Home Rule – a subject that’s been broadly absent from mainstream British politics since the mid-1990s, at least up until the recent Scottish referendum on independence that is. So much of the conversation revolves around the ‘English Question’ and the ‘Scottish Question’, that it’s difficult to imagine a time when the leading constitutional matters of the day focused not on England and Scotland, the two elder bedfellows of the union, but rather on Ireland and Wales, the oft-forgotten parts of the United Kingdom. Anyone familiar with the nineteenth century will have heard of the ‘Irish Question’, the push initially for Catholic Emancipation – which William Pitt the Younger had sought to include in the Act of Union right at the start of the nineteenth century – and subsequently, when that had been belatedly won in 1828, the push for Irish Home Rule. At first Ireland, under the leadership of Daniel O’Connell, sought a pragmatic solution – to break away from the United Kingdom, but retain the monarchy (sound familiar so far?) in a personal union of the crowns. With the working people of Great Britain marching in support of the People’s Charter and violent risings in Merthyr and Newport in 1831 and 1839 (respectively), the governments of the day were not about to yield to pressure to alter the newly settled status quo. The United Kingdom, as it had been formed by the Act of Union in 1800 and the subsequent constitutional reforms of the 1820s, was going nowhere.

At the time, no-one really imagined that a Home Rule campaign would ever find its voice in Wales. After all, Wales had been staunchly cavalier during the Civil War and remained broadly loyalist ever since. But the nation was undergoing significant changes that transformed its population. Villages and hamlets, notable for their tiny populations at the start of the nineteenth century, mushroomed into sizeable towns within a generation. Cardiff, which was a modest town of little more than 15,000 in 1801, had doubled its size by 1841, and by the end of the century had a population in excess of a quarter of a million. In Swansea, too, the pattern was similar: from a town of around 18,000 in 1801 to one of nearly 120,000 a century later. So it was in Newport, too, where nearly 11,000 people lived in 1801, but over 115,000 lived in 1901. And then there were the iron towns of the heads of the valleys – the Blaenau, as it is in Welsh. Tredegar, leaping from little more than 1,000 people in 1801 to over 40,000 a century later; Pontypool growing from nearly 6,500 to over 45,000 in a century; and, most spectacularly of all, Merthyr Tydfil, ironopolis, the classic industrial town, where less than 14,000 people lived in 1801 but by 1901 over 135,000 people made it their home.

Rapid change of that kind alters perceptions of the world. If you were truly unlucky and arrived in Merthyr in 1830 with no money at all, you might find yourself living in a district of the town called ‘the Cellars’. Here, crammed into a space you could walk the length of in not much more than ten minutes, lived 1,500 people in single-room stone shacks measuring 4’ 6” by 7”. Gutters ran beneath the floor so that every day of your life you lived with the stench of effluence. Here there was just one privy to share amongst 100 people and those who preferred not to bother seeking it out would simply throw their waste onto spare land; there it would lie, rotting, for anything up to five years, before someone from the local board of health came to clear it away. But you weren’t alone. By the mid-1840s, nearly two-thirds of all the houses in Manchester were connected to a mains water supply; in Merthyr not a single house was. When cholera swept through Britain in 1849, only one place had a worse death rate than Merthyr: Hull, where ships brought the sick and unwell from abroad and amplified the situation until it got out of hand.

And yet, perhaps it is surprising that one of those who might have been expected to appreciate calls for Home Rule for Wales, Henry Richard, could never quite find the enthusiasm for it. Indeed, as the Spectator put it in 1889, ‘we cannot find that he was ever in favour of the crowning folly of Welsh Home-rule’. He was, however, in favour of a distinctive measure of Welsh freedom: disestablishmentarianism, which is where Home Rule for Wales really begins.

