Edith Annie Williams (b. Nov. 1899): Life and Labour (Part 2.)

‘…having been seen on the public platform, I became known to a wider circle of men & women in public life who felt that women, & particularly the younger women, should take a more active part’ (16).

While she spends a great deal of her memoir talking about her own working life, Edith highlights many of the difficulties faced by the men in her village. ‘My brothers, who had opted for mining during the war, now found themselves redundant’ (11). Her memoir is incredibly useful in examining the effects that World War One had on the coal mining industry, and shows that she was very aware of the precarious nature of working class employment. She recalls how her brothers were forced to move away: ‘They joined the mass exodus from the stricken towns and villages of South Wales, to places like Birmingham, Slough, & London…never to return to their native home’ (11).

What was once a thriving mining village to which men like Edith’s father flocked for work had been devastated by the effects of war. Andrew August notes, ‘At the end of the First World War, the loss of export markets caused a severe slump in staple industries, including…coal…in…particularly Wales, Scotland and the North of England’ [1]. This serves as a reminder of the hardships faced by many working class people as their lives were dictated by their occupations. The same can be seen for author R.W Morris who upon returning to his mining village after serving in the war, was forced to leave for America after this devastating slump.

Miners taking a break South Wales 24 June 1931 by James Jarche. Taken for a series of articles in the Daily Herald newspaper called ‘In Search of Wales’ written by H V Morton.

The move away from family has a detrimental effect on her parents as it left them, ‘disconsolate and unhappy’ (12). David Vincent outlines the importance of family life for the working man, ‘All these men recognized that they stood a marginally better chance of leading a decent existence inside rather than outside a family.’ [2] Clearly for Edith’s brothers, the notion of unemployment was laden with more problems than a lack of family security, suggesting that there was an awareness of the impact on status for the out of work.

Guidance flyer produced by the Ministry of Fuel and Power July 1948.

Around 1928 after the completion of her course in psychology, see my Education and Schooling post, she takes on a role in public affairs. ‘The “Court of Referees” of which I was now a member, was a “Tribunal” set up by the government to interpret a new clause in the “Employment Insurance Act” designed to protect the insurance funds from exploitation by the work shy (so called)’ (16). Interestingly I believe this work was unpaid for Edith as she states, ‘The “Court” consisted of three members…the chairman, a lawyer acting for the government, being the only paid member’ (17).

Due to her willingness to work unpaid, Edith’s memoir is striking because it proves that there was a great sense of pride for the working classes, although arguably at this point she is verging into the middle-class tier. She is able to work unpaid because of the support of her husband Charles. Rosemary Collins argues that at this time, ‘working-class women began to withdraw from industrial life into the home, where they tried to emulate the domestic lifestyles of the wealthy’ [3]. Edith’s situation is the polar opposite to the observations of Collins, however, for she is committed to public service.

After she gains her qualification from Oxford University she begins work in the ‘new Ministry of Fuel & Power, in Whitehall’ (26). She describes her daily life at work: ‘he pointed to a large pile of files on his desk…as coal is so urgently needed, & measures to increase output on the one hand, & to make the best use of the coal available on the other, is the task set for us’ (27).

Another flyer from the Ministry of Fuel and Power, December 1947. Edith worked to increase fuel efficiency during her time at the Ministry and may have helped to produce this sort of information.

During her time working at the Ministry, she draws on her interest in ‘new machinery’ and describes her enjoyment in visiting the miners underground. ‘I was particularly interested in new machinery, as the pits in my home town were some of the first to put them into practise. I used to go underground to some of the opinions of the miners themselves…this was much appreciated’ (28). She leaves this position to work in social welfare: ‘if we chose to stay on we could do so by taking the established civil service examination, or we could resign. I chose the latter as I preferred to take up Social Welfare work’ (29).

She works briefly as a middle-aged woman for the ‘Council of Social services at Exeter’ (35) and then at the Citizens Advice Bureau. She interviews for a job in London in 1959 when she reaches retirement age, but continues to work well into her 60’s. After the death of her husband Charles, Edith becomes more concerned with paid work, which she describes was difficult to come by at the time. ‘My search for employment in social work again met with disappointment as far as paid work was concerned’ (37). The final job role that she discusses is a temporary post in ‘the Middle Temple, one of the Inns of Court, connected with the Royal Courts of Justice’ (37).

Her working life shows that she was able to mould her career around her interests successfully. I feel that while she ends her working life as part of the middle-class, she uses her knowledge of the working class to work for them, even if she is no longer a part of their community.


Index entry in Burnett et al The Autobiography of the British Working Class: 832 WILLIAMS, Edith. A, ‘Untitled.’ TS, pp. 39 + 3pp. chapter summary (c. 11,700 words). Brunel University Library.

Wainwright, Lynne. ‘R.W Morris b. 1895 Life and Labour.’ WritingLives.org. 21st March 2017. Web. Accessed 21st April 2018.

[1] August, Andrew. The British Working Class, 1832-1940. Harlow: Pearson, 2007. P176.

[2] Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247. P242.

[3] Rosemary Collins cited in. Bourke, Joanna. Working-Class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity London: Routledge, 1994. P62.

Image references

Miners taking a break South Wales 24 June 1931 by James Jarche. Found at Science and Society Picture Library Prints – http://www.ssplprints.com/image/95369/jarche-james-coal-miners-taking-their-twenty-minute-rest-south-wales-24-june-1931

July 1948 Ministry of Fuel and Power flyer found at Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History – gracesguide.co.uk https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Ministry_of_Fuel_and_Power

December 1947 Ministry of Fuel and Power flyer found at Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History – gracesguide.co.uk https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Ministry_of_Fuel_and_Power

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