The Welsh hat may have developed from a number of types of men’s hats which were worn by many working rural women in Wales from at least the 1770s until the 1830s, including the tall riding hat (sometimes called an equestrian hat) with a narrow, curved brim, which gentlewomen and ladies wore when riding. It is this type of hat which appears in several of the watercolours of Welsh costume thought to have been commissioned by Lady Llanover, for example, print no. 1 girl from part of Gwent and print no. 10 girl from part of Gwent
Silk hats with large soft crowns and stiff brims were made from the 1780s and quickly became popular during the early 19th century. They were lighter and smarter than felt hats.
Buck, Anne, Dress in Eighteenth Century England, p. 126
An example of a tall cylindrical felt hat worn by women is shown in a portrait thought to be one of the Ladies of Llangollen, painted during the 1790s. The silk top hats on the other portrait of the Ladies of Llangollen were added to earlier sketches.
Anon, ‘Lady in a Tall Hat’ watercolour, probably 1790s , Plas Newydd, 1989.1
Pembrokeshire women were said to have worn tall black hats at the French invasion of Fishguard in 1797, but a contemporary illustration suggests otherwise.
In 1778, a Welsh ballad criticising the wearing of tall hats was published in Trefriw (near Bala in north Wales):
Fe ddaeth yrwan o rhw le
Rwy ffasiwn hyll i wlad a thre
Sef clampia bena o grochana
Yn un tyre mawr onte?
Os eiff i pene’n fwy’n lle llai
Ni ddoe nhw un dydd i mewn i dal
Rhaid altrio’r dryse gael lle iw pene
Neu ar i siwrne nhw yno f’ai.
The first three parts of this ballad were written by Ellis Roberts, the fourth by J.W. and E. Owens. Ballad printed by David Jones, Trefriw, 1778; Davies, J.H., Bibliography of Welsh Ballads, (Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1908-1911), p. 111, no 304.
A woman accused of leaving a child in a cart shed was described as wearing ‘a plain riding, or silk hat’.
Hereford Times, following 2nd July, 1785
Thomas Edwards, (‘Twm o’r Nant’, 1739-1810) writing in 1806, suggested that the hats in north Wales were then taller than those in the south:
….at first glance, the aspect of the black hats is ungraceful, particularly in North Wales where they are large and high: in the South they are flatter and the rim rounder and broader, so that they have not so masculine an air…
Autobiography of Thomas Edwards, (1849), translated by Huw Roberts, Llangefni.
An illustration of Captain Skinner’s House, Holyhead, 1828 showing Peggy, a servant from Llanfawr, Holyhead, and Kitty, wife of Shon McCann (on the right) both wearing tall hats. These are very similar to those in the watercolours of costume probably commissioned by Lady Llanover, which have the sides of the hat curved above the ears and the sides of the brims curved upwards. No other illustrations of women wearing this type of hat are known.
Print, NLW PB04523 and oil painting in Holyhead Maritime Museum
Surviving examples of tall felt hats are very rare. One example, which is possibly an early example of a top hat, is in Newport Museum, (NPTMG 37-109). It is 21.5 cms high and was made by Rittson and Lawrence of London, probably early 19th century.
There are many illustrations of women wearing variations of tall hats some of which might also be described as top hats, including the following:
(1) Ibbetson, 1792, ‘Hay Making’ [Wales] (Yale collection)
Ibbetson’s work needs detailed study: it is clear that he used his original drawings made during his visits to Wales in 1789 and 1792 for later studies, and he changed some of the details, noticeably the types of hat represented.
(2) Delamotte, 1820 ‘Mrs Gwyn’, Swansea, (NLW)
Mrs Gwyn was the nurse-maid to the Rolle family of Swansea. They were well off and could afford an expensive hat for their nurse.
(3) WD, ‘The Welsh Coquet, Collection of heads by WD, no 75’, published by Thomas Mclean, 1833
(4) Hugh Hughes, Gogerddan hunt, (NLW) huntswoman
Equestrians soon adopted a form of silk top hat for riding.