Friday, November 14, 2014

Herefordshire's Welsh Field Names

After bragging-up access to historical records in Wales as compared to England, I have to admit that this is not the case with 19C field names, where we certainly lag behind some of the border counties - see Herefordshire, Cheshire and Shropshire.

The Herefordshire and Cheshire databases are searchable, so to get a quick idea of the distribution of Welsh survivals what better element to look-up than the word cae - field.  I was surprised that this element is found fairly widely in two Cheshire parishes - Malpas and Shocklach.  The Shropshire maps aren't searchable, so I'll leave them alone and instead  look forward to the publication of the planned volume on Welsh placenames in that county.

The map shows those Herefordshire parishes which in 1841 had at least six fields containing the cae element. Most have far more - 83 such fields in Michaelchurch Escley, 61 in Clifford, 47 in Rowlestone, 45 in Craswell and so on, nearly 600 in total.  As you can see there is a pretty close correlation with the parishes where Welsh patronyms were common in the 16C - see post below.  I don't believe there is any great antiquity to most of these field names, instead they reflected a fairly recent acquaintance with the Welsh language.

Despite the widespread occurrence of Welsh surnames there's little evidence for any surviving Welsh national feeling in this Cambria irredenta. I did identify a greater tendency in the 2011 census to opt for a British identity rather than an English only identity in a selection of these parishes - see below.  Perhaps that that reflects some ethnic ambiguity?

On the whole though, while I dislike the use of the term anglicised for any population within Wales, its use here is appropriate -  just like the Germanised Slavs who make up a fair proportion of the  population of eastern Germany.

Let England keep these parishes, although you would think that the locals might take some interest in their own history.

Herefordshire average:  English-only 64% Welsh-only 4% British-only 16%
Clifford:  English-only 52% Welsh-only 8% British-only 28%
Cusop:  English-only 51% Welsh-only 15% British-only 19%
Dorstone:  English-only 54% Welsh-only 7% British-only 26%
Newton:  English-only 55% Welsh-only 9% British-only 27%
Abbeydore:  English-only 55% Welsh-only 5% British-only 23%
Longtown:  English-only 53% Welsh-only 11% British-only 21%
Llangarron:  English-only 56% Welsh-only 8% British-only 24%
Welsh Newton:  English-only 47% Welsh-only 8% British-only 30%
Ganarew:  English-only 50% Welsh-only 12% British-only 26%
Rowlestone:  English-only 50% Welsh-only 8% British-only 26% 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Four Welshwomen in Spain

I don't think that anyone can really argue that Welsh historians are not guilty of writing women out of our country's history, and that's certainly the case with these four youthful participants in the Spanish Civil War.  Margaret Powell and Thora Silverthorne do make an appearance in Rob Stradling's Wales and the Spanish Civil War, but only as a footnote to explain the lack of "gender inclusiveness" in his prose.  Meanwhile Fifi Roberts, whose story is perhaps the best remembered, makes the text but not the index.  Esyllt Scott-Ellis is not mentioned at all, prossibly because the author was unaware of her Welsh links.

Margaret Powell 1913-1990 was born on a farm in Llangenny near Crickhowell.  Some reports say that her father died when she was a child and that her brothers ended up being sent to Canada as part of Barnardo's unlamented scheme to populate the Empire.  Her daughter doesn't mention this in her brief summary of Margaret's life so perhaps it isn't the case.  What is clear is that Margaret trained as a nurse and midwife in London, was anxious to go out to Spain where she worked on the frontline during the Aragon offensive - assisting in a thousand operations and eventually ending up as a document-less refugee in the French camps.  In 1950 Margaret married the Communist journalist Sam Lesser, they lived in Moscow between 1955 and 1959 where her husband was the Daily Worker correspondent.

Another Welsh Communist nurse was Thora Silverthorne 1910-1999 from Abertillery. Better remembered than Margaret Powell there's a good summary of her life here. Thora worked hard to unionise the nursing profession, setting up her Association of Nurses in opposition to the Royal College, it later merged with NUPE.  When Thora died there were obituaries in the Guardian and the Independent.

It was interesting to learn that while Thora couldn't speak Welsh her elder sister did.  This seems to have been commonplace in industrial South Wales with figures like Nye Bevan and Gwyn Thomas speaking no Welsh while their older siblings did.  I remember being amazed in the 1970s to discover that my mother's elder sister could still understand Welsh even though she had lived in Hertfordshire since the 1930s.  Why did families suddenly stop passing on the language to younger siblings around the time of the First World War?

Nowadays we are supposed to equate Communists like Margaret and Thora with the Fascists and Nazis.  Shrill East European governments with murky histories and bought-and-paid-for journalists and authors demand that we accept that the Stalinists were even worse than Hitler.  I'm increasingly suspicious of such claims, even of those crimes admitted by Khrushchev and Gorbachev.  Indeed I fear for a future which sees the likes of Margaret Powell and Thora Silverthorne as villains, rather than the heroes they certainly were.

As mentioned above, the story of Fifi Roberts, the twenty year old daughter of a Penarth sea-captain,  is fairly well-known.  Fifi accompanied her father's vessel, the Seven Sea Spray, when it broke the blockade of Bilbao in April 1937.  This made Miss Roberts something of a celebrity, both in the Basque country and in newspapers around the world.  What is less well known is that Florence also sent reports on her visit to the News Chronicle, including some from Guernica soon after the town had been bombed - you can see her photographs and hear her recollections of the visit here.

Esyllt Scott-Ellis 1916-1983, better known as Priscilla or Pip, was a daughter of the 8th Lord Howard de Walden of Chirk Castle, remembered now as a leading patron of Welsh drama and literature.  Inspired by events in Spain and with some very basic nursing training this twenty-year-old aristocrat went out to Spain and was soon witnessing the battle for Teruel and the subsequent Aragon Offensive.  During the Second World War she was evacuated - as part of a British medical team - from Dunkirk. She later married the actor and author Jose Luis de Vilallonga and lived for many years in Argentina.  Before Plaid supporters get too excited about this largely forgotten member of a family with links to pre-war Welsh nationalism, they'll need to recall that Pip was a volunteer for Franco.  Heaven knows what Tim Williams would make of that!

Friday, November 07, 2014


Anyone with an interest in local history is well-served in Wales as old newspapers, wills, bardic genealogies etc are available on-line and free of charge.  Only photocopied parish registers and civil registration records have been handed over to the fee-devouring private sector.  The latest treat we are promised are on-line tithe maps together with the schedules detailing field names etc.  The map for Llanelwedd has already been uploaded, see here, accompanied by a short article, here

The tithe maps and schedules date back to the 1840s, a time when language shift in most of Radnorshire was either in progress or had only recently been completed.  The extent and nature of Welsh language field names should provide clues to the situation in the county's varied parishes, as well as information on dialect, social history and nature.