EDITORIAL: INTRODUCTION TO PENCAMBRIA NUMBER 31 SPRING 2016
Welcome to the eleventh year of Pencambria, and I hope will find its contents as interesting/absorbing/ entertaining and/or thought-provoking as you have in previous years. While writing this introduction, I am on my best literary behaviour, determined that my efforts do not come to the attention of Professor Pedanticus in the puzzles section of the Saturday edition of the Guardian. How mortifying to have my grammatical gaffs spread out for all Guardianistas to tut and gloat over.
The closure of John Mills Foundry in Llanidloes was a great loss to the economy of Mid Wales. Douglas Hurd worked there for thirty years and he remembers some of the extraordinary machines that were made there. In the meantime, as he strides the hills once more, Lawrence Johnson looks for traces of that legendary Welsh bard, Taliesin, in the landscape. In contrast Brian Poole has taken to the river as he finds traces of timber being floated downstream to its destination, a mode of transport, long gone since the coming of the railways and the long-distance lorry.
If there is one object that can be said to be iconic as regards the heritage of Wales it has to be the harp. Wales has given birth to many truly great harpists and none more so than the Roberts family of Montgomeryshire. The most famous of this family was John Roberts the bicentenary of whose birth is being celebrated this year in several places in Wales, most notably here in mid Wales in Montgomery, where there will be a series of workshops held by Amanda Munday and one of the great contemporary virtuosos of the Welsh triple harp, Robin Huw Bowen, culminating in a concert in Montgomery town hall in May. Chris Barrett tells us all about John Roberts himself in the second part of Life On The Road, her lively account of the gypsies in Mid Wales and this article is published below as a tribute to this great Welsh harpist who, when he finally settled down, made Newtown his home.
On 1st June 1889 the town of Johnstown in Pennsylvania was wiped out by a flood when a reservoir above it collapsed after one of the most violent storms ever experienced in that area and in total some 5,000 people lost their lives. Johnstown was the home of a large number of migrants from mid Wales, especially from Newtown and Llanidloes. Several people managed to send letters describing the disaster, back to their friends and families in Wales and the newspaper reports give a particularly vivid account of the flood and its aftermath. Two of these letters plus the account transmitted in a Reuters telegram published in the Montgomeryshire Express are printed in this edition.
Having looked at the history of the Liberal Party in Montgomeryshire, Diana Brown goes for political balance by examining the influence of the Conservatives in this very politically independent area of Wales and finds families entrenching their positions in a struggle for political supremacy that is, assassinations aside, comparable to the military manoeuvrings of the medieval period that preceded them.
Meanwhile, in Chapter 4 of Chartism in Llanidloes 1839-40 E. Ronald Morris covers the political struggles of those much lower down the social scale: the Chartists riot for which the town is famous or notorious depending on which side you were on.
Using household account books of the period, Val Church shows us just how different were lives of the rich and the poor in Montgomeryshire in the nineteenth century.
Our retired lady from Llawryglyn discovers the joys and pitfalls of attempting to become a Welsh speaker. Let us hope she does not come across Henry, the Welsh learner whose fate is described by Val Church in a tale in the Dragon’s Crypt. There we also find A Strange Encounter as related by Gaynor Jones, the apprehensions on Leaving Home reflected on by Norma Allen, a child’s Hope of seeing her daddy again when he goes away to war expressed in a poem by Amber Louise Robinson, and Bruce Mawdesley’s inimitable variation on the immortal Song of the Weather as previously observed by those masters of wordplay, Michael Flanders and Donald Swann.
Pasg hapus i chi – a Happy Easter to you all.
