery profits made by the landowning and capitalist classes. Resolutions were sent to the Council which resulted in heated debates and insults being flung from both sides. Finally, an agreement was made to co-op Hodges onto the committee.

On Christmas Eve a meeting organised by the Garw District of the SWMF and the Bridgend, Tondu and District Trades and Labour Council, chaired by Evan David was held in Bridgend and joined by miners and their families descending from the Garw valley.  Hodges received a rousing reception when he rose to speak and launched a frontal attack upon the property rights of the landed interests of Bridgend. He proposed that the FCC organise a cull of all the game on the district’s estates to provide a free Christmas dinner for the dependents of soldiers and sailors in the district. His resolution was passed but at the next meeting ruled out of order.

However, in March 1918, the Labour Leader complained of the continued victimisation of ILP members by colliery managers in the Garw valley. It also claimed that the Garw ILP now had a membership of 140 and a choir of 40 members. The Labour Leader claimed that in the spring of 1918, Garw ILP had organised a series of public meetings with each meeting attended by at least one thousand people.[193] In Pontycymmer and Blaengarw the ILP organised at least one meeting about pacifism.[194]

Second Comb-Out

On 28 February 1918, the MFGB conference in London met again to consider the government’s proposal for the conscription of yet another 50,000 miners into the army and another 50,000 in reserve. The question of what attitude the MFGB should take towards this new scheme had been recently referred to the various districts and their reports were presented to the conference. One proposal was that each area should provide a fixed quota based on the number of persons employed and that the selection of men should be made by ballot. As before there was a general demand that those who had entered the mines since the outbreak of the war should be combed out first. However, this time it was clear that the comb-out could result in the conscription of longer-serving miners. It was agreed to hold a national ballot of the whole membership on the question of the additional comb-out and whether the machinery of the MFGB should be employed to secure the necessary men.

In March 1918, the Germans launched a new offensive on the Western Front. The government could not wait for the ballot and on 8 March announced its decision to proceed with the recruitment of 50,000 miners.[195] It immediately sent a letter to the Secretary of the MFGB on 7 March asking it to make available the necessary men for recruitment.

I hereby withdraw all certificates of exemptions issued on grounds of employment to persons employed in or about coal mines who were on 2 November 1915, unmarried or widowed without any child dependent upon them, and on January 1 1918, attained the age of 18 years and eight months, but had not on that date attained the age of 25 years….The directors of National Service in the regions will get into touch with representatives of employers and men so the men selected will be chosen either by age group or by ballot, as may be found more suitable to meet local conditions.[196] 

The MFGB national ballot went ahead resulting in a small majority in favour of the rejection of a second comb-out. However, the result did not give a two-thirds majority which, according to the rules of the MFGB, would have forced the MFGB Executive to reject the scheme. As a result, and under pressure from the government, the MFGB Executive backed down from calling a national strike.[197]  On 2 April 1918, an unofficial conference organised by South Wales miners in Cardiff called for the Executive of the SWMF to call a delegate conference to consider industrial action against the comb out.[198] The URC was the main organising force behind the conference and now had members in the Garw valley.[199] In response, Hodges spoke at a mass meeting of miners in Pontycymmer Sunday on 7 April where he argued that:

The unofficial conference was doomed in its inception by the sound common sense of the miners generally, and in the end, it brought nothing but discredit upon those responsible for it. [200]

The meeting passed a resolution supporting the recommendation from the SWMF executive that the MFGB exercise supervision over the obtaining of men, to prevent cases of individual injustice and unnecessary hardship.

Despite this, those opposing the war within the South Wales coalfield were becoming increasingly influential. Prominent URC members and anti-war activists such as Noah Ablett, Siegfried Owen Davies, and William Mainwaring gained posts as miners’ agents.  Arthur James Cook publicly opposed the war in April 1916, after which time he was under persistent police surveillance. In April 1918, he was charged with sedition under the Defence of the Realm Act and was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment, of which he served two.[201] After his release from prison, he became increasingly seen as a leader of the Rhondda miners where he was elected as miners’ agent in 1919. Ablett was elected the miners’ agent for the Merthyr district in December 1917.

Another young militant who was gaining prominence was Arthur Horner who was elected a checkweighman at Mardy Colliery in 1918.  In June 1918, the MFGB successfully forced the government to concede another war bonus of 1s 6d to counteract inflation, on the condition the union continued to attempt to reduce absenteeism in the pits. Both these men would have a big impact on Williams during his time working in the Forest of Dean as the agent for the FDMA.

The Armistice

The armistice, which was declared on 11 November 1918, was a tremendous relief for the whole Garw community. However, the community had little to celebrate.  About 229 men from the Gawr Valley had been killed during the war and many more had returned home maimed and injured.[202]

The flu epidemic caused many deaths and one of the worst-hit areas in Wales was Ogmore and Garw, where in one week in November 57 people died. By the end of the pandemic in 1920, the overall death rate in Wales was calculated at 4.3 per 1000, with North Wales seeing the highest number of deaths. [203] On 29 November 1918, the Glamorgan Gazette reported:

There is a feeling of despondency throughout the Garw a Valley consequent upon the recent outbreak of influenza. Many deaths have already been reported. and hundreds are laid up. Some of the best are taken in their youth. [204]

This was followed by a report Glamorgan Gazette on 6 December 1918:

There are not yet any signs of an abatement of the influenza epidemic. There are still hundreds of cases, and the doctors are working at a great strain. Unfortunately, a great number of deaths have occurred during the past week. It is hoped that the outbreak has now reached its climax.  There are so many funerals on the same day that in some areas it is really difficult to obtain men to act as bearers.[205]

In addition, families had to wait for their loved ones to return from France and miners at home were expected to work flat out to maintain supplies of coal.  Dissent was in the air as returning miners joined those who had remained in the pits during the war and demanded a land fit for heroes.

Constitutional Politics

By the end of the war, the Pontycymmer ILP branch was reported to be expanding at a phenomenal rate, which continued during the following years.  It is unclear if Williams remained a member of the ILP but after the war, he was elected to the Executive of the Mid Glamorgan Labour Party. In December 1918, he was part of the successful campaign to elect Hartshorne unopposed as Labour MP for the new constituency of Ogmore.  However, at a national level, the result was a huge victory for a coalition comprised of Liberals and the Conservatives headed by the prime minister Lloyd George.

This created a problem for constitutional socialists because, although they had received some success at a local level, political power nationally remained firmly in the hands of the Tory and Liberal ruling class. Despite this, syndicalists did not rule out constitutional political action and believed there was still a role for workers to enter parliament and partake in local elections. According to the Miners’ Next Step:

Political action must go on side by side with industrial action. Such measures as the Mines Bill, Workmen’s Compensation Acts, proposals for nationalising the Mines, etc., demand the presence in Parliament of men who directly represent, and are amenable to, the wishes and instructions of the workmen.

Ted Williams

In November 1918, after the retirement of its part-time Secretary Tom Ashton, the MFGB decided to appoint a permanent official in that role. Hodges, helped by his reputation as a militant, was nominated by the SWMF and then went on to defeat seven other nominations in the MFGB ballot. At the age of thirty-one, the labourer’s son from the Forest of Dean had now become the most respected and powerful leader in the British coalfields.

In response, on 1 January Evan David, Secretary of the Garw branch of the SWMF, sent out notices in the media advertising for a new agent and stating all applications to be received by 10 January.[206] There were many applicants, both local and from outside the district, including John Williams. Five applicants remained in the contest after the first round of voting. In the second round, the results were as follows: [207]

Ted Williams 3486

Ted Gill (Captain Edward Gill MC) 2308

John Williams 355

Peter Squire 326

Howell Rees 192

The applicants included the experienced and talented trade unionists Ted Williams and Ted Gill which meant John Williams who also applied was beaten into third place. Unfortunately, there had been some unpleasant rumours circulating about Ted Gill who had fought in World War One and had been promoted to the rank of Captain. The rumours included a statement which implied he was repulsive to look at and unable to speak due to the nature of his wounds. The rumours also included insinuations that, during the war, he was a tyrant to the men under his command and had had five men shot. None of this was true but as a result on 1 March, he decided to withdraw from the contest. Gill made it clear that he knew Ted Williams was not a party to these allegations.[208]  John Wiliams later stated he had great respect for Ted Gill’s ability so it was unlikely anything to do with the rumours. However, this meant Ted Wiliams was elected to the role of agent for the Garw region of the SWMF a post he held until 1931.

Ted Williams (Credit: Ancestry)

Ted Williams was an experienced trade unionist having been elected, in 1912, as the minimum wage agent for the Great Western Colliery workmen. In 1913, he won a SWMF scholarship to attend the Central Labour College where he studied for two years. On his return, he was victimised by Great Western colliery but then obtained work at Penrhiw colliery, Pontypridd. After Ablett was appointed as agent for the Merthyr District of the SWMF in 1917, Ted Williams succeeded him as checkweighman at Mardy colliery where he continued his union work. He also worked for six years as a provincial lecturer for the CLC teaching political economy, sociology and history including the history of the cooperative movement and industrial history.[209]

Ted Williams was two years younger than Williams but both typified an aspirational younger generation of miners keen to improve themselves while remaining loyal to their community, heritage and fellow workers.

Militant Leadership

In the post-war British coalfields, the developments in the Garw valley reflected the ascendancy of a more militant leadership within the miners’ union, both nationally and in South Wales. Although in 1919 most of the Executive of the MFGB were still men of moderate view, militants were being elected to influential positions within the local associations and were beginning to influence the delegate conferences. As a result, the MFGB demanded a living wage and an industry where safety came before profit, where men did not continue to die due to lack of investment and where there was a concern for the wellbeing of the workforce. The MFGB believed these demands could only be achieved if the mining industry was brought into public ownership and run jointly by the workers and the state.

However, there was considerable debate within the MFGB over how this could be realised. Some on the left wing of the movement argued that the coalition government could only be forced to make concessions on work conditions, wages and public ownership by industrial action. Others of more moderate opinion argued that industrial action should be a weapon of last resort and that concessions could be best achieved by constitutional means, including education, campaigning, arbitration and reform through parliament.

After the end of the war, the government was reluctant to demobilise the troops because of industrial unrest and the threat of revolution in Europe.[210] The Ministry of Labour was very concerned that many strikes “have not been taken with the sanction of the trade unions”.[211] Coal was in such short supply that the government was concerned that:

unless the supplies of coal in this country were increased, it was not impossible that there might be a revolution. Even now the spirit of lawlessness was apparent, and no one could say what might happen if, for instance, there was no coal in the East End in December.[212]

There remained a shortage of men working in the pits.  As a result, by mid-December 1918, the war cabinet released 100,000 miners from the armed forces to reduce the immediate threat of scarcity of coal.[213] Most healthy and fit miners returning to the Garw valley had no problem getting their old jobs back, although it would take a while before those who were unwell or injured were re-deployed into suitable work. It is possible that some men and boys, who had only recently been employed, were asked to make way for returning soldiers. However, there was some conflict when, in December 1918, 3,000 miners at the Glamorgan colliery in the Rhondda Valley went on strike in protest against the non-employment of demobilised miners.[214]

The MFGB was determined that demobilised miners would return to an industry with decent pay and work conditions. However, the MFGB was fearful that the coalition government, under Lloyd George, would return the mines to the owners. If this happened, it was expected that the owners would undermine the wages and work conditions that had been established during the war and that wages would again be dependent on the price of coal and local conditions. The MFGB tried to exert pressure on the government to nationalise the mining industry, with Hodges and Smillie at the forefront of this campaign. At an MFGB conference in January 1919, a resolution was moved by SWMF Vice President, James Winstone, seconded by Hodges, which included a statement that argued for a degree of workers’ control:

It is clearly in the national interest to transfer the entire industry from private ownership and control to State ownership, with joint control and administration by the workmen and the State.[215]

The resolution was passed and included a request to the Labour Party to cooperate in ensuring a nationalisation bill would become law. In addition, the MFGB demanded the reinstatement of demobilised miners on full pay and for any displaced miners to be paid an out-of-work allowance equivalent to full pay. They also demanded that miners injured in the war should be provided with rehabilitation and be retrained in a suitable occupation on full pay. In addition, the MFGB demanded a 30 per cent increase in wages and hours to be reduced from an eight to a six-hour day. The demand for a six-hour day was important because it would reduce unemployment among miners returning from the war.[216] All the more remarkable was that these demands fell short of what some districts were calling for. South Wales argued that the increase in wages should be 50 per cent.[217]

On 31 January 1919, representatives of the MFGB met with the Minister of Labour, Sir Robert Horne, who agreed to refer their demands to the Cabinet. On 5 February, Horne informed the MFGB that the government was prepared to offer an increase of one shilling a day but could not accept their demobilisation plans and proposed referring the remaining demands to a Committee of Inquiry. On 12 February, the MFGB Executive submitted the government’s reply to a special conference of the MFGB which rejected the offer and decided to refer the question to a ballot of the whole membership, recommending members vote for strike action.[218] Six years later Hodges recalled that:

Everything was in trim for the most smashing blow that had ever been delivered at the system which had governed the coal industry since its inception.[219]

Government Crisis

To attempt to understand how the ruling class responded to the demand for substantial reform from mining communities, some background information is necessary on how events elsewhere impacted government policy.

It is difficult to overestimate the crisis facing the government in early 1919. There was violence in India and the Middle East and warfare in Ireland. Churchill was prosecuting bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and had sent conscripts to Russia to fight against the Red Army. In early 1919, the shortage of necessities combined with the unmet expectation by millions of troops that there would be immediate demobilisation created an explosive situation. As a result, increasing insubordination resulted in mutinies and strikes at home and abroad which directly challenged ruling-class authority. In a memorandum to the Versailles Conference of 1919, Lloyd George wrote:

Europe is filled with revolutionary ideas. A feeling not of depression, but of passion and revolt reigns in the breasts of the working class against the conditions of life that prevailed before the war. The whole of the existing system, political, social and economic, is regarded with distrust by the whole population of Europe. In some countries, like Germany and Russia, this unrest is leading to open revolt and in others, like France, England and Italy, it is expressed in strikes and in a certain aversion to work. All signs go to show that the striving is as much for social and political changes as for increases in wages.[220]


Immediately after the armistice, protests erupted in the army and navy over the issues of demobilisation, military discipline and drafting to Russia. The protests continued into early 1919 and in some cases developed into outright mutiny as soldiers disobeyed orders, took over bases and even arranged their own demobilisation.

During January and February, some estimates have up to 100,000 men directly or indirectly involved in these disturbances so it is likely the events would have impacted on men from the Garw Valley.[221] The government was concerned that it could no longer rely unconditionally upon the loyalty of its soldiers and sailors, particularly if conscripts were ordered to act against their communities. The government’s greatest fear was that the diminishing deference towards the ruling class could mean Bolshevism would spread to Britain. On 14 January 1919, Churchill circulated a secret memorandum to all commanders of British forces asking whether their forces would serve overseas and particularly in Russia, whether they would serve as strike-breakers, and for details of the soldiers’ attitudes to trade unions.


During January and February 1919, serious industrial unrest spread across Britain. On 18 January, 150,000 South Yorkshire miners struck in support of the right of surface workers to take a break for food. As a result, within twenty-four hours the demands of the Yorkshire miners were met by the owners under the instruction of the government’s Coal Controller.[222] During the rest of 1919 and early 1920, the demand for coal remained high and, as a result, it was not unusual for the Coal Controller to rule in favour of the trade unions in disputes with the owners, to avoid strikes and disruption.

In Belfast, on 25 January, shipyard workers, electricians and engineers walked out in defiance of their national leaders, in an unofficial strike demanding a 44-hour week. The demand for a reduction of hours was directly linked to the issue of unemployment facing demobilised soldiers and sailors on their return. Just like the mutinies, the strike appeared to be a spontaneous mass action and this was very menacing to the established order. Within days the city was in the grip of a general strike.[223]

Similarly, in Glasgow, on 27 January, an unofficial general strike led by engineering and shipbuilding shop stewards demanded a reduction in their hours from 57 to 40 a week. This was in opposition to a deal just negotiated by the official trade union leaders of a 47-hour week. Many of the men involved in picketing were identified as ex-servicemen by their army coats.[224]

At the same time, the whole of the nearby coalfields of Fife and Lanarkshire were closed down in an unofficial strike over issues relating to surface men’s shift patterns. The miners quickly linked up with the general strike in Glasgow and escalated their demands to a six-hour day and a minimum wage of five pounds a week. The strike was led by the syndicalist Fife and Lanarkshire URC without the backing of the official leadership. At one point the offices of the Scottish Miners’ Association were occupied by armed strikers who raised the red flag. However, by the 5 February, the strike had collapsed after the official leadership called for a return to work.[225]

In Glasgow, the general strike continued, and the raising of the red flag on a municipal flagpole, followed by rioting, raised concerns about the spread of Bolshevism. At least 10,000 loyal troops were brought in from other districts and backed up by machine guns, armoured cars, field artillery and tanks. The strike came to an end on 11 February when some of the strikers were arrested and imprisoned. The government was happy for the official trade union leadership to step in and the compromise deal of a 47-hour week was agreed. The Belfast men returned to work a few days later on 19 February under similar circumstances.

In the meantime, the strikes had spread to the docks on the Thames, and with the threat of more strikes in the capital’s generating stations, together with the strong likelihood of disruption on the railways, the government felt it was losing control. Many of the strikes were unofficial, a fact that contributed to the atmosphere of insurgency and caused the government serious problems in devising a strategy to deal with the unrest. Tom Jones, Deputy Secretary to the cabinet, wrote to Lloyd George warning that:

Much of the present difficulty springs from the mutiny of the rank and file against the old established leaders [who] no longer represent the more active and agitating minds in the labour movement.[226]

The unrest in other parts of the country indirectly impacted the Garw Valley because the URC had grown in strength and as a result, an upsurge in unrest erupted, leading to 242 strikes in the South Wales valleys during 1919, most of these between January and August and many of them unofficial.[227] In early January, James Winstone, a moderate by the standards of the day, announced at a post-election rally after a disappointing parliamentary election result that:

There is a force rising up in this country that all the forces of darkness will never stem. This crowd, this coalition crowd of capitalists and landlords and their henchmen will be snuffed out as a bit of snowflake before the sun.[228]

In the opinion of Siegfried Owen Davies:

the trade union weapon was the only weapon to contend with the new government.[229]

Men like Davies, Ablett and Cook joined forces with other members of the South Wales URC and young communists like Arthur Horner who was a checkweighman at Maerdy Colliery in the Rhondda. These men had a significant presence at the SWMF delegate conferences and increased their influence on events in the South Wales coalfield through the support they received from newspapers like the Daily Herald, the Workers Dreadnought and the Merthyr Pioneer.

