William Abraham (trade unionist)

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The Right Honourable
William Abraham
William Abraham - Mabon.jpeg
Member of Parliament
for Rhondda
In office
1885–1918
Preceded by new constituency
Succeeded by abolished
Member of Parliament
for Rhondda West
In office
1918–1920
Preceded by (new constituency)
Succeeded by William John
Personal details
Born 14 June 1842
Cwmafan, Glamorgan, Wales
Died 14 May 1922(1922-05-14) (aged 79)
Pentre, Rhondda, Wales
Political party Liberal–Labour 1885–1910
Labour Party 1910–1918

William Abraham (14 June 1842 – 14 May 1922), universally known by his bardic name, Mabon, was a Welsh trade unionist and Liberal/Labour politician, and a member of parliament (MP) from 1885 to 1920. Although an MP for 35 years, it was as a trade unionist that Abraham is most well known. Initially a pioneer of trade unionism, who fought to enshrine the principle of workers' representation against the opposition of the coal-owners, he was regarded in later life as a moderate voice believing that disputes should be solved through conciliation rather than industrial action. This drew him into conflict with younger and more militant leaders from the 1890s onwards. However, although the defeat of the miners in the South Wales strike of 1898 was a clear defeat for Mabon's strategy, his prestige was sufficient to ensure that he became the first president of the South Wales Miners' Federation which was established in the wake of the dispute. Abraham was noted for his powerful speaking voice, and was a renowned orator in English and Welsh.

Early life[edit]

Abraham was born in Cwmafan, Glamorgan, the fourth son of Thomas and Mary Abraham.[1] He was educated at Cwmafan National School but left at a young age, becoming a tinplater before finding work at the local as a 'door boy' at the age of ten.[2] In 1864 Abraham, with another eleven Welsh miners, agreed to work in a copper mine in Chile for three years. Sailing to Valparaiso via the Horn, the ship had to avoid both storms and the Spanish Navy who were attempting to block trade with their rebel colonies in South America.[2] When they arrived at the mine there was no work and so Abraham returned to the coast and managed to gain working passage on a ship back to Britain. After being away for thirteen months he was fortunate to regain his old job. After a slump in 1869 he was placed on short time, he switched to a tinplate works in Swansea.[2]

It was around the 1870s that he became known as a singer and poet, adopting the eisteddfod name Gwilym Mabon, soon Mabon was the title by which he would be best known.[3] Abraham continued working in the mining industry and by 1871 was working at the Caergynydd Pit in Waunarlwydd, near Swansea.

Early trade union history[edit]

In 1871 Abraham became a representative for the cause of his fellow miners, when he negotiated for the workers of the Caergynnydd Pit in a dispute with the managers.[4] During the dispute, Lewis Morgan of the Abergorchy Colliery, who was the Rhondda advocate of the Amalgamated Association of Miners, travelled to Waunarlwydd to speak to the miners. Lewis persuaded Abraham to form a Union at the colliery, and Abraham was eventually appointed as the miners' agent for the Loughor District of the A.A.M. in 1872, and represented the district at national conferences in Manchester and Wallsend.[4] Despite helping to enroll 8,000 miners into the A.A.M. for his district, funds for the union were severely stretched after a series on strikes during the early to mid-1870s. In 1875, during another strike, the (mine) Owners' Association, discovering the A.A.M. was low on funds, ruthlessly switched a 10 percent wage cut to a 15 percent cut. Only the anthracite district remained loyal to Mabon.

The miners were forced back to work and the A.A.M. became bankrupt and was dissolved.[5] This left Abraham as the only miners' agent in the entire South Wales area, as the other agents were forced to find other forms of employment.[4] Abraham left Waunarlwydd and travelled to the Rhondda, a rapidly growing mining area, and in 1877 joined the Cambrian Miners' Association, one of the few union wings of the A.A.M. to survive the parent union's collapse. Despite now being a prominent unionist, the spirit of the miners' within the Rhondda Valley was so low, that when he first addressed a meeing in Pentre in 1877 only 30 people attended.[4] Abraham continued speaking to the miners, and by April 1877, at a meeting in Llwynypia it was agreed that the union should be rebuilt and contributions should be made to a District Fund. The Cambrian Miners' Association was reorganised and with Abraham as leader the membership grew from nothing in 1877 to 14,000 members in 1885, making it the largest of the seven district in the South Wales coalfield.[6]

Parliamentary career[edit]

William Abraham c1895
Western Mail cartoon by JM Staniforth of Abraham during 1898 coal strike

In 1874, Abraham was briefly mentioned as a possible candidate in Carmarthen Boroughs constituency in opposition to Arthur Stepney and Charles Nevill, although there wa no real prospect of him standing.[7] During a fiercely contrasted election, it was alleged, however, that Abraham was 'specially retained to influence and prejudice the colliers and other men against Mr Nevill.'[8] These efforts were in vain, however, as Nevill won the election.

Abraham was elected at the 1885 general election as the Liberal–Labour (Lib–Lab) MP for the new Rhondda constituency in Wales, one of twelve Lib–Lab MPs elected that year. However, following his election, Abraham did not seek to develop a power-base beyond the Liberal association which was dominated by those who had opposed him in 1885. Although he championed the cause of labour he believed that it could be accommodated within the Liberal programme.[9]

In 1898 he was one of the chief negotiators on behalf of the colliers in the Welsh coal strike of 1898, and although the miners were unsuccessful in their action it saw the creation of the South Wales Miners' Federation of which Abraham became president.

Before his re-election at the January 1910 general election, he and most other Lib–Lab MPs from the Miners' Federation of Great Britain joined the Labour Party.

He held the Rhondda seat until its abolition at the 1918 general election, when he was elected for the new Rhondda West constituency. He resigned his seat in 1920, and died two years later aged 79.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Lloyd (1958), pg 1.
  2. ^ a b c McCririck (1963) p. 102
  3. ^ McCririck (1963) p. 103
  4. ^ a b c d Lewis (1959), pg 166.
  5. ^ Lewis (1959), pg 165.
  6. ^ Lewis (1959), pg 167.
  7. ^ "Editorial". Welshman. 30 January 1874. 
  8. ^ "Editorial". Welshman. 13 February 1874. 
  9. ^ Williams. Democratic Rhondda. pp. 57–8. 

Sources[edit]

Books and Journals[edit]

Online[edit]

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
New constituency Member of Parliament for Rhondda
18851918
Constituency abolished
New constituency Member of Parliament for Rhondda West
19181920
Succeeded by
William John
Trade union offices
Preceded by
new position
President of the South Wales Miners' Federation
1898–1912
Succeeded by
William Brace
Preceded by
William Mullin and James O'Grady
Trades Union Congress representative to the American Federation of Labour
1904
With: James Wignall
Succeeded by
David Gilmour and William Mosses
Preceded by
Enoch Edwards
Treasurer of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain
1904–1918
Succeeded by
James Robson