Chapter 17


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A New Struggle for Identity

In addition to the great discontent that eventually led to the up-risings of the early part of the 19th century, the coming of heavy industry to south Wales had other effects on the language and social life of the area. First, with so many Welsh speakers moving into the area in search of jobs, bringing their chapels (and their language) with them, a Welsh culture survived in many fields of valley activity.

Many historians have realized that without this immigration, Wales may have suffered a fate similar to that of Ireland. There the lack of the raw materials for industry and the heavy reliance upon a single food crop (not to mention the benign neglect of the English Parliament) led to famine, massive emigration and a serious loss of the Gaelic language.

Also, unlike the Irish language (and to some extent Breton), the language of scattered, rural communities, Welsh thrived as the medium of everyday communication in large industrial communities (such as Merthyr). One writer in 1804, commenting on the fact that Merthyr Tydfil was now the largest town in Wales, marveled that:
The workers of all descriptions at these immense works [Cyfarthfa, Merthyr Tydfil] are Welsh men. Their language is entirely Welsh. The number of English among them is very inconsiderable.
But change was inevitable. Industrialization had another permanent effect on the landscape of Wales and the people who inhabited its hills and valleys. In 1847, one writer described the Rhondda Valley thus:
The people of this solitudinous and happy valley are a pastoral race, almost wholly dependent on their flocks and herds for support...The air is aromatic with wild flowers and mountain plants, a Sabbath stillness reigns.
Only three years later, the celebrated English author Thomas Carlyle described the same scene in a letter to his wife:
Ah me! 'Tis like a vision of Hell, and will never leave me, that of these poor creatures broiling in sweat and dirt, amid their furnaces, pits, and rolling mill...The Town [Merthyr] might be, and will be, one of the prettiest places in the world. It is one of the sootiest, squalidest and ugliest; all cinders and dust mounds and soot...Nobody thinks of gardening in such a locality --all devoted to metallic gambling.
Such a heavy toll came to so many areas of the southern valleys. In the counties of Glamorgan and Monmouth, the long, verdant valleys quickly filled up with factories, mills, coal mines, iron smelting works (and later, steel works), roads, railways, canals, and above all, people. Houses began to spread along the narrow hillsides, filling every available space upon which a house could be set, small houses, crammed together in row after row, street after street, town after town, all strung together on the valley floor. Houses separated only spasmodically by the grocery store, the somber, grey chapel, or the public house. Above them all loomed the blackened hillsides and the slag heaps of waste coal or industrial refuse. And all this brought about by the discovery of coal.

Yet, in the midst of the crowded towns, lacking adequate water supplies, sanitary or medical facilities, hospitals or clinics, decent recreational facilities or smart restaurants, surrounded by the burnt and blackened landscape later made famous by such novels as How Green Was my Valley, a thriving cultural life prospered. In this milieu the chapels with their Sunday Schools, eisteddfodau, and Bands of Hope, and the social clubs with their brass bands, sporting events and theatrical societies prospered.

Chapter 17 Continued
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