I wish to thank Joyce Phillips, grand-daughter of William Morris, for writing this piece for the blog.
William Morris was born at Lower Level in Stepaside, St Issells, on 21 December 1852. His would not have been an auspicious birth. His mother Mary Morris was unmarried and no father’s name was given on his birth certificate. Mary was the daughter of William Morris and his wife Ann (née Evans) who lived at Lower Level. By the time of William’s birth his grandfather, a blacksmith, had died and in the 1861 census William was living with his grandmother and two collier uncles. In 1860 his mother had married and was living in Kent but whether she had been involved at all in her son’s early life is unknown.
William’s formal education was probably limited and irregular as it was for so many children of the time. Sometimes a woman with a little education would open a ‘school’ in the room of her home and, for a small cost, teach basic literacy. One such woman was Rachel Hodge (née Allen) who ran a ‘school’ in Pleasant Valley. It is very likely though that William was largely self-taught. His daughter Minnie once remarked that he didn’t have much schooling but he had a good brain.
About the age of 12 William first went down a mine. As mining in Pembrokeshire declined William was ‘up off’ to the flourishing mines of south-east Wales, to Tredegar in the Sirhowy Valley. He worked there in a mine employing 500 workers and by 1887 he had risen to the position of fireman and night overman (in charge of a mine district at night).
In 1881 William married Matilda Phillips, also a native of Stepaside, and a relative of his through the Evans family. In the next seven years she gave birth to four daughters, of whom only Laura survived early childhood.
Perhaps because of Matilda’s delicate health the couple decided in the late 1880s to leave Tredegar, and Wales, for a life in Queensland. Migration to Queensland was booming and they were booked as remittance passengers with part of their fare paid by the Queensland government.
Morris soon moved to Ipswich, about 40 kilometres from Brisbane, where he was employed by another Welshman, Lewis Thomas. Thomas had opened a coal mine, the Aberdare, in Blackstone near Ipswich in 1866 and over the next 20 years became the most successful mine proprietor on the Ipswich field. He was a generous employer, and his style of benevolent paternalism won him overwhelming support from ‘his men’, many of them also Welshmen. William was able to purchase a house with a loan from Thomas.
The early years in Queensland were troubled by Matilda’s ill health. Soon after their arrival a son was born but he too died in infancy. Then Matilda herself succumbed to tuberculosis and William now had to provide for his motherless daughter. He decided to ask his sister-in-law Sarah Phillips to come to Queensland and become his wife. She agreed and the marriage established a stable home life for Laura and the four children who were born to the couple.
The 1880s were a boom time in the mining industry but by 1893 profits had declined to such an extent that Thomas decided to close his mine. Understandably the men were most concerned so his alternative was to suggest that he lease the mine to the miners to be worked as a co-operative. Hence in 1894 the Aberdare Co-operative Colliery Limited was formed with 12 of the miners, including Morris, forming a Board of Directors.
For a number of reasons the Aberdare Co-operative was never really successful and by 1900 Morris and four other miners were concerned about the long-term future of the venture. They then took the big decision to open their own mine. In this decision they were following a long line of men, men with limited capital, who believed that with hard work they could make a success of such a venture. Many who had tried had failed but a few like Thomas were successful and these were the men whom the partners hoped to emulate.
The five men leased land in Blackstone and called their mine the Rhondda Colliery. Morris held the position of business manager and over the next few years, with the advent of more shareholders who provided capital for expansion, the mine did well. The Rhondda Colliery Ltd eventually became one of the most prosperous mining operations on the Ipswich coalfield.
Unfortunately William died in 1917, 16 years after the opening of Rhondda. Although the most profitable days for the mine would come later he had the satisfaction of seeing his own mine well established, his wife well provided for, and his own family enjoying better opportunities than the young William of Stepaside could ever have imagined.
If you wish to contact Joyce privately concerning this post, drop me an email to the address shown on the “About this Blog” page and I will forward it to her. Alternatively post a comment here.
‘William Morris and Rhondda’, Joyce Phillips, self-published (Australia), 2005