The Foundry, Llanidloes Douglas Hurd
A Welsh Hero Reginald Massey
“I was a Salmon, I was a Dog” Lawrence Johnson
A Harp for Rhiew Bechan School
Whigs vs Tories :Montgomeryshire politics prior to the 19th century Diana Brown
Chartism in Llanidloes: Chapter 4 E. Ronald Morris
The Johnstown Flood Gay Roberts
Gregynog Festival : Eire
Put Out to Grass: part 18: Reflections on Language Diana Ashworth
A Celebration of Welsh Gypsy Harping
The Lost Welsh Kingdom John Hughes
Two Lifestyles and What was in the Soup at Dolanog Val Church
Life on the Road: Part 2: The Roberts Family Chris Barrett
Mid Wales Arts Centre
Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales
The Dragons Crypt
The Seasons Bruce Mawdesley
A Strange Encounter Gaynor Jones
Leaving Home : 1962 Norma Allen
Hope Amber Louise Robinson
Death of a Learner Val Church
LIFE ON THE ROAD by Chris Barrett
Part 2: The Roberts Family
“There are three things a man ought to have in his home: a virtuous wife, his cushion in his chair and his harp in tune.”
Welsh Triad (Stephens, 1901, p203)
The history of gypsies in Wales from the 16th century to modern day was presented in Part 1 of this article (PenCambria, No 30). Part 2 focuses on the talented harpists and violinists of the Roberts family of Newtown, descendants of Abram Wood – the great gypsy patriarch whose presence in north and mid-Wales is documented from about 1750. Abram Wood married Sarah and it is through their son, William, that the Roberts branch of the Wood’s family tree developed. Many of the Roberts family members became renowned as musicians. The most famous of this talented Teleu was John Roberts, born 1816, this year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth. He was known as Telynor Cymru, the Harpist of Wales. A book about John’s life and his family, “With Harp, Fiddle and Folktale”, was first published in 1978 in Welsh. A considerably revised English edition by E. Ernest Roberts, John’s great-grandson, was published in autumn 1981. Unfortunately, Ernest died in June 1981 and did not live to see his published work. Roberts (1981 p27) praised Abram’s astuteness and foresight in adopting the Welsh triple-string harp, in which his Teulu was to excel. Some brief explanatory notes may be useful before exploring the Roberts’ family story.
The Triple Harp is known to have been used during the reign of Charles I, around 1630, and was very well known in Britain by the beginning of the 17th century (Roberts, 2000). It is believed that the first Welsh triple harp was made, towards the end of the same century, by Elis Sion Siamas of Llanfachreth near Dolgellau (www.clera.org/saesneg/harp.php). An early description of the Welsh harp is provided by the harpist John Parry (Bardd Alaw) (1776–1851) in the preface to the second volume of his collection; The Welsh Harper (London 1839). Genetic studies have shown that the Romanies/gypsies originated in India (Kalaydjieva et al, 2005) and, therefore, may have brought the “Welsh” harp to Britain in the 16th-17th centuries as they travelled across Europe. There are reports of similar style harps being played in Europe, especially in Italy, before its arrival in Britain. Davies (1901), in an appendix to Stephens’ book “Welshmen”, describes the Welsh Triple harp thus; there are no pedals on the Welsh harp, it is held on the left shoulder and produces a different sound to the English or pedal harp – notes which are clear, sonorous and rich, a household or family instrument. Davies considered it possessed three “enormous advantages of cheapness, simplicity of design and a rich tone” (p243) and, most importantly for travelling players, it was lighter and more portable than the pedal harp. Davies suggests possible improvements to the harp, stating that it had not been structurally modified in the past 200 years! In his opinion the contemporary decoration, on English and American harps, were more pleasing and Welsh harp makers were continuing to reproduce bad features such as being “troublesome to maintain in tune due to the great number of strings” and “manipulation owing to the closeness of the strings”. However, Sebastian Erard is known to have improved the Triple harp in the 1790s, producing a double action mechanism) which he later patented (http://www.ceredigion.gov.uk).
The violin may also be called a fiddle and to all intents and purpose they are similar. The term fiddle is often applied when the music played is folk-song, celtic or gypsy. (Abram Wood played the violin, rather than the harp).
