Edwards, Huw Thomas
- Gwyn Jenkins
Huw Thomas Edwards (1892–1970)
Edwards, Huw Thomas (1892–1970), trade unionist and politician in Wales, was born at Pen-y-ffridd, Ro-wen, Caernarvonshire, on 19 November 1892, the youngest son of Hugh Edwards (1851–1936) and his first wife, Elizabeth, née Williams (1855–1901). As was the custom of Anglicization at the time, his name was registered on his birth certificate as Hugh, but he was known for most of his life by the Welsh spelling, Huw.
Edwards was brought up in a largely impoverished Welsh-speaking community. His father, who worked in the setts quarry at Penmaen-mawr and earned some small additional income from his smallholding, had very strong nonconformist religious beliefs, but, although he attended chapel for most of his life, these were not inherited by his son. However, nonconformist values relating to social justice, rather than Marxism, played a vital part in moulding Edwards's socialist views, as with many of his generation. He would later claim that the National Health Service established by Aneurin Bevan was 'Christianity at work'.
The death of Edwards's mother in 1901 had an acute affect on him and partly accounted for his rebellious nature. After attending Pen-y-cae British school, Glanrafon church school, and Ro-wen British school, he left school at the age of fourteen, having received a minimal education, and also worked in the setts quarries of Penmaen-mawr and subsequently as a farm labourer. In 1909 he migrated to the south Wales valleys where he worked as a miner. He enjoyed the wide social activities available in that vibrant area, notably boxing, and he fought in boxing booths under the name Kid Edwards. In his autobiography he claimed to have been influenced by participation in the famous Cambrian Colliery dispute of 1910–11, by hearing Keir Hardie speak, and by the Senghenydd mine disaster of 1913, where he acted as a rescuer, but he did not appear to be active politically at that time. In 1911 he joined the army special reserve and was called up on the first day of the First World War, serving with the Royal Field Artillery as a driver until March 1918, when he was severely wounded and invalided home. The war and his difficult early experiences undoubtedly hardened him for the future demands of public life.
Trade union organizer and local councillor
After the war Edwards returned to north Wales and married Margaret Owen (1890–1966) of Rachub, Bethesda, on 9 March 1920. They had two children, Elizabeth Catherine (Beti) (1920–1979) and Gwynfor, who died in 1926 aged two. His son's death as a child, which he believed was caused by dampness in the family's cottage in Capelulo, had a profound effect on him and was one of the spurs which led him to take an increasingly active part in local politics. By this time he had also become a trade union activist and he lost his work at the Penmaen-mawr quarries following a dispute over union recognition. He became active in the Labour Party in 1923 and acted as agent for Labour candidates in the general elections of 1929 (Caernarfon Boroughs) and 1931 (Flintshire). He also became secretary of the North Wales Labour Federation, which met fitfully during the 1920s. In 1927 he was elected to the Penmaen-mawr district council and, despite being unemployed at the time, was elected its chairman in 1932.
In 1932 Edwards's commitment to the labour movement, his organizational ability, and his appealing personality were recognized by the leader of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), Ernest Bevin, who appointed him to a post with the union in area 13 (north Wales and Ellesmere Port district). The following year he became district secretary. His appointment led him to move with his family from the small largely Welsh-speaking community of Dwygyfylchi, near Penmaen-mawr, to Shotton, an Anglicized border town in the heavily industrialized part of Flintshire. He lived in Shotton until the mid-1950s when he moved to a larger house, Crud-yr-awel, in Sychdyn in a more rural area of Flintshire.
The 1930s was a period when trade unions, and in particular the TGWU, were being rebuilt and Edwards played his part in north Wales, despite the fact that the semi-rural nature of the region made recruiting members and drawing workers together a difficult task. He tried to resolve disputes by negotiation rather than confrontation and developed good relations with local employers. He retained the respect of Bevin but was not on good terms with Arthur Deakin (Bevin's deputy and ultimate successor as general secretary of the TGWU). He remained secretary of the region until his retirement in 1953 when he was replaced by Tom Jones, who had been responsible for most day-to-day union activities in the post-war period while Edwards was involved with innumerable public duties at a local and national level.
