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Lady Ruth Herbert Lewis
Lady Ruth Herbert Lewis

In 1969 a collection of thirty-one phonograph cylinders used by Lady Ruth Herbert Lewis (1872-1946), a prominent member of the Welsh Folk Song Society, were donated to the Welsh Folk Museum by her daughter, Kitty Idwal Jones. They comprised a selection of musical items recorded around Flintshire, Denbighshire and Cardiganshire between 1910 and 1913. These delicate wax cylinders have been kept in store ever since, their contents presumed unplayable, but thanks to current technology it has recently been possible to successfully retrieve a substantial amount of material. Twelve tracks have now been transferred to compact disc and, despite the continuous scratching noises which affect the overall quality, simply being able to hear voices recorded some ninety years ago is immensely exciting.

Lady Ruth Herbert Lewis was one of the pioneers of folk-song collecting in Wales who contributed significantly toward preserving the country's rich musical tradition. Born in Liverpool, she moved to Penucha Mansion, Caerwys, Flintshire, in 1897 following her marriage to parliamentary member Sir J.Herbert Lewis and was soon keenly immersing herself in Welsh culture. She became a staunch supporter of all movements promoting the country's heritage and intellectual standing and contributed personally to this cause by joining the Welsh Folk Song Society and later becoming its secretary and president. It was during her early years of membership that she undertook the majority of her collecting work.

A song-collecting trip near Llandysul
A song-collecting trip near Llandysul, Carmarthenshire, in 1913. The photograph is believed to have been taken by Ruth Herbert Lewis

Lady Herbert Lewis's folk song travels were conducted on horse and cart and of the many individuals visited her main source of information was undoubtedly Mrs Jane Williams of Holywell workhouse, who recalled over a dozen songs in Welsh and English. Such was the banality of workhouse life for most of the elderly, described by Kitty Idwal Jones as 'many old women sitting around a large black stove in the middle of a dreary ward; others lying in their beds, in long rows, with nothing to do', that Jane Williams seemed to have revelled in the chance to break the monotony by being recorded. There she sat waiting 'in her cap and white apron, ready to go to the "master's room" to sing into the phonograph. Her voice was incredibly clear considering she was ninety years old' (quote translated from the Welsh). Jane Williams proved such an inspiration to Lady Herbert Lewis that she dedicated her 1914 publication Folksongs of Flintshire and the Vale of Clwyd to the old lady 'whose store of songs convinced me that a collection could be made within easy distance of my home.' Judging by the tone of the book's preface, the whole collecting process yielded much enjoyment, with the informants having become 'familiar friends' whose songs had either been taught to them when young or sung by their parents.

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