Situated in the Welsh village of St Fagans is an open-air museum devoted to the historical lifestyle, culture, and architecture of the Welsh people. Since opening in 1948, St Fagans National Museum of History (Sain Ffagan Amgueddfa Werin Cymru) has re-erected more than forty buildings from various locations and periods in Wales.
Welsh poet Iorwerth Peate (1901-82), also known as Cyfeiliog, envisaged the open-air museum after visiting Skansen in Sweden, the world’s largest and oldest outdoor museum. The Earl of Plymouth donated St Fagan’s Castle and the surrounding lands for the project in 1946, allowing the museum to open to the public in 1948 under the name of the Welsh Folk Museum.
Although St Fagans National Museum of History opened at the end of the 1940s, it took years to develop into the extensive visitor attraction it is today. Initially, the museum focused on rural life, but in the 1980s, it changed direction. With Wales’s industrial heritage under threat, St Fagans began purchasing and relocating important examples of Welsh buildings, such as ironworkers’ cottages and buildings from coal-mining valleys. Since 2015 with the opening of an archaeology gallery, St Fagans tells the story of Wales from 230,000 years ago until the present day.
The museum contains buildings that demonstrate different styles of architecture but also the varied classes and occupations of the Welsh people throughout the centuries. Notable types of buildings include a chapel, a pigsty, a blacksmith’s forge, a merchant house and a public house. Due to the varying ages of the buildings, St Fagans has become popular with film crews, particularly for period dramas and science fiction films, such as Doctor Who.
Since 2007, St Fagans has been the home of St Teilo’s Church, which was originally located in Llandeilo Tal-y-Bont near Pontarddulais. Since the 12th or 13th century, St Teilo’s Church held regular services, with some attendees travelling by boat across a river to join the congregation. The church remained popular until 1850, after which it only opened in the summer for the occasional service. By the 1970s, the church ceased opening altogether. In 1984, the demolition of the church began, intending to move it to St Fagans, but the project was far from simple.
The interior walls of St Teilo’s Church are decorated with murals, which needed careful preservation before moving to the museum. The oldest paintings date to the 15th century, such as a picture of Saint Catherine. The majority of the images show scenes from the Bible, particularly about the life of Jesus Christ. Other saints also adorn the walls, such as Saint Christopher, who faces the entrance to the building. During medieval times, people believed looking at an image of Saint Christopher could prevent sudden death that day, so passersby frequently peeked into the church to catch a glimpse of the saint.
When St Fagans rescued St Teilo’s Church, it was in a state of disrepair. Rather than attempting to rebuild the church as it looked in the 1980s, archaeologists and architects opted to reconstruct it as it may have appeared in 1530. To do this, they sourced new timbers for the roof and created a new rood screen from Radnorshire oak. King Henry VIII removed the original rood screen following the protestant revolution. After building the walls and roof of the church, artists added the paintings, reworking many of the originals that suffered damage over the centuries.
Some early attendees of St Teilo’s Church lived in houses similar to the Tudor Merchant’s House. The original building stood on a bank near Quay Street in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, before being moved to St Fagans between 1980 and 2012. The reconstructed version resembles the house’s appearance in 1580, although it was likely built a few decades earlier.
The Merchant’s House served as a home and a business premises. A shop stood on the lower floor, beneath which a vaulted cellar stored various goods. The family lived on the upper floor, which only had room for one bed. Any children slept on a large shelf in front of a window.
Haverfordwest was an international port, so it is likely the merchant sold imported goods in his shop. His wares may have included wine, salt, soap, prunes and raisins. The shopkeeper also purchased goods from local farmers, such as corn, wool, woven cloth and dairy products.
Farmers in the 16th and 17th centuries could not afford properties like the merchant’s house. Instead, they lived in cruck houses, such as the one from Hendre’r Ywydd Uchaf near Llangynhafal, Denbighshire, which moved to St Fagans between 1956 and 1962. The walls of the house are built from oak stakes, bound together with wattle and daub. The roof is thatched with wheat straw, but the floors remain bare, and the windows open to the elements.
Records reveal the farmhouse belonged to the Foulkes family from 1663 until 1912. The last family member, Mary Elizabeth Foulkes, died in 1912 without an heir. The family shared the house with their livestock, particularly cattle. Split into three sections, the family lived at one end and used the centre for cooking and eating. Smoke from a cauldron and fire escaped through the open windows because the house had no chimney. The remaining section of the building contained animals when not out in the fields.
