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New Perspectives on Welsh Industrial History

Editor(s):Miskell, Louise
Reviewer(s):Evans, Shaun

Published by EH.Net (March 2022).

Louise Miskell, ed. New Perspectives on Welsh Industrial History. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2020. xiv + 268 pp. £24.99 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-78683-500-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Shaun Evans, School of History, Law and Social Sciences, Bangor University.

 

In April 2016 the National Assembly for Wales was recalled to consider interventions which would alleviate the urgent situation facing the Welsh steel industry. In his statement on the issue the then First Minister, Carwyn Jones, concluded with an assertion that:

Steel production is not just about statistics and the economy, vital though they are: it’s a fundamental part of who we are as a country. So, the clear message that needs to go from this National Assembly today to all our steel communities … is that we stand beside you, shoulder to shoulder. [Applause.]

(Statement on Tata Steel, Welsh Assembly, 4 April 2016)

The speech encapsulates the prominence of heavy industry as part of the national fabric and consciousness of Wales: ‘a fundamental part of who we are as a country.’ It also evinces how industry tends to be viewed from a Welsh perspective – with an emphasis on community, livelihood and identity over statistics and the economy. Such a viewpoint is fundamental to the original and varied collection of essays brought together in New Perspectives on Welsh Industrial History; one of its prime objectives is to put statistics, quantitative analysis, and the economy back into the study of the modern Welsh past.

In a valuable and wide-ranging introduction, Louise Miskell teases out the nature and status of economic history studies in Wales since the beginning of the twentieth century, reflecting on the key trends, developments, projects, and approaches. She argues that economic history has never taken root in Welsh academia in the same way it has done in England, partly because of a perception that the historical industrialisation of Wales was a non-Welsh process (reliant on outside capital and instigating anglicisation of Welsh communities) and in part because of the challenge of identifying and defining a distinctive ‘Welsh economy’ not wholly bound up in wider British economic activity. More fundamental still is the fact that it was themes and questions of society, culture, nation, and identity which tended to shape the study of Welsh history across the twentieth century; including the emergence of a thriving brand of labour history as the dominant framework for analyses of industrial communities in Wales. Working-class experience, social life, characteristics of industrial communities, workplace relations, protest, and industrial disputes on issues of wages and working conditions have tended to predominate over economic analyses in the labour history tradition in Wales. Miskell notes a general reluctance amongst historians of Wales to engage with statistical analysis; an ‘anti-numerical’ tradition which has hindered the development of economic assessments of Wales’ past.

The collection of essays, from Miskell and seven other scholars, in New Perspectives is designed to rebalance these scholarly deficits and biases; reassess and transcend traditional stereotypes; articulate a more diverse picture of the Welsh industrial past; and outline new directions, themes, and questions to be pursued across the next generation of Welsh industrial and economic history. In these respects, the volume is a resounding success, pooling original case studies and interpretations to enrich established knowledge and understanding of industrial activity in Wales across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, towards the dawn of Welsh Devolution in 1997. The presence of meticulously researched essays emanating from recent doctoral projects and in-depth archival analysis is particularly encouraging. The most important new directions or perspectives can be grouped into four core themes:

(1) Interrogation of the global interconnectedness of Welsh industry runs as a thread across many of the essays, ranging from the role of Welsh copper in British colonial activity and transatlantic slavery; to the coal trade between Wales and France across the long-nineteenth century; to the post-1945 iron-ore mining ventures of the Steel Company of Wales in Mauritania, west Africa. These outward-facing assessments of the intricacies of supply chains, imports, products, exports, and markets contribute to a more complex and comprehensive understanding of Wales’ place in the world and involvements in British economic, foreign, and colonial affairs across the modern period.

(2) The essays address the issue that the perspectives of employers, owners and companies have often been absent or marginalised in previous studies of Welsh industrial history. The rallying call here is to unlock the research potentials of the archives and records produced by businesses, industrial owners, and managers. In the volume this materialises with a fascinating study of the approach of industrial owners and managers towards employee welfare circa 1840-1939. The implication is that that relations in industrial communities were often far more nuanced than the simplistic exploitative employer/exploited worker binary exhibited in parts of the labour history tradition. This theme is further illuminated through an intricate analysis of worker relations during the industrial disputes at the Port Talbot Steelworks, 1945-79.

(3) The collection includes studies which examine the role of the State in the economic development of Welsh communities from the second half of the twentieth century. This includes an assessment of government-supported manufacturing ventures (e.g., Dunlop factory, British Nylon Spinners factory) and a wide-ranging study of the policy objectives and achievements of the Welsh Development Agency (1976-2006) in promoting Wales as a location for industrial investment.

(4) Another achievement of the collection is its widening of the lens of study beyond the core pillars of Welsh industrial history: coal and iron. This encouragement of a broader assessment of economic and industrial activity will serve to enrich the overarching historiography of Wales, disrupting stereotypes and articulating a more inclusive, complex, and diverse picture of society, culture, and landscape. In this respect, the inclusion of a meticulously researched essay on domestic service is especially refreshing. It not only underlines the essential and commonplace contributions of women to economic activity, but it provides part of a framework for connecting the study of industrial and urban Wales with the study of rural Wales and its deeply rooted farming-based economy. As signposted by this volume, a more complete understanding of Wales’ economic history will require historians to move beyond traditional methodological approaches, conceptual boundaries, and disciplinary limits.

It is inevitable that an edited collection of essays deriving from workshop proceedings will exhibit gaps; the editor admits that there are important sections of the Welsh economy not represented in these New Perspectives. Any criticism of a volume which contributes so much should be rightly viewed as pedantic on the part of this reviewer. At the heart of the 2016 Steel Crisis, when so much political and media attention was understandably fixed on the future of Port Talbot, the cries from Flintshire were: ‘yes, but don’t forget about Shotton.’ To put it too bluntly, this volume unintentionally projects a misconception that industrial and economic activity in Wales’ past was confined to southeast Wales, which has implications for how other areas of Wales are perceived. There are of course exceptions to this generalisation within the essays. Nevertheless, the important New Perspectives and areas for future analyses outlined in this volume should be applied to a broader geographical conception of Welsh industrial and economic history. The slate landscapes of Gwynedd have recently been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status: an economic history of the local quarrying and global industry attached to these landscapes is desperately required. The lead mining and woollen industries of mid-Wales, north Wales coalfield, Parys copper mine in Anglesey, Bersham ironworks and Brymbo steelworks, Greenfield Valley and manufacturing industries of Deeside, together with the array of industries and businesses operating from rural, coastal, and high-street arenas, are amongst the spheres of economic activity which should be embraced by the new economic and industrial history of Wales. New Perspectives provides essential parts of the roadmap for this historiographical endeavour.

 

Shaun Evans is Lecturer in Early Modern and Welsh History in the School of History, Law and Social Sciences at Bangor University and Director of the Institute for the Study of Welsh Estates (http://iswe.bangor.ac.uk). His research focuses on society, culture, and landscape in Wales circa 1500-1900, and he is co-editor of Land Reform in the British and Irish Isles since 1800 (Edinburgh, 2022).

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII