On 6 December 2014, members of Llafur: The Welsh People’s History Society gathered at the Temple of Peace and Health in Cardiff on a crisp winter’s day to discuss history and memory in Wales. The following is a slightly edited version of my lecture.


On 6 September 1969, Gwyn Thomas presented on BBC Two one of his most personal films, One Pair of Eyes, reflecting on the changes then taking place in his native South Wales. In the accompanying Radio Times advert, the driving force of the programme is given voice. ‘The nature of a man’s life’, it reads in Gwyn’s very evident style, ‘the nature of a man’s mind, depends very largely on the kind of shocks and jokes to which he is subject. In Wales an industry was dying, a massive popular religion was dying. It was these things that held my eye and drove my pen’. He would expand the point in the programme to include the third great death of modern Wales: politics. ‘And most important of all, the most dynamic and passionate political belief in Britain was dying. I mean the Labour Party in my lifetime has entered into stages of petrifaction and decay’. One wonders what he would make of Welsh Labour today – buying up airports but cutting nursery schools and libraries. I daresay he might see the Labour Party as rather undead and the potential of the valleys suffocating under that ill-moving corpse. Towns, notably Pontypridd, which once boasted the most modern co-operative store in Wales, with self-service and everything, and a Woolworths that opened in the midst of the 1921 miners’ lockout, and survived everything that was thrown at it, now reduced to building their success on the marketing of empty shops.

The programme includes a passage in the Rhondda Valley, Gwyn’s birthplace and the hub of the detritus. As the camera pans along the Rhondda Fawr from its position perched atop Penrhys, it takes in Trealaw, Llwynypia, Tonypandy, and eventually Porth and Cymmer – the gateways of the Rhondda. He ends this passage by reflecting on his own writing and purpose, concluding with these lines: ‘Whether I succeeded I do not know; I don’t think that I succeeded. Because you cannot be consciously aware of life’s strange jokes without feeling somebody’s flesh somewhere or another wince, resent, and hate’.

Gwyn Thomas died just twelve years later on the eve of the darkest period in contemporary Welsh history, the miners’ strike of 1984-1985. Anyone alive in the Valleys or here in Cardiff in those years of the early 1980s would have felt the brutality of a government that winced, resented, and hated. That declared miners and their families (as well as the Irish, Lesbians and Gay men, and anyone else who supported them) ‘the enemy within’. It is perhaps apt that the last major programme that Gwyn Thomas was ever involved in – The Colliers’ Crusade – broadcast in the summer of 1980, contained prophetic warnings from history of governments very much like that.

Gwyn explains how, sat at a table in a café on the Calle de San Jerónimo in the centre of Madrid, he experienced a blast of anti-republican rhetoric and incitement to violence in full. The man speaking was a Spanish army officer.

 Of course it will have to be destroyed, this peasant government; this system of ideas […] cataclysmically destroyed. […] The guns that won South America, will again regain Spain for the faith and traditional values.

Gwyn interjects:

 I had never heard this kind of language in my life. It was astounding. But this was it you see. This was it in a capsule. This marvellous idea that if you have a hundred thousand people in a state, organised in one small system of ideas, and ideas based on a technology, which is the technology of death, you were on to a winner. And so it proved. That despite all these marvellous donations of love and valour from all four corners of Europe and the world, it was that man, sitting next to me on that table in Madrid who decided the issue. He knew precisely what he wanted, he knew precisely what he hated. And he won.

If we want an equivalent of that spleen-venting Spanish general, we need only think of the managers of Powell Duffryn, the horse-riding colonial-soldier-turned-Chief-Constable Lionel Lindsay, or the politically blind figure of Neville Chamberlain whose actions at the Ministry of Health and later at the Treasury caused at least one valleys authority to remark ‘[we] fully realise the attitude of the Ministry of Health towards […] this area’. That was in 1926, and it was not meant in a nice way.

The crux of the issue was this: the trampling over of the authority’s attempt to develop better schools. As they complained to the Board of Education, whom they hoped would be more enlightened:

 While the authority realise that the financial condition of the council as a whole has to be borne in mind, they naturally regard it as a very serious matter that the children of miners should be denied the inalienable right of a public education because of the stoppage of the mines to which they are not parties and in respect of which they have suffered and are still suffering.

Notice that term – ‘inalienable rights’. It has direct echoes of that other great declaration of liberty and rights, the American constitution. I don’t think it’s a surprise. Fifteen years earlier, in a lecture to mark the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency of the United States, Mardy Jones (then the great hope of sections of the SWMF) had expressed the continuing relevance of Lincoln’s commitment to freedom and equality for all people for communities in South Wales. That, of course, was in the middle of the Cambrian Combine Dispute. By the time of the 1926 lockout, Mardy Jones was MP for Pontypridd and the democratic ideals that he had promoted had become firmly entrenched in popular politics. That we have a rights-based political language decades before it supposedly emerged in the 1960s is significant because the great rights campaigns of the 1960s – better education, better healthcare, better jobs, civil liberties – are all very much apparent here in South Wales in the inter-war years. They haven’t really ever gone away, however much we forget about them in our day-to-day lives and in our histories.

I want to pick up on two particular themes to illustrate ‘the joke’: the provision of nursery education in the 1920s and 1930s, and the question of civil rights for sexual minorities in the 1970s and 1980s. The former might seem somewhat ephemeral, although if you happen to live in Rhondda Cynon Taff at the moment, it’s a live issue, but contemporaries would not have seen it that way. Take a look at the reports of School Medical Officers in the aftermath of 1926 and you’ll start to see just what I mean. But it’s more important than that. The campaign for nurseries brought women into politics; the campaign for nurseries illustrated the subtle differences between women’s labour politics and men’s labour politics; the campaign for nurseries brought philanthropists such as Nancy Astor swooping down from the skies like Nanny McPhee and encouraged radical policy shifts by Labour-controlled authorities.

One figure is key here: Elizabeth Andrews. Writing in the pages of the Colliery Workers’ Magazine in March 1925 she suggested that ‘the establishment of open-air nursery schools for children from two years would be a boon for the little ones as well as the mothers’ – she was much influenced by Margaret Macmillan, the Bradford-born socialist and educational pioneer. For ten years Andrews campaigned across South Wales, encouraging Labour-controlled education authorities to provide nurseries for young children. In some areas, notably Risca and Pontypridd, the authorities responded by shifting the boundaries of primary education from the age of five to the age of three. By the mid-1930s, nearly 1 in 9 children in Pontypridd’s infants’ schools were of nursery age. As a consequence, the committee could proudly boast, ‘the problem of the “toddler” which presents many difficulties in other areas is not so acute in this town’. Woe betide anyone who threatened this system, as the Save the Children Fund found when they tried to set up a nursery in Risca: they were told by the local authority there to (in politer terms than this) get lost.

The campaign had been launched by women, it was maintained by women, and the nurseries themselves were staffed by women. They were the culmination of one of the great battles of the day. At a meeting of the East Glamorgan Labour Advisory Council in 1933, for instance, a resolution was passed stating that ‘there is no ultimate solution of the national social problems until there be established adequately equipped primary schools. Such schools to be the gateway for all children’. The motion was put forward by the Council’s president, Myra O’Brien, an Irish-born head teacher from Treforest and the longest serving president not just of the town’s women’s labour group – which she founded – but also the Pontypridd Trades and Labour Council (between 1922 and 1925). She also served as president of the Divisional Labour Party for the Pontypridd constituency, and was the first woman elected to Glamorgan County Council from the town. Active in the National Union of Teachers and in the Irish Self-Determination League, Myra O’Brien serves as a clear reminder, as if any were still needed in the 21st century, that the entry of women into labour politics was extremely varied and had powerful effects on the way society came to be. Women’s voices were strong enough in the labour movement by 1921 that in Aberdare the education committee deferred to Rose Davies on matters relating to the miners’ lockout, and in the aftermath of it the Monmouthshire Women’s Labour Advisory Council could even demand that women be allowed to attend lodge meetings: the secretary of the SWMF (a man, of course) wrote back diplomatically rejecting the demand, nevertheless.

But on the streets during that fateful, turning-point year of 1921, women had been as active as the men who had been locked out and so it was no surprise that they wanted access to the ‘village workers’ council’! Frustrated that they were, themselves, locked out of the male political arena, the women’s sections attempted to forge their own alternative society. In April 1921, for instance, the Pontypridd Labour Women’s Section passed a resolution stating that ‘this meeting of miner’s wives […] stands firm by our husbands in this great struggle for the rights to live realising as Chancellors of the Exchequers of the home that the wages offered to our families to exist upon with the present cost of living would reduce our status below [the] poverty line’. A few weeks later they organised a rally at the Park Cinema addressed by the pioneering Bargoed councillor Hettie Jones. They placed an advertisement in the local newspaper inviting men along to hear the views of the assembled women, not the other way around. The town’s Women’s Co-operative Guild similarly discussed matters such as the introduction of proportional representation. Not for the women of Pontypridd was politics a masculine arena. This was particularly evident in 1935 and 1936 when the fascists attempted to hold meetings in the Market Square in Pontypridd: arrayed against them were members of the local branches of the Communist Party, the Labour League of Youth, and the Women’s Labour Section. Amidst fierce fighting, it appears that the women led the charge and the singing! Debout les handbags de la terre!

