The deep nostalgic vision of Empire was dented in 1947. The King ceased to be Emperor. The jewel in the imperial crown, India, was moving towards independence long before the war. Gandhi’s brilliant insight that through non-violence the British could be embarrassed out of India more effectively than they could be shot out, had paid off handsomely during the war years.
London was dragged to the negotiating table despite the attempts by Churchill and others to scupper every deal from the thirties to the late forties. The war delayed independence but showed how much goodwill there was on the subcontinent, if Britain was wise enough to withdraw gracefully. During the conflict some two million Indians fought on Britain’s side or served in her forces directly, their contributions being particularly strong in the campaigns in North Africa, against the Italians and the Germans. Gandhi himself was sentimentally fond of Britain and kept a photo of his old school, Harrow, in his cell.
As soon as Attlee’s government took power, it organised talks on British withdrawal from India. Anti-imperialism had been a genuine strand in Labour thinking since the party’s formation, but there were now other motives behind the determination to pull out of the sub-continent. There was gratitude for Indian support throughout the war, especially in North Africa and in Iraq. Attlee thought that a rapid handover to ensure a united, independent India with both Muslims and Hindus sharing power in one vast state connected by trade and military alliance with Britain. This would also act as a major anti-Communist bulwark in Asia, to stem both Russian and Chinese expansionism. He passed the job of overseeing the transition to Lord Louis Mountbatten, who had been supreme commander in south-east Asia, and as such had organised the reconquest of Burma.
The partitioning of the sub-continent had become almost inevitable by 1947. Muslims would not accept overall Hindu domination, and yet across most of India the Hindus or Sikhs were in the majority. British India was duly split into Muslim-dominated Pakistan and Hindu India. The border line was drawn up by a British lawyer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, and kept secret until after the handover of power. Mountbatten then announced, to widespread shock, that independence would take place ten months earlier than planned, on 15 August 1947. Churchill was so appalled by this that his former Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, had to keep him away from the chamber of the Commons. While the speed of the British was a political necessity, the consequences were appalling. According to some counts, a million people died as Muslims and Hindus caught on the wrong side of the border fled their homes. Sikhs rose up against Muslims in the Punjab, Muslims drove out Hindus, as it became apparent that central authority had simply held older religious and ethnic rivalries at bay. Some 55,000 British civilians returned home, as their political masters’ scheme to hand over to a united state as a strong military ally, fell apart in chaos and killing.
The demarcation between India and Pakistan continued to be deeply unsatisfactory, as it could not have been otherwise after two centuries during which the ‘natural’ divisions between India’s peoples had been obscured and cushioned and allowed in some places to run into each other under the vast, protective and essentially artificial blanket of the old raj. For months after the devolution of power there were massive, panic-stricken and bloody adjustments to the new gravity: wholesale exchanges of population east and west between the borders of the new states, running into millions, rioting in Delhi and elsewhere which killed more than half a million; almost immediately a war broke out between India and Pakistan which the United Nations had to step in and settle; and running disputes over contentious territories to the present day. Pakistan in the awkward bisected shape which 1947 had put it in survived for only twenty-five years. It was all something of a shambles.
Labour ministers were far less enthusiastic about dismantling the Empire in Africa. Herbert Morrison, deputy leader, agreed: He said that to give the African colonies their freedom would be like giving a child of ten a latch-key, a bank-account and a shotgun. Attlee himself speculated about creating a British African army, and the Colonial Office described Africa as the core of Britain’s new world position, from where she could draw economic and military strength. For a while it seemed like the Raj would be transplanted, in fragmented form, in Africa.
Back in the mother country, in the summer of 1947 work began in deepest secret of to build a plutonium-producing plant at Windscale, a little on the coast of Cumbria. At the same time, the government sought to rescue Britain’s position as a major world power by having a nuclear bomb designed under the guidance of one of the British scientists who had been at Los Alamos, William Penney.
In the years immediately after the war Britain contained about ten million fewer inhabitants than it has today. The thirties had seen a fall in the birthrate and there was much official worry about another natural shrinkage. In William Beveridge’s war-time report launching the modern welfare state, he had suggested that a bit of fast breeding was needed, or with its present rate of reproduction, the British race cannot continue. To his generation, the British race meant the white natives of the British Isles. Before the war, 95 per cent of the population had been born in Britain, and the other five per cent was made up of the white British whose parents had been serving in the Empire in India, Africa or the Middle East when they were born. There were black and Asian people in Britain, but very few. In the thirties the Indian community numbered about eight thousand, and there were a few Indian restaurants and grocery stores in the biggest cities.
During the war, Irish people came over to Britain to fill the labour shortage left by mobilization. Immigration continued at a rate of thirty to sixty thousand per year through the forties. The cabinet committees excluded them from debates about immigration as they were considered to be effectively indigenous. There were more ‘exotic’ groups by the end of the war, like the 120,000 Poles who had fled both the Soviets and the Nazis, many of them serving in the British forces, most famously as pilots. Most chose to stay and 65,000 found work in coal-mining and factory work.
It would be wrong to portray Britain in the forties as relaxed about race. Despite the refugees who had come to Britain in large numbers since 1938 and the widespread revelation of the horrors of the concentration camps, anti-Semitism was still evident throughout British society. It was no longer the ‘property’ of the aristocratic establishment of the 1930s who had promoted the policy of appeasement, or of Mosley’s Blackshirts who had eventually been disbanded and interred by the wartime government. in the five years before the war, sixty thousand Jews from Germany and central-eastern Europe arrived in Britain, many of them highly qualified, helping to transform the scientific, musical and intellectual life of forties Britain. In their invasion plans for 1940, the German SS reckoned the Jewish population to be above 300,000, and hugely influential. After the war, the assumption that ‘they’ dodged queues or somehow got the best of scarce and rationed goods, erupts from diaries and letters as well as anecdotes from the time. After Jewish attacks on British servicemen in Palestine in 1947, there were anti-Jewish demonstrations in several British cities, including attacks on shops and even the burning of a synagogue, mimicking the actions of the Nazis in the late 1930s. More widely, trade unions were quick to express hostility to outsiders coming to take British jobs – whether European Jews or Gentiles; Poles, Czechs, Irish or Maltese. Belief that people belonged to different genetic ‘races’ was underpinned by the government continually referring to the central importance of the British race and, by implication, to a largely unquestioned belief in its superiority to all other ‘races’. Today’s post-modern multicultural Britain would leave a visitor from immediate post-war, post-medieval Britain totally bewildered.
Yet in the 1930s some parts of England, especially its cities and industrial conurbations, had already become quite mixed in terms of their white populations. In Coventry, for example, the proportion of migrants rose to 40% of the local population in 1935, the majority of newcomers coming from other UK regions than the Midlands. This continued during and after the war, so that immigrants from outside the UK made up just under two per cent of the local population. Of these, 1,046 were Poles, 953 were Ukrainian, and the third significant workers were the 1,100 unskilled textile workers recruited during the war who had stayed on and settled.
The small wartime Indian community expanded to an estimated four thousand by 1954. They soon ‘colonised’ some of the more rundown housing stock in the Foleshill Road area to the north of the city. Like other migrants in Coventry the Indians were anxious to protect their own identity and cultures. However, the ‘coloured’ minority represented less than 1.5 per cent of the city’s population and coloured workers were never a threat to the jobs of those employed in local engineering factories. Nevertheless, by the late 1940s Coventry had become predominantly a city of newcomers. Estimates were given that only thirty to thirty-five per cent of the city’s population of 258,000 had been born in the city, though it needs to be borne in mind that some ‘new’ areas like Walsgrave-on-Sowe were, in fact, as in Oxford, which had been incorporated from rural areas, still retaining something of their village characteristics. Nevertheless, they were incorporated because they had also outgrown their status as villages, also having their share of British ‘foreigners’. The birthplace information for the 1951 Census reveals that over 97,000 of the population were born outside the West Midlands and that, of these, 32,000 were from the industrial areas of south Wales, the North West of England and Northern England.
These ‘newcomers’ were divided roughly equally between the three ‘depressed districts’, each one contributing more than the 10,034 from London and the South East and the 9,993 from Ireland. There had been only 2,057 Irish in Coventry in 1931, but this number expanded rapidly during the building boom of the 1930s and the post-war reconstruction of the blitzed city centre. The streets surrounding St Osburg’s and St Mary’s churches had a distinctively Irish atmosphere. These two inner-city areas were well supplied with lodging houses and multi-tenanted buildings, whilst their proximity to Roman Catholic churches, increasing to six in number by 1939, made them an ideal port of call for itinerant building workers or those ‘after a start’ in local factories. The Irish also began to settle more permanently in the post-war period, forming a more permanent community. The expansion of Catholicism illustrates both the Irish determination to retain their religious identity and the establishment of Ukrainian and Polish congregations at separate churches. Three already large chapels in the city centre developed a distinctive Welsh identity, attracting large numbers of migrants who first arrived in the city during and following the miners’ lock-out of 1926, now forming the largest ethnic minority.
Although the Ministry of Labour insurance book exchanges highlighted a dearth of migrants from the coalfields to Coventry other than from Wales before 1940, the war had apparently increased the Geordie’s willingness to move while Coventry’s high engineering wages helped to keep him in the city once he had arrived. Early studies also suggest that, in this period, almost as many people were leaving the city as were moving in. Reports suggest that this was not simply due to failures to find suitable accommodation or work, but due to a more general failure of integration. Besides overt racial prejudice, Coventrians were reputed to be anything but welcoming to newcomers generally. Friendship and social networks typically followed regional and ethnic lines. Clubs, pubs and religious institutions often catered for particular migrant groups. The reputation of Coventry as an immigrant city since the early twentieth century mitigated against some of the standoffishness of the indigenous population. New immigrants therefore felt encouraged to socialize inside their own regional or ethnic networks, rather than establishing neighbourhood friendships.
