The Nations of Wales: 1890-1914

The Nations of Wales: 1890-1914

by M. Wynn Thomas

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Certain simple and stereotypical images of Wales strike an immediate chord with the public, both in Wales itself and beyond its borders. For much of the twentieth century, the country was thought of as ‘The Valleys’, a land of miners and choirs and rugby clubs. This image of a ‘Proletarian Wales’ (with its attendant Socialist politics) dominated popular imagination, just as the image of ‘Nonconformist Wales’ – a Wales of chapels and of a grimly puritan society – had gripped the imagination of the High Victorian era. But what of the Wales of the late Victorian and Edwardian decades? What image of Wales prevailed at that time of revolutionary social, economic, cultural, religious and political change? This book argues that several competing images of Welshness were put in circulation during that time, and proceeds to examine several of the most influential of these as they took the form of literary texts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783168408
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 05/20/2016
Series: Writing Wales in English
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
File size: 825 KB

About the Author

M. Wynn Thomas is Professor of English and Emyr Humphreys Professor of English at Swansea University. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and of the Learned Society of Wales, and the author of twenty books on the two literatures of Wales and on American poetry.

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The Nations of Wales 1890â?"1914

Writing Wales In English

By M. Wynn Thomas

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2016 M. Wynn Thomas
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78316-838-5


Emblematising the nation

Magnificent monument to Welsh commercial wealth and industrial muscle; dropsical symptom of civic elephantiasis; an Edwardian allegory in stone and marble of Imperial Wales; the mausoleum of one vision of modern Welsh nationhood: Cardiff City Hall may be viewed in several different ways, as it encapsulates many different defining features of early twentieth-century Wales. And, in so far as the building was also in its heyday an attempt to harmonise powerful ideological forces that had the potential to conflict as readily as to converge in real life, it could further be read as a Temple of Civic Peace. An elaborate confection it most certainly is, a civic and national folly almost as false and fantastical in its way as the two pseudo- medieval Victorian inventions that are its neighbours – Cardiff Castle and (out at Tongwynlais) Castell Coch. Both were the brainchildren of the third Marquess of Bute, Wales's answer to the 'mad' King Ludwig of Bavaria and the greatest baron of the Welsh industrial aristocracy. It was thanks also to his august family's gracious munifi- cence that City Hall came to be built in a tiny corner of what was known as 'Lord Bute's own town'.

Modelled on English and French Renaissance architecture, the building, grandly fashioned out of soft Portland stone, adorned with a clock tower, and crowned with statutory cupola, was completed in 1904. It stood in one corner of a substantial tract of land to become known as Cathays Park, once the grounds of a Georgian mansion owned by the Butes but sold by the family to the (then) town of Cardiff in 1898 for a knock-down price of £159,000. The clock tower may have been a slyly asymmetrical feature of the ensemble, but in every other respect, down to the smallest detail, the building was consciously designed to convey the stability of equilibrium – a mature balancing of potentially conflicting roles, obligations and interests. Take the mottos engraved on the five bells in the tower (pure copper, of course – after all, 90 per cent of British copper was smelted in west Wales). Three are in Welsh, two in English, and all were carefully chosen to reflect the supposedly different 'temper' of the two linguistic cultures of Wales at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Welsh is nobly principled and piously otherworldly: 'Y gwir yn erbyn y byd' (The truth against the world); 'Duw a phob daioni' (God and every good); 'A gair Duw yn uchaf ' (And God's word over all). Tellingly, the modern guidebook to City Hall manages to mistranslate every single one of these proverbs. The English mottos, by contrast, are businesslike and briskly practical in their brusque injunctions: 'I mark time, dost thou?'; 'Time conquers all and we must time obey.' For anglophone Cardiffians, there was no time to lose when there was money to be made.

