Archive for the ‘Unemployment Benefit’ Tag

Family Life, Labour and Leisure: The Forward March of Women in Britain, 1930-40.   Leave a comment


Chapter One: Semi-detached Britain.

The experience of women between the wars was part of a broader re-making of the main social classes, especially the professional middle classes and the working classes, a social reformation on a scale not witnessed for almost a century, with the maturation of the first industrial revolution. As early as 1934, a woman Oxford graduate commented:

Both the new rich and the new poor have learnt that the old social orders were not immutable, that the roles of Lazarus and his patron were interchangeable. It is significant that you seldom hear nowadays the phrase which was once so common, “know my station”…


During the 1930s, well-to-do families could enjoy a rising standard of living, and it was possible for them either to evade the problems of society and, despite the declining number of domestic servants, to escape from them. Even the less well-to-do, provided they were employed, could react in these ways to their circumstances since, for the first time in modern times, the benefits of industrialisation began to be applied on a large-scale to the home as well as to the factory. New industries, geared to consumer demand, prospered while old basic industries declined. Meanwhile, ‘mass entertainment’, becoming an industry and sustained by new technical media, often encouraged the flight from the uneasy present, and the holiday resorts boomed.

The experience of the thirties remained fragmented and divided, yet as the decade went by it proved increasingly difficult completely to ignore the international ‘crises’. There was no domestic crisis equivalent to the General Strike of 1926, but the economic recovery after 1934 which raised the country out of the trough of unemployment and hunger was limited and precarious. It was recognised that, in part, the recovery depended on a rearmament programme which might ultimately involve Britain in another World War. Even after the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, there was still no sense of common direction. The government, still the ‘National’ government which had been returned to power with a huge majority during the economic crisis of 1931, was not fully representative of the nation, even after its re-election in 1935. The war was fought so fitfully at first that it was called ‘the phoney war’ at the time.

It was not until the ‘Blitzkrieg’ of the summer and autumn of 1940 that Churchill’s new government was able to mobilise the full support of the vast majority of the British people. Their support was forthcoming not just because it was commanded, but because there was a strong popular feeling that the world could not remain safe or happy so long as Hitler was dominating Europe. With the ‘Blitz’, the ‘semi-detached’ period of British social history came to an end. With hindsight, the years between 1919 and 1940 looked like ‘the years the locust had eaten’, years of wasted resources and people. Yet this was not what they seemed like at the time to growing numbers of people who felt themselves to be ‘middle-class’, for whom there was much to enjoy and be thankful for. The contrasting measurements of the main social indexes – in health, employment, education, housing, food and leisure – revealed exactly how fortunate they were. One Yorkshirewoman, quoted in F. W. Hirst’s The Consequences of the War to Great Britain (1934), was convinced that…

… class distinctions have been positively toppled over since the Great War, or rather social barriers have been removed, not entirely by the upper class becoming less exclusive but much more by a general uplifting in the standard of living… Luxuries once enjoyed by the few are now regarded as ordinary expenditure by young people whose immediate antecedents were accustomed to such amenities, … Take for example the telephone, wireless, electric light, motor-cars, pictures. It might be said that these are all recent inventions brought into common use by the developments of science; but unless the standard of living had been considerably raised, these would still have been considered great luxuries to be used only by the wealthier classes. … (Yet) the landed aristocracy have been almost taxed out of existence, and are mostly living in a much less luxurious way than before the War; and the middle classes are undoubtedly labouring under a burden of taxation such as they have never before been called upon to bear. 

