Society in 20th century Wales


The greatest change in Welsh society over the course of the 20th century was the enhanced role of women and the challenge this caused to traditional concepts of the family.

Image: Children paddle in Roath, Cardiff for Whitsun Treat, 1930s © Cardiff Council

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The Story of Wales
The Story of Wales

More information about: Society in 20th century Wales

The gender revolution

In Victorian Wales, women were 'the angels of the home' and in the early 20th century the country had few ardent suffragettes. The inter-war years saw some advances, with the granting of votes to women on the same terms as men and the recognition that women's rights to their children and their property were equal to those of their husbands.

Yet in 1945 less than a quarter of the employed population was female. This proportion rose rapidly in subsequent decades, partly as a result of the decline in heavy industry.

By the 1990s, Treorchy in the Rhondda was one of many places in Wales with more working women than working men. Women's earnings, however, continued to lag behind those of men. The number of children per couple declined, a development discernable from at least the 1920s, and by the end of the 20th century the Welsh population was hardly replacing itself.

The very concept of couples was in decline, with single mothers numerous, especially in areas of high social deprivation. Indeed, by the early 21st century, Wales seemed likely to be the first country in western Europe the majority of whose offspring were born outside of marriage. The ability of a woman to control her fertility was an enormous break with the past, but the full implications of that change have yet to be totally appreciated

An ageing population

In 1921, 4.6% of the inhabitants of Wales were over 65 years of age; by 2001, the proportion was 18% and was rapidly rising. When the old age pension was introduced in 1909, there were 16 people of working age for every 1 person of pension age; by the early 21st century, the figures were 4 to 1.

Population movements

In the early 20th century, the south Wales coalfield was a magnet for immigrants from all parts of the United Kingdom, and the rural areas were characterised by massive out-migration.

By the end of the century the situation was reversed: well over 80% of the inhabitants of the coalfield were Welsh by birth, whereas in many rural areas, the proportion was below 50%.

The relative cheapness of Welsh land and rural housing, the rise of the self-sufficiency movement and the growth of electronic communications which permitted a living to be made even in the remotest areas were all factors in the increase in the number of rural immigrants, as was the demographic collapse experienced by many indigenous communities.

Migration led to considerable strains: many Welsh-speaking communities felt overwhelmed, and throughout the countryside there was tension between the pre-urban natives and the post-urban incomers.

In the early 20th century, when Cardiff had a more cosmopolitan population than any other British city apart from London, the rest of Wales had few immigrants from outside Europe. By the end of the century, the larger towns had significant communities of 'New Commonwealth' origins, causing national life to be much enriched by multi-culturalism.

A secular society

At the beginning of the 20th century there was much pride in the presumed devoutness of the Welsh. The vast majority considered themselves to be adherents of organised religion and the religious revival of 1904-05 saw a huge outpouring of spiritual zeal.

By the end of the century, Wales was one of the most secular societies in Europe, with less than 10% of the population having a formal association with a place of worship.

Sabbatarianism, a central feature of Welsh life a century ago, virtually vanished as the successive votes on the Sunday closing of public houses amply shows. The time and energy previously spent on religious activities found new outlets.

However, it is by no means clear that the decline in religion resulted in a decline in compassion, for Welsh society in the early 21st century could be seen to be less oppressive. Attitudes to unmarried mothers had become much more tolerant as had attitudes to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people; in view of earlier condemnations, it is astonishing that LGBT Cymru receives part of its income from the Welsh Assembly Government.

The economy

By the early years of the second decade of the 21st century, the economic prospects of Wales seemed bleak. The country's per capita Gross Domestic Product was hardly more than three quarters that of the United Kingdom as a whole. In 1993, the European Union acknowledged that Wales was one of the Union's poorest regions and established the Objective One scheme to aid regeneration.

The international financial problems which came to the fore in 2008 exacerbated the situation, and the fact that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition which came to power in Westminster in 2010 gave priority to sovereign debt reduction meant that the Welsh economy, heavily dependent as it was upon the public sector, was likely to be particularly hard hit by the reduction in government spending.

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