There was an item on the radio this morning about a festival celebrating Roald Dahl’s Welshness; although both his parents were Norwegian, Dahl’s father came to Wales in the 1880’s, and his mother in 1911 to marry him, and Roald was born in Cardiff four years later. As I was listening to the story I wondered what had brought Dahl senior to Cardiff and it seems that many, many Norwegian ships with Norwegian sailors docked there; what, I wondered could bring so much Scandinavian traffic to the city?
The answer is obvious – coal. The mining industry was flourishing in south Wales due to the massive industrialisation in Britain in the nineteenth century; from 4.5 million tons in 1840, to 16.5 million tons in 1874. All the mines and pits which were dug needed one vital thing – pit props; long, straight, strong timber was brought from Scandinavia, straight to Cardiff. Those same ships would take back black gold, coal to Norway and Sweden.
There were so many Norwegians visiting the city that a church was built and the Norwegian church there can still be seen today; no doubt many Norwegians stayed and settled in and around the area, and one of these was twenty something Harald Dahl who worked as a ship broker. He married, had two children and then was widowed; his second marriage was to Roald’s mother.
So Roald was born in Cardiff, to a father who had lived there for nearly thirty years, but the Roald didn’t remain there due to tragic circumstances; his sister died when he was only three, and his father a short time after. When he was seven the little boy was sent across the sea, not back to Norway, but by ferry across St George’s Channel to Weston-super-Mare to go to boarding school. I’m not sure how long he stayed here, at the place he hated – the school, not Weston, but he was then sent to another boarding school.
I didn’t know Dahl had this connection to Weston, and I’ll never look across the channel to Wales again without thinking of the poor little boy sent away from home to a cruel and ghastly place. That experience, and then being sent further away to the even worse school in Derbyshire no doubt affected him and can be seen in his writing.
To go back to the Welshness of Roald Dahl, the family spoke Norwegian at home, went to a Norwegian church and associated with other Norwegians, how much was the little boy affected by his Welsh environment? I don’t know! But certainly there is much excitement in Wales as the centenary of his birth approaches, and there will be great celebrations in September in the city and land of his birth.