top of page

Cranogwen

by
S E Morgan

Photo: Flickr.com

The celebrated Cranogwen calls at Llanover Court.

Sarah Jane Rees; mariner, editor, temperance activist, poet, and gay icon.

 

1889:

 

Surrounded by clouds of steam and filthy coal smoke, Sarah Jane Rees gasped for breath as she struggled with her baggage at Cardiff station. Surprised to see a female first-class passenger attempting to board alone, the porter helped her up the steps into her carriage. He heaved a leather suitcase onto the rack above her head. She paused, pushing at the tall hatbox up beside it to thank him with a smile. One glance at her clothes told him not to expect a tip. This was not a wealthy woman, but she was darkly attractive, with hair as glossy as a blackbird’s wing and he winked in return. Sarah settled into the comfortable seat and looked around, thinking how kind Lady Llanover was to send her the ticket.

 

                Three days earlier, a note had arrived to say a carriage would wait for her at Nantyderry station and whisk her the final few miles to the big house. Sarah Jane smiled at the thought of her close friend Maggie working at Llanover Court and was impatient to see her. Their fond farewells in January, after Hen Galan at Portland House, Aberaeron seemed an age ago. What a pleasant holiday this should be. Two days visiting Maggie, with a small fee for her lecture to the Temperance Union in Abercarn, at Lady Llanover’s behest, no less. Twenty years past, the Lanercost, along with Maggie's husband and all hands, vanished on its way back from Baltimore. Sarah Jane knew thirty-five-year-old Maggie had a lucky escape from her sea-captain spouse. Aberaeron society scandalised that Evan Davies spent his shore leaves frequenting taverns across Cardiganshire. He was, after all, the son-in-law of the redoubtable Bensha Evans, pillar of the Tabernacle chapel and temperance advocate.

                 After Evan’s death, Maggie found a position as matron in the new university at Aberystwyth, surrounded by demanding students and lecherous lecturers. It was down to Sarah Jane that her friend was the housekeeper of Llanover Court.

The locomotive’s brakes squealed as the heavy engine jolted to a halt at Newport, nearly propelling her off her seat. Stout leather boots pushed against the floor as she swayed, trying to keep her balance. A smartly dressed older man in a clerical collar entered and sat opposite, allowing choking fumes into the railway compartment. He lifted his hat, smiled, then closed the door with a bang. The cleric looked familiar, but she couldn’t quite place his face. Sarah Jane acknowledged him with a brief nod, not wishing to encourage conversation. She relaxed when he took out The Times, and leafed through its pages. The train wound its way up the valley, following a busy canal, passing factories and iron and tinplate works until Pontypool. Then it chugged on up through green fields and woodland. At Nantyderry station, she and her travelling companion prepared to descend, and the man helped lift down her baggage.

                   A youth in Llanover livery waited on the platform. He tipped his hat, saying, ‘This way, Archdeacon.’ He smiled at her and added, ‘You must be Miss Sarah Rees, Cranogwen; the famous lady mariner and lecturer. Our Mrs Aeron has told us all about you.’

‘I am, but whoever is Mrs Aeron?’

‘Oh, you’ll know her as Maggie Davies. Lady Augusta calls her that, and so does everyone else. We all are named after where we come from, or where we work. I’m known as Lewis Bach Glamorgan, my father’s the butler, so he’s Lewis Fawr. The cook is called Sian y Gegin.’

                   Her travel companion cleared his throat impatiently, waiting for the boy to stop talking. She watched with amusement as his Adam’s apple bobbed up above the white clerical collar.

                   ‘Miss Rees, I’m delighted to meet you. Let me introduce myself; John Griffiths, recently appointed Vicar of St Bartholomew’s Llanover and Archdeacon of Llandaff Cathedral.’ As he spoke of his cathedral appointment, his chest puffed with pride.

‘I have read about your work lecturing on the evils of drink and promoting temperance across Wales and your visits to America. Of course, I’ve also heard your delightful poems in the National Eisteddfodau. Had I realised who you were, I would have introduced myself earlier.’

Sarah said, ‘I thought I recognised you. I believe you were the headmaster in Cardigan Grammar school when I was growing up? The pupils from Llangrannog often mentioned your name.’

                    The Archdeacon smiled, gratified by her comments. Sarah remembered with a grimace what the local boys had actually told her; Mr Griffiths was unduly fond of the cane, for all that he was a man of god, and took pleasure in thrashing them.

