Archives for December 2011

New series: The Story of Wales

Post categories:

BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 11:24 UK time, Friday, 23 December 2011

We're all very excited at BBC Wales History as we look forward to a new year, and a stunning new series from BBC Cymru Wales - The Story of Wales.

Paviland, from The Story of Wales

Telling the story of the nation from 30,000 years ago, the six-part series is presented by the incomparable Huw Edwards, who has overseen a few series for us, including one on the story of the Welsh language.

This trail is our first glimpse of the programme - the recreation of the first known burial in western Europe, that of the Red Lady of Paviland. As it turned out, she wasn't a woman at all but a man, buried with some ceremony at a time when mammoths, rhinos and hyenas roamed the land. The loss of this single human life counted for something even then.

We think you'll agree that even this small glimpse at the footage reveals we're all in for a treat in the new year.

The Story of Wales is packed with heroes and triumphs, grand dreams and great endeavours. From a land of story-tellers, this is the story of the land itself and of the people who've shaped it.

Huw himself has said that making the programme was "a dream come true for me. How could any Welsh broadcaster not be energised by the challenge of telling the nation's story?"

It's the first time in a generation that BBC Cymru Wales has tackled the story of our history - the last major series to do so was The Dragon Has Two Tongues which aired in the mid-1980s. And an awful lot has changed since then.

We can't tell you exactly when The Story of Wales will start in the new year, but we can promise you a compelling tale, packed with dramatic reconstructions and impressive CGI. Keep an eye on the programme site and on BBC One and BBC Two Wales for news.

It happened over Christmas

Post categories:

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 09:00 UK time, Thursday, 22 December 2011

Christmas has always been a time for families, for gathering together around the fire and enjoying the warmth of human contact. In the halls and round houses of the Celts, in the castles and grand houses of the invading Normans, in the burgeoning villages and towns with their wattle and daub buildings, the Christmas season was always well kept in Wales.

Yet the season has also been a time for great events, momentous happenings, and it needs only a cursory glance to realise that the Welsh did not just retire to their hearths for the Twelve Days of Christmas, warming their hands and toes before their roaring log fires. They also found time to get out and achieve!

The first eisteddfod

The very first eisteddfod, for example, was held over the Christmas period of 1176. Poets, story tellers and musicians came together for several days over the season to compete for two chairs, one for poetry, the other for music. The eisteddfod was held at Cardigan Castle and was organised by Rhys ap Gruffydd, the Lord Rhys as he was known.

Even though the term "eisteddfod" was not used when describing this first event, bardic tournaments had been established and continue until this very day - even though they are now held during the summer months rather than over Christmas.

The Christmas truce

The famous unofficial truce that took place on Christmas Day 1914, with World War One raging across Europe, involved many Welsh soldiers. One of the regiments in the front line on this auspicious and amazing day was the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

The story of the truce has been told many times but none is better or more graphic than the account produced by a private in the regiment, Frank Richards. With the help of poet Robert Graves he wrote a book, Old Soldiers Never Die, and one chapter concerns the Christmas truce. Richards was there, at the front, when the unofficial cease fire began:

"On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with 'A Merry Christmas' on it. The enemy had stuck up a similar one... Two of our men threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two of the Germans done [sic] the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench."

Soldiers from both sides spent the day in each others company, out in No Man's Land. Nobody fired or shot at the other side and Frank Richards even recalled that the Germans sent their Welsh enemies two barrels of beer. It was, he recalled, weak and watery, unlike good Welsh ale.

The unofficial truce, which lasted until midnight, was observed along almost the whole of the front line and while senior officers were horrified, Welsh soldiers like Frank Richards were happy to put aside their weapons for the day and to mix with other young men, just like themselves, who were fighting for their country.

Christmas Evans

Several notable Welsh births took place, either on Christmas Day or during the Christmas season. The famous Non-conformist preacher Christmas Evans was born on Christmas Day in 1766 in a village close to Llandysul in Ceredigion. He was the son of a poor shoemaker and grew up illiterate and more than a little savage: he lost an eye in a vicious brawl while still a young man.

Salvation came in the shape of Presbyterian minister David Davies who taught him to read and write in both English and Welsh. The young Christmas became a Baptist minister, his reputation quickly spreading across the whole of Wales. He had amazing insight and imagination and so powerful were the sermons he gave during his preaching tours that he was labelled "the Welsh John Bunyan".

