Welshness, Welsh Soldiers and the Second World War

This paper was presented at “Fighting for Britain? Negotiating identities in Britain during the Second World War”, a conference held at the University of Edinburgh in June 2012.  It is largely based on chapter 1 of Martin Johnes, Wales since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2012). 

When David Beaty Cos returned to his home village of Trefor after five years as a POW in Germany, children gathered flowers and sang the Welsh national anthem.  He was carried shoulder high through the village to a party at his home behind a banner saying ‘welcome home to the hero’.[1]  Such moments were primarily about individuals but, as the singing of the Welsh anthem illustrated, they were also inter-related with a sense of national identity.  InWales national identity had never been straightforward or singular and this was especially true during the Second World War. Some historians have interpreted the conflict as a time when Wales’ Britishness was at a highpoint and most memoirs by Welsh servicemen do not make any reference to a sense of Welshness. Yet the war was also a time when, for some, an awareness of Wales and Welshness was exacerbated.

At one level, the argument that war enhanced a sense of Welshness is counter-intuitive. After all, this was a British war. Moreover, research by Chris Williams on the First World War has argued that the camaraderie and pressures of active service created bonds between men that overrode national differences between the different parts of the UK. Furthermore, his careful empirical analysis of the composition of battalions has shown that despite their national titles Welsh units were actually far more cosmopolitan, while many Welshmen also served in English regiments.[2] This thus exacerbated the effect of the war on creating a sense of Britishness rather than Welshness.

Yet Welsh identities still existed within the British military.  The Welsh identity of the Welsh regiments was inescapable from their name, traditions and insignia. A notice in The Times in memory of the soldiers of the 6th battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers who were killed in northwest Europe in 1944 finished with the words ‘Cymru am Byth’ (Wales forever).[3] This was a case of what social scientist Michael Bilig called banal nationalism, the subconscious flagging and reminder of the existence of the nation. But it was also more than that because troops felt a sense of loyalty to their regiment. What might seem on the surface to be about Wales was more complex than that. A sergeant recalled that during the war recruits from outside Wales were still made to feel part of the Welsh Guards: ‘They are Welsh Guardsmen and once they joined us they were treated equally, the same as if they had been born and bred in Wales. They also learned that the family spirit is more binding in the Welsh Guards than in any other regiment … I think it’s just the way we are in Wales’.[4]

The assimilation of non-Welsh servicemen into this fraternity suggests that it was a personal loyalty to comrades rather than a sense of Welshness that was the primary driving factor.  Another officer who served with the Welsh Guards during the war argued that he had a very close relationship with his men from their time training together and that he knew many of them better than his own family. The pride in themselves and fear they might let their comrades and friends down intensified that and led, in his opinion, to many of the acts of bravery. One of his sergeants similarly argued ‘We developed an obsession to help each other, sharing ourselves without expecting reward’.[5]  Thus the war certainly developed a sense of group consciousness but it was not necessarily just based on the nation, even in national units.

Most Welsh servicemen were not in Welsh units. Unlike in the Great War, the armed forces made no effort to keep local men together.  Instead, recruits were sent to whatever units needed the skills or bodies individuals offered. For at least some this was a cause of resentment.  For Glyn Ifans, a Carmarthenshire RAF man, it was part of a process of politicization that he experienced through the war. With no units existing just for Welsh troops he exclaimed ‘Are we a nation? Certainly the authorities running this war do not believe so’.[6] In 1941 Wyn Griffith, a civil servant, broadcaster and former captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, noted,

That young Welshmen should join the armed forces is, of course, only right and proper. They have no wish to shelter behind the sacrifices of others, and they are proud of the fighting qualities of their race. They remember their fathers. All they ask is that they should be allowed to serve in Welsh units, as Welshmen. But this is denied to them, not out of malevolence, but out of sheer indifference: it does not seem important enough for any great trouble to be taken to contrive it.[7]

Quite how far such sentiments extended is unclear. Griffithwas what might be called a cultural nationalist, someone deeply committed to the identity of Wales. At the end of the war the Western Mail, a Conservative-leaning Welsh newspaper, remarked more temperately ‘if there had to be a dilution of the Welsh regiments there was no dilution of the Welsh fighting spirit.’[8]  Yet one Welsh-speaking Meirionnydd man, who found himself in the South Lancashire Regiment, wrote in his memoirs, ‘this did not really bother me: the army was the army, and it hardly made any difference which badge I was given’.[9]

