A new crowdsourcing project aimed at documenting the built heritage of Wales through photography and Wikipedia articles.
The National Library of Wales is once again teaming up with Menter Iaith Môn, with funding from the Welsh Government language unit, to deliver this exciting new project.
Wales has thousands of important listed buildings, from great castles built by the Welsh princes to churches, stately homes and terraced houses. In Wales there were once more seats in chapels than there were people to sit on them and now those chapels are disappearing fast. We also have more modern buildings which need documenting, such as hospitals and health centres, schools, libraries and sports facilities.
For this project we are asking you to check out what needs photographing in your area. If you are out walking the dog, running, cycling or just stretching your legs after that Sunday roast just take your phone or camera and snap a few shots for us along the way.
These images will form a new collection at the National Library of Wales and will be made freely available for reuse on Wikimedia Commons, so that they can be used to improve Wikipedia articles. Wikipedia is a fantastic platform for us to collaboratively record and share our local history and recent studies have shown that having good quality Wikipedia articles can help to significantly boost tourism.
We are not looking for professional quality photographs, or fancy stylized shots. Just simple documentary images which you can snap on anything from a DSLR to your mobile phone, so everyone can get involved, from Grandma to the Grand kids.
As part of the project we are even planning on working directly (remotely) with schools to get kids snapping buildings in their area and then we will teach them how to use those images to improve relevant Wikipedia articles.
Contributing to the project is easy. An interactive map will show you all the places that need photographs in your area, and our video tutorial will talk you through the simple upload process. So please, check out what needs photographing in your area, and register today to ensure that your images are included in our new digital archive.
In September 1973, during the military coup to oust President Salvador Allende, a group of friends sat together in Estadio Chile (Chile Stadium) amidst thousands of other people held captive by fascists. One of the friends, Victor Jara, was busy composing a song on a scrap of paper. Before being dragged away, he managed to pass the song to a friend who hid it in his shoe. This would be his last song.
Victor Jara’s story is told by his wife, Joan Jara, in her powerful biography Victor: an unfinished song (Bloomsbury, 1998). Victor Jara came from a poor and underprivileged background outside Santiago. His mother was of Mapuche Indian extraction and he inherited her gift for playing the guitar and singing folk songs. His mother struggled hard to ensure that her children received an education and Victor developed to be Chile’s most prominent folk singer as well as becoming a theatre director and gaining university posts.
He never forgot his poor background and he loved to travel from his home near the Andes to meet ordinary workers and compose songs about them. He revelled in their traditions, their dances and their folklore, but as well as singing about the beauty of the Chilean people’s culture, he also sang about their suffering.
Life was harsh for the poor people of Chile. During a strike in El Salvador in 1965, for example, miners and their wives were shot by armed police, and when a number of destitute people tried to make their home in Puerto Montt, many of them were shot dead. Jara was deeply wounded by the massacre of Puerto Montt, and he sang a passionate protest song. For some, this guitarist and singer was far too vocal and he became a special target for the fascists in Chile Stadium.
Victor Jara’s friends remembered his warm smile when he recognised them at the Stadium, although he had already been injured. Before being killed by a soldier, his hands were smashed and he was mockingly asked to perform – if he could. Never to hold his guitar again, he sang for the last time. A command was issued to destroy all his works and every recording of his voice. The beautiful sounds of the indigenous musical instruments were also banned.
Jara’s unfinished song successfully left the Stadium in his friend’s shoe and the banned recordings left Chile.
Across the Atlantic, Welsh singers Dafydd Iwan and James Dean Bradfield, of the Manic Street Preachers, have paid moving tributes to the bravery of a man who said in one of his songs that he would die singing. The National Library of Wales holds sound recordings of both men’s tributes to Jara: Dafydd Iwan’s song may be heard on the cassette Bod yn rhydd (1979) and James Bradfield’s songs on his new album Even in exile.
The album’s first song is entitled Recuerda – Remember.
Small parts of the musician’s life can be pieced together from various archival holdings. The Leeswood papers at Flintshire Archives record that Benjamin Cunnah had applied for a position at Mold in 1812. He wrote to Miss Griffiths of Rual for her support as he was being opposed by Mr Birch, despite Mr Eyton’s kindness, and he claimed to have been unfairly treated by being interrupted when playing the organ on trial (Ref. D-LE/C/7/6 and D-LE/C/7/15).
