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The Long March of Every Woman: Gender, ‘Community’ & Poverty in British Labour History, 1928-38   2 comments

Chapter One: The Brambles of Poverty in a Distressed Area.

‘Women’s History’ in Britain has too often been viewed through the prism of ‘Great Men’s History’ by emphasising the roles of well-known individuals rather than focusing on the everyday lives of the masses of working-class women and their families. This is sometimes blamed on the lack of sources with which to describe and analyse these lives, but women and women’s experiences and ‘issues’ were by no means overlooked in the social documents of the inter-war period. In fact, given the pace of change in both working-class life in general and the lives of women in particular, which was of particular concern to social investigators, there is a wealth of relatively unused primary source material of both quantitative and qualitative types. At the time, it took almost a decade before their social surveys to break through the fog of denial which emanated from Neville Chamberlain’s Ministry of Health:

Our observations did not disclose any widespread manifestation of impaired health which could be attributed to insufficiency of nourishment. In this view we are confirmed by the opinions of the medical practitioners who have the best opportunities of watching the physical condition of families.

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Although women had won the vote in 1928 on the same basis as men, the struggle of working-class women for better rights and conditions in the home, at work and in society was, in many respects, still in its infancy. Much was expected from the first majority Labour government which came to power at the beginning of 1929 under the leadership of Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister. The photograph above, taken by Arthur Lovegrove in Reading in 1929, shows a group of women supporters of The Daily Herald, which became an important campaigning mouthpiece for the Labour movement throughout the years of financial crisis and economic depression which followed in the 1930s. The experience of mass unemployment and widespread poverty in Britain reached into all areas of Britain, including relatively prosperous towns such as Reading, but it was in the older industrial areas of South Wales and the North-East of England where it was most protracted, leaving a lasting legacy of bitterness as well as a determination to fight back by the working-class communities located in these ‘distressed’ areas. But though they were particularly dense and piercing in places, the ‘brambles’ of poverty did not grow evenly throughout the depressed coalfields of Britain in the 1930s.  They did not even grow evenly in the same street, in the same terrace, and neither did they ensnare one individual or family in quite the same way or to the same degree as the next. They grew at different rates in differing places. This diversity of growth has much to do with the nature of the places in which they grew.

It is therefore imperative that historians should move away from the contemporary, stereotypical images left behind by propagandists, investigators and politicians and seek out how working-class communities were defining and redefining themselves during the period. It is necessary to examine the intricate cultural and institutional web of coalfield societies before judgement can be made about the relationships between impoverishment and demoralisation. Considerable evidence has already been advanced that, during the early part of the century, coalfield society developed its own autonomous culture alongside the received one, a culture which rejected values that did not stem from the community’s own sense of economic and social solidarity. This alternative culture reached its zenith during the 1926 lock-out, and, despite the impact of the depression, there was tangible continuity in its institutional life over the succeeding decade.

This alternative culture was allied to a revolutionary counter-culture in other parts of Britain, including London, and increasing involved women. The picture below shows The Women’s Red Army marching through East London to Epping Forest, 1928. This is a rare shot of the LLX, the women’s section of the Labour League of Ex-servicemen. The women and some men, about two hundred in all, had assembled at Gardiner’s Corner in the East End and marched through Mile End, Bow and Stratford, held a rousing meeting at Leytonstone and continued onwards to Epping Forest, closely followed by plainclothes officers of the Special Branch.

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On practising their marching in a forest glade, an urgent message produced the arrival by car of the Commissioner of Police who accused them of performing military movements. Apparently, they succeeded in convincing him that they were only practising their marching in readiness for May Day and the police withdrew, leaving the ‘red army’ to dance on the greensward and make their way back by bus, having been forbidden to march.The uniform was first seen in public on Sunday 11 March 1928 when thirty-five women, led by Mrs J R Campbell, marched into Trafalgar Square for an International Women’s Day meeting and took up a position on the plinth, along with the speakers who included A J Cook, Marjorie Pollitt, Beth Turner and Hanna Ludewig from Germany. The uniform was officially described as a fawn coloured blouse and serviceable short skirt, stockings to match, flat-heeled brown walking shoes, khaki berets, red tie and regulation armbands. An official Communist Party pamphlet described the LLX as having ‘guarded the plinth’ and it would seem that they and the uniformed men drew their inspiration from the Workers’ Guard in Germany where the Red Front Fighters numbered some three hundred thousand.

The picture below shows the Prince of Wales on his extensive tour of the depressed areas in South Wales, Tyneside, Scotland and Lancashire, where he is shown shaking hands with a worker at Middleton. He met families who had been unwaged for years and seemed sincerely and visibly shaken by their plight. He is reported to have said,

Some of the things I see in these gloomy, poverty-stricken areas made me almost ashamed to be an Englishman… isn’t it awful that I can do nothing for them but make them smile?

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Eight years later, after his accession to the throne, he made his noted second tour of South Wales and witnessed the effects of a decade of ‘the slump’ in the Rhondda and Monmouthshire valleys. After being shown the derelict steelworks at Dowlais, that once provided employment for nine thousand, he uttered the words that are remembered to this day as something must be done to find them work, though others have argued that his words were more direct, and specifically aimed at the government ministers who travelled with him, something will be done.The young MP for Ebbw Vale, Aneurin Bevan, was furious at the whole event, however…

To organise an expedition to Wales as if it were an unknown, barbarous and distant land, much in the same way as you might go the Congo was an outrage.

He said that the king was being used to mask persecution and that Ernest Brown, the Minister of Labour who accompanied the king, was the instrument of that persecution. He declined a suggestion that he should meet Edward VIII at Rhymney, saying:

I cannot associate myself with a visit that would appear to support the notion that private charity has made, or could ever make, a contribution of any value to the solution of the problem of South Wales.

In 1938, the authors of a Review of the decade-long Industrial Transference Scheme (1938) suggested that it was ‘the clan spirit’ found in the depressed areas of South Wales and northern England which continued to represent the major source of political opposition to National Government policy towards them. The Review characterised these areas as small, self-contained communities in which most of the residents are known to each other and cited their geographical position as a major factor in the intensification of ‘parochialism’. Coalfield ‘communities’ were defined in negative terms by politicians and government inquirers; they were no longer ‘real’ communities with a proper social leadership provided by a resident, benevolent middle class. Neither did they any longer serve any useful economic purpose, but were infamous for their industrial militancy before the world war, and for the obduracy of the miners’ leaders in 1926.

Many of the national voluntary agencies shared these negative stereotypes of the coalfield communities, although their social investigators managed to produce, both in print and on film, a generally softer image than the official one, showing far greater sensitivity to their plight without wallowing in sentimentality. Nonetheless, some of them set about their task as if they were embarking on an anthropological expedition, to echo Bevan’s condemnation of Edward VIII’s 1936 tour of South Wales. The editor of the journal Fact, prefacing Philip Massey’s Portrait of a Mining Town, asserted the need for an attempt to survey typical corners of Britain as truthfully and penetratingly as if our investigators had been inspecting an African village. He stated that, like African villages, mining communities are isolated and relatively easy to study and went on to make the dubious assertion that they were so cut off from the neighbouring townships like Cardiff and Newport that in the latter a ‘collier’ was regarded as a sort of strange being. 

Many of the philanthropists of the 1930s used this image of isolation to justify their concept of social service ‘settlements’ in the valleys, as a means by which the ‘outlook’ of the communities might be ‘broadened’. They were attempting to infuse their middle-class notions of ‘citizenship’ of a wider community extending beyond the boundaries of the valley. The Pilgrim Trust Annual Report for 1936 described each valley as being a self-contained community with its own traditions accustomed to leading its own life in isolation from its neighbours. Stereotypes such as these had as much to do with the projection of an image for specific ends as with reflecting the reality of coalfield communities, no matter how sympathetic the process and product of the investigations might appear. Thus Hilda Jennings, the author of the 1934 book, Brynmawr: A Study of a Distressed Area wrote in a similar vein,

The small town or village environment is predominant. Mining communities, often separated from each other by a bleak stretch of moor or mountain, and dependent on one industry, naturally have a distinctive character. Local attachments are strong, family connections widespread, and modes of thought remarkably homogenous. There are few if any wealthy or leisured inhabitants, and the children of teacher, shopkeeper, and miner attend the same elementary and county schools. Men, women, and children, are so intimately known to their fellows that their doings are invested with a personal interest which gives warmth, colour and drama to day-to-day events. The influence of public opinion and local tradition is correspondingly strong.

Hilda Jennings’ book consisted of a detailed, ground-breaking survey of the coalfield towns on the northern, Breconshire edge of the south Wales coalfield. This most ‘untypical’ coalfield community had been stranded like a beached Leviathan by the receding tide of the coal industry well before the miners’ six-month lock-out of 1926 and the ‘slump’ of the late 1920s. Her survey was conducted in co-operation with the Coalfields Distress Committee of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service (SWMCSS). It first led its readers, not into a Miners’ Institute full of unemployed men, but into the bedroom of a terraced collier’s house:

In one of the older streets containing a large proportion of back-to-back houses with very small, airless rooms, little access to sun, and leaking roof and walls oozing with damp as many as seventeen cases (of consumption) were notified from the twenty-nine houses in the street… In one such case one of the two small bedrooms was given up to a dying girl, while the father and mother and six children crowded into the second bedroom and living room (used also as a bedroom). It is not to be wondered at that two other children contracted the disease, and that two out of three infected children died within two years.