The Gentle Giant

The footballer John Charles was born on the day after Boxing Day 1931. Nicknamed the Gentle Giant, he was never sent off during a professional career that saw him play for clubs such as Leeds, Cardiff and Juventus. Former Cardiff City captain Don Murray played with Charles and has always regarded him as the greatest player he has ever seen:

"He played for Wales on 38 occasions, and took them to the quarter finals of the World Cup. He could play at centre forward or at centre back - at international level. That's a rare and very real ability. I went out to Italy with him, long after he'd left Juventus, and people still remembered him with love and affection. He was simply a great player."

Other notable Welsh births during the Christmas season include actor Anthony Hopkins on New Years Eve 1937 and singer Aled Jones on 29 December 1970.

Nos Galan Races

The Nos Galan Races are now held every New Year's Eve in and around Mountain Ash. The very first races were held on 31 December 1958, the aim being to celebrate the life and career of legendary Welsh runner Guto Nyth Bran. Legend declares that Guto was so fast that he could catch a bird in flight and that he once ran from his home to Pontypridd, a distance of over seven miles, before the kettle boiled!

These days there are races over various distances, the Nos Galan Beacon being lit to signal the start of the various events. The record for the four mile race was set by Tony Simmons in 1971 and, at 17 minutes 41 seconds, it is a time that still stands. The record for the 100 yards sprint is also a long-standing one, being set by Nigel Walker in 1988.

Part of the appeal of the Nos Galan Races is that every year a mystery runner - his or her name kept secret until the night of the races - takes part. Mystery runners in the past have included athletes Lillian Board, Kirsty Wade and David Hemery and rugby stars Jamie Roberts and James Hook.

Tragedy, of course, has also been ever present in the story of Welsh Christmases. On Christmas Day 1806 the Conwy Ferry sank, drowning 13 people, while on Boxing Day 1863 an explosion rocked the Gin Pit in Maesteg, causing the deaths of 14 miners.

On New Years Day 1824, a shipwreck on the Great Orme saw the deaths of 14 passengers and crew while on 1 January 1916, at the height of World War One, the Mumbles lifeboat capsized, drowning three of the crew. Inevitably, there have been many other disasters around Wales over the festive period.

The Christmas season, however, is not the time to think of human misery and pain. Rather, it is a time to celebrate and be happy. And Welsh men and women have done so for many years. They will undoubtedly continue to do so for many more to come.

Phil will be chatting with Roy Noble on Tuesday 27 December from 2pm on BBC Radio Wales about this article.

Making sense of census records

Post categories:

Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 11:15 UK time, Tuesday, 20 December 2011

When researching family history the best place to start is often with census records. These are an invaluable resource containing vast amounts of information which can help you track your ancestors; identifying where they lived, who they lived with, ages, gender, where they were born, marital status, occupation and even what language they spoke.

The first accessible census is from 1841 and the most recent is from 1911. They took place every 10 years but be prepared for some anomalies thrown into the equation to keep you on your toes.

Don't forget that if you live in England and Wales you can pop along to your local library and use Ancestry there, with the help of staff in the local history or reference section, and see the 1911 census for Wales for nothing.

Cat Whiteaway and Susan Sarandon

Cat Whiteaway and Susan Sarandon

Susan Sarandon's ancestor Susanna Beams was born in 1853 into a family of simple labourers from Ludgershall in Wiltshire. I managed to trace several generations of the family within one parish, where they happily stayed and ended up buried in the parish churchyard.

On the 1861 census the surname has been mistranscribed as Bearns, but thankfully someone else had spotted this and submitted an amendment - something you should always do to help others who are trying to follow the same research path.

But by the time of the 1871 census Susanna suddenly disappears and moved to London, where I found her called simply Susan and listed as a housemaid in Portland Square, one of 8 servants. Very Downton Abbey!

In the 1860s Wiltshire suffered poor harvests due to severe weather, which forced the price of corn sky high. Perhaps this drove Susanna to leave her home.

By 1876 she was on board the SS Aragon setting sail for a new life in America. Susanna is proof indeed that you should never assume that your ancestors stayed put in one place and had no aspirations for a better life beyond the parish of their birth. Even if she was incorrectly listed as being aged 20 and married!

Of course the information on a census return is only as good as the person offering it, or perhaps the person writing it down (usually an enumerator), and there is also a chance that the person transcribing the details for indexing on the online databases makes a typing error. Don't forget that most of the enumerators in the 19th century would have been English speaking and so a lot of the Welsh names and locations are the subject of mis-interpretation. Gethyn quickly becomes Gething whilst Aneurin becomes Anewrin!

