The Battle of Ammanford — The 1925 Anthracite Strike

The General Strike of 1926 is a well known component of British labour history. Yet, in the year before, lesser known local labour history in the valleys of South Wales — itself in many ways a rehearsal of the 1926 strike — was made. Industrial disputes between miners and two mining combines, United Anthracite Collieries (UAC) and the Amalgamated Anthracite Collieries (AAC), had been going on since the end of April that year. By July 13th, 1925, the dispute had become a cause of national concern as the town of Ammanford, and the wider South Wales valleys region, became the battleground for a 10 day long struggle that shot fear into the heart of the two mining conglomerates and gripped the labour movement.

In 1924, miners in South Wales had delivered huge profits for the AAC and UAC combines. However, by 1925 these profits began to dry up, and the pits faced economic turmoil. Coal from the Ruhr basin in Germany — taken as reparations from the first world war, subsidised by the German government, flooded the markets with cheap coal. Problems also manifested from outside the capitalist machine as the St. Lawrence river froze over, and coal exports to Canada were cut off. Within 12 months, Welsh coal exports plunged by 24 million tonnes, with the adverse effects being acutely felt in Ammanford’s №1 and №2 pits.

Those who headed the combines enjoyed a continuous stream of high income. The major stakeholder and chair of of the AAC, Sir Alfred Mond, held £94,000 in shares (£5.75 million in 2020), affording him a weekly dividend of £168 (£10,280 in 2020), in addition to annual four-figure salary in 1925 terms. For comparison, at the same time, the weekly income of some 300,000 miners was less than £2 (£122 in 2020). Nonetheless, the UAC and AAC sought to make the miners — who a year previously had delivered them impressive profits — pay for the problems in the world markets.

Class antagonisms were exacerbated, in part, by the further division of the relationship between owner and worker as the monopolistic nature of capitalism came to fruition in the coalfields (collieries had historically been owned by local property owners, typically farmers and wealthier ex-miners). For the combine, so disconnected from the pits, the solution was simple, make a significant portion of the workforce redundant, and force those lucky enough to retain their employment work longer hours for lesser pay. Nowhere was this more blatant and unmasked than from the mouth of the chairman of the UAC himself, Frederick Szvarvasy, who, at the first annual meeting of the UAC shareholders, stated:

“Regarding this colliery (Ammanford №1) it seemed evident at the time the present Board of Directors took control that the working conditions had to be rearranged before satisfactory profits could be made”.

The economic turmoil in the pits was mirrored in the valleys, as miners lost their jobs, and families lost their income. In the onslaught of redundancies, and no doubt in a broader project to dismantle the traditional customs of miners for the maximisation of profits, the UAC and AAC ignored the “last in, first out” Seniority Rule that was traditionally practiced in the pits. The Seniority Rule — codified as Rule 26 of the Anthracite District standing orders — stated that the most recent employee at the pit would be the first to be made redundant. In practice, this rule protected trade union officials and experienced organisers who had been in the pits much longer than the continuous stream of newly employed miners. Dai Evans, a miner at the International Colliery, Abercaf, described in an interview in 1972, “in the anthracite area, if you wanted to dismiss a man who was a bit of a ‘trouble-maker’, they would have to take possibly a hundred men out before him.” Taking out socialist miners, therefore, necessarily meant less profit for the owners. By ignoring the custom, then, the combines were able to weed out the ‘trouble-makers’ most likely to agitate against the combine and its shareholders’ ruthless anti-worker practices. The seniority rule became a focal point of the strike to come, with Llanelli Labour News proclaiming on June 20th 1925:

“If the men will but preserve their customs, they can withstand the Trusts: once they lose their customs, the Trusts will do what they have done in the Rhondda.”

The attacks on worker customs continued under the combine’s regime. The dispute from which the 1925 strike sprung, an ignorance of two traditional miner customs, occurred at the end of April, a few weeks before the strike eventually started. Regularly, father-son partnership in Ammanford’s №1 pit was allowed on the premise that the worker the son would replace would be relocated. Customarily, this arrangement would crucially have to be sanctioned following a general meeting of the workers. Once again, the UAC combine neglected the traditional customs. One miner, Will Wilson, was required to relocate for a father-son partnership — a decision management did not seek the sanction of a general meeting for. As such, Wilson refused to relocate until the decision was subject to a general meeting, and was dismissed. Wilson’s sole gripe with the decision was satisfied later that day following a general meeting which sanctioned his relocation. On arrival for work the next day, however, his reinstatement was refused — an act that was seen to have broken the seniority rule.

