Christmas and Mass Observation: Studying Traditions, Emotions and People

By the time Mass Observation was established in the 1930s, Christmas had become an integral part of British culture. Although its form and meaning varied between individuals and classes, it was something that everyone interacted with in one way or another. It upset and angered some but more often Christmas was a moment of joy, extravagance, and togetherness. In 1947, in Miracle on 34th Street, undoubtedly the greatest Christmas movie of all time, Santa declares ‘Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind’. By this he meant that the festival was an outlook on life, a way of thinking.  He was right and this means that investigating it can provide insights into the nature and structure of society.

But investigating this is not easy, despite the festival’s pervasiveness in British culture. At one level, the historian is overwhelmed by the number of sources that exist.  Every newspaper and magazine was full of Christmas at December. This went beyond adverts, recipes, and advice on how to enjoy the day, into sometimes quite philosophical ruminations on the nature of Christmas. But the extent to which these reflected the lived realities of the day is less certain.  Film and fiction can be important entry points to such lived experiences, and there is certainly no shortage of festive examples, but they are fictional and more importantly they tended to either deliberately live up to the expectation of Christmas as a time of happiness or tried to subvert it.  Moreover, because Christmas was so known to the readers of such fictions and the press and magazines, much is taken for granted and there is often no attempt to describe the basics of what actually happened.

Thus, in writing my book on the history of Christmas in the UK since 1914, Mass Observation was a key source. It helped me look beyond the public narratives and into the private lives of individuals, to see what Christmas was like in reality rather than in rhetoric.  In this paper, I’m not going to go through all the things that Mass Observation reveals about the British Christmas.  Instead, I want to draw out some more generic points about what Christmas in Mass Observation says about both using the archive and doing history more broadly.

First, an overview of the kind of festive material that exists in Mass Observation. Given the organization’s interest in the everyday, it is not surprising that there is much there. The richest vein of evidence comes from the use of the 25th of December for a day survey in 1937 but Christmas also appears in a great many of the diaries.  This is not a universal picture because the special nature of the day appears to have led some diarists not to write that day.  But, unlike with most topics, the historian of Christmas is not reliant on the archivists’ indexing of diaries. We know when Christmas is and thus all we have to do is to turn to the 25th of December and, hey presto, there should be something there.  The Worktown project also took some interest in Christmas. It spoke to traders, ran a writing competition about Christmas shopping and conducted a small questionnaire on how people spent the day.  During the Second World War, Mass Observation made Christmas the subject of a number of file reports that focussed on shopping and dinner, the two topics that exercised the population in their desire to carry on celebrating during the conflict. 

What will you have for your Christmas dinner? (%)
Game / poultry42
Meat (pork, beef, rabbit)20
What you can get10
Ordinary meal1
Don’t know15
‘Christmas and New Year’s Eve, 1941’. Mass Observation File Report 1030

As this table shows, this material does allow some reconstruction of the actual practices of Christmas but assessing its accuracy means using the archive in conjunction with other sources. For example, between the wars, there was much press comment on the growing popularity of Christmas trees, giving the impression of a very widespread practice.  Yet Mass Observation offers a more nuanced picture.  In the 1937 day survey, a London teacher recorded that he had seen a large number of trees through people’s windows on his Christmas day walk. But the fact that he thought this worth recording suggests it was not a deeply engrained or automatically expected habit.  Of the 30 respondents to Mass Observation’s Bolton Christmas 1938 questionnaire, 21 had put up decorations in their home but only five had trees.  Such evidence is indicative more than definitive but it does offer a more nuanced picture to press commentary on a growing tradition.

A wealth of wider evidence from the press and magazines all suggest that affluence meant that the 1950s were a key decade for the expansion of Christmas celebrations.  Nowhere does Mass Observation say this specifically but it does offer indirect evidence that this was happening and that Christmas trees were becoming more widespread as part of that trend. In 1951, a Sheffield accountant recorded in his diary:

“For the first time in our married lives we have bought a Christmas tree, and Ida has decorated it most tastefully with trinkets of all kinds, candles, little woollen Father Christmases from Sweden, glittering artificial icicles, all topped by a shiny silver and golden spire. It looks really well.”

The neighbours were invited around to see it, again suggesting that a tree was still relatively unusual at the start of the 1950s.

The key point here is that Mass Observation gives indications of a particular trend in festive traditions, sometimes, as in the 1950s, in line with the weight of evidence from other sources but sometimes, as in the 1930s, contrary to it.  Mass Observation may give a human voice to wider processes but triangulation with other sources is still required to make sense of the material found. 

However, this is not always possible. One of the joys of Mass Observation is the quirky material that’s not replicated elsewhere. But its representativeness is difficult to ascertain.  In 1937 a Scottish steelworker recorded that his workmates were joking they were going home to stuff their wives’ stockings. In the same year, a Yorkshire worker recorded that his workmates were saying they were looking forward to Christmas because they would have sex.  Are these two isolated examples enough to conclude that the interwar Christmas was an important occasion for sex?  If not, how many examples would we need? Is the absence of other examples indicative that Christmas and sex did not go together or simply that people just didn’t write about this?  Of course, the problem of fragmented evidence extends far beyond Mass Observation and there is no magic formula on how many pieces of evidence a historian needs to be able to make a judgement.  We tend to try to get around this with a swathe of airy-fairy qualified comments such “It would seem….” or “There is limited evidence…” but the fact remains that some of the most interesting material in Mass Observation is the most difficult to interpret because it is so unique.

Where Mass Observation is most important, certainly for the study of Christmas but in many ways at a wider level too, is in how it takes us behind closed doors and challenges public narratives and discourses.  Historians can never assume that cultural products were consumed in the way their creators intended. For example, the King’s annual Christmas radio broadcast was intended to and celebrated by the press for bringing the nation together. Historians have bought into this idea too. David Cannadine has argued that the royal broadcasts ‘enhanced the image of the monarch as the father-figure of his people’.

However, when we look at what people wrote in the 1937 day directive a more complex picture emerges that suggests a less deferential, more cynical society. While some were clearly respectful of the broadcast and even touched enough to cry, others ignored it, forgot it was on, thought it said nothing of importance, or worked away in the kitchen whilst listening. An 18-year-old student recorded that he was not interested enough in the speech to stop eating his dinner.  What struck many listeners was the King’s stammer. While some respected his efforts, others were embarrassed and one woman even wondered how a man with a stammer could be King. At a gathering in Bradford, the men refused to listen and the women did so for entertainment, treating it as a joke and standing up in mockery for the anthem. But once it began, the women were all rather moved by the King’s ordeal and they stood in seriousness for the anthem’s second playing.

In considerations of the speech, or indeed its depiction in popular culture, little attention is ever given to the fact that the national anthem accompanied the broadcast, being played at both its beginning and end.  But Mass Observation returns show that the question of whether to stand for the anthem clearly perplexed some people.  It forced them to do more than simply listen because in other contexts one always stood for the anthem.  Some families, stood for both playings, even if they were in the middle of dinner or listening in a hotel, and could even get annoyed with members who did not stand straight.  Other families had mixed responses, sometimes standing for the first playing but not the second. Yet it was not always easy to stand. One man noted that the solemnity of the anthem, for which his whole family had stood, was rather spoiled by the dog getting very excited because it thought everyone was going out.

While Mass Observation thus reminds us of the dangers of interpreting the reactions of an audience through studying the text of what they listened to or watched, it is also important in broadening historians’ focus beyond studying events or concepts in isolation.  The diaries and directives of Mass Observation allow the historian to look at people’s lives in the round and move beyond the uncontextualized testimonies that litter the file reports. Once we do that, we start to see how Christmas was so much more than a big dinner and presents. It incorporated fairly mundane activities too and was structured by wider circumstances and relationships. At a 1937 gathering in Peterborough, for example, a 27-year-old secretary discussed the state of the cotton trade with his brother in law, while their wives talked about children’s education, gas cookers and sewing. One London woman was even told by her grumpy teenage male cousin that Christmas was like Sunday, there was nothing to do between the eating. Women in contrast sometimes pointed to the housework, although this could also be an unrecorded given.  In Norbury, a 32-year-old housewife wrote of her annoyance at the amount of washing up. Another woman recorded she could not enjoy her dinner because after cooking it she was sick of the smell. Yet, as Claire Langhamer’s work on happiness has shown, many women’s happiness was tied up with their role as a provider and a carer.   This was not explicitly said in 1937 Mass Observation returns, an example perhaps of how the reasons behind the emotions expressed were often unspoken. Nonetheless, there was clearly some pride taken in the meals prepared and much happiness.

Even when they grumbled, most 1937 returns portrayed and described pleasant days.  A 34-year-old housewife summed her day up: ‘No quarrelling. No discontent, No spite. No disappointment, A happy Christmas.’ Joanna Bourke has argued that emotions are ‘a language game’; they need to be ‘made visible’ for historians to be able to examine them.  What the descriptions of Mass Observation do is make this happen. Mass Observation isn’t just people expressing their emotions; it shows why people said they were happy or sad and how a diversity of experiences could lead to similar emotions.  We thus see that even though the press and church celebrated Christmas as a festival of the family, people not celebrating with their families could be happy too. In a Ramsgate boarding house, the inhabitants had lunch together and gave each other presents. The owner said it was very exciting, that everyone got what they wanted and were all ‘well satisfied’. In Farnborough an unmarried 31-year-old electrician spent the day with friends, recording ‘There was much laughter’. The family he was with were‘somewhat religious’ and Christmas was one of the few times they allowed themselves ‘to have a bit of fun’. Even a 59-year-old Luton chemist, who spent Christmas alone, said his day of pottering, reading and doing experiments, had been the most satisfactory for years.

In contrast, others were clearly very unhappy, sometimes because of their family but also because of the wider state of their life or even the world. In Essex, a 48-year-old housewife was glad when her husband went out to the football in the morning and later ate her beef dinner in a different room to him.  She had not received a gift from him or her son. Nor was she impressed with her mother’s card, which was accompanied by a present but not a letter. In Barnstaple, the weather was foggy and a 33-year-old teacher recorded that she did not feel Christmassy but depressed and gloomy, unable to stop thinking of the wars in Spain and China. Her mood was not helped by the fact that the radio was on during dinner, annoying her with its light music. Afterwards, she would have preferred to be dancing, singing carols and playing charades with her friends but instead was playing darts with her family.

Mass Observation is thus a reminder that everything from entertainment to the sex lives of individuals were multifaceted diverse phenomenas that took place within wider contexts. They were influenced by the structures of work, family and economics but also by the weather, and by personality, temperament and expectation. Historians, of course, already know this but we still tend to sometimes put our subjects into boxes, contextualising them within broad social and economic forces, but not the complex, messy lives people lived.  The history of emotions often stresses how feelings are framed by the contexts they are experienced in but it also often emphasises individual agency and thus the importance of personality in shaping experience and perception of experience.  Indeed, because Mass Observation involved a degree of conscious self-presentation, the personality of subjects shines through strongly. The people of the past were as diverse as the people of the present and the different ways they spent their Christmas day, and the different ways they reacted to the festival, said as much about their personality as about social and economic structures. This does not mean class and gender do not matter but nor are they deterministic categories that exclude everything else or mean that the entirety of the past should be interpreted through the lenses of inequality.

That is evident in how large sections of the working class enjoyed Christmas. Entries to a Mass Observation writing competition in Bolton noted the beauty of shop displays, the enjoyment to be derived from seeing so many happy faces, choosing gifts and thinking about the delight the presents would give. It was a chance to forget daily cares and one woman described Christmas shopping as a ‘land of make believe’.  Entries also noted that the most enjoyable thing was having money to spend, something that was simply not a norm for the working classes but which Christmas saving clubs enabled. 

Of course, these essayists were entering a competition and they might have espoused the joys of shopping to win a prize.  But other evidence, including from within Mass Observation, points in a similar direction. ‘Money may be short but it is always found at Christmas’ said a Bolton sweetshop owner in 1938.  A toyshop in the town even claimed that poorer customers – ‘clog and shawl types’ – spent more than those with cars.  The reality might not have been quite so straightforward but the desire for a bit of fun meant people saved and made sacrifices to ensure Christmas treats.  A Yorkshire miner recorded in his day survey that after twelve months of regular work, Christmas was much looked forward to as a time for treats and a rest.  He could not afford chocolates, cake, turkey, pudding and pork pies all year round but he always had a change of fare at Christmas and he felt he deserved it.  In such testimony, we see why the histories of leisure and pleasure matter.  Like a drink, a good film or a nice cuddle, moments of happiness made life more tolerable. Their history should not be peripheral but rather at the heart of our social histories in the way they were at the heart of our subjects’ lives. Pleasure was what people lived for. It came from material things but also from being with friends and family. Christmas offered both.

Mass Observation thus paints a picture of the diversity of Christmas and by implication of the past, a past where class and gender still had influences but which interacted with circumstance and personality and might not lead to the negatives experiences that could be expected. Yet there was more diversity to the celebration of Christmas than Mass Observation suggests. Users of the archive have long grappled with the question of its representativeness and the relative paucity of first-hand working-class voices. It is not that the working class are absent, but rather that the section of the working class who existed on the breadline ‑ the unskilled workers, and the poor ‑ very rarely took part in the writing of diaries and day returns. After all, when you’re struggling to feed your family, pen and paper were never going to be a priority.

The interwar left-wing press was full of comment about how the poor suffered at Christmas.  Oral testimonies and other observers also paint pictures of families not able to afford any festive treats. Yet the only place that really emerges in Mass Observation is in the Worktown project. It found unemployed couples unable to give each presents, and who shied away from visiting friends or family because they could not take anything with them.   But it also found that even the unemployed did not necessarily quite have the sad day that charities and Labour’s politicians predicted or recalled by those who compare the material affluence of today with the paucity of the past. One Bolton woman reported that she and her unemployed husband had no money for presents for each other but still got a little something for the children, who also got a charitable present from the local paper.  They put up a few decorations and thought the day a small moment of happiness for the children. Unfortunately, this kind of testimony about the everyday experience of the unemployed is exactly the kind of material Mass Observation is very short on and thus whether it fully counteracts the evidence from some other sources of the unemployed’s festive misery is difficult to say.  Again, it may simply be the case that what kind of Christmas the interwar poor had depended on what they expected, relationships with family and neighbours, who they spent the day with, and their general outlook on life. Personality matters.

So, to bring this all together.  Mass Observation is quite simply one of the most important sources for the history of Christmas that exists. It is a source of factual evidence for how people celebrated, although interpretation requires comparisons with other sources of information. It demonstrates how beneath public narratives are complex pictures of diverse experiences. These are not free of the influence of gender or class but nor are they entirely shaped by them, although the lack of testimony from the very poorest within the working class means the experience of those most vulnerable to their economic position are least visible in the archive. Most importantly, the archive’s Christmas evidence is a vivid reminder of how the people of the past were just that, people, with foibles, traits and temperaments. At Christmas, like all year, they loved and they laughed.  They moaned and they grumbled. As feminist scholars and historians of emotions have argued, such feelings could be a source of power and agency, giving people a sense of control over their lives. Expressing an emotion helps control it.  The happiness and sometimes anger that Christmas generated mattered to people at the time because it was a symbol and reminder to them of how their lives were going.  It matters to historians because it is an example of how those lives were lived and felt about.  As Santa put it in Miracle on 34th Street, Christmas is a frame of mind and those minds are there to be examined in all their diversity in Mass Observation.

This paper was presented at the Mass Observation 80th anniversary conference, University of Sussex, July 2017.

Anglo-Welsh football relations: a history

This article was first published in Tom Gibbons & Dominic Malcolm (eds), Sport and English National Identity in a ‘Disunited Kingdom’ (Routledge, 2017)

All national identities owe something to relations with an ‘other’.  As Linda Colley (1994: 6) put it, ‘men and women decide who they are by reference to who and what they are not’. In small nations like Wales, lacking the apparatus of statehood and complicated by internal divisions, a permeable border and conquest by a much larger neighbour, this is particularly true. Indeed, it is impossible to understand Wales without reference to England.  The dynamics of Wales’ culture, politics and especially its economy have all been shaped by the perceptions and realities of its relationship with its neighbour. As this chapter explores, football, from the nineteenth century to the present day, has been no different.  Football has been a powerful expression of Welsh identity and this has often been expressed in terms of difference to England.  Yet, like the majority of wider Welsh opinion, that sense of difference has existed within a British framework and completion separation from England has rarely been a goal for the Welsh football communities, even when they felt ignored or hard done by England. 

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries 

By the time modern football developed in the mid-Victorian period, cultural assimilation between Wales and England was far advanced.  In the rural west, the Welsh language remained the dominant mode of communication but, in the industrialising south and north-east, a cosmopolitan culture was evolving where the experience of work and an emerging class consciousness were uniting immigrants from England and rural Wales. Compulsory education and the associated decline of the Welsh language furthered Welsh integration into a popular Britishness. Indeed, in both rural and industrial areas, the Welsh tended to regard England and the English as more sophisticated and more modern than their own identity and culture. Some individual families stopped speaking Welsh at home in order to raise their children in English, the language of social progress.  By 1911, just 8 percent of the Welsh population were unable to speak English (Jenkins et al, 2000).   

