The First Controversy, 1875
The First Controversy, 1875#
The response to the article in Blackwood’s Magazine, and in particular the mention of “the sin-eater”, begins with the Vol 8 Iss 182 edition of The Academy, dated November 6th, 1875, p. 478:
AMONG curious customs and superstitions noticed in an article in Blackwood on the “Legends and Folk-lore of North Wales” there is one the singularity of which is heightened by the statement that it still survives in North and South Wales and the Border. At a funeral, “a hireling who lives by such services has handed over to him a loaf of bread, a maple bowl full of beer or milk, and a sixpence, in consideration of which he takes upon him all the sins of the defunct, and frees him or her from walking after death.” The scapegoat is currently called a “Sin-eater.”
An Initial Response, Silvan Evans, 1875-11-13#
In the following issue (Vol 8 Iss 183, November 13th, 1875), the first piece of correspondence appears, from a certain D. SILVAN EVANS, on p.506. Silvan Evans had presumably picked up notice of the item in the previous edition of the Academy:
“LEGENDS AND FOLKLORE OF NORTH WALES.”
Llanymawddwy Rectory, Merioneth: November 8, 1875.
In the ACADEMY of November 6 (p. 478) I find an extract from an article in Blackwood on the “Legends and Folklore of North Wales,” referring to a singular custom said to be still surviving in North and South Wales. It is alleged that at a funeral “a hireling, who lives by such services, has handed over to him a loaf of bread, a maple bowl full of beer or milk, and a sixpence, in consideration of which he takes upon him all the sins of the defunct, and frees him or her from walking after death;” and this functionary, it is added, is currently called a “Sin-eater.” 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. If the writer of the article will give me the name of any locality where the superstition flourishes, I will at once visit the place and institute enquiries on the spot. At the same time he will, I hope, favour me with the Welsh equivalent of “Sin-eater,” for I am interested in Welsh words as well as in Welsh customs and legends.
D. SILVAN EVANS.
At the time of writing, Daniel Silvan Evans was an ordained priest and scholar, author and editor of several Welsh language works including an English and Welsh dictionary. He was also just at the end of his term of editing Archaeologia Cambrensis (1871-1875), the journal of the Cambrian Archaeological Association, which may be recalled as the venue for Matthew Moggridge’s observations on the sin eater in 1852.
The letter expresses a certain amount of doubt as to the veracity of the “alleged” tradition, based on the author having lived for a quarter of a century in the principality in an occupation that “often brings me in contact with funerals” and having “never found a trace of such a custom”.
Silvan Evans then goes on to request further information on sources and locations and offers to visit the location to pursue further investigations. He also asks for the ‘Welsh equivalent of “Sin-eater”’ as one “interested in Welsh words as well as in Welsh customs and legends”.
A reprinted version of Silvan Evans letter to the Academy also appeared The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, published on November 19th, 1875, p7, introduced as:
LEGENDS AND FOLKLORE OF NORTH WALES.- The following letter has appeared in the Academy. “Llanymawddwy Rectory. Merioneth November 8th, 1875. In the Academyof November 6th, (p 478) I find …
and in The Aberystwith Observer, p4, dated November 20th, 1875:
THE Rev Silvan Evans, B.D., has written the following letter to the Academy :— Llanymawddwy Rectory, Merioneth November 8th, 1875. In the Academy November 6th, (p 478) I find …
Response to Silvan Evans, Historical Evidence, 1875-11-20#
The next issue of the Academy, Vol 8 Iss 18 dated November 20th, 1875, pp. 529-30, has a response that recaptures much of the evidence that we are familiar with. It is restated here to provide a concise benchmark for the state of understanding we might have expected from the participants from this point in the debate.
“LEGENDS AND FOLK-LORE OF NORTH WALES”: THE SIN-EATER Hammersmith : Nov. 16, 1875.
Professor Evans has “never heard of the strange custom here alluded to, either as now existing or as having existed at some former period.” May I be allowed to point out what appears to be the original passage from which the writer of the article drew the authority for his statement, and apparently its very words ? It occurs in a work so well-known as Brand’s Popular Antiquities (Bohn’s edition, 1849, vol. ii. 246-248), where the following is cited from Bagford’s letter, dated February 1, 1714-5, in Leland’s Collectanea, i. 76 :—
“Within the memory of our fathers, in Shropshire, in those villages adjoyning to Wales, when a person dyed, there was notice given to an old sire (for so they called him), who presently repaired to the place where the deceased lay, and stood before the door of the house, when some of the family came out and furnished him with a cricket, on which he sat down facing the door. Then they gave him 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. After this he got up from the cricket and pronounced, with a composed gesture, the ease and rest of the soul departed for which he would pawn his own soul. This I had from the ingenious John Aubrey, Esq.”
The following words of Aubrey’s own are then quoted :—
“In the county of Hereford was an old custome at funeralls to hire poor peopie, who were to take upon them the sinnes of the party deceased. Ono of them (he was a long, leane, ugly, lamentable poor raskal) I remember, lived in a cottage on Rosse highway. The manner was, that when the corpse 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 corpse, as also a mazar bowlo, of muple, full of beer (which he was to drink up), and sixpence in money; in consideration whereof he took 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 scapegoate in the old lawe, Levit. xvi. 21, 22… . This custome, though rarely used in our dayes, yet by some people was observed even in the strictest time of the presbyterian government, as at Dynder (volens nolens the parson of the parish), the kindred of a woman deceased there had this ceremonie punctually performed, according to her will: and also the like was done at the city of Hereford in those times, where a woman kept, many yeares before her death, a mazard bowle for the sinne-eater; and the like in other places in this countie; as also in Brecon. I believe this custom was heretofore used all over Wales.” (Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaism. Lansdowne MSS. 226, fol. 116.)
In a note the same writer adds that at Llanggors, Brecon, about 1640, Mr. Gwin, the minister, “could not hinder the performance of this ancient custome.” And he says in another page of the MS. cited: “A.D. 1686. This custom is used to this day in North Wales.”
While these statements very clearly affirm the former prevalence, in North Wales and the Border, of the superstitious practice in question, they do not, of course, go to show that, in the words of the article, it is “still surviving” in those localities, as well as in South Wales. The writer, however, of the interesting compilation in Blackwood has little to tell us about surviving North Welsh superstitions, and less that is new. Some of those mentioned (e.g., that about pigeon’s feathers, and the Bible and key or sieve spell to find’a thief) are common in various parts of England and Scotland; others, like the Canwyll Corph (Corpse Candle), are more or less satisfactorily referred to in well-known works— as in the Choice Notes from Notes and Queries, and in the old Cambrian Quarterly Magazine; other remarkable superstitions, again, alleged to be still living, such as that of the Mallt y Nos, or Mam y Drwg (Mother of Mischief), are not mentioned.
I venture to remark that the popular superstitions of Wales still await a student, acquainted with the Welsh language, and content, instead of seeking folk-lore from books, to collect it at the firesides of the people, in the out-of-the-way villages and secluded glens where it lingers longest.
There is a second piece of correspondence, immediately following (p530), that adds a further reference to Hone’s Year Book:
Croeswylan, Oswestry. In reference to the strange profession of “Sin-Eater,” mentioned by the writer in Blackwood and doubted by your able correspondent, the Rev. Silvan Evans, let me refer him and your readers to a well-known work, Hone’s Year Book, on col. 858 of which will be found some records of the practice both in Wales and on the borders. One of the illustrations dates from Herefordshire, in which county, if I am not mistaken, the writer in Blackwood resides.
Askew Roberts, you might recall, was the original editor of Bye-Gones, launched in 1871, the hyperlocal Notes & Queries of its time for Oswestry and the border counties of England and Wales.
We also get a first hint here that Askew Roberts, at least, has a good idea about whom the author of the article might be.
Askew Roberts: biography, the Oswestry Advertizer, and Bye-Gones
The history of Bye-Gones, and Robert Askew’s stewardship of it, is given in an obituary piece that appeared in Bye-Gones of December 17th, 1884, p146-8:
Mr Askew Roberts, who was born at Oswestry on the 27th of March, 1826, was the son of Mr Samuel Roberts, a bookseller in the town, and on the side of his mother, a niece of the Rev. John Whitridge of Oswestry, was descended from the family of Anne Askew, the martyr, a name which has been perpetuated in succeeding generations. For a short time in early manhood Mr Roberts resided at Taunton, but he returned to Oswestry about 1848, to take part in his father’s business, and continued to live there for the rest of his days ; and in January, 1858, he married Katharine, fourth daughter of the Rev. Thomas Toller of Kettering. Mr Roberts’s first literary productions, we believe, appeared in Oswald’s Well, a magazine conducted by his brother, the late Mr William Whitridge (Roberts), and including the late Mr Shirley Brooks, afterwards editor of Punch, amongst its contributors. In 1849 Oswald’s Well was succeeded by the Oswestry Advertizer, which was established as a monthly publication, but under Mr. Roberts’s enterprising management soon developed into a weekly, and from time to time was enlarged in size and extended in circulation until it became an influential newspaper for a wide-spread district in Shropshire and North Wales. It was in connection with the railway projects fought in the parliamentary committee rooms, a few years after the establishment of the Advertizer, that Mr Roberts, by his lively and trenchant style, first made the influence of the paper felt in the district now served by the Cambrian line, and some of our readers can remember the excitement that was caused week after week by the contributions which came from his pen. In 1860 he founded a second newspaper, the Merionethshire Standard, which afterwards became the Cambrian News ; and of this publication, as well as the Advertizer, he continued to be proprietor until, in 1868, he retired from business and sold the copyright to two of his old associates at the Caxton Press, by one of whom the paper in which these lines are written is still conducted. Mr Roberts was always an unflinching Liberal and Nonconformist, and no considerations of personal profit or loss were ever allowed to stand in the way of his constant advocacy of the principles in which he believed. He helped, not only by his writing, but by active work in some of the Welsh constituencies, to fight the battles which were carried on for years in North Wales, and which only ended in complete victory in the spring of 1880, though in Merionethshire he had the satisfaction of seeing his friend, Mr David Williams, elected as early as 1868.