He seems to have obtained his position with Sir Watkin Williams Wynn around 1815, which demonstrates a late continuation of the harpist tradition among the great gentry families of Wales. The Wynnstay account books produce no evidence of Cunnah’s employment but they do record the installation, in 1770, of the fine Snetzler organ in Ruabon church, on which he must have played.
Here in The National Library of Wales. there is a manuscript music book in the hand of Elizabeth Giffard of Nercwys Hall, Flintshire, containing lessons, songs, dances and airs for the harp. It includes several pieces by Benjamin Cunnah, such as the ‘Nerquis March’ (NLW MS 24006A). These tunes were published as New Welch Music : consisting of three Sonatas, Chase, Minuets, Siciliano, Rondos, Marches, Airs with Variations for the Harp or Piano Forte / composed & humbly dedicated by permission to Sir Watkin Wms. Wynn, Bart. by B. Cunnah of Rhuabon. (Printed for the author by Goulding & Co.of New Bond Street.)
The names of the subscribers would suggest a publication date of between 1815 and 1823. It was unusual then for a Welsh composer to publish his own music during his lifetime.
Robert Griffith, in his Llyfr Cerdd Dannau : ymchwiliad i hanes hen gerddoriaeth a’r dulliau hynaf o ganu (Caernarfon 1913), refers to articles in the Cambro-Briton, describing the Eisteddfodau at Wrexham, 1820, and Caernarfon, 1821, in which Benjamin Cunnah competed. Although not a prize-winner, he was very highly commended. He was judged a ‘scientific player’ who ‘produced the best tone’ and who received ‘considerable praise… for the taste and execution of his performance’. He was advised to concentrate less on playing his own compositions and to learn the traditional Welsh melodies that he could play to the natives! Cunnah was sufficiently esteemed to be selected as an adjudicator of the harp competition at Mold Eisteddfod in 1823.
A little is known of Benjamin Cunnah’s private life. He married Mary Rogers at Wrexham in 1800 (NLW marriage bonds St. Asaph A 137/7). They had numerous children, ten of whom were named as beneficiaries in his will dated 12 April 1832, proved 6 May 1840 (SA1840-198). He bequeathed his ‘musical instruments if any one of my children who plays may have a wish, to be given to them at a fair valuation by some well disposed person…and my music books likewise to be valued and given to them according and agreeable to their wish’. He disinherited his son Edward, not through acrimony but explaining ‘I have already given him more than what would be the rest of his proportion with the rest of my children…’
Thus have several disparate strands of interest, the artistic, the musical and the archival, become woven together in the story of Benjamin Cunnah, the ‘other’ harpist of Wynnstay.
Acknowledgement: Thanks are due to Denbighshire Archives for assistance with the research.
During the lockdown 25 composers have been busy composing new pieces for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. The composers received various interviews from 5 different collections from the sound archive and were asked to listen and use them as inspiration to create a new piece of work.
Glenys James was born in London to Welsh parents and spoke Welsh at home and the chapel, but never lived in Wales.
She moved to Canada where she researched the Welsh who migrated to Canada and Patagonia for the Canadian Museum of Man, Ottawa (now known as Canadian Centre for Cultural Studies Ottawa)
In 1974, Glenys James recorded various interviews with people of Welsh descent living in Canada, especially the Satchawen area where Welsh communities were formed. Over 200 people left Patagonia for Canada in 1902 because of difficult conditions and wanting to create a better life for themselves. These interviews include personal stories and accounts of building new villages and naming them in Welsh (Glyndwr, Bangor, Llewelyn). They erected new schools and chapels and held Eisteddfodau.
The original reel to reel tapes are now kept at the Canadian Centre for Cultural Studies in Ottawa with cassette copies and digital files here at the National Library.
Why should we not sing?
In 1916 The Times published a letter where the writer objected to the holding of the Eisteddfod during war time. In response to the article, David Lloyd George delivered a speech at Aberystwyth National Eisteddfod, which began with the words – ‘Why should we not sing during war time?’
Throughout the speech he defends holding the Eisteddfod. It was reported that over 7,000 people listened and cheered his speech. On the 15th February, 1934, Lloyd George recorded part of his famous speech at the BBC studios to be aired on radio. A copy of this address is kept at the Library and has been digitally restored by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage team.
