The death of Queen Victoria in 1901 brought to a close the longest reign in British history. It had been a period of extraordinary industrial achievement, technological development and social reform. In the Edwardian era, from 1901 to 1910, optimism and confidence continued and Britons could claim world leadership in politics, commerce and social change. Many developments important to Britain today date from this period, such as the introduction of motor cars and aeroplanes, the rise of new political parties and welfare provisions for children, the sick, the elderly and the unemployed. However, the shock of the 1914-18 War brought an abrupt end to optimism. During the two decades before war broke out again, Britain entered a period when the old certainties were challenged constantly: by radical changes in the technology of everyday life, new principles of modernism in planning and architecture, the increasing dominance of America, and severe economic crises, social unrest and strife.
By 1900 industry and commerce were fundamental to the Welsh economy. The 1901 census showed that the numbers employed in agriculture had continued to fall, to around 8.5 per cent of the population. 1913 was the year of peak production and manpower in the Welsh coal industry, with over 600 collieries and about 233,000 men producing nearly 57 million tonnes of coal – a fifth of the United Kingdom’s production. In that year, the port of Barry gained the record for the most coal exported, eleven million tons. Such frenetic production came at a price: at Senghenydd near Caerphilly an underground explosion on 14 October 1913 killed 439 men and boys – the worst mining disaster ever to have occurred in Britain. Other industries were also developing: in 1907 Port Talbot steel works was established and the hydro-electrically powered Dolgarrog aluminium works opened in the Conwy Valley. Alongside the dependency on heavy industries, new technologies were being developed: in 1912, at Waunfawr near Caernarfon, Marconi set up the first successful long-wave radio transmitting station, which was for some twenty-six years the most important in Britain, handling imperial and international communications.
The social unrest so frequent between the wars was apparent earlier, most notably in the slate and coal industries. There was a measure of recovery in farming communities in rural Wales before the First World War, but conditions of life in the industrial regions were harsh. The strike at Penrhyn slate quarry in Caernarfonshire, which began in November 1900, was to become the longest dispute in British history: the quarrymen were locked out for three years. The community was divided and thousands left the area, never to return. In south Wales, the Tonypandy riots of 1910, sparked by a colliery lockout, resulted in the troops being sent in, and between 1910 and 1914 there were numerous strikes by miners, dockers and railway workers. The economic slump after the war brought further strife. Miners struck in 1924 over wage reductions. After the 1926 General Strike miners were forced to return to work on reduced wages and for longer hours. The following year, desperation brought about by widespread unemployment triggered the first hunger march from south Wales to London. The world-wide depression from 1929 until 1933 was disastrous. Mass unemployment was not to reach its worst until 1930, when south Wales was particularly hard hit.
Although the days of the great railway building age had long gone, there was one final, major project: the creation of Fishguard harbour and a main-line railway link, between 1902 and 1906, in a bold attempt not only to create a shorter route to Ireland via Rosslare but to capture trans-Atlantic liner traffic. Less ambitious improvements to transport around that time included the Vale of Rheidol railway from Aberystwyth to Devil’s Bridge and the Great Orme tramway at Llandudno, both in 1902, the Welshpool and Llanfair railway in 1903 and the vehicular Newport transporter bridge in 1906. Before the First World War, Britain’s railways were at their peak; certainly in south Wales they were never more busy, carrying coal for export. In 1908, for example, the Taff Vale railway moved in excess of eighteen million tonnes of coal over its tracks. The docks at Cardiff, Barry and Newport dealt with huge tonnages: in one year over ten million tonnes of steam coal were handled by Cardiff alone, which had become the largest coal-exporting port in the world.
Other civil engineering projects would continue to be important. In 1904 the Elan water scheme was opened by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, after eleven years of construction. This monumental undertaking supplied clean water to the city of Birmingham. It was followed by more projects to flood Welsh valleys in order to provide drinking water to English cities and growing centres of population in Wales such as Cardiff, Swansea and Newport. The most controversial was to come two generations later: the Liverpool scheme at Tryweryn near Bala, which drowned the village of Capel Celyn in 1965.
