Archive for the ‘West Midlands’ Tag

Borderlines: Remembering Sojourns in Ireland.   Leave a comment

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Edited by Sam Burnside, published by Holiday Projects West, Londonderry, 1988.

The recent ‘Brexit’ negotiations over the issue of the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have made me think about my two visits to the island as an adult, in 1988 and 1990, a decade before the Belfast talks led to the ‘Good Friday Agreement’. I had been to Dublin with my family in the early sixties, but recalled little of that experience, except that it must have been before 1966, as we climbed Nelson’s Column in the city centre before the IRA blew it up to ‘commemorate’ the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. I had never visited Northern Ireland, however.

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Nelson’s Column in the centre of Dublin in 1961.

A Journey to Derry & Corrymeela, June 1988:

In June 1988, while working for the Quakers in Selly Oak, Birmingham, I drove a group of students from Westhill College to Corrymeela, a retreat and reconciliation centre in the North. We drove to Belfast, being stopped by army blockades and visiting the Shankill and the Falls Road, witnessing the murals and the coloured curb-stones. Political violence in Belfast had largely been confined to the confrontation lines where working-class unionist districts, such as the Shankill, and working-class nationalist areas, such as the Falls, Ardoyne and New Lodge, border directly on one another (see the map below). We also visited Derry/ Londonderry, with its wall proclaiming ‘You are now entering Free Derry’, and with its garrisons protected by barbed wire and soldiers on patrol with automatic rifles. Then we crossed the western border into Donegal, gazing upon its green fields and small hills.

My Birmingham colleague, a Presbyterian minister and the son of a ‘B Special’ police officer, was from a small village on the shores of Lough Neagh north of Belfast. So while he visited his family home there, I was deputed to drive the students around, guided by Jerry Tyrrell from the Ulster Quaker Peace Education Project. He described himself as a ‘full-time Peace worker’ and a ‘part-time navigator’. I had already met him in Birmingham, where I was also running a Peace Education Project for the Quakers in the West Midlands. He was born in London but had come to live in Derry in 1972, where he had worked on holiday projects for groups of mixed Catholic and Protestant students. It provided opportunities for them to meet and learn together during organised holidays, work camps and other activities. He had left this in April 1988 to take up a post running a Peace Education Project at Magee College.

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Magee College, Londonderry.

Jerry gave me a copy of a slim volume entitled Borderlines: A Collection of New Writing from the North West, containing prose and poems by members of the Writers’ Workshop based at Magee College, including some of his own poetry. The Workshop promoted and encouraged new writing in the North-west, and acted as a forum for a large number of local writers. In his preface, Frank McGuinness wrote of how …

… freedom is full of contradictions, arguments, the joy of diversity, the recognition and celebration of differences.

After reading the collection, I agreed with him that the collection contained that diversity and that it stood testimony to the writers’ experiences and histories, their fantasies and dreams. Its contributors came from both sides of the Derry-Donegal border we had driven over, and from both sides of the Foyle, a river of considerable beauty which, in its meandering journey from the Sperrins to the Atlantic, assumes on its path through Derry a socio-political importance in symbolising the differences within the City. However, in his introduction to the collection, Sam Burnside, an award-winning poet born in County Antrim, but living in Derry, wrote of how …

… the borders which give definition to the heart of this collection are not geographical, nor are they overtly social or political; while … embedded in time and place, they are concerned to explore emotional and moral states, and the barriers they articulate are … those internal to the individual, and no less detrimental to freedom for that.

If borders indicate actual lines of demarcation between places and … powers, they suggest also the possibility of those barriers being crossed, of change, of development, from one state to another. And a border, while it is the mark which distinguishes and maintains a division, is also the point at which the essence of real or assumed differences are made to reveal themselves; the point at which they may be forced to examine their own natures, for good or ill.

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A page from an Oxford Bookworms’ Reader for EFL students.

In the short story ‘Blitzed’ by Tessa Johnston, a native of Derry where she worked as a teacher, Kevin has moved, in a fictional future (in 1998), from Derry to Manchester, to escape from the troubles, but the report of a car-bombing by the Provisional IRA in Manchester brings back memories of his encounter with a soldier in Derry as a schoolboy, fifteen years old. On his way from his home in Donegal to the Grammar School in Derry, in the week before Christmas, he had been blinded by the snow so that he didn’t see the soldier on patrol until he collided with him:

Over the years Kevin had grown accustomed to being stopped regularly on his way to and from school; to being stopped, questioned and searched, but never until that day had he experienced real hostility, been aware of such hatred. Spread-eagled against the wall he had been viciously and thoroughly searched. His school-bag had been ripped from his back and its contents strewn on the pavement; then, triumphantly, the soldier held aloft his bible, taunting him:

“So, you’re a Christian, are you? You believe in all that rubbish? You wanna convert me? Wanna convert the heathen, Fenian scum? No?”

On and on he ranted and raved until Kevin wondered how much more of this treatment he could endure. Finally, his anger exhausted, he tossed the offending book into the gutter and in a last act of vandalism stamped heavily upon it with his sturdy Army boots, before turning up Bishop Street to continue his patrol.

With trembling hands Kevin began to gather up his scattered possessions. Then, like one sleep-walking, he continued his journey down Bishop Street. He had only gone a few steps when a shot rang out. Instinctively, he threw himself to the ground. Two more shots followed in quick succession, and then silence.

He struggled to his feet and there, not fifty yards away his tormentor lay spread-eagled in the snow. Rooted to the spot, Kevin viewed the soldier dis passionately. A child’s toy, he thought, that’s what he looks like. Motionless and quiet;

a broken toy …

Then the realisation dawned as he watched the ever-increasing pool of blood stain the new snow.”

What haunted Kevin from that day, however, was not so much this picture of the dead soldier, but the sense that he himself had crossed an internal border. He had been glad when the soldier was shot and died; he had been unable to come to terms with the knowledge that he could feel like that. He had been unable to forgive not just the young soldier, but – perhaps worse – himself. The shadow of that day would never leave him, even after his family moved to Manchester. This had worked for a while, he’d married and had a child, and he had coped. But in the instant of the TV news report all that had been wiped out. The ‘troubles’ had found him again. They knew no borders.

Fortunately, this was a piece of fiction. Though there were thousands of deaths in Northern Ireland like that of the soldier throughout the troubles and bombings even after the PIRA cease-fire by the ‘Real IRA’, there was no renewal of the bombing campaigns on the mainland of Britain. But it could easily have been a real future for someone had it not been for the Good Friday Agreement.

An Easter ‘Pilgrimage’ to Dublin & Belfast, 1990:

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

Chapter Five: Migrant Women, Work and Marriage in the West Midlands of England.

In BirminghamCoventry, and other areas of the West Midlands, where juveniles or young adults were placed in large-scale industrial concerns, the government Transference Scheme appears to have been more successful throughout the thirties. Such employment was better-paid and facilitated the maintenance of some measure of group identity in the work, domestic and leisure experiences of the transferees. The regional dimension to this contrast is highlighted by a 1934 memorandum from the Midland Divisional Controller to the Ministry:

There is really no comparison between the Midlands Division and say, London, because all the London vacancies are hotel and domestic posts.

Those local Juvenile Employment Committees who considered the transference work a priority ensured that the juveniles were met at the station and escorted to their lodgings. They might also ensure that social contacts were made and that parents were kept informed of the progress of their son or daughter. The officers of the Birmingham Juvenile Employment Bureau were involved with the Merthyr Bureau in each stage of the transference process. They visited Merthyr to interview the juveniles and to explain to their parents the various types of vacancies available. In 1937, this resulted in sixteen boys and seven girls being transferred. The link between the local officials led to a firm of electrical engineers employing an entire family from Merthyr. They were given a bungalow from which the mother looked after a number of the apprentices. Much of this work was undertaken under the auspices of the special After Care Committee of the JEC, and the effectiveness of their work was recorded by A J Lush, in his report for the South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service:

A large number from South Wales have secured employment in the area of South Birmingham. It is gratifying to note that from the employers, comparitively few complaints have been received. With regard to the boys themselves, the general difficulty experienced is that having been in Birmingham for a month or two, they wish to experiment by changing their lodgings and also their jobs, just to see what other kinds of work and other parts of Birmingham are like…

The lack of after-care provision in smaller ‘Black Country’ townships such as Cradley Heath and Halesowen was reported as being the cause of much concern to Ministry officials. On the other hand, juvenile transference to Coventry and Rugby was said to be of fairly considerable dimensions. The relative success of the Scheme to these centres was due in no small part to the ability of local officials to change attitudes among local employers. At the beginning of 1928, the Coventry District Engineering Employers’ Association was ‘unanimous’ in its opinion that it was very dangerous proceeding to bring large numbers of boys and girls into any area without parental control. By 1937, the employers’ attitudes had changed to the extent that they were willing to consider the provision of a hostel, as in Birmingham, and to guarantee continuous employment for the juveniles over a period of twelve months.