Penillion singing, cerdd dant, is an old Welsh form of poetry in which a harpist plays and sings or is accompanied by other singers. The harp player always opens the performance with the main melody (alaw/cainc) but both player and singer(s) then add a counter melody (cyfalaw), harmonies and rhythms before finishing their presentation together. The website cerdd-dant.org traces the history of penillion from its beginnings to present day. The earliest recording of this type of singing was in the 12th century. In 1885 Idris Fychan published the first known penillion guidelines and listed 64 penillion singers of the day. Trevelyan (1893), in describing Welsh singing, states that penillion ranges from “grave to gay, from quick movements to slow and from sprightly tunes to melancholy wailing” (pp106-107). In John Roberts’ time the harpist traditionally played the Welsh harp airs and the vocal counter melody was improvised. In old collections the “song” is the lyrics and the “air” is the tune. Modern penillion singing has become more structured.
Welsh Harpists are known to have been employed by Royal families in England, at court and in battle, since the reign of King Henry VII (1457-1509). They played single and double row harps and had adopted the triple harp by the 1660s (Roberts, 2000).
Enough of technicalities, let’s move on to the Roberts musicians themselves! John Roberts Alaw Elwy (1816-1894) was the eldest son of John Robert Lewis and Sarah Wood. His father was a Welshman, from Pentrefoelas, a parish and village in North Wales. His mother, Sarah, was the grand-daughter of Abram Wood. John was born at Rhiwlas Isaf, Llanrhaeadr, Denbighshire. His nomadic gypsy childhood, often within a small family group, was challenging. Roberts (1981) provides evidence that John experienced poverty and hunger and when the family desperately needed money he would be sent back to work on a relative’s farm near Llanhaeadr. In 1830, aged just fourteen, John decided to join the army. He reasoned that (p38) during a “wilful cold winter” in Breconshire he enjoyed seeing the soldiers on parade. Also, John knew his own father had been in the army and reportedly fought at Waterloo. After enlisting at Brecon Barracks, John spent about nine years as a drummer in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers (23rd Battalion). However, he deserted twice, firstly in 1839 when he was captured in Swansea. He absconded again four months later and stayed on the run for four more years during which time he earned enough money performing to purchase his service discharge in 1844. John was obviously a very resourceful person, as illustrated by his ability to survive for five years as a deserter during which he moved around the UK (Roberts, 1981 pp38-40).
Because of the strong family ties in the gypsy community John would have known many other harpists, too numerous to discuss in a short article, for example; Richard Roberts (1796-1855), from Caernarvon, who was blind from the age of 8 yrs and a well-known and accomplished harpist, penillion singer and teacher. The Dictionary of Welsh Biography, available on the National Library of Wales website (wbo.llgc.org.uk/en/s-WOOD-sip-1500html), lists many of the Woods/Roberts Teulu who were talented harpists and fiddlers. They were welcomed by Welsh gentry to entertain their guests and some individuals were employed long-term by the nobility as their resident musician. But John’s talent was exceptional and by 1886 he was widely known as Teylnor Cymru, rather than Alaw Elwy, following his investiture in a bardic gorsedd near Llyn Geirionydd. In addition to his extraordinary musical talent his resourcefulness, imagination and ability to write and to tell a good story seems to have contributed to a “larger than life” persona. Literacy was not common in his social class at that time. John’s correspondence to Frances Hindes Groome, written in 1887-9, are in Romani and English and are an entertaining mixture of affection for his “nephew”, storytelling, and descriptions of gypsy music and lifestyle.
John had played the harp since boyhood and was steeped in the traditions of gypsy music, poetry and song. During his military life as a drummer he learned about many other musical instruments and improved as a harpist. He played the harp for various members of Royalty including Princess Victoria (in Portsmouth in 1834 and Winchester in 1835), the Grand Duke Constantine of Russia (in Aberystwyth in 1847) and Prince Leopold 1, later the first King of Belgium (in Swansea in 1848). In his letters to Francis Hindes Groome he identified many notable families of Welsh gentry he had entertained on request. He had married his first cousin Eleanor Wood Jones (Perpinia), in 1839. Her father was a well-known musician, Jeremiah Wood Jones, who worked as a harpist at Gogerddan (the home of the Pryse family since the 14th century). Once John and Eleanor were married, and during the time he was an army deserter, they entertained people in many different venues from inns and hostelries to fine country homes. But John’s reputation grew when he won Eisteddfod medals and prizes for his playing and singing (at Abergavenny in 1842, and 1848 and at Cardiff in 1850.)
