Griffith’s Welsh odyssey

Mining new perspectives

I am going away to England on Friday… I may go away with a tranquil mind and I am quite sure I shall.
Sir Samuel Griffith, Telegraph (Brisbane), 29 January 1887

Countless figures in Welsh mythology stumble into hidden labyrinths, are lured down potholes and spend long years in subterranean states of being.
Jan Morris


SAMUEL WALKER GRIFFITH and I were both born in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, almost a century apart. As children – he at nine years of age and myself at four – we both undertook the long ocean voyage of migration to distant Australia with our respective families. As a boy, I would sometimes visit the towering monolith of Griffith’s tomb in Toowong Cemetery, not far from my modest Bardon home. Nearby Steele Rudd, the creator of the iconic Dad and Dave novels, was also buried. His father, Thomas Davies, had been transported to Sydney and thence to the Burnett for breaking and entering and shoplifting after being arrested in Merthyr in October 1846, only several months after the infant Griffith and his family had quit the town.

Wales maintains a tenacious, central hold over the sentiments and the spirit. In my youth I was always attempting to tease out tenuous connections between such disparate places as South Wales and Queensland, and especially Merthyr and Brisbane, although the pickings were decidedly slender. It seemed such a futile task. In their essential natures the two places hardly recognised each other, though one was actually an adjacent English acquisition and the second a peripheral one. Personally and politically, I too am nothing like either Griffith the Judge or Davies the Felon, although, it may be argued, I am possibly situated, as man and historian, somewhere in between. Yet, in our differing ways, we have all carried a sense of alien Wales inside us into far-off Queensland – a sense of longing beyond homesickness, labelled hiraeth in the Welsh language; while later, in the case of both Griffith and I upon return visits, we have also brought alien Queensland within ourselves back into the distant Welsh hinterland. So one finds oneself home – though never quite at home – in both such places.


WHEN SAMUEL GRIFFITH first returned briefly to his birthplace of Merthyr Tydfil in late 1866 it was as a lowly articled clerk of twenty-one years. The town paid him virtually no heed. And he too was disheartened, even repulsed, by it. He noted in his travel diary that it was ‘grimy and dirty exceedingly’ with immense, unsightly slagheaps of iron ore and coal trailings lying all about. Touring the Cyfarthfa Ironworks – then one of the world’s biggest factories – he would have observed some of its 4,000 workers, their bodies illumined by the huge pig-iron furnaces; as one recent historian describes them ‘with their deafening blasts, snapping, crackling and hissing escaping gases, vivid furnace flames, glowing ribbons of molten metal and thunderous hammering’. He made, however, no written comment about the situation or condition of these encumbered labourers.

He stayed at the Castle Inn at the town’s centre for a mere two days, close by the Congregational Chapel in Market Square where his father, Edward, a Biblical scholar, had once preached, before himself escaping to ‘greener parts of Wales’. Did Griffith know that in 1831 the town’s magistrates, tradesmen, ironmasters and coal kings had been held under siege for four days inside this same hotel by 8,000–10,000 angry workers, striking against wage cuts, layoffs and a ruthless collection of debt? From its windows and from the roadway, eighty Scottish troops of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders had opened fire onto the huge crowd, who were chanting in Welsh, ‘Cheese with the bread!’ (‘Caws gyda bara!’). This left twenty-five or more dead and some seventy-odd wounded in the High Street outside. Sixteen of the soldiers were also injured in this first bloody encounter. The Merthyr workers held off further military attacks for four more days before they finally succumbed.

Armed civilians thwarting military assault in such a protracted way was previously unknown in British history. This was basically a proto-revolutionary uprising where the red flag was flown on British soil for the first time. This dramatic emblem was a ragged cloth soaked in calf’s blood and raised on a pike alongside a symbolic loaf of bread, eloquently suggesting: ‘Give us bread or we’ll give you blood!’

It certainly seems unlikely that such a curious, scholarly and historically minded young man as Griffith did not know about any of this, an event where more demonstrators were killed by military violence than during the infamous Peterloo Massacre of 1819. Yet if he did, he paid it no mind and registered no comment. Griffith could be quite adept at negotiating between what he did and did not need to know. Curiously and ironically, in September 1866, the same month that Griffith, travelling as the TS Mort Scholar from Queensland, made his Merthyr appearance, his new hometown, Brisbane, where his family had lived since 1860, erupted in its own ‘bread or blood’ riots sparked by a ‘depression of trade and scarcity of employment’.