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In Coventry, Welsh immigrants were not as concentrated in either domestic or industrial terms as they were in Cowley. In 1937, the Juvenile Employment Committee recognised that the wide dissemination throughout the city of those requiring supervision was a major cause for concern. Oral evidence reveals that it was also a cause of anxiety and homesickness among many of the immigrants. However, although it was more difficult to recreate a sense of neighbourhood, it would be wrong to assume that the majority of immigrants felt scattered and isolated. In the first place, there were pockets of Welsh immigrants in Longford, Holbrooks and Wyken. The Hen Lane estate, in particular, was said to have a large concentration of Welsh workers. Secondly, there is evidence that familial and fraternal relationships were just as significant as in Cowley. Labour was engaged in a similar way, usually at the factory gates, except that Coventry firms actively recruited in the depressed areas by means of advertisements and ‘scouts’. This encouraged still further the tendency towards networked migration, and many men in well-paid jobs found definite openings for friends and relatives. Some, like Haydn Roberts, were ‘second stage’ migrants, attracted to Coventry from metropolitan London by the better pay and more secure terms of employment on offer. The prospect of a more settled, married life in Coventry was a huge incentive:

I met my fist wife, she was a girl from Nantymoel. She was a maid in Northwood College for girls… I went to Nantymoel and met Bill Narberth and the bands… He came to Coventry in 1934 to play for Vauxhall Crossroads Band… He got a job in Alfred Herbert’s in the hardening shop. He came up for the Band… they wanted cornet players in the Vauxhall and he applied and got the job… and quite a few others… I met Bill and he was talking about the money he earned… So I threw up my job and got a single ticket, came up by train… There were quite a few Welsh people around that area in Longford and Holbrooks because the factories were there… Herberts, the Gasworks, Morris Bodies and Morris Engines.

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The importance of these kinship and friendship networks can be traced through the electoral registers and civic directories of the period, as well as from The Roll of the Fallen: A Record of Citizens of Coventry who fell in the Second World War, 1939-45 (published in 1945, including the birthplaces of those killed in action, 1939-45/ by enemy action, i.e. bombing of the City in 1940-41) and the Queens Road Baptist Church Roll. From these, it is possible to reconstruct eighty-six ‘Welsh households’ in Coventry, forty-eight of which showed clear signs of sub-letting, in many cases to obvious adult relatives or friends of Welsh origin. Jehu Shepherd married and bought a house in 1939, but he was one of the earliest Rhondda immigrants to Coventry, who remained a powerful influence on Coventry Welsh life throughout the period and well beyond. He was one of a family of nine, all of whom left Wales. He left the Rhondda just before the General Strike and was found a job at the Morris Works by his brother-in-law, going to live in his sister’s house. He then found a job at the same factory for his brother Fred, who brought his wife Gwenllian with him, and they were followed by Haydn who got a job at Courtaulds. Another sister, Elizabeth and her husband moved to Coventry in 1927. The family in general, and Jehu, in particular, appear to have given early cohesion to the Welsh community in Coventry, especially through the formation of the Coventry Welsh Glee Singers. He met and married Mary, from Ystradgynlais, in Coventry in the late thirties, and they bought a house together in 1939. She was a nurse who later became a senior sister and ward matron in the Gulson Road Hospital and Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital in the post-war NHS.

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Aneurin Bevan, Minister for Health and Housing, meeting NHS nursing staff.

Jehu was also choirmaster at Queens Road Baptist Church from 1926, but in 1937 he decided that he had to give up this duty in favour of keeping the Gleemen together because most of them didn’t go to church, some of them liked a drink… and he felt he must keep them together. In February 1929, the Society and the Gleemen had combined to give a performance in aid of the Lord Mayor of Coventry’s Fund for the Distressed Areas. The Midland Daily Telegraph praised the careful training given by Mr Shepherd to his singers during their weekly rehearsals. The exiles’ empathy with those they had left behind in the valleys was portrayed to full effect when Miss Chrissie Thomas played God Bless the Prince of Wales on her mandolin, in reference to the Prince’s recent visit to the distressed areas. 

There can be little doubt that, as with the Glee Singers, the majority of the Welsh immigrants to Coventry did not attend church regularly, and that the working men’s clubs in Holbrooks and Wyken were more important centres of Welsh life than were Queens Road Baptist Church or West Orchard Congregational Church. Nonetheless, these churches attracted larger numbers of them than their counterparts in London. The attractiveness of these chapels was due, in no small part, to their inspirational Welsh Ministers, Howard Ingli James and Ivor Reece, respectively. From his induction in 1931, Ingli James provided strong leadership for those among the Welsh who were chapel-goers. When Mary Nicholas and Martha Jones, sisters from Tonypandy, first started attending Queens Road on arrival in Coventry in 1932, they found that there were a great many Welsh already in the congregation. In his sermons, Ingli James affirmed to a wide audience, the society and culture from which they had come, as Mary Shepherd, recalled:

I always remember once when he talked about the miners he said, “I had a load of coal and paid for it the other day – did I say ‘paid for it’ ? No, never, when I think what those poor men had to go through to get that coal for me to enjoy – and then I say, ‘I paid for it’ – no money would pay for what they did!” I can see him now in that pulpit.     

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The Nuffield Survey’s war-time report on Coventry and East Warwickshire found that the City’s sixty thousand houses and shops were a goodly number for the population as it stood at the outbreak of war and that, although large houses were few, the great majority of houses provided accommodation superior to the average for the whole country. Mary Nicholas, originally from the Rhondda, described her reaction to the change in accommodation which her move to Coventry involved:

Comparing the house I was living in with the house I came from I thought I was in heaven. I thought of the old house and black leading the grates…

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In Birmingham, the connection with a particular coalfield area again played an important part in establishing a significant immigrant community. A significant proportion of those who settled in South West Birmingham during the period was from the Monmouthshire mining villages of Blaina, Nantyglo and Risca. In particular, there seems to have been a close link between Cadbury’s at Bournville and the authorities and officials in Blaina and Nantyglo; a large number of juvenile transferees, girls and boys, from this area went to Bournville direct from secondary school. The Quaker-founded Company had always operated a strict marriage bar, so there was a constant demand for single women. J. B. Priestley described the type of work done by the young women at the ‘works’ when he visited in the Autumn of 1933:

The manufacture of chocolate is a much more elaborate process (than that of cocoa) … there were miles of it, and thousands of men and girls, very spruce in overalls, looking after the hundred-and-one machines that pounded and churned and cooled and weighed and packed the chocolate, that covered the various bits of confectionery with chocolate, that printed labels and wrappers and cut them up and stuck them onand then packed everything into boxes that some other machine had made. The most impressive room I have ever seen in a factory was that in which the cardboard boxes were made and the labels, in that shiny purple or crimson paper, were being printed: there is a kind of gangway running down the length of it, perhaps twenty feet from the floor, and from this you had a most astonishing view of hundreds of white-capped girls seeing that the greedy machines were properly fed with coloured paper and ink and cardboard. In some smaller rooms there was hardly any machinery. In one of them I saw a lot of girls neatly cutting up green and brown cakes of marzipan into pretty little pieces; and they all seemed to be enjoying themselves; though I was told that actually they preferred to do something monotonous with the machines. I know now the life history of an almond whirl. There is a little mechanical device that makes the whirl on the top, as deft as you please. I saw thousands of marsh-mallows hurrying on an endless moving band… to the slow cascade of chocolate that swallowed them for a moment and then turned them out on the other side, to be cooled, as genuine chocolate marsh-mallows…

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There was a girl whose duty it was, for forty-two hours a week, to watch those marsh-mallows hurrying towards their chocolate Niagara. “Wouldn’t that girl be furious,” I sad to the director who was showing me round, “if she found that her Christmas present was a box of chocolate marsh-mallows?” But he was not at all sure. “We consider our staff among our best customers,” he told me. … Such is the passion now for chocolate that though you spend all your days helping to make it, though you smell and breathe it from morning until night, you must munch away like the rest of the world. This says a good deal for the purity of the processes, which seemed to me exemplary…  

By the autumn of 1934, the Monmouthshire migrants were well-enough settled to form an organisation known as the Birmingham Association for the Relief of the Distressed Areas (BARDA), together with immigrants from Durham. Its aims were to help families who already had one or more members settled in Birmingham to remove their homes to the city. It had a membership of about two hundred, whose meetings were held at the Friends’ Meeting House in Cotteridge, just along the Bristol Road from Bournville. Over the period over a hundred individual members of families were reunited in this way, and the families were often related. Fifty-five of this hundred, including mothers not seeking paid work, had members in regular employment by the early months of 1937; twenty-two were still at school and only four of the fathers who had followed their daughters and sons to Birmingham were without full-time, permanent work. Of these four, two were approaching pensionable age, and the other two had temporary or part-time work.

Once a young migrant had become sufficiently established to ask her or his parents to join them and make a home, the Association set to work finding a house for them. Since landlords were averse to accepting unemployed tenants, BARDA’s recommendation of an employed son or daughter as a responsible tenant helped to overcome this problem.In some cases, houses were purchased on a new estate from a fund created for the purpose and in others, help was given in order for families to furnish their new homes adequately. By these means, BARDA enabled a large number families to become independent, self-supporting and self-confident. Its meetings provided an opportunity for them to come together, deal collectively with individual problems of settlement and family reunification and to discuss the broader issues relating to unemployment, migration and the problems of the distressed areas.

