A Concise History
GARETH ELWYN JONES
Senior Lecturer in History, Department of Education,
University College of Swansea
CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS
London New York New Rochelle
Published by the Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge
The Pitt Building, Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 IRP
32 East 57th Street, New York, NY 10022, USA
296 Beaconsfield Parade, Middle Park, Melbourne 3206, Australia
Cambridge University Press 1984
First published 1984
Printed in Great Britain by the University Press, Cambridge
Library of Congress catalogue card number: 84-9590
ED. The following excerpts from this excellent work pertain to the coal and iron industries and the social structure of the Merthyr Tydfil area. J McV. April 2008
Wales was richer in coal deposits than hematite ore, with extensive fields in the north-east and in the south. Coal was mined as early as the thirteenth century in Flintshire and Glamorgan, and in the sixteenth century the mining of outcrop coal from shallow pits increased, to be used mainly for domestic fuel. George Owen of Henllys commented on the increasing use of Pembrokeshire's anthracite or 'stone-coal' for heating. He recorded that it burned without smoke, was slow-burning and very different from the 'running' soft coal found further east. He said that it was the chief domestic fuel in Pembrokeshire, though actually even by the end of the seventeenth century it was popular only in those areas adjacent to coalfields, with wood and peat remaining the favored fuels in most rural areas. Even so, there was increased trade in coal in the Tudor period, with coal being transported in twenty to thirty-ton ships from a variety of Welsh ports, including Swansea and Neath, as well as from the great port of Bristol in the seventeenth century. It was destined for Ireland, western England and France, particularly.
At this stage coal-mining was on a very small scale and seasonal. Pits were not deep, coal was dug out by pick and shovel and problems of water and firedamp severely restricted the scale of operations. What prompted expansion towards the end of the sixteenth century was that prejudice against coal as a domestic fuel lessened, so that it became the main fuel in towns by the early seventeenth century, and there was increased anxiety over the denuding of forest areas for industrial charcoal. New mines were opened in Flintshire, Denbighshire and Glamorgan and in 1638-9, for example, over 10,000 tons of coal were shipped to Ireland from Flintshire, sent from Chester and neighbouring ports. There was something of the order of a fourteen-fold growth in the century to 1640. As with the iron industry, astute gentry profited - the Myddeltons of Chirk, for example, were involved in coal mining enterprises at Brymbo and Rhos. In South Wales, coal was mined in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, though the most important areas of mining were around Neath and Gower where there was easy access to the sea for the coastal and export trade, with gentry families once again being involved in its exploitation. Only towards the end of the seventeenth century were future momentous developments heralded in South Wales with the sinking of pits in the interior of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. In the Neath area the gentry families of Evans, Seys and Bussey Mansell, William Leyshon and William Phillips profited particularly from the major stimulus provided by the growth in export demand in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, with coal being shipped to Normandy, Brittany and the Channel Islands, as well as to the west coast of England. By the 1670s about 10,000 tons per annum were exported from the Neath mines, though demand fluctuated greatly. In the early eighteenth century Sir Thomas Mansel wanted to dismiss miners at his Baglan and Briton Ferry mines, while the men begged to be kept on until exports picked up.
After 1686, when Sir Humphrey Mackworth married into the Evans family of the Gnoll, he dominated the substantial coal industry there. He re-negotiated mineral rights, improved the pits, built a tramway from pits to quay and made Neath one of the most important centres of the coal industry in Wales in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In doing so he did not please the other local gentry coal-owners, the Mansels of Briton Ferry and of Margam. Some of their clashes ended in riot.
Conditions under which coal was mined were always dangerous, particularly as timber-lined mines were sunk deeper - from about 100 feet in the Tudor period to about 360 feet in the early seventeenth century. Ladders led to the bottom of the shaft whence galleries led off, with their roofs supported by un-mined coal - the pillar and stall method. The coal, mined by candlelight, was taken by wheelbarrow or sledge by men, women or boys to be loaded into baskets and hauled to the surface by a windlass worked by three or four men. The colliers themselves often ascended and descended clinging to windlass rope, though by the eighteenth century the windlass had given way in some places to a cog-and-rung gin worked by a horse circling the shaft head. Transport was normally by packhorse, though Mackworth built a tramway of wooden rails in Neath in 1699 and by mid eighteenth century a tramway served the Mansel collieries in Swansea also. The major constraint on development remained the problem of drainage, with water having to be brought to the surface by windlass or led away by adits. Real progress was only possible when mechanical pumps came into use in the eighteenth century - there was one in use in Mansel's Swansea pits in 1717.
Colliers worked in constant danger, particularly as pits deepened. There were roof falls, the dangers of laddering or winding-gear being defective and constant problems with explosive gas. In 1673, for example, there was a serious explosion at Mostyn colliery, Flintshire, and the bigger scale of mining in the eighteenth century increased the frequency and scale of accidents. In 1787 a gas explosion killed seventeen hewers in a Llansamlet pit. The tragedies of Welsh coal mining were an established feature of life by now.
Iron and tinplate
As we have seen, the iron industry dominated the economy in the first half of the nineteenth century, with infusions of capital in works across the heads of the valleys in South Wales and, to a lesser extent, in northeast Wales, resulting in an industry producing nearly a million tons in the 1850s. Bar-iron was in steady demand and, with the coming of the railway age from the 1830s, came a boom in production.
Technological development had played an essential part since the eighteenth century in seeing that increased demand was met. In the 1780s both Henry Cort, in Hampshire, and Peter Onions, at Cyfarthfa, independently discovered the puddling process whereby impurities of carbon were removed from the molten iron which was then machine-rolled rather than hammered. Not only did this allow much increased output but it also greatly improved the quality of the iron.
It was another technological breakthrough which resulted in the most significant change in the industry in the second half of the nineteenth century. This was the change-over to steel manufacture. In 1856 Henry Bessemer's new process of extracting impurities from molten iron meant that large-scale production of steel was now possible. The Bessemer converter was improved by Sidney Gilchrist Thomas at Blaenavon and gradually steel replaced iron. The process of converting iron-works to steel production was expensive - sometimes prohibitively so - but it was put in hand at the Dowlais, Ebbw Vale, Rhymney and Blaenavon works and Welsh steel built railways in Britain, America and Europe.
The technology of steel manufacture was modified with yet another technical development. William Siemens, working at Landore, near Swansea, discovered a method of producing steel of a much higher quality than was possible by the Bessemer process and in 1868 started a works there.
By this time the implications of the breakthrough to steel production were evident. A conjunction of circumstances - the expense of converting iron-works, the dependence on imported foreign ore as demand for steel increased, intense competition from steel-works in Germany and America - meant the location of the steel industry mainly near the South Wales ports. Those iron-works which had been established in the northern part of the South Wales coalfield because of the availability of ore and coal were now in a most disadvantageous position. So came the demise of the old giants. Plymouth and Penydarren closed in the 1870s. Cyfarthfa, after a period of closure, survived until after the First World War. The Rhymney works closed in the 1890s and in 1891 the Dowlais company moved its steel manufacture to East Moors in Cardiff. Foreign competition and completion of railway networks meant a decline in the demand for Bessemer steel before the First World War but the production of Siemens steel increased tenfold in the thirty years before 1914. North Wales, too, benefited when a Siemens plant was built at Brymbo, near Wrexham in 1885, while sheet-steel was manufactured at Shotton from 1896.