Merthyr was a place that, through much of the nineteenth century, was a British epicentre of incipient industrial struggle and, indeed, both crucible and cradle of the Industrial Revolution itself. Merthyr produced 40 per cent of all the pig iron for global railways, naval vessels, bridges and machinery from four enormous industrial establishments. These were, at that time, the largest and most productive factories in the world, employing tens of thousands of men, women and children. The philosopher and essayist Thomas Carlyle, who visited in 1850, dubbed this metropolis ‘the squalidest, ugliest place on earth’. Its ironworks, he wrote, were ‘like a vision of Hell that will never leave me’ with their ‘hard, fierce and miserable looking’ workers, ‘broiling all in sweat and dirt amid their furnaces, pits and rolling mills’.

A century earlier, the region had been a relatively uninhabited, bucolic haven of scattered farmers and shepherds, almost completely isolated in the Brecon Beacons mountains (a place almost as unspoilt as pre-colonial Queensland itself). But it had been transformed by rapid industrialisation into one of the fastest growing urban centres in the Western world. It was a narrow, triangular company town, thrown up in higgledy-piggledy fashion along a ten-mile stretch of the River Taff, connected first by canal and then by railway to the southern Welsh ports. As a product of pecuniary and uncaring private enterprise, it was an unplanned, insanitary disgrace – houses without latrines or drainage ‘built in scattered confusion’ so close upon the adjacent ironworks that their frontages were perpetually lit up by the roaring blast furnaces. In the manner of company-built coal and iron towns around the world, it ran itself on high exploitation, ramshackle, monotonous slum rentals of rubble stone, among the worst in the nation and constructed in record time, scrip payments rather than cash wages, a monopoly of company stores (or ‘truck shops’) and perpetual worker debt.

When Griffith’s parents-to-be arrived late in 1842, local women were still working underground in the surrounding mines and the London Times noted that this ‘miserably ill-built, dirty place’ was somewhere ‘where nobody would live for choice except to make money’. But Edward Griffith, with his new wife, Mary Walker, had come to harvest souls rather than to amass wealth. For the Merthyr region had also been the main population centre of Welsh religious nonconformity since the sixteenth century, bristling with tiny chapels that rivalled the many public houses for attention.

Its dangers and drawbacks soon outweighed any of its spiritual advantages.

The Griffiths’ first child – a son, Edward – was born in September 1843 with Samuel following some twenty months later. Infant mortality was rife, with epidemics of whooping cough, diphtheria, scarlet fever, cholera and typhus, during which roughly 80 per cent of babies died before their first birthday. Average life expectancy was a staggeringly low 17.5 years. As Welsh historian Gwyn A Williams summarises the situation:

The threats to life posed by the mushroom and uncontrolled growth of Merthyr are painfully familiar… [I]t was during the 1830s and 1840s that the town experienced its real ecological disaster. Drainage and sanitation were conspicuous by their virtual absence; overcrowded housing sprouted like killer weed; the very nature of the work was heavy, taxing and dangerous… It was the environmental conditions that bred disease which raises Merthyr’s child death rate so far above the Glamorgan threshold… Merthyr slaughtered those children wholesale… The blank and often bleak rows of figures on crabbed sheets confirm the folklore: in Merthyr it was a short life but a full one, or a good life if you didn’t weaken…

The Griffith infants were both potential recruits for crippling or mortal disease while the family remained in the town. Furthermore, Edward Griffith found the factory fumes were detrimentally affecting his preaching voice. So before Samuel was a year old, the family decamped to the English fishing port of Portishead, ten miles from Bristol, a cleaner environment and a far more salubrious two-storey home.

When Samuel Griffith returned in 1866, he would not have carried the slightest childhood recollection of Merthyr consciously within him, apart from family memories his parents may have conveyed. And so discouraged was he by the repellent sight of the place in 1866 that when he returned to Britain for thirteen weeks in 1880–81, he did not visit, even though his mansion, ‘Merthyr House’, had just been completed in Brisbane. Merthyr Tydfil, in comparison with the opulent Queensland lifestyle in Griffith’s spacious New Farm abode, was certainly no mansion on a hilltop. Yet a few years later a string of events would see him return in some high degree of pomp, welcome and acclaim to the benighted metropolis.

