The hidden history of Wales

Wales is forever marked by its role in the industrial revolution, its history inextricably linked with the quest for slate, coal, iron ore and gold hidden beneath the landscape. The BBC Four programme Hidden Wales explores how the nation evolved from a wild pre-industrial setting to a modern country. History Extra spoke to presenter Will Millard about the hidden histories he found - from the abandoned Jacobean mansions of mid-Wales to the slate quarry that housed 3,000 works of art during the Second World War…

Will Millard – presenter of the BBC series 'Hidden Wales'. (Photo by BBC Wales)

Q: What can you tell us about the various histories you wanted to cover in the programme, from history hidden within the natural landscape to the remains of industry?

A: The programme is a sweep across all of the histories of Wales. The commission came off the back of a programme called Hidden Cardiff, which was a one-part series. When we were looking just at the city of Cardiff it was comparatively easier to tell the story chronologically. Whereas when we opened it to looking at the whole nation, it was difficult to find some kind of theme that would link all of our stories together.

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So we decided to split up each episode based on the geography of the country; we start in the north and finish in the south. The series is an absolute smorgasbord. It’s everything from sea caves to medieval fortresses, to abandoned manor houses and the rich industrial history of Wales.

The distinctive polygon towers of Caernarfon Castle. (Photo by Gail Johnson/Getty Images)

Q: It’s clear in the programme that the industrial revolution and the development of industry had a huge impact on the physical and social histories of Wales. Can you tell us more?

A: Yes, the industrial revolution and Wales sort of go hand-in-hand. I live in Cardiff now and my house wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for the industrial revolution. Isambard Kingdom Brunel straightened that part of the Taff river and drained the swampland that my neighbourhood has been built on. We’re all standing on the shoulders of the heavy industrialists that came before us.

Obviously, whenever you think of the history of Wales, most people will think of the South Wales coal field which gave Wales two of the biggest ports in history, in Cardiff and Barry docks. But also, as people will see in the first episode, it doesn’t stop there. We visited Cwmorthin, a Victorian slate quarry near Blaenau Ffestiniog – in the 19th century it was said that North Wales “roofed the world”. When Cwmorthin joined the neighbouring Oakeley mine in the 1930s, it became the biggest slate mine in the world.

Wales also produced a staggering amount of iron ore. The first iron combustion techniques were developed in South Wales, in the valleys around Merthyr. And then there’s the gold mines; the Romans exploited the gold as they moved through the region. So the industrial heritage of Wales is massive and the hangover from that industry is everywhere you look.

The land itself is pockmarked with mines and quarries in a way that I don’t think any other parts of Britain are. My family are from Yorkshire and I’m from a mining family myself, but even when I’m up around Leeds, it doesn’t seem to have the same feeling as when you head north out of Cardiff and into the valley towns. There’s a whole band of towns and villages that stretch all the way along the coal field. It shows industry’s massive impact and obviously it had an influence on culture as well. You can still find the old grand theatres and arcades in places like Swansea that sprung up as a product of the industrial revolution in Wales.

The industrial revolution increased the amount of work available for both the old and the young. The welfare of child workers, in particular, suffered from the effects of long and consecutive days of employment, says Emma Griffin. (SSPL/Getty Images)

Q: In the first episode of the series you went inside a ‘caban’ at the Cwmorthin slate quarry. What can you tell us about this place and how it influenced culture?

A: Yes, the ‘caban’ is an iconic place in the history of the slate industry. Perhaps people will have never heard of it if they’re from outside Wales, but it was a type of canteen or mess-room that became the classroom underneath the ground, where the men that were working there would get all of their information. They would have learned their history and would have been heavily influenced by the political ideology and ideas being talked about down there. There were poetry and singing lessons held down there, too.

The graffiti down there was spectacular, but was unfortunately something that we couldn’t fit into the programme. The graffiti isn’t stuff like “Dick was here”; it’s highly politicised slogans and imagery from the time. These were actually very enlightened, well-educated people, working underground in these quite horrendous conditions. I think this fact can get lost a little when you just look at the grand figures of the industrial output. Many individuals were inspired in these cabans and great leaders and scholars came out of those places.

