Everyone enjoys a good story, whether it’s in a book, newspaper, cartoon, video, TV programme, film or word of mouth.
The desire to hear a story is deep in all of us. Storytelling is part of our fabric. We tell stories when meeting friends and family we haven’t seen for a while. Storytelling has existed since the dawn of time. This is the “oral tradition” which was the source content of the earliest manuscripts held here at the National Library.
Among the 15 million newspaper articles digitized by the National Library is the history of The Wild Bull of Llangian. A farmer brought a young bull on foot to Pwllheli town without a lead rein. The bull took fright and ran wild through the town. Following the incident, the farmer was taken to court. The newspaper report paints a vivid picture of the event.
This story is not an iconic story in Welsh history but rather a snapshot of life in Wales in the early 20th century. The Story of Wales is a patchwork of stories, with some events more significant than others but all valid. This story has personal significance for me because my grandfather was a neighbour of the wild bull’s owner!
Collecting, preserving and sharing the Story of Wales in the world is a key part of the National Library’s work. The challenge for the Library, and for us as a nation, is to do so in the way that benefits us most today and for future generations. The Library is the “memory of the nation” and continues to collect, manage and protect over 20 million books, manuscripts, archives, maps, photographs, newspapers, audio, video and film.
This is a job that requires expertise and collaboration and we are very fortunate to have experienced staff, dedicated volunteers, engaged communities and partners to do it. The world has changed, and continues to change rapidly. With this change come opportunities as well as challenges. Digitization has become a natural part of the Library’s work over the past decades and has enabled us to share the stories throughout Wales and with the world.
Another challenge is to make original digital material available to future generations. To do this requires the Library to collaborate with organizations around the world. Digital material offers us exciting opportunities to improve our understanding of the “story” of Wales. One simple example of this would be to analyse the frequency of word usage over decades in newspaper articles. The development of artificial intelligence will undoubtedly expand these possibilities further than we can imagine. You can copy the imperfect Welsh OCR text of the The Wild Bull of Llangian article into Google Translate (a tool powered by Artificial neural networks (ANN)) and get a feel for how far this type of technology has progressed in facilitating access for non-Welsh speakers to Welsh texts.
Despite all the technological advances the power of a good story remains. A good story lives long in our memory, entertaining, educating and inspiring us. The patchwork that is the Story of Wales continues to grow and the Library has a key role in safeguarding and ensuring that it continues to inspire and enrich lives now and far into the future.
Dr Owain Rhys Roberts Deputy Chief Executive and Librarian (Collections and Public Programmes)
On Friday 28th February there will be a special concert at the Drwm, ‘GIG: ATGYFODI’R HEN GANEUON (Literally translates as ‘resurrecting the old songs’) with Arfon Gwilym and Sioned Webb. Tickets are available here.
Arfon and Sioned are both well known in Wales as versatile and experienced performers of Welsh traditional music, they are singers and they also play the violin and harp. They were invited to an evening at the Drwm following the success of their ‘O’r Archif’ (From the Archive) session at ‘Tŷ Gwerin’ (Folk House) at the Llanrwst National Eisteddfod, when they performed a selection of songs which they had discovered while researching the J. Lloyd Williams archive.
Who was J. Lloyd Williams?
J Lloyd Williams (1854 – 1945), was a botanist and musician born in Llanrwst. He earned a D.Sc. (Wales) for his work on marine algae in 1908, and received an honorary DMus degree. (Wales) in 1936. He was one of the leading collectors of Welsh folk music, played a major role in establishing the Welsh Folk Song Society in 1906, and was editor of the society’s journal.
He also edited the general music magazine ‘Y Cerddor’ (The Musician) from 1931 to 1939 and, jointly with Arthur Somerville, compiled the two volumes of Sixteen Welsh Melodies, 1907 and 1909. Read more about him in the Dictionary of Welsh Bibliography
What’s in the J. Lloyd Williams archive?
Music manuscripts and papers, 1750-1945, including hundreds of folk songs brought together by Dr J. Lloyd Williams in his role as Editor of the Welsh Folk-Song Society journal, and papers relating to his research into the history of Welsh music; material relating to his interest and vocation in the field of botany; and personal papers. (53 boxes) More details in the online catalogue.