At the same time, there were many among the migrants became overtly involved in public life. It is apparent that the political attitudes of those living in Coventry’s new housing estates were conditioned, in part at least, by their mythologized memories of the depression years elsewhere, especially as they were predominantly from older industrial areas such as the coalfields, iron and steel-producing areas, or desolate shipbuilding towns of south Wales and the north-east of England, being joined now by tens of thousands more relocating from Lancashire’s declining textile towns. It is therefore not insignificant that when the government’s housing policy came under attack in 1947, Tredegar-born Aneurin Bevan should choose to defend it in Coventry. He issued a challenge to Anthony Eden to debate the issue and was given a great reception from the people of Coventry, in particular from members of the Welsh Community, many of whom knew him in their native valleys. The growth of Coventry’s own distinct brand of municipal socialism from 1937 onwards can be seen, like Bevan’s own work, as a practical expression of an ideological impetus to reform, progress and planning which arose out of the determination of both leaders and led to obtain better living conditions to those which many had been forced to endure for much of the inter-war period.
Above: On the line in Cowley, in 1946
Coventry was not the only new industry town where immigrants from the south Wales valleys made a political impact and rose to positions of public prominence as councillors through their determination to improve conditions for their fellow workers in their new environments. A string of former Welsh miners turned car-workers, militants who became moderates, won seats on councils in Oxford, for the Cowley and Headington wards in the east of the city. Frank Pakenham, Patrick Gordon-Walker, Philip Noel-Baker, Richard Crossman and Maurice Edelman were among those of this first generation of Labour leaders to come to power as a result of rubbing shoulders with those whom one Coventry Conservative councillor had referred to, in 1938, as the sweepings of Great Britain. In Birmingham, William Tegfryn Bowen, born in the Rhondda in 1902, became a real ‘Dick Whittington’ in the making. After working as a collier from the age of fourteen until the General Strike of 1926, he moved to Birmingham and studied economics, social services and philosophy for a year before entering employment with the Austin Motor Company. In 1929 he became a trade union official and led a strike against the introduction of the Bedaux system in defiance of more senior officials. He was victimized for doing so and endured various spells of unemployment and odd jobs. He became a city councilor in 1941, an alderman in 1945 and in 1946 became both the Chairman of the Health Committee, Bevan’s right hand man in the second city. Later, on becoming Lord Mayor of Birmingham in 1952, Bowen was asked to account for the Labour hold on city which, under the Chamberlain dynasty, had been considered a conservative ‘fiefdom’. His answer referred to the large influx from other areas, with a different political outlook.
One of the former Welsh miners who became a car worker and foreman at the Pressed Steel Works in Cowley also claimed, we changed their attitude. This role in municipal affairs in England attracted the early attention of leading politicians in London too. As early as November 1935 Herbert Morrison, then Chairman of London County Council, spoke at a meeting in support of Labour’s successful parliamentary candidate for Coventry, Philip Noel-Baker. In his speech, he contrasted the failures of government ministers with the successes of a new breed of working class politicians, remarking that the Chairman of the London Public Assistance Committee was a common workman, formerly a South Wales miner, yet… better than all the Oliver Stanleys in the Tory Party.
Interviewed for a post-war social survey, Coventrian women often repeated a stereotype of Welsh women, as well as Scots and ‘Geordie’ women, that they were unemancipated compared with themselves. The related charge that Welsh women were ‘highly sexed’ was one which was first made in a 1942 book by an American writer, Eli Ginzberg. Statistical studies found no correlation between migrant women and rates of fertility, though there is some anecdotal evidence relating to the ‘moral’ consequences of overcrowding among immigrants in Coventry. The Employment Exchange officer, Philip Handley, gave anecdotes to the Civic Aid Society in 1937 of three recent cases in which the husband had gone on night shifts and the lodger had run away with his wife. Social Service agencies in both Oxford and Coventry were continuously sensitive to charges that migration led to greater immorality.
In Coventry, the marked tendency of Welsh women to select their own countrywomen as friends rather than their immediate neighbours was noted in the University of Birmingham’s Survey conducted at this time. So, too, were the continuing stereotypical ‘mirror’ attitudes towards the immigrants. Interestingly, as well as being accused of being ‘clannish’, ‘all out for themselves’ and ‘rootless’, they were also said to be ‘thrusting’, trying always to get on committees and councils and to ‘run the town’, thereby showing a lack of respect for the true Coventrians. By this time, however, it was very difficult to tell who the latter were anyway. In Oxford, more so than in Coventry, the paradoxes of the stereotyping led to the Welsh becoming even more ‘clannish’ in their attempts to re-establish themselves in a hostile environment; the more they relied upon familial and institutional networks as a means of mutual support and encouragement, the greater the was their contribution to the social and cultural life of the cities and the greater their integration into full citizenship. In finding their inner strengths in collective action and solidarity, they found the means to overcome a plethora of prejudice. They were able to define, develop, articulate and promote a self-image of ‘respectability’ which could counter the one of ‘rawness’ which was so often reflected on them. For example, a Coventry Welsh Rugby Club, originally founded in May 1939, became the cradle for the City of Coventry Rugby Club after the war, with many of the latter’s post-war players being nurtured by the Welsh Club. In Oxford, Cowley FC nurtured various Welsh players who went on to play for Oxford City and then West Bromwich Albion. One of them was Eddie Wilcox, the youngest son of the Wilcox family who had moved, like many other families, to Oxford from the Garw Valley. He became ‘wing half’ for ‘the Baggies’ at the age of twenty-one. J M Mogey’s post-war study of Oxford reveals that the tendency for the immigrants to be more actively involved in autonomous and collective forms of working class culture than their Oxford fellows was a major feature of the social and institutional life of the city in this era. The origins of the active leaders in the establishment of the community centre were in Scotland, Wales, or London, rather than in Oxford itself or its surrounding villages. Whilst Oxford people might continue to resent this domination by ‘foreigners’, they themselves did little to redress the imbalance. In both cities, Welsh Male Voice Choirs had been established early in the interwar period and, alongside the chapels, continued to maintain a distinctive contribution to cultural life in the post-war years. I have written more extensively about these in other articles.
Over the previous century, India had been regarded as the keystone of the British empire; the raison d’être of much of the rest of it, including Egypt, east Africa and the Transvaal, which were supposed to secure Britain’s sea-lanes to the sub-continent. With India gone the rationale for the rest of the Empire might seem to have gone: but some did not see it that way. Traumatic though it may have been, the transfer of power to India and Pakistan was not necessarily the beginning of the end, for the empire’s rationale in recent decades had changed quite considerably from what it had been in the nineteenth century, and could now accommodate what earlier might have seemed like the removal of its heart. In addition, the ‘inevitability’ of general decolonisation did not seem as inevitable then as it seems in retrospect. Of course, in 1947 the imperialists saw the ‘danger signs’, but not necessarily the death-knell of Empire.
The Bevin Boys leaving St Pancras in 1944 for training as miners – mixed messages?
At ‘home’, patriotic pride cemented a sense of being one people, one race, with one common history and fate. But, besides the divisions between ‘natives’, immigrants and internal, long-distance migrants, there were also profound barriers between classes. Estimates suggest that about sixty per cent of the nation was composed of the traditional working class – factory workers, agricultural labourers, navvies, riveters, miners, fishermen, servants and laundry workers. War aside, most would spend all their lives in their home cities, towns or villages, unless they were long-distance migrants from industrial Wales, Scotland, and the north and north-west of England to the Midlands and Home Counties of England. The war had softened class distinctions a little and produced the first rumblings of a coming cultural revolution, as men and women from a wide variety of backgrounds found themselves jumbled together in the services, and lower middle-class or even upper working-class officers found themselves ordering well-spoken ‘toffs’ around. The ‘Blimps’ – the older, more pompous upper-class senior officers of World War One ‘infamy’ became the butt of popular humour in the forces, a symbol of a Britain which was dying, if not already dead. On the ‘Home Front’, middle-class women worked in factories, public schoolboys went down the mines as ‘Bevin boys’ (supervised in Coventry by my collier-grandfather), and many working-class women had their first experiences of life away from the sink and the street.
With severe skill shortages and a national drive for exports, wages rose after the war, especially in the engineering factories in and around Coventry. The trades unions became powerful and self-confident, organising production in gangs almost independently from management. In other European countries, however, trade unions became fiercely political, but not so in Britain, where they remained more focused on the immediate cash-and-hours agenda of its members. This didn’t mean they were quiet, however, as many younger shop stewards had taken control from the older organisers who had crossed the line into management, especially in the newly nationalised coal industry, which came into being on 1 January 1947.
For Labour MPs, nationalising the coal industry was what they were in parliament for, as well as sweet revenge for 1926 and all that. The job was given to one of the government’s older and more ideological members: Manny Shinwell had been a tailor’s boy in London’s East End before moving to Glasgow and emerging as a moving force on ‘Red Clydeside’.He was a stirring speaker and veteran MP but when handed the task of nationalising coal and electricity, he found there were almost no plans or blueprint to help him, except for a single Labour pamphlet written in Welsh. Shinwell managed the job by the day, but this timing was catastrophic, since the freezing weather stopped the coal being moved and the power stations began to fail. Added to this, many mines operated under Victorian conditions by families which had owned them for decades, simply needed to be closed. In other parts of the coalfields, new mines needed to be sunk for, by 1947, Britain was producing a lot less coal than before the war. Modern cutting and winding gear was desperately needed everywhere. So was a better relationship between managers and miners to end the history of strikes and lock-outs, bred of mistrust. The miners got new contracts and a five-day week but the first major strikes spread within months of nationalisation. Over time, however, relations between the miners and the managers improved as former colliers became overseers and inspectors, and investment did occur. But the naive idea that simply taking an industry into public ownership would improve it was punctured early. Yet there was still a broad assumption by government and workers alike that the future of industry in general would be like the past, only more so – more cars and ships, more coal, more foundries and factories.
