The following is an adaptation of an article which appeared in the journal Folk Life (Volume 26, 1987-88). It differs from the Welsh version on this website, as it refers to hatters in other parts of Ceredigion as well as those of Llangynfelyn. Nevertheless the main basis of both versions is research into the hatters of Llangynfelyn.
We are very grateful to Gwyn for permission to include the articles on the site.
The most distinctive feature of the so-called Welsh national costume is the 'chimney pot' hat or cwcwll tal as it was known in Welsh. In fact this fashion was only popular for a few decades in the middle of the nineteenth century and was largely the creation of Lady Llanover who, during the 1830s, promoted the wearing of a national costume. High-crowned hats, though consistently portrayed in prints and early photographs of Welsh women, had no legitimate historical claim to be part of a Welsh national costume but Welsh women had worn hats similar to men's hats since the eighteenth century. (1) These felt hats, which were usually, though not exclusively, low- crowned and broad-brimmed, were worn by men and women, as the numerous illustrations of contemporary artists such as J. C. Ibbetson show. English visitors were often surprised to see women wearing men's hats. One such visitor to Lampeter in 1826 noted:
I saw the good folks pass the window to Church, & the women were universally dressed in men's hats, both rich & poor; even Ladies of otherwise the most delicate appearance, who were distinguished by some beautiful lace round their necks & riding on horses.(2)
The craft of the feltmaker was an old trade. There had been hatters in Welsh towns such as Denbigh, Carmarthen and Haverfordwest since the Middle Ages, but by the end of the eighteenth century there seems to have been a considerable concentration of hatters in certain rural parishes of Ceredigion.(3) This trade flourished until the 1840s but then disappeared quickly, leaving little trace of its existence save for the occasional hatter's block and of course the hats themselves. Records of the trade are few, and much of what follows derives from a wide range of unconnected sources. It is very much a jig-saw with many pieces missing.
Until the 19th century, the centre of the hatmaking trade in Britain was London, where there was a sophisticated and highly-specialized trade in operation from the late Middle Ages. By the late eighteenth century, felt hatmaking workshops had also developed in considerable numbers in Lancashire and Cheshire, notably at Denton, near Manchester, Stockport and Newcastle-under- Lyme.(4) In Wales, hatters were concentrated in towns, and some hat-manufacturers, such as Thomas Phillips of Carmarthen, became quite wealthy.(5) Hats tended to be expensive and, apart from cheap 'stuff' hats, were only worn by the wealthier members of the community. No doubt a hat acted as a status symbol.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, though still comparatively expensive, hats were worn by most women, at least to chapel or church, or to market.' Consequently fashion alone probably accounts for the considerable increase in the number of hatters - certainly there were no new technological changes to justify this expansion. The sharp increase in the population of Wales at this time was probably another contributory factor - more heads meant more hats! We can in fact date fairly exactly when the new fashion of wearing felt hats- by women became common. A ballad, dated 1778, describes the unsightly fashion of wearing 'cauldrons':
Ryw ffasiwn hyll i wlad a thre Sef clampia bene o grochana Yn un tyre mawr onte?(7) (Some unsightly fashion to country and town Being huge heads like cauldrons In one great pile, isn't it?)
It is clear that the purchase of such hats, particularly on marriage, became common practice among women in Wales. An English visitor, Anne Beale, wrote a fictional account, though based on observation, of the purchase of a hat by a young girl from the Llandeilo area in the old county of Carmarthen, and of the expense involved. She also witnessed a Hollantide Fair where 'the mingled sound of the Welsh guttural and laughter arises out of a black stream of hats; for a bonnet is as rare here as a Queen Anne's farthing.'(8) Other visitors made similar observations. In 1819, William Sandys noted that all the women of Merthyr wore 'round hats the same as the men' but that there were variations in fashion in west Wales. In south Pembrokeshire, for example, women wore 'broad velvet bands' round their hats while 'the distinctive feature' of the women of Carmarthenshire Was the '...ugly fashion of wearing a handkerchief (generally coloured), bound round the face as if they were all afflicted with mumps or the tooth ache.' (9) More men also wore felt hats, even if they were less distinctive than those of their female counterparts and, as we shall see, hatters in Ceredigion also made hats specifically designed for lead-miners.
The Ceredigion hatters were concentrated in three rural communities, namely Llangynfelyn, Blaenpennal, and Llanwenog. This concentration requires some explanation.
Felt hats produced in London were made from a mixture of imported beaver fur and wool, hence the term 'beaver hat', but in Ceredigion, the fur of the hare and the rabbit replaced that of the beaver. Ceredigion also boasted the uncommon practice of obtaining wool from a second shearing of sheep conducted at Michaelmas, as it was claimed that this wool had a greater felting quality.(10) There was no shortage of wool in this part of Wales, but this does not account for the concentration of hatters in only specific rural communities. The actual location of the communities provides the answer.
The parish of Llangynfelyn lies about halfway between the towns of Aberystwyth and Machynlleth on the A487 trunk road. To the east of the road the terrain rises sharply and spectacularly to Foel Goch, but to the west of the road there is the flat wide expanse of Cors Fochno, an extensive ombrogenous raised peat bog. The plentiful supply of a fuel such as peat was essential in the hatmaking process. As will be described in more detail later, felt hats were formed and shaped in a cauldron full of liquid which had to be kept at a constant temperature of near boiling point. Consequently the supply of peat from Cors Fochno was crucial to the development of the trade in Llangynfelyn. Likewise the other two centres of hatmaking in Ceredigion were also located near peat bogs; the hatters in Llanwenog, for example, were all concentrated to the north of the parish, adjacent to Gors Goch.
There is no extant description of the hat-making process in Wales but presumably it was not fundamentally different from that in the north of England. We know from inventories of wills that Welsh hatters had the same equipment as their English counterparts. (11) Although beaver pelts were not available, hare fur was used for common hats and rabbit fur for better quality hats. About 2 1/2 ounces of material was required to make a good hat with 2/3 of this being rabbit fur.
Many detailed descriptions of the hat-making process in England are available, and the following is only a basic outline. (12) The hair and the wool was drawn together on a hurdle and then, by using an implement similar to a bow, the fibres were spread in all directions while the dust and dirt fell through the holes in the hurdle. The fibres were then squeezed to form a cone, and the cone was then dipped into a large cauldron full of liquid known as a kettle. The liquid was a mixture of boiling water, a glass full of vitriol and beer dregs or in some cases urine. The vitriol compressed the body of the hat and the beer diminished the pernicious effect of the vitriol. The hatters would form the hat on a wooden plank on the rim of the cauldron, dipping the hat from time to time into the liquid. This process was known as planking. It was essential that the liquid be kept at boiling point and the plentiful supply of peat available at peat bogs such as Cors Fochno was essential to keep the fire alight. Once the hat had been shaped, it was dipped in varnish to make it waterproof, and once dry it was stretched over a hatter's block to obtain the correct shape and then cut.
It was now ready to be dyed. The hat was dipped in a black mixture, usually made up of logwood, copperas and nutgall. The finished hats were then dried in the open-air. One traveller walking through Tre'r-ddôl in September 1826 observed '...many black hat makers. Counted 31 hats drying at one house.' (13)
The hat was then ironed by a heavy iron, a band stitched on it and a suitable lining was added for the better hats. This work was probably undertaken by women. The 1841 Census for Llangynfelyn has entries for two female hatters, Anne Lewis and Mary Evans of Taliesin. In 1851, Ann Davies, Llannerch, is described as a 'hat-binder' and there were two other young girls working as 'bonnet-makers'.