Edwards was active politically from the 1930s onwards, being nominated an alderman on Flintshire county council in 1939 on the grounds of his 'high reputation for sagacity and fair-mindedness'. He was one of a triumvirate of local figures who dominated politics in the county for many years—the other two being the Conservative Sir Geoffrey Summers and the Liberal Thomas Waterhouse. In north Wales in general the traditional support for the Liberal party remained strong during the inter-war period but his promotion of the Labour cause in the area was to bear fruit in later years. He also became better known in the Labour Party in general, particularly in south Wales, where he was on good terms with such prominent politicians as Aneurin Bevan and James Griffiths, and by serving on the Welsh regional council of Labour.
Edwards was active in supporting the war effort during the Second World War, ensuring that there were few labour disputes of any significance in north Wales, and he served on several planning committees, including the Welsh board of industry and the North Wales industrial development council. He was awarded the MBE but returned it in protest following Winston Churchill's comment during the 1945 general election campaign comparing the Labour Party to Hitler's Gestapo. Uncomfortable with honours, Edwards refused the offer of a knighthood on at least two occasions in subsequent years. During his career many constituencies offered him the opportunity to stand for parliament but he declined, believing that he could make a greater impact (one of his favoured terms) by other means. Yet he assisted many young politicians and, using all his powers of manipulation, was instrumental in ensuring the nomination of Eirene Lloyd Jones, later Eirene White, as the Labour candidate for Flintshire in 1945. Although she was defeated, when the constituency was split into two before the 1950 election she gained the nomination for East Flintshire and won the seat comfortably.
'Unofficial prime minister of Wales'
By the end of the Second World War Edwards's reputation as a prominent figure in public life in Wales was cemented. He had already published in 1944 an article in the journal Wales which set out his views for the future of Wales. Some of these views were provocative and outlandish. He argued, for example, that 75 per cent of churches and chapels in Wales should be knocked down or put to more productive use, but his main message was that Wales should be self-governing in all matters except 'defence'.
At this time some Welsh members of parliament had been pressing for the establishment of the post of secretary of state for Wales with a seat in the cabinet, but the Labour government elected in 1945 rejected such proposals. Instead the deputy prime minister, Herbert Morrison, following representations made by the Welsh regional council of Labour (which included Edwards), decided to appease Welsh public opinion by establishing a largely toothless unelected advisory body to be known as the Council for Wales and Monmouthshire. It was the minister of national insurance, James Griffiths, who suggested that Edwards would be an ideal chairman, as he might be a unifying force in the fledgling council.
The Council for Wales and Monmouthshire first met in 1949 to a barrage of criticism but Edwards's astute leadership ensured its survival, even when the Conservatives were in power for most of the 1950s. He was the dominant figure in the council and although it had been intended that the chair would be rotated among members, he was re-elected to the position year after year. Such was his influence at this time that he was dubbed the 'unofficial prime minister of Wales'.
The 1950s saw an increase in the pressure to recognize Welsh national aspirations. The abortive Parliament for Wales campaign, which Edwards first condemned and later supported, was symptomatic of the growing strength of Welsh national feeling and of Edwards's own ambivalence. Many in the Labour Party, particularly those in south Wales who claimed to be international in outlook and opposed to what they perceived to be parochialism, were dubious about such developments, particularly as they were connected to the small but growing Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru. In 1956 Liverpool city council's proposal to drown the Tryweryn valley in Merionethshire, and consequently destroy the community which lived there, to provide water for the city was a particularly emotive issue which led to an upsurge of Welsh nationalism. Edwards became involved with the unsuccessful campaign to save the valley.
Meanwhile the Council for Wales and Monmouthshire had produced several useful reports, the most important of which was the council's third memorandum (1957), on government administration in Wales, which proposed the establishment of the post of secretary of state for Wales supported by a Welsh office. When it became clear that the proposals would be rejected by the Conservative government, Edwards travelled to London in December 1958 to meet the prime minister, Harold Macmillan. Government files suggest that Wales was being treated at this time as some form of unruly colony and Edwards's compromise proposal whereby a current minister would be given the additional title of secretary of state for Wales was considered by Macmillan to be a 'bogus plan'. Edwards was determined not to allow the ever growing momentum on the issue to be dissipated and he decided to resign the chair of the council in protest. The announcement of his resignation on 24 October 1958 was met with equanimity by the government but the impact on Welsh public life was not insignificant. The Labour Party included a commitment to the establishment of a secretary of state for Wales in its manifesto for the 1959 general election.