In the early months of 1919, the Daily Herald championed the idea that the industrial power of the working class expressed through a general strike was the key to the transformation of society and for a short period, the paper appeared to abandon the idea of the parliamentary road to socialism. In early February, George Lansbury, the editor of the Daily Herald wrote:

Do none of these Parliamentarians, these preachers of constitutional methods, these finger-shaking pundits, realise that the old world is breaking up under their feet, that a new spirit is moving on the face of the waters, that a new spring is in the air? It is not too much to say that the constitutional method is on its last trial and the sands are running out.[230]

The situation was compounded by severe unrest in the police force when the National Union of Police and Prison Officers threatened to strike for recognition.[231] The rail unions were pressing the government for an eight-hour day, higher wages, a national agreement to standardise wages and nationalisation of the railways.  Meanwhile, unrest continued in the army camps.[232] The government was beginning to panic and could not countenance a nationwide strike in the rail industry or coal industry. The demobilisation protests and strikes created a fear among the ruling class of shadowy and disorderly forces operating within working class communities which they had expected to show deference.[233] Despite having little understanding of the hopes and aspirations of ordinary miners and their families, this fear had a profound impact on government policy towards the mining communities.

Royal Commission

The government could not afford to take any risks and was determined to prevent a national miners’ strike in such an unpredictable environment. As a result, in a very shrewd move, Lloyd George proposed a Royal Commission to investigate the running of the industry and promised that the Commission would be required to present an interim report by 20 March, provided the MFGB called off its threat of a strike.

On 25 February 1919, the results of the miners’ strike ballot were announced and revealed that nationally six to one were in favour of strike action, with 615,164 in favour and 105,082 against.[234] In South Wales it was only three to one in favour of a strike (31322 for a strike and 9356 against) mainly as a result of the two elder statesmen of the SWMF Executive, Tom Richards and William Brace, arguing against strike action.[235] At the International Colliery, 94 were in favour and 24 were against.[236] The next day, on 26 February, miners’ delegates met for a conference to hear a report on the Commission proposal from the MFGB Executive and to discuss the options.

Among the delegates were members of the new generation of young syndicalists such as Cook and Ablett, who had started to influence events locally. However, most members of the MFGB Executive were older men who were cautious moderates accustomed to the language of conciliation and arbitration. William Brace warned:

Starting a war is easy; stopping it once it has started is another matter.[237]

In addition, Smillie and Hodges had recently come under the influence of Sidney and Beatrice Webb from the Fabian Society, who were instrumental in persuading them to accept the offer of a commission.[238] The Fabian Society believed that socialism should be achieved gradually by reform in parliament by the Labour Party and was hostile to syndicalism.[239] As a result, Hodges had now started to move away from the syndicalism of his Welsh colleagues and had become attracted to a form of guild socialism which argued that social transformation could be achieved by constitutional means alone, by gradually democratising the state and introducing joint workers’ control by parliamentary reform. Consequently, he believed he could achieve his aims through negotiation, influence and persuasion in his dealings with the government.

Smillie, at 62 years old, was exhausted and reluctant to commit the MFGB to a major confrontation with the government which could threaten the finances of the MFGB. He was also fearful of the use of state violence against striking miners. He knew that in the past Churchill had sanctioned the use of troops against workers, resulting in deaths. In addition, on 20 March, Bonar Law warned that the government would “use all the resources of the state without the smallest hesitation” to defeat the miners.[240] Hodges later recalled that he and Smillie:

threw in the whole weight of our argument and our influence to get the men and delegates to accept the Royal Commission.[241]

As a result, the Executive persuaded the conference to suspend strike notices, providing the MFGB would be given adequate representation on the Commission.[242] This suited the government and the MFGB leadership, who were both concerned that they could lose control during a nationwide miners’ strike with unknown consequences.

Lord Sankey

The government soon set about establishing a Commission of Inquiry and appointed Sir John Sankey as Chairman.[243] The Commission’s brief was to enquire into many aspects of the coal industry, including health, safety, costs, profits, hours of work and conditions of employment. It was tasked to consider alternative methods for the future conduct of the industry in terms of ownership and control.

Hodges, Smillie and Smith were appointed as the miners’ representatives on the Commission. Sidney Webb, who had helped persuade the MFGB Executive to accept the Commission proposal, also sat on the Commission.[244] The essence of the miners’ case was essentially ethical. Smillie, Hodges and Smith set out to convince the Commission, the public and the government that industrial cooperation was a higher ideal than the greed and clash of interests associated with private enterprise. They argued that the dictates of justice and the right to a living wage and shorter hours were more important than the dictates of the market. William Straker, speaking on behalf of the MFGB, claimed: “That which is morally wrong cannot be economically right”.[245] The miners argued this was directly linked to the issue of public ownership and joint control which they believed would provide the basis of a humane, efficient and prosperous coal industry.

The miners’ representatives concentrated on five main points: (1) a wage advance which would provide a living wage to counter the rise in the cost of living; (2) a reduction of hours on human and social grounds and to reduce unemployment; (3) improvement in housing and social amenities; (4) a limit on the enormous profits made by the colliery owners as was the case during the war; (5) a strategy to deal with the inefficiency of the existing system of production and distribution.[246]

Hodges, Smillie and Smith contrasted the privilege and wealth of the colliery owners and landed gentry, who gained a huge amount of their wealth from profits and royalties, with the poverty faced by mining communities. Smillie cross-examined peers of the realm and other landowners, questioning how they could justify the huge earnings they made from their royalty payments. In particular, the issue of profiteering by the colliery owners during the war created a sense of revulsion among the public, the majority of whom were now convinced by the miners’ case. Beatrice Webb later commented that during the enquiry the colliery owners were completely outclassed by the miners’ leaders and added that the colliery owners had not the remotest inkling of the wider political and social issues. On Hodges’ negotiating skills and eloquence Webb reported:

his extraordinary command of facts and the dexterity with which he marshalled them, his clever cross-examination of hostile witnesses, commanded universal admiration.[247]

The Commission revealed that:

The private ownership and distribution of coal had not merely meant swollen profits wrung out of the low wages paid to the miner and high prices paid by the public, but also had severely hampered the national effort during the war by its inefficiency and wastefulness.[248]

The Commission failed to produce a unanimous report. However, on 20 March 1919, it published three separate interim reports: one by Sankey and the three business representatives, one by the miners and their allies and one by the colliery owners. Sankey’s report, which was the one officially adopted, proposed an increase of two shillings per shift for adults and one shilling for boys and a reduction of the maximum hours from eight to seven, with the aim of reducing the hours to six by 1920.

The report also recommended a levy of one penny a ton on all coal mined to finance educational, welfare and recreational facilities for miners and their communities. In addition, it recommended the colliery owners should receive a maximum profit of one shilling and two pence a ton to make sure the excessive profits made during the war years were not repeated. Sankey also recommended that state control of the mines be continued, pending a full decision on the future of the industry.[249] Sankey’s report added that the present system of ownership was fragmented, inefficient and created recrimination between the colliery owners and the men:

Even upon the evidence already given, the present system of ownership working in the coal industry stands condemned, and some other system must be substituted for it, either nationalisation or a method of unification by national purchase and/or joint control.

It is in the interests of the country that the colliery worker shall in the future have an effective voice in the direction of the mine. For a generation, the colliery worker has been educated socially and technically. The result is a great national asset. Why not use it? [250]

The miners’ representatives on the Commission stuck to their original demands and recommended joint state and workers’ control. The owners, of course, rejected nationalisation and recommended no change to the system of private ownership.

Bonar Law

On the evening of the day on which the Sankey Commission’s reports were issued, Bonar Law, the Tory leader of the House and the real power behind the coalition government, stated in the House of Commons the government’s readiness to accept the proposals contained in the Sankey Report. He made conciliatory gestures to the MFGB, suggesting the issue of nationalisation would remain under review during the second stage of the Commission.

He also intimated that if a miners’ strike took place, the whole resources of the state would be used without hesitation to deal with the emergency.[251] When the MFGB national conference assembled on 21 March, some delegates expressed resentment at Bonar Law’s threat.[252] After considerable discussion and questioning, especially from South Wales, Hodges read the following letter addressed to the Secretary of the MFGB from Bonar Law, dated 21 March 1919 :

Dear Sir, Speaking in the House of Commons last night I made a statement with regard to the Government’s policy in connection with the Report of the Coal Industry Commission. I have pleasure in confirming, as I understand you wish me to do, my statement that the Government are prepared to carry out in the spirit and in the letter the recommendations of Mr Justice Sankey’s Report.[253]

However, at the same time, in private meetings, Bonar Law was assuring the Cabinet he would not be prepared to pass the necessary legislation needed for the nationalisation of the mines.[254] The MFGB conference was convinced by Bonar Law’s assurances and agreed to suspend the strike notices. When it met again on 26 March, the MFGB agreed to organise a ballot on the government’s offer of two shillings per shift for adults and one shilling for boys and a reduction of the maximum hours from eight to seven.[255]

Smillie, Hodges and others on the MFGB Executive argued that the Commission had highlighted that radical social change could be brought about by constitutional means alone and recommended acceptance. This decision was backed by the influential South Wales members on the MFGB Executive, Hartshorne and William Brace. However, some South Wales miners disagreed, and by the end of March, nearly 80,000 South Wales miners were on strike in an unofficial and short-lived protest against the decision to recommend acceptance.[256]

In addition, on 29 and 31 March, in opposition to its leadership, a SWMF delegate conference voted to recommend a rejection of the offer in the ballot.[257]  At the end of March, there was an unofficial stoppage involving 30,000 miners in Nottingham and unofficial strikes in South Yorkshire, the Black Country, Chesterfield, Staffordshire and Warwickshire against acceptance of the Sankey offer.[258]

The national ballot result was announced on 15 April and showed that nationally 693,684 were for and 76,992 against the government’s offer.[259] In the end, South Wales voted for acceptance. In Garw Valley 1,190 were in favour and 96 against; at the International Colliery 614 were in favour and 64 against; at the Garw (Ocean) colliery 546 were in favour and 32 against.[260]

Most of the miners and the whole trade union movement believed that the government had pledged itself to the ending of the private ownership of the coal mines. Consequently, the threat of a national strike was dissipated, to the relief of the government and the majority of the MFGB Executive.  On 24 April 1919, the second stage of the enquiry began and concentrated in more detail on broader issues of policy, in particular, the question of ownership and control.

Local Elections

With the result of the 1918 General Election, the electoral map of Wales shifted in a new direction. The Liberal Party’s dominance in Wales receded and the Labour Party emerged as the major force in Welsh electoral politics. The advances made by the Labour Party in the General election of December 1918 were also reflected in gains across the country for Labour in the local elections that followed. The Labour Party took control of Glamorgan County Council and Ogmore and Garw Urban District Council.

When Fanny Thomas stood in Pontycymmer ward in the April 1919 Ogmore and Gawr Council election as a Labour candidate councillor she topped the poll out of seven candidates and became the first elected Labour woman councillor in Wales. The Glamorgan Gazette said:

Miss Thomas is one of the pioneers in the women’s movement, and the result of the poll is an indication of this new force in public affairs.[261] 

May Day

At a May Day rally, Ted Williams stated that he deeply deplored the actions of the Government in sending British troops to Russia. He went on to argue:

There should be no class, as one man was as good as the other, and the miners in conjunction with the other working classes, were determined to no longer remain in serfdom. He did not wish to have revolution by bloody means, but  the present order of things was not compatible to the nation, and it was time a change was brought about, and private enterprise must be attacked. The miners should have their own system of education, and should possess their own press. [262] 

At the same, Thomas MacNamara, the new Minister of Labour, announced to the government that wage rewards in future should not be based on the cost of living but subject to the laws of the market.[263] Meanwhile, Horne had taken over from Auckland Geddes as President of the Board of Trade and stated the government’s intention to return the coal industry to private ownership in August 1921.[264] In May 1920, the Government took the first step towards decontrol of the mining industry when it decontrolled the inland distribution of coal. In early June, the Government abolished controls on wholesale and retail coal, with the intention that consumers should pay the real cost of the coal they consumed.[265]

On 4 May 1919, Albert Raison an ex-soldier was killed by a fall of 40 tons of earth at Nant -Garw Colliery on the day he returned to work.[266] On 18 May 1919, miners at the Ffaldau colliery walked off the job after the dismissal of one of their colleagues. Ted Williams was keen that the Sankey Commission should be allowed the opportunity to make its recommendations. Consequently, he intervened and persuaded the men to return to work after two days on the condition that the matter was referred to the conciliation board in Cardiff.[267]

On 13 June 1919, the International Colliery workmen decided by a considerable majority to appoint Williams as a full-time secretary and minimum wage representative, a paid post with a salary of about £6 per week.[268]

Ownership and Control

On 15 June, the Government introduced a proposal that it would remain in control of the coal industry until 31 August 1921, when the industry was to be returned to the colliery owners.[269] On 20 June, the Commission published four reports but with no clear majority position. Sankey and the miners recommended nationalisation with differing views on the degree of workers’ control. The miners proposed that management of the mining industry should pass from shareholders and directors to public ownership and be placed, both nationally and locally, as far as possible in the hands of the workers as opposed to a state bureaucracy. The owner’s representatives were for continuing private ownership.[270]

The fourth report produced by Sir Arthur Duckham was a compromise between nationalisation and private ownership and recommended that the collieries should be acquired by district coal boards owned by individual companies and operated with a limit on profits. All four reports proposed abolishing royalties and placing coal distribution in the hands of public bodies.[271]

Meanwhile, the Miners Association of Great Britain (MAGB) which represented the interests of the colliery owners had re-organised itself with substantial funding from the mine owners, set up an office with paid officials and re-elected Evan Williams as the President in a permanent full-time role. The MAGB immediately went on a propaganda offensive against nationalisation. The MAGB was influentially represented in the House of Commons, and a large proportion of the members of the coalition parties had pledged themselves to resist any attempt to introduce nationalisation. The ruling classes did not want to set a precedent which would undermine private enterprise. The government now stated it was not obliged to act on any of the reports.

Keswick Conference

During the MFGB annual conference at Keswick on 16 July, most of the delegates decided on a compromise of accepting the proposals made by Sankey, as opposed to the MFGB scheme, and campaigning for their implementation. However, there was much debate over how the award would be implemented, with concerns expressed on how hours reduction would impact piece rates, and the failure to include surface workers in the award. Surface workers were already on an unofficial strike over the issue in South Wales, where many pits were at a standstill. Hartshorne, Brace Richards and other members of the Executive appealed to them to return to work and campaigned against the influence of the URC within the SWMF, but this only resulted in widespread unofficial activity.

A new MFGB Executive was appointed at the conference, most members of which were still of moderate views and in their fifties and sixties. These men were anxious to avoid any conflict and were fearful of a government that in the words of Smillie was prepared “to shoot down our people”.[272]

However, the Executive made it clear that whatever its internal differences over the use of the strike as a weapon of last resort, it remained committed to constitutional means to achieve the implementation of Sankey’s proposals.[273] As far as the rank-and-file miners were concerned, the opportunity to consolidate their power by using their industrial muscle appeared to be slipping away. Hodges told the Daily Herald on 31 July 1919:

the marvel is that the whole of the miners of this country were not on strike on Monday of this week. Only a few men realised how near we were to a general stoppage.[274]


Despite Bonar Law’s seemingly unequivocal statement that the Government accepted the Coal Commission report, including nationalisation, “in the spirit and in the letter”, the Cabinet was deeply divided over the nationalisation issue, the majority, including Lloyd George, being against it. However, the government played for time, waiting until it was clear that the current unrest among the police had been contained and that among the armed forces had evaporated. The announcement of the rejection of nationalisation was held over until 18 August 1919 when, in a scandalous breach of faith, Lloyd George issued a statement that the government would not commit itself to nationalisation in any form.[275] He announced that they intended to hand the coal industry back into private ownership in August 1921 and said:

Friends and many outside seem to assume that when a Government appoints a Commission, it is in honour bound to accept all its recommendations and to put them into operation. I never heard of that doctrine in the whole history of the House of Commons.[276]

The MFGB was appalled by this decision and Hartshorne, in his role as an SWMF representative on the MFGB Executive, summed up the views of the miners of the country when he said: “We have been deceived, betrayed, duped”.[277]  Despite this, Hartshorne, still nervous of the consequences of industrial action in the current politically charged climate, warned that in the event of a Triple Alliance strike:

within a week or ten days, revolutionary conditions will have developed in this country to the extent that nobody will be able to control the situation.[278]

As a result, at its conference on 3 September 1919, the MFGB resolved to avoid industrial action but to immediately seek the help of the broader trade union movement, including the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the Triple Alliance, to campaign politically for the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations. It is possible that most on the MFGB Executive were so overwhelmed by the moral power of their arguments that they still believed that they could win by constitutional means alone and continued to argue against any form of industrial action to force through their demands. The miners presented their case to the TUC conference the following week and gained near-unanimous support for their campaign, but with no commitment to solidarity industrial action.[279] The government continued to make it clear to all concerned that under no circumstances would it consider nationalising the mines.

Consequently, the main result of the Sankey Commission was to defuse the potential for a general strike involving the Triple Alliance, which Lloyd George feared would be a direct challenge to the authority of parliament. The only immediate result was a seven-hour day which was imposed by an Act of Parliament passed on 15 August, while the wage advance was wiped out by the increasing cost of living.

Railway Strike

One consequence of this was that many rank-and-file miners and workers in other industries gave up on relying on politicians. During 1919, there was an extraordinary number of strikes, amounting to 34,969,000 days lost, which averaged out to 100,000 workers on strike every day of the year. More than one in five of these strikes were in the nation’s coalfields, and most were unofficial.[280]

In September 1919, ASLEF and NUR called a railway strike in response to government plans to reduce the rates of pay which had been negotiated during the First World War. The rail strike began at midnight on 26 September and involved a formidable display of solidarity between the drivers and firemen from ASLEF and other grades from the NUR. A key feeling during the strike was that the government had not acknowledged sacrifices made during the war. In the words of NUR General Secretary, Jimmy Thomas:

the short issue is that the long-made promise of a better world for railwaymen which was made in the time of the nation’s crisis, and accepted by the railwaymen as an offer that would ultimately bear fruit, has not materialised .[281]

A veiled threat of the use of the Triple Alliance impacted the government’s response to the strike. The government was so nervous that 23,000 troops were mobilised and sent to all the industrial centres, where machine gun posts were set up at strategic points.

The Western Mail reported that some miners in the Garw valley were keen to join the strike while at some of the collieries near Kenfig Hill, the miners refused to stack coal at the colliery pit head due to the lack of transport to take it away.[282] After nine days of strike action, the government agreed to maintain wages for another year. Subsequent negotiations resulted in the standardisation of wages across the railway, a national agreement with a national wages board and the introduction of a maximum eight-hour day.

Photo 26: NUR poster.