This tragic tale needs no literary embellishment and is a narrative which is typical not just of the older mining towns at the heads of the valleys, with their high rates of home-ownership among once-prosperous workers, but across the steam-coal valleys from Nantyglo in Monmouthshire to Neath and the Swansea Valleys. The ‘Brynmawr Experiment’ was started by Quakers but was not run by them. To understand the problems of Brynmawr Peter Scott, with others, decided to have a comprehensive social survey undertaken.  Scott had served since 1926 the Society of Friends as Field Officer for the Society’s relief work in South Wales. In November 1926, Horace Fleming reported to the Society’s Coalfields Distress Committee on the possibilities which the work in the Rhondda had opened up:

It seems clear that the spirit expressed in and being kept vigorous by the mens’ and womens’ groups, is the living root on which an educational movement may be grafted… Being cul-de-sacs, the mental ventilation of the valleys is poor, with the result that the inhabitants are much more self-centred than non-valley dwellers. This movement (the National Council of Labour Colleges) with its condemnation of existing economic conditions and its doctrine of class war, has spread with remarkable rapidity throughout South Wales… To a people who, for generations, have been dependent on the spoken word, the clergy’s failure has meant the demagogue’s gain.  Nor is this surprising, when it is remembered that the only advocacy, with rare exceptions, of a new world heard in these valleys, was that of the Marxist, even though his new world was only to be entered through war… the present defeat is being traced to the theories of the extremists…

Fleming added that this tide of criticism was beginning to undermine the NCLC and that the Quakers could grasp the opportunity to address the educational needs of adults who were conscious of the failings both of the chapels and the communists. There was, he felt, a desire for a more constructive approach than that offered by the NCLC. The strategy proposed was that ‘a fluid movement’ should be built upon the foundations of the existing groups. Such a movement would not be dependent on bricks and mortar but would flow into the Miners’ Institutes and the chapels. A more sympathetic organisation could follow later, but the immediate priority was to provide a fellowship wider than sect, party or class.

The Quakers who settled in Brynmawr eighteen months later had similar concerns. In the summer of 1928, Peter and Lilian Scott, together with a number of other single male and female ‘Friends’ had gone to the Welsh coalfields due to their concern for the unemployed. They had held Quaker meetings for worship standing in groups in the marketplaces and street corners in the towns and villages they visited, starting in Abertillery, trying to give spiritual comfort and fellowship to the people among whom they lodged, the local unemployed, by first getting to know them and their problems. One of the Quaker women remembered the puzzled reaction of local people to their meetings, which appeared to be so different to their own nonconformist religious services, dominated by male preachers, deacons and hymn-singing:

These open air meetings were held under conditions very different from today. There was little wheeled traffic: the few bicycles and carts made very little noise and motor-cars were rarely seen. In every street, but particularly in market squares and on street corners, there were men in typical ‘miners’ squat’, unemployed and with no money for recreation, just talking, or silent.

During the morning the group of Friends would decide where to hold their meetings and would go to perhaps two places to advertise them, one for the afternoon and one for the evening. Advertising was done mainly by chalking the on pavements, with an occasional handbill in some prominent place.

At the time agreed, the group of Friends, usually six or eight,… would gather standing in silence. The men around would watch, unmoving, until someone spoke. Then by ones and twos the men would get up and gather round to hear what we said, and if held by the speaker would move in closer until there was quite a crowd.

The messages given were mainly concerned with the presence of that of God in each of us, of the love of God for us all, and with the love we should bear to one another in all circumstances. These meetings might be illustrated by a gospel reading, a prayer, a story of early Friends, a personal experience: all the things one might expect in any Quaker meeting… at the end of the meeting men would come to one or another to ask questions – why were we doing this and who were we anyway?

Occasionally there was a hostile reaction. On one such occasion the men crowded around threateningly, interrupting the meeting. ‘Who were we to come talking like this? What did we know of unemployment and the conditions under which they were living, why didn’t we do something for them?     

At Brynmawr, the Quakers faced a challenge from trade union leaders and other local people who also told them, You say you want to help us: prove you mean what you say; stay here and do something for us. So that is what they did. Peter went back to Friends’ House in London and said food and clothes were vital, so Joan Fry from the Coalfields Distress Committee went to Brynmawr and later addressed a public meeting at Golders Green. Brynmawr was a good place to start for a project which, from the start, was concerned with the unemployment ‘black-spots’, by contrast with the earlier ‘settlements’ in the Rhondda. The coal seams were nearer the surface on these northern ridges, and the coal on this higher ground had been mined in ‘levels’ for a century and a half so that they were practically worked out. The deeper, more modern mines further down the valleys were still working, albeit on ‘short-time’ and to keep the pits from flooding. However, they had enough labour in the colliery villages close by, so the heads-of-the-valleys towns had higher levels of long-term unemployment. Those in work were mostly bank clerks, ministers of religion, policemen, shopkeepers and teachers.

Peter Scott was a utopian visionary and his experiment, from the start, was of a different nature to that of the Maes-yr-Haf settlement. He was more interested in the social and economic reconstruction of the town than in the concept of an educational settlement. Nevertheless, both projects were species of the same desire, one which they shared with the liberal-Cymricists, of promoting unifying spiritual values above the interests of the working classes. Both experiments opened up important channels of communication into a crisis-ridden society. The Baldwin Government and its civil servants viewed the approach of the winter of 1928-9 with some trepidation. The Mansion House Fund had begun to deal with the immediate need for relief as well as aiding the work of the newly established Industrial Transference Board. However, they also began to realise that longer-term measures were required to deal with the problems of ‘demoralisation’ and their perceptions of the real threat of social disorder. To the middle-class social workers, many of them Quakers or Oxford graduates, ‘demoralisation’ meant not just the psychological effects of impoverishment, but also the extent to which the workless in these communities would espouse ‘desperate remedies’ in response to their condition, and uphold loyalty to ‘class’ above that to a broader ‘community’ and sense of ‘citizenship’.

