The Taff Vale Train Disaster
In Mid-Rhondda people were suffering. The district had been transformed into a virtual military camp under the command of Major General Macready. The tactics of Cambrian Combine owner D.A. Thomas and his general manager Leonard Llewellyn were inflicting extreme hardship on their workforce. While Thomas was subsidised for his losses by the powerful Monmouthshire and South Wales Coal Owner's Association strikers children were being fed in soup kitchens. In 1910 families endured a hard winter as reported by one newspaper:
"Hunger and all the other accompanying miseries of an industrial struggle are being severely felt in Mid-Rhondda. Empty larders may be counted by the score, and although every effort is made to cope with the distress, many of the most deserving cases are difficult to get at because people are reluctant to make their necessity known, preferring to suffer in silence. The absence of coal adds very materially to their sufferings in the cold and bitter weather. All the surrounding rubbish tips have been so thoroughly cleared of any scraps of coal that might be left about, that the strikers, armed with picks, hammers and other implements, have been digging in the vicinity of tipping screens to relieve their distress. Mothers of young babes, some of the latter being but a few weeks old. gather at the homes of their more fortunate neighbours where there still remains a little fire to bathe their young."It was often the women who suffered most having to watch their children go hungry. Little wonder there was growing animosity towards men who still continued to work. Not every miner was a member of the Federation. Many did not belong to a union while others belonged to unions specific to their specialised occupations. It was perhaps a tactical error on the part of miners agents William Abraham M.P. (Mabon) and Watts-Morgan that their support had not been secured before the strike. Younger emerging leaders like Will John and John Hopla understood the need for solidarity among the workforce. At a mass meeting of miners at the Mid-Rhondda Athletic Ground, Tonypandy early in the strike Will John had boldly declared:
"The Combine Workmen's Committee will strain every nerve to bring the fight to a successful issue, and it is our intention to stop any man from doing any work at the collieries. We intend to prevent any of the officials from Mr. Llewellyn downwards from entering the colliery yards."
"...the man who is at the head of this, the great engineer Mr. D. A. Thomas of the Cambrian Combine, is a man whom the workmen themselves dragged along in his carriage at election time. That man is out today to smash the Federation, and he is doing it. He has got these men out, and our funds are flowing out at a rate of £6,000 or £7,000 a week."There was a desperate need of material support to help alleviate the suffering borne by the populace of Mid-Rhondda. Executive members Morgan, Harris, and George were hopeful they would return from the conference with news that the M.F.G.B had resolved to offer financial support to their South Wales comrades in the struggle for a living wage. The outcome of the conference debate did indeed prove successful and the following resolution was passed:
"That the Miners' Federation of Great Britain contribute to the South Wales Federation the sum of £3,000 per week to be called by a levy of 3d per member per call."
Having received the 'line clear' signal the passenger train approached the Gyfeillion Lower box travelling around 30 miles an hour. A slight mist hung in the air and the way ahead was partly obscured by the bend in the track. As it passed over the level crossing near the Great Western Colliery the driver Alexander Sellars shut off steam having enough to carry him the rest of the way to Pontypridd. A cry of "Whoa up", from the fireman alerted Sellars to the danger ahead. He is already in the process of applying the brakes but has no time to engage the vacuum and steam brakes or apply sand to the rails that could have mitigated the force of the impact. He and his fireman remain stoically at their post, helpless to avert the impending disaster.
