Brian Carpenter, the Community Learning Officer at Devon Archives, explores the economic and social links between Wales and the south-western counties of Devon and Somerset, in honour of St David’s Day. 

Trade and Migration

There have always been strong economic and social links between the south-western counties of Devon and Somerset, and Wales, on the other side of the Bristol Channel.

Trade in commodities such as fish, timber, tin and coal, which had gone on for many centuries, expanded after the Industrial Revolution.  Movement of goods went hand in hand with migration of people, and the expansion of the south Wales coalfields in the 18th and 19th centuries led to miners from the silver mines of north Devon crossing the channel to work in mines on the other side of the water. 

The links between Somerset and Wales followed a similar pattern.  Welsh people settled in and around Minehead in the 15th century as a result of maritime trade, with such trade often depending on sons or brothers taking up residence in Ireland or south Wales to further the family business.  In addition to the opportunities provided by the burgeoning collieries which came to define Welsh industrial culture, late 19th century censuses show that people travelled from the Exmoor area to Wales to work as bootmakers, building workers, gardeners, painters and decorators.

Transport

The relatively narrow stretch of water between the south-west peninsula and Wales lent itself to aquatic transport, and steamers brought passengers, their luggage and occasionally their horses to Minehead, Ilfracombe and Lundy from Cardiff and Swansea from the 1860s onwards.  After the Second World War these services began to decline as steamers were relegated in importance by improving road networks, the rise of motor coaches and the growth of private car ownership.  From the early 1960s onwards, coach operators from south Wales took parties of miners from their local coalfields to visit the Butlin’s camp at Minehead and other destinations on the Somerset and Devon coasts.  The opening of the original Severn Bridge in 1966 and the extension of the M5 to Devon in the 1970s only served to encourage the move away from water transport and the last visit of a steamer to Minehead came in 1967.  There was a short-lived hovercraft service between Barry and Minehead in the mid-1980s, but plans to revive a ferry service around 2010 ultimately came to nothing.

Employment

The proximity of the regions will ensure that migration between them remains a regular feature of life in the western half of Britain, although, with coal mining largely a thing of the past, employment opportunities are more likely to emerge from agriculture, self-employment or modern technological industries.