Touring with Cranogwen

Norena Shopland, 21 February 2023

When trying to visualise people’s lives, particularly those from the past, it’s often the small things that bring lives to life such as a ticket to a lecture or a brooch - and two items in Amgueddfa Cymru’s collection certainly do that. 

They both relate to Cranogwen, the bardic name for Sarah Jane Rees (1839–1916) a master mariner, poet, writer, editor and temperance worker who, for most of her life lived in the small town of Llangrannog, Cardiganshire. She was born there and throughout her life travelled from there to become one of the most well-known women in Wales in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. And it was here that her two partners lived, first Fanny Rees “Phania” (1853-1874) who died aged just 21 and later Jane Thomas (1850-?) who, in most of the census returns is described as a ‘domestic worker’, ‘general servant’ or ‘charwoman’. 

Cranogwen was often away, involved in myriad projects and giving lecturers but her first tour started in 1866, a year after controversially winning an Eisteddfod poetry prize when it was revealed a woman had beaten the men. Consequently, when she started touring her name was already known as a Y Gwladgarwr journalist noted:

The reader will remember that it was the young girl lion who took the prize at the Aberystwyth Eisteddfod for the song for the Wedding Ring. After hearing that, and also understanding that our leading poets, such as Islwyn and Ceiriog were competing, I was a bit surprised that there was some ‘dirt in the cheese’ somewhere. [i]

Cranogwen’s tour centred on her lecture ‘The Youth and the Culture of their Minds’ although this did expand later to include two other lecturers, ‘Anhebgorion Cymeriad da’ (Essentials of a Good Character) and ‘Elements of Happiness’, all concerned with improvements in people’s characters. As she spoke in Welsh, they were predominantly covered by the Welsh language press with the English language media paying very little attention. 

Cranogwen started off in the Aberystwyth area so hopefully Jane did travel with her to provide some support but as the talks grew in popularity Cranogwen travelled further afield and just two months later at Swansea’s Brynhyfryd Chapel nearly one thousand people turned out to see her - a daunting prospect for anyone so hopefully Jane was there as well to give support.

Word was spreading quickly and, as a journalist at Baner ac Amserau Cymru noted, ‘There is no need in the world to go to the trouble of giving a description of the lecture today, because it is already quite well known throughout Wales.[ii]

Everywhere she went praise was showered upon her, causing one journalist to wonder if she could live up to the hype: ‘since we had heard such praise for her, we expected her to be good. But we never imagined that she was as talented as she is, and so masterful at her work.’ [iii]

Night after night she spoke to rave reviews and her one-hour lecture expanded into two and even longer when local dignitaries sought to appear on stage alongside her, adding their pennyworth. Local poets flocked to her, often writing englyns, many of which were published in the papers, and women were following her example and taking to the stage. 

This caused concern. 

Women, particularly ‘young girls’ (she was 27 at the time) should not be lecturing, said the men, who complained of the impropriety of women speaking in public. ‘The inhabitants of South Wales,’ ranted the Cardiff Times, ‘are running wild with the young ladies who are lecturing about the country [and] in the opinion of many eminent men this is going too far. 

At the Association of the Calvinistic Methodists held at Carnarvon the Rev. Henry Rees, and eminent minister, whose name is known through the Principality, spoke against female preachers, and stated that it would be far more becoming in those who are fond of preaching to attend to those duties which belong to their sex. We are glad that a gentleman of Mr Rees’s standing has set his face against this new mania.[iv]

‘Are these women not at home?’ Seren Cymru joined in, ‘are we ready to see our parishes being dotted, if not flooded, and women lecturing.[v]

Most journalists ignored them and continued their rave reviews of Cranogwen. 

The talks usually began at 7pm and tickets cost 6d (about £2 today) and audiences were huge with many writers noting how listeners would sit quietly entranced for two hours often nodding in agreement and rewarding Cranogwen with thunderous applause. In almost all her talks it was noted that the profits went to pay off chapel debts. 

Throughout 1867 Cranogwen continued to tour and the Amgueddfa Cymru ticket is dated to 2 January but no newspaper report has been found for Brynmenyn, Bridgend – but then there were so many talks not all were covered and the tour was a year old by this time. 

In 1869–1870 Cranogwen toured the United States giving the same sort of lectures – and we would need to examine the immigration records to see if Jane went with her. 