For those who were fighting within such regionally diverse units, the constant danger created a powerful bond between men that may have transcended any differences arising from different cultural backgrounds but this does not mean that individuals’ Welshness or personal beliefs were completely subsumed beneath a wider Britishness or loyalty to one’s comrades. Class tensions remained in the forces. Those from strict Nonconformist backgrounds could feel uneasy with the drinking and swearing of their comrades. The 1931 census showed that 37 percent of the Welsh population spoke Welsh and 156,000 people did not speak English.  It is thus unsurprising that Welsh was spoken and, by and large, tolerated in the forces.  It was included in BBC broadcasts to the forces and from 1941 the secretary of the National Eisteddfod organised a newsletter Cofion Cymru which was distributed with official support to Welsh-speakers in the forces.  The Western Mail even thought Welsh had been used to ‘deceive the Germans on the Western Front and confound the Japanese in the swamps and jungle of Burma’.[10]  There were moments, however, when chauvinism, misunderstandings or the needs of censorship led to a less welcoming attitude to Welsh and one RAF serviceman found a telegram he sent to his parents returned because it was Welsh.[11]

But whatever the attitudes they encountered, servicemen for whom English was a second language were hardly going to forget they were Welsh. Indeed, being surrounded by people from other parts of the UK, probably for the first time in their lives, could make servicemen and women more aware of their own Welshness and the diversity of Britain.  A Welsh member of the WRNS, recalled ‘I don’t think I’d ever heard of a Scouse person or a Geordie until I joined up.  Then, suddenly, all these different accents all around you.  A lot of people didn’t know my accent.  I’d be asked what part of Scotland I came from.  Or Ireland– was I north or south?’[12]  Indeed, many men and women spent their war being known by everyone as Taff or Taffy, making their nationality central to who they were.

The war also created a situation where some people at least contemplated their place in the world, the meaning and relevance of where they came from and the future. In 1943 one literary solider wrote in a new journal entitled Wales that he was setting up:

This is a time when members of the fighting generation everywhere should be expressing themselves and their opinions strongly-without cynicism-and nowhere more forcibly than in our small green oblong country. For the war has made the Welsh realise that they are a nation with a country, a people, a culture and a tradition different from England’s to fight for. There is a new wave of national feeling about among our people. There is, in truth, a Welsh renaissance.[13]

Back home too that intensifying awareness of Welsh difference was beginning to be felt through greater contact with people from other parts of the UK. The isolation that had kept Welsh strong in the west and north was being eroded not just physically but psychologically too, as people took a greater interest in global affairs. More people listened to the wireless. English evacuees were arriving in rural Wales, whilst young women were being sent from Wales to English factories.  There was some concern about the impact of people moving in and out of Waleson traditional Welsh-speaking culture.  W. J. Gruffydd, a professor of Celtic languages and the Liberal MP for the Universityof Wales, remarked that ‘England can win the war and Wales can lose’.[14]

Concern about the cultural damage the war might be inflicting on Wales was strongest in Plaid Cymru, the small Welsh nationalist party formed in 1925. The war proved deeply divisive for Plaid Cymru and the Welsh-speaking intelligentsia that was its constituency.  The party declared itself neutral but many Welsh nationalists were deeply hostile to Nazism and members of Plaid Cymru did serve in the armed forces.[15]  The alleged anti-Semitism and fascist sympathies of Saunders Lewis, Plaid Cymru’s founder, became a targetfor opponents of the party and an embarrassment to some of its supporters.  In 1945 one man said of Plaid Cymru:

This was the party that saw more peril to Walesfrom English evacuee children than from Hitler’s hordes. They were ‘neutral’ in the greatest war for human freedom. They, a handful of fanatics, presumed to speak for Walesfrom their safe jobs and safe hide-holes when 250,000 Welshmen were risking their lives to resist the greatest military despotism the world has ever seen.[16]

Such points made clear not just the multiple understandings of what Welshness constituted but how a sense of Welshness during the war extended, as it always had done, far beyond nationalists.

Plaid Cymru complained that the ‘English government’ did not have the right to conscript Welshmen but the government did recognize Welsh nationalism as grounds forconscientious objection.  However, the two tribunals that covered Walesdid not always put this into practice and decisions could depend on whether people were willing to do other forms of war work.  Of the mere two dozen or so who refused to serve on nationalist grounds, around half ended up in prison.  The acknowledgement of nationalism as grounds for not being conscripted is further evidence that the government was sensitive to the nuances of nationality within the UK.  The Ministry of Information told the BBC not to say England when it meant Britain, it passed an act allowing Welsh to be used in court, the first Welsh day was organized at the House of Commons and there were attempts to give Princess Elizabeth some form of Welsh title or role. Yet ultimately these were piecemeal concessions to Welsh pressure born from a fear of undermining British unity.[17]

If anyone from the government had visited the 1944 National Eisteddfod they would not have worried about Wales’s loyalty. There they would have seen how Wales and Britain were inextricably interwoven.  The festival, the first full one since the start of the war, had a distinct international flavour with performances from other Allied countries.  Welsh and British flags flew alongside each other and there were many attacks on separatism in the presidential speeches.[18]  This popular inter-weaving of Britishness and Wales was also evident on less organized occasions.  After news of the Japanese surrender came through, a crowd of several thousand gathered in Tonypandy’s main street and sang Land of Hope and Glory, while a reporter recorded that he must have sung Hen Wlad fy Nhadau a hundred times over the VE holidays.[19]

