Running riot

Whether last month’s disturbances in Ely, Cardiff’s far-flung western suburb, can be called a “riot”, as per the screeching, sensationalist coverage in the UK’s reliably dreadful media, is a moot point. The word is often bandied about willy-nilly whenever a handful of teenage boys do so much as chuck a few bricks at a police car, but such blithe usage tends to cheapen and diminish the very real, full-blooded riots that have taken place throughout Welsh history.

Rioting in Wales is best understood as a continuation by other means of the defensive wars Wales had been forced to fight for more than a thousand years against a sequence of invaders: Romans in the 1st century AD; Anglo-Saxons between the 6th and 10th centuries; Normans between the 11th and 13th centuries; and the Anglo-Norman English from then until the annexation of Wales in the 16th century. The systematic repression, persecution and pillaging of Wales that then followed was resisted in countless subversive ways by the people, but with little impact until the 18th century when the inspiration of the French Revolution and the extreme hardship and exploitation ushered in by the Industrial Revolution gave Welsh resistance a new class-based focus and lease of life.

The British State in the 18th century was, as it is now, callous, cruel, corrupt and rotten to the core. In 1715 the Riot Act became law. It was originally intended to curb violent attacks on Nonconformist meeting houses, Jacobite opposition to the Act of Union between England and Scotland and protests against the subsequent anti-Catholic imposition of the arch-Protestant Hanoverian (German) monarchy. As industrialisation spread and the brutality of mercantile capitalism began to replace autocratic feudalism, working-class people began to organise. In response, the Riot Act was soon being utilised as a blunt tool to eradicate any manifestation of dissent (rather like Tory Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s current sweeping authoritarian attempts to outlaw protest). The might of the British State was used against its own population so regularly that the phrase “read the riot act” passed into the language as a threatening general term for clamping down on disobedience (the Riot Act itself was not repealed until 1967).

In Wales riots were a regular occurrence from the late 18th century onwards, driven by terrible working conditions, mass starvation, impoverishment, oppression, virulent anti-Welsh measures, land grabs, flagrant social injustices and the complete absence of any democratic way to tackle the issues and right the wrongs. What the many riots had in common right through to the 20th century was radical politics, clear demands and utter seriousness of intent – none of which were noticeable features of the events in Ely. I shall come back to Ely shortly, but first a catalogue, in chronological order, of Wales’ most famed riots:

1740: Flintshire lead-ore miners gathered in Rhuddlan, an early hive of industry with a quay on the lowest crossing point of the River Clwyd, to protest against the deadly combination of low wages and high grain prices. The military was promptly sent in and broke up the crowd with thuggish violence. While the British government kept food prices artificially high at the behest of big landowners, food riots took place across Wales this year – notably in Pembroke and Wrecsam.

1758: Significant food riots took place in Caernarfon, where quarrymen from the many slate quarries of Dyffryn Nantlle marched to try to end the starvation caused by high corn prices. Two workers from the huge Cilgwyn quarry were shot dead by troops.

1783: Rich veins of lead in the upper Teifi valley generated massive profits for mineowners, but brought only disease and hunger to the 2,000 miners who worked the seams. In desperation they marched in unison on Aberystwyth until dispersed by a regiment of militia sent from England.

1795-1801: As soaring corn prices and pitiful wages caused starvation and malnutrition while the British government encouraged the export of food for profit, food riots in Wales reached a peak. Major riots occurred in Aberystwyth, Bala, Bangor, Biwmares, Bridgend, Caernarfon, Carmarthen, Denbigh, Fishguard, Haverfordwest, Llanbrynmair, Machynlleth, Merthyr, Pembroke, Pwllheli, St Asaph and Swansea. In Denbigh, for instance, 500 men imprisoned the local magistrates who were meeting to raise a battalion to stamp out dissent and then marched across Denbighshire and Flintshire stopping the export of corn and redistributing it to the people. This phase of upheavals only ceased when the British State resorted to its default violence: two Merthyr miners, Samuel Hill and Aaron Williams, being hanged for no reason other than to intimidate and stifle protest.

1799: The enclosure of common land is one of the most shameful stories in the blood-soaked annals of Britain. Part of a process of redistributing land and wealth from rural labourers to the landed classes that had begun in England in the 16th century, enclosure was an outrageous robbery of ancient rights of access and public assets vital for grazing animals and growing food as well as somewhere to live. Ad-hoc encroachments by the ruling classes, backed up by their private gangs and over 50 new capital offences for poaching and resisting the authorities, continually nibbled away chunks of the great commons and by the 18th century 25% of the total land area of England had been appropriated in this way for the private benefit of the rich, resulting in wave after wave of famines, evictions and rural riots. The many Enclosure Acts passed between 1750 and 1850 legalised this grand larceny, and extended the process into conquered Wales. One of the first instances was in Cardiff in 1799 when the hired thugs of the 1st Marquis of Bute (1744-1814) swept through the common lands of the Little Heath and the Great Heath, backed up by infantry regiments and cavalry, smashing, burning and destroying everything in their path. The people fought for their homes and their lives all day armed only with pitchforks against overwhelming odds, but didn’t stand a chance. In 1801 Cardiff’s own Enclosure Act was passed in Westminster to retrospectively authorise the illegal theft. The suffering of those evicted can only be imagined – rendered homeless and landless, most would have starved to death.