It appeared to the miners that the government was happy to reward the railway workers with a national agreement but would not respond to similar demands from them. Also, it highlighted that industrial action can produce quick results.  On Tuesday 12 October, a strike of 900 men at the Ton Philip colliery in Kenfig Hill walked out on strike over the victimisation of a worker. The matter was resolved to their satisfaction after the intervention of Ted Williams and the men returned to work the next day.[283]

Municipal Socialism

The Labour Party had failed to alter the course of events at a national level but locally it was continuing to have an impact where the development of municipal socialism was able to improve the lives of working-class people. In October 1919 a vacancy arose on the Pontycymmer on the Ogmore and Gawr Council and John Williams was chosen as the Labour Party candidate. On 28 0ctober Fanny Thomas presided over a meeting of women in Pontycymmer to hear the views of Williams on housing and its relationship to the role of women and domestic life. The Glamorgan Gazette reported that Thomas spoke first and gave her support for a plan to establish a local municipal laundry. In his address, Williams:

maintained that the District Council should devote its energies towards those questions which would tend to abolish all needless domestic drudgery, and thus raise the standard of comfort for their women folk. He was a firm believer in shorter hours for men but why not shorter hours for women? He would do all he could to make the conditions of home life more pleasant, to give their women more leisure to enjoy the higher pursuits of life.[284]

The result of the election was announced on 7 November with Williams receiving 389 votes while his opponent an independent candidate received 142 votes.[285]

Margaret Evans

In May 1920, Williams married Margaret Jane Evans who was born in 1895 on a farm near Gwynfe in Wales. Her father was a sheep farmer, and both her mother and father were Welsh speakers. Margaret spoke both English and Welsh, but Welsh was her primary language. As a teenager, she worked on the farm helping her father out with his flock of sheep. When she was about fifteen, she moved to Llandeilo to take up studies as a student.

The couple then moved into 47 Blaengarw Road to live together. Williams’s mother carried on living with Emlyn and Minnie who was now married with a daughter. Emlyn was now also working at the International Colliery. 

Direct Action

John Williams’s main focus continued to be the industrial struggle and he joined Ted Williams and Richard Thomas who was now the President of the Garw district of the SWMF, speaking at meetings of miners as part of the campaign for public ownership of the mines and wage increases to counter the rise in inflation.[286] In January 1920, Ted Williams was nominated to be a parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party for Pontypridd but withdrew his name adding that he would better serve the interests of the workers by concentrating on industrial concerns.[287]

The influence of industrial unionism meant that the SWMF entered into negotiations with the South Wales Colliery Enginemen, Stokers and Craftsmen Association (SWCESCA) to consider the question of their amalgamation or the absorption of into the Federation. Ted Williams argued that:

He was hopeful that an arrangement would be arrived at which remove all the craft bickering in the mining industry. The executive council, he added. were also endeavouring to come to an arrangement with the National Union of Clerks.[288] 

Cost of Living

The cost of living index continued to rise and by February 1920 reached 130 per cent above pre-war levels.[289] As a result, miners focused their attention on their living standards. On the question of wages Ted Williams said:

All talk about reducing the cost of living while there was an inflation of the currency with bank amalgamation and monopoly in industry, was like grasping for the moon. The only immediate solution was to increase wages and salaries.

On 12 March, the day after the TUC had rejected a call by the MFGB for industrial action in support of nationalisation, the MFGB put in a claim for an extra three shillings a shift. On March 29 the government offered two shillings a shift and as a result, an MFGB conference decided to call a ballot on industrial action in support of the MFGB claim. The results of the ballot were announced in mid-April resulting in 442,704 for acceptance and 377,569 for strike action so a strike was averted.[290]

South Wales was one of the districts voting for strike action and unofficial actions continued across the coalfield.[291]  On 2 March 1920 miners went on strike in the Garw valley over the issue of the eviction of one of their fellow workers, John Watts, and his family. The miners and their families marched to Porthcawl and held an open-air demonstration. When they returned to Bridgend, it was announced that Watts would be allowed to return to his house.[292]

New Wage Demand

Miners’ earnings were just keeping up with the increase in the cost of living. Nationally the figures revealed that, by July 1920, the cost of living had reached 152 per cent above the pre-war level and peaked at 164 per cent by the end of the summer.[293] For many miners, the issue of earnings had now become a pressing priority, and as a result, on 10 June an MFGB delegate conference decided to make a fresh wage demand. At its annual conference on 6 July, delegates considered proposals by the MFGB Executive for a claim for an increase of two shillings per shift.

On 15 July, the MFGB presented its claim to the government. However, the government was adamant in resisting the claim but hinted that a higher wage could be granted if the increase was linked to higher output.  In the end, the conference on 12 August agreed to organise a ballot on the issue, with a recommendation to vote for a strike in support of their original demand.

Nationally, the figures were 845,647 in favour of a strike with 238,865 against, meaning the two-thirds majority in favour of strike action required by the MFGB to call a strike was exceeded. As a result, notices were tendered to strike on 25 September.[294]

Warning to Miners

In mid-August 1920, the Cabinet decided to resurrect the emergency statutory powers enacted during World War One to deal with industrial action and on 17 August 1920, a Cabinet meeting instructed the Treasury:

to regard the situation arising out of a big industrial crisis, such as was threatened by an impending coal strike, as comparable to a state of war.[295]

The Cabinet authorised the Treasury to make financial provisions accordingly and Lloyd George announced that:

If a Trade Union attempts to usurp the function committed to government by the whole body of the people, such a claim must be unhesitatingly resisted.[296]

Consequently, Lloyd George persuaded the MFGB to suspend the strike notices for a week to meet with the colliery owners behind closed doors in another attempt to thrash out an agreement which linked wages to output. The owners made an offer of one shilling a day and added that any wage increase should be contingent on an increase in output beyond an agreed figure or datum line.   On Friday 1 October an MFGB delegate conference agreed to suspend strike notices for another fortnight to organise a ballot on the new offer.[297]

On 2 October 1920, hauliers at Ffaldau Colliery walked out on strike over the company’s failure to implement their Sankey award with backpay resulting in 1000 men having to stop work.[298] Although the disputes committee had agreed to pay the hauliers the Sankey award in January the company had refused to pay their full back pay. After one week of strike action, the company agreed to pay the back pay.

Another dispute at Ffaldau Colliery immediately followed because the hauliers had demanded a haulage contract to bring their pay in line with other pits in the Garw valley. Having been on strike for a week over the Sankey award the hauliers were refused permission to return to work unless they accepted the terms of the old contract.  As a result, five thousand miners in the Garw valley walked out on a solidarity strike in protest at the action of the Ffaldau Colliery Company towards the hauliers. In the end, an agreement was reached after the intervention of the Coal Controller’s department which insisted the company pay the increased rates of pay defined by the new contract.[299]

The results of the ballot on the national productivity deal were announced on Thursday 14 October, revealing that nationally 78 per cent were against the offer, with 635,098 votes against and 181,428 for the offer The MFGB Executive had no choice but to issue strike notices.[300]

For many young militants influenced by syndicalism, the prospect of a national strike in the mines created the possibility of revolutionary social and economic transformation in society. Just like many young workers in South Wales, Williams was inspired by the Russian Revolution. One of the consequences of the revolution was the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in July 1920, which brought together some of the militants in the South Wales coalfield and from the BSP. Initially, the main base for the CPGB was in the Rhondda and there is no newspaper record of a branch in the Garw valley until 1924.[301]  However, the ruling classes were fearful and in September 1920. Lloyd George wrote to Bonar Law:

If the working classes are united against us, the outlook is grave and the gravity would be intensified if what I call intellectual liberalism unites with Labour against us. The great struggle which is coming must not be partisan. I have been thinking a good deal about the situation here, and I have become more and more convinced that the time has arrived for coming to grips with the conspiracy which is seeking to utilise Labour for the purpose of overthrowing the existing organisation of the time. This opportunity will show itself over the miners’ demand. I think it would be a mistake if the fight had come sooner – the nation had not settled down, and the restlessness which affected the heart, the nerve and the blood of the people, was a dangerous element which it is well we should have given time to quiet. Now is the acceptable moment for putting everything to the test. We must show Labour that the Government mean to be masters.[302]

At about the same time, Ted Williams reported to the Western Mail that:

The miners are in for the fight of their lives. As far as could see, there was no way out, in view of the Government’s attitude, but judging the position shown in the sensational second ballot he was convinced that the miners would fight with irresistible determination.[303]

On Saturday 16 October 1920, one million British miners went on strike and in the Garw valley the strike was solid.  On Wednesday 20 October, a delegate conference of the NUR agreed that, unless the MFGB claims were granted or negotiations resumed by Saturday, October 23, its Executive would instruct its members to cease work. This decision was conveyed to the MFGB Executive at its meeting held on 23 October.

The government was panicked by the threat of the use of the Triple Alliance and immediately sent a letter to the MFGB asking to restart negotiations but at the same time prepared to rush the Emergency Powers Bill through parliament. The MFGB Executive agreed to ask the NUR to postpone its solidarity strike and representatives of the MFGB Executive met Lloyd George on Sunday 24 October, and by 28 October had come up with a provisional settlement.[304] This deal included an advance of two shillings a shift until January 1921 and, thenceforth, an increase or decrease in additional wages contingent on an increase or decrease in national output and the price of exports beyond or below a basic amount or ‘datum line’.[305] The scheme would continue until a National Wage Board made up of worker and owner representatives, met and reported on a permanent solution to the wages by 31 March 1921. 

Wages and Output

Hodges was instrumental in brokering this complex deal but was criticised by delegates from South Wales for promoting a deal which few could understand and which linked wages to the price of coal.  Most members of the MFGB Executive believed that the National Wage Board would provide a forum to negotiate a national and permanent settlement on wages and conditions, something the MFGB had been campaigning for since its formation in 1888. As a result, the MFGB Executive organised another ballot but advised a return to work and an acceptance of the government’s offer.

In the resulting ballot, a small majority voted in favour of continuing the strike, less than the two-thirds majority required to carry on with the strike, so an MFGB delegate conference agreed to accept the government’s terms. After seventeen days on strike, the men returned to work. The SWMF was expected to meet with the colliery owners and establish a Joint Output Committee to monitor the levels of production. However, the ballots showed that in some districts there was a deep hostility to any arrangement under which wages were related to output.[306] At a meeting in Kenfig Hill on 31 October addressed by Ted Williams, a resolution was passed expressing disgust at the action of the MFGF Executive in negotiating the productivity deal which had brought back memories of the sliding scale.[307]

In October 1920, the SWCESCA voted to amalgamate with the SWMF.[308] This was an important development towards industrial unionism. It strengthened the power of the SWMF enabling it to pull out all sections of the workforce excluding those in a supervisory role. The SWCESCA members included banksmen, stokers and pumpmen and they were crucial in getting men, materials and coal in and out of the colliery and operating the pumps to prevent flooding. If these men joined a strike this would put extra pressure on management to settle the dispute quickly. 

Emergency Powers Act

However, the fundamental outstanding issue of the ownership of the mines remained unresolved. The continued industrial conflict in the coalfields convinced Lloyd George that the decisive struggle foreseen in 1919 had not been resolved.  The government was now merely playing for time. The Triple Alliance had met repeatedly since the end of the war and passed several resolutions, but it had engaged in no specific action. Still, its mere existence and the threat that it would one day use its potential strength impacted government policy and preparations were made to stockpile coal and open negotiations to import coal from abroad, if necessary.

On 28 October 1920, in readiness for war with the British working class, parliament passed the Emergency Powers Act which made permanent the dictatorial powers the government already possessed under the wartime Defence of the Realm Act.[309]

The monthly meeting of the Garw District of the SWMF was held at Bridgend on 15 November with Richard Thomas presiding.  Ted Williams, complimented the miners upon the fine spirit of solidarity displayed in carrying through the strike. He pointed out that they had not yet solved the difficulty which had caused the stoppage. He warned that if the men were asked to be involved in output committees, then no settlement of the grievances of the men would be possible.[310]

On 3 January 1921, there was a lightning strike of 110 men employed at the Park Slip Colliery, in Tondo. The miners were protesting against the introduction of a new rule at the colliery which implemented the use of time-boards on the coal face which had to be returned at the end of their shifts marked with the time worked. The men contend that the introduction of any new regulation except by mutual agreement or reference to the Disputes Committee of the Conciliation Board was a breach of the Conciliation Board agreement. Ted Williams, addressed a meeting of the men and obtained an agreement from the managers that the issue of time-boards should be suspended until the matter had been fully discussed. The men returned to work in the afternoon.[311] 

1921 Lockout

In 1921, the SWMF delegates on the MFGB Executive were Arthur Cook, Noah Ablett and Tom Richards and they soon had to face up to and respond to a crisis of enormous magnitude. At the beginning of 1921 large quantities of German reparations coal entered the European market and undermined the British export trade. In addition, British coal had to compete with cheaper American coal.[312] The loss of export markets severely impacted the steam coal collieries such as those in the north of the Garw valley resulting in the introduction of short-time working in January 1921.[313]

The response from the government and the colliery owners to the developing depression in the coal trade was to attempt to radically reduce labour costs.  In April 1921, the government handed the wartime control of the industry back to the colliery owners who insisted on a return to district agreements which meant draconian cuts to miners’ wages, particularly those from the less productive districts. The miners refused to accept this and on 31 March 1921, one million British miners, including many war veterans, were locked out of their pits. The MFGB Executive decided to seek the aid of the Triple Alliance and a week later the main transport and rail unions gave a commitment they would call a nationwide strike of their members in solidarity.

The miners’ families and their supporters in the Garw valley immediately set up relief committees and soup kitchens to feed the children. Despite their insistence on controlling the relief effort, the miners were careful to ensure that all sections of the community were represented on the various distress and canteen committees.  At Pontycymmer, both the central canteen committee’s chairman and secretary were religious leaders. This helped ensure that all possible resources were tapped, and it associated the miners’ struggle with the wider community.[314] 

Safety men

In the past, it was normal that during a strike an agreed number of craftsmen would continue to work to prevent any long-term damage to the collieries. These men were called safety men and included pumpmen and stokers to operate the boilers which provided steam power for the pumps to prevent flooding. Men were also required to inspect the timbers to minimise falls of rock. At the start of the lockout, the MFGB Executive agreed by ten votes to eight that MFGB members who were safety men should refuse to work and so members of the SWCESCA, now part of the SWMF, were locked out too.[315]

The Garw miners solidly supported the strike, there was no blacklegging among SWMF members and the Garw union officials refused to draw a wage during the lockout.[316] However, across South Wales members of some of the other smaller craft unions including the South Wales and Monmouth Colliery Winding Enginemen`s Association, the Colliery Examiners Association representing deputies and overmen (who were responsible for a district of a colliery and the supervision men working in it) and the Colliery Clerks Association took over the safety work. Their presence in the pits led to resentment in the Garw valley. A mass meeting of Garw miners was held in Pontcymmer on Monday 11 April with Thomas and Williams on the platform. The meeting passed a motion:

To hold a public demonstration against the employment of officials as pumpmen and stokers on Wednesday this week.[317]

On Saturday 9 April, the government met with the Triple Alliance leaders and insisted that the safety men must be allowed to work unhindered before any negotiations could begin.  Hodges and the MFGB Executive gave an assurance to the government that the work of the safety men would not be threatened. Consequently, on Sunday 10 April, Hodges issued a telegraph to all districts instructing union members to allow pumping operations at the collieries to continue and insisting they refrain from interfering with the work of the safety men.

On 13 April, a large crowd of miners and their families were about to set off with a brass band leading the way with the intention of visiting all the collieries in the Garw valley to bring out the safety officials. Ted Williams arrived before they set off and successfully appealed to them to abide by the decision of the MFGB that officials should be allowed to work.[318] The procession took place but there was no attempt to interfere with working officials.[319]

Black Friday

The MFGB had been assured of a solidarity strike by the rail and transport mining unions. However, after Hodges hinted he was willing to compromise to end the lockout, solidarity action was called off by the leaders of the transport and rail unions whose taste for industrial action had diminished with the negotiation of satisfactory settlements in their industries. The event came to be known as Black Friday and, for rank-and-file miners, symbolised betrayal by the leaders of the main trade unions. The miners were left to fight alone.

On 18 April meetings were held throughout South Wales to review tactics in the aftermath of Black Friday and the collapse of the Triple Alliance. A meeting of Garw miners recommended withdrawing all safety men from the mines and a resolution was passed calling for the resignation of Frank Hodges.[320] As a result of pressure from most of the districts including Garw, the SWMF Executive Council recommended that all safety men be withdrawn.[321] The policy was readily endorsed by an SWMF coalfield conference two days later.[322]  However, the policy did not get the support of Hodges and the MFGB Executive and so was not carried out.


John Williams toured the district organising and speaking at meetings with Ted Williams. One of the activities causing problems for the union was that some miners were involved in outcropping. This involved digging coal out by hand from the areas where the seams were close to the surface.  Outcropping was common during miners’ strikes. The SWMF was not concerned if the coal, which was usually of poor quality, was for the miners’ use or was sold for a small amount of extra cash to buy food.

However, sometimes the activity was organised on an industrial scale. If this was the case, most miners on strike could not allow a few to take financial advantage of the situation and so the SWMF demonstrations were organised to close them down. In one case Ted Williams took charge of a horse and cart full of coal mined from an outcrop and gave it to women who needed coal for the communal soup kitchens.[323] In another case, dynamite stolen from a local colliery was used to blow up a bridge used by a commercial outcropping concern.[324]

At the end of June, the MFGB organised a national ballot on continuing the strike. The result was announced on Saturday 18 June, resulting in a majority in favour of staying out with 180,724 in favour of accepting the colliery owners’ terms and 435,614 in favour of continuing the fight.[325] The majority of South Wales miners including the miners at the International Colliery voted to stay out on strike.[326]

The rules of the MFGB were ambiguous, as it was unclear if they required a two-thirds majority of the votes cast or of the total membership to continue the strike. This was the case in the first instance, but not in the second. As a result, the MFGB was split over how to proceed, with Ablett and Cook arguing that the Executive should accept the result and intensify the campaign. However, Hodges and the majority of the MFGB Executive argued that they had no choice but to accept the terms offered by the government and colliery owners.

The lockout ended on 1 July 1921, after 14 weeks, when the MFGB Executive instructed its members to return to work. The miners in the Garw valley returned to work demoralised and defeated with many only working part-time and others unemployed. At a mass meeting of Garw miners on 1 July Ted Williams was critical of the MFGB Executive for calling off the strike without another ballot. The Glamorgan Advertiser reported that he said:

The miners had fought one of the greatest industrial struggles in history and had failed against tremendous odds. The causes of the defeat of the men were – general apathy in the Labour movement, misrepresentation by the Press, abuse by the public, and the deceit of their own leaders. The last was the greatest disadvantage of all. The leaders had no right to usurp democratic power and dictate what the rank and file should do. The miners had expressed their opinion by ballot.

It was, he said, regrettable that having fought so valiantly the miners had to resume work on terms which did not guarantee a standard of living in relation to the cost of living equal to that of 1914. If that was the pass they had come to after a war which was said would make the world safe for democracy, he thought it was evident that it would be difficult to get fighters for the wars of the future. Still, it was now a foregone conclusion that the men would have to go to work on Monday.

He asked the men to remember that capital met labour in the mass, and the individual worker had no hope of preserving himself as a unit unless he united himself with his fellow workers in mass formation.[327]

The consequences for miners, their families, and the whole community in the Garw valley were brutal.  Mining trade unions in most mining districts were faced with debt and loss of membership as the colliery owners imposed their draconian cuts. Many miners across the country, including ex-servicemen, were thrown onto the dole.

In April 1921 about 4100 miners were employed in the pits in the Garw valley but now in September 3,050 were employed with 1110 miners registered as unemployed.[328] In South Wales over 50,000 men were now permanently unemployed and about 100,000 were working short time.[329] On 3 October Williams addressed a mass meeting of the unemployed at the Ffaldau Institute and it was decided to form a distress Committee to campaign for work for the unemployed on the roads and new reservoirs.[330]

The 1921 lockout was the realisation of a long-expected confrontation between the working class and its enemies. The struggle in 1921 was as much about dignity, status and independence as about wages and hours. The introduction of district wage agreements which linked miners’ wages to the productivity of their local pits meant miners’ lives were again to be governed by the vagaries of the unpredictable market, the price of coal, the profitability of their pits and the impersonal laws of supply and demand which was effectively a sliding scale over which miners had little control.

