Welsh Facts

Posted: August 1, 2013 in Victorian Life

1. Welshmen may have settled America before Columbus.
It is now well known that Viking explorers reached parts of the eastern seaboard of what is now Canada about the year 1100 and that Norwegian Leif Erikson’s Vinland may have been an area that is now part of the United States. What is less known is that a Welshman may not have been too far behind Erikson, bringing settlers with him?
According to Welsh legend, Madog ab Owain Gwynedd was a 12th century prince from Gwynedd who sailed westward with a group of followers seeking lands far away from the constant warfare of his native Wales. According to the story, his eight ships made landfall at what is now called Mobile Bay, Alabama in 1169. Owain’s little flagship was the “Gwennan Gorn.” Liking what he found, Madog then returned to Wales for additional settlers, who consequently left with the explorer in a small fleet of ships. Sailing westward from Lundy Island in 1171, the courageous little band was never heard from again, at least in Europe.
2. Canada was explored and mapped by a Welshman.
Not only John Evans (and Meriwether Lewis) helped map the North American continent, but another Welshman, David Thompson could rightly be called “the man who measured Canada.” Almost on his own, this prodigious explorer surveyed most of the Canadian-US border during the early days of the country. Covering 80,000 miles on foot, dog sled, horseback and canoe, 200 years ago, Thompson defined one-fifth of the North American continent. His 77 volumes detailing his studies in geography, biology and ethnography entitles him to the title of one of the world’s greatest land geographers.
Though born in Wales, Thompson was educated at a charity school in London, immigrating to Canada to work for the Hudson Bay Company in 1784. At the time, the map of Canada was mostly blank. He was taught the art of surveying from a colleague and the skills of wilderness survival from native Canadians. In 1797 he joined the North Company at Montreal and began his explorations of the vast continent to the West.
3. America may have taken its name from a Welshman.
According to research conducted by an English College professor, America did not take its name from Amerigo Vespucci, but from a senior collector of Customs at Bristol, the main port from which English voyages of discovery sailed in the late 15th century. Dr. Basil Cottle, who is himself of Welsh birth, tells us that the official was Richard Amerik, one of the chief investors in the second transatlantic voyage of John Cabot, which led to the famous navigator receiving the King’s Pension for his discoveries.
John Cabot landed in the New World in May 1497, becoming the first recorded European to set foot on American soil. As far as Amerik’s Welsh connection is concerned, the word “Amerik” itself seems to be derived from AP Meuric, Welsh for the son of Maurice. (The later was anglicized further to Morris). There was a large Welsh population in Bristol in the late 15th century.
4. Pennsylvania is not named after William Penn.
Most Americans are taught that Pennsylvania, one of the earliest American states to be settled by Europeans, was named after the Quaker William Penn or his father, Admiral Penn. It is not so. Had William Penn, the Quaker leader, not ignored the advice of his secretary, the new colony would have been called New Wales.
In the late 17th century, many Welsh emigrants braved the horrors of Atlantic passage to flee religious persecution. The Welsh Quakers, in particular, sought lands where they could practice their own form of religion and live under their own laws in a kind of Welsh Barony. One of their leaders, surgeon and lawmaker Dr. Griffith Owen, who came to the colonies in 1684, induced William Penn to set apart some of his land grant for the settlement. The project envisioned as a kind of “Holy Experiment,” involved an oral understanding with William Penn and the Society of Friends (a pact made in England before the Welsh sailed to the New World). The oral understanding set aside 40,000 acres of land (some sources give 30,000) in what is now south-eastern Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, this agreement was never put into writing and later became a source of bitter controversy between Penn and the Welsh Quakers.
5. St. Patrick was not an Irishman.
On March 17th, when St. Patrick’s Day is widely celebrated in so many communities in the United States (where much more fuss is made than is found in Ireland), most Americans assume that Patrick was an Irishman. It is not so.
Though Patrick’s birthplace is debatable, most scholars seem to agree that he was born in the area of south-eastern Scotland known as Strathclyde, a former Celtic kingdom and Welsh-speaking at the time. (However, a few scholars continue to regard St. David’s in Pembrokeshire as the saint’s birthplace; the tiny city was formerly directly in the path of missionary and trade routes to Ireland).
6. Wales is not represented on the British Flag.
Wales is an integral part of the British Kingdom, yet it is not represented on the national flag, the Union Jack. The standard of Wales consists of a red dragon on a green and white background. As such, it will not fit easily into the design of the Union flag, composed of the red upright cross of St. George on a white background; the white diagonal cross of St. Andrew on a blue background; and the red diagonal cross of St. Patrick on a white background. This represents England, Scotland and Ireland respectively.