Football’s origins in Wales show how closely related the two nations were. The modern game first developed in Wales in the north-east, where it owed something to the influence of old boys from Shrewsbury School.  Football’s early history here was shaped by the regularity and frequency of personal, economic and cultural cross-border ties, highlighting how the significance of Welsh national identity was based more on symbolism than lived differences and boundaries.  Indeed, by 1890, 37 of the 125 men with Welsh caps had not been born in the country. Yet the game also became a symbol of nationality itself.  Despite, and to some extent in reaction to, assimilation with the British state and culture, Welsh nationality experienced a resurgence at the end of the nineteenth century. This was underpinned by the wealth and confidence that industrialisation created and promoted by a middle class that saw itself as different to the English, not just because of history and the Welsh language but also because of the contemporary relevance of Nonconformity and a Liberal Party that recognised that the United Kingdom was a multinational state.  Of course, not everyone in Wales spoke Welsh, went to chapel or voted Liberal but sport offered a more inclusive vehicle for Welsh nationhood. A speaker at a Football Association of Wales (FAW) dinner even argued in 1879 that football ‘united together in a closer bond the different counties and towns of Wales’ and maintained that the association ‘bound Welshmen to Welshmen’ (Wrexham Advertiser, 22 February 1879).  The FAW, founded in 1876, was one of a host of new national institutions whose establishment meant that the reawakening of Welsh nationhood in the late nineteenth century was more than just an idea afloat on a sea of cultural and economic ties with England; through its national institutions, Wales became a tangible nation (Johnes & Garland, 2004; Jones, 1992).   

For all the national pride in Wales that the period witnessed, the nation that it represented was a complex, fragmented and perhaps contradictory entity.  The national reawakening may have been symbolised and embodied by the establishment of a national team, competition and association for football but the cultural and economic networks of north-east Wales meant people from just over the English border were incorporated into football’s new national institutions, while representatives of south Wales were absent.  In the south, different patterns of migration and the influence of public schools where a handling game was favoured, meant that it was rugby that initially became the region’s mass sport and outlet for a popular Welsh patriotism (Smith & Williams, 1980).  When a North versus South football match took place in 1884, the most southerly players involved were from Welshpool and Oswestry, which is actually in England. It was not until 1901 that a player from the South Wales League was picked for the Welsh national football team.  

Football was played in Victorian south Wales and the first international match to be hosted there took place in Swansea in 1894.  Such was the infancy of the game in the south at the time that one local paper printed a plan of the pitch before the game (Lile and Farmer, 1984).  It was in the Edwardian period that football really took off in the region and this owed more to the influence of relations with England than north Wales. The booming coal industry saw 220,000 people move from England into the Glamorganshire coalfield between 1871 and 1911.  Many of them were already familiar with the dribbling code, providing it both with new supporters and men looking to establish new teams. These migrants were quickly absorbed into a new Welsh community, apparently with little difficulty. A common lived experience based on class, work and community was key to that but sport was probably part of the process of cultural assimilation too since it allowed people to vocalize and demonstrate their attachment to their new home.  It was also approaches from the English Southern League that encouraged the establishment of larger clubs in the south to compete in professional competitions against English towns and cities (Johnes, 2002). 

One of those clubs, Cardiff City, founded in 1910, quickly established itself as a force in British football and by 1921 it was with the game’s elite in the Football League’s first division.  The club almost won the league in 1924 and in 1927 it did win the FA Cup.  The patriotic celebrations of such sporting successes demonstrated how class consciousness and the dominance of the English language had not blunted a popular Welsh pride and a sense of symbolic difference to England.  This was especially clear at the 1927 FA Cup final. An estimated 40,000 people travelled to London from all over Wales to support Cardiff City.  As the newspapers of the day remarked, this was not just Cardiff City against Arsenal, it was Wales against England.  Over-excited reporters on both sides of the border spoke of Celtic invasions and Welsh warriors come to take the English cup away.  Fans wore leeks (so many people bought them that Covent Garden tripled the price of the vegetable for the day), sang the national anthem and made sure that London knew the Welsh were in town (Johnes, 2002). Afterwards, even the front-page headline of a Swansea newspaper declared that the cup had come to Wales (Sporting News, 23 April 1927). 

In the 1920s, international football never quite matched the patriotic rhetoric that accompanied club football and international rugby. Not only was it overshadowed by the achievements of Cardiff City and south Wales’ other Football League teams but there was also the fact that nearly two-thirds of Welsh international players were with English or north Wales clubs.  As the press often pointed out, international soccer in south Wales was hindered by this because it was in the south that the majority of Welsh people lived and the majority of Welsh matches were held. Players who had left the region became more associated with their clubs than country. This meant that there was not the same relationship between fans and players in the Welsh national team that existed at club matches or rugby internationals. This is not to say that the players were unpopular or unknown but it was difficult to fully revel in a shared national identity with players based in England (Johnes, 2002: 177-93). Yet the players themselves still spoke of their pride in pulling on the red shirt of Wales and a comment by former Welsh captain Fred Keenor in 1934 reveals how Welsh identity was entwined with the relationship with England: ‘We Welshmen do not mind much if we have to bow the knee to Scotland or Ireland but we do take a special delight in whacking England’ (South Wales Football Echo, 22 September 1934). 

International football did reach new peaks in the 1930s, when success on the pitch brought the biggest crowds Welsh international soccer had ever enjoyed. With local clubs failing to bring success or top-quality soccer to south Wales and international Welsh rugby in dire straits, the public was eager to witness high-class matches. Attendances of over 40,000 were seen at the Ninian Park internationals, a figure comparable with rugby internationals. Yet, after the excitement had died down, the fact that the majority of the players played over the border again brought out a sense of sadness. For all the leeks on display and the Welsh songs ringing through the air, Welsh international football was a symbol of how Welshmen had to leave for England to succeed or even just find a job amidst the devastation of the interwar depression. Between the wars, nearly 400,000 people moved away from the economic ruins of Wales (Johnes, 2002: 191; Davies, 1994: 578). 

Yet, for all its insecurities, in both sport and wider culture, Welsh national pride was easily offended when not taken seriously by the English.  Welsh clubs and the FAW both felt poorly treated by the English football authorities and there were significant inter-war tensions over the release of players and the status of Welsh clubs in English competitions (Johnes, 2002: 190, 197-99). More seriously, there was widespread umbrage amongst Welsh speakers at the 1936 decision to move the trial of three nationalists who had burnt down part of a RAF bombing school to the Old Bailey after a Caernarfon jury had failed to reach a verdict.  Few might have agreed with the crime but offence was taken at the implication that the Welsh could not try their own (Jenkins, 1998).  Yet the political implications of this were minimal.  Plaid Cymru, formed in 1925 by a small group of Welsh-speaking intellectuals worried about the retraction of traditional Welsh culture, was more a marginal pressure group rather than a political party.  For the vast majority of the Welsh people, England was a partner, not an enemy, something that became only too evident during the Second World War.  Then there were occasional tensions over whether Wales’ role in the war effort was being given enough recognition and nationalists worried about the impact of conscription and English evacuees on Welsh-speaking communities but the dominant tone was of the British nations standing together. Wales, whether in sporting or wider circles, simply wanted recognition that it was an equal partner (Johnes, 2012: 7-34). 

After the Second World War 

The post-war settlement reaffirmed this idea.  There was little Welsh dimension to economic planning or the structures of the new Welfare State.  This annoyed some MPs who feared that Welsh interests were not properly being considered by the government in London (Johnes, 2012: 35-64).  That began a process of attempts to get Welsh national identity recognized, something which the government was generally willing to accept.  Thus a Ministry for Welsh Affairs was created in 1951, Cardiff was declared the capital city in 1955, financial support was given to Welsh-language publishing and the National Eisteddfod and even the Red Dragon was finally recognized as the official flag in 1960.  That the British government was becoming increasing sensitive to Welsh interests owed much to the furore that surrounded its decision to allow the flooding of the Tryweryn Valley to create a reservoir for Liverpool, an event which angered Welsh and English speakers alike and drew parallels with historic injustices done to Wales from the Blue Books to the Welsh Not.i  Indeed, for many, the key issue that rankled was not so much the destruction of a Welsh-speaking community but that it was done to supply England with water (Johnes, 2012: 178-244). 

Yet the old insecurities remained and they were fed by how images as diverse as the Ealing comedy Run for your Money (1949) and Ivor the Engine (1959-64, and 1976-77) reinforced an impression that the Welsh were a rather comic people.  It was no wonder then that some were keen to leave Wales or at least play down their Welshness.  One of the easiest ways of doing this was ‘speaking nice’, by avoiding the grammatical oddities of Welsh English and dropping or moderating the Welsh accent.  The popularity of elocution lessons in 1950s and 60s Wales was partly old-fashioned snobbery but it was also rooted in how many older Welsh people had a rather poor regard of their own nation, however much some of their compatriots were beginning to complain that England mistreated or ignored Wales (Johnes, 178-210).   

At this time, international football was slowly emerging as vehicle for expressing Welsh and other British national identities outside the UK.  1958 saw Wales qualify for the World Cup for the first and as yet the only time. Yet, nowhere in the UK, had it taken on any real popular significance and the minimal television coverage given to the 1950 and 1954 tournaments meant the World Cup still had something of an exotic quality to it.  European television stations shared broadcasts rather than making their own selections of matches to show and the result of this was that only one of Wales’ 1958 World Cup matches was televised and even the quarterfinal against Brazil was not broadcast, with British television instead showing Sweden v USSR.  In the press, too, there was not extensive coverage of the tournament and one player told the story that on his return to Swansea with his suitcases he was asked by the ticket conductor if he had been on holiday (Risoli, 1998: 138). The rest of the world was not always much more knowledgeable about Wales either. In 1965 a World Cup qualifier against the USSR saw the state media refer to Wales as ‘a small corner of England’ (Quoted in Stead, 2012: 191). 

It was the 1966 World Cup that saw the profile of international football within the UK grow. The tournament was extensively televised in the United Kingdom and attracted very large audiences (Chisari, 2004).  Unlike in Scotland (Mason, 2006: 92), there is no evidence of any hostile reception to England’s campaign and victory. An editorial in the Western Mail (1 August 1966), the self-imagined national newspaper of Wales, proclaimed England’s ‘superb victory’ as an achievement which ‘the whole of Britain can feel proud of’ and which ‘belongs to British football as a whole’.  The final attached a record British audience of 30.5m, some of whom were in Wales.  In the Rhondda, a local newspaper remarked that ‘Practically everything stopped’ for the final (Rhondda Fach Observer, Leader & Fress Press, 5 August 1966).  In Trermerchion in Denbighshire, attendance at the flower show and gymkhana were reported to be down to a trickle because of rain and the final (Liverpool Daily Post, 7 August 1966). Yet the final did not sweep all before it.  In Ferryside, in rural Carmarthenshire, the local carnival and sports day attracted hundreds, despite clashing with the final (Carmarthen Journal, 5 August 1966).  It also came two weeks after Gwynfor Evans became the first Welsh nationalist MP, an event that had unsettled parts of the establishment, and there were those in Wales who were keen to point out that reactions to the World Cup were a form of nationalism too. A columnist in the Welsh-language magazine Barn (August, 1966) noted that if the type of nationalism of the World Cup was accepted there could be a world of peaceful co-operation where nations lived inside their boundaries but still developed. 

The experience of international football within the UK certainly showed that sporting patriotism did not have to be aggressive or detrimental. Matches between Wales and England in the 1950s and 1960s remained imbued with a friendly rather than hostile rivalry, however much newsreel coverage might speak of the Welsh wanting to beat the ‘old enemy’ (for example, British Pathe, 1962).  Qualification rules were also changing and further illustrated a lack of hostility towards England. The FAW decided to allow players to qualify through their parents and in 1971 Trevor Hockey from Yorkshire made his debut for Wales, the first Englishman to play for the land of his father (Stead, 2012: 205). 

Yet football was again providing evidence that England did not always respect Welsh national identity.  In 1971, the FAW had to resort to lobbying the Minister of Sport to ensure English clubs released Welsh players for internationals. In 1971, Merthyr-born reporter Ken Jones even wrote in the Daily Mirror (25 October 1971) that maybe it was time to give up fighting for the release of Welsh players and join the two national teams.  A year later, an English MP went as far as asking the Minister for Sport to lobby for the formation of a British team to replace the faltering English side. The Minister had the good sense to reply: ‘I am not sure that Scottish or Welsh football supporters would rejoice to see their national teams losing their identity in order to rescue England from its difficulties’ (House of Commons Debate, 17 May 1972, Hansard, vol. 837 cc. 500-2). 

By then, football fan culture was changing too, as generational shifts gave it a more aggressive and crude edge.  The shared regional identities that had seen fans of local and regional rivals have soft spots for each other began to fade (Mellor 1999). In their place, emerged regional rivalries, where fans of such teams began to sing and chant about hating each other.  Indeed, these rivalries became defining features of many clubs’ fandoms and sometimes this spilled over into violence. By 1969, Cardiff fans on their way back from a derby with Swansea were wrecking trains. By the 1970s they were fighting each other.  The late 1960s onwards also saw a more forceful Welsh identity emerge in reaction to the decline of traditional Welsh culture and the apparent indifference of the British state. This more confident, youthful and forceful sense of Welshness was embodied by the non-violent direction action protests of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society). But their anger at the lack of legal status bestowed on the Welsh language was soon overshadowed by a more virulent anti-Englishness that was rooted in the growing immigration from England into rural Wales.  At first, such people were a curiosity but as their numbers swelled they became seen as a threat to traditional Welsh culture, a culture now very obviously in danger as every census and chapel closure decried.  Personal relations tended to be harmonious but as a group English immigrants were unpopular and blamed for everything from rising house prices to having the wrong kind of curtains.  Part of this was a classic rural-urban divide but the impact of migration on the language gave the issue a more emotional resonance and led to talk of the English carrying out cultural genocide.  Some retaliated with violence and between 1979 and 1992 there were 197 arson attacks on estate agents and properties belonging to English incomers (Johnes, 2012, ch. 13; Humphries, 2008).  

The antagonism towards the English in rural Wales was beginning to be mirrored by a smaller degree of antagonism towards England (rather than the English) in urban areas.  The winding down of traditional heavy industry in Wales had been going on since the 1950s but not until the 1970s did it become a source of widespread resentment as alternative employment began to dry up.  By the 1980s that resentment was clearly beginning to adopt something of a national angle, especially since it was easy to see the Tories as a government imposed on Wales by the choices of an English electorate. As graffiti in Caerphilly declared after the 1987 general election: ‘we voted Labour, we got Thatcher’ (Davies, 1999: 4). On 22 July 1980, The Times reported a growing ‘bloody English’ attitude towards London-based decision makers amongst Welsh steelworkers who felt that Wales had been singled out for redundancies.  It claimed their ‘bitterness and anger’ was ‘nurturing a new brand of awakened identity’.  A sense of being Welsh also developed in the National Union of Mineworkers during its 1984-5 strike and Welsh iconography, from dragons to Welsh ladies, was common on the union’s banners and posters.  Moreover, even if the rest of Wales did little about it beyond putting loose change in collecting buckets, many compatriots did watch on aghast as the government strove to apparently not just beat but destroy the miners.  England now seemed to offer not the economic safety net it had in the past but a threat to the future of Welsh communities (Johnes, 2012). 

In sport this more pronounced national identity became entangled with the aggressive fan culture that had produced football hooliganism. One hooligan memoir claimed that ‘It’s a well known fact among older people round here that in the 70s and especially the 80s, if you walked around here in any English football top you would have been harassed in the streets and even attacked’ (Marsh, 2009).  But it was the loud and routine booing of the God Save the Queen, the national anthem of both the English and the British, that was most the obvious sign of a more concerted 1970s nationalism.  It had traditionally been played after Hen Wlad fy Nhadau at Welsh home internationals but the booing became embarrassing. In 1975 the Welsh Rugby Union dropped it when it was not the visitors’ requested anthem and football followed suit in 1977.  Both football and rugby also struggled to get Hen Wlad fy Nhadau recognised by other countries as the Welsh national anthem. The French began playing it for Welsh rugby visits in 1971 but the English were less accommodating. In 1974 the RFU refused to play it at Twickenham and the FA turned down the FAW’s 1975 and 1977 official requests for the Welsh anthem to be played at Wembley.  In 1977, the FA claimed its playing might embarrass the Royal Family and instead offered to make it part of a pre-match medley, to which the FAW Secretary replied, ‘If the Welsh anthem cannot be given full recognition and played immediately prior to the playing of the national anthem then please don’t play at all’. In protest at the FA, the Welsh players stayed lined up after God Save the Queen, waiting for their own anthem which they knew was not coming  (Johnes, 2008; Stead 2012: 217-9, 227; The Times, 30 April, 24 May 1977). 

