Brynmawr, in South Wales suffered greatly from the 1920s through the Great Depression and World War II, when much of its traditional heavy industry disappeared. The distress began in 1921 with the closure of several collieries in the area. 1700 families in Brynmawr depended entirely on the employment in these mines and without this work there was not much else to do. It was reported in a Cardiff newspaper that "No town in South Wales has suffered as much as Brynmawr". The mid-1930s saw hunger marches from Brynmawr to County Hall in Newport. The conditions were harrowing - bare miners' cottages; severe unemployment; children showing signs of definite malnutrition and suffering. Of the 1700 families in Brynmawr, all were in real need of food, clothing and warmth. Yet, despite the poverty their homes were clean and there was great self-respect. Gardens and allotments were abandoned for lack of seeds and produce; pets were dispensed with due to lack of food; public services were reduced to a minimum with streets badly lit and unswept and shopkeepers bankrupt owing to the credit allowed to their customers who were unable to pay their bills.
The Society of friendsEdit
Against this background, the Worthing Society of Friends (Quakers) formed the Coalfields Distress Committee with the aim of diversifying the economic activity of the area by promoting the development of light industry as an alternative source of employment. Called the Brynmawr Experiment, its originators - among them Peter Scott, William Noble, John Oxenham (the mayor of Worthing) and Sidney Walter to name but a few, arrived in Brynmawr in 1928 and voluntarily began to organize relief work among the area's unemployed. The men of the area repaired roads, and a crew of 25 to 50 constructed Brynmawr's open air swimming pool, giving their services merely for one midday meal.
By 1934 the Order of Friends had been established. This had two categories of work - voluntary work which was based at the Community House, and industrial work based at a small factory called Gwalia Works.
Seeds and manure were supplied for the allotments, fences and boundaries to fields were repaired. Brynmawr was beginning to take shape again. Children were taken to Worthing to nourish them and take care of them - not that their own families wanted this to happen, but more facilities could be offered away from home at that particular time. Children were taken from their loving families in Brynmawr and temporarily housed into loving homes of Worthing families, and each child was given a glass of hot Horlicks Malted Milk and some biscuits every morning throughout the Winter. A few of the more delicate children were put under the tender loving care of "Dr Worthing" for six weeks. Soon the Distress and Relief Fund set up to help the people of Brynmawr stood at 1600 pounds sterling. In the 1920s that was a huge amount of money - and every penny of it was spent wisely. This generosity was not described as charity, but as a helping hand and a gift from friends. Without the Society of Friends and the Rotary Club of Worthing, and their invaluable and priceless offer of assistance, then Brynmawr might not have survived this terrible time of hopelessness and despair.
At Gwalia Works Brynmawr Furniture Makers Ltd and Brynmawr Bootmakers Ltd were established as a source of employment for local people and were financed independently. Although at first the company operated under primitive working conditions, before long they began turning out a high quality product. The style of the furniture was in keeping with modern trends, and orders were taken mostly from private sources. In time "Brynmawr furniture" gained a respectable degree of popularity outside the local area. This lighter industrial work not only provided the chance for those unable to find work at the mines or in linked industry to earn a wage, but also to gain new skills.
With the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, local men were absorbed into the munitions works and the imposition of food rations meant that the programme of subsistence production was closed down. Another casualty was the furniture business - as the market for high-class furniture stagnated - but the bootmakers continued to flourish as boots were needed for the heavier manufacturing industries supplying the war effort. The bootmakers' factory even gained government contracts and was able to become self-supporting.
Meanwhile the Community House ran a series of clubs for the citizens, and also set up a Citizen's Advice Bureau for the town. These clubs, which provided a range of social and educational activities, helped to encourage the youth of the area, who had grown up through decades when continuous unemployment was a normal state of affairs. An article written not long after the outbreak of war says that there were 22 clubs for young people. The article goes on to say that, although the war had brought a forced end to much of the practical work of the experiment, there was now time to look at work that had already been done and to plan ahead for after the war was over. What the author could not see was that by the time hostilities ceased, in 1945, the economic situation would have changed considerably.
Although not entirely successful, the Brynmawr Experiment succeeded in educating people about the need to train in other industries, and not rely so heavily on coal mining for employment. The program provided not only an economic boost to the town at a time of desperate need, it also provided an equally important psychological boost to a community long battered by unemployment and poverty. In other words, some would argue that the greatest legacy of the Brynmawr Experiment was not that it put people back to work, but rather that it caused individuals and the community to realize that their problems could be solved by looking inward. Although Brynmawr would continue to supply workers to the coal industry, the Brynmawr Experiment demonstrated to the community that there were other alternatives to simply waiting for the mines to reopen. This spirit of community self-sufficiency remains strong today, and is one of the primary reasons Brynmawr has managed to survive other economic hardships in the post-World War II era.
'Crafts and the Quakers' by Gwen Lloyd Davies. In Planet, vol. 51, p108-111 (July 1985).
'Utopian designer: Paul Matt and the Brynmawr Experiment', by Roger Smith. In Furniture History vol. 23, p88-94 (1987).
Lindsay Shen, 'Philanthropic Furniture: Gregynog Hall, Powys' by Lindsay Shen. In Furniture History vol. 31, p217-235 (1995).
Brynmawr: A Study of a Distressed Area, Hilda Jennings, Allenson & Co., London, 1934.
Idle Hands: The Experience of Unemployment, 1790-1990, John Burnett, Routledge, 1994.
Utopian England: Community Experiments 1900-1945, Dennis Hardy, Brunner-Routledge, 2000.
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