Devolution in retrospect

Extract from Martin Johnes, Wales since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2012).

An extract from the ending of my book, written in early 2011. It’s a bit optimistic in terms of whether arguments over what Wales is have really disappeared but in today’s social media world small things are amplified giving a false impression of their frequency and significance. The basic argument still holds good I think. Devolution is a product and signal of a change in Welsh identity.

In such an outward-looking context, the National Assembly for Wales (NAW) was always going to struggle to engage and involve the Welsh people, a majority of whom chose to not even vote in its elections.  Much of Welsh politics thus resembled a private game, carried on in corridors and on websites inhabited and read by a few, overlooked even by the mass of Wales’ own media.  Post-devolution, most people’s lives in Wales simply carried on much as before.  The NAW existed on the peripheries of their vision, coming into focus only at certain times, such as when their son or daughter went off to university or when an election leaflet dropped through their letterbox, although even then it might go straight in the bin.

Before the advent of devolution, Ron Davies, its key architect, had argued that it would ‘only succeed if it can deliver a better quality of life and higher standards of living’. He was wrong.  For all the limited impacts of its policies and the general apathy that surrounded its workings, with astonishing speed devolution became an accepted part of Wales and a symbol of Welsh nationhood, one that stepped into void left by the disappearance of older symbols like coal and religion.

Moreover, the popular legitimacy that the NAW gained was remarkable when set in the context of post-war history.  Gone were the old arguments over what Wales meant or whether the language mattered or even whether Wales could enjoy a modicum of self-government and still survive.  Some of this may have been at the expense of Wales’s cultural uniqueness but it was to the benefit of Wales’s nationhood and more of the Welsh people felt Welsher than ever before.

But that did not mean the nation meant the same thing to everyone.  It was still a very personalized identity, based on individual experiences and outlooks, but it was much easier to feel part of a nation that was not too closely defined or indeed defined at all.  The Welsh nation was still part of a wider British and global civic and cultural space, but it was a nation in its own right too.

In the twenty-first century that might seem a rather odd thing to say but set against the previous seventy years of history Wales’s survival could not always be taken for granted.  Moreover, Wales now had a political function and a political meaning as the creation of the NAW gave everyone in Wales a democratic citizenship.  They might not have noticed or have even cared but it happened all the same.

 

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Memories of Wales says Yes 1997

On 18 September 1997, the Welsh electorate narrowly voted ‘Yes’ on the question: “Do you agree that there should be a Welsh Assembly as proposed by the Government?” The turnout was 50.1%. The Yes majority was 6,721.

At the time, I was a student in Cardiff and very excited by the prospect of devolution.  It was a chance to recognise Welsh nationality and form a different kind of democracy after 18 years of Conservative government.  Like the election of Tony Blair earlier in the year, it seemed to offer a new beginning and I took the opportunity to speak to as many people as possible about it.

My overriding memory of the time, however, is the indifference of most people I knew. Some were clearly in the Yes camp, especially if they spoke Welsh and/or supported Plaid Cymru.  My friends who had voted Labour a few months before were far less enthusiastic. Indeed, many of those who were English seemed to regard the issue as nothing really to do with them.  Some actually stated it should be a decision for those who were Welsh rather than living in Wales.

Even amongst those who were Welsh, there was sometimes a sense that somehow this was a vote on whether Wales’s future should be in the UK. One friend from a Valleys town was distrustful of my arguments because she said I was too “into the Welsh thing”. Others seemed to feel it was too soon after the election of a new government to make such a decision. The Tories had been in power nearly all our lives and some people seemed to want to see how government by New Labour would pan out first.  Few such people probably voted ‘No’ but not many voted ‘Yes’ either.

There may have been little enthusiasm but there was also little active hostility. Only one person told me he was voting No because he wanted less government, not more.

Looking back, I can’t remember why I did not get involved in the Yes campaign. Perhaps I did not know how at a time when the internet was in its infancy. I did get a Yes poster from somewhere and put it up in the window. It was the only poster on our street.

Despite my numerous conversations, it never occurred to me that the Yes campaign might not win.  Just as during the EU referendum, I was assuming that common sense would win out, despite the conversations I was having with people who thought otherwise.  As results night progressed, and it looked like No would win, I got depressed, as much with my own misreading of the situation as with the situation itself.

When Carmarthen, the last county to declare, swung the result, I was ecstatic. I felt I should go onto the streets to celebrate this momentous occasion of national importance.  But I knew no one else would be there. I did open the door but it was raining.

Instead, I watched television pictures of a party somewhere. In the background, I noticed the woman who lived next door. I had never spoken to her and felt a moment of guilt about the lack of community on our street. I wondered why she had not put up a poster in her window.

The next day, no one seemed that excited. A friend who I had persuaded to vote Yes told me she had meant to but the rain had deterred her. I’d like to think the margin would have been better had the sun been out but that would another delusion.  1997 changed Wales forever but it did so on the back of little widespread enthusiasm.

