The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Land + People

Wales is a predominantly mountainous country, with large areas of land over six hundred metres in height, and, for the past two hundred years, these upland areas have lost population. South Wales is the main area of industrial activity, because it was coal that first gave life to industry. The nineteenth century saw a tenfold increase in the population of the South Wales coalfield region. Largescale expansion of coal mining did not take place till the second half of the nineteenth century. Merchant navies, railways and steel works all required increasing amounts of coal. On the coast Cardiff and Newport handled the coal that came down by the valley railways.

By the 1930s coal exports were already declining, causing economic depression and unemployment. The overseas trade disappeared in World War II, and only partly and temporarily revived in peace time. Important consumers were now turning to oil, and the reduced demand led to the closure of many pits and again unemployment. From about 200 pits at the end of World War II the number was reduced to less than 50. The number of working miners fell by about two-thirds, and the industry lost its position as the leading employer in South Wales. All this has created immense social problems, particularly in the valleys where the dependence on mining was greatest. One of the best known mining valleys is the Rhondda, its population, however, is steadily falling due to coal production decline.

Like coal mining, the iron and steel industry is long established in the south. For much of the nineteenth century, South Wales was the leading producer in Britain. The prosperity was based on the availability of basic raw materials — coking coal and iron ore. As the iron ores were exhausted, and foreign ores had to be imported, the iron and steel works were moved to sites near the coast. A major integrated steel works is situated at Port Talbot, where a new harbour was opened in 1970 to accommodate the largest ore carriers. However, by the end of the 1970s the steel industry faced widespread recession and steel production was drastically reduced.

Other metal industries in South Wales, notably the manufacture of tinplate, are in the Swansea district. South Wales is an important centre for the manufacture of non-ferrous metals. Its main centre is Swansea. Industrial recession has also affected this industry. Efforts have been made to attract new engineering industries, however, they haven’t solved the serious social problems caused by the decline of the traditional industries.

Cardiff (280,000) is the largest city in industrial South Wales, and is also the national capital and main business centre. It rose to importance with the coal mining and iron industries. Today the cargoes it handles are mainly imports, to be distributed throughout South Wales. On imported grain flour milling developed as well as other food processing.

Swansea and Newport shared coal exports too. However, later they suffered the same decline like Cardiff.

The main port of Wales today is Milford Hayen (situated in the very southwest) because of its oil tanker traffic. It is one of the leading oil terminals of Britain. Refineries grew up on opposite shores and Milford Haven became an important refining centre. A pipeline takes petroleum to a refinery near Swansea.

North Wales is mountainous. In the north-west is the district known as Snowdonia, where the Snowdonia National Park is situated and where Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales (1085 m), towers over its mountain group. Sheep raising is the main occupation of the population.

In addition to the river valleys and the narrow coastal plain, North Wales has some lowland areas, including those on the island of Anglesey. At these lower altitudes the climate is much more favourable. Here the farmers concentrate on cattle rather than sheep. They raise both dairy and beef cattle, the former providing milk for English industrial districts as well as the towns of North Wales. Oats and root crops are grown here mainly for fodder.

Despite the small coalfield, industrialization has had little effect on North Wales. Recently two nuclear power stations were built: one in North Wales, the other in Anglesey. They both supply power to the national grid system.

Tourism is mainly concentrated in the northern coastal strip. On Holy Island, which lies off the coast of Anglesey, is Holyhead, terminus of road and rail routes from London and chief ferry port, for services to the Irish republic — via Dun Laoghaire (pronounced Dunleary), near Dublin.

In general, Wales, which is a national outlying region of Great Britain, faces serious social and economic problems, caused by the depression of its traditional industries. Unemployment remains high and the future of many miners and steel workers remains very uncertain.

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