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Issue No 8 December 1986


As the festival of Christmas approaches one tends to think of family, friends and of happy times to come. The mind may also wander to Christmas past, to Dicken's 'Christmas Carol' and to how the festival was celebrated years ago. One of the main features of Christmas past in rural Wales was the service of ‘Plygain', derived from the Latin 'pulli cantus' meaning in English 'cockcrowing'.

During his tours of North Wales in 1751 and 1801, the Reverend W. Bingley noted that '....On the morning of Christmas-day, about three o'clock, the inhabitants used formerly to assemble in the Churches; and, after the prayers and sermon were concluded, they continued their singing psalms and hymns with great devotion till daylight. Those who through age or infinity were disabled from attending the church invariably read the prayers in their own houses, and sang the appropriate hymns. This act of devotion was called 'plygain'’. Reference to the service had been made by Thomas Pennant in his ‘Tour of Wales’ between 1778-81.

Services took place between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. By immemorial usage, The ‘Plygain' on Christmas Day at St. Peter's Church, Ruthin, was held at 6 a.m. at which the two aldermen, sixteen Capital Men (the Town Council), attended by the Steward and craft members of the ancient Company of Cordwainers, i.e., shoemakers and leather-workers, went in procession carrying lighted candles to church. Many people from the town and surrounding countryside also attended, bringing their own candles to light the church to symbolise the birth of the Light of the World. The nearest service to the ancient "plygain' is the modern ‘Christingle’, now used in many churches.

A type of morning prayer was used and at some churches in the area, e.g. Llanfair D.C., Holy Communion was administered. The service at St. Peter's Church was rendered in Welsh with a carol or hymn in English. At Llanrhydd and Llanfwrog, the services were entirely in the Welsh language.
The candles for the 'plygain' service at St. Peter's Church were provided by the ancient Company of Cordwainers, a Guild controlled by a committee of two stewards, a Warner, an attorney and secretary. They held their frequent meeetings in the former Town Hall on St. Peter's Square, which was built in 1663 and demolished in 1863. The Warner collected the tolls in the market place on the Square from all the 'foreign" shoemakers, paying the Guild the sum of £1.5s.0d. (£1.25p). He was paid a salary of 4 shillings (20p.) per year as Warner. After payment of this salary, the residue was used to provide the candles (torches) for the ‘plygain’ service. Any Guild member found guilty of any infringement of his Guild oath was usually fined a sum of money, half of which went to the Guild, the remaining half 'towardes the repacon (repair) of the townchurche of Ruthin.'

In the "Councell Booke of Ruthin', now deposited in the Clwyd Record Office, Clwyd Street, Ruthin, can be found the following interesting accounts:

'Decr, 20.1814 -

Psalm Singers Christmas Gift    0.10. 6.
Carol Singers on Christmas Day 0. 5. 0
11 boys carrying torches to light us to the Plygain on
Christmas day     0. 5. 6.
Ditto Watchman 0. 2. 0.
6 girl Singers with the organ 0. 2. 0. 
Wigs, candles and coat at the
Hall before the Plygain   0.10. 2.
Jany. 1. 1815 -
Spiced Ale at the Hall before
procession to the Plygain 2. 9. 0.’

Notes: The boys could probably have been pupils from either Ruthin School or the Church Charity School in Borthyn.The girls would have been pupils at the Church Charity School in Borthyn.

At St. Hilary Chapel, Denbigh, it was customary to 'treat' the Sidemen and to pay ‘vocalists' for singing carols. The Chapel accounts for 1729 records  'Pd, the sides Men Plygain Expenses £0. 4s. 0d,

From the account for 1815, it would appear that the Ruthin Town Council and the members of the ancient Company of Cordwainers made themselves warm, merry and well-lubricated before they left the Town Hall for St. Peter's Church. If one considers that, at that time, the price of ale could have been in the region of 1d. (old penny) per pint, then some 588 pints were consumed before 6 a.m. in the morning!!! How they all processed to St. Peter's Church and what effect their presence had on the 'plygain' service, can be left to one's own imagination!

On the Christmas series of stamps published by the Post Office for 1986, the service of Plygain is commemorated on the 18p first class stamp. This year, the messages of this ancient Welsh service will be carried around the world.





The feeling of pride and well-being in the acquisition of the motor fire engine was short-lived. The appliance itself was a cumbersome, solid-tyred, Nerryweather machine, which bad seen its best days and was totally unsuitable for a country area. Constant expenditure on the appliance was particularly displeasing to the Council, and there followed a decade io which the affairs of the Brigade were at a very low ebb. There were many disputes, and some court proceedings between the Brigade and property owners and/or their insurance companies, who disputed the scale of charges. Ruthin Council became even more reluctant to spend money on the Brigade. Efforts to persuade neighbouring Councils to contribute to costs met with no success. The equipment so deteriorated that it was necessary to borrow 30 lengths of hose from Wrexham Brigade. By 1936, the men's uniforms were in such a state that it was reported that only one pair of boots was serviceable. In 1938, the Merryweather Fire Engine was unsafe, and an arrangement was arrived at that the driver alone would ride the appliance to fires, the remainder of the personnel travelling to fires in a hired car.

