Victorian Welsh Women

Oct 21, 2015 by

Victorian Welsh women of the working class led hard lives and were rarely photographed.

The following photos, however,  show the beauty and character unique to those 19th century  ladies of Wales.

Such a lovely young woman–notice the wide variety of patterns in her garments, including plaid. She is wearing what we have come to know as the traditional dress or costume of Welsh women.  It has its origins in the rural farms of  Wales, where visitors to the country in the early 1700’s took note of the farm wives’ distinctive attire.   In contrast, women along the border with England and in prosperous towns wore English fashions.

The white cap she wears under her hat is known as a mob cap, a linen or cotton head cover with goffered (an ornamental frill made by pleating and pressing fabric ) fabric around the face.  Some  Welsh caps had long lappets which hung down the front below shoulder level.

The  most distinctive feature of traditional Welsh women’s attire is the hat, with its broad, stiff, flat brim and tall crown.  There were two main shapes of crown: those with drum shaped crowns were worn in north-west Wales and those with slightly tapering crowns were found in the rest of Wales. They were probably originally made of felt ( the hat in this photo appears to be felt) ,  but most surviving examples are of silk plush on a stiffened buckram base. A third type of hat, known as the cockle hat, was worn in the Swansea area.

First of two photos of a pair of women, identified as Sioned and Cadi.

  Here, they are dressed in their work clothes, old garments that once were new and fresh…

…like the dresses that Sioned and Cadi wear in this companion photo, also dated 1875.  The colors are dark, but the details–polka dots, velvet trim and ruffles–reveal the feminine side of these Victorian Welsh ladies.

Another woman dressed in traditional costume, this time standing beside a large spinning wheel. Note that her drum-shaped crown is much taller than the hat in the first photo.

 

There is a long tradition of knitting in Wales; in the 17th-19th centuries, farm women spent many hours creating woolen scarves and shawls to sell to the English and other visitors.  It provided a much-needed additional source of income for poor farm families.

 

A captivating photo of a young Victorian girl in Wales, posing with her large dog.  Her clothing is indicative of a prosperous upbringing, far different from Welsh farm women.

Beautiful hair!  Even in black and white , this woman’s long braided hair has a rich sheen.

A scene you will often find when viewing vintage photos of Victorian Welsh women: ladies having tea.  The large frills on the cap on the right are lovely, but I imagine they would seriously impair your peripheral vision.

An earlier Victorian photo showing a hand-woven shawl with long fringe, an accessory used by most Welsh farm women. The shawl could be used to cover a nursing baby, carry food or kindling, or as head cover in inclement weather.

 

A grouping of older Victorian Welsh women in traditional clothing with various hat styles.  Note that some of the mob caps have been dyed black, a mourning custom of the Victorian era. 

I love the little lady on the right–she’s barely taller than the seated women!

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Castell Carreg Cennen and Romancing the Welsh Stones

Mar 7, 2014 by

 

If you travel to Wales, you must budget time into your itinerary for exploring some of the  many ruined castles that dot the Welsh countryside particularly Castell Carreg Cennen .

  Castell Carreg Cennen (“castle on the rock above the Cennen”, in Welsh) ,  a spectacular Welsh castle located within Brecon Beacons National Park, near Carmarthenshire, Wales.   This 12th century stronghold of Rhys ap Gruffydd, known as the Lord Rhys, is dramatically located atop limestone cliffs overlooking the surrounding Welsh countryside, with spectacular views in all directions.

 

Castell Carreg Cennen is one of the few privately owned castles in Wales, and was acquired by its present owners through a legal technicality in the sale of the farmland upon which the castle sits.    The ruins of the castle are under the care of Cadw, the the historic environment service of the Welsh Government.

 

Although the original castle was built by the Welsh prince Rhys, it ultimately fell into English hands during  Edward I’s campaign to subjugate Wales.  As payment for his loyalty to the English crown during the Welsh wars, John Giffard, an English noble, was granted ownership of Castell Carreg Cennen in 1283, and was likely responsible for the features of the castle as it is now.

