Book Review, Gothic Fiction

#AmReading: Haunted Communities II: Industrial Gothic (1900s-1940s)


The mining history of my town was the first independent research project I ever did (in Primary School). Granddad took me up the mountain into the woods to see the site of one local mining disaster. There was nothing much left to see now that nature has reclaimed the site – I wasn’t sure what I was expecting. However, in 2010, the memorial stone was ‘rediscovered’ by a team doing their community service. There are no mines left here now, but the pits and shafts remain, and so do the miners who were never brought back to the surface, but still lie deep under our feet.

The history of Industrial Wales is an enormous topic which Aaron doesn’t attempt to cover in her chapter, apart from providing enough basic context around the working conditions to frame her discussion of her chosen texts, so I’ll provide some links and images here in the first part of this post, and then look at Aaron’s discussion of the fiction.

Industrial Wales

The Empire needed more and more coal to fuel its advances, with the increase of technology, infrastructure and, of course, profit. The South Wales Valleys were coal-rich and this led to Wales becoming ‘the first industrial nation in the world‘ according to the National Museum of Wales’s article, meaning it experienced mass internal migration rather than mass emigration (although some Welsh did go to America and Australia for new lives beyond the coalfield). There is much debate about whether this was a good or a bad thing for the Welsh language with the massive influx of English-speaking migrants. It certainly had mixed results for communities, forcing people into particular jobs and trades, and keeping them there despite the often horrendous conditions. The only way out was through education, and this was expensive and often part of a family’s long-term plan for the third or even fourth generation, pouring resources into their children and encouraging them to learn English in order to get ahead.

My father-in-law, originally from Aberdare, is himself a product of this 3-4 generation plan, one in a succession of only-children who achieved peak occupation-Nirvana by being the first to get a postgraduate degree (in Mathematics) and becoming an engineer. His father, a Welsh-speaker and white-collar worker, the success story for his blue-collar parents, was dissuaded from speaking Welsh by his wife, who spoke none herself and saw it as a drawback for her son.

My mother’s father’s family, all English-speakers except for his mother, who was from North Wales, had a different approach and were a large family already out of the mines: granddad’s father was a grocer, his oldest brother a baker. Granddad himself, the youngest, was a mechanic who worked on haulage vehicles, and then went into the steelworks. His son got a job at the bank before becoming a Baptist minister; my mother went to Warwick University and got a degree.

In each case, this was the culmination of several generations of working-class couples trying to ensure the next generation did slightly better. In my mother’s mother’s mother’s family’s case, there was the story of how one of their male relations, an illiterate signalman (back in the days when signals were pulled manually and the main tracks were used for coal and quarried stone rather than passenger trains) taught himself to read in the signal box. Nana (my mother’s mother’s mother) was the daughter and wife of miners.

Three Welsh Miners, (1966), oil on canvas, Josef Herman (1911-2000)

By 1830, half the iron exported by Britain was produced in Wales, and by 1851 Wales was the second leading industrial nation, behind England. In order to improve the lot of their children, workers took things into their own hands, such as the founding of Bangor University in 1884 through the raising of public funds. Working Men’s Clubs were set up across the country – and not just in Wales, but part of a wider movement to educate the working classes in England and Scotland, with a few in Ireland too – providing recreation and library access for the working man.

Phil Jenkins’ website, ‘Industrial Gwent’, looks at Wales more broadly too, providing a number of photographs and information relating to the mines, brickworks, canals, quarries, railways, tram roads, etc., by region.

Cefn-Cyfelach Colliery, oil on canvas, Evan Walters (1893-1951)

Merthyr was the ‘engine of empire‘, the technological leaders of their day, producing vast amounts of the coal and iron.

It should be noted, after all this emphasis on the British Empire and the references to debates regarding Wales as a colonised nation, that Wales is often left out of British narratives around the slave trade. Needless to say, Wales does not have a clean record on this score. The Welsh copper and wool industries linked Wales to the slave trade and to the exploitation of enslaved people even after the abolition, prior to which Welsh landowners and entrepreneurs got rich through their direct involvement, and through their plantations in the West Indies. This is one of the reasons why it is still debated as to whether Wales, despite its history of ethnic subjugation and cultural suppression by its neighbour, can be viewed as a ‘colonial victim’. Prof. Chris Evans certainly doesn’t think so, and you can buy his book, Slave Wales: the Welsh and Atlantic Slavery, 1660-1850 (University of Wales Press, 2010), to find out more.

Moving forward to the 1900s and the outbreak of war in 1914, Wales was still a leading industrial nation and now produced munitions for the war effort. The Great War led to ugly outbreaks of xenophobia and violent anti-German feeling, especially towards German immigrants even if they were politically opposed to Kaiser Wilhelm. Concerns about the morals of Welsh women and ‘khaki fever’ (a supposed animalistic attraction to men in uniform) led to purity crusades and women in Cardiff faced imposed curfews. The AHRC-funded project, World War One at Home, has revealed stories such as this from this era that would otherwise remain untold.

During the Great Depression of the interwar years, caused by a serious drop in foreign demand for coal, saw unemployment rates soaring among the miners, from just 2% in April 1924 to 28.5% in August 1925. After the 1929 Wall Street Crash and its detrimental effect on the American economy, which had a knock-on effect in Europe and the British Isles, things only got worse, and by 1932 unemployment had increased to 42.8%, making Wales one of the Western world’s most depressed countries. Both my Nana’s father (my great-great-grandfather) and her husband, my great-grandfather, were among of those who left the Valleys and took his family across to Birmingham to look for work, returning when things in the Western Valley picked up again.