There was expansion in the tinplate industry in the second quarter of the nineteenth century but then, between 1871 and 1891, output quadrupled to meet demand for canned-food containers and petrol containers. Technological development - the substitution of steel for iron as the base-plate - meant that tinplate works followed the steel industry to the coast, and clustered round Swansea and Llanelli, particularly. By 1889 there were ninety-six works producing 547,000 tons of tinplate. The McKinley tariff of 1890, placing a high duty on tinplate imported into the U.S.A., which was Wales's biggest export market, created grave difficulties and half the Welsh tinplate works closed by the end of the century. There was then a recovery so that on the eve of the First World War eighty-two tinplate works in South Wales were producing 823,000 tons, of which 544,000 tons were exported. The chief tinplate-exporting port was Swansea - over 330,000 tons were shipped from there in 1912. As we shall see, after the war the story was sadly typical. By 1937 America was producing twice as much tinplate as Britain from modern strip-mills and only in 1939 did the first of such mills open in Britain, at Ebbw Vale. The industry was also slow to capitalize on increasing chemical and metallurgical expertise.
Coal and Iron in the Nineteenth Century
The coal industry dominated the Welsh economy in the second half of the nineteenth century. Coal-mining had originally been in the hands of landowners or small-scale entrepreneurs. Then came the ironmasters who required coal for their industry and there was rapid expansion, because three tons of coal were required to smelt one ton of iron ore. The ironmasters were also able to manipulate the coal industry to compensate for fluctuations in demand in the iron industry.
Soon the coal industry was to develop under its own momentum, and this became even more true as railways developed. Coal was required to fuel them and trains provided the means of transporting coal. In the 1830s the coal export trade from Cardiff started after Lucy Thomas, in co-operation with George Insole, sent high-grade steam-coal from her pit in Abercanaid, near Merthyr, to London and, in the 1830s and 1840s, Thomas Wayne and Thomas Powell sank pits independently of the ironmasters.
Where, up to mid nineteenth century, the iron and coal industries together had transformed the coal-fields of Wales, the rest of the century was dominated by coal as it fueled Britain's steamships as well as supplying many of its industries and hearths. The soil which was such a barrier to prosperous agriculture concealed beneath it vast mineral wealth, enabling Wales to become, for decades, one of the most important industrial centres in the world.
The application of steam to railways and ships signaled the beginning of world significance for Welsh coal. In 1842 this was facilitated by the repeal of government duty on coal carried by British ships and, eight years later, the last barriers to free trade came down.
In 1837 George Crane and David Thomas managed to smelt iron-ore using anthracite coal at their foundry at Ynyscedwyn near Ystalyfera. This technological development meant that the western area of the South Wales coalfield, centred round the Aman and Gwendraeth valleys, could attract iron manufacture on a much larger scale. Later in the century this smokeless anthracite was increasingly used for domestic heating and in industry. Output trebled between 1895 and 1913 and placed Swansea, as a coal port, alongside Cardiff and Barry. Welsh steam-coal was found superior for British naval ships and railways had developed to take coal down to the ports of Cardiff and Newport. With the opening of the Bute West Dock in Cardiff in 1839, and a dock in Newport in 1842, facilities existed for a dramatic increase in exports. Of the 11 million tons going by sea in 1840 almost all was destined for Bristol or Plymouth. With the exploitation of the rich steam-coal seams of the Aberdare valley this soon changed.
The exploitation of coal seams required capital and it came not from London and Staffordshire, as had been the case with the iron industry, but largely from within the coalfield, from the ranks of that middle class created by the iron industry and consequent urbanization. It included solicitors, shopkeepers and mining engineers, though it has been argued that outside entrepreneurs were also important. But to take one example, Samuel Thomas, father of D. A. Thomas, one of the coal kings of the Rhondda, was a grocer in Merthyr. The capital required in the early days of coal exploitation was not excessive compared with requirements in the iron industry - Welsh collieries employed about 100 people on average. From the 1860s the adoption of liniited liability brought in capital from far further afield, supported by a more adequate banking system of four joint-stock banks with fifty-nine branches, as well as private banks. The most important of the companies was the Powell Dyffryn Steam Coal Company with a nominal capital of f 500,000.
In 1851 the Marquess of Bute had a pit sunk in the Rhondda valley, in a relatively inaccessible area in which the coal lay deep. So began a phenomenal expansion which did not end until after the First World War. By 1874 the South Wales coalfield was producing 16-1/2 million tons and providing 30 per cent of all United Kingdom foreign shipments. Expansion modified the industry. Mining changed from open-cast levels driven into hills to sinking ever deeper shafts of up to 1,600 yards in the 1870s. This produced ventilation problems which were particularly bad before the pillar and stall method of mining, in which pillars of unmined coal supported the roof, gave way to the 'long wall' method, by which the whole of a seam within a specified area was extracted in one continuous operation. Gradually, too, ventilation fans were introduced. Increasing depth meant greatly increased danger, only partially offset by the reluctant adoption of safety lamps by miners. There was a frightening catalogue of explosions and roof falls. Only in the wake of scores of deaths almost every year in the 1840s did the laissez-faire attitude of governments change and an act for the inspection of coal-mines emerge. Safety improved only slowly even then, as the mines inspector in South Wales was faced with indifference. In South Wales and Monmouthshire 738 people died in coal-mining accidents from 1851 to 1855, 20 per cent of them boys under fifteen. There was safety legislation in 1855 and 1860, though it was difficult to get mine-owners to comply. Still, there were improvements as minimum ages of employment were specified. Working hours for boys under sixteen were limited to no more than ten per day in 1872 and penalties of imprisonment could be imposed if it were proved that accidents occurred through neglect, though obtaining convictions was extremely difficult. Even so there was a marked reduction in accidents by 1875.
The South Wales coalfield was now one of the most important in the world, and the North Wales pits, too, had expanded, though at a far lower rate. Welsh collieries, in 1870, were producing 16 million tons of coal, much of it for export. By 1900 this had risen to over 42 million tons, 39 million tons coming from South Wales. In 1913 South Wales produced almost one third of world coal exports. There were 323 collieries in Glamorgan in 1913, 485 in the whole of Wales, with over a quarter of a million men working in them. In the Rhondda valley alone, 41,000 men were at work.
This expansion was achieved under the vast coal combines which developed in the second half of the nineteenth century. These combines, Powell Dyffryn, Lewis Merthyr, David Davies's Ocean Coal Company, D. A. Thomas's Cambrian Combine, were capitalist organisations of enormous wealth which gave the coal-owners great power. Normally Welsh in origin, they practiced a lifestyle reminiscent of the great gentry families as they built their mansions at Llanwern or Dyffryn. They distanced themselves from direct involvement in management, which was handed over to professional colliery managers, although a major shareholder stayed close to the administration and sales of the pits. Yet the coal-owners were also highly conventional and, in many respects, unostentatious with few extravagances outside great houses. Profits, high in the best pits, though not above 10 per cent overall, were extensively phoughed back into pits, docks or railways. To produce this return costs were rigorously controlled and, since labor accounted for 70 per cent of costs, this meant that wages were held down. With the Coal-owners' Association so powerful, and the relative prosperity and growth in the nineteenth century, opposition to this wage policy did not emerge on any scale until the end of the century, with confrontation succeeding consensus in a stoppage of six months in 1898 and a one year stoppage in the Cambrian Combine in 1910-11.
