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Social unrest in Wales

The nineteenth century was a period of great social upheaval and change in Wales. During the 1830s support for the Chartist movement was widespread in the industrialised areas, when leaders such as Henry Vincent, John Frost and Zephaniah Williams led the campaign for social and political reform by holding large open-air meetings. This inevitably led to confrontation with the authorities, such as the riots in Llanidloes in April 1839 and then in Newport the following November, when a crowd of 20,000 marched on the town, many of them bearing arms. Fighting arose in the street in front of the Westgate Hotel and over twenty protesters were killed as soldiers fired on the crowd.

The Daughters of Rebecca

The southwest also saw social unrest during the same period. Its origins lay in the rapid increase in population, general poverty and the injustice and oppression of the landowners. This unrest led to the Rebecca Riots from 1839 until the middle of the 1840s. The rioters main target were the numerous tollgates erected by the various turnpike trusts established at the end of the eighteenth century. The rioters, men dressed in women's clothing and known as the Daughters of Rebecca, would attack and destroy the tollgates. The protest movement attracted widespread support and it was not long before the attacks widened, the Carmarthen Workhouse was attacked and both landowners and magistrates were threatened.

An inquiry into the state of education in Wales

These events were given wide coverage in the main newspapers including The Times, which maintained that the root cause of most of the trouble lay in the lack of education of the Welsh people. Social reformers of the time considered education as a means of dealing with social ills, and it was widely believed that ignorance was the cause of the period's social problems. Therefore, in March 1846, William Williams, the Member of Parliament for Coventry (but originally from Llanpumsaint in Carmarthenshire), tabled a measure before the House of Commons, calling for an inquiry into the state of education in Wales. The Government agreed the following July and R. R. W. Lingen, Jellynger C. Symons and H. R. Vaughan Johnson were appointed to undertake the inquiry. The three commissioners visited every part of Wales collecting evidence and statistics. The work was completed by 3 April 1847, and Lingen presented his report to the Government on 1 July of that year in three large volumes.

Treachery of the Blue Books

It is impossible to overemphasise the importance of this report for social historians of mid nineteenth century Wales, because of the wealth of information contained in it on not only the appalling state of the education system in the country, but also on everyday life and work in both the industrialised and rural areas. It also contains direct comment on the religious and moral standing of the people of Wales. But the report caused a furore and a great deal of agitation in Wales because of the arrogant remarks of the three non-Welsh speaking Anglican commissioners regarding the Welsh language, Nonconformity and the morals of the Welsh people in general. As a result, the Report came to be known as 'Brad y Llyfrau Gleision', or 'Treachery of the Blue Books'. Professor Kenneth O. Morgan referred to the significance of the report and its consequence as 'the Glencoe and the Amritsar of Welsh history'.

One of the inevitable results of the report was its effect on the nation's mind and psyche. It was at this time that ordinary Welsh people began to believe that they could only improve themselves socially through education and the ability to speak and communicate in English. It was Samuel Smiles' philosophy that held sway education and the knowledge of English would allow the lowliest among the Welsh to improve their lot and make something of their lives. As a result of the 'Treachery of the Blue Books' the Welsh people began to harbour a complex about their image in the face of the world, and the influence of the Report has not completely waned even to this day.

Further reading

  • Frank Price Jones, 'The Blue Books of 1847', in Jac L. Williams and Gwilym, Rees Hughes, eds, The History of education in Wales (Swansea, 1978), 127-44.
  • Prys Morgan, 'From long knives to Blue Books', in R. R. Davies, Ralph A. Griffiths, Ieuan Gwynedd Jones and Kenneth O. Morgan, eds, Welsh society and nationhood: historical essays presented to Glanmor Williams (Cardiff, 1984), 199-215.
  • Hywel Teifi Edwards, 'Y Gymraeg yn y bedwaredd ganrif ar bymtheg', in Geraint H. Jenkins, gol., Cof cenedl: ysgrifau ar hanes Cymru, II (Llandysul, 1987), 119-51.
  • Prys Morgan, ed., Brad y Llyfrau Gleision (Llandysul, 1991).
  • W. Gareth Evans, '"A barrier to moral progress and commercial prosperity": 150th anniversary of the Blue Books', Planet 123 (1997), 88-93.
  • Gwyneth Tyson Roberts, The Language of the Blue Books: the perfect instrument of empire (Cardiff, 1998).
  • Huw Walters, 'William Morris, Yr Athraw a'r “Llyfrau Gleision”', in Cynnwrf canrif: agweddau ar ddiwylliant gwerin (Abertawe, 2004), 82-99.