Welsh History: An Era of Change


Cultural Survival

In 1872, Aberystwyth University accepted its first students in an impressive, but vacant hotel on the seafront. It was to attract many who would come to have profound influence on the culture and consciousness of the Welsh nation.

In the meantime, the Chapel helped continue the tradition of a literate working class eager for reading material and highly supportive of the nation’s poets, especially those who competed at the eisteddfodau. The first truly national eisteddfod was held at Aberdare in 1861. Its success soon led to the institution becoming an integral and much-loved part of Welsh culture.

Because of their complete lack of knowledge of the Welsh language, many English critics are unable to appreciate such poets as John Ceiriog Hughes, whose publication of five volumes of his poetry in the 1860’s brought him enormous fame in Wales, if not elsewhere.

Hughes specialized in expressing the feeling of nostalgia for the rural scenes, characters and music of one’s childhood, a feeling known in Welsh as hiraeth. In the 1860’s Ceiriog’s Oriau’r Hwyr (Late Hours) was the best selling Welsh language book next to the Bible, over 30,000 copies being sold in 12 years.

It is no wonder that Ceiriog is so revered in Welsh schools today, for the following century saw the most rapid decline in the percentages of people speaking Welsh. Not so well known, yet paradoxically an important figure in Welsh literature, is novelist Daniel Owen, from Mold, a town in Flintshire. Molf had managed to keep much of its Welsh identity despite the rapid Anglicization of much of the county by the end of the century.

It was in the next century, however, that the true Welsh novel, written in Welsh or in English, came into being. It is also in the next century that the literary renaissance of Wales began to include writers who used the English language–the school of the Anglo-Welsh. The next century also saw the growth of a new political consciousness in Wales that had enormous effects both within and without its borders. The struggle was intensified; the dream continued.

Political Consciousness

In late 19th century Wales, a renewed physical energy expressed itself in politics. Periodicals such as Baner (Banner) in the North, and Seren Cymru (Welsh Star) and Y Gwladgarwr (The Patriot) in the South spread the word about the need for additional Parliamentary reform and an extension of the franchise.

The Parliamentary Reform Act of 1867 created 60,000 new voters in Wales. In addition to the tenants of small farms, many of the workers in the burgeoning Welsh industrial towns now had the vote. The workers made their wishes known in the General Election of 1868 and 1880 that ushered in an era completely dominated by the Liberals for the next 60 years.

Important names in the party were Tom Ellis, Sam Evans, Ellis Griffith, William Jones and most well-known of all, David Lloyd George. Their tenure was sustained by support from the shopkeepers and traders of Wales, by the popular press, and above all, by the workers in the great industries of coal, tinplate, iron, steel and shipping.

In 1881, the passing of the Welsh Sunday Closing Act, showed that there could be legislation specifically for the Welsh people. It was also the first piece of parliamentary legislation that granted Wales the status of a distinct national unit.

In 1886, Ellis helped found the Cymru Fydd (Free Wales) movement. He drew his inspiration, not only from what was happening in Ireland with the revival of Gaelic and the call for home rule, but from nationalist movements taking place in Europe as many small “nations” sought their political independence.

Ellis’s premature death, and the ever-widening gap between the interests of primarily Welsh-speaking North and West Wales, on the one hand, and the vastly more populated and influential English-speaking Southeast on the other, meant that Cymry Fydd never succeeded in becoming a generally popular movement.

The introduction of a Welsh Home Rule Bill in March, 1914 was for all intents and purposes a one-man affair, and its presenter E.T. John was more or less ignored by Parliament.

The Welsh people had been part of a greater Britain too long. Home Rule for Wales was considered an awful nuisance. In addition, the leaders of the Welsh-speaking community were only too anxious to show that the peculiarities of Welsh culture were not a threat to the unity and tranquility of the kingdom. Once again, the idea of a British national identity found itself overwhelming the aspirations of those who wished for a Welsh nationhood.

In 1881, the Aberdare Commission’s report showed that provisions for intermediate and higher education in Wales lagged behind those in the other parts of Britain; it suggested that there should be two new Welsh universities, Cardiff and Bangor.

The Welsh Intermediate Act came into being in 1899 giving the new county councils the power to raise a levy (to be matched by the Government) for the provision of secondary schools. In 1896 came the Central Welsh Board to oversee these schools, set up everywhere in Wales.

The result was that thousands of Welsh children from all levels of society were able to continue their education at a secondary level. Another result, however, was the continued decline of the status accorded the Welsh language, for the new secondary schools were thoroughly English, only very few even bothering to offer Welsh lessons. In many parts of Wales, children grew up knowing nothing of the ancient language of their country.

In 1904, the “Great Revival” began. Starting in Cardiganshire, it quickly spread throughout Wales under the leadership of Evan Roberts and others. It meant a temporary reprieve for the language, for much of the new wave of preaching in the nonconformist chapels was in Welsh.

At the end of World War One, the status of the Anglican Church in Wales as the State Church was in serious trouble; its leaders were by and large out of touch with their parishioners. Before 1920, not a single bishop able to speak Welsh had been appointed to a Welsh see. At St. David’s Theological College in Lampeter (Llanbedr Pont Steffan), a training school for Welsh clergy, there was no requirement to be able to read, speak, or write one single line in the language of the parishioners they would eventually come to counsel.

In 1920, the Anglican Church was disestablished. By that time there was not too much interest in the matter. The appeal of socialism was proving more attractive than that of the chapel, especially in the industrial areas. The workingman’s club and the pub were now dominating life in the Valleys. A new force was about to enter the political arena that was to dominate much of Wales for the rest of the century.

The Emergence of Labour

From 1880 up to the First World War the coal industry dominated everything; over a quarter of a million men worked in the mines, producing one fifth of the total British production of coal. But Welsh coal was almost entirely dependent upon the world market. If that market were to collapse, it would bring down the major Welsh industry with it.

In 1891, the McKinley Tariff brought an end to dependence on Welsh tinplate, creating wholesale reductions in the Welsh workforce and the resulting depression in those areas that produced it. But the future of the Welsh coal industry, employing one third of the male labor force of the country, seemed secure.

The enduring terrible conditions in the coal industry however, had at last made possible a new force in British politics –the Trades Unions. They were finally beginning to influence the political life of Wales in the latter half of the nineteenth century despite their slow progress.

After the deportation of the English unionists known as The Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834 and the consequent transfer of union energies to the Chartist movement in the 1840’s, unionism had seemed completely dead. But horrible working conditions in industry where wages were kept deliberately low meant that there were new attempts to revive the trade union movement.

In 1877, the coal owners banded together to form the Monmouthshire and South Wales Coal Owners’ Association in which eighty-five companies owning over 200 mines formed a united front against the unions. The power of the Association led to the setting up of the system of payment known as the “sliding scale,” whereby wage levels were tied to the selling price of coal. The system meant that there was no chance of collective bargaining over wages.

In the Rhondda Valley, the Cambrian Miners Association in 1877 began its efforts under the inspired leadership of Mabon. As representative of the miners, Mabon was elected Lib-Lab M.P. for Rhondda in 1885. Because the price of coal and the price of commodities did not vary too much at the time, he firmly believed that the interests of capital and labor were identical. Thus he vigorously supported the adoption of the sliding scale as a way to avoid conflict and retain jobs for the miners.

The year 1889 saw the founding of the Miner’s Federation of Great Britain at Newport; and although many still supported Mabon and the sliding scale, the federation grew in strength. It argued for the creation of a Board of Arbitration to replace the sliding scale and the restriction of the workday to eight hours.

In 1900 in the Taff Vale Railway Company dispute, judgment was given in favor of the company and against the striking workers, who had formed the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. The huge costs levied against the union meant the unions saw that they had to have legislation to guarantee their rights. The Union defeat practically ensured the creation of a new party in British politics.

The Labour Representative Committee (L.R.C.) was founded in London to promote the interests of the trades union. In 1906, it became known as the Labour Party. Keir Hardie, a Scotsman, was chosen by the LRC as a candidate for one of the two seats at Merthyr. He was easily elected at Merthyr, the only constituency to return a socialist to Parliament. For the time being, it was the Liberal Party that was most effective in bringing much needed changes to Britain.

One of the primary architects in those revolutionary changes was David Lloyd George, the solicitor elected in 1890 for Caernarfon Borough. During his tenure with the Board of Trade, he acknowledged the role of trade unions in collective bargaining. In 1908 as Chancellor, Lloyd George introduced a scheme of social security (Old Age Pensions) to Britain, thus helping bring an end to the dreaded “Work Houses.”

In 1911, Lloyd George managed to further antagonize the landed classes and endear himself to the workers by establishing National Insurance against sickness and unemployment. Known to many in England as “the curse from Wales,” he was able to convince his Liberal-led government to pass much important legislation. The radical measures restricted the miners’ hours of work to eight hours a day, counteracted the effects of the Taff Vale Judgement, established labour exchanges, and safeguarded the interests of exploited workers.

In Wales, the Great Unrest manifested itself most prominently in two areas. In the North, many of the most productive slate quarries were owned by Lord Penrhyn. The quarrymen had traditionally worked through “the bargain” system by which an agreement with the management gave them some measure of autonomy as contractors. In order to retain these rights, the workers struck on 22 November, 1900 in what was to become the longest-lasting dispute in British history, and one that ended in complete defeat for the quarrymen.

It was in the South, however, because of the vast numbers of workers involved, that the Great Unrest produced the most dramatic results. In an area of unprecedented population growth, the real value of the miners’ wages had been declining drastically due to inflation. In order to save money, owners were reluctant to invest in labor-saving machinery and safety measures; thus mining remained a dangerous “hard-labor” industry in which life expectancy was short.

