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William Brace

William Brace, (1865-1947), trade unionist, was born at Risca, Monmouthshire on 23 September 1865, one of the six children of Thomas and Ann Brace. At the age of twelve he went straight from the local board school to work underground at the local coal pit. He later worked at Celynen South and Abercarn collieries before being elected miners' agent in 1890. In the same year he married Nellie, daughter of William and Harriet Humphreys who hailed from Cwmcarn, Monmouthshire. They had two sons and a daughter; their eldest son William Percy was killed in the First World War, but Ivor Llewellyn became Chief Justice of North Borneo and was knighted in 1952.
Brace's career fell into two unequal parts. From 1890 to 1920 he was a trade unionist and politician; from 1920 until he retired in 1927 he was in the civil service, where his obituary in the Western Mail argued, he did his best work. His real significance, however, was as a miners' leader who perceptibly shaped union activity in the South Wales coalfield. The guiding principle of his union career was his striving for unity. His first battle in this cause came early. The Miners' Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) had been launched at a meeting held in Newport in 1889, which Brace, then a working collier, took two days off to attend. However, the South Wales miners held aloof, except for the tiny enclave grandiosely named the Monmouth and South Wales District Miners' Union, which had chosen Brace as its agent. There were two stumbling-blocks to unity: the minority of unionized miners in South Wales were loosely organized into a number of separate districts; and wages were tied to the price of coal by a sliding scale, which, with its illusion of automaticity, sapped the motivation towards unionism. The system was stoutly defended by Mabon (William Abraham), the dominant figure on the miners' side for over a generation.
It was this third obstacle that Brace confronted, carrying his campaign throughout the coalfield. Accused by Mabon of bringing 'an English influence' as a lackey of the MFGB, Brace described Mabon as 'a tool... in the hands of the employers'. In an extraordinary slander suit in 1893 Mabon was awarded 500 damages. Brace turned defeat into triumph, however; he astutely displayed the legal demands (which he ignored) at his meetings, mockingly declaiming 'if me and my union and all our household furniture were sold up it would not come to five hundred shillings' (Arnot, South Wales Miners, 1.32). His tireless and - it was widely agreed - peerless oratory, combined with the obduracy of the coal-owners, slowly eroded support for the sliding scale. The culmination was the five-month stoppage of 1898 when the victorious coal-owners, led by the unbending W. T. Lewis, later first Baron Merthyr, insisted on a humiliating settlement which alienated even Mabon.
Despite this setback, Brace profited from defeat in a number of ways that contributed to unity among Welsh miners. A small and significant step was reconciliation between Brace and Mabon: a greater achievement was the immediate formation of the South Wales Miners' Federation (SWMF) commonly known as the 'Fed'. Another major development occurred in January 1899, when Brace and Mabon attended the annual conference of the MFGB as 'penitent Welshmen', and successfully applied for membership. Brace was miners' agent for Monmouthshire from 1890 to 1920, the first vice-president of the SWMF from 1898 to 1911, and then president until 1920. He was also on the executive committee of the MFGB from 1900 to 1920 (with a wartime break from 1915 to 1918).
In 1901 the Brace family were living at Alma Street, Abertillery, and the following year Brace and other members of the family lent money to brother George to enable him to set up the famous Brace's bakery. That same year William Brace held a 20% share holding of the Liberal Club at Abertillery.
Almost inevitably Brace's industrial activity was paralleled by a political career. He was elected MP for South Glamorgan in 1906, holding the seat as a Liberal in two elections of 1910 despite the fact that the MFGB had affiliated to the Labour Party in 1909. In 1918 he was returned unopposed for Abertillery. From 1915 to 1919 he was a junior minister as under-secretary for home affairs. Although considered likely to be offered high office under a future government, Brace suddenly resigned his seat and union offices in 1920 to become chief labour adviser to the ministry of mines. He took this step because of the bitterness with which the union's new young Turks (and notably A. J. Cook, Noah Ablett, and S. O. Davies) successfully attacked his advice on the settlement of the datum line strike of 1920. Even a quarter of a century later brace asserted that his opponents 'had gone wild' (Arnot, South Wales Miners, 2. 196-7).
If unity was one guiding light for him, another was religion. Brace's strong faith was expressed in his will ('any civilisation worth having must be established on the fundamentals of the Christian religion') which included bequests to two Baptist chapels (and their neighbouring hospitals) in Abertillery and Newport. A lifelong abstainer, he was the 'best - dressed trade unionist of his generation' (Western Mail) with his immaculate morning coat and silk hat, while his striking presence was emphasized by his flowing, black, handlebar moustache. He was an inspiring speaker, and like Bevan after him he honed his talent by declaiming to the wind on Welsh mountain tops; fittingly, his last speech, strong as ever, was at a celebratory dinner to welcome the creation of the National Union of Miners. Brace died aged 82 at his home, 60 Allt yr yn Avenue, Newport, on 12 October 1947, after a long illness.

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