BARDA entered into lengthy correspondence concerning the way in which the means test regulations presented a major obstacle to the reunification of families in Birmingham. Parents were already faced with the prospect additional household expenditure in the provision of equipment for the reunited family, in the replacement of clothing and in the higher costs of lighting and heating which obtained in Birmingham. They were therefore understandably reluctant to move unless they could be sure that the unemployment allowances would not be decreased before they had had a reasonable period to look for work and establish the household. BARDA had written to various officials, setting out specific cases which showed the obstructiveness of the regulations to their work:

The kind of case we have specially in mind is of a family where two youths over school age have been successful in obtaining employment in Birmingham  – one in a regular position and the other in more temporary employment. The father is about forty-two years and has a wife and two children of school age. Presumably, whilst living in a distressed area the parents with their two children obtain full public assistance but if they transfer to live with their two sons,… they would receive no public assistance as the wages of the two sons would be viewed as sufficient for the household. There would be the added risk that the one son in temporary employment might become unemployed so that the parents and four children would be dependent upon the earnings of one youth. The alternative appears to be for the family to continue to receive public assistance until they qualify for old age pension, in which case the two children, now of school age, might also become a charge on the public assistance. Whereas if the whole family removed to this area there might be a prospect of the whole family obtaining employment. 

This case illustrates graphically the disjunction which existed between unemployment policy and voluntary migration and why so many migrants chose to have nothing to do with the transference schemes of the Ministry of Labour. To solve this most peculiar paradox in policy, BARDA advocated that no deductions should be made from parental unemployment allowances for a minimum of six months. Nevertheless, its advocacy was of no avail. Although, as an example of autonomous organisation of migration, BARDA was successful in attracting interest in government and the national press, its practical influence was limited to South West Birmingham and did not extend to the nearby town of Smethwick, where Rhondda people had been able to find homes in close proximity to each other and were working in the Tangyies Munitions Factory by 1936-37. Instead, they made good use of the local chapels and, as in Oxford and Coventry, formed a male voice choir. However, the Welsh causes which existed in the centre of Birmingham, like those in London, had been founded in the early and mid-nineteenth century, their congregations mainly made up of professional, Welsh-speaking people from rural Wales, the language of worship also being Welsh. The mostly English-speaking immigrants from Monmouthshire who were able to afford the bus fare into the city centre soon found that they had little in common with their Welsh-speaking country cousins. The new exiles took little interest in the activities of the two Welsh societies, Y Brythoniad and Y Cymrodorion.

Haydn Roberts, who had moved from London to Coventry in the mid-thirties, and became foreman at the GEC, recalled how trade unionism spread to the factory from the Standard Works when the latter sacked a lot of trade union members. He remembered a Welsh shop steward in the Model Room who had been at the Standard Works and was a bit militant because Sir John Black had kowtowed to them. Again, although Roberts acknowledged the importance of strong trade union traditions to the mining community he had left as a teenager, he had seen no need for those traditions in the new industrial context in which he found himself. He had not been a miner or a member of the SWMF himself, but had followed his father’s sense of grievance against the mine owners, and saw no relevance in applying these grievances to his new industrial context. Moreover, the jobs and processes involved at the GEC were far more diverse than at the Standard Works, and Roberts was responsible for the supervision of ‘girls’ or ladies who had just got married but continued to work on a part-time track. Although women workers elsewhere in Coventry had been instrumental in resisting the introduction of the Bedaux System, involving the speeding-up of production lines, according to Roberts the GEC women were uninterested in trade unionism. Some of these women were Welsh in origin, and all of them shared Roberts’ perception of their new environment. However, as noted in chapter three, there were some ‘wildcat’ or spontaneous strikes involving women in the late thirties, but these occurred on the full-time track involving younger, single women.

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When J. B. Priestley visited the city in 1933, there were still plenty of unemployed there, about twelve thousand he was told. The graph above shows this estimate to be quite accurate for the time of year (autumn) of his visit. By then, the city had got well past the worst period of the depression in 1931-32, when unemployment had risen to over twenty percent. Factories that were working on short time in that period, were back on double shifts in 1933. He saw their lights and heard the deep roar of their machinery, late that night of his sojourn.

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In Coventry, the factors which led to Labour gaining control of the City Council in the 1937 municipal elections were more complex than in either Oxford or Birmingham. They included a general shift away from shop-floor ‘syndicalism’ towards a more rounded concept of municipal socialism. Unlike in the Chamberlains’ Birmingham, the ruling Liberal-Conservative Progressive Coalition in Coventry had failed to respond to the demands of a spiralling population through proper planning and provision of social services. The Labour ‘take-over’ was also greatly facilitated by the mushroom growth of a large individual membership section in the local Party which enabled many managerial, professional and clerical workers to play an increasingly important role alongside shop stewards and trade union officials. This growth was carefully nurtured by a number of key local politicians, shaping the Party into an organisation which was capable of winning elections and of running the City successfully. In addition, the radical Liberalism of many chapel-goers in the City became detached from its more Gladstonian leadership, much of it being transferred into support for the Labour Party.

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This ideological shift was reinforced by the Christian Socialism advocated by leading Unitarian, Methodist and Baptist preachers, some of whom defied deacons and elders to speak on Labour platforms. This ‘social gospel’ influence was fuelled by the influx of workers from the depressed areas in general, and South Wales in particular, where it was still comparatively strong among those who had continued to attend the Nonconformist chapels, as an alternative to the outright Marxism of many in the SWMF. The Progressive candidates, Tories and Liberals, often made the mistake of disparaging this shift by playing upon the fears and prejudices of ‘old Coventrian’ electors. They suggested that Labour’s 1937 victory resulted from the coming of so many of the Labour Party’s supporters to Coventry, whom they referred to as the sweepings of Great Britain. The local Labour leader, George Hodgkinson, however, considered that the low turn-out in 1938 was

… an index that the municipal conscience was by no means fully developed, probably through the fact that many newcomers had not got their roots in Coventry and so had not formed political allegiances. 

Clearly, whilst the immigrants may have been predominantly socialist in outlook, this did not mean that this general allegiance was automatically and immediately translated into a particular interest in local politics. Even by 1937-38, many migrants did not regard their situations in Coventry as anything more than temporary, especially with the economic recovery of South Wales underway, and therefore did not see themselves as having the right and/or duty to vote as citizens of Coventry. Comparisons of oral evidence with the electoral registers reveal that many were not registered to vote for as long as five years after their arrival in Coventry. In many cases, this was due to the temporary nature of their lodgings, which resulted in multiple sub-lettings and transient residence among the migrants. They were far more scattered around the city than their counterparts in Cowley and were therefore not as settled by the late 1930s. Thus, the argument advanced by The Midland Daily Telegraph and other Conservative agencies within the City in November 1937 that the large influx of labour from socialist areas was responsible for Labour’s victory reflected their belief in the myth of the old Coventrian at least as much as it did the reality of the situation.

There were a number of Welsh workers, some of them women, who came to the City in the late 1930s and who began to play a significant role in local politics following the war. William Parfitt started work in the mines at Tylorstown in the Rhondda at the age of fourteen, becoming Secretary of his Lodge at the age of twenty-one. In December 1926, he appeared in Court with a number of others, charged with riotous assembly at Tylorstown for leading a crowd who attacked a crane being used to transfer coal from a dump to be sent to Tonyrefail. When Sergeant Evans spoke to Parfitt, he replied we are driven to it, we cannot help ourselves. He later became an organiser for the National Council of Labour Colleges, enduring periods of unemployment before leaving the Rhondda. William Parfitt arrived in Coventry in 1937 and began work as a milling machinist in the Daimler factory. After the war, he became Industrial Relations Officer for the National Coal Board. He was elected to the City Council in 1945 and twenty years later became Lord Mayor of Coventry.

Harry Richards was also born in the Rhondda, at Tonypandy, in 1922. On moving to Coventry in 1939, he became an apprentice draughtsman at Armstrong Siddeley Motors and a design draughtsman at Morris Motors. He then became a schoolteacher after the war and was elected to the City Council in 1954. Like Parfitt, he went on to become Lord Mayor in 1979-80. No doubt Parfitt, Richards and other immigrants who became involved in post-war politics, shared the motivation for their involvement which arose out of the determination of both leaders and led to attain better living conditions than those which most of the immigrants from the coalfields had been forced to endure for much of the inter-war period. Similarly, Councillor Elsie Jones,   made the following poetic contribution in 1958, celebrating twenty-one years of Labour rule in the City, in which she both echoed and transposed some of the themes she drew from Llewellyn’s 1939 book and the subsequent popular war-time film:

Born and reared in a mining area I realised the need for reforms very early in life –

Because I loved light and sunshine I knew men and young boys who, during winter, seldom saw either –

Because I loved peace and a tranquil home, and I saw peaceful men become violent at the spectacle of their semi-starved families –

Because I loved music and culture, and the arts, and I knew boys and girls with wonderful natural gifts who would never get a chance to express them –

Because I loved freedom and independence, and saw proud men grovelling for the ‘privilege’ of working for a week for a week road-mending.

How green and beautiful was my valley.

How black the despair in the hearts of its people.

