Friday, July 31, 2009

Just in from the Windy City

Who won the contralto solo at the Chicago World's Fair Eisteddfod in 1893? Why none other than Bessie Evans of Radnor House, Builth Wells.

The daughter of local musical legend Llew Buallt, Miss Evans was a soloist with Madame Clara Novello Davies's all-conqueing Welsh Ladies Choir.

A lively lass Bessie, she was 19 at the time of the Fair, was showered with offers to stay in America. She did indeed return on a number of occasions, even singing for President McKinley at the WhiteHouse. She had already sung for Queen Victoria.

In 1903 Bessie married a Radnorian, Joseph Duggan and eventually moved to Edmonton, Alberta where she died, mourned by the local musical community in 1938.

Now the likes of Bessie didn't suddenly spring out of nowhere. Indeed there was something of a musical scene in the Builth/Llandrindod area in the late Victorian period, one that found success on a national scale. I'll return to it in a future post.

Meanwhile enjoy the cartoon of Dame Wales and this photo of the Ladies choir in 1897. Clich├ęd, certainly, but an important factor in maintaining a sense of national awareness during a period when the only state recognition of a separate Welsh identity came from the US Immigration Service.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Correction


Misled by the Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales I've always believed that Builth born writer Thomas Prichard authored the very first Welsh novel, The Adventures and Vagaries of Twm Shon Catti, which was published in 1828.

Now it seems that Radnorian Edward Davies of Llanfaredd's epistolary novel Elisa Powell beat the Breconian by a generation, hitting the streets in 1795.

Wyesiders will realise how much I hate to do this, but the truth must be told.

The Bells of Rhymney

You'd be hard put to find a more comprehensive website than this, celebrating the life and times of Fochriw, a hill village between Merthyr and the Rhymney valley.

I'm interested in Fochriw because my grandmother, who was born at the old Clywedog Arms in Gwystre, spent her childhood and early adulthood in the village. Just one of the thousands of Radnorians who found a new life in the South Wales coalfield.

It's interesting to note that in 1901 over 90% of the population of Fochriw spoke Welsh, making it a more "Welsh" place than anywhere in present day Gwynedd. Yet within the space of a few years the language was to virtually disappear amongst the younger generation. Such is the impact of language shift.

There's an interesting little verse on the site, written in the style of Idris Davies, which says a lot about the process of language shift:

Betty Evans knew her Welsh
And so did I at four,
Until I played with friends outside
And children from next door.

Something similar must have happened in the villages of Radnorshire, with a certain amount of Welsh spoken here and there behind closed doors, while the public arena was given over to English. There's a little evidence for this when we examine the amount of Welsh spoken by those Radnorshire migrants to the coalfield.

Taking a sample of 272 Radnorshire born folk aged over 55 and living in Glamorgan at the time of the 1891 census, we find that 38% can speak Welsh, a much higher figure than that for the stay at homes. Of course the obvious conclusion would be that these folk had picked up their Welsh in the South, but if that was the case then we would expect to see similar percentages from parishes across the county. Infact this is not the case. For those born west of the Ithon the figure of Welsh speakers is 66%, while for those from the Wyeside parishes from Diserth down to Clyro the figure is 33%. For the rest of the county the figure drops to 12%.

What I think this shows is that a certain amount of Welsh continued to be used in families in parishes such as Nantmel, Llanyre and Diserth during the Nineteenth Century. When such folk moved to areas where Welsh was more widely used as a community language, their "hidden" Welsh came into the open. The figures also provide some evidence to show that F G Payne was correct when he dismissed the view that the Wye valley was a major conduit for the anglicization of Radnorshire, a view that is still the norm in academic circles.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Votes For Women

Although women could not vote in Parliamentary elections until 1918, they had been able to both vote and stand in local elections for nearly a quarter of a century before that date. Here's an example from 1900 where we find Elizabeth Maria Priscilla Duffield losing her seat on the Llandrindod UDC.

Miss Duffield was the Monmouthshire born manager of the Pump House, the largest hotel in Wales. Miss Duffield died in 1916, aged 64.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Attitudes to Radnorshire in the 19C, part two

The Welsh language is, of course, one of the markers of Welshness, but it is not the only one.

You only have to look at the position of Ireland to see that a sense of national identity does not depend on a vigorous national language alone. Indeed the very strength of Welsh, still spoken by perhaps a quarter of the population, to an extent weakens the national self-confidence of the 75% who do not.

Although Radnorshire was the first county in Wales to be anglicised in language terms, in other respects it was one of the most traditional of all the Welsh counties. Rebeccaism, tai un nos, the traditions of ceffyl pren are all examples of this. The following is an extract of an 1861 article translated from the newspaper Baner ac Amserau Cymru. Although to modern ears the description of the traditional parish wake in Aberedw seems laudable enough - an example of Hen Gymru Llawen (Merrie Old Wales) - to the author of the article and his readers it was something to be condemned.