The Western Mail’s celebrations of VE day clearly showed Wales’s dual sense of nationality.  At one level, it celebrated how the British had contributed something very real to the future of the world, telling its readers that they had served a ‘humane and righteous cause’.  But it also published a page looking proudly at what the Welsh had contributed to the victory at home and abroad.[20]  To readers of the article, it was evident that the Welsh had fought, worked and died for a greater cause, and many had sung while doing it. Megan Lloyd George told an Anglesey eisteddfod that the Welshmen who had fought were ‘worthy successors of the heroes of Wales, such as Llewelyn and Owain Glyndwr, and others who fought not only for the independence of Wales, but of nations as well’.[21]

In the aftermath of the war even the London press occasionally celebrated Welshness too. The Daily Mirror, for example, proudly told the story of POWs inThailand who each week held a meeting of a Welsh society:

In the heart of Thailand jungle there rose the voices of the choir of the dying men, the old songs of Wales. Slowly they sang them, “Land of my Fathers” and the hymns Welsh miners sing. Men who would never again see the valleys and towns of Wales, men almost too exhausted to speak, took up the refrain. And some died singing.[22]

Such stories represented how the people of Britain had been fighting, not just to defeat Nazism, but for their own homes and their own traditions too.  People had fought their Britain, whether that meant the mountains of Snowdonia or the side streets of Cardiff.  As historian Angus Calder points out, the idea and use of ‘us’ in propaganda was widely accepted but it was interpreted in different ways by different audiences.  As he puts it, for ‘the miners it meant the miners; [and] for the working class it meant the working class’.[23]  The war was a British one but Britain meant many different things and Wales was as much a part of it as anywhere else. Yet Wales itself also meant many things.  For some servicemen the experience of war increased their sense of Welshness, politicized it even, but for others it was simply part of the complex mix of ingredients that made them who they were.

[1] Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald and North Wales Observer, 25 May 1945.

[2] Chris Williams, ‘Taffs in the Trenches: Welsh National Identity and Military Service, 1914-1918’, in M. Cragoe &  C. Williams (eds.), Wales and War: Religion, Society and Politics in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Cardiff, 2007), 126-164. On Welshness and the Great War also see Tony Thacker, A Corner of a Foreign Field which is Forever Wales? Welsh Identities in the Great War. Online at http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/share/resources/Welsh%20identity%20in%20the%20Great%20War.pdf

[3] The Times, 1 August 1945.

[4] Trevor Royle, Anatomy of a Regiment: Ceremony and Soldiering in the Welsh Guards (London, 1990), p. 87.

[5] Royle, Anatomy of a Regiment, p. 92. That sense of belonging continued after the war too. A Welsh Guards NCO injured at Normandy in 1944 recalled with the pride the importance of wearing the regimental tie after the war: ‘You’re never alone when you wear this. You can be anywhere in the world and soon as they see it someone will talk to you.’ Royle, Anatomy of a Regiment, p. 90

[6] Quoted in Gerwyn Williams, ‘Continental excursions’, Planet, 129 (1998), 85.

[7] Wyn Griffith, Word from Wales (London, 1941), p. 33.

[8] Western Mail, 9 May 1945.

[9] Selyf Roberts, Tocyn Dwyffordd (1984). Quoted in translation in Williams, ‘Continental excursions’, p.87.

[10] Western Mail, 9 May 1945.

[11] Gerwyn Williams, ‘Continental excusions’, Planet, 129 (1998), 85.

[12] Quoted in Phil Carradice, Wales at War (Llandysul, 2003), p. 98.

[13] Wales, vol, III no. 1, July 1943.

[14] Quoted in translation in J. Graham Jones, ‘The attitude of the political parties towards the Welsh language’, in Jenkins and Williams (eds.), ‘Let’s do our best for the ancient tongue, p. 262.

[15] A. O. H. Jarman, ‘Plaid Cymru in the Second World War’, Planet (1979), 21-30.

[16]Western Mail, 21 April 1945.

[17] See Martin Johnes, Wales since 1939 (Manchester, 2012), ch. 1.

[18] Kimberly J. Bernard, Visible Welshness: Performing Welshness at the National Eisteddfod in the Twentieth Century (University of Wales Swansea, PhD thesis, 2003), ch. 6.

[19] Western Mail, 16 August, 11 May 1945. Liverpool Daily Post, 9 May 1945.

[20] Western Mail, 8 May 1945.

[21] Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald and North Wales Observer, 11, 25 May 1945.

[22] Daily Mirror, 13 September 1945.

