Getting ready to study history at university

Students starting history degrees in 2020 will be in unusual positions. It will be six months since they were last in a classroom. Some are worrying that not taking A Level exams will hold back their transition to university. This short blog is some suggestions of things students can do to help prepare.

Reading

In many ways, reading anything is preparing for university. Being comfortable with spending a lot of time in a book is important.  Reading novels is a great way to both develop this skill and to start thinking about the past.

1984 Nineteen Eighty-Four (Penguin Modern Classics): Amazon.co.uk ...One book that everyone interested in the history of the modern world should read is George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Quite simply, it is one of the most (or perhaps the most) important novels ever written. It is about how power operates, and the role of history and knowledge in that. Its observations on oppression, privacy, freedom and what we now call fake news are very pertinent for the present day too. It also reminds us of how much fear for the future there was after the Second World War.

Podcasts

There are a vast amount of good historical podcasts out there. They are not dissimilar to lectures and are thus an excellent way of getting used to listening historians talking about subjects at length.

The National Archives have many that are very useful, partly because they often talk about the sources that history is based on. Here are a few particularly useful ones for the Modern British history. They will help you think about how varied history can be but also how we can assess and judge the past.

Films about the past

Historians can be sniffy about their accuracy but historical movies really matter because they reach audiences far in excess of anything an actual historian ever writes.

Watching a variety of films on the same topic can be a very useful historical task. It helps us understand the public understanding of the past and it also involves a skill that is central to studying history – history at university is not just about studying the past but also about comparing and evaluating the ways that past has been interpreted and understood.

A fascinating and moving film that captures one perspective on women’s history and the First World War is Testament of Youth (2014).

 

It’s based on a famous memoir by Vera Brittain and portrays the growing disillusionment with war that some people felt. Alongside the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and others, the original book was part of a genre that has led some people to think that was how everyone felt about the war. This genre influenced later tragic portrayals of the Great War such as War Horse and even Blackadder goes Forth. In this view, the war was something futile.

The pride many soldiers felt in what they had done has been rather written out of depictions of the war. You can see it, however, in Peaky Blinders when characters discuss the war. Even the recent Wonder Woman film could be argued as having some historical worth for how it portrayed the First World War as a battle against evil. That is how many people saw it at the time. Sometimes historical insights can be found in curious places. It doesn’t matter what you watch as long as you don’t just accept it as true!

Films from the past

Rather than just watching films made about the past, it’s also useful to watch films made in that past. They bring it to life in a way the written word perhaps can’t. Of course, they are selective in what they depict but no source is ever without ‘bias’.

Watch Millions Like Us online - BFI Player

The 1940s was something of a golden era for British cinema and offers rich viewing. Millions Like Us (1943) was a propaganda film designed to encourage people to feel their sacrifices were important and shared by people across Britain. It’s a vivid portrayal of the home front, class and gender, or at least how the film makers wanted the home front, class and gender be seen. It’s well worth watching and thinking about how audiences during the war would have felt about it. Did they think they were being manipulated? Did the film feel true to them? Does propaganda need to be subtle to work?

You can watch it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNglGkEmYDE and read more about it here: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/442138/index.html

Write and talk!

Whatever you watch or read, it’s worth writing something about it. Put your thoughts onto paper or screen. It doesn’t matter if it’s blog, a Facebook post, or a message to a friend. Writing helps give shape to your ideas. It develops confidence that what you think matters (and it does!). Studying history is all about interpretation. There aren’t right answers. So practice telling others what you think about stuff, whether it’s historical, political or personal.

At university (and in many jobs) you will have to write a lot so using the written word is a skill to develop but so too is talking. Discuss things with whoever you live with. Articulate and debate but remember to listen too. Listening to others is key to learning.

Conclusion

History degrees are not really about what you know but about how you think. They encourage you to be critical about what you read and watch and to think about how things compare and connect to each other. These skills matter in the world and will help you in all kinds of jobs.

Thus what really matters in getting ready for university is not learning about specific things from the past but keeping your brain active. Read, think, talk and write! Just do that and you will be fine.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emotions, the Welsh Not and getting to know a Victorian headmaster.