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It is significant that when the post-1945 Labour Government’s housing policy came under attack in 1947, Aneurin Bevan chose to go to Coventry to defend it. It would seem that his choice may not have been entirely coincidental, as when he issued a challenge to Anthony Eden to debate the issue, he was given…

…a great reception from the people of Coventry, in particular from members of the Welsh community, many of whom knew him in their native valleys. 

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The Cheylesmore Estate in Coventry, newly built after the war.

The growth of municipal socialism in the City from 1937 onwards can clearly be seen as a practical expression of that impetus to reform, progress and planning which Bevan himself epitomised. Another Welsh ‘Dick Whittington’, this time in Birmingham, was William Tegfryn Bowen, who worked as a miner in the Rhondda between 1916 and 1926 before leaving for Birmingham in 1927.  He studied economics, social services and philosophy at Fircroft College in Selly Oak before going to work at the Austin Motor Company’s works further down the Bristol Road in 1928. There he led a strike against the introduction of the Bedaux system in defiance of more senior union officials. Following this, he endured several periods of unemployment and odd-jobbing until the war, when he became a City Councillor in 1941, and an Alderman in 1945. Between 1946 and 1949 he was both Chairman of the Council Labour group and Chairman of the Health Committee. This latter position led to his appointment as a member of the Executive Council of the NHS and also as a member of the Regional Hospital Board. Effectively, he was Bevan’s architect of the NHS in Birmingham, a city which, under the Chamberlain ‘dynasty’, had been first a Liberal Unionist and then a Tory stronghold for many decades since mid-Victorian times. On becoming Lord Mayor in 1952, Bowen was asked to account for Labour’s currently and apparently secure hold on the City. He referred to the large influx of workers from other areas, with a different political outlook.

In Coventry, from 1929 onwards, it was musical engagements which enabled Philip Handley, the City’s Employment Officer, to champion the immigrant cause, often in the teeth of criticism from other civic leaders, trade unionists and employers, and to attempt to construct a far more positive narrative and vision of a progressive, cosmopolitan city:

The Welshman’s love of music and art, the Irishman’s physical vigour and courage, the Scotsman’s canny thoroughness, the tough fibre of the Northumbrian, the enterprise of the Lancastrian – Yes, the Coventrian of twenty-five years hence should be a better man in body and possibly in brain… 

Of course, Handley meant ‘man’ in the generic sense, and the contribution of these ‘new Coventrians’ of both genders in terms of ‘brain’ cannot be underestimated or marginalised, certainly not in the second and third generations. Through the better system of secondary education which existed at that time in Wales and the high standard of adult education in the coalfield communities, the new industry towns acquired significant numbers of youngsters whose talents lay in their heads as well as their hands. In their new environment, there were a number of ways in which these talents could be expressed. As was also the case in Cowley, Welsh families had a more positive attitude towards education, so that local schools, both elementary and secondary, suddenly found themselves with some very able and highly motivated pupils, a theme which was revisited by local politicians after the war.

There is some evidence to suggest that in Coventry the impact of these immigrant children was quite dramatic, both in terms of quantity and quality. In 1936-37, the number of school children admitted from other districts exceeded those leaving Coventry by more than 1,100. In February 1938 The Midland Daily Telegraph then carried out research for a major report entitled Coventry as the Nation’s School in which it claimed that Coventry’s school problem was being aggravated by the influx of newcomers from the Special Areas. For the previous twelve months, it went on, children had been pouring into the city at a rate of a hundred a month. Most of them went to live on the new housing estates on the city’s outskirts where few schools had been built. Sufficient children were moving into the city every year to fill ‘two good-sized schools’ and although there were enough school places available throughout the city to accommodate the newcomers, the schools were in the wrong places.

Coventry’s schools remained significantly more overcrowded than the national average throughout the decade, and despite the increasing press speculation, no new secondary schools were built, although six new elementary schools were added between 1935 and 1939. Despite this, throughout the period 1925-37, the cost of elementary education per child Coventry schools remained below the average cost in county boroughs in England and Wales. Whilst the school rolls were falling in most English authorities, in Coventry they were rising sharply. It is in this context that the Education Committee’s gradual shift towards the idea of building bipartite comprehensive schools, combining grammar and technical ‘streams’ began in the late 1930s. The idea of academic and technical secondary education working in tandem on the same sites made sense as a solution to cater for the sons and daughters of immigrants who valued secondary education. The emphasis which was placed on education in coalfield societies was a positive dividend of interwar migration to the City’s schools after the war.

There was also a dearth of shopping and general social facilities in Coventry, throwing an increased burden on the central shopping area. Philip Handley, as the Employment Exchange Officer, was clear that the City’s obsession with the elemental question of housing and employment had been to the exclusion of any significant attempt to develop social and cultural amenities, with the result that the new housing areas lacked halls, churches and libraries. Since he was responsible for the reception and after-care of young immigrants, he shared some of the concerns of those in the social service movement who viewed the ‘new areas’ as lacking the ‘right sort’ of social and cultural institutions to receive them. In particular, in his correspondence with Sir William Deedes, he referred to the problems they faced in the ‘settling in’ period, during which the public house and the cinema are more attractive than the strange church which may be, and usually is, some distance away. 

Many who migrated, both men and women, were in a poor physical condition and sometimes unable to stand the strain of their new employment, and others were simply not fit enough to find employment in the first place. Social and healthcare services often simply could not cope with the problems that the influx of men and women on the borderline destitution created. In the year 1935-36, despite an increase in the population of Oxford of two thousand, only one bed was added to the city’s hospitals. In Coventry, the Public Assistance Committee was forced to either make the cases of sick immigrants chargeable to the local authority from which they came or remove them entirely, as was the case with one family from Burry Port. Lack of adequate financial provision for young adults in time of sickness was one of the main causes of their early return to the depressed areas. Those whose migration and settlement were aided by financial support from voluntary agencies stood a greater chance of ‘survival’ in the new area, as in this case:

Case E434. This family came from a distressed area, to seek work, the husband having been out of work for four years. The United Services Fund … made a grant for the removal of the household goods and supplied the railway fares. The man obtained work after a few weeks as a labourer, earning two pounds ten shillings weekly. The eldest daughter, aged seventeen, was found a situation, which proved very satisfactory. The daughter of fourteen , who had been a tubercular subject most of her childhood was in a debilitated state of health, and the CCAS (Coventry City Aid Society) did not think she should take up work until she was quite strong. She was sent to Eastbourne for three weeks, and was placed in a situation on her return. Unfortunately, the husband, a builder’s labourer, contracted rheumatism.  Through the office he was sent to Droitwich for three weeks. He is convalescing at the present time, and we hope will soon be back to work in some occupation more suited to his health.

022

Coventry’s churches and chapels provide ample evidence of religious activity, the diversity of which seems a natural corollary of mass migration from numerous points of origin with attendant religious traditions. All children attended Sunday school, with parental encouragement, either to get them out of the house or to get that religious instruction which even agnostic guardians seem to have regarded as a positive stage in constructing a morality for their children.  For children, it was enjoyable; there were stories, and outings at least once a year. ‘A bun and a ha’penny’ attracted any waverers. Also, it provided companionship on an otherwise quiet day for boisterous young children. But family observance was a minority feature of Sundays in Coventry. Families, generally, did not pray together or say grace. A minority of families attended church or chapel regularly, perhaps sang in the choir, so that for those children Sunday school was only one of a number of religious services they might participate in on a Sunday.

As has been stated already, in Coventry many of the Welsh immigrants were attracted to those churches with Welsh ministers, most notably to the ministry of Howard Ingli James at Queen’s Road Baptist Church and Ivor Reece at West Orchard Street Congregational Church. Since the Welsh population in Coventry was not as geographically concentrated and as stable as in Cowley, it was not as easy for the immigrants to be appointed as deacons. Nevertheless, the impact of immigration upon the congregation and upon the city was a major factor in the development and direction of Ingli James’ ministry, as his 1936 article for The Midland Daily Telegraph reveals:

Coventry is today faced with the difficult task of welding a host of newcomers into a community, in fact of making a city, which is not the same thing as a mere collection of streets, or conglomeration of people…  Almost every week strangers appear in our congregation, often in such numbers that one has difficulty in getting into touch with them. Many are young, and trying their wings for the first time. It is an important part of our work to meet their needs both spiritual and social, to provide them with a place where they may find friends and feel at home.

002

Above: Coventry City centre (Broadgate) in 1939

James wrote in his book Communism and the Christian Faith in 1945, that he had had little contact with either socialists or communists during his time as a minister in Swansea in the twenties and early thirties, but had become ‘radicalised’ through his contact with the young migrants in his congregation and, no doubt, by the municipal socialists he met in the city more widely. Finding friends was often a dilemma faced by the Welsh immigrants to Coventry, as in Cowley. In Coventry, the marked tendency for Welsh women to select their own countrywomen as friends rather than their immediate neighbours was noted in the University of Birmingham’s Survey of the early 1950s. So, too, were the continuing stereotypes of the immigrants used by ‘Coventrians’. In particular, Coventrian women thought of the women from the older industrial areas in their cities as being unemancipated by comparison with themselves. Interestingly, and paradoxically, as well as being labelled as ‘clannish’, ‘all out for themselves and ‘rootless’, they were also said to be ‘thrusting’, trying to get onto committees and councils whereby they could ‘run the town’, showing a lack of respect for the real Coventrians.

