whitewash

Many tourists noted that cottages, some farm buildings and churches in south Wales were whitewashed, making them look very clean and tidy (in contrast to the dull appearance of grey stone buildings more common in towns).  Whitewash was probably less common in north Wales but tourists often suggested that it was found all over the country, even if they had visited only the south.

From a distance, the whitewashed buildings  looked attractive, but close up, some visitors found the glare of the reflected sun too much.

Lime was quarried in south Pembrokeshire and Flintshire and brought by boat to ports all around Wales, mainly for sweetening (or neutralising) the acid soils. It was processed in lime kilns which are found around the coast of Wales. If mixed with animal fat and water, lime produces an emulsion which could be painted onto anything. Pigments could be added to make yellow and red colours, but it seems that plain white was the most common.

Lime was thought to have acted as a disinfectant and it was said that buildings were whitewashed inside and out regularly. In some places, especially north Pembrokeshire,  the roofs were whitewashed over a wash of cement which was used to hold the small slates in place.

One of the advantages of painting various items near a house was that they could be seen more easily on a dark night, e.g. stones on the path to the ty bach (outside toilet).

Some gravestones in south Wales were whitewashed.

6th century
‘The women are chaste, the men brave, and the houses white.’
Said to be by a 6th century bard.

1773
In his ‘Stanzas written in London in 1773’ Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg), expressed how much he missed Wales, especially Glamorgan. In a reference to ‘thy white cots’ he added the following notes:

It has, from very remote antiquity, been the custom in Glamorgan to white-wash the houses, not only the insides, but the outsides also; and even the barns, stables, walls of yards, gardens etc. In a very ancient poem, by some attributed to Aneurin, who lived about the year 550, we have the following passage:
Gnawd yn Morganwg ddiwg ddynion.
A Gwragedd mewn mawredd a muriau gwynion.
In Glamorgan the people are courteous and gentle,
Married women are honoured and the walls are white.

Dafydd ab Gwilym, a bard that flourished about 1350, says of Glamorgan,
E gâr Bardd y wlâd bard bonn,
A’i gwineodd a’i ibau gwynion.
The bard loves this beautiful country, its wines, and its white houses.

And in another place, invoking the sun, he says,
Tefog fore, gwnâ r llê’n llonn,
Ag annerch y tai geynion
Thou Sun of the bright morning, beam joyfulness around, and salute the white houses of Glamorgan

Deio ab Ieuan Du, a bard that wrote about 1450, says,
Morganwg muriau gwynion.
Glamorgan of the white walls.

But it would be endless to quote all the bards who have noticed this custom, which still continues. [but he quoted from Wyndham’s tour of 1774/1777]
Williams, Edward (Iolo Morganwg), Poems, Lyric and Pastoral, vol. 1, (1794), pp. 17-19
[It is likely that the poems Iolo ascribed to Dafydd ap Gwilym were forged by himself]

1774 Swansea
The houses, walls, and out-buildings, are commonly white-washed; and there is scarcely a cottage to be seen, which is not regularly brushed over every month.
Wyndham, H.P., A Gentleman’s Tour through Monmouthshire and Wales, made in the months of June and July, 1774 and in the months of June, July and August, 1777 (1781), p. 37

1774, Carmarthen
Whitened cottages and churches (which in this country [Wales] are general)
Wrest Park papers (Lucas), Bedfordshire County Record Office
Transcriptions of the letters at Gloucester record Office, D2240/box 22
Jones, Anthea, ‘Letters from the Bishop’s wife during the Episcopal visitations of the diocese of St David’s, 1774-1778’, Carmarthenshire Antiquary, XXXVIII, (2002), letter 1, p. 20

1782 Cowbridge
All towns in Wales look better at a distance, than on a near approach. This is chiefly occasioned by the custom, that prevails throughout this country of frequently whitewashing their houses, roofs and all, with the surrounding walls and even single large stones near them.
Drayton, William, (1732-1790), Tour thro’ South Wales, 1782-1783, NLW ex 1914, p. 133 (typescript copy); South Carolina Historical Library, Charleston, (MS34/629)

