Wednesday, February 26, 2014


No doubt brought up on rhymes for children like this

Maesyfed, yma safwn,
wrth ddwfr Llandrindod lon
Ond wfft i Sir Faesyfed,
un Seisnig remp yw hon! 

A fair proportion of Welsh academia long-ago washed its hands of Radnorshire.  Why they should be so eager to move an already precarious border 25 miles further west is a bit of a puzzle, but there you go.

The accepted viewpoint was that the Welsh language had died out in the county in the 18C and nothing seems to have been done to investigate the dialect of those few locally-born Welsh speakers shown by the 1911 census to have lived-on well into the 20C.  It's a pity, since Radnorshire must have been the transition zone between the Gwenhwyseg of the South East and the dialects of Montgomeryshire.

So we're left to search for scraps of information where ever we can find them, like in this letter to the Gloucester Journal in 1784.  For those too lazy to click the link, it describes the practice of making a small beer called merchin from kernel fruit - which I take to mean crab-apples or something similar. The use of lead-glazed jars in the production of this liquor lead to poisoning, hence the letter.

So what was merchin?  It certainly has the appearance of a Welsh word, although I can't find anything in the online version of Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru.  Any ideas?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Welsh Lessons

I suppose it never crossed my mind that people would go to evening classes to learn Welsh before, say, the 1960s.  Certainly clever chaps like Cyril Cule and Ffransis Payne picked up the language and thousands of  unremarked 19C migrants to the coal fields would have learnt a new tongue in the organic way that newcomers to any foreign country might ...... but evening classes?

Now clearly I'd got this all wrong, which was why I was surprised to read, in the latest tranche of newspapers uploaded by our National Library, that the Breconshire authorities were subsidising such classes during the First World War.  In the winter of 1914/15 classes in Llanganten had 24 students, Beulah and Troedrhiwdalar 50 between them and there were 23 in Builth.

The classes seem to have been aimed at teaching the old language to English speakers.  By that time Builth was as anglophone as it is today, as was Llanganten (readers probably know it better as Cilmeri).  There was still a good deal of Welsh spoken in Beulah and Troedrhiwdalar and native speakers as well as learners seem to have been catered for there.  How long did it last?  Well the Beulah teacher, local farmer Daniel Jones of Penrhiwmoch, was appointed for a third winter in 1916.  Coincidentally he was the grandfather of one of my rediscovered Radnorians, the racing driver Liz Jones.

Not everyone was supportive of this enlightened policy though. When Llangammarch applied to the Breconshire Education Committee for support in 1915, voices - well chiefly the Surbiton born manufacturer Arthur Beckwith -  were raised against it.  Like the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone Beckwith's comments are all too familiar:

classes like those for Welsh only are not a real and urgent need at the moment, and it is not one of the subjects on which we ought to spend public money.

It's easy enough to take a pop at Beckwith but at least he was an elected member and was out-voted by other elected members. The majority decided that the courses were popular and deserving of support. The virtue of councillors, you can get rid of them - much harder with the arms length quangocrats, third sector charities and out-of-control local officials you find  today.

At the end of their first winter the Welsh classes of Llanganten and Builth decided to engage in a little friendly competition to celebrate St David's Day 1915.  It was held at Builth's Forester's Hall (where? - Ed.) and the town defeated the village by 383 points to 354.  In addition to examples of our native flair for self-congratulation there were speeches from local bigwigs.  The town's Tory councillor Arthur Gwynne-Vaughan praised Lloyd George and his role in the war - a few months later residents would marvel at the popular solicitor's splendid masonic funeral - and the headmaster of Builth county school, Rees Thomas, made a well-received speech about Welsh nationalism.

Well actually it was also about the war.  Little Wales was part of a great Empire and its way of life was threatened by Germany.  If the enemy won all would have to learn the German language and the eisteddfod would be threatened.  Like the Poles the Welsh might become a minority in their own country (in the parallel universe called the present this nightmare scenario has actually come to pass in much of Mid-Wales ). Mr Thomas was overjoyed that Wales was in front of England, Ireland and Scotland in the matter of recruitment.  The best educated young men in Wales had volunteered to make up the Welsh battalions, which would emulate the valiancy ( is that a word? - Ed.) of Cromwell's Ironsides.

Perhaps Mr Thomas's heart was in the right place - his watchwords were justice, truth, good faith, humanity, mercy and education.  Who could disagree. He was greatly vexed by the suffering of gallant, little Belgium and it led him to head-up the committee charged with canvassing (pressurising?) the young men of the district to join the forces.  It seems that for the good headmaster Welsh nationalism could flourish as part of a great and virtuous Empire - in much the same way as so many of our modern day nationalists see the nation state as a thing of the past and Wales's destiny as part of another larger and supposedly virtuous entity. 

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Home Front

I've probably mentioned this before in passing but it's another incident that deserves a post of its own.  Let's remember the historical context here, just a couple of days after the Somme offensive of 1916 had ended, leaving over one million soldiers dead or wounded.

Meanwhile on the glensides of Radnorshire:

Clearly these bold Radnorians with their dynamite and gaffs were a disgrace to the Empire or Team GB as it is now known.

The River Whey?  Well I guess Hansard's stenographer was bamboozled by the gallant Captain's Old Etonian accent - later ennobled as Viscount Bledisloe he would present a cup still pursued energetically by former colonial egg-chasers.

