Welsh History: A Different Wales


After the Great War

In the spirit of patriotism engendered by the War, the movement in Ireland to agitate for Home Rule was considered treason in most of Wales. Welsh soldiers played significant roles in the great battles of the Somme and Ypres. By suffering alongside their fellows from all parts of the British Isles, Welsh soldiers began to feel less Welsh and more British, less provincial, less “different.” By the end of the war more that 280,000 Welshmen had served some time in the armed forces.

The terrible loss of life in the war had devastating effects upon just about every town and village in Wales, but especially in the North, where the men of Gwynedd had enlisted in huge proportions after the slate industry had been declared “non-essential.”

In the Southern coalfields, the industrial unrest continued. The workers had wrested some privileges away from the owners, including an increase in their daily wage; they were determined to keep them.

One problem was that the nation’s industries had not kept pace with the rapid growth in the newly-emerging countries of the world.

There was too much reliance on the old traditional methods of mining, shipbuilding, cotton manufacture, etc., all of which were now finding it difficult, if not impossible, to compete in world markets. Each industry was also hampered by lack of investment capital and failure to adapt to more efficient, modern methods.

The great General Strike began in 1926. It was only settled when the resistance of the miners had been worn down by the owners, who were able to demand longer hours and less pay. To help alleviate the miserable conditions in the industrial areas of Britain, the Conservative government of Stanley Baldwin undertook a modest program of social reform to appease working class opinion. The Widows, Orphans, and Old Age Health Contributory Pensions schemes extended the Act of 1911 and insured over 20 million people.

In 1928, the Equal Franchise Act gave the parliamentary vote to all women over twenty-one. Under Health Minister Neville Chamberlain (of later Munich infamy), the Local Government Act of 1929 reduced the number of local government authorities and extended their services. Nothing was done to adequately deal with the nation’s massive unemployment.

In the 1930’s, new health measures, aided by the import of cheap nutritious food from the U.S. (such as canned baked beans), led to a marked increase in population, accompanied by a building boom. Old industries were replaced by newer ones, including the manufacture of bicycles, automobiles, electrical goods, and chemicals, mostly located in the southeastern and midland counties of England.

Very few of the changes reached South Wales, where the repercussions of huge losses in the coal industry have never dissipated. Massive emigration into England or overseas took place from the Welsh Valleys, where ,ironically, the way was paved for a renaissance in Welsh nationalism. Wales was once again to undergo a metamorphosis. Its literary men had already shown the way towards defining their fellow countrymen as members of a separate nation.

Literature between the Wars

The transitions brought about by the Great War inspired a new generation of literary men in Wales.

Stirred to action, Williams Parry began to write again, producing a series of satirical, angry protests against man’s smugness and small-mindedness in his second volume of poetry Cerddi’r Gaeaf (Poems of Winter) published in 1952.

T. H. Parry-Williams took Welsh literature in a new direction. In 1931, he published his first volume of poems, in which one of its central themes was that of the bonds of attachment felt by the exile for his native hearth, that sentiment known in Welsh as “hiraeth”.

Other poets also continued to use the Welsh language to express the nostalgia for a Wales that perhaps never was. The lament at the disintegration of rural society continued in the poetry of D. J. Williams, a former coal miner before studying at Jesus College, Oxford. One of the founders of Plaid Cymru, his two greatest works were published in 1934: Hen Dy Fferm (The Old Farmhouse), and Hen Wynebau (Old Faces).

A contemporary of Williams was David James Jones (Gwenallt), whose raw, powerful Welsh, in which he described his native country as a “dirty street prostitute,” is full of anger at the horrible effects of industry, with its blackening of the lovely valleys and hillsides, its degradation of the workers.

Gwenallt was well aware that industry had become an integral part of modern Wales, like it or not, and the difficulties of dealing with the spiritual crisis brought about by the loss of so many old, primarily rural values had to be dealt with.

Similar concerns were expressed by John Saunders Lewis, whose great lament was that Wales had become “superficial and materialistic, idolatrous, throne-loving, because she ceased to think in terms of the Sacrament.”

Lewis wrote some of the finest religious poetry of the century, much of it dealing with the defense of Christian civilization in Wales against what he considered the ever-present threat from the Barbarians outside the gates. Lewis’ life spanned the great period of transition when Anglo-Welsh writers began to dominate the literature of their country.

Yet all was not lost to the native language. There were those who continued the struggle. One of these was Kate Roberts. Raised in Gwynedd, where the slate quarries employed thousands of men to help sustain a lively, thoroughly Welsh culture, her classic novel is Traed mewn Cyffion (Feet in Shackles) dealing with the everyday suffering of a quarrying family spanning four generations in the bleak, mountainous Arfon district that was compounded by the loss of so many men during the First World War.

Caradog Pritchard came from Caernarfonshire. His most famous novel is Un Nos Ola Leuad (One Moonlit Night) published in 1961 and later made into a movie. It is a scary nightmare, told by a madman reliving the events of his childhood.

The memories of a life of hardship are also found in the novels of Oxford-educated R. Rowland Hughes, who had worked in the slate quarries at Llanberis. His best novel is Chwalfa (Dispersal) about the longest strike in the history of British industrial relations that took place at the Penrhyn quarries at the beginning of the century.

The story of Wales that came to the attention of the world, however, came not from those who wrote in its native language, but from those who chose to write in English — those who formed the movement we term Anglo-Welsh.

The Anglo-Welsh

In the southeastern regions of Wales, the kind of writing we call Anglo-Welsh was produced and a special kind of Welsh character emerged in these writings. Novelists depicted the suffering, depravation, and social injustice but, perhaps above all else, also the indomitable spirit of the people.

Caradog Evans did not conform; his works condemn what he saw as failings of the Welsh character. Whatever the opinions of his writing, Caradog Evans has a firm place as one of the founding fathers of Anglo-Welsh literature. His loathing was matched by that of Gwyn Thomas, who had nothing but contempt for the Welsh language and for those who wrote in it (notably those from the northern and western areas of Wales where Welsh stubbornly remained the first language of the majority).

Rhys Davies and others emphasized the sheer grit, the ever-present humor, and the humanism of those who lived in degrading conditions. He wrote a plethora of short stories and novels on many different subjects, often utilizing his mining valley background to document the lives of the typical Welsh working class families.

Jack Jones is one of the most well-known of the new group of Anglo-Welsh authors. His lively account of life in the largest of the Welsh mining valleys led to his Rhondda Roundabout (1934) followed by Off to Philadelphia in the Morning (1947), a biography of Dr. Joseph Parry, the Welsh musician and hymn-writer, who returned after emigrating to the United States as a young man, and who subsequently became the first Welsh Doctor of Music at the newly-organized university at Aberystwyth.

Thanks to Hollywood and its Academy Awards, the picture of Wales that is most often presented to the world is that portrayed in Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley (1939). The novel is one more powerful lament for the loss of Eden in the confusion of the modern industrial and commercial world.

Another novelist who produced vivid chronicles of life in the Welsh industrial valleys was Cardiff-born Howard Spring (1889-1965), who spent much of his youth as a news reporter and journalist. In 1932, he published his first book of short stories for children, Darkie and Co. followed by many novels including the highly evocative Fame is The Spur.

Alexander Cordell was the nom-de-plume of George Alexander Graber (19l4-1997), another writer who chose to chronicle the incessant struggles of the Welsh people. His first successful novel, The Rape of the Fair Country, is the first part of his trilogy about life in a nineteenth century Wales being transformed by industry.

Novelist and distinguished academic Gwyn Jones is a major figure in Anglo-Welsh literary life. Jones followed his scholarly translations of Icelandic sagas with the writing of novels in which his theme was the great industrial unrest and devastating strike of 1926. Jones collaborated with Thomas Jones in a very popular translation of the medieval Welsh classic, the Mabinogion, first published in 1948.

Like so many of his own generation, Dylan Thomas (1914-53) was brought up with English as his first language. Yet his early childhood in Swansea and his excursions to his grandparents’ farm in rural Welsh-speaking Carmarthenshire certainly had a profound influence upon his writing. His first three volumes of poetry were Eighteen Poems (1934); Twenty Five Poems (1936); and The Map of Love (1939).

In 1946, following World War Two, Thomas published his fourth volume, Deaths and Entrances. By this time his place in the hierarchy of distinguished twentieth-century lyrical poets had been firmly established. Vernon Watkins (1906-1967), like Dylan Thomas, used elaborate symbolism that makes his poetry difficult to understand. Watkins spent much of his adult life in a search for answers to some of life’s perplexing problems.

Life in the industrial valleys of Wales is the concern of Glyn Jones (1905-95)). Though he chose to write in English, Jones was Welsh-speaking; thus he possessed a far greater knowledge of Welsh culture than did either Dylan Thomas or Vernon Watkins. His part autobiography The Dragon has Two Tongues (1968), is a critical appreciation of other Anglo-Welsh writers.

A miner’s son, the actor and dramatist Emlyn Williams wrote a two-part autobiography of his early days, his friendship with Miss Cook, the headmistress portrayed by Betty Davies, and later by Katherine Hepburn in his The Corn is Green, and of his experiences as an actor and playwright.

At the end of the Second World War, the need for change was felt in Welsh literature, and a new breed of writers emerged who expressed their love for their country and its language. Important figures in this new movement were the poets R. S. Thomas, Harri Webb, and Anthony Conran; and the novelists Emyr Humphries and Raymond Williams.

In A Man’s Estate, and in Outside the House of Baal, Emyr Humphries contrasts the past and the present through his story of the failure of a minister’s Christian nationalistic ideals that mirrors the direction of modern Wales. In works such as these, he presents the enduring Welsh theme of change affecting a rural community and the struggles to accommodate itself to that change.

Similar themes, are expressed in the fiction of Raymond Williams. His writings show his fascination with politics, especially from an extreme left-wing viewpoint.

Post-industrial Wales of the 1960’s and 1970’s, so very different from all that went before, with all its new problems of adjustment, has also found an effective voice in the novels of Alun Richards and Ron Berry. Their concerns are with the spiritual decay of the Valleys now that the heavy industries of iron, steel, and coal have disappeared to be replaced by the light, high-technology industrial parks.

Social discord plays a prominent role in so much Welsh literature. It is continued in the writers of the modern generation. In the rapid transformation of Wales, they have much to complain about.

Wales Transformed

In 1945, the Labour Government, headed by Clement Attlee, determined that there should never be a repeat of the unemployment levels that were so common a feature of the pre-war years. The Distribution of Industry Act sanctioned the use of existing factory space in Wales. New industrial estates were established, mainly in the heavily populated Valleys.

The nationalization of industry in Britain began in 1947; the Central Boards taking over administration of all industry in Wales. The National Coal Board closed down all inefficient mines, modernized and centralized others. There were also drastic contractions in the tinplate industry, though steel found itself temporarily revitalized by new plants at Margam, in Glamorganshire; at Shotton, in Flintshire; and at Ebbw Vale in Monmouthshire, the three huge new plants producing over a quarter of all Britain’s steel.

By the beginning of the 1980’s, the economy and the society of Wales were far different than they had been in 1945. Not one single working pit remained in the Rhondda Valley, which had been synonymous with coal for a hundred years.

Agriculture also began to be dominated by the central government at Westminster; it too, underwent dramatic changes. The 1947 Agriculture Act introduced the scheme of deficiency payments, grants, subsidies and improvements in general that were to revolutionize the tradition-bound Welsh farming economy.

