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Why the census matters so much for Wales: A brief history

20 Mar 2021 8 minute read
The 2021 Census

Lewis Owen

As the public’s attention remains understandably focused on more pressing concerns, it is almost inevitable that the upcoming census day on March 21st will be consigned as a minor footnote in the story of 2021.

Even in less turbulent, less gruelling, less unusual years, a census would probably struggle to make much of an imprint in the mind of the average person. Shorn of the politically charged dimensions of elections, it is easy to see why the census is often derided as the ultimate expression of bureaucratic nit-picking; the state’s equivalent of taking the school register.

A cursory glance over the last two centuries of Welsh history, however, provides an altogether different impression of the significance of censuses. While for large, politically dominant states a census may well pass as a mere administrative formality, for those that are smaller and politically marginalised it can function as a vital barometer of their existential condition.

In Wales’ case, where the concept of survival underpins so many facets of the national identity, this idea is particularly resonant. Indeed, as the following examples demonstrate, census years have frequently become major events in Wales, acting as catalysts for periods of profound reflection on the nation’s development from social, cultural and, most importantly, linguistic perspectives.

A Nonconformist nation? The 1851 Religious Census

For the first and only occasion, a census dealing specifically with the issue of religious affiliation was held separately to the main census in 1851. Occurring at a time when Wales’ sense of distinctiveness as a nation was inextricably tied and expressed through the lens of religion, the importance of this census was further amplified by the fact that only four years had passed since the infamous ‘Treachery of the Blue Books’, an educational report by government officials whose scathing verdict on the influence of nonconformity in Welsh society had provoked outrage.

The affair served to reinforce calls for Welsh disestablishment, and in this respect the census of 1851 was seized upon by its proponents as a means of showcasing the legitimacy of their cause.

Ultimately, the census results gave a rather mixed picture of the religious landscape of Wales: while they demonstrated that the various Nonconformist denominations accounted for around 70% of the total number of recorded sittings on the day of the census, the Established Church remained the largest single denomination by this metric.

Furthermore, its measure of actual attendance was fiercely contested, as Nonconformists were accused, albeit without much corroboration, of exaggerating their figures by encouraging multiple sittings.

Also, awkwardly for Nonconformists and Anglicans alike, but somewhat overlooked by both religious communities at the time, was the suggestion of surprisingly high levels of irreligiosity amongst the Welsh population, estimated to be as high as 40%.

Despite these uncomfortable truths, a selective interpretation of the outcome of the 1851 census provided the foundation for a popular narrative, propagated by supporters of disestablishment, that Wales was a ‘Nonconformist nation’. This mythologising would perform a central role in solidifying perceptions of Nonconformity as the authentic representation of Welsh spirituality in opposition to the intrusions of the ‘alien’ Established Church.

The Welsh Language Question of 1891

Arguably one of the most pivotal events in the modern history of the Welsh language, the 1891 census has rightly attracted a considerable degree of scholarly attention. The first of its kind to include a question on Welsh language proficiency, this census was held against a backdrop of dramatic social, economic and political change for Wales.

The latter half of the ‘long’ nineteenth century had witnessed an explosion in the Welsh population, increasing from just over a million in 1851 to just under two and a half million by 1911, which in turn precipitated rapid shifts towards urbanisation and industrialisation.

Much of this demographic growth was fuelled by extensive levels of inward migration, particularly from neighbouring rural English counties, to the extent that the coalfields of South Wales were absorbing migrants at a rate probably surpassed only by the United States during this period.

Wales’ political status and culture had also evolved in significant ways by 1891. The passage of the Sunday Closing (Wales) Act ten years previously, the first piece of Parliamentary legislation to acknowledge a separate character for Wales since the Acts of Union in Henry VIII’s reign, presaged a series of subsequent ‘Welsh-specific’ laws which further emphasised that Wales was no longer a mere geographic expression, but a political unit in its own right.

