Zulus and stone breakers: A case study in Glamorgan ballad-sheet printing (1999)
by Prof. E. Wyn James
School of Welsh, Cardiff University
First published in Mary-Ann Constantine (ed.), Ballads in Wales: Baledi yng Nghymru (London: FLS Books, 1999), pp. 41-8. ISBN 0-903515-17-2.
This article is based on a paper delivered at the 26th International Ballad Conference, held at the University of Wales, Swansea, July 1996.
Copyright © E. Wyn James, 1999, 2006
The golden age of the Welsh ballad — in publishing terms at least — was the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The word baled in Welsh — a borrowing from Middle English — appears to have entered the language in the fifteenth century. ‘A chaned faled i ferch’ (‘Let a ballad be sung to a lass’), proclaims the late medieval Welsh poet, Lewys Glyn Cothi (c. 1420-89) in the first instance of the word recorded in the national dictionary of the Welsh language, Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru. Poems of a ballad-like nature have survived in Welsh, mainly in manuscript, from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and many more have undoubtedly been lost. However, on reaching the eighteenth century, one witnesses a flowering in Welsh ballad production, especially in the form of small eight-page printed pamphlets, each containing two or three poems. J. H. Davies in his A Bibliography of Welsh Ballads Printed in the 18th Century lists 759 of these pamphlets, of which a handful were produced in London, with the remainder printed in sixteen towns in Wales and the Marches. Twelve of these sixteen centres were in north Wales or the Marches, emphasizing an important feature of ballad production in eighteenth-century Wales, namely that it was an activity concentrated mainly in the north-east of the country, in an area of significant Welsh/English cultural cross-fertilization going back over many centuries — the Vale of Clwyd, for example, was the hub of Renaissance activity in Wales, and the whole of the north-east corner of Wales was noted for the vitality of its popular folk culture from the mid seventeenth century onward.
If the eighteenth century saw a flowering in ballad production, the nineteenth century was to witness a veritable explosion. Tegwyn Jones’s bibliography of nineteenth-century Welsh ballads lists over 8,000 items from around 350 printing shops in almost 100 towns and villages. In addition to this obvious difference of scale, there are a number of other significant differences between the Welsh ballad printing of the eighteenth century and that of the nineteenth.
One is geographical, for in the nineteenth century the ‘epicentre’ of ballad production shifted from north-east Wales to the south of the country, and in particular to Glamorgan in the south-east — another key area of cultural cross-fertilization. Only four of the centres of ballad publishing in eighteenth-century Wales were in the south, and not one in Glamorgan. In contrast, of the six main centres of ballad production in nineteenth-century Wales — Caernarfon, Aberystwyth, Carmarthen, Swansea, Aberdare and Merthyr Tudful — all except Caernarfon are in south Wales and the latter three are Glamorgan towns.
There are also changes in format. For reasons of economy, the eight-page pamphlets so characteristic of the eighteenth century give way in the nineteenth century to four-page leaflets, together with a small percentage of ‘broadsides’ proper (i.e. larger sheets printed on one side only); and because of the obvious comparative constraint on space, these four-page leaflets generally contain fewer and/or shorter poems than their eight-page forebears.
The nineteenth century also witnessed a change of style. Traditional Welsh verse is characterized by a highly complex system of alliteration and assonance termed cynghanedd, and the ballads of the eighteenth century, although admittedly not as strict in their metres as this traditional verse, were heavily influenced by cynghanedd. Nineteenth-century ballads, on the other hand, are in general fairly free of this influence and are much closer in style to folk songs and lyric poetry.
As regards subject matter, although ballad sheets dealt with a wide range of subjects in both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the spectrum is noticeably wider in the nineteenth century, the only common denominator between much of the material printed on ballad sheets being that it is popular and that it can be performed to music.
The reason for the removal of the geographical centre of ballad production from north-east to south-east Wales in the nineteenth century is not difficult to discover. It reflects the massive social changes in the south-east as a result of the Industrial Revolution, which began in the late eighteenth century and totally transformed the valleys of south-east Wales both socially and environmentally during the nineteenth century.
Until the early nineteenth century, Wales was relatively poor and undeveloped, with a mainly pastoral economy. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, its population was around half a million, spread fairly evenly over the whole of the country, some 20% living in Glamorgan and Gwent (i.e. the south-eastern corner). A hundred years later, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the population of Wales had spiralled to a little under two and a half million, approximately 60% living in Glamorgan and Gwent. The rapid development of industry — iron in the first instance, and coal by the second half of the nineteenth century — created burgeoning industrial communities in the valleys of south-east Wales; and, since the ballad is by definition a social genre, a performing art which thrives on its audience, it is not surprising to see the Welsh ballad migrating with the workers to these new and populous (not to mention volatile and turbulent) industrial communities, and to see it flourish there.
