‘Cultural in/dependence from London: the role of Welsh periodicals in English: 1882-1914’

This is the eighth in a new series by different authors, The Gregynog Papers, which began life at ‘In/Dependent Wales’, the recent conference of the Association for Welsh Writing in English at Gregynog Hall in Powys. 


At the close of the nineteenth century, London was the focus of the public sphere in Britain. Jürgen Habermas traces a progression from the coffee house society of the eighteenth century to the development of ‘moral weeklies and political journals in Great Britain’, leading to the cultural dominance of metropolitan ‘literary journalism’. In The Welsh in London, Emrys Jones asserts that,


London at the end of the nineteenth century was the largest city in the world, the home of four million people, the hub of a vast empire, the greatest manufacturing city in the world, the largest port … the future seemed limitless.


The London Welsh were ‘on the crest of a wave’. The Liberal majorities, helped by Welsh constituencies, led to a Welsh presence in government which ‘boosted the confidence of the entire community.’ The London Welsh saw themselves as cultural arbiters, featuring prominent supporters of good causes, such as the establishment of the University of Wales, the National Library and the National Museum. The editors of Welsh periodicals in English cultivated this audience with its substantial potential for advertisements, political influence and cultural presence.

At the same time editors faced problems as their dependence on advertising increased. Aled Jones addresses ‘the fragility of the Welsh press’ thus:


Serials… were far more dependent on advertisers than on sales to readers and in that respect it was advertisers not readers that editors needed to imagine and attract… The history of journalism in Wales is strewn with the debris of serials that failed as a consequence of miscalculations made by editors with regard to their potential readerships.


The period from 1882 to 1914 saw the first developments of Welsh periodicals in English, working with and against this climate. One group of magazines was produced mainly in London, many of them edited by Liberal MPs. This London-based group comprises four periodicals: The Welsh Review (Ernest Bowen Rowlands – 1891-92); The London Kelt (T.J. Evans – 1895-1917); Young Wales ((1895-1904); Wales (1911-14) – both J. Hughes Edwards).

The first obvious point, central to the magazines’ survival in a capitalist world, is that these London-based journals command more advertising than their Welsh contemporaries. The London Kelt announces itself in 1895 with a whole page-full of advertisements. These include products such as Bara, ‘the Finest Wafer Butter Cake in the World’ (obtainable from eight different outlets in London), shirt-makers, dairy-men, drapers, sellers of pianos and harmoniums. There are also ‘professional notices’ for tenors and baritones and adverts about appointments in Wales. In June 1895, The Kelt solicits even more such advertisers, offering them access to a readership of ten thousand. A circulation of this order was only sustainable in a London setting. Similarly, the first issue of Wales in 1911 carries a range of advertisements promoting various Encyclopaedia, children’s wear, London drapers and Hotels, and Welsh holiday destinations.

These London-based magazines benefited from their intimate access to Westminster politics. Ernest Bowen-Rowlands (Liberal MP for Cardigan) claims that his Welsh Review will aim at people of ‘social eminence’ anywhere in the world. He attaches a dozen pages of supportive signatures and a poem of welcome by Lewis Morris (a Welsh aspirant to the role of Poet Laureate). Bowen-Rowlands argues that earlier Welsh magazines had failed because they did not aim at a circulation outside Wales. He has articles by fellow Liberal MPs such as Tom Ellis. In his ‘Welsh Notes’ he welcomes Matthew Arnold’s interventions on the nature of Celtic literature and applauds the support of the Marquis of Bute for the newly resuscitated National Eisteddfod. The tone set here is metropolitan and middle-class. A fictive ‘Duchess of Treorky’ appears, writing light-hearted political skits featuring real notabilities such as Randolph Churchill, ‘Mabon’, or Joseph Chamberlain rather like today’s Private Eye. The January 1892 issue features a holiday gathering in Broadhaven, Pembrokeshire, where the Bowen-Rowlands entertained the Gladstones, the Rendells and Mr Tom Ellis – the cream of London-based Liberal society.

Young Wales has reports of parliamentary matters, such as ‘The Lessons of the Session in Reference to Wales’ by T. Artemus Jones – two columns of small print spread over three pages in December 1901, very critical of the attendance records of Welsh members and the inactivity of the Welsh Whips. The same number reports on ‘The Incorporation of the London Welsh Freemasons’, said to be ‘a red-letter day in the history of London Welshmen’.

