Rhandirmwyn and District Community Association

The History of Rhandirmwyn in the Upper Towy Valley, Carmarthenshire, Wales...

The History of Rhandirmwyn

This Article is written by Huw Garan

LLANVAIR-AR-Y-BRYN (LLAN-FAIR-AR-Y-BRYN), a parish, in the union of LLANDOVERY, higher division of the hundred of PERVERTH [Perfedd], county of CARMARTHEN, SOUTH WALES, 1/2 a mile (N.E.) from Llandovery, on the turnpike-road to Builth; comprising the townships of Rhandir Abbot [Rhandir Abad], Rhandir Canol [Rhandir Ganol], Rhandir Isâv [Rhandir Isaf], and Rhandir Uchâv [Rhandir Uchaf]; and containing 1649 inhabitants. . . . . .
The origins of Rhandir-mwyn are at once recent and ancient. Although the name Rhandir-mwyn and the present village date from as recently as the early part of the nineteenth century, there is evidence of settlement and perhaps more importantly given the village’s name, of mining, dating back several millennia to at least the period of Roman occupation and very probably beyond.
Among the first adjectives visitors choose to describe the area is ‘beautiful’, often followed by ‘peaceful’ or ‘tranquil’. However, it was not ever thus. As recently as the 1930s, Rhandir-mwyn was known not for kites, ravens and sheep, but for mining: a history which is reflected in the village’s name. Professor Hywel Wyn Owen in his Dictionary of the Place-names of Wales translates Rhandir-mwyn as the ‘portion of land with a mine’ and the University of Wales Dictionary defines rhandir as ‘area’, ‘region’, ‘district, ‘territory’. Mwyn refers variously to the ‘minerals’ or ‘ore’ in the hills, or to the mines. It is fair to say that were it not for the lead, there would be no Rhandir-mwyn.

