Author: South Wales Miners Library, Swansea University

Provider: South Wales Miners' Library

Rights: Unknown

Interview of Williams, J. L. by Egan, David on 24th April 1973.
The interview forms part of Swansea University’s South Wales Miners’ Library collection.

1 audio file (20 m 40 sec.)



Egan, David: What about the war years now, the outbreak of the war in 1914, and the position of the Federation. At first, for a short while with the Admiralty asking, as I remember, asking them to work an extra hour, and opposing that originally and agreeing, was there a big debate about that?

Williams, J. L.: Oh yes, yes. The agreement we had ended in 1915, that gave rise to the biggest dispute we had as a coalfield. It was a five year agreement which had been, an agreement which had been arrived at in 1910, and that was running out in 1915. Well, the coal owners were quite willing for us to go on under the old agreement, but it was becoming out of date, very much out of date of course, when the prices were going up so rapidly during the first year of the war and we were out for a {unclear}, and there was a maximum wage of course, I mean there was a maximum set on the wages we could get. It would be the daily rates plus 60% and nothing more. There had been some small addition made during that year, but when it came to the early summer of 1915, we gave notice according to the agreement, a month’s notice, that we were ending the five year agreement. It came to an end I believe in July, and we failed, our leaders failed to agree with the leaders of the coal owners on the Conciliation Board, and they came out on strike, an unthinkable thing. We were attacked right and left, all over the country, miners in other coalfields viewing us with a certain amount of disapproval, but we were out for a week and we, well Lloyd George then was a Minister of Munitions, Runciman, he was the minister who was concerned, President of the Board of Trade. He was down in Cardiff a few times, they failed to agree, and then Lloyd George came down. How much of the spadework he really had done, I wouldn’t like to say, or whether most of the spadework had been done by Runciman, I’m not sure but it was he who ran away with the limelight anyhow. And he came down to Cardiff, and he met both sides, he met the miners’ leaders met the coal owners, and it was all settled anyhow.

Egan, David: Did you attend any of the Conferences?

Williams, J. L.: I attended the one at the end, after the settlement, addressed by Lloyd George and Henderson. Appealing for a greater output of coal.

Egan, David: It’s in many ways, I’m very interested in the 1915 strike because it is one of the less, I mean, it’s a marvellous victory in a sense isn’t it, 1915?

Williams, J. L.: Yes, oh yes.

Egan, David: All the hostility that you were talking about even nationally in the M.F.G.B., and yet there's so little known about it, said about it. One of the interesting things that comes out of it is that, at various times it seems that some of the older school in the Federation, Richards and Mabon, Brace, perhaps Brace more than Mabon, Mabon {was more out of things} than ever at this time. They are aware, in a time of war, and the Navy needs coal desperately, they seem to want to stand back over time and I think there's this question of continuing to work on day to day contracts, letting negotiations go on. Is there any influence there, I mean, the Conferences reject this all the time, it seems to suggest that what was happening in 1910-11 in the Mid-Rhondda had spread throughout the coalfield, and that militancy is now, you know, reached a height in 1915. Is there anything in that, I mean is that how you’d see it?

Williams, J. L.: Yes, I think that would be true, yes.

Egan, David: That this change had occurred in the federation, with the old school losing the balance on the Executive Council and {unclear}

Williams, J. L.: Yes, yes, you could say that Onions and Richards and Brace would be very much in favour of going on, keep on working, yes. But the other school prevailed, they decided to come out on strike. Well as they would put it, they were just ending, there was a provision in the agreement to end the agreement and they were ending the agreement, but that would be, I suppose I mean, that would be considered by the critics just a technical point.

Egan, David: The other thing comes out of the strike is the wild accusations of the Times for example, they talk about German gold in the coalfield.

Williams, J. L.: Oh yes, that’s it yes.

Egan, David: It raises the question of the attitude of the Lodges, of the Federation to the war doesn’t it? To what, you remember, the I.L.P. was split on this as well, on the attitude to the war, what was the situation in Bedlinog? Was there a large anti-war movement?

Williams, J. L.: Yes, yes, it was anti-war yes. The I.L.P. would be anti-war, yes.

