Wider Fallout From the First Controversy#

Although the correspondence between the two protagonists of the first controversy – Revd. D. Silvan Evans and the anonymous Blackwood author – had come to an end, there were still a couple of loose ends; for immediately after Silvan Evans’ letter in the Academy at the end of February, 1876, appeared another letter from a new correspondent.

And for the curious, the identity of the Blackwood author was still to be revealed…

The Mountain Decameron Makes An Appearance#

Writing from Newtown, in Montgomeryshore, the column in the Academy that contained Silvan Evans’ final letter also included a communication from a certain Mr. E. R. Morris (Vol 9 Iss 199, February 26th, 1876, p198) that recalled another, as yet unmentioned reference to the sin-eater, in Joseph Downes’ Mountain Decameron.

This was, you might recall, a largely fictional work, although it did draw on Welsh legend and tradition. But it is referenced here not from direct experience of the original, but mediated via another work, Roscoe’s Wanderings and Excursions in South Wales.

Homestay, Newtown, Montgomeryshire : February 12, 1876.

Roscoe, in his Wanderings and Excursions in South Wales, quoting the author of the Mountain Decameron, locates “what is believed to have been the last Sin-Eater of Wales” differently from any mentioned in the Academy. I subjoin his remarks.


The following paragraph, taken from Roscoe, precedes the excerpt provided in the letter, and is also taken directly from the Mountain Decameron:

“So late as the earlier part of the last century, that strange character of a stranger superstition, known by the name of ‘The Sin-Eater,’ was not unknown in Wales. This was some desperate being, who (unless we suppose him an unbeliever), being past redemption, lost to all hope of salvation, did, for a slight reward, or to gratify the relatives of one lying dead, take on his own soul all the sins of the deceased by a formal act, sometimes receiving confession during life, and bargaining for the burthens thus to be imposed on his already laden soul.

But two short paragraphs from the Mountain Decameron that appear between the paragraph above and the paragraphs quoted in the letter are omitted:

Mr. Fosbroke, in an account of the town of Ross, quotes a letter, I forget by whom, (but I have an idea by Mr. Kyrle, the “Man of Ross,”) which describes a “Sin-Eater,” who “lived by Ross highway,” and is described as a “gaunt, ghastly, lean, miserable, poor rascal.”

which we might recognise as quoting Aubrey,

If we consider these persons as probably not less believers than those who employed them, it is not easy to imagine a condition of the mind more terrific, desolate, and desperate, than theirs; thus more and more removed from the hope of mercy with every death, and assurance of perdition doubly sure.

There then follows a direct quotation from the work, which we should probably now read with a more critical eye.

“A gentleman who lived a little before the time of this dark superstition becoming obsolete (the earlier part of the last century) gives us this brief account of what is believed to have been the last ‘Sin-Eater of Wales.’

As Silvan Evans might have asked, what gentleman?

If we place the sentence back into its original context, where the preceding lines refer to the tradition according to Aubrey, we might interpret the line “[a] gentleman who lived a little before the time of this dark superstition becoming obsolete (the earlier part of the last century) gives us this brief account” as moving us from the “historical” context and into the fictional world of Downes’ imagination.

“‘I got lost,’ says he, ‘near nightfall, after being landed by the ferry-boat from the Aber of Dovey on the Cardiganshire side of that estuary. A black turbary of great extent divided me from the road. I was cautioned to ride far’ round this pitchy bog, for no horse ever ventured among the peat pits, the whole being a quaking morass. In truth, its look was enough, under a black evening, to keep me off, even without peril of being swallowed, man and horse.

“‘At last, thanks to my stars, the good hard rock of a rough road rung to my horse’s hoof, and I saw a cottage taper, as ghastly as the Canwyll Corph, at a distance.

“‘The house was on a high point and turn of road, overlooking all those many acres of hollow ground.

