Wales’s greatest hero: Aneurin Bevan

Nye BevanWales’s greatest hero, Aneurin Bevan, died 55 years ago today of cancer, aged only 62. Born into a mining family in 1897, he experienced first-hand the problems of poverty and disease. A committed socialist and miners’ leader, Bevan was elected as the Labour Member of Parliament for Ebbw Vale in 1929.  After the landslide Labour victory in the 1945 general election, Bevan was appointed minister of health, and became the architect of the National Health Service which was launched in July 1948, just 67 days before I became an NHS baby.

In 1951, he resigned from his position as a Government Minister in protest at the introduction of prescription charges for dental care and spectacles and became a member of a very exclusive club – that of politicians with integrity. Indeed, he had been briefly expelled from the Labour Party on the eve of the Second World War for advocating a popular front. He was a difficult man to work with as he spoke his mind. Churchill called him a “squalid nuisance” and he repeatedly savaged the two leading Labour members of Churchill’s coalition cabinet, Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison.

Aneurin Bevan“In Place of Fear”, the title of Aneurin Bevan’s 1952 book stated that it was possible to create a society where all could live without fear of going hungry, being poorly housed, or of living with (or dying in) great pain. Sixty years later, the Conservatives are doing their best to destroy that Utopian dream which was well on the way to being achieved.

It was not simply the introduction of the NHS in 1948 that halved inequalities in health in Britain between the 1930s and early 1950s. The overall improvement in living standards brought about by the introduction of the welfare state transformed people’s lives. The strongest correlate to poor health is poverty, and the longer people live in poverty the shorter lives they can expect to live.

The Tory budget due in two days will continue to dismantle the good work done by Aneurin Bevan and his Labour Party, which was a genuine socialist party, unlike the anaemic, people-pleasing shadow of a party that it is today. The Tories have scrapped poverty targets, benefits will be cut and the poor will be even poorer.

We need politicians like Aneurin Bevan today, who will ignore the focus groups, the media moguls and the opinion polls to care for the disadvantaged people of our society.

The Heroes of Ireland and Wales

How can such a small nation have so many iconic locations and modern day heroes concentrated in such a small area? I’ve just returned from a holiday in Ireland where I was also taking the opportunity to research some of the history associated with the internment of 1800 Irish prisoners in Fron Goch internment camp near Bala.

James Larkin outside GPO DublinAs a passionate student of Welsh history, I am inordinately envious of the Irish people every time I visit Dublin. I stood outside the General Post Office in O’Connell Street and looked at the statue of Jim Larkin, probably Ireland’s greatest trade unionist. Somehow I can’t see a statue of a really great trade unionist appearing in Parliament Square in London anytime soon. Straight across the road was another statue of the great Irish writer James Joyce.

Dublin is full of buildings and open spaces that are tingling with the inspirational history of people and events that have shaped that nation. Everybody knows the Post Office as the focal point for the 1916 Easter Rising, but a mile or so away is the beautiful St Stephen’s Green, anather major site associated with the Rising. Then there’s  Kilmainham Gaol and Glasnevin Cemetery, both dripping with history.

Nye BevanI could go on at length about people and places in Ireland that have inspired me. However, it always leads me to a sense of sadness that we don’t have the people and places here in Wales that cause people to be excited, motivated, energised and inspired like those in Ireland. I know there are glorious exceptions to this principle and names like Owain Glyndŵr, Aneurin Bevan and Robert Owen spring to mind – three great people who shaped this nation. If you look at the list of 100 Welsh heroes , they are numbers 1,2 and 9 respectively. There are many people whose names are near the top of the list that have achieved much in their field but have not shaped the nation of Wales. For example, number 3 on this list is Tom Jones,  Richard Burton 5, and Catherine Zeta Jones, 9 – talented certainly, but hardly changing the direction of this nation.

I probably should have included Gwnyfor Evans (4), whose political party I don’t support, but he certainly was key to bringing about S4C, the Welsh TV channel and he underpinned support for the Welsh language. Others like Dylan Thomas (7),  David Lloyd George (8) were great Welshmen, but their contribution was much wider than just the land of Wales.

There is is similar difficulty in identifying locations which are focal points for pivotal points in our history. We have a string of castles built suit to subdue the Welsh people, so they are hardly suitable, but I couldn’t think of a single place where one would make a sort of pilgrimage to salute individuals who had shaped our history.