Furthermore, the 1880s and 1890s had given rise to the first expressions of a distinctly Cambro-centric political tradition, embodied by the founding of Cymru Fydd in 1886 and the promotion of Home Rule for Wales. While Cymru Fydd’s staying power was short-lived, it was nevertheless responsible for launching (or at least advancing) the careers of a remarkable cast of public figures, including T.E. Ellis, O.M. Edwards, J.E. Lloyd, Beriah Gwynfe Evans and David Lloyd George, whose prominent influence on the Welsh political landscape would persist for decades to come.

The inclusion of the language question in the 1891 census was therefore something of a litmus test for the receptiveness of Welsh, and, by extension, the integrity of Wales’ native culture as a whole, to these formidable forces of modernisation. By all accounts contemporaries were of the same view, with reports of town criers urging their fellow citizens to emphatically assert the vitality of Welsh through the census as a matter of national honour.

Such calls would have no doubt been laced with a strong sense of defiance, given the regularity with which the Welsh language had been publicly disparaged both inside and outside the country as an impediment to Victorian notions of progress – the Blue Book scandal of 1847 being only the most egregious example in that respect.

Much like the 1851 census, the results of the 1891 count delivered a rather ambiguous conclusion. In absolute terms, it appeared that the Welsh language was in robust health, with 920,389 speakers being recorded in the census. Indeed, this figure was to increase over the next two decades, reaching a total of 977,366 by 1911. At no other point in its history has the presence of Welsh speakers (at least within Wales itself) been more numerous.

It is for this reason that Brinley Thomas posited his famous (though highly contentious) thesis framing industrialisation as the ‘saviour’ of the Welsh language, contrasting its fortunes with that of the Irish Gaelic in this context.

On a relative scale, however, the outlook was far less rosy. While Welsh speakers were a 54.4% majority within the population in 1891, it was clear that English monolingualism had become a stern challenger for linguistic supremacy in Wales. By 1901 the tipping point was reached, with Welsh becoming a minority language for the first time, its speakers comprising 49.9% of the population.

A further proportional reduction to 43.5% was experienced in 1911. It foreshadowed a general trajectory of decline that was to define the next nine decades.

2001: O bydded i’r heniaith barhau?

From 1921 onwards the censuses of the 20th century made for grim reading for those invested in the survival of the Welsh language. Successive results demonstrated a steady yet seemingly inexorable retreat in the presence of Welsh. Indeed, it was primarily his anticipation of unfavourable returns from the census of 1961 that motivated Saunders Lewis to deliver his renowned ‘Tynged yr Iaith’ speech.

The first census of the new millennium, however, was conducted amidst a renewed sense of optimism. With the successful devolution campaign and the subsequent establishment of the National Assembly still fresh in the collective memory, hope abounded that the 2001 census could represent a signpost to a brighter future for the native tongue.

And so it came to pass, with an increase in the prevalence of Welsh recorded for the first time in decades, prompting The Western Mail to proclaim that “rumours about the death of the Welsh language have been greatly exaggerated”. As ever, further scrutiny of the results belied such broad-stroke evaluations: some commentators were quick to sound a note of caution, pointing to a slight change in the wording of the language question which may have skewed the responses.

The slight erosion of the Welsh foothold in traditional ‘stronghold’ communities of Y Bro Gymraeg was also a cause of concern. Nevertheless, this census was rightly heralded, at the very least, as a welcome respite following the preceding decades of gloom, delivering a timely shot in the arm for the cause of Welsh language activism.

As the next iteration of the census approaches therefore, its uncanny tendency to coincide with moments of great portent for Wales appears to have surfaced once again. With support for both independence and abolishment in the ascendancy, a potentially era-defining Senedd election on the horizon and the fallout from Brexit beginning to bite, our nation has seemingly reached yet another crossroad in its long history.

While the 2021 results are unlikely to provide a wholly reliable roadmap, if the past has taught us anything, it is that for Wales, the census does indeed matter.

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