Not all farmers were poor, as evidenced by the 16th-century Kennixton Farmhouse from Llangennith in South Wales. The house was rented by the Rogers family from 1610 until their ancestors afforded to purchase it around 1800. Over the years, the family extended the house, thus separating the family rooms from the animals.
The red walls of the farmhouse were originally painted with ox blood as a superstitious method of warding off witches. The re-erected version uses modern red paint, but it gives a faithful representation of the 19th-century appearance. Painting the walls made the Rogers stand out from their neighbours and emphasised their growing wealth.
Visitors may recognise the interior of the house from the BBC drama series Poldark. The rooms were used for scenes inside Captain Blamey’s cottage. The dining room is decorated with stencilled decorations, which predate wallpaper, but the other rooms have plain white walls.
In 1939, the Rogers family moved into a new house and let out the farmhouse. The attached barn, which once housed cattle in the winter, became a garage for tractors. Mr J B Rogers donated the house to St Fagans in 1951 but kept the other farm buildings until the early 2000s when they moved to the museum.
Aside from farming, Wales’s most important industry was the production of wool. Specially built buildings, such as the Esgair Moel Woollen Mill, were vital to the industry until larger factories appeared in the late 19th century. Esgair Moll was built in 1760 and became the property of Isaac Williams from 1880 until 1932. Williams enlarged the mill to make room for a spinning jack, which sped up the production process.
Williams produced carthenni (blankets), shawls and flannel for making clothes, and balls of yarn for knitting. The wool process involved transforming raw, greasy wool through a series of dyeing, combing, spinning and weaving. It took an estimated twenty hours to complete the process. Williams sold the final results at a market in Builth Wells.
Woollen Mills were common across Wales due to the number of sheep farms. For centuries, the mills supplied the country with clothing, eventually exporting goods to the USA. Sheep wool was relatively cheap, so the USA bought it to clothe their slaves, giving it the unfortunate name “Negro Cloth”.
The Esgair Moel Woollen Mill ceased trading in 1947 due to the increasing number of factories. The mill moved St Fagans museum in 1952, where it was re-erected above the Earl of Plymouth’s old swimming pool. The mill uses water from the pool to turn the waterwheel during demonstrations.
Other industries in Wales included corn mills, such as the Melin Bompren Corn Mill, which moved to St Fagans in 1977. The first miller, Benjamin Jones, began milling corn in 1853, and the business stayed in the family until Mrs Hettie Jones’ retirement in 1970. Customers brought wheat, oats and corn to the mill for grinding, often paying with products instead of money. According to an account book, several farmers paid in wool, and the innkeeper paid in gallons of beer. Other payment methods included eggs, honey and meat.
Melin Bompren Corn Mill has three storeys. The grain was stored on the top floor, ground on the middle floors and bagged on the lower. The miller often needed to light a fireplace on the upper level to dry the corn before putting it through the grinder.
As times progressed, Welsh citizens began shopping at stores in towns rather than directly from mills. The Gwalia Stores, for instance, opened in 1880 in Ogmore Vale. The owners, William and Mary Llewellyn, lived above the shop, which sold items from all over the world. The shop’s proximity to a railway station made it easy to import goods from abroad, such as tea, sugar and coffee. Local farmers supplied fresh produce, for instance, meat, cheese, eggs and butter.
The Llewellyn family were originally regarded as ahead of the times. They were the first family in the valley to own a car, and William became a Liberal politician. The couple’s son, Thomas, inherited the store in 1920, but the general strike and Great Depression made it difficult for customers to pay their bills. Unlike mills that could accept food and wool as payment, the Llewellyns needed money for the upkeep of the store. After Thomas died in 1945, the family sold the Gwalia Stores.
Eventually, Gwalia Stores could not compete with supermarkets and closed for good in 1973. The building reopened at St Fagans in 1991, decked out to resemble the 1920s. Visitors can buy certain products from the store, such as chocolate, confectionary and jam.
In 1917, the Oakdale Workmen’s Institute opened in Caerphilly to provide educational and leisure facilities for local workers and their families. All sorts of people used the building, including choirs, drama groups, concerts, dances, lectures and political rallies. The institute featured a library, reading room, committee room and billiard room.
