Chapter 17


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A New Struggle for Identity

In December, there was a petition from the Welsh inhabitants of Liverpool (who numbered over 50,000 mostly drawn from the agricultural areas of north and mid-Wales) to the Queen asking for a new order of knighthood in honor of Wales and for two Welsh professors at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Some of the letters received in reply show the same attitude of many Englishmen towards the Welsh language that was reported by William Jones a year later.

In one of the letters, the writer was amused by the proposal to have the infant Prince of Wales instructed in the Welsh language. He wrote that the prince, by trying to pronounce the Welsh "ll" or "ch" "would be perceived as having spasmodic affections of the bronchial tubes that would lead to quinsy or some terrible disease of the lungs and jugulum and would alarm everyone."

The writer goes on to ask readers to consider the roars of laughter in the House of Commons when the budget of the day includes the following items: "Three thousand pounds per annum for teaching His Royal Highness Welsh, making leek broth, and the national mode of eating it." The idea, he continued. was revolting, "like trying to cram a calf with logic: nature forbids it."

The same kind of fatuous arguments, of course, appeared in the newspapers of Wales some one hundred and twenty years later when Charles, as the Prince of Wales, was being taught Welsh at Aberystwyth University. The newspapers of the 1990's often contained similar letters and articles that discuss the merits of continuing the Welsh language in the schools, of teaching it to newcomers, and of its relevance in the modern world. Despite the fact, in the earlier period, even that staunch symbol of Empire, Queen Victoria herself advocated the teaching of Welsh in the schools.

By the middle of the 19th century, Victoria's views notwithstanding, the tide was running heavily against Welsh. In 1842, when a Royal Commission, looking into the state of education in Wales, noted that some Welsh boys employed at mines in Breconshire were learning to read English at Sunday school, but that they could speak only Welsh. This was intolerable to the commissioners; because of their findings, it was demanded in Parliament that an inquiry be conducted into the means afforded to the laboring classes of Wales to acquire knowledge of the English tongue.

The report of the Commissioners of Inquiry for South Wales in 1844 lamented the fact that "The people's ignorance of the English language practically prevents the working of the laws and institutions and impedes the administration of justice." It didn't seem to occur to the commissioners that it was their own ignorance of the Welsh language that was obstructing justice!!

The report led to another Royal Commission, conducted in 1847, which was to have a lasting effect on the cultural and political life of Wales. The detailed report, in three volumes bound in blue covers, has become known as Brad y Llyfrau Gleision (The Treachery of the Blue Books). The three young and inexperienced lawyers who conducted the report had no understanding of the Welsh language, nor, it seems, did they understand non-conformity in religious matters. Bright, intelligent and well-read Welsh-speaking children were unable to understand the questions put to them in English, and the surveyors pig-headedly assumed that this was due to their ignorance.

The report lamented what the commissioners considered to be the sad state of education in Wales, the too-few schools, their deplorable condition, the unqualified teachers, the lack of supplies and suitable English texts, and the irregular attendance of the children. All these were attributed, along with dirtiness, laziness, ignorance, superstition, promiscuity and immorality to Nonconformity in religion, but in particular to the Welsh language. As the report stated:
The Welsh language is a vast drawback to Wales and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people. It is not easy to over-estimate its evil effects.
One result, of the publication of such "facts" led to so many of its speakers being made to feel ashamed and embarrassed. The effects of the controversy thus stirred up has lasted up until today; it certainly did much to bolster the position of those who agreed with much of the report and who saw the language as the biggest drawback to the people of Wales.

One drastic remedy -- the imposition of English-only Board Schools did much to further hasten the decline of Welsh over a great part of the country. In these schools, as in Flintshire a half century earlier, the "Welsh Not" rule was imposed with severe penalties for speaking Welsh, including the wearing of a wooden board, the old "Welsh lump" around one's neck.

Yet, once again, to defy all odds, the sense of a national identity did not die; on the contrary, as so often in the past, it once again began to flourish. According to many, "the treachery of the Blue books" did much to revive national sentiment and patriotism and brought about a spirited defense of Welsh as a language of the people. Carried out by a few determined individuals, the struggle continued.

Chapter 18: The Struggle & Dream Continue
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