(JAMES) GRIFFITHS MP
1890 - 1975
from Miner to Minister
CONTENTS 1 Jim Griffiths 2 Winifrid Griffiths née Rutley
Jim Griffiths MP and cabinet minister, Ammanford's most famous political son
1. JIM GRIFFITHS
One evening in 1908 an 18 year-old Betws collier named Jim Griffiths attended a meeting organised by the Independent Labour Party at the Rechabites' Hall, near Ammanford station. A party branch was formed and Jim, who had worked down the pit since he was 13, joined with enthusiasm, becoming secretary before the year was out. This was his first step in a long political career which was to lead eventually to a seat in the Cabinet and the distinction of being the first ever Secretary of State for Wales.
Jim's father William, a blacksmith, held 'parliaments' in his smithy, attended by local thinkers and speakers who discussed religion and politics. Brought up in a religious, book-reading family, Jim was charged from his early years with a burning desire to improve the lot of the working man. His first move was into trade unionism, starting locally in 1916, and in 1925 becoming agent to the Miners' Federation of South Wales The Fed in the Anthracite district of West Wales. His biographer for the 2004 edition of the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) says of his early years:
Griffiths, Jeremiah [James] (1890-1975), trade unionist and politician, was born in Betws, Ammanford, Carmarthenshire, on 19 September 1890. He was the youngest of ten children (six sons, two of whom died at birth, and four daughters) of William Griffiths, a blacksmith, and his wife, Margaret Morris, the daughter of a handloom weaver. He attended Betws board school (1896-1903), and at the age of thirteen went to work in the local anthracite coal pit. The Amman valley in Griffiths's youth was a notable centre of Welsh cultural life. Griffiths himself spoke no English until he was five, while his older brother, David Rhys (Amanwy), was to become a well-known eisteddfodic bard. The area, however, was also stirred by powerful religious and political currents. The young Griffiths was much influenced by the religious revival of 1904-5, and by the teachings of the radical 'new theology' of R. J. Campbell as expounded by a charismatic local poet and theologian, John (Gwili) Jenkins. Visits by James Keir Hardie and other socialists also had a powerful impact, and in 1908 Griffiths became a founder member and secretary of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) branch newly formed at Ammanford. He played a lively part in ILP parliamentary election campaigns in east Carmarthenshire in 1910 and 1912. Much of the ILP's organizational machinery here was provided by the Women's Social and Political Union [better known as the 'Suffragettes']. Griffiths campaigned strongly against Britain's involvement in world war. He also was very prominent in the left-wing 'workers' forums' organized at the White House, a former vicarage in Ammanford, and in 1916 became secretary of the Ammanford Trades and Labour Council. Although christened Jeremiah and often known locally as Jerry, it was as James Griffiths that he was henceforth to be publicly celebrated. [Kenneth O. Morgan, DNB, 2004.]
His strong pacifist views led him to campaign against Britain's involvement in World War One and during this period he met his future wife, Hampshire born Winifred Rutley, when she visited Ammanford. The two had already corresponded on political matters, and their subsequent marriage was a long and happy one. They had four children. Jim often recalled with amusement that his first letter to Winnie began: "Dear Comrade".
In 1936 he was elected MP for Llanelli and within a few years was sitting on Labour's front bench. Visiting the continent, he came face to face with Nazism in places like Cheko-Slovakia and war torn Spain.
And when World War Two broke out he was in no doubt where his duty lay in supporting the struggle of a united Britain against Fascism. His first taste of political office came after Labour's landslide victory in 1945 when Clem Attlee made him Minister for National Insurance, responsible for creating the modern state benefit system. Fellow Welsh miner, Aneurin Bevan, was given the task of creating the first National Health Service in Britain. The Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) again:
At his new department, along with his fellow Welshman Aneurin Bevan, the new minister of health and housing (with whom he always had a somewhat wary relationship), Griffiths became a foremost architect of the welfare state. He passed three extremely important measures. He introduced the new family allowances early in 1946: on August bank holiday Tuesday they were duly paid to 2.5 million families. The 1946 National Insurance Act followed the Beveridge scheme in creating a comprehensive system of social security, including unemployment and sickness benefit, retirement pensions, and benefits for maternity and widows. It became a cornerstone of welfare legislation thereafter. In 1948, in another significant measure, Griffiths passed the Industrial Injuries Act, in which he drew upon his own experience as a working miner. [Kenneth O. Morgan, DNB, 2004.]
