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The Long March of Every Woman: Gender, ‘Community’ and Poverty in British Labour History, 1928-38; IV.   Leave a comment

Chapter Four: Poverty, Resistance and Reconstruction.

In May 1936, the South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service held a special ‘Conference on Transference’ at the YMCA in Barry. Up to this time, the Council had played a major role in the government’s strategy, with a number of its members being involved in both the social administration of the transference scheme for juveniles and young men and the government-sponsored voluntary work in the valleys for older men and women. Most of the prominent figures in the social administration of South Wales attended the Conference. On its second day, clear divisions emerged over the continuance of the scheme, with Rev. T. Alban Davies going so far as to call for civil disobedience to counter its operation. His argument was that the national conscience was being roused against the break-up of communities which represented the history and traditions of Wales. Aneurin Bevan, MP, also called for an end to the policy, attacking the complacent attitude of those who had set themselves up as the leadership of the Welsh Nation:

… if this problem was still viewed as complacently as it had been, this would involve the breakdown of a social, institutional and communal life peculiar to Wales. The Welsh Nation had adopted a defeatist attitude towards the policy of transference as the main measure for relief of the Distressed Areas in South Wales, but objection should be taken as there was no economic case for continuing to establish industries in the London area rather than the Rhondda.

The reason for this complacency was made apparent by one speaker who replied to Bevan by suggesting that East Monmouth had no Welsh institutions or traditions likely to be damaged by large-scale transference, as most of the people were originally immigrants who had not been absorbed into local life… Elfan Rees, Secretary to the SWMCSS, agreed that much of the population of South Wales had come from English counties, but pointed out that it was not the ‘rootless undesirables’ who were leaving:

It is not only the young, it is not only the best, it is also the Welsh who are going … if transference were repatriation it might be a different story, but it is expatriation. It is the people with the roots who are going – the unwillingness to remain idle at home – the essential qualification of the transferee again, are the qualities that mark or own indigenous population. And if this process of social despoilation goes on, South Wales of tomorrow will be peopled with a race of poverty-stricken aliens saddled with public services they haven’t the money to maintain and social institutions they haven’t the wit to run. Our soul is being destroyed and the key to our history, literature, culture thrown to the four winds.

Rees’ ‘analysis’ of the problem helps to explain why, in 1928, the ‘liberal-Cymricists’ had chosen not to oppose the Baldwin Government’s Transference policy. They had hoped that it would remove, as they saw them, the aliens who had robbed them of the loyalty of the people of the valleys. By 1936, it had become clear that become clear that the transference scheme in particular and voluntary migration, in general, had failed to discriminate in the way they had hoped it would.

Migration also had a tendency to delay marriage and to restrict parenthood. Those couples who did manage to move before starting a family often delayed doing so due to the continuing sense of insecurity they felt in their new homes. This meant that migration not only altered significantly the age structure of South Wales and the North, but also did little or nothing to counter the declining birth rates in the recipient areas, and therefore nationally, at least until the late 1940s. The decline of the nonconformist chapels also had its impact on the ability of couples to get married in their hometowns and villages. In many ways, the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Wales in 1919 represented a high water mark for Welsh Nonconformity. A decade later its pre-eminence had been destroyed. In early 1930 a correspondent in The Times stated that in Cwmavon all nine nonconformist chapels were without ministers and that all marriages except one from the town had taken place in the registry office at Neath, ten miles away. This was not an isolated case. A survey into the position of the Free Churches in the Special Area was completed in 1938, showing their total debt to be in excess of forty thousand pounds. This debt swallowed al their income. While there were 1,100 chapels still active throughout the Special Area, less than half of them were able to support ordained ministers.

There was a detectable change in the Special Areas’ Commissioner’s third report of November 1936, which included an acknowledgement of the negative effects of transference upon the Special Areas and promised inducements to attract new industries. However, the Commissioner stressed the need for continuation of the Transference Policy. Malcolm Stewart warned that the establishment of industries in the Areas on an effective scale would take time. In the meantime, failure to help the youths and the younger generation of the unemployed to transfer to districts offering better opportunities would be to neglect their best interests. They must not wait about until absorbed locally. By the following November, in confirmation that the Government had accepted the priority of new industrial development and felt able at last to align itself with the new consensus, the fourth report which the new Special Areas Commissioner, George Gillett, presented to parliament, referred to the Transference Scheme in the past tense. It included a statement by Captain Geoffrey Crawshay, who had been appointed District Commissioner for the South Wales Special Area, which was a significant apology for the operation of the scheme over the previous decade:

In common with many others, one cannot but deplore a policy which has the effect of robbing Wales of her most enterprising sons and daughters as well as creating other vital problems of the future. There is consolation in the thought that those who have left are not necessarily permanently lost to Wales as I am convinced that, given an opportunity of work at home, thousands of exiles would return. This is an argument which I have used with effect in negotiating new industries.

However, the effective end of the official transference policy did not put a stop to the continued exodus of workers from South Wales, especially since the rearmament boom was swallowing up more and more labour, especially in the English Midlands. However, the construction of a new economic base was well underway in South Wales by the end of 1938, and Crawshay’s prophecy about the return of the natives was beginning, in part, to be fulfilled. Nevertheless, much of the damage to the reputation of government had already been done. Although few protestors went as far as the Welsh Nationalists in comparing its actions to those of Hitler in the Sudetenland, as just another Fascist way of murdering a small defenceless nation without going to war about it, the Transference Scheme had been an act of unprecedented government intervention which, though relieving those it removed, caused further economic depression in the communities from which they were taken. By the end of the decade of the Scheme’s operation, the government had become involved in subsidising wages, turning the Ministry of Labour into a Social Service agency which directly interfered in the personal lives of citizens, using every measure short of force to remove young people from South Wales.

The Treforest Trading Estate Co. was formed in September 1938 seventy-two firms were assisted to settle in different parts of the Special Area, including fifty-one at Treforest. Shortly before the outbreak of war, this estate was providing employment for 2,500 workers at twenty factories. At first, doubts were expressed about the suitability of Welsh labour in the new industries, with some industrialists arguing that the workers were accustomed only to heavy work and would find it too difficult to adapt themselves to the intricacies of the more delicate work demanded in the call for high precision. This problem was countered in two ways: Firstly, one skilled immigrant worker, refugees from Austria or Czechoslovakia, was employed for every twenty-five local workers, and, secondly, the majority of the local workers employed were women. By June 1939, there were only 914 men out of a workforce of 2,196 at Treforest. As in the Bridgend valleys, the new industries were beginning fundamentally to alter the gender balance of the Welsh workforce.

The people of the coalfield were not simply subjected to varying forms of economic and political intervention during the late twenties and thirties, but they were also besieged by a host of social workers who formed part of a cultural intervention which operated in tandem with the transference policy. If these communities were to be denuded of the younger element of their population, then it was also realised that something would also have to be done for the increasingly elderly elements which were left behind. Even when new industries were brought into the coalfield there were still a large number of men over forty-five who were no longer employable. Moreover, it was felt that these communities needed help to develop the ‘right sort’ of social leadership which could rescue them from ‘the slough of despond’. These were the motivations behind the social service schemes which extended their tentacles along the valleys.

The return of the National Government in 1936  led to the social service movement becoming a clearly recognised substitute for direct state intervention.The Cabinet took the decision that neither local authorities nor the central government should assume direct responsibility for welfare work for the unemployed, but that such work could be more appropriately and effectively be undertaken by private agencies with limited financial help in appropriate cases from National Funds.The Government recognised the NCSS as the appropriate body for coordinating and stimulating schemes and McDonald broadcast an appeal laying stress upon what he considered the successes already achieved at Brynmawr, as a model of what could be achieved elsewhere. This brought a strong reaction from the Urban District Council, whose clerk wrote to the PM to correct the impression he had conveyed to the nation of the nature and scale of what was taking place in their town. Sensitive to the accusation that the social service schemes were simply providing ‘dope’ for the unemployed and that they were leading them further into ‘demoralization’ by depriving them of courage and self-reliance, Peter Scott acknowledged that his group at Brynmawr had failed to achieve their ideal of reconstruction from within:

To many of us, the thought that this work was being used merely as a palliative, bread and circuses on a large-scale, would indeed be a bitter one.