1785
Glamorgan people whitewash their handsome stone built cottages without as well as within, three or four times a year, and the outsides of their outhouses, as barns, etc., and even their pig sties and the walls of their courts, gardens etc.
[Williams, Edward, (Iolo Morganwg)], Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 55 (1785), p. 502; pp. 603-605, The Natural History of Newton, Glamorgan
Iolo Morganwg wrote a poem which he claimed had been written by Dafydd ap Gwilym. It referred to tai gwynion (whitened houses). This was published by William Coxe in an appendix in his An Historical Tour in Monmouthshire … vol. 2, (1801), p. 410, with the following note: ‘The practice of whitewashing is to this day a distinguishing characteristic in Monmouthshire and Glamorganshire.’

1786
But the taste of the Welsh peasantry in the adorning of their cottages, is perhaps almost peculiar to themselves. They wash and paint the whole of them white, tiles and all, from top to bottom. … the traveller .. feels uncommonly delighted with a view of innumerable little dwellings …
Matthews, William, (of Bath), The miscellaneous companions. Vol. I Being a short tour of observation and sentiment, through a part of South Wales, (Bath, 1786) p. 76

1790 St Clears
All the small towns and villages in south Wales disgust by the offensive glare of their whitewashed houses, the garden walls in some places have not been able to escape the violent hands of the plasterer who has shown very little mercy upon the eyes of the poor traveller, it is a great relief when in the larger towns … they gain a little respite by the appearance of yellow stucco or a rough cast of small pebbles … sometimes they suffer the stone to appear in its own native grey but this is an indulgence not very often granted.
Nicholson, Frances, Journal of a tour, NLW MS15190C, Typescript copy, p. 25

1793 Carmarthen
The town is ?neatish and is all whitewashed, indeed it is the prevalent custom of the country to whitewash every house and wall.
Cooke, Bryan, A tour into South Wales, NLW MS 24143, f. 13v

1794 between Cardiff and Caerphilly
A profusion of cottages ‘the inhabitants of this country feel a great degree of pride in keeping their humble domains in neat attire and beautifying their mansions with an annual coat of whitewash supplied to them in abundance and without expense by the productive quarries of limestone with which this country abounds.’
Clutterbuck, Robert, Journal of a Tour From Cardiff, Glamorganshire through South and North Wales. In the summer of 1794. In company with Taylor Combe Esquire, Cardiff Public Library, MS 3.277 (vol 1), p. 90

1796 Swansea to Carmarthen
It was on this road that we had repeated occasion to remark the peculiar turn of the people to whitewash, not only the walls but the roofs and chimney tops of their houses; the walls of their gardens and outhouses; and the walls roofs and steeples of their churches. In some instances, a broad white girdle ornamented the top of the steeple. The very milestones, if standing near the house, were in the livery of the place. It was here too we first noticed the whimsical mode of honouring the relics of departed relations and friends. Tiles or slates carefully whitewashed, and stuck perpendicularly into the ground trace out a space equal to the coffin of the deceased. These spaces they carefully dress and plant with every flower the season affords. This a family burying ground becomes a beautiful parterre. Where flowers are not to be found, they stick thorn and yew branches around the space and piously whitewash these honours of the dead.
Williams, William, (1774-1839) and Burgess, James, Rev (1774-1839), J. B. jnr. and W. W., ‘A Pedestrian Tour thro Wales in 1796’, NLW MS 23253 C, pp. 32-33

1796, Pembrokeshire
The houses are all of stone and lime, sometimes covered with slate of the same nature, but most commonly of thatch, remarkably well and neatly laid on, would vey? with the Huntingdonshire reed covering. All the walls, even to the very pigstye, and surrounding walls are whitewashed two or three times a year, and not once a week or once a month, as some of our Welsh travellers have asserted; I have sometimes seen a pig trough white-washed, I suppose when the good woman of the House goes her white-washing round, she does not omit anything, but the poor pig soon destroys the beauty of his trough; the lime is boiled with water, and washed on extremely thin , with a long handle put aslant into a common white-washing lime brush; the longer the lime and water and mixed up, the find it better, but it still rubs off a little upon touching it.
Lady Sykes, [Tour of Wales], University of Hull, DDSY(3)/10/11 (Typed transcript), p. 152

