Cymdeithas at 50: Half a century ago

John Davies looks back at an era when the Welsh language was virtually invisible






John-Davies

It is difficult to remember how invisible the Welsh language was in the Wales of the early 1960s. It was seen on chapel notice boards, on gravestones and at the Folk Museum in St Fagans, but virtually nowhere else. Gwynfor Evans, who had been elected to the Carmarthenshire County Council in 1949, persuaded the council to erect bilingual welcoming signs on the county’s borders. Signs bearing Sir Gaerfyrddin caused much hilarity. “Why”. asked one commentator, “have they knighted the county?”

Fighting for the language

In a series of articles through this week we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg in 2012. Tomorrow Angharad Tomos looks back at a lifetime of campaigning.

In the late 1930s, there had been a massive petition in favour of official status for Welsh, but it resulted in litte beyond the Welsh Courts Act of 1942 which allowed dependents and witnesses to use Welsh in courts if they declared on oath that they would be disadvantaged if they were obliged to use English. A new militancy became apparent in the 1950s, particularly through the efforts of Eileen and Trefor Beasley who in 1952 began to refuse to pay rates to the Llanelli Rural District Council until they received the rate demand in Welsh. Their victory in 1960 infused new energy into the debate about the status of Welsh.

The Beasleys’ campaign coincided with the struggle to thwart the Liverpool Corporation’s plan to turn the Tryweryn Valley into a reservoir, with the erosion of the Welsh language in many of its heartlands and with a feeling that the constitutional path followed by Plaid Cymru was yielding few results. On 13 February 1962, Saunders Lewis, who had not publicly intervened in Welsh politics since 1943, delivered his radio address Tynged yr Iaith (‘The Fate of the Language’), in which he foresaw that, if current trends continued, Welsh would cease to be a community language by the early 21st Century.

The restoration of the language, Lewis argued, would only come about through revolutionary methods. “This is not,” he stated, “a haphazard policy for isolated individuals. It is a policy for a movement, a movement rooted in those areas where Welsh is an everyday spoken language.” The movement he had in mind was Plaid Cymru, and the lecture gave him an opportunity to pour contempt upon Gwynfor Evans’s leadership, particularly the primacy Evans gave to parliamentary elections and his alleged pusillanimity over Tryweryn. As the party’s leaders were wedded to the principle of advancement through the ballot box and had high hopes of winning support among Wales’ non-Welsh-speaking majority, they rejected the role Lewis had sought to thrust upon them, because they could not, as Gwynfor Evans put it “combine an effective fight for the Welsh language with being a political party”.

Among the activities Lewis urged militants to undertake was the rejection of English summonses to court. Before the end of February 1962, Gareth Miles, then a student at Aberystwyth, refused to attend court to answer for a trivial offence; he refused to pay the fine and suffered imprisonment. Gareth argued that the only way to secure summonses in Welsh was to ensure that a considerable body of people jointly committed trivial offences and then insisted upon being summoned to court in Welsh.

I told him I would seek to get the Aberystwyth branch of Plaid Cymru to send a motion to the party’s annual conference to organise direct action to compel recognition of the language. The branch did so, and at the 1962 conference, which was held at Pontarddulais,  I proposed the motion which was eloquently seconded by Tedi Millward, then a lecturer at the University College of Wales. Conference enthusiastically endorsed the motion, but as many of us agreed with Gwynfor Evans and did not want to be members of a party that had strayed from the constitutional path, we invited those who were prepared to be summons-refusniks to discuss ways of fulfilling Gareth Miles’s plan.

From the beginning, therefore, a separate organisation was envisaged. Indeed, Saunders Lewis, in his intemperate attacks on the Plaid Cymru leaders, ensured that his hopes of turning the party into a militant language movement were doomed. As early discussions were about summonses, lawbreaking was built into the movement from its inception. To some extent, that was accidental, for a wide range of wholly legal activities were under consideration.

About a dozen people came to the summons-refusniks’ meeting. When it became clear that law-breaking was under discussion, a few left. The majority stayed. Almost all of them were students. Indeed, students were central to the whole story.

The early 1960s was a period of considerable expansion in higher education, and full employment for students – even for those who had been involved in nefarious activities – was the norm. Many of them had travelled in countries such as Belgium and Switzerland where recognition of more than one language was wholly acceptable. With access to cars a possibility for large numbers, students were more mobile than they had ever been before. Indeed, it could be argued that it was not until the early 1960s that a mass language protest movement involving young people was practicable in Wales.

Tedi and I devoted much of the following months to planning. The title Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg was adopted, largely because of our respect for the Welsh Language Society of the late 19th Century, which had ensured at least a toehold for the Welsh language in elementary schools. Huw T. Edwards agreed to be honarary president and sent us a cheque for £5, all of which was quickly swallowed up by stamp purchases.

