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A plan of Cae’r Gors drawn by Kate Roberts in her correspondence with Peter Smith, 1972.

Kate Roberts and Cae’r Gors

Kate Roberts is recognised as one of Wales’s most important Welsh language authors of the 20th century and she is frequently referred to as ‘Queen of our literature’ and the ‘Queen of the short story’. She wrote novels and articles, had been a teacher, an adjudicator and was a committed campaigner but it was as the author of short stories that she came to prominence within the literary sphere in Wales.

She was born #OTD in a small cottage, Cae’r Gors, in the village of Rhosgadfan, Caernarvonshire in 1891 and was one of Owen and Catrin Roberts’ four children, along with her three brothers, Richard, Evan and David.  Her father was a quarryman and her mother a former midwife and the industrial background of the quarry, the people and the life which was part of that community and landscape was a central theme throughout her career as an author. During the Industrial Revolution the demand for slate had increased, and with the slate mines predominantly located in Caernarvonshire and Meirionethshire, led to new communities developing in Blaenau Ffestiniog, Bethesda and Dyffryn Nantlle to accommodate housing and places to live for the quarrymen and their families to be near major slate mines such as Y Penrhyn and Dinorwig.  Hidden Histories, ‘The Slate Industry’, RCAHMW, pp.222-223./  Allt-Ddu Slate Quarry, Llanddeiniolen | Coflein / Felin Fawr slate-slab mills | Coflein / Bryn Eglwys, No. 4, St Anns, Bethesda | Coflein / Welsh Slate, Archaeology and Welsh History, pp.178 – 207, David Gwyn, 2015.

Front view of Cae’r Gors before it was renovated.
Front view of Cae’r Gors before it was renovated.
A plan of Cae’r Gors drawn by Kate Roberts in her correspondence with Peter Smith, 1972.
A plan of Cae’r Gors drawn by Kate Roberts in her correspondence with Peter Smith, 1972.

Cae’r Gors was a self-sufficient smallholding built of stone at the beginning of the 19th century, with a ‘croglofft’ (half-loft) and attached dairy, which was typical to the area at that time. (see The Welsh Cottage and Inside Welsh Homes (RCAHMW)). Undoubtedly, Cae’r Gors was a definitive, concrete reminder to Kate Roberts of her upbringing and the culture and heritage which belonged to Dyffryn Nantlle and was a powerful influence on her writing and style of writing. She used the local dialect in her work and her simple and succinct writing style reflected the people and landscape of the people she knew. Cae’r-Gors;Early Home of Dr Kate Roberts | Coflein

The digital representation of Cae’r Gors gives an insight into how the cottage would have looked during Kate Roberts’ childhood:

She went to the local primary school in Rhosgadfan and then onto Caernarvon County School before securing a degree in Welsh at University of Wales Bangor between 1910-1913 under the supervision of Professor John Morris-Jones and Ifor Williams who were amongst her lecturers. She continued with her studies and trained as a teacher and acquired primary and secondary teaching posts in north and south Wales, in Dolbadarn and Llanberis as well as Ystalyfera County School and the Girls County School, Aberdare, between 1913-1928.

In many ways, Kate Roberts broke new ground in various aspects of her life. She was progressive in her interest in politics as she was amongst the first to join the National Party of Wales (later Plaid Cymru) when it was established in 1925. It was also during this time that she met her husband, the printer Morris T. Williams, marrying in 1928.  After living in Rhiwbina, Cardiff, and afterwards Tonypandy at the beginning of the 1930s, the couple decided to buy Gwasg Gee Printers in 1935 Gwasg Gee, Denbigh | Coflein and made their home in Denbigh, north Wales. Hidden Histories, ‘Survivors : The Gee Printing Works’, pp.288-289.

Kate Roberts’ life experiences were powerful influences and constant themes in her work.  The First World War had a devastating effect on her immediate family with her brother, Evan, being seriously injured and suffering the side effects for the remainder of his life whilst David (Dei) died from dysentery in hospital in Malta in May 1917 after being wounded in the war. This precipitated a wave of writing with her short stories O Gors y Bryniau (1925), and other literary works such as Deian a Loli (1927) and Laura Jones (1930).

Towards the latter half of the 1930s Kate Roberts published a number of writings which became the most important and influential works of her literary career. Amongst them were the novel Traed mewn Cyffion (1936), and a series of short stories, Ffair Gaeaf a storïau eraill (1937). Traed mewn Cyffion was joint winner of the Prose Medal at the National Eisteddfod the previous year at Neath and portrayed life in the quarry mining areas of Caernarvonshire with a vivid description of the everyday hardships the quarryman and his family endured as well as their dignified, stoic bravery in coping with life. 

It portrays three generations within a family who are endeavouring to navigate the poverty of their lives within the community as well as trying to cope with wider, external developments and influences within society such as industrial unrest and strikes, and world-wide events such as the First World War which add to the suffocating burdens of everyday life. The bravery of the characters is their determination to improve their lives.  The novel provides an insight into other social changes, such as the role of women and the challenges facing the religious and cultural/linguistic map of the area.