Story of the Forest
Story of the Forest was a project run by the Forestry Commission in 2002-3 where they recorded interviews with people involved in Forestry Commission activities in Wales.
Personal stories were told by people who lived and worked in and around the forestry, discussing the situation from post war up to the 21st century, including accounts of how they came to work for the Forestry Commission, the activities – building roads, ploughing. The interviews give us an insight to the changes to Wales’ landscape, and teach us about the social, agricultural and economic effects.
167 Minidiscs were deposited to the Library; they were digitised and catalogued by students of the MA Archive Administration and MSc Digital Curation courses from Aberystwyth University’s Department of Information Studies in 2019.
Meleri Mair interviews Caradog Jones in 1997 on the subject of poaching, with comments on his own experience as a river bailiff in the 1950s.
Mr Jones describes why people poached – mainly poverty, the consequences to those who were caught and the custom of disguising their identity to avoid detection at night.
Colin Edwards Collection
Colin Edwards was a Welsh journalist, broadcaster and author who lived in California. During the 1960s he recorded interviews with friends, family and acquaintances of Dylan Thomas. These accounts and reminiscences on the life of Dylan give us an insight to his character, his work, relationships, and family background.
The tapes were donated to the Library by Colin’s wife, Mary Edwards, following his death. David N Thomas used the tapes in his published books ‘Dylan Remembered’, 2 vols (Seren and NLW, 2003, 2004)
We would like to thank all the composers who took part in the commission work; we hope you enjoy listening to the compositions:
Alan Chamberlain; Angharad Davies; Ben McManus; Bonello, Ruth and Hay; Branwen Williams; David Roche; Derri Joseph Lewis; Gareth Bonello; Georgia Ruth Williams; Geraint Rhys; Gwen Mairi; Gwenan Gibbard; Gwilym Bowen Rhys; Gwydion Rhys; Luciano Williamson; Owen Shiers Pierce Joyce; Pwdin Reis composed by Neil Rosser; Sally Crosby; Sam Humphreys; Seth Alexander; Stacey Blythe; Steff Rees; Tinc y Tannau; Toby Hay.
I’m a Swedish archivist that has done an internship at the National Library of Wales (NLW) between January-July 2020. The internship was funded by the EU programme Erasmus+, and Gothenburg University was the supporting institution in Sweden. The purpose was to gain hands on experience of working as a sound archivist and at the same time help out a cultural heritage institution. I was therefore stationed at the Screen & Sound Archive and worked with the digitisation project Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH).
The aim of the UOSH project is to preserve, digitise and make rare and unique sound recordings available to the public all over the UK. NLW is one of ten national and regional archival institutions involved and it is all being coordinated by the British Library. The consortium will also deliver various programmes of public engagement activities, and a website where a large part of the recordings will be freely available to everyone for research.
So I have digitised, catalogued, researched content and rights to recordings, as well as participated in training activities for volunteers in the Tiger Bay area of Cardiff. The NLW has sound collections and recordings related to various aspects of life in Wales, dating back from the birth of recorded sound in the 1880s to present time. So working with the material has given me a first glimpse into parts of Welsh history and culture. I have also created content to be used in the NLW’s social media channels and written/edited articles for Wikipedia, in order to spread information about the UOSH project and the recordings (and about a previous digitisation project called Unlocking Film Heritage) to a wider public.
While working with Wikipedia I was reminded of its strengths and weaknesses in relations to archive. One of Wikipedia’s strengths is its availability and wide spread use around the globe, but on the other hand there are problems of representation in the articles.
In Sweden, I have previously taken part in a Wikipedia workshop aimed at women with no or little experience of editing and writing articles. It was arranged by Stockholm Museum of Women’s History in order to reduce the gender gap at Wikipedia. Around 90% of the articles are written by men and subsequently about four times as many articles are about men. We were therefore encouraged to edit and write articles about women.
I wrote an article about Stockholms Bulgariska Damkör (Stockholm Bulgarian Women’s Choir), a choir that had been active for over 20 years. But it was hard to get the article approved by Wikipedia because of the notability criteria. The subject of an article needs to be considered to have of a high degree of interest, significance or fame. The choir had been performing at festivals, in churches, embassies, museums, engaged in cultural exchanges, arranged work shops etc. But they had never released an album, hence it was argued that the choir wasn’t noteworthy. There were also few articles about them in music magazines or similar. I managed to find radio recordings of live performances and argued for their importance and uniqueness, so eventually the article was approved.
