As discussed in a previous article Wales faced profound changes at the turn of the 20th century. The percentages of Welsh speakers declined and as a result of socio-economic changes the linguistic and political landscape changed. The figures were quite stark. The % of Welsh speakers fell from 49.9% in 1901 to 36.8% by 1931.
Politically at the turn of the 20th century, it seemed Wales remained a Liberal stronghold. In the 1906 General Election 32 of the 34 Welsh MPs were from the Liberal party but as a portent of what was to come in Welsh politics, Keir Hardie an Independent Labour MP had been elected in Merthyr in 1900. The quarrymen strike of 1900 – 1903 in Gwynedd was a devastating blow for a Welsh-speaking area in North Wales. South East Wales saw an influx of English speaking immigrants to work in the mines..
Within eight years, however, the old certainties in Wales ruptured. The First World War led to further abrupt change in the social and economic fabric. Some 40,000 perished and many more were scarred physically and mentally by the conflict. The conflict had created an unprecedented demand for the output of Welsh industries but no assessments had been made of what output was required by the market after 1918. An economic depression followed in the 1920s and 30s. In 1921 mining and quarrying accounted for over 270 000 working men or 30% of the total employed. The collapse came suddenly. In 1921The great depression had a profound impact on Wales; the population of the Rhondda fell by 21,371 between 1921 and 1931.
The security and influence of nonconformist chapels declined in the period. Partly, due to disillusionment with the reality of war and partly due to the cynical attitude of clerical recruiters, many rejected the faith of their parents: a clear example was Aneurin Bevan who turned to socialism. Whole areas of Wales became radicalized and turned to socialism.
The role of women also changed in this key period. Women had taken on new roles during the war. They worked in roles that had been excluded previously. They worked as clerks, drivers, factory workers, dock workers and postwomen. At the end of the war, they were dismissed. As Deidre Bedowe records; between November 1918 and October 1919 three-quarters of a million women in Britain were dismissed to make way for returning ex-servicemen. They were expected to disappear back into the home. This also happened during the Second World War. Their roles continued to be traditional. Their voices had been a minority in the 19th century but the 20th-century publishers gave women a long-overdue voice.
Welsh writing in English
Welsh writing in English became even more prominent in the 20th century as a result of the socio-economic changes. Initially, the term used for Welsh writers in English was Anglo-Welsh writing. Initially taking on the form of short stories in the early part of the century and more novels appeared from the 30s onwards. The debate continued throughout the 20th century about the merits of English writing about Wales. Welsh language writers such as Bobi Jones derided Anglo-Welsh writers as adapting culture from an uninteresting and impoverished England. Dylan Thomas was attacked for his lack of knowledge of the native language.
Caradoc Evans, a native Welsh speaker from Cardiganshire caused an immense upset in his homeland by writing in English about the Welsh-speaking heartlands of rural Wales. Many in Wales labelled the country as Gwlad y Menyg Gwynion ( The Land of the White Gloves) a reference to its supposed moral purity. Evans however in his biting satire, My People (1915) a collection of short stories, criticised the Welsh religion and education scathingly. He shone a light on the hypocrisy and cruelty of rural Wales. His next book Capel Sion (1916) was withdrawn from Welsh book shops because of the hostility his writing had caused. His books unsurprisingly were published by Andrew Melrose a supporter of new writers in London.
Welsh writing in English in the 20s, 30s and 40s benefitted from the publication of literary magazines in the period.
Important magazines were published to promote new writing in English; the foremost being Keidrych Rhys’ Wales in 1937, a groundbreaking literary journal, in its first issue it contained work by Dylan Thomas, Idris Davies and Vernon Watkins. In 1938 a magazine Life and Letters Today was published in London under the editorship of Richard Herring which contained stories and poems by Dylan Thomas, Keidrych Rhys and Gwyn Thomas. The Welsh Review in 1939-1949, Dock Leaves (named because it was published in Pembroke Dock) in 1949 and The Anglo-Welsh Review 1949-1988 appeared. The publications allowed an outlet for some of Wales’ foremost writers and poets writing in English. In 1965 Poetry Wales appeared which continues to be published today.It began to publish poetry under its own Poetry Wales Press and since 1985 as Seren books which still publishes fine work. A further boost for writers was the appearance of Planet in 1970 and still published today. A positive step for academic publishing was the establishment in 1922 of the University of Wales Press creating an opportunity for academic work relating to Wales.
How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn in 1939 was published by Michael Joseph in London and then as a Hollywood film in 1941 about Huw Morgan and his experiences in the mining community. Llewellyn did not live in Wales but collected information from miners in Gilfach Goch. As a result of the success of the film, it had a major impact on the image of the South Wales valleys.
Other writers such as Jack Jones’ novels Cwmardy 1937 and We Live in1939, were more of an authentic voice. A political activist and communist he was born in Clydach vale and began work in the pits at 12. His books were published in London. Alistair Cordell another writer popularised an image of Welsh mining life. The image of Wales was written by those outside Wales but had connections in the industrial areas.
