Welsh History: A New Identity


The Age of Methodism

The 18th Century in Wales can be called “the century of Methodism.” Methodism greatly aided the people of Wales in their ever-lasting struggle to retain their spirituality, their language and their sense of independence. A new preaching zeal, with its emphasis on individual salvation and especially on “the word,” brought home the need for literacy and education and thus the demand for more printed works. The number of books printed in Welsh increased rapidly in the fifty years after the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660.

In 1674, a charitable organization was set up in London by Thomas Gouge to establish English schools in Wales and to publish books in Welsh. Over 500 books were published. Many of these were translations of mainly Protestant tracts that encouraged private worship and prayers. Along with the six major editions of the Bible that appeared during the same period, they had the unpredicted effect of ensuring the survival of the Welsh language in an age where more than one scholar was predicting its rapid demise.

It has been estimated that perhaps as many as one third or more of the population of Wales could read their scriptures by the time of churchman Griffith Jones’ death in 1761.

Evening classes were set up for the laborers, farm workers and those who worked in the trades, and the “circulating schools” as they were called, have been regarded as one of the few great success stories in the long history of Wales. 18th century Wales was thus made one of the most literate countries in Europe.

Hywel Harris was converted to the Methodist cause in 1735. He worked closely with other religious enthusiasts such as Daniel Rowland, William Williams, Peter Williams (who produced a very popular version of the Bible), and John Wesley, the English evangelist.

Another influential convert was Thomas Charles in 1784, who set up the successful Sunday School movement in North Wales.

Harris’ leadership of the Methodist Revival in Wales was shared by Daniel Rowland, who had converted in 1737. His enthusiasm, along with that of his colleagues, attracted thousands of converts. The overwhelming success of the Methodist Revival in Wales, especially its espousal of the Welsh language, created a flood-tide of energy.

The new movement provided the excitement and fervor that the established church had been lacking for so long. In addition, Methodism was responsible for producing two names that are outstanding in the cultural history of Wales: William Williams and Ann Griffiths.

William Williams (Pantycelyn) is the most important hymn writer that Wales has ever produced. In only ten years Williams produced the great classical body of Welsh hymnody, a collection of over 130 hymns. His best-known is one that has remained a standard, sung throughout Wales, Cwm Rhondda, sung to the words “Guide me, oh, thou great Jehovah.”

Other great hymn writers of the period included David Charles, whose brother Thomas founded the Welsh Sunday School movement. Of all his contemporaries, however, only one was able to match William Williams in the sheer intensity and power of his writing, and that was Ann Griffiths. Though she died giving birth to a child before her thirtieth birthday, the hymns she produced on her spiritual pilgrimage makes her not only one of the great poets of her native Wales, but also of Europe.

The earnestness of the new religion greatly shaped the Welsh character for the next two centuries. Sin and evil were emphasized at the expense of delight in a natural spontaneity and love of life in all its forms.

Yet there were some remarkable individuals and some striking events that, in many ways, acted as a counterbalance to the religious atmosphere created by the Methodist Revival.

Other great changes that were about to take place in Wales not only included an impressive literary renaissance, but also the coming of a giant industrial revolution. Both were to make permanent imprints upon the life of a nation that somehow continued to cling stubbornly to its separate identity within the British Isles.

The Coming of Industry

About the middle of the 18th century there was an explosion of mining, quarrying, iron manufacturing and all their related industries. In northwest Wales, the huge Mona and Parys copper mines helped transform both the economy and the landscape. In Gwynedd, huge quarries employed thousands of men to dig out the slate that roofed houses and municipal buildings throughout Europe.

Before the end of the 18th century, Holywell in Flintshire sustained a long line of industrial workings, including copper and brass foundries, along with the older more traditional woolen and flannel mills. Collieries at Flint and Bagillt; iron foundries at Mostyn, on the Dee estuary; the beginnings of extensive coal mining at Llay, Gresford, and Point of Ayr; and the pioneering John Wilkinson iron works at Bersham, near Wrexham also helped make that corner of Wales a center of industry.