It unfolded like this: during 1885, a journalist from Cardiff’s Western Mail newspaper, writing under the pen-name of ‘Morien’, was covering the annual meeting of the Congregational Union in London when he saw ‘a venerable preacher ascending the platform’ – Edward Griffith, Samuel’s father. He listened as this man related ‘old recollections of Merthyr Tydfil’, eventually informing his audience that his own Merthyr-born ‘boy’ was now ‘the Prime Minister [sic] of Queensland, Sir SW Griffith’.

So when, the following year, Morien happened to mention in the Western Mail that ‘the Prime Minister of the great Colony of Queensland’ was ‘a native of Merthyr Tydfil’, and a copy of that paper arrived belatedly in Brisbane, things began to happen. A young Welsh migrant named Ben Jones, who received that news at Clydach Cottage, Fortitude Valley, rapidly conveyed it to the Chief Secretary’s Department on 10 January 1887. Jones was a married, twenty-seven-year-old bank clerk, highly popular around Brisbane and ‘exceedingly prominent’ at local Welsh Eisteddfod gatherings. The Chief Secretary, the Rt Hon Sir Samuel Griffith – a man not averse to any sweet touch of praise and fame – replied almost immediately to Jones, confessing ‘that it gives me great pleasure to think that I am not unknown in my native land’. He hoped he might find time to visit when in Britain for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and the 1887 Colonial Conference in ‘a few weeks time’.

Thus were wheels set in motion for Griffith’s triumphal re-entry into Merthyr Tydfil. Ben Jones communicated to Morien – or Owen Morgan, to give him his birth name – that Sir Samuel was ‘undoubtedly the most popular man in Brisbane’ as well as a ‘true friend of his Cambrian countrymen’, having recently, at ‘considerable inconvenience to himself’, travelled to Gympie by steamer and rail to preside over yet another Welsh Eisteddfod. Morgan, in turn, informed WL Daniel, Merthyr’s High Constable, that ‘the most able statesman in Australia’ and a son of the town was heading for Great Britain. Within a fortnight of Griffith’s London arrival, the High Constable had written to ‘the most brilliant politician in Queensland’ to invite him to the town.

‘Will the Metropolis of Wales give him a welcome?’, wrote Morien, somewhat breathlessly: ‘Will Merthyr, his native town, the old town of the Iron Kings, accord him a welcome worthy of him and itself? He is a worthy son of the Sparta of Western Europe – Cymru!’

Well, of course, Merthyr said yes and Sir Samuel said yes. Indeed, so eager was he now to visit that he ultimately left behind him in London his wife, Lady Julia, suffering from pneumonia.

In the late afternoon of Wednesday 13 April 1887, Griffith alighted once more from the Taff Vale train and went on into the town, stopping briefly at nearby Pontypridd to tell a cheering crowd he was sorry ‘he was unable to address them in their native tongue’. At Merthyr itself, the pomp and ceremony moved up a notch. As his train arrived there was ‘a continuous discharge of detonators’ and, as he appeared on the platform, ‘MASSED CHOIRS’ of 600 voices broke into an ode specially written for the occasion. A military brass band, once praised by Charles Dickens, then ushered him out to a waiting carriage to the tune of ‘Men of Harlech’.

Griffith appeared delighted. He ‘took off his hat and bowed courteously, with a genial smile upon his face’. His carriage then proceeded past much bunting, with people calling from upstairs windows and schoolchildren waving Welsh flags in the streets below, to a ‘medieval fantasy’– the mock-Gothic-cum-Tudor Cyfarthfa Castle, overlooking the squalid town and home of one of Merthyr’s ‘great iron kings’, William Crawshay. William, like all the male Crawshays, was an implacable enemy of encroaching trade unionism – his late father, Robert, had crushed striking colliers a decade earlier in the great lockout of 1875. But his mother, Rose Mary, was inquisitive and progressive – an advocate of cremation, euthanasia and feminism. At the faux castle, she had already entertained such luminaries as Charles Darwin, TH Huxley (the Darwinian biologist), Herbert Spencer (proponent of social Darwinism), Robert Owen (founder of utopian socialism) and the poets Robert Browning and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The following evening, the former Queensland premier was feted with a grand banquet at a venue curiously and arrestingly named the Bush Hotel, sitting beneath a ‘beautiful banner of red silk’ inscribed ‘Welcome Sir Samuel Griffith’. All of the region’s leading lights were present, including the American Consul and Christmas Evans, a local brewer. There were, however, no working-class or trade-union representatives partaking in the repast. Griffith appeared not to notice. All the usual statements of mutual hubris and praise were delivered in many speeches by the local elite, wherein their esteemed visitor – who, noted the Chief Constable, ‘a few weeks ago was comparatively unknown to them’ – was continually referred to as ‘Prime Minister of the Colony of Queensland’.

