Saturday, January 17, 2015

Jessica's Radnorshire Roots

Not having access to a television - well at least one where I have any control of the remote - I'd never heard of the actress Jessica Raine, she was the star of the BBC series Call the Midwife.  I came across her name while checking out some Kington history, Raine is an ex-pupil of the town's Lady Hawkins school.

Like another ex-pupil, the singer Ellie Goulding, there seems to be some ambiguity about Jessica's nationality, she being described in various mainstream articles as a Welsh actress.  The cause of this mix-up in Goulding's case was the inability of Warburton's Wales's national newspaper to distinguish between Kington and Knighton.  In the case of Raine it seems to stem from an early interview where she said she was from near Hay-on-Wye, no doubt correctly surmising that this was the only place anywhere near her home in Eardisley, Herefordshire a London journalist might conceivably have heard of.

Ms Raine herself has had something to say about borderland ambiguities, remarking on the "Welsh twang" of her local accent and that she "grew up in Herefordshire on the borders with Wales, so it was neither one nor the other."  All quite interesting but more was to follow when I discovered that her real surname was Lloyd and that she was connected to the Lloyds of Baynham Hall, Michaelchurch-on-Arrow, a branch of the well-known family of Radnorshire bonesetters.

In the days when agriculture was less mechanized than it is today a bad back could easily bring ruin to a family.  Radnorshire farmers had little faith in the medical profession to be of any assistance, whereas bonesetters were trusted and sought after.  An interesting article here.  Many of these local bonesetters were descendants of Hugh Lloyd 1770-1856, as indeed is Ms Raine.  In 1969 Jessica's father unveiled a memorial tablet in Michaelchurch parish church to commemorate the original Hugh Lloyd.  The memorial repeats the verse on the bonesetter's original tombstone.

A talent rare by him possessed
T'adjust the bones of the distressed
Whenever called he ne'er refused
But cheerfully his talent used
But now he lies beneath this tomb
Till Jesus comes t'adjust his own.

A few year's ago I may have done something to cast doubt on the family's connection with that figure of local folklore Silver John, see here.  It was not my intention as there is usually some element truth in these old legends.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Welsh DNA

Dafydd Iwan "descended from Welsh kings who ruled England" said the headline in the Daily Post, which seems all to typical of the high falutin' claims that usually ensue when DNA meets MSM.

This was all publicity of course for an upcoming project, backed by S4C, the Post and the Western Mail:

Other celebrities will be tested including Kath and Bryn and also members of the general public who will have paid up to £200 for the privilege - I'm guessing the celebs will get a freebie.  So what we have here will be a self-selecting sample and a good deal of what the project may well tell us we already know.  South Wales is full of folk with ancestors from Ireland, the West of England and further afield for example.

Mind you even more rigorous sampling gets things wrong, remember the Blood of the Vikings series which picked out Llanidloes as a likely place to find Welsh DNA.  Of course the town is slap bang in the middle of the 16C Arwystli plantation, typified by surnames such as Wigley, Ashton, Chapman, Jarman, Peate etc.  You could end up with Y-chromosome results more typical of Derbyshire and Lancashire than Montgomeryshire.

Of course a large sample of Welsh DNA is to be welcomed and hopefully that is what the project will achieve. It could find out more about the supposed Balkan hotspot around Abergele or the hinted "Pictish" DNA in Central Wales or who knows what else.

A large pinch of salt however, conclusions in this branch of science are open to frequent revision.  Time was  there was no Neanderthal blood in modern humans, then there was, then there wasn't, now there is.  Same goes for the out-of-Africa theory.

Meanwhile things could get a bit bothersome for S4C as a result of the controversy between the scientists behind the project and those at UCL.  It's already been the subject of an editorial in the magazine Nature and UCL have dedicated a section of their website to the matter.  Scroll down on this page to 24 September 2014 for a taster.

Anyone interested in joining the project can do so here.  Hopefully they'll get involved in the hope of uncovering something about the prehistory and unrecorded history of Wales and the Welsh people rather than just to bore the pants off us all with daft claims of being descended from Svein the Viking.  

Saturday, January 03, 2015

The Old Block

Feeling a bit of sympathy for Andy Mountbatten - hasn't the guy done his level best to win Central Asia for the West?  And how is he repaid?  By having his face splashed all over the front page.  What is the point of the cleptocracy owning the media if they can't keep an officer and a gentleman out of the papers.

Anyway this blog needs to get in touch with its yé-yé girl roots, so for Andy and especially his dad here's the best-connected woman in the history of pop to sing a little ditty:

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Radnorshire's lost plygain tradition

If you were to sum up Wales with one of those fashionable hundred-object lists then surely a recording of this plygain carol would have to be included.

