Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Welsh History Month

This month is Welsh history month. Coincidentally it is also the month that I have returned to Wales, to my old stomping ground at Swansea University, to teach British and Imperial history. As part of this, I teach seminars on the primary source led ‘Practice of History Module’ on the theme of Welsh Coal. As you will have probably gathered, my research looks as Welsh coal as the crucial fuel of the Royal Navy – the primary defence of British interests and global trade. Welsh coal is important in other ways too, however. In our seminar discussion, we thought about the question ‘why should we care about the history of Welsh coal?’ A few of my students are Welsh, and are therefore rightly interested in coal as part of their local history. There are obvious reasons why Welsh coal matters to Welsh history. Mining in Wales provided a significant source of income to the economy of Wales throughout the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Moreover, it was a huge employer both in mining and in the industries that serviced it, and large amounts of coal were used in other industries in Wales, notably in ironworks. It was also huge part of the social history of Wales too - during the first half of the nineteenth century mining was often at the centre of working-class discontent. Finally, it has huge effects on Wales today, including the role of trade unions, employment and unemployment, and the effects on the landscape and environment.

But, as my own research shows, Welsh coal was important beyond Wales. Perhaps most crucially it was key to the industrial revolution, and subsequently Britain’s ability to become a huge commercial power. Furthermore, it was important globally. The value of Welsh coal beyond Wales can be seen by the fact that by 1913 Cardiff had become the largest coal exporting port in the world. This was because of the quality of coal found in South Wales, and its steam coal in particular. Indeed, it was ideal as fuel to power the steam engines that drove steamships, Dreadnoughts of the Royal Navy and steam locomotive railways across the world. Thus it had a crucial role in the development of the world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Although I have only concentrated on coal, it is clear that when we start to think about other bulk and industrial commodities, Wales again has a strikingly important global role. For example, my colleague Professor Huw Bowen is doing an excellent project which looks at the copper works of Swansea, so important it was known as Copperopolis. You can find more about that here:

As an imperial historian, it is notable how much has been written about Scotland and Ireland’s role in empire, but Wales’ role is only just being unearthed. Hopefully, the parochial view of Wales as a provincial hinterland, a periphery of no importance, will soon be banished. Thus, we should look at Welsh History Month, not as a niche celebration of the local, but as an important reminder of why Welsh history matters for all of us.

For more on Welsh History Month, look here, and follow @HVBowen