The fascinating heritage Wales has chosen to forget

Meirion Morgan and Michael Plaut say Wales has much more to its heritage then rugby playing and mine working.

“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” – Orwell

Wales has an illustrious and proud economic history, much of which has been forgotten or overlooked because it does not fit in with the political narratives centered around exploitation, colonisation or nationalism that appear to have become dominant in today’s Welsh culture.

For over a century Wales was at the forefront of world-leading advances in technology, business and infrastructure. The coal industry in Wales needs no introduction; however, it should be remembered that by the early 20th century, a third of the world’s supply of coal came from Wales. It’s believed that the world’s first million pound cheque was signed at Cardiff’s Coal Exchange. The Exchange itself bears testament to the importance of Wales to global coal supply: at its peak, Cardiff exported over 10 million tons of coal from its port, making it the second largest coal exporting dock in the world – the largest being Barry.

Wales saw exponential growth in its population over the 19th century and is regarded as the world’s first industrial nation. People flocked to the industrial areas of Wales, attracted by the availability of work and wages; they came not just from within Wales, but much further afield. Yes, these industries were tough: conditions were extremely unpleasant and frequently dangerous. But, compared to what was on offer elsewhere, Wales provided opportunity and relative prosperity.

The narrative around the industrial revolution and enterprise creation in Wales is frequently a polemic about oppressed workers and ruthless, exploitative industrialists. The truth is far richer: both entrepreneurs and workers contributed to and shaped today’s social and cultural fabric in Wales. The polarizing narrative does not serve Wales well and isn’t so much well-worn as threadbare and often neglects the fact that many entrepreneurs were themselves Welsh.

It is often overlooked that industrialists contributed towards many aspects of community life either directly or indirectly; including education (schools , reading rooms, Working Men’s Institutes, libraries), religious life (chapels, churches), recreation (sporting teams, choirs, brass bands), and health (hospitals, convalescent homes).

Lord Tredegar – Godfrey Charles Morgan – donated much to Newport, and earned himself the nickname “Godfrey the Good” among local people. His benevolence included property donations, most notably to the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, the model on which the NHS was based.

John Cory, who helped build Barry Docks, gave liberally to a number of causes during his lifetime, including the Salvation Army, Dr. Barnardo’s Homes, the YMCA and Cardiff University. He was no less munificent on death, donating significantly to a number of other causes. Sir David James, colloquially known as James Pantyfedwyn, established charitable trusts that have contributed to a great many religious and educational causes. The foundation that succeeded the trusts is still very much active today.

The Monds and David Davies, grandson of the David Davies who founded Barry Docks, exemplify the contribution some industrialists made to housing stock for workers. Davies founded the Welsh Town-Planning and Housing Trust in which he and other publicly-spirited people of means invested to provide better housing for workers across Wales. The Garden Village outside Wrexham is one of a number of developments that owes its existence to his contribution. Alfred, Ludwig and Robert Mond established the Mond Nickel Company outside Swansea and recognized the value of a settled and happy workforce: aside from housing, the amenities and clubs they created for the workforce were both sensible and far-sighted.

Richard Glynn Vivian, who inherited part of his father’s copper business, left the running of it to others in the family and chose to travel and pursue the arts. He bequeathed his art collection – paintings by Old Masters as well as an international collection of porcelain and Swansea china – to Swansea Council. In turn they constructed the eponymous art gallery, which remains open and was described by the former chair of the Arts Council of Wales as a “major civic facility”.

John Nash, born in the mid 18th century and responsible of the bulk of the layout of Regency London, was the son of a Welsh millwright. David Thomas (Cadoxton, Neath), born in the late 18th century, devised an easy process for the creation of anthracite while working at Ynyscedwyn works in Ystradgynlais, and made a fortune off the back of it in the US. Thomas Hugh Morrison Davies, born at the end of the 19th century, is still held as the most outstanding pioneer of thoracic surgery in Britain. Donald Davies (Treorchy, Rhondda), invented the packet switched network and the development of the internet can be traced directly back to him.

Numerous others, long since forgotten, grace Wales’ history – but their extraordinary contribution to science, technology, business and culture is felt the world over. Our narrative has become so wedded to grievance – the desire to bring back Welsh bank notes being a perfect example of it – that we’ve chosen to forget this fascinating heritage. An article some time ago in Wales Online said there was never a better time to celebrate the Welsh stereotypes of rugby playing, choral singing and mine working. Perhaps so, but Wales has so much more to its heritage and to celebrate those stereotypes alone is myopic and serves us poorly.

Meirion Morgan is an Entrepreneur, Chair of Promo Cymru and Member of the Management Board of Gorwel. Michael Plaut is now Chair of the CBI in Wales. This article first appeared on Meirion's blog:

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