To Remember the Past – ‘The Rock from which we are hewn’.
By Dr Leslie Baker-Jones
Firstly it is only right and proper to commend and thank those who thought of a project to recall the life and culture of the inhabitants of Dre-fach and Velindre [the villeinage of serfs] and the locality. A collection has been made of photographs of people, events, buildings and artefacts which remind us of life in the past.
After many years, social history has become a special feature of the curriculum in schools and colleges – rather than that of lives of kings, banners of war, trumpets, soldiers, brave generals and the siege of some castle. As a support to the historian, the antiquarian is important. His interest is a ‘cromlech’ – like that one of Pentre Ifan; mounds like those of Llawddog or Seba [Bathsheba]. The antiquarian has to visit what is left of a castle or monastery, the traces of a Roman road or centre like Caerleon and Cas-gwent and the Roman theatre in ‘Moridunum’ [Carmarthen].
As a result a new science had to be studied – archaeology. As is seen on television, scholars and specialists discover treasures – not least the skeletons of human beings and animals. One of the most famous discoveries in the history of archaeology was the grave of the young king of Egypt – Tutankhamun (discovered about 1922-23) – a king who had been buried in 1353 B.C.
Following every discovery, it became necessary to acquire a safe place to keep each item which showed the history, crafts, the wealth and customs of long ago. Consequently, museums were built in many countries. In Britain, the British Museum was opened in 1753. In Oxford, Edward Lluyd (1660-1709), an antiquarian and Celtic scholar, had his museum which later developed to be the ‘Ashmolean Museum’. On the continent there were the ‘Academia’ and the ‘Uffizi’ in Florence where one can see sculptures and paintings by famous artists. In the ‘Louvre’ in Paris, there is the marble figure of the ‘Venus de Milo’ and the ‘Mona Lisa’ by the famous artist Leonardo da Vinci. Indeed, the museum had become an essential feature all over the world.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Cardiff had developed to be of industrial and cultural importance. And this is demonstrated by its public buildings, and the most important to the historian and the antiquarian is the ‘National Museum of Wales’ founded in 1906. By the end of the century there were more than twenty museums in Wales.
To begin with: it was essential to have wealthy sponsors to provide money and valuable items to be displayed. Years after the foundation of the National Museum of Wales, it was fortunate to receive a very valuable gift from the Davies sisters of Llandinam and Gregynog, namely, a collection of ‘impressionist’ paintings by Monet and Renoir.
Owing to the enthusiasm and support of the ‘gwŷr mawr’ [gentry], a museum was built in Quay Street, Carmarthen, before it was removed to the former Bishop’s Palace in Abergwili. Amongst the valuable collections there, was an item made of gold, mined some two thousand years ago by the Romans on land which later became the estate of the Lloyd-Johnes family of Dolau Cothi. It was a ‘chateleine’, a chain of small gold beads to be worn by a lady. Unfortunately, it was stolen some years ago.
With due respect towards generous patrons, one element was missing – knowledge of our past as ‘y werin’, ordinary people. That was the theme of Professor Doctor David Evans (who was born at Blaen-ffos) in his book in Welsh on the Country, its Life, its Education and its Religion, 1933. One cannot forget life in the countryside, its ‘gwerin’ and the debt by those today to those of the past – their roots ’like every plant on earth’. Otherwise, the culture of towns, new notions of good and bad, strange people, etc., can endanger the prosperity and spirit of the Welsh community.
Through the efforts of Dr. Iorwerth Peate, a historian, a man of letters and scholar, a department in the National Museum of Wales was devoted to the culture of the ‘Gwerin’. This followed the pattern of the museums in Scandinavia. There, the museums of Oslo and Bergen were not the only important ones. But old buildings out in the country – the ‘stave’ church, built of thin planks and branches of trees, or a humble cottage with its roof of clods of grass and soil, were of importance also.
One disadvantage facing the National Museum was the lack of space for the ‘Gwerin’ or ‘Folk Department’. But fortunately, in 1946 the Earl of Plymouth donated his castle at St. Fagans to be used as a Folk Museum, and its first keeper was Dr. Iorwerth Peate. It meant that there was a large building, land and gardens suitable for rebuilding Capel Pen-rhiw, an old church, or a tollgate from the days of the Rebecca Riots, etc. Here was a place to attract the visitor who studies Botany, Zoology, and every aspect of archaeology – traces of those living in the Stone Age, their weapons, axes and arrowheads. The Bronze and Iron Ages followed and periodic developments until the days of craftsmen, smiths, turners, the skill of weaving and knitting along with many others throughout the centuries. These craftsmen were not rulers, persons of power and authority in their community but craftsmen upon whom society depended completely day by day.
To return to the project – it is a valuable contribution for the future as a portrait of Dre-fach and Velindre. In the past it was considered to be the area of the woollen industry mainly with its own unique way of life, its dialect, its values and customs unlike other areas in Wales, the slate quarries, the ‘works’, the coalmines [of old!] and other areas famous for their agriculture.
It is essential for the present to be well informed about the way of life long ago; to remember the locality and its people, their indebtedness to their forebears, their success and failure, their inferiority and poverty. And lastly, one must thank those participants in their project, even though they have other commitments in the locality.
P.S. In looking for old articles to contribute towards the project, one can be sure that some have learnt not to burn or throw into the bin bag what could have been useful evidence both to the historian and antiquarian ‘to remember the rock from which they were hewn’.