In the chapter “The Secret World of the South Wales Miner”, Hywel Francis makes a strong case for the relevance of oral history when exploring the development of the working class in South Wales. By using it in this collection of essays, he uncovers some inspiring but often neglected Valleys history from the last century, and helps to fill some gaps in popular knowledge of events from the Rebecca Riots of 1843 to the General Strike of 1926.
The first section of this book deals with some rarely reported but very exciting uprisings and rebellions in the area.
I was interested to read about “The Forgotten Strike of 1925”, a ten-day walkout in the anthracite (hard coal) industry based around the town of Ammanford, which led to lockouts, riots, midnight marches of 10,000 people, imprisonment and fighting in the streets.
This culminated in “The Battle of Ammanford” where 200 police were ambushed by well-organised pickets and running battles raged through the night. The dispute ended with the mine owners conceding defeat; however 200 workers were prosecuted. They received tremendous support from the community, with coachloads of supporters standing outside the courthouse every day of their trial, singing hymns and “The Red Flag”.
Francis recounts these tales with enthusiasm, passion and solidarity, always focussing on the role of ordinary people: it is clear whose side he is on. He shows an understanding of the need for grassroots organisation, and the role of the religious and trade union hierarchy in trying to put a lid on things. He reports the struggle from the point of view of the miners and their families, often making clear the vital role of women in industrial battles throughout the 20th century.
Several other short chapters show a similarly sharp analysis, born from his upbringing amid Marxist and syndicalist workers’ educational groups.
This is the case whether he is covering explicitly political events or less obviously militant institutions, such as Seven Sisters Rugby Club, the University of Wales, or Welsh choirs.
He reminds us of the high esteem that South Wales working class organisation was held in across the world, with regular visits from such figures as Paul Robeson, Emma Goldman and CLR James, who apparently completed his masterpiece, The Black Jacobins, while staying in Crynant near Neath.
For me the pivotal chapter is the middle one on the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. As it did to so many others around Britain, this struggle left deep scars on Hywel’s mind, and the chapter, “Mining the Popular Front”, shows its impact.
He concludes from the bitter defeat that the organised working class is no longer strong enough alone to take on governments and protect itself, and will have to seek broad democratic alliances across Wales and beyond.
Traditional allies, such as anti-fascist, equalities and peace campaigns, had to be augmented by bishops, Liberals and, on occasion, Welsh Tories.
This way of operating influenced Hywel’s later work around such issues as the referendum campaign, “A Voice For Wales”, in 1997. Perhaps it also informed his decision to become a Labour candidate and then Member of Parliament. In the context of the book, this analysis means that much of its second half lacks the sharp class analysis which so illuminates the first.
However, many of these essays do provide a powerful reminder of a too often neglected history, and show the potential power of working people to change their world.