John Williams and Ted Williams must have been devasted after this defeat. Many of their fellow miners had returned from the war believing there could be a land fit for heroes. These hopes had now been shattered.  Somehow, they had to pick themselves up to try to get their union back on its feet.[331]

Forest of Dean

The events leading up to the conflict and how they played out nationally and in the Forest of Dean are discussed in detail in Ian Wright, God’s Beautiful Sunshine, The 1921 Lockout in the Forest of Dean (Bristol: BRHG, 2020).  The Forest men also argued that they should stay out to the bitter end, but just like the miners in the Garw Valley were forced to swallow the bitter pill of defeat. The Forest of Dean Miners’ Association was left massively in debt, owing over £27,000 in credit coupons to local retailers. It had to accept a deal that involved wages being cut in half and a return to district agreements which left them far worse off in real terms than in 1914.[332]

Herbert Booth, the agent for the FDMA, had sought to represent the Forest miners as best he could and accepted the mandate from the men that they should stay out to the bitter end. After the strike, in early 1922, he stood down and returned to his native Nottinghamshire. The FDMA Executive advertised for a new agent and one of the men who applied for the vacant post was John Williams.

In 1922, at the age of 32, Williams was selected for the paid post of agent for the FDMA. There were 58 applications and the FDMA Executive decided on a shortlist of four. On 6 May each candidate gave a presentation to 150 representatives of the various FDMA lodges and pit committees at Wesley Hall in Cinderford. Williams received the largest number of votes and the Dean Forest Mercury reported that “by his record eminently fitted for this responsible post for which he has been selected”.[333] The job description included the day-to-day running of the FDMA, dealing with disputes, legal cases and negotiations with the colliery owners as well as representing the FDMA at a national level within the MFGB.

On arriving in the Forest in May, Williams and his family moved into 52 Belle Vue Road, Cinderford, which became the union office. Margaret had just given birth to their son, Dennis, who was born in March 1922. It must have been difficult at first for Margaret as she had to get used to speaking English and learning to understand the strong Forest dialect. However, she found a role for herself outside of her domestic life with unpaid secretarial work helping her husband with his trade union duties.

When Williams arrived in Cinderford, ten months after the end of the lockout, he found the FDMA in a state of disarray. He also encountered a coalfield where the conditions and rates of pay were among the worst in the country. In addition, he found out that local custom and practice meant that the systems of working were very different from the Garw valley and this had a significant impact on industrial relations in the coalfield.  

One of the main obstacles Williams found upon arriving in the Forest was that, after the 1921 lockout, the majority of the FDMA Executive were demoralised and had little stomach for industrial action. Many miners in the coalfield just felt lucky they still had a job. The defeat weighed heavily on the whole community. Frank Joynes expressed his bitterness thus:

During the 1921 strike, we got no pay, no money, nothing. Thirteen weeks we were out, and at the end of it, I had nothing. Nothing, nothing![334] 

Williams discovered that there were only 1,300 men in the FDMA out of a workforce of nearly 7,000. He was even more shocked when he found out the conditions the miners were working under in Forest pits. In addition, some of the house coal collieries were only working one or two days a week and the minimum wage for a skilled hewer was only 7s 9d a shift, with surface workers and trammers getting about 5s a shift.[335] Along with Bristol, this was the lowest rate in the country. In contrast, in January 1922, the rate for a skilled hewer in Nottingham was 17s 4d, although this rate would be reduced to about 12s by the summer as the depression deepened.[336] In his statement to R Page Arnot in November 1961 Williams said:

I commenced my duties as Miners’ Agent in the Forest of Dean on 12 May 1922. I doubt if I would have taken the job on if I had known the conditions which existed here at that time. Mr Frank Hodges warned in a mild way that the affairs of the Union in this district were not good. I soon found out how bad things were here. The Executive of the union had contracted a debt of twenty-four thousand pounds arising out of the 1921 strike. The miners were demoralised. I found myself in a strange world. I came from a coalfield where the miners were active and militant. Here the coal owners exercised tremendous influence in the union. I could not understand this state of affairs, and as the months went by, I became very depressed.  The conditions under which the miners worked was truly appalling. The wages in this coalfield were the lowest in the country. I found men working at the pit-top for four shillings a day at one colliery.[337]

In some respects, Williams’s assessment of the militancy of the Forest miners and the state of the union was unfair. During the First World War, a small number of younger men had gained positions on the FDMA Executive and argued against the policies of moderation and conciliation which had been pursued by their predecessors. They were determined that the men returning from the war would have ‘a land fit for heroes’.[338]  

An account of what hapned next iwill be available in a book published by BRHG in the summer. This book will explore the role Williams played in national and labour politics after he was appointed the full-time trade union official for the miners’ union in the Forest of Dean in 1922. In particular, it will describe events in the Forest of Dean leading up to, during and after the 1926 general strike and the nine-month miners’ lockout and the consequences of the defeat.

[1] A summary of the findings of the Commission of Enquiry into Industrial Unrest, No. 7 Division, Report of the Commissioners for Wales, including Monmouthshire (London: HMSO, 1917) in Barry Supple, The History of the British Coal Industry, Volume 4,1913–1946: The Political Economy of Coal (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987) 104-105.

[2] When Dai Francis, General Secretary of the SWMF 1963–1976, visited Williams (age 75) in Cinderford in 1963 they spoke to each other in Welsh.

[3] A hewer is a man who cuts coal and removes it from the coal face. This was one of the most dangerous jobs in coal mines. The normal procedure for hewers was to cut a slot in the base of the coal seam so that coal would drop, or be coerced into dropping, down under gravity. The roof immediately above the coal was also liable to fall. Hewers, being in the vicinity of this activity, were often killed by accidental falls of coal or stone.

[4] Inspector of Mines.

5] Ray Lawrence, The Coal Workings of the Garw Valley, (Blackwood: Ray Lawrence, 2012).

[6] Colin Davies in and

[7] 1901 Census, Ancestry.

[8] Sue Bruley, The Women and Men of 1926 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011), Carole White and Sian Rhiannon Williams (Editors), Struggle or Starve, Women’s Lives in the South Wales Valleys between the two World Wars (Powys: Honno, 2002) and Angela V. John (Editor) Our Mothers’ Land: Chapters in Welsh Women’s History, 1830-1939 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011).

[9] Ryland Wallace, A Doughty Warrior in the Women’s Cause: Fannie Margaret Thomas of Pontycym

er, Llafur, 2018, Volume 12, No. 3. 58-87. As a result of the huge influx of children into the area, Ffaldau infants’ school was divided into a separate boys’ and girls’ school. In 1908, the Ffaldau Girls’ School was established with Thomas as headmistress.

[10] The sliding scale established a standard wage rate based on the level of the wages paid in 1879 plus five

percent. The equivalent selling price of coal was fixed at twelve shillings per ton for steam coal and eleven shillings per ton for house coal. A rise in the selling price of coal above the standard would convert to an agreed percentage increase in wages above the standard.

[11] Every year each district selected their representatives by a ballot of candidates giving about ten employee representatives on the sliding scale committee with Mabon acting as chair and two of the employer representatives as vice chair and secretary. Advances and reduction in the percentage were determined by a bimonthly audit by the sliding scale committee.

[12] The hauliers were the men or boys who worked underground with the horses who pulled the drams of coal back to the pit bottom. They were paid a day wage and earned less than the hewers.

[13] Richard Griffiths, The Entrepreneurial Society of the Rhondda Valleys, 1840-1920, Power and Influence in the Porth-Pontypridd Region (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010): Chapter 11, The 1893 Hauliers’ Strike.

[14] South Wales Daily News 25 August 1893.

[15] John Williams Interview with R. Page Arnot 18 October 1961, Richard Burton Archives.

[16] The Cardiff Times 9 September 1893.

[17] Glamorgan Gazette 13 April 1894.

[18] Cardiff Times 2 April 1898.

[19] South Wales Echo 31 March 1898.

[20] Glamorgan Gazette 19 August 1904.

[21] South Wales Daily News 28 February 1899.

[22] Ibid.


[24] John Williams interview with R. Page Arnot on 25 July 1963, Richard Burton Archives. Glamorgan Gazette 20 January 1905.

[25] For a in depth discussion of how socialists related to Welsh national identity during this period how and the processes through which the universalist ideals of socialism were related to the particular and local conditions in Wales see Martin Wright, Wales and Socialism, Political Culture and National Identity c. 1880-1914, Thesis Submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Cardiff University, 2011.

[26] These were Thomas Burt and Alexander McDonald. Then in 1880, they were joined in the Commons by the secretary of the TUC’s parliamentary committee, Henry Broadhurst. By 1885, the number of Lib-Lab MPs had risen to twelve and between them they acted as a defined group, taking collective action on a range of labour issues, from a campaign to introduce an eight-hour working day for miners to questioning the use of police and troops in industrial disputes.

[27] Hyndham was from a wealthy background and had a complex political philosophy that was rooted in radical Toryism and an economic determinist interpretation of Marxism which gave little agency to working class people or their lived experience. In 1884 there was disagreement within the SDF about the best way to achieve their aims.  Hyndman favoured using the parliamentary structures to achieve change but other members of the SDF were against this arguing that Hyndman was opportunistic and obsessed with parliamentary politics and nationalism to the detriment of trade union organisation. As a result, the SDF split with many members following William Morris to form the Socialist League.

[28] The ILP was affiliated to the Labour Party from 1906 to 1932, when it voted to leave.

[29] Glamorgan Gazette 2 April 1897.

[30] Glamorgan Gazette 9 April 1897.

[31] The Fabian Society which was founded in 1884 was a socialist organisation that argued for gradual reform through reason and persuasion rather than class struggle. It tended to attract upper and middle-class reformers and did not have much success recruiting members in the mining communities in the South Wales valleys. It advocated a form of state socialism based on social engineering.

[32] Wright, Wales and Socialism, Chapter 3 South Wales and the ILP Ascendancy.

[33] Kenneth O Morgan, Democratic Politics in Glamorgan 1884-1914, Glamorgan Local History Society, Vol 4 (1960) 23.

[34] Labour Leader 30 September 1904.

[35] Hartley founded a new SDF branch in Bradford, in 1904, and was elected to the SDF’s executive for seven years. Yet he remained part of the ILP group on Bradford Council and was re-elected on the ILP ticket in Bradford Moor in 1905. Hartley stood for the SDF in Bradford East at the 1906 general election where he held joint meetings with Fred Jowett, the Labour Party candidate for Bradford West and secured the support of the local ILP. He won 22.8% of the vote but failed to win the election.

[36] Labour Leader 28 October 1904.

[37] Glamorgan Gazette 14 October 1904.

[38] Western Mail 7 October 1904.

[39] Glamorgan Gazette 2 December 1904.

[40] Merthyr Express 31 December 1904, Merthyr Express 7 January 1905 and Western Mail 3 January 1905.

[41] Glamorgan Gazette 3 February 1905.

[42] Ibid. The percentage additions to the agreed rate paid to the hewers per ton of coal in the price lists still go up and down according to the price of coal but this percentage is agreed upon by the Conciliation Board.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Glamorgan Gazette 3 March 1905.

[45] Labour Leader 3 March 1905.

[46] Labour Leader 3 March 1905 and 10 March 1905.

[47] Labour Leader 14 April 1905.

[48] Glamorgan Gazette 31 March 1905.

[49] Labour Leader 4 August 1905.

[50] Labour Leader 24 November 1905.

[51] Dean Forest Mercury 6 November 1953.

[52] Dean Forest Mercury 6 November 1953

[53] Dean Forest Mercury 6 November 1953. Martin Wright noted that after one meeting in Pontypridd, the SDF was accused of being in favour of atheism and “the hideous doctrine of free love‟, in support of which the accuser could legitimately quote SDF member Ernest Belfort Bax. See Wright, Wales and Socialism, 95.

[54] Mark Bevir, The Making of British Socialism (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011) 125-126

54 Noel Gibbard, Fire on the Altar: A History and Evaluation of the 1904–05 Revival in Wales (Bridgend, 2005).

[56] The Socialist League split from the SDF at the end of 1884, after falling out with Hydnman over his commitment to nationalism and fixation on parliamentary politics.

[57] Wright, Wales and Socialism, 24.

57 Daryll Leeworthy, Labour Country, Political Radicalism and Social Democracy in South Wale, 1831-1985 (Cardigan: Parthian, 2018).

58 South Wales Daily News 23 May 1905.

[60] Glamorgan Gazette 28 April 1905.

[61] Glamorgan Gazette 26 May 1905.

[62] The Clarion 10 and 17 September 1898.

[63] Labour Leader, Newcastle Daily Chronicle, Yorkshire Factory Times, Bradford Daly Telegraph June – August 1905.

[64] Merthyr Express 24 June 1905 and Glamorgan Gazette 23 June 1905.

[65] Glamorgan Gazette 18 August 1905.

[66] Glamorgan Gazette 13 October 1905.

[67] Glamorgan Gazette 27 October 1905.

[68] Glamorgan Gazette 8 December 1905.

[69] Glamorgan Gazette 8 December 1905.

[70] Glamorgan Gazette 5 January 1906.

[71] South Wales Daily News 2 January 1906, Glamorgan Gazette 5 January 1906, Glamorgan Gazette 30 March 1906 and Glamorgan Gazette 27 April 1906.

[72] South Wales Daily News 31 August 1906. For re-joining the GMA 191 and against 630.

[73] Western Mail 15 March 1907.

[74] Glamorgan Gazette 24 August 1906.

[75] Leeworthy, Labour Country, 106 – 107.

[76] Sir Samuel Thomas Evans (1859 – 1918) was the son of a grocer and became a Welsh barrister, judge and Liberal politician. In 1890, he was elected to the House of Commons for Mid-Glamorgan. He combined his parliamentary work with his legal practice in Wales. He was re-elected in 1892, 1895, 1900, and twice in 906 and 1910. And retired from politics later that year.

[77] Wallace, Fanny Margaret Thomas, 74.

[78] These MPs refused to join the Labour Party and, in defiance of a coalfield ballot supporting Labour Party affiliation and remained as Lib-Lab MPs. However, before their re-election at the January 1910 general election, Mabon and Richards and most other Lib–Lab MPs from the MFGB joined the Labour Party. Brace did not become a Labour Party MP until 1918.

[79] Derby Daily Telegraph 29 September 1906.

[80] Glamorgan Gazette 28 September 1906.

[81] South Wales Daily News 5 October 1906.

[82] Labour Leader 20 November 1908. By 1908 the ILP had 4 county councillors, 27 urban district councillors, 18 town councillors, 3 rural district councillors, 18 parish councillors and 29 poor law guardians in south Wales. There were also 5 full-time organisers employed in the region. It was estimated that the South Wales and West of England ILP Federation had organised 2,000 meetings in the first nine months of the year.

[83] R. Church, The History of the British Coal Industry, Volume 3, (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1986) 787.

[84] Meth Jones records in the Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University, GB 217 SWCC: MNA/PP/65.

[85] Labour Leader December 1908 and Labour Leader 29 January 1909.

[86] The Clarion 19 March 1909.

[87] Glamorgan Gazette 23 October 1908.

[88] The by- election was called because the sitting MP, Samuel Evans, was appointed president of the probate, divorce and admiralty division of the High Court of Justice.

[89] Glamorgan Gazette 25 March 1910.

[90] Wallace, Fanny Margaret Thomas, 79.

[91]Glamorgan Gazette 25 March 1910.

[92] See Wright, Wales and Socialism 236. When William Phippen contested a Rhondda council seat in 1908 for the ILP the pavements were chalked with “Don’t vote for William Phippen because he believes in free love‟. Wright, 245.

[93] Glamorgan Gazette 9 December 1910.

[94] Glamorgan Gazette9 December 1910.

[95] Glamorgan Gazette 3 June 1910.

[96] South Wales Daily Post 2 September 1910 and Glamorgan Gazette 16 September 1910.

[97] Liverpool Journal of Commerce 3 October 1910.

[98] Dundee Evening Telegraph 3 October 1910.

[99] The figures were 76,978 for a levy and 44,868 for a strike and the Garw valley 2,027 for a levy and 1,210 for a strike. Cardiff Times 1 October 1910.

[100] Superficially the stoppage was a protest against the decision of the mine manager to end the 40-year-old custom whereby miners were permitted to take home blocks of waste timber from the mines for use as a household fuel. More broadly it was a reaction to the perceived threat to their livelihoods posed by the colliery company’s drive to increase productivity. The workmen marched to the neighbouring Powell Duffryn collieries at Aberaman and Cwmbach, and very quickly a stoppage involving some 8,000 Cynon valley miners was underway. The “Block Strike” as it became known locally, was every bit as violent as the Cambrian Combine dispute. Charles Butt Stanton (1873 – 1946) began his political career as a miners’ leader at Aberdare where he was a prominent member of the ILP.

[101] D Evans, Labour Strife in the South Wales Coalfield,1910 – 1911 (Cardiff: Educational Pub. Co.) 35.

[102] Evening Express 15 December 1910.

[103] John Williams interview with Arnot on 18 October 1961.

[104] Glamorgan Gazette 22 December 1911.

[105] 1911 Census, Ancestry.

[106] Glamorgan Gazette 22 September 1911.

[107] Justice 13 January 1912.

[108] Robert Turnbull, Climbing Mount Sinai: Noah Ablett 1883-1935 (Socialist History Occasional Publication 40, 2017)

[109] The CLC was supported financially by the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (later the NUR) and the SWMF. In 1911, the college moved to Earl’s Court, London and existed until 1929.

[110] John Williams interview with Arnot on 18 October 1961.

[111] Turnbull, Climbing Mount Sinai,Chapter Four.

[112] Glamorgan Gazette 8 March 1912.

[113] Frank Hodges, My Adventures as a Labour Leader.

[114] John Williams interview 10 October 1961.

[115] Frank Hodges, My Adventures as a Labour Leader (London: George Newnes, 1925).

[116] Ibid.

[117] Ibid.

[118] Frank Hodges, My Adventures as a Labour Leader.

[119] Frank Hodges, Towards the One Big Union, Rhondda Socialist 20 July 1912.

[120] In fact, Williams came third but one of the winning candidates must have stood down. Glamorgan Gazette 23 August 1912 and Dean Forest Mercury 12 May 1922.

[121] Among those on the left-wing members of SWMF Executive in 1912 were Charles Stanton, Noah Ablett, Noah Rees and Tom Smith.

[122] Dean Forest Mercury 12 May 1922.


[124] Globe 2 December 1912, Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail 5 December 1912, Walsall Advertiser 14 December 1912, Sheffield Evening Telegraph 2 May 1913, Western Gazette Friday 9 May 1913, Glamorgan Gazette 20 March 1914 and Glamorgan Gazette 3 July 1914.

[125] Globe 2 December 1912 and Glamorgan Gazette 6 December 1912.