1797 Llangollen
On deficient parts of this and the adjacent mountains, white cottages, peeping out from small enclosures form pleasing specks in the landscape and agreeably contrast with the carpet of exquisite verdure which nature has spread around them.
Shirley, Evelyn, Tour through Wales, Cursory Remarks made in a Tour through different parts of England and Wales in the months of August and September, 1797, NLW, mss. 16133 C, p. 88

1798 On road between Caerphilly and Newport
An agreeable and lively effect … in the landscape, arises from the practice, which is become very common among the Welsh peasantry; a great object of their ambition … is to render their little dwellings conspicuous, by coating them with whitewash. This gives a great appearance of neatness and cleanliness to the cottages and at the same time adds to the picturesque of the country’ for although a great breadth of white, produced either by a number of houses grouped together and whitewashed or by a large single mansion covered in the same glaring manner, be disgusting to true taste, yet small detached cottages thus colours, sprinkled through wooded valleys, or studding the broadsides of verdant mountains, produce a relief and contrast in the scenery that are highly gratifying to the eye.
Warner, Richard, A Second Walk Through Wales, 1798, p. 35

1799, Cardigan
I never yet saw a confined landscape possessed of more striking beauties, or better adapted for the pencil. It is, however, much to be wished, that the custom so prevalent in this part of the country, of white-washing the roofs as well as the side walls of the houses, were abolished: it offends the eye by a glare highly unpleasant; destroys the harmony of the picture, and, if I may be allowed the expression, impoverishes the prospect.
George Lipscomb, G., Journey into South Wales…in the year 1799 (London, 1802), p. 173

1800 (about) Gelli Dywyll, Cenarth (Dr Jones)
In this country, [Cardiganshire] where whitewashing is not a cottage practice, Gentlemen whitewash their house externally every year, in Glamorgan, where every cottage is white, the Gentry effect to think it vulgar, and will not whitewash their houses. The maxim is not to be what the lower classes are, not to coincide with the vulgar in their practices. Taste or not taste are never the Considerations but vulgar or not vulgar. The story of the Empress Isabella and the origins of the dirty yellow that bears her name occurs to me … but Isabella yellow is now the cottage taste in these western counties of Wales, and the Gents are for once right in preserving neat and clean whiteness to it, but they do thus not from natural taste but because it is not vulgar, but in Glamorgan [?] the taste the fashion in the natural appearance of their houses is Isabella yellow, and where time and dirt have not affected this, they artificially give this colour by mixing yellow ocre, with lime and therewith wash their houses inside very often as well as outside.
Davies, Walter, NLW 1760A, Notebook 26; Jones, David Ceri, Report of a research project on ‘The rural economy and society of Wales between 1790-1815 with special reference to the manuscripts of Walter Davies (‘Gwallter Mechain’)’, NLW ex 2251, p. 599

1802 Cardigan and St Dogmaels
Houses of the gentry are very neatly whitewashed, nothing can be more cheerfully elegant than it, but the reason given for it here is that it is something superior or different from the vulgar appearances of farmhouses and cottages but these are all white in Glamorgan of course too vulgar, therefore the gentry where houses are there unwhitened in the taste of the famed Empress Isabella who never washed her lime until it became as yellow as a certain well known substance, hence the term Isabella yellow is a dirty yellow.  … St Dogmaels, A large village with whitewashed house [sic]
Davies, Walter, NLW MS 1760A Notebook 3, VII, Itinerary, 1802, Cardigan; Jones, David Ceri, Report of a research project on ‘The rural economy and society of Wales between 1790-1815 with special reference to the manuscripts of Walter Davies (‘Gwallter Mechain’)’, NLW ex 2251, p. 496

