Monday, December 19, 2011

Welsh in New Radnor

How to reconcile these two quotes:

"New Radnor was planted as a Saxon colony by Harold, after his victory here over the Britons, two years before his death at Hastings. This people have never since had any sympathies with the Welsh in language, nor many in habits .." - Sir William Cockburn of Downton House, evidence to the Commission of Inquiry into the State of Education in Wales, February 1847.

"... all English here, New Radnor is not four miles from hence, where there is nothing but Welsh." - Lewis Morris in a letter written from the King's Head, Kington, February 1742.

Of course Cockburn is correct in believing that there was Saxon settlement in the area, local placenames provide abundant evidence of that, but he is certainly wrong in believing that this was a district where the Welsh language never flourished. The local gentry were patrons of the bards until the 17C and a quick glance at the Lay Subsidy of 1543 should settle the matter. Nor was there any great divide between those with English style surnames and those with patronyms. Wills from the period and names like Morgan Hoddell or Dyddgu Stones - an interesting local surname probably derived from the Four Stones at Walton - are evidence of that. And what of Anne Sasnes - Anne the Englishwoman - who witnessed a New Radnor will in 1548, a strange name in a town which had no sympathy for the Welsh language.

Perhaps Cockburn thought he was doing his neighbours a favour by disassociating them from any taint Welshness. After all this was a time when the Eton boys who were the leading Liberal political bigwigs in the area believed the Welsh to be a race of "miserable Celtic savages."

So what then of Lewis Morris? Some Welsh academics have doubted his evidence but it seems to me that it was consistent with what we know. In 1827, while describing the Welsh dialect of Llandrindod, the correspondent of the monthly magazine Y Gwyliedydd informs us that the language had retreated twenty miles in living memory - more than enough to encompass New Radnor some 80 years before. James Beaumont of the Gore, the Methodist exhorter who died in 1750, was said to be happier preaching in Welsh than in English. In 1744 a traveller to Llandrindod encountered an old man in Bleddfa who could speak no English, and between there and Llanfihangel Rhydithon heard little Engish except for an innkeeper who spoke the language "indifferent good". If the language survived in these two parishes, which from surname evidence had seen a good deal of in-migration, why not in New Radnor which had not.

Finally Sir William Cockburn might have considered the field names of Downton itself. When the railway came to New Radnor around 1860, local fields such as Pwll Mawn, Clos y Garreg, Plocau Melyn and Maes Downton were mentioned - evidence of a Welsh speaking past and a fairly recent one at that.

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