1800: The Tory government’s Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 prohibited the association and amalgamation of workers for the purpose of increasing wages, reducing hours, ameliorating conditions or indeed campaigning for any political reform and made interference with commerce or trade illegal. Trade Unions were thus outlawed (today’s Tory government of Rishi Sunak is continuing this hatred of organised labour with illegal attempts to ban the right to strike). The iron workers of Merthyr Tudful, the largest town in Wales and a hotbed of political activism, were the first to react to this repressive attack on basic rights. The rioting of 1800 was a harbinger of what was to come.

1809: With anti-enclosure riots happening all over Wales, one of the biggest took place in Llanddeiniolen in Caernarfonshire. The slate-barons wanted the common lands for more huge quarries; local people fought tooth and nail for days, but to no avail.

1810: Radical Merthyr, then almost entirely Welsh-speaking, was again the location of serious rioting as the multitude of grievances against the tyrannical English ironmasters boiled over.

1812: More anti-enclosure protests took place across the hills of Mynydd Bach in Ceredigion when the common lands were seized by an Englishman for the development of lucrative mineral mines.

1816: Wage cuts unleashed a ferment of unrest in the iron towns of Glamorgan and Gwent, beginning with a strike at the Tredegar works at the top of the Sirhowy valley. The British government over-reacted with typical aggression by dispatching soldiers of the 55th (Westmorland) Regiment to crush the strike. Violent clashes ensued and spread west to Dowlais where special constables fired into the crowd, killing one of the strikers. This triggered widespread rioting in all the iron towns from Merthyr to Blaenafon. John Josiah Guest (1785-1852), head of the Dowlais works, barricaded himself into his mansion while William Crawshay II (1788-1867), head of the Cyfarthfa works, hid in a remote farmhouse. 8,000 soldiers were needed to disperse the rioters – but the threat of wage reductions was withdrawn, showing that victories for the workers were possible. Simultaneously there was another big protest against enclosures, this time in Aberystwyth. More troops were mustered and warning shots were fired.

1817: Four weeks of rioting over food prices by the copper miners of Mynydd Parys brought Amlwch in Ynys Mon to a standstill. The Tories in London were still pursuing a policy of rigging markets to ensure scarcity and thereby keep prices high for the benefit of their capitalist cronies. Tory ideology remains the same today in the land of food banks and greedy profiteers.

1818-1827: Another spate of food riots kept the British army busy in rural Wales. In Carmarthen, cavalry were used against hungry people trying to prevent the export of cheese. Desperate protestors subsequently used similar tactics in Aber-miwl, Maenclochog, Mynydd Bach, Dryslwyn and Llanwnda.

1822-1857: Organised protest began to replace disorganised rioting with the emergence of the ‘Scotch Cattle’ movement in Monmouthshire/Gwent after the army opened fire on striking miners (‘scotch’ in the sense of bringing something to an end). The secret organisation with ‘naw mil o blant ffyddlon’ (9,000 faithful children), cells in every valley and a system of night-time meetings would go from strength to strength, fighting fire with fire by destroying company property and attacking contractors, agents, bailiffs, scabs and the invidious ‘Truck Shops’ owned by the coal barons and ironmasters – the only places workers could spend the specially-minted tokens they were paid instead of official coinage. The Scotch Cattle, dressed in animal skins with blackened faces and wearing horns on their heads, would be a thorn in the side of the authorities and a vital counterbalance to the overwhelming power of capital for the next 35 years. The revolutionary fervour, high principles, political grasp and collective solidarity of the Scotch Cattle could not be more different to the thoroughly Anglicised, passive, conservative, colonised and castrated Gwent of today.

1831: Throughout the 1820s there were those who argued for reform rather than revolution. They campaigned, for instance, for the abolition of the Truck System, the repeal of the corn laws, equality for Nonconformist religions and, most importantly, electoral reform. Only 1% of the entire UK population (essentially the landed gentry) had the vote, there was no secret ballot, landowners could bribe and threaten voters to support their candidates and medieval villages with scarcely an inhabitant had MPs while large towns had no representation at all. Merthyr, for example, the largest town in Wales with a population of 30,000 had no MP of its own and was merely part of the Glamorganshire seat in which only 2,000 people out of the 125,000 population could vote. There was no democracy in the UK whatsoever. But the reformers’ hopes were crushed in 1831 when, after the pro-reform Whigs had ousted the Tories, their electoral reform bill that had massive support in the House of Commons was rejected by the unelected House of Lords. All hell broke out across the UK, and nowhere was the anger greater than in Merthyr, where wage-cuts, poverty, hunger, appalling housing, Truck Shops and dangerous working conditions added insult to injury.

