Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Against the Odds

Just as  modern day censuses tend to exaggerate the strength of the Welsh language in Radnorshire, those of the late 19C and early 20C probably exaggerate its weakness, especially in the west of the county.  The rapid process of language shift - 19C observers describe the language retreating 20 miles in a lifetime - can surely be best explained by a deliberate rejection on the part of the local community.  The situation in Radnorshire may well have echoed that described by a witness who lived through a similar period of rapid language shift in Limerick in Ireland:  "the growing public feeling that Irish was a dying language, a mark of a degraded people who were not 'decent' - all this combined to produce a new people who from youth were pledged to speak no Irish. And so in West Limerick you had many who persisted in trying to speak a broken English and never again uttered a word in the old tongue they knew so well."

Given such attitudes it comes as a welcome surprise to come across a local Crossgates/Penybont family who actually seem to have passed on a knowledge of Welsh in the late 19C, when all around them were denying any connection with the native tongue.

Edward Stephens, an agricultural labourer, and his wife Elizabeth were born in Nantmel parish in the 1790s - a time and a place where you would expect them to have a knowledge of both languages.  By the time of the 1841 Census they were living at the Cummey, a place in Llanddewi Ystradenni parish, but nearer to the Gwystre Inn than the Walsh Arms.  By 1851 Edward has died and Elizabeth and her sons have moved to the Breconshire iron town of Beaufort, where in 1864 the youngest son, Hugh, marries a local girl called Ann Williams.  Perhaps it is Ann who is responsible for the subsequent linguistic history of the family.

Hugh and Ann have returned to Radnorshire by 1871 with their children Thomas and Sarah - both born in Beaufort.  Two more children, Elizabeth and Hugh jnr would be born in Llanddewi and Penybont respectively.  At first Hugh snr is as an agricultural labourer, later working as a plumber and glazier.

The first language information is provided by the 1891 census. The Stephens family were then living in the part of Llandegley parish which fell under the Kington Union and did not bother itself with such details.  In 1901 Thomas and Sarah have married but Hugh, his wife and two younger children are all recorded as being able to speak Welsh.

Ann Stephens died in 1903, her husband in 1905, but the 1911 Census identifies all of their children, living in and around the Penybont area.  Thomas and Hugh have married English speaking wives but are still recorded as being able to speak Welsh themselves.  Elizabeth and Sarah, both dressmakers, are living together - Elizabeth's English-speaking husband, a coachman, was away, lodging in Garth Road, Builth.  Both Elizabeth and Sarah are recorded as being able to speak Welsh, as is Elizabeth's five year old son - the child of a Llanddewi born mother who has never lived outside the county.

If we look at this through modern-day eyes this example of language survival within a family must seem commonplace.  But in early 20C Penybont?  Without the benefit of Welsh medium education or S4C and in the face of an animus against the language which had seen it abandoned on hearths across the county.  No, this family's persistence is surely quite remarkable.

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