The figures carved on the west façade also perform their own ballet of balance. Far above messy ground level they execute an exalted high-wire act of fair play between cultural, political and economic interests. The constituent groups represent 'Science and Education', 'Music and Poetry', 'Commerce and Industry', 'Welsh Unity and Patriotism'. As for the 'large groups of monumental statuary' on the external wall, flanking the grand main window of the Council Chamber, these again are elevated public masterpieces of euphemism and elision. Representing 'the sea receiving the City's three rivers, the Taff, the Rhymney and the Ely', they calm the raw competitive and exploitative realities of coal production into bland establishment allegory, obscuring from sight the real, unsightly, volatile sources of the wealth of a city described by the American consul as 'the Chicago of Wales'. Cardiff 's affluence came from the great mining valleys of the south Wales coalfield, their sides steeply terraced with workers' housing, their cramped communities nervously and electrically alive to ceaseless change, their deep pits throbbing with life and danger, their ever-growing workforce increasingly restless. Here was to be found 'the distinctive, sardonic, complex, warm, picaresque, soft-hearted and malicious, hard-headed and cock-eyed, ambitious and heroic and daft world of the miners, whose disappearance [from the present-day Welsh landscape] has left south Wales a cubit shorter in spirit'. Nothing of that world was reflected in the decor or architecture of Cardiff City Hall.

Tastefully vague sculptural reference to 'the sea' in the fabric of the building scarcely does justice to the colourful cosmopolitanism, frontier culture and ruthless economic activity of the docks area of Cardiff during the period when 'the metropolis of South Wales' (before its eclipse by its purpose-built neighbour, Barry) was the world's premier coal-exporting port, thanks to its great Bute docks complex. In the very heart of dockland stood City Hall's commercial twin, the Coal Exchange in Mount Stuart Square, built between 1884 and 1886 to the design and deluxe specifications of the architectural firm of James, Seward and Thomas, and replete with such Jacobethan features as fine filigree coving, oak balcony and hardwood panelling. Trade on the floor of the Exchange in its Edwardian heyday could be euphorically buoyant – early in the twentieth century it was reputed to have witnessed the world's first ever £1million business deal (over £100 million in today's money).

Money talked in Cardiff; and money also built – erecting what Yeats would call 'monuments to its own magnificence', but in a tastefully disguised form that provided new wealth with the patina of culture, civility and gentility. In the Coal Exchange, even the most cut-throat of coal trades could be conducted in a 'civilised' ambience redolent of the plush, well-upholstered interior of one of London's superior gentlemen's clubs. Similarly, City Hall repaid the brashly competitive modernity that had financed it by supplying it with a respectably ancient pedigree. In the great Council Chamber directly underlying the dome, the seats are placed in the round, an arrangement reminiscent of Arthur's fabled Round Table; the Chamber's walls are decorated with the Celtically intertwined initials VC – Villa Cardiff, a reminder that the city's origins can be traced all the way back to Roman times; and while the 'four massive pillars of Italian Breccia marble' supporting the dome are capped with bronze models of ships in recognition of modern Cardiff 's huge debt to the sea, the armorial bearings displayed in the canopy above the elevated Lord Mayor's chair carry two mottos, in the aboriginal language of Wales, one proudly laying claim to the antiquity of both city and nation, the other emphasising the modern revival of patriotic sentiment. These respectively read 'Y Ddraig Goch ddyry cychwyn' (The Red Dragon will show the way) and 'Deffro, mae'n ddydd' (Awake: it is day).

* * *

'Deffro, mae'n ddydd': the motto may have carried echoes of a sleeping Arthur stirring back to life, but whereas the old legend had prophesied that the hero would reawaken only in his nation's hour of direst need, City Hall was a proud proclamation in stone of an ancient people's modern reawakening to spectacular success. Historians have had the best part of a century to polish their extensive sophisticated narratives, but still the barest summary of some of the most basic facts about the transformation of Wales between the mid-nineteenth century and the First World War from a remote fringe region into one of the powerhouses of British Industrial and Imperial ascendancy can scarcely fail to astonish. In 1898, 70 per cent of UK slate was quarried in north Wales, most of it in the world's biggest quarries at Penrhyn and Dinorwic; 1902 saw the world's largest nickel works ('the Mond', established by the noted chemist and industrialist Ludwig Mond) built in Clydach; in 1914, 75 per cent of UK zinc was produced in the Swansea hinterland. Initially hard-hit by the McKinley tariff of 1890, the tinplate industry concentrated between Llanelli and Port Talbot thereafter recovered its position among the world leaders. The population of the Rhondda grew from 12,000 (1861) to 128,000 (1891), and then mushroomed further after the turn of the century when the rate of migration into the coalfield was exceeded only by the rate of immigration into the US. By 1911, the million and a half population of Glamorgan alone exceeded that of the whole of Wales in 1851; in 1901, the great ports of Cardiff, Swansea, Barry and Newport supplied 46 per cent of Britain's coal exports to Europe; by 1913, south Wales was producing about one third of world coal exports; by the time of the First World War, around a quarter of the Welsh population was working in the mines of the southern industrial belt.