The engine smashes into the van of the mineral train and three packed trucks before grinding to a sudden halt against the mass of coal. It travels only twenty yards further. The rear ends of the comparatively light passenger brake-vans are forced upwards by the collision. Their steel frames cut through the five leading compartments of the coaches behind them at about seat level, and the bodies of the vans come down on the bodies of the same carriages. The coaches telescope into each other inflicting eleven fatalities. Most are killed instantly or rendered unconscious. Trapped passengers frantically try to open carriage doors that have been jammed tight by the collision. men and women fling themselves or are pulled out through windows.Engine driver Sellars, although suffering from shock, leaps down from the engine and runs to help. He is followed by his fireman J. Jones. Sellars describes the tragic scene they encounter:
"We found a man who was wearing a tweed cap, with his head jammed between the top of a carriage and the window. As we went up he cried, 'For mercy's sake, help me out of this.' I went back and got a crowbar and we did all it was possible for us to do, but it was hopeless. There were many people standing round but they were powerless to help, for the van was gradually settling down on the carriage and the poor fellow was gradually killed. Who he was I don't know. In a compartment close by was a little boy, but I don't know what became of him. I was unable to stay on the scene all the time, for there was a good deal of inflammable stuff about the engine, and I feared the train might take fire. Had that occurred all hope for the imprisoned people would have been gone, so I considered my duty was to watch the engine."The man in the tweed cap was Tom George the executive member from Ferndale. He was identified at the scene by Councillor William Jenkins from Cymmer. Councillor Jenkins would have changed his carriage at Porth and joined Tom George and his colleagues had he not been deep in conversation with Mr. Walters, a grocer from Treherbert.. Badly shaken by the savage jolt and the sound of metal screeching against metal to the accompaniment of frenzied screams and splintering wood he jumped out of the compartment. His first instinct was to run towards the front portion of the train where his colleagues were seated. He was confronted with a dreadful sight.
"Then, to my dismay, I saw poor Tom George's head and shoulders leaning out, limp and bleeding, through a carriage window in the second coach. There was blood oozing from his mouth and nostrils, and an ugly gash at the back of his neck. He was quite dead. The first coach, as I said, had mounted the second, and was on top of George's compartment. The body of the first coach was pressing on poor George's body."At the inquest Jenkins was asked whether he could see inside the coach.
"Not much, there was another body inside alongside of Tom George. I am not positive, but I believe it was the body of poor Harris, of Tylorstown, another of my colleagues. From the colour of his hair I believe it was Harris. He was terribly crushed. There was another body lying on the floor of the carriage, presumably that of W. H. Morgan."The boy engine driver Sellars had seen was Ivor Hodges, aged ten from Ferndale. He died in his mother's arms. Although badly injured about the head and face Mrs Hodges remained conscious throughout her ordeal having watched her husband die in front of her. As she was carried to the ambulance her cries of distress reduced many onlookers to tears. Another who survived, trapped by his arm in the wreckage for some considerable time, was Mr. W. Phillips the Registrar from Porth. He had been one of four occupants of the compartment, two of whom were killed. Mr. Phillips along with the other injured were transported to Cardiff Infirmary by train. The bodies of the victims were taken to the engine house where they were covered and placed in a row awaiting identification. Jack Davies, landlord of the Commercial Hotel, Ferndale, endured the agony of having to identify his little daughter of 10 years who was on her way back to her boarding school in Porthcawl.
The offical list of dead and injured read:
Councillor Tom George, Ferndale, miner's checkweigher.
Councillor W. H. Morgan, Treherbert, secretary of No 1 Lodge, Rhondda Miners and checkweigher at the Fernhill Colliery.
Councillor Tom Harris (39) 89 Madeline Street, Ponytgwaith, miner's checkweigher at No 8 Pit, Tylorstown.
Miss Margaret Davies (10), daughter of Mr Jack Davies, Commercial Hotel, Ferndale.
Mr. Thomas John Hodges, butcher, 42 High Street, Ferndale.
Master Thomas Ivor Hodges (9), his son.
Rev W. Landeck Powell, Calvinistic Methodist Minister, Caerphilly.
Miss Hannah Jenkins (16), 43 Morgan Street, Trehafod, assistant at the drapery establishment of Mr Compton Evans, Pontypridd.
Mr. Edward Thomas, horse dealer, Pontrhondda Farm, Llwynypia.
Mr. Idris I. M. Evans (18), Llynderw, Tonypandy, articled clerk to Messrs. Jones-Pughe & Davey, Pontypridd.
Mr. Lodwig Hughes, colliery engine driver of Maerdy.
The official report into the crash undertaken by Lieutenant-Colonel Druitt R.E.found the primary cause to be a signalling error, and a failure by the driver of the mineral train to operate Rule 55.
