Elizabeth Charles: Activist who tackled social problems in Wales

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The Independent Online

Elizabeth Charles, a pioneer in tackling many women's issues in Wales, was well placed to compare the present economic downturn with the Depression of the 1930s. She was dismayed, in her last months, to see a return of some of the problems she vividly recalled from the beginning of her working life in South Wales. She knew at first hand what it was like for communities to be torn apart by recession and left alone, with little effective help, to face up to the hardships and deprivation which followed. The ideas that she formed during these early years shaped her attitudes for the rest of her life.

In 1935, in some of the worst days of the Depression, Charles was appointed by the Home Office to co-ordinate and organise clubs for girls in the "Special Areas" (or distressed areas, as they were more accurately known) of Wales and Monmouthshire. In some valleys, around 80 per cent of the men were permanently unemployed. There was practically no work at all for women. It was the time of hunger marches and massive demonstrations in Wales and throughout Britain.

The government, as part of its limited response to the resulting poverty and threat of social breakdown, gave funds to set up educational, training and recreational facilities in the worst affected areas. Wynford Vaughan Thomas, later a distinguished broadcaster, was appointed at roughly the same time to establish men's clubs in Wales.

Charles's father, a Welsh Presbyterian minister from New Quay in Cardiganshire, had strong social concerns, and her mother, a miner's daughter from Blaenavon, was active in the cause of women's suffrage. Born in 1911, Charles (also known as "Bessie") read Classics in Cardiff and trained to be a teacher. Her first job was in an evening institute in Tiger Bay where most of her class of girls aged 14 to 18 despaired of finding work, thought that all were indifferent to their welfare and took pride in driving their teachers away. Although Charles liked her pupils and eventually won their affection, she realised how much needed to be done to support such young people and their communities in the face of a crisis which the government seemed powerless to resolve.

From 1935, Charles spent eight years travelling around South Wales, helping to support local projects, train youth leaders and organise holiday camps for young people whose hopes had been shattered by unemployment and deprivation. The experience left her with an abiding respect for the resilience and resourcefulness of mining families, who skilfully used every penny of their meagre (indeed reduced) state benefits to the limits and went without food at the end of the week so that their children could eat.

She never forgot the mothers who would scour the mountains to pick up coal for their fires and wool from barbed-wire fences to use for pullovers for their children. She often recalled how, in the worst of times, a women's group in Dowlais, an area of the highest unemployment, was the first to offer practical support to Basque children, refugees from the Spanish Civil War, saying quite simply that they too knew "what it was like to be without."

Charles came to realise that people needed not only proper official help but also the friendship and respect that locally based voluntary and church organisations could provide. She also saw the central role that women played in keeping community life alive. Both themes guided her later thinking and activities.

Through her work she met Maurice Charles, a congregational minister in Abercarn attempting to work out the social implications of Christianity where life was harshest. They shared values and causes, married in 1943 and worked together as a couple on many projects, first in Swansea and later in Nottingham, where Maurice became Principal of Paton College, set up to enable mature students, often with little formal education, to train as ministers. From 1947 to 1963 Elizabeth served as the unpaid bursar, happy to make her contribution to a common goal. They served together as presidents of the Free Church Federal Council in 1962-63, taking as their theme the continuing social mission of the churches in changing times.

When Maurice died in 1963, Charles taught religious education in Nottingham, subsequently returning to Swansea, where she lectured and was the warden of a University Hall until her retirement to New Quay in 1978. Back in Wales, she re-engaged with some of the concerns of her youth. She was appointed to the Women's National Commission and, while attending the UN Decade for Women Conference in Copenhagen in 1980, came to see the significant role women could play in building an international community through connections between women's organisations across political and cultural divides. She travelled widely, to Communist-controlled Poland, East Germany, Hungary and Romania, convinced that meetings between church and women's groups would enable people to appreciate that their shared concerns and goals transcended their differences.

Also in Copenhagen she and others began discussions which led to the formation of the Wales Assembly of Women, designed (in pre-devolution days) to give Welsh women a more effective voice on Welsh issues and at subsequent UN women's conferences in Nairobi and Beijing. She was the first chairperson, helping to set up women's groups and working parties throughout Wales, convinced that women had a central role to play in addressing local, national and international issues.

Throughout her life, Charles worked cheerfully and tirelessly for the social, causes in which she believed. She left Wales for the second time in her 80s to be close to her family in Elsfield, where she died aged 97.

David Williams

Elizabeth Phillips, educator and social reform activist: born Cardiff 18 April 1911; married 1943 Rev Maurice Charles (died 1963, one son); died Elsfield, Oxford 14 December 2008.