And so, in June 1831, one of the pivotal moments in Welsh history and in working-class history took place: the riot to end all riots, The Merthyr Rising. For more than a week the town was in the hands of over 10,000 protesters. While magistrates, businessmen and ironmasters were under siege in the Castle Hotel, houses of moneylenders and Tories, courts and Truck Shops were ransacked, the people were in control at long last and for the first time in British history the red flag of socialism was raised aloft. The British State moved into overdrive to defend the indefensible status quo. Armed troops were sent to Merthyr from garrisons at Brecon, Cardiff, Llantrisant and Neath, Yeomanry were sent from Swansea, the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders arrived and the Riot Act was read outside the Castle Hotel. But the huge crowd refused to disperse until the demands put forward by the revolt’s nominal leader Lewsyn yr Heliwr (Lewis Lewis, 1793-c1848) were heard. The ruthless British don’t do compromise or negotiation, they were outnumbered but had the sheer firepower to prevail. At least 24 members of the public were shot dead and hundreds more seriously injured. Resistance and outbreaks of fighting took place for days but by the 7th of June the authorities had regained control of Merthyr.

Typically, the British State’s retribution was vicious and draconian: people were rounded up and tried at Cardiff Assizes within a fortnight. The majority were imprisoned and sentenced to ‘hard labour’, five including Lewsyn yr Heliwr were transported to Britain’s genocidal convict colony of Australia where they all would die, and 23-year-old collier Richard Lewis aka Dic Penderyn (1808-1831), having been plucked from the crowd at random, was sentenced to death for wounding a soldier and summarily hanged in St Mary Street as an example to deter future protests. Thousands followed Dic’s cortege from Cardiff across the Vale of Glamorgan to his home town Aberafan where he was buried. Over 40 years later a man in the USA on his death bed confessed to the ‘crime’ for which Dic had been murdered by the British State.

The Merthyr Rising was not in vain. It gave rise to the tradition of radical political activity by working people in Wales that would eventually achieve many of the rebels’ demands – and built the foundations upon which the struggle for a truly democratic, socialist, independent and enlightened Cymru continues in the 21st century.

1839: The ‘Great Reform Act’ of 1832 had at last managed to extend the voting franchise – but only barely, adding the new breed of middle-class industrialists to the old landed classes and increasing the number eligible to vote to a derisory 5% of the UK population. Nothing had really changed, and in response the Chartist movement was officially formed in England in 1838 to campaign for real reform, drawing up a ‘People’s Charter’ that called for universal (male) suffrage, equal electoral districts, annual parliaments, vote by ballot, abolition of the property qualification and payment for MPs. Chartism quickly became established in many parts of Wales, filling the vacuum created by the ban on Trade Unions, and in 1839 Chartist action really took hold. It began in Llanidloes, the centre of the Welsh woollen industry in the Severn valley in Montgomeryshire, where crowds armed with pikes and staves took control of the town centre for a week before London sent in special constables, police and military to quell the riots. 32 local Chartists were arrested, found guilty without any evidence and given harsh sentences of transportation or hard labour. Disorder also briefly spread to the other wool towns of Montgomeryshire, Newtown and Welshpool, like Llanidloes beset by terrible working conditions, child labour, low pay, cholera epidemics and the pauperising, cruel ‘Poor Law’ and workhouse system introduced in 1834.

Wales had been treated with particular contempt by the Reform Act of 1832, nowhere more so than Monmouthshire. Despite massive population growth parliamentary representation remained the same as before, with the county’s seats entirely controlled by the gentry families who owned vast tracts of Gwent – the Dukes of Beaufort and the Lords of Tredegar Park – and with the lowest percentage of electors in all the UK. Radicals and Chartists in Newport, under the leadership of tailor-draper John Frost (1784-1877), spread the Chartist principles throughout the larger towns and the coalfield communities to the point where there were 20,000 active supporters and mass meetings attracted enormous crowds. It was time to take action to bring about change. Planning and preparation took months, until in November an out-and-out revolutionary insurrection took place, aimed at nothing less than overthrowing the British State in Gwent and thence throughout Wales: the Newport Rising.