Chief Secretary Griffith, not bothering to correct this elevated designation and speaking in reply to ‘rounds and rounds of applause’, reinforced the ideals of British Imperial Union, reassuring everyone that faraway Queenslanders were both loyal and ‘not trammeled by any old prejudices’. Additionally, they were ‘never afraid of anything because it was new’. To loud cheering, he concluded: ‘He should never forget Merthyr Tydfil and would in the future endeavour to bring no disgrace upon its name.’


PERHAPS UNDERSTANDABLY, GRIFFITH said nothing that night about his real antipodean struggles, sanitising Queensland for his Welsh listeners as a rustic, habitually hopeful colony – a place unprejudiced in its judgements and fiercely allegiant. Griffith was a master at making words dance, concealing far more than they divulged, without utterly breaking ranks with the truth. Nevertheless, he could deftly bend that truth rhetorically into whatever shape was personally convenient at the time.

Before he had left for Britain in early 1887 he had been immersed in the two Queensland conundrums that most bedevilled the frustrated Colonial Office in Whitehall whenever it was tussling with the intentions of this errant, rogue colony. First, the reliance of its sugar planter elite upon their slave-like Melanesian indentured labour system that Griffith had been trying to curb and dismantle with mixed and ultimately thwarted success. Here, his distaste for ‘slavery’ as such – possibly inherited as reflex from his nonconformist father – competed in intensity with his rejection of the Melanesian presence itself as well as his class-based rejection of the small Queensland planter class. Secondly, Whitehall struggled with and baulked at the ongoing, glaring scandal of the Queensland Native Police and its long record of slaughter, rapine and illegality that he was continually attempting to wink at, brush away or sidestep – even though, as either Attorney-General (1874–78) or premier and Colonial Secretary (1883–86) he had been directly responsible for its paramilitary activities. Merthyr Tydfil was to learn nothing that evening that might personally besmirch the image of their newly discovered scion or lead them to question the way he was administering a distant imperial outpost.

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of this lofty, fleeting visit – apart from the illuminated scroll Griffith received to hang in his study back home – is contained in a couple of letters that Owen Morgan wrote to him a few days later. This Morien had also spoken at the Merthyr banquet, reminding all that it was he who had been ‘the first to introduce Sir Samuel’s name to his native country’. Now he informed the premier: ‘Your features remind one of the Pritchard and Gibbon families who…are descendants of the Cardigan and Glamorgan royal tribes of which so-called Wales contained fifteen.’ He advised Griffith on how to obtain ‘the collected pedigrees of Morganwg and Glamorgan’, setting him off on what his biographer, Roger Joyce, calls ‘a genealogical search that was to prove time-consuming, costly and eventually futile’ – in short, an expensive wild goose chase, extending into 1919, a year before his death.

Research shows that Morien himself was something of a journalistic fantasist. At the time of meeting Griffith, he was compiling a volume on Druidism written in the Welsh language. Several years later he published The Light of Britannia (1892), containing chapters on King Arthur’s mythical Welsh origins, St Paul’s supposed journey to South Wales and phallic worship in Celtic culture. But he more than anyone had touched upon a rich vein of romance and vanity in Griffith and nurtured the vain hope therein that, as a newly appointed British knight, he might also be a descendent of Welsh kings rather than someone simply born in some impoverished, dirty old town ‘without form or order’ and ‘disgraceful to those who are responsible for it’.

For, unlike Griffith’s grandiose ‘Merthyr House’, there was nothing grand about Merthyr Tydfil. With its grey slagheaps, its dark mines and oppressive iron works, its grinding poverty and naked exploitation, its scrofulous and pinch-faced people, it was the polar opposite of all that. Indeed, by the time of his second visit, it was beginning to fall apart even as a profitable industrial enterprise.

