Hidden Heroines: The story of Wales' first 'agony aunt' who created generations of writers

  • ITV Wales' Andrea Byrne spoke to Professor Jane Aaron about Cranogwen

In the St Carannog Church located in Llangrannog, Welsh educator and writer Jane Aaron talks about Sarah Jane Rees' life story and how she managed to "create a generation of writers".

Better known by her bardic name Cranogwen, she was a pioneer in many fields – from poetry to journalism. She defied the restrictions of Victorian womanhood to enjoy a ground-breaking career rich in experiences, achievement and adventure.

When asked about how she did this, Jane said: "Well, she was born here in Llangrannog, not to a wealthy family at all. She was largely the inspiration of the Llangrannog community at the time, which led her to become such a renowned figure later on.

"Llangrannog was a fishing village, most of the months of the year, the men would be at sea most of the time. So, the community is run underpowered by women and Cranogwen noticed that."

Cranogwen's statue was unveiled last year on 10 June in Llangrannog. Credit: Molyneux Associates

Cranogwen's first claim to fame was as a master mariner.

As a little girl, she was determined to live a less conventional life. Her parents wanted her to be a dressmaker but she persuaded her sea captain father to take her on board ship.

Talking about her childhood Jane said: "By the time she had got to school, the very few books she had, she knew all of them by heart. She gets her father to take her on as a crew on his small ship and that's what she does for the next three years as a crew sailor."

In 1865 her writing skills turned her into an instant Welsh celebrity as she won a poetry prize at the National Eisteddfod – beating major male Welsh poets of the day, Islwyn and Ceiriog.

Jane said: "She trained to become a master mariner, and she then at the age of 21 became a headteacher. She had extraordinary achievements as a writer at the Eisteddfod.

"She won some local competitions. One reviewer says- This is amazing! Can't quite believe it. If she is really good then we should see her winning at the National Eisteddfod stage. So you see.. that kind of incentive."

She added: "Next summer she is up there on the National Eisteddfod stage having won a poetry competition, and beaten the main poets of the period. So, instantly she is famous.

"She is a celebrity in Wales because everybody wants to know more about her and so she has become a public lecturer, because of this pressure she can benefit from hearing her talk on a larger scale."

The unveiling of the statue was a creative and ambitious celebration that echoed elements of Cranogwen's many innovative achievements. Credit: Molyneux Associates

When asked what was her poetry like, Professor Jane said: "She published an 1868 collection of poems- The Songs of Cranogwen. They are about sailing disasters. The actual one that won the prize was called 'The Wedding Ring'. But also the book by now is best known because it includes a love poem to a woman.

"So, she was forging this path in all sorts of ways against what the norms of society were at that time. But that wasn't the end because she travelled to America. She took her message to an international level."

She added: "Cranogwen got lots of invitations to go to America. The message being largely everybody male or female needs to discover their talents. Develop them through education, and use them for the benefit of the community. That is the way they will find happiness. That is their purpose on earth. But it is the same for women as for men. "

In 1879 Cranogwen became the first woman to edit a Welsh-language women’s magazine – Y Frythones, a role she relished for more than 10 years.

Packed with stories, poems and features, it campaigned for girls’ education and even had a problem page, calling her an 'agony aunt', Jane said: "She includes a problem page as the first Welsh agony aunt and the questions she gets over and over again are about women's roles. Is it right a woman should be a preacher? Is it not a woman's destiny to marry and have children and nothing else?

"These questions coming over and over again. She's always replying to the same kind of message- It is a loss for anybody not to be who they are. It is a loss for you and the society if you cannot use your talents. It is the folly of them that has created this extreme gender role polarisation that confines women to the domestic sphere alone."

One of her most progressive ideas was a refuge for young women. She didn’t live to see this dream of a house for homeless girls being built but the shelter Llety Cranogwen was opened in her memory in Tonypandy in 1922.

Cranogwen's statue was unveiled on 10 June 2023 in Llangrannog near the St Carannog Church where she was buried. Credit: Molyneux Associates

When asked what would Cranogwen make of the statue? Jane said: "Well, I do like the expression on the statue's face. It's very earnest, isn't it? It's ardent and earnest. I think she would have appreciated that. She was never personally looking for fame at all. She certainly would have liked that the statue is in her home village.

She has become a big part of your life as you've studied her and researched about her.

"The impressive part is in that magazine, she created a lot of women authors. That's an inspirational factor. She is always saying- Come on women, send me your stuff please and she managed to create a generation of writers that never really existed before.

When asked what advice would Cranogwen have for women if she were alive?

Jane said:"Respect yourself fully and observe others to find out what your particular skills are.

"Owen Edwards who was a leading cultural figure in Wales at the time, says: 'Cranogwen had a mission and a noble aim and she succeeded. No one has done more to improve the intellectual confidence, self-respect and usefulness of the woman of Wales than Cranogwen.' I think that's true and I think she well deserves to be a monumental Welsh woman."

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To know...