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What May Day may mean to the many…   11 comments

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Statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station ...

Statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station in London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Marx Memorial Library

Marx Memorial Library (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Clerkenwell Green

Clerkenwell Green (Photo credit: Fin Fahey)

 

In June 1976, John Betjeman, the Queen’s celebrated ‘poet laureate’ and saviour of St Pancras Station, now restored in all its glory, penned a foreword to a collection of Walter Crane‘s Cartoons for the Cause, 1886-1896. ‘Clerkenwell’, he wrote, ‘is one of the best preserved of the inner villages of London and the nearest village to it. It has a Green and its church on a hillock above the Green. Several hoses survive of those which surrounded it, a remarkable haven of peace amid the roar of public transport and heavy lorries.’ In the early sixties, it looked as if these buildings would be destroyed, which would have taken away the village character of Clerkenwell. Betjeman was among a number of local residents who had appealed to what was then the Greater London Council. No. 37A Clerkenwell Green, the building housing the Marx Memorial Library, was not outstanding in architectural terms, but ‘its value to the townscape was great’. The GLC therefore agreed to preserve it on these grounds, at a time when few people understood the importance of minor buildings to the more major ones alongside them.

Walter Crane, 1886
Walter Crane, 1886 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These cartoons, of which the one above is an example, were printed for Walter Crane by the ‘Twentieth Century Press’ at 37A Clerkenwell Green. ‘They are of interest as period pieces when high-minded socialism was taken up by the followers of William Morris,’ wrote Betjeman. Walter Crane (1845-1916), was first Master of the Art Worker’s Guild and an ardent Guild-Socialist. He was no William Blake, but a brilliant decorative artist, born in Chester, where his father was a fairly successful local artist. The family moved to Torquay in Devon where Walter was educated cheaply but privately. After moving again to Shepherd’s Bush, London, Walter learned the art of engraving on wood and stone. Betjeman added:

A hard life among the shabby-genteel of London opened his generous heart. He saw the twentieth century as a golden age ahead, with equal cash and opportunity for all.

He tried his hand at poetry as well as decorative art, writing a poem to accompany the cartoon above which was printed in the journal, ‘Justice’ in 1894. Here are the final verses:

Stand fast, then, Oh workers, your ground,

Together pull, strong and united:

Link your hand like a chain the world round,

If you will that your hopes be requited.

When the World’s Workers, sisters and brothers,

Shall build, in the new coming years,

A fair house of life – not for others,

For the earth and its fulness is theirs.

May Day 2008 024
May Day 2008 024 (Photo credit: Perosha)

Although May Day became associated with International Labour towards the end of the nineteenth century, its origins as a ‘people’s festival’ go back as far as early Roman times (at least). The goddess Maia, mother of Mercury, had sacrifices made in her honour on the first day of her month, accompanied by considerable merry-making. The Maypole celebrations are linked to the qualities of pagan tree spirits and tree worship. In Medieval and Tudor England, May Day was a great public holiday when most villages arranged processions, with everyone carrying green boughs (branches) of sycamore and hawthorn. The most important place in the procession was given to a young tree, 12 to 15 feet (3.6 to 4.6 metres) high, decorated with rings, or ‘garlands’, of flowers and ribbons. The tree was stripped of its branches, except for the one at the very top, whose leaves would be left to show the signs of new life at the beginning of summer. Sometimes the tree was completely stripped so the top could be decorated by attaching garlands in the shape of crowns or floral globes.  In some villages the decoration took the form of two intersecting circles of garlands or flowers, similar to some modern Christmas decorations, bound with ribbons which spiralled down the tree.  Sometimes dolls were attached to the top of the tree, originally representing Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. More recently, these were changed into representations of Mary, mother of Jesus, with May being recognised as the month of Mary, sometimes also used as a short-form of the name.

While the Maypole was the centre of attention on this day, the fun and games which accompanied it were disapproved of by many churchmen. One of them claimed that…

All the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, groves and hills, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes. In the morning they return bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies. There is a great Lord over their pastimes, namely Satan, Prince of Hell. The chiefest jewel they bring is their Maypole. They have twentie or fortie oxen, every one having a sweet nosegay of flowers on the tip of his horns, and these oxen drag the Maypole (this stinking idol, rather) which is covered with flowers and herbs, bound round with string from top to bottom and painted with variable colours.

Henry VIII was, as you might well think, very fond of Maying, and went early one morning with Catherine of Aragon, from Greenwich to Shooters Hill and watched a company of yeomen dressed in green with their chief, Robin Hood, a character representing Old England.  He then stayed on to watch their archery contest. May Day was certainly an energetic festival, starting the previous evening, going through the night, with dancing and games through the day and ending with evening bonfires, known in some places as ‘Beltane’ fires, being the name given by the Celts to their fire festival. This reveals the continuity of Celtic Druidic traditions into Saxon and Medieval England.

However, the Puritans in the Stuart Church frowned upon these activities and were annoyed when James I continued to allow the setting up of Maypoles. When in power in the Long Parliament under Charles I and Cromwell they carefully controlled the celebration of both May Day and Christmas Day. Both were thought to encourage too much physical pleasure of one kind or another! However, they had difficulty in removing some Maypoles, which were fixed permanently in place. Some were as tall as church towers, painted in spiral bands like vertical barbers’ poles, dressed with garlands of flowers, ribbons and flags on May Day. One church, built in the shadow of a giant pole, was called St Andrew Undershaft, the shaft being the Maypole.