The Challenge to MabonAt the time of the crash Rhondda miner's agent Mr. Watts-Morgan was celebrating his marriage to a Porth nurse. They had tied the knot at a quiet ceremony in Shepton Mallet before travelling to London. Arriving at the Westminster Palace Hotel conference later in the day they were shocked to learn of the crash and the death of the three Rhondda men. They immediately returned to South Wales. William Abraham (Mabon) was also profoundly moved by the news of his colleagues death. Had Federation business not compelled him to travel up to London on the Sunday he would have joined his three companions, in all probability sharing the same compartment. He addressed the conference with these words:
"Although they are but three men, yet from our Executive and cause in South Wales we are losing not only three dear friends, three men of sterling merit, three men of the best, three whose counsels were always acceptable, three of the moderate, temperate, wise members of the Federation. In fact, three of the pillars of the Welsh Federation were taken away at a moment's notice. One cannot speak. Silence is the best way of expressing ourselves this morning."Yet in his brief eulogy, Mabon was already anticipating potential problems ahead. His specific reference to the deceased's qualities of moderation, temperance and wisdom could be seen as a rebuke aimed at the younger member's of the South Wales Federation who openly criticised Mabon's policy of conciliation. Indeed even among older leaders there was division. From his Monmouthshire base, William Brace M.P. had campaigned long and hard for the formation of the Federation in the valleys of Glamorgan. Mabon had opposed Brace telling the miners Brace was bringing an English influence into Wales. The two men became embroiled in a legal battle after Mabon accused Brace of being a tool in the hands of The Miners Federation of Great Britain. Brace's response was cutting.
"To my mind it is more honourable to be a tool in the hands of the Federation than to be a tool directly or indirectly in the hands of the employers of South Wales."And on another occasion he said of Mabon:
"I declare deliberately that Mr. Abraham was compelled to sign the new agreement because he was not in a position to refuse it - he was not in a position to offend the employers. Week after week Mr. Abraham depends upon the good will of the employers for the keeping back of his wages at the colliery office."The dispute was eventually resolved and their relationship developed into an uneasy truce. But Brace was not the only leader to have suggested Mabon was too familiar with the employers. From 1875 wages in South Wales were determined not on the basis of an agreed wage but on the price of coal. This was known as the 'Sliding Scale' and meant if the price of coal went up so would the men's pay but if it fell then they would suffer a reduction in wages. To regulate this 'Sliding Scale' a joint committee of workmen and coalowners representatives was set up. Due to the way it operated the miners agent effectively served two masters the employers and the workers. In 1877 William Abraham, or 'Mabon' - his bardic title - was chosen as miner's agent for Rhondda. By 1885 Mabon had been elected M.P. for Rhondda, a position he held through seven successive elections. His tenure as miners agent spanned nearly a third of a century.
A hugely influential figure, Mabon was a staunch advocate of the 'Sliding Scale' and his oft repeated mantra was 'half a loaf is better than none'. A devout Christian and lay preacher Mabon knew how to 'work' his audiences at conferences or demonstrations. Frequently faced with an audience who openly expressed their displeasure of his support of the Sliding Scale he would resort to a tried and tested tactic that was described by Scottish M.P. Robert Smillie:
"If any friction arose and pandemonium threatened - so easy to rouse so difficult to quell Mabon never tried to restore order in any usual way. He promptly struck up a Welsh hymn, or that magical melody, "Land of my Fathers." Hardly had he reached the second line, when with uplifted arms, as though drawing the whole multitude into the circle of his influence, he had the vast audience dropping into their respective "parts", and accompanying him like a great trained choir. It was wonderful, almost magical and the effect was thrilling. When the hymn or song was finished he raised a hand, and instantly perfect silence fell. The storm had passed."Isaac Evans, secretary of the Neath, Swansea and Llanelli miners, had been a member of the Sliding Scale Joint Committee since 1880 and as a consequence of his experience became bitterly critical of it, and its chief supporter Mabon.
