A WEST Wales heritage trail is bringing to light stories of women whose lives have been hidden, ignored or neglected by traditional history books.

The walk around the Pembrokeshire market town of Narberth is outlined in a booklet published by Women’s Archive Wales, which works to raise the profile of women’s history in Wales and preserve the sources which tell their stories.

Eleven Welsh towns have launched similar initiatives with groups in Llandudno, Bangor, Wrexham, Aberystwyth, Carmarthen, Swansea, Barry, Penarth, Pontypridd and Abergavenny all researching notable local women and producing booklets to help locals and visitors connect with the sites of their stories.

But in west Wales the heritage walk connects with a wider initiative to celebrate the contribution of women to shaping the culture of the region.

Women of West Wales (WOWW) is a project led by Narberth Museum and resourced by Planed, Arwain Sir Benfro’s Leader funding and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Launched in 2018 with the creation of a free-to-access online museum, the project now incorporates a “patchwork of diverse and fascinating stories” shared through talks, workshops, exhibitions and events.

WOWW has uncovered the stories of an eclectic mix of women from all classes and backgrounds.

Project coordinator Emma Baines explains: “The project has revealed how difficult it can be to uncover resources relating not only to women, but rural and working class experience in this part of the world. As such, everyone we have encountered has been interested to discover more about these ‘hidden’ parts of the past and are keen to explore different points of view.”

Baines says the project originally emerged from a comment made by a group of teenagers who visited Narberth Museum and asked “where are all the women?”.

Half of the new trail’s 10 sites are located in Narberth’s main thoroughfare centred on Market Square. At a small terraced house in Moorfield Road, the tour recalls memoirist Margaret Laver describing her 1930s Narberth childhood: “the coal man arriving on a horse-drawn cart”, milk “poured from big metal cans into household jugs at the front door” and “earth closets at the end of the garden”.

“Women’s history in many instances is only discovered through oral histories, letters, handwritten fragments and diaries,” says Baines, “and so without a network of people who are happy to share their resources, much of this history would remain uncollected and could potentially be lost”.

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Some of the featured women are described simply as “local characters”.

Annie Webb was born in 1857 in Monmouth and by 1905 was living in Narberth. A local newspaper cutting from 1927 describes the “plucky” lady as having built her own home at Peterslake with “concrete blocks [weighing over half a hundredweight] made with sand and gravel from a nearby stream”.

As a 70-year-old, she is also recorded as regularly walking a 20-mile round-trip to Tenby to sell butter, eggs and vegetables from a perambulator.

The trail is careful to provide a balance of women from different class backgrounds, with Louisa Lewis-Lloyd of Bloomfield House described as a “well-respected central figure in the community” during the first half of the 20th century. She used her privilege to create a rich local legacy including a thriving community centre and pitches for cricket and rugby. Narberth Rugby Club is nicknamed ‘The Otters’ – in honour of Lewis-Lloyd’s unusual passion for otter hunting.

Other commemorated include May George, who rode a motorbike and was posthumously described as “Pembrokeshire’s first female journalist”.

Emma Baines also says the stories reveal women at the centre of huge social and cultural shifts. “These include relatively well-known figures like Rachel Barrett, Gwen John and Cranogwen, but also lesser-known women such as Mary Arundel who is represented only through the eyes of male inspectors sent by the government to assess her ‘dame school’ at the time of the Blue Books (1847).

“Without the report, Mary would have been forgotten in time, and yet many questions and injustices are highlighted in the judgement she receives from a group of men who enter the community from a different cultural viewpoint, social class and experience.

“This project celebrates the dedication of women like Mary who gave up time and space in their homes for working class children to receive education at a time when this was not always possible.”

Meanwhile, at the site of the demolished Victoria Hall, where local jeweller’s wife Sybil Noott ran a dance school in the years before WWII, the walk celebrates Eva Beynon.

One of the school’s most talented protégés, Beynon moved to London while still in her teens and travelled across Europe singing and dancing for the troops as part of the Entertainments National Service Association.

Narberth also has the unusual distinction of including a mythical character among its 10 female icons.

Rhiannon is a figure of mystery who appears in the first and third branches of the Mabinogi, the earliest prose stories in the literature of Britain.

Portrayed as both human and otherworldly, her connection with Narberth Castle is a strong one.

Rhiannon first appears at the court of Arberth, where she is portrayed as intelligent, beautiful, politically astute, and famed for her wealth and generosity – and somewhat superior to her rash and somewhat gullible husband Pwyll, Lord of Dyfed.

Although the booklet accompanying the Women’s Heritage Walk: Narberth runs to just 16 bilingual pages, the wealth of history hinted at in its 10 short entries underlines the importance of funding small but ambitious local projects such as this, as committed archivists and researchers – as well as a host of local volunteers – work tirelessly to recover and preserve these important and hitherto neglected stories to inspire future generations.

More information about the WOWW project can be found at woww.narberthmuseum.co.uk and other Women’s Heritage Walks at www.womensarchivewales.org

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