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History

The Story of Wales

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History
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The Story of Wales

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The Story of Wales

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Cover image of The Story of Wales

The Story of Wales

Updated about 14 hours ago

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The Story of Wales

Rank #1: Devolution

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In 1979, just before the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, the people of Wales voted in a referendum to decide whether or not they wanted some measure of devolution of power to Wales, away from the British parliament at Westminster. They voted ‘No’ by a majority of 4 to 1. The circumstances of the Miners’ Strike of 1984 – 1985, which showed how Welsh opinion could be over-ridden by Westminster, made an increasing number of Welsh people feel that decisions about Wales should be made in Wales rather than exclusively at Westminster. Steadily, Welsh public life came to be organised along the lines of national (that is, Wales-based and Wales-orientated)bodies. Charities, pressure groups, unions and similar organisations acquired a distinctive Welsh presence and identity. Wherever the Welsh could, they were tending to make decisions for themselves. When a referendum on a modest measure of self-government was held in 1997 the result was a ‘Yes’ vote, though by a majority of only 6721 votes. A further referendum in 2011 backed further law-making powers for the National Assembly for Wales. Wales remains part of the United Kingdom, apparently treading a path between the benefits of a relationship with its sizeable neighbours and a measure of self-determination. A journey that continues.

Mar 25 2013

6mins

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Rank #2: Women and the Miners' Strike

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Women had always had a key role in the mining communities of Wales. Men and boys worked underground and women supported their work at home and through their involvement in community activities such as church and chapel. Women worked in the soup kitchens of the Depression but it was in the Miners’ Strike of 1984 - 1985 that women took a major step forward into the frontline of industrial action in the coalfield. Britain’s first woman Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher led the Conservative government elected in May 1979 following a long period of bitter labour disputes. In 1984 the National Coal Board announced a major cut in coal production and severe job losses. The National Union of Mineworkers went on strike. Miners in Wales supported the strike strongly despite facing great hardship. Women took a dynamic lead in keeping mining communities going but they also came to the fore as campaigners, fund-raisers and spokeswomen, determined to play their part. Many kept up this momentum despite the defeat of the strike by pursuing opportunities in education and leadership.

Mar 25 2013

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Rank #3: The Changing Status of the Welsh Language

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In 1847 a government commission published a report into the state of education in Wales, known popularly as “the Blue Books”. This blamed failings on the Welsh language itself, paying inadequate attention to other factors. It also criticised the morals of Welsh people. The Welsh were ashamed and angry but they did also want to prove that they were as good as the rest of Britain and to benefit from progress. They accepted the government’s plan to improve education by setting up free secondary schools even though English would be the medium of teaching. This undermined the Welsh language. The expansion of the coalfield increased the number of people who didn’t understand Welsh. In 1962 the politician, Saunders Lewis gave an influential radio lecture called Tynged Yr Iaith (The Fate of the Language) which sparked the formation of the Welsh Language Society which campaigns for recognition of the language. In the 1960s a Welsh-speaking community in the Tryweryn Valley was destroyed to provide a water reservoir for Liverpool despite intense opposition in Wales. This boosted action in support of the language which was heightened when politician, Gwynfor Evans threatened to fast to death if the Conservative government did not honour a promise to create a Welsh-language television channel. The government gave in and Sianel Pedwar Cymru (S4C) was launched in 1982. The Welsh Language Act of 1993 enhanced the legal status of Welsh. From the 1970s, Welsh-medium education thrived, particularly in the former industrial areas of Wales.

Mar 25 2013

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Rank #4: The General Strike and The Depression

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In the Victorian and Edwardian periods the Welsh economy relied heavily on a few industries. In the south-east especially, coal was dominant. Changes happening on the global scale reduced the demand for Welsh coal. In May 1926 south Wales coal miners went on strike against heavy pay cuts. Other workers across Britain supported them and joined them in a General Strike. These workers only went on strike for nine days but the Welsh miners stayed on strike till nearly the end of the year. The strikers had no wages and no help from the government. They banded together to help each other survive, organising soup kitchens and raising funds and the wider community was supportive. But eventually they had to go back to work for less money and longer hours. This experience increased militancy among the miners. The whole of Britain was affected by the depression in the economy into the 1930s. On a visit to south Wales in 1936, King Edward VIII was shocked at the problems but his concern produced no results. Industrial Wales suffered greatly though Wrexham’s steel industry and Flint’s artificial textiles helped these areas and the resorts along the north Wales coast continued to attract holiday-makers. The Second World War boosted industry but when it was over bitter memories of the Depression helped to foster support in Wales for the Labour party.

Mar 25 2013

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Rank #5: Daily Life in the World Wars

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About 280,000 Welshmen fought in the First World War which dragged on for four years (1914 – 1918). Some men stayed in Wales to work in crucial jobs such as mining but, with so many men away fighting, women began to enter jobs which had previously been restricted to men or they took on tasks at home or on the farm. Many wives were widowed and had to bring up families alone. When the Second World War began in 1939, once again women stepped forward. About 55% of war workers in Welsh munitions factories were women. Imports of food to Britain were blockaded by the enemy so there was a great effort to grow food at home and to avoid waste on “the home front”. A rationing system was introduced to ensure a fair distribution of essential foods and supplies. This war had a more direct impact on Britain because of heavy bombing raids so the government arranged for children from major cities to be evacuated to safer areas. Wales took many evacuees and some of them encountered the Welsh language for the first time. The war meant that at home people’s routines changed and they had new experiences. American troops were stationed in Wales, bringing a taste of a culture previously only seen in Hollywood movies.

Mar 25 2013

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Rank #6: David Lloyd George

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From humble origins in Llanystumdwy, north Wales, David Lloyd George became one of the most influential men in modern British history. He was intensely ambitious. He started as a lawyer and became the Liberal MP for Caernarvon Boroughs in 1890, a seat he held till 1945. He was a marvellous orator. By 1908 he had become Chancellor of the Exchequer and introduced the first state-funded old-age pension despite stiff opposition from the House of Lords. In 1911 his National Insurance Act gave workers the right to sick leave and to a type of unemployment benefit. He can be seen as one of the founders of the welfare state. He played a key role in the conduct of the First World War as Secretary of State for War and, from 1916, as Prime Minister. Victory brought him acclamation but his reputation was damaged by accusations that he sold peerages to fund his party. He lost power in 1922.

Mar 25 2013

5mins

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Rank #7: Culture and Sport in the Coalfield

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During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many people from both inside and outside Wales moved to the south Wales valleys because the growth of the coal industry provided opportunities for work. This influx also created opportunities for cultural engagement, especially in music and sport. The male voice choir was already popular among Welsh nonconformists and the scale of congregations in the coalfield created a rich source of talent and commitment which, from the 1870s onward, developed into a musical phenomenon, impressing audiences worldwide. Popular entertainments, such as concerts, comic acts and singers, flourished before large audiences. Sport was an important release and relaxation for the workers. Boxing was popular. In 1916 the coalfield produced a World Flyweight Champion in Jimmy Wilde. Association football was never quite as popular as rugby which delivered an iconic success for Wales in the 1905 victory over New Zealand’s All Blacks. This was the first occasion on which the Welsh supporters sang Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau as an informal ‘national anthem’.

Mar 25 2013

6mins

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Rank #8: Slavery and Wales

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As the British Empire expanded across the world in the eighteenth century some of the great wealth it created came from the use of slaves. Parts of Britain prospered because of their connections to the slave trade. Wales was linked to the slave trade through its production of metals and cloth. Wales was a major producer of brass and copper. Copper was used as currency in slave markets, in the form of armlets known as manillas. Brass vessels were used in the production of rum. Rum, sugar and cotton were produced for the European market by the labour of slaves who were bought in Africa and brought across the Atlantic to America and the West Indies. Slaves had no choice but to work in the hot climate of the plantations. The clothes of many slaves were made from a type of cloth supplied by the Welsh woollen industry. A Welsh hero of the Napoleonic Wars, General Thomas Picton, was put on trial in 1806 for his cruel treatment of slaves. His case helped to further the cause of those who wanted to abolish slavery. Meanwhile a black slave owner was living in Monmouthshire. Nathaniel Wells was born in St Kitts, the son of a merchant from Cardiff and a black slave. He inherited his father’s fortune, came to Wales and lived the life of a country gentleman.

Mar 25 2013

7mins

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Rank #9: The Tudor Reformation

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In 1534, King Henry VIII made himself head of the Church in England and in Wales so that he could more easily have his marriage annulled. His difficulties with the Catholic Church had started in the late 1520s. In 1530 he had begun to direct Church monies to the Crown. Between 1536 – 1540, convents, monasteries, and abbeys, such as Strata Florida, were closed down, their lands and resources confiscated and the buildings destroyed or allowed to decay. These centres of local economy and culture were sorely missed by the people. Many changes to religious practice were introduced during these early stages of the religious and political movement known as the Reformation. The Reformation was imposed on Wales. Under Henry’s son, Edward VI, parish churches were targeted, their valuables confiscated and their Catholic works of art destroyed or covered up. Even now, art hidden for centuries is being found and restored, such as the wall paintings at St Cadoc’s Church at Llancarfan in the Vale of Glamorgan.

Mar 25 2013

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Rank #10: Normans and Castles

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William of Normandy (William the Conqueror) invaded England and defeated the English king, Harold in 1066. He rewarded the lords who had supported him with grants of land along the border between England and Wales. These areas were known as marches. Norman Marcher Lords pushed into Welsh territory and began to build castles: motte-and-bailey castles at first, using timber and earth, then increasingly imposing castles of stone with complex fortifications. Welsh resistance meant that the Norman campaign lasted hundreds of years. Caerphilly Castle is the largest Norman castle in Wales and one of the most ingenious in the design of its defences. Begun in 1268, it helped to inspire the design of the castles Edward I built across Wales to ensure his control of the country. The Normans employed some of Europe’s most gifted master masons and craftsmen in their castle-building.

Mar 25 2013

5mins

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Rank #11: Daily Life of Iron Age Celts

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Between the years 600 – 800 B.C. the Celtic tribes living in Wales began to try making iron. We can see objects they made in hoards of precious things which they put into lakes as offerings to their gods. An example is the hoard found in the lake at Llyn Fawr near Hirwaun in Rhondda Cynon Taf. In the Llyn Fawr hoard, as well as locally made iron objects, there are some which were made a long way from Wales, such as part of a decorated sword-blade from eastern France. There are many places in Wales where we can see evidence of what daily life was like in this period, such as the hillfort of Tre’r Ceiri on the Llŷn Peninsula in Gwynedd. Life in a Celtic roundhouse was a busy cycle of growing, preserving and cooking food, raising animals, making cloth and fashioning tools from metal and wood. Women as well as men could be leaders, and children were essential to the family economy.

Mar 25 2013

5mins

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Rank #12: The Story of Wales Introduction

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Huw Edwards introduces a collection of clips from his landmark BBC Wales history series, The Story of Wales.

Nov 30 2012

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Rank #13: The Industrial Revolution

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This is a story of amazing change – from the 1760s onwards, Wales is transformed from an overwhelmingly agricultural economy into a society at the cutting-edge of the Industrial Revolution. It starts with the first truly global industry, copper – we see how a huge copper mine at Parys Mountain in Anglesey sends ore to the smelting chimneys of the Lower Swansea Valley and how Swansea itself grows and exports the precious metal all over the world. Soon ironworks, textile factories, canals and railways make a new Welsh landscape.

