1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Breconshire

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BRECONSHIRE, or Brecknockshire, an inland county in South Wales, and the fourth largest in all Wales, bounded N.W. by Cardigan, N. and N.E. by Radnor, E. and S.E. by Monmouth, S. by Glamorgan and W. by Carmarthen. The general aspect of the county is mountainous, and the scenery is marked by beauty and grandeur. The climate is moist but temperate and healthy, and the soil of the valleys, often consisting of rich alluvial deposits, is very fertile. The loftiest mountains in South Wales, extending from Herefordshire and Monmouthshire (where their eastern spurs form the Hatteral Hills) in a south-easterly direction into Carmarthenshire, completely encircle the county on the east and south except for the break formed by the Vale of Usk at Crickhowell. Their highest summit north of the Usk, on the eastern side, where they are known as the Black Mountains, or sometimes the Black Forest Mountains, is Pen y Gader (2624 ft.) between Talgarth and Llanthony, and on the south-west the twin peaks of the Mynydd Du (“Black Mountain”) or the so-called Carmarthenshire Vans or Beacons, only the higher of which, Fan Brycheiniog (2632 ft.), is, however, in Breconshire; while the centre of the crescent is occupied by the masses of the Brecknockshire Beacons or Vans (often called the Beacons simply), the highest point of which, Pen y Fan, formerly also known as Cadair Arthur, or Arthur’s Chair, attains an altitude of 2910 ft. In the north, a range of barren hills, which goes by the general designation of Mynydd Eppynt (a name more properly limited to its central portion), stretches right across the county in a north-easterly direction, beginning with Mynydd Bwlch-y-Groes on the boundary to the east of Llandovery, and terminating near Builth. In the dreary country still farther north there is a series of rounded hills covered with peat and mosses, the chief feature being Drygarn Fawr (2115 ft.) on the confines of Cardiganshire.

Of the valleys, the most distinguished for beauty is that of the Usk, stretching from east to west and dividing the county into two nearly equal portions. The Wye is the chief river, and forms the boundary between the county and Radnorshire on the north and north-east, from Rhayader to Hay, a distance of upwards of 20 m.; its tributary, the Elan, till it receives the Claerwen, and then the latter river, continue the boundary between the two counties on the north, while the Towy separates the county from Cardigan on the north-west. The hilly country to the north of the Eppynt is mainly drained by the Irfon, which falls into the Wye near Builth. The Usk rises in the Carmarthenshire Van on the west, and flowing in a direction nearly due east through the centre of the county, collects the water from the range of the Beacons in the south, and from the Eppynt range in the north by means of numerous smaller streams, of which the Tarell and the Honddu (which join it at Brecon) are the most important, and it enters Monmouthshire near Abergavenny. The Taff, the Nêdd (with its tributaries the Hepste and the Mellte) and the Tawe, all rise on the south of the Beacon range and passing through Glamorganshire, flow into the Bristol Channel, the upper reaches of the Nêdd and its tributaries in the Vale of Neath being deservedly famous for its scenery. The mountains of the county constitute one of the best water-producing areas in Wales. Recognizing this, the corporation of Birmingham, under an act of 1892, acquired the watershed of the Elan and Claerwen, and constructed on the Elan three impounding reservoirs whence the water is conducted through an aqueduct to Birmingham (q.v.). Swansea obtains its chief supply from a reservoir of one thousand million gallons constructed in 1898–1906 on the Cray, a tributary of the Usk. A large industrial area around Neath is supplied from Ystradfellte. Merthyr Tydfil draws its supply from the lesser Taff, while Cardiff’s main supply comes from the Great Taff valley, where, under acts of 1884 and 1894, two reservoirs with a capacity of 668 million gallons have been constructed and a third authorized.

In the east of the county, at the foot of the Black Forest Mountains, is Llyn Safaddan, or Brecknock Mere, now more generally known as Llangorse Lake (from being partly situated in the parish of that name). It is about 3 m. long by 1 m. broad, being the largest lake in South Wales. Upon an artificial island in the lake traces of lake-dwellings were discovered in 1869, together with the bones of red deer, wild boar and Bos longifrons.