The archive contains songs that J Lloyd Williams himself collected, songs collected by a group known as the ‘Canorion’, and by Ruth Herbert Lewis, Mary Davies and Grace Gwyneddon Davies. Also importantly it includes older collections of songs in the manuscripts of Ifor Ceri, Llywelyn Alaw, and Mari Richards Darowen. Sioned Webb as a harpist was particularly attracted to a volume of mainly Welsh and English airs and songs collected by Evan Jones (‘Ifan y Gorlan’), harpist, of Gorlan, near Llanrwst. (AH1/46)
Some of the most important manuscripts have been digitised at the Library, namely:
A composite volume containing two treatises in Welsh on angling and musical theory, three lists of tune titles, and a large collection of tunes, compiled by John Thomas for the violin, some from printed sources and others written down from oral tradition. The tunes have been published, with related notes, in Cass Meurig (ed.), Alawon John Thomas: a fiddler’s tune-book from eighteenth-century Wales (Aberystwyth, 2004).
The Vikings were seafaring people who came over to the British Isles from around the 8th to the 11th centuries, mainly from the Scandinavian countries of Norway and Denmark. They brought with them violence and destruction, but they also brought with them their culture – their skills, their religion, and their language. They became part of medieval Welsh literature, including several manuscripts which are kept here in the National Library.
So what drew the Vikings from Scandinavia to Wales? It’s possible that the Vikings who came to Wales were searching for fertile land and goods to trade. The Welsh coast was part of a coastal route from Scandinavia travelling via Shetland, Orkney, Scotland, Ireland, north-west England, and the Isle of Man to Wales. The first Viking raids in Wales targeted prominent points on the Welsh coast, and ecclesiastical centres quickly became popular targets. These raids were recorded in the late 13th/early 14th – century Welsh chronicle Brut y Tywysogion, which provided an apocalyptic description of how St Davids (Menevia) was destroyed in a raid in 810:
‘Deg mlyned ac wythcant oed oet Krist pan duawd y lleuad duw Nadolic. Ac y llos[get] Mynyw. Ac y bu varwolaeth ar yr ysgrubyl yn holl ynys Brydein.’
‘Eight hundred and ten was the year of Christ when the moon darkened on Christmas Day. And Menevia was burnt. And there was a mortality upon all the animals of Britain.’
Over the next two centuries, Viking attacks by sea became increasingly common as Wales was put on the Norse map and permanent Norse settlements were established in Ireland. The Vikings were keen to claim land in Wales too. The Annales Cambriae, written in the early 12th century, tells us that that a Viking named Ingimundr came to Anglesey and seized land at a place called Maes Osfeilion; while the 12th-century Liber Landavensis (The Book of Llandaff) describes how the Welsh ruler Gruffudd ap Llywelyn (d.1064), resisted Viking attacks from Denmark, Orkney, and Ireland. By the late 11th century Hiberno-Norse connections were so well established that another of Wales’s rulers could attempt to claim Viking ancestry. Both the 13th-century Historia Gruffud vab Cynan and its Latin predecessor the Vita Griffini filii Conani attempted to trace the Welsh king Gruffudd ap Cynan’s (d.1137) genealogy back to the ancient kings of Norway. But Gruffudd himself had more than his fair share of trouble from the Vikings; in 1098 he was betrayed by his own Hiberno-Norse fleet after the Norman earls Hugh of Chester and Hugh of Shrewsbury invaded Gwynedd. At the same time, Anglesey was also attacked by the Norwegian king Magnús Berfœtr, who according to the above sources shot Hugh of Shrewsbury through the eye with an arrow.
Gruffudd ap Cynan was also prone to the odd Viking-style raid himself. The Vita Sancti Gundleii (The Life of Saint Gwynllyw), which was likely first compiled in the 12th century, described how Gruffudd gathered a Hiberno-Norse fleet for ‘the practice of piracy.’ Having made shore in the Usk estuary, they then attacked St Gwynllyw’s church, but upon their return the fleet was destroyed and Gruffudd was nearly killed in a violent storm, apparently sent by St Gwynllyw himself as a punishment. This notion of punishment matches the apocalyptic description of a Viking raid in Brut y Tywysogion, and it’s hardly surprising; monasteries, as both the main Viking targets and producers of written histories, did not have any reason to present the Vikings in a favourable light. Because of this, and the temporal gap between sources and the events they describe, we have to question their reliability.