Henry Richard MP (1812-1888) Known as 'The Apostle of Peace', Richard was a keen advocate of Welsh Disestablishment but a critic of Home Rule. Promotion of the former, however, accelerated calls for the latter.
Henry Richard MP (1812-1888)
Known as ‘The Apostle of Peace’, Richard was a keen advocate of Welsh Disestablishment but a critic of Home Rule. Promotion of the former, however, accelerated calls for the latter. Source: Wales Online

Born in 1812 in the Cardiganshire village of Tregaron, some 18 miles south-east of Aberystwyth, Henry Richard grew up in a Calvinist Methodist household and imbibed the religious values of his father, Ebenezer Richard. Aged 18, he went to London to study theology and train for ministry in the chapel culture in which he had been brought up. His first job was at Marlborough Chapel in London, to which he was appointed in 1835. There he remained for nearly fifteen years, increasingly involved in the work of the Peace Society, which had been founded in London in 1816. Upon his appointment as secretary of the society in 1848, Richard found himself in the challenging position of balancing a busy nonconformist chapel with his peace work, a situation he solved by resigning his ministry. Little of this peace work was particularly focused on Wales: that changed in the early 1860s when he was drawn into the question of disestablishment of the Church of England by his membership of the Liberation Society, at other times known as the British Anti-State Church Association.

The year 1862 was chosen to mark the bicentenary of Protestant dissent by the Liberation Society, and they did so by holding a major conference in Swansea at which Henry Richard was one of the key speakers. Two hundred years earlier, in 1662, the Act of Uniformity had been passed by parliament prescribing the rites and forms of Anglican worship and requiring episcopal ordination, which had been abolished by Cromwell and his puritan allies during the Commonwealth. When as many as 2,000 Protestant ministers refused to accept ordination on such terms, the act of nonconformity became enshrined. Not everyone welcomed the bicentenary, nor the agitation on the part of the Liberation Society. The Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, for example, noted that ‘the Church of England is more acceptable than ever. The forms of prayers adopted are applicable to “all states and conditions of men”, and are compiled in conformity with the heavenly wisdom which is the only criterion of truth and holiness’. But there were those, particularly in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, sympathetic to the work of the Liberation Society and their desire to disestablish the Church of England. As the Cardiff Times argued, ‘this conference, if wisely managed, may become the commencement of a new era in the history of Welsh dissent’.

It may be said that the Liberation Society caught the winds of change. As Henry Richard reflected at the conference in Swansea, ‘up to this time, Wales, thoroughly Nonconformist as it is, has borne no part worthy of its numbers, and of the influence, and the zeal, and the liberality of its Dissenting communities in the great fight for religious liberty’. And so the Aberdare Times a fortnight later could suggest that ‘the number of young ministers present […] may be regarded as a pledge that the work will be carried on by a new generation, who are abreast of the times in knowledge, in sympathy, and in practical aim’. Branches of the Liberation Society became active in Aberdare, Pontypool, Merthyr Tydfil, Tredegar, and Swansea. The first fires of Home Rule had been lit by a new, radical generation of nonconformist ministers. It was a genie that refused to be put back in its lamp – especially in Wales and Ireland, a point emphasised by Richard whenever he attended meetings of the Liberation Society or the Welsh National Reform Association. Their aim, of course, was breaking the bonds between Church and State, but the principle of self-governance which they espoused so eloquently soon came to mean something quite different.

Six years later, following the passage of the Second Reform Act by the Conservatives in 1867, the Liberal Party stood on the verge of finally securing the political representation of Wales that they had long been prevented from achieving by the restricted nature of the parliamentary franchise. Redistribution of seats under the 1867 Act had provided Merthyr with an additional member, and the Liberals of the borough determined that Henry Richard should stand in the 1868 General Election. The boundaries of Merthyr Boroughs extended from Ynysybwl and Abercynon in the south to Merthyr Tydfil, Aberdare, and Dowlais in the north. From a restricted franchise of just 1,300 after the 1831 Reform Act, there were now potentially 13,000 or so on the electoral register, predominantly colliers and ironworkers. The election campaign was vigorous and excited the enthusiasm of thousands across the constituency. At one meeting in Hirwaun, for instance, more than 1,000 people turned out to hear speeches in favour of Richard’s candidacy – he wasn’t even present. Little wonder then that Richard was overwhelmingly elected by voters. ‘This was’, wrote Ieuan Gwynedd Jones a century later, ‘no borderline victory, no scraping home on a few dubious votes, but a massive victory of quite extraordinary proportions when by every calculation of the political pundits he should have come a poor second’.

