Labour's Early Struggles in South Wales: Some New Evidence, 1900-8


Kenneth O Morgan, National Library of Wales journal. 1972, Winter Volume XVII/4

Extracted onto the pages of GENUKI with the kind permission of the National Library of Wales

This is a complete extract of this article (Gareth Hicks April 2003)

THE triumph of the Labour Party in south Wales, and its supplanting of the Liberals in the industrial valleys, has too often been regarded as an inevitable process. In reality, the advance of Labour in the early years of the twentieth century was a chequered and erratic affair, with many setbacks. The kind of difficulties which Labour faced, and the manner in which they were partly overcome, are graphically illustrated in the letter-files of the first secretary of the Labour Representation Committee (re-christened the Labour Party in February 1906). 1  The secretary of the LRC at this period was J. Ramsay MacDonald, years later (in 1924) to become Labour's first prime minister.

The letters printed below illuminate aspects of the growth of the political Labour movement in a variety of constituencies in the years after the formation of the LRC in February 1900. 2  Letters 1 and 2 deal with the remarkable contest in Gower in the 'khaki election' of October 1900. 3  Here, John Hodge, an Englishman and secretary of the Steel Smelters' union, stood for Labour against a local Liberal employer, J. Aeron Thomas. To the general astonishment, Hodge was only very narrowly defeated in this most Welsh of constituencies by the margin of 426 votes. As Hodge tells MacDonald, he was handicapped in Gower by the opposition of prominent local miners' leaders, notably John Williams, the miners' agent for the Western district of the coalfield (and later to become first 'Lib-Lab.' and then Labour M.P. for the Gower, 1906-22). In addition, there was strong pressure in the constituency for Labour to run a Welsh candidate there next time. Even so, as Hodge points out, the strikingly high Labour poll set off something of a chain reaction throughout the Swansea valley, and in the town of Swansea itself. The journal, Llais Llafur, edited by D. J. Rees at Ystalyfera, carried the message of the ILP throughout the valley community. One consequence, as Matt Giles (secretary of the Swansea Socialist Society) tells MacDonald in letter 3, was that the Swansea Trades' Council decided to affiliate to the LRC in November 1901. 4  Giles, who had come to Swansea in 1899 as an advertising agent for Fry's Cocoa and was later to become the full-time organiser for the Workers' Union in south Wales, was himself a major propagandist for the socialist Cause over forty years. By 1908 he had made the Swansea branch of the Workers' Union, with 500 members, the largest in the British Isles.

The only seat with a Labour member of parliament at this time, however, was Merthyr Tydfil. Here, in a famous contest, Keir Hardie had ousted the Liberal, Pritchard Morgan, as the junior member in the 'khaki election' of 1900, despite the imperialist passions aroused by the Boer War. 5  But, as letter 4 below indicates, Hardie's position in Merthyr was still far from secure: H. T. Hanson, the writer, was a sub-editor on the local Liberal newspaper, the Merthyr Express, as well as an active member of the ILP. As Hanson points out, there was the prospect of a severe Liberal challenge in Merthyr at the next election, while the miners were still to affiliate to the LRC. Hardie's rather chaotic methods of organisation provided another problem for his local constituency workers. Even so, Labour's cause made steady progress in the Merthyr Boroughs thereafter, especially in local government. Letter 5 below, written by Dai Davies, Pant (the secretary of the Merthyr Trades Council) illustrates the challenge that Labour was putting up in the borough elections in the autumn of 1905. In the event, Labour candidates were remarkably successful, all twelve being elected and Enoch Morrell becoming the first Labour mayor of Merthyr. 6  In the general election that followed in January 1906, Hardie comfortably beat off a last-minute challenge by an unofficial Liberal candidate, the shipowner, Henry Radcliffe.

In these circumstances, letter 6 below, by Richard Davies, a Welshman who was secretary of the Municipal Employees' Association, is interesting because it is so wrong-headed. Even to an intelligent observer like Davies, the omens could be totally misleading. In fact, his premonitions of sweeping Tory gains in south Wales were based wholly on his estimate of the situation in Cardiff. Here, the Conservatives captured control of the council in 1904, while Labour councillors such as W. S. Crossman, John Chappell and John Jenkins 7 (all of them firm 'Lib-Labs.') stood out by their rarity. In a large, heterogenous constituency like Cardiff, with its diversity of trades, Labour was notoriously hard to organise. Letter 7, from John Watt (secretary of the Cardiff ILP and later to become a member of the ILP's National Administrative Council) illustrates some of the difficulties with Lib.-Lab. councillors dominating the local LRC. On the other hand, Richard Davies's assumption that Lloyd George's 'revolt' against the 1902 Balfour Education Act was driving shoals of Welshmen into the arms of the Conservatives was proved to be absurd. In the general election of January 1906, Tory candidates were defeated in every seat in Wales, most of them by immense margins. 8  Apart from Keir Hardie in Merthyr, every Welsh constituency returned a Liberal: Ivor Guest even captured Cardiff for the Liberals with a majority of over 3,000 votes. On the other hand, Richard Davies's comment that 'religion and education are the two.......................

