Radnorshire Society Christmas Notes and Queries no 4 2020
As 2020 comes to an end and we look forward to meeting up and having our usual programme of talks and outings, and a new activity – walks with the Field Section who have been on socially distanced walks recently over some of Radnorshire Commons with Elsa, the Field Section Secretary and Mo Lloyd an expert on Radnorshire Commons. As soon as we are able we will start up our regular outings, talks and re-open Dolmynach House library and archives, but with so much still uncertain we need to wait. The vaccine news is good and we hope and pray that we shall be able to resume a normal life sometime in 2021. There are some exciting projects and ideas in the pipeline.
As we approach the Christmas season, albeit a very different one, committee member Clive Barrett has put together some of the customs and traditions of
Christmas past in Radnorshire.
At St. Harmon heavy falls of snow were thought to be indicated, when sheep moved from the slopes of Moel Hywd to the deep dingle of Lleuast Bica. Sheep in general instinctively seek sheltered ground when bad weather threatens. In the county a hard winter was predicted by the rhyme:
If the sun shines on Christmas Day, saddle your horse and go to buy hay.
Similar uneasiness at Christmas sunshine lay in the belief that it portended some sort of damage by FIRE during the ensuing year.
In a revival of religious fervour which took place during the second half of the 19th century, and which coincided with the refurbishment or restoration of many churches, holy, ivy, and various evergreens were the preferred decoration at Christmas. In years gone by these seasonal decorations were not put up until Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
An alternative version as to what happened to Lady Stapleton, when she met her fate at Stapleton Castle, was the altogether shorter version of the dark deed, is that a husband murders his wife there because of her alleged infidelity. Before dying she swears that in proof of her innocence, white violets will bloom around the Castle at Christmas time——they have done so ever since!!!!! Until well into the twentieth century few local people cared to pass the Castle at night, and the children of Presteigne chanted this rhyme about its ghost Lady Stapleton
Lady Bluefoot, all in black, Silver buttons down her back,
Harigoshee! Harigoshee! Lock the cupboard and take the key.
(I can well remember hearing about the above growing up in the 1950’s and early 60’s in Presteigne)
One of the few times when the poor had licence to ask for help from the better—off was on St. Thomas Day (December 21st —- the shortest day). They went around the farms and big houses asking for gifts of wheat, which millers then ground into flour free of charge. The custom known as thomasing or gooding, delivered a useful supplement to the Christmas fare of poor families. A local jingle ran “A – gooding a—gooding, to make me a pudding”. At Disserth the process was slightly abbreviated because flour rather than wheat was usually donated.
The following practices lingered into living memory (my words). Even in modestly well—off farming and town families, children did not expect or to receive lavish presents at Christmas. A bar of chocolate, an orange and a few pennies made up a typical gift. Mona Morgan( born in 1916 and brought in Newchurch) remembers such presents as an apple, an orange, sugar mouse, a packet of sweets or a handkerchief in her Christmas stocking.( All the above is very familiar to me—-because for my sister and myself there was the alternative of some nuts, and a chocolate rather than a sugar mouse!!!! Beside the bed there might be a Noah’s Ark, a box of jigsaw bricks or a pencil box. (for me it was either a pirate or cowboy outfit or a Meccano set).
With the Church bells ringing the day both in and out, church and chapelgoers went to the early “plygain”
( which derives from the Latin for cock-crow and refers to the early service) or the more conventional morning service. Congregations both in church and chapel assembled at five or six o’clock on Christmas morning, and sang carols often in Welsh, until daybreak. It is said that the custom dates back to pre- Reformation or even Celtic times, deriving from the aurora(dawn) mass, so it is rather ironic and surprising that the churches gave it up, whilst the nonconformists kept it going!!!!. The above fact is shown by the Primitive Methodists of Presteigne who persisted with the “plygain” until about 1890, and went home singing carols through the streets after the service.
