||This article's introduction section may not adequately summarize its contents. (August 2012)|
Brynmawr, a small mining town in the South Wales Valleys suffered from the 1926 General Strike through the Great Depression in the United Kingdom and World War II, when much of its traditional heavy industry disappeared. The economic depression began in 1921 with the closure of several collieries in the area. A total of 1,700 families in Brynmawr depended entirely on the employment in these mines and without this work there was a severe economic situation. The mid-1930s saw hunger marches from Brynmawr to County Hall in Newport. Of the 1,700 families in Brynmawr, many suffered from the industrial collapse; 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 Religious Society of friends
The Worthing Religious 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, arrived in Brynmawr in 1928 and 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 in exchange for food relief aid.
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 be cared for, where more facilities could be offered away from Brynmawr at that particular time. Children were taken from their families in Brynmawr and temporarily housed in the homes of Worthing families. A few of the more delicate children were put under the 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.
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 after the outbreak of war says that there were 22 clubs for young people.
Although not entirely successful, the Brynmawr Experiment succeeded in educating people about the need to diversify, 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. . Although Brynmawr would continue to supply workers to the coal industry, the Brynmawr Experiment demonstrated to the community that there were other alternatives to coal mining.
'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.