This highlights one of the big cultural differences between the Vikings and the Welsh – that of religion. During the Viking Age, Denmark and Norway had not fully converted to Christianity, therefore many of Wales’s Viking visitors would have been followers of the pagan Norse religion. But common cultural ground can be found through examining other literary sources. The medieval poetic tradition of the skald in Norway was as old and as developed as the gogynfeirdd in Wales, and poets were often present during events giving contemporary accounts of the action. The poet Meilyr, for example, composed a eulogy for Gruffudd, MarwnadGruffudd ap Cynan, an extract of which provides strong imagery of war:
‘Gwern gwygid, gwanai bawb yn ei gilydd,
Gwaed gwŷr goferai, gwyrai onwydd.’
‘Spears were shattered, each one rushed at the other,
The blood of warriors flowed, ash-spears drooped.’
Similarly, Magnús Berfœtr’s poet Gisl Illugason gave an eye-witness description of the death of Hugh of Shrewsbury in his Erfikvæði (eulogy) for Magnús. The poets convey vivid imagery whilst also following a strict metrical order; Meilyr followed the cyhydedd naw ban of the cynghanedd, and Gisl the Norse fornyrðislag (‘ancient-words-form’) metre. The 18th-century Welsh poet and antiquarian Iolo Morganwg once complained that Old Norse poetry was full of ‘violent figures’, and ‘ferocious sentiments’, terms which could also apply to Meilyr’s poetry. It’s here perhaps that the Norse and the Welsh shared common literary interests.
According to the Brut, Magnús Berfœtr’s excursion to Anglesey in 1098 was one of the last Viking attacks in Wales. The literary traces of the Vikings in Wales are not always obvious, but their legacy has survived, not only in manuscripts but also in more familiar, everyday forms such as place-names. Despite their familiarity, it’s still fascinating to think that we live alongside this Viking heritage that was brought to Wales nearly a thousand years ago.
Annales Cambriae, A.D. 682-954: Texts A-C in Parallel, ed. & trans. by David N. Dumville (Cambridge: ASNC, 2002)
Brut y Tywysogion or The Chronicle of the Princes: Peniarth MS 20 Version, trans. Thomas Jones (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1952)
Historia Gruffud vab Kenan, ed. D. Simon Evans (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1977)
Jesch, Judith, ‘Norse Historical Traditions and Historia Gruffud vab Kenan: Magnús berfœtr and Harald hárfagri’, in Gruffudd ap Cynan: A Collaborative Biography, ed. K. L. Maund (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1996), pp. 117-148
Vita Griffini filii Conani, ed. & trans. Paul Russell (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2005)
Vitae Sanctorum Britanniae et Genealogie, ed. & trans A. W. Wade-Evans (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1944)
Williams, J. E. Caerwyn, ‘Meilyr Brydydd and Gruffudd ap Cynan’, in Gruffudd ap Cynan: A Collaborative Biography, ed. K. L. Maund (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1996), pp. 165-186
On 21 November 2019, with generous assistance from the Friends of the National Libraries, the National Library of Wales purchased at auction a small group of letters of the artist, engraver and poet David Jones (1895-1974) to his friend Morag Owen (née McLennan), together with some related papers.
In his later years living in Harrow, Jones was increasingly supported by a large circle of friends, one of whom was Morag Owen, a young art student at the time of their first meeting in 1948. Once Morag married and moved away, she became one of the many friends with whom Jones corresponded frequently and at length.
The letters, the later ones written in his distinctive combination of black, red and green ink with notes and postscripts added at angles in the margins, cover a variety of topics, although a recurring theme is his declining health.
Although born in Kent, Jones’s father was Welsh and he was always very conscious of his Welsh heritage. He had a lifelong interest in Welsh history and literature and, while never a fluent speaker, had a detailed knowledge of Welsh grammar and etymology. All of this is attested to in the letters. Prompted by Morag’s Glaswegian upbringing, Jones also discusses at some length the history and place names of the Brythonic-speaking regions of Strathclyde and Rheged, the ‘Old North’ of Welsh tradition.
Representing his artistic side is a fine pencil drawing of an unidentified woman. A distinctive and original aspect of Jones’s artistic output is his painted inscriptions, juxtaposing quotations in Welsh, Latin, Greek and English. There are also several examples of these among the papers; some are incorporated in his letters as greetings, others are photographic reproductions, which he sent as Christmas cards.
