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.

Llanuwchllyn

Gwerfyl looked out from the Eagles pub where we having dinner, where five people I didn’t recognise were seated at a table.

“Three of those people are your relatives”. That should have surprised me, but it didn’t. After all, this was Llanuwchllyn.

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When my father died in 2015, it fell to me to sort out his papers. It wasn’t an especially onerous task: Dad was very organised, and everything was carefully filed. Once I had bundled up anything financial or legal for the solicitor, I was left with three envelopes containing information about the family: one for each of Dad’s parents, and one for Mum’s mother. Dad hadn’t created a family tree himself, but he had kept documents and letters from family members who had sought or provided information. The absence of an envelope for Mum’s father was, I think, only because there had been no correspondence from this quarter of the family.

I kept the envelopes safe, but thought no more of it until January 2017, when I sustained a heel injury trying to run further than I should. I thought that uploading the information I had inherited would make an interesting replacement for running as a winter diversion. But once I had signed up to Ancestry.com and started to add the data, momentum took me straight past that point, and into new researches as the website pointed me towards ancestors, great-uncles, great-aunties and cousins I had never known about. My family tree kept on growing.

I knew all four of my grandparents, and each had been strongly associated with a particular place. Nain (Dad’s mother) came from the Toxteth area of Liverpool. Some of Mum’s mother Sallie’s family can still be found around the Chirk and Wrexham area of north Wales where Sallie grew up, and Mum’s father Jack grew up and lived most of his life in Wallasey on the Wirral.

But it was my father’s father, Bob Edwards (or Taid as I knew him), whose extended family is still most closely connected to his childhood home. He was born on his father Evan’s farm Pantclyd, in Llanuwchllyn, North Wales, into a family which had farmed the area for generations. He was the fourth child of the nine who survived infancy.

Of course, this meant that my father had many cousins, and I have many second cousins descended from my great grandparents. And because Llanuwchllyn is a farming community, and the land is owned by family members, many still live in the area. But my Dad didn’t generally make much effort to keep in touch with his Welsh family, perhaps because he didn’t speak the language fluently.

Pantclyd held a fascination for me, no doubt in part because the house in Dolgellau where our family stayed with Nain and Taid when I was a boy was also called Pantclyd, renamed by Taid presumably in tribute to his childhood home. When I found out from a correspondent on Ancestry that an Edwards – Eiddon Edwards – was living in Pantclyd (Llanuwchllyn) my curiosity was aroused. Was the house and farm where my grandfather was born in 1883 still in the family, nearly 140 years later?

So I wrote an old-fashioned paper letter to Pantclyd, and within a couple of days Eiddon had emailed back confirming that he was indeed my second cousin. Pantclyd had come to him through his grandfather Llewelyn and his parents Idris and Ann. When he mentioned that his brother Geraint owned a couple of holiday cottages which he rented out, I resolved to make the trip to visit the Land of My Fathers.

I contacted Geraint, and booked up a week in September 2020 – he was kind enough to give us mates’ rates. During the Coronavirus lockdown, it looked doubtful whether the trip could still take place, so we were grateful to arrive at Talybont.

Talybont

Prominent from the main road past Llanuwchllyn as we arrived was the statue of Sir Owen Morgan Edwards and his son Sir Ifan ab Owen Edwards. Sir Owen was my great grandfather Evan’s second cousin. It was the first time I’d seen any relatives honoured with a statue.

Sir Owen and his son Ifan were both champions of the Welsh language. Owen was an academic, and published many books and magazines promoting Welsh poets and writers. He also became a wealthy man, leaving an estate of £17,500 – a tidy sum in 1920. Ifan set up Urdd Gobaith Cymru (the Welsh League of Youth) which among other things, organises the Youth Eisteddfod.

I couldn’t go to Llanuwchllyn without visiting the grave of my great grandparents Evan and Elin Edwards, buried along with their son Thomas.

We were delighted to have been invited to Pantclyd, where we enjoyed a lovely lunch with Eiddon, his wife Heledd and their two young sons. Besides being my taid’s birthplace, two much sadder stories attached to Pantclyd. Two of Taid’s brothers died young: my namesake and great uncle Richard Edwards tragically drowned there in 1905 at the age of 20.

Eiddon took me on a tour of the grounds, and showed me the pool under a waterfall – perhaps where this happened.

Taid’s oldest brother Evan John also died young, in a shooting accident, just three years later at the age of 30.

Pantclyd is now a happy family home after being comprehensively renovated and extended in recent years by Eiddon, a builder by trade.

An undoubted highlight of the trip was visiting my dad’s favourite cousin Arthur Jones with his daughter Gwerfyl for morning coffee. Arthur is now a lively 98, full of stories and laughter. He pings out emails from his iPad like a young ‘un, and a couple of hours before we arrived he sent me a Facebook friend request.

Arthur Jones

Arthur fought in the Battle of Normandy with the Welsh Guards, arriving a few days (“Quite soon enough, thank you!”) after D-Day. He was a tank driver and fitter: he explained how his job was to drive the one at the rear: if a tank broke down, a fitter would have to get out of the tank – sometimes under fire – to replace the faulty part. Many fitters did not survive the war.

After the war Arthur had the less dangerous task of guard duty outside Buckingham Palace, and recalls that the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret could be demanding employers, sending through reprimands if they felt they had not been saluted sufficiently smartly when returning to the Palace in the small hours.

Arthur later bumped into my dad in London at the Victory Parade on the Mall on June 8 1946.

“When it was all over and we were waiting for the crowd to disperse, suddenly an airman stood in front of me, Aelwyn!! He had spotted me as we marched down the Mall to our positions! We hadn’t met for years. The Sergeant Major who was standing in front of me turned round to blast me for talking on parade then decided to let it go!”

Being only 17 when the war started, Arthur at 98 is one the younger veterans, and has been in demand for TV interviews in recent years, sought after for his vivid and lucid wartime reminiscences.

His brother Rhys, eighteen years his senior, also fought in the Battle of Normandy: some twenty years after the war he wrote his wartime memoirs. When Rhys died in 1974 his daughter Mair found his story among his papers and circulated it to the family, and Arthur translated it from Welsh into English. It makes fascinating if sometimes difficult reading.

After the war Arthur went from tank to tanker: for four years he drove the milk tanker from the local creamery to Liverpool every day – in an unheated cabin through the bitter winter of 1947 – before being promoted to an office job as assistant manager. Eventually in 1965 he took over his brother’s shop and ran the sub post office with his wife Mair, before retiring eighteen years later.

Unfortunately I only took an interest in the family tree after my parents died, and there are many questions I would have like to ask my mum and dad about their childhood, their parents, grandparents, cousins, great-uncles and great-aunties, and all the other family anecdotes. So to meet someone like Arthur, who remembers my dad as a child, and has so many stories to tell, is very precious.

One story concerns his Aunty Maggie, my nain, a schoolteacher.

“Aunty Maggie was a very doughty lady indeed whose first words to us when she arrived on a visit were “Let me see your books!” Homework and satchels would vanish when we heard Uncle Bob’s car outside!”

Arthur also told an amusing story about my dad Aelwyn which I hadn’t heard before. Maggie told her son Aelwyn – about ten at the time – to take Arthur, about eight, who was round at their house for a day – for a walk up the hill from their house in Dolgellau. Perhaps Maggie had put up with as much noise from the boys as she could. Anyway, it seems Aelwyn resented being put in charge of his young cousin and he wanted to watch the cricket match: so he abandoned Arthur at the top of the hill and ran back down so he wouldn’t miss the first over. When taken to task, apparently, he replied that he had only been told to take Arthur up the hill.

Arthur is the fount of all knowledge about the Llanuwchllyn tree, and I wasn’t the first visitor hungry for family stories. On seeing a photo of his grandmother Elin, who died was Arthur was thirteen, he volunteered “I don’t think she had a tooth in her mouth!” He keeps an extensive family tree on a long paper scroll, much consulted by local genealogists.

A small section of Arthur’s legendary family tree

Visiting in September 2020, we were restricted in what we could do. We weren’t able to bring our daughters along, or shake hands with my newly found relatives as I would wish. But I was able to meet four second cousins for the first time – the fourth being Irwyn, to whom Gwerfyl introduced us at the Eagles – and renew my acquaintance with the wonderful Arthur. Having lived near London and worked in the City for most of my life, I could have felt like a foreigner in a part of Britain where English is very much the second language. But the people were welcoming, and instead I felt the warm embrace of my Welsh family. It felt like coming home.

In contrast to the sad stories of Richard and Evan John, Debbie and I stumbled on a much happier tale from Pantclyd’s more recent history. We were walking up the Aran from Llanuwchllyn, headed towards a ladder stile over the corner of a stone wall. There was nobody in sight, until a man and woman emerged from our right. We met at the stile, and got chatting. I mentioned that we had visited Pantclyd, and he said he had grown up in a farm along the valley. His name was Robin, and his wife was Gill.

Gill then told how, when she was a girl, her family was on a camping holiday in Llanuwchllyn, when they were cut off from their destination by flooding. They were saved by Geraint and Eiddon’s father Idris Edwards, who allowed them to camp at Pantclyd. They liked it so much they ended up coming back every year. During their time staying at Pantclyd, Jill met Robin in the local chapel, and they were married in 1967.

Assuming that everyone in Llanuwchllyn would know Arthur, I mentioned that we had visited him, and Robin confirmed that he knew ‘Arthur shop’ and that they were related, to some degree. Arthur was able to confirm that Robin was indeed my third cousin, and for good measure, that he was Sir Robin, a noted physicist who had served as Vice-Chancellor at the University of Wales, Swansea for nine years. What were my chances of walking up a remote hill and bumping into a cousin and a knight of the realm? In Llanuwchllyn, I’d say, quite high.

Diolch, Llanuwchllyn!

Taid

Nain, Taid, Sheila David and Susan 2
Nain and Taid on Fairbourne beach

“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No.”
“You’re not one of those…misogynists are you?”

It was a harsh question for an easily embarrassed eighteen year-old.  Perhaps he was worried that I was “queer”. I had to tell him that no, I did not dislike girls. The problem was more likely in the opposite direction.

Taid (Welsh for grandfather) – Bob to his friends – was paying his first visit to us since we moved to Chipperfield a few months earlier. He was 91, and the long journey from Dolgellau must have taken its toll: a couple of days after he arrived he became ill, and he would not see his home again.

He was the longest lived of our grandparents, also the last surviving, and I remember him well, from the age of eighty or so. Quite deaf, with a bulky hearing aid, and the battery in his waistcoat pocket. In his other pocket he kept his favourite sweets: Callard & Bowser’s Old English Treacle Brittle, or Callard & Bowser’s Butterscotch.

I had a sweet tooth, and when I was small he would break off generous pieces for me from the paper packets, no doubt at some cost to my teeth. He had been a schoolteacher and headmaster: growing up in Llanuwchllyn, English had been his second language. He spoke it correctly, as only a language student does. So instead of “thanks” or even “thank you”, he would say “I thank you.”

Another quirk in his use of English was his understanding of the word “now”. His daughter-in-law Sheila found it infuriating that when she said “Dinner is ready now” he would wander off or start another crossword. Apparently “now” meant “soon” to Taid.

My mum Kath recalled that when she and Dad visited him in Dolgellau, he would tell long jokes, entirely in English, until the punchline, which he delivered in Welsh. Mum would then look questioningly at Dad, who would reply “It doesn’t really translate.” It might have been a risqué joke, or a pun in Welsh – or perhaps Dad’s Welsh wasn’t good enough, I still don’t know. In any event, Mum found it quite annoying. She also recounted being terrified as the old man drove his little Ford Popular around the narrow winding stone-walled Welsh roads at speed. I still remember the old leather smell of the seats.

His wife Maggie, our Nain had died in 1963, and in the summer holidays we would visit him in a house called Pantclyd in Dolgellau, named after the farm in Llanuwchllyn where he was born, and later at his flat in Henfaes, where we would arrive to find him snoozing in front of the cricket. The flat had only two bedrooms, so Rob and I slept in the spare room while Mum and Dad stayed in the B&B across the road. We would spend about two weeks there, exploring Snowdonia, climbing Cader Idris, mostly visiting the beach at Fairbourne – sadly now facing abandonment as sea levels rise.

Taid would also visit us near London every year, with Dad and his brother Glyn sharing chauffeur duties for the long round trip: he would stay one week with Glyn and his wife Sheila and family, and one with us. Taid loved his papers, and when he stayed with us he would have Y Dydd (a weekly Welsh language newspaper) and the Liverpool Daily Post sent to him. The Post was printed on thin and crackly paper, and while Mum was trying to take her much needed afternoon nap, he would fold and refold the broadsheet paper down to the smallest rectangle, briefly scan an article, then open the paper up and start again – quite oblivious, in his deafness, to the din he was making.

He had been a schoolteacher in Liverpool, and headmaster of Dolgellau Primary School. Mum reckoned that middle aged men walking through the town would straighten their ties and hide their cigarettes behind their backs when they saw him coming.

