THE PICK AND SHOVEL
(Ammanford Social Club)
The Creation of a Working Men's Club
At the end of a long day spent at the Carmarthenshire Quarter sessions during a trial of Ammanford men in January 1936, a number of local trades unionists, including some of the defendants at the trial, sat together in the lounge bar of the Cross Inn Hotel on Ammanford Square. The reason for this gathering arose as the result of the police prosecution of fifteen local workers following the so-called 'riot' at Ammanford Square during August 1935.
The cause of this problem was a large gathering one Friday in August 1935 in support of a strike called by the workers at the bus garage of James and Sons. The strike was in demand for union recognition at the garage, a perfectly reasonable and democratic right, which the garage owner denied his workforce. The problem was aggravated by the use of blackleg labour by the company when the owner of the garage brought strike breakers in to drive the buses after the workers picketed the garage for a public boycott. The police were called in that August Friday when the garage sign was broken. One man was arbitrarily singled out, without any proof, when the police came in, and a fracas broke out. The names of eighteen people, again seemingly at random, were given to the police who then brought charges against them, and fifteen were subsequently convicted.
The resulting turmoil reflected the mass support for the cause of the transport workers, and loyalty to trade union principles, within the Amman Valley. Several hundred people, perhaps a thousand, demonstrated that Friday in support of these principles, led by the miners and railway men's unions of the Amman Valley who assisted in the organisation on behalf of the inexperienced trades unionists at the bus garage. The miners, after all, had the experience of several national strikes, plus countless other local disputes behind them. One of the local disputes had been the 1925 strike in the Anthracite District of west Wales, with Ammanford as its storm centre. 58 striking miners were imprisoned in retribution for eigt weeks of pickets and disturbances the whole length of the Amman Valley. The strike started at Ammanford No 1 Colliery in April 1925 and during the next four months Ammanford was the epicentre for riots and mass demonstrations whose shock waves were felt all all over the district. On one day alone, July 30th 1925, there were riotous disturbances simultaneously at Ammanford square; Ammanford No 2 colliery, where there was a police baton charge; at Betws; and also at Wernos, Pantyffynnon and Llandybie collieries. And the major battle was yet to come, the so-called 'Battle of Ammanford' which occurred on August 4th. In total 198 miners were arrested with 58 being jailed for periods of up to one year. Months after the strike had ended there was still huge involvement as the prisoners were released, and on April 3rd 1926 a mass rally in the Ivorites Hall in Ammanford drew charabancs from all over the valley. Each prisoner on his release was awarded a medal and a scroll by the International Class War Prisoners Aid Association (ICWPA). (For a fuller account of the Anthracite Strike click HERE.)
Two of the men who had been imprisoned in 1925 were Sammy Morris, chairman of the Saron branch of the miners union, and W. J. Davies (Will Castell Nedd), and these two were among the eighteen men who were arrested again in 1935. This time, however, the fifteen who were convicted were found guilty only of unlawful assembly and had to pay £5 costs each. During the trial the octogenarian magistrate had seemed more concerned about the presence of a red flag during the disturbance than the actual charges. A short time after the trial the magistrate died, and Sam Morris and fellow rioter W J Davies planted a red flag on his grave. A note was attached: "The Red Flag, found too late". (Story told to Hywel Francis by W J Davies in 1970, and quoted in 'Miners Against Fascism: Wales and the Spanish Civil War', Hywel Francis, 1984, page 73.).
After the stormy evens of that Friday some fifteen local people were summoned to appear at Ammanford police court during October 1935 and were committed for trial at Carmarthenshire Quarter Sessions, which took place in January 1936. During the trial the defendants were released on bail of £100 at the end of each day of the proceedings which lasted eight days, a huge sum for that period, and which was raised entirely from local trades unionists of the area.
While the story of the bus strike is another chapter in the lives of Amman Valley workers acting in unity, it was to prove the catalyst for another equally important event the creation of Ammanford Social Club, or the Pick and Shovel as it is more commonly known, due to the overwhelming number of mining workers who were its original founders. At the end of each day's proceedings at Carmarthen court the defendants came back to Ammanford to give a report back to the local trades unionists of Ammanford Trades and Labour Council, the local TUC, whose meeting place was the Cross Inn on Ammanford Square.
The Cross Inn, Ammanford Square
It was during the Thursday evening of the trial of the fifteen defendants that a number of supporters and defendants were sitting in the lounge bar of the Cross Inn Hotel (demolished in 1964, then rebuilt and renamed 'The Bard'). They were discussing the day's events at the trial and the evidence given by the garage owner and his family on behalf of the bus company that day. D. Brin Daniel, a Saron miner at the time, gave the following account of what happened next:
Angus James, the garage owner, along with his friends, stood by the bar chatting with McKenzie the hotel manager. Two of the defendants, Sammy Morris and Will "Castell Nedd" went up to the bar for some drinks. [These two, by the way, were to go to Spain later in the year to fight in the International Brigades on behalf of the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil war. Will "Castell Nedd" was to be injured and Sammy Morris was to die in action less than a year later]. On seeing these two at the bar Angus James made the remark that he would see the whole lot put in prison for the damage to his bus station. His pal McKenzie agreed with him, adding a few more remarks not so pleasant for good measure, knowing full well that any reaction from these men could land them in prison for breaking their bail conditions, and no doubt the reason why they tried to goad them into reacting. Sammy and Will returned to our table and reported on the comments of these slap-happy louts, masquerading as pillars of society.