Egan, David: What about the Lodge?

Williams, J. L.: Well no, the Lodge would be divided, divided. There were factors coming in of course, so many people had relatives out in the war, I mean that would be a big thing locally, of course in every mining town as in other towns. And, it was a delicate question in many places, but, the stories that, but everybody agreed pretty well that we had to get better, get better wages and conditions to produce this coal, and at that time when there was a demand for this higher output, and prices going up so rapidly, and so we were able to improve things greatly in 1915.

Egan, David: What was your own personal position on the war?

Williams, J. L.: Oh, I was against it, like most of the I.L.P. of course.

Egan, David: Meantime, you never had to face the problem of conscientious objection because there was no demand for miners {unclear}

Williams, J. L.: No, no, that’s it. No, no, no, in fact they were not …

Egan, David: Not even as late as 1918 when the {unclear} started

Williams, J. L.: Oh it was just coming on then, but, just coming on it was.

Egan, David: Did you take part actively in the anti-war movement?

Williams, J. L.: Well, I wouldn’t say there was, with us, I wouldn’t say there would be a direct anti-war movement, I mean it was doing things that were considered to be against the prosecution of the war, such as militancy in the pits, strikes and so on. We had local strikes afterwards you see, and a great deal of agitation here and there. The coalfield was boiling over and not only the coal mines but other industries as well. The iron and steel industry and so on, munition works affected, and tales of German gold, in fact it was said that one of the Chief Police Officials in Glamorgan then, he had heard so much about this Carl Marx that was responsible for this anti-war propaganda and stirring up troubles through the coalfield, he had a warrant out to arrest him.

Egan, David: In Merthyr there was, I know from my research, that in Merthyr there was a Stop the War Committee, which tried to bring together the I.L.P. and other groups. Did that have any influence in Bedlinog? I mean, through The Merthyr Pioneer this would have been.

Williams, J. L.: No I don’t think, no, no.

Egan, David: What about the National Unionists, the syndicalists, did they disappear in the war years or were they evident at all?

Williams, J. L.: Well to answer your previous question, we had a situation like this. Very often at the end of a meeting, the meeting called, the miners, a mass meeting to deal with some problem of the time, there would be a resolution moved at the end calling for ending the war, and a part of the main resolution or one by itself, and it usually went through. But, some of the miners took it rather cynical, and the others would be quite enthusiastic about it, no, there would be no unanimity on that point.

Egan, David: So what about the syndicalists, the Industrial Unionists, Ablett and people?

Williams, J. L.: Well, we read the literature, but very few people would call themselves syndicalists. They didn’t go into the trouble of, I mean very few people would go into the trouble of distinguishing between Industrial Unionism and syndicalism, no there were ...

Egan, David: But they were firmly anti-war were they, I mean thinking about what happens to them in the war, the war years they, the Unofficial Reform Committee goes into something called the Industrial Democracy league …

Williams, J. L.: Oh yes.

Egan, David: … which seems to fold up in 1913, and this Hay’s pamphlet War and the Welsh Miner, which we were talking about earlier, and then nothing seems to, there seems to be a sort of vacuum in the war, and then by the end of the war there is this thing the Rhondda Socialist Society which becomes the South Wales Socialist Society. I mean, do you have any knowledge of what was happening in these years to people like Ablett and people who were outside of the I.L.P. and yet on the left?

Williams, J. L.: Well, no, except that they were forming a party that was outside the main national parties of the time. The Rhondda Socialist Society emanated from the meetings in Tonypandy in the Aberystwyth Restaurant.

Egan, David: Arthur Horner of course, went off to Ireland didn’t he?

Williams, J. L.: Yes he did, yes.

Egan, David: To escape imprisonment?

Williams, J. L.: Yes. That was the kind of thing we would get at meetings sometimes in those days. Somebody, who was perhaps supposed to take an active part in something, and the message would be read, at the beginning, Very sorry so and so is unable to be here today, he has joined the Flying Corps. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

Egan, David: What about Ablett’s position on the war?