The increasing recognition of Welsh nationality from the mid-nineteenth century led to the granting of the title of city to Cardiff in 1905 (although it did not become officially the capital of Wales for another fifty years). The grand civic buildings in Cathays Park that dominate the city centre express the wealth derived from the export of coal and the rapid growth of Cardiff's importance and size over the previous half-century. Swansea did not grow at the same rate, despite the international significance of its major heavy industries, especially non-ferrous metal production, and it was not until 1969 that it was awarded city status. These were years of Liberal ascendancy in national and local politics, though the Independent Labour Party made headway.
The religious revival of 1904-5 sustained the cultural vitality of the late Victorian years, and by the time war loomed in 1914 moves were afoot to disestablish and disendow the Anglican Church, effected in 1920.
The year 1907 was significant for the creation of national cultural institutions: it saw the founding of the National Museum and a Welsh department of the Board of Education, and, following thirty-five years of deliberation, the Royal Charter establishing the National Library: shortly after construction commenced at Aberystwyth it became one of the six British legal deposit libraries, entitled to claim a copy of all publications produced in the United Kingdom. The following year saw the establishment of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, along with sister bodies for Scotland and England. Such was the rising confidence in Wales that a home rule bill was introduced in Parliament in 1914, though it was soon abandoned due to the First World War.
The 1914-18 war brought profound changes, and swept away the old order in many spheres. Young men responded eagerly to the call to arms and some 35,000 Welshmen did not return. Part of the preparation for fighting at the front involved practice trenches at various locations, with notable remains surviving at Penally in Pembrokeshire and Bodelwyddan in Denbighshire. Under the direction of David Lloyd George, minister of munitions, later secretary for war and eventually prime minister, Welsh industry contributed to the war effort, making steel, meeting the need for shells and satisfying the navy’s voracious appetite for steam coal. New munitions factories were built along the north Wales coast. Margam Steel Works near Neath was established in 1916. Investments were also made at collieries. The first pit-head baths in Wales opened at Deep Navigation colliery, ironically based on designs developed in pre-war Germany, unlike the modernist baths designed by the Miners’ Welfare Committee from the 1920s onwards. The Deep Navigation baths was recorded by the Royal Commission as part of its survey of the rapidly-contracting coal industry in the 1990s, shortly before it was demolished.
The First World War continued a process of decline in country houses and grand estates that had begun in the later Victorian period as rising costs of labour and the introduction of death duties threatened owners’ finances. In 1909 Cyfarthfa Castle in Merthyr Tydfil, for long the home of the Crawshay dynasty of ironmasters, had been purchased by the local council to become a museum and art gallery. With so many men called away during the war, the country-house style of life seemed incompatible with the harsh demands made of men in the conflict, and afterwards it was difficult to recruit workforces and continue large estates and households as before.
The garden village movement had become established before the war, with villages begun at several locations, notably Barry garden suburb in south Wales and Rhiwbina in Cardiff. After victory in 1918, demobbed soldiers expected more than a return to pre-war ways and were promised by the government that there would be no more slums but instead ‘homes fit for heroes.’ Although concern turned naturally to the future, almost every town and village in Wales had its own war memorial, commemorating the vast numbers of men who gave their lives in the ‘war to end all wars’. The loss of life hit Welsh-speaking communities hard and caused a precipitous decline in the language. Some concluded that the way to preserve the culture, and further the aims of nationalism, was through political action by the formation of Plaid Cymru, the national Party of Wales. For others, the future lay with organised labour and a resurgent Labour party locally and at Westminster.
The 1920s were years of contrasts. Although labour relations and the traditional heavy industries were in increasing difficulties and considerable numbers of workers left for English towns and cities, it was for some a time of prosperity, when new technologies were introduced and a leisure industry was developing. The BBC started radio broadcasting from Cardiff, Llandarcy oil refinery opened near Swansea, Shotton steel works in Flintshire, geared for massive production during the war, turned to supplying the nascent automotive industry. Huge water supply schemes were in various stages of construction, for example at Alwen, Denbighshire, opened in 1921 to supply Birkenhead, and in the Brecon Beacons reservoirs at Talybont (commenced 1923) and Llwyn-on (completed 1926) to supply Newport and Cardiff respectively.
