A Review of ‘Hanes Cymry’ – A History of Welsh-Speaking People

In stark contrast to Boris Johnson, the academic Simon Brooks hardly sees himself as a contemporary reincarnation of Winston Churchill. Yet the ambition of this volume – replacing the ‘u’ in ‘Cymru’ with a ‘y’ changes the meaning from ‘Wales’ to ‘the Welsh-speaking people’ – reminds one of Churchill’s work, “A History of the English Speaking Peoples” published in four volumes during the 1950s.

Brooks’s work is smaller – one hefty volume, instead of four – but the fruits of equally diligent research, perhaps more so, in a field where there is much less work by others to lean upon.

But Brooks’s goal is quite different from that of Churchill.  It seems Churchill had little interest in the plethora of people from other countries who had learned English, nor in those who had settled within the boundaries of England having done so. Brooks, on the other hand, is interested in these more than anyone else. It’s amazing for the reader to see how many there have been over the centuries, and for what that says about Wales as a country and as a civilisation.

No Longer the Eighth Century

Brooks shows convincingly that the picture of Welsh society that is popular among  non-Welsh speakers and the English– ‘pure of origin’, white, and made up only of those descended directly from the British natives who were here at the time of the Romans  (“some kind of closed relic of the eighth century” in the words  of Trevor Phillips,  Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality[1])  – is totally false. On the contrary, people of other races have been part of the Welsh Civilisation for many centuries, and this is something that has increased since Britain itself has become more multi-racial.

But he has an extremely important point to make, which comes over very clearly as the history unfolds – namely,  Wales’s ‘secret weapon’ in assimilating people into its heart is the Welsh language.

This is a crucial point because at the end of the day, the thing that is completely unique about Wales above all is its language. Therefore, at least for most of our history up to the second half of the 19th  Century,  the ability to speak Welsh was the definition of a Welshman; and as this is something that could be learned rather than being an inherent property of origin or race, the result was an extremely open civilisation for people coming in from outside. Not perfect in that regard, for sure, yet still remarkable by comparison with other cultures. This only changed as the decline of the percentage of Welsh speakers set in seriously, following the Treachery of the Blue Books, the Education Act of 1870 and the overwhelming migration of people from England into the coalfields and coastal areas.   The presence of a large number of non-Welsh speakers within the boundaries of Wales brought with it need to find new ways of defining what it was to be Welsh, with race and ancestry becoming more important than they had been before.


But we’d better not rush ahead. Brooks writes in detail about his subject, with names, dates, and an abundance of references at the back of the volume.  Like his other book reviewed on this blog, ‘Why Wales Never Was’, this is not a book of popular history: the author is clear that he’s writing for “the intellectuals” and combines the history itself – who were these Welsh people who came from outside Wales? – with much more academic and abstract material.

Around the beginning of the book he sets the context in observing how all discussions of racial issues these days in the Anglo-American world tend to be framed in American terms, and that this is not at all relevant to Welsh history. Later, a long and (for me) rather dry chapter discusses the question of whether it is legitimate for Welsh people to consider themselves as black, to the extent that both communities have experienced oppression at the hand of Anglo-American civilisation over the centuries. He concludes, very wisely, that the answer to that is “no”. But by the end of the chapter, the song by Sobin a’r Smaeliad, ‘Gwlad y Rasta Gwyn’ (‘The Land of the White Rasta’) had embedded itself in my head like an earworm of the first rank.

The History

But the value of this book – and it is a very valuable book – is the story of the great many people who have immigrated into Wales over the centuries and turned into ‘first class’ Welsh people, regardless of their race or colour.

Most of them, it has to be said, have been English, since they are the largest and closest nation to us. There is no need to think long or hard to find staunch Welshmen, with a passionate loyalty towards this country and its language and culture, who have English surnames. Brooks, to pull one out of the air at random. Or Wigley. Or Francis. Or Jobbins. Or Higham. Although we have a popular idea of the English as running around the world forcing everyone to speak their language, yet plenty of them over the centuries have been overcome by the Welsh language. More often or not, this was because those who wanted to live in Wales, for whatever reason, had no choice in an age when the great majority of the population spoke only Welsh.

But Brooks lists many others, too. Bretons (the ‘Johnny Onions’ who used to travel the country), a great many Irish, Jews, Italians and Spanish, French and Germans, Slovenians and Greeks. Some  Scots (although, interestingly, Brooks points out the way that some English landowners tended to import Scots to do their ‘dirty work’, on the basis that they were less likely than the English to ‘go native’ – this reminded me of how the szlachta in Poland used to use Germans and Jews to keep the common Poles in place).

