Discovering the Welsh Past Online
Whether debating the merits of the new curriculum or highlighting the stories of underrepresented groups, there has been increased discussion of the importance of Welsh history. In this discussion, Wales’s rich historical environment is often a subject of interest – whether it focuses on the ‘Cofiwch Tryweryn’ movement, Cardiff’s changing cityscape or lesser-known places and their stories – with many eager to learn more.
Fortunately for those wanting to know more about Welsh history, architecture and archaeology, Wales is supplied with a wide range of open-access resources. These resources all fulfil different but complementary functions, reflecting the different but complementary responsibilities of their parent organisations. They can be used separately or together to discover more about this history of Wales.
The responsibility of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCAHMW) is to record, study and promote understanding of Wales’s archaeological, built and maritime heritage. Established in 1908, our first core task (which continues to this day) was to create an inventory of all of the important sites in Wales – The National Monument Record of Wales (NMRW). We set about this task by producing inventories of sites for the thirteen historic counties of Wales, many of which can be accessed freely here. We now produce the online database Coflein.
Coflein contains records for over 120,000 sites throughout Wales. Many of these are listed or scheduled, but most are not, and inclusion in the NMRW does not denote any statutory protection. The aim of Coflein is to make authoritative information about Wales’s historic built environment accessible to the people of Wales (and the wider world). The database can be searched by individual site, site type, geographic area or time period, as well as by free-text searches or geographically through our mapping system (mapping guide available here). At the moment some entries on Coflein are more detailed than others, and we are constantly working to improve the website, often with the help of public feedback.
The RCAHMW is also involved in the production of several other resources, such as Journey to the Past, an exploration of Wales in historic travel writing from France and Germany in partnership with Bangor University and the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies (CAWCS), and the online database of chapels, www.welshchapels.org, in partnership with the Welsh Religious Buildings Trust.
Notably, under the provision for a statutory list of historic place names in the Historic Environment (Wales) Act, 2016 we have compiled an online database of hundreds of thousands of historic place names in Wales, a list which is growing daily. In addition to its importance to understanding the history of Wales, local officials, developers and property owners can use the list to learn about historical place names in the areas where they live and work.
RCAHMW is also a partner institution, along with the National Library of Wales and National Museum of Wales, in the People’s Collection Wales, an innovative and interactive resource where official bodies and private individuals can share their collections and stories related to the history of Wales.
Cadw works to protect, maintain, conserve and interpret the historic environment, a mission which notably includes the listing of buildings and scheduling of ancient monuments. They have put together helpful guides to listing and scheduling, and the processes, criteria and protections which they entail. These are just two of several documents available under the ‘Advice and Support’ area of their website, which also includes guides to conservation principles and caring for historic landscapes as well as information on legislation and guidance.
Cadw’s records of protected sites can all be viewed via the website Cof-Cymru, and include entries for protected wrecks, world heritage sites, listed buildings, registered historic landscapes and scheduled monuments These records can be invaluable for those with personal or professional interests in sites under statutory protection, but it should be noted that they are often written in a technical manner, as is necessary for their function as statutory records of sites.
There are also four Archaeological Trusts in Wales, responsible for maintaining a Historical Environment Record for each of the four areas: Gwynedd, Dyfed, Clwyd-Powys and Glamorgan-Gwent. Their records can be viewed on the website Archwilio, which contains information on thousands of sites.
All of these organisations work closely together, sharing information and records in order to understand the historic environment of Wales better and to make that information accessible to the people of Wales. Information from all of these organisations – NMRW records, listed buildings, scheduled ancient monuments and the historic environment records, as well as the National Museum’s archaeology collection – are available and searchable in a single website, Historic Wales, although it is still a good idea to use Coflein, Cof-Cymru and Archwilio for the best results.
These are just a fraction of what is available about the history of Wales through open-access resources. The National Library of Wales maintains several invaluable databases, including Welsh Newspapers Online, Welsh Journals Online, and the Dictionary of Welsh Biography (in partnership with CAWCS and the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion), as well as a number of digital records searchable in the library catalogue. Notable for anyone with an interest in the historic landscape of Wales is the Places of Wales website, which has digitised the nineteenth-century tithe maps for Wales. And speaking of maps, the historic O.S. maps made available by the National Library of Scotland can also be used to explore the historic buildings and landscapes of Wales.
All of these resources, alongside Wales’s archives and libraries, can help people to discover the history of Wales, and to appreciate the historic environment of Wales in which they live, work and play. 2019 is, after all, Wales’s Year of Discovery!
Dr Adam N. Coward