For centuries a large proportion of the land in Wales was concentrated in the hands of a comparatively small number of gentry families. Some estates were enormous, such as Wynnstay, while others were quite small, like Allt-lwyd in Cardiganshire. The very existence of the gentry estates had a profound impact on the landscape and history of Wales. The physical manifestations of power were evident in the fine mansions surrounded by extensive gardens and park lands. The omnipresence of estates in the landscape was perceptible in the tenanted farms, the cottages, the forestry plantations, the game coverts, the enclosures of common lands, the turnpike roads, the mine workings, the railways and urban developments.
The influence of the estates was felt in almost every aspect of Welsh life. They provided employment for local people as agricultural labourers, estate stewards, gardeners, grooms, household servants and children’s nurses. Those employees were entirely at their mercy. Estate owners married into other high status families, thus expanding their lands and extending their tendrils of power into every area of public life. They held positions of high office as servants of the English Crown, members of parliament, deputy lieutenants, county sheriffs, mayors and justices of the peace. They controlled the county elections, the appointments of parish clergy and the collection of the tithes. They contributed to the building and renovation of churches, schools, hospitals, village halls and public reading rooms.
In private life they patronised poets and musicians in continuation of the bardic tradition, they amassed libraries of rare manuscripts and books, they filled their houses with fine furniture, they collected works of art and had their own portraits painted for posterity.
Fortunately the Welsh gentry estates generated a large volume of records, a positive treasure trove for the modern historian. A typical estate archive contains title deeds, rentals, estate accounts, household records, surveys and valuations, maps, family settlements and wills, diaries, letters, legal papers and county administration papers. Some estates created vast quantities of records relating to agriculture, lead mining or slate quarrying. Other estate records reflect particular interests of their owners, such as fox-hunting at Gogerddan or the collection of music, art and sculpture at Wynnstay. All of these records provide almost unlimited scope for research by genealogists, local historians, school children, archaeologists, landscape historians, students of political history, artists and musicians.
Title deeds, family settlements and wills clarify how the estate owners accumulated their lands and passed them down to their descendants. Some documents are of national significance. Both the Wynnstay and the Penrice and Margam estate archives incorporate important mediaeval charters, of Strata Marcella and Margam Abbey respectively, showing the distribution of lands prior to the dissolution of the monasteries.
Estate rentals, wage books and household records will provide the names of the estate stewards, the tenants, the labourers and the servants. The accounts often record the erection or repair of buildings which may still survive in the modern landscape. Inventories might list the silver plate, pictures and other heirlooms. Surveys and maps show where the lands were located and how they were utilised.
Diaries and letters may describe the day-to-day lives of the estate owners and their employees, relations within the family, local events, social gossip, army life, travel and political ambitions. Legal papers often incorporate a mass of evidence, shedding light on hidden family connections and current social conditions. Paintings and portraits portray the gentry houses and their owners in context, showing contemporary landscapes, architecture, heraldry, interior furnishings, clothing, hairstyles, and sometimes favourite or prized animals.
The ultimate fates of the Welsh gentry estates were various. Many sank under the burden of their own debt, created by heavy outgoings, mortgages, family settlements and death duties. Great swathes of estate lands in Wales were sold off during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of the mansion houses fell into ruin, others were converted into apartments, hospitals, asylums and schools. Some, such as Powis Castle and Llanerchaeron, came to be preserved at the hands of the National Trust. A few, such as Rhug and Mostyn, are still run as functioning estates in the modern world.
So where do you go to find out more? Estate records are held in various repositories throughout Wales. A large number of them reside here at The National Library of Wales, and we have compiled a list of 50 of the most popular estate collections, which you can view on our website. You can browse the Library’s Catalogue online from the comfort of your armchair. If you prefer to visit us in person, the professional staff in the Reading Rooms will be on hand to assist you.
Many more estate records are located in county archive offices. Some are still kept in private hands with the current estate owners or their solicitors. Bangor University has established a special centre dedicated to the history of the Welsh estates: the Institute for the Study of Welsh Estates (ISWE).
Please feel free to discover the Welsh estate records for yourself. With such a wide area of interest to choose from, no-one need feel excluded.
