The Gnoll, Neath.
Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales. Used for illustration purposes only, for all enquires contact the above organisation.

As a South Walian, I grew up with one game and one sporting passion: rugby union. It probably helped that down the road from me lived Garin Jenkins, Wales’ most capped hooker, a few streets away lived Ken Rowlands, world-class referee, and that the guy who drove the school bus, known to us all as Rodge, was in fact Rodger Jenkins, father of Neil Jenkins. Rugby gave us our heroes, our friends, and our fun up the rec on a Sunday afternoon. Even on the global stage, rugby was grounded in the local community.

Historians, however, have to look at the past with a different eye and so it is with me: I’ve long avoided talking about rugby union in my work because it’s a sport fuels nostalgia and dulls my critical edge. Fortunately, when you strip away rugby union from the histories of South Wales, you find a society as complex and exciting as any other. My own work, on here or published elsewhere (see links in the publications tab), has sought to uncover the other sports played in the region. This post gives a sense of what I’ve found.

In December 1931, Prince George, younger son of King George V, undertook a three day tour of the South Wales Valleys to inspect relief work being undertaken in the region to ameliorate the devastating impact of the Depression. Visiting unemployed clubs, parks and playing fields provided by miners’ welfare schemes, and boys’ clubs, he saw (in the words of a journalist for The Times) ‘the splendid efforts … of self-help and social service’. In the Rhondda Valley, the Prince was taken to a park in Ton Pentre that had been constructed by unemployed miners. The leveled rubbish tip offered a wide variety of games ranging from soccer and rugby to bowls, tennis and quoits. But, on that day, the members of Ton Pentre Boys’ Club chose to exhibit the new game that they had learned: basketball.

In contrast to many other areas of the country, and abroad, where the YMCA helped to spread the game, basketball was popularised in South Wales through the boys’ club movement. Boys’ clubs began to be formed in the region in the 1920s and were intended to provide somewhere lads could go for additional learning, skills training, and recreation. Club huts often contained a library of books – typically donations from the miners’ institutes or public libraries – but they also had the means of playing games, whether table tennis and basketball indoors or soccer and baseball outdoors. A highlight for the movement, and its careful nurturing of basketball, came in 1938 when Ton Pentre Boys’ Club faced the Polytechnic of London (today’s Westminster University) in the final of the inaugural Junior Championship of England and Wales. They won, bringing a ray of hope and success into the Rhondda Valley after nearly two decades of struggle, strife and strikes.

Basque Football Team, 1938. Excerpt from a photograph held at the University of Southampton Archives. Copyright lies with the Archive and the image is reproduced here for illustration purposes only.

In the same year, 1938, Pontypridd Boys’ Club played a remarkable game against a team of young Basque children from Cambria House in Caerleon. Cambria House, for those unfamiliar with the story, was the largest Basque refugee colony in Wales during the Spanish Civil War. They created a newsletter, called the Cambria House Journal, which details their activities and was sold at events to raise money for the refuge. One of the activities was a football team, which was christened España Libre (Free Spain). Here’s an extract from that match against Pontypridd held at Taff Vale Park:

We set out from Cambria House in fine spirits and the weather was good. We believed we were going to win. We left our house at half past one and we arrived there at three. We enjoyed the journey, singing and telling stories. When we got there, there were a great many Welsh people waiting for us.

The final score was 1 – 0. Afterwards we went to the club and played several games – ping-pong, billiards and others and we had a good tea.

When the time came for us to leave, we got into the bus once more, singing merrily.

Soccer flourished at the grassroots in the 1930s, much to the annoyance of the Welsh Rugby Union and the established elder clubs, including Pontypridd RFC, Swansea RFC, and Cardiff RFC. Part of the problem was that rugby had been around for half a century, or more, and was firmly an element of the Welsh Establishment. The novelist Ron Berry wrote, in this vein, of playing ‘compulsory rugby in school, soccer every Saturday’. Whatever it had been, rugby struggled for popular legitimacy in the inter-war years. There were complaints of autocratic behaviour on the part of the WRU, for instance, and a general desire for clubs to be more democratic and to listen to the ideas and demands of supporters. In soccer and rugby league, supporters clubs provided the democratic backbone of the sport and rugby union followed belatedly. Pontypridd RFC’s club, for instance, was set up only after the success of the town’s rugby league supporters club had been proven in the midst of the 1926 miners’ lockout. There were other reasons, too, for soccer’s rise. In 1927, as readers will know, Cardiff City won the FA Cup; in towns such as Barry council provision for soccer far outstripped that for rugby. By 1939, the town had just one municipal rugby pitch but five for soccer. You couldn’t play league matches on the beach!

So, then, what of rugby as the Welsh game? It remains a fundamental part of the lives of South Walians, particularly those from the Valleys, who share in the collective memory of the sport and the belief that it makes us different. Rugby may be the Western Mail version of history, as some call it, but it is useful in trying to explain what marks the Welsh out from the English, the Scots, the Irish and whomever else, with due apologies, an American might confuse us with – in my own case, a New Zealander, An Australian, and a Belgian. A friend of mine, Dr Tina Parratt, has written (albeit about Haxey in Lincolnshire) that such stories ‘help to define Haxey as a particular place and Haxonians as a distinctive people, even across centuries, and to evoke feelings of belonging to the land and the locale’. That’s what rugby union football has done for South Wales.

When we strip away rugby union and look at all the other sports that have been played in the region, that have brought local pride and enthusiasm, we do realise that South Wales is a more complex society than the stereotypes imposed on us, but which we play up to, allow for. Yes, in other words, rugby was an important component of regional identity, as was coal mining, and brass bands, and the chapel, and marching in long lines behind banners. But it was always more than that. Unpicking the many threads that, woven together made up and make up South Walian identity, I believe we will come to look at the region and its past (and indeed its future) quite differently.

[The above post draws on a paper I presented at the Sport, Media, and Regional Identity Conference held at the University of Chester, Warrington Campus, last week.]