cockle and mussel women


Welsh Fisherwomen (probably at Tenby), postcard postmarked 1904







At certain points along the south coast of Wales, especially Penclawdd on the Gower; the Scars near St Ishmaels in Carmarthen Bay and Llangwm in Pembrokeshire, women gathered cockles and carried them home where they were boiled, then sold as food from door to door. They needed warm clothes to protect them from the sea winds, and special hats on which they could carry heavy pails of cockles. Some have said that this costume was influenced by the Flemmings who were settled in the area at the beginning of the 12th century.

Other sea shells were gathered in other part of Wales: SEE cockles and mussels ; pearl gathering ; oyster gathering

The cockle women wore special hats, known as cockle hats, which some people thought should be worn with National Costume, and a felt version is worn by some girls on St David’s day.

There are many 19th and 20th century illustrations of south Wales women in distinctive costumes, gathering, transporting and selling cockles. The practice of gathering cockles (and some other sea food) continued until the end of the 20th century.


Bedgown, full length, front-opening of red and black fabric. No fastenings. Simple design with squares of the same fabric folded into triangles sewn in the armpits and a gore sewn into the side joints, from below the armpit down to the bottom edge. Much repair, badly sewn on where the owner wore a money pouch. One of the patches is of the same fabric as Swansea Museum 1986.86, which is a similar gown. Worn by Lucy Mabel Williams who sold cockles in the old Swansea market ’50-60′ years ago [presumably 1940s].

Swansea Museum 2002.3



Cocklewomen oil painting by William Meredith (1851–1916). Note the blue gowns.This might be north Wales – compare with his painting of 1881 (below)
NLW PE02318


Welsh Fisherwomen, published by Rock and Co, 1853





”no more cockles – Penclawdd”. Photograph by Fox Talbot, of a women dressed in traditional Welsh costume, with large wooden sieve (for the separation of cockles from the sand.) Part of the collection called Native Costumes of Gower.
Swansea Museum SM1896.125.113

Photograph by Thomas Gulliver, 18 Union Street, Swansea, known to be working at this address 1865-1871
The women are wearing cloaks, loose gowns, aprons and ‘cockle’ hats.
published in Stevens, Christine, (2002), Welsh Peasant Dress – Workwear or National Costume? Textile History, 33, 63-78





1861 Swansea
The milk and cockle women too make a pretty sight as they return home after disposing of their goods. They generally march along the road in bare feet, for, though they wear their shoes in the town, they generally doff them as soon as they get to the outskirts. Across their breasts they wear a small red handkerchief, and their dresses reach only to the knee. Their pails, loaded to the brim, and sometimes of great weight, they carry beautifully poised on their heads without swaying their bodies in the slightest degree.
The Bristol Mercury (Bristol, England), Saturday, October 26, 1861



Mussel Gatherers.

Hall, Mr and Mrs, (1861), The Book of South Wales, the Wye, and the Coast, p. 370

The “Langwn Oyster Women” have a peculiar style of dress they may be seen in the streets of Tenby with their “creels” of “panniers” slung behind, straps of leather fastening them over their shoulders. They row their boats in Milford Haven waters, dredge for their oysters, and afterwards walk thence to Tenby to dispose of their delicious little bivalves to the visitors. “Betty Palmer” is to be seen faithfully represented in carte-de-visite and other photographic groups
Allen’s Guide to Tenby, edited by Mrs F.P. Gwynne (W Kent and Co, London, and C.S. Allen, Tenby, [c. 1868], pp. 72-73; 135-136

1870 Llanstephan
Women and children are those generally engaged in the gathering of cockles from the sands, where they are found in plenty. The cockle is a small shell-fish, similar in taste (but more delicate) to the American clam. They are found imbedded some two inches in the sand, their location indicated by two small breathing holes, and in large quantities in North and South Wales, during the hours between low water and the coming in of the tide, some scores of women and children are daily engaged in this business, until their sacks and baskets are filled, when they are thrown across the donkey’s back and driven home to be prepared for market; some unshelled and some shelled, are taken and shipped to the larger towns of the interior. Indeed, I have seen the Welsh cockles figuring largely in the markets of London, Bristol and Manchester, where they are considered an article of luxury.
W, W.E.  [Whyte, William E.; Gwynn, Gwilym Iorwerth] O’er the Atlantic : or, A journal of a voyage to and from Europe: a graphic …‎, (New York, 1870), pp. 87-88
The author was born in Loughor, and spent much of his youth in Llanelli, but emigrated to America.

