Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Posts Tagged ‘Chartism’

A story of struggle: “Rape of the Fair Country”

In R.Richardson, Reviews on April 26, 2013 at 12:06 pm

A review by Ruth Richard of the book by Alexander Cordell 

Recently, in Cardiff, I attended a performance of a play, The Rape of the Fair Country, based on the novel by Alexander Cordell.

It tells the story of the Mortymer family living in the iron-making community of South Wales in the early 19th Century. The production was excellent – an imaginative stage set, vivid characterisation, gripping drama and a lyricism in the language that put one in mind of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood.

The play prompted me to turn to the book. Reading it was a much darker experience. It spans the years 1826 to 1839, and Cordell pulls no punches in his descriptions of the hellish conditions under which the labourers worked.

NO CHILDHOOD:

The book opens with the hero, Iestyn Mortymer, aged eight starting work in the foundry. Children as young as five or six were employed in chipping the rock from the veins of iron. Horrific injuries to the men who handled the great ladles of molten iron were common, and the men who controlled the furnaces became blind from continual exposure to the heat and glare. There was of course no protective clothing and no statutory “sick pay”.

Workers were paid in tokens to be spent in the iron masters’ stores, where prices were inflated. Another profit-making ploy was to pay out wages in the beer houses. These were also owned by the iron masters, so that the men were tempted to drink their wages away.

Crawshay Bailey of Nantyglo (an actual historical figure) was depicted as one of the most merciless of the masters.

Benefit clubs already existed, where men paid a few pence a week as insurance against sickness. But the idea of Union was spreading – that workers needed to band together to be effective in their demands. Iestyn’s sister Morfydd feels strongly about the employment of women and children, and is often in conflict with her conservative father, who later questions his own loyalty to the iron master.

STRIKE:

Cordell describes the terrible conditions during one winter when the men strike. Irish workers are brought over, but the iron masters need skilled foremen to keep production going. People are starving, and “Evans the Death” (the undertaker) is making his fortune. One striker, goaded by his wife, attempts to return to work, but he is caught and whipped mercilessly.

RISE OF CHARTISM:

Alongside the growing trade union movement, Cordell tells of the Chartists. Meetings were held all over the valleys with speakers from London and Birmingham.

The “Charter” set out four basic rights:

  • Universal suffrage (for men)
  • A secret ballot
  • an election every year (!)
  • Pay for MPs (to ensure that lack of resources would not rule out a candidate from standing).

… AND THE NEWPORT RISING:

The climax of the book is the account of the Chartists’ Newport Rising of 1839. It’s a harrowing story.

Iestyn and his companions set off with high hopes. Contingents came from all over the valleys, but the 20,000 expected didn’t materialise. It was hoped that the “Redcoats” (soldiers) in Newport would “turn coat” and side with the marchers, but that never happened. The rising was put down savagely and the ringleaders treated brutally.

It must be remembered that the French Revolution had taken place only a few decades earlier, and the authorities were running scared.

CORDELL AND HIS WORK:

This book is the first in a trilogy. It was first published in 1959, and became an international best seller, translated into 17 languages. The other two, The Hosts of Rebecca (about the Rebecca Riots) and Song of the Earth are also set in Nineteenth Century Wales.

Alexander Cordell was born in Sri Lanka in 1914, into an army family. He made the army his career until he was seriously injured in 1940, It was during his convalescence at Harlech that he developed a love and fascination for Wales and its people. Later, working as a quantity surveyor, he became familiar with the industrial valleys – and in particular, the old iron-working towns such as Blaenafon. Cordell set out to record for posterity the hardships and humour of the Welsh people, and to make them proud of their heritage.

Rape of the Fair Country is not only a vivid and moving historical novel. It reminds us – as do the Tolpuddle Martyrs – of the struggle of past generations of working people. It is an inspiration to continue that struggle today against those who exploit us. The fight goes on.

Reviewed by  RUTH RICHARDSON

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