During this period, and particularly following his move to Sychdyn, Edwards became friendly with a number of Welsh nationalists who undoubtedly influenced him. He composed Welsh poetry under the tutelage of the chaired bards Gwilym R. Jones and Mathonwy Hughes, and was primarily responsible for saving the Welsh newspaper Y Faner (for which these two poets worked), which had run into serious financial difficulties. He was courted by Plaid Cymru leaders and, despite his long affiliation with the Labour Party, he announced at the Caernarfon national eisteddfod on 6 August 1959 that he was leaving Labour and joining Plaid Cymru.
End of political career
This decision effectively put an end to Edwards's political career. He felt obliged to resign from Flintshire county council and lost contact with influential members in the Labour movement. His defection had little effect on Labour's dominance of Welsh politics, nor did he become a leading figure in Plaid Cymru, where the leadership saw him as a maverick during a particularly difficult time for the party. He argued that the party should not stand in parliamentary elections but should become a movement similar to the Fabians, rather than a political party. This was anathema to the Plaid Cymru leader, Gwynfor Evans, whose single-minded approach was in contrast to Edwards's inconsistent manoeuvring. With Labour's return to power under Harold Wilson (whom Edwards believed to have good left-wing credentials) in 1964, the establishment of the Welsh Office under James Griffiths, as the first holder of the post of secretary of state for Wales, together with the advancement of several Welsh devolutionists, such as Cledwyn Hughes and Goronwy Roberts, Edwards returned to the Labour fold. However he had lost most of his influence by then.
During the 1950s and 1960s Edwards served on many committees, including the BBC National Broadcasting Council, the Wales Gas Board and the north Wales advisory committee of the Welsh Hospitals Board. He was chairman of the Wales Tourist Board from 1952 to 1965, and he visited North America and parts of Europe to encourage tourism and to learn from the experiences of other countries in the field. He became a director of Television Wales and West, an independent television company, and he was successful in arguing the case for more Welsh-language programmes. He published two volumes of autobiography in Welsh, subsequently published in translation as a single volume entitled Hewn from the Rock, a book of his Welsh poems, and a history of the development of trade unionism in north Wales.
Edwards died at Abergele Hospital on 8 November 1970, was cremated at Pentrebychan crematorium, and his ashes scattered near to where he was born on Tal-y-fan mountain—a place which he had memorably described in a poem as mynydd yr oerwynt miniog (‘the mountain of the sharp cold wind’). A memorial stone was laid in the village of Ro-wen in 1992.
A strong, attractive personality with a romantic streak and extremely generous to friends, the short but stockily built Edwards was a pugnacious fighter for the needs and rights of working people and on specifically Welsh issues. He was a persuasive public speaker but was at his most effective in committee; often from the chair he would state 'we're all agreed then', when in fact there was no unanimity. He was a pragmatic rather than doctrinaire socialist, whose propensity for changing his mind led to accusations of inconsistency. He was patriotic in the Welsh sense, a romantic lover of his country and its language and culture, but also one who came to believe that it should be allowed to govern its own affairs. But he lived in a period when the most important decisions about Wales were taken in London and, although he might influence events, he was seldom in a position to take any major decisions himself.
- H. T. Edwards, Tros y tresi (1956)
- H. T. Edwards, It was my privilege (1957)
- H. T. Edwards, Tros f'Ysgwydd (1959)
- H. T. Edwards, Troi'r drol (1963)
- H. T. Edwards, Hewn from the rock (1967)
- G. R. Jones, Dynion dawnus (1980)
- G. Jenkins, ‘Gwladgarwch Huw T Edwards’, Cof Cenedl, 12 (1997), 167–98
- G. Jenkins, ‘Keeping up with the Macs: the devolution debate of 1957–59’, Planet, 82 (1990), 84–9
- private information (2006) [subject's family]
- personal knowledge (2006)
- NL Wales, corresp. and papers
- NL Wales, Labour Party Wales papers
- NL Wales, Plaid Cymru papers
- NL Wales, Gwynfor Evans papers
- NL Wales, Eirene White papers
- TNA: PRO, PREM and BD series
- A. Vicari, pencil sketch, 1959, priv. coll.
- K. Williams, oils, 1967, NMG Wales [see illus.]
- photographs, NL Wales
Wealth at Death
£6258: probate, 19 March 1971, CGPLA Eng. & Wales