John Roberts, picture reproduced from flyer and archived in the National Library of Wales
In 1850 John and Eleanor settled in Newtown, mid-Wales, a place which was to remain his home until he died some forty-four years later. They brought up a family of thirteen children who were born between 1840-1865. And it is here that the focus of the Roberts family moves from John to his many talented offspring. Apart from Abraham, Sarah and Ann, his remaining ten children were instrumentalists, singers and performers (see Table 1).
When John and his nine sons performed together they were known as The Cambrian Minstrels. They practiced at home in Newtown to become a “trained and disciplined orchestra…that toured a circuit that included Aberystwyth, Machynlleth, Tywyn, Dolgellau, Corwen and Bala” (Roberts 1981 p76). Table 1 illustrates each individual’s competence to play different instruments but only suggests the co-operation that must have been required to achieve cohesion of the group members. John appears to have acted as agent/manager of the Minstrels, confirming events and travel and touring arrangements as well as deciding the programme from their vast repertoire.
The Minstrels’ reputation was bolstered in their home town by local performances including balls held in the Pryce Jones Warehouse. When Queen Victoria visited Wales in 1889 she stayed with Sir Henry Robertson, of railroad building fame, in the beautiful mansion overlooking the River Dee, Pale Hall. The Cambrian Minstrels solely provided the evening entertainment for the royal visitor. Roberts (1981) describes in detail the family’s preparations for their performance and their journey to Llangollen and onward by a special train to Llandderfel station. Interestingly, the current website of the Pale Hall Hotel describes the occasion as; the Queen was “serenaded by a local Welsh choir”! Following a year of declining health John had a stroke in 1893 and sent his triple harp to his friend, Mr Nicholas Bennett. The family turned down a trip, all expenses paid, to the World Fair in Chicago. John died in 1894 and was buried in Newtown, in the parish churchyard of St David’s church.
Table 1: Musical ability of the family of John Roberts
|Date of Birth
||Place of Birth
||Area of recognised competence
||Welsh Harp, Violin, singing
||Eisteddfod prizes, 1850 & 1858
||Welsh, English Harp
||Eisteddfod prize, 1865Harpist to Lady Londonderry
||Died aged 2yrs
||Mainly English Harp, and Welsh Harp
||Eisteddfod prizes, at least 9
||Welsh and English Harp, Singing
||Eisteddfod prizes, at least 10Played for the Empress of Austria
||Welsh Harp, English Harp, Violon-Cello, Double Bass, Piccolo. Mandolin
||Twin: JamesHis eldest son was Ernest France, the father of Eldra (1917-2001) and taught her to play the harp. Eldra taught gypsy tunes to Robin Huw Bowen
||Eisteddfod prizes, at least 19.Bardic title and Chief Harpist.“The ablest musician of the family” *
Played for the Empress of Austria
||English Harp, Violin, Double Bass, Singing
||Cello and Harp
||Mainly Violin, English Harp
||Twin: CharlesPlayed at London Palladium and Phoenix Theatre
*(Roberts, 1981 p67)
It is important to place the achievements of the Roberts family in context. Musicality is recognisably part of Welsh history, culture and folklore. In the 12th century Gruffydd ab Cynan held an Eisteddfod at Caerwys, Flintshire, “for the purpose of regulating minstrels, whither travelled all the musicians of Wales” (Stephens 1901, p200). He is credited also with increasing the popularity of the bagpipe in Wales, where it was often regarded with contempt (pp200-202). At this time “the harp ruled supreme” and “strangers were entertained with conversation of young women and the music of the harp, for…almost every house was provided with both” and in “every family, or in every tribe they esteemed skill in playing on the harp beyond any kind of learning” (p203). Karen McCauley has studied the Celtic Bards in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Her descriptions of wandering minstrels and mournful harps are available on several websites, including a chronology of Welsh Songbooks 1794-1927 and many examples of Welsh harp airs, songs and penillion arrangements. (crowdsourcingbard.pbworks.com).
