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Social Disorder in Britain, 1750-1850

The Power of the Gentry, Radicalism and Religion in Wales


J.E. Thomas


Tauris Academic Studies

London: I.B. Tauris, 2011

Hardcover. x+259 pp. ISBN 978-1848855038. £59.50


Reviewed by David W. Howell

Swansea University




During the turbulent years of social and political unrest in Britain between 1750 and 1850, Wales was to experience corn riots in the 1790s and 1800-01, the Merthyr Rising of 1831, the Chartist Rising at Newport in 1839 and the Rebecca Riots of 1839 and 1842-43. Indeed, the early nineteenth-century iron towns clustering around Merthyr were the most unsettled part of theUnited Kingdom. All were a response to deep poverty in rural and the industrial areas alike. Paralleling these upheavals inWales was the rapid growth of religious nonconformity, which effected such a profound change in the religious affiliation of the Welsh people that by mid-nineteenth century some three quarters of those who attended a Christian place of worship were nonconformist. The stated aim of this study is to provide an account of the social upheavals in Wales in these years—particularly those in the three south-western counties of Pembroke, Carmarthen and Cardigan—and an examination of the means by which they were contained, which places emphasis on the role of the nonconformist denominations.

Before embarking on this two-pronged enterprise, Professor Thomas commendably investigates the social and economic hinterland in successive chapters entitled ‘The Welsh Squirearchy’—who as the ruling landed class he somewhat uncritically disparages as feckless, idle and incompetent—and ‘The Peasantry of Wales’, a chapter which undertakes a broad-ranging examination of both the farming population and rural industrial workers like colliers and lead miners, whose poverty is rightly stressed. As the focus is largely confined to the three south-western counties, however, no attention is paid to the hardship endured by the emerging industrial proletariat of the Glamorgan iron and coal-mining communities further east.

The discussion proper begins with an investigation of the ‘explosion’ of protest, which mainly concentrates on the corn riots and other forms of violence manifested in the south-west, including that erupting at times of political elections. As his chronological span is largely limited to the late eighteenth century and the opening two decades of the nineteenth, hardly any attention is given to the farmers’ protest in the form of the Rebecca Riots of the early 1840s or to the industrial workers’ protest in south-eastWales at Merthyr in 1831 and atNewport in 1839. Only in the Epilogue to his study are these two major uprisings of the years 1750-1850 discussed, albeit then only rather superficially. No mention is made anywhere of the Scotch Cattle protests in the coal-mining villages of the 1820s and 1830s!

Professor Thomas moves on to properly query whether there was an intellectual basis of protest, a discussion which encompasses the impressive level of literacy among the Welsh lower orders, and the radical literature of Welsh writers available to them in the late eighteenth century which expressed radical and Jacobinical sentiments. His conclusion is that the ideas and ideology flowing from the American and French Revolutions that spread among the common people through literature in both the English and Welsh languages helped inspire unrest, a wholly plausible if familiar contention.

Discussion as to how such social unrest was contained comprises the later part of the study. His emphasis is on the fact that besides the eventual build-up of anti-French sentiment occasioned by the perceived excesses of the later stages of the Revolution and also the resort to force through the sending in of the soldiery, there were other more subtle factors at work, notably the failure on the part of leading Nonconformists to sympathise with the suffering of the Poor or with their protests, the isolation of many monoglot Welsh-speaking people from current ideas and events, and—plausibly argued—the draining away of some of the most talented people through emigration to America. His handling of the repression by government, magistrates and the military is well-done, if, again, covering rather familiar ground. A trait throughout the book is his welcome willingness to re-appraise received wisdom, and sometimes this is well-taken by this reviewer, as, for instance, his dismissal of the notion that the London Welsh Societies from mid-eighteenth century showed much concern for the social misery of the Welsh lower orders. Interesting, too, if more problematic, is his contention that monolingualism was possibly deliberately promoted by Welsh leaders well-versed in English in order to block their acquaintance with ongoing ideas and information and thereby steer them away from physical protest. For Professor Thomas, language was thus ‘a vital tool for control’ [152] , the common people themselves being hoodwinked into believing that their leaders were concerned to protect the native language from the assault upon it by the English Establishment. Social discontent could thereby be deflected into non-threatening channels, above all into demanding Disestablishment of the (Anglicised) Anglican Church in Wales.

