Hywel entitled the first chapter of his 2018 publication, Stories of Solidarity, ‘Making the Road by Talking’ and he certainly did that for me. I’ve read the glowing tributes from the great and good in relation to Hywel's multifaceted life as a champion of adult education, historian, activist and parliamentarian but to me he was first and foremost a friend.
I was a frustrated, angry dyslexic child growing up in the Rhondda during the early 1980s with little engagement or interest in mainstream education. However, when a family friend passed me a battered copy of The Fed, Hywel’s 1980 collaboration with Dai Smith, it sparked a love of history that still drives me on to this day. Reading The Fed was an epiphany. History did not have to be the dry, abstract, dispassionate subject I’d been taught in school. The Fed spoke to me of my family’s lived experience and offered me an insight into the construction of my community, a community that was being torn apart by the middle of the decade.
Hywel saw history as a tool for social change; he was one of Wales’s leading social historians for more than five decades and a prominent force within a group of Welsh social historians who, led by Ieuan Gwynedd Jones, formed Llafur the Welsh People's History Society in the early 1970s. His boundless energy and unrelenting activism would see Hywel, the then president of Llafur, at the forefront of the society’s series of talks on race and racism following the Black Lives Matter movement of last year.
Speaking as a historian myself of the South Wales Coalfield, perhaps Hywel’s greatest gift to research and his principal legacy lays in the creation of the South Wales Miners' Library. In 1974, Hywel headed a research group that used a seed-corn grant of £23,000 from the Social Science Research Council to save the literary treasures of the libraries built up by the miners’ lodges and institutes across the South Wales coalfield. The records saved and oral history recordings made by Hywel and his team have inspired countless budding historians and to my mind are among the greatest of our national treasures.
Indeed, it was in Hendrefoelan, the spiritual home of both Llafur and of the Miners' Library that I first met Hywel. A fresh-faced post-grad and a newly appointed member of Llafur’s executive committee I was star struck but Hywel regaling me with tales of my home village of Ynyshir immediately put me at ease. ‘You’re in good company - Ieuan Gwynedd Jones was a historian from Ynyshir, as well you know’ Hywel informed me, and we spoke for almost an hour about another one of my heroes the former Rhondda Mayor Annie Powell.
Hywel had the rare gift of making all around him feel that rather than being in the presence of greatness, they were the important ones. He sought consensus while consistently offering a singular insight; he cajoled and persuaded rather than demanded or instructed. He was generous with his time and in our regular telephone conversations; the minutes would invariably turn into hours; he would begin by asking for my opinion, but I would usually be left with far more advice and guidance than I could ever offer him. It’s impossible to come anywhere near describing Hywel in a few words. If you seek an insight into the man I’d suggest you begin by reading his final publication Stories of Solidarity. Perhaps his own description of the Rhondda miner and my dad’s old school friend Ivor England in the book comes nearest, Hywel was indeed a ‘humourist, raconteur and sage’.
Hywel Francis was always so much more than just an academic. He was, amongst other things, an activist, a politician, a heritage specialist, and an inspiring educator. But it was through his work as an historian that I first became aware of him. He was part of a stellar generation of Welsh labour historians who, in the later 1960s and 1970s, placed ‘ordinary’ men and women at the very centre of Welsh history. And Hywel’s work always reminded us just how extraordinary these ‘ordinary’ people were.
As a second year undergraduate, I first encountered The Fed, a book he co-wrote with Dai Smith. It was ostensibly a history of an institution – the South Wales miners’ trade union. But it was so much more than that. It was a history which placed the Federation firmly in the context of the society that produced it. And it was an intoxicating example of how the idea of ‘history from below’ could be made flesh. Alongside its careful analysis of miners’ leaders’ speeches and of committee meeting minutes, it was also an object lesson into how to recognise the social significance of miners’ kazoo bands, soup kitchens, and communist-organised football matches and ‘red’ boy scouts clubs.
The Fed was one of those books that helped change our idea of what history could, and should, be about. His Miners Against Fascism – about the miners from South Wales who went to fight against Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War – was just as pathbreaking (it revealed Hywel to be a pioneering oral historian, too) and just as important.
Hywel Francis will, rightly, be remembered for his contributions across many fields of activity. His contribution as an innovative and exciting social historian of the first order was not the least of them.
I had the privilege of meeting Hywel at the Swansea Miners’ Library and he kept in email contact since that day even, emailing just a few weeks ago with offers of help with my PhD research which explores how women were portrayed in the media during the 1983/1984 miners’ strike and its lasting impact in the South Wales Valleys.
He was a lovely man, with a wealth of knowledge that he was generous in sharing whether you were a seasoned academic or just starting out in your career like myself. His writings were and are a big influence on myself and I own a copy of The Fed which is a prized possession. I am extremely saddened by his loss but I am glad of the legacy and work he has left behind for the next generation.
I met Hywel on a few occasions, mainly when he was an MP, but by then I had learned that his father was Dai Francis, the Welsh miners’ leader and I had read Hywel’s book Miners against Fascism. Both were important to me personally, because I had been actively involved in supporting the miners during the 1984/5 Miner’s Strike and because, around the same time I was writing my oral history of an International Brigader (from Birmingham). For these reasons, Hywel and I exchanged views on the Spanish Civil War, especially after TV programmes on the 50th anniversary of the final march of the International Brigaders and on ‘Return to the Battlefields’, which featured, amongst others, a surviving veteran from the Rhymney Valley, about whom Hywel had written. [Professor Howard Williamson is a member of the Centre for Social Policy]