St Fagans National History Museum (then known as the Welsh Folk Museum) was established in 1947. It was part of a Scandinavian-inspired movement, concerned with collecting and preserving examples of a disappearing, primarily rural, way of life. Technology, industry and urbanisation were seen as the great threats to a pattern of life and dependence on land and sea that at had been in existence since the Middle Ages.

Within the Welsh context, and central to the development of the Welsh Folk Museum, was the emphasis placed on rescuing, reconstructing and displaying the houses and workplaces of ordinary people, from different social backgrounds and from different periods.

The first buildings to be moved to St. Fagans were, Stryd Lydan - the timber-framed barn from Penley (1950) - the farmhouses of Abernodwydd (1951), Kennixton (1952), Hendre'r-ywydd Uchaf (1954), and Cilewent (1955), and, representing the cultural element, the eighteenth century Unitarian chapel from Dre-fach Felindre (1953).

William Llewellyn with his family  in their car outside Gwalia Stores, about 1912
William Llewellyn with his family and chauffeur photographed in their Austin 15 Tourer outside Gwalia Stores, about 1912.
Exterior view of Gwalia stores
Exterior view of Gwalia stores at St Fagans National History Museum

Examples from rural Wales

All these structures were essentially rural. Indeed, the first nineteen buildings to be re-erected at the Museum can be classed as rural buildings, the only 'borderline' case being the cockpit from the small market town of Denbigh, which in any case illustrated a recreational activity that was to be found as much in the countryside as in the villages and towns. Even the tollhouse, from Penparcau on the southern outskirts of Aberystwyth, was typical of scores of similar structures nearly all of which were located in the countryside.

For more than three decades this was the pattern followed in selecting buildings. When non-domestic structures were chosen they were invariably craft, agricultural or lesser industrial buildings and represented rural, rather than urban, industries. Probably the closest that was aspired to, to an industrial complex, was the tannery, but even here motive power for the bark crusher was provided by a water wheel, and although hailing from the small market town of Rhayader, it was situated outside the built-up area.

Abernodwydd Farmhouse - Llangadfan, 1937
Abernodwydd Farmhouse, Llangadfan, 1937
Exterior view of Abernodwydd Farmhouse
Exterior view of Abernodwydd Farmhouse at St Fagans National History Museum

Full picture of Welsh Life

historic buildings original locations
Most of the buildings at St Fagans today originally came from all parts of Wales

After 1980 there was a conscious and fundamental change in emphasis, with buildings being chosen which helped convey a fuller picture of Welsh life. Thus we find the addition of a school (1981), bakery (1982), tailor's workshop (1988) and post office (1992), - examples of buildings which, on a larger or smaller scale, could be found in most communities, be they rural, urban or industrial.

The real break with the past came with the re-erection of a terrace of six houses from Rhyd-y-car, Merthyr Tydfil in 1987. These dwellings, whilst harking back to the vernacular tradition, are nonetheless industrial, bordering on the urban, in style, nature and character. These were followed in 1991 by the Gwalia Stores from Ogmore Vale, built to serve a mining community. The addition of the Oakdale Workmen's Institute (1995) brought another aspect of valleys' life more fully into focus namely the provision of educational and recreational facilities.

The emphasis, since 1980, has therefore moved towards a more realistic, representative and relevant interpretation of how people in all parts of Wales lived, up to and including the present century.