Discussions were held with members of the Law Deprtment at Aberystwyth, in particular with Graham Hughes and Hywel Moseley, both of whom believed that the current legal arrangements did not preclude the issuing of summonses in Welsh. We wrote to all the magistrates’ benches in Wales asking for their views and began to work out how many summons-refusniks could reasonably be recruited.

By the end of the autumn term of 1962, it seemed likely that there would be some 25 volunteers at Aberystwyth, and an equal number in Bangor, where Robert Gruffudd, later of the Lolfa, proved an effective recruiter. Names were collected at Swansea, Cardiff, and Carmarthen, and by January 1963 we thought we might have as many as a hundred protesters.

Gareth Miles suggested that we should all plaster public buildings with posters bearing suitable slogans. Posters were ordered, buckets of paste produced and 2 February 1963 was chosen as the day of action. I was then delving into the Bute archives at the Cardiff Central Library and staying with the Tucker family in Grangetown. It was from Cornwall Road, Grangetown, that the call went out for protestors to gather at Aberystwyth on two/two/six-three.

February 1963 proved to be one of the coldest months of the 2oth Century. Glaciers were forming in the upper Dyfi Valley, small iceberrgs were floating in the sea near Clarach and the townspeople of Aberystwyth were reliant on stand-pipes for their domestic water. Nevertheless, the law-breaking did occur. Buildings – the Post Office, the Police Station, the Town Hall and the County Council Offices – were all plastered.

The police took no notice at all, for Aberystwyth’s magistrates had decided that the entire protest should be ignored. We had contacted a number of newpapers and I remember a reporter from the Daily Mail telling me that if nothing more exciting was going to happen, his paper would give no coverage to the event. We all met in the upstairs room in the Home Café in Pier Street, and it became apparent that a more enthusiastic element wanted further action.

Members of that element went to Pont Trefechan and sat down to block the traffic, a protest that was in no sense part of the original plan. That produced some dramatic pictures, especially that of Rhiannon Silyn Roberts knocked out by a car driver and lying supine in the snow. Some of the drivers who were stuck on the bridge began dragging the protesters away. Those dragged lay supine; the possibility of punch-ups was avoided, for the principle of non-violence was built into the movement from the beginning. Virtually all the leading British newspapers gave extensive coverage to the events, with the Guardian providing a headline exulting in the fact that ‘A Whole Town was Welshed On’. Saunders Lewis was delighted and sent a cheque for two guineas to the movements’ nonexistent account.

The following months were quieter. Organisation was necessary. A meeting in Aberystwyth in May 1963 led to the formal establishment of the society. Membership cards were printed, a membership fee of half a crown was decided upon and John Daniel, a lecturer in philosophy at Aberystwyth, was elected chairman. Cardiff magistrates were the first to issue summonses in Welsh, and within a very short time they became available on demand virtually everywhere in Wales.

The establishment of a network of branches proved more difficult, largely because almost all the society’s members were living away from the areas in which they were brought up. However, at Bangor, a very effective branch was established by Owain Owain, who was also responsible for the launching of the society’s periodical Tafod y Ddraig.

With a general election due to be held in 1964, leaders of Plaid Cymru urged the society’s members to avoid militant action. Activist members were annoyed by the decision to postpone a protest at the post office at Dolgellau because of fears that it would harm Elystan Morgan’s bid to win Meirionnydd for Plaid Cymru. Instead, much was done on issues such as persuading banks to issue bilingual cheques, providing Welsh–language notice boards to post offices, ensuring that new-born babies could be registered in Welsh and checking claims by local authorities that letters in Welsh were answered in Welsh. (The clerk of the Llanidloes Urban District returned the letter I sent him with the note that correspondence with the council was only accepted in English. A friend in Paris sent him a letter in French which was courteously answered.)

A plan was launched to Cymricise public houses, but a scheme urging large numbers of society members to sit for three hours slowly drinking half a pint of Hancocks bitter gained little support. The Hancocks brewery did however emblazon their pubs with splendid welcoming notices in Welsh. The absence of militant activity was increasingly criticised by the membership, criticism which was somewhat stilled by the launching in August 1964 of the roadsigns campaign. The first venture was the replacement in Pembrokeshire of signs bearing the word Trevine on the borders of the village of Tre-fin.

The election of a Labour government in October 1964 and the subsequent establishment of the Welsh Office were widely welcomed. Indeed, some of the society’s leaders urged a further lull in lawbreaking activities in order to allow the Labour government to show that it was far more sympathetic to Welsh aspirations than the outgoing Conservative government had been. However, approaches to the Post-Master General (Tony Benn) on the use of Welsh in post offices brought a wholly negative response. It became generally accepted that further lulls were pointless. The post office, car licensing and roadsigns campaigns became increasingly vigorous and by 1965 the society had entered a new phase.

John Davies is author of the Penguin Hanes Cymru and History of Wales.