Another implication of the development of the coal industry on this scale was that the South Wales coastal strip became the commercial and trading centre of Wales and a focal point of the world's economy. The phenomenon is best illustrated by the growth of Cardiff, and inextricably linked with one family, the Butes.
Based on the former estates of the Earls of Pembroke, who had risen to national prominence in mid sixteenth century, the Bute estate in Wales had been extended in the nineteenth century to over 22,000 acres. Its centre was Cardiff Castle, the Welsh residence of the family, and its revenue was one of the highest in the kingdom for that size of estate. This came not from agriculture but from the mineral wealth beneath the surface of that extensive tract of land. The Butes owned the mineral rights of much of the area of the South Wales coalfield. The potential resources of Cardiff and the coalfield were fully exploited by the second Marquess of Bute. His industrial enterprise and speculative building of Bute West Dock changed the face of the area. In 1800 the balance of economic significance lay in the west of Glamorgan rather than the east. In 1821 Cardiff's population was only 3,579, with twenty-six towns in Wales of larger size. By 1868 its population was 60,000, by 1900, 160,000. From 1870 it was the pre-eminent town in Wales. Its phenomenal growth resulted from the exploitation of coal in the Taff, Rhondda, Cynon and Rhymney valleys. By 1850 Bute's revenue from minerals was £25,000, by 1918 it had risen to £115,000 per annum. From 1870 all this income derived from coal royalties.
Coal from the valleys had to come down to the coast for shipment and the most convenient port was Cardiff, much of which was owned by the same Bute family. These docks made Cardiff the greatest coal port in the world for half a century. In 1839 Bute West Dock was constructed and initially attracted insufficient traffic but the growth in the coal trade, from 8,000 tons per annum in 1839 to 1.3 million tons in 1854, produced so much congestion in the dock that further space was vital. In 1859 Bute East Dock was opened only to become similarly over-stretched. In 1887 came Roath Dock and only after this was the Bute monopoly broken by the opening of David Davies's Barry Docks in 1889. The rivalry which produced this challenge to Bute was typical of that which characterized relationships between industrial pioneers: Butes had tangled with Crawshay and Sir John Guest over the Taff Vale railway. Davies's Barry Docks drove the third Marquess of Bute into building the largest masonry dock in the world, the Queen Alexandra Dock in Cardiff, with which the town's dock trade reached 13.7 million tons in 1913, but after that, Cardiff 's dock capacity exceeded demand. Similar dock expansion took place on a lesser scale in Swansea and Newport but Cardiff provides the example par excellence of how expansion in the coal industry produced a future capital city, a sprawling borough with impressive civic buildings and a commercial and trading social substructure unique in Wales.
Industry in 1914
The scale of industrialization in nineteenth-century Wales had been dramatic, as had been its social consequences. In 1914, as we have seen, Welsh coal was of world significance. The iron and steel industry had been forced to adapt to new technological and economic circumstances but was still immensely important in South Wales, in association with the tinplate industry. Copper, zinc and nickel from South Wales were all central to British metal production.
There had been expansion in the North Wales industrial base, too, if on a considerably lesser scale. Iron, coal and steel had been developed on the Flintshire coalfield. There was also lead-smelting in that area. While there were transport problems in North Wales the area was by no means remote and peripheral, given its proximity to Liverpool and to the north-west of England. As we have seen, the slate industry, centred in Bethesda and Lhanberis in Caernarfonshire and Blaenau Ffestiniog in Merioneth, expanded rapidly with access to ports provided by the railways. Slate was crucial to the region's economy, employing over 16,000 men in the 1880s. With the substitution of tiles for slates, transatlantic competition and industrial unrest decline was evident by 1914, with the labour force down to 8,000.
Elsewhere, too, in dramatic contrast to the relentless growth of the coal industry, the industrial picture was bleaker. The copper-mines of Anglesey, the lead-mines of Cardiganshire, the woolen industry of Montgomeryshire and Merioneth were in steady decline. Even so, the prosperity of the Welsh coal and metal industries in 1914 seemed sufficient guarantee of continuing economic buoyancy. Despite foreign competition and worsening industrial relations, and lack of entrepreneurial foresight and investment in some instances, the general picture of Welsh industry in 1914 was a flourishing one. Headlong expansion had ceased, there were periods of slackening demand from the last decade of the nineteenth century, but in the first decade of the twentieth there was still expansion in the coal and metal industries while the commercial and business infrastructure associated with these primary industries flourished too.
With road transport hindered by the geography of Wales water transport had always been important. The Severn estuary linked with the trading metropolis of Bristol. The Severn was navigable into Shropshire, giving access to traffic of woolen goods from Montgomeryshire and also farm produce. The Welsh coast was dotted with small ports from which goods had been carried across the Bristol, English and St. George's channels since medieval times. These ports were administered for customs purposes from the three head ports, Cardiff, Milford and Chester. A substantial coastal trade remained in the nineteenth century and generated a ship-building and ship-repairing industry.
The topography of Wales was more inimical to canal building than road construction, although Welsh rivers formed the basis of a waterway system. The demand for canals, in conjunction with tramroads, was stimulated mainly by industrial development. The carriage of coal, ironstone and finished iron, as well as agricultural produce, by packhorse was slow, laborious and inefficient. As early as 1700 Sir Humphrey Mackworth had built a canal to serve his Melingriffith copper-works, but the main stimulus emanated from the ironmasters. In South Wales the main phase of canal building came between 1790 and 1820, by which time much of industrial South Wales was linked by a network of waterways. By 1810 there were nearly 150 miles of canal and 75 miles of navigable river. The famous Glamorganshire canal, linking Penydarren, near Merthyr, with the port of Cardiff was constructed between 1790 and 1794. Between 1790 and 1792 a tramway was built to link Penydarren with the Monmouthshire canal across the valleys. By 1812 the Brecon and Monmouthshire canal, linking Brecon with the port of Newport via Gilwern and Pontypool, had been completed. A branch of this canal linked Newport with Crumlin and both sections were linked by tramroads. A tramroad duplicated the canal service between Penydarren and Quaker's Yard, and it was along this stretch of tramroad that Trevithick's first locomotive inaugurated the railway age in 1804.
The canals and tramroads of eastern South Wales connected with those of the west by means of two routes. A tramroad connected Brecon with Abercrave and Ystradgynlais, linking with Swansea via the Swansea canal, constructed between 1796 and 1798. Further south a link was provided by the Aberdare canal which connected with a tramroad to Glynneath, thence to Neath and Swansea by the Neath canal, built between 1792 and 1795. Farther west still, canals were fewer and later in coming.
Canals were built by private enterprise. The Glamorganshire canal, the biggest undertaking, had seventy-one subscribers, among them the Crawshays, and it cost over £103,000. Tolls were levied on all goods and shareholders' dividends were limited to 8 per cent. Practical difficulties were immense. The fall in this canal was over 600 feet, necessitating the building of more than fifty locks - eleven in one quarter-mile stretch - and an aqueduct had to be built at Abercynon. The benefits were commensurate with the difficulties - a horse, a man and a boy could bring twenty to twenty-five tons of iron down the canal in one canal-company boat, all passing through the administrative centre at Navigation House. Not surprisingly, the canal was an immediate success, with traffic trebling between 1800 and 1820 and coal becoming an increasingly important cargo. In 1829 a similar tonnage of iron and coal was carried. Ten years later, over 132,000 tons of iron were far exceeded by 211,000 tons of coal. Such was the success of the canal in the 1830's that tolls were lowered and the canal was vital in Cardiff's development as a port.