Monday, February 03, 2014

An Outrage Scarcely Surpassed in Ireland

Although the old Radnorshire folk may be heading for the red-list along with the curlew and the skylark; your blogger is still a bit wary of naming names, even when describing events that occurred more than a hundred years ago.  The farmer responsible for the downfall of poor Miriam Jones remains anonymous in my account - no actual court conviction and too many potential descendants to offend.  Then there is a particular surname which appears far more often than it would be reasonable to expect in the county's criminal records ..... and even amongst those of the clan who migrated to the United States.  Let's leave their progeny in well-deserved peace.

Occasionally of course one makes a mistake, a name is mentioned and across the decades a family member gets in touch.  This was the case recently with a brief reference I made some years ago to the attack on the Llanbadarnfynydd police station in December 1880.  An incident which deserves to be described in greater detail.

Take this reprt from distant Hull where the local newspaper summed up the "murderous attack by the Rebeccaites" as an "outrage (which) has scarcely been surpassed in Ireland."  The Irish comparison was a frequently expressed opinion when the Radnorshire troubles appeared in the Victorian press.  "Death was then cried a score of times and volley after volley was fired, the door and windows being riddled with bullets and shot ... the valley of the Ithon appeared to be alive with armed men."  The opinion of the Hull paper was that "nothing but a strong force of military will restore order in these disturbed districts in Radnorshire."

A more sober report shows that Hull's hyperbole was not far off the mark:

"On the night of 5th Dec 1881, a police officer was badly injured by salmon poachers. This officer, who was stationed at Llanbadarn Fynydd, was patrolling the road between Llanbister and Llanbadarn Fynydd. Lights could be seen on the river and the noise of gun-fire heard.  When near a house called Brook Cottage the officer's attention was drawn by a noise in the hedge close to him. Turning his bullseye in the direction from which the sound came he saw three men about to climb over the hedge. Two of the men carried shotguns and the third a salmon spear. The latter at once struck at the officer with the spear. The policeman attempted to ward off the blow with his left arm but the spear pierced his helmet and cut his nose. The force of the blow fractured his arm. After a shot had been fired at the policeman, which fortunately missed him, the men ran away. The policeman then made his way home as best he could but his ordeal was not over, for shortly afterwards a gang of armed men appeared outside his house. Shots were fired at the window of the constable's house, smashing panes. A stone struck a clock in the living room and a shot passed over the crib in which the officer's baby was lying. Twenty seven slugs were later found in the front door. Fortunately no injury was sustained by the occupants, but this was undoubtedly a night of terror for the police officer and his family."

Now "salmon poachers" is hardly an accurate description of these Victorian activists.  Poachers don't usually draw attention to themselves by firing guns, parading in large numbers, often in daylight and in the centre of villages and towns.  This was an open challenge to the authorities and the Llanbadarn attack was the culmination of a month of  activity by the Rebeccaites on the Ithon and Upper Wye - an official inquiry later reported that a hundred individuals took part in the attack on the police station.  The Rebeccaites were standing-up for the traditional right of the populace to take salmon from the river and against over-netting by big landowners down-stream in Herefordshire.

Violence against the local police was uncommon, that against bailiffs and other outsiders less so. Police-Constable Cairns, the subject of the attack had a bad reputation in the county.  He seems to have been eager to confront the Rebeccaites.  In his 1976 article in the journal Llafur entitled the Second Rebecca Riots the historian David Jones gave some background concerning the victim of the attack:

"From Rhayader, where additional policemen were stoned on arrival came reports of 'foreign' armed policemen making noisy night patrols through the streets and subjecting innocent bystanders to undignified searches. One of the most unpopular constables was Frederick Cairns, who was charged at various times with assaulting people in the countryside near Rhayader."

Constable Cairns identified two of his assailants who were bailed (for a sizeable £400) to appear before the magistrates in Penybont.  Come the day and the village was said to have the appearance of a fair, such were the crowds drawn in support of the defendants.  Still suffering from his injuries Cairns braved a courtroom in which the public noisily greeted the supposed Rebeccaites as heroes.  Of course the defendants had alibis for the night in question and the court adjourned for a week to consider their decision.

To much public rejoicing the Penybont two were found not guilty.  The magistrates concluding that the constable had made an honest mistake in identifying them as his attackers.  Within a few weeks Cairns had been dismissed from the Radnorshire Constabulary.  Enquiries having shown that he had previously been found guilty of misconduct while employed in English police forces, something that he had denied during the court case.

Of course the Rebeccaites were operating in a society where the right to vote was restricted.  It's often forgotten that even after the 1884 Representation of the People Act some 40% of men were still denied a vote in parliamentary elections as well as 100% of women.  By resorting to shows of strength in support of popular causes the activists were able to curb excesses on the part of the local elite - evictions during the enclosures for example were carried out by newcomers to the district, who soon learnt the virtues of discretion when dealing with the commonality.  In the same way the Fishing regulations were a foreign imposition and there was conflict between outsiders determined to enforce the law and local magistrates and squires intent on social harmony.

There is a danger with popular movements which use threats and actual intimidation to achieve their ends, it's probably how the Mafia started out.  There are examples of over-stepping the mark in Radnorshire, for example I understand that this incident is still a cause of controversy amongst some families in the locality concerned.

Will Rebeccaism ever return to rural Wales?  Well you sometimes get the impression that our rulers regard democracy as only a short-lived experiment, so you never know.