And it was a third Welshman, David Lloyd George, who had brought in the first old age pensions a generation earlier. The Welfare State was thus an entirely Welsh affair. What these three would make of the systematic dismantling of their creation just fifty years later, only a spiritualist can tell us now.
In the last 20 months of the Attlee government Griffiths became Colonial Secretary, at a crucial time when the old Empire was starting to evolve into a Commonwealth of independent nations. He travelled all over the world, accompanied by his wife, and met many of the leaders of the emerging countries, men like Jomo Kenyatta, Nkrumah, and Julius Neyrere.
Labour lost office in 1951 and while in opposition he defeated Aneurin Bevan by 144 votes to 111 in 1955 to become the party's deputy leader, a post he held until 1959 when Labour again failed at the polls. The leader Hugh Gaitskell chose him as party spokesman on Welsh affairs. Five years later Harold Wilson's government took office. Jim had not seen eye to eye with Harold Wilson, but the Prime Minister offered the brand-new cabinet post of Secretary of State for Wales to the seventy four year old Griffiths. He held the job until 1966, the year he was appointed a Companion of Honour. In his later years, Griffiths urged his countrymen to support devolution and an elected assembly for Wales. He was also strongly in favour of Britain joining the European Common Market, and wrote frequently to the press on this and other subjects. He and Winnie celebrated their Golden Wedding in 1968 and he retired from parliament in 1970. He died five years later, aged 84. In a memorial address Jim Callaghan, then Prime Minister, described him as "one of the greatest sons of Wales. We honour the memory of Jim Griffiths of Ammanford. I mention his birth place because, despite all his honours and journeyings, it was the place of his birth, deep in the heart of Wales, that essentially shaped his life and actions."
His Times obituary on 8th August 1975 stated that "the crown of his political career" was his appointment in 1964 as Secretary of State for Wales. But four days later a letter to the Times from his former colleague Lord Boyd-Carpenter wrote correcting this assessment:
I think that most of us who served with him in Parliament would award the crown to his five years as Minister of National Insurance. This period covered both the preparation and enactment of the National Insurance and Industrial Injuries Acts which still provide the foundation for our whole system of social security.
.....It was a spectacle as rare as it was both impressive and moving to see a man of passionate fervour about social welfare translating that emotion into the hard terms of efficient and workable statutes.
.....The National Insurance Acts are his monument; and the fact that they have provided the foundations for other developments by his successors confirms how well laid they were. They have stood the tests of time far better than most of the post-war legislation. And in so doing they have done an immense amount for human happiness. He was a good man without a touch of meanness or malice and in his lifetime he 'wrought his people lasting good'. (The Times, 12th August 1975)
In 1972 a new street built in Pontamman was named Heol James Griffiths in his memory.
Jim Griffiths Brief Summary of Career
Year Details 1890 Born in Betws. The Dictionary of National Biography published in 2004 revealed that Jim Griffiths had in fact been christened Jeremiah after his father's brother, but had started using the name Jim as a teenager. 1908 Ammanford branch of the ILP (Independent Labour Party) formed and Jim Griffiths joins, aged 18, becoming secretary within a year. The Labour Party itself had only been formed in 1900. 1916-19 Secretary of Ammanford Trades Council (the local TUC). 1918 Marries Winifred Rutley from Hampshire. The 'Great War' (World War One) breaks out. 1919 Enters Central Labour College, London. 1923 Appointed full time organiser of the Labour Party in Llanelly (as it was then spelled). 1924-25 Editor of the Llanelly Labour News (the weekly newspaper of the Llanelly Labour Party). 1925 Elected Miners' Agent for the Anthracite Mines Association, the trade union of the Anthracite District of West Wales (the Amman, Gwendraeth, Swansea, Neath and Dulais valleys). 1931 Unsuccessful application for the post of Assistant Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (the TUC). 1934 Elected President of the South Wales Miners's Federation (the forerunner of the National Union of Mineworkers). 1936 Elected Member of Parliament for Llanelly. 1938 Visits Spain during the Spanish Civil War. 1939-45 World War Two. 1943 Visits the USA during the war. 1945-50 Minister of National Insurance in the newly elected Labour Government. 1946 Made an honorary LLD (Doctor of Literature) by the University of Wales. 1948 National Insurance Act passed (inaugurating the National Health Service). 1948-49 Chairman of the Labour Party. 1950-51 Secretary of State for the Colonies. Labour lost power in the 1951 General Election to the Conservative Party. Winston Churchill becomes Prime Minister. 1953 His brother David Rhys Griffiths (bardic name, Amanwy) dies. 1955-59 Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, defeating Aneurin Bevan in an election for the post. 1964-66 Secretary of State for Wales in a newly elected Labour Government under Harold Wilson as Prime Minister. 1966 Made a Companion of Honour (CH) by the Queen. 1968 Visits Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War. 1969 Autobiography 'Pages From Memory' published. 1970 Retires from Parliament. Denzil Davies become his successor as Labour MP for Llanelly. 1975 Death.
