Monday, 22 February 2016

Rape of the Fair Country (Welsh History)

Last week I wrote about the industrial explosion in Wales. It brought prosperity and massive change to the area, but it wasn't all roses. The immense explosion of ore smelting and related industries in Wales, particularly South Wales, meant there was a huge need for manpower, and people came from far and wide looking for opportunity and employment.

Before 1850 there were just 1,000 people living in the Rhondda. By 1910 there were over 150,000. Housing was thrown up all along the valley sides, with poor water supplies, primitive sanitary arrangements, overcrowding and disease. On top of this, the beautiful green valleys were soon black and stinking.

Rape of the Fair Country is the title of a novel by Alexander Cordell, first published in 1959. The plot concerns the Welsh iron-making communities of Blaenavon and Nantyglo in the 19th century.
"I thought of my river, the Afon-Lwydd, that my father had fished in youth, with rod and line for the leaping salmon under the drooping alders. The alders, he said, that fringed the banks ten deep, planted by the wind of the mountains. But no salmon leap in the river now, for it is black with furnace washings and slag, and the great silver fish have been beaten back to the sea or gasped out of their lives on sands of coal. No alders stand now for thy have been chopped as fuel for the cold blast. Even the mountains are shells, groaning in their hollows of emptiness, trembling to the arrows of the pit-props in their sides, bellowing down the old workings that collapse in unseen dust five hundred feet below. Plundered is my country, violated, raped." [source: Wikipedia]
This, Cordell's first successful novel draws the hardship of life in early industrial Wales with the father starting off as positive towards the English coal and iron masters of the time but then on seeing his family and neighbours suffer (and sometimes die) he revolts with his son, Iestyn to protest. The family life leads to the fight for trade unions and Chartism.

Rising discontent with conditions led to riots and in the 1830s the Chartist movement was created to try to get political reform. Organised marches turned violent and people died. Although the movement continued for some time, the leaders were convicted and transported for life.

Conditions for the workers didn't improve until the coal mines were nationalised in 1947. Today there is very little mining in Wales. The seams are petering out and it is cheaper to import coal. But at least the valleys are green again.

[based on Highlights of Welsh History by Phil Carradice]

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