Tomos Owen, in his article on The London Kelt, emphasises the debt owed to a group of Welsh writers living in London, including Arthur Machen, Ernest Rhys, W. H. Davies and Caradoc Evans. The Welsh Review carries theatre reviews, all London productions, including Lady Windermere’s Fan and A Doll’s House. Space is given to women’s suffrage with strong opinions from well-known rivals in the field: Nora Phillipps (Lady St. Davids, the wife of a Liberal peer) and Eliza Orme (both London-based). In January 1896, Young Wales supports Sir Lewis Morris in the competition for Poet Laureate against the successful candidate, Alfred Austin:


Had the Liberal Government made Sir Lewis Morris poet laureate, as they certainly should have done, they would have commanded the approval of the greatest number in English literary circles on the one hand, and on the other hand would have afforded he greatest satisfaction to all sections in the Principality.


London magazines appear to see Wales from a distance, sometimes stereotyping both the Welsh and the English in quite crude ways. In Young Wales in January 1896, Llewelyn Williams makes fun of the English thus:


I confess, with all his faults I have a tender spot in my heart for John Bull. He is so solemn, so stolid, so wrapped up in his own conceit, so unlike a Celt in every way that one cannot help being attracted by him… But ridicule is the one thing to which our burly neighbour is impervious. You may laugh at him and sneer at him, and John will keep placidly on his way… What he lacks is imagination…


On the other hand, Hughes Edwards’ Wales plays up Welsh pride in rugby: a triumphant report on Wales winning its seventh Triple Crown appears in May 1911. One of his trademark ‘snippets’ at the foot of the page in August 1912 suggests that ‘Wales is so busy digging underground that her children are forgetting how to live decently above ground.’ This ‘Taffy’ factor also appears in the London Kelt’s final issue in December 1917 when it caricatures Welsh historical sensitivity, asking, ‘Is it really necessary to go back to Offa?’ in an article about industrial unrest. Most material in these London-based magazines is serious, indeed sometimes ponderous, but these occasional shifts of register betray their distancing from the Welsh heartland.

The four publications of the period produced in Wales were Charles Wilkins’s Red Dragon, produced in Merthyr, printed in Cardiff between 1882 and 1886; the bilingual magazine Cymru Fydd, printed in Dolgellau between 1888 and 1891; the periodical Wales, edited by Owen Morgan Edwards (1894-97), produced in Wrexham and London, and the short-lived Welsh Review, from Cardiff (1906-7).

These magazines begin to develop a degree of ‘in/dependence’ from London’s influence. Charles Wilkins’s Red Dragon (1882-86) – the first of these productions – is typical in its middle-class tastes, carrying advertisements for gentlemen’s hair oil, Debrett’s Peerage and a London-based magazine, The Squire: A Monthly Magazine for Country Gentlemen. Wilkins, from Merthyr, was one of the so-called ‘country editors’ identified by T.H.S. Escott in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1894 as producing journalism, ‘essentially of the bourgeois kind.’ This fits Red Dragon’s character and readership. Brynley Roberts suggests that Red Dragon should be read as exploring ‘the Welsh dimension to society, politics and economics.’ However, by its last issue, in 1887, Red Dragon’s final editor, Thomas Harris declares that the periodical’s ‘primary object’ has by now become


… making known to the great English world the manifold beauties innate in the language, literature, music and folklore of its little Welsh neighbour.


This admission that the magazine, now in its death throes, needs to revert to dependence on ‘the great English world’ demonstrates the scale of the task facing these magazines.

O.M. Edwards’s Wales, begins production in 1894 featuring nine pages of advertising, mostly for Welsh books and music, herbal remedies and local Life Assurance Societies. Wales aims at educating English-speaking Welshmen in their cultural heritage and it extends its target audience to include the ‘farmers, farm labourers, quarrymen, platemen, small tradesmen, and artisans, colliers ….’ that Edwards wanted to recruit to his vision of an English-speaking y werin. By its closure in 1897 the readership of Wales declined from 3700 to 1100 and this was accompanied by a sharp loss of advertisements. The short-lived Welsh Review, published from Cardiff in 1906-07, carries just a few advertisements, on its back cover, for organisations such as Everyman’s Library and The South Wales and Monmouthshire Training School of Cookery and Domestic Arts. Despite their worthy intentions and interesting contents, Anglophone magazines produced in Wales at this time struggle to achieve viable circulations and revenues.

