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TRIBUTE TO IVOR WILKS (1928-2014)
by Brian Davies
I first met Ivor Wilks in the summer of 1979, when he was in Cardiff researching the chartist movement in south Wales and the Newport rising. I gave him a copy of a paper* I had written on the subject in 1971 when I was a student, and was grateful for his generous comments. In return he gave me a draft of an article entitled “Texas, Wales and armies of the people: the careers of John Rees”, which convinced me that his planned book would be one to look out for. The article was published in Welsh History Review, (Vol.11, no.1, June 1982, pp 67-91) as “Insurrections in Texas and Wales: the careers of John Rees”.
The next, and last, time that I met Ivor was ten years later, when he came over from Illinois to speak at events to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the rising, his book “South Wales and the Rising of 1839” having been published in 1984. At that time I knew nothing of Ivor's background, but I found him to be unassuming in manner, a good listener, and a very persuasive lecturer. He spoke with only the bare minimum of notes but had complete command of his material and chose his key themes in an original way.
His manner of presentation reminded me of others of his generation – Edward Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and Gwyn A. Williams spring to mind – men whose understanding of their subject had been deepened by their own life experience. Historians with a 'hinterland' (to borrow a phrase from Dennis Healey) who just 'sound' different from those whose understanding comes solely from academic research. What Ivor's ‘hinterland’ was I did not know, but tributes published since his death and a significant autobiographical piece give us much insight into where he was coming from.
Ivor Wiks was born in 1928. The first incident in his life that he recalled in his memoir was the bombing of Coventry on the 14th of November 1940, when his father was badly injured. The young Ivor was both left-wing and an active Welsh nationalist. In 1945 he volunteered for the Indian Army, but found himself assigned to Middle East Land Forces. He took with him two books – the autobiography of the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid and the published diaries of Frank Thompson. He had met MacDiarmid, and delighted in his story of having been expelled from the Communist Party in Scotland for being a nationalist, and from the Scottish Nationalist Party for being a communist. Frank Thompson was the elder brother of E. P. Thompson, later the highly regarded author of The Making of the English Working Class; parachuted into Bulgaria to work with the partisans, he was captured and executed by the Nazis. Ivor explained that Frank Thompson's diaries made a strong impression on him and others of his generation “who were in search of the better and braver world that we believed was there for our making” Frank gave him the idea of keeping a diary of his own. This was eventually published 40 years later as A once and past love: Palestine 1947, Israel 1948. A Memoir.
He found himself assigned to 376 Petrol Platoon near Haifa, one of a handful of British officers responsible for a petrol storage facility which employed about 100 Arab labourers, and which was guarded by Arab Legion platoons and Jewish recruits to a British-officered police force, with a detachment of Basuto pioneers in reserve. Wilks was responsible for dealing with the Arab trade union on site, and soon made himself known to the Arab workforce.
On one side of the camp was their small Arab town, on the other a Jewish village. He made acquaintances, and friends, in both communities, and his account of his six months in Palestine should be read by anyone who has absorbed a simple account of the Arab-Israeli conflict, from either side. His absorbing narrative of the events prior to the withdrawal of British forces is supported not only by his own very detailed diary entries but by many British Intelligence Summary documents. He describes carefully the different political, trade union, and armed groups on both sides. When he arrived he was pleased to find both Arabs and Jews who wanted to live together peacefully, and gives precise and vivid descriptions of both communities. However this optimism faded through the early months of 1948 as nationalists triumphed over socialists on both sides. Wilks disliked both Jewish and Arab racism, and for well-documented reasons which will surprise many readers today, came to be deeply suspicious of British government policy and decided to pass on information to Haganah Intelligence. His account of the descent into tragedy in the summer of 1948 is compelling reading. He revisited Israel in 1989, and dedicated his memoir to those of both nationalities who continue to work for “a just peace.”
While he was still in Palestine, Ivor had applied and been accepted for a place at the University College of North Wales, Bangor. He seems to have intended to study forestry, but was accepted for philosophy. He had previously joined the Welsh Nationalist Party (now Plaid Cymru), but at Bangor he joined the Welsh Republican Party and at the same time befriended a colleague of Kwame Nkrumah, the Ghanaian independence leader. After graduating at Bangor, Ivor moved to Oxford to pursue his studies, but remained involved in Welsh politics as editor of the Welsh Republican party newspaper. His editorial supporting the bombing of a water pipeline was condemned by a judge, but he was not prosecuted. His sympathetic Oxford supervisor conveniently secured for him a post at the University College of the Gold Coast, where he reconnected with his Ghanaian friend from Bangor and began his long-term and very significant involvement in African anti-colonialist movements.
The tributes to Ivor Wilks from Africa make remarkable reading. He began his career in Ghana as a lecturer in Philosophy at the University of the Gold Coast, then became a tutor in Extra-Mural Studies and in 1961 became Senior Research Fellow, then Research Professor in African History and finally Deputy Director of the Institute of African Studies which he had been instrumental in founding. He devoted his long career to what he described as the “decolonisation of African history,” and was the author of at least 178 published works, mostly about the history of Ghana where he pioneered the techniques of oral history. For his Cambridge-published 800 page book Asante in the Nineteenth Century, he was awarded the Herskovitz Award of the African Studies Association in 1976. He was also actively involved with the Peoples' Educational Association of the Gold Coast, the Ghana National Museum and Monuments Board, the Asante Cultural Centre and the Historical Society of Ghana, and was the founding editor of Ghana Notes and Queries. He was the mentor of a whole generation of students who now head African studies and history departments around the world. His last visit to Ghana was in 1995 when he gave a series of five lectures, each of which drew an audience of over a thousand listeners.
Ivor Wilks left Ghana and joined the Department of History at Northwestern University in Illinois in 1967, and with only one short break remained there until his retirement in 1993. He continued his work on Africa and in 1984 became Professor of African Studies. Jean Altman, one of his students, describes him as “an extraordinary teacher and mentor, patient and generous with his time, and remarkable in his ability to make students feel that their ideas were worthwhile and deserved to be taken seriously.”
So this was the man that I met in Cardiff in 1979!
With this background, Ivor's attraction to the subject of the Chartist Rising in South Wales in 1839 becomes understandable. Firstly, his political sympathies drew him to study the only occasion in modern Welsh history that a mass movement in Wales could be seen to be a threat to the British state. Secondly, his experience in Palestine gave him first-hand experience of both the complexities of revolutionary politics and the organisational imperatives of clandestine movements. As a result his account of the Newport rising is noticeably better than any other in these two respects. His decision to take seriously the document known as Zephaniah Williams' “confession,” which has been treated with scepticism by other historians, has also been vindicated by the recent discovery of the original manuscript.
Nevertheless this book, which meant so much to its author, has been cold-shouldered by labour historians from its publication up to the present day. This requires explanation, because it is really a tragedy of modern Chartist studies that Ivor Wilks' insights have been ignored.
The problem is that Ivor's 'hinterland' was totally different to that of the great majority of historians of 'the labour movement' in the UK in the 1980s. Most labour historians, then and now, have not had anything like Ivor Wilks' international experience. Gwyn A. Williams, who was very much in tune with Ivor's thinking, was one of the few exceptions. In England we find the strange phenomenon that labour historians have been ready to admit that Ireland is different, and probably Scotland, but are still very reluctant to admit that there is any significant difference in the nature of social and political movements in Wales. Here in Wales we find the equally strange tendency to project the twentieth century backwards into the nineteenth. With the rise of the export coal industry in the second half of the nineteenth century (the period that Gwyn A. Williams called 'Imperial Wales') there came into being an important class of Welsh colliery-owning capitalists. At the same time the need for labour in the pits created a mixed labour force, with tens of thousands arriving from neighbouring English counties. As an example, by 1900 the leading colliery owner in the lower Rhondda was a Welsh-speaking Welshman, W.T. Lewis, while the first local miners' representative was Moses Severn, whose surname betrays his origins. Many of the most militant South Wales miners' leaders in the early twentieth century were first or second generation English immigrants.
The society of the South Wales valleys in the period that Ivor Wilks studied was completely different. The ironmasters and the great majority of their managers were English (or Scottish), while the great majority of the workforce were Welsh. There was a national dimension to class conflict in South Wales in the first half of the nineteenth century that disappeared later. To ignore the work of Ivor Wilks or to dismiss him as a nationalist, because he recognised this dimension, is simply unhistorical.
The strength of Ivor Wilks' analysis derives not only from his meticulous research into the sources, or his insight into the character of revolutionary organisations born of his own experience. His work in Africa made him much more sensitive to questions of differences in social structure and traditions, which a 'mainstream' labour historian would simply not notice. In particular he and his contemporaries (Basil Davidson springs to mind) were drawn to examine the consequences of economic and social changes driven from outside. Eric Hobsbawm once modestly explained that he didn't know enough about Welsh history to include Wales in his narrative, but then followed with the very perceptive observation that “industrialisation was something done to the Welsh rather than by them.” For the period that Ivor was studying this understanding is essential. One of the very few Welsh historians to begin to explore this subject was L.J. Williams, in Was Wales Industrialised (1995).
Perhaps Ivor's book just came a bit too soon. Then came the last miners' strike, during which many trade union activists learnt that there was a Welsh dimension to politics after all, as they tapped sources of support – Welsh language activists, Breton nationalists, many chapels and churches - that either did not exist at all in England or were less vocal. Current writing on the miners' strike gives this dimension full attention, so perhaps it is now time for a re-appraisal of a work which gave due attention to the national dimension of the Chartist movement in South Wales in 1839.
Jean Altman, one of Ivor's students said that she had “lost count of the number of times that I have asked older Asantes about some aspect of their past, and they have simply and patiently told me 'ah, but you must go and read Wilks'. What a perfect tribute to a remarkable historian.”
Indeed. And it would help our understanding of our own history, if we read Wilks too.
Brian Davies 14/02/2018
* LJ – Editor’s note:
Brian Davies is a leading Welsh chartism historian and an expert of the life and political ideology of Dr. William Price.
Ivor Wilks, (1984) South Wales and the Rising of 1839 (Croom Helm) is currently out of print. In his preface, he wrote “Brian Davies generously made available to me drafts from his forthcoming study on Welsh chartism”.
We anticipate publishing this hitherto unpublished paper (1971) by Brian Davies, later this year in CHARTISM e-Mag.
Brian Davies’ published articles include:
1. ‘Empire and Identity: the ‘case’ of Dr. William Price’, A People and A Proletariat: Essays in
the History of Wales 1780-1980, edit. David Smith, pp 72-92, Pluto Press & Llafur,1980.
2. ‘The Newport Chartists Revisited’, Planet 51, June/July 1985
3. ‘Evan James, Dr. William Price & Iolo Morganwg’s Utopia’, Merthyr Historian, v26, pp.73-79.
4. ’Dr. William Price and Merthyr’s political history’, Merthyr Historian, vol 27, pp 9-25.
5.‘The Chartists of Llanfabon and Gelligaer’, Gelligaer Journal, vol 24 (2017) pp. 42-53.