With the Restoration of the Stuarts the Maypoles stood erect all over ‘Merrie England’  once again. Samuel Pepys wrote in his Diary that the first May Day in the reign of Charles II was ‘the happiest May Day that hath been many a year in England.’  A great Maypole, 130 feet (40m) high, was set up in The Strand. It was so vast that, made in two parts, it was floated along the river to where Scotland Yard now stands and carried in procession along Whitehall, accompanied by bands and huge crowds of people. It took twelve seamen four hours to get it up, using their block and tackle. However, this great erection in London to some extent obscured the general shrinkage in the significance of May Day, as it was replaced in popular observance by Oak Apple Day, May 29th, the restored King’s birthday as well as the date of his return to the throne. The name given to this day refers to the incident at Boscobel House when Charles, after his defeat at Worcester, hid in the branches of an oak tree while Cromwell’s soldiers searched the House and grounds for him, unsuccessfully. He was then able to ‘go on his travels’ via Wales and Bristol to the continent, so for some time sprigs of oak were worn to commemorate both his escape and safe return to the throne. By the 18th Century, the festival had largely disappeared, and in 1717 the highest permanent Maypole was removed to Wanstead Park in Essex, where Sir Isaac Newton used it to support the  most powerful telescope in the world.

However, with the establishment of universal elementary education by the beginning of the twentieth century, Maypole dancing gained in popularity once more, partly due to the revival of interest in folk songs and tunes. In Primary Schools, intricate dances developed using the coloured ribbons in patterns formed by the steps of the dancers, round and about each other. New life was also given to the festival by the writers Tennyson, Morris and Ruskin, who made it into a children’s day, with the crowning of a May Queen, symbolising Mary, whose month it is. Morris also helped to establish it as Labour Day through the 1889 Congress of the Second International of socialist societies and trade unions. In the industrial north of England and industrial south Wales, it became once more a day of fairs, brass-band music, processions and dancing, a ‘gala’ day, with an occasional speech by a distinguished leading Labour figure. It became a public bank holiday in Britain, as on the continent, and remains so, though not without its partisan and puritan detractors, especially since the all-but-complete demise of heavy industry, and, in particular, the wholesale destruction of mining communities in the wake of the pit closures and miners’ strikes of the 1980’s. Walter Crane’s Song for Labour Day concludes with a positive message which is no less relevant for the twenty-first century than it was for the twentieth:

Rejoice, then, weary-hearted mothers

 That your little ones shall see

Brighter Days – O men and brothers –

When Life and Labour ye set free!

Sound upon the pipe and tabor!

Blow the trumpet, beat the drum!

Leave your toil, ye sons of Labour!

Come a-maying, toilers, come!

However, Crane makes it clear in his third verse that this is not a march into any kind of  ‘class war’:

March they not in shining warfare,

No sword they bear, or flashing blade;

But the pruning-hook and ploughshare,

But the worn wealth-winner’s spade.

‘Dissent and Unionism was their only crime’

This February 1876 photograph illustrates how far The Labour Movement in Britain has come through peaceful protest and parliamentary reform in the space of two life-times, or four generations.  Mr W. Durham had dared to stand up to the tyranny of the local ‘squire’, or land-owner, G. H. W. Heneage and his relative, C. W. Heneage, who between them owned most of the village of Cherhill in Wiltshire. The result was the eviction of Durham and his family from the cottage where they had lived for twenty-eight years. In the picture are the two items among their few possessions which illustrate their independence, which so infuriated the feudal Heneages: a collecting box for the Wesleyan Missionary Society and a framed poster of Joseph Arch, founder of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union and Methodist preacher from Warwickshire.

The full story of behind this picture makes painful reading for those who want to paint an idyllic picture of the lost world of ‘Merrie England’. The paternal squire and his wife ran a coal and clothing club, adding a little of his own money to the regular contributions of his farm labourers. For the privilege of receiving the benefits of this, the farm labourers’ wives had their clothing inspected by Mrs Heneage in her drawing-room and received a ‘scolding’ if they dared to purchase any garment ‘beyond their station in life’. Each woman was also asked ‘is your husband in the union?’ If they said ‘yes’, they were not allowed to belong to the club! She also interfered in proposed marriages within the parish, and any girl who ‘transgressed’ was driven out of ‘hearth and home’ as if she were part of some Victorian melodrama.

When a new tenancy agreement was issued to the Heneage labourers in 1875, two trade unionists, one of whom was Durham and the other a small tradesman and a Liberal, were given notice to quit. Durham was not only independent, but also a man of integrity, known as a sober and industrious worker. However, not only was he a unionist, but as a Wesleyan ‘dissenter’, neither did he support the established Church, and these ‘heresies’ were not to be tolerated. After a court order was obtained by Heneage, the entire family, comprising Mr and Mrs Durham, their two sons, who had also joined the union, and their twelve-year-old daughter were evicted by the police, their ‘goods and chattels’ being dumped in the field outside. The girl was also forbidden to attend the village school by the parish priest, since the school was controlled by the Church of England.

The week following the eviction, a public protest meeting was held near the village in a field loaned by a more sympathetic small-holder. The meeting, supported by the NALU and The English Labourer, was attended by a thousand farm workers, despite pouring rain and the threat of retribution. They sang When Arch Beneath the Wellesbourne Tree chorus:

Though rich and great our cause may bare,

We care not for their frown,

The strongest are not strong enough,

To keep the labourer down.

 NALU had been formed in 1872 by Joseph Arch, the son of a Warwickshire shepherd, and had 58,000 members by 1875, organised in 38 districts. Opposition from the gentry and the farmers was fierce and the agricultural workers scattered in small villages were vulnerable to the absolute power of a hostile squirearchy, as in Cherhill. The union responded quickly to the eviction by commissioning a ‘first rate photographer’ to record the aftermath of the eviction. Tripod and plate camera were rushed by horse and trap  from Salisbury to the village and the family were posed with their possessions by the hedgerow in front of their former home. Copies of the photographs were then sold with the proceeds going directly to the victimized family.

