When Swansea Was a Hotbed of Britain's Industrial Revolution

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), March 30, 2011 | Go to article overview

When Swansea Was a Hotbed of Britain's Industrial Revolution


Byline: HUW BOWEN

[bar] NTREPRENEURS have not had a good press in Welsh history. The coal owners, iron masters and steel barons who drove the process of rapid and often brutal industrialisation have often been characterised as exploiters, despoilers and oppressors.

They made their fortunes by inflicting misery and poverty on a down-trodden population who toiled away for meagre reward in mines, forges and smelting works. What is more, these capitalist parasites have regularly been depicted as aliens - above all as English intruders - who came to Wales in search of profits and then retreated to their country estates to count their loot, leaving behind a ravaged landscape and a shattered people.

Of course, such crude descriptions are the stuff of caricature, but they have had a long life.

They continue to colour views of the past to a surprising degree, and this means that the Welsh people can still be characterised as "victims" who fell foul of some of the most ruthless "villains" in our history.

Indeed, not so very long ago the (rightly) celebrated Socialist historian Gwyn Alf Williams wrote in characteristically colourful fashion that into Wales came "the intrusive and massively endowed entrepreneurs from England, Anthony Bacon, Crawshays, Guests, Homfrays, Wilkinsons, collaring a world market."

And, he went on: "They exploited all the resources and all the people they could get hold of with [an] ... irresponsible and single-minded fervour."

As far as Williams was concerned, the charge sheet against these men was very long indeed, and all they cared about was the bottom line.

Recent detailed research is now beginning to revise this picture.

In particular, in Hope and Heartbreak, Russell Davies has pointed out, and illustrated with many examples, that the Welsh were not passive as industrialisation reshaped the economies and societies of both North and South Wales after 1700.

He notes that: "The Welsh proved themselves to be remarkably capable of establishing capitalist enterprises; they were adept at taking their opportunities."

And he observes that: "The Welsh also revealed themselves to be inventive and adaptive people."

Why, then, has it taken us so long to recognise this? Certainly both the socialist and nationalist traditions of Welsh history writing have focused on the negative aspects of the unregulated and often deeply damaging capitalism that began to sweep over large parts of Wales during the late 18th century.

But also it is perhaps the case that the general social and religious milieu in Wales over the last 300 years or so has meant that Welsh people have always been somewhat suspicious of those who have worshipped at the feet of Mammon.

As a result, entrepreneurs and the makers of money have often been treated with thinly veiled contempt and no little hostility, even though they have been key agents of "improvement", "progress", and economic development.

Entrepreneurs as heroes (but not in Wales) Such attitudes towards the captains of industry can of course be found in other parts of Britain.

But it is quite striking that historians of the "British" Industrial Revolution are much more inclined than historians of Wales to highlight and praise the efforts of the entrepreneurs whose collective endeavours transformed Britain into the "workshop of the world" by 1850.

There are many factors - both general and specific - that combine to explain the early development of Britain's industrialised economy.

But sensible historians still pay careful attention to human agency or the actions of key individuals.

Thus in what are described as "heroic accounts" of the Industrial Revolution, inventors, manufacturers and entrepreneurs are identified as the prime movers in the complex processes that transformed Britain.

And the list of these heroes is a very long one indeed. …

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