Football and the First World War in South Wales

It is unimaginable that people could look on at a game of football and forget themselves in the ecstasy of a winning goal at the moment when their comrades, maybe brothers, are making gallant and stupendous efforts at the front, even sacrificing their lives for the life of the nation.

Letter to South Wales Daily News, 3 September 1914

In August 1914, war broke out in Europe, driving Britain into a patriotic frenzy. WVery quickly, all rugby matches in England and Wales were suspended to help the nation to concentrate on the push for victory.  There was no similar official suspension in junior and amateur soccer but, with so many players joining up, many competitions were abandoned anyway. By December 1914, 1,217 players affiliated to the South Wales and Monmouthshire FA had enlisted and nearly a hundred clubs had disbanded.  At the end of the season, there were just seventy affiliated clubs still active, 325 fewer than the previous year

The press looked to professional soccer’s authorities to follow rugby’s moral lead but, fearing financial losses and expecting it all to be over by Christmas, the FA and Football League decided to play on.  The FAW followed suit with its president claiming that to interfere with football would be nothing short of ‘panic legislation’.  He argued that soccer fulfilled a large place in the organized life of the nation and that its discontinuation would only produce undesirable results.  Although many professional players had already enlisted, and some of the smaller professional teams disbanded, those clubs that did play on faced a battle of their own.

The government and the War Office may have supported the continuation of professional soccer but elements of the public and press saw things rather differently. The first two months of war saw letters and editorials in south Wales and national newspapers denouncing the playing of soccer during a time of crisis.  It was felt that since footballers were fit young men looked up to by much of the public, they should be setting an example by enlisting.  Some critics believed that playing and watching the game were not necessarily wrong if the players and spectators were too young or too old to enlist.  They accepted that sport had a role in relieving public tension and anxiety. However, the more extreme antagonists felt that the whole concept of spectatorism was wrong in a time of war and the sight of thousands of young and able men enjoying themselves at matches during wartime sickened them.

5 Sep 1914

Celebrating rugby’s war contribution: Sporting News (Swansea), 5 September 1914.

19 September 1914

Celebrating rugby’s war contribution: Sporting News (Swansea), 19 September 1914.

The south Wales press printed lists and pictures of famous, and not so famous, rugby players who had joined up, thus indirectly criticising professional soccer.  The decision of Swansea Town’s directors to contest the military’s decision to requisition the Vetch Field was subtly criticised after one member of the board suggested that the War Office could have the ground if it took over the club’s liabilities.  The implication that the club and the game were putting their own finances before the nation’s needs was made clear by the press article then moving on to look at new recruits from the town’s rugby fraternity.

In an effort to make a stand against the continuation of soccer, the South Wales Argus announced that it would not report any football news for the duration of the war. The South Wales Daily News also chose not to print match reports in the first few weeks of the 1914-15 season but, as attendances showed that the public were still interested in professional soccer, the paper slowly increased the coverage it gave to the game.

Other papers also reversed their stance and made it clear that sport was acceptable during the war.

9 january 1915

Sporting News reports on Swansea Town v Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup, 9 Jan. 1915

Despite the allegations that professional soccer was unpatriotic, the game was helping the war effort.  Grounds were made available to the military for drill or training at any time other than Saturday afternoons, most clubs gave their players rifle practice, and some even paid them in advance for the 1914-15 season to allow them to enlist.  On occasion, soldiers were let into matches half-price in an effort to show that the game was doing its bit, while spectators regularly found themselves the target of enlistment campaigns. The 7,000 spectators at a Welsh League match between Swansea Town and Llanelly in 1914, a third of whom were eligible for service according to a self-righteous reporter, were addressed by six different speakers, including the mayor and club chairman, on the virtues of enlistment.

blackburn-1915
Recruitment advertisement from Swansea Town v Blackburn Rovers FA Cup match programme 1915 (Swans100 archive)

The immediate impact of such appeals was limited in south Wales.  The Times used the fact that only six recruits came forward after appeals at a Cardiff City match as an example of the selfishness of the game and its followers.  However, as the club pointed out, hundreds of its supporters had enlisted, while the majority of the rest were involved in the coal and rail industries, integral parts of the war effort.

Nationally, soccer gave the state easy access to large numbers of potential recruits from working-class communities and thus became an important vehicle in the recruitment campaign. The wartime hostility towards soccer in England was not widespread and actually represented the resentment of exponents of amateurism at the usurpation of the game by professionalism and the working classes.

In south Wales, antipathy towards soccer was even less common and given disproportionately large publicity by a patriotic press.

Restrictions on rail travel and a ban on mid-week games played havoc with fixture lists and soccer found it harder and harder, in both financial and practical terms, to continue.  In November 1914, the FA estimated that, on average, attendances had fallen by approximately fifty per cent.  Cardiff City’s average in the Southern League dropped from approximately 11,700 to around 9,300. Other clubs, like Mardy AFC of the Southern League, already operating on tight budgets, suffered critical declines in their gates and closed before 1914 was out. The soccer authorities’ restrictions on players’ wages caused further tensions within clubs.  Cardiff City players threatened to go on strike in 1915 over the issue of their benefits.

