Revisiting Exodus from Cardiganshire by Kathryn J Cooper

In a time of upheaval, when the strains of the Disunited Kingdom are beginning to show themselves, Adam Somerset revisits Kathryn J Cooper’s seminal historical investigation into the Victorian exodus from Cardiganshire.

Exodus from CardiganshireSummer is the season for festivals. In Ceredigion, a week of events celebrated two hundred years of the Ohio connection. Local dramatist Euros Lewis wrote a play for the event. Troed y Rhiw performed on the Aberaeron quayside to hundreds. The week climaxed with an open-air concert with 700 packed into the town’s Cae Sgwar. The Ceredigion Schools Orchestra, the Cymru Ohio Male Voice Choir, Lloyd Macey, Catrin Finch and Gwawr Edwards all performed.

Among the counties of Wales Ceredigion has experienced the largest population drop through emigration. Among the thousands who departed was Anna Lloyd Jones from Blaenralltddu, near Rhydowen.  She, with her parents and 6 siblings, sailed from the thriving port of Cardigan in 1844. In 1867 a son was christened Frank Lincoln Wright. He later changed his name in honour of his Welsh ancestry to Frank Lloyd Wright.

Kathryn J Cooper’s book is seven years old but is the best study of the period that prompted the great population moves. Rural emigration had featured long before the land hunger of the nineteenth century. Daniel Defoe in his travels had reported that the Ceredigion uplands were thick with cattle. He described the area as  “the nursery, the breeding of the whole kingdom of England, south of the Trent.” Although good for breeding the land was less so for raising cattle. Farmers moved to the better lands of Northamptonshire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire. They still acquired their cattle from Wales but became their own graziers supplying the urban meat markets themselves.

These early emigrants were a small trickle of the ambitious in comparison with the outflow of depopulation of the nineteenth century. Movement went in all directions and in Exodus from Cardiganshire Cooper breaks the destinations down into different chapters. As a historian she admits to be working with records that are lost, incomplete or inconsistent. Some ships’ captains recorded their passengers’ last place of residence, but most did not. The emigrations took place before any local newspapers had been founded as sources of record. She cites an example where port entry records in Canada differ from sailing records from Aberystwyth.

The trans-Atlantic emigration, which was mainly from the Mynydd Bach area, surged in the 1840s. Migrations to other parts of Wales and England accelerated a generation later. Seasonal movement to assist with the harvests in the fertile Vale of Glamorgan had long been a pattern of work migration. In 1801 the southern counties, Glamorgan and Monmouthshire, accounted for less than a fifth of Wales’ population. In 1911 the figure was two-thirds. Cooper records a visitor to the Rhondda in 1840. C P Cliffe wrote “the People of this soltitudinous and happy valley are a pastoral race, almost entirely dependent on their flocks and herds for support… the air is aromatic with wild flowers and plants.”

Different work attracted different talents. The Lloyd family of Tregaron lost their farm Brynhope. Seven children out of ten survived childhood and their destinations included Leystonstone, Llanwonno, Maesteg and Cardiff. One son, John, married in London and worked on his father-in-law’s dairy round. London had long been a lure. The city by the mid-eighteenth century had more Welsh merchants and shop-keepers than any town in Wales. In the 1770’s a commentator noted “the Welch are very numerous in and about town at this time, and many of them ‘tho they understand a little – yet not enough English to understand a sermon.”

Among the established commercial visitors to London were the stocking merchants and the merched y gerddi, women who worked seasonally in the hop fields of Kent and market gardens along the Thames. With London’s great Victorian expansion all the London boroughs saw a rise in the numbers of Cardiganshire-born residents. Islington recorded the largest, encouraged by its large amount of pastureland essential for the dairy trade. Success on occasion brought dividends home. Cooper recounts Alban Davies who returned and retired to Llanrhystud. With the proceeds of his successful dairy business he purchased land on the outskirts of Aberystwyth. His gift of it to the university is now the home of the Penglais campus.

Department stores came to carry names that were rooted in the Welsh drapers. In London it was Peter Jones and Dickens and Jones and in Liverpool Owen Owen. Department stores have declined but in downtown Perth, Australia, in 2018 the largest store sign is still “David Jones”.

Liverpool was not just a magnet for the nearby counties. Cooper recounts the twenty-two year old from Cross Inn near Llanarth who walked 150 miles to Wallasey to be “taken in” by a Welsh family of cabinet-makers. The 1851 census recorded 20,262 Welsh-born residents in the city. They prospered for a good reason: “On the whole they are an industrious, steady and sober race.”

Newspapers, books and journals proliferated. The occupations ranged from surgeon to rag-gatherer with a concentration on carpentry and joiner. Family and chapel networks were extensive and crucial. Cooper visits some oral history to highlight the differences between rural and urban living. First: “You had nothing in Morfa Bychan only Chapel all day Sunday…and Prayer meeting… and the singing festival once a year…and that was our lot.” This compares with “I like to go home… but I like to come back… I’ve been very happy in Liverpool.”

Her oral testimony tips over into city one-upmanship. “We felt we had that certain urban city slickness… By Jove, we were class!” This was a period when an official commission in 1870 was reporting on rural life: “the state of cottages throughout is most disgraceful…privies are very unusual and oftener than not the piggery is attached to the dwelling.”

The University of Wales imprint means that a book on history has a serious academic stamp to it. Exodus from Cardiganshire concludes with an index and eleven pages of bibliography. Forty graphs and tables are given along with a half-dozen illustrative maps of the county. Occupations and their decline are given in fine detail. The book is not conceived as popular history but there is a vividness to Cooper’s detail and order of narrative. It evokes the factors that prompted movement of such a scale. Wages are difficult to compute because much of the reward came in the form of meals and payment in kind. But the hours were long, the average day of an agricultural labourer  beginning at 5:00 am and ceasing at 8:30 pm. Farming was at subsistence level with a dependence on commons and land without title.

History is ever restless. The tradition of the squatter cottage or ty un-nos was strong. The accepted proof of ownership was that the one-night construction must be seen to issue smoke from its chimney by dawn. The practice was hallowed by custom but conferred no freehold rights in law. Larger events resonated in the uplands. The wars with revolutionary France increased demand for food. The spread of enclosure embraced common lands that had been cultivated under ill-defined title.

Once again historical shock is due. In seven months the farmers of Britain- although it was not the vote of Ceredigion – leave the Common Agricultural Policy. The younger generation of voters is overwhelmingly opposed to the Treasury making good the rural collapse that will follow a Free Trade agreement with New Zealand. Once again the rural west is set to be scene of population upheaval. History teaches little other than to be reminder that inconstancy is permanent.


Exodus from Cardiganshire is available now from University Wales Press.