Captain Tupper, leader of the Cardiff Seamen's Union, speaking during the 1911 dock strike in the city. Copyright: Cardiff Central Library Local Studies.
Captain Tupper, leader of the Cardiff Seamen’s Union, speaking during the 1911 dock strike in the city. Copyright: Cardiff Central Library Local Studies.


The process of writing a large book, which has to act both as synthesis of existing work and your own research and ideas, is a relatively lonely one. QWERTY keyboards are only really designed for single-person inputs and ideas are shaped by individual experiences and motives. Since the expiration of my (admittedly temporary) contract at Huddersfield University six months ago, I’ve been working solidly on a history of the labour movement in Wales since the time of the Chartist risings of the 1830s. I have no doubt that this is motivated by a commitment to the labour movement and a sense that the current labour movement, unbothered as it seems to be by the legacies of its past, save for the health service, don’t really seem to understand why they aren’t guaranteed to win election after election. This is, in many ways, the historian in Gramscian mode.

But it is not a happy position to be in. For whilst the history of the Welsh labour movement is often triumphal, such triumphs normally take place at moments of deep crisis. The impression to be gained from taking a longue durée reconnaissance of labour’s Welsh past is this: that in the moments of calm (of which there are, it has to be said, relatively few) the labour movement advances little, but in moments of severe crisis it is always there at the head of the crowd. There were the co-operatives that pushed themselves to the wall to support workers locked out of their chainworks, ironworks, copperworks, docks, department stores, factories, or collieries. There were the Scotch Cattle who terrorised ‘scabs’ and ‘blacklegs’ instilling in them a fear of breaking ranks and accepting lower pay and conditions which undermined every other worker in the community. There were the forgotten trades councils, buoyed on by radical newspapers, which spoke of atheism, women’s labour organisation, and the abandonment of the Liberal yolk, decades before the Welsh labour movement is supposed to have begun. There’s a nationalist strand and, unavoidably given massive immigration, an internationalist strand. The context of Welsh labour’s emergence is unavoidably four nations.

At times, too, given the cross border entanglements of the Chartists, the trades unions, and the political forces of organised labour, it can seem that Wales does not exist. In this I’m reminded of those words penned by Gwyn Alf Williams:

The notion which must, at some time or other, afflict any Welshman who tries to write the history of his own country: how comfortable it must be to belong to a people which does not have to shout at the top of its voice to convince itself that it exists.

This is particularly true when writing about the labour movement. For, in fact, there is no single-authored monograph examining the long history of the Welsh labour movement. There are dozens of monographs that colour in various aspects of what went on but the closest we come to a detailed depiction is Chris Williams’s Democratic Rhondda published back in 1996. This is unquestionably the most impressive book of Welsh history published in the last twenty years and it broke a considerable amount of new ground. Yet it leaves open a large number of questions, not the least of which is ‘was the Rhondda the leading light of change or but one part of the wider mosaic of radicalism’? The answer to that question has motivated my research and the writing of my new book.

As I’ve been compiling the various chapters, a number of themes have emerged. The most significant is that, contrary to pretty much everything that has been written about the nature of the Welsh labour movement in recent years, this was a radical contributor to the forces of organised labour and from early only, too. The key difficulty for historians from outside of Wales who look at its nineteenth-century organisation is that this was a bilingual society and so much of the debate on union organisation, co-operation, and wider labour relations, took place in the Welsh language. Unless you learn to read it, to read the imagery and coded rhetoric, then you cannot hope to really grasp what was going on. This makes Wales unlike any other part of the United Kingdom (including Ireland in those days, of course). In this, I am minded of a masterful essay by Ieuan Gwynedd Jones in which he observes:

The language […became] a way of expressing social difference: in particular, it marked them off from the English aristocracy and the anglicising middle-classes. Closely associated with this was the function which language had for them of expressing national differences: it was a symbol and more than a symbol, for only in this language was the heroic past encapsulated, and only this language could bind the present in an organic continuum with the past. This led on, finally, to the function of the language as establishing class differences, or, put in another way, of stimulating the growth of class consciousness. The Welsh language was a precious and singular possession of workers at a time when the inhuman, dehumanising and brutalising forces of industrialism were alienating them from nature and from society. […] It heightened the consciousness of the people, gave them self-confidence and pride in themselves precisely at the time when all else seem[ed] to conspire to reduce them to the level of slaves.

