When it comes to writing history, there are times when your thoughts no longer chime with anyone else’s. For students that can be quite an unsettling experience, as it remains for professionals, but breaking the bonds of someone else’s authority is a vital step in becoming a historian in one’s own right. Today’s blog is one of those times where I’m going to go out on a limb of my own. As regular readers of historyonthedole will know, there are lots of facets of late-nineteenth/early twentieth century Wales that I’ve been working on which have generally been neglected or glossed over. All of them, in the end, point towards a Wales that was far more complicated than the neat narrative of political and linguistic change tends to allow for. Ever since I first wrote my undergraduate dissertation, I’ve been struck by the clash between the ‘Good Wales’ of Liberal Nonconformity and the ‘Bad Wales’ that is readily picked up between the lines of the newspapers and journals of the age. The Good Wales was Welsh-speaking, chapel-going, Liberal-voting, and nationalist in a ‘natural’ kind of way – it’s the Wales that appears in Kenneth Morgan’s Rebirth of a Nation, a reawakening nation. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with that picture.
After all, it’s not that difficult to present that kind of Wales as something of a Welsh-speaking theocracy governed in the interests of a particular mindset – if certain users of history today had their way, this would be the only kind of Wales worth celebrating, the Anglophone, Labour-voting “perversion” thrown completely out of the window. Of course, if you were an English immigrant who liked drinking and dancing on the weekend, you were seen as a threat both to the language, to the cultural and social integrity of the Welsh, and to the nation itself. That’s before we even consider the effects of religious difference, racial diversity, or the often hushed-up attitudes to sexuality (in all of its forms). Without embarking on parody, the less revered Liberal Nonconformist National Nineteenth-Century Wales is, the more we are able to observe its negative implications. Far from being a ‘reawakening’ as Kenneth Morgan has it, this was an age of tension, uncertainty, and struggle. Working people endeavoured to make trade unions and co-operative societies, they sought a way out of the bonds of Liberal-Nationalism through socialism and an electoral assertion of the rights of labour, and some embraced an agenda of reform that ranged widely from food on the dinner table to secularism.
I’ve written recently on the blog about vegetarianism, and in the past I’ve written about the shift in public consumption of music from light and comic opera to the more serious works of the Romantic composers, both of which I think were part of the same processes of change evident in South Wales at the end of the nineteenth century. Well, I should really be more specific, for this was not “South Wales” in its entirety but a corridor between Cardiff and Merthyr Tydfil with some outliers in Neath, Abertillery, Swansea, and Newport. Almost all of what I have previously described – and what I am about to describe – took place along the rivers Taff, Rhondda, and Cynon. That is not simply to assert a particular bias but to reflect the historical record: the Taff and its tributaries and its diverse peoples are the most important elements in Welsh history in the last two hundred years. Without this ‘world of South Wales’ few people would bother with the Welsh past at all. But I digress (to make a point).
Although the earliest secular society in Wales was founded in Abergavenny in 1864 (it lasted until 1868), the most active and high profile branch of what became the National Secular Society in 1866 was established in Cardiff in 1869. Like many organisations in this period, it had close relations with Bristol. The Cardiff Secular Society began its life as the Cardiff Association of Controversialists, a group of freethinkers and political reformers who debated the major political topics of the day. One of the key figures, the Association’s secretary, was a gas fitter and plumber called Alfred John Eddington. Born in Frome in Somerset in 1845, Eddington eventually moved to Cardiff where he made his career and married in 1868. For the next few years, Eddington served as secretary of the Secular Society in Cardiff, the city’s Republican Club (which advocated the abolition of the monarchy), and a court of the Ancient Order of Foresters. However, his enthusiasms got the better of him in 1873 when he was found guilty of stealing printing equipment from the Western Mail and was sent to prison for four months. The president of these societies and clubs was Edmund Wilkins, who had been the secretary of the Cardiff branch of the London Reform League in the late-1860s, and a key advocate of voting reform. As an aside, although entirely in keeping with the historic relationship between pubs and reform societies, by the 1880s Wilkins was running the Vulcan Inn. (The Vulcan is now housed at the St Fagans museum.)
The Cardiff Secular Society originally met at 13 Moira Crescent in Adamsdown, Eddington’s house. They were particularly active in the campaign for secular education – a distinct possibility following the 1870 Education Act – and debated with religious leaders about the validity of secular education for children; they hosted Charles Bradlaugh in the summer of 1870, a meeting attended by Dr William Price of Llantrisant; and they discussed topics such as monarchy, republicanism, women’s suffrage, and vegetarianism. To help grow the secularist movement in South Wales and the South West, members and interested parties from Aberdare, Bristol, Merthyr and Cardiff met in Cardiff in September 1872 to form the West of England and South Wales Secular Union. Efforts at forming a branch in Merthyr dated back to 1868 – although they would eventually manifest as the Merthyr Republican Club in 1872 – and the Aberdare branch had been formed in 1871. Bristol’s secularist movement was particularly advanced, absorbing not only the principles of free thought and republicanism but also the ideas of Robert Owen via the co-operator George Holyoake. In each of these contexts, but particularly in Merthyr and Bristol, secularism was bound up with radical politics and the politics of class. George Odger’s parliamentary campaign in Bristol in 1870 and Thomas Halliday’s in Merthyr four years later may both have failed but they awakened the possibilities of working-class representation. Both places, it should be remembered, had had strong Chartist branches in earlier decades.
The West of England and South Wales Secular Union was run from Cardiff by an S. Jones, who lived at 16 Moira Crescent, the proximity of his lodgings with those of Eddington is surely not an accident – although by 1873 Eddington had moved to Richmond Place in Roath, a reminder that the moving around associated with tenancy is hardly a modern phenomenon. Jones also moved regularly to places such as Helen Street and Ellen Street (more famous as the home of boxer Jim Driscoll). Like Eddington and Wilkins, Jones was active with the Cardiff Republican Club, which met at the York Hotel on the East Wharf, was interested in the distribution of secularist newspapers in South Wales, and took up the mantle of running the secular society from Eddington. Wilkins would in turn take up the running of the society from Jones.
About the branches in the coalfield, it is more difficult to provide clear details. The secretary of the Merthyr branch by 1880 was William Davies, who lived at 34 George Street (a working-class man, insofar as I can ascertain any details about him). Another point of contact, particularly for the purchase of secularist newspapers, was Thomas Davies who ran a newsagents at 84 Pontmorlais – he was also the local agent for the National Steamship Company, which ran passenger services between Liverpool and New York. The secretary of the Aberdare branch in the early 1870s was an E. Jones (not the most straightforward name to trace in the records), although by the twentieth century more familiar names emerge in that area including Will John Edwards, the author of From The Valley I Came and an important figure in adult education circles. But that is getting a little ahead in the story.
The arrival of higher education to South Wales in 1883, with the opening of the University College in Cardiff, brought a fillip to the secularist cause, and enabled local secularists to attract Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant to speak, albeit not without a degree of inevitable controversy. The college’s first chair of mathematics and astronomy, Professor Henry Tanner, was a member of the National Secular Society, the very fact of which caused great consternation amongst the Liberal-Nonconformist elites to whom Welsh education was ostensibly answerable. But the college refused to allow this to get in the way of Tanner’s appointment and at a special meeting of the governing body insisted that ‘it is one of the fundamental rules of the College, that no Professor shall be required to make any declaration as to his religious opinions’. The Nonconformists and the Anglican Archdeacon of Llandaf hit back warning that ‘many of the parents of South Wales and Monmouthshire will seriously ponder’ because of ‘the influence which a teacher scarcely ever fails to exert over his pupils’. There was further consternation when the college appointed John Stuart Mackenzie as professor of logic and philosophy in 1895 – as much for Mackenzie’s Labour politics as anything else.
The relationship between the labour movement and secularism is one that is worth exploring at this juncture. Certainly in Cardiff and Newport, the burgeoning labour movement moved in much the same circles as the secularists. In 1890, for instance, Dr ACE Parr, a leading light in the Cardiff Fabian Socialist Society, spoke to the Cardiff Secular Society on the ‘aims of socialism’ and on ‘land nationalisation’. In Newport, the working men’s radical association campaigned electorally with the town’s secular society, particularly for school board posts – the school boards being the key fault line between a religious and secular society. Now, it is often said of the British labour movement that it ‘owed more to Methodism than Marx’, an aphorism that has tended to obscure the importance of secularism and free thought to the breaking down of Liberal and Conservative (Nonconformist and Anglican) dominance over political activity, particularly in the Welsh context. It is not a coincidence, in the slightest, that those places where socialism gained its earliest adherents in Wales – mainly the Taff valley – were at the forefront of the Welsh secular movement. The one followed the other in almost perfect symmetry.
This brings me to the controversial point that I hinted at the outset of the blog, which relates to the 1904-05 Religious Revival. Young workers, writes Kenneth Morgan, ‘were deeply stirred’ by the Revival, with even the organisational models of the labour movement based on the ‘village democracy and educational traditions of the Welsh Sunday School’. The same point is made by Gwyn A. Williams, although this owes much to Morgan’s assertions. We know, of course, that many labour leaders who emerged subsequent to the Revival, men such as A.J. Cook, Arthur Horner, Noah Ablett, and John Hopla, were emboldened in their faith. Although they soon lost it – Hopla, whose Christian faith was probably the strongest of these four, shifted towards the Christian Socialist movement. But there were those who looked at the Revival with a deep sense of scepticism, and it is of no surprise to me that the period around the Revival also saw a sharp increase in the number of people involved in secular societies and ethical societies. Whatever the nature of the crisis that developed over the Edwardian period in Wales, the outcome was assuredly not an orderly transition from Liberal to Labour, from Nonconformist-Nationalist Wales to Secular-Internationalist Wales.
Even in the late-1890s, when secularists, of necessity, acknowledged the surface strength of religion in Wales, they argued that underneath that orthodoxy lay a body of secular opinion waiting to be engaged with – particularly in Merthyr, Aberdare, the Rhondda, and Pontypridd. (Those places were heavily targeted by secularist lecturers.) And in the aftermath of the Revival, the secularists believed in an inevitable secularist reaction to it and felt this would encourage their movement and the Labour cause. We know that such predictions proved accurate. Probably the most interest group to emerge out of the secularist reaction was the New Era Union in Abertillery. Established initially by J. Morris Evans, former minister at the Memorial Baptist Church, the New Era Union was an educational organisation which provided classes in the history of economics, psychology, New Testament Ideals, the evolution of the family, applied sociology, and a two-year long course on the ‘art of community development’. Part radical Christianity and part secular, the New Era Union drew on the writings of Friedrich Engels, the German economist Ernest Untermann, and used textbooks published by the Chicago publisher Kerr & Co.
Eventually Morris Evans left Abertillery for the United States and took up a post at Rochester Theological Seminary in New York before moving on to Lowville (New York) and finally Dayton, Ohio. The New Era Union gained a life of its own, however, surviving until after the First World War. Those active in its ranks included conscientious objectors such as Christopher Smith, who was corresponding secretary in 1915, and Ness Edwards, future MP for Caerphilly. The example of the New Era Union in Abertillery was very nearly copied a few miles away in Blackwood in 1918, although room books were cancelled at short notice. The New Era Society, as the Blackwood organisation was to be known, was established by J. H. Murrin, who had previously been involved (as secretary) in both the Merthyr Tydfil and Neath branches of the Ethical Society. (Murrin had also been secretary of the Liberal Club in Aberavon.) The cancellations were an attempt by the local chapels to restrict free speech and secularist activity in Blackwood and were hardly a new experience for Murrin who had faced similar problems at Neath a decade before. In response to that earlier reaction, which came in the midst of the Religious Revival, the secular press had recorded angrily of the Welsh Liberal-Nonconformist establishment that:
Welsh piety, solidly entrenched in the prejudices of the past, could not entertain that the religion of the future should be preached in the land.
(How I love that observation!)
The question to ask, by way of conclusion, is why does any of this matter particularly? After all, it hardly alters our overall perception of what happened. Perhaps. I’m inclined to believe that being aware of these movements and what they were arguing for helps us to understand that whilst some of the labour movement certainly did emerge out of the radical wings of the Liberal Party and there was a certain amount of fluidity between the two, there was another tradition which lent itself to independence of thought and action that goes back into the nineteenth century. That tradition owes little to Methodism or Marx, but Labour certainly owes much to it. It shows also that Wales, especially South Wales, and even more especially the corridor between Merthyr and Cardiff, was a battleground of ideals and ideas throughout the nineteenth century. The less settled Welsh history appears to those outside, who pretty much don’t bother to know about it, the more attractive it will be to scholars. That can only be a good thing. I suppose in the end, the less power we afford to the Liberal Nonconformist-Nationalist narrative of the nineteenth century, the more the interesting facets of nineteenth century Wales come to the surface. So much so, in fact, that we may need to embark on a great re-write.