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Wales’ rural past revealed in Britain on film: rural life

The BFI has announced, Rural Life, the release online of over 750 films from 1900 to 1999, many unseen since they were first shown. The films form part of the BFI’s Britain on Film project, that reveals hidden histories and forgotten stories of people and places from every corner of Great Britain from the UK’s key film and TV archives, available for free on BFI Player via an interactive map. The archive films will also be visiting over 125 locations around the country for special screenings and events.

Rural Life charts the changing countryside and rural life, highlighting activities, pursuits and traditions still surviving today, as well as customs, trades and skills that have since dwindled or disappeared. Go on a 1960s whistle-stop tour through North Wales, learn about ‘Hot Coppers’ the 150-year-old-custom – now extinct –once practised in the ancient town of Beaumaris (1929), enjoy the retelling of the legend of the Llanymawddwy bandits and pre-war high-jinks in Abergavenny, and soak up a golden harvest at Trebettyn, near Cowbridge.

Robin Baker, Head Curator, BFI National Archive said,

“These films offer an unrivalled record of our rural heritage in all its richness across the 20th century. It’s an immersive experience to watch them, and often deeply moving. People who live and work in the countryside will be fascinated to see how their forbears used to live. Like many other city dwellers, I was born and bred in the countryside, and this collection of films offers all of us an extraordinary and very real social history of the British countryside.  It’s a very potent portrait of an often neglected cornerstone of our national life.”

The films in Rural Life date from 1900 to 1999 and are drawn from the collections of the BFI National Archive and the UK’s Regional and National Film Archives, with content spanning the whole of the UK. Anyone can explore Britain’s rural past through the Britain on Film map, which reveals films shot in almost every county. Since Britain on Film’s launch, over 6 million people have visited the site to discover their country’s heritage. With this new collection, there are now over 5,000 films to see online – 97% of which are free. By 2017, thanks to National Lottery funding and the support of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, 10,000 film and TV titles from 1895 to the present day will be newly digitised and available to view.

Rural Life presents an illuminating and moving record of Britain's changing countryside and its people, highlighting staple traditions like village pageants, farm shows and harvest festivals, Morris Dancers and Queens of the May. Rural Life also sheds light on local peculiarities such as Somerset's Punky Night lantern procession, Bacup's coconut dance or Ardboe's Wishing Tree. There are fairs, fêtes and festivals as well as countless other seasonal celebrations, while that great British institution, the village pub, features throughout. The gorgeous heritage of rural pursuits is captured in films about sporting events. Hunting (and hunt saboteurs) and horseracing feature alongside newer additions like motocross. Idyllic country holidays are captured in evocative amateur films, while travelogues offer enticing sights to lure more hikers and ramblers. There are also films exploring the varied history of farming and agricultural techniques, from sowing to harvesting. These are films which give a rich historical insight into the way we lived outside of big towns and cities, with landscapes and people who could have walked off the pages of Thomas Hardy, Walter Scott, John Betjeman or Catherine Cookson.

Highlights from the collection of films being made available from Wales include:

North Wales

A series of comic dramas set in Llanymawddwy in the 1920s and 1930s: Early film-making at Welsh camp (1929), Farmer John (1930), Jack Reforms (1931), We Regret (1932) – the work of John W Meredith who, with his camera and colleagues from Staffordshire, enjoyed an annual camping trip to Penygeulan Farm.

Gwylliaid Cochion Mawddwy/The Bandits of Mawddwy – In 1935, John W Meredith worked with locals Reverend H E Hughes and Richard Elis Jones to produce a film which tells the folklore legend of red-haired robbers who were notorious in Mawddwy in the 16th century.

On the Isle of Anglesey Topical Budget 950-2 (1929) – A Topical Budget newsreel from Beaumaris. What made the Anglesey Hunt newsworthy was its observance of a 150-year-old custom - the throwing of heated coins, known as 'Hot Coppers' to the locals at the end of the hunt.  
Land of Song (1960) - A short tourist film of Wales featuring ‘the majestic Snowdonia range of mountains – spiritual home of the Welsh’ and many other tourist landmarks. The film was made by “the makers of Lanry – the bleach that has no equal.”

