Heritage of Wales

Victorian Society

In 1918 Lytton Strachey wrote, in Eminent Victorians, ‘The history of the Victorian Age will never be written: we know too much about it. For ignorance is the first requisite of the historian — ignorance, which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits, with a placid perfection unattainable by the highest art.’ The Victorian Age was a tumultuous period about which we know a great deal, but some of its most important themes are still being explored. The buildings and landscapes of Wales are an important resource for understanding the processes that transformed the country.

The reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901 saw an astonishing speed of social, intellectual and technological development. It was an age of industry, wealth and social reform. A dramatic increase in the population together with mass migration changed the face of town and countryside. New-found wealth from industry and international trade led to the growth of the middle classes as the economy was transformed from one based primarily on agriculture to one driven by capitalism and entrepreneurship, while the identity of the new industrial working class was consolidated. The valleys of south Wales drew in tens of thousands to work in the coal and iron industries, and slate-quarrying communities in the north also expanded rapidly.

  • First edition Ordnance Survey map (enlarged) of Cardiff showing the later nineteenth-century process of laying out workers' terraced housing around the main railway in Roath, Splott and Adamsdown. GL.MMXXXVII (Image: DI2008_0541)
  • Crumlin Viaduct under constructionin 1856. (Image:DI2008_0531 / NPRN: 34959)
  • Histopric photograph of about 1915 showing a locomotive at the Ocean Deep Navigation Colliery, Treharris, Merthyr Tydfil. (Llun: GTJ28935 / NPRN:80489)

Locomotive railways aided the boom in Welsh industry and by the 1870s the new networks enabled all classes to enjoy travel and tourism. Such fundamental change inevitably had its downside, and Victorian Wales also witnessed social distress and exploitation. In the middle of the century legislation began to regulate the atrocious working conditions. Reforms followed, directed at public health, social conditions and education. Such measures were seen as an antidote to the popular unrest that had broken out previously in the shape of the Rebecca Riots, the Merthyr Rising and the Chartist movement.

The rapid growth of the south Wales coalfield was the outstanding feature of Wales’s development in the second half of the nineteenth century. Although coal had been mined for many years on the coalfield rims to fuel iron or copper smelting, the 1840s and 1850s saw the exploitation of the central coalfield and the beginnings of the international trade in steam coal, supported by the coming of the railways and the building of docks at Cardiff, Newport and Swansea. Output from the valleys rose from approximately 4.5 million tons in 1840 to 8.5 million in 1854 and over 50 million by 1912. The Rhondda valleys especially became synonymous with black coal tips, colliery headgear and row upon row of miners’ terraces. Workers flooded in from all over the British Isles but especially from the Welsh rural hinterland and agricultural areas across the Severn estuary. Between 1851 and 1910 the population of the Rhondda soared from perhaps 1,000 to more than 150,000.

Other industries grew alongside mining. For much of the Victorian period Wales was the world’s most important producer of slate, non-ferrous metals, iron and tinplate, and was a significant steelmaking country. Supporting industries such as brick and tile manufacturing, engineering, transport and brewing also flourished. Industrialists, merchants and landowners ploughed much of their wealth back into the infrastructure of railways, docks and towns.

  •  Early photograph from the John Cornwell Collection showing the Ferndale Colliers in the Rhondda which were sunk by David Davies for the extraction of steam coal. the terraces overlooking the mines were built to house the influx of miners and their families. (Image: DI2008_0535 / NPRN:80496)
  • Penrhyn slate quarry, Caernaerfonshire, has remained in continuous production since the eighteenth century. the old quarry faces and working terraces (bottom right) are psrtly overwhelmed by tipping but the reamins of mills, splitting workshops and inclines can be seen. (Image: DI2007_1578 / NPRN: 40564)
  • Ynys-y-pandy slate mill, Dolbenmaen. (Image: DS2007_280_002 / NPRN: 40572)

