Jump to Navigation

Reading History: Modern Wales

By Thomas Dunlap | Published in History Today 2002 
Print this article   Email this article

Geraint H. Jenkins examines the vicissitudes of modern Welsh history.

The study of modern Welsh history is flourishing as never before. Even in these straitened times the corpus of dissertations, monographs, learned articles and works of synthesis continues to grow. Indeed, the fact that the study of the past is one of the few remaining growth industries in Wales has prompted one critic to observe wryly that the Common Market might well place a quota on further research on the grounds that there are now more Welsh historians than there are sheep per acre on Welsh hills. The Renaissance has occurred over the past twenty-five years and the degree of progress has been such that the learned conclusions of Welsh historians about the most critical aspects of the history of modern Wales found in A.J. Roderick ed., Wales through the Ages (vol. II, Llandybi'e, 1960) are so dated that they seem almost to belong to another world. The present cultural plight of Wales and the stubborn refusal of many of its people to abandon their historic identity have provided considerable grist for scholarly mills. Many Welsh historians see themselves as the nation's remembrancers, 'keeping house', as Waldo Williams once memorably wrote, 'amid a cloud of witnesses.' The emergence of a distinctive Celtic consciousness, the upsurge of nationalist feeling, even the bitter campaigns of civil disobedience which have recently characterised political life in Wales, have all combined to compel historians to reappraise many deeply-rooted myths, to explain the inner contradictions of nationalism and to assess the role of Welsh language and culture in the definition of Welshness.

The emergence of the Society of Welsh Labour History, together with its splendid journal Llafur (founded in 1972), has created a revisionist school of historians with new perspectives to offer, notably in the field of popular movements and working-class history. One of Llafur's principal achievements has been to create wider and more profitable links between academic historians and the public at large. Members of Llafur are anxious to break the mould within which much of the history of modern Wales has been composed, and they have raised important new questions about the role of ideology, class conflicts, industrial militancy and women. Armed with radical, left-wing views and emboldened by a provocative, no-nonsense approach, many members of the Llafur school have produced work which leaves much more scope for discussion and disagreement than that produced by their forebears. Regrettably, tensions exist between the two schools of historians. Differing backgrounds, preoccupations and aspirations generate these strains, and one major barrier to mutual understanding is the Welsh language. Some working-class historians from anglicized parts of Wales are prone to deride Welsh-speaking historians as 'bourgeois nationalists' fired by a hazy nostalgia for a Wales which is already lost. Conversely, 'traditionalists' contend that left-wing historians possess an infuriating tendency to affirm the superiority of their own brand of analysis and that their conclusions warrant more critical scrutiny than they have hitherto received. It is a pity that historians with no grasp of the Welsh language are reluctant to admit that they are gravely handicapped in studying the past. Most of the best European historians are bilingual and many recent works, written by historians who possess no Welsh, would have gained in depth, significance and credibility had they been based on a comprehensive study of Welsh language sources. It would be wrong to suppose, however, that the two schools of historians are separate entities and that never the twain shall meet. Several historians who have written distinguished works on the Welsh national identity also figure prominently in the ranks of Llafur. Furthermore, historians in Wales are bound together by the inescapable fact that the study of modern Wales provides a perspective on their own lives and dilemmas. The study of history is very much a popular and participatory affair and few of our best scholars simply choose to immerse themselves in their own private academic waters. One of the virtues of the recent television history The Dragon has two Tongues was that it revealed modern Welsh history as a living and changing force. It spelled out the clear message that a nation without a memory and a people who do not act will perish. In the words of Gwyn A. Williams, 'if we are to live, we must act'.

Although some historians have ventured to suggest that modern Wales begins in 1410 or 153d, there is general agreement that the two most powerful forces which swept Wales into the modern period were the remarkable growth of radical Nonconformity and the striking development of merchant capitalism in the late eighteenth century. Calvinistic Methodism profoundly influenced the Welsh psyche and a blow-by-blow account of their enthusiasts' labours is offered in G.M. Roberts ed., Hanes Methodistiaeth Galfinaidd Cymru (Caernarfon, 1973 and 1978). A more convincing and eloquent analysis of this 'vital religion' is found in D.LI. Morgan's Y Diwygiad Mawr (Llandysul, 1981), a work which establishes Williams Pantycelyn as a creative literary artist of European stature. While Methodists gave Jacobinism a wide berth, their Independent and Baptist colleagues were far more receptive to radical ideologies.