Highlights of the Royal Welsh Show – Rhyl (1956) - It’s July 1956 and the Royal Welsh Show is in Rhyl. Miss Wrexham takes the Dairy Queen crown while cobs and bulls are awarded rosettes.

North Wales, England: The Land of Castles and Waterfalls (1907) - A travelogue film, made by London and North Western Railway, which links scenes of towns and places of interest between Chester and Bettws-y-Coed with views from a moving train. The film was originally produced as an advertisement for the LNWR railway and was shown in 1909 at the White City Exhibition.

South Wales

Cheshire Territorials at Abergaveny (1913) – A holiday of sorts for Stockport army reserves, fitting high-jinks between drills over two weeks of summer training in Abergavenny. Title card was misspelt.

Premier at Neath Gaumont Graphic No. 772 (1921) - Mr Lloyd George, who received the Freedom of Neath, was accorded a tremendous reception. A military band leads a parade of infantry and women workers/nurses while Mr David Lloyd George seated in an open car waves to the crowd.

Haymaking - Trebettyn, Cowbridge (1949) - A golden summer: the Iles family are cutting hay for the first time on the farm they moved to just before Christmas 1948, and a boy wearing a schoolcap is having the time of his life driving the tractor that is pulling wagonloads of hay to the barn. Mrs Iles calls the tired, thirsty workers in to the farmhouse for tea and over the fields they troop, milk being fetched fresh from the cows.

Merthyr Vale and Aberfan: Coronation festivities (1953) - The wide streets of the mining villages are perfect for street parties and bunting, and the 1953 coronation brings everyone out to celebrate.

The Screen and Sound Archive of Wales has teamed up with the BFI on the Britain on Film project. Film development officer Iola Baines said:

“There are some absolute treasures from Wales in Britain on Film’s Rural Life collection. Golden harvests, tales of bandits, sheep shearing, beautiful travelogues – they all tell us so much about our shared history and a rural way of life. Unlocking film heritage in this way allows us to share these glimmers to the past with the wider public.”


  • Andrew Grieve’s On the Black Hill (1987) is based on Bruce Chatwin’s award-winning novel and depicts the life of a rural farming family set in the beautiful Welsh Border country. Starring Bob Peck (Jurassic Park) and Gemma Jones (Bridget Jones’s Diary), and will be released on DVD on 22 August 2016

The BFI Film Audience Network (FAN) will be staging over 160 screening events in 129 locations. Full details and how to book these events can be found at
WALES – CINEMAES EISTEDDFOD: Screening of Welsh language film from the archives and workshops at the world renowned cultural festival of Eisteddfod at Abergavenny from 29 July to 5 August.

ARCHIVE ON WHEELS, Wales and Western England: A substantial programme of rural archive screenings across Wales and the West Country will tour Agricultural Shows and Festivals. Archive on Wheels will be screening archive films – in the places they were filmed – at agricultural shows throughout the area. Confirmed dates include:

  • 17 to 19 June – across three county shows in Malvern
  • 18 and 21 July –  Royal Welsh Show, Builth Wells
  • 6 August – Oswestry Show
  • 20 August – Minsterley Show
  • 10 September – Kington Show
  • 17 September – Ellesmere Festival

Britain on Film is one of the largest and most complex archival projects ever undertaken and is part of the BFI’s Unlocking Film Heritage programme (2013-17). Unlocking film heritage for everyone in the UK to enjoy is a key strategic priority for the BFI, and Britain on Film is the public launch of a vast programme of work, which has been ongoing for over three years. Bringing together a partnership with Regional and National Film Archives and rights holder collections across the UK, this work has included a sophisticated programme of data capture, cataloguing, copying to archival standards, meticulous preservation of original materials, thorough searching of archives across the country, new state-of- the-art equipment and digital storage facilities and the transfer of films to the BFI’s online video platform, BFI Player.  Unlocking Film Heritage and Britain on Film are thanks to £15 million funding from the National Lottery and the additional support of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.