From Miners’ Library to Community University: A Personal Backstory (1959 -1994)

by Hywel Francis 

‘Our role in the community is changing but what is much more challenging is a new burning idea: the idea that Departments of Adult Continuing Education can better serve their communities by helping transform universities themselves from elitist institutions to mass higher educational institutions accessible to those underrepresented and disadvantaged groups of students we have always sought to serve. We are now in the era when the walls themselves are coming down.'[1]

The Journey to the Miners’ Library, 1959 - 1968

This essay is part of my story at Swansea University across nearly three decades, although my association with the University spans over half a century. It tells of my journey from graduating with a degree in History in 1968, as a research student, research officer, member of the academic staff and ends with my inaugural professorial lecture in 1994. In it, I explore the origins of the South Wales Miners’ Library and the Community University of the Valleys both Swansea initiatives with which I was associated and which have been lifelong obsessions for me and others: they are central to our vision of a civic mission which I believe should be re-named a civic vision.

My personal account should be read as part of a trilogy, a sequel to Edward David’s essay and a prequel to that by Rob Humphreys.

The now celebrated story of the unemployed miner Archie Lush telling the Balliol tutor in 1927 that he had read everything on the booklist he had been shown still bears relating nearly a century later when there is a renewed and welcome debate on the civic mission of Universities. The Tredegar Workmen’s Institute Library where Archie Lush had already devoured that booklist served as his ‘community university’ before he began his studies at Oxford.

Forty years later my ‘community university’ was at Porthcawl’s Esplanade Hotel where as a teenager I was taken by my father to hear radical academics lecturing at miners’ union weekend schools. My ‘community university’ was also near my home in the Dulais Valley at ‘Camden’ in Crynant, the home of Suffragist Tillie Griffiths and her husband the teacher, adult educator and conscientious objector Brinley, whose socialist library was used by CLR James at the time he wrote The Black Jacobins (1938). As a child I often visited ‘Camden’ with my parents and was told to go into the library and choose a book.

The miners’ institute library at Tredegar and the personal library of two organic intellectuals at Crynant were part of a rich adult learning culture in the South Wales valleys. Indeed they were the inspiration for the creation of the South Wales Miners’ Library at Swansea University as a centre for research and lifelong learning in 1973.

I pose this central question now, which I was only beginning to formulate as a young historian and young adult educator in the early 1970’s: should the University have a civic mission in the sense of the nineteenth century missionary to ‘civilise’, which was enshrined in legislation in 1919, or should there be a new democratic partnership with civil society? This partnership would be what I was in time to call ‘a community university’ and which ultimately came to be my main pre-occupation for a quarter of a century from 1974 until 1999.

The word community after all conveys a joint commitment to shared values. All this can be justified (at least in some minds) with the widely held belief in the concept of Prifysgol y Werin - the People’s University, that the origins of the University of Wales arose from the labour of the working people of our industrial and rural communities.

But the community from which I came was a distinctive - indeed proletarian - one that I felt I had lost when my father became a full-time NUM official and we moved as a family to what seemed the faraway bourgeois world of Cardiff. In the coming decade I grew to appreciate all the more the autodidacts and story-tellers who had shaped my world, like my father’s mentors, Dai Dan Evans, Arthur Horner, Will Paynter and Annie Powell, as well as the historian Robin Page Arnot all of whom I came to know intimately. And then in my school in Cardiff, the sons and daughters of miners taught me the value of study, attention to detail and most of all, reading, Malcolm Thomas in particular urged me to go to Swansea. When I went to Swansea to study History, the one course which connected me to my own roots, The Social History of Wales, 1760 - 1945, was taught by some of Wales’ leading historians, David Jones, Peter Stead and most of all Ieuan Gwynedd Jones who was an autodidact himself, a most erudite working class intellectual who helped make sense of my own history and that of my class and community. In time, Ieuan was to call me too ’engagé’, but that was partly his fault as Wales’ first social historian.

It was most of all a distressing decade of pit closures, mine explosions and Aberfan. One day, in 1963, my father brought home a small quantity of books from Resolven Miners’ Welfare Hall where the library had closed. Decades later, I was to describe that as ‘a defining personal moment’. On another occasion he was asked to open a new bar at Nixon’s Workmen’s Institute in Mountain Ash. As he pulled the first pint, he said with more than a little irony, miners should be reading Dickens instead.

