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:

7 thoughts on “The fascinating heritage Wales has chosen to forget

  1. This is a rehearsal of largely Victorian improvers, and why not? How were they celebrated in their time? I don’t know but some of your contributors will. I would not doubt that Wales can and does today produce such men and women but how well are they celebrated? How can any such celebration be heard amongst the largely trivial information overload? That to me would seem to be the real challenge to celebrants of Welsh innovation past and present.

  2. The people of Wales do need to know more about their history and having more than one perspective on it is important. However if we do dwell on miners, rugby, singing and chapels then perhaps it’s because those are the niches we have been allocated and celebrated for by project British nation state.

    Wales has an illustrious and proud history, economic and other, but much of it does not fit in with the political narratives centered on British nationalism. As long as those narratives continue to be accepted in Wales I can’t see much changing.

  3. Agree with John, it’s a good solid argument for reviving industrial heritage in Wales. The iron industry – not just at its central hub of Merthyr Tydfil but widely across South East Wales. Copper and much more in Swansea. Don’t even start on the famous contributions from Merthyr Tydfil and many other communities. The foundation of railways – both in terms of the extensive tramroad systems but also with Trevithick’s steam engine trials of 1804.

  4. Refreshing that home-grown entrepreneurship and technological development during the 19th century is getting a second look.

    I am reminded of Robert Owen, the social reformer, who left Wales as a young boy to become a successful in Manchester and New Lanark. An early example of the brain drain. Or, local entrepreneurs who developed slate quarries in the Dyfrdwy Valley during the late 1860’s and 1870’s, but do appear not to have played an active part in the debate to influence the introduction of technological education at intermediate schools following passage of the Welsh Intermediate Education Act in 1889.

    I am not “wedded to grievance” about this legacy, although saddened by what I read in reports of the time about the opinions of employers regarding their employees, and their apparent indifference to the education and living conditions “the labouring classes.”

    It’s time to move on, however, and use the ideas expressed in this article as a point of departure for further analysis and evaluation of local entrepreneurship and technological development in Wales during the 19th century, particularly in small communities. Then apply the lessons learned from our heritage to rekindle pride of place, encourage local entrepreneurship and technological innovation. And, to stretch the point, consider industrial World Heritage, and the regeneration of other industrial sites in Wales, as learning centres for the development of these themes.

  5. A fascinating, insightful and unusual contribution which brings some welcome balance. Thank you Meirion

    Of course it suits some politicians to propagate a more simplistic version of history and become rich and part of the ruling class on the back of it. Some of them have even created a dynasty! Entrepreneurial indeed!

  6. Excellent article. You have forgotten a few pioneers across the way: Robert Owen needs a mention and so does WR Grove the inventor of the fuel cell, WD Evans, William Frost, Thomas Williams of Llanidan. All first rate inventors and entrepreneurs. And that’s not including the more interesting high sea “salvage” operators: John Evans, Robert Edwards, Henry MOrgan, Piers Griffith, John Callis and of course John “Bartholomew” Roberts.

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