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Rees, Sarah Jane [pseud. Cranogwen]free

(1839–1916)
  • Deirdre Beddoe

Sarah Jane Rees [Cranogwen] (1839–1916)

by John Thomas

by courtesy of the National Library of Wales

Rees, Sarah Jane [pseud. Cranogwen] (1839–1916), sailor, schoolmistress, and poet, was born on 9 January 1839 at Dolgoy Fach, a cottage some 2½ miles from the coastal village of Llangrannog on Cardigan Bay, from which she took her bardic name, Cranogwen. She was the youngest of three children of Captain John Rees (1807–1893) and his wife, Frances (1803–1884).

Cranogwen was passionately devoted to education throughout her life. Her own schooling began in the small village school at Pontgarreg, run by the old, but highly regarded, Hugh Davies. When she left school her parents planned that she should take up an apprenticeship as a dressmaker in Cardigan. This was not at all to her liking, and instead she insisted on accompanying her father to sea. She spent two years as a sailor aboard her father's ketch, which travelled between the ports of Wales, England, and France, and carried cargoes of coal and household goods. Then she resumed her education, attending ‘higher schools’ in Newquay (where she studied navigation), Pont-siân, and Cardigan. She studied at a nautical school in London, where she gained her master's certificate, a qualification allowing her to command a ship in any part of the world. At some point she also studied English literature at Blackburne House in Liverpool.

A tall, dark, striking woman, strong-willed and supremely confident, but possessed of a delightful sense of humour, Cranogwen was, without doubt, the most outstanding Welsh woman of the nineteenth century. Cranogwen broke new ground for women in many fields and appears never to have been constrained by the English ideal of the ‘perfect lady’, a model of femininity which could, at best, have limited application in the different economic circumstances of Wales. She was to lead a very public life, lecturing to wide audiences and preaching in chapels, and she became something of a national institution in her own lifetime. She appeared to live life according to the principle that there was nothing that she could not do, and for much of her life she enjoyed the support of her close friend, Jane Thomas.

Following her time at sea and her continued education, Cranogwen returned to Llangrannog, where from 1860 to 1866 she ran the old school at Pontgarreg, which she herself had attended. Despite objections raised by the governors of this British School at the appointment of a 21-year-old woman, Cranogwen, as ever, prevailed. Here she taught navigation and seamanship to the young men of the district, as well as providing children with their elementary education.

During her years as a schoolmistress Cranogwen turned her attention to writing poetry. She competed successfully at various local eisteddfodau and in 1865 she entered, for the first time, the national eisteddfod, held that year in Aberystwyth. She won. She was the first woman to do so and became famous overnight. With her winning poem, 'Y fodrwy briodasol', a moving account of a married woman's lot, she beat the leading bards of the day, Islwyn and Ceiriog. She went on to further successes at the national eisteddfod in Chester the following year and later won chairs at eisteddfodau in Caerphilly and Aberaeron, where she won in 1873 with her long poem in free verse on the wreck of the north fleet, 'Drylliad y north fleet'. Her poetry was very popular and she wrote on a broad range of themes, such as nature, her love of Wales, her Christian faith, the evils of drink, storms and shipwrecks, and her everyday experiences, including the trials of missing a train. A collection of some forty of her poems, Caniadau Cranogwen, was published about 1870.

In 1866 Cranogwen gave up the school at Pontgarreg to concentrate on a new career as a lecturer and preacher. She travelled extensively throughout Wales and made two American lecture tours (1869 and 1888). Despite vocal opposition from some quarters to a woman speaking from a public platform Cranogwen, with her powerful voice, vivid use of language, and appreciation of the use of the dramatic pause, was a very popular lecturer. She was a deeply religious woman and, like many of her contemporaries, was influenced by the religious and temperance revival of 1859. She felt a vocation to preach the word of God, but the pulpit was viewed as a far cry from the lecture platform and Cranogwen suffered much highly personal abuse, which dented her confidence and led to bouts of depression. But in this, as in other spheres, she was a ground-breaker, and she gained the support of Thomas Levi, a prominent nonconformist leader.

In 1879 Cranogwen became the first woman ever to edit a Welsh-language women's magazine, when she brought out Y Frythones, which she edited until 1889. An attractive, illustrated publication with stories, poems, features, and a problem page, the magazine was aimed primarily at working-class young women. Cranogwen contributed a great deal to its contents and provided a platform for other Welsh women writers. The magazine advocated secondary and higher education for women, the virtues of temperance, and the extension of opportunities by which women might earn independent and respectable livings. Although the question of women's suffrage did not figure prominently in Y Frythones, those articles which did address the issue were firmly in favour. Cranogwen herself, though not known to have been a member of any suffrage organization, seems to have believed that it would be just a matter of time before women were enfranchised and that this would mark an important step on the road to women gaining full legal rights.

Temperance had always been an issue close to Cranogwen's heart and in 1901 she founded Undeb Dirwestol Merched y De (South Wales women's temperance union). By the time of her death in 1916 there were some 140 branches throughout south Wales. She did not live to see her dream of a house for young women who had appeared in court on charges of drunkenness 'and associated evils', but a fund was raised after her death and Llety Cranogwen was opened as a memorial to her by the Rhondda branch in 1922. Cranogwen died at the home of her niece, 50 Wood Street, Cilfynydd, Pontypridd, on 27 June 1916, and was buried alongside her parents in the churchyard of St Carannog's Church, Llangrannog.

Sources

  • D. G. Jones, Cofiant Cranogwen (1932)
  • C. Lloyd-Morgan, ‘From temperance to suffrage?’, Our mother's land: chapters in Welsh women's history, 1830–1939, ed. A. V. John (1991), 135–58
  • S. R. Williams, ‘The true “Cymraes”: images of women in women's nineteenth century Welsh periodicals’, Our mother's land: chapters in Welsh women's history, 1830–1939, ed. A. V. John (1991), 69–91
  • Y Frythones (1879–89)
  • ‘Cranogwen dead’, Western Mail [Cardiff] (28 June 1916)
  • Cardiff Times (1 July 1916)
  • C. Lloyd-Morgan, ‘Cranogwen a barddoniaeth merched yn y Gymraeg’, Barddas, 211 (Nov 1994)
  • G. Jones, Cranogwen: Portread Newydd, Gerallt Jones (1981)
  • d. cert.
  • private information (2004)

Archives

  • NL Wales, papurau Undeb Dirwestol Merched y De (South Wales women's temperance union papers)

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1885, Cardiff Central Library
  • J. Thomas, photograph, 1910, NL Wales
  • B. Owen, photograph, NL Wales
  • J. Thomas, photograph, NL Wales [see illus.]
  • photograph, NL Wales

Wealth at Death

£530 5s. 1d.: probate, 19 Dec 1916, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]