When she returned, Cranogwen continued her good works, and in the early twentieth century she, like many eminent women, become involved in the temperance movement. Drunkenness, particularly among women was endemic as they tried to escape harsh lives and a number of unions were set up to try and tackle this including the Rhondda Women’s Union, set up in April 1901. It was so successful that a decision was made to expand it, and Cranogwen was instrumental in changing it to Undeb Dirwestol Merched y De (U.D.M.D.) (South Wales Women’s Temperance Union) where she was the Organisational Secretary, with her address still listed at Llangrannog. Once again, Cranogwen was touring extensively with the Union.

As they arrived at each town, Union members would process through the streets carrying banners before settling at a chapel where prayers and hymns, and readings from the Bible, were read out followed by speeches by leading members of the Union. In addition, guest speakers featured well-known Welsh women who would draw in audiences, followed by tea and cake and socialising, and the three-hour events were attended by hundreds of people. There would be collections, and sales of pamphlets and badges. The example in the Amgueddfa Cymru collection is technically a brooch and it is not clear if the badges Cranogwen received money for, were these brooches. 


By December 1901, new U.D.M.D. branches were growing throughout south Wales and by the time of Cranogwen’s death in 1916 there were 140 branches throughout South Wales. 

Cranogwen was indefatigable, and one can only wonder at her energy. As well as all her good works one of her strengths was the encouragement of so many young women to become writers and orators, even if the men disapproved. 

Cranogwen died in 1916 at Wood Street Cilfynydd, Rhondda Cynon Taf, her niece’s house. ‘No other Welsh woman enjoyed popularity in so many public spheres’[vii] noted the Cambrian Daily Leader. Unfortunately, it is not yet known when Jane died, hopefully the forthcoming biography by Jane Aaron will tell us more, but just five years earlier they were still living together in Llangrannog and the town was to remain Cranogwen’s permanent address for most of her life. No matter how much she travelled, it seems she always went home to Jane. 

Memorial to Sarah Jane Rees, Llangrannog (WikiCommons)

[i] Y Gwladgarwr, 5th May 1866

[ii] Baner ac Amserau Cymru, 14 April 1866

[iii] Baner ac Amserau Cymru, 14 April 1866

[iv] Cardiff Times, 5 October 1866

[v] Seren Cymru, 4 January 1867

[vii] Cambrian Daily Leader, 28 June 1916

Queer Tours at St Fagans National Museum of History

Oska von Ruhland, 14 June 2022

Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales is home to a growing collection of objects exploring Wales’ LGBTQ+ history. Like the other collections, they’re all available to view online in the Collections & Research tab on the Museum’s website. The Collections Online features objects both in store and currently on display.

Though the collection is always available to freely view and people may read through the information about each object and learn in their own time, it is a shared view that it is important to celebrate and uplift the stories and lives of marginalised communities and bring forward hidden aspects of Welsh history. In doing this work we hope to normalise queer lives in Wales, and solidify the important role of diverse identities as part of Welsh culture.

To give an idea of the sort of objects we will be discussing in the Queer Tours projects, we would like to invite you to look through Collections Online, and consider not only contemporary queer icons who make our variety of Pride events so unique, or even famous historical figures who have secured a place in mainstream Welsh heritage, but the lives of the everyday person who may have had to live in secret, or whose activism was never properly recorded. Here we want to bring forward all of these lost stories, in the hopes that by sharing them we will continue to uncover more.

In an effort to bring attention to the LGBTQ+ Collection, we have developed the Queer Tours project to encourage the public to explore the variety of objects and better understand Wales’ queer heritage. This project has been developed by Amgueddfa Cymru Producers on behalf of the museum for the Pride season.

For the ever-growing variety of objects in the collection, and a want to reflect as many important aspects of this heritage as possible, several parts of this project have been developed or are in the process of being developed:

  • A series of social media posts highlighting a selection of objects in the collection and their role in queer Welsh heritage that will be available on the Bloedd AC Instagram account.
  • A digital tour video of St Fagans National Museum of History exploring objects currently on display and the way we can interpret the history of queer everyday life.
  • A self-guided tour for visitors of St Fagans National Museum of History to follow the route themselves and become immersed in history themselves.
  • A  special one-time-event in-person led tour is being developed so that attendees may enjoy hearing about the work at St Fagans National Museum of History and the continuing effort being put into the LGBTQ+ Collection.

It is our hope that this project be useful and educational to people not just during this Pride season, but will leave a lasting impact and change views of what queer heritage means in Wales.

