Do people get a bit parochial about the protest movements of the early to mid 19th century? *We* talk about Peterloo, the Great Chartist Meeting on Kersal Moor and, later, the suffragettes. People in the East Midlands might talk about the Luddites, people in Dorset about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and so on. Maybe we should all be paying more attention to South Wales – the Merthyr Rising of 1831, the Newport Rising of 1839, the Rebecca Riots of 1839-43, and a succession of sometimes violent strikes thereafter: the last of these three books takes us right up to the early 1870s. Even going into the 20th century, there was the Taff Vale legal case, and, later, the Tonypandy Riots and the Llanelli Riots.
They’re not exactly the most cheerful of books, because most of the characters seem to end up being killed in mining accidents, dying of cholera or being transported as convicts – although the author does try to lighten things up a little by providing extremely long descriptions of drunken nights in the pub or trying to move house by barge whilst accompanied by an incontinent donkey. However, there’s plenty of interest in them (although I wouldn’t really include the pubs and the donkey in that).
The three books are Rape of the Fair Country, Hosts of Rebecca and Song of the Earth, and we see the Mortymer and Evan families at various times working in coal mines, ironworks, as barge workers, on a farm (in order to cover the Rebecca Riots, which were mainly protesting against rural toll roads) and, finally, on the railways.
The author, despite being English himself, is rabidly anti-English, which I must say I could have done without. He keeps making the point that a lot of the coal mine/ironworks owners were actually Welsh, and also that miners in England were treated just as badly as those in Wales, and also that some of the miners in Wales had actually come from England, but then going back to slagging off “the English” again and again. A lot of this involves complaining about the Marquess of Bute – who was actually Scottish! There are also a lot of anti-Irish comments, accusing Irish immigrants of accepting low wages and therefore undercutting the Welsh workforce, although those are more from the characters than the narrative. So don’t read these if you’re easily offended! He keeps having a go at the Church of England as well. I’m no fan of religious organisations and I would definitely have been backing disestablishment, but I’m not sure how the Church of England was to blame for miners being underpaid. And what exactly did he think the mines in Wigan or Barnsley or Newcastle were like – a bed of roses?!
Anyway, to get back to the point, we do see a lot of English, and in particular Irish, people living in South Wales at the time, and also some Spanish people. We see Nonconformists – including a lot of references to religious Revivalism – , Anglicans, Catholics and, perhaps surprisingly, Jews. It’s certainly quite a mixed population – and, as so often happens, that perhaps weakened the workers’ movements, with people not always working together. We also see splits within the families over unionism and strikes, as in How Green Was My Valley.
There’s some romance, and there are some nice descriptions of the countryside, but the mood of the books is generally angry and everyone constantly seems to be arguing, especially in the final book. Don’t read them if you’re looking for something light and comfortable, but they’re well worth reading if you don’t mind something hard-hitting.