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‘The March of Wales’ – Border Country: A Historical Walk in the Black Mountains, following Offa’s Dyke. Part Three.   Leave a comment

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The Wars of the Roses and the Tudor State of Wales:

By the time of the ensuing Wars of the Roses, the Crown territories had spread throughout Wales, leaving the Marcher lordships with less power. Yorkist and Lancastrian families in the March provided fighting men for the armies of the rival factions, and when Harlech fell to William Herbert, the first Welsh-speaking earl,  the poet Guto’r Glyn had no hesitation in calling upon him to unite Glamorgan and Gwynedd, pardon not a single burgess, and expel all Englishmen from office in Wales. Only the Anglo-Welsh Lancastrians should be spared. However, it was Edward of York, earl of the March and Lord Mortimer, who became Edward IV in 1461. As a result, many of the lordships changed hands or were forfeited. Many of these passed to the Crown, the twenty-two Mortimer lordships included. York controlled the March and Lancaster the Principality, and practically every family of substance was drawn into the conflict. William Herbert built himself up to become Earl of Pembroke, the effective ruler of south Wales. Griffith ap Nicolas rose from humble origins to make himself and his family ‘kings of south-west Wales’ and to establish the ‘House of Dinefwr’.

The Crown lordships and the Principality now dominated the political landscape of Wales, enabling the king to establish a Prince’s council of the Marches of Wales in 1471 which continued to function intermittently until the Tudor ‘invasion’ of Wales and ‘takeover’ of England in 1485. The Tudors of Anglesey were, like the bulk of their compatriots, survivors. The family fortunes had been established by Tudur ap Gronw, whose sons had fought alongside Owain Glyndwr as his cousins. One of them, Rhys was executed and another, Maredudd, was driven into exile. His son, Owen, was taken on as a page-boy by Henry V, later marrying his widow, Catherine de Valois. His stepson, Henry VI, made his Tudor half-brothers earls of Richmond and Pembroke. Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, married Margaret Beaufort, who brought a claim to the English throne. Edmund died and was buried in Carmarthen; his son, Henry, was born posthumously. His mother was now a fourteen-year-old widow, so the boy was taken in by his uncle Jasper at Pembroke Castle, where he learnt Welsh. Following the Lancastrian disaster of 1471, Jasper took the boy to Brittany, and when his small army landed at Dale in Pembrokeshire, he depended entirely on a Welsh rally to carry him through to his supporters in England. Many of the northern Welsh lords did rally to him at Shrewsbury, and at Bosworth Henry unfurled the Red Dragon of Cadwaladr. He called his eldest son Arthur, and the Venetian ambassador commented that,

The Welsh may now be said to have recovered their independence, for the most wise and fortunate Henry VII is a Welshman…

The old Yorkist order in the Marches tried to hang on and, in the boroughs, made a last stand against the incoming tide of Welshmen. Henry kept St David’s Day and packed his own minor offices with Welshmen. By the end of his reign almost every marcher lordship was in royal hands, ‘over-mighty subjects’ had been cut down and charters of emancipation issued to north Wales. Under Henry VII’s firm hand a reinvigorated Council in the Marches began in the king’s name to bring about some uniformity in the government of the various lordships, particularly in the field of administration of justice. The late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries saw an increasingly centralised Tudor state in which the special political arrangements of the March were becoming untenable. In 1490, Henry VII agreed to a form of extradition treaty with the steward of the lordships of Clifford, Winforton and Glasbury which allowed ‘hot pursuit’ of criminals in certain circumstances.

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However, as he himself had demonstrated by his successful invasion on the way to ‘picking up the crown’ at the Battle of Bosworth Field, there remained a problem of the defence of the extended kingdom. Wales was England’s weakly bolted backdoor. Some degree of unified defence of Wales was of major importance to England’s security. His second son was left to find a solution to this problem, which was further complicated by his decision, in 1529, to go into action against the papacy. As the commissioners moved on the monasteries and their property, with Welsh gentry eagerly joining in, there was cause for alarm. As the Marcher lordships collapsed into gangster fiefdoms, just across the water, Catholic Ireland was also restive. If Wales was its backdoor, Ireland beyond ‘the Pale’ remained its back gate. It was from there that the Plantagenets had sought to dethrone Henry VII at Stoke Field in 1487, and even in the 1540s, Henry VIII remained paranoid about the threat from that quarter. The March of Wales had become so disorderly as a separate part of the kingdom that the Duke of Buckingham asked for a royal licence from Thomas Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor, to allow him to have an armed guard when he travelled through his lordships, declaring that he did not dare enter his lands in the March without an escort of three to four hundred armed men. Under these circumstances, the King’s solution for the disorder in the March of Wales was not to tinker with the constitutional anachronism which had become, but to abolish it.

By 1536, Thomas Cromwell realised that a ham-fisted coercion would not suffice. The law and order of England would have to embrace Wales with the aid of Justices of the Peace drawn from its gentry. The ‘British’ nation-state in the making was faced with the difficulty that there were two nations within it, with a visible border between them. So both the border and the smaller nation would have to become invisible. Therefore, between 1536 and 1543, the English crown put through a number of measures which have gone down in British history as the Acts of Union. The Act for Laws and Justice to be Ministered in Wales in like Fourme as it is in this Realm united the Principality and the March of Wales as part of ‘the kingdom of England and Wales’. The Acts of Union in 1536 and 1542, bound the two countries into a single state of ‘England and Wales’. The Act of Union of 1536 completed the long process of the absorption of the Principality of Wales and the March of Wales into the English kingdom. It rendered superfluous the castles that until then had held these territories in subjugation.

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The old Principality was wiped off the map, and the lordships in the March were abolished and, by combining them in groups, new shires were created to be added to the two established by Henry III in South Wales, and the four in Gwynedd and Dyfed, which had been created by the Statute of 1284. Wales became thirteen counties in all. The marchers were permitted to retain their lands and rights of lordship as practised in England, but they lost their previous prerogatives and privileges. The whole country was subsequently administered as a corporate element of the same realm. Shrewsbury remained in all but name the administrative capital of the whole of Wales, with the Council in the Marches, responsible for maintaining law and order in the English Marches and Wales, meeting there until its abolition in the 1640s. A consequence of these changes was that the language of the ruling gentry class became predominantly English. The key office of the Justice of the Peace passed to the gentry as ‘kings of the bro‘ (the ‘locality’). Welshmen became entitled to the same rights under the law as Englishmen, including the right to representation, for the first time, in the Westminster Parliament. However, because Wales was poor compared to most regions of England, the ‘burden’ of sending an MP was reduced to one MP per county, and the boroughs of each county were grouped together to supply a second MP. Wales was provided with a distinct system of higher administration and justice, in that twelve of its counties were grouped into four circuits of three for a Welsh Great Sessions, meeting for convenience in the borderlands, which also meant that Ludlow became an important centre for many years.

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In the Tudor ‘nation-state’, English was supposed to be the only official language. Henry VIII proclaimed the necessity of extirpating all and singular the sinister usages of customs of Wales. No person or persons that use the Welsh speech shall have or enjoy any manner of office or fees within this realm. The threat of cultural genocide was not, in fact, fulfilled. In many ways, Wales remained a ‘peculiar’, if not a separate nation, with a unique administration and its own customs and language. Although the official, written language of local administration and the courts was to be English, the right of monolingual speakers of Welsh to be heard in courts throughout the country necessitated the appointment of Welsh-speaking judges and ensured the continued public use of the language. The dominance of the local gentry ensured that the justices of the peace and the men running the shires on behalf of the Crown were magistrates of their own nation, thereby guaranteeing that Wales would not come to be regarded simply as a part of England. This was the case even in Monmouthshire, which was fully incorporated into England by the Act of Union, and became part of Wales only in 1972.

At the same time as its administration was being remodelled, Wales also experienced the religious upheaval of the Protestant Reformation. At first, the Reformation simply substituted one barely intelligible tongue (Latin) with another (English). However, in contrast to Ireland, where little effort was made to make religious texts available in the native language, Welsh translations of the creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer came out as early as 1547, and these were soon followed by translations of the Prayer Book and the Scriptures. Since the Welsh could not be made invisible in the Tudor state, they had to be made Protestant, which meant that the Crown was forced to accede to pressure and authorise Welsh translations of the Bible, whose 1588 version was to prove a sheet-anchor for the threatened language. The early translation of the scriptures into Welsh also helped Protestantism to be accepted in Wales. In fact, the Welsh people embraced it enthusiastically, and later Puritanism and Nonconformity.

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Above: The frontispiece of the first full translation of the Bible into Welsh, published in 1588.

Nevertheless, although it could be used when necessary in the courts, Welsh ceased to be an official language and had to retreat into the Church and the kitchen. The long-term effects of this were very serious for the language. Since it was all but excluded from administration, the position of Welsh gained as the language of religion did much to ensure its survival. The survival of Welsh as a living tongue compensated for the collapse of the medieval bardic tradition with its characteristic prophetic elements. Another Celtic tradition that sank into disfavour was the use of patronymics, by which a person’s second name identified or her as the child of a known parent (e.g. ap Arthur). This was superseded by the use of surnames, in the English manner, handed down from one generation to another. Many traditional Welsh Christian names also fell out of fashion in this period.

At the time, however, the Union was celebrated among the self-confident Welsh burgesses, who saw themselves as being as free as Englishmen under the law of England and Wales. Most importantly, perhaps, the ‘ordinary’ Welshman was no longer at the mercy of his lord or prince in terms of justice, which could no longer be administered arbitrarily by a master who was ‘a law unto himself’. Henry VIII was as masterful a monarch as Edward I in cutting the Lords Marcher down to size, and the lords seem to have accepted that their time for full submission to kingly authority had finally come. Now fewer in number and with most of the lordships already in the hands of the Crown, they were largely absentee landlords; their interests in England were, vulnerable to royal retaliation, were more valuable to them than their Welsh ones, which were still recovering their economic value from the long-term effects of the Glyndwr Rebellion.

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These political changes in Tudor times left the Border itself with less strategic importance. Wales after the Union was no cultural backwater. The Welsh adopted Jesus College in Oxford (founded in 1571) and the Inns of Court in London to complete their education. The Welsh gentry took enthusiastically to the Renaissance, building houses and art collections comparable with those anywhere else in Europe. Against these cosmopolitan tendencies should be set the work of Sir John Price in defending the Arthurian tradition in the face of general scepticism, and the work of Gruffydd Done, in the sixteenth century, and of Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt, in the seventeenth, who both collected and preserved Welsh medieval texts. By the time of the early Stuarts, ‘the Wales of the squires’ was entering a golden age in which Anglicanism and royalism were becoming rooted among the Welsh gentry. James I and VI was therefore favourably disposed to them and their loyalties were easily transferred to the Scottish dynasty with its own idea of Great Britain, not far removed from their own developing identity as Cambro-Britons. William Vaughan of Cardiganshire, who tried to launch a Welsh colony, Cambriol, in Newfoundland, was also keen to discard the ‘idea’ of the old frontier when he wrote:

I rejoice that the memorial of Offa’s Ditch is extinguished.

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Above: Plas Teg, near Mold, Flintshire, the earliest Renaissance-style house in Wales, built c. 1610 for Sir John Trevor, a senior figure in naval administration.

Administration, Language, Trade and Religion:

Wales had acquired its historic frontier in the estate boundaries of an Anglo-Norman oligarchy. Ethnic minorities were left on both sides of the line. Old Ergyng (Archenfield) disappeared into Herefordshire but remained Welsh-speaking for three hundred years. The integration of Britain became visible in the large-scale migration of the Welsh to London, the growing centre of both trade and power. Dafydd Seisyllt, from Ergyng, was one of those who went up to London as a sergeant of Henry VII’s guard. He bought land and installed his son as a court page. His grandson was William Cecil, Elizabeth’s potent statesman. The Seisyllts, in a transliteration which became commonplace, became the Cecils. The family of Morgan Williams the brewer who had married a sister of Thomas Cromwell changed his name and Oliver arrived three generations later.

Monmouth became an anomaly; nearer to London and relatively wealthy, with an early tin-plating industry, it was saddled with the full parliamentary quota and subjected to the courts of the capital. Always reckoned to be a part of the ‘Welsh’ Church in diocesan terms, it was, however, excluded from the Great Sessions and the Welsh parliamentary system. This led to the curious hybrid title of ‘Wales and Monmouthshire’ as a standard secular description, which continued English settlement in the county reinforced. Among the landowners clustering thick in Glamorgan and Monmouth in the south were some of the richest squires in contemporary Europe.

