The evidence for the end of the Welsh hat as a fashion item and the beginning of its use as a symbol of Welshness, is ambiguous, like much of that for the origin and distribution of the Welsh hat. It is likely that much of it was based on limited experiences of travelling around Wales, but the number of references to the loss of the Welsh hat suggests that its disappearance was mourned, both by tourists (who wanted to see something distinctive) and by some Welsh people – the evidence comes mostly from men.
The evidence suggests that after 1850, the Welsh hat was worn only on special occasions; by women who chose to wear what they were used to and by young women who wore traditional costume when selling their goods at market.
There are a number of references to and illustrations of large numbers of women wearing Welsh hats in north Pembrokeshire and parts of Ceredigion at the end of the 19th century but most of these hats were probably quite old and worn only for special occasions:
Visit of the Duke of Edinburgh to St Davids, 1888
Celebrations to mark the Relief of Mafeking, Aberaeron, 1900
Arrival of the Mauretania at Fishguard, 1909
Most of the women in photographs of the large Pageant Choir for the National Pageant of Wales, Cardiff, 1909 are wearing Welsh hats, but some, like those in the photograph of the women marching in London for the 1911 coronation, were probably made especially for the occasions.
References to the presence and absence of the Welsh Hat after 1850.
the servant girls employed at Aberdare in the fifties were Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire girls, and nearly everyone of them wore the old Welsh tall hat.
Alexander, D.T., Glamorgan Reminiscences (1915), p. 39
The Royal family visited Bangor on the 13th October
The chairman suggested that the women of Wales should appear in their National Costume. Let them wear the hats they had worn so long and not bonnets which were becoming fashionable now (cheers).
North Wales Chronicle (Bangor, Wales), October 8, 1852
It seems that in some parts of Wales, the Welsh hat became unfashionable within a couple of decades of its invention. A contributor to Notes and Queries asked the following:
What are the origins of Welsh Hats? I have consulted bards and scholars … some say we remember the time when women wore ordinary felt hats manufactured from their own wool; one or two travelling hatters occasionally settled at Bangor who made and sold beaver hats. … The fashion is going out: all our young people adopt the English bonnet with the English language. The flat hat with a broad rim is still retained in Mountain regions.
Notes and Queries, vol 5 no 134 (22.5.1852), p. 491
Excursion to Carmarthen on the new railway line
The habits of the people here too were more thoroughly Welsh than at any other part of the line. In all the other stations the high steeple hat of the Welsh females seemed to maintain but a doubtful struggle with the English bonnet confined as the more primitive head-dress was for the most part to the aged women; but at Kidwelly, the station was lined with young and interesting looking females who were all adorned with the high felt hat and the other peculiarities of the Welsh costume as if the authorities had been determined here to make a complete display of the primitive habits and manners of the country.
The Morning Chronicle (London), Monday, September 20, 1852
This seems to coincide with the following letter, entitled ‘Statistics of the Welsh Language’ to the editor of Archaeologia Cambrensis, by W Basil Jones who pleaded with members of the Cambrian Archaeological Association to ask their parish priests to tell them the extent of the use of Welsh and English in their parishes in order to gather information for a survey of the use of the languages. He appended a note: ‘A year or two since, in passing through the village of Llanover, I was much interested to find that the ancient use of the Welsh hat, although unknown for many miles around, was invariably preserved among the women. I cite this as an illustration of my meaning when I speak of the possible isolation of the Welsh language in particular districts.’
The editor of Archaeologia Cambrensis added his own note:
‘There may be causes for the existence of the Welsh hat at Llanover not suspected by our correspondent. [He didn’t give the reason, but this must have been due to the influence of Lady Llanover.] At the present time, the use of the high-peaked hat, and indeed of hats generally, is fast becoming obsolete in the six north counties of Wales and in some districts the head-gear of the women differs in nothing from that used in England.’
On the following page, he added a query:
‘When did the custom of wearing high-peaked hats by women originate in Wales? Did it arise in the time of the Puritans, or, as has been supposed, about 50 years ago. We find, in the plates of the first edition of Pennant, women represented with small low-crowned (Jim Crow) hats, but nothing resembling the peaked hat.’ No answers to this query were published.
Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1855, p. 143-4
According to Sir John Rhys who was born in Cardiganshire in 1840, the Welsh hat was still common in Cardiganshire in the 1860s, but dying out in north Wales
Rhys, John, and Brynmor-Jones, D., The Welsh People, (1900), p. 567
Mr and Mrs S.C. Hall described women’s hats in 1861 as ‘broad brimmed, high and mostly peaked in the crown’ and ‘Of late they have been much displaced by a small closely fitting bonnet cap’.
Hall, Mr and Mrs, The book of South Wales, the Wye, and the coast, (1861), pp. 186-7
Whatever may be the effect of this influx of fashionable visitors on the natives in a moral point of view, the influence on manners and costume is very marked. The once characteristic dress of the women for instance, having disappeared far more entirely than even the language – the large brimmed beaver hat and plain woolsey gown being generally replaced by the universal crinoline and “skimpy” face-pinching bonnet.
