Out of their Night [Chwalfa]

Hughes, T. Rowland

Anyone familiar with north Wales will know that it is famous for slate quarries. During the late nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth, the slate was exported all over the world, and the slate roofs provided by Wales are justly admired. But what was the human cost? True, the Penrhyn quarry in Bethesda provided jobs to hundreds, and contributed to the economy, but the quarrymen worked hard in difficult and dangerous conditions for a pittance while the quarry owners lived a life of luxury. Lord Penrhyn lived in Penrhyn

Castle, and there was an unbridgeable gap between him and the quarrymen. To add insult to injury, the workers were Welsh speaking and the masters Englishmen, the workers Nonconformist in religion whilst the masters were Anglicans, the workers Liberal in their political persuasion and the masters Conservatives. A myth (and not an altogether false one) has grown around the north Wales quarrymen — that they were deeply cultured, well versed in theology, philosophy, literature and music and had strong moral principles.

This novel by Hughes appeared in 1946 and takes as its subject the Penrhyn Lock-outs of 1900–03. The author was born and bred in Llanberis, another slate-quarrying village not far from Bethesda and the Penrhyn quarry. Although he’d left the area to follow a career as a BBC radio producer in Cardiff, he began writing novels after contracting multiple sclerosis, and wrote mainly retrospective novels about quarrymen. The novels celebrate the courage of ordinary men and their families, and although hardship is underlined, there is also a great deal of humour interweaved with the basically tragic main theme.

The Welsh title Chwalfa literally means ‘dispersal’, and the story portrays the strike by concentrating on the break-up of one particular family, that of Edward Ifans. The disintegration of a community is mirrored in the disintegration of this family. Of Edward Ifans’ four sons Idris travels to south Wales to look for work, Dan becomes a journalist but drowns his sorrows in alcohol, Llew becomes a sailor and Gwyn, the youngest son, and the dearest of them all, dies young after a blackleg’s son gives him a beating and throws him into the river.

Going on strike involved sacrifice, and such a long strike was difficult to bear for the bravest folk. Some broke under the strain, unable to bear seeing their family going without the basic necessities of life and went back to work. These blacklegs were called bradwyr or ‘traitor’. In strong reaction to this trend, the majority of families put a placard in the window saying ‘Nid oes bradwr yn y tŷ hwn’ (‘there is no traitor in this house’). In the case of Edward Ifans’ family, the son-in-law, Ifor, returned to work, bringing shame on the whole family.

The novel succeeds in portraying the suffering of a whole community. Hughes knows and understands the social background very well, and there is the stamp of truth on his writing. Although the strike ends in failure, a feeling is conveyed that the faithful few who stood to the bitter end triumphed morally. There is no anger here though and no political points are made. The emphasis is mainly on basic emotions, and for that reason the novel translates well, as its themes are universal, despite being grounded in a very specific historical situation.

Nevertheless T.Rowland Hughes has been criticised for an idealised, sentimental view of the society he sprang from, but Out of their Night, although it pays homage to that society, also shows some of the cracks in its foundations. JR


That evening Gwyn… was sitting on the river bank shing for tiddlers with the usual stick, thread, bent pin and worm, when he felt an elbow being dug into his back. Looking up, he saw Will Parry bending menacingly over him…

A small boy named Meurig jumped up.

‘You leave Gwyn alone,’ he said. ‘He’s been ill and in his bed’.

‘Not too ill to go round with Harry Rags yesterday,’ replied Will, pushing the other side and gripping Gwyn by the shoulder…

‘Say you’re sorry,’ he told him.

‘For what?’…

‘For knocking on our door and shouting “Traitor”’.

‘I didn’t shout ‘Traitor’!… I’m not sorry’.…

‘Nor me neither,’ put in Meurig, putting down his rod and getting up, his little sts clenched daringly.

Will realised his danger and, rather than stand up to both of them, small as they were, he chose the bully’s way out. A moment later Gwyn was hurled over the bank and he fell full length into the river. 203