St. Andrew’s cross was added to the English flag in 1707 when Scotland joined the Union. The Union Jack that was flown in the American Colonies before the Revolution does not include the red diagonal of Ireland which was added in 1800 (and which remained after 1921, when Ireland was divided into the Free State and Ulster, or Northern Ireland.
The red dragon of Wales (Y Ddraig goch) goes back a long time, long before the Union Jack was ever put together. As a national symbol for Wales, it predates its adaptation by the Tudors. The dragon is perhaps the very first mythical beast in British heraldry. Legend has Macsen Wledig and his Romano-British soldiers carrying the red dragon (Draco) to Rome on their banners in the fourth century. It was adopted in the early fifth century by the Welsh kings of Aberffraw to symbolize their authority after the Roman withdrawal. By the seventh century, it was known as the Red Dragon of Cadwallader, forever after to be associated with the people of Wales. The ninth century historian Nennius mentions the red dragon in his Historia Brittonum and it was referred to by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae written between 1120 and 1129.
7. A pungent vegetable is the national emblem of Wales.
The leek, a member of the onion family, has a strong smell. On March 1, St. David’s Day, patriotic Welsh and those of Welsh descent, wherever they reside or work, wear a leek on their clothing.
The custom stems from the plant being used by the Welsh as a national badge for many centuries. According to a legend utilized by English poet Michael Drayton (1563-1631), the leek was associated with St. David because he ordered his soldiers to wear it on their helmets in a battle against the hated, pagan Saxon invaders of Britain that took place in a field full of leeks. The poet probably made up the story, but it is known that Welsh archers adopted the green and white colours of the leek as early as the 14th century to distinguish their uniforms (perhaps in the Battle of Crecy.)
A 16th century reference to the leek as a Welsh emblem is found in the Account Book of Princess Mary Tudor. That it was well known as an emblem for Welsh people is also recorded by Shakespeare, who refers to the custom of wearing a leek as “ancient tradition” and whose character Henry V tells Fluellen that he is wearing a leek “for I am Welsh, you know, good countryman.”
8. The Welsh Language is not Gaelic.
Welsh belongs to a branch of Celtic, an Indo-European language. (It was a Welshman in India in the 18th century, Sir William Jones who noticed the similarities between Welsh and Sanskrit and thus pioneered the later research into the families of European languages.) In heavily populated areas of Wales, such as the Southeast (containing the large urban centres of Cardiff, Newport and Swansea) the normal language of everyday life is English, but there are other areas, notably in the Western and Northern regions (Gwynedd and Dyfed particularly) where the Welsh language remains strong and highly visible.
The Welsh people themselves are descendants of the Galatians, to whom Paul wrote his famous letter. Their language is a distant cousin to Irish and Scots Gaelic and a close brother to Breton. Despite being widely spoken in the British Isles at one time, because the Anglo-Saxon conquest was so thorough and took so very long, the native British language was exterminated in many areas and very few words were adopted into English. (Surviving examples are coomb, coracle, eisteddfod, cromlech, Avon, Avalon and a few others.) When a conquest is quickly achieved, such as the Norman Conquest of England, the native tongue survives even if the official language of the royal court and the judiciary changes. This didn’t happen during the centuries of warfare with the Saxon invaders when the native Brythonic language disappeared from most of lowland Britain.
9. The modern Olympics did not begin in Athens.
Ask almost anyone when the modern Olympics began and you will be told that the ancient Greek games were revived in Athens by French Baron Coubertin in 1896. What you most certainly will not be told is that Coubertin was inspired by the events he witnessed at Much Wenlock, a little village in Shropshire, just over the Welsh borders. In 1890, in an article for a Greek magazine, Coubertin stated the following:
Much Wenlock is a town in Shropshire, a county on the borders of Wales, and if the Olympic Games that modern Greece has not yet been able to revive still survive today, it is due not to a Greek, but to Dr. W.P. Brookes. It is he who inaugurated those 40 years ago, and it is he, now 82 years of age, but still alert and vigorous, who continues to organize and inspire them.