The kind of anti-Englishness that such obstinacy could engender also found its way into the club game from the 1970s onwards.  This was clear in the songs sung at Swansea’s Vetch Field and Cardiff’s Ninian Park.  Some were simply antagonistic (such as ‘England’s full of shit’), while others directly aligned a passion for a club and Wales with a dislike of England (‘We are the England haters – Swansea!’ or ‘We’ll never be mastered by no English bastard, Wales, Wales, Wales’).  Some Welsh fans worried that such songs were racist. Yet others disagreed because of their historical understanding of England as the dominant nation within the UK (Johnes, 2008b). As one fan put it in a 2000 online debate: 

Racism??? Don’t make me laugh!! The English are hardly an oppressed ethnic minority are they!! on the contrary they’ve spent the last 500 years raping, pillaging and suppressing their way around the globe and once they’d finished their wham bam thank you maam routine it was off home leaving the unfortunate country usually bankrupt…Wales is a perfect example. ( guestbook entry, 10 February 2000). 

The definition of Welshness as something oppositional to England was sometimes very keenly felt by fans. A hooligan memoir has claimed ‘This hatred is so endemic’ that it inevitably comes out when Welsh teams play English ones (Marsh, 2008).  It could also be rooted in personal experience, as one supporter living in England pointed out in an online discussion: 

I have worked in London for 10 years now and have had to endure sheep-sh***ing, leek-crunching, coal-chomping, sister-worrying, in-breeding, close-harmony singing, rugby-playing, chip-eating, lavabread munching, “does Wales have a football team then?”, “Not even good at rugby anymore are you?” etc. etc. jokes and generalisations on a constant basis. …  For those of you who have not had the pleasure of living in this bastion of ill-founded sporting smugness and arrogance let me be your education and your guide. You can never read, watch or listen to anything before, during or after an England footy game even if it is against a Maltese fifth division B team without constant references to 1966, Bobby Moore, blah blah f***ing blah! … [I]t is with great satisfaction then that to misquote that famous poem, every away game “There is a corner of an English football ground that for 90 minutes is forever Wales” and I take great pleasure in singing “England’s full of s**t”, “Argentina”, “You can stick your chariot up your a**e”, “We hate England, and we..” and anything else that springs to mind cos if their pathetic mute fans had anything like our passion then they’d be singing it back to us!! ( guestbook entry, 10 February 2000). 

Welshness, in and outside the football ground, may have been  becoming politicized but there were clear limits to what was happening. In 1979, the nationalist threat to the union in Scotland and Wales led to referendums on devolution but just a fifth of the Welsh turnout voted for the measure on offer and over forty percent of the electorate did not bother voting at all. The resentment of the 1980s economic dislocation changed some people’s minds however. In 1997, a second referendum on devolution produced a very narrow Yes majority. Only a quarter of the Welsh electorate had actually voted for devolution but that was still more than twice the number that had voted for it in 1979.  Research by political scientists suggested that the significant shift had come amongst Labour voters who saw themselves as Welsh but did not speak Welsh (Taylor & Thomson, 1999).  This was the same group who had been worst affected by the decline of traditional industry under Thatcherism.  The disregard of a London government for the social impact of its economic policies had furthered the politicization of Welshness. What had emerged in the 1980s and 90s, and what grew rapidly in the early 21st century, was not a Welsh identity based on any support for separation but one in which the very concept of Wales had a political legitimacy. It became the accepted wisdom amongst the majority that decisions about Wales should be taken in Wales (Johnes, 2012; Scully and Wyn Jones, 2015). 

Just as this shift did not signal any desire to leave the union or any real hostility towards England, Wales’ biggest clubs remained committed to playing in the English league structure. A League of Wales (now known as the Welsh Premier League) was formed in 1992 by the FAW, who was concerned that Wales’ position as a full member of FIFA was under threat from other national associations who resented a non-nation state not only having its own national team but also a permanent place on the organization that decided the game’s rules.  Eight of Wales’s leading semi-professional initially refused to join the new competition, and two of those teams continue to remain outside it more than twenty years later. In a recognition of the realities of the professional game’s economics, no real effort was made to persuade the country’s Football League teams to take part. Wales’ leading clubs thus remained in the English pyramid and their fans were perfectly happy with that. Indeed, we should be weary of reading too much into the chants of these fans. For some they were rooted in understandings of history and politics, but for most they were football-only gesture, a ritualized piece of fun that was not to be taken literally (Johnes, 2008b). As one supporter of such songs put it, ‘I am not in any way advocating the idea of fostering Anglophobic over-indulgence … but do GET A GRIP! Are we all going to sing anti-English chants, then go on the rampage burning every cross of St George we can find following the final whistle? No!’ ( guestbook, 8 February 2000). Thus, like the anti-Welsh taunts sung at Welsh fans, anti-English songs were not intended as literal expressions of identity and sentiment.  They were (and remain) banal rather than political expressions of identity and even the most aggressive anti-English assertions of fans have to be taken with a pinch of salt. They owe more to banter and play than the politics of identity (Johnes, 2008b). Wales-England differences are real and felt but they rarely translate into lived discrimination.   Even in rural Welsh-speaking communities, most English incomers report being accepted as individuals, although they were aware of a sense of difference between themselves and locals (Day, Drakakis-Smith & Davis, 2008). 

Moreover, those who sang these songs at club and international games were probably not representative of all football fans in Wales, let alone the wider Welsh population. Instead, there appears to be in Wales widespread interest and even sometimes sympathy for English football. There is no clear evidence but it is not unreasonable to suggest that until the rise of Swansea City into the English Premier League, that competition’s big English clubs drew upon more support in both north and south Wales than any Welsh club or even, at times, the national team. Although there was a brief period at the start of the 21st century when Welsh internationals were attracting gates of more than 70,000, for most of the last thirty years attendances at Wales games have been far more modest.  In 1991, as few as 3,656 turned up for a friendly against Iceland at the national stadium.  A lack of success and a lack of high-profile players have meant that some football fans in Wales were quite simply not that interested in the national team. In contrast, the obsessions of the London media made it difficult for Welsh fans to ignore the English national side.  Since maybe the 1970s, the regular followers of the Welsh national team and Welsh clubs probably generally wanted England to lose but the Welsh population runs far wider than these groups and there is not a universal ‘Anyone But England’ feeling in Wales during major football tournaments.  Quite apart from Welsh people happy to support a fellow British team in a major match, especially if they support an English club, there are people in Wales who are not Welsh. Throughout the twentieth century, a significant proportion of the Welsh population has been born in England. By 2011, the figure had reached 636,266 people, a fifth of the entire population. In that year’s census, 390,000 people in Wales recorded their national identity as ‘English’ or ‘English and British’.  If more than one in ten people in Wales label themselves ‘English’ then it is hardly surprising that St George’s flags can be seen during in Wales during major football tournaments. 

Such cross border movements are also important to the strength of Britishness within Wales. Yet for the majority of the Welsh, a British identity is as much about pragmatism as emotion. the majority of fans seem to either support an English team or want to see their Welsh club play in the English league system.  This is not to suggest that Welsh identity is weak or any way secondary but rather than it exists within and alongside a British context. This is also evident in 21st-century opinion polls that ask about national identity and, rightly, give people the opportunity of choosing more than one. Typically, only around a fifth of people select the ‘Welsh not British’ answer, whereas half tend to go for ‘More Welsh than British’ or ‘Equally Welsh and British’. Polls also suggest that support for Welsh independence is only around ten percent, which implies that maybe half of Welsh people who do regard themselves as British also do not want to leave the United Kingdom. This reminds us of the importance of context to identity. Which identity is to the fore and what identity means depends very much on the context. Football again is a powerful illustrator of this and there is very little active support in Wales for a UK team that could compete in the Olympics.  Feeling British is one thing but supporting a British national football team would be something altogether different.  


In the second decade of the 21st century, a better Wales team was slowly emerging and in 2016 it not only qualified for the finals of a major tournament for the first time since 1958 but also reached the semi-finals.  A patriotic media, always a key component in promoting and defining Welsh identity after the war, celebrated that team’s achievements and the event created what seemed to be a genuine feel-good factor across the nation, including amongst those who had shown little interest in the game before.  Key to that were a clever marketing strategy by the FAW, which embraced the Welsh language, national history and messages of social unity, and the fact that the squad seemed a genuine reflection of the nation it represented: it contained players of white, black and Asian heritage, Welsh learners and first-language speakers and nine English-born members. However, Euro 2016 also saw a recurrence of what had annoyed many people in Wales about previous major football tournaments: a seeming assumption in what was supposed to be a British media that it was how England did that mattered most. Just as it is too easy for news reports to forget to highlight the fact that issues like health and education are devolved, it is easy for people on the BBC and in the press to skip into the language of ‘we’ when discussing England.  People’s annoyance at this was then compounded by advertising campaigns when UK companies promoted the England team in Welsh media and even inside Welsh shops.  

Complaining about this might seem a little trivial, another example of a chip on the Welsh shoulder, but Welsh attitudes towards England have always intertwined with issues of class and power.  When resentment of England did rise in the twentieth century, it was because of feelings that Wales and the Welsh were not being accorded equal treatment, status and respect. The growth of a politicized sense of Welshness in the last fifty years has been directly rooted in perceptions of the English treatment of Wales.  Yet the reality was that much of England was not hostile but rather oblivious to the existence of Wales. That was what made sport so important to Anglo-Welsh relations.  It afforded the Welsh both an opportunity to remind England that Britain was a multinational state and to show that Wales was an equal partner in that entity.  That might mean obscene chanting about England rather than beating them on their pitch.  It rarely meant wanting Welsh football to be divorced from the English pyramid structure.  Just as in politics, a minority of the Welsh people may have wanted to break free from England but the majority were simply interested in receiving that most Welsh of sayings, ‘fair play’.   


  • British Pathe (1962). ‘England beat Wales’. Newsreel available online at  
  • Chisari, F. (2004). ‘‘Shouting Houswives!’: the 1966 World Cup and British television’. Sport in History, 24 (1), 94-108. 
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  • Davies, J. (1994). A  History of Wales. London: Penguin. 
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  • Humphries, J. (2008). Freedom Fighters: Wales’ Forgotten ‘War’, 1963-1993. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. 
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  • Johnes, M. (2002). Soccer and Society: South Wales, 1900-39. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. 
  • Johnes, M. and Garland, I. (2004).  ‘‘The new craze’: football and society in north-east Wales, c. .1870-1890’, Welsh History Review, 22 (2), 278-304. 
  • Johnes, M. (2008a). ‘A Prince, a King, and a Referendum: Rugby, Politics, and Nationhood in Wales, 1969–1979’. Journal of British Studies, 47, 129-148.  
  • Johnes, M. (2008b). ‘We Hate England! We Hate England? National Identity and Anti-Englishness in Welsh Soccer Fan Culture’, Cycnos, 25, 2. Online at  
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  • Lile, B. and Farmer, D. (1984). ‘The early development of association football in south Wales, 1890-1906’, Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 193-215. 
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  • Mason, T. (2006). ‘England 1966: traditional and modern?’ In A. Tomlinson & C. Young (eds), National Identity: Global Sports Events: Culture, Politics and Spectacle in the Olympics and the Football World Cup. Albany: State University of New York Press,  83-98. 
  • Mellor, Gavin (1999). ‘The Social and Geographical Make-Up of Football Crowds in the NorthWest of England, 1948-1962, ‘Super-Clubs’, Local Loyalty and Regional Identities’, The Sports Historian, 19, (2), 25-42. 
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  • Smith, D. and Williams, G. (1980). Fields of Praise: The Official History of the Welsh Rugby Union, 1881-1981. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.   
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Stories of a Post-industrial Hero: The Death of Johnny Owen

First published as: Martin Johnes (2011) Stories of a Post-industrial Hero: The Death of Johnny Owen, Sport in History, 31:4, 444-463, DOI: 10.1080/17460263.2011.646832

Boxing has a history of attracting the interest of intellectuals and serious writers. The likes of Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway have been fascinated not just by boxing’s brutality but also by its symbolic power. It is easy to see in the sport’s drama and struggle metaphors for wider life. Joyce Carol Oates’s seminal On Boxing claimed that to ‘write about boxing is to be forced to contemplate not only boxing, but the perimeters of civilization – what it is, or should be, to be “human”’. For Oates, boxing’s moments of ‘greatest intensity’ seem ‘to contain so complete and so powerful an image of life – life’s beauty, vulnerability, despair, incalculable and often self-destructive courage – that boxing is life, and hardly a mere game’.1

Perhaps at no time was that symbolism stronger than in 1980 when a skinny Welsh boxer died after being knocked out in an American ring. Johnny Owen’s death brought home the realities of boxing; the sport had cost a likeable, modest young man his life. A biography of Owen noted that boxing ‘is really life whittled away to an ugly, simple truth’.2 But, like life, there was no simple truth. Boxing has a moral ambiguity which makes constructing it into anything simple far from straightforward. That did not mean people did not try, but there were always multiple stories to be told: stories about dignity, fate, luck, values, history and communities.


Johnny Owen was born in 1956 in the industrial town of Merthyr Tydfil in the South Wales valleys, a town built on iron and coal with a proud boxing history. It had also been home to Eddie Thomas and Howard Winstone, two boxers who reached the sport’s highest levels in the 1950s and 1960s. Like these fighters, Owen came from a solid working-class background. A shy and quiet boy, he began boxing aged eight and gradually became known as a determined and untiring fighter. After leaving school he worked in a nuts and bolts factory and continued to do so after turning professional in 1976. This gave him a steady income but still allowed him to train, and he developed a reputation for a phenomenal stamina. His commitment to training paid off when he won the Welsh bantamweight championship in 1977. By 1980 he was European champion. His income grew as he rose through the ranks and he was able to buy his own grocery store, which prospered thanks to his personal popularity.3 Yet he still lived on a Merthyr council estate with his parents and younger brothers and sisters. Nor was he motivated by greed. He hoped to have made £100,000 by the time he retired. This would have given him a comfortable future but it was hardly staggering wealth by sport’s highest standards. At the start of 1980 Owen listed his seven goals in his diary: a successful business, a house or houses, plots of land, a pub, a holiday, enough money to retire between 27 and 29, and good luck.4

Owen’s rise had not been straightforward. Nicknamed the ‘matchstick man’, his skinny build meant he had to face the assumptions of others that he was too weak to fight. Even as a schoolboy he had lacked visible muscles; one of his trainers compared him to a sparrow, noting there was ‘more meat in a crisp’.5 When Owen was a fully grown man, his manager was harassed by boxing fans and others for letting him fight.6 Dai Gardiner recalled:

“When people bought a ticket for Johnny’s fight, they’d say, ‘I want one for my wife, one for my daughter and one for my mother-in-law’. Everybody wanted to nurse him. I took some terrible abuse off women telling me I shouldn’t let him box. It got very bad. They said I was starving him.”7

More seriously, in 1975 a doctor expressed doubts about Owen’s health to box because he looked so frail. But, after seeing him fight, the doctor admitted that looks could deceive.8 As The Times‘s boxing correspondent put it, he was the ‘matchstick man with fire in his fists’.9

Owen’s chance of a world title came in 1980 when the Mexican Lupe Pintor agreed to a voluntary defence of his bantamweight title in Los Angeles. The Welshman went into the fight ranked number four in the world, with a professional record of 25 wins, one defeat and one draw, but Pintor had a reputation for being a very powerful puncher. In its pre-fight hype, Boxing News concluded that Owen was genuinely ‘world-class’ and that his stamina meant he could upset the odds against the ‘experienced and sometimes dangerous’ Pintor. But it also acknowledged that the fight would be close and Owen would have to survive the first eight rounds to win.10 Bookmakers had Owen as 6–1 and Pintor as 2–1 but the American press gave him no chance. This was down to his appearance rather than his record. The LA Times remarked he had ‘the skinniest limbs this side of an ostrich farm’. Another Los Angeles paper called him the ‘world’s biggest pipe-cleaner – with ears’.11

It was a hostile atmosphere in Los Angeles’ Olympic Auditorium on the night of the fight. Beer and urine were thrown at Owen’s supporters during the warm-up bouts. One fan recalls that the atmosphere was ‘poisonous’ by the time the main attraction began.12 Owen fought well, crowding Pintor and preventing him from throwing his hooks. But he did not really hurt the Mexican, despite the exchanges being ‘hard and uncompromising’.13 A reporter described these rounds as ‘like something out of one of those old Boys’ Own adventure yarns: brave British sportsman hushes screaming horde by getting stuck in against tough-looking foreigner. Owen was giving as good as he was getting, not hitting with the same authority as Pintor but throwing a lot more punches.’14 In the eighth round Pintor appeared to be now on top but going into the ninth the Boxing News reporter still had the fight level.15 The BBC’s Harry Carpenter had Owen winning.16 However, the ninth round saw Owen put down for the first time in his career. He was back on his feet after a count of three but he was dazed and after that the fight slipped away from him. Owen was still hitting Pintor but he was now taking far more of the damage and he went down again in the 12th. Perhaps the fight should then have been stopped but both fighters were cut and it was not all one way. Stopping fights early was a common source of criticism for referees and most preferred to let world-title bouts continue for as long as both fighters seemed capable of defending themselves. Owen had got back up and assumed a fighting stance. Afterwards, the referee recalled that ‘it was a little like a police officer examining a drunk driver when I looked at Owen, but he said to me “I’m alright, sir, I can carry on” and I let him’.17 

Four punches later Owen was knocked down again and this time he went down, not as if he was on the end of hard punch but more like every ounce of energy and strength had been drained right out of him. Boxing News compared to it to someone being shot.18 The referee claimed that Owen was unconscious before he hit the canvas: ‘His pupils were turned up. That’s why I went over and took the mouthpiece out and didn’t bother to count.’19 The fight had been scheduled to be shown afterwards on the BBC but the broadcaster took the decision to only air brief extracts because of how disturbing it was.20

What happened after the fight illustrated the brutal realities of boxing. The Sunday Express noted that while the doctor treated Owen in the ring, ‘his body went into spasmodic contractions. Blood was spewing from his mouth, and his eyes were fixed in a glaze.’21 Pintor’s supporters meanwhile were, according to Ring Magazine, turning into ‘a lynch mob’.22 They threw beer and other objects into the ring. Owen’s cornermen were shoved and pushed and one had his wallet stolen while he was seeing to Owen. A drink was poured over Owen’s unconscious body and the crowd jeered and clapped when he was removed from the ring.23 Owen never regained consciousness and 46 days later he died in a Los Angeles hospital.