The classes which would do better were the middle classes, a fast growing minority. Government bureaucracy had grown rapidly during the war, and was continuing to do so. Labour’s Welfare State required, in addition to more professionals, hundreds of thousands of new white-collar jobs administering national insurance, teaching, and running the new National Health Service, about to be born.
The problem for the old ruling classes was whether the arrival of a socialist government was a brief and unwelcome interruption, which could be st out, or whether it was the beginning of a calm but implacable revolution. The immediate post-war period with its high taxation was a final blow for many landowners. Great country houses had to be passed over to the National Trust. It was hardly a revolutionary seizure of estates, yet to some it felt that way. Tradition was being nationalised. In 1947 the magazine Country Life protested bitterly that the aristocratic families had been responsible for civilisation in Britain:
It has been one of the services of those currently termed the privileged class, to whom, with strange absence of elementary good manners, it is the fashion not to say so much as a thank you when appropriating that which they have contributed to England.
Evelyn Waugh, an arriviste rather than a proper toff, sitting in his fine house in the Gloucestershire village of Stinchcombe, considered fleeing to Ireland:
The certainty that England as a great power is done for, that the loss of possessions, the claim of the English proletariat to be a privileged race, sloth and envy, must produce increasing poverty… this time the cutting down will start at the top until only a proletariat and a bureaucracy survive.
A day later, however, he was having second thoughts:
What is there to worry me here in Stinchcombe? I have a beautiful house furnished exactly to my taste; servants enough, wine in the cellar. The villagers are friendly and respectful; neighbours leave me alone. I send my children to the schools I please. Apart from taxation and rationing, government interference is negligible.
Yet he smelt the reek of the Displaced Persons’ Camp in the English air, and he was not alone in this. Noel Coward said that, immediately after Labour’s 1945 victory, I always felt that England would be bloody uncomfortable in the immediate post-war period, and it is now almost a certainty. These fears had some substance in reality, but the changes in atmosphere had very little to do with Attlee and Bevan.The old British class system, though it still retained a feudal air, much exploited by novelists and screen-writers, depended in practice on the Empire and a global authority that Britain was about to forfeit. Nevertheless, there was a sense of grievance and abandonment which hung about the political Right in Britain for decades.
Initially, it was unclear how well the monarchy would fare in postwar Britain. The leading members of the family were popular and Labour ministers were careful never to express any republicanism in public, and there is little sign of it in their private diaries either, though there were many Labour MPs pressing for a less expensive, stripped-down, more contemporary monarchy, along Scandinavian lines. Difficult negotiations took place over the amounts of money provided by cash-strapped taxpayers. Yet the Windsors triumphed again, with an exuberant display which cheered up many of their tired, drab subjects. The wedding of the future Queen Elizabeth II and the then Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten in 1947 was planned as a public spectacle. Royal weddings had not been so well organised in the past, and this was an explosion of colour and pageantry in a Britain that had seen little of either for ten years, a nostalgic return to luxury: Presents ranging from racehorses were publicly displayed, grand cakes made and a wedding dress of ivory clinging silk by Norman Hartnell.
There had been interesting arguments before the wedding about patriotism and Philip’s essential Britishness. The nephew of Lord Mountbatten was sold to the public as thoroughly English by upbringing despite his being an exiled Greek prince, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, and having many German relatives. In the event, Philip’s three surviving sisters were not invited to the wedding, all of them being married to Germans. The wedding was a radio event, still, rather than a television one, though the newsreel film of it packed out cinemas throughout the world, including in devastated Berlin. In lavishness and optimism, it was an act of British propaganda and celebration for bleak times, sending out the message that despite everything Britain was back. The wedding reminded the club of European royalty how few of them had survived as rulers into the postwar world. Dusty uniforms and slightly dirty tiaras worn by exiles were much in evidence: the Queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret remarked that people who had been starving in little garrets all over Europe suddenly reappeared.
(to be continued)
Men of Harlech and the Rise of a New Wales?:
By the Spring of 1404, Owain Glyn Dwr had all but gained control of the whole of Wales. The one castle which eluded capture was Harlech. Both strategically and spiritually it was the most important, the key to the gateway in and out of Snowdonia. Once Harlech was theirs, the rebels could truly claim to be in control of the whole of Wales. Harlech was protected on two sides by the sea and by two-metre thick concentric curtain walls, with a barbican gatehouse, almost impossible to take by storm. Owain’s French allies came to his aid with an army of 2,500 men and artillery, especially trebuchets. With these, he laid siege to the castle, while the French stopped any supplies reaching the defenders by sea. After three months of constant bombardment, and with only twenty survivors left inside, Harlech is thought to have fallen on St George’s Day, 23 April 1404. In the Great Hall, Glyn Dwr declared Welsh independence, called his first Welsh Parliament to meet at Machynlleth, and began to establish a fully independent Welsh Church. He even began to plan a full-scale invasion of England, together with Mortimer and Northumberland.
With the capture of Harlech, and certainly by the end of 1404, Glyn Dwr had effectively driven the English out of the whole of Wales. With the military campaigns at an end, he maintained popular momentum by putting an end to feudal payments to the lords and the crown; they could raise enough money from the parliaments they called, attended by delegates from all over Wales – the first and (so far) last Welsh parliaments in Welsh history with the power to raise taxes. From the gentry came Owain’s best leaders like Rhys Gethin and the Tudor brothers, from the clergy came intellectuals who charged his principality with principle. From the ordinary people by the thousand came a loyalty which had enabled him to lead a divided people one-twelfth the size of the English against a dozen royal armies. It was at once an undeniable fact, which became both a myth and a legend, as Gwyn Williams remarked, that..
Owain Glyn Dwr was one Welsh prince who was never betrayed by his own people, not even in the darkest days when many of them could have saved their skins by doing so. There is no parallel in the history of the Welsh.
Glyn Dwr now had a base at Harlech, and a staff of civil servants and diplomats, with contacts in Rome, Avignon, Burgos and Paris. In 1404 he concluded an alliance with France. There was a takeover by professional ‘courtiers’ such that his correspondence became weighty and official. Having summoned his parliament to Machynlleth, in the heart of liberated country, in the shape of four men from every commote in Wales, he required of them to raise money, ratify an alliance with France, the key to survival, and to witness his formal coronation in the presence of envoys from France, Scotland and Castile. He was now Owain, by the grace of God, Prince of Wales, with a great seal and a privy seal, showing a figure with a slightly forked beard, seated and crowned with orb and sceptre. His envoys to France were Gruffudd Young and John Hanmer. A French fleet of sixty ships sailed, but dispersed their efforts along the southern coasts of England.
The following February, Glyn Dwr drew up a tripartite agreement with Sir Edmund Mortimer and the earl of Northumberland, whereby England and Wales were to be divided between the three leaders. Interestingly, Sir Edmund had by this time abandoned the fiction that he was acting on behalf of his nephew, and claimed the English crown for himself. In addition, Mortimer would control the south of England, Percy the north and Glyn Dwr a Wales which would run from the Mersey to the Severn, taking in great tracts of the West Midlands, with a frontier deliberately drawn to include the Six Ashes on the Bridgnorth Road where Merlin had prophesied the Great Eagle would rally the Welsh warriors for the day of deliverance. A second parliament was summoned, this time to Harlech, and this funded an army of ten thousand men to support a rising in the north of England and a small French army of about two thousand men which landed at Milford Haven, forced the (English)men of south Pembrokeshire to buy their peace and marched with the Welsh in a triumphal progress across south Wales to pause at Worcester.
Meanwhile, in England, the close involvement of Sir Edmund in these treasonable conspiracies to invade had repercussions for his nephew, who, with his brother, was still in royal custody. The situation became grave in February 1405, when Lady Despencer, the mistress of Edmund of Langley, the boys’ other uncle, arranged for their abduction from Windsor. It was intended that the boys be taken to Lady Despencer’s estates in south Wales, possibly to become figureheads for the invasion, but they were recaptured at Cheltenham and placed under closer guard.
By this time, the tide was also beginning to turn against Henry’s enemies in both Scotland and France. The allies could get no further and withdrew, with many of the French returning home. Yet in 1406 came the glittering climax for the new Welsh nation and its prince. In return for their support, the French had required the Welsh to transfer their allegiance to the Pope at Avignon. In response, the Welsh required Avignon to recognise the newly created independent Welsh Church. At a great Synod near Machynlleth that Church adopted a sweeping policy designed not just to restore to the new Wales its own form of Catholicism, independent of Rome, but also to re-establish it its own bureaucracy and intelligentsia. The Welsh Church was to be free of Canterbury, with its own metropolitan Archbishopric at St. David’s exercising control over the western English diocese of the Tripartite Indenture as well. Welsh clerics were to be Welsh-speaking, Welsh Church revenues were to be devoted to Welsh needs and two universities were to be created, one in the north and another in the south, to train Welshmen in the service of the new Wales.
But, in the cold light of where real power lay, all this was illusion. The ground beneath the insurrection had already begun to give way. During 1406 Gower, parts of the Tywi valley and Ceredigion crumbled, while Anglesey made its own peace with the king. The Mortimer boys also remained tightly under the control of the English king. In 1406 they were placed in the custody of Richard, Lord Grey of Codnor, and in 1409 made wards of the ‘rightful’ Prince of Wales, Hal, later Henry V. In the same year, Roger, the younger of the two boys died, and Sir Edmund was killed at Harlech, when the castle was retaken for the crown as one of the last outposts of Welsh resistance.