The story of the eviction is a tale of tyranny in ‘England’s green and pleasant land’, of feudal power and the refusal of one agricultural labourer to bow to the will of a vindictive squire. The first May Day march in London, held in 1890, seems to have passed unrecorded by the camera, but this photograph represents something of the lives and circumstances of those who built the labour movement, our great-grandfathers who were on the march with Arch through the Warwickshire and Banburyshire villages, listening to the Methodist lay-preacher beneath the Wellesbourne tree and out in the muddy fields of Wiltshire in winter, fighting on immediate issues, yet never losing sight of Blake’s vision of a new Jerusalem. Similar battles between ‘Squire’ and ‘tenant’, between ‘Church’ and ‘Chapel’, caused long-lasting division and bitterness in many villages throughout England and Wales long into the twentieth century, with squires and rectors seeking to impose a monopoly of social and political control on landless labourers, artisans and tradesmen, by using the power of the courts and the police to evict. If this was a class war, it was not one instigated by the labourers themselves, who merely sought protection from trades-unions from these relentless intrusions and pressures in every part of their already impoverished lives.

No wonder rural communities revived ancient traditions on May Day, to emphasise a sense of common ’cause’ amid all the conflict in the countryside. The activity of ‘well-dressing’ is a popular May morning tradition in some towns and villages in England and Wales. Bright, elaborate pictures are placed at the top of wells on May morning and a little thanksgiving service is held. The pictures, of religious subjects, are made from flower petals, mosses, lichen and berries stuck in wet clay. In grains of rice above the picture are written the words, ‘Praise the Lord’.

Perhaps the most famous, unifying May Day ceremony of all, however, is the one movingly captured in the film Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins playing C S Lewis and Debra Winger his American wife, Joy. This is the singing of carols and madrigals, from the top of Magdalen College Tower in Oxford, which takes place on May morning at 6 a.m. every year, a medieval tradition broken only for five years between 1977 and 82, while stonework was being restored. Many all-night parties are held by the students who end up in ‘the High’ just before dawn, with champagne being poured liberally. Groups in formal dinner clothes mingle with those in bizarre fancy dress in a crowd which can number 15,000. They first hear the clock strike six and then the magnificent singing of ‘Te Deum patrem colimus’, followed by the far less reverent  madrigal  ‘now is the month of maying, while merry lads are playing…each with his bonny lass, all on the greeny grass’. The listeners remain silent during these, but as soon as the madrigal ends, a riot of activity begins. Groups of Morris dancers attract spectators in all parts of the town. Musicians, offering a wide variety of styles, set up on stone steps and other platforms, so that the onlooker can choose anything from pop to Purcell. Meanwhile, the bells in every part of the city ring out. In Cowley, children bring bunches of flowers to church. In The Oxford Book of Carols there are several May songs, including ‘the Furry Day Carol’, sung as part of the annual procession, or ‘Furry Dance’ through the streets of Helston in Cornwall:

 

Remember us poor Mayers all!

And thus do we begin – a

To lead our lives in righteousness

Or else we die in sin – a.

‘These Tremendous Years’: A Chronicle of Britain in 1938: Chapter Two: Who Killed the Miner?   1 comment

Chapter Two: Who Killed the Miner?

Narrative One: Surveying the Survivors

0051938 saw the publication of a whole series of reports and surveys ‘diagnosing’ what had been afflicting the south Wales valleys over the previous decade and a half and continuing the argument, begun in earnest four years earlier, over the best remedy for the patient. The Pilgrim Trust published its report into unemployment, Men Without Work (Cambridge).  Among many other findings, it found that the social service clubs for the unemployed were failing to attract support from the unemployed themselves. Of the 187 unemployed visited and interviewed in South Wales, only 35 attended the clubs. In another survey also conducted in the same year, Disinherited Youth, the Carnegie Trust found that the young unemployed men often felt that such clubs existed principally for the older men and did not find activities such as boot-repairing, carpentry and upholstery very appealing. In addition, despite the claims that these institutions were run in keeping with the democratic traditions of coalfield society, the reality was very different.  The researcher, A J Lush, found that out of the ten occupational centres in Pontypridd, only two allowed their members a fair measure of responsibility for control and management. Moreover, many of the organisers sent into the valleys were stalwart conservative zealots, chiefly concerned to provide strong ‘moral’ leadership and terribly ignorant on the most vital subjects inherent in the work involved.  Their lack of understanding of the traditions of coalfield society and of the needs of the unemployed would lead them to organise programmes of lectures which had little or no relevance to their audience. Not unnaturally, among younger and older unemployed alike, there was a resistance to what was viewed as state intervention by voluntary means, which was also expressed more vociferously in refusals to participate in government training and transference schemes, often led by the Communist-inspired National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. However, this spirit of resistance was also part of a wider ‘welling up’ in coalfield communities, against the sense of true ‘demoralisation’ resulting from the invasion of the lives of families by hosts of bureaucrats and social workers. The Means Test man, the Unemployment Benefit or ‘Dole’ Officer, with his ‘Genuinely Seeking Work’ requirements, the Juvenile Employment Officer, the university ‘settlement’ students, the ‘Bloody Quakers’ (BQ’s) and even the social surveyors and left-wing intellectual film-makers, all seemed intent on re-making the coalfield communities in somebody else’s image.

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Perhaps this ‘invasion’ was part of the reason that the Welsh working-class decided, in large part, to remake themselves in exodus and exile, in the new industrial towns of the Midlands and South of England. Most of those who decided to leave the valleys did so without the ‘assistance’ available through the Industrial Transference Board of the Ministry of Labour. Although similar factors often influenced both assisted transference and voluntary migration, and although the contemporary communist and nationalist propagandists frequently confused the two, the latter process was far from being an acquiescent response to unemployment. It was an autonomous, self-organised response. They went on their own terms, often as whole families, eventually moving whole clubs and societies by 1938/9. Large numbers of people migrated from one particular locality in the valleys to a particular town in the Midlands. For instance, an official report contained the astounding fact that one family from Cwmamman was responsible for the removal of another thirty-six families from the village.

