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The Lame Chick and the North Star: Some ethnic rivalries in sport as reflected in mid-nineteenth-century Welsh broadsides (1998)

by Prof. E. Wyn James

School of Welsh, Cardiff University

First published in Marjetka Golež (ed.), Ballads between Tradition and Modern Times (Lubljana, Slovenia: Slovenian Academy of Sciences & Arts, 1998), pp. 93-100. ISBN 961-6182-60-9.

This article is based on a paper delivered at the 27th International Ballad Conference, held at Gozd Martuljek, Slovenia, July 1997, under the auspices of the Institute of Ethnomusicology at the Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts.

Copyright © E. Wyn James, 1998, 2006


After drawing some comparisons between Slovenia and Wales, this article begins by outlining the relationship between Wales and its next-door neighbour and conqueror, England (including mention of the popular patriotic Hungarian ballad, ‘A Walesi Bárdok’ by János Arany, based on an apocryphal story of the slaughter of 500 Welsh bards by the conquering King Edward I of England in the thirteenth century). While the battlefield has long since ceased to be the scene of ethnic rivalries between the Welsh and the English, such rivalries still find expression in less extreme forms, nowhere more than in sport. One of the most popular sporting activities in south-east Wales in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was foot-racing. Of the two most renowned Welsh runners of that period, the name of Griffith Morgan (1700-37), nicknamed ‘Guto Nyth Brân’, has lingered strongly in folk memory, his feats becoming the subject of twentieth-century literary ballads. The prowess of the other — John Davies, nicknamed ‘The Lame Chick’ — would have been all but lost to posterity were it not that three contemporary broadsides have survived recounting his feats, and in particular his races in 1845-47 against perhaps the most prominent English runner of his day, Tom Maxfield of Windsor, nicknamed ‘The North Star’. While none of these broadsides are literary masterpieces, they are of import to the student of cultural history, not least in the way they reflect the ethnic significance of such contests.

Wales and Slovenia are representatives of the smaller nations of Europe, and while there are many obvious differences between the two countries, there are also some interesting similarities. They are, for example, very much alike in terms of size of both land-mass and population. Both have a mainly mountainous terrain, yet with a diversity of topography and scenery within their borders. Choral and polyphonic singing are prominent features in the cultural life of both countries. In both cultures, hymns have attained folk-song status, with a tendency in both hymn-singing traditions to repeat choruses and the last few lines of a hymn. A dragon is not only the national symbol of Wales, but also the symbol of Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana. Both countries saw significant emigration to Argentina during the nineteenth century. And while very different linguistically, fossils are still to be found in Welsh grammar of a dual number, in addition to singular and plural, which is such a distinguishing feature of modern Slovene. Despite their linguistic differences, both national languages are classed among the ‘lesser-used’ languages of Europe (the current euphemism for minority languages!), with sufficient similarities in their circumstances to warrant Professor Colin H. Williams, a colleague of mine in the School of Welsh at Cardiff University, and Dr Milan Bufon of the Slovenian Science and Research Centre (ZRS) at the University of Primorska in Koper, to be involved in a joint project entitled ‘Language and Identity in Wales and Slovenia’. And as with Slovenia, so the struggle to preserve its language, culture and identity in the face of the influences of more powerful neighbours, has been a constant feature of Welsh history.

There was an early Celtic presence in both lands, although this has obviously persisted in Wales far longer than in Slovenia. The demise of the Roman Empire left the British Celts to their own devices, and the subsequent centuries witnessed the gradual westward advance of wave upon wave of Anglo-Saxon invaders across the island of Britain, leaving Wales by the late sixth and early seventh centuries as a Celtic peninsular, territorially isolated from fellow-Celts in the north and south-western regions of the island. Wales thus became a distinct and conscious entity by about the end of the sixth century; a Celtic Christian enclave on the western seaboard of Britain. And, interestingly, in this same period Slovenia also developed as a recognisable unit.

The territorial conquest of Wales did not begin in earnest until the Norman conquest of neighbouring England in the eleventh century. The conquest of Wales by the Normans was a rather piecemeal affair, accomplished over a period of more than two centuries — in the south and east of Wales initially, and culminating in the conquest of the more mountainous north-west by Edward I of England in 1282 — a date of some significance also in the history of the Austrian Habsburg conquest of Slovenia.