In Southeast Wales, the coming of industry completely changed the landscape and the way of life. Swansea became the chief copper producer of Britain, if not the world. The bituminous or semi-bituminous coals of the Welsh Valleys provided a perfect solution to the scarcity of charcoal: they provided an extremely valuable, readily available fuel in prodigious quantities. An influx of experienced iron masters and their workers came mainly from the Midlands to supply the technical know-how to produce high quality iron.

By the year 1827, the South Wales iron industry was producing one half of all Britain’s iron exports, much of it to the United States, where the railroads were rapidly being developed. Wales was transformed practically overnight. Along with industrialization came a dramatic increase in the numbers of inhabitants– from approximately 500,000 people in the 1750’s to over 1,600,000 in 1851 and 2,600,000 before World War One.

The insatiable demand for iron led Merthyr into overtaking Swansea as the largest town in Wales early in the nineteenth century. The great iron works of Cyfartha, Pen y Darren and Blaenavon produced a major share of British Iron. Dowlais made practically the sum total of all iron rails for the U.S. railroad industry.

In 1794, Merthyr was connected to Cardiff by the Glamorgan Canal. Two more canals were constructed to link Ebbw Vale with Newport in 1796 and to link Swansea to its rapidly growing industrial hinterland in 1798.

As the 19th century progressed, the railways began to take over much of the burden of transporting the raw materials to the ports and centers of production: the Taff Vale and the Rhymney were constructed by the middle of the century. David Thomas, working under iron master George Crane at the long-established Ynyscedwyn Iron Works in Ystradgynlais, in the Swansea Valley, opened up the West Wales coalfield by discovering how to make it possible to use the hot blast in the smelting of iron ore with anthracite coal.

Not all was rosy, however. There were all kinds of problems in the iron and coal industries, and a period of great unrest came to the valleys. The Merthyr Rising began in 1831; for the people of Wales it was a new kind of struggle, but one as intense as any that had gone before.


The infamous Corn Laws, passed in Parliament in 1815, kept the price of bread artificially high to benefit the landed interests and wealthy farmers. In an attempt to better conditions, workers tentatively began to form unions, but their members were treated harshly. At the Abbey Works in Neath, for example, in the 1820’s, when fifty men tried to form a union they were immediately fired. The times were not yet ripe for the general acceptance of unionism.

With the failure of the unions to win concessions, however, a new way was sought to improve working conditions (and a way to keep workers in line with union rules). In Monmouthshire, a group called the “Scotch Cattle” began a reign of terror in the valleys, destroying property of employers and threatening many workers who refused to go along with their demands.

Early in 1831, beginning as a popular protest against unjust and often deplorable working and living conditions, the Merthyr rising quickly grew into a full-scale, armed rebellion. Miners and ironworkers joined the political radicals and disgruntled tradesmen. The crowd raised the red flag of rebellion — the first time it was used in Britain. A troop of Scots Highlanders was sent from Brecon Barracks to restore order; and when the large crowds of rioters appeared outside the Castle Inn, the troopers opened fire.

In the resulting panic, over two dozen workers were killed and hundreds wounded. It took a week to bring order to the area. Punishment was severe. Richard Lewis, known as Dic Penderyn, was sentenced to death on a charge of wounding a Highlander. On 31 July, 1831, he was hanged. The martyrdom of Dic Penderyn is well remembered in Wales, but in England there seems to have been general indifference.

In the Carmarthen area, the most tangible and visible symbols of oppression were the numerous tollgates on the turnpike roads, with their crushing fees.

One night in May, 1839, gates at Efailwen, outside Carmarthen, were destroyed when a group of about 400 people gathered to protest the tolls. The leader of the protestors, reputed to be Thomas Rees, known locally as Twm Carnabwth, was disguised in the clothes of a local woman named Rebecca. Thus the term “Rebecca Riots’ came to designate the disturbances, including the burning and destroying of toll gates and work houses that continued for some years in Southwest Wales.

It was not until a government commission recommended reduction of tolls, especially on lime and other agricultural products, that the riots finally came to an end.