This got me thinking about representation and how Wikipedia run the risk of reproducing the same old hierarchy that has been prevalent during history. Women as a group have traditionally had less opportunities and consequently received fewer mentions in historic documentation, press etc. One way to counteract this has been for women to pursue different avenues to men. As a result, a modern day women’s choir might invest in live performance and getting to be known about via word-of-mouth, instead of doing recordings and trying to get media attention. Other suppressed groups like financially vulnerable people or different minorities (ethnic, cultural etc.) run the same risk of getting continuously less representation in the digital era.
Of course archives also battle with problems of representation. But one way to counteract this has been to consciously fill the archival gaps by conducting oral history interviews. Oral history can be understood as a method of gathering information about historical periods and events by interviewing people who experienced them. Interviews can also be done with persons whose experiences and memories are representative of certain communities or whose lives have been of special significance. The aim is often to obtain information from different perspectives, especially those that cannot be found in written sources. Oral history has developed hand-in-hand with sound and audio-visual recording techniques but interviews can also be transcribed. Song and music collecting is a similar way of gathering orally transmitted music (like folk music) and thus filling the musical gap.
I have come across a wide range of oral history recordings while working on the UOSH project. For example interviews with Welsh farmers that lived through World War II, descendents of Welsh emigrants in the USA, Welsh musician Andy Fairweather Low, film producer Eric Rowan who made the film about the artist siblings “Augustus and Gwen: The Fire and the Fountain (1975)”, Elinor Rosen who had a lifelong engagement with the Labour Party, photographer John Goddard and many interviews with Welsh painters and artists that were mainly active during the 1900 hundreds, like Eirian and Denys Short.
Some oral history interviews are done with relatives and friends of more famous people, that no longer are with us, like the interview with Tom Evans that explores the collecting activities of his wife Margaret Evans (1922-1996). She amassed costumes, artefacts, documents and ephemera associated with Aberystwyth and beyond, from 1800s to the 1900s. The documents from her collection went to Ceredigion Archives and the artefacts to Ceredigion Museum. Another example is the interview with Stanley Cheetham, related to the pioneer Arthur Cheetham (1864-1937), who was the first film-maker based in Wales. He made over 30 short films between 1898 and1912 and showed them in rural communities as well as opening the first all-year-round cinema in Rhyl in 1906. The Screen & Sound Archive also holds films made by Arthur’s son G.A. Cheetham.
Yet other oral history interviews are centred around a cultural phenomenon like professor Moira Vincentelli`s string of interviews exploring the use and role of the Welsh dresser across generations.
Finally, I would like to mention the Tiger Bay Collection. It belongs to The Heritage & Cultural Exchange Tiger Bay and the World, a community based organisation that strives to chronicle the heritage and cultural diversity of Tiger Bay and Cardiff Docklands. They have archival materials including: photographs, rations books, magazines, seamen’s discharge books, paintings and sketches, a school register as well as audio and videotaped interviews. The sound recordings are being digitised and catalogued during the UOSH project and would seem to be a treasure for people wanting to learn more about one of the original multicultural areas, with migrants from up to 45 nationalities.
And all these examples are recordings in English, there are a lot more for Welsh speakers. Hopefully there will be something relevant for everyone. All the digitised and catalogued recordings from the USOH project are being ingested into the British Library’s Sound & Moving Image Catalogue and eventually a newly developed, purpose-built media player and website will be launched. There up to 100,000 recordings will be freely available to everyone for research, enjoyment and inspiration. The national and regional institutions will provide access locally to their own recordings and those that do not have licences and permissions to be published online.
Wikipedia do not accept oral history as a legitimate source for an article so it is worth searching the archives to find something original and different. And with the UOSH project archives are closing in on Wikipedia’s lead, when it comes to access and availability online.
Lastly, I would like to thank the staff at NLW, especially at the Screen & Sound Archive, who have been very welcoming and supportive during my time in Wales.
