By Russell Davies
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Additional resources for Hope and Heartbreak: A social history of Wales and the Welsh, 1776-1871
One of the most important skills for historians is to learn to read between the lies and the lines. Frustratingly, some historical events, which have acquired immense importance for posterity, receive no attention in the contemporary press. Historical study and hindsight have endowed certain events with significance, but in their day they were unremarked and uncelebrated. The Merthyr Rising of 1831, for example, merits little attention in many Welsh newspapers and magazines. 82 Comparison of stories in rival newspapers and magazines enables the historian to capture the complex, contradictory and conflicting nature of events.
The base cruelty of Welsh society is also shown by the large crowds which flocked to public hangings. Throughout Wales, thousands upon thousands gathered to watch infamous murderers drop to meet their INTRODUCTION: PORTRAIT OF AN AGE, 1776–1871 27 maker. Even after 1868, when hanging ceased to be a public event, thousands of people still gathered outside Carmarthen, Caernarfon, Cardiff and Swansea jails and other places of execution to watch the lowering of a symbolic black flag. The largest crowd which gathered in nineteenth-century Wales came together not to pray, or to protest, or to perform.
Many people were so poor that the possession, or non-possession, of petty and trivial things divided people cruelly into social categories. People frequently reminisce, fondly recalling long ago, ‘slawer dydd’, when morality was stronger and social bonds firmer. In those idyllic, halcyon days, doors were left open to welcome friends and strangers. Yet, some would say spitefully that the doors were kept open to reveal the treasures that the wealthier possessed. Some historians have emphasized that the Welsh people, especially in the nineteenth century, were divided not on class lines but on moral issues.