The phrase ‘History of Wales’ often conjures up images of medieval Welsh princes and princesses like Llewellyn the Great, Owain Glyndŵr, Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd, and watershed events like the Edwardian conquest, or the Tudor Acts of Union. Alternatively, ‘Welsh History’ evokes images of social, economic and political change in the 19th century, characterised by mining and industrialisation, the growth of Methodism, Chartism, and the Rebecca Riots. These are all rich and fascinating subjects that deserve the attention they receive. However, the period between the Acts of Union and the Industrial revolution are often overlooked, especially in histories that explore the everyday lives of ‘ordinary’ people in Wales.
As a social and cultural historian of 18th century Wales, I am working to change this. Fortunately, the National Library of Wales holds one of the best sources of evidence about the everyday lives of Welsh men and women during this often-ignored period. Perhaps surprisingly, the records I’m referring to are the Gaol Files of the Court of Great Session – the highest criminal court in Wales prior to the 1830s. These records provide rich details about peoples’ daily routines, their work and family life, their values, assumptions, interpersonal relationships and so on.
Pre-trial documents, such as depositions, examinations, complaints, and ‘information’, as well as confessions were produced when a crime, such as murder, riot, assault, theft, burglary, forgery, bigamy, and even bestiality were referred to the Court of Great Sessions. Clerks or magistrates would interview witnesses and suspects and record their responses, often after translating them from Welsh into English. Although rarely, if ever, verbatim, they were central to the trial process in a country where many witnesses spoke a different language to the court, as legal proceedings were held in English. For this reason, pre-trial documents from the Court of Great Sessions have a very high survival rate compared to similar records from the Assizes in England. In addition to providing compelling evidence of crime and deviance, pre-trial records also contain highly detailed accounts of what individuals were doing when they witnessed, committed or became victims of crimes. These records are therefore immensely valuable for anyone interested the social and cultural history of Wales.
A case of suspected arson in Anglesey in 1799 illustrates just how rich and detailed these records can be. In this case, a young, unmarried pregnant woman stood accused of setting fire to another woman’s property. The accused woman’s master was the supposed father of her unborn child. He was also courting the woman whose property was burnt, as evidence by the fact that he was said to be in possession of her garters. This rather scandalous case of an 18th century love triangle clearly reveals the complexities and intricacies of certain agrarian courtship practices. However, witness depositions also provide fascinating evidence of more ‘everyday’ circumstances, such as how fire was shared between hearths and homes (using straw and turf from a neighbour’s fire), and the hospitality shown to young female servants who found themselves away from home at dusk (they were taken in by households and allowed to lodge with servants for the night). This case is one of countless examples of the ‘ordinary’ daily routines, neighbourliness and interpersonal relationships found in these ‘extraordinary’ court records.
The Gaol Files have been central to my research on illegitimacy and midwifery in 18th century Wales, and form an integral part of my teaching at the University of Leicester. However, with an online index for the years 1730-1830, and records kept in English (mainly using secretary and italic hand) from 1730 onwards, the Gaol Files are widely accessible at the National Library.
Are you a house historian in Colwyn Bay? It’s your lucky day! I have discovered a bundle of documents in the Longueville solicitors’ collection which concerns building development on the Cefn estate, 1891-1921. The land was owned by Captain Robert William Herbert Watkin Williams Wynn and the development was centred around Colwyn Bay, Old Colwyn and Llysfaen. Local contractors were engaged: Robert Evans for the housing construction, Roberts and Ellis for the back roads and Fred J. Tucker for the sewers. The building sites were located in Meriadog Road, Cadwgan Road, Llanelian Road, Wellington Road, Peulwys Road, Abergele Road, Bodelwyddan Avenue, Berthglyd Road and Coed Coch Road. Leases of the finished properties were taken up by private individuals and by businesses such as Old Colwyn Golf Club and Black’s Advertising Agency.
This file is a fantastic historical resource. Some of the choicer items include a plan and elevation of a substantial, seven-bedroomed leasehold house for Mrs Liddell in 1908. The property was built to a high specification with large bay windows, a wood block floor in the hall, parquet in the drawing room, picture rails in the main rooms, a cellar and a butler’s pantry. There are also plans of Wyndcliffe in Abergele Road, 1910, a portion of the Cefn estate, 1910, Wellington Road [c. 1916] and a proposed motor garage for Dr Leeming, adjoining Mohrcroft garden, 1921.