The lordships had varied greatly in size and in physical character, which largely governed their capacity for profitable exploitation, their lords’ primary aim in winning, holding and administering their conquests:

Glamorgan (Morgannwg) was large, much of it agriculturally productive;

Maelienydd, a core lordship of the Mortimer family, was small, an upland and sparsely populated territory of little intrinsic value other than its strategic location;

Clifford, another Mortimer lordship, was very small, perhaps only twenty square miles in extent, but of strategic importance in the Wye valley, the ancient and medieval gateway into Wales.

Conquest was followed by settlement and the evolution of ‘Englishries’ and ‘Welshries’, an ethnic division of population. The Welsh were evicted from the more low-lying arable districts of the lordships which then became ‘the Englishries’, organised in the English manorial system. Here the lords established their ‘vassals’ and immigrant settlers to farm their ‘demesne’ as tenants, paying rent. Often the marcher lords would be absentee landlords, leaving their officials to administer the lands. In this respect, the Mortimers were atypical in that their power and prosperity lay in the March of Wales. By the end of the fourteenth century, they had connections all over Wales of long duration. A Mortimer had married Gwladus, daughter of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, in the previous century, and in the last half of the fourteenth century Roger Mortimer, fourth Earl of March, had probably as good a dynastic claim as any to the inheritance of Gwynedd. He became the focus of extravagant hopes among the Welsh gentry. The poet Iolo Goch, who was one of his tenants, wrote a fulsome ode of loyalty to him, presenting him as an Arthurian ‘Hero Returned’ who would rescue the Welsh from their degradation. What made this all the more significant was that Mortimer also had a good claim to the inheritance of Richard II. This shift in consciousness came just at the time when a  renaissance of the Welsh language and culture was beginning to provoke political responses and to meet with judicial resistance.

The dispossessed Welsh, were effectively ‘internal exiles’, resettled in ‘the Welshries’ which consisted of the upland and less productive districts of the lordships where raising cattle and sheep were the principle agricultural enterprises. These areas would be more or less self-governing, with courts conducted according to Welsh customs and practice, and in the Welsh language, with little if any interference from the lord provided its inhabitants gave no trouble and paid their tributes in kind. In the lordship of Hay, in the mid-fourteenth century, while the men of the Englishry paid for their land with rent and services, the Welshry as a whole gave the lord the traditional tribute of twenty-four cows every year, though this was later replaced by payment in money. In the later Middle Ages the gradual abandonment of Welsh laws, customs and systems of land tenure was welcomed in some quarters of Wales, particularly among peasant farmers; in the second half of the fourteenth century, Welshmen in Clwyd were eager to surrender their holdings and receive them back on ‘English’ terms, while others were willing to pay for the privilege of ‘English’ status. This was because they preferred the inheritance law of primogeniture to the Welsh system of gavelkind, the equal division of a man’s inheritance among his sons, involving restrictions on his disposal of land according to his family’s individual circumstances.

These moves towards greater integration in the March of Wales had various manifestations. The Welsh language had started to reconquer the Vale of Glamorgan; Welshmen began to appear in the lowland and valley towns, in Oswestry, Brecon and Monmouth; the Welsh began ‘harassing’ English merchants in the March. A chorus of complaint against them burst from boroughs not only in Wales but in the English border counties. Nearly every Parliament which sat between 1378 and 1400 demanded urgent action against these impertinent ‘scrubs’. Even as the gentry turned their hopes towards Richard II, the English administrations in Wales slammed their doors hard. This was a reassertion of colonialism in a régime that was breaking down under its own contradictions, and the Welsh-English tensions that it provoked provided an even greater incentive for the discontented Welsh to support Richard II and Roger (VI) Mortimer.

Although the distinctions between Englishries and Welshries were breaking down by the later Middle Ages, these can sometimes be identified on the landscape today from old place names, where these appear as either English or Welsh, or sometimes bilingually:

Gwerthrynion and Cwmwd Deuddwr (the latter identifiable on today’s map as one of the longest original Welsh place-names, Llansantffraed Cwmdeuddwr) were two Mortimer upland lordships, located north-west of Rhayader on the upper reaches of the Wye. Presumably, they were unattractive to English settlers as there is also a notable absence of English placenames in that area.

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Newtown bears its English name, with a translation provided into Welsh (Y Dref Newydd), despite being surrounded by villages with Welsh nomenclature, because it was established as a borough by Mortimer. Other attempts by them to found boroughs were not so successful. Cefnllys remains the name of a long-ruined castle near Llandrindod Wells, because the Mortimers failed to take into account both its isolated position remote from major trade routes as well as the very limited potential for agricultural production within its close vicinity. When the once important castle had been abandoned as no longer of strategic value, its fate was sealed. Similarly, the prosperity of the borough of Wigmore, and the value of its castle languished after the Mortimers moved their seat of power to Ludlow. The military security of the marcher lordships depended on castles, boroughs and the lords’ private armies. Castles were pivotal in their survival and territorial ambitions as well as being status symbols; they served as ‘launching pads’ for aggression, defensive strongholds and bases in which they could reside when in their Lordships. They were also administrative centres from which their stewards could operate, collecting rents and dues and exercising justice.

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The marcher lords inherited from the Welsh princes the obligation of all free men to fight for them, and Wales throughout the Middle Ages provided a pool of experienced fighting men on which the marcher lords, and by extension, the king, could draw. Most of the infantrymen in the king’s armies were Welsh, and the archers, in particular, distinguished themselves in the Hundred Years War, and for both Yorkist and Lancastrian armies in the Wars of the Roses. The bowmen of Monmouthshire and south Wales were celebrated in both English and Welsh writing; in the March this intensified a loyalty to their lords which became a political as well as a military force. Thousands of Welshmen in their proud livery – like Mortimer’s men, all clothed in green with their arms yellow – were a force to be reckoned with in the politics of England itself, whenever the marchers were heavily involved, as they nearly always were.

Some of the larger lordships, like Glamorgan and Pembroke were organised along the lines of English shires, long before they were formally recognised as such in Tudor times. Maelienydd, by contrast, did not even have knight service, and the Mortimer administration was far less English in form. Rhys ap Gruffydd was knighted by Edward III, one of a number of Welshmen who achieved rank, office and respect in the king’s service and in the March. He commanded the Welsh bowmen in France, as a discrete unit in the English army. Hywel ap Meurig’s family had long been associated with the Mortimer family. In 1260, he was appointed as the negotiator with Llywelyn ap Gruffydd on behalf of the Crown and then became constable of the Mortimer castle at Cefnllys. He served as the king’s bailiff in Builth and soon after the end of the Welsh War of Independence of 1276-77 was commissioned as a justice in Wales. He and his family prospered as important cogs in the administration of Wales. Roger Mortimer (IV) maintained a retinue, or private army of Welsh soldiers during his ascendancy in the late 1320s. Although the final resort in settling disputes among the marcher lords, and with their princely Welsh neighbours may have been to engage in warfare, a full-blown war was unusual and arrangements developed among them for settling quarrels which would usually have been of a minor nature over such matters as cattle rustling and boundaries. ‘Letters of the March’ were forms of passports for travellers and merchants passing from one lordship to another. If a traveller was arrested in a lordship other than his own, he could present his letter, which would have been issued by his lord stating that he was a tenant, and request to be returned to face justice in his own lordship.

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The prosperity of the lordships depended largely on agricultural exports of cattle to England and across England to the continent. In 1349, four hundred cattle were driven from the Bohun lordship of Brecon to Essex for fattening. The first part of this journey was along long-established drovers’ roads through the hills, which still mark the landscape of Wales today. Twelve years earlier fourteen sacks of wool were dispatched to from the Mortimer lordship of Radnor en route to Dordrecht, and in 1340 another thirty were awaiting dispatch (each sack weighed 165 kilos). They were probably held up because of the chaotic conditions in trade as a result of the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War. Wool exports to Flanders had been a thriving business since the early twelfth-century. Welsh border wool may have been of an inferior quality to that of the prime sheep-rearing centres of the Yorkshire moors and dales, but it was certainly superior to the wool of East Anglia.

When Shropshire fleeces were fetching fourteen marks a sack, the Suffolk farmer could only get four marks for his. Yet Suffolk was richer than Shropshire and closer to their foreign customers. The sight of foreign buyers riding eastwards to Ipswich or Dunwich followed by long lines of pack horses laden with Welsh wool was a familiar one in medieval East Anglia. Suffolk farmers and merchants could do a brisker business with the continent because they were closer, but they could not compete in volume or the quality needed by the weavers of fine cloth in Flanders. Then Edward III decided to levy swingeing taxes on markets and customs duties on ports both in order to raise money for his wars with France and as an economic weapon in those wars. In the wool-producing areas the immediate effects were catastrophic, but after 1350 the introduction of weaving to East Anglia, accompanied by the migration of skilled weavers from the depressed textile industries of Flanders, led to a boom in demand for fleeces.

Throughout the early modern period, Wales remained predominantly agrarian, specialising in cattle production, rather than sheep-grazing; dairy products, and, until the Industrial Revolution, cloth-manufacture. The countryside underwent gradual enclosure and deforestation. Settlements remained small and scattered, with farmers maintaining upland summer homes and lowland winter houses. Towns, other than the boroughs already referred to, were not an important feature until the eighteenth century and even then were restricted largely to Glamorgan. There was some tin-plating in Monmouthshire, but neither coal-mining nor iron-casting was as important as they were to become.

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Dislike of the Anglo-Norman hegemony in Wales was not confined to the civil sphere; it was also present in the Church. The great religious revival of the eleventh century in Normandy was carried to England by the Conquest, which the Roman Church and the Norman barons themselves regarded as a Crusade, predating the ones they began to the ‘Holy Land’ in 1096. They considered the Welsh Church, still with its independent Celtic roots, to be, like the English one, in need of reform and physical rebuilding. The early conquests in Wales were accompanied by expropriation of church property for the benefit of religious foundations in Normandy and appointed French bishops whose dioceses by the early twelfth century had been incorporated into the province of Canterbury. In the Anglo-Norman borderlands and the Anglo-Welsh March, the abbey at Much Wenlock was refounded circa 1080; the Mortimers founded an abbey circa 1140 at Shobdon, a predecessor of Wigmore Abbey, and were later benefactors of the abbey at Cwm Hir in Maelienydd. Llanthony Abbey (detailed below) was founded in 1107. The native religious houses of Wales were slowly superseded by Anglo-Norman foundations or reformed in the new tradition as religious and cultural control of the Church passed out of Welsh hands for the next eight hundred years. Hardly surprisingly, this meddling was a cause of great resentment, with that champion of the Welsh Church, Giraldus Cambrensis, indignantly asking the Pope, …

… Because I am a Welshman, am I to be debarred from all preferment in Wales?

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A Pilgrimage to Llanthony Abbey & through Gospel Pass:

Above: The Landor Estate at Llanthony.

This is an appropriate point to engage with the path itself. The section from ‘Pandy to Hay-on-Wye’ officially begins where it crosses the A465 from Hereford to Abergavenny by “the Lancaster Arms.” However, by following the Afon Honddu northwards along the B4423 from Llanfihangel Crucorney, we can find our way to Llanthony Abbey. Given the remarks of Giraldus Cambrensis above, this is perhaps a better place to start a historical walk. The Priory is directly below in the deep Vale of the Ewyas which, as the twelfth-century itinerant Giraldus described it, is about an arrow shot broad. The priory he found, perhaps somewhat grudgingly, not unhandsomely constructed. It is, in fact, well worth the detour, either along the ‘B’ road or coming down from the Loxidge Tump from the Dyke Path (see maps below).

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You come to the priory ruins in a beautiful setting of meadows and groves of chestnuts. It is said that St David settled at Llanthony during his travels through Wales in the sixth century, establishing the llan (church). It is unlikely that he stayed long, but Llanthony’s special claim to fame is that he supposedly ate the leeks here that were to become the Welsh badge during the campaigns of the Hundred Years’ Wars with France. The priory was founded in 1107 by the powerful marcher lord William de Lacy at the place where, while on a deer hunt, he is said to have forsaken ambition and decided to devote his life to the service of God. As a result of Welsh raids on the Augustinians whom they no doubt considered to be the Roman Church’s supporters of the Norman incursion, the monks sought refuge with the Bishop of Hereford, only a few of them returning to the priory. From 1300, with Edward I’s conquest, the priory flourished once more, and at some point housed the largest single body of medieval Welsh ecclesiastical manuscripts, but by 1376 it was in a poor state of repair. Owain Glyndwr burnt it down around 1400; by 1481 only four canons and a prior remained, and its end came with its Dissolution by Henry VIII.

