Reviews and Views

History Is What You Live: On teaching the histories of Wales in the New Curriculum

History is more than the page of a book. History is the buckle that bites into your back. History is the sweat you can’t keep out of your eyes. History is the fear crawling in your belly.

Gwyn A. Williams

Over the past few months, Wales has been engaged in a national conversation about the proposed new national curriculum – the first genuinely national curriculum created in and for Wales since the advent of devolution and perhaps the most singularly Welsh innovation in education since the days of the Central Welsh Board a century ago. As with all new developments, there have been positive expressions of support and enthusiasm, and concerns expressed about the extent and necessity of change. One area where this seems particularly loud, as much for political as practical reasons, is the question of the place of Welsh history teaching. Some online commentary has expressed concern that history will have to fight for its place in the new Areas of Learning Experience (AoLE), which strikes me as a little too catastrophising a response. I say that for two key reasons: first and foremost, history is such an integral part of the national curriculum embedded as a substratum of almost every subject independent of any classroom time devoted to the discipline-specific methods of History itself. (I shall use the capital H to identify the subject from here on). The second reason is that having sat on academic review committees of the new curriculum during its development stages, I did not once feel that History was being pushed out or marginalised by the proposed innovations – other subjects may have a different sense, but we historians should be comfortable.

Two caveats should preface this discussion: firstly, the appearance of cynefin in the curriculum has its origins in a suggestion I made at one of those review meetings (supported by colleagues) which has been picked up and run with by those in Welsh Government. At the start of the year, I met with Kirsty Williams in my capacity as an adult education tutor – she visited my class in Merthyr Tydfil – and I was cheered by her presentation of the opportunities of the curriculum as they relate to History. Make no mistake, the minister is an avid supporter of History and would not see it disappear from the curriculum on her watch. Anyone who saw the plenary debate the other day about the teaching of Welsh History in schools will have heard some excellent contributions particularly from Alun Davies, Mick Antoniw, David Melding, and Kirsty Williams herself, which recognised that there is considerable difficulty in assigning a History curriculum in the singular. The historical experiences of Breconshire, Radnorshire, and Montgomeryshire, for instance, are distinctive and distinct from those of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire to the south. That plurality of Histories is what makes Wales such a compelling place to study as an historian. Again, I am particularly cheered that my proposal to place emphasis on the plural Histories and the plurality of experiences was understood by colleagues in Welsh Government and has been linked with cynefin in the way that I hoped it would be. Again, this does not undermine the teaching of the Welsh past but makes understanding far richer – potentially.

We can only stress the potentiality of these innovations because at the moment we do not know what direction teachers and schools will take. Perhaps they will take inspiration from projects such as one I’ve been involved in with my old school in Pontypridd telling the history of the Albion Colliery Disaster of 1894 – one of the worst pit disasters in Britain, whose story was told all over the world – or from work done by the Rhondda Heritage Park and the local primary school in Trehafod on the links between the former Lewis Merthyr Colliery and international shipping companies like the White Star Line; or, indeed, from the prize-winning project undertaken by Maerdy Primary School in the Rhondda on people of colour living in that community. Those are very specific historical experiences: what is this History to students at, for instance, a secondary school in the borderlands at Presteigne or in Holyhead? Isn’t part of the problem we have in understanding the Welsh past the fact we tend not to acknowledge the plurality of experiences which makes our place(s) in the world distinctive? As a historian of South Wales – yes, yes, capital ess – I have tried to historicise and make the case for understanding my own part of the world as identifiably different to other parts. We can debate the extent to which, for instance, Porthcawl doesn’t quite fit in, but that’s part of the fun.