"Evans is very bitter with Mabon: whom he says is a fraud. He is always dining with the employers - even when the Sliding Scale Committee meets, Mabon deserts the men's representatives to go and dine with the employers. They give him a 'good feed' some good wine and good cigars and then they can do what they like with him. Then also his eldest son has an excellent berth in Sir W. T. Lewis' office. That also helps shut his mouth. Evans even asserts that he knows that Mabon takes bribes from the employers and gives them to the other representatives on the committee to ensure their support for himself in cases of need."As the conference at the Westminster Palace Hotel held a minutes silence for their unfortunate colleagues Mabon probably reflected, with some trepidation, on who would take their place. Forged in the furnace of bitter strife a new breed of younger leaders was stepping forward to make their voices heard. Men who would challenge the authority of established leaders like Mabon and whose fire would not be extinguished by hymns or patriotic songs. They had already come to the attention of Major General Macready:
"The impression conveyed to my mind in regard to the action of the strikers throughout those disturbances, and the motives for rioting, is that the doctrine of extreme socialism preached by a small but energetic section is entirely responsible for the premeditated attempts to destroy property. This was more particularly the case on Monday, November 7th, the men's minds having been influenced by an address on the previous Sunday afternoon."This was a direct reference to the mass meeting held on the Mid Rhondda Athletic Fields where the strikers were addressed by Will John. By now, Mabon had reached the conclusion the Sliding Scale was no longer a satisfactory measure for determining pay. Bitter experience led him to the conclusion that in the hands of the employers the Sliding Scale was a tool used to repress miner's wages.
"I loved the old Sliding Scale principle, but the abuse of it convinced me of the necessity to do away with it entirely."
"Given a strong lead the Welsh people will place themselves in the van of the Socialist movement. Kindly disposed by nature, genial in their relationships one to the other, loving justice, and hating oppression, they can easily be roused to battle for the right."During a parliamentary debate Hardy called for Home Secretary Winston Churchill to instigate an inquiry into alleged police brutality during the disturbances in Mid-Rhondda. Sir J. D. Rees, the Member for Montgomery responded by laying the cause of these disturbances firmly and unfairly at the door of the Member for Merthyr Tydfil:
". . . I attribute these disorders in no small measure, but in a large measure, to the Socialistic preaching of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil, who posed today as the representative of the strikers in this economic dispute. I attribute this lawlessness which has lately crept into these disputes, far more to the pernicious teaching and talk of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil, than to any original sin of the Welsh miner. . . "
"We have got the tribal system in operation, with all the little chieftains. We do not desire to continue institutions that are ossified and fossilised. we don't want the little tribes. We want one Union."
"My friend D. A. Thomas has been suffering from poor health: and I feel sure that on his holiday in France he will not benefit in health if he were to hear of such a strike as this. I beg you, I beg you to hold your hand."
"Mr. D. A. Thomas may be your friend Mr. Abraham; he is not our friend. But we have heard your plea. We will call off the strike, but on one condition, Mabon. The condition is that, to consider the whole matter, you grant us a coalfield conference in seven days from now."
'Out of the Fire' - A Call to BattleMabon may have had his wish but he had been outmaneuvered. The strikers were handed the opportunity they wanted. Now, before a larger audience, they could air their grievances, raise the issue of abnormal places and a minimum wage and widen the conflict to the whole of the South Wales coalfield and beyond. If, as seemed inevitable, no common ground with the employers could be found the miners of Mid-Rhondda would enter the conflict enduring all the suffering and hardship it entailed for possession of a greater prize, a fair minimum wage for all. It was why, at the Westminster Palace Hotel conference, the strikers of Mid-Rhondda could successfully appeal for financial support from the M.F.G.B.
"He can look you in the face with a bland smile, that cunning smile so characteristic of the man who says; 'I have no desire to reduce the general averages of wages,' but at the same time does so. We have had some of it; we know him."
"We are here on the 43rd week of our strike fighting for a fair wage. You know what the backbone of this fight is. . . It is the heroism, the self-sacrifice of the women - women who have stood up by their husbands and said: 'Die rather than give in.' You can withdraw the £3,000 a week from us. If we know that our end will be buried in confusion, and smoke and blood, it shall go down to posterity that the men of the Cambrian died fighting while you with the power to be our saviours trample us under your feet. Do it if you will. The Cambrian men are determined they will fight the greatest despot in South Wales and will not go down that pit until they have got a guarantee of their wage."