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In 1807 the estate was bought by the poet Walter Savage Landor (right) for twenty thousand pounds. From a wealthy Whig family, he held estates at Rugeley in Staffordshire and Bishop’s Tatchbrook in Warwickshire, but had been looking for a more secluded country property in which to write, and settled on Llanthony. The previous owner had erected some buildings in the ruins of the ancient abbey, but an Act of Parliament, passed in 1809, was needed to allow Landor to pull down these buildings and construct a house, (which he never finished). He wanted to become a model country gentleman, planting trees, importing sheep from Spain, and improving the roads. The Victorian diarist Kilvert wrote of his varied experiences of coming down the valley to the Abbey:

Under the cloudless blue and glorious sunshine the Abbey looked happy and peaceful. … How different from the first day that I pilgrimaged down the Vale of Ewyas under a gloomy sky, the heavy mist wreathing along the hillsides cowling the mountain tops. 

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There is still an avenue of trees in the area known as “Landor’s Larches” and many old chestnuts have been dated back to his time. But though he had literally fallen in love with Welsh people as a young man in Tenby and Swansea, where he lived for a time, he quarrelled with local people and the Bishop of St David’s, also finding the Black Mountains to have an “ungenial clime”. He left the estate in the hands of trustees and moved to Italy with his wife, whom he had met and married in Bath while living at Llanthony. They had returned to live in Llanthony. The remains of Landor’s house lie at Siarpal in the ‘cwm’ above the priory formed by the Hatterall Ridge and the Loxidge Tump. Together with the tower of the priory, they form what is now the Llanthony Abbey Hotel. The main surviving buildings of the priory are in the care of Cadw, the Welsh ‘keeper’ of historic monuments. Entrance is free.

It’s a pretty steep climb up the cwm to the ridge and the tump where the path can be regained, so the four-mile trek up the valley road to Capel-y-ffin seems more inviting, particularly as it’s rewarded by another monastery, founded in 1870 by the Rev. J. L. Lyne (Father Ignatius) for the Benedictines, in an unsuccessful attempt to reintroduce monasticism into the Anglican Church.

Soon after his death in 1908 the community ceased to exist, and the church became ruined. In the 1920s, though, the artist Eric Gill lived at the monastery for four years, and the house remained in his family after he returned to London. Besides the Catholic church are an Anglican chapel and a Baptist chapel. Capel-y-ffin means ‘chapel on the border’.  Just over a mile further on towards the Gospel Pass is the Youth Hostel.

The road goes on through the pass between ‘Lord Hereford’s Knob’ and ‘Hay Bluff’, where it eventually joins the Dyke path for the descent into Hay-on-Wye, avoiding the steep section on the road. This is where you are likely to see the Welsh mountain ponies.  Following the path itself from Black Daren northwards brings you very gradually to towards the unmarked summit of the ridge, and of the path, at 2,306 feet, on a broad and bleak nameless plateau of peat.

The surrounding landscape becomes wild and remote, a place to avoid in mist and rain. The Welsh have a saying, mae’n bwrw hen wragedd a ffin, meaning “it’s raining old ladies and sticks” (“cats and dogs” in English, of course!) Although “ffin” could mean “boundary” as suggested above, it might also mean “sticks” and there is a legend tell of the Old Lady of the Black Mountains, who is said to appear at night or in mist with a pot and/or wooden cane in her hand and who, going before wayfarers, will cause them to lose their way.

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A friendlier spectre, said to appear to travellers lost in the mountains between Llanthony and Longtown, is of a man who will guide them to the nearest road before disappearing. Best take the road in the first place, I say, with its beautiful views along the Ewyas Valley (above). At Pen y Beacon (or Hay Bluff), which is bypassed by the official path, we come to the to the steep north-west facing scarp of the Black Mountains, high above the middle Wye Valley. The way-marked alternative path to the beacon itself was described by the Victorian diarist Kilvert, and has apparently changed little over the last century and a half:

Soon we were at the top, which was covered with peat bog and black and yellow coarse rushy grass and reed. Here and there were pools and holes filled with black peat waters. … The mountains were very silent and desolate. No human being in sight, not a tree. 

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On the high and windswept bluff, on the very cornice of the range, a wide-sweeping countryside stretches away almost to the limits of vision. Beyond the Wye, hidden from view, where the Dyke path continues its journey, the Silurian hills of Radnorshire rise to grassy tops or to open hill common. In the distance are the outlines of Mynydd Eppynt, and the Radnor Forest. Dropping down over the cornice of Brownstones you aim between two deep gullies to join the Gospel Pass road on its way from the Honddu Valley. The path leads past the prehistoric burial mound at Twyn y Beddau and along the side of Cusop Dingle, on a steady descent into Hay. In a triangle bounded on two sides by main roads, Hay forms a compact and sleepy town, except when the International Book Festival is in town, in May.

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In the town, there are the remains of two castles, both Norman. The mound of the earlier motte and bailey, built around 1100 by William de Braose, is beyond the medieval core of the town, near St Mary’s Church. Legend has it that the castle was in fact built, not by William, but by his wife, Maud de St Valerie (‘Moll Walbee’). She is said to have built it in one night, carrying the stones in her apron. A pebble that dropped into her shoe is reputed to have been thrown into Llowes churchyard, three miles away. The ‘pebble’ measures nine feet in length and a foot in thickness! The later castle seems to have been destroyed by King John in 1215, the year that he signed the Magna Carta. It was rebuilt and then burnt by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in 1231, though it was apparently still in use when Henry III rebuilt it about two years later. In 1236, the town walls were built, and by 1298 a compact town had grown within them. The castle was captured and changed hands several times in the succeeding decades so that John Leland in the sixteenth century found Hay to show…

… the token of a right strong Waulle having in it three Gates and a Posterne. Ther is also a Castel the which sumtime hath bene right stately.

The seventeenth-century Jacobean castle incorporated into it was owned in the 1980s by R. Booth, who ran a remarkable second-hand book business in the town. Apart from the castle itself, where rarer books were kept, many shops and other buildings have become bookshops. The collection is claimed to be the largest collection in the world, and it is well worth setting aside time to explore the bookshops. It is this recent remarkable piece of social history which has given rise to the book festival and Hay’s unofficial title as ‘the book capital of the world’. As a postgraduate student in Cardiff, I well remember organising a minibus trip to Hay and returning with a number of books which were out of publication, dating back to the early twentieth century, the period I was researching.

North of Hay, the Dyke crisscrosses the border into Herefordshire, before reaching the lowlands of Montgomeryshire. This is the ancient territory of the kingdom of Powys known as Rhwng Gwy a Hafren (‘between Wye and Severn’). Although Mercian influences were strong along this part of the Border, this is essentially a countryside of dispersed habitation in the Welsh tradition. Much of the walk is through some of the quietest and most beautiful, undulating country along the Border. Leaving Hay en route for Knighton you cross over the Wye into Kilvert country, where the wayfaring diarist we met at Lanthony Priory and atop the Black Mountains, Francis Kilvert, was curate of the parish of Clyro from 1865-72 and where, in 1870, he began his diary, describing vividly both the way of life in the area and much of the surrounding countryside. As it is only a mile along the road, but is not on the Dyke Path, it seems sensible to include the short walk to Newchurch as part of a sojourn in Hay. That is where I plan to end my journey this year.

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For some of its course, the Dyke marks local government boundaries, or more locally the boundaries to farmsteads, like Pen Offa near Chirk, where I hope to get to next year. But while, for the most part, the political boundary between England and Wales no longer follows it, and there are many gaps in the great earthwork itself (mostly due to modern development), the Dyke retains its place in the imagination as the symbolic frontier. It represents a natural if man-made division between upland and lowland peoples, as the only visible and historic structure which corresponds both to the imagination of those peoples, and to the fundamental reality of that division.

Sources:

Charles Hopkinson & Martin Speight (2011), The Mortimers, Lords of the March. Hereford: Logaston Press.

Gwyn A Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Asa Briggs, John Morrill, et.al., (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Irene Richards & J. A. Morris (1946), A Sketch-Map History of Britain and Europe to 1485. London: Harrap.

George Taylor & J. A. Morris (1939), A Sketch-Map History of Britain and Europe, 1485-1783. London: Harrap.

John B. Jones (1976, ’80), Offa’s Dyke Path (Long-Distance Footpath Guide No 4). London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (Prepared for the Countryside Commission). 

 

 

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‘The March of Wales’ – Border Country: A Historical Walk in the Black Mountains, following Offa’s Dyke. Part One.   Leave a comment

“I was walking the line of Offa’s Dyke in North Wales when

the slanting late afternoon winter light raked across the landscape,

illuminating the folds in the gently rolling hillside.”

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Offa’s Dyke in North Wales (foreground) with Chirk Castle in the distance.

Photo by Kevin Bleasdale, Landscape Photographer of the Year.

(www.ukgreetings.co.uk)

Bucket-lists and Border-lines:

One of the things to do on my ‘bucket list’ is the Offa’s Dyke Path, the long-distance footpath which ‘follows’ the Dark Age dyke allegedly made by the King of the Saxon Kingdom of Mercia to mark the boundary of his territory with ‘the Welsh’ territories to its west. I have done two other long-distance paths, the Pennine Way and the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, together with long sections of the South West Coast Path, between Plymouth and Teignmouth, and completed the Wessex Walk between Uphill and Wells. By comparison with these long-distance paths, only two sections of the Offa’s Dyke path, through the Black Mountains and the Clwydians, really offer the same sort of open walking country. Having completed one short section near Chirk some twenty-five years ago while staying in Llangollen, in this post, I wish to concentrate on the first of the section between Llanthony Priory and Hay-on-Wye, which I hope to tackle this summer (July 2018), fitness and weather permitting! Llwybr Clawdd Offa, as it’s known in Welsh, is Britain’s fourth long-distance path to be officially opened, runs the entire length of the border, from the Severn Estuary near the old Severn Bridge at  Chepstow to the sea at Prestatyn on the north Welsh coast, a distance of 168 miles. Throughout its length, history is brought to life, not just by Offa’s frontier earthwork, but by ancient hill forts, prehistoric trackways, old drover roads, medieval castles and by the numerous small market towns and villages which are linked by the path.

As a footpath rich in scenic variety, as well as historical and literary associations, it will have attractions not just for the seasoned walker, completing the coast-to-coast walk in two or three weeks, but also the amateur historian and archaeologist, and those seeking casual recreation. The footpath was approved by the Minister of Housing and Local Government in 1955 but little progress was made for some years in opening up the many miles of new rights of way needed. Then, in 1966, the National Parks Commission decided to give greater priority to the proposal and three years later, when it became known as the Countryside Commission, came a decision to open the path during 1971. The Offa’s Dyke Association, set up to promote conservation of the Border area along the path, and to work for the path’s completion, were naturally sceptical. But with the exception of a few sections, the route had been completed with waymarks by the target date. On 10th July 1971, the path was formally opened at an open-air ceremony in Knighton, preceded by an inaugural walk along the path north of the town over the Panpunton Hill. More recently, a connecting path to Machynlleth and on to Welshpool (Y Trallwng) has been added, called Glyndwr’s Way, which provides a circuitous historical walk from the Dyke across the Cambrian mountains.

Celts, Romans, Britons and Saxons:

The History of ‘the Border Country’ goes back to Roman times when in A.D. 47 the invaders had reached westward to the Severn. On the other side of the river lay the hill country, defended by strong Celtic tribes: the warlike Silures of the south were led by their Belgic leader Caradoc (Caractacus) who had fled westward to rouse the western tribes: the Ordovices of the central border and the Deceangli of the north. Caradoc was defeated in A.D. 51, and many places along the hill margin, including ‘British Camp’ in the Malvern Hills, claim to be the site of his last battle. Strong resistance continued, however, and it was ten years before the Romans could attack the Ordovices and the Deceangli, following the establishment in A.D. 60 of the fortress and legionary headquarters of Deva (Chester). Only a year later the army had advanced to Anglesey, overrunning the hill forts. In the south, the campaign of A.D. 74 was the decisive one when Julius Frontinius fought a hard battle against the Silures, though it was four years before the Romans could move further west under Agricola.

