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Huw T. Edwards
British Labour and Welsh Socialism
By Paul Ward
University of Wales PressCopyright © 2011 Paul Ward
All rights reserved.
BORN IN THE MOUNTAINS
Writing in Welsh in the mid-1950s, Huw T. Edwards began his autobiography: 'It is not at all difficult to trace the history of my family for the simple reason that up until a hundred years ago no member of either branch of it had wandered very far from their native heath.' The sentence fully implies that the life of rural Conwy in north Wales was both settled and separate from the immense changes taking place elsewhere in United Kingdom in the late nineteenth century. Edwards was born on 19 November 1892, the youngest son of seven children, in 'a small cottage near the top of Tal-y-fan Mountain and miles away from any other human habitation'. Certainly, the fact that his family and more than two-thirds of his neighbours in north Wales could speak only Welsh added to this sense of a life distinct and separate from other Britons. Throughout the first chapters of his autobiography Edwards stressed the isolated nature of his countrymen and women. 'Ro Wen,' he wrote, 'like most Welsh villages at the beginning of the century, was a very self-contained community, living largely on its own resources and almost entirely cut off from the outside world.' In this rural upland, 'the mountain folk' contributed to the family economy by 'collecting wool from the gorse bushes and ... when the children were old enough they would take the donkey to fetch heather to fuel the big oven'. Edwards referred repeatedly to his life in Ro-wen in later years, in radio broadcasts, stories and poems. He drew on his memories for political and literary inspiration. As well as his autobiography another full account of his life in the moorland and high pastures of north Wales can be found in a letter written to the Revd William Evans, known as 'Wil Ifan', who at Christmas 1954 sent Edwards a watercolour painting of the cottage called Pen-y-Ffridd, in which Edwards had been born and lived as a child. In this letter Edwards claimed he had been born during a snow storm that confined the family for three weeks, with his father 'likely treating my mother with the same tenderness as he would treat a barren cow with a calf'. He described his father as
a monoglot Welshman – a simple 'countryman' [gwerinwr] and a blessed prayer. He never had any schooling, my mother taught him to read and write after they were married, and in Pen-y-Fridd by the light of a peat fire and a candle, the A.B.C. was taught to him.
Each aspect of Edwards's recounting of his life emphasized the remoteness of life in 'the old mountain cottage'. There are many aspects of life that he later disliked, such as Sundays reading the Bible and not being allowed to move, music at school because it prevented him playing, and the ghost stories his father told. In a radio broadcast he remembered how his father had told him a story about a headless woman, and
Afterwards I (at 10 years old) had to go outside and fill 2 pitchers of water for the morning to the spring in the upper pasture 400 yards away from the house. Despite my hatred of music I sang the hymn 'Mae Iesu Grist o'n hochor ni' (Jesus Christ is on our side) to keep the ghost away. Thinking for sure that I could see the headless woman near the gate to the pasture, I would go through a gap in the hedge to avoid her. I put the pitcher in the water and a large frog jumped in and struck my hand. I ran back to the house terrified in the belief that the headless woman was chasing, only to find the pitchers half empty when I got to the door. The journey to the spring after the story was one of my most hated things.
The sense of rural isolation summed up in having to fetch water from a quarter of a mile away can be taken further. Rural Conwy was geographically isolated. It was 240 miles from London and sixty miles from Chester. Even at the local level, deep valleys enhanced parochialism. As well as two-thirds of the population speaking only the Welsh language, there were also features of the local economy that emphasized the feeling of being a place and a people apart. Much of the population worked in agriculture, while most of the land was owned by a small number of families. In the neighbouring county of Caernarvonshire less than 5 per cent of the land was occupied by those who owned it. The landowners often belonged to the Anglican Church, whose services were in English, while the majority of the population were dissenters, and 'Welsh Nonconformity was acutely conscious of its Welshness.' Edwards's father was a deacon at a number of Independent chapels as the family moved around within Ro-wen and Penmaenmawr (with its granite quarries), living at numerous different houses while Huw was a child.
Religion was central to Huw's father's life and he contributed financially to the building of a number of chapels, so that Edwards recalled
every animal that was on the smallholding and all the furniture, being snatched away to pay my father's part as surety, and some-time around 1917 when I came home for a holiday from France, my father asked me to go with him to Llanfairfechan, I saw he was extremely happy on the journey through Bwlch y Ddeufaen, and I understood why when he said 'I'm very pleased that you are home and coming with me to pay the last twenty pounds of my debt on Moriah.' Therefore, from the time I was twelve to the time I was twenty two years old, the weight was on his shoulders, no wonder that that journey was a happy one for him!