1802
James Davies, agent to Lord Gage (who had an estate near Monmouth), wrote to his Lordship following the visit of Lord Nelson and his party on the 18th August 1802 to the Kymin which overlooks Monmouth:
I suppose on their accounts the poor old Buckstone was white washed … It now looks like a small Welsh cottage without a chimney.
Gloucester Record Office, Gage papers
[The Buckstone was thought to be prehistoric but is natural]

1807 [South Wales]
A cleanly custom peculiar to the Welch it is to be wished was more generally practised in other parts of Great Britain, which white-washing their houses at stated periods, both within and without; even the scattered stones at the front of their dwellings undergo the operation; some of the largest are used as horse-blocks. This neat and wholesome practice has always been held in the highest estimation by the faculty, as the best preventive against malignant distempers; and the healthy appearance of the villagers seem to give a proof positive to the assertion. The country view’d from an eminence, chequered with these innumerable white cottages, has a pleasing and nouvelle appearance. Though clean in this respect, it must be allowed they are in many others quite the reverse.
Woodward, G.M., Eccentric Excursions; or literary and Pictorial Sketches of Countenance, Character, and Country in different parts of England and South Wales. (London, 1796), p. 215

1809, Aberystwyth
The houses, however, being built of a kind of black slate, have a gloomy appearance, and though white washing in Wales is almost universal, by some strange perversity, here it is omitted where it really would conduce to the cheerful aspect of the place.
Mavor, W., The British Tourists’ or Travellers’ pocket Companion, London, 1809, p. 237

1806 Llansithurin [between Monmouth and the Skirrid mountain]
‘The battlements of the church of Llansithurin [between Monmouth and the Skirrid mountain] as well as of most other church we saw, were white washed and the rest of the tower left in its original state….this glaring disguise with which they cover their battlements … is such an eyesore in looking over an extensive prospect.
Anon, A Tour in Monmouthshire and part of Glamorganshire. By a Gentleman, in July 1806, (Halesworth, 1807), pp. 27-28

1814, Cowbridge
The poor people, as I believe you know, are very attentive to the whitewashing of their cottages.
Anon, Narrative of a Tour through Wales by an anonymous English Gentleman, NLW ms 18943, f. 9

1814 Glamorgan
Every tourist, from Mr. Penruddock Wyndham in 1781, to Mrs Morgan of a later date, notices the universal custom of white-washing, not only the inside and outside of houses, but barns and stables also, walls of yards and gardens, the stone banks of quickset fences, and even solitary stones of large dimensions, horse-blocks, &c. near the houses. This practice, said to have been repeated monthly, or at least several times in the year, is traced to a very remote antiquity. Diodorus Siculus, is quoted as mentioning the British custom of white-washing houses. The Welsh bards, from Aneurin, in the sixth, to David Thomas in the eighteenth century, notice and commend the practice of white-washing in Glamorgan.
Gnawd ym Morganwg … muriau gwynion.
(One of the peculiarities of Glamorgan, are white walls)
Aneurin, about the year 550.

The bard invoicing the Sun, says,
Teg fore, gwna’, lle yn llon ; ag annerch y tai gwynion.
(Thou orb of the bright morn, beam joyfulncss around,
And salute the white homes of Glamorgan.)
Dai Gwilym, about the year 1360.

Morganwg muriau gwynion.
Glamorgan of the white walls.
Deio ah ytuart Du, about 1450.

Sir Forganwg, y tai gan galch yn wynoin amlwg.
(Glamorgan, its houses, by liming, white and conspicuous.)
David Thomas, about 1720.

Davies, Walter, (1761-1849), General view of the agriculture and domestic economy of south Wales; containing the counties of Brecon, Caermarthen, Cardigan, Glamorgan, Pembroke, Radnor. Drawn up for the consideration of the Board of Agriculture and Internal Improvement. By Walter Davies, A.M. Vol. I. (London, 1814; 1815 edition) p. 137

1821 Carmarthen
Carmarthen is one of the best built towns, but the mixture of white washed houses, slated roofs, and brick chimneys, is far from agreeable to a painter’s eye. Some modern author (I forget who) says, the vacant glare of whitened buildings, so frequent in Wales, always reminds him of ” the eternal grin of a fool.”
Newell, Robert Hasell, Rev, (1778-1852), Letters on the Scenery of Wales; including a series of Subjects for the Pencil, with their Stations determined on a General Principle; and Instructions to Pedestrian Tourists, (London: 1821), letter 4.

