9 April 2023

Hugh Proctor – Tonypandy, 1910

This is the opening to an Alternate History novel I’m writing. Pretty much the full story up to 1914 is available here: https://forum.sealionpress.co.uk/index.php?threads/a-frozen-spring.2429. The format there is rather different, so I’ve started turning it into a more conventional novel format.

Da never forgot Tonypandy. It haunted him his entire life. Not just him, either. A whole generation were changed by that day. He used to say the bosses created the revolution, not the workers. Even so, deep inside him, I think he always wondered if the price had been too high. He still hated, though. I was with him at the end. Even then, forty years later, his last words were regret that he hadn’t managed to nail the man who shot my Ma in cold blood.

“Hugh! The soldiers are here, Hugh. Come and help us get these shutters up quickly. They’re heavy.”

“I’ll be out in a second, blod. I need to finish cashing up.”

Suddenly from out in the square came the sound of hooves and loud shouting. Hugh dropped the tin and ran for the door. Before he had made it round the counter, he heard it. Bullets smacking into the front of the house, then his son’s anguished cry.

“They’ve killed Ma!”

As he came out into the Square, he took it all in. Elen, his wife, laid out on the ground in a pool of blood, his youngest son, also Hugh, on his knees beside her, unheeding the blood soaking into his trousers. He knew immediately she was dead, he had seen enough of it in South Africa. 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.

In the square, the soldiers who must have fired the shots were surrounded now by the crowd. He heard more shots and two men fell, then another smashed the window of the shop.

“We must get inside Hugh! Help me with your ma.”

The two of them began dragging the body towards the shop doorway. As they did, the sound of horses came again. Looking up he saw one of the Hussars charging at full tilt towards them, sabre extended.

“Quickly Hugh bach, inside.”

In the nick of time they got inside the door, slamming it shut as the horseman thundered by.

Young Hugh wailed.

“What are we going to do Da? Evan is out there with Mari and little Gwen. They’ve shot people Da.”

Young Hugh was just twelve years old, the youngest of three sons. Evan, the oldest was a miner and with some 12,000 others engaged in a bitter strike against the pit owners, the Cambrian Combine. Even with police drawn in from as far as London they hadn’t been able to control the pickets. It was a sign of the success of the strike that the Army had now been called in. So far though they had been in the background. A threat still, but controlled. The infantrymen had troubled Hugh. They looked young and frightened. He’d spoken to a sergeant, older but still never having seen action. He clearly respected Hugh for his experience, but was unforthcoming when asked about their orders. The Hussars had been a different matter. Sitting astride their great horses, towering over the small men of the valleys, they had held themselves aloof and clearly felt they had nothing in common with either the infantrymen of the strikers.

Hugh pulled himself together. His son was still knelt beside his mother’s body, holding her hand. He needed his support now.

“Listen to me now, Hugh bach. I need you to go out the back to your Uncle Gethin. Tell him what has happened and get him to find the Minister if he can. I’m going to look for Evan and Mari and Gwen. It’s gone quiet out there so I’ll be safe. Go now!”

“I don’t want to leave Ma alone Da.”

“I know bach, but we can’t help her now. Gethin needs to know what has happened to his sister and I must find Evan. Go, now, and be careful. If you see any soldiers just go into the nearest house. They will know who you are and will help.”

Reluctantly, young Hugh relinquished his mother’s cold hand and stood, only then noticing his blood soaked clothing.

“You had better get changed first bach. If the soldiers or police see you like that they will think the worst. Best not to give them an opportunity.”

As the young boy made his way to the rear of the shop, Hugh risked a quick glance through the broken window, The Hussars had gone, but bodies were strewn across the square. Strikers and police alike were tending to them. A young constable was kneeling just outside, his face red with tears as he looked down at the body of a small boy about eight. Hugh recognised the boy, Mark Edwards, the son of a cousin of his wife.

He looked back at his wife, stretched out on the shop floor, eyes fixed and staring. Going behind the counter, he pulled out one of the sheets normally used to protect the stock from the sun and carefully laid it over her body.

“I’ll be back cariad. I must find Evan and little Gwen, and Mari. They need me now.”

He opened the door and stepped out.

“Hugh, Hugh!”

The voice was that of another shopkeeper, Daffyd Pugh, owner of the hardware store three shops down.

