If you live in Wales you cannot have missed the fact that this past week the BBC have (quite rightly) been celebrating Hidden Heroines – the monumental Welsh women from history whose incredible achievements helped shape modern Wales.
There is a reason for this celebration. There is currently no outdoor statue of a woman in the capital city of Cardiff. But all that is going to change. A shortlist of five inspirational Welsh women from history was drawn up from an initial long list and voting is currently open online to see who will who will be the first real women to be immortalized in an outdoor statue in Cardiff.
Choosing one person was never going to be easy. There are literally hundreds of famous Welsh Women from history – here’s my top ten!
- Bridget Bevan aka Madam Bevan – Educational Reformer and Public Benefactor
Bridget Bevan (1698-1779) was chief supporter of rector Griffith Jones and his system of circulating schools. The Circulating Welsh Charity School system moved from village to village and fostered education for children and adults throughout Wales, in the Welsh language. Much of Madam Bevan’s considerable wealth poured into these free schools, and she even ended up managing the project for 18 years.
Between 1736 and 1776, 6,321 schools were founded and 304,475 scholars taught.Wales achieved one of the highest literacy rates in Europe. News of the schools’ success even reached the ears of Catherine the Great in Russia, who ordered her ministers to make enquiries.
- Lucy Thomas – Pioneer of the Welsh Coal Industry
Lucy Thomas (1781-1847) is also known as the mother of the Welsh coal trade. Lucy took over the running of her husband’s business when he died in 1833. He had discovered a rich coal seam in Merthyr but Lucy turned it into one of the most successful mines in Wales.
It was seen as acceptable for a widow to continue her husband’s business, but Lucy still had to fight a lot of misogyny along the way. She once attended the coal exchange in Cardiff only to be told she could not enter. She sent a male clerk into the exchange with a letter informing the establishment ‘My coal is equal to any mans, failure to grant entry will lead to my business lining another’s pockets’. You go girl!
Although Lucy couldn’t read or write, she had a great head for business – she was the first person to export steam coal from Wales. By the time of her death in 1847, she’d increased the worth of the business to over £11,000.
3. Margaret Mackworth, 2nd Viscountess Rhondda –Welsh peeress, business women and activist
Born Margaret Haig-Thomas (1883-1958), she is Wales’ most famous suffragette. In her youth Margaret brought Emmeline Pankhurst herself to Wales, confronted Prime Minister Asquith by jumping on his car AND set fire to a post box – all in the name of equality!
Margaret also did her bit for the war effort. In the First World War she ensured women played a vital role, recruiting them into the women’s services. She rose to become Chief Controller of women’s recruitment at the Ministry of National Service in London. She even survived the sinking of the Lusitania when it was torpedoed during the war, claiming more than 1,100 lives.
She was the greatest global businesswomen of her era. She sat on the board of 33 companies, chairing seven of them, and oversaw an industrial empire of mines, shipping and newspapers. She also became the first and only female to be President of the Institute of Directors.
And Lady Rhondda is the reason women of today can sit in the House of Lords. She campaigned for female peers for 40 years – though sadly she died before the law she fought for was changed.
(P.S. If you fancy learning more about this remarkable woman, check out the guest post about her I wrote for the Queens Podcast blog.)
4. Katheryn of Berain – Welsh Noblewomen
Also known as Mam Cymru or Mother of Wales, Katheryn was born in 1535 to Tudur ap Robert Vychan of Berain, Denbighshire and his wife Jane (who was the daughter of Sir Roland Velville – an illegitimate son of Henry VII himself!)
Katheryn is important in Welsh history due to her four marriages and her extensive network of descendants and relations. She is the ancestress of several notable Welsh families who have played important parts in the history of Wales and Britain.
Her first husband was John Salusbury (yes, that same Salusbury family as William Salusbury, who translated the bible into Welsh). Their first son Thomas was executed for his involvement in the infamous Babington plot, which sought to replace Elizabeth I with Mary, Queen of Scots.
She then married Sir Richard Clough, rich merchant and spy for Elizabeth I. They married in 1567 and in the same year Richard built them the first ever brick house in Wales. After Richard’s death 12 years later marriage to Maurice Wynn of the Wynns of Gwydir swiftly followed (the Wynns went on to hold important roles in the court of Charles I).
