Welsh History: Modern Wales


The Language Dilemma

In 1925, to further the aims of self-government, and in an attempt to stop the decline of the language and culture, Saunders Lewis helped form the new political party, Plaid Cymru (the Party of Wales). In the face of complete apathy from the mainstream political parties centered in London, the few founding members of Plaid were fiercely devoted to purely Welsh causes. It was to take forty years before Plaid was taken seriously enough to gain its first seat in Parliament.

In the meantime, the process of Anglicization continued apace. More inhabitants of Wales considered themselves as Anglo-Welsh than Welsh, and for this we can put the blame squarely on the educational system that was geared to producing loyal Britons.

The Welsh language continued its precipitous decline. Effective road and rail links between the two parts of Wales were practically non-existent; road and rails went west to east, not north to south, and the general flow of ideas flowed in the same direction. The idea of the Welsh as a common, united people worthy of their own government as part of a greater Britain hardly existed outside the minds of a dedicated few.

In 1926, the Hadow Report recommended that every child in Britain attend secondary school. All the secondary schools in Wales taught their subjects through the medium of English.

To counter the linguistic threat, a private Welsh-medium school was established at Aberystwyth by Ifan ab Owen Edwards, son of the famous educator. Apart from this little school, however, it wasn’t until Llanelli Welsh School opened its doors in 1947 that the idea of teaching Welsh primary children through the medium of the Welsh language began to take hold.

In the 1960’s, a rush of other schools followed so that by 1970, even Cardiff (the Welsh capital, but most English of cities) had its Ysgol Dewi Sant (St David’s School), one of the largest in Wales. The huge increase in the number of Welsh primary schools was accompanied by a demand for Welsh secondary education.

All these schools meant that for the first time in history Welsh children could receive secondary education through the medium of the Welsh language, through methods adopted from Israel — a country that teaches all its immigrants Hebrew solely through the medium of Hebrew.

The change in the attitude of the people of Wales towards their language has been dramatic since 1962. A bi-lingual education was trumpeted as superior to one that confined the children of Wales to a single language.

In 1971, as a response to heavy demand, the Welsh Nursery School Movement (Sefydlu Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin) came into being in many parts of Wales. In many totally English speaking areas, parents sent their children to such nursery schools, but also enrolled themselves in evening classes to learn the necessary phrases to continue the use of Welsh at home.

BBC broadcasts began in Britain in 1922. At the time, there were almost one million speakers of Welsh. Yet even the head of the BBC station in Cardiff ignored protests from those who wished to hear Welsh language programs. Radio Eireann, the voice of the Irish Republic, broadcast the only regular Welsh-language material, beginning in 1927.

Eventually, reluctantly, the BBC studio at Bangor, in Gwynedd, began broadcasting Welsh language programs in 1935, and in July of 1937 the Welsh Region of the BBC finally began to broadcast on a separate wavelength. Radio Cymru, however, had to wait until 1977, much too late to enjoy the support of the majority of Welsh people, who now spoke English as their first language.

About Face

The great increase in the number of people owning automobiles and the improvements in the road system meant that many areas in Wales were easily reached from many English towns and cities. Welsh communities found themselves inundated with a flood of new residents or casual visitors who were either too disinterested in learning the Welsh language or were too old and who just couldn’t be bothered.

From almost one million speakers of the language in 1931, the number fell to just over 500,000 in less than fifty years, despite the large increase in the population. Strongholds of the old language and its attendant culture were crumbling fast, and it seemed that nothing could be done to stem the tide.

In 1957 the Liverpool Corporation got the go-ahead from Parliament sitting in London to drown a valley in Merioneth named Tryweryn. The valley contained a strong and vibrant Welsh-speaking community with ancient ties to the area but Liverpool needed more water and the scheme went ahead. The scheme went ahead despite protests from all corners of Wales, many of whose people were now convinced that their nation was on its way to extinction, with the survival of its language doomed. Not enough people seemed to care. But someone cared after all.

At Pontardulais in 1962, at the summer school held by Plaid Cymru, the seeds of a new movement were planted. Mainly involving a younger, active post-War Welsh generation, many of them college students, a new society, Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (Society for the Welsh language) decided to take matters in hand. The decline of the language had to be halted and the Government’s hand had to be forced.

