blue books

Welsh and 19th century education

Welsh was actively discouraged in schools by means including the hated Welsh Not.

The mid-19th century was a turbulent period in Welsh history. Popular risings and riots broke out across the country. Questions were raised in Westminster as to why the Welsh people were prone to lawlessness.

According to some, one possible reason was the continued existence of the Welsh language. After a speech in 1846 by William Williams, a Welsh MP representing Coventry, a parliamentary report was commissioned on the role of Welsh in education.

The report eventually became known as the Treachery of the Blue Books - 'blue' from the colour of the reports covers and 'treachery' from an ancient Arthurian myth about the Saxon invasion of Britain. When published in 1847 it caused a furore - particularly certain passages in which the commissioners exceeded their educational brief to make disparaging remarks about the morals of the Welsh.

Predictably, the report found the provision of education in Wales to be extremely poor. The commissioners saw the Welsh language as a drawback and noted that the moral and material condition of the people would only improve with the introduction of English.

In response many questioned whether three monoglot Anglican barristers from England were the ideal people to investigate anything in Wales at that time, particularly the Welsh language.

This period is associated with that most hated symbol of English cultural oppression, the Welsh Not, or Welsh Note, a means of forcing Welsh children to speak English at school. A stick or plaque was given to any child heard speaking Welsh during school, to be handed on to whoever next spoke the language.

At the end of lessons, the child left with the Welsh Not was punished. Yet according to historian John Davies, it is unlikely that the use of the Welsh Not was as widespread as the mythology of the 20th century maintains.

There is strong evidence of the Welsh Not in Carmarthen, Cardigan and Meirionnydd before 1870, but it was never official government policy. A number of school organisations used it, from the national schools of the Anglicans to the British schools of the nonconformists, but attendance at these schools was voluntary and if a headmaster had a Welsh Not policy it was with the approval of the parents.

The speaking of Welsh in schools may not have been prevented by law, but nor was it given any government support or recognition. The long-term effects of the Language Clause in the 1536 Act of Union Act of Union were still playing out. Welsh was not an institutionalised or official language, and simply wasn't considered a suitable medium for education during the Victorian heyday of the British Empire.

In this era, convention had practically the same force as law. English was deemed by convention, and with popular support, to be the only appropriate medium for learning.


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