An Apprenticeship as an Historian, 1968 - 1974

In the Summer of 1968, as a newly graduated research student and about to marry Mair, an Art student, I was beginning to wrestle with a number of challenges. I was studying a coalfield society which I had left as a teenager to live in alien Cardiff: now I was starting to study my community but at the same time facing the growing task of preserving for posterity the archives of a coalfield society that seemed to be in terminal decline. Instinctively I felt the solution lay in building a relationship between those besieged communities and the academic institution which was aspiring both to study and to serve them.

Looking back on that time I have found sustenance in the words and actions of two people whose roots, politics and academic lives mirrored mine. Like me, they were migrants who returned and were also adult educators: the writer Raymond Williams and the now President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins who summed it up for me in a lecture in 1996:

“ I welcomed his (Raymond Williams) commitment to a politics that opposed economic exploitation, cultural domination and personal repression through his practical involvement in the democratic work of university extension”.[2]

I also benefitted enormously from meeting and working with Dai Smith from 1968 onwards: we were both fortunate to be supervised by Ieuan Gwynedd Jones at this time and our ideas about a more collectivist and radical approach to research and teaching grew out of this early period. We built a strong friendship which has lasted throughout our lives.

This is all with hindsight. Life was not that straightforward then although by the Summer of 1970 things were beginning to take shape (even though Dai had departed for Lancaster and I was about to leave for London). That summer was to be a pivotal moment for two reasons.

Firstly I drafted the application to the Social Sciences Research Council for Professors Max Cole and Glanmor Williams who had heard my frequent concerns about the records of the South Wales coalfield and my pleas for a major rescue operation which were framed equally in academic, cultural, educational and indeed ethical terms. I had discovered that a wide range of important industrial, political, social and personal records were in danger of being lost across the coalfield as collieries closed and communities declined. In my first two years as a research student I seemed to be spending more time rescuing such archival material than I was in the archives themselves. The application for this one year South Wales Coalfield History Project to employ three researchers (David Egan, Merfyn Jones and Alun Morgan) was a success but alas with a baby on the way Mair and I headed off to London as I managed to get to work for the TUC’s Organisation Department which led the campaign against the Industrial Relations Bill and rising unemployment. I witnessed from inside the TUC the successful Miners’ Strike of 1972 when Kent pickets stayed with us in our flat in Ealing as did my father when he attended national negotiations with the National Coal Board and the Heath led Conservative Government. I also taught on TUC shop stewards courses too, a learning experience more for me than the students all of whom were considerably older than me.

Secondly, that same Summer of 1970 was a time when I joined a group of five Labour historians (Paul Jeremy, David Jones, Dai Smith, Peter Stead and myself) at Swansea to form the Society for the Study of Welsh Labour History, which ultimately came to be called Llafur. In the case of the Research Project and Llafur, what distinguished them from all other initiatives of their kind at the time was the organic link with the Trades Union Movement (notably the NUM in South Wales). Uniquely it was a genuine partnership: little good would have been achieved but for that relationship. Both initiatives have stood the test of time. The Project was extended for two further years and I joined it. The South Wales Coalfield Archive was created (it is now part of the University’s Richard Burton Archives) and the South Wales Miners' Library was opened in 1973 with a large oral history collection and books rescued from workmen’s institutes which were closing across the coalfield. These libraries have been described by the historian Jonathan Rose as an ‘underground university’ and ‘one of the greatest networks of cultural institutions created by working people anywhere in the world’. The Miners’ Library at the University continues to prosper with an international reputation and the prospect of moving back into the community through a partnership with Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council. In recent times, Professor Peter Hennessy quoted RH Tawney "'Only those Institutions are loved which touch the imagination.'" That Tawneyism fits the South Wales Miners’ Library perfectly. It touched my imagination in 1973, and still does today.”[3]

An Apprenticeship as an Adult Educator, 1974 - 1984

I would like to think that what we were creating through these community-academic strategies was a University civic mission of a new kind, building on what had been achieved in the past through Prifysgol y Werin - the People’s University - in the nineteenth century and the extra-mural departments of the twentieth century. We now aspired to a democratic partnership with civil society.