As part of a project looking at the suppression of the Welsh language in 19th century schools, I have spent some time this week reading the logbooks of elementary schools. These were diary-like records of school life that headmasters were required by law to keep from the 1860s.

Given there were hundreds of schools in Wales, knowing where to start is a daunting task. Ideally, I would like to read every one and come up with stats that quantified the different approaches to the Welsh language. That would be a huge task and one where the outcome would not be worth the effort since most don’t actually seem to make many references to Welsh at all.

Thus I’m being selective in which ones I look at. This morning I concentrated on a school in the Gwaun valley in Pembrokeshire. This was because I had come across a 1920s letter to a newspaper from a man who recalled the Welsh Not being used there when he was a pupil in the 1880s.

Given the school’s single teacher, one Mr Llewellyn, was a man who apparently punished his pupils for speaking Welsh, I began reading with a disapproval of him. Maybe the historian should not start with a sense of judgement about the people being studied but I think that’s impossible. We certainly have to be careful of judging the past through modern values but this just means remembering the judgments being made and thinking about how that affects interpretations.

In this case, I did not feel too bad about expecting to dislike Mr Llewellyn because the Welsh Not was unusual by the 1880s. Most of education seems to have moved on by then and Mr Llewellyn was behind the times.

Unfortunately, the log book made no reference to the Welsh Not at all or indeed give any clue that his pupils did not speak English when they started school. Instead, the section from the 1880s was one sustained weather record and a repeated moan about very poor attendance and the impact of this on school learning.

At first, this was not very informative but gradually a picture of rural school life emerges. And the more I read, the more I began to feel sorry for the poor teacher.  He despairs about how he can teach when half the school are regularly absent. Rain, snow and heat all keep children at home because many had to walk some miles to get there. So, too, does hay making, crop sowing and harvesting, local fairs and chapel meetings.  Some children go three or four months without turning up. Many simply say when they do eventually attend that they were needed at home.

The inspection reports the school received were scathing and a copy of each one was handwritten into the logbook by Llewellyn.  This in itself cannot have been a pleasant task. They question his physical ability to run a school alone. At first, I thought this meant more staff were needed but the second reference to this implies that he is not fit or healthy enough. I picture an ill man. The reports also question why some pupils are not there on inspection day, implying that they are being kept away so as not to affect the exam results. Arithmetic and sewing are  the only subjects that seem ok, perhaps because they did not require English-language skills.

The School Board comes in for criticism too. More needs to be done about absenteeism and Llewellyn needs an assistant. There are no inkwells. The poor reports lead to cuts in the school’s government grant. I magine a frosty relationship between Llewellyn and the board that empoys him. Llewellyn records at one point: “The teacher is altogether blamed when an unfavourable report is given at the annual inspection of the school”.

Eventually one Summer holiday he resigns. Perhaps he had no choice. But after ploughing my way through 150 pages or so of his handwritten laments, I feel rather sorry for him and have forgotten how he used the Welsh Not. Maybe the picture in my head of a bent, elderly and frustrated teacher working to the ends of his wits is wrong. Maybe he took out his frustrations on the children and was vicious and bad tempered with them. The possibility of my sense of him being wrong is why the sympathy I developed should not shape the analysis. But it did shape my emotional experience of doing the research.

Whatever the poor standard of education in the school or the evils of the Welsh Not, forty years later one of his pupils exhibits no anger in recounting that this small peice of wood was ‘considered one of the most serious sections of the day’s curriculum’. Indeed, he relates the story of a farm boy turning up late to school and explaining to the others “Our donkey had a small donkey”. He was asked when but confused this for the Welsh word for white (wen) and replies “Nage, un ddu” (No, a black one). For this, he was presented with the Welsh Not. The letter does not record what the punishment was.

Such humorous stories of confusion were not uncommon in recollections of the Welsh Not. Like the experience of archival research, they are a reminder that emotions are not always what we might expect. People, after all, are complicated and little in the past is straightforward. Decent people can still do bad things. People who have bad things done to them can still laugh. And the historian can feel for them both, without losing the objectivity needed for analysis.

