Almost every inn in north Wales, but very few in south Wales had a harper who played either by request or constantly, in the hope of getting a tip of a shilling or more from the tourists.

Tourists comments about harpers have been used to analise the distribution of harpers in public places in time and space. In some cases, particular harpers at inns were named, complimenting information about harpers from other sources, especially those who competed at eisteddfodau.

Harpers in Wales, general
Harpers at private houses
Harpers at local dances
Harpers at Eisteddfodau
Harpers by county and decade

Harpers in the old counties:  Anglesey, Breconshire, Caernarvonshire, Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Glamorganshire, Merionethshire, Monmouthshire, Montgomeryshire, Pembrokeshire, Radnorshire

Harpers on the borders in England

The harp has a long history in Wales. Prizes were given for harp playing at the first recorded Eisteddfod, held in Cardigan in 1176. Eisteddfodau were rarely organised until the late 18th century, but prizes were given for harp playing at the few known eisteddfodau held in the 15th and 16th centuries. After the 1830s annual eisteddfod harp competitions became common. Prizes included miniature silver harps and cash prizes.

The most common sort of harp in Wales was the triple harp which has three sets of strings. It had Italian origins and was introduced to Wales soon after 1650. It became known as the Welsh harp because it survived in Wales longer than elsewhere in Europe.

Two outer strings on a triple harp are diatonic (like the white notes on a piano), and the inner set is chromatic (like black notes on a piano). In Wales, the triple harp is rested on the left shoulder; the right hand played the lower notes and the left hand the upper notes. Elsewhere, harps rested on the right shoulder. The single action pedal harp generally replaced the triple harp by about 1800. The double action pedal harp was patented by Sébastian Érard in 1810. The pedal harp was less popular than in Wales than in the rest of Europe partly because the triple harp was lighter than the pedal harp, and was thus easier to transport from one performance to another.

A detailed description of the Welsh harp was published by the harpist John Parry (Bardd Alaw) (1776–1851) in the preface to the second volume of his collection, The Welsh Harper (London 1839):
The compass of the Triple Harp, in general, is about five octaves, or thirty-seven strings in the principal row, which is on the side played by the right hand, called the bass row. The middle row, which produces the flats and sharps, consists of thirty-four strings; and the treble, or left hand row, numbers twenty-seven strings. The outside rows are tuned in unison, and always in the diatonic scale, that is, in the regular and natural scale of tones and semitones, as a peal of eight bells is tuned. When it is necessary to change the key, for instance, from C to G, all the Fs in the outside rows are made sharp by raising them half a tone. Again, to change from C to F, every B in the outside rows is made flat, by lowering it a semitone. When an accidental sharp or flat is required, the performer inserts a finger between two of the outer strings, and finds it in the middle row.

Many harps were made in Wales.
John Richards (1711-1789) made harps at Llanrwst and Glanbran
Basset Jones made harps in Cardiff. He presented one to the Prince of Wales in 1843.
Llandysul is now a centre for Welsh harp making.

Many Princes of Wales had their own harpers so the Welsh harp, Welsh harpers and Welsh harp music became known in London court circles. Some famous harpers had music especially written for them by famous composers. For example, Handel composed his Harp Concerto in B flat for William Powell, harper to the Prince of Wales in 1736. Welsh societies were formed in London and in Wales to promote performances of Welsh music, including the harp, from the late 18th century.

Lady Llanover (Augusta Hall, 1802-1896), sponsored many competitions for harp playing at Abergavenny eisteddfodau and employed her own harpers at Llanover.

At the Llangollen Eisteddfod in 1858 there were two harp competitions:
Competition 31. Best performer, male or female, on the triple harp, open to all the world—first prize £10, second £5.
Competition 34. Best female performer, in costume, on the triple harp—£5.