Perhaps an example or two will suffice to explain what I mean and to demonstrate the possibilities of the changes being proposed. We have heard much in recent weeks about the 1919 riots in Cardiff, Newport and Barry, objectively recognisable as race riots, which caused havoc in each of those places a century ago. There is a great irony in focusing on those riots and claiming them to be ‘to Wales’s shame’, when in many parts of Wales they were not really reported in any great detail at the time. Using the Welsh Newspapers Online portal from the National Library of Wales – a barometer if not a precise guide – the term ‘riots’ brings up more than 140 examples from 1919 from ‘South Wales’ newspapers, 94 from ‘West Wales’ newspapers, 33 from ‘Mid Wales’ and just 29 from ‘North Wales’. That’s without further clarifying the search. Take the ‘North Wales’ cohort. This included reports about riots in Australia, the Kinmel Camp riots which occurred near Abergele in March 1919 amongst the 15,000 Canadian troops stationed there, as well as riots in Copenhagen, Berlin, and London. There was some mention of the major strike in Winnipeg, Manitoba, too. Any detail on events in Cardiff was slight. Take this report from the Llangollen Advertiser from September, ‘the black and white riots in South Wales cost the ratepayers £3000 in damages’. Oh dear. Poor Ratepayers. Some detail did emerge about the Assize trials in July 1919, but that was about it.

There are all sorts of problems with that kind of methodology, to be sure, but it serves as a reminder that hindsight often gives us panoptic perspectives which were not present at the time. There is a wider question, too, which relates to the subject of race relations in that period. One would not claim that anywhere in Britain was especially ‘enlightened’ (even that term can only be heard, as it should be, in a patronising tone), but circumstances in the seaports were not necessarily replicated everywhere. There were relatively few people of colour living outside of the docklands of Cardiff, Barry, Swansea, and Newport, but that is not to say there were none. Indeed, just twenty miles away, in the Rhondda, some of the most established doctors working in the valleys were themselves people of colour. Dr Datta, who lived in Ferndale and helped to establish the workmen’s hospital in the town at the beginning of the twentieth century, was a leading figure in local civic life. He had previously signed Mabon’s nomination papers to stand for parliament, stood himself for election to the Rhondda Urban District Council, and spoke widely on issues of Indian nationalism and independence. Datta was a native of Mumbai. Does this negate events in Cardiff? No, not at all, but it does afford us an essential nuance – that of local circumstances. Today, the overwhelming majority of general practitioners in the Rhondda come from the Indian subcontinent; the fact that has been part of medical practice in that valley since the late-nineteenth century is surely a part of the story?

Which of these two, then, is more significant? Which deserves its place in the chosen events which make up the ‘national story’, and which is merely “local colour”? The absence of discussion in the north, the civic involvement of people of colour in the Rhondda, or the race riots in the docklands? Perhaps I can complicate things even further by adding some detail from my forthcoming work on sexuality in Wales. One of the interesting questions posed online by the team behind the fascinating twitter feed on the 1919 riots as about the LGBT history of that period. The truth is, actually, that quite a lot of homosex (that is, sex between men) was multiracial – lots of the merchant sailors who came into the docklands from what is now Yemen or the wider Arab peninsula had sex with men they met in Cardiff, Barry, Newport, Penarth or Swansea. Some of these men were from the valleys, others were from the ports themselves. At no stage does the antagonism which occurred in 1919, or, indeed, in 1911 with the anti-Jewish and anti-Chinese riots, seem to have impacted on the sexual desires expressed between white men and men of colour. Now we might argue, perhaps fairly, that men who have sex with other men were already on the margins, so they shared in their relative status; but racial attitudes imbibed through prevailing social and cultural winds doesn’t really work like that. Men from Jewish, Muslim, and Christian backgrounds had sex with each other, quite a lot, without any consideration being given to the things we now problematise. Perhaps that’s a naïve observation, but nonetheless can be supported with evidence from the archival record.

But that is not a story you will find in Montgomeryshire or Ceredigion. So, is this Welsh History or is it Cardiff History? That’s the beauty of cynefin and historical pluralism, it takes that consideration out of the equation. Knowledge of what happened, uniquely, in Cilfynydd or Caersws gives the children who grow up in those places a link to their own past and allows them to place their own experiences today in the context of the longer stories of those communities. And from the parochial we can all learn about our place in the world. Each link can be made from the familial to the local to the Welsh to the global. The new curriculum represents a golden opportunity to reinvigorate our understandings of the Welsh past; a golden opportunity to ask questions about the differences and similarities between Ynysybwl and Ynys Môn; a golden opportunity to place History at the heart of everything we do in schools. From the equals sign (invented in Wales) to the industrial revolution, from global trade to the distinctiveness of cynghanedd, each can be historicised. The new curriculum will be the single most important change devolution has brought about in Wales in two decades: if we really do all believe in Wales, it’s up to us to make it work.