Sarah Jane Rees (Cranogwen)

 Sarah Jane Rees was born on 9th January 1839 in Llangranog, Ceredigion. While attending the village school, Sarah was introduced to Latin and astronomy and spent much of her free time sailing with her father (mariner John Rees), instead of cooking or sewing as convention dictated.

In early adulthood, Sarah Jane sailed on cargo ships travelling to and from France before studying at a Navigation School in London. It was here that she gained her certificate as Master Mariner, which qualified her to command ships anywhere in the world. As such, she set up her own Navigation School in Llangranog in 1859 in spite of opposition based on her gender.

By 1865, Sarah was writing poetry and became the first woman to win a prize for her work at the National Eisteddfod. Her poem, Y Fodrwy Briodasal’ (The Wedding Ring) is a satire on the narrow predetermined role of a married woman that Sarah Jane refused to accept as her own. Instead, she had two significant same-sex relationships with Fanny Rees of Troedyraur (who contracted tuberculosis and died in her arms at her home in Llangranog) and Jane Thomas with who she lived openly for many years.

By 1870 Sarah Jane (known also by her nom de plume, Cranogwen) was well-known as a writer and published her first full-length collection of poetry. The subject of her work ranged from shipwrecks to Welsh identity and she refused to shy away from political issues. In 1878 she became editor of a Welsh-language women’s periodical, Y Frythones, described as ‘a platform for Welsh bluestockings and proto-suffragettes’* that also provided opportunities for female voices and campaigned for girls’ education.

A dedicated Methodist, Cranogwen used her own voice to preach and spread the word on issues such as education and temperance. A compelling speaker, she also worked as a lecturer and co-founded the South Wales Women’s Temperance Union in 1901 to raise awareness of the negative impact of alcoholism on families.

Cranogwen died on 27th June 1916 and is buried in the churchyard at St. Crannogs. A writer, commentator and tireless campaigner for women’s education and social rights (who refused to conform to societal demands on her sexuality or ‘place’), Sarah Jane Rees leaves a lasting legacy on the culture of Wales. She was commemorated by the South Wales Women’s Temperance Union in 1922 when a homeless shelter for women and girls (Llety Cranogwen) was built in the Rhondda.

* Jenkins, Geraint H. (2007). “A Concise History of Wales”. Cambridge University Press.

Categories: Arts & Literature | Education | Icons | Revolutionaries

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