As part of International Women’s Day 2022 celebrations the National Library is displaying some items from the collections of Menna Elfyn, Jan Morris and Margiad Evans:
• Menna Elfyn is an award-winning poet and playwright who writes with passion of the Welsh language and identity. She is one of Wales’s best known and most translated modern Welsh-language poets.
• Jan Morris (1926-2020) was a Welsh historian, author and travel writer. Published in 1974, Conundrum was her first book under her new name, and one of the first autobiographies to discuss a personal gender reassignment.
• A novelist, essayist, poet and writer of short stories, Margiad Evans (1909-1958), born Peggy Eileen Whistler, was one of the most remarkable women writers of the mid-twentieth century. She is known for her ground-breaking depictions of love, sex, illness and death in the lives and work of women inhabiting harsh and restrictive rural environments.
Learn more about the collections by searching our catalogue:
It’s hard to believe that 1997 is 25 years ago, but a chat last year reminded me that it was getting on for a quarter of a century since the Welsh devolution referendum on 18 September 1997, and that the Welsh Political Archive should do something to make this historic event.
A number of ideas were discussed, including holding a travelling exhibition, but in the end we decided that the best thing to do would be to digitise the parts of the Welsh Political Ephemera Collection which focussed on the two referendums held in 1979 and 1997 so that the campaign material would be permanently available all across Wales. Last week we prepared the files for digitisation.
Going through the material brought back a number of memories and seeing the various messages and arguments in favour and against the devolution proposals was really interesting. In 1979, some influential trades unions such as NALGO were urging a No vote – but not because they opposed devolution. They wanted devolution for England at the same time and an independent civil service for Wales. Another No campaign leaflet raised the spectre of violence saying “Bu gan Gogledd Iwerddol Gynulliad ers 1921. A ydych chi am weld hynny yn digwydd yma?” (Northern Ireland had an Assembly since 1921. Do you want to see that happen here?). At the same time leaflets produced by the Communists and Labour urged a Yes vote (although Labour was divided on the issue), while the Liberals resurrected David Lloyd George to play a part in their campaign in favour!
In 1997, many of the same arguments were seen, but Labour’s campaign, in which Prime Minister Tony Blair played a high profile role, was much more united. The campaign focussed on democracy, the Assembly saving public money and the opposition of the Conservatives. The No campaign went after the costs of devolution and portrayed it as the start of a slippery slope to independence.
I don’t remember the 1979 referendum – I was more interested in Duplo at the time – but the circumstances and feeling of the 1997 campaign was very different. In 1979, a weak government which was on the verge of losing a General Election called the referendum and the No result was clear. In 1997, with Tony Blair’s government still fresh, very popular in Wales and with a huge majority called the vote.
Even then, the result was very close but the Yes campaign won the day. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Over two weeks in January the Library’s trainee conservators, Rhydian Davies and myself, traveled to Wakefield. While there, we attended a paper conservation module at the West Yorkshire History Centre. We are half way through the training, and here’s a taste of what we learned in the first half of the module.
Repairing wet documents
Wetting paper is a very useful way to relax it and wash dirt inherent in the fibers in preparation for repairing the document. Before washing the document, the surface should be cleaned. If this isn’t done, there is a danger of removing dirt inside the paper fibers. A soft brush is used to clean the dust, and a ventilated latex sponge (smoke sponge, aerated latex sponge) to remove more stubborn dirt. Sometimes a Staedtler eraser is used too.
After cleaning the surface, the document is ready to wet. The biggest risk with wetting any document is that the ink runs when it comes into contact with the water. To avoid disaster, we test the ink with a drop of water and alcohol. Shown above is a photograph of Rhydian doing just that.
Most manuscripts use “iron gall” ink that is not soluble in water or alcohol. The document has a seal present, which is soluble in alcohol but not in water, so we wetted the document in water only.
After washing it in water, we transferred the document to a glass table to start repairing. Due to the fragility of the document it was decided to place Japanese silk paper (2gsm) over the entire back; the tissue paper is so light and thin that it does not hide any words on the document.
The photograph above shows myself holding the Japanese tissue paper. The material is easily seen through, and once placed on the document, will be almost invisible!