In the national and international press the story was overshadowed by Ronald Reagan’s victory in the US presidential election, but it was still newsworthy. In Merthyr it was more than that; in Owen’s home town there was genuine grief. Curtains were closed and people huddled in small groups to talk about Owen. A ‘weepy woman’ told the Daily Mirror: ‘He was a lovely boy, so very shy. He was the hero of all local children.’24 The Merthyr Express reported: ‘Johnny’s dead. Those are the words which have been murmured sadly around Merthyr since Tuesday morning, and indeed, will be murmured sadly for a long time to come.’ It noted how he had remained a ‘modest but caring person who won over the people, young and old’ and printed a page of photographs of his community work headlined ‘Johnny the good citizen’.25 Such images dominated people’s thinking and the media coverage. The Mayor of Merthyr noted: ‘He was a gentle person and a gentleman – completely the opposite to the sport he participated in.’ A former mayor of the town claimed ‘People who didn’t like boxing liked Johnny Owen – the townspeople liked him for his personality and character and because he was an outstanding example of the sort of young man we would like to be associated with our community.’26 Moreover, Owen himself was attached to that community and his country. Much was made of his innocence and his commitment to his friends, community and Wales. One paper claimed that ‘Even when parading his talents in England, let alone abroad, he wanted to return home as quickly as possible’.27 Tales were told of celebrations of his victories in a local pub near his training headquarters: ‘There was no champagne, no caviar, no high-living in his hours of glory. For his family and friends it was a pint, pasty and black pudding. For Johnny it was orange juice and a slice of his favourite gateau.’28 Pictures were reprinted of him celebrating becoming European champion with a cup of tea with his mother. None of this was made up or romanticized. It was how Owen was. He really did consider using Sion Rhisart Owain as his boxing name.29 He really did want to go to Disneyland, he had never had a proper girlfriend and he did enjoy cream cakes.30

Owen’s patriotism, modesty, work ethic and ordinariness outside the ring were all qualities that people identified with and his personality added to the sense of tragedy. It was not some hardened thug who had died but a likeable, polite young man. He did not even look like a boxer. It was thus easy for people in Merthyr to see his death as the loss of one of their own. Yet the death of such a man was seen to matter far beyond Merthyr. As an editorial in the South Wales Echo put it, Merthyr, South Wales and the boxing world were all in mourning for this ‘man of great dedication and courage who captured the affection of all who met him because of his quiet modesty …. Johnny Owen was a credit to his family, to his town, and to Wales.’31 Even the Secretary of State for Wales sent a telegram saying ‘All Wales is saddened to hear of Johnny Owen’s death’.32 In the USA too there was a sense that someone unusual had been lost. The referee told the New York Times that when Owen had gone down in the ninth round he had asked him, ‘“John, how do you feel?” In the British tradition, he said, “Yes, sir, I’m OK.” He never lost his politeness, his gentleness.’33

Owen’s funeral was a very public affair. It was held on 11 November, ‘a day on which fallen heroes are remembered’, as his local paper noted. Schools, shops, factories and banks closed and 10,000 people – ‘Mothers and babies, disabled, pensioners, schoolchildren, nurses, garage mechanics, council workmen, brickies, [and] factory workers’ – were said to have turned out to watch the cortège of 160 cars. Many men were in black ties and people remarked it was as if a family member had died. The Merthyr Express reported: “They came in their thousands. They braved the rain and chilling winds. Silent and patient, they awaited their turn to pay their respects to a fallen hero of the town of Tydfil the Martyr. They were the mourners who extended beyond the family, beyond the sporting world, beyond the town itself who were moved to grieve over the death of a brave young boxer.”34 One bystander told the paper ‘he was one of us’.35 The coffin was draped in a Welsh flag and the ceremony finished at the graveside with the singing of the Welsh national anthem and Cwm Rhondda, a traditional Welsh hymn much loved by sporting crowds.36

Such a community affair was an echo of the funerals that followed pit disasters and the parallels between Owen and the town’s industrial history were not lost on onlookers. The Times‘s description of the funeral noted how men in the congregation bore the scars of mining, the harsh life that had made many ‘turn to their fists as a passport out of the valley, or a way of finding a better life in it’.37 The Daily Mirror spoke of Owen’s background in a ‘poor hard working family’.38 The Western Mail called him ‘the latest hero of a town scarred by bitter memories’.39 Insiders saw it too. The minister’s address proclaimed: ‘We know about sorrows and suffering in these valleys. We know about it from the depths of a Rhondda pit to the tip above Aberfan.’40

Tragedy and suffering was an image of the Valleys that people there believed in. It was, after all, something very real. The 1966 Aberfan disaster, where, just four miles from Merthyr, a coal tip collapsed, killing 116 children (including a friend of Johnny Owen) and 28 adults, had shocked the world.41 The innumerable underground mining accidents may not have garnered so much attention but they were just as tragic for those involved.42 The scarred industrial landscape was a constant reminder of the price paid for industrial development and its continued presence after pits closed added to a sense that here was a place that had been used and then abandoned as the wider world moved on. Such ideas dated back to the depression of the 1930s, which in 1980 was still in living memory, and had been perpetuated by Welsh writers, broadcasters and politicians. At the 1966 general election, a Labour address claimed: ‘We Merthyr people, with our memories of broken homes and broken hearts of those terrible days, do find it difficult to forgive the arrogance of those ignorant and pompous creatures who merely visit us to hope that they might fool us to vote for them.’43

Within this difficult history people found pride too. Inequalities had not just been accepted; they had been fought against. From nineteenth-century uprisings to twentieth-century trade unions and Labour politics, Merthyr itself had been at the vanguard of a class struggle. This dated back to 1831, when workers had taken control of the town and raised the red flag for the first time in British history.44 Troops were sent to quell the rebellion and they killed around 24 members of the public in the process. The memory of that event was strong and embodied in Richard Lewis, an innocent miner who was hanged after being wrongly accused of wounding a soldier and who became something of a working-class martyr. In such incidents of fighting enduring injustice Merthyr could take pride in its history.45

For many, it was certainly preferable to the present that they saw around them. At Owen’s funeral the minister had proclaimed that ‘Johnny was a man whose body was as clean as his mind. Let not Merthyr forget his example. He was no unwashed hippie with a syringe in his pocket.’46 Those comments were an example of the popular concerns about young people, not least their drug-taking and violence. In a novel about 1977 Merthyr, one character remarks of the town centre: ‘It’s the bloody Wild West, innit? All them kids out to make a reputation for themselves. It’s got worse too.’ Elsewhere the novel notes: ‘Used to be that if you stayed away from certain pubs, you never had to worry. The fighters knew where to go if they wanted to fight, and decent people stayed in their own pubs. Now, you can’t feel safe even in your own home.’47 A 1980 report on unemployment in south Wales, published in New Society while Owen lay in coma, painted a bleak picture of people despairing at the future. In Merthyr the journalist found angry young unemployed men who detested the clichés of ‘how-green-was-my-valley Max Boyce Welshness’ but liked magic mushrooms and English punk music.48 Owen may have been a similar age to these young men but on the surface he had little in common with them.

Such scenes had their roots in the slow decline of heavy industry that had been going on since the 1950s. Although there were developments in manufacturing, economic growth in south Wales had been focussed along the coast and at the bottom of the Valleys. As a result, the more remote industrial communities increasingly felt isolated and ignored. Studies in the Rhondda at the start of the 1970s found an anomic population that felt a lack of leadership, a nostalgia for the past and a sense of not belonging and anti-authoritarianism. Absenteeism was high, as were occurrences of psychosomatic illness.49 Delegates at a 1973 conference about the future of the Valleys reported that people there felt deeply stigmatized and apathetic. They listed the problems of their communities: “Vandalism, industrial closures, unemployment, poor housing, bad urban planning, large estates with no sense of belonging, withdrawal of locally based essential services, having to travel to register complaints, remote central government, decision-making away from the people, lack of civic pride, pollution, run-down of social amenities.”50 In 1974, Mid Glamorgan County Council’s education director wrote bluntly to the Secretary of State for Wales: ‘The Valleys are dying.’51

By 1980 industrial Wales was in the worst recession since the inter-war years. The coal industry was in its death throes, steel was shedding jobs by the thousand and manufacturing firms were closing on what seemed to be a daily basis. Moreover, the election of Thatcher’s Tories in 1979 meant that fighting unemployment was not even the government’s primary economic priority any more. The jobs that were being created often went to women and the gender balance of the workforce was changing. Underneath the Western Mail‘s reports of Owen’s funeral was an advert for a Youth Opportunities Programme. It claimed: ‘There couldn’t be a worse time for unemployed teenagers. Especially if they have no qualifications or experience. It’s like taking a leap off a trapeze.’52 Earlier in 1980 the Daily Mirror had claimed that among the old in Welsh industrial communities there were tearful fears and memories of the 1930s; among the young was talk of ‘anarchy, civil disobedience, a general strike, [and] violence’.53

In such bewildering times, Owen’s death was a story that could be, subconsciously at least, a metaphor for the community he came from. It was a story that people could tell about themselves. Owen may have lost his life but he never lost his dignity and the respect of others. He may have lost the fight but he gave one hell of a performance. He never forgot where he came from and who he was. Yet some saw a degree of hypocrisy in this celebration of Owen, the patriotic hero who represented his town to the wider world. A character in a play set in Merthyr on the day of Owen’s funeral and first performed in that town in 1983 notes:

You used to say, look at that skinny kid. He got no chance. Nice boy, wears a bobble hat, nice boy, nice boy. He don’t stand a chance, he’s only a valleys’ boy. You give him nothing Luigi. Look at him now. Great hero this, fat hero that, yeah. When he’s dead! Typical of this town. Looking for heroes when they die! You got no guts to believe in them. Not when they were trying, when they had the energy, man!54


The wider Merthyr public may not have always celebrated Owen while he was alive but the boxing community in the town had. Despite his appearance, Owen was an excellent boxer and boxing was a man’s game. In a climate of shifting gender roles and fewer traditional manly jobs this mattered. By 1980 boxing was even enjoying something of a renaissance after a long period of slow decline after the Second World War. That decline was rooted in the simple fact that getting hit was not a good way to earn a living unless you were very confident you could win. Getting hit was even less fun if you were not being paid for it. Thus, when affluence came to working-class communities in the 1950s and 1960s, amateur and professional boxing went into decline. When it left again in the 1970s and 1980s boxing was on the up and boxing clubs reported increased numbers.

Owen’s death was not going to change that. Billy Vivian, one of his friends and a pall bearer at the funeral, fought three days after his friend died. He recalled: ‘It wasn’t hard to go on because I wasn’t working at the time and I needed the money to pay for Christmas. Calling it off never entered my mind. My wife didn’t say anything. We were upset, because Johnny and I had been much more than sparring partners, we’d been great friends, but you need to make a living.’55

But it was not always much of a living. Although the World Boxing Council had claimed that Owen’s life was insured for $50,000, the policy was actually limited to $25,000 and that would only be paid if there was anything left after medical expenses had been dealt with. Those expenses came to $94,000, so his parents got nothing from the WBC’s insurance. There was a public appeal for the family which raised £128,000, a testimony to the popularity of Owen. His family chose to donate the money to a local hospital and community projects.56 There was also separate insurance with the British Boxing Board of Control, which paid out £30,000, and Owen left, at least according to press reports, £45,189.57 Nonetheless, his father was only too aware of how little professional fighters often actually took home. After expenses and managerial and promotional cuts had been deducted, his son had got a pre-tax sum of £6,974.42 for a fight that cost him his life.58

In the aftermath of the fight, boxing faced significant public criticism. A Labour MP, for example, called for punching to the head to be outlawed in the sport.59 One critic even suggested that Owen’s record had simply not been good enough for the boxing authorities to have let him fight Pintor.60 At first, the behaviour of the LA crowd allowed some attention to be deflected away from whether boxing was to blame. Ray Clarke, the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBoC) secretary, claimed that the fans were ‘animals’ who had not come to see boxing but to see ‘someone beaten up’.61 He did not want any British fighter to appear there again. Boxing News concluded: ‘The mindless, stomach-churning behaviour of the Mexican crowd will stand as a sickening memory of one of boxing’s blackest hours’.62 But the British sport could not play that card for too long because on 27 September there was something resembling a riot at a world title bout at Wembley Arena, with bottles, cans and racist abuse being thrown at the ring. As Boxing News concluded, no longer could people condemn the Mexican crowd: ‘We have animals of our own to match anything they can produce’.63 Some reassurance for the sport did come from an article published in the British Medical Journal in the week of Owen’s final fight. It was a study of serious head injuries caused by sport and admitted to the neurosurgical unit at Glasgow over the period 1974 to 1978. There were 52 incidents and just two were the result of boxing. In contrast, the most injuries (14) came from golf.64

Yet it was difficult for boxing not to reflect on whether something had gone wrong in the sport itself. Boxing News, despite talking up Owen’s chances before the fight, afterwards reflected: ‘Owen, looking like a frail, sickly child against the swarthy, muscular champion was certainly thrown into the lion’s den.’65 Some boxing fans called for changes such as better medical training for referees and a stop to fights after two knockdowns.66 After Owen died the situation became even more uncomfortable. There were limited acknowledgements within the sport that improvements could be made.67 Boxing News now concluded it would be ‘wrong and hypocritical to look for explanations and excuses for his death. There are none, only the cold fact that boxing is a dangerous activity which sometimes causes the death of a participant.’ Nonetheless, it went on to point out that the match had been fair and that there was nothing in Owen’s record to suggest he was at risk.68 Similarly, a sports journalist in The Sun argued that there was ‘no-one and nothing to blame’. Like a boxing writer in the Merthyr Express, he maintained that people would always risk their lives in sport. The Merthyr writer even suggested that it would be a ‘colourless, duller old world’ if they did not.69

The chairman of the BBBoC asked people to remember that Owen had died doing something he loved.70 But critics of the sport were not going to buy that argument. A Western Mail editorial, which itself called for protective headgear to be allowed, noted of the ongoing debates had while Owen was in coma: ‘Brutal, bloody, demeaning, nauseating, obscene – no adjective is too strong for boxing’s critics.’71 A Daily Express sports writer feared that unemployment might tempt ‘too many good young brains and bodies and eyes’ into ‘this unsavoury sport that makes millions for too many people who risk nothing but a few bob’. He hoped the fierce Methodism of Wales would rise ‘to make sure that we shall no longer see boxing masquerade under its banner of legalised assault and battery’.72 A physician’s letter to The Times spoke for many when it asked ‘How many more fit young men have to join the litany of the dead and grievously injured before this obscene “sport” is outlawed?’73 As public debate intensified, a private member’s bill was introduced at the House of Lords in 1981 to ban the sport and in 1982 the British Medical Association conference narrowly voted to campaign for boxing’s abolition.74 A Guardian editorial commented that ‘boxing belongs to the same historical dustbin as cockfighting’.75

The calls for bans never got anywhere. They were simply not realistic in a liberal democracy, especially when most accepted that a ban would just drive the sport underground, where it would be even less regulated. In later years, Owen’s father claimed that you could not stop people boxing. He noted that boxing had given his son his identity and it turned tearaway youths into better human beings and citizens. He did not blame the sport for what had happened; instead he saw life as uncertain and sometimes tragic.76 Eddie Thomas, then a boxing manager in Merthyr, had played no part in Owen’s career but recalled that after the death: ‘I had to ask myself whether boxing is worth the candle. But boxing is in me as it was in Johnny. That isn’t easy to explain because there is more to it than money or fame, or even the knowledge that people who follow boxing are living out a part of their lives through you. There is something mysterious deep inside that keeps leading you back to the ring.’77

Part of that mystery was how boxing gave men who would otherwise have had ordinary or problematic lives something meaningful and self-affirming. The acclaimed boxing journalist Hugh McIlvanney said of Owen: ‘His personality was a small cloud of reticence until he entered the ambience of boxing, in a gym or an arena. Once there, he was transformed from a 24-year-old virgin whose utterances tended to come in muffled monosyllables into a confident, skilled practitioner of a rough but exciting trade.’78 This was far from unusual. Wacquant’s ethnographic work on the sport argued that the ritualistic and routined life of a boxer invited those who led it ‘to discover himself, better yet to produce himself. And membership in the gym stands as the tangible sign of acceptance in a virile fraternity that allows the boxer to tear himself away from the anonymity of the mass and thereby attract the admiration and approval of the local society.’79 This may sound rather grand and noble but it is essentially what boxing does for the individual. In this light, campaigns for the banning of boxing were never going to succeed. By 1987, there were 600 professional boxers in the UK, more than double the figure for 1974.80


Owen was not forgotten after his death. In 1981 a pub opened in Merthyr named The Matchstick Man. A year later, a memorial plaque was unveiled at Merthyr’s hospital which had benefited from £100,000 from Owen’s appeal fund.81 In the 1990s a film script was written, although it was never made, and his belts were put on display in a Merthyr musuem.82 The tragedy of his story grew to some extent with constant retellings. By the twenty-first century one of his early trainers was calling Owen’s death ‘a tragedy for mankind’.83 Some were speculating he might be Wales’s best ever boxer.84 His story was also being told more often. Biographies of him were published in 2005 and 2006 and both brought renewed media attention. In July 2006 a play about Owen was performed at the Wales Millennium Centre. That year the South Wales Echo called him ‘one of South Wales’ finest sons’.85 The spark for some of this new interest came in 2002 when the BBC broadcast a poignant television documentary about Owen’s father’s trip to Mexico to meet Pintor and Pintor’s subsequent return visit to unveil a statue of Owen in Merthyr town centre.86 Paid for by a public appeal, it was Merthyr’s third statue of a boxer and it added to the depictions of Eddie Thomas and Howard Winstone that had been unveiled in 2000 and 2001.

