Wales in the Nineteenth Century
Painting with the broadest brush, the story of Wales in the nineteenth century is one of industrialisation. Ironworking and coal mining expanded, especially in the south, allowing urban areas to become industrialised and connect to the whole world via trade. The population increased dramatically; and it moved: some areas saw relative demographic decline as the proportion of the population living in the south east of the country skyrocketed.
History is rarely straightforward. Just as Wales ventured into the new, so too did it maintain the old. Davies writes of this contrast, 'Villages that were so lost in time that no map marked them existed a few miles from towns that were world leaders in a range of different industrial undertakings. Industrialists of incalculable wealth lived close to beggars dying of starvation, while world-leading mathematicians and scientists coexisted with bearded, messianic preachers, who believed, preached, looked, sounded, and smelt like Old Testament prophets...Although they worked in modern industries, many Welsh people perpetuated the Middle Ages. In that most novel of industries, the railways, workers brought with them into their workplace older beliefs. If a bird, especially a robin, was seen in a carriage then it forewarned fearful tidings. Thousands of Welsh people believed in the physical reality of unearthly beings such as angels and cherubs.' A strong strand of religious non-conformity ran through the less affluent communities, separating their chapels from the Anglican churches with their wealthier congregations.
This period was not without contestation. There was friction between Welsh workers and a predominantly English bourgeoisie: there was an uprising in Merthyr Tydfil in 1831 when several thousands of workers called for reforms against worker exploitation; in 1839, as part of the Chartist movement, there was an armed rebellion in Newport. However, the most notorious of Welsh contestations during this period was agrarian; the Rebecca Riots, which took place in South Wales from 1839-1844.
South Wales 1830-1850
South Wales is typified by hills, valleys, and often rugged coastlines; travel was often taken via winding country paths on multiple elevations. While weather of course fluctuated year by year, the summertime was largely temperate and winters were especially wet, windy, and cold. To live in South Wales during this time was, for most, to live with many burdens. As the old agricultural economy was eroded by ambitious anglicised landowners, the livelihoods and ways of life of entire communities were threatened or destroyed. Tithes and high rent rates stripped people's money away and the 1834 Poor law made living even more difficult as it reduced government provisions to the poor. All the while, population increases placed stress on the food supply, which was exacerbated by weak harvests from 1838-41.
Limestone carting was vital to agriculture. Lime was used for fertilisation of crops and neutralising acidic soil; however, it could only be obtained in certain areas, meaning farmers had to use carts to transport the lime. The turnpike roads used for this transport had several toll gates, partly to raise money for road maintenance. Needless to say, paying tolls to move lime was unpopular, and many farmers did their best to avoid paying tolls either by taking alternate routes or timing their travel so they would pay the minimum number of tolls. However, in 1839 the turnpike trusts (of which there were many in operation across South Wales) began to build new gates to crack down on such workarounds.