Williams, J. L.: Oh well, he was against it, but not in the way that the I.L.P.’ers were. I mean, there was a tendency I would say among the more revolutionary to regard the war as more or less inevitable, and the war had to be accepted as a stage in the development of capitalism. So, we shouldn’t be concerning ourselves unduly with opposing the war, but rather take advantage of the war situation to further our own industrial work for instance, I think that would be it, a fair reading of their attitude.

Egan, David: Did this policy have its advocates in Bedlinog?

Williams, J. L.: Oh yes, a few here and there. We had an element in Bedlinog then, a small element, the S.D.F. at the time, the followers of H. M. Hyndman, people thought they were miles in front of the I.L.P. They were getting a weekly called Justice, and they regarded themselves as the elite of the time, those who read Justice every week, I mean. It was a hallmark of intellectual superiority to be a reader of Justice. I met H.M. Hyndman after that, the leader of that party, in London. An old man, when I was at the Labour college, some of us, D. J. Davies for one, and Will Coldrick and a few others, paid a visit to his London home. He was a well-to-do man, he had made his money on the Stock exchange, and very fond of having his own way, and liked to hear his own voice, but he was a very interesting personality. He would stand up at the table to give us a review of the state of the world politically, he gave us a full hour, and at the end he would say, Well, there you are gentlemen, I think we've had a most interesting conversation. But he’d be the only speaker throughout it.

Egan, David: One of the other notable events in Merthyr / Aberdare at this time was the election following Keir Hardie’s death in 1915, when Jimmy Winston was beaten by Stanton, a renegade, did you…

Williams, J. L.: Yes, yes, oh yes, we assisted in that, yes, yes, yes. We helped Jimmy Winston, he was the Miners’ nominee, although the miners were divided, very much so, but Stanton got in, of course, Stanton had more of a non-mining vote than Winston.

Egan, David: The result was obviously a test {unclear} , an indication of attitudes at the time towards the war?

Williams, J. L.: Yes, that’s it, yes, yes, there had been indications. You know about the episode in Aberdare at the beginning of the war when Hardie was shouted down.

Egan, David: {unclear}

Williams, J. L.: Yes.

Egan, David: Was, that a bitter blow to the I.L.P.?

Williams, J. L.: Yes, and to Hardie personally, very much yes.

Egan, David: Winston’s defeat in 1915?

Williams, J. L.: Oh the, yes at the time, but no, it wasn’t lasting I should say. I remember the meeting held in the Rink right after the election, well the first Sunday after the election, and Winston came back. Noah Ablett was speaking. Noah Ablett and some others, they were rather pessimistic about things. I remember Winston getting up after the meeting, and saying he was an old campaigner, he had been preceded by a young man who hadn’t been through the battles he had been, and they were going on to bigger things, that was the theme of his speech. He was a remarkable personality, Jimmy Winston, one of the finest looking men for a start you’ve ever seen I suppose, and very genial type.

Egan, David: Taking the war years together now, they seemed to stand out don’t they? I mean in the history of the coalfield? How would you characterise it? I mean, they stand apart from the depression of the twenties and the thirties because they were a period of full employment in the steam coal area of the coalfield, and they stand aside I suppose from the period before the war, because of the lack of industrial disputes, although 1915 would be an exception. Would you characterise them in that way or would you see 1914 to 1918 in South Wales in your experience as being different?

Williams, J. L.: The war period as compared with the previous …

Egan, David: Well, I mean as a period in itself, I mean, the coalfield was not the same in 1919 as it was in 1914 was it?

Williams, J. L.: Oh no, no

Egan, David: South Wales wasn’t, it seemed as if the whole of society had been so radically changed.

Williams, J. L.: Yes, yes, yes.

Egan, David: Were you aware of that, were you aware that you were going through a period of changing {unclear}

Williams, J. L.: Oh yes, yes, I would say we were, yes, but not sufficiently aware of what was coming. After the end of the war for two years, there was still a big demand for coal and demand for miners, and then the big depression came, and the coal trade, like other trades, caved in. We have never really fully recovered from that I don’t suppose. Coal fuel has not been operating on that scale ever since has it?