These magazines share their predecessors’ interest in Liberal politics and the need to excoriate the complacency of Welsh members. The Red Dragon has a regular column on the ‘Red Dragons at Westminster’, praising initiatives such as Henry Richards’ peace policies (August, 1882) but also reporting absenteeism and acidly describing careerist Welsh MPs as ‘flabby’ (November, 1882) or as ‘slaves’ that ‘are satisfied to bear the yoke’ (March, 1883). Cymru Fydd on the other hand only displays interest in London politics when it can recruit Westminster politicians to its favourite causes. In the opening number (January, 1888) Stuart Rendell and Tom Ellis both write about links between Home Rule in Ireland and the burning question of Welsh disestablishment. More comments about absenteeism among Welsh members appear in June and September, 1888. The death of Henry Richard is lamented in September. The first issue of The Welsh Review (March, 1906) has an article that celebrates, in addition to Lloyd George’s recent appointment to the Cabinet Office, the presence of politicians with industrial experience such as Davies of Llandinam. It reports on the need for ‘The Welsh Party as a Parliamentary Party’ which will exhibit ‘a vehement spirit of nationalism in Wales’.

These publications criticise London’s presumption of cultural hegemony. In November 1888, Red Dragon’s ‘Marginal Notes on Library Books’ comments on the extent of literary influence ascribed to London where ‘journalism is constantly found napping’ especially given the writers’ ignorance of the ‘state of feeling’ in Wales. The first issue of Wales scorns London’s values and ‘the simpering refinement of these latter days’. O. M. Edwards welcomes the establishment of a Guild of Graduates in Wales, but is less happy about its first meeting being held in Whitehall, and the second being scheduled for Westminster Hall (October, 1894). Edwards was an Oxford-based academic and his priorities are set by that affiliation rather than by the views of metropolitan politicians or pundits. The contents listings for Wales have no London-based writers or topics. There is concern among established editors about the proliferation of literary journals. In the first issue of The Welsh Review, in March 1906, ‘Wales; News of the Month’ reports that


Not a day passes but some new periodical is launched until the stream becomes thick with craft… The Welsh Review will provide one new bottle for the new spirit: one exponent of that quickened sense of destiny which is so thoroughly possessing the heart of our people.


However, inevitable change is on the way. The Welsh Outlook (1914-33) appeared in January 1914 in an impressive début with a well-illustrated, large format and without any advertising at all. It was nevertheless destined for a twenty-year run, boosted by the financial guarantees of David Davies and edited in the first instance by Thomas Jones (universally known as ‘TJ’ and later to become Deputy-Secretary to the Cabinet.) ‘The Foreword’ directly takes on English journalistic supremacy:


The English Press penetrates every morning into the remotest corners of the land … In the presence of these all-pervasive influences can a small nation of two millions sustain any semblance of its ancient self? Can it absorb into itself the immigrants of the mining valleys and share with them its spiritual heritage?


Influenced by the ‘Cardiff–Barry Circle’ (described by Gwyn Jenkins as ‘socialists but gradualists’), The Outlook sought to cultivate a changing public sphere in Anglophone Wales, sharply distinguished from London influence. Its mild socialism, fed by its awareness of the industrialised areas and of the scope for industrial conflict distinguished it sharply from its rivals. This shift in priorities probably lay behind an attempt at character assassination of its editors in the February 1914 issue of J. Hughes Edwards’s Wales.

Writing under a pseudonym, Edwards imagines a scene in a London coffee shop where he identifies Thomas Jones and Silyn Roberts by name as members of what he calls ‘The Society for Self Glorification’ alleging jobbery and pharisaism as typical behaviours in the group around The Welsh Outlook. TJ, in response, declared that he wanted the Outlook to be ‘a standing protest to John Hughes Edwards’s Wales.’ Perhaps Hughes Edwards sensed that the arrival of The Welsh Outlook heralded the end of the long dominance of London journals – centred about the unchallenged supremacy of the Liberal Party in Welsh politics. By now the steel and mining communities were leading the rise of the Labour Party in English-speaking Wales. In the event, the twentieth century was to see a succession of long-lasting English-language magazines in Wales, including Dock Leaves, The Welsh Review, Poetry Wales, New Welsh Review and Planet – edited variously from Cardiff, Aberystwyth, Lampeter or Bangor and often subsidised by Welsh agencies. Indeed, the only London-Welsh publications were to be the final brief series of Keidrych Rhys’s Wales (published from his north London home in 1958-59) and the five Welsh numbers of Robert Herring’s Life and Letters To-Day (1935-50). A form of literary ‘In/dependence’ had been achieved in Wales. It will be interesting, given the unique history we have just reviewed, to see whether, as the Welsh Books Council now reshapes its rules for financial support for literary magazines after 2015, this century-long tradition can maintain itself for the future.


Dr Malcolm Ballin is an Independent Researcher, based at Cardiff University. He specialises in Literary Journalism in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. His book, Irish Periodical Culture appeared in 2008, published by Palgrave Macmillan and his Welsh Periodicals in English was published by University of Wales Press in 2013 as part of its Writers of Wales series.