Although Hanes Annibynwyr Cymru (Abertawe, 1966) by R. Tudur Jones is strong on the Cromwellian inheritance, the work is vitiated by the author's insistence that it is more crucial for him to know what Samuel Roberts, the radical Independent, believed than what he ate. On the other hand, The Welsh Baptists (Llandysul, 1977) by T.M. Bassett provides a more rounded portrait, warts and all, of a flinty, combative people. The initial challenge in the 1790s to what Cobbett called Old Corruption has been memorably analysed in two overlapping works by Gwyn A. Williams, Madoc, The Making of a Myth (Eyre Methuen, 1979) and The Search for Beulah Land (Croom Helm, 1980). Although both books exaggerate the impact of radical propaganda and underestimate the stifling influence of habits of deference and 'the Papal government' of Calvinism, they effectively convey the transatlantic dimension of Welsh radicalism and the raucous blasphemy peddled by the Welsh counterparts of Tom Paine.

Although there is no full-scale economic history of modern Wales, several distinguished works on industrialisation have worn remarkably well, notably A.M. Dodd, The Industrial Revolution in North Wales (University of Wales Press, 3rd ed., 1971), A.H. John, The Industrial Development of South Wales (University of Wales Press, 1950) and J.H. Morris and L.J. Williams, The South Wales Coal Industry, 1841-1875 (University of Wales Press. 1958). In Industrial South Wales, 1750-1814 (Frank Cass, 1969), W.E. Minchinton has brought together a number of articles which shed further light on the development of south Wales as a principal centre of iron production and the outstanding coal-exporting nation in the world. In The Welsh Economy (University of Wales Press, 1962), Brinley Thomas has brought a new dimension to our understanding of the population explosion and the Atlantic economy. His trail-blazing work has left its mark on historians of the county of Glamorgan. The monumental Glamorgan County History, vol. V, Industrial Glamorgan 1700-1970 (Glamorgan County History Trust, 1980), edited by Glanmor Williams and the late A.H. John, provides exhaustive coverage of the profound impact of capitalism on a county which became a Mecca for thousands of Welsh people. Massive wealth culled from the ruthless exploitation of minerals, coal arid iron enabled some Titans to flourish mightily. Cardiff and the Marquesses of Bute (University of Wales Press, 1981) by John Davies analyses the influence exercised by the fabulously rich Bute family over the economic and political life of Cardiff, while M.J. Daunton's Coal Metropolis. Cardiff 1870-1914 (Leicester University Press, 1977) traces the emergence of Cardiff as the 'coal metropolis' and examines the implications of the failure to diversify its economy in the period before 1914.

Demographic crisis, economic privations and religious grievances all combined to precipitate flurries of social tumult throughout the nineteenth century. Many rural areas were in a state of permanent flux and crisis. In Before Rebecca (Alien Lane, 1973), David Jones helps us to gain a deeper appreciation of notions such as 'the moral economy' and 'communal solidarity' which informed popular movements. The most celebrated protests occurred among the small farmers of south-west Wales who, during 1839-42, blackened their faces with blackberry juice and donned women's clothes before demolishing toll-gates at the dead of night. This guerilla warfare has been analysed by David Williams in The Rebecca Riots (University of Wales Press, 1955), an outstanding work of historical scholarship by an erudite man who possessed the rare ability to write like an angel. In Land and People in Nineteenth-Century Wales (Rout-ledge and Kegan Paul, 1977), David W. Howell provides a detailed examination of the character of land holdings, tenurial relations and farming techniques, but mars his study by arguing, on the basis of insubstantial evidence, that the agrarian indictment of landowners was orchestrated by Nonconformist radicals who deliberately composed an anti-landlord case in order to further their political ambitions.

The Welsh working-class movement was also born in a period of turbulence and strife. The industrial town of Merthyr Tydfil - a booming Samaria - emerged as the cradle of radical politics in Wales, a process which is analysed in a series of pioneering essays, Merthyr Politics (University of Wales Press, 1966), edited by Glanmor Williams. Gwyn A. Williams provides brilliant new insights into the celebrated insurrection at Merthyr in 1831 in The Merthyr Rising (Croom Helm, 1978). His major conclusion is that the pre-history of the working-class movement in south Wales ends with the rising and its true history begins. But how far Merthyr was the cockpit of the industrial struggle is now a matter of dispute.

