This is a study of the lower orders within Welsh rural communities and pays attention to those people who worked and lived off the land of eighteenth century Wales, often amidst grinding poverty and insecurity. Part one deals with the material lot in turn of tenant farmers and small freeholders, craftsmen, the labouring poor and paupers, paying particular attention to their fragile and insecure position arising from barely adequate incomes, infertile soils, unfavourable marketing opportunities, spiteful seasons, killer epidemic diseases (not least small pox), a fast rising population from the mid 18th century and sometimes landlord oppression, more particularly so from the 1760's. Part two 'Rough and Rebellious Communities' examines the nature of the myriad intensely local, face to face rural neighbourhoods and is organised into four chapters, namely 'Culture, Religion and Alternative Beliefs', 'The People and Politics', Riots and Popular Resistance' and 'Violent and Light-fingered Neighbourhoods'.
Unmistakable is the incipient violence, brutality and thieving within these communities, yet such communities possessed much cohesion cemented among other things by kindred ties, the absence of mutually hostile class divisions among the lower orders, neighbourhood co-operation in farming and deference for the aristocracy and gentry. Just how 'ungovernable' and dangerous these communities were in the face of relentless poverty and at times exploitation and oppression is the theme addressed in the epilogue 'Harmony and Discord: a Surface Tension'. Much hitherto unavailable material drawn from the gaol files of the Great Courts of Sessions of the various Welsh counties sheds light on the often secret, unchronicled lives of the 18th century toilers of the Welsh fields.
David Howell is Reader in History at the University of Wales, Swansea.