The other day I was in Aberedw, to see the ruins of the castle and Llywelyn’s cave. Aberedw is a place on the Radnorshire side (of the Wye). We went to sit for a while in a house that was known to one of our company. The niece of the man of the house happened be there on a visit.

“When are you going home?” someone asked.
“I’m not going home” replied the young girl, “ until after the feast.”
“When is the feast?”
“Next Sunday”
“What feast is that” I asked.
“Aberedw Feast” said the girl.
“What sort of feast is that?”

But the young lady could not give an explanation, other than it was Aberedw feast, a little amazed that I should enquire about a subject of which everyone was aware.

Gwlabsant” explained her uncle “that’s the feast.”
“Perhaps.” he said “you don’t know what gwlabsant is?”

I knew a little from history, but only from history. I had never before been in a district where the gwyl y mabsant, the feast of the patron saint was still alive.

“What will happen next Sunday that is different from any other Sunday?”
“Oh the feast is not as big as it was years ago. Then it lasted a week, feasting and drinking, singing and dancing, fighting and so on. But now there’s just a little feasting, killing fowls, baking cakes, puddings, pasties and meeting to spend the day eating and socialising with each other."

Even the very mention of a saint’s feast has died out long ago in every other part of Wales. There’s barely one in a thousand who even knows the meaning of the word. The Sunday schools have extinguished virtually all of the old country customs except in Radnorshire. Here they have a refuge and a burial place.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Damned Lies and Statistics

The statistician E G Ravenstein possibly underestimated the number of Radnorians speaking Welsh, but his map - compiled in the mid 1870s - probably provides an accurate record of the linguistic position on the ground.

Ravenstein compiled the map by sending out questionaires to local clergymen. Where they failed to reply he contacted local innkeepers - probably a better option in any case.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Taking the Waters


Someone really should republish this charming little book, which describes a journey to Llandrindod Wells in 1744.

Of particular interest to me are the descriptions of the linguistic position in Radnorshire at the time. In Knighton there was little Welsh spoken but by Bleddfa an old man could speak no English. Between there and Llanfihangel Rhydithon there was little Engish except for an innkeeper who spoke the language "indifferent good". A visit to Builth market heard only the occasional word of English on the bustling streets, and was followed by colourful descriptions of country dances held at the parish wakes of Diserth and Aberedw. Again everywhere was Welsh but with examples of the bilingualism which would be the forerunner of later language shift.

A witty book in which even the occasional anti-Welsh comment seems penned to reflect more on English prejudice rather than native vice.



Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Squatters Rights

This cutting dates from 1838, and celebrates Presteigne solicitor Cecil Parsons' victory on behalf of 201 families occupying tai un nos on Radnorshire commons. 201 families would probably have accounted for 5% of the county's population.

Although the article, from a London paper, attacks the Whig government, the local MP Wilkins who supported Parsons was a Whig himself. Infact this case seems to have set the traditional gentry class in Radnorshire against newcomers intent on enclosure and evictions.

Attitudes to Radnorshire in the 19C, part one

The government's 1847 report on education in Wales has long been notorious for blaming all the country's supposed social ills - deceitfulness, illiteracy, illegitimacy, drunkenness - on the Welsh language. Of course these criticisms proved intolerable to the Welsh speaking chapel based intelligentsia, who sought to counter the libels against the nation.

Now the county in Wales, indeed Britain, with the highest level of illegitimacy was Radnorshire, a county notorious for Rebeccaism and for the drunkenness associated with its fairs and, heaven forbid, parish wakes. With something like 90% of the households in the county speaking the English language around the hearth, Radnorshire was an easy target for the 19C Welsh language press in their efforts to prove that Welsh was not the cause of civic backwardness.

In language that matched the 1847 report at its most prejudiced, the supposed depravity said to be typical of Radnorshire was laid at the door of the county's recent anglicisation, here is a typical example:

"What for example has Radnorshire gained from that? ..... it is one of the darkest and most backward parts of the whole kingdom in terms of morality and learning. It is as if the human mind has disappeared from view as regards the population in general. Only the animal aspect of humanity can be seen living there." - Baner Cymru 19/5/1858

These attitudes towards Radnorshire persisted into the 20C and are well illustrated by the Montgomeryshire born Iorwerth Peate writing in 1933. For him Radnorians were "a deracine people, a people fallen between two stools a community of half-things." Even today such prejudices can be seen in the perfunctory and ill-informed treatment of Radnorshire topics by some historians coming from the Welsh-speaking, non-conformist tradition.


Thursday, July 09, 2009

A Grim Discovery

In 1856 Mrs Smith, the wife of the new tenant of Llanbachowey, Llanbedr Painscastle lifted the stone lid of a recently discovered walled-up water closet. Perhaps she was hoping to find some treasure hidden by a previous occupant. Instead Mrs Smith found the remains of four dead infants.

