Rural to Urban

Originally published in Country Quest

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Nearly all my family lines can be traced back to rural Wales. Most of their stories are similar, on the surface at least. I could tell you of forbears scratching a living in farmlands in Montgomeryshire, the Breconshire-Carmarthenshire border, Pembrokeshire and other places. I am by no means unusual in this. A good number of the readers of this piece will be able to say a similar thing. Many of those who can't will be able to point to ancestors working on the land in south- or north-west England, or somewhere further afield.

So what changed things? One thing was the rapid growth in the importance of the South Wales coal (and iron) fields. The phenomenal growth in population of the Rhondda Valleys in the second half of the nineteenth century is illustrative of this, as the census figures for the period of greatest increase make plain:

YEAR....MALES......FEMALES......TOTAL

1871.............................[ Total 23,950]

1881......30,877.........24,755...........55,632

1891......50,174.........38,177...........88,351

1901......62,315.........51,420..........113,735

1911......83,209.........69,572..........152,781

Before 1871, official returns for the Rhondda Valleys were included in returns for Ystradyfodwg, Llanwonno, and Llantrisant. The population figures for the early part of the nineteenth century tell their own story. Those for the enumeration district of Ystradyfodwg, the most significant for the Rhondda Fawr, for example, show that the population in 1801 numbered a mere 452 people, and this had only risen to 951 by 1851. The latest figures for the Rhondda (2001) show that the population is continuing to decline from its high point early in the twentieth century. It was at the last official count less than 80,000, or roughly half of what it was in 1911.

Not that the Rhondda Valleys were the first major industrial area in Wales. Over a century before Swansea and Neath were by far the largest copper smelting areas in the UK, and there were large iron foundries in Wrexham (Bersham), around Pontypool, and above all in Merthyr Tydfil.

But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the coal fields of the Rhondda Valleys were an industrial magnet drawing people from all parts of Wales and beyond. All of my ancestors had found their way there by that time. My paternal grandfather is typical of this: during the 1880s, still in his early teens, he migrated to the Rhondda Fach from Montgomeryshire in the search for work. Soon after he was joined by three of his stepbrothers, who left behind their family roots of weaving and farming for ever.

My maternal great-grandfather had put behind him an even more rural background at the head of the Usk Valley a few years before this (see the essay Pwll Uchaf in the January, 1996 issue of Country Quest (now on my main website). In his case, though, there was a 'push' factor as well as a 'pull' one. His own father had died at a young age and he had to leave the area in a hurry after 'half killing' the gamekeeper who had caught him poaching in the Usk.

It is easy to picture the scene: the young man would probably have been out in search of a meal for his mother and younger brothers and sisters when he was surprised by the 'Master's Man'. This incident gives an insight into some of the motives for so many of our forefathers leaving their rural splendour for the grim industrial parts of the country. They may have been going to toil hard in often dangerous and unsanitary conditions in 'the Valleys' or elsewhere, but at least it was usually reasonably well paid hard toil, and they were often escaping grinding poverty in the countryside. It is often forgotten that real wages for a rural labourer were in decline at this time. An hour's work in 1750 would bring in three loaves of bread or their equivalent. By the end of the century it would be less than half of that.

Nowadays, things have changed again. It is getting harder to get a living from the soil - particularly the generally infertile soil that we have in Wales - as any farmer will tell you. But there are many who have made a comfortable urban living who see the countryside as an idyll to be aimed for. Many realise their dreams by living there in their golden years.

There are actually more of these 'incomers' in some parts of England than in Wales, but here they have a linguistic as well as a cultural impact on the original inhabitants. Any guesses as to the way things will be a century from now?

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