“It can be safely said that no other Welsh woman has enjoyed such popularity in so many public spheres as the late Miss Rees.”
Therefore the Carmarthen’s Diary stated as he reported, on June 30, 1916, the death three days earlier of Sarah Jane Rees at Cilfynydd, near Pontypridd who was, and still is, better known by her bardic name, Cranogwen.
The newspaper described the 77-year-old as “the well-known Welsh temperance worker, Methodist evangelist and prominent bard of the National Eisteddfod”.
But even this seemingly comprehensive introduction omits much of her career and achievements, and underscores how difficult it is to describe a rural West Wales woman who apparently broke all the conventions of the Victorian period.
Not only did Cranogwen become a master navigator, lecturer and preacher who traveled across Wales and America, at a time when public speaking by women was widely frowned upon, but was a journalist and writer who lived openly in relationships with two women.
Sculptor Sebastien Boyesen was commissioned to create a figurative sculpture of her in her home village of Llangrannog.
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Her biographer Jane Aaron said the village is a fitting location for the statue, which will only be the second of a real Welsh woman in a public space in Wales: “She was very loyal to Llangrannog.”
Cranogwen’s popularity with the American public and the large Welsh communities of Liverpool and London meant that she could have settled in any of these places and earned large sums of money.
But instead, she returned to the seaside village and, as well as building a new home for her parents, supported her local Methodist chapel, Bancyfelin.
“She not only built the sumptuous middle-class house, which still stands, but paid off all the debts from the construction of the new Methodist chapel,” said Jane, a retired Welsh writing English teacher at the University of South Wales.
Growing up in a seaside community, Jane believes this influenced Cranogwen’s view that women were just as capable as men.
In fishing villages, men were often at sea and women had to take on the role of maintaining the community. In Y FrythonesEdited Cranogwen magazine, she always sought to convey the message that women were capable of achieving more than society expected of them, including offering encouragement in a dying aunt question and answer column.
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Cranogwen had the real-life experience to back up his beliefs. At 13, unhappy with an apprenticeship with a seamstress in Cardigan, she persuaded her father to take her on his ketch, a two-sail boat, as a crew and spent three years as a sailor before studying for her captain’s certificate. Navy in London.
When she returned to Llangrannog, aged 21, she took up the post of schoolmaster and prepared young sailors to take the sea captain’s certificate as well as teaching local children.
She had the support of her father. He had suggested, unusually for the time, that she go to school because he had been impressed by the letters she had written to him, as had been done by his two older brothers when he was in Wed.
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But there is also a more painful influence because his father had struggled with alcoholism. While he had helped his daughter from a very humble background, which included sharing the family home with a poor woman, gaining an education and a career, it’s also likely that his battle with alcohol was the reason for which his daughter became a noted member of the temperance movement.
Her breakthrough to national prominence came at the National Eisteddfod in Aberystwyth in 1865 when, to the shock of the public, she rose to take the chair of her poem “Y Fodrwy Briodasol” (The Wedding Ring), the very first woman to do so.
“It would have been a shock to the judges because they wouldn’t have known a woman had entered. It would have been open to everyone, but the judges would never have thought a woman would try,” Jane said. .
His fugenw – or pseudonym – was ‘Muta’ meaning ‘the mute’, but victory over the greatest poets of the time such as Islwyn and Ceiriog, gave Cranogwen a voice and a platform on the national stage and international.
The poem was a satire on the plight of married women and used the ring as a recurring symbol. But Cranogwen would never marry.
Instead, she had two relationships, often described as “romantic friendships,” with two women.
Fanny Rees moved into Cranogwen’s house, after contracting tuberculosis in 1874, to die in his arms and was the subject of his poem Fy Ffrynd (My Friend).
Following her heartbreak, Cranogwen was in a relationship with her neighbor Jane Thomas. When her parents died, Cranogwen sold the family home and lived the last 20 years of her life with Jane Thomas, a fact that only added to her entry in the Dictionary of Welsh Biography in 2020.
For Mair Jones, who has researched Cranogwen as part of her study of Welsh queer history, it is important to remember these relationships.
“Cranogwen was one of the main inspirations for me to start researching Welsh queer history and to set up a Twitter account and blog,” Mair said.
“I think she was very versatile and did a lot in her life, there’s so much to love about her life and her relationships were also very interesting. She was an interesting and revolutionary woman, but he’s important that this queer identity was not erased and that would have been an erasure of Fanny and Jane as well.
Mair also views Cranogwen’s support for the temperance movement as a feminist issue: “It was very much a women’s movement and there was a link between alcohol abuse and domestic violence.”
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The statue which will honor Cranogwen is part of the Monumental Welsh Women campaign which established the ‘Hidden Heroines’ project in response to the lack of statues of named Welsh women anywhere in Wales.
The first statue was that of the late headmaster of Cardiff, Betty Campbell, unveiled in September last year and a fundraising campaign is supporting the creation of the Cranogwen statue.
Just as Cranogwen’s teaching, writing, public speaking and campaigning guided men and women in Wales and beyond over 100 years ago, it is hoped that a memorial permanent in the place closest to his heart will ensure that this remains his legacy.
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