This is the document after receiving the Japanese silk paper over the back. As as you can see from the photograph, it is much more stable. But the tissue paper alone is not strong enough to protect the document from mechanical damage. The document could be easily damaged further.
The next step was to learn to use the leaf casting method. It uses the concept of how paper is created in the first place, using a paper pulp to fill in the missing areas. The document is flooded, and once plugged, gravity pulls the pulp down to the places that need filling.
We don’t have a photograph of the final result, as the first half of the module finished after this step. We start the second half of the module on 7 February, so there will be much more to say after then! But for now, I hope you found this article informative.
It’s already a month into 2022 and a new year brings with it new digital resources. Our digitisation work has continued behind the scenes and the following items and collections are now available to view from home on the Library’s website and/or the catalogue:
Archives and Manuscripts
Peniarth, Llanstephan, Cwrtmawr and Brogyntyn Collections
It is an exciting time for family historians with the recent release of the 1921 Census for England and Wales by Findmypast. This is the most detailed census so far and the last one to be released until 2052 due to the 1931 census being lost to fire and no census taken in 1941 due to the Second World War. It gives a snapshot of life at the beginning of the 1920’s soon after the end of the First World War and the Spanish flu pandemic and at the time of miner’s strikes. The threat of strikes led to the Government moving the census from 24 April to 19 June.
With the change of the date to June, this meant that many would not be found at home at the time of the census, but on holiday where they would be enumerated. Some holiday destinations saw an increase in the population compared with the 1911 census. This was the case in Aberystwyth where the population rose from 21,482 in 1911 to 23,508 in 1921. Our very own Librarian, Sir John Ballinger and his wife were on holiday at Llandrindod Wells at the time.
What information can be found on the form? In order to entice people to give more accurate ages this was asked in years and months for the first time. Those under 15 years were also asked if both parents were alive if not to note whether the father or mother had died or both.
Under ‘Birthplace and Nationality’ parish and county of birth were still asked, but if born outside of the UK to note whether a visitor or resident and which nationality. This is the first time information regarding education was collected, asking whether in full time or part time education.
The information regarding the number of children within a family was collected differently this time, not asking how long the wife had been married, but asking for the number and ages of children and step-children under 15 years, whether residing in the same property or not.
And of course the last column in Wales refers to the language spoken whether Welsh, English or Both. Many households have returned the Welsh language schedules but many of the English versions do list households that spoke both English and Welsh.
Free access to the 1921 census is available within the National Library of Wales building as one of the three designated regional hubs offering free access, otherwise you can pay to access through the Findmypast website. You will need to register for a reader’s ticket to gain access.
In my book A History of Women in Men’s Clothes: from cross-dressing to empowerment (Pen and Sword Books, 2021) I outlined how women have defied social dictates for centuries by cross-dressing, cross-working, and cross-living. After delivering a talk on the book, I was contacted by Nia Mai Daniel (Welsh Music Archive, National Library Wales) alerting me to a Welsh language ballad, Can Newydd, about some cross-dressing women. Unable to read Welsh, I asked Mair Jones (Queer Welsh Stories) if she could do a preliminary translation to assess the content and Welsh poet Grug Muse then provided a more contemporary version.
Can Newydd was written by a rather eccentric one-eyed balladeer Abel Jones, (Bardd Crwst) who, according to the Dictionary of Welsh Biography, is ‘the last of the “great” balladists’ and it was set to the tune of Mae Robin yn swil. A song Prof. E Wyn James, Cardiff University points out as ‘more suitable for the tavern than for singing at respectable concerts and eisteddfodau.’ Adding Bardd Crwst’s words made it even more risqué.
(Domesticated translation, by Grug Muse, with reference to literal translation by Mair Jones)
The tale of two young women from this region who dressed themselves in men’s clothes, and went courting to a country house to seduce two young women, who were strangers to them.