All of this work is possible thanks to the Hands on Heritage support fund.

A Queer Welsh Ballad

Mair Jones & Norena Shopland, 24 March 2022

In October 2021 following a talk on cross-dressing in history by Norena Shopland, a Welsh language ballad, Can Newydd, came to light in the Welsh Music Archive (WMA), National Library Wales. More can be read on that story in A Queer Bawdy Ballad. What is striking is the explicitly sexual nature of the ballad, depicting cross-dressing women having sexual relations with women.

Archifdy Ceredigion Archives (ACA) and Archives and Special Collections, Bangor University (BU) have exact copies in their collections but in February 2022 a third copy was located at Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales (ACNMW) however this version is simply entitled Can and has a few differences. Mair Jones who did the first translation of Can Newydd, also did the translation for Can.

The lyrics of both versions were written by a rather eccentric part-time criminal, one-eyed balladeer Abel Jones, ‘the last of the “great” balladists’ but who was often known by his bardic name Bardd Crwst after his birthplace, Llanrwst. Jones was a balladeer who travelled and performed at fairs across Wales, selling his ballads as ‘new songs’ (can newydd) on specific topics, such as the death of the Emperor of Russia, industrial accidents and disaster, tithe war and murders - though not always historically accurate, because his main aim was to sell his ballads. Sometimes he sold them with his son, and usually it was to people like the agricultural working-class community. He was the most well-known and popular balladeer of his time, though he died in Llanrwst Workhouse.

Dating the ballad is difficult although dates of between 1865-1872 have been suggested (see A Queer Bawdy Ballad for more details) and there is nothing in Can to suggest whether it comes before or after Can Newydd. However, all three versions of Can Newydd are signed Bardd Crwst while the ACNMW version is signed Abel Jones, (Bardd Crwst) and there may be a reason for this.

Jones wrote a number of humorous ballads, often using the tune Robin yn Swil (Robin is Shy), the same as for Can Newydd, a tune ‘more suitable for the tavern than for singing at respectable concerts and eisteddfodau.’ One of his ballads is listed as a poem about ‘courtship’, another was about Dic Sion Dafydd, and another about a drunken woman, while his other ‘courtship’ poems were advice not to marry or a man’s complaints about his wife.

One mention of Can Newydd in a newspaper of 1915, when discussing Bardd Crwst’s works, as ‘Song about two Young Women who went to knock at Ffermdy (Farmhouse) Tu Ucha’r Glyn, near Harlech’, has an added note by the compiler, ‘I didn’t give the title of the last one in full’ which seems to show that this would have been too disrespectful even for the newspaper, including leaving out the cross-dressing aspect.

The risqué nature, not only of the lyrics, but of the tune it was associated with may have caused Jones to remove his full name from the Can Newydd version. No tune is associated with the ACNMW version so there may be the possibility that Can came first and Jones made it saucier in the second version but decided to omit his full name. Can also uses some English words, such as ‘beauty,’ ‘Kate Pugh,’ ‘Visles’ and ‘Cirnoleens [sp],’ while Can Newydd uses Welsh spellings such as ‘biwty,’ ‘Cit Pugh’ and ‘busle,’ and has removed the spelling error of ‘crinoline’.

Another difference is the location where the event takes place. The introduction to Can is "A song about two young women who dressed themselves in men’s clothes and went to knock at Ffarmdy (Farmhouse) at two other young girls, and entered their House, to bed like two men and two dear lovers" whereas in Can Newydd it is "The tale of two young women from this region who dressed themselves in men’s clothes, and went courting to a country house to seduce two young women, who were strangers to them".

The farmhouse has disappeared and is replaced by ‘Plas uchaf and Glyn’. Plas Uchaf (Upper Hall) is 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from Corwen, Denbighshire, and Plas Glyn, possibly short for Plas Glynllifon 56 miles (90km) from Corwen. It seems Jones has moved the location from an obscure working-class farmhouse to named gentrified houses, although no cross-dressing reference has been found in connection with these two properties. It is however, a trope used even today, to place sensational stories among the wealthy who are fewer in number and have more time on their hands, than working-class people and Jones may not have wanted to offend his main audience.

Whatever the purpose of the ballad, it was decided to revive it for a presentation at an LGBTQ+ History Month 2022 by Aberration recorded by Cerys Hafana with backing vocals by the community.

By sharing this queer-related ballad today as a part of our Welsh history, it is reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community, creatively reimagined and helps to build our Welsh queer community today.

