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Overview of Breconshire Parishes

This webpage provides a general overview of the parishes in the county of Breconshire, which may be helpful to those who are unfamiliar with the area.

View south from the hilltop by Jonathan Billinger
View south from the hilltop by Jonathan Billinger
Photo © Jonathan Billinger (Licensed for reuse by this Creative Common License)

Breconshire is an upland county, whose boundaries were formed in the south by Fforest Fawr and the Brecon Beacons, to the west the eastern flanks of the Cambrian Mountains, to the east—no bulwark against England—lay the Black Mountains.

Historically it was a moorland county, inhospitable and bare except where the valleys of the Wye and Usk from their bleak sources in the highlands widened out into broad, well-wooded meadow-lands running down into the rolling countryside of Hereford and the Border. These valleys were like promontories of a settled civilisation in a waste of moorland. Along them ran the ancient routes of communication, the main roads connecting the little towns and small settlements which lay like ports of haven on the edges of the vast wilderness of the high plateaux.

The people who inhabited the county were, with the exception of those who had moved over and beyond the mountains in the south, agriculturalists. In the valleys, settled in their nucleated villages and in close proximity to the small towns, were the tillers of the rich soil, members of estate communities, their culture orientated eastwards, open and without resistance to the urgent pressures that crept up the valleys and beat upon the hills. At one time the centres of a thriving woollen trade they were now in decline as manufacturing centres and produced only for a local market. The mountain folk lived a pastoral life in their scattered, remote habitations on the flanks of the hills and in the distant valleys, traversing the great open moorlands and coming down only periodically for the interchange of commodities in the fairs and market towns.

The division of the county into parishes reflected these contrasting economies and ways of life and the topographical differences underlying them. Running along the valleys and in the heart of Breconshire, for example, the parishes were relatively small. The eighteen parishes in the valley of the Usk, for instance, had an average size of 1,982 acres. But beyond this central elongated cluster, incorporating the mountains and high plateaux of the north and west, were parishes of enormous size.

The fourteen parishes to the west of the Usk, extending from Llanwrthwl in the north to Ystradgynlais and Ystradfellte in the south had an average size of 14,823 acres. These parish boundaries had been drawn in the middle ages, their demarcation being determined by the economic resources of the territory enclosed, and despite the great changes of the intervening centuries it is probable that, with notable exceptions, the relative balance of resources had not altered to any great extent. Compared with the vast mountain parishes the valley parishes were relatively more wealthy and prosperous.

The exceptions to this generalisation were the parishes of south Breconshire, extending along the fringes of the county from Ystradgynlais in the west to Llanelly in the east. These were all moorland and mountain parishes and it had been the discovery of iron-ore, coal and limestone in their southern flanks which, within living memory, had transformed them from sparsely populated wastelands into regions of heavy industrialism. They were situated at the northern extremities of the coal and iron fields of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire, and where they bordered on these counties, iron-making towns had developed, spilling up from the ever-growing industrial valleys of the southward-running rivers.

It was in recognition of this fact that the Poor Law Commissioners had incorporated them into the industrial Unions of their southern neighbours, and indeed, for all the bare expanses of their surroundings the towns of Ystradgynlais, Hirwaun, Cefn-coed-y-cymer, Beaufort, Clydach, Llanelly and Brynmawr had more in common with Swansea, Aberdare, Merthyr, Tredegar, and the urban civilisation of the south than with the, slow-moving agrarian cultures of the rest of the county. They were alien and intrusive elements in an otherwise uniform and common agricultural economy.

Although set apart from the rest of the region by the long ridge of the Brecon Beacons, Mynydd Llangynidr and Mynydd Llangatwg, yet their influence upon it was very profound. In particular, the industrialisation of these southern parishes had changed the balance of population within the county of Brecon and came to be the main determinant of population movements. In 1801, when industrialisation was yet in its infancy and only just beginning to assert its power, the bulk of the population in the county was to be found in the valley parishes – in what later became the Union Districts of Brecon and Hay. The former group of parishes contained 39% of the population, the latter 25%. The upland parishes later included in the Builth Union contained 21%, and those of the Crucywel Union 15%. By 1851 these proportions had changed very radically. Brecon and Hay now contained 31% and 18.5% respectively and Builth 14%, but Crucywel's proportion had risen to 37%.

Of the sixteen subdistricts in the County, two—namely, Brecon and its neighbour Pencelli—retained a more or less constant proportion of the total county population, in eleven the proportions had fallen, while three—namely, Llangynidr, Llangatwg and Llanelly—had increased their proportions. These three latter subdistricts between them now contained nearly one-third (31%) of the total population whereas fifty years previously they had contained less than one-twelfth (8%). It should be pointed out that the above statistics refer to the Registration County [for census purposes], and therefore takes no account of the Breconshire parishes which had been incorporated into the Glamorgan Registration County. Since these included the relatively highly populated parishes of Ystradgynlais, Ystradfellte, Penderyn and Vaynor (Y Faenor) it can be readily understood that our statistics, if anything, understate the extent of this population shift.  Most of this redistribution of population in Breconshire had been due to internal migration, to the movement of people already resident within the counties.

[Adapated from: The Religious Condition of the Counties of Brecon and Radnor as Revealed in the Census of Religious Worship of 1851, by Ieuan Gwynedd Jones, in 'Links With the Past: Swansea & Brecon Historical Essays', by Owain W. Jones and David Walker, Christopher Davies (Publishers) Ltd, Llandybie, 1974]