‘Welsh Woman and baby, VW, 1854’ Woman in a Welsh hat, holding a baby in a nursing shawl. Photographer: Probably Vivian Webber, Swansea area National Library of Wales photo album 2, no 17
Rock and Co, no 8 ‘Gwisgiadaw Cymreig – Mode of Carying infants’ One of a set of 16 numbered prints dated 1.5.1853.
As in a number of other illustrations, the way the shawl is used to hold the baby is not well represented, but the images often illustrate multitasking very well.
Carrying a baby on the front of the mother in a shawl is known as a Welsh custom, but most all the 19th century illustrations of them (there are few written descriptions) come from south Wales, especially the valleys. The practice continued all over Wales until the 1960s.
There are also several illustrations of women carrying babies in shawls on their backs.
The Welsh term for nursing shawl is siôl magu or sometimes siôl nyrsio (nursing). Magu (occasionally miss-spelled fagu after siôl because some people think wrongly that the m should be mutated) means rearing or up-bringing. These shawls were also referred to a ‘mantle’ and Mrs Beecroft (below, 1827) called it a cloak.
When the week-old Prince George was taken from hospital in 2013, he was wrapped in a shawl. One radio programme reported a listener incorrectly describing those worn in Wales as siôl mamgu [grandmother’s shawl]
Long, rectangular shawls, often with long fringes on all four sides, and normally of light (usually natural) colours, and with a very soft, brushed surface. To make the fabric soft, the material washed in a centrifuge known as a tom-tom, then dried in a wind shed. After that, the shawls were placed in a hot press, around six at a time, then placed in a cold press.
detailed photographs of the process of preparation and wearing the shawl (accessed 30.8.2016)
These large shawls were tied around the waist and one shoulder and used to carry a baby, allowing at least one hand to be free and in some circumstances, especially when the baby was very small, both hands, so that the mother could carry out various tasks including knitting. Other cultures carry babies in shawls, though often on their backs rather than more intimately on their fronts, as south Wales women normally did, but there are descriptions and illustrations of Welsh women carrying their infants on their backs.
It is possible that the nursing shawl was a variation of the whittle which was also used to carry various items.
Nursing shawls were still in use for carrying babies in parts of Wales until the 1960s and 1970s. Members of various women’s groups in Ceredigion who told me that they were carried by their mothers in this way, or carried their own babies in nursing shawls, almost invariably came from south Wales. One woman who came from south Wales to marry a man in Aberystwyth in the 1950s reported that she didn’t adopt this custom because it was not practiced that far north, but when her sister from south Wales, came to visit, she carried her nephew in this way, to the amusement of the townspeople. Another person said that a woman who had recently moved to Bangor from Merthyr in south Wales in the 1970s carried her baby in a nursing shawl and was immediately greeted by a neighbour who was also from south Wales and carried her baby in the same way. At a meeting of WI groups from Denbighshire and other counties in north Wales in 2016 about 10 north Wales women told me that their mother or grandmother used a nursing shawl in the 1950s, 1960s and early 197os, and another said that her parents were familiar with them at Pwllheli in the mid 20th century.Another woman remembered her mother using a nursing shawl in Lancashire in the 1960s.
One woman told me that she remembered seeing men sitting outside their houses in Merthyr on Sundays in the 1960s and 70s holding babies in a siôl magu while their wives, presumably, prepared the Sunday lunch.
Many of the illustrations show the baby being held incorrectly, with only one hand free, possibly because the artist did not fully understand the technique, or because the mother did not wrap the baby in the shawl to enable both hands to be free. Many subjects of photographs were staged and the women are often shown carrying the baby incorrectly. It is probable that the photograph of the girl carrying a baby at the Sengennydd Pit Disaster (below) shows the proper method.
References to and illustrations of nursing shawls
1786 ‘Views in Wales: View up Neath River from the House at Briton Ferry in Glamorgan Shire’ by Paul Sandby (detail). This is an illustration of a woman carrying a baby on her back: they were normally carried on the front.
the streets are filled with dirty, ragged and idle children. The dress is remarkable and similar to that in Pembroke. It consists of a striped flannel petticoat and a brown jacket over it, a blue handkerchief tyed over their heads & a black beaver hat upon that, a large brown, or blue flannel wrapper [whittle] which goes round the waist & over the shoulders & serves the double purpose of a cloak & cradle for one or two children they generally carry at their back; and altogether give them the appearance of the Laplanders as described by Mr Cox in his history of Russia.
Eardley-Wilmot, Sarah, (nee Haslam), National Museum of Wales, Library, Cardiff, MS179554, Between 31.8.1795 and 4.9.1795 typed version, p. 151
1797 Between Aber and Bangor
They wear a jacket and petticoat of a kind of striped linsey; black round hats and a large blue coarse cloak which they fling over their shoulders and seems well adapted for carrying their children in
Vernon, Thomas Shrawley, Denbighshire Archives, NTD.1240, p. 23 (copy of an original in Warwickshire Record Office CR2886)
Watercolour of a woman carrying a baby on her back.
