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Winston Churchill and Tonypandy, 1910: The Tradesmens’ Historian’s View from Seventy Years Later.   Leave a comment

First published as a note on my Facebook page:

In recent days, we have been ‘treated’ to the view of Winston Churchill held by the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer in Britain, John McDonnell. He apparently challenged the affectionate national memory of the war-time leader held by many in Britain, suggesting that Churchill was more of a “villain” than a “hero”, especially given his belligerent attitude towards the trades unions in general, referring specifically to the popular myth of the British left and modern Welsh legend that ‘he sent the troops into Tonypandy’. In fact, he was given a ‘binary’ choice by an interviewer and had to answer in one word. In fact, he uttered two: “Tonypandy – Villain.” This uproar which his response created in the press and media intrigued me, as I had once interviewed an elderly Welsh lady, born in 1901, in the early 1980s in Coventry who remembered, as a child, watching the ‘riots’ from her bedroom window overlooking the main street in the town. Although she clearly remembered scuffles between striking miners and police, she could not recall seeing any ‘hussars’, mounted or otherwise, on the streets below.

Above: Budget Day, 1910. David Lloyd George (centre left) and Winston Churchill (right) head for parliament.

At Christmas 1980, my (then) PhD tutor, David Smith, of University College Cardiff, gave me a copy of his article from ‘Past and Present’ (A Journal of Historical Studies), published in May 1980. Dai was born in Tonypandy, and he signed it, appropriately, ‘The Tonypandy Tradesmens’ Historian’, Dai. It was entitled, ‘Tonypandy 1910: Definitions of a Community’ and contained the following comments from a contemporary, recalling the events of 1910 in 1951, the year of Churchill’s election as a peace-time Prime Minister:

 

The rougher section of the Rhondda Valley crowd had got quite out of hand. Shops were being looted and property destroyed. The Chief Constable of Glamorgan sent a request to the Home Office for troops to protect the lieges … But Churchill was so horrified at the possibility of the troops coming face to face with a crowd of rioters that and having to fire on them, that he stopped the movement of the troops and sent instead a body of plain, solid Metropolitan Police, armed with with nothing but their rolled-up mackintoshes. The troops were kept in reserve, and all contact was made by the unarmed London police. The only bloodshed in the whole affair was a bloody nose or two … That was Tonypandy. That was the shooting-down by troops that Wales will never forget.

(Josephine Tey, ‘The Daughters of Time’ (London, 1976), originally published in 1951.)

In his article, ‘Dai’ Smith pointed out that this account too contained various ‘inaccuracies’ which by 1951 could be used to dismiss the events as a minor scuffle as opposed to the ‘proletarian uprising’ of the latest Welsh legend. ‘The very name’, Smith wrote, ‘had come to symbolise the subsequent militancy in the south Wales coalfield, … to stand as a dramatic focus for epic novels, which he had written about elsewhere (David Smith, “Myth and Meaning in the Literature of the South Wales Coalfield: The 1930s” in The Anglo-Welsh Review, xxv (1976).

 

The events of 1910 in Tonypandy indicated to David Smith that Churchill’s liberalism, as the then Home Secretary could be seen as ‘a smoke-screen for the domestic bellicosity’ he subsequently demonstrated in the General Strike of 1926. It also ‘heralded the great wave of industrial unrest in pre-1914 Britain; the ten-month strike, though ending in defeat, paved the way for an airing of the issues which led to the national strike of 1912 with its minimum-wage provisions. But what attracted attention at the time was the violent outburst which happened on Tuesday 8 November, when the town’s commercial high street was wrecked. This was the event which, at a time of high industrial tension elsewhere in the coalfield, marked Tonypandy out and brought the troops in.

Dai Smith then addressed the issue of Churchill’s role in respect of the decision to deploy troops:

 

Miners waiting to go into a mass meeting at the Empire Theatre, Tonypandy, November 1910, during the Cambrian Combine Strike.

Note 7: ‘Colliery Strike Disturbances in South Wales: Correspondence and Report, November 1910’, Parliamentary Papers, 1911; K. O. Fox, ‘The Tonypandy Riots’, Army Quart. & Defence Jl., civ (1973); J. M. McEwen, ‘Tonypandy: Churchill’s Albatross’, Queens Quart. ixxviii (1971).