". . . be it an instruction of this conference to all districts in the Federation to immediately press for the average or minimum wage in each district to apply to all workmen engaged in abnormal places; and should any district fail at the end of three months from this date to obtain this the members of this Federation be recommended to consider the advisability of taking national action to endeavour to enforce it. . ."
"This is the position in Wales. We have got probably thousands of men who are working in abnormal places. During the last six months we have had figures presented to our Executive, and there are men in some of the districts that have not had a shilling a day after they had paid for help.When they go to the employer he tells them that the firm is not a charity organisation society, and if they do not like the wages offered they can go elsewhere. Now that is the position. We find we are unable ourselves to grapple with this position and we come now and ask you to give us the power of this great organisation. Our men are expecting this. We can give you the detailed information upon this. The owners are killing our organisation piecemeal in Wales.Only think what we have gone through since we were up here last March! We have had Wales on the verge of insurrection; we have had misery unspeakable down there, and we have got it today; and we have got a callous body of men who are deaf to all our appeals. There is nothing can be done with these men but force. We shall have put force against force. The only force we can exercise is through the means of this great national organisation."
"The economic conditions are of such a character that throughout the coalfield there is an unrest that has never been manifest before in our history. The people are ripe now for any definite move that may be made. . .. . . I think the time has now come to propagate the idea that we must rise to the fullness of the situation that our powers will give to us. I am thoroughly convinced that it is in the power of the Miner's Federation to secure a minimum wage tomorrow if they wanted it, and the only "famine" that exists is that we do not want it. We can get it for the reason that I believe we are the largest organisation in this country. . .. . . There is no other way (referring to strike action) by which it is possible to beat the employers who are arrogant and insolent in regard to our demands for the minimum wage. I deprecate the phrase "daywagemen" and so on in connection with an association like ours. I firmly believe we should organise all these men into our Federation, we should use our power to get the wages for the very lowest of the men that are there to be equal to ours. We ought not as the premier body in the world at this time of day to allow ourselves to consider that we should get a different pay for these men than for ourselves."
'A Definite Assurance'
Ablett's vision was not shared by the majority. Among the leadership there were those who preferred the tried and tested route of negotiation and conciliation even though it inevitably led to the dead end of miner's aspirations. Enter Thomas Ashton J.P., former secretary of the M.F.G.B. and Edmund Harvey M.P. from Derbyshire, two men who favoured the virtues of conciliation over confrontation. Their repeated attempts to broker a deal between the strikers and the coalowners were based on two flawed assumptions. The first was that the Cambrian Combine Committee did not represent the true wishes of the Mid-Rhondda strikers nor that the representatives of the South Wales Miners Federation represent the views of the wider workforce. The second was a complete misunderstanding of the lack of trust that existed between the owners and their workforce. It was on these false assumption they believed a ballot of the men should be held.
"If the men who work the seam (at the Ely Pit) are not satisfied with the wages which they earn, , whether the place is normal or abnormal, I will take the matter in hand myself and let the Miner's Agent come down and settle the matter with me in the place itself. Where we find the man has done a fair day's work, I will pay him a fair day's wage."This arrangement, Llewellyn confirmed, would also hold good for the Glamorgan, Cambrian and Brittanic collieries. However, when Brace pressed as to whether this agreement was in effect the introduction of a minimum wage Llewellyn replied,
"There is no doubt it does not mean that. The Company cannot agree to a minimum wage, and the company cannot give the men what they are now asking for. . . Every case will be dealt with on its own merits."
Harvey and Ashton - The Disasterous Double Act
Against this bleak background of suffering and buoyed by the support of the M.F.G.B., the following day, Harvey and Ashton attended the S.W.M.F.in Cardiff. They triumphantly revealed they had secured the support of the M.F.G.B. that a ballot of the workmen be taken. Ashton stated:
"It was only fair that the workmen who had been out of on strike for a long time should have a voice in deciding whether they should continue after the negotiations had completed certain terms." In fact Harvey was of the opinion, "When the manager agreed to deal with the Bute Seam as a whole, with the other assurances, members of the committee thought that these terms were better than obtained in almost any colliery in the coalfield."