In Llangynfelyn, special hats were also made for lead-miners and quarrymen. On the brim of the hat there was room for a candle which was held in place by a ball of clay. There is a description of such a hat being worn by a lead-miner at Llanidloes, and it is possible that this hat was made at Llangynfelyn as we know that hats from the parish were sold at Llanidloes fair:
He wore a flannel shirt, tucked up at the sleeves and fustian trousers. He carried his candle in a ball of clay, stuck on the broad brim of his round crowned hat. The water fell in streams, and he told me that to keep his head and face dry, he was bound to waterproof his hat, as I saw it, with wax and rosin. (14)
The peak of activity in the hat-making trade in Ceredigion appears to have occurred during the first three decades of the nineteenth century. During this period about eighty people were involved in the trade in Llangynfelyn and in the neighbouring parish of Sguborycoed, and perhaps as many as fifty during the same period in Blaenpennal. About a quarter of the families living in Llangynfelyn relied on the trade for their livelihood, the highest figure in Wales, and nearly a half of the total number of hatters in Ceredigion lived in this small parish, according to the Census of 1841.
Unfortunately the 1841 Census does not differentiate between master hatters and the journeymen hatters who worked for them. The 1851 Census does record 'hat manufacturers' and 'hatters', but by then the number of hatters had fallen sharply. In 1841 there were fifty-one hatters in the parish but only twenty in 1851; consequently it is difficult to establish the pattern of work, though it was unlikely to be fundamentally different from that in the north of England, where many of the master hatters were also farmers, with hat-making being a profitable sideline. We know that the brothers Owen, Thomas and John Edwards of Ynys Tudur, Llwyn Wallter and Llety'r Frân, Llangynfelyn, described themselves as farmers as well as hatters. In the 1851 Census, for example, John Edwards is described as a 'Farmer (9 acres) and hatter'. Recent excavations have shown that outbuildings still to be seen attached to Llety'r Frân were originally built for the purpose of hat-making. A hatter's workshop and dye-house was built by Owen Edwards on a site near Llangynfelyn Church during the 1820s but has since been demolished. (15)
Other master hatters worked full-time, such as David Davies and Griffith Williams, Tre'r-ddôl. In the north of England such operative-employers would distribute the wool and fur to workers who would complete the initial process of hat-making in their homes. The unfinished hat would then be returned to the master who would complete the process and sell the hats. The workers were paid according to the number of unfinished hats prepared. Presumably a similar system was in operation in Llangynfelyn, and most of the workers lived in the growing village of Taliesin. It was these hatters who suffered most when the depression set in during the 1840s, as the master- hatters could no longer afford to employ them. Although the difference between master-hatters and journeymen hatters is ambiguous, it is fairly certain that only about twelve of the fifty-one hatters recorded in the 1841 Census for Llangynfelyn were masters.
Felt hats from Ceredigion were fairly expensive to buy. According to Gwallter Mechain, the maximum price for a hat in Ceredigion at the beginning of the nineteenth century was ten to twelve shillings while at the same time, across the Dyfi estuary in Pennal, Merionethshire, hats cost from 5s. 6d. to 7s. In Llangynfelyn a hat was sold for 8 shillings in 1834 while inventories show that in the eighteenth century the prices of hats in Wales varied from 10d. to 14s.(16)
Hats from Ceredigion were sold throughout Wales. The hats, as many as six dozen, were packed into a huge box and strapped to the back of the hatter. Carrying such a box to markets and fairs in all parts of Wales must have been exceedingly strenuous work as one sad story illustrates. In August 1845, a few miles from Caernarfon, a thirty-year-old hatter from Taliesin, Lewis Edwards, collapsed and died on the road-side. No doubt the strain of carrying such a heavy box had proved fatal. (17)
