For some time, I have been writing a novel set in the years just before World War 1. Like much of my other writing, this is an Alternate History. The initial idea was to set it on Tyneside in the severe winter of 1946/47 under Nazi occupation. This is the origin of the title, A Frozen Spring. For that to happen the World War 2 had to be very different, so I set the Point of Divergence or POD – the point at which this world became different from our own – back before WW1.
There is a persistent story that Winston Churchill, while Home Secretary, ordered troops against striking miners in South Wales and that many were shot and killed in Tonypandy. Like all such myths, there is a grain of truth. There was a strike, soldiers were called in, but he was initially reluctant to use them. When they were used, they often had the effect of restraining the excesses of police, who had also been drafted in from elsewhere. Contemporary accounts seem to refer to the behaviour of police from Bristol.
In this story, though, I went with the myth and the POD is a massacre by soldiers in Tonypandy Town Square of both striking miners, and also of women and children attending the rally. This extract is supposedly a newspaper report of the Inquest. I picked it because it is reasonably self-contained, and introduces an important character, Blenkinsopp.
I have been posting the story online in intermittent instalments for some time. I have more or less got to the outbreak of WW1. You can read from the beginning here. You will need to register with the site to read it, but that is free.
South Wales Chronicle
March 14 1911
Tonypandy Riots -Affecting evidence to Inquest
The inquest into the deaths that occurred in the riots in Tonypandy of last year has just opened. On the first day, the Coroner heard evidence from Officers and serving men and also from relatives of the deceased.
When called to the stand, the sad figure of Mr Hugh Edwards, a draper from Tonypandy was an affecting sight, his wife having been shot by troops in the Town Square of Tonypandy, and his son and granddaughter grievously injured. By chance, he was called to give evidence of the circumstances surrounding her death, immediately after the officer commanding the troops on that fateful day. His account was so baldly given and so graphic in its detail that one or two ladies in the public gallery had to be removed in great distress. There was such a marked difference between his accounts and that of Capt. Blenkinsopp immediately preceding him, that the Coroner asked him to confirm his statements on numerous occasions. The public gallery became so rowdy as he continued to speak that the Coroner had to call a halt for quiet on several occasions.
The following is as faithful a rendering of his answers when questioned by the Coroner as can be made, so that readers can judge for themselves the veracity of his statements.
C: What is your name and profession?
E: My name is Hugh Edwards. I am a draper at 7 Town Square, Tonypandy.
C: You also reside at that address?
E: That is correct. My family have quarters immediately above the shop.
C: How many people reside at that address?
E: Myself, two sons and at the time of the incident my wife, Elizabeth.
C: Please tell us what you were doing just before the death of your wife.
E: Because of the meeting that was planned for that evening, we had stayed open a little later in the hope of getting a little business from the women we expected to be attending. At about 7.15 on that evening, we had just closed up. I was cashing up the small takings while my youngest son Hugh and my wife went to put up the shutters.
C: Were you expecting trouble?
E: Not from the meeting, but a few days earlier we had a window broken by a member of the police.
C: What were the circumstances of that breakage?
E: It was at about 5.00 of the evening. I was just locking up when a policeman appeared at the door demanding entry. He appeared to be in drink and was alone, so I thought it likely that this was not official business, so I refused to open up.
C: And what happened next?
E: He swore at me with many oaths, then knocked out a pane of glass from the door with his truncheon. I then told him to leave and that he was a disgrace to his uniform. He swore at me again, but did leave.
Cries of “Shameful” were heard from the gallery at this point.
C: Did you recognise this officer?
E: No sir, he was not a local man. I judged him from his uniform to be from Bristol.
More noise erupted.
C: So having regard to that incident, you decided to close your shutters in future when the shop was closed?
E: At that time we had no shutters, but my eldest son, George, made me some the next day.
C: So, returning to the evening of your wife’s death…
At this point, proceedings had to be halted to allow Mr Edwards to recover his composure. After a short break, the Coroner resumed his questions.
C: I am sorry to put you to this, Mr Edwards, but I am sure you realise we must delve to the bottom of this matter.
E: I understand, Sir.
C: So, to return. What happened, while your wife and son were putting up the shutters.
E: I heard a great commotion arising in the crowd. My wife called out to me, “The soldiers are here, Hugh. Come and help us get these shutters up quickly.” Before I could around the counter to the door, however, I heard the sound of shots banging into the wall of the shop.
C: You are positive this was shots?
E: Yes sir. I served in South Africa in the service of the late Queen, and I am very familiar with the sound.
Some laughter came at this aside in the gallery, whereupon the Coroner admonished them that this was not a laughing matter.
C: What rank, Mr Edwards?
E: Sergeant, Sir.
Calls of “Good man” from the gallery.
C: Thank you. Please go on.
E: After the shots hit the building, I heard my wife and son both call out. I rushed to the door and found my wife laying on the ground and my son on his knees beside her. “They’ve killed Ma”, he cried out as I came into the street. When I saw her, I knew that she was mortally wounded. She had blood all across her breast and shoulder, and it was running in the street beneath her. She had been hit twice, once in the shoulder and the other through the heart.
More cries from the gallery at this point, several women being overcome and sobbing.
C: Where were the soldiers at this point?
E: From the front of my shop, the meeting was directly opposite while the soldiers were on my right. The crowd had by then almost surrounded them and I heard further shots. I saw more men fall, then the soldiers disappeared in the crowd.
C: Captain Blenkinsopp of the 18th Hussars in his evidence has said that the shots that killed your wife must have gone through the crowd without hitting anyone before striking her.
E: No Sir. If shots had been aimed at the crowd, they would have to be an uncommonly bad shot or very neglectful of their duties for those shots to have hit my wife. They must have been aimed at her, Sir.
The gallery again became very rowdy, with cat calls directed at the Captain of Hussars still sitting resplendent in his uniform in the body of the court, not yet having been released by the Coroner.
C: Very well. Did you see anything after this point, Mr Edwards?
E: I was very distressed at the injuries to my wife, Sir, and was attempting to tend to her, so I was not paying close attention to events in the Square. However, I heard the soldiers ordered to fall back and then heard the sound of horses, followed by screams and shouts. I looked up to see the cavalrymen had ridden into the crowd of men who had surrounded the soldiers and were laying about with their sabres, although I think one or two were using batons.
C: What happened next?
A: The cavalry burst through the crowd of miners and hit the group of men and women and some children who had come for the meeting.
C: Did they pull up at that point?
E: No sir, they carried on full tilt.
More rowdiness erupted, at which point the Coroner threatened to clear the court unless it ceased.
C: Captain Blenkinsopp has said that the crowd of women and children was too close in upon the group attacking the soldiers for them to avoid riding into them.
A: I have seen cavalry in action, sir, and it was not necessary. From the outset they went at full tilt, which was not needed. A troop of men riding down upon you, even at a canter, will shift the most hardened of civilians. Nor did they have to use their sabres, since they all had batons. Most of all, Sir, there must have been 40 yards between the miners who had been fighting and the women and children behind them. They had plenty of room to turn aside, but they kept on riding straight at them in the main. I saw perhaps half a dozen pull up.
C: One final question, Mr Edwards. You say you have two sons. The youngest was by his mother’s side when she was shot. Where was the eldest?
A: He is a miner, Sir and was on strike. He was standing with his wife and daughter when the cavalry attacked them.
At this point Captain Blenkinsopp tried to offer a protest, but was silenced by the Coroner, saying “You will have your turn again Captain, for I am not finished with you yet”
C: And were they injured?
E: All three of them, sir. My son had a broken leg, his wife a cut to her head and my granddaughter was trampled under a horse. She lost both of her legs, Sir.
The simple dignity of this humble draper as he delivered this statement finally overcame the normally impassive Coroner, who bowed his head for a moment before continuing.
C: I think we will adjourn at that point until 10.00 tomorrow morning.
The shocking descriptions of the events given by Mr Edwards had left many in the public gallery in tears, both men and women. The courtroom fell silent as all considered what they had heard. The silence was only broken by the sound of Capt. Blenkinsopp’s boots striking the floor as he strode from the room.