Painting of Cockle women by C.H. Weigall, c.1875 National Library of Wales, PB5395

{Satirical comment that if women take any notice of the previous week’s report on wearing Welsh costume, Paris will be supplanted by Penclawdd as the fashion centre of the world.}
Cambrian, 6.9.1878, p. 5 (editorial)

Watercolour by Maud Llewellyn, ‘Neat but not gaudy, Gower Cocklewoman’
NMW, St Fagans : 65.184.501, published in Stevens, Christine, (2002), Welsh Peasant Dress – Workwear or National Costume? Textile History, vol. 33, pp. 63-78

Homewards, Conway Marsh oil painting by William Meredith (1851–1916)
Manchester Art Gallery, 1884.13

painting ‘Welsh Cocklewoman‘ by James Flewitt Mullock
Newport Museum and Art Gallery 171288

The cockle women look very picturesque in their short gowns of red and black flannel, which are turned up in front and pinned close under the waist at the back. These gowns display neat, short petticoats of Welsh flannel. Small turnover shawls are worn over the shoulders, and flannel aprons protect the dress in front. On their heads they wear small Welsh hats, suitable for bearing the weight of the cockle pails. … A thick pad, known as a “dorch”, protects both the hat and the head from the pail. These untrimmed hats are of black straw with a fancy edge. They come slightly forward over the forehead and recede on the back of the head where they are turned up and curved. The only head covering somewhat resembling it was the one known as the ‘gipsy-hat’ and bonnet in the old fashion-plates of 1872. The dresses [of the cockle women] are made with short and shaped fronts, disclosing snowy neckerchiefs, and some of the elderly women wear neat white caps under the small Welsh hats.
Marie Trevelyan, Glimpses of Welsh Life and Character (1893), pp. 165-6

1911 Pembrokeshire
In the Welshry, … the language, customs, manners and folklore of the inhabitants are almost identical with those of Cardigan and Carmarthen. … and the dress of the fishwives of Llangwm is highly picturesque with its short skirt, scarlet shawl and buckled shoes.
Hugh Chisholm, The Encyclopædia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and general information, Vol. XXXI

The woman’s steeple-crowned hat of the 17th and 18th centuries long survived in Wales, and has now become the typical national headdress, though its present use may be more of an artificial resurrection than a true survival. (fig. 189)
One of the few places where the Welsh hat is genuinely worn is by the fisher women on Llangwm, in Pembrokeshire, who walk many miles to bring oysters and prawns to Tenby and other neighbouring places (fig. 189). They also wear their old costume on the occasion of Church Festivals. The Carmarthenshire cocklewoman has her underskirt pulled up by a string that passes between the legs (shown in fig 190). It is the traditional manner of arranging their clothing to suit their work …
Includes figs:
185 An Old Welsh Woman (Catherine Thomas?)
189 An Oyster Woman, Llangwm, Pembrokeshire
190 A Carmarthen Cocklewoman
Jekyll, Gertrude, Old English Household Life, some account of Cottage Objects and Country Folk (1925), pp. 137-138

The cockle women of Penclawdd were among the picturesque groups who generally wore Welsh costume (to the great delight of English and American visitors up to the war period, after which the material was not available till three or four years ago.
Phillips, D Rhys, Ancient Welsh and Celtic Costumes, Radio talk, broadcast 8th April, 1927. NLW, D Rhys Phillips, 259 (hand written with many corrections), p. 5

I saw [the Penclawdd cockle women] waiting for the low tide at Penclawdd. … There were, perhaps 200 of them mostly women, young and old. Nearly everyone rode a donkey. At first sight they looked like a Bedouin tribe. They wore their shawls over their heads, bound by a band round the temples. So they protect themselves from the wind … Nearly every woman and girl wore light shoes with rubber soles and black worsted stockings with the feet cut away.
Morton, H.V., In Search of Wales, 1st edn, (1932), 18th edition, 1948

The Welsh hat may yet be worn at Llangwm in Pembrokeshire, where I [presumably S R Jones] remember the fish women, dressed in native costume, dealt largely in oysters and prawns. Cockle gatherers on the east coast and in Carmarthenshire also kept an old tradition in clothing by pulling up the underskirt with a stout string that passed between the legs. This, no doubt, had always been the manner of arranging clothing to suit their work, though a shorter skirt would have been better.
Jekyll, Gertrude, and Jones, S.R., Old English Household Life (1939) p.109

The Cockle Woman by Evan Walters (1893–1951) Parc Howard Museum and Art Gallery
Cockle Woman, Ernst Neuschul (1895–1968), Glynn Vivian Art Gallery