 

 

Welsh history in Welsh schools before the National Curriculum

An extract from Martin Johnes, ‘History and the Making and Remaking of Wales’, History, 100, 343 (2015), 667-84. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-229X.12141 

Nationalists were prone to blame the education system for the apathy of many Welsh people to their cause.  In their view, education had been a tool of a foreign state, designed to destroy Welsh culture.  They dated this back to the 1847 Blue Books, an education report that claimed that the Welsh language was uncivilized and holding Wales back.  However, such views were not entirely fair given how decentralized education in England and Wales was before the Second World War.  With teachers fairly free to teach what they liked, a patriotic master could easily pass on his or her enthusiasm for Welsh history.

Moreover, there were a number of very popular and very patriotic school texts on Welsh history for them to draw upon. Even in Anglicized Cardiff, the School Board explicitly saw teaching Welsh history as a way of making ‘all the inhabitants of Wales loyal to Wales’.  Dannie Abse, born in 1923, remembered:

At my elementary school in Cardiff I was taught to sing Welsh songs and revere Welsh heroes.  I see myself now, ten years old, sitting at a desk listening to our teacher Mr Williams: ‘The grave of our own Owain Glyndwr, princely Owain, who took up his sword in defence of justice and liberty, is not one visible, boys, but it’s known.  Known. Oh aye, you’ll not find it in any old churchyard, no old tomb of his under the shadow of a yew.  No stone tablet do bear his name. So where is it? I’ll tell you where it is – in the heart and in the noble soul of every true Cymro.

This was a reference to a passage from Owen Rhoscomyl’s Flame Bearers of Welsh History (1905). Rhoscomyl was perhaps the most over the top of writers of such texts but more sober books shared that ability to explicitly draw connections between past and present.  G. P. Ambrose’s The History of Wales (1947), for example, finished by declaring ‘The survival of her national life through the crises of centuries is due to efforts of her best men and women to cherish a worthy heritage. Only by similar efforts will this be preserved in the future.’

Such lessons were not always popular and the existence of patriotic textbooks is no guide to how widely they were used.  One Wrexham man remembered being ‘force-fed’ Welsh history at his grammar school in the late 1940s and early 1950s: ‘it had seemed so impossible to disentangle, so difficult to absorb, what with all those names of squabbling Welsh princes, long-vanished principalities, and odd cantrefs’.   In 1952, the Welsh department of the Ministry of Education issued a report which argued that in secondary schools ‘Too frequently … the history of Wales is relegated to the background, and local history, if it is included at all, is treated cursorily and inadequately.’  It thus called for ‘radical revision’, suggesting:

a knowledge of the history of Wales is the birthright of the children of Wales… the future of the nation – of the community inhabiting the country, both those who speak Welsh and those who do not – depends to no small degree upon the extent to which the children are rooted in their native soil and are made aware of their national heritage.

 Although knowing exactly how history was taught and what influence it had is impossible, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the lack of Welsh history in schools contributed to the weaknesses in Welsh identity at the start of the post-war period.

In response to the 1952 report, and allied to the slow strengthening of Welsh identity in general, the teaching of Welsh history did grow in the 1950s and 60s.  The editorial of the first ever issue of the Welsh History Review noted in 1960 that Welsh history was ‘given considerable attention’ in A Level work in grammar schools. In Flintshire, the Director of Education was very forthright in promoting Welsh history.  He told The Observer in 1959: ‘I don’t see any merit at all in the kings and queens of England.’  But his policy was subject to criticism and he claimed ‘They fear that you are creating in the mind of a child an awareness that there is such a concept as the Welsh nation.’

Thus the teaching of Welsh history remained limited and in 1967 another report on primary education found that teachers often disregarded it in favour of English history. Yet, the hopes that history that could inspire the young remained explicit in the new books being written to support Welsh history.  Children who read a 1960 secondary-schools textbook were told: ‘if Welsh culture is to perish, it will be through the apathy and indifference of her own people.  But the future is big with possibilities provided there is the will to maintain and to further all that is best in Welsh national life.’

