This is my late grandfather’s account of the Welsh mining strike of 1926. My grandfather, Leslie Baker was only a child at school at this time and he offers a unique perspective on this historical strike.Â He went on to become a coal miner himself after finishing school and I think I remember him saying that he started working the mines at the young age of around 14.
He had slightly damaged lungs and a damaged finger as a reminder from the back-breaking and dangerous work that was involved. During World War 2 Â he worked as a look out on top of Bath Abbey with a siren to signal bombing runs. This was probably one of the luckiest job choices he made, as the house he was staying in was actually bombed whilst he was working. A lucky escape!
A Red Glow Over The Valley (1926 Welsh Mining Strike)
A big surprise awaited us children way back in the year 1926, for who should walk into our classroom but none other than their worships the Mayor and Mayoress of Tunbridge Wells, the spa town in the county of Kent.
Immediately our eyes were riveted on the Mayoral chains, “real gold mind you” was the general comment amongst us. Our school was situated in a small mining village near Port Talbot called Abercregan, not even being on the map, and here we were confronted by these two distinguished visitors. In awe we stood to attention, still wide-eyed at the sight of those gold chains of office.
Well that left the question – was our school that exclusive that these people should give us the distinction of visiting us over other places of learning? Well, the answer was not at all, as they were visiting us at a time of privation and strife. This was prompted by the longest coal mining strike in British history and the year 1926 went down in history as a result of this bitter and lasting breakdown of industrial relations of the time.
Now back to the classroom. Still dazed by all that gold on show, we heard our teacher’s voice as if in a dream . . . “Get your song sheets out”, then out came the tuning fork and we burst into song “Ar hyd yr nos” (All Through The Night). When it was over there were smiles of approval on the faces of our guests. I suppose that this was one of the best ways of thanking these people for their contribution to our needs as children, who were caught up in this memorable strike and to all the citizens of Tunbridge Wells. Back to the strike now and all its implications to children and grown ups alike . . .
The coal owners wanted to take off a shilling from the price list of a ton of hewed coal and there was total rejection of this repugnant act on the part of the miners and this in turn led to a total stoppage throughout the South Wales coalfield. The seeds of conflict were therefore sown in productive conditions and soon sprouted to bitterness and frustration. I was only ten years of age at that time and my first recollections were of being awakened out of my sleep by my mother, then going outside the house and being confronted by a red glow over the valley, for which the cause was a granary belonging to the Glenavon Colliery Co. It was set well alight and despite the heroic efforts of fire brigades from far and wide, it was gutted out and hundreds of pounds worth of horses feed was destroyed. As this fire was on the other side of the valley from where we lived, we watched it in comparative safety. This physical reaction on the part of the miners led to more confrontation, and part of the Devon and Somerset Constabulary were brought in to reinforce the local police.
As the strike went on into its third month, new words entered my vocabulary, including ‘scab’ and ‘blackleg’. One particular incident stands out in my memory; one day as I was walking over the railway bridge at Cymmer station a group of miners on their way home who were flanked by police ran into some strikers and what a scene that was, men cowering under verbal insults and the cry of ‘blackleg’ ringing across the narrow valley. The black faces of the miners in their equally black working clothes were in stark contrast to those protecting them! The policemen’s shining helmets and buttons and their spiked head piece gave the impression that they were 7 feet tall, no wonder then that this bizarre situation was etched in my memory.
The longer the strike went on, so did money become scarce, so much so that it became a story of valiant sacrifice on the part of mothers mostly, who bore the brunt of seeing their children being brought up on a diet that could have serious effects in the long term. This was the allowance given to strikers in those by-gone days . . . no cash whatsoever, only a piece of paper with an allowance for the bare necessities was written on it, even excluding butter and meat. So the hole in the nation’s money bag led to holes in socks, shoes, pockets and savings which ended up in eventually going to school in bare feet (boys and girls), for at least three months of the year until the press published our plight and Tunbridge Wells adopted our village, alongside other towns which did the same for various other places. Now the strike entered its 6th month and feelings ran high with still no compromise on either side.
Well, something had to be done and quickly as regards to our food shortage problem, more so as regards to us children, as it was of course a vital time in our growth. The solution came in the form of soup kitchens and the Miner’s Institute was commandeered for this purpose, the menu was tea, bread and jam for breakfast and dinner was split pea soup which was our diet for the duration of the strike for which the end was nowhere in sight.
The longer it lasted, the more tempers rose. Men were reduced to smoking a weed not unlike the dock plant; it was put into ovens and dried. Also, many a young man left and joined the army, leaving the pits forever, whilst other inhabitants left the valley rather than face the privation that came in the wake of this destructive strike. I mentioned the Devon and Somerset police – they were billeted outside this troubled area, but every day they came up in buses to patrol the one narrow and twisting road that went up through this valley with steep mountains on either side.