The march on Newport had three main contingents, setting off from Blackwood, Pontypool and Ebbw Vale & Nantyglo, moving down the valleys and gathering men in each village as they advanced southwards. The authorities in Newport prepared for conflict and when the first thrust of 5,000 Chartists reached the town centre they were met by an armed-to-the-teeth infantry regiment from England (the Sherwood Foresters) plus phalanxes of 500 special constables, based at the Westgate Hotel in Commercial Street. There what amounted to a full-scale battle occurred for half an hour, but the Chartists stood no chance against the fearsome weaponry and unlimited resources of the British military. At least 28 Chartists were shot dead and over 50 seriously injured before the protest broke up in disarray. In the aftermath 150 Chartists were arrested and imprisoned while the three leaders – Frost, Zephaniah Williams (1795-1874) and William Jones (1809-1873) – were tried for high treason in the Shire Hall at Monmouth. They were originally sentenced to death but the sentences were commuted and they were instead transported to the horrors of the Tasmania prison colony. There, Williams and Jones remained until they died while Frost eventually returned in 1856 to a hero’s welcome in Newport before settling in Bristol, advocating Chartist principles to the end of his long life. The Newport Rising remains, to date, the last large-scale armed uprising in the UK. By 1918 all the Chartists’ demands (except annual parliaments) had come to fruition – however, the current London Tory government’s introduction of gerrymandering restrictions on voting rights via compulsory ID checks at polling stations show that constant vigilance is always needed just to defend the paltry democracy that exists, let alone enhance it.

1839-1844: The first direct action of what would become another major uprising also occurred in 1839: the Rebecca Riots. Centred in rural south-west Wales where bad harvests, tithes and the Poor Law had brought great hardship and distress to small farmers, the movement was galvanised by the crippling and ever rising rip-off tolls that had to paid at tollgates on the turnpike roads that farmers had no option but to use in order to take their produce to markets and cart lime. The tolls were the last straw and the people began to rise up against the oppression. Organising had to be done secretly and anonymously, since the Dic Penderyn example was a dire warning of what British ‘justice’ would do to protestors, and the movement adopted its name from a biblical quotation in Genesis: “And they blessed Rebekah and said unto her, Let thy seed possess the gates of those that hate thee”. Dressed as women, a group of men began the campaign by destroying the toll gate at Efailwen on the Carmarthenshire/Pembrokeshire border and followed that by destroying the Water Street gate in Carmarthen. Rebecca was only just warming up.

Rebecca re-appeared in 1842 when the fat-cat English landowners who owned the turnpikes opened a number of new gates to fleece those who had so far managed to avoid tolls. Living in great poverty and now forced to pay just to move around their own country, the people saw that their only remedy was to take the law into their own hands. The Rebecca Riots that followed were organised with great skill and carried out with such absolute support from the Welsh public that, despite the government pouring troops into west Wales, the leaders were never identified, hardly any arrests were made and there were rarely any witnesses or evidence to convict those who were arrested. Disguised with painted faces, horse-hair beards and women’s clothing, Rebecca’s followers operated at night on horseback or foot and destroyed tollgates over and over again at Pwll-Trap, Sanclêr, Whitland, Trefychan, Prendergast, Cydweli, Blaen-y-Coed, Maes-Gwyn, Llanddowror, Red Roses, Canaston Bridge, Ludchurch, Kingsmoor, Cardigan, Pensarn, Llechryd, Henllan, Castell Newydd Emlyn, Bancyffordd and Abercych. Rebecca was expanding her attacks to other targets that oppressed the people with rent increases, compulsory tithes, fishing restrictions and so forth: landowners, clergymen, solicitors and salmon weirs. In 1843, a crowd of 2,000 marched into Carmarthen and, joined by the people of the town, attacked the hated workhouse in in broad daylight until the 4th Light Dragoons galloped in and took 60 prisoners. Undeterred, emboldened by the total support of the population, and able to run rings around the military, Rebecca widened her activities to eastern and industrial southern Carmarthenshire and on into Glamorgan. Toll gates tumbled at Bwlch-y-Clawdd, Nant-y-Clawdd, Cynwyl Elfed, Pencader, Abergwili, Brechfa, Llandeilo, Rwnws Bridge, Porth-y-Rhyd, Dryslwyn, Cross Hands, Llandybie and Llangadog. The last phase of the riots then spread eastwards to toll gates at Pontyberem, Tymbl, Llanon, Five Roads, Hendy, Llanelli, Pontarddulais, Pontardawe and Neath. As the full panoply of the British State’s enforcers descended on Wales, the rioting carried more and more risks and arrests and deportations to Australia were becoming more frequent. But Rebecca was vindicated in 1844 when even the Tory government’s Commission of Enquiry into the riots concluded that the tolls were iniquitous, counter-productive and unjustified and in 1844 the Turnpike Trusts of west Wales were replaced by Road Boards and the tolls were scrapped. The Rebecca movement was disbanded but the many other grievances in rural Wales meant from time to time she re-emerged to haunt the exploiters of Wales, most notably in the Upper Wye Valley in Radnorshire in the 1850s-1870s and in Flintshire and Denbighshire in the 1880s. Oh, for a Rebecca rebirth in Cymru today!

1856: With rampant industrialisation happening all across Wales in order to extract the incredible natural wealth of Welsh mineral resources, the clash between exploited workers and profiteering capitalists was increasingly the main cause of conflict, particularly as Trade Unions were still outlawed. At Dyserth in the Flintshire orefield, troops were sent in to attack pickets and break a strike at the Talargoch lead mine.