The coming of the railways is often held to have caused the demise of canals but this was not the case. With the construction of Bute West Dock in Cardiff and the opening of the Taff Vale Railway in Glamorgan the canal was less important, but, it was working at maximum capacity up to the 1870s, and only then declined. The Neath canal remained important despite the construction of the Vale of Neath railway. The coal carrying Tennant canal boats were at their busiest as late as 1886. The Swansea canal was still profitable in 1873 when it was acquired by the Great Western Railway which operated it successfully until the 1890s. So, despite hilly terrain, freezing over in winter, thefts from barges, and particularly, the spread of railways, canals remained an integral part of the transport system for most of the nineteenth century.
Inevitably the canal network in mid and North Wales was more limited since it served mainly the needs of agricultural and woolen industries and the topography was even more daunting. Even so, the Montgomery, Ellsmere and Chester canals, built in stages between 1779 and 1819, which ran from Newtown to Chester, via Welshpool with a branch to Chirk and Llangollen, produced some of the finest canal engineering in the country, including the superb Chirk aqueduct.
The social structure
The social hierarchy in Wales at the end of the eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century was dominated by the great landowners, despite rapid industrialization. Some families of fifteenth century or Tudor origin still owned vast tracts of land. In addition, with the high failure rate of direct male heirs between 1720 and 1760, estates had passed to more distant male relatives, often from England, and had grown larger as they were combined. Some of them had been acquired by Scottish and Irish landowners. Landed gentry like the Wynns of Wynnstay, the Powells of Nanteos, the Pryses of Gogerddan, the Vaughans of Trawscoed, the Cawdors of Golden Grove, the Morgans of Tredegar and the Butes of Cardiff were immensely powerful in their communities. In rural Wales their power was little short of feudal until late in the nineteenth century. They, or their nominees, represented counties in Parliament and expected their tenants' votes; they monopolized local government as they had done for centuries.
Landlords were not generally absentee and they had a paternalistic interest in the welfare of their tenants, helping to alleviate distress and build schools, for example. Such community involvement was vital because even the great landowners were not wholly independent. Freeholders had to be assiduously cultivated, since their support was essential at elections. From the 1830s deference to the landed classes was being slowly undermined, though it remained a potent force. Only with the inauguration of county councils in 1889 and parish and district councils in 1894 was their hold over their locality effectively ended.
The divide between gentry and tenants was manifest in every aspect of lifestyle. Anglican gentry had an increasingly nonconformist tenantry; with few exceptions the gentry not only did not speak Welsh but regarded the language as a hindrance, even though it was still the language of the majority of the population until the end of the nineteenth century. At some stage, especially in a changing economic environment, such inherent tensions would inevitably be exploited politically and nationally and a relatively static rural society find itself in turmoil.
What was to transform the role of the landed class eventually, though it was a remarkably lengthy process, was industrialization, the most far-reaching change which has ever affected the people of Wales. The balance of population changed so that Glamorgan and Monmouthshire grew phenomenally while rural counties lost population. Industrialization created great wealth, again particularly in South Wales. Some of it merely consolidated landed wealth, as in the case of the Butes, the Morgans of Tredegar and the Penrhyn family in North Wales, but an entrepreneurial class also grew rich on mineral profits. Some of the wealth was channeled into the communities which produced it, and went to build chapels, provide a market for books or periodicals, or support schools. Equally, industrialization resulted in a concentration of squalor and disease and exploitation which could not, in the end, be coped with by the existing machinery of local or central government. Industrialization produced urbanization on an unprecedented scale. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century Wales became the first country in the world in which more people lived in urban rather than in rural areas. In conjunction with the railway system industrialization had produced a different Wales by the end of the century. Towns had grown to serve a specifically industrial purpose - Merthyr, Pontypool, Mold, Hawarden, for example. By this time only half the towns in Wales were medieval in origin. The change in urban pattern indicated the extent to which the commercial centres of gravity had altered. In South Wales it had moved from Bristol to Glamorgan.
The urban pattern changed internally. In the old urban centres craft workshops were located in town centres and products could be sold immediately. In the nineteenth century mass production provided goods sold through specialist retailers in the town centres. where increasing numbers of professionals had their offices. By the 1870s central shopping areas were located close to railway stations. Suburban growth stemmed from a middle-class desire to use railway and tramcar to live outside the immediate town environment, an option closed to the majority of workers who had to live near their workplace.
Parts of North and South Wales had become increasingly industrialized from the 1760s. First came the growth of the iron industry, then increasing concentration on coal. Much English capital had been channeled into these developments and a new breed of dynasts had emerged. The ironmasters, Guest and Crawshay, for example, espoused a lifestyle very hike that of the handed gentry and they tended to rule the communities they created in a similar kind of way. They were complete capitalists, owning the raw materials, the means of production, disposing of the finished product. They owned or leased the houses of their workmen, for a time controlled the expenditure of wages through the truck system and shared in the ownership of the transport system which conveyed iron and coal to the ports. The successful among this new breed of entrepreneurs were able to build mock-gothic castles and acquire landed estates; the lifestyle of the landed gentleman still remained the yardstick of social superiority.
The fortunes of coal-owners and copper-smelters were made in the years after 1850. The Welsh economy expanded at a rate unheralded even in the era of iron. Welsh coal was central to the world economy. Those who owned the land under which it was mined, those who managed and owned the successful pits, made fortunes. The coal entrepreneurs were usually Welsh-born or had close connections with the country - David Davies of Llandinam, coal-owner, railway and dock builder, was a nonconformist Welshman and he and his family became closely identified with Welsh philanthropic enterprises. Their social control was in its way as extensive as that of rural landlords or early ironmasters. They were virtually sole employers in the mining valley towns, took office on boards of health and as justices of the peace. They were generally careful and orthodox, nonconformist, and philanthropic towards their churches and chapels. They were far less prepared to provide amenities in the communities which produced their wealth.
Since Tudor times there had been a small middle class in Wales, located in boroughs such as Swansea or Carmarthen, but in such numbers as not to be of great social consequence. By the end of the eighteenth century this class, still small by English standards, was growing as industrialization increased. Entrepreneurs, lawyers, medical men, merchants, shopkeepers, middle-ranking farmers were all more in evidence. Older towns like Wrexham or Carmarthen had spawned more merchants and traders. With increasing industrialization came lawyers, bankers, hand agents and surveyors, although this development should not be exaggerated. Contemporaries were struck by the way in which the iron towns remained two-class communities - the owners, their agents and managers; and the workers dependent on them. A middle-class element was more evident later in the nineteenth century as more technical personnel were employed and government intervention in welfare, education and local concerns produced more posts. Despite this growth the political and social role of the middle class was restricted in Wales. In north-west Wales, for example, the land-owning slate-quarry proprietors were virtually omnipotent despite a middle class of some social significance by the end of the nineteenth century doctors, accountants, teachers, nonconformist ministers.