And even today if you ask someone where they are from some people give their birthplace, some say where they spent their childhood and others simply give the place they are now or the only place they can remember let alone spell.

Sometimes a child can be aged two in 1851, 11 in 1861, 23 in 1871 and by the time they get to 1901 they could be 47 or 57 or anything in between. Obviously this is related to the level and quality of their education. As a person increases in age I usually give them a five year time period either side of their actual birth year just to be sure of finding them.

So be prepared for the fact that while you might not find your ancestors immediately, they should be down on a census somewhere during their lives even if they are in a prisoner, hospital, asylum or workhouses or even on board a ship in port. Be patient and don't forget to use wild cards (*) and try all the possible spellings.

Belonging and Casualty actor Charles Dale

Belonging and Casualty actor Charles Dale finds out about his roots in Coming Home

Read Cat's other useful articles on tracing your family tree.

You can watch Casualty actor Charles Dale trace his family roots on Coming Home, Wednesday 21 December at 8.30pm on BBC One Wales.

The greatest rugby game ever played?

Post categories:

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 14:00 UK time, Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Welsh rugby team has been involved in some magnificent matches over the years and the performance of the side in the recent 2011 Rugby World Cup gave heart to supporters and enthusiasts everywhere. But no game has ever quite been able to match the 1905 clash with the All Blacks of New Zealand.

The touring All Blacks arrived in Britain in September that year, much to the delight of rugby fans everywhere. These days, with the advent of efficient air travel, we are used to short tours - rugby sides come, play one or two games and then shoot off again. Not so in 1905. In those days travel was by steamer and once touring sides arrived in Britain they were here for several months.

The All Blacks, like touring sides for decades to come, played club sides across the country in a series of matches that were designed to create enthusiasm and allow everyone who wanted to see the visitors in action.

And, of course, there were test matches against each of the home nations. The British rugby world at the time was nothing if not complacent and was about to be given a serious shock. Although nobody had expected much of these New Zealanders, they amazed all the rugby pundits - and their opponents - by ploughing an unbeaten furrow through the field of British sport.

England was hammered by five tries to nil - a try in those days being worth three points - and the papers began to claim that these southern hemisphere giants were gifted with almost supernatural powers. Players like Bob Deans, the captain Dave Gallaher and full back Billy Wallace were already being considered the greatest men ever to step onto a rugby field.

Although Wales was in the middle of its first golden decade - winning the Triple Crown on no fewer than seven occasions between 1900 and 1910 - such was the awesome power of the All Blacks that nobody gave Wales much of a chance when the time came for them to take on the tourists.

The much-anticipated game took place on 16 December 1905. Tickets had not been issued and as kick off approached it was estimated that well over 45,000 people had crowded into Cardiff Arms Park in the city centre.

For the first time the words and tune to the anthem Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau rang out across the ground. It had been composed by James James, with words by his father Evan, and was sung in repost to the now-famous All Black Haka, the Maori war cry that the New Zealanders undoubtedly used to intimidate the opposition. Even the All Blacks were impressed by the singing of the crowd - something that continued throughout the match.

The game was played under a low, thick mist that made viewing difficult for the spectators. But right from the kick off it was clear that this was a clash of titans. The Welsh forwards stood up to and matched the mighty All Black pack, harrying the tourists and not allowing them to get into their usual dominant stride.

After half an hour of torrid and often brutal confrontation, a switch in direction, thanks to a reverse pass by Welsh scrum half Owen, saw the All Blacks suddenly wrong-footed. Winger Teddy Morgan was able to swerve around his marker and score in the corner. Although the conversion failed, Wales went in to the half time break with a three nil lead.

The second half saw sustained All Black pressure, as they tried desperately to retain their unbeaten record. Time and time again the New Zealanders battered themselves at the Welsh line but solid and courageous tackling kept them out. Then came the moment of controversy that has remained a talking point in rugby circles ever since.

A superb break by Billy Wallace saw him clean through the Welsh defence with only the full back to beat. Wallace drew his man and passed to Bob Deans. Deans raced 30 yards and a try seemed inevitable but the Welsh centre, Rhys Gabe, and wing Teddy Morgan managed to drag him down just short of the line. A scrum was awarded and Wales held on to record a memorable victory.

Although nothing was made of it at the time - the incident was not alluded to in the post-match discussions and celebrations - Bob Deans, when asked by reporters of the Daily Mail, later claimed that he had grounded the ball over the line but had been pulled back by the Welsh players before the referee arrived at the spot.