[The above outline of Jim Griffiths' career is adapted from the Schedule of Jim Griffiths' Papers, which had been deposited at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, by his widow Winnie Griffiths after his death in 1975.]
Further Reading There is a more expansive biography of Jim Griffiths in Chapter 11 Village Celebrities of Betws Mas o'r Byd, a history of Betws published by Betws History Group in 2001. Jim Griffiths published his autobiography 'Pages From Memory' (J M Dent, 1969) in his last year as a Member of Parliament. The first 12 pages of this autobiography, which evoke his childhood upbringing in Betws and Ammanford, can be found in the 'People' section of this website, or click on: Jim Griffiths An Ammanford Childhood. Another memoir of his early years in Ammanford was published in the Carmarthenshire Historian Vol 5, 1968, pages 7 - 16, entitled 'Glo-Garreg' (Stone-Coal, ie, anthracite). This too can be found in the 'People' section of this website, or click on: Jim Griffiths Ammanford Memories.
The Village of Betws in 1898
Finally, here is a poetic description of Betws with some of its buildings and inhabitants in 1898 when Jim Griffiths was 8 years old.
Pentre'r Betws yn 1898
(The village of Betws in 1898)
By John Harris (Irlwyn)
The little town of Betws,
It stands on hilltop high
Within the genial sound of
The Aman's murm'rous sigh.
And into this Euphrates
To slake its daily thirst
Flows Nant y Ffin's sweet vintage
Which from the heights does burst.
New buildings in their splendour
In Betws can be found,
Our village in its craftsmen
Can match the world around:
The store of Jones from Newbridge
Where countless feet have trod,
And William Griffith's smithy (1)
Where horses' feet are shod.
The famous Joseph Thomas
On every night but one
Is always busy selling
Red herrings by the ton!
And also Robert Williams..
Who gives to Betws light,
A stock of oil he musters
To see us through the night
Illustrious Dafydd Williams
Makes shoes that do not leak,
Our cobbler's deft and earnest,
Combining strength with chic.
Where Jacob's well stands close to,
Beyond the mighty wheel,
The barber in his salon
Brings upstart hair to heel.
The mart of Mrs Rees stands
Distinct on Betws square.
The Methodist's own chapel
A little down from there;
It rises o'er the houses
Away from earthly din,
A hint to village folk that
Religion is the king.
And, lower down, the draper
A first class service gives;
It's here that Evan Davies,
Our rev'rend pastor lives.
Two taverns lie nearby where,
To spare the doctor's pill,
A man can take a tipple
When he is feeling ill.
And on the lower limits
Stands church of David dear, (2)
Around which dear departed
Sleep safely without fear.
And near to this the Board School, (3)
It's teaching like a flow
Of sparkling crystal water
That helps our children grow.
The little town of Betws,
The home of collier stout,
Is growing ever larger
And pushing ever out.
And if expand it has to
The generations down,
It might become a city
To match old London Town.
(1) The blacksmith's forge of the Jim Griffiths' father. (2) St David's Church, Betws Road. (3) The Board School was the early name for Betws Primary School that both Jim Griffihs and Ivor Richard attended as children.
Winnie Griffiths with her husband in 1945
The lot of politicians' wives is usually to be seen hovering somewhere in the background and generally being supportive (sandwich-making is regarded as an essential skill) but Winifrid Griffiths had sufficient accomplishments in her own name to earn her an entry in the massive Dictionary of National Biography when its latest edition was published in 2004. Anyone wishing to display it on their bookshelves, though, will first need to get hold of £7,500 and then shelves strong enough to hold its sixty encyclopedia-sized volumes.