Sung to “Robin is Shy”
Well men of Gwalia/Wales what do you think of this- See women in clothes, but isn’t it something surprising? So rare are the tender men in our region/vale That some women are out of their mind with wanting love. But isn’t it surprising to see women like this Knocking at the the maidends of Plas uchaf and Glyn &c
Some light evening in the middle of May, Went two young women like irreproachable young men To knock at a Manor house (Plasdy) where there were two young women Starving for a lover to put on him their love &c
They beat the glass until the two arose And soon asked, my dear, O! Who? Well two wonderful young men- very pretty ones You will know them the moment the door is opened.
They opened in a minute without any delay After a few words to bed they went quickly; Embracing, kissing, a sweet thing is man, But four young women starving each one (i.e. in need/wanting (still) each one)
They tired of kissing, nature was strong and Siani felt something, I won’t name where She understood this wasn’t a cockerel she had here Or it was one very strange and odd &c
Lusi and her companion were in a bed nearby Diligently loving without a single alarm And she said to her love that the beauty of a son is to do if he can of her displeasure or pleasure, &c
Lust is a great thing in a rooster or hen,
greater still in a young woman yearning earnestly; And says an old saying “without a cockerel there’s no chick,” And strange was the loving between Sian and Cit Puw &c
I pray you young men to come in a hurry, The women are foolish so much is their lust; Their troubles worry them, they are gay in lust, Their passions will be tamed when they have children, &c.
The fashion is starting for the women to come Pursuing young men, but isn’t it something od? Isn’t it something surprising to see women like this, Wearing trousers on them so tight.
Farewell to every bustle and crinoline there was The women are for trousers to wear instead; They give some sign in every country and town, To show the men that they have a plea.
But isn’t it something surprising to see women like this Knocking at the maidens of Plas uchaf a’r Glyn.
Dating the ballad is difficult as Prof. James explained, the absence of a printer’s name makes it difficult to pin down. However, Prof. James notes the first item on the sheet is a poem about a Baptist minister missing a Dowlais train. As the minister was in Dowlais from 1865-1872, it can be calculated that the leaflet was probably printed during that period. Copies in other collections such as Bangor University and Archifdy Ceredigion Archives shed no further light on the dating.
The content of Can Newydd concerns two women who cross-dress as men to visit a country house and have sex with two women. One reading appears to be a criticism of men who have left these women in want of male attention:
A’i prinion yw’r meibion rhai mwynion ein bro Nes ydyw rhai merched am gariad o’u co.
(So rare are the tender men in our region/vale
That some women are out of their mind with wanting love.)
However, the ballad also draws attention to the growing number of women who were cross-dressing, something I cover in my book. The mid-late 19th century was a time when women in their thousands were ‘masquerading’ and many of these were individuals whom we would today identify as lesbians or trans.
The ballad is to be performed (perhaps for the first time since the 19th century) at Aberration on the 26th March as part of LGBTQ+ History Month 2022 – so you can judge for yourselves what it’s all about.
Promoting LGBT+ history and Welsh heritage
There are many charters in the Library’s collections, but nothing quite like the one we purchased at auction just before Christmas, which will become NLW Deed 1962. On the face of it, it is just another grant of land in the Welsh borders, but it is much more significant than that, both historically and in the context of our collections. It also takes us into the colourful and unsavoury world of medieval politics – a real-life ‘game of thrones’, complete with individuals who have (perhaps unfairly) become synonymous with villainy in the popular imagination.
On 5 December 1209, while king John was spending a couple of days near the Welsh border at his castle at St Briavels in the Forest of Dean, he had a charter issued confirming the gift of a nearby estate called Dunwallesland by the marcher lord William de Braose to a certain Philip, son of Wastellion. In return, Philip gave his homage and agreed to provide one knight to keep guard at Abergavenny castle. The charter was issued on John’s behalf by Robert de Vieuxpont, who is a plausible prototype for the fictional Sheriff of Nottingham in the Robin Hood stories – he had been John’s sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the Royal Forests from 1203 until 1208, and in 1212 he hanged a 6-year old Welsh hostage at Shrewsbury while John had another 28 young Welsh hostages executed at Nottingham. The agreement was witnessed by a number of John’s other advisers and barons, and it was recorded in Latin on a single sheet of vellum by a professional Chancery clerk; experts can identify the individual scribe. The royal seal was attached at the bottom, but has since been lost. John – using his full title ‘by grace of god King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou‘ – was making a very clear and powerful statement, not only to the recipient of the charter but also to William de Braose and the Welsh population of Gwent.