But although Percy Watkins, the Secretary of the Welsh Section of the NCSS and one of the key liberal-Cymricists of the period, remained fearful of the consequences for the future of coalfield society of the absence of a new generation of leaders, he was also hopeful about the resilience of mining families:

… The effect of these two factors, migration of young people and permanent unemployment for so large a section of the community, means that the quality of social leadership in the area, and the maintenance of its social institutions in future years are gravely jeopardised, unless special efforts are made to preserve them… The fact that many thousands of men and women bend their minds to these enterprises (the occupational clubs), as well as to various forms of craft and physical training, in spite of their ever-present anxieties, is an eloquent testament to the quality of the South Wales miner…  

Many of the miners themselves, however, continued to believe that the Government was using the unemployed clubs to break their spirit, and with it their own autonomous organisations such as the miners’ institutes. It was this belief that conditioned many of the responses of the coalfield communities, its families and individuals, to unemployment and impoverishment. It is therefore important that one of the major responses ‘from below’, that of voluntary migration, should not be confused with the ‘top-down’ organisation of the official Transference Scheme. The decision of the workless families themselves to organise their own ‘exodus’ rather than be broken up by officialdom, was not a response of acquiescence and defeat, but rather one of resistance to, and escape from, the web of state intervention in the coalfield. Equally, it has been too often assumed that organised resistance to intervention from within the coalfield can best be measured by the extent of demonstrations and political action. It is important to treat with extreme caution ;< the kind of stereotypical imagery and crude causal analysis of ‘propagandists’ such as Donovan Brown, writing about the 1935 demonstration against the new UAB scales:

There has always been in South Wales a tradition of militant struggle and extreme radicalism. English bourgeois standards have never penetrated deeply into the villages of the Welsh mining valleys… The village forms a perfect unit for militant organisation around the pit; there class-consciousness has arisen quite naturally… we are reminded of the Chartist days when the Welsh mining villages constituted enemy territory… poverty,  and the traditional militancy of the Welsh workers, naturally produced a vigorous opposition… Ceaseless activity has also continued among the unemployed… Marches and demonstrations all over the area had previously been taking place… South Wales is ablaze with indignation.                                       

In fact, the demonstrations against unemployment often arose out of specific local grievances, such as the operation of Government policy over the local poor-law officials on the Board of Guardians. In May 1927 there was a ‘demonstration of unemployed’ from Brynmawr against the Urban District Council’s decision to limit the age of applicants for the post of Rate collector to forty, excluding the older unemployed men from applying. They interrupted the Council meeting and forced the Councillors to reconsider the terms of the appointment. There were two further demonstrations later that summer in relation to local issues affecting the unemployed. These preceded the first of the massed marches of the unemployed to London, organised by the miners’ ‘Fed’ (SWMF). The main motivation for it arose out of the stranglehold exercised by the Ministries of Health and Labour upon the Boards of Guardians. It began from Pontypridd, where an Unemployed Organisation had been formed in September 1927, and it was well supported by the Pontypridd Trades Council.

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As the depression progressed, the political energies of an increasing number of the unemployed were drained away by decreasing resources. Successful political agitation depended on the addressing of the immediate issues facing the unemployed, such as the actions of the Courts of Referees, and it was these issues which took up nearly all the time of the Trades Councils in the late 1920s as well as bringing about the growth of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, led by the Communist, Wal Hannington. However, there was no widespread shift towards the ideological position held by Hannington. At the General Election in October, the well-known Communist J R Campbell came fourth in the Ogmore and Garw Constituency with only eight percent of the poll, losing his deposit. Yet the October election came only a fortnight after the following report appeared in the Glamorgan Gazette:

Unemployed people, becoming more and more restive, continue to worry public bodies with their importunities. On Monday afternoon, a deputation organised by the Maesteg and Ogmore and Garw Council of Action, waited upon the Bridgend Guardians Committee… in reference to the reductions in unemployment benefit, and submitted that the difference between the old and the new rates of… benefit should be made up by the Guardians; that all unemployed workers and their families should be provided with boots, clothing and bed-clothes; that an allowance of coal be made to all unemployed workers; and that equal consideration be given to single men.

Clearly, the small but influential group of communists in the Bridgend valleys were unable to turn their role in the leadership of the unemployed into votes and immediate success in national or local elections. Yet even among supporters of the NUWM, the attitude towards transference schemes was confused. Government reports claimed that little opposition was encountered by officials, even in “Little Moscow”, Maerdy in the Rhondda, where they found that the Communists were quite happy to transfer!

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In the Hunger Marches of 1932 and 1934, women had marched to London in contingents beside the men. Pictures and text from the first two marches can be seen above and below; the pictures of the 1934 march were taken of the women’s column which marched from Derby. The pictures are taken from the collection of Maud Brown, Women’s organiser of the NUWM, who herself took part in the marches and was an indefatigable champion of the jobless and the poor. On one occasion, during a tenants’ protest at a council meeting in Aberdeen, she hurled a live rat, taken from a slum dwelling, at the assembled councillors.

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The photographs capture the sense of humour and comradeship which existed among the women, and in their interactions with the men. The shots of hay-box heated food being served beside the road and the first aid treatment to blistered feet demonstrate the determination of the women not to starve in silence. All the marchers were unemployed themselves, or had unemployed husbands, and depended on the good-will of local labour organisations to provide nightly accommodation during the journey. Hospitality from a Co-operative Society in providing a meal with unaccustomed waiter service is evident in a scene which pokes fun at the inversion of the roles of men and women.

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Mindful of the disturbances of 1932 in the capital, the Home Secretary, Lord Gilmour, made the first attack on the hunger marchers, stating that the government will have to ask Parliament to grant such powers as experience might show to be necessary to deal with such demonstrations. Two days later, the Attorney-General, Sir Thomas Inskip, speaking at a meeting, warned of bloodshed and said the government would be bound to take steps to stop it. Petty police harassment followed the contingents all the way. At Birmingham, where the contingents spent the night in the workhouse, the police stayed with them in the sleeping quarters claiming they were there in case of fire! After they had been persuaded to withdraw at midnight, a large number of them were found hiding in a room upstairs and the superintendent pretended not to know they were there!

As the marchers drew close to London, the clamour for their suppression and restriction increased. The Duchess of Athol asked the Home Secretary if he would take suitable steps to prevent the marchers from holding meetings in Trafalgar Square. The Tyneside contingent was visited by police and five marchers were arrested for ‘wife desertion’. This action was instigated by the public assistance authorities because their wives were claiming poor relief. The men were later able to prove that their wives supported them in marching and that the authorities were merely creating difficulties. It was the attempt of the government to brand and condemn the hunger marchers before they reached London that led to a number of prominent men and women forming a committee to maintain a vigilant observation on proceedings. These included the future Labour PM, Clement Attlee, H. G. Wells, the novelist, Kingsley Martin and Ellen Wilkinson. By 23 February, the contingents were drawn up around London in readiness for their entry and reception at a great rally in Hyde Park on Sunday 25th.  The Home Secretary called up ten thousand special constables and provincial police forces were drafted in to support the metropolitan force.

A delegation representing the Welsh and Scots marchers met a hundred MPs at a special meeting in the House of Commons. The March Council also requested a meeting with the premier, Ramsay MacDonald, in a letter which was also signed by the MPs Aneurin Bevan, James Maxton and Ellen Wilkinson. In the drizzle and intermittent heavy rain, the hunger marchers finally made a footsore entry to Hyde Park where an estimated hundred thousand people gathered around eight platforms to hear the speakers and pay tribute to the courage of the emissaries from the valleys, old industrial towns and docklands of Britain. The marchers didn’t succeed in putting their case to the House, despite the support of a large number of MPs and the support of Sir Herbert Samuel, leader of the Liberal opposition. Clement Attlee addressed the Commons on their behalf, however, saying:

The marchers are fair representatives of the unemployed. The injustice from which these men and women suffer is very widely known in all parts of the House and the feeling in the country is now tremendous… there is no reason why these men should be refused a hearing by the cabinet.

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The marchers sent a deputation to Downing Street, led by Maxton, but MacDonald was not at home. Later on, in the Commons, the Prime Minister stated, in an angry outburst,

… has anybody who cares to come to London, either on foot or in first class carriages, the constitutional right to demand to see me, to take up my time whether I like it or not? I say he has nothing of the kind!

A great rally was held on Sunday, 3rd March in Trafalgar Square. Crowds gathered along the route from Hyde Park to the Square as the hunger marchers had a last meal from the soup kitchens and marched into the square singing “The Red Flag” (see the picture below, showing the crowd’s heads turning to greet the marchers). Dora Cox and Ceridwen Brown were among other women left Tonypandy on the 1934 March.

