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Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Headlong Stream -1911

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

By life

More unlucky maybe.

Although today

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.


Five bullets.

Nickel topped.

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

Is crying.


Down on the track below

Major Stuart orders his soldiers

To withdraw.

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?

Some stole.

So what?

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

Salute them

For their pig-headedness

Their nerve under fire, their humour

Their hwyl.

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. ..

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