The printers who produced these ballad-sheets and the ballad singers who hawked them around the country — from fair to fair and market to market, and even from house to house — doubtless did not do so from any elevated literary motives. Their primary incentive was financial. Ballad publishing was a business, based on a fairly complex social networking of producers, consumers and middle-men. All was ultimately geared to consumer demand, and that is why the ballad sheets, while not perhaps containing many literary pearls, are such exceptionally rich sources for the student of popular culture and taste in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Wales.
It should also be emphasized that when we refer to the Welsh ballad literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries we mean, almost entirely, ballads in the Welsh language. From the emergence of Welsh in around the sixth century until the start of the twentieth century, the vast majority of the population of Wales was Welsh-speaking, and indeed monoglot Welsh-speaking. The literary tradition of Wales, therefore — including its ballad literature — was an almost totally Welsh-language tradition until about a hundred years ago. While it is true that, for a variety of reasons, anglicization grew apace in the industrial valleys of south-east Wales during the second half of the nineteenth century, nevertheless at the end of the century around 50% of the population of the Glamorgan valleys were still able to speak Welsh; and although there was an increase in the number of bilingual and English-only ballad sheets produced during the second half of the nineteenth century, the ballad-sheet market in Wales remained on the whole a Welsh-language phenomenon.
Indeed, the gradual decline in the fortunes of the Welsh language, especially in the south-Wales valley communities, was one of the chief factors in the decline in ballad publishing towards the end of the nineteenth century. During this period the centre of ballad printing shifted once more and became increasingly concentrated in the Welsh-language bastions of rural north and west Wales. The decline of the ballad sheet was not, of course, the result of linguistic considerations alone. There were other factors, such as the growth of literacy, the proliferation of newspapers and periodicals, the development of other forms of entertainment such as the choral and hymn-singing tradition, music halls, cinemas and the like, together with improved transport to take people to such activities. All these contributed to the demise of the ballad sheet; and although ballad-leaflet production dragged on until the First World War — a printer in Bangor in north-west Wales, for example, selling 24,000 copies of a ballad on the sinking of the Titanic — ballad publishing had by then become a spent force, unable to attract new talent.
Not that the composition of ballad-type literature in Wales ceased with the First World War. The ballad, in new forms, continues to be popular, and twentieth-century Wales has seen such material develop in a variety of ways through a plethora of media — the prominent folk-singer and political activist, Dafydd Iwan is an excellent example of the fact that the Welsh ballad is still very much alive and kicking. Side by side with such popular Welsh-language ballads, the twentieth century has also witnessed a certain amount of ‘Anglo-Welsh’ (i.e. Welsh-based English-language) ballad writing by poets such as Harri Webb, together with the development of a ‘literary ballad’ genre in Welsh, much influenced by the consciously literary ballads of Scottish and English poets of the nineteenth century. But the popular, commercial Welsh ballad-sheet printing of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sank to all intents and purposes with the Titanic.
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This introduction should serve as background to a description of the activities of one fairly late example of a ballad printer in the industrial south-east, in the village of Troed-y-rhiw, some three miles south of the town of Merthyr Tudful.
Merthyr Tudful exemplifies much that has already been mentioned. It was the main centre of development of the iron industry in late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century Wales. Already a large town by Welsh standards in 1801, with about 7,500 inhabitants, it had grown to around 40,000 by 1850 — the largest industrial town in the world in the first half of the nineteenth century. And it was a Welsh town not only by location, but also by language, half of its population in 1900 (by then almost double that of 1850) being still able to speak Welsh, despite the strong anglicizing trends of the second half of the nineteenth century. It is not surprising therefore that Merthyr became a hive of ballad production in the nineteenth century, thousands upon thousands of ballad sheets pouring out of the presses of around thirty printers in all, and popular ballad singers like the blind Richard Williams (c. 1805-c. 1865), nicknamed ‘Dic Dywyll’ (‘Blind Dick’), flocking to the ready-made and fairly affluent audiences congregating on the town’s streets.
An entrepreneur from rural Carmarthenshire named Daniel Jones, born in 1811 or thereabouts, seized his opportunity to move east to Merthyr Tudful and had by the late 1840s opened a shop, trading as ‘Grocers, Drapers and Dealers in Sundries’, in the centre of this large and flourishing town. The narrow valley immediately to the south of Merthyr had witnessed little industrial activity during the first half of the nineteenth century and had remained fairly rural in character; but now, with the development in the valley of the coal industry, villages began to spring up like mushrooms around the mines. A note in the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian in October 1852, indicates that Troed-y-rhiw had by then begun to develop in earnest, with much recent building activity. Even a policeman had ‘been added to the live stock in that locality’. ‘This place bids fair’, said the newspaper, ‘to be a star of the first magnitude’ — an opinion with which I would have to concur wholeheartedly, since it is my home village!
