Maria Jane Williams was born at Aberpergwm in the Neath Valley, Glamorgan, on 4 October 1795, the fifth and youngest child of Rees Williams of Aberpergwm (1755-1812) and his wife Ann (née Jenkins, 1759-1834) of Ystradfellte. The Williams family of Aberpergwm claimed descent from Iestyn ab Gwrgant and the poet Dafydd Nicolas had a home with them in the second half of the eighteenth century. The siblings William (1788-1855), Rees (1792-1849), Thomas (1793-1861), Elizabeth Ann (1794-1871) and Maria Jane were educated well, without neglecting the cultural and linguistic roots of the family, which maintained close links with the local community. The children were encouraged to learn Welsh, sing Welsh songs and play the harp. Elizabeth Ann and Maria Janeattended school in Swansea and lived the life of wealthy young ladies. They would spend the season in London from May onwards and travel to Llandrindod or Cheltenham in August. Maria Jane showed great interest and talent in music from an early age, and delighted especially in her native Welsh song and music. She had been taught the harp by the famous harpist Elias Parish Alvars. Her voice was described as 'exquisite' by contemporaries and her talent as showing an 'inherent genius for music' in her obituary. She is also said to have been a very accomplished guitar player.
In 1826, she spent an unusually long two months in Ireland without Elizabeth Ann, accompanied by Rev Thomas Price ('Carnhuanawc'), and staying at Adare Abbey, ancestral home of the Earls of Dunraven. There is evidence to confirm local traditions that her journey was necessary for her to give birth to the illegitimate child she was expecting by the second Earl of Dunraven and Mount-Earl, Henry Windham Quin (1782-1850). Elizabeth Ann and Maria Jane returned to Aberpergwm at the end of the summer with a young baby.
Maria Jane also used her stay in Ireland in 1826 to tour Cork and Kerry, learning Irish folksongs. This stay and her meeting with the renowned Irish antiquary Thomas Crofton Croker (1798-1854) on the journey home gave a first boost to her creative career. Croker instructed her in the basic methodology of the folk collector and it is due to his encouragement that her collection of folktales, one of the earliest of Welsh tales, was published in 1828 as an appendix to Croker's Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland, second and third series. This was a remarkable collection for the time, and though some of the tales were derived from Edmund Jones (1702-1793) and, possibly, from Carnhuanawc, most were collected by her from oral sources, which she listed and described.
In 1836, following their eldest brother William's marriage, Maria Jane and Elizabeth Ann moved to Ynyslas Cottage in Blaen-gwrach, a house built for the second Earl of Dunraven in 1819, which was now leased to them. In the area, they became known as 'Ladis y Cottage'. It is here that Maria Jane Williams spent the remainder of her life, heading a considerable household of eleven which included Fanny Baker (b. 1826), assumed to be her daughter, though it was claimed that she was the niece of the servant Jemima Baker.
By then, the circle around Augusta Hall, Lady Llanover had founded the Abergavenny Cymreigyddion and was organizing the series of eisteddfodau that bridged the gap between the festivals held in the 1820s and the National Eisteddfod of Wales. Williams was a keen supporter of the movement and the siblings attended the 1836 eisteddfod. Maria Jane and Elizabeth Ann regularly visited Llanover and the former's 'fine voice', refined harp playing and knowledge of Welsh folk music came to the attention of the assembled patrons. Lady Elizabeth Coffin Greenly (1771-1839) of Titley Court, Herefordshire, supported her by offering a prize for the 'best collection of original unpublished Welsh airs, with the words as sung by the peasantry of Wales' to be awarded at the 1837 Abergavenny eisteddfod. Maria Jane Williams's collection won the prize and came to be published as Ancient National Airs of Gwent and Morgannwg in 1844, Lady Llanover having secured a dedication of the volume to the young Queen Victoria. Lady Llanover also encouraged her to publish the tunes accompanied by Welsh lyrics, with some assistance from Taliesin Williams ('Taliesin ab Iolo') (a friend of Maria Jane's brother William) and John Jones ('Tegid'). The English translations (some by Crofton Croker) were moved to the appendix. A number of the melodies collected by Williams, arranged for the palour and the stage, became 'national' by being included in collections like The Welsh Harper being an extensive collection of Welsh music in 1838 by John Parry (Bardd Alaw) and the four volumes of Welsh melodies arranged for the harp published between 1856 and 1874 by John Thomas (Pencerdd Gwalia). However, Ancient National Airs of Gwent and Morgannwg was the only collection of Welsh tunes with original Welsh lyrics until the twentieth century, and the inclusion of information on some of the original singers was groundbreaking. It remains an important work, new editions having appeared in 1988 and 1994, the latter containing copious annotations on the music and an authoritative account of Maria Jane Williams's life and work.
Maria Jane Williams's social life was busy, taken up with visits to Dunraven Castle and to Llanover, Llandrindod and Cheltenham, as well as with eisteddfodau in north Wales. She also organized regular celebrations for the dancers and singers of the Upper Neath Valley in her home. Jane and William joined the Cambrian Archaeological Association in 1850, and she maintained a correspondence with other female scholars, such as the antiquary Angharad Llwyd and the historian Jane Williams ('Ysgafell'). In her old age she delighted in the frequent visits of Fanny Baker, by then long married to Evan Jones of Pontneddfechan, and their five children. Only in old age was she allowed to thus express her feelings towards her own child.
Maria Jane Williams died in Ynys-las Cottage on 10 November 1873 and was interred in the family chapel in Aberpergwm church. In her will, she made most of her estate over to Fanny Baker's three daughters, the two sons inheriting only £100 each. While Williams's papers are dispersed, valuable manuscripts are held at the National Library of Wales and at Cardiff City Library, and a number of letters to Thomas Crofton Croker are in the Cork Archive in Ireland.
Published date: 2019-08-21
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Born (according to her gravestone) in 1795 at Aberpergwm in the Neath valley, Glamorganshire (see Williams family of Aberpergwm). She received a good education; she also inherited her father's love for what was best in the life of Wales. A good vocalist, with a fairly extensive acquaintance with music, she became an accomplished player on the guitar; she also was given lessons in harp-playing by the famous harpist Parish-Alvars. In the Abergavenny eisteddfod of 1838 she was awarded the prize offered by lady Llanover for the best collection of Welsh airs, this being the collection published in 1844 under the title of The Ancient National Airs of Gwent and Morgannwg. She assisted John Parry (Bardd Alaw) to produce the Welsh Harper, whilst John Thomas (Pencerdd Gwalia) also consulted her before he published his two volumes of Welsh airs. During her last years she lived in a house called Ynys-las, near Aberpergwm, and died there 10 November 1873 (press notices at the time of her death gave her age as 79, thus giving the date of her birth as 1794). She was buried in Aberpergwm churchyard.
Published date: 1959
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