It was the furniture workshops and their products that were to chiefly promote Brynmawr and their fame has survived to the present day. This was undoubtedly the most successful enterprise of The Brynmawr Experiment.
There was no notable tradition of furniture-making in the area. The people of Brynmawr had relied on the cabinet-makers and joiners of the surrounding countryside for their woodwork and wares during the previous two centuries (18th & 19th) , although a number of carpenters worked in the town during the first decades of the twentieth century. These, however, were not directly involved in the new venture established by the Quakers in 1930. Paul Matt, the son of a German cabinet maker who had been apprenticed to his father for three years, and who came to Brynmawr as leader of the local unemployed persons clubs, was the instigator. A trained designer and a man of vision and energy, he saw an opportunity of combining one of his ideas with the creation of new products.
Matt had been experimenting with new designs for furniture in the Gwalia Works in 1929. The following year he seized the opportunity of offering training and employment to a number of the men who attended his clubs for the unemployed, without bending national laws or treading on the toes of local leaders. A number of the practical and humanitarian aspirations of Paul Matt were realised with the establishment of the Brynmawr Furniture Makers Limited in 1931 and its registration as a component company of the Brynmawr & Clydach Valley Industries. A dozen men were initially employed to make and assemble the parts. They were given expert training and when proficient were each assisted by two youths between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. Work was therefore provided for both school leavers and youths who had not worked hitherto. Up to fifty workers were employed in this way during the decade with the demand for work amongst youths great and the waiting list for vacancies long.
It proved to be a financially successful venture. An appeal for capital in 1930-31 released £6,000 from shareholders before the business was formally opened. Orders came flooding in, including a famous initial order from the Mount School in York for four hundred chairs at £1 each, one of the first establishments of many to swell the company's order books. It was based on a solid initial financial base and consequently flourished.
The company found a home in the old bootmakers factory at the Gwalia works, which was closed in 1926. The new cobblers re-commenced work at these premises in 1930 to be joined by furniture makers and woodworkers in 1931. The factory was gutted by fire in 1937 but the business was re-located in other premises in Brynmawr until the Gwalia Works was rebuilt. Production remained relatively unaffected. The bootmakers were also re-installed in the old factory following its refurbishment.
Following the depression of the 1920's, large quantaties of oak and other timber remained unsold in Cardiff Docks. The northen European Oak had been imported through this port since about 1880, and tons were acquired by Matt and his colleagues for an extremely reasonable price. It was used, with plywood and other inferior timber, to create new pieces of high quality that were to typify the standards of the workshop for a decade. When the initial stock of timber was exhausted, other trading links with the continent were established and more oak imported. British Oal was also used and walnut was added to the materials for a new range of furniture in 1936. It was emphasised in publicity material, however, that it was oak, the native timber, that was first in the field.
A large variety of attractive, simply designed and constructed light oak pieves were produced. Matt designed a variety of pieces for the dining room, bedroom, sitting room and study and drew on his considerable experience as a designer in London during the 1920's. During that time, he had worked with followers of the Russell Brothers and he was greatly influenced by the simplicity of their designs and solidity of their pieces. Matt had no desire to either copy or glean inspiration from traditional Welsh furniture. His pieces were contemporary and entirely in keeping with the fashion of the day. He did, however, attempt to produce a dresser based on a traditional Welsh style, but this was a rarity. The vast majority of his pieces were designed for the middle and professional classes of the 1930's, and included beds, tables, cupboards, dinner wagons, etc. Matt aimed his products at this section of society knowing that his practical and humanitarian ideals could be realised by a class of people whoe were eager and willing to purchase his furniture and who could afford to finance his venture.
Marketing & Customers
Initial publicity for the venture and the quality of the products was confined to Quaker fraternities and their friends. They did not have to wait long for orders. A large number of pieces were produced for institutions in England & Wales including schools and colleges, hospitals and offices and both national and local institutions. The growth of graden villages saw the complete furnishing of houses with Brynmawr furniture. Exhibitions of the products of the Brynmawr Furniture Makers were mounted frequently during the 1930's at venues in towns such as Llandrindod Wells, Birmingham, London & Manchester. Permanent Premises for the display of Brynmawr furniture were acquired in Cavendish Square, London in October, 1937. However, David Morgan Limited of Cardiff had been extremely supportive of the Company from its early days and 1932-40, a gesture greatly appreciated by the Brynmawr Fraternity.
The End Of The Experiment
The Company ceased to trade in 1940, the closure of the factory brought about by the unavailability of raw materials from the continent, the disappearance of a home market and the lack of demand for quality furniture during the early war years. The last exhibition of Brynmawr Furniture was mounted between the 1st and 7th February 1940 at Messrs. David Morgan Ltd., The Hayes, Cardiff.
The five photos below were taken from a frame of photos on the wall in the museum - hence the reflection of the strip lighting
The first two photos show the Bardic Chair being made in the Furniture Factory for the 1938 National Eisteddfod in Cardiff. The Chair was awarded to Gwilym R. Jones. The Museum sourced the Chair and arranged for it to be brought to Brynmawr from Denbigh in 2010 when the National Eisteddfod was held in Ebbw Vale. The Chair was on display in the Museum for the week of the Eisteddfod. Gwilym Jones's daughter Olwen visited the Museum whilst it was on display.
The next photo shows a cabinet being made and the last two are displays of Brynmawr Furniture in the Cavendish Square showroom
Brynmawr Furniture displays in the museum
The Museums Secretary Mrs Vivienne Williams explains the importance the Brynmawr furniture factory had on the local people, and also it's impact on the United Kingdom, this is one in a collection of videos - A History of Blaenau Gwent in Unique Objects - Please click on the logo to view the video.