Annie Powell was born on 8 September 1906 in Ystrad, Rhondda, Glamorgan, the eldest of four daughters of Tom and Sarah Thomas, both teachers. The family was Welsh-speaking and life centred around the Welsh Independent chapel and later Methodist Central Hall, Tonypandy. Annie was educated at Pentre Grammar School and Glamorgan Training College, and followed her parents into teaching.
In her early teaching years in Trealaw during the Great Depression, she saw the desperate hardship in which the families of unemployed miners lived, and as a result she joined the Labour Party. However, after a long ideological struggle of reading and reflection, persuaded by its emphasis on political theory and getting things done, she joined the Communist Party in 1938.
There was a good deal of support for Communism in the Rhondda, and in the 1945 election, Harry Pollitt (1890-1960), Communist candidate for Rhondda East, came within 1,000 votes of the Labour MP W. H. Mainwaring. Yet only five years later in 1950, the Communist vote collapsed and Pollitt lost by over 20,000 votes as a result of the health, social and industrial legislation of the post-war Labour Government. Communism remained strong in the Unions but was no longer an effective electoral force. In 1955, Annie took over as Communist candidate for Rhondda East. Known for her vigorous campaigning, she still came a poor second to Mainwaring - but was proud she was always above Conservative and Plaid candidates and boasted she never lost her deposit.
It was in local government that Annie's electoral triumphs came. It took her 13 attempts but in 1955 she was elected to Rhondda Borough Council as the Communist councillor for Penygraig. So, Annie was approaching fifty when she began her remarkable council career. The high regard in which she was held saw her defy the anti-Communist electoral bias to serve as councillor for Penygraig for nearly 30 years, with just two breaks, until she retired from council work in 1983.
Annie was a dedicated councillor, intent on social reform. She led campaigns to build council houses - Rhondda had the reputation of having some of the worst housing in the country - and was key to the large new estate in Dinas. She campaigned for nursery education, pensions, hospital services - and even succeeded in ending racially discriminating practices in a local club bar.
Active in wider Communist circles, Annie was a full-time Party worker during the Second World War. She was on the executive of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) for 20 years, and chair of the Welsh Committee for 25 years. She visited Russia several times and was well known for not always agreeing with Soviet policies. She delighted in telling how she impressed Nikita Khrushchev by singing him the Welsh national anthem at an international conference in Moscow.
For the 40 years Annie was a teacher, she was active in the National Union of Teachers. Deeply involved in community organisations, she was vice-president of Morlais Male Voice Choir; awarded an honorary MA by the Open University for her support of students; and made an honorary Alderman of Rhondda on retiring from the council. Through it all, she was supported in a long and happy marriage by her husband, fellow-Communist Trevor Powell (1905-2006), who outlived her by 20 years and died aged 100.
Annie's crowning glory came in 1979 when she was elected Mayor of Rhondda, the only Communist ever elected mayor in Wales. Her election by the Labour councillors of Rhondda was a tribute to the respect in which she was held. Her seniority on the council made her 'next in line' but the Labour majority need not have honoured that: they chose to elect her. The decision was really taken the previous year, when she was elected Deputy Mayor, as it was expected the deputy would succeed.
When she took office as mayor, Annie found herself in the media spotlight, as the only Communist mayor not just in Wales but in the whole of Britain. She made headlines all over the world. When she died on 29 August 1986, just days before her she was eighty, her death was reported in the New York Times as well as in British national newspapers. Among the 700-plus who overflowed the two chapels at Glyntaf Crematorium for her funeral were leading representatives of Labour and Plaid Cymru.
The claim she was the first Communist mayor in Britain has been contested: Joe Vaughan was Communist mayor of Stepney in 1920; and Finlay Hart was 'provost', an equivalent position, in Scotland's Clydebank. Annie Powell, however, was the first Communist mayor in Wales, and undoubtedly the first female Communist mayor in Britain.
Annie was a woman in a man's world, a household name when there were still few women community or political leaders - despite her 1979 election as mayor being famously in the same year Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister! Annie has inspired many women since but she was not part of the women's rights movement. As she said, she learnt to make the grade in a man's world long before women's lib. Annie never saw her fight against poverty and poor living conditions as feminist. She just never questioned her right to stand up and fight for better lives for the people in her community.
Published date: 2021-12-01
Article Copyright: http://rightsstatements.org/page/InC/1.0/
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