Griffiths [née Rutley], Winifred (1895-1982), politician's wife and autobiographer, was born at High Street, Overton, near Basingstoke, Hampshire, on 21 May 1895, the second of four children of William George Rutley (d. 1932), a paper-mill worker and Wesleyan lay preacher, and his wife, Rose Treacher (d. 1945). She was brought up in a strongly puritanical tradition, attending the Wesleyan chapel every Sunday, and from 1899 to 1909 she went to the local national school, where the church was a strong influence. She was top of her class in her final year, when she won the coveted 'guinea bible', but the family could not afford to continue her education, and she left school aged fourteen. After attempting to train for teaching by taking a correspondence course, she was forced to give up through lack of guidance and funds for textbooks. Instead she began an apprenticeship in Burberry's gabardine factory, and then worked for a ready-made tailoring firm. When this closed down she went into domestic service, becoming a housemaid at East Oakley House, near Basingstoke. She worked there for four years, during which time she became interested in socialism.
....With the outbreak of the First World War Winifred Rutley began training at the co-operative stores, where a co-worker encouraged her to write to a fellow socialist friend of his, James (Jeremiah) Griffiths (1890-1975), a Welsh miner and founder member of the Independent Labour Party in Ammanford, Carmarthenshire. In 1916 she visited James and by the end of her stay they had become unofficially engaged. On her return to Basingstoke she started work as a provisions hand at Walkers Stores and continued a correspondence with James which fostered their mutual socialism and their opposition to war. Although soon promoted to 'first hand', she moved to Llanelli to be closer to James during their two-year engagement; she obtained work in the co-operative store in Station Road. They were married at the Congregational church, Overton, on 20 October 1918 and after a brief honeymoon in Reading began their married life in Betws, Ammanford.
....Winifred Griffiths took a keen interest in her husband's career and remained active in local politics and social work. Her autobiography records her speaking on women's rights, and her belief in socialism. While James attended the Central Labour College in London she worked to support them both. When he completed his course they returned to Ammanford and shortly afterwards moved to Llanelli. Despite being pregnant she canvassed and addressed meetings at Llanelli during the general election of 1922, when Labour won the seat for the first time. She gave birth to their daughter Jeanne the following February and the family moved to Burry Port. In 1926 their son Harold was born and this was followed by a move to Ystradgynlais, where they spent nine years in the south Wales coalfield; James became president of the South Wales Miners' Federation in 1934. Their family was completed by the birth of Sheila in 1928 and Arthur in 1931. Winifred had domestic help during this time and this enabled her to take part in public affairs as chairman of the local women's section of the Labour Party, district councillor for the Ynysgedwyn ward, member of the board of guardians, and local magistrate. When James was elected Labour MP for Llanelli in 1936 they returned to Burry Port and they moved to a larger house in 1938.
....At the outbreak of the Second World War Winifred Griffiths joined the Women's Voluntary Service and throughout the war she was involved in social work. On James's appointment as minister of national insurance in the Labour government in 1945 she moved the family to Putney Heath. In the following years she fulfilled many social engagements expected of the wife of a minister. She joined the women's section of the local Labour Party, stood unsuccessfully as a candidate for London county council, and served as governor of two secondary schools and on the visiting committee for old people's homes and the management committee for children's homes. In 1951 she was appointed a JP. Their final home was in Teddington, London. Having outlived her husband, she died in the Memorial Hospital, Teddington, on 10 September 1982.
....Winifred Griffiths was one of a number of women autobiographers born into the working class from the 1870s who chronicled their success in life. Extracts were published in 1974, and the full text appeared in 1979 as One Woman's Story. It reveals not only that she achieved domestic happiness and fulfilment, as well as upward social mobility, by marrying a man who became a prominent politician; but also that she was successful in her own career. Written in 'the evening of life' (W. Griffiths, 166), it included an epilogue added after her husband's death which supplied a touching tribute to their life together. Yet while acknowledging the important part played in her life by her husband's achievements, she was clearly proud of her own.Carol Jenkins
1 Jim Griffiths 2 Winifrid Griffiths née Rutley
Date this page last updated: October 1, 2010