Organised Capital and Organised Labour

While the combine severed previously inter-personal relations between worker and owner — that primary Marxist contradiction — it could not extinguish the class struggle. As such, worker struggle moved from inter-personal disputes between the miner and the pit owner into a fight between organised capital in the combine and organised labour in the form of the South Wales Miners’ Federation (later to become the South Wales Area of the National Union of Mineworkers), popularly known as ‘the Fed.’ Anthracite miner and later Labour MP for Neath D.J. Williams expressed this sentiment plainly in the Colliery Workers’ Magazine (1925), stating:

“In those days, it was the custom of the owner himself to come round the faces to consider allowances, prices, special job rates, and to meet in person the workers and their representatives. Such is not the case now. The old relations of persons have given way to the new relation of things. The Combine is a vast machine, and, the worker is merely a cog in it. He does not know his employers; probably he has never seen them. But the struggle between labour and capital still goes on, only it is now fought in a more intensive form. It is now a struggle between workers — through their organisation — and the vast unit known as the Capitalist Combine.”

The Ammanford №1 pit, and four other pits in the area — sympathetic to Wilson and his comrades’ situation — enthusiastically agreed to partake in strike action over their fellow worker’s dismissal and elevate the dispute to the Fed. Solidarity spread from the valley to the larger towns and cities such as Swansea. The strike was widely supported by the trade union movement, and dissent was unwelcome. One miners’ agent — John Thomas — was compelled to stand down his position after voicing his opposition to the miners. The Western Mail, itself typically the voice of the pit owners, announced on June 30th — one can only assume with deep despair and worry — that the Anthracite District was about to engage in strike action. By July 14th, two days into the strike, organised labour across South Wales was engaged in strike action bar some workers in the Dulais Valley and Vale of Neath.

Labour: Organised and mobilised

A mass meeting was convened at the Glanaman Football Ground, with thousands in attendance. News had reached the grounds that workers at anthracite pits in Dulais Valley and Vale of Neath were still in operation, and a notice of the strike was sent to Dulais Valley union chairman, Arthur Thomas. A motion, calling for a march from Ammanford to Dulais Valley to picket the then presently working miners that night was passed unanimously. With no prior arrangements made, the workers immediately set out to organise a crowd. Organised labour mobilised that night. Around four-hundred striking miners, led by the Ammanford Band, marched from the town and up the valley. From Ammanford, the brigade of miners snowballed into the Cwmaman section, marching with their Band to Gwaen-cae-Gurwen, then to Brynaman, with their respective Bands. By the time they reached the Ystradgynlais Common, the brigade appeared more like a small army, fifteen to twenty-thousand strong.

The miners marched throughout the night, eventually completing their march at Crynant, Dulais, twenty-one miles away from where they first set off. Irene Jones, a native of Gwaen-Cae-Gurwen at the time of the strike, recalled how “when [the miners] returned they could barely walk as their feet had cuts and blisters. They were exhausted.” Tensions heated up on impact with the Dulais miners, arriving off their train from Neath. Tensions heated up between those who wished to continue working and those who wished to strike, with the former drawing knives, after which a fight broke out. After strikers delivered “a couple of punches,” (according to Josiah Jones, a miner and founding member of the Cwmllynfell Miners’ Welfare Association) the Neath miners were forced to make the trek back home, and did not return to work until the strike had concluded. The strikers moved on to the Brynteg Colliery — another one in operation — and more skirmishes ensued. After a series of meetings, and one demonstration wherein the windows of Daniel Daniels’ — a director of the UAC — home were smashed, perhaps a small scale reflection of the class antagonism of the whole strike, the Dulais Valley area joined the strike.

Into the Jaws of the Lion

By the following day, there was one more pit in the district still in operation — Rock Colliery. As the sun was rising on the valley, the massive crowd, now made up of Dulais, Amman, and Swansea Valley strikers (and some children who escaped school in order to partake in the march) descended over Hirfynydd mountain to picket miners at the Rock. There they were met by a small brigade of officers at a police cordon, better prepared after the previous day’s affair. A section of the crowd were allowed to pass the cordon. Unbekownst to them, they were, in the words of Abercaf miner Dick Beamish, marching “into the jaws of the lion.” Further up from the cordon, a hundred reserve police officers hid behind a ditch, an officer blew his whistle, and the police began their attack, driving their batons onto miners’ skulls. The assault lasted ten minutes, and by the end there had been sixteen casualties, including one veteran of the First World War and another young miner — himself the sole supporter of a widow and eight children — who had been beaten so badly he could not return to the pits again. It is unknown as to whether the “Battle of the Rock” was catalysed by conspiracy, but it seems, again according to Beamish, to have been a result of a “total lack of strategic leadership.”