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In 1935-36, public opinion against the principle of means testing families was at its peak. The iniquitous and petty economies of the government that brought acrimony and family division to the tables of the poor were hated by all but the Tories. Women especially bore the brunt of the bureaucratic inquisition. A family with a newborn child, claiming the appropriate allowance, would be asked is the child being breastfed? If the answer was yes, the benefit was refused. A fourteen-year-old boy might get a job as cheap labour while his father remained unemployed, the boy’s earnings were counted and the family benefit cut, for the boy was expected to maintain his father. In Merthyr Tydfil, where unemployment reached nearly sixty percent of the insured population, nine thousand people, more than seventy percent of the unemployed, were on the means test, for mass unemployment had lasted for years. Mothers went without food to feed their children while the children went without boots. In the winter months, coal was brought four pennyworth at a time as families struggled to exist on means-tested allowances. Another teenager from a means-tested family told James Hanley;

We’re on the Means Test now.  Yesterday I was sitting in the kitchen when the when the man came in. It made me feel mad the way he questioned my mother. She got all fluttery and worried. , I thought she was going to run into the street. She’s not used to it… Mother is very good in spite of the conditions. It’s wives and mothers who are the real heroines. Don’t you think so?                                         

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The massive demonstrations against the 1934 Unemployment Act, which took place between January and February of 1935, were an expression of the recovery of organised Labour, especially the Miners’ Federation, and of a new and unprecedented unity within the coalfield as a whole. They were at their strongest and, at times, most violent, at the heads of the valleys, in Merthyr and the Ebbw Fach Valley, which by this time had learnt to live with long-term unemployment and had come to regard benefit and assistance payments as due by right, rather than by charity. It was in these communities that unwaged families stood to lose most through the new regulations. Nowhere was the latent resentment of state intervention more visibly expressed than in Merthyr.  The women around Merthyr organised a march on the offices of the  Unemployed Assistance Board (UAB) in response to a new UAB Act: they smashed the offices, despite the imprecations of the Quaker, John Dennithorne. The next day the government backed down on the introduction of the Act, signalling a major victory for the female protestors.

The nervousness which these shock waves created in government circles prompted Captain Ellis of the NCSS to warn against the Royal Visit to South Wales, planned for November 1936, the same month that as the revised code of regulations for men on transitional benefits was due to take effect. On 12 October 1936, Ellis penned the following letter to Godfrey Thomas at Buckingham Palace:

I feel bound to say first that I think the date is ill-chosen. The new UAB regulations come into force on 16th October. On the whole they tend to affect South Wales more than most places, and it is extremely likely that between 16th and 19th, which is the first day, there will be a great of demonstration against them. It seems to me that if that time is chosen for a visit of the King, the agitators will say that his visit is intended to distract attention from the regulations, and to mark by royal approval what is being done by the Ministry of Labour and other bodies. His visit will then be given something of a political significance. .. When Tom Jones saw the announcement of the date he asked me to tell you that he felt the very strongly that the King should not bed not be taken  to South Wales during that week.

There was some basis in evidence for these apprehensions looking forward, as well as back to the previous year’s violent demonstrations. In August the Merthyr Unemployed Lodge had demanded that there should be a one-day strike, a march on London and a ‘monster petition’ of the whole of South Wales in the campaign against the new regulations. Later that month, the Dowlais Unemployed Lodge had decided to support the boycott of the Coronation. However, refusing to heed even the warnings of Tom Jones, Edward VIII chose to go ahead with the visit and, ironically, it was in Dowlais, during a tour of the derelict steelworks, that he made his misquoted remark, terrible, terrible, something will be done about this. This may well have been an attempt to head off the kind of criticism which Captain Ellis had predicted, rather than an attempt to embarrass the Cabinet. But this was exactly the effect it had on a government which was already questioning his position. Nevertheless, the publicity given to the King’s casual remarks did have an important impact in quickening the process of industrial redevelopment.                                    

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Meanwhile, The Jarrow Crusade which had set out from the town as its official delegation to Parliament on 5 October 1936, had more of the ethos of a religious pilgrimage about it. It was the march of the ‘breadwinners’ who had been deprived of their families’ daily bread. It was to eschew the violence of the earlier Hunger Marches, led by the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. If it was seen as a march,  it had to be the march to end all marches according to René Cutforth. He wrote that of all the black, noxious, stinking industrial hell-holes left behind by the nineteenth-century enterprise, the town of Jarrow was just about the nethermost pit. Jarrow’s population had risen to thirty-five thousand in the 1920s, but in the early thirties, a firm called ‘National Shipbuilding Security Ltd, whose speciality was buying up enterprises hit by the slump moved into Jarrow and dismantled Palmers’ Shipyard, which had been there since 1852. Deprived of its main industry, the shipyard, Jarrow demonstrated vividly the conditions prevailing in many parts of Northumberland and Durham. Jarrow depended entirely on shipbuilding for its living, therefore. With its shipyard shut, the sky cleared and the river ran through clear again. But a blight had descended on the town as to make its previous squalor seem a memory of paradise. Jarrow was dead. When the President of the Board of Trade, Walter Runciman, told its delegations that Jarrow must work out its own salvation, the townspeople knew they were indeed on their own.

So they decided on a great crusade of two hundred hand-picked men, the story of which is well-known. The Mayor and Mayoress led them for the first twelve miles. The image of the Jarrow Marchers reaching London with their petition is iconic of the period. Although the march was exclusively male in composition, it was accompanied by its well-known female MP, Ellen Wilkinson, who had written the book The Town that was Murdered two years earlier. The journalist René Cutforth described her as a small, slight, red-haired ball of fire. In 1935 she had led a march to Ramsay MacDonald in his constituency of Seaham, fifteen miles away. The cornered statesman told her, with some irony and perhaps more than a touch of sarcasm, to go out and preach Socialism, which is the only remedy for all this.

The National Government, now led by Baldwin, had nothing to say to them, so they went home by train only to be told by their wives on arrival that their dole had been cut because they had not been ‘available for work’. Ellen Wilkinson was rebuked at a Labour Party Conference for her ‘irresponsibility’ and the whole episode was closed, despite the way that so many had rallied to support them on their route to London.

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The Crusade represented an attempt at self-help publicity of a group of unemployed men representing their whole community. In that sense, it was meant to be fundamentally different from the Communist-organised Hunger Marches which preceded it. Though it became the classic and legendary march, it achieved nothing, and even while it was going on, four hundred Scotsmen and women from Glasgow were marching south to join up with other contingents, from ten other cities, on the last of the national hunger marches.  The largest of the great protests, this time it was a united demonstration embracing all sections of the Labour movement and focused on the changes to the Means Test and transitional benefits proposed in the National Government’s Unemployment (UAB) Bill. The organisation of the march was strengthened by the participation of the Trades Councils and the Constituency Labour Parties. This was despite the claim for direct representation of the NUWM being rejected by the Merthyr Conference against the Means Test in July 1936. In the autumn, the Trades Council also rejected a demand for Communist Party affiliation.

 

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Nevertheless, the NUWM claimed it had no difficulty in raising a Welsh contingent of eight hundred men and women for the biggest and most united of the hunger marches against the means test in November. The public response to the marchers was magnificent. When the eight hundred marchers from South Wales reached Slough, they were greeted by a crowd of eleven thousand, for Slough had become a ‘little Wales’, peopled by those who had left the valleys over the previous decade, to find work. The Lancashire contingent was given a twelve-mile bus ride paid for by Oxford students. Hailed and fed by Trades Councils and Co-ops along the way, the hunger marchers were in good spirits for their triumphal march into the capital where a quarter of a million turned out. Thousands lined the streets with clenched fist salutes and packed around the six platforms set up in the park to hear the speeches of miners’ leaders and MPs, including Aneurin Bevan and Clement Attlee. Bevan claimed, with some justification, that,

The hunger marchers have achieved one thing. They have for the first time in the history of the Labour movement achieved a united platform. Communists, ILP’ers, Socialists, members of the Labour Party and Co-operators for the first time have joined hands together and we are not going to unclasp them.

With the autumn leaves drifting across the banners, Attlee moved the resolution:

… the scales (of unemployment benefit) are insufficient to meet the bare physical needs of the unemployed…

In his visit to South Wales in June 1929, an official at the Ministry of Labour found that parents were increasingly in favour of their boys migrating rather than working underground, despite the fact that the employment situation had improved to the point where there was a fresh demand for juvenile labour in the collieries.  Another report that year revealed that boys had refused the offer of underground employment in the hope of securing employment in England. In January 1934, the Juvenile Employment Officer for Merthyr reported that of the boys due to leave school at Easter, less than seventeen percent, or one in six expressed a preference for colliery work. A quarter of the boys stated that they had no particular preference but invariably added that they did not want to work underground. By comparison, twenty-six percent wanted to enter the distributive trades and ten percent stated a preference for engineering.