With Henry Richard in parliament and nonconformist desire to throw off the yolk of the Anglican Church firmly on the agenda, it was not long – three years, in fact – before Home Rule crept onto the political table in Wales. Richard himself insisted at the Welsh Liberal Conference in Aberystwyth in 1871 that ‘no portion of the country was more loyal to her Majesty’ and that Home Rule for Wales was ‘a most absurd idea’. He believed in having a Welsh party – as there was an Irish Parliamentary Party, and might yet be a Scottish Parliamentary Party – but only to voice in parliament to Welsh issues. His remarks were echoed by colleagues. But the issue did not go away; in fact it flared up in Henry Richard’s home village of Tregaron less than ten years after his election as MP. The point of contention that sparked the campaign was a public appointment, the master of the workhouse – a job that attracted a £100 salary. ‘An appointment in Tregaron worth more than £100 a year’, remarked the local newspaper, the Cambrian News, ‘and a man is fetched all the way from Merthyr Tydfil to fill it’. The angry correspondent continued:

We the inhabitants and ratepayers of Tregaron Union are so disgusted with the attempts made the Local Government Board to take away our ancient rights and privileges, as made clear by the forcing upon us of a workhouse, and more especially by the taking from us our right to appoint our friends and dependents to all profitable public situations that we have instructed our county member, without delay, to join the Home Rule Obstructionists in the House of Commons. We are also determined to have Home Rule for Wales, and the first Welsh Parliament at Tregaron.

The following year, a letter appeared in the Welsh press from a H. Stephen Price, resident in Chelsea but otherwise signing himself ‘a Welsh descendant’, calling openly for Home Rule. ‘I believe that the Welsh people desire to be prosperous’, he wrote, ‘and Home Rule would be eminently conducive to the prosperity of the Principality, and should become the aim of Welshmen’. He went on to list ten reasons why this should be so. At number one was this: ‘because Wales deserved greater prominence in the National Councils’. Thereafter, the complaint that Wales was poorly treated by parliament was a common one. The Herald Cymraeg went one further:

We have no desire to gain notoriety in the same field as Parnell and Co., but we must admit that our sympathy is with the oppressed […] We believe that whatever the complaints and grievances of Ireland, ours in Wales are greater; but although we are oppressed by proud landholders and the Saxon Government, we prefer to suffer quietly than to create a row as the Irishman does. Poor John Jones! What an inoffensive old man he is. […] The parliament in London can never do justice to us as separate and distinct nationalities, with our particular form of religion, separate language, customs and requirements. […] Justice therefore demands for us the right of being allowed to govern ourselves as we think proper.

The hopes of the Home Rule movement rested on the Liberal Party, for ‘a Welsh Tory is a bastard, and a wretched sycophant unworthy of his country and of his ancestors’. Little has changed about that particular opinion. And yet, whilst Home Rule rattled on for the rest of the century, bubbling just under the surface of the Irish Question that so marked British constitutional affairs until Ireland’s independence was won, bloodily, in the aftermath of the First World War, Wales was largely ignored. Ignored that is, except in the field of religion, which is what had sparked the debate in the first place. When Home Rule was granted to Ireland on 18 September 1914, its partner bill was for Welsh Disestablishment. The integration of Irish and Welsh matters is a defining feature of the late-nineteenth century and is demonstrative of the rebellious nature of the two nations. Whilst Wales was never quite as enamoured with direct action or physical force nationalism, as Ireland later became, the two nations and their ‘Questions’ were entwined in a way that historians haven’t really paid much attention to, partly because so much of the debate in Wales was conducted in Welsh. But that’s a story for another day.