The modern reader may find it difficult to believe that such a state of affairs could exist in a local authority emergency service during living memory. The difficulties of the Ruthin Brigade during the period, however, were not unique and similar conditions existed to a greater or lesser degree in other towns of similar size. The fault was due to the legislation which was introduced in 1840. Councils were permitted by law to spend money on a Fire Brigade, but were not bound to do so. Some Councils took a pride in their Brigade, whereas others did net. The position was that outside London, there was no obligation upon any Council to even provide a Fire Brigade - and many did not.

With the looming of the war clouds, the Government awoke to the need for efficient Fire Brigades to meet contingencies which might arise and a great change in Fire Brigade fortunes came about with the passing of the Fire Brigades Act of 1938. It then became a statutory obligation on every local authority to provide efficient cover, and without charge, for attendance at fires. With the introduction of this measure, Ruthin Borough Council faced up to its obligation and from 1st January, 1939, the Council took over full responsibility for the Brigade. This centralising of power and responsibility in the hands of the Council, also with the enrolment of Auxiliary Firemen - as provided for by the Auxiliary Fire Service (A.F.S.) Regulations, resulted in a rapid improvement in the morale and efficiency of the local Brigade. At the outbreak of war, Ruthin Fire Brigade compared favourably with Brigades in other towns of similar size.

During the winter of 1940/41, the German Luftwaffe launched its 'blitzkrieg' and to combat the abnormal fire situations which resulted, there were re-inforcing moves of fire crews and appliances into the stricken areas. In December, 1940, Manchester suffered a three-night blitz, and amongst the reinforcing crews drafted in was a unit from Ruthin Borough Fire Brigade - the personnel from the local brigade using a major-trailer-pump borrowed from the Nantclwyd Estate Brigade for the occasion.

As a result of the experience of the 1940/41 blitzes, the government of the day decided to 'nationalise' the Fire Service under direct Home Office control and, as from 18th August, 1941, the 1,535 local authority Fire Brigades were absorbed into one National Fire Service for the duration of the war. So came to an end the 100 year history of the Ruthin Borough Fire Brigade as such - a period which, at times, the renown and the efficiency of the local Brigade had risen to admirable heights but which, at other times, had sunk to an unfortunate depth.

Whilst the 1941 legislation meant the end of the Ruthin Borough Fire Brigade, the local Fire Station continued to function, but as a unit of the National Fire Service. As from 1st April, 1948, the N.F.S. was denationalized and the County Councils became the statutory Fire Authorities. Meanwhile, the Fire Service functioned with increasing efficiency, but as a unit of the Denbighshire and Montgomeryshire Fire Service. In 1974, there was yet another change when, under local government re-organisation the former counties disappeared and the County of Clwyd came into being, the fire service becoming the Clwyd Fire Service.
Throughout the various changes in control and nomenclature, which the Fire Service had experienced since 1941, the individual Fire Stations and their personnel have continued to provide fire cover, and the record of service during these years has been, and still is, a proud one. The Fire Service in Ruthin now operates from a purpose-built modern Fire Station in Park Road, commissioned in 1972, and is equipped with the most modern of fire appliances and equipment.


In 1860, after the restoration of the Church, and before Bulkeley Owen Jones had gained the authority, which his long service as Warden later gave him, there was great emotion in the town over the music at St. Peter's. F.R. West of Ruthin Castle had master-minded the restoration fund but he was none too pleased with the order of service at the parish church. As in many such matters, West allowed his agent F.W. Smith to lead the agitation.

Smith wrote to the Warden and stated that 40 out of 57 rate-payers had signed a petition objecting to the form of service. Those not signing had business with the Warden or did not wish to interfere, probably the few who were not West's tenants. The petition was not presented to the Warden, but to West, in the role of reluctant arbitrator, who then wrote to the Warden

'.......that from such an expression of feeling you will take this appeal into your consideration.'

Another character now enters the drama, James Maurice, friend, confidant of West, and also Churchwarden. He is pressed by West to ensure that the choir were seated in front of the organ and the choristers stalls converted into pews.