They soon reached the Llanover estate; every cottage freshly whitewashed, with green painted doors and windows, and neat thatched or slate roofs. As they drove past fields full of black Welsh Mountain sheep, it felt as if she had stepped back in time. It was rural and quaint, deliberately picturesque, with no sign of the terrible poverty or decrepit buildings found outside the estate.

Lewis Fach pulled on the reins as the coach drew up at the grand arched doorway of a graceful, deep-red brick mansion. It stood three storeys high, with huge bay windows beside a lake, with a dovecote tower to one side. The venerable gentleman levered himself out and onto the ground with a groan, rubbing his back in pain. He touched his hat, and said, ‘I’m sure we will meet again shortly, Miss Rees.’

                     The coachman clicked his tongue. The matched pair of grey horses walked beneath an archway flanked by two brick towers and into a busy stable yard. They halted at the mansion’s rear door.

‘Here we go. Mrs Aeron’s rooms are just to the left. I’ll ask one of the maids to tell her you’ve arrived.’ He handed her the luggage, nearly dropping the hat box.

‘Careful, my Welsh hat is inside. The mistress will expect me to wear it in church. Can’t have it battered.’

Maggie scuttled out in a uniform of a back silk with starched white bonnet and apron. ‘My dearest friend, there’s lovely. Come in, our tea is ready.’

                      After a firm embrace, Maggie herded Sarah Jane into her neat parlour. A circular table was covered in an emerald green cloth with bara brith, scones, and cucumber sandwiches kept fresh under a tea-cloth. A housemaid stoked the fire and poured hot water into a large teapot.

                      Maggie shoo’d the girl out. ‘Off you go, Siani fach,’ and closed the door. Then she kissed Sarah fondly again. ‘It’s wonderful to see you. Lady Llanover asks you to attend her before dinner. To give you your instructions.’

Sarah raised an eyebrow. ‘Orders is it?’

Maggie leant over and squeezed her hand. ‘You know how she is; a tartar. She may be eighty-nine, but that doesn’t stop her interfering in everything, and ordering everyone around.’

Sarah laughed, ‘Yes, ever since she wrote demanding to meet me after I won the bardic chair in Aberystwyth, back in ’65, she’s been the same. Expects people to do precisely as she says. It’s made her unpopular, for all that she’s supported Welsh traditions and poetry and music with such energy. The Welsh cause would be nowhere without her. She is a busy bee, as you’d expect from her bardic name; Gwenynen. What’s she like to work for?’

Maggie’s face was despondent. ‘Not easy, to be honest. Fusses over every detail and makes us wear costume whenever we have visitors. The tenants the same; they resent it more as each year passes. It’s nearly nineteen hundred, for goodness’ sake, a new world. I’ll be putting my outfit on tomorrow, but those stovepipe hats are a blessed nuisance to work in. Oh my, I hope you have brought yours?’

‘Of course, betgwn, shawl, mobcap and ruffles at the ready.’

‘Is it the right costume, though? She’ll expect it to be a Cardiganshire one. She gets worse with every year that passes. Upset if anyone appears in clothes that don’t fit the ones she illustrated for her book.’

‘ I’ve packed my red Aberaeron flannel stripped dress and petticoat with a fine grey check apron and there are silver buckles on my shoes. You’ll be proud of me. Stop worrying.’

‘You don’t have to work for her. Lady Augusta is obsessed with Welsh language and culture; it’s not normal. That she’s so miserly with my housekeeping funds doesn’t help.’

‘Lady Llanover and I get on well,’ Sarah said. ‘I was the one who recommended you to her in the first place, remember? She complained that there were too few Welsh speakers in Abergavenny. when she told me that she’d been searching high and low for someone God faring and temperance minded, and, of course, Welsh speaking to replace her housekeeper, I realised you’d be perfect. After I told her you were a poet and known as Aeronwen in Eisteddfod circles, she scarcely bothered about an interview.’

‘I remember what you did for me.’ Maggie stroked her friend’s hand. ‘I was so pleased to leave Aberystwyth University; and all the gossip.’ Maggie’s eyes dropped. ‘You never seem to mind, but I hated it. How are you and Jane getting on? Do others not comment on you living together?’

‘If I listened to other people’s opinions, I’d have achieved nothing in this life. People always tell women what work they must do, how they should live, who they should love. It’s nonsense and you know it.’

‘You’re braver than me, is the truth of it,’ Maggie replied. ‘The only woman in Wales, maybe the world, with a master mariner’s certificate. At twenty, you captained a ketch, taking coal around Britain, and sailed to France often. No wonder people admire you. You can afford to ignore what they say.’

