In 1982, Gwyn A. Williams published an essay titled ‘Imperial South Wales’ in which he examined the economic and demographic changes to Wales that followed the ‘Second Industrial Revolution’ after 1870. The departure point for Gwyn Alf’s piece was the work of Brinley Thomas, notably his 1954 work Migration and Economic Growth: A Study of Great Britain and the Atlantic Economy which (as the title implies) analyses the interactions and inter-migrations between Britain and the United States in the nineteenth century Atlantic. Thomas’s primary contention – that ‘it is instructive to regard the Atlantic community of nations as one economy’ – has, to some extent, informed my own work on the Atlantic as an oceanic borderland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (although my preference is more for understanding the social, rather than economic, forces at play). Thomas pushed beyond the boundaries of national economic histories to see a world of interaction, the makings of what we would now recognise as ‘globalisation’, and the fundamental role of labour mobility to its construction and maintenance. The great implication of this work, I’ve always felt, is essentially the fallacy of ‘the nation’ in an interconnected world.

One of Brinley Thomas’s conclusions which I wanted pick up on for today’s blog (primarily as a departure point) is his view that the 1890s ‘was the end of one epoch and the beginning of another’: in essence the breakdown of British dominance over global trade and the rise of powerful rivals such as Germany and, most especially, the United States. That remaking of the Atlantic economy, however, was ultimately fatally undermined by the economic turmoil of the late-1920s and early 1930s. All three nations found themselves caught up in that turbulence: Germany most disastrously. For those familiar with Eric Hobsbawm’s division of the nineteenth century – classically defined by his ‘Age of’ trilogy The Age of Revolution (1789-1848), The Age of Capital (1848-1875), The Age of Empire (1875-1914), but equally in his Industry and Empire – his demarcation point was typically at some point in the 1870s, rather than two decades later as in Brinley Thomas’s estimation. The implications of the 1870s as the turning point for Hobsbawm were social, political, and cultural, quite as much as they were economic. It was in this period that the sporting revolution really got going, it was in this period that socialist ideas began to germinate and the principles of trade union solidarity came to the fore, and the classic image of the British proletariat first presented itself.

The making of this working class, ‘the working class of cup finals, fish-and-chip shops, palais-de-danse and Labour with a Capital L’, Hobsbawm famously argued, began in the 1870s. Sure enough as we look to the literature on fish-and-chips, notably John Walton’s utterly brilliant book on the subject, it begins in 1870. Tony Mason’s impressive work on soccer may start with the FA’s establishment in 1863 but it’s really a book that begins to drive forward in the next decade. And so on it continues. The only major sporting code ‘made’ in the 1890s, at least from the perspective of the working class in Britain was rugby league, but the origins of that ‘great split’ go back two decades. To all intents and purposes this popular ‘Andy Capp’ sense of working class Britain in its heyday coincides with one of the enduring images of the ‘Victorian period’. It’s not quite the Dickensian imagery employed frequently by television, film, and literature, but it is a vision of nineteenth century life that remains potent nevertheless. It’s probable, on some levels, that Hobsbawm and Thomas are right: the 1870s undoubtedly saw the beginnings of a second industrial revolution and the effects of that on working-class life are readily observed; and the turn of the century certainly did witness the shift from a monopolised global economy to a multipolar one. The challenge for historians of the grassroots is to somehow try and link the two together.

As a ‘longue durée’ historian by instinct, albeit from the point of view of the inter-war years as the crucial pivot of the modern period, the nineteenth century looms large in my research. I count a good number of nineteenth century specialists in my academic circles and I try and keep up with the literature – and the blogs – as much as possible. And so reading through the debate over on the Journal of Victorian Culture blog about what Victorian studies is all about, I’m struck by the absence of the Hobsbawmian idea of the period in the debate (even though when you switch into nineteenth-century sports history pieces it’s there in abundance). The clue, I suspect, lies in Peter Andersson’s recent article ‘How Civilized was the Victorian Period’ which reminds us, or explains to outsiders to the field, that Victorian Studies leans heavily towards literary-cultural approaches to the past. As he writes, it preferences ‘literary and published texts as source material [which] has led to an inclination towards literate perspectives in Victorian scholarship, making it difficult for studies of living conditions and everyday life to break through’. Well, if I put my slight spin on it, that explains what happened to Hobsbawm and his army of Andy Capps.

Or is it?

In her response, Lucie Matthews-Jones wonders ‘if the perceived theoretical underpinnings of a literary Victorian Studies have been one of the reasons why fellow historians have stayed away’. I suspect she’s quite right. Literary-cultural history, which to me (and I stress that this is a personal view) seems wantonly devoid of contextualisation and the nuances evident in social and political history, is not an inviting thing to read. My approach to the nineteenth-century, much like my approach to the twentieth, is very much influenced by Hobsbawm, probably more than any other major historian. That is to say, the fusion of economic, demographic, social, political, and to some extent cultural, evidence to produce work that is about grassroots politics and social activity. It may be old fashioned ‘social history’, but wheels for which we have to theorise the necessity of the spokes just aren’t very good for travelling with.