1825, Dolgellau
‘The houses being whitewashed (as are most of the towns in Wales); gives this town a neat appearance.’
Jadis, Henry Fenton, Journal of a pedestrian tour in North Wales: through the counties of Montgomery, Merioneth, Caernarvon, and part of Denbigh, (London, 1826), p. 30

1826 Aberystwyth
This town is very irregular and on a small eminence, with narrow, filthy streets. The houses are built with large black and grey stones and pointed with white mortar but the modern and handsomest houses are stuccoed or whitened outside and appear to be extremely well filled up inside, genteel and fashionable, particularly along the semicircular Beach called the Parade.
Masleni, Thomas John, Sketch of a Tour of Scenery in Wales, 1826, NLW Add Mss 65a pp. 83

1827 Pembrokeshire
I was amused by their fashion of whitewashing the houses, roves and all so that they looked as if they had been caught in a snowstorm
Rev Joseph Romilly’s Tour of Wales, 1837, Edited by Rev M.G.R. Morris, (Llandysul, 1998), 17th October 1827

1827 Cardiff and Merthyr Tydfil
Lime is so plentiful here that the cottages are whitened all over even the roofs & about Merthur Tydfil where are the largest iron works, there is a coal from them, which the cottagers burn, that produce no smoke so that the insides of their chimnies are whitened & continue white like the outside walls.
Two anonymous women from Norfolk (probably Mrs Judith Beecroft and her daughter Miss Laura Beecroft), Cardiff Central Library, 2.325, p. 44

1828 Aberystwyth
a delightful view of the town which appears laid out beneath … and has a singular appearance from the roofs of the houses being whitewashed.
Anon, A journal, with sketches, of a walking tour from Kington to Aberystwyth and through parts of North Wales, 1828, NLW MS 6716D, pp. 20-21

1828 Aberystwyth
Aberystwyth. ‘This little town looks peculiar en l’abosdant the houses are built of slate stone, white with slate roofs, some are whitened all over, roof and all.’
diary of Amelia [Emily] Waddell (Lady Amelia Jackson) and her brother George Waddell (Junior) on a tour in Wales, May-Sep 1828, Royal Geographical Society, SSC/79 & GB 0402 LAJ, p. 36

1828 Llanrhaeadr (between Denbigh and Llangollen)
Llanrhaeadr church with a handsome east window of stained glass but everything in the shape of architecture is hidden by the dazzling coat of whitewash; all the churches in this area are literally whitened sepulchres.
Anon, A journal, with sketches, of a walking tour from Kington to Aberystwyth and through parts of North Wales, 1828 and Manuscript Account of a Tour into Wales undertaken May 1828, [in north Wales], NLW MS 6716D, f. 37r

1829 Llanbebli, Caernarvonshire
a large church, some windows good, the tower had a kind of battlement frequent in Ireland – glaringly whitewashed.
Parker, John, (1798-1860), ‘Memoranda during a Welsh tour in September and October, 1829’, NLW ms 19382E [18], p. 3

1831
The cottages, in most parts of the Principality are whitewashed which gives them a very cleanly appearance. The process is repeated every year, if not oftener; and so partial is the Welshman to white-lime, that no portion within reach, outside of the house, escapes his brush; the pigstye, the pailings and sometimes the roof all undergo the same operation. The custom is particularly observable in Glamorganshire. The interior of the cottages does not, however, always exhibit a corresponding cleanliness.
Leigh, Samuel, Leigh’s Guide to Wales & Monmouthshire: containing observations on the mode of travelling, plans of various tours, sketches of the manners and customs, notices of historical events, and description of every remarkable place, and a minute account of the Wye, with a map of Wales. 1831 (1st edition of many), p. 13

