In the early 1930′s unemployment among adult men in the town of Brynmawr in South Wales reached 90%. The General Strike of 1926 had been followed by a bitter miners’ lockout, closure of pits, and the Depression.
Then, like now, the government decided to address the national deficit by imposing a benefits cut. The dole for a family with two children was cut from 30s a week to 27s 3d. To qualify a couple had to sell all their furniture except one bed, two chairs and a table. Single man received nothing, nor did those who owned their own houses.
Conditions in Brynmawr were shocking, with high child mortality and widespread tuberculosis. Government in effect turned its back on communities like this, and the local council was able to do little to help. Having provided 50,000 meals, the Town Fund for the Needy was exhausted by 1928.
The response to this crisis was led by the Quakers. They formed a coalfields distress committee, and set up a series of settlements in South Wales, starting with Maes-yr-haf in Trealaw. These settlements ran adult education classes, organised holidays for unemployed families, and collected donations of clothes and food. Some started training schemes, offering weaving, embroidery, furniture and pottery workshops.
But in Brynmawr one group of Quakers went a step further. Led by Peter and Lilian Scott, they set up the Brynmawr Experiment. At first they engaged local people in voluntary activity, building a lido and a nursery school. Hilda Jennings, who later ran the Barton Hill Settlement in Bristol, carried out a “social survey” in an attempt to better understand the problems and the potential of the community. But it wasn’t enough, and local people started to resent these well-educated Quakers. Some even started calling them the “Bloody Quakers” or “BQ’s”.
It was what they did next that was truly revolutionary, creating in effect the first development trust.
In 1930 they set up a co-operative company, owned by its workforce, raising over £5,000 in donations, £3,000 in shares, and £1,500 in loans.
A series of ventures following, including the Brynmawr Bootmakers Ltd, making and selling shoes on the open market, and providing free shoes to needy children.
A Subsistence Production Society was formed, opening a factory at Cwmafon, employing 200 people as weavers, tailors, bakers, and raising animals and growing food on the surrounding land.
But the most successful enterprise was the Brynmawr Furniture Makers Ltd. A leading Arts and Crafts designer Paul Matt joined the enterprise, and the company set out its vision as follows: “We believe that good design is consistent with the desire to avoid shams, makeshifts, and meretricious ornament; to escape a blind acceptance of fashion or convention: and, whilst respecting tradition, to express that freedom of spirit and imagination which is the keynote of all true progress.”
The co-operative prospered, even opening a showroom in Cavendish Square in London. It traded successfully right up to the Second World War when conscription led to the disbanding of the workforce. The full story is told in The Brynmawr Furniture Makers, by Mary, Eurwyn and Dafydd Wiliam.
So, if you happen to be sitting on a well-made, well-designed chair from the 1930′s, do check if it has a little label, showing a house on a hill with a rising sun, and the legend Brynmawr Furniture, because if it does, you are sitting on the history of our movement!