Nonconformity’s perceived crucial role in shaping and channelling Welsh people’s aspirations is given a separate chapter entitled ‘Towards a Theocratic Wales’, wherein he emphasises disparagingly the opposition of religious dissenters to workers’ unions and to Benefit Societies, both seen by them as trouble makers. Again, he is critical of the fact that only from mid-nineteenth century did Nonconformist leaders slowly abandon their former opposition to secular aid for elementary education. His explanation that the intense early nineteenth-century inter-denominational rivalry so overrode all other concerns that Dissent was rendered politically quiescent is certainly true, as is his claim that Nonconformist leaders’ Calvinistic, individualistic theology led to preoccupation with personal salvation and the afterlife and indifference to contemporary social problems. Missing from his analysis, however, is the fact that from mid-century Nonconformity gradually shed itself of this fierce inter-denominational rivalry and became a united political movement, Liberal and increasingly radical in its politics. Thomas, again the would-be debunker of generally accepted views, challenges the notion that Welsh nonconformity and Welsh politics in the late century were radical—a misuse of the word, he claims. [165].

His contention that Nonconformity completely took over Welsh politics in the late nineteenth century, shaping its agenda towards achieving Nonconformist aspirations which amounted to religious and social equality for Nonconformists, is absolutely true; but his denial that such a programme constituted a radical assault upon a static, hierarchical social order governed by the gentry and Anglican Church is unsustainable. Moreover, he fails to discern the transition from this radical Liberalism to nationalism which occurred from the mid-1880s, so that demands for Disestablishment and land reform were now for the first time driven by the conviction that only their delivery could solve what were distinctive Welsh grievances. Similarly, to contend as he does [186] that Welsh liberalism in the late century could claim ‘success’ only in its passing the Welsh Sunday Closing Act in 1881, for otherwise it did nothing to address the urgent need to alleviate poverty in Wales, is invalid. True enough, as he stresses, little attention was paid by Nonconformist leaders to the working and living conditions of rural labourers and industrial workers alike and only minimal support was given to their efforts to better themselves. However, the radical Liberal agenda was concerned to promote elementary education for the children of the poor, and (admittedly with Conservative and Anglican churchmen as well) secondary and higher education for the brightest children of the lower classes, both campaigns achieving notable success. Again, and a point which he only eventually recognises in the Epilogue [194] , the Welsh Liberal party and Nonconformist leadership campaigned tirelessly to achieve Welsh land reform to ease the insecurity of Welsh tenant farmers; that they failed to achieve a Welsh Land Act similar to the Irish one of 1881 is not to deny their striving for it. His insistence on the overriding obsession of Welsh Liberalism with Disestablishment is, however, wholly correct (though not a new claim).

It will be apparent that the study has strengths and weakness in this reviewer’s eyes. It has merit in pointing to the Nonconformist leadership’s neglect of the social ills of the day and to their claims that the roots of Welsh misery lay in the indifference and hostility of Welsh landlords (he might, too, have included the early nineteenth-century iron masters) and the Anglican Establishment in Wales, thereby deflecting the common people from protest against poverty. Again, Professor Thomas is right to conclude that the so-called ‘Treason of the Blue Books’ of 1847, an investigation into the social and educational conditions of the lower classes of Wales undertaken by Parliamentary Commissioners, which criticised Nonconformity and the Welsh language, was not a misrepresentation of the truth but a report by the Commissioners of what they were told and what they themselves witnessed. However, he overdoes his anti-nonconformist strictures. Nonconformity’s leadership was indeed narrow in its social agenda and exercised a ‘tyranny’ over its followers [187] but, at the same time, the chapels provided a vibrant cultural and social life for the lower classes before the coming of a variety of alternative secular activities from the 1870s. Moreover, from mid-century Nonconformist Liberalism succeeded in freeingWales from the grip of a privileged landed oligarchy and giving its people better educational opportunities and—much needed—more civilised, sober communities through its championing the Temperance cause.

The discussion, too, lacks strict organisation and discipline. Too much attention is accorded to developments within the late nineteenth century and even beyond while, pari passu, there is a want of proper concentration on the protests occurring in the years 1750-1850—which is promised in the title; in particular greater attention should have been paid to discussing the disturbances of the 1830s and 1840s, above all the Rebecca Riots in south-west Wales (which bore such a close resemblance to the ‘War of the Demoiselles’ waged between 1829 and 1834 by the peasantry of the French Pyrenees) but also the industrial protests of the Scotch Cattle, the Merthyr Rising and the Newport Rising, even though they occurred outside the south-west.

In sum, there is a commendable willingness on the part of the author to question received wisdom and to offer fresh interpretation—not least his claim that Nonconformist leaders selfishly promoted mono-lingualism among the Welsh in order to shield them from outside influences, which exclusion would prolong Nonconformity’s hegemony. More the pity, then, that the study is too often marred by misconception and overstatement.


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