By 1406, the armies of Henry IV had also begun to gain the upper hand in the war in the March. It was the Monmouth-born Prince Hal who had finally begun to recover the marcher lands lost to the Welsh. As Bolingbroke, his father had held extensive lands in the March, acquiring Brecon and Hay by marriage to Mary de Bohun, heiress to the earl of Hereford, and Monmouth, Kidwelly and Iscennen in south Wales which he had inherited from his father. These holdings were what enabled him to strike at the heart of Richard II’s power and popularity in Wales and the March. As a fifteen-year-old, Prince Hal had been injured in the face fighting the Welsh in 1403, and returned with a vengeance in 1405, at first storming through Wales, re-taking towns and villages, but then slowly and deliberately taking back the castles one at a time, re-garrisoning them before moving on to the next objective. He won his first major victory at Usk, where he captured three hundred of Glyn Dwr’s men, slaughtering them all. He also imprisoned Owain’s son Gruffudd, sending him to the Tower of London, where he was tortured mercilessly. Welsh nobles and gentry were publicly executed and parts of their bodies were displayed across Wales as a deterrence. During 1407, the Welsh maintained their position but were now fighting against the odds as resistance in Scotland slackened and France slithered into internal conflict. The royal armies carted great guns from Yorkshire through Bristol in order to mount the final sieges, though Aberystwyth under Rhys the Black beat off a fierce attack. Henry, now strongly Roman Catholic and seeking European help against the Welsh, was able to expel Glyn Dwr’s appointments from St Asaph’s and St David’s.
In 1408 Aberystwyth finally fell, and only Harlech Castle still stood against the English, who had reconquered the rest of the country. In July, a thousand of Hal’s men arrived at its walls, ready to lay siege to it. Cannons were used, almost for the first time, but however hard they pounded, the inner walls never collapsed. In February 1409, it was still going strong, disease and starvation having killed off most of the men inside. When they finally gave up the castle due to starvation, Owain was nowhere to be found. Legend has it that he had slipped out of the castle at night before the siege ended, though his family were captured and sent to the Tower. The last of his northern allies had again been cut down. The Welsh nation, established and visible for four years, vanished back into the woods. Glyn Dwr himself headed for the hills, once more an outlaw. Together with his other son Maredudd and a handful of his best captains, and a handful of Scots and French, Owain was at large throughout 1409, devastating wherever he went; at the end of the year the officers of the north-eastern March were ordered to stop making truces with him. His last big raid came in 1410, when his raiding party swooped into Shropshire, which in 1402 had made its own peace with ‘the land of Wales’. They were beaten back, and Rhys the Black, Philip Scudamore and Rhys Tudor were executed. After that, wrote a chronicler, Glyn Dwr made no great attack. The last direct reference to him was made in 1412, when he led a successful ambush of an English force at Brecon, taking their leader, Davey Gam, captive. Gruffudd Young carried on the fight, and the campaign for the Welsh Church, a little longer, but the Welsh war of independence was effectively over.
No one knows what happened to Glyn Dwr. He simply vanished once more. One suggestion is that he spent his last days in Herefordshire’s ‘Golden Valley’ (Cwm Dwr in Welsh, mistaken for d’or in French), sheltered by his son-in-law John Scudamore. Henry V, the new Welsh-born English king, who had taken Owain’s remaining son into his service, twice offered the rebel leader a pardon, but the old man was too proud to accept. After the death of Sir Edmund in the English siege of Harlech in 1409, Lady Mortimer and her daughters were taken to London and were apparently all dead by 1413. Although there is no evidence to suggest that there was any compliance by the young earl in the treason conducted by his uncle in his name, his position remained difficult, as his claim to the throne of England was strong. There was a real threat of conspiracy to place him on the throne after the death of Henry IV in 1413. The young Henry V therefore showed great magnanimity, and not a little political skill, when in June 1413 he released Edmund from captivity and returned his estates to him. The king was rewarded for this when another conspiracy to place Edmund on the throne was revealed to the king by his former charge. When Henry V embarked for Normandy in August 1415 he was accompanied by Edmund Mortimer, whose retinue included 160 mounted archers. He was active in the siege of Harfleur, but contracted dysentery and was forced to return home, leaving his troops take part in the epic ‘English’ victory of 25 October. In 1417 Henry V mounted a second expedition with the serious intention of conquering Normandy. Edmund again took part with a force of a hundred lancers and three hundred archers. The success of his troops led to Edmund’s appointment as the king’s lieutenant in Normandy.
In the traumatic fifteen years of 1398 to 1413, Wales had been propelled not only into a war of national liberation within itself but into a civil war stretching into England as well. Gwyn Williams assessed its significance in the following terms:
The whole complex of contradictory and often unpleasant attitudes which had characterised Welsh political life since the tenth century assumed permanent and painful form in the minds of most Welsh people. Half-suppressed, for in modern Wales and particularly among people of substance, Owain is still something of an outlaw prince, it has helped to make the Welsh the peculiarly schizophrenic people we are.
Since 1410 most Welsh people most of the time have abandoned any idea of independence as unthinkable. But since 1410 most Welsh people, at some time or other, if only in some secret corner of the mind, have been ‘out with Owain and his barefoot scrubs’. For the Welsh mind is still haunted by its lightning-flash vision of a people that was free.
If we are to view Owain Glyn Dwr as an unsung hero of Welsh history, we must also admit that, ultimately, he was a heroic failure. In this context, we need to ask why and how, forgotten until the late eighteenth century, he could be hailed first as a romantic hero and then in the nineteenth century as a founding father of Welsh nationalism. As Dai Smith has pointed out,
He justified his revolt against the English Crown by reference to rights enjoyed in the past when the Welsh were the original British. He called on ancient genealogies to prove his claim to be Prince of Wales. The fifteen-year struggle did have an anti-English tap-root in a time of severe dislocation, but the revolt was sparked by a personal grievance, fed on the uncertainties of English civil strife, and was never a popular uprising.
Glyn Dwr led a group of patricians with a similar list of grievances which they were intent on settling. He may have had a consciousness of all of Wales in the way that fifteenth-century Europe was beginning to nurture nation-states, and this concept was supported by the clerks and gentlemen who added him in his plans for a Welsh ‘parliament’ at Machynlleth and a Welsh ‘university’ to service the rule. He was, though, not averse to including chunks of English territory and English-speakers in his Wales, and his revolt was more a regional conflagration than a national war for ‘independence’.
On the whole, Dai Smith’s assessment of the significance of the Glyn Dwr rebellion seems to be more convincing to me, in that it assesses the narrative of events against the backcloth of the dynastic struggles of the English kings and the Marcher lords. There is certainly room in this narrative for both the contemporary myths and the lasting legends surrounding the enigmatic leader of the rebellion, which turned into both a civil war and a national war of independence, but that is not the same as mythologising him as a founder or a forerunner of modern Welsh nationalism.
Charles Hopkinson & Martin Speight (2011), The Mortimers: Lords of the March. Herefords: Logaston Press.
Gwyn A. Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Dai Smith (1984), Wales! Wales? Hemel Hempstead: George Allen & Unwin.
Part One: The Men and the Myths, 1398-1403
The Welsh Dynasties:
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, much of Wales was ruled by a succession of resolute Princes of Gwynedd, from the area around Snowdonia which the Anglo-Norman marcher lords had failed to penetrate. The princes strove to bring the whole of Wales under their banner, but they could only achieve this if the messy parochialism of separate territories could be sorted out by instilling in their rulers and sub-rulers the order of hierarchical allegiance demanded by the Anglo-Norman kings of the Welsh princes themselves. The Gwynedd dynasty was willing to pay this price so that, within Wales, they could exert the same feudal pyramid by referring to themselves as Princes of Wales. Through a clever combination of diplomacy and war they came close to achieving this, though not without upsetting other Welsh rulers and causing internecine strife. Wales might have emerged as a semi-feudal kingdom in a feudal Europe had it not been for the growing unease about an English kingdom which was undergoing the same process, combined with the deep mistrust felt by other Welsh princes and lords for the ‘modernising’ tendencies of the Gwynedd dynasty. When Llywelyn the Last was killed in 1282 at Cilmeri, near Builth Wells, far from his northern base, military initiatives designed to unify Wales disappeared for more than a century.
One major source of alarm in the century following Edward I’s establishment of an ‘iron ring’ of fortresses around Snowdonia was those Welshmen who took service with the enemies of the English kings. Outstanding among these was Owain ap Thomas ap Rhodri, a descendent of the Gwynedd dynasty, who from 1369 led a Welsh free company of mercenaries in the service of France. Owain Lawgoch, of the Bloody Hand, based his claim on direct dynastic inheritance of the Llywelyns and announced the imminence of his arrival with a French fleet. He sailed from Harfleur on two occasions, and throughout the 1370s there were ripples of support for his name throughout north Wales. The English authorities took these threats seriously and sent one John Lambe to murder him in Mortagne-sur-Mer in 1378, paying him twenty pounds to do the deed. There were repeated security clampdowns in Wales itself, with a coastal watch, the manning of walls and the renewed exclusion of all Welshmen from any office of significance from 1385-6. In the Welsh poetry of the period there is a note of discord and dissatisfaction at the treatment of the Welsh gentry in their own country. Gruffydd Llwyd, for example, wrote a poem bemoaning the lack of honour accorded to Welshmen of merit of the old tradition. Few Welshmen were knighted and even his own patron, Owain Glyn Dwr, who to him seemed so worthy of such reward, had been slighted.
