When Caernarfon was the print capital of Wales

Karen Owen celebrates the mid 19th Century print and news revolution

In 1811 there was no such thing as a ‘newspaper’ in Wales. There were many reasons for this. They included the extortionately high price of paper, the taxing of adverts, a William Pitt-led ban on the sharing of ‘dangerous’ information that could stir the masses, together with the impracticality of travelling and distributing any publications.

Two hundred years later, in 2013, the Welsh newspaper industry is not just in decline. It’s on its knees. That is if it can be called a ‘Welsh’ industry at all. Again, there are many reasons for this. They include the increase once again in the price of paper; the multi-national companies and their monopoly of the news (from ‘national’ dailies to our local weeklies), the 24-hour news channels and websites that break stories internationally within minutes, as well as all the new social media that makes everyone a potential ‘journalist’.

Yet, in the mid 19th Century there occurred what can only be described as a print and news revolution in Wales. And it was to last the most part of a century. It happened as the working class population soared. The number of readers increased substantially, thanks mainly to the Sunday Schools of the nonconformist chapels. And what’s more, the revolution happened through the medium of Welsh.

Caernarfon INC Weekend

Over the coming weekend of 7-9 June Galeri in Caernarfon will host a series of interviews, exhibitions and walking tours to celebrate the town’s history of printing and publishing. To mark 30 years since the last edition of Sulyn, Gwynedd’s first Sunday newspaper to be published in Welsh, Bethan Jones Parry interviews its editor Dylan Iorwerth. Karen Owen interviews the photographer Arwyn ‘Herald’. Vaughan Hughes talks with editor and poet Meic Stephens. Poet Twm Morys is in conversation with Jan Morris about her ten years as foreign correspondent with The Times and The Guardian, culminating in her ‘scoop of the century, her dash down the flank of Mount Everest to get the news of its first ascent to London in time to coincide with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

It’s hard to imagine that up until the Second World War, towns such as Pwllheli, Dinbych, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Dolgellau, Y Bala, Caerfyrddin, Abertawe, Merthyr Tudful, Caerdydd and Casnewydd, had thriving printing businesses producing weekly, monthly and quarterly newspapers and magazines in the two official languages of Wales – without Welsh Books Council or Welsh Government grants.

And the foremost of these, labelled the Ink Capital of Wales, was Caernarfon.

The business of publishing newspapers – and I use the word ‘business’ intentionally – has never existed in a vacuum. The printing industry has always been hand in glove with many social and economic factors. And the same was true in Caernarfon in the mid 19th Century.

From 1801-1841, the population of Carnarvonshire (sic) nearly doubled from 41,521 to 81,093, when the total population of Wales (in 1801) was 587,000. Slate quarries were drawing workers from far and wide, and villages were being newly built or expanded in order to house them and their families.

And in these flourishing villages were the chapels, community hubs where a high percentage of the population were drawn nearly every weeknight to engage in all kinds of entertainment and activities, from choirs to drama clubs, from the Band of Hope to prayer meetings and literary societies. Sunday Schools also became places where the thinking working classes were able to discuss and debate life and death issues, as well as learn to read Welsh (in order to be able to read Y Beibl). They were also taught to sing the sol-fa Modulator and, therefore, became music ‘readers’. This led to a surge in number of choirs and brass bands.

In 1847, there were 249 Sunday Schools in the county of Caernarfon, frequented by a total of 14,260 children under 15 years of age. Because of the surge in readers, the first library in Caernarfon was opened in 1833, in Pendist above the printing works of William Potter & Co.

Those who could and wanted to travel, were able to move about freely by now. In 1812, the Cob in Porthmadog was opened. The Menai Bridge followed  in 1826. By 1836, it took only 36 hours to travel by horse from Caergybi to London. But what is difficult for us to comprehend today is that all businessmen opening print works and launching newspapers and magazines in Caernarfon in that period, were making money from their initiatives.

As well as the financial side of things, newspapers and magazines published in Caernarfon were political forums. So much so that David Lloyd George set up his own newspaper (with two editions) in order to make sure that he was elected in 1890. Another business which saw the potential of launching its own magazine, was Nelson department store on Bridge Street. The Nelson was first published on 1 March, 1888. Its editor was new part-owner of the shop, Morris T Morris, who wanted to offer his readers articles on lifestyle and fashion, rather than the usual religion and politics.

As a direct result of the lowering of the taxes on advertising and stamp duty to 1d, the first edition of Y Papyr Newydd Cymraeg was published on 22 September 1836. It branded itself as “the one and only weekly Welsh newspaper at the time of its launch”. Its price was 2½d, but was due to rise to 3d. In 1835, the Carnarvon Herald was on sale for 7d, and was selling 346 copies a week.

That was the beginning of a revolution which we can now only look at in wonder. Between 1836 and 1857 there was a 70 per cent in the number of newspapers and periodicals sold in Caernarfon town itself.

By 1857 Yr Herald Cymraeg (first published 19 May 1855) was selling 9,000 copies a week. By 1869, twelve years after its launch, it was up to 14,000 a week. Meanwhile, the Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald and North Wales Chronicle were selling 1,300 and 900 copies respectively. Between 1811 and 1855 I have counted 18 magazines that were published and printed in Caernarfon.

Such was the power of the Welsh language press that, in 1857, under ‘Miscellaneous Notices’ in the Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald, an anonymous writer observes: “The Welsh press… There are no signs of its demise; on the contrary, it is now more actively energised than ever… when will the language perish?”

From 1860 it became possible for Welsh journalists to make a living from writing for newspapers. And that was a major factor in the revolution.

In 1874 a row broke out between the owner of the Herald newspapers and the Reverend Evan Jones, Minister of Capel Moriah. It involved the election of George Sholto Douglas Pennant as MP for Caernarfon over the Liberal candidate, Love Jones Parry. One resulted was the launch of a new ‘working class’ newspaper called Y Genedl Gymreig (‘The Welsh Nation’). Later another version called Y Werin was launched, specifically aimed at quarrymen and priced ½d. Between 1886 and 1888 Y Genedl Gymreig was selling 23,000 copies a week.

In 1889 William Jones Parry, a militant from Bethesda began work at Y Genedl Gymreig. He was keen to see it combine with Yr Herald Cymraeg to form a new Welsh daily newspaper in Caernarfon. Talks took place between the two companies, but nothing came of them.

World War I proved a grim reaper of newspapers and magazines in Wales. During hard financial times, readers were spending their money on essentials. Paper was expensive. And there was a general lack of interest in politics and religion.

However, well into the 1950s Caernarfon continued to be an important hub for all kinds of printing. Today, as you wander along Bridge Street, Pool Street, Y Maes and Eastgate Street, Turf Square and High Street, there are buildings still standing that were part of that Welsh, dirty, political and illustrious inky past.

Karen Owen is a freelance journalist and poet.

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