Holland, John, Letters from Llangollen (19 letters published in The Sheffield Daily Telegraph with poetry, manuscript notes and many prints) NLW, mss. 16722 D, f. 17-18
The reporter who recorded the visit of Prince Arthur to south Wales noted that Welsh costume, especially conical hats, were more prevalent between Swansea and Haverfordwest, than anywhere else on the route (presumably Cardiff to Swansea), and they disappeared altogether between Haverfordwest and New Milford (Neyland).
Cambrian Newspaper, 4.8.1865
COSTUMES are going out all over Europe; in Spain, Paris bonnets are superseding the mantilla. The Welsh hat and good woollen jacket and petticoat will soon be preserved only in pictures and theatrical costumes.
County Observer and Monmouthshire Central Advertiser, 25 January 1868
Charles New, when touring north Wales with his new wife and a camera, noted that ‘The high hats are now scarce, there is but one in Penmaenmawr where we are now staying, but the head-dress of the central figure is very common; a cap and low hat over it.’ He took a photograph of three women, with two of them wearing tall, conical Welsh hats. (, Charles H. New, [Tour of north Wales] 1871 ‘Wedding Trip’, NLW MS 22021, p. 10 [August 16th, Conway])
The Rev Francis Kilvert recorded that the Welsh hat was going out of fashion in 1871 at Llancatwg, West Glamorgan.
CARDIFF, ROYAL AGRICULTURAL SHOW
From the sea-washed county of Cardigan came the hardy tiller of the soil, … Their wives and families were a not unimportant item in the continuous procession. Dressed in apparel which placed their husbands’ suits of cloth or fustian considerably in the shade, they gave colour to the surging, jostling, bustling, yet good humoured crowd. Here and there might be seen the real Welsh hat—wide brimmed and conical—known now-a-days seldom out of Carmarthen market or at the country fairs, except upon the cups and note headings which purport to portray Welsh national costume.
Cardiff Times, 20 July 1872
1873 Borth, Ceredigion
By Jove! there is a woman in a Welsh hat. One of the real old-fashioned sort – true beaver. Before the railway reached Borth, and cheap excursions were instituted, these hats were not such a rare sight as they are now; but the last five or six years have witnessed their almost total extinction, and a bad exchange has been made for tawdry imitations of modern bonnets, in which the Welsh maidens do not look half so comely as formerly.
Davies, G. Christopher, Mountain, Meadow, and Mere : a Series of Outdoor Sketches of Sport, Scenery, Adventures, and Natural History, 1873, p. 212 This originally appeared in ‘The Field’ (no date)
It is now only occasionally that one sees the women wearing the long stove-pipe hat, although we saw some.
Post, Loretta J., Scenes in Europe: or, Observations by and Amateur Artist. (Cincinnati, 1874), p. 40
Merthyr streets has lost one of its most picturesque class of frequenters. The fact was that the tall Welsh hat is obsolete.
Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), March 9, 1875
1880 Holyhead market
‘C’est le jour du marché, et toutes ces femmes jeunes ou vieilles y sont venues, le chef couvert d’un énorme bolivar [From Spanish meaning top hat with wide brim.] en feutre noir, dont la forme ressemble à s’y méprendre à un vase de jardin dont le bord serait évasé comme celui d’un sombrero espagnol. Voilà pour la coiffure des jeunes femmes qui posent ce vilain ornement sur leur chignon tressé. Les vieilles, soit pour « cacher des ans l’irréparable outrage » soit pour remédier à l’absence des cheveux, ont ajouté une coiffe, sous ce tromblon excentrique.// Le vêtement ordinaire de cette population féminie est également noir.’ (It is market day, and all the women, young and old, have come, their heads covered in enormous top hats in black felt, whose shape you could be forgiven for mistaking for a garden vase [flower pot ?] with an opened out rim like that of a Spanish sombrero. That is the hairstyle of the young women who place this ugly ornament on their plaited bun. Old women, either in order to hide the ravages of time or to make up for lack of hair, have added a headdress under this eccentric hat.// The usual clothes of the women are also black.)
M., R. “Un Marché au pays de Galles.” Journal des Voyages 6 (Jan.-July 1880): 408, 410
Kindly translated by Heather Williams
On Friday evening the very sudden death took place of a woman named Mary Davies, aged 52, a stall keeper in the market, at Merthyr. … Mrs Davies was well known in the town as the only woman who wore the characteristic Welsh hat in the market.
Cardiff Times, 5 March 1881
Wirt Sikes, (1836-1883, American Consul in Cardiff, 1876-1883) reported that Welsh hats were then rare in Merthyr Market and describes one of the few that he found being worn by a young woman as being like new, but was told that it was ‘some years’ old. Later he found two old women wearing Welsh hats which he thought must have been as old as the wearers.
‘… the Welsh woman’s hat – that quaint Old-Mother-Hubbard hat which these women alone of all the world have continued to wear throughout the changes of fickle fashion. This hat is undoubtedly very ugly, but – thus does a modern Welsh bard poetise on the subject: –
Men buy their hats all kinds of shapes,
Our own Welsh women change theirs never;
‘Tis with their hats as with their loves-
Where fancy rests the hear approves,
And, loving once, they love for ever.