The builder had taken out substantial loans to fund the construction work and the cash flow dried up around 1911. There is a notice to Robert Evans of rescission of his contract and letters from Robert William Herbert Watkin Williams Wynn, ordering the tenants to pay their rents directly to him instead. Perhaps Robert Evans junior saved the business when he contracted successfully for an extension to Bodelwyddan Avenue in 1912. The specifications included 2 gullies, one each side with iron grating….Talacre stone neatly dresssed on top and side and closely jointed… channelling of Buckley Firebricks, same laid on a concrete bed and flushed with Portland cement…..
It is amazing how much information is packed into those seventy or so documents. You can identify the locations of the Edwardian housing development in Colwyn Bay and the type of high-quality construction that was expected. You are given the names of the landowner, the builders and the lessees. You may predict the advent of the motor car in Dr Leeming’s planning application for a garage. You can even trace the fluctuations in the fortunes of the building firm. The career of Robert Evans perhaps should not be judged by his money problems in 1911 but by the high standard of the newly built houses which lined the streets of Colwyn Bay and Llysfaen.
Once autumn has bid a fond farewell and each and every one has started to complain that it’s cold, it’s the perfect time to visit Montgomeryshire. Why? Well, to sing the old ‘plygain’ carols – not in a concert or an eisteddfod, but rather as part of a service that occurs as a natural part of society in both church and chapel, throughout the Advent and Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau (Mary’s Festival of the Candles or Candlemas) on the 2nd of February.
Apparently the word plygain stems from the Latin pullicantio, ‘cock’s crow’. Originally, the service was held at 3 a.m., before being brought forward to 4, then 5, and then 6 a.m. on Christmas morning. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, plygain was one of the services of the Catholic Church, but it was subsequently adopted by the Anglicans, and then at a later date, the Nonconformists. Today, the service is mostly held in the evening.
The service commences with the Evening Prayer (in a church) or a short service (in a chapel). Then comes the declaration ‘Mae’r plygain yn awr yn agored’ (The plygain is now open), which means that it is open for anyone to present a plygain carol. Children open the plygain, followed by young people, then a party from the church or the local area, followed by those who have travelled from afar; should there be more than one local party, then one of them will close the plygain. There is never a programme. The carol-singers, both individuals and parties, make their way through the large congregation down to the chancel or the elders’ pew, pitch a note with a tuning fork, and then sing unostentatiously. The carol-singers decide on the order of the evening to ensure that no two soloists or duets follow each other, and to ensure that the items are varied.
All of the singing is informal, without a conductor or leader. Participants must remember the order of the first half so that the same order is followed during the second half (or the second cycle), and they must also remember which carols have been sung to ensure that none are repeated. At the end, the men who have already presented a carol are called forward to sing ‘Carol y Swper’ (the Supper Carol) together. At their best they are truly mesmerising.
The season’s first plygain is magical experience, as the singers come together once again after another busy year. There is a profound friendship amongst the carol-singers and the supper that follows the service is a very important part of the evening.
We are extremely grateful to the folk of Montgomeryshire and adjacent areas of Gwynedd – Mallwyd, and Llanymawddwy especially – for succeeding without fail to uphold the tradition over the centuries. This is still the plygain’s stronghold today. However, the old carols were sung across Wales at one time, and the tradition is starting once again and enveloping large parts of the country.
Traditionally, the parties were members of the same family, for example ‘Parti Bronheulog’, and would practice at home. The carol-singers have a book of family carols, and only members of that family can sing those particular carols.
‘Parti Bronheulog’ singing the Plygain carol ‘Ar Gyfer Heddiw’r Bore’
Today, with so many moving away from the communities where they were born and raised, many of the modern parties are new parties, based on friendship rather than lineage and blood.
It is possible that the custom of singing carols at plygain services was started by the carol composers of Glamorgan in the 16th century. The custom spread throughout Wales, bringing sermon and song to the parishioners, conveying the teaching of the Righteous and the order of Salvation in Christ, as well as His birth, His death and His resurrection. It is not uncommon for some of the old carols to contain twenty and more verses, and to be steeped in the theology of salvation. However, by the twentieth century, the flame of the Great Reformation having faded, the carols are not so consistently intense in their content.
Many of the carols were sung on tunes popular at that time, and the Welsh measures used include ‘Ffarwel Ned Puw’, ‘Clychau Rhiwabon’ and ‘Difyrrwch Gwŷr Caernarfon’. And it wasn’t just the Welsh measures that were popular; English measures were also used, including ‘Charity Mistress’, ‘Let Mary Live Long’ and several ballads. Another tune sung often at the plygain is ‘Annie Lisle’, an American ballad composed in 1857 by H. S. Thompson, Boston, Massachusetts.
Powerful lyrics, beautiful melodies, the company of friends and a scrumptious supper. What else could anyone want on a cold winter’s night?
“It would hardly be too much to say that in April of 1895 one was considered eccentric for riding a bicycle, whilst by the end of June eccentricity rested with those who did not ride.” Constance Everett-Green, 1898
The boom in cycling in the 1890s transformed the way tourist maps were produced. Mapmakers increasingly produced maps targeted at cyclists, which included road conditions and dangerous hills, which until then had been absent on maps that mainly catered for railway travellers. This information was retained on later maps branded ‘cycling and motoring’ maps, but even though motor cars became more prevalent in the early 20th century, the mapping conventions developed for cycling maps are still discernible on road maps today.
Most modern cyclists focus on uphill sections of a route, but it was accepted that Victorian riders would get off and walk up any steep inclines. Bikes of the period were usually single speed, ideal for cruising along flat roads. Even in races gears were not always used — Henri Desgrange, who set up the Tour de France in 1903, considered that riding a bike with gears was cheating, fit for only ‘women and old men’! However, indicating steepness downhill was seen as essential on any good cycling map, as cyclists needed to know when to expect ‘danger hills’ — hills too steep to descend safely with unreliable or non-existent brakes.
Cycling organisations themselves produced maps indicating the quality of a road for cycling, and these were often used to petition local authorities to improve the situation, as well as inform other cyclists.
Some mapmakers produced ‘road books’ to complement their maps, like this example from around 1899, produced by Gall & Inglis. These included profiles of hundreds of routes, and descriptions of the route and road surface. Cyclists riding between Lampeter and Aberystwyth would have faced ‘a very trying road… [with] a constant succession of dangerous hills’, and might have been tempted to ride to Llandovery instead, on ‘a splendid piece of road’. It also notes which route to a particular town is the most scenic, to serve the cyclist looking to take in some beautiful views along the way.
Road books like this one are still produced today for professional races. Competitors use them to prepare for rides, and fans often collect them as souvenirs of races they have seen. Noting road surface is still vital. The Paris-Roubaix race, held in northern France each spring, is famous for its cobblestones, or pavé, and the winner is ceremonially presented with a cobblestone as part of their prize.
The ‘safety’ bicycle
While bicycles had been available in various forms since the early 1800s, it was not until the 1880s and the introduction of the ‘safety’ bicycle (the familiar shape very similar to modern bikes today) that its role expanded beyond that of a rich gentleman’s plaything.
The safety bicycle, combined with the newly invented pneumatic tyre, was comfortable, easy to ride and maintain, and relatively inexpensive. It was also enthusiastically embraced by both men and women, though not without raised eyebrows over the morality of women cycling. One columnist in the women’s magazine Queen in 1896 suggested women who cycled were also disobedient, likely to smoke and read ‘risky novels’. Such criticisms notwithstanding, one estimate suggests that in 1896 a third of bike orders were for women’s models, and in 1880, Mrs W.D. Welford became the first woman to join the Bicycle Touring Club (later the CTC and now Cycling UK), just two years after its establishment.
“Where shall we go for our week’s freedom from the town’s oppression?”
“King of the Road”, writing in TheClarion magazine, June 1897
In a period of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, cycling was celebrated as a way for town-dwellers to escape to the countryside, in a way that was both affordable and included the benefits of gentle exercise. Cycling opened up rural areas, allowing tourists to explore the landscape at their own pace and under their own steam, rather than being dependent on railway timetables or organised excursions.
In H.G. Wells’s 1896 comic novel The Wheels of Chance, a poorly paid draper’s assistant escapes Putney for the freedom of country lanes on his bike: ‘‘Here was quiet and greenery, and one mucked about as the desire took one… [S]omething wonderful, a little, low, red beast with a yellowish tail… went rushing across the road before him. It was the first weasel he had ever seen in his cockney life.’ (The Wheels of Chance, p.48).