The name Dunwallesland does not mean much to us now, but it would have meant a lot to the people of Gwent in 1209. It refers to the land of Dyfnwal ap Caradog, the native Welsh ruler of Gwent Uwch Coed in the middle of the twelfth century. His son, Seisyll ap Dyfnwal, killed a member of the De Braose family, and at Christmas 1175 William de Braose took his treacherous and brutal revenge by inviting Seisyll and his eldest son to a feast at Abergavenny castle, massacring them and their followers, hunting down and killing Seisyll’s younger son, annexing the family’s land and destroying their chief residence at Castell Arnallt near Llanofer. Hywel ap Iorwerth of Caerleon retaliated by burning Abergavenny castle in 1182, but Dyfnwal’s family never recovered. In granting ‘Dyfnwal’s land’ to a man who had received it from the very same William de Braose, king John’s charter was explicitly confirming the ruthless dispossession of a Welsh dynasty, and the requirement for the grantee to help defend Abergavenny castle was there for a good practical reason.
The king was also bringing a marcher lord to heel. By the early 1200s, William de Braose was one of John’s favourites, serving him in France and holding land in Abergavenny, Builth, Radnor, Brecon, Gower, Sussex, Devon, Herefordshire and Limerick, but he suffered a spectacular fall from grace after 1207 and his English and Welsh lands were seized by the Crown. This was ostensibly because of financial debts, but William’s downfall was too quick and complete for that to be the only reason. At Mirebeau in 1202 he had captured John’s nephew and greatest surviving rival for the throne, Arthur of Brittany, and it was while in William’s custody at Rouen that Arthur had mysteriously disappeared in the following year. It is likely that William was involved, or at least knew what had happened, and John himself was widely suspected, not least by William’s wife, Maud, who openly accused the king of murdering Arthur. Whatever the truth was, it seems that John turned on William because of this dirty secret. By the time the 1209 charter was issued, William had fled to Ireland; indeed, the charter throws some rare light on this crucial and poorly documented period in his relationship with John. When John made further moves against him in 1210, William allied with Llywelyn ap Iorwerth of Gwynedd and then fled to France disguised as a beggar. John captured Maud and the eldest De Braose son, also called William, and they were reportedly starved to death at Corfe castle amid rumours of cannibalism. Once again, the deaths were shrouded in mystery which did nothing to help the worsening reputation of a man who would be caricatured after his death as ‘bad king John’. One thing was clear, however: John was stamping his royal authority on the De Braose lordships, including those in the marches of Wales, and this charter is direct evidence of that. John emphasised the point by visiting the forfeited Abergavenny castle in person in 1211, a few months before William de Braose died as an exile in France.
This document also provides a very rare insight into the Crown’s relations with one of the few native Welsh dynasties that had managed to survive the Norman conquest of south Wales, because the witness list includes Cadwallon, one of the sons of Ifor ap Meurig (Ifor Bach) of Senghennydd. Furthermore, the charter belongs to a relatively scantily documented period during the papal Interdict on the kingdom of England.
It is also unique. Thirteenth-century manuscripts of Welsh interest are rare, as are extant charters issued by the king of England in that period, especially ones with a native Welsh ruler in the witness list, so items like this are highly prized by modern archivists and collectors. By 1209, however, it was standard practice for copies of English royal charters to be kept and enrolled by the king’s clerks, so we would expect there to be a copy in The National Archives. But these copies are missing for some of John’s reign, including December 1209. We know that copies were probably made because the missing records belong to three exact regnal years, but they have long since disappeared; Thomas Duffus Hardy noted their absence when he calendared the Patent Rolls and Charter Rolls for the nascent Public Record Office in the 1830s. They could have been mislaid at any time during the political and administrative upheavals of the preceding centuries, possibly even in 1216 when king John’s baggage train – containing administrative records as well as his crown jewels – was famously lost in the Wash in Norfolk.