Some hatters used donkeys to carry their hats, and often it was the hatter's wife who travelled the country. The wife of David Edwards of Amlwch, a hatter who was born and learnt his trade in Tre'r-ddôl, was well-known throughout Wales. (18)
It was not only David Edwards, 'Dafydd y Ffeltiwr' (David the feltmaker), who left Ceredigion to ply his trade elsewhere. Llangynfelyn exported not only hats but also hatters. At the beginning of the nineteenth century David Humphreys of Tre'r-ddôl moved to Caernarfon to set up business there, while Thomas Edwards, Ynys Tudur, having carried the 'box' throughout north Wales from the age of seventeen, finally settled down in Llanffestiniog, having observed the rapid expansion in the slate-quarrying industry of Blaenau Ffestiniog.(19)
The saying 'as mad as a hatter' and the character The Mad Hatter are well known, and there is evidence that there was a tendency towards madness among hatters. This derives from the use of mercuric nitrate in the process of preparing furs, known as carrotting. Factory workers at the end of the nineteenth century were warned of this, but there is no evidence that mercuric nitrate was used by hatters in Ceredigion to prepare fur. (20) There was one furrier/hatter living in Llangynfelyn in the middle of the nineteenth century, but there is no evidence that James Jones or any other members of his family were mad. It is likely that hatters were sold rabbit or hare pelts by men such as Thomas Griffiths of Llanwenog (known as Thomas y Blew - Thomas the hair) and prepared the fur themselves, but whether they used mercuric nitrate is not known. (21) There does not appear to be an unusually high incidence of madness in the hat-producing areas of Ceredigion, and in any case other factors such as lead pollution might account for cases of lunacy.
Hatters were well-known for being unruly and drunkards. In London there was a system of fines connected with the trade which involved the drinking of large quantities of beer, while in Wales the hatters of Welshpool were notorious for fighting and heavy drinking. (22) There is some evidence that the Llangynfelyn hatters were unruly, but equally many were among the founders of the Methodist chapel in Tre'r-ddôl. (23)
In the years after the Napoleonic Wars, Ceredigion was regarded as the most disturbed county in Wales. This was mainly the consequence of a substantial increase of population leading to severe economic and social problems. There were a number of rural disturbances and these were often connected with enclosures. Surprisingly, the enclosure of Cors Fochno does not seem to have caused any great problems despite the hatters' reliance on the supply of peat. The enclosure of Cors Fochno took a considerable time to complete. It began in 1813 and was only completed in 1847.(24) There was, however, one incident of fence breaking. This occurred as late as 1843 when seven hatters under the leadership of William Lewis, Craig y Penrhyn, were charged at Tal-y-bont Petty Sessions with destroying fences near Trwyn y Buarth, a farm owned by the major landowner in the area, Pryse Pryse, Gogerddan. According to press reports, '...it was the intention of the defendants and others to do away with the enclosure act altogether, and reduce the bog to its original unproductiveness.(25) It is surprising that no such efforts to prevent enclosure had taken place previously, as the process of enclosure had begun thirty years earlier. Perhaps most of the hatters had been content with the provison in the Enclosure Act which guaranteed rights of turbary for local people. Certainly some hatters had been able to buy some of the enclosed land. David James, Goitrefach, for example, acquired four acres.
The seven hatters were fined £3 6s. 6d., including costs, but as they were unable to pay they were sentenced to six weeks hard labour at Cardigan Gaol. Their act may well have been caused by an increasing frustration with the rapid decline of the hat-making trade during the 1840s, and may also have been inspired by the 'Rebecca Riots' which were at their peak at this time.