Cycling outings were particularly popular among the growing middle class, who had the money and time, but the bicycle was also embraced by the socialist movement. Both the playwright George Bernard Shaw and docker’s union leader Ben Tillett cycled to the Trades Union Congress in Cardiff in September 1896, the former riding 40 miles from a friend’s home in Monmouthshire for the occasion.
Inevitably, many companies wanted to take advantage of the craze for cycling, producing advertising cycling maps like this pocket-sized map of North Wales, published in 1897 by Scotch whisky producers Pattisons. While the map conveniently folds into a cover less than 9 cm tall, making it perfect to slip in your pocket on a bike ride, we certainly do not recommend taking its advice and indulging in ‘Pattisons when cycling’!
When I first wrote about Sidney Curnow Vosper’s painting Salem in the magazine Planet in 1988, I could take it for granted that almost all of my readers would know something about the story of the picture, or at least be familiar with the look of it. The big coloured print still hung on the wall in many a grandparent’s house. That’s why I felt confident about coining the term ‘National Icon’ to describe it. But, about five years ago, teaching art history to a first year undergraduate class at Swansea University I got a shock. None of the class recognised the picture when I showed it, and none of the students had heard of it. The national icon had disappeared from the consciousness of this rising generation.
It was, perhaps, not the disappearance itself but the speed of the disappearance of Salem that was most surprising. After all, the living presence of the picture in the culture had been reinforced in every generation between its creation in 1909 and 1997, when the magazine Golwg reinvented it as a cover image during the devolution referendum campaign of that year. The magazine doctored the picture to show Sian Owen leaving the chapel with her fingers crossed – presumably on her way round to the vestry to vote ‘Yes’.
Created as an image of picturesque religiosity among the Welsh people, Salem originally presented a reassuring message of national docility intended for sale in the English art market. If all had gone according to plan, it is unlikely that more than a few Welsh people would ever have seen it. However, the purchase of the picture by William Hesketh Lever, MP, and its banal use by him in the form of a poster to promote the sale of his company’s Sunlight Soap, put the picture in the public domain and created the potential for the subsequent transformation of its meaning. Although the initial mechanics of the transformation remain obscure, by the 1920s the picture had acquired a new narrative among a different audience. The ‘discovery’ of the face of the devil in Sian Owen’s Paisley shawl stimulated the reinvention of Salem as a parable of the sin of pride. That said, I don’t suppose any but the most puritanical of Christian believers took that morality tale seriously – surely, it was the magical nature of the revelation of the face in the shawl that appealed. It was a story that had more in common with the Mabinogi than with Nonconformity, notwithstanding its promotion in a poem by T. Rowland Hughes, written during the dark days of the Second World War, as a work of Christian devotion. It was revamped again in a meditative mood, with a heavy dose of ruralist hiraeth, for the cover of an Endaf Emlyn LP in 1974. Going up-market, the painter Hywel Harries modernised it in a sort of Cubist-cum-patchwork quilt oil painting.
The failure of the 1979 devolution referendum changed the atmosphere, but in the period of political activism that followed, Salem was again powerfully reinvented. ‘Deffrwch y bastads. Mae Cymru’n marw’ – ‘Wake the bastards up. Wales is dying’ – was the slogan surrounding the image on a pamphlet produced in 1989 by Cymdeithas Cyfamod y Cymry Rhydd. The context was now the reaction against inward migration and the arson campaign against holiday homes. Subsequently, Sian Owen was deployed by environmentalists against the chemical multi-national Montsanto, based at Wrexham, this time making grotesque use of the myth of the devil lurking in Sian Owen’s shawl.
But that may well have been the end of the road for Salem as an active force in the culture. If the Swansea students are typical, perhaps the decline of the Nonconformist Christianity that was the picture’s original context, and the unfamiliarity of a social world based on chapel life, have eventually undermined its potential for redeployment. The National Library’s recent acquisition of the copy version of the picture has certainly reawakened interest in its history. This second version was painted for Frank Treharne James, a Merthyr solicitor and brother-in-law of the artist, who had been frustrated in his desire to acquire the original when the future Lord Leverhulme snapped it up for 100 guineas at a Royal Watercolour Society in London. But I suspect that the original Salem has now passed from the living place in the culture that enabled it to be reinvented unselfconsciously to meet the changing needs of the twentieth century, into a fascinating fossil. Sad as it may be, Salem exists now primarily as material evidence of a bye-gone age, an object of study by historians.
A blog about the work and collections of the National Library of Wales.
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