A radical form of politics came into being. A dispute in 1909 in which Ablett played a prominent role led to the formation of the Central Labour College in London that was patronized by the South Wales Miners Federation (the “Fed”) and the National Union of Railwaymen.

At Tonypandy, in the Rhondda Valley in 1911, a disagreement over pay began a series of strikes that affected the whole South Wales coalfield. The miners unions’ demanded legislation to ensure their rights to a fair wage for working difficult mines. The Miners Federation of Great Britain, to which the South Wales Miners’ Federation belonged, persuaded their members in all British coalfields to join the strike in 1912.

The combined effect of so much disruption of labor led to the government passing the Minimum Wage Bill in the same year; furthermore, it gave the miners a sense of their “power,” and attracted many more to their cause. The strikes resulted in riots, property damage, and some loss of life that didn’t end with the outbreak of the Great War in Europe. Once again, Wales was to suffer the loss of many of its young, brightest men and much of its language.

A New Sense of Nationhood

Between 1900 and World War I, a new beginning was created in Welsh literature. The achievements of Welsh scholarship benefited in 1900 with the publication of two influential histories: The Welsh People by John Rhys and Brynmor Jones; and one year later, Wales by Owen Edwards. These were followed by the monumental A History of Wales from the Earliest Times to the Edwardian Conquest (1911) by J. E. Lloyd.

Even allowing for the rapid anglicization of much of southeast Wales, there were still one million people in the country who spoke Welsh, the highest number in its history. Gwynedd, in the northwest, was the bastion of the Welsh literary revival.

One of Gwynedd’s most influential scholars was Owen M. Edwards (1858-1920). Returning to Wales from Oxford University, Edwards devoted himself to the publishing of Welsh books and magazines to counteract the rapid spread of English publications, which he considered often of inferior content. In 1890 he started the magazine Cymru (Wales). From 1891 to 1920 he published Cymry’r Plant (The Children’s Wales), a magazine that sold 12,000 copies a month.

Edwards’s collection of essays on the homes of important figures in Welsh history published in 1896 is regarded as his most important literary work.

In the same year he founded a society especially for Welsh children called Urdd y Delyn (Order of the Harp), which was a forerunner of the hugely successful and influential Urdd Gobaith Cymru, the Welsh youth league begun by his son Ifan ab Owen Edwards in 1922.

In all his work, the older Edwards was interested in fostering a sense of national consciousness among the Welsh people.

Another father of Welsh nationalism was Clwyd-born Robert Ambrose Jones (1848-1906). A literary critic and writer on political and religious subjects, Jones was scathing and cruel in his criticisms of those who catered to the “English fever.” As one of the founders of modern Welsh nationalism, recognizing that language is an essential aspect of the mentality of a people and of their nationhood, he had a great influence on later generations.

Perhaps the leading scholar and literary critic of the nationalist movement was John Morris-Jones (1864-1929), professor of Welsh at Bangor University. Determined to set studies of the Welsh language and its literature on a firm foundation, he was perhaps the first to study them scientifically. In 1913 he published his highly influential A Welsh Grammar, Historical and Comparative.

Other writers formed what became known as the Bardd Newydd (New Poet) School. One was Howell Elvet Lewis (Elfed, 1860-1953, a minister and hymn-writer as well as a poet. His poetry, published in Caniadau (Songs) consists of romantic lyrics about the beauties of nature. In 1890, Elfed published his study of Welsh hymns and their authors: Sweet Singers of Wales.

After Elfed, under the influence of John Morris Jones, a new group of poets came on the scene who set out to recover the classical tradition.

W. J. Gruffydd played a central role in Welsh literary life of the first half of the century. At one time, in Y Llenor, in response to the statement of the first Archbishop of Wales (A.G. Edwards): “There is no room in the world for small and snarling nations,” Gruffydd responded: “There is no room in Wales for small and snarling prelates.” (cited in Stephens, A Most Peculiar People, p. 86)

Gruffydd praised the simple, hard-working folk of his native district in Gwynedd (a theme later to be developed in the novels of Kate Roberts).

Another prolific author was Thomas Gwynn Jones, who is best known for his narrative poems on traditional Celtic themes, many of which deal with the quest for the return to Paradise, and in them, it was easy to see his concern with the loss of Welsh culture in the face of what he saw as “modern barbarism.”

The next influential poet of the generation of the First World War was R. Williams Parry (1884-1956). His prize-winning poem of the 1910 Eisteddfod is Y Haf (The Summer). In praise of the joys of love and nature, it looks back to the carefree summer days of the pre-war period. Like many of his colleagues, Williams Parry had much to lament. Great changes had been taking place in his beloved Wales that were part of the transformation of Great Britain itself, many of these totally due to World War One. The Welsh struggle to survive now had an added dimension.