Illegitimi Non Carborundum

“I am a bastard, too. I love bastards! I am bastard begot, bastard instructed, bastard in mind, bastard in valor, in everything illegitimate.” William Shakespeare, Troilus & Cressida

Today I began my long-term volunteer position at Gwent Archives, based on the old Steelworks site in Ebbw Vale. The regeneration of this vast area of land continues apace, and it currently hosts a brand new FE college and sports centre. The Archive, based in the impressive Grade II listed former General Office, are a lovely juxtaposition of old and new. My positive experience was no doubt greatly enhanced by the fact they’re not stingy in turning the heating up, which was particularly welcome on such a cold day, but seriously: it’s a great place, and the staff are really friendly.

The Archives, formerly the Monmouthshire Record Office and the Gwent County Record Office, have been running since 1938 and today serve the five unitary authorities encompassed within the modern-day Blaenau Gwent. They have a dedicated conservation department and a broad collection that holds, amongst many other things, lists of applications for exemption from military service (given 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1, this alone is a potentially interesting item).

My task today was to assist in transcribing some old Court ledgers, listing petty crimes committed in the Tredegar, Blackwood and Ebbw Vale areas throughout June and July of 1933. Some of the entries were quite mundane: a whole page dedicated to persons who had fallen foul of “Bye Law” [sic], for example, but there were some really stand-out entries in the ledger: a gentleman fined for “being in possession of two cigarettes”, and another for not keeping his lamp maintained (these were probably important issues down a mine, and warranted some form of punishment). Maintenance of wife and child(ren) was another common feature, but the most interesting to me were the cases involving bastardy.

The status of a bastard (or whoreson) was different in Wales before conquest: a bastard child, so long as they were acknowledged by the father, was still equal to a legitimate child insofar as the law was concerned, but after Wales was incorporated into England the status of the bastard changed considerably: some parishes in England, like Edgmond in Salop, even had a special register for them. The blame was placed, rather predictably, on alcohol:

It is suggested the increase in illegitimacy in the 18th century was caused by the rapid growth in ale houses 1730s to 1780’s. Peter Laslett in The World We Have Lost (1965) states “Our ancestors, by this test of bastards born and registered as such, were rather more moral sexually than are we ourselves.”

Fathers of illegitimate children were required by the parish to support their children financially: in one entry in the record, a fine in the sum of £44 was laid against the child’s father – given that the average weekly salary at the time was £3.60 a week, and the average house would have set you back £60, this was a phenomenal sum.

This isn’t an advertisement for the Archive per se, but it is fascinating what you can find amongst its records. Past lives rendered in a simple line, distant relatives perhaps forgotten even by their families; their inclusion in the public record their last remaining link to the living. The fines were rather sad little entries in the record, and I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to them all: the little bastards of Blaenau Gwent, stigmatised from birth in both blood and ink.

Aberystwyth Mon Amour

Tonight I’m not going to post anything about my work or an article I’ve read recently: though indeed, it’s been a while since I did either of those things, and I must apologise for my tardiness. Tonight’s blog post is based on something that has happened recently in the town where I have been conducting my research for the last two years, and where I lived prior to that for eight years. A place which is as close to my heart as my home town: more so, in all honesty, because it was the place in which I grew to adulthood and where many of my best friendships were forged and my most enduring memories were created.

No-one can have escaped the poor weather we’ve been having recently. Here in my little part of South Wales the rain has been incessant, accompanied by howling winds and hailstones. But Aberystwyth, the town that captured my heart at the age of 18 and never gave it back, has been taking a beating. High winds and towering waves have combined to batter the Victorian promenade, gouging great holes in the sea wall. The shelter where I sat with my ex partner, talking and drinking wine and watching previous, less serious storms, has collapsed into the hole torn by the ferocious ocean. The bar, which hundreds upon hundreds of students and locals have kicked (a tradition that goes back many years and which is said to ensure the person kicking the bar always returns to the town) has apparently been swept away. The seafront halls, normally so foreboding, are dwarfed by giant waves and tonight stand mostly empty, the students having been evacuated to the campus.

As a former student, as a current student, as a previous “local”, seeing the pictures and the news footage has been awful. To see the places of my youth torn up and wrecked has awoken a part of me I’m not sure I knew existed. I feel fierce loyalty for the place, and immense sadness. Watching the news earlier brought me almost to tears – I feel like a part of my history has been taken away by the winds.

But the best part about Aberystwyth is its people, and they won’t let a little thing like a violent weather system tearing apart their town get them too down. Tonight they are huddled in warm, well-lit pubs and loading up songs with lots of water-based imagery in their titles on the jukebox. They are sat on top of Constitution Hill watching the waves bear down on their little town, enjoying one of nature’s spectacles. There are students evacuated to the campus eating free chips in the Union. That is not to dismiss what any of those people are going through, but they are facing down the storm in inimitable Aberystwyth style: surrounded by friends, possibly (most definitely) with a drink in hand. And they will emerge from this storm with brilliant anecdotes of bravery and idiocy, and tall tales that should be taken with a pinch of salt.

The attached picture is by Keith Morris, the Aberystwyth photographer who charts our lives in the town: the title of the blog is, of course, from Malcolm Pryce’s wonderful novel Aberystwyth Mon Amour. I apologise for the unashamedly sentimental tone of this post, but I don’t apologise for loving the place as much as I do.

Picture taken by Keith Morris, Aberystwyth
Picture taken by Keith Morris, Aberystwyth

**UPDATE: The bar is alive! Updates in my comments section and via my Twitter feed seem to confirm that the bar is still standing. Hopefully it’ll hang in there as a fitting testament to the toughness of the town and its residents.