At the end of the Project in 1974 I managed to be appointed to the post I wished to have most of all: to teach History in Swansea’s extra-mural department and to be based in and to be responsible for the South Wales Miners’ Library helping to organise educational programmes for the NUM in South Wales. I was fortunate too to join a Department full of highly respected tutors, experts in their respective fields and many, like industrial studies tutors Eddie Jenkins and Harry Jones products of adult education themselves, being recipients of NUM Scholarships to Coleg Harlech. The Director Ieuan Williams was the son of miner who was killed in a colliery accident and Tom Thomas, English literature tutor and organiser of the successful Dylan Thomas Summer Schools of that era, was a very proud product of the radical adult education tradition of Briton Ferry in the inter-war years. Our science tutor Geoffrey Thomas was to become President of Oxford’s Kellogg College whilst artist George Little and writer Alun Richards were major figures in the cultural life of Wales who were amongst the early pioneers of the work I undertook in the Dulais Valley in the 1980’s.

What impressed me was their collective dedication - almost a missionary zeal - not just to their subject but to working in and for our communities in the great liberal adult education tradition - ‘y gwaith traddodiadol’. I felt privileged to be amongst them, albeit slightly awkward culturally. Most of them had two names, John Edward, John Hugh, Hywel Teifi. After the first staff meeting the casual talk was not of rugby but of someone called Augustus Barnett coming to Swansea. I thought they were talking about some famous cellist: it turned to be an off-licence.

John Edward Williams was a frequent broadcaster in Welsh and English on international affairs and a Visiting Professor at University of California Los Angeles. John Hugh Thomas was the founder of his internationally renowned Bach Choir. Their roots were deep in rich cultural traditions of North and South Wales respectively. It was also a Department which still benefitted from the founding ethos of leading academics like geologist Dick Owen and botanist Ivor Isaac spending their winter evenings travelling to chapel vestries or school classrooms.

My first teaching experience was steeped in that old tradition of the chapel, trade union meeting and the evening class lecture but for me there was something wholly new. Our already celebrated Welsh literature tutor Hywel Teifi Edwards invited me to join him at his popular Autumn joint dayschool in Ystalyfera for all his classes which always started the academic year. He told me to give my lecture in Welsh: something of a new challenge. It proved a worthwhile learning experience. It was often the case that both languages were used quite naturally. Indeed in my first class of evening lectures I had not noticed this practice until a class member - a recently arrived monoglot Englishman - asked whether this bilingual arrangement was to continue. Out of respect, we slid back to English only, but we soon reverted to what came naturally to us. It was a learning experience for all I hope.

My main preoccupations during this first decade was three fold: firstly to build up a strong educational programme for the miners’ union based upon what Eddie Jenkins called 'improving the critical faculties of the students’ and moving away from what he called ‘simply re-arranging their prejudices when discussing any topic’. Eddie already had vast experience having been a pioneer of the major steelworkers educational programme at Port Talbot.The miners’ programme involved a broad curriculum from preparing speeches and reports to social history and cultural appreciation. Dai Smith’s discussion of Dickens’ “Hard Times” and the revolutionary art of Gustav Courbet proved challenging for all and stimulating for some. Many of the brightest and intellectually most gifted students I ever had the privilege of teaching came from such classes. Arguably the most intellectually talented, Charlie White was a gifted writer, photographer and orator. Some went on to senior positions in the union and in public life more generally, Billy Pye became a coach for the gold medal winning paralympian, Ellie Simmonds and some to university, one of whom, the most challenging, Colin Trotman, was my successor as Professor of Continuing Education at Swansea. One student, Peter Evans was one of the most capable public speakers of his generation in the NUM and he was the younger brother of Swansea graduate Dr Lyn Evans, the Director of the Great Hadron Collider at CERN.

Secondly it was to continue a heavy research and writing programme on the history of the South Wales miners. Aside from directing the ESRC project from 1979 to 1982 (see below), it included the completion of my PhD in 1977/1978, the publication (with Dai Smith) of “The Fed: A History of the South Wales Miners in the Twentieth Century” in 1980 and then the conversion of my doctoral thesis into a book in 1984 entitled “Miners Against Fascism: Wales and the Spanish Civil War”. My teaching on miners’ courses and in valleys evening classes were often used for collecting historical material and sharing my research. It was a common adult education methodology but in my case it was centred on our own social history and specifically valuing story telling, the newly emerging field of oral history.