Later in 1928, Peter and Lilian made their home in Brynmawr, where they were joined by a few others moved by a similar compassion to share in the life of a suffering community.  Disillusioned as so many were at that period with the existing social and economic order and inspired by a Utopian vision, the Scotts concluded that it was just in those areas where the breakdown of the old order was most complete that there lay the greatest opportunity for the creation of a better one. Margaret Wates arrived in Brynmawr from London at the beginning of December 1928, having joined the Society of Friends at the beginning of the year. She was full of youthful enthusiasm and idealistic socialism.

She was put in charge of the Relief & Service Centre as relief was reluctantly regarded by both government and the social service agencies as an unfortunate necessity in the winter of 1928-29. She was supported by local women, most of whom were twice her age. An empty shop in the main street, Beaufort Street, was adapted for the purpose, to which second-hand clothing came pouring in. She recalled that all her local helpers were neatly dressed, not just Mrs Price, the local policeman’s wife, who was regarded as comfortably off, but also the wives of the unemployed miners.  It seemed to her that the Welsh women were more tastefully and neatly dressed than their English counterparts. They would also clean, brush and put away their husbands’ Sunday clothes on Mondays so that they were ready to be worn the following Sunday. Their working clothes also looked cleaner, now they no longer had to go underground. In these ways, married couples were able to keep up a veneer of respectability and to cover up their poverty. She discovered later that they stitched paper together to make extra bedding for themselves.

Margaret was also responsible for placing girls in service, almost the only work available for women at the time. A few men and boys were also placed through Worthing Friends (the town was twinned with Brynmawr through the Mansion House Fund), and other Quakers helped to find employment in other areas, but most of these returned to Brynmawr in the end. Margaret was particularly involved in the work with women, helping organise them into self-help sewing groups in neighbouring places. It was easier for the outside volunteer workers to get hold of premises and get people to work together, as they were trusted not to have an “axe to grind”. They had gifts of material and sewing machines to help these groups establish themselves. She ran a playgroup once a week for the families of the poorest children in the district, who lived in shacks on the hillside. The idea came to her on one of her evening walks “up the mountain” and saw the pathetic settlements, made of bits and pieces. She talked to the women, who struggled to look after their children in sickness, but discovered that they were, in some ways, better off than the unemployed miners with homes to maintain that they couldn’t afford to keep or sell, or rents that they couldn’t afford. The “tent dwellers” at least had a home of their own, however primitive, each with a little fire.

Margaret Wates had a secretary, Marion Richards, who was younger than her, who called her by her Christian name, which was unusual in professional relations at that time but was the kind of relationship that the Quakers wanted to encourage. The local people were very loyal to the local chapels otherwise and showed little interest in meetings for worship or Quaker business methods. Marion Richards was the youngest of a large family whose men were colliers, her father unemployed. They were heavily involved in local politics and she later became a County Councillor. She helped Hilda Jennings with the Survey. Jennings was an Oxford graduate and a well-qualified and tactful social worker as well as an experienced leader of local committees. Although not a Quaker herself, she shared Peter Scott’s outlook on many things, and he gave her a free hand with her work. The book, published in 1934, was subtitled A Study of a Distressed Area and was said to be a classic of its kind. She later became the admired, loved and respected Warden of Bristol University Settlement, where she worked for twenty years.

The survey was different from the other social surveys done by trained social workers, as it was done by local people themselves. All sections of the Brynmawr community took part in this self-study, in order to understand the long-term effects of unemployment on many aspects of the town. There were two hundred volunteers involved in the Survey Committee which became ‘the Community House’, work starting in the attic. It was divided into eight sub-committees dealing with Commerce, Education, Health and Housing, Industry, Municipal Services, Population and Transport. These were led by people with a professional interest in a special area, chosen not elected. However, the Trade Unions and the Labour Party refused to co-operate with the survey, as they felt their dignity and authority had been undermined; they considered themselves to be the truly representative body since they had been elected. Two models of democracy were in open conflict, and it was a conflict which could not be resolved easily. This was, however, more of a loss to both the Urban District Council and the Miners’ Federation than to the survey itself.

Hilda Jennings insisted on using Quaker business methods, refusing to take votes on difficult issues, although this inevitably slowed down the processes of investigation and the overall progress of the survey. She was undaunted in her belief also in the educational value of conducting the survey by these means, helping to develop open-mindedness and raising people above sectional interests, since pooling experience enriched the common life. The community should raise itself to a higher level because it aimed to give the fullest life to everyone. It could and it wished to work with the elected bodies: this would benefit all, and help to create a more inclusive and harmonious society.

