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The First Ten Years




by Stephen Jones

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 gaps.

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 instrument.

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 century:

“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 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 1900s.

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


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