The rise of the movement known as Chartism constituted a far more serious threat to public order. The Chartists were part of a new popular movement named after the radical London reformer Williams Levett, who drafted a bill known as “The People’s Charter” in May 1838. The Chartists believed that they could somehow bring about a democratic parliament and an enfranchised working class.

The aims of the Chartists were simple enough: universal male suffrage, vote by ballot, equal electoral districts, annual parliaments, abolition of the property qualifications for election to Parliament, and payment for members (so that it could be open to all classes).

Rather than consider such radical ideas, and to safeguard their positions of privilege in Parliament, the government took measures to suppress the movement, ruthlessly if necessary. Many of those who had taken part in a riot at Llanidloes were found guilty and deported for life.

In November came the Newport Rising. As described in the Cambrian, up to 5,000 armed rioters “from the hills” entered Newport in three columns, one being commanded by John Frost. In a heavy rainstorm, they marched to the Westgate Hotel, where a small detachment of military waited inside. Accounts of what happened next vary, but it appears that someone opened fire on the soldiers, who responded with a volley into the crowd.

The whole affair lasted no more than twenty minutes though repercussions lasted for more than a century in the political life of South Wales and Monmouthshire.

Harsh sentences followed the arrest of the Chartist leaders. Frost, Jones, and Rees were sentenced to death by hanging, drawing and quartering; but the sentence was later commuted to one of life imprisonment in Australia.

By 1858, the year of the final National Chartist Convention, the movement began to fade away. That year an act was passed declaring that property qualifications were no longer necessary for a seat in Parliament, and thus the first great democratizing point of the Charter had been conceded by the Government. The Corn Laws had been repealed in 1846 and bread was a little cheaper; people were less inclined to armed revolt.

The Great Reform Bill of 1867 finally ended the Chartist Movement, for it added nearly one million voters to the register, almost doubling the electorate. Forty-five new seats were created, and the vote given to many working people. In the meantime, conditions in Wales ensured that she was forced to continue the struggle to retain her separate identity and her precious language.

A New Struggle for Identity

With industrialization, a heavy toll came to so many areas of the southern valleys. In the counties of Glamorgan and Monmouth, the long, verdant valleys quickly filled up with factories, mills, coal mines, iron smelting works (and later, steel works), roads, railways, canals, and above all, people.

Despite the conditions of the the crowded towns (which lacked adequate water supplies, sanitary or medical facilities, hospitals or clinics, decent recreational facilities or smart restaurants) and which were surrounded by the burnt and blackened landscape, a thriving cultural life prospered.

However, the Welsh community in the Valleys began its inevitable decline. By the end of the century, it was ultimately unable to absorb the vast influx of non-Welsh speakers into its own language culture. The repercussions are felt strongly today as only one in five of the inhabitants of Wales use Welsh as a language of everyday affairs.

This decline was abetted by a report of the Commissioners of Inquiry for South Wales in 1844 that lamented the fact that “the people’s ignorance of the English language practically prevents the working of the laws and institutions and impedes the administration of justice.” (Cited in Stephens, A Most Peculiar People, p. 42). The report led to another Royal Commission, conducted in 1847.

The report, in three volumes bound in blue covers, has become known to the Welsh as Brad y Llyfrau Gleision (The Treachery of the Blue Books). The inexperienced Anglican lawyers who conducted the report had no understanding of the Welsh language. Bright, intelligent and well-read Welsh-speaking children were unable to understand the questions put to them in English, and the surveyors pig-headedly assumed that this was due to the children’s ignorance.

The Government initiated a drastic remedy — the imposition of English-only Board Schools. They did much to further hasten the decline of Welsh over a great part of the country. In these schools, as in Flintshire a half century earlier, the “Welsh Not” rule was imposed with severe penalties for speaking Welsh, including the wearing of a wooden board, the old “Welsh lump” around one’s neck.

The sense of a national identity did not die; on the contrary, as so often in the past, it once again began to flourish. According to many, “the Treachery of the Blue books” did much to revive national sentiment and patriotism and brought about a spirited defense of Welsh as a language of the people. Carried on by a few determined individuals, the struggle continued.