A 1934 Investigation into the Problems of Juvenile Unemployment in Specific Areas by the Ministry of Labour found that there were 148 boys unemployed in areas where there were unfilled local vacancies for boys in coal mining. Although only twenty-nine of these boys had stated that they were unwilling to accept mining employment, the Report concluded that this antipathy was widespread. The shortage of boys wishing to enter coal mining was most marked in the Ferndale employment exchange area of the Rhondda, although managers of all the South Wales exchanges covered by the enquiry reported this changed attitude towards pit work. This change of attitude was shared by the boys’ parents, especially their mothers. In Abertillery, it was reported that most of the boys leaving school in 1932 were anxious to obtain employment other than mining and that their mothers were ’emphatic’ that they should not face the same hardships and unemployment as their fathers. Clearly, it was the nature of the work involved as well as its insecurity which promoted this preference which amounted to determined resistance among women. This evidence from government sources is well supported by the purely anecdotal evidence of the social ‘surveyors’. In his survey of Nantyglo and Blaina, Philip Massey reported that migration was itself playing in the broadening of the minds of the population. He detected the erosion of what he called the “coal complex”.

The American writer Eli Ginzberg found that many of those who left Wales looked forward in a spirit of adventure in settling in communities where coal mining was not the sole occupation. He traced the break-up of ‘the coal complex’ to the summer of 1926, and the freedom from the mines which the long stoppage provided. This had prompted many, he argued, to question the advantages of coal mining, a questioning which was intensified by the worsening conditions and reduced pay which followed the return to work. Women became even more prejudiced against coal mining, he noted, as a result of their suffering as household managers, and when employment became uncertain and wages fell, they sought other occupations for their sons, even if it meant them leaving not just their homes but also the valleys altogether. Many of these young men, encouraged by their mothers, were among the first significant streams of migration to the new industry towns of England, especially Cowley near Oxford, where the Pressed Steel Works was opening up at the same time. The author’s own recordings of such migrant men and women confirm this.

Migration was not simply a response to unemployment in that industry; it was, in many senses, a deliberate rejection of the industry itself. Thus, although several thousand South Wales miners succeeded in obtaining employment in the Kent coalfield and several hundred transferred to the East Midlands coalfields, in total they accounted for only two percent of the total migrants from the region. Some individuals who moved did so because they had ‘had enough’ of the mines, whether or not they were unemployed at the time. Some families, despite having members working, decided to move in order to keep younger members from working underground. Young women and even girls were allowed to leave home because their mothers didn’t want them to marry miners and many miners, despite strong pressures to return to the collieries, would not do so even when jobs were available for them there. Many of these jobs, of course, were of a temporary and insecure nature, three days and three shifts a week. Clearly, it is evident that this break-up of the ‘coal complex’ was a major push factor in the migration equation.

This was a changing attitude which found support in the school system, which had long been charged with at one time fostering a sense of local patriotism at the same time encouraging a spirit of individual enterprise, the ideal secondary pupil being one who aimed at leaving the valleys on leaving school. At the Garw Secondary School’s Annual Speech Day in 1927, Dr Olive Wheeler told her audience that she hoped the boys and girls were not going to be content to remain in the Garw Valley all their lives. ‘The Royal Commission on Merthyr Tydfil’ reported in 1935 that ‘good secondary education’ was assisting young people to find work outside the area, so helping to solve the general problem which confronted the Corporation.

Any society which, by the mid-1920s had produced the wealth of institutional life which existed in communities like Merthyr, could hardly be described as rootless, but it was a society whose institutions were already well-adapted to continual ebbs and flows in inter-regional and international migration. In addition to these patterns of immigration, there were also strong traditions of young people, especially girls, going into service in both Welsh and English cities and seaside towns. The post-war shortage in ‘domestics’ led to the advertisement pages of the Welsh press being filled with ‘propaganda’ about the prospects awaiting young girls in England. Many of the realities failed to match up to these claims, but there is little evidence to suggest that reports of poor conditions or even deaths from tuberculosis while in service restricted the flow of girls from the coalfield. Indeed, in the late twenties and early thirties, female migration was exceeding male migration.

A sample enquiry made for the New Survey of London Life and Labour reveals that about eight percent of domestic servants resident in the County of London in 1929 were born in Wales and Monmouthshire. Therefore, of the 185,000 female domestic servants in the County in 1931, there were probably more than ten thousand from South Wales. Of the 491 girls from the Rhondda who were placed in employment in other districts between 1927 and 1933, 98% went into domestic service. By comparison, only ninety-one girls were placed locally. In 1934, sixty-seven percent of girls about to leave Merthyr’s schools expressed a preference for domestic service.

Many girls would treat their employment away from home as a short-term experience, after which they would return home to play a new role in the family or to get married. This tendency was strengthened by the re-employment of the male members of the family or by the erosion of the mother’s health. The Ministry of Labour’s General Review of the Industrial Transference Scheme conducted in 1938-39 found that a significant proportion of migrants had moved simply because they wanted a change and not with any intention of settling. Young men were made aware by their sisters and girlfriends of the openings in personal service, club and hotel work which they could fill in London and elsewhere. Some were encouraged to take up industrial employment in Oxford because of fiancées, sweethearts and sisters were already working there in the colleges and hotels. Like their ‘women folk’, many of these male migrants saw their migration as a temporary, short-term experience, and left the valleys out of a sense of boredom or frustration, often with vague plans.

The desire to wriggle away from stifling official paternalism was more likely to express itself in second-stage voluntary migration than to prompt young men and women to fall back on the Transference Scheme, a factor that James Hanley commented on:

… it is even worse for the young, for they are continually at the beck and call, the whims and caprices, of every Tom, Dick and Harry who likes to call himself a social worker or a Government official. There is no independence for them at all… the ideas of the Government on the question of Labour Camps and the like should, once and for all, prove to them that to go one step further in obeisance is to yield all they value as individuals to a power which regretfully appears to waver rather favourably towards the social type now being created in the dictator countries.

Indeed, despite all the financial inducements for young people to transfer under bureaucratic supervision, the numbers doing so were very small compared with those who moved under their own devices and, most importantly, on their own terms, in keeping with traditions of migration common within their communities. To have accepted dependence on the state would, for many, have been an acceptance of their own ‘demoralization’. The purpose of migration was, after all, to escape from what Hanley described as this mass of degradation, and the stink of charity in one’s nostrils everywhere.

In any case, in the case of juvenile transference, many of the placements were in ‘blind alley’ jobs, from which employers would discharge workers as soon as they reached sixteen years of age, which was when insurability commenced. This threw juveniles back into the labour market at the time when formative employment was most desirable from a psychological point of view so that the employer could avoid paying their insurance costs. In 1937, Merthyr’s Juvenile Employment Committee reported that it had had difficulty in recruiting errand boys, and that although some of the vacancies were ‘progressive’ and not of the “blind alley” type, boys were reluctant to apply, knowing that many of their friends had been discharged on their sixteenth or eighteenth birthdays. Under the UAB regulations, these boys were under the same weekly sum they had worked for. Of course, these conditions applied to all placements, whether local or far away. Thus, “blind alley” employment also acted as a catalyst to migration in anticipation of being made redundant, as the following personal story shows. Haydn Roberts’ decision, which he kept secret from his mother, to bid ‘farewell’ to the Rhondda in 1932, just before his sixteenth birthday,  was one which was repeated many times over:

My money would have been the only money coming into the house, apart from my father’s dole. I carried on working at the butchers until I was sixteen, a couple of years… a chap I knew, Emrys Davies, had gone to London the year before and he was coming back with plenty of money, or he said he had, and he said he could get me a job. It was the custom down home then to employ children until they were sixteen and when they had to start paying stamps for them they would get somebody else you see, so that was looming for me when I was sixteen. Seeing all the other people out of work, and there was nothing in the Rhondda for us, there was no chance of a trade, I decided to go. I didn’t tell my mother, I just saved up the fare. The red and white was starting a daily night service to London. The fare was fourteen shillings single to Uxbridge then. I saved that money and before Morgan Jones had the chance to sack me I told my mother that I was off that night to London.