“You must come quickly Hugh, Gwen has been injured.”

He paused, looking down at the blood smeared across the pavement in front of the shop and at the pock marks on the wall.

“Oh Hugh, what…”

“It’s Elen, Daffyd. They shot her. She is in God’s hands now. Tell me! Where is Gwen?

“She has been taken to the school, along with Evan. There is an aid station there, but she will need to go to hospital soon. She was trampled. Evan has a broken leg I think.”

Without waiting to hear more, Hugh set off at a run, heading down the hill to the School. Suddenly, he stopped and called back,

“I’ve sent young Hugh to Gethin. If you see him, keep him safe please. Don’t let him come to the School.”

The school was a nightmare. Hugh had seen injuries before, he had seen gunshot wounds. Never, though, had he seen or heard the effects of such on women and children. Across the room bodies lay on the floor, some on blankets or coats, others on the bare boards. A few figures moved amongst them, trying desperately to deal with the injured. As he scanned the room looking for his son and granddaughter, the sergeant he had spoken with earlier in the day appeared beside him.

“This is a bad day, Mr Proctor, a bad day. The men panicked I know, but those damned Hussars, I swear they took delight in what they did.”

“You cannot just blame them. My Elen is lying dead on the floor of my shop, shot by your men, sergeant. She was nowhere near the crowd. It was bloody murder, but we will get no justice.”

He was still scanning the room.

“Now, sergeant, I have to find my son and his wife and daughter.”

Without a backward glance he left the sergeant standing alone.

As he strode away he finally saw his son, slumped against a wall, his leg splinted. There was no sign of his daughter-in-law Mari or granddaughter Gwen. As he approached, Evan looked up, his face frozen with grief.

“Mari has lost the baby, Da. And Gwennie will probably lose both legs. Those bastards rode us down.”

“Daffyd Pugh told me that you and Gwen were hurt and sent me here. I didn’t know about Mari. I’m sorry Evan, but it’s worse still. Ma is dead. The soldiers shot her as she was putting up the shutters with young Hugh. I’ve sent Hugh to Gethin with the news. Where are Mari and Gwen?”

“They’ve been taken to Llwynypia hospital. Mari lost a lot of blood and they said Gwen.… they said Gwen.”

He stopped speaking and broke down in tears. Neither man was prone to displays of emotion but today they sat side by side and wept. Nor were they alone.

Finally Hugh summoned his strength and stood up.

“I have to find Hugh and Gethin and get,” a deep breath, “and get the undertaker for Ma. I’ll be back for you.”

As he left the school he saw, striding past, the arrogant Captain of the Hussars. Without thinking he stepped in front of him and stared him in the face.

“Stand aside man, I have urgent business to attend.”

“Murderer!” shouted Hugh, before striking him full in the face. The soldier staggered back, from astonishment as much as from the blow.

“You impudent dog, you should be whipped and had I my crop with me I would do it now.”

Just then he saw a police constable watching the exchange from across the street.

“Constable! Arrest this man. He has assaulted me.”

The PC looked from Hugh to the Hussar and back again.

“Arrest him sir? On what charge?”

“Assault I tell you.”

“I saw nothing sir, beyond you attempting to push this gentleman aside.”

“I did no such thing.”

“Really sir? I distinctly saw you attempt to push this man from your path, sir. It seems to me that it was you who laid hands on him. If that is cause for arrest sir, then perhaps I should be taking you along to the police station, not this gentleman.”

“I will have you dismissed,” spat the Hussar, then, turning to Hugh “and you will be arrested. Have no doubt about it.”

He strode off down the hill, Hugh and the Constable watching.

“He may forget it, although you have damaged his pride. He seems especially arrogant and may pursue it. My advice to you if he does is simple – lie. I’ll back you. I had enough of his type when I was in the army myself.”

With that he turned on his heel and walked away. As he did, young Hugh appeared, with his uncle.

“Thank you Gethin. Mari has been taken to Llwynypia Hospital along with Gwen. Mari has lost her child and Gwen seem likely to lose her legs.

“I have spoken to the Minister. He will be come to the shop, but he has many visits to make today.” said Gethin, “Mr Price will call to take Ma as soon as he can. I’m afraid he is almost as busy as Reverend Hopkin.”

