Sex, Sects and Society: 'Pain and Pleasure': A Social History of Wales and the Welsh, 1870-1945

Sex, Sects and Society: 'Pain and Pleasure': A Social History of Wales and the Welsh, 1870-1945

by Russell Davies (Editor)


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786832139
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 08/15/2018
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Russell Davies is a broadcaster and writer living in Wales.

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'Dygwyl y Meirwon' (Festival of the Dead): Death, Transcendence and Transience

Gwell inni anghofio'r rhai a aeth i'w hir hun,
Gwilym R. Jones, 'Dygwyl y Meirwon', in Gwynn ap Gwilym and Alan Llwyd (eds), Blodeugerdd o Farddoniaeth Gymraeg yr Ugeinfed Ganrif (Llandysul, 1987), p. 135.

'Glyn cysgod angau': the valleys of the shadow of death

Glyw' di hi'n canu? Yr un hen gloch Ag a ganai'r bore gwyn Pan ddest i'm cyfarfod â gwrid ar dy foch I'r Eglwys yn ymyl y llyn;
Crwys's elegy written in a Welsh country churchyard is a melancholic and mournful musing on life. It is, perhaps, one of the saddest poems written in the period 1870–1945. It is also one of the sweetest love poems. Two souls have shared their joys and sorrows on a single journey. Like Falstaff, the aged narrator 'has heard the chimes at midnight', even so, he still sounds calm and controlled. Together the long and winding road has led the couple to the inevitability of death and inescapable separation.

It is impossible to write about death. What we have are the attitudes of the living to death, to dying and to the dead. The historical imagination cannot be sparked for no first-hand testimony except the fraudulent, no artefact, even the humblest, exists from those who have experienced 'Ynys Afallach' (The Island of Avalon) as the Celts christened their magical land of the dead. Obituaries of Robert Graves appeared in the press when he was reported as having been killed during the First World War. Gordon Evans of Llanddewi Brefi had a memorial service when it was reported that he had been lost when his ship was sunk by the Japanese in 1940. Yet both survived. The reports of these 'deaths' were much exaggerated, neither Evans nor Graves provided any evidence of a journey into Christina Rossetti's 'silent land'. Winifred Coombe Tennant (1874–1956), in her capacity as Mrs Willett, was the most prolific spirit medium of the 1920s and 1930s. How reliable a guide to the afterworld she was, we will never know, for temporal historians do not have access to the extraterrestrial archives to discover how great an adventure death was, is and will be. We must approach the subject of death therefore with caution, but one striking fact is clear: timor mortis lost much of its terror over the years between 1870 and 1945 as death's grip on the Welsh loosened.

Proverbs, those pessimistic distillations of peasant and proletarian wisdom still warned 'rhag angau ni thycia ffo' (from death flight will not avail), 'Gaeaf las, mynwent fras' (a mild winter, a full cemetery), and 'pob hirnychdod i angau' (every long affliction leads to death). But the image of death as a sentinel changed. The horror enshrined in the imagery of the apocalyptic horseman, or the all-powerful Dark Destroyer, or the skeletal Grim Reaper who viciously scythed and harvested humanity, was tamed. In 1898, in a series of cartoons for the Western Mail, later published as Cartoons of the Welsh Coal Strike April 1st to September 1st, 1898, J. M. Staniforth showed a skeletal death as a character of exquisite patience, gently gathering the children and mothers of south Wales into his embrace. The poet Alun Lewis, in the early 1940s, a time when death appeared to be in the ascendant, noted: 'Death the wild beast is uncaught, untamed ... but ... our soul withstands the terror'. Waldo Williams in 'Mewn Dau Gae' portrayed death as 'yr heliwr distaw yn bwrw ei rwyd amdanom' (the silent huntsman casting his net over us). To Tom Parri Jones in his poem 'Angau' (Death), death's carriage still had about it 'aroglau'r oesau' (the scents of the ages), but it was now a Saturday night taxi, whose monosyllabic driver, quietly took his fares to 'Dim ... Dim' (Nothing ... Nothing). R. Williams Parry also considered that death was a journey conducted by 'hen gychwr afon angau' (the old boatsman of death's river). Edward Jones (1826–1891), Glasfryn, in 'Dyfodiad Angau', portrayed death as a stealthy, sudden, gentle killer – 'ni edwyn neb ei nodau na swn ei droed yn nesáu' (no one recognises his sound or his footstep as he nears). Death might still be loathsome, his visage grim, his embrace terminal, but he now trod lightly.