A study by the economist Brinley Thomas showed that the insured population of the Midland Division of the Ministry of Labour had increased by 20% since 1931, compared with 3% for the country as a whole. He also showed that 21,5% of all immigrants to Coventry were from the coalfield areas of south Wales. Comparable statistics for Oxford were published in 1938 in the Barnett House Survey of Social Services in the Oxford District. Of the seven thousand ‘foreigners’ who, as in Coventry, had exchanged their employment books, issued by other divisions of the Ministry of Labour, 1,200 were from Wales (17%), a number which even exceeded the numbers from London, the South East and the Midlands. The numbers from other depressed areas in the North and Scotland were significantly smaller still and smaller than those found in Coventry. More than half of the Welsh immigrants to Oxford had found their way into the motor industry, mostly at the Pressed Steel factory. The next biggest employer of ‘foreigners’ was the building industry. Half of the workers employed in these trades were from outside Oxford and many of these worked for the Merthyr contractor, Moss, who was responsible for building much of the new housing in Cowley.  By comparison, a third of the Welsh male migrants in the insured workforce of Coventry went into the motor and aircraft industries, still the largest number, but there were also sizable numbers found in general engineering and metal trades (27%), services and distribution (20%) and coal mining (12%).

In Oxford, the Barnett House Survey, published in 1938, reported their findings of a distinct lumpiness in the migration streams. This, they noted, militated against the Ministry’s plans for a more rational and complete distribution of manpower in accordance with the shifts in the demand for labour and the assimilation of the new elements of the population by the old, Of the 1,200 Welsh workers officially recorded in Oxford, 215 had employment books originating in the Maesteg District.  Of these, 150, or a sixth of all the Welsh ‘foreigners’ in the city were from one exchange area, Pontycymmer, in the Garw Valley.  The flow to Oxford from the valley had begun during the 1926 Lock-out, when a few men walked to Oxford, found employment at the Pressed Steel works, which was just opening and looking for unskilled labourers, and were soon joined by friends and relatives. From that point onwards, 15-25% of those leaving the valley went to Cowley. but the fact that only 150 of the 270 Garwites remained in the city in 1938 must mean that many moved on to other Midland industrial centres. I have dealt in detail with The Case of the Cowley Garwites in another online article, You Can’t Stop Them Singing (details below). These were powerful, practical examples in the retention of cultural autonomy, a power and a practice which was well-expressed by one of the older unemployed of the Rhondda who, in a written statement of 1938 to the Pilgrim Trust, explained his decision to stay put:

For an outsider, who views the situation from the angle of the people of the abyss, or the slum worker out of work, the idea he gets of the depressed areas or Special Areas may be totally wrong… I want to suggest that our people are fully conscious of the economic principles which have brought change to the valleys. The question is, to migrate or remain. I have chosen to remain…

Neither of the two choices represented a capitulation to the outsiders, therefore. However, both presented their different challenges. For those who stayed, the challenge was to maintain their own cultural institutions. Later in 1938, the South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service published its fourth annual report, including a survey into the plight of the Free Churches in the Special Area. Not Dead But Gone to Slough was the apocryphal mock epitaph which appeared on Dai’s coffin,  paraded through the valley streets in protest at the effects of continuing heavy unemployment and mass emigration to the English towns and cities.  The problem created by the fact that the bulk of those who moved away was in the age group which would produce the next generation was still further compounded by the increased burden placed upon those in the same group who were left behind by the increasing proportion of those who were no longer economically active. This had a tendency to delay marriage and restrict parenthood. The fact that those who had moved away were also restricted in these respects by migration had not only altered significantly the age structure of the Special Areas by 1938, but also did little to halt the decline in the birth rate in the recipient areas, and therefore nationally. Add to this the effects from the threat of war, and the over-concentration of the population in precisely those areas most vulnerable from aerial attacks from the continent, and it is easy to see why there were serious concerns about the distribution of the population in 1938, highlighted by the Barlow Report which the government had received and published the previous year.

For those who decided to go, there were serious obstacles to their development of their new model of migration, which seemed based on a Sunday afternoon ‘bring and share’. Miles Davies’ broadcast on the London Welsh highlighted the importance of what sociologists refer to ‘cultural retention’ among the streams of migrants arriving in English towns and cities. This was a natural by-product of the collective organisation of migration. However, it also became a core element in the process itself. The presence, or absence, of Welsh cultural institutions in the recipient areas, was a strong factor in determining the direction of migration by 1938. These institutions acted as stabilising agents on the lives of migrants, providing them with a badge of identity and helping them to convey a notion of respectability to those they settled among. As Idris Davies’ poem illustrated, they grew sentimental over things they had smiled at in Wales and saw the mining valleys more beautiful than they had ever seen them with their own eyes.  The choirs and rugby clubs they established in the new industrial areas became the outward expressions of an internalised, idealised image of the coalfield communities they had left behind.  The exiles’ collective self-image was well-expressed in Miles Davies’ broadcast:

What is there in this Rhondda Valley which is missing from the City of London? Climb with me for a moment to the top of the mountain overlooking Tonypandy… To the left and right, the narrow valley twists and turns.  You can trace the beds of the river past the slag heaps and the pit heads, past the new swimming baths, past rows and rows of cottages, with their slate roofs glistening in the sun. Immediately below us, the traffic lights of Tonypandy are winking steadily; and across the valley are the long streets of Penygraig, some tilted up the hill, some terracing the mountainside.  It is all so near and so clear. You can pick out Dai Jones’ house below. There is the wash that his wife has just put out blowing in the wind; a brave show of colour. You can perhaps see Mrs Jones herself talking to her neighbour over the fence. Now and then you can you can hear the clang of the winding shaft of the colliery, or shunting coal trucks. But for the most part, it is very peaceful up on the hill-top, and you are more aware of the lark than of the colliery. …. that is the kind of picture that often comes to the mind of the Rhondda exile.

It was precisely this sort of imagined scene which helped to provide the binding agent for the Welsh in the working-class communities in the Midlands, a binding agent which was capable of resisting the economic, social and cultural pressures which were brought to bear on the immigrants. A social solidarity reinforced by the projection of an idealised image of ‘the Valleys’ provided a protection against a tangible atmosphere of prejudice and the state of precariousness which it produced.

Davies told of the surprise which many Welsh miners in London felt that the men they met often at work did not share their desire to be attached to a group or club. There was nothing that ‘the Rhondda man’ liked more than taking his part in a committee and nothing he missed more on arriving in London than following up such interests. When Davies suggested to them that there was entertainment enough in London if they cared to seek it out, he was met by the following replies:

“In London”, said one, “we have our entertainments provided for us. We pay our money down and we take our choice”. “In the Rhondda”, remarked another, “we used to try and amuse ourselves, whereas up here we look on while someone else amuses us.” A third suggested that it was all a matter of expense. “When I was down home”, he said, “I would spend the best part of two evenings in the week at choir practice; two evenings at least would find me at the Miners’ Institute, and even if I spent Saturday night at the pictures, it would cost me very little. It costs me enough to go out once or twice a week.”

Davies found that in a few districts in and around London, Welsh people were setting up their own clubs and societies which were distinct from the older Welsh religious and social organisations, often based on (mainly) Welsh Language chapels. However, it would be wrong to suggest that the established Welsh causes had little or no contact with the newcomers, or that they were not proactive in providing social activities for them. Wheeler Street Congregational Church had one of the largest congregations in Birmingham, and of the 337 regular attendees in 1938, over half were said to be ‘exiles from the depressed area’ of South Wales. This was seen partly as the result of the setting up of the Urdd y Brodyr (League of Brethren), which catered for the needs of young Welshmen arriving in the city, helping them to find work and accommodation. It also established a newspaper library, comprising the local weeklies from the Rhondda, Pontypridd, Aberdare, Merthyr and other mining valleys. However, the established Welsh causes and societies touched the lives of only a very small proportion of the coalfield exiles, and the Wales which was celebrated in their worship and social activities remained that of the late Victorian and early Edwardian period, largely rural and Welsh-speaking. Their ministers and deacons generally lacked the contact with, and understanding of, the valleys of the industrial south. One notable exception to this was Rev Howard Ingli James, of Queens Road Baptist Church in Coventry, who had arrived at the city centre church in the early thirties from Pantgwydr, Swansea. He had taken WEA classes in the valleys and continually referred to the miners he had met in his sermons at Queen’s Road:

I had a load of coal and paid for it the other day. Did I say I paid for it? No, never, when I think what those men had to go through to get it that coal for me to enjoy – and then I say I paid for it?! No money would pay for what they did.

His championing of working-class causes and politics in both pulpit and press brought him into regular conflict with many of the established professional Coventrians in the congregation and the corporation, but his projection of so positive an image of coalfield communities had a solidifying effect on those Welsh who attended chapel and many who didn’t, but knew him through the forty-five strong Male Voice Choir founded by the Welsh choirmaster of Queens’ Road, which held its practices there. Unlike in London, the Welsh migrants to Birmingham, Coventry and Oxford, took the lead in establishing autonomous working-class cultural organisations rather than simply relying on the increasing provision of leisure facilities by commercial operations. The clubs, such as the Oxford Physical Culture Club and the Cowley Workers’ Club, were not exclusively Welsh, but the immigrants were prominent in their organisation. This was also the case in the Pressed Steel works in Cowley, where they dominated not only the trade union branch but also the Rugby Club. By the end of 1938, the Welsh communities in the Midland cities were well-established and more permanent in character, contrasting with their diaspora experience in London.

Narrative Two: Poverty, Population and Politics

In the new areas, the new Welsh immigrants may have been able to find chapels, schools and clubs in which to integrate themselves and contribute to the social life of those areas, but they often had no homes of their own to go to. Overcrowding was a serious problem both in Coventry and Oxford. Sir Wyndham Deedes, from the National Council of Social Service, visited Coventry in 1938 and wrote of a great deal of overcrowding, not only in those houses where overcrowding is to be expected but in what seem to be ‘respectable’ streets. However, Coventry City Council’s decision to build houses for rent was already beginning to ease this situation and even helped attract ‘second stage’ migrants from London and Oxford, where the provision of housing at reasonable rents was lacking. This had become a serious obstacle both to voluntary migration and official transference as the Ministry of Labour’s General Review of the Industrial Transference Scheme revealed:

One of the most serious obstacles to the permanent settlement of depressed area men probably arises from the acute shortage of suitable housing accommodation in many non-depressed areas. In a number of districts to which men have been transferred, it is practically impossible to obtain a house or other suitable accommodation; in others, rents are so high, especially when compared to those payable in the depressed areas, that transferees are unable to avail themselves of the accommodation which is available.

The concentration of expanding industries in the manufacturing centres of the Midlands had led to the growth of those employed in vehicle production from 227,000 in 1920 to 516,000 by 1938. Those, like William Morris and Herbert Austin, who had the capital, had chosen the location for their factories, and labour had migrated to it. Few of Morris’ workers came to Cowley from the surrounding villages or the Oxford Colleges and print shops, despite the higher wages on offer. The work was best-suited to those used to heavy engineering and coal-mining. especially as press shops and mass production techniques were added. Nevertheless, the motor trade was seasonal in nature, based around orders taken at the annual motor-show in late summer, hence the continuing insecurity among its migrant workers. The 1938 Survey of Oxford concluded that the level of unemployment locally could only be reduced if the motor industry could ensure constant employment.