“‘Just as I came up, hoping lodging, I heard sounds of wailing within, and soon, a woman came out into the dead night, late as it was, and cried a name to the top pitch of her wild voice, that seemed one I had heard weeping indoors. When I looked in, there lay a corpse of a man, with a plate of salt holding a bit of bread placed on its breast. The woman was shouting to the Sin-Eater to come and do his office— that is, to eat the bread, lay his hand on the dead breast, place the dead man’s on his own, after making a sign of the cross, and then praying for a transfer of all pains or penances from that pardoned dead man for ever, to him that more than dead alive, himself in his death of soul, but not of its pains, for ever and ever.’

Again, the story appears to claim an “authentic” source, the traveller, although he remains otherwise unidentified:

“This is the traveller’s account of this incident.

The account continues:

He had the curiosity to wait, and saw at last the motion of what seemed a foggy meteor moving toward their standing-point. After waiting long, he caught a far-out shout in reply to the woman’s long unanswered, till she kindled, on the high road’s point, the straw of her husband’s late bed—the usual signal of a death in the house.

And then we have the reference to the sin-eater:

“The Sin-Eater, he was told, lived alone in a hovel made of sea-wreck and nails of such, between sea-marsh and that dim bog, where few could approach by day, none dare by night, whether for the footing, or the great fear, or at least awe, which all felt of that recluse.”

As to the locale?

Persons acquainted with the district readily recognise the locality from the above description, others may do so when I state that the Cambrian Railway, between Machynlleth and Aberystwith, traverses the “black turbary of great extent,” and the high road from Aberdovey passes close by one of the railway stations on this line, called “Ynyslas.”

So there was a sin-eater at “Ynyslas”, a small village north of Aberystwyth, on the south bank of the Dovey (Dyfi) Estuary, opposite Aberdovey (Aberdyfi)?

As to the tradition, the correspondent presumes the tradition continues, *or at least the tradition of placing a plate of salt on the dead body, for he claims personal knowledge of it:

The custom of placing a plate of salt on the breast of a dead person is, I imagine, not obsolete in this county yet; at any rate instances have occurred within my own knowledge.

E. R. Morris.

In the following issue of the Academy, Vol 9 Iss 200, dated March 4th, 1876, p221, a letter appears from a certain gentleman of Oswestry who had also been minded to check the original source:


Croeswylan, Oswestry: Feb. 28, 1876.

My friend Mr. Morris, your latest contributor to the “Sin-Eater” correspondence, quotes the Mountain Decameron sketch of what is “believed to be the last sin-eater in Wales.” I presume Mr. Morris quotes at second-hand, or he would have seen that he has only unearthed old Aubrey’s “long, leane, ugly, lamentable poor raskal,” for, in the passage immediately before Roscoe’s quotation, the author says :— “Mr. Fosbroke, in an account of the town of Ross, quotes a letter, I forget by whom (but I have an idea by Mr. Kyrle, the ‘Man of Ross’), which describes a ‘Sin-Eater,’ who ‘lived by Ross highway, and is described as a ‘gaunt, ghastly, lean, miserable, poor raskal.’”

The gentleman of Oswestry, who we are probably not surprised to learn is Mr. Askew Roberts, then associates that quotation with on from Aubrey that appeared earlier in the debate, and suggests that all Downes’ does is reimagine it in his own way:

If your readers will refer to Mr. Fitzgerald’s letter on November 20, 1875, they will see that the “poor raskals” are identical; and Mr. Downes, the author of the Mountain Decameron (who dates his book “Builth, Breconshire, April, 1836”), does not profess to do more than pen a fancy sketch on Aubrey’s text, laying his scene in Cardiganshire.

He signs off with a nod to Silvan Evans’ and his apparently fruitless quest to track down evidence of a Welsh sin-eater:

I fear Mr. Silvan Evans is as far off as ever from catching the real Simon Pure!

Askew Roberts.