1857: Again rough-house tactics were used to clamp down on the very idea of collectivism. Troops from the Brecon garrison stormed into Aberdâr at the head of the Cynon valley to smash a seven-week coal miners’ strike.

1869: After the English manager of Leeswood Green colliery in the Flintshire coalfield reduced wages and banned workers from speaking Welsh underground, the miners held a pithead meeting and naively decided to frogmarch him to the local police station. But seven of the men were promptly arrested, put on trial in Mold and found guilty. Two were sentenced to a month’s hard labour, a gross injustice that triggered the Mold Riots as they were transported to the railway station. With vicious indiscriminate violence, soldiers mobilised from Chester opened fire on the crowd, killing four people including two women. There were no repercussions whatsoever for this cold-blooded murder of Welsh people – well, it’s the British/English way…

1875: The 1871 Trade Union Act passed by the Liberal government legalised unions for the first time in the UK. Welsh workers immediately began to organise and start to tackle the problems of low pay and terrible working conditions, particularly in the coal mining industry where the coal owners made fortunes while miners lived in poverty or died in one of over 200 mining disasters that had already occurred in Wales up to this point in time due to the owners’ cavalier disregard of safety. Repeated strikes in the southern coalfield meant an atmosphere of permanent ferment and it all came to a head in 1875 when the coal barons, who had organised themselves into the Coal Owners Association in order to oppose safety legislation, reductions in working hours and increases in pay, bankrupted the first mining union, the Amalgamated Association of Miners, by taking the drastic action of shutting down the entire coalfield and starving the men into submission. This was the first major battle in a war between the workers and the bosses in Wales that would last for over a century.

1886-1891: What became known as the ‘Tithe War’ took place over six years of riots and confrontations with the police and British military in rural north-east Wales. The people had many grievances, such as landlordism, insecure tenancies, evictions for political views, rack-rents, the Poor Law, subsistence farming, hunger and hardship, but the key issue was tithes. These were the annual payments to the Church of England that all people with an income were compelled to make. Since the setting up of the CofE in the 16th century, the tithes had to be paid to the great landowners rather than the monasteries and it became the norm for many landlords to pocket the money rather than pass it on to the local clergy. By the 19th century the vast majority of Welsh people were not even members of the Church of England but members of one of the Nonconformist religions, yet Welsh tithes were being taken out of the country to swell the revenues of absentee landlords or English bishops while the people lived in poverty and their chapels were run on a shoestring. It was all wrong, and a vigorous anti-tithe movement led by the Welsh Land League formed by Thomas Gee (1815-1898) of Denbigh arose to shake off this illegitimate tax and insulting badge of conquest. More and more small farmers in Denbighshire and Flintshire refused to pay the tithes and the landlords and CofE clergy reacted with seizure of goods, bailiffs and evictions. The ‘War’ escalated rapidly with serious riots, protests and open conflict in Llanarmon, Whitford, Mochdre, Llangwm, Llannefydd and Denbigh. It only came to an end with the passing of an Act by the Liberal government in 1891 which made it the responsibility of landlords not tenants to pay tithes. This was just a temporary fix, but it prompted men like Gee and his supporters to realise that the Welsh objection to tithes could only be settled by disestablishment of the Anglican church in Wales. The Land League along with the Nonconformist and Liberal majority in Wales turned their attention to that issue, and eventually in 1920 the CofE was disestablished in Wales (ludicrously, it’s still the ‘established religion’ of craven, conservative England).

1898: Another major strike in the southern coalfield was defeated by another lock-out which lasted six months and eventually starved the miners back to work. In response the South Wales Miners’ Federation – the ‘Fed’ – was formed with William Abraham (1842-1922), bardic name ‘Mabon’, its first president. The renowned orator, who was Liberal then Labour MP for Rhondda from 1885 to 1920, built the Fed into a formidable union with the muscle to take on and defeat the coalowners again and again (it was absorbed into the NUM in 1945).

1900-1903: The three-year dispute in the Penrhyn slate quarries of Bethesda remains the longest industrial dispute in history. More than that, it was an elemental expression of the cultural chasm between England and Wales. On the one side, the North Wales Quarrymen’s Union – Liberal, Nonconformist, Welsh-speaking, working-class; on the other, the Quarry owner George Douglas-Pennant, the 2nd Baron Penrhyn (1836-1907) – English, Tory, Anglican, Old Etonian, born into incalculable wealth that originated in violent appropriation, an implacable, autocratic, union-busting, bigoted, anti-Welsh, imperialist of the first order. The strikers were maintained for three years by bucket collections and fundraising throughout Wales, by the quarrymen’s touring choirs, and by trade union solidarity throughout the UK. The bastard Baron won, of course, by locking out the workforce, starving them into submission and relying on the ready assistance of English troops and the Riot Act whenever the workers tried to fight back. The slate industry in Gwynedd never recovered, but the Penrhyn lock-outs took on vivid significance in Wales as the very symbol of the struggle against abiding English oppression.