Meanwhile, the coal industry began to pick up towards the end of 1938 as Britain was put on a war footing. The average Cowley car-worker was earning about seven shillings, or 10% more than the average South Wales miner working full shifts, but this could be more than accounted for by the high costs of rent and leisure activities in Oxford. However, in Coventry engineering wages were the highest in the country, approaching 10% above those in Cowley. In addition, while on average only 25% was being earned over the basic rate by means of piecework throughout the country, in Coventry this had reached an additional 80%. The delay in the conversion of the Cowley factories compared with those in and around Coventry was another factor in Cowley and other centres losing many of their workers to Coventry.

However, while some of the Cowley Welsh may have been tempted to return to the valleys and to coal-mining, there is little evidence that they did. The contrast in the appearance of the migrants to that of those they left behind could not have been more marked in the summer of 1938. A J Lush reported that the holidaying migrants announced their success in the new areas by being dressed in the latest-cut clothes that the cheaper tailors produce. He went on to point out that a well-dressed young man from Birmingham was a better advertisement for transference than all the efforts of the Ministry of Labour. The mirror image was graphically described in an interview I conducted in 1982 with Haydn Roberts (b.1915, Ystrad), who returned to the Rhondda from Coventry on holiday in the summer of 1938:

The lads that were left in 1938 (it was nearing war-time and the pits were picking up) had gone back down the pits. I remember going home and going to see them, and they were old men. They were really old gnarled men… working hard, and silicosis and all that. They were the same age as me… that was something I noticed particularly. They said I did the right thing.

Despite the plight of the Special areas, other reports showed that Britain’s population as a whole, taking the long view, had increased its productive capacity by 27% between 1911 and 1938. This led one contemporary commentator to the conclusion that: At least from the point of view of material well-being, the composition of Britain’s population in 1938 was more effective than it was a generation earlier. This had been achieved through long-distance internal migration and natural increase (the positive gap between births and deaths, which had been expanding, despite the depression, in all parts of Britain). Mass emigration was no longer needed to reduce the surplus population of those in poverty. Nevertheless, there were striking differences in the statistics which became public at this time. Whereas the numbers of people aged 15-44 in the South and Midlands of England increased by a quarter between 1921 and ’38, the numbers in the same age groups in Wales decreased by a fifth. As for its future, Wales’ loss in the numbers of children in its population over the same period was 27 per cent, more than double that of the South and Midlands. It had far fewer present dependents in its population, true, but far fewer future workers too. By 1938 south Wales had been relegated from having the youngest population in Britain to a position below the national average, and well below the Midlands and South-East in the proportion of 15-34 year males in its population. The pre-war bubble in the Welsh population had clearly been burst.

In his seminal work of the period, Poverty and Population, published in 1938, Richard Titmuss was one of the first statisticians to attempt to assess the extent, character and causes of social waste and to relate the findings to the problem of an ageing and diminishing population. He concluded (1) that those regions suffering from economic under-privilege and most exposed to malnutrition-inducing conditions contain by far a higher proportion of our children; and (2) that it is only higher fertility in these regions that has prevented an earlier and probably calamitous fall in the size of the population. Although south Wales had maintained a high birth rate and a low crude death rate over the inter-war period, Titmuss calculated that, in the ten years following the General Strike, as many as 65,000 of its inhabitants may have died avoidable deaths.

Add to this figure those who were not dead, but gone to Slough, London, Coventry, Oxford, Birmingham, etc., and the figure for the total loss of the Welsh population by these ‘avoidable’ methods between 1920 and 1939 was over half a million, more than one in five of the people of Wales in 1920.  Of course, most of this loss was borne by the industrial south, where migration alone accounted for 20% of the 1920 population. Rural Wales continued to lose its people at a rate which was second only to its industrial kinsman within Britain. Rather than migrating into the industrial south, the rural, Welsh-speaking Welsh, had no choice but to set their faces towards the English border. Six years later, The Welsh Reconstruction Advisory Council produced statistics to show that, in proportionate terms, the continuing depopulation of rural Wales between 1926 and 1938 was almost as serious a problem as the mass exodus which took place between these years from the south. Clearly, just as the growth of the coal industry in the half century to 1920 had helped Wales to retain its rural-born Welsh-speaking population, the dramatic fall of King Coal had linguistic and cultural implications for the whole country. By the mid-twenties, the invisible umbilical cord between rural Wales and industrial Wales had been cut, and in 1938 there was no sign of an end to the haemorrhaging. In future, the economic and human connections of the regions of Wales would lie over the border in Merseyside, the West Midlands and Bristol.

However, although a new political consensus had emerged by the beginning of 1938 to remove transference as the main plank of government policy towards the Special Areas, the policy could not be ended immediately, nor was there an end to the general exodus of workers, since the rearmament boom was swallowing up more and more labour. Protests were still heard, especially from voices within the nascent Welsh Nationalist Party, which, following the Munich Agreement, compared the transference policy as ‘just another Fascist way of murdering a small defenceless nation without going to war about it’. They denounced the Welsh MPs and civil servants as collaborators. But these new nationalist voices were too few and too late being heard.

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Aneurin Bevan, then a young MP, had called for an end to the policy two and a half years earlier, criticising the existing leadership of ‘the Welsh Nation’ for its ‘defeatist attitude’ towards the policy and for failing to establish industries in the Rhondda rather than London. There had been plenty of evidence to show that the exodus had not been a repatriation of the English migrants who had moved into the coalfield in the half century to 1920, as some nationalists had hoped and argued. By the late 1930s, it was clearly Welsh expatriation, and some even argued that, if it continued, ‘the south Wales of tomorrow’ would be left ‘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’. In fact, the expatriation involved Welsh-speakers and English-speakers equally. By the late thirties, many nationalists were clearly embarrassed by this fact but preferred to retreat into their Welsh-speaking heartlands than confront the economic realities which confronted both north and south, urban and rural. D J Davies, a miner’s son from west Wales, who had emigrated to America before the Great War and worked as a coal-miner there before returning to Wales to become an agricultural economist, was asked to join the Nationalist Party’s Executive Committee in 1938. He kept up a constant, if often solitary, criticism of the refusal of “y Blaid” to use English in its organisation, and of its insistence on basing its operations in Caernarfonshire. Davies accepted the invitation for the sake of party unity but pleaded for the head office to be moved to south Wales. He became increasingly frustrated by the failure of the Party to make any headway by 1938, and called for a complete change in tactics and emphasis:

If ‘y Blaid’ feels for the whole of the Welsh nation, it should be on the spot shouting from the housetops over the draining away of about a fifth of our best people by migration… If ‘y Blaid’ really means business it should get down to this sickening and murderous factor in our national life in the most practical way by coming down here to work on the spot.

“Y Blaid” remained unmoved, in every sense, and remained a party of Welsh-speakers, mainly concentrated in the north and west of Wales. Its only concession was to allow the publication of some pamphlets in English, including Transference Must Stop, not published until 1943, by which time most non-essential transference of labour within Britain had stopped anyway, and the exodus from the valleys referred to by D J Davies was certainly over.  In reality, the transference policy had long since ceased to occupy centre-stage by the time the Germans occupied the Sudetenland in October 1938. By then, the construction of a new economic base was well underway by then, and Geoffrey Crawshay, the Special Areas’ Commissioner’s prophecy about the return of the natives was beginning, in part, to be fulfilled. The Board of Trade’s Survey of Industrial Development for 1938 showed that, of the forty-two new factories established in south Wales since 1932, only twenty-four were located in the Special Area, including the thirteen new factories at Treforest. Shortly before the outbreak of war, the estate was providing work for 2,500 workers at twenty factories under the direction of refugee industrialists from Austria and Czechoslovakia. The majority of these workers were women, better suited to the more delicate, high-precision work available, than older unemployed men who had only ever known heavy industrial work.  So, in 1938 the economy of the region was gradually being transformed, a process which was aided by rearmament and the siting of the Royal Ordnance Factory at Bridgend, which helped to bring an end to the draining of population from the Ogmore, Garw and Llynfi valleys.

The Communist Party was more willing to admit that it had made mistakes by 1938. Its Central Committee recognised that it had mistakenly analysed Welsh nationalism, and the Districts combined to produce a bilingual pamphlet for the National Eisteddfod in Cardiff calling for a united front to embrace the nationalists. Even in 1938, they would have made uneasy bedfellows. By the time the International Brigades were withdrawn from Spain, 174 volunteers from Wales had fought there, thirty-three dying there. Nearly all of them were Communists or sympathetic to communist ideas. To have served in Spain had become as much as a badge of honour as to have gone to jail for the cause. The miners’ lodges had raised money and the Welsh people, themselves poverty-stricken, gave money, food and goods to the Spanish Republic, also taking in the Basque refugee children while ships out of Cardiff tried to run the Franco blockade of Bilbao.  By contrast, Welsh nationalists had consistently supported Franco, despite the fact that most Basques and Catalans were on the Republican side, and despite the role of the Welsh volunteers. The Party’s leader, Saunders Lewis, a recent convert to Catholicism, rejected both communism and fascism, but was most vehemently anti-Marxist. J E Daniel, another leading figure, was quite clear of where the Party’s international allegiances should lie:

Whatever the emnity between Fascism and Democracy, it becomes friendship in the face of the great enemy Communism. That is the lesson Hitler is trying to teach Europe.

For both Daniel and Lewis, the struggle was between Communism and what they called the European Tradition. This introduced a sharp ideological division between the writers in Welsh and the Anglo-Welsh.  Niclas y Glais was the one exception to this divide,  a Marxist writing in Welsh. However, his Llais y Werin (People’s Voice) was a short-lived experiment. However, despite the work of D J and Nöelle Davies on the one side, and Niclas on the other, the abyss between the Popular Front Wales of the European Left and the European Tradition of Lewis and Daniel continued to grow in scale. Lewis himself pointed out that the English press had been far from unequivocal in its attitude towards Hitler’s anti-semitism before Kristallnacht:

In one day English public opinion which had for years been strongly in support of Germany was entirely turned against her. The Welsh followed, like sheep through a gap.

Welsh nationalist reports on events were therefore meant “to free our countrymen from this massed attack of poisonous English propaganda.” In October 1938, the Party’s Journal, Y Ddraig Goch, launched the following stinging attack on the English press:

These papers (the liberal ‘Daily Herald’, ‘News Chronicle’ and ‘Manchester Guardian’) are Wales’ most dangerous enemies. Their position is responsible for the fact that everyone in Wales these days is being taken over by intemperate anger against Hitler, rather than severe regret for not having fought for twenty years against the policy of England and France that placed Hitler on his throne.

The English press served English imperialism, which was the root of the international conflict. It was not a case of morality, but of power and ambition. Of England’s real nature there was no doubt. In addition, the lack of readiness of the Party leaders to declare support for the Basque refugees was noted by members who drew attention to Breton action on behalf of the Basques:

It is interesting to note that the Nationalist Party and cultural movement of at least one other Celtic country has been appalled by the destruction that has overcome the Basques … At least Brittany does not underestimate the struggle of a small nation to save its own soul.

A message of sympathy to the Basques, recognising their ‘terrible crisis’ had been agreed at the Party Conference in August 1937 but was not sent to the Autonomous Government of Euzkadi for six months. Eventually sent on 5th February 1938, it stated, quite neutrally, that:

The Welsh Nationalist Party desires that the Basques will have the freedom to live their own national life, just as we work for our own nation.