The Border formed very much a frontier zone in the Roman expansion. Except in the south, in the Wye Valley area, and east of the hill margin, developments were essentially military in character, with no great effect on native life, which went on much as before. Roads linking the several forts that had been set up in this zone ran along the north and south coast routes, based on Deva and Isca (Caerleon), and east-west up the main valleys into the hills, the easiest into what later became Wales. A north-south road linked these roads through the hill margins. During the first century of Roman rule a number of Celtic hill forts were strengthened, for although the Celts had made use of the sharp edges of the uplands for farming, its strategic and military potential was first realised by the Romans as a base for launching their campaigns against the uplands. It was these roads and forts which first defined the border.

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With the withdrawal of the Roman Legions in A.D. 410, Celtic culture saw a renaissance in craftsmanship and bardic poetry, and a growth in political and the rise and spread of Christianity by the Celtic Church. Gradually, various Romano-British kingdoms or ‘fiefdoms’ began to emerge under separate rulers or ‘chieftains’. One of these, Ambrosius Aurelius, may have been the inspiration for the Arthurian legends, having fought a series of battles against the invading Saxons which ended with Badon Hill in about A.D. 515. Along the hill margins, the kingdom of Gwynedd covered the land north of the River Dee and west of the Vale of Clwyd. The Vale itself formed a contested territory between Gwynedd and the great central kingdom of Powys, ‘the Paradise of Wales’ as it was called by the bard who wrote the ‘saga cycle’ of Llywarch Hen. On the southern margins, Brycheiniog covered Breconshire and Gwent, Monmouthshire. Powys was the great bardic centre, from where we find the reference to Taliesin singing at the court:

I sang in the meadows of the Severn

Before an illustrious lord,

Before Brochfael of Powys…

It seems to have been usual for an official bard to be attached to each court, with some lords and princes acquiring reputations as patrons of the bards. The achievement of these early poets was considerable. They created a heroic age, a new legendary past for ages to come. As long as the Welsh tradition lasted, that is to say, for at least another ten centuries, their patrons were taken as models of generosity and courage. The poems and sequences of englynion (stanzas of three or four lines) associated with Llywerch Hen (‘the Old’) were long thought to be the work of the sixth-century prince but were later shown to be about the legendary figure, rather than being by him. They belong to the ninth-century sagas, with the narrative told in prose. Llywarch was a warrior of North Britain, who bore the severed head of his lord King Urien of Rheged from the battlefield, so that it would be buried and not humiliated. He eventually found refuge to the south, in Powys, where he again found himself having to fight the Saxon invaders, and his twenty-four sons, impelled by their own ready valour and their father’s bitter tongue, fought too. One after another they perished in their father’s pride. Gwén, the last of them, arrives late for the battle, to find all his brothers dead. There is no-one left to defend the Gorlas Ford on the River Llawen. Llywerch himself, old as he is, is arming himself for the battle. Here, as Gwén too prepares for battle, father and son enter into dialogue:

Gwén:

Keen my spear, it glitters in battle.

I will indeed watch on the Ford.

If I am not back, God be with you!

Llywarch:

If you survive it, I shall see you,

If you are killed. then I’ll mourn you,

Lose not in hardship warrior’s honour!

Gwén:

I shall not shame you, giver of battles,

When the brave man arms for the border,

Though hardship beset me, I’ll stay my ground.

Llywarch:

A wave shifting over the shore,

By and by strong purpose breaks,

Boasters commonly flee in a fight.

Llywarch urges his last son to sound the horn given to him by his uncle, Urien, if he is hard-pressed in the forthcoming fight. The way that Llywarch mentions it suggests that this horn, in the saga, may have had magical properties. But Gwén replies contemptuously, Though terror press round me, and the fierce thieves of England, … I’ll not wake your maidens! It is the mutual anger between father and son, each insulting each other’s honour, that makes any genuine precautions against tragedy impossible. Magic is irrelevant in this equation. All that matters is human folly and pride. Yet there is an over-riding sense of fate or destiny, a supernatural context in which such situations are allowed, or even willed, to take place. Llywarch is not only pitted against his own pride and folly, but also against hostile destiny – tynged in Welsh – whose design is revealed to him only gradually as his downfall proceeds. And as he grows old, the bard gives him one more opportunity to reveal himself to the in-every-sense bitter end: angry, baffled, useless to man, woman or beast, a prey to pain, remorse, lacerated vanity, and a desperate loneliness. His king, his fellow-countrymen, his Patria, his sons – all are in ruins. Where has it all gone? And where is longed-for Death? As ‘folk-history’, Welsh heroic poetry was driven into the subconsciousness by the trauma of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of the sixth century, and by what Anthony Conran, in his introduction to his own translations of it, called the cultural amnesia of the times. When it re-emerged, it became intimately connected with a whole prophetic tradition, which kept up its messianic rumblings right through to the Wars of the Roses.  

From the late sixth century, the mixed peoples of eastern Britain, generically labelled ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and organising themselves in kingdoms, resumed their advance into the west. It was a long, slow, piecemeal process; some of the advances may not represent straightforward conquests and there is evidence of the transient existence of people who were literally ‘mongrels’. But it was remorseless. The foundation of kingdoms in the north opened an epoch of battles with the North Britons which were to be central to later historical traditions among the Welsh. After a battle near Bath in 577, the kings of Gloucester, Bath and Cirencester were gone and Saxon power reached the Bristol Channel, from where it was able to press on into the south-west. Ceawlin, king of Wessex, drove a wedge between the Britons dwelling between the Severn Estuary and the Irish Sea and those in Devon and Cornwall. A second wedge, driven by Aethelfrith, king of Northumbria, early in the seventh century, separated the Britons in Cumbria from their compatriots, or Cymry, further south. This effectively isolated and created Walleas, the Germanic word for ‘aliens’, or ‘North Wales’, as distinct from Cornwalleas, or ‘West Wales’ including Devon, and Cumbria and Strathclyde, the kingdoms of the northern Britons.  

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Between 650 and 670, the Saxon advance westward had reached the borders of Powys and the River Dee, while the River Wye marked the limit of the advance in the south. In the early seventh century, Northumbria was the most powerful kingdom of the Anglo-Saxon ‘heptarchy’. The ascendancy of the midland kingdom of Mercia began during the reign of the warlike, pagan Penda (623-654). Minor kings after him rose and fell in a period of civil warfare until by 731, Bede tells us, all of ‘Aengleland’ south of the Humber was subject to Aethelbald (716-756). He, therefore, referred to himself as ‘King of the southern English’. He maintained his ascendancy for thirty years until he was murdered by his own bodyguard. From the ensuing civil war within Mercia itself, Offa emerged as the key figure in the Mercian supremacy. He reigned from 757-796 and was the first king to be styled, in imperial terms, as King of the English.

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Who was Offa and why did he build a dyke?

History reveals all too little of the Mercian king whose name is forever linked to the great dyke built in the margins which had been continually disputed by the Welsh and the English. We do know that the means by which he gradually expanded his kingdom and his hegemony over the heptarchy were not always fair. In 793, Aethelbert, the Christian king of East Anglia, paid a visit to Offa to seek the hand of his daughter Aelfrida. He was murdered, either on the orders of Offa, or those of his queen. There are differing accounts of what happened, but it is most likely that Offa realised that, with Aethelbert ‘out of the way’, Mercia could take control of East Anglia, which it did. Offa was then able to deal on almost equal terms with Charlemagne who had once closed his ports to English trade for some three years.

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Above: A Victorian tile from the floor of the choir in Hereford Cathedral depicting the beheading of St Aethelbert by order of King Offa.

Throughout the first half of the eighth century a protracted struggle had gone on between Mercia and Powys as the frontier was gradually driven back from the line of furthest advance marked by various short ‘dykes’ to the more settled frontiers marked by the great running earthwork constructed under Offa, probably after the last Welsh counter-attack in 784. Around this time we can picture the English as settled farmers, with greater craftsmanship and better equipment than their sixth-century predecessors, if with less military skill. The Welsh occupied the hill territory to the west, living in kinship groups (gwelau), were dependent mainly upon the cattle they summer-pastured on the hills and over-wintered in the valley meadows.

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The line of the Dyke extends from Sedbury Cliffs on the Severn, through the Wye Valley and Herefordshire, across the Clun district of ‘Salop’, part of Shropshire today, and northwards via Chirk and Ruabon to the sea at Prestatyn, a distance of 149 miles. Of these, the running earthwork of the Dyke itself is traceable for eighty-one miles, consisting of an earth bank with a ditch, usually on the west-facing side, sometimes with ditches on both sides, and averaging in height some six feet above ground level, and in breadth almost sixty feet. While contemporary manuscripts throw little light on the making of the Dyke, the more recent detailed archaeological surveys have led to a much deeper understanding of the Border as it existed in Offa’s time. Its principal purpose was to provide a frontier between Mercia and the Welsh kingdoms and to control trade by directing it through defined ‘gateways’ in the earthwork. It may, at times, also have been used for defensive purposes, but by the time it was built this would have been largely incidental. Only in a time of relative peace between the Welsh and the Mercians could a work of such a scale be achieved. It must, therefore, have been an agreed frontier. Moreover, although it would have presented something of an obstacle to cattle rustlers, it would have offered little prevention to cattle straying across.

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Above: The course of the path from Chepstow (bottom, left) to Prestatyn (top, right), in relation to surviving dyke sections.

The mastery of difficult terrain through which the Dyke runs suggests that the skill of its builders can only have been acquired through generations of experience. Two precedents on the ground can be found, firstly in the various short dykes that lie both to the east and west of the Great Dyke, and secondly in Wat’s Dyke which runs from Maesbury, south of Oswestry, to Holywell. A third precedent is found in the heroic poetry of the time. The short dykes found in the middle of the Border Country reinforced the most vulnerable sections of the Great Dyke where the hills of Salop are nearest to the Mercian capital of Tamworth. These dykes are similar in construction to Offa’s Dyke and are thought by archaeologists to form cross-valley screens at the head of agricultural land, while cross-ridge dykes controlled traffic along the ridge. These probably date from the time of Penda, representing the military activities of Mercia in the pre-Offan period. They are defensive in character, unlike Offa’s Dyke which represents the consolidation of the Mercian kingdom when the Saxons came to realise the limits of their ability to advance further west. Wat was a hero of Old English legend associated with an earlier Offa, a king of Schleswig and ancestor to the Mercian king. Wat’s Dyke may well have been named by Offa in commemoration of his own namesake, whose deeds were recorded in the epic poem Widsith, among them being his marking of boundaries.

As a boundary, however, Offa’s Dyke is unlikely to have been continuously manned but rather patrolled on horseback. Nevertheless, evidence reveals that it was built under the direction of men trained in military tradition. Offa himself is thought to have master-minded the work, possibly with a group of chieftains, planning both its course and its dimensions. Each landowner along its course was then consulted and subsequently made responsible for the construction of a particular section of it, depending on the extent of his lands or the labour available to him. In turn, this variation in experience and expertise, together with the willingness and size of the local workforce, inevitably resulted in differences in the quality and scale of the work. In some areas, the hostility of the local Welsh population, in particular, may have been a factor. Despite this, further evidence that it was an agreed frontier is contained in the existence of a set of laws governing the movements of both the Welsh and the English across the boundary. An early tenth-century document refers to an agreement between the English and the Welsh relating to Ergyng (Archenfield), a Welsh district between the Wye and the Monnow, now in Herefordshire, which remained Welsh-speaking into the nineteenth century and produced many Welsh ‘notables’. The same document also contains a reference to English territory north of the Wye, in Wales today, belonging to a people known as the Dunsaete. It suggests the existence of a relationship between these peoples which may well have dated from Offa’s time, deriving from Offa’s own laws for the conduct of both English and Welsh along the Border.