Saviors to many, scoundrels and trouble-makers to others, the frustrated members of the newly-formed society were galvanized into action after a talk given on the radio by Saunders Lewis in February, 1962. In his address on the BBC entitled Tynged yr Iaith (Fate of the Language), Lewis asked his listeners to make it impossible for local or central government business to be conducted in Wales without the use of the Welsh language.

In 1962, at Trefechan Bridge, dozens of the society sat down in the road to stop all traffic from coming in or going out. Undeterred by their forcible removal, arrests, and prison sentences for disturbing the peace, and led by such activists as Fred Fransis and folk-singer Dafydd Iwan, the society began a serious campaign of protests and civil disobedience that was to last for the next twenty years.

In the face of much hostility from passivist locals and prosecution from the authorities, Cymdeithas pressed for the right to use Welsh on all government documents, from Post Office forms to television licenses, from driving permits to income tax forms. Eventually, in 1963, the Government decided to establish a committee to examine the legal status of Welsh. Its report, issued two years later, recommended that the Welsh language be given equal validity with English, a diluted version of which was placed into the Welsh Language Act of 1967.

In the meantime, and not simply because of the belated act of Parliament, there was a new feeling abroad in the land of Wales. The young were answering the call of Saunders Lewis. The older generation began to reconsider their passiveness in letting the language die.

Dafydd Iwan and his contemporaries inaugurated a whole new movement in Welsh music. Groups such as Ar Log rediscovered and popularized old folk tunes and brought them up to date. Even the staid eisteddfod entered into the spirit, each year erecting a Roc Pavilion to attract the young audiences that had been sorely neglected.

Since the 1960’s, attempts to reintroduce the Welsh language in the schools has been welcomed by many of the townsfolk, and a whole generation of children who can read and speak and write Welsh may help ensure the future of first, Plaid Cymru, and ultimately, of the nation itself. Other areas, such as the Cardiff region and the great late-industrial valleys have already experienced some growth in the numbers of those able to speak Welsh.

Of crucial importance has been the success of the Welsh Television Station. In 1962, BBC Wales had been producing a meager six hours a week of Welsh language programs. Among many others, Hadyn Williams, the dynamic director of education in Flintshire (responsible for setting up two major Welsh secondary schools in that county), was not satisfied. He established a company to broadcast to many areas out of reach of the English transmitters. It was soon taken over by T.W.W, and then by Harlech television. Demands arose for a separate channel for all-Welsh programs.

When the Government refused to honor its commitment to the proposed channel, a vigorous protest movement developed, with thousands of Plaid Cymru members vowing to refuse to pay their television license fees (and their subsequent fines) and prepared to be imprisoned. When Gwynfor Evans, the much-loved and highly respected leader of Plaid announced that he would undergo a hunger strike to the death, the Government capitulated.

On the 2nd of November, 1982, the people of Wales finally got their Welsh-language channel, “S4C” (Sianel Pedwar C.). The spin off was immense. In Cardiff, where most of the programs originated, a new urban class was created in which it became fashionable to speak Welsh. The Channel produced not only some very highly regarded television programs, but also turned out films that compete with those of Hollywood and London, and that have proved to be immensely popular on the Continent.

In the 1990’s it made sense to speak and use Welsh; the economic advantages alone were too many (and too tempting) to ignore. Since the 1990’s, it has been the business of Welsh-language activists to make sure that it would indeed be worth while to learn Welsh–that the learning of the language be given priority as an important labor, of equal merit with anything else in ones’ life.

The Welsh Assembly

By 1994, political intrigue, mistrust, and outright misrule by what is known as the system of quangos (non-elected government bodies) had the effect of catapulting Plaid into second place among the political parties in Wales.

The Labour Party began to think seriously in terms of electoral arrangements with the other two pro-devolution parties in which they would tactfully make way in key marginal elections in return for a guaranteed Welsh Assembly. As a fair exchange, they argued, Labour would commit itself to holding the first elections to the proposed Assembly on the basis of proportional representation, ensuring a strong presence for both the smaller parties and for rural districts.

Before voting day it was apparent that things hadn’t changed all that much since 1979. There was still tension between north and south Wales, between the thousands of English immigrants and the hard-line, mostly Welsh-speaking nationalists. Many Welsh people showed no interest in devolution.

Thus many of the factors that had led to the defeat of the 1979 referendum were still present in 1997. It surely would take generations to erase what can only be considered as anti-Welsh prejudice, so prevalent in the anglicized areas — yet subtle changes had been taking place that helped swing the vote ever so slightly in favor of an elected Assembly.