A later part of the obituary reveals that:
In 1865 he entered the Council, tying with another candidate at the head of the poll; but, believing perhaps that the position was not entirely compatible with his more important functions as a journalist and a critic, he retired in 1868.
As well as being an editor, Askew Roberts was also to publish a popular work, “The Gossiping Guide” which the obituary suggests was his bst know work:
It was, however, as the author of the “Gossiping Guide to Wales” that Mr Roberts was best known to the public. The first edition of that popular book was issued in 1870, under the title of “On and Off the Cambrian,” and so successful did it prove that the scope of the work was gradually enlarged, until it became a complete guide to North Wales. The Press abounded with favourable notices, but it is only necessary to say that 50,000 copies of the Guide have been sold, to show how skilfully Mr Roberts did his work, and how well it was appreciated. In this publication also he was fortunate enough to secure the help of the late Mr Wynne, and of another well-known Welsh antiquary, the late Rev. R. Williams, at one time Rector of Rhydycroesau.
Following the publication of this work, and notwithstanding having relinquished his ownership of the Oswestry Advertizer, Roberts’ took on the role of editor of the Bye-gones column within that publication:
In 1871, Mr. Roberts, who took a keen and generous interest in the success of the Advertizer after it had passed into other hands, kindly offered to edit an antiquarian column, and the offer was gladly accepted. Bye-Gones, the first of many similar columns in other newspapers, began in October of that year, and soon made for itself a reputation amongst antiquaries which attracted contributors from various parts of the kingdom. The column was republished in quarterly parts, and Mr. Roberts never flagged, even when weakness almost incapacitated him from work, in his efforts to make the publication worthy of the position which it had won. The list of contributors contains the names of several well-known philologists and archaeologists …
It appears from the obituary that Askew Roberts was a well-regarded man:
Of Mr Roberts’s character, it is difficult for one who enjoyed a life-long friendship with him to say much in these columns ; but we cannot close this brief record of his career without recalling his true kindness of heart, his delight in helping others, and a singular generosity of nature, which led him to rejoice in the success of his friends, and in the work of their hands or their brains, even more perhaps than in his own.
This applied equally to his professional life:
In former days, when he conducted this paper, if he sometimes wrote with too keen a pen to please all readers, he was guided by a wholesome dislike of snobbery and pretence, a just regard for the honour and independence of the Press, and a fearless devotion to the cause of freedom and progress, which he did a good deal to help forward in less favoured times than these ; and while he frankly expressed his opinions, he never vilified his opponents or refused to recognize their merits, so that it is not surprising he should have won the lasting friendship of men who altogether differed with him in religious and political belief.
A report in Bye-Gones, of June 25th, 1890, p392-3, on the opening of the Askew Roberts Memorial Clock “placed by public subscription outside the [Oswestry] Post Office, and which was to be removed wherever the Post Office was removed to”, quoted Roberts’ executor, Mr J. Parry-Jones recognising him as “the originator of Bye-Gones, which had done so much to create an interest in the subject of folk-lore and antiquarian research in local matters”, and who:
believed Mr Askew Roberts was the originator of these local “Notes and Queries,” and that Bye-Gones was the first periodical of the kind, perhaps, in all England, and his memory, if for nothing else than this, deserved to be perpetuated. They were all aware of the interest, he might say the passionate interest, with which he regarded his native town, and therefore it was fitting that his memory should be commemorated by the inhabitants of the town he loved so well.
The actual statement of his death, which appeared at the start of the obituary, described the manner of his passing:
It is with deep regret that we record to-day the death of Mr Askew Roberts of Croeswylan, Oswestry, at the comparatively early age of fifty-eight. Mr Roberts had never enjoyed robust health, and an attack of inflammation which began while he was visiting friends in South Wales in the early part of June resulted in the long illness which closed his life on Wednesday. He returned home from Cardiff on the 13th of June, and from that time was almost continuously confined to his room, though occasionally, in the bright days of summer, he was able to bear a short journey in a Bath chair; and hopes were entertained, to the very end, that he might still he restored to his friends.
It appears, though, that he may have been something of a workaholic:
For awhile the publication of the column of Bye-Gones edited by him in this paper was suspended, but as soon as the severity of the first attack passed away, Mr Roberts resumed the work in which he took so much delight, and he continued it to the close of his days, the last instalment, containing a contribution of his own, having appeared only last week. Indeed, his indomitable spirit so far triumphed over physical weakness that he was actively engaged in other literary work during his long illness, and the proofs of his final, and most interesting, contribution to the Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological Society, a paper on the “Gateways of Oswestry,” passed through the press, under his careful revision, in the month of November. On the Sunday before his death he was as well as he had been for some time, and was able to enjoy the society of his friends, and although on Monday a change came, it did not seem to those about him to betoken any immediate danger. He still kept up his interest in passing events, and even on Wednesday morning there was no sign that life was so near its close; but at noon he passed quietly and very peacefully away, in the presence of his wife.
TO DO - see also:
Gossiping guide to wales https://archive.org/details/gossipingguidet01woodgoog
OSW-NM-O-5-59-18 – John Askew Roberts Plaque
Posted on March 3, 2018
Owners Of Caxton Press Mr W W ROBERTS, founder Mr S ROBERTS 1st Proprietor – this and picture 17 came from the newspaper but we have no date.
Askew Roberts, Freemason
It seems as if Askew Roberts had been an active Freemason:
At one time Mr Roberts was an active member of the Order of Free Masons. He was initiated into the Welshpool Lodge, No. 998, of Antient Free and Accepted Masons of England on March 30, 1864, and continued a member of that Lodge till December, 1867. In 1866 a petition was addressed to the Grand Master for a Lodge to be held at Oswestry, to be called the St. Oswald Lodge, and Mr Roberts was one of the ten petitioners, of whom only four are now alive. When the Lodge was consecrated, in October, 1866, Mr Roberts was chosen Secretary, and he continued to hold that office till October, 1870, when he became a Warden of the Lodge. On the 5th December, 1870, Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, the R.W.P.G.M., appointed Mr Roberts a Steward of the Provincial Grand Lodge of North Wales and Shropshire.
Askew Roberts, Workaholic?!
Despite his many pursuits, it seems that Askew Roberts did not enjoy the best of health:
For some years Mr Roberts had not mixed much in public life, but in his younger days, when health and strength permitted, he took an active part in promoting the welfare of the town. He was a warm supporter of successive literary institutes, and he gave valuable help, years ago, in laying the foundation of the present Town Library. In 1865 he entered the Council, tying with another candidate at the head of the poll; but, believing perhaps that the position was not entirely compatible with his more important functions as a journalist and a critic, he retired in 1868. In the beginning of 1872 he was placed on the Commission of the Peace by Lord Chancellor Hatherley, and he devoted himself diligently to the duties of his office until he was incapacitated by illness.
Askew Roberts’ Funeral
His funeral seems to have been a well attended one:
The remains of the deceased gentleman were interred in the Cemetry on Saturday afternoon. At two o’clock a large number of friends assembled at Croeswylan, and shortly afterwards the funeral procession was formed. The body, which was enclosed in a beautifully polished oak coffin, with brass furniture, was borne by employe’s at the Caxon Press, and on the coffin were placed several beautiful wreaths, including one sent as a tribute of regard from the staff of the Caxton Press.
The service, both in the chapel and at the grave, was conducted by the Rev. J. J. Poynter. Letters were received from friends in Welshpool, and other places, expressing their great regret that they were unable to ba present at the funeral. The shutters were up on many shops, and the blinds drawn down at many private houses in the town.
The obituary gives a long list of names of townsfolk who made up the funeral procession.
Leader, Oswestry Advertizer, on Askew Roberts’ Death
The Bye-Gones obituary also describes the sentiments expressed in leading column of the Oswestry Advertizer:
Many of our readers on both sides of the Border will have heard with regret of the death of Mr. Askew Roberts, who conducted this paper for nearly twenty years, and in his retirement became the editor of Bye-Gones, Brief records of Mr. Roberts’s life have appeared in many of the daily and weekly papers, and we give a longer sketch of his career in another column. Mr. Roberts will be remembered in Wales not only for his political services, which were considerable, but as the author of one of the most successful guides to the northern half of the country, and a writer who helped in many ways to preserve and illustrate the legends and records of the Principality. Mr. Roberts’s public duties in his native town have been principally confined in later years to the discharge of magisterial duties, but he wrote so many authentic chapters of local history that, although he was not spared to weave them together, he may be justly called the historian of Oswestry.
