Where were we? Ah yes, in Part 1 I was looking for evidence to support the theory that my mother’s side of the family is descended from the aristocratic Williams-Wynn family of Wynnstay Hall, Ruabon. The rumours centred around my great great grandmother Sarah Williams née Rowley (1828-1894): was she either the illegitimate daughter of Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, 5th Baronet (b.1772), or the mistress of his son, Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, 6th Baronet (b.1820)?
The official records state that Sarah Rowley’s father was coalminer John Rowley, and that her husband, and father to all her children, was coalminer John Williams. Although if I and a large chunk of my mother’s side of the family want to ignore the records and cling to our belief that we are high-born, we need only say “they would say that, wouldn’t they?” Surely the local aristocracy would be able to bribe and bully their way to keeping the truth of their involvement off the official records?
So my plan was to rebuild the family tree using the assumption that the 5th Baronet was Sarah’s father, so my great great great grandfather. Ancestry should then show me if I have any DNA matches with the legitimate descendants of the 5th Baronet. Many of the Williams-Wynn clan had large families in the 19th century, and using information from other carefully researched family trees, I have added about 600 of his deceased descendants. (Ancestry does not display details of living people on public trees: the 5th Baronet probably has a similar number of living descendants.). These additions increase the size of my tree by some 14%.
Let’s call it the Large Wynnstay Collider – an apparatus, if you will, to try to establish the existence of a tiny particle of Sir Watkin’s DNA in our family.
Ancestry.com is currently showing me 19,689 DNA matches of varying strength. If the 5th Baronet were indeed my great great great grandfather, then on average 1/32nd of my DNA will have come from him. So a similar proportion of my DNA matches – say 600 – will be descended from him, or from his ancestors. Many of those will have built a family tree on Ancestry – probably more than average, in view of the aristocracy’s enthusiasm for genealogy.
The website allows you to search to find which family trees of DNA matches contain a specified surname: for example, if I search the names Edwards, Jones or Williams there are hundreds, only some of which will be from my family. Not surprising, as it they are such common names. More useful, then, to search for some of my ancestors’ more unusual surnames from the 5th Baronet’s time. Here is the frequency with which these rarer names occur in the trees of my DNA matches:
- Grime – 16
- Lund – 26
- Mather – 59
- McSorley – 6
- Shelmerdine – 11
For comparison, how many Williams-Wynns did my search find? One, and that turned out to be a Wynn-Williams, born in 1903, taking Wynn from their mother and Williams from their father – so nothing to do with Sir Watkin. None, then.
The official records state that Sarah Rowley’s father was John Rowley, and that her husband was John Williams. A thorough trawl through the DNA pond has produced nothing to contradict or challenge those records.
The Williams-Wynn story comes from my mother’s family, so my father Aelwyn was a dispassionate, if wry observer. Mum used to outsource genealogy enquiries to him, and in a letter to Mum’s cousin Maureen in 1992, Aelwyn wrote:
“According to to Vida (Sarah Rowley’s granddaughter) – and it may all be a figment of her lively imagination – she was the mistress of Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn of Wynnstay Hall… A curious circumstance which tends to support Vida’s story is that Sarah was the only working-class person in the village of Cefn who could read and write, and she lived to the end of her days rent-free on the Wynnstay estate.”
My genealogy research confirms Vida’s “lively” imagination. Her father, John Cooper, worked as a brickmaker, terracotta finisher, and a tilemaker. He also played in a brass band called the Besses o’ th’ Barn Band. This last detail was enough reason for Vida to describe her father’s profession as “Professor of Music” on her marriage record.
I have tried to find records which might confirm Sarah’s rent free status, or provide a reason why she might have received favours. One suggestion was that she was being supported as the widow of a coalminer who died working on the estate. I’ve been unable to find her husband’s date of death, but his daughter Edith, born in 1866, was said not to remember him, which suggests he died in his early forties. Sarah was a couple of years younger than him. It seems unlikely that she learned to read and write only at the age of forty, as a result of a special favour from the Wynnstay estate. A researcher named Elissa had some interesting suggestions as to why Sarah might have been allowed to live rent free:
“If Sarah only lived rent free after John’s death it is worth considering whether she was taken on as a charity case by the family in her widowhood. Although almost certainly unprovable (unless a letter survives) it could also be a connection to a female member of the Wynn family which brought their favour – perhaps she had previously worked there as you suppose and following her widowhood an old employer took pity on her. Maybe she had done the family a favour or won their friendship by helping at the birth of a child. It is all complete supposition but it is worth considering the less obvious reasons.”
I initiated a search for the Wynnstay Hall rental records, to try to confirm whether Sarah Williams indeed lived rent-free, and if any reason was given. In 1858 Wynnstay Hall was destroyed by fire, presumably taking the rent records with it, but surviving papers are stored at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. I asked a researcher called Graham to see if he could find rent records for Newbridge, where Sarah lived:
“I have now had a chance to search through the rentals in the Wynnstay archive at the National Library of Wales – massive, heavy volumes they were too! It would seem that Newbridge was situated within the parish of Wrexham which straddled parts of Flintshire and Denbighshire. I have looked through the rentals at various points during the period which you specify to search for tenants of the Williams-Wynne family in Wrexham, but, unfortunately, failed to locate a single reference to either a Sarah Williams or to Deeside Cottages. Indeed, there would seem to have been very few properties owned by the estate within Wrexham.”
So I’ve not been able to confirm Sarah’s rent-free status, or find any reason why it might have been. And perhaps Sarah was simply a bright girl, and someone took her under their wing to help her education.
Of course, it’s very difficult to prove a negative. But imagine watching Loch Ness continuously for a hundred years, above and below water, and seeing nothing. You’d be pretty confident there was no monster living there. Similarly, having failed to find a single trace of Williams-Wynn DNA in me, I am now fairly certain that my family is not descended from the noble Williams-Wynns, and believe the idea might have come, as Dad suggested, from my Great Aunt Vida’s “lively” imagination. I’ll never be King of Wales. I’m sorry if that disappoints any of my maternal cousins. But we can take just as much pride in our ancestors being coalminers, brickmakers and seamstresses.
There will be many genuine, legitimate descendants of the Williams-Wynn family out there. So, if any of you happen to read this, could you do me a favour? Would you mind awfully taking a DNA test for me, to give a definitive answer? I’ll pay for it, and I promise I won’t try to claim your castle.