This is a poem I wrote about the Llanelli railway strike & uprising of 1911...
The headlong stream is termed violent
But the river bed hemming it in is
Termed violent by no one. – Brecht
Out of nowhere it comes
A storm of resistance blowing
Hard through the night
Of imperial fantasies, Edwardian hubris,
As the wretched of the earth rise up out of the splintered rubble
And fight back.
Miners from the pits
Of the Cambrian Combine.
Anarchist militants from Liverpool
Railmen from the iron tracks, the sinews of empire.
Seafarers and dockers, calling the workers out with bugles
Blowing high across the jetties and wharves of Newport,
The quaysides of Cardiff.
And the seashore tinplate town, washed out along the Loughor estuary.
A world of forges, fiery furnaces,
Where metals burn like the fires of drink and the devil,
And the hellfire of the preachers in the 1904 revival,
And the fire in the belly of the syndicalist strikers
Fighting for one big union and a better world to come.
And New Dock and Seaside a teeming workers’ district,
Channelling coal and steel to feed an empire.
And still dire poverty, still dank damp housing,
Still plague spots, slums, unwholesome dens.
Still a hundred and thirteen babies dying
In the year of 1911.
And the rich get richer
And a hundred years later,
Looking down upon Llanelli,
From the slopes of Box Cemetery
I see a long unravelling,
Debt and desolation,
And the blood of so many washed away down the river
In numb idleness and heavily cut heroin.
Shooting up commodities
In negative equity
Or servicing the retail trade on minimum wage.
Strictly low budget, my friend.
Because if you don’t stand for something you’ll put up with anything.
And I cry out for the spirit of 1911
When they got angry and did the right thing
And an injury to one is an injury to all
And to hell with the consequences.
And the poor getting poorer
A sea of people surge at the level crossing,
Rebecca seizes the gates,
Railmen, tinplaters, wives, lovers and children,
Cold-roll boys smoking their Woodbines,
Sitting on the wall of the Station Hotel,
Carnival and an August moon.
Speeches ring out:
And it’s workers’ power,
And the international working class.
And the strikers singing ‘Sosban Fach’.
Even the police settle down to watch
The mock election and the tap dancing contest
And the crowds sing “For he’s a jolly good fellow”
As Sergeant Britten walks past.
And all through the night
Of the 17th August
The picket stays in place
And nothing moves without the nod
Of the strike committee.
Any kind of dual power
Is anathema to a ruling class.
The photos show us a young man:
Expressive features, dark hair
Parted in the middle, a trace of brilliantine,
A polka dot bow tie. Captain of the rugby team, a local hero:
Dodging, tackling - a centre with The Oriental Stars.
He earned his bread as a tinplateman,
A mill-worker at Morewoods.
And took to the streets to support his brothers on the rail.
Is he the one the major said jumped up and bared his chest
And dared them to fire?
John ‘Jac’ John,
21 years old, of Railway Terrace
Shot through the lung.
And the other one, the Londoner,
The boy from Penge. Although younger than Jac,
In this photograph he looks older. Hair curls
Over his forehead in a quiff.
Square-jawed, more wary,
More deeply impacted
More unlucky maybe.
His level of bad luck was exactly the same as Jac’s.
He leaves school at 12,
By 19 has left London –
Looking for labouring work,
In an inversion strange to us,
In tinplate boomtown Llanelli.
Hit by tuberculosis, the scourge of the urban poor,
He is on weekend leave from Alltymynydd Sanatorium,
And has just finishing shaving
When he is shot.
Stripped to the waist,
No socks or shoes upon his feet,
He has gone into his back garden to see what all the noise is about.
Rarely were the words ‘innocent bystander’
More justly deserved.
Guilty, your honour, of living in a working-class street.
Leonard Worsell the labourer
19 years old, lodging at No.6
Shot in the heart.
It was Major Stuart who gave
The order to fire.
After his cut glass accent
Failed to dislodge
The men from the garden wall.
Wilkins the magistrate
Mumbled his way
Through the Riot Act –
“God save the King!”
Sixty seconds counted out
On the major’s pocket watch.
One hits John Francis
In the throat.Another strikes John Hanbury’s thumb,
And smacks into Jac’s chest.
A third fells the lad from London.
Blood splashes the grass.
Three men down.
One hit but still walking.
The two in worst shape -
Jac and Leonard -
Laid out on the table
In the middle room of No 6
Where they die.
The landlady of the house
Down on the track below
Major Stuart orders his soldiers
What thoughts are in his head?
One soldier refused to fire on the crowd.
Did this little mutiny take away Stuart’s trust in his men?
Or is it the realisation that he has played his last card.
If two deaths have not done the trick, will twenty?
So many questions,
So few answers.
The riot is the voice of the unheard.
The uprising is the same voice speaking
A full sentence.
The question is:
What does the voice say?
As news of the killings spreads
Groups of young men roam the streets
Around the station, seeking ways to strike back.
They say: “Men are born to live out their lives, not to be shot at like dogs. This was murder.”
A crowd chases the soldiers of the Lancashire Regiment
Into the railway station, then stones the building,
Smashing every window.
They say: “Where the interests of the rich are concerned, our lives are cheap. The soldiers are not here to defend us.”
The crowds loot the shop of Thomas Jones J.P. –
Shareholder of the Great Western Railway Company
- The man who called in the troops.
They say: “You brought in these soldiers to protect your investment. To see the job done you were prepared to kill. You don’t need all these hams, these cheeses, these cakes. We will take this out of what you owe us.”
The trucks of the Great Western Railway Company
Are looted and torched.
A truck explodes, killing four.
The voices of the dead say: “Blood of the poor is on the hands of the powerful. We live working or die fighting. The riverbed of steel that hems us in is called violent by no-one. ”
Strikers fight soldiers
Who, bayonets fixed, try to drive them
From the streets.
The strikers say: ”These were our streets. Our town. Now we find that not even the things we own belong to us.”
The strikes were called off
And although the people fought
There was no world revolution.
What happened instead was world war
But that’s another story.
And in the tinplate town the murders
Were drowned in guilt and shame,
As chapels and press
And the local crachach,
Terrified at the bolshevism that had blown up
In their faces, spoke of “slavering mobs”
And disgraceful disorder
And the cwmwl cywilydd brought upon the town.
And people forgot the worse injustice.
And the graves of Jac and Leonard
Still moulder and crumble up at Box.
When a dam bursts who can control
The water and the way it flows?
Some got drunk.
Well what of it?
What has been stolen from them all their lives
Makes the cakes
And the sides of ham
Seem small change.
Who blames them
For their night of riot
As they struck back
Against the murderers
Who had come to their town?
No, don’t blame them
For their pig-headedness
Their nerve under fire, their humour
We will need that too
For today and tomorrow,
For who will defend the poor
As the rich come to steal
From them again?
The town stretches out
Along the coast today. The sunlight glances off the sea.
From here I can see Whiteford Point lighthouse
Shimmer in the distance.
The forges and fiery furnaces are
All gone. So are the dockers and miners.
But there are still plague spots.
Still people dying.
And the rich getting richer. ..