The idealism applied to the means by which the survey was conducted is evident in the ends, the text of the survey. The evidence it presents is both quantitative and qualitative, especially when dealing with family life. Although other surveys of the unemployed contain moving references to the lives of women, they tend to regard their roles as secondary, or adjunctive, to those of both employed and unemployed men. In the Brynmawr Survey, full details are given of how the mothers in these families were the first to suffer privation, and so became dispirited, debilitated and apathetic. The school children had free school meals and free milk provided for them, and there was milk given at the infant welfare clinics. But family relationships were strained. The diet was poor, even when the miner was working, and for those unemployed, it mostly consisted of tea, bread and margarine, with some meat and vegetables on Sundays. Men’s health suffered as a result, making them unemployable and destroying their self-respect, so that women would increasingly ‘go without’ in order to maintain these factors in their husbands in particular, but also in their adult sons, if they still lived at home and were unemployed, as was most likely the case in Brynmawr.

It was difficult for miners of any age to settle in other forms of work elsewhere, as they could only become labourers and unskilled factory workers. They were very proud of the crafts of the collier, timberman, fireman, haulier, etc. They were also proud of their dangerous and manly occupation. They resented having to take work as labourers, road-menders and gardeners, even though such work often required great physical strength, if not the same level of skill as that of a collier. Some work was available in the English coalfields after the General Strike, and some Welsh colliers were prepared to uproot their entire family in order to take it, but from the end of 1929, the trade depression took away much of this demand in, for example, the industrial towns of the English Midlands which had been expanding in the 1920s. When relative prosperity returned to these areas in 1934, most of the available jobs were in unskilled engineering, especially in the automotive industries. Some families moved to cities like Oxford, Coventry and Birmingham, but most of those who continued to leave the coalfields were single men, or at least childless. For the older family men, it was often too late.

The Welsh collier also had very strong roots in his locality and in his loyalty to his family and the wider human relationships within solidly working-class communities. Jennings’ Survey revealed this to be nowhere more the case than in Brynmawr. In addition, the climate at the top of the valley meant that the houses were continually damp. The houses were also older than in many colliery villages further down the valleys. Many were over a hundred years old and in a deplorable condition, unable to give protection from the frequent heavy rains and gales. Walls oozed with damp so that rheumatism, influenza and bronchitis were common complaints. There were 93 back-to-back houses of which there were seventeen cases of tuberculosis in 29 houses. Some unemployed families took lodgers in order to boost family income, but, as most houses had only two bedrooms, this created overcrowding, despite there being a large number of empty houses in the town which their owners couldn’t afford to sell or let.

One Brynmawr volunteer remembered visiting a house near the town centre with the living room, as was traditional, opening directly off the street: it had a tea-chest as a table and some boxes to sit on and was miserable-looking beyond belief. Many of these houses had shared yards and toilets, and rarely had gardens, so their occupants were unable to improve their diet by growing fresh food unless they had access to an allotment. Yet family pride meant that with local traditions of polished brass hangers and black leading inside and colour washing outside, plus the need to keep the fire burning day and night, mainly using coal dust, these homes seemed more weathertight and snug than they were in reality.

Moreover, as there were no collieries in Brynmawr, just the ‘levels’ cut into the hillsides, this meant that there were no colliery companies and therefore no company houses available for miners to rent, or as “tied houses” in Brynmawr. There was a Council-run housing estate as well as some more modern, bigger hoses that miners had built for themselves in more prosperous times. If a family owned or expected to inherit a house, they would, therefore, be far less willing to move away to find work. Some unemployed house owners had to mortgage their houses before they could claim poor relief, later known as Unemployment Assistance, which was all that the long-term unemployed could claim after using up the insured benefits they were entitled to. The Council tenants who were unemployed had also been allowed to accumulate very large rent arrears. Since these could not be collected, the Urban District Council, already deeply in debt due to the local poor rate system, could not afford to repair these houses, thus adding to the general dilapidation and deterioration of the housing stock.

By 1928, as Margaret Wates recalled, there were already youths of eighteen who had never worked, having left school four years earlier. They went about in groups up the mountain, or out in the streets after dark, as they did not want to be seen in their shabby clothes. She knew a mother and daughter who shared one pair of shoes so they could not go out together. One family of ten members had two cups between them, so the children were always late for school! When savings were exhausted there was nothing left for sickness or replacements, or even to do repairs.

The Brynmawr experiment, under the dynamic leadership of Peter Scott, maintained a certain independence in its operation. Scott insisted that anything done must spring from the community and not be imposed from the outside. His determination that the work should not be controlled by any outside committee led him into direct conflict with the Friends’ Coalfield Distress Committee to the extent that,  at the end of 1929, he severed his connection with the official Quaker undertakings in the area, thereafter working independently with a group of volunteers. In December, a general town’s meeting was called, chaired by the local MP, with two thousand people in the hall. The rather emotional approach taken by Scott’s group alienated the hard-headed trades unionists, but it was successful in rallying several hundred people of different backgrounds to volunteer to community service over a period of three years, including hard manual work. Significant opposition to this was raised by some unemployed on the basis that the only commodity they had for sale was their labour. They did not want to surrender this right and ruin their chances of future employment, or of losing their dole if they did voluntary work.

