Councillor in charge of education in Monmouthshire claims Welsh was banned in schools – but is it true?
Twm Owen, local democracy reporter
Today, education is seen as being at the forefront of efforts to support Welsh – however, there was a time when children could face harsh punishment at school for simply speaking the native tongue.
But was it ever illegal to speak Welsh in schools? That was a claim made during a recent discussion on how education through Welsh, and for those learning the language, is provided in one local authority area.
Speaking during a meeting last week in which claims were heard that some local children regarded Welsh lessons as “a waste of time”, Cllr Martyn Groucutt, who is the cabinet member in charge of education in Monmouthshire, claimed the government had banned the language from schools during the Victorian period.
He said: “The Blue Books scandal in the 19th Century (when) the English government system actually made it illegal in schools to speak (the) Welsh language and children who spoke Welsh in school were punished for doing so and in many of our own communities, at that point, that was probably the only language that they could speak with fluency.”
But what were the Blue Books and did they outlaw Welsh in schools?
The Blue Books were an 1847 government-commissioned report into the state of education in Wales – so named as all government reports are bound in blue covers.
According to The National Library of Wales, the three-volume report “caused a furore and a great deal of agitation in Wales because of the arrogant remarks of the three non-Welsh speaking Anglican commissioners regarding the Welsh language, non-conformity and the morals of the Welsh people in general.”
The report became known as ‘Brad y Llyfrau Gleision’, or ‘Treachery of the Blue Books’ due to the negative connotations that have been associated with its impact and the language.
“It was at this time that ordinary Welsh people began to believe that they could only improve themselves socially through education and the ability to speak and communicate in English,” says the National Library.
It was also during the 19th Century that the infamous Welsh Not came into use in schools, which saw children heard speaking Welsh made to hold, or wear, a wooden sign.
It would be passed to another child if they were heard speaking Welsh and the unfortunate pupil holding it at the end of the school day would receive a beating.
However, although the cruel punishment was dished out by schoolmasters, it was never a government-driven policy and there was no law either mandating its use – or which banned Welsh from being spoken.
Martin Johnes, professor of Welsh history at Swansea University, said it is important to understand the societal pressures of the time but said: “Speaking Welsh in schools has never been illegal.”
The academic, who is currently writing a history of the Welsh Not and language in 19th Century education, also said the Blue Books and the role of government have been misunderstood.
“Some children were punished for speaking Welsh because of a misguided belief that it would improve their skills in English. The drive for this came from individual teachers. It happened at a time when state control over teaching methods was fairly minimal and early in the 19th century non-existent.
“It was never government policy that children should be punished for speaking Welsh or that Welsh should be excluded from the classroom. However, it is fair to say that the government did nothing to support the teaching of Welsh as a subject in itself before the 1890s.”
On the Blue Books the professor said: “That education report actually argued that schools should use the Welsh language in order to better teach children English. The commissioners had no love or respect for Welsh but they correctly understood that the exclusion of Welsh from classrooms was making it very difficult for Welsh monoglot children to learn anything at all.”
Cllr Groucutt told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that he had outlined the history, as he understood it, during the committee discussion but was “happy” to be corrected.
The former secondary school teacher and education officer said: “I was speaking off the top of my head and it was what I was taught when I did my teacher training, in Bangor, in 1971.
“If anyone questions it I’m more than happy to say I’ve been corrected by the fourth estate and a professor of Welsh history, but the point remains that the Welsh language, in schools, was not encouraged at that point.”
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Growing up on Ynys Mon in the late sixties and early seventies, no welsh at pre school-english only, at county primary welsh lessons limited to 1 hour a week, naturally at progression to secondary all of us were streamed into English classes with welsh being only taught as a 2nd language and a hardly functional welsh language at that “cymraeg byw” cofiwch “ Rdyw I” “Roeddwn I”. Had I gone to a village school, the story would have been different with the majority of children being taught in Welsh. The legacy of the loss of the language is on the… Read more »
That’s quite a contrast with my experience in the early 60s (1962 – 65) at Ysgol Gynradd Tyn-y-Gongl where in the 5-7 year old’s class we were exposed to a lot of Welsh, and I can especially remember us being drilled in our times tables in Welsh in the mornings, and taking part in an arithmetical game in Welsh. I don’t remember what the bulk of the lessons were taught in, but there must have been significant amounts of Welsh as upon reaching 7 years of age and starting in the Junior’s class, tuition was exclusively in Welsh and no… Read more »
One of the authors of the Blue Books complained of the Llanasa (Flintshire) school that no use was made of the Welsh Not and few of the pupils spoke or understood English.
W. Ken Davies
The Blue Books do complain that the children at Llanasa were ‘ignorant’ of Welsh but they make no reference to the Welsh Not in the report on that parish.
The only mention of the Welsh Not in the three volumes of the Blue Books is a criticism of the practice. The commissioners believed it was important for schools to use Welsh as a medium of instruction if children were going to learn English properly. They saw Welsh-medium instruction as a route to turning Wales into an English-speaking country.
Above should say the reports complained the kids were ignorant of English!
Was it legal for the n*zis to knock the cr*p out of people? Perhaps not…………….
It not been any legal issue adds nothing. They create a hate that exists to this day for our language. A hate regularly brought up by English press to brainwash Welsh minds against our own culture. It’s no fluke that many different people I have met claim money spent on Cymraeg is pointless, yet sing the anthem at sport events. My English in laws think my kids Welsh education stupid, it’s because of these moves of the past
This is spot on! Whether it was legal or illegal is inconsequential. It was a colonialist tool cleverly designed to get the Welsh people to hate who they were and to do the colonist’s dirty work for them. It’s seen in colonized nation the world over. Psychological warfare is far more effective than sending an army in.
