Culture & politics

David Lloyd George

Chapel democracy gave Welsh Nonconformity a voice, and Disestablishment of the Anglican Church became a controversial political issue.

Nonconformity was based upon democratic principles . Individual members were consulted on how their chapels were organised, in contrast with the more hierarchical nature of the Church. Debate was part and parcel of chapel life, and fuelled by the principles of their religion and aided by increasing literacy in Welsh and English, members would also discuss the great issues of the day.

The 1884 Reform Act meant that most men now had the vote (although women had to wait until 1918), and the Nonconformists were now in a position to start flexing some political muscle.

A Methodist deacon from Denbigh, north east Wales, saw the potential. His name was to become famous all over Wales thanks to his publishing business, Gwasg Gee. Thomas Gee used it to help the Nonconformist cause, and his most famous publication, the weekly/bi-weekly newspaper 'Baner ac Amserau Cymru', acquired a campaigning, radical reputation.

One cause in particular became a familiar theme in the paper - the campaign to disestablish the Church of England in Wales.

The fact that Anglicans in Wales still enjoyed legal privileges in Wales over the Nonconformist majority struck Gee and many others, as grossly unfair. The issue became particularly bitter when violence broke out over the issue of tithes.

A tithe was a traditional payment which entitled the Church to a tenth of people's annual income, which it was entitled to claim whether or not a person went to Church. With Wales a predominantly chapel going country, confrontation was inevitable and took place all across the country.

One of the most violent episodes happened in 1886-90 in Gee's own area. Dubbed 'The Tithe Wars' in the press, the disturbances involved enraged Denbighshire farm labourers having running battles with the local police over the issue, leading eventually to the deployment of a troop of lancers to protect the tithe collectors in carrying out their unpopular duties.

An Anti-Tithe League was formed to campaign across the country, and in south Caernarfonshire its secretary was a young solicitor named David Lloyd George.

By 1890 he was in Parliament as MP for Caernarfon. He was one of a number of young Liberal MPs who seemed to embody the particular values of Welsh Nonconformity. The feeling that the political home of Welsh Nonconformity was to be in the Liberal party was confirmed after a parliamentary speech by the great Liberal leader, William Gladstone. During a debate he stated that "The Nonconformists of Wales are the people of Wales".

However, hopes for disestablishment were dashed following the defeat of the Liberals in the 1895 election. The Tory administration put the issue on the back burner, and by the time the Liberals were returned to power other issues had come to prominence.

The issue was finally resolved in 1920 when the Church in Wales was established with its own Archbishop to officially represent Anglicanism in Wales. But before that happened, the country experienced both a Great Revival and the Great War.

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