By the end of the 1914-15 season, it was clear that the war was going to be a long affair and the FA decided to suspend league and cup programmes.  Falling attendances and practical problems had achieved what the anti-soccer agitators could not. A new makeshift league involving Cardiff City, Newport County and teams from south-west England lasted just a season because of low gates and rail restrictions.  Cardiff City’s average attendance during the season was a meagre 1,700.

24 July 1915

Sporting News, 24 July 1915

1916 saw the introduction of conscription and the call up of most of the eligible professional players who had not enlisted voluntarily.  Junior leagues did continue throughout the war, offering light relief from the hardships of the home and overseas fronts, but professional clubs spent the rest of the war playing the occasional friendly with teams of amateurs and guest professionals. Without the regular income of popular matches, the expense of paying rent and ground maintenance proved difficult.  Cardiff City, Merthyr Town and Swansea Town survived the war but few other clubs were so fortunate.  Yet the real loss was the 35,000 to 40,000 Welshmen killed in the war, among them a host of amateur, professional and international players.

For those who returned, the war was a watershed in their personal lives.  Fred Keenor of Cardiff City served alongside other professional players in the 17th Middlesex (Footballers’) Battalion and a leg wound threatened to end his footballing career before it had really started.  In later years, he mostly refused to speak of his experiences on the Western Front.  As his son put it, ‘Dad blotted it out. He had lost too many friends. He often said that he was one of the lucky ones who came back’. On being demobbed, the ‘land fit for heroes’ was no more immediately apparent to Keenor than it was to most other returning soldiers.  He found work in a gasworks and on a milk round before rejoining Cardiff City when professional football resumed in 1919 amidst much excitement.

Adapated from Martin Johnes, Soccer and Society: South Wales, 1900-39 (University of Wales Press, 2002).

John Charles and Welsh football

An old article I wrote for Soccer History.

John Charles was one of a generation of immense talent to emerge from the schools of Swansea from the end of the 1930s to the early 1950s.  Most notably, Trevor Ford, Cliff Jones, Ivor and Len Allchurch, Jack Kelsey and John’s brother Mel all went on to become international stars. In the early 1950s Swansea schoolboys won the English schools shield three times. The guidance of local teachers did much to foster this culture of footballing excellence but another local institution, Swansea Town, never benefited from it in the way that it might have.

Charles was lost to his hometown club when Leeds United ‘stole’ him (and several others) from the Swansea Town groundstaff in 1948, after a scout had spotted him playing on a public park. Charles was yet to turn sixteen and was thus technically a free agent, despite an understanding that he and other boys on the groundstaff would sign professional terms for Swansea.  The FA subsequently changed the regulations on player registration to avoid any repetition.

It was thus on the international rather than domestic stage that Charles contributed to Welsh football. He made his international debut in 1950 against Northern Ireland in the home championship.  As in club football, his international career was at both centre-half and centre-forward.  He helped give Wales an international profile in the game; the secretary of the Italian league remarked in 1961 that ‘Wales should give Charles a medal. He has put it on the map. Nobody in Italy knew where or who it was before’.  Charles won 38 caps for Wales, scoring 15 goals.  It would have been far more had Juventus been happy to release him every time he was called up.  Charles recalled, ‘If they [Juventus] were playing just before or just after an international I would have to stay behind.  It broke my heart.’

After Wales qualified for the 1958 World Cup his manager and teammates were unclear about whether Charles would be able to participate or not. When the Welsh party left for Sweden Charles was not amongst them.  Juventus, with whom Charles had just won the Italian league, had finally agreed to release him but he was still waiting for clearance from the Italian Football Federation.  Charles himself had not thought that Wales would qualify and thus never thought a problem would arise. When he eventually made it to Sweden he was unexpected and arrived at an airport not knowing where the Welsh team were staying. Charles played in Wales’s three group matches, scoring once.  In the subsequent play off against Hungry he was kicked out of the match and injury prevented him turning out against Brazil in the quarterfinal. Without their star player, Wales lost 1-0 to a Pele goal.

His desire to play regular international football contributed to his signing for Leeds United in 1961. After he quickly returned to Roma he insisted on a clause in his contract allowing him to play for Wales.  Charles finally played for a Welsh club when he joined Cardiff City from AS Roma in 1963.  By then he had lost some pace and played mostly in defence.

In 1966 he moved on to join Hereford United as player-manager before returning to Wales to become manager of Merthyr Town in 1971 and then becoming assistant manager at Swansea in 1973 after a brief spell in Canada. Charles stayed at Swansea for three years before moving to Leeds to run a pub.  He was never a success in management, be it in football or business; perhaps his temperament was too genial.  But this did not sully the memories of those who had met him or seen him play.  With his greatest playing achievements taking place on the continent in an age before widespread television coverage, Charles was never as revered in Wales or the UK as he was in Italy. Nonetheless, he surely remains the greatest footballer ever to emerge from this small nation.