Seven days after the storm broke, tranquility was again restored by the following declarations

To the Parishioners of Ruthin
We the undersigned have ascertained  from the Warden that he is prepared to discontinue the singing of the Nicenian Creed and the use of Gregorian Chants and of the surplice for the English Evening Sermon and that he is most desirous the congregation should join in the singing and further he is willing for the screen to be lowered thereby rendering the seats between it and the organ with few alterations as eligible for the congregation as other seats in the church. We trust this arrangement nay be satisfactory to the congregation and be the means of preventing any division for the future with reference to the services of the Church.
James Maurice) Llew. Adams)
Wm. Williams) Robert Smart) Churchwardens
Signed by 108 parishioners.

There is in Bulkeley Owen Jones' papers a bitter reference to this affairs: 'Smith with the Castle influence on his back must about and compel parties to sign his requisition.'




ln this issue, we shall take an overall view of this street and, in subsequent issues, consider individual buildings and the contribution they and their occupants have made to the life and work of the town.

While many of its buildings are ancient and have been 'Listed’ by the Welsh Office, the form and character of the street have changed greatly and the process is continuing. Among these changes are changes of name. In a map illustrating his chapter in the book 'Medieval Boroughs of Wales' (p.244), Dr Jack gives us a picture of the topography of the medieval town, c.1364, in which Clwyd Street appears as ‘Mill Street".

The next map available is the first ordnance survey of the town prepared in 1826. In this the name appears as 'Clwyd Street'. That, however, is not the end. of the matter, namewise, for confusion can arise from the use of 'Upper Clwyd Street' and 'Lower Clwyd Street'. That part of Clwyd Street which runs parallel with Upper Clwyd Street was once known as ‘Lower Clwyd Street’ and the name of Clwyd Street was applied from the junction of those two streets to the bridge.


A conparison of the 1826 map with the next ordnance survey of 1874 shows differences in the line of the street, possibly due to inaccuracies of survey, but some of the buildings shown in 1826 no longer existed in 1874. The North Wales Chronicle of May, 1870, deplored the loss in Ruthin of several ancient buildings, some being timber framed. Some of these may have been in Clwyd Street, for the area now known as '3, Clwyd Street' was redeveloped by the Castle Estate.

It is also knows that Mr Thomas Bealey, a speculator from Lancashire, at about this time purchased several properties and erected new ones in their place, e.g. Nos 11, 13, and 15 Clwyd Street.

Dr Ian Jack's town plan gives an interesting interpretation of the use of the sites of Exmewe House and No.3 Clwyd Street. He shows what must have been quite a large Market Hall. Estimates of the date of construction of Exmewe House vary from the end of the 14th century to 1550. From the date of that house, Ruthin was without a Market Hall until the construction in 1663 of the Town Hall on the Square, in front of the now 'Castle Hotel'. (Recent research has identified an earlier town hall)

The area behind Exmewe House became known as 'The Old Meat Market'. There was also a multiplicity of shops by the middle of the 18th century, one of which was a Pot Shop run by a Mr Watkin Williams and another shop where lightcakes and muffins were made in sight of the customers. Lower down the hill was another area known as the ‘Llandegla Market’, where butchers in a small way sold mutton, etc. This area, bounded by the narrow pathway linking Clwyd Street to Upper Clwyd Street, is now partly occupied by Pike's the newsagents.

 One of the tantalising enigmas of Ruthin's past is: ‘Was Ruthin a walled town?' Dr Ian Jack points out that there is no archaeological evidence to support such a contention. On the other hand, there is substantial evidence of the existence of at least one town gate (described by Newcombe as 'magnificent'), near No.65 Clwyd Street, Porth-y-Dwr (Watergate). The Denbighshire Quarter Session records tell us that Joseph Turner, the County Surveyor, was authorised to demolish this gate to enable him to construct a culvert under the road to take the mill race into the Clwyd at the time of the construction of the County Gaol c.1775. (Editor's note: there has been much subsequent research on walls and gates, which alters this picture)

The existence of this gate cannot be doubted, but another tradition, which has not yet been verified, is that on the site of the gaol was once located ‘a small vestige of a town wall with an adjoining square tower which served as a common gaol.' This site was said to be that part eventually occupied by women prisoners.

Evidence of another town gate ('The Eastgate’) was said to have been uncovered in the renovation of the Myddelton Arms, c.1880, but this is less reliable. This does not amount to very such, but the existence of town gates without flanking walls or other defences would sees to be rather pointless.
Documentary evidence exists of a single murage grant in 1407 'because the town lies so open among the Welsh rebels." (‘Murage’" was a tax levied for building or repairing town walls.)

A few yards beyond Porth-y-Dwr, Clwyd Street ends as it crosses the River Clwyd over Pont Newydd or Pont Howkin or Ddoltwr ("Tower Meadow') Bridge. This three-arched bridge of 177l was another of Turner's constructions in Ruthin. The choice of such a name for a bridge adjacent to the site of the alleged 'vestige of wall with an adjoining tower' nay not be without some significance!



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