The controversy raged for the rest of the tour, the New Zealanders being convinced that Deans had scored, the Welsh players - apart from Teddy Morgan - equally sure that he had not.

Rhys Gabe, the first tackler, commented in a radio broadcast in the 1950s that he originally thought Deans had scored but that he then felt the All Black player try to "wriggle forward", over the line and knew that he had been brought down just short.

The arguments continue to rage, even today, and no discussion between players of either nation is complete without some mention of what the New Zealanders call "the disallowed try."

The Welsh victory deprived the All Blacks of a clean sweep on their 1905 tour but, more importantly, it was the first of many great encounters between two of the proudest rugby playing nations in the world. It can, arguably, claim to be the greatest rugby match of all time.

St Cadoc's Church gets grant to preserve medieval artefacts

Post categories:

BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 09:45 UK time, Thursday, 15 December 2011

St Cadoc's Church in Llancarfan has been awarded a £541,900 grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

The grant will safeguard its important medieval interior and enable the training volunteers to share its heritage with visitors.

St Cadoc's Church - the Devil promotes lust

The Devil promotes lust

Saint Cadoc founded a monastery on site in the sixth century. The Grade I listed church is home to a unique collection of medieval artefacts and wall paintings, including depictions of the seven deadly sins, integral to the story of early Christianity in south Wales.

A number of wall paintings that were limewashed out during the reign of Edward VI, and had remained hidden since 1547, were rediscovered during repair work at the church in 2007. One of the most important discoveries is the wall painting of St George and the Dragon, thought to be the largest known painting in Wales to portray the legend, and possibly the largest and best preserved in Britain.

The volunteer-led Parochial Church Council (PCC) of St. Cadoc will use the money to conserve the wall paintings as well as its carved timber 'reredos' canopies and ornate wooden painted screens.

As well as preserving the artefacts and paintings, the grant will also fund modern technology such as digital displays and a sequenced narrative using LED lights, to tell the story of the church's medieval history.

The PCC also plans to create educational packs and activities to encourage school groups to get involved in the project.

A placement will also be offered for university students in specialist conservation techniques for fine art. Through involving local people in gathering information and research about St Cadoc's Church, it is hoped that the project will appeal to the wider community.

Speaking about the grant, Dan Clayton Jones, Chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Wales said: "St. Cadoc's Church's medieval heritage is hugely important to the story of Christianity in Wales and it is vital that it is properly interpreted and conserved for future generations to explore.

"This project will help tell the story of this fascinating building in a way that will appeal to young people and visitors alike, while ensuring that the site remains a focal point for the whole community.

"I'm delighted that this project is helping to conclude my time with HLF as it embodies everything I like to see in a project. It is inspiring to see local volunteers so passionate about playing their part in taking our heritage forward and in doing so learning new skills. I look forward to returning to the church as a visitor once the project is complete and seeing the difference the funding has made."

The Venerable Peggy Jackson, Priest-in-Charge of Llancarfan, said: "The PCC are privileged to be entrusted with the care of these wall paintings, which appeared so suddenly as treasures in our midst, and also of the reredos, which has yet to reveal its true colours.

"We are very aware of the responsibility that we carry for completing the work, and of the great confidence placed in us by the HLF, in making this grant, for which we are very grateful.

"As a community we are also excited by the prospect of what is still to come, and look forward to learning more, and sharing more, with the many visitors who will be finding their way to Llancarfan in the years ahead."

You can find out more about the paintings and artefacts of this remarkable church on the St Cadoc's website.

Find out more about the history of religion in Wales on the BBC Wales History website.

And Charity Halliwell, Methusalem Simlett and Poperinghe - what's in a name?

Post categories:

Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 09:40 UK time, Tuesday, 13 December 2011

We might think that naming children after special events, famous people and memorable places such as Chardonnay, Britney and Brooklyn is a modern day phenomenon, but people have always taken inspiration from their surroundings and occurrences in their lives.

One of my favourite names is Methusalem Simlett Blight who was born near Bedwelty in 1889. I'd like to think he was named after his parents drank the relevant sized bottle of champagne but I suspect it is more likely that they named him after the oldest person in the Bible (according to the book of Genesis, Methuselah lived for 969 years). See what I mean about learning new facts all the time?

Spare a thought too for the incredibly named And Charity Halliwell, born in Halifax in 1877 after his older sisters Faith and Hope!

While we might think that celebrities hold the upper hand when issuing unusual monikers to their offspring it seems that this is certainly not the case.