Martin Johnes is the author of: Soccer and Society: South Wales, 1900-39 (University of Wales Press, 2002).

10 random facts from the modern history of Christmas

  • In 1914, Christmas caused a break in the fighting in many places on the Western Front but at home there was disagreement over whether it should be celebrated at all. In Burnley, a mill manager tried to stop the Christmas Eve tradition of halting work for a while for ‘a little jollification’ and was punched in the face for it.
  • The government has acted at times to keep Christmas special. The 1934 Betting and Lotteries Act outlawed gambling on Christmas Day. The 2004 Christmas Day (trading) Act prohibits large shops from opening at all.
  • In 1940 the government decided not to bomb Germany on Christmas Day, unless there was a German attack the day before. It did not announce the truce for strategic reasons but it still hoped to get credit for the decision and had feared looking bad in American eyes if the British carried out raids but the Germans did not.
  • Although many of our traditions date back to the Victorian period, it was not until relatively recently that they became standard practice. It was the 1950s when Christmas trees and turkey dinners became the norm for working-class families.
  • The Trafalgar Square tree has caused a number of political controversies. In 1958 and 1959, despite protests from the public and press, the police refused to approve its lighting after 11pm for fear it would lead to drunks assembling there. A ban on importing trees after the war meant the government had to give the tree a special licence, despite the risk of bringing disease into the country.
  • Cuts to Christmas day rail services caused problems for football fans and players in the 1950s. This meant a full Football League Christmas day fixture list was last scheduled in 1957. By 1960 there were no league games that day at all in England and Wales.
  • In 1959, the Queen’s pregnancy meant her speech was recorded for the first time. The BBC broadcast it at 9am and it was repeated at 3pm on ITV. At 3pm the BBC instead showed ‘Chipperfield’s Circus Festival’. The challenge of scheduling against Her Majesty meant that by 1961 both channels returned to showing the Queen at the now traditional time.
  • In 1966 the Royal Mail held a children’s competition to design a Christmas stamp. Some stamp collectors thought this undignified and wrote to the press to complain about the disgrace.
  • In 1968 the Queen and Prince Philip decided to write the Christmas speech themselves and their draft included a reference to Britain’s ‘serious economic difficulties’. The government was unimpressed and the sentence was deleted.
  • It was 1974 before Boxing Day was made a bank holiday in Scotland, a century later than England and Wales.

All taken from Martin Johnes, Christmas and the British: A Modern History (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). 

In defence of Cardiff’s Christmas tree (and a brief history of civic trees)

This article was first published in the South Wales Echo.

Cardiff Council’s Christmas artificial tree has come in for some stick in the last couple of weeks. First, it was late appearing. Then, it turned out to be forty-foot-high rather than the promised forty metres. And then some people didn’t like it or complained that money was being spent on a tree at all.

Cardiff isn’t the only council to suffer such woes.  In Leicester, the civic tree was accused of first being half finished and then a gaudy mess. Some of the complaints seem rather petty or are perhaps down to people trying to be clever. Did anyone really care exactly when Cardiff’s tree went up or expect something nearly as tall as the 46m Statue of Liberty?

The gripes that it is ugly or comes from China rather a Welsh forest are more substantive. They also reflect a much wider sense that Christmas trees are symbolic.

Whatever kind of tree we choose for our own home is a more than a matter of simple taste. Christmas decorations are statements about ourselves.  Whether we go for something natural or plastic, whether we adorn it with gaudy multicoloured decorations or a simple colour scheme, our Christmas tree is a way of exhibiting our taste or sense of fun.

Yet leaving the curtains open so neighbours and passers-by can see our lit tree is not primarily about showing off our personal taste and style. It is also about sharing the joy that Christmas decorations can bring. Even the grumpiest Scrooge might admit there is something pleasant and even magical about Christmas lights on a cold and dark winter night.

Public trees have the same function. We might argue over what they should look like, but the civic tree is there as something for people to share and enjoy

The first public trees in the UK probably date to the inter-war period and were seen on village greens and town centres and at railway stations.  By this time, most middle-class families erected trees in their homes, but the ritual was still establishing itself amongst the working-classes who concentrated their limited resources on presents for the children and a good meal.

Public trees were far more common on the continent and after 1945 around twenty towns and cities in the UK were gifted trees by European communities as thanks for their assistance during the war.

The most famous was the Trafalgar Square tree, an annual gift to London from the people of Oslo. It quickly became something of a Christmas icon, encouraging more towns and cities to erect their own trees from public funds.

This new trend was not without its problems.  Like the other gifted trees, the Trafalgar Square tree had to receive special exemption from a ban on importing trees for fear they might bring disease. In 1958 and 1959, the police even refused to approve its lighting after 11pm for fear it would lead to drunks assembling around it.

