Elizabeth Andrews was undoubtedly a woman before her time. From the opening years of the 20th century, she worked as an untiring advocate for miners, their wives and children. She played a key role in ensuring that pithead baths were introduced for miners.
She was born in Penderyn (of Welsh whisky fame) in south Wales in 1882 to a Welsh-speaking household, and was the eldest of 11 children. Forced to leave school at the age of 13 to help at home, at age 17, her parents sent her to learn a craft and she spent a year learning needlework and she soon had her own workshop.
Over the next 15 years, she married Thomas T. Andrews, a founder of the Rhondda Independent Labour Party and became active in politics. She started a branch of the Cooperative Women’s Guild; became a suffragette and was elected to the Rhondda Labour Party executive.
In 1919 she, together with two miners’ wives, presented evidence about the lives of women in mining communities to the Sankey Commission established to investigate wages, working hours and conditions in the pits. She cared passionately about the suffering she saw around her and vowed to change the lot of miners’ wives in the South Wales valleys. Her evidence made a compelling case of the importance of having pithead baths to reduce the pressure on women and the mortality rate among children. The families were living in overcrowded houses, with poor sanitation and a high death rate among their children. The women had to boil water to wash clothes and for their husbands to bathe, because the houses had no boilers. The strain of lifting heavy bowls of water resulted in many premature births and serious illnesses among the women. Many children were scalded by the boiling water carried by their mothers. In addition, drying clothes in small kitchens was having a seriously detrimental effect on the health of the children.
Following women’s suffrage granted in 1918, the Labour Party appointed their three first women organisers. Elizabeth Andrews took up one of the posts and an early task was translating leaflets from English to Welsh encouraging women to use their newly-won vote. She remained in this post to 1947.
She worked tirelessly to improve health and education services for Welsh, opening the first nursery school in the Rhondda in 1938 and was elected a member of Glamorgan executive health committee by Aneurin Bevan in 1948.
She was awarded an OBE in 1949 for her public service and died in 1960 aged 77. A Blue Plaque commemorating her achievements was unveiled by Glenys Kinnock at her former home in Bailey Street, Ton Pentre on 24 April 2009. Glenys Kinnock paid a moving tribute:
“One personal motto of Elizabeth Andrews was ‘education, aggravation, organisation’, something that I’ve tried to emulate when seeking to get things changed,” explained Mrs Kinnock MEP.
“She tried to teach women not to be afraid of freedom at a time when women’s voice in politics and life was heard much less frequently. Elizabeth Andrews’s life and work is deserving of such recognition and personally I’ve found her to be inspirational.”