Welsh was banned in our schools by Westminster during the Welsh Not campaign. Welsh children were physically beaten and ridiculed for speaking their own language in our schools. It happened. I’m sick to the pit of my bloody stomach by history revisionists like Martin Johnes who in my opinion are the Welsh equiverlent of a Holocaust denyer. The teaching of Welsh , Welsh history & culture was banned under the Act of Union Wales 1535/1543 by Henry VIII. The Westminster Blue Books did refer to the Welsh using racial & cultural slurs. And in 2022 Welsh is still banned in… Read more »
There was only one reason Welsh history was banned by the Tudors and that was because they 1. Had no authority within Wales, and 2. They were a cadet branch of a cadet branch of Welsh Royalty. Royalty inwhich their ancestors helped to get rid of on behalf of the Marcher lords of England. The Legitimate royals of Britain and Wales ended in the 11th century with Iestyn Ap Gwrgan.
Please provide some evidence, a I’m sure that Martin Johnes will provide plenty of references in support of his thesis, and not some foaming at the mouth tirade! And comparing the patchy and ineffective suppression of Welsh to the Holocaust is pretty disgusting – there is simply no equivalence. Anyone who has actually read the report will know exactly what was written, and whilst they have a go, variously at Welsh Nonconformity and Welsh womanhood, suggesting that ‘loose’ morals were widespread, they were actually critical of the use and cruelty of the Welsh Not. That does not mean they were… Read more »
It would be much cleaner, more obvious had there been legal stipulations regarding the use of Welsh in education (as there had been in prior centuries in other areas of life in Wales), but there seems to be evidence of legislative bans. As you and others point out, however, this doesn’t matter. Cultural enforcement, bolstered by reports and public commentary from the high and mighty of the Emipre, was more than enough to nudge us towards where they’ve wanted us to be since the rise of Wessex – gone. It was a last roll of the dice and it didn’t… Read more »
Interesting comment. What is often forgotten, or conveniently overlooked is the fact that the Laws in Wales Acts were largely ineffectual in terms of the language clauses… At the time of their enactment, something like 95% of the population were monoglot Welsh speakers, and that was hardly going to change overnight. Indeed, so much was this so that a Welsh translation of the Bible was commissioned some 50 years after the Acts, so that the Welsh and English versions could be compared, and so, through some mysterious process the Welsh acquire English… That worked so well, that most Welsh people.… Read more »
Duw mowr, no wonder you called it an “interesting comment”, Padi (too diplomatic – nonsensical would have been more accurate). I missed out a word – there seems to be NO clear evidence of legislative bans. There, all better.
It is very difficult to assess the impact of the Education Act 1870 on the decline of the Welsh language. On the one hand, the Act stipulated that English was to be the medium of education in englandandwales, but the UK Government, recognising that this would be impossible in a country (or, as they saw it, a “region”) where most people were Welsh monoglots would be unworkable, made capitation grants to certain schools which enabled those schools to continue teaching through the medium of Welsh. A survey would probably reveal that most of the Welsh-Not schools were in industrial parts… Read more »
I’m not being revisionist here because no professional historian has ever said “Welsh was banned in our schools by Westminster”. Not John Davies, not Gwyn Alf, not anyone.
Yes it was! However, what’s just as bad but hardly gets a mention is how the English saw Welsh women, Mothers in particular. Claiming they were as Pure Evil as women could get. Claiming all the ills with the Welsh and its culture lay solely with them. At the end of the day, they thought we were beneath them then, and they think we are beneath them now. Worse still, some Welsh believe it too!
Everyone’s beneath them, even the French!
The public inquiry was commissioned as a result of pressure from William Williams, Radical MP for Coventry, who was himself a Welshman by birth and Welsh-speaking, and was concerned about the state of education in Wales.[
My father’s side were from mid Wales and the valleys, mother’s side from North Wales and Swansea. All grandparents were Welsh speakers, but my parents weren’t. In the early part of the 20th century there was a prejudice against the Welsh language that gave people the belief that speaking Welsh would not help you at all This prejudice lasted till the seventies. For us, in the sixties, a couple of hours compulsory Welsh lessons a week and token Urdd activities was never going to turn the tide.
Whether mandated or not, my parents from Lampeter and Tregaron were not allowed to speak Welsh in school at all. This was 1944 to 1950 and they were first language Welsh speakers. Da iawn Martin Groucutt for highlighting this atrocity that happened to the Welsh Language
Nation Cymru is this an Englixh publication ? Any welsh person worth their salt knows that the welsh language was dissuaded in welsh schools by little Englander teachers and the English education system.
£250,000,000 has been spent on just encouraging people to speak Welsh since 2018. There are far greater needs in Wales, the language is a want not a need.
Be interesting to see some evidence to support that figure. For many people Welsh is just as much a ‘need’ as is your ‘need’ for English. Something to ponder over, eh?
I’ve reported earlier this month, when visiting Wales, people I knew previously to be not too friendly towards Cymraeg, were now taking classes. Is Cymraeg now becoming “trendy”?
People want to get back to their roots, IH, and have a closer connection to their culture.
The information came an FOI request. The figure is only for encouraging not the teaching of the Welsh Language. As for your comment, nothing was spent on encouraging people to speak English from 2018, as would be expected. This is not about teaching, this is wasting money on asking if people want to speak Welsh. In this current climate that is a waste. A Quarter of a Million is just too much on encouraging when people are waiting for an ambulance with a stroke.