The Welsh language provided a rhetoric of community and solidarity that it took a long time for English political rhetoric to surpass. After all, that most essential of Welsh-language roots, Cymry (meaning ‘the Welsh’), derives from the ancient Brythonic combrogi meaning fellow-countryman. In this regard, I’m mindful of the recent epic tome by Thomas Charles-Edwards on Wales and the Britons, which lays out clearly the shifting relationships of the Cymry with those around them. Of course things were more sophisticated, since there was vigorous debate about what sort of nation Wales should be – whether the industrial revolution, which had brought about such severe changes, should be accepted or not. And there was undoubted racism and xenophobia directed not just at the English but also at the Irish, although this seems almost certain to have been a response to the fragility of economic circumstances as much as pure spite, as this snippet from the journal of Lady Charlotte Guest suggests:

June 19 [1834] … There came a letter this morning, threatening to “Scotch Cattle” […] unless all the Irish were discharged from the Works.

The reason we may suggest that this was economic rather than purely xenophobic is because the Irish played such a crucial role in the formation of the labour movement. The great Chartist leader, Fergus O’Connor, a native of West Cork, is undoubtedly at the forefront but hidden in friendly society returns and in the newspapers are further examples of the strong relationship between the Irish and Welsh labour organisation. To place this into context I have been working out the implications of what I call the ‘Irish Sea World’ – a metaphor which insists on the validity (indeed, necessity) of Wales’s relationship with Ireland relative to Ireland’s relationship with Scotland and England. In many ways, Ireland and Wales are the forgotten twins of the United Kingdom project – they were certainly the most radical, troublesome parts of the Kingdom from the 1790s onwards.

So where am I after six months of work? As will be apparent, I’m mired in a very complicated story which has challenged my own skills as a historian quite considerably (hooray for that). I’m surrounded by piles of paper, books marked with torn up train tickets, and pencil notes scratched down whilst sat in the welcoming confines of the Glamorgan Archives. My argument, however, is quite firm – that the Welsh labour movement is both older than most people realise and that its origins lie not in the genteel debates of intellectuals but in the raw, terrorising realities of the industrial revolution. In this way, the fear of economic collapse that drove the Scotch Cattle to break into ‘scabs’ houses, break their windows, and fire pistols leaded with stones, can be directly linked to the circumstances which saw smashed shops on the streets of Tonypandy in 1910, Cardiff, Tredegar, Rhymney and Bargoed in 1911, and so forth. They can be linked, too, to the imposition of fear on the ‘scabs’ of the 1921 and 1926 lockouts – the use of different tactics is apparent, to be sure, but painting a house pitch black was no less a sign of intent than drawing a Tarw Scotch hieroglyph on someone’s door.

But I’m mindful, also, that this all had to come to an end. And it certainly did come to an end with the outbreak of the Second World War. The labour movement after 1945 is significantly removed from the labour movement before the war, and herein lies the quiescence and (perhaps inevitable) decline that we witness today. Key to this is a consideration of the role of the co-operative movement, not least because the co-ops remind us of the singular importance of mutualism to the labour movement. It finds echoes in the argument I laid out in my PhD: that ‘municipalism’ and ‘statism’ were accidental keystones which came about because of the financial pressures of the 1930s. In short, the labour movement were so concerned that they would lose everything they had gained and so placed their faith in the state. That wasn’t really what they had been fighting for – only in a few areas of policy was nationalisation the favoured outcome, notably healthcare, education, transportation and select heavy industries such as coal. They certainly did not intend the emasculation of local government or localism in general. After all, it had been local government (labour-controlled, of course) that held the line against major cuts in the 1920s and 1930s; that had gone above and beyond statutory minimums because it was the right thing to do; that had endeavoured to shield the vulnerable from the worst ravages of Conservative-directed Whitehall nastiness.

Not so now.

But then I suppose I should be grateful for Labour’s present failures, because it makes their past seem much more fulfilling. The trouble with that is I stop writing, turn on the telly or the radio, and start wishing that Nye Bevan and Jim Griffiths were here today to teach a few lessons in radical action.

We need that more than ever.