Owen had joined the legend of how something about the Valleys’ history produced not just boxers but world-class boxers. This legend was nothing new. In 1961 Eddie Thomas had claimed that boxers in his small Dowlais amateur gym had the sport in their blood due to mixed marriages between strong Welsh and Irish people. The ‘instinct to box and fight’, was he felt, passed down through the generations.87 This might sound nonsensical but people saw evidence that something special was going on. A 1973 short story claimed: ‘No less than three world champions of the world had been born within a radius of six miles of where they sat. In a pub down the road, there were signed photographs of all three, Tom Thomas, Freddy Welsh, Jimmy Wilde. And hadn’t they all fought their way over the tips and out of the pit in the first instance? It was a local tradition with which they had all grown up. Weren’t they, after all, rather special people?’88

Journalists and local history projects talked of boxing being embedded in Merthyr’s psyche and made connections between the popularity of boxing in Merthyr and the town’s hard industrial past.89 Owen added to that tale. Owen’s biographies drew on the idea that somehow boxing was innate to Merthyr. One claimed that Owen had ‘the steel of Welsh industrial valleys coursing through his veins’ and that the fatal punch knocked out the dreams of his followers of getting out of Merthyr’s ‘slow-death poverty’. It noted the history of struggle for better social and working conditions and political rights, concluding that Merthyr was ‘born out of fight’. Thus, the writer thought, ‘Fighting, in one guise or another, is in the blood of everyone born in Merthyr Tydfil. It has to be. It’s locked up in the genes, part of the evolutionary process of belonging to this great town. The Owens family go back a long way in Merthyr. They were a family of fighters and survivors. They still are. It’s in their blood.’90

Broadbent’s biography was far less sentimental but he too claimed that ‘this was Merthyr and trouble ran through it like a rip tide. From the mining accidents to the street fights, it was a ragged old place, snagged on its bloody past and in constant danger of coming apart at the seams.’ Elsewhere he proclaimed: ‘These were mean streets for tough people. There was the misery of the mines, of Aberfan, of a lack of choice and dwindling optimism.’91

Such beliefs and traditions may have pre-dated Owen’s death but the deepening effects of post-industrialization intensified their purpose in the decades after he died. At the opening of Owen’s statue, a local minister explicitly spoke of the town needing the ‘disciplines of the ring, the dedication and drive that gave Owen heroic status to counter the scourges of modern culture’.92 There was much talk across the Valleys of a loss of hope, community pride and social breakdown. Crime and drugs were seen as widespread problems and communities were perceived to be caught in a downward spiral. Too often the closure of mines had meant the closure of other amenities such as shops, pubs, taxi services and libraries too, a process exacerbated by the wider trend towards out-of-town retail parks. The town centres that were left behind were often tired and tatty, overloaded with charity shops and fast food joints, and with boarded-up chapels and working-men’s clubs to remind people of better times. By 2001, 30% of the population of Merthyr had some form of limiting long-term illness. Life expectancy there was five years less than the healthiest county in Wales. There was nothing new in any of this – in the mid 1960s mortality rates in the Glamorgan valleys had been nearly 30% higher than the England and Wales average – but the fact that people had to live with the consequences of industrial work long after they stopped being paid for it added to many people’s sense of anger at what was happening.93

Yet there was still a feeling that the Valleys were somehow different and special. For all the economic and social worries that existed, in 2003 one Merthyr resident claimed that as a polite, well brought up man, Owen epitomized the town.94 By the turn of the twenty-first century, a large Valleys survey suggested that 85% of respondents felt that there was an acceptable, good or excellent level of community where they lived, and nearly 60% said this made the Valleys different from the rest of Wales. A closer reading of the survey, however, suggests that what people thought represented a good community was probably very different from their grandparents. Only 54% of respondents said they had at least weekly contact with neighbours and almost half of people over 41 did not feel safe in their neighbourhood after dark.95 As two academics claimed in a commentary on the Valleys, ‘over-romanticised notions of community’ were sometimes obscuring ‘the unpalatable facts of everyday life’.96

There are echoes in the celebrations of Owen of the way the history of the Valleys is presented at heritage sites. The emphasis, often rather nostalgic in tone, is on the strength of community and the injustices endured by people within those communities at the hands of external capitalist forces.97 Heritage sites across Britain have thus been much criticized for promoting myths and selective views of the past.98 In a Welsh context there has also been much criticism that they keep Wales rooted in the past, fascinated by where it has come from but unfocused on where it is going.99 Even in 1980 New Society had claimed that history was south Wales’s biggest growth industry. Yet some were well of aware of the sentimentality of such community histories. In 1980, a New Society reporter was told in Glyncorrwg, where the last pit shut in 1966, that Valleys life was a fallacy: ‘Biggest bloody fallacy going. Biggest bloody bastards going, they are. Cut your throat as soon as look as you.’100

Remembering the past and celebrating its heroes might well have been a selective process but it did give these post-industrial communities a sense of identity and in the absence of a strong economic base that was not to be sneered at. Moreover, there is more than a grain of truth running through the nostalgic picture of tough, suffering and politically-marginalized communities painted by heritage sites and believed in by many within the Valleys themselves. Furthermore, across the world, difficult economic and social conditions did nurture boxers; Pintor, Owen’s last opponent, himself grew up in the poverty of Mexico City. Boxing was not something many people blessed with economic choices chose to do.101 It did, and does, require bravery, courage and discipline. In that sense there was much in it to respect. For all the associated romanticism, boxing was evidence that some people did find strength in adversity.


Owen was no different to the pre-Second World War boxers of south Wales that Dai Smith has seen as ‘emblematic’ figures, tied to their communities by ‘umbilical cords’, revered for being slightly outside the realms of socially-acceptable behaviour.102 Like Tommy Farr of the Rhondda before him, Owen had become more emblematic of his community because he lost a world-title fight. He showed courage, fortitude and an unwavering loyalty to home but he had been beaten by forces beyond his control. Pintor’s fists had beaten Owen in the way that capitalism had beaten Merthyr; neither was to blame and neither had tried to deny who they were. It might be easy to label that story as selective or nostalgic but it is a perfectly plausible tale and it was one that people in industrial Wales told and believed.

Stories matter. They are more than just entertainment. They are how we make sense of the world and our own lives. But they can also be told in different ways. This is clear in Owen’s case. It might be constructed as the archetypal boxing story of a boy from a tough town who fought his way to the top. It might be, as one biographer claimed, the story of a lucky and successful man who got to follow his dreams and a ‘true path in life’, doing what he really loved.103 Or it might be the case, as his other biographer noted, that

When the novelty of his physique is removed, Johnny Owen could be seen as just another boxer who died for his sport. He was not an Ali or Chavez or a Wilde. He was just another naked boxer, another statistic on the files. Yet he was much more too. Though he never became rich through his popularity or was fêted globally for his skills, he was a reminder that the sport could wear a dignified, respectable face.104

Or, alternatively, Owen could just be used to demonstrate the futility and danger of boxing. But, however the tale is told, Owen is emblematic, another in a long history of boxers that represented, consciously and subconsciously, in life and in death, something more than a mere sport.

Yet it is perhaps easy to read too much symbolism into such emblematic figures. Historians have tended to concentrate on the representation rather than reception of heroes.105 Outside south Wales there must have been many people who did not know or notice that Owen died or those who simply thought how sad and then got on with their lives, forgetting all about him. In Wales the more prominent media coverage made ignorance less likely, but not everyone can have followed the dominant heroic stories told about Owen and, by extension, about his community and communities like it. Some people in his home town must have seen Owen’s death in a different light. Indeed, a plurality of reactions to Owen is likely because traditional working-class communities such as Merthyr were fragmenting as their occupational structures diversified in the post-industrial economy and leisure and family life became more privatized. Demonstrating this plurality is difficult. Historians tend to assume media texts were read by their audiences in the way that their authors intended. The media certainly set an agenda, but people were free to interpret it or ignore it in their own way.106 There must surely have been some residents of Merthyr who saw the public celebration of Owen as an uncomfortable sign of how the town was rooted in the past. Today, there must be many who walk past his statue who have little idea who he was. Yet, as Owen’s death itself became more distant, it was probably easier for people to accept the idea of him of an emblem of Merthyr because both he and the Merthyr he signified were no longer. Celebrating him had become about the past rather than the present. And for those who do remember, whether first hand or through hearing and reading his story, Owen remains a heroic figure.


1. Joyce Carol Oates, On Boxing (London: Bloomsbury, 1997 edn), i, 18.

2. Rick Broadbent, The Big If: The Life and Death of Johnny Owen (London: Macmillan, 2006), 4.

3. Western Mail, 26 June 1980.

4. Broadbent, Big If, 223, 184.

5. Quoted in Broadbent, Big If, 61.

6. Jeff Murphy, Johnny Owen (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 2005), 116.

7. Broadbent, Big If, 132.

8. Broadbent, Big If, 79–80.

9. The Times, 28 February 1980.

10. Boxing News, 19 September 1980. Welsh boxing reporters were cautious too. The South Wales Echo (6 September 1980) noted that beyond Owen’s stamina it was Pintor who held most of the aces. Even Howard Winstone tipped Pintor to win: South Wales Echo, 17 September 1980.

11. Quoted in South Wales Echo, 18, 19 September 1980.

12. Desmond Barry, ‘Boxing through the shadows: Howard Winstone, Eddie Thomas and Johnny Owen’, in Wales and its Boxers: The Fighting Tradition, eds. Peter Stead and Gareth Williams (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008), 149–61, quotation from 156.

13. Boxing News, 26 September 1980.

14. Boxing News, 3 October 1980.

15. Boxing News, 26 September 1980.

16. Broadbent, Big If, 264.

17. Boxing News, 26 September 1980.

18. Boxing News

19. New York Times, 21 September 1980.

20. Merthyr Express, 25 September 1980.

21. Sunday Express, 21 September 1980.

22. Ring Magazine report reproduced at

23. South Wales Echo, 20 September 1980; Merthyr Express, 2 October 1980.

24. Daily Mirror, 5 November 1980.

25. Merthyr Express, 6 November 1980.

26. South Wales Echo, 4 November 1980. For similar stories from the fight’s immediate aftermath see Merthyr Express, 25 September 1980.

27. South Wales Echo, 4 November 1980. Cf. Merthyr Express, 6 November 1980.

28. South Wales Echo, 4 November 1980.

29. Broadbent, The Big If, 119.

30. Western Mail, 5 November 1980.

31. Editorial in South Wales Echo, 4 November 1980.

32. Western Mail, 5 November 1980.

33. New York Times, 5 November 1980.

34. Merthyr Express, 13 November 1980.

35. Merthyr Express, 13 November 1980.

36. South Wales Echo, 12 November 1980; Merthyr Express, 13 November 1980.

37. The Times, 12 November 1980.

38. Daily Mirror, 5 November 1980.

39. Western Mail, 12 November 1980.

40. Merthyr Express, 13 November 1980.

41. Iain McLean and Martin Johnes, Aberfan: Government and Disasters (Cardiff: Welsh Academic Press, 2000).

42. Between 1945 and 1974 1,819 workers were killed in colliery accidents in the south Wales coalfield: Digest of Welsh Historical Statistics, available at table 5.11.

43. Quoted in Robert Griffiths, S.O. Davies: A Socialist Faith (Llandysul: Gomer, 1983), 256.

44. Gwyn A. Williams, The Merthyr Rising (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1988).

45. See the reports of the 150th anniversary march in Merthyr Express, 11 June 1981.

46. Western Mail, 12 November 1980. Although the minister later wrote to the local paper to say how proud he had been of the town given the respect shown and orderliness of the crowds at the funeral. Merthyr Express, 27 November 1980.

47. Desmond Barry, A Bloody Good Friday (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002), 95, 145.

48. Ian Walker, ‘The Only Thing that South Wales Manufactures Now is History’, New Society, 20 November 1980, 359–63.

49. D. Reynolds, ‘Planning a Future for Rhondda’s people’, in Rhondda: Past and Future, ed. K.S. Hopkins (Rhondda: Rhondda Borough Council, 1974), 258–9.

50. Call to the Valleys Conference, Aberfan, March 1973, in The Valleys Call, eds. Paul H. Ballard and Erastus Jones (Ferndale: Ron Jones, 1975), 43, 41.

51. In Hopkins, Rhondda, 269. For a full exploration of Wales in this period see Martin Johnes, Wales since 1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012).

52. Western Mail, 12 November 1980.

53. Daily Mirror, 14 March 1980.

54. Bull, Rock and Nut. In Alan Osborne, The Merthyr Trilogy (Cardiff: Parthian, 1998), 46.

55. Broadbent, Big If, 287.

56. Johnny Owen Appeal Fund, Statement of Income and Expenditure, 22 September 1980 to 9 November 1981 (Merthyr Tydfil Public Library); Merthyr Express, 21 May 1981.

57. Merthyr Express, 21 May 1981; The Times, 4 March 1981.

58. Broadbent, Big If, 321.

59. The Times, 22 September 1980.

60. Denis Leharne, ‘Boxing’s Self-perpetuating Oligarchy’, New Statesman, 3 October 1980, 10–11.

61. Boxing News, 26 September 1980.

62. Boxing News

63. Boxing News, 3 October 1980.

64. Kenneth W. Lindsay, Greig McLatchie and Bryan Jennett, ‘Serious Head Injuries in Sport’, British Medical Journal 281 (20 September 1980), 789–91.

65. Boxing News, 26 September 1980.

66. Letter, Boxing News, 17 October 1980.

67. See, for example, the discussion in Boxing News, 14 December 1980. In contrast, see the defences of the sport made in The Guardian, 5 November 1980.

68. Boxing News, 7 November 1980.

69. The Sun, 22 September 1980; Merthyr Express, 25 September 1980.

70. Boxing News, 14 November 1980.

71. Western Mail, 12 November 1980.

72. Daily Express, 5 November 1980.

73. The Times, 11 November 1980.

74. The Times, 27 November 1981; HL Deb 26 November 1981, vol. 425 cc875–94; British Medical Association, The Boxing Debate (1993), 1. For contemporary medical coverage of Owen’s death see The Lancet, 6 December 1980. For overviews of the medical profession’s view of boxing see K.G. Sheard, ‘“Brutal and Degrading”: The Medical Profession and Boxing, 1838–1984’, International Journal of the History of Sport 15, no. 3 (1998), 74–102, and John Welshman, ‘On the Ropes: Boxing and the Medical Establishment in Britain, 1920–90’, in Loisirs & Societe Britannique au XXe Siecle, ed. S. Kadi (Valenciennes: Presses Universitaires de Valenciennes, 2003), 77–90.

75. Quoted in Welshman, ‘On the Ropes’, 87. For further debate see a report headed ‘Making Money out of Brain Damage’, The Times, 1 March 1982.

