West Wales News Review — analysis with a sustainability slant

Time to Revive the Sleepy Hollows

by Pat Dodd Racher

Strange that in a world of over 7,000,000,000 people, Llansawel is so quiet and in many ways so little changed over the past century.

Llansawel is like numerous other small settlements in rural Wales, a collection of houses where many retired people live quietly.

A century ago, Llansawel was a service centre for the farms within a radius of about three miles. Fred S Price’s History of Llansawel, published in 1898, notes that the parish of Llansawel comprised 10,199 acres of land and 61 of water, and 207 houses. The chief crops were wheat, barley, oats and hay, but dairying was the most important farming activity.

The 1911 census reveals a village of working people, some of them earning a living into their 70s. Means-tested old age pensions had been introduced by chancellor David Lloyd George in his ‘People’s Budget’ of January 1909, at the rate of 5 shillings a week for a single person, 7 shillings and 6 pence for a married couple, if they were 70 or over and their incomes were less than £21 a year (in 2013 money, £23.68, £35.51 and £1,998.70 respectively).

Fred Price called Llansawel “sleepy hollow” in 1898. Back in 1864 there had been Parliamentary approval for a railway between Swansea and Aberystwyth, which would have passed within one-and-a-half miles of Llansawel, but the line was never built.

Llansawel, or Fred Price's 'sleepy hollow'. Looking south over St. Sawyl's Church.

Llansawel, or Fred Price’s “sleepy hollow”: looking south over St. Sawyl’s Church.

Edwinsford, the now-ruined mansion between Llansawel and Talley, provided some employment, mainly for outdoor staff. The indoor servants came from England principally. In 1911 only two of the house servants were Wales-born, and they were housemaids Eliza Price, from Llandrindod and Emily Ann Prickett from Pembrokeshire. Edwinsford belonged to the Williams-Drummond family, who in 1911 were headed by 4th Baronet Sir James Hamlyn Williams-Drummond, a widower whose wife had died in 1907. The butler, Charles Needs (62), was in charge of the indoor staff. He was from Exeter originally, as was footman John Trace (24). Another footman, William Knight (30) was from Worcestershire, the cook, 58-year-old Jane Ann Pratt, was born in Yorkshire, kitchen maid Ellen Barker (20) came from Peterborough, laundry maid Rose Williams (44) from Bath, and housekeeper Elizabeth Weatherby (42) from London. The household was English-speaking, and the house itself was a mix of architectural styles, not a statement of grandeur or an important location in history. Had that been so, Edwinsford would probably still be intact, rather than piles of rubble. A continuing Great House would have been better for Llansawel too, but Edwinsford became silent after Polish refugees departed post-1945, and had very little need for staff or for provisions.

Castle Green, opposite The Swan Inn, was one of the smartest addresses in Llansawel village. There in 1911 lived John Thomas Price (33), a physician and surgeon born in Anglesey, and his young wife Jane (21), Llansawel born and bred. They had a baby son, Eric John Price, a domestic servant, 17-year-old Mary Thomas from Arbergorlech, and a coachman, George Frederick Taylor from Canterbury in Kent.

The 38 houses in the centre of the village were home (and workplaces) to:
3 dressmakers and an apprentice dressmaker; 2 tailors, an assistant and an apprentice tailor; 2 blacksmiths; 1 police constable; 1 postman; 1 school attendance officer; 1 elementary school teacher; 1 corn miller (the village had its own mill); 1 grocer; 1 bootmaker; 1 harness maker; 1 cabinet maker; 1 woollen manufacturer; 1 wheelwright; 1 gardener; 1 waggoner; 1 coachman; 2 charwomen; 5 labourers; and 4 domestic servants.

This is quite a rich occupational mix for a “sleepy hollow”, albeit including artisan trades that were being displaced by mass production and mechanised transport.

Five inns graced the village in 1911: the Cart and Horses, Ivy Bush, Angel, Black Lion and Swan. The Red Lion, still open in the 1890s, was ‘Old Red Lion’ by 1911. In 2013 the Black Lion and the Angel remain open. How many other rural villages sustain two public houses? Three of the 1911 innkeepers were women – Anne Leigh at the Ivy Bush, Mary Griffiths at the Angel and Jane Griffiths at the Black Lion. Mary Griffiths was 75 and John Jenkins at the Cart and Horses was 76: inn-keeping was a trade that could be carried on in old age.

No less than 13 of the 38 homes in the village centre were headed by a person aged over 65, almost as many as the 15 which contained children aged under 11.

Today there are hardly any children under 11, but more pensioners, reflecting the loss of artisan trades, the centralisation of services in the larger towns, and the suburbanisation of the planning profession, which likes to separate home from workplace, town from country, industrial from commercial, and rich from poor.

Llansawel today is home to a well-known sculptor, Paul Kincaid, but it has been decades since the village hummed with artisans at their skilled trades. The fabric of the village is relatively unchanged, and I think someone returning from 1911 would know exactly where they were (although probably would also be horrified at the ruinous state of Edwinsford).

The demise of the self-employed artisan left an economic hole which pensions have filled, at least in part. Reliance on pensions, creating a version of Florida with bad weather, does not seem a sound basis for planning a future for villages like Llansawel. We need enterprising young people to live and work here. If only the planners would see this as a step forward into a resilient future, and not as backwards into a past that has nothing to teach us.

See below what Edwinsford has become.

Images of Edwinsford, Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales:




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