"I was never treated so badly in all my life as I have been today. In all the disputes with which I have been connected during the last thirty years - and they have been many - I have never been treated so unfairly as I was at Tonypandy."
The Cambrian Combine Committee wasted no time in responding to the enforced ballot. While a chastened Harvey and Ashton travelled back to London they hastily organised a mass meeting of workers at the Mid-Rhondda Athletic Ground. Chairman Will John addressed the large gathering and explained he could not disclose details of the meeting but urged the men to vote against a return to work in Saturday's ballot. The main object of the meeting, he said, was to form a procession and march to Clydach Vale in order to stop the workmen still employed there from going to work. More conflict appeared inevitable as the estimated 4,000 strong gathering made their way to the Cambrian Colliery.
By some means the police were alerted to the strikers' plans. A strong contingent was urgently dispatched from their base in the Tonypandy Skating Rink to reinforce the officers already stationed on guard duty at the Cambrian Colliery. They made their way with all haste up the Taff Vale Railway incline. By the time the demonstrators arrived at the entrance to the colliery they were faced with a phalanx of police barring their way. There followed a tense stand off for a considerable time until men began to gather on the mountainside above the colliery and on the lower end of the colliery sidings in increasing numbers.Their intent soon became clear when stones suddenly rained down upon the police ranks. A little later a shed and disused warehouse were set alight. Police clambered up the mountain to put out the fires and charge the strikers. Many slipped and fell on the rocky surface and were met with more volleys of stones. Large boulders were rolled down the steep slopes causing an additional hazard but eventually, having sustained several injuries, and after a fierce struggle the police cleared the mountainside. Police constables from Merthyr, Glamorgan and Swansea sustained minor injuries. P.C William Davies - a severe cut down the side of his nose, through his top lip and two front teeth knocked out; P.C. Harper - puncture wound to the right eye; P.C. Morgan - injured ankle; P.C. Lyon - scalp wound; P.C. Evans - slight injury to the eye. Injuries sustained by the strikers were unreported.
"An amusing feature of the conflict was the screams and shouts of the women from the Clydach Vale side. If the men were at all successful, an outburst of clapping came from this side, and the women used most 'dramatic' language in instructing them how to act."
Amusing it may have been from the detached perspective of the Rhondda Leader reporter but for the women involved in the long cruel lock-out it was anything but.
"Die Rather Than Give In" - The Role of Women
Tom Smith (Ely Lodge) referred to the women of Mid-Rhondda as 'the backbone of the fight' and praised their 'heroism and self-sacrifice'. Women who had stood by their men-folk and declared, "Die rather than give in." If families are the building blocks of community then it is the women who were the glue holding everything together. One newspaper reported the sufferings under the heading:
"Homes Foodless and Fireless. Babies Bathed in Neighbours' Houses. Dying Mother's Request. Hunger and all the other accompanying miseries of an industrial struggle are being severely felt in Mid-Rhondda. Empty larders may be counted by the score, and although every effort is made to cope with the distress, many of the most deserving cases are difficult to get at because people are reluctant to- make their necessity known, preferring to suffer in silence."
Various committees were set up to help alleviate the suffering such as the Mid-Rhondda Central Distress Committee and the Mid-Rhondda Canteen Committee as well as religious organisations like the Salvation Army. Families were left destitute and many children were reliant on the charitable donations of food provided. The Salvation Army alone supplied 150 to 200 jugs of soup daily to starving miners and their families. Even the Metropolitan Police helped by conveying food parcels to the terraced homes of strikers near the Glamorgan Colliery. Christmas must have proved a particularly testing time.
"Distress in the Rhondda - Feeding the Children at Christmastide. Throughout the homes of Mid-Rhondda the season of Yuletide festivities comes this year upon a land of fasting, for the wage-earners are on strike. Of all those who will feel the pinch of poverty the children will suffer most. There are some thousands of hungry children waiting to be fed."