The London Welsh correspondent of the Oswestry Advertizer makes the following references in his letter, to the death of Mr. Askew Roberts:— At the Executive Committee of the National Eisteddfod Association on Thursday evening, Mr J. H. Puleston, M.P., in the chair, deep regret was expressed by several of the members at the death of Mr Askew Roberts, who, since the formation of the Association, had been a member of the Executive, and who, in many ways, had largely contributed to its deliberations.
The announcement of Mr Askew Roberts’s death has caused great sorrow amongst the London group of “Old Oswestrians.” In many ways, notably in connection with the establishment of the pleasant Reunion of recent years, Mr Roberts had taken a warm and appreciative interest in their welfare. To not a few of them he had ever been a kind mentor and a wise friend, and his loss will be severely felt by them for many years to come. As the editor of “Bye-Gones” he was known to a much wider circle here. His faithfulness to the work he had taken up cannot be better illustrated than by the fact that only a few days before his death he wrote a long letter to Mr W. Charles Evans concerning the shield and arms of the Holbeach family, which Mr Evans had come across in Rochester Cathedral.
Askew Roberts Memorial at Oswestry, 1890
A report on the Askew Roberts Memorial, Oswestry, in Bye-Gones, June 25th, 1890, p392-3
THE ASKEW ROBERTS MEMORIAL AT OSWESTRY.
The ceremony of handing over the Askew Roberts Memorial Clock to the town of Oswestry was performed at a quarter to five yesterday afternoon, when the Mayor and Corporation attended at the Post Office to receive it. There were several prominent ratepayers present, in addition to the Mayor, Mr W. H. Spaull (secretary to the Memorial Fund), and the Town Clerk, Mr J. Parry-Jones, The proceedings were opened by Mr Spaull, who said they were met together to ask the Mayor to accept from the subscribers, for the use of the inhabitants of the borough of Oswestry, the clock which was placed by public subscription outside the Post Office, and which was to be removed wherever the Post Office was removed to. The clock was put up as a memorial to a late townsman, Mr Askew Roberts, who was a man of some little note in the literary world, but the Town Clerk would no doubt refer to Mr Roberts’s qualities at greater length. He had received a letter from the Post Office authorities, accepting the responsibility of the care and repair of the clock. He also held in his hand a letter from the local postmaster, stating that the clock put up by Messrs Joyce of Whitchurch was at the time in good order and keeping very regular time, varying not more than half a minute in a fortnight. He begged to ask the Mayor, as the representative of the Town Council and of the burgesses of the borough, to accept the clock on behalf of the inhabitants. (Hear, hear, and applause.)
Mr J. Parry-Jones said as executor to the late Mr Askew Roberts he had been asked to be present, and had very great pleasure in representing the family. It was with great pleasure they saw that the townspeople and the inhabitants of the place Mr Roberts loved so well were still desirous of perpetuating his memory. Oswestry had not connected with it the names of a great many memorable persons and it was desirable that the memory of a man like Mr Askew Roberts, who had done so much for his native town, should not pass away without recognition. He was the author of the “Gossiping Guide to Wales,” which had created so much interest in North Wales, and which her Majesty the Queen was so much pleased to receive on her visit to Wales, and the originator of Bye-Gones, which had done so much to create an interest in the subject of folk-lore and antiquarian research in local matters. He believed Mr Askew Roberts was the originator of these local “Notes and Queries,” and that Bye-Gones was the first periodical of the kind, perhaps, in all England, and his memory, if for nothing else than this, deserved to be perpetuated. They were all aware of the interest, he might say the passionate interest, with which he regarded his native town, and therefore it was fitting that his memory should be commemorated by the inhabitants of the town he loved so well. (Applause.)
The Mayor, who was received with applause, said as Mayor, as a ratepayer of the town, and as one first came into Oswestry while the late Mr Askew Roberts was still taking an active interest in the town, he had great pleasure in accepting the clock, to be held in trust for the town and as the property thereof. It would remain on the site of the present Post-office, and be removed to wherever the Post-office might be removed in the course of events. (Hear, hear.) It was not only most useful, but it would commemorate the memory oi one who did his very best for the town while he lived in it and whose memory would linger long in the places where he worked so well. (Hear, hear.) There was an old inscription in the purlieus of the Temple, over the sun dial, which he remembered having seen, “Shadows we are and like shadows depart.” Thinking of those lines they might remember that those who had gone before them, and done a good work, not only deserved to have their memories regarded by those who remained, but they should endeavour to follow in the footsteps which they had planted before them. (Applause.) The clock would now be in the safe keeping of the Mayors who would succeed him, and he hoped all would profit by the good time which they were told it kept. (Loud cheers.)
A Funny Tale of Shrewsbury
Shrewsbury - Turning past the new Post Office, close to the site of the old High Cross, where the Welsh Prince, Dafydd ap Gruffydd, brother to Llewelyn, is said to have been hungand quartered, we descend Pride Hill, with a turreted market hall before ns. The first turn to the left leads up the quaint street called the Double Butcher Row ; the next, a little further down the Hill, takes us past some fine half-timbered buildings (” Ireland’s Mansion ” on the right) to The Square, with the picturesque Market House of the 16th century, one of the finest buildings of the kind to be seen in the country. It Is said that at one time the hall was rented by the Company of Drapers, who there bought flannel which had been brought to the town by Welsh weavers, and, according to a local legend, the mode of purchase was novel— and profitable. “A drum revolving on an axle was used for measuring the flannel. This drum, exactly a yard in circumference, was turned by a handle, and each revolution of the handle was counted as a yard, without any consideration for the gradual Increase in the diameter of the drum by the successive folds of the article measured thereon ” According to the story, the Welshmen were not astute enough to discover the fraud for some time, but when they found it out they deserted Shrewsbury market, and so It came to pass thtt the tfadt tn Welsh flannel was extinguished)
In Bye-Gones of November 24th, 1875, p329-30, we have a note that ‘[t]he following letter has appeared in the Academy. “Llanymawddwy Rectory, Merioneth: November 8th, 1875. …’ that quotes Silvan Evans’ letter to the November 13th edition of the Academy along with Roberts’ own reply from the November 20th edition, as well as an excerpt of several paragraphs from that work.
Askew Roberts, citing Hone
The following is the information given by Hone in his Year Book, col. 858:— According to Lawrence Howell, History of the Pontificate, Pope Alexander, in the second century, from the passage in Hosea, “They eat up the sin of my people,” implied that the priest by prayers and offerings did this for the worshippers. In later times, however, Sin Eating has been a very much more vulgar affair, and a letter from John Bagford, written in 1715, and printed in Leland’s Collectanea, gives the following account of a Sin Eater on the Borders:—
Within the memory of our fathers, in Shropshire, in those villages adjoining to Wales, when a person died, there was notice given to an old “sire,” (for so they called him) who presently repaired to the place where the deceased lay, and stood before the door of the house, when some of the family came out and furnished him with a cricket (or stool) on which he sat down facing the door. Then they gave him a groat, which he put in his pocket; a crust of bread, which he ate; a full bowl of ale, which he drank off at a draught. After this he got up from the cricket, and pronounced, with a composed gesture, “the ease and rest of the soul departed, for which he would pawn his own soul.”
Bagford states that he received his information from “the ingenious John Aubrey, Esq., who made a collection of curious observations,” which he had seen. Among the Lansdowne MSS. in the British Museum may be found accounts of this singular custom, in Aubrey’s own handwriting. In these he tells of “a long, lean, ugly, lamentable poor rascal” who lived in a cottage on Rosse highway, Hereford, who was a professional Sin-Eater. He also says there was a like practice at Brecon “at Llanygors, where Mr Gwyn the minister about 1640 could not hinder the performance of this ancient custom.” In 1686 Mr Aubrey says the custom was prevalent in North Wales.
Askew Roberts’ letter to the Academy is also republished in The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, published on November 26th, 1875, p9, along with the elaboration of the reference in Hone’s Year Book.
Commentary Elsewhere, November-December, 1875#
On December 1st, 1875, p331, the readers of Bye-Gones were kept up to date with how the debate was proceeding (the date reference in the title is a reference back to the previous mention of the topic in Bye-Gones):
The Sin Eater (Nov. 24, 1875)
In reference to this subject the writer in Blackwood states in the Academy of Nov. 27 that the Cambrian Archaeologists at Ludlow in 1852 had the matter before them, when “Mr Moggridge cited a case of this supersition having occurred with five years at or near Llandebie, in the hill country of Carmarthenshire.” (See Cam. Arch, Jour. s. 11, v. iii, p.330)
In the Aberystwith Observer of December 11th, 1875, p3, a Welsh language column appeared from which the following is taken:
LLYTHYRAU Y GWYLIEDYDD.