At the same time, there were many obstacles to migration which stemmed from the nature of family life in the coalfield. Married men with dependents and those who owned their own houses, were far less likely to transfer. In addition, men and women lacking either youth or the necessary self-confidence to settle among strangers and Welsh-speakers who would find themselves in an even more ‘alien’ environment in England would be reluctant to leave their valley neighbourhoods.

However, despite the deliberate intervention of the Baldwin Government in 1927 to ensure that the Guardians did not provide relief which would provide a disincentive to migration, it does not appear that either unemployment benefit or public assistance operated in this way. In the first place, many families and individuals experienced a significant drop in income as a result of either short-term working or more permanent stoppages in the coal industry. This decline was even more marked when compared with the standard of living in the ‘prosperity’ of the immediate post-war period. Even in 1937, by which time the administration of Unemployment Benefit and the UAB had changed substantially, a Ministry of Labour enquiry focusing on four employment exchanges in the Rhondda found that only one of the managers considered that rates of benefit or assistance had any impact on the willingness of juveniles and their parents to consider transfer. The other three managers reported that they did not consider this factor of importance in stemming the tide of transference.

Where state provision for the unemployed did act as a disincentive to migration, this was often related to the specific operation of policy rather than to the general level of the provision. For instance, while the means test often broke up families in the depressed areas, it also prevented their reunion in the more prosperous areas. Parents were reluctant to follow their sons and daughters because they feared, not without justification, that if they joined their earning children, their public assistance would be reduced and they would become at least partially dependent upon their children. By the 1930s, the Unemployment Assistance Board was under considerable pressure to amend its policy in this respect and found itself having to make discretionary adjustments to allowances in order to remove this obstacle.

It was the innate conservatism in many mining families, particularly among older men, that led to contradictory attitudes to transference and migration among the parents of prospective young migrants and transferees. On the whole, they were far more willing for their daughters to be placed in other districts than their sons, provided employment took the form of domestic or institutional service. The idea of girls being placed in factory work was described as anathema to the average Rhondda mother by the chief official to the Minister of Labour, J A Jones, in the mid-1930s. The idea was barely more acceptable to the girls themselves, whose reluctance to take up this form of employment was attributed to their entire inability to visualise the conditions of work and what they would do in the evenings. Out of 256 Merthyr girls who were placed in other districts between 1935 and 1937, only nineteen went into some form of factory employment. On the other hand, as the transference policy continued, and more information was provided for parents concerning the nature of factory work, they were more willing for both their daughters and sons to be transferred to this type of work. Mothers in particular, as has been noted, would rather their sons went into factory work elsewhere, than to go into the collieries.

Much of this parental opposition to transference was determined not only by a prejudice against factory work for their daughters but also by the strength of the extended family and by a consequent reluctance to relinquish parental control. Whilst it had been accepted practice for girls within the family to go into service, though often no further than to the coastal towns and cities, it was considered usual for the male members to remain in the home until marriage, which often meant well into adulthood. This tradition was so strong that many young men only told their parents of their decision to leave at the moment of departure, or after all their plans had been carefully laid, and some left without parental consent or knowledge. Others preferred to remain at home, even if this meant prolonged unemployment and the postponement or abandonment of marriage; some men remained in this state for sixteen years after leaving school.

The Ministry of Labour official who visited the coalfield in June 1929 reported that unemployed boys in Neath were being kept away from the instruction centres by their parents who feared they would be forced into transferring. Parents in Blaina were said to give their consent to transference ‘unreadily’ due to the strength of ‘family feeling’ and the loss of potential financial help. Of the sixty-eight Blaina boys placed in the South Eastern Division, seventeen had returned home, a ‘returnees’ rate’ of twenty-five percent. This ‘family feeling’ was a far more significant obstacle in the communities of the South Wales coalfield than it was in those of the Durham coalfield, according to the Pilgrim Trust’s Survey, which contrasted the attitudes of sixteen families in Crook with those in the Rhondda:

None of them complained, and several said how proud they were that the children should have found good employment and be earning good wages… “It’s been a great success with the boy and girl, but I’ll not go myself (colliery horse-keeper, aged fifty-seven). … All these were families of a decidedly good type, and it is plain that the better social types are also, on the whole, more ready to move… It was a striking contrast to the atmosphere in Wales, where many complained that they had brought up their children with much trouble and expense and now, when they might reasonably expect some ‘benefit’ from them, they were going away and benefiting their landlady rather than their parents. 

This resentment was also apparent in the responses of Massey’s interviewees in Blaina, many of whom complained of the break-up of family life and of other areas benefiting from the upbringing they had given their children and from the local public expenditure on them in terms of education. Massey also encountered the attitude that transference gave ‘the kids a chance’ and was ‘the only hope for the young’. Many respondents admitted that those transferred seemed ‘fairly happy’, since they were able to pay their own way, and it seemed that a number of the families were grateful to receive the money which was sent home. The truth is that the ‘Crook’ attitudes and those from the Rhondda were not universally polar opposites. There existed a spectrum of family attitudes to transference in both communities. Many parents were caught on the horns of a dilemma of whether to accept transference with its demoralising effects in terms of their values of family unity and solidarity, or whether to resist this form of intervention which in turn might mean their children falling prey to means test bureaucrats and social workers instead. The following response from one of Hanley’s witnesses provides a direct illustration of this dilemma:

I’ve a lad seventeen who did eighteen months in the pit. He stopped the same day as I did. He wants to go to one of these camps, and I say nothing in the matter. If he goes everybody’ll say “oh, look at him! His son’s gone to a labour camp”. If he doesn’t, somebody else will say, “No, he won’t let his son go. Rather see him rot”… You really don’t belong to yourself any more.”

It appears that the more fundamental the challenge to family life posed by the Transference Scheme the greater was the resistance from families closing ranks in a determination to stay put at whatever the cost, or through a parallel evolution of kinship networks which conducted the entire process of migration on a wholly autonomous basis. Family migration was conducted, in the main, without the help of the state, though financial assistance was available for this. In those cases where the parents were considering following juvenile or adult sons or daughters to a new area, they often felt constrained by the need to maintain two homes while looking for work and suitable housing in the new areas. The prospect of paying rent in two places, combined with a lack of tenure in his new employment for the older man, militated against successful migration.

Moreover, as Goronwy Daniel, then a young Welsh research student in Oxford pointed out, men who had lived in South Wales married and had children there, were more in the grip of Welsh ways of thinking and acting than single men since they had experienced more extensively and more intimately those ways of living characteristic of Wales. They had absorbed Welsh ways of bringing up children and maintaining a home and would, therefore, find the movement to an alien district more disturbing. Daniel concluded that economic, social and psychological factors made men with large families far less ready to move than those with few or no dependents. Given this, it is interesting to note that although young, single men were dominant in the migration streams, family migration was far more significant in the case of South Wales than it was for other depressed areas. The nature of Welsh family life would appear to have both stemmed and channelled the flow of migrants.

Within this ‘family factor’, attachment to the Welsh language in coalfield families was an important prohibitive factor to migration. Certainly, among Daniel’s interviewees, there was a detectable correlation between their allegiance to the language and their potential adaptability to a new environment. One Welsh-speaking family, whose ‘head’ had been employed in a mine near Neath until migration to Oxford in 1934, and which comprised four sons aged between thirteen and twenty-one and a daughter aged twenty-two, expressed with unanimity the sense of loss they felt at being unable to use the language and their strong desire to return to Wales. Professor Marquand of Cardiff University, the chief author and editor of the two Industrial Surveys of the 1930s was correct to identify the strength of ‘family feeling’, the strength of institutional life and the sense of ‘belonging’, the extensiveness of home ownership and the problem of declining health as major obstacles to migration, whether voluntary or state-induced and controlled. Attachment to the Welsh language was less inhibiting in the decade following his original statement in 1931, particularly among young people, male and female, who were already embracing a broader, transatlantic popular culture.

Naturally, the issues of wages and conditions were also of primary practical importance to many coalfield families. Gwyn Meara’s 1936 survey of juvenile unemployment showed that the ‘the juveniles’ will to move and the parents’ consent, would be very much easier to obtain if wages were offered sufficient for the full support of the boys or girls concerned. All too often the transferred juvenile became an additional drain upon the financial resources of a family already hard pressed at home. Resistance was reinforced by the appearance that Transference was the only policy adopted by successive, mainly conservative governments, to deal with large-scale, long-term unemployment. Many in the coalfield, led by the recovering SWMF, felt that there was a deliberate conspiracy to lower wages, undermine the strength of trade unions and weaken its true political leadership. As early as 1929, officials within the Ministry of Labour were noting that these opinions were more freely expressed throughout South Wales than in other depressed areas:

My impression is that the north country miner is much slower to express his own ideas than the more argumentative Welsh miner who is disposed to criticise the inadequacy, from his point of view, of the Government Schemes.