Offa’s laws, long thought lost, would then have provided for the setting-up of a “board” comprising both English and Welsh, the task of which was to explain the laws to their respective peoples. Included in the laws was a code for recovering livestock rustled across the Border, and another for the safe-conduct of either Welsh or Mercian ‘trespassers’ found on the “wrong” side of the Border by a specially appointed guide. However, the story that any man found ‘trespassing’ would be subjected to the punishment of losing his right hand, is an apocryphal one. Overall, the skill of the designer and eye for the detail of the landscape are remarkable. With few exceptions, even in the dissected terrain of the middle section of its length, the Dyke’s straights cleverly cling to the west-facing slopes, giving the Mercians the advantage of visual control over Welsh territories. Archaeological ‘detective work’  enabled the mapping of the Border landscape of Offa’s day. The straight alignments of the Dyke, occurring in both flat and undulating terrain, indicate a mixture of pastoral and arable farming; and in the uplands, open moorland. Small irregularities in mainly straight alignment tend to indicate the original presence of woodland. The Mercian farmers seem to have preferred sunny, south-facing slopes for growing crops, disliking the shaded north-facing hillsides which remained wooded. This is represented by alternate straight and sinuous alignments. Very irregular alignments, where the Dyke follows the contours of the landscape, occur where the terrain is especially rough, or where visibility between points was very limited.

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In profile sections, the Dyke varies considerably throughout its length. It is at its most formidable on the hilltops where ridgeways passed through, and on the valley floors where skilful use was made of the east sides, in order to allow the Dyke to descend from the ridges and cross the valleys while maintaining visual contact with the west. Here, too, cultivated clearings required protection in the tradition of short, transverse dykes. In many places, there is evidence of compromise between the Mercians and the Welsh. In some sections, the broad River Severn is left to mark the boundary, whereas, in others, the Dyke follows the slopes of the eastern hills above the Severn.

This suggests that to the south of Buttington, for example, the meadow pastures on both sides of the river were conceded to Powys, for, in The Mabinogion, it was stated that the man would not prosper with a war-band in Powys who would not prosper in that cultivated land. Likewise, in the Wye Valley, both sides of the river were used by Welsh timber traders who needed to land their boats on either bank. The Dyke is therefore high up on the eastern slope, controlling a long stretch of the river upstream to the point reached by exceptionally high tides in the Severn estuary.

For much of the length of the frontier, no trace of the Dyke has been found. From the point where the Dyke reaches the Wye west of Sedbury Cliffs to the Wye west of the Tutshill look-out tower, the sheer river cliffs would have formed a sufficient natural boundary in themselves. Between Highbury and Bridge Sollers in Herefordshire, the Wye again forms the boundary. For the next thirteen miles to Rushock Hill ancient and dense oak woods on the underlying Old Red Sandstone seem to have made the building of a section of dyke unnecessary, if not impossible. In this area, the dyke is only present on what would have been cleared land. For five miles north of Buttington on the Severn, the river again forms the boundary. However, the reason why the Dyke was not completed on the last five miles to the north coast is a matter of conjecture. Certainly, the intention was that it should reach the sea at Prestatyn. We know that towards the end of Offa’s reign the Welsh seem to have made an attempt to capture the land between the Dyke and the Dee. A Welsh legend, recorded in the plaintive lament Morfa Rhuddlan, tells of a fierce battle fought in 795, ending in Welsh defeat. Offa died a year later at Rhuddlan, and it may be that with his death went the driving force behind the Dyke.

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Offa was succeeded by his son, Cenwulf, who reigned until 816. His defeat at the Battle of Basingwerk marked the beginning of the decline of Mercian supremacy on the Border. Wessex was emerging as the most powerful Saxon kingdom, and Mercia was forced to turn its attention southwards. With the Dyke established, however, a degree of stability was brought to the Border Country for a time. Whereas to the east of a line from the Pennines to Salisbury Plain, there is precious little evidence of British survival into the ninth century, even in river names. West of that line, however, and into the upland watershed, there is much evidence. Place-names remain strongly Celtic, though often transmuted; Cymraeg, as well as Brythonic dialects, survived, as did Celtic farm systems and field boundaries. Early laws of the kingdom of Wessex make specific provision for a whole British hierarchy under overall Saxon rule. Further west, Cornwall survived as a British fiefdom, and in the Borderlands of the Wye and the southern Dyke, as English settlement developed, there may have been as much fusion and integration as conflict and conquest.

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The concessions made to the Welsh along the Wye may also have aided this process, as Archenfield remained Welsh-speaking well into modern times, and there is also an abundance of surviving Celtic placenames to the west of the Wye in what is land on the English side of today’s border. Around Welshpool names like Buttington, Forden and Leighton also show gradual Mercian expansion in the Borderlands between 650 and 750 and strengthen the case for the concession of the Severn meadows to Powys on the building of the Dyke. In the Vale of Radnor, names like Evenjobb, Harpton and Cascob again indicate a retreat by the Welsh, but elsewhere on the whole land bordering the Dyke, there is evidence of linguistic retention on both sides. Llanymynych has obviously retained its Welsh name, despite being half in half in England, whereas Knighton is generally known by its English name, despite being wholly in Wales and having a Welsh name, Tref-y-clawdd, meaning ‘the town by the Dyke’. The area between Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke has remained Welsh-speaking in character until recent times. Despite these examples of variation, we know that the Dyke’s construction was resisted by the Welsh in numerous places along its route. Offa had driven his Dyke from coast (almost) to coast, and as Gwyn Williams (1985) wrote of the Dark Age Welsh, ‘foreigners’ in their own land …

This few and fragile people took the whole of inheritance of Britain on their shoulders. And late in the eighth century they were confronted with an imperial Offa, king of the Mercians, who had the effrontery to score his Dyke across their land and shut them out as foreigners. … The Welsh, as a people, were born disinherited.  

The ‘Compatriots’ (Cymry) & their Bards:

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By the ninth century, therefore, the Welsh were almost completely shut up behind Offa’s Dyke. Not unnaturally, in their ‘exile’, they turned to the stories of their old homes, in Regen, Elfed, Gododdin and the rich lands of eastern Powys – roughly Cumberland, Yorkshire, SE Scotland and Shropshire respectively, according to the later Medieval geography of Britain. This was the era in which the saga-literature was composed, in the ninth and tenth centuries, about events that took place in the sixth and early seventh centuries, during the heroic age itself. The Welsh had been cut off from their fellow countrymen in the North of Britain and in Cornwall. Only in a few pockets of rugged landscape, like ‘North Wales’ and Cumberland could the ‘Cymry’ (compatriots) be found. The sense of exile must have been further aggravated by the reappearance of Roman missionaries, in the shape of St Augustine of Canterbury, telling them that their traditional Christianity was out of step with the rest of Christendom, and demanding that they should abandon their hatred of the Anglo-Saxons and join with him in converting them. The Welsh ‘saints’ told him that they preferred the idea of the English roasting in hell forevermore!

From this point in time, the geographical centre of gravity also shifted steadily southwards and eastwards: from Mercia to Wessex and from Wessex to Normandy. With it went the Celtic influence on both Church and State as the Celts were driven more and more into the western promontories and peninsulas of Europe by the predominant Rhine-Rhone cultural axis. They were more and more in a state of siege, less and less able to move freely towards imaginative creation. The saga-literature they produced is saturated with feeling for the past. A good deal of it is lamentation of one kind or another. Sometimes it is personal, either for the death of a loved one or, as in Llywarch’s famous complaint of old age, for the speaker’s own changed state. Perhaps even more typical, however, is the lament for a ruined house that the loved one has died defending. Here the loss is by no means merely personal. Cynddylan’s Hall was the tribal centre; its overthrow represents the ruin of an entire society. In the saga of Heledd, the sister of Cynddylan, the lord of Pengwern (Shrewsbury), the English are invading the good land of Powys. They have killed Cynddylan and destroyed his home. In her Elegy on Cynddylan (the poet has composed them for the mouth of the saga’s heroine), Heledd is lamenting over the ruins.

Stand out, maids, and look on the land of Cynddylan; the court of Pengwern ia ablaze; alas for the young who long for their brothers!

Cynddylan the bright buttress of the borderland, wearing a chain, stubborn in battle, he defended Trenn, his father’s town. …

How sad it is to my heart to lay the white flesh in the black coffin, Cynddylan the leader of a hundred hosts.

Heledd has seen all her brothers killed in an unavailing defence of the townships of Powys against the English invader; she has reason to blame their destruction on herself: By my accursed tongue, they are slain!  In the original Welsh, these are superb, tragic images, according to Conran, though perhaps somewhat lost even in his translation, here rendered into verse:

Stafell Gynddylan ys twywyll heno,

Heb dán, heb wely;

Wylaf wers, tawaf wedy.

(Dark is Cynddylan’s hall tonight,

With no fire, no bed;

I weep awhile, then am silent.)

Heledd’s laments are at once heart-rending and fiercely controlled, and many of the englynion on the hall of Cynddylan, the Eagle of Pengwern, the Eagle of Eli (the River Meheli in Montgomeryshire), the chapels of Bassa (Eglwysau Basa, or Basschurch) and the White Town, have the tone of great Welsh poetry. They are of a profoundly dramatic and emotional nature, but were part of a body of saga whose more direct narrative was presented in prose. Our knowledge of these sagas is unsure, for all we have are the fragments that were preserved. We must reconstruct the content of the vanished prose from the preserved verses:

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight, without fire, without light; longing for you comes over me.

The hall of Cynddylan, its vault is dark after the bright company; alas for him who does not do the good which falls to him!

Hall of Cynddylan, you have become shapeless, your shield is in the grave; while he lived you were not mended with hurdles.

The hall of Cynddylan is loveless tonight, after him who owned it; ah, Death, why does it spare me? …

The hall of Cynddylan, it pierces me to see it, without roof, without fire; my lord dead, myself alive …

They are enshrined in high dramatic utterance, not the merely ruminative mode of elegy. And as the elegy continues, the lamentation is raised, seemingly, not so much for one man’s death as for the ending of a way of life:

The chapels of Bassa are his resting-place tonight, his last welcome, the pillar of battle, the heart of the men of Argoed …

The chapels of Bassa have lost their rank after their destruction by the English of Cynddylan and Elfan of Powys …

The white town in the breast of the wood, this is its symbol ever – blood on the surface of its grass.

The White town in the valley, glad is the kite at the bloodshed of battle; its people have perished …

After my brothers from the lands of the Severn round the banks of the Dwyryw, woe is me, God! that I am alive …

I have looked out on a lovely land from the gravemound of Gorwynnion; long is the sun’s course – longer are my memories …

The theme, in common with the other sagas of Llywerch Hen, is that of the intertwining of both private and tribal disaster, where the facts of history are interpreted as the workings of fate and the nemesis of human pride. We leave Heledd, ‘the Proud Maiden’ and bereft Princess of Powys in her thin cloak, driving her solitary cow over the mountain pasture. In the soil that moulded her brothers, they now moulder, but she must go on living. Likewise, the Welsh went on living behind the Dyke, and the ninth to the eleventh centuries saw various attempts to create a wider unity within Wales itself, with varying degrees of success, as from time to time powerful leaders emerged: Rhodri Mawr, for instance (844-878) and Hywel Dda, his grandson, who brought together the various areas he had consolidated under the Law of Hywel Dda (the Good). But these two and a half centuries are almost without any surviving poetry. They were also punctuated by long periods of chaos, partly the result of continual Viking raids around the coasts and up the river valleys.

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The early decades of the eleventh century were troubled times when usurpers like Llywelyn ap Seisyll (1018-1023) seized power. With his son Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, the whole of Wales came under a single ruling family for the first time. On the eve of the Norman conquest, Harold Godwinson defeated Gruffudd ap Llewelyn, the king of Gwynedd. With Gruffudd’s death in 1063, Wales was disunited once more, but Harold, on succeeding Edward the Confessor on the English throne, was unable to take advantage of this weakness, as he had to put all his efforts into the defence of his own crown against the claims of William of Normandy. During the last decades of the eleventh century, Welsh independence grew more and more precarious. For many years prior to the Conquest, Anglo-Saxon kings had claimed lordship over Wales and this loose relationship had been widely accepted by the Welsh princes; Earl Harold’s devastating campaign of 1063 had forcibly reminded the Welsh of the military strength of their English neighbours. As king of England, William I inherited this claim to Wales but, faced with problems in England and Normandy for some years after his victory at Hastings, he had little inclination to involve himself directly in Wales.

(to be continued…)

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Family Life, Labour and Leisure: The Forward March of Women In Britain, 1930-40 (Chapter Six).   Leave a comment

Chapter Six: Motherhood, Domesticity & Recreation.