In rural Wales modification of the social structure was far less evident, with the tenant farmer still preponderant. Tenants and labourers lived in remarkably stable communities. About 40 per cent of people stayed in the parishes in which they were born, and 20 to 25 per cent of marriages were between people of neighbouring parishes. There was no sizable class of substantial freeholders in Wales and material conditions of farmers and their labourers often reflected a similar degree of poverty. The social distinction between farmer and servant remained and it was exceptional for a farm servant to acquire high community status through, for example, becoming a chapel deacon. Rural communities, however, remained complex because, until the advent of mass production, they required service from a variety of craftsmen bakers, blacksmiths, bootmakers, brewers, carpenters, coach-builders, coopers, curriers, glovers, hatters, maltsters, lime burners, millers, rope-makers, masons, tailors, clock-makers, stay-makers, paper-makers, weavers, skinners, thatchers, stonemasons - skills often now preserved only in folk-museum aspic.
With pressure on agricultural holdings, the surplus population had little choice but to seek employment in industry. Eventually a large industrial proletariat, originating mainly within Wales but with an English and Irish element, was created in the iron, steel and coal industries. The Welsh among them brought their language and, for long, their deferential attitudes, but here again, the homogeneity of this class must not be exaggerated. Communities of iron and coal-workers in South Wales were wealthier than the remote quarrying villages of North Wales and in both areas links with the land continued, with seasonal labour from industrial areas helping with haymaking, for example. In North Wales, particularly, this was general throughout the nineteenth century. Even so, the creation of a sizable industrial proletariat coupled with the social problems of new communities, resulted in tensions which erupted in a variety of ways.
One source of tension, not immediately evident, was that social mobility was even more restricted in nineteenth century Wales than in England. The occupational structure was limited. In Glamorgan 40 per cent of employed men were in the iron or coal industries, fewer than 3 per cent in the professions. Only towards the end of the century were the ranks of the lower-middle class swelled as the county school products increasingly entered black-coated occupations, and this helps explain the hold which such schools had on their communities. The relative smallness of the middle class in Wales was a source of anxiety to those who regarded the perceived virtues of that class, particularly respectability, as a guarantee of order in society. To such men as Hugh Owen or Tom Ellis, indeed to the nonconformist leadership, the augmentation of the middle class, professional and commercial, was a prerequisite of national respectability for Wales, parity with England and a respected place in the great British Empire. Through the educational system, for which men like Owen worked indefatigably, much was achieved, though on English terms of individual advancement. Ironically, from the 1890s came the beginnings of breakdown in the whole Liberal, nonconformist philosophy of consensus. Notions of respectability remained pervasive, but could no longer disguise the chasm which divided the interests of employers and employees generally.
Some social consequences of industrialisation
Skilled workers in the iron industry were well paid in good times, with a wage of about 40s per week in the 1850s, while miners and colliers earned about 12s-17s per week. Wages fluctuated dramatically. In Merthyr, for example, there were wage cuts of 30 per cent to 60 per cent in 1833, 1842 and 1847-8. Even so, industrial workers were generally far better off than their rural counterparts. Problems arose not primarily from material deprivation but from communities of unprecedented size having no social organization.
One of the most appalling problems was the how expectation of life, due mainly to infant mortality, accident and disease. In Aberdare, in 1854, it was reported that 46 per cent of deaths were of children under five, 60 per cent of people under twenty. Those who survived beyond five years of age could expect to live to about thirty-five. Those who survived to twenty could expect to live at least as long as their rural counterparts, except when epidemics occurred. The main killers were smallpox, scarlet fever, typhoid, tuberculosis and cholera, and, although such diseases were not respecters of persons, shopkeepers, on average, lived to twice the age of labourers. Accidents were an ever-present danger. In August, 1849, fifty-two men were killed in an Aberdare colliery. In the same year a gas explosion killed sixty-five in Middle Dyffryn colliery. In the slate quarries of North Wales the conditions under which men lived - especially in their barracks - and worked, for perhaps fifty hours a week in wet conditions at extremely heavy work, produced chest and stomach diseases. The worst killer was respiratory disease brought on by constant inhaling of slate dust. A poor diet, largely bread and butter and tea, accentuated the problem.
The lot of men and women workers in industrial and rural areas was grim. Both groups worked inordinately long hours. Shop assistants in Merthyr were working eighty hours a week into the twentieth century, coal-miners in mid nineteenth century worked shifts of twelve to thirteen hours a day. Some of the worst abuses of child labour occurred in the coal industry. Children's labour was cheap but brought in an important extra wage. It was common in the 1840s for children of four years of age to be at work. Children below the age of eleven in the collieries opened and closed ventilation doors in conditions of complete darkness. Deformities resulted and their growth was retarded. Over the age of eleven boys usually hauled trams, which were too heavy for them and many were crushed to death as they host control. Eventually, unwillingly, the government was drawn in to legislate against the worst abuses - in 1842 women, and children under ten, were forbidden to work underground. The most dramatic killer was cholera, resulting from inadequate drainage and sanitation, though for much of the century it was the smell which was thought to spread the disease. There was no sewerage system - so water from wells and pumps became contaminated - and often no drainage. In Hirwaun the same family which had built Castell Coch had put in two drains, but they worked badly. The Marquess of Bute was just as negligent of drainage in Cardiff. A statutory body of Street Commissioners had been in existence in Cardiff since 1774, but the commissioners were often Bute placemen and, in any case, extremely reluctant to spend money.
In 1848,threatened with another wave of cholera, the government reluctantly passed a Public Heath Act. The Act established a board of health, consisting of a chairman and two commissioners, to advise and encourage urban authorities to establish local boards. These would appoint an officer of health and be responsible for building and maintaining drains and sewers, street cleaning and water supply, and for administering graveyards in order to prevent overcrowding. A basic weakness of the Act was that local boards could only be established where one in ten ratepayers petitioned - and they were extremely reluctant to spend their own money - or if the death rate over each of the previous seven years had averaged over 23 per 1, 000 of the population.
Welsh ratepayers resisted as vigorously as any. In Cardiff, where drainage and sewage disposal arrangements, and water pollution, were appalling the Bute agent tried to stop the application of the Act, although eventually twenty-five authorities in Wales petitioned to adopt it. Related legislation was passed at frequent intervals from the 1850s but it was largely permissive until the Sanitary Act of 1866 and the Public Health Act of 1875. Even with this legislation annual mortality rates per thousand population scarcely fell throughout Victoria's reign and infant mortality rates remained appallingly high.
In rural Wales the level of disease was just as bad. Poverty was endemic, real privation only a bad harvest away. Disease associated with dietary deficiency was rife and tuberculosis and typhus endemic. This correlation between poor housing, economic disadvantage and disease continued into the twentieth century. In the 1930s the rural counties had an appalling levels of tuberculosis, and local councils were reluctant to take the expensive welfare measures which would alleviate it. There was greater local government commitment in the industrial counties but the Depression conspired against any major improvement. Where the incidence of tuberculosis had previously been falling it remained static in the 1920s and 1930s.