Over in Bye-Gones, which we might recall was edited by Askew Roberts, and also reprinted in The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard of March 10th, 1876, p7, the commentary surrounding the debate continued, with a follow-up to the summary of the February 9th, 1876, edition appearing in the March 8th, 1876 edition, p29:

The Sin-Eater in Wales (Feb. 9, 1876) Further correspondence has appeared in the Academy on this question, but no fresh light has been thrown on the alleged custom. On February 26th, Mr E. R. Morris gives from Ruscoe’s South Wales a quotation from the Mountain Decameron, in which “what is believed to have been the last Sin-Eater in Wales,” is stated to have lived somewhere between Aberystwyth and Machynlleth, but Mr Askew Roberts, in the last number, shows, by further quotation from the book itself, that this was only a fancy sketch, founded on Aubrey’s “leane raskal.” In another letter, replying to one by the author of the Blackwood article, Mr Silvan Evans deies that gentleman to make good his assertion that the superstition is “still surviving in North and South Wales.”

Whether or not Askew Roberts penned this himself, the editorial line is clear: the last sin-eater as described in the Mountain Decameron is a fiction, a “fancy sketch, founded on Aubrey”.

A month later, a very critical column regarding the “Welsh Decameron” appeared in Bye-Gones dated March 29th, 1876, p35-6, which reminded readers that:

The character of the Mountain Decameron as a work of fiction, its delineations of human nature devoid of credit, and its narratives of palpable improbabilities, …

See the earlier section on The Mountain Decameron and its reviews for the full article.

The Identity of the Blackwood Author Revealed, 1883#

In an obituary for the Rev. James Davies, M.A., Prebendary of Hereford, appearing in Bye-gones of March 28th, 1883, p212, we finally learn of the identity of the anonymous author of the Blackwood author: the prebendary himself.

A very interesting article from his pen was published in Blackwood’s Magazine for Nov. 1875, on “Legends and Folk Lore of Wales,” which was the subject — or rather a passage in it was— of a hot controversy in The Academy. In the course of his paper the writer (he preserved his incognito throughout) had mentioned the superstition of “The Sin-Eater,” which attracted the attention of Professor Silvan Evans, who challenged the writer to produce proofs. Several letters were published, and other scribes joined in the discussion ; some account of which will, probably, shortly appear in the Red Dragon, issued by Daniel Owen and Co. of Cardiff.

The April, 1883, edition, vol. III, no. 4 of the Red Dragon trailed the promised article on the sin-eater a little more:

Our March “note” anent the Carmarthenshire superstition of “the Sin Eater” appears to have excited the liveliest curiosity. Letters asking for further information upon the subject have reached us from all quarters, including one from “an American Reader.” We have much pleasure in announcing that the Red Dragon for May will contain a paper, by a well-known Welsh antiquarian, explanatory of the extraordinary custom.

The “March Note” in the Red Dragon, 1883

The March “note” anent the Carmarthenshire superstition of “the Sin Eater” is a reference to a mention of the tradition in a book by the Reverend Paxton Hood, as discussed elsewhere.

The article finally appeared in the the May edition, Vol III, Jan-Jun 1883, p450-4, authored by Askew Roberts. It opens with the suggestion that there are two things most Englishmen know about the Welsh:


There are two articles of belief connected with Wales and Welshmen that are firmly fixed in the minds of Englishmen all the world over. One of these is, that there is a village in Anglesey called LlanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwUtyssiliogogogoch, and the other that there used to be a disreputable old party connected with most parishes, whose business it was to swallow the offences of his defunct neighbours ; and who, accordingly, bore the ominous title of The Sin Eater.

A recent example of each is then provided:

The latest reference I have seen to the village with the unpronouceable name is in the South Australian Register of Jan. 27th, of this year ; and the most recent “authority” for the superstition seems to be the Rev. Paxton Hood, who wrote a memoir of Christmas Evans a couple of years ago.

This reference is one we have not yet encountered, although it will be considered in the following chapter.

Askew Roberts then suggests that a better place to start the story is with Aubrey:

But, first of all, let us see what the earliest known “authority” on the question has to say about it. John Aubrey, who flourished between 1626 and 1700, is the man to whom all later “historians” are indebted for their evidence of the prevalence of the custom. Poor old Aubrey has been dubbed by no less an authority than Giffard “a credulous fool,” and, truly, as another writer observes, “his power of discriminating truth from falsehood was by no means remarkable.”