Even by 1941, by no means all of His Majesty’s subjects were enjoying such luxuries. For those on B. S. Rowntree’s poverty line’, whether in the depressed areas or in the ‘pockets’ of poverty in the more prosperous towns and cities, such luxuries remained far out of reach. Theirs was a more basic daily ‘fayre’:

Breakfast, Wednesday: Bread and dripping, tea. Dinner: Liver and onions, bread and butter and tea. Tea: bread and butter, beetroot, tea. Supper: Cocao … Breakfast, Friday: Bread and dripping, tea. Dinner: Cod and chips, bread and butter and tea. Tea: Bread and butter, tomatoes, jam, tea. Supper: None. Breakfast, Saturday: Bread and dripping, tea…

In his 1941 report, Poverty and Progress, he also found that taking the average figure for children of all ages there was a difference of five and three-quarter pounds between the average weight of girls in social classes A and B and D and E, while the girls in class X were on average twelve and a quarter pounds heavier than those in A and B. The boys in classes D and E were four and three-quarter pounds heavier and those in class X were eight and a quarter pounds heavier than those in classes A and B. Thus, the ‘weight gap’ between social classes was far greater among girls than boys of the same age. By the end of the thirties, impoverishment had also taken its toll on the diets of older women among the ‘respectable working classes’. William Cameron wrote in Common People of how…

Mother was glad to see Dick, and Catherine was glad to see him too. Visitors were rare. No one goes to see poor people. Even relatives stay away… Dick belonged to that aristocracy of Labour who have hot dinners with vegetables every day, eat real butter on Sundays, and have fresh cows’ milk with their tea. Mother made him a cup of tea and cut him a slice of bread and margarine, a sincere gesture of hospitality. She wanted him to feel at home.


Thus the growing prosperity among many working-class families helped to underline the widening of divisions between sections of that class. However, with the decline of domestic service, the wealth and powers of both the aristocracy and the upper middle classes were also declining rapidly. The Quakers had long-held an antipathy for the inducement of men and women into selling themselves into service in exchange for shelter, food and clothes in order to gratify the ostentation and indulgences and lusts of their fellow-men. These objections, voiced by Shipley N. Brayshaw in his Swarthmore Lecture, Unemployment and Plenty (1933), were beginning to find a wider appeal among middle classes consciences:

Wealth should enlarge a man’s capacity for useful work and culture. Morally it is not a charter for an idle life while monopolizing the services of others. In the ideal state there would be no shortage of domestic help for responsible people or for those engaged in work of outstanding value to their fellows. The attendants, or servants, of such people would be taking a useful and worthy part in the work of the community, but if they gave the same advice to an idle rich man they would be flunkies…

On the other hand, obsequious service would be withheld, neither man nor woman would accept domestic service of the old humiliating type with its low status. It would be difficult to obtain any personal service which ministered merely to laziness, luxury, or vanity. To serve another, who serves no one, is to be the underlying of a parasite. There is always something humiliating in giving such service, and not many people with a decent alternative would submit to it.                                 

The towns of Britain greatly changed their appearance between the wars: in the twenty years between 1919 and 1939 four million houses were built and the towns spread outwards in all directions. Most of these were built by private enterprise so that the outer suburbs of most modern cities and towns are still quite largely a legacy of the thirties. Between January 1935 and the outbreak of war, 1,807,682 houses were built, more than three-quarters of them by unsubsidised private enterprise. In 1939, one-third of all the houses in Britain had been built during the previous twenty years. These figures were a sign of how much, and how quickly, England in particular, a country of smaller families, was changing. The old Victorian or Edwardian family terraced house was a dreary home, long and narrow and dark, with a tiny front garden in which nothing would grow after the hedge had been planted, and a very narrow strip at the back giving a view of countless others of the same sort. Quite apart from being cramped and dark, it had the added inconvenience that coal had to be delivered through the house, and if you owned a motor-bike that too had to go through the front door, down the passage and out at the back.



So the new semi-detached house was very popular, even if the ‘detachment’ was no greater than a few feet. The earlier semi-detached were usually pebble-dashed plain square boxes with the slate roof of the nineteenth century, but by the thirties, they were mostly of brick and had red tile roofs. Terraced housing was still being built, but the romantic English ideas of privacy and a decent bit of garden all to yourself defeated the best intentions of the town planners. The most expensive semi-detached houses had a variety of features stuck on to give the much-desired air of individuality – bow windows and porches, turrets and latticed windows, even battlements. Many looked like miniature Tudor manors. In some streets, no two were alike, so strong was the reaction against uniformity, and they had names as well as numbers, all in the strong tradition of the English country house. Superior people mocked them, but they were a great improvement on their predecessors for their incumbents and the accusation that they were ‘jerry-built’ was untrue of the vast majority.