A compromise was agreed that the unemployed miners would always be deemed available for, and thereby genuinely seeking work as far as the employment exchanges were concerned. Nevertheless, the Labour Party and the Miners’ Federation continued to shun the scheme. They insisted that all labour should be paid for at trade union rates. They were also suspicious of a group of English Quakers with middle-class backgrounds interfering in the town, even if they supplied help that was desperately needed. Thus, the claim that the work at Brynmawr sprang from the community was not borne out by reality. The cautious welcome which Brynmawr had initially given to the Scotts’ activities soon waned and his group’s relationship with the local community deteriorated. The newcomers were never fully integrated into the town’s civic life and, as a result, the Quakers became known, disparagingly, as ‘the BQs’ – ‘the Bloody Quakers’! 

Soon after the big meeting, and despite the ostracism of voluntary workers, their wives and children, a small group of local men started work on a piece of land near the railway station, converting it into a garden, and planting trees on a nearby ‘tip’. The men slept in the two large empty rooms above a shop, while the women shared another large building. They had meals on site – the food was plain, plentiful and cheap. Local women helped with the cooking as well as with the laundry, mending, cleaning and first aid, in addition to doing colour washing and gardening. There were also men’s and women’s clubs. By 1936 these were ‘vigorous’ and would have expanded had they had more accommodation. The men repaired furniture, tapped boots, made bows and arrows for an archery range, and wove scarves. The men did not make much use of the boot repairing and carpentry facilities, but the women’s club had seventy-five members and joined the Federation of Women’s Institutes and the Townswomen’s Guild. Needlework and foreign language courses were started in 1931. The women made leather gloves and other useful and ornamental things. There was also a demand for cookery classes, including food values. The keep-fit classes were crowded out.

In January 1934 some of the group around the Scotts formed themselves into ‘An Order of friends’, choosing to dedicate themselves to the new community of their vision, as expressed in Jennings’ book, published the same year. Thereafter all the Scotts’ undertakings were carried on in the name of ‘An Order’, though in fact its members never had more than a nominal responsibility for its administration. The most successful efforts made were in the two new industries of furniture and bootmaking. These conformed to the accepted pattern of industrial life and were more readily tolerated by local people on that account. Subsistence Production, the largest, most costly and most visionary of Scott’s undertakings, diverged too far from the current industrial mores to be readily accepted. The theory which lay behind it stemmed from J W Scott (no relation to Peter), a Professor of Philosophy at University College Cardiff, who in the 1920s had worked out an elaborate theory for producing and distributing goods as far as possible free from the constraints of the monetary system. He had envisaged groups of men, each working at his own trade without wages, producing goods for exchange within the group.

The Welsh tradition of spontaneous community singing, Gymanfa Ganu, was also revived. Brynmawr and the heads-of-the-valleys towns were usually more culturally, if not linguistically Welsh, than the anglicised colliery towns further down the valleys where many English ‘immigrants’ had settled. There ‘Welshness’ was based on the surviving Welsh-medium chapels founded by the earlier Welsh immigrants. Margaret Wates remembered one old lady who gave Welsh lessons to the English volunteers at the Centre using her Welsh Bible. For many of the older women, their lives outside the home, when time allowed, continued to revolve around the chapels, whether services and activities were in Welsh or English. Many men had long-since abandoned the chapels in favour of the Workmen’s Institutes, built earlier in the century. Since membership of these was based mainly on colliery employment, the institutes had been built in colliery villages, rather than in the heads-of-the-valley towns. Their activities were almost exclusively male until well into the 1930s, and in this respect, they were slow to adapt to the impact of mass unemployment on the social lives of men and women. On the other side of the northern outcrop, Resolven Institute near Neath was one of the first to allow women access to certain ‘new’ activities, as one local woman recalled:

 In Resolven now there was a reading room, you see. There was a lot of debating. You could say that the Reading Room was the House of Commons of the village. And I remember the first wireless coming. It came to the Reading Room. And women were allowed to listen to the wireless for the first time. It was a very important evening!

The new clubs were, therefore, had a more immediate practical purpose for women than for their unemployed men, since the latter were able to maintain their access to the local Miners’ Institutes through continuing to pay their subscriptions to the Miners’ Federation, which set up Unemployed ‘Lodges’ in parallel to those for miners still in work. Women were also more receptive to the new cooperative ideas than men, however. Nearly all the men over forty-five in Brynmawr had been unemployed since 1921. They were more regular volunteer workers than the younger men but regarded the Subsistence Production Society (SPS) as second best. Faith in Socialism as a Utopian form of Christianity, if not Marxist Communism, was almost universal. They had a strong family life and were resigned to lower standards of living, but they were opposed to the means test, and to irregular working hours and differentials in wages. Their outlook was set in the industrial unionism of the pre-1914 years, and these traditions were fiercely maintained among them. They distrusted “An Order of Friends” and the SPS, which they regarded as they did any other large industrial undertaking, as fundamentally capitalist and therefore automatically opposed to the interests of labour. At the same time, it was not quite real, but a pastime, so they were not prepared to work so intensively on it. The principles behind the scheme were either not understood or not trusted by many of the older men. To those behind the SPS, they meant benefiting people according to their needs.