In 1403, Owain Glyndŵr, the last true Prince of Wales (as the last native Welshman to hold the title) laid siege to Castell Carreg Cennen for a year, but failed to take the castle.  Interestingly, the castle was held and defended by Sir John Scudamore, an Englishman who was secretly married to Alys, one of the daughters of Owain Glyndŵr.

 

 

The couple managed to keep Alys’ identity a secret until 1432, when King Henry VI discovered that Scudamore, one of his trusted nobles, was actually married to a daughter of  the great Welsh rebel.  Henry promptly stripped Scudamore of his royal duties.   Some scholars believe Sir John Scudamore and Alys hid Owain Glyndŵr after his disappearance in 1412 and kept him in his final years in secret on their estates in Wales.

Sounds like the plot for a piece of romantic historical fiction, doesn’t it?

 

 

During the 15th century War of the Roses, Castell Carreg Cennen was held by forces loyal to the House of Lancaster.  In 1462, after the Lancastrian defeat, Yorkist soldiers laid waste to the castle, destroying most of the interior. The castle has remained in essentially the same condition up to the present time, although Cadw have made efforts to stabilize and restore some areas.  The exterior of the castle still presents a formidable face to the world, as this view of the Welsh countryside through the arrow slits of the gatehouse shows:

An even more intriguing feature of Carreg Cennen is NOT visible  from the exterior, and requires a certain amount of splelunking skills to access.

At the south east corner of the castle’s inner ward is a steep set of stairs that lead down to a  limestone cave deep within the hillside. The passages into the cave were re-enforced at some point during the castle’s early history, perhaps to give access to a source of water for the castle during times of siege (which Carreg Cennen faced numerous times), or just to shore up the underground caverns so that the more sections of the castle could be built above it.

I find the idea of a secret cave system under the castle fantastically romantic, or maybe romantically fantastic.   Either way, it reminds me of the battle for the Hornburg ( or Helms Deep) in  J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, when Saruman’s forces place explosives in a cave culvert running under the fortress, then blast a hole in the defensive walls.   Some of  the defenders retreat into the beautiful underground caverns beneath Hornburg, a place Gimli the dwarf  calls the Glittering Caves.   I don’t know if Tolkien had Carreg Cennen in mind when he wrote his epic tale (although he was almost certainly familiar with the castle), but the Welsh castle’s imposing cliffside location and hidden caves seem the perfect inspiration for a legendary fortress of Middle Earth.

 

This video has beautiful time-lapse footage of Castell Carreg Cennen:

 

 

 

Sources and more information about Castell Carreg Cennen:

The Castles of Wales website–more photos of the castle and its interior areas.

Carreg Cennen Castle website

Lego version of Carreg Cennen— fun site with a Lego model of the castle and instructions for building your own Carreg Cennen with Legos

Brecon Beacons National Park site

Carreg Cennen on Wikipedia

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The St David’s Day Doodles of Google

Mar 1, 2014 by

 

Happy St David’s Day from Google!

For the past few years, the HUGE internet search company has honored Wales and its national holiday on March 1st by decorating their unique doodle of the day, an artistic logo for their homepage search box, with famous Welsh emblems.

The 2014 version features Y Ddraig Goch, the fierce Red Dragon of Wales, politely having tea with a woman wearing the betgwn (bedgown) and iconic Welsh stovepipe hat of rural 19th century Wales.

 

 

 

2013’s doodle features the Red Dragon of Wales breathing fire that magically transforms into daffodils, the national flower of Wales.  He also bears a green and white leek, another iconic Welsh emblem frequently seen on St David’s Day.    Read my recent post on St David’s Day to learn why Wales is one of the few countries to have a patriotic  national vegetable.

 

 

 

The 2012 Google Doodle for Dydd Gŵyl Dewi  again features the Red dragon, this time daintily sniffing daffodils while he reclines against a castle turret.

 

 

 

The Google Doodle for 2011 is the only one of the four to not feature the noble red dragon; instead, the G in the Google name is transformed into a Welsh lady in national costume, complete with black conical hat, shawl, goffered mobcap and daffodil.

