Elias Owen was the vicar of Efenechtyd between 1881-1892, and in that time collected an abundance of customs and traditions that reflected both his local community and that of the wider area of the Vale of Clwyd. Many of them would have been familiar to rural communities throughout Wales and probably the British Isles. They may have varied to some extent, but the core of them would often be the same. Owen was concerned as to the disappearance of many of these customs, largely since they seemed to bond a community together in a variety of ways that enabled a village to live and work together in relative harmony. He saw how the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of the Vale of Clwyd was slowly breaking down these traditional ties, and mourned their loss. Given that he was writing over one hundred years ago, are we less today for their passing, and should we try to maintain these customs?
Owen gives us a wonderful insight into a way of life that was, in many cases, already lost to his generation. Much of what he tells us is through conversations he had with his parishioners, some of them very elderly.
The Congregation stands as the clergyman leaves the Church
Owen tells us of a Robert Davies, a nonconformist, but who on attending a Christmas service at St Michael’s stood at the end of the service for Owen to leave first. ‘People do not behave now in church as they did when I was young man,’ he explained. ‘I stood up, as I was in the habit of doing… after the service was over, for the clergyman to leave the church first, but I found the congregation leaving before you had time to come down, and so I followed.’ This practice had disappeared from Efenechtyd for some years, but was still a shock to Davies.
The Passing Bell
During Owen’s tenure as vicar, it was still the custom to ring, ‘the passing bell’ on the evening of the death of a parishioner, and, ‘not as the soul is departing’. There was method to this custom which involved, ‘four pulls, thrice repeated, with a pause between each set of pulls’ to announce the death a young girl, while, ‘five pulls, thrice repeated, with a pause after each fifth,’ indicated the death a young boy. Six, seven, eight and nine pulls repeated three times announced the death of a single man, an unmarried man, a married woman or man. The custom had apparently survived to Owen’s day, although he claims it was not always adhered to, and does suggest that many of the customs that involved the church were as much the responsibility of the community to maintain as the vicar.
The practice of watching the dead through the night had gone from the Vale of Clwyd, but was still practiced in the mountainous areas about the Vale, including Tremeirchion and Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd. The passage from ‘Williams’s Observations on the Snowden Mountains’ in Gwynedd was believed by Owen to be the means by which such customs continued in those areas in North East Wales that continued the practice.
‘When the parish-bell announces the death of a person, it is immediately enquired upon what day the funeral is to be; and on the night preceding that day, all the neighbours assemble at the house where the corpse is, which they call Ty corph, i.e., " The corpse's house." The coffin, with the remains of the deceased, is then placed on stools in an open part of the house, covered with black cloth, or, if the deceased was unmarried, with a clean white sheet, with three candles burning on it. Every person on entering the house falls devoutly on his knees before the corpse, and repeats to himself the Lord's Prayer, or any other prayer that he chooses. Afterwards, if he is a smoker, a pipe and tobacco are offered to him. This meeting is called Gwylnos, and in some places Pydreua. The first word means Vigil; the other is, no doubt, a corrupt word from Paderau, or Padereuau, that is Paters, or Pater-nosters. When the assembly is full, the parish-clerk reads the common service appointed for the Burial of the Dead; at the conclusion of which, psalms, hymns, and other godly songs are sung ; and since Methodism is become so universal, someone stands up and delivers an oration on the melancholy subject, and then the company drop away by degrees.’
Offering on the Coffin
The practice of placing a coin on the coffin, ‘Offrymu ar ch’ was still a common occurrence, in the Vale, as was the custom of retiring to the public house after the funeral (a custom which would not seem to alien to many today). The men would drink beer, while the women had tea, and the cost would be defrayed through the ‘shot gladdau’ or funeral shot, some six pence or a shilling per mourner, that would be given to the innkeeper for the purpose.
Starting the Funeral
The custom of ‘Codi’r corph’, raising the corpse was the tradition of a short service at the start of the funeral, a reading of the Bible, singing and prayer. This may have been performed by the priest or clerk, but has its foundation in ancient times. Owen explains that it was not unusual for this practice to be performed in Efenechtyd in his time as vicar.
Offerings at Funerals
Owen explains how in many parishes there were no burial fees, but rather offerings which could amount to a goodly sum. After the burial service had been performed, the family of the deceased would place a silver coin on the coffin, followed by the rest of the congregation, who would donate a lesser sum, but which depending on the deceased, could end being a considerable amount. It is said that in some cases, the clerk would count and announce the sum collected in an effort to encourage greater charity. The coffin would then be decorated, by a woman before burial.