Improvements to education were represented by the founding, in 1920, of Swansea University and in 1927 Coleg Harlech, Merioneth, as a residential college for adults. Although the coal industry was in difficulty, new, more efficient, mines were being developed such as Taff Merthyr Colliery in Glamorgan and a major improvement of conditions for miners was brought about by the rapid construction of pithead baths at most of the larger collieries.
By the mid-1930s, Wales was emerging from the economic depression. Cardiff aerodrome was established on Pengam Moors to provide the city with the most up-to-date international links. In 1933 agriculture was given a modernising boost by the formation of the Milk Marketing Board. The Board transformed the production and marketing of milk-related products, a development of particular significance to the great dairying region of south-west Wales, where its first new dairy in Wales was completed at Pont Llanio. As the decade progressed, there were signs of the promised post-war new housing: the 1930 Housing Act allowed local authorities to demolish unfit properties as long as the tenants were found alternative accommodation, thus leading to the mass provision of council-housing. For some, the increasing prosperity and confidence brought more recreational and leisure time and the first holiday camps began to appear, such as Pontin’s at Prestatyn on the north Wales coast, to cater for the holidaying masses from Britain’s industrial centres. The first radio programmes to be broadcast in Welsh were made by the BBC from its studio at Bangor.
In September 1934 another tragedy in the coal industry was caused by a massive explosion that ripped through Gresford colliery near Wrexham. The disaster took the lives of 266 miners. In south Wales, the government’s response to the still-declining coal industry and consequent lack of jobs, especially in areas that depended solely on coal production such as the Rhondda, was to stimulate employment by establishing the South Wales and Monmouthshire Trading Estate (later Treforest Industrial Estate) near Cardiff, the first of its kind in Wales, introducing light manufacturing industries.
No sooner had Wales emerged from the darkness of the Depression than war again cast a shadow. War material facilities that had been dismantled or wound down since 1918 were hurriedly recommissioned and additional capacity was provided, with major Royal Ordnance Factories at Hirwaun, Bridgend, Cardiff, Newport, Caerwent and Wrexham. A series of ‘shadow factories’ was built, duplicating parent factories already given over to war production in the English engineering districts; there were examples at Hawarden and Broughton in north Wales, Newtown in mid-Wales and Abergavenny in the south-east. In the knowledge that fighting might reach British soil, extensive air raid precautions and defensive measures were put in place, such as the network of radar stations along the south Wales coast at Strumble Head, Manorbier, Rhosili, Oxwich, and Margam, the anti-invasion Rhos-Llangeler stop line across south-west Wales, and numerous reinforced-concrete pill boxes at strategic locations all over the country, such as bridges, docks and railway installations. Some of the munitions works, the sprawling army camps, including prisoner of war camps, such as Island Farm at Bridgend, and the airfields, for example at Brawdy in Pembrokeshire, were on a huge scale.
In 1940 the National Buildings Record (NBR) was created to record photographically important architectural monuments at risk of aerial bombing and ordinary buildings of many kinds that might be threatened by an invasion. The NBR was eventually subsumed into the National Monuments Records for England, Scotland and Wales, held by the three Royal Commissions. The industrial south, with its strategic industries, vital transport routes and docks, suffered most from enemy bombing: Cardiff was severely hit and Swansea was attacked for three consecutive nights in February 1941, resulting in the destruction of much of the city centre.
Following victory in 1945, Britain elected a modernising Labour government. Nationalisation plans abounded, notably for the transport, docks, coal and iron industries, and the establishment of new industrial estates was encouraged by government subsidies and loans, many on converted military sites. There was a grim determination that, this time, there would be a break with the past and no repeat of the mass unemployment of previous decades.