Edward I will need little introduction to members of the old Austrian Empire and students of ballads alike, as he commands a central role in the popular patriotic ballad, ‘A Walesi Bárdok’ (‘The Bards of Wales’), written in 1856 by the major Hungarian poet, János Arany (1817-82). This dramatic ballad — not dissimilar to the Scottish ‘Border Ballads’ by which Arany was so influenced — was composed in the aftermath of the Hungarian revolution of 1848 and its brutal suppression by the Austrian rulers. In 1855, Emperor Franz Joseff was crowned king of Hungary. To mark the occasion the authorities tried to commission an ode in praise of the monarch, but — despite offering substantial sums of money to the Hungarian bards — none would comply with the request.

This incident inspired János Arany to write his ballad on the Welsh bards. Unable to refer openly to current affairs in Hungary, he turned for his material to an apocryphal story concerning Edward I at the time of his conquest of Wales — the fairest jewel in his crown, according to Arany’s ballad. The ballad tells how Edward I commanded the slaughter of 500 Welsh bards for their refusal to sing his praises, and it ends by relating how the king was subsequently haunted by his actions. There was considerable support in Wales for the Hungarian uprising of 1848, and it may be that this, in part at least, influenced János Arany’s choice of subject-matter; but be that as it may, this dramatic, 31-stanza allegorical ballad remains one of the best-known of Hungarian patriotic poems, taught to generations of schoolchildren.

The ballad has been translated from Hungarian into several other languages. There are, for example, two independent translations into Welsh. Influenced by events in his own country, the poet Smaj was moved to compose a Serbian version; and Čurćin wrote a paraphrase of it during the Croatian treason trials of 1908, substituting the name of Baron Rouch, the Ban of Croatia, for that of Edward I. To the best of my knowledge, however, there is no Slovene version of this ballad.

Territorial conquest is one thing; assimilation is quite another. The history of Wales from the Edwardian Conquest onward has been one of very gradual assimilation — both linguistic and cultural — into the larger unit, with varying degrees of resistance to that process. Anglicization occurred fairly early among the ruling classes, and subsequently among the burgeoning middle-classes, but it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that it began to affect the common people in earnest. Yet despite anglicization growing apace during that century, especially in the south-eastern corner of Wales, some 50% of the population still spoke Welsh in 1900, and just under 20% still do so today. Moreover, even among those who do not speak Welsh there persists a deep consciousness of the fact that they are Welsh, not English.

When one considers the close geographical proximity of Wales and England, and the fact that Wales has for such an extended period been under the direct influence and rule of this powerful neighbour, such a tenacious preservation of national identity is unexpected to say the least. A number of factors — all also true of Slovenia — have contributed to this: the country’s relative inaccessibility; the impetus given to the language by the translation into Welsh of the Bible in the sixteenth century, and the subsequent labours of religious educationalists and evangelists through the medium of the language; a constant and spontaneous renewal of national consciousness from generation to generation. Yet it is indeed remarkable that the first of England’s colonies (and probably the last, bearing in mind the recent exodus from Hong Kong!) even today maintains a fairly high degree of awareness of its separate identity.

As assimilation has accelerated during the past two centuries, so — conversely — a more conscious political expression of Welsh identity has developed, as evidenced, for example, by the ‘Young Wales’ movement of the 1880s and 1890s (part of the same general movement as ‘Young Ireland’, ‘Young Italy’ and ‘Young Slovenia’), and by the gradual growth of the Welsh Nationalist Party, Plaid Cymru, in the twentieth century. But in general, Welsh identity during the past 400 years has been a matter of cultural rather than political expression. Since the Acts of Union in the mid sixteenth century, whereby the English parliament affirmed that Wales be ‘incorporated, united and annexed’ to the realm of England, Wales has generally been content with the dichotomy of being part of a larger political unit whilst retaining its own cultural distinctions.

The negative aspect of an awareness of common identity, whether local or national, is of course inter-group rivalry; and while the battlefield is the extreme expression of such rivalry, there are numerous more moderate channels of expression. Classic among these is sport — the ball replacing the bullet, so to speak. Good examples of this at a local level are the bloodthirsty bando and cnapan (primitive forms of hockey and football) of pre-industrial Wales, which were ‘little more than a ritualized battle between parishes’;[1] and nowhere is this rivalry to be seen more clearly at a national level in present-day Wales than on the rugby field — the game which is regarded, in South Wales at least, as the national game of Wales. In the annual six-nations rugby championship between Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Italy and England, the Welsh are naturally disappointed to lose against any of the participating countries (as happens fairly regularly these days!); but if Wales loses to England, it is tantamount to a national disaster.