Wealthy Victorians also sought to satisfy their own tastes and interests, and for many of them money was no object. They could indulge their flights of fancy to build lavish country houses — the marquis of Bute’s Castell Coch remains a prime example. The years from 1855 to 1875 saw country-house building at its peak. No single style dominated and architects felt free to experiment. Victorian house design ranged stylistically through Italianate classicism at Penoyre (Powys), French Renaissance at Wynnstay (Wrexham), French Gothic Revival at Hafodunos (Denbighshire), Spanish at Soughton Hall (Flintshire) and Queen Anne Revival at Kinmel Park (Denbighshire), with its high mansard roofs and dormer windows.

The most architecturally dispassionate of designs was Hafodunos, built in 1861-8 for a wealthy Liverpool merchant, H. R. Sandbach, by Sir Gilbert Scott, famed for the St Pancras Hotel and the Foreign Office in London. Though he dominated the mid-Victorian Gothic Revival, Scott designed only this one country house in Wales. He employed a sober, late-thirteenth-century French style, as shown by the symmetrical garden front, though he added extravagant touches with the octagonal structure to the gable end (suggestive of a medieval kitchen like Glastonbury’s but actually a top-lit billiard room) and an openwork spire over the clock tower to the rear. The house has suffered from serious dilapidation and was devastated by a fire in 2004, adding to the importance of the photographic archive held by the Royal Commission.

  •  the octangonal drawing room at Castell Coch (Image: DI2006_1486 / NPRN: 93112)
  •  Hafodunos, built to the design of Sir Gilbert Scott in 1861-8. (Image: DI2005_0768 / NPRN: 27268)
  • The highly Romantic chimney-piece within the banqueting hall at Cardiff Castle. (Image: DI2008_0460 / NPRN: 33)

The landlords of large estates spent much of their capital on improvements, not only of their grand houses and gardens but of farms, estate villages, roads and bridges. Their estates were seen as an outward symbol of their aspiration to social eminence, and some overstretched themselves financially. After his Gothic Revival house at Leighton near Welshpool was completed in 1851 the banker John Naylor went on to build a model farm where he experimented with many of the new technologies of the age. His neighbour, the earl of Powis, spent almost a quarter of his rents on improvements to his own estate between 1859 and 1875, helping to sustain it through the agricultural depression of the late nineteenth century when many landowners were hit badly by poor harvests and the growth of imports from North America and Australasia. The National Monuments Record of Wales holds a collection of estate sales particulars from this period that demonstrates both the scale of such estates and the effects of the slump. Many tenants and labourers moved to the towns and industrial areas in search of work

  • Leighton Park model farm.(Image: DI2007_1401 / NPRN: 80542)
  • Sales particulars of the Hean estate in 1898. A series of bad investments led to the breakup of the estate only twnty years aftre this grand castellated Tudor gothic mansion had been built. (Image: DI2008_0544 / NPRN: 22044)
  • The Poultry House. (Image:DI2008_0847 / NPRN: 85876)

In the eighteenth century the iron districts had seen families like the Crawshays in Merthyr Tydfil build cheap housing for the people who flooded to industrial work. In 1866 the Sanitary Act compelled local authorities to improve conditions by providing sewers, supplying water and cleaning streets. It defined overcrowding for the first time and appointed sanitary inspectors. This Act, combined with local by-laws, meant that most workers’ housing built from the 1870s onwards was far better designed and constructed than the cottages associated with the iron industry a century earlier or the primitive dwellings of the rural poor.

In south Wales most of the Victorian-era workers’ housing was not built by industrial employers but by private building firms. Building Clubs were set up to help families save to buy their houses, but many people rented from private or industrial landlords. As wages increased, for the first time ordinary people were able to save or spend their surplus on things other than the basics of life. The better paid aspired to a detached house or villa with a private garden — suburbs were built with leafy parks and open spaces in places such as Roath, Pontcanna, Victoria Park and Penarth around Cardiff, and Sketty and Morriston at Swansea.