Cyfeiriasom yn un o’n llythyrau at gyhuddiad pwysig a ddygwyd yn ein herbyn yn yr Academy sef fod y fath fôd a sin-eater gyda ni yn ein claddedigaethau. Mewn atebiad i’r Parch. D Silvan Evans, dywed y cyhuddwr i’r achos fod dan sylw y Cambrian Archaeologists yn Ludlow, yn 1852, pan ddywedoad un Mr. Moggridge i’r achos ofer-goelus hwngymeryd lie, o fewn pum mlynedd, yn neu gerllaw Llandebie, sir Gaerfyrddin. Wrth ein cyhuddo, dywedwyd fed yr arferiad yn Nghymru yn bresennol, ond pan ofynir am y prawf eir yn ol i bellafoedd 30 mlynedd. Y mae 30 mlynedd yn y cyfnod hwn yo fwy nag oedd dau gant o flynyddau ganrifoedd yn ol. Ond er iddo ddychwelyd i 1847, nis gallasai ddweyd wrthym pa un ai yn neu gerllaw Llandebie y cymerodd yr amgylchiad lle pa un ai yn Llandilo fawr, Cwmdwr, Pontarddulais, neu rywle arall. Ond er iddo nodi amser a lle, yr ydym yn ei sicrhau ef, Mr. Moggridge, a phawb eraill, na chymerodd yr amgylchiad le yno o fewn cof y trigolion hynaf. Y mae arferiad mewn rhai lleoedd yn Nghymru cyn cychwyn a’r corff oddiwrth y ty fyned a chwrw a theisienau i’r gwyddfodolion, cyn casglu i gynnorthwyo yn y treulio i gladdu; ao y mae yn dra thebyg i’r doethawr Moggridge dybied mai arferiad ffol ei genedl ei hun oedd hyny. Difyr iawn ydyw gweled ambell hynafiaethydd arwynebol a chyflym yn trafod rhai pynciau. Rhaid bod yn ofalus iawn gyda phethau sydd yn dal cysylltiad agos a chymeriad cenedl. Perthyna lluaws o ffaeleddau i ni fel Cymry, a thröwn ein cefnau yn ewyllysgar at y fflangellwr, ond ni chymerwn ein sarhau am bethau na pherthyn i ni, a hyny gan genedl sydd a phob llecyn o’i gwlad yn gysegredig i ofergoeleddd.
Via Google Translate, we get the following attempt at a translation:
LETTERS OF THE HOLIDAYS.
We referred in one of our letters to an important accusation made against us at the Academy in that we have such a sense of sin and eater in our burials. In reply to the Rev. D Silvan Evans, the accuser states that the case was under consideration by the Cambrian Archaeologists at Ludlow, in 1852, when one said Mr. Moggridge to the over-zealous cause where, within five years, at or near Llandebie, Carmarthenshire. In our charge, it was said that the practice in Wales is present, but when the test is called for it will go back to a maximum of 30 years. 30 years in this period is more than two hundred years ago. But although he returned to 1847,
— the 1847 date presumably refers to the “within five years” period dated relative to 1852 —
he could not tell us whether in Llandilo, Cwmdwr, Pontarddulais, or elsewhere, the event took place in or near Llandebie. But though he did specify a time and place, we assure him, Mr. Moggridge, and everyone else, the circumstance did not take place there in the memory of the older inhabitants.
Here, then more negative anecdotal evidence.
The column then goes on (albeit from what is perhaps a rather dubious translation) to offer a possible explanation:
It is customary in some places in Wales before the departure of the body from the house to take beer and cakes to the essentials, before collecting to assist in digestion; and it is very likely that the scholar Moggridge assumed this to be the custom of his own nation.
There is then a defence of the Welsh people and their traditions:
It is very interesting to see a few superficial and fast antiquaries discussing some topics. Great care must be taken with things that hold a close connection to the character of a nation. Many failings belong to us as Welshmen, and we turn our backs eagerly to the scourge, but we are not to be insulted for things or belonging to us, and that is by a nation whose sacred land is sacred to superstition.
Two Letters from “Rheidiol”#
Although archival copies of the Western Mail do not appear in the digital archives (scans for July to December 1875 are missing from the National Library of Wales newspaper archive collection), a note in Bye-Gones of December 22, 1875, also reprinted in The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, dated December 24th, 1875, p9, contains an excerpt of a letter to that publication of December 16th, 1875, from a certain “RHEIDIOL” that also claims not to have witnessed or found evidence of the tradition, despite having been a collector of folklore in the area:
THE SIN EATER (Dec. 1, 1875.)- The Western Mail, Dec. 16, contains a letter signed RHEIDIOL, Twmbarlwn, on this subject, in which, after narrating the facts already stated, the writer proceeds to say :- I lived at Llandebie many years ago, and I am well acquainted with the history of that parish and its customs and traditions, and from time to time I attended fuuerals, but I never heard of such a thing. I am well acquainted with Welsh lore in almost every parish in South Wales, which I collected for the late Sir Thomas Phillips, Bart., and I never heard of its existence. The Welsh peasant may be a little superstitious, but he is far too intelligent to believe in such a thing as a Sin Eater. This is simply a fling at the Welsh nation. I hope, for the credit of the Cambrian Association, that they have better foundation for the papers read at their meetings than the Sin-Eater.”
A second letter from the same correspondent appeared in The Aberystwyth Observer of December 18th, 1875, p3:
THE “SIN EATER” IN WALES.
To the Editor of the Aberystwyth Observer.
SIR.—The old saying is very true “if you want to hear news you must go from homo.” Now we have received a strange piece of news, that we have a “Sin Eater” in connection with funerals in Wales. Some years ago, I was employed by an eminent antiquary to collect old Welsh legends, traditions and customs. I have made researches in almost every parish in South Wales but I never heard of the “Sin Eater.”
We are told this custom prevailed at Llandebe, in Carmarthenshire.
I went to reside in that village in 1850; and I lived there for six years. My avocation brought me in contact with all the parishioners I knew them well, and I am well acquainted with the history of the place, its customs and traditions. I attended many funerals, but this Sin Eater never cropped up; and I never saw cakes distributed at funerals.
The Welsh people are, it is true, in some localities a little tainted with superstition, as to ghosts &c., but they are not so superstitious as the importations who cross the “Severn Sea” to South Wales they are too well acquainted with their Bibles as to believe in such a thing as a “Sin Eater.”
We are told that this was maintained at the Cambrian Society’s meeting held at Ludlow in 1852; if such trash as this be accepted by antiquarians as facts, their knowledge of the Principality must be very limited; and I pity their ignorance of Welsh history and traditions.
I thank the Rev. Daniel S. Evans, of Llany-Mawddwy, for calling attention to this rank libel on Welshmen.
I am, sir, yours faithfully,
Who Was “Rheidiol”?
At this point, the identity of “Rheidiol” is not clear, but we do have various snippets of information about them:
their address: Twmbarlwn;
they resided in “Llandebe” (Llandebie) from 1850 to 1856;
they were “employed by an eminent antiquary to collect old Welsh legends, traditions and customs”.
We also note that they “attended many funerals”, which may be as a result of their profession or their standing in the community.
Mr Moggridge Returns: A Meeting of The Anthropological Institute#
Elsewhere, on December 14th, 1875, at a meeting of The Anthroplogical Institute, with Colonel A. Lane Fox, President, in the Chair, a paper was read by M. J. Watnovsz, F.R.A.S “On the Belief in Bhutas—Devil and Ghost Worship in Western India The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 5, 1875, pp408 onwards.
The collected volume 5 edition of the Journal covers the period February 9, 1875-January 25, 1876, so we might assume it was published in early 1876.
Notes from a discussion following the reading of the paper are also recorded from p423. Notably, they feature a response from a certain Mr Moggridge, whom we might assume to be the same Mr Moggridge that spoke on the subect of the sin-eater at the sixth meeting of the Cambrian Archaeological Association meeting in Ludlow over twenty years earlier, in 1852:
Mr. Moggridge said : Mention was made of superstitious observances in our own island. I may, therefore, be permitted to bring to your notice a curious custom that not long since was still extant in South Wales and some of the adjoining counties, that of the Sin-eater. More than two centuries ago a well-known writer, Aubrey de Gentilésisme gives a full account of this observance in Herefordshire, where he was fortunate enough to “interview” the Sin-eater himself.
Moggridge went on mention another, more recent tradition, which he associates with a sin-eater, but which he distinguishes as a slightly simpler ritual:
Among the mountains of South Wales I find a similar ceremony prevailing down to almost our own times. When a person died, the Sin-eater of the district was called in. On his arrival he received a plate, on which he poured some salt. Upon the salt he placed a piece of bread, laid the plate on the chest of the defunct, muttered words of charmed power while bending over the corse, then eat the bread, whereby he eat up and appropriated to himself all the sins of the deceased, received two shillings and sixpence for his services, and quickly retired from the pitying gaze of are present, who regarded him as one utterly and irremediably lost.
It is also remarkable how closely those reported words match the words ascribed to Moggridge back in 1852 as reported in Archaeologia Cambrensis, October 1852, Vol 3, Issue 12, p330-332: “When a person died, the friends sent for the sin-eater of the district, who on his arrival placed a plate of salt on the breast of the defunct, and upon the salt a piece of bread. He then muttered an incantation over the bread, which he finally ate—thereby eating up all the sins of the deceased. This done he received his fee of 2s. 6d., and vanished as quickly as possible from the general gaze; for, as it was believed that he really appropriated to his own use and behoof the sins of all those over whom he performed the above ceremony, he was utterly detested in the neighbourhood— regarded as a mere Pariah— as one irremediably lost”. Had Mr Moggridge perhaps recently re-read the report of his comments to the Cambrian Archaeological Association and rehearsed those same words once again?