In January this year a small collection of letters and ephemera relating to the political career of Sir David Treharne Llewellyn, a former Conservative MP, came up for sale at auction. Llewellyn served as MP for Cardiff North from 1950 to 1959 and was appointed as Under Secretary of State at the Home Office following the Conservative victory in the General Election of 1951. Llewellyn had only a year in office in the Home Office, before he had to resign because of his health but it was a very significant appointment.
In their manifesto for the 1951 General Election, the Conservatives had promised to create a ministerial post to deal with Welsh affairs and when he was appointed to the cabinet, David Maxwell-Fyfe was given the title of Home Secretary and Minister for Welsh Affairs. To prove that this was more than just a job title, a minister was appointed who was specifically responsible for Welsh affairs in his department; David Treharne Llewellyn was the first politician in that role.
The Welsh Political Archive collects the papers of the Secretaries of State for Wales, so we felt this small archive was worth buying. There is not a great deal of material from his time in the Home Office but one letter from Winston Churchill thanking him for his service to Wales as a minister and much correspondence with other ministers during his parliamentary career including James Callaghan, Edward Heath, David Maxwell-Fyfe and Gwilym Lloyd George. There is an interesting collection of letters from Philip Noel-Baker, Minister for Fuel and Power for support for victims of colliery accidents and their dependents, and another group that shows the relationship between Llewellyn and George Thomas and discusses the Aberfan disaster and the Investiture of 1969.
Llewellyn had played a brief but significant role in the development of Welsh politics, so it is fitting that his small archive came to the National Library with the papers of Secretaries of State for Wales and Welsh politicians of the same period.
In 1944 the Church in Wales began to deposit the records of every Welsh diocese in the National Library of Wales, for the benefit of the nation. These included the records of the four ancient dioceses of Bangor, Llandaff, St. Asaph and St. Davids, and the two modern dioceses of Monmouth and Swansea & Brecon. Documents, manuscripts, maps and drawings were deposited initially, and the Library continues to receive regular deposits to this day.
Most diocesan records relate to Church administrative and legal systems. The records chart the history of the Church and its dioceses, church buildings, and the work of its bishops, courts, and clergy. It contains vital sources for those interested in ecclesiastical, family, and local history. It is also a very large collection – one of the largest collections of corporate records in the National Library of Wales. Fortunately for researchers, it is a well-organized collection, which makes access to the material relatively straightforward.
If you have never used the collections before and the prospect of navigating the diocesan records seems a bit daunting, try the following tips:
1. Know your diocese: Records of each diocese have been arranged into broad categories, such as Bishops’ Transcripts, Consistory Court Papers, Chapter Records etc. In general, you can expect to find the same types of records in each diocesan collection, although there may be differences in the extent of the records and the time periods covered.
2. Browse the main description for the diocese: The main diocesan catalogue page will summarise what records are available – ‘Content and Structure’ and ‘System of Arrangement’ are particularly helpful. The main page will also display the categories of records.
3. Quick Search: Many of the series and record titles are keyword searchable, so try searching for specific terms relevant to your research. Remember to try different spelling variations to improve search results. It is possible for you to undertake a quick search within the collection itself by using the search box on the left hand side of the Library’s Archives and Manuscripts catalogue.
4. Printed resources: If you are trying to find information about a member of clergy, begin your search with Crockford’s Clerical Directory. It contains details of Anglican clergy appointments since 1858. This information can be a useful starting point.
5. Unexpected places: Investigate sections of the collection which may seem irrelevant to your research. Some official documents were not put into one of the general categories. For example, the Miscellaneous series in St. Davids Diocesan Records contains material relating to nonconformist chapels in Brecon!
Last October the National Library was tremendously proud to have safeguarded the iconic work ‘Salem’ from 1909 by Sidney Curnow Vosper (1866-1942) for the nation. This work in watercolour depicts a congregation in Salem Chapel, Cefncymerau, Llanbedr near Harlech, with the character of Siân Owen dressed in a traditional Welsh costume holding a hymn book central to the scene. Across the decades, ‘Salem’ became an iconic symbol of Welsh identity and of the Nonconformist tradition in Wales.