Popular beliefs presented a plethora of portents of death that ranged from the relatively timid to the terrifying. 'Y Tolaeth' described both the plaintive wail that was heard before a child's death, and the knocking heard in a carpenter's shop before the commission was received to build a coffin. Across Wales, unctions of undertakers received such ghostly commissions. 'Canhwyllau Cyrff' were nightly, ghostly lights that preceded a funeral, marking out the route that a cortège would take in a few days. The 'Toili' were phantom funerals. 'Y Cyhyraeth' were an inhuman, chilling chorus that were encountered at crossroads. Beasts and birds were often death's messengers. The 'aderyn corff', an ashen coloured bird, with 'eyes like balls of fire' traumatised the tender souls of Llanddeiniol in Cardiganshire in 1911. More terrifying were vicious spirit dogs that assumed many forms and answered to many names – 'Cwn Bendith y Mamau', 'Helgwn Cythreulig', 'Cwn Annwn', 'Cwn Cyrff', 'Cwn Uffern', 'Y Gwyllgi', or 'Ci Mawr Du'. These fearful hounds hunted the spirits of wicked people, dragging them to the infernal halls of the lower regions. Such curious incidents of dogs at night-time were relatively common, especially in the early part of our period down to the First World War. But in some places, somewhere around that time, many people's belief in such supernatural phenomena began to unravel.

The silent statistics tabulated in the annual report of the Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages provide empirical evidence of the poetic domestication of death and the ebbing of belief in a supernatural fauna. The 'crude death rate' (per 1,000 deaths) in Wales, in 1871, stood at 21.2. By 1914, it had declined to 14.5, and by 1948, it had fallen again to 11.8. There were years, such as 1915, during the Great War, and 1918, when the flu pandemic swept across the world, when the rates rose to 15.4 and 16.5. In these grievous years, the Grim Reaper seemed to have resumed his conscientious harvesting, but over time, rates of mortality were reassuringly in decline.

The infant mortality rates, generally considered to be the most accurate reflection of the health of people and populations, were also improving. In 1871, the rate of infant mortality in Wales stood at 126.2 per 1,000 births. By 1914 it had declined to 110. In 1948, the rate had fallen further to 39 per 1,000 births. Again there were individual years when, due to various diseases and epidemics, the rate jumped suddenly upwards against the general pattern of decline over time. In 1886–7 it increased to 131.7. In 1891 it suddenly, inexplicably leaped upwards to 150.1. In 1899, following 1898 – that year of depression, distress and discontent in the Welsh coalfields – the massacre of the innocents reassumed its early Victorian levels and reached 174 per 1,000 births.

It should not be forgotten that the infant mortality rate refers to live births. No one knows the extent of stillbirths, or the horribly named and emotionally traumatic 'lifeless births', and the deaths of children in de facto marriages. The latter were, by definition, illegitimate and unregistered, beyond the reach of registrar or historian. Illegitimate children were doomed. The fate of such infants casts an unhappy light on 'the age of progress'. Death in childbirth was a pervasive fear, which shadowed a mother's joy at the possibility of bringing new life into the world and even darkened young women's prospective views of marriage. Many women never gave birth to a child, but died in the agony of the effort, perhaps the most aggravated of circumstances in which a woman can leave the world. In 1937 the government's report into the Maternal Mortality in Wales revealed levels of death that were a 'disgrace to a civilized society.' In 1899, when giving birth to her third child, Margaret Lloyd of Llanddewi Brefi contracted septicaemia and died. Aged three weeks and named for her, Margaret Ann Davies was baptised on her mother Margaret's coffin on the day of her funeral in Bethesda Chapel. The artist Christopher Williams was also baptised on his mother's coffin.

The Registrar General's tables of statistics reveal that one of the most fundamental transformations that has ever taken place in Welsh history occurred during the period 1870–1945. Over these years, despite all the sorrow and suffering, it is a salient fact that people's life expectancy almost doubled. In 1871, the average life expectancy for a male who had survived the Herodian years of youth was 39. By 1951, the average male, if there is such a person, now had a far better chance of surviving childhood and could expect to live to 69.5 years of age. Women, society's survivors, had the expectation of living for at least five years longer. For a significant proportion of the population, the Psalmist's promise that 'the days of our age are threescore years and ten' had at last been honoured.

It is important to note that the rates of death and infant mortality in Wales continued to be far worse than they were across the border in England and even, on occasion, in the poorest parts of Ireland or Scotland. Comparisons over time and across different geographic areas reveal profound differences and inequalities in the rates in Wales. There were generational and geographic, status and social factors that affected how individuals experienced these demographic changes. Food, space and time, the prerogatives of the rich, helped to keep death at bay. But for the poor, in their over-crowded, single-roomed rural cottages and sunless, stinking urban hovels, there was little defence from cold and hunger, those indefatigable generals in Death's dark armies. Death had a close alliance with poverty.

Different places had different experiences. The Gwyrfai area in north Wales had more than its fair share of death as consumption, diphtheria, scarlet fever and typhoid ravaged the community. In some families siblings disappeared into thin air or thick earth with distressing rapidity. In Builth, in 1871, the town's crude death rate stood at 17 per 1,000. Just thirty miles south at Merthyr Tydfil, in the same year, it was 29. In that same year, despite the improvements of the mid-nineteenth century, more than one third of all deaths in Wales were still those of children. And what can we say of those unfortunate people and places whose sombre ill-luck weights down the figures to these averages? Proverbs with an egalitarian cynicism warned 'Heddiw yn frenin, yfori yn farw' (today a king, tomorrow dead) and 'y tlawd a'r cyfoethog sydd gydradd yn y bedd' (rich and poor are equal in the grave). But death's carriage, despite all the portrayals of the driver as even-handed, treating rich and poor alike, still gathered his fares more regularly from cottage than castle. Nevertheless, during the lifespan of a single individual, Wales experienced a profound demographic revolution.

Death remained inevitable, but it had shed the terrifying imminence that it carried in the mid-nineteenth century. Fictional encounters with death were frequent in crime novels and in cinematic detective films, but in real life death was more infrequently encountered. Death remained vigilant, ever-ready, but now, perhaps, appeared to be more patient, unhurried. This had far-reaching effects on the Welsh people and their cultural, emotional and spiritual lives. The fact that death's sting was softened, that the grave's victory was postponed, was a vital element in the ebbing of the sea of faith. With death less frequent and fearful, it became increasingly difficult for people to believe in the dire warnings of the fate of lost souls. Placards carried by 'Wil Salvation' around Caernarfon in the 1930s still drew their inspiration from Luke and warned 'Repent o ye sinners' and 'Prepare to meet thy doom'. But the sense of urgency was less intense than it had been before 1870.

The traditional Christian belief, that because mankind was sinful, then it followed that life had to be a vale of tears, lost much of its credibility. The fires of hell cooled without the stokers of old. Such changes concerned the more serious-minded. Gladstone, the Flintshire-based Prime Minister, so beloved by the Welsh, worriedly asked, 'What would happen to morality if terror was removed?' It is impossible to quantify spiritual fear, the registers in which the statistics are recorded are not accessible to the earthly historian, but all the qualitative evidence suggests that it declined over the period 1870–1945. Satan's empire crumbled in a similar and simultaneous process to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Superstition also suffered, for without terror or fear, it was difficult for people to believe in supernatural phenomena, and, without belief, people no longer saw the ghostly legions. Demographic changes had a profound role in the disenchantment of the world, the dechristianisation and desacralisation of Wales.