Francis Payne records Plygain services in the 1820s in Glascwm in Crwydro Dir Faesyfdd [translated into English by Dai Hawkins in Rads Soc transaction 2008 –
Rev. J.T.Evans wrote of a 90 year old Cascob woman ( born in 1820) who told him that fragments of the Christmas Log were carefully saved from the burning and kept to put on the following year’s fire, so preserving the house from accidental ignition. She unwittingly echoed the lines from a poem of 1648 by Robert Herrick.
Part must be kept where with to teend, The Christmas Log next yeare;
And where ‘tis safely kept the Fiend, Can do no mischiefe there.
Until about 1900 a football match was played every year on Christmas Day between Glascwm and Bettws. The respective goals were the two church doorways four miles apart, the teams comprised some 40 men each, and there were few rules. A similar contest took place on the same day at Dolefawr, near Rhayader, between teams from the Claerwen and Elan Valleys. Meanwhile, handbell ringers went around Howey; the Town Band played at Presteigne, and no doubt elsewhere. Carol singers at Knighton were known to end their performance with this pointed request as they knocked on the door.
Little robin redbreast sat up on a tree,
I wish you a merry Christmas, it’s a greeting from me,
With apples to eat , nuts to crack,
I wish you a merry Christmas, with a big rat a tat tat.
In Francis Kilvert’s time there were 12 days of the Old Christmas. An undated passage possibly relating to Clyro is a confused account of the “Mari Lwyd”( Grey Mare) a ritual performance during the 12 days of Christmas in many parts of Wales. This “production” involved a luck bringing mock horse with various attendants who exchanged partly—improvised song verses with householders, before being invited in. [how sad the paper that Kilvert is said to have written on local folklore is lost]
Ref: Roy Palmer – Folklore of Radnorshire
Jacqueline Simpson – Folklore of the Welsh Border
Ffrancis Payne – Crwydro Sir Faesyfed, translated Dai Hawkins in Radnorshire transactions 2008 & 2009
Hereford Times 13th November 1858
A Female Pugilist.—Hannah Cadwallader, of the Garth, in the parish of Knighton, was charged with assaulting and beating Mr William Jones, landlord of the Plough Inn, in this town. It appeared that the origin of the strife was Mr Jones having impounded a pig, the property of the resolute Hannah, who thereupon vowed to give Jones “a good sound threshing” at the first opportunity. She was stated to be a pretty good hand with her dainty fists. The offence having been proved, she was fined and 1s. costs, and bound over in to keep the peace towards all her Majesty’s subjects for the space of twelve months.
Hereford Times 7th September 1833
KNIGHTON. Fire—On Sunday night last about ten o’clock, the Plough, a public house, in Market St in this town, occupied by Wm. Jones, was observed be on fire. An immediate alarm was given, and, in a short time, the engine brought into action; but such was the rapid progress of the flames, that in a few minutes the back of the premises, and the whole the upper apartments of the dwelling house, with an adjoining building full of hay, were on fire. Every exertion was made, but some hours elapsed before the fire could be sufficiently got under, and unfortunately not before considerable injury was sustained by the proprietors of the property, in particular Mr Jones, whose loss in bedding, furniture, and 4 tons of hay estimated at £100. The family had retired to bed at early hour, unconscious of danger, all were buried in a sound sleep, when the bursting open of the doors first aroused them to a knowledge of their perilous situation; at this moment the flames had penetrated through the ceiling into the apartment in which they were sleeping; shortly afterwards the ceiling fell in; consequently, had it not been for a timely discovery, and the praiseworthy exertions of the inhabitants, the inmates would inevitably have perished. It appears, that on the previous day, Mrs Jones had been brewing; and it has been since ascertained, that there were several pieces of wood in the flue of the furnace; the flue had connection with the building; the pieces wood must have ignited, and thus the fire was communicated to the whole the premises.
