Chapter 20


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The Emergence of the Labour Party

From 1880 up to the First World War it seemed that nothing could stop the expansion of industrial production in South Wales. The coal industry dominated everything; over a quarter of a million men worked in the mines, producing one fifth of the total British production of coal. Cardiff exported more coal than any other port in the world, up to 40 percent of the exports of Britain and 25 percent of world exports.

Standards of living in the coalfields showed a substantial increase in the 1880's and 90's, and more and more immigrants came to settle in the long, narrow valleys that rapidly filled with the characteristic terraces with their long rows of miners' houses. There was trouble ahead.

It was somehow ignored that Welsh coal was almost entirely dependent upon world markets. If the whole of Wales was responding to the rhythms of the industrial economy in a country where, as Gwyn A. Williams noted, even the marriage rate fluctuated with the price of coal, then the narrow base of that prosperity could disappear overnight. There was total dependence upon one single commodity: everything rested upon there being a world market for Welsh coal: if that market were to collapse, it would bring down the major Welsh industry with it.

Other industries were already in trouble. In the United States, where Welshman David Thomas had helped create the world's largest iron industry, the import of Welsh iron rails completely ceased. In addition, in 1891, the McKinley Tariff brought an end to dependence on Welsh tinplate, creating wholesale reductions in the Welsh work force and the resulting depression in those areas that produced it. But the future of the Welsh coal industry, employing one third of the male labor force of the country, seemed secure.

It was conditions in the coal industry that at last made possible a new force in British politics: the trade union. In 1873, Francis Kilvert, a country parson, and very much a member of the establishment, had written the following entry in his diary:
I found old Giles without coal, thanks to that strike of the South Wales colliers and the baneful, tyrannical influence of that cursed union.
Kilvert was echoing much of the prevailing sentiment against the trade unions that were finally beginning to influence the political life of Wales in the latter half of the 19th century despite their earlier slow progress. We have already seen the failure of the first attempts at organizing the workers and the scorn in which union leaders were held.

The first trade union in Britain was recorded in Bagillt, Flintshire, in 1830: the Friendly Associated Coal Miners' Union. It was premature; the time was not yet ripe for such an organization. After the deportation of the English unionists known as The Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834 and the consequent transfer of union energies to the Chartist movement in the 1840's, unionism had seemed completely dead. An editorial in the Cambrian as early as April 1840 lamented the fact that:
The discontent of the lower and working classes has assumed a new form which threatens to become far more mischievous than mere political agitation, however fiercely carried on. We allude to the institution and spread of Socialism. Under pretense of improving the condition of the poor, Socialism is endeavoring, permanently, to poison their happiness, by depraving their morals, and depriving them of all those consolations flowing from the principles of religion. It is of little use to show that Mr. Owen is a lunatic.
The paper was referring to Welsh-born Robert Owen, the great reformer and visionary, who had attempted to improve factory conditions, shorten hours of work, educate factory children, and who had set up a system of "villages of co-operation" first in New Lanark, Scotland; and later in New Harmony, Indiana.

Chapter 20 Continued
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