Medical help was inadequate. During the eighteenth century doctors were becoming established in Wales and by 1817 a hospital had been built in Swansea, and a dispensary in Cardiff in 1823. Such institutions were built and maintained by subscription and were available to subscribers and those recommended by them. This system of private philanthropy in health care was completely inadequate - by 1891 there was only one hospital bed for each 2,533 of population in the Cardiff area.
Industrial frontier communities gave rise to problems of social control. Crime greatly exercised the Victorians and it was more readily obvious in fast-growing, volatile communities. It stemmed, in town and country, from both poverty and relative prosperity. As we have seen, poverty in both rural and industrial Wales could be acute. Wages fluctuated in industry and if a large works closed the outlook was bleak. When Penydarren iron-works closed in the 1850s children starved. At one point there were 7,000 people on poor relief in the Merthyr area. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was intended to change a system of poor relief, dating in essence from Elizabethan times. The workhouses built under the new Act became an enduring symbol of degradation and misery. The middle class were obsessed with social stability but it certainly was not guaranteed by the periodic prosperity of the iron towns of the first half of the nineteenth century. Merthyr Tydfil provides the most graphic illustration here because it grew so rapidly and rootlessly. The town had sucked people in, mainly from Wales but with sizable minorities from England and Ireland, and all tended to congregate in their own enclaves. Social gradations resulted in iron-miners and colliers living in one district, tradesmen and professional people in another. The grip of the ironmasters on the community - as employers and ratepayers - was overwhelming. The Guests, for example, owned a third of the houses in Dowlais. The ironmasters were reluctant to part with their money to provide civic amenities, though the Guests' record in education is good. Organized religion - overwhelmingly nonconformist - provided an element of social control but half the population, particularly the unskilled workers, were not involved in it. They were more likely to be drawn to the 300 beer houses in Merthyr.
Crime and violence were inevitable in such communities. On fair days there were mobs, brawling, gambling. Children - at least 150 homeless, many more occasionally living rough - wandered around in gangs, prepared to steal clothes and money. Women, responsible for nearly half the recorded crime, stole clothes, food and coal. A frightened middle class across Britain pinned their hopes on the new police force. In 1841 Merthyr had nine policemen, Dowlais two; by 1864 there were sixteen in Merthyr, four in Dowlais and five in Aberdare. By that time the worst of the area's crime had been conquered. Most regular offenses were stealing, gambling, drunkenness and highway robbery. Stealing from the iron-works was a major problem - wood, tools, iron and coal. Violence was never far beneath the surface. In the Monmouthshire coalfield, particularly, there was a tradition of dealing violently with blacklegs. There were tensions between English, Irish and Welsh.
Drink provided a welcome escape from the miseries of industrial society and alcoholic drink, unlike the water supply, was relatively germ-free. Pay days and weekends were notorious for offenses arising from drunkenness. Gambling, cock-fighting, pitch-and-toss and thimble-rigging led to accusations of cheating, to violence and, sometimes, to manslaughter. Violence against the police and between gangs occurred regularly. Crimes of violence were associated with prostitution, practiced by at least sixty Merthyr women in 1839. Some of them ended up in a House for Distressed Women in Llandaff in the 1860s.
The efforts of respectable society, symbolized by the establishment of refuges of various kinds, were all brought to bear on new industrial communities. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Victorians, spurred on by a mixture of fear, social conscience and religious teaching, were beginning to come to grips with the problem. National government involvement combined with local effort to produce an effective police force and stern magistracy. Violent crime lessened. Drunkenness was met head-on by the temperance movement, with the Band of Hope bringing the message to the young. The respectable working class were provided with alternatives - brass bands, choirs, discussion groups, lectures. By the 1860s, Merthyr's 'China', once virtually outside the haw, had been brought under social control. Such success should not be exaggerated. Later in the century, Cardiff's dockhand, with its mobile population, had the reputation of being the most undesirable port in Britain, with Bute Street a byword for fleecing sailors made vulnerable because so many deserted ship in Cardiff with their agreements unexpired.
As in all aspects of social life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the various social strata were sharply differentiated in their leisure activities. Favorite sports of the gentry were horse racing, hunting to foxhounds, and shooting. In the second half of the nineteenth century shooting of artificially bred pheasants was the most popular of sports, and guns became safer, although there were still some nasty accidents. Game-shooting was particularly galling for tenant farmers since their crops were vulnerable to protected game.
Grand balls at large houses or at assembly rooms were one hallmark of fashionable society in the Georgian period - for the privileged. Such assembly rooms existed in Abergavenny, Monmouth, Neath, Swansea and Denbigh, among other places. One common recreational feature for all classes was gambling - gentry might lose fortunes on cards. For the masses, cock-fighting, foot-racing (epitomized in the legend of Guto Nyth Bran) and fist-fighting were popular, and gambling accompanied all these.
During the nineteenth century a Welsh popular culture divorced almost wholly from that of the anglicized, Anglican gentry developed, prompted partly by a growing middle class and endorsed by nonconformist working-class society. Industrialization was the basic force at work here. Its chief paradox was that, as in de Tocqueville's Manchester, 'humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish' as a consequence of industrial growth. It produced social problems on an unprecedented scale yet created wealth in Wales which was evident in thriving markets, consumer goods, grand chapels. It financed periodicals and newspapers. Sunday school and monitorial school increased literacy steadily.
The language of the press was Welsh, and its ramifications embraced large sections of the population. In the 1860s there were eight weeklies, twenty-five monthlies and five quarterlies in Welsh. Denominational and political journals predominated. The chapel infused popular culture with its ethos through prayer meetings, study meetings, literary societies and the Band of Hope. Throughout the nineteenth century, especially in rural Wales, the chapel's hold was strong, though by the 1890s ministers were becoming anxious about the spread of popular sport, and throughout the century there had been the threat of the demon drink, anathema to the nonconformist conscience. Alcoholic drink had always been consumed by all classes but in the nineteenth century the expansion of urban areas made it increasingly prevalent. It was safe, when heavy industrial work required a large intake of liquid and the public houses were more congenial than cramped, overcrowded houses. In transient, young, frontier communities drink oiled a boisterous lifestyle. To respectable society, ale-houses had always been associated with crime and anti-social behavior. In Tudor times this correlation had been made by Dr. David Lewis, but drink problems in an industrial environment were more threatening. Excessive drinking produced absenteeism - an average of a day a week - much to the chagrin of industrialists obsessed with maximizing profits. Greater discipline was more vital for safety reasons. It was apparent in iron and coal mines, but self-evidently essential on the railway network. The new discipline required by the railways was symbolized by the adoption of a military-style uniform. Cyclical unemployment provided opportunities for consumption of alcohol. Employers who, through the poor rate, had to provide a subsistence level of income, resented this kind of expenditure.
The different economic order of industrialized society produced a culture change enforced by social sanctions. One of the most obvious of these was the anti-drink movement. While Rhymney ironworks built its own brewery, most employers opposed such concessions. They tried various sanctions. Long pay, at intervals of up to twelve weeks, was one. It meant that employees were in pledge to truck shops - but goods could be exchanged at beer shops. The Dowlais works tried to employ teetotalers. But the most effective sanctions were through financial or religious obligation. Employers gave advances to favoured employees who thus mortgaged their behaviour. After about 1870 a highly effective alliance was forged between industrialists - David Davies, for example nonconformity and the respectable working class, manifested in temperance and Band of Hope movements. From the 1830s the temperance movement, imported from America, favored total abstinence. The first society was established in Holywell in 1832 and became a sophisticated organization with its own halls and hotels. By 1881 Wales had acquired separate Sunday closing legislation, for which there was solid support. Only a century later, in the 1982 referendum, was it evident that this issue no longer had any hold over public opinion.