Where the idea of ‘the Return of Arthur’ could find an anchorage in political reality was the March, the borderland, among the Norman baronage which had long Welsh heritage. The Mortimer family could lay claim to such connections, since one of their number had married Gwladus, daughter of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, in the previous century, and in the second half of the fourteenth century Roger Mortimer, fourth Earl of March, had probably as good a dynastic claim as any to the Principality of Gwynedd. He became the focus of extravagant hopes among the Welsh gentry.The poet Iolo Goch, one of his tenants, wrote an ode of loyalty in which he addressed Mortimer as the inheritor of the Arthurian mantle. Here was the Hero Returned who would rescue the Welsh from their degradation. What made this all the more poignant was that Mortimer also had a good claim to the inheritance of Richard II. With the accession of Richard II, some of the Welsh officials, at least in north Wales, returned to favour. Prominent among his supporters were the five sons of Tudur ap Gronw who, from their base in Anglesey commanded an influential set of familial connections in north Wales. Gwilym and Rhys Tudor in particular were favoured by Richard, who was as popular in north Wales as he was in Cheshire. It was at this time that the renaissance of the Welsh language was beginning to meet with judicial resistance. The language was resurgent in the Vale of Glamorgan and the Welsh became town-dwellers, in Oswestry, Brecon, and Monmouth, among others. A chorus of complaint against them burst out not only from these towns, but from merchants on the English side of the March. Nearly every Parliament between 1378 and 1400 demanded action against the impertinent Welsh peasants, and there was even an anti-Welsh riot at the University of Oxford in which the cry went up to ‘kill the Welsh dogs!’
With this reaction, by the end of the fourteenth century, the administration of Wales was returned solidly under the control of the English crown. Wales had been experiencing growing tensions during the last quarter of the fourteenth century. At a time of falling agricultural revenues, the great landlords had become increasingly rapacious, exacting heavy fines and subsidies from their tenants. Despite the popularity of Mortimer and Richard II with the Welsh, the English king, at least, did not reciprocate in his appointments. Between 1372 and 1400, of the sixteen bishops appointed in Wales, only one was Welsh.The Welsh clergy had become increasingly outraged at the exploitation of ecclesiastical revenues by English bishops who had been appointed to the Welsh sees. Racial tensions were also growing among the burgesses of ‘English’ boroughs and their Welsh neighbours, as can be seen in the granting of charters such as that received by the Mortimer borough of St Clears in 1393, guaranteeing that cases involving burgesses should only be heard by English burgesses and true Englishmen (to the west of St Clears, along the southern coast to Pembroke, Englishmen had settled in large numbers since the Norman Conquest of Wales). There was also a significant power vacuum at the head of Welsh society. In 1398, somewhat inexplicably, Richard II exiled the dukes of Norfolk and Hereford, who had engaged in a bitter personal dispute. The banishing of Hereford, better known as Henry Bolingbroke, was an action which ultimately sealed the king’s doom. The crackdown on the over-mighty magnates, coupled with the death of Roger Mortimer (VI), meant that most of the marcher lords had been removed. Richard II’s favourites who had been appointed to the vacant lands were incapable of exercising similar authority to that of the old marcher lords, a factor which was made worse by the division of Mortimer lands by the Crown following Bolingbroke’s coup of 1399.
The Mortimers had ruled the borderlands, the Marcher Lordships, virtually unopposed, and that was enough for the English to stomach. But Bolingbroke’s usurpation of Richard II, by which he became King Henry IV opened an era of instability in the succession in England, interwoven with the repeatedly renewed French wars, which thrust real power into the hands of the aristocracy, not least those in the March, where there were disturbances as factions moved against each other. When Henry IV made his son Prince of Wales, a French knight commented, but I think he must conquer Wales if he will have it…
Resentment soon led to outright rebellion. As heavy communal levies were imposed, Lord Grey of Ruthin reported serious misgovernance and riot beginning in the north-eastern March, and demanded action throughout Wales, particularly against Welsh officials who were kinsmen of the troublemakers. By the spring and summer of 1400, the administration at Caernarfon was nervous. It claimed evidence of letters passing between the Welsh and the Scots which called for rebellion: men in Merioneth were stealing arms and horses; ‘reckless men’ of many areas were meeting to plot sedition. In Anglesey, certainly, the Tudors were planning a protest in their island to tap the widespread dismay of their cohort of cousins.
Who was Owain Glyn Dwr?
On his father’s side, Glyn Dwr was a member of the dynasty of northern Powys and, on his mother’s side, a descendent of the princes of Deheubarth in the south-west. The family had fought for Llewelyn ap Gruffydd in the last war of independence and regained its lands in north-east Wales through a calculated alliance with the Marcher lords of Chirk, Bromfield and Yale. In 1328 it abandoned Welsh law and secured its estate with the English feudal hierarchy. They were therefore rooted in the official Welsh aristocracy. Glyn Dwr’s grandmother was a member of the lesser aristocrat family of Lestrange.
Glyn Dwr himself held the lordships of Glyn Dyfrdwy and Cynllaith Owain near the Dee directly of the king by Welsh barony. He had an income of two hundred pounds a year and a fine, moated mansion at Sycharth with tiled and chimneyed roofs, a deerpark, heronry, fishpond and mill. He was a complete Marcher gentleman and had put in his term (possibly seven years) at the Inns of Court. He must have been knowledgeable in law and married the daughter of Sir David Hanmer, a distinguished lawyer from a cymricised Flintshire family, who had served under Edward III and Richard II. In 1386 Glyn Dwr appeared at the same court of chivalry, together with a throng of baronial youth. He had served in the French wars in the retinues of Henry of Lancaster and the Earl of Arundel. In the Scottish campaign of 1385, according to the poet, he had worn his scarlet flamingo feather and driven the enemy before him like goats, with a broken lance.
In the troubles of 1399-1400, however, Glyn Dwr ran up against a powerful neighbour in Reginald de Grey, lord of Ruthin, an intimate of the new king, Henry IV. They quarreled over common land which de Grey had stolen. Glyn Dwr lost his dispute, and could not get justice from either king or parliament; Welshmen were seen as suspect, due to their support of Richard II – What care we for these barefoot rascals? A proud man, over forty and grey-haired in service, Glyn Dwr was subjected to malicious insults and the conflict turned violent. His response was a traditional one for a Marcher lord – he would avenge his honour with his sword. But he was more than a Marcher.
He was one of the living representatives of the old royal houses of Wales, Powys, an heir to Cadwaladr the Blessed, in a Wales strewn with the rubble of such dynasties. The bards had already reminded him of this heritage, which, in any case, he was himself steeped in. His correspondence suggests that an effort was made to contact the disaffected elsewhere, and when he raised his standard outside Ruthin on 16 September 1400, his followers at once proclaimed him Prince of Wales at his manor of Glyn Dyfrdwy. This was the signal for spontaneous outbreaks in north Wales, which within a matter of weeks had devastated town like Oswestry and engulfed the whole region of north-east Wales. The response to this call was extraordinary and may have startled even Glyn Dwr himself. Supported by the Hanmers and other Norman-Welsh Marchers, together with the Dean of St Asaph, he attacked Ruthin with several hundred men and went on to ravage every town in north-east Wales: Denbigh, Rhuddlan, Flint, Hawarden, Holt, and Welshpool. Rhys and Gwilym Tudor raised a rebellion in Anglesey. Hundreds of people rushed to join and churches followed towns into flame. The lesser clergy in north Wales joined promptly, as did the Cistercians throughout Wales. In Conwy, Strata Florida, Whitland, Llantarnam they rallied to the cause. In the latter of these, the Abbot, John ap Hywel, joined Glyn Dwr’s army as its chaplain and went on to fall in battle. The Franciscans also joined the cause; the friars at Llanfaes were ejected by Henry IV’s forces and their house was ravaged. There was an immediate response from Oxford, too, where Welsh scholars at once dropped their books and picked up arms, flocking home. They entered into ‘treasonous correspondence’ and met to plot the destruction of the kingdom and the English language. There were rumours that Welsh labourers in England were downing tools and heading for home. The English Parliament at once rushed to place anti-Welsh legislation on the books. As Edward I had done more than a century before, they singled out the bards of Wales in particular.
The English ‘marchers’ were utterly unable to cope with the rebellion. The sheer scale and ferocity of the Welsh attacks overwhelmed both the Principality and the March. Henry IV marched a big army in a great arc right across north Wales, burning and looting without mercy. He left the pacification to Henry Hotspur who offered general pardons , except to the ringleaders, in order to soften the heavy communal fines which were to follow. Whole populations scrambled to make peace. Over the winter of 1400-01, Glyn Dwr took to the hills with just seven men. In the Spring, however, the Tudors snatched control of Conwy Castle by a clever trick. The capture of the castle on Good Friday 1401, while the garrison was at prayers, was an act of great bravado which captured the imaginations of many disaffected Welshmen. It was a major propaganda coup, humiliating the English and inspiring the Welsh. Owain’s little band moved quickly into the centre and the south of Wales and once more hundreds ran to join the rebel army at Mynydd Hyddgen in the Pumlumon range, where they won a decisive victory. Carmarthenshire also erupted into revolt and so many rushed to arms that the government panicked that there might be an invasion of England. Another royal army was sent to trudge in futility through south Wales, the Welsh guerilla forces melting into the countryside before it, attacking its baggage trains as it retreated. Meanwhile, a powerful onslaught on Caernarfon drove the King’s Council to consider peace terms.
The key men were coming over to Glyn Dwr’s side, the gentry. There also seems to have been a network of supporters even in the towns. Glyn Dwr’s letters went to men such as Henry Dwnn of Kidwelly, who had served under John of Gaunt in France in 1371-2 and Richard II in Ireland in 1393-4. Dwnn had already had his estates confiscated once, in 1389. His retinue of two hundred men were said to terrorise the district. Many more local magnates like him joined Glyn Dwr’s cause. It was during 1401 that Owain became fully aware of his growing power to attract such support from local populations across Wales. He also addressed letters to the Irish, in Latin, and to the Scots, in French, reminding them of the prophecy that Wales would not be freed without their assistance and urged them to send support. In his letters to south Wales he declared himself as the divinely-appointed liberator who would deliver the Welsh from their oppressors. By the end of 1401 the revolt had spread across western and central Wales, though the English government still controlled large areas in the marches, and the southern lordships were as yet untouched.
