I began to take an interest in the
crwth when I was doing some work on John Rhydderch (1675-1735) the bard,
printer and many other things besides. In one of his brilliant articles on John
Rhydderch, Bob Owen Croesor quotes Iolo Morganwg as writing that John Rhydderch
left a certain Glamorgan eisteddfod with his tail between his legs “and his
crowd (crwth) in its bag”. Of course, one can’t take everything Iolo Morganwg
says seriously, but on the face of it, John Rhydderch played the crwth.
There are a number of accounts of the instrument on the
internet, most notably some information on Wikipedia, a page on the website of
Clera, the Welsh musical instrument society, and some writings of J. Marshall
Bevil,an American academic who researched the crwth back in the 1970s. There are
discrepancies between the various accounts, some areas of uncertainty and some
The burning question is when, before its recent revival, did
the crwth die out, if at all? In this little article I am going to try to
clarify some of the facts. As will be seen, Montgomeryshire and its borders
figure strongly in the story.
The main problem for anybody researching the history of the
crwth is the fact that the word “crwth” is almost invariably used in Welsh to
describe the violin. Indeed, it may be that the fact that the word crwth meant
both the traditional Welsh instrument and the violin misled people into assuming
they were the same thing, and so helped to bring about the decline of the Welsh
This ambiguity makes it necessary to approach all Welsh
sources with great care. Ironically enough for a Welsh instrument, it also
makes references to the word in English records particularly important, for if
an English document speaks of the “crwth”, we know it is probably referring to
the Welsh instrument, not the violin.
Anyway, to try and answer the main question about when the
crwth died out, I’ll begin at the beginning and gradually work forwards.
Clera’s website says that the crwth has not been played “since around the end
of the 18th century”. The website mentions a talk given in 1770 by the antiquary
Daines Barrington who said that there was only one person playing the
instrument in Wales, John Morgan of Newborough, Anglesey, and he was getting on
for 60 years old.
Perhaps Daines Barrington only had full time professional
players in mind, for there are certainly occasional well-attested examples of
the instrument being played long after the end of the 18th century. For
example, a report about Caerleon Fair in the Monmouthshire Merlin of 6 May 1837
suggests that the instrument was still in use long after the end of the 18th
“The evening star arose, and the countrie lads and lassies
thought of returning home, but some could not resist the temptation of a dance,
to the music of Crwth and Telyn, which was heard in every direction till
"Chanticleer proclaimed the dawn" of Tuesday morning...”.
The next example comes in the years 1848/9. It appears from
the website caradog.org.uk that the nineteenth century conductor Griffith Rhys
Jones played the crwth. On a page talking about Caradog’s early life in Brynaman,
the website says: "There, Caradog studied the crwth, an archaic stringed
Welsh instrument, with his brother John as his teacher. One of the teaching
methods he would adopt was putting a plate under each of their arms whilst
playing the crwth, to encourage the correct posture. If one were to drop it,
they would have to pay for it!"
It would be great if Caradog played the traditional crwth,
but one thing worries me about this story. I have found many references to
Caradog as a violinist but not one, other than this, to him as a player of the
crwth. If the information here is based on a Welsh source, could this be an
example of the problem outlined above, and the story about the plate actually
be about the violin? I would have to see the original source before adding
Caradog to the list of definite 19th century crwth players. Moving forward
again, according to Wikipedia, the answer to our question is, the crwth died in
1855. Their page of Welsh people of interest dying in that year includes “Death
of James Green of Bron y Garth, last of the traditional crwth players”.
I think the James Green story, which one finds elsewhere on
the net, ultimately originates in Francis Galpin’s book Old English Instruments
of Music (1910) which on page 77 contains the following passage: “From personal
researches made among the peasantry of Wales it is evident that the use of the
Crwth was continued at least till the middle of the last century. The story is
told of one James Green, shoemaker, of Bronygarth, who died in 1855, that on
the way to a festive gathering he encountered in a narrow lane an infuriated
bull ; hastily climbing into a tree he hoped to escape the attack, but the animal,
determined not to lose his man, took up a position beneath the branches. The
little shoemaker, though grateful enough for his safety, regretfully thought of
the merry evening he had lost ; so at last he determined to try the effect of
music on the expectant beast. Taking his Crwth out of his bag, he struck up a
favourite air. To his surprise the animal turned and fled. "Stop, stop !
" cried James, his wounded pride quite overcoming his fears, "I'll
change the tune." It was, however, too late, and for the first time the
music of the last of the Crwth players had failed to please.”
I doubt very much if this is a true story. It is
suspiciously reminiscent of the well known one about Evan Jones Telynor Y Waen
Oer, where he plays the harp and quietens an angry bull. Had the Reverend
Galpin checked what he was told about James Green by “the peasantry of Wales”,
he would have discovered that the information he was given is not accurate.
James Green of Bronygarth was a real historical character,
the Bronygarth in question being the township in the parish of St Martin’s near
Oswestry. We find James Green listed there in the 1851 census for Bronygarth as
a 68 year old shoe maker. He was born in the parish of St Martin’s in Shropshire.