All this means, of course, that the cockle industry has lost a great deal of the picturesqueness and intimacy it once had. A generation ago, the Saturday morning train from Penclawdd to Swansea used to be a colourful sight almost the whole female population of the village would crowd on the platform, dressed in Welsh costume – red and black striped dresses, black and white check aprons, grey plaid shawls and closefitting cockle bonnets, with a starched white frill peeping out from under the brim – and the white cloths over their tubs and baskets would shine like so many fresh mushrooms. After selling their cockles, they would return on the 2.30 train from Swansea and be met at the station by their menfolk, who used to call this the relish train, because there was usually something toothsome bought in Swansea from the day’s takings.There is an old print showing a view of Swansea looking east from Dunvant and in the foreground are some cocklewomen walking to Swansea. This used to be the normal method of getting to Swansea Market, even for some time after the train service started in 1863. They covered the nine miles in bare feet, with the tubs of cockles balanced on their heads. It is probable that the spot between Killay and Sketty known as the Olchfa was given its name by the cocklewomen, because here they used to wash their feet in the stream and put on their boots so as to be respectable for the town. Modern efficiency and commerce have urbanised many a village; but tradition dies hard in Penclawdd and it will be a long time before the streets of South Wales lose their Saturday morning cry of Cockles.
J. M. T., Cockles!, Gower, Vol. 2, 1949, pp. 33-34

But the most appealing and convincing side of the picture of Gower separatism is in the pageant of Gower women who pass through the pages of the travel books in a dress which is not only traditionally but perhaps self-consciously different from the accepted dress of the town community to which they had never quite belonged.Contemporary prints are unfortunately rare, and perhaps if we are talking of typical dress we should disregard Lady Llanover’s late nineteenth century idea of Gower costume. From the travel books there seems to be no doubt at all that the Gower women wore the whittle on most occasions, fringed on one side and fastened in front with a brooch, or earlier with the prickle of a blackthorn, still used in 1840 by the older women. They generally wore jacket and petticoat instead of the longer pais a begwn worn usually in the rest of South Wales. The basic colour tends to be brown, either plain or striped, instead of red or blue.The most interesting diversion is in the straw hat which was the equivalent of the tall black beaver, and here it is possible to add some evidence from a print of 1853. In twelve illustrations of Welsh costume, all described with accurate Welsh captions, it shows four Gower women returning from market each in a different kind of straw hat. None of the four is carrying the tall umbrella which by this time seems to have become almost inseparable from the Welsh costume, although a woman on a donkey used for background only is holding a fearsome umbrella defensively across her body. The market women themselves, bare-footed on a narrow cliff path, evidently gave the artist an impression of sturdiness, independence and dignity. And whoever he was, he was very good at expressing the individuality of his subjects – his group of servants at a hiring is a masterly example of what he can do in this direction.I expect the straw hats came from Swansea, which, in Malkin’s time, had a straw hat trade second in importance to its coal trade and I have wondered if the Gower women of the eighteenth century wore homespuns. There is a curious absence of references to the wool trade in Gower considering that as a race the Gower people must have been pre-disposed to spinning and weaving.The old gentlemen who braved so much to go to Gower went their way, having succeeded undoubtedly in arousing a certain amount of curiosity and understanding which served no useful purpose when the years led inevitably to the rapacious old lady who would undoubtedly have liked to starve out Wales as she did Ireland, had she not decided to try anglicising it instead. In her day Marie Trevelyan was appealing to English travellers not to laugh at Welsh costume, and by the time that gay adventurer Bradley had arrived on his bicycle it had almost disappeared in Gower and elsewhere.Still, there is one story which pleases me as much as it pleased its teller, Benjamin Malkin, who found that Lady Mary Talbot wore a very fine whittle instead of the then fashionable cloak. And other ladies, he adds, were following her example. Malkin made the curious observation that there was feeling, good sense and policy in persons of rank thus identifying themselves with their neighbours and dependents.’ It was a triumph for the women of Gower not to be compared with the much easier triumph of the women in the neighbourhood of Llanover.As an example of pride in local dress and custom this nineteenth century picture of Gower seems to me to be quite remarkable, and one could only wish that it had characterised the whole of South Wales during the early industrialisation.
Rowe, Dilys, It abounds in deep Pits, Gower, Vol. 4, 1951, p. 34

The fashions of these gatherers have changed considerably over the last hundred years. We no longer see the old fashioned Welsh costume with its black and white check aprons, the grey plaid shawls and red and black striped dresses and close-fitting cockle bonnets with a starched white frill peeping out from under the brim, but we do still see the white, starched cloths that cover the cockles in their baskets.
Lloyd, Delyth, The Penclawdd Cockle Industry, Gower, Vol. 35, (1984), pp. 12-25

Gower (Journal of the Gower Society):

Cockle Women (Illustrations),
vol. I, p. 11 ; vol. IV, p. 31 ;

vol. VII, p. 35: Portrait of two women. Said to be by Fox Talbot, 1854 but the Fox Talbot Museum say it is not one of his. It seems probable that the date given in the journal is too early.

vol. XIII, p. 31.
Cockle Women (photo), vol. XXXV, p. 16