Sarah Jane Rees, schoolteacher and poet

Thursday 25 April 2013, 12:00

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Throughout the 19th century private schools of navigation, most of them run on a shoestring budget, were the best - sometimes the only - way that would-be sailors could gain specialist knowledge of their chosen craft.

There are numerous examples of such schools around the coast of Britain, places that offered quality education, on a scale much wider than simply navigation, to boys who would otherwise never have been able to access such learning. Wales could boast several such places, usually in ports such as Cardiff and Porthmadog.

The curriculum of these schools was aimed mostly at boys, although there are some examples of girls benefiting as well. The take-up for girls was limited because the main thrust of the schools was to educate and train young men in navigational skills so that they might move on to careers at sea.

The teachers were usually gnarled and weathered old sea captains who had spent their lives battling the elements and the oceans of the world. Usually but not always.

For several years in the 1860s Sarah Jane Rees taught at a school of navigation at Llangranog on the coast of what is now the county of Ceredigion. She was an amazing woman; a poet and lecturer, a campaigner for temperance and also a magazine editor. And, of course, she was a fine educator who established a reputation that has endured. For those who have studied nautical training, she is as renowned now as she was in the 19th century.

Born on 9 January 1839, she was the daughter of John and Francis Rees. Her father was a sea captain, sailing out of Llangranog, and clearly he was a man of vision.

In the 1840s education was limited, even for boys - for girls it was virtually non-existent. But John and Francis insisted on putting their daughter to school where she, quite literally, demanded to read and write rather than endure the usual fare of dressmaking and learning of household chores that most girls were given.

When the time came for Sarah Jane to leave school, she did reluctantly submit to taking a job in Cardigan where she was supposed to learn the dressmakers' art. Quite quickly it became clear that dressmaking was not for her. She wanted to go to sea with her father. And so he agreed.

John Rees was the master of a schooner that traded around the Welsh coast and even made the occasional trip across to France. Sarah Jane joined him on board, quickly becoming skilled in all aspects of ship handling. In the 19th century it was rare, but not unknown, to see girls working afloat in what was really a very hard and dangerous life. And from the first day she stepped on board her father's coaster Sarah Jane loved it.

After three years working on the family schooner, she went back to school. The desire for more education was stronger, even, than her love of the sea and so she enrolled at a school in Newquay, Ysgol Twmi as it was called, where the teaching of navigation was the main priority.

After some time here she went to another school, this time in Cardigan, and then, eventually, to finish her nautical education in London.

At this London school Sarah Jane Rees - her academic studies backed up by her years of practical experience at sea - gained her master's certificate. Now that really was almost unheard of, a girl holding the much cherished and highly prized certificate that would enable her to sail and command ships all over the world.

But rather than head for pastures new, Rees promptly returned to Llangranog and took up the reins of the British School where boys and girls from the town and area could be educated. More than this, she also admitted adults to her school, young men who wanted to study navigation - with her master's certificate she was more than qualified for the task.

Over the next few years she established a reputation for the quality of the navigational and nautical training available at her school. Many men who would later go on to sail and captain ships in all corners of the world, obtained their basic nautical training at this small school on the coast of Ceredigion. They were proud to announce that they had received their first training in the art of seamanship, not from some aged Cape Horn Captain but from a woman, Sarah Jane Rees.

Rees had other ambitions, quite apart from teaching. She enjoyed writing poetry - in Welsh, of course - and in 1865 she entered one of her efforts, Y Fodrwy Briodasal - The Wedding Ring - for the National Eisteddfod at Aberystwyth.

Against the odds she won, beating off strong opposition from renowned poets including Islwyn. Her bardic name, Cranogwen, came from the river that ran through Llangranog, the Crannog. The Eisteddfod victory brought her fame and soon offers and invitations to speak were pouring in from all over Wales.

In 1866 she gave up the school and devoted her life to lecturing and preaching. She was devoutly religious, a prime mover in the temperance movement, and was happy to talk and write on the subject whenever she was asked.

A supporter of women's rights, long before the days of the suffragettes, she travelled across the Atlantic on two occasions where she gave talks and lectures to the various Welsh communities.

Her book of poems, Caniadau Cranogwen, appeared in 1870. It was a great success and on the back of this, from 1879 until 1891 she edited Y Frythones, (The Woman's Journal). The magazine had a large circulation and ran for over 13 years.

Rees was always a practical person and, in later life, she founded a home for destitute girls in Tonypandy in the Rhondda. Always retaining her interest in education, she was actively involved in the educational process in the years after Forster's Education Act of 1870 made schooling compulsory in Britain. As if all this was not enough, she was also something of a pioneer of tonic sol-fa.

Sarah Jane Rees died on 27 June 1916. Her life was full, varied and active but she will always be remembered as the founder and teacher at a remarkable school of navigation where the future captains and officers of the great sailing ships of the 19th century learned their basic skills.

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