One of the most popular sporting activities of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Wales was pedestrianism, or foot-racing. The most famous of these runners — and one who still enjoys the status of a popular folk-hero — is Griffith Morgan (1700-37), nicknamed ‘Guto Nyth Brân’, a farmer reared on the slopes of the Rhondda Valley in the Glamorgan uplands who seems to have developed his speed and stamina through herding sheep without the help of dogs. Many tales of his feats have survived, most no doubt apocryphal. His pre-race practice was to sleep in manure in order to make his joints more supple — a tactic which seems to have succeeded in ensuring a good distance between him and his fellow competitors! His last race was one against an Englishman called Prince, whom he beat easily. Many bets had been laid on that twelve-mile race, and one of his enthusiastic supporters, who had won a considerable sum of money on the race, ran over and gave the victorious Guto an ‘overhearty back-slap that killed the breathless victor’.[2]

I know of no eighteenth- or nineteenth-century ballads extolling the feats of Guto Nyth-brân. However the tale of his last race is related in a well-known twentieth-century ballad by I. D. Hooson (1880-1948), one of the leading exponents of the literary ballad in Welsh, the literary ballad being very much a twentieth-century phenomenon in Welsh literature. Also, in 1971, an English-language ballad about him was written by the prominent Anglo-Welsh poet and ballad-writer, Harri Webb (1920-94).

Guto Nyth-brân was the product of the rural valleys of south-east Wales in the eighteenth century. These were to be transformed in the nineteenth century into bustling industrial conurbations: the population of south-east Wales exploded from about 100,000 in 1800 to over a million in 1900. Foot-racing as a sport transferred very easily into this new industrial world, drawing huge crowds of spectators from these new communities, spectators who had significantly more betting money in their pockets than their rural counterparts.

As I outlined in my paper to the 26th International Ballad Conference at Swansea in 1996 [subsequently published in the volume Ballads in Wales, ed. Mary-Ann Constantine, in 1999], due to this concentration of population and its comparative wealth, industrial south-east Wales was to become in the nineteenth century the main centre of Welsh ballad production. The nineteenth century, then — and its first half in particular — witnessed thousands upon thousands of small four-page ballad pamphlets pouring out of presses of all shapes and sizes in the towns and villages of south-east Wales. These were sold in huge quantities, by ballad singers of all descriptions, in fairs and markets and on street corners, especially on pay-night; and, despite the increasing anglicization of the area during the second half of the century, a point which must be emphasized is that the vast majority of these ballad sheets were in the Welsh language.

A few ballad sheets with foot-racing as their subject have survived from the mid nineteenth century — a pale reflection, no doubt, of the many which must certainly have been sold in their hundreds to the crowds congregated at such events, but which have long since disappeared. Most notable among the extant ballads are three, by three different ballad-writers, which recount the exploits of a runner who came into prominence in the 1840s.

His name was John Davies, better-known as ‘Y Cyw Cloff’ (‘The Lame Chick’). Judging from the extant ballads and newspaper reports, nicknames seem to have been in very common usage for runners at the time: ‘The American Deer’, ‘The Collier Boy’, ‘The Running Sergeant’, ‘The Cambrian Clipper’ and ‘The Flower of the Forest’ are just a few of the plethora of names which have survived in these records. In the case of ‘The Lame Chick’, ‘chick’ is easily explained since Davies was fairly small and light — 5 foot 4½ inches in height and 9 stone 5 pounds in weight — a ‘bantam-weight’ therefore; but why the most prominent runner of his day should be referred to as a lame chick is something of a mystery — unless it refers, perhaps, to a rather ungainly running style.

Despite being a major sporting hero in his day, and one who was compared with Guto Nyth-brân by the ballad-writers, unlike Guto, John Davies was not promoted to the realms of folk-hero by later generations, and biographical information about him is relatively sparse. He was born in 1822 in Bryncethin, a hamlet three miles north of the market town of Bridgend (which is situated midway between Cardiff and Swansea), but he seems to have moved eastward to the Taff valley by around 1844, initially working as a collier and later as an inn-keeper in the village of Upper Boat, near the town of Pontypridd, some ten miles north of Cardiff.