 

 

 

To learn more about the history of Google’s Doodles, try their info page here.    Any suggestions for the 2015 St David Day’s Doodle?  Feel free to pass them on to the talented doodlers of  Google–who in turn pass on our rich Welsh heritage to the world.

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Speaking Welsh, One Word At A Time

Feb 6, 2014 by

I recently came across a wonderful Cymraeg blog called The Welsh Word of the Day, where you can see different words in Welsh, along with the translation and pronunciation in English.    You may even submit a word or words for translation–just words, however, not sentences or quotes, because that would entail a HUGE workload for the site admin, Mathew Hayes.  He’s providing a great way for anyone with Welsh or Celtic heritage in general to learn a bit of the beautiful Welsh language.

It’s February and Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, so I thought I’d pick out a few romantic Welsh words to get you started–click HERE  to see more daily Welsh posts from the blog.

Welsh word of the day: Cusan/Kiss

Welsh word of the day: Cusan/Kiss

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Vintage Women of Wales, Part Two

Jan 19, 2014 by

In my previous post on Victorian-era Welsh women, I focused mostly on farm women attired in traditional Welsh costume.  In this post, the upper middle class women and children  (in vintage photos from the National Library of Wales) are also from the Victorian era, but are clothed in fashions more typical of English women of that era.   Conformity and modesty–at least in public–were de rigueur in Victorian Welsh society, but small touches of personality shine through in these intriguing black and white photos from late 19th century Wales.

The women’s dresses are late Victorian in style, although without the large structural hoops common at that time.  The ladies have all parted their hair right down the middle and pulled it into tight buns, a typical hair style for daily activities.  I think that kind of  “up do” would give me a serious headache.

Young Elinor and her doll were photographed in 1853 by John Dillwyn Llewelyn (1810-1882), who may have been her father.   Under her white apron, she is wearing a plaid dress, in a fabric likely made from local Welsh wool.   Her hair is either wet from having just been washed (ok) or greasy from not being washed enough (yuck)– I’m putting my money on the former, rather than the latter.

  She looks rather sad, but her somber expression was typical for early photography subjects.   The photographic process and finished pictures were expensive, so the frivolity of a smile was frowned upon—pun intended.

There was, however, no such rule against dogs smiling in photographs, as seen here.
Women were not often photographed indoors with large hunting dogs like this curly canine, which could be a Welsh Cocker spaniel, the forerunner of the Welsh Springer spaniel.  Pampered lap pooches like pugs and Papillions were favored by middle and upper class women in staged portraits such as the one above.

Another staged portrait shot, but this woman is more relaxed as she arranges the flowers. Interesting to see her in a short-sleeved dress, and the fashionable curls in her hair.

Those dangly ringlets you see draped around Miss Hughes’ face were used to soften the severe (but practical) hairstyle common for women in the late 19th century.   Note that she’s also using a hair comb and a lace cap or snood to contain her hair– a bit of a split personality moment for this spinster lady, captured for us to view via the wet collodion photographic process.

What a sweet smile on her face!  You can see a full length picture of Jane with her young husband  HERE.

  Janie (as she was called) was born in 1865 in Pontfaen, Breconshire, Wales, to Howell and Eleanor Powell.  She married John, a Methodist missionary,  in September, 1887, and they immediately set sail for India.   Sadly, Jane died of cholera less than a week after their arrival in Calcutta; she is buried in India.  Read more about her and John HERE.

Riding sidesaddle is no easy feat, especially in a tight fitting corset and long skirts.  These ladies appear to have no worries, though, and look confident in the saddle.
Llansanffraid Glan Conwy (Glan Conwy) is a small village across from the town of Conwy on the estuary of the River Conwy.  It was founded in the 5th century;  the name translates from the Welsh as Church of St Ffraid (St Brigid of Ireland) on the bank of the River Conwy.

These sweet young ladies look to be (and probably were) little more than children, even though they worked as maids.   I’d love to know what became of them…

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