This charter’s greatest significance for the Library and for Welsh historiography, however, lies in the fact that it is unparallelled in our collections as an example of the early legal and political developments that eventually led to the situation today where every level of government and law in Wales derives its authority from the English Crown. Both native Welsh rulers and Anglo-Norman marcher lords relied on native Welsh institutions to try to keep the power of the king of England at arm’s length, but ultimately Edward I’s conquest of the principality of Wales and Henry VIII’s Acts of Union meant that they all failed. The headline dates of 1282 and 1536 were catalysts in a very long process during which the power of the Crown in Wales was imposed incrementally, as much by legal instrument as by force or treachery. That is why this charter is important to the Library. Our collections contain no other original charters from the English Crown to any lay person in Wales until 1284, so this document is an earlier, clearer and more direct record of the English Crown’s direct lordship over secular rulers in Wales before 1282 than anything else in the Library.
The fact that it was issued by king John is also significant. The idea that the king of England could dispose of land and claim lordship and overlordship in Wales was not new, and neither was the fact that this was often recorded in writing, but it was only from 1199 onwards – coinciding with the start of John’s reign – that copies were kept routinely and systematically; it is ironic in this case that those copies are now lost. This process of defining and imposing the power of the Crown directly by written legal instruments was a feature of Norman and Angevin rule, and it accelerated in John’s reign, especially after the loss of Normandy in 1204 forced the king to focus his attention more on England and Wales – indeed the tightening of obligations was another reason why John became unpopular, and the severing of cross-channel connections would also encourage English national sentiment in the long term. These developments were crucial in the formalisation and intensification of the Crown’s relations with native Welsh rulers and the marcher lords – the process that led to 1282 and 1536 – and John’s 1209 Abergavenny charter is a fine example of how they occurred in practice.
This recent acquisition fills a very significant gap in the Library’s collections, and it is also a beautiful artefact that opens up a world of medieval intrigue.
Dr David Moore (Archivist)
William’s grandson, another William de Braose (or Gwilym Brewys), was hanged by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in 1230 after being caught with the prince’s wife, Joan or Siwan.
In 2019 the National Library of Wales purchased at auction the first manuscript volume of the memoirs of the naval officer Captain William Owen (1732?-1778) of Montgomeryshire, a very early example of a memoir written by a Welshman.
Owen is best known for owning and settling Campobello Island, New Brunswick, which he was granted in 1767 (hence his entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography). That period of his life was recounted by him in the second volume of his memoirs (now at the National Maritime Museum), parts of which were published in 1942.
Our manuscript, consisting of nearly six hundred pages, concerns the early, and arguably more incident packed, period of his naval career from 1750 to 1761, starting as a midshipman and ending up a lieutenant, serving aboard various ships, including HMS Tyger and the ill-fated HMS Sunderland.
In his first years he sailed the Atlantic and Mediterranean. He endured a fraught voyage to the Caribbean in 1753 during which sickness and appalling weather took the lives of eighty crewmates. From 1754 to 1761 he was in India, where he participated in the battle of Vijaydurg in 1756, Robert Clive’s expedition to retake Calcutta and the battle of Chandernagore, 1756-1757, and the naval battles against the French off Cuddalore, Negapatam and Pondicherry, 1758-1759.
On the night of 6 October 1760, during the blockade of the French port of Pondicherry, he took part in an action to board a French ship but lost his right arm to a cannonball (this accounts for the different handwriting in his contemporary log books and the later memoir!). He narrowly survived, was sent to Madras to recuperate and arrived back at Pondicherry just in time to witness from the shore the cyclone that sank the Sunderland with the loss of almost all hands.
He presents himself as unfailingly heroic and stoic during these events but was not above recounting various scrapes and escapades he found himself in, including various fights and drunkenness, the theft of a bullock at Calcutta and an ill-fated shooting expedition in Ceylon.
While Owen undoubtedly made use of (and freely copied from!) various printed works in compiling the narrative, his main sources were his own meticulous log books, journals, diaries and other papers and manuscripts. These survived his adventures and misadventures and so were available to him as he sat down one day in 1774 at his home in Shrewsbury to begin the memoir.