The main points of the Labour Government’s White Paper, published in July, 1997 to establish a directly-elected Assembly which would have responsibility for policies and public services in Wales are as follows: Sixty members (40 to be elected; 20 to be chosen by proportional representation). The responsibilities of the Welsh Office were to be transferred to the Assembly, with the Secretary of State for Wales acting as a link with Westminster. A budget of 7 billion pounds was to be managed by the Assembly, to meet in Cardiff.

Elections for the Assembly were to take place every four years. An Executive Committee was to be appointed to act as a Cabinet. The work of the Assembly was to be carried out by 2,000 civil servants. The Assembly was to be granted secondary legislative powers; non-government agencies were to be democratized, and the Welsh language was to be granted equal status with English.

The trades unions in Wales united in urging their members to vote for the proposed Assembly. The unions blamed the results of 1979 vote on the fall of the Labour government and the seizing of power by the Tories, with the resulting loss of “hundreds of thousands of Welsh jobs.”

Devolution seemed to offer ordinary people some control and influence over decisions affecting their lives and communities. It would not only give a proper sense of identity to Wales, it would also create a proper sense of Welsh nationhood.

The heroes were the common folk, the men and women whose sense of history and of the value of timeless Welsh traditions finally tipped the scales in favor of the Assembly. The majority of the “yes” votes came from the western, Welsh-speaking areas and from the Welsh-thinking former industrial valleys of the south. The turn-out was just over 50 percent, reflecting the general apathy of so many of the eligible voters; thus the plan for the Assembly was approved by only 25 percent of the Welsh electorate. But it was approved.

It has been a long, hard struggle against almost impossible odds, but hope for Wales hinges on a future led by its Assembly of elected delegates. Since it came into being in 1999, like the people of Wales themselves, it has had many difficulties to overcome. It has had a shaky beginning, but apart from the opportunity it will eventually give to improve education, health, and so on, the most important consequence will be to give the Welsh people more confidence.

Eventually, the Assembly will bring Wales closer to the European Union and will enable the {Welsh} people to see themselves as part of an order that is not just nationalist, but internationalist.

The Welsh Overseas

Following the Act of Uniformity in 1662, Welsh Baptists under John Myles founded a church at Swanzey, Massachusetts. Other religious groups were also troubled by the measures to ensure conformity that were enforced by the English Parliament after the return of the Stuart Monarchy.

Welsh settlements began to spread out on the west side of the Schuylkill River around the city of Philadelphia. The Welsh Society of Philadelphia was begun in 1729, and thus it is the oldest ethnic society of its kind in the U.S. Since its founding, it has provided many men of distinction throughout the ensuing centuries, making their influence felt in politics, agriculture, and the administration of justice, as well as in industry, particularly mining and the manufacturing of iron and steel.

According to the Society, l6 signers of the Declaration of Independence were of Welsh descent. Another, David Thompson, can rightly be called ‘the man who measured Canada.” Almost on his own, this prodigious explorer, known to his companions as “that Welshman” surveyed most of the Canadian-U.S. border during the early days of the country. His work resulted in 77 volumes detailing his studies in geography, biology and ethnography.

Canada did not attract too many from Wales. The magnet lay further south. In the 19th Century, Welsh emigrants were attracted to upper New York State, to Pennsylvania, and to Ohio. Welsh emigration to these areas intensified in the 1870’s, following increasing industrialization and the subsequent unrest and miserable conditions at home. At one time, there were approximately 30,000 people of Welsh descent in the Scranton, PA area.

Utah has the highest percentage of Welsh Americans of any state (approximately 2.9 percent). Over 300 Welsh Mormons left Iowa City in June 1849 to trek to Salt Lake City. They sang as they journeyed. Less than two weeks after their arrival, they formed a permanent choir.

The very first program of the choir that was to become the famous Mormon Tabernacle choir took place on Sunday, August 22, 1847.

Welsh-American societies include the N.W.A.F. (the National Welsh-American Foundation), which grants scholarships and supports many projects on both sides of the Atlantic.

Cymdeithas Madog sponsors an annual Welsh Language Week and other activities. The N.W.G.G.A (the National Welsh Gymanfa Ganu Association) sponsors the annual singing festival and also supports Welsh cultural activities through scholarships and grants. In addition, there are two Welsh-American newspapers, Y Drych (published in Utica, N.Y. and Ninnau(published in Basking Ridge, N.J.).

