Hywel Francis, who has died suddenly at the age of 74, was the first real communist I ever met. And he was one of the kindest, supportive, and most encouraging mentors any of us could ever ask for. I first heard his name when I was a teenager reading my way through the history books of Ynysybwl Library. The cover said THE FED: A HISTORY OF THE SOUTH WALES MINERS IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY BY HYWEL FRANCIS AND DAVID SMITH. When the library closed a few years later, I was given the copy by the branch librarian, Lyn, who thought I would make better use of it than a store cupboard in a council office, which was the destination of most of the stock. Only later did I learn that this copy had come from the library of the Ynysybwl Workmen’s Hall and Institute and had been bought on the encouragement of the Lady Windsor Lodge. Not long ago, Hywel told me the story of his father, the general secretary of the South Wales miners in the 1960s, who paid his dues to the Lady Windsor Lodge after the demise of his own lodge in Onllwyn. Jokingly Hywel would refer to me as being not from Ynysybwl but from the Lady Windsor Lodge. It is a badge I wear with pride.
Hywel had a rare childhood. He was born into one of the leading communist families in South Wales. He was, as Phil Cohen put it, a ‘child of the revolution’. He met Aneurin Bevan. He met Arthur Horner and Will Paynter. He lived a lifetime in resolute awe of men like Dai Dan Evans – a name never far from a conversation with Hywel – and of the men and women who made up ‘the party’, as Hywel always called it. Even when he joined Labour and served as a Labour MP! Understandably, that background led Hywel into studying history at University College Swansea and then into a PhD. The latter, a two volume behemoth, was to be published as Miners Against Fascism in 1984, one of the finest studies of a cohort of international brigaders ever written. It was pioneering for its use of oral history and for breaking with the long-established tradition within the Communist Party about what the Spanish Civil War was really all about. Hywel talk about the compulsion imposed on some of the “volunteers” and considered the effects of the departure on the wives and children of those who went. It was – and remains – a masterpiece and much of South Wales’s written history unthinkable without its existence.
It was in 1969, that Hywel joined forces with Dai Smith to ponder the need and then an action plan to recover the fast disappearing archives and intellectual material of the South Wales Coalfield. That action led to the founding of Llafur in a Swansea pub in the summer of 1970, the creation of the South Wales Coalfield History Project, and, the shining glory of all of that, the South Wales Miners’ Library in the autumn of 1973. All of us connected to the Miners’ Library, to Llafur, to Swansea University, and to labour history around the world, now face the unthinkable – of celebrating the Miners’ Library’s fiftieth anniversary without its guiding light. What is one of Britain’s greatest monuments to working people and their literary and creative and political endeavours would not exist without him. Anyone who has used the library, from an undergraduate writing a dissertation to writers and historians to bands like the Manic Street Preachers and Public Service Broadcasting understand that debt.
Amongst the many people Hywel met during his time at Swansea, two names jump out: Paul Robeson Jr and President Michael D. Higgins. As a young boy, Hywel was transfixed by seeing Paul Robeson at the Ebbw Vale Eisteddfod and hearing his voice down the transatlantic link at the Porthcawl Miners’ Eisteddfod. As a historian, Hywel made certain to preserve the history of Robeson’s special interest in South Wales, and South Wales’s special interest in Robeson. He was especially proud when Paul Robeson Jr visited the Miners’ Library in 1989 and again in 2007. As for the President of Ireland, Hywel recalled fondly the time they met in a pub on an exchange visit between Llafur and the Irish Labour History Society, Saothar. And how, many years later, in 1996, Michael D. Higgins travelled to deliver that year’s Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture on BBC Radio Wales. I know how happy he was when Michael D. Higgins was first elected as President in 2011. Hywel was busy signing an Early Day Motion in Parliament, I was celebrating with my friends in Cork. Behind the scenes, Hywel and I spent many hours on the telephone in the past few years concocting a way of bringing the President back to Swansea to celebrate the Miners’ Library’s golden anniversary in two years’ time.
But it is not to be. I last saw Hywel almost exactly a year ago, fittingly at the South Wales Miners’ Library. I had gone there to do some research for a pamphlet marking Llafur’s fiftieth anniversary and to celebrate the Rhys Davies Research Fellowship which I had just been awarded. As was his way, Hywel spent most of those hours telling me stories of how this and that had arrived at the Miners’ Library and to keep an eye out for names like Neil Kinnock and Eric Hobsbawm in the register of members of Llafur. The week the first lockdown was announced in March 2020, Hywel, Dai, and I were due to celebrate the Fellowship and to look forward to all its possibilities. To plan a new generation of research, a new coalfield history project. Hywel was especially excited that the South Wales Miners’ Library would again have a researcher attached to it and that the Miners’ Library would be the focus of an intense period of study on the books which had come from the institute libraries – often in a car boot or a van driven by Hywel himself – and which had awaited their true academic champion for many years. We cancelled that meeting thinking it could happen in a few weeks’ time when “all this” had blown over. That email arrived exactly eleven months ago. What happens now at the Miners’ Library, with the Fellowship that I hold, and with so many other things besides, will be in Hywel’s memory and it will be up to all of us who write about the South Wales Coalfield and its history — its true history — to carry forward his immense legacy.