Although the basis for widespread public opposition existed in 1929, it was not until the late 1930s that the disparate strands of opposition were galvanised by an awareness of the social effects of a decade of migration and by the possibilities for the introduction of new industries. The chapels began to frighten mothers about the evils of city life, tradesmen suggested that although one might find a job in England there would be little gained, because the cost of living was so much higher: Trades Councils, always uneasy about the dilution of wages, began to oppose the transference of juveniles; the Lord Mayor of Merthyr, D J Evans, stated categorically that the flow of young people from this borough to other parts of the country, the steady movement of depopulation must be checked, and soon. 

The authors of the ‘General Review’ of the Transference Scheme were in little doubt that this publicity, which appeared in the Western Mail and elsewhere, had some adverse effect on the willingness of a number of applicants to consider transference to more prosperous areas.  This was not simply a government view, looking for scapegoats, but was supported by A J Lush:

The constant reiteration in press and pulpit of the dangers to the social life of South Wales by migration made it possible for many of these young persons to quote eminent authority against the whole policy. This made it extremely difficult to stress the value of ‘training’ itself. 

One of the most significant obstacles to both transference and voluntary migration was the widespread ill-health bred by poverty and malnutrition. The statistical evidence on the effects on women’s health was fully investigated by and published by Richard Titmuss in 1938, and have been dealt with above. The poverty of diet endured by many potential young transferees, many of them already forced to live away from their parental home due to the operation of the means test, is revealed by James Hanley’s more anecdotal evidence:

It has already been seen that young people who have left Wales and gone elsewhere and have got work and gone into lodgings, have vomited up whatever first wholesome meal they have had served up to them by their landladies. I verified five instances of this.       

Other important obstacles were the strength of trade union traditions, a deep-seated resentment of official and quasi-official intervention and a broadening communal opposition to the Transference policy. More negatively, there was, at least until the introduction of new industries in the second half of the thirties, a widespread antipathy to factory work, especially among women, though a preference for such work over colliery work by young men, both attitudes receiving parental support, especially from mothers. Specific aspects of the levels and administration of unemployment benefit and allowances, together with the emergence of a subsistence sub-economy within the coalfield also played a significant though secondary role, in preventing migration.

002

Between 1911 and 1939, the working population of Britain increased by twenty percent. In peacetime women formed thirty percent of this working population; most of them were young, single women, but towards the end of the period, married women tended to continue at work, at least until the birth of their first child. For some working women, like those in the photograph above, very little changed in their working lives. The photograph could have been taken at the end of the nineteenth century, in any of the coalfields, since there were pit-brow lasses in all of them at that time. Perhaps surprisingly, there were still well over three thousand women employed in coal mines in Britain in 1930, 239 under the age of sixteen, and more than half of the total employed in the Lancashire and Cheshire districts where the tradition of women colliery workers was strongest. They worked on the sidings, tramways and, as in the photo, in washing and sorting the coal. There were sixteen mines in operation in Wigan when the photo above was taken and it is believed that the scene is from the largest of these, owned by the Wigan Coal Corporation Limited.

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Above: Unemployed man and daughter (?) in Wigan, 11 November 1939

(Radio Times Hulton Picture Library)

Of course, Wigan was made ‘infamous’ by George Orwell’s visit there in 1937, which led to his somewhat fictionalised account of the lives of the local unemployed in The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell provides the historian with an invaluable, if somewhat emotive picture of conditions in the depressed area. However, as he himself admitted later, he emphasised the worst rather than the improving features of British Society and his picture, therefore, gives the most pessimistic view of northern English communities like Wigan. In particular, he graphically describes the operation of the means test and the real character of poverty, based on his own experiences and fieldwork. Yet there is also a sense of working-class resistance and resilience alongside the ironic comments in his account and, as with those visitors to the South Wales coalfield, he emphasises the role of women and the family in this:

The most cruel and evil effect of the Means Test is the way in which it breaks up families… Nevertheless, in spite of the frightful extent of unemployment, it is a fact that poverty – extreme poverty – is less in evidence in the industrial North than it is  in London. Everything is poorer and shabbier, there are fewer motor-cars and fewer well-dressed people: but there are also fewer people who are obviously destitute… But in the industrial towns the old communal way of life has not yet broken up, tradition is still strong and almost everyone has a family – potentially… Moreover, there is just this to be said for the unemployment regulations, that they do not discourage people from marrying. A man and wife on twenty-three shillings a week are not far from the starvation line, but they can make a home of sorts; they are vastly better off than a single man on fifteen shillings… 

003 (2)

Above: Part of the cover design for Theo Baker’s book,

The Long March of Everyman, by Ken Carroll.

Bibliography:

Andy Chandler (1982), The Black Death on Wheels: Unemployment and Migration – The Experience of Interwar South Wales in Papers in Modern Welsh History 1 (the Journal of the Modern Wales Unit), Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

A. J. Chandler (1988), The Re-making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands. Unpublished PhD. Thesis.

Theo Baker (ed.)(1975), The Long March of Everyman. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Bill Jones (1993), Teyrnas y Glo/ Coal’s Domain. Cardiff: National Museum of Wales.

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

 

Gwyn Thomas (1979), The Subsidence Factor; The Annual Gwyn Jones Lecture. Cardiff: University College Cardiff Press.

Picture Post (?) (1938), These Tremendous Years, 1919-38: A History in photographs of life and events, big and little, in Britain and the world since the war. London. Unknown publisher.

D. Hywel Davies (1983), The Welsh Nationalist Party, 1925-1945: A Call to Nationhood. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

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

Margaret R. Pitt (neé Wates) (1981), Our Unemployed: Can the Past Teach the Present? Work done with the unemployed in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Harrow: Margaret R. Pitt. (obtainable from Friends Book Centre, Friends House, Euston Road, London NW1 2BJ).

 

Posted March 29, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Britain, British history, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Coalfields, Communism, democracy, Edward VIII, Family, History, Integration, Migration, Mythology, Narrative, Nonconformist Chapels, Poverty, south Wales, Unemployment, Wales, Welsh language, Women's History

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Nineteenth and Twentieth Century English: Change and Continuity in the Language.   2 comments

Grammarians and Reformers:

William Cobbett (1763-35), the self-educated farmer’s son from Farnham in Surrey, who had served in the army in Canada from 1785 to 1791, then returned to England to become a journalist. He began a weekly newspaper, The Political Register, in 1802 as a Tory, but soon became converted to the radical cause of social and Parliamentary reform. After the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832, he became an MP, continuing to write for and edit The Political Register until his death. In 1817, following the suspension of habeas corpus (freedom from imprisonment without trial), Cobbett was back in North America, from where he continued to write his newspaper. He wrote about how the use of the concept of vulgarity in language was used to deny the value and meaning of petitions to Parliament:

The present project… is to communicate to all uneducated Reformers, ‘a knowledge of Grammar’. The people, you know, were accused of presenting petitions ‘not grammatically correct’. And those petitions were ‘rejected’, the petitioners being ‘ignorant’: though some of them were afterwards put into prison for being ‘better informed’…

No doubt remains in my mind that there was more talent discovered, and more political knowledge, by the leaders among the Reformers, than have ever been shown, at any period of time, by the Members of the two houses of parliament.

There was only one thing in which any of you were deficient, and that was in the mere art of so arranging the words in your Resolutions and Petitions as to make these compositions what is called ‘grammatically correct’. Hence, men of a hundredth part of the ‘mind’ of some of the authors of the Petitions were enabled to cavil at them on this account, and to infer from this incorrectness, that the Petitioners were a set of ‘poor ignorant creatures’, who knew nothing of what they were talking; a set of the ‘Lower Classes’ who ought never to raise their reading above that of children’s books, Christmas Carols, and the like.

For my part, I have always held a mere knowledge of the rules of grammar very cheap. It is a study, which demands hardly any powers of mind. To possess a knowledge of those rules is a pitiful qualification…

Grammar is to literary composition what a linch-pin is to a waggon. It is a poor pitiful thing in itself; it bears no part of the weight; adds not in the least to the celerity; but, still the waggon cannot very well and safely go on without it…

Therefore, trifling, and even contemptible, as this branch of knowledge is ‘in itself’, it is of vast importance as to the means of giving to the great powers of the mind their proper effect… The grammarian from whom a man of genius learns his rules has little more claim to a share of such a man’s renown than has the goose, who yields the pens with which he writes: but, still the pens are ‘necessary’, and so is the grammar.

