Cultural confrontation in the coalfields: Migration and the Mold Riots of 1869

Cultural confrontation in the coalfields: Migration and the Mold Riots of 1869

This week, Lewis Owen (Aberystwyth University) examines migration to industrialised environments of mid to late Victorian Wales.

Between 1801 and 1911, Wales experienced a population boom unprecedented in its history. Registered at a little over 540,000 in the census of 1801, the Welsh populace numbered around two and a half million at the eve of the First World War, having expanded by almost a million between 1881 and 1911 alone.[i] Fuelling this rapid demographic growth was an influx of migrants from across the constituent nations of Britain, inexorably gravitating towards the burgeoning industrial regions of Glamorgan, Monmouthshire and the North-East of Wales. While recent scholarship has tended to emphasise the profoundly transformative impact that this period of migration would impart upon Welsh society, particularly from a linguistic perspective, a four nations approach permits a more intricate examination of the dynamics of cultural interaction between the various national groups which inhabited the industrialised environments of mid to late Victorian Wales.

Indeed, the fact that, for all intents and purposes, Wales lacked any formal administrative, political or institutional boundaries with England for the vast majority of this period, only serves to emphasise the usefulness of this approach in delineating the cultural divisions between migrants and the native population. These could often be a catalyst for instances of acute social unrest, which were undoubtedly exacerbated by the volatility of Wales’ increasingly sophisticated capitalist economy. The ironworking community of Tredegar, for example, was the site of a notorious riot in 1882 directed at the resident Irish population, causing widespread devastation that was only quelled by the intervention of armed soldiers from Newport and Cardiff.[ii]

It is the background to the Mold Riots of 1869, however, that perhaps best underlines the effectiveness of a four nations analysis of cultural confrontations in the industrial workspaces of Wales. Ironically, it is the relative scarcity of the migrant population in Mold, rather than its volume, that is a critical factor in this respect. In stark contrast to the South-East, which accommodated a vast number of both skilled and unskilled migrants throughout the nineteenth century, particularly those who had moved from adjoining English counties, migration to the North-Eastern industrial regions of Wales was more restrained. Indeed, in the case of the Leeswood Green Colliery near Mold, which became the site of the initial flashpoint of the riots, it was reported by contemporaries that merely seven English migrant labourers were employed within a total workforce of 132 by 1869.[iii] Far from representing an imperceptible presence in these bustling industrialised environments however, English migrants in the North-East of Wales invariably occupied noticeably senior positions that, from the perspective of the native workforce, was disproportionate in its extent. In a notable incident predating the riots, considerable acrimony was created in the nearby Coed y Tallon colliery in 1863, when six Welsh miners were served with a weeks’ notice of their dismissal and eviction from their workplace lodgings to accommodate specialised English recruits, with the threat of widespread unrest only averted by the swift reversal of the original decision.[iv] These trends in the hierarchies of labour, which became increasingly regimented under the influence of advanced modes of capitalist activity, were also mirrored by patterns of industrial ownership in the region.

Serving as a backdrop to these systemic developments were recurring cultural discourses regarding the relationship between English migrants in Wales and the advance of capital, which undoubtedly exacerbated underlying feelings of discontent and alienation amongst the native workers of North Walian industry. Whereas the Irish migrant population of Wales were invariably subjected to the same kind of religiously-driven prejudices that were prevalent across Britain at this time, contemporary discourses on English migrant communities emphasised their intimate association with the new modes of capitalist-driven exchange, production and commodification, as well as the manner in which their existential outlook was supposedly shaped by the instincts of entrepreneurial endeavour and ‘ariangarwch’ (‘money-worship’). For certain sections of Welsh society, particularly those which would have considered themselves to be representatives of a progressive middle-class, these cultural associations were viewed in a positive light, with the readiness of English migrants to settle and invest in Wales being identified as an unmistakeable sign of the country’s modernisation.

For others, however, the English relationship with capital was a source of great anxiety. The renowned Nonconformist commentator Emrys ap Iwan, as well as several of his contemporaries, frequently bemoaned the encroaching influence of English migrants, whose single-minded devotion to money and other material concerns were an anathema to the spiritual sensibilities of Welsh society. Such attitudes, amplified by a Welsh chapel-culture that had grown exponentially in prestige and self-confidence by the middle of the nineteenth century, inevitably permeated industrial workspaces and patterns of labour organisation. Perhaps the most important consequence of this was the lukewarm reception granted to trade unions in Wales before the 1870s, and the protracted nature of their efforts to gain any kind of foothold in the industrialised regions of the North-East. According to Abel Hughes, a Calvinist figure of the period, such organisations, which prioritised securing short-term material concessions for its representatives (in contrast to Nonconformity’s emphasis on long-term spiritual fulfillment), were ‘strange things’ that had ‘come from the English,’[v] and it is unquestionable that his sentiments reflected the broader attitudes of native workforces across Wales during the mid-Victorian era.