Recent studies of the Chartist movement in Wales suggest that revolutionary passions were by no means spent after 1831. In South Wales and the Rising of 1839 (Croom Helm, 1984), Ivor Wilks argues passionately that Chartism mutated into an armed movement for the creation of a workers' republic, whilst David Jones, writing in more sober vein in The Last Rising: the Newport Insurrection of 1839 (The Clarendon Press, 1985), presents a detailed analysis of the events which led up to the ill-fated march on Newport. It is clear, however, that more moderate counsels were being heeded by the mid-Victorian period. Pride of place in the field of religion, politics and society must go to Ieuan Gwynedd Jones's Explorations and Explanations: Essays in the Social History of Victorian Wales (Llandysul, 1981), a piece of mature scholarship by a craftsman whose attention to detail and Orwellian prose enable him to reveal how the emergence of radical Liberalism helped to break down deferential habits. Drink and Sobriety in Victorian Wales c. 1820-c. 1895 (University of Wales Press, 1983) by VV.R. Lambert shows how temperance became part and parcel of the culture of moralistic and evangelical Nonconformists, whilst E.T. Davies's perceptive study, Religion in the Industrial Revolution in South Wales (University of Wales Press, 1965) deserves close attention. Less convincing is R. Tudur Jones's Ffydd ac Argyfwng Cenedl (Abertawe, 1981 and 1982) which seeks to explain the trials and tribulations which afflicted Nonconformity within a moral and theological framework. It is strong on ideas and beautifully written, but it fails to take account of recent work on social history.

There has been, inevitably perhaps, a powerful revival of interest of late in the formative influence of national sentiment in the making of modern Wales. The most concise, comprehensive and readable introduction to this fraught subject is Glanmor Williams's Religion, Language and Nationality in Wales (University of Wales Press, 1979). How prominent Welshmen struggled to create a new awareness of Wales as a nation and to gain self-respect and parity with England during a period when Welsh issues loomed large at Westminster is a theme brilliantly analysed in Kenneth O. Morgan's Wales in British Politics, 1868-1922 (3rd ed., University of Wales Press, 1980). First published in 1963, this seminal work established the reputation of a scholar who now ranks among Britain's finest and most prolific historians. The aspirations of those ambitious Victorians whom Morgan discusses were riddled with contradictions and some of the most appalling hypocrisies and affectations of Welshmen on the make are mercilessly exposed in Hywel T. Edwards's Gwyl Gwalia (Llandysul, 1980).

Nationalism is a seductive subject and it has provoked a number of subtle and controversial works both within and without Wales. In his wide-ranging and influential study, Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development, 1536-1966 (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), Michael Hechter has advanced the view that nationalist movements emerge as a direct result of the exploitation of the periphery by the core. Hechter, however, knew little about the Welsh past and few historians have found his use of concepts normally used to elucidate national issues in the Third World particularly helpful. There is much greater merit in the attempt by Colin Williams in National Separatism (University of Wales Press, 1982) to establish a case for the importance of ethnicity, kinship and linguistic identity. It was not until the inter-war period that Welsh nationalists began to forge a political movement designed to secure self-government. The first faltering steps of these middle-class pioneers are admirably traced by D. Hywel Davies in The Welsh Nationalist Party 1925-1945 (University of Wales Press, 1984), while Alan Butt Philip reveals in The Welsh Question: Nationalism in Welsh Politics 1945-1970 (University of Wales Press, 1975) how their more activist and radical successors lengthened their strides in the race to stimulate a sense of national identity. One of the most curious features of modern Welsh historiography, therefore, is that the history of twentieth-century nationalism - a minority movement - has been written, whereas the history of the Welsh Labour Party - a traditionally powerful movement - has not.

Perhaps the most notable new area of study during recent years has been working-class, trade union and militant activity in industrial Wales. A number of genuinely talented historians, some of whom have Marxist perspectives, have become increasingly preoccupied with the bitter class conflicts of the past. Although north Wales is something of a Cinderella as far as labour studies are concerned, R. Merfyn Jones's path-breaking The North Wales Quarrymen, 1874-1922 (University of Wales Press, 1981) is a perceptive study of the bitter conflict between working men and their masters in quarrying communities. In tracing the antagonisms provoked by the brutal intimidatory tactics employed by Lord Penrhyn, the author sympathetically examines the cultural awareness, courage and pride of the slate workers and their sour resentments towards English landlords, quarry-owners and cynffonwyr (scabs). In the south, the South Wales Miners' Federation (the Fed), founded in 1898, was the backbone of the struggle of Welsh miners to combat low wages, victimisation and unemployment. The Fed. A History of the South Wales Miners in the Twentieth Century (Lawrence and Wishart, 1980) by Hywel Francis and David Smith provides a moving account of the profound misery and bitter conflict of the inter-war period and the remarkable capacity of the Fed. to weather industrial and political storms. The book is often unashamedly partisan but it is an immeasurable improvement on R. Page Arnot's disappointing South Wales Miners (vol. I, George Alien and Unwin, 1967; vol. II, Cymric Federation Press, 1975). A more specialised study is Hywel Francis's Miners against Fascism (Lawrence and Wishart, 1983), a sympathetic portrait of those resourceful, hardbitten, disciplined Welsh volunteers who risked life and limb on behalf of the republican cause in Spain.

