The Brynmawr Experiment
During the late 1920's, a number of crafts and industries were established at Brynmawr in what was then, South Brecknockshire. They became known later as the Brynmawr & Clydach Valley Industries, and included bookmaking, weaving, stocking-knitting, quilting & agricultural ventures for the benefit of the local people.
By far the most succesful venture was the establishment of a furniture workshop that produced thousands of distinctive pieces of furniture during the period 1930-1940. Brynmawr furniture became popular throughout britain and is still held in high esteem when considering the social and artistic history of Wales.
The social context led a group of Quakers to settle in this area & attempt to assist the local people by providing work and practical help to alleviate the problems casused by the 1920's depression.
In 1928, Peter Scott, the Secretary of the Home Service Committee of the Society of Friends visited Brynmawr and the neighbouring valleys with a group of young Quakers. The Friends had already established a handful of small businesses and industries in depressed areas in an effort to alleiviate the serious problems caused by unemployment and the resulting poverty witnessed in South Wales. It was Scott and his colleagues, however, who were to establish new ventures in the Brynmawr district, having encountered the effects of poverty on the people of the area, The first practical help came in the form of financial aid, food and clothes from the Friends' Relief Fund. This was seen as the initial step to gain the confidence of the local people to co-operate in a venture that would help restore hope and self respect to the community.
These initial overtures met with mixed reception. In spite of the poverty and need, the majority of the local people were reluctant to co-operate fully with the well-meaning strangers in the early years. The Quakers' benevolent motives were often questioned; some believed that the authority of local people was under threat; unfamiliar ideas were presented to a close Welsh community by members of the English middle class. The Quakers worked hard to reassure the people on all these points with limited success. Many, however, did agree to co-operate and a number of joint committees were established with the aid of the local authorities. These committees were formed to examined and to report on seven main topics to the local Community Council.
These topics were:
Commerce, Education, Health & Housing, Industry, Local Services, Population and Transport.
Each Committee of appointees produced lengthy reports and recommended solutions for the good of the local population. It must be stressed, however, that the local Labour Party, the Trade Unions, a good number of local elected members and members of the local radical organisations formed no part of these committees. They were invited to participate but objected to the appointment rather than the election of people to the various panels. They also saw in the Quakers' efforts to encourage voluntary labour, a tendency to undermine their attempts to gain fair wages and conditions for workers. These tensions remained throughout the thirties; and even after the establishment of crafts and industries from 1930, full co-operation between the two camps was never achieved.
A public meeting was called in December 1929, with the support of both the local Council and the local elected Member of Parliament, to promote the idea of the establishment of crafts and industries that would produce work for local people aided by volunteers. Many locals were impressed by the ideas and, despite the opposition of the local radicals, it was decided to form an executive committee to facilitate the various proposed ventures. In 1929 a number of volunteers had attended a summer camp at Brynmawr to assist with the voluntary work instigated by the Quakers in thatyear. Volunteers were to appear regularly in Brynmawr during the next few years, assisting local people with tip clearance, the formation of gardens, the clearance of slag heaps, and the building of a nursery school, playgrounds for children and adults, and a local swimming pool. These projects provided the local unemployed people with work and food but not a regular wage. Nevertheless, a good number participated in the schemes to improve the local environmen
Social and cultural clubs for men and women were established as well as a network of youth clubs for local boys and those of the surrounding valleys. These provided the means for hundreds of boys to participate in sport and other youth projects for a decade. A number of other cultural and practical enterprises were launched under the aegis of the Quakers who administered the activities from their headquarters in Alma Street. Many local people participated in these ventures but much opposition was encountered from ifficers and members of local churches, chapels and societies that hand flourished in Brynmawr before the Quakers appeared on the scene. Distrust in some quarters, however, evaporated and was replaced by the desire to work together.