Another great change that took place after the War affected all Britain as well as Wales. This was the introduction of the Welfare State. Welsh politicians James Griffiths and Aneurin Bevan worked hard and long to produce the National Insurance Act of 1946 that compelled all workers to insure themselves against ill-health or unemployment. This revolutionary measure was, in turn, followed by the Industrial Injuries Act of 1948. The same year saw the introduction of the National Health Service that provided free medical treatment, prescriptions, and prosthetic devices such as eye glasses and false teeth.

There were some concessions to national identity when the Regional Hospitals Board joined the Wales Gas Board (the only government department that had been recognized as a national identity since the changes of 1947) as regional units responsible for all Wales.

At the time, the Labour Party had no intention whatsoever of recognizing any Welsh nationhood. Only a few concessions were wrung begrudgingly from Westminster. One was achieved by James Griffiths, from Llanelli, whose intense lobbying efforts finally persuaded the Government to form the Council of Wales in 1948 though its duties were purely advisory and it was given no powers.

In 195l, the office of Minister for Welsh Affairs came into being. The Parliament for Wales Campaign began in 1950, modeled after a similar movement in Scotland.

Progress was slow, but a grudging nod towards Welsh aspirations came in 1955 with the recognition of Cardiff as the capital of Wales.

In 1964,the Government created a Secretary of State for Wales, with James Griffiths the first to fill the position. The acknowledgement that Wales needed its own Secretary of State was an important break-through. Perhaps the biggest break-through occurred in 1966 when Gwynfor Evans of Plaid Cymru was elected as M.P for Carmarthen.

There were still major concerns with what was happening both in and to Wales. The generation of poets that flowered in the 1960’s thought deeply about the changes affecting their country.

R.S.Thomas published his The Stones of the Field in 1946, the first of 24 volumes of poetry in which he describes his ambiguity towards Wales and his disappointment at what he considered his country’s failure to live up to its potential as well as its constantly diminishing romantic potency.

A far more radical poet than Thomas was Harri Webb who declared his own work to be “Unrepentantly nationalistic.” Webb wrote poetry in Welsh and English.

Beginning in the late 1960’s, the use of the Welsh language became fashionable (some would say “politically correct”). Welsh literature began, too, to have its place in the sun. Anthony Conran’s discovery of the wonders of Welsh literature as well as its sheer antiquity, led him to embark on a career as a poet and translator. He learned the intricate rules of Welsh poetry known as cynghanedd, using them to write poems in English based on Welsh themes.

Born in New York of Irish background, Joseph Clancy visited to Wales to learn its language and its poetic methods. He ultimately published his Medieval Welsh Lyrics (1965), The Earliest Welsh Poetry, and Twentieth Century Welsh Poems (1982). Clancy has also translated plays of Saunders Lewis, John Gwilym Jones and Gwenlyn Parry as well as a selection of the poetry of Gwyn Thomas. Of the other Anglo-Welsh poets of the modern era we can mention Gwyn Williams, Roland Mathias, John Ormond, Leslie Norris, Raymond Garlick, and Danne Abse.

The post-industrial environment of modern Wales has created a generation of writers with a brand-new outlook on their country and on the art of poetry. One of these is Cardiff-born Gillian Clarke (b.1937) who moved to West Wales to be more in touch with the world of nature and the way its seasonal rhythms affected women’s lives. As a college teacher in Gwent, she has also produced poems that deal with urban life or that reflect her experiences as a mother.

The proliferation of the Anglo-Welsh poets that took place over the half a century following World War Two, allied to the rapid increase in the readership of an ever-increasing English majority in Wales, would seem to signify the end of literature produced in the Welsh language. It did not.

The struggle was not yet over, and the voice of Wales continued to be heard. A few of Wales’s best writers continued to use the language of their fathers; they had not abandoned the struggle.