The mysterious Dr. W.P. Brookes was born in 1809 in Much Wenlock, remaining there the rest of his life. His efforts as a Justice of the Peace led to the village gaining gas lighting and the railroad. Keenly interested in the idea of physical fitness for the masses, Brookes believed that a rigorous program of physical training would help make better Christians by keeping people out of the taverns. He thought that it would be a good idea to fuse the twin notions of the ancient Greek games with the rural sports practiced by English and Welsh rural classes. His knowledge of the ancient Olympics inspired him with the idea of establishing the Much Wenlock Society for the Promulgation of Physical Culture in 1841.
10. A Welshman invented Lawn Tennis in Wales.
At a meeting of the Cambrian Archaeological Association, London, in August 1887, Colonel Mainwaring made the following statement: “I should like it to be entered on record that the now popular game of lawn tennis was the old Welsh game of Cerrig y Drudion.” The Colonel’s remarks came at a time when lawn tennis was enjoying a tremendous spurt in popularity both in Britain and in the United States.
There had been many games of “the tennis family” before the old Welsh game mentioned by Colonel Mainwaring had evolved into lawn tennis. In France, for example, jeu de paume (the palm game) and in England, real tennis had been played since the late 12th or early 13th centuries. These were indoor games, using a variety of courts, wall or roof surfaces and various rackets and balls. None of them enjoyed the luxury of a ball that could bounce on a hard; grass surface until the mid-19th century when it was discovered in Europe that balls made of rubber would do the trick.

11. Welsh Immigrants began The Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Not the least of the enormous contribution that the people of Wales made to the early growth and eventual success of the latter-day Church of Jesus Christ (the Mormon Church) was that of music, especially choral singing. The world famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir owes much to the efforts of Welsh pioneers in keeping alive the musical heritage of their nation.
Elders from the early Mormon Church found willing converts in Wales when the Overton Branch was formed in Flintshire in the fall of 1840. Other branches quickly spread throughout the principality mainly through the missionary zeal of Captain Dan Jones who had left Wales to settle in the Mormon settlement of Nauvoo. Jones had carried many emigrating Saints up the Mississippi River on a small river steamer The Maid of Iowa during the early 1840’s. Because Jones impressed Joseph Smith with his enthusiasm for the cause and was blessed by the soon-to-be martyred Smith (they shared a jail cell together until one hour before the Church leader was murdered), Jones was given the task of converting the people of Wales. The mission was confirmed in a meeting with Brigham Young and other Church Elders in May 1843.
12. The Prince (Princess) of Wales is not Welsh.
In 1300, King Edward of England made his son, Lord Edward, (born at Caernarfon Castle), Prince of Wales and Count of Chester. Ever since that date these titles have been automatically conferred upon the first-born son of the English monarch. The Welsh people were not consulted in the matter although an entry by an English propagandist in Historia Anglicana for the year 1300 reads:
In this year King Edward of England made Lord Edward, his son and heir, Prince of Wales and Count of Chester. When the Welsh heard this, they were overjoyed, thinking him their lawful master, for he was born in their lands.
The task was made easy, for Edward because of the long inability of the native-born Welsh princes to unite their lands and form a single, unified kingdom. Up to King Edward’s proclamation, in fact, there had been many kings in Wales. However, there had been only five rulers who could justify their claim to be Kings of Wales: Rhodri Mawr (Rhodri the Great); Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good), Gruffudd ap Llywelyn): Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great); and Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (Llywelyn the Last).
13. Golf’s Stableford System was invented in Wales.
For countless millions of golfers the world over, the Stableford scoring system has proved to be one of their greatest blessings. During the last years of the 19th century at Glamorganshire Golf Club in South Wales (founded in 1890), Dr. Stableford was concerned about the then-current scoring system in the increasingly popular game of golf. The good doctor was concerned that, in other forms of scoring, one bad hole could ruin the entire round, so he introduced a much fairer system that reflected the golfer’s complete round, one that would enable him (or her) to recover from a high score on nine or more holes. His new system was announced in a South Wales newspaper that reported on the Golf club’s first autumn meeting held 30 September, 1898. After the scores in the bogey competition were listed, a footnote gave the method of scoring as follows:
Each competitor plays against bogey level. If the hole is lost be one stroke only, the player scores one; if it is halved, the player scores two; if it is won by one stroke, the player scores three; and if by two strokes, the player scores four. To the score thus made, one third of the player’s medal handicap is added. (South Wales Daily News, 30 Sept., 1898)
The new system favoured the better golfers. In 1932, after the stroke index had been introduced, Dr. Stableford re-introduced the system, making only one change: players now added their full handicap to the points they had gained off scratch. Another option was introduced in the same year following a season of heavy gales that heavily favoured the player with the highest handicap. Stableford decided that instead of adding the handicap allowance at the finish, the allowance should be taken at the relevant holes.
14. A Welshman was responsible for 19th century US industrial might.
On the 4 July, 1840, a blast furnace constructed under the management of a recent immigrant from Wales at Catasauqua, Pennsylvania, produced its first run of iron using anthracite for fuel. Thus David Thomas, from Neath, South Wales, showed that anthracite, known scathingly throughout the iron industry as “stone coal” could be successfully used to produce high quality iron.
David’s arrival, at the request of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, couldn’t have come at a better time. For almost two centuries, iron masters had been trying to utilize the vast anthracite coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania with only limited success. The right combination of fuel, furnace size, blast pressure and temperature had not been found; thus enormous sums were paid for imported iron (mostly from South Wales) in an age where the metal was desperately needed to supply the fledgling iron-ship building and railroad industries.
At Ystradgynlais in the Swansea Valley, in South Wales, Thomas had perfected a method that used a hot blast to produce good quality iron from West Wales’s anthracite. Urgently needed in Pennsylvania, and promised a good contract, the 43 year-old iron master sold his property in Wales and with his wife and family embarked on the Roscius at Liverpool to begin a new career across the Atlantic.
15. The Holy Grail is to be found in Wales.
While England enjoys its legend concerning the planting of Joseph of Arimathea’s staff, where it blooms as the Glastonbury Thorn, Wales has preserved an even more wondrous legend connected with the holy man, that of the Grail itself. At Nant Eos (Stream of the Nightingale), not far from Aberystwyth, there stands an old mansion house that was lived in by the Powell family for centuries. In 1876, the Powells put one of their ancient heirlooms on public display. It was a battered, old cup made of wych elm that supposedly came from nearby Strata Florida Abbey at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The relic is a Holy Grail, supposedly made out of the wood of the true cross and brought to Britain by Joseph.
For centuries, pilgrims had been drinking out of this wooden vessel to partake of its healing powers. On display with the cup was a number of paper slips attesting to the cures affected. Last displayed in 1960, the cup was found to have been badly worn with many pieces having been broken off and kept for good luck by those who came to enjoy its healing powers. Having lost its silver rim, placed to protect the cup from damage, the Grail is said to have now lost its miraculous powers.
There is an interesting story connected with the Welsh Grail. It has been told that the great composer Wagner stayed at Nant Eos in 1855, and inspired by the presence of the cup and the legend of the knights who undertook many courageous adventures on the quest to find it, began work on his opera “Parsival”. That the opera was started ten years before Wagner’s visit to the Powell family should not detract those who treasure such legends. As far as the Holy Grail itself is concerned, the cup at Nant Eos has as good a claim as any other.
16. A Welshman co-founded the New York Times.
It is not generally known that the New York Times, that most American of US newspapers, owes it origin to a Welshman, George Jones. Jones was born in the Welsh slate producing area of Poultney, Vermont, the son of an immigrant from Montgomeryshire, Mid-Wales who had married a titled Irish lady at a little Dissenters Chapel (as the Baptists were then known). Orphaned at the age of 13, George worked as a clerk and errand boy for a store owner who published the Northern Spectator, a newspaper that also employed Horace Greeley as a printer’s apprentice. When Greeley established the New York Tribune in 1840, Jones worked with him for a short while but declined a partnership in the paper. His friendship with Henry J. Raymond gave them the idea of beginning their own newspaper.
Raymond became Lt. Governor of New York and Speaker of the Assembly. After a bill was passed that lowered profits on the business of redeeming bank notes, in which Jones had been profitably employed, he and Raymond pooled their resources to found the New York Daily Times, the first issue of which was published on September 18, 1851. Jones was publisher and business manager, remaining with the paper, which became the New York Times, for over 22 years. A highlight of his tenure came when he refused to accept a $5,000,000 bribe to stop publication of documents exposing the Boss Tweed Ring. This led to that crime-organization’s downfall.
17. A Welsh-American invented the first automobile.
One day in 1805, in the streets of Philadelphia, Oliver Evans drove his Orukter Amphibolos (Amphibious digger) down to its intended work site, the Schuylkill River, using his own high-pressure steam engine to power the wheels. The first self-propelled vehicle in the Americas, the monstrous digger, a 17 ton steam-powered dredge, had made its debut, no doubt scaring everyone who happened to be in the vicinity of Market Street and City Hall that day. Though Evans had built his leviathon with the sole intention of dredging the river to make it available for ships, by using its own power to get it to the Schuylkill, he had, in fact, created the first automobile.