[126] Western Times 3 May 1913, Western Gazette May 1913 and Leigh Chronicle and Weekly District Advertiser 9 May 1913.

[127] In 1912, Tom Mann was convicted under the Incitement to Mutiny Act 1797 of publishing an article in The Syndicalist as an “Open Letter to British Soldiers” urging them to refuse to shoot at strikers. His prison sentence was quashed after public pressure

[128] Glamorgan Gazette 13 June 1913.

[129] The Glamorgan Gazette3 July 1914 and Western Mail 29 June, 30 June and 2 July 1914.

[130] The Glamorgan Gazette3 July 1914

[131] Dean Forest Mercury 11 December 1953.

[132] Glamorgan Gazette 27 February 1914. The Dublin lockout was a major industrial dispute involving approximately 20,000 workers and 300 employers. The dispute lasted from 26 August 1913 to 18 January 1914. Central to the dispute was the workers’ right to unionise. The lock-out eventually concluded after the TUC in Britain rejected a request for a sympathetic strike and the workers returned defeated. The lockout was the most severe and significant industrial dispute in Irish history and, although the workers were defeated, it is often represented as the coming of age of the Irish trade union movement.

[133] Minutes of the Blaengarw Workmen’s Institute, Richard Burton Archives

[134] Henderson was a Labour politician who had issued a joint statement with Keir Hardie on August 1 which called on British workers to “hold vast demonstrations against war in every industrial centre.”

[135] Quoted in Fenner Brockway, Inside The Left, London 1942, pp 45-46. Fenner Brockway (1888 – 1988) was a British anti-war activist and member of the ILP. On 12 November 1914, he published an appeal for men of military age to join him in forming the No-Conscription Fellowship to campaign against the possibility of the government attempting to introduce conscription in Britain. In 1916, Brockway was arrested for distributing anti-conscription leaflets. He was fined, and after refusing to pay the fine, was sent to Pentonville Prison for two months. Shortly after his release Brockway was arrested again for failing to turn up to barracks after having his application for exemption from military service, based on his beliefs as a conscientious objector, turned down. He was handed over to the Army, court-martialled for disobeying orders and sent to prison until he was released in 1919.

[136] There were other dissenters. For instance, two weeks before the outbreak of the war, Bristol dockers voted for Britain maintaining neutrality, although their union’s leadership wavered. The Bristol ILP kept up its opposition to the war to the bitter end after forty one of its local male activists were sent to prison. Despite this, Bristol ILP women members continued to campaign against the war.

[137] See the brief biography of William Brace in the appendix.

[138] The London Gazette 1 September 1914.

[139] C. Williams, Capitalism, Community and Conflict, The South Wales Coalfield, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1998) 20.

[140] David Silbey, The British Working Class and Enthusiasm for War, (London: Frank Cass, 2005).

[141] A pamphlet produced by the National Service League, entitled Briton’s First Duty, conceded “Want and hunger are unfortunately for us, the invisible recruiting sergeants for the great proportion of our army.”

[142] Letter from volunteer William Edwards quoted in Gloden Dallas and Douglas Gill, “Mutiny at Étaples Base in 1917”, Past and Present, (69, 1975) 44.

[143] Glamorgan Gazette 14 August 1914 and Glamorgan Gazette 11 September 1914.

[144] Glamorgan Gazette 20 March 1914 and reports in the Glamorgan Gazette of meetings of the Garw District of SWMF following this date.

[145] Glamorgan Gazette 9 October 1914.

[146] Arnot, The Miners, 33.

[147] Glamorgan Gazette 4 June 1915.

[148] Gerry Rubin, War, Law and Labour: The Munitions Acts, State Regulation and the Unions 1915-1921, (Oxford: Clarendon Press,1988).

[149] R. Griffiths‘ The Kaiser’s Black Guards’: The South Wales Miners’ Strike of July 1915, Our History No 16, The Communist Party, 2015.

[150] Glamorgan Gazette 13 August 1915.

[151] Glamorgan Gazette 26 November 1915.

[152] Yorkshire Post 8 December 1915.

[153] Western Mail 1 December 1915.

[154] John Williams interview by Arnot 25 July 1963.

[155] Ibid.

[156] The Western Mail 28 December 1915.

[157] Gloucestershire Chronicle 25 December 1915 and  Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 39.

[158] The Times 28 January 1916

[159] Glamorgan Gazette 21 April 1916.

[160] The Gloucester Journal 26 May 1917.

[161] In view of the importance of maintaining the output of coal, no person employed underground in a coalmine and no person employed on the surface of a coalmine as winding engineman, pumpman, weighman, electrician, fitter, or mechanic (whether starred or not) is to be called up for service with the Forces without the consent of the Home Office. The Colliery Recruiting Courts will deal, on behalf of and acting under instructions from the Home Office, with questions as to the possibility of sparing further miners from these classes for service with the Forces in particular cases, and also with questions as to whether particular men come within these classes. All workmen employed at the surface of coalmines and all officials whose duty it is to superintend such workmen, who are not, in either case, included in the classes mentioned above, will be on the same footing as the general body of recruits who have enlisted under the group system, and in their case claims can only be made for postponement to later groups. Such claims, however, made on the ground that a man is indispensable to the employer’s business will be heard by the Colliery Recruiting Court instead of by the ordinary local Tribunal. A claim for postponement on personal grounds to the man himself will go before the local Tribunal. Each Court will consist of the Divisional Inspector of Mines (or a senior inspector acting as his deputy), with two assessors, one representing the coal owners the other representing the miners. Twenty-three Courts have been established. If any of the parties concerned is dissatisfied with the decision of the Court and the Court considers that “a question of principle or any important issue is involved,” it “may” grant leave to appeal to the Central Court, but is not bound to do so. (The Times 6 January 1916).

[162] Glamorgan Gazette 25 February 1916.

[163] Glamorgan Gazette 4 August 1916 and 11 August 1916.


[165] Ibid.

[166]D. Egan, “The Swansea conference of the British Council of Soldiers’ and workers’ delegates, July 1917″,  Llafur: The journal of the Society for the Study of Welsh Labour History, Vol. 1,  4, (1975) 12-37.

[167] Western Mail 1 February 1917.

[168] Western Daily Press 2 February 1917.

[169] Evening Mail 14 February 1917

[170] Evening Mail 14 February 1917.

[171] The Glamorgan Gazette23 February 1917.

[172] Belfast News-Letter – Tuesday 20 February 1917.

[173] Western Mail 16 April 1917.

[174] Arnot, South Wales Miners, 133.

[175] Arnot, South Wales Miners, 133

[176] Western Mail 3 August 1917.

[177] Egan, The Swansea Conference, 28.

[178] Western Daily Press 4 August 1917.

[179] Ibid.

[180] Leeds Mercury 07 August 1917

[181] Glamorgan Gazette 24 August 1917

[182] Sheilds Dail News 16 August 1917 and Glamorgan Gazette Friday 31 August 1917.

[183] May

[184] Glamorgan Gazette 7 September 1917.

[185] Lloyd George.

[186] Arnot, South Wales Miners, 133-134.

[187] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 57.

[188] Arnot, South Wales Miners, 134.

[189] The Glamorgan Gazette 9 November 1917.

[190] Ibid.

[191] Leeworthy, Labour Country, 99.

[192] Glamorgan Gazette 5 October 1917.

[193] Labour Leader 14 March 1918.

[194] Labour Leader 5 September 1918.

[195] This was reduced to 25,000 in June.

[196] Dean Forest Mercury 15 March 1918.

[197]  Arnot, South Wales Miners, 148.

[198] Glamorgan Gazette 12 April 1918 and Cambrian Daily News 11 April 1918.

[199] Ives, 163

[200] Western Mail 8 April 1918.

[201] The Rhondda Leader 27th April 1918.



[204] Glamorgan Gazette 29 November 1918.

[205] Glamorgan Gazette 6 December 1918.

[206] Western Mail 1 January 1919.

[207] Western Mail 1 March 1919.

[208] Western Mail 3 March 1919.

[209] Pontypridd Observer 5 March 1921 and Glamorgan Gazette 2 September 1921.

[210] Brock Millman, Managing Dissent in First World War Britain (London: Frank Cass, 2000).

[211] Quoted in Chanie Rosenberg, 1919, Britain on the Brink of Revolution (London: Bookmarks,1987) 39.

[212] Cabinet minutes quoted in Supple, The History of the British Coal Industry, 118.

[213] Cabinet minutes quoted in Supple, The History of the British Coal Industry, 118.

[214] Pall Mall Gazette 1 January 1919

[215] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 70.

[216] Ibid. 71 – 72.

[217] Gloucestershire Echo 17 January 1919.

[218] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 72-73.

[219] Frank Hodges, My Adventures as a Labour Leader, 1925.

[220] Quoted in Jack T. Murphy, Preparing for Power (London, 1972) 172.

[221] Ibid. 44.

[222] Ives, Reform, Revolution and Direct Action, 279-280.

[223] David Mitchell, Ghost of Chance: British Revolutionaries in 1919, History Today, (November 1970) 758.

164 Webb, 1919, 60

[225] Ives, Reform, Revolution and Direct Action, Chapter 3 and  Sunday Post 2 February 1919.

[226] Ibid. 39.

[227] Ibid. 157.

[228] Merthyr Pioneer, 4 January 1919.

[229] Merthyr Pioneer, 4 January 1919.

[230] Daily Herald 8 February 1919.

[231] Ives, Reform, Revolution and Direct Action, 40.

[232] Webb, 1919, Chapter 6.

[233] Bonar Law stated he was in fear of being strung up on one of London’s lamp-posts.

[234] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 73.

[235] Ives, Reform, Revolution and Direct Action, 176.

[236] Herald of Wales and Monmouthshire Recorder 22 February 1919.

[237] Rhondda Leader 22 March 1919.

[238] Margaret Cole (ed), Beatrice Webb’s Diaries, 1912-1924 (London: Longmans, 1952) 150-151.

[239] For a detailed discussion of the Webbs’ critique of syndicalism see J. M. Winter, Socialism and the Challenge of War (London: Routledge, 1974) 29-66.

[240] Ives, Reform, Revolution and Direct Action, 193.

[241] Hodges, My Adventures, 80

[242] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 73-74.

[243] John Sankey, 1st Viscount Sankey (1866-1948) was a British lawyer, judge, Labour politician and Lord Chancellor of Great Britain.

[244] The Coal Industry Commission held its first meeting on March 3rd. It was composed of the following men:  Hon Justice Sankey (Chairman); Robert Smillie, Herbert Smith, Frank Hodges and Sir Leo Chiozza Money (nominated by the MFGB); R. H. Tawney and Sidney Webb (Government nominees agreed to by the MFGB); Arthur Balfour, Sir Arthur Duckham and Sir Thomas Royden (Government nominees); Evan Williams, R. W. Coope; and J. T. Forgie (representing Coal Owners).

[245] Woodhouse, Mines for the Nation or Mines for the Miners? 95.

[246] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 79.

[247] Beatrice Webb, Diaries Vol. 1, 161.

[248] Arnot, The Miners, 189.

[249] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 85 – 87.

[250] Ibid. 87.

[251] Ibid.

[252] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 87-88.

[253] R. Page Arnot, South Wales Miners, 1914-1926, (Cardiff: Cymric Federation Press, 1975), 169.

[254] Patrick Renshaw, The General Strike, (London: Eyre Methuen, 1975) 59.

[255] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 88 – 90.

[256] Western Mail 24-31 March 1919.

[257] Ives, Reform, Revolution and Direct Action, 178-182.

[258] Sheffield Evening Telegraph  28 March 1919.

[259] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 89.

[260] Western Mail 10 April 1919.

[261] Glamorgan Gazette 11 April 1919.

[262] Porthcawl News 8 May 1919.

[263] May, A Question of Control, 239.

[264] Supple, The History of the British Coal Industry

[265] May, A Question of Control, 235-236.

[266] The People 4 May 1919.

[267] Glamorgan Gazette 23 May 1919.

[268] Glamorgan Gazette 13 June 1919.

[269] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 130-136.

[270] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 90-100.

[271] Ibid.

[272] Triple Alliance Conference held on 23 July quoted in Ives, Reform, Revolution and Direct Action, 194

[273] Ives, Reform, Revolution and Direct Action, 305.

[274] Daily Herald  31 July 1919.

[275] However, he did accept the recommendation that the state should purchase the mineral rights, although he did nothing to act on this.

[276] Hansard 18 August 1919 volume 119 cc2000-1.

[277] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 114.

[278] Rhondda Leader 23 August 1919.

[279] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 116.

[280] Department of Employment, British Labour Statistics 1886-1968, Table 197 (1971) 396.

[281] Warwick Digital Collections, Last accessed 24 April 2019.

[282]Western Mail 2 October 1919 and Porthcawl News 9 October 1919.

[283] Porthcawl News 16 October 1919.

[284] Glamorgan Gazette 31 October 1919.

[285] Glamorgan Gazette 7 November 1919.

[286] Glamorgan Gazette 26 March 1920.

[287] Glamorgan Advertiser 23 January 1920

[288] Glamorgan Advertiser 23 January 1920.

[289] Ibid. 122.

[290] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 128.

[291] Arnot, The Miners,  235 and Daily Herald 15 April 1920.

[292] Sheffield Evening Telegraph 3 March 1920.

[293] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 141.

[294] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 144 -145.

[295] Desmarais, The British Government’s Strikebreaking Organization, 122.

[296] Ibid.

[297] Gloucester Journal 2 October 1920.

[298] Western Mail 5 October 1920.

[299] Western Mail11 October 1920.

[300] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 155 and Daily Herald 15 October 1920.

[301] Glamorgan Gazette 10 October 1924

[302] Quoted by Jeroen Sprenger in (Last accessed on 18 November 2019).

[303] Western Mail 16 October 1920.

[304] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 160.

[305] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 160- 161 and Arnot, The Miners, 276-278.

[306] Brace and Hartshorn were involved in secret negotiations with Government officials and Brace proposed the outlines of a settlement on which lines the strike was eventually resolved. These leaders acted contrary to their mandate and certainly contrary to the prevailing mood within the coalfields, and as a result, Brace and Hartshorn were forced to resign from their offices in the SWMF.  Hartshorne was later re-elected as President of SWMF serving from 1922 to 1924.

[307] Glamorgan Advertiser 5 November 1920.

[308] Daily Herald 11 October 1920.

[309] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 201 -204.

[310] Glamorgan Advertiser 19 November 1920

[311] Glamorgan Advertiser 7 January 1921.

[312] Supple, The History of the British Coal Industry, Chapter 5.

[313] Glamorgan Advertiser 28 January 1921.

[314] Glamorgan Gazette 2 April and 15 April 1921 and Glamorgan Advertiser 15 April 1921.

[315] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 200.

[316] South Wales Gazette 25 November 1921.

[317] Western Mail 14 April 1921.

[318] Western Mail 14 April 1921.

[319] Glamorgan Advertiser 15 April 1921.

[320] Western Mail 19 April 1921.

[321] Western Mail 18 April 1921.

[322] Western Mail 21 April 1921.

[323] Western Mail 23 May 1921.

[324] Glamorgan Advertiser 20 May 1921.

[325] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 232.

[326] Western Mail 16 June 1921.

[327] Glamorgan Advertiser 8 July 1921.

[328] Statistical Department of the SWMF. Summary of the returns received from the Districts week ending 10 September 10 1921.

[329] Western Mail 26 September 1921.

[330] Glamorgan Advertiser 7 October 1921.

[331] Williams had to help resolve a dispute in November when the miners at the International colliery walked out on strike over the failure of the colliery owners to abide by the recently signed new agreement Justice 17 November 1921.

[332] Wright, God’s Beautiful Sunshine, 186-190.

[333] Dean Forest Mercury 12 May 1922.

[334] Humphrey Phelps, Forest Voices, (Stroud: Chalford, 1996) 63.

[335] Wright, God’s Beautiful Sunshine,196-199 and Dean Forest Mercury 3 March 1922.

[336] Cole, Labour in the Coal Mining Industry, 241, Nottingham Evening Post 14 January 1922 and Griffin, The Miners of Nottinghamshire, 112-113. In early 1922 Grove Engine colliery in Whitecroft was selling house coal at 35s a ton at the pit head. (Dean Forest Mercury 6 January 1922).

[337] John Williams statement to R page Arnot in November 1961, Richard Burton Archives.

[338] Ian Wright, Coal on One Hand, Men on the Other (Bristol: BRHG, 2017).


Arnot, R. Page, The Miners: Years of Struggle, London: Allen and Unwin, 1953.

Arnot, R. Page, South Wales Miners, Glowyr de Cymru: A History of the South Wales Miners’ Federation (1914–1926), Cardiff:  Cymric Federation Press, 1975.

Bevir, Mark, The Making of British Socialism (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Clegg, Hugh Armstrong, A History of British Trade Unions since 1889 Volume 2, 1911-1933, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

Cole, G. D. H. Labour in the Coal Mining Industry. Oxford: Clarendon Press,1923.

Coombes, B. L., These Poor Hands, the autobiography of a miner working in South Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales, 2002.

Craik, W.W. Central Labour College, A Chapter in the History of Adult Working-class Education, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1964.

Eirug, Aled, The Opposition to the Great War in Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2018.

Francis, Hywel and David Smith, The Fed. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1980.

Fraser, W., Hamish, A History of British Trade Unionism 1700 – 1998, London: Macmillan Press, 1999.

Griffiths, Robert, ‘The Kaiser’s Black Guards’: The South Wales Miners’ Strike of July 1915, Our History No 16, The Communist Party, 2015.

Griffiths, Richard, The Entrepreneurial Society of the Rhondda Valleys, 1840-1920, Power and Influence in the Porth-Pontypridd Region (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010): Chapter 11, The 1893 Hauliers’ Strike.

Hodges, Frank, My Adventures as a Labour Leader, London: George Newnes, 1925.

Leeworthy, Daryl, Labour Country, Political Radicalism and Social Democracy in South Wale, 1831-1985 (Cardigan: Parthian, 2018).

Lawrence, Ray, The Coal Workings of the Garw Valley, Blackwood: Ray Lawrence, 2012.

Morgan, Kenneth Democratic Politics in Glamorgan 1884-1914, Glamorgan Local History Society, Vol 4 (1960).

Supple, Barry, The History of the British Coal Industry, Volume 4, Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.

Turnbull, Robert, Climbing Mount Sinai: Noah Ablett 1883-1935, Socialist History Occasional Publication 40, 2017.

Williams, Chris, Capitalism, Community and Conflict, The South Wales Coalfield, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1998.

Williams, Chris, “The odyssey of Frank Hodges” Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1998, New Series, Vol. 5 (1999).

Wright, Ian, Coal on One Hand, Men on the Other, The Forest of Dean Miners and the First World War 1910 – 1922, Bristol: BRHG, 2nd Edition, 2017.

Wright, Ian, God’s Beautiful Sunshine, The 1921 Lockout in the Forest of Dean, Bristol: BRHG, 2020.

Wright, Martin, Wales and Socialism, Political Culture and National Identity c. 1880-1914, Thesis Submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Cardiff University, 2011.



Richard Burton Archives

P. Arnot, Interviews with John Williams, 10 October 1961 and 25 July 1963. (CC/MNB/PP/2/15).

A personal statement by John Williams collected by R. P. Arnot. (SWCC/MNB/PP/16).