A reply from the from the Euzkadi Government in Basque and English asked for an English translation since the party had sent the message only in Welsh, in strict keeping with its monolingual policy at that time. When the delay was revealed a few days later, the reason given was that it the executive was reluctant to send a message which was unconnected with Welsh matters, to which it had previously restricted itself.

On the broader front, in October 1938 the party  summed up its attitude to the impending European war with its Wales Neutral declaration:

The Nationalist Party declares that there is no just cause for war in Europe at present…. it will not take part in England’s wars. Therefore, no Welsh Nationalist may join in this war nor agree to work in armaments factories nor help with the war in any way.

Naturally, this was very much in keeping with the party’s strong pacifist traditions, though Saunders Lewis, its leader until 1939, continued to argue that the war should be opposed purely on the grounds that it was ‘an English war, for English aims’. Indeed, he had been unhappy with the decision of the 1938 party conference that force should never be used in the quest for Welsh self-government. Whilst this may or may not have been  intended as a condemnation of the ‘Burning of the Bombing School’ in Caernarfonshire undertaken by Lewis and two others in 1936 (for which they were given nine-month prison sentences), it did seem to mark the desire of the membership to move away from direct action towards more democratic, constitutional methods.  The direct action methods used by the three leaders had only involved violence against property, but it was significant that the delegates at the conference felt the need to make clear both their opposition to fascism and their support for a democratic Wales. Having made it clear that he would step down as party president in 1939, Lewis made it clear that he thought the party would fail if it limited itself to constitutional methods.

Narrative Three: Projecting the Valleys

009Following the 1937 Quota Act, American film companies began to establish their own studios around London so that they could make “British” films and it was under this dispensation that MGM made The Citadel in 1938.  At the time, several British critics thought it was one of the best British films ever and comments were made about the obvious American production values and about the emergence of Robert Donat as a Hollywood-style star. Also, the film offered a real sense of both South Wales and London. A.J. Cronin was very keen for his best-selling novel, about an idealistic and ambitious young doctor,  to be turned into a film, but even he could not have anticipated the film being so well made. The south Wales locations were authentic, and there was some excellent acting by Ralph Richardson and Emlyn Williams, complementing that of Donat. Williams had added some authentic Welsh dialogue, including a convincingly detailed denunciation of the evils of private medicine. The director, King Vidor (right), was well-known in Hollywood for making films that represented his own popular form of social realism.  He was determined to represent the common man in his movies, and to expose the sharp-practices of corporate vested interests. Though it served its purpose for the Hollywood box office,

The Citadel gave the cinema-goera fuller view than any other previous feature film of south Wales. Its narrative was melodramatic, concerned with the salvation of its hero, a Christian knight figure who had to discover his true self by pointing the masses towards a greater good.  Its message was therefore essentially individualistic with little room for organised protest or trade unionism.  The miners are shown as being backwards in thinking, clinging to their Medical Aid Society, so that the doctor’s wife asks, “Did anyone ever try to help the people and the people not object?” The Americans realised that the social problems of the coalfield, set against its photogenic backdrop, could provide ideal material for melodrama. A whole series of experimental social films were made over the next two years which, sooner or later, made it past the censors, though some were so radical that they had to wait for the outbreak of war to be released.

As ever in Welsh history, the most authentic and enduring advocacy of the condition and suffering of the Welsh people in this period came from their own bards. Of these, Idris Davies (1905-1953) was the archetypal poet of the Welsh valleys, because he wrote about little else. He was born and brought up in the Rhymney Valley, on the Monmouth-Glamorgan boundary.  He took part in the General Strike of 1926, but, as an autodidact, eventually became a schoolmaster.  In 1938 he published Gwalia Deserta, including the poems London Welsh and Do You Remember 1926?:

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Do you remember 1926?

The great dream and the swift disaster,

The fanatic and the traitor,

The bravery of simple, faithful folk?

‘Ay, ay, we remember 1926,’

said Dai and Shinkin,

As they stood on the kerb

in Charing Cross Road,

“And we shall remember 1926

until our blood is dry.”

However, perhaps the best poem in this anthology is not so directly descriptive of the conditions in the valleys and in exile during the Depression years.  Gwalia Deserta XV begins ‘O what can you give me? Say the sad bells of Rhymney’. He finds in an old nursery rhyme a symbol for suffering. The poem was later recorded as a folk-song by Pete Seeger. The line, ‘And who robbed the miner? Cry the grim bells of Blaina’, not only summed up the inter-war experience of south Wales, but also both paralleled and foreshadowed the powerful protest songs of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.

It’s sad that the Thirties did not produce more great poetry in English. It did produce Anglo-Welsh poets such as Vernon Watkins of Swansea, Glyn Jones of Merthyr and Alun Lewis of Aberdare, but their subject was not necessarily the plight of Wales. The issues involved were perhaps more productive of passion or despair, but there is more than a mere social portrait in Idris Davies’ poetry. There is also biting satire. For him, the poetry was in the pity of Wales. His poems may lack the verbal or technical originality of Dylan Thomas and the prophetic voice of R S Thomas, but the power of them is found in their simple, direct appeal to the simple yet profound emotions which his era gave rise to. T. S. Eliot felt that the value of Davies’ work lay in its being “a poetic document about a particular epoch in a particular place.”

Sources:

Gwyn A Williams, (1985) When was Wales? Harmondsworth: Penguin.

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

René Cutforth, (1976) Later Than We Thought. Newton Abbott: David & Charles.

Gerald Morgan, (1968) This World of Wales.  Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Previous Related Blogs:

You Can’t Stop Them Singing

‘These Tremendous Years’: A Chronicle of Britain in 1938 – Part One

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