And finally there was my work as an active member of Llafur (it was in my job description to work with bodies like the WEA, local history societies and Llafur). As an officer of the society for over fifteen years I was part of a leadership that created the biggest Labour History Society in Britain, whose journal had the largest circulation of any history periodical in Wales and whose weekend schools had over 250 students attending for several years. It prided itself in its unique trades union and international links, its non-sectarian approach and most of all being explicitly part of the wider adult education movement. This work also entailed raising political consciousness through historical consciousness. And for that reason, Llafur’s reach and influence proved invaluable in the coming more difficult period of the 1980’s in relation to my work in fighting for the survival of the Miners’ Library and the very survival of mining communities across South Wales in 1984-85.

As if to give some wider perspective to my work at this time I had the good fortune to have Helen Lewis, a radical adult educator from the Appalachian coalfields of the US as a visiting scholar for a year at the Miners’ Library. So also was Charles Parker, a campaigning folk singer and co-producer of the BBC “Radio Ballads.” They taught on my courses and enriched the learning experiences of the students as did the the oral historian George Ewart Evans who was also a regular contributor to day-schools.

It was through Helen’s connections that we have sustained an adult educational and cultural link with Appalachia for nearly haIf a century: its present manifestation being the film After Coal (2016) and the subsequent book (2018). An early highlight from that period was what can only be described as a startling educational experience when I led a group of six miners from South Wales to the US coalfields in May 1979. The visit involved each of the participants writing about what they had learnt from their journey around coalfields owned by large energy companies, about low health and safety conditions, low union organisation and the employment of women miners. This we thought was real adult education. In many respects, we were not only looking at our past, but our future too. Over the decades in lectures and discussions I have reflected on what we had learnt about our common experiences: the collapse of coal employment, environmental issues, powerlessness and local democracy, poverty, ill-health , illiteracy, low aspiration, poor educational opportunities, lack of dignity and now the challenges of populism.

Reading my diary from that 1979 journey the people we met in two particular places stood out most of all. Firstly there was the visit to ‘bloody’ Harlan County, Kentucky where we met armed (with shot-guns) pickets who had been on strike for over a year. There was still prohibition and each union meeting began with a prayer and the swearing in of new members by holding up their right hand.

Then there was the visit to Highlander in Tennessee. This was a radical adult education centre which had assisted the early civil rights movement in the 1950’s and one of its students had been Martin Luther King. Now it was associated with the democracy movement within the United Mineworkers of America and one of the centre’s founders the veteran Myles Horton was present to welcome us.[4]

The period from 1979 to 1984 turned out to be a long prelude to the last miners’ strike of 1984-1985. It began well when I secured a major ESRC grant which focussed on the coal industry in the post-war period and I employed Kim Howells as the senior research officer. (Kim later became the Labour Member of Parliament for Pontypridd and a Government Minister). The more contemporary focus of the second Project meant we were recording (including filming) events such as the brief 1981 strike as they were happening. This was a time when Kim and I were viewed with some suspicion (we were both then members of the Communist Party) and that applied to elements within the University and the NUM. The Miners’ Library was based in a house called Maes yr Haf and some university porters called it Maes y Kremlin. Some of the NUM leadership felt at times that the students we were teaching were becoming too articulate and challenging and on occasions they were considered to be ‘anarchists’.

It was not a good time. Steelworkers and miners bore the brunt of the public expenditure cuts of the new Conservative Government but Universities suffered too particularly but not exclusively extra-mural departments. The Miners’ Library was vulnerable when Universities were directed to sell their off-campus sites. Maes yr Haf was the first to succumb but not without a spirited tactical rather than strategic defence. I enlisted the support of Llafur, the NUM, Neil Kinnock MP (the new leader of the Labour Party in 1983) and Professors Ieuan Gwynedd Jones and although now retired, Glanmor Williams.

There were even discussions with the National Library facilitated by Llafur member Deian Hopkin. Understandably I spent a lot of time briefing: the full story may never be told. All I can say is that I spent time drafting letters only to find I was asked to draft replies. The lone voices of support on Senate were Professor Max Cole and Professor Ralph Griffiths. Professors Nevin and Syrett seemed to represent a new cultural hegemony: on a visit to the Miners’ Library the latter asked the former with an air of disbelief, ‘Do miners read Dickens?’. That question became the title of my inaugural lecture in 1994. Oral historians have long memories.