The confused and contradictory nature of this stereotyping reveals what Ginzberg described as the classic pattern of a dominant majority irked by a foreign minority in its midst, except that, by the 1950s, it was difficult to tell who the real Coventrians were. However, before the ‘Blitz’ of 1940, Coventry was primarily identified as an engineering city, as testified to by J. B. Priestley following his 1933 sojourn in the city. In his English Journey, he describes walking at night to a hill from which he had a good view of the old constellations remotely and mildly beaming, and the new Morris works, a tower of steel and glass, flashing above the city of gears and crank-shafts. Its high-paid factory work acted as a powerful magnet to migrants from far and wide, who generally found in it a welcoming working-class city without the social hierarchy which existed in Oxford and London and, to a lesser extent, in Birmingham. Although many of the women migrants may not, at first, have gone into the factories, this changed dramatically after 1936, with the growing demands of the shadow factories for labour, and they also made a broader contribution to working-class life and politics throughout the city.

(to be concluded… )

Posted May 3, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Assimilation, Birmingham, Britain, British history, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Coalfields, Commonwealth, Coventry, democracy, Elementary School, Empire, Factories, History, Immigration, Integration, Marriage, marriage 'bar', Marxism, Maternity, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, Mythology, Narrative, Nonconformist Chapels, Oxford, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Respectability, Second World War, Trade Unionism, Transference, Unemployment, Victorian, Wales, Warfare, Women at War, Women's History, World War Two

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Another Brick from the Wall: My (Small) Part in its Downfall, 1987-92   1 comment

Quaker

Quaker (Photo credit: kendoman26)

Another Brick from the Wall: My (Small) Part in its Downfall

by Andrew J Chandler

It’s now twenty-five years since I first ‘set foot’ in Hungary, on 22nd October 1988, as the Organiser for the West Midlands Quaker Peace Education Project. In May 1987, at what turned out to be the beginning of the end of the Cold War, I was concerned about both international conflict and interpersonal conflict, having experienced both verbal and physical abuse against teachers and between pupils, as a teacher in Coventry. The Project, based in the Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham at Woodbrooke, George Cadbury‘s home, was also set up to continue to support teachers with work on controversial issues in the classroom, later characterised as ‘peace versus patriotism’ in a late-night TV programme I was invited to take part in. Since the hottest days of the Cold War, Quakers had answered invitations to visit schools throughout the West Midlands to show the film The War Game and give their views on Disarmament. The Project organised balanced debates between CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament organisers) and advocates of Peace Through NATO.  These used the BBC ‘Question Time’ format, with fifth and sixth-formers ‘firing’ prepared questions at the speakers, who had no time to prepare their answers, however.

The Project also gave scope for considering Human Rights as well as ‘Earthrights’, with a simulation of rainforest destruction with paper cups! We broadened the range of international issues dealt with to include, for example, Hong Kong, eight years before the 1997 handover. This work on global issues led to a  Sixth Form Conference at Woodbrooke with participants from Stafford, Sutton Coldfield and Coventry. Based on a quote from Peter Kropotkin, the Russian scientist, about what learners should demand of teachers, it was entitled ’What kind of world? How do we build it?’ Held over a weekend, it consisted of a series of workshops which were designed to give the students the opportunity to place themselves in the various conflict situations and to think of ways in which they might empower themselves to tackle some of the major issues facing the world at the end of the twentieth century. Various guest speakers, including Jerry Tyrrell, who had been recently appointed as Field Worker to the Ulster Quaker Peace Education Project, presented  ’case studies’ of the conflicts from their countries and regions.

Looking back, Warwickshire Monthly Meeting on the twelfth day of the twelfth month of the last year of the decade marked a significant turning point in the life of the Project in more way than one, held during the collapse of the Ceaucescu régime in Romania, the latter sparked by in Temesvár by the resistance of the Hungarian Reforrmed Church. Reference was made to the pack for upper school pupils, prepared by teachers from the West Midlands and Northern Ireland, ’Conflict and Reconciliation’, the resources for which had been provided by the Project. It aimed to develop an awareness of interpersonal and conflict between cultures at a community, as well as an international level. Although I left in February 1990 to take up an appointment, through Westhill College, with the Hungarian Ministry of Education in Coventry’s twin town of Kecskemét, Hungary, I  returned to complete work on the pack in Belfast in the Spring. This was eventually published  by the Christian Education Movement, by then also based in Selly Oak, and launched at a workshop in Sutton Coldfield in the Summer of 1991.

At the time, the work between Northern Ireland (the only part of the UK where the Government funded Peace Education as part of EMU (Education for Mutual Understanding) and the West Midlands attracted the attention of the Belfast Telegraph and The Times Educational Supplement and I was invited to make a presentation on it to an EU-sponsored Peace Education Conference in Brussels which was published in the journal, Trans-Europe Peace (1988). The CEM’s ’Conflict and Reconciliation’ pack serves as lasting testimony to the work of Q-PEP, as its Preface contains the remark that we were responsible not only for gathering together much of the material for use in the classroom, but also for ’the insistence on pupil-centred activity-based learning’. But the ultimate credit here, as in that of the Preface, goes to teachers like Terry Donaghy, from Belfast, from whom I learnt about the importance of faith-based education in helping pupils to reach out to people of other faiths and traditions. Following the Northern Ireland ‘Peace Accord‘, EMU was ‘transmorphed’ into ‘Education for Reconciliation’, a trans-border initiative which held its last conference recently, in 2012 (see links below).

Hungary: visa and stamps

Hungary: visa and stamps (Photo credit: Sem Paradeiro)

The link between Coventry and Kecskemét went back decades, one of twenty-six twinnings resulting from the Blitz of November 1940.  It had, however, been dormant since the Hungarian troops had been sent to help suppress the Prague Spring of 1968. In the run-up to the 50th Anniversary of the Blitz, the City Council asked to the One World Education Group, which met at the Elm Bank Teachers’ Centre, to produce a pack of materials for use in schools. The Project was asked to help with this. At the same time, members of our Steering Group were keen on the idea of developing school and youth group East-West links, as were Friends elsewhere. In 1987, the Project had already helped co-ordinate the production and staging in Solihull and elsewhere of an exhibition on ’Life in the Soviet Union’, based on an exchange involving Quaker women. In 1988, we had received an invitation to visit the DDR. Tom Leimdorfer, Peace Education Advisor at Friends’ House, himself a Hungarian exile from 1956, and I met teachers from ’behind the iron curtain’ at the second International Teachers for Peace Congress in Bonn in May of that year. Although we knew that ’one swallow does not a summer make’, I wrote in the Q-PEP newsletter shortly afterwards, that ’coming as it did just before the Moscow summit, there was a distinct atmosphere of Glasnost, which meant that the exchanges between the participants were relaxed, open and constructive… the spirit was very much in evidence in the opening session when children from the USA and USSR joined together spontaneously in songs from a peace musical.’  It was also apparent in the openness with which a Soviet representative spoke about the new Soviet Children’s Fund, a baby of Glasnost, through which they were  beginning to deal with child abuse and the problems of the one-third of families in which the parents were divorced. We were also particularly impressed by the frankness of Hungarian delegates who reported how, after establishing exchanges with other countries, parents meetings were held and children were enabled to speak about their experiences of abuse.

Since Éva Horváth, of Hungarian Teachers for Peace, had visited the West Midlands Q-PEP with a delegation the previous year, we looked forward to the 1990 Congress in Budapest, little knowing that she would be inviting the delegates to a very different country. Prior to that, in the Autumn of 1988, a group of us, Quaker teachers, were invited to visit Hungary, as the guests of the state-sponsored, but increasingly independent, Hungarian Peace Council.  On the first full day of our visit, the anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, our guide and hostess became ver excited about two announcements on Kossúth (state-controlled) Radio. The first was that the Uprising would no longer be described, officially, as a ’Counter-Revolution’ and the second was that the Soviet troops would be invited to leave the country.  This came as a dramatic confirmation of the sense we were already getting of a far freer atmosphere than we knew from Friends and teachers existed in other Warsaw Pact countries, including the one we were looking across the Danube at, Czechoslovakia. We visited Kecskemét a few days later and a link was formed with KATE, the English Language teachers association in the town, who needed an invitation to attend the International ELT Conference at the University of Warwick the next year.

So, with the approval of the Project Steering Group and the support of  the City Council and Martin Pounce at the Teachers’ Centre in Coventry, an exchange was established through the One World Education Group, with myself as facilitator (one result of this was that Martin later became the LEA’s International Officer). The twelve KATE teachers were hosted by Coventry and Warwickshire Friends and teachers in the Spring of 1989, and a twelve-strong OWEG group were invited to Kecskemét the following summer, including Frank Scotford, a retired teacher and ’elder statesman’ from Coventry, Gill Kirkham, a music teacher from Kenilworth, John Illingworth, a special needs teacher and bell-ringer from Monks Kirkby, and Gill Brown, a Quaker teacher at the Blue Coat School.  Stefánia Rozinka was one of our hosts who had been unable to take part in the first leg of the exchange due to her university studies in history, just as I had been unable to accept an invitation to visit the DDR the previous year because of mine, and so, academic work over, we became engaged within a week of meeting each other and the rest, as they say, is literally, ’personal’ history! This exchange also had longer-lasting effects in terms of school, teacher and trainee-teacher exchanges, the latter attracting significant funding from the EU.