Griffith lifted his gaze. He lacked the capacity to stare the stark realities of his actual native roots in the face – much as he would continue to glide sinuously over the sharp contradictions of his adopted antipodean home. For the history of South Wales is like ‘a dragon with two tongues’ – the tales of legend, mystery and romance on the one hand and the actualities of English colonisation, economic expropriation and perpetual class conflict on the other. So, in a choice between the rock-like nature of Welsh industrial realism with all its sweat, anguish and grime and the airy world of Celtic dreams, ‘the icons and totems, the strange names and veiled illusions’, Griffith eschewed the first while avidly pursuing the second – the quest for the glamour of heraldry, ‘the shades of old shades, the echoes of echoes, dimly perceivable out of the smoky past’.

And, in following that beckoning older voice as ardently as he evaded his rougher Welsh surrounds, he aligned his vision – however unwittingly – with the ironmasters themselves, the chiefs, the victors and the kings of a newly subjugated Wales: those dubbed by the poet Idris Davies, ‘The brutes who built so basely/in the long Victorian night’ rather than with the majority Welsh population who, as their underlings, had endured and were continually enduring it all. Personally, Griffith yearned for higher things more for himself, it would appear, than for all. Even before his triumphal 1887 return, he was already immersing himself in Welsh heraldry and the romance of Cymru in faraway Brisbane – the legendary life of the medieval resistance chieftain Llywelyn ap Gruffydd. He named his first son after the mythical hero in 1872.

Perhaps he yearned for some astounding and/or fitting status elevation in the new colony, placing himself above the often aristocratic pedigrees of the Queensland sugar planters he hated, with their Melanesian serfs and annoyingly high pretensions. He certainly pitched himself far above the general hoi polloi of Merthyr. So he reached vainly for some higher ‘kingly’ grandeur, lost in the Welsh mists, wasting a small fortune over many subsequent years in trying to hunt it down.


THE AUSTRALIAN COLONIAL press uniformly failed to report on Griffith’s neat sidestep into ‘Welsh Wales’, and not long after returning home from this short idyll in late 1887, real life recommenced in Queensland for him. During 1888, despite his banquet-speech assurances about how unprejudiced local colonists were, he became heatedly engaged in a protracted contest with his hated political rival, Sir Thomas McIlwraith, as they competed to foment ever-increasing anti-Chinese hatred during a Brisbane election campaign. McIlwraith had taken his exclusionary suggestions a little further than the more gradualist Griffith and consequently won this racist tussle by the biggest recorded margin in any colonial election. This had resulted, in turn, in one of the worst urban race riots in Australian history, where up to 2,000 Anglo-Celts, rampaging through inner Brisbane, from George Street to Brunswick Street, had ransacked every known Chinese premises and enterprise.

There came, soon after, further startling evidence of Griffith’s capacity for imperial sophistry and nifty stonewalling. In August 1890, just two days after resuming the role of premier, Chief Secretary and Attorney-General (1890–93), an Australia-wide scandal erupted with the return from North Queensland of two Presbyterian professors following their fact-finding mission into the actual state of frontier race relations. The two academics were the prominent Minister John Laurence Rentoul of Ormond College, Melbourne, known as ‘Fighting Larry’ due to his tenacity in debate, and Henry Drummond, a famous Scottish biologist, evangelist and lecturer – author of the classic work, Natural Law in the Spiritual World (1883), today regarded as ‘one of the most important books concerning Christian faith and scientific progress’. Both men were vitally interested in the condition and fate of Australian Aborigines, crushed beneath the fists of Western colonialism.

In the north, these men claimed, they had either directly witnessed or been reliably informed of extreme frontier violence and mass kidnapping, as well as rampant venereal disease epidemics alongside rapidly spreading alcoholism and opium addiction. It was ‘a case of shooting and spearing whenever the whites and blacks encountered each other’, leading into an overall scenario of, in Rentoul’s words, ‘lust and reprisal and doom’.

Instead of meeting their detailed findings in a spirit of open-mindedness and investigative respect, however, Griffith chose the road of open ridicule and denial. Pleading innocent of knowing anything of their actual report, he nevertheless lambasted it for its overt fabrication. The learned men were simply regurgitating ‘pretty old’ allegations from twenty or perhaps even forty years earlier, he charged. Then, jumping immediately to his own defence, he parried: ‘Few had taken more interest in the welfare of the native population than him.’ As an administrator, he was always doing ‘what I should be doing with them’.