A surgeon who examined the find speculated that the corpses had been deposited over a period of time, perhaps 20 or 30 years previously, and that they had been sprinkled with quick lime in an attempt to hide any smell. Enquiries of former servants at the farm led nowhere and the coroner had no choice but to record a verdict of wilful murder by a person or persons unknown.

An Annivesary

I've posted before about the great flood of 9th July 1853, which saw Howey Brook rise 15 feet in three hours, sweeping away cottages and drowning two people. Another died in Newbridge and across the Wye in Llandewi'r Cwm a country house called Dolfach was completely swept away by the Duhonw brook. The bodies of its six residents being recovered downstream near Hay, although their beds only travelled as far as Boughrood.

Contrary to the alarmist reports on the television news programmes, extreme weather was not invented in 2005.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Sad Case of Miriam Jones

The court reporters described 17 year old Miriam Jones as a girl of medium height, tolerably good looking with a fresh complexion and fashionably pinned up hair. They also noted the Radnorshire patois when she spoke, admitting the attempted murder of her infant daughter Mary Jane.

Miriam, a servant girl in Llanbister, had fallen pregnant at the age of 15. The father of the child, who she had unsuccessfully sought to summons for maintenance on three occasions, being her employer, a 25 year old married farmer.

For the last seven months Miriam had paid a local child minder two shillings a week, from her paltry wage of £7 a year, to care for the infant. Now in May 1887 she collected Mary Jane, informing the elderly carer, Miss Elton, that she was taking the 17 month old child to her own mother in Merthyr Tydfil.

Instead, when Miriam arrived in Troedyrhiw she hurried with the infant to an old mine shaft, dropping her in. By pure chance Mary Jane was discovered crying later that night, lying, unharmed, at a depth of 54 feet on the body of a dead sheep. Miriam had already taken the train back to Penybont for the Mop Hiring Fair, where, failing to find a new place, she walked the 14 miles back to the farm where she was currently employed. However, Miriam was known in Troedyrhiw and a witness had seen her walking towards the shaft with the child. The Merthyr police soon arrived in Llanbister to take the girl back to a town that was seething for her blood.

Although Miriam admitted that she had wanted to kill the child, sympathy for her had grown as details of her plight became known. The judge at her trial refused to accept her plea and appointed a lawyer who argued that Miriam had merely left the child to be discovered; although this was hard to credit given the depth of the shaft and its distance from the path. The jury found her guilty but recommended mercy. Miriam was given 8 years in jail, yet so much had the public mood swung behind her that a protest meeting was held in Merthyr condemning the harshness of the sentence.

What happened to Miriam on her release? She seems to have found employment in the house of a Gloucestershire vicar. Little Mary Jane was cared for by a Merthyr couple, although the Merthyr Guardians were adamant that Radnorshire should foot the bill.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Punch Line

It seems that Yahoo are closing their free Geocities websites in the autumn so I'm busy saving my Innes Ireland site before it disappears into the ether like Michael Jackson's ghost. Anyway it does mean re-reading stuff I haven't seen for two or three years, like this extract from Ireland's obituary in The Independent:

"Ireland's ability behind the wheel was illustrated to perfection to a group of us in Budapest back in 1989, as he drove us to the Hungaroring circuit. Ron Dennis the McLaren team chief, pulled alongside at traffic lights in his brand new Honda, and the challenge was simply too much for Innes to resist. A high speed dice ensued, in which his right foot remained firmly pressed to the floor, even as he wove in and out of the early morning traffic. With artful precision he took on and beat Dennis, and then proceeded to do the same to the racing driver Martin Brundle in his Volvo 760. Brundle had seen the odd journalistic face peering at him from the car, and on arriving at the circuit his relief was all too evident at discovering Ireland had been the chauffeur. Being beaten by him was respectable, even if the vehicle he had been conducting with indecent haste was only a battered Lada."

Friday, July 03, 2009

Kippers By Post

In the first half of 2009 the Blog received 2641 visits from 70 different countries. This is a decline of 12% on the same period last year. Not sure who to blame, Gordon Brown or just the result of fewer old-time motor sport posts? I guess there can't be a huge audience for Radnorian trivia and it would be nice to get a bit of feedback from anyone who is interested.

My Duffy discography caused a number of hits from people searching for obscure pre-Rockferry tracks and, surprisingly, they spent a fair amount of time on the site, ok, maybe that's because they're slow readers. Kippers by Post wins the prize for the most interesting search term, er, there's no actual prize by the way.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Musical Interlude



According to Ray Connolly, Michael Jackson inspired "the following generation of rock stars to consider their music as part of a whole theatrical experience of dance, acting and costume. Without him, the captivating stage performances of singers such as Madonna and Beyonce wouldn't have been the same."

Now I figure Mr Connolly is saying that as if it were a good thing, er, thanks a million Michael. For those who prefer soul to mere razzle dazzle, here's Bettye Lavette.