The result of the coming of heavy industry to south Wales in the 19th century could not have been foreseen, especially its twofold effect on the language and social life of the area. First, with so many Welsh speakers moving into the area in search of jobs, bringing their language (and their chapels) with them, a Welsh culture survived in many fields of valley activity.
Such a heavy toll came to so manyareas of the southern valleys. In the counties of Glamorgan and Monmouth, the long, verdant valleys quickly filled up with factories, mills, coal mines, iron smelting works (and later, steel works), roads, railways, canals, and above all, people. Houses began to spread along the narrow hillsides, filling every available space upon which a house could be set, small houses, crammed together in row after row, street after street, town after town all strung together on the valley floor. Houses separated only spasmodically by the grocery store, the somber, grey chapel, or the public house. Above them all loomed the blackened hillsides and the slag heaps of waste coal or industrial refuse. And all this brought about by the discovery of coal.
In the southern valleys, an Anglo-Welsh character came into being; one that came to dominate the political, social and literary life of Wales, and it was here also that a new and particular kind of Welshness was forged, symbolized by the cloth-capped, heavy drinking, strike-prone, English-speaking, rugby fanatic of the Valleys..To such a character, and to a certain extent, to the majority of the three large urban areas of Cardiff, Swansea and Newport, the people of the West and North, the Bible-toting, chapel-going, teetotal, parsimonious, and above all Welsh-speaking were totally alien beings who might have come from another planet. The repercussions are felt strongly today as only one in five of the inhabitants of Wales use Welsh as a language of everyday affairs.
In other areas, the Welsh language had been in decline for over 100 years. In Flintshire, so near to the large urban areas of Merseyside and Cheshire there had long been deliberate attempts to stamp out the Welsh language.
Other areas did not suffer the loss of the language.
Some of the letters published in The Cambrian in the mid 19th Century show an attitude of many Englishmen towards the Welsh language that has persisted until today. In one of them, the writer was amused by the proposal to have the infant Prince of Wales (eldest son of Queen Victoria), instructed in the Welsh language. He wrote that the prince, by trying to pronounce the Welsh "ll" or "ch" would be perceived as having spasmodic affections of the bronchial tubes "that would lead to quinsy or some terrible disease of the lungs and jugulum and would alarm everyone."
By the middle of the 19th century, Victoria's views notwithstanding, the tide was running heavily against Welsh. In 1842, a Royal Commission, looking into the state of education in Wales, noted that some Welsh boys employed at mines in Breconshire were learning to read English at Sunday School, but that they could speak only Welsh. This was intolerable to the commissioners.
It was demanded in Parliament that an inquiry be conducted into the means afforded to the laboring classes of Wales to acquire a knowledge of the English tongue. The report of the Commissioners of Inquiry for South Wales in 1844 lamented the fact that "The people's ignorance of the English language practically prevents the working of the laws and institutions and impedes the administration of justice." It didn't seem to occur to the commissioners that it was their own ignorance of the language that was obstructing justice!
The report led to another Royal Commission, conducted in 1847, which was to have a lasting effect on the cultural and political life of Wales. The report, in three volumes bound in blue covers, has become known as Brad y Llyfrau Gleision (The Treachery of the Blue Books, for the three young and inexperienced lawyers who conducted the report had no understanding of the Welsh language, nor, it seems, did they understand non-conformity in religious matters.
Bright, intelligent and well-read Welsh-speaking children were unable to understand the questions put to them in English, and the surveyors pig-headedly assumed that this was due to their ignorance. Their report lamented what they considered to be the sad state of education in Wales, the too-few schools, their deplorable condition, the unqualified teachers, the lack of supplies and suitable English texts, and the irregular attendance of the children. All these were attributed, along with dirtiness, laziness, ignorance, superstition, promiscuity and immorality: to Nonconformity, but in particular to the Welsh language.
One result, of course, of the publication of such "facts" led to so many of its speakers being made to feel ashamed and embarrassed. The effects of the controversy thus stirred up has lasted up until today; it certainly did much ot bolster the position of those who agreed with much of the report and who saw the language as the biggest drawback to the people of Wales. One drastic remedy, the imposition of English-only Board Schools did much to further has ten the decline of Welsh over a great part of the country. In these schools, as in Flintshire a half century earlier, the "Welsh Not" rule was imposed with severe penalties for speaking Welsh, including the wearing of a wooden board, the old "Welsh lump" around one's neck.
In Caernarfon, Gwynedd, an area still predominantly Welsh-speaking in the 1990's, there is a high school named after Sir Hugh Owen, a pioneer in education in Wales. Owen's untiring efforts to secure a university for Wales led to a commission to promote the idea in 1854, the university itself to be established through voluntary contributions. Owen's pleas to the government for financial help were unheeded, and it was public subscription that brought to fruition the old dream of Owain Glyndwr. In 1872 Aberystwyth University opened its doors to twenty-six students in a very impressive building on the seafront designed as a hotel, but which was fortunately vacant at the time. For the first few years of its existence, the college depended greatly on voluntary contributions from the nonconformist chapels, but it attracted many who would come to have profound influence on the culture of their nation. In so many areas it provided the foundations that led to the national revival of Wales in the late 1890's.
The work of Owen M.