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Was the 19th Century a Golden Age for Welsh Publishing? | Mel Hopkins


Printing and Publishing in Wales in the 19th Century.

Many historians consider the period of 1850 to 1890 as a golden age of Welsh publishing: a whole range of new publications appeared and also the establishment of newspapers and journals some of which survive to this day. There was a growing demand for new reading material covering mainly religious, historical and musical topics; publishers were established to meet this growing market.

There were many socio-economic reasons why the demand for publications increased in this period. A key factor was increasing literacy in the country. Voluntary educational movements such as the British Schools, National Schools and the established Sunday schools raised awareness of the importance of literacy. Many schools were established at collieries and ironworks; however, the standards of education and instruction varied a great deal.

The main inspiration for improving education in Wales was motivated by a report into the state of its education in 1847 which was highly critical not only of schools in Wales but also of its people and language. The report stated that standards in education were inferior to England but significantly it criticised the people for their morals, language and religion. It caused great offence: so much so the report was called Brad y Llyfrau Gleision, ( The treachery of the Blue Books) due to the fact the report was contained in blue covered volumes. The unwelcome epitaph was a reference to an event in Welsh Dark Age history. This was to have an important effect on improving education in Wales which fuelled a wide-ranging debate in journals and publications but also led to the politicization of large sections of the population and a demand to share ideas and ways forward via the expanding press.

Another factor for the growth in publications was the rapid development of industry in Wales, particularly coal. It led to a migration of literate rural Welsh speakers to the coalfields and caused a dramatic expansion in population in areas of South Wales. An excellent example of this is provided by the parish of Ysradyfodwg in the Rhondda, its population was 951 in 1851 and by 1871 had swollen to 16, 914.

Possibly one of the most important developments for publishing was the rapid development of the railway network in Wales, allowing the distribution of books and newspapers to be rapid, regular and read. The boom period for rail construction was between 1858 and 1868, coinciding with the growth period for publishing.

Wales in religion had become a mostly Non-conformist country and only a minority practised the Anglican faith. This was to have political implications for discourse in the country. With political awareness came the demand for greater discussion of pressing issues particularly the disestablishment of the established church in Wales, a key rallying cry for the chapels.

The first act of modern times relating only to Wales came in 1881 with the closing of Public Houses on a Sunday Act, evidence of the strength of Non-conformist protests and political influence. The disestablishment of the church became the main political issue of the day in Wales.

Much of 18th century Welsh publishing was religious. Welsh language publishing in the 19th century began to publish more diverse works. Two key publishers of the time were Thomas Gee and Richard Hughes.
Thomas Gee established a printing press in Denbigh and in 1845 began publishing Y Traethodydd (The Essayist) modelled on The Edinburgh Review and Blackwood’s Magazine. It focused on Divinity, Philosophy and Education. Gee then began work on publishing an encyclopaedia called Y Gwyddoniadur Cymraeg, an enormous undertaking published between 1854 and 1879, which cost a sum of £20 000 to produce- an estimated £ 1,250,000 today. In 1857 he began Y Faner (The Banner) which in 1859 became Y Faner ac Amserau Cymru (The Banner and Welsh Times) a weekly periodical covering a range of topics distributed throughout Wales and the large Welsh population of Liverpool. The weekly remained in publication until 1993. It was hugely influential and radical; containing reviews of Welsh and English language books and by 1898 had a circulation of 50,000 copies, by far the largest publication of the time.

Another key figure in this period was Richard Hughes, also a native of the Denbigh area. He published a series of books of music, Sŵn y Jiwbili (The Sound of the Jubilee) in 1874 which capitalised on the popularity of hymn singing in the growing chapels and using the sol- fa method of music notation, which was a pedagogical technique for teaching sight-singing.
Newspapers flourished in both languages: the Carmarthen Journal one of the first in 1810; and with the abolishment of stamp duty on newspapers in 1855 a flurry of other bradsheets began to appear, Yr Herald Gymraeg in 1855, which by 1869 was selling 14 000 copies a week. The Cambrian News in 1860, The Western Mail in 1869 and South Wales Daily News in 1872. Many of these thankfully, are still published today.
By 1866 it was estimated there were five quarterlies, twenty-five monthlies and eight weeklies published in the Welsh language. Caernarfon in the mid 19th century was labelled ‘The Ink Capital of Wales’. Welsh for the majority was the language of political, social and religious discourse.

Gwilym Hiraethog ( William Rees) a former editor of Y Faner -also from the Denbigh area- began to write a weekly column, Llythyrau ‘rhen Ffarmwr (The Old Farmer’s Letters) written by Hiraethog in the dialect of the Hiraethog district of Wales. He used the medium to discuss political issues of the day: he wrote regularly about Mazzini and Garibaldi in Italy, the Kossuth movement against the Austrians in Hungary, which aroused a political enthusiasm in Wales.