We now know, more because it was left out of the narratives for so long, that the miners’ strike of 1984-85 marked a turning point both for women and for a different group of people within this society of ours; a group whose exclusion was particularly severe; namely, lesbians and gay men. Activism within the lesbian and gay community had risen considerably during the 1970s as the law that ‘legalised’ homosexual activity in 1967 became the target of considerable protest on grounds of continued persecution and inequality – civil rights grounds in other words. The Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which was formed in London in 1970, made its first inroads into Wales the following year with branches at Aberystwyth University and Swansea University, together with a more general branch situated in Cardiff. For the most part, the GLF branches in the universities existed as a support network whereas the branch in Cardiff had an activist base. It organised street theatre, leafleting campaigns designed to raise awareness of rights and health issues, and in December 1971 a march against unemployment complete with a marching banner. Sound familiar? Alongside – and eventually in place of – GLF was the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, which had quite a sophisticated network across Wales by the mid-1970s (albeit relatively sparse in membership): branches were present in Cardiff, Swansea, Carmarthen, Newport, and Llandudno. Meetings in Cardiff, according to CHE’s records, were initially held in the Blue Anchor on St Mary Street (a traditional haunt of seamen and dockers) before moving to the Chapter Arts Centre. The Newport branch had considerable success, securing dedicated club nights at the Charleston, support from the probation service, the LEA, the police, and winning advertising space and a series of interviews in the Argus. The group even had its own newsletter imaginatively titled Rico-CHE!

Through the later 1970s, then, CHE and its sister organisation FRIEND (an advice service) established themselves throughout Wales. In university towns, similarly, GLF continued to have some presence and even expanded into Bangor and Lampeter, but was much less significant than it had been at the beginning of the decade. That they succeeded in breaking down barriers is evidenced by the number of gay organisations and advice services that were in existence by 1983: in Cardiff, Swansea, Aberystwyth, Bangor, Newport and Lampeter, yes, but also in Abergele, Llandrindod Wells, Wrexham, and Maentwrog (which was home to an advice line). Llandudno, in particular, had established itself as a Welsh ‘Brighton’ with gay pubs and clubs attracting visitors to the fading delights of the North Wales coast. Only in the South Wales Coalfield was there a conspicuous absence of organisation – with the noble and notable exception of Merthyr Tydfil (maintaining its status as the most radical town in Welsh history) where gay pub nights were available.

Given events which were to engulf mining communities the following year, this absence is noticeable and illustrative of the pace of change which occurred as a result of Wales being turned upside down in the years that followed, particularly in the coalfield. These words delivered by Dai Donovan, and repeated in the film Pride, capture it all neatly. ‘Victory to the miners, victory to the lesbians and gays, victory to the old, victory to the young, victory to the sick, and victory to the working class’. What’s particularly apparent from reading through the records of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, the London-based support group who worked so closely with the Dulais Valley, is that their members saw their work as vital to the expression of working-class homosexuality, not of homosexuality in general, which they felt had been appropriated by middle-class activity. This was as a recovery of the principles of equality and fairness that had so marked mining communities in particular – whether the question was race, gender, or sexuality. Think, for instance, of Paul Robeson – the guest of honour at post-war miners’ galas and at the huge reception (and we’re talking tens of thousands of people present) to mark the return of the international brigaders to Wales held in Mountain Ash in December 1938; the star of the film This Proud Valley which offers a great antidote to the patronising habits of How Green Was My Valley. Utter the word, and utter it loudly. For this was solidarity.

And so to the joke, then, which you may have already got by now? Well, here’s what Gwyn Thomas had to say:

The poverty bit was so marvellous. Because really poverty, deprivation, anguish, misery, actually create the total human being. […] When I ponder the jokes that we had in the valley as parts of our mythology: The family […] held a lottery to decide which of the six brothers would have middle cutlet of the sardine. […] And of course this is it I think, this is the entire Welsh myth you know. There is no life really, there is no death either. There is a simple act of mind, a simple act of spirit occurring beneath the sun, beneath the moon, it doesn’t really matter: simply this act of love between people.

By love, I think, he also meant solidarity. This did not mean, nor could it mean, uniformity. Each community was independent, each pit reflective of different circumstances both in the conditions underground and in the whims of the coal companies, some more paternalistic than others. But underground where personal safety and survival relied on knowing that those around you were committed to looking after you (and you, in return, them) solidarity, love, was a fact of life. Above ground this was equally true, especially in communities where everything from food to sport to funerals and hospitals fell under the purview of the labour movement. In order to afford to see the doctor or know that a funeral would not destroy a family’s finances entirely, one needed to take part in that society, not compete with it. In Ynysybwl for instance, even local undertakers were members of the colliery workers’ medical scheme; and teachers, who could perhaps afford to shop elsewhere, joined the co-operative and were often just as radical as the miners. In this way solidarity – as well as the struggle for it – did not mean the Fed, alone, but the society from which it had arisen. This is the essence of the South Wales of Arthur Horner and Elizabeth Andrews, of Rose Davies and William Hazell, of Myra O’Brien and John E. Morgan. South Wales today lives in their shadow precisely because we’ve forgotten what the sad but beautiful joke was really all about.