The women, by contrast, wanted the cheap milk and other necessities provided by the SPS. The opposition of the men lessened as time went on, but few were interested in creating a new order of society through the schemes, as Jennings and the Quakers advocated. Other groups, not just the Communists, the trades unions and the Labour Party were opposed to the SPS, but even the Co-ops and the and the shopkeepers, who were also fearful of the involvement of government. A Viennese psychologist, Dr Marie Jahoda, concluded (after a four-month local sojourn and study of the Cwmavon Scheme in 1937/38) that while the SPS was ‘a valiant experiment’ and ‘a heroic attempt to tackle a problem at the right point’, it was doomed to failure because the leaders’ eyes were blinded by their glorious mirage of the future to the extent that they were unable to see the numerous pitfalls of interference from outside the normal development of the community.

Marie Jahoda noted that the scheme could never surpass the limits of charity. In the absence of a sufficient number of idealists from other social classes who would resign voluntarily the advantages offered to them by their privileged position, it was necessary to employ technical staff at normal rates of pay. As long as this remained the case it was not possible, she argued, for the organisers to preach the necessary idealism and to create a common ‘ideology’ within the scheme while maintaining a standard of living high above that of the members. Without this community of interest there was no chance of making the experiment fully successful; without paternalistic supervision, there was no chance of making it work at all. Nevertheless, she concluded, the SPS was small enough to be understood in its general operation by every member and big enough to provide an insight into various social processes and a comparison with normal social life:

The colliery system with its problem of export trade and finance, extending over the whole world, is far too complicated to allow the average miner to understand its working; the family unit or a handicraft job is too small for the same purpose in the modern world. The amount of collective social experience represented by the membership of the SPS is one of the main positive effects.

This was no doubt why Dai Payton of Nantyglo, an unemployed miner, and his wife Phoebe, who had a fine family of eight children themselves, remained sympathetic contributors to the Brynmawr schemes. Margaret Wates came to know the family well during and after her brief sojourn in Brynmawr and the Eastern Valley:

They lived in a company room at Nantyglo with one bedroom and one living room, no ‘parlour’. This one-up-one-down had a spiral staircase joining the two rooms, which was dangerous for their small children. They had a ‘longish’ yard in front of the house with a gate to the main road through a low front wall. Next to this was the coal-shed and toilet!

Just inside the front door was flimsy wooden partition with a shallow stone sink beside it. They had a blackleaded oven which went under the stone stairs and was also used for drying the wood. The fire was kept going with a few lumps of coal to the front and dust to the back, carefully flattened, where the teapot could be kept warm. The fire irons were kept polished. I think there was a good-size table, a few upright chairs and boxes.

I visited Phoebe when she was ill, and found there were two double beds and an upright wooden chair… there was a cheap curtain between the beds, but it was very Spartan. Phoebe’s parents lived at the back of them, so some of the children slept in their house…

… every morning they had toast and margarine, and tea with condensed milk: on Easter Sunday they had half an egg each and fresh milk, which wasn’t bottled, but scooped out of the milkman’s churn on wheels. For tea on Sundays they had rice pudding. On Friday they had four faggots and sixpence worth of peas for dinner – “it was delicious”. On Sundays some of them had dandelion pop or nettle pop, a sort of home-made wine. The family never went hungry.

The children had school dinners, after the forms had been filled in about earnings, etc.: these were called “feedings”, and they had a half-pint of bottled milk a day at school. The school attendance officer… would call at the house if a child had been away from school for only two days.

Dai always gave his wife his unopened pay packet. She would buy his tobacco, pay his bus fare and his union subscription, and might give him tuppence to go into the welfare ground to watch a match. She would be responsible for paying the doctor when necessary…

Dai and Phoebe had been given a striking clock as a wedding present, which must have been the only thing of any value they possessed.

There was a traditional “Grace”… before meals, that was sung to a Welsh tune… remembered in 1930:

O Lord have mercy upon us

And keep us all alive;

There’s round the table nine of us

And food enough for five. 

Dai and Phoebe were exceptionally strong people, working so hard to ensure that their family survived under such difficult conditions. Despite all their best efforts, one of the children did not survive, however, a little sister who died at the age of four. Phoebe seems, in some ways, to correspond to the image of the ‘Welsh Mam’ that recent historians have become somewhat obsessed with, based on Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel, How Green Was My Valley:

As soon as the whistle went they (the women) put chairs outside their front doors ans sat here waiting till the men came up the Hill and home. Then as the men came up to their front doors they threw their wages, sovereign by sovereign, into the shining laps, fathers first and sons or lodgers in a line behind. My mother often had forty of them, with my father and five brothers working.

This image is not exclusive to the south Wales valleys, however. It was a regular practice in mining families throughout Britain for the woman to collect the wages of the men, before they were given back their beer and tobacco money. At Binley, near Coventry, if the men went to the pub on the way home, the children in the house would be sent out to intercept them and bring home the sovereigns. This practice continued into the 1940s. Neither did women scrub their husbands’ backs, which were generally left coal-black in order to harden against conditions underground. What perhaps typified the ‘Welsh Mam’ as compared with miners’ wives in other coalfields was that they never worked outside the home, except as shopkeepers, whereas in Coventry many women did shifts in textile factories, working around their husbands’ shifts and depending on whether sons were also miners. In Coventry, they usually became car-workers and engineers in the 1930s.