Industrialization affected rural Wales, if less directly. For example, as rural isolation broke down, centuries-old customs were modified, indeed eventually a whole lifestyle was eroded. Mass production undermined traditional crafts. Nonconformity deprecated the song and dance which had withstood Puritanism, and a more intellectual culture regarded as more respectable, developed. Christenings became, eventually, little more than chapel services; funerals became prayer-meetings rather than wakes. On the other hand there were many rural traditions very slow to die out. Until the end of the nineteenth century Christmas meant attendance at the early-morning candlelit service, the plygain. Christmas feasting only became a more private family affair well into Victoria's reign. New Year celebrations were more important than those associated with Christmas. Children went from house to house on New Year's morning with greetings and song, receiving calennig (New Year's gifts) in return, a custom which still prevails in parts of Wales. Twelfth Night was celebrated with the pre-Christian Mari Lwyd and wassail songs. Easter Monday was celebrated in parts of Wales with cock-fighting, hand-ball and stool-ball. At Mayday hiring fairs there was dancing, wrestling, singing and maypole dancing, activities frowned on by increasingly influential nonconformist opinion.
Government, politics and protest
Price and Williams were men of international repute and, although London based, they linked Wales with international events. They did so against a background of a Wales in which a variety of social tensions were being generated. In rural Wales there was endemic poverty. In parts of Wales by the end of the eighteenth century modern industrial capitalism had begun - in cloth manufacturing and in iron. The 1790s were bad years in the countryside and industrialization, with its frontier communities, was bound to produce protest. There was a radical tradition of Dissent in parts of Wales and this had transatlantic links with the Welsh who had been driven to emigrate to America for religious reasons. There was another dimension to this dispersion through the legend of Madoc, the twelfth-century Welsh prince whose claims to have discovered America were stressed, on the flimsiest of evidence, for imperial reasons in Elizabeth's reign and again in the eighteenth century. Reinforced now by stories of Welsh-speaking Mandan Indians and epic explorations of North America. Madoc epitomized the notion of political freedom and gave legitimacy to Welsh settlement there. Correspondence linked Wales with events in America, ideas of civil equality circulated through parts of Wales by means of pamphlets and books, and Dissenters in the iron towns discussed these ideas. The eighteenth-century London-Welsh societies reflected some radical ideas - the Gwyneddigion particularly.
A second element in the politics of protest in the nineteenth century was a growing, increasingly powerful, working class. A proletariat came into being in the eighteenth century. in the flannel-making towns of mid Wales entrepreneurs set up factories. Swansea became the centre of the British copper and brass industries, and by 1800 40 per cent of the pig-iron manufactured in Britain came from Wales. There was a certain fusion of influence and interest with dissent - grievances against the existing political system and agreement on the necessity for political action to meet those grievances. But the origins of working-class protest were very different, arising from the poverty of rural Wales and the social and economic conditions consequent on industrialization, particularly in the iron industry. There were also the pressures of modernization evident in the cloth industries of Merioneth, Montgomeryshire and Denbighshire, as factories were established at Welshpool, Lhanidloes and Newtown, with capital coming from Lancashire and Liverpool. The expression of working-class politics was different, too. Dissenting politics during and after the French wars was middle-class, moderate, against violence and, cultivating the Whig party, concerned to achieve its ends through constitutional means. Working-class politics was not only channeled into demands for political reform but, from time to time in the first half of the nineteenth century, erupted violently in response to immediate local grievances. in the coalfield areas of North and South Wales there was a rapidly increasing population, ironmasters with an enormous degree of economic and social power, an increasing number of commercial and professional personnel, a mushrooming urban workforce. There had been fluctuating markets for iron; high demand during the French wars, but, at their end, depression, unemployment, and cuts in wages. The condition of life for urban and rural workers was miserable.
In a rapidly changing society the machinery of law and order remained much the same as in Tudor times. Law enforcement was still in the hands of voluntary officers, particularly justices of the peace, with the assistance in extremes of the military, who could be deployed by permission of the Home Secretary, to whom the lord lieutenant had access. Four Welsh counties took up the option to establish police forces after 1839, but general policing came only with the Police Act of 1856. Policing cost ratepayers money, so counties and boroughs preferred unpaid justices of the peace, high and petty constables. Local authorities were also reluctant to use the military because of the cost of housing and feeding them. Governments were as reluctant to see the army used because its resources were stretched.
Already, during the French wars, there had been protest in rural and urban Wales. In the 1790s there was protest against the Navy Act, against enclosures and against the price of grain. In 1795 in Denbighshire, a hatred of magistrates was evident, and bailiffs and constables were even more unpopular. Magistrates were imprisoned by hostile crowds and the military had to come in to restore order. In the 1790s conditions were desperate, with pressures of increasing population, inflation and increased exploitation of agricultural holdings. Grain was short and its price rocketed. There were waves of emigration to America, with people prepared to spend weeks in misery in ships' steerage. Then there was riot - between 1793 and 1795 there were riots in Swansea, Bangor, Aberystwyth, Denbigh, Fishguard, Bridgend, and Haverfordwest: In 1795-6 riots took place in Barmouth and Machynlleth. In 1799-1800 there was another violent response to grain shortages in Merthyr, in Pembrokeshire and in North and West Wales.
There had been corn riots in Wales in the 1740s and 1750s but the situation at the end of the eighteenth century was particularly serious, with malnutrition and some starvation. Yet grain was still being exported from Rhuddlan and Chepstow. Riots were widespread; there was some looting in Dowlais. Troops had to be brought in on many occasions to restore order. There was no specific political motive, more a response to a staple food shortage, but the riots were generally the controlled responses not of the hungriest but of industrial wage-earners, craftsmen and small farmers.
After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 there was a sharp fall in the price of corn and this produced another kind of crisis. Farmers economized, shed labour and left land uncultivated. There were bad harvests, too, and a shortage of food. More rioting resulted. In 1818 in Carmarthen a crowd prevented the export of cheese. In south-west Wales there was strong opposition to enclosures. In industrial Wales the high price of bread, allied to the threat of massive wage reductions, produced a convulsion among the Merthyr iron workers in 1816. J. J. Guest barricaded himself in Dowlais House and William Crawshay took refuge in a farmhouse. Only the advent of troops dispersed a crowd of over 8,000 workers. Here, then, was another traditional response, a spontaneous search for natural justice in face of humiliation. In 1825 and 1826 the general situation was reflected in banking crises which resulted in bankruptcies. In 1830 and 1831 there was renewed agitation associated with the Reform bill crisis. There was protest across Wales in the spinning and weaving areas of Montgomeryshire, and in the North Wales coalfield, where unionism was spreading fast, whence it caught on in the South Wales coalfield only for employers to destroy its hold by the end of 1831. Working-class energy was harnessed by the middle classes in support of the Reform bill, and there was more traditional protest in the face of conditions which too greatly infringed human dignity. Violence erupted in Carmarthen and, as we shall see, in Merthyr in 1831. In Carmarthen, where there existed a tradition of demonstrations at election time, there were fights between rival groups of supporters in both 1831 elections, and also demonstrations of economic discontent.