He had, however, no idea of how many Aborigines there were in Queensland. He made no mention of the colony’s bloodstained Native Police, nor of the distressing failures of Queensland’s judiciary to prosecute frontier racial crimes. ‘We treat the blacks as well as we are able’, he summarised breezily, but, in reality, they were ‘too numerous, too scattered and too wild’ to do anything positive with. So, he reasoned: ‘We do what we can. We have no special government department for [them].’ In a final arresting burst of ‘doomed race’ fatalism, he concluded that there was really no point in treating their prevalent venereal diseases as ‘probably…they would die of some other disease’! Turning to his academic critics, he rounded upon them with a ‘hearty laugh’. He only wished, he said, that he had ‘Professor Rentoul in the witness box and to have the opportunity of cross-examining him. Where did he get his facts? How did he sift his evidence? Did he sift it at all?’

It was a dismal performance of bluff, self-advocacy and blatant evasion from one who invariably presented himself as a cautious, balanced statesman and jurist – a man who had proudly stood as such, ‘the best politician in Queensland’ before Merthyr’s admiring elite three years earlier. It represented the same kind of highly controlled vision that had enabled Griffith to experience Merthyr Tydfil in 1866 and 1887 without registering a word of due regard or sympathy for its oppressed and agitating ironworkers and coalminers, and even to be happily feted, on that second occasion, by those who directly oppressed them.

There is, however, a perplexing though fleeting coda to all this. A year or so on from his Merthyr visit, Griffith made an unexpected contribution to the Christmas edition of the radical Brisbane Boomerang, then taking the colony by storm, with a substantial rumination called ‘Wealth and Want’. The following year he expanded on this in the Centennial Magazine in an article entitled ‘The Distribution of Wealth’ that would afterwards be issued in pamphlet form. These writings were an uncharacteristic venture into quasi-Marxist, anti-capitalist critique, and in them he argued that the struggle between owners and producers, ‘most intense in the older countries’ such as Britain, was ‘severe, unequal and often disastrous’. Material inequality was so intense, Griffith maintained, that the state must intervene in workers’ interests to ‘protect the weak against the strong’, to ‘enforce the rule of freedom’ and ‘to insist upon a fair division of the products of labour’. He went so far as to ask why the workers should not themselves ‘have all the profits of their labour?’

Contemporaries and historians alike have struggled to explain the sudden stridency of Griffith’s tone and analysis – not to mention this surprising, sudden diversion by the leading Queensland Liberal down a Marxian trail. He was, as Rockhampton’s Capricornian wrote, now following the teachings of ‘the Master’ – meaning Karl Marx – ‘whose words and influence ran round the world at the moment’. Griffith was suddenly the iconoclast, ‘throwing down the apple of discord’ and ‘even making capital…out of Christmas’! But could class-bound Merthyr and his recent visit there have had anything to do with the nature and timing of this? Was he perhaps thinking of the brute industrial relations of that fraught town, with its raw exploitation and grinding poverty, when he penned these unexpected lines:

For each man is struggling to live and in the struggle is prepared, rather than starve, to sell his labour for any share of its product that he can get if it will keep him from starving… In this ‘sweating system’… sometimes the price charged to the producer for his food is so high that he cannot pay for enough to keep him alive – and so he dies and the weakest goes to the wall…
No wonder producers have, for their own protection, established the system of Trade Unions… [T]he unrestrained competition for labour, instead of being the result of the natural law of good, is a dangerous social evil.
It will be said that these doctrines are dangerous and so forth. Very likely. Truth is often dangerous, but only for those who deny it and oppose its operations. Then it is not only dangerous but likely to be overwhelming.

Griffith had rarely sounded so impassioned – and never so radical. For one moment he seemed a different man – and perhaps in imagination he was briefly down in the street among an agitating worker crowd with their rude red flags, rather than peering out through the windows of the Castle Hotel or from the fake porticos of Cyfathfa Castle. He had never referenced such labourers directly in his diaries, but did images of the toiling Dowlais ironworkers or of the blackened Merthyr colliers at last flood his vision as he wrote these fervent words?

Though this is a guess, it is probably due time that Merthyr Tydfil and its class influences were appraised somewhere within this puzzling, speculative picture. Sir Samuel, as enigma or chameleon, still beckons us on, with unsatisfied conjecture and suggestion, towards deeper empirical reckonings.


WHATEVER ITS GENESIS, this moment of interpretive enlightenment passed like a flash, leaving no discernible material residue behind it. Rather the opposite happened. Griffith was soon figuratively back within the castle walls, firmly aligning himself politically with the same forces that his articles of 1888–89 had warned against. He united with his enemy, the ultra-capitalist McIlwraith, in government in 1890, and the following year, while labouring over clauses of the Australian Constitution, sent military detachments, armed with field artillery, against shearers and other rural labourers to smash their strike and their unions – much as the ironmasters and their magistrates had mobilised soldiers and militia against the uprisen Merthyr workers in the decade before he was born.

In late February 1891, the premier’s effigy was saturated in kerosene and torched by several thousand striking shearers and their families at the nascent western township of Barcaldine. As angry men rushed in to beat the flaming figure with ‘sticks and hats’, a huge banner, overlooking proceedings, sardonically proclaimed: ‘WEALTH AND WANT. Sir Samuel Griffith and all traitors will meet their doom.’ It was a far cry from his splendid, red-silk Merthyr banner of 1887.

As one Brisbane citizen commented at the time of Griffith’s surprising anti-capitalist foray: ‘Sir Samuel was himself both a capitalist and a landlord… He did not think [he]…believed a word of what he had written. Had…Griffith ever done anything to reduce want? To the contrary…they should take the wig from him and put him on the same level as other people.’ And it would afterwards be said that, for his apostasy in uniting with McIlwraith against the challenges of organised labour and even the tenets of his own espoused liberalism, Griffith would come to be known as one who had ‘turned from the bold and difficult course of championing progress and democracy to the easy and politically base one of denouncing it’, becoming in the process merely ‘the bewigged interpreter of the enactments’ of the privileged and powerful.

Griffith turned his back progressively on the Welsh and Australian working class and fully went the way of wealth and fame. But despite this, one more suggestion of lingering consciousness of the industrial realities of Griffith’s birth town remains. Did the darker, unexpressed images of the hard-pressed working men, women and children of Merthyr Tydfil, toiling in the deep mines and before the flaring Dowlais furnaces, often looking more like ‘infernals than human beings’ – Carlyle’s very ‘vision of Hell’ – subliminally surface elsewhere in his endeavours? Were they perhaps subsumed into another long and parallel obsession Griffith nurtured for his own English adaptation of Dante’s Inferno and its terrifying visions of stygian depths and the burning torments of the lost, unanchored and tormented soul? When his translation of this work appeared at last in 1908, it was cautiously appraised in Australia as being more literal than poetic and more intellectual than literary. It was again, although industriously pursued with the same vigour applied towards securing his kingly Welsh heritage, an adaptation that continued, more or less, to elude him.


LET’S RETURN BRIEFLY, in closing, to the place where we began: with Griffith and me, as dual Merthyr products, with identical origins and parallel global trajectories, yet with such diverse and antithetical lifeways and goals. This matter of our Welshness, though affixed to the spirit with a grim tenacity, seems also like some baffling lodestar that can illuminate a myriad contrary paths. Across almost six decades now I have conducted my own explorations into the frontiers and rougher inclines of Queensland colonial history – its abrasive conflicts and powerful players. Though clearly appreciative of Griffith’s towering scope and general achievements in regard to law and nation, I cannot in consequence say I am enamoured by his deviousness and dangerous powers in the matters of empire, race and class.

Though I hope that we both, in our writings, adhere to forms of creative intellectuality much prized in Welsh culture, this matter of South Wales itself is to my mind something crafted from social immediacies – from a determined material struggle with the hard earth and the harder realities of protracted industrial conflict. It is not predominantly woven from what perhaps might have been, the stuff of legends or mythologies, back somewhere in the dawn of long ago.

Royal aspirations merely induce in me a sardonic smile and a shake of the head. My family was proudly aligned with the more challenged and challenging strata of the Welsh working class. My father was an agnostic, secular socialist rather than a fiery, middle-class, Christian preacher. In my own professional life, I have tried to uncover the lost and buried Queensland roots of colonial racial and class oppressions; Griffith, in contrast, was ultimately both apologist and perpetrator of the same.

In this I trust, given our clear disparities, that I have not appeared too harsh or dismissive in pursuing my discussion of him here. While giving Sir Samuel his due, I have tried nevertheless to keep him on the interpretive hook. As a scholar, statesman and jurist, Griffith carries many honours in Australian mainstream annals, particularly in regard to Federation. He had a remarkable mind that he could exercise in many flexible directions. But, with such capacities must also come a concomitant foreshadowing of historical deconstruction – as much to determine what his white, colonial nature and commitment to a single-mindedly harsh imperial mission may have been and may also have meant for others, as well as determining what his more shadowed and elusive Welshness may have contributed to our still entangled understanding of it all.

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