I believe that the significance of Q-PEP’s work in this area cannot be overstated. At the time, the Project was reported in the local press in Hungary as having the purpose ’to educate for peace, to develop mutual understanding within the scope of a subject which is not compulsory in school in order that the children should have an all-embracing picture of the world’.  In explaining the purpose of the exchange, we tried to emphasise that ’Britain is not too great to learn from Hungary’, the Petö Institutes in Birmingham being just one example, and that Hungary was considered to be a bridge between East and West. Hungary no longer meant just ’goulash, Puskás, and 1956’. We were beginning to learn about Hungarian expertise and aspirations in Science, Mathematics, Music and Art, as well as in society in general (there were even later exchanges of police forces!) In July 1989, just after the barbed wire was first cut in May (Tom Leimdorfer was there, twenty miles south from where he escaped by crawling under it in December 1956), the Lord Mayor of Kecskemét reminded us that whilst it was important that the Iron Curtain should be removed physically, ’it also needs to be removed in people’s hearts and minds…as more and more educational links are forged between ordinary people in the East and the West, so it will become impossible for politicians to keep the existing barriers up, or to build new ones…’ Coventry had long been interested in reconciliation between Western and Eastern Europe – we could now help bring this about by our practical support for the teachers and people of Kecskemét. This public statement, from a then member of the ruling communist party in what was still a ’People’s Republic’, gives a clear indication of the importance of these exchanges and contacts between ’ordinary people’ in the tearing down of the curtain and the fall of the wall, now more than twenty years ago.

Following my three semester secondment to the Hungarian Ministry of Education, and a further year as a teacher-fellow at Westhill College, I was then invited to return to Hungary to co-ordinate a teacher-exchange being set up by Devon County Council with Baranya County Assembly in southern Hungary, in 1992. By that time the coup had failed in the former USSR, and the Cold War was officially over, so longer-term ‘transition’ programmes could take shape, like the wholesale re-training of Russian Language Teachers to teach English as a Foreign Language in Hungary, a process which took a further four years with the support of ‘NESTs’ (Native English-Speaking Teachers) who took the place of their Hungarian colleagues in the classroom while the latter attended university training colleges part-time. My initial period of work in and with Hungary therefore came to an end in 1996, by which time a remarkable transformation had taken place in the education system there, as elsewhere. Fifteen years later, I returned to Hungary in 2011, to take up an appointment as a Consultant in English Language Teaching (CELT) for the Hungarian Reformed Church Schools. I’m now working for the Piarist (Catholic) Schools in Kecskemét in a similar role, as well as at the College of Education in the town.

AJC October 2008

Updated May 2012, October 2013.

‘Persons Unknown’: The Welsh Language Protests in Bangor, 1976-78   5 comments

English: University College of North Wales, Ba...

Leighton Andrews AM, member of the National As...

Leighton Andrews, former AM, member of the National Assembly for Wales. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The former Education Minister in the Welsh Assembly, Leighton Andrews (left), my fellow student-leader from 1975-1980, has recently published a writ which was served on ‘persons unknown’ occupying the Maths Tower of the then University College of North Wales, Bangor, in November 1976. Although I was personally ‘in occupation’ throughout the four or five nights and days from 25th November, this is the first time, on Leighton’s website, that I’ve had the chance to read this document properly, since it was served to the iron fire escape near the top of the tower on a typically blustery day, and was almost immediately blown off as the College authorities, including the Assistant Registrar, descended.

The last I saw of it was with him in hot pursuit, and I had no idea that it had been retrieved until recently, when Leighton produced it for a talk at the National Eisteddfod. Perhaps it was retrieved and reposted, or delivered to the Student Union building nearby, but no-one inside the occupation accepted it by hand, as to do so, we were all briefed, would be to accept its terms and leave us open to identification and prosecution if we didn’t vacate immediately. We were there because the College had already expelled four officers of the Cymric Society named on its membership card. As long as we remained ‘persons unknown’, they advised us, it would be difficult to enforce the writ, except through forced entry and repossession. We therefore ignored it and there was no contact, physical or otherwise with those serving the writ, or with the document itself.

Univeristy of Wales, Bangor Students' Union as...

Univeristy of Wales, Bangor Students’ Union as seen from Deiniol Road (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have kept a diary from that year and papers from the following two years (speeches and statements). As a historian myself, I think it’s high time I keep my promise and publish what I can recall from these sources and my memory of these events, from a much ‘safer’ distance in time and space. Like Leighton, I was a student at UCNW from 1975-78, moving south to Cardiff to pursue my research interests in the coalfield valleys thereafter, while Leighton stayed on as a sabbatical officer and then researcher in Bangor.

Although having no Welsh family connections myself, I had grown up among Welsh miners and teachers in Coventry and Birmingham, many of whom attended my father’s Baptist Chapel and were often ‘surrogate’ parents to me and my siblings as part of its broad community. Indeed, the presence of the Welsh in these cities was so strong in the sixties and seventies, that my pastor-father organised what were called ‘eisteddfodau’ for the chapels in the West Midlands, and in which I competed ( in English, of course). It therefore seemed a natural choice to study History and Biblical Studies at Bangor, and I immediately felt at home among the Welsh Nonconformists, both Welsh and English-speaking. I quickly came into contact with a wide variety of  them through my involvement in the Christian Union, many of  them theological students living in ‘Bala-Bangor’, their college in Upper Bangor. Some spoke very little English in their everyday lives. Others were from south Wales and, like me, attended Penrallt English Baptist Church, where Rev Roy Jenkins, now a regular contributor to Thought for Today on BBC Radio Four, was then the young pastor.

I also understood the history of the Nonconformists in the Liberal and Labour politics of Britain since, in an ideological sense, my father did indeed know Lloyd George! So it was not by accident that Leighton and I got to know each other through membership of the Young Liberals, then led by Peter Hain, in our first year, becoming active in the students’ union, he as a Council member and I, in my second term, as Undergraduate Representative for the Arts Faculty.  Before arriving in Bangor, I had made contact with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Christian Pacifist organisation, and in the late summer of 1976 became closely involved with Welsh Baptist Pacifists and Quakers, helping to establish the Welsh section of the F.o.R. that autumn, following a week-long Conference on Devolution, Nationalism and Pacifism in Iona, with delegates from Scotland and other parts of Wales. My diary also shows that I attended anti-Fascist meetings in Birmingham and was increasingly involved in non-violent direct action campaigns, inspired by the writings of Gandhi, Martin Luther-King  jnr. and John Ferguson. It was in this spirit that,  on returning for my second year in Bangor, I resolved to learn both the Welsh language and, at the same time, more about the culture and politics associated with it.  After some weeks spent in a village on Anglesey, I moved into Neuadd John Morris-Jones, the Welsh-speaking Hall of Residence in Upper Bangor in October, and quickly developed a network of friends among the Welsh learners and student-teachers there, many of whom hailed from south and west Wales.  At the same time, I  became acutely aware of the linguistic and cultural ‘apartheid’ which existed between English and Welsh-speaking students in Bangor, the latter making up only 10% of the student population in a town which was 60% bilingual and a surrounding area which was up to 90% first-language Welsh. I could also detect that there were deep divisions between those from this ‘Fro Cymraeg’ (Welsh-speaking heartland) and Welsh-speakers from other parts of Wales, who, though speaking the language from birth, were often not literate enough to study in it as a medium, unless they had attended bilingual schools in these areas.  ‘Cymraeg Byw’ (Living Welsh) was their Welsh, and this is what I learnt, in the main.

Seven years later, although fairly fluent, I had to find my first post in England, since I, too, was not literate enough to use it as a medium of education. These were often referred to, somewhat condescendingly, as ‘Myfyrwyr Cymreig’, Welsh in culture but not in academic language, being slightly above the lower tier of  ‘Cymru-di-Cymraeg’, the anglicised and monoglot English-speakers. It was largely from these ‘second and third class’ Welsh-speakers that the teachers of  ‘Cymraeg Byw’ were drawn, many of them having learnt it themselves. Naturally, this group of committed Welsh Learners and Language Activists, although committed to direct action in defacing property,  mostly English-only official signs, were also keen, through the students’ union, to teach the language to anyone, for any purpose, and were therefore more willing to elicit a more sympathetic view of Welsh culture among the English and international student population. Elen Rhys-Tyler was typical of this group, and was the Chair, or ‘Cadeirydd’ of the Welsh Learners’ Society.

