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Snowdonia 1890: a new series

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 10:16 UK time, Thursday, 14 October 2010

Following the phenomenal success of the two Coal House series, BBC Cymru Wales has recently launched a new 'back in time' programme, Snowdonia 1890.

Tyddyn in snowdonia

Snowdonia 1890 shows the hardship of tyddyn (small holding) life.

Produced by the same team that recreated life in Blaenavon in the 1920s and '40s, this new series will chart the trials and tribulations of two families in the slate-producing region of north Wales, in conditions as closely resembling the 1890s as possible.

Hard as it may be to believe, 1890 is only just over 100 years in the past, yet the differences between then and now are remarkable. There was no electricity and, in rural Wales, there were no gas supplies either. No television or radio, no motorcars or central heating - conditions were pretty primitive. Transport was by horse, if you were lucky - otherwise you walked.

Man had not yet taken to the skies, and ships had only just moved out of the era of sail. Machinery to work the slate and coal mines of the country were basic in the extreme, with most jobs being done by hard graft and by hand.

The year 1890 was a significant one for Wales. In February an explosion in the colliery at Llanerch near Pontypool killed no fewer than 176 miners, one of many such disasters to afflict south Wales. On 14 June that year David Lloyd George, later to become Wales' only prime minister, delivered his maiden speech in the House of Commons, while on 20 July Wales' first millionaire, David Davies of Llandinam, died. Only the previous year his huge new dock at Barry had opened for use.

A year later the first language census in the country revealed that 898,914 people (over the age of three) spoke Welsh. That represented 54% of the population and, of these, 30% were monoglot Welsh speaking. In the slate mining districts of north Wales those figures were considerably higher - 91% of people speaking Welsh, 69% having no English at all. Clearly, then, the effects of the new educational system and the use of deterrents such as the Welsh Not had only limited success (if success is the right word) in Snowdonia.

The slate-producing area of Snowdonia, where the series is set, offered men a combination of industry and agriculture for employment, with one occupation or job supplementing and adding to the other. Neither could really offer enough financial reward for people to survive by just one alone.

That meant that many of the men who worked in the slate quarries also ran small-holding farms. These were tiny affairs, perhaps only three or four acres in size, with fields divided up by dry stone walls. Here men, and their wives, kept cattle and sheep, bringing them down from the high grazing pastures in the winter, and tried to cultivate the unyielding land to produce extra vegetables like potatoes and beans to supplement their diet.

It was a hand to mouth existence. Work in the slate quarries was hard and dangerous but at least such work was plentiful. By 1890 there were nearly 100 such quarries in the Snowdonia area alone.

It was a situation that was replicated in many of the south Wales valleys where miners all had their gardens and vegetable plots. Open land was not so plentiful in the south so not many could run to small-holdings of three or four acres, but the need to add meat and vegetables to the diet meant that cultivating the earth and keeping a few chickens - or even pigs - was a common occurrence.

School teacher and children from Snowdonia 1890

Children will experience school life in the 1890s.

By 1890 the British Empire was nearing its zenith. Britain was already the richest and most powerful country in the world but to the miners and farmers of Snowdonia there were more important issues than grabbing land in South Africa and India. For them it was a case of surviving from one day to the next - something that the two families in Snowdonia 1890 are about to discover for themselves.

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  • Comment number 1.

    This is going to sound nit-picky, and for that I apologize, but: to say "Britain was already the richest and most powerful country in the world" is not really accurate, is it? Britain is not a country, it is an island containing 3 countries. "England was already the richest...." is the more accurate statement. While the industries of Wales and Scotland were clearly major contributors to the island's wealth, it is England that derived the benefit.

    As an American of mostly Welsh descent, I am constantly correcting my fellow Americans' mis-conception of the status of Wales. Despite the Welsh being among the earliest of settlers, they think of the Welsh as English. To say this grates upon the nerves is putting it mildly. Sigh...

    It would help a lot if we, at least, got it correct. Diolch yn fawr.

  • Comment number 2.

    I really cannot believe this programme is made by the same people? How has the brief changed to dramatically? This programme is very dumbed down from the Coal House programmes, trivial and predictable. Incidents are clearly rehearsed and the families are not even slightly stretched. Poor choices and a very badly lost opportunity.

  • Comment number 3.

    I was looking forward to watching this series, especially as I'd enjoyed the Coal House programmes. But it's certainly not of the same standard. I also find it extremely grating that the Welsh-speaking family constantly speak English to each other and to other characters such as the shopkeeper, preacher etc. I'm sure viewers could put up with a few subtitles in order to get a true reflection of life in Snowdonia in the 1890s.

  • Comment number 4.

    Incidentally, would the Welsh Not have been used in a school in Snowdonia in 1890? I believe it was only used in a minority of schools during this time and it was more normal to be taught through the medium of Welsh in Welsh-speaking areas by the end of the 19th century.

  • Comment number 5.

    Recent research has shown that use of the Welsh Not wasn't as widespread as people once thought. It was really limited to one or two of the rural counties of Wales. That shouldn't detract from the fact that it was an evil and all-pervading process that tried to destroy a language and a culture. Like the Treason of the Blue Books it was just one of a variety of anti-Welsh factors or issues that emerged during the nineteenth century


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