After Janet Street Porter's great uncle Thomas Davies died in 1916, while serving with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers near Flanders, his sister named her next daughter Poperinghe after the battlefield where he fell. And in the early 1860s, shortly after the Battle of Balaclava, there are many entries of children born with the latter name.

Janet Street Porter on Coming Home

Janet Street Porter on Coming Home

Don't forget that when searching various websites for your ancestors, whether they were named Poperinghe, Methusalem or just plain William or Katherine, you can use a wild card. So if you are unsure about the spelling (or more likely they were unsure of the spelling of their name, or it was hard to translate from Welsh into English) then after the first 3 characters enter an asterisk and it will search for all possibilities. A search for Wil* brings up William, Will, Willie, Willey, Wilfred, Wilfrid, Willis, Wilmot, Wilkinson and even those entries where someone has abbreviated the name to Willm and the apostrophe has been lost in transcription.

This week in preparation for appearing live on BBC Radio Wales' Jamie and Louise programme I've been busy trying to track down elusive ancestors for listeners, such as Atkinson Charnley and Solomon George Kift. But despite using all the tricks and techniques known to me and calling upon local family history societies and county archives they remain at large.

I think that Atkinson was a cattle drover and as such he may simply have evaded having any of the key events in his life from being registered. I fear that Solomon is one of an unknown number of people born between 1837 and 1875 whose births were not registered since it was not compulsory to do so before 1875, despite civil registration being brought in 1837.

Be prepared also to discover things that you might wish you hadn't when researching your family history. In preparation for a BBC Radio Wales' Look Up Your Genes workshop in Colwyn Bay one woman scoured the house for her mother's birth certificate and instead found a receipt for a baby. This turned out to be for her mother who was born before 1927, the date when adoption was officially legalised.

On a final note, I have yet to find a child born on Shrove Tuesday called Pancake, but I live in hope.

The Flat Holm lighthouse

The two islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm are well-known to residents of Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan. Standing like sentinels guarding the eastern reaches of the Bristol Channel, Flat Holm, in particular, has a rich and varied history.

Flat Holm Island - Photo Gale's Photo

Flat Holm Island (photo: Gale's Photo)

The first signs of human habitation on the island date from approximately 700 BC. Legend - and it is no more than legend - says that two of the murderers of Archbishop Thomas Becket are buried there.

However, it was as a base for smugglers that Flat Holm really became famous. The best known of these smugglers was Pasco Robinson who, in the early 18th century, sailed his 40 ton sloop - complete with red mermaid figurehead - with impunity around the area.

Considering the close proximity of Flat Holm to both Cardiff and Bristol it is perhaps a little surprising to realise that, although the island was the scene of many shipwrecks over the years, it did not have a proper and effective lighthouse until Trinity House began to build their tower and light in December 1737.

That is not to say there was no previous warning beacon on the island. The Romans maintained a light there, to warn the ships of their fleet that patrolled the Channel from their base at what later became the port of Cardiff. And with a name like "Holm" - an old Norse word meaning "island in the estuary" - it is clear that the Vikings knew the place well.

Legend declares that a Viking fleet sheltered in the lee of the island after losing a battle to the Saxons at Watchet. The Vikings being such magnificent seafarers, it in inconceivable that they did not maintain a warning beacon of some sort on the small limestone outcrop.

Flat Holm became a sanctuary for St Cadoc, who apparently lived on the island for seven years. His contemporary, St Gildas, set up a base on nearby Steep Holm and the two men occasionally met up in order to say prayers.

Despite increasing maritime activity in the Bristol Channel during the 15th and 16th centuries, all attempts at building a lighthouse on Flat Holm failed dismally. It is hard to work out why this should be since there were so many terrible wrecks in the area.

On 23 October 1817, for example, 54 crew and passengers were drowned when the William and Mary foundered near Flat Holm. The victims were buried on the island.

Then, in 1736, 60 soldiers were drowned when their ship hit the Wolves, a string of rocks near Flat Holm. A certain Mr Crispe of Bristol made a proposal to Trinity House that he would pay £800 towards the cost of building a lighthouse. The proposal was readily accepted and at the end of 1737 work on building a tower to contain the light was begun. The lighthouse became fully operational on 25 March 1738.

Standing 98 feet high, the tower is actually 60 feet above sea level, making the light visible from well down the channel. It was certainly more effective than the original light which was a simple brazier in a wooden frame on the eastern end of the island.