Like many historians, I enjoy following through family historians on genealogy websites. Every so often I make a breakthrough with my own family tree and add a few more generations pushing back certain branches of the family to the early 1500s, and most of the others to around the 1700 mark. This isn’t as difficult for me, with quite an unusual surname, and a family tree full of unusual surnames, as it is for those called Jones, Evans or Smith, admittedly. My family is thoroughly typical of nineteenth century experience: for centuries they had barely moved anywhere: my paternal-paternal line remained in east Devon, my maternal-paternal line over the border in Somerset not much more than twenty miles away, and my maternal-maternal line lived near the Dorset coast. All of them were farm labourers, or skilled workers like stone masons and carpenters. The only primary branch of the family who did not come from the South West of England was my paternal-maternal line which is Scottish: one half from the Highlands, the other from Dumfries. They all ended up in the industrial heartland of Renfrewshire over the course of the nineteenth century.

But let me turn to the West Country lot. Three counties, then: Somerset, Devon, and Dorset. For the literary-cultural scholar this is familiar territory, it forms the bulk of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. But for the historian, they are much less travelled. In 1851, the South West of England (defined by the census enumerators as Wiltshire, Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, and Somerset) had a total population of 1,803,706. This was nearly 700,000 more than the entire population of Wales at that point (the Welsh population being 1,188,821). By far the most populous county in the South West was Devon, accounting for over 570,000 men and women (figures here have been rounded for ease for reading). Somerset (456,000) was then followed by Cornwall (357,000), Wiltshire (241,000) and finally Dorset (178,000). In fifty years, the region had grown by around sixty percent, a sizeable rate of increase that outstripped what was going on in Wales and the South East of England, but which was slowing down enormously by the middle of the century. Population increase across the South West between 1841 and 1851 was less than 60,000; ten years earlier it had been 145,000. In the second half of the century it failed to match the rate of growth evident in the first half.

The chart below, which maps the counties of the South West (as the enumerators conceived the region) together with Glamorgan and Monmouthshire, is illustrative and instructive. All of the counties experience similar degrees of growth in the first half of the nineteenth century, but the acceleration of Glamorgan’s population (and in a more modest way those of Monmouthshire and Devon) result in fluctuations in the neighbouring counties.

Regional Population of South Wales and South West England
Regional Population of South Wales and South West England

Let’s take a closer look at what was going on. To do this I’ve chosen to compare Glamorgan and Somerset for reasons that I hope will become clear in the course of the discussion that follows. Somerset in 1901 was a chiefly rural county with a few major centres of population: Bath, Taunton, and Weston-Super-Mare. For every 10,000 males aged 10 and over living in Somerset in 1901, some 2,000 worked in agriculture, roughly 1,000 in construction and building, and around 800 on the railway or other forms of transport. The vast majority of those living in the county in 1901 had been born there, with only modest immigration from neighbouring counties (chiefly from Devon) and relatively little from elsewhere (Scotland, Ireland, or abroad). Glamorgan, on the other hand, was different. Although a large proportion of those living in Glamorgan had been born there, the county also had a considerable influx of immigration, especially from Somerset itself. No other county in England had contributed as many of its people to Wales’s most populous county – only Carmarthenshire and Monmouthshire contributed more. The effects of that drain can be seen on the chart.

But they can also be seen in my family history. If I scroll back to the 1870s, my family were living, as I said above, in Dorset and Somerset (the Devon family having migrated northwards slightly). They were working on farms and living much the same way as their ancestors had for centuries. The generation born in that decade could have expected to grow up and carry on like that. But that did not happen. My paternal-paternal great-great grandfather, married in his twenties, got a job as a guard on the railway which saw him move to Taunton – the first generation on that side to live in a town. His son, after a period working for the railway in Taunton and Newport, ended up as a policeman in the Glamorgan Constabulary. My maternal-maternal great-great grandfather did something similar. (I should add here, they were born within a year of each other in the early 1870s.) He grew up in rural Dorset but sometime around 1890 had moved to the Rhondda to find work in the pits. He too was married in his mid-twenties and lived in a terraced house in Pentre. In the interwar years, his son escaped the poverty and unemployment of the Rhondda by moving to Bristol. My maternal-paternal great-great grandfather, although born in the 1890s exhibits the same migratory pattern: he settled near Ebbw Vale.

The reason for this migration is immediately obvious, of course: the second wave of industrialisation in Glamorgan from the 1870s onwards. This made Wales – and by this, of course, we really mean South Wales (defined here as Glamorgan and Monmouthshire) – different from other parts of the United Kingdom. Writes Gwyn Alf: ‘it was this immigration into the valleys of south Wales which caused a social, linguistic and political revolution and has led some reluctantly to conclude that Wales has become two nations’. None of my family who moved into Wales in that period spoke a word of Welsh, they were monoglot Anglophones and remained so. The subsequent generation may have learned some Welsh in school but for all intents and purposes it was never going to form a major part of their lives, particularly as many of them left Wales again typically to live in Somerset or Bristol.

This is all something of a personalised rehearsal of a familiar historical tale, none of what I’ve said above will be a surprise to anyone. But what were the effects of Glamorgan’s rise to be the economic engine of Britain’s south-western region, and its dramatic fall? There are plenty of ways of looking at this, but I wish to focus on just two here: solidarity in the labour movement (a la Hobsbawm’s method) and the development of regional consciousness (something that has been little explored – almost certainly deliberately, a charge I’ll return to shortly). The former is quite straightforward to explain. In the course of my research for my book The Lost World: South Wales, 1830-1985, I’ve spent considerable time in Bristol Record Office and Bristol Central Library, together with their equivalents in Somerset. These aren’t places that Welsh historians normally go to, particularly for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which is to be regretted. It also opens up a major gap in our knowledge. In the 1870s, a decade marked by labour disputes and the first attempts at building trades and labour councils in South Wales, the working people of Bristol – then, and still, the largest urban centre in the South West of Britain – provided solidarity, financial support, and umbrella organisations for the burgeoning South Walian labour movement.

In his work, The Miners of South Wales, Eric Evans complained that the amalgamated miners unions, which were typically based in the north of England, provided little solidarity during the strikes and turbulence of the early 1870s. This, he argued, resulted in the Welsh labour movement taking a long time to coalesce. At first glance, he’s quite right. The same kinds of complaints were made in the 1920s about rugby league, even: the north of England clubs didn’t really care about what was going on in South Wales – it was too far away. He failed to look at what was going on in Bristol. There workers set up special collecting committees to raise money and food to send to miners on strike across the South Wales Coalfield. It is a pattern of solidarity repeated time and time again, from the hunger marches of the interwar years all the down to the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5. When the first Cardiff Trades Council fell apart in the 1880s, workers in the city were welcomed with open arms by the Bristol Trades Council. Migration provided one mechanism by which people in Bristol knew about events in South Wales, as did trade, but it was also fundamental to the transfer of knowledge that offices of the primary South Walian newspapers were opened in the heart of Bristol’s print district, not on some fringe area of the city. It was just as easy to buy a copy of the South Wales Daily News, the Western Mail, or a number of Monmouthshire papers, in the centre of Bristol as it was in the centre of Merthyr Tydfil. This was an identifiable region that worked as a region: the channel was not a barrier, nor was it a real boundary between one “nation” and another.

If, then, we are looking again at the Victorian period – both on its own terms, in the context of changing historiographical approaches, the four nations drive, and contemporary politics – looking to understand how the processes of solidarity that Hobsbawm identified all those years ago came to define regions and provided means of understanding the changing world of the period after 1870 is surely part of that re-evaluation. It does not help that active study of the late nineteenth-century in both South Wales and the South West has somewhat stagnated over the decades as interests turn to other parts of the British Isles and to other periods. The two nations idea of Wales over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is one I quite agree with, but it’s not really about nations in the end – it’s about regions. I’ve written elsewhere about borderlands and the usefulness of that approach to our understanding of grassroots political and social activity. No British region benefits from this kind of approach more than Glamorgan and Monmouthshire on the one hand and the counties of the South West of England on the other. Doing so provides a challenge to the “nationalist” status quo in historiography – by this I mean the study of history that is defined by ‘national’ parameters, rather than something more sinister.

It’s often been remarked that Welsh historians don’t have storming debates – not really true, but the idea still gets bandied about now and then – but here’s the great challenge of our day: to move beyond ‘national’ history. This isn’t about one nation against another – Britain versus Wales; England versus Wales; England versus Britain – but about the very model of history that proceeds from ‘the national’. Stefan Berger in his most recent book has argued that national history has, in essence, won out over all other models. If true, this is to be lamented. But I don’t think it really is. As we all teach our students, the Marxist mode of history emphasises the dialectic. I’ve long wondered how we move forward if our dialectical equations only posit something like this: Thesis – Britain; Antithesis – Wales; Synthesis…??? What comes next? After all, it’s really an equation that offers the following: T= Nation; A= Nation; S= Nation. And that offers nothing at all. So I offer the antithesis of the nation – the Region. Let’s see where it gets us. It was, was it not, my family business.