Such concerns were not unfounded. In 1953, a Royal Navy officer was charged with being drunk and disorderly after climbing the thirty-foot tree in the centre of Bristol to take the star from its top.

But more generally public trees spread Christmas cheer and became part of what many enjoyed about the season. Thus in 1949 one local newspaper, while noting how common public trees had become in the southwest of England, argued they were ‘the centres of colour, life and laughter in the market places of many towns’.

Public trees, however, were more than just public celebrations intended to raise festive spirits.  The 1950s and 60s saw most towns and cities also start decorating their retail centres with displays of electric lights to promote Christmas shopping and the public tree became part of a wider civic display.

Making Christmas shopping pleasant mattered because so many people also found the expense, decisions and crowds stressful.  The ambience a tree and decorations generates compensates for that and helps make Christmas shopping a special experience.

Indeed, with consumers expecting shopping at Christmas to be different from the rest of year, any town or city that does not spend money on decorations risks losing custom to a nearby rival or, increasingly, to the convenience of online shopping.  A study of Manchester in 2012 found that the council’s festive lighting had cost £339,000 but that the city’s Christmas markets alone had generated £71 million in spending.

Unhappy people are always more forthcoming with their views on the world than those who are content.  Cardiff Council should thus take some comfort in the likelihood that their derided tree will generate more quiet cheer than vocal complaint.

They should also take comfort in the fact that putting the sparkle of a Christmas light onto a winter street is not only something of a tradition in itself, it’s also good for the local economy. Online retailers have many advantages but they don’t provide a tree and lights to enjoy.

Martin Johnes teaches history at Swansea University. He is the author of a new book, Christmas and the British: A Modern History, published by Bloomsbury.

Christmas in October

xmas-coverIn 1958, a writer in The Times remembered that before the war older people were complaining how tawdry and commercial Christmas had become ‘but in their most disgruntled moments they had never imagined anything like this steam-roller, gathering momentum all October and November, with the London streets disguised as toy bazaars, and false Father Christmases popping up in every store’.

Complaints about the commercialization of Christmas date back into the Victorian period but one of the most persistent was the claim that it was appearing in the shops earlier and earlier. Yet actually proving that assertion is not easy. What is certain is that Christmas in November is not a twentieth-century development and Christmas in October dates back to at least the 1950s.

In as early as 1824, the compendium Forget Me Not was being advertised as a Christmas present at the beginning of November, complete with the claim that many people had been left disappointed the previous year when stock sold out a few days before the festival.  The commercial Christmas was still very much in its infancy at this time but over the course of the nineteenth century it grew as people indulged themselves in the pleasures of food and presents, and appreciated how the festival reaffirmed social bonds. It was thus as much in response to consumer demand as a shopkeepers’ hunger for profit that advertisements for Christmas goods became very common in November in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

However, there was never any agreed date among retailers about when festive displays and advertising should begin and by the early twentieth century the Christmas shopping season was something that arrived gradually in November rather than suddenly at a set date.

selfridges-8-nov-1926
Ad for Santa Claus’ arrival on 8 November 1926. Includes the suggestion to ‘shop early’.

Consumers, of course, did not have to respond to advertisements and displays but even early in the century, November Christmas shopping was not uncommon. In November 1921, for example, Christmas shopping was reported to be in full swing in Knightsbridge by the middle of the month. Some started well before this. On 30 October 1933, The Times was reporting early Christmas displays in large London shops and that the Queen had begun her shopping. Shops explicitly encouraged this, not just for the sake of their profits but also to relieve the workload on their staff in December.

The war and subsequent austerity curtailed this, at least temporarily.  In 1952, it was noted that Christmas was now concentrated in the week or two before the day itself and the time of its stretching back into November was gone. That did not last and the return of affluence renewed and enabled people’s desire to spend at Christmas.  Just a year later, there were reports of a Christmas tree being put up outside a Leeds store in October.  In 1959, the first decorations in Oxford Street went up on 22 October.

Even some children were put out at the fact that Father Christmas was in some stores in October. ‘Christmas is lasting too long these days’ remarked one lady to a television reporter in October 1959. In the same year, Coventry City Council responded by banning shops putting illuminated trees up outside before 1 December.

Christmas in October may have been thought by some to be too early but the logistics of supplying and storing festive goods encouraged shops to erect October displays.  Local authorities too had played their part in pushing the date back into October by deciding when to erect their street decorations. In 2008, when town centre decorations went up in Coleford (Gloucestershire) on 12 October, even some traders were upset but one shopper told a paper that the decorations were ‘splendid’ and it was better to enjoy them for three months than three weeks.  Although some hated Christmas shopping, more saw it as a fun, pleasurable and exciting activity, something to be indulged in over a number of trips rather than cramped into a one stressful day. A vocal minority complained about the early Christmas but the silent majority shopped away.

