The extraordinary life of Cranogwen: From mariner to poet and so much more …

Story of Wales - Posted 15-03-2019

This post is a part of the Story of Wales series, which looks at different aspects of Welsh history, and how today’s Wales remembers, and shapes it. Subscribe to the blog on the right to ensure you don’t miss any posts.

Celebrating Women’s Achievements

It seems that March has become the ultimate month to broadcast the achievements of women, of today and yesterday. Even though International Women’s Day has come and gone this year, March continues to hold the official status of Women’s History Month.

It should come as no surprise that we continue our Story of Wales series with a summary of a truly remarkable woman’s life – Cranogwen. Rest assured however; we will continue to evaluate the story of the women of Wales throughout the series, as should be done of course all year round!

A woman before her time

Sarah Jane Rees (b. 1839), known by her bardic name Cranogwen, was an innovator in many fields. A tall, striking and confident woman, she defied many of the notorious restrictions famously associated with the Victorian era and followed a career packed with extremely diverse experiences and achievements.

It’s no wonder that historian Professor Deirdre Beddoe referred to Cranogwen as ‘the most outstanding Welsh woman of the nineteenth century’.

Master Mariner

Cranogwen first came to prominence as a master mariner.

Having been raised in the coastal village of Llangrannog; having to bid her ship captain father farewell many a time as a child, it seems that Cranogwen was also destined for life on the sea. To her parents’ disappointment, she began a career in the nautical field and worked as a sailor on cargo ships for two years, sailing between Wales and France, before returning to London and Liverpool for study.

Cranogwen would go on to gain a master mariner’s qualification, allowing her to command ships all over the world.

However, in 1860 at the age of 21 she would return home as an educated young woman and thus was appointed to the role of head teacher at her local school.

Cranogwen the poet

It would seem that Cranogwen’s grasp of the Welsh language was as impressive as her handling of a ship’s helm!

She became the first ever woman to win a poetry prize at the National Eisteddfod. Her success at the Aberystwyth festival of 1865 gave Cranogwen a public platform and in a way made her an overnight celebrity in Wales!

Writing under the bardic name Cranogwen, Sarah Jane Rees’s poem ‘Y Fodrwy Briodasol’ – The Wedding Ring – was a somewhat humorous and sarcastic response to the married woman’s destiny.

It only took Rees five years to become a published poet and her popular collection ‘Caniadau Cranogwen’ appeared in 1870.

A Welsh Magazine for the Women of Wales

Cranogwen is remembered as the first woman to attempt many goals within the literary field in Wales.

Among her greatest achievements was the success of ‘Y Frythones’; the only second Welsh magazine to be dedicated to women’s issues, and the first to be edited by a female.

Cranogwen’s vision, as editor, would drive and shape the magazine’s content from 1879 to 1889. The publication included many interesting features including short stories and poems, campaigns, problem pages and advisory columns. As a general rule, every issue would also contain an article dedicated to the life and work of a respected woman, set as an example to the reader.

Cranogwen also championed the works of other female writers in ‘Y Frythones’ and gave many a platform to develop and showcase their voices.

Dedicated Activist and Preacher

It seems that Cranogwen’s talents were endless! She was an effective public speaker and travelled to America twice in order to address audiences and lecture on various subjects.

Among her many passions was the issue of Temperance and she was a key figure in the Movement. In her view, alcohol was extremely destructive to the family unit. In 1901 she founded the South Wales Women’s Temperance Union, which had developed over 140 branches by 1916.

Elen Hâf Jones
Written as part of the Europeana ‘Rise of Literacy’ project

This post is also available in: Welsh

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