The teachers of our school must have been good on the subject of history, or was it natural instinct? I will dwell on history first, as the best instrument in the Welsh armoury was the plentiful supply of natural rocks on the mountain summits, to hurl down on the invaders of their country, which they did in the case of the Romans and the Brits. They still left plenty behind for future years and this was no exception to the rule.
Now for the part about natural instinct, well, here were the enemy chariots driving up this tortuous road every day, so the leader of these strikers could not fail to see the significance of the rocks high above this road. All that was required were a few crow bars to prize them loose and no doubt like the ardent warriors of by-gone years they forgot one important lesson, the steepness of the mountain and the fact that most of the rocks just bounced over this strategic road.
The militants grew bolder as the strike lingered on and devious ways of taking more action were conjured up at various meetings. I expect that the leading point on the agenda was stiffer opposition to the police, who gave protection to both the colliery and the blacklegs. To prove this statement, into the house walked my brother and brother-in-law one morning after attending one of these meetings. They had been issued with pick handles and in the course of their conversation I heard that others had been given crow bars. Then after some punitive attempts Â at blocking the road, the police decided to stop this ploy before it got out of hand. This led to a confrontation of the first order in this campaign of police versus miners.
That day I am now referring to will go down in the annals of the school. We were allowed on the school wall for the first time. We were usually told to get down from the wall at best if we were caught on top of it, at worst we would have a whacking from Dai Davies, the headmaster. So, the top of the wall was sacred to the teachers (or so it seemed to us school boys).
Why then was that day different from any other day? Well, here is the story and the wall that defied school tradition just this once . . .
We went out at play time as usual that afternoon in the year of 1926, then we heard shouts on the opposite side of the valley, the reason being that the strikers had grouped their forces at the base of the mountain, ready to go up to the crags to loosen a few more rocks and try to shut off the road. However, on this occasion the police were waiting on the top of the mountain, already having gained the advantage of taking this vantage point. This then was a delicate situation for the miners, should they retreat or do battle? As a group they looked no doubt to their two leaders and the shouts we heard confirmed the answer – ‘To battle!’ So here we were, the spectators of this real encounter between pick shafts and helmet and truncheon. The sauce added to this was that we had seemed to have won a battle ourselves, as the teachers surrendered the wall to us that afternoon (no doubt an open air history lesson), not even the school bell rang at the end of playtime, so the rest of the day was ours.
Meanwhile, from our vantage point we watched as miners went up to their Waterloo, because like the Romans against the Ancient Britts, the superior armour was the classic answer to victory or defeat, and when these two forces finally came close enough, the helmet and the truncheon won the day.
The two leaders went down like logs as they wore only cloth caps and the rest were widely scattered, the will being there but not the way, as we have witnessed throughout history. All this was viewed from the top of the school wall, with the teachers being just as interested as we were – this being the real thing and not the Keystone Kops at the local picture house.
What happened to the two leaders? Well they were sent to Swansea Jail for 6 months, being their reward for keeping His Majesty’s police in practice, but what a home-coming they received at the end of their sentence . . . I can see it now as vivid as ever. Nearly all the men in the village were at the local station, and as the train steamed in and came to a halt, our heroes stepped out amidst the shouts of welcome and then straight on to the shoulders of their mates. In this way they were transported to the village and home to the strains of ” . . . for they are jolly good fellows.” After all those efforts there were still plenty of rocks left on that particular mountain and the road at this point is still as narrow as ever – even to this year of writing Â (the year 1979).
As the year drew to its close, suddenly there was hope that the strike was coming to an end! I heard more about the SANKEY award and the name of A J Cook, the miners’ leader in those last few days than ever before, and I remember my mother coming in with a newspaper saying ‘It’s all over!’. Twelve months of conflict came to an end but it left its mark. It took many years to recover the losses incurred. For instance, there was a year’s backlog of rent to be paid for and the Colliery Co. owned the houses that we lived in. Young skilled miners had joined the army as I mentioned earlier on in this story, never to return to coal mining.
The people of the valley could still smile in spite of all the hardships, as us kids now had butter as well as jam, but we still had split pea soup for dinner.
So ended this momentous strike and as I began with Tunbridge Wells, so I will end by saying a big thank you to the citizens of this famous spa of this period I have written about, for their mutual concern about us children, characterised by their gifts of shoes and clothing. Curiously, I am writing this in Bath, which was its greatest rival in the heyday of spas.
I wonder if there is anyone living in Tunbridge who remembers any of this in the year 1926?
I will conclude now with this saying:
“A friend in need is a friend indeed.”
Gwyn Thomas recalls his memories of the General Strike 1926 – a time when being a coal miner was steeped in depression.
(Narration is a bit grim, but there is some good footage of this time in the video)