[23] Calder, The People’s War, p. 138.

Writing Welsh History

This short essay was originally published on a website called WalesHome in 2012. That site is no longer available so I have reproduced the piece here.

Writing history isn’t easy.  It can be like doing a jigsaw when you don’t know what the picture is, half the pieces are missing and those that are left can be put together in a variety of quite different ways. Thus the story told ends up owing as much as to the historian as to what actually happened. This isn’t to say that the history is made up, just that it could have been made to look very different.

I have just published a book called Wales since 1939. At more than 200,000 words, it’s a rather long and it covers a lot of ground. It includes material not just on the expected topics of devolution, miners and rugby but also on themes less commonly found in books on Welsh history such as youth culture, house prices and shopping. It’s a book that features the Beatles, the Queen and Churchill, as well as Gwynfor, Nye and Rhodri.

Even then the picture painted of Wales is only partial. Much has been left out or skimmed over.  People interested in classical music, the theatre or even the Liberal Party may feel their pet topic has been given short thrift. Others, however, may get upset, not so much because their interest has not been given due attention but because they don’t like what’s said about it.

Historians of older periods have the luxury that the people they write about can’t answer back. For those of us who write about more recent times, being told we’ve got it wrong is an occupational hazard.  A member of the audience saying something along the lines of ‘it wasn’t like that’ has been a feature of probably every public contemporary history talk I have ever given.  One woman’s comment was simply to point out that she was actually there. It was unclear whether the implication was that the analysis given was wrong or that history should only be discussed by first-hand witnesses.

Writing about the nature of Wales exacerbates these problems because people hold very deep-held views about what the answer is.  As the comment pages of WalesHome illustrate, questions of nationalism, politics and language are not always debated very calmly or rationally.  Some will disagree with my book not because of the evidence I present but because they don’t like the answers I’ve come up with. I doubt any evidential base or any form of argument would have persuaded them otherwise.

Moreover, I expect I will at times get attacked from all sides because the book is sometimes nice and sometimes critical about both nationalism and the Labour movement. It acknowledges both the importance of the Welsh language and how at times it has alienated people. It even points out that there are many Tories in Wales and some of them have made important contributions to their nation. In the past my writings have led to me being called both a Welsh nationalist and anti-Welsh.

The trick to writing a history of a nation is not so much coming up with one definition of that nation but acknowledging that modern nations are comprised of different peoples, with different ideas, experiences and outlooks.  Many of these are wholly incompatible and very contradictory. The task of the historian is to make sense of them and put them in some form of order that acknowledges the plurality of experiences but does not lose sight of the totality of the parts.

Doing that is easier said than done when the historian has been a witness and participant in some of the events and trends under discussion. No matter how hard we try we can never be neutral but try we must. I have certainly tried to stop my background and my politics from colouring the answers I have come up with but they have shaped the questions I have asked.  That is evident in how themes of national identity are central to my work. Having grown up in an English-speaking family in a Welsh-speaking community, such questions have mattered in my life.

Yet it is far too simple to just say that historians write histories that are coloured by who they are.  Historians change their minds, especially as the optimism and anger of youth gets tempered by the weariness and pragmatism of later years. Moreover, the actual experience of researching and writing history itself impacts on the historian’s views.  It encourages us to see the world in more nuanced, qualified and complex terms.  Having researched contemporaryWalesI better appreciate how resilient Welsh identity has been but also how for the majority it is not quite the issue that it has been in my life.

It is the final chapter that looks at Wales after 1997, that will probably draw the most criticism. For earlier periods I can claim that the interpretations are the basis of reasoned and sustained judgement. But for the very recent past this is more difficult because events are still evolving. I started writing the book at a time when most people considered we were living in a relatively stable economy; I finished writing it at a time of significant problems and only time can tell whether this is the beginning of a long period of austerity or just another cyclical downturn. Similarly, it’s simply too early to make any sound judgement on how devolution had changed the structure of the Welsh economy and society.  It’s probably unfair to even ask the question given how limited the Welsh government’s powers have been.  Moreover, who knows how future events might make my judgements on the last decade look hopelessly naive or outdated.

The Wales I describe in my book is a place divided by class, culture, age, gender, region and ethnicity. But it’s also a place where people felt something in common too, whether that was based on a shared sense of history, national identity, economic experience or even just watching the same television programmes. The Wales I see in the past is a place people have both died for and thought irrelevant, a place that has stirred both passion and apathy.

It is a place with much in common with England but different too.  It is a place that deserves understanding on its own terms but that cannot be understood without acknowledging that the outside world helped shape it.  My history of Wales includes war, racism and the British Empire.

