Felly beth mae'r Cymry erioed wedi ei wneud drosom ni? (So what have the Welsh ever done for us?)

Today, the £30m National Waterfront Museum opens in Swansea, focussing on the country's industry and innovation. Jonathan Brown examines what else Wales has given the world
Click to follow

Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones came bursting out of the Land of Song in the late Fifties and early Sixties to achieve international fame. Bassey, the Diva from Tiger Bay, was the first black female British star, and her spectacular vocal performances, not least on two James Bond themes, helped to secure her lasting iconic status. Jones, too, has enjoyed continued success over the past five decades, defying the perfidious fashions of pop - and Las Vegas - to retain his credibility and become a global ambassador for British music.

Perhaps even more influential than that other great Welsh popular composer Ivor Novello, was John Cale. A native Welsh speaker from Garnant, Cale journeyed to New York in 1965 to become the creative driving force behind Velvet Underground. After falling out with Lou Reed he went on to pioneer his own brand of experimental music as well as producing some of punk's biggest names, including Patti Smith and the Stooges.

By the mid-Nineties, Wales was once again in the musical spotlight. The Manic Street Preachers, following the disappearance of singer Richie James, became one of the most celebrated bands of the Britpop era, culminating in the release of Everything Must Go in 1996. The current taste for classical crossover music has made an unlikely pop star out of Charlotte Church.

Poets and writers

Wales treats its poets with the reverence other nations reserve for their monarchs, crowning them at summer eisteddfodau, or cultural gatherings - a revived tradition which can trace its origins back to the 12th century. But for non-Welsh speakers, one man - Dylan Thomas - towers over the English-language Welsh literature of the 20th century. His bohemian lifestyle, culminating in his premature, alcohol-related death in New York in 1953, cut short a career that brought him comparisons with Yeats, Auden and TS Eliot. His most enduring work, Under Milk Wood, was in fact a play performed for radio, narrated by Richard Burton. His poem "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" regularly features among the nation's favourites. The best-known of his American fans is the former US president Jimmy Carter, who opened the Dylan Thomas Centre in the writer's home town of Swansea.

TE Lawrence, the adventurer and writer, was born in Wales, as was the children's author Roald Dahl.

Theatre and film

Richard Burton refused to bow to pressure to drop his Welsh accent. It was a shrewd move. The Burton myth, and his ravishing vowels, resulted in a more powerful legacy than his artistic output might deserve. Escaping poverty, Burton (real name Richard Jenkins) went on to study - briefly - at Oxford before becoming one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. He was married five times, twice to Elizabeth Taylor - the couple were the most famous people in the world of their day. The two played alongside each other in Cleopatra and in a more accurate representation of their tempestuous relationship. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Despite being nominated for an Oscar seven times, Burton never collected the gong. More successful has been his fellow countryman Anthony Hopkins, who picked up an Academy Award for his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Also an Oscar-winner is Swansea's Catherine Zeta Jones, for best supporting actress in the 2003 Chicago. In echoes of Burton-Taylor, she married Michael Douglas, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood.

Behind the camera, Peter Greenaway, who was born in Newport, has built a reputation as one of the most pioneering filmmakers in the British cinema. His most famous work includes his nightmarish vision of greed and cannibalism, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

Sport

On Sundays the Welsh traditionally worshipped at the chapel. On Saturdays they honoured their gods on the rugby pitch. Greatest and most revered of them all - and arguably the most exciting player the world has seen - was Gareth Edwards. The son of a miner, Edwards first played for his country aged 19, becoming its youngest captain at the tender age of 22. Under his command Wales dominated the sport and elevated it to new levels of fluency and pace with their play.

Edwards, inexplicably banned from the game for writing his autobiography, is also credited with scoring its greatest try, during a match for the Barbarians in 1973.

The principality has also sent out into the world more than its fair share of boxers. From its first world champion, Percy Jones, to Jimmy Wilde - nicknamed the Ghost with a Hammer in His Hand - the Welsh warriors have dined at the sport's top table. Today, the Italian Dragon, Joe Calzaghe, from Newbridge, is the longest undefeated champion at any weight in world boxing, having successfully defended his WBO super-middleweight title 17 times, on the last occasion with a broken hand.

Politics

The Friendly Associated Coal Miners' Union was formed at Flintshire in Wales in 1834 - four years before the Tolpuddle Martyrs set out on their ill-fated quest for representation. But it was the Liberal Party that continued to dominate Welsh politics for the rest of the century, and it would be another 60 years before the voice of organised labour would be heard loud and clear again coming from the valleys. A Scotsman, Kier Hardy, became one of the first two socialist MPs - for the Welsh seat at Merthyr. Meanwhile, it was a Welsh Liberal born in Manchester - David Lloyd George - who began to implement the reforms that would pave the way for the modern welfare state. As Chancellor, Lloyd George introduced the first old-age pensions, helping do away with the dreaded workhouse. He also taxed the rich and limited the working day. Among Lloyd George's harshest critics was a representative of the Welsh miners, Aneurin Bevan. Ironically, it was Bevan as Labour Health Minister in the 1945 Attlee government who completed the work begun by Lloyd George, formalising the welfare state and creating the National Health Service. It was another Welshman, Roy Jenkins, who as Home Secretary from 1965-67 helped to fashion the "permissive" British society in the 1960s, relaxing divorce and censorship laws and supporting measures to allow abortion and decriminalise homosexuality.

Industry

Two industries turned Wales into the economic powerhouse of the British Empire: iron and steel. The Seven Years War saw the demand for domestic iron soar. John Wilkinson's pioneering ironworks at Bersham near Wrexham transformed the north-east of the country on the back of it. With the development of new processing technologies, all the raw materials required to make iron were found to be located in the south-east Wales coalfield. Workers flocked in to toil for the new breed of iron masters, and so did the investment - at one point London bankers queued up to fund new works, canals, ports and railways. In 1804 the world's first steam locomotive was run along the tramway at the Penydarren ironworks near Merthyr. Meanwhile, the Welsh population was growing faster through immigration than any other country except the United States. By 1827 South Wales was producing half of all British iron exports. The demand for ordnance in continental wars and the emerging railway boom in Europe and the US could all be met thanks to the dirty, dangerous work of the Welsh miners.

Science

Sir Clive Sinclair may have brought the affordable home computer to Britain, but when it came to revolutionising the transport system he woefully misjudged the mood of the nation. The much-lampooned Sinclair C5 was built at Merthyr Tydfil and launched in 1985. With a top speed of 15mph and a range of just six miles, the press was merciless about his electric tricycle. It was one of the most embarrassing moments in Wales' otherwise proud tradition for science and innovation. In the 19th century, Alfred Wallace from Usk nearly beat Charles Darwin to the theory of natural selection. The North Wales mathematician Sir William Jones first proposed the symbol pi to represent the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. Colonel Sir George Everest, born near Crickhowell in Powys, completed the Great Trigonometric Survey of India and gave his name to the world's tallest mountain. The Cardiff-born physicist Brian Josephson gave his name to an effect in the study of superconducters and shared the 1973 Nobel Prize for his efforts.

Comments