The depression caused mass emigration: Wales lost a large proportion of its population as people moved to America and Australia, and there were mass protests in the streets at inadequate and inhumane government responses to the crisis. The collapse of capitalism was a victory for socialism and the Unions, which gained mass support. It was also a blow for the chapels, whose numbers saw rapid decline.

By 1939, with the dramatic drop in population and a slight improvement in the economy, unemployment had dropped again to around 15%, but it was the Second World War that “solved” the issue by providing jobs not just in the armed forces but in all sectors, in the interests of the war effort.

The armed forces, and the evacuation of children from English cities to Wales (as had happened in the First World War to a much lesser extent) helped to raise awareness of Wales’ distinct regional identity. As people met and mixed via the armed forces and the evacuation programme, they learned about each other, and a greater awareness of Britain’s regional diversity opened up. Dr Martin Johnes, in his book, Wales Since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2013), reviewed in the Wales Arts Review, has discussed the impact of WWII more fully, and the other events and debates that have shaped Wales in the modern world.

There are plenty of resources to look at regarding Wales and the First and Second World Wars, and I’ll list these at the end of the post.

Coalfield Gothic / Industrial Gothic

The productive peak of the South Wales coal industry was c.1911, and the working conditions readily evoked horror. Miners worked under the daily threat of death – the ceilings could cave in, gas pockets could explode, the pit props could give way, and the air may become too toxic to breathe safely. Between 1850 and 1914, at least 90,000 miners died, and workers’ rights were hard-fought and hard won. Men and boys – and until 1842, women and girls, worked in terrible, dangerous, dark and claustrophobic conditions. In terms of Gothic inspiration, the fear of being buried alive haunted the imagination of writers. The price of coal was, too often, paid for in human sacrifices.

This was depicted in various ways.

In ‘The Kiss’ (1937), a symbolist fantasy by Glyn Jones (1905-1995), a dead miner lying beneath the ground reawakens and pushes his way back to the surface, and encounters his [living] brother whose hand is bound up, after being horribly mangled in a pit accident. Their mother cannot bear to see her sons’ wounds uncovered, but the (Un)Dead miner uncovers it and kisses it in a tender act.

In ‘The Pit’ (1945), a short story by Gwyn Jones (1907-1999), a man becomes trapped underground in an old pit and is traumatised by his awareness of the unnatural sacrifice the mine demanded during its working days.

In Rhys Davies’ stories, the depths of the pits are both actual and metaphorical, a place of suffocating darkness blighting the lives of his characters and trapping them regardless of their striving or situation. Aaron discusses a few of these: ‘The Pits Are on Top’ (1942), where respiratory diseases are the pits’ haunting legacy from which those above ground cannot escape, ‘The Dark World’ (1942), in which the key death is that of the young wife, not the young collier, and ‘The Last Struggle’ (1946), in which an unhappily married woman finds hope when a mining disaster apparently claims the life of her husband, only to find her hopes dashed as he unexpectedly returns, trapping her in her own (metaphorical) pit of despair.

Oscar (1946), a novella by Gwyn Thomas (1913-1981), fictionalizes the Gothic metaphors of Marx, with the titular character being the exploitative, inhumane capitalist landowner. The novella is narrated by his servant, Lewis, whose identity is so entwined with his master that Oscar’s ultimate (and deserved) destruction is also, in an existential way, Lewis’s own.

Simeon (1946), another tale by Gwyn Thomas, is also about a capitalist landowner (named Simeon) and again narrated by a servant, Ben. Both Oscar and Simeon express the difficulties of acting against social injustice when the said injustice has become a community’s social norm. Both also suggest that, should the ‘haunted community’ withdraw its collaboration from the oppressive system and stand firm, the system’s unregulated greed will destroy it.

In 1946, there was reason to be optimistic. Labour’s landslide victory in the 1945 election promised to fulfil the demands of Welsh socialism. The coal industry was nationalised in 1947, and in that same year Welsh politician Aneurin Bevan championed the development of the National Health Service. But long-term injustices were not dead, and their spectres were waiting to be resurrected. The drowning of the village of Capel Celyn by the Liverpool Corporation in 1959 was one incident that proved this, as Aaron’s fourth chapter (and the last in Part One of Welsh Gothic) illustrates.

Next Post: Land of the Living Dead (1940s-1997)

Chapter 4 of Welsh Gothic, looking at Welsh Gothic Fiction up to the 1997 Devolution Referendum, will form the next three posts in this series – one on the historical context and the Gothic themes in Welsh poetry, one on zombies and their symbolism, and one on vampires!

The next post (Saturday) is a short review of The Pendragon Legend by Hungarian author Antal Szerb, a fun 1930s book not covered by Aaron but which could count as a pastiche of Welsh Gothic.

If you’re enjoying my posts and you’re able to support me, I’ve set up a ko-fi to help cover costs of my WordPress Premium account & domain name (my target is £30.00). I’d be very grateful for the support!

Further Reading: 

Miner-Artists: The Art of Welsh Coal Workers (Exhibition Booklet)

Industry in Welsh Film (BBC Arts)

Portraits of Former Welsh Coal Miners (The Guardian article | Art and Design)

Women’s work in industry and agriculture in Wales during the First World War. (PhD Thesis, Cardiff University (2015), Thomas D. George)

Cymru 1914 (A mass digitization of primary sources relating to the First World War from the Libraries, Special Collections and Archives of Wales, relating to Welsh life, language and culture)

First World War Collections (National Museum of Wales)

Wales Between the Wars (Open University)

The Coal Industry in Wartime (BBC History)

Public Health in Interwar England and Wales: Did It Fail? (Martin Gorski, PMC)

World War Two and Wales (BBC History)

‘Welshness, Welsh Soldiers and the Second World War’, (Hanes Cymru, the blog of Dr Martin Johnes)

The Ration Years of the Second World War (National Museum of Wales)


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