It was also about this time that I first met Ann Beynon, a first-language Welsh-speaker, who had been the Student Union President in 1974-75, the year before I arrived in Bangor. By the time I met her, she was a postgraduate student in the Department of Welsh Language and Literature. She told me that two years earlier, in November 1973, students in both Aberystwyth and Bangor had gone on strike over the seemingly uncontrolled expansion of both University Colleges. In spite of this, and the Student Union’s opposition to its plans, the Bangor College planned to grow to 3,500 places by 1980/81, to include 150 places resulting from the amalgamation with the teacher-training college, St. Mary’s, on the opposite hillside of the town, representing an increase of at least 10%. Most of these new students were to be added in departments which traditionally drew their intake from ‘over the border’ and further afield, thus adding to the anglicising influence of the College on the town and surrounding area. This was exacerbated by the College authorities’ continuing refusal to implement a full bilingual policy for documents and signs throughout its administration and buildings, a policy which had already fully implemented by the Student Union under Anne Beynon’s leadership. The parallel campaign for Welsh language rights had already led to the setting up of an autonomous union of Welsh-speaking students in Aberystwyth, within an ‘Urdd’ or ‘Guild’ of students.

Percentages of Welsh speakers in the principal...

Percentages of Welsh speakers in the principal areas of Wales. Based on the GFDL Image:WalesNumbered.png. (Notice that no principal area falls within the 37,5-50% range!) Based on 2001 census data. QuartierLatin1968 02:30, 6 September 2005 (UTC) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By the autumn of 1976, however, the Welsh-speaking students in Bangor had become alienated by the College’s intransigence over the bilingual policy and through the growth of a hard-line element of nationalists in a group called ‘Adfer’ (‘Reinstate’) which had broken away from the Welsh Nationalist Party’s support for an independent, bilingual Wales, and were advocating language and immigration controls for Gwynedd (the three ‘shires’ of Caernarfon, Anglesey & Merioneth). This group, led mainly by Theology students from ‘Bala-Bangor’, were becoming increasingly influential in the ‘Cymric Society’, which although operating with a grant from the Student Union, was becoming increasingly separated in practice, based on the Welsh Halls of Residence.

Following an initial declaration of intent, the Society launched a campaign of direct action against the College, without reference to the Student Union, and despite the urging of restraint and patience by members of the Welsh Learners’ Society.

In a coordinated night-time action, slogans were daubed throughout the College’s buildings, including a large slogan proclaiming ‘Justice for the Language’ on the long wall of the main upper college, overlooking the town. Monolingual English signs and notices were torn down.  The following day the College authorities met in a secret, emergency session, and immediately expelled the four members of the Cymric Society named on its membership card, including its minute’s secretary and entertainment secretary, the latter of whom had had no involvement or prior knowledge of the action. The injustice of this victimisation was obvious, and the Student Union’s bilingual solicitor in Menai Bridge was immediately called into action to write to the Principal, Sir Charles Evans, following a lengthy briefing with the four students. I remember well the sombre mood which attended that meeting in his office, even though I could understand only a little of the content of the discussion. However, the predicted backlash in the student body as a whole to the precipitate action, meant that, when the General Meeting was held on 18th November, there was an understandable mood of antagonism against the Cymric which defeated a motion calling for concerted action to secure the reinstatement  of the four officers.

The Society again took matters into their own hands by announcing a strike, which was swiftly followed by an occupation of the main lecture theatre. There seemed little alternative for the Welsh learners but to support this unofficial action, and I well remember the defiantly spontaneous, harmonised singing of Welsh hymns by the whole of the Cymric gathered there. For someone brought up in a Nonconformist household and church, this was a very moving experience, evoking a deep sense both of shared values and of the injury and injustice over the treatment of the language which these students felt so keenly, but were enduring so stoically and endeavouring to overcome.

When a second motion proposing direct action against the College by the whole student body was narrowly defeated a week later, with only a small number of Welsh ‘delegates’ present and refusing to vote, the substantial minority of English-speaking students who had supported it decamped to Neuadd John Morris-Jones, where an impromptu meeting was held in its main hall, declaring its support for the Cymric and the setting up of an autonomous, ‘sister’ Welsh-speaking Union such as existed at Aberystwyth. Only then, we agreed, could  the Welsh-speakers have the official voice necessary to deliver the bilingual policy without further victimisation from the College authorities and having their protests continually voted down by an English student majority with little sympathy for their cause. Speaking in response, the provisional Cymric leadership called upon the Welsh learners and their supporters to show their support by occupying the Maths Tower. A set of keys was produced and a small, advanced party gained unforced entry, followed by larger numbers, so that control was swiftly established. After a small group of cleaners were allowed access in the early morning, the stairwell was well-barricaded, and the Tower remained closed for lectures the next day and into the next week, despite the writ being granted.

The permanent occupiers were led by Elen Rhys-Tyler, while Vaughan Roderick, Leighton Andrews and myself acted as go-betweens for the Welsh learners, the Cymric and the Student Union. A further Student Union Emergency General Meeting was called for the middle of the following week, as the term was coming rapidly to an end, there was a need to ensure that any threat of action would not be seen as idle and could result in the reinstatement of the four students for the beginning of the next term (I had joined the student strike as Undergraduate Representative, since my main concern was for the academic progress of the four).

We left the tower reluctantly, but of our own free will, a day or so after the writ was issued. This was at the request of the Cymric, who had also begun the unofficial supportive action through the Welsh Learners’ Society. We had been invited to take action as its members, not as officials and members of the Student Union, since the Union had rejected such action. We therefore had no mandate for the action on behalf of the student body as a whole. The Cymric Society also ended the occupation because of a small, but disruptive, group of ultra-left activists in the occupation, who had no real interest in the campaign for a bilingual policy and were advocating a more violent campaign solely on the issue of College victimisation. In reality, we feared that they simply wanted to foment disorder and destruction of property. Since ‘the Cymric’ were committed, in the long-standing tradition of the Welsh Language Society, to pacifism and non-violent direct action, they considered that this was too much of a risk to take both with the College’s property and with the future of a campaign that was already in its fourth year and set to run for some time. As Welsh learners, we also felt responsible for the backlash the action had already provoked among both students and staff, as well as for the tutorial work we had abandoned. In addition, we needed time to win support from the wider community in Bangor and the surrounding villages, since the College, as a major employer, was already manipulating the media to claim that important employee and student records had been trashed in the original actions taken by the Cymric Society a fortnight earlier. We therefore agreed to resume both our academic studies and constitutional/ diplomatic campaigning activities through the Student Union. In this, we gained the support for a second Emergency General Meeting from its officers, especially its Deputy-President and Leighton Andrews, to be held in Neuadd Pritchard-Jones later that week.

The Welsh learners withdrew from the Maths Tower following the release of hundreds of balloons declaring ongoing support for ‘the Four’ and the bilingual policy all across the town, put bilingual flyers under every door in every Hall of Residence, so that Neuadd Pritchard-Jones, the main Assembly Hall in the old ‘Top’ College, was filled to its 2,000 capacity, despite the non-attendance of all but a handful of Cymric members, since their occupation was continuing in the lecture theatre nearby. A simple but vaguely worded motion calling for ‘all peaceful actions’ to reinstate the four expelled students was proposed by the Union’s Palestinian Deputy-President, Mohammed Abu Koash. It was supported, with reservations clearly aired, by an overwhelming majority of those present, which meant that, had the votes of the otherwise ‘occupied’ Cymric been taken into account, two-thirds of the College’s students were unmistakably behind some form of concerted and coordinated non-violent direct action. A few days later, on receipt of written assurances of  ‘good behaviour’ from the four, the College backed down, commuting their punishment to a suspension until after the Christmas holidays.  All four stood together in accepting responsibility, including two brothers who were talented musicians and members of a soon-to-be internationally acclaimed Welsh folk group. Everyone in the College, except (it seemed) Sir Charles Evans, knew or accepted that at least one of them had taken no part in the action which led to their expulsion, but this brother, to his lasting credit, had steadfastly refused to deny responsibility while the other brother and the two other students stood likewise accused. Many lecturers, regardless of their views on the language issues, had been deeply concerned both for these obviously talented students and for the precedent that their continued expulsion would set.

The College gradually implemented a bilingual policy over the next two years, and the focus of campaigning shifted to  the linguistic and cultural effects of its continued expansion. Although the Welsh learners urged the Cymric to work in tandem with the Student Union to achieve this, its leadership was heavily influenced by the separatist ‘Adfer’ group into setting up a ‘culturally pure’  Welsh Student Union, ‘Undeb Myfyrwyr Colegau Bangor’, operating out of its ‘Caffi Deiniol’ in Upper Bangor, and drawing membership from the Bala-Bangor Theological College and the Teacher-training college, Coleg y Normal.  They rejected the overtures for a con-federal union structure, similar to the Guild of Students in Aberystwyth, with autonomy on Welsh language issues and campaigns and sole use of the third floor of the Student Union building, together with the Welsh Learners’ Society.  Jim Bloice-Smith, a prominent English ‘home counties’ student member of the Christian Union, an independent College society, offered to chair negotiations, but even this approach from a respected member of the overall student community was dismissed, albeit politely.  There followed a variety of rather sinister attempts to spy on and ‘purge’ members of the Welsh Learners’ Society in ‘Neuadd JMJ’.

