THROUGHOUT history there have been many fascinating people who have made a lasting impressing and here in this feature, we’re going to be looking at the life of a sailor and bard from Llangrannog who defied societal norms in the nineteenth century.

Sarah Jane Rees was born in 1839 in Llangrannog where she grew up surrounded by marine life, with a ship captain for a father. She went to school in Pontgarreg according to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCAHMW), before she went to learn dressmaking in Cardigan at the age of 13.

In the Victorian era, women were expected to be in the home rather than living a life on the sea, or for the lower class females, they would be working in in the post industrial era but women’s rights were limited as they were not allowed to vote, sue or own property if they were married.

Sarah Jane, however, was destined for life on the sea and began working as a sailor on cargo ships where she spent two years travelling between Wales and France, as well as to Liverpool and Ireland alongside her father. Her early story seems to be the real-life version of the live-action Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass films in where much of Alice’s ideals are to follow in her late sailor father’s footsteps but due to the time period, her family are quite unsupportive. In an article on the National Library of Wales written by Elen Hâf Jones as part of the Europeana ‘Rise of Literacy’ project, she says that Sarah Jane’s life at sea was “to her parents’ disappointment,” although in the aforementioned RCAHMW article, it states that she joined her father on board his ship, which suggests that there was some family support.

After those two years, however, she returned back to the UK and to firm land, where she went to London and Liverpool to study. But despite returning to land, her studies revolved around the sea and she earned a master mariner’s qualification before she was 21.

Tivyside Advertiser: Sarah Jane Rees - better known by her bardic name of Cranogwen.Sarah Jane Rees - better known by her bardic name of Cranogwen. (Image: John Thomas. Image in public domain)

In 1860, at the tender age of 21, she returned back home to Llangrannog and – as an educated young woman – earned a role as head teacher at her local school. She taught seafaring at the school, training the next generation of sailors and sea captains, however, gave up her position in 1866 to focus on her writing.

Five years later, the Welsh speaker broke more barriers by becoming the first woman to win a poetry prize at the National Eisteddfod in Aberystwyth in 1865. She wrote a poem called Y Fodrwy Briodasol (translated to The Wedding Ring) under the pen name Cranogwen – which she would become known as throughout history. In Elen’s piece, she said that Sarah Jane – or Cranogwen – became an overnight celebrity following her win.

The poem was described as a humorous and sarcastic response to the married woman’s destiny – which at the time, involved expectations of running the family home and raising children.

In 1870, she became an officially published poet as her collection called Caniadau Cranogwen was published in 1870. The Welsh language collection held 40 poems and became popular amongst the Welsh speaking community.

In the late 1870s, Cranogwen made history again by becoming the first female editor of a Welsh magazine dedicated to issues faced by women. It was called Y Frythones and she spent 10 years editing it between 1879 and 1889. Y Frythones was not the first Welsh magazine dedicated to women’s issues (it was the second) but it was the first to be edited by a woman. During her tenure as editor, she would use the magazine to help champion female writers, providing a platform for them to develop their writing and showcase their work.

Y Frythones included features like short stories, poems, campaigns and problem pages and advisory columns as well as articles featuring the life and work of respected women.

Not content with just being a master mariner, published poet and magazine editor, she was also an good public speaker and even made the lengthy journey across to the United States of America twice to provide lectures.

Tivyside Advertiser: A statue of Cranogwen was unveiled in 2023.A statue of Cranogwen was unveiled in 2023. (Image: Beccy Harris (Western Telegraph Camera Club))

She was also a key figure in the Temperance Movement and founded the South Wales Women’s Temperance Union in 1901. The movement – which in the US was rooted in the Protestant churches – led for calls to ban alcohol. Cranogwen was a believer that alcohol was destructive to the family home. By 1916, there were more than 140 branches of the South Wales Women’s Temperance Union, however, the Temperance Movement failed to get an alcohol ban in the UK.

Cranogwen was also a very generous woman, donating most of the money she made to various causes, including funding the building of chapels and schoolrooms as well as repairs to said buildings and built a new home for her parents.

She had two long-term partners according to the RCAHMW. The first was Frances Rees, known as Fanny, who died in 1874 at the age of 21 from tuberculosis. Her second partner was Jane Thomas who she moved in with after the death of her parents and they were together until Cranogwen’s death.

She was also hoping to open a refuge for women but this was one dream she could not complete as she died in 1916, however, her dream was posthumously realised in 1922 when Llety Cranogwen opened in Tonypandy in her honour.

Cranogwen is buried in St Crannog’s Church, Llangrannog and has an inscription on her tomb, which the RCAHMW says reads: “She stood on her own amongst the women and wives of the nation in genius and talent. Her character was without blemish and she lectured, preached and wrote for over 50 years.”

In 2023, a statue of Cranogwen was installed in Llangrannog’s community garden to commemorate the ‘most outstanding’ Welsh woman of the nineteenth century, as historian Professor Dierdre Beddoe has been quoted as calling her.

The statue was designed and created by sculptor Sebastian Boyesen and provides a lasting reminder of the work carried out by Sarah Jane Rees throughout her life, hopefully inspiring generations of women to follow their own paths.

More about Cranogwen can be found in Elen Hâf Jones’ article here: or in the RCAHMW article here: