Doing a dissertation on modern Welsh history

Some brief advice to help you choose a dissertation topic

Your dissertation needs to be something you find interesting and something which you can practically do. The latter means something not too big and something where the sources are accessible.

One advantage of doing a Welsh subject is that the archives are close to where you are studying. The Richard Burton Archives are in our library. West Glamorgan archives are in the civic centre. Cardiff has the Glamorgan Archives.

There are also a wealth of online sources for modern Wales. You can find a list here.

You need to think about what kind of sources you want to use. Do you want to go to an archive? Do you want to use online newspapers? The latter can mean wading through lots and lots of articles if your topic is thematic. They are more accessible than an archive but can take longer.

Possible approaches:

Pick an event. The dissertation would be along the lines of what happened, why did it happen, why did it matter. You would be telling the story but in an analytical way.

The event needs to be small enough to be told in detail. The Second World War is far too big! Think more something like a specific election, battle, disaster etc. Don’t worry about whether anyone has written about it before. The primary sources will tell you the details. You can get the analytical ideas from looking at similar events or the same event in another place.

For example, the 1945 general election is too big and well known but you could do the 1945 general election in Swansea. The newspapers and local political records give you primary sources. The writing on the election more generally gives you the ideas and framework. The dissertation becomes, essentially, historians have said X about the election, is this true of the election in Swansea?

A big advantage of an event is that you know the date of it and thus it’s easy to find in the newspapers!

Pick a theme and apply it to a place. Again, the more specific the better. Welsh women’s history is too big but marriage in Wales between the wars is not. Pubs is too big but pubs in Victorian Swansea is not. Education in Wales is too big but schools in Swansea during the First World War is a great topic. Again, the general literature will give you the ideas and the primary material give you the examples to test those ideas with. No one needs to have written about your specific theme. In fact, that helps you be original. For example, no one has written about pubs in Victorian Swansea but that means you’re being original. They have written about pubs in Britain so you will have plenty to read to and ideas to test and guide your research.

Some other example dissertation topics to illustrate approaches:

The Welsh language in a street or village. You look at the census returns for a small area for 1891, 1901 and 1911 and work out how spoke Welsh, their jobs, their family circumstances and how this changed over time. Then you think about what this tells us about the changing nature of the language and how it fits with historians’ arguments about this. You would also read about the history of the village, or the town that the street was in.

Motoring in Edwardian Wales. You look through the newspapers for articles that use the terms motoring or motor car. There will be quite a lot! You see that historians have motoring have argued it was seen as a sign of modernity, a nuisance and a legal problem. You find examples of each from Wales and see if you agree with the historians’ arguments. You might have a chapter on each. If other themes jump out at you from your reading of the articles you could have sections on those too. Because councils get involved you might look at their records too. You see court cases so a good student might hunt down police records too.

Author: HanesCymru

I teach history at Swansea University.

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