Such economic dynamism generated, and was in turn generated by, galvanic social transformations that were massive, radical and complex in character. A Welsh society, the structure of which had changed relatively little over centuries, was suddenly subject to volcanic upheavals that left it stratified in an entirely new way. The spectrum of wealth of the burgeoning professional and commercial middle classes of the urban areas was largely the product of a huge new industrial working class slowly consolidating into an alienated proletariat. As the centre of social and economic gravity shifted sharply from rural to industrial Wales, the countryside that had seen unrest in the form of the Rebecca Riots and Tithe Wars, that had struggled to break free of the grip of large, anglicised landowners, and that had become the stronghold of the 'Nonconformist Nation', settled into a slow decline concerning enough by the 1890s for rural conditions to be reviewed by a Royal Commission on Land (1893–6). Ostensibly flush with spiritual authority and commanding substantial social influence, the Nonconformist chapels were nevertheless feeling the strain of competing for custom with the glamour of the new attractions of sport and mass public entertainments. A momentous culture-shift was dryly registered in the Census statistics of 1901 which demonstrated that, for the first time since the emergence of Welsh 'peoplehood' a millennium and a half earlier, the majority of the people of Wales no longer spoke the Welsh language.

Wales was, however, undeniably booming and the architects of the new social order were the Liberal politicians, among them populist idols and Westminster grandees such as T. E. Ellis and Lloyd George. The Liberal Party's capture of 33 out of the 34 Welsh Parliamentary seats in 1906 was the seal of the Welsh people's approval on a quarter century of dramatically transformative reforms. The system of primary education introduced following the Aberdare Report of 1881 had been followed in 1889 by the Welsh Intermediate Education Act that established a network of County Schools. A Charter was granted for a University of Wales in 1893, building on the pre-existence of colleges at Aberystwyth (1872), Cardiff (1883) and Bangor (1884) to form a new federal university. The 1888 Local Government Act creating County Councils (followed in 1894 by the establishment of urban and district councils) weakened the traditional grip of the church, gentry and landed classes on society by significantly democratising a vitally important decision-making tier. This radical transfer of social influence and political power had been made possible by the passing in 1884 of the Third Reform Act, not only effectively enfranchising the bulk of the male population in both town and country, but for the first time embracing a substantial section of the working class. The result in Wales had been immediate and dramatic. Of the 34 Westminster seats, 30 were captured by a Liberal Party many of whose candidates represented the interests both of a new commercial elite and of a reformist, broadly middle class, Dissenting culture hitherto largely excluded from political power by the traditionally Tory ruling class of landowners. In 1902, 175 north Wales local councillors out of a total of 260 were Liberals; in south Wales the figure was 215 out of 330. For the quarter of a century after 1884, the whole country was to be a Liberal fiefdom, its political agenda dominated initially by the Tithes debate and subsequently by the issues of 'educational reform, land reform, disestablishment of the Church of England in Wales [granted in 1914] and some measure of devolution' (W, 3).