.... During this period the Ammanford Co-operative Society had moved into their new premises at the square end of Wind Street [now "Shopper's World"], so the old Co-op was up for sale.
.... On hearing the statements of Sammy and Will, Mr Edgar Bassett, the Co-op manager and a good socialist, suggested that it was time to organise a place at Ammanford where working men could go and enjoy a chat and discussion in peace without being provoked by such creatures from the lower end of the social scale. Mr Bassett suggested that as the old Co-op was up for sale, this would be an ideal place for a club. That very evening the 'Pick and Shovel' was born and is still there, which cannot be said for James's Garage or the Cross Inn Hotel, which exist now only in old photographs of the town. (Source: private papers of Brin Daniel.)
Some local leaders next got together to organise a committee to develop the idea and raise finances for the club. This included the committee setting up collections amongst the local collieries and railway workers, so it was a "working men's club" in every sense of the words. Edgar Bassett used his good auspices wherever possible and within a short time the old Co-op was purchased and very soon the 'Pick and Shovel' was a reality and became the recognised centre for working class activity in Ammanford and the whole Amman Valley soon after it was formally opened in October 1936 just nine months after a couple of so-called dignitaries revealed the childish casts of mind behind their respectable facades. The original shareholders were 280 people who each paid half a crown to become shareholders in the club (some of the founders even mortaged their homes to help raise the initial capital). The names of the 280 founder-members went forward to the Clubs and Institutes Union (CIU), and the club was born with a waiting list to join from the very beginning. In fact membership of the Pick and Shovel has become so sought after that the membership list has often has to be closed for a time.
The club's debt to the Co-op was fully discharged in 1955, just twenty years after its foundation, and in 1959 the club even purchased the freehold of the land off Lord Dynevor for £500 making the club from that day wholly owned by its members. The philosophy of the club's founders from the very beginning was that the club would not be a mere drinking and social club but would be a home for education and the self-advancement of local working people. To that end there was a library set up with a librarian in attendance on Tuesdays and Thursdays, though in 1965 the library was converted into a concert and bingo room and became the club's entertainment centre. The club also became the home of educational lectures given by the National Council of Labour Colleges (NCLC), later to become the Workers Education Association, and who still give educational courses at the club.
Those founders of the Pick and Shovel couldn't have chosen a more provocative location to open a social club if they'd tried, for immediately across the road is Bethany Chapel, the town's imposing citadel of Calvinistic Methodism. To the chapel, the club represented all the forces of darkness gathered in one place, for here was not only a drinking den but also socialists, communists and even a sprinkling of atheists, though most club members were also worshippers at local chapels. Bethany was everything these drinkers, socialists, communists and atheists despised in their turn, a bastion of political and social reaction. Two confilcting ideologies thus stared at each other across a short width of road and a clash was on the cards. Matters came to a head when the chapel complained about the singing coming from the club on Saturday nights. (This singing, by the way, was long before the days of microphones, amplifiers and the dreaded karaoke, and was the real thing, wiith many of the club's members belonging to local choirs.) The club, however, was well up to the challenge and retaliated by lodging a counter-complaint about the singing coming from the chapel during their services!
One very important room in the club was the 'Blue Room', so-called after the colour of its upholstery, and which was the political centre of the club, where discussion took place on all matters under the sun. It has been visited by Harry Pollitt, the General Secretary of the Communist Party; the 'Red Dean'; many prominent labour leaders; members of parliament; and working class educationalists. The 'Green Room', so-called for reasons similar to the 'Blue Room', was for games and card playing members. In fact every section of the membership was provided for in rooms set aside for specific activities. The club is noted for its friendly welcome, a claim that was indeed given formal recognition in 1962 when the Club's and Institute Union voted it the second best club in Britain after a working men's club in Nottingham (which made it therefore the best club in Wales). In fact old members claim that because the Pick and Shovel's beer at that time was only six old pence a pint to the Nottingham club's seven old pence it should have been voted the best club in Britain!