An Apprenticeship as a Political Activist, 1984 - 1985

It was St David’s Day 1984 barely a week before the start of the Miners’ Strike and no-one mentioned any possibility of what ultimately became the greatest industrial conflict in the country’s history. It was the launch at the Miners’ Library of my book “Miners against Fascism” with academics, veterans of the Spanish Civil War, writers, journalists and miners all present. It was a truly learning experience with an array of speakers. But there was no a hint of what was to come which was to change everything.

It was a terrible year for thousands of striking miners and their families but at the same time it was uplifting and even liberating experience for some who learnt the meaning of social solidarity. For my part I was dealing with personal challenges at home; my father had not long died, my mother was living with us as a family helping with our youngest, Sam, who was a delicate child with Down's syndrome. At work I was defending and reorganising the Miners’ Library by overseeing its move to Hendrefoilan and re-locating some of the libraries across the valleys and even to Coleg Harlech. My teaching also had to change fundamentally with the collapse of the NUM day release programme: I substituted it with community based educational classes for miners and women support groups across three valleys. One video class of mine at the Miners’ Library produced a film “Smiling and Splendid Women”, an account of women’s role as the strike drew to a painful close and its immediate aftermath with early footage of the creation of DOVE, the women’s training workshop in the Dulais Valley.

It also happens that these new directions coincided with more propitious developments at the UK level and across Europe. The Government’s Education Reform Act of 1988 called for an increase in HE participation from 13% to 30% and this was to be achieved largely through adult access programmes: we had already started this work with strategic partnerships with community groups and FE Colleges. Swansea was now to lead the way across Wales and I was appointed to the chair of the University of Wales Access to HE working party. We were considerably assisted by the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), especially its Welsh presence NIACE Cymru and NIACE’s new development arm UDACE. The new Universities Funding Council (UFC) which had taken responsibilities for continuing education funding provided new opportunities for research and development: at the time we were already well-placed in the field.

At the same time new funding opportunities began to open up through Europe’s RECHAR programme to assist former coal mining areas to address the challenges of social exclusion through education with emphasis on ICT training, women’s programmes with creche and transport support, as well as individual and community guidance.

By January 1991 the University’s Newsletter was reporting on both the sustaining of the Department’s traditional activities and a broadening into exciting new initiatives. The Bach Choir was about to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary with a concert at St Mary’s Church in Swansea with a performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Under its Director John Hugh Thomas the choir was accompanied by the Baroque Orchestra of London along with five soloists of international standing. Two part-time tutors Jen Wilson and Penny Windsor submitted their new video entitled ”Portrait of an Artist as an older woman “ for the Celtic Film Festival. The Department’s new Access and Part-time Degree and Advanced Training Units obtained European funding of £240,000 to support programmes for Women into Technology, Women into Management and Vocational Access in Valley areas suffering high unemployment. And Val Feld (later to be the first Assembly Member for Swansea East in 1999 and whose life is recognised by the first purple plaque in Wales) gave a research seminar on barriers and opportunities for women in education and the labour market.

All this was not achieved without some resistance. My tactic was to have a flurry of meetings for all staff, academic and non-academic, and regular meetings of part-time tutors. At one such meeting in March 1991 I presented a paper called “The Journey from Extra-Mural to ‘Learning without Walls’. In it I quoted anonymously a full-time member of staff who told me stridently, ‘I don’t care what you say, I’ll do my own thing anyway…’ I referred to him as a past tutor but everyone knew he was a current colleague. I told him that it was everyone’s responsibility to embrace a new world of Planning, Equal Opportunities, Team Work, Curriculum Development, Monitoring and Evaluation, Research and Development, Europe, Accreditation, Student Support and Identification of Need, Internal and External Collaboration and Integration, Staff Development and an Accessible Institution. In essence, through a time of adversity, we were energising ourselves by building stronger strategic links internally and externally especially with other providers of adult education and their cultural and political allies.