I could have painted a different picture of Wales. I could have told the story of a people oppressed and ignored by foreign rule or greedy capitalists. But the Wales I see is a more complicated and perhaps boring place. It’s a place where many people were more interested in shopping, sport and soap operas than the politics of class and nation. That’s neither a criticism nor a universal truth. And it makes devolution and the rise in a popular Welsh patriotism over the last 70 odd years, no less important but certainly more remarkable.

Wales since 1939 is published by Manchester University Press and retails at £16.99 or less. 

Wales and Britain since 1945

The Pierhead, Cardiff Bay

Saturday 14 July 2012,  12 pm to 4 pm

Llafur, the Welsh People’s History Society, is holding an afternoon of papers and discussion on social, cultural and political change in Wales and Britain since the Second World War.

The three speakers are:

  • Rhodri Morgan. Former First Minister of Wales (2000-2009)
  • Martin Johnes (SwanseaUniversity). Author of Wales since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2012). For more information on Martin’s books please visit www.hanescymru.com
  • Alwyn Turner. Historian and writer. Author of Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s (Aurum, 2008) and Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s (Aurum, 2010). For more information on Alwyn’s books please visit http://www.alwynwturner.com/ He will be discussing how broadcasting technology has shaped our sense of society and nationhood in the post-war period.

There is no charge for attending.

To book your free place, please contact Sian Williams, Llafur Secretary by email: miners@swansea.ac.uk or by phone: 01792 518603


Random Swansea scenes from the 1937 Coronation

The South Wales Evening Post noted most of the celebrations were unofficial and reported that ‘the mass of people has been aflame with enthusiasm, and the results in the small streets and tiny hamlets have been half comic, but touching in their exuberance. “Eat, drink and be merry” is the national watchword tomorrow.’

One Swansea woman noted in her diary, ‘As we passed small public house [that afternoon] I heard about 4 or 5 men inside singing God Save the King very emotionally and raucously – they sounded half-intoxicated.’

At an unemployed men’s club in the town, the coronation concert began at 3pm with God Save the King and ended with Hen Wlad fy Nhadau and For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. In-between was a comedian, old music hall songs and some Welsh hymns. It was followed by a bus trip to the Gower.

A 62-year-old charwoman noted how her Swansea street was decorated with streamers and Christmas festoons. The children had tea at the street party at 3.30pm (Blanc Mange Jelly, Cream Slices and Pastry). The women had theirs at 4pm (Ham and tongue, pickles, pastries and cake). The men ate next. She listened to the King’s Speech too, saying it was ‘very nice’ and that he did ‘very well’. She noted that he did not stutter but did stop periodically: ‘you’d think he’d finished and then he’d go on again’.

That night there was dancing in neighbouring streets with the music coming from radios in open windows. There was no ‘rowdyism’ and it was all very friendly. The charwoman did, however, break a tooth on a bread roll which led her to later tell her employer ‘So I shall remember the Coronation’.

Taken from the Mass Observation May the Twelfth day survey, 1937

Why Wales should not take part in a Team GB at this year’s Olympics

In today’s Western Mail, Andrew RT Davies, the Welsh Conservative leader, makes a case for the inclusion of Welsh players in a Team GB football side at this year’s Olympics.  He’s wrong.

His argument is based on the following points:

1. It’s a one off and for Ryan Giggs this is his last opportunity to play in a major tournament.

If it’s individual Welsh players’ chances of competing in tournaments that matter then why stop at the Olympics? After all, Bale and co will have a better chance of making it to Brazil 2014 as part of a UK team. The argument that individuals matter more than their nation cannot be taken up or cast aside according to circumstances.  The wishes of, or sentiment for, any individual player should never take precedence over the interests of his club or national team.

2. ‘Recent statements from the FIFA president have indicated that one-off participation would not jeopardise our independent status as a national association’

This is the key issue.  Unfortunately there are older statements from the FIFA president where he essentially says completely the opposite (see Bethan Jenkins’ reply article on the same page). If Blatter’s changed his mind once he can change it again.

Moreover, as a politician, Davies should really know that the leadership and direction of democratic institutions can change.  His argument is rather like saying that because David Cameron says something now, no other future prime minister will ever say or do the opposite.  Even if it’s 50 years before a future FIFA leader raises a precedent from 2012 to question the special status of the UK nations, a Team GB would prove to be a mistake. We have to remember that to many in the football world the position of non-independent nations having independent status purely because the game was invented here seems illogical. There are already plenty of precedents to the issue being questioned and discussed. Why take the risk and give ammunition to opponents?

 3. A Team GB will not undermine a sense of Welsh nationhood.

He’s right here, but this argument is irrelevant.  The case against a football Team GB is nothing to do with whether Wales is British or not. It is about whether Wales is able to retain its independence in the football world, not in any other world.

4.  Our footballing talent stands to gain much from ‘exposing themselves to high level international competition’.

Presumably this means in developing their experience rather than their exposure to potential employers. Perhaps Bale and co will develop their talents through the experience, but there are many, many more Welsh players who will lose out on international experience if Wales cease to have their own international side.