Behind the sensitivities of the poets and the statistics of the demographers, we can discern hints that people's life experiences were assuming new forms. In the mid-nineteenth century, emotional bonds within families, especially between parents and children, had strengthened, but they were reinforced in the years from 1870 to 1945. The death of a child came now to be regarded as a relatively rare occurrence, one that cut across the grain of nature and humanity. Poets reflected the change in sensitivities and sensibilities. In the mid-nineteenth century, especially in the works of the 'graveyard poets', there was a stoical acceptance of death, even of the very, very young that is shocking to modern sensibilities. The denominational press, periodicals such as Y Goleuad, Y Tyst, Seren Gomer, Y Wawrddydd are brimful of obituaries of those who died in the spring of their lives with a precocious piety. In many of these tragic reports of truncated lives, death was not so much the end as the beginning. Christian belief as fostered by countless sermons and services indicated that death was to be welcomed as the gateway to eternal euphoria and ecstasy. Holy lives led to happy deaths. Not only were such deaths less sorrowful, they were also less fearful. Blessed spirits, as the children's illustrated books and the stained-glass windows of Sir Edward Burne-Jones showed, had chubby, cherubic angels to gently lead them into eternity.


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Table of Contents

Diolchiadau - Acknowledgements vii

Introduction: 'To Begin at the Beginning' 1

1 'Dygwyl y Meirwon' (Festival of the Dead): Death, Transcendence and Transience 9

'Glyn cysgod angau': the valleys of the shadow of death

'The last dance': grief and ars moriendi (the art of dying)

2 The Citadel: Pain, Anxiety and Wellbeing 37

Healthy or Hungry Wales?

'The Massacre of the Innocents': infant and maternal mortality

Endangered lives: disease and society

Dead Souls: disasters and misadventures

'In place of fear': defences against death and disease

3 Going Gently into that Good Night: Desolation, Dispiritedness and Melancholy 81

'Un Nos Ola Leuad' (One Moonlit Night): suicide

The caves of alienation: worry, boredom and hysteria

4 Where, When, What Was Wales and who were the Welsh? Contentment, Disappointment and Embarrassment 99

'Gwlad, Gwlad: Wales! Wales?'

'Yr hen ffordd Gymreig fyw': rural idylls

Prometheus unbound: urban and industrial Wales

Weird Wales

'Cry the beloved country': national character and identity

5 'The Way of all Flesh': Prudery, Passion and Perversion 137

'Yes Mog, Yes Mog, Yes, Yes, Yes': popular sexuality

The Harlot's Progress: pimps, prostitutes and professionals

Brief Encounters: alternative sexualities

6 Love in a Cold Climate: Fidelity, Friendship and Fellowship 183

'The Alone to the Alone': the power of love and the battle to avoid loneliness

'Til death do us part': marriage, femininity and masculinity

Bohemian Rhapsodies: Bohemian Wales and Welsh Bohemians

7 Religion and Superstition: Fear, Foreboding and Faith 225

'Some trust in chariots': religion and Welsh society

The re-enchantment of the world: the 1904-6 religious revival

Blithe spirits: ghosts, ghouls and Gothic Wales

'Some enchanted evening': magic and the pursuit of happiness

'The Disenchantment of the World': the ebbing of religion and magic

8 The Pursuit of Pleasure: Enthrallment, Happiness and Imagination 289

'It's in the Air': culture, technology and time in the first multimedia age

'The Battle to the Weak': sedentary pleasures

'Perchance to Dream': producers, players and performers

'Fields of praise': sport and society

'The Trip to Echo Spring': drink and dissolution

'Make Room for the Jester': happiness and humour

Conclusion: A Few Selected Exits 361

Notes 367

Index 459

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