He appears again in the 1861 census, this time aged 77, as “shoe maker &
toll collector”. He also went on to appear in the 1871 census, when he was
living at The Park, by which time he had reached 88 years of age. He died at
Bronygarth on 15 November 1876 at the ripe old age of 95. I have searched the
Oswestry Advertizer and other Shropshire newspapers to see if James Green’s
death attracted any press interest, particularly where crwth playing was
concerned. I could find none. There wasn’t even a death notice.
In short, James Green of Bronygarth really existed, but he
wasn’t Welsh, he didn’t die in 1855, and, as far as we know, he didn’t play the
crwth! The negative evidence is rather strong on this occasion because the legendary
John Askew Roberts presided over the Oswestry Bye-Gones at the time, and was
just the sort of person to pick up any interesting cultural tit-bit relating to
Cymru Fu, such as the death of the last crwth player. So much for James Green.
I came across a more promising candidate for the last crwth player by chance at
a talk I heard last year in Welshpool. It was given by Professor Sioned Davies,
and was about Mair Richards of Darowen. Professor Davies happened to mention in
passing that in Mair Richards’ papers there is a reference to somebody being
the best exponent of the 3-stringed crwth in Wales. Mair Richards didn’t die
until 1877 so the story was obviously worth following up.
Having checked Mair Richards’ papers at the National
Library, it transpires the man’s name was Dafydd Ingram. Dafydd Ingram was the
parish clerk of Llanerfyl but there is no mention of him in Griffith Edwards’
history of Llanerfyl in the Montgomeryshire Collections. Like James Green,
Dafydd Ingram appears in the 1861 census, where he is described as an 83 year
old parish clerk and born at Llanerfyl. He was buried at Llanerfyl on 16 May 1867
aged 89. There is no gravestone in his memory.
I am sure Mair
Richards would have been a reliable witness so, despite the problems with James
Green, there is some hard evidence that the instrument was still being played
in Montgomeryshire in the middle of the 19th century. What’s more, if Dafydd
Ingram was the best crwth player, there must have been others.
It is interesting to note that Mair Richards says specifically
that Dafydd Ingram played the 3-string crwth. There were actually two versions
of the instrument, a 6-string and a 3-string version. I cannot find any mention
of the 3-string version online, but both versions are illustrated in Robert Griffith’s
Llyfr Cerdd Dannau. It seems from the book mentioned above, Francis Galpin’s
Old English Instruments of Music, that the 3-string version may actually be a
different instrument called a rebecq. I am no musicologist and can’t comment on
this, but there seems to be an interesting subject here for the experts as to
the true nature of the 3- stringed crwth.
Coming closer to the present day, Delia, daughter of the
poet Ceiriog, married in 1883. The Aberystwyth Advertiser of 13 October 1883
carries an interesting report on the marriage festivities, which makes it clear
the instrument was still being played in Montgomeryshire in 1883. It says the Van
railway sheds were decked for the occasion and: “The flow of cwrw and song,
mingled with rational and natural enjoyment, kept the Welsh harp and crwth in
full tune until the break of day with the old Welsh harp, pennillion-singing,
crwthplaying...”. Finally there is Nicholas Bennett of Glanyrafon. Mr Bennett,
author of Alawon Fy Ngwlad (The Lays of My Land), died on the very cusp of the twentieth
century, being buried at Trefeglwys on 18 August 1899. Cadrawg’s obituary of
him mentions that: “His evenings he was fond of spending playing Welsh airs
upon the crwth.”
I do not know what happened to Nicholas Bennett’s crwth. Somebody
told me years ago that after his death there was major family strife and his house
was demolished, so this instrument may have gone the way of all flesh. Whatever
the position on that, Cadrawg’s obituary proves that the crwth had not gone
completely out of use by the end of the 19th century. The instrument does,
however, seem to have acquired an antiquarian flavour by that stage and one
finds talk in the 1890s of “reviving” it. A Liverpool Alderman, John Samuelson,
introduced a copy at Trefriw after the Geirionydd Eisteddfod in about 1893 but
nothing seems to have come of it. Having said that, the article, dated 1909, in
which John Samuelson’s initiative is mentioned does say that the crwth is now
“almost” extinct. If it was “almost” extinct, it wasn’t completely, even by the
It is sad to think that the crwth was still being played
within living memory at the time of its proposed revival, and that it died out
surprisingly recently, at a time when it would still have been possible to
maintain the tradition. One other thing. There is some doubt also as to the
number of historical examples of the instrument that have survived. The Museum
of Wales website talks about “the three remaining historical examples in
existence”, at St Fagans, the National Library of Wales and the Corporation
Museum in Warrington. One of these, I think the National Library example, came
from Crosswood near Welshpool.
Clera’s website, by contrast, says that “four examples of
the crwth have survived”. It mentions the three at St Fagans, Aberystwyth and
Warrington but adds another one at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, America. But
a quick google search reveals another example in Germany, with an illustration.
This instrument belongs to the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen in Mannheim and their
website says that it dates to the first quarter of the 19th century. So the
current total may actually be five!
My own view is that there are probably more unknown pre-1900
examples out there because the crwth, unlike the harp, isn’t large and easily damaged.
It is precisely the sort of object that may be shoved in the loft of somebody’s
farmhouse and forgotten. So check your loft carefully, and incidentally, does anybody know what happened to Dafydd Ingram’s instrument?
Stephen Jones 2014