...................... main ideas in the Welsh mind' was not without foundation as a description of Edwardian Wales. Certainly, Wales was still far from being a stronghold of socialism. Bodies like the ILP or the Marxist Social Democratic Federation were small and struggling organisations in the Welsh valleys. In Cardiff, they were weaker still: not until 1918 did Labour even put up a parliamentary candidate there.

After the general election of 1906, there was a temporary mood of elation amongst Labour Party workers in south Wales, newly inspired by the return of twenty-nine independent Labour members to the House. Matt Giles, in letter 8 below, sees a prospect of another Labour candidature, this time in Swansea Town, after the calamitous withdrawal of J. Littlejohns, the official candidate, prior to the election. But MacDonald was brusque and unenthusiastic; in any case, no by-election took place in Swansea. Despite the success of several Labour candidates in Swansea borough elections after 1906, the Labour Party was still unable to mount an effective challenge to the Liberals in parliamentary contests. Ben Tillett's unofficial candidature in Swansea Town in January 1910 when he finished well down at the bottom of the poll even in this constituency where dockers were numerous, was a disaster. Elsewhere, too, some of the earlier optimism had evaporated. In letter 9 below, a schoolmaster who served as secretary of the Aberdare ILP over a long period explains to MacDonald that vigorous propaganda was still required in Merthyr to sustain Keir Hardie's position as member. Hardie himself was prostrated by illness at this time, much of his private business being conducted by his close colleague, the eccentric Salvationist, Frank Smith. Hardie was shortly to set off on a spectacular tour around the world to regain his strength. This removed him from his Merthyr constituents for almost a year in 1907-8, and much depended on local Labour stalwarts like Price, John Prowle and Edmund Stonelake. Meanwhile, in north Wales, as shown in letter 10 from Edward Francis, the secretary of the ILP branch in Wrexham, efforts were being made to form an organised Labour Party there. But in the north, apart from a few pockets of strength in the Caernarvonshire quarrying areas 9  and parts of the east Denbighshire coalfield, Labour was still in a feeble condition, and the Liberal ascendancy overwhelming. At the end of 1908, therefore, on the eve of the eruption of violent industrial unrest in the mining valleys, the progress that Labour had achieved since the 1900 election was still very hard to assess.

Ultimately, it was industrial protest which provided the key to the triumph of the Labour Party in south Wales, the fierce class conflict unleashed in the Tonypandy disturbances and the Cambrian strike in 1910-11, the solidarity of trades unionism during the war, the new militancy and power of the Welsh working class during the economic ................

........................ dislocation of the immediate post-war period. By 1922, Labour had effectively displaced the Liberal ascendancy throughout the great majority of constituencies in south Wales, and was making some inroads in Gwynedd also. 10  Until the eve of the first world war, however, the political arm of the Labour movement remained comparatively weak, despite the charismatic presence of a leader like Hardie, despite even such encouragements as the miners' vote for affiliation to the Labour Party at the end of 1908. The letters appended here illustrate some of the struggles that Labour's early pioneers had to endure. They also, perhaps, indicate some of the perils of assuming an inevitability in the interpretation of our recent political past.


The Queen's College, Oxford

The Letters;

1. John Hodge to J. Ramsay MacDonald, 17 October 1900.   11

If we had had three more days we would have won, had it not been for several trade union political blacklegs who opposed me, the more prominent being John Williams, Miners Agent, in addition to which Mabon sent my opponent a telegram wishing him success; it is rumoured that my opponent promised £50 towards his election expenses. Presume its cause and effect.

2. John Hodge to J. Ramsay MacDonald, 29 March 1901.    12

In reply to your favour of the 17th since the general election I have addressed several meetings in the Gower constituency. I am afraid, however, that the Welshmen are so provincial in their characteristics that if it was possible to select a Welshman in the labour interest for that constituency there would be more heart and go put into the fight than by either a Scotchman or an Englishman standing. The effects of my fight in Gower has [ sic] been far reaching. For instance in Swansea the Trades Council ran three candidates for three different Wards, and succeeded in returning the three; on the request of that Council I made a special journey to Swansea, and in conjunction with Tillet [ sic] did all we could to assist the candidates so promoted; then at the School Board election where they had one man they ran two, and returned both, again Tillet [ sic] and myself assisted. In Pontardulais and Gorseinon men were nominated out of the ranks of Labour as candidates for the Urban Council, the result I do not yet know. Ystalyfera did likewise, and in Llanelly they ran labour candidates for both the Guardians and the County Council, the whole of that district is therefore ripe; probably the wisest course to adopt with respect to this constituency would be --- if your Executive would call a conference of trade unionists, Friendly Society representatives, and all other progressive bodies, with a view of selecting a candidate for the next general election; if selected by such a conference I would be perfectly willing to again contest the seat, or if they selected someone else I should he quite willing to fall in and do anything that I could amongst our members in that Division to assist the candidature of the nominee of such a meeting: at any rate irrespective of Gower I would be prepared to consider the invitation from a Borough constituency in preference to a County constituency on the score of expense.