During the 19th century the Welsh novel became popular. Gwilym Hiraethog also developed the Welsh novel, in Aelwyd F’ewythr Robert (My Uncle Robert’s Homestead) published in 1853 , which was partially an adaptation of Uncle Tom’ s Cabin, the novel contributed to the support in Wales for the emancipation of slavery in the United States. In Helyntion Bywyd Hen Deiliwr (The Life Affairs of an Old Tailor) in 1867, he pioneered the use of dialogue as a means of characterisation and to present the story.
The Welsh novel was developed further by Daniel Owen, an apprentice tailor in Mold, who published novels based on his own experiences in Enoc Huws (1891) and Gwen Tomos (1894), drawing on Owen’s life dominated by the chapel and Welsh language. Critics argue the novels are roughly drawn and did not have the universal appeal of novelists writing in other languages. He has the distinction however, of being one of the earliest Welsh language novelists still read today.

A renewed confidence in Wales in this period also saw the establishment of the University of Wales, opening in the Castle Hotel in Aberystwyth in 1872 and then at Cardiff in 1883.

In 1891 the first census which recorded linguistic ability revealed that 54.4% of the Welsh population spoke Welsh. It was the last time that the majority of the population spoke the language. Socio-economic influences diluted the concentrations of Welsh-speaking areas particularly in the industrial South. By 1901 and 1911 the numbers of Welsh speakers had increased but percentages declined, 49.9% in 1901 and 43.5 % by 1911. In the first decade of the 20th century over 100,000 migrants from the English border counties had moved into the Welsh valleys. New chapels were being built which catered for the new arrivals but in the English language.

Welsh became the language of religion and politics but the main debate was ensuring the disestablishment of the church, a key non-conformist demand. English however was seen as the language of progress, business and science -the language of ambition. This could be seen in the attitudes of many of the leading religious figures; as a leading journal of the time, Y Geninen in 1883 wrote in Welsh: we do not know of a single instance of a monoglot Welshman who has gathered wealth without knowing English. Influential ministers such as David Rees in Llanelli, a key editor of the Welsh language journal Y Diwygiwr (The Reformer) wrote that Welsh was doomed and argued that retaining key politico-religious principles were far more important than the survival of the language.

In 1904 – 1905 there was a fervent religious revival in Wales, which began in Loughor near Llanelli and spread throughout the country. Highly significant was the fact the revival was very much a Welsh language phenomenon. The key leader, Evan Roberts led revival meetings in Liverpool where there was a large Welsh population but refused to go to Cardiff seeing it as too English. It was almost the last gasp of the traditional Welsh language chapels of the 19th century: based on language, culture and non-conformist values.

There were very few English language publications dealing with the new Welsh industrial experience. Joseph Keating wrote his first novel, Son of Judith in 1900. Keating’s short stories depict working life on the coal-face. Most of the 19th century writing about the Welsh experience continued to be in the Welsh language.

Dramatic events were to have an enormous impact on the socio-economic fortunes of Wales. The collapse of the Welsh economy after the First World War led to bitter divisions between the labour force and managers in the coalfields. The Welsh chapels- for so long a key institution- seemed to provide no answers to their plight and as Gareth Evans puts it, ‘Welshmen turned not to Methodism but to Marx.’ Severe emigration followed, further diluting the Welsh language and many people in Wales now turned to socialism to provide salvation to their plight. By 1921 the percentage of Wales’ population that spoke Welsh had fallen to 38.7%. By the end of the 19th century only some 100 new titles were published in Welsh.
The main language in Wales became English. The 20th century became a golden age for English writing in Wales, novels in English articulating the Welsh experience in the coal mining regions of the South became popular. Writers in English such as Dylan Thomas became famous globally. A Literary term, Anglo-Welsh for Welsh writers using the English language became used at the start of the 20th century and this continues to stimulate much debate as to what defines Anglo-Welsh writing, and is it still a relevant term of reference.

Welsh language writing also continued to flourish creatively in the 20th century but as we shall see struggled financially and began to receive government grants to aid publication. It could be argued that the 20th century was a golden age for English language publishing and for great writers to emerge. Wales could express itself in two languages. In Glyn Jones’ study of the period he wrote The Dragon has Two Tongues.
The 20th Century was a fascinating period in Welsh publishing as I hope to demonstrate in a later article.


  • Davies, J. The Welsh Language: A History University of Wales Press (2014)
  • Evans, D. Gareth. A History of Wales 1815-1906 University of Wales Press (1989)
  • Evans, J. People, Politics, and Print: Notes Towards a History of the English-Language Book in Industrial South Wales up to 1900 PhD Thesis (2010) Proquest LLC https://orca.cf.ac.uk/54147/1/U517037.pdf Accessed 14/04/2020
  • Jenkins, G. ed. Language and Community in the Nineteenth Century University of Wales Press (1998)
  • Jones , Ieuan Gwynedd. Language and Community in 19th Century Wales in Smith, D. A People and a Proletariat: Essays in the History of Wales . Pluto Press (1980)
  • Morgan, K.O. Wales in British Politics 1868-1922 University of Wales Press (1980)
  • Morgan, K.O. Wales Rebirth of a Nation 1880-1980 Oxford University press University of Wales Press (1982)
  • Owen, K. When Caernarfon was the print capital of Wales https://www.iwa.wales/agenda/2013/06/when-caernarfon-was-the-print-capital-of-wales/ (2013) accessed 16/04/2020
  • Stephens, M. Cydymaith i Lenyddiaeth Cymru University of Wales Press (1986)

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Was the 19th Century a Golden Age for Welsh Publishing? | Mel Hopkins

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