5. ‘Giving young Welsh people the opportunity to watch their Welsh heroes playing for Team GB will have obvious benefits for increasing sports participation.’

Will it really? Is there any evidence for this at all? Are there really young kids around who would take up football just because Bale is playing for Team GB? If these guys are heroes already, then the kids must already be watching them for Wales, Spurs etc.  Why would kids be watching the football Olympics at all, if they didn’t like football already?

6. The involvement of Welsh players ‘will place our nation in the global shop window with obvious economic benefits’.

Again, is there evidence for this? If there are economic benefits to Welsh players in a Team GB, they aren’t even remotely obvious to me. Will watchers even know Bale, Ramsey and whoever is on the bench are Welsh?  Will there be some industrialist watching who thinks, “What a great player. I must open a factory near where he comes from”?

7. Not taking part will damage Wales economically and culturally.

Presumably the economic argument is the imagined opportunities discussed in point 6. The cultural damage Davies foresees seems to be that we will be isolated from ‘our British neighbours’.  Quite how not taking part in a short football tournament (some of which is held in Wales anyway) amounts to cultural damage is not clear. Did the UK’s non participation in any of any of the recent Olympic tournaments hurt Wales culturally? Did anyone here even care? Why does the fact that the Olympics are in the UK mean this issue suddenly matters?

In conclusion, a football Team GB is a potential threat to the independent status of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales in football.  Yes, it is not a definite threat but it is a risk.

Sometimes we need to takes risks in life when there are obvious rewards for doing so. In this case there are no overall rewards for doing so, whereas the potential fallout would change Welsh sporting history forever.

People who look at the history of FIFA know that. The FAW and SFA know that. Any Welsh player who wants to pull on that GB shirt, and any fan or politician encouraging him to do so, needs to know that.  If you believe Wales should have its own football team, you have to be opposed to Welsh players in football’s Team GB.

Martin Johnes teaches history at Swansea University. His books include A History of Sport in Wales (2005) and Wales since 1939 (2012).

Using local newspapers to research the history of football

A slightly revised version of an article first published in Soccer History magazine in 2005.

Newspapers represent one of the most accessible and informative sources in sports history. Back issues of the local press are available from local libraries and football was covered from its organised beginnings. There were 170 provincial daily newspapers and approximately 100 evening ones at the turn of the twentieth century and all covered sport.  The local and national press did not just report football, it played an important role in promoting it too and was thus an integral agent behind the game’s development.  While trawling through the back issues of newspapers can be long and laborious task, it will be a fruitful, indeed required, activity for any historian of the game.

Most main local libraries hold back issues of newspapers published in that area.  For conservation reasons, these have normally been transferred to microfilms and thus it is usually advisable to book a microfilm reader in advance of a visit. Some microfilm readers can produce printouts but these are usually more expensive than photocopies and of variable quality. 

For those seeking to consult papers from more than one locality a visit to the British Newspaper Library is advised.  This is located on Colindale Avenue in north Londonand holds backcopies of all local and national newspapers and most periodicals, including sporting ones.  Proof of identity is required for those without a British Library reader’s ticket.  A search on the catalogue using football as a key word produces lists 257 titles. Whilst there, those interested in football from the 1880s until the 1930s should consult Athletic News, a sporting paper which gave unrivalled and extensive coverage of the professional game at all levels and enjoyed very close links with the football clubs and authorities. By 1919, it was selling 170,000 copies a week. The Athletic News is also available at Manchester Central Library, which has an extensive collection of local and national newspapers.

Very few local  national newspapers are indexed for the period before the 1990s and thus locating information is dependent on the reader knowing the precise or approximate date of the event on which information is sought.  Nonetheless, a random dip into the press from any season invariably produces something of interest or use.

Digitization is opening up new opportunities. The British Library have digitized 49 local newspapers, although most runs end around 1900. They are searchable by keywords and this is invaluable for tracking the emergence and spread of football in periods before newspapers began systematically reporting on the game.

The actual information that can be derived from newspapers depends on the period being studied.  In essence, the later the period the more information there is likely to be on the game.  During the late nineteenth century, local newspapers largely limited their reporting of football to reports and previews of local matches and club meetings.  Reports were not on a sportspage but mixed in with the rest of the news and thus require careful spotting by the historian.  Critical comment, speculation and gossip were overlooked, by and large, in favour of a reporting of the facts.  However, incidents such as violent play or crowd trouble inevitably drew condemnatory remarks. The late nineteenth century also saw the beginning of the football specials in the larger towns and cities. The ‘pinks’, as they were often known, were evening papers published on a Saturday giving results, match reports and various sporting articles. These papers were produced very quickly, some being on sale by 6.00 pm on a Saturday, and thus the detail within the match reports is limited, with most of the copy being written before the game was actually over.