Welsh history in schools was also boosted by its growth in universities from the 1960s onwards. This produced a new generation of teachers better able and more likely to go on to teach Welsh history.  The growth was slow and incremental and an Anglo-centric form of British history still dominated.  By the 1980s, Welsh history was still unusual in primary schools, while at secondary level it could be avoided altogether in O Level history.  There was a compulsory Welsh question on the Welsh Joint Education Committee’s British history course, but this was sometimes badly taught and reliant on 1950s textbooks.

Nor had the critics disappeared.  In 1984, one Cardiff teacher complained those against ‘compulsory Welsh History are anti-Welsh, anglicised rascals’.  Criticism was not surprising given that the increasingly vocal supporters of Welsh history in schools consciously saw it as having a utilitarian purpose.  In 1984, the educationalist David Egan wrote, ‘For too long Welsh history in our schools has hidden in the shadows. It is now emerging but somewhat pale from lack of light.  If it finds the place in the sun it deserves, the whole future of Welsh consciousness and nationality is likely to be radically affected.’

That place in the sun was realised with the new national curriculum that was established for all subjects in England and Wales.  Thanks to lobbying from teachers and others, history was the only subject (apart from Welsh) with a separate committee to advise the Welsh Office on curriculum content and its recommendations led to Welsh history becoming a core subject for both primary and secondary children. Although it placed Wales firmly within an international context, the new curriculum was designed to foster a sense of a distinct Welsh past which was connected to the present. They were perhaps pushing at something of an open door because in England too there were intentions to use history to develop a sense of citizenship. Although there was some criticism that it was nostalgic and the medieval conquest of Wales was notable for its absence, unlike in England, this utilization of Welsh history for citizenship was uncontroversial. This in itself was a marker of how far Welsh identity had developed since the Second World War.

The extent to which school history lessons actually foster national identity is not a question for which definitive empirical evidence exists but studies in other parts of Britain do indicate it has an influence.  It is thus not unreasonable to suggest that schools must have had some impact on Welsh national identity, but the new history curriculum in Wales did not meet the aspirations of its foundation.  The preferences of teachers and pupils meant Welsh history was simply never taught as much as the National Curriculum implied it should be.  This was enabled by the fact that the curriculum was never as prescriptive as it first seemed and had intended to be but Welsh history’s weakness was also fed by attitudes in the classroom.  A survey of pupils in the late 1990s suggested that while only a minority actively disliked the idea of studying Welsh history, few seemed enthusiastic about the subject, often perceiving it to be less interesting than ‘mainstream’ history.  The survey also found that schools in Monmouthshire were unenthusiastic about teaching Welsh history because their catchment areas stretched into England and there was little sense of Welsh identity amongst pupils.

England’s Colony? A new BBC series

Press release

BBC WALES TO BROADCAST MAJOR NEW SERIES EXPLORING WALES’ RELATIONSHIP WITH ENGLAND

Presented and written by historian Professor Martin Johnes, Wales: England’s Colony? will challenge some of the most fundamental ideas about Wales’ historical relationship with England and its place in the world.

The two-part series, broadcast on 11 and 18 March at 9pm on BBC Two Wales, is designed to stimulate debate about the past story of Wales, and will also challenge the audience to think afresh about some of the future constitutional choices facing Wales as it leaves the European Union.

Focussing on how Wales’ relationship with England has shaped both the nation’s development and how Wales sees itself, the programmes will tell the story of an uneasy and unequal relationship between two nations living side-by-side. It examines Wales’ story from its creation to the present day, examining key moments such as medieval conquest, industrial exploitation, the Blue Books, the 1919 race riots and the flooding of Cwm Tryweryn.

Johnes argues that the conquest and oppression of the medieval period meant Wales was England’s first colony but that gradually over time the Welsh reconciled themselves to this position and became partners in and beneficiaries of the British Empire. The union of England of Wales was never an equal one but in a democracy Wales has the freedom to choose whether it wishes to remain in the United Kingdom or not.