The Battle of Ammanford

The situation heated up as the combine began using “volunteers” and strikebreakers to continue operation in the pits and attempts by the police were made to obstruct the miners’ efforts. On Tuesday, 21st July, the Ammanford to Crynant march was completed in reverse, with 15,000 demonstrators making the pilgrimage to another open air meeting in Ammanford Recreational Ground. Following this, the demonstrations, meetings, and skirmishes between miners and the police became a much more frequent, sophisticated, and violent affair. On one occasion, the police initiated a baton charge against striking miners at the Ammanford №2 Colliery. The strike became a national concern, being addressed in the House of Commons to a government that was already gearing up for a general strike that would manifest a year later. Extra police were demanded in order to try and break the strike, as chief constables of the Glamorgan, Brecon, and Carmarthen were contacted. Nonetheless, police numbers were wholly insufficient, Evan Llewellyn — who would later be given a seventeen month prison sentence for his role in the strike — demonstrated the lacking fear, declaring “I don’t care if there are twenty police. I will stand in front of all their bullets.”

The continuous struggle and antagonism at various collieries around South Wales eventually distilled into the strike’s most unified iteration on Wednesday, August 5th — the same day Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru (later changing its name to Plaid Cymru) was founded — the day that came to be known as the “Battle of Ammanford.” The combines, attempting to continue production with the use of “volunteers” and “blackleg” labour, supported by the police, had allowed an electrician to sneak into Ammanford №2 Colliery on the back of a motorcycle — where police were also hidden. On hearing of this, strikers marched to the colliery, demanding that the electrician be removed from the pit that was supposed to have ceased operation. Around two hundred police officers had been stationed outside a relatively nearby brewery, and were rushed to confront the crowd. The strike committee, however, were well aware of police manoeuvres as a man had been deployed to Bridgend scout out police movements. A fleet of twelve buses, carrying police officers, travelling along the Neath-Ammanford road, was ambushed by a group of miners who pelted rocks at the fleet, smashing every window and forcing the police to retreat. The police regrouped and drove the strikers back into town with extreme violence, with even innocent onlookers becoming targets, hounded back into their homes.

The battle continued from 10.30 PM to 3 AM. Both sides suffered heavy injuries, with the police faring the worst, at least according to the strike committee. The events of the battle, and those leading up to it, must surely have shot fear into the hearts of the stakeholders at the combine. As discussions continued, the combine agreed to continue Wilson’s employment, and conceded to recognise the Seniority Rule across the whole of the South Wales Anthracite District. However, this victory was not pure. Ammanford №1 Colliery was closed permanently by a doubtlessly embittered UAC. Despite this vengeful counterattack on the miners, the UAC was required “to employ the workmen rendered idle … at the other collieries of the company.” In order to maintain the Seniority Rule, miners from the №1 Colliery sustained short-term unemployment as they awaited recruitment. The strike had been a momentous victory, and the miners returned to work on their old terms on August 22nd.

Victory for the miners did not come without payment. 198 of the strikers were taken to court for some of the more riotous activities that occurred during the strike, of which 58 were finally sent to prison between one and eighteen months. The jury which finally delivered their guilty verdict was almost comically upper-class, constituted of two majors, two colonels, a knight of the realm, a captain, a clergyman, and Lord Cawdor’s estate manager. Throughout the trials, the spirit of solidarity never waned as buses, full of miners and their families were carted to Carmarthen to demonstrate, singing The Red Flag outside the courtroom, accompanied by brass bands. The families and other dependents of the arrested miners were paid an effective minimum wage as those who returned to work were taxed one shilling a week, and the Fed lent £10,000 pounds to the miners’ legal costs. In February 1926, at least sixteen pits engaged in token strike action against the sentences.

The Trade Union Congress, the Labour Party, and the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain also lent their solidarity to those arrested, setting up a fund for the dependents which reached £1,000 on March 3rd 1926. A deputation representing the TUC, Labour Party National Executive Committee, and the Parliamentary Labour Party was dispatched to meet with the Home Secretary Sir William Joynson-Hicks, arguing for leniency in the miners’ sentences. After an excessively and uncharacteristically long wait, at which point there were only five prisoners left unreleased, the Home Secretary refused any amnesty or clemency. The Conservative government was, again, stoking further resentment against them in the working class, making that looming general strike continually more likely.

On release, prisoners were greeted by mass crowds of miners and those sympathetic to their cause, and were paraded back to their homes by a brass band. The International Class War Prisoners Aid Association awarded all each released prisoner a scroll and a medal. A mass rally at the Albert Hall, London, in March 1926 saw some of the more recently released prisoners awarded with medals, with similar processions in Ammanford’s Ivorites Hall and concerts in the prisoners’ hometowns. Later that year, these miners, and many more across the nation would be called on once again to cease operation in the great 1926 General Strike.

He/Him