“Thank you again Gethin. I need to get to the Hospital as soon as I can. Evan is inside, but I don’t think it is a place for young Hugh. Can you look after him for me though.”

“No Da, I want to come with you to see little Gwen. She will be frightened and I can always get her smiling. I can stay with her while you see Mari.”

For Hugh the weeks to follow were the worst he had ever experienced, worse even than his time in South Africa. Evan’s injuries were not severe, but he would no longer be able to work in the pit. Mari remained gravely ill for a week, then slowly improved. Gwen lost both legs, one above the knee. Physically she recovered well, but the trauma of the day remained with her. Young Hugh was determined to go down the pit in place of his elder brother, but both his father and his brother flatly refused to allow it. Elen was not the only death. Twelve others died on that day, in addition to the previous deaths in Porth. Over the weeks afterwards another three died from their injuries, all women.

Hugh did not return to the business. Evan took it over, his young brother assisting as he had with his father. When Mari recovered, she joined him, all living in the same small flat above the shop. For two weeks, Hugh hardly stirred from his tiny room. He refused almost all visitors over that time, spending his days at first simply staring out of the window. One day however, he picked up an old copy of a newspaper with the intent to light the fire when he noticed an article about the events on that day. Almost against his will, he began to read it, slowly becoming more and more angry, the fire forgotten.

Evan came in to find his father still on his knees, the newspaper clenched in his hands, shaking. At first, thinking it was some kind of fit, he was about to send for the doctor. His father, though, soon disabused him.

“Have you read these lies? They suggest your mother was some sort of seditious rioter, not an innocent woman standing at her own door. I will not have your mother’s name so despoiled.”

With that he stormed out, heading for the offices of the South Wales Echo, the newspaper he held in his fist. An hour later he returned, subdued and depressed.

“They won’t change anything, they won’t listen. They have been told what to print. I will not rest though. If they will not change the lies, then we must get rid of the liars.”

The strike lasted months more, well into 1911. Bitter fighting between miners and police or soldiers happened almost daily with brutal beatings inflicted by both sides. There were more deaths too, two strikers, one police officer died, all suffering serious head wounds. A hussar was pulled from his horse and died later from the kicks and blows that rained down on him from the crowd. With each death the response seemed always to be yet more violence.

In January 1911, the explosives magazine at the Glamorgan mine was broken into and 100lb. of blasting explosives stolen together with detonators and fuses. The idea of such a quantity being in the hands of men who knew how to use it, caused great anxiety. Rumours and counter rumours spread rapidly about likely targets about likely targets. Members of Special Branch appeared in the area, but were unable to make any progress. Their appearance sparked further rumour that the explosives had in fact been taken by Irish Republicans, or perhaps by Anarchists.

The strike lasted for several months more, but slowly the violence subsided. The Hussars were eventually withdrawn, although replaced by more mounted police. Public meetings had been forbidden since the violence in Porth, but they took place anyway. Speaker after speaker denounced the mine owners, the police and the army alike. Hugh by now had shaken off the despondency caused by Elen’s death. He began to speak at these meetings, his skills as a preacher serving him well. His message, though, was different. This strike, all strikes, were about more than money. They were the only weapon available, he would say, to fight the state, acting on behalf of the bosses, from keeping the workers down, taking from them the wealth they generated so that a few thousand people could live in luxury.

His political message meant that inevitably he came to the attention of police, leading to a visit to the flat and his arrest. He was charged with causing a breach of the peace and sentenced to 3 weeks in prison. The arrest caused the violence to break out again and directly led to the spread of disorder. Rallies and marches demanding his release spread across the country as his cause was picked up by others, especially the burgeoning Syndicalist movement.

When Da was sent to prison, he took it as a badge of honour. He’d supported the miners before, because of Evan. He’d been down himself before he joined the army, Now, though, he felt he could hold his head high. He hadn’t yet got rid of the liars, he said, but he’d made them notice him. When he was released, we all went to meet him. Not just me and Evan and Mari, but hundreds of us went down to Cardiff and more joined us there. When he came out, they hoisted him on their shoulders and carried him through the streets like a hero.

1 Comment

  • Powerful writing Ian.
    I came across your name when I searched Ian Bertram on Facebook searching for clones.

    Glad I opened yours.
    Best wishes
    Ian Bertram, Brisbane Q Australia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

WordPress Cookie Plugin by Real Cookie Banner