The lighthouse keepers had a lucky escape in December 1790 when their tower was hit by lightning during a violent storm. They managed to avoid injury but a 10 foot crack was blasted into the side of the tower. Proof, if any were ever needed, of the dangers of the profession.

Trinity House eventually bought the lease of the lighthouse from its owners in July 1822. It was the last signal station in the United Kingdom to be privately operated and owned but, once Trinity House took over, a degree of modernisation and development began to occur. A clockwork mechanism - to rotate the light - was installed in 1881 and the station was operated by three or four keepers.

This lasted until 1988 when, like all of the other lighthouses around the coast, Flat Holm light became fully automated. By then, of course, there had been other developments on the island. In 1906 Trinity House built a foghorn station - a much needed aid to the increased level of shipping coming out of Cardiff docks due to the coal trade.

A sanatorium for seamen thought to be suffering from cholera - in effect an isolation hospital for the port and town of Cardiff - had been built on the island in 1896. The hospital, which had begun life in a tent, saw its last fatality at the end of the 19th century - from bubonic plague, What the lighthouse keepers thought of their unwelcome neighbours has not been recorded.

In the 1860s a set of barracks and gun emplacements had been built to protect the nearby port, one of many "Palmerston Follies" created around the coast of Wales. Although the barracks had been largely abandoned by the beginning of the 20th century, the island continued to have a major strategic value and was again garrisoned during World War One.

During World War Two a radar station was established on the island, and 350 members of the Royal Artillery were posted there to operate the anti-aircraft guns that had been installed.

The garrison commander, Major David Benger - later headmaster of Headlands School in nearby Penarth - invented an amazing device, known as Benger's Goalpost, which was designed to stop the guns traversing too low and thus blowing the top off the lighthouse. The lighthouse keepers would undoubtedly have been grateful for Benger's fertile imagination.

Although Flat Holm is now a Local Nature Reserve and home to many rare plants and colonies of gulls, its history is vibrant and fascinating. And the creation of the lighthouse in the 18th century undoubtedly helped to save the lives of many mariners.

Chapel appeal: Royal Commission needs for your help survey of Welsh chapels

Post categories:

BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 15:55 UK time, Friday, 9 December 2011

Nonconformist chapels in Wales form a key part of the Welsh landscape, whether rural or urban. During the last two centuries, over 6,500 chapels were built in Wales, and chapels have a strong cultural and social importance to the heritage of Wales.

Interior view of Ebenezer Chapel, Tumble

Interior view of Ebenezer Chapel, Tumble (Photo: Crown copyright)

Today chapels are one of the classes of building most at threat of closure in Wales. They are disappearing almost as quickly as they appeared in their heyday.

Over the last few years, Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, in conjunction with Capel has been carrying out a systematic programme of collecting and analysing information about these building. One important aspect of the project is to record what is happening to chapel buildings today.

This survey aims to establish the status of each chapel, if it is still in active use, or whether it has been converted, demolished, is lying disused or derelict, or in another state.

Where a chapel conversion has taken place the Royal Commission are recording new uses, and are also noting any chapels which are in a transitional phase of being for sale or in the planning process.

Currently there is a variation in the data coverage of Wales that the Royal Commission survey has collected. In Anglesey, for example, the survey is only missing the status for three chapels, representing less than 2% of the original total.

Unfortunately, in the urbanised historic counties of Glamorgan and Monmouth, the picture is more complex and less than a half and a third respectively has been recorded.

Can you help the Royal Commission to record the present use of chapels? They are aiming to complete this element of the research by the end of December 2011.Lists of chapels for which they are looking for information are available from or

Cat Whiteaway's tips for creating a three-dimensional family tree

Post categories:

Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 10:58 UK time, Wednesday, 7 December 2011

People often ask me if I can do their family tree for them. While this is a lovely compliment I always decline the offer, since it is far more satisfying to research your own family history.

There is so much more to it than the simple flat two-dimensional family tree that people think can be printed off using a magical computer.

I try to encourage people to compare the process to that of buying a jigsaw puzzle in a charity shop, with the lid missing! You can't be sure of how it will end up and there may well be a few pieces absent.

The best thing to do is to try and gather all the details you can from as many sources as possible, from as far and wide as you can. Make sure you start by quizzing the older people in your family, and your siblings and cousins - especially the women, as they seem to be the keepers of this type of knowledge.

Family certificates

Certificates, service records and invitations are an important part of creating a rounded family history

Dig out all the old photographs and medals and any old documents and certificates you can find. Not just birth, death and marriage certificates but school certificates, wills, apprenticeships, service records, tickets, invitations and receipts for burial plots and so on, and store them all away carefully in a special memory box.

