Sunday, April 19, 2009

Welsh in Presteigne

How much Welsh was spoken in Presteigne in 1670, at the time of the Hearth Tax Return? Mr Howse thought that the language disappeared from the streets of the town soon after it became the administrative centre of the new county of Radnorshire in 1542. It is certainly the place in the county most likely to be anglicised. The town was close to historically English speaking parishes* and the 1670 return shows that more than half the population had English surnames. The English were particulary strong amongst the middle class:

Social Class based on Surnames and Hearths

Hearths% of total% Welsh% English
+ 5 Hearths5.55743
4-5 Hearths16.54357
2-3 Hearths19.73268
1 Hearth Charged13.44159
1 Hearth Uncharged44.95941
Total population


Mr Howse offers no evidence for his view and admits that sixteenth century wills from the town are "full of Welsh names, with their aps to the second and third generation back." Likewise the town's other historian Mr Parker notes that even in 1620 some 18% of Presteigne landowners were still using the patronymic system rather than surnames.

Even as late as 1675 there is a record of forty of "the poorest Welsh children" of the town being put to school to learn English. This would be around a third of the school age population and interestingly around a third of the town's population in the Hearth tax were poor and with Welsh surnames.

By 1800 the Welsh language was certainly gone from Presteigne, this would suggest that it finally disappeared from the lips of townsfolk during the first half of the eighteenth century, maybe 200 years after the demise accorded it by Mr Howse.

* Elsewhere along the border many parishes in England continued to be Welsh speaking long after the border between Wales and England was drawn in 1536, in Herefordshire south of the Wye for example or in the Oswestry district. The parishes east of Presteigne were nearly all English speaking and so Presteigne was truly a border town.

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