Le gros commandant Whof Whof Whof: Part 2 – The Large Wynnstay Collider

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 Great Aunt Vida

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.

Le gros commandant Whof Whof Whof: part 1

Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn the 5th Baronet in 1802 – 26 years before the birth of Sarah Rowley

My great great grandmother Sarah Williams née Rowley was a “kept woman”. That, at least, is the story that has persisted on my mother’s side of the family for over a century.

Born in 1828, she lived in Newbridge, near Chirk in Wales. The local gentry, personified at the time by Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, 5th Baronet (1772-1840) and later by his son Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, 6th Baronet (1820-1885) resided at Wynnstay Hall, Ruabon, two miles away. In a letter written in 1991 Mollie, her great granddaughter and my mother’s cousin, set out what she knew:

“Sarah could have worked at Wynnstay Hall as a young girl. My mother told me that she was an intelligent woman, who could read and write, which was unusual in those days; and that she would write letters for people in the village at sixpence a time. There were few schools at the time, so the family assumed she was taught in Wynnstay Hall. Mother also said that she was allowed to live rent-free in her cottage on Dee Side, Newbridge.”

Mollie’s son Phil has been able to add some colour to this:

“Mollie’s memory was of a woman who wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed about the situation. It was an “open” arrangement. So I think Sarah felt loved and appreciated, and local people came to her to have their letters written by her and read to them by her. Indeed it appears that she made a living out of it. She lived on the estate rent-free which suggests at the very least a warm relationship between and her landlord. He wanted to help her out of personal feelings or obligations.”

(Phil himself was once told by a friend that he resembled a gallery portrait, which coincidentally turned out to be of one of the Williams-Wynns.)

Wynne Stay, Seat of Sir Watkins Williams Wynne, by John Ingleby (1793)

So on thin evidence, happy to weave a high-born narrative, our family concluded that Sarah might have received the favours of education and free accommodation thanks to her relationship with one of the Sir Watkins. The nature of the supposed relationship, however, is unclear.

The first possibility is that she was allowed to live rent free because her father John Rowley or her husband John Williams might have died in an accident in the Wynnstay colliery, Ruabon, or following a work related sickness. But John Rowley died in 1855 of asthma, at the age of 66, which doesn’t seem to meet the (probably very high) threshold for a landlord or employer to provide support: and by then Sarah was living with her husband, and would not then have needed help with the rent. I have not found a death record for John Williams, although his daughter Edith, born 1866, was said not to remember him. The manner of his death could yet explain the rent free arrangement.

The second possibility is that Sir Watkin, 5th Baronet, had a relationship with a local girl in about 1827, and that Sarah was his illegitimate daughter. The third is that Sir Watkin, 6th Baronet, had a relationship with Sarah herself, perhaps around 1846, and that she bore his child.

The Williams-Wynn family owned huge estates in north Wales, and the 5th Baronet played a prominent part in politics. The current Baronet, Sir David Williams-Wynn, can still claim royal Welsh descent, and could theoretically use the appellation “Dafydd III of Wales”.

The 5th Baronet grew to be seventeen and half stone, which sometimes caused chairs to collapse under him, and his contemporary Lady Holland, commented “Sir Watkin’s tongue is immensely too big for his mouth and his utterance is so impeded by it that what he attempts to articulate is generally unintelligible.” His size and the unfortunate style of his speech earned him the soubriquet le gros commandant Whof Whof Whof when he was garrisoned in Bordeaux in 1814 as Colonel of the Denbighshire Militia.

(When I shared this rumour of our aristocratic ancestry with my daughter Rachel, she was initially excited, picturing her 4 x great grandfather as Colin Firth playing Mr Darcy. Less so after her first seconds of research uncovered le gros commandant Whof Whof Whof.)

The 6th Baronet, caricatured as “The King of Wales”, Vanity Fair, 1873

His son the 6th Baronet hunted four days a week, having been appointed master of the hunt at 23. He was a director of the Great Western Railway, and in 1845 served as treasurer of the Salop Infirmary in Shrewsbury. After Wynnstay was almost totally destroyed by fire in 1858, Sir Watkin had it rebuilt between 1859 and 1865 on the same site.