 

Thus, while Churchill’s stationing of the troops, including the hussars, in the vicinity, had a significant effect on the outcome of the strike, they were not involved in quelling the initial outbreaks of rioting and disorder in the town on 8th-9th November. The death of the one miner showed that the Glamorganshire police were at least armed with truncheons on the first day of the violence and that the Metropolitan police were able to use their greater experience in dealing with mass demonstrations to good effect. From the point of view of the Home secretary’s role, this was a much more guarded intervention than those made, under Churchill, by the Black and Tans in Ireland, and General Dyer’s trigger-happy troops in Amritsar in 1919, the latter being the responsibility of the Colonial Secretary. It should also be remembered that there were significant clashes between the Metropolitan force in the Suffragette demonstrations in London in the 1910-14 period, in which far more force was used. That doesn’t excuse any of those uses of violence against men or women, of course, but it does help to place these events in the context of the times and the need for holding troops in reserve to support ‘stretched’ police forces, especially the mounted police.

Dunraven Street, Tonypandy, circa 1914

Both Josephine Tey and Churchill himself were right about the manner in which other events had been conflated into the ‘cruel lie’ about Tonypandy. Nobody was shot in the mid-Rhondda though this was constantly alleged, in both fact and fiction, in the 1930s. Two men were shot by troops in Llanelli in 1911 towards the end of the Rail Strike of that year (and several others were blown up by an ammunition truck), sparking off a riot there. In 1911, a fourteen-year-old butcher’s boy, Aneurin Bevan, witnessed an affray in Tredegar which had anti-Semitic overtones, also involving shop-smashing. Tonypandy did not stand alone. Even in strictly industrial terms, its unofficial strike had been preceded by unrest in the adjacent Cynon Valley when eleven thousand miners came out on strike in a dispute over wages and customary concessions, lasting from October 1910 to January 1911. Riots and attacks on blacklegs, communal involvement and troop mobilisation were all direct parallels with Tonypandy. Yet it was this Rhondda town that became synonymous of the coalfield society in crisis and a world turning upside down.

 

Why did Tonypandy become so important? Partly because Churchill and Grant were wrong to claim that there was no bloodshed. Samuel Rays died of his head-wounds, and the jury was advised that ‘if they found that his injuries were caused by a policeman’s truncheon’, they would also have to decide if ‘the police were justified in the action they had taken in using force to repel force for the purpose of preventing disorder’. Not surprisingly, they decided that it was ‘not sufficiently clear’ how the injuries had been caused. In his death, this forty-year-old unknown bachelor became a martyr. Above all, it was the sheer scale of the conflict, both in the economic and political terms of Capital, Government and Labour, and in terms of the huge numbers of the whole community out on the narrow streets from the pits and the terraces, which on the night of 8-9 November ‘wrote the name Tonypandy into the commonplace book of twentieth-century British history’ in the words of Dai Smith.

In his 1984 book, ‘Wales! Wales?’, Smith describes Churchill as the ‘villain’ of the piece, like an opera star ‘protesting his innocence before the howling rage of the mob-like chorus’. It is as though, he suggests, ‘through this person the constellation of events continued to radiate around Tonypandy’. Did he send the troops in to crush the strikers or not? The question not only boomed out from the same miners and their sons in the 1926 General Strike but was raised more privately by Attlee in 1940, who wondered if the Labour Party could support Churchill as Prime Minister because of the identification of him with Tonypandy. In 1978, when this author settled in South Wales and began researching Tonypandy and other coalfield towns and villages, James Callaghan, during a routine question in the House of Commons over miners’ pay, informed Churchill’s namesake and grandson that South Wales would never forget the ‘vendetta’ his grandfather had waged against the miners of Tonypandy. For those who collect small facts about great men, this has always been the issue we keep coming back to. Although those facts are readily ascertainable, it has been a surprisingly contentious and enduring issue.