Entrepreneur as he was, Daniel Jones decided to move his shop from Merthyr to the centre of this burgeoning village, erecting in 1853 the first building in what was to become the main shopping street, Bridge Street. The business flourished, and by the 1870s two of his sons, William and John Daniel (‘J. D.’), had joined him in his enterprise, which now began to branch out in a number of new directions. William married a girl from Llandysul in rural west Wales and opened a shop at the other end of Bridge Street, variously described as ‘Chemists and Druggists’, ‘Booksellers, Stationers and Newsagents’, ‘Furniture Brokers’, ‘Ironmongers’, ‘Curriers and Leather Saddlers’ and ‘Boot Upper Manufacturers’. He also opened a print shop, whose activities included publishing a newspaper entitled The Taff Vale Gazette, which first appeared in May 1875. This print shop also ventured into the ballad market, so much so that the following note was added to a ballad sheet in 1879: ‘Music and Ballads of every description always in stock.’
Almost fifty different ballad sheets from this press have survived, with more than one copy extant in the case of about half of these. They are located in various repositories across south Wales; however they do not seem to have reached repositories in north Wales, a fact which is probably indicative of their original distribution. About a third of the extant ballad sheets have the imprint ‘W. Jones’, the remainder bearing the imprint ‘Jones & Co’, but all are the product of the same family of jobbing printers. It is very likely that other examples of their work have actually survived, but without an imprint, since it was common practice for printers not to append their name to materials printed for use by the lower classes of ballad singers and/or in cases of copyright infringement. Certainly the Jones family were very conscious of this latter aspect of the publishing trade, for some of their ballads have ‘All rights reserved’ or ‘Copyright’ printed on them, and one has the following note: ‘Any person informing us of the Printing of any of the songs published by us, will be rewarded for their trouble.’
Variety is the over-riding characteristic of the ballads that have survived from this press. In the first place, there is a variety of metres — over twenty in all, the 87.87.D. and 76.76.D. metres being the most popular. A wide range of authors are represented — some of them well-known poets in the Welsh cultural scene of the time, but with a fair proportion who may be described as ‘local authors’. The ballads also display a wide variety as regards subject matter. Some are moralistic/religious, although rather fewer than one might have expected given the high percentage of such ballad sheets that have survived generally in Welsh, together with the fact that the family had fairly strong religious connections. On the other hand, light-hearted ballads, often with women as the butt of their humour, seem to have an above-average presence. There are a number of love songs and some sentimental/popular songs typical of the Victorian era. No elegies and no ballads telling of murders appear to have survived, two subject areas which were usually very popular; there are, however, some ballads about colliery accidents (a number of them prefaced with a list of the names of those killed). Most of these refer to incidents in the surrounding valleys, although one relates of a disaster as far afield as Staffordshire in the English Midlands. These ‘pit disaster’ ballads can all be dated to c. 1878-80, apparently the heyday of ballad printing by this press. Another item from that same period, by a local poet, and again reflecting the ‘journalistic’ role of the ballad, tells of the slaughter of ‘our brave soldiers’ in Isandula in the land of the Zulu in January 1879.
An interesting aspect of the press’s ballad production is the paucity of its English-language items, despite the growing anglicization of the village and the surrounding areas during the period. According to the census of 1891 — the first to include a question on language — out of a population of around 1,350 in the 250 or so dwellings in central Troed-y-rhiw, some 300 were monoglot Welsh and 450 monoglot English, with the remainder (approximately half the population) being bilingual. Yet despite this significant monoglot English population in the village itself, not to mention their fellows throughout the valley communities of south-east Wales, very few English ballad-sheets were printed by the press. Indeed, I have seen only half a dozen items in English from the main period of activity of the press (i.e. c. 1878-80), clearly reflecting the fact that the ballad sheet was, by and large, very much a Welsh-language cultural phenomenon.
William Jones died in April 1883, aged 40. He was the keener of the two brothers on printing, and the press’s ballad production seems to all intents and purposes to have come to an end with him, although his brother, J. D. Jones, clearly continued some printing work. I have seen three items with his imprint on them. Two of the items are a programme dated 1910 for a local eisteddfod (a competitive cultural festival) held under the auspices of one of the village’s Welsh-language Nonconformist chapels, and the annual report for 1916 of that same chapel. The third item is an English-language broadside, ‘A Song to the Stone-Breakers’, by a local author, which can be dated to a miners’ strike in 1898, when colliers were employed at a stone-yard at Troed-y-rhiw as a means of relief, and paid one shilling a day for their labours.