There then follows a recap of Aubrey’s claims:

As the substance of what Aubrey says. Brand, in his Popular Antiquities quotes : “In the county of Hereford was an old oustome at Funeralls to hire Poor People, who were to take upon them the Sinnes of the Party deceased. One of them (he was a long, leane, ugly, lamentable poor Raskel) I remember lived in a Cottage in Rosse high-waye. The manner was, that when the Corps was brought out of the House, and layd on the Biere, a loafe of Bread was brought out and delivered to the Sinne Eater, over the Corps, as also a Mazar Bowle of Maple, full of beer (which hee was to drinke up), and Sixe-pence in money: in considera’con whereof he tooke upon him, ipso facto, all the Sinnes of the defunct, and freed him or her from walking after they were dead. This custome alludes, methinks, something to the Scape-Goate in the olde Lawe.” Aubrey goes on to say that though the custom was “rarely used in oure dayes, yet by some people was observed even in the strictest time of the Presbyterian Government.” It was also observed at “Brecon, and heretofore all over Wales.” He instances a case at “Glangors, where Mr Gwin, the Minister, about 1640, could not hinder the performance of this antient custome,” and further remarks: “A.D. 1686. This custome is used to this daye in North Wales,” where milk, he says, was the substitute for beer.

Such is the evidence, or lack thereof, of the tradition in Wales.

Now this is positively all the evidence we have that such a custom ever prevailed in the Principality ; for although John Bagford (1717) tells (in Leland’s Coll. I., lxxvi.) of “an old sire,” who was furnished “with a Cricket, on which he sat ; a Groat, which he put in his pocket ; a Crust of Bread, which he eat ; and a full bowle of ale, which he drank off at a draught,” he does but copy Aubrey, upon whose text modern writers have founded homilies. Hone summarised most of the evidence in his Year Book. The Rev. Charles Kingsley, in his Health and Education refers to the custom as an illustration of the performances of the Orphic priests, to show that in all ages we are very much alike ; and adds, “Alas, poor human nature !” Dr. Downes wrote most graphically of the custom in his Mountain Decameron —laying the scene between Aberystwyth and Machynlleth ; and others, “too numerous to mention,” have given their versions of the practice, and specified the localities wherein it is observed ; but when these accounts are analysed, we invariably discern the “original sinner” to be the “long, leane, ugly, lamentable poor Raskel” of the Ross highway.

At this point, Roberts recalls the first controversy of several years previously, summarising it as follows:

A very interesting discussion on this question took place in the Academy during the winter months of 1875-6, in consequence of an article in Blackwood on the “Legends and Folk-Lore of Wales,” in which the writer referred to the horrible custom of sin-eating. This attracted the attention of the Rev. D. Silvan Evans, who wrote as follows : — “The earlier portion of my life was spent in South Wales, and I have lived upwards of a quarter of a century in North Wales, but I have never heard of the strange custom here alluded to, either as now existing or as having existed at some former period. I have not been indifferent as to the customs and legends of the land of my birth, and my profession often brings me in contact with funerals ; but I have never found a trace of such a custom, and I have but little hesitation in saying that it is altogether unknown in the Principality.” This at once called forth replies, but no new facts were obtained; all that was written being but a repetition of Aubrey and his followers. As may be supposed, the Blackwood writer was amongst the correspondents, and he called Professor Evans’ attention to the fact that at the Ludlow meeting of the Cambrian Archaeological Society, in 1852, “Mr. Moggridge cited a case of this superstition as having occurred within five years at or near Llandebie, in the hill country of Carmarthenshire” and referred him to the Journal of the Society for the report. In the meanwhile Mr. Evans spared no pains to collect evidence, and took up “authorities,” and gave the result of his enquiries in the Academy of Jan. 29, 1876. First of all he quotes a portion of what Mr. Moggridge was reported to have said ; which was this : — “In Carmarthenshire, not far from Llandebie, was a mountain valley, where, up to the commencement of the present century, the people were of a very lawless character. There the above practice was said to have prevailed to a recent period, and going thence to those parts of the country where, from the establishment of works, and from other causes, the people had more early become enlightened, he found the more absurd portions of the custom had been abandoned, while some still remained. Thus near Llanon, within twenty years, the plate, salt, and bread were retained ; near Swansea (and, indeed, very generally), only the plate and salt.” It will be seen from the foregoing that no mention is made of “within five years ;” and on this fact Mr. Evans comments, but the matter was afterwards explained by the Blackwood writer in a further quotation from Mr. Moggridge, which, however, he and Mr. Evans read differently.

At this point, Roberts then observes several discrepancies in the accounts:

In passing it will be interesting to note how old customs and legends get mixed up by modern historians ! Not a word is said by Aubrey about salt ; although the use of salt, in some form or other, at funerals, has not been disputed. But to return to Professor Evans’s reply.

As regards dates:

In a private letter he received from Mr. Moggridge, that gentleman told him that he did “not remember anything that gives a date,” adding that “the only written account” of the Sin Eater, “from personal knowledge, is that of Aubrey, ‘de Gentilisme.’” And as Aubrey did not profess to speak from personal knowledge, Mr. Evans justly considered the matter as doubtful as ever.

And as regards locations:

Llandebie itself was not unrepresented in the discussion. Mr. John Rowlands, the schoolmaster there, wrote to the following effect in the Western Mail : — “I opened the Llandebie School in the year 1850, and I lived there for many years. I knew all the parishioners, and the history of the parish ; its legends, customs and traditions. And during the time I was there I attended many funerals, but never heard of a Sin Eater ; in fact people there never gave cakes at funerals. I knew almost every parish in South Wales. I collected all the legends, and made notes of the old customs for the late Sir Thomas Phillips. If such a custom had prevailed, I should have heard of it. I have no hesitation in writing that it is a glaring untruth.” The Rev. Rees Evans, vicar of the parish, also wrote at some length, in reply to a letter from Mr. Silvan Evans. In the course of his communication he says : — “One intelligent old man, an octogenarian, whose ancestors had lived from time immemorial in this parish, told me that such a custom, in his opinion, could not have appeared here at least for the last two hundred years, or he would have heard of it from his father or his grandfather, who lived to a great age.” The conclusion the clergyman comes to, after the enquiries he makes amongst his parishioners, is, that “the statements which were made by Mr. Moggridge cannot be substantiated by any reliable authority, or proved by any credible evidence.”

Roberts then records how the controversy continued:

Mr. Evans’s lengthy communication drew forth from the writer in Blackwood an equally lengthy reply ; in the course of which he referred to himself as, “by parentage, ancestry, property, and interests, connected with two counties of South Wales.” And he speaks of his frequent travels over the whole of the Principality ; so he felt competent to offer an opinion, although he had failed to “acquire the language.” Before this letter appeared, I had joined in the discussion, and hinted that the author of the paper on the “Legends and Folk Lore of Wales” was a resident of the Herefordshire border ; and I now have no hesitation in saying that it was the late Prebendary Davies, of Moor Court, Kington, whose recent death all who are interested in Welsh literature and archaeology have to mourn. His reply to Mr. Evans appeared on February 8th, and he quotes Murray’s Hand-book to South Wales (edit. 1870), edited by “a medical man of eminence” (as he believes), for the fact that “the superstition of the Sin Eater is said to have lingered until very recently in the secluded valley of Cwm-Amman, in Caermarthenshire.” After which he goes on to say:—“I refer to the ordnance maps, and find Cvvm-Amman to lie not far distant from Llandebie, on the Garnant branch of the Swansea Valley Railway. Lady Verney, in the current number of the Contemporary refers to the same superstition, and if the whole story does really trace back to Aubrey, it is at least singular that there should lie in wait for such enquirers as that pleasant antiquary, and his later fellow craftsman, Mr. Moggridge, deliberate fiction-mongers to practice on their credulity, and to spread abroad a lie which Welshmen feel it a point of national honour to repudiate. I scruple to take up your space, or I might show that such a superstition is not easily removed from others which, in many nations, have simulated the vicarious sin-bearing of the Levitical scape-goat. Grotius on I Cor. iv., 13, traces one such in Caesar’s account of the Gauls (B. ix., 6). That is coming near to the Welsh, though doubtless it would be treason to say that they are either ignorant or superstitious.”

He next observes how the final word in the debate between the two correpsondents fell to Silvan Evans:

In all this the Blackwood writer gives no further “authority;” — for the editor of the Hand-book could scarcely be accounted one — and Mr. Evans, in reply, observes that “Mr. Moggridge, and apparently the writer of the article, assume all along that the plate and salt are necessary remnants of the alleged Sin Eating practice ; and finding these articles employed in certain cases, they take it for granted that ‘the more odious part of the custom has been removed,’ which amounts to begging the whole question.” He considers “it is very kind, but slightly superfluous, on the part of the writer to ‘refresh’ his memory respecting ‘the vicarious sin-bearing of the Levitical scape-goat;’” and concludes by refusing to give credit to any statement on the authority of “so credulous a person as Aubrey, in any case in which superstition plays a part.” Here the discussion ended, as far as the principals were concerned.

Writing as he is in 1883, a year before his death, Askew Roberts is also able to draw on additional references to the sin-eater tradition that appeared in the years following the first controversy in late 1875 and early 1876. The following gives a taste of some of what is come, which we will review in the next chapter, although in 1883, we still predate the second controversy of 1895.

Another discussion was carried on in the “Shreds and Patches” column of the Shrewsbury Journal a year or two later ; and on more than one occasion the superstition has been referred to in the “Bye-gones” column of the Oswestry Advertiser. Mr. Wirt Sykes goes very fully into the question in his British Goblins and comes to the conclusion that “no other writer of Aubrey’s time, either English or Welsh, appears to have made any reference to the Sin Eater in Wales; and equal silence prevails throughout the writings of previous centuries.” And as to later “authorities,” Mr. Sykes failed to discover one who wrote in the Welsh language, “a singular omission if there ever was such a custom, for concerning every other superstitious practice commonly ascribed to Wales, the Welsh have written freely.”

Roberts closes where he began: with reference to the recent work (at the time) from Paxton Hood:

And now, when we might reasonably have expected that the Sin Eater had been laid for ever, appears the Rev. Paxton Hood’s book — referred to in the March number of the Red Dragon. Mr. Hood is a very pleasant writer, but he is too impulsive for an antiquary. It was only in 1876 that he gave a glowing picture of Llanidloes, “the home of the really great poet, John Dyer,” and told us of “Grongar Hill, a delicious spot in that neighbourhood !” Now he sets up an imaginary being in the district of Cwm-Amman ; and only varies the words of Mr. Murray’s editor by remarking that the superstition “is said to linger even now,” instead of (as Murray has it), “is said to have lingered until very recently,” in that happy valley ! Mr. Hood’s assertion was copied into Notes and Queries in January last, and will, doubtless, be accepted as gospel by a goodly number; but unfortunately for him, his book on Christmas Evans attracted the attention of a brother minister in the same Cwm-Amman Vale, who promptly wrote to the Christian World to repudiate the whole story.

Oswestry. Askew Roberts.

Over in the Weekly Mail, where the editor had promised to keep readers appraised of activities in the Red Dragon, we have the following remark picking on on Askew Robort’s article in the edition of May 5th, 1883, p4

THE RED DRAGON [1] In fulfilment of the promise we gave last week to notice at greater length the contents of the number of the National Magazine of Wales, …

The Sin Eater is a capital little paper by Mr. Askew Roberts, Oswestry, in which the personage in question, much though he has been exercising the minds of English writers, is shown after all to be a myth.

[1] The Red Dragon, the National Magazine of Wales. Edited by Charles Wilkins. Cardiff: Daniel Ower and Company. London: Kent and Company, Paternoster-row.

In the May 22nd, 1883 edition, p3, The Western Mail went on to reprint the whole article:


In one of the literary and art notes of the Red Dragon for March reference was made to an extraordinary old Welsh custom, said by the Rev. Paxton Hood in his book on “Christmas Evans,” to bo observed even now in tho secluded Vale of Cwmaman, in Carmarthenshire. In the May issue of the magazine Mr. Askew Roberts, the editor of the Oswestry Advertiser, an accomplished antiquarian, has an admirable paper on the subject, we take tho liberty of reproducing. It has been appropriately entitled, The Sin Eater. [The complete article was then reprinted.]