1833 Trecastle to Llandovery
By no means a bad country nor do the peasantry seem so poor, they look well clad and in good condition, the cottages all whitewashed, even the tops of the houses and churches are whitewashed all over.
Biddulph, John, [Presumably 1768-1845, brother of Thomas, and father of John (Junior) of Ty Issa, Llangennach], Herefordshire Record Office G2/IV/J/76, p. 42

1836 Llanfair Clydogau
The church grossly whitewashed
Parker, John, (1798-1860), journal, ‘St David’s 1836, no 56’, NLW MS 18253B, p. 27

1836 Roch and St David’s Pembrokeshire
Roche church … {the ceiling of the porch is panelled with stone … ‘this elegant and unusual relic is barbarously whitewashed.’
St David’s ‘the few houses that are seen have white roofs [whitewash] as if there were covered with eternal snow.’
Parker, John, (1798-1860), journal, ‘St David’s 1836, no 56’, NLW MS 18253B, pp. 49-50

1836 [Neath]
We saw enough of the Welsh to convince us that they are not remarkable for cleanliness. Many of their cottages are miserably dirty within, while the exteriors always look clean, being whitewashed every Whitsuntide. At the Lamb and Flag and at another little inn we visited the same day, we had sufficient proof of the super-abundance of Welsh dirt. The exterior of their houses certainly does them credit. The neatly thatched roofs and white cottages of Wales from a very pretty feature in the landscape.
Esther Williams, Cardiff Central Library MS1.521 (1836)

1837 St Nicholas; Bonvilston; (Glamorganshire); Llanon (Cardiganshire)
Saturday 12th August. Left Cardiff at 7 dull foggy morning not much to see on the road. St. Nicholas a small village with the houses and walls all whitewashed. … Bonvilston village church, houses & walls all whitewashed.
Village of Llanon, white washed & thatched generally; the few that are slated have the roofs white. (18th August, 1837)
Kenyon, Louise Charlotte, Journal of a tour in South Wales, Shropshire Records and Archive Centre, 549/285

1842 Llanberis
We visited, on our return, the huts of some mountaineers, who, declaring themselves to be “Cymrag [sic],” affected perfect ignorance of the English language. Though despised by the English, these huts are superior to the Irish cabins or those of the Scotch Highlanders. They remind me of the Russian houses in the Ukraine, being white-washed all over a practice I was told derived from the Silures their forefathers. The operation being repeated every year gives them an air of great neatness, and so great is the zeal of the people, in the performance of this process, that they often white-wash walls, roof, window-frames, and door; and sometimes extend the same care to fence, pigsty, and every other appurtenance.
Kohl, Johan Georg, Reisen in England und Wales, (Dresden and Leipzig, 1844)
J.G. Kohl, England, Wales and Scotland, (Chapman and Hall, London, 1844), 3 vols (abridged translation)
Kohl, Johan Georg, Travels in England and Wales [1845], (Translated into English by Thomas Roscoe), p. 105

1843 Llangybi (near Usk, Monmouthshire)
the church ‘coated with glaring whitewash’
Parker, John, (1798-1860), NLW MS 18255B (South Wales Tour, 1843), 1st September, 1843

1848
A prize of 2 guineas was offered by Gwenynen Gwent for the best song on the beauty and uses of the White Lime of Wales.
Programme for the 1848 Abergavenny 15th Anniversary Eisteddfod (loose in the diary of John Parry, tour through North Wales and part of South Wales, 1848, NLW 17728A.)

1849, 31st May
There is great alarm in Cardiff about the cholera … It has also appeared at Merthyr, and there was a meeting of guardians the day previous to concert measures for cleansing the town accordingly. Dowlais is to be whitewashed and cleansed as much as possible.
Guest, Charlotte, Extracts from her Journal edited by the Earl of Bessborough, (1950), p. 228

1863 Pembroke
I noticed most of the roofs of the houses hereabouts were whitewashed many of them in the High Street [Pembroke] were very old and small.
Anon, Journal of a Tour in south Wales, Cardiff Central Library, MS 3.272, p. 14

1871
Like most of the houses in these parts, the village roofs were all whitewashed and I kept fancying that snow had fallen and whitened the roofs.
Kilvert,

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