...Terence Joseph Nation was born in Llandaff, Cardiff in 1930, the only child of Bert and Sue, as Gilbert Joseph Nation and Susan Nation (née Norris) were generally known. It was not an auspicious time or place.
Cardiff was the largest city in Wales, with a population of just over a quarter of a million, but it was already in serious decline, the splendour of its civic buildings looking back to past glories in the late nineteenth century, with little sense of hope for the future. In its heyday it had provided the focal point for the South Wales collieries in the valleys that stretched northwards and westwards from the city; its docks shipped coal to all corners of the world, and attracted labour from similarly far-flung places. Continuing expansion had seemed inevitable and inexorable in the years up to the First World War, but in the 1920s demand for coal began to fall. Shipping turned increasingly to oil for its primary fuel, the international markets struggled to recover from the post-war slump, and production costs rose, the more accessible seams having been worked out.
Further losses were sustained as British industry went into recession at the end of the decade; coal production fell to half its level at the turn of the century and, in the words of one contemporary account, ‘unemployment descended on the valleys like a deadly and malignant disease’. More than a third of miners in the South Wales coalfields were out of work by the early 1930s and Cardiff, so dependent on that industry, was registering unemployment levels of over twenty per cent.
In the midst of the decline came the events of 1926, when miners throughout the country went on strike, resisting the mine-owners’ attempt to protect profits by cutting wages and increasing working hours. Under the slogan ‘not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day’, the conflict dragged on for several months, despite a general strike that was called in solidarity but collapsed after just nine days. It was – in terms of working days lost – the most severe industrial dispute Britain had ever witnessed, and it ended with complete victory for the employers.
Memories of the bitterness of the time remained for years to come, exacerbated by the ensuing depression and by the desperation of the miners’ hunger march that left Cardiff in 1931, the year that annual coal production in Britain fell below a thousand million tons for the first time in the century. Decades later, when the novelist John Summers, who had known Terry Nation in Cardiff, wrote his classic Edge of Violence, a thinly fictionalised retelling of the 1966 Aberfan disaster, he placed that tragedy in the context of a long history of neglect and oppression, looking back to the 1930s when ‘foraging parties of starved miners started raiding the farms over the mountain to dig up hardening beets and swedes out of the ground and bring them home to their children small-faced with hunger’.
Terry Nation, with a self-employed furniture restorer and salesman as a father and with a house-proud mother (‘stiff and starchy’, as one friend described her), was at one stage removed from those events. The fact that his birth was announced in a paid notice in the South Wales Echo, as well as his time in a private school, suggest that this was a family with social aspirations pointing firmly away from the mining villages of the valleys.
Similarly the area they lived in was relatively affluent. ‘Llandaff,’ remembered a resident of the working-class Grangetown district in the early 1940s, ‘was a different planet. I could not believe the size of the houses and gardens, but the area did seem dull compared with the clamour and bustle of Lower Grange.’
Nonetheless, it would have been difficult for an imaginative child to live in Cardiff through those times without being affected by the hardship and anger that was everywhere evident, and Nation was to talk in later life of ‘the far-left socialism of his youth’...
published by Aurum Press
© Alwyn W Turner 2011