Professor Martin Johnes says: “History has shaped how we think of Wales but our past is more complicated than we often understand. Part of Wales’ current problem lies in believing that we are, and always have been, victims, powerless to act on our own and to choose our own future.”

The series is part of The Changing Face of Wales season across BBC Wales television, radio and online – looking at what it means to live in Wales and to be Welsh at a time of unprecedented change.

This spring, BBC Wales will launch a series of history podcasts where Professor Martin Johnes will be joined by guests to discuss some key questions in Welsh history such as whether Wales was ever an independent nation, and were the Welsh miners truly radical?

Ends

Issued by BBC Wales Communications

History and the politics of Welshness

History can be very emotive. The destruction of an iconic piece of graffiti has upset many in Wales this week. It has led to assertions that this is the result of an ignorance of Welsh history. Some claim this ignorance is deliberately imposed on Wales. There are calls for Welsh perspectives on the past. There are demands that children learn more about medieval conquests and rebellions, the Tudor annexation of Wales, and the suppression of the Welsh language. The hope is that this will bolster people’s sense of a political Welshness.

While in Wales there are calls for more Welsh history to be taught, in England there are calls for more British history in schools. These are sometimes grounded in patriotism but they are also sometimes rooted in the hope that it will curtail the kind of Britishness that can lead to xenophobia, exceptionalism, and arrogance. The British patriots want more tales about contributions to science, the defeat of fascism, and the benefits of imperialism. Their critics on the left want more appreciation of the evils of imperialism, the role of immigration in building British society, and the long roots of European connections.

What this debate should remind us in Wales of is that history is complicated and can be interpreted in multiple ways. It should remind us that there is no single Welsh point of view that can replace the British perspective that is so often disliked. The refusal of the local council to oppose the flooding of Cwm Tryweryn is a reminder of how divided Wales can be.  Just as Wales was not united in its opposition to Tryweryn, nor was it united in supporting Glyndŵr’s rebellion or in its desire to preserve the Welsh language. Indeed, there have been times when the British state was more progressive in its attitudes to Welsh than large chunks of the Welsh people.

That is partly because some of the people running the state were Welsh. British history is Welsh history too. The tragedies and achievements of the First and Second World Wars, the building of a global empire on the back of the exploitation of others, the beliefs in racial and gender hierarchies, and the legal and cultural advances towards equality are all parts of Wales’ history. Yet people who studied some of these things at school still say they were taught no Welsh history.

History will always be political. It will always be used and abused. But the task for the historian is to try to challenge that, to raise, as another historian put it, awkward truths. And most of those awkward truths are also far from simple. Churchill was both a racist and a good war leader. The Welsh have been both oppressed and oppressed others. Glyndŵr was both a rebel that did significant damage to his own people and a freedom fighter who helped his nation survive. Tryweryn was both a national injustice and typical of the way English and Welsh people were treated when their homes stood in the way of a reservoir, a road or a slum clearance.

We should teach more Welsh history, not because it will boost Welsh patriotism, but because it will help us understand who we are. It won’t give us simple answers but it will tell us why we should be asking the question. This may well end up boosting a sense of political Welshness but that should not be the primary purpose of teaching Welsh history.