Throughout the 20th century, retailers thus claimed that early starts were a response to consumer demand.  In 1926 Selfridge’s were justifying Christmas preparations in November by saying that anticipation was a central part of the season’s enjoyment. In 2002, Debenhams, who put up its Christmas display on 20 October, claimed that if they did not do this they would get hundreds of complaints, while Marks and Spencer claimed that half of their customers wanted to buy Christmas items in October.

In fact, for some people Christmas shopping was a year-round activity. Even in the 1930s there is evidence of people making lists  throughout the year of anything they saw in the shops that would make a suitable present. As pockets deepened after the war, this extended to some people actually buying presents all year round. This was partly because they enjoyed buying presents but it also spread the cost and avoided the pressures of shopping in December. A 1973 survey found that 56 percent of respondents had started thinking about Christmas shopping by 8 November and 28 percent had actually bought some presents.

15-nov-1933
Shop early ad, 15 Nov. 1933

There may not be much evidence that Christmas in the shops has got earlier since its clear encroachment on October in the 1950s but it is undoubtedly the displays and advertisements that mark the arrival and approach of the season in the public mind. Not everyone approved but there was little they could do about it when consumer demand was big enough to make the October and November efforts of retailers worthwhile.

Martin Johnes is author of Christmas and the British:  A Modern History (2016). Available all year round and not just at Christmas.

The Political Aftermath of the Aberfan Disaster

Martin Johnes and Iain McLean

On Friday, 21 October 1966 a coal tip slid down a mountainside into the mining village of Aberfan in the South Wales valleys.  The slide engulfed a farm, around twenty houses and part of the local junior school before coming to rest.  The disaster claimed the lives of 144 people, 116 of whom were school children.  The horror felt around the world was made all the more poignant as news emerged of previous slides and brushed aside warnings.  Such was the widespread sympathy that was felt that a fund set up to help the village raised £1,750,000.

Image result for aberfan disaster

A terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude

In the days after the disaster, Lord Robens, chairman of the National Coal Board (NCB), attributed the tragedy to ‘natural unknown springs’ beneath the tip.  This was known by all the local people to be incorrect.  The NCB had been tipping on top of springs that are shown on maps of the neighbourhood and in which village schoolboys had played.  The government immediately appointed a Tribunal of Inquiry.  Its report was unsparing:

Blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board … The legal liability of the National Coal Board to pay compensation for the personal injuries (fatal or otherwise) and damage to property is incontestable and uncontested.

These dry conclusions belie the passion of the preceding text.  The Tribunal was appalled by the behaviour of the NCB and some of its employees, both before and after the disaster:

the Aberfan disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above

Colliery engineers at all levels concentrated only on conditions underground.  In one of its most memorable phrases, the Report described them as ‘like moles being asked about the habits of birds’.

The Tribunal endorsed the comment of Desmond Ackner QC, counsel for the Aberfan Parents’ and Residents’ Association, that coal board witnesses had tried to give the impression that ‘the Board had no more blameworthy connection with this disaster than, say, the Gas Board’.  It devoted a section of its report to ‘the attitude’ of the NCB and of Robens and forthrightly condemned both.

Corporate responsibility

In the face of the report, it now seems surprising that nobody was prosecuted, dismissed, or demoted or even said sorry.

It  is also surprising that Robens’ offer to resign as NCB chairman, which even at the time was seen as perfunctory, was rejected.  Public records released under the thirty year rule, show that he had advance sight of the tribunal report and his private office ran a media campaign to keep himself in place.  Through very public attacks on government fuel policy, he was able to portray himself as a defender of the industry and win the support of the unions.  This was not a new line for him to take but Robens was a great PR manipulator and he knew that he was securing his position.  Ministers let him stay, despite disliking him, because they thought he was the only man who could manage the decline of the coal industry and avoid strike action.  In effect, Robens’ behaviour after Aberfan became irrelevant to whether he kept his job or not.  Rather, political expediency was the name of the game.

Nobody suggested that Robens himself was to blame for the disaster but he was the head of the organisation that clearly was.  The extent of mismanagement revealed by the Tribunal was such that the question of prosecution arose in Aberfan and the media.  However the NCB itself avoided prosecution because the concept of corporate manslaughter was very much on the fringes of legal procedures.  Mining was a dangerous industry where accidents were normalised as an almost inevitable part of operations.  This is not to say that they were taken lightly but rather that they were seen as just that, accidents.

Accidents might be the product of individuals’ errors maybe but the idea that those errors could be fostered by a wider corporate culture that amounted to criminal negligence was simply not part of the contemporary agenda.  When the question of manslaughter charges was raised it was with regard to individual employees not the NCB itself.  Concepts of corporate responsibility, in and outside the coal industry, were essentially under developed.  Thus, despite the evidence to the contrary, the Aberfan disaster did nothing to challenge the picture of disasters as tragic accidents rather than criminal negligence.

A catalogue of self-serving episodes

Other events that now seem surprising followed Aberfan.  In August 1968, the government forced the trustees of the disaster fund to contribute £150,000 to the cost of removing the remaining NCB tips from above the village.  These tips were in a place and condition in which, according to the NCB’s own technical literature, they should never have been. Yet the board refused to pay and even undermined the efforts of a rival firm offering to remove the tips for less money that the NCB thought it would cost.

The contribution was bitterly controversial.  Some people wrote to ministers to complain that it was inconsistent with the charitable objectives of the fund; ministers’ replies did not address the point.  The Charity Commission failed to intervene or even query the debatable point on whether such a contribution was legal.  In contrast, it asked the disaster fund to ensure that parents were ‘close’ to their children before making any payment to them for mental suffering.

The villagers of Aberfan were traumatised  beyond the comprehension of outsiders who could see only their ‘unpredictable emotions and reactions’.  The trustees of Bethania chapel, which was used as the mortuary after the disaster, pleaded with George Thomas, the Secretary of State for Wales, to get the NCB to pay for it to be demolished and rebuilt, on the grounds that its members could not longer bear to worship there.  Thomas passed the plea on to Lord Robens, who rejected it.  Eventually it was rebuilt but at the expense of the disaster fund not the NCB.

The NCB paid just £500-a-head compensation to the bereaved parents.  To some parents this was insultingly low. Coal board lawyers, however, regarded it as ‘a generous settlement’ and it was not at odds with other contemporary payments of loss of life by a child.  Even as insurers wrangled, the ruins of the school and empty houses remained for a year.

For those in Aberfan, the legacy of this catalogue of self-serving episodes was a deep feeling of being let down and injustice.  The result is a lingering mistrust of authority.  It has also made the closure process difficult and undoubtedly hindered the healing process in the local community.  Subsequent events served to exacerbate that feeling.  In October 1998 the village suffered severe flooding.  An independent inquiry showed that the flooding was exacerbated by dumped spoil from the removed tips.  One survivor of the disaster and victims of the flooding said ‘I was buried alive in that tip in the disaster.  Now it’s the same tip again dumped outside my door.  It’s no wonder I am angry.’

A community on the periphery

George Thomas, Secretary of State for Wales and originally a teacher from the Rhondda, did initially protest at the decision to encourage the disaster fund to contribute to the payment of the removal of the tips.  But his lone voice in the cabinet was not sufficient and in the end he acquiesced in the plan and placed strong moral pressure on the disaster fund to ensure it too gave in.

There was considerable local anger but the South Wales valleys consisted of safe Labour seats.  All the major Labour figures knew that the rising Plaid Cymru support in the valleys was essentially just a protest that would pass.  The Labour hegemony thus condemned Aberfan to the margins.  In contrast, Robens’ ability to avert a coal strike was very much the concern of government and he kept his job as chairman of the NCB.

Gwynfor Evans, leader of Plaid Cymru, complained in the parliamentary debate on the disaster that if the tips had been at Hampstead or Eton, the Government would have taken more notice.  Aberfan was a small working-class community isolated from the heart of UK politics.  The government’s decision to grant legal aid to the Aberfan Parents and Residents’ Association at the Tribunal of Inquiry did mean they were able to afford the best ‘silk’ of the day.  The fearsome Desmond Ackner triumphed over the NCB at the Tribunal.  But in the aftermath of the disaster, a Labour government, whose support across South Wales was secure, ignored Aberfan’s interests.

The disaster itself, of course, was not marginalised.  The London media, Royalty, and the Prime Minister all travelled to Aberfan to see the horror for themselves.  It was only a few hours drive away or an even shorter flight.  Even Lord Robens got there, 36 hours later.  Politicians were undoubtedly personally touched by the disaster.  Harold Wilson noted that when he visited a Cornish school less than eight days after the disaster, he felt ‘almost a sense of resentment at these happy innocent children, with all they had to look forward to, compared with the children of that Welsh valley, who had no future.’  Intensive media coverage, particularly television, ensured that the disaster was seen as a national one.

Yet this was not enough to overcome the residents of Aberfan’s position on the political periphery, something that had contributed to the causes of the disaster and intensified the injustices after it. The disaster simply would not have happened had the NCB taken local fears about the tips more seriously or enforced its own rules on tip safety. But it was an organization hampered by mismanagement yet protected from market and political pressure by being part of the state and a dominant local employer.

Before the disaster, the NCB’s economic and local political power meant no one, including the small local authority in Merthyr, was able to challenge it to do more about fears on tip safety. After the disaster, the NCB’s economic and national power meant its interests took precedent over those whose children it had killed.

Martin Johnes and Iain McLean are the authors of Aberfan: Government and Disasters (Welsh Academic Press, Cardiff, 2000).  Further details of this book and other aspects of the disaster can be found at www.nuff.ox.ac.uk/politics/aberfan/home.htm A second edition will be published in 2017.

 

 

Twelfth Night

There is some confusion about when twelfth night actually is. If you count the 25th as the first day of Christmas, then twelfth night is 5 January. However, others have regarded 6 January as twelfth night, partly because the day is sometimes also known as twelfth day, a celebration of importance in its own right. The 6th of  January is certainly Epiphany, the date the Three Kings are said to have visited Jesus.