Just the one ballad item printed by J. D. Jones has survived, then, and that in English — a fact possibly indicating that his brother, William, was not only the main driving force behind the press’s ballad production, but was also more sympathetic to the Welsh language. The family certainly had a complicated language profile in the 1891 census. J. D. Jones and his wife were both bilingual. Next door, the father, old Daniel Jones, was monoglot Welsh. His grand-daughter, her husband and their year-old baby were living with him. The grand-daughter’s husband (a coal-miner, originally from Cardiff) was monoglot English; but fortunately for communications, the grand-daughter was bilingual. However, the linguistic trend over those three generations is indicative of the bleak prospects which faced the Welsh language both in that family and in the village generally during the first half of the twentieth century.
In turn, both J. D. Jones’s son and grandson carried on the family’s business interests. Both were prominent and respected local businessmen, and the family continued until fairly recently to be one of the main newsagents in the village. In addition, J. D. Jones was himself amongst those responsible for opening the local cinema in 1916. The family thus continued well into the twentieth century with the various strands that are inherent in ballad production: commerce, news and popular entertainment. For those later generations, however, the family’s Welsh ballad printing — and indeed the Welsh language itself, to a large degree — were part of their dark and distant past. The irony, of course, is that it is their Welsh-language activities which are arguably the family’s chief claim to fame.
The best one-volume introduction to the history of Wales from earliest times to the present day is John Davies’s monumental, A History of Wales (Penguin Books, 1994). Good introductory volumes on Welsh history and culture have appeared in the University of Wales Press’s ‘Pocket Guide’ series, namely The History of Wales (1990; new edition 1998) by J. Graham Jones, The Customs and Traditions of Wales (1991) by Trefor M. Owen, and The Literature of Wales (1994) by Dafydd Johnston. Tony Conran’s volume of translations of a selection of Welsh-language poems from the sixth to the twentieth centuries, Welsh Verse, third edition (Bridgend: Seren Books, 1992), contains an appendix on metres which includes a discussion on cynghanedd.
Little has been written in English on Welsh ballads. General introductions are to be found in Thomas Parry (trans. H. Idris Bell), A History of Welsh Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955); W. Rhys Nicholas, The Folk Poets (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1978); and Meic Stephens (ed.), The New Companion to the Literature of Wales (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1998). Much relevant material is also to be found in Peter Lord, Words with Pictures: Welsh Images and Images of Wales in the Popular Press, 1640-1860 (Aberystwyth: Planet, 1995). Six articles on various aspects of Welsh ballads are to be found in Mary-Ann Constantine (ed.), Ballads in Wales: Baledi yng Nghymru (London: FLS Books, 1999).
The bibliography of eighteenth-century ballads referred to in this article — J. H. Davies, A Bibliography of Welsh Ballads Printed in the 18th Century (London: Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1908-11) — is indispensable (an index to this work was published by Tegwyn Jones in 1997). Also indispensable is Tegwyn Jones’s electronic bibliography of nineteenth-century Welsh ballads, available on the National Library of Wales’s website. The second edition of Wyn Thomas’s comprehensive bibliography of traditional music in Wales was published by Gwasg Gee of Denbigh in 1996.
[A fuller discussion of the activities of the Troed-y-rhiw printers is to be found in my Welsh-language article, ‘Golwg ar Rai o Gerddi a Baledi Cymraeg Troed-y-rhiw’, in Hywel Teifi Edwards (ed.), Cyfres y Cymoedd: Merthyr a Thaf (Llandysul: Gwasg Gomer, 2001). I discuss their English-language broadsides in more detail in my article, ‘Watching the White Wheat and That Hole Below the Nose: The English Ballads of a Late-Nineteenth-Century Welsh Jobbing-Printer’, in Sigrid Rieuwerts & Helga Stein (eds), Bridging the Cultural Divide: Our Common Ballad Heritage (Hildersheim, Germany: Georg Olms Verlag, 2000).]
 [Dafydd Iwan performed in a concert at the International Ballad Conference in Swansea in 1996. For a discussion of his life and work see my article, ‘Painting the World Green: Dafydd Iwan and the Welsh Protest Ballad’, Folk Music Journal, 8:5 (2005), pp. 594-618.]
 [Troed-y-rhiw is a mile north of the mining village of Aber-fan, the scene of the terrible disaster in 1966 when a colliery waste tip swamped the village school, killing 116 children and 28 adults in its wake. This event was commemorated in a ballad by Sheila Douglas which was subsequently adapted into Welsh by Siwsann George. (Both the original ballad and the Welsh adaptation were sung by Sheila Douglas and Siwsann George during the Swansea Ballad Conference in 1996.)]