  • Terraced housing in Splott, Cardiff, was built in the 1880s to house the steel workers and their families.(Images: DI2006_1810 / NPRN: 309003)
  • Victoria Park, Cardiff, was built in 1897-8 to celebrate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. It was the first municipal park in Cardiff and one of the first in the country.(Image: AP_2006_1815 / NPRN: 301658)

(Llun: AP_2006_1815 / NPRN: 301658)

Although the Victorian era saw moves towards state involvement in social welfare, its institutions were desperately inadequate by modern standards. Its workhouses, asylums, prisons and hospitals kept their inhabitants separate from the rest of society.

Workhouses were the only source of food and shelter for many of the old and the sick but conditions were punitive and families were split up. After the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act parishes established workhouses instead of dispensing poor relief as money, food and blankets, but the process was gradual. As late as 1845 the Poor Law Commissioners recorded that seventeen of the forty-seven Welsh Poor Law unions still had no ‘efficient workhouse in operation’; it was not until 1879 that Rhayader complied with the legislation and built a workhouse for its poor.

With regard to hospitals, The Builder in 1858 commented that in most the care of inmates was by no means a priority and people would have more hope of cure by ‘lying in the open air’. Asylums were used as a dumping ground for the poor and sick and in the mid-nineteenth century were still open for inquisitive visitors to gawp at the afflicted.

As late as 1844 the Commissioners in Lunacy were finding men and women in dark cells strapped to beds or chairs, although the extreme brutalities of the previous century had largely disappeared. As the Victorian period progressed therapeutic activities, industry and patience became approved approaches. The new paternalistic notions were manifest in monumental architecture: some institutions appeared more like stately homes than medical facilities, having attached farms, lodges and chapels .

  • Warden and Mrs Nugent with staff and orphans at Albro Castle workhouse in 1927. (Image: DI2008_0248 / NPRN: 3041)
  • Rear elevation of Albro Castle workhouse showing the H-plan. (Image: DI2008_0247 / NPRN: 3041)
  • Aerial view showing the airing courts and central observatory at Llanfyllin workhouse, Montgomeryshire. (Image: AP_2004_0601 / NPRN: 32044)

The first half of the nineteenth century saw an enormous popular growth in religion, predominantly marked in Wales by nonconformist chapels. By 1851 the religious census noted 2,813 chapels in Wales — over the preceding fifty years one chapel had been built every eight days on average.

Most parish churches were far from the new industrial communities. The established Church was slow to adapt but there was a gradual upsurge in church building. However, the chapel was the choice of the majority in Wales. Chapel services emphasised the individual, were highly charged and allowed the layperson to play a prominent role, giving individuals a sense of self worth they could not find in the established Church. It was claimed in the middle of the nineteenth century that, ‘The Non-conformists of Wales are the people of Wales’. They came to dominate all aspects of life.

The 1852 general election saw the first Unitarian Member of Parliament, Walter Coffin, elected to a Cardiff constituency. Nonconformity became integral to attitudes to the individual’s worth, support for education and the politicisation of Wales.

Many of the larger chapels were complexes containing schoolrooms, a vestry, a minister’s house, meeting rooms, library and stables as well as the chapel itself — an example is Moreia Calvinistic Methodist Chapel in Llangefni, Anglesey. Such chapels became focal points of their communities, not just filled on Sundays but used throughout the week for meetings, instruction and eisteddfodau.

In layout they differed from Anglican churches in that each was seen as an auditorium where the congregation gathered to listen to the word of God rather than to practise liturgical rites. Nonconformists were unconcerned about the orientation of their buildings and did not require the pulpit at the east end: it tended to be placed on the back wall of the chapel with the sedd fawr or ‘big seat’ for the chapel elders directly in front. Frequently there was a three-sided gallery to maximise capacity. On the fourth side, opposite the entrance, some of the more wealthy congregations built an imposing organ.