It was an immense privilege to see it. The caban was one of those places that still felt really real – it was still intact with walls, and there were cups and plates and cutlery left by the men who had worked down there. It was deeply moving.

Will Millard at the Cwmorthin slate quarry. (Photo by BBC Wales)
Will Millard – presenter of the BBC series ‘Hidden Wales’ – at the Cwmorthin slate quarry. (Photo by BBC Wales)

Q: Many of these industrial sites were retired in the 1970s and 80s – what state are they in now?

A: It varies. One of the sad, overarching themes that came out in the series is that, in tight economic times, so often it falls on the shoulders of passionate Welsh people and trusts and enthusiasts to safeguard a lot of these sites, because sadly a lot of them are just being lost to time.

Cwmorthin was in a decent state of repair because it had been drilled through the rock. But most of the coal mines in South Wales have been filled in now. The shafts have been capped and buried, the wooden pit props have obviously rotted and collapsed, and the mines of the Victorian era just don’t stand up.

The docklands are amazing. If you go down to the docks in Cardiff and Barry you can still see all the great dry-docks and the feeder canals that controlled the water levels so that huge coal ships could get in – they’re still in decent nick.

c1942: Attendants take a painting out of storage for routine inspection in a subterranean chamber at Manod Quarry, north Wales, where paintings from the National Gallery had been moved for safe keeping during the Second World War. (Photo by Fred Ramage/Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
c1942: Attendants take a painting out of storage for routine inspection in a subterranean chamber at Manod Quarry, north Wales, where paintings from the National Gallery had been moved for safe keeping during the Second World War. (Photo by Fred Ramage/Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

We also went down Manod quarry, a disused slate mine which was used by the National Gallery during the Second World War to store around 3,000 works of art. The store was worth billions – there were Constables and Turners down there, and 19 Rembrandts. That was sadly in a bad state, the roof was collapsing and it was quite obvious that we will probably be the last people to film in there before it’s closed for good.

It’s tragic; it does these sites a disservice to say they’re ‘important’ sites of history. The money that was made out of places like Cardiff and Swansea is astronomical, and, as so often happens, the actual places, the holes in which those men and women worked and got that lucrative gold, iron or coal are just fading away; bits of the chambers flooding or new cracks appearing.

Q: You also visited a number of manor houses and mansions that have fallen into ruin. What did you discover?

A: You’d think that, generally speaking, mansion houses would have a better run of it, due to the historical trusts such as National Trust and Cadw [the historic environment service of the Welsh Government]. But still it’s the same story and many of these houses tend to depend on passionate individuals. In episode one we met Cornelia Bayley, a wonderful eccentric woman who looks after Plas Teg, a country house in North Wales. There was also Gwrych Castle, looked after by Mark Baker, who set up a trust as a 12-year-old.

All of these grand mansions – everything from the Jacobean to the Victorian and Edwardian – are falling apart.

Chatsworth House, where Elizabeth I ordered for Mary, Queen of Scots to be imprisoned after she abdicated and fled from Scotland to England in 1567. (Photo by Chatsworth House Trust)

Q: Having explored the hidden histories of Wales, what’s one hidden gem that you would like people to be aware of, that they can still go and visit?

A: I really liked Pembrey in west Wales. I’d been there before and not even realised that it was the site of one of the UK’s biggest First World War munitions factories. Explosives – TNT and cordite for bullets and shells – were produced there. I think there were as many as 6,000 women working in Pembrey at the factory’s height during the conflict. These were unsung heroes of the war who never really got properly recognised for the extraordinary effort that went into making these weapons – and the risk of life. That surprising history is in the middle of a beautiful country park today.

Next to it, you have Pembrey Sands. It’s one of the most wreck-heavy areas of British coastline, it’s a beautiful white sandy beach scattered with historical wrecks smashed up on the sands and around the river mouth, showing how deadly it used to be. You can actually go and walk among the wrecks and get your hands on the skeletal remains of these old wooden ships and crafts. It’s a great day out that offers two fantastic, hidden historical sites.

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Will Millard is a writer, BBC presenter, public speaker and expedition leader. The first and second episodes of Hidden Wales are available on BBC iPlayer now, and the third episode will be shown on BBC Four on Monday 10 December at 8pm.