Main content

The Treason of the Blue Books

Phil Carradice

In the year 1847 the British government commissioned a report into the state of education in Wales.

Not, in itself, such a momentous event, but when the remit of the report was widened to include a study of the morals of the Welsh people it resulted in a furore that still rumbles on to this very day.

Never can a civil service document have excited such passion as the 1847 Report of the Commissioners of Enquiry into the State of Education in Wales (780kb pdf file).

Blue books

The report, known throughout Wales as the Treason of the Blue Books (all government reports being bound in blue covers), was the result of a motion put forward a year earlier by William Williams, the Welsh MP for Coventry.

He was particularly concerned about the lack of opportunity for poor children in his homeland to gain knowledge of the English language.

Kay-Shuttleworth, secretary to the Council on Education, wrote the terms of reference for the Enquiry in October 1846 and it is clear, right from the beginning, that education was only one of the government's concerns. From the 1820s to the late 1840s Wales had appeared to be the centre of major discontentment.

In the 1820s there had been serious disturbances in Tredegar and Merthyr while in Ceridigion there had been a virtual war over the issue of land enclosures.

From 1839 to the mid 1840s the the Rebecca Riots caused mayhem across mid and south Wales while in 1939 the Chartist march on Newport provoked huge worry and concerns in government circles. Clearly Wales needed to be looked at in some detail and to English officials and civil servants it seemed highly likely that, in the far west, sedition was being planned - in the Welsh language.

There is no doubt that education for poor children in Wales was inadequate - it was also inadequate in England!

There was desperate requirement for quality education for all, education that would, the government felt - long before the commissioners reported back - be predominantly in the English language. And central to this was the need to provide trained teachers.

The trouble came when the extra clause was slipped into the terms of reference, to look at the morals and behaviour of the Welsh people. Quite why this was inserted is not clear - certainly it could have little impact on the educational element of the report who could and would educate their charges efficiently.

Since the predominance of Welsh was one of the main reasons for the report it would have been reasonable to expect the commissioners appointed to oversee the inspections to have a knowledge of the Welsh tongue. Not so. Commissioners Lingen, Simons and Vaughan Johnson spoke no Welsh, were not even educationalists and, importantly, had no experience of the type of fervent non-conformity to be found in Wales.

A number of assistant commissioners were appointed and, by and large, these were the men who toured the schools, towns and villages. The questions they asked, the passages of literature (usually the Bible) they required children to read and the problems that were meant to worked out in the head of each child were framed in English - many of the school teachers had difficulty understanding them, let alone their pupils.

While the non-conformist Sunday Schools - where education was offered in Welsh - were, in the main, praised in the report, the ordinary day schools were certainly not. It was hardly surprising when pupils were expected to work out subtraction problems such as "Take 1799 from 2471," in their heads, with an answer expected within a few seconds. And the condition of the schools themselves was under equal scrutiny:

"The school is held in the mistresses house. I shall never forget the hot sickening smell which struck me on opening the door of that low, dark room in which 30 girls and 20 boys were huddled together."

But there were other issues of concern for the commissioners. They had also been charged with making a study of the moral state of the country and it was a task they were happy to carry out.

When looking at the morals of the nation the Anglican vicars, many of whom felt isolated and apart from the parish in which they lived, were quite content to help out with comments that were little more than a little condemnatory:

It is difficult... to describe in proper terms the state of the common people of Wales in the intercourse of the sexes. I believe the proportion of illegitimate children to the population in Anglesey, with only one exception, and that is also in Wales, exceeds that in any other county in the kingdom."

When the report was published it was scathing and sweeping in its findings. Welsh children were poorly educated, poorly taught and had little or no understanding of the English language. They were ignorant, dirty and badly motivated.

Welsh women were not just lax in their morals - many of them being late home from chapel meetings! - they were also non-conformist lax. To reinforce the power of the established church and to make English the required mode of teaching and expression in schools is the main thrust of the report.

Howls of protest were to be expected - and they duly came. Yet the sobriquet "Treason of the Blue Books" did not come into popular usage until seven years later when Robert Jones Derfel wrote a play called Brad y Llyfrau Gleision, or, in English, The Treason of the Blue Books. Derfel's play opens in Hell where the Devil decides that the Welsh people are too good and are becoming more godly by the hour thanks to the influence of non-conformity. He promptly hatches a plan to bring down this pure and godly people.

The play has shaped the opinions of many, even at this late stage. Many people believe the findings of the enquiry had been more or less decided before the commissioners even began their work. One thing is clear, however. The report gives us a fascinating snapshot of life in the 1840s and for a brief while, at least, it did manage to put education high on the political agenda.

Ultimately, however, the Treason of the Blue Books helped to create a view, a rather smirking and disrespectful view, of Welsh morals that has lasted until the 21st century. Publication of The Report of the Commissioners of Enquiry remains one of the most important moments in Welsh history, and it is questionable whether or not the Welsh language has yet managed to break free from the disapproval of the commissioners.

Phil Carradice investigates how Victorian Wales was scandalised by a government report into its schools and sexual morals in Blue Books and Red Faces on this week's episode of Past Master on Sunday 23 January at 5.30pm.

More Posts


Axis Art Map of Cardiff