In 1992 the Department entered the equivalent of the Russell Group of Continuing Education by being one of only three Departments in the country to win funding for research and development, alongside Leeds and Warwick. The Chair, having been vacant for nearly six years, was now advertised externally and with some relief and more than a little pride, I was awarded it.

The Journey to the Community University 1986 - 1994

Whilst the future of the Department remained precarious throughout the mid-1980’s a number events conspired to help change its direction. I was very uncertain about my own future and thought of leaving my post. I reflected a lot on Christoper Hill’s words in “The Experience of Defeat” (1985) and the need for new explanations and new perspectives. The liberal adult education approach was not enough in these new more challenging times. I felt a new fresh approach was needed to our work.

With the support of Llafur I organised a conference in 1986 called Adult Education in the Valleys: the Last Fifty Years. I was pleasantly surprised by the positive response from adult education bodies such as the WEA and Coleg Harlech and community groups, women’s organisations and local authorities to ideas that linked adult education and community development through partnership. Out of this grew a movement that was given momentum by the Conservative Welsh Office’s Valleys Programme. Although I criticised the programme in a lead article in The New Statesman in September 1989 I believed there was a policy opportunity to be explored. The result was a successful bid to the Welsh Office for the funding of a new network, the Valleys’ Initiative for Adult Education (VIAE) which was launched in 1989 at a conference appropriately called Adult Education in the Valleys: the Next Fifty Years[6].

By this time my world had already changed fundamentally. In the Autumn of 1986 I was elected by my colleagues to become the new head of Department at a time of grave uncertainty. Some decisions had already been made to run down the Department and a full HMI Inspection of our work was about to begin. I immediately began to shift the work into more depressed areas such as the valleys, developed strategic new partnerships with bodies like the WEA and I significantly expanded our access to higher eduction programmes including the first community access work in Wales.

I also initiated an Erasmus Programme with Bremen University. This involved meeting a sociology lecturer at the University of Galway which became a founder member of the network. Michael D Higgins had recently been elected to the Dail and always made a point of welcoming fellow Celts to Galway: so we had the privilege of meeting the future President of the Republic. More broadly I made special efforts to place our emerging ‘community university’ onto the world stage by using the historic international links of our mining communities. Between 1979 and 1985 I revived our links with the family of the great American black singer, actor and political activist Paul Robeson. I arranged lecture tours for his son Paul Robeson Jr and on such visit in 1986 he gave lectures at many university and community venues: the civic partnerships included organisations from Pax Christi to the African National Congress in exile. Over two decades later I was delighted to present to Paul an honorary Swansea University fellowship[7].

Significantly in this period the Department opened its first centre in the Valleys at Banwen, coinciding as it did with the closure of the Department’s headquarters in Berwick House in Swansea’s Uplands. I arranged for teaching equipment and furniture to be transferred to the new Centre. I heard later that concerned senior staff in the University Registry speculated whether the Centre even existed and enquiries were made of its location to discover that Banwen was not 'on the road to oblivion” as local comedian Colin Price had suggested many times.

Our presence was enhanced at Banwen when the Department having made the Miners’ Library its official departmental library established a branch library there with staff support. It was also to provide full-time academic staff at the Centre, guidance and study skills support and eventually access substantial European funding to extend the building and ensure resources for creche and transport support .The community access programme ultimately led to the emergence of the Community University of the Valleys.

The lead HMI Inspector Linda Gainsbury decided to extend the Inspection because of the radical change of direction and joined some of the classes as a student. The ensuing Report described our work as ‘commendable’ especially in isolated neighbourhoods and that its approach was ‘increasingly flexible, its policies and curriculum…relevant to the educational needs of the communities it serves’. But the Report added some wise advice to me about delegating responsibilities so as to find time to “research, write and reflect”[8].

As if that was not enough I inevitably became involved in the miners’ struggle as a historian, adult educator and political activist. It became the most profound learning experience of my life and the same went for Mair. I initiated the formation of a support group in my locality (there were still two collieries in our village of Crynant in the Dulais Valley) and became its first treasurer and then its chairman. Later in the Autumn I worked with the NUM and many supporting organisations such as the Welsh Council of Churches, the Welsh Language Society and Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) to form a broad coalition, the Wales Congress in Support of Mining Communities which I chaired.

