This story first appeared written in Welsh with the title ‘Y Ferch o’r Scer’ and, as is usual with Welsh stories, its origins are obscure. The earliest reference to a love-lorn maid appears in 1806 in a translation by the historian William Davies of Neath of the words of a Welsh air composed by a Harper. There is doubt as to who this Harper was but it seems likely that he was Thomas Evans of the parish of Newton-Nottage. Further information about the story was then obtained by Thomas Morgan of Maesteg from an old woman of Maudlam who said she knew the Maid and it is her version that has generally been accepted. There are doubts about the authenticity of the story, however, and Mr. Leslie Evans in his book Sker House valiantly wrestles with the problem. His researches uncovered two descendants of the so-called Maid who hotly averred that the heroine had been happily married, It is a pity to spoil a good story, however, and this is the original account of Y Ferch o’r Sker.
Isaac Williams of Sker had tow daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. Elizabeth (the Maid) was tall, beautiful and loved dancing. She used to wait impatiently for the Gwyl Mabsant to come round, the annual festival to commemorate the local saint (Saint Mary Magdalene, hence the name Maudlam). The celebrations took place in the Town Hall of Kenfig (today the Prince of Wales Inn) when the harpist would appear and play throughout the night. Everyone attended, even the old women who now preferred knitting, but the youngsters thought it despicable if they failed to dance continually until the dawn.
One fateful year the harpist was Thomas Evans of Newton-Nottage, who was always in great demand. The sight of the tall attractive girl must have quickened his pulse and his music, for he fell in love immediately; and to his joy he saw that Elizabeth was not averse to his approaches. They made the most of the evening together and by dawn they were lovers.
But Isaac Williams, when he heard if the associations, was furious, after all he was a gentleman farmer and Thomas Evans was a mere carpenter, however good his music. Undeterred the harpist hired a carriage and pair, and stealthily approached Sker House at night, hoping for an elopement. Unfortunately the dogs heard him and quickly the old house was alight as candles and lamps were lit. Poor Thomas though it best to retreat. The father locked the Maid in her room and she was not allowed to leave the house for a long period of time. But she still pined for her lover so Isaac Williams forced her to marry Mr. Kirkhouse of Neath.
As with most forced marriages Elizabeth never forgot the man she had favoured and so there was constant friction between her and her husband. She sought out the harper whenever he was in the region and once Mr. Kirkhouse caught them together. The story has an unhappy ending, for within nine years of the marriage the Maid was dead; dying, presumably of a broken heart. She was buried at Llansamlet on January 6th 1776. The tombstone that marked her grave has disappeared and lies buried in an unknown part of the churchyard. Thomas Evans, however was made of sterner stuff, for although he, too pined for his lover for the rest of his life, he eventually married in his fiftieth year and had several children. His end came much later in 1819, when, playing at a ball in Nottage Court, he collapsed and died a few weeks afterwards. He is buried at Newton churchyard.
How much of this story is true and how much is fiction we do not know.
The story of Y Ferch o’r Sker has a remarkable resemblance to that other tear-jerking legend, The Maid of Cefn Ydfa. In this story another lowly born bard, Wil Hopcyn, was prevented from marrying Ann Thomas, the daughter of a well-to-to farmer at Llangynwyd. Poor Ann like Elizabeth Williams, was forced to marry another man and died of a broken heart in her lover’s arms. Wil Hopcyn, not being as robust as Thomas Evans, also pined away, meeting his death later when he fell off a ladder whilst carrying out his trade as a thatcher. It would be fair to end in saying that such stories, whether there was an element of truth in them or not, were repeated, in various forms, throughout the Principality. They were the stock plot of the nineteenth century.
The Legends of Porthcawl and the Glamorgan Coast
Author: Alun Morgan
Illustration: Margaret Wooding