There was surprisingly little ‘vox pop’ on radio programmes, but there was a great vogue for cinema documentary particularly among the politically conscious minority in the late 1930s, and in 1937 ‘Mass Observation’ was founded to note directly, without intermediate comment or theory, what people were saying about anything and everything in streets and public houses. J. B. Priestley portrayed the setting of all this in his English Journey (1934) which is comparable in its significance with Cobbett’s Rural Rides of the previous century. In it, Priestley wrote of an…

… England of … filling stations and factories that look like exhibition buildings, of giant cinemas and dance halls and cafés, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars, Woolworth’s, motor-coaches, wireless, hiking, factory girls looking like actresses, greyhound racing and dirt tracks, swimming pools, and everything given away for cigarette coupons. 

As well as providing a useful corrective to the pessimistic view of the thirties typified by George Orwell’s work, among others, Priestley shows that the ‘two nations’ view of later historians such as E. J. Hobsbawm, was grossly oversimplified. There was certainly widespread depression and appalling human suffering, but it was regionalised, if not localised, rather than general. He identified ‘three Englands’, the first that of ‘Old England’, the country of the cathedrals and minsters and manor houses and inns, of Parson and Squire. Then there was that created by the nineteenth century, the industrial England of coal, iron, steel, cotton, wool, railways, making up the larger part of the Midlands and the North. His third England was the new post-war England, belonging to the contemporary age. This was the one described above, which he went on to describes as…

…essentially democratic… You need money in this England, but you don’t need much money. It is a large-scale, mass-production job, with cut prices. You could almost accept Woolworth’s as its symbol… In this England, for the first time in history, Jack and Jill are nearly as good as their master and mistress… Most of the work … is rapidly becoming standardised… and its leisure is being handed over to standardisation too. It is a cleaner, tidier, healthier, saner world than that of nineteenth century industrialism. 

Here then were the three Englands I had seen… and as I looked back on my journey I saw how these three were variously and most fascinatingly mingled in every part of the country…


Most English people were enjoying a richer life than any previously known in the history of the world: longer (and paid) holidays, shorter hours, higher real wages. They had the motor car, cinemas, radio sets, electrical appliances. Yet the result of the National Government’s actions to save the pound resulted in the children of the unemployed having less margarine on their bread, while government ministers, along with the government ministers were able to enjoy Christmas 1931 in their warm, comfortable homes. Such was the equality of sacrifice experienced in Britain in the early thirties. Unemployment continued to rise through the winter of 1931-2, reaching a peak in the third quarter of 1932 when there were almost three million out of work throughout Great Britain. From that point onwards, as the map below shows, the divergence between depressed and prosperous Britain widened in terms both of levels of unemployment and the overall standard of living, due to the cuts in unemployment benefit and the introduction of the means test.



Source: Ministry of Labour



The politics of the post-1945 era were fought out on the record of the pre-war years. As late as 1951 the Labour Party campaigned with election slogan ‘Ask your Dad!’, an illustration of the way in which the emotive image of the ‘hungry thirties’ had become part of the repertoire of political cliché. Perhaps the slogan, ‘Ask your Mam!’ would have evoked a different response, as for most women the thirties were a release from domestic drudgery and an opportunity to do useful work outside the home. Nevertheless, the popular view of the decade as a period of unrelieved failure was undoubtedly hardened and reinforced in the years after the war; a view which became sharpened against the background of full employment and affluence of the 1950s and 1960s. Even in the next period of mass unemployment in the 1970s, the ghost of the thirties stalked political platforms and the media as a symbol of economic disaster, social deprivation and political discontent. A concentration on unemployment and social distress does not, however, represent an accurate portrayal of the decade. Beside the pictures of the unemployed and the impoverished, of the dole queues and hunger marches must be placed those of another Britain of new industries, prosperous suburbs and a rising standard of living for most if not all.



