Wednesday 7 December 2011: Combustion at the harbour
At 2.30pm every day the ferry fires up its engines in preparation for leaving Fishguard harbour en route for Rosslare in Ireland. Today the smoke unfurled from the funnel to mingle with the scudding clouds. The passengers arrived by train about an hour ago and are on board awaiting embarkation. The crossing is a daily occurrence and there is another in the middle of the night too. But 100 years ago the harbour was a much busier place, a port of call for transatlantic liners even, and with many trains to shuttle voyagers to and from London.
I came down here to Goodwick (the actual location of this ferry terminal) with the latest issue of a local magazine, Pembrokeshire Life, in my pocket. Last night I had a call from an old friend telling me to be sure to get it and read the story he'd been working on. Roy's almost 80 now and in very poor health, the legacy of hard grind and cheap cigarettes since his teens. But he's a rare bird, a true working class historian who, despite receiving little education and no encouragement, has over the years ferretted out facts, photos and records of the area, and amassed a personal archive that has no equal. He's the first person I turn to with a query and he always comes up with new information - mostly from his head not his hard drive.
Anyway, the article he's written concerns events here at the harbour 100 years ago, in August 1911 to be precise, at the time of The Great Unrest. Railway workers in Britain were dissatisfied with their low pay and were threatening to bring the country to a standstill by going on strike. At that time the railways were vital to postal communications, travel and commercial transport: frantic attempts were made to forestall the event but on August 17th the railway workers elsewhere finally came out on strike, supported by other unions. There were violent scenes in Liverpool, and at Llanelli, further down the line from Fishguard, two strikers were shot dead by troops brought in to control the situation.
In Fishguard the majority of the railwaymen ceased work as did members of the seamen's and the firemen's unions and many but not all the dock workers. A bottleneck quickly ensued as passengers were stranded unable to travel either to Ireland or to England and goods piling up. Perishables started to rot. Pickets tried to persuade strike breakers not to drive trains while frustrated travellers attempted to commandeer road transport. One offered £30 to anyone who would drive him to London, but another stated he would sooner place his head on the rails than ride in a train driven by blacklegs.
Such was the anxiety about the developing situation at Fishguard (in particular, damage to the transatlantic trade) that it was decided to ship in British soldiers based in Ireland. On August 18th eight companies (500 men) of the Royal Sussex Regiment embarked from Dublin, together with horses, grooms and equipment, and landed at Fishguard wearing black helmets with brass spikes, badges and chin straps. They set up camp around the harbour station and were detailed to control the activities of the strikers. One company was dispatched by train to Llanelli where rioting and looting had broken out following the killing of the two strikers. There were several baton and bayonet charges before 'order was restored' there.
The strike came to an end on August 21st following a peace settlement but the troops remained in Goodwick until the following month, becoming quite an attraction for locals and tourists alike. Evidently a good deal of fraternization occurred: the weather was beautiful and dances, parties, picnics, sports, fishing, boating and bathing laid on. (A photograph of the beach reveals that the soldiers swam in the nude.) One of the officers won Fishguard tennis tournament open singles trophy. When the regiment finally returned to Ireland in a cattle boat, it was no doubt to the regret of many, if not of the strikers.
This is just a potted version of Roy's article. I have written it up as a tribute to a remarkable man and to the memory of the little-known chapter of working class history that he has uncovered. Despite living here for 17 years and delving into the background of the area, I had never heard of The Great Unrest and these events in Fishguard and Goodwick. It was a combustible period in the early 20th century which could have ignited had the greater conflagration of the 1st World war had not occurred.
The ferry still sails but for how much longer we cannot be sure. The summer 'fast ferry' has been terminated and the survival of this route to Southern Ireland is not guaranteed.