After his death the papers in due course came to Glansevern, the Montgomeryshire estate of his nephew, and in 1936 they were deposited at the National Library among the Glansevern Estate Records. The memoir itself seem to have remained in the possession of Owen’s direct descendants; it and its source materials are now reunited under the same roof for the first time in more than two centuries, an invaluable resource for researchers.
After a few delays (for reasons which surely need no elaboration!) the volume has now been repaired, boxed and fully catalogued as NLW MS 24132E. It is available to be consulted in the Library’s Reading Room.
Another new year is on the horizon! Let us reflect on the Library’s collection of almanacs and how they were used in the past. These almanacs included dates of fairs and agricultural shows which would be of interest to country folk when planning their year.
Thomas Jones (1648?-1713) was one of the most prominent figures responsible for publishing and writing almanacs. He was born in Merionethshire, the son of a tailor. After moving to London as a young man to start his training there, he changed his career and became a printer and publisher. By 1693, he had moved to Shrewsbury and had established the first Welsh printing press. The main work of the press was to publish books, but it became famous throughout Wales for publishing almanacs. Thomas Jones won a royal patent for the press in 1679 to publish yearly Welsh almanacs, and he did so from 1680 to the year of his death in 1713. The almanacs were very popular in much the same way as we use calendars and year planners today.
In the example shown of Thomas Jones’s almanac, as well as a calendar, we have a short description of typical weather on each day of every month. Thomas Jones, it appears, wanted to warn, and entertain his readers at the same time. Some of the days in January are described as windy, others as frosty, others as rainy. Obviously, these are fruits of the imagination rather than a scientific analysis of the climate! But Thomas Jones also included cloudy prophecies in the almanacs with references to complex conditions he himself suffered (he was said to be a hypochondriac!).
His readers were delighted to read the almanacs for practical purposes, but the contents also proved to be a welcome escape from the harsh reality of their lives.
The National Library of Wales is home to the papers of the travel writer Dorothy May Fraser (1902-1980), who wrote prolifically under the pen-name of Maxwell Fraser. Born in London, Dorothy Fraser travelled all over the world for her books, but also wrote several volumes of Welsh interest following her marriage to Edgar Phillips of Pontllan-fraith, Monmouthshire, also known as the poet ‘Trefin’ and Archdruid of Wales.
Fraser’s papers provide a unique insight into travelling around the world from the 1920s to the 1960s, but it is her personal letters sent whilst journeying that are the most intriguing. In particular, her letters that were sent home during her travels through Norway, Sweden and north to Lappland in the 1930s can’t help but evoke a bit of Christmas spirit.
Travelling from Stockholm, Sweden to Östersund in 1937, she notes the ‘beautiful food and very kind people’ (Maxwell Fraser Papers, O/43), before continuing on to Skellefteå. Here Fraser recounts a comical story of taking the post-boat to the island of Ulnô (O/51), where the engine of the boat set on fire (maybe reindeer are more reliable?).
Apparently this incident did not deter Fraser from her travels, as after meeting her guide, a Mr Holmquist and his dog Ludde (O/55) in Lappland, she returned in 1938 to explore the area further. A letter dated the 12th January (O/73) describes a fairytale reindeer sleigh ride at Jörn, Sweden, for her birthday, noting that ‘the country looks like fairyland’ with ‘heaps of snow’.
After staying in Örnsköldsvik, Fraser travelled further north to Gällivare where she encountered ‘snow 3 or 4 feet deep and no shops within a hundred miles’ (O/74) before continuing to Trondheim, Norway. In June 1938, Fraser again returned to Stockholm where she described a traditional woodcarver, Erik Elenius, who presented her with a woodcutting and Lappish carving, before carrying on a long journey up to Kiruna in the far north of Swedish Lappland. Kiruna provided Fraser with what appears to have one of her favourite experiences – canoeing with Ludde the dog on an Arctic lake ‘just like glass… & a most beautiful shade of blue’ (O/86).
Fairytales, snow, reindeer…. it certainly evokes a little Christmas magic.
A blog about the work and collections of the National Library of Wales.
Due to the more personal nature of blogs it is the Library's policy to publish postings in the original language only. An equal number of blog posts are published in both Welsh and English, but they are not the same postings. For a translation of the blog readers may wish to try facilities such as Google Translate.