National Union of Railwaymen


Charles Fletcher: Gypsy, Orphan, Forest of Dean Miner and Socialist


On 1 June 1928, Charles Fletcher was called into the witness box to give evidence in a sensational murder case, involving a wife accused of poisoning her husband with arsenic in the Forest of Dean. That was the only time he appeared in the national media but during his short life, he had made a big impact on those around him.

The article will utilise the story of Charles Fletcher, an orphan and political activist, as a lens to throw some light on events, institutions, organisations and social movements which impacted life in Bristol, Chepstow and the Forest of Dean at the beginning of the 20th century.

The childhood of Charles Fletcher was dominated by trauma and his adult life by poverty. Fragmentary references to his life can be found in the admission records at the Muller Orphanage in the Bristol and Forest of Dean newspapers and Ancestry. This article will attempt to piece together his life story from these fragments and pay tribute to a man long forgotten who lived in poverty but believed in internationalism, social justice and equality.

As a young man, Fletcher decided he would devote himself to improving the conditions of his fellow workers in the mines of the Forest of Dean where he became attracted by socialist politics. He joined the Forest of Dean Miners Association (FDMA), then briefly the Communist Party and the Miners’ Minority Movement and was a key activist during the 1926 lockout. Just before he died in 1929, his name appeared in national newspapers as a key witness in one of the most sensational murder trials of the decade.

An Orphan

Charles Fletcher was born in Stroud on 2 June 1892. His father, Charles William Fletcher worked as a servant and gardener and his mother, Clara Sophia Fletcher (nee Butler), was a tailor. The family likely had Romany heritage because both Fletcher and Butler were well-known names among the gypsy community in the North Gloucestershire area. Fletcher’s grandfather traded in used cordage, bunting, rags, timber, metal and other general waste materials which was a typical gypsy occupation. His father died in July 1894 from pneumonia as a result of tuberculosis. Clara and Fletcher then moved to Barry in Glamorgan where some of her brothers lived.  Clara started a relationship with Josiah Jones and possibly married him towards the end of 1898.

However, on 25 January 1899, Clara also died from tuberculosis. Josiah said he did not want to take responsibility for the boy so it was agreed that Fletcher would go and live with his maternal aunt, Sarah Ann Lear, who already had six boys and lived in Stroud. Sadly, Sarah’s husband died while she was attending Clara’s funeral. Sarah was now a widow, dependent on parochial relief and ill with bronchitis. As a result, she was not in a financial or emotional position to look after Fletcher, but he remained in her care for six weeks.[1]

Muller Orphanage

Fletcher was then admitted to the Muller Orphanage in Bristol on 7 April 1899 which was run by the Plymouth Brethren and the evangelical principles of its founder George Muller. The orphanage was funded by donors and legacies. Fletcher qualified for admission because he was the legitimate offspring of a married couple who had died. He would not have been accepted if he was ‘illegitimate’ because the orphanage wanted to discourage the notion that children from a ‘promiscuous union’ could be cared for if abandoned by their parents.[2]

It must have been a forbidding and intimidating experience for Fletcher to arrive at the austere orphanage with its enormous grey institutional buildings sitting isolated in the countryside just outside Bristol near Ashley Down. Muller’s five orphan houses were all built on a similar plan and were self-contained, having their own laundries and medical facilities.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the orphanage had become a massive enterprise caring for nearly 3,000 children and employing over 200 staff with many of them living on site. Despite the history of abuse associated with institutions caring for children, there is no record of ill-treatment of the children at the Muller Orphanage and there is no reason to believe that the staff were not kind and loving to the orphans. However, the rules were strict and the children who were admitted to the homes could be dismissed for bad behaviour or returned to their Parish Unions if they were too ill to be cared for adequately by the orphanage.

The children were reasonably well educated for their social class and were taught reading, writing and religious education based on Plymouth Brethren scripture. The girls were taught domestic skills with a view to employment as poorly paid cleaners and housekeepers for the middle and upper classes. The boys were taught skills that could enable them to have a trade or gain work in industry or agriculture. The daily schedule was rigorous by contemporary standards, but the children were well-fed and cared for. The grounds were used for the cultivation of vegetables where Fletcher would be put to work in the evenings. [3]

The girls remained at the orphanage until they were eighteen, but the boys were apprenticed out to a trade or maybe to a farm when they were fourteen usually with board and lodgings and minimal pay. The orphanage sought out potential employers who were also of the Plymouth Brethren faith and the children were rarely returned to their own extended families where it was believed they might be exposed to secular and amoral influences.[4]

On 26 October 1906, at the age of fourteen, Fletcher was sent to work for Mr Williams at Chapel Hill Farm near Pembroke in the middle of the Welsh countryside. In 1908, when he was sixteen, he came to live in the Forest of Dean and got a job working for James Simmonds at Longley Farm, near Clearwell. In 1911 he was working for James Teague as a cowman at Trow Green farm also near Clearwell. Soon after he moved to Milkwall near Coleford and took up work in a coal mine and became involved in socialist politics. 

Forest of Dean 

When Fletcher arrived in the Forest of Dean socialist politics were beginning to be discussed within the working-class community and the Liberal consensus in the Forest of Dean was challenged by the establishment of local Independent Labour Party (ILP) branches. Fletcher would soon become involved in Labour and socialist politics and would have got to know some of the people involved, particularly in the Coleford area where he lived. Some of these people were members of the ILP and some of them would later join the British Socialist Party which Fletcher also joined.

Independent Labour Party

The ILP was established in 1893 to create a working-class organisation politically independent of the Liberal Party.[5] In 1908, an ILP branch was formed in Lydney. In 1910 and 1911, more branches were opened in Coleford, Cinderford, Yorkley, Parkend and Bream.[6] The main political base for the ILP was in West Dean around Lydney and Coleford. The membership included railway workers such as James Birt and Edwin Rennolds from Lydney and Jim Jones from Cinderford, tin plate workers such as George Powell and quarry workers such as Arthur Sheldon and Fred Kear.

Not all members of the Forest ILP were industrial workers as shopkeepers and tradesmen also joined the party. Arthur Hicks, a bootmaker, was elected the secretary of the Coleford branch of the ILP in 1910.[7] Also active was Tom Liddington an insurance worker who in the past had worked on the railways and mines and William Morris (nicknamed the oldest socialist in the Forest) who ran an ironmonger’s shop in Coleford. The main organiser of the ILP in Lydney in 1908 was Mrs T Adams. Fletcher Hallam from Littledean House provided accommodation for visiting speakers in East Dean.

In 1911, some socialist women organised a branch of the Women’s Labour League in the Forest of Dean. The League had been founded in 1906 to promote the political representation of women in parliament and local bodies and was affiliated to the Labour Party. These included Ellen Hicks, Mary Liddington, Annie Tomlins, who was a schoolteacher, and Annie Pope, who trained as a nurse and had been a member of the Social Democratic Federation, a small socialist and Marxist party founded in 1881. Annie Pope helped run the Waverley Hotel with her husband and Annie Tomlins was a resident at the hotel. In 1912 Ellen Hicks was elected to the Board of the Monmouth Poor Law Guardians.

Annie Pope

Forest of Dean Miners Association

As a miner Fletcher would have been aware of how these developments led to conflicts within the Forest of Dean Miners Association (FDMA), the trade union representing the Forest of Dean miners who made up the biggest proportion of the workforce in the Forest. During the years from 1886 to 1918, the full-time agent for the FDMA was George Rowlinson who was a member of the Liberal party and closely tied to the political establishment and opposed attempts by the FDMA to affiliate with the Labour Party.

The FDMA was split between those miners, mainly from the Cinderford area, who supported Rowlinson and the Liberals, and those miners, mainly from West Dean, who supported the ILP. The West Dean miners active in the ILP included William Smith, Fletcher Luker, Reuben James, James Sayes, David Organ, William Hoare and Richard Kear. 

The Sayes

When Fletcher moved to Milkwall and he became friends with the Sayes family who lived in Ellwood which is very close to Milkwall.  Elijah Sayes, who worked as a collier, was married to Emily Powell and they had four girls and seven boys. One of Elijah and Emily’s sons was James. 

In October, over 300 miners at Wimberry Slade drift mine owned by the Cannop Colliery Company were involved in an unofficial strike over the use of 17 non-union men by the management.[8] James Sayes, the men’s checkweighman and a member of the ILP, led the strike. The checkweighman was elected by coal miners to check the findings of the mine owner’s weighman where hewers were paid by the weight of coal mined. Therefore, a checkweighman had to be someone whom the men trusted. He was elected by the workforce and as a result, he became the unofficial union representative at the pit.

The management took Sayes to court for breaking the terms of his contract and impeding the working of the mine. Sayes was fined by the magistrates and sacked from his job as checkweighman. Rowlinson, the miners’ agent, did not intervene on the men’s behalf and after three weeks with no strike pay, the men reluctantly returned to work.[9]

After James Sayes lost his job, he became active in the ILP and joined with others to try and establish a branch Labour Party in the Forest of Dean.

Elijah and Emily Sayes with three of their children outside their house in Ellwood (Credit Sungreen).

British Socialist Party

However, a small number of other foresters were looking for something more radical and joined the British Socialist Party (BSP) which was a Marxist political organisation established in 1911. The BSP argued for a specifically socialist and anti-capitalist programme as opposed to the more moderate Labourism of the ILP. Although many socialists were not ideologically rigid and tended to mix together in both organisations and this was the case in the Forest of Dean. 

The Forest of Dean branch of the BSP was formed in 1914 with the affiliation of the Dean Forest Socialist Party which was based in Coleford and whose main activists included William Morris, Tom and Mary Liddington, Arthur and Ellen Hicks and Benjamin and Annie and Pope from the ILP.[10] Arthur Hicks became the secretary and Tom Liddington the President of the Forest of Dean BSP. By July 1914 they had about 30 members and held regular meetings throughout the Forest.

A well-attended public meeting organised by the branch was held in July 1914 at The Bailey Inn at Yorkley and presided over by Tom Liddington. The main speaker from London was Edwin Fairchild and he attacked the local Liberal MP, Harry Webb:

When the colliers of the Forest of Dean realised that Mr Harry Webb would no longer be their member in parliament – (hear, hear) – but they would have a man representing the working classes, who was prepared to stand on the floor of the House of Commons and say that until the workers of this country determined that they would be masters of the nation they must for ever remain poor (applause).[11]

Fairchild was on the left wing of the BSP but willing to work with the ILP and campaign for Labour Party candidates in districts where the BSP was not competing in elections. In the Forest, both the ILP and BSP supported the campaign for a Labour Party candidate at the next general election.

Milkwall charity committee with Tom Liddington in the front row fourth from left and Elijah Sayes at the back on the right (Credit Sungreen)

First World War

At the outbreak of war, the Forest of Dean BSP abandoned public meetings for a time, and in the Autumn organised study classes around issues such as industrial history, logic and readings of Marx’s theory of economics in Capital.[12] In May 1915 the branch started organising public meetings again and in 1916 Fletcher joined the BSP.


In 1917, the government set about building National shipyards at Chepstow and Beachley to help replace the huge losses of shipping by German U-boat attacks. The plan was that the National Shipyards at Chepstow and Beachley would be developed as a nationalised industry by expanding an existing shipyard which had been established in 1916 by the Standard Shipbuilding Company. The ships would be assembled by civilian labour, but the new yards themselves were to be built by the Royal Engineers and German prisoners of war. Some 6,000 Royal Engineers came into the area to develop the shipyard.

About this time, Fletcher obtained better-paid work as a plater’s helper at one of these shipbuilding yards where, as a munitions worker, he would be exempt from conscription. In May 1918 the workers at Finch’s yard in Chepstow passed a resolution against their yard being taken over by the military.  On 6 June 1918:

over 2,000 workers, including all Finch’s shipyard workers and the men employed on the military hospital, attended a mass meeting held on the Institute football ground, to protest against the Government proposals of conscript labour in the national shipyards…. Delegates were present representing the whole of the trade union movement in the country, including transport workers, railwaymen, shipwrights, navvies, dockers and miners… The whole of Labour was looking to Chepstow… to enter an emphatic protest against the employment of conscript labour in the national shipyards, the feeling amongst the workers being that it would lead to the conscription of labour generally….[13]

Just two weeks later, the Government climbed down and agreed that civilian workers, rather than the military and prisoners of war, would be used in the Chepstow and Beachley yards and so the Royal Engineers were evacuated while an influx of civilians to work in the shipyard was anticipated. Over 6,000 skilled workers eventually came to the Chepstow area from other shipbuilding areas, including Tyneside and Clydeside, and new housing was provided in three new garden suburbs.

Shipbuilding at Chepstow

The BSP had a very large base on Clydeside and shipbuilding centres elsewhere which saw the upsurge in industrial militancy during World War One.  John Maclean, the BSP leader in Scotland, played a leading role in the Red Clydeside strikes. It is possible that Fletcher encountered other militant workers and BSP members who had migrated from Clydeside.

However, the management of the yards was marred by incompetence and it was not until October 1918 that the first ships were scheduled to be launched. In January 1920, the yards were privatised. The yards continued to build ships, but demand slumped after the war, and many of the workers faced years of unemployment.

Labour and Communist Parties

Meanwhile, in 1918, Rowlinson was voted out of office over his support for the Liberal Party and the conscription of miners and replaced by Herbert Booth a young miner from Nottinghamshire influenced by syndicalism. These developments contributed to the creation of a fledgling Forest of Dean Labour Party during the war and finally to the election of a Labour MP, James Wignall, in November 1918 who defeated the Liberal candidate, Sir Harry Webb. Over the next two years, the Labour movement grew in strength and there was optimism that it may be possible to build a land fit for heroes.[14] 

After the victory of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia at the end of 1917 and the termination of World War One the following year, the BSP emerged as an explicitly revolutionary socialist organisation.

The war came to an end in November 1918 and many Forest families had to cope with the grief of the loss of their loved ones and this included two of the Sayes boys, John and Samuel.

William Durrant

In August 1920, the BSP negotiated with other radical groups to establish a unified communist organisation, an effort which culminated with the establishment of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).

The majority of BSP members joined the newly formed CPGB and so Fletcher became a member of the CPGB at this time. A Chepstow branch of the CPGB was formed in October 1920 with William Durrant as the secretary. Durrant was born in Norfolk the son of an agricultural labourer. He initially became a train driver but like many other skilled workers migrated to work in munitions or shipbuilding.

In September 1921, there was a particularly nasty incident when a meeting of the Chepstow Communist Party held in the grounds of Chepstow castle was attacked by about 250 right-wing nationalists. The tensions in the town were probably exacerbated by the influx of a large number of skilled shipbuilders from other parts of the country. In addition, some Welsh miners had come to the CPGB meeting by train from the Welsh Valleys. 

The nationalists were headed by the Tidenham brass band, singing the national anthem and with union jack flags flying. The march was led by an army officer who told the marchers to attack the meeting resulting in very violent hand-to-hand fighting. Durrant was beaten quite badly and then thrown into the River Wye. He only managed to escape death or serious injury by swimming to the other side of the river. The authorities did not intervene or make any arrests and the right-wing press celebrated the event.[15]

In 1921 Fletcher was living in lodgings with a family headed by a labourer and working as a self-employed chimney sweep. He remained in close contact with Durrant and members of the Chepstow Communist Party for the rest of his life. 

1921 Lockout

Meanwhile back in the Forest, in April 1921, in response to a severe depression in the coal trade, colliery owners, supported by the government, slashed labour costs.  Refusing to accept this cut in wages, a million British miners, including many war veterans, were locked out of their pits. The consequences for the 6,000 Forest of Dean miners, their families, and the whole community, were brutal. However, the miners fought a determined battle for an alternative that included public ownership of the mines with decent pay and conditions. One of the consequences was the departure of Herbert Booth as the agent of the FDMA and the arrival of John Williams in his place.

John Williams

Williams was a young miner from the Garw Valley in South Wales also influenced by syndicalism. At about this time, Fletcher returned to the Forest to work in the pits and became a close friend and political ally of Williams. Sometime after the 1921 lockout, he moved back to the Ellwood area.

Miners Minority Movement

In 1922, in response to the loss of confidence after the 1921 lockout and the defeats that followed, the CPGB organised a series of conferences on the theme “Back to the Unions – Stop the Retreat”. It was proposed that organisations should be set up in each industry with a brief to provide a combative leadership to make industry-specific demands and reforms within the unions concerned, to give greater confidence to workers who wanted to fight back.[16]

It was decided that the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) would provide resources, organisation and strategy. The RILU was an international body established by the Soviet Union to coordinate communist activities within trade unions. The RILU had been formally established in 1921 and was intended to act as a counterweight to the influence of the Social Democratic International Federation of Trade Unions, an organisation branded by the RILU as class collaborationist.

As a result, the Miners’ Minority Movement (MMM) was launched in January 1924 with its paper, The Mineworker, and Nat Watkins as a full-time paid worker.[17] The MMM itself was not an attempt to set up a separate trade union but an attempt to coordinate the militant members within the MFGB, with the view of making it a more effective fighting organ in the class struggle.[18]

Soon after its formation, Fletcher and Williams joined the MMM, which provided them with an opportunity for support and tactical advice from other union activists from across the British coalfields. Fletcher was elected President and the Secretary was Jack Harris from Cinderford who worked at Eastern United Colliery and was a member of the CPGB as was his younger brother Len. Other MMM members were Albert Brookes, William Hoare and Albert Hoare from Bream and William Wilkins, Philip Elton and Albert Meek from Cinderford. These men set about building networks of sympathetic miners, distributed MMM propaganda and mobilised support for its policies.

The MMM immediately started to campaign for the transformation of the MFGB into a United Mineworkers’ Union based on industrial unionism which would recruit from all grades of mineworkers, including the craftsmen and was opposed to sectionalism and district agreements. It demanded a wage equivalent to that of 1914, adjusted according to the increase in the cost of living, plus 2s a shift and a six-hour day. The influence of the CPGB within the MMM meant that the MMM campaigned for the MFGB to affiliate with the RILU.[19]

Another prominent member was Arthur Horner from South Wales who would eventually be elected as General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) from 1946 to 1959 when the MFGB eventually became an industrial union in the form of the NUM.

Arthur Horner

The MMM achieved another victory with the election of Arthur Cook as secretary of the MFGB in May 1924. Not all MMM members, including Cook, were members of the CPGB, although the Party was the driving force behind the MMM. When Williams became a member of the MFGB Executive in 1924 representing the smaller districts, he became a close ally of Cook.[20] Although a member of the NMM and sympathetic to communism Williams never joined the CPGB and remained a member of the Labour Party throughout his life. 

Arthur Cook


The first test for the MMM strategy in the Forest of Dean was when in 1924 the local colliery owners refused to implement a national agreement made by the MFGB and the organisation representing the colliery owners nationally.  After months of local and national negotiations, Cook and the MFGB Executive gave the FDMA permission to issue notices of strike action.

A mass meeting was held at Speech House on Sunday 5 October 1924 and the strike commenced the next day and was generally supported by both union members and non-unionists. As chairman of the Forest Branch of the MMM Fletcher would have been heavily involved in organising the strike.

However, it was soon reported that 130 men had gone to work at Lightmoor Colliery. So, at midday, a large crowd assembled outside the town hall in Cinderford. The miners and their families were addressed by Williams who suggested they proceed to Lightmoor to persuade the men to stop work. The procession of about 1000 men and women, headed by the Excelsior Brass Band, marched to Speech House and confronted the men as they came off their shift. The blacklegs were told not to go to work the next day.[21] In his statement to Arnot Williams said:

The workmen at this colliery were ashamed to go to work the next day. The next morning we organised another demonstration headed by the town band to another colliery. This took place between five and six in the morning.[22]

In the meantime, on Monday, Williams was able to announce to a large crowd assembled at the Triangle in Cinderford that the employers at Cannop Colliery had agreed that the men could return to work at their pit the next day under the terms of the national agreement. No negotiations had taken place; the Cannop management simply announced that they were going to pay the workmen under the terms of the national agreement.  The management of Parkend, New Fancy and Waterloo collieries followed suit.[23] However, at three of the major collieries, including Lightmoor, some men were still strike-breaking.

A meeting was held at Speech House on Tuesday afternoon attended by a large crowd of miners and their families. The FDMA President, David Organ, announced that the tactics appeared to be working. The management at Princess Royal had now accepted the terms of the national agreement. There were still a few men working at the remaining pits including some craftsmen and the safety men. He urged the men to organise pickets but to use peaceful means to persuade them to come out. The following day the management at Norchard announced they had accepted the terms.[24]

Gloucestershire Echo 8 October 1924

The Crawshay group of collieries still refused to accept the terms. However, on Friday the directors of the Crawshay group and Crump Meadow Colliery caved in, signed the National Agreement and agreed to an audit of their books. The strike was a massive victory and was over in just one week.[25] The result meant the Forest miners received back pay up to a total of fifty thousand pounds with an agreement that there would be no victimisation.[26] The only colliery not to confirm was the small Wilda Colliery in Bream where the men remained on strike for another four weeks before their owners backed down.[27]


On 10 June 1925, the Forest community were informed of the sudden death of their MP, James Wignall. On the following Sunday, the Executive Committee of the Forest of Dean MMM met and a motion was put forward by Fletcher and seconded by Albert Hoare that they should nominate Williams to stand as the parliamentary candidate in the coming by-election. Elton, Wilkins, Meek and Brookes all spoke in support of the motion. Williams responded by saying he accepted their support with certain reservations. The following week Cinderford Labour Party and the FDMA Executive also nominated Williams to stand. Williams believed that the industrial struggle was far more important than parliamentary politics and so after careful consideration, he turned the offer down:

Alluring though the temptation may be to stand for parliament, I am compelled to decline the invitation to allow my name to be submitted to the Selection Committee to be held on Saturday next. Judging from information leaking through very authoritative channels the miners will be shortly confronted with a demand from the owners to return to a working day of eight hours and a revision of the wages agreement. I, therefore propose to play a full part in the coming crisis. To that end, I withdraw my name as a candidate for Parliament, that I may work more efficiently for the miners.[28] 

Red Friday 

Williams was correct about the coming crisis and on 25 June 1925, the colliery owners nationally gave notice to terminate the 1924 wage agreement.[29] The colliery owners proposed wages be cut and hours worked increased.[30] In the Forest of Dean where, except for Somerset, wages were the lowest in the country, this would mean a reduction in wages of approximately 15 per cent. Williams attended the MFGB national conference on 3 July where he supported the decision to reject the owners’ terms.[31]

Organ, speaking at the miners’ demonstration at Speech House in July, said:

the Forest of Dean miners had been under a cloud this past year and were struggling hard to obtain the arrears they were due under the national wage agreement. They had now got those arrears but clouds still hung over them and unless the mine owners made very different proposals to those already offered, he could see nothing but a bitter struggle in front of them.[32]

Richard Kear proposed a resolution that unreservedly rejected “the monstrous proposals” made by the coal owners. The meeting pledged that they would not accept a reduction and would fight for wages based on the cost of living.[33]

On 18 July, members of the Forest of Dean Colliery Owners Association (FODCOA) gave notices to end the existing agreement from 31 July 1925.[34] Similar notices were issued by colliery owners across the country and at the same time opposition spread. Negotiations took place, but the government insisted it would not provide a subsidy and the owners refused to back down from their plans. It looked like the miners were going to be locked out again as they were in 1921.

The MFGB received the backing of the TUC Council and gained the support of the transport and railway unions who pledged to stop all movements of coal from 1 August if the owners locked the miners out. The government were not yet ready for all-out class war and so backed down, and on Friday 31 July announced they would provide a nine-month subsidy for the coal industry to enable the employers to maintain wages and conditions.

A condition of the subsidy was that the MFGB accept the role of a Royal Commission into the coal industry to make recommendations to put it on a sounder economic foundation. The Daily Herald called the government announcement Red Friday in contrast to the Black Friday defeat four years earlier.

At a mass meeting at Speech House on Sunday 2 August, the Dean Forest Mercury reported Williams was sceptical and argued they should have insisted on a wage rise linked to the rise in the cost of living plus the 2s Sankey award as put forward by the MMM. He warned:

We have been told this was a great victory. I would ask in which respect is this a victory? You are to work for nine months with wages about 15 per cent below the cost of living based on 1914 … He hoped his hearers would notice the date. The settlement was going to last until next May. In nine months’ time, this country would be stocked with coal, and they would begin their struggle in May. Do not let them forget they began their last defeat in April. An enquiry has been set up. The coal industry has been cursed with enquiries. They had had the Sankey, the Buckmaster, the Macmillan enquires, and now they were going to thrust another one on them. What were they going to enquire into? What were they going to discover? [35]

William Hoare and Fletcher said they agreed, and a resolution was passed with unanimity that the meeting considered the settlement unsatisfactory and expressed disappointment that the MFGB Executive did not stand by a demand for wages equal to the cost of living.

Meanwhile, the left within the MFGB was attempting to build up its strength because it suspected the government was just playing for time. By August 1925, over 200 MMM branches had been established, and 16 lodges had been affiliated.[36] Fletcher and Williams attended an NMM conference on 29-30 August where Tom Mann argued:

We have to ask ourselves, are we prepared to meet the opposing forces when the next round begins? We must be frank about it and admit that at present we are not ready. The engineers feel keenly the absence of fully disciplined forces capable of national and international action, and the miners will require a much more highly disciplined regimentation of the organized forces of the workers when the next battle begins.[37]

During the conference, Williams argued that the MFGB Executive was wrong in accepting the settlement and not taking advantage of the situation:

I think we have had the chance of our lives in this question. We have had the chance to wrest ourselves from capitalism, we had more than that, we have had the chance to bring about a real genuine revolution.[38]

The Royal Commission was appointed on 5 September under the chairmanship of the Liberal politician, Sir Herbert Samuel and only had three members none of whom were representatives of the miners.

The FDMA Executive meeting held on 6 October agreed that Williams should take up a seat on the National Executive of the MMM. On 10 October, there was an NMM conference in Cinderford where preparations were made to build up the strength of the FDMA for the coming fight. 

1926 lockout

Members of the Forest of Dean mining community lived either in one of the three main towns of Cinderford, Coleford and Lydney or in scattered villages or hamlets. The area which includes the settlements of Ellwood, Milkwall and Marsh Lane consisted of less than a hundred scattered dwellings where most of the men and boys worked in mines or quarries. Each of these small communities became dependent on its own resources and this was the case for the small village of Ellwood which was made up of about twenty-five houses.  Fletcher was now living on his own in a house in Holly Lane in Ellwood next door to Fred and Bertha Thorne.

Fred Thorne
Bertha Thorne







The Thornes were originally from Cinderford but like hundreds of other Forest of Dean mining families had migrated to South Wales in the 1880s where wages were better. Fred followed in his father’s footsteps and became a miner. On returning to the Forest to live in Ellwood Fred volunteered his labour as a healer and a masseur. He helped a neighbour’s child who was badly injured recover. He went by every evening to massage the boy’s leg and over time the boy learnt to walk again when doctors had given up hope.[39]

Fletcher devoted his energies to helping out in the local community and working with the Sayes family and Thornes helping to feed the children. Cyril Elsmore who was a schoolboy at the time of the lockout recollects:

Most of the working population were miners employed at the various pits in the district. Some safety men continued working to maintain the conditions in the pits. The few exceptions who were not miners were Forestry Commission employees. It quickly became apparent that children needed food. Our headmaster, Mr Joseph Pope, called a meeting of parents. The response was very good. They formed themselves into working parties and the Chapel schoolroom was taken over. Among the main stalwarts were Elijah Sayes who was responsible for the room and lighting the fire and cooking, and Charlie Fletcher who was brought up in Muller Orphanage in Bristol and came to Marsh Lane to learn the trade of mining. He did all the menial jobs. He always brought Mrs Thorne’s dog, who usually lay on the grass in the cemetery, but one day he wandered around and someone stumbled over him carrying hot water and scalded his back. Charlie took off his coat and wrapped the dog up and took him back to his cottage. He looked after him and because his back was bare of any hair Mrs Thorne knitted several jerseys for the dog to wear until he was well.

Poor Law Relief

A minimal amount of relief for the destitute in the Forest area was available from the Board of Guardians at Westbury for East Dean and Monmouth for West Dean. In addition, the destitute living in the Ruardean area were required to apply for relief from the Ross Board of Guardians. Relief money was raised through the rates and the lockout meant that the collecting of rates was hampered by the level of poverty in the community.

Striking or locked-out miners were not considered by the authorities to be destitute because they were deemed to have refused work. However, their dependants such as wives, children and widowed mothers could be helped if they were in severe need. Any money coming into the house from other sources such as an older son or daughter was deducted from the weekly allowance and relief was denied to those who had savings or owned their property.

Consequently, no relief was available to able-bodied single men unless they were destitute and physically incapable of work in which case, they could only be offered a bed in the workhouse. Single men often lived in lodgings or with family members and so became dependent on the families with whom they lived adding an extra burden to those households. During May, hundreds of families from the Forest applied for relief and some relief was paid out to wives and children of miners in food vouchers or cash and initially only for two weeks.

The issue of relief became a highly controversial issue during the lockout as more and more families became dependent on relief to survive. The Labour members on the Boards, who were in a minority, did their best to challenge the legality and morality of the decisions made by the majority of the guardians who were mainly from upper or middle-class backgrounds. Most of these guardians had spent many years sitting on committees and were well-versed in using legalistic arguments and bureaucratic manoeuvres to undermine those Labour members who were less knowledgeable or experienced. 

Monmouth Guardians

Lady Mather Jackson was the chair of the Monmouth Board. She was the wife of Sir Henry Mather-Jackson 3rd Baronet who held extensive business interests in mining and railway infrastructure.[40] In terms of social class, privilege and vested interest Fletcher and Mather could hardly be further apart. Mather’s level of awareness, her ignorance and her lack of experience of working-class life would have meant she could not comprehend the poverty and suffering within the mining community in the Forest of Dean.

An emergency meeting of the Monmouth Board was held on Wednesday 12 May. The Board was chaired by Mather who confirmed a weekly allowance of 10s for a miner’s wife and 3s for a child in the form of a loan up to a maximum of 25s per week.

A J Wilke, the relieving officer for the Monmouth Board, said that he had already dealt with 200 cases at an average cost of one pound per case paid out in vouchers at the above rate. He added that on Tuesday 4 May the applicants came to the Yorkley station, and he told them he could not relieve the able-bodied men. He said he had been stopped at his house and held up by a crowd of miners. After collecting more food vouchers from Monmouth on Friday he complained that:

When I got home at 5 o’clock I was besieged … On Saturday night I could not do anything with them. The police came down and since then I have been under police protection.[41]

The 30 members of the Monmouth Board included nine Labour members who were sympathetic to the miners; Fletcher Luker (ex-miner), Ellen Hicks, Albert Brooks (miner), Miss Taylor, E Beard, E Pritchard, A Brown, E J Flewelling and H J Smith.  E W Neems who was among the fifteen members from the Forest who was also sympathetic argued that:

It was not the spirit of the men that made trouble for the relieving officer it was a necessity. There are people starving who are too proud to come here. You cannot drive poverty into the ground. If we do something it will prevent a more serious outbreak.

A motion that the 5d a day for the school meal provided by the County Council should be deducted from the 3s allowance per child was defeated. One of the members of the board who voted for the motion was William Burdess who was the underground manager at Princess Royal Colliery.  Luker moved a motion at the meeting that the government should provide £20,000 to cover the extra costs of providing relief but this proposal was rejected. Two committees of six were appointed to review the applications.[42] 

On Wednesday 2 June, Mather informed a meeting of the Monmouth Board that a meeting of the Special Relief Committee had received a deputation consisting of four representatives of the miners from West Dean including William Hoare and Fletcher who requested that:

That assistance should be given to the man.

An allowance should be allowed for rent.

That the income to the home such as from sons and daughters should not be taken into account.

That person owning their own houses should be relieved less a fair reduction for rent.

War pensions should not be taken into account.

Relief should be given to single men (particularly as they often lived in lodges with people who are also receiving assistance).[43]

In response, Mather Jackson quoted the regulations to justify her rejection of all the above requests.

Hicks reported cases of men she knew who owned their own houses and so had been denied relief and who were now close to starving.

Russian Money

On Wednesday 2 June, a mass meeting was held at Speech House.  Organ said the main item on the agenda was the issue of allocating the money donated by Russian trade unionists. The issue to be debated was whether some of the money should go to miners who were not members of the FDMA. It was soon clear that the majority would vote for the money going only to FDMA members.

Fletcher spoke first and admitted he initially supported the donation to non-unionists but at the time he was under the impression there were only about 3 per cent were not paid-up members and now having learnt the figure was more like 7 per cent he had changed his mind. He said:

He had come into contact with men who for many years had paid their union, three for 45 years, and they had received very little benefit indeed in strike pay, and these were the most entitled to benefit now.[44] 

Long March

On Friday 4 June, for the second time in three days about ninety people, mainly single miners, walked ten miles from Bream to the Board’s offices at Monmouth to put their case for relief. Many of them were weak from a lack of food.

While the people waited outside, Mather continued to insist that the regulations forbade them from giving relief to able-bodied single men. The Labour members attempted to challenge the legality of the decision.  Albert Brookes pointed out:

There is more now more destitution. They are being refused anything and they are absolutely starving. The situation is serious.[45]

After a discussion over the legality of the situation, a deputation of four miners was invited into the meeting including Fletcher and Hoare who argued the same points as before but added that an extra allowance was needed to cover rent for housing. He asked at what point does a man become destitute and in response, Mather said it was when he was physically unfit. Hoare responded, “that physical unfitness and destitution are two distinct things”. He finally said:

That the married men and single men were receiving nothing and therefore must be destitute and that was why they had come there that morning to either claim relief from outside or admission into the institution which they contended the law entitled them to. [46]

Mather said that in some cases the relieving officer could pay rent in kind. However, she repeated her claim that the regulations forbade guardians from relieving single men and only the wives and children of married men. Hoare replied if that was the case how come Gateshead Union were providing relief to single men with the sanction of the Ministry of Health? He added that he knew of cases of families being so far behind with their rent they faced eviction.

Mather then claimed that before the lockout a miner with three sons could be earning £10 a week and therefore must have undeclared savings. Fletcher responded to Mather’s accusation:

The wages of a colliery labourer in the Forest of Dean would not average more than 25s to 27s a week. Five days was the most the colliers work in the Forest. The wages during the past four or five years had been very low and the conditions had also been bad … He could not conceive of £8 or £9 going into any house of any man working in the Forest collieries at this time neither could he conceive, after having done no work for five weeks, they could have any money.

Luker fully backed Fletcher’s statement and argued that the Board should do everything in its power:

according to the law and to the means at their disposal… and deal with the applications sympathetically and justly.

Mather responded that unless a man was physically unfit, they could not relieve him. G F Park said that many of the men drawing relief in the Forest of Dean were doing very well and ran flocks of sheep, while A Brown backed up the statements by Fletcher and Luker. Brookes added that the Board should “use common sense rather than an official attitude to in regard to these men who were genuinely unemployed”. Luker proposed the following motion which was seconded by Miss Taylor and Ellen Hicks:

That this Board of Guardians recognising the need for more generous dealing with able bodied men in the case of industrial disputes asks the Minister of Health to confer greater powers on Boards as to enable them to give immediate relief so that needless suffering can be avoided.

Park made some remark about how long they were going to be on strike and Brookes responded: “Mr Park’s suggestion is that they be starved back to work.” When it went to a vote nine members voted for the motion and nine against with some abstentions but after a long discussion, a second vote produced a majority in favour of the resolution.

The deputation was then asked to return to the Board room and Mather informed them that if anyone could obtain a certificate from a doctor confirming they were physically unfit then they could get relief on a day-to-day basis. Mather also said the men who had made the journey this morning could be offered a meal of bread and cheese provided they gave a commitment they would leave the premises and not return.

After Hoare consulted with men outside, he informed Mather that unless they got a more favourable response they intended to stay. He added:

You know as well as we do that the Minister of Health is trying to override the Poor Law and is cutting it down. He is the willing tool of the coal owners trying to starve us into submission … Therefore, to us, there is nothing in that decision requesting the Ministry of Health to allow you. You already have got the power. You are within the law despite the Ministry of Health.

Mather said; “We haven’t got the power”. Hoare was aware that in other districts such as the North East of England where there was a Labour majority on the Board of Guardians single locked-out miners had been awarded relief and therefore responded:[47]

The Ministry have sanctioned a rate relief at Gateshead equivalent to unemployment pay. In any case, your decision to get sanction from the Ministry of Health to extend relief does not mean anything to us. We consider that you have the power, and it is for you to decide now. Anyway, that is what I am instructed to inform the Board, that unless you do something for us, to remain here.[48]

Fletcher said:

He did not know if they could stop the men from coming to Monmouth at some future occasion but they would see what they could do to only send a deputation down. He expected they would be coming there and demanding admittance. The men had five weeks’ practical experience of the conditions They will not go under lightly, and they are prepared to starve on top, and they will gladly let you bury them. They have had enough burying underground.

Hoare added that several men who were here on Wednesday could not make it because they “are too stiff, sore and weak”. Mather told Hoare that he should tell the men what the Board had done and that they should leave quietly. He responded:

Very well we will give the men your position, and of course, it rests with them. Before we go, even if the men outside decide to leave, I want to register a protest here. We consider that you already have the power to do more than you are doing.

When Hoare reported back to the men one said: “If we have to die, let us die here”. After eating their bread and cheese they walked home. Some of these men had fought in World War One and it is hard to imagine what they thought of their country now. At the end of August, the Monmouth Board refused to give any relief even to destitute miners’ wives and children. Many miners and their families were now struggling to survive and were short of food and there began a drift back to work in the Forest of Dean and some other areas.

In response, the MMM urged the conflict should be intensified by the withdrawal of safety men, the prevention of outcropping, an embargo on foreign coal and the introduction of a levy on all trade unionists. Despite opposition to the MMM’s approach by both Cook and Smith, the strategy was endorsed by 460,150 votes to 284,336 in a district ballot.[49] The result reflected the influence of the MMM within the MFGB at the time. Those districts in favour were the Forest of Dean, Derbyshire, South Derbyshire, Durham, North Wales, Scotland and South Wales.[50]

The lockout lasted until December 1926 when the miners were starved back to work. In 1927 the trade union movement went into a period of retreat combined with recrimination and division. The MMM and the CPGB came under increasing attack from the right wing of the Labour movement and in some areas where the CPGB was not very strong activists became increasingly isolated and estranged from the broader trade union movement. Consequently, Fletcher left the CPGB and joined the Labour Party. However, he continued to write articles for the newly established paper of the CPGB called Workers’ Life, a publication that attained a circulation of 60,000 copies a week by the summer of 1927.

The Trial of Beatrice Pace

On the morning of 10 January 1928, Harry Pace, a quarryman died after a long, painful and mysterious illness at Rose Cottage, the house he shared with his wife Beatrice and their five children in Fetter Hill between Milkwall and Ellwood. Harry and Beatrice were close friends with Alice and Lesley Sayes who lived nearby.

Although Harry’s doctor at first certified a natural death, a post-mortem conducted at the behest of the dead man’s suspicious family revealed that he had died from a large dose of arsenic. Dark whisperings began to circulate in the local community about hidden wealth, illicit lovers and threats of murder. This revelation brought not only fleet-street journalists but also Scotland Yard detectives to the Forest, and a lengthy inquest followed.

Just like many Foresters, Harry kept a few sheep and ran them on Forest waste claiming the right to common on Crown land. Every year he used arsenic to dip the sheep to prevent disease.  Although it could not conclusively determine how the arsenic had found its way into his body, the inquest jury, in a controversial decision, charged Beatrice with Harry’s murder.

Beatrice Pace

Harry had become ill over the summer of 1927 and was eventually admitted to Gloucestershire Infirmary where the doctors suspected he was suffering from arsenic poisoning. Fletcher was suffering from heart problems and had become quite ill. He got to know Harry Pace while they were both in Infirmary together and they became friends. When Pace returned home from the hospital Fletcher visited him twice a week to shave him and help take care of him. Fred Thorne also visited Pace every day except Sundays to give him a massage.

Fletcher was required to give evidence at the inquest where he said that he thought Harry‘s condition improved but only slightly during his time in the hospital and he was sent home on 27 October 1927.  Fletcher added he often visited when he got home and he appeared to be getting better but when he visited him on 3 January Pace “was moaning and groaning and rolling about in bed”. Finally, when he saw him on 11 January 1928, the day of his death, Fletcher said “Pace was panting heavily and seemed in agony”.[51]

During the trial of Beatrice for murder, it became apparent that she was a victim of domestic abuse and this gave her a motive for the killing of her husband. In addition, and to add to the drama, accusations were also levelled against Lesley Sayes for having an affair with Beatrice and further suspicions were raised when it became apparent that Harry Pace had lent Lesley Sayes some money towards buying his house.

Alice and Lesley Sayes in later life

The trial was one of the most dramatic crime stories of the inter-war period followed closely by the national press. During the trial, busloads of people visited the area.  In a sensational verdict, Beatrice was found not guilty. The story reflected the changing nature of the legal system, the role of the police, gender relations, the role of the media and attitudes towards domestic abuse in 1920s Britain. The events are described in the book by John Carter Wood, The Most Remarkable Woman In Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012). The book is excellent on the details of the case but somehow completely ignores the fact that the lives main characters are steeped in left-wing politics.

Death of Fletcher 

After he came out of the hospital Fletcher moved into a cottage in Marsh Lane which Fred and Bertha Thorne had helped furnish with funds from the Labour Party. The Thornes took care of him and helped out with his housework and Fletcher often spent the evening with them.

On the evening of 12 November 1929 having spent the evening with the Thorne’s as usual, he returned to his cottage at about 9 pm. On the next day, Bertha called around to see him and found him dead on his bed with wireless headphones over his ears, the oil lamp still burning and with Emile Zola’s book Germinal with the page open at the dramatic point when water bursts into the pit after the anarchist Souvarine had sabotaged the entrance shaft following the defeat of the miners’ strike:

At the bottom of the shaft the abandoned wretches were yelling with terror. The water now came up to their hips. The noise of the torrent dazed them, the final falling in of the tubbing sounded like the last crack of doom; and their bewilderment was completed by the neighing of the horses shut up in the stable, the terrible, unforgettable death-cry of an animal that is being slaughtered.

Fletcher’s funeral was held at the Primitive Methodist Chapel in Ellwood and conducted by Arthur Williams and S Morgan from the Society of Friends (Quakers). An address was given by Williams on Fletcher’s sincerity and convictions adding he was a man of principle and one who believed in acting on them. Many branches of the Forest of Dean Labour Party were represented, together with members of the Transport and General Workers Union and Chepstow Communist Party. Beautiful floral tributes were sent by the local Labour Party, and the branches Coleford, Ellwood, and Chepstow.[52] At the end of the service, Fletcher’s friends gathered around the open grave and sang the Red Flag. The Dean Forest Mercury reported:

The death occurred on November 13th at a cottage in Marsh Lane, near Coleford, of Charles Fletcher who had resided in the Forest for many years and had become well known throughout the locality by reason of his advanced views and interest in politics … Over five hundred people attended his funeral and there were over forty wreaths which facts spoke eloquently of the esteem in which he was held by his fellow workers and the district generally for his loyalty to the workers’ cause and the staunch manner in which he held his principles.[53]

As a result of public subscriptions collected through the efforts of Fred and Bertha Thorne, a memorial stone was erected at the grave. The memorial takes the form of a chamfered Sicilian marble kerb erected on a plinth of Forest stone with the following inscription:

Erected by comrades and friends in memory of Charles Alfred Fletcher who died November 14th, 1929, aged 38 years. Worthy of remembrance.[54]



[1] Muller Orphanage admission records held at the Muller Museum.

[2] Darin Duane Lenz, Strengthening the Faith of The Children of God: Pietism, Print, And Prayer in The Making of a World Evangelical Hero, George Müller of Bristol (1805-1898), Doctor of Philosophy, Department of History College of Arts and Sciences Kansas State University Manhattan, Kansas, 2010, 171-172.


[4] Thanks to Kate Brookes.

[5] The ILP was affiliated to the Labour Party from 1906 to 1932, when it voted to leave.

[6] J. Howe, “Liberals, Lib-Labs and Independent Labour in North Gloucestershire,1890–1914, Midland History”, Vol. 11, No 1. 117-137.

[7] Gloucester Citizen 19 August 1912.

[8] Gloucester Journal 7 0ctober 1911

[9] Gloucester Journal 14 October 1911.

[10] Justice 26 March 1914.

[11] Gloucester Journal 18 July 1914.

[12] Justice 6 May 1915.

[13] Guy Hamilton, Shipyards, scandal and pigstyes, Changing Chepstow in the first world war (Chepstow:  Chepstow Society, 2017).

[14] Ian Wright, Coal on One Hand, Men on the Other, The Forest of Dean Miners and the First World War 1910 – 1922 (Bristol: Bristol Radical History Group, 2nd Edition, 2017).

[15] Cheltenham Chronicle 01 October 1921.

[16] Roderick Martin, Communism and the British Trade Unions 1924-1933, A Study of the National Minority Movement, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969).

[17] See the brief biography of Nat Watkins in the appendix.

[18] Martin, Communism and the British Trade Unions.

[19] Ibid.

[20] R. Page Arnot, South Wales Miners, Glowyr de Cymru: A History of the South Wales Miners’ Federation 1914–1926 (Cardiff:  Cymric Federation Press, 1975) 244.

[21] Gloucester Citizen 8 October 1924.

[22] John Williams, A Statement, November 1961.

[23] Dean Forest Mercury 10 October 1924.

[24] Dean Forest Mercury 10 October 1924.

[25] Gloucester Citizen 8 October 1924.

[26] John Williams, A statement, November 1961.

[27] FDMA Minutes 14 October 1924.

[28] Gloucester Journal 20 June 1925.

[29] Gloucester Citizen 25 June 1925.

[30] Gloucester Citizen 3 July 1925.

[31] Western Daily Press 17 July 1925.

[32] Organ, The Life and Times of David Richard Organ, 21

[33] Gloucester Citizen 13 July 1925.

[34] Gloucester Citizen 24 July 1925.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Martin, Communism and the British Trade Unions, 37.

[37] Martin, Communism and the British Trade Unions, 67-68.

[38] Griffin, The Miners of Nottinghamshire, 141-142.

[39] Ancestry

[40] Sir Henry Mather-Jackson was chairman of the Alexandra (Newport and South Wales) Docks and Railway, chairman of the Marianao and Havana Railway Co., deputy-chairman Grand Trunk Railway of Canada, of the United Railway of Havana, Cuban Central, and Western Railways of Havana, of John Lancaster’s Steam Coal Co., and of the Powell’s Tillery Colliery Company, is also a director of the Ebbw Yale Steel Iron and Coal Co. and of the Rhymney Railway Co. He was an alderman and chairman of the Monmouthshire County Council, chairman of the Monmouthshire Quarter Sessions, Monmouthshire Standing Joint Committee, of the governors of the Monmouth Grammar School, and of the Monmouth Agricultural Institute, etc. During World War One he was chairman of the Military Appeal Tribunal. He lived at Llantilio Court, Abergavenny, and 56 Montagu Square, London, W.1.

[41] Dean Forest Mercury 14 May 1926.

[42] Gloucester Citizen 19 May 1926.

[43] Dean Forest Mercury 4 June 1926.

[44] Dean Forest Mercury 4 June 1926.

[45] Dean Forest Mercury 11 June 1926.

[46] Dean Forest Mercury 11 June 1926.

[47] Newcastle Evening Chronicle 13 August 1926.

[48] Dean Forest Mercury 25 June 1926.

[49] Gloucester Citizen 8 October 1926.

[50] Arnot, The Miners: Years of Struggle, 496.

[51] Gloucester Citizen 1 June 1928.

[52] Gloucester Citizen 19 November 1929.

[53] Dean Forest Mercury 22 November 1929.

[54] Gloucester Journal 25 October 1930.


Forest of Dean Transported Convicts

In the years 1789 – 1842 approximately sixty men and women from the Forest of Dean were transported to Australia mostly for committing minor crimes against property. The lists briefly outline the stories behind their transportation. This is ongoing research so there may be mistakes. I plan to add to more convicts and expand on their stories with further research.


The Justices of the Peace (JP) or magistrates had responsibility for law and order in each county. The post of JP started in medieval times, but became more important in Tudor times. They were unpaid and usually took on the role for prestige. JPs were usually landowners from the county who were appointed annually to the role. However, many did the job for years. The role also included a organising road and bridge repairs, checking weights and measures in shops, licensing ale houses, d supervising poor relief, etc. A JP had the authority to arrest a suspect on suspicion of a crime and interrogate them for three days.

Responsibility for the day to day maintenance of law and order still lay with local communities through the Parish Constable. The Parish, or ‘Petty’, Constable was appointed by the JP for a year. The post was unpaid and done in addition to the person’s usual day job. They were usually local tradesmen or farmers, which meant that communities were ‘policing’ themselves.

The majority of constables’ time was taken up with reacting to information given to them in the form of reports of crimes, or warrants issued by justices of the peace. They were obliged to execute all warrants for arrest and orders given through the courts, justices of the peace, sheriffs and coroners for their jurisdiction. In addition, they were expected to respond to allegations and reports of felonies committed, and arrest those who they witnessed committing felonies and misdemeanours.

The Parish Constable was expected to perform all of the main duties associated with local policing.

  • Keep order in inns and ale houses.
  • Keep the peace in the parish.
  • Send illegitimate children back to their original parish.
  • Impound stray farm animals.
  • Arrest people who have committed crimes.
  • Prevent crimes such as trespassing and poaching.
  • Carry out punishments such as whipping vagabonds.
  • Watch the behaviour of apprentices.
  • Look out for vagabonds.

Local people were duty-bound to help the Constable if he requested it, keeping the community responsible for enforcing law and order.

Public prosecutors, empowered by the state to pursue the prosecution of criminals in England, were not introduced until as late as 1879.  Prior to this, the victim had to find the perpetrator and detain them, often with the help of a local watchman, or constable, collect evidence and bring it before a JP, return to the jurisdiction for the trial, and provide witnesses if there were any. This was a time-consuming and costly process and so, for a private citizen to pursue a prosecution they must have been sufficiently motivated and/or wealthy enough to do so.

However, in 1818 an Act was introduced which empowered the courts to award an allowance for loss of time and expense to prosecutors and witnesses in the cases of felony. In 1926 another Act was introduced to extend this system to cover most misdemeanors.

The more minor offenses such as petty theft were dealt with summarily by magistrates at the petty sessions. For more serious cases such as murder, assault and theft, a larger number of JPs would meet four times per year at quarter sessions.

The most serious cases, such as murder and rioting and serious crimes against property, would be passed on to the assize courts, where a judge and jury would pass judgment and this could lead to a sentence of transportation or death. The sentence was usually fixed by the mandatory penalties of England’s Bloody Code, a series of statutes that prescribed capital punishment for many forms of theft and transportation for others.

Tickets of Leave and Pardons

There were only three ways in which the law might release a convict from bondage before the end of their sentence. The first was the ticket-of-leave. The convict who had been given a ticket-of-leave no longer had to work as an assigned man for a master and was also free from the claims of forced government labour. He could spend the rest of his sentence working for himself, wherever he pleased, as long as he stayed within the colony. The ticket lasted only a year and had to be renewed, and it could be revoked at any time. The second was a conditional pardon, which gave the transported person citizenship within the colony but no right of return to England. The third, though the rarest, was an absolute pardon from the governor, which restored him or her to all rights including that of returning to England.

A Certificate of Freedom

A Certificate of Freedom was a government-issued document given to a convict at the end of their sentence. This stated that the ex-convict had been restored to all the rights and privileges of a free subject and could seek out employment or leave the colony. Certificates of Freedom were introduced in 1810 and were generally granted to convicts, who had served their 7, 10, or 14-year sentence. Convicts who had received a life sentence could receive a pardon but not a Certificate of Freedom.




Charles Lees

Charles Lees (1860-1936) was born in Cinderford the son of a blast furnace worker and iron miner. He started work at an early age at Old Leather Pit. He then worked at Duck Pit owned by Crump Meadow company.  After a short period at Lightmoor colliery, he moved to Crump Meadow colliery. Sometime after 1911, he was appointed to the responsible job of overman and worked at Crump Meadow until it was closed in 1929.

He married Minnie Penn in 1881 and had twelve children one of whom died as a baby.

Charles Lees was a trustee and committee member of the Forest of Dean Free Miners’ Association. In the years before he became an overman, he was an active member of the Forest miners’ trade union, the Forest of Dean Miners’ Association. He was a committee member of the Cinderford Co-operative Society and represented the mining community on welfare organisations such as the Forest of Dean General Accident and Health Insurance Society.

During World War One Charles Lee’s son George applied for exemption from military combat on the grounds of consciousness objection but this was rejected.

In March 1916, George Lees, Charles’s son, and the brothers Howard and William Nelmes were arrested for being absentee under the Military Service Act, having failed to report to barracks on receipt of their call-up papers. They all worked together as woodmen for the Crown Estate. They were brought before Littledean Petty Sessions chaired by George Rowlinson. Lees argued that he was a conscientious objector and asked to be exempted from conscription based on his Methodist religious beliefs. Rowlinson told him that he could have appealed before a military tribunal if he had made an application on receipt of his call-up papers but that it was too late now. They were all fined and handed over to the military.[1] Lees was drafted to the Gloucestershire Regiment and was seriously wounded at the front in October 1916.[2]

Charles Lees presented the following motion to a mass meeting of Forest of Dean Miners in August 1917 which was passed with a near-unanimous majority and triggered a series of events that led to the removal of George Rowlinson as the agent for the FDMA in 1918.

“That we, the Forest of Dean miners, call upon the various Trade Unions of this country to take the necessary steps with the view to ascertaining the views of the workers of all countries to negotiate an immediate and honourable peace.”

One of Charles Lees’ other sons, Oliver, was killed in Flanders in October 1918.


[1] Gloucester Journal 1 April 1916.

[2] Gloucester Journal 14 October 1916.


William Stanley Wintle

William Stanley Wintle (1881-1971) was born in Yorkley. His first job was at New Fancy colliery. He started his railway career in 1899 working as an engine cleaner in Lydney engine sheds. He was promoted to a fireman (engine stoker)  in November of the same year and then served as a fireman at Gloucester and Trowbridge. In July 1902 his finger was crushed while attempting to put a lump of coal in the bunker resulting in an amputation of the top of his finger.

He married Frances Howells in 1906 and had one child.   In 1911 he was appointed as a driver at Llantrisant and then returned to Lydney in that capacity the same year. In 1919, he was elected as the secretary of the Lydney branch of ASLEF. In 1922 he was elected as secretary of the Locomotive Men’s Department Committee holding both positions until 1940 when due to his approaching retirement he resigned.   He retired in October 1941.


James Edward Holford

James Edward Holford (1877-1957) was born in Lydney, the son of a railway guard. In 1901 at the age of 24 he was working as a railway brakeman and by 1911 he was working as a general foreman at Lydney docks. Finally in 1939 was working as a railway traffic foreman. He married Bessie Minnie Beatley in 1899 and had three daughters. He was an active member of ASRS and by 1907 was representing Lydney ASRS at regional and national meetings.

In 1905, he was elected to the committee of Lydney cooperative society. In 1906 he was elected as president of the Lydney Trades and Labour Association and was a member of the Independent Labour Party. He was made a magistrate in 1924 and continued in this role until 1928


National Union of Railwaymen

The National Union of Railwaymen came into being on 29th March 1913, the result of the amalgamation of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS), the General Railway Workers Union (GRWU) and the United Pointsmen’s and Signalmen’s Society UPSS).

The new union immediately attracted new members – with membership rocketing from 159,261 at the time of amalgamation to 267,611 by the end of 1913.

Discussions on amalgamation grew out of the 1911 national railway strike, which saw four key railway unions: the ASRS, GRWU, UPSS and the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF)) combine in a dispute for the first time. ASLEF was also involved in the first post-strike discussions on fusion, but left the talks after its proposals for a looser federation were not adopted.

For the duration of the First World War and its immediate aftermath, the railways were removed from the control of private companies and managed by the National Government. During the war, the NUR and ASLEF negotiated jointly with the government to win wage increases for railway workers, although at levels below the high rate of inflation. In March 1919 the government announced its plans to standardise and reduce the wartime rates of pay and, after failed negotiations with the unions, the second national rail strike began at midnight on 26-27 September 1919.

A key feeling during the strike was that sacrifices made during the war had not been acknowledged by the government – in the words of the NUR General Secretary, J.H. Thomas,

“the short issue is that the long made promise of a better world for railwaymen which was made in the time of the nation’s crisis, and accepted by the railwaymen as an offer that would ultimately bear fruit has not materialised”.

After nine days of strike action by the NUR and ASLEF, the government agreed to maintain wages at existing levels for another year. Subsequent negotiations resulted in the standardisation of wages across the railway companies and the introduction of a maximum eight-hour day.

The following is a list of some of the main characters in the early years of the ASRS and NUR in the Forest of Dean. Most of them are from Lydney which was a railway and port town.