In 1795, Frances Anne Crewe wrote the following in her diary, while staying in north Wales
We have heard nothing but Welsh harps & Welsh language since we left Corwen… a halfway house which seemed to be as old as the hills & over the door was the sign of Howel Dha, their Great law-giver of the 10th century….passed by another Inn, in another wild part. & an old Druid was the sign here. The modern minstrels take good care to cherish the memory of former times. Nothing is more cheerful nor yet more melancholy than to be greeted as one is at every Inn by venerable blind men who plays airs of the country as wild, & yet as harmonious as the beauties they are deprived from seeing!
British Library, Add. 37926, p. 135

She was not the only visitor to Wales to report that a harper was in attendance at the inn. The linked pages on this site contains about 300 transcriptions which refer to harps from the accounts written by and for visitors to Wales during the 18th and 19th centuries. Not all the references are transcribed in full.

Some tourists kept accounts of all the inns they stayed at; indeed a significant number listed the inns and the distances travelled and little else, but few recorded the presence of a harper at more than one or two inns during a month’s journey. Many made a point of noting the first time they came across a harper, but perhaps after that it was no longer a novelty and not worth recording.

Many inns and hotels in Wales had harpers who would play at length for visitors, expecting a tip, and often the tips were generous. In 1796, Sir James Bucknall Grimston paid the harper at Machynlleth 6d, half the tip he paid the harpers at Abergavenny, Dolgellau, Beaumaris and Bangor. An anonymous visitor paid the harper at Barmouth 3 shillings in 1808.

In 1796, Catherin Hutton reported that the cost of stringing a harp was 23 shillings and the annual expense to supply those strings that break was about five guineas, (Hutton, Catherine, Letters written during a Tour in North Wales by Miss Hutton, of Bennett’s Hill, near Birmingham, letter 6, The Monthly Magazine and British Register, Vol. 40, (1815), pt. 2, pp. 503-505), so (however accurate this estimate might be) most of the tips probably went on repairs.

Some harpers were blind men. Michael Faraday was disappointed that the harper at Llangollen in 1819 was not a blind old man with a grey beard. Generally, the men were blinded by smallpox. Of the 343 references to harpers in Wales 1700-1900, only 41 record that the harper was blind (4 of these were women), and some of these references are to the same harper.

Harpers and Harpists
Some people refer to those who play traditional music on a traditional three-stringed harps as harpers, and to those who play classical music on classical harps (those with pedals) as harpists, but not all agree with this terminology.

Inns called the Harp / Welsh harp 
There were inns in Wales called The Harp at Conwy, Capel Curig, Holyhead and Llanfair Talhaiarn

[There was an inn in England called ‘The Welsh Harp’ in the parish of Shenston, Staffordshire. Loveday, John, (1711-1789), Markham, Sarah, John Loveday of Caversham, 1711-1789: The life and tours of an eighteenth century onlooker. (Wilton: Russell, 1984)), July 1. 1765]


General comments on harps and harpers by tourists

We find the Telyn, or Welsh Harp, was always peculiar to our Bards, though probably there was no great difference betwixt the Harp, when in its ancient primitive form, and the Grecian Lyra; for Diodorus Siculus records, that the Celtic Bards played on an instrument like Lyres. The Triple, or Modern Welsh Harp, has three rows of strings, the two outside are unisons, the middle row the flats and sharps; the compass extends to five octaves. Some of its present appendages were probably the addition of the latter Centuries. This celebrated instrument has been recently improved by the invention of Pedals, which change it, without tuning, into all the different keys, and have rendered it much less complicated and inconvenient, by reducing it into a single row of strings. In the time of the Welsh Princes, an hereditary Harp was preserved with great care and veneration in the household of every Prince and Lord, to be bestowed successively on the Bards of the family; and was as indispensible among the possessions of a Gentleman as a Coat of Arms. … Some vein still survives among our Mountaineers; numbers of young persons of both sexes assemble and sit round the Harp, singing alternately Pennillion, or stanzas of ancient and modern composition. The young people usually begin the night with dancing, and when tired, assume this mode of relaxation; often like the modern Improvisatori of Italy, they sing extempore verses,—and those conversant with it, readily produce a pennill apposite to the last; the subjects are productive of mirth. Sometimes they are jocular, sometimes satirical, but oftener of an amorous nature, and will remind the Classic of the dialogue between Horace and Lydia, for on these occasions the Fair are generally last to speak, and terminate the contention. They continue singing without intermission, never repeating the same stanza, for that would forfeit the honour of being esteemed ‘the first of song, and like nightingales, support the contest through the night. The audience usually call for the tune ; sometimes a few only singing, sometimes the whole company. But when a. party of capital singers assemble, they rarely call for the tune, for it is indifferent to them what tune the Harper plays. Parishes are often opposed to Parishes, and the mountains re-echo to the melody of song.
Jones, E., (Bardd y Brenin), Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards, (first edition 1784), p. 40; and subsequent editions in 1794, p. 75; 1808 and 1811, and 182, quoted in full in Bowen, Melesina, Ystradffin : a descriptive poem, with an appendix, containing historical and explanatory notes. (London : 1839), pp. 152-153; 156-157 which also includes the following:  The late Sackville Gwynne, Esq., Grandfather of the present Sackville Gwynne, Esq., of Glanbrane Park, was reckoned one of the finest amateur performers on the Harp in the Kingdom, and he took a pleasure in having a number of young persons instructed on that, and other musical instruments, in his own house, and under his own inspection.

