The Rev John Evans 1803

Letters written during a tour through south Wales

Page 4 : A fresh-coloured woman and a mud hut on the foothills of the Elenydd

Some cottages in Ceredigion and north Pembrokeshire were built with mud or clay walls. The walls had to be very thick to provide stability, but they were also warm. They were protected from being washed away by painting them frequently with whitewash. Building a cottage in this was a slow process, so it is very unlikely that such cottages were built over-night [1].

Wattle and daub wall

This photograph of a partially reconstructed wall shows how they were made from wattle (thin branches of flexible wood) and daub (a mixture of mud, cow dung, water and straw).

© Castell Henllys Iron Age Fort 2020.  

Some of John Evans’ stories may be questionable ; however, his account of the chance-meeting with a local woman with dark-sparking eyes and black hair is probabaly pretty factual. It is unlikely that he had anything to gain by distorting this story. To his credit, in this instance, he has given us, a lucid insight to local life on Elenydd around the turn of the 18th century – a great deal more than any of his contemporaries. When making his way towards Ystrad Fllur, after the thunderstorm, he came across :

. . . one of those huts that are thinly sprinkled by the sides of the hills and inhabited by peaters and shepherds.

As he approached the hut, three young children came running out almost in a state of nudity followed later by :

A stout fresh-coloured woman, with dark sparkling eyes and black hair . . . habited in a striped gown and flannel petticoat,

Seeing their plight (probably dripping wet following the storm), she welcomed them in to her cottage by the most inviting sounds in her language. John Evans described the place as partly formed by excavations into the rock and partly by walls of mud mixed with chopped rushes. Nothing unusual in this ; most Cardiganshire cottages in the 18th century were constructed of mud or clay walls, often protected by whitewash [1]. According to the fresh-coloured woman, her husband and his father before him had been born in the cottage, which suggests that it had been built sometime early 18th century. Clearly, it was the family’s permanent abode.

John Evans does not say so, but mud or clay walls were generally around two to three feet thick and constructed with watered mud or clay mixed with (in this instance)  rushes to bind it together. This was not a quick wall-building process ; a layer of about a foot high was laid at any one time and then left to dry before the next layer was added. An interesting picture showing the multi-layered structure of  this type of construction may be seen in a booklet by Martin Davies,  ‘Traditional Qualities of the West Wales Cottage’ 2005, p 30.

Dodgriafel almost certainly means “diod griafol”, a drink made from the fruit of the hawthorn (red or yellow berries containing seeds), and a traditional Welsh drink.  O bosib mae diod griafol oedd y ddiod fwyaf Cymreig a mwyaf diddorol yn ein hanes” yn ôl R. Elwyn Hughes, awdur. Dysgl Bren a Dysgl Arian : Nodiadau ar Hanes a Bywyd yng Nghymru, Cyhoeddiad Y Lolfa, 2003).

According to John Evans, the building had a wattled or wickerwork chimney (possibly daubed with mud) and a gable-end entrance facing the south-east. The latter was closed during the night or in cold weather with a wattled hurdle (i.e. a portable wattled frame : see opposite figure) covered with rushes.

Inside there was a wall of peat which served as fuel and as a partition  for the bedroom which had a bed of heather and dried rushes in the corner. There was very little furniture, just the necessities :

. . . some loose stones formed the grate ; two large ones (stones) with a plank across,  supplied the place of chairs ; a kettle, with a back stone  (probably  a black looking slate) for  baking  oaten cakes . . . two earthen pitchers stood by for preserving or carrying water and dodgriafel,  the usual beverage of the family [5]

John Evans described the young lady as happy, with a loving husband who was also a good kind father :

. . . he worked hard and they wanted for nothing he could get for them ; he was a peater digging peat in the adjoining moors, and curing it for sale.

For his efforts he earned between four and six shillings a week depending upon the weather. They had a little cow on the lease (probably paying rent for a patch of land to Lord Lisburne or the Nanteos Estate) and a few sheep on the hills. She gave no assistance to her husband in his work, but she did contribute to the family income by knitting. With the help of the two eldest children (five and seven years of age) she could earn as much as five pence a day.  However, her efforts were limited – the younger children were taking up a lot of her time and she was expecting another soon which would make it five young off-springs to take care of, to clothe and feed.

Clearly, the total household earnings was pitifully small and John Evans was quite mystified – unable to understand how this poverty-stricken family could possibly be so contented with their lot :

The mother looked in health, and the children, though thinly clad, ruddy and smiling . . . Indeed, there did not appear anything like the misery and filth observable in the dwellings of many of the English poor, whose weekly income is four or six times as great.  Though the floor was formed of the native rock, it was regularly swept with a besom made of segs [6], bound with a band of the same ; and the fuel was as regularly piled as bread on a baker’s shelves. All appeared in order, and the air of content apparent in the looks of this humble peasant and her family put us all justly to the blush.

It seems the whole touring party was astounded at witnessing :

. . . so much reason and gratitude in this habitation of penury (in this place of extreme poverty)

John Evans was, naturally, keen to explore this remarkable woman’s philosophy of life and asked her what school she had learned so important a lesson. She replied :

Sir . . . we regularly go to yonder church, pointing to the hills ; and if it be bad weather, we stop at Mr Jones’ meeting by the way, where we hear much the same things ; that all we have is the gift of God, and that if we possess health and strength, we possess more than we deserve.

She went on to say that they endeavour at all times to conduct themselves :

. . . with propriety in that state of life in which it has pleased God to call us, we shall, after death, change this poor uncertain life for a better, where we shall be for ever happy : and the frequent internment of our friends and neighbours informs us can be at no great distance.

Astounded  at so much good sense and piety where he so little expected to find it, he wrote :

Just step into this humble cottage, ye rich and gay, and learn that happiness ye so earnestly seek in vain ; a health and happiness neither wealth nor pleasure can bestow.

From Elenydd’s quacking moors and the mountainous slopes overlooking the Bridge of the Blessed Ford, John Evans and his party walked on to Strata Florida and to the village of Rhydfendigaid. To find out what he had to say about this poor populous village, click here


[1]T. Rees, The Beauties of England and Wales, 1815, p 407-8
[2]Ceredigion County Council, Mud Cottages, (http//
[3]Ceredigion County Council, Mud Cottages, (http//
[4]Image taken from Stockz (
[5]Dodgriafel almost certainly means “diod griafol”, a drink made from the fruit of the hawthorn (red or yellow berries containing seeds), and a traditional Welsh drink.  “O bosib mae diod griafol oedd y ddiod fwyaf Cymreig a mwyaf diddorol yn ein hanes” yn ôl R. Elwyn Hughes, awdur. Dysgl Bren a Dysgl Arian : Nodiadau ar Hanes a Bywyd yng Nghymru, Cyhoeddiad Y Lolfa, 2003).
[6]A broom – made from birch-twigs or heather