Back in the Red Dragon, in the Vol III No. 6, June, 1883 edition, p563, Askew Roberts provides some further clarification of certain points:

Since the publication of our last number Mr. Askew Roberts writes as follows: — The question has been asked if some of the funeral customs within the memory of those now living do not point to a more pronounced ceremony on the part of our forefathers ? One writer states —but only on hearsay —that last century it was usual, when the corpse was brought out of the house, and laid upon the Elor, or bier, for the next of kin of the feminine gender “to give over the coffin a number of white loaves, in a great dish, and sometimes a Welsh cheese with a piece of money stuck in it, to certain poor persons, after which a cup of drink was presented, also over the coffin, of which a little was to be drunk immediately. When this was done the minister knelt down and said the Lord’s Prayer.” No one has corroborated this from the definite information of father or grandfather; but they have spoken of a more modified form of, perhaps, the same ceremony, within their own recollection. Less than half a century ago it was usual at every “respectable” funeral to have made up into packets a couple of bits of cake—one of rich plum, and the other plain—wrapped in black-edged paper and sealed with black wax. One of these was presented to each of the invited guests, who took it home unopened. At funerals of less pretensions a “large round biscuit, of the size and form of an ordinary tea-saucer inverted, took the place of the packet of cake. These were ‘served’ to each of the parties attending the funeral (by one of the most respectable men present) on a tray called the ‘Hand-board,’ or ‘Server.’ The ceremony was gone through just before ‘Raising the Body.’ After this the ‘Tankard’ of hot-spiced ale was offered to each person present. This was made of pewter, and had a lid: everyone was expected to take a sip.” In narrating this in Bye-gones of May 17, 1882, the writer also called attention to a note in the history of the parish of Llanfechain, published in Mont: Coll: by the Rev. Maddock Williams in 1872. He became rector in 1851, and found it was usual to allow one of the sacramental vessels (a silver flagon presented to the parish in 1691) to be used in place of the customary tankard— a custom he at once denounced, to the no small chagrin of the parishioners. How far these customs form a lingering remnant of the Sin Eater, your readers must judge for themselves.

“Mont: Coll:” aka. Montgomeryshire Collections

The intriguing sounding “Mont: Coll:” is Collections historical & archaeological relating to Montgomeryshire and its borders published by the Powys-Land Club. The 1872 edition is volume V. The article in question is A Slight Historical and Topographical Sketch of The Parish of Llanfechain, in the County of Montgomery, pp. 203-284.

We will pick up the tale again in the next chapter by reviewing the varios new additions to the published canon regarding the sin-eater referenced by Askew Roberts: the discussion in the Shrewsbury Journal and Wirt Sykes’ British Goblins, Paxton Hood’s work on Christmas Evans, the articles in Bye-Gones.

But first, a slight aside..

A Final Aside – Another Curious Figure#

As a final aside, a letter appearing in The Aberystwith Observer published March 11th, 1876, p4, seems inspired by the recent discussions about the sin-eater, and asks about another curious fellow, Twm Shone Catti:


To the Editor of the Aberystwyth Observer.

Sir.— I have been much interested by the letters which have appeared in your columns from the pen of the Rev. Silvan Evans on the subject of that suppositious personage, the “Sin Eater;” perhaps Mr. Evans or some other reader of antiquarian tastes may be able to inform me where I can find a reliable account of funny Twm, or as others prefer to style him “Thomas Jones, Esq., of Tregaron.” I am aware that a “life” of Twm has been published at Llanidloes and by a London firm, but both those books have assumed the form of Welsh novels, and it is occasionally difficult to sever the real from the imaginary. If any of your readers can help me to solve my perplexity, or assist me to genuine facts I shall be heartily obliged. I am, sir, LLIDIARDE-Y-FFYNON.

See also

For a copy of the original book, see the exhibit The adventures and vagaries of Twm Shon Catti published by the National Library of Wales.

For a storyteller’s take, see *Time Between Times Storytelling. The Tales of Twm Sion Cati told by Owen Staton, video.