James Owen of Penrhos

and his descendants

Collecting folklore

Despite his parish duties Elias’s work as Inspector of Religious Knowledge for St. Asaph, a post he occupied until 1892, enabled him to collect many Welsh folk tales, as he explained in the preface to his book Welsh Folk-Lore. A Collection of the Folk-Tales and Legends of North Wales (or click here to see an HTML version):

The sources of the information contained in this essay are curious, but the writer is indebted, chiefly, to the aged inhabitants of Wales, for his information. In the discharge of his official duties, as Diocesan Inspector of Schools, he visited annually, for seventeen years, every parish in the Diocese of St. Asaph, and he was thus brought into contact with young and old. He spent several years in Carnarvonshire, and he had a brother, the Revd. Elijah Owen, M.A., a Vicar in Anglesey, from whom he derived much information.

It was his custom, after the labour of school inspection was over, to ask the clergy with whom he was staying to accompany him to the most aged inhabitants of their parish. This they willingly did, and often in the dark winter evenings, lantern in hand, they sallied forth on their journeys and in this way a rich deposit of traditions and superstitions was struck and rescued from oblivion.

This extract is from a letter Edwin Sidney Hartland, like Elias an authority on folklore and with an analytical interest in the subject, wrote to The Times in 1895. Its tenor was that in general the clergy had closed minds as regards folk lore which prevented them discovering its nature and extent; Elias was an exception.

The Rev Elias Owen, Diocesan Inspector of School and one of the chief authorities on Welsh folklore, relates that once, being in a certain parish for the purpose of examining the school, he took the opportunity of asking the clergyman concerning the superstitions of the place, when he was met by the dignified repulse “Our people are not superstitious, I am glad to say.” His inspection over, he asked the first class “Now children, can you tell me of any place where there is a buggan (ghost or bogey) to be seen, or of any one who has seen one?” Instantly every hand was stretched out, and every child had a story to tell. The fact is the people hide their superstitions from such representatives of modern culture as clergymen and teachers.”