There was a time when the plygain tradition held sway in Radnorshire. Ffransis Payne recounted the evidence of a Glascwm farmer, born circa 1820, who recalled the Christmas morning plygain service held in the parish church. The church bells were rung from 3am until the service commenced at 05.30, then traditional carols and hymns would be sung in the highly illuminated building - a lesser known element of the tradition -  and all this in the Welsh language.

Rhayader's plygain was abandoned, seemingly because of drunkenness, while in Llanbister the service was called pelygen.  After the tradition retreated from the state church it lived on in the chapels and even farmhouses.  In St Harmon the local chapel was still holding plygain services in the 1870s and the Primitive Methodists of Presteigne persisted until the 1890s, although this last example would have certainly been conducted in English.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Black Belt, Hillbillies and Reds

My previous post on the national question in the USA, see here, was written before I saw this fascinating map detailing individuals' perceived ethnic origins as recorded by the 2000 US census. The map shows the largest group in each county.  It illustrates some of the issues discussed before - the French element in New England and Louisiana and the Hispanic element in the South West, these being cultures which did not migrate to the United States but were already in situ when the US expanded to take over their lands.  We can also see the scattered remnants of the original inhabitants of the continent and how, for example, Hawaiians have been overwhelmed while indigenous Alaskans still have some degree of territorial integrity.

Turning to the mainstream - those who willingly migrated or were forcibly removed to America - it's interesting to note that the most widespread ethnicity mapped are not the English but the Germans.  In fact it's possible to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific without leaving a German predominant county.

Two other groups stand-out, the African Americans of the deep South (there are around 100 counties with an absolute black majority) and the group, mainly in the South, especially Appalachia, who do not list any ethnicity other than being American.

In 1928, at the behest of activists like Harry Haywood, the Comintern accepted that the African Americans of the Black Belt constituted a nation as defined by Stalin "a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture."  This led to the CPUSA defining the inhabitants of the Black Belt as an oppressed nation with the right to national self-determination, up to and including secession from the United States.  This line was largely abandoned in 1935 but is still held by small leftist and black nationalist groups.  Communist activity in pre-Second World War America has largely been forgotten - there were 2000 CPUSA members in Alabama alone - so it is easy to underestimate the strength of this idea at a time when sharecropping was still a major economic factor affecting millions.

There are those who would argue that the poor whites of southern Appalachia also have the characteristics of a distinct nation. The problems associated with internal colonialism and post-industrialisation echo those of South Wales.  I'd argue that the mockery directed at rednecks and hillbillies also has echoes in Wales, these being communities elites feel able to denigrate without any of the comeback associated with political correctness.

The small independence movements in Texas and Alaska don't seem to have much interest in their Spanish speaking or native American minorities, instead they are usually dismissed as being right-wingers unhappy with Washington rule.  As Washington rule is so closely allied with clepto-capitalism that's not necessarily a bad thing and perhaps we need to be reading Ralph Nader's book Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.

Oh and here are some Americans dancing in the days before the corporations started filling their food with high fructose corn syrup.


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Around Radnorshire - Llanfair Llwyth Yfnwg

While looking at Estyn reports on Radnorshire schools I was taken by this comment in the inspection for Gladestry primary "all learners speak English, although some use the local dialect." How often has mention of the local dialect turned up in an official government publication? What next, official status?

Readers may be disappointed that there's not a lot about the "Radnorshire" dialect on this blog.  The dialect is characteristic of the north and the east of the county rather than the south and west and I do get annoyed at folk, not natural speakers, who put-on "thees, thous, bists and wunnas" as a form of mockery. At the same time a broad Radnorshire accent is a wonderful thing and listening to elderly dialect speakers negotiating a supermarket makes a welcome change from the more usual London and Midlands voices.  

The names of the Gladestry school's catchment area would surely have given Housman a run for his money in the quietest-places-under-the sun stakes: Gladestry, Colva, Michaelchurch-on-Arrow, Burlingjobb, and across the border, Huntington and Brilley.  The quarry at Dolyhir not so much.  I was surprised by the presence of Herefordshire pupils in a Welsh school but seemingly this is quite common, with over 2000 children from England attending state schools in Wales and even more making the journey east.

Census figures which show the Welsh language making ground in East Radnorshire -  the 2011 figures are more realistic than those of 2001 -  have always seemed a bit suspicious. I've put it down to monoglot parents over-estimating the linguistic abilities of their offspring.  Yet perhaps this viewpoint is too pessimistic given the report's description of language use in the school: "Their use of English and Welsh in both oral and written work is extremely advanced and nearly all transfer between the languages confidently and easily."