Despite present day recognition of the Roberts family’s abilities, wandering minstrels and Gypsy/Romany musicians may often have been on the fringe of the music scene in Wales – as they were in much of society generally. In many European cultures Romani music was only partially assimilated into national culture. Gypsies and their way of life stimulated fascination and fear. For instance, in Hungary gypsy costumes and music were emblematic, national symbols. However, gypsies themselves and their folk music were later to be discriminated against and ostracised. In the UK in the 18900s Trevelyan wrote “Glimpses of Welsh Life and Character”. In Chapter 7, which was devoted to “Welsh singing and song”, she declares this activity to be “as natural to the Welsh as to the birds” (p105). She reproduces the words and music to many songs which “are to be heard from house to house in Wales, and perhaps never to better advantage than in the open air” (pp110-113). This could be assumed to be a reference to gypsy singers but the rest of her writings make no mention of travelling or Romany musicians. Her descriptions are of farming folk in rural areas, milkmaids and workers. Marie Roberts’ book The Harpmakers of Wales (2000) does include a description of the “folk harpers” (p26-28) who travelled the Welsh countryside carrying their harps on their back. Also, she lists 58 makers and repairers of harps and includes John Roberts. John and his sons would have been skilled at maintaining and repairing their harps. Marie describes their ability to renovate old instruments (p127). Indeed, Roberts (1981) includes a letter from John to Mr Morley of Morleys harp makers in London. It discussed the technical aspects of the Welsh harp and the desirable quality of a pure Welsh harpist as “one who has love for his country … and a Tear in his eye” (pp94-9).
Today the harp, like the gypsies, is still a part of life in Wales. To mark the two hundredth anniversary of John Robert’s birth there has been a celebration of Welsh Gypsy Harping(telynor.cymru/en/hanes.php). A series of harp workshops and concerts has been held throughout Powys. Robin Hugh Bowen has played the harp airs in the traditional Welsh manner- resting the harp on his left shoulder. He has many talents and is a harpist, folk group member and publisher. Other contemporary Welsh harpists have achieved international fame, including Elinor Bennett and Catrin Jones. In the 19th century Wales gained a reputation as the Land of Song and in Welsh the harpist doesn’t play but sings the harp – Canu’r telyn! Throughout Wales, Welsh love spoons, silver and wooden, are found with a heart and harp entwined. It is often said that music is heard by the ears but the harp touches the heart and in Ireland the harp is said to reflect immortality of the soul. It seems fitting to end this article on Welsh gypsies and the talented Roberts’ family with the opening words from Chapter 9 in the book written by EE Roberts about his great-grandfather; Telynor Cymru:
“John had a deep and abiding love for the Welsh harp.”
Davies (1901) Appendix on the Welsh Harp In Stephens (1901) Welshmen 2nd Ed Western Mail Ltd. Cardiff.
Jarman, E & AOH (1991) The Welsh Gypsies: Children of Abram Wood, University of Wales Press.
Roberts EE (1981) With Harp, Fiddle and Folktale, Gee & Son, Clwyd.
Roberts M (2000) The Harpmakers of Wales. Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, Llanrwst, Wales.
Short R S Rev (1885) The Roberts family of Welsh Harpists Aberystwyth Gazette July 18th 1885.
Stephens T (1901) Welshmen 2nd Ed Western Mail Ltd. Cardiff.
Trevelyan M (1893) Glimpses of Welsh Life and Character. John Hogg, London.
McCauley K https://www.academia.edu/1511674/Crowdsourcing_the_Celtic_Bard_Wandering_Minstrels_and_Mournful_Harps and crowdsourcingbard.pbworks.co.uk.
Letter from John Roberts http://www.morleyharps.co.uk/general-articles/historical-documents-from-the-clive-morley-collection/
2016 Anniversary Workshops: telynor.cymru/en/hanes.php