WELSH HAT ARTICLE
The Welsh Hat
One of the very few objects which is unique to Wales is the Welsh hat. It first became popular during the 1830s and soon became an icon of Wales and is still one of the most distinctive images associated with Wales but surprisingly little was known about its origin, manufacture, distribution and more recent history. This is a brief report on a study of 180 of the known 220 surviving hats, most of which are in Welsh museums.
The Welsh hat is distinctive in having a broad, stiff brim with a tall, flat-topped crown. During the 19th century they were made of linen buckram covered with silk plush - the same materials that were used for men's top hats.
Many of the visitors to Wales from the 1770s to the 1830s reported that working women wore men's hats. These were a variety of shapes from something like a bowler hat to a floppy broad-brimmed, medium-height hat made of felt.
Some working women in Wales at the beginning of the 19th century wore tall silk hats of the type worn by the gentry. Gentlewomen sometimes wore a tall hat, known as an equestrian hat, when riding: these had a narrow curved brim. In 1821 the Marquess of Anglesey (Henry William Paget, 1768-1854) admired the hats of the women of north-west Wales, and it is possible that these were a version of the equestrian hat which became known as 'The Anglesea'.
The first time the term 'Welsh Hat' is known to have been used is when Princess Victoria and her mother visited north Wales in 1832. They both wore a Welsh hat when passing through Bangor 'in compliment to the fair maids of Cambria' but no illustrations or descriptions of these hats are known. They may have been like 'The Anglesea' hat, but it is possible that they were like the one with a broad brim and vertical sides worn by the doll dressed in 'Cambrian costume', now in the Royal collections, said to have been presented to Princess Victoria during her visit.
Most intriguing question about the origin of the Welsh hat is why two English firms should have produced quite large numbers of a unique shaped silk hat which were bought only by the women of Wales. It is possible that this was the result of Royal or gentry influence, but at present, there is no evidence to support the suggestion that Augusta Hall (Lady Llanover, 1802 – 1896) invented the Welsh hat or made it more popular, except in her own circle. She seems to have had some influence on the wearing of the Welsh hat by women in the area around Llanover until at least 1855 and she wore one for her portrait in 1862. The set of watercolours of Welsh costumes which she may have commissioned in the early 1830s show equestrian hats, not Welsh hats.
The size and shape of the Welsh hat
The evidence from the surviving hats suggests that there were two main types of Welsh hat with a range of shapes between the two.
Most hats have a slightly tapering crown and are about 19-22 cms (8½ to 9½ inches) high and 32-40 cms (12½ - 15½ inches) maximum width. These include most of those known to have been made in England, the majority of which were worn in south-west Wales (the former Dyfed). The second type is shorter and has almost vertical sides about 18-20 cms (7-8 ins) high and 33-38 cms (13-15 ins) maximum width. Most of these were made by Welsh hatters and were worn in north Wales.
Most surviving Welsh hats were made in England by Christys of London and Stockport, and Carver and Co of Bristol. Christys was established during the 18th century and continued into the 20th but little is known of Carver and Co. A few hats were made by Welsh hatters and these are normally distinct from the English products which have one piece of plush folded right around the brim; hats made in Wales normally have separate pieces of plush on the upper and underside of the brim. A few hats have Paris labels, but it is possible that these were inserted to inflate the price. Some Welsh hat sellers had their names printed alongside the English maker's label inside the hat. This suggests that they had special orders made up for them. It is not clear how Welsh hats were advertised or distributed: so far no adverts or catalogues which include Welsh hats have been found.
The date of the Welsh hat
It is almost certain that silk Welsh hats were first made during the mid 1830s, but it is not at all clear when production ceased. It seems probable that this occurred during the 1880s, but a few were made at the end of the century for special occasions. So far, nothing diagnostic of date has been identified in the techniques or materials used in making Welsh hats.
The cost of a Welsh hat
The Llanover Account Book for Isaac Restall of Abergavenny, 1860-1901 includes three references to the purchase of Welsh hats including one for Lady Llanover.
February 1860 Welsh hat – M. Lewis 9/-
14 May 1866 One Female Welsh Hat 10/-
19 Sept. 1879 Ladies Welsh Hat (Her Ladyship) 16/-
(I am very grateful to Frances Younson of Gwent Archives for this information.)
Isaac Restall won prizes at the Abergavenny Eisteddfod in 1848 for the best beaver hat and in 1853 and for the best and second best Welsh hats.
Who wore the Welsh hat?
Although there is a lack of any firm evidence, it is probably safe to assume that it was the middling-sort of people, possibly only successful farmers' wives and daughters who wore Welsh hats at market, chapel and church and at special events when they wore their 'Sunday best' clothes which included a bedgown. Their use by townswomen is difficult to ascertain since most of the pictures of women wearing Welsh hats in towns are of market women who almost certainly came from their farms to sell their produce once a week.
By the end of the 19th century, the Welsh hat was normally only worn for special occasions such as Royal visits and celebrations and by choirs and for staged photographs. The evidence suggests that these women were wearing old hats, possibly ones bought when they were young or inherited from their mothers. There is almost no evidence that children wore Welsh hats before the beginning of the First World War.
The research for this article was carried out as part of a study of Welsh costume based on over 1000 paintings, prints and photographs and postcards; about 40,000 words of descriptions of Welsh costume from 18th and 19th century sources and about 180 Welsh hats and 80 bedgowns. Grants for expenses to visit museums were received from CyMAL and the Federation of Museums and Galleries of Wales.
I am most grateful to the curators and archivists of Wales who have answered my enquiries and allowed me access to their collections. Any documentary references to Welsh hats, especially in catalogues and adverts will be most gratefully received.
Michael Freeman, Ceredigion Museum, 1.3.2008