The rise of national consciousness in Wales


How an awareness of Welsh nationality developed and increased during the mid to late 19th century

Image: Welsh National Memorial to Queen Victoria's Consort, Prince Albert, on Castle Hill in Tenby (BBC)

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The Story of Wales
The Story of Wales

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More information about: The rise of national consciousness in Wales

In 1850 there were very few Welsh national institutions. Although the Calvinistic Methodists were organised upon all-Wales lines, the Established Church consisted of four westerly bishoprics of the archdiocese of Canterbury, with the Congregationalists and Baptists having virtually no central organisation.

The Welsh court system - the Courts of Great Session - was abolished in 1830, making the legal and administrative structure of Wales identical to that of England.

Apart from the Cymmrodorion Society, revived in 1820, and the Cambrian Archaeological Society, founded in 1847, there were no cultural or educational organisations at a national level, nor did the country have any economic or professional associations which recognised its unity.

The United Kingdom was believed to consist of three kingdoms: England (including the principality of Wales), Scotland and Ireland - a belief encapsulated in the union flag and the royal standard. Any suggestion that the United Kingdom consists of four nations, and that the Welsh should therefore be considered to be on par with the other nationalities of the kingdom, would have found very few advocates.

One of the major achievements of Welsh patriots over the following century was their success in ensuring that the concept of the four nations replaced that of the three kingdoms.

Welsh nationality in the mid 19th century

While recognition was slight, substance was undeniable. The primary marker of the 19th- century Welsh was language. Although no census enumerating the number of Welsh speakers was held until 1891, at least three quarters of the country's inhabitants were Welsh speaking in 1850 and the great majority had no knowledge of any other language.

The vitality of Welsh was indicated by the number of periodicals published in it: in 1866 it was the medium used by 5 quarterlies, 25 monthlies and 8 weeklies, with a total circulation of 120,000. Popular books of poetry, particularly those of Ceiriog, could sell 30,000 copies.

There were also other dimensions to Welshness. Welsh religious traditions had markedly distinct characteristics; rural settlement patterns and tenurial practices were different from those of England; radical movements had highly distinguishing features; Wales's industrial communities, most of them located in upland country, were unlike any other. Travellers in Wales, George Borrow pre-eminent among them, had no doubt that they were in a country of a highly individual character.

Growing recognition

The key to the ability of the Welsh to turn substance into recognition was the increasingly democratic nature of Welsh society.

The Anglican gentry who had dominated the country for centuries, while not bereft of Welsh sympathies, saw themselves as members of the British ruling class and developed something of a bunker mentality when they were challenged by their tenants and when assertive Welshness became a weapon of radical Nonconformists.

It was the rights of the Welsh as Nonconformists which were stressed by Henry Richard, MP for Merthyr Tydfil from 1868 to 1888.

Younger politicians such as Thomas Edward Ellis, MP for Merioneth from 1886 to 1899, had less sectarian views. Influenced by the Home Rule movement in Ireland, Ellis and others sought a degree of self-government for Wales, government support for a distinctly Welsh system of education, and legislation to enable Welsh tenants to be freed from the power of their landlords.

Others went further. Michael D. Jones, a supporter of the attempt in the 1860s to establish a new Wales in Patagonia, sought full freedom for Wales, and Robert Ambrose Jones (Emrys ap Iwan) saw full official status for the Welsh language as essential to the dignity of the Welsh people.

By the outbreak of the First World War recognition of Wales had made considerable progress. The most significant developments occurred in the fields of education and culture. The Welsh language won a limited role in schools in 1889.

The founding of the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth in 1872, and of colleges at Cardiff and Bangor in the 1880s, led in 1893 to the establishment of the University of Wales. The National Library and the National Museum receive royal charters in 1907. J. E. Lloyd placed Welsh medieval history on a sound academic footing in 1911, and John Morris-Jones did the same for the Welsh language in 1913.

The Cymru Fydd or Young Wales movement

Founded in 1886, Cymru Fydd was intended to fulfil several roles, some of which were perhaps contradictory: it sought to be the Welsh expression of the Liberal Party, to further an awareness of Welsh nationality and to advance the cause of Welsh devolution.

In the 1890s it also became the vehicle for the ambition of Lloyd George who made tireless efforts to ensure that the Liberal politics of Wales had a stronger Welsh identity.

However, at a meeting in Newport in 1896, it became evident that this was unacceptable to a large proportion of Welsh Liberal activists and by the end of the century the movement had fizzled out.

In 1910 the home rule issue was revived by E. T. John, specifically in the context of the likelihood that Ireland would become self-governing. It was again much discussed in the immediate post-war years, but although Wales gained some administrative devolution, nothing of great substance was achieved.

In 1925 Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru (the National Party of Wales later Plaid Cymru, the Party of Wales) was founded. However, until at least the 1950s, the party had only a marginal role in Welsh politics.

A changing nation

The image of Wales projected by Thomas Edward Ellis, and particularly by the distinguished educationalist, Owen M. Edwards, was of a nation of frugal, God-fearing, Welsh-speaking country dwellers.

By the early 20th century, however, such an image was at odds with reality. With two thirds of the inhabitants of Wales living in Monmouthshire and Glamorgan, the Welsh were predominantly an industrial and urban people. Despite the energies unleashed by the revival of 1904-05, secularism was growing apace.

Half the residents of Wales were Welsh-speaking in 1901, a proportion which declined to 43% in 1911 - the year in which nine out of 10 of them claim to have at least some knowledge of English. These changes represented a challenge to definitions of Welshness, an issue which would cause anguish and controversy in subsequent decades.

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