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Rhys-Williams, Lady Juliet

Category: Genius

 

Juliet Evangeline, Lady Rhys-Williams, DBE, DStJ née Glyn (17 December 1898 – 18 September 1964), was a pioneering social reformer, economist, writer and thinker. 

She stood for Parliament twice as a Liberal, in 1938 and 1945.  She was a member of the governmental Interdepartmental Committee on Abortion - The Birkett committee (1937-8).  Of the many achievements of Lady Rhys Williams, the most outstanding was her contribution to maternity care – few women in the UK realise what they owe to her.

At the outset of the Second World War she worked for the Ministry of Information.  In 1942 she was awarded the Dame of Grace, Order of St John of Jerusalem for her work as Assistant Section Officer in the WAAF. 

Her other rôles included Secretary of the Womens Liberal Federation, Chairmanship of the Publications and Publicity Committee of the Liberal party, Honorary Secretary of the Economic section at the Congress of the Hague in 1948.  She was also a Governor of the BBC (1952-56) and Chairman of the Cwmbran Development Corporation (1955-60).

She published a study of evolutionary theory and 4 novels.  She even spent time in Hollywood working on the production of a film, managed her mother’s literary business (Elinor Glyn Limited); and designed and built a church in Beddau, South Wales. 

She invented a system of colour photography taking out a patent in 1930, with Sydney George Short;  enjoyed painting and sculpting, spoke fluent French, was an excellent pianist and did her own typing. 

She was the Vice President of the Economics Research Council and Sir John MacTaggart, President of the Economics Research Council in the early 1960s always introduced her as: “Lady Rhys Williams, the cleverest woman in England.”  At her funeral in September 1964 the inscription on one wreath, sent by the Minister of Defence, Peter Thorneycroft, read – “One of the greatest women of our time.”

Harold MacMillan
Juliet Rhys Williams combines a remarkable knowledge of technical economics with an almost prophetic power of grasping the long-term implications of large questions.

Life and family

Sir Rhys Williams, 1st Baronet
DSO QC D

Juliet was the eldest daughter of novelist, Elinor Glyn, and the barrister Clayton Glyn.

She began her career as private secretary to the Director of Training and Staff Duties at the Admiralty in 1918, becoming private secretary to the Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Transport, 1919–1920.

Lieutenant-Colonel Rhys Williams (the second Rhys was added to his name in 1938) was the only bomb commander to survive from the early months of the 1914-18 war.  He was an accomplished barrister and succeeded his father, Judge Gwilym Williams, as Chairman of Quarter Sessions in Glamorgan from 1906.  He was also the grandson of the Welsh poet David Williams of Llantrisant (whose bardic name was “Alaw Goch”).

Juliet met Rhys (who was 33 years older than her) in 1916 in her work as a VAD.  He ended his war service as Assistant Director General, Movements and Railways, at the War office where Juliet joined him as his personal secretary in 1917.  In December 1918 he was elected as Coalition Liberal MP for Oxford (Banbury division) to serve as a Junior Minister, with Juliet working as his personal secretary in the first British Parliament that owed it structure in part to the votes of women. 

Rhys received a baronetcy in the same year in recognition of his war experience. Juliet moved to work as assistant to the War Demobilisation Committee at the Admiralty in 1919, but left the War Office in 1920 in preparation for marriage the following year. She became Lady Williams at the age of 23 and gave birth to her first child, Glyn, in November 1921.

Susan Eleanor Rhys-Williams; Dame Juliette Evangeline
Rhys Williams (née Glyn), by Bassano Ltd

She was the mother of two daughters, Susan and Elspeth, and two sons - the eldest of whom (Glyn) was killed in action in North Africa in 1943.  In May 1978 her youngest son, the late Sir Brandon Rhys Williams MP stated, in a memorial lecture:                

Juliet Rhys Williams lived so much in the future that a retrospect of her work does not take one back into the past.  It brings one up again and again to social, political and economic problems that are still unresolved.  To look through her books and articles leads one straight into controversies which remain highly topical…Politically she belonged to what might possibly be called the “Extreme centre.”  To politicians of the old-fashioned Conservative or Liberal outlook her ideas seemed dangerously trendy and left-wing.  From the left, however, her position seemed suspiciously Anglican, with her emphasis on the family, on One Nation, and the value of traditional ideas of service and mutual responsibility.