In the main bar are thirteen coats of arms of the original thirteen counties of Wales, made by local artist Gwynfi Phillips who also supplied the watercolour paintings of local scenes which hang in the Blue Room. No longer there, however, are the famous statuettes of Lenin and Keir Hardie which used to gaze down, no doubt in kindly, if silent, judgement on the discussions in the Blue Room. These were carved in 1942 by Cec Davies, a Saron miner whose other accomplishments included the breeding of canaries and budgerigars! The other nickname of the Blue Room was in fact the Kremlin, for rather obvious reasons. Lenin mysteriously disappeared from his plinth over Christmas 1991 at about the same time that rather larger statues of Lenin were being pulled down all over the former Soviet bloc countries. Keir Hardie survived in lonely isolation for only a couple of years afterwards before he too disappeared. No-one, to this day, knows who the culprits were. In 1848 Karl Marx wrote at the opening of his Communist Manifesto that: "A spectre is stalking Europe: the spectre of Communism". Some later spectre seems to have been at work in the 1990s undoing its predecessor's work. Now, these two cast their ghostly gaze from empty plinths on what few of the Blue Room's original debaters still remain, still engaging in often lively debate on issues of the day. Whatever one's politics, the statues were a part of the club's, and the town's, history.
And the industrial dispute which set this whole train of events in to motion, what of that? Well, the bus workers won their case for union recognition for a start. The manager of the Cross Inn Hotel left a year afterwards. The Cross Inn lost the custom of just about the entire trade union membership of Ammanford who, until the formation of the Pick and Shovel, had used the Cross Inn Hotel as their meeting place.
Angus James has departed this life, though whether he has the services in the new place of a chauffeur on 24 hour standby for his conspicuously huge American limousine as he did in his former life, can only be guessed at. Too hot there perhaps.
A full account of the bus strike, which started in Ammanford and spread to engulf the whole of west Wales, can be found on this site in the 'Mining and Political History' section, entitled 'Ammanford Bus Strike 1935'. or click HERE. This article gives a vivid account of the importance of buses to a pre-car society.
The Pick and Shovel and the Spanish Civil War
As would be expected from the background of its founder members, the club reflected the politics of the miners and their union, the South Wales Miners Federation, the forerunner of the South Wales National Union of Mineworkers. Nowhere was this more apparent than the support that some members of the club gave to the Spanish Civil War that was to break out just a few months after the club was formed. Saron miner D Brin Daniel (19141992) provides this memoir, written not long before he died:
The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War during 1936 saw the dawn of the most important, though tragic, events in the whole history of Europe, for the fate and direction of the democratic forces of the whole world for the next ten years were decided on the battlefields of Spain. The next decade of carnage and destruction on a world scale is now an historical witness to this assumption.
.... Sincere people from all ranks of society volunteered to fight alongside the Spanish people in their struggle to save their democratically elected People's Government and their country from Fascism. The ever-growing numbers of volunteers led to the formation of the International Brigade to fight alongside the loyal Spanish workers in struggle.
.....For Britain and her politicians however this event was nothing but an internal struggle for power. To Adolf Hitler, Mussolini, General Franco and the rest of the fascist hordes of Europe, it was much, much more a testing ground for their future atrocious attacks on the whole of Europe.
.... But for ordinary people, whose vision looked further than their blindfolded political leaders, they saw all too clearly that this event represented an attack upon the freedom and democratic rights of a government elected by the Spanish people and, further, was an affront to democracy everywhere.
....Some gave their lives on the battlefields of Spain. Others returned home only to partake again later in the anti fascist war that was to engulfing the whole of Europe. A war which, it had been predicted, would be inevitable with the defeat of democracy in Spain.
.... The ordinary people of the Amman Valley gave their full support to the Spanish Republican cause with protest meetings calling for action from the Tory Government and the supplying of food and financial aid to the Spanish people.
.... May I, on behalf of many people from that period, express our gratitude and loyalty to those who went to Spain to serve the cause of human freedom and democracy as members of the International Brigade serving in the Spanish Civil War.
....The greatest sacrifice of all was made by five Amman Valley men who volunteered to join the International Brigade and gave their service in action on the battlefields of Spain. These brave men, over sixty years after the Civil War, surely deserve our respect and remembrance for their service to humanity.
....These five Samuel Morris, Jack Williams, Will John Davies (Will Castell Nedd), Dai Jones and Will Davies, Garnant all answered the call in defence of democracy.
.... Samuel Morris and Jack Williams sacrificed their lives in the cause. Their photographs are hanging still in one of the rooms of the club. Dai Jones was wounded and Will John Davies and Will Davies, Garnant, returned home.
....May this recourse to history, and the role of our local people, awaken in our present generation the recognition of the role of these five in the society of Ammanford past. The future of democracy belongs, not to adventuring politicians, but to the people, especially the younger generation.
.... History belongs to the past but the lessons of history belong to the future as its guide and mentor.
.....Maybe a memorial to respect these five brave comrades could be organised that would kindle the flame of interest in the hearts and minds of our much alienated youth.
Photographs of Samuel Morris and Jack Williams (below), the two volunteers who died in Spain, can still be seen in one of the upstairs rooms of the club. A small plaque to their memory is also to be found at the entrance of the Council Chamber in Ammanford Town Hall. A more detailed history of Ammanford's involvement in the Spanish Civil War can be found in this section of the website or click HERE.
Portraits of Ammanford miners John Willams (left) and Sammy Morris (right) hanging in Ammanford Social Club (The Pick and Shovel). They both died fighting for the International Brigade in Brunete, Spain, in July 1937.
Date this page last updated: September 24, 2010