1910: A strike over pay in the coalmines of the Cambrian Combine – a cartel of all the mining companies in the southern coalfield established in 1906 to suppress wages by the nakedly ambitious owner of the Cambrian Collieries company in Clydach Vale DA Thomas (1856-1918) – erupted into violence and a pivotal place in Welsh history: the Tonypandy Riots. The strike had begun at the pits of the Naval Colliery Company in Penygraig in the Rhondda Fawr and rioting kicked off when the large contingent of police from Swansea and Cardiff already stationed in the valleys to defend strike-breakers was provocatively supplemented by hundreds of heavy-duty, truncheon wheeling thugs from the Metropolitan Police in London (today’s equivalent: Wayne Couzens). Hand-to-hand street-fighting in Tonypandy and Llwynypia between miners and police (then, as now, automatically on the side of the rich and powerful), raged for days. 500 miners were seriously injured and one killed; 50 police were injured. After Home Secretary Winston Churchill (1874-1965), then in the Liberal Party, surrendered to the demands of the coalowners, magistrates and chief constables and sent in the army, the rioting was largely quelled. The whole area became a military camp under occupation for months. Sporadic fighting broke out, particularly at Penygraig and Blaenclydach, but the limitless resources at the British State’s disposal ensured that the strike ended in September 1911 without the strikers’ aims having being achieved. However, the Tonypandy Riots came to have primordial importance in Wales – for the courage, determination and heroism of the strikers; for manifesting Welsh militancy and working-class solidarity; and for implanting a loathing of Churchill and, by extension, all the subsequent vile British Nationalists who still have the arrogance, temerity and malevolence to presume to boss, bully, molest and damage Wales.

Cambrian Combine strikers before the Tonypandy Riots

1911: During the very first UK-wide railway strike, a confrontation between troops of the Worcestershire Regiment and picketing strikers in Llanelli led to the troops shooting dead two young bystanders. The railywaymen and the people of Llanelli responded to the murders by running riot through the town for hours, damaging business premises and railway infrastructure. Four more were killed when a rail truck exploded.

Meanwhile, the prevailing tide of radicalism and revolt spread even to complacent, conservative Cardiff when a strike by miserably paid and exploited dockers and merchant seamen brought the Bute Docks to a standstill. Yet again there was military intervention as London flooded Butetown with 500 troops to ‘restore order’ (i.e. enable strikebreaking). The employers then imported foreign labour to smash the strike, shipping in Chinese seaman and paying them higher wages than those usually received by the strikers. The Chinese seamen were subjected to physical and verbal attacks for their part in breaking the strike and this spread to pre-existing Chinese businesses in Butetown. It was described as a ‘race riot’, but was in fact a valid response to scabs and their associates.

Another purported ‘race riot’ occurred this year when miners in Tredegar attacked a Jewish-owned shop for charging exorbitant prices. The attack became a riot, with 200 miners ransacking 18 Jewish-owned businesses in the town, and the riots then spread to neighbouring Gwent towns Bargod, Caerffili and Ebbw Vale. Churchill was quick to send in the troops this time, distorting the truth by luridly calling it a “pogrom” to try to get the high moral ground. The Tory press, normally ragingly antisemitic, obligingly repeated his slurs. This was no ‘race riot’ – it was simply opposition to the mercantile, profit-motivated ethics of business. Jews who were working-class or low-waged or identified as Welsh or just agreed that overcharging was rife had nothing to fear and some actually participated in the protests.

1919: After WW1 society lay in ruins, barely a household wasn’t suffering bereavement, a lethal flu epidemic killed millions, mutilated and disabled people were everywhere, and demobilised armies and navies struggled to rejoin civvy street. In this context the strife in Wales was typical of what was going on around the world. Three incidents in particular stand out. At Kinmel Camp near Rhyl, 20,000 Canadian soldiers angered at delays in their repatriation and ghastly living conditions at the Camp openly mutinied and in the ensuing violence five soldiers were shot dead by British Military Police (now called Kinmel Park, the site is still in the hands of the British army and used for training exercises). Aboard the HMS Kilbride, docked at Milford Haven, British Navy sailors also mutinied over delays in demobilisation and awful conditions on the gunboat – eight men were court-martialled, sentenced to two years hard labour and then dismissed. And in Cardiff, Barry and Newport there were riots by jobless and often homeless returning servicemen that took the form of attacks on the settlements of black and Arab seamen stranded in the ports after the War. Such disturbances took place in most UK ports, but the Cardiff outbreak was the most serious: two white men and one Arab died, dozens were injured and there was widespread damage to property. From henceforth, the Arabs, Somalis, West Indians and Africans who settled in Cardiff tended to remain ‘below the bridge’ that separated the Docks from the town, so establishing the unique multiracial identity of Tiger Bay.