Black and Brown

John Ystumllyn, 1754

But in our troubled age where skin colour seems more important than it has been for some decades, many people will come to this book to learn about those from outside Western Europe, and particularly from Africa, India and Asia, who have become part of the Welsh nation.

The numbers aren’t large, but there’s no doubt that they are present from early days. Among the first ones was John Ystumllyn (~1730- ~1790) who came to Wales from the West Indies as a slave when a child, and worked in the various stately homes of Eifionydd and Ardudwy. He married a local girl, Margaret Gruffydd of Trawsfynydd, and had children who settled in the Llandwrog area. Another whose name we know was Francis Nuttar (~1765 – 1791) who worked in one of the mines of Llanarmon-yn-Iâl, near Wrexham. He also married a local girl, and became a prominent member of the Methodist chapel there at the time of the Revivals. By the 19th Century, we read about black Welsh people in Pwllheli, Merthyr Tydfil, the Cynon Valley, Tredegar, the Rhondda Valley, Resolven and (back in North Wales) Dyffryn Nantlle.

Unfortunately, it can’t be claimed that their experience was completely free of racial prejudice. The names of some of them come to our attention as a direct result of their experiences of it. For example, we hear of William Tuckett of Resolven, who came to Wales from New Brunswick in Canada, being sentenced to jail in 1910 for punching a woman who insulted him (in English) about his colour.

Yet it is clear that a significant number of black people settled in the Welsh-speaking parts of Wales, learned Welsh themselves, and became part of the community, long before the Windrush Generation arrived.

As for people from other parts of the world, a Doctor from Sri Lanka was working among Welsh-speaking patients in Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant during the First World War, and others from India worked at the same time in Ferndale and Treherbert. Chinese people are more difficult to find among the population until relatively recently, but a lady in Rhosllanerchrugog near Wrexham, Nan Chung – daughter of a Chinese laundry owner – spoke Welsh there between the two world wars.

Rachael Hearne

Multilingual communities

There is a very interesting chapter towards the end of the book relating to the ‘Kååle’  (or sometimes ‘Kale’ – the word means ‘black’), namely the Welsh Gypsies who managed to keep their own language alive among them for many centuries, while at the same time being fluent in Welsh. The  Welsh Kååle managed to sustain their Romani language for much longer than their English cousins. Brooks gives this as an example of how Wales has maintained more than one ‘native’ language within its boundaries, and that being Welsh-speaking is not necessarily something that pushes out all other identities.

This is a more important point than perhaps appears at first sight. Many people assume that only ‘world’ languages such as English have the ability to ‘accommodate’ other communities among them, and are therefore naturally more open and less ‘prejudiced’ than smaller linguistic groups such as Welsh. Brooks clearly shows that such an idea is completely wrong.



The Great Irony

But as mentioned earlier, something that also comes over in the book is how much more difficult it has become for Wales to assimilate immigrants since so much of the country became English-speaking. When the language is not available to define who is Welsh and who is not, other things -such as family history, a feeling of ‘belonging’ to somewhere special, and being part of a close community – tend to take its place. And for someone coming in from outside, these things can be a lot harder to acquire.

The great irony, therefore, is that the thing which was supposed to open Wales up to the world – the widespread use of the English language – has had completely the opposite effect in practice. The ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’ writ large at grass-roots level.

Gwlad’s Response

On behalf of Gwlad I very much welcome this volume. Since our very beginning, we have said that on the one hand we want to see Wales as a free country open to the world, while on the other hand want to see Wales’s unique culture – and its language in particular – thrive and grow. This book provides clear evidence that there is no contradiction between the two.

We have set out our vision for welcoming people of all races into Wales in numerous other articles in these pages – herehere and here for example – while insisting that they become Welsh in the fullest sense and not only ‘British’. There is no better way of achieving that than to give them every opportunity and encouragement to learn Welsh, and we will continue to campaign for this at every level.

Brooks has written a masterpiece here. There’s even more in it than I’ve talked about here – the influence of Welsh missionaries in the Pacific Islands, the experience of  Welsh-speaking communities in England: all sorts of things. As I said earlier, this is not a coffee table book – reading it takes some commitment, for sure – but it is extremely valuable, and fills one with hope for what could be achieved in an independent Wales that takes these things seriously.


[1] To be fair to Trevor Phillips – who in general is among the more sensible people when approaching this subject – this is not a description of things as they are, but a warning of what they must not become.

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