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Ness Edwards

Onesimus Edwawrds (Ness), trade unionist and politician was born at 53 Castle Street, Abertillery on 6 April 1897, second son of Onesimus Edwards, coalminer, and his wife, Ellen, nee Thomas.
The 1911 census has the family listed at the top house, Grosvenor Road, Abertillery, older brother William George and younger siblings Ellinor Ann, Timothy and Brinley are also named.
Aged 13 Ness started work at the Vivian Colliery, Abertillery, before transferring with his father and older brother William George (Billy) to work at the Arrael Griffin number 4 colliery at Six Bells. He was soon involved in the activities of the South Wales Miners' Federation and regularly attended meetings at the Arael Griffin Lodge, he was elected its chairman aged only 18.
Edwards's interest in politics developed alongside his growing involvement in trade-union matters. In 1912 a militant pamphlet was published by the Unofficial Reform Committee based in the South Wales coalfield entitled The Miners Last Step. The pamphlet greatly influenced Edwards and in his 'History of the South Wales Miners' Federation (1938), he praised the work of the unofficial movement. As he became more involved with his colliery lodge Edwards attended a study group at the local miners' institute. It was through this group that he became drawn towards the Abertillery branch of the Plebs' League the Marxist- influenced movement for independent working-class education.
On the outbreak of the first world war all the local members of the Plebs' League took a pledge to oppose the war. Edwards joined the No Conscription Fellowship and at the same time the Independent Labour Party. In 1917 he was arrested alongside Nye Bevan as a conscientious objector. Whilst Bevans' sister took the blame for throwing his call up papers in the bin Edwards was to spend several months in prison. At the end of the war Edwards and his fellow conscientious objectors were transferred to work in the Ewenny quarries, near Bridgend, where he was placed in lodgings on the outskirts of town.
In 1919 Ness Edwards successfully sat the competitive examinations for one of the six SWMF scholarships to the Central Labour College in London. Also at the college were a number of other Welsh miners who became leading figures within the labour movement, notably the previously mentioned Aneurin Bevan and James Griffiths. His two years of study at the college provided him with the 'scientific socialism' that was to inform his politics for the rest of his life.
When Edwards returned to Abertillery he found himself blacklisted by the colliery owners and he was unable to get work in any of the local mines for two years. He had many short term jobs together with periods of unemployment and became a tutor for the Plebs' League. He pioneered the field of modern labour history in Wales that with publications that included The Industrial Revolution in South Wales (1924), The History of the South Wales Miners' (1926), and a study of the Chartist movement in South Wales.
Eventually Edwards regained employment at his old colliery, Arael Griffin at Six Bells, and was soon elected to the lodge committee. In 1925 he was re-elected as its chairman.
On 05 September 1925 he married Elinor Victoria Williams (1897-1988), of Bridgend, she was the daughter of Richard Williams, county court bailiff. As one of the leaders of the local lodge, Edwards galvanised the miners during the general strike and the ensuing 6 month lock out of 1926. The epic struggle was a defining moment for the South Wales coalfield, the events of that  long hot summer demonstrated that industrial militancy in itself was not enough and political action was also needed.
In September 1927 Edwards was appointed as the full-time secretary of the SWMF lodge at Penallta colliery, in the Rhymney valley. Penallta was one of the largest mines in South Wales and, in the aftermath of the miners' defeat the previous year, the lodge there was in a much weakened position. Edwards was a good organizer and he worker tirelessly to rebuild the lodge's membership. He earned the respect of the membership and was elected to Gelli-gaer urban district council in 1929. In 1932 he was appointed district agent for East Glamorgan. In 1933-34 he was confirmed as the new miners' agent for area number 6, which replaced the old Rhymney valley and East Glamorgan SWMF districts.
Following the miners' defeat in 1926, the SWMF found itself battling for survival, with membership of that union prohibited at certain mines across the coalfield. In addition to non-unionism, the main challenge facing the federation was the emergence of a rival 'non-political' union, the South Wales Miners' Industrial Union (known in the coalfield a either the Spencer union or the 'Scab union'), formed in 1926. A key demand for miners loyal to the SWMF was for the right to be able to join a union of their own choice, free from managerial intimidation or influence. Several of the flashpoints in the struggle against company unionism in the mid 1930's occurred at pits in Edwards's East Glamorgan area, particularly Bedwas and Taff Merthyr. He played a major role in the campaign for the right for independent trade union representation, organizing pro SWMF meetings and recruitment drives. By 1938, with the final disappearance of the South Wales Miners' Industrial Union, the federation had succeeded in re-establishing its important position within the South Wales coalfield. Edwards activities made him a well known figure in the SWMF and in 1938 he was appointed as its representative on the national executive of the Mineworkers' Federation of Great Britain. In this capacity he organized the escape of anti-Nazi Sudetan miners in Czechoslovakia in 1939.