10 random facts from the modern history of Christmas

  • In 1914, Christmas caused a break in the fighting in many places on the Western Front but at home there was disagreement over whether it should be celebrated at all. In Burnley, a mill manager tried to stop the Christmas Eve tradition of halting work for a while for ‘a little jollification’ and was punched in the face for it.
  • The government has acted at times to keep Christmas special. The 1934 Betting and Lotteries Act outlawed gambling on Christmas Day. The 2004 Christmas Day (trading) Act prohibits large shops from opening at all.
  • In 1940 the government decided not to bomb Germany on Christmas Day, unless there was a German attack the day before. It did not announce the truce for strategic reasons but it still hoped to get credit for the decision and had feared looking bad in American eyes if the British carried out raids but the Germans did not.
  • Although many of our traditions date back to the Victorian period, it was not until relatively recently that they became standard practice. It was the 1950s when Christmas trees and turkey dinners became the norm for working-class families.
  • The Trafalgar Square tree has caused a number of political controversies. In 1958 and 1959, despite protests from the public and press, the police refused to approve its lighting after 11pm for fear it would lead to drunks assembling there. A ban on importing trees after the war meant the government had to give the tree a special licence, despite the risk of bringing disease into the country.
  • Cuts to Christmas day rail services caused problems for football fans and players in the 1950s. This meant a full Football League Christmas day fixture list was last scheduled in 1957. By 1960 there were no league games that day at all in England and Wales.
  • In 1959, the Queen’s pregnancy meant her speech was recorded for the first time. The BBC broadcast it at 9am and it was repeated at 3pm on ITV. At 3pm the BBC instead showed ‘Chipperfield’s Circus Festival’. The challenge of scheduling against Her Majesty meant that by 1961 both channels returned to showing the Queen at the now traditional time.
  • In 1966 the Royal Mail held a children’s competition to design a Christmas stamp. Some stamp collectors thought this undignified and wrote to the press to complain about the disgrace.
  • In 1968 the Queen and Prince Philip decided to write the Christmas speech themselves and their draft included a reference to Britain’s ‘serious economic difficulties’. The government was unimpressed and the sentence was deleted.
  • It was 1974 before Boxing Day was made a bank holiday in Scotland, a century later than England and Wales.

All taken from Martin Johnes, Christmas and the British: A Modern History (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). 

The Political Aftermath of the Aberfan Disaster

Martin Johnes and Iain McLean

On Friday, 21 October 1966 a coal tip slid down a mountainside into the mining village of Aberfan in the South Wales valleys.  The slide engulfed a farm, around twenty houses and part of the local junior school before coming to rest.  The disaster claimed the lives of 144 people, 116 of whom were school children.  The horror felt around the world was made all the more poignant as news emerged of previous slides and brushed aside warnings.  Such was the widespread sympathy that was felt that a fund set up to help the village raised £1,750,000.

Image result for aberfan disaster

A terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude

In the days after the disaster, Lord Robens, chairman of the National Coal Board (NCB), attributed the tragedy to ‘natural unknown springs’ beneath the tip.  This was known by all the local people to be incorrect.  The NCB had been tipping on top of springs that are shown on maps of the neighbourhood and in which village schoolboys had played.  The government immediately appointed a Tribunal of Inquiry.  Its report was unsparing:

Blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board … The legal liability of the National Coal Board to pay compensation for the personal injuries (fatal or otherwise) and damage to property is incontestable and uncontested.

These dry conclusions belie the passion of the preceding text.  The Tribunal was appalled by the behaviour of the NCB and some of its employees, both before and after the disaster:

the Aberfan disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above

Colliery engineers at all levels concentrated only on conditions underground.  In one of its most memorable phrases, the Report described them as ‘like moles being asked about the habits of birds’.

The Tribunal endorsed the comment of Desmond Ackner QC, counsel for the Aberfan Parents’ and Residents’ Association, that coal board witnesses had tried to give the impression that ‘the Board had no more blameworthy connection with this disaster than, say, the Gas Board’.  It devoted a section of its report to ‘the attitude’ of the NCB and of Robens and forthrightly condemned both.

Corporate responsibility

In the face of the report, it now seems surprising that nobody was prosecuted, dismissed, or demoted or even said sorry.

It  is also surprising that Robens’ offer to resign as NCB chairman, which even at the time was seen as perfunctory, was rejected.  Public records released under the thirty year rule, show that he had advance sight of the tribunal report and his private office ran a media campaign to keep himself in place.  Through very public attacks on government fuel policy, he was able to portray himself as a defender of the industry and win the support of the unions.  This was not a new line for him to take but Robens was a great PR manipulator and he knew that he was securing his position.  Ministers let him stay, despite disliking him, because they thought he was the only man who could manage the decline of the coal industry and avoid strike action.  In effect, Robens’ behaviour after Aberfan became irrelevant to whether he kept his job or not.  Rather, political expediency was the name of the game.