By the twentieth century the extent of football coverage invariably increases in daily local and regional newspapers to include more general news on local teams and brief mentions of important national events such as the FA Cup final.  However, it was between the wars that local newspapers’ coverage of football increased and diversified significantly into something that modern readers would recognise.  By the 1930s, it was normal for daily local papers to have not only match reports on even local amateur and schoolboy games but also gossip and news from this world of junior football too.  For the senior clubs there were now action photographs, human interest stories, hints of scandal and rumours from inside clubs and interviews with players and managers.  This extended beyond concentrating on local clubs with newspapers buying in syndicated interviews with famous players of the day. There were also national form guides and tips, prompted by the rapid growth in popularity of the pools.  Reports and articles were increasingly written in ‘snappier’ styles, with shorter sentences and more colourful descriptions. Many local newspapers also began to publish letters from fans commenting on everything from last week’s performance to the cost of admission and the policies of directors. Weekly local newspapers inevitably contained much less football coverage but they too adopted of some of these new approaches.

The stimulus for change in the local papers came from developments in the national press. National popular newspapers were selling more and aggressively marketing themselves to a working-class audience with door-to-door salesmen promising free gifts in return for subscriptions. Although football played only a minor role in the ‘quality’ nationals until the 1960s, sports reporting in the popular nationals was becoming more ‘gossipy’ and sensationalised in order to win and sustain increased readerships in this more competitive market.  The local daily press had little option but to follow such approaches if it was to retain readers.  Indeed, many local newspapers actually used sport to win distinguish themselves from the nationals.  The nationals inevitably focussed on the first division in general rather than any specific team.  A local newspaper in contrast could offer the extensive coverage of local clubs that local readers sought.

Reporters were well placed to offer extensive coverage of local clubs through their position in local football culture. Directors used the press as their official voice for everything from the announcements of signings, to denials of rumours and the thanking of supporters.  Sometimes this would be through a letter to the paper but, more commonly, it was done by asking a reporter to write a story.  It was these connections between club directors and newspapers that made the press a component of the local football culture rather than just a reporter of it.  Thus, for example, in times of financial crisis, the local newspaper took the lead in promoting fund raising and stressing the gravity of the situation and supporters’ duty to help. 

Yet the close relationship reporters enjoyed with clubs also put them in a difficult position.  They relied on access to clubs for information, which made it difficult for them to print critical stories for fear of endangering that relationship. Fans thus often accused reporters of being in the pocket of clubs, while many articles frustratingly hint that the reporter knows more than the club will allow him to write.  For the historian this means that explanations or defences of clubs’ actions need to be read and interpreted with caution. Nonetheless, fans had their own opinions, watched games themselves and sometimes even met and knew players. They were not willing to tolerate justification of obviously poor results and performances.  Reporters thus had to strike a balance, one that depended on their own inclinations and relationship with supporters and the local club.  As a reporter inCardiffcomplained, ‘If I criticise players fearlessly I am told I am undermining their confidence, if I praise them I am told by the public I am an agent of the club.’ 

This cartoon illustrates the complexities of utilising the local press.  It offers a clear opinion on the financial difficulties of MerthyrTown, that the club’s problems were rooted in a lack of support from the local population.  But was this interpretation a common one? Is the newspaper reporting what local people thought or telling them what to think?  To understand and interpret a source, it must be placed within context.  The cartoon makes no reference to the rampant unemployment plaguing Merthyr and the rest of the south Walescoalfield at this time.  Other sources from this time, including the South Wales Echo who published thus cartoon, placed the blame for the club’s demise firmly at the feet of the economic depression. Thus was the cartoon a deliberate attempt to sting local people into supporting the team?

Supporters would not read or interpret the press in simple or singular ways.  Some would believe anything in print, others nothing and most somewhere inbetween.  The media may not tell people what to think but it does set the framework within which people think; it contributes to what they think about.  People may not have agreed that Merthyr Town was dying because of a lack of local support but this cartoon would have raise the possibility of that interpretation and given them an agenda against which to offer their own analysis.  Thus the historian must not take newspaper sources at face value but the value of those sources is increased because they were key components in creating and fashioning the local football culture. The public’s perception of the game was as much shaped by reading newspapers as it was by their own experiences. 

Thus in utilising the local press successfully the historian will benefit from reading as many issues as possible rather than just dipping in and out.  This should allow the reader to develop a more considered understanding of events in a club’s history, and, by not just reading the sport pages, the social, political and economic contexts in which they took place.  More sustained reading of a newspaper also allows a familiarity with the approach and style of individual reporters, although it is also worth realising that the pseudonyms that reporters usually employed could be shared, if only temporarily. The leading correspondents of mass newspapers, although retaining their noms de plume, gradually became personalities in their own right.  They liked to think of themselves as experts on the game and thus advised players and directors in their columns.  It is useful for the historian to try to compare the approach of different newspapers’ reporters to single issues at clubs, although this is normally only possible in larger cities where there could be more than one local newspaper.