Any of the objects in the photograph above, nearly all incompatible in style, could have been found together in any smart middle-class home of the thirties, exercising the primary function of making the owner feel up to date. Some of the forms claim to be austere, but the general effect is both cluttered and cosy. During the whole inter-war period, interior decoration and furnishings, like all the other arts, were in furious reaction against the Victorian belief in ‘Nature’. Man’s function in the universe was seen as intellectual. His job was analysis, not nature worship. None of nature’s curves was acceptable anymore, only segments of circles. In the twenties only those who were rich, leisured and intellectual enough cared about such fashions, but by the mid-thirties the idea of ‘modern’ and ‘bringing the house up to date’ had percolated down to the lower middle classes. The result was a softening of the austere ideal. A chair might be for sitting on, but when you weren’t sitting on it, you had to look at it. As women’s curves returned, it began to be appreciated in the decorators’ trade that Man, as well as being a machine for living, also had dreams, mostly of a sensual kind. It was the era of the suburban tennis club and John Betjeman’s adored Pam, you great big mountainous sports girl. If your quite small income was reasonably secure, you could enjoy a very happy, active, highly organised and, of course, rather snobbish social life in the outer suburbs in the thirties, with Who’s for tennis? as your watchword in the daytime and Shall we dance? in the evenings, with big bands flooding through the wireless, all glamorous under new electric lighting bouncing off walls and ‘limed’ oak furniture.



Among ordinary people plastics had begun their career in the form of Bakelite, which in the early days was remarkably ugly, cast either in that chocolate-brown which rendered schools, prisons and other institutions so depressing at the time, or mottled like the cover of a penny notebook. Light fittings, switches and wireless sets were mostly in Bakelite. The wireless set was the centrepiece in most homes, with its great red-hot valves like an electric fire. Thirties furniture, angular and ugly, was meant to have a ‘structural look’. Everything from teapots to cigarette cases was cubical if possible, symbolising the discarding of sentiment and other non-essentials.

In the thirties, then, if you had a job, and particularly if you had one in the new light industries, you were not badly off, and your parents’ way of life could be dismally restricted and archaic. It was only the old-fashioned heavy basic industries, such as King Coal, which were now all but derelict: in the new industries based on electricity or petrol instead of steam, and consumer goods instead of iron and steel, there was a genuine and rising prosperity. Plastics appeared in the thirties, and man-made fabrics, beginning with artificial silk, were going well by the end of the decade. There was a great increase in the employment of women in the new electric and electronic factories, where equally new nimble-fingered techniques proved beyond the scope of the old-fashioned muscular worker, however skilled. Domestic servants, ‘the maids’, whose reluctance to come forward for employment had provoked so much indignation in letters to the middle-class press in the twenties, were now becoming even more difficult to get. They now demanded real pay, a day off in the week and tolerable rooms to live in. There was also a boom in the new ‘labour-saving’ appliances, which meant a reduction in the demand for servants and shortened the hours needed by women for domestic labour.



Mass production was not confined to the emerging motor industry, and the fashion business, in particular, had adopted American methods in producing for the popular market. Though competition was fierce, clothing was an expanding home market. Montague Burton, the Tailor of Taste in every High Street could fit men out with a good suit for fifty shillings. The numbers employed in tailoring increased by a hundred percent between 1921 and 1938 to a record fifty thousand. The National Union of  Tailor and Garment Workers recruited heavily during the late thirties and despite opposition from some companies made substantial progress in the organisation of major manufacturers. The ‘Ideal Clothiers’, where the picture below was taken at their Elsden Road factory in Wellingborough, Northants, in 1937, was one of the big producers that accepted the complete unionisation of their staff. Employing more than two thousand workers at eight factories, engaged in the manufacture of men’s, ladies’ and children’s tailored outerwear, all employees were members of the NUTGW. Conditions of employment contrasted sharply with the familiar sweatshops of the tailoring trade and a progressive management offered the rare security of a non-contributory pension fund.



It was in the thirties that the British middle-class scene turned visibly modern. The huge iron kitchen range had owned a red-faced cook or ‘cook-general’, often an apt title for a tyrant of the kitchen. When she failed to appear in her place of duty to be roasted alive at the range until she was properly scarlet, preferring to work in a factory, the range had to go, to be replaced by a gas or electric cooker. In turn, this relieved the maids of the desperate weekly chore of black-leading the monster and since, during the decade, hundreds of thousands of people were employed as door-to-door salesmen demonstrating vacuum cleaners, and stainless steel knives came into use, along with electric fires which eliminated most of the coal-heaving, a kitchen full of girls became more and more of a luxury. Only the copper and the great iron mangle stayed on for years to prolong the penal servitude of the past.

Americans, it was well-known, had washing machines, but only a few of the eccentric and under-bred ‘new rich’ were hardy enough to transplant them to into British society. For many years after the refrigerator had become standard domestic equipment in the USA, a cold slate slab in the north-east corner of the house where the larder with its gauze window still had its place was the Britons’ main line of defence against food poisoning. Every one of the labour-saving domestic appliances had to be begged, prayed and fought for by women against a strong male rearguard action, which resented each one of them as it arrived as a part of a process called Americanisation, which aimed at destroying good old high-bred British stoicism and the cold bath ethic, and would lead us all into decadence and ruin. As one small concession to modernity, the earliest pieces of electric equipment to be found in the British home was the hair-dryer. Women themselves sometimes shared men’s resistance or ambivalence to modernity, particularly to changes in the ways of bringing up children. F. W. Hirst’s Oxford graduate interviewee commented:

The post-war generation suffers from a sort of inward instability, a lack of character, due, probably, to the somewhat hysterical atmosphere of their childhood. There seems nowadays to be no desire to provide for the future or look beyond tomorrow. The war shattered that sense of security which brooded over Victorian homes, and made men buy estates and lay down cellars against their old age and for the benefit of their sons… Before the war children (in better class families at least) were kept apart from elders, had their own good plain food in the nursery and found their own simple amusements. Now they mix more with their elders, sit down to table with them, play the same games, and expect and get much more attention and amusement… But it is a great reflection on the common sense of parents of today that the indulgence and lack of discipline which were pardonable in wartime should be allowed to remain, and the fact that for four years Age had to stand aside and admire the feats of Youth is a poor defence for the absence of respect from the younger generation to the older in 1933. 

The new industries also produced a new style of worker and greatly augmented the middle class at its lower-paid end; it was these people, together with the old middle class of independent shopkeepers, tradesmen and small businessmen, with the professional upper middle class, the new financial and managerial upper class and the remnants of the land-owning democracy, who could have been expected to vote solidly for the National Government. In the event, they were joined by at least half of the old working class who were in dire straits, in what was a clear vote for tradition and stability at a time of crisis, both in 1931 and 1935.

With the upper classes more or less relegated to their crumbling estates in most areas of the country, it was the middle classes who took over the administration of English example and precept. In their hands, gentility became a furious competition and strange arbitrary rules grew up about clothes and fashion. Both men and women took an active role in this competition. Women’s judgements on the appearances of human beings had more of a biological than a social bias, and they were undergoing a profound transformation. The contemporary journalist René Cutforth observed that…

The old Twenties air of raffish individuality allied with a cool, if gin-soaked alienation was on the way out, along with the slate-pencil silhouette, the cloche hat, the cropped hair and the long cigarette holder. Breasts, hips and bottoms made a sudden and welcome comeback to the rapturous applause of their old fans, and this coincided with the introduction of the permanent wave. Overnight, it seemed, there was scarcely straight-haired woman with any pretensions to fashion to be seen throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom; dresses became longer as curves came in again and clothes were suddenly very soft and pretty, even fussy, and crepe de chine was the fashionable material. These were middle-class fashions. The upper class bought its clothes in Paris or Saville Row. The working-class had not enough money to affect fashion at all.


Later in the decade, women’s fashions produced a round hat in black felt, of exactly the cut and shape of a parish priest’s. This was the ‘Puritan’ hat and originally indicated that its wearer was a bigoted fanatic dedicated to sex in its purest and most clinical form, unadulterated by any other kind of feeling whatever, a high priestess of the erotic, according to René Cutforth. There was no doubt in his mind that the British of that time were more inhibited sexually than most other Europeans, but he was also convinced that the followers of Freud, enthusiasts in stripping sex of its romantic trappings and of any feeling other than physical excitement, produced as many casualties as cures.  The sexual missionaries claimed D. H. Lawrence as their ally but by the time he had died in 1930, he had already detested and disowned them. Women in Love had shown that he was on the side of intuition against intellect, of feelings against concepts, of the sense of touch against the kingdom of the eye, of feminine sensibilities against masculine lust. Instinct, in his view, had been bossed around by the mind for far too long: it was time it staged a comeback. It did, in the thirties, as his influence continued to grow.

Another infection of mass conditioning which also crossed the channel, but whose virus bred much milder mutations in the British atmosphere was the Wandervogel, very much in vogue in the twenties in Germany.



The Women’s League of Health and Beauty, led by Prunella Stack, was another manifestation of this continental vogue for mass parades. Women in every town and village in the land disported themselves of physical training, rolling about on the floors of gymnasiums, drill halls and village institutes, clad in a uniform of shorts and white satin blouses. ‘Hiking’ also began in the early thirties. ‘Going for walks’ in the countryside had been a British pastime for centuries. In the thirties, the countryside was much more attractive than it was after the second world war for two main reasons. Firstly, agricultural labourers, unable to live on their wages during the Depression, had moved in large numbers to the towns, so fields were ill-tended and wild plants grew everywhere. Secondly, chemical insecticides had not yet arrived to achieve the dull uniformity of efficient farming which became ubiquitous in later decades of the twentieth century.



Walking, therefore, became a mass pursuit, with a uniform of shorts and open shirts. Carrying a knapsack or a rucksack on their backs, the hikers, the majority of them women in groups of five or six as shown in the picture above, ‘invaded’ the countryside in vast numbers. Special trains were laid on from the big cities to take them out into the wilder spots. The body, which had simply meant sex in the twenties, now came to mean health and hygiene. Sunbathing and nudism were also pursuits which, for some reason, had to be done in groups. These were derived from nature therapies devised by the Germans to help children who suffered from malnutrition in the days of the Allied blockade.



The figures for car ownership also indicated rapid social change towards a more democratic society. The roads to the seaside were jammed with family cars and swimming pools were crowded. Thousands of people had tasted the delights of flying in Alan Cobham’s Air Circuses, and in the thirties flying was still glamorous. Amy Johnson was the ‘Truly British Girl’, brought up in Hull where her father owned a fish business, and flying for her was an escape from the humdrum into the high altitude where popular heroes lived. She was a solicitor’s typist but had made herself a fully qualified pilot and mechanic, a rare combination. She wrote to Sir Sefton Branker, the Civil Aviation Chief, about her ambition and Sir Sefton found sponsors for her. Amy bought an old green Gipsy Moth, called it Jason, rebuilt it with her own hands and flew single-handed to Australia in 1930. She became an instant success, ‘our’ Amy as much as Gracie Fields, the Lancashire mill-girl singer, was ‘our Gracie’. That was not because of any warm proletarian solidarity on Amy’s part, but merely the result of her Yorkshire accent. She filled the role of popular heroine and played the part of wonder-woman for years. She married Jim Mollison (pictured bottom), another record-breaking flyer and they became the first husband and wife to fly the Atlantic, but Mollison was something of a playboy and never really as good a flyer as Amy. Her serial came to an end when she crashed, unpublicised, during the war while flying a transport plane. She was, perhaps, the first modern British heroine. Heroes and heroines were much sought after in the thirties, particularly in sport. Thousands crammed into Wimbledon to watch British players Bunny Austin and Betty Nuthall (below) fight bravely and long against the great Americans.



                                                                                                                                                                    (to be continued… )                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       


‘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.


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.


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?:


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.”


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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