3. Matt Giles to J. Ramsay MacDonald, 28 November 1901.    13

I am pleased to inform you that last night the Swansea Trades & Labour Council decided to affiliate to the Labour Rep. Com ... There are a few strong men on the Council who are rather inclined to a Liberal-Labour representative & who view with suspicion anything done by we Socialists, it will require a large amount of tact to clear the shoals ahead. We have had an open opposition so far, only just quibbling, so it's as well that we should be armed with all facts. A committee was appointed to organize this public meeting & conference, which is composed of a majority of Socialists. So you may be assured that your wishes will be carried out to the letter.

4. H. T. Hanson to J. Ramsay MacDonald, 10 June 1903.   14

Our local secretary (Dai Davies) and myself have been conferring over your letter of the 6th, and are sadly disappointed that Hardie has led us astray. It is marvellous that a man so straight and never-failing in public life should be so haphazard in private. Now, we behind the scenes here realise that a great deal depends on the success of this Labour Conference. The occasion is critical for it comes at the very psychological moment when the Whig Liberals are intriguing to oust Hardie. They are actually negotiating with a rich colliery owner (& a Welshman to boot) to be their candidate. Our policy is a double one, therefore, in getting this conference --- not only to make our organization secure, but so to far compromise the chief labour leaders of the district before they are got at by this new move of the Liberals. Once get them to declare for us, & they will not turn back. The moment is critical --- and it is not only important for the Merthyr seat, but for Wales, for if we lead & hold firm, other seats in Wales will follow. Try, therefore, between you & Hardie to make our Conference an assured success.

5. Dai Davies to J. Ramsay MacDonald, 22 September 1905.     15

We are in the thick of battle here: fighting for Labour to have the moulding of our new Borough Council. We have candidates in the 8 wards for the round, in some 2 & others one candidate; & I hope on Nov. 9th that Labour will be in a position to say who the first Mayor is to be.

6. Richard Davies to J. Ramsay MacDonald, 30 October 1905.  16

It has always been a marvel to me why the Party has not gone in for active and continuous propaganda work in South Wales, all the elements and conditions exist there for the building up of a fine staunch Labour Party and owing to the neglect of the I.L.P. the workers are slowly drifting into Toryism. Cardiff itself affords a striking illustration of what I mean. Fourteen years ago when I lived in Cardiff 7  Labour Candidates were run for the Town Council, one of these (Councillor Crossman) was successful and the others polled a very respectable number of votes. I myself, as one of the Cadidates, put in the field one week before the Election day, came within 74 votes of one of the strongest Liberal candidates. There was then a good Liberal majority on the Council and the sentiment in favour of Labour Representation was strong & growing stronger. What are the facts today? There is a Tory majority on the Council, Crossman who was selected as a Labour man is either President or Vice President of the Liberal Party while Chappel [ sic] the only other Labour man openly supports the candidates of the Liberal Party. (I don't count Jenkins who has always run under the auspices of the Liberal or Radical Party).
As things stand now the Lloyd George policy of starving the schools is driving men away from the Liberal Party in shoals and having nowhere else to go they are joining the Tories. The Welsh educational policy may be a fine object lesson for England but it's a very bad policy for Wales where the zeal for education occupies the same position as it did in Scotland twenty-five or thirty years ago. I know Welsh parents today who are going short of the necessaries of life to give their children a good education. Religion and education are the two main ideas in the Welsh mind at the present time.
There I did not mean to write all this but only to urge you to help the Welsh Labour men if you can.

7. J  Watt to J. Ramsay MacDonald, 13 November 1905.   17

The local L.R.C. is in a thoroughly unsatisfactory state. The T.C. nominees are more distinctly Liberal than ever. (All three, Crossman, Chappell & Jenkins engaged in supporting Lib. municipal candidates.) The L.R.C. is in hands of Lib.-Lab. sec. & we have failed to get L.R.C. to pull up the Lib.Lab. Councillors. A considerable amount of wages is owing Chappell & Crossman who get when fully paid £2/10/0 a week. Several Unions in consequence of the Independent position not being taken up are withdrawing & Labour Representation is suffering. All our chaps are lying low. If they work for L.R.C. they simply strengthen the Lib. Lab. tactics and as they are doing nothing it is crumbling away --- not the tactics but the L.R.C. itself. The Parliamentary Com(mittee) is quite independent which is awaiting replies from Dew & Raynor as to whether they would stand provided they were adopted.