Geology.—The oldest rocks in Brecknockshire are the Llandeilo shales and intrusive diabases of pre-Llandovery age which near Builth extend across the Wye from Radnorshire; another patch with volcanic outflows comes up at Llanwrtyd, and at both places they give rise to mineral springs. Next follow the Bala Beds, which, with the succeeding Lower and Upper Llandovery shales, sandstones and conglomerates, form the sparsely populated sheepwalks and valleys which occupy most of the north-western part of the county. These rocks are much folded and the shales are locally cleaved into slates, while the sandstones and conglomerates form scarps and ridges. To the south-east of this region a narrow outcrop of Upper Llandovery, Wenlock and Ludlow sandstones and mudstones follows, unconformably overlying the Llandeilo and Bala rocks, and dipping conformably under the Old Red Sandstone; they extend from Newbridge-on-Wye and Builth through Llangammarch (where there are mineral springs) towards Llandovery, while a tongue of Ludlow rocks brought up by faulting extends from Erwood on the Wye for 8 m. south-westwards into the Old Red Sandstone. The remainder and greater part of the county is occupied chiefly by the gently inclined Old Red Sandstone; in the dissected plateau of the Black Mountains north of Crickhowell the lower marls and cornstones are laid open, while south of Brecon the conglomeratic upper beds form the escarpment and plateaus of the Beacons. The southern edge of the county is formed by the scarps and moorlands of the Carboniferous Limestone and Millstone Grit (both of which form also the outlier of Pen-ceryg-calch north of Crickhowell), while the lowest beds of the Coal Measures of the South Wales coalfield are reached in the Tawe and Neath valleys (where the beds are much folded) and near Tredegar and Brynmawr. Glacial deposits spread over the lower grounds and striae occur at great heights on the Black Mountains.

Industries.—Agriculture is the chief industry, and the Agricultural Society of the county, dating from 1755, is the oldest in Wales. About one-fourth only of the area of the county is under cultivation, and the chief crops grown are wheat and barley, but above all, turnips and oats. The acreage devoted to any other crop is practically infinitesimal, though in the eastern part more attention is paid to fruit-growing than perhaps in any other part of South Wales. The farming is, however, chiefly pastoral, nearly one-third of the county is common or waste land, and its number of sheep (mainly of the Radnor Forest breed) far exceeds that of any other county in Wales. The breeding of cobs and ponies comes next in importance, and thirdly that of cattle, now mostly Herefords, though Speed mentions a native breed, long since extinct, all white with red ears. These, together with pigs, wool, butter, and (in small quantities) cheese, form the staple of a considerable trade with the Midlands and the industrial districts to the south and south-west. The farms are of comparatively small size, the average cultivated area of the holdings in 1894 being 63 acres, and the hired labour averages about two men for each farm. A large share of the work, especially on the highland farms, is done by the occupiers and members of their own families, with the aid, where required, of an indoor servant or two. Few hands are employed in manufactures, but the mining industry is more important, coal being extensively worked—chiefly anthracite in the upper reaches of the Swansea and Neath valleys, and bituminous in the south-eastern corner of the county. There are also limestone and fireclay, firebrick and cement works, chiefly on the northern outcrop of the carboniferous limestone, as at Abernant in the Vale of Neath and at Penwyllt.

The Central Wales section of the London & North-Western railway from Craven Arms to Swansea crosses the north-west corner of the county, and is intersected at Builth Road by a branch of the Cambrian, which, running for the most part on the Radnorshire side of the Wye, follows that river from Rhayader to Three Cocks; the Midland railway from Hereford to Swansea runs through the centre of the county, effecting junctions at Three Cocks with the Cambrian, at Talyllyn with the Brecon & Merthyr railway (which connects the county with the industrial areas of East Glamorgan and West Monmouthshire), and at Capel Colbren with the Neath and Brecon line. The North-Western and Rhymney joint line skirts the south-eastern boundary of the county. Brecon is also connected with Newport by means of the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal, which was completed in 1801 and is 35 m. in length. The Swansea Canal and that of the Vale of Neath have also their northern terminal within the county, at Ystradgynlais and Abernant respectively. The main roads of the county are probably the best in South Wales.

Population and Administration.—The area of the ancient county is 475,224 acres, with a population in 1891 of 57,031 and in 1901 of 59,907. The area of the administrative county is 469,301 acres. The only municipal borough is Brecon, which is the county town, and had in 1901 a population of 5741. The other urban districts are Brynmawr, Builth Wells and Hay, with populations of 6833, of 1805 and of 1680 respectively in 1901. Crickhowell and Talgarth are market towns, while Llanwrtyd Wells is a rapidly developing health resort. The county forms part of the South Wales circuit, and the assizes are held at Brecon. It had one court of quarter sessions, and is divided into ten petty sessional divisions. The borough of Brecon has a separate commission of the peace, but no separate court of quarter sessions. There are 94 civil parishes, while the ecclesiastical parishes or districts wholly or in part within the county number 70, of which 67 are in the diocese of St David’s and the archdeaconry of Brecon, the remaining 3 being in the diocese of Llandaff. The county is not divided for parliamentary purposes, and returns one member to parliament. It contains a small part of the parliamentary borough of Merthyr Tydfil.