Journal of Sarah Wilmot, (1793-1810), National Museum of Wales I79554
Portrait of Mrs Gwyn, [Swansea] by George Orleans Delamotte, (1788- c.1835), watercolour. It appears that Mrs Gwyn was nurse to the Rolle family who could afford to dress her in the latest fashion of silk hat over a white cotton cap with lappets. She is wearing a red fringed whittle to hold her baby but it is not correctly bound around her shoulder. Some members of the gentry, particularly those around Swansea and Llanover, copied and wore Welsh costumes.
NLW DV271, PB4886
1819 Briton Ferry
Sepia wash painting of Briton Ferry including woman with baby on her back.
Sandys, William, (1792-1874), Sandys, Sampson, (1797-1880) (brothers), ‘Walk through South Wales in October, 1819’
NLW Cwrt Mawr MS393 C, opp. p. 52
The Welsh women have peculiar method of carrying their Babies – by wrapping a long piece of woollen first round the child & then passing it round their own shoulders & doubling it again over the child’s feet. They also ride with their children in this manner. (Anne Porter, Worcestershire Record Office, BA 3940 Parcel 65 (ii) 705: 262 (25th August)
Here the women wore long cloaks over one shoulder and under the other, tied in front with their child carried within. [She also mentions children carried on the backs of their mothers.] (Beecroft, Judith, Tour around Wales during June and July, 1827. Cardiff Central Library, 2.325)
1830s near Bangor
Watercolour of a woman wearing a red siôl magu
NLW Drawing Volume 5, no.7
1834 [south Wales?]
Welsh Costume no 15 by A Cadwallader, in Cambrian Costumes (NLW Drawing volume DV299) consists of a series of 17 watercolours by A. Cadwaladr commissioned by Augusta Hall of women’s costume from some of the shires of Wales. This was one of the portraits which was not published.
She is wearing a red shawl in a similar way to that used for carrying a baby
1835 Tally (Carmarthenshire)
2s 6d to be given to Eliz. Williams to buy a mantle to nurse the parish child with her, and that the same be given to Margaret Williams for the same purpose; these mantles to be given up to the parish should the children die or be removed.
Tally Parish vestry book 1835; Llanllwni vestry book, 1831
Sketch of a woman carrying a baby in a shawl on her back by J C Rowland
National Museum of Wales A 2061
1851 Print, Welsh Fashions, by ?R Griffith
1851, ‘Welsh Costumes’ by H Jones
Watercolour of a group of women waiting at a railway station, one of whom has a baby in a siôl magu
Charlotte Louisa Traherne (fl 1833-1856, the cousin of the photographer William Henry Fox Talbot), ‘Wet day, Narberth Road station’, dated 4th October, 1848, but the station was not opened until 1852, watercolour, NLW DV 24 (album), p. 21
Anon, ‘Merthyr Market twenty years ago’, published in Mr and Mrs Hall, ‘The Book of South Wales, the Wye, and the Coast’ (1861) and in Wirt Sikes ‘On the Taff’, Harpers magazine, February 1877.
Watercolour sketch of Swansea market by E. Hull or Hill, dated 1871 (Copies in Swansea Museum and National Museum of Wales, St Fagans)
1878, Mansel Lewis, (1845-1931), ‘Mother with child’
She had evidently walked miles with that heavy babe in a shawl, Welsh fashion. (Western Mail, June 5, 1895)
late 19th century.
Unidentified young woman, probably a maid servant. Photo by Tom Mathias, Cilgerran
A nursing shawl worn by a young woman at the Sengennydd pit disaster
Postcards of a woman carrying a baby in a siôl magu. One has the background painted out.
1920s Forest of Dean
Mam was only a little woman and the big plaid Welsh shawl her mother had given her nearly enveloped here as well as the baby. She carried the baby in it, Welsh fashion, after the manner of the gypsies who carried their babies as they brought pegs to the door to sell. I think the warm body of the child must act as a recharging battery to the mother’s body. [referring to the early 1920s in the Forest of Dean. Her mother came from the Welsh valleys] (Foley, Winifred, Full Hearts and Empty Bellies, (2009), p. 125)
A family group waiting for news at the pit head following the Gresford Colliery disaster.
1935 Gowerton Fair
Flannel came from Carmarthen and Cardigan manufactories. Flannel 1/- to 1/3 per yard, shirts 5/- to 6/-, quilts 25/- to 30/-, blankets, in pairs, 22/- to 34/-, nursing shawls 12/6 to 15/6, stockings 3/6 a pair
Welsh Gazette. 7.2.1935
Queen Mary’s Welsh Tour. Talks To Mothers At Pontypridd. Queen Mary told Mrs Picton who was nursing her 15 weeks old baby in a shawl, Welsh fashion that she always nursed her children in that way. (The Times, 8th April 1938; p. 11)
1950s, Sunday School, Capel Mair, Cardigan.
There are two women in this group wearing siôl magu, one in the foreground and the other on the extreme right.
There are at least two photographs of black women who lived in Tiger Bay, Cardiff, using a siôl magu to carry their babies