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Let’s check the speculation against some facts: looking firstly at the possibility that Sarah was Sir Watkin, 5th Baronet’s illegitimate daughter. If this could be proven, then I, my brother, our children and all my first, second, third and fourth cousins descended from Sarah’s mother could claim direct lineage from the Welsh kings and princes.

Sarah’s mother is recorded as Elizabeth Rowley née Davies (1794-1868). She married John Rowley, a coalminer, on 26 May 1828, when she was 34.

Within four months her daughter Sarah was baptised on 17 September 1828 – when the 5th Baronet was 56.

The record shows Sarah’s parents as John and Elizabeth Rowley. So does that destroy the theory that the real father was Sir Watkin? Well, not quite. If he had been the actual father, he was hardly likely to admit to it on official records. Perhaps he came to a private settlement with Elizabeth, while local man John Rowley very decently stepped in to save her reputation – and later helped Sarah to get an education, and allowed her to live rent-free, because he felt some responsibility for her.

That said, Elizabeth’s age of 34 when Sarah was born doesn’t quite sit with the stereotype of a young servant being seduced (or worse) by the Lord of the Manor.

Now look at the possibility that the younger Sir Watkin, 6th Baronet had a relationship with Sarah herself. If he did father a child with Sarah, most likely it was her first, John Williams (junior) who was baptised in 1847 when Sarah was 19 and Sir Watkin was 27, still a bachelor.

But again, the official record shows no hint of illegitimacy: Sarah had married coalminer John Williams (senior) thirteen months earlier in September 1846:

So if Sir Watkin was actually the father, then either the baptism took place some months or years after the birth (which did sometimes happen, especially in poorer families) – or else Sir Watkin seduced or imposed himself on a young married woman. In this version John Williams senior would be the knight in shining armour who stepped in to marry Sarah and save her from ruin.

Sarah had seven children in total – the fifth being my great grandmother Alice – and died in 1894 aged 65. It seems less likely that Sir Watkin, 6th Baronet fathered any others after John junior, although it is possible he carried on the relationship indefinitely disregarding her marriage to John Williams.

So there are problems in believing either theory about the connection between one of the Sir Watkins and Sarah. And greater problems in finding any documentary evidence to substantiate them.

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But modern science offers a possible solution. Perhaps I can wield the sledgehammer of technology to crack the nut of family gossip. Inexplicably the current Baronet did not respond to my offer to fund a DNA test which might solve the mystery. Luckily, however, Ancestry.com offers DNA tests, and where there is a match between customers, it indicates how close the relationship is likely to be, e.g. third cousin once removed. And those who have built public family trees on their website can get hints as to which part of the tree their match might come from, e.g. which set of great x3 grandparents they have in common.

So here’s the plan. Ancestry currently shows me 258 DNA matches estimated to be 4th cousin or closer, and 18,758 matches reckoned to be more distant family. A few of the closer matches are relatives I know personally, and some others I have been able to place in my family tree. But the great majority remain a mystery to me. This is not surprising: many of the matches indicate a fifth, sixth cousin (or more distant) relationship. A sixth cousin, for example, shares your great x5 grandparents. To locate them in your tree, you need to go up seven generations from yourself to your common ancestors, and back down seven generations to your cousin. Few family trees are this extensive or reliable.

Of the thousands of DNA matches, some might come from Sir Watkins’ descendants. If it is true that the 5th Baronet fathered Sarah with Elizabeth Rowley née Davies, then any descendants of this pairing – which include my family – will be carrying some Williams-Wynn DNA, and should show up as a match. Any descendants of the 5th Baronet of my generation would be my fourth cousins, or closer.

(If, however, the 6th Baronet fathered a child with Sarah Williams née Rowley, then only the descendants of that child (or those children) will carry the Williams-Wynn DNA. If, as seems more likely (or less unlikely), that child was John Williams junior, then the DNA match will show only to his descendants, unfortunately not to descendants (like me) of his sister Alice – a match between one of John Williams junior’s descendants and the Williams-Wynn family would be needed to confirm this theory.)

I can make a start by looking at the Williams-Wynn family: if a member of that family has built a tree and also taken a public DNA test, then they should show as a DNA match if they are indeed some kind of cousin. That could at last provide some hard evidence. I could also go through the over 19,000 matches Ancestry has shown me, looking for a connection. But that’s looking for a needle in a haystack. There might, however, be a useful short cut.