In the eastern parts and along the Wye valley, English has become the predominant language, but in the rest of the county, especially north of the Eppynt range, Welsh occupies that position. In 1901 about 51% of the population above three years could speak both English and Welsh, 38% could speak English only and 11% Welsh only. The majority of the population is Nonconformist in religion, the chief denominations being the Baptists, Calvinistic Methodists and Congregationalists. Besides an endowed grammar-school (Christ College) at Brecon, there are in the county four secondary schools, established under the Welsh Intermediate Education Act 1899, viz. separate schools for boys and girls at Brecon, and dual schools at Builth and Brynmawr. Most of the county institutions are in the town of Brecon, but the joint asylum for the counties of Brecon and Radnor is at Talgarth. It was opened in February 1903. At Trevecca, near the same town, was a theological college for ministerial students attached to the Calvinistic Methodist body, but in October 1906 the institution was removed to Aberystwyth, and the buildings have since been utilized for a preparatory school belonging to the same body.

History.—There are no traces or record of Breconshire being inhabited before the Neolithic period, but to that period may be ascribed a number of cairns, menhirs and one cromlech (near Glanusk). In Roman times the eastern half of the county formed part of the territory of the Silures, a pre-Celtic race, whose governing class at that time probably consisted of Brythonic Celts. But an earlier wave of Celtic invasion represented by the Goidels had passed westwards along the valleys of the Usk and Wye, leaving traces in place-names (e.g. llwch, lake), and in the Ogham inscribed stones found at Glanusk, Trallwng and Trecastle, and probably surviving into historic times around the Beacon range and farther south even to Gower and Kidwelly. The conquest of the district by the Romans was effected between about A.D. 75 and 80, and they established a frontier fort (which some have called Caer Bannau, identifying it as Bannium) some 3 m. out of the present town of Brecon, with smaller stations on roads leading thereto at Y Gaer near Crickhowell, and at Capel Colbren in the direction of Neath. On the departure of the Romans, the Goidelic hill-tribes, probably with help from Gower and Ireland, seem to have regained possession of the Usk valley under the leadership of a chieftain of their own race, Brychan, who became the ancestor of one of the three chief tribes of hereditary Welsh saints. His territory (named after him Brycheiniog, whence Brecknock) lay wholly east of the Eppynt range, for the lordship of Buallt, corresponding to the modern hundred of Builth, to the west, remained independent, probably till the Norman invasion. Most of the older churches of central Brecknockshire and east Carmarthenshire were founded by or dedicated to members of Brychan’s family.

From the middle of the 8th century to the 10th, Brycheiniog proper often bore the brunt of Mercian attacks, and many of the castles on its eastern border had their origin in that period. Subsequently, when Bernard de Newmarch and his Norman followers obtained possession of the country in the last quarter of the 11th century, these were converted into regular fortresses. Bernard himself initiated this policy by building a castle at Talgarth on the Upper Wye, but in 1091 he moved southwards, defeated the regulus of Brycheiniog, Bleddyn ab Maenarch, and his brother-in-law Rhys ap Tewdwr, the prince of south-west Wales, and with materials obtained from the Roman fort of Caer Bannau, built a castle at Brecon, which he made his caput baroniae. Brycheiniog was then converted into a lordship marcher and passed to the Fitzwalter, de Breos, the Bohun and the Stafford families in succession, remaining unaffected by the Statute of Rhuddlan (1282), as it formed part of the marches, and not of the principality of Wales.

The Irfon valley, near Builth, was, however, the scene of the last struggle between the English and Llewelyn, who in 1282 fell in a petty skirmish in that district. The old spirit of independence flickered once again when Owen Glendower marched to Brecon in 1403. Upon the attainder of Edward, duke of Buckingham, in 1521, the lordship of Brecon with its dependencies became vested in the crown. In 1536 it was grouped with a whole series of petty lordships marcher and the lordship of Builth to form the county of Brecknock with Brecon as the county town, and the place for holding the county court. The county returns one member to parliament, and has done so since 1536; the borough of Brecon, with the town of Llywel, had also a separate representative from the same date till 1885, when it became merged in the county.