Last weekend, I attended the unofficial histories conference at Manchester Metropolitan University. Designed to give voice to historians and histories that are usually forgotten or ignored by more “official” history, it provided me with the perfect opportunity to talk about a historian whose work has long had an influence on me: John Edward Morgan. Nobody in the audience had ever heard of him, which isn’t surprising since he died in 1960. The following post is a shortened version of the paper I presented edited slightly to make it more readable in this format.
So just who was John Edward Morgan? Johnny, as he was affectionately known in the village, was, during his working life, a coal hewer. He was born in Ferndale, in the Rhondda Fach, in 1875 of that generation who were fully bilingual and moved to Ynysybwl to begin work upon leaving school. As a young man in the 1890s, he witnessed the ‘coal war’ of 1893 when South Wales erupted in a hauliers strike and took part in the formative 1898 strike that led to the foundation of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, the Fed. All before he was even twenty five! He married Margaret Ann Parry in 1903 and had a son, Morien, in 1916. When Gladstone went to Aberystwyth to preach liberalism and home rule at the beginning of the 1890s, Johnny stole away with a friend to go and see their hero in the flesh. They got there late and had to sneak around the back of the stage. The two young men saw not the towering figure they imagined Gladstone to be but a withered, weak old man out of place in the modern world. Johnny returned to Ynysybwl shaken and uncertain.
Keir Hardie’s victory in Merthyr at the Khaki election of 1900 gave the increasingly radical Morgan a new purpose and in the early years of the twentieth century he set about convincing his friends and colleagues to join up to the Labour cause and he was instrumental in setting up a branch of the Workers’ Educational Association in Ynysybwl around 1910, one of the first mining communities in Wales to do so. Along with his brother, Abel, and a handful of others who appear in A Village Workers’ Council, Johnny formed a branch of the Independent Labour Party and convinced Ben Tillett and Beatrice Webb to come and speak at the village square. He felt immense pride when the miners of the Lady Windsor Colliery voted overwhelmingly in favour of the MFGB’s affiliation to the Labour Party.
Perhaps the most formative moment in Johnny’s life, however, had little to do with politics or community activism; rather it involved a deep religious awakening that he experienced during the great Welsh Revival of 1904. It committed Johnny and his brothers to pacifism and a dedication to working for peace. Although Evan Roberts, the proselytising Baptist minister from rural Wales who led the revival, had little time for the growing presence of socialism in the coalfield, Johnny comfortably incorporated his newly found religious fervour with his political instincts fashioning a keen form of Christian Socialism that he held for the rest of his life. Inevitably, then, when war broke out in 1914, he opposed it, absolutely, on both moral and political grounds. As did his youngest brother, Bethuel, then a trainee teacher at the University College of North Wales in Bangor, who was imprisoned by the authorities first at Brecon Gaol and subsequently at Dartmoor as a conscientious objector and treated, as so many of them shamefully were, very harshly indeed.
Now, you might be forgiven for thinking that Johnny was an exception, an extremely dedicated man who stood out. Well, in actual fact, he was not the only Morgan to display such tendencies and I think this had some bearing on his personal sense of the past. The Morgan family as a whole displayed a remarkable commitment to their class. His grandfather marched with the Chartists of Monmouthshire in 1839; his father, John, was a pioneer co-operator in the Rhondda Valley and helped to form the Ferndale Co-operative Society in the 1880s; Johnny’s son, Morien whom I mentioned a moment ago, studied French at University College Cardiff and went off to fight in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. Abel, John’s younger brother, was a long-standing Labour councillor for Ynysybwl and was active in the Labour Party more generally, the workers’ educational association, and in miners’ welfare. Finally, of Elaine Morgan, Morien’s wife, I cannot legitimately provide a précis of her many achievements but suffice it to say that her dedication to science, to feminism, and to providing a voice to her own people is without parallel in modern Wales. Have a read of her autobiography, if you get a chance.
Johnny’s book, A Village Workers’ Council, is a hybrid work of social and political history. It’s a landmark precisely because of that. When it was written, in the late-1940s, nothing of the social history we take for granted today was in existence. This was years before E. P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, before Eric Hobsbawm’s Labouring Men, decades before Arthur Marwick and Tony Mason and all the other social historians you could think of who’ve written about music and sport and fashion and smoking and women and race and homosexuality. The best Morgan could hope for was history with the politics left out.
The book opens with a series of brief portraits of key figures in the history of the Lodge in its early days, men such as Morgan James John, Morgan Walters, and Fred Priday, whom Johnny depicts as a lover of Labour and of cricket. It then moves to a more straightforward narrative history moving through to the Second World War covering briefly events such as the 1921 miners’ strike, the 1926 strike during which the lodge helped to operate a boot repair committee and organised a soup kitchen, the effects of the 1930s, and finally the presence of Bevin Boys in the village during the 1940s. It ends with a chapter discussing the social and cultural institutions that were forged and nearly forged including a garden village, the miners’ welfare ground, the ambulance brigade and the little park that I spoke about earlier. This is what Johnny says of it:
Hundreds of children of both sexes … have grateful memories of countless delightful hours spent in its bushes and by-paths, playing “Indians” etc., and many harassed and tired mothers also treasure memories of many enjoyable evenings in the sun upon its seats, where they had gone without dressing up, with their toddlers playing round on the grass nearby.
It’s a beautiful image which, in an understated way, speaks to the pride he had in what the lodge had achieved over fifty years. It is what it is because it combines Johnny’s participation in some events and in certain movements and his documentation of others from a distance. The former encapsulated in Morgan’s use of the lodge records and minutes of his branch of the South Wales Miners’ Federation and the later derived principally from his diaries and memories. It’s what makes the book quite unlike other history texts that we have about the coalfield and is at once both a primary and secondary source, so long as you’re familiar enough with where each bit comes from.
At the core of the book is the collective purpose of community; it’s an old socialist idea, I know, but this was a book written by a life-long socialist. In its portrayal of 1926 the book tells us of the community rallying around to berate the few scabs that there were in Ynysybwl using the colliery band to wake them up hours before their shift and painting their houses black. It’s a passage that particularly resonates with me because opposite the house I grew up in was one of those homes painted black like the crow to denote here dwelleth a scab. It’s a memory that would be especially important during the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike when the events of 1926 echoed vividly in the minds of the communities that were actively involved. And Ynysybwl was on the front lines with one of the few working deep pits left in the South Wales Coalfield. In a letter sent to families across Wales in January 1985, the Welsh Council for Civil and Political Liberties observed in this vein that ‘the struggles of the Welsh mining communities today can only be compared with the desperate days of 1926’. Miners and their families had long memories.
But we should not forget that this was a book written at the moment of triumph. There was a majority Labour government – something Johnny had worked for, for 50 years -; the miners were at peace and the mines owned by the state. Many of the things that he had campaigned for, fought for, were a reality. What the book is, therefore, is a reminder to his generation and a lesson to those younger that whatever the future holds, the past was a struggle and the past contained remarkable achievements despite that struggle. Those who lived through them and worked for them believed in the continuity of memory and the book served to further it (the continuity of memory) in the next generation. To end, let me quote from an interview given by a miner from Maerdy to the BBC in July 1984 which sums up this miners’ sense of history.
Our fathers and grandfathers fought for a lot in this industry and we’re not letting it slip for nobody. I’m not letting slip what my grandfathers fought for.
It’s a sentiment that Johnny Morgan would have agreed with. And, as it happens, so do I.