Evans was born to a family of Welsh settlers in New Castle County, Delaware in 1755. After an apprenticeship as a wheelwright, he began to experiment with steam power, inventing many laboursaving devices in his flour mills on the Brandywine River. He moved to Philadelphia in 1792 where he manufactured milling machinery and continued his experiments with steam at the same time that Cornishman Richard Trevithick was working on his own engines in Britain. Evans patented his high-pressure steam engine early in 1804, originally intending it for use on waterways, not roads, though he had dreamed of some kind of bus to carry passengers on land. By 1806, he had constructed over 100 steam engines, and, following his example, steam-driven flour mills were rapidly proliferating in the former colonies.
18. The world’s largest second-hand bookstore is in Wales.
Though Wales is visited primarily for its magnificent scenery impressive castles and charming sea-side resorts, the fourth most popular destination, attracting over a million visitors a year, is a little town on the River Wye, appropriately called Hay-on-Wye. A proliferation of book shops has earned the otherwise sleepy little border town the title of “largest second-hand book shop in the world,” for the whole town seems to be one massive collection of books, a bibliophile’s dream.
The whole thing began in the early 60’s when resident Richard Booth opened an antique store in which he also sold some books. The books sold far better than the antiques and soon the clever entrepreneur was buying up every available piece of property in town to store and sell books. He bought the old cinema, the firehouse, the workhouse, a chapel and even the ruins of the ancient castle. It wasn’t long before Mr. Booth began to advertise himself as “the world’s biggest second-hand book seller.” He began to attract attention from book lovers, not just in the nearby urban conglomerations of Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol, but also to eventually draw connoisseurs (and the merely curious) from London and even overseas.
19. Thanks to a Welshman, Britain has no Death Penalty.
On February 17, 1956, the Parliament of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, after a long and often acrimonious debate, voted to abolish the Death Penalty. Even though post war crime rates had been soaring and a new criminal element, not averse to the use of murder as a weapon, was surfacing in British cities. Parliament had been heavily influenced by a single book arguing against the Death Penalty, even for heinous crimes. Michael Eddowes, a well-known criminal lawyer, wrote the book, The Man in Your Conscience. Its subject was a Welshman who, the author argued had been wrongly hanged for murder.
Timothy Evans was born in Merthyr Vale, South Wales, in 1924. He could not read or write and had trouble finding employment. Moving to London with his wife to try to better their lives, he had the misfortune to seek lodging at 10 Rillington Place, North Kensington, an address that was later to become one of the most infamous in the annals of British crime. This was the home of John Reginald Christie.
The police picked up Mr. Christie as he walked over one of the Thames’ bridges one calm day in the summer of 1953. Quiet, unassuming, looking more like a timid bank clerk than one of the biggest mass murderers in British history, Christie had been the subject of a massive manhunt after body after female body had been found in his house in Rillington Place. Three years earlier, Mr. Evans had been hanged on a charge of strangling his wife at the same address. He had bitterly protested his innocence. When Christie eventually came to trial, he confessed to murdering poor Mr. Evans’s wife, one of the victims he had lured into having sex before strangling.
After Christie’s execution on July 15, 1953, the Evans case was raised in fierce debate in the House of Commons. Abolitionists saw in the case their great hopes from success in getting rid of Britain’s Death Penalty, but a parliamentary inquiry; “The Scott Henderson Report” stated that there were no grounds for believing that a miscarriage of justice had occurred in the Evans case. Many considered it a whitewash. A second debate was then called for. It was then that the bombshell of the book appeared. The publication of The Man in Your Conscience began a crusade for justice. The amendment to abolish the Death Penalty was carried by a majority of 31 votes. It has never been restored in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
20. The world’s first mail order shopping began in Newtown, Wales.
Some time in 1859, astute businessman Pryce Pryce-Jones, of Newtown, Montgomeryshire (Powys) began to cater to the needs of many of his rural customers by offering goods for sale through the mail. Many of the area’s farmers lived in isolated valleys or in mountain terrain and had little time or suitable transportation to come into town for their many needs. The Pryce Jones Mail Order business was the perfect answer, especially since the Post Office reforms of the 1840’s had made the mail service cheap and reliable. The Newtown Warehouses, packed with goods, began a service that quickly caught on in the United States, with its even greater distances and scattered population. As we all know only too well from our mailboxes ever bulging with catalogues, mail order shopping was here to stay.




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