8. Matt Giles to J. Ramsay MacDonald, 12 February 1906.   18

[There is a probable vacancy in Swansea Town as Sir George Newnes is likely to be made a peer. John Littlejohns' candidature on behalf of Labour had collapsed].
They admired his ability, but, as Littlejohns always had a rather cynical contempt for the people instead of a little human feeling & sympathy he never got near enough to them, there was also a strain & a coldness when in close contact with the mass, which was deadly, especially in Wales.

9. W. W. Price to J. Ramsay MacDonald, 28 April 1907.    19

Great Demonstration: Aberdare. Some time ago Mr. Keir Hardie asked me to consult Stanton (Miners' Agent) & Stonelake (Sec. of Trades Council) re the intended big demonstration in Aberdare on July 22nd. The elections for Dist. Council & Guardians intervened & we failed to meet.
However we talked the matter over this morning and considered the pros & cons of whether to have purely I.L.P. demonstration, a L.R.C. or a Miners' demonstration. Ultimately we thought it well to have a joint meeting --- I.L.P., Trades Council & Miners' etc. and the expenses to be shared by all the bodies ...
The L.R.C. is really dead here. The question of putting new life into it has caused a great deal of anxiety to our comrade Hardie ... I am sorry I cannot very well trouble Hardie with the details now as he is too weak. I have written to F. Smith to consult him when he considers Hardie well enough. Therefore I should like to know if the draft I have made out of the intended Demonstration meets with your approval.
The speakers are yourself, Hardie & Barnes.

10. Edward Francis to J. Ramsay MacDonald, 21 July 1907.    20

I have to bring to your notice the effort we are to make to form a local Labour Party [in Wrexham] and enclose a copy of the circular letter we have forwarded to the various Trades Unions. The existing Trades Council is almost lifeless and the I.L.P. though vigorous is wanting in numbers.
[Letter from the secretaries of the Wrexham Trades and Labour Council and the secretary of the Wrexham ILP enclosed.]


1 I am much indebted to the Labour Party librarian, Mrs. Irene Wagner, for access to these files. At the time of writing, only the files up to the end of 1908 are available.

2 The most comprehensive account of the rise of Labour in these years is Frank Bealey and Henry Pelling, Labour and Politics, 1900-1906 (London, 1958). There is also some material in chapters V and VI in Kenneth O. Morgan, Wales in British Politics, 1868-1922 (Cardiff, second edition, 1970).

3 I have covered this contest in 'The Khaki Election in Gower' Gower XIII (1960). The local press is the indispensable source here: see, particularly, Henry Davies on 'Labour's Defeat at Gower', Llais Llafur, 20 October 1900. Davies was an official of the Tin and Sheet Millmen. John Williams replied in Llais Llafur, 3 November 1900: he attacked Hodge for, among other things, going against the decision of the local Liberal and Labour Association.

4 An invaluable source here is Stan Awbery, Labour's Early Struggles in Swansea (Swansea, 1949). Also Richard Hyman, The Workers' Union (Oxford, 1971), pp. 26-7.

5 See Kenneth O. Morgan, 'The Merthyr of Keir Hardie', in Glanmor Williams (ed.), Merthyr Politics: the making of a Working-Class Tradition (Cardiff, 1966), pp. 67ff.; Kenneth O. Fox, 'Labour and Merthyr's Khaki Election', Welsh History Review, Vol. II, No. 4 (1965).

6 Glamorgan Free Press, 11 November 1905. Morrell, a Welsh-speaking Welshman, was originally a colliery boy and checkweighman. He was later to serve as president of the South Wales Miners' Federation at the time of the general strike of 1926.

7 Jenkins sat as 'Lib.-Lab.' M.P. for Chatham, 1906-10.

8 See Kenneth O. Morgan, Wales in British Politics, pp. 219-21.

9 See Cyril Parry, The Radical Tradition in Welsh Politics (Hull, 1970), chapter III.

10 ibid., pp. 69-70. Labour also held Wrexham, 1922-4 and 1929-31.

11 Labour Representation Committee letter-files (Transport House), 1/181.

12  ibid., 2/138.

13 ibid., 3/362.

14 ibid., 9/172.

15 ibid., 25/91.

16 ibid., 27/195.

17 ibid., 27/344.

18 ibid., 31/360.

19 Labour Party General Correspondence, 14/1.

20 ibid., 17/405/1.