Mary Curtis was born in 1815 in Stepney,
London, but is an honorary ‘Woman of West Wales’ who adopted Laugharne,
Carmarthenshire as her home and left a lasting legacy for future generations.
Mary moved to Laugharne in 1855, having
previously worked as a governess and landscape painter in London’s East End.
She initially lodged in King Street, Laugharne and was listed in census records
as a ‘Governess’. However, in later life she was described as an ‘Authoress’
and spent many years researching the history of her adopted home and her book ‘Antiquities of Laugharne and Pendine’ was
published in 1871. A review from the Carmarthen Journal in 1880 stated:
‘Ladies have not
hitherto acquired much celebrity as antiquaries but there is no reason why they
should not equal men in this department of research…We wish someone in every
district would do for their neighbourhood what Miss Curtis has done for
Laugharne…and we should soon have a body of information out of which the much
longed-for history of Wales might be written’. Furthermore, in an era dominated by male-centred
depictions of history, Mary Curtis arguably depicts a feministpoint of view. In describing the
formation of Britain as a whole she writes: ‘By
the old British law a woman might rule the kingdom as well as a man; and among
the Picts too, the succession went wholly by the female side’.
Unlike some of her contemporaries, Mary’s
writing places significance on the lives of working-class women in rural West
Wales. From her, we learn of ‘farm maids…with
baskets of butter, some with poultry and eggs; themselves the perfection of
neatness…The laboring people find great support from the sale of fish…when the
women come in from the sands with their bags of cockles; perhaps they have
walked miles. They return as they went, in groups…with hats of all sizes and
shapes, generally with the well-known handkerchief tied over their head…wooden
shoes; some with baskets, others with tin pans on their heads full of cockles,
which they poise admirably with their arms akimbo.’ Later Mary dedicates an
entire chapter to the clothing of rural women, with detailed information on
authentic materials and techniques for making the traditional Welsh Costume.
In the preface of her book, Mary thanks the people of Laugharne for ‘furnishing (her) with so many interesting
facts’ and describes ‘how pleasant an
occupation it has been to collect and record the history of a place in which
(she) found so many kind friends’. Both ‘facts and friendships’ in Mary’s
experience, are enriched by the testimonies of women and, in representing
female endeavor herself, acknowledges how ‘the advantages and pleasures of
intellectual pursuits are finite and never ending’.
Mary Curtis died in 1895 and a decade later, her
contribution to preserving the heritage of rural West Wales was acknowledged with
a somewhat backhanded compliment. The Welshman declared in June 1909 ,
‘Laugharneshire is so deeply indebted (to Mary Curtis) for the preservation of
our folklore and other interesting matters which must ere this have been
irretrievably lost had she not, in her oftentimes quaint manner, recorded it’.
Nevertheless, many historians still refer to ‘The Antiquities of Laugharne and
Pendine’ and it has since been described as a ‘minor classic of its genre’.