Review: Cofiant Mabon by D. Ben Rees
William Abraham, better known as Mabon, seems to have lived several lives at once; this being testament to his considerable energy and talent in many fields. An incredibly popular figure, he led the singing in chapel and was a charismatic presence at the National Eisteddfod.
But he was, more importantly, a very influential union leader, who also moved sideways into mainstream politics, serving as M.P for the Rhondda between 1885 and 1922, during which time the Labour party came into being and then grew quickly, forcing Mabon to duly adjust his politics.
Now the indefatigable D.Ben Rees – who has previously written books about Mahatma Gandhi, James Griffiths, Cledwyn Hughes, Aneurin Bevan and Gwilym Prys-Davies – has produced a significant and timely volume about Mabon, who is, Rees suggests, in danger of becoming a forgotten hero.
Cofiant Mabon therefore details and chronicles Mabon’s many achievements, even as it scrutinizes the politics of many decisions along the way, not least the way in which a Liberal adjusted his beliefs to keep in step with the age.
Mabon first worked underground at the age of ten and by the time he was in his teens he was railing against injustice on the part of the mine-owners. This resulted in his losing his job and being blacklisted to boot. This experience would prove to be a kind of apprenticeship for a man who would become a full-time miners’ agent in the Loughor area, shortly after he returned from an ill-fated voyage to Chile in search of work.
Mabon moved to the Rhondda in 1878, when the twin valleys of the Rhondda Fawr and Rhondda Fach were poised for the incredible transformation created by the underground search for coal’s ‘black diamonds.’ These powered railways in Italy, Spain, Brazil. Argentina and the Balkans and led to no fewer than 24 mines being opened in Rhondda between 1870 and 1913.
As the coal industry grew, so too did the unions. In 1898 Mabon was elected leader of the newly established South Wales Miners’ Federation, the “Fed” where he could display an instinct for concilation rather than conflict which was to become a hallmark of the man.
If he could, he chose to negotiate, working hard to get to know the pit owners and avoid the act of putting down tools. As he himself said, ‘There are very few strikes within my experience which has resulted in gains, commensurate with the sacrifice entailed.’
At the end of the 1890s Mabon befriended John Mitchell, the coal miners’ leader in the United States of America. Between 1899 and 1904 Mitchell often crossed the Atlantic to visit miners on this side of the pond and would stay with Mabon in his home in the Rhondda. Mitchell’s respect for his Welsh counterpart was considerable:
I have never met a Labour leader who was held in higher esteem than Mabon. It is remarkable to observe how the people are devoted to him. They look upon him as the father of the miners, and it is easy to observe the affection in which he is held. They all seem to know Mabon wherever he goes. I was his guest at his home in Pentre, Glamorganshire, and his home life ideals are most lofty. He is passionately attached to his family, and he is a fond father and excellent husband.
But a life of constant travel and public speaking took its toll. When Mabon was examined by doctors, after he was taken ill in 1905, they concluded that the effects of a series of pit disasters had played its part in his illness. As a union leader he would pay consoling visits to grieving families as well as attend any inquest, where it might take weeks to listen to all the evidence.
And this was a time when coal-mining was not only hard work but often very perilous. On average between 1000 and 1500 lives were lost each year between 1880 and 1910. This equates to four miners losing their lives every day somewhere in the British coalfields.
Towards the end of his life Mabon’s celebrity led to some interesting, albeit controversial ventures, such as taking part in advertising campaigns for tobacco and tomatoes. He had also accrued some considerable wealth, a fact held against him by some detractors who saw this hero of the working class turning capitalist.
It had been a long journey from the small cottage where Mabon was born in Cwmafan to the House of Commons and meeting President Theodore Roosevelt in the White House. Here was a man who could captivate an audience with both speech and song, causing one correspondent for the Western Mail to describe the end of one huge gathering in Tonypandy when ‘Lips quivered and tears stood in the eyes of hundreds, and at the close, a mighty sigh passed up from the vast meeting. It was evident that “Mabon” had touched the heart of the Rhondda.’
Cofiant Mabon: Eilun Cenedl y Cymry a’r Glowyr by D. Ben Rees is published by Cyhoeddiadau Modern Cymreig/Modern Welsh Publications and is available from all good bookshops.
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