“IT can be safely claimed that no other Welsh woman enjoyed popularity in so many public spheres as did the late Miss Rees.” 

So the Carmarthen Journal stated as it reported, on June 30, 1916, the death three days earlier of Sarah Jane Rees at Cilfynydd, near Pontypridd who was, and still is, best known by her bardic name, Cranogwen. 

The newspaper described the 77-year-old as “the well-known Welsh temperance worker, Methodist evangelist, and prominent bard of the National Eisteddfod.” 

But even that, seemingly comprehensive introduction, omits a large part of her career and achievements and underlines how difficult it is to describe a woman from rural, west Wales who seemingly broke every convention of the Victorian period. 

Not only did Cranogwen become a master navigator, a lecturer and preacher who travelled across Wales and America, at a time when public speaking by women was largely disapproved, but was a journalist and writer who lived openly in relationships with two women. 

The latest to take up the challenge of attempting to convey the groundbreaking achievements and legacy of Cranogwen is the sculptor Sebastien Boyesen who has been commissioned to create a figurative sculpture of her in her home village of Llangrannog. 

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Her biographer Jane Aaron said the village is a fitting location for the statue, which will be only the second of a real Welsh woman in a public space in Wales: “She was very loyal to Llangrannog.” 

Cranogwen’s popularity with audiences in America, and the large Welsh communities in Liverpool and London, meant she could have based herself in any of those locations and earned large amounts of money. 

But instead she returned to the seaside village and as well as building a new home for her parents supported her local Methodist chapel, Bancyfelin. 

“She not only built the plush, middle class house, which is still standing but paid off all the debts from the building of the new Methodist chapel,” said Jane a retired professor of Welsh writing in English at the University of South Wales. 

The National Wales: Llangrannog Picture: Visit WalesLlangrannog Picture: Visit Wales

Growing up in a seaside community, Jane, thinks was influential in Cranogwen’s outlook that women were just as capable of men. 

In fishing villages men were often away at sea and women would have to take on the role of maintaining the community. In Y Frythones, the magazine Cranogwen edited, she always sought to push the message that women were capable of achieving more than society expected of them, including by offering encouragement in an agony aunt question and answer column. 

READ MORE: How project has discovered town's hidden women

Cranogwen had the real life experience to support her convictions. At 13, dissatisfied with an apprenticeship to a needlewoman in Aberteifi, she persuaded her father to take her on his ketch, two-sail boat, as his crew and spent three-years as a sailor before studying for her master mariner’s certificate in London. 

When she returned to Llangrannog, at 21, she took up the schoolmaster’s post and prepared young sailors to take the master mariner’s certificate as well as teaching local children. 

She benefited from her father’s support. He had suggested she, unusually for the time, attend school as he had been impressed by the letters she had written to him, as her two older brothers had done, while he was at sea. 

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But there is also more painful influence as her father had struggled with alcoholism. While he had helped his daughter from a very humble background, which included sharing the family home with a female pauper, gain an education and career it is also likely his battle with drink is why his daughter became a noted member of the temperance movement. 

Her breakthrough to national prominence came at the National Eisteddfod in Aberystwyth in 1865 when to the shock of the audience she arose to take the chair for her poem 'Y Fodrwy Briodasol' (The Wedding Ring), the very first woman to do so. 

“It would have been a shock to the judges as they would not have known a woman had entered. It would have been open to everyone but the judges would never have thought a woman would try,” said Jane. 

The National Wales: Sculptor Sebastien Boyesen and Keziah Ferguson, who will be working with him on the Cranogwen project, admire the statue of St Crannog in LlangrannogSculptor Sebastien Boyesen and Keziah Ferguson, who will be working with him on the Cranogwen project, admire the statue of St Crannog in Llangrannog

Her 'ffug enw' – or pseudonym – was ‘Muta’ meaning ‘the muted one, but the victory over the greatest poets of the time such as Islwyn and Ceiriog, gave Cranogwen a voice and a platform on a national and international stage. 

The poem was a satire on the fate of married women and used the ring as a recurring symbol. But Cranogwen would never marry. 

Instead she enjoyed two relationships, often described as ‘romantic friendships’ with two women. 

Fanny Rees moved into Cranogwen’s home, after contracting tuberculosis in 1874, to die in her arms and was the subject of her poem Fy Ffrynd (My Friend). 

Following her grief, Cranogwen was in a relationship with her neighbour Jane Thomas. When her parents died Cranogwen sold the family home and lived the last 20 years of her life with Jane Thomas, a fact only added to her entry on the Dictionary of Welsh Biography in 2020. 

For Mair Jones, who researched Cranogwen as part of her study of Welsh queer history, it is important those relationships are remembered. 

“Cranogwen was one of the main inspirations for me to start researching queer Welsh history and to start a Twitter account and blog,” said Mair who runs the @QueerWelsh Twittter account and a Tumblr page.

“I think she was very multifaceted and did a lot in her life, there is so much to like about her life and her relationships were quite interesting as well. She was an interesting and groundbreaking woman but it’s important that that queer identity isn’t erased and that would also have been an erasure of Fanny and Jane.” 

The National Wales: Boysen is the sculptor behind The Guardian at Six Bells in AbertilleryBoysen is the sculptor behind The Guardian at Six Bells in Abertillery

Mair also sees Cranogwen's support of the temperance movement as a feminist issue: “It was very much a women’s movement and there was a link between alcohol abuse and domestic abuse.” 

READ MORE: Mapped - The 'lost' LGBT history of Cardiff

The statue which will honour Cranogwen is part of the Monumental Welsh Women campaign which established the ‘Hidden Heroines’ project in response to there being no statues of named Welsh women, anywhere in Wales.  

The first statue was of the late Cardiff headteacher Betty Campbell unveiled in September last year and a fundraising campaign is supporting the creation of the Cranogwen statue. 

Just as Cranogwen’s teaching, writing, public speaking and campaigning guided men and women in Wales and beyond more than 100 years ago it’s hoped a permanent memorial in the place closest to her heart will ensure that remains her legacy. 

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