A linguistic change had occurred in families quite rapidly. Many writers writing in English came from Welsh-speaking families who had not passed on the language. Most mainstream education in the period was through the medium of English. Dylan Thomas ‘parents were both native speakers and Glyn Jones had lost fluency in the language after high school. Both excellent writers and expressed themselves in English, not their parent’s tongue. The linguistic complexities of the age were also exemplified by the poet R S Thomas a Welsh-speaking clergyman who chose to write his poetry in English but very much rooted in his experiences of living in the heartland of Welsh-speaking Wales on the Lleyn peninsula.
The writing of women in Wales in English received a boost with the establishment of Honno in 1986 which increased the opportunities for Welsh women writers in English to be published. The press also published works by overlooked Welshwomen writers in the past such as Margiad Evans and Brenda Chamberlain. Bernice Reuben’s born in Cardiff in 1923 became the first woman to win the Booker prize in 1970 for her novel The Elected Member.
Welsh language publishing
In 1927 an important report by the Ministry of Education Y Gymraeg mewn Addysg a Bywyd ( The Welsh in Education and Life Report) studied the status of the language and how it could be encouraged. A particular concern was a lack of educational materials published in Welsh. An interesting motive for this was as the report stated: Welsh Wales …will be unable to develop a middle class because the members of that class will necessarily become Anglicised as they raise in the social scale.
As a result demand for Welsh language books increased and publishers took advantage particularly Hughes and sons who published a range of titles. In 1928 Prosser Rees established Gwasg Aberystwyth ( Aberystwyth Press) and published poetry by well-known poets such as Gwenallt and anthologies such as Beirdd Ein Canrif ( Poets of Our Century). Gwasg Aberystwyth was taken over by Gwasg Gomer a larger publisher in 1945. Gwasg Gomer remained a key publisher of Welsh language and later English language books until 2019.
The Second World War led to a shortage of paper and Llyfrau’r Dryw ( Wren Books) established in 1940 began publishing paperbacks with a mission to promote reasonable books by leading writers. Most were novels and short stories.
Publishers in Wales struggled during the war years and in the immediate post-war period Welsh language publishing declined. There were concerns about the profitability of publishing in the Welsh language. In 1952 A Report of the Committee on Welsh Language Publishing recommended establishing a Welsh book fund and its income to come from local and central government in order to create a grant scheme to assist Welsh language publishing. This was the beginning of state support which has continued to this day.
Continued fears about the future of the language was crystallised by the novelist and dramatist Saunders Lewis’ radio broadcast Tynged yr Iaith ( The Fate of the Language) in 1962, in which he warned the language would cease as a living language by the turn of the 21st century. He proposed that no business of local or central government should continue without being able to conduct it in Welsh and gave examples of non-violent action that had been taken to ensure Welsh was used. The lecture led to the establishment of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg ( The Welsh Language Society). This resurgence of cultural awareness coincided with the formation of new publishers in Wales: Y Lolfa in 1967, Gwasg Y Dref Wen 1970, Gwasg Gwynedd 1972 and Gwasg Carreg Gwalch in 1980. All remain publishers, today.
In 1962, the establishment of the Welsh Books Council (today is known as Books Council of Wales) was one of the most important developments in publishing in Wales. The Council developed further throughout the century and retains a key role in the promotion and development of literacy and publishing. In 1963, 109 Welsh language titles were published with an approximate print run of a thousand and this had increased to 364 by 1984, the highest for a minority European language after Catalan. It provided an important link with publishers and retailers and improved the distribution of books.
Key writers in the Welsh language in the 20th century were Kate Roberts who became known as Brenhines Ein Llên ( The Queen of our Literature), T. Rowland Hughes and Islwyn FFowc Elis. Caradog Prichard’s novel, Un Noson Ola Leuad ( One Moonlit Night)has been voted the best Welsh language novels in the Welsh language by Wales Arts Review.
Publishing in the 20th century showed signs of growth but there remained issues relating to the profitability of some titles, the market for Welsh language novels remained small but niche markets were established. State support became important and remains to this day. Books remained a mainly physical product to be bought and handled. The present century has opened a range of different options opening up different ways to consume books.
The 21st century has provided new methods of working and has opened up alternative business models and approaches: a good example being Wordcatcher which provides via its Print on Demand approach an effective business model for new titles and I will look at these in the next article. However, the coronavirus has caused immense hardship for so many individuals and businesses and this has affected so many viable business approaches.
- Beddoe, D. Back to Home and Duty: Women Between the Wars, 1919-39 Pandora Press (1989)
- Morgan, K.O. Rebirth of a Nation Wales 1880-1980 Oxford University Press (1982)
- Stephens , M. (Ed.) Cydymaith I Lenyddiaeth Cymru Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru ( 1986)
- Yr Academi Gymreig Gwyddoniadur Cymru Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru (2008)