It appears that he began foot-racing around 1840 when he was 18 years of age, and by 1844 he had proved himself to be one of the best Welsh foot-racers of his day. In that year he ran — and won — his first race against one of the best English runners of the day, John Tetlow from the Manchester area. He subsequently went on to run a series of races against perhaps the most prominent English runner of that time, Tom Maxfield (1819-64), a coal carrier from Windsor near Slough (but originally from Sheffield), nicknamed ‘The North Star’. Maxfield won the first race in February 1845 on his home patch at Slough. The following race was held near the town of Llantrisant, on Davies’s home ground, a year later. The two men were neck-and-neck in that race when Maxfield fell and was injured by a horse which was following the runners in order to keep the crowd at bay. The umpires ruled the race null and void, much to the consternation of many in the crowd, who claimed that Maxfield’s fall had been engineered to avoid defeat. A rerun was arranged on neutral ground, in Bath in December 1846. Davies won this easily and went on to win a further race against Maxfield near Slough in July 1847. This was to be their last race, with Maxfield declaring Davies to be the better runner, thus establishing John Davies as perhaps the foremost runner of his day in both England and Wales.

Two of the surviving ballads were written subsequent to the race at Bath in December 1846. Fortunately — although rather unusually — one of these has a lengthy prose introduction and is dated. The final race at Slough in July 1847 is the subject of the third ballad, whose long title shows the author’s acquaintance with the prose introduction to the earlier ballad. There is nothing particularly remarkable about these three ballads in and of themselves; certainly not one of them is a literary masterpiece; yet they are significant for students of cultural history in that they reflect the spirit of these popular mass events.

Two main themes pervade all three ballads alike. Firstly, much mention is made of the extensive betting which characterised such events. One of the two ballads written after the race of December 1846 concentrates almost entirely on this aspect in a series of cameos, portraying successful and unsuccessful punters, which closes with the following verse:

Pob dyn gyda’r Sais a fetiodd

Gwn mai’i siomi’n gyfan gafodd,

Pawb a fetiodd gyda’r Cyw yn unig

Gânt ŵydd dew ar ddydd Nadolig.

[‘Everyone who bet on the Englishman was, I know, completely disappointed;

everybody who bet only on the Chick will have a fat goose on Christmas day.’]

The other theme is the national fervour which permeates all three. There is evident in them a passion which very much reflects the spirit to be felt at Cardiff in our day when Wales faces England at the national rugby stadium. A single quotation must suffice. Here is the first half of the verse from the ballad written after the race of July 1847 which describes the final outcome of that contest:

A’r Cyw a wylltiodd fel y fellten

A Maxfield gafodd weld ei gefen;

Fe goncrai’r lliwus Gymro llawen

Er gwaethaf sen pob Sais,

A’r hen Gymru a enillodd

Ar draed y Cyw, do gwn, rai canno’dd

O aur melyn, os nad milo’dd,

Pan drechodd yn ddi-dras.

[‘And the Chick shot away like a flash of lightening, leaving Maxfield gazing at his back; the handsome, happy Welshman conquered despite the gibes of all the English; and the good old Welsh won through the Chick’s feet, I well know, hundreds if not thousands of pounds of yellow gold, when he achieved his unprecedented victory.’]

Interestingly, reports of these same races can be found in the English-language newspapers circulating in Wales at that time. On the whole, and not unexpectedly perhaps, these are more factual and disengaged than the ballads in their reporting, although they also display a clear awareness of the national aspect of the events, with the runners regularly being referred to as the ‘Welshman’ and the ‘Englishman’. Again in these reports, the financial aspects of the races are very prominent.

Such newspaper reports also enlighten a number of matters which the ballad writer could take to be common knowledge on the part of his audience. For example, one ballad refers to the Welshman as being a ‘true-blue’, which gains in significance when one learns from the report of the event in the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian of 26 December 1846 that 400 persons ‘sported Davies’s colours — blue’, as opposed to Maxfield’s ‘crimson’ supporters. The ballad-writer can also include a couplet (in English) quoting a person he refers to simply as ‘Bragg’, shouting his support for Tom Maxfield (‘Don’t be timid, well done Tommy,/Work the tough one, rare Welsh Taffy’), without feeling it necessary to explain to his audience what modern readers have to gather from newspaper reports, namely that Bragg was landlord of the North Star Inn, Slough, and Maxfield’s umpire at the race.

The last reference I have found to John Davies is in a ballad written in 1858 — one not in praise of a runner, but of a prize boxer, Dan Thomas (1823-1910) of Pontypridd, who shot to fame in 1858 when he beat prominent English and American boxers. Again it is interesting to note the national fervour that permeates the two extant ballads to this boxer, including the following verse:

Nid oes gwiw i’r Saeson bellach

A gwŷr Morgannwg i ymyrrath;

Y Cyw a’u trecha i redeg gyrfa,

Dan Pontypridd a dorra’u c’lonna.