Whatever the case, Mr. Moggridge seems to continue to hold firm in his belief of the existence of the tradition and in the authority of Aubrey.
Whether or not Mr Moggridge had been reminded of the sin-eater tradition from the Blackwood article, or the correspondence running in the Academy is not clear. Certainly, he did not contribute to the correspondence in the Academy, and I haven’t found evidence of him publicly commenting on it elsewhere, although as we shall see, he does appear to have corresponded privately with Silvan Evans at the start of the following year.
Moggridge’s comments were followed up by comments from another participant, a certain Mr Jeremiah, who did reference the Academy correspondence, picking up on the question raised by Silvan Evans regarding a possible Welsh word for “sin-eater”:
Mr. Jeremiah said: I was very much interested in the paper just read. With reference to the alleged custom of sin-eating in Wales, mentioned by Mr. Moggridge, I would remark that the discussion raised by the Rev. D. Silvan Evans in the Academy (November 5, 1875) appears to have gone adrift for want of the Welsh word for Sin-eater. The discussion arose, as all must be aware, from a statement made by a writer in Blackwood’s Magazine for last month, in an article on the Legend and Folk-lore of North Wales,’ where he says, in reference to a funeral custom, that the “Scapegoat … is currently called a ‘sin-eater.’” Dr. Evans demanded the Welsh equivalent, which the author of that article could not give, in consequence of, he says, “my ignorance of Welsh.” (Academy, Nov. 27, p. 555.)
Mr Jeremiah then suggests that the answer is to be found in William Bingley’s North Wales; including its scenery, antiquities, customs, and some sketches of its natural history, published in 1804, which is referenced in the context of the sin-eater debate for the first time:
Had he referred to Bingley’s “North Wales,” vol. ii. p. 278, he would have seen a way out of his difficulty, and a clear answer to the query put by Dr. Evans; and Mr. Moggridge will also see, I think, that the custom was not known as sin-eating, although the original meaning may have been of that nature. Bingley says, “It is usual in several parts of North Wales for the nearest female relation to the deceased, be she widow, mother, sister, or daughter, to pay some poor person of the same sex, and nearly the same age with the deceased, for procuring slips of yew, box, and other evergreens, to strew over and ornament the grave for some weeks after interment, and in some instances for weeding and adorning it on the eves of Easter, Whitsuntide, and the other great festivals for a year or two afterwards. This gift is called Diodlys, and it is made on a plate at the door of the house, where, at the same time, the body is standing ona bier. It had its name from a custom, which is now discontinued (1804), of the female relative giving to the person a piece of cheese with the money stuck in it, some white bread, and afterwards a cup of ale. When this previous ceremony is over, the clergyman, or, in his absence, the parish clerk, repeats the Lord’s Prayer, after which they proceed with the body to the church.”
From this, Mr Jeremiah appears to be suggesting that there is a Welsh word for a particular eating related death ritual, but that it does not describe sin-eating:
It appears, then, that the custom means simply a “gift of ale or beer,” and not sin-eating.
Mr Jeremiah also referred to Pennant’s Tours in Wales, which is the first citation I have found of this work in the context of discussions around the sin-eater:
Pennant’s (in his “Tours in Wales,” vol. iii. p. 159, edition 1810) account is slightly different. He says: “Previous to a funeral it was customary, when the corpse was brought out of the house and laid upon the bier, for the next-of-kin, be it widow, mother, sister, or daughter—for it must be a female—to give, over the coffin, a quantity of white loaves in a great dish, and sometimes a cheese with a piece of money stuck in it, to certain poor persons. After that they presented, in the same manner, a cup of drink, and required the person to drink a little of it immediately. When that was done they kneeled down, and the minister, if present, said the Lord’s Prayer, after which they proceeded with the corpse, and at every crossway between the house and the church they laid down the bier and knelt, and again repeated the Lord’s Prayer, and did the same when they first entered the churchyard.”
Mr Jeremiah suggests this also refers to the Diodlys tradition, and the misascribed sin-eating tradition:
This custom, and that of the alleged sin-eating, are conclusively one and the same, viz. that of Diodlys.
Several other remarks appear then to have been made — “Mr Edkins and the President also made a few remarks” – presumably including a vote of thanks to the reader of the paper, but what the remarks were is not recorded.
This appears to have been Mr Jeremiah’s only contribution to the sin-eater debate unless he appears elsewhere under a pseudonym.
Silvan Evans Responds to the Evidence, 1876-02-05#
After a short break in correspondence, presumably as he attempted his researches, Silvan Evans wrote again to the Academy a month into the new year with a missive that appears in Vol 9 Iss 196 published February 2nd, 1876, p125-6.
The same letter is repbublished more or less in its entirety in the Aberystwith Observer dated February 12th, 1872, prefaced with the following introduction:
The following letter from the Rev. Professor Evans, of the University College of Wales, appears in the last number of the Academy, and, the subject having attracted considerable attention in tho Principality, no apology is needed for reproducing the communication at length.
Silvan Evans opens with a restatement of his belief that the tradition of the sin-eater does not exist in Wales:
Correspondence: The Sin-Eater, by Prof. D. Silvan Evans
Aberystwyth : Jan. 29, 1876.
At the risk of exposing my “ignorance” still further, and thereby causing additional surprise to the writer of the paper on the “Legends and Folklore of North Wales” in Blackwood’s Magazine, I venture to reiterate my doubts as to the existence of the sin-eater in any part of Wales. Like every other country, the Principality had, and still has, her superstitions, but that of the sin-eater does not appear to be among them.
Silvan Evans backs this up by explaining that despite his best efforts, he has still not been able to find anyone who has knowledge of the tradition:
Since the appearance of my former letter in the ACADEMY (November 13), I have made all the enquiries I could into the subject, with the view of ascertaining whether such a personage has, or ever had, “a local habitation and a name” among us. I have spoken to many and corresponded with several persons who are known to have paid attention to the customs and traditions of the country; and the sum of their communications is, without any exception, that the superstition of the sin-eater was as novel to them as it was to me.
Silvan Evans then starts to pick up on some of the points raised in the Blackwood’s author’s previous correspondence, admitting that if he had ever been aware of Moggridge’s claims, he had forgotten them, and making the reasonable claim that he should not be expected to be “minutely acquainted with everything that appeared in that journal some twenty years previously” even if he had been the editor of it:
The writer points to Llandebie as the place where the custom prevailed as late as 1847, refers me for confirmation to a statement made by Mr. Matthew Moggridge at the annual meeting of the Cambrian Archaeological Association held at Ludlow in 1852, and is “surprised” that I, who became connected with the Archaeologia Cambrensis in 1872, should not be minutely acquainted with everything that appeared in that journal some twenty years previously. Whether I ever read the account of the Ludlow meeting I cannot now say; but if I did, every trace of Mr. Moggridge’s revelations had been effaced from my memory when I wrote my letter.
Silvan Evan’s then recaps the Blackwood author’s summary of Moggridge’s original claims:
The writer tells us that “at the meeting of the Cambrian archaeologists at Ludlow 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.”
before suggesting that this is a completely false summary, in so-doing demonstrating his correspondent that he has now engaged with that source, having had it raised to his attention, and being a competent researcher found that Moggridge made no such claim:
Mr. Moggridge said no such thing, and it is hardly fair to make him responsible for sentiments which he never expressed. The description of the sin-eater, given by Mr. Moggridge, is taken from Aubrey; and the following are his words in reference to Llandebie, as reported in the Archaeologia Cambrensis, the organ of the Association :—
“In Caermarthenshire, not far from Llandebie, was a mountain valley where, up to the commencement of the present century,
which is to say, up to the start of the 19th century, to whit, the late 1700s,
the people were of a very lawless character. There the above practice was said to have prevailed to a recent period,
But the practice was “said to prevail” by whom?
And what period does Silvan Evans think this refers to? As the tradition was “said to have” prevailed, then perhaps it prevailed in “a recent period” relative to the context described by whomever said it, and who was perhaps that same someone who had been speaking about “the commencement of the present century”.
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
he being Moggridge,
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.”
Silvan Evans then attacks the Blackwood’s author’s logic:
Out of this statement the author of the article makes “five years”! and by that process brings the custom down to 1847.
Which is to say, five years previous to Moggridge’s paper of 1852.
Mr. Moggridge, in a letter dated the first day of the present year,
(I have not been able to find a copy of this letter published anywhere)
tells me that he does “not remember anything that gives a date,” and adds that “the only written account” of the sin-eater “from personal knowledge is that of Aubrey, ‘de Gentilisme.’”
So, here we have an affirmation from Moggridge that the only written source he was aware of was Aubrey, and perhaps was not aware of any specific dates associated with when the tradition was extant.
Silvan Evans then tries to find evidence of dates associated with eyewitness testimony, starting with his reading of Aubrey, who we might recall was writing about the sin-eater in 1686.