Legendary Battles and Sieges:
In June 1401, Glyn Dwr had defeated an English Army at the Battle of Hyddgen near Brecon, and the next June (1402), he personally led a force into mid Wales. To combat this, Sir Edmund Mortimer, uncle of the ten-year old earl, also Edmund, assembled an army of Herefordshire men at Ludlow, later joined by a contingent from Maelienydd. The Mortimer forces met Glyn Dwr in open battle on 22 June 1402 at Bryn Glas near Pilleth, Hay-on-Wye. Many English knights were eager to engage the Welsh forces in open battle for the first time. Although Owain’s men had waged successful guerilla campaigns, they had only once faced the English in open conflict, at Hyddgen. The odds were stacked against them and the English were expecting to slaughter the upstarts. There were about 2,500 English troops and less than a thousand Welshmen. The Welsh wore light armour but were armed with a variety of deadly hand-to-hand combat weapons adapted from farmyard tools. The English knights had polished armour-plate, battle-axes and swords. The Welsh archers, however, had the strategic advantage of the high ground at the top of a steep hill, while the English position down in the valley was hampered by marshland, through which they had had to march in order to take it up. When they saw the Welsh archers taking up their position on the brow of the hill, the English knights decided to charge up it to do battle. They were supposed to be given cover by the long bowmen whom they had recruited from Maelienydd. At a crucial moment in the battle, this contingent lowered their bows, turned around, and fired upon the English infantry below them. Under attack from all sides and immobile in their heavy armour, they provided easy prey for the Welsh peasant foot soldiers, especially once they were down off their horses. By the end of the battle, the English had suffered a heavy defeat, losing more than a thousand men compared with Owain’s losses of just two hundred. It was a total and terrifying slaughter after which the land was said to be a sea of mud and blood. Perhaps the most important result, however, was that Sir Edmund Mortimer was captured and taken to Snowdonia by Glyn Dwr.
Following the disaster at Bryn Glas, the Percies and other relations of the Mortimers began to raise money for the ransom of Sir Edmund, but the king, already suspecting collusion between Mortimer and Glyn Dwr, forbade the payment of the ransom, and instead ordered the confiscation of Sir Edmund’s plate and jewels. Partly as a result of this, Edmund decided to make common cause with his captor, marrying Owain’s daughter, Catherine, at the end of November, then ordering his people to rally to Glyn Dwr. This may have been a ploy to obtain a quicker release, or might have been motivated by the deeper dynastic values and issues already referred to. The marriage echoed that of Ralph (II) Mortimer to Gwladus Ddu, the daughter of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth in 1228, and was popular with the Mortimer ‘clan’, which had always been attracted by Cymric lore in relation to the early British kings. The family genealogy and chronicle is preceded by a ‘Brut’, a chronicle of the ancient kings of Britain, drawn up some time after 1376 when John of Gaunt was attempting to secure the royal succession for his heirs. This was used as a means of harnessing legendary ancestry to the rival Mortimer claims. It is also significant that two of the three ‘Round Tables’, tournaments and entertainments with an Arthurian theme, were hosted by the Mortimers. The first, a great four-day event, took place at Kenilworth in 1279 and celebrated the knighting of the three sons of Roger (III) Mortimer.
Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the death in 1398 of Roger (VI) Mortimer, who enjoyed a considerable degree of support in Shropshire and north Wales, meant that his six-year-old son Edmund was not only heir to the whole Mortimer empire in England and Wales, but was also regarded as heir to the throne. Bolingbroke’s coup of 1399 had dramatically changed this situation. Henry IV’s first Parliament recognised Bolingbroke’s son Henry as heir apparent, and the young Edmund, as a royal ward, was kept under close scrutiny, though treated with respect. Although the Mortimer estates were initially split up, in February 1400 they were taken into the hands of the steward and treasurer of the Great Council in order that their revenues could be used to defray the expenses of the royal household. Edmund and his brother Roger were allowed three hundred marks per year for their maintenance. So, when Sir Edmund, his uncle, decided to switch sides in the war of independence, the young earl’s position became an uncomfortable one, at least in political terms.
By December 1402 Sir Edmund had returned to Maelienydd proclaiming that he had joined Owain to restore Richard II, if alive, or otherwise to place his ‘honoured nephew’, Edmund earl of March, on the throne. In the event of the success of this scheme, Owain’s claims to Wales would be respected. The men of Maelienydd were again called up to join the campaign, and they were soon joined by the earl of Northumberland and his son, Henry (‘Harry’) Hotspur, who had recently had their own rather complex quarrel with the king. Despite the death of Hotspur and a number of leading rebel nobles at the bloody engagement at Shrewsbury on 21 July 1403, Glyn Dwr continued to make headway in south Wales. His forces stormed the towns and liberated Abergavenny, Usk, Caerleon, Newport and Cardiff. In 1402-3 the whole of Wales was at war, and the English were attacked wherever they went. But to gain complete control of the country he had to overcome the biggest and toughest obstacles, the castles. Each castle was garrisoned to deal with local rebellions, equipped and supplied to withstand lengthy sieges. Owain’s men used a variety of ingenious methods to gain control of the castles. At Conwy, the Tudors had used a trick. At Dynefor they ‘sounded out’ the garrison by shouting out all the gruesome things they would inflict on the English if they did not surrender. At Caerphilly they formed a human pyramid to jump over the walls and open the gates. By the middle of 1403 Glyn Dwr had captured most of the castles and was in control of the country. Gwyn Williams (1985) distilled the essence of the war in Wales in the following graphic terms:
The twelve-year war of independence was, for the English, largely a matter of relieving their isolated castles. Expedition after expedition was beaten bootless back. Henry IV, beset by Welsh, Scots, French and rebellious barons, sent in army after army, some of them huge, all of them futile; he never really got to grips with it and the revolt largely wore itself out, in a small country blasted, burned and exhausted beyond the limit of endurance. For the Welsh, it was a Marcher rebellion and a peasants’ revolt which grew into a national guerilla war , its leader apparently flitting so swiftly and mysteriously from one storm centre to the next that in English eyes he grew to be an ogre credited with occult powers, a name to frighten children with. This probably reflects the operation of widely scattered guerilla bands operating in his name.
The sheer tenacity of the war of independence was startling. Few revolts in contemporary Europe lasted more than a few months and no previous Welsh uprising had lasted as long. This one raged for more than a full decade and didn’t really end for fifteen. While guerilla bands lurked and fought throughout the length and breadth of the country, Owain was able to put armies of ten thousand men into the field. Adam of Usk credited him with an irregular force of thirty thousand at the peak of the war. They maintained themselves partly by sheer pillage, while Owain used a combination of fire, sword and blackmail, with whole districts as well as rich men being held to ransom. For their part, the royal armies exacted a terrible vengeance in wholesale arson, looting and confiscations, even as retreating rebels scorched their own earth. Many a town and village was trapped in the grim grip of terror and counter-terror. In February 1404 the people in the hill country above Brecon agreed to submit to the king if he could defeat the rebels in their area; if not, they would remain loyal to Owain. In effect, as well as cause, this was a state of civil war. Most of the English in Wales were viewed as enemies, especially in the towns. Thomas Dyer of Carmarthen lost a thousand pounds in the rebellion. Many Welsh families had split allegiances. Robert, Abbot of Bardsey, declared for Glyn Dwr; his brother, Evan, was killed defending Caernarfon Castle for the king. Even in Owain’s own family, his cousin Hywel tried to murder him.
Yet the English campaigns of 1400 to 1403 were unable to exploit these divisions and did little to dent Owain’s military and diplomatic successes. For this was more than mere rebellion. It had serious international dimensions. During 1402-3 the revolt became enmeshed in baronial conspiracies in England which were to rally the powerful northern Percies against Henry and to cost Archbishop Scrope of York his life. The Civil War had spread to the North of England.
(to be continued…)
Meeting His People:
Having taken over the UK premiership from Margaret Thatcher and fought off the Tory “bastards” on the Eurosceptic Right in Parliament, John Major called a General Election for April 1992. BBC Chief Correspondent John Simpson was asked to cover the PM’s personal campaign. After covering the bombing of Baghdad, this should have been a stroll in the park. It turned out to be one of his less pleasant of his assignments to date. On Sunday 15 March he travelled to Sawley in Huntingdon, Major’s own constituency. Here he was to Meet the People, his people of course. As he commented:
The words were always said with a particular reverence by his handlers, as though real people were the greatest rarities in the world, unpredictable creatures who could only be approached with extreme care.
It has some echoes, a generation later, in the contemporary confection, the Will of the People, in the current Brexit debate. Simpson recalls that the whole event was dreadful. Major sat on a stool, looking uncomfortable, and a group of specially invited, carefully scanned local supporters sat equally uncomfortably in front of him. Everything had been so rehearsed that any life it originally had had long since been sucked out of it. The party ‘hacks’ reminded Simpson of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were true believers, trying their best to be patient with the sceptics. This isn’t a press conference, it’s a people conference, he was told. You’ll be able to spectate at it. He’s not just going to speak to the people, it’s for the people to be able to ask whatever’s on their minds. As it transpired, the people were as embarrassed and shy as Major himself seemed, perched on his stool. What was on their minds was the kind of thing they had read in the tabloid newspapers:
‘Is it true,’ one asked, ‘that if the Socialists win, they will do lasting damage to the British economy?’
The questions were sometimes so extreme that Major, a fair-minded man, sounded less anti-Labour than they were. The best he could do was to say that nothing much was going on in the country.
“Transcript of report from Sawley, Northants, 15.3.92
“Speaker: Rt Hon John Major, PC, MP.
“JM: Back in 1979 there was a real feeling for change. I’m telling you, it ain’t there now.”
