Cranogwen (1839–1916): Captain of her Own Ship
This International Women’s Day we are celebrating Sarah Jane Rees aka Cranogwen. She dedicated her life to helping people in poverty and facing domestic abuse whilst following her own path against the norms of the time. She was a master mariner, teacher, poet, lecturer, campaigner, editor, preacher, and social advocate.
Born in 1839 near Llangrannog, her father was a master mariner, captaining ships. Sarah Jane aspired to follow the seafaring lifestyle which was an integral part of life particularly along the west coast of Wales. She attended school at Pontgarreg, her home village before being sent to learn dressmaking in Cardigan aged 13. She quickly returned home to follow her true passion and joined her father onboard his ship for a couple of years travelling around Wales and to Liverpool, France and Ireland. It was not as unusual as you might expect for girls and women to be found on (mainly merchant) boats and ships, particularly as the sea was an integral part of many people’s livelihoods during this period. It was only later in 1869 that the Admiralty banned women from Royal Navy vessels (Shopland 2017). On return she attend mariner school to further learn about navigation and other aspects of seafaring. Sarah Jane completed her training in London, earning her qualification as a Master Mariner. She then returned home to take up the position of headteacher at her village school in 1860 at the age of 21! Amongst the subjects she taught was of course seafaring, training a new generation of sailors and sea captains. It is believed she also taught navigation at John Evans’s School in Aberystwyth next door to the former Wesleyan Chapel on Alexandra Road. The school has been demolished and the site is now occupied by Diva Nail Design.
Another pursuit of Sarah Jane, at which she excelled, was poetry. She competed in local and regional eisteddfodau under her bardic (poet’s) name Cranogwen, winning several prizes including the Chair at Rhymney in 1864. At the National Eisteddfod in Aberystwyth in 1865 she became the first woman to win the Crown with her poem ‘Y Fodrwy Briodasol’ (The Wedding Ring), a satirical take on a woman’s destiny. One of her best-known poems is ‘Fy Ffrynd’ suggested by Norena Shopland to have been written about a female love interest. ‘Caniadau Cranogwen,’ a volume of 40 of her poems was published in 1870. By 1879 she was editor of the Welsh-language magazine specifically for women, ‘Y Frythones’ (another first for a woman). The magazine supported girls’ education and promoted the literary works of other women.
Extract from ‘Y Fodrwy Briodasol’, the poem for which Cranogwen won the Crown in 1865.
Y Fodrwy Briodasol
Eistedda ieuange, brydferth wraig,
Brydnawnddydd ei phriodas,
Ar esmwyth-faingc odidog yn
Ystafell oreu’r palas:
Byd o lawenydd sydd o’i chylch,
Awyrgylch hedd a’i töa,
A mwyn awelon cariad pur
Yn ddifyr a’i dyddana.
Ond yn ddisymwth, wele wrid
Ei hwyneb yn perffeithio,
A gwylder, fel pelydriad claer
O’r nef, yn chwareu arno:
Ei chalon frysia, – Beth? – Paham
Y teimla mor neill duol?
Ah! teimlo ar ei bys a wnaeth
“ Y fodrwy biodasol.”
In 1866 she gave up her position at Pontgarreg school to lecture and preach. Her fame as Cranogwen and reputation for being an engaging, passionate and knowledgeable public speaker took her as far as America. Cranogwen donated much of the money she made to worthwhile causes, such as repairs to and the building of chapels and schoolrooms. She also built a new home for her parents – Brynaeron. In particular, she spoke and preached on the issue of Temperance (abstention from alcohol) and the effect that alcohol could have on family lives, for women in particular. In 1901 she co-founded Undeb Dirwestol Merched y De (the South Wales Women’s Temperance Union) and along with others was influential in encouraging women to stand up for their rights. Many of these women, inspired by Cranogwen would go on to support the later suffrage movement.
Ychydig iawn o flodau têg
Y byd sydd fwy eu harddwch,
Sydd burach, well eu sawr, na chwêg
Ychydig hefyd, yn ddiau,
O flodau’r byd presenol,
Mewn bri a harddwch, sy’n parhau
Mor hir, ac mor rogorol.
Ah! y mae hwn yn rhosyn hardd,
Yn d’wysog mewn prydferthwch!
A oes rhyw un o fewn yr ardd
Yn fwy ei fri a’i degwch?
Mae’r blodau eraill sydd gerllaw
Fel yn ymgrymu iddo;
A phob un genfydd oddi draw
Fod gwedd urddasol arno.
Extract from ‘Fy Ffrynd’, one of Cranogwen’s most well-known poems.
Cranogwen had two long-term partners, Frances (Fanny) Rees who unfortunately died from tuberculosis in 1874 at the age of 21, and later Jane Thomas. Sometime after the death of her parents, Cranogwen sold her house and moved in with Jane who lived nearby. They remained partners until Cranogwen’s death in 1916.
Cranogwen captained her own ship in more ways than one, becoming renowned throughout Wales and beyond for her numerous accomplishments and endeavours. She was yet to realise her dream of opening a refuge for women at the time of her death. However, this was completed and opened in her honour in 1922, named Llety Cranogwen in Tonypandy, Rhondda.
To celebrate her achievements Cranogwen has been chosen as one of five Monumental Welsh Women to “celebrate and commemorate the achievements of great Welsh Women and inspire the next generation of great Welsh women”. The mission of the group is quite straightforward: Five Welsh Women. Five Statues. Five Years ‘commemorating the achievements of real Welsh Women’. Cranogwen’s statue will be unveiled later this year at Llangrannog, the third statue to be unveiled following Betty Campbell (September 2021)and Elaine Morgan (March 2022). We are marking this event by recording places associated with Cranogwen’s life in the National Monuments Record, these can be viewed online at Coflein by clicking the links below.
- Dolgoy-fach, Pontgarreg
- Pontgarreg School
- Pontgarreg Village
- John Evans’s School, Aberystwyth
- Cranogwen’s Grave, Llangrannog
- Llety Cranogwen, Tonypandy
- Norena Shopland, Forbidden Lives LGBT stories from Wales (Seren Books, 2017)
Charina Jones, Online Services Manager