David Alfred Thomas, Viscount Rhondda - Encyclopedia

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"DAVID ALFRED THOMAS RHONDDA, VISCOUNT (1856-- 1918), British colliery owner and Food Controller in the World War, was a Welshman, born March 26 18 56 in Aberdare, grandson of a Monmouthshire yeoman farmer, and son of a Merthyr grocer. His father had prospered in his trade, and in later life enriched himself by speculations in coal. Young Thomas was sent to Clifton College, and afterwards to Caius College, Cambridge, where he graduated as a senior optime in the mathematical tripos in 1880, and immediately joined his father in the coal business. He threw himself with great energy and ability both into that and into local Liberal politics; and was so successful in both spheres that he was returned to Parliament for Merthyr in 1888. His extraordinary commercial gifts, his insight, his foresight, and the sympathy which he brought to bear on the conditions of life in the mining industry, soon made him a prominent, and eventually the leading, figure in the industrial world of S. Wales. " D.A.," as he was always called, by his initials, in his own part of the country, endeared himself to the miners by becoming their champion in the 'nineties against the undercutting of prices by middlemen, and by the generous wages which he paid in the collieries under his control; and though in subsequent years he sometimes had differences with the men, he always retained their respect. His business combinations brought him great wealth and culminated in the Cambrian super-combine, which produced some six million tons of steam coal a year. Other important undertakings in which he took a leading share were the Ebbw Vale Steel, Iron and Coal Co., the Rhymney Iron Co., and the Taff Vale Railway Company. So extensive were the ramifications of his interests that, when he accepted office in 1916, the number of directorships from which he retired was no fewer than forty. He had much longer to wait for success in the political than in the commercial field. Though he sat in the House of Commons for Merthyr for 22 years and afterwards for some months for Cardiff, no use was made by the political chiefs of his party of his great capacities for public service, and he therefore retired from Parliament in 1910.

The outbreak of the World War gave him his opportunity. He rendered substantial help to Mr. Lloyd George both at the Exchequer and in the office of munitions, by organizing British industrial resources for war. He took a lead in " capturing German trade," carrying through, for instance, the acquisition of the Sanatogen business. He went to America to complete important war contracts for the Government, and on his return was saved, with his daughter, Lady Mackworth, from the sinking of the " Lusitania." He went back to America almost immediately, and spent seven months there at his own expense, expediting the output of munitions, and regulating and systematizing the prices charged. He was created a baron, as Lord Rhondda, for his services in Jan. 1916; and it was natural that, when Mr. Lloyd George, in forming his ministry in the following Dec., made up his mind to introduce captains of industry into office, he should turn at once to his old ally, who became president of the Local Government Board. His principal business in this post was to prepare for the establishment of the Ministry of Health. Before this was effected he accepted, in June 1917, at the Prime Minister's pressing request, the onerous burden of the Food Controllership, vacated by Lord Devonport. He was no respecter of persons, and immediately took strong steps to put an end to the speculation in the necessities of life which was becoming a public scandal. Then he gradually fixed prices and brought supplies under control, in regard to almost all articles of food except vegetables. Thus he eliminated profiteering in food-stuffs. He also carried through a great decentralization in the administration of his office. But he will be mainly remembered as the author of the system of compulsory food rationing, which was carried out with absolute fairness and impartiality, putting an end to the queues waiting at butchers' and bakers' shops that had rendered the housekeeper's life a burden. As Food Controller, Lord Rhondda ran the biggest trading organization that the world had ever seen. The turnover of his Ministry, apart from the work of the wheat and sugar commissions, amounted to 1,200 millions sterling; with them 2,733 millions sterling. Supplies never failed, and in spite of the German submarine menace there was no hunger in the United Kingdom. His strenuous labours affected his health, and in April 1918 he tendered his resignation; but his work was so invaluable that pressure was put upon him to remain, and he was created a viscount. But the strain was too great. He was attacked by pneumonia and died on July 3. Tributes to his work and to the public loss sustained by his death were paid in both Houses of Parliament.

He married Sybil Margaret Haig, a cousin of Lord Haig, who survived him. They had one child, a daughter, who married Sir Humphrey Mackworth, and who succeeded to the viscounty of Rhondda under a special remainder. (G. E. B.)

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