The lives of the pre-docks inhabitants of Barry, including the contiguous villages of Cadoxton, Merthyr Dyfan, Highlight (Uchelolau) and Cwm Ciddy, would have been peppered with customs, traditions and superstitions; these would have played a large part in their lives, and also that of the people of old Glamorgan.
Glamorgan and Barry was still very rural until the last one hundred years. For example; Barry was still described in the late nineteenth century as being only accessible ‘by carriage and foot’ with there being no real roads to speak of (with the exception of the Port Road Turnpike). Most of the customs and beliefs in this article were committed to paper during the Victorian period when Barry and its surrounding villages were still very rural and unaffected by modern life; it is reasonable then to deduce that they may be of some age and extant for generations before being committed to paper.
It was noted during the late nineteenth century that the inhabitants of rural Glamorganshire, especially the older ones were ‘not a little superstitious and strongly believe in ghosts, warnings and death-candles’ (corpse-candles or cannwyll corf) which are a death omen particular to Welsh folklore and were widely believed in, not just in Glamorganshire but throughout Wales; belief in witches and witchcraft was also common throughout past centuries.
The Corpse Candle, often a doppelganger of those unfortunate enough to see it, or sometimes a spectral light, was a sure sign that death would soon come.
Glamorganshire was described even during the early twentieth century as having many customs that were unique to this area and seen nowhere else, but with the advent of industry and a mass migration of outsiders they have completely vanished. For example, a local legend was told of Porthkerry that every night ‘Ceri ab Caid’s’ daughter would ride out with her white hound on her mysterious journey, returning always at dawn.
An old custom noted in the Barry area that could easily have older antecedents was that of Mary the White (Mari Lwyd). This was basically a form of wassailing (an English version of ‘Mari Lwyd’). In Glamorgan the villagers would dress up in the guise of a horse decorated with ribbons and would on Christmas eve humorously harass local homeowners, even intruding into the house itself until various liquid refreshments or money were offered in appeasement.
Happily, the ancient custom of Mari Lwyd survives in more traditional parts of Wales.
Another ancient custom practiced in Wales and old Glamorgan was that of Hunting the Wren. Once the wren was captured, it was placed in a ribbon decorated wooden box where it was taken by four men to the local town where they would endeavour to sell it for beer money and, like the local custom of Mari Lwyd, the men were also admitted into the local houses’ for liquid refreshments.
A ribbon decorated wooden Wren House
Another ancient custom from rural Barry was leaving wish tokens at wells (regarded since pagan times as sacred places). Barry contained principally four such ancient wells, which were widely believed to have healing and curative properties. For example, it was a custom for Barry women in times gone by to visit a well on Barry Island on Holy Thursday to bath their eyes in the hope of preventing blindness. Of the wells, there was St Baruch’s Well which is located on Barry Island and Ffynnon John Lewis Well, noted for curing afflictions of the eyes, which was located by the now vanished farm of Ty Du at Merthyr Dovan. Jacob's Well was located at Buttrills Road and Channel’s Well was at Pencoedtre in Cadoxton and was reputed to cure skin disease. There were other ancient wells such as Begger's Well which was located in Peters Well Road. These wells were referred to by the inhabitants of old Barry as ‘rag wells’ on account of the large amounts of rags tied to bushed or trees nearby.
Rag wells must have been colourful places as this modern image of wish tokens would suggest.
The act of leaving tokens at a sacred place pre-dates Christianity and is a widely practiced pagan tradition which still lingers on throughout Britain today. For example, the followers of the Wiccan religion are in the habit of leaving wish tokens at ancient prehistoric sites. The ancient customs and superstitions of Glamorgan and Wales were a part of the rural community and of a way of life that for the most part has sadly now vanished.