Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Least we forget

Army soldiers Police with guns...................

HIS name was Major Brownlow Stuart and, as he faced what he regarded as a rebellious mob, he called up five marksmen. The order was barked: “Fire.” Two men died, two others fell, wounded. And so began a night of terror.

It happened 100 years ago this month, but this was not some colonial outpost being brought to heel. This was a street in a Welsh town.

It began when striking railwaymen halted a train from London as it approached Llanelli. They boarded it and put out its fire but were soon forced off by soldiers of the Worcestershire Regiment. They gathered above the railway line and bombarded the soldiers with stones and missiles.

That is what triggered Major Brownlow Stuart’s act of idiocy.

August 1911, when not only our own patch but half the country seemed in a state approaching revolution. A nationwide strike of stevedores, railwaymen and other transport workers protesting at pitifully low wages was bringing Britain to a standstill.

As food ran out there were even fears of famine in some major cities. Fifty thousand troops were sent into London where 200,000 demonstrators had taken to the streets of the city. As massive riots rocked Liverpool, with two men shot dead by soldiers, three warships steamed up the Mersey to protect merchant ships and the great transatlantic liners docked there. Cardiff was recovering from the violence surrounding the seamen’s strike – now it was Llanelli’s turn.

We heard the phrase often during the terrifying race riots in the US during the 1960s and here, that August, we suffered through a truly unforgiving long hot summer. Temperatures reached 100 degrees – in the shade – and, unbelievably to us a century on, the unrelenting heat killed 2,500 children, with London declared the second most unhealthy city in the world, the Thames as foul as the Ganges, disease sweeping through the slums.

On August 15, 40,000 railwaymen, protesting at low pay and long hours, stopped work. Llanelli’s men came out two days later and were joined by men from other industries. They closed the gates at two level crossings, allowing only the mail train through, and almost immediately troops, evidently well prepared, were rushed to the town to reinforce the police.

That is where we came in, that is when the battle began. A local magistrate read the Riot Act but he was ignored, so Major Brownlow Stuart gave his order. Tinplate worker John John, a celebrated local rugby player just 21, and a 19-year-old died. (An inquest would return a verdict of justifiable homicide.)

The deaths signalled the start of rioting and looting that lasted through the night. A wagon at a railway shed was set alight. It was full of explosives, the resulting blast killed two men instantly, three others died in hospital. The troops moved in at midnight and cleared the streets. The strike ended – but there was no respite for South Wales.

As calm came to Llanelli, hundreds of young men rampaged through Tredegar, looting shops owned by the town’s businessmen, inspiring similar attacks in 10 more Monmouthshire mining towns. Since most of the shops were owned by Jews some said that these were the first anti-Jewish riots for 200 years. But these claims were demolished by Prof SWD Rubinstein, a specialist in Jewish history.

He pointed out that non-Jewish shops were also attacked for economic, not racist, reasons by a working class that felt exploited by shopkeepers and landlords.

Earlier that month Britain’s first Labo

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