Aim to build a whole picture of your ancestors not just one that fits neatly onto a flat family tree. Some of the best examples I have seen include timelines and storyboards so that the research and evidence relates to the history of the time.

As a child I loathed history. I couldn't see the point and dropped it as soon as I could, but since working in genealogy I've learned about Corn Laws and social reform and understood the industrial revolution and the push and pull causes of migration.

Cat and Patrick Mower

Cat with Patrick Mower

Mind you, I don't think any number of history lessons could have prepared me for the reason why Patrick Mower's ancestor moved away from Carmarthen to Porth. After much digging deep down into the roots of his family tree I was amazed to discover that David Price, Patrick's great-great grandfather, actually turned out to be David Samuel who fled Carmarthenshire after being accused of committing a murder in the 1820s.

All of the details, the witnesses, the police statements, coroner's reports and court records, including verbatim details of the trial, were laid out for all to read in the newspapers. This was truly like discovering gold and a real bonus for the Coming Home programme.

And while you may not have (or want) a murder in your family history, think back to the days before the internet and how people relied on newspapers to share news of a birth or death in their family. They may be one of the hardest resources to use but in my experience there is little that can compare to being lost in time while reading through the old newspapers and learning what the world was like for your ancestors.

If you missed Cat's first article for BBC Wales history on tracing your family tree, you can read it here.

Actor Trevor Eve finds out about his Welsh roots tonight on Coming Home, Wednesday 7 December, 8.30pm on BBC Cymru Wales.

William Madocks and the Cob at Porthmadog

Post categories:

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 11:00 UK time, Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Born on 17 June 1773, William Madocks was a Georgian entrepreneur of startling ability and foresight.

He was the man who built the Cob across the Glaslyn Estuary, thus considerably easing travel - by foot, horse and eventually by rail - between mid and north Wales. He was also instrumental in creating two new communities at Porthmadog and at nearby Tremadog.

The whole enterprise was a phenomenal undertaking, one that exhausted and nearly bankrupted this man of great vision and energy.

Linda crossing the Cob, Porthmadog (Photo: Steve's Wildlife)

Madocks came from an old landed gentry family that had its origins in Denbighshire, although William himself was actually brought up in London. He became MP for Boston in Lincolnshire and later Chippenham in Wiltshire but his interest in his native Wales remained strong and vibrant.

He had a vision of opening up the country, improving its road and communication links and bringing prosperity to the people. As a land reformer and agricultural improver it was therefore inevitable that when he inherited land around the Traeth Mawr Estuary in Gwynedd he would attempt to make changes to the region.

His original intention was to reclaim the Traeth Mawr area for agriculture but this quickly changed as his ideas and schemes began to develop. Soon he was proposing an embankment across the estuary - on which, he declared, traffic from mid Wales could travel in order to reach Porthdinllaen on the Llyn Peninsula. The Irish trade was beginning to gather momentum and Madocks had plans to create a new port at Porthdinllaen in order to carry this traffic.

As it happened, Madocks' plan came to nothing. With the bridging of the Menai Straits, Holyhead on Ynys Mon quickly gained supremacy in the race for the Irish trade - it did not stop William Madocks and his embankment. Work continued on the crossing.

The embankment, known as the Cob, was finished in 1811. Its construction had been long and difficult and had cost Madocks literally all the money he had. By 1811 he was being hotly pursued by a great number of creditors.

The opening of the Cob brought him some relief as now, at least, he could charge people to cross the estuary and, by way of celebration, he organised a four-day feast and eisteddfod.

Disaster threatened a year later when, in February 1812, a great storm hammered the construction and breached the wall. By now, however, the value of the Cob as a crossing place had been proved and Madocks was able to raise money from all over the county to pay for repairs - and to strengthen the enormous edifice. By 1814 it was open once more for traffic but the repairs and sudden cessation of money coming in had, once again, hit Madocks were it hurt most - in his pocket book and wallet.

What really saved William Madocks and the Cob was the slate industry of the area. At his instigation, an Act of Parliament in 1821 gave permission for the creation of a new port at Ynys y Tywyn, the diversion of the river and estuary caused by the building of the Cob having created something of a natural harbour.

To men like Madocks it was quite clear that this harbour would be capable of handling ocean going sailing ships. Ynys y Tywyn was quickly renamed Port Madoc and a new town began to grow up in the shadow of the port.