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Between the wars, high maternal mortality and infant mortality rates continued to disfigure most industrial districts in Britain. While deaths in childbirth affected all classes of women, Hans Singer showed in his 1937 reports for the Pilgrim Trust that there was a clear relationship between poverty and maternal mortality rates (I have written about this in the previous series of articles). The high rate of maternal was a national disgrace. It was the result of numerous causes, including a moral attitude to women and conception that contributed to their suffering. In England and Wales, four women in every thousand lost their lives in childbirth every year. As we have seen in an earlier chapter in this series, the rate was seven per thousand in the distressed areas of South Wales, a fact masked by the continuing high birth-rate in the area throughout the inter-war period. In January 1936, the Prime Minister announced that a bill to establish a national midwives’ service would be put before Parliament. Under the Act, all maternity cases would, from July 1937, be conducted by a properly qualified midwife, whether working under a local authority or a voluntary service. With the agreement of the Chancellor, the service, costing half a million pounds, was to be funded by central government. Conservatives responded to the call of their leader and his wife, while Labour MPs welcomed the establishment of a national medical service in tune with their party’s pledge to provide a universal national health service. One of them, Arthur Greenwood, author of the play Love on the Dole, referred to the eugenic advantages of improving the maternity care of mothers:

… what this nation may in future lack in numbers, it ought to be the aim of statesmanship to make up in quality. That has a very distinct bearing upon the problem of maternal well-being.

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As Susan Williams has pointed out, it was the first time that the principles of a state medical service had been put into effect, scotching the myth that the NHS sprang to life fully formed in 1948 as the brainchild of Aneurin Bevan (see the caption above). Nevertheless, the relationship between poverty and infant mortality was even clearer. In Coventry, although the rate of infant deaths at the beginning of the interwar period, 92 per thousand, was lower than in many other major West Midland towns and cities, it was still far too high. The vital statistics taken from an average of the seven years ending 1931 showed an overall death-rate of 12.1 for England and Wales as a whole, compared with 11.6 for Birmingham and 6.5 for Bournville, Cadbury’s ‘model village’ area of the second city. Infant mortality rates for England and Wales over the same period were 69, for Birmingham 72 and for Bournville 56. In the earliest of these years, the heights and weights of Bournville children were compared with one of the children of one of the more deprived areas of Birmingham, and the Bournville children were found to be between two to four inches taller and between four and nine pounds heavier.

More than a decade later, a survey carried out on behalf of the Birmingham Social Survey Committee in 1939 was concerned with the relationship between poverty and the size of families on a new housing estate in one of the city’s poorest suburbs, Kingstanding. It found that, at a time when the volume of both employment and earnings were higher than ever before in Birmingham’s history, fourteen percent of the 5,300 families with dependent children on the estate had insufficient income to buy the minimum diet prescribed by the British Medical Association (B.M.A.). This meant that one-third of the children on the estate were living in poverty. The investigators separated these families into groups according to the number of dependent children they had. They found that whilst only five percent of the families with one or two children under fourteen were in poverty, forty percent of the families with three or more dependent children were below the minimum line.

Across the country as a whole, although contraception was not readily available, it was becoming widespread, thanks to the work of the Marie Stopes clinics. Many married couples across Britain were using some method to prevent pregnancy. As a result, families were declining in size, leading to widespread fears of a shrinking population. Eugenicists warned of a decline in the country’s ‘human stock’, as the families with many children tended to be from the poorer working class. One of the motivations behind Marie Stopes’ publicising of the effects of the benefits of contraception was the eugenicist belief in the necessity of limiting the ‘poor quality’ offspring of this class. Despite Stopes’s efforts, there were still large families in solidly working-class towns and poorer districts of London and cities such as Birmingham and Coventry. Margery Spring-Rice, the pioneering social reformer, studied the lives of 1,250 mothers in these districts for her book, Working-Class Wives. Alongside the poverty and hardship, she drew attention to the number of pregnancies the women endured. Nearly five was the average, but a third of those she studied had six or more confinements, which led to large families, despite the high rates of infant mortality. In 1936, for every thousand births, fifty-six babies were dead before the age of one, compared with fewer than five per thousand today. Only half of the poorer families Margery Spring-Rice researched used any form of birth control.

Oral evidence for Coventry reveals how a group of self-organised working-class women determined to combat this ‘social ill’ through their practical involvement with mothers and children in its poorer, but growing suburbs. Six members of the Women’s Cooperative Guild were elected to the City Council between the wars, lobbying powerfully for the expansion of Maternity and Child Welfare clinics. Cooperative guilds-women also became voluntary workers in these clinics as they were established by independent committees in the expanding city. A daughter of one of these women, interviewed in the mid-1980s, had fond memories of her mother’s work in a voluntary clinic. She recalled that, as a twelve-year-old, she had helped her mother tear old sheets into strips to make the ‘belly bindings’ which had formed parts of the contents of maternity bags issued to mothers in need. In 1935, Alderman Mrs Hughes spoke to Lower Stoke Branch of the wonderful way our guilds-women have taken to the Maternity and Child Welfare work, a new clinic having been opened at Radford, staffed with guilds-women. 

Right up until the reorganisation of health services into the NHS in 1948, voluntary workers played a large part in Maternity and Child Welfare work in the city. During this period there was only one clinic administered by the City Council, although after the 1929 Local Government Act it did provide medical and nursing staff for the voluntary clinics. Statistics showing the number of children attending clinics (above) provide evidence of the extent of the voluntary commitment. Proximity was probably the biggest factor in the popularity of the voluntary clinics for they were held in church halls and similar buildings in residential areas, whereas the municipal clinic was held in the city centre. The attitude of the volunteers at the clinics may also have been important. As well as being deterred by personal difficulties such as the inability to afford to pay the fare to a centre or to attend at awkward hours, ‘poor people’ may also have been put off by a harsh or wooden administration or unacceptable personnel. These problems could be overcome by the use of voluntary workers who had both a genuine concern for the mothers and a thorough understanding of their problems.

Ivy Cowdrill was involved both in the establishment and the day-to-day administration of a clinic which was opened in Tile Hill in 1937. Her account of her work shows that when voluntary workers were part of the community in which a clinic was established they had a shared experience which helped them to understand the mother’s problems. She begins with an explanation of the circumstances in which her local clinic was opened:

… they were starting to build up here … and the people used to come along the lane here … it was all fields then … They (the mothers) used to go down with the prams all the way to Gulson Road (the municipal clinic in the city centre) to get the cheap food … I used to feel sorry for them. Well, we all did. And Pearl Hyde talked to us about it and asked if we’d help her. We certainly would! … There were several of us in … the Coop Guild … We talked about it at the Guild but it was when Pearl started to come round that we got to talk about it more.

Pearl Hyde was the Labour Party candidate for the ward. Although she did not win the seat in the 1937 municipal elections in which the Party won control of the Council, she was successful shortly afterwards in a by-election in another ward. Due to her local government commitments and her work with the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, Pearl Hyde’s practical involvement with the clinic soon ceased but the enthusiasm of her followers remained and many of those originally involved were inspired to carry on until 1941 when ‘the (Ministry of) Health’ took over. Ivy Cowdrill’s testimony conveyed the enthusiasm and energy of the women involved:

We got talking about it and they all said they’d help … we used to go out every day. My daughter used to go with me, knocking on doors, enquiring … to see how many babies and who would come.

With the approval of the Ministry of Health and with professional personnel provided by the city council the clinic was opened in October 1937. Ivy Cowdrill went on to give a detailed description of activities at the clinic and the duties of voluntary workers:

We bought aluminium bowls and we used to put a clean piece of tissue paper in the bowl … to put the babies’ clothes in, by the side of every chair. We used to go early and do that before the clinic opened. And put everything ready and the scales … One would be weighing the toddlers this side and one the other side weighing the tiny babies. And we had a couple of nurses (health visitors) and a doctor. We had a doctor’s room. We used to take it in turns or it wouldn’t be fair or someone would have the dirty jobs all the while, washing the aluminium bowls out, washing the cups and saucers.

From the evidence in the local Medical Officer of Health reports it appears that the majority of voluntary clinics were organised in this way. The volunteers administered the clinics and were ancillary workers whilst the councils provided the health visitors and doctors. A criticism of voluntary clinics in this era was that voluntary workers were inclined to usurp the duties of the health visitors but there is no evidence that Coventry volunteers took over any of the health visitors’ educational or advisory duties. Indeed, they did not receive training in such matters. What many of them did have, however, was the experience of being mothers and that would qualify them as experts on baby matters in the eyes of many of the young mothers who attended the clinics. In this capacity, they passed on common sense advice and words of encouragement as they handled the babies. Not only were many of them experienced mothers, but most of them had experienced a similar lifestyle to the women who attended, and they spoke the same colloquial language.

The usual image of a voluntary worker is of a middle class ‘lady bountiful’, but in the thirties working class helpers were fairly common in baby clinics, in Coventry and elsewhere. They often had part-time jobs in the factories or in local hospitals as, for example, laundry workers. Although they might be more financially secure than many of the young mothers, many of them had endured periods of hardship themselves in younger days. Apart from the weighing of babies, the main tasks of a voluntary worker at a child welfare clinic centred around the sale of baby foods and food supplements. Here too their knowledge of working-class life was useful, as they were immediately aware when some of the mothers needed flexible arrangements regarding payment:

We used to sell Bemax, Marmite, Ovaltine and every food there was until the National Food came out; orange juice, vitamin pills, the lot … It was very big welfare. You can tell by the money we took ’cause the food was … very cheap … And the Ovaltine was only about a shilling … If anyone said, “I’ve no money”, I’d say, “We’ll get it”. I’d lend them the money and they’d bring it back here … And I’ve come home like a packed mule ’cause the soldiers’ wives used to have their money on a Monday and the clinic wasn’t till Thursday, so … they’d no money come Thursday … I used to bring the food home and they used to come here for it here … My husband used to shout “Shop!”

The volunteers were also aware of other needs among their clients. The concept of ‘welfare’ was extended and clinic attendance was made into a social occasion by the provision of tea and biscuits. Special social events, including day trips, were organised, and Cadbury’s donated bars of chocolate for the children for Christmas parties. The Coventry clinic seems to have been the sort of centre which could have developed into the type of women’s club advocated by Margery Spring-Rice of the Women’s Health Enquiry Committee in 1939. Such a centre would enable women to meet their fellows … form social ties … talk and laugh and eat food which they had not cooked themselves. The efforts made in this direction by the Tile Hill volunteers were appreciated by the women of the district throughout the thirties and early forties. Not only were the volunteers deeply committed to the work, but they also gained a great deal of satisfaction from what was, in effect, an extension of the traditional female role of nurturer within the private domain of the family. Ivy Cowdrill’s recollection typified this:

It was great. I loved it. Thursday was my day out … and I just lived for Thursday every week. You know it was so great to be involved in it … It wasn’t only working at the welfare, we was interested in the life of the children altogether. You seem to live for them really. You got so interested in it, it seemed to occupy your mind all the while.

Volunteers like Ivy Cowdrill made their mark by transferring the caring values of the private domain into the public one of the clinic and putting a human face on what was otherwise an impersonal service. The people who flooded into Coventry during the thirties, attracted by jobs in the new factories, were mainly young people. The proportion of the population aged over forty-five in the City was lower than almost anywhere else in Britain. The people had more consistent and better-remunerated work than in most other industrial areas and yet infant mortality remained high and old vested interests resisted the modernisation of medical services. The women of the Coop Guild, with little help from the State, set about tackling this problem and confronted it with zeal and zest until the onset of war and then the foundation of the National Health Service prepared the way for the bureaucratization of health care. Many of the ‘clinic activists’ gave up their positions with reluctance having hoped for a role for their voluntary work within the healthcare schemes devised by the state.

