Thursday, 5 May 2011

Hidden history: Geoff Charles and the Wrexham Star

Geoff Charles was one of Wales's foremost news photographers of the 20th Century and came from Brymbo. His career blossomed in the 1930s when he moved back to Wrexham to work with a group of local socialists on a new newspaper called the Wrexham Star.
One of them, Enoch Moss, asked Geoff to become involved as a journalist and it was printed by a company called Fletcher and Westall in an old chapel in Wrecsam.
The paper was set up in direct competition with the Wrexham Leader, which was the well-established voice of the local establishment. In response, Rowland Thomas (who owned the Leader group of newspapers) organised a blacklist of the new rival paper by local shops.
The Star's response was novel - it employed an army of unemployed workers to sell the 1p paper on the street corners (The Big Issue has nothing on Wrecsam's innovative people!). The 1930s were, of course, a time of mass unemployment - Brymbo saw jobless rates top 65% at one time when the steelworks was mothballed for a time - and Geoff recalls being unable to sleep in his home village because the works was so quiet!
While working for the Star, Geoff had his big journalistic story - the Gresford pit disaster of 1934, when 265 miners and rescuers were killed on 22 September 1934.
His father in law worked as a checkweighman at the pit and he phoned his son to say that something awful had happened at the pit. He got access to the lamproom and asked how many lamps were out - 260 was the answer. He knew how many miners were underground - a far greater number than the official line that 100 men were missing.
He rushed out a special edition of the Star that afternoon, which broke the news of the severity of the disaster and told the tale of the rescue attempts in harrowing detail.
Geoff says of the aftermath:
"Wrecsam as a whole was paralysed, everyone was in shock. In Rhosddu, where every other house had lost someone, they were the streets of the dead."

Ironically, the improving economy was the deathknell for the Star. As the jobless found work, there were fewer people to sell the paper on the street corners and the Leader-led shop blacklist was still in force. The Star folded in 1936 and Geoff went to work for Rowland Thomas's Leader and later Y Cymro.

• The fascinating history of Geoff Charles and his photography is told in a book by Ioan Gruffudd published by Y Lolfa called "Cymru Geoff Charles". It's a great story with a small selection of the 120,000 photographs Geoff took throughout his career, spanning epic moments such as the drowning of Cwm Celyn and shots of ordinary life in both rural and urban Wales.


Anonymous said...

2595 votes? HAHAHAHA! i don't think even those (probably fictional) tea ladies voted for you!!!!!

Plaid Gwersyllt said...

Life goes on...onwards and upwards!

Anonymous said...

Anon - You fail to notice that Plaid Cymru increased its vote in Wrexham in the face of a swing against them nationally and an increased Labour vote which is significant. They are small but significant steps very much like the Liberal Democrats succeeded in 'creeping' up on a comatose Labour controlled authority and took it over. Labour complacency mus always be challenged.