76. Broadbent, Big If, 330; The Independent, 27 February 1995. Murphy, Johnny, 97–8.

77. The Independent, 28 November 1995.

78. Hugh McIlvanney, McIlvanney on Boxing (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1997), 17.

79. Loïc Wacquant, Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 15.

80. Stan Shipley, ‘Boxing’, in Sport in Britain: A Social History, ed. Tony Mason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 96.

81. South Wales Echo, 20 March 1982.

82. Merthyr Express, 4 November 1993; Western Mail, 26 September 1994.

83. Broadbent, Big If, 209.

84. Murphy, Johnny, 19.

85. South Wales Echo, 27 May 2006.

86. Johnny Owen: The Long Journey, BBC Wales TV documentary, first broadcast 29 December 2002; Merthyr Express, 8 November 2002.

87. Western Mail, 1 March 1961.

88. Alun Richards, ‘Dai Canvas’, in Dai Country (London: Michael Joseph, 1973), 65.

89. For example, The Independent, 28 November 1995, 4 November 2002. Also see a National Lottery-funded community history project on boxing in Merthyr, available at and Peter Rogers and Carolyn Jacob, Boxers and Boxing in the Merthyr Tydfil Valley (Merthyr: Merthyr Tydfil Public Libraries, 1997).

90. Murphy, Johnny, 14, 39, 53–4, 57.

91. Broadbent, Big If, 29, 34.

92. The Independent, 4 November 2002.

93. Mid Glamorgan County Council, Mid Glamorgan: Issues for the 1990s (1992), para. 3.13; Gareth. Rees and Teresa L. Rees, eds., Poverty and Social Inequality in Wales (London: Croom Helm, 1980); 2001 census profiles.

94. Murphy, Johnny, 41.

95. D. Adamson and S. Jones, ‘Continuity and Change in the Valleys: Residents’ Perceptions in 1995 and 2001’, Contemporary Wales 16 (2003), 1–23.

96. Kevin Morgan and Adam Price, Rebuilding our Communities: A New Agenda for the Valleys (Friedrich Ebert Foundation, 1992), 30.

97. For a discussion of this with reference to the Rhondda Heritage Park see Bella Dicks, Heritage, Place and Community (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000).

98. For example, David Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) and Robert Hewison, Heritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline (London: Methuen, 1987).

99. For a critique of Welsh heritage see Geraint J. Jenkins, Getting Yesterday Right: Interpreting the Heritage of Wales (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992).

100. Walker, ‘The Only Thing that South Wales Manufactures Now is History’.

101. For a discussion of boxing and the ‘ghetto’ see John Sugden, Boxing and Society: An International Analysis (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006).

102. Dai Smith, ‘Focal Heroes: A Welsh Fighting Class’, in Sport and the Working Class in Modern Britain, ed. Richard Holt (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990). The idea of sports heroes as emblems or symbols of their community and its values has dominated recent academic writing on sports stars. For example, Richard Holt, J.A. Mangan and Pierre Lanfranchi, eds., European Heroes: Myth, Identity, Sport (London: Frank Cass, 1996); H.F. Moorhouse, ‘Shooting Stars: Footballers and Working-Class Culture in Twentieth-Century Scotland’, in Holt, Sport and the Working Class; and Martin Johnes, ‘Fred Keenor: A Welsh Soccer Hero’, The Sports Historian 18, no. 1 (1998), 105–19.

103. Murphy, Johnny, 19, 12.

104. Broadbent, Big If, 303.

105. Max Jones, ‘What Should Historians Do With Heroes? Reflections on Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Britain’, History Compass 5, no. 2 (2007), 439–54, 448.

106. For a discussion of audience reception in a sports history context see Martin Johnes, ‘Texts, Audiences and Postmodernism: The Novel as Source in Sport History’, Journal of Sport History 34 (2007), 121–33.


Download the programme and abstracts

New Directions in Welsh History: An Online ‘Zoom’ Conference

Saturday 24 October 2020

We would like to host a conference that allows historians to present the latest academic research on the history of Wales.  We encourage people to present both polished arguments and ideas in progress. Papers that reflect on the state and future of Welsh history are particularly encouraged.

The conference will be held over Zoom, with papers a maximum of 15 minutes which will be followed by a Q&A.  PowerPoint slides may be used and will employ the screen sharing feature. Papers can be in either Welsh or English.

The conference will run through the course of the day and end with an online social. If the number of papers exceeds the time slots available parallel sessions will be held. 

There will be no charge to attend the conference or to present at it.

To propose a paper please send an abstract of up to 200 words and a brief biographical note to Martin Johnes at The deadline for submissions is 14 September 2020.

Organizing committee: Martin Johnes (Swansea), Euryn Roberts (Bangor), Steve Thompson (Aberystwyth), Stephanie Ward (Cardiff)

Trywyddau newydd mewn Hanes Cymru: Cynhadledd Arlein ‘Zoom’

Dydd Sadwrn 24 Hydref 2020

Hoffem gynnal cynhadledd sy’n rhoi cyfle i haneswyr gyflwyno eu hymchwil diweddaraf ar hanes Cymru.  Yr ydym yn croesawu papurau sy’n cyflwyno dadleuon cyflawn neu syniadau sydd yn cael eu datblygu. Yn enwedig, yr ydym yn croesawu papurau sy’n ystyried cyflwr cyfredol a dyfodol hanes Cymru fel maes.

Cynhelir y gynhadledd ar Zoom, a bydd papurau yn para 15 munud ar y mwyaf gyda chwestiynau i ddilyn. Bydd modd defnyddio Powerpoint trwy’r opsiwn rhannu sgrin. Traddodir y papurau yn y Gymraeg neu yn Saesneg.

Cynhadledd undydd fydd hon a bydd yn dod i ben gyda digwyddiad cymdeithasol. Yn ddibynnol ar nifer y papurau a ddaw i’r fei, cyflwynir sesiynau cyfochrog. 

Nid fydd ffi I fynychu’r gynhadledd neu am gyflwyno papur.

Er mwyn cynnig papur, anfonwch grynodeb o 200 o eiriau a nodyn bywgraffiadol byr at Martin Johnes Y dyddiad cau ar gyfer derbyn cynigion yw 14 Medi 2020.

Pwyllgor trefnu: Martin Johnes (Abertawe), Euryn Roberts (Bangor), Steve Thompson (Aberystwyth), Stephanie Ward (Caerdydd)

The Curriculum for Wales, Welsh History and Citizenship, and the Threat of Embedding Inequality

Welsh education is heading towards its biggest shake up for two generations. The new Curriculum for Wales is intended to place responsibility for what pupils are taught with their teachers. It does not specify any required content but instead sets out ‘the essence of learning’ that should underpin the topics taught and learning activities employed. At secondary school, many traditional subjects will be merged into new broad areas of learning. The curriculum is intended to produce ‘ambitious and capable learners’ who are ‘enterprising and creative’, ‘ethical and informed citizens’, and ‘healthy and confident’.

Given how radical this change potentially is, there has been very little public debate about it. This is partly rooted in how abstract and difficult to understand the curriculum documentation is. It is dominated by technical language and abstract ideas and there is very little concrete to debate. There also seems to be a belief that in science and maths very little will change because of how those subjects are based on unavoidable core knowledges. Instead, most of the public discussion that has occurred has centred on the position of Welsh history.

The focus on history is rooted in how obsessed much of the Welsh public sphere (including myself) is by questions of identity.  History is central to why Wales is a nation and thus has long been promoted by those seeking is develop a Welsh sense of nationhood. Concerns that children are not taught enough Welsh history are longstanding and date back to at least the 1880s.  The debates around the teaching of Welsh history are also inherently political. Those who believe in independence often feel their political cause is hamstrung by people being unaware of their own history.

The new curriculum is consciously intended to be ‘Welsh’ in outlook and it requires the Welsh context to be central to whatever subject matter is delivered. This matters most in the Humanities where the Welsh context is intended to be delivered through activities and topics that join together the local, national and global. The intention is that this will instil in them ‘passion and pride in themselves, their communities and their country’. This quote comes from a guidance document for schools and might alarm those who fear a government attempt at Welsh nation building. Other documents are less celebratory but still clearly Welsh in outlook. Thus the goal stated in the main documentation is that learners should ‘develop a strong sense of their own identity and well-being’, ‘an understanding of others’ identities and make connections with people, places and histories elsewhere in Wales and across the world.’

A nearby slate quarry could thus be used to teach about local Welsh-speaking culture, the Welsh and British industrial revolution, and the connections between the profits of the slave trade and the historical local economy. This could bring in not just history, but literature, art, geography and economics too. There is real potential for exciting programmes of study that break down subject boundaries and engage pupils with where they live and make them think and understand their community’s connections with Wales and the wider world.

This is all sensible but there remains a vagueness around the underlying concepts. The Humanities section of the curriculum speaks of the need for ‘consistent exposure to the story of learners’ locality and the story of Wales’. Schools are asked to ‘Explore Welsh businesses, cultures, history, geography, politics, religions and societies’. But this leaves considerable freedom over the balance of focus and what exactly ‘consistent exposure’ means in practice.  If schools want to minimize the Welsh angle in favour of the British or the global, they will be able to do so as long as the Welsh context is there. It is not difficult to imagine some schools treating ‘the story of Wales’ as a secondary concern because that is what already sometimes happens.

The existing national curriculum requires local and Welsh history to be ‘a focus of the study’ but, like its forthcoming replacement, it never defines very closely what that means in terms of actual practice. In some schools, it seems that the Welsh perspective is reduced to a tick box exercise where Welsh examples are occasionally employed but never made the heart of the history programme. I say ‘seems’ because there is no data on the proportion of existing pre-GCSE history teaching that is devoted to Welsh history.  But all the anecdotal evidence points to Wales often not being at the heart of what history is taught, at least in secondary schools. At key stage 3 (ages 11 to 14) in particular, the Welsh element can feel rather nominal as many children learn about the Battle of Hastings, Henry VIII and the Nazis. GCSEs were reformed in 2017 to ensure Welsh history is not marginalised but at A Level the options schools choose reveal a stark preference in some units away from not just Wales but Britain too.


Why schools chose not to teach more Welsh history is a complex issue.  Within a curriculum that is very flexible, teachers deliver what they are confident in, what they have resources for, what interests them and what they think pupils will be interested in.  Not all history teachers have been taught Welsh history at school or university and they thus perhaps prefer to lean towards those topics they are familiar with. Resources are probably an issue too. While there are plenty of Welsh history resources out there, they can be scattered around and locating them is not always easy. Some of the best date back to the 1980 and 90s and are not online.  There is also amongst both pupils and teachers the not-unreasonable idea that Welsh history is simply not as interesting as themes such as Nazi Germany. This matters because, after key stage 3, different subjects are competing for pupils and thus resources.

The new curriculum does nothing to address any of these issues and it is probable that it will not do much to enhance the volume of Welsh history taught beyond the local level. It replicates the existing curriculum’s flexibility with some loose requirement for a Welsh focus. Within that flexibility, teachers will continue to be guided by their existing knowledge, what resources they already have, what topics and techniques they already know work, and how much time and confidence they have to make changes. Some schools will update what they do but in many there is a very real possibility that not much will change at all, as teachers simply mould the tried and tested existing curricular into the new model. No change is always the easiest policy outcome to follow. Those schools that already teach a lot of Welsh history will continue to do so. Many of those that do not will also probably carry on in that vein.

Of course, a system designed to allow different curricula is also designed to produce different outcomes.  The whole point of the reform is for schools to be different to one another but there may be unintended consequences to this.  Particularly in areas where schools are essentially in competition with each other for pupils, some might choose to develop a strong sense of Welshness across all subject areas because they feel it will appeal to local parents and local authority funders. Others might go the opposite way for the same reasons, especially in border areas where attracting staff from England is important.  Welsh-medium schools are probably more likely to be in the former group and English-medium schools in the latter.

Moreover, the concerns around variability do not just extend to issues of Welsh identity and history. By telling schools they can teach what they feel matters, the Welsh Government is telling them they do not have to teach, say, the histories of racism or the Holocaust. It is unlikely that any school history department would choose not to teach what Hitler inflicted upon the world but they will be perfectly at liberty to do so; indeed, by enshrining their right to do this, the Welsh Government is saying it would be happy for any school to follow such a line.  Quite how that fits with the government’s endorsement of Holocaust Memorial Day and Mark Drakeford’s reminder of the importance of remembering such genocides is unclear.

There are other policy disconnects. The right to vote in Senedd elections has been granted to sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. Yet the government has decided against requiring them to be taught anything specific about that institution, its history and how Welsh democracy works. Instead, faith is placed in a vague requirement for pupils to be made into informed and ethical citizens.  By age 16, the ‘guidance’ says learners should be able to ‘compare and evaluate local, national and global governance systems, including the systems of government and democracy in Wales, considering their impact on societies in the past and present, and the rights and responsibilities of citizens in Wales.’ Making Wales an ‘including’ rather than the main focus of this ‘progression step’ seems to me to downplay its importance. Moreover, what this sentence actually means in terms of class time and knowledge is up to schools and teachers. Some pupils will be taught lots about devolved politics, others little. The government is giving young people the responsibility of voting but avoiding its own responsibility to ensure they are taught in any depth what that means in a Welsh context.

The new curriculum will thus not educate everyone in the same elements of political citizenship or history because it is explicitly designed to not do so. Just as they do now, pupils will continue to leave schools with very different understandings of what Wales is, what the Senedd does and how both fit into British, European and global contexts. Perhaps that does not matter if we want pupils to make up their own minds about how they should be governed. But, at the very least, if we are going to give young people the vote, surely it is not too much to want them to be told where it came from, what it means, and what it can do.

But this is not the biggest missed opportunity of the curriculum. Wales already has an educational system that produces very different outcomes for those who go through it. In 2019, 28.4% of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved five A*-C grade GCSEs, compared with 60.5% of those not eligible.  In 2018, 75.3% of pupils in Ceredigion hit this level, whereas in Blaenau Gwent only 56.7% did. These are staggering differences that have nothing to do with the curriculum and everything to do with how poverty impacts on pupils’ lives. There is nothing in the new curriculum that looks to eradicate such differences.

Teachers in areas with the highest levels of deprivation face a daily struggle to deal with its consequences. This will also impact on what the new curriculum can achieve in their schools.  It will be easier to develop innovative programmes that take advantage of what the new curriculum can enable in schools where teachers are not dealing with the extra demands of pupils who have missed breakfast or who have difficult home lives. Fieldtrips are easiest in schools where parents can afford them. Home learning is most effective in homes with books, computers and internet access. The very real danger of the new curriculum is not what it will or will not do for Welsh citizenship and history but that it will exacerbate the already significant difference between schools in affluent areas and schools that are not. Wales needs less difference between its schools, not more.

Martin Johnes is Professor of History at Swansea University.

This essay was first published in the Welsh Agenda (2020).

For more analysis of history and the Curriculum for Wales see this essay.

Why sport is an important topic for historical study

First published in History Review, 40 (September 2001), 26-27.

It is a common refrain that the two dates in English history that everybody schoolboy knows are 1066 and 1966. One event had a profound impact on the course of history in the British Isles while the other was just a football match. Yet soccer, like many sports, can be so much more than simply a game. It may not be more important than life or death, as the Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly once famously claimed, but it can be a window through which we can view society. When England won the World Cup in 1966, the nation as a whole was on a high. The Beatles were revolutionising popular music, the miniskirt was making London the fashion capital of the world, there was a popular and populist Labour government in power and the economy was on the up. England’s triumph at Wembley seemed to confirm a nation that had found its destiny again after the painful transition that followed World War II and the dissolution of the Empire. Since 1966, the World Cup win has become a symbol of a nostalgic nation trapped in past glories and trying to refind itself and its ‘rightful’ place in the world. The memory of the triumph may not last as long as William’s victory at Hastings but it remains a powerful illustration of the symbolic importance of sport and its place within English national identity.

Yet it is only relatively recently that sport has been appreciated as the stuff of serious history and even today it sometimes struggles for recognition in some of the more traditional echelons of the subject. Nonetheless, sport’s contribution to our understanding of history extends beyond both symbolic importance and entertaining, but essentially trivial, footnotes. Nor is sports history a matter of just looking at how sport reflects society. Sport itself is an active agent in the world we live in.

This is clear in sport’s close relationship with class. Definitions of social class are complex and the subject of much historiographical debate. Occupation alone is no longer thought to be an adequate explanation and historians have begun looking at culture’s role in shaping how people defined the class status of themselves and others. By the twentieth century participation in many sports could be demarcated along class lines. Rugby league owed its whole existence to the northern working class’s desire to be free from the amateurist ideals of the southern and middle-class rugby authorities. As such the sport came to represent part of working-class life in the north of England. Thus, like soccer, it helped define the class of those who played and watched it, both in their own eyes and those of onlookers. Other sports played similar roles in directly contributing to people’s understanding and experience eof class cultures. Golf in England, for example, was a sport of the middle class and its clubs were important social and business networks that conferred upon their members privilege and status within the local community.

