I live in Pontypridd in the south Wales valleys, in a terraced house on the side of a steep hill, in a community built on hard labour in the coal mining industry. The land beneath our feet has been hollowed out by generations of families. Alhough the pits are now silent, the legacy of the industry lives on in the close-knit communities, strong sense of local identity and open-hearted neighbourliness found in these slope-roofed streets.
My house was built just over a century ago. Life for mining families was often brutally hard at that time. The boys would be down the pit by the age of 14, sometimes younger, risking life and limb in incredibly dangerous working conditions. Above ground, the female family members toiled day and night to feed and care for the miners, their lodgers and their children. Work and home were inseparable for the women living in these emergent communities. In fact, the mortality rates of women who worked in the home was higher than than those of their menfolk who worked in the pit, as noted by Dot Jones in her excellent essay on women’s lives in the Rhondda between 1881 and 1911.
Women and girls worked hard, day and night, and their only respite was a brief period of confinement after giving birth. Many families had more than 6 children because infant mortality rates were so high. Women needed to be able to work whilst tending to their little ones, and the Siol Fagu, or nursing shawl, was widely used to keep babies safe and content and give the mother her hand free to carry on with her jobs.
Al’s mum is fond of carrying D ‘Welsh-fashion’, rolled up securely in a blanket or shawl and cradled in the crook of her arm. It is lovely to know D will be so happy cwtched on her mamgu when she goes to spend the day there without me. It was fascinating to hear how all babies would once have been carried in this way.
I came across Ann-Marie Dewhurst’s excellent Celtic Baby Carrying blog while searching for instructions on the carrying method. She has a real wealth of images and a link to this great video of Cerys Matthews explaining how to use a nursing shawl.
Although I’ve not been able to find any images from Pontypridd, the National Library archives do contain some beautiful pictures of people carrying Welsh fashion around south Wales.
The oldest picture I found is of a woman in Swansea, in full national dress. The archive note suggests it was taken around 1850.
One interesting thing I have discovered is the diversity of people who carried their children in the shawl. A wonderful image from the Celtic Baby Carrying blog shows a family portait with the grandfather standing proudly wrapped in the shawl, a tiny child cradled to him. The picture is from the 1930s.
I was sent two further pictures of men carring Welsh fashion after putting a request on the Rhondda – Our Valley Facebook group. A local historian, Stephen Verdun Pearce, shared these photos of fathers in Blaenrhondda walking the streets with their babies in shawls. I don’t have a date for them, but judging by the hair and clothes I reckon it’s probably the Fifties.
Of course, carrying using the shawl wasn’t confined to the valleys. There are images from West Wales showing the Siol Fagu in use at the start of the 19th century. In Cardiff the women of Tiger Bay also carried this way. This beautiful picture from 1954 shows two women in Butetown. The baby is wearing the most fantastic beret.
The wonderful thing about all these pictures is they show the normalcy and heritage of carrying your child close to you. I am regularly stopped by older people when I’m in the supermarket, keen to tell me of their own experiences carrying their babies. I can see the nostaligia they feel for the tenderness you experience holding your cariad so close to your heart.
The many benefits of carrying Welsh fashion were articulated by the people who responded to my post on Rhondda – Our Valley. One contributer reminisced “I found it comforting for both mother and baby, and found I could wash dishes, peel vegetables and do any number of jobs. The strange thing is I always start humming a Welsh hymn, must be a memory of being nursed myself“. Another simply said “Great when you have big babies! Tuck it in tight enough and you an arm and a half free! Carried both my boys this way!
I love organising our local slingmeet, encouraging people of all backgrounds to have a go at using a carrier with their child. I hope that as our community grows we can re-establish the use of slings, wraps and even shawls in this area. The people in the valleys are rightly proud of their heritage, and I hope it won’t be too long until it’s an everyday sight to see the dads of Rhondda Cynon Taf once again walking the streets with their little ones held close.
If you want to have a go at wrapping Welsh fashion, you can find picture instructions on how to do so here.