Nov 16 2012

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Rank #14: Slate and the Penrhyn Strike

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This is a moving reminder of the hard conditions and great dangers of working underground in the early 20th century. 12 year-old boys would assist colliers, carrying the coal dug by the older men to drams, the wagons which took the coal away from the coalface. This was incredibly hard work. And there was great danger in the pits, from rock falls and from explosions caused by the methane gas released in the mining process, as well as from the lack of oxygen after the explosion. There was major loss of life in Welsh coalmines, especially in disasters like the ones at Senghenydd and Gresford.

Nov 16 2012

6mins

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Rank #15: Conditions in Pits

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The slate industry was central to the prosperity of north Wales from the 1770s to the 20th century. It created strong communities and a dramatic landscape in towns like Blaenau Ffestiniog and Bethesda. But quarryowners like the Pennant family – who became the Barons Penrhyn – grew immensely rich from the hard conditions and low wages of their workers. The longest strike in British industrial history began in 1900, bitterly dividing communities and leading to a decline in the Welsh slate industry. The conflict is alive in popular memory to this day.

Nov 16 2012

3mins

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Rank #16: The Coal Boom

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From the 1850s to the First World War, Wales was made rich by the development of the coal industry and especially by the mining and export of steam coal which fed the engines of the world’s steamships. Entrepreneurs like the Bute Family and David Davies made huge fortunes from the coal trade. The familiar built environment of Wales largely dates from this time – the terraces of the Valleys and north-east Wales or the grand buildings in what we now call Cardiff Bay. One of these impressive buildings is the Coal Exchange where crowds of traders haggled over the prices for shipping coal across the world.

Nov 16 2012

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Rank #17: The Rebecca Riots

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Wales was seething with social unrest in the 1830s, beginning with the Merthyr Rising of 1831. But protests against injustice were not confined to the industrial areas. From 1839-44, the extraordinary guerilla movement known as the Rebecca Riots raged in the countryside. Farmers were being charged punishing amounts of money to move their animals along roads controlled by tollgates. So groups of men with blackened faces and disguised as women began smashing the hated gates under cover of darkness, shouting ‘Rebecca’ as they did so. And the movement was a success, causing a change in the law governing the control of roads.

Nov 16 2012

6mins

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Rank #18: Rich and Poor in Merthyr Tydfil

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In the 1830s Merthyr was a place of huge contrast between rich and poor. Over the previous forty years, it had grown at an extraordinary rate and had become a major world centre of iron production. But the living conditions of many working families were appalling. There was a large slum area with people crammed into tiny hovels with little sanitation, so that disease was rampant – eventually leading to the outbreak of cholera. But the ironworks produced huge wealth for owners like the Crawshay family who built the grand Cyfarthfa Castle which overlooks the town and who gave lavish banquets and parties.

Nov 16 2012

5mins

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Rank #19: Stuart Gentry Life and Civil War

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In the times of the Stuart kings James I and Charles I, Wales did not see a major commercial expansion. Towns like Tenby were exceptions and merchants there had contact with the new religious ideas of Puritanism which was strong in Bristol and other English commercial centres. These new ideas started to make their way into the lives of the gentry in the countryside, though most of them still remained loyal to King Charles when war broke out between his supporters and the Puritan-dominated Parliament. We see the world of the gentry vividly brought to life at the Prichard family’s home, Llancaiach Fawr.

Nov 15 2012

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Rank #20: The Welsh Bible

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Elizabeth I was concerned about the attachment of the Welsh people to the Catholic faith. Wales was also a backdoor for a potential invasion by Catholic powers in Europe. So she decided that a Bible in the Welsh language should be provided for every parish church to encourage the spread of Protestant attitudes among the Welsh. In 1588, Bishop William Morgan’s great translation was published – the first in a non-state language in Europe. Its elevated and dignified language gave Welsh a public status which was of immense importance for its survival in the centuries ahead.

Nov 15 2012

4mins

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