Brynmawr, a small town in South East Wales suffered from the 1926 General Strike through the Great Depression in the United Kingdom and World War II, when much of its traditional industry disappeared. The economic depression began in 1921 with the closure of several collieries in the area. A total of 1,700 families in Brynmawr depended entirely on the employment in these mines and without this work there was severe economic deprivation. The mid-1930s saw hunger marches from Brynmawr to County Hall in Newport. Of the 1,700 families in Brynmawr, many suffered from the industrial collapse; gardens and allotments were abandoned for lack of seeds and produce; pets were dispensed with due to lack of food; public services were reduced to a minimum with streets badly lit and unswept and shopkeepers becoming bankrupt owing to the credit allowed to their customers who were unable to pay their bills.
The Religious Society of friends
The Worthing Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) formed the 'Coalfields Distress Committee' with the aim of diversifying the economic activity of the area by promoting the development of light industry as an alternative source of employment. Called the Brynmawr Experiment, its originators - among them Peter Scott, William Noble, John Oxenham (the mayor of Worthing) and Sidney Walter, arrived in Brynmawr in 1928 and began to organize relief work among the area's unemployed. The men of the area repaired roads, and a crew of 25 to 50 constructed Brynmawr's open air swimming pool, giving their services in exchange for food relief aid.
By 1934 the Order of Friends had been established. This had two categories of work - voluntary work which was based at the Community House, and industrial work based at a small factory called the Gwalia Works.
Seeds and manure were supplied for the allotments, fences and boundaries to fields were repaired. Brynmawr was beginning to take shape again. Children were taken to Worthing to be cared for, where more facilities could be offered away from Brynmawr at that particular time. Children were taken from their families in Brynmawr and temporarily housed in the homes of Worthing families. A few of the more delicate children were put under the care of "Dr Worthing" for six weeks. Soon the Distress and Relief Fund set up to help the people of Brynmawr stood at 1600 pounds sterling.
At the Gwalia Works Brynmawr Furniture Makers Ltd and Brynmawr Bootmakers Ltd were established as a source of employment for local people and were financed independently. Although at first the company operated under primitive working conditions, before long they began turning out a high quality product. The style of the furniture was in keeping with modern trends, and orders were taken mostly from private sources. In time "Brynmawr furniture" gained a respectable degree of popularity outside the local area. This lighter industrial work not only provided the chance for those unable to find work in the mines or in linked industry to earn a wage, but also to gain new skills.
With the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, local men were absorbed into the munitions works and the imposition of food rations meant that the programme of subsistence production was closed down. Another casualty was the furniture business - as the market for high-class furniture stagnated - but the Bootmakers continued to flourish as boots were needed for the heavier manufacturing industries supplying the war effort. The Bootmakers' factory even gained government contracts and was able to become self-supporting.
Meanwhile the Community House ran a series of clubs for the citizens, and also set up a Citizen's Advice Bureau for the town. These clubs, which provided a range of social and educational activities, helped to encourage the youth of the area, who had grown up through decades when continuous unemployment was a normal state of affairs. An article written after the outbreak of war says that there were 22 clubs for young people.
Although not entirely successful, the Brynmawr Experiment succeeded in educating people about the need to diversify, and not rely so heavily on coal mining for employment. The program provided not only an economic boost to the town at a time of desperate need, it also provided an equally important psychological boost to a community long battered by unemployment and poverty. Although Brynmawr would continue to supply workers to the coal industry, the Brynmawr Experiment demonstrated to the community that there were other alternatives to coal mining.
With much of the workforce traditionally employed in heavy industry, suffered greatly during the 1920s depression. Against this background, the localQuakers formed the Coalfields Distress Committee of the Society of Friends and set up "The Brynmawr Experiment" as an attempt to relieve the severe economic depression and mass unemployment. By 1934 the Order of Friends had been established. This had two categories of work - voluntary work which was based at the Community House, and industrial work based at a small factory called the Gwalia Works.
At the Gwalia Works Brynmawr Furniture Makers Ltd was established as a source of employment for local people. Twelve unskilled men were taken on to build furniture designed by Paul Matt. At first most of the orders were from other Quaker societies, the first for 400 chairs for a Quaker school in York, which were produced for £1 each.
Matt was the son of and apprentice to Charles Matt, a Polish immigrant cabinet worker who made furniture to the designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Paul designed furniture that was simple in style and easy to put together, taking into account the lack of skills of his workers. His designs were clearly influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, the simple lines of which sat well with Quaker philosophy. The furniture itself was of very high quality, made principally from laminated ply set into a solid oak framework and finished with clear wax.
In 1936 Paul Matt left the company and was succeeded by his assistant, Arthur Basil Reynolds. At this time, slight changes to Matt's designs were introduced and walnut furniture was included in the collections. The following year the Gwalia works factory was gutted by fire. A new building was erected near the old site in 1937.
In 1938, Brynmawr Furniture Makers were commissioned to make the Eisteddfod's Bardic chair from oak grown in Wales and, naturally, to be made by Welsh Craftsmen. A small committee of experts representing the Society and the 1938 Eisteddfod chosen to work alongside the Brynmawr Furniture Makers to be responsible for the design. The chair, fashioned in natural oak, with the seat and the central slat of the back in natural hide. In keeping with the traditions of Brynmawr furniture, ornamentation was restrained and sparse, limited to the reeding of the arm-uprights where the fingers rest. The leather at the back of the chair bore a coloured representation of the Arms of Wales in red and gold as registered at the College of Heralds, below this was the inscription “Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Frenhinol Cymru, Caerdydd, 1938”, [Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales, Cardiff 1938].
Importing materials became difficult after the onset of World War II and the demand for high quality furniture rapidly declined forcing the Brynmawr Furniture Company to close its doors for the last time in 1940.