Yet for the importance of class in society, sport also illustrates its limitations as a lens through which all aspects of history can be judged. As contemporaries were well aware, a successful sports team could bring together the classes in celebration of the achievements of their town or nation. Indeed, sport’s (at least temporary) ability to unite the local classes whilst dividing the wider masses made it the subject of Marxist derision and elite approval. This was clear in the 1920s when, amidst social and political unrest, large well-behaved and socially mixed football crowds were a reassuring sight to many.

It is only through addressing wider historical questions like class that sport can be accepted as part of the academic world. Sports history is now becoming a distinct subject in its own right complete with journals, conferences and even degree courses. Yet studying and writing about sports history is not always easy. It is often the case that learning about the mundane and everyday in history is more difficult that investigating the extraordinary. Sports history does not benefit from the large range of sources available to political or more conventional social historians. This has meant it is, perhaps overly, reliant on newspaper evidence. However much information has also be gleamed from oral evidence, company records of bankrupt clubs and the archives of teams, sports organisations, local schools and councils. Through such research we are now beginning to understand sport’s place in history.

Britain was the cradle of the sporting world. Through her Empire and trading links, British games and sports were taken across the globe. Football thus spread from the English public schools, where its first rules had been drawn up, to become the game of the European and South American working classes. After the English language, soccer is perhaps Britain’s most successful and important cultural export. Cricket became an imperial sport, not through a ruthless process of cultural implantation but the desire of the local elites to adopt the practices of their colonial overlords. The amateurist ideals of the modern Olympics were heavily influenced by the traditions of the British public schools. Even baseball, that most American of sports, has its roots in children’s games taken across the Atlantic by British settlers. Sport can not be ignored if we are to understand the global legacy of Britain’s former economic, political and cultural power and influence. Indeed, British fair play and her love of sport became part of how foreigners traditionally viewed these islands.

Even within Britain, sport has played an important part in shaping national identity. For the Welsh, Scottish and Irish, sport has played an important symbolic role in affirming their nationhood and equality with England. While the Scots and Welsh enjoyed cutting the English down to size at football and rugby, the Irish increasingly rejected these sports in favour of their own indigenous games which could be used to symbolise a separate, and non-British, cultural heritage. Cricket meanwhile encapsulated many of the ideals of English life: a rural, moral and civilised but competitive world where gentlemen (amateurs) and working men (professionals) played together but knew their respective and clearly demarcated places. Thus ‘it’s not cricket’ became a description in everyday speech of anything that was ‘not right’.

For women sport has been both a source of inequality and liberation. This is aptly illustrated by the fortunes of women’s football during and after World War I. The football teams made of factory and munitions girls were just one example of the new social and occupational opportunities that women enjoyed with so many men away at the front. Yet after the war, just as women found themselves encouraged to leave their jobs and return to home and duty, the Football Association grew worried at the popularity of women’s football and banned its playing at professional stadiums. The sport collapsed although its brief flowering had given its participants a brief opportunity for physical liberation.

The historian Jack Williams pointed out that more people may have attended religious services or the pictures but no single church or cinema could boast as many as attendees as a professional football match. As such, sport was an integral element of urban life across Britain. History must strive to capture what was important to the people who lived it. Sport, of course, does not matter to everyone in society either today or in the past. But the fact that it has been an important part of many people’s lives is reason alone to justify its historical study.

A brief history of sport in the UK

First published in D. Levinsen and K. Christensen (eds.), Encyclopaedia of World Sport, Great Barrington, USA: Berkshire Publishing, 2005.

The United Kingdom was the birthplace of modern sport. From the drawing up of rules to the development of sporting philosophies, Britons have played a major role in shaping sport as the world knows it today. This role meant that British sport was overly insular and confident in its early days, while its post-1945 history was marked by doubts and crises as the nation realised that the rest of world had moved on, a situation that mirrored the UK’s wider crisis of confidence in a post-imperial world.

Pre-industrial sports

Pre-industrial sport in Britain resembled those in much of Europe. It was not a clearly demarcated activity but rather part of a communal festive culture that saw people congregate to celebrate high days and eat, drink, gamble and play. The sports of the people reflected their lives: they were rough, proud and highly localized. Rules were unwritten and based on customs and informal agreements that varied from place to place according to local oral traditions. ‘Folk’ football was one of the most common and popular examples of sport. It had existed in different forms across England and Wales since at least medieval times, but it resembled a mêlée more than its modern descendant. Traditional boundaries within rural society were celebrated within such games, with contests between parishes, young and old and married and unmarried. Other sports played at communal festivals included running races and traditional feats of strength such as lifting or throwing rocks.

The physicality of pre- and early-industrial Britain was also reflected and celebrated in bareknuckle prize fighting, although this widespread sport could not always be clearly distinguished from public drunken brawls. The brutality of life was further evident in the popularity of animal sports. Bull baiting and cock fighting were amongst the most popular but such recreations increasingly came under attack in the middle of the nineteenth century from middle-class moralists. The foxhunting of the upper class was not attacked, suggesting that the crusades owed something to concerns about the turbulent behaviour of the workers rather than just the suffering of animals.

The attacks on animal sports were part of a wider process of modernization that saw Britain transformed into the industrial workshop of the world. Urbanization, railways, factories, mills and mines saw Britain transformed, economically, environmentally and psychologically. Modern sport was forged within this heady mix of breakneck change; new ways of working and living brought new ways of playing. As well as the assaults on animal sports, folk football was attacked in towns because it disrupted trade and the general orderliness of the increasingly regimented world that industry was creating. Bareknuckle fighting too was attacked as a threatening symbol of a violent working class that unsettled an establishment already worried by the rise of political demands from the workers.

There was, of course, much continuity between the worlds of pre-industrial sport and the commercialised and codified games that emerged towards the end of the late nineteenth century. Cock fighting and prizefighting, for example, survived the attempts to outlaw them, but left the centres of towns for quiet rural spots or pubs and back streets that were away from the surveillance of middle-class authorities. ‘Folk’ football too lived on, although apparently on a smaller scale that was less orientated around traditional holidays and community celebrations. Its survival in this form surely underpinned the speed with which the codified form that emerged from the public schools was taken up by the masses across Britain.

The emergence of modern sport

Whilst forms of football were on the decline in mid-nineteenth century Britain, they were actually being adopted in the country’s public schools, as a means of controlling the boys and building their character, both as individual leaders and socially-useful team players. Underpinning the values that football was thought to cultivate were ideas of masculinity and religious conviction. Muscular Christianity deemed that men should be chivalrous and champions of the weak but also physically strong and robust. The belief that such qualities would create the right sort of men to lead the British Empire meant that a cult of athleticism, whose importance ran far deeper than mere play, developed within the English public schools.

Such traditions found a natural extension in the universities. It was here, particularly at Cambridge, that much of the impetus for common sets of rules developed in order to allow boys from different public schools to play together. It was from such beginnings that the moves towards codification of rules and the establishment of governing bodies mostly sprang. Most famously, representatives of leading London football clubs, including former public schoolboys, met in London in 1863 to establish a common code of rules for football and form the Football Association to govern the game.

With rules and a governing body behind them, former public schoolboys went out into the world, taking their games with them. Not only did this encourage the diffusion of sport outside British shores but it also led to modern sport being taken to the masses by a paternal elite who partly sought to better the health and morals of the masses, not least because of fears of national decline. Games like soccer and rugby were well-suited to urban, industrial communities, requiring only limited time and space and they very quickly developed in popularity amongst the working classes across Britain during the late nineteenth century. Such developments created an apparent homogenization of sports culture across Britain but there were distinct local variations. Knurr-and-spell and hurling, for example, enjoyed some popularity in the north of England and Scottish highlands respectively. Such traditional games furthered the continuity between pre-industrial and industrial sport but even they had to develop modern organisations and sets of rules to survive.

Modern British sport was not entirely rooted in the public schools and their spheres of influence. In Sheffield, for example, there were independent attempts to draw up sets of rules for football. Even amongst the southern middle classes, there developed popular sports, such as tennis, whose origins lay elsewhere. Golf could trace its written rules back into the eighteenth century Scotland but it was not until the wider sporting revolution and mania of the late nineteenth century that the sport’s popularity exploded amongst the British middle classes. Cricket was another sport whose written rules were drawn up in the eighteenth century and thus predate the public-school cult of athleticism.

Professionalism in cricket also dated back to the eighteenth century but as the phenomenon developed in other sports in the late nineteenth century, it, like other sports, developed an obsession with amateurism that was closely allied to the public-school ethos of fair play and playing for the sake of the game. Above all, amateurism was about projecting social position in a period of social change and mobility. To be an amateur in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain was to not need to be paid to play. Thus in cricket, where amateurs and professionals often played in the same team, social distinction was preserved through the use of different changing rooms, different ways of writing names and initially requiring professionals to labour with bowling and even menial tasks such as cleaning the kit. Yet, despite the snobbery that underpinned amateurism there was a general reluctance in most sports to impose explicit class-based restrictions on participation, though the Amateur Rowing Association was a notable exception. Furthermore, the reality of amateurism did not always match the rhetoric. Nowhere was this clearer than in the case of cricketer W. G. Grace (1848-1915). Undoubtedly the most famous sportsman of the Victorian era, Grace was a doctor and a gentleman but he was also supremely competitive and certainly not above gamesmanship and demanding excessively generous expenses.

It was in rugby and soccer that the issue of professionalism became most controversial. The growth of socially-mixed northern teams led to broken-time payments, where working men were compensated for missing work in order to play. Such payments however not only offended the amateurist principles of some of the elite, but they also threatened to take power away from the middle classes, both on and off the playing field. In soccer, professionalism was sanctioned in 1885 in order to ensure the middle-class Football Association retained control of the game, but it was soon tempered with severe controls on players’ freedom to move clubs and be paid what a free market might allow. Such tensions, fuelled by north-south rivalries, led rugby to split into two codes (which later became known as league and union) in 1895. Rugby league became a sport whose whole existence and identity was closely interwoven with ideas of working-class identity in northern England.

Watching and playing

Clubs could afford to pay players because soccer and rugby had become something that people watched as well as played. This owed much to the establishment of cup competitions, which, fed by civic and regional rivalries, gave some purpose and excitement to matches. In the industrial north of England, the growing crowds began to be charged for the privilege of watching and hosted in purpose-built grounds. Such crowds worried the class prejudices of social onlookers, who complained about the drinking, gambling and partisanship of supporters, as well as the impact on the nation’s health of a population that spent its free time watching rather than playing.

When soccer played on after the outbreak of war in 1914 the reputation of professional sport plummeted amongst the middle classes. Nonetheless, sport was to play an important role in maintaining troop morale at the front. In the aftermath of the Great War spectator sport reached new heights of popularity. The largest league games in soccer could attract as many as 60,000; yet, beyond drinking and gambling, disorder was rare. This led the sport to be celebrated as a symbol of the general orderliness and good nature of the British working class at a time of political and social unrest at home and abroad.

For spectators professional sport offered an exciting communal experience, where the spheres of home and work could be forgotten in the company of one’s peers. As such, crowds at professional soccer and rugby league became overwhelmingly masculine enclaves that fed a shared sense of community, and perhaps even class, identities. Sport’s ability to promote civic identity was underpinned not by the players, who being professional were transient, but by the supporters and the club sharing the name of its town or city.

Yet these crowds were not actually representative of such civic communities. Professional sport was mostly watched by male skilled workers, with only a sprinkling of women and the middle classes. The unemployed and unskilled workers were, by and large, excluded by their own poverty and the relative expense of entry prices. Consequently, as unemployment rocketed in parts of Britain during the inter-war depression, professional sport suffered; some clubs in the hardest hit industrial regions actually went bankrupt. Working-class women meanwhile were excluded from professional sport by the constraints of both time and money. Even the skilled workers did not show an uncritical loyalty to their local teams. Professional sport was ultimately entertainment and people exercised judgement over what was worth spending their limited wages on seeing.

Men played as well as watched and the towns of Britain boasted a plethora of different sports, from waterpolo in the public baths, to pigeon races from allotments, and quoits in fields behind pubs. Darts, dominoes and billiards flourished inside pubs and clubs. Space was, of course, a key requirement of sport but it was at a premium and the land that was available was heavily used. For all the excitement that sport enabled men and women to add to their lives, they were still constrained by the wider structures of economic power.

Working-class sport could not be divorced from the character of working-class culture. Local sport was thus intensely competitive and often very physical. In both football codes, bodies and fists were hurled through the mud, cinders and sawdust of the rough pitches that were built on parks, farmland and even mountainsides. But, win or lose, for many men and boys, playing sport was a source of considerable physical and emotional reward. For many youths, giving and taking such knocks was part of a wider process of socialization: playing sport was an experience that helped teach them what it meant to be a man. Similarly, working-class sporting heroes reflected the values and interests of the audience; they were tough, skilled and attached to their working-class roots.

Cricket was the national sport of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century England, in that its following was not limited to one class or region. Matches in urban working-class districts may have lacked the pressed white flannels or neat green wickets of a test match at Lord’s but they shared the same intricacy and subtlety of play. The contest between the skill and speed of the bowler and the technique and bravery of the batsmen was one familiar to both working-class boys and upper-class gentlemen. Cricket’s popularity owed something to the rural image of England that it encapsulated. Cricket on the village green was an evocative and emotive image, employed even by a prime minister at the end of the twentieth century. Yet, from the English elite, cricket spread not only to the masses of the cities but also the four corners of the vast British Empire, where it enabled the colonies to both celebrate imperial links with the motherland and also take considerable pride in putting the English in their place.

Like cricket, horseracing had been organised since the eighteenth century and was followed by all classes from Lords to commoners. Gambling was at the core of its attraction and a flutter on the horses was extremely popular, despite its illegality (until 1963) when the bet was placed in cash and outside the racecourse. As with soccer, the sporting press offered form guides and was studied closely, with elaborate schemes being developed to predict a winner. The racecourse itself was often rather disreputable, with the sporting entertainment on offer to its large crowds being supplemented by beer, sideshows and, in the nineteenth century, prostitutes. It provided the middle classes with an opportunity to (mis)behave in a manner that would be impossible in wider respectable society.

Respectability did matter on the golf course and in the clubhouse. Although it had something of a working-class following, especially in Scotland, golf was a sport of the middle class and its clubs were important social and business networks that conferred privilege and status within the local community upon their mostly male membership. Tennis too had both a middle-class profile and a social importance that often marginalized actually playing the game. Like archery and croquet before it, for the urban middle class of the early twentieth century, the tennis club was an opportunity to meet and flirt with members of the opposite sex of the ‘right sort’. In such ways, sport became an important part of the lives of a middle class that was increasingly otherwise socially isolated in the new suburbs.

As in the rest of Europe, the shadow of war was hanging over the suburbs by the 1930s. In such an atmosphere, sport itself became to be increasingly political. The England soccer team were even told by the appeasing Foreign Office to give the Nazi salute when playing an international in Berlin in 1938. The threat from Germany also led to renewed investment in playing fields, as concerns resurfaced about the fitness of a nation on the brink of war. Unlike in the First World War, sport was fully promoted during the 1939-45 conflict, as an improver of spirits and bodies for civilians and troops alike.

Britain finished the Second World War victorious but physically and economically exhausted. In the austerity that marked the late 1940s, sport was one readily obtainable relief and, encouraged by growing radio coverage, soccer, rugby, cricket and boxing enjoyed huge crowds. There were also large crowds at the 1948 Olympics, which London stepped in to host with the hope that the games would rejuvenate tourism and help put some colour into the post-war austerity. The games were an organisational success and even made a profit, the last Olympics to do so until 1984. After leaning towards isolationalism in both politics and sport during the inter-war years, the post-war period saw a new awareness in Britain of its relationship with the rest of the world. With the Empire being dissolved, international competitions like the Olympics began to matter more as indicators of national vitality. The conquest of Everest in 1953 offered some optimism and confidence for the future but soccer, Britain and the world’s most popular game, was not reassuring for its inventors. England’s first forays into the World Cup were far from successful and indicated that the country’s loss of global power was not confined to the political sphere.

 The television era

As economic prosperity returned in the 1950s, spectator sport suffered a downturn in popularity, as it competed against the lure of shopping, cars and increased domestic comforts, of which television was one of the most alluring. Such alternatives were particularly appealing to older men and thus the 1960s seemed to witness crowds, in soccer at least, become younger. One consequence was the rise of a youthful football fan culture that utilised humorous but obscene and aggressive chants and promoted fighting between rival supporters. The media spotlight, increasingly looking for sensational stories from across sport, amplified the hooligan problem but from the late 1960s to 1980s it was a genuine and widespread subculture that drew more upon the thrill of limited violence than any sense of a disempowered youth rebelling against the world.

Initially, there was only limited sport shown on television and many sporting authorities, not least soccer, feared that coverage would kill live audiences. Yet others, like golf and horseracing, saw television as an opportunity to develop their popularity and thus courted its coverage. The growth of televised sport was therefore sporadic; in the 1950s and 60s it was too often limited to edited highlights or live coverage of only the biggest events in the sporting calendar.