Blaenau Ffestiniog and its famous slate quarries lay only a dozen miles south west of the new port and town and, as the demand for Welsh slate began to grow, Port Madoc was the logical place to export the raw material, not just to England but to the whole world. The Ffestiniog tramway (and, later, railway) ran from the quarries, across the Cob to the port where the public wharves, built in 1825, were used to load slate onto the schooners.

Porth Madoc - the name was only changed to Porthmadog in 1974 - grew rapidly in the first half of the 19th century. From a population base of nothing at the beginning of the century, the town had, by 1861, managed to achieve an occupancy of just under 3,000. Many of these men and women worked, in one way or another, in the harbour, slate and shipping industries.

For years William Madocks had lived close to the margins, his financial affairs always being tenuous, if not downright perilous. The development of his new town and port, the sudden boom of the slate trade, finally brought him a fair degree of prosperity. He could at last relax and contemplate other propositions.

In 1826 Madocks took himself and his family on a holiday to Italy. On his return he was planning to develop and move into a new house at Morfa Lodge, close to the new town. However, it was not to be. On the return journey the party stopped in France for a brief respite and Madocks was taken ill and died. He was buried on 17 September 1826 in Paris.

Porth Madoc, or Porthmadog, continued to function after the death of its founder but it was a hard and difficult road to travel. As the century moved to its conclusion, the development of Aberystwyth and its better rail links certainly made a dent in the town's profits. The final nail in the coffin came when World War One broke out in 1914 and the lucrative German slate market totally disappeared. The port consequently fell into disuse.

These days Porthmadog survives on its tourist trade. In particular, the Blaenau Ffestiniog railway brings trippers by the score. Perhaps, as they trundle across the Cob into the town, they might stare out at the gigantic wall or embankment and remember William Madocks, without whom there would have been no Cob to travel on!

Roman treasure's new home at Winding House museum

Post categories:

BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 14:20 UK time, Monday, 5 December 2011

A 2,000 year old Roman ring found by a man with a metal detector on Cefn Brithdir in the Darran Valley earlier this year has been returned by the British Museum for display in a valley's museum.

According to an article on the BBC Wales News website, the British Museum has given the ring to the Winding House museum at New Tredegar to be put on permanent display.

Roman ring

The silver Roman ring was found earlier this year (Photos: Winding House museum)

Roman ring

Roman ring

The gemstone is missing from the ring

Speaking about the new exhibit, Emma Wilson, principal museums and heritage officer for Caerphilly, said they were "immensely pleased" to put it on display. "We're a relatively new museum having only been open for three years," she said.

Ms Wilson praised the finder for alerting the authorities to his discovery. "He went through all the correct legal channels, realising it might be treasure trove.

The ring, from the first or second century AD, was initially passed to the National Museum in Cardiff where it was identified it as a typical Roman silver finger ring.

It was then placed in the care of the British Museum, whose officials offered it to the Winding House, a former colliery building, as the relevant local museum.

Read more about this story on the BBC Wales News website, or find out more about the Romans on Wales on BBC Wales History.

Heritage Minister "disappointed" with National Library for accepting SS man's bequest

Post categories:

BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 10:40 UK time, Friday, 2 December 2011

The National Library of Wales has been criticised by Heritage Minister Huw Lewis AM for accepting a bequest of £300,000 and archive material from a Frenchman, Louis Feutren, who served in the Waffen SS during World War Two.

The SS was a notorious paramilitary wing of Adolf Hitler's army, acting as the Nazi leader's bodyguard, a fighting force and running death camps.

Feutren's archive, which includes a collection of papers and tapes, details his life as a Breton who was a member of the region's nationalist group Gwenn-ha-Du (white and black - the name of the Breton flag) and the Bezen Perrot movements during the war.

After the war Mr Feutren fled France and travelled through Wales, eventually settling in the Republic of Ireland where he married. He died in 2010.

Heritage Minister Huw Lewis said he was disappointed that the National Library of Wales had accepted the bequest, which includes "material of significant historical importance".

"I made our position perfectly clear that we felt the acceptance of this bequest could affect the reputation of the National Library of Wales"

The National Library of Wales took expert legal advice in coming to its decision to accept the bequest. It said some of the money would be used on projects associated with the destructive effects of war and fascism.

Speaking about the decision, the retiring president of the National Library of Wales, Lord Wigley, said: "This is a notable collection that includes material of significant historical importance.

"Though I utterly condemn his political leanings and activities during the war, we had no right, as board members, to allow our feelings to interfere with our decision."

Read the full story on BBC News Wales website.

More from this blog...

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.