‘Inclusive Patriotism’: Migration and the bilingual debate in Wales, c.1850-1914

‘Inclusive Patriotism’: Migration and the bilingual debate in Wales, c.1850-1914

This week, Lewis Owen (Aberystwyth University) examines the relationship between Welsh language and nationalism.

The census of 1891, the first to officially recognise the Welsh language, revealed a linguistic landscape in Wales in a state of considerable flux. In absolute numerical terms, the language had probably never been in ruder health, with almost a million individuals registering themselves as fluent speakers. From a broader perspective, however, the figures demonstrated that around 40% of the total population were monoglot English speakers, raising fears amongst Welsh language activists that their native tongue was being supplanted. The results of the following census seemed to confirm this impression. For perhaps the first time in its history, Welsh had been reduced to a minority language in Wales, a condition in which it has remained ever since.

This situation provoked conflicting responses from those sections of late 19th to early 20th century Welsh society that would have considered themselves to be the Welsh-speaking intelligentsia. For certain cultural commentators, the erosion of the native language was deemed a necessary process that should not be resisted, and even actively encouraged in certain cases. The perpetuation of English throughout Wales was viewed as a pathway to modernisation and commercial advancement, with any attempt to reinforce the presence of Welsh being regarded as an impediment to this cause. According to Shaddrach Pryce, a schools inspector and notable anglophile, it was contingent upon those with an interest in the future prosperity of Wales to ensure that the use of Welsh was restricted as far as possible, ideally to the private domain of the ‘hearth and altar’.[i] Furthermore, he warned against measures to introduce Welsh within the educational system, as he claimed that it would merely serve to ‘burden the mind of a child’.[ii]

For those with more affection towards the native language, however, the linguistic divisions of Wales presented an intriguing challenge. With the certain exceptions, most self-confessed Welsh language activists of the era were fairly unanimous in their support for the propagation of English. Echoing the distinctly utilitarian outlook of their opponents, they were often keen to stress that their support for the survival of Welsh did not impinge upon their belief in the social benefits of English. For example, at a royal commission on bilingual teaching in Welsh schools it was asserted that Wales was ‘too wide awake and too keenly alive to her material interests’ to ‘do without the English language or English influence’.[iii] Where the opinions of Welsh language activists diverged from their anglophile counterparts was in terms of their faith in bilingualism, not as a temporary phase within a broader process of ‘language shift’, but rather as a prolonged ‘settlement’ in which each language performed particular but complementary social ‘functions’.

These ambitions assumed a distinct sense of urgency in light of the prodigious levels of migration into Wales during the turn of the 19th century, primarily from the other constituent nations of the British Isles. Bilingualism was perceived not only as a means of consolidating Welsh amongst the indigenous population, but also as a method by which the increasing diversity of Welsh society could be accommodated within a common spirit of nationhood. Consequently, discourses on bilingualism in 19th and early 20th century Wales, particularly in relation to contemporary patterns of migration, lend themselves well to a four nation analytical approach. On the one hand, its proponents stressed the practical aspects by which bilingualism could facilitate the spread of English throughout Wales, thus reinforcing broader economic, cultural and political bonds with the British state. On the other, their ambitions were ideologically predicated upon the notion of Welsh national distinctiveness, with the implementation of bilingual reforms being viewed as a means by which Wales’ particular characteristics could be retained without having to forfeit its role in the British ‘community of nations’.

The case for bilingualism thus primarily rested on two strands of thought, namely the social benefits that it could bestow on an individual basis, and the manner in which it could act as a social adhesive in the face of the increasing heterogeneity of Wales. Both arguments were blended effectively in an article on the utilization of Welsh in schools, which proclaimed that there was ‘something very favourable to the acquisition of a second language’ in the industrial counties of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire, whose rapid population growth was fuelled by a combination of migration from rural Welsh-speaking regions as well as from areas outside of Wales.[iv] Furthermore, in a direct appeal to English migrants themselves, it was emphasised that a ‘bi-lingual advantage’ was ‘within reach’ for those who were willing to acquire some fluency in Welsh.[v] This opportunity was, as the article went on to pronounce, often ‘denied to most Englishmen who remain in England’.[vi]

In this respect, it was reasoned that the promotion of bilingualism could induce migrants to become emotionally invested in the concept of an all-embracing Welsh nationhood. This idea was pursued by J.E. Southall, who advanced his vision of an ‘inclusive patriotism’ as opposed to the ‘exclusive patriotism’ that he believed was prevailing in Wales.[vii] By ensuring that the native language was in a position to be ‘wanted a little by all, and much by some if they choose’, Southall hypothesised that the entrenched vested interests of Welsh society, which were often based on national lines, could be comprehensively realigned.[viii] The introduction of bilingualism would, for example, stymie present ‘grumbling’ at the acquisition of university scholarships by Englishmen, while dispelling parochial calls of ‘Wales for the Welsh’ that had found some resonance in certain socio-cultural contexts.[ix]

Crucially therefore, the inversion of the notion of ‘bi-lingual difficulty’ into a ‘bi-lingual advantage’ was often dependent on a conscious engagement with the migratory experience. Indeed, the portrayal of bilingualism as an ‘opportunity’ for those who settled in Wales seems to have been deliberately calibrated to chime with the particular patterns of English migration towards the end of the 19th century, which were influenced more by economic ‘pull’ factors and were becoming more individualistic in nature (compared to earlier phases that were orientated more around the family unit). Settlers from other parts of the British Isles also featured prominently in the conceptualisation of bilingual strategies. An 1885 article declared that, while Welshmen were ‘busily engaged’ in acquiring English, it had been overlooked that ‘English, Scotch and Irish settlers’ were ‘at the same time busily acquiring Welsh’, with the high proportion of Welsh speakers at the culturally diverse Treherbert colliery being highlighted as an example of this phenomenon.[x] Action was demanded to provide Welsh teaching equipment for future generations of migrants, while Beriah G. Evans’ claimed that the children of migrants demonstrated a particular predilection towards becoming ‘cymricized’, to a greater extent even than their native classmates.[xi]

Consequently, the interweaving of migration within the bilingual debate performed a vital role in dispelling accusations of insularity that occasionally dogged Welsh language activism. By acknowledging Wales’ rapidly evolving relationship with the rest of the British Isles, which became embodied by the onset of mass migration from the other constituent nations, advocates for bilingualism hoped to reconcile the disparate themes of modernity and tradition that underpinned the ‘language question’ of the period. Further scholarship in this area may well prove fruitful in providing an insight into the ways in which socio-cultural bonds within a polity as diverse in terms of nationality as the British state were comprehended by its inhabitants.         


[i] Evans, Gareth, ‘The “Bilingual Difficulty”: H.M.I. and the Welsh Language in the Victorian Age’ in The Welsh History Review, 16, 4, (Dec. 1993), 505.

[ii] Ibid. 511.

[iii] Bilingual Teaching in Welsh Elementary Schools before the Royal Commission on Education, (London, 1888), i.

[iv] The Utilization of the Welsh Language in Schools and Colleges, (1885-6), 45.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii]Southall, J.E., Wales and her Language, (Newport, 1892), 241.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Bye-gones relating to Wales and the border counties, (April 1885), 212.

[xi] Bilingual Teaching in Welsh Elementary Schools before the Royal Commission on Education, i.

Lewis Owen is a fourth-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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