Before the Victorian re-imagined what Christmas was, twelfth night marked the second most important day of the Christmas season. It was a night for parties and jollity amongst all the classes and associated with drinking, eating, visiting neighbours and a brief respite from some of the normal conventions of public behaviour. A special cake with a lucky pea and bean inside it was common, the roots of both modern Christmas cake and the coins in Christmas puddings. In some parts of Britain, there were local traditions such as sporting contests, wassailing at orchards and even burning bushes or trees. It was essentially a celebration of the end of the Christmas holiday.

https://austenonly.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/keeping-christmas26546-correction.jpg?w=1076&h=913
Twelfth Night by Isaac Cruickshank 1794

The shift to the Gregorian calendar in the middle of the 18th century added to the significance of 6 January. Eleven days were removed from the calendar in 1752, which meant the new 6 January was the old Christmas day and some of those angry at the change continued to celebrate Christmas itself on this day. The anger may have faded but even in the early 20th century there were people whose grandparents had celebrated  the family Christmas on the sixth. Right through the Victorian period, twelfth night was also a popular date for civic Christmas balls and children’s charitable parties.

However, the Victorian period was also the time when Christmas was invented as a commercial festival and the shopping associated with this led to Christmas day becoming the culmination of celebrations rather than the start of them. The needs of an industrial society also meant people returned to work far quicker than they once had, with 25 and 26 December generally being the only days off in the late 19th century. Cakes were still eaten by some in the middle classes, and sometimes accompanied with funny rhymes and games, but the whole significance of the day was fading fast.

12tnight
Lincolnshire Echo, 8 Jan 1935

By the First World War, there were complaints from those who remembered the parties of their youth that twelfth night no longer meant anything but that was not true. In some areas there were conscious attempts to uphold older local traditions associated with the day. Some interwar towns continued their balls, whilst other communities shared cake and wassail bowls; folk culture was becoming widely valued, just as it was in its last throes.

Most commonly, twelfth night was associated with taking down Christmas decorations. Before the Victorians, when decorations were ivy, mistletoe and the like, it had been regarded as bad luck to either take down decorations before Candlemass (2 February) or before they had begun to wither. This superstition was a hangover from the belief that there was some kind of sprite in the decorations who would escape if not removed correctly and bring bad luck. Some people believed that the decorations should be burnt to avoid this.

As paper, glass and then plastic decorations became popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the superstition was transferred to these new forms. However, knowledge about why this was done could not be assumed and a 1921 magazine article felt it had to explain the superstitions to readers. There was also disagreement about whether decorations should come down on the 5th or the 6th. Nor did everyone stick to the idea of twelfth night and some decorations were taken down quickly after Boxing Day.

Walking around any town or city suggests that the majority of people no longer leave the decorations up until twelfth night and the night before returning to work or school is probably now the most common date, although not all even wait until then. Twelfth night has thus lost all its real significance but in the confusion surrounding when it is and what it signifies it is actually quite typical of Christmas traditions. We might imagine they are static and historic – and indeed that is part of their attraction – but they actually shift and alter with our changing tastes and culture.

My book Christmas and the British: A Modern History will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in October 2016.

 

 

People, home movies and their ordinary histories

I spent my afternoon watching Christmas family home movies from the British Film Institute’s newly expanded archive player.

1937Not much happens in any of the films and the absence of sound adds a rather surreal feel. The people featured are not named. We can only guess at their ages and what they are saying. They are all clearly aware of the camera but they are also carrying on pretty much as normal.

Everyone gives and receive presents, they eat meals and play games and most people laugh and mess around a bit. There are some nice shots of living spaces, furniture and seasonal decorations and some touching hugs and thank you kisses. It’s all very ordinary. Although Christmas is the most unusual day of the year, some of what makes it special is just doing everyday things with the people you love.

Some of the films come from the same family and watching them in order allows you to see fashions in dress and furnishings evolve, adults age and lose their hair, and their young children grow into teenagers. A slightly grumpy looking grandfather appears in the first of the sequence but not in any of the subsequent ones. By the last one, his wife is in a wheelchair and looking frail. Christmas always reminds people of the passage of time but these films actually chart it, in all it sadness and joys.

There has been much talk online recently about the need for radical histories that challenge and confront the present. That is, of course, important but so too is history that is more mundane because, for most people throughout history, daily life has been just that.

People eat, drink, sleep, travel, work and play. They love and they lose. Histories of such things do not have to have a political relevance, a challenge or a lesson for the present. But they can remind us that the past, like the present, is about real people. As historians we make people into numbers, categories and classifications but they are still are individuals too and watching them celebrate Christmas is a vivid reminder of that.

My favourite of the home movies can be watched here: http://player.bfi.org.uk/film/watch-family-christmas-1952/

My book Christmas and the British: A Modern History will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2016.