The Society continued to operate within the official Student Union and was instrumental in persuading it to make the offer of a new constitution to the break-away union, a ‘covenant’ which was written simultaneously in Welsh and English, reflecting the different cultures as well as languages which would need to agree to develop a genuinely bilingual student body, rather than one which simply provided token translations. However, it became increasingly apparent that UMCB was set on a course of linguistic apartheid.  In response to continued threats and intimidation, including the use of ‘kangaroo courts’, the Welsh learners within the Plaid Cymru student branch came out ‘fighting’, finding a platform for their moderate stance and almost succeeding in getting a full ‘slate’ elected to its executive in the spring of 1977.  This was evidence that the ultra-nationalist position of UMCB was not as widely supported among the ordinary Welsh-speaking students of Neuadd John Morris-Jones as it claimed, even those from the Welsh ‘heartlands’ of Gwynedd. The  Welsh learners also became active in UCMC (NUS Wales), which had been established some four or five years earlier, and elected Michael Antoniw, a Cardiff Law student of Ukrainian descent, as its Chairman, at a Conference held in Bangor that Easter. It established a ‘Welsh Language Action Group’, coordinating activity across the constituent colleges of the University and the teacher-training colleges. UCMC also provided a forum for research about the wider educational context of Welsh-medium education throughout Wales.

However, the opportunities for democratic debate and discussion in Welsh in Bangor were effectively stifled by the leadership of the UMCB, and the increasingly oppressive atmosphere which the Warden of ‘JMJ’ Hall strove to ameliorate led to the leadership of the Welsh Learners’ Society decamping to set up their own private residence in Upper Bangor. This proved something of a thorn in the side of the ‘Adferites’  who targeted the house for attack on at least one occasion that I can remember well.

It was during this, my final year, in Bangor, that I wrote the following speech as a Student representative on the College Court of Governors’ meeting on 1st February 1978, on the proposals put forward for the College’s future. The Court was split three ways on this. The College hierarchy wanted to continue the policy of expansion by at least 10%, while UMCB, through its sympathising lecturers, wanted a cut in student numbers by more than 15%. The Student Union’s position remained one of opposition to both cuts and further expansion:

In opposition to the motion (supporting a cut in student numbers), the Students’ Union…would not wish to deny that the imbalance of student numbers in favour of those from outside of Wales has had an anglicising effect on the College and local communities. However, we disagree with the supposed ‘solution’ put forward by the breakaway union….and supported here by Mr Griffith and Mr Orwig, for two main reasons:

1.)  As we’ve said in our own motion, cutting the intake of students to 500 undergraduates would inevitably mean that many local people, many of them Welsh-speaking, will lose their jobs. About two thousand people are directly employed by the College. That is the reality which the proposers of this motion have to face. Since there is little alternative means of employment in and around Bangor, these people will be forced to move elsewhere to look for work. One of the reasons why the Welsh language is in such a weak position is…because Welsh-speakers have continually been forced out of the Welsh-speaking areas in order to find security and a decent standard of living…What this proposal does is to look at the language question in splendid isolation from the social and economic conditions in which the language exists. It looks at it from the lofty position of an intellectual élite who refuse to descend from their pedestal to ask the ordinary people in the College, the ‘werin’, what they want. The Students’ Union, however, holds regular meetings with representatives of the campus trade unions and we know what their attitudes are to this sort of policy. Mr Griffiths and Mr Orwig agree with the leaders of the ‘Undeb Cymraeg’ , who recently stated on TV that they believe that it is only this intellectual élite of university students and other literary figures which can save the Welsh language.  

2.) Cutting the student intake to 500 will not make the College any more relevant to the local community. It will probably result in the closure of the College in the same way that Lampeter is threatened with closure. 

Our motion restates Student Union policy going back over a period of five years…We’ve decided to bring this issue up again at this Court meeting not so much as a response to the ‘Undeb Cymraeg Education Policy’ (we didn’t know that Mr Griffith and Mr Orwig had agreed to act as their mouthpieces until we received the papers from the Registrar two weeks ago) but because, despite the consistent opposition shown by the students and local people, the College has continued to expand. Although the expansion rate has slowed, the College is still proposing to increase to nearly 3,500 by 1980/81. Only 150 of these new places result from the amalgamation with St Mary’s (Teacher-training College). The Principal himself admits that ‘even modest growth of the College presents us with problems’. In our view, this is something of an understatement, because it seems to fail to recognise that we have enormous problems already. Why is expansion not in the interests of staff and students?

1.) It would increase the sizes of already overcrowded classes;

2.) It would produce an added strain upon  staff and essential resources, e.g. the Library, because the College will attempt to keep further employment to an absolute minimum.

We are opposed to any further expansion, but I must emphasise that we do not see stopping expansion as an end in itself.  We want to freeze the number of students coming to Bangor so that then, as lecturers and students and local people, we can attempt to change the College into a more progressive institution more oriented towards the needs of the local community. ‘Undeb Cenedlaethol Myfyrwyr Cymru’ (NUS Wales), has been at the forefront of the campaign to obtain a more comprehensive system of further education in Wales and, as a step towards this, the devolution of the University of Wales to the Welsh Assembly. The only way, ultimately, to make the Colleges of Wales more Welsh is to encourage Welsh students to stay in Wales for their higher education, and that is why we advocate the setting up of a federated Coleg Cymraeg to coordinate teaching through the medium of Welsh throughout the University, and, ultimately, on a comprehensive basis, throughout Wales. Our policy of ‘no expansion’ is thus a means to these ends, the destruction of a binary system and of University elitism and an end to an education system dependent on ‘paper qualifications’. We must ensure that access to a decent standard of education is open to all who wish to benefit from it. 

We agree that the College is at present far too large, but the way to counter this is not to cut its size…but to broaden its functions and change its nature, into a College whose prime commitment is to meet the needs of the local community. That doesn’t mean that we want a College which is parochial and inward-looking which is what you’d get if you replaced a College full of English academic students like me with a College full of Welsh academic students. However, in the short-term we can prevent the College from losing altogether its Welsh character by adopting a realistic policy of ‘no further expansion’, while rejecting the recipe for disaster which (some) would have us follow.  However, by doing so, we will only be carrying out a cosmetic operation. The place of the Welsh language in higher and further education in Wales can only be found in terms of a more comprehensive system. That is why we ask you to reject motion 13, because it fails to identify the real problem. It fails to see the need for a more fundamental reorganisation in the structure of education in Wales. It also proposes to seriously damage any progressive movements by throwing out of work the very people whose support we need. I ask you to accept motion 14 as a policy around which we can unite and carry the campaign for the Welsh language forward.

The motion calling for the cut in undergraduate intake was defeated, but just over a week later, on February 9th, a group of 50-70 members of UMCB, the breakaway ‘Undeb Cymraeg’, occupied various parts of the old building in ‘Top College’. Their action was taken in protest against the then democratic decision of the College Court not to recognise the new union and to refuse the policy of limiting the number of non-Welsh-speaking students coming to the College for the next session. The campaign began on 6th February with the jamming of keyholes in Top College by means of glue. The following morning the UMCB members barricaded themselves in the Principal’s office and the Registrar’s office. When the barricades were breached they then moved into the nearby hall, Neuadd Powys. However, realising that their occupation was having little effect, they decided to end it by the early afternoon. Although it was thought that this was the preliminary action in a long campaign against the College authorities, it was also noted that the ‘Cymric’ campaign of 1976 had ‘received the support of many non-Welsh-speaking students and staff for its aim of an equitable language policy’, support which was ‘not forthcoming for this new campaign’.

Later that Spring, the Welsh Learners’ Society helped to get Barry Owen, a mature student from Flintshire, elected as the Students’ Union’s new President, the first Welsh-speaker to occupy the role since Ann Beynon. Leighton Andrews also became a sabbatical officer. I was elected Vice-Chairman for the University Sector of UCMC, succeeding Mick Antoniw as Chairman in 1979, shortly after the Devolution debacle and the success of the Federation of Conservative Students in taking control of the Student Union in Bangor and the Guild of Students in Aberystwyth, prior to Mrs Thatcher’s election. UCMC  succeeded in continuing to offer a  platform for progressive nationalists and Welsh language activists. Most importantly, it managed to contain the widening cracks on university expansion, bilingualism and Welsh-medium education in Bangor from spreading along a fault-line to Aberystwyth and Carmarthen. Our voice was respectfully heard on this, in Welsh, at a debate at the National Eisteddfod in Caernarfon in August 1979.

An accompanying major policy gain was the establishment of a federal Welsh-medium teaching board to develop courses throughout the constituent colleges of the University. In the autumn of 1979, UCMC also published its manifesto, Addysg yng Ngymru (Education in Wales) which elicited an editorial in The Western Mail and a great deal of more positive support from academics and administrators alike in the Welsh education system. The debate on Welsh-medium education had moved on from being simply the preserve of an intellectual elite  to its central role in developing a more comprehensive system of further and higher education throughout Wales, across the binary divide. Unfortunately, until the Welsh Assembly was finally established, this policy could not be implemented outside the somewhat narrow confines of the marble halls of increasingly competitive university colleges and through the Welsh Joint Education Council (WJEC). Successive Tory and Labour governments at ‘St Stephen’s’, Westminster, simply allowed further, unbridled expansion of the university sector and the transformation of respected local specialist Colleges of Higher Education into universities, without examining the relevance of the courses offered to local needs. Leighton Andrews has written about this legacy elsewhere.

Andrew James Chandler

February 2012

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