The Liberals in Wales were quick to create new instruments of management to consolidate this new political order, forming the Liberal Federations of North and South Wales in 1886 and 1887. Reflective as they were of two strikingly contrasted socio-cultural regions, the political profiles of these Federations were very different and potentially incompatible. This was eventually made apparent in the fateful 1896 meeting at Newport, when Lloyd George failed to gain the backing of a south Wales federation (whose interests were hard-headedly commercial and many of whose anglophone members were suspicious of the ambitions of the Welsh-speaking north), for his North Wales Federation's campaign for political devolution. That defeat marked the effective end of the political influence over Welsh Liberalism of a broad-front Cymru Fydd/Young Wales move- ment, whose cultural vision nevertheless continued to be a very potent influence on Welsh Liberal policy and practice, climaxing in the series of nation-building initiatives enabled by the Liberal victory in the 1906 General Election: a Welsh Department of the Board of Education, a National Library, a National Museum, a Welsh Insurance Commission and a National Council for Wales for Agriculture.

* * *

Since a reasonably well-informed familiarity with the Cymru Fydd phenomenon is important for the discussions that follow in this book, some sense of its scope and complexity needs to be established at the very outset. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, the heavy-weight periodicals produced by the Nonconformist denominations evinced an active interest in the nation-building alliance between culture and politics, most strikingly evident in the Young Italy movement that was the driver of Risorgimento movements for national self-determination across Europe from 1848 onwards, involving Italians, Germans, Irish, Romanians, Hungarians and many of the Slavic peoples. Mazzini (the pure idealist to Cavour's canny pragmatist) became, in this context, a figure of particular interest to Welsh intellectuals, at the expense of overlooking his hostility to the aspirations of small, sub-state nations like the Irish (and, by extension, the Welsh). And, indeed, some cautious Welsh attention even began to be paid to Thomas Davis (known to be proud of his Welsh descent) and his Young Ireland movement, in the wake of the growing interest of talented young Liberal politicians from the mid 1880s onwards in the activities of the Irish Land League under the inspired leadership of the sometime Fenian Michael Davitt. Radicalised in part by his example, this new cohort of spectacularly gifted rising political talent was concerned to add a devolutionist dimension to the traditional Liberal agenda that had hitherto reflected the interests of the four dominant constituent groups of established Welsh politicians. These were the church Disestablishment group (including Thomas Gee and Rendel); the Manchester group (including Henry Richard, Bryn Roberts and Henry Rathbone), devoted to economic liberalism, free trade and temperance; the champions of land reform (instanced by Michael D. Jones and Pan Jones); and the Social Radicals (prominently instanced by Mabon, leader of the South Wales Miners), who were pioneering what became a new Lib-Lab politics.

While the brilliant young T. E. Ellis and his enthusiastic associates were careful to be respectful of veterans such as this, his election in July 1886 as MP for his native Merionethshire, on a platform supportive both of Irish Home Rule and of a like measure for Wales, marked the beginning of a brand new era in Welsh politics. These were heady days, and the ever-wily Gladstone was quick to recognise the rise of this new tide of nationalism in a speech he delivered on the shores of Swansea bay in 1887. Implicit in his remarks was an awareness of the common cause being made between Cymru Fydd and the 'respectable' political wing of the Irish Nationalist Home Rule Movement. When Cymru Fydd published its historic Manifesto in 1889, it envisaged a pan-Celtic alliance with both Ireland and Scotland (whose own Home Rule Association had been founded in 1886, with Keir Hardie and J. Ramsay MacDonald as Vice Presidents) and the same year members of the movement took part in O'Brien's demonstrations in Battersea Park and the Irish Prisoners' demonstration in Hyde Park. A Welsh-Celtic conference was held in the National Liberal Club in London in February 1890, which resulted in a joint committee on Home Rule and an agreed model for a federal Britain – a four-nation model intriguingly endorsed by Friedrich Engels in a letter of 1891 (CF, 109). In Wales, some enthusiasts even proclaimed the centenary year of the French Revolution (1789) to be the year of the Welsh Revolution. Viewed in such a glamorising light, the election of Lloyd George as MP for Caernarfon in 1890 could have been regarded as the arrival of the Welsh Napoleon.


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Table of Contents

1 Emblematizing the nation 2 Performing political identity 3 O.M. Edwards: keeping track of the gwerin 4 Literature and the political nation 5 The Celtic 6 T. Gwynn Jones: the once and future Wales 7 Evan Roberts: The Ghost Dance of Welsh Nonconformity 8 Arthur Machen: border disputes

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