If ever there was an author qualified to chronicle the remarkable history of the Welsh community in Liverpool it’s the indefatigable D. Ben Rees, who has written no fewer than 30 books on the subject. This latest title acts as a sort of convenient digest of all the books that preceded it, reminding us of a connection often overshadowed by the Irish presence and influence on the city.
It tells of the growth of what was an inconsequential village, too small to make it into the listings of the Domesday Book of 1086 but important enough by 1207 to get a Royal Charter from King John when the name ‘Liverpool,’ from ‘muddy pool’, first made an appearance. Its fairs were magnets for folk from Chester and Wales, there was an export trade in wood to build Caernarfon castle and thereafter Welsh soldiers used its port as an embarcation point to travel to Ireland to fight.
The place grew surely and steadily and one of its first mayors was Dafydd ap Gruffydd, who was supposed to have travelled to London in the time of Henry VII and whose loyalty was rewarded with the job of collecting taxes in Liverpool. Other Welsh people who found themselves here had nothing like such social status, such as tramps and prostitutes attracted, perhaps, by the ‘excedinge number of ale howses’ although some, such as Davies the Fish, made much money here, selling fifty barrels of fish at a time, being the entire contents of his sturdy boat.
One of the most interesting aspects of the early history of the area was the dark practise of sending young Welsh men and women to work in the cotton plantations of the U.S. as a consequence of appearing before the courts. They were called ‘apprentices’ or ‘immigrants’, although this human export trade to the West Indies, Virginia or Georgia sometimes involved children as young as eight. And there were the Welsh merchants making money from piracy, too, and the transporting and selling of slaves and also hunting whales for their blubber.
Other trade was far more benign, with small craft plying busily between Anglesey with their cargo of copper and farm produce. All this helped swell the coffers and the population, which went from just under 6,000 in 1700 to almost 80,000 a hundred years later, with plentiful building work attracting workers and their families in droves. The number of ships at anchor on the Mersey is another index of the port’s importance, with no fewer tahn 3,420 to be seen there in 1783.
In tandem, factories were built and flourished with some, such as the cotton factory, employing so many workers from Wales that it was known as ‘The Welsh Factory.’ Soon there were chapels to look after the workers’ souls, although some Welsh preachers feared venturing to Liverpool because of marauding press gangs, villainous men who thought nothing of killing anyone who resisted being kidnapped to join a ship’s crew.
For some this was a place of crushing and abject poverty, with the spectre of illness stalking many a crowded quarter, alleviated in part by the opening of the so-called . A place of dissolute drunkenness, too, with pubs opening at four in the morning, only closing their door at midnight. Labourers might be paid with tokens rather than money so the living was hard.
But Godliness seemed to win out, and chapels mushroomed, as well as a healthy export trade in missionaries, especially to India and in particular to the Khasi Hills. The Temperance Movement also won adherents, with some abstaining from gin and sticking to beer while 133 Welsh drinkers joining a teetotallers’ society established among the Liverpool Welsh in 1836.
One of the most interesting chapters concerns the Welsh bone doctors and setters such as Evan Thomas from Anglesey , whose five sons went on to study medicine at Edinburgh. Hugh Owen Thomas, meanwhile, devised a splint which, in tandem with long periods of rest helped eradicate the effects of TB on the hip.
The presence of so many Welsh people in Liverpool helped encourage the creation of a Welsh language press, with the newspaper ‘Yr Amserau’ appearing for the first time in 1843 to be followed by a magazine called ‘Y Brud a Sylwydd.’ Some periodicals grew out of the movement to create a Welsh settlement in Patagonia, such as ‘Y Ddraig Goch’ along with the intriguingly entitled magazine ‘Eich Modryb Gwen, Ddifyr, Ddoeth, Dda’ which translates as ‘Your Aunt Gwen, Interesting, Wise, Good.’
Some titles folded quite swiftly but the weekly newspaper ‘Y Cymro,’ produced for the Liverpool Welsh, had staying power and its visionary proprietor, Isaac Foulkes saw that a serialized novel might add to sales. He persuaded Daniel Owen to generate the stories which would become classics such as ‘Enoc Huws’ and ‘Gwen Tomos,’ thus emulating the success of Dickens with his weekly installments of ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Great Expectations’ in newspapers.
This was still a city in the making and many Welsh builders physically built the new suburbs as they expanded, along with establishing a burgeoning mercantile and cultural centre to the place full of grand and impsoing buildings. Welsh street names peppered the map in certain areas, such as Everton and Toxteth while of course some Welsh people made fortunes from the great sea trades, men such as Alfred Lewis Jones who built up a substantial trading fleet and, in passing, popularized the banana.
As this history turns to the twentieth century it is fascinating to read about the effects of the flooding Tryweryn on the Welsh speakers of the city, some of whom, albeit a very few, supported the scheme and its drowning of the community of Capel Celyn to meet its water requirements.
This a compendious account of a fascinating and enduring connection between Wales and what is now a complex and confident city. It is written by a man who has done more than most to examine, sustain and celebrate that connection and is a solid, meticulously researched contribution to the history of the Welsh beyond, if only just beyond the nation’s borders.
Hanes Rhyfeddol Cymry Lerpwl by D. Ben Rees is published by Y Lolfa and can be bought here.