Alfred Russel Wallace the naturalist was working for Morris Sayce of Kington surveying parishes for enclosure comments in later life about this work giving his views on Enclosure Acts when he wrote his autobiography after becoming famous “Before we left Llanbister my cousin, Percy Wilson, who was preparing for ordination after taking his degree at Oxford, came to stay a short time with us, and partly to see again the estate of Abbey-Cwm-Hir, which his father had purchased in the days of his prosperity and which was only a few miles distant, being, in fact, an adjoining parish. I and he walked over to see it one day, and found it to be situated in a lonely wild valley bounded by lofty and rather picturesque mountains. It was a small country house built by my uncle, partly from the heaped-up ruins of the ancient Cistercian monastery, the lower portion of the church still remaining, the walls having the remains of clustered columns attached to them. It would have made a charming summer residence in a few years, when the shrubs and trees had grown, and the whole surroundings had been somewhat modified by judicious planting, especially as Mr. Wilson had purchased, I believe, the entire estate, comprising the greater part of the parish, and including the whole valley and its surrounding mountains. This was at Llandrindod Wells, where there was then a large extent of moor and mountain surrounded by scattered cottages with their gardens and small fields, which, with their rights of common, enabled the occupants to keep a horse, cow, or a few sheep, and thus make a living. All this was now to be taken away from them, and the whole of this open land divided among the landowners of the parish or manor in proportion to the size or value of their estates. To those that had much, much was to be given, while from the poor their rights were taken away; for though nominally those that owned a little land had some compensation, it was so small as to be of no use to them in comparison with the grazing rights they before possessed. In the case of all cottagers who were tenants or leaseholders, it was simple robbery, as they had no compensation whatever, and were left wholly dependent on farmers for employment. And this was all done—as similar enclosures are almost always done—under false pretences. The “General Inclosure Act” states in its preamble, “Whereas it is expedient to facilitate the inclosure and improvement of commons and other lands now subject to the rights of property which obstruct cultivation and the productive employment of labour, be it enacted,” etc. But in hundreds of cases, when the commons, heaths, and mountains have been partitioned out among the landowners, the land remains as little cultivated as before. It is either thrown into adjacent farms as rough pasture at a nominal rent, or is used for game-coverts, and often continues in this waste and unproductive state for half a century or more, till any portions of it are required for railroads, or for building upon, when a price equal to that of the best land in the district is often demanded and obtained. I know of thousands of acres in many parts of the south of England to which these remarks will apply, and if this is not obtaining land under false pretences—a legalized robbery of the poor for the aggrandisement of the rich, who were the law-makers—words have no meaning. In this particular case the same course has been pursued. While writing these pages a friend was staying at Llandrindod for his wifes health, and I took the opportunity of asking him what was the present condition of the land more than sixty years after its inclosure. He informs me that, by inquiries among old inhabitants, he finds that at the time nothing whatever was done except to enclose the portions allotted to each landlord with turf banks or other rough fencing; and that to this day almost all the great boggy moor, with the mountain slopes and summits, have not been improved in any way, either by draining, cultivation, or planting, but is still wild, rough pasture. But about thirty years after the in-closure the railway rom Shrewsbury through South Wales passed through the place, and immediately afterwards a few villas and boarding-houses were built, and some of the enclosed land was sold at building prices. This has gone on year by year, and though the resident population is still only about 2000, it is said that 10,000 visitors (more or less) come every summer, and the chief increase of houses has been for their accommodation. My friend tells me that, except close to the village and railway, the whole country which was enclosed—many hundreds of acres—is still bare and uncultivated, with hardly any animals to be seen upon it. Milk is scanty and poor, and the only butter is Cornish or Australian, so that the inclosure has not led to the supply of the simplest agricultural needs of the population. Even the piece of common that was reserved for the use of the inhabitants is now used for golf-links!”
The law locks up the man or woman who steals goose from off the Common
But lets the greater villain loose who steals the Common from the goose
The disappearance of a local Milestone made me look up the local milestones and their history. There are 50 recorded in Radnorshire. They are all listed monuments. Many of them are cared for by members of the milestone society (http://www.milestonesociety.co.uk/index.html) and I am grateful to one of our members Chris Carpenter for being able to have extracts from a talk he gave on milestones and their history. The ‘stone’ was generally made from local stone, about 5 ft to 6 ft in height and cylindrical. Some early stones were wooden, in North Wales they used slate, and more latterly metal plates were used. As Turnpike Roads became increasing important in the 18th Century the need for better signage was recognised and in 1767 it became compulsory for all Turnpike Roads to have mileposts and to indicate both direction and mileage. This was a great help to traveller and to the coach operators.
The importance of the stones was reflected in the punishment that could be meted out to anyone tampering with stones – between 10 shillings and £5 or 1 month in jail.
1773 All crossroads were to be marked with a fingerpost
1781 Parish boundaries were to be marked
1830 Turnpike Trusts were set up in all regions
1880 Turnpike Trusts were abolished
1941 Government decreed that all milestones were to be removed or hidden in case of invasion
More latterly the responsibility was devolved to Highway Departments within the County Councils and many of the ancient waymarkers became Grade II listed.
The work of the Radnorshire Turnpike Trust in improving and realigning the county’s then very poor roads, for which purpose it met regularly in Presteigne’s Shire Hall. In the Trust’s first Order Book for the years 1767-1801 the name Edward Lewis, esq. appears frequently in minutes relating to road works and the erection of toll gates to meet the costs involved. The first turnpike road to be built, and referred to as ‘The Great Road’, ran across the county from Presteigne to Rhayader via New Radnor and Penybont, so having to take in its course parts of the high Radnor Forest. One of the very early entries in the Order Book, dated 4 August 1767. listed those Trustees, all of whom were local landed gentry of some wealth, who had subscribed sums of money to the credit of the tolls.
Some recent books I have read
Llangorse Crannog the excavation of and early medieval royal site in the Kingdom of Brycheiniog by Alan Lane and Bruce Redknap pub by Oxbow Book – a hefty tome and modestly priced at £40 [ or less if you shop around] for its size and content
A little into Herefordshire Andy Johnson – Sir John Oldcastle of Herefordshire: Traitor, Martyr or the Real Falstaff? He lived in Almeley, £15 from Logaston Press very detailed and well researched
Border Crossings Then and Now in the Welsh Marches by Richard Dobson published by Grovesnor House. A book to pick up and put down now and then, recommended by member Ivan Monckton it is an easy read and factually accurate. Hardback at £18.99 or less on the internet
Member Geraint Hughes has been busy producing two booklets Penybont in World War Two and The Ghosts of Penybont, as well as Volume 2 in The Life of a Signalman on the Central Wales Line, Excerpts from the Diary of James Smout all available from him at Hafod, Penybont at a very modest price
I have been re reading our transactions and realise just how much the Society has covered in its 90 years, and admire those who discover more. I look forward to the next edition in 2021 that our editors are working away on. I also enjoyed reading again Ffrancis Payne Exploring Radnorshire that Dai Hawkins translated into English and his references to houses and farms disappeared in his memory or just before. This is in volumes for 2008 and 2009 [ a few spare copies still available from the Society]
We have been offered a part set of transaction from 1951 onwards- does anyone want these ? Small donation will be required, ring me on 01597 851685 for details
And finally one to buy with your Christmas money by one of our members due out in the Spring
Philip Hume – The Welsh Marcher Lordships: 1: Central & North (Radnorshire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Montgomeryshire, Denbighshire & Flintshire)
(Paperback) at £15.99 or with a 15% society discount if ordered post free from the publishers Logaston press quoting radsoc https://logastonpress.co.uk
Philip will be giving us a talk in 2021 and taking us to some of the places in the Marcher Lords control.