The ‘Mam’ was, of course, primarily a wife and a mother, clean and pious, and had the responsibility in and for the home. She was certainly as prevalent in other depressed areas where industrial work outside the home was essentially the province of men. By the end of the thirties, this pattern was beginning to change among the younger generations, especially at the southern end of the valleys, but in the heads-of-the-valleys, it remained the same throughout the thirties.  Here, it was women like Phoebe Payton of Nantyglo who continued to scrimp and go without.

As Gwyn A Williams and Dierdre Beddoe have pointed out, although aspects of the portrait of the ‘Welsh Mam’ were dominant in coalfield communities into the inter-war period, the image was essentially a nineteenth-century creation. In Wales, there was nothing really comparable to the industrial out-work done in domestic settings across the West Midlands of England by weavers, chain and nail-makers. Moreover, the British middle-classes were alarmed by the Chartist demonstrations and uprisings of 1831-51 into thinking that there might be a revolution, similar to those which had happened in France, in Britain. One of the chief ways that the middle-class sought to bring about stability was through the strengthening of the idea and role of the family. They advocated a bourgeois view of the family: male breadwinner, dependent ‘domesticated’ wife and dependent children. It was this version of the family that the middle class wished to impose upon the working classes and which working-class families came to aspire to: the dependent wife was to become the symbol of working-class male success. This message about the woman’s role was essentially domestic was trumpeted from the pulpit and reinforced by religious tracts, poems, magazines, paintings, prints and manuals of behaviour for women.

One of the myths which emerged from this stereotypical image which mining women aspired to conform to was that women and men had equal power and that, with the onset of male unemployment, women became the dominant power in unwaged households. The handing over of the sovereigns to the wife is often cited as evidence for this, but this act also involved the passing over of the burden of managing the household. Women’s authority was entirely limited to the private, domestic sphere. Not until the end of 1928 were working-class women able to exercise the vote in parliamentary elections on the same basis as men, but even then very few had access to the public sphere of politics. Besides this, they still had no control over their bodies and its reproductive functions. Miners were oppressed by coal-owners and poverty. Their wives were doubly oppressed by poverty and patriarchy. As one woman said, we were slaves because they were slaves to the coal-owners.

Of course, this does not mean that all miners treated their wives badly, either physically or psychologically, whether in work or out of it. Neither did they consciously ‘enslave’ them. If anything, there is a sense in the evidence that unemployment often brought about a more equal relationship between husband and wife. On the other hand, the poverty it brought often placed great strains on the household, and men, by their own admission, sometimes took out their frustrations and loss of personal pride on their wives.  Dai Payton worked at the level at Coalbrooke Vale for the SPS. A Brynmawr resident had transferred the lease of the level, a mile from Brynmawr, which supplied work for forty older men for eighteen months. After twelve months the management was handed over to the men, but in 1931 the Miners’ Federation called a strike, so the co-operative was also asked to join the strike, although they were both workers and owners. If they had agreed, they might have ruined the small enterprise, since they had not yet established if the plans of the old workings there had been correct. When they refused, they were called “blacklegs” and “traitors”, showing how difficult it was for co-operative ventures and trades unions to work together. The unemployed miners overcame all the technical difficulties, but the coal seam did not yield as much as was expected, though the group struggled on with courage and patience. By 1934, Dai Payton, together with a ‘butty’, made a success of it for a time, until nature forced them to retire. The unemployed were forced accustomed to going up “the mountain” to get a sack of coal, which they would bring back long distances on their backs. Working cooperatively decreased unnecessary physical strain, enabling the group to achieve a more rational way of working as well as running a successful if small, industrial enterprise for some years.

The Brynmawr Experiment was an attempt, unique in Britain, to encourage a whole community afflicted by desperate levels of unemployment, averaging 75% throughout the period 1928-38, to fight back on a number of fronts, tapping an entire range of resources, from the enterprise of volunteers to social service agencies and central government. The national network provided by the Society of Friends was crucial to the work as it supplied management and technical skills and money to get things done. But a community that has suffered such levels of long-term unemployment needs even more than a revivalist inspiration to overcome its paralysing effects. Immediately, it needed relief work, as an absolute necessity. In the medium-term, reconstruction projects were put in place, including a swimming pool, a park and a nursery school. Then the industrial decline had to be offset by starting small co-operative enterprises in boot and furniture making, which by the end of the period were achieving considerable success.

Another enterprise was stocking-making, in which a dozen women worked under a trained forewoman, making long, thick miners’ stockings, but mass production and keen competition proved too much for the group. They produced fine quality socks for a time but had to close down in the end. A further group of about a dozen women and girls made Welsh quilts of silk material, padded with lambswool, to traditional Welsh designs. They also made tea-cosies and other products to order. They worked in a big room above an empty shop for a period of a couple of years. As these ventures received no government support for five years, they had to be funded over this period by grants from private individuals and charitable organisations. The aim was not to replace the volume of jobs lost in the coal industry, but, in the words of Hilda Jennings, to…

… build up a new and better community in which the human spirit will be released from bitterness and divisions, and find outlets for creative energies in craftsmanship and right human relationships.

(to be continued)

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