The Oakdale Workmen’s Institute tried to support unemployed families during the 1926 General Strike and the Great Depression during the 1930s. Lack of funding made this a difficult task, and ironically, the Second World War saved the building from closure. During the war, evacuees, American Troops, and Bevin Boys (young British men conscripted to work in coal mines) used the institute. They added a cinema to one of the rooms, which helped raise funds to pay off all debts by 1945.
Unfortunately, the use of the institute declined in the post-war years. People preferred to stay home watching their televisions or venture further afield in cars to experience new social and cultural life. In the 1970s, the institute was converted into a licensed club, but by 1987 it had closed for good. Preservation of the building and transportation to St Fagans began soon after, eventually opening in 1995 with a small ceremony led by British politician Neil Kinnock (b. 1942).
Not all the buildings at St Fagans show the history of Wales in a positive light. Dating to 1660 is a cockpit that once belonged to the Hawk and Buckle Inn on Vale Street, Denbigh. The round building features stone walls, a thatched roof and a weathervane. Before 1849 when the United Kingdom banned the sport, men gathered at the cockpit to participate in cockfights. Trained cockerels fought against each other until only one bird remained alive. The owner of the cock won a share of the money collected through a betting system.
The Hawk and Buckle Inn gained many patrons from frequent cockfights. Spectators purchased drinks during a tournament, resulting in drunken brawls and excessive gambling. The cockpit fell out of use after the ban on cockfighting, although battles continued in secret elsewhere.
The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments and Constructions in Wales and Monmouthshire chose to preserve the cockpit in 1911 as an example of historic pastimes. Unfortunately, by 1965, the building’s condition had worsened, and they decided to transport it to St Fagans, where it opened to the public in 1970.
Most buildings at St Fagans were moved brick by brick to their current locations. Some of the “older” constructions were built from scratch using archaeological findings. Bryn Eryr, an archaeological site in Angelsey, excavated the foundations of round Iron Age houses. The buildings likely belonged to a farming family over 2,300 years ago. At this time, sections of Wales were run by various tribesmen who focused on producing food, clothing and shelter for their people.
The family at Bryn Eryr grew wheat and kept cattle, sheep and horses, suggesting they were relatively wealthy. Their round homes contained a fire pit in the centre, which provided light, heat and a place to cook meals.
Another reconstruction is a Medieval commotal court, which archaeologists at Llys Rhosyr, Angelsey, excavated in 1992. Historians believe it belonged to Llywelyn ap Iorwertg, Prince of Gwynedd, who built 22 courts between 1195 and 1240. The prince frequently travelled around the country, staying at his royal residences, which also served as administrative centres. The prince, who was incidentally the most powerful man in Wales, met with local noblemen to plan military campaigns and negotiations with foreign kings, for instance, King John. One negotiation resulted in Prince Llywelyn’s marriage to King John’s daughter, Joan.
The recreated building was built to scale using materials readily available in the 11th century. Many academics and craftspeople worked together to decorate the interior with embroidered wall hangings that may resemble the original furnishings. Llywelyn and Joan likely entertained guests in the Great Hall, either at this court or one of the many others.
The only building remaining in situ on the former land belonging to the Earl of Plymouth is St Fagans Castle. The Elizabethan mansion was built on the ruins of a medieval castle and has been the home of many families over the centuries. Sir Edward Lewis of Van purchased the property in 1616, and his family coat of arms remains above one of the fireplaces. In 1730, his great-granddaughter Elizabeth married Other Windsor, the 3rd Earl of Plymouth (1707-32), and the castle became the property of all future Earls of Plymouth.
During the First World War, the Red Cross used the banqueting hall at St Fagans as a hospital. By this time, the owners only used the castle in the summer, preferring to stay at their main home in Worcestershire during the colder months. After the second world war, the Earl bequeathed the mansion and 18 acres of land to create the open-air museum now known as St Fagans National Museum of History.
There is plenty to see and do for visitors of all ages at St Fagans. Over 40 buildings are open to explore, and there are plenty of knowledgeable staff to answer questions. At certain times of the year, special events take place, such as food festivals, fairgrounds, exhibitions and demonstrations. The latter provides an insight into how the various mills worked, plus the opportunity to see other workers in action, such as farmers and cobblers.
St Fagans National Museum of History is free to visit but those travelling by car must be prepared to pay for parking. The open-air museum is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm.
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