… our boatman added that harping and dancing are on the decrease by the interdiction of the Methodists, who overrun the country.
Byng, John, Right Hon, (later Viscount Torrington) Andrews, C Bruyn. (Editor). The Torrington diaries: Containing the tours through England and Wales of the Hon. John Byng between the years 1781 and 1794, (London, 1934), vol. I, p. 145

‘Harpers. There is scarce a parish in the principality but it contains a harper of some kind or other. But few of them play well, most of them being totally unacquainted with music, they generally play by ear. PARRY, the celebrated harper to the late Sir W.W. Wynne … used to perform Handle’s overture and choruses in a masterly manner on the Welsh harp: he has often had the honour of playing before his present majesty. His name will live long in the many beautiful variations he wrote to the Welsh airs – (Blind.)
Mr EDWARD RANDLES, Organist of Wrexham (blind.) was a pupil of Mr Parry’s … is now the most scientific harper in Wales.
Miss Elizabeth Randles … is now at home (Wrexham) practicing the harp (which she has already performed on in Liverpool). …
Mr EDWARDS, of Bangor, (blind) is an excellent harper: …
Mr GRIFFITH OWEN, Towyn, Meirion “strikes the harp” with taste and judgement.
LEWIS (Sion Puw Spytty), is considered one of the best performers at a congress of bards (Very old.)
RICHARD ROBERTS, alias Richard Aelwyd Brys, is a very good harper.
RICHARD MORRIS, of Pen y Llan, Llandeniolen, was a good harper, and he was the husband of the famous Catherine ‘ech Evans, called in Mr Pennant’s works, “queen of the lakes”.
WILLIAM WILLIAMS, formerly of Careg Grech (blind) performs well on the harp.
PIERCE EVANS, of Llanrwst (now in London) plays well on the harp.
Mr DOUCHEZ, a native of Cambria is a most charming performer on the Welsh and pedal harps.
There are a number of other harpers who play extremely well the Welsh music. Among the best are MORRIS, EDWARDS, CUNNAH, REYNOLDS, HUMPHREYS, DAVIES, ROBERTS, JAMES, GRIFFITHS OWEN and several JONES’S.
Mr E. JONES, bard to the Prince of Wales, and Mr THOMAS JONES, are most charming performers on the pedal harp.

It used to be a very common custom in Wales, within these twenty years for a number of young men and women to meet, about once or twice a week to “Canu efo’r Tanau” – “Sing with the harp.” … these innocent amusements are dwindling off, and save at some gentleman’s seats, the inns, or at wakes and fairs, the sweet sounds of the delyn (harp) is seldom heard.
{The Gwyneddigion, formed 1772, called Eisteddvods. They meet once a month to sing with the harp.}
The Welsh harp, when completely strung, required nearly an hundred strings, and “strings will break.” …
Parry, John, A selection of Welsh melodies : with appropriate English words, adapted for the voice, with symphonies & accompaniments for the piano forte or harp. (1810), p. 2