As Simpson drove to the studios, he thought over whether he should give his report without adjectives, just giving a bald account of what had happened. Yet he felt that if the overall impression he had received of the event was of a lack of imagination and understanding, he should say so. He stopped beside the road and began writing:
“Transcript of report for 6.25 News. 15.3.92
“JS: The campaign proper began for John Major with a chance on BBC Radio to get in a brief, quotable thrust at his opponents:
“JM: This fetish the opposition parties have for raising taxes seems very damaging to the economic interests of this country.
“JS: But the business of meeting the people began on his own home ground: In Sawley, part of his own constituency. The people he’d come to see had been carefully invited by the local Conservative Party and the questions weren’t exactly designed to cause him problems…
“JS: Mr Major is no great orator, and his handlers think he’s better with small groups. But it was all desperately tame today. There are promises that his campaign may liven up a little later.”
‘Spin Doctors’ and ‘Heavy Breathers’:
The ‘spin-doctors’ at Conservative Central Office were furious when they heard this all-too-truthful account. The editor who began taking their angry calls even before the end of the broadcast rang Simpson to congratulate him on the report, but he wouldn’t have been human if he hadn’t wished that this particular cup had passed him by. The functionaries from Tory Central Office had identified Simpson as a wrecker, probably a paid-up member of the Labour Party. Yet the Labour Party was claiming that the BBC was biased against them. Neil Kinnock’s campaign manager warned:
If the BBC believes it can operate like this because the Conservatives hate it but Labour has a sentimental attachment to it, it had better think again. If it goes on like this and Labour wins, there won’t be as much sentiment around for the BBC as it believes.
In reality, the Labour Party wanted to control the BBC just as much as the Conservatives did. The only difference was that under Margaret Thatcher the latter gave the impression they were always thinking of tampering with the BBC’s structure. Over the decades going back to its founding, senior politicians have retained the habit of picking up the phone to the broadcasters as if they themselves own them. This is known by TV and Radio journalists as ‘heavy breathing’, and it succeeds in frightening them far too often. All too often the journalists or their editors try to be conciliatory and to explain that no offence was intended. The mere fact of replying like that encouraged the politicians to complain again. Although a genuine mistake was sometimes made, in John Simpson’s experience that was relatively rare. The parties complained most when their senior politicians had done badly in an interview, and they chose to blame the broadcasters for the poor performance. Simpson singled out ‘a new gladiator’ who had turned up in this ‘arena’ for particular attention:
I rather liked Tony Blair’s press spokesman, Alistair Campbell, when I was at Westminster: he was one of the freer-thinking political correspondents. Perhaps, like me, his time at Westminster left him less than starry-eyed about the nature of the lobby. He says what he thinks, without worrying too much about the feelings of those he talks to…
But Alistair Campbell is a man with an agenda. He wants government ministers to look and sound good on air, regardless of whether the are good. When interviewers of the quality of Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys are questioning them, they don’t always shine. The Paxman style of interviewing is something that can only exist on British television. He is a national asset, and someone the BBC can and should feel great pride and confidence in. Of course Alistair Campbell and all his equivalents in British politics dislike him: he is the scourge of sloppy policy-making and muddle-headed ministers. And of course he is feared by all those who have a vested interest in tame interviews and tame broadcasting.
One morning John Humphrys had just walked out of the studio at the end of the ‘Today’ programme (on BBC Radio 4), and picked up the phone which was ringing on a nearby desk. He listened for a while to some threatening character from one of the parties.
‘Thanks for that,’ he said when the phone went quiet, ‘and I wonder if I could make an observation?’
‘Yes, of course.’
And he put the phone down.
In many ways my complaint is less against the robustness of the politicos and more against the feebleness of the broadcasters. There is no reason on earth why, in a free society, people like Alistair Campbell shouldn’t try to put pressure on the broadcasters.
But equally there is no reason why the broadcasters should pay the slightest attention, except in cases where they have broadcast something which is false or tendentious. In that case they should be forced to put it right as soon as possible. There should only be one answer to the bully, the blackmailer and the heavy breather:.. ‘le mot de John Humphrys’.
Perhaps the current American Press and Media pack should take courage from the British example in their dealings with Donald Trump’s accusations of ‘fake news’ operations among the White House Press Corps, and not be so deferential, but rather stand up for their freedoms as The Fourth Estate.
Meeting ‘Real’ People:
According to Simpson, the 1992 UK General Election was altogether nastier than either the 1987 or 1997 campaigns. Like some of the US press today, he was branded an enemy, and was treated so unpleasantly by the more obsequious editors and reporters that he preferred to travel with the photographers and television cameramen. Meanwhile, John Major’s television advisers continued to create a campaign which emphasised the very qualities which seemed to diminish him most: the mildness, the uninspired speaking style, the pen-in-the top pocket concern with detail.
On Wednesday, 25 March John Major was in Scotland, and the Media representatives flew up there with him. This was a more pleasant trip for Simpson, as he got on well with one of The Guardian columnists. He knew he had to be careful: everything he said was likely to be taken down and used in evidence against him. He was beginning to write up his notes on the plane at the end of the day when John Major came down the aisle and asked him if his campaign was really as bad as Simpson was reporting. The Guardian columnist, David Hare, published the conversation in his book, Asking Around, chronicling the campaign, later the same year:
John Major moves behind me to talk to John Simpson, and I suddenly realize he is asking for professional advice. Scraps of their conversation drift across me.
Simpson: …not sure about your campaign… not sure you’re showing yourself to the best advantage.
Major: No. I agree. I agree.
Simpson: …all seems a bit pointless… ways in which you could be better presented…
Major: I know. I know. What do you think I should do?
Simpson told Major that it wasn’t his job to give advice to politicians, but that it didn’t make good television to see politicians with ‘believers’ rather than ‘real people’. The following Saturday they were in a particularly depressing shopping centre in Luton. They had turned up early, and so had the Trotskyists, ready to give Major a hard time. When his blue coach arrived, the PM stayed on board, but one of his aides got off, opened the baggage compartment and pulled out a wooden construction of some kind. Then Major got off and someone handed him a megaphone. He got up on the construction, a soapbox, and began to rate:
Something came over him, some distant memory of being a Young Conservative in the sixties, perhaps, and he grew louder and more confident, and his voice started to drown out the shouting. There was no actual violence, though somehow the unworthy thought came to my mind that if he took a bottle on the head and a trickle of blood were to run down those decorously mild features, it would be worth at least ten marginals to him… Of course, the sight of chanting, egg-throwing lefties did wonders for John Major’s standing.
“No one’s going to keep me away from the people,” he proclaimed in his harsh, much imitated, amplified voice, as though anyone was trying to…
He was sweating slightly as he got down from his box, and the rain had speckled his glasses.
“So that is the kind of thing you wanted?” he asked me…
“It’ll look good on television, certainly,” I said. And it did.
After that, until 9 April, the soap box went with him wherever he went. Some said that it was the reason he won the election. It certainly had something to do with it, though I recall the unpopularity of Labour’s tax plans with marginal, ‘middle income’ Midlanders like me, many of whom would have been embarrassed to admit to voting Tory to the pollsters. Perhaps his instinct that this was not a time for change appealed to the innate conservatism of the British people. In the event, it will go down as a sensational personal success for him and his soapbox.
John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Macmillan (Pan).
It is impossible for us to go on with the war if losses like this continue.
First Sea Lord John Jellicoe, April 1917
Germany is finished.
German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, on the decision made by the Kaiser and the military chiefs allowing unrestricted U-boat warfare.
The U-boat Menace:
Although they had been used in warfare since the eighteenth century, it was during the First World War that the submarine, especially the German U-boat (Unterseeboot), came to play a crucial role. But this did not develop until 1916-17. In 1914 to 15 the number of Allied ships lost to U-boat raids increased from just three to almost four hundred, and this number had increased to 964 in 1916. Debate raged in Germany over whether their submarines should attack civilian ships without warning or conform to prize rules and warn the ship’s crew first. Some amongst the German high command thought that unrestricted submarine war could antagonise America to enter the war; others reasoned it would finish the war early. Those who reasoned the latter were justified by the increase of allied ships lost to 2,439 in 1917, and even in 1918 over a thousand were lost. Even more costly was the loss of British merchant ship tonnage, which reached its peak of 545,282 in April 1917. Before the introduction of the convoy system, the rate of British shipping loss was at a rate of twenty-five per cent, dropping to just one per cent afterwards.
In February 1917 Germany opted to allow unrestricted U-boat warfare. In the next three months they sank over five hundred ships. This action had a major effect on the transportation to Britain of supplies, leading even to the banning of rice being thrown at weddings. New tactical and technical methods were brought in, such as the use of convoys, Q-ships (disguised armed merchant ships) and depth charges, which could sink U-boats while still submerged, or force it to the surface where it could be fired upon, so that by the end of 1917 the Atlantic was safe enough to allow huge numbers of American troops to be transported to Europe. One of the Austro-Hungarian submarine commanders, Georg Ludwig von Trapp, became an Austrian national hero for sinking thirteen ships. His later marriage to his children’s tutor and their escape from the Nazis after the Anschluss of 1938 provided the inspiration for the 1960s musical, The Sound of Music.
Heaven grant us its peace, but not the King of Hungary’s!
In Germany itself, the Royal Navy’s blockade of its ports was starting to ‘bite’ by the winter of 1916-17, with a scarcity of home-grown potatoes leading to turnips and other foods being turned into sustenance. Up to this point the War had been fought by traditional methods, by combatants whose national integration was still intact. But with the coming of the New Year of 1917 a change came over the scene. Ancient constitutions began to crack, old faiths were questioned, and potent, undreamed of historical forces began to be released. Everywhere in the world the sound of the old order beginning to crack was heard but, as yet, it was drowned out by the noise of war.