Aubrey, if I may rely on the extracts given in the ACADEMY, does not say that he was eyewitness to the performances of the sin-eater in any part of Wales, and therefore, according to Mr. Moggridge, no one speaks of it from personal knowledge as having prevailed at any time in the Principality; and it will be borne in mind that I am writing of the Principality and not of the English counties.
Here, any references to the tradition outside the Principality of Wales are explicitly discounted. Furthermore, mo mention or reference is made of any oral evidence Mr Moggridge might have otherwise had access to, or not.
Failing to find such reports of direct evidence, Silvan Evans returns his focus to Llandebie, referring to correspondence he had recently received from one John Rowlands, schoolmaster and “one time librarian to the late Sir Thomas Phillipps” who had similarly never been witness to any eyewitness testimony:
But let us return to Llandebie, the locality in which it is asserted that the custom prevailed within the last thirty years. Mr. John Rowlands, a highly intelligent schoolmaster, author of a small volume of Historical Notes published about ten years ago, and at one time librarian to the late Sir Thomas Phillipps of Middle Hill, wrote to me on December 14 last in these words :—
“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 the ‘sin-eater;’ in fact people there never give cakes at funerals. I know almost every parish in South Wales; I collected all the legends, and made notes of the old customs for the late Sir Thomas Phillipps. If such a custom had prevailed I should have heard of it. I have no hesitation in writing that it is a glaring untruth.”
As Silvan Evans points out,
Letters to the same effect appeared in the Western Mail, which circulates very extensively in the Principality, in the Aberystwyth Observer, and, I am told, in some other papers; but no one in reply has put in a plea in favour of the sin-eater.
These letters, by “Rheidiol”, are presumably by that same Mr. John Rowlands.
John Rowlands, aka. Rheidiol, aka. Giraldus
Assuming schoolmaster John Rowlands to be “Rheidiol”, it is also worth remarking that he more notably used the nom de plume “Giraldus”.
On suffering from a stroke in 1884, friends and colleagues rallied around to crreate a testimonial for him as reported in the Western Mail of June 19th, 1884. The report does not mention his role in the first sin-eater controversy, although it does note that he “wrote a good deal about ancient welsh marriage and funeral customs”.
THE GIRALDUS TESTIMONIAL
On Wednesday afternoon a public meeting was held at the Town-hall, Cardiff, to consider measures for raising a testimonial to the well known writer “Giraldus” (Mr. John Rowlands).
The Rev. Theophilus Rees then moved:– “That this meeting regrets to find that Mr. John Rowlands, better known as ‘Giraldus,’ has been overtaken by paralysis, thereby depriving him of the means of earning a livelihood for himself and family, and further acknowledges that his long and valuable services in the interest of Welsh history and literature entitle him to the sympathy and help of his fellow countrymen.”
The Rev. GRIFFITH ROBERTS seconded the motion.
The Rev. M. P. WILLIAMS, in supporting it, remarked that the issue of this meeting would show whether Welsh Churchmen were prepared to support and encourage talent and industry devoted to the adornment of periodicals issued under the auspices of their Church, or whether writers who had spent the best efforts of their lives in tho service of the Church should be allowed to pine in poverty and distress in the winter of their days. No sadder picture could he found in the literary history of any country than the last days of “Brutus,” the great Welsh wit and humourist. The, annals of Grub-street, gloomy as they were, had no more pathetic spectacle than that of “Brutus” dying in poverty, and when the fiery spark of his heaven-born genius was quenched for ever consigned in a pauper’s coffin to a nameless grave. It was his (the speaker’s) conviction that the legacy of the grave had lain heavily on the Welsh press ever since, especially on the Welsh Church press. It was for those present to do all they could to exorcise this spectre of a hideous past, and he trusted that their action at this meeting would be pregnant with good results for the5 distant future. Let them do what they could to add peace and comfort to the declining days of “Giraldus” and perhaps they would succeed in waking into song the “mute inglorious Miltons” of the Welsh hills and valleys, and inspiring the future Kebles and Stanleys of the Welsh Church. In works of this kind Churchmen could learn a lesson from the Nonconformists. Tho respect shown last Saturday to “Gohebydd” should teach them to pay honour to “Giraldus”. (Hear, hear.)
Mr. JOHN DUNCAN also spoke in support of the motion, and observed that “Giraldus ” had a claim upion Welshmen of every denomination.
Colonel H. H. DAVIES said he first became acquainted with “Giraldus” in 1869, when a band of 48 American captains went to celebrate the Anniversary of Independence at Caerphilly Castle. They could find no one to tell them the story of the ancient fortress except “Giraldus,” who was then a schoolmaster at Bedwas, and who came at their request and gave them the history of the Castle. He also brought two Welsh harpers with him, who played the “March of Caerphily.” “Giraldus” had been his neighbour now for some years. “Giraldus” commenced his career as a writer when be was eighteen years old, and since the death of “Brutus” he had been the principal contributor to Yr Haul. Twenty-five or thirty years ago he published his researches into the history of Wales in the Cardiff and Merthy Guardian and the Cardiff Times*. He also contributed historical sketches relating to Cardiganshire and Carmarthenshore in the Aberystwith Observer, the Welshman and the Carmarthen Journal. Some of his historical notes were also printed in the Western Mail, in Brython, a quarterly published at Tremadoc, and edited by the famous Celtic linguist, Professor Silvan Evans; in Goleuad yr Oes published at Carnarvon, and in the Cymro. With reference to the last, he received complimentary letters from “Talhaiarn,” the celebrated bard and scholar, from the Rev. Morris Williams (“Nicander”), from ” Cattwgan ” and from the Ven. Archdeacon Jones, of Bangor (a native of Cadoxton- juxta-Barry), author of the critical notes on “Iolob’s” MSS. He also wrote for the “Genealogia,” edited by Dr. Howard, F.S.A, and the principal of the Historical Department of the United States offered to exchange his works on genealogy with “Giraldus.” He also penned several interesting papers relating to the sin eaters in Wales. Whila he was librarian and Welsh secretary to the late Sir Thomas Phillipps, of Middle Hill,.R.S., a trustee of the British Museum, he made a tour through Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire, and Glamorganshire in search of historical information, and transcribed for the printers the charters of Wales and the works of the ancient Welsh bards. He also collected, but has not yet published, the monumental inscriptions of Welsh families. His notes on the history of the counties of Glamorgan, Carmarthen, and Cardigan were published at the request of several eminent antiquaries, and met with a large sale. He prepared papers on the history of the Van Caerphilly and on the history of Maesaleg Gwem-y-Gleppa, which were read before the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society, and published the history and pedigrees of the families of Dolau Cothi, Abermarles, Llanfair Clydogan, Havod, Absrmaed, and Llanbadarnfawr, as well as a history of the last-named parish, for which a prize was divided between him and “Llyfnwy ” at the Llancarfan Eisteddfod. “Giraldus” also wrote “Notes” on the history of Monmouthshire, the Bishops of Llandaff, the Mathew family, Llandaff, the Welsh Royalists, and the history of Cefn Mably. He also translated several works on Welsh history and traced the pedigrees of Judge Johnes, the Vaughans of Crosswood, the Earls of Lisvane, the Wilkins of Llantwit Major, the Morgans of Tredegar, the Powels of Nanteos, the Pryces of Gogerddau, the Turbervills of Ewenny; the Matthews of Llandaff; John Inglis Jones of Dewi Ormond; and the Steadmans of Ystradffin. He also catalogued the Llandaff Library for the late Colonel Bennett, R.A. Among his numerous other works was a history of the first day schools in Wales and a biograpby of Rowlands of Llangeitho. He also wrote a good deal about ancient welsh marriage and funeral customs and Welsh games. He was frequently consulted by the late Dr. Nicholas while thle lattel was engaged on his ” History of the County and County Families of Wales” and the biographers of Wesley and Matthew Henry also appealed to him for assistance. The late Dean of Bangor entertained a high opinion of “Giraldus’s” writings, and always regretted that his services to the Welsh Church were not better recognised.
The CHAIRMAN, in putting the motion to the meeting, said that were it not for the circumscribed use of the Welsh language the works of “Giraldus ” would be known everywhere.
The proposition was carried unanimously.
On the proposition of Mr. D. TUDOR EVANS, seconded by Colonel Davies, it was resolved that the gentlemen present, with power to add to their number, should be appointed a commmittee for the purpose of collecting subscriptions towards securing for “Giraldus” an annunity for the remainder of his life. The meeting then resolved itself into committee, and having appointed the Rev. G. A. Jones chairman, proceeded to consider what steps should be taken to raise the funds.
Silvan Evans also received correspondence from the current vicar of Llandebie:
The Rev. Rees Evans, Vicar of Llandebie, has favoured me with the following letter in answer to my enquiries, and I must crave indulgence on the part of your readers for inserting it without abridgment :—
Revd. Rees Evans, it seems, was well famliar with the area:
“I duly received your letter of the 22nd ult., which contained such extraordinary statements in reference to a superstitious custom supposed and alleged to be prevalent in this parish, viz., the employment at funerals of a strange person called the ‘sin-eater.’ I have been the vicar of this parish for the last fourteen years, and I have known this neighbourhood well for the last twenty-five years; but I never heard till I received your letter of such a personage as the ‘sin-eater.’
Intrigued by Silvan Evans’ enquiries, and digging into the claims made originally by Mr Moggridge, Rees Evans conducted his own research:
“However, with the view of arriving at the truth or falsehood of the statements made by Mr. Moggridge at Ludlow in the year 1852, which appeared subsequently in the Archaeologia Cambrensis, and with the view of satisfying my own mind on the subject, I have during the last three weeks instituted searching enquiries in every part and hamlet of this parish, as to the probability of there having ever existed here such a functionary as ‘sin-eater’ and the result of my investigation in the matter is this :—
In short, he also failed to find evidence of the sin-eater:
That such a custom as that alluded to in your letter never prevailed, at least for several centuries, in this parish and neighbourhood.
This understanding was based on his solicitation of local knowledge and opinion:
That is the candid opinion of all classes of persons with whom I had long conversations while investigating the matter in question for you. 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 prevailed 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. Therefore, from all the enquiries that I have made, my candid opinion is that the statements which were made by Mr. Moggridge cannot be substantiated by any reliable authority or proved by any credible evidence.”
As an aside, we might note that in an 1876 work on Historical notes of the counties of Glamorgan, Carmarthen and Cardigan:, the entry for Llandebie, starting on page 54 has no mention of any particular traditions or local customs peculiar to that location, let alone a mention of the sin-eater.
Silvan Evans picks up the correspondence once again:
Such are the results of my enquiries, and yet we are asked to believe that the sin-eater carried on his nefarious profession in the neighbourhood of Llandebie until within a little more than a quarter of a century.
He also distinguishes between the tradition of the “plate and salt” and the ritual of the sin-eater, and, seemingly contra Moggridge, does not see the former as evidence a sin-eater tradition.
The plate and salt mentioned by Mr. Moggridge as being still seen in some parts have no connexion, or at least no necessary connexion, with the sin-eater, and much more satisfactory reasons are given for their employment. They are not uncommon, I understand, among Roman Catholics at the present day.
All the evidence, it appears, owes to Aubrey, who had no direct evidence of it of his own.
The whole story of the sin-eater appears to rest on the shoulders of Aubrey, and, as we have just seen, he does not state that he saw any performance of the custom among the Welsh people. Those who only retail his statements need not detain us.
Silvan Evans then further raises doubts about trusting Aubrey in general:
I leave it to others to judge what amount of credibility is due to so credulous a person as Aubrey in any case in which superstition plays a part.
based on other apparently wild claims he appears to have made:
If we put implicit belief in what he says about the sin-eater, whether in England or out of England, I do not see how we can consistently refuse his evidence as to ghosts, spectres, witchcraft, and similar subjects, about which he is so eloquent.
Finally, Silvan Evans’ signs off with another dig at the Blackwood’s author, wondering at how the only people who seem to have found evidence in support of the sin-eater tradition are those who don’t speak Welsh and don’t know the country:
In conclusion I would remark that if the custom under notice ever existed in Wales, it is somewhat strange, if not “surprising,” that the discovery of it has been exclusively confined to those who are ignorant of the language of the natives, and are but slightly acquainted with the country.
D. SILVAN EVANS.
Meanwhile, Elsewhere, February, 1876#
As the correspondence in the Academy picked up once again, a column on Old Welsh Legends and Poetry, penned by Lady Verney, appeared in the February, 1876, edition of the Contemporary Review, pp396-416, which made passing mention of the sin-eater tradition (p403) without attributing a source:
There is a strange superstition concerning the “sin-eater.” which remains in some secluded places, perhaps the echo of the idea of substitution for sin in the Jewish scapegoat. He presents himself, professionally, at the moment of death, puts a plate containing bread and salt on the breast of the corpse, mutters an incantation, and proceeds to eat the bread, thereby “eating up the sins of the dead,” and especially preventing him, or her, from “walking” after death. The man who exercises this tremendous power is a sort of pariah, detested in the neighbourhood, and does his work for half-a-crown, and sometimes even goes as low as sixpence in his demands.
The sum of sixpence, and the terms walking and scapegoat (if not “Jewish scapegoat”) all appear in the Arch. Camb. write-up of Moggridge’s comments at Ludlow. Although the quoted phrase “eating up the sins of the dead” does not appear, “eating up all the sins of the deceased” does. It thus seems likely that Lady Verney’s source was the Arch. Camb report.
In passing, we note that Lady Verney also describes a cursing ritual that is perhaps reminiscent of the cursing ritual at St. Aelian’s well.:
Another instance of the extraordinary power which, it is supposed, can be exerted by very ordinary individuals, is accomplished by throwing oneself on one’s knees and repeating the Cursing Psalms, when the dreadful wishes of David for his enemies are made to cling to the person thus prayed against. “The devil can quote Scripture” indeed. This Pagan and devilish use of the Bible, and the change of name, not of nature, which has taken place in many an ancient local deity, may still be met with in Brittany, where there was a Celtic goddess of Hate, now transmogrified into “Notre Dame de la Haine.” If three Aves are uttered at nightfall in her chapel near Treguier, winged with the proper directions against the hated person, “death happens irrevocably within the year to him or her.”
Lady Verney, Sister of Florence Nightingale
https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp04621/frances-parthenope-lady-verney (1819-1890), Writer and journalist; sister of Florence Nightingale; second wife of Sir Harry Verney, Bt
Over in Bye-gones, the running commentary continued in the February 9th, 1876 edition, p15:
The Sin-Eater in Wales
The discussion on this subject, commenced in the Academy, and continued in that and other papers, was fully given in Bye-gones towards the close of last year. Our readers will remember that the discussion arose on a challenge by a well-known and able Welshman, the Rev. D. Silvan Evans, to the write of an article in Blackwood, on the Folk Lore of Wales, to prove his assertion that ever such a personage as the “Sin-Eater” existed in the Principality. One or two replies appeared, referring to Aubrey, as the original authority that such an office once existed; and the writer of the article expressed his surprise that Mr Evans, whose connection with the Archaeologia Combrensis was well known, should not be aware that Mr Moggridge had stated at the meeting of the Cambrian Archaeological Society in 1852, that the custom had prevailed at or near Llandebie, Caermarthanshore, within five years of that date. The substance of this we gave in Dec. 1, 1875, and on Dec. 20 a letter from the Western Mail written, as we are no informed, by Mr John Rowlands who had been a schoolmaster at Llandebie for many years, commencing 1850, and who denied the exitence of the practice in his time, or within the memory of the oldest inhabitant. In the Academy, Feb. 5, 1875, Mr Silvan Evans goes fully into the matter, and gives as the result of his enquiries, a total denial of the practice as far as Wales is concerned; in the course of which he publishes a letter from the Vicar of Llandebie, who confirms all Mr Rowlands previously said. Mr Silvan Evans concludes that the “whole story of the Sin-Eater rests on the shoulders of Aubrey,” and he declines to place any faith in “so credulous a person in any case in which superstition plays a part.” Mr Evans also explains that his connection with the organ of the Cambrian Archaeological Society commenced twenty years after the date of Mr Moggridge’s connection.
The same review appeared in Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard dated February 18th, 1876, p7.
Silvan Evans Restates His Position, 1876-02-26#
Having held off replying for one week, Silvan Evans picked up his pen to respond, yet again, in the Academy of February 26th, 1876, p197-8.
The same letter was reprinted in the Aberystwyth Observer of March 4th, 1876, p2).
The opinion of the editor as to the validity of claims regarding the existence, or otherwise, of the sin-eater tradition in Wales is clearly evident.
The Rev. Professor Silvan Evans, B.D., of Llanymawddwy, has contributed another letter to the Academy in disproof of the absurd statements which have been forthcoming respecting the alleged functions of the imaginary “Sin-Eater”
Silvan Evans opened with, a patient - perhaps condescending, perhaps resigned – tone, such as one might use when addressing an obstinate and truculent toddler:
The Sin-Eater, by the Rev. D. Silvan Evans and E. R. Morris.
Llanymawddwy : Feb. 12, 1876.
The question between the writer in Blackwood and myself is a simple one,
— you dunderhead! –
and I regret to find that in his letter in the Academy of to-day he mixes up with it a good deal of irrelevant matter, leaving the point at issue just where it was.
Which is to say, “I’m going to try to explain this to you again, if you can just focus on the matter at hand”…
He stated in his article that the custom of the Sin-Eater prevails in North and South Wales at the present day;
– which is quite a simple thing to understand. But when I suggested that’s not correct –
when I challenged that statement and asked for proof,
you moved the goalposts –
we were told that by the present day he means some thirty years ago;
As to the locale where this tradition was supposedly respected:
and when pressed for the locality
– you copy Mr. Moggridge –
he goes under the aegis of Mr. Moggridge to Llandebi “in the hill-country of Carmarthenshire.”
– That is the evidence you gave, and that’s the evidence I challenged –
When persons appeal to certain tribunals, they should not complain if they are sent to appear before the tribunals of their choice.
– So I checked in and around Llandebie –
Llandebie was named, and Llandebie was accepted: enquiries were made on the spot by competent persons;
and nobody thereabouts has ever heard of a sin-eater, or can recall ever having heard of a sin-eater –
and those who will take the trouble to read my last letter will see with what success, The Sin-Eater is as little known there as probably he is in Nova Zembla.
– You then try to move the goalposts again –
Now the writer shifts his ground and moves, under the enlightening guidance of Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in South Wales, to Cwm Amman, about seven miles from Llandebie.
– You then cite another spurious authority, who was simply repeating the claims you have already appealed to, citing a slightly different location, in a yet more recent publication –
The compiler of that volume, whether ever “connected with Monmouthshire Iron Works” or not, states nothing about the Sin-Eater from personal knowledge, or from the personal knowledge of any informants, but quotes almost the identical words of Mr. Moggridge at Ludlow, with a slight variation as to the locality.
– As if that weren’t enough, you try to point to yet another restatement of the same old, same old, as further corroborating evidence –
Lady Verney, in the February number of the Contemporary Review, simply relates the same story over again, without any corroboration of her own.
– Something doesn’t become true just because you keep saying it over and over again. –
A false story does not become truth by repetition, and these repetitions add nothing to our knowledge, and therefore it is simply waste of space to retail them.
– As to your claims that I didn’t read the whole of the Arch. Camb. report of Moggridge’s remarks at Ludlow by not turning the page over, I did. And I read them properly… –
The writer complains that I did not turn over a certain leaf in the Archaeologia Cambrensis, where he intimates that Mr. Moggridge told the archaeologists at Ludlow that the practice of sin-eating was carried on at Llandebie until within five years of that time (1852). The leaf had been turned over and read before I wrote my last letter; I turn it over again, and on it read the last utterances of Mr. Moggridge as follows :—
– I’m not sure you did though, so I’ll repeat them here –
“Mr. Moggridge said— Far be it from him to desire that anything he should advance should not be combated, for all he wished to get at was truth. He thought that the gist of what fell from Mr. Allen was that there was no immediate connexion between the custom of Sin-Eater and the plate and the salt. Starting from the Carmarthenshire valley, he found the most horrible portion of the custom dropped; and the rest still retained; and as he advanced still further he found that less remained. Mr. Aubrey, from whom he quoted, and who was a man of high character, said that the custom had existed both in Herefordshire and Shropshire. Mr. Aubrey told them he went to a cottage in Herefordshire, where he saw a man whom he described as the Sin-Eater; and he (Mr. Moggridge) found, in the very district where Mr. Aubrey had seen it in its most horrid perfection, that the more odious part of the custom had been removed, but portions thereof still remained. He thought that the plate and salt were of eastern origin. There was only one thing more that he need trouble them with, and that was as to whether the custom was extinct. He believed that people were thorough] ashamed of the practice; one case, he was informed, occurred four or five years ago, but he believed it was extinct now.”
At this point, Silvan Evans has himself perhaps made an slight error in judgement. Whilst there is no mention of Llandebie, there is mention of a Carmarthenshire valley. However, whilst the anonymous Blackwood author might argue for these to be bradly referring to the same location, Moggridge admits that “the most horrible portion of the custom dropped” there. Which is to say: if the tradition had been there, it was no longer; but what evidence was there that the most horrible portion had ever existed there?
These are Mr. Moggridge’s last words at Ludlow, and I fail to find a syllable in them referring to Llandebie;
As to references to the sin-eater in other locations, that was not the concern of Silvan Evans:
and if he refers to any place, it must be, as I understand him, to some part of Herefordshire, with which the writer appears to be more acquainted than I can pretend to be, and to which, as I have already distinctly stated, my remarks do not apply.
In particular, Herefordshire is not Wales.
Where Do the Welsh Sin-Eater References Come From?
At this point, let us just recap where the reference to the Welsh sin-eater tradition comes from. It appears to be all Moggridge.
From the title of his remarks ar Ludlow – Custom of the Sin Eater in Cwm Ammon Valley – to two quotations appearing in the Arch. Camb. write-up.
The custom of employing the sin-eater probably obtained in ancient times throughout a large portion of Wales and its Marches.
In Caermarthenshire, 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,
But in neither case is any provenance for the claim provided.
Had Moggridge perhaps heard of the tradition in a Welsh context of the plate of salt, and/or perhaps the eating of food around the time of death, then associated this with the sin-eater ritual he learned of via Aubrey as occurring around the Welsh borders, and consequently reasoned (perhaps unjustifiably) that there were from the same origin, although only a partial relic of the (supposed) full ritual could be identified in Wales?
Silvan Evans then turns his attention to the matters of ritual under discussion:
Mr. Moggridge, and apparently the writer of the article, assume all along that the plate and salt are necessarily 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.
Which is to say, given the salt, the assumption is the sin-eating part has been lost; rather than there only ever was just the salt.
Mr. Moggridge candidly admits that he never witnessed the “horrid custom” at Llandebie or elsewhere, but informs us that it “was said to have prevailed:” he does not mention his authorities, nor does he so much as hint what means his informants had of knowing the truth or untruth of the story.
This is surely a key question, as we have also identified.
At this point, it is not clear whether Silvan Evans is now referring to Moggridge as someone he has recently corresponded with, or with the “historical Moggridge”, contemporary to the 1852 Moggridge:
I can assure Mr. Moggridge that I mean no disrespect to him when I say that both the vicar and the schoolmaster have enjoyed more favourable opportunities than he is likely to have had of ascertaining the facts of the case, on account of their connexion with the locality and their knowledge of the vernacular. I value Mr. Moggridge’s opinions as opinions; but we are now in quest of facts; and opinions, from whatever source they may emanate, must not be mistaken for them. The question at issue lies within the domain of fact, and, therefore, capable of proof if the charge has any foundation on a more solid substance than “imagination all compact.”
Silvan Evans then redirects his comments back to the Blackwood author:
It is very kind, but slightly superfluous, on the part of the writer to “refresh” my memory respecting “the vicarious sin-bearing of the Levitical scapegoat.” It is useless to argue about what may, could, or should have occurred, when we are concerned only with what has actually taken place. It is needless to expatiate on the possibility of a custom, when its existence is denied.
He follows up this attack on the author’s desire to ponder fantasy rather than consider fact by turning the anonymous author’s barbed dig at the Welsh straight back on that same author:
The writer might have spared his sneering remark about: the “treason” of calling Welshmen “ignorant” and “superstitious.” The qualities denoted by these elegant stock-epithets, unfortunately, are not confined to the Principality of Wales; and one at least of these benighted barbarians
– that is, Silvan Evans, an ignorant, superstitious Welshman –
holds that it is treason against truth to make charges that cannot be substantiated against any nation, however “ignorant” or “superstitious” that nation may be.
The next claim has an element of frustration about it – “even if national honour does motivate this repudiation of the nonsense of a Welsh sin-eater tradition, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong!”:
The writer seems to assume that it is “a point of national honour,” rather than any higher motive, that induces Welshmen to repudiate groundless imputations. When “national honour” and truth go together, “national honour” is not to be condemned.
Silvan Evans is now in full on rhetorical mode, the barrister at the bar, waving his hand at the accused and looking at the jury:
The writer appears to feel rather uneasy on account of his incognito.
Ah, poor lamb. He’s getting defensive… (Also note, there is the very definite “he”. Does Silvan Evans know who his interlocutor is?)
He need not.
We’re all friends here…
It is perfectly immaterial whether he retains or doffs it;
He can have his anonymity…
but it shall not shield him from the consequences of making statements of questionable authenticity.
But that won’t stop us damning he as a spreader of fake news.
He vouchsafes to inform us that he is, “by parentage, ancestry, property, and interests, connected with two counties of South Wales”;
So he claims there is Welsh blood in his blood somehhere…
but he does not tell us that his ancestors ever furnished him with any information concerning the Sin-Eater,
But no family stories?
or that in his frequent visits to our benighted country he ever encountered that dread functionary.
And no tales to tell from his own visits to the home of his ancestors?
Such being the case, I confess to being a little hazy as to the relevance of long pedigrees and broad acres in two or more counties, fine things as they are, to the subject we are now discussing.
The barrister looks around the court in wondering fashion, arms outstretched, palms face upwards:
More to the point is the admission that, notwithstanding his frequent travels “over most of the Principality” he has “failed to acquire its language,”
Then stares directly into the eyes of the defendant, putting it forcefully to him that even with that heritage, he knows nothing of the language? Nothing of its customs?
that language being the very key to its customs, legends, and folk-lore. His travels, therefore, must resemble those of a blind man in quest of the beautiful.
The barrister looks around the court once again, in disbelief, before once again addressing the jury:
If the writer proves, as he states in Blackwood, that the superstition of the Sin-Eater is “still surviving in North and South Wales,” I shall at once confess my error,
Of course I shall. Not like him, as he turns and points at the accused…
and the “national honour” shall take its chance;
– for we shall surely stand by what we believe to be the truth.
but if he fails to do this,
– if he cannot make his case –
he ought, in justice to the country of his “ancestry,” to retract the groundless charge.
— He is a scoundrel!
And points at the defendant again…
He it is that has brought the accusation against it, and on him lies the burden of proof.
– I rest my case –
D. Silvan Evans.
As far as my readings to date go, there appears to be no further response from the anonymous Blackwoood author, and the major correspondence in the Academy associated with this sequence of correspondence comes to an end.
But the story doesn’t quite end there, for immediately following Silvan Evans was another letter, from another correspondent…