The Mines
Historically, the parish of Llanfair-ar-y-bryn comprised four rhandiroedd or townships, namely Rhandir Abad, Rhandir Uchaf, Rhandir Ganol, and Rhandir Isaf, or the Abbot’s township and the upper, middle and lower townships respectively. The name ‘Rhandir y Mwyn’ appears in print recorded from at least 1814 yet as late as 1844, Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Wales locates the mines “in the township of Rhandir Abbot”:
In the township of Rhandir Abbot [Rhandir Abad] are some extensive lead-mines, the property of Earl Cawdor … These mines, which are among the principal in South Wales, have at times employed from one to two hundred workmen; but the number is now materially diminished, owing to the long and laborious land-carriage to Llanelly [Sic.]
The heyday of the mines was between 1775 and 1823. Accounts for the years 1775 - 1797 show an average yearly profit of £3,770, peaking in 1779 at a staggering £12,526.13s.11d , equivalent to several hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds today. During this period, Nant-y-mwyn lead mines were the second most profitable metal ore mines in South Wales, surpassed only by the gold mines at Dolaucothi.
Gradually it became more and more difficult to extract the ore and the profits declined until. Eventually, in 1823, Lord Cawdor took the decision to dismiss the mine manager, a Cornishman named Joel Williams, and to lease out the mines. Successive companies took on the mine until 1836 when Messrs. Williams of Scorrier House, near Redruth, who had made a substantial fortune from tin mining, acquired the lease, staying until 1900.
Local farmers were contracted to haul the ore to Llandovery where it was put on trains for distribution elsewhere. Carting two loads a day from Nant-y-bai to Llandovery, a distance of at least 32 miles, would be more than enough for man and beast on the rural roads of the time but even this would have made a very welcome addition to the farmers’ income. In 1867 they were paid 5s/10d per ton and as loads up to 2¼ tons were not uncommon, it could easily be worth over a pound a day.
The Battle of Four Square
The Cornish presence in Rhandir-mwyn is abundantly clear in the 1851 census, with surnames such as Bargwanan and Morcum listed in Pannau Street, and one John Renowden, later to become landlord of the Royal Oak Inn. However, according to local legend, there was a fierce battle, sometimes referred to as the Battle of Four Square, between the Cornishmen and the natives (the cause is not related) leading to the expulsion of the Cornishmen. Renowden, it is claimed, begged to be allowed to remain as he had married a local girl and made his home here. Whatever the truth of this legend, by the 1861 census, the Cornish had all but disappeared from Rhandir-mwyn.
Capel Peulin (St Paulinus’ chapel, Ystrad-ffin)
The first mention of a chapel on this site comes in a document of 1339 confirming it upon the Cistercians of Strata Florida Abbey. The circular shape of the enclosure, and the rather unusual dedication to Peulin/Paulinus, would tend to tempt the casual observer (in which class I firmly place myself) to decide the chapel must have been founded during the so-called Age of the Saints (Oes y Saint) in the 5th and 6th centuries. There is no evidence for this, however, and the first mention of a chapel on the present site is in 1339 when it was confirmed upon the Cistercians of Strata Florida.
The present chapel was rebuilt in 1822 with money grudgingly donated by John Frederick Vaughan, 2nd Earl Cawdor, and served as the parish church until 1877 when St Barnabas’ church was opened in the village.
Whatever affection we may feel for St Barnabas’ church and St Paulinus’ Chapel at Ystrad-ffin, it should not be forgotten that this is primarily a dissenting, or non-conformist parish, with, until the creation in 1875 of the ecclesiastical parish of Capel Peulin, superseded some three years later by the new church of St Paulinus, no parish church within its boundaries as Lewis (op. cit) notes:
The church, dedicated to St. Mary, and situated in Llandingat [Sic.], nearly a mile from its own parish, is an ancient edifice, consisting of one large aisle, with a tower . . . There are three places of worship for Independents, and one for Calvinistic Methodists.
That Llanfair-ar-y-bryn was not a parish of churchgoers is further underlined by an entry relating to the condition of Llanfair church in A Visitation of the Archdeaconry of Carmarthen , presumed to have been completed by Edward Tenison, Archdeacon of Carmarthen:
A Chapell to Llan Dingad. 'Tis situated on a little hill in the Parish of Llan Dingad, & is at least a mile distant from the nearest part of Llan Fair y bryn [Sic] Parish. There is neither a book of Canons, nor Homilies, nor a printed Table of Degrees. […] Of 156 Families belonging to Llan-Fair-y-bryn, one half of them are suppos'd to be Presbyterians. […] There are uneven Floors of earth in Church and Chancell, but they are not nigh so uneven as those at Llan Dingad. The windows in the Chancell should be repair'd. The Glass belonging to two of the Church windows is intirely broke away. The Steeple is cover'd on the West North & East with Ivy. At the west end a little above the ground the roots of the Ivy have rifted the Stones asunder. On the south side of the Chancell the Ivy from bottom to top & the Ash out of the wall by the Chancell, & the Ashes & Elders growing on the north side out of the walls want to be destroy'd to prevent further mischief. In a space about 25 foot in length between the Church porch & a side Chancell […] Men's Sculls and Bones are pil'd up against the Church wall about 6 foot high & expos'd to the open air.
The three Independent (Congregationalist) chapels were Bethel (Cynghordy) (founded c1804), Cefnarthen (founded before 1660) and Pentre-tŷ-gwyn (founded 1739) and the Methodist chapel was Salem (founded before 1803). As they are not located in Rhandir-mwyn, I will leave it to others to give their history.
Although the Annibynwyr (Congregationalists) never established themselves in Rhandir-mwyn, the Baptists and the Calvinistic Methodists had no such problem.

Twm Siôn Cati

Mae llefain mawr a gweiddi
Yn Ystrad-ffin eleni
A cherrig nadd yn toddi’n blwm
Rhag ofn Twm Siôn Cati

[In Ystrad-ffin a doleful sound
Pervades the hollow hills around
The very stones with terror melt
Such fear of Twm Siôn Cati]