Trawsnewid is here!

Oska von Ruhland, 10 March 2022

The exhibition is free to visit at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea, from 12 March through to 17 July 2022.

Trawsnewid, meaning 'Transformation', explores and celebrates Wales' history of queerness and social change. Objects on display have been taken from the Amgueddfa Cymru LGBTQ+ collection held at St Fagans National Museum of History to be compiled in a brand-new narrative, alongside new queer Welsh artworks. Visitors can walk through this often forgotten aspect of our past and see how the movement for social change continues into the present. With objects on display taking queer history as far back as the late 1700s, and even as recent as during the current Covid-19 pandemic, there is a wide breadth of communities, identities and movements represented in the exhibition.

The objects that are highlighted in this exhibition were selected by the participants of the Trawsnewid project. The participants are young people who host and attend various workshops that explore history of Wales' LGBTQ+ people and culture and have come together to develop the theme of this exhibition, focusing mainly on queer art and creations. Over several weeks the participants have gone through the collection and selected which pieces stand out the most as important markers of queer Welsh history.

Integrated in the display is a collection of new artworks made by some of the volunteers. Each piece has been inspired by some aspect of Wales' queer history, be it a piece from the LGBTQ+ Collection, or by the communities around them. A variety of artistic mediums come together to bring this often forgotten history right into the contemporary modern day.

Also showing at the exhibition is the Queer Cabaret – a series of short films created by Trawsnewid participants exploring their experiences and connection to Wales and queer identity. The entire cabaret is available to watch on YouTube, but at the exhibition you will be able to enjoy it while immersed in the culture and history curated by everyone on the Trawsnewid Project and the LGBTQ+ collection.

LGBT+ History Month 2022

Mark Etheridge, 1 February 2022

February each year is LGBT+ History Month, with events throughout the month that help to increase the visibility of LGBTQ+ people, their history and lived experiences. Each year there is usually a theme, and this year it is ‘Politics in Art’

Amgueddfa Cymru has a number of events planned for LGBT+ History Month 2022: 

On display at St Fagans National Museum of History throughout February 2022 will be the original design drawn by Jonathan Blake for the Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners badge from 1985. This will be displayed in the Wales is… gallery at St Fagans alongside an original LGSM badge. Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners were a group that raised money for striking south Wales miners during the 1984-85 strike. By the end of 1984 there were eleven branches of LGSM across the UK. Each of these branches ‘twinned’ with a particular community – with the London branch twinning with communities in the Neath, Dulais and Upper Swansea valleys. This story, and LGSM’s visit to Onllwyn, became immortalised in the 2014 film Pride. Last year Mark Ashton, who was one of the founders in 1984 of LGSM, was one of the faces of LGBT+ History Month 2021, so it is great that again this year we are able to celebrate the amazing achievements of Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners.

 As part of Amgueddfa Cymru’s ‘Museum Talks’ series, curator Mark Etheridge will give a talk on the LGBTQ+ Collection at St Fagans and the importance of representation in museum collections. You can book here -  Museum Talks: LGBTQ+ Collections at St. Fagans | English | National Museum Wales

We have an exciting project being developed for LGBT+ History Month. Funded by Arts Wales, composer Gareth Churchill’s piece LGBTQ+ History Wales Songbook will be performed at Oakdale Institute at St Fagans during LGBT+ History Month. This will be a musical performance piece for voice and piano/keyboard that will celebrate and give musical voice to the St Fagans LGBTQ+ history collection. Initially it will be a closed performance that will be filmed and broadcast online. This will be broadcast as a finale to LGBT+ History Month, and will be advertised on the museum’s social media channels.

Of course, LGBTQ+ history should not just be celebrated during one month each year. So throughout 2022 look out for further displays and events across Amgueddfa Cymru’s museum sites. These are just a few things we have planned:

At St Fagans some LGBTQ+ related objects are now on display in the Wales is… and Life is… galleries. As well as the LGSM items mentioned, these include a teapot and toy paddle relating to the Ladies of Llangollen (probably the most famous lesbian couple in history) and a songsheet for the song We’ll Gather Lilacs that was written by Ivor Novello.

From mid-March some LGBTQ+ objects from the LGBTQ+ collection will be on display at the National Waterfront Museum as part of the exhibition Trawsnewid. This is part of a project for LGBTQ+ young people aged 16-25 that explores queer and gender non-conforming figures in Welsh history and supports participants to create work inspired by their own experiences.