Abolition of poverty

 

As a young mother Juliet was horrified by the terrible suffering she witnessed in South Wales especially the fact of malnutrition and near starvation amongst poor mothers.  It was this experience that triggered her lifelong project to combat poverty.

From The Juliet Rhys-Williams Project - Pauline Rowe  

   The central drive of Juliet’s work was the abolition of poverty, yet her name is barely remembered except in an occasional footnote acknowledging her 1943 book Something to Look Forward To.  This was an integrated approach to social security and income tax (known now as Citizens Income) - providing, as she argued: “complete security to those classes, especially the independent workers, widows and spinsters, who are not adequately covered by the Beveridge scheme.”   It included proposals for family allowances, pensions and a ‘housewife’s income.’


Her concerns owed something to her formative working years. At the age of 15, pretending to be 18, she became a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment and went on to nurse wounded soldiers in London for two years before she joined the War Office.  In her 1915 diary she wrote:

I cannot help thinking that the trend of civilisation is gradually to efface class distinctions.  Wide as is the gulf which separates the upper from the lower classes even now, and great as the barrier between class and class still is, it is undeniably less than in the days of slavery and feudalism…I do not say that present conditions are better for the time – in many ways I think them worse, but undoubtedly the trend is good.

In her 1943 proposal, Something to Look Forward To, Juliet was concerned to have a works test as part of any national system of social security. Although her proposals, including a scheme for an income for ‘ housewives,’ and basic income for all, would remain unthinkable in British politics, her work offers a veritable blueprint for Working Families Tax Credit.  In 1952 she submitted an updated version of her social contract to the Royal Commission on the Taxation of Profits and Income; this was also included in her book.  This might be better termed a blueprint for our future fifty plus years on, as little real progress has been made in the direction she foresaw:

From The Juliet Rhys-Williams Project - Pauline Rowe  

Juliet judged the Beveridge scheme owed too much to the old ideas of the Poor Laws and private charity and so argued for an inclusive Social Contract model. She stated:

We must substitute for it the democratic principle that the State owes precisely the same advantages to every citizen, and should consequently pay the same benefits to the employed and healthy as to the idle and sick.  The old “Lady Bountiful” basis for the relationship between a man and his Government is out of date and must be swept away.  The prevention of want must be regarded as being the duty of all its citizens, and not merely to a favoured few.  The notion that only the unemployed, the sick, the improvident and the unfortunate should obtain the largesse of the State, and never the hard-working, the energetic, the thrifty and the successful should be replaced by a fresh and insistent interpretation of the conception that all men are equal in the eyes of the law. (p.144-5)


Another area that she found to be needing reform was the notion that charity is essentially hand-outs.  Charity in the original Biblical and Christian sense was never intended to be an organised hand-out of money – redistribution of others' wealth, it was either  the giving of oneself to help others – as Juliet was doing all her life, or preventative work.  Finding the CAUSE of the problem and helping those in need to solve the root cause of their distress

A New Look at Britain’s Economic Policy (1965), [published posthumously]:

It seems that the idea that poverty must be abolished inside their own countries has been accepted by the rich nations of the West in this century – a great advance.  A realization that it can equally be swept away in every part of the world if full use is made of the astonishing development of science, is also there, but the will to achieve the final abolition of want and sickness always lags behind the possibility.  It seems to be completely lacking in Europe, if the Rome Treaty embodies the true picture of present thought there.  They seem to be still at the ‘voluntary charity’ stage of approach to the problem of poverty in Asia, Africa and elsewhere – the stage where efforts are made in a small way to relieve stress instead of a big way to prevent it.  The sense of responsibility for ensuring the welfare of others which is the sign of greatness is not visible in the present proposals of the European Community.

Banking reform

Elinor Glyn

Juliet was almost a contemporary of Frederick Soddy.  Soddy actually turned his brilliant mind from the chemistry and physics that were his speciality to banking, when he recognised the dangers inherent in the banking system, as it was then organised [and still is].

