Annie Powell was born in September 1906 into a strong traditional chapel family, both parents being teachers from a mining background. She attended the Central Chapel in Tonypandy and was educated at Pente Grammar School and then at Glamorgan’s teacher training school in Barry. It was while undertaking taking teacher training during the period of the 1926 General Strike that Annie Powell first became interested in politics and she subsequently joined the Labour Party.
Following her parents’ footsteps, she became a teacher first at Trebanog and then in Trealaw from the 1930s. When she started teaching at Trebanog, Annie’s observation of the intense level of poverty faced by the school children and their families, as she put it, "hit me really hard". Keen to challenge the poverty her students faced she turned increasingly to the Communist Party, which was at least (again in her words) "doing something". An additional attraction she felt was that the Communist Party, unlike the Labour Party, was keen to discuss political theory and organisation. So, after a "lot of hard thought and deep thinking", Annie Powell joined the Communist Party in 1938.
She was a full time Party worker during the war years and a member of its Executive Committee for 20 years. Long a member of the Welsh Committee of the Party, she was also its Women’s Organiser for a period. Annie Powell was a teacher and National Union of Teachers (NUT) activist for 40 years, as a Welsh speaker she also taught in Welsh, unusual for the valleys in her day. She was married to Trevor Evan Powell, the manager of the local Co-operative store for many, many years, her husband living on in Llwynpia until 2nd August 2006, when he died, aged 101.
Annie Powell stood for election to the local council for the Communist Party thirteen times before she was finally elected in 1955. For years she played a key role in the campaign for more council houses in the Rhondda, The area having the lowest ratio of council houses (28 per thousand of the population) and some of the worst housing in the country. She played a leading part in getting 148 council houses built at Dinas to re-house the demolished homes of owner occupiers.
Amos Prosser reporting in the May 1965 edition of Comment stated "Annie Powell pounds the pavements and knocks on knockers of the Rhondda streets (how steep they are) as much as if not more now than during the thirteen years when she was unsuccessful in her bid to secure election." Every Saturday morning Annie’s branch, Penygraig, sold 120 Daily Workers on the doorstep.
Annie was first elected as a Communist councillor for Penygraig to the Rhondda Borough Council in 1955. She lost the seat, after Labour banged the anti-communist drum, citing Hungary, when her time for re-election came around in 1958. Although the penny increasingly dropped that Hungary had little to do with Penycraig, as the Communist Party fought back in its Rhondda base, beginning the organisation of, amongst other things, a regular St David’s Day parade which continued well into the 1960s.
Annie stood as Communist candidate for Rhondda East parliamentary seat in 1959, and, with the help of some 150 supporters, pulled off a "practically complete canvass of the constituency". In the process, she organised 18 indoor meetings and a loudspeaker car touring the constituency morning, afternoon and night. Annie Powell secured 4,589 votes and there were no less than 49 new members to the Communist Party.
Annie missed out on winning a council seat in 1959 by just 154 votes. Then, in 1959, the Communist Party stood in seven Rhondda wards, distributing 28,000 national and local leaflets and restoring much of its earlier popularity locally. In 1961, she was re-elected and continuously represented Maerdy on Rhondda’s Council until her retirement in 1983.
A dedicated councillor, she pioneered issues such as nursery provision and stopped a racial discriminatory bar in a local club with a campaign. She was active in many community organisations, including being the vice-president of the famous Morlais Male Voice Choir; she was also awarded an honorary MA by the Open University.
Annie Powell was retired from formal working by the time of her election as Mayor in 1979. Annie had been a Communist Councillor on and off for nigh on a quarter of a century and had even been Deputy-Mayor. The respect with which she was held by the community and her fellow councillors caused them to defy the usual anti-communism in local authority work. The high point of her lengthy council service came in May 1979, when she was elected Mayor of Rhondda, the first ever woman Communist mayor in Britain.
As such, it might be said that, for a time, Annie Powell almost achieved fame in her final years. She was certainly very well known in Wales and no stranger to regional television. Her achievement is so remarkable that it has often been overstated to the extent of her being erroneously described as Britain’s first, even only, Communist Mayor.
Joe Vaughan of Stepney had been truly the first Communist mayor in the 1920s. But Finlay Hart had beaten Annie to it in Clydebank by several years in modern times; the fact that Hart’s post was called `provost’, the uniquely Scottish equivalent, has clouded the issue somewhat. Even so, Communists in Wales are rightly proud of Annie’s great achievement. She stated in one interview that she had learnt valuable lessons from respected Communists such as Arthur Horner, Harry Pollitt, Will Paynter, Jack Davies and, the South Walian, Jack Jones. Annie Powell died on August 29th 1986 aged seventy nine, only days before her 80th birthday.
Sources: Morning Star 29 August 1986, contemporary issues of Comment and the Daily Worker, and other sources, including additional information from Michael Walker