Cobbett therefore wrote A Grammar of the English Language in the same year, in order to satisfy that desire which every man, and especially every young man, should entertain to be able to assert with effect the rights and liberties of his country. At the same time, he cautioned his educated young readers against calling the Hampshire plough-boy… ignorant for his colloquialisms such as Poll Cherrycheek have giv’d I thick handkercher. It would be wrong to laugh at him, because he has no pretensions to a knowledge of grammar, but yet may be very skilful as a plough-boy. As Olivia Smith remarked, in her 1984 book, The Politics of Language 1791-1819 (OUP), Cobbett considered grammar, in short, as an integral part of the class structure of England, and the act of learning grammar by one of his readers as an act of class warfare.

It is clear that no significant differences in the grammar of Cobbett’s writing separate today’s language from the English of the early nineteenth century. What we now call Standard English has been established for over two hundred years, since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, at least. It is the only form of the language, together with its North American variant, which obtains universal acceptance. This seems to contradict the linguistic statement that all living languages are in a constant state of change. However, the grammatical innovations since Cobbett’s day are developments of established features, rather than of fundamental changes. Once a standard form of writing becomes the norm, then the rate of change in the grammar is slowed down considerably. At the same time, however, there have been significant lexical shifts and changes, plus modifications in pronunciation, especially in recent decades.

Vocabulary:

As there has been a constant change in the vocabulary of the language over the past two hundred years, it almost goes without saying that there have been many losses of gains of words since the eighteenth century. English is a language that has taken in and assimilated words from many foreign languages to add to the core vocabulary of Germanic, French and Latin words. I have more to write about this later, in connection with the late twentieth century.

Spelling:

The standard orthography was fixed in the eighteenth century by the agreed practice of printers. Dr Johnson set down accepted spellings in his Dictionary of 1755, and also recorded some of the arbitrary choices of ‘custom’:

… thus I write, in compliance with a numberless majority, ‘convey’ and ‘inveigh’, ‘deceit’ and ‘receipt’, fancy and phantom.

A few words found in the original versions of eighteenth century texts have changed in spelling, such as cloathing, terrour, phantasy and publick, but there are not many. More recently, it has become acceptable to change the ‘ae’ spelling in words like archaeology to ‘e’ – archeology. Some American spellings have also become acceptable in Britain, such as program, mainly as a result of its use in computer programming. With few exceptions, however, it is true to say that our spelling system was fixed over two centuries ago, and that every attempt to reform it, e.g. with a more phonetic system, has failed.

Grammar:

While the underlying rules of grammar have remained unchanged, their use in speech and writing has continued to develop into forms that distinguish the varieties of language use since the eighteenth century. This can be described in terms of ‘style’ and ‘register’. In present-day English we can observe, in some varieties of language use, a greater complexity in both the noun phrase and the verb phrase.

Modifiers of nouns normally precede the head of the noun phrase (NP) when they are words (normally adjectives or nouns) or short phrases, as in a/the red brick wall and follow it when they are phrases or clauses. The rule of pre-modification has developed so that much longer strings of words and phrases can now precede the head word, as in a never to be forgotten experience. This style is a particular feature of newspaper headlines and other media, where a noun phrase is used to shorten longer statements containing a number of post-modifying prepositional phrases. For example, the statement There has been a report on the treatment of suspects in police stations in Northern Ireland is turned into the headline Northern Ireland police station suspect treatment report…

The process of converting clauses with verbs into noun clauses is called nominalisation. The word is itself an example of that process. It has become a marked feature of some contemporary styles, including formal and academic writing. However, this does not signify a change in grammar, but rather reveals the way in which the flexibility of English grammar readily permits nominalisation. In Standard English, verb phrases can also be constructed in increasingly complex forms, such as she has been being treated, using auxiliary verbs to combine the grammatical features of tense (past or present), aspect (perfect or progressive), voice (active or passive) and mood (positive/ negative statement or interrogative). Question forms such as hasn’t she been being treated? and won’t she have been being treated? may not be common, but they are conceivable, and have developed since the eighteenth century. They are examples of how English has become a more analytic language in recent centuries, in that its structures now depend far more on strings of separate words, rather than on inflections of words.

Another development in the resources of verb phrases is the increased use of phrasal and prepositional verbs like to run across for to meet, put up with for tolerate and give in/ give up for surrender. They are a feature of spoken and informal usage, and although the structure can be found in earlier forms of English, they have increased considerably in modern Standard English, with new combinations being continually introduced, often as slang, as in get with it, afterwards being gradually accepted and assimilated.

The Queen’s English

We still tend to judge our fellow latter-day Britons by their speech as much as by other aspects of their behaviour, though some have been much more positive in their reactions than others. The relationship between social class and the language used in the eighteenth century was maintained through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here, for example, is the dean of Canterbury Cathedral, Dr. Henry Alford, writing in a book called The Queen’s English: Stray Notes on Speaking and Spelling, in 1864:

And first and foremost, let me notice that worst of all faults, the leaving out of the aspirate where it ought to be, and putting it where it ought not to be. This is a vulgarism not confined to this or that province of England, nor especially prevalent in one county or another, but common throughout England to persons of low breeding and inferior education, principally to those among the inhabitants of towns. Nothing so surely stamps a man as below the mark of intelligence, self-respect, and energy, as this unfortunate habit…

As I write these lines, which I do while waiting in a refreshment-room at Reading, between a Great-Western and a South-Eastern train, I hear one of two commercial gentlemen, from a neighbouring table, telling his friend that “his ‘ed’ used to ‘hake’ ready to burst.”

Alford’s attitude here is no different from that of some eighteenth century grammarians in their references to ‘the depraved language of the Common People’. One common usage that is still taught as an error is what is called ‘the split infinitive’, as in the ‘infamous’ introit to the 1970s US television series, ‘Star Trek’, ‘…to boldly go…’, which has become almost as legendary in sociolinguistics as the series itself has become in popular culture. Here is Dean Alford on the subject:

A correspondent states as his own usage, and defends, the insertion of an adverb between the sign of the infinitive mood and the verb. He gives as an instance, ‘to scientifically illustrate.’ But surely this is a practice entirely unknown to English speakers and writers. It seems to me, that we ever regard the ‘to’ of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb.

The Dean was wrong in his assertion that the practice was ‘entirely unknown’. The idea that it is ungrammatical to put an adverb between to and the verb was an invention of prescriptive grammarians, but it has been handed down as a ’solecism’ (violation of the rules of grammar) from one generation of pedagogical pedants to another. It has become an easy marker of ’good English’.

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Above: Details from The Village Choir by Thomas Webster (1800-1886), Victoria & Albert Museum.

Henry Alford was born in Bloomsbury, London, in 1810. His father, also Henry, was rector of Aston Sandford in Buckinghamshire. Henry junior was educated at Ilminster Grammar School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he subsequently became a Fellow. Ordained in 1833, he became curate of Ampton in Suffolk, and incumbent of Quebec Chapel, London, before becoming Dean of Canterbury Cathedral in 1857, where he remained until his death in 1871. He became a distinguished scholar and wrote numerous books, including a critical commentary on the Greek New Testament. A strong evangelical, he wrote a number of hymns, some of which remain well-known and are still used regularly today. Among these is the harvest hymn, Come ye thankful people, come, which he wrote in 1844 for use in services in his rural Suffolk parish. It uses the parable from Mark’s gospel (chapter 4. 26-29), about the seed springing up without the sower knowing about it, including the line: For the earth bringeth forth of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear. As they sang this verse, the local farmers and labourers from Suffolk’s ‘grain belt’ would have had a very clear image to match the meaning of the parable. The hymn was first published in his own collection of Psalms and Hymns in 1844. He then revised it for his Poetical Works (1865) and his Year of Praise (1867). The writers of Hymns Ancient and Modern included it with their anthology first in 1861, but changed Alford’s simple, rustic words of the second verse, from:

… First the blade and then the ear,

Then the full corn shall appear:

Lord of harvest, grant that we

Wholesome grain and pure may be;

 To:

… Ripening with a wondrous power

Till the final harvest hour

Grant, O Lord of life, that we

Holy grain and pure may be.

