This Proud And Savage Land

Normally I write about the books I have read once a month. However, after writing about this one, I felt it deserved an entry of its own; partly because of its length, but also because of the impact it had on me.

In the 1960s Alexander Cordell wrote three books which became known as "The Mortymer Trilogy". I read these many years ago, at the suggestion of my mother. I had read "How Green Was My Valley" and she suggested what she believed to be a better recounting of life in Wales. She maintained that these books were closer to reality, based on the tales handed down in her family. I read and enjoyed them - and might read them again, now I have them on my Kindle. The paperbacks seem to have vanished in the intervening years, unfortunately. Actually, I had forgotten about them until just recently. A month or so ago I became interested in my family history. I found some research Mum had done, although not the family trees I carefully compiled as a teenager - still hunting for those.

I had always believed/assumed that my ancestors in the 19th century were coalminers. However, some of my research led to their job titles, as recorded in the census records of the time. My great-grandfather was listed in the 1871 census as a "tinman", at the age of 22. More I have yet to find out about him; with a name of David Bowen, it's not exactly uncommon. However, he and his wife had 12 children, so he must have survived for a while.

The story I have so far uncovered of my great-great-grandfather is possibly more illustrative of life in the eastern valleys of South Wales. His name was John Bowen. In the 1851 census he is listed as being 10 years old and his occupation is given as "drawing iron works". He was still a child, not even high school age! At that time he lived with his grandfather and had a brother, James, aged 13, who was a "catcher iron works" In the 1871 census John appears as a "puddler". I haven't been able to find out any more so far, though I have identified four children.

Clearly my family didn't work down the mines (although some did in later generations). Instead they worked in the iron industry, which was well established in Wales in the 19th century. I don't know for sure, but my family lived in Nantyglo, so I assume they worked at the Nantyglo ironworks.

Having discovered this, it reminded me of the Cordell books, so I went in search of them. I came across this book: "This Proud and Savage Land", written in the 1980s, as a prequel to the trilogy, so I settled down to read it. Cordell captures beautifully the cadence of the Welsh accent, and the idiom, in his writing. I heard the text in my head in a distinct Welsh accent, but it's an accent I am very familiar with. It's not an easy book to read, though. I guess it could be described as a Welsh "Grapes of Wrath". There's not much joy in the tale: it tells of the beginnings of the feud between the Mortimer family (wealthy, owners of ironworks, in league with the English) and the Mortymer family, which sprung from a bastard line. I found it both fascinating and heart-breaking, as I imagined my ancestors living in the abject poverty that is depicted, completely dependent on the good graces of the (English of course) masters at the ironworks. People starved, they froze to death. If they were lucky, they could afford to share a room in a worker's cottage, possibly upgrading to a whole cottage, depending on their job. Houses like that are still around in Wales: terraces, now extended and with indoor bathrooms, two rooms upstairs and two down. My Nan grew up in such a house, one of twelve children. As soon as you were old enough, out to work you went, or into service for the women, as there was a queue for your space in the bed. My Mum recalls top-and-tailing when she lived there during the second world war.

Immigration was an issue, too. Lots of ironworkers came from the north and a lot of Irish people had come over, to escape the famine, only to starve or freeze, homeless, in the Welsh valleys.

I found the book really drew my attention to the contrasts between then and now. Our concept of poverty is certainly relative, which is a good thing! And yet, there are vast swathes of people on the move at the moment, trying to escape famine, war, maltreatment; all the things I found myself thinking "how horrible" about when reading this book, set almost 200 years ago. A sobering thought that makes me wonder just how much humanity has progressed, if at all. We don't seem to in terms of basic compassion - and I include myself in that. Complacent in my relatively luxurious lifestyle.

Aside from the emotive aspect of this book, it also serves as a decent chronicle of social history. This and the later books document the birth of trade unionism in the UK, including the Rebecca Riots of the mid-1800s. Not the kind that calls people out on strike for yet more money, but the kind that wanted the workers to have enough money to eat, and for the lives of its members not to be worthless. Iron-making was a hazardous occupation, but health and safety barely even existed at the time. Life was cheap, always someone to take the place of a dead worker. The Welsh ironworkers were little more than slaves. The works owners ran the local shops and put prices up whenever they felt like it. They got rid of workers on a whim, reduced pay if orders fell and, yet, managed to get rich themselves.

All in all, this was a book I gained a lot from reading, even if it was difficult for me to read at times, but that is because I feel a personal connection to it. It is probably of limited interest to other readers, but it had a powerful impact on me and made me reflect on some of my views of the world - no bad thing.