Katheryn’s fourth and last husband was Edward Thelwall. But her legacy lives on in her VERY extensive network of descendants.
5. Gwenllian ferch Gruffudd – Princess Consort of Deheubarth
Gwenllian (c.1100-1136) was the daughter of Gruffudd ap Cynan, prince of Gwynedd, who married Gruffydd ap Rhys of the ancient Welsh Kingdom of Deheubarth shortly after 1116.
At the opening of the great Welsh uprising in 1136, she led an attack on the Norman fortress of Kidwelly, in her husband’s absence. She was captured fighting and was executed (even though she was a woman). The spot where this happened is still known as Maes Gwenllian to this day.
This is the only known example of a medieval period woman leading a Welsh army into battle. Her story became almost legendary and for centuries after her death, Welshmen cried-out’ Revenge for Gwenllian’ when engaging in battle. Her patriotic revolt and murder sparked several further uprisings.
Forget about Xena Warrior Princess – it’s all about Gwenllian Warrior Princess!
6. Lady Charlotte Guest – Aristocrat and translator of The Mabinogion
Charlotte Guest (1812-1895) was an aristocrat and wife of Welsh ironmaster Josiah John Guest. He ran the vast Dowlais Iron Company that became the largest ironworks in the world.
Lady Charlotte has a highly intelligent and educated women. Her most significant translation work was what we now call ‘The Mabinogion’. She translated into English the 11 stories along with the Tale of Taliesin. This is even more impressive when you consider she had to learn Middle Welsh from scratch to do this!
Her translation was the only English version of this Welsh prose masterpiece until the mid 20th Century. The Mabinogion is a cornerstone of Welsh culture, identity and language – and the importance of Lady Charlotte’s work cannot be overstated.
7. Megan Lloyd-George – Welsh Politician
Megan Lloyd George (1902-1966) was more than just the daughter of one of Britain’s great Prime Ministers. She was a political hero in her own right.
Megan may have grew up in Downing Street but her mother gave birth to all her children in Wales to make sure that they were Welsh-born, and Welsh was always the language of the home.
In 1929, Megan Lloyd George campaigned successfully (in Welsh, as she always did) constituency of Anglesey and joined her father and brother in the House of Commons, becoming Wales’ first ever female MP. She also went on to become Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party.
In 2016 she was named one of the 50 greatest Welsh men and women of all time.
8. Emmeline Lewis Lloyd – British alpine mountaineer
A personal fave of mine as she only lived down the road from me, Emmeline Lewis-Lloyd (1827-1913) was a true trailblazer and pioneer.
Emmeline and her friend Isabella Straton were two of the rare women who climbed the Alps and Pyrenees in the 1860s and 70s. In fact, it is believed that Emmeline was the second ever female alpine mountaineer in Europe (after Lucy Walker of Liverpool).
Isabella was the eighth women to climb Mont Blanc. In 1870 she and Isabella became the first women to climb Monte Viso and the following year they made the first ascent of Aiguille du Moine near Chamonix. The summit is at an altitude of 3,412 m and it requires climbers to abseil on the descent. And Emmeline did it all in a skirt and crinoline!
9. Frances Hoggan – Welsh doctor
10. Sarah Jane Rees aka Cranogwen – Master mariner, teacher, poet
I think it’s fair to say that there’s little Sarah Jane Rees (1839-1916) couldn’t do.
Her first claim to fame was as a master mariner. Born in Llangrannog, she accompanied her sea captain father on ship. She went on to gain her master mariner’s certificate – a qualification that allowed her to command a ship in any part of the world. Back in West Wales she became a head-teacher at the tender age of 21, educating the children of the village, and also taught navigation to local men.
In 1865 her immense writing skills meant she became the first woman to win a major prize at the National Eisteddfod of Wales. Writing under the name of Cranogwen, her winning poem Y Fodrwy Briodasal (The Wedding Ring) was a satire on the married woman’s destiny.
So who is your fave Welsh women from history? Let us know in the comments below.
P.S. While you’re here, why not check out my other posts about Welsh history?