Her writings during the second period (after the death of her mother in 1944 and husband in 1946) concentrate more on the emotional and psychological assessment of her loneliness which she felt as a woman facing a new period in her life as well as showing how the moral boundaries of society in general were changing.

When her husband suddenly died in 1946 this triggered another industrious period of writing with the publication of Stryd y Glep (Gossip Row) in 1949, Y Byw sy’n Cysgu (The Living Sleep)  in 1956, short stories Te yn y Grug (Tea in the Heather) in 1959 located within her early childhood years and the autobiographical Y Lôn Wen(The White Lane) in 1960 where Kate Roberts revisits the quarrying areas of Dyffryn Nantlle. These were followed by the novel Tywyll Heno (1962), and amongst the other works in the following decade were Hyn o Fyd (1964), Tegwch y Bore (1967) a Prynu Dol (1969). Like other authors in Wales from the 1950s onwards she benefited from the patronage and financial support invested in Welsh literature by the Government, county councils and the Welsh Books Council. Haul a Drycin (1981) was her final writing before her death in 1985.

A street view showing the front of Gwasg Gee Printers, Denbigh, 1998
A street view showing the front of Gwasg Gee Printers, Denbigh, 1998.

Her skills as an author were only one dimension to her multi-faceted character.  With her husband she had been a central figure in managing Gwasg Gee Printers and after his death in 1946 she continued to supervise the press for another decade. The scope of her personal experiences in life reflected how women’s roles in the 20th century were changing but she was also an important commentator Wales’ political and literary life through her various contributions to Y Ddraig Goch, the newspaper of The National Party of Wales; to Baner ac Amserau Cymru (Y Faner later on), to W.J Gruffydd’s quarterly journal Y Llenor,which was a platform for other young poets and authors like herself, T.H. Parry-Williams and Saunders Lewis. Her correspondence with Saunders Lewis spanning over 60 years demonstrated her innate interest in literature and language, Wales and politics.  She was an early influential figure in promoting Welsh language education in Wales and was a firm supporter in establishing one of the first Welsh-medium secondary schools in Wales, in her adopted area, namely ‘Ysgol Twm o’r Nant’ in Denbigh in 1968.

The numerous accolades which she gained, from the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion to the University of Wales is testament to her important presence in the pantheon of Welsh language literary figures with her novels and short stories being translated into English.

She died in April 1985 and was buried with her husband, Morris T. Williams, in Capel Mawr cemetery, Denbigh.

When Kate Roberts heard in 1965 that Cae’r Gors was in a state of dereliction, she started a campaign to save if, and having bought it, it was presented to the nation in 1969.  Her correspondence with Peter Smith of the Royal Commission, in 1972 which can be seen in the RCAHMW’s book Hidden Histories, ‘The Decline of Cottage Life: A letter from Kate Roberts to Peter Smith’, pp.276-277, shows again a determination to campaign for a cause she held dear. By 2007 the traditional stone cottage had been returned to its original condition as Kate Roberts would have remembered it within the industrial quarry landscape of Dyffryn Nantlle. Today it is a visitor centre for tourists and a heritage centre.

Bethan Hopkins-Williams, Public Engagement Officer

Bibliography

  • Cydymaith i Lenyddiaeth Cymru, Meic Stephens (ed.), 1997.
  • The Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales, John Davies, Nigel Jenkins, Menna Baines a Peredur I.Lynch, 2008.
  • A History of Wales, John Davies, 1991.
  • The Welsh Biography website
  • RCAHMW website
  • Casgliad y Werin Cymru / People’s Collection Wales.
  • Hidden Histories: Discovering the Heritage of Wales, edited by Peter Wakelin and Ralph A. Griffiths,RCAHMW 2008.
  • The Welsh Cottage, Eurwyn Wiliam, RCAHMW, 2010. Available as an eBook from the Commission online shop
  • Inside Welsh Homes, Rachael Barnwell & Richard Suggett with contributions by Helen Rowe, RCAHMW, 2014 Available as an eBook from the Commission online shop

Footnotes

  1. Hidden Histories, ‘Y Diwydiant Llechi’, RCAHMW, pp.222-223.  See also Coflein : Allt-Ddu Slate Quarry, Llanddeiniolen | Coflein / Felin Fawr slate-slab mills | Coflein / Bryn Eglwys, No. 4, St Anns, Bethesda | Coflein
  2. Welsh Slate, Archaeology and Welsh History, pp.178 – 207, David Gwyn, 2015.
  3. Coflein: Cae’r-Gors;Early Home of Dr Kate Roberts | Coflein
  4. Coflein: Digital reconstruction of Cae’r Gors.
  5. Hidden Histories, ‘Survivors : The Gee Printing Works’, CBHC, tt.288-289. Also Coflein: Gwasg Gee, Denbigh | Coflein
  6. Hidden Treasures, ‘The Decline of Cottage Life: A letter from Kate Roberts to Peter Smith’ RCAHMW, pp.276-277. 

13/02/2024

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