At a time when the economic future of Wales and its claims to nationhood hang very much in the balance, it is not surprising that a crop of general essays and books on modern Wales has been published recently. Unpicking the threads of Welshness is a daunting task and many brave historians have found themselves unravelling a hopelessly tangled skein. A People and a Proletariat. Essays in the History of Wales, 1780-1980 (Pluto Press, 1980)', edited by David Smith, is an uneven collection of cogent, bizarre and allusive essays. The volume lacks true unity and the parts are more stimulating than the whole. Gwyn A. Williams's The Welsh in their History (Croom Helm, 1982) is a characteristically witty and trenchant collection of essays which reveal the author's eye for the improbable, his sympathy for the underdog and his penchant for rhetorical flourishes. A History of Modern Wales (2nd ed., John Murray, 1977) by David Williams, first published in 1950, is a classic work which combines meticulous scholarship with lucidity of language and presentation. Many of the contours mapped out by Williams have recently been revised by Gareth E. Jones in Modern Wales. A Concise History c.1485-1979 (Cambridge University Press, 1984), but his work is more solid than stimulating. Aros Mae (Abertawe, 1971) by Gwynfor Evans is an enormously popular work deliberately designed to foster and stiffen pride in nationhood.

A more effective synthesis is Rebirth of a Nation, Wales 1880-1980 (The Clarendon Press and University of Wales Press, 1981) by Kenneth O. Morgan, an historian whose judgements always command respect. Morgan possesses unrivalled expertise as a critical chronicler of the political history of modern Wales and this volume is an eminently judicious, even-handed and polished piece of work. Several reviewers, however, have expressed doubts as to how deeply entrenched the consciousness of nationhood was in Wales from the 1880s onwards, whilst others have taken issue with the author's portrait of a society wedded to consensus and unity. Even so, as a synthetic survey the book is a triumphant success and it will not be easily deposed. A very different picture of twentieth-century Wales is painted in Dai Smith's Wales! Wales? (George Alien and Unwin, 1984). Smith is nothing if not forthright. He offers a sustained argument (which sometimes becomes a mischievous polemic) for rescuing 'English-speaking Wales' from the ignorance and condescension of posterity. Industrial militancy and class struggle figure prominently - Smith's political commitment and bubbling vitality lead him to bend the rules and to revel in his studied neglect of the contribution of Welsh-speakers to life in the valleys.

Finally, another work which has ruffled more than a few feathers in Wales is Gwyn A. Williams' When was Wales? A History of the Welsh (Black Raven Press, 1985). Williams believes that Wales has always lived in a permanent state of emergency and that it is now experiencing the most profound crisis in its chequered history. With the unrestrained enthusiasm of a Calvinist/Marxist, he argues that the history of Wales is a story of breaks, splits and ruptures. In spite of his proverbial tendency to exaggerate his case, Williams' commitment, erudition and resonant prose enabled him to produce a brilliant, first-moving critical narrative. To read When was Wales? is an exhilarating experience.

There are many dragons with many tongues in Wales and one hopes that this article will encourage those readers across Offa's Dyke who believe that Wales (as T.H. Parry-Williams once said) is 'a back-yard with a border and a bit of a nuisance to those who praise order' to take a sympathetic and intelligent view of the nature of the aspirations and commitment of Welsh historians as well as the quality of their work.

  • Geraint H. Jenkins is senior lecturer in Welsh history and author of The Foundations of Modern Wales: Wales 1642-1780, Clarendon Press.


About Us | Contact Us | Advertising | Subscriptions | Newsletter | RSS Feeds | Ebooks | Podcast
Copyright 2012 History Today Ltd. All rights reserved.