My tree currently shows John Rowley married to Elizabeth Davies, and John Williams senior married to Sarah Rowley: no relationship to either Sir Watkin is shown. So as it stands, Ancestry would not cross-reference any matches from Williams-Wynn DNA to my tree. But if I speculatively connect Elizabeth Davies to the 5th Baronet, and Sarah Rowley to the 6th Baronet, and then upload a good portion of the Williams-Wynn family tree (assuming, presumptuously, that it is also my family), then perhaps Ancestry, using its Thru-Lines software, will show me DNA matches with provable connections to the Williams-Wynn line.

So, to work. Uploading the Williams-Wynn tree is not a trivial task: it is a large and fecund family, but the more thorough I am in this work, the more likely I am to snare a Williams-Wynn descendant in my DNA trap. There must be hundreds of them, of whom a few will have a family tree on Ancestry, and some will have taken one of their DNA tests.

I can’t prove a negative – it will hardly settle the issue if nothing turns up. But it’s possible I could find a link, and how wonderful it would be to put some substance to this ancient rumour. I will report again after a month or two. Watch this space.

The Picture

I hadn’t thought about it for years. After our dad died, my brother and I were performing the melancholy task of sorting through the stuff in his garage. Dad hadn’t driven for the last few years, and had sold his car, so we had used the garage to store old furniture and other things he no longer needed. An upholstered armchair doesn’t look its best after doing time in a garage, so this and most other contents were soon sorted onto the pile for the house clearance people. But there was a box of papers and pictures – some framed – which caught my eye, and I took it home with me to sort through at leisure.

My grandfather Jack – my Mum’s father – had enjoyed painting, and there were a number of his paintings there. I flicked through them, until a rural scene in a battered frame suddenly seized my attention. I was instantly back at my childhood home, where the picture had hung in our lounge. A canal runs under a bridge: a large oak tree grows on the bank beyond. Tiny figures descending a track add a cartoonish touch – a man and his dog, the man with something long over his shoulder, perhaps a gun, a fishing rod or a spade. It is annotated:

Red Bridge – Chirk ‘56. John Brockbank

Jack was not a man who liked to blow his own trumpet, so I take it either that he was proud of this painting, or that perhaps it was a gift to my mother who might have asked him to sign it. Either way, I’m glad he did.

The painting is pleasant and carefully executed, but not especially distinctive, apart from one detail which hooked into my memory and confirmed that this was indeed the picture I remembered. Through the small arch of the bridge, Jack had painted two bushes, either side of the stream. To my childish eye this had looked like two people in a bubble car, and even after I had inspected it closely, I could never quite shake this impression. And now, perhaps fifty years later, I was looking once more upon the bubble-car picture.

Chirk is in Wales, just on the border. Jack had no personal connection with the place, except that his wife Sallie had grown up there. In 1956 they were living in Wallasey, on the Wirral, some fifty miles away, but they didn’t drive. I try to imagine the day. Perhaps my parents, who lived in Irby in Cheshire at the time, took Sallie and Jack to Chirk for a picnic – possibly a nostalgic trip at Sallie’s request. Rob would have been nearly three, me a bump in my mother’s tummy. Or perhaps their son Philip came for a visit from Cambridge with his wife Doreen and baby Jonathan: Philip was restless and enjoyed trips out. I can imagine Sallie catching up with friends in town while Jack, never at ease socially, elected to remain on the riverbank with his sketchbook.

I had the painting re-framed and it now hangs in our dining room.  I had been hoping to try to find the Red Bridge – Chirk on a trip to north Wales my wife and I have planned in September: but as I write in the third week of the Coronavirus lockdown, it is looking doubtful whether we can go this year. And then, when I posted the painting in the Chirk History Facebook group – in the hope of finding its location – I was told the sad news that the bridge, on the Llangollen Canal, was destroyed in the early 1970s, and that the tree came down a few years ago.

Ah well, I still have the painting. And a lovely fellow from the Facebook group offered to take some pictures of the site on his walk and send them through.

The scene today from Jack’s viewpoint. (Phil Roberts)

The remnants of the Red Bridge. (Phil Roberts)

And I’m told the bridge used to look just as Jack had painted it.