Thus the rewards of newspaper research for the football historian are vast and increased by the key role the press played within football culture. Just as so many supporters relied on newspapers for news of their favourite team so too must the historian. Details of the issues behind key events, such as the dismissal of a manager, may often be frustratingly limited, but newspapers are frequently the only available source.  The historian may end up involved in speculating on such events but this is no different to dealing with more mundane reports, where what is actually written is not necessarily a guide to how supporters interpreted goings-on or what actually happened. The historian’s craft is learning to interpret rather than just report the past.

 Sources and further reading

  • Richard Cox, Dave Russell and Wray Vamplew (eds), The Encyclopedia of British Football (Frank Cass, 2002).
  • Nicholas Fishwick, English Football and Society, 1910-50 (Manchester University Press, 1989), ch. 5.
  • Martin Johnes, Soccer and Society, South Wales 1900-39 (University ofWales Press, 2002).
  • Stephen F. Kelly, Back Page Football: A Century of Newspaper Coverage (Queen Anne Press, 1988).
  • Tony Mason ‘All the Winners and the Half Times …’, The Sports Historian, 13 (May 1993), 3-13.
  • Dave Russell, Football and the English: A Social History of Association in England, 1863-1995 (Carnegie, 1997).

a proud and ancient people

The Welsh are a proud and ancient people. Racially they are no purer than the English; linguistically they are disunited, less than half of them to-day being Welsh speaking; in religion they have agreed to disagree; and, contrary to commonly held opinions, neither rugby football nor choral singing is a unifying factor, for hundreds of thousands of Welshmen prefer the association code, and the majority of the inhabitants of Wales have never attended an eisteddfod. Yet they account themselves, and indeed they are, a nation.

T. I. Jeffreys-Jones (Senior Tutor, Coleg Harlech), ‘Wales and its Peoples’, in D. J. Davies, (ed), Wales and Monmouthshire: An Illustrated Review (1951).

Margaret Thatcher on Wales

Speech to Welsh Conservative Party Conference, Patti Pavilion, Swansea, 19 July 1980

We received a third of all Welsh votes. Indeed, we cut such a swathe through Wales that if you wished to do so—and why not, for it is a lovely country—you could walk from the South-East corner to the North-Western most point and find yourself on Conservative territory all the way….

Economically, we are living in a harsh world. We are in the midst of a general recession, a world-wide decline in commercial activity. The prizes open to us are few. We have to strive to win them. The world won’t buy our goods because they are British—but only because it thinks they are the best. We can recognise this truth or bury our heads in the sand. At last year’s Election, the people chose truth and rejected illusion: they voted for reality and banished yesterday’s dreamworld….

There is a struggle ahead, though not, perhaps, as dramatic as some people would like to think. But no danger confronts us which it is beyond the power of this nation to overcome. What an amazing thing is our United Kingdom. Here we have the Welsh, the English, the Scots and the people of Ulster, each proud of their origin and concerned for their posterity; each regarding themselves, in some ways, as a separate cultural entity, but all combining to form a British nation with a British patriotism. It is that patriotism which has carried us through far sterner days than these and which is going to bring us once more, through toil and mutual trust, to a new and splendid future.

A verdict on the condition of industrial Wales today

A verdict on the condition of industrial Wales today depends on the viewpoint. From the outside, looking in, its progress since the war has been phenomenal. From the inside, looking out, the foundations seem not wholly secure, the future prospects patchy and unsettled.

History makes faith difficult. Middle-aged men in South Wales have the memory of the lean post-war years in their blood stream. Prosperity to them is likely to seem eternally precarious, with every minor check to growth appearing as a major threat. Older men remember that South Wales has been prosperous before and that the roaring, free-spending years before and after the First World War went down into the abyss of the thirties. What has happened once can happen again.

The Guardian, 18 Feb 1965

We shall see crowds from all directions making their way to Ninian Park to hoot and brawl like a lot of wild savage

‘We are drawing very close to the football season, when old and young get infected with a disease known as football fever. We shall see crowds from all directions making their way to Ninian Park to hoot and brawl like a lot of wild savages. As a sport football is very fine, but to think of the thousands that go simply to watch 22 men kick a ball about makes one wonder how these football enthusiasts get any sense of responsibility. What is our future generation going to be like? Not only is football the danger. As soon as a match is finished a great number of football supporters make headway for a public house to disgrace themselves and the country the live in. I trust the day will come when professional football and public houses will be a thing of the past. PRO, BONO, PUBLICO, Cardiff.’

Letter to the South Wales Echo, 20 August 1925.