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Oral testimony is also a crucial source of information about attitudes towards family life in the past. In many respects, Coventry interviewees might be speaking for members of working-class families of any industrial town in Britain. Peter Lynam’s article on Domestic Life in Coventry 1920-39 draws material from a wider study of Coventry car workers based on sixty interviews with couples from three generations. Most of the evidence was drawn from talking with the women who, apart from relatively short periods at work either just before marriage or during the second world war, spent most of their time on the domestic front. Many of those interviewed, although resident in Coventry for many decades, had spent their formative years in other towns and regions. Even those proud to have been born in the City were children of at least one parent who had come from outside. Marjorie Clark remarked of her own parents, for example:

Mother was a cook in service in Cheshire, and dad was an engineer, a toolroom man, in Altrincham … Dad came first, got a job in Coventry and got lodgings. Then mother followed and, of course, being in Coventry, as cook-housekeeper. And they got married in Coventry and stayed afterwards … They must have come to Coventry about 1906-1907, married about 1909 …

June Bream came as a very young child to Coventry in the early twenties. Her background displayed the peculiar characteristic shared by the families of tradesmen working in the motor industry at an early stage of its development:

I was born in Liverpool, in Wavertree, West Derby … My grandma had a boarding house in Southport and before I was born my father worked in Scotland … My father was an old coach-builder and in those days they had to travel to where the work was. So they had a big tool box and the man was known by his tool box whether he was a tradesman or not. And then after I was born my father moved down to Coventry, looking … for work. … after he’d been here a couple of years … the family moved down with him.

 

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Housing was always a problem for working people but the flood of migrants into Coventry produced a housing shortage which lasted almost thirty years. Moreover, most of the housing was small and lacking in modern conveniences, prompting frequent attempts to find something better. It was unusual for those born in one house still to be living there a decade later. The family would move from rented accommodation according to the price charged for it and the space provided, taking into account added children or those leaving home on marriage, thus making payment for unused space an extravagance. Irregular employment or unforeseen adversity could prompt a move to more restricted but cheaper living space. Marjorie Clark described her family’s mid-thirties move to a ‘nicer house’:

We lived in a house in Kingston Road without a bathroom, just a two up, two down. Mother and dad wanted a house with a bathroom and we had a chance to move into a slightly larger house. That was the reason we moved into Queensland Avenue.

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‘Two up, two down’ was the most common form of accommodation, even though many families had more than two children. Some older people lived in the old weavers’ or watchmakers’ houses with large windows and an extra floor that was one large room, originally a workshop. The Midland Daily Telegraph had been calling for three-bedroom houses to be built since 1919, as young families would grow and need more space. As it was, families with a number of children slept several to a bed in the back bedroom, with curtains dividing boys from girls, while parents slept in the front bedroom with the baby in the cot when required. Very large families would have older boys and girls sleeping in the downstairs back living room. In many homes, the front room would still be kept for special occasions. The usual furniture consisted of a large crockery cupboard, a dining table and set of chairs. By the mid-thirties, most families would also have a radio, and there might be a piano in the front room.

The home was ‘mother’s domain’. She did the cooking, washing and mending. Sometimes other family members – especially daughters – helped with the cooking and cleaning. Younger children were often assigned domestic tasks like swilling out the yard, polishing the fireplace, dusting mantelpieces, or polishing the ‘lino’ in the hall. A woman’s work was particularly laborious. Without washing machines, an exception in the thirties, washing clothes would take the best part of a day. Preparing meals also took time, and traditional mid-day dinner times for men and young workers in the family often involved them returning home from workplaces to eat cooked ‘dinners’, along with children of school age who were not entitled to free school meals. They would not be long out of the house before their evening meal was having to be planned and prepared. June Bream had to miss most of her last school year when she was thirteen because her mother was confined to bed after losing a baby. She had to look after her mother ill in bed, her father and two brothers and a sister. She went to school in the mornings one week, and the afternoons the next week, fitting her domestic duties in as best she could. When her father came home on a Friday night, wages night, she put her clean ‘piny’ on so that he could throw his wages in it. He told her, you’re the mother of the house … till your mother’s well now.

Although June missed some schooling due to her domestic responsibilities, an experience which was far from unique for girls of her age, the notion of the woman’s place being in the home was strongly reinforced by the education given to girls. June would normally have had lessons in sewing, cooking, and laundry, and in the senior, there was a specialist ‘housewifery’ teacher:

She used to teach you to be a housewife, a mother. They used to have this part (of the school) where it used to be like a house and you used to have old grates in it … and gas stoves where they were all black-leaded, and of course you had to do all that. … you had special times, and it was either cookery or washing and ironing … or housework. … you had to go in every room; you had a kitchen and a living room and a bedroom. And if you were doing cookery … you had to cook the meal in the morning and then the teacher and the rest of the class … used to stop for dinner and you used to have to wait on table. They showed you how to set the table.

Since most women stopped paid employment on marriage, the home became the focus for most women by their mid-twenties. Imelda Wintle remembered her mother’s working hours with appreciation:

She used to describe herself as a “poor old slave” … I mean she was on the go all the time. She used to do her own decorating and things like that, and cutting down clothes … and making do.

When money was tight, housewives would also take in washing, which they would also press and iron. Many Coventry housewives would also have a locally made Singer sewing machine, often received as a wedding gift, with which she would mend clothes as well as making clothes for the children. Most clothes were either made at home or by a local dressmaker or tailor. Many of the dressmakers would be ordinary housewives with a skill in dressmaking.

Sunday (afternoon) dinner was the best meal of the week, with the mother going personally to the butcher’s shop, knowing exactly what she was looking for. The week’s meals then followed a set pattern, with variations according to income. Kath Smith recalled:

Sundays we had roast, always … and of course we had the cold meat on Monday. And we always had … meat and potato pie on Tuesday. I suppose it could have been sausage, or something, on Wednesday or Thursday.  It was always fish on Friday and … a makeshift dinner on Saturday. It may be sometimes on a Saturday we would have fish ‘n’ chips instead of faggots and peas. … fish ‘n’ chips was thre’pence , tu’penny fish and a penny worth of chips … and on Sunday for tea we’d always have salmon and fruit and cream … a tin of salmon was eleven pence ha’penny and a tin of pineapple was five pence ha’penny …

The pattern was determined by other domestic tasks, like Tuesday being washday which meant the stew could be left to cook slowly and then finished off with pastry. Pay-day was usually on a Thursday or Friday, so the mid-week days often required ingenuity to keep the family going on shrinking resources. Feeding the breadwinner was the top priority, next came the children. The housewife often ate very little at these meals. Eva Shilton commented:

I’ve seen her eat bread and mustard, and she’d eat a sandwich of cabbage and things like that. Since, later on in life, I’ve mentioned it to her and she said, “Well, I couldn’t see you lot go without”. And she’d make do, she was a typical mother …heart and soul for her children … She didn’t like cooking but she would always cook for my dad because he liked the things we didn’t … I think with him having so much ill-health, when he was well she would look after him to keep him well.

The death of a parent was a dreadful experience for young children especially. A father’s death also meant the loss of the breadwinner. The family was in deep trouble unless older children were in employment, still single and part of the parental household. It often necessitated a move to cheaper accommodation and the mother’s quest for employment, at least cleaning work or taking in washing, or at best factory work, which was not well-paid where women were concerned because most female workers were young, single and cheap. The loss of a mother had its emotional impact and needed older members of the family to ‘rally round’. Vera Langford’s fiance was confronted with this situation when his mother died, having to return to Coventry from London to look after the younger children in a large family. It took him, his father and his elder brother to bring them up between them.

Industrial injury or recurrent illness suffered by a male breadwinner also led to a wife’s search for paid employment. Although fathers were ultimately responsible for disciplining children who misbehaved, mothers were usually responsible for nurturing ‘respectability’ and protecting the family’s reputation:

Well, we always classed ourselves as being respectable. “And don’t bring trouble home” and that kind of thing. I think if we had’ve done we would never have been able to enter the house again … my mother was like that … she meant it. She just wanted us all to be happy and respectable and live a decent life … and that was what we did; no one ever brought trouble to her …

In an immigrant family, relatives were not likely to be near at hand. In such circumstances, a family wedding was a major event. For native Coventrians, however, the city’s growth provided little reason to move and find work elsewhere, so local extended families gathered easily for wedding celebrations. Marriage was approached in a practical fashion. Vera Langford recalled her wedding at the Registry Office:

We hadn’t got any money for a big ‘do’. What we had got we kept, … we sort of spent on necessities … Just family.

Many couples started married life in inauspicious circumstances. The city’s motor industry provided many with a living, as many as it provided with spells of unemployment. Together with a number of other women, Marjorie Clark was made redundant from Standard Motors just six weeks before her wedding. Nonetheless, preparations for it had been going on for some time, so she was determined to go ahead with the celebrations:

We got engaged on New Year’s Day in 1937 and got married on New Year’s Day, 1938 … We saved enough for the deposit on the house, that was fifty pounds, … a lot of money then! … mother helped me in a lot of ways, even if it was only with a bottom drawer, that sort of thing. And for the year that I was engaged she had no money from me for my keep. I kept all my money … and saved every penny of it for the wedding and everything like that … It was a white wedding at an Anglican church and… it was bitterly cold … It was a very happy wedding … There was no reception, no photographer, no honeymoon because I was out of work and my husband was on short time … So my mother saved the turkey from Christmas, cooked it and we had that for the reception … at home. 

By 1939, Coventry car ownership was surpassed only by that of London. This increased mobility opened up new possibilities for travel. Cycles, motorcycles and sidecars were used particularly by young workers for some distance from the city with boyfriends or girlfriends. On the other hand, most women confined themselves to the home after marriage and some mothers rarely went out when the children were young. Mothers spent recreation time in the evening either sewing, knitting, making clothes, listening to the radio or reading. All this went on in the living room, keeping an eye on the children not yet in bed. Public houses in Coventry had long been the ‘marketplace of the working class’ and when work was erratic the companionship found in them might lead to information about which firms were hiring at their factory gates.  The dominance of engineering topics in pub discourse was the reason given by the head porter of J. B. Priestley’s hotel, during his stay in Coventry in 1933, for avoiding the city’s pubs:

You go into one of these pubs … All right. What do you hear? All about gears and magnetos and such-like. Honest. That’s right. They can’t talk about anything else here. Got motor cars on the brain, they have. I hardly ever go into a pub. I go home and have a read.

Matt Nelson, from a North-east mining community, remembered that it was taboo for a woman to enter a pub ‘up there’, as was also the case with pubs ‘down there’ in south Wales. In Coventry, however, wives might respectably join husbands in pubs or clubs, meeting others from the locality. However, for many from chapel-going working-class families who regarded themselves as ‘respectable’, they shared the views of the workers from the depressed areas, regarding pubs as ‘low dives’, not the sort of places that either they or their daughters should be found in. Priestley made a brief visit to the bar of his hotel, where a barmaid with an enormous bust and a wig was busy exchanging badinage with four friends, two male (drinking ‘Bass’) and two female (drinking Guinness):

“He did, didn’t he, Joe?”

“‘S ri’, ”

“Cor, he didn’t ever,”

“Well, you ask Florrie,”

“I don’t mean what you mean,”

” ‘s ri’ ”

“‘Ere, Joe you tell ‘er.”

Men and women would also go to the cinemas and theatres together and mothers sometimes went to ‘matinée’ film shows with female friends. Social circles were sometimes organised through local churches providing companions for women otherwise tied to the home, but mothers seemed to have little time to themselves: their ‘recreation’, such as it was, was often home-based and spent with the family, making clothes, baking cakes, and so on.

Although a number of the city’s firms had established recreation clubs by the late thirties which attracted large numbers of employees, very few women seemed to take up these opportunities. The Secretary of the Alfred Herbert Recreation Club, E. Thomas, observed in 1939 that a relatively small number of women were involved in club activities. The nature of women’s recreation at this period is not clear. Certainly, they constituted at least half of dancers, a large part, even a majority of cinema-goers and, at least in inner-city areas, a sizeable proportion of pub-goers. However, in addition to the domestic roles of married women, the practice of leaving work on marriage, either through a ‘marriage bar’ operated by the company they worked for, or through a choice made under familial and cultural pressure, excluded them from works’ clubs unless they were in the company of a husband who worked for the company. Married women were occasionally referred to in works magazines in recreational contexts, but it is not clear whether they were widows or were challenging the convention of ceasing to work after marriage. The involvement of unmarried women in works’ activities also presented something of an issue for employers like Courtaulds and London Laundry for whom recruitment and moral discipline among female employees was central to business efficiency.

When women workers did participate in works’ recreational activities, they were rarely given any control over their use of leisure facilities. The Alfred Herbert Recreation Club had no female members on its management committee until 1940 and the Magnet Club committee welcomed women only as representatives of all women’s sections such as women’s hockey. In part, this reflected the lack of women as foremen and skilled workers in these firms because it was from the ranks of these that the committee personnel were usually drawn. It is particularly noticeable that women were never chosen to represent activities that were evenly mixed, such as cycling and swimming. Firms’ magazines were always patronising towards women, and cartoons, jokes and pen-portraits cast them in subservient roles. Women’s pages were purely domestic in focus and rarely successful. For the most part, they did not celebrate the achievements of individual women workers, nor their collective activities. Therefore, they lacked the appeal that team news had for male workers.