Mention has already been made of the successful hat-making trade in the north of England. For a time, the wages of hatters compared favourably with other craftsmen, but during the 1840s they declined sharply. Lancashire and Cheshire hatters organized a petition in 1845 to complain that their wages had fallen by 30 to 40% during the previous fifteen years. There was considerable unemployment. One traveller described unemployed hatters of Oldham as '...melancholy clusters of gaunt, dirty, unshaven men lounging on the pavement.' (26)
The main cause of this decline was a change in fashion. The old beaver hat was replaced by the silk hat which was now being mass-produced in London. The silk hat was lighter than the felt hat, smarter in appearance, kept its colour and, crucially, was cheaper in price. By 1850 it was estimated that about three million silk hats had been sold and the old felt hat could not compete. (27) There was a revival in the felt hatmaking trade after 1860 in places such as Denton and Stockport, mainly as a result of mechanization and also because of the increasing popularity of new styles of felt hats such as the bowler and later the homburg and trilby. (28)
The decline of the trade in Wales was irreversible; there was to be no revival after 1860. The slump began in the 1840s and, like the north of England, it was a change in fashion which proved crucial. The hatters of Narberth, Carmarthenshire, complained about the influx of Jim Crow hats, but in Llangynfelyn the silk hat was blamed. (29) Of considerable significance to the Ceredigion hatters was the change in fashion among women. The wearing of felt hats had gone out of fashion by the 1840s. The steeple-crowned hats were worn by some, but these were not made by the Ceredigion hatters and in any case within a short time only old women in rural areas persisted in wearing such hats. Those Welsh girls seen in numerous late nineteenth-century photographs wearing Welsh hats were in fact usually models dressed up in 'Welsh national costume' to suit the tourist trade.(30) It was also claimed that Welsh women refused to wear their felt hats to market, as they had done for many years, because they were laughed at by English visitors. (31) In general Welsh women now wore fancy hats from London or Paris, if they could afford them, or bought hats from local milliners. In towns such as Aberystwyth there was a substantial increase in the number of milliners by mid-century, while there were also several draper shops selling a wide variety of fashionable headwear. According to one advertisement in 1858, for example, a draper's shop in Aberystwyth, London and Manchester House, had one room set aside exclusively for the sale of hats of all sorts.(32) No longer did Welsh women go to the hatter's workshop or a local fair to buy a new hat. Improved communications by mid-century meant that new fashions reached even the remotest parts of Wales.
The following statistics clearly illustrate the decline in the trade:
NUMBER OF HATTERS
Once the decline had set in, the trade became associated with old men; only a few workers born after the 1820s went to the trouble of learning the craft. The 1851 Census reveals that most hatters were between 25 and 50 years old (on average much older than other craftsmen), and the 1871 Census shows that the vast majority of hatters were over forty-five.
In Llangynfelyn, the number of hatters fell by a half between 1841 and 1851, and by the 1850s there was only one hatter working in Blaenpennal whereas once there had been fifty. Some hatters emigrated. A group of five hatters crossed the Atlantic from Aberystwyth to America on the Tamerlane in 1847, while Morgan Morgans, a hatter from Goetre Fach, Llangynfelyn, settled in Buffalo, New York State .(33) Other hatters returned to the land or found employment in the lead mines which experienced a brief revival at this time. Yet others migrated to south Wales to find work in coal and iron. Although the sale of traditional felt hats declined rapidly, some hatters in Llangynfelyn were probably able to continue the trade by concentrating on producing hats for miners and quarrymen. Even so, by 1871 only five hatters were left in Llangynfelyn, none in Blaenpennal or Llanwenog. Ten years later there was only one hatter left in Llangynfelyn, William Thomas, Ty'n y Wern, Tre'r-ddôl and he, the last of the Ceredigion hatters, died at the age of 78 in 1897.
The heyday of the felt hat-making trade in rural Wales had been the early decades of the nineteenth century. The success of the trade may be illustrated by the interest shown in it by a Herefordshire landowner, W. G. Cherry, who sought information on the trade from W. E. Powell of Nanteos, a major landowner in Ceredigion. Cherry, who acted as agent for the Nanteos estate, wrote to Powell in 1820, obviously with the intention of setting up a similar trade in his native county:
I very much want some information on the mode of making the hats worn by the Welch (sic) and in particular on the following points 1 are they made from wool picked up-or purchased 2 are they made at home in the cottages 3 what apparatus is requisite for making them as Copper - Blocks &c 4 where and how are they dyed. 5 what do they sell for- I think about 4/s. Lastly could any person be procured who would teach the mode of making Can you get me any distinct and positive information upon this subject. (4)
Unfortunately, Powell's reply has not survived and 'any distinct and positive information' on this unusual trade remains elusive.