Welsh homes and folk memory
Two versions of ‘Salem’ were created by Vosper during his lifetime. The first was created in 1908 and was exhibited in London where it was bought by the industrialist William Hesketh Lever who used the image to advertise his product ‘Sunlight Soap’. As a result, ‘Salem’ evolved into an iconic image across Britain. As Peter Lord stated in his book ‘The Tradition’ in 2016: ‘In the wake of a nationwide religious revival in 1904, the picture itself and its associated mythology entered Welsh homes and folk memory’. Among the other reasons for the painting’s popularity was that not many other Welsh images were to be had as attractive and cheap colour prints in the period before the First World War. In 1937 Ifan ab Owen Edwards sold prints of the work to raise money for the Urdd. The image was also reproduced for the ‘Cymru Rydd’ calendar in 1950, 1956 and 1957 and many Welsh people took advantage of this by cutting out the image and displaying it in their homes. The second version which differs slightly from the original and which was bought by the National Library was created in 1909 for Frank Treharne Jones, a solicitor from Merthyr and the artist’s brother-in-law.
As Peter Lord argued there is a strong contrast within the work between the simplicity of the chapel, the humility of the worshipers and the richness of Siân Owen’s shawl. Many believed that they could see an image of the devil in the fold of Siân Owen’s shawl, which did much to add to the work’s intrigue. Some believed that the image of the devil was a warning to others against the sin of vanity, something Siân Owen was displaying by dressing extravagantly to attend chapel. It could also be said that Siân Owen represented the figure of the ‘Mam’ in 19th century Wales. Siân Owen was known locally as Siân Owen, Tŷ’n y Fawnog. She was over 70 years old when the painting was created and went on to tragically lose two of her grandsons in the First World War. This gives an even heavier poignancy to the painting, when thinking of her symbolism as the Welsh mother and of the thousands of other Welsh mothers whose children were tragically killed during the two World Wars.
Local characters are portrayed within the work, and they modelled for the artist in the chapel. One exception being the tailor’s dummy which he named Leusa Jones and which he placed in the front pew. It is interesting to note that the artist used Siân Owen’s features and expression for Leusa Jones’ face. It is unlikely that the black Welsh hat would have been worn in 1908, and as Tal Williams stated in his book Salem from 2010 not one of the women portrayed within the work owned their own hat. The same Welsh hat worn by Siân Owen, Laura Williams, Mary Rowlands and the tailor’s dummy was borrowed from Elin Edwards, of Chapel House, grandmother of Rev. Evan Rowlands. The paisley shawl was loaned by Mrs. Williams, wife of the Vicar of nearby Harlech. For the sitting the artist gave Evan Lloyd, the young 6 year old boy who sits with his aunt, Mary Rowlands a box of Quaker Oats to hold instead of a hymn book, for the artist was afraid that the boy would become easily distracted and start playing with the book’s pages. Wiliam Siôn and Rhobet Williams, Cae’r Meddyg are the names of the two local men within the scene.
‘An expression of allegiance to Wales’
During his lifetime, the artist Vosper was inspired to create works based on the Welsh and Breton culture, but without doubt this is by far his most famous work today. As Peter Lord stated: ‘Ultimately Salem’s success comes down to an expression of allegiance to Wales’.
Morfudd Bevan Art Curator at The National Library of Wales
Part 2: Records and finding aids within the Great Sessions archive
The most useful Great Sessions records for researchers are Plea Rolls (the largest class), Gaol Files (the most interesting) and Pleadings, representing civil, Crown and equity cases respectively. There are no proper indexes, but many of the court’s records are complementary and can be used as finding aids. These are not comprehensive, but they are the place to start unless you know when a particular case was heard. Documents are in English from 1733, as are earlier equity proceedings, criminal testimonies and Commonwealth records, whereas most of the pre-1733 material is in Latin.
Here is what you can expect to find in the records and the internal finding aids:
Plea Rolls mostly comprise pleadings in cases that reached trial, giving the names and pleas of all parties, occupations and places of residence of defendants, and details of the issues under dispute and of any previous attempts to bring them to trial (noting court judgements and names of jurors). They also include recoveries (property trusts usually created for marriage settlements or disentailments), challenge pedigrees (drawn up by plaintiffs to prove family relationships to Crown officers so that defendants could not challenge the empanelment of juries), lists of attorneys, summonses and other process writs (often noting verdicts and damages awarded).