Edwards's father was a quarryman too. R. Merfyn Jones has written of the self-enclosed and homogeneous nature of the slate quarrymen's lives in Gwynedd, in which between 11,000 and 14,000 men were employed at the turn of the century. The legendary lockout of the workforce by Lord Penrhyn between 1900 and 1903 strengthened the sense of cohesiveness and self-reliance of the slate quarrymen. As Jones argues,
The quarrymen and their families created distinctive communities which were remarkable for many reasons: the intensity of their allegiance to nonconformity, the radical edge to their politics, the importance of their contribution to Welsh culture, their multifarious organisations, ranging from Sick Clubs to Football Clubs and Silver Bands.
Edwards's father worked in the granite rather than the slate quarries, but the lifestyle and allegiances were similar. The Edwardses were committed to the chapel, with Huw considering the weekly church meeting or Seiat as the 'high spot of the week'. He recalled in his letter to Wil Ifan that 'I would sit on the hob on the night of prayer meetings (the old custom in the region was to hold meetings on a Saturday night in the different mountain cottages) listening to the old Saints, each one in his own style pulling the heavens down.' He also believed into the 1950s that he had witnessed 'a man become completely possessed by the Holy Spirit'. He remembered too the Revival of 1904. There is little evidence of the Edwards family engaging in radical politics, but nonetheless his early years encouraged a sense of class consciousness within him that be carried into his later and long political life. In particular, the almost fatal injuries suffered by his father in a quarry accident in 1878 or 1879, before Huw was born, 'left their mark' on Huw because of the 'heartlessness of the quarry owners' who 'not once ... did so much as enquire about him'. The story of his father's accident was obviously something that became part of the family's shared memory, for Edwards could describe it in some detail sixty years later, as well as the rescue efforts by one of his father's friends and the contributions of Irish immigrant workers to the family's welfare after the accident.
Welsh historians have recently turned their attention to historical perspectives of labour that do not take constructions of masculinity entailed in the daily lives of working men for granted. Edwards was socialized into the life of the granite quarrymen, learning the expected behaviour of boys and men in a highly gendered society in which women were rarely engaged in paid occupations. Edwards's experience is likely to have been similar to the boys of the slate areas, as remembered by Thomas Phillips:
The children ... used to copy the quarryman ... the image idol of the quarryman was the air they breathed ... They had their little quarry, they copied their fathers in the craft, they owned their hammers and their gimlets; they went from time to time to the quarry.
From the age of ten, Edwards went to the Greiglwyd quarry at Penmaenmawr with his father, during the school holidays at least. He did not enjoy school and often truanted. One letter to Edwards congratulating him on the publication of his autobiography in 1957 recalled him as 'the boy that was a thorn in the side of every teacher'. Gwyn Jenkins has shown that Edwards's bad behaviour in and out of school was serious enough to have left a public record. Hence the Ro-wen school logbook for 14 September 1906 recorded that 'Hugh Thos Edwards, a very badly conducted boy, was finally and publicly cautioned. Complaint reaching master of his disgraceful conduct on the road to & from school.' When Edwards began to work full-time at fourteen years, he went through the symbolic initiation ceremony, intended to strengthen the necessary solidarity between men working in such a dangerous occupation, though his previous visits to the quarry ensured that he was initiated with only 'six light taps with a warm spade – and there I was, a fully fledged quarryman, with the undisputed right to spit in the fire!' Such socialization contributed to the sense of community in north Wales which added to a sense of separation from other parts of British society.
Edwards was given a greater sense of isolation by the death of his mother when he was eight. She had been in poor health for some time and some of the family's frequent moves were intended to improve her strength. Edwards retained 'the happiest memories of her tenderness and care for me', recalling the stories of her family and of country life in the past and present:
All my memories of her are very dear – the way in which she would always give the shelter of her hearth to onion sellers and others caught in storms and heavy weather; how she would help my father and me to write our names a little more clearly; riding down to Moriah Chapel on horseback; listening to me reciting my verses on the way and then not forgetting to see to the horses' needs while we were at the service; painting all forms of goodness in glorious colours. That was my mother. I still remember her last kiss to her 'youngest chick', and that chick himself now a grandfather!
Naturally, the loss of his mother had a profound and long-term impact on Edwards. He wrote about it in his short story 'Llwch i'r Llwch' ('Dust to Dust') and in his poem 'Yn Angladd Fy Mam' ('At my Mother's Funeral') written in 1961 and praised by Saunders Lewis as 'truly good poetry'.