Still, it is very clear that the Welsh woman’s tall beaver hat is doomed. The pressure of modern taste in dress is too strong to be resisted, and year by year the tall hat gives way. The lamented comedian Charles Mathews, [Charles James Mathews, 1803-1878 who lived and worked in north Wales 1825-1826], in a conversation at my house in Cardiff shortly before his death, said to me that fifty years ago, when he made his first visit to Wales, all the women wore the tall hat. Now, according to my own observation, it is worn only by the farmers wives and daughters in the rural shires, and only by the maturer ones even among them. I have rarely seen a very young face under a beaver, though comely ones of middle age have frequently been encountered. In Cardiganshire some of the women wear a peculiar cloak-hood, and when, in a shower, this is thrown, as it sometime is, over the tall hat, the effect is something prodigious. The hat, being a matter of a foot high, and as solid as a chimney pot, covering it with the cloak-hood gives the wearer the appearance of having a balloon on her head.’
Sykes, Wirt, Rambles and Studies in Old South Wales, (1881); (Facsimile reprint,1973), pp. 50-52, 216, 250; The Wild Welsh Coast 100 years ago, based on an article by Wirt Sikes, published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, (1883), republished by Thames and Hudson, 1985, including original engravings. [The poem was also published in Bye-gones, Sept, 1882, p. 121 asking who wrote it.]
‘Twenty years ago, the Welsh Market women at Aberystwyth were giving up the old steeple-crowned hats which had come down to them from their grandmothers, because the English visitors laughed at them’.
St James Gazette, quoted in Byegones, 29.9.1886, p. 139
This is confirmed by a story associated with one of the Welsh hats in Ceredigion Museum. Mrs Edwards, the owner of the hat, was taken by train by her daughters to the local town as a special treat. She wore this hat, but when they arrived, some boys asked whether they were going to the races. Another asked where the races were and another said ‘Around the brim of the old lady’s hat’. She was so upset that she immediately went into a shop and purchased a bonnet and never wore the hat again. The hat is now in Ceredigion Museum, 2001.41.1
How fast these not unpicturesque pieces of female headgear have disappeared! At St. Dogmael’s, on the borders between Cardigan and Pembroke, where we spent a holiday some thirty years ago, nothing else was in fashion with young or old, and it was a really pretty sight to see the apple-cheeked maidens wearing these high beaver cones over clean, ribboned caps, crossed shawls, flannel aprons, and low shoes, tripping it to church or chapel on a Sunday. Where these hats have disappeared to nobody know: They are nearly as extinct as the great pleiosaurus. Occasional specimens may probably still be found at Llanover or in Swansea Market of a Saturday.
Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), Friday, September 30, 1887
There was a novel and exceedingly quaint competition in spinning with the wheel, the competitors to be dressed in Welsh costume. Nine competitors came forward who for the most part were dressed in full Welsh costume including the now rare sugarloaf hats and each of the ladies was of about 70 years of age.
North Wales Chronicle (Bangor, Wales), August 27, 1887
BARMOUTH. CHRIST CHURCH BAZAAR. A department of the bazaar which was very interesting to English visitors was a Welsh kitchen presided over by Dame Ann Davies, who is eighty-two years of age and one of the few who now habitually wear the Welsh hat. The kitchen was fitted up with the usual dresser, settle, table and chairs, and contain spinning wheels, rush lights, hour glasses and other household appliances in use in the good old days when George the Fourth was king.
Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, 14 August 1891
‘The tall beaver hat is still worn by some of the prettiest and most handsome women of the Principality’ in West Wales.
Marie Trevelyan, Glimpses of Welsh Life and Character (1893), p. 167
A Merthyr man … is hopelessly wrong in saying the old Welsh hat has disappeared. If he will run down to Llanelly on a Thursday he will see in one corner of the butter market one of the dearest and best looking old Welshwomen in the world, and she is never without her tall hat and white-curled cap.
Evening Express, 28 November 1894
It is said at Beddgelert that after every tourist season is over, the good lady who sits in front of the Goat Hotel, admirably got up in a tall Welsh hat and picturesque dress, relegates these adornments to a place of safety, and appears amongst the neighbours in ordinary garb.
Weekly Mail, 8 June 1895
The baroness [Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, 1st Baroness Burdett-Coutts (1814 – 30 December 1906), step grand-daughter of Harriet Melon, Duchess of St Albans] was not unknown in South Wales. Some years ago she visited a friend at Burry Port, and during the week she drove to Llanelly to see the famous Thursday market, where she admired the last Welsh costume and Welsh hat worn by one of the butter women.
Weekly Mail, 5 January 1907
It was said that Mari Jones of Llanycil cottage, caretaker of Llanycil church (Penllyn, Merionedd) was the last person to wear the National Costume daily. Corwen Times, 26.12.1980 but the attendant at the smallest house in Conway still wears one.