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Winifred Foley - a story of pluck and imagination

A story with some economic relevance to the mess we're in today.


The Royal Forest of Dean, a mixed forest of evergreens, oaks and beech, with pied flycatchers, hawfinches, goshawks, peregrine falcons and boar.

Image: Cinderford

Winifred Foley lived in the Forest of Dean (a view of the Forest appears in our masthead). Born in 1914, she ran about the woods and streams, reading books and by necessity eating very little. Her parents gave her affection and love, but they did not have much food.

Winifred's father was a well-read coal miner. He became one of the leaders of the General Strike of 1926. The miners were opposing a reduction of their pittance wages. The mine owners and the government attacked the miners as revolutionaries. But George V said -

"Try living on their wages before you judge them."

An economic note of some importance today

The playing out of the coal seams and lost international markets (Germany was sending coal free to France to repay reparations for World War I) had affected profitability, but there can be little doubt that mine owners were taking too much and paying too little. This is a problem with any kind of economy - there are always people willing and able to exploit working men and women. It happens in a free economy and it happens under socialism. (The effects are far, far worse under socialism, as I will try to show in an upcoming post.)

Plus, most of us will readily pay for a book or iPod or vacation - or whatever else we want, but we don't want to pay much for the very things we can't live without. We want food and energy prices to be low. We all benefit from the low energy and food prices that are partly the result of low wages.

Winifred did what she had to do.

Her surprising career

She left the Forest to go into service in London when she was 14. She worked as a skivvy, a kitchen maid and a waitress at a Lyons Corner House. She married. But she never forgot the Forest.

In the early 1970s she posted a draft of her early life – a handwritten scrawl in dog-eared exercise books – to the Bristol office of BBC radio's Woman's Hour. One of the producers, Pamela Howe, was so intrigued by Winifred Foley's account of the vanished 1920s world of the ancient Forest of Dean, the inward-looking region between Gloucester and Wales, that she went there to meet the memoir's self-taught writer.

The stunning result was a special on the BBC and Winifred's "now-celebrated" Forest Trilogy, including A Child of the Forest, No Pipe Dreams for Father and Back to the Forest, when she returned with her husband and children. Winifred was a survivor.

She was beaten in school by a dictatorial master, but her gifts so impressed him he subsequently "marched her into the top class". Later she turned coal into the diamonds of literature. In her eighties, looking for a fresh challenge, she became a romantic novelist. "These books, published in large-print format, were densely-plotted family sagas that gave full rein to her still-fertile imagination".

Ave atque vale.

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