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Home > Learning > Life in Wales: transcript of digital story (1)

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Life in Wales: What kind of a place was Wales?

Wales saw immense changes during the nineteenth century that completely transformed the country. During the century villages became huge industrial towns, Wales changed from being a Welsh-speaking country to be bilingual, the population grew very quickly, and people moved from the countryside to work in industry. These changes are the background to the history of the Welsh emigration to Ohio from 1818 until the end of the century.

The growth in the population of Wales is the key to understanding the other changes that occurred. It increased from half a million people in 1801 to two million by 1901. As well as a sharp escalation in the birth rate people moved to Wales from other countries, and by the middle of the century one in every eight of the country's residents had been born outside Wales. Thousands of people also moved from the countryside to the new industrial towns to find work.

This was the age of the industrial revolution that saw enormous ironworks and coalmines being developed to take advantage of the abundance of metal ores, fuel, water and limestone available in parts of Wales. The iron and coal owners became exceedingly rich, and at one stage The Dowlais Iron Company in Merthyr Tydfil was the biggest iron producer in the world, and its owner, Josiah John Guest employed more people than anyone else in the world. Side by side with the fantastic wealth of the industrial owners was the extreme poverty of the workers. In some industrial towns thousands of common people lived in poor overcrowded housing, worked long hours under dangerous conditions for low wages, and suffered from poverty and disease.

A similar situation was also evident in rural Wales with many of the landowners on the one hand being rich and powerful, while a large proportion of the population lived in abject poverty, especially from 1815 when the end of the Napoleonic Wars led to a decrease in demand for goods. Land was also scarce, and with the growth in the population of the rural counties and the enclosure of common land, many of the residents of the countryside were forced to leave their homes and either move to the industrial towns, or emigrate to foreign countries.

It was also very difficult to travel in Wales during this period with roads in a poor condition, especially in rural areas. A toll was levied on those roads that were owned by the Turnpike Trusts, and these tollgates were the main targets for the Rebecca Rioters. During the period there was an improvement in transport as canals and railways were built, first to link the industrial areas with the ports, and later in the century the railway network spread to other parts of Wales.

It is believed that at the beginning of the century around ninety percent of the population of Wales spoke Welsh as their first language, with a large proportion of these being monoglot Welsh speakers. By the end of the century, and the first language Census in 1891, about half the population spoke Welsh. During this period there was a growth in the Welsh language press, with periodicals and newspapers published in Welsh.

The nineteenth century was also a period of great change in the lives of children. At the beginning of the period the children of poor families did not go to school, and they were expected to start working at an early age to help support the family. There are stories of seven-year-old children working in the coalmines in the industrial areas and helping with work on the farms in the rural areas. By the end of the period nearly every child in Wales received some form of elementary education, and more often than not this was through the medium of English.

Life in Wales: What kind of a place was Wales? - Digital story | Exercise 1 | Exercise 2

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