But the Welsh, wherever they settled in the U.S., were all too few to keep a completely separate identity. There was no great wave of immigration to the colonies from a country whose total population in the late 18th century hardly reached half a million. We have to consider the influence of those Welsh who did settle in the United States to be out of all proportion to their small numbers, a phenomenon repeated in Patagonia, Argentina and in the Australian sub-continent.

The most “successful” colony, in so far as maintaining its cultural identity is concerned, was that founded in the wastelands of Patagonia, Southern Argentina. In 1861, certain Welsh corresponded with the Argentine government about settling the area known as Bahia Blanca in eastern Patagonia, where Welsh immigrants would be allowed to keep their language, their traditions and their self-identity. In late May, 1865 a group of nearly 200 Welshmen and women sailed from Liverpool on the Mimosa, arriving on the 27th day of July, 1865. They built homes from river mud or sun-dried brick in a place they named Hen Amddiffynfa (the old Fort).

Water was scarce, food was in short supply; there were no forests as in Pennsylvania to provide abundant building supplies and wild game. The colony looked as if it were doomed to fail for lack of food.

Some time in 1867, when things looked most bleak, Rachel Jenkins had suggested to her husband that channels be built from the Camwy to irrigate the land. Many local historians see this as the one decision that changed the history of the colony. Welsh hands toiled feverishly with whatever tools they could find to build the canals and dykes and pumping stations. The following spring saw a bountiful wheat harvest.

Additional immigrants, attracted by what was happening in Chubut arrived in 1875 and 1876, mainly from Wales but also from New York State.

A disastrous flood in 1899 almost destroyed the colony, for three years later a sizeable number of Welsh families left for Canada. Despite the loss of 234 of its Welsh population, a new era in the prosperity of the colony began when the rail line was extended to Gaiman in 1909, and to Dolavon in 1917.

The colony was extended westwards into the region of the Andes where Trevelyn and Esquel still show their Welsh heritage in their Sunday Chapel services. Recent efforts to make sure the Welsh language stays alive in an area that has attracted thousands of recent settlers whose sole language is Spanish, have seen the borrowing of teachers from Wales.

After the United States, Australia, rather than Patagonia, beckoned the largest group of Welsh emigrants. They have played a very important part in the development of their new country in many diverse areas. In the early 1990’s, about 30,000 Australians were Welsh-born, the majority sailing down under after World War II.

The gold fields of Victoria attracted many miners (mostly single men) to the Ballaret-Sebastopol area that benefited greatly in later years from Welshmen who became political leaders, business managers and store owners.

In Victoria, as in other territories, the Welsh set up their chapels almost as soon as they arrived, and the eisteddfodau, cymanfaoedd ganu and other Welsh cultural activities were welcome diversions from the drudgery of the mines and factories.

Coal was a magnet for many Welsh to move north into Queensland in the 1860’s, when the first Welsh chapel was founded in Gympie. On the Ipswich Coalfield, a vigorous Welsh community established itself in the town of Blackstone.

Lewis Thomas, of Talybont, Cardiganshire became known as the king of the Queensland coalfields. His house, Brynhyfryd, became a center of Welsh cultural activities for many years.

The Blackstone Eisteddfod was begun in 1887 by the St David’s Society. The modern Australia-wide Eisteddfodau movement derives from these beginnings; they have developed into well-recognized breeding grounds for the nurturing of musical and artistic talents throughout the country.

Welshmen were important in the two developments that have shaped much of the history of modern Australia, the Federation and the Australian Labour Party. The principal architect of the federal constitution was Sir Samuel Walker Griffith from Merthyr Tydfil.

An early leader of the Labour movement and Prime Minister of Australia from 1915-1923 was William Morris Hughes (the Little Digger); and the first Labour Premier of South Australia was Welsh-born Thomas Price.

In addition to Australia, Welsh groups are also active in New Zealand, where (as in Australia) vast distances between settlements have prevented much effective communication between them. A Cymanfa Ganu is still held yearly in Auckland, and once every two years in Christchurch. Canterbury also has an active Welsh society begun in 1890. There are also Welsh societies in Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton, New Plymouth, and Rotorua.

The overseas Welsh do not have the luxury of a strong, heavily-populated Welsh heartland where the language obtains pride of place and is universally spoken. For the Welsh in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Patagonia, or wherever they have settled, it is heartening that Wales has its own Assembly at long last.