Externally chapels varied enormously. For although chapel designers such as Thomas Thomas, William Beddoe Rees and Richard Owens had distinctive styles it was frequently the minister and congregation who chose the style of their building having consulted design catalogues or viewed other chapels. This led to strange juxtapositions from architectural history. Compendia of Gothic, Lombardic, Classical and Greek were created that generated many unfavourable comments from architectural critics.

The rivalry of denominations combined with the revivalist fervour during the nineteenth century meant that chapels underwent many alterations, ranging from a new façade to a complete redesign. The chapel fabric was not seen as sacred; it was merely a meeting house to be altered, enlarged or demolished. Most chapels have plaques recording their establishment, rebuildings, enlargements and renovations.

  • Plan of Moreia Calvanistic Methodist Chapel, Llangefni, Anglesey, surveyed as part of the chapels Recording Project. It was erected as a memorial chapel to the preacher and minister John  Elias to the design of Owen Morris Roberts of Porthmadog. the large chapel complex includes a vestry, various school rooms and minister's rooms, and a chapel house. (Image: GTJ00013 / NPRN: 8783)
  • Seion Independent Chapel, Aberystwyth, originally built in 1814-15 and then rebuilt in 1876-78 to the designs of Richard Owens of Liverpool. It is a grade 2 listed building with a particularly fine arcaded and galleried interior.  (Image: DI2006_0268 / NPRN: 7147)
  • Tabernacl Independent chapel, Llanelli. (Image: DI2006_0297 / NPRN: 6429)

Education in the mid-nineteenth century was segregated by gender, class and religion. Relatively few girls received any formal instruction. The wealthy educated their sons at home or at private school. Middle-class boys tended to go to small, local fee-paying schools. Sons of the poor were restricted to charity schools, Sunday schools or no schooling at all. Charity schools such as those run by the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church and the British and Foreign Society were founded to further elementary education and the first half of the century saw a great many of these schools being built.

Progress was still slow, however, as the Blue Books suggested controversially in 1847 in a damning report on education in Wales. The Welsh were painted as ‘ill-educated, poor, dirty, unchaste, and potentially rebellious’. This was mainly attributed to the Welsh language and nonconformity. The majority of the working classes were still monoglot Welsh speakers, yet lessons were held in English. Teachers received no training and few government grants for schools had come to Wales. It was noted in the 1840s that literacy in Wales was so bad that barely half of all bridegrooms could sign their name on the marriage register.

By 1870 Wales had experienced a huge change in attitudes towards elementary education. Even in south Wales, where children working in industry brought vital income to their families, 102 British schools were built between 1853 and 1860. Schools tended to have a distinctive architecture with high windows and a bell tower, as can be seen on the old school at Borth, Ceredigion. Gothic was deemed to be the appropriately solid and imposing style, as recommended by Henry Kendall in his Designs for Schools in 1847.

Some industrialists provided schools where their employees could send their children, but few boys or girls would remain in them for more than a year or two as parents withdrew them to start work. It was not until the Factory Acts Extension Act of 1867 that children aged between 8 and 13 were prohibited from night work and compelled to attend school half-time. This, combined with the Education Act of 1870, created a network of elementary schools across Wales. For the first time education was seen as a state responsibility rather than the remit of voluntary effort, and the country was divided into districts to build the new board schools. British schools were incorporated into the school board system but national schools remained independent. In 1889 the Welsh Intermediate Education Act led to county schools being built in a flurry. By 1902 Wales had 95 intermediate schools with most pupils originating from lower middle-class and working-class backgrounds.

The period also saw the introduction of higher education to Wales with the University of Wales set up in 1893 as a degree awarding body. By the end of the nineteenth century, as the historian John Davies has said, ‘there were more opportunities to receive an academic education in Wales than in England’.