Professor Hywel Francis

Professor Hywel Francis (6 June 1946 - 14 February 2021)

Hywel Francis, adult educator, historian, activist and parliamentarian, who has died at the age of 74, is mourned by his innumerable friends within and beyond Swansea University.

A Swansea graduate, Emeritus Professor of Adult Education and Head of DACE (the Department of Adult Continuing Education), MP for Aberavon from 2001 to 2015, and latterly a driving force in developing the university’s civic vision, South Wales Miners’ Library and Richard Burton Archives, and centenary commemorations, Hywel Francis was a truly remarkable embodiment of the values and history of the south Wales from which he came and which he represented so tirelessly. Professor Francis’s contributions and achievements across many fields will undoubtedly receive their due, but at this moment we pay tribute to the energetic role he played within our university for more than 50 years and to the influence he exerted on many lives.  

Born in Onllwyn in the Dulais Valley, the son of Dai Francis, General Secretary of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, Hywel was later brought up in Cardiff. After graduating from Swansea with a BA in History in 1968, he threw himself into work as an historical researcher, a trade union organiser, an adult educator, and a political and social activist. There was a coherence and integrity to all of these activities.

He published The Fed: A History of the South Wales Miners in the Twentieth Century (co-authored with his life-long friend Dai Smith, 1980) and then his PhD, based on extensive oral history interviews, as Miners against Fascism: Wales and the Spanish Civil War (1984). A stream of further publications included Do Miners Read Dickens?: The History and Progress of the South Wales Miners' Library 1973-2013 (co-authored with his friend and colleague Sian Williams, 2013), a centenary history of Seven Sisters Rugby Football Club (1997), History on Our Side: Wales and the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike (2009; reprinted 2015), and Stories of Solidarity (2018).

Hywel was part of a notable group of radical scholars and activists who established Llafur, the society and journal for Welsh labour history, in 1970. Over the next three decades, his indefatigable pursuit of funding and grants allowed him to establish the South Wales Coalfield History Project and its successors, which created the Coalfield Archive (now part of the university's Richard Burton Archives) and established the South Wales Miners' Library.

His tenacity, political nous and genius for finding funds fuelled the dramatic expansion of Adult Continuing Education at University College Swansea (as it then was). The pioneering work of DACE in lifelong learning has been hugely influential: several generations of men and women of all ages and circumstances, many of them without formal qualifications, have been able to access higher education at minimal cost and in community venues such as the DOVE Workshop at Banwen established by his wife Mair and others.

Much of this work, and much of the man himself, is captured in his own account for the university’s centenary. Personal kindness, gruff individual mentoring, amazing recall of individuals and their connections, commitment to institutional support and opportunities, camaraderie and a sense of collective enterprise in lifelong learning were among Hywel’s hallmarks as an adult educator – and they go a long way to explain why so many people grieve for him today.

All his life Hywel remained rooted in the Welsh-speaking, communist, working-class community of his upbringing. After a few detours, he and Mair brought up their family in the Dulais Valley and lived there at the heart of the community until his sudden death. His passion for the place, its people and its history shines through writings like the 1994 essay ‘My Community, My Valley: Onllwyn, Cwm Dulais’, just as they always did in his conversation and storytelling.

His instincts as an historian were profound: he was an assiduous diarist, archivist, correspondent and photographer, rarely without a notebook or an interesting new connection: for example, it is thanks to Hywel that the university has benefitted so greatly from the generosity of Richard Burton’s family.

Hywel’s instincts as a human being were truly admirable: he was deeply engaged in social issues such as the legacy of the NHS, the rights of carers, and end of life care. A self-confessed obsessive, Hywel, quite rightly, never lost a chance to advance the cause of the Miners’ Library, most recently in partnership with Neath Port Talbot. And he never lost sight of the ideal of Prifysgol y Werin – the People’s University – nor of the vision of a democratic partnership between the university and the community which it serves. Above all this community, and this university: woe betide anyone who ever overlooked the location of the Bay Campus in the constituency of Aberavon!

There were many strands to Hywel Francis – his gift for friendship, his role in the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, his election to the Gorsedd of the National Eisteddfod, his appreciation of life in London, France and Crynant, his eye for painting and links with Appalachia, among many, many others – but in 2018 he summed up most of what he believed and did with the simple slogan, ‘compassion and solidarity’, and thanked his family for teaching him those values. Fine words for anyone’s epitaph.

Professor John Spurr

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