In January 1964 Juliet wrote to James Callaghan after hearing his speech at an Economic Research Council dinner.  At  the time, the IMF and all the major banking institutions were being told to reform, she said:

I agree most heartily with almost all you said, including your remarks about Central Bankers!  When I think of the misery which they have caused by their rigid attitude and blind folly in my lifetime, I feel just as strongly as you do.  But I am anxious about your open defiance of them, as from my experience of them I think they may unite to harm you if you become British Chancellor and that you may be more in their power than you evidently think.  ………………. 

I have been a member of the Monetary Committee of ELEC (the Economic section of the European Movement) for 14 years – I am Hon. Sec. of the British section – and I hear all the European Central Bankers talking together and saying what they really think far more, I believe, than the Bank of England representatives ever do.  I was certainly far better informed as to what would happen about the Common Market than the Government was.  I knew 18 months before De Gaulle spoke that the French had no intention of letting us in, …. There is deep fear of American domination in Europe, and while they look upon us as an American pawn they will never let us in…


Plus ca change.  And the problems Juliet outlined in her criticisms of the banking system remain. 

Let us look at this logically.  Via the very hard work of the many, money is earned, which is intended to provide them with food, housing, warmth and entertainment.  Its original purpose was as an exchange mechanism.  If we consider food as medicine, they have no need of pharmaceuticals.

They are encouraged to save for a time when they cannot work because of old age.  The money they save is placed in a ‘bank’ which gives them practically no interest, as the bank states it is providing a service by keeping their money ‘safe’ for them.  This money, however, is then lent out, and the banks decide who they are going to lend it to and at what interest rate.  As such their power is inordinately strong.  Banks control the economy.  It is banks that have encouraged the continued use of fossil fuels, the continued emphasis on manufacturing instead of mending and repair, the continued emphasis on ‘growth’ and the depletion of resources at an unsustainable rate.  It is they who encourage factory farming - pesticides and insecticides, lending money to farmers to seek better ‘returns’. 

When Soddy criticised the banking system, he was seeing the big picture of the environmental  degradation it would cause long term.  In Juliet’s case she saw the poverty – the descent of the many into a debt from which they would never disentangle themselves.   

Taxation and Incentive (1953):

This book represents a plea for the study of the whole question of taxation and incentive and of the underlying problem of how to maintain justice to the individual at the same time as justice to the community, in an atmosphere which is scientific rather than political.  The determination to abolish poverty which is the great feature of this century is clearly justified, and should be accepted as a necessary condition of any proposals for reform…..Yet the fact should be faced that the chief methods hitherto adopted for putting an end to poverty, through the redistribution of wealth by steeply-graded progressive taxation and by inflation of the currency, are not the right ones for continuous use.

Bankers and some Governments deliberately promote the inflation of goods and services to give the illusion of prosperity. 

There are people stupid enough to say things like ‘my house has just risen £20,000 in price over last year.’ And to be really pleased about it.   A house is where one lives, it is not an investment and if your house has risen in value so has every other house to which one might need to move.  None of these goods actually increases in value, but everyone’s debt does, as pay can never hope to keep pace with the sort of increases in cost of property, education, health care and so on that we have seen over the past 100 years or so.

Juliet Rhys Williams judged continuous inflation to be a form of unjust taxation,  she made a note (written in 1952) that:

long term investments such as pension funds have been robbed of a large percentage of their value within a few years, and the process is still continuing…

Maternal and child health

 

Juliet was a founder member of The National Birthday Trust Fund in 1928.  Its central aim was to establish National Maternity services and to combat maternal and child mortality

From The Juliet Rhys-Williams Project - Pauline Rowe  

The National Birthday Trust Fund in 1928 was rather an aristocratic affair in its earliest days.  Juliet was to bring her experience of Parliamentary work and politics to bear – and consequently had a remarkable influence on the development both of ante-natal care and maternal health.  She worked as Honorary Treasurer of Queen Charlotte’s Hospital Anaesthetics Fund from 1928 – 39 and raised funds for the appointment of an anaesthetics resident.  This was the first post of its kind in the country, its main purpose being to alleviate pain in childbirth.  Along with Lucy Baldwin, Juliet also persuaded the British College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (forerunner of the RCOG) to investigate obstetric analgesia and anaesthetic.

Her rôle in the establishment of a national salaried midwifery service, as Honorary Secretary of the Joint Council of Midwifery and representative of the NBTF, was recognised with the award of the DBE in 1937. 