At all times I saw my role principally as an adult educator: I urged minutes to be kept accurately and assiduously, I kept a diary but for obvious reasons I engaged in self-censorship, I wrote in English and Welsh magazines as diverse as Marxism Today and Y Faner. I visited several coalfields as far afield as Scotland, Durham, Nottingham and Leicester and even the Donbas Coalfield in the Ukraine because I was in Moscow researching the life of miners’ leader Arthur Horner. I recorded many class discussions immediately after the strike which I truly felt were both historically and therapeutically valuable for those who participated in the struggle.

I helped build a network of adult educators across the coalfields and organised conferences beginning with mine at Swansea University on Britain’s Energy: Past, Present and Future in April 1984. These NUM gatherings were large, involved women for the first time and always trying to move away from propaganda to get a dispassionate understanding of the origins of the crisis and how to resolve it. Amongst the speakers in April was arguably the leading expert on the the conference theme, Lord Kearton. That network centred on Huw Beynon in Durham, Bob Fryer in Northern College and myself in Swansea. We subsequently tried to write an account of the strike with contributors from every coalfield but it foundered because of conflicting perspectives mirroring the fragmentation of the strike itself. Nevertheless most of the participants in the network managed to publish their research mainly as individual coalfield studies.

The return to work meant defeat, personal and family anguish and debt, job losses and ultimately the end of the union as a major benign force for good. It was the end too of the industry as a major employer.

So what was to be done? Education was clearly individually and collectively one positive root. My Department eventually managed to re-establish day release courses which survived down to 1990. All this posed new challenges for me as an adult educator. I enlisted the support of one of my former miner-students, Colin Trotman by now recently graduated and a PhD student, to undertake some pioneering work in individual and collective educational guidance for redundant miners and to teach on the re-established day release courses.

At the same time towards the end of the miners’ strike women were challenging the patriarchal nature of coalfield communities. My wife Mair, a local school teacher, began to be involved in discussions with other women about their place in the world after the strike. A day school was organised entitled Welsh Women Make History (I was castigated in the History Working Journal by one radical feminist for interfering: she was probably right even though I was the one person creche worker) . Out of these small beginnings grew the DOVE Women’s Workshop at Banwen which was ultimately the critical partner in the creation of the Community of the Valleys[5].

All this could not have been achieved without the enthusiasm of students and staff, some new, others not so new. But we were fortunate to have leadership at the highest level within the University and beyond which was prepared to listen and respond to ‘a new era when the walls themselves are coming down’. In 1993 the Senior Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wales, Professor Kenneth O. Morgan and a tutor of mine at Swansea in my first year, now came to Onllwyn to give the Inaugural Lecture of the Community University of the Valleys. Our President at Swansea, Lord Callaghan who was himself a product of adult education, had visited Onllwyn as a young Member of Parliament in 1946: he now came again, to DOVE. He wrote in a letter in 1994, still proudly displayed at the Centre today, about how much he associated himself with its work and admired ‘a stout-hearted community’.

And then the Principal Professor Brian Clarkson in 1994 wrote to Neath Borough Council of the many partnership links with valley communities including Onllwyn Community Council and DOVE which he said had led to the successful launch of the Community University of the Valleys[9]. That launch was sustained in those early years by two members of staff in particular, Rob Humphreys and Sian Williams who have since then continued to make in their different ways a major contribution to our inter-related obsession with the Miners’ Library and the Community University as well as lifelong learning more broadly.

Twenty-five years on we are once again in a new era with new challenges. A new Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Boyle has spoken with conviction in support of a civic mission of a new kind. He did so on January 21 this year to launch the University’s Centenary. The occasion was the launch of the appropriately entitled lecture series, ‘A Community University on the World Stage’. That will be his and our challenge for the new century.

This was more than just an echo of the words of Jan Hulley, an adult student during the first year of the Community University of the Valleys in 1993 when she described her experiences as part of “a community of learning” and Hywel Ceri Jones of the European Commission speaking of “anchoring the University…in the communities of the valleys”[10].

Is it true that a Vice-Chancellor can conceivably say ‘we are not a community university’?


[1] Hywel Francis, ‘The Journey from Extra-mural to Learning without Walls’, 15 March 1991. This was an internal departmental paper and is part of my departmental papers (Box 7) listed but not catalogued at the South Wales miners’ Library. There is also a large collection on adult education at the Library. See Jonathan Davies, Hywel Francis and Sian Williams, Extra-Mural Department/Department of Adult Continuing Education (DACE) Literature Review.