1925: The brief post-War ‘boom’ was petering out, the mismanaged UK economy was collapsing and, as ever, it was the working-class who were required to pay the price. Trade Union militancy was on the rise again and a forerunner of what was ahead was a strike against drastic pay-cuts and despotic management in the Carmarthenshire anthracite coalfield at Ammanford. For 10 days the miners controlled the town before the heavy mob arrived from England to eradicate the rebellion. 58 strikers were imprisoned.

1926: As the Tory government of Rishi Sunak refuses to even enter discussions with striking public sector workers, once again it can be seen how Conservatives are fundamentally opposed to the concept of Trade Unions. You see, to a Tory, only the rich should ever have any power. After the post-War Liberal government imploded and then the first ever Labour government had only a fleeting period in charge, the Tories were back in power under the leadership of true blue imperialist and incompetent appeaser Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947). It was class warfare again – similar to, say, the endless ‘austerity’ of the last 13 years – and that meant the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Inequality was built in under Baldwin – shockingly, a century later, with 1% of the population owing 75% of the wealth, today’s Tories have scandalously made the gap between rich and poor even wider. The General Strike called by the TUC in May 1926 was the inevitable outcome. It was called in support of the coal miners, locked out after taking strike action over increases in working hours while wage cuts had reduced their pay by a staggering 50% since 1920 and the coalowners raked in huge dividends (just like, for instance, the privatised water and power companies do now). The General Strike lasted nine days and 2 million workers participated before it was defeated in the Law Courts when the TUC capitulated after the Court ruled that Trade Unions supporting the miners could have their assets sequestered. The miners carried on their action for months and the lock-out continued, but the old tactic of starving them back to work did the trick once again. Since mining was so intrinsic to the General Strike, Wales figured prominently in the events. There were many serious confrontations, notably in Ystradgynlais, Glyncorrwg, Cymer, Trelewis and Ynyshir, and countless skirmishes with the police. There was unprecedented support from other Welsh workers, from the railwaymen of Holyhead to the Steelworkers of Ebbw Vale. And the spectacle of Fed lodges, co-ops and women’s groups mobilising whole communities to run Wales themselves was an inspiring and tantalising vision of what would be possible were Wales to free itself from British shackles. The miners of Wales maintained the strike with a solidarity unmatched throughout the UK – not one pit in Wales re-opened until the strike was officially over – which only happened when the south Wales miners at last succumbed to impossible levels of deprivation in November.

1929: Riots broke out at the Nine Mile Point colliery in Cwmfelinfach, Gwent, because of the employment of ‘company union’ scab labour who had been strikebreakers in 1926. More than 700 miners and villagers were involved. The police, in their familiar role as the coalowners’ shock troops, took several days to establish control.

1931: At Maerdy colliery in the Rhondda Fach noted socialist Arthur Horner (1894-1968), who had played a leading role in 1926, was a member of the Fed Union’s Lodge committee. In the Great Depression of the 1930s the Lodge supported the many unemployed miners in the area as well as the working miners and when Horner and other Lodge members tried to prevent the family of an unemployed miner being evicted from a house in Maerdy he and 35 others were arrested on trumped up charges of unlawful assembly and incitement to riot. They were all imprisoned in Cardiff jail for a year. But neither Horner’s leftwing principles nor Maerdy’s militancy were destroyed: he went on to become President of the Fed in 1936 and General Secretary of the NUM in 1946, and Maerdy colliery was the very last pit to return to work – choirs singing, brass band playing and banners aloft – at the end of the Great Strike of 1984/85.

1933: When the owners of Bedwas colliery in the Rhymni valley tried to enforce a 20% pay cut at a time of hunger marches and breadlines, the workers along with local women rioted, destroying machinery and equipment at the pit. Seven men and four women got jail sentences.

1934: Another riot at a Welsh mine, this time at Bedlinog in Glamorgan when managers sacked activist members of the Fed. Police were called in to beat the shit out of protesters.

1935: Continuing unrest in the coalfield led to the first ‘stay down’ strike when 200 miners at Nine Mile Point colliery in Cwmfelinfach stayed underground for over two weeks.

Meanwhile mass demonstrations against the hated ‘means test’ and savage cuts in the already derisory unemployment relief saw 300,000 protesters take to the streets of Wales in 1935. Among other incidents were: attacks on the National Assistance Board office in Merthyr; riots in Blaina which resulted in 10 people being imprisoned; demonstrations in Bedlinog over the use of scab labour at the Taff Vale Colliery which saw a brutal police reaction followed by the biggest mass trial ever held in the UK, at Cardiff in 1936 – 56 were found guilty and 21 sentenced to hard labour, resulting in a huge protest of over 10,000 people at Treharris; and, by contrast, after the police arrested 12 people at a means test demo in Abertyleri for the non-existent crime of singing anti-royalist songs, they were all acquitted by a brave, independent-minded jury.