I'm sure there may be one or two locals who see the revival of the old Welsh placenames of the area as the perverse invention of some rabid nationalist in the county's Highways Department.  Infact the earliest reference to Llanfair Llwyth Yfnwg (Gladestry) dates back to 1291.  Lewis Glyn Cothi came here in the 15C to praise its inns - serving the ales of Llwydlo (Ludlow) and Gweble (Weobley) - and to receive the gift of a mantle from Elis Hol, comparing it in some striking dyfalu to the Golden Fleece and the mantle of Tegau Eurfron.  And of course we are just a mile or so from Hergest, a place of real importance to everything that makes Wales an idea worth defending.

Brulhai (Brilley) was the home of Phelpod ap Rhys, a cyfarwyddyd (storyteller) with a whole world of stories within his head, a master of the seven arts who knew all the chronicles of the island.  Glyn Cothi calls this district Bro Gintun (the vale of Kington) and so did the muleteers of the pre-railroad age bringing coal from South Wales: yn mynd a llawer llwyth o lo, ar hyd y fro i Gyntyn.

The area was still Welsh-speaking in the 18C when a local was taken to court for slander "Di gyrn di dorrws y twlle sydd in di hatt di" - "your horns tore the holes in your hat."  Note the southern verb ending  - ws.  But by the start of the 19C language shift was probably complete, although the Radnorshire antiquarian Mr Cole reported that his grandparents - who farmed Redborough between Llannewydd (Newchurch) and Llanfihangel Dyffryn Arwy (Michaelchurch on Arrow) - still knew Welsh in the middle of that century.  Only Burlingjobb lacks a Welsh name, although 16C spellings such as Byrchop and Berchoppe suggest that, at that time, the name had been cymricised to something like Bersiob.

With the Welsh language spoken in the village school's two classrooms and on public display, at least on the Radnorshire side, we can say that these are small victories in a war whose major battles are being fought, and probably lost, far to the west.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Herefordshire's Welsh Field Names

After bragging-up access to historical records in Wales as compared to England, I have to admit that this is not the case with 19C field names, where we certainly lag behind some of the border counties - see Herefordshire, Cheshire and Shropshire.

The Herefordshire and Cheshire databases are searchable, so to get a quick idea of the distribution of Welsh survivals what better element to look-up than the word cae - field.  I was surprised that this element is found fairly widely in two Cheshire parishes - Malpas and Shocklach.  The Shropshire maps aren't searchable, so I'll leave them alone and instead  look forward to the publication of the planned volume on Welsh placenames in that county.

The map shows those Herefordshire parishes which in 1841 had at least six fields containing the cae element. Most have far more - 83 such fields in Michaelchurch Escley, 61 in Clifford, 47 in Rowlestone, 45 in Craswell and so on, nearly 600 in total.  As you can see there is a pretty close correlation with the parishes where Welsh patronyms were common in the 16C - see post below.  I don't believe there is any great antiquity to most of these field names, instead they reflected a fairly recent acquaintance with the Welsh language.

Despite the widespread occurrence of Welsh surnames there's little evidence for any surviving Welsh national feeling in this Cambria irredenta. I did identify a greater tendency in the 2011 census to opt for a British identity rather than an English only identity in a selection of these parishes - see below.  Perhaps that that reflects some ethnic ambiguity?

On the whole though, while I dislike the use of the term anglicised for any population within Wales, its use here is appropriate -  just like the Germanised Slavs who make up a fair proportion of the  population of eastern Germany.

Let England keep these parishes, although you would think that the locals might take some interest in their own history.

Herefordshire average:  English-only 64% Welsh-only 4% British-only 16%
Clifford:  English-only 52% Welsh-only 8% British-only 28%
Cusop:  English-only 51% Welsh-only 15% British-only 19%
Dorstone:  English-only 54% Welsh-only 7% British-only 26%
Newton:  English-only 55% Welsh-only 9% British-only 27%
Abbeydore:  English-only 55% Welsh-only 5% British-only 23%
Longtown:  English-only 53% Welsh-only 11% British-only 21%
Llangarron:  English-only 56% Welsh-only 8% British-only 24%
Welsh Newton:  English-only 47% Welsh-only 8% British-only 30%
Ganarew:  English-only 50% Welsh-only 12% British-only 26%
Rowlestone:  English-only 50% Welsh-only 8% British-only 26% 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Four Welshwomen in Spain

I don't think that anyone can really argue that Welsh historians are not guilty of writing women out of our country's history, and that's certainly the case with these four youthful participants in the Spanish Civil War.  Margaret Powell and Thora Silverthorne do make an appearance in Rob Stradling's Wales and the Spanish Civil War, but only as a footnote to explain the lack of "gender inclusiveness" in his prose.  Meanwhile Fifi Roberts, whose story is perhaps the best remembered, makes the text but not the index.  Esyllt Scott-Ellis is not mentioned at all, prossibly because the author was unaware of her Welsh links.