Nobody suggested that Robens himself was to blame for the disaster but he was the head of the organisation that clearly was.  The extent of mismanagement revealed by the Tribunal was such that the question of prosecution arose in Aberfan and the media.  However the NCB itself avoided prosecution because the concept of corporate manslaughter was very much on the fringes of legal procedures.  Mining was a dangerous industry where accidents were normalised as an almost inevitable part of operations.  This is not to say that they were taken lightly but rather that they were seen as just that, accidents.

Accidents might be the product of individuals’ errors maybe but the idea that those errors could be fostered by a wider corporate culture that amounted to criminal negligence was simply not part of the contemporary agenda.  When the question of manslaughter charges was raised it was with regard to individual employees not the NCB itself.  Concepts of corporate responsibility, in and outside the coal industry, were essentially under developed.  Thus, despite the evidence to the contrary, the Aberfan disaster did nothing to challenge the picture of disasters as tragic accidents rather than criminal negligence.

A catalogue of self-serving episodes

Other events that now seem surprising followed Aberfan.  In August 1968, the government forced the trustees of the disaster fund to contribute £150,000 to the cost of removing the remaining NCB tips from above the village.  These tips were in a place and condition in which, according to the NCB’s own technical literature, they should never have been. Yet the board refused to pay and even undermined the efforts of a rival firm offering to remove the tips for less money that the NCB thought it would cost.

The contribution was bitterly controversial.  Some people wrote to ministers to complain that it was inconsistent with the charitable objectives of the fund; ministers’ replies did not address the point.  The Charity Commission failed to intervene or even query the debatable point on whether such a contribution was legal.  In contrast, it asked the disaster fund to ensure that parents were ‘close’ to their children before making any payment to them for mental suffering.

The villagers of Aberfan were traumatised  beyond the comprehension of outsiders who could see only their ‘unpredictable emotions and reactions’.  The trustees of Bethania chapel, which was used as the mortuary after the disaster, pleaded with George Thomas, the Secretary of State for Wales, to get the NCB to pay for it to be demolished and rebuilt, on the grounds that its members could not longer bear to worship there.  Thomas passed the plea on to Lord Robens, who rejected it.  Eventually it was rebuilt but at the expense of the disaster fund not the NCB.

The NCB paid just £500-a-head compensation to the bereaved parents.  To some parents this was insultingly low. Coal board lawyers, however, regarded it as ‘a generous settlement’ and it was not at odds with other contemporary payments of loss of life by a child.  Even as insurers wrangled, the ruins of the school and empty houses remained for a year.

For those in Aberfan, the legacy of this catalogue of self-serving episodes was a deep feeling of being let down and injustice.  The result is a lingering mistrust of authority.  It has also made the closure process difficult and undoubtedly hindered the healing process in the local community.  Subsequent events served to exacerbate that feeling.  In October 1998 the village suffered severe flooding.  An independent inquiry showed that the flooding was exacerbated by dumped spoil from the removed tips.  One survivor of the disaster and victims of the flooding said ‘I was buried alive in that tip in the disaster.  Now it’s the same tip again dumped outside my door.  It’s no wonder I am angry.’

A community on the periphery

George Thomas, Secretary of State for Wales and originally a teacher from the Rhondda, did initially protest at the decision to encourage the disaster fund to contribute to the payment of the removal of the tips.  But his lone voice in the cabinet was not sufficient and in the end he acquiesced in the plan and placed strong moral pressure on the disaster fund to ensure it too gave in.

There was considerable local anger but the South Wales valleys consisted of safe Labour seats.  All the major Labour figures knew that the rising Plaid Cymru support in the valleys was essentially just a protest that would pass.  The Labour hegemony thus condemned Aberfan to the margins.  In contrast, Robens’ ability to avert a coal strike was very much the concern of government and he kept his job as chairman of the NCB.

Gwynfor Evans, leader of Plaid Cymru, complained in the parliamentary debate on the disaster that if the tips had been at Hampstead or Eton, the Government would have taken more notice.  Aberfan was a small working-class community isolated from the heart of UK politics.  The government’s decision to grant legal aid to the Aberfan Parents and Residents’ Association at the Tribunal of Inquiry did mean they were able to afford the best ‘silk’ of the day.  The fearsome Desmond Ackner triumphed over the NCB at the Tribunal.  But in the aftermath of the disaster, a Labour government, whose support across South Wales was secure, ignored Aberfan’s interests.

The disaster itself, of course, was not marginalised.  The London media, Royalty, and the Prime Minister all travelled to Aberfan to see the horror for themselves.  It was only a few hours drive away or an even shorter flight.  Even Lord Robens got there, 36 hours later.  Politicians were undoubtedly personally touched by the disaster.  Harold Wilson noted that when he visited a Cornish school less than eight days after the disaster, he felt ‘almost a sense of resentment at these happy innocent children, with all they had to look forward to, compared with the children of that Welsh valley, who had no future.’  Intensive media coverage, particularly television, ensured that the disaster was seen as a national one.

Yet this was not enough to overcome the residents of Aberfan’s position on the political periphery, something that had contributed to the causes of the disaster and intensified the injustices after it. The disaster simply would not have happened had the NCB taken local fears about the tips more seriously or enforced its own rules on tip safety. But it was an organization hampered by mismanagement yet protected from market and political pressure by being part of the state and a dominant local employer.

Before the disaster, the NCB’s economic and local political power meant no one, including the small local authority in Merthyr, was able to challenge it to do more about fears on tip safety. After the disaster, the NCB’s economic and national power meant its interests took precedent over those whose children it had killed.

Martin Johnes and Iain McLean are the authors of Aberfan: Government and Disasters (Welsh Academic Press, Cardiff, 2019). 

 

 

Television, comedy and the historian

ImageI’m writing a book about Christmas since 1914 so I’ve been watching a lot of Christmas specials from the 1970s and 80s recently. Television has been rather underused as a source by contemporary historians because old programmes have always been difficult to get hold of.  However, the growth of people using Youtube to share things they buy on DVD or find on old VHS tapes (and television companies’ apparent willingness to overlook the copyright infringement) mean there is now online a wealth of ephemera from the small screen.

Just as with novels, the historical riches come not from the highbrow but from the popular.  The light entertainment of the past is an important source because it says so much about what people found funny and their everyday attitudes. It also reminds us just how much these attitudes have changed. The 1970s and 80s doesn’t seem that long ago but watching its television shows is a reminder of a world where sexism and racism were rife; pretty girls were there to be openly leered at and jokes about buses being like Calcutta were funny.

Humour is a complex phenomenon to study. Just because a script writer thought a joke was worth telling and a studio audience subsequently laughed doesn’t mean the audience at home reacted that way. Nor should we just accept viewing figures as measures of which shows reflected popular tastes. In a world of three channels, there wasn’t exactly much choice and many a person found themselves forced to watch something at Christmas to compromise or to keep the peace.

Then there’s the issue of how we escape our own tastes and, in the case of recent television, our own memories.  I did not find a 1970s Tommy Cooper Christmas special remotely funny. But was that me or was it always very silly? In contrast, the Good Life and the Two Ronnies have held up well and made me laugh. But then they did in the 80s too.

In contrast, as a kid I never liked repeats of Steptoe and Son. It’s still not very funny but it’s been far the most interesting watch in my research because it’s full of sociological comment. Yet interpreting that is not easy. When Albert sings ‘Enoch’s dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones he used to know’, are people laughing at or with Powell’s racism? In a society where race was a divisive issue, it was probably both.

Alas, I’m not sure that I’ve learnt too much about Christmas itself from these programmes but they were an integral part of the Christmas experience for the majority of the population. The research is thus probably more about getting into the mentality of the past rather than about finding out specifics, even if that does mean I need to try to lose the traces of that mentality that still exist in my memory.   If nothing else, I’m learning why light entertainment was so important on Christmas day.  At its best, it was very funny but it also enabled people to escape the kind of domestic quarrels that they were watching depicted on screen.  And in some families that was probably worth putting up with a bit of Tommy Cooper.