Docket Rolls and Books and Praecipe Books(for the Carmarthen circuit) record details of every case submitted, including types of actions, names of parties, properties involved and names of attorneys. They are either arranged by the name of the plaintiff’s attorney or according to the stage the case had reached.
Prothonotary’s Filesinclude the pleas of plaintiffs and defendants, copies of supporting documents, schedules of costs, and petitions to be excused jury service. The most useful contents are challenge pedigrees (see above) and slander cases (most of which were tried by ecclesiastical courts).
Docket Books of FinesandRecoveries,Docket Books of Pleas and Fines (for the Brecon circuit) and Remembrance Rolls of Recoveries (for the Carmarthen circuit) contain final concords and pleas in common recoveries, both being fictitious collusive actions. These records are often more numerous in estate archives, which also include deeds revealing the real intention of the transactions.
Rule Books and Order Books contain judgements and instructions concerning how cases should proceed. They are often heavily abbreviated.
Imparlance Books record cases carried forward to the next session.
Gaol Files comprise records relating to criminal cases, namely:
Calendars of prisoners waiting to stand trial, including names, alleged offences, occupations, places of residence, sureties, who committed prisoners to gaol, prisoners pleading their belly, and some verdicts and sentences. Later calendars also name convicts. Calendars are heavily abbreviated and often worn.
Lists of court officers and jurors of the various juries summoned to attend court (including those excused, challenged or fined for non-appearance), with names of defendants and outlines of cases.
Indictments recording alleged offences, where and when they occurred, the names, occupations and places of residence of defendants, when they were apprehended, names of plaintiffs and other victims, and suspects receiving benefit of clergy. Details that were not crucial to the success or failure of a trial were often conflated or recorded vaguely or inaccurately, and indictments were regularly amended because of plea bargaining or the desire to avoid capital punishment. Defendants’ pleas are also commonly recorded, as are verdicts and sentences.
Bills indicating whether juries thought there was a case to answer.
Bonds to ensure the presence of prosecutors, defendants and witnesses in court, giving names, addresses and the date of offences. Enforcement of bonds required this information to be accurate.
Petitions, usually comprising complaints by defendants about how cases were being handled.
Depositions and examinations of witnesses and victims taken before trial, usually in English (often translated from Welsh) and sometimes in Welsh, containing detailed information about every aspect of daily life. These are an extremely valuable source, all the more so because oral testimony given in court was not recorded, but most were destroyed because they were not official records of the court.
Schedules of prisoners, with case summaries to help jurors.
Presentments by constables and the Grand Jury submitting offences believed to have been committed. These often included failure to maintain roads.
Writs to ensure the presence of the accused, ranging from the initial summons to distraint and outlawry. The type of writ used depended on the crime and how many writs had been issued previously.
Bills of costs, showing (among other things) how suspects were apprehended and how the court used interpreters.
Writs moving cases from Quarter Sessions to the Great Sessions, giving basic information about cases.
Coroner’s inquests into matters such as violent and unexpected deaths, treasure trove and wrecks. The focus was on determining whether a crime had taken place rather than establishing the facts in full.
Crown Books(only for Flintshire 1564-1666) andBlack Books(only for the Brecon circuit 1726-1830) contain names of prisoners, details of offences and pleas, and verdicts and sentences. Not every case is included. The Crown Books also provide information about many of the other records found in the Gaol Files.
Calendar Rolls provide indexes to the early calendars for Radnorshire, Glamorgan, Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire.
Order Books,Rule Books and Minute Booksmostly relate to civil cases but their most useful contents are criminal verdicts and sentences. Records are patchy and often heavily abbreviated. Imparlance Bookshave similar information for the Brecon circuit.
PLEADINGS comprise statements and answers by plaintiffs and defendants, with witness depositions. Parchment and paper records are separate, so details of a case may appear in more than one place.
Bill Books record when each complaint was first received.
Decree Books contain details of cases, summaries of pleadings, and court judgements.
Order Books contain orders of the court, including decrees.
We hope this brief account will help and inspire researchers.
The records of the Court of Great Sessions are an exceptionally valuable resource for the social, economic and legal history of Wales from 1542 to 1830, and they are more complete than comparable records in England. They are one of the Library’s most important archives, but they have been underused by researchers. This is partly because court records can be difficult to use, but this blog will attempt to help readers find their way into the records. Part 1 will give a brief overview of what the Great Sessions did and what secondary finding aids are available, and Part 2 will look in more detail at the court records themselves, what they contain, and how they can help you to search the archive.