 1843 Their Music
A great simplicity pervades the Welsh melodies, yet they are distinguished by features as varied as the country. Invented by an enthusiastic, and impassioned people, they partake of all the wildness of unrestrained originality: sprightly and Vivacious, plaintive and energetic. Most of their tunes are very ancient, and preserved in the traditional recollections of the country. They shew their composers to have possessed genuine skill in music, and that they knew how to warm the imagination, and to interest the heart. Whether the muse delights in gay or mournful numbers, the expressive vibrations of that noble instrument, the harp, increases the pathos and solemnity. The vivacity of Hela’r Ysgyfarnog, “Hunting the Hare,” or Codiad yr Hedydd, -The Rising of the Lark,” form a fine contrast with the plaintive air of Morfa Rhuddlan, or the solemn dirge of Davydd y Garreg Wen.
The harp is recorded in holy writ to be the most ancient, and we may justly add, the most expressive and elegant, of all musical instruments:

“Mae mil o leisian melusion
Mae mel o hyd ym mola hon.”
(Within the concave of its womb is found
The magic scale of soul enchanting sound.)
Among the eastern nations it was esteemed the symbol of concord, and probably it was the first instrument attuned to counterpoint or harmony. Its tunes are so sweet, that one of our poets has aptly sung—
“Nid oes nag angel, na dyn,
Nad wyl pan gano’r delyn.”
(There is neither man nor angel
Who is not effected by the sweet tones of the harp.)
In the time of the Welsh princes, a hereditary harp was preserved with great care and veneration in the household of every chieftain and lord, to be bestowed successively on the bards of the family; and was as indispensable among the possessions of a gentleman, as a coat of arms.
* Mr. Parry, of London, has performed a work deserving the praise of all amateurs in music, by composing and collecting a number of Welsh tunes, and adapting them to English words.—See his Welsh Melodies and Welsh Harper.
Parry, Edward, 1798-1854, Cambrian Mirror, (1843), pp. x-xi

1843 Tanybwlch, Merionethshire
This favourite instrument—this trait in native character, is nearly extinct, even in this retired country. This district was formerly proverbially known as being the place where the unmixed manners, the remaining traits and features which distinguished the British character, were to be found ; of these, the oral hoard of stanzas, pennillion sung alternately and in succession to the harp, at their rural meetings, and in times past, in the mansions of affluence and hospitality, is a very ancient and leading one. … And when music and Meirionydd are the associated subjects, I speak the sentiments of all those who love the sweet plaintive tones, the native notes of Britain, by adding, that in this particular, we are much indebted to the late Mr. Edward Jones, bard and harper to George the Fourth. Mr. Lloyd should keep up the national character of his country by employing a harper for the gratification of his numerous friends, particularly as one of the most celebrated singers with that instrument resides in the neighbourhood.
Parry, Edward, 1798-1854, Cambrian Mirror, (1843), pp. 125-126

Dolgellau, 28.8.1843
the harper has ceased to enliven the meals with his wild sounds & I understand that they have been discontinued everywhere which is much to be regretted.
4th Duke of Newcastle (1785-1851), diary, Nottingham archives, NE 2 F4, (1843), p. 47

1793 (or earlier) SONNET TO A WELCH HARPER
Restrain thy tuneful hand, awake no more
The melting harmony of tuneful strings;
Thy softest note some lovely image brings
To life, that torpid lay in memory’s store.
Thy touch is magic, that erects the place
Where Mary’s gentle eye serenely smil’d,
Where her wild notes my infant love beguil’d,
And music clos’d the triumph of her face.
That strain was like the nightingale’s sad voice,
Mourning her nestlings she no more can see:
You strike the trembling chords of ecstasy,
And ring the knell of my departed joys.
Yet stay—such plaintive sweetness greets mine ear,
I listen, e’en while starts the trembling tear.
Kett, Henry, Juvenile Poems, by Henry Kett, M.A, (Oxford, 1793), pp. 16-17 (and might have appeared earlier in the Gentleman’s Magazine.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.