Martyn Griffiths tells us of an unusual agreement between south Wales and the west of England.
The Mechanics Institute in Church Place is the repository of the considerable archival collection of the Neath Antiquarian Society. This charts the history of the town and district of Neath over many centuries but it is by no means the only source of information. Records relating to Neath have been traced right across the United Kingdom and even as far afield as North and South America.
Devon and Cornwall Constabulary run a Police Museum. It has been moribund for many years but now a team of volunteers are endeavouring to tackle years of neglect and return it to a working museum. One of the ledgers gathering dust was marked ‘Rough Book’. It contains the minutes of the Watch Committee for the former Exeter City Police and is a mine of information charting the history of that Police Force from its inception in 1836 to when it amalgamated with its larger neighbour in 1966.
Within the pages are reference to a mutual aid agreement between the Neath Borough and Exeter City forces whereby, should it be requested, police officers would be sent to assist in times of unrest. Similar arrangements have always existed between Police Forces in England and Wales and many will remember police being despatched all over the country during the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85.
However, one would expect such aid to come initially from neighbouring Forces; in Neath’s case from Glamorgan, Swansea, Merthyr or Cardiff. Why on earth would policemen be needed from Exeter? Given the distance involved, this seems an unlikely liaison.
Unlikely as it seems in December 1913 a Police Inspector (Inspector May), a Sergeant and nine Constables were deployed to Neath. Twenty men had been requested but that number could not be spared by Exeter which itself consisted of only about fifty officers. The Exeter Watch Committee charged Neath 13 shillings per day for the Inspector, 10 shillings for the Sergeant and 9 shillings for each Constable and also expenses for travel, accommodation and subsistence.
They were called to Neath due to a railway strike affecting many parts of South Wales. The strike on the Great Western Railway was caused when two engine drivers were dismissed in Llanelli for refusing to handle ‘tainted’ Dublin traffic. In Neath 260 men working at the GWR locomotive sheds came out in sympathy and 120 wagons were left on the main line in the yard. Other local industries were also affected by the strike; 600 colliers were laid off in the Vale of Neath and work stopped at the Neath Galvanising Works affecting another 500 men.
Railway boxes, signal boxes and railway crossings were patrolled by the police but there was no unruliness in the area. The Exeter men remained in Neath on the 4th, 5th and 6th January. The strike itself ended on the 5th and the railwaymen went back to work without achieving anything. The two engine drivers were not reinstated by the GWR.
The years 1910-1914 are known as ‘The Great Unrest’ since this was the time when the unions were flexing their muscles and calling for better working conditions. There were strikes in the mines, docks, railways and elsewhere and they affected workers right across the country and the grievances were many. Locally, for example, the 350 men of Copper Pit, Morriston, had gone out on strike throughout the festive period 1912-3 seeking preference for the men to horses being brought up from the pit to the surface. With disturbances threatening across South Wales, Neath’s neighbours may have felt that they could not spare men to help the Borough, leading them to appeal to Exeter for assistance.
In July and early August 1911 an unofficial railway strike had been organised. Railway workers were campaigning for shorter working hours, but their main complaint was about the slowness of the conciliation process. Troops were called in and in Llanelli two men were shot dead. There was trouble at the same time on the streets of Neath. The Chief Constable, William Higgins, was denigrated unfairly for his actions in one particular local newspaper and he certainly would not have welcomed a repeat performance. The call for assistance from Exeter appears to have been with the effects of this 1911 strike very much in mind.
The mutual aid agreement was rescinded by Exeter shortly after the 1913 event.