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Communities in Crisis

Author: Ted Dalby

The Cockle Pickers of Penclawdd

The recent riots in the UK  led to headlines and news bulletins that reported a breakdown in communities with ensuing lawlessness and violence. When bureaucracy does eventually restore order it responds in two ways – it criminalises large sections of the community, bringing the full force of the law to bear – or it attempts to fan the flames of discord and discontent by throwing great swathes of cash on the fire. 

This is the stick and carrot effect; neither of which work. The basic underlying truth is that communities can feel isolated from mainstream national life, neglected by national or local political consideration – disenfranchised , thereby feeling free from any constraint – resulting in breakdown – frustration that manifests itself in lawlessness. Such actions cannot be condoned, but is indicative of a deeper malaise which if not seriously addressed could lead to national breakdown.

Citizens have an inherent right to dignity and it is part of humanity to have that right respected and considered by those in power. When a person feels that this right is not considered and appreciated, to give an opinion, be it acceptable or otherwise – only disenchantment results. This does not mean that all individuals will agree upon certain prepositions, but history has shown us that what must be emphasised is that intrinsically all mankind is good – those who do not, or refuse to accept this – are in the wrong. Those who disagree with this must bear the consequences of their refusal to compromise for the common good.

It was my privilege to live in south Wales in the early sixties in the city of Swansea. In conversation with locals I heard the story of an isolation village called Penclawdd and the astonishing events that took place there in the early 1880’s. Appealing as this story was to my more romantic nature, I travelled the 40 miles from Swansea to Penclawdd, there I got into conversations with octogenarians and other people of great age and they related to me the history taught to them by their grandparents and great grandparents about their village.

The village is perched on the banks of the Burry Estuary which flows into the Bristol Channel. Once a thriving port, the estuary silted up and shipping became impossible. The only other industry was the local coal mine. This sustained the community until the mine became uneconomical and the owner closed the pit down. The community was bereft of any income at all and was in danger of decline and eventual death, as the younger people moved away to areas with better improvement prospects.

The villagers who remained were determined to keep the village alive – but how? They could of course apply to the Parish Beadle for funds, but these were so meagre, hardly enough for survival – or the alternative was the workhouse!

Drastic and immediate action was called so, effort that alone could be stimulated by the community itself. A village meeting was called and two resolutions passed. The village must seek recourses from within itself - and the traditional way of life must be scrapped.

For generations the village women-folk had, during what spare time they had used to cockle pick on the mud flats and sand banks of the estuary and sell the cockles at the local markets etc thereby supplementing the meagre wages earned by their husbands.

It was resolved that the women would be absolved from rearing the children and other household chores in order to spend their time at the cockle-beds, thereby assuring some income for the family while the men-folk would undertake the duties of their wives. Word soon spread of this volte-voce to neighbouring villages, indeed the whole of South Wales were aghast at this decision, and derision was heaped upon the men-folk of the village. How could they tolerate being house fathers! They were soon nicknamed the ‘pinafore’ men. 

To society at that time the man of the house was supposed to be the bread winner – the women a dutiful wife and carer of children and the home. ‘House-fathers’ had to wait until our generation to be acceptable.

Impervious to the ridicule the villagers remained resolute. Each morning at ebb time the women, driving their panniered donkeys with rake, spade and gunny- sacks reaped the cockle harvest until the encroaching tide compelled them to retreat to the shoreline. Overnight the cockles were boiled, and then taken to market the following day, thus the villagers by dint of their own initiative saved their community.

A leading politician is quoted as saying “There is no such thing as society” – yet what are communities but the coming together in harmony if not society? Is not a jigsaw a jumble of misshapes until the picture is complete.

So what does the example of the cockle pickers of Penclawdd have for us in our generation? Is it not that communities bound together in mutual trust, strength and resolve can of themselves triumph over any adversity. The problem for bureaucracy and politics is not to self perpetuates themselves, but to give free reign to local aspirations, to encourage initiatives, to guide not to direct but to enable and to empower. Only then will cohesion be achieved within communities.

I totally endorse the opinion of the German economist Ernst Schumacher who quotes “small is beautiful”.


The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

Communities in Crisis © Ted Dalby 2012.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.