[2]Raymond Williams Lecture by Michael D. Higgins, The Migrant’s Return: A Personal Reflection on the Importance of Raymond Williams, NIACE Cymru BBC Cymru Wales, Cardiff, 1996.

[3] For the history of Llafur, see Angela John, ‘Llafur: the Welsh Labour History Society’, in Raphael Samuel (ed.), History Workshop: A Collecteanea, 1967-1991, London: History Workshop, 1991, pp15-18; Deian Hopkin, ‘Llafur: Labour History Society and People’s Remembrancer 1970-2009’, Labour History Review 75, supplement 1 (2010)pp129-146. For a history of the Library, see Hywel Francis and Sian Williams, “‘ Do Miners Read Dickens?’”: The History and Progress of the South Wales Miners’ Library 1973-2013, Parthian, Cardigan, 2013.

For a personal overview of my relationship with the Library, see Hywel Francis, Intellectual Property, First Time Round: The Re-Invention of the South Wales Miners’ Library, Llafur, vol. 9, no 1, pp 27 - 31. For the wider cultural context see Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes,Yale, New Haven, Ct, 2001 and Peter Hennessy, Mining Memories in Times Higher Education 5 June 2014 p 30.

[4] An account of the educational visit was published as a pamphlet, Hywel Francis (ed), South Wales Miners in America, Brynlliw and Mardy NUM lodges, Swansea, 1979. A review of our links with Appalachia is provided in Tom Hansell, After Coal: Survival in Appalachia and Wales, West Virginia University Press, Morgantown, 2018.

[5] My own account of the strike, based largely on articles during or shortly afterwards, surfaced as a book History on our Side: Wales and the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 Lawrence and Wishart, London, 2009, reprinted in 2015. Amongst the best contemporary accounts of the strike from a broadly educational perspective are Huw Beynon, Digging Deeper: Issues in the Miners’ Strike, Verso, London 1985, Vicky Seddon, The Cutting Edge: Women and the Pit Strike, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1987, and Raphael Samuel et al, The Enemy Within: Pit villages and the miners’ strike of 1984-5, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1985.

[6] For further information on these community related developments, see Hywel Francis (ed) Adult Education in the Valleys: The Last Fifty Years, Cardiff, 1986; Sonia Reynolds and Hywel Francis (eds), Learning from Experience: The Future of Adult Education in the Valleys, 1989; Phil Cope et al (eds), Chasing the Dragon: creative community responses to the crisis in the South Wales coalfield, VIAE, 1999; and Mair Francis, Up the DOVE! The History of the DOVE Workshop in Banwen, Iconau, Llandebie, 2008.

[7]For a fuller account of some of these international links see Peter Alheit and Hywel Francis (eds.) Adult Education in Changing Industrial Regions, v and ag, Marburg, 1989; Hywel Francis, Stories of Solidarity, op. cit. pp 127 - 182.

[8] Report by H. M. Inspectors on The Department of Adult Education University College of Swansea (Inspected during the Academic Year 1986/87), Welsh Office/Swyddfa Gymreig, 1988.

[9] Hywel Francis personal departmental papers (Box 7, Box File 24).

[10] Hywel Francis, “Do Miners Read Dickens? Communities, Universities and a New Beginning”, University of Wales Swansea Inaugural Lecture, 1994.

Emeritus Professor Hywel Francis has been associated with the University since 1965 when he came to study History at Swansea. He has in turn been a post graduate PhD student, lecturer, Professor of Continuing Education and Honorary Fellow. He is the founder of the South Wales Miners’ Library and a prime mover in the establishing of the Richard Burton Archives, chair of the Richard Burton Advisory Group and the History and Research Collections Group. Between 2001-2015 he was the Member of Parliament for Aberavon during which time he was a strong supporter of establishing the new Bay Campus in his constituency and securing the Richard Burton Diaries. He is currently a strategic advisor for the University focusing on the University’s Centenary and the future development of the South Wales Miners’ Library. Hywel is President and founder of Llafur: Welsh People’s History Society, and is the author and co-author of several books, most recently Stories of Solidarity (2018).