1936: The rise of fascism across Europe – in Germany, Italy and Spain particularly – was fast becoming the most urgent issue. In Wales an anti-fascist demo in Tonypandy when Oswald Mosley (1896-1980), leader of the British Union of Fascists, arrived to hold a meeting once again saw the police disgrace themselves. Instead of defending the protesters against Mosley’s retinue of thugs, they defended the fascists and made multiple arrests of anti-fascists, leading to seven people receiving jail sentences.


Another World War was followed by the election of the first Labour government to have an outright majority and the rioting habit faded into history. Fascism had been beaten; Tories had been vanquished; key industries and utilities were nationalised and brought into public ownership; the NHS and a social security system were established; and a broad social democratic consensus, maintained even by the Conservatives when they returned to power in the 1950s, was eroding inequality, protecting rights and eliminating the very causes of rioting. As civilised, cultured, ‘one nation’ Tory PM Harold Macmillan (1894-1986) put it in 1957: “You have never had it so good”.

But tides turn, there is never an end to history, all progress can be undone. The far-right lay dormant for a few decades but never went away. Ushered in by Thatcherism over 40 years ago, unrestrained dog-eat-dog anarcho-capitalism turned the clock back to the 18th century tyranny of the super-rich and in the process destroyed trade unions, productive industry, working-class culture, collective solidarity, rationalism and decency itself. “There is no such thing as society,” Thatcher’s most famous quote, wasn’t a statement of fact, it was a policy aspiration.

And her mission has been accomplished – aided and abetted by media moguls, by bread-and-circuses consumerism, by the financialising of every aspect of life, by the abandonment of education and knowledge for its own sake, by concerted dumbing-down, anaesthetising, propaganda and misinformation, and by the algorithms, surveillance and ubiquity of giant American tech corporations creating a population of hyper-individualised, narcissistic, gullible, compliant, identity-fixated ignoramuses clutching their phones and airbrushing their selfies.

Wales, an impoverished colony of the UK ruled with a rod of iron by an exceptionally venal Westminster government of charlatans, criminals, incompetents and sleazebags, is as ever vulnerable, frail and threatened. But that treacherous position paradoxically points out the one and only solution to our plight: complete independence from the atrocious British State. To have that ideal to work towards is to have an ace up our sleeve, Cymru’s only consolation in these terrible times.

And here I return to where I began: those ‘Ely Riots’. The first point to make is that similar ructions have happened before, and comparatively recently too. In the ‘Ely Bread Riots’ of 1991, youths rampaged up and down Wilson Road over a couple of nights, supposedly “provoked” by an Asian shopkeeper trying to stop a rival white (Cypriot-origin) shopkeeper selling bread and other food at discounted prices. It was ugly, it was petty, it certainly had racist undertones, but most of all it reflected the impotence and isolation of Cardiff’s poorest area, deskilled, unemployed, oppressively policed, demonised by South Wales Echo scaremongering, abandoned to its own devices to face the icy winds of deregulated free-market capitalism.

In many ways the ‘Riots’ of 2023 have the same root causes. Ely remains excluded from the work-shop-spend-work treadmill prevalent in the rest of Cardiff, excluded from the car-dependent retail therapy when over 60% have no car, excluded from the credit card culture upon which the dysfunctional UK economy depends, and excluded from the motivational self-improvement bromides of spiv marketing. Yet, South Wales Police continues to loom over the district, harassing and monitoring for no better reason than Ely folk are generally poor or unemployed or sick and subsisting on chicken-feed benefits and, as ever with the police, poverty itself is deemed a crime while wealth is admirable. They’ve got it the wrong way round, the idiots.

Two teenage Ely boys on an electric bike died after being thrown from the bike while being followed by a menacing police van. You would think, would you not, that a police force with the appalling track record of miscarriages of justice of South Wales Police, a police force that has more or less ceased investigating burglaries and violence across the city, would have something better to do with their time than the soft option of pursuing kids. The deaths triggered understandable rage and anguish and the resulting two days of disorder. The police are clearly indirectly responsible.

It looked like a riot, it sounded like a riot, it smelled like a riot, and it had the defining quality of a riot: overweening, oppressive authority with ill intent. Yep, there was a riot last month in Cardiff!

Working-class rioting has more or less ceased and dictatorial, undemocratic Tory legislation has more or less outlawed any protest more disruptive than a polite petition. All that’s left is the justified anger of those who have nothing to lose because they have nothing: the underclass. Cardiff needs more people who can see through the despicable hypocrisy and fraud of the British State. Ely has a higher proportion of born-and-bred Cardiffians (90%) than anywhere else in the city. Here, four generations have been dumped so the city can be handed over to big business. In my opinion, the disobedient, courageous people of Ely are actually in the vanguard of the revolutionary changes needed if Cardiff and Wales are to survive.

Picture: National Library of Wales