Nevertheless, in half-conscious anticipation of these permanent fractures, a fumbling movement towards peace began across the continent. The wiser heads in every country were coming to fear that their nations might crumble through sheer weariness, and that absolute victory, even if it were won, might only mean chaos. The first sign of movement came from Germany, but its peace offer of December 1916 was framed in the arrogant terms of one who felt that they had the winning cards. The main German motive was prudential. The Somme had shown them that their military machine was being strained to breaking-point; if it broke all would be over, and at any cost that catastrophe must be averted. If the belligerents consented to come to terms, however, the Germans believed that they would have certain advantages at any peace conference. They had much to lose which they might have difficulty holding on to by fighting on, whereas their renunciation of the war might help them win things considered by them, at least, to be vital to Germany’s future.
Moreover, once Germany’s opponents were entangled in discussion, there was a chance of breaking up their unity and shifting the argument to minor issues. For the German government, it was a matter of life and death that a rift should appear among the Entente powers before they suffered any irremediable disaster. They also had an eye on neutral states, especially the USA, which was interested in promoting negotiations. Finally, there was a tactical motive, since the Kaiser and the high command were contemplating their new and anarchic methods of naval warfare. To justify an all-out war at sea, Germany had to appear as an angel of peace, rudely repulsed in its efforts to secure a truce. Action proceeding from so many mixed motives was likely to result in blunders, and the Allies saw through this strategy. On 30 December, they rejected the German overtures, and the German Chancellor agreed to the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare which very nearly led to Britain’s defeat in the short-term, but ultimately helped to secure its victory. Writing in April 1935, John Buchan put the German strategy of the winter of 1916-17 into a broader contemporary context:
The effects of the War were so catastrophic and terrible that the historian, looking back, is not inclined to be contemptuous of any effort to end it. But it is clear that the German offer was impossible. There was more hope in the overtures of Austria, whose new Emperor Charles , through the medium of his brother-in-law, Prince Sixtus of Bourbon, made secret proposals for a separate peace. They shipwrecked principally upon the opposition of Italy and France, whose reply was that of Lucio’s comrade in ‘Measure for Measure’ – “Heaven grant us its peace, but not the King of Hungary’s!”
President Wilson’s re-election as a peace President also strengthened the case for an agreement to end the war and led to his offer of mediation at the end of 1916. He saw the clouds thickening ahead, and knew he would have to justify himself to the American people were he to be forced into a less pacific, more pragmatic, reality. He asked for a definition of war aims,
… that soundings be taken in order that we may learn, the neutral nations with the belligerents, how near the haven of peace may be for which all mankind longs.
The Allied governments, in spite of certain of a certain irritation among their peoples, had the wit to see Mr Wilson’s purpose. In a remarkable document the American diplomats set out, calmly and clearly, not a set of war aims as such, but a general purpose, which was wholly consistent with the ideals of the USA. More than two years before the Treaty of Versailles, what came to be known as Wilson’s Fourteen Points stated almost all the principles on which the Paris peace settlement was founded.
Lloyd George’s rarer gift: A sense of political atmosphere…
Alone among the Allies, Britain had now attained a certain unity in the political direction of the war, with a Prime Minister who could draw together and maximise all the powers of the nation as a whole. His pre-War record had revealed his unsurpassed talents as a demagogue, but his Premiership was also beginning to demonstrate his sense of political atmosphere. He might make mistakes in his ultimate judgments, but rarely did so in his initial intuitions; his quick sense of reality made him at heart an opportunist, so that, as Buchan found of him…
This elasticity, combined with his high political courage, had made him even in his bitterest campaigns not wholly repugnant to his opponents, for he was always human and had none of the dogmatic rigidity, the lean spiritual pride of the elder Liberalism.
Lloyd George had now found his proper task, Buchan felt, and was emerging as one of the most formidable figures in the world. Lord Milner, with a strong sense of historical perspective, considered him the greatest War Minister since Chatham. His social, legal and then political campaigning had shown that he was ‘in his element’ when leading in times of strife, including war. He was more than a democrat, a representative of democracy, he was a personification of it, both in its strengths and weaknesses. For his critics who often accused him of inconsistency, Buchan cautioned…
… for a tyrant or an oligarchy may be consistent, but not a free people. He had a democracy’s short memory, and its brittle personal loyalties. Perhaps his supreme merit as a popular leader was his comprehensibility. No mystery surrounded his character or his talents. The qualities and the defects were evident to all, and the plain man found in them something which he could not himself assess – positive merits, positive weaknesses, so that he could give or withhold his confidence as if he were dealing with a familiar. This power of diffusing a personality, of producing a sense of intimacy among millions who have never seen his face or heard his voice, is the greatest of assets for a democratic statesman, and Mr Lloyd George had it not only for Britain but for all the world…
Lacking the normal education of British public servants, he had large gaps in his mental furniture, and consequently was without that traditional sense of proportion which often gives an air of wisdom to mediocrities. He had a unique power of assimilating knowledge, but not an equal power of retaining it. Hence his mental processes were somewhat lacking in continuity; all was atomic and episodic, rather than a steady light. His mind had in it little of the scientific, it was insensitive to guiding principles, and there was no even diffusion of its power through many channels…
The fact that his mind was not a ‘continuum’,… but a thing discrete and perpetually re-made, kept him from lassitude and staleness… His loose hold on principles kept him from formalism, and opportunism is often the right attitude in a crisis… Many of his endowments, such as his parliamentary tact, his subtlety in the management of colleagues, his debating skill, … however invaluable to a statesman in in normal times, were of less account in war. But that one gift he had which is so rare and inexplicable that it may rightly be called genius… He could not be defeated, because his spirit and buoyancy and zeal was insatiable… and that spirit he communicated to the nation.
The machine which he fashioned, the War Cabinet, worked with a synchronised vigour, on the whole, though not always with great precision. Its secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey, showed an uncanny foresight and a supreme competence. The special executive duties fell to General Smuts, who was often charged with almost impossible diplomatic missions, and to Lord Milner, who was the ablest living British administrator, with a powerful intellect and devoted to public service. Milner cared little for personal popularity, and possessed none of Lloyd George’s oratorical gifts, which made him a natural ‘foil’ for his Prime Minister. The presence of these two men underlined that the War Cabinet was actually an Imperial Council, especially as it also contained representatives from India and the Dominions. The Prime Minister of Canada pointed out at the time that the establishment of the cabinet turned a new page in the history of the Empire. There was a war purpose in this step, since the whole Empire was in arms. Under the pressure of war, the old individualism of industry was breaking down as the state enlarged its sphere of interest and duty, and on some there broke the vision of a new and wiser world coming to birth while the old world was dying.
Women at War: The Rise of the ‘Business Girl’.
Woman working on a cartridge machine during the First World War
One of the signs of an old world dying and a new one dawning was the impact of the imposition of universal conscription in the previous year on the growth of women’s employment. It determined that the changes involved would go far beyond a limited expansion and upgrading of industrial labour. In July 1914 there had been 212,000 women employed in the various metal and engineering industries that were to become the ones most directly connected with war production. The figure for July 1915 was 256,000, a relatively small increase; but by July 1916 this had more than doubled 520,000 and by July 1917 the figure had reached 819,000. In industry as a whole 800,000 more women were in employment in 1918 than in 1914.
By February 1917 the total number of bus conductresses had jumped to around 2,500, and transport in general showed the biggest proportionate increase in women’s employment – from 18,000 in 1914 to 117,000 in 1918. There were also big proportionate increases in clerical, commercial, administrative and educational activities. In banking and finances there was a fantastic rate of growth, from a mere 9,500 in 1914 to 63,700 in 1917. In these statistics we can discern what Arthur Marwick referred to as a central phenomenon in the sociology of women’s employment in the twentieth century, the rise of the business girl. By creating simultaneously a proliferation of Government Committees and departments and a shortage of male labour (all men aged 18 to 41 were eligible for call-up from May 1916, except ministers of religion those engaged in the ‘reserved occupations’ of munitions, mining and farming), the war had brought a sudden and irreversible advance in the economic and social power of a category of women employees. They worked as lamplighters and window cleaners as well as doing heavy work in gasworks and foundries, carrying bags of coke and working among the furnaces. A simple remedy for when women succumbed to these arduous conditions was, afterwards, well-remembered:
Many is the time the girls would be affected by the gas, the remedy being to walk them up and down in the fresh air, and then (get them to) drink a bottle of Guinness.
Despite repeated government-initiated attempts to recruit women workers for the land, these had not been conspicuously successful. In fact, in July 1915 there were actually 20,000 fewer permanent female workers on the land than there had been twelve months earlier. As was the case with domestic service, the war provided a blessed release for women who had had very little alternative employment, if any, available to them beforehand. However, as Marwick has pointed out, we must be careful to see the question of changes in women’s roles and rights in the broader context of social relationships and political change. Many men also preferred a move into the army or reserved occupations to poorly-paid work on the land or in service, and many women found it impossible to hold on to factory jobs once the able-bodied men returned. Nevertheless, the war did bring a new self-confidence to many women, dissipating apathy and silencing the female anti-suffragists. Undoubtedly, the replacement of militant suffragette activity by determined patriotic endeavour also played its part.
More than this, by 1917 the all-out, total war was generating a tremendous mood favourable to change and democratic innovation. Whatever might or might not have happened to the roles of women in British society had there been no war, and therefore no ‘home front’, only that concentrated experience, as Marwick put it, showed up the absurdities of the many preconceptions about what they were capable of. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, speaking in January 1918, was already claiming victory in the long campaign for women’s rights:
The great searchlight of war showed things in their true light, and they gave us enfranchisement with open hands.
Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Summersdale.
John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-35. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Michael Clark & Peter Teed (1972), Portraits and Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.
Arthur Marwick (1977), Women at War, 1914-18. London: Croom Helm.