Firms and clubs showed intermittent bursts of enthusiasm for encouraging women’s participation. In particular, many firms tried to capitalise on the keep-fit craze from the mid-thirties on , often under the auspices of the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, mentioned in chapter one, since it had the attraction of providing women employees  with discipline and exercise at the same time, at little cost and in large numbers. Instructresses pointed out how it helped girls to enjoy life and work much better than before and that it was consistent with the belief that the success of the mass depends entirely on the individual. There is, however, no evidence that the League’s eugenic beliefs in the achievement of racial health and beauty by natural means were ever treated with any degree of seriousness in Coventry. Indeed, such initiatives met with varying success. The London Laundry branch of the Everywoman’s Health Movement folded after just over a year in 1939 through lack of support. It had never achieved a membership of more than twenty-five. The GEC Ladies’ Physical Culture Club, affiliated to the League of Health and Beauty, had over two hundred members in 1937 in two classes, but despite displays in Coventry, Birmingham and London, it experienced declining enthusiasm and finished after the outbreak of war.

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Not all women’s recreational activities were doomed to failure, however, and there are several examples of autonomous women’s sections and activities providing sociability for employees over long periods. Women’s sports, even women’s soccer, common during the First World War, continued until the ending of munitions work and the dispersal of the hostel labour force in 1918-19. By 1930, the Magnet Club ran two women’s cricket teams and several departmental teams, although these came in for a certain amount of ridicule in The Loudspeaker. In 1932, there was the first of series of women’s cycling camps. The fashion for departmental outings had meant that trips such as that of the coil-winders and the assembly section at GEC were virtually all-women affairs, and women began holding their own annual dinners as early as 1928. It is not apparent, however, how such occasions related to women’s prospects of advancement at work or their status within the company, unlike the complex rituals of competitive displays at full staff dances.

The relationship between works social clubs and the recreation of the city as a whole was at its closest, and most beneficial to both parties, in the regular dances which were held on factory premises. Dances were already being put on by some of the city’s chief companies in 1921. There were only two commercial ballrooms, the Gaumont and the Rialto, in Coventry, so the factories provided the main alternative to church hall dances, and their dancehalls and ballrooms were far grander. They also had the specially sprung floors which were favoured by dancing enthusiasts. The dance craze was most popular among skilled manual workers and clerical staff, people who had served time and could afford to pay 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d. for admission. For them, the refined, formalised ritual of the dance halls provided an appropriate setting for courtship and social aspiration.The halls banned drink, although men would go to the pubs first, and the doors were closed at 9.30 in order to exclude those who had drunk too much. Young women, who therefore arrived first, at about 8 p.m., would not tolerate men whose breath revealed that they had spent too much of the intervening time in the pub. Men were also expected to carry a second handkerchief for their right hand so that they didn’t soil their partner’s dresses, or inadvertently touch any exposed skin.

Dancing was enjoyed most by the young women, who spent time at home and work trying out the latest steps with sisters and friends, often to the radio or gramophone. The complexity of the dances of the thirties – foxtrots, waltzes, quicksteps and tangos, required tuition, and men needed to be confident of their dancing before they could be among the first to venture out onto the floor. Ability to dance was, therefore, an asset in successful courtship, and while many learnt from their sisters or other female acquaintances, others went to one of the city’s many dancing schools. There were beginners’ nights at the major ballrooms. The dance halls also offered camaraderie. Groups from different areas of town would rendezvous at set pitches in each dance hall, but courtship no doubt provided the basic motivation. Male toolroom employees met few women at work because they were segregated by skill and they rarely met the office and shop girls they aspired to marry. Courting couples were left to other areas of the dance floor where they would try to be lost to the group.

No doubt, there were some for whom the attraction of a particular hall lay in its resident dance band. The biggest firms’ hall, which most effectively escaped the canteen atmosphere and rivalled purpose-built commercial halls, was the GEC ballroom (shown below), often referred to as ‘The Connor’. Attendances were large, averaging over six hundred by 1936. Special occasions, in particular, the New Year’s Eve dances, drew massive audiences, as many as 1,350 in 1930. Attendances thereafter were limited to eight hundred, and in 1937 a second dance was organised for New Year’s Day, to accommodate the 750 dancers who had been unable to get tickets for the previous night.

 

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This ‘new leisure’ was the subject of many contemporary social investigations and surveys conducted by organisations such as the Pilgrim Trust and the NCSS. Following his visit to Coventry in January 1939, Sir William Deedes wrote to its local Employment Exchange Officer, Philip Handley, to express his alarm at what he referred to as a lack of social and recreational provision in the form of community centres, boys’ clubs, churches and hostels. His distaste for working class preferences in leisure activities is clear from the following extract from his subsequent report, which he attached to his letter:

Cinemas are thronged and on a Saturday afternoon queues ‘a quarter-mile-long’ and mainly of young people are to be seen. I was informed that on Saturday and Sunday nights also Road Houses within a twenty-mile radius of Coventry are full of young people dancing and entertaining themselves. The night I was there a small road house four miles out of Coventry had fifty cars and four charabancs outside and some three hundred persons inside dancing. A football match the same afternoon was attended by thirty thousand to forty thousand people and ‘the Dogs’, I am told, never fail to draw large numbers… Is it proper to ask oneself whether, if there were better facilities for playing games, both out and indoor, use would be made of them? An answer to the question cannot be given in Coventry because the facilities are not there!

Handley might have replied that Deedes seemed to have ignored the facilities provided by local firms in making this assertion, but we do not have such a letter. Deedes may have had in mind the ‘model’ which Bournville in Birmingham provided in terms of recreational provision. J. B. Priestley, who visited Cadbury’s Birmingham ‘village’ in 1933, pointed out that they had long been in the top class of the school of benevolent and paternal employers. Their workers had been provided with magnificent recreation grounds and sports pavilions, with a large concert hall in the factory itself, where midday concerts are given, with dining-rooms, recreation-rooms, and drama facilities. The factory was almost as busy in the evenings as it was in the daytime, with games, music, lectures, classes, plays, hobbies, conferences all keeping the place in full swing. The membership of the various clubs and societies ran to several thousand for whom no form of self-improvement, except those that have their base in some extreme form of economic revolution, was denied. The only form of pastime which was precluded was the ancient one of getting drunk. The factory had all the facilities for leading a full and happy life and, he asserted, what progressive people all over the world are demanding for humanity was what the Cadbury workers already had. Those in charge insisted that the firm used no compulsion whatever and never moved to provide anything until it knew that there was a real demand for it. He added his conviction that…

 … whether all this is right or wrong, the employers themselves have acted in good faith … Is it right or wrong? … It is easy for some academic person, who has never spent an hour in a factory and does not really know how people live, to condemn it on philosophical grounds … Now there is no getting away from the fact that here, owing to this system of paternal employment, are factory workers who have better conditions, more security, and infinitely better chances leading a decent and happy life, than nearly all such factory workers elsewhere … who worked in bad conditions, who had no security, and whose employers did not care a rap if their people drink themselves silly in their leisure … No factory workers in Europe have ever been better off than these people. 

Despite this accolade, however, Priestley has his doubts as to whether, taking a longer view, it was good for people to see the factory where they worked as the centre of their whole lives, even if it offered them so much. A worker whose whole life was centred on the factory might, he suggested, enjoy many unusual luxuries, but one obvious ‘luxury’ they could not enjoy was a spirit of independence. Pensions and bonuses, works councils, factory publications, entertainments and dinners,  garden-parties and outings, all organised by the firm, were all very well, but they could easily create an atmosphere injurious to the personal growth and ‘self-help’ of the men and women working for the firm. Although he conceded that workers in such places as Bournville had so many solid benefits conferred upon them that they were better placed than the ordinary factory worker, who is probably not so content at either work or play, …

On the other hand, I for one would infinitely prefer to see workers combining to provide these benefits, or a reasonable proportion of them, for themselves, to see them forming associations far removed from the factory, to see them using their leisure, and demanding its increase, not as favoured employees but as citizens, free men and women.   

In reality, the ‘new leisure’ cut across class and regional demarcations, especially in Coventry, where it mixed, mingled and blended with older forms of leisure, some of which had migrated with their adherents from the older industrial areas. There were, evidently, many in key positions within the social service movement in both the ‘old’ and ‘new’ industrial areas, who regarded the development of mass, commercial forms of entertainment  as undermining their patronage, and when these critics wrote of the lack of leisure provision or of the absence of a communal ethos, they were writing from an ‘establishment’ perspective. Meanwhile, the Coventrian workers themselves, whether newcomers or ‘established’ citizens, both at work and at play, were re-modelling and re-making their city in their own image and shaking off the bonds of both patronage and paternalism.

The reactions of the migrants themselves to the social life of the new industry areas, documented in previous chapters, are more relevant in comprehending the wider cultural factors at work within the processes of migration and settlement. In Coventry, the streets themselves, the neighbourhoods and districts reflected the migration of labour. Some areas were completely cosmopolitan in this respect, with neighbours from all parts of the Midlands and North of England, Scotland and Ireland. In other neighbourhoods, there were concentrations of certain nationalities, Welsh, Scottish and Irish. Certainly, from the mid-1930s on, Coventry was a stronghold of the affluent worker. The roast every Sunday, the buying of your own house, early TV and car ownership all bear witness to rising living standards. Not everyone experienced the improvement in quite the same way or to the same degree, but enough did for it to constitute a trend. From the late thirties onwards, and especially with the onset of war and after, married women found that they had jobs to go to. Women began, increasingly, to have dual roles, providing the family with two wage packets, allowing many to enjoy a short period of affluence before the privations of war and the Blitz hit home.

Women at War in Coventry:

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Women in fire masks, Downshire Hill, Hampstead, London, 1941. Photo by Lee Miller.

While the main onslaught of the ‘Blitz’ of the autumn of 1940 was directed at the capital, other ports and cities were subjected to severe attacks over short, concentrated periods, or to single raids. The ten-hour incendiary and explosive blitz upon Coventry caused tremendous damage, overnight, in November 1940 (I have written more extensively about this elsewhere on this site). Most of the ‘inner’ city’s factories sustained some damage, with the Daimler factory, the GEC and British Thomson Houston being badly hit. In 1981, Muriel Jones, then a young worker in the city, recalled her experience of that night:

 The night of the November Blitz, I was on day shift with my sister and two friends. Just as we left work the siren sounded so we ran as fast as we could, hoping to get to our digs or a shelter. One of my friends stopped along the road to say goodbye to her sailor boyfriend; it was their last goodbye, they were never seen again. We made it to one of the four shelters, and ours was the only one that escaped the bombs, all the other occupants were killed. About sixty people. After the raid we had to dig ourselves out as best we could, to face all the damage. Around us our digs were gone along with a lot more houses. Our landlady and husband with them, although they were in a garden shelter.

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 Coventry,  14 November 1940

“Those of us who lost everything in the war will never forget. We don’t need anniversaries and war films and books, we just remember … everything seemed so vast, so much happened, we thought that nothing more could happen. We often believed that things would never come right again.”

– Two elderly ladies who had survived the blitz, interviewed by The Coventry Standard on the twentieth anniversary of the raid.

“Please don’t let it die Coventry. We managed to survive then when all the odds were against us. We can do it now if we try.”

 – A ‘young lady’ interviewed by The Coventry Evening Telegraph in 1980, about the previous evening’s television documentary.

 

Sources:

Denys Blakeway (2010), The Last Dance: 1936: The Year Our Lives Changed. London: John Murray.

Mark Abrams (1945), The Condition of the British People, 1911-1945: A Study prepared for The Fabian Society. London: Victor Gollancz.

J. B. Priestley (1938), English Journey: Being a Rambling but Truthful Account of What One Man Saw and Heard and Felt and Thought During a Journey Through England During a Journey Through England During the Autumn of the Year 1933. Leipzig: Bernard Tauchnitz

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (eds.) (1986), Life and Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: Cryfield Press.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Asa Briggs, et.al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

René Cutforth (1976),  Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbott: David & Charles.

Andrew J. Chandler (1988), ‘The Re-Making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands, c. 1920-40. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Cardiff.

 

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