(‘There is no longer any point for the English to meddle with the men of Glamorgan; the Chick will beat them at running, Dan Pontypridd will break their hearts.’)

As far as I am aware, the Welsh-language press of the day contains no references to the sporting events celebrated in these ballads. That press was by and large in the hands of the Welsh Nonconformist denominations, who would not have approved of the betting or indeed of many other aspects of these communal gatherings. In its projection of Wales in the Victorian era as a Nonconformist nation, that press (and the Liberal Nonconformist establishment it reflected) was far less concerned with extolling the superiority of the Welsh over the English in matters of sport as it was to emphasize the excellence of their morals and their singing voices — ‘Plus ça change, plus ça ne change pas’!

Bibliographical Note

The best one-volume introduction to the history of Wales from earliest times to the present day is John Davies’s monumental, A History of Wales (London: Penguin Books, 1994). Good introductory volumes on Welsh history and culture have appeared in the University of Wales Press’s ‘Pocket Guide’ series, namely The History of Wales (1990; new edition 1998) by J. Graham Jones, The Customs and Traditions of Wales (1991) by Trefor M. Owen, and The Literature of Wales (1994) by Dafydd Johnston.

On Arany’s ballad, ‘A Walesi Bárdok’, and its connections with Wales, see especially Marian Henry Jones, ‘Wales and Hungary’, Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, Session 1968, Part 1, 7-27, and Neville Masterman, ‘The Massacre of the Bards’, Welsh Review, 7:1 (Spring 1948), 58-66. The two Welsh translations of the ballad are reprinted as an appendix to a Welsh-language article by Dyfnallt Morgan, ‘Cymru a Hwngaria’, Taliesin, 75 (Autumn 1991), 77-90. M. Čurćin refers to J. J. Zmaj’s Serbian version of the ballad, and his own paraphrase of it, in an article entitled ‘Wales and Serbia’, Welsh Outlook, May 1918, 167-8.

Little has been written in English on Welsh ballads. General introductions are to be found in Thomas Parry (trans. H. Idris Bell), A History of Welsh Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955); W. Rhys Nicholas, The Folk Poets (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1978); and Meic Stephens (ed.), The New Companion to the Literature of Wales (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1998). [See also Peter Lord, Words with Pictures: Welsh Images and Images of Wales in the Popular Press, 1640-1860 (Aberystwyth: Planet, 1995). The papers relating to Wales delivered at the 26th International Ballad Conference at Swansea were published in Mary-Ann Constantine (ed.), Ballads in Wales: Baledi yng Nghymru (London: FLS Books, 1999).]

I. D. Hooson’s ballad about Guto Nyth Brân is critically appreciated in Dafydd Owen’s history of the Welsh ballad, I Fyd y Faled (Denbigh: Gwasg Gee, 1986). Harri Webb’s English ballad on the same subject is to be found in Harri Webb: Collected Poems, ed. Meic Stephens (Llandysul: Gomer Press, 1995). Detailed discussion of the runner, John Davies (‘The Lame Chick’), and the ballads about him, including the full text of all three ballads, are to be found in my Welsh-language article, ‘Baledi Er Clod i’r "Cyw Cloff o Fryncethin" ’, Canu Gwerin (Folk Song): Journal of the Welsh Folk-Song Society, 15 (1992).

A good overview of sport in south-east Wales from the eighteenth century onward is to be found in Gareth Williams, ‘Sport and Society in Glamorgan 1750-1980’, Glamorgan County History, vol. 6, ed. Prys Morgan (Cardiff: Glamorgan History Trust Ltd, 1988); [reprinted with revisions in his volume, 1905 And All That: Essays on Rugby Football, Sport and Welsh Society (Llandysul: Gomer Press, 1991)]; see also his ‘Postponing Death: Sport and Literature in Wales’, New Welsh Review, 36 (Spring 1997), 37-46; [revised version published in Grant Jarvie (ed.), Sport in the Making of Celtic Cultures (London: Leicester University Press, 1999). See also, Emma Lile, ‘Professional Pedestrianism in South Wales During the Nineteenth Century’, The Sports Historian, 20:2 (November 2000), 94-105.]

[1] Quoted in Gareth Williams, ‘Sport and Society in Glamorgan 1750-1980’, Glamorgan County History, vol. 6, ed. Prys Morgan (Cardiff: Glamorgan History Trust Ltd, 1988), p. 384.

[2] Ibid., p. 385