Margaret Powell 1913-1990 was born on a farm in Llangenny near Crickhowell.  Some reports say that her father died when she was a child and that her brothers ended up being sent to Canada as part of Barnardo's unlamented scheme to populate the Empire.  Her daughter doesn't mention this in her brief summary of Margaret's life so perhaps it isn't the case.  What is clear is that Margaret trained as a nurse and midwife in London, was anxious to go out to Spain where she worked on the frontline during the Aragon offensive - assisting in a thousand operations and eventually ending up as a document-less refugee in the French camps.  In 1950 Margaret married the Communist journalist Sam Lesser, they lived in Moscow between 1955 and 1959 where her husband was the Daily Worker correspondent.

Another Welsh Communist nurse was Thora Silverthorne 1910-1999 from Abertillery. Better remembered than Margaret Powell there's a good summary of her life here. Thora worked hard to unionise the nursing profession, setting up her Association of Nurses in opposition to the Royal College, it later merged with NUPE.  When Thora died there were obituaries in the Guardian and the Independent.

It was interesting to learn that while Thora couldn't speak Welsh her elder sister did.  This seems to have been commonplace in industrial South Wales with figures like Nye Bevan and Gwyn Thomas speaking no Welsh while their older siblings did.  I remember being amazed in the 1970s to discover that my mother's elder sister could still understand Welsh even though she had lived in Hertfordshire since the 1930s.  Why did families suddenly stop passing on the language to younger siblings around the time of the First World War?

Nowadays we are supposed to equate Communists like Margaret and Thora with the Fascists and Nazis.  Shrill East European governments with murky histories and bought-and-paid-for journalists and authors demand that we accept that the Stalinists were even worse than Hitler.  I'm increasingly suspicious of such claims, even of those crimes admitted by Khrushchev and Gorbachev.  Indeed I fear for a future which sees the likes of Margaret Powell and Thora Silverthorne as villains, rather than the heroes they certainly were.

As mentioned above, the story of Fifi Roberts, the twenty year old daughter of a Penarth sea-captain,  is fairly well-known.  Fifi accompanied her father's vessel, the Seven Sea Spray, when it broke the blockade of Bilbao in April 1937.  This made Miss Roberts something of a celebrity, both in the Basque country and in newspapers around the world.  What is less well known is that Florence also sent reports on her visit to the News Chronicle, including some from Guernica soon after the town had been bombed - you can see her photographs and hear her recollections of the visit here.

Esyllt Scott-Ellis 1916-1983, better known as Priscilla or Pip, was a daughter of the 8th Lord Howard de Walden of Chirk Castle, remembered now as a leading patron of Welsh drama and literature.  Inspired by events in Spain and with some very basic nursing training this twenty-year-old aristocrat went out to Spain and was soon witnessing the battle for Teruel and the subsequent Aragon Offensive.  During the Second World War she was evacuated - as part of a British medical team - from Dunkirk. She later married the actor and author Jose Luis de Vilallonga and lived for many years in Argentina.  Before Plaid supporters get too excited about this largely forgotten member of a family with links to pre-war Welsh nationalism, they'll need to recall that Pip was a volunteer for Franco.  Heaven knows what Tim Williams would make of that!

Friday, November 07, 2014


Anyone with an interest in local history is well-served in Wales as old newspapers, wills, bardic genealogies etc are available on-line and free of charge.  Only photocopied parish registers and civil registration records have been handed over to the fee-devouring private sector.  The latest treat we are promised are on-line tithe maps together with the schedules detailing field names etc.  The map for Llanelwedd has already been uploaded, see here, accompanied by a short article, here

The tithe maps and schedules date back to the 1840s, a time when language shift in most of Radnorshire was either in progress or had only recently been completed.  The extent and nature of Welsh language field names should provide clues to the situation in the county's varied parishes, as well as information on dialect, social history and nature.

Friday, October 31, 2014

November 1st. International Day of Solidarity with Kobane

In the documentary Carnets d'un combattant kurde a young Kurdish fighter mused on the beauty of the mountains, for her the most beautiful places are those where there is hope.  Rojava is surely such a place, This was International Women's Day in the capital Qamishlo: