They worried about it then and we are still fretting today. More than 100 years ago in Pre-Reformation Survivals in Rural Radnorshire in the 1910-11 edition of the Transactions the Rev. D. Edmondes Owen, Vicar of Llandovery, declared that Radnorshire and surrounding districts were the scene of “the final struggle in this country” (whether Wales or Britain is not clear) for existence of many birds and mammals. It was a retreat he saw not just in the animal kingdom, however. It had been paralleled, too, he argued, by the loss of interesting local rural customs, and quaint old forms of speech and idiom.
Wolves, (a species some would indeed like to re-introduce), had fallen back much earlier, he tells us to this most rural part of Wales, the last being killed on the hills overlooking the River Edw in the late Tudor period. White British cattle, today only found on the Chillingham Estate in Northumberland, clung on in just this part of mid-Wales into the vicar’s time, as too did pole martens, dreaded by farmers for their predatory ravages.
The bela to give the creature its Welsh name has been making a comeback and the Rev. Owen’s concern for several other species that seemed to be disappearing at the end of the 19th century has also proved misplaced. He feared for red kites (regarded by some farmers as a menace again for swooping on small animals left behind from harvesting and other scavenging activities). But helped by re-introduction they have come back across southern Britain after reaching a very low base just in Wales, nor do badgers, buzzards and ravens seem to have fulfilled his worst fears.
The animal kingdom, however, has not perhaps suffered as severely as local culture in its widest sense, buffeted over decades by reason, the discoveries of science, and much greater exposure to outside influences. The Welsh language was lost to Radnorshire by the late 18th century under the combined pressures of inward migration by English Quakers, then outward migration to Pennsylvania, and perhaps more seriously the introduction of English-only parsons to Welsh parishes. The destruction by fire of the important market town of Builth led to the rise, too, of a serious rival across the border in Kington. (Edwards would no doubt have been sceptical that the language would again be heard regularly in the revived county of Powys by the 21st century as a result of Welsh schools.)
Yet, despite the all but disappearance of Welsh in Wales’s most anglicised county various Welsh words and idioms survived 120 years ago, he tells us: tollant (hayloft), clem (famish) were in popular use and Welsh sayings were even voiced by English speakers. Tri bywyd clawdd yw bywyd ci is one such reflecting a dog lifespan of 12 years to the 4 years of a hedge. Some Latin words from the Roman conquest were in use, too, the willow being referred to as salix or sally.
Perhaps more remarkable in the era leading up to the arrival of the railways, the telegraph and other modern distance eliminators was the continued strength of primitive religious beliefs and superstitions. The then widely known (and believed) tale of the ghost of Charles Lewis that the vicar recounts illustrates this. A fraudulent tanner who used different scales for buying and selling died in an accident, but his ghost continued to scare farmers until no fewer than four clergy were enlisted to catch it. Three ran away but the fourth secured the ethereal spirit in a snuff box and buried him in a bog.
The church could also be called on, the Rev Owen relates, to deal with mysterious cattle deaths, and the human heart was widely believed to be indestructible and useful against the malevolent. In extremis a holy matron, a mother carrying her first-born, could in the manner of the Virgin Mary be invoked in aid. Indeed, many of the practices and beliefs prevalent in these societies could be traced back to pre-Reformation times.
There were birds of bad omen, too, such as carrion crow, raven and magpie, a familiar belief in many rural areas, and strange night howls and cries (probably curlew or geese) were interpreted by the nervous as hell hounds pursuing the departed on their way to heaven.
So-called conjurors could harm people with spells, and charmers, their opposites, could bring relief through their access to relics or the possession of lost sayings of Christ. John Wesley on a visit to the area in 1746 felt some of the stories he heard were unusual enough to record in his diary, notably the story of the conjuror Francis Morgan. He had been given 14 shillings by the neighbour of a woman to punish her for an affront. He had managed to inflict all sorts of disasters and other unhappy events on her, binding her in her words to Satan. Attendance at one of Wesley’s services had, however, released her.
What these simple Welsh people who will never have travelled further than to market and have enjoyed a social circle no wider than the members of their local family and church would have made of the modern world of Artificial Intelligence and Inter-Planetary travel we can only guess.
The world of benign and malign influences which they believed to control their lives seems, however, like a treasure trove waiting to be exploited, (sensitively handled, one would hope), by today’s writers and filmmakers. Just how many people remain today who could say how far the tales the Rev Owen tells have lasted into modern generations through grandparents, great uncles, and aunts we don’t know. We must be grateful, however, to the good vicar for offering these insights into lives very different from our own – even if concern over losses remains a concern.
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The Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion reach a venerable 150 years in 2023 and throughout the year we will be publishing articles on the website that have appeared during the decades. Many deal with issues that have since ceased to be important, but others still have a strong contemporary resonance.
Look out on the website for regular new uploads of this fascinating material. Or you can read all the articles by visiting the National Library website where you will find the material at https://journals.library.wales/browse/1386666