Yet televised sport was to become hugely popular and influential. In the 1960s, coverage of the Olympics and the 1966 World Cup won mass audiences and turned the events into shared celebrations of a global sporting culture. Wimbledon became, for most people, a television event rather than a live tennis championship, while rugby league became inextricably linked to the northern tones of commentator Eddie Waring. By the 1970s, television coverage had also helped turn rugby union’s Five Nations Championship into a very popular competition that transcended the sport’s middle-class English foundations.

Television also opened up the opportunities to commercially utilise sport, not least through sponsorship. Athletics was one sport where television and sponsorship increased its profile and popularity, but this also created tensions between the amateurist traditions of the administrators and the commercial demands of the stars. Other sports suffered similar tensions and responded by either slowly becoming explicitly commercial, as in the case of professional golf, or turning a blind eye to transgressions of the amateur code as in the case in athletics and parts of rugby union. Yet, ultimately, money talked and amateurism gave way to commercial pressures across senior sport.

The changes television was starting to bring about could be radical. Cricket proved surprisingly willing to embrace change and even introduced a one-day Sunday League as early as 1967, as it searched for a more accessible and exciting one-day format to supplement the waning four-day county game. After the invention of colour television, snooker was televised from the late 1960s and the sport was transformed from the realm of smoky pubs to something resembling a national craze. The relatively static nature of the game meant that it was cheap to broadcast and conducive to dramatic close ups. Snooker also had the characters and personalities that the media was increasing seeking in its coverage of sport.

The real commercial boost from television came in the 1990s, with the development of satellite television. Soccer was seen as the key to securing an audience for the new medium. Rupert’s Murdoch’s Sky thus spent enormous sums on securing and then keeping the rights to televise the game’s senior division. After the 1980s – when hooliganism and the fatal horrors of disasters at Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough had seen English football sink to its lowest ebbs of popularity and standing – Sky’s millions enabled the game’s upper echelons to reinvent itself in the 1990s. New all-seater stadia (enforced by the government to avoid a repeat of the 96 deaths at Hillsborough in 1989) made watching soccer both safer and more sanitised, an influx of talented foreign players raised standards of play, while a more cynical and overtly commercial edge developed amongst the game’s owners and administrators. Players were the main beneficiaries as their profile, wages and sponsorship opportunities rapidly escalated in the now hugely fashionable and celebrity-conscious game. David Beckham epitomised this transition, with his pop-star wife, countless sponsorship deals and media-frenzied private life. Fans meanwhile could watch more soccer than ever on television but actually attending matches was becoming extortionately expensive. Other sports were keen to follow soccer’s example. Rugby league became Super League, its teams gained American-style epithets and the sport even moved from winter to the less crowded television schedules of summer. Rugby union, fearing being left behind, suddenly abandoned its strongly amateur heritage and turned professional in 1995, a move that was to bring it as many financial headaches as rewards.

Identities and inequalities

In the second half of the twentieth century, spectator sport and television may have become interwoven in a relationship built on money, but participatory sport did not die out, although it too became part of a leisure industry that sold everything from training shoes to personal gyms. As throughout the twentieth century, participation remained skewed by class. The wealthier appeared not only more able to afford to play sport but they also appeared more interested in doing so. The foundations and boundaries of the British class system were becoming increasingly blurred and the diminishing class associations of the most popular sports reflected that. Yet historical legacies and financial requirements still meant that equestrian sport remained beyond the reach and often tastes of the masses, whilst activities such as boxing and darts remained closely allied to working-class culture. Success at such sports could take performers out of their working-class origins but this did not end the cultural resonances of the sports that had been built up over a century.

Nor were the gender biases of sport ended by the equal opportunities ethos of the late twentieth century. Playing and watching sport remained far more popular amongst men, despite the significant advances made in female participation rates and the profile of some leading sportswomen. Olympic athletes like Denise Lewis or Kelly Holmes may have ventured into the celebrity world of sports stardom but, at the start of the twenty-first century, women are still on the margins of sport, in terms of numbers, profile and culture.

Athletes from Britain’s ethnic minorities have, however, broken through into the mainstream of nearly all the country’s most popular sports. In the early twentieth century, there had been occasional black athletes in boxing and soccer in particular, but it was the 1970s that saw British sport become genuinely ethnically-mixed, when the sons of the first generation of large-scale immigration reached adulthood. By the twenty-first century, England’s national teams had even had black and Asian captains in soccer and cricket respectively. Such achievements were not simply symbolic but also encouraged a degree of wider racial integration in national culture. Yet sport has also been, and continues to be, the site of explicit racism (notably in the form of soccer chants) and more subtle preconceptions about the playing abilities of different ethnic groups. Such prejudices partly explain why few professional soccer players have emerged from the UK’s large Asian population.

While little sustained media attention was ever devoted to sporting inequalities based on class, gender or ethnicity, nationhood was a topic of widespread popular interest. When in 1999 Chelsea Football Club fielded a team that did not include a single British player, there were debates about globalization’s potential impact on the future success of British international sides. Sport had always played an important role in shaping national identity within the United Kingdom. For the Welsh, Scottish and Irish, it had an important symbolic role in affirming their nationhood and equality with England. While the Scots and Welsh enjoyed cutting the English down to size at football and rugby, the Irish increasingly rejected these sports in favour of their own indigenous games, such as Gaelic football and hurling, which could be used to symbolise a separate, and non-British, cultural heritage.






Digital resources on Welsh history 1847-1947

This probably duplicates info already on Blackboard / Canvas but hopefully it helps with your essays when library access might be reduced. It should be used in conjunction with the guide to online historical sources produced by the library. The list below is more Wales-specific and focuses on what is useful for the Welsh Century module.

There is a review of the academic historiography of modern Wales here. You’ll need to use your Swansea log-in. It’s a bit dated now but does offer an introduction that should give you ideas. There is another version of the same essay here which does not require a log in.

Historical Welsh newspapers

Access to a large number of local newspapers from Wales from the pre 1919 period.

Welsh journals and periodicals

This is full-text versions of journals, magazines and periodical from the eighteenth century until the 21st century. It will thus give you access to primary and secondary sources and can be searched by name, place, word etc.

Dictionary of Welsh Biography

Short biographies of eminent and sometimes obscure figures in Welsh history. If you want to find out about individuals you should also look at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Swansea log-in required).

Historical statistics

The Digest of Welsh Historical Statistics 1700-1974

Moving Pictures

The British Film Institute has a variety of different films about Wales. The collection includes home movies and factual films.

Newsreels were news fims broadcast at the cinema before the main picture. You can access newsreel reports from between the wars here. Just search for Wales.

Welsh History Review

This is the leading journal for academic work on Welsh history. Digital copies are free from 1967 to 2002. If you are looking for a specific article and volume you can access them here. If you are searching for a theme or key word, then use this search page and enter Welsh History Review into the publication title box.

For issues after 2002, you need to use this database. You will need to sign in using your Swansea login details.


Llafur is the other academic journal dedicated to general Welsh history.Digital copies are free from 1972 to 2004. If you are looking for a specific article and volume you can access them here. If you are searching for a theme or key word, then use this search page and enter Llafur into the publication title box Issues after 2002 are not online.

People’s Collection Wales 

This is an online repository for historical images and some documents. The content is quite eclectic but it is full of rich material and worth searching.

The Internet Archive

Contains full text versions of many nineteenth-century publications including the infamous Blue Books. Worth playing around.

History of the Welsh language

Wales and War

Women’s history



Explore historic maps from Wales and the UK here.

Television documentaries

Episode 2 of Wales: England’s Colony? (2019) Presented by yours truly, it explores the relationship between Wales and England in the modern period.

Episode 4 of The Story of Wales (2012). An overview of the industrial revolution and its impact on Wales.

Episode 5 of The Story of Wales (2012). An overview of industrial and modern Welsh society. Covers much of the ground we have looked at in The Welsh Century.

Saunders Lewis (1992). A documentary about one of the founders of Plaid Cymru.

The Dragon has two Tongues. This was a 1980s documentary that debated Welsh history. ITV have not allowed it to be put online but these extracts offer some sense of its overall debate about the nature of Wales’s past.
















Education, the decline of Welsh and why communities matter more than classrooms

This article was first published at 

Why Welsh declined is an emotive topic. For more than a hundred years, some have liked to blame the British state, with the Welsh Not offering an apparently convenient symbol of official attitudes. Others prefer to argue that wider state attitudes deliberately created an atmosphere that encouraged people to turn against their own language. Either explanation frees Wales from responsibility for the decline of Welsh (although the former misunderstands how education actually worked and the latter implies that the Welsh of the past were gullible victims of some wider conspiracy).

What is beyond debate is that the history of the Welsh language in the modern period is one of decline. Probably at least 80 percent of the population spoke Welsh at the start of the nineteenth century and most of them could not speak English. At the 1891 census, the first time anyone counted properly, Welsh was only spoken by half the population, with 30% saying they were unable to speak English (although that figure was thought to be exaggerated because of the way the question was worded and some suspicion whether it could really be that high). By the 2011 census, just 19 percent of the population spoke Welsh and that figure was probably an exaggeration of actual fluency levels. Only in Gwynedd and Anglesey were more than half of people able to speak Welsh.

Education is part of this story but it is only part. If education was decisive to people stopping speaking Welsh, it is hard to explain why there were such large regional variations in language patterns. The central purpose of education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was to teach people English but in rural Wales it often failed. In 1891 in Meirionnydd and Cardiganshire, three quarters of people were returned as only speaking Welsh, despite fifty years of growth in the education system. In 1901, 10% of 15-year-olds in Wales were unable to speak English, despite the fact that school attendance had been compulsory for more than 20 years. In rural districts of Meirionnydd more than half of 10 to 15-years-olds were unable to speak English.

Today, the education system is sometimes condemned for teaching English to the Victorian Welsh. But in that period, people damned it for failing to do so. The reasons given by investigations into education were

  • Too many schools failed to make use of Welsh in the classroom and thus left children floundering to understand lessons given in what was essentially a foreign language.
  • School lessons were not being reinforced by wider culture in communities where Welsh was the language of work, play and prayer and English was very rarely used or even heard.

Thus education did not bring about significant linguistic change in rural communities because it often failed to actually teach people to speak English properly. At schools where teachers refused to use Welsh, children might learn to read and repeat English words but they did not actually know what these words meant because no one ever told them and because they never heard them outside class. 

Moreover, even if education had been better there was little to be gained in Victorian rural communities through abandoning Welsh. The language was spoken everywhere and by nearly everyone. Giving it up would have made no sense. It was both natural and useful, whatever the Blue Books said. 

In contrast, in the industrial south communities were becoming more diverse. By the end of the 19th century, large-scale migration from England was affecting a shift in community languages. English became something that could be learned not just in the classroom but in the workplace, the pub and the street. Surrounded by an increasing number of workmates and neighbours who could not speak Welsh, the dynamics of language were changing from migrants learning Welsh to the existing population learning English.

Contemporaries noted how the key linguistic shift was among the children. They might speak Welsh at home but, in communities full of migrant children unable to speak Welsh, they played and learned in English and thus English came to be their natural tongue for speaking to anyone who was not their parents. They, in turn, raised their own children in English.

Thus demographics were key to why Welsh remained strong in the countryside but was declining in industrial and urban areas. There were, of course, other factors at play. The public rhetoric that Welsh was old fashioned and unsuited to modern life must have had some influence, although this has to be set alongside the very significant status Welsh gained by being a language of religion. English was also the language of a global mass media and popular culture. It was the language of a growing consumer culture and the army. This meant after the First World War, English made significant inroads into rural communities and in industrial communities the linguistic shifts brought about by demographic changes  were reinforced.

It was only once English was well established that some Welsh-speaking parents took the decision to raise their children in English. Here they were influenced by the economic, political and cultural power of English but this trend was concentrated in the areas where English already dominated. Thus in 1926/7, of those children at Anglesey secondary schools who did not speak Welsh at home, only 2% had two Welsh-speaking parents. In Merthyr, 30% of secondary-school pupils who spoke English at home had two Welsh-speaking parents. In wider Glamorgan, the figure was 19%.

It is still instructive that a few families in Welsh-speaking Anglesey were raising their children in English. Yet the 1920s was relatively late and by then better education, military service, the cinema and radio had all boosted people’s ability to speak English.  Before the First World War, it was more common for migrants into rural communities to learn Welsh than it was for locals to drop the language. Census records show how the children of English families who had moved to rural Wales could often speak Welsh. Their parents didn’t speak the language and much of their schooling would have been in English. It was in the community and with their friends that they learned Welsh.

Even in the first couple of decades of the post-1945 period, as the inability to speak English started to disappear, rural Wales remained strongly Welsh speaking, despite the allure of English films, tv and pop songs.

What changed this was not education or the status of languages but English migration. Just as migration from England was decisive to the decline of Welsh in industrial communities, it became decisive in the decline of Welsh in rural communities. Children of migrants might still learn Welsh but they do so most effectively in places where Welsh remains the dominant community language. The number of such places is falling as the demography of rural Wales changes.

What happens in schools only really matters if it is reinforced by what happens outside school. That is why today, decades of Welsh-medium education in English-speaking communities have not changed the language of those communities. It is why some children who learn Welsh lose it in later life. It is why Welsh-medium education for all in rural communities is not enough to buttress Welsh there if the everyday language of those communities is changing through migration from England.

If the Welsh Government wants to reach a million speakers then education alone is not the answer.  Even if this nominal target is reached through a massive expansion of Welsh-medium education, it will not mean there are a million who do speak Welsh, merely a million who can speak Welsh.  The decline of Welsh was rooted not in what happened in classrooms but what happened in communities. The future of Welsh won’t be saved by education either. It relies on ensuring there are still communities where it is natural to  start a conversation with a stranger in Welsh. It relies on people elsewhere having other opportunities to use the Welsh they learned at school. It relies on being a living language outside the classroom.

Indeed, it’s probably better, and certainly more sustainable, to have 500,000 people regularly speaking Welsh in their community than a million able to speak it but rarely doing so.

10 classic novels from the ‘Welsh Century’

Every year on my module The Welsh Century 1847-1947 I encourage students to read fiction from the period. Here are the ones I suggest.

These novels have been selected  because I like them rather than because of any particular literary merit they might have. However, all are vivid illustrations of life during this period, or at least how some people liked to imagine life. Some of the books were published later than the timeframe of the module but they draw on their authors’ own experiences of the period.

  1. Jeremy Brooks, Jampot Smith (1960).

A comic story of teenage English immigrants in Llandudno who are more concerned with girls than the ongoing Second World War. The English middle class may not be a fashionable topic in Welsh history but they are part of the nation’s story.

  1. Islwyn Ffowc Elis, Cysgod y Cryman (1953). Published in English as Shadow of the Sickle

You may want to throttle several of the sanctimonious characters but a great story nonetheless and an important depiction of the tensions within rural Wales just after the Second World War. The book was important in taking Welsh-language novels to a younger audience.

  1. Caradoc Evans, My People (1915)

A collection of short stories that give an unsympathetic view of the people of rural Wales and which made its author rather notorious.  The characters are devious, hypocritical, lustful, greedy and not always very intelligent.  It’s all a little over the top but great fun.

  1. Jack Jones, Rhondda Roundabout (1934)

A disjointed but vivid and entertaining picture of the vitality of life in mining communities. The perfect antidote to any idea of Welsh miners as downtrodden, bored, overly pious or sober.

  1. Lewis Jones, Cwmardy (1937)

Celebrated for its picture of politics and exploitation in the south Wales valleys but it’s ‘Big Jim’ and the other characters that make it such a great read and much more than the Communist propaganda that it was intended as.

  1. Stead Jones, Make Room for the Jester (1964)

Rather obscure and probably the least successful book on the list. But it is full of teenage angst, repressed sexuality and adult alcoholism in 1939 Pwllheli.

  1. Richard Llewellyn, How Green was my Valley (1939)

 Often derided for its Welsh clichés (lots of singing and talking funny) and poor sense of history (the decline of the valleys is all the fault of the unions and immigrants apparently) but it doesn’t deserve to cast aside.  A gripping story, appealing characters and lots of sentimentality made it hugely popular everywhere, including in the south Wales it misrepresents. 

  1. Caradog Pritchard, Un Nos Ola Leuad (1961). Published in English as One Moonlit Night.

Sometimes regarded as the greatest Welsh-language novel ever.  Set in a north Wales quarrying community, it’s more poverty and child abuse than hymns and eisteddfodau.  It’s hard not to be touched by the tragic life of the young narrator. The book dispels the romantic pictures of early twentieth-century Welsh rural society that characterise some autobiographies of Welsh-speaking intellectuals. The book is spoiled only by some surreal passages of biblical visions. 

  1. Kate Roberts, Traed Mewn Cyffion (1936). Published in English as Feet in Chains

Another rather bleak and depressing but vivid depiction of life in a slate quarrying community in early 20th-century Caernarfonshire. Will stop any doubt over which gender had the roughest deal.

  1. Dylan Thomas, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940).

A collection of short stories that show Wales’ most famous writer at his best. Very funny, slightly surreal and often irreverent. A rather different inter-war Wales to the one found in mining novels.