‘A few might compliment, many more criticise is how it feels to me,’ came the reply.

                    At six, Maggie led Sarah into the drawing room, where elderly Lady Augusta sat upright by her desk. As frail as old china, tiny but still elegant in her grey evening dress with a long lace jacket, a pearl choker at her neck with a diamond brooch in the form of a bee on her breast. She set down a leather bound novel and removed steel-rimmed spectacles.

                    ‘Ah, my dear Cranogwen, so good of you to come. You won’t believe how much imbibbing goes on in Abercarn for all I’ve warned my employees about the dangers of intoxication and the misery it causes. Your words may help them understand. Your experiences.’

‘Yes, my Lady. I know what it’s like growing up with a man who drank his wages away and wasted his gifts. My father lost everything to the demon drink.’

                     Lady Augusta nodded, then picked up her novel, dismissing them with a wave of her hand. The two left to reminisce about their younger days in front of Maggie’s cosy fire. As girls, they’d competed for poetry prizes in Eisteddfodau in the towns and villages of Cardiganshire. They had been intimate friends before Maggie met her wastrel sea-captain. In the years that followed, Sarah’s new friend Fanny contracted tuberculosis and died. 

                     The two talked late into the night.

                     Sarah asked, ‘Do you really need employment, Maggie? Could you not live in Aberaeron? Your father left you comfortably off. Why do you let out Portland House each summer instead of living there? You and Jane own it outright and it’s a gracious home.’

‘Father, bless his soul, taught me the value of hard work. I’d be bored with nothing to do but parade through Aberaeron all year. I love returning there for holidays in the winter and seeing my sister Ann and nephews, but it’s such a small place. I’m not invited to lecture around Wales the way you are.

‘Besides, Jane insists we rent Portland House to summer visitors. It brings in a tidy amount for us both over the season. Jane’s a Cardi girl and proud of it; careful with every penny.’

                      The two giggled like schoolgirls; they’d always made fun of Jane’s parsimonious ways. Sarah gazed at the small housekeeper’s parlour and remembered how Lady Llanover had ordered Maggie around. She couldn’t imagine how her friend put up with it; especially as there was no need to. At five-thirty the following evening, Lewis Fach drove Sarah to speak at a meeting over fourteen miles away in Abercarn, in Cloch Gobaith, the Temperance Inn. Her stirring words were warmly appreciated by the largely female audience. She didn’t get back to Llanover until long after midnight.

                      No rest next day either. The entire staff obliged to attend St Bartholomew’s morning service, wearing Welsh costume. Sarah’s eyebrows raised to see Lady Llanover attired in her husband’s old top hat and Welsh flannel skirt with petticoats take the front pew. The Archdeacon’s sermon was as dull as she’d guessed it would be. If her talks were that stolid people would walk out. That evening, Lady Llanover rang her silver handbell to demand Sarah and Maggie to be brought to her.

‘Sarah, or should I say Cranogwen?’ she smiled. ‘Thank you so much. Lewis reports that your talk inspired the Temperance Union, especially the women attendees. I’d like to give you this memento of our weekend.’

                      She passed her visitor a small box, inside nestled a pearl and peridot silver brooch in the shape of a harp.

 

 

 

 

Footnote

 

Temperance was not universally popular in the mining towns. In 1894, there was an attempt to blow up the Abercarn coffee house/Temperance Inn. https://newspapers.library.wales/view/3241391/3241394/59/

Sarah Jane Rees, better known as Cranogwen, poet and editor, was the first woman to gain a master mariner certificate in the UK. She made no secret of her relationships at a time when homosexuality was illegal, (but to Victorian society for women was also unimaginable.) She is rightly considered a gay icon, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Jane_Rees

Sarah Jane was well known to Baroness Llanover and a close childhood friend of Maggie Davies, Llanover’s housekeeper. Although the tale is fiction, the characters worked in the house at that time, and the suppositions do not seem unduly far-fetched.

S E Morgan is married to a GP, with two adult children. She studied, lived and worked in Cardiff but moved around south Wales as a child . Her career was as a consultant psychiatrist, and more latterly senior civil servant, managing Welsh mental health policy. Her hobbies include painting, gardening and most importantly writing, in the  knowledge that if you don’t tell your tales, no one else will.  

 

S E Morgan has previously published three historical novels set in Wales and an illustrated children’s book. 

bottom of page