In the absence of formal structures of trade union representation therefore, native Welsh workers increasingly resorted to more informal practices of labour activism, grounded in the customs of the pre-capitalist era. Chief among these was the practise of ‘packing off’ supervisors or managers who were deemed to have offended the workforce in some capacity. Usually, this entailed a select group of workers escorting their condemned superiors to a train station, and buying their ticket home. As the nineteenth century wore on, this increasingly resulted in coal managers being sent over the border into England, and in many ways the practise of ‘packing off’, interwoven with its implicit notions of worker democracy, resembled an assertion of the assumed rights and privileges of the native workforce in the face of ‘foreign’ intrusion. The expectations of Welsh labourers that they could possess some form of input in determining the structural and organisational hierarchies of their working environments naturally jarred with the outlook of the English owners and investors who were becoming a more permanent fixture on the modernising Welsh industrial landscape. Underlined by a fundamental belief in the inviolable sovereignty of the market, their adherence to coldly rationalistic calculation and ‘impersonal’ economism left little room for the more emotive and ‘humanistic’ themes of native-based traditions, with their expectations of ‘fairness’ and worker autonomy.

This clash between two competing visions of labour relations set the stage for a violent confrontation at the Leeswood Colliery, triggered by the appointment of John Young, a native of Durham, to the position of underground manager. Having already made himself an unpopular figure amongst the native workforce through his perceived favouritism towards English labourers, as well as being dogged by accusations that he held derogatory attitudes of the Welsh, Young soon established himself as a proponent of the modern capitalist ethos by announcing, on 17 May 1869, wage cuts to accommodate for reductions in the price of coal.[vi] According to his testimony at the trial of eight workers who had attempted to ‘pack’ him away, he had interpreted his workplace responsibilities as being dictated by market forces that were beyond his control, rather than the collective demands of the labourers under his supervision.[vii] The consternation caused by a philosophy that widely diverged from that of the native workers was palpable, which soon resonated across the town as a whole when the eight defendants were handed draconian sentences for supposedly assaulting Young in their efforts to ‘pack’ him away. As two of the sentenced colliers were being escorted through Mold by a contingent of police and soldiers, they came under attack by an angry crowd of around 300 townspeople. In the midst of the carnage, an order was given to fire upon the unruly mob, resulting in the deaths of four individuals, of which one, ironically, was an English migrant herself, having arrived in Mold on that very day to start employment as a housemaid.[viii]

The Mold Riots represented a watershed moment in the history of labour relations in North-East Wales, if not Wales as a whole. The fatal undermining of the legitimacy of the customs of activism practised by the Leeswood Green colliers led to a gradual realisation amongst Welsh industrial workforces of the transformative impact that advanced modes of capitalist production had inflicted upon perceptions of labour organisation, and of the necessity to seek alternate, more formalised, methods of negotiation with their employers. It is no coincidence in this respect that trade unionism truly emerged as a force in Welsh coalmining during the years immediately after the 1869 Riots, leading to the establishment of powerful organisations such as the South Wales Miners’ Federation which would become major players in the turbulent industrial landscape of early 20th century Wales.


[i] Jones, Bill, ‘Banqueting at a Moveable Feast: Wales 1870-1914’ in The People of Wales ed. Jones, Gareth & Smith, Dai, (Cardiff, 1999), 148

[ii] The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, ‘SERIOUS RIOTS IN TREDEGAR’, 14th July 1882

[iii] Burge, Alan, ‘The Mold Riots of 1869’ in Llafur, 3, 3, (1982), 43

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Rees, D.Ben, Wales: The Cultural Heritage, (Cardiff, 1981), 13

[vi] Griffiths, Jenny & Griffiths, Mike, The Mold Tragedy of 1869: An Investigation, (Llanrwst, 2001), 18

[vii] Cheshire Observer and Chester, Birkenhead, Crewe and North Wales Times, 21st August 1869

[viii] Griffiths, Jenny & Griffiths, Mike, The Mold Tragedy of 1869: An Investigation, 45

Lewis Owen is a third-year PhD candidate at Aberystwyth University. His research is centred on English migration to Wales between 1850 and 1914, for which he was awarded the Mair Waldo Scholarship in 2016. He previously studied at the University of Oxford and King’s College London.

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