Twm Siôn Cati is one of those characters whose story everyone believes they know and certainly the tales about him – the wag, the outlaw, the man who shod his horse backwards in order to throw pursuers off his trail – are legion. As is so often the case with legendary figures, there is a kernel of truth to many of these tales but in reality, he was a far, far more complicated figure than this.
Although the usual date given for Twm’s birth is c.1530, an entry in the diary of John Dee (a distant cousin) reveals that he was in fact born in August 1532. He was the illegitimate son of Catrin (Cati), herself the illegitimate daughter of one of the ancestors of Sir John Wynn of Gwydir, and Siôn ap Dafydd ap Madog ap Hywel Moethe of Porth-y-ffynnon (Fountain Gate) outside Tregaron.
Little is known of his childhood and much has been surmised. What can be established beyond doubt however is that he was man of considerable intelligence and learning, not least in poetry and genealogy, two indispensible pursuits for gentlemen of his time. Twm described himself as “y godidocaf a phennaf a pherffeithiaf … yng nghelfyddyd arwyddfarddoniaeth” [“the most excellent and the paramount and most perfect … in the art of heraldry”] and “principal herald for all Wales”. Some of his genealogical rolls have survived and are preserved in the National Library in Aberystwyth. One rare example of his poetry which has survived is the englyn below, which appears on a manuscript written c. 1590. It talks of how he has abandoned his old ways and is now following the law:
Cadw’r gyfraith faith yr wyf i – yn gadarn
a gadael y perthi
nid wyf i ffôl yn rheoli
mewn glas dail mal y gwelaist ti.
As mentioned above, Twm was a distant cousin to Dr John Dee, astrologer in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Dee’s diary refers to a visit from Twm in 1596: “Aug. 10th, Mr. Thomas Jones of Tregarron cam to me to Manchester and rode toward Wales bak agayn the 13th day to mete the catall coming”. This suggests that he was now considered respectable enough to be involved with droving cattle.
Twm and his family were Protestants and he numbered among his friends John Penri of Cefn Brith, Llangamarch, who was martyred at the stake for his puritan beliefs. Twm himself escaped the flames but was forced to flee into exile in Geneva, then a focal point of Protestantism, during the reign of ‘Bloody’ Queen Mary. In common with many other Protestants, Twm received a royal pardon after Elizabeth’s accession to the throne.
Due to its remoteness, this area of Wales, the so-called “green desert,” has always had a reputation for lawlessness and banditry was certainly rife the case in Twm’s day. Before the creation of organised police forces, the authority of the county militias extending only as far as the county borders, a fact which Twm exploited to the full. It is said that after committing crimes in Cardiganshire he would ride the short distance to Carmarthenshire to find shelter in the rocks and caves. One cave in particular is associated with him and has been a popular attraction for centuries, as witnessed by the graffiti carved into its walls dating back to at least 1729.
He has been called the Welsh Robin Hood but whereas Robin Hood famously stole from the rich to give to the poor, there is no evidence that Twm’s wealth redistribution extended far beyond his immediate family - though one can surely have some sympathy with a young man anxious to save his mother and siblings from penury when lawful avenues were closed to him.

Royal Oak
The building we now know and love as the Royal Oak Inn was originally built as a hunting lodge for the Earls Cawdor. The first record of a Royal Oak Inn in Rhandir-mwyn comes in the 1851 census where the publican is named as John Renowden, who probably opened the pub sometime around 1850. Renowden was one of only a very few Cornishmen allowed to stay on after the reputed ‘battle’ with Rhandir-mwyn locals. He is said to have pleaded with the mob to be allowed to remain as he was married to a Welsh girl and his plea must have been accepted as the Renowden family kept the pub for well over a century.
Leigh and Claire Alexander took on the licence in September 1986 and transferred the management to Chris and Rachel in April 2009. The Oak has regularly featured in Camra’s Good Beer Guide and been named Camra Carmarthenshire Pub of the Year on numerous occasions and even been nominated for South Wales Pub of the Year.
Like so many rural pubs, the Oak has seen its share of characters over the years. One character, whose anonymity I will preserve, is still remembered for his almost equal devotion to the pub and the chapel. It is said that he would call at the Oak on his way to chapel prayer meetings and collect a couple of bottles of ale, which he would hide in the hedge to be collected after chapel. He was rumbled one evening however, as he forgot to empty his pockets. As he knelt in prayer the bottles slipped out of his pocket and rolled along the wooden floor of the chapel. His fate is not recorded, but his embarrassment can well be imagined.
The pub’s role as a community centre is nothing new. For many years before the break-up of the Cawdor Estate the Court Leet, chaired by the Deputy Steward of the Lordship, was held twice yearly at the Royal Oak, ‘within a month after Easter and within one month after Michaelmas or by adjournment at any other time’.
The Court’s duties and powers dwindled over the years, but had included issues of ownership of wandering livestock, minor judicial matters (a constable was employed until county police forces became compulsory in 1856), blocked drainage ditches and in one case, the ownership of an ox found dead in the street. The parish pound, where stray animals would be kept, was on Gorofmelyn land.

In preparing this rather rambling potted history, I have relied heavily on Mr Dafydd Davies’ chapter Rhandirmwyn a’r Wlad o Gwmpas in Llandovery and its Environs: a Miscellany published by the Friends of Llandovery Civic Trust Association. I wish to thank Mr Dai Gealey and Llandovery Civic Trust for allowing me to reproduce and translate large chunks of the chapter, and I am very deeply indebted to Mr Davies; without his chapter my own knowledge, and thus this potted history, would be infinitely poorer.

Sources: Owen, David, (1995) Rhandirmwyn - Random Recollections; idem (1993) Rhandirmwyn - a Brief History; Davies, Dafydd (1994) Rhandirmwyn a’r Wlad o Gwmpas in Arber-Cooke et al (199?), Llandovery, a Miscellany