 

Besides this, the troops were, on the whole, used circumspectly and as Home Secretary, he had not only the right but the duty to deploy them if he considered life and property to be endangered. Nevertheless, it was not true, as he himself tried to maintain, that ‘the troops were kept in the background’. They were clearly visible on the streets of the town and throughout ‘mid-Glamorgan’, even if mainly deployed in support of the mounted police. Their presence and the threat of their more active front-line use ensured that all mass demonstrations against blackleg labour would be controlled and therefore rendered ineffective. And on occasions they were more than simply a presence and a threat, combing into contact with strikers at the points of their bayonets and by so doing preventing the mass picketing which was the strikers only weapon and their only hope of victory. The defeat of the miners of the Cambrian Combine was, in the eyes of the local community, the result of the state’s intervention in the dispute, authorised by Churchill.

 

On the other hand, Churchill was reluctant to accede to the somewhat intemperate demands of the local magistracy and judiciary who had been sending out ‘distress signals’ a week before the riots began. They were anxious for a military presence to overawe the miners on strike both in the Rhondda and the Cynon Valleys. He was concerned to avoid any unseemly provocation. To this end, early on 8th, he halted the movement of infantry to south Wales by countermanding the War Office’s agreement with the Chief Constable of Glamorgan. Instead, he sent in the Metropolitan police. He did allow the cavalry to proceed to Cardiff, however, and when disturbances occurred on that night, he instructed General Macready to proceed to both the Rhondda and Cynon with troops. The large numbers of Metropolitan police combined with the armed forces to form an effective army of occupation, and a substantial ‘foreign’ police and military presence was maintained well into 1911.

The other aspects of how we ‘reflect’ on, re-mythologise, research and re-interpret past events as both politicians and historians have been well dealt with by Simon Jenkins in ‘The Guardian’ (click on the link below) and elsewhere. Churchill’s legacy is certainly not straightforward, as one might expect of someone who was in parliament or government for more than half a century. As Dai suggested, however, his attitude to trade unions was perhaps more belligerent in the 1926 General Strike, when his experience in the war cabinet was put to use as if he were still planning military campaigns at the various fronts, including the home front. As a war-time leader, the people of Coventry had, and still have, good reason to question if he could have at least given earlier warning of ‘Moonlight Sonata’ as soon as it was detected by the enigma machine. Did he deliberately choose not to do so in order not to give away to the Luftwaffe that their codes had been cracked? If so, we might choose to charge him with sacrificing scores of Coventrian civilians in a ghastly war-crime. Did this give him the guilty conscience which led to the later, largely pointless, blanket bombing of Dresden an other German cities?

 

The point is that powerful figures like Churchill have both their successes and failures magnified in popular imagination and mythology, and even in historical narrative, however well-researched. History should not be used to ‘absolve’ them of the sins they committed, and certainly not their ‘crimes’, but the fact that they appear larger than life should caution us against judging them too harshly. In power, they are still flawed individual human beings and don’t deserve to be classed either as ‘heroes’ or ‘villains’. Dai’s close colleague, Professor Gwyn Williams, often repeated the phrase ‘heroes are for pimply adolescents’. In his past, both John McDonnell and his close ‘comrade’ Jeremy Corbyn have been known, rather foolishly, to list Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Mao among their heroes. Dissenters and Nonconformists of religious or humanistic persuasions who possess a modicum of maturity do not have ‘saints’, except in the sense that we are all sinners who can be sanctified. Even then, we go on sinning and need forgiveness. When making judgements about the people of that’foreign country’ we call the past, we must be aware of both our own prejudices as well as the different cultures in which they lived, especially a century or more ago. We are not judging them by our own moral standards, but interpreting their behaviour according to the mores of their own time. That’s how we learn from the past, rather than re-enacting it. After all, when it comes to our current politicians, stones and glass shop frontages spring to mind!

Sources:
David Smith (1980), ‘Tonypandy 1910: Definitions of Community’ in Past & Present: A Journal of Historical Studies, May 1980. Oxford: Corpus Christi College.
Dai Smith (1984), Wales! Wales? London: George Allen & Unwin.
Bill Jones (1993), Teyrnas y Glo: Coal’s Domain – Historical Glimpses of Life in the Welsh Coalfields. Cardiff: National Museum of Wales.
Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain (3), 1776-2000: The Fate of Empire. London: BBC Worldwide.
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