There were many links between rural and urban protest. For example bad harvests affected not only the small farmer but put up the price of bread in the towns, too. There were common spokesmen for Rebecca and for Chartism. There were of course, very different dimensions to the urban problem. The iron towns - Merthyr, Dowlais, Ebbw Vale, Hirwaun, Pontypool, Brynmawr - were transformed parish communities, ruled by ironmasters and generating intractable social problems. There were minimal amenities, dangerous work, high risk of disease and appalling infant mortality. Between 1821 and 1830 in Merthyr, of children under five, there were 479 burials per thousand baptisms, though life expectation after five was higher than in rural areas of Glamorgan. Wages, good when trade was good, fluctuated violently. Social controls in rural areas were lacking, there was no civic tradition and the parish vestry could not cope with the scale of problem. The ironmasters filled the power vacuum - they paid the men and owned their houses, operated a truck system and wielded power in the community as magistrates or through the parish vestry.
In the raw conditions of new communities, in an environment of danger, when human life in iron-works or coal-mine was cheap, there were regular reactions to extremes of injustice. Wage-cuts produced forty strikes between 1800 and 1831. Two rioters were hanged in Merthyr in 1800. In 1810 there were riots because of a shortage of bread. With the slump in demand for iron after the Napoleonic wars there were wage reductions which provoked strikes or riots. A riot at Tredegar ironworks in 1816 saw one rioter killed and troops called in, but the wage reduction was withdrawn. Riots followed in Nantygio, Blaina and Ebbw Vale. In the 1820s came the Monmouthshire colliers' strikes and the Scotch Cattle, a movement rooted in Monmouthshire which involved direct action and attempts to control blacklegs and profiteers. The movement sprang up in Monmouthshire and Breconshire after 1816 and operated particularly in the colliery villages where there were similar grievances to those in the iron industry - fluctuations in demand for coal heading to wage reductions, the truck system, payment of wages in goods, long periods between payment which meant constant debt, abuse of the contracting system of hiring labour. In response, the Scotch Cattle operated just hike a rural secret society in the 1820s and 1830s when colliers, dressed in women's clothing, masks and cattle skins, were led by a man rigged out with a horned bull's head. They operated not against industrialists but against contractors, landlords, bailiffs, 'blacklegs' or workers prepared to work for how wages. They destroyed furniture, sent out warning notes, attacked houses, burned tools and wagons. They were very difficult to track down because they operated in secret and engendered intense loyalty as well as fear. They were also highly organized.
The Merthyr Rising
A more remarkable working-class protest took place in Merthyr in 1831. For four days, between 300 and 400 armed men, with thousands of supporters, held the iron town of Merthyr. They were dispersed only with the aid of 800 troops and afterwards were starved into submission by Guest of Dowlais and Hill of Plymouth, the ironmasters. It is not surprising that there should have been a confrontation in Merthyr. It had a tradition of radicalism from the 1790s but with little scope for action based on such ideas. The ironmasters were in control of the town and they allied with shop-owners in institutions like the court of requests, established in 1809 to deal with debtors. Merthyr's growth from a small community of farmers and craftsmen into the main iron-producing centre in Britain had imposed severe strain. By 1830 it was producing 40 per cent of British pig-iron. Over 9,000 men were employed at the four great iron-works.
The attitudes of deference of rural Wales had been transferred from rural to industrial Wales, translated from deference towards landlord to deference towards ironmaster. This was not surprising in view of the economic grip ironmasters exerted, but it reinforced a sense of natural hierarchy based on a centuries-old relationship in rural Wales. At the same time workers from rural counties brought with them a tradition of direct action. There was a history of riots and strikes as in 1800 and in 1816. Fluctuations in demand were reflected in variable wage rates and sometimes the traditions of protest in the face of provocation, expressed in the activities of Rebecca or the Scotch Cattle, came to a head. In the major strike against rising food prices at a time of -reducing wages in 1816, troops had to be called in to suppress the rioters. In the Merthyr context, with its long-standing radical discussions, rooted in strong unitarianism, pamphleteering and political Eisteddfodau, working-class action took this form of direct action rather than that of the Scotch Cattle.
Wage fluctuations produced a volatile situation. The skilled men of the iron industry, puddlers or rollers, were valued workers and well paid when trade was good. They were dismissed only as a last resort. But with wage reductions of 40 per cent in 1816, for example, reaction was inevitable. There were other consequences of wage variation. Ironmasters were involved in the community because their actions produced the need for increased poor relief in bad times, hence increases in the rates from which they and their fellow ratepayers suffered. Wage cuts also resulted in widespread debt. Out of such concerns grew an identity of interest among the ironmasters which did not stem from inclination. The ironmasters - Crawshays and Guests, for example - were very different in personality and outlook. William Crawshay was a radical, prepared to tolerate trade unions. Guest was an orthodox proprietor, philanthropist and paternalist. There was a natural identity of interest between ironmasters and Merthyr's middle class of shopkeepers, auctioneers, clerks and lawyers in times of economic crisis, too, because of the increased scale of workers' debt, and there were always clashes between workers and shopkeepers at such times.
From 1830 economic crisis in Merthyr combined with agitation over the Reform bill to produce an inflammable situation. The depression in iron had grown worse since 1829. Production was reduced, wages eventually cut. Debts grew, credit increased, shopkeepers felt the crisis. The court of requests ruthlessly pursued debtors and distrained goods. There was grave distress, a high poor rate and crisis in the select vestry which controlled the town's affairs. With truck acts and reform being discussed in Parliament there was a wider context to the immediate crisis.
In April 1831 the Reform bill was stopped and the situation in Merthyr began to get out of control. There had already been large reform meetings, now there were more. A mass meeting of 2,000 workers took place above Dowlais on 30 May 1831. It was both a reform meeting and a protest meeting against the court of requests. The following morning, bailiffs of the court tried to distrain property of Lewis Lewis, 'Lewsyn yr Heliwr'. They were stopped. On I June an insurrection began. Merthyr was held by the workers, who went from house to house restoring goods taken by the court of requests to their former owners. The magistrates sent for the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders from Brecon. Outside the Castle Hotel there was a confrontation between troops and workers. Troops opened fire, about twenty-six of the crowd were killed, sixteen soldiers wounded, six badly. The Government were alarmed and sent in more troops. The Swansea yeomanry were disarmed and forced to turn tail but by 6 June the insurrection had collapsed.
Twenty-eight miners, colliers, artisans and labourers were brought to trial for raiding homes, violence or seizing arms. Two men, Lewis Lewis and Richard Lewis (Dic Penderyn) were sentenced to death. The former's sentence was commuted to transportation. The latter, though there was much evidence to indicate that he was not guilty, was hanged at Cardiff gaol in August 1831 allegedly for having stabbed a soldier, Donald Black, in the thigh. Colliers' union lodges were spreading across the coalfield in the same month. At Dowlais and Plymouth ironworks the masters told their employees to renounce the union. By October, through near-starvation, the men were forced to submit. But the events of 1831 in Merthyr had brought together both a whole array of grievances and working-class activity in the fight for an element of justice. Politics and protest were to remain central in Merthyr's history, and, through events in Merthyr, in Welsh radicalism.