The second main phase in Ness Edwards's career began in July 1939, when he was elected as the Labour MP for Caerphilly, with a majority of 10,498. He was to hold the seat until his death. He became secretary of the miners' group of MP's in 1942, taking a leading part in debates on such wartime issues as the introduction of the 'Bevin boys' and the call-up of miners. He was also unequivocal in arguing in parliament for the nationalization of the coal industry. 'If the government wanted to re-establish the confidence of the men in the industry and give them faith in the future, they must take over the industry, lock, stock and barrel' ( The Times 13 October 1943). At the end of the war he was one of the eight MP's who visited the Buchenwald concentration camp, an experience that left an indelible mark upon him. In June 1945, he represented British miners at the memorial to those murdered in the Nazi atrocity at Lidice, Czechoslovakia.
Following Labour's landslide victory in the general election of 1945, Edwards was appointed parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Labour and National Service in the Atlee administration, a post he held from 1945 until 1950. Alongside the minister, George Isaacs', he was involved in ensuring that workers who had been employed in war work were able to return to peacetime industry as rapidly as possible. Edwards drew on his experience as a miner and trade union official, and his handling of this issue was one of the main reasons why labour relations in the immediate post-war period were much calmer than they had been after the end of the First World War. in 1947 he was sworn of the Privy Council.
Edwards was postmaster-general from 1950 to 1951. In this role he reintroduced the greetings telegram but also had the unpopular task of announcing increased postage charges. He campaigned to free the Post Office from Treasury control, albeit without a great deal of success. In contrast, the Telephone Bill, which he introduced in 1951, did much to remove antiquated limitations on the telephone service.
Edwards spent the next nine years as opposition spokesman on Post Office affairs. His determination and outspokenness made him well suited to this role, he was a tenacious critic of Conservative plans to introduce commercial television. When the Television Bill came before the Commons in March 1954 he criticized the proposals for commercial television as 'a great danger to the mental and cultural outlook of the people of Britain' and warned the government that the opposition 'would fight this bill line by line' (The Times 26 March 1954), which Edwards duly did. Furthermore, following the passage of the Television Act, he resisted all attempts to erode the safeguards built into it.
Throughout his parliamentary career Ness Edwards was not averse to speaking his mind, even if this incurred opposition from within the labour movement. On several occasions in the early 1950's he sparked controversy by publicly criticizing unofficial industrial action in the South Wales coalfield. At a meeting in Tirphil in the Rhymney valley in January 1953 he accused the leaders of anti-official strike movements of playing into the hands of opponents of socialism. This led two National Union of Mineworkers' lodges of collieries in his constituency, Bedwas & Groesfaen, to demand his immediate resignation as MP. In contrast. he received the unanimous support of the unions' Penallta lodge, as well as receiving a vote of confidence from the Caerphilly divisional Labour Party. In a similar vein, he antagonized pro-Welsh language opinion by delivering his presidential address at the National Eisteddfod of Wales in Caerphilly in August 1950 in English. He was also among the Welsh Labour MP's who opposed the Government of Wales Bill introduced by Stephen Davies in 1955, to provide a parliament (or senate) for Wales. Edwards shared the outlook of many Welsh MP's who believed in the importance of a centralized state, prized internationalism, and were suspicious of Welsh nationalism. Speaking against the bill, he cited the economic consideration that central exchequer grants, which provided more than half the expenditure of many councils in Wales, might be lost (The Times 05 March 1955).
Increasingly out of sympathy with Hugh Gaitskill's leadership of the Labour Party, and unable to accept the restraints of holding shadow office, Edwards resigned from the opposition front bench in July 1960. In a speech in Bargoed in October1960 Edwards attacked Gaitskill's challenge to the party conference decision on defence, 'None of us is big enough to set ourselves above the movement' (The Times 17 October 1960). He also continued to speak out with characteristic force, particularly on industrial matters and Welsh affairs. He argued in favour of nuclear energy ( thereby attracting condemnation from the National Union of Mineworkers') and campaigned for the establishment of trading estates to bring new industries to the South Wales coalfield. On occasion he acted as intermediary between the party leadership and the left wing MP's. In March 1961 he wrote to Gaitskill asking for the restoration of the whip to five Labour rebels who had voted against the defence estimates in defiance of the party line. In 1964 he became chairman of the Labour parliamentary trade-union group and there was press speculation in 1967 that he might be made chairman of Parliamentary Labour Party. In early 1968 he led the trade-union group of Labour MP's in discussions with Harold Wilson over the proposed incomes legislation.
Ness Edwards died of congestive cardiac failure at the Miners Hospital, Caerphilly, on 03 May 1968. He was survived by his wife, who was a Glamorgan magistrate, and their two sons and three daughters, of whom Llinos Golding (Born 1933) subsequently became a Labour MP and life peer.

Ness Edwards

The above article is for local educational groups only.
There's a portrait of Ness Edards by Walter Stoneman dated 10 February 1949 at the National Portrait Gallery and available to view online.

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