The court and its work
The Court of Great Sessions in Wales was established in 1542 as part of the ‘Acts of Union’, which applied English common law to the whole of Wales for the first time. The new court was empowered to hear the most serious cases, and twelve of the county courts in Wales were arranged into four circuits of three counties each, namely Chester (Denbighshire, Flintshire and Montgomeryshire), North Wales (Anglesey, Caernarfonshire and Merionethshire), Brecon (Breconshire, Glamorgan and Radnorshire) and Carmarthen (Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire). Itinerant justices were to visit each circuit twice a year, sitting in sessions of six days in the spring and late summer, and they were to hear civil, Crown and equity cases.
Civil cases were those between subjects in which the Crown had no interest. They were the backbone of the court’s business, and mostly concerned disputes over property (including real estate, goods and chattels) and debt, as well as breaches of contract, slander, trespass, payments of fines, common recoveries, some damages arising from physical assaults, and other matters. The competence of the Great Sessions in civil cases was comparable to that of the Court of Common Pleas at Westminster.
Crown cases were those that touched the interests of the Crown. They mostly consisted of criminal cases, and the records are particularly rich. They ranged from felonies (capital crimes) – murder, manslaughter, treason, arson, rape, burglary, theft of goods worth more than one shilling (grand larceny), witchcraft and other serious offences – to misdemeanours such as trespass, riot, affray, illegal assembly, entries, ejectment, extortion, contempts, recusancy, and theft of goods worth less than one shilling (petty larceny), which could be punished by fines, imprisonment, whipping, the stocks or mutilation. Some non-criminal matters were also dealt with, including highway maintenance and Coroner’s inquests, although not all of these were strictly part of the court’s business. The competence of the Great Sessions in Crown cases was comparable to that of English assize courts and the Court of King’s/Queen’s Bench at Westminster.
Equity cases were those that could not be answered by a common law court, either because the common law did not recognise the issue at hand (such as equitable interests in land), or because the court had no jurisdiction (in disputes that arose at sea, for example), or because no precedent was available. The principles of equity and conscience were followed, therefore, rather than the usual strict rules. This was the least important part of the work of the Great Sessions, but the records are valuable for genealogists because most equity cases involved matters of trust and agreement, such as marriage settlements, oral agreements, wills, mortgages and trusts, many of which arose from family arrangements. The competence of the Great Sessions in equity cases was comparable to that of the Court of Chancery at Westminster; this seems to have been the case throughout its existence, even though equity was not specified in the 1542 statute.
These arrangements continued until the court was abolished in 1830, and they are reflected in the records and the structure of the Library’s catalogue. Monmouthshire was allocated to the Oxford assize circuit, and its records are in The National Archives.
Minor cases were heard at county Quarter Sessions, and also at manor courts, as well as at Petty Sessions from the eighteenth century. Nor did the Great Sessions enjoy a monopoly over more serious cases. It co-existed with a number of other courts with similar jurisdictions, notably the court of the Council of Wales and the Marches (a prerogative court sitting at Ludlow until 1689), as well as ecclesiastical courts, King’s Bench, Chancery, English assize courts, and others; most Welsh cases in equity, for example, never came before the Great Sessions. Over time, precedents were established for hearing more cases in English courts, and the Great Sessions was gradually undermined. The complexities, anomalies and limitations of the court were widely criticised, as was the quality of its judges, and by 1830 it was considered outdated and unnecessary, although it had become a Welsh national institution.
Starting research in the Great Sessions records – secondary finding aids
In addition, Murray Chapman has calendared and indexed the early Montgomeryshire Gaol Files, providing researchers with a much easier route into these records. Eight volumes have been published by the Library to date, covering the periods 1541-1613 and 1650-1660.
Readers who would like to discover more will need to make their own searches. To help with this, the Library has produced several finding aids, including:
Glyn Parry’s A guide to the records of Great Sessions in Wales, which is the most comprehensive single work on the court’s records, procedures and development; it also contains extensive bibliographic notes
A leaflet for readers entitled ‘Records of the Court of Great Sessions’, available in the Reading Room
Part 2 of this blog will look at how the court records themselves can help your research.
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.