Commemoration Sunday (Sul Coffa)
On the Sunday after a funeral, Sul Coffa was observed, in which relatives and friends of the deceased attend a service at the church. It was customary for the relatives to first proceed to the grave of the deceased and to remain in contemplation for a while, although the ‘pader’ was also said in some parishes. In some cases planks were laid for the convienience of mourning, and it was known to have kneeling stones placed, as at Corwen.
Owen tells of the celebration of Efenechtyd’s patron saint, St Michael, which he claims used to be the most important annual event in the parish. So important in fact, that a meadow called, ‘Gweirglawdd Mihangel’ or Michael’s Meadow was so called for the festivities. The celebrations would begin on the Sunday before the Saint’s day, and the whole parish, dressed in their finest, would attend. The celebration would last for days, at least until the following Friday, and would involve ‘Dancing, singing with the harp, trials of strength and agility, and other manly sports’, all of which would continue in the early hours. The parishioners would often cultivate and wear the Michaelmas Daisy, otherwise known as, ‘Blodau Gwylmabsant Nechtyd’, for the festival and strangers would be given the flower to wear. One of Owen’s parishioners, a Mr Lewis Jones remembered that his mother would declare the festival approaching with the word, ‘Look, Lewis, the wakes are approaching, for see the saint’s flowers begin to blossom’.
The following story is quoted from Owen, since he tells it better than I ever could,
'Mention has been made of wearing new clothes at the feast. In connection with this custom Evan Davies, wheelwright, of Brynllan, Efenechtyd, an old but hale man, told me the following story:
Samuel Hughes, Tydraw, tailor, who was always unusually busy about Michaelmas, remembered, on the Saturday previously to the wakes, that he had forgotten to make a pair of breeches for John Williams, of Pen-y-giaig. He thought that if he worked through Saturday night he could finish the garment, keep his word, and retain a good customer. This he did, but early on Sunday morning he was disturbed by his neighbour, who, hearing a noise in his house, thought that instead of striking file, flint, and tinder, she would procure a light from Samuel. So Nancy Jones opened the door, and was horrified to find Samuel hard at work with his needle on the Lord's Day. However, as she had come for fire, this she asked Samuel to give her, and he, without stirring from the table on which he was seated, told her to take as much as she liked. Just as Nancy was shutting the door, she said, looking towards the tailor,
'Sam, Sam, the Lord will pay you for this work."
"No, he won't," was Sam's rejoinder, " I am not working for Him."'
The grave of Samuel Hughes is still to be seen by the east wall of the church. Owen laments the loss of the celebration, largely from its ability to bring the entire village together, but felt that the ‘merry-making’ had gotten out of hand, and was taking away from the religious observance of the Saint’s Day.
Within the Vale, three manly qualifications were venerated, those of, ‘Bywgiowgrwydd, Nerth, a Synnwyr’ or, Liveliness, Strength and Skill. All games were supposed to cultivate these three qualities. These games would take place on various festivals and holidays, of which there seems to be many more than today.
Within the Church by the font is a relic of these games, the Maen Camp, or the Feat Stone. The strongest of the parish would compete to first lift, then throw the huge stone backwards over their heads. Whoever threw the stone the furthest was the winner. There are several of these stones still existence, though the Efenechtyd stone is the only known example in North East Wales.
There was also a tradition of fighting within the churchyard, perhaps, as in the prevalence of cock fighting in certain parts of the churchyard, through the belief that the consecrated ground would bring fairness to the conflict. The same Lewis Jones that told Owen of the Blodau Gwylmabsant Nechtyd, also told Owen of a fight that left a young man dead.
‘When told that his son had been killed, the father inquired whether he had shown the white feather. " Oh, no," said the man; " he died fighting." " Well," said the father, " what matters it, since he has died like a man!’
While this is shocking, and indeed Owen was appalled, he also tells another tale of the predilection to fight,
‘A young brave of well-known mettle was challenged by another to a fight. He refused, but a little while afterwards, walking with his companion, he reminded him of this challenge, and told him that they would there and then have it out, at the same time giving his reasons for in the first instance refusing the combat. His companion was anxious to avoid the conflict, but he was told that this was impossible; so they proceeded to a field, and stripped for the onslaught. A long, fierce fight followed, but at last the man who had challenged the other lay on the ground unable to move. When requested to get up to resume the battle, he said he could not.
"Then," said the other, "you give in."
"Yes, I give in."
"Then let's go home", and, suiting the action to the words, the conqueror put on his clothes, and started away.
The man on the ground shouted out, "You won't leave me here all night" Upon which his antagonist returned, assisted the man to dress, and, as he was unable to walk, carried him on his back a long distance to his home.’
Many of these customs had disappeared by the time Owen was vicar at Efenechtyd some died soon after his removal to Llanyblodwell in Shropshire. Some of these customs no doubt would have been un-mourned by many, but Owen felt strongly that these customs were as much about a community spirit as superstitions.