After his mother's death, the family moved back to Pen-y-Ffridd. His father remarried within a year and 'the family was completely scattered', for as Edwards wrote, 'There was never a spark of love between my step-mother and myself.' In a short story written in 1950 Edwards drew on this experience to have a young boy run away from home never to return because of the coldness of his stepmother. Edwards's greatest hope, once he started working at the quarry, was to live with his brother Bob in Penmaenmawr to avoid the daily eight-mile walk from Ro-wen to the quarry. Unfortunately Bob suffered a serious injury in a quarry explosion, and it was decided within the family that Huw should become a farm labourer instead. 'This', he wrote, 'was a terrible blow to my pride.' He had dreamt of being 'a first rate quarryman' and considered the thought of working on a farm as 'almost unbearable'.
Edwards was not a stranger to farm work. In common with many quarry workers, his father farmed a small piece of land to supplement his money wages and Edwards had been expected to contribute from a young age. In an englyn, written in the 1950s, Edwards described Tal-y-fan mountain, where the family farm lay as:
(Fy maes chwarae gynt!)
Mynydd yr oerwynt miniog, – a diddos
Hen dyddyn y Fawnog,
Lle'r oedd sglein ar bob ceiniog
A Thaid o'r llaid yn dwyn llog.
(My first play ground!)
Mountain of the cutting cold wind, – and sheltered
Old homestead of Fawnog,
Where every penny shone
And Grandfather stole interest from the mire.
Edwards was to refer back to this part of his life frequently, in radio broadcasts, newspaper interviews and in his poetry. He told the Empire News and Sunday Chronicle half a century later that 'my father owned sheep – but so few that I knew each one by name.' His experiences in the countryside were to become an important part of his identity and his image, for as the Empire News journalist remarked, 'When you watch him cross the room you know him as a mountain man.' Edwards considered the mountains to be a mystical place. He claimed to have seen fairies that spoke and sang in Welsh. His nostalgia was, though, tempered by memory of the reality of life in the hills, for he recalled that Pen-y-Ffridd had no sanitation, and water had to be carried a quarter of a mile, that his father had to work a sixteen-hour day and 'My Mother passed-away at the age of 46 – grinding poverty having sapped the desire to exist.' Yet Edwards chose Penn Fridd as his bardic name, providing a cultural mark of approval for his childhood in the hills.
The situation as landless labourer was different to working on the family smallholding. As David Pretty has argued, 'The hired farm labourer traditionally occupied a subordinate status at the very base of the rural class hierarchy' and formed 'a class apart' in Welsh society at the turn of the century. Emotionally unsettled by his mother's death, Edwards was now taken by his father to a hiring fair and hired out to a farmer. His father wished for Huw to continue to live the respectable life he had been raised in, counselling him to 'Remember to be a good boy. Don't go near the pub. Mind you go to chapel three times every Sunday – and to the Prayer Meeting. Remember to write home. Don't forget to be obedient always.' Set on his way to his new employer with a shilling in his pocket, Edwards immediately ignored his father's advice and went to a pub to try a single pint of beer and arrived at his new employer's farm drunk. His father had entrusted him to a farmer who was also a deacon and as a result Edwards found himself dismissed with a month's notice on his first day of independence. After a month he went to work on a farm at Talybont, near Bangor, where one of his brothers also worked.
So far, it seems that Edwards's story is a tale of separation and isolation, connected through his father to a particularly Welsh civil society but divorced from the wider developments of British society at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. His life was enveloped by a Welsh-speaking society in small villages and towns, with culturally distinct religious practices, in the geographically located Welsh industries and occupations of quarrying and farming, far distant from the mainstream of British economic, social and cultural life. Without a doubt, north Wales did constitute a distinct society, yet it was neither backward nor isolated.
The mountain of Penmaenmawr jutted out into the sea making travel along the coast treacherous, yet by the middle of the eighteenth century a turnpike road had been built that opened the coast to road traffic. After the Act of Union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1800 a coach service was established between Chester and Anglesey that passed through the coastal towns of Colwyn Bay, Conwy and Bangor. In 1848 the Chester to Holyhead railway line brought a station to Penmaenmawr, as well as to Conwy, and by the mid-1850s three-quarters of a million passengers were using the line. Across the later Victorian years the area developed an important tourist industry, both in the larger resorts of Rhyl and Llandudno and in the smaller towns of Penmaenmawr and Llanfairfechan. As R. Merfyn Jones has argued, 'the remoteness of the area in the nineteenth century can too easily be exaggerated and thus the history of its people too conveniently interpreted as an example of "backwardness".' The people of north Wales were distinct, yet constituted part of the United Kingdom, linked firmly to its economy and culture.
Excerpted from Huw T. Edwards by Paul Ward. Copyright © 2011 Paul Ward. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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