She turned her attention to the problem of maternal and infant mortality by organising a scheme for new mothers in the Rhondda; the provision of better ante natal care, midwives and modern antiseptics resulted in a reduction in maternal deaths from infection.

From The Juliet Rhys-Williams Project - Pauline Rowe  

Juliet then spearheaded a campaign to provide supplementary food and nutrition to pregnant women in the poorest areas of the country.  This pioneering nutrition scheme was treated with hostility by physicians at the time but, through the NBTF, companies were lobbied, local authorities contacted, officers of Public Health charmed and Marmite, Ovaltine, milk, minerals, essence of beef and herbs were distributed to supplement the diets of vulnerable mothers-to-be.

In spite of the Medical establishment’s antipathy to this scheme (similar to its opposition to salaried midwives and pain relief in childbirth) Lady Rhys Williams fought ferociously for the National Birthday Trust to continue with its nutrition work; this not only saved lives but led to the Ministry of Food in World War II insuring adequate rations for pregnant and nursing mothers.

Her commitment to improving maternal health continued to the end of her life.  In the 1950s she was responsible for establishing the NBTF’s study of perinatal mortality which became the Perinatal Mortality Survey 1958 (involving midwives interviewing 25,000 mothers during one week.)  The results were published in 1963 as Perinatal Mortality – a study which has been described as ‘unique not only in this country but in the world in scope, in execution and analysis.’  It was also the first study to correlate the effects of smoking and low birth weight.


 After her death in 1964 Professor Nixon of University College Hospital said that without Juliet’s “dynamism, sagacity and charity the Survey would have been stillborn.

Fighting Federalism

Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of Juliet’s work was in her support for co-operation within Europe, but her fight against federalism

From The Juliet Rhys-Williams Project - Pauline Rowe  

When Juliet was the Editor of the European Review, she was summoned by two members of the American National Security Agency and warned “You and the London Times are out of line.”  It was made clear that the editorial approach of the European Review was being monitored. Although a supporter of the United Europe Movement, Lady Rhys Williams fought European federalism as soon as its post-war advocates started to campaign.  Her work for European unity was based on the premise that cooperation was vital as long as the integrity of the nation state was safeguarded; she saw federalism as dangerous not only to the economic prosperity of Britain but also to the quest to abolish poverty worldwide.  She argued:

…the Rome Treaty seeks only to establish a kind of wealthy Shangrila – a Victorian haven in the midst of the historic European battlefield – and is apparently content to remain dependent upon the exertions of the people of another continent for its defence.
     …..The concept which commands the greatest and most genuine universal support today is the Samaritan ideal which was expressed in the Atlantic Charter by Churchill and Roosevelt in the middle of the War.  They called it ‘the Fourth Freedom, freedom from want.’  It is the determination to abolish human poverty and sickness wherever they are to be found and to grant to every human being, whatever his nation, colour or creed, an equal opportunity to possess and enjoy the good things of life. (p.108-9)

The spiritual beliefs of Lady Rhys-Williams

     At her Welsh home, Miskin Manor, Juliet placed a picture of St Joan of Arc above her eldest daughter’s bed telling her that the vital thing in life is to follow your own voices.  And indeed it appears that Lady Rhys-Williams was an intensely spiritually open lady.

In the school room was a pre-Raphaelite picture depicting Sir Galahad – a rôle model she particularly promoted to her two sons.  Juliet thought men should be noble, chivalrous, full of compassion and sympathy for the vulnerable and oppressed.  On her mantelpiece was a picture of Ruth (“whither thou goest – I will go”) - a symbol of her absolute devotion to her husband, Rhys; on her piano she had a picture of a Madonna and child.

And although we have Juliet on the site because she was a kind and tireless reformer and prophetic genius, she also had the gift of prophecy.  In a few startling examples, she described events she thought had already happened that then did happen days and sometimes weeks later.  We have observations for some examples of this.

References

  • Doctor Carmichael (1940)
  • Something to Look Forward to; a Suggestion for a New Social Contract (1943)
  • Family Allowances and Social Security (1944)
  • Taxation and Incentive (1953)
  • A New Look at Britain's Economic Policy (1965)

Observations

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