Although these changes were firmly repudiated by the author, they have persisted to this day, reappearing in the New Standard version of the Anglican hymn book. This shows that, although Alford may have been a stickler for correct grammar, he was also in favour of the movement to bring the folk language and culture of the countryside into church worship, connecting it with the simplicity of the gospel texts.

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His other famous hymn was, however, very different in both content and style. Ten thousand times ten thousand, a stirring hymn about the Church Triumphant, it is full of imagery drawn from the Book of Revelation, and the opening lines are suggested by the reference in chapter 5, verse 11 to St John the Divine’s vision of a mighty throng of angels around the throne of God, and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand. The rush of hallelujahs and the ringing of a thousand harps are also taken from the book (19. 1-6 and 14.2):

Ten thousand times ten thousand,

In sparkling labour bright,

The armies of the ransomed saints

Throng up the steeps of light;

’Tis finished, all is finished,

Their fight with death and sin;

Fling open wide the golden gates,

And let the victors in.

 

What rush of hallelujahs

Fills all the earth and sky!

What ringing of a thousand harps

Bespeaks the triumph nigh!

O day for which creation

And all its tribes were made!

O joy, for all its former woes

A thousandfold repaid.          

The first three verses of which first appeared in his Year of Praise in 1867. The fourth was added in 1870 in The Lord’s Prayer. The complete hymn was sung at Alford’s funeral in January of the following year. Hymns, unlike other forms of writing, were written to be sung by all classes of society together, in church, so that Alford was well aware of the need to keep their language simple and direct if they were to become popular with the masses in Victorian society who were the object of his evangelical ministry. At the time he was writing his hymns, the Chartists were also launching their equally ’evangelical’ campaign among the working classes, and they too wrote hymns to popularise their cause of Political Reform. A copy of The National Chartist Hymn Book of 1845 has recently been discovered in Todmorden Public Library, in fact what is believed to be the only surviving copy. Michael Sanders of Manchester University believes that it was almost certainly complied by the South Lancashire Delegate Meeting. It is interesting to see how the desire for social justice is expressed in biblical language, and in the form of a hymn like God of the Poor!:

God of the poor! Shall labour eat

Or drones alone find labour sweet?

Lo, they who call thy earth their own,

Take all we have – and give a stone.

God of the poor! Shall labour eat

Or drones alone find labour sweet?

 

Yet not in vain thy children call

On thee, if thou art Lord of all;

And by thy work, and by thy word,

Hark! Millions cry for justice, Lord.

Yet not in vain thy children call

On thee, if thou art Lord of all.

 

The last verses of Great God are equally rousing in their call to martyrdom in the cause of freedom and justice:

Tho’ freedom mourns her murdered son,

And weeping friends surround his bier,

Tho’ tears like mountain torrents run,

Our cause is watered by each tear.

 

O May his fate cement the bond,

That binds us to our glorious cause!

Raise! Raise the cry! Let all respond;

’Justice, and pure and equal laws.’

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The hymn form was further popularised by the Methodist preachers who formed the early agricultural workers’ unions in the 1860s and ’70s. They came together in their thousands in pouring rain and muddy fields to sing folk anthems such as When Arch Beneath the Wellesbourne Tree, defying both squire and parson in its words. This poor man’s choral tradition passed into the Clarion Movement (see pictures below) which ‘evangelised’ for socialism in town and countryside in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.

The invention of sound recording, and especially of the portable recorders, has made it possible for us to study the spoken language in a way that students of English were unable to fifty years ago. Through such recordings, we are able to produce transcripts of modern Standard English, enabling us to compare it with surviving dialects. However, the only way of comparing contemporary Standard English with that which was in use 150 years ago or more, is to return to the texts of the King James Bible and compare the Revised Version made by teams from Oxford and Cambridge Universities between 1870 and 1880, with the New English Bible of 1961:

St Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 26 verses 69-75:

Revised Version:

Now Peter was sitting without in the Court: and a maid came unto him, saying, Thou also wast with Jesus the Galilean. But he denied before them all, saying, I know not what thou sayest. And when he was gone out into the porch, another maid saw him, and saith unto them that were there, This man also was with Jesus the Nazarene. And again he denied with an oath, I know not the man. And after a little while they that stood by came and said to Peter, Of a truth thou also art one of them; for thy speech betrayeth thee. Then began he to curse and to swear, I know not the man. And straightway the cock crew. And Peter remembered the word which Jesus had said, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.

New English Bible:

Meanwhile Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard when a serving-maid accosted him and said, ‘You were there too with Jesus the Galilean.’ Peter denied it in the face of them all. ‘I do not know what you mean’, he said. He then went out to the gateway, where another girl, seeing him, said to the people there, ‘This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.’ Once again he denied it, saying with an oath, ‘I do not know the man.’ Shortly afterwards the bystanders came up and said to Peter, ‘Surely, you are another of them; your accent gives you away!’ At this he broke into curses and declared with an oath… ‘I do not know the man.’ At that moment a cock crew; and Peter remembered how Jesus had said, ‘Before the cock crows you will disown me three times.’ He went outside, and wept bitterly.

 Although the revisers of the King James Version were given a brief of making a more intelligible version than the 1611 original, they also kept as close to its wording as they could. In this way the Revised Version represents both the transitional elements of Early Modern English and the forms of dialogue in use in mid-Victorian England, just as the New English version reflects the contemporary speech of the early 1960s, whilst at the same time trying to remain true to the original meaning.

The Deterioration of English?

By the last quarter of the twentieth century, fears for the future of the language had once again become the staples of newspaper columns, and were also joined in discussion of these by the new media of television news items and chat shows. They were even, in the Britain of 1978, the subject of a special debate in the House of Lords. The record of the debate, The English Language: Deterioration in Usage, makes very interesting reading. All but one of the speakers accepted the proposition that the language was deteriorating, and together they made a series of complaints about, for example, the misapplication of words such as parameter and hopefully. The language was cluttered with monstrosities like ongoing, relevant and viable. In addition, ‘good’ old words were acquiring ‘bad’ new meanings, as far as their Lordships were concerned. It was, remarked one of them, virtually impossible… for a modern poet to write ‘the choir of gay companions’. The use of the word for propaganda purposes… had destroyed its useful meaning…

Pronunciation, another familiar bugbear, was also considered to be slipping in words like controversy and formidable. In this context, as in many, the BBC came in for a substantial amount of criticism for failing in its clear duty to uphold the standards of English. There were laments also about the latest revisions of the Bible translations and the Book of Common Prayer. In addition, there were the usual condemnations of the way in which American usages, such as location for place which were creeping into our language. Lord Somers expressed the view that if there is a more hideous language on the face of the earth than the American form of English, I should like to know what it is!

Besides the BBC, the Anglican hierarchy and the Americans, the peers also blamed schools, the universities and the mass media for the state of the language. Children and students, it was claimed, were no longer educated in grammar and classics. Newspapers, radio and television were familiarising the public with a language that depends on generalisations which are usually imprecise and often deliberately ambiguous… a language that makes unblushing use of jargon whenever that can assist evasion… A major cause of deterioration, noted one peer, exhibiting more than a touch of xenophobia, was very simply the enormous increase in the number of people using it. Perhaps the most revealing comment came from Lord Davies of Leek:

Am I right in assuming that in an age of uncertainty with respect to religion, God, family, self, money and prosperity, there is a worldwide collapse of not only the values of the past but of our language which, more and more, tends to be vague, indecisive, careless and often callous?

In one sense, Lord Davies was probably right. The relativism of the twentieth century probably did encourage a more permissive approach to language. In a deeper sense though, it was the decline of respect for God, the family and property that really concerned Lord Davies and his fellow peers, and he used Language-change or deterioration as the means for complaining about society. When all is said and done, language is only the medium of discourse, not the matter itself; the messenger, rather than the message. Language is, as it always has been, the mirror to society, not to be confused with society itself. In Britain, where English developed, it has become standardised and centralised in the South, apparently cautious of change. In the British Commonwealth, the independent traditions of Australia, New Zealand and Canada have breathed new life into the English that was exported from Britain more than two hundred years ago. In the Caribbean, it is the focus of an emergent nationalism. In Africa, it is the continent-wide means of communication and in South Africa it is the medium of Black consciousness. In India and South-East Asia, it is associated with aspiration, development and growing self-confidence, taking on distinctive forms. Therefore it is not neutral: it is a vehicle of both change and continuity, rather than a victim of social degradation.

Sources:

Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

Ian Bradley (2005), The Daily Telegraph Book of Hymns. London: Continuum Books.

Robert McCrum, William Cran, Robert MacNeil (1987), The Story of English. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

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