National Mining MemorialIt was at that point a light came on. Most of our heroes have gone unmarked in history. They are the hundreds of thousands of miners that worked underground to bring coal to fuel a nation that went on to build the biggest empire the world had ever known. They are the quarrymen bringing the granite and slate to produce the cobblestones and the roofs of roads and houses throughout Europe. They are the foundry workers who worked in the iron and steel works building the ships and railways of the world. They are the true heroes of Wales, that shaped not just this nation, but the United Kingdom and many other nations.

And places of pilgrimage? A cemetery in Aberfan where many of the 144 victims of the 1966 disaster are buried; memorials in Senghenydd, Gresford, Cilfynydd, Abercarn  and in so many towns and villages where countless thousands of miners died in pit accidents or through the lingering death of pneumoconiosis, silicosis or emphysema. Yes, Cymru Bach is a land of heroes.

Dylan Thomas, a lemon, a World Record and Men in Dresses

Dylan ThomasI discovered a work by Dylan Thomas recently, that was totally new to me. Apparently he wrote the screenplay to an unremarkable film called, Rebecca’s Daughters. Despite having Peter O’Toole and Paul Rhys in the cast, the film has deservedly disappeared without trace. The interesting contribution it made to history was that it took 44 years from the time it was completed by Dylan Thomas in 1948, until its release in April 1992, which remains a world record for the longest time a screenplay has taken to be filmed.

What annoys me about the film is that it was a comedy. It was loosely based on the Rebecca riots which took place between 1839 and 1843 in mid and south Wales. Those riots were born out of poverty and injustice and were anything but funny. 

From 1815 Wales, like the rest of Britain, experience a post-Napoleonic war slump and agricultural prices remained volatile for many years and many farmers were unable to produce their crops profitably. At the same time a series of rent rises caused many farmers to lay off agricultural workers.  The rural counties of Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire experienced a major increase in population during that post-war period from industrial workers who have had been laid off and returned to their rural roots[1].

The first of three situations which culminated in the Rebecca riots occurred in 1834 when an amendment to the Poor Law created workhouses – a degrading institution housing the poorest members of the community unable to support themselves and requiring them to do pointless manual labour.

The second factor causing anger in Wales and contributing to the riots was a government requirement to pay tithes – a tenth of a man’s income – to the established Anglican Church. As the population was almost universally Non-conformist, this was particularly resented at a time when prices were falling and people were living at subsistence level. An Act in 1836 allowed tithes to be calculated on grain prices averaged over the previous seven years. This led to an increase of 7 per cent in tithes at a time when farming incomes were at 50 per cent of their pre-war level.[2]

However, the main powder keg that exploded in south and south-west Wales related to the numerous toll gates encountered by farmers moving around their area in order to service their farms. Historians are agreed that a chaotic system in operation throughout Britain was particularly inefficient in Wales where they were numerous and operated over small districts. Even on relatively short journeys, farmers might encounter a number of toll gates, particularly near larger towns like Swansea and Carmarthen. Those who had to make longer journeys in order to buy lime to use as fertiliser, for example farmers in northern Pembrokeshire who travelled to the south for supplies from the kilns, were particularly disadvantaged by a multiplicity of tolls they had to pay on their journey.

Rebecca RiotsOn 13 May 1839, a newly erected toll gate at Efailwen in Carmarthenshire was wrecked by protesters. Although the owners rebuilt the gate, a mob of 300-400 met together on the night of 6 June 1839 and destroyed the gate again. The protesters had assembled under the identity of ‘Daughters of Rebecca’ or ‘Children of Rebecca’, many with blackened faces and wearing women’s dresses. From this beginning incidents of destruction of toll houses and toll gates began to spread westwards across the county and into Pembrokeshire. However, after a month the disturbances largely ceased and there was a quiet period until winter 1842 when a much greater wave of protests started affecting trusts in both Pembrokeshire and Carmarthen. By 1844 the Rebecca rising had come to an end.

[1] D. Gareth Edwards, A History of Wales 1815-1906, (Cardiff, 1985) p.139

[2] D. Gareth Edwards, A History of Wales 1815-1906, (Cardiff, 1985) p146