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Robert Evan Edwards was born in 1883, his first name reused from his brother who had died in infancy two years earlier. He was the third of eight surviving children of Ifan and Elin Edwards.  Elin had a sixteen-month old daughter Ellen by an unnamed father when they married in 1876, and was already carrying their first child together, Evan John.  Ifan was a sheep farmer, but Bob seems to have been more interested in books.

Taid family group 2
c. 1897. Bob at top right, Ifan bearded, sitting, next to Elin holding child.  Richard and Evan John standing from left, Ellen seated third from left.

He told his granddaughter Susan that he became a pupil teacher in Llanuwchllyn, (which meant helping younger children) as his only other option at the time was unappealing – to become a servant on another farm. The 1901 census shows him as the only English speaker in the family home – the others spoke Welsh only. At seventeen, he was working as an elementary (primary) school teacher.

taid census
Taid002

Bob had pacifist inclinations, and the local newspaper records him in the same year arguing in debate that war was more damaging than drunkenness.

Temperance

Llanuwchllyn, Congregationalist Church Youth Meeting (February 1901).
“…There followed a debate “Does war or drunkenness do more harm to humanity?”. In the absence of E. Edwards, Bridgend, R.E. Edwards opened arguing “war”; A.L Davies argued “drunkenness”. Further comments were made by E.J. Edwards, Hendre. On voting, it was found that the majority believed that drunkenness is more damaging to mankind…”

Bob’s family saw its share of tragedy. His brother Richard, just eighteen months younger, drowned at the age of twenty while swimming in a lake near Pantclyd in 1905. Two years later, his oldest brother Evan died at the age of thirty in a gun accident.

Taid and Nain enjoy a picnic, 1911

Bob met Maggie Jones in about 1910 when both were working as teachers at Granby Street School in Liverpool, where one of their colleagues was Fred Attenborough, father to Richard and David.

School group - Fred Attenborough back row 3rd from left, Taid 4th from left, Nain 4th from left001
Bob standing, fourth from left, Maggie seated, second from left.  Fred Attenborough standing, far left

1914 provided brutal evidence of how much harm war could do to humanity. Bob’s poor eyesight put him Medical Category B, which meant that, as a schoolteacher, he was not called up. When conscription for unmarried and widowed men was introduced in January 1916, he had been married to Maggie for six months. A child soon followed: their first son, Glyn, born nine and a half months after the wedding, and their second, my father Aelwyn after three more years.

Bob aided the war effort in a different way: in 1916 he volunteered to help the National Savings movement to raise desperately needed funds for the government. His work was rewarded with an MBE in 1945, and he served the movement for over fifty years in total.

Taid MBE Investiture letter001
Invitation to M.B.E. Investiture.  Not sure about the date of the letter…
Taid at MBE ceremony001
Taid receives his certificate for fifty years’ service to the National Savings Movement in 1966

He continued to promote National Savings in his old age: every Christmas and birthday my brother and I would receive £2 each – one pound to spend, and one pound to save. We were allowed to choose between the sensible Savings Certificates or the more frivolous Premium Bonds.

Bob’s view of life was generally serious, although this was not always shared by his wife and sons, as my Dad’s story relates:

“EVENING THE WILD WOODS AMONG”

When I was six years old, my father was promoted to a head teacher’s post, with the requirement that he should reside in the head teacher’s house a hundred yards or so from the school. This meant that he sold the house that he was in the process of buying, leaving him with some cash in hand, which he used in part to furnish the new house. Among his acquisitions at the time I remember a small billiard table, and a large picture which hung over the fireplace in the living room. The picture was of a leafy path winding through an autumn-tinted wood; in the centre of the picture were two rabbits, sitting on the path, contemplating the scenery. The title of the picture, written in script, was “Evening the Wild Woods Among”. Some years later, as I approached my years of discrimination, it dawned on me that this title was rather comical, and outrageously twee. Imagine my delight to find that my mother’s opinion on the matter coincided with mine. Her sense of humour ran exactly parallel with mine, but I’m afraid that my father sometimes found our amusement not always in the best of taste.

As a postscript to this tale, it was a matter of great satisfaction to discover that when I took my intended bride home to meet my parents, she read the title beneath the picture, and could scarcely control her mirth.

Evening. The Wild Woods Among
Evening.  The Wild Woods Among by Joseph Farquharson, R.A.

In fairness to Taid, this twee turn of phrase was not his invention, nor was it the artist’s – it comes from Fair Jenny by Robert Burns.

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Taid’s was the first full funeral service I attended, and I was eighteen. I understood, of course, that it wasn’t a tragedy when a man of 91 died. But still I found it upsetting, as we stood around the open grave on a remote hillside in Brithdir. The sun was shining, but there was a biting cold October wind. It couldn’t matter to Taid, but the loneliness and desolation of the place frightened me, and my own mortality hit me like a sledgehammer.

Dad wrote this:

Slow Welsh voices
Half forgotten cousins, dimly remembered friendships.
My two sons a part, but yet apart.
I look towards the sky, beyond the pale autumn hills,
Reaching for infinity,
Wanting to touch his hand just once again.
A little dust to his frail dust;
Then we go down through the trees, to begin life again.

I discovered a couple of years ago that Taid’s birthplace, Pantclyd in Llanuwchllyn is still occupied by an Edwards, so I sent an old-fashioned letter to enquire if we might be related, and was pleased to find out that the current owner, Eiddon Edwards, is indeed my second cousin – the grandson of Bob’s younger brother Llewelyn. My wife and I are hiring a cottage in Llanuwchllyn in September owned by Eiddon’s brother Geraint. I’m looking forward to meeting them both, and perhaps visiting Pantclyd. And also hoping to meet Dad’s wonderful cousin Arthur, still going strong at 98.

pantclyd
Ifan and Elin in front of Pantclyd, Llanuwchllyn, c.1900
Pantclyd in 2020

I would have made a poor farmer: my practical skills are poor and I don’t cope well with cold weather – working in an office suited me better. Similarly Taid seems to have preferred the schoolroom to the farm, and perhaps the effort he made to learn English as a child led his part of the family away from the land and into more comfortable (if less beautiful) workplaces. And for that, Taid, I thank you.

Gan-gan

jack

Or Jack, as he was usually known.  He was our Mum’s Dad, and he died when I was twelve.  He and Sallie came down from Wallasey to live with us in Chorleywood when I was seven, so I have clear memories of them both, but perhaps understand them better from an adult perspective – and with the benefit of some research.

I knew Jack as a quiet, thoughtful and kindly man, devoted to Sallie.  He was a craftsman: he had worked as a ship’s carpenter, and in his retirement he kept busy, transforming our bedroom with fitted desks, wardrobes and cupboards.  He did most of the skilled work required to install a swimming pool in our garden. He made me a fine chest of drawers for my coin collection, which I still have: it was a present for getting into grammar school, and in a display of confidence, work was begun long before I had achieved this.

He loved watching football and cricket on television.  A Liverpool man, he sat down to watch the 1965 Cup Final, and I became engrossed, and fiercely partisan once he told me that I had been born in Liverpool.  To this day, if I’m challenged on my split allegiance between Watford and Liverpool, I reply Liverpool 2 Leeds 1 – Hunt and St.John in extra time.

I remember him playing cricket in the garden in Oxhey. He knocked the ball back to me, and I held a catch. “Caught and bowled!” he beamed. I was too busy pondering how it could be otherwise – when only two of us were playing – to suspect that he might have deliberately hit me a soft catch to bring the game to an end.

He read the bible every day, and carefully marked the passages he wanted to return to.  He had a gentle humour: one day he was cutting vinyl flooring for our new bedroom, which had a design dotted with different images.  “The biscuits are OK” he said, “but the granite’s pretty tough.”

He was painfully shy, and disliked the spotlight.  One time Jack and Sallie took me on a visit to their son Philip in York.  Philip organised a trip to the circus.  The clowns threw beach balls out into the crowd: one went above us.  On its way back down, it bounced on Jack’s bald head, and everyone laughed.  Jack hated it and his face turned bright red.

I wonder now whether Jack really wanted to come to live down south: he had lived his life as a working man on Merseyside, and in retrospect seemed ill at ease in middle class home counties suburbia: perhaps his wishes were outweighed by Sallie’s desire to be with her daughter and grandsons.  And having two energetic and noisy boys around can’t have been ideal for a man who liked tranquillity.

He painted beautifully in watercolours.  One of his paintings shows the beech trees at the end of our garden in their autumn colours, and he added the figure of Sallie walking back through the woods, with her dachshund Tumbi at her feet.

Four years after they moved south, when he was 74, Jack acquired a debilitating illness.  A bed was moved down to the lounge, where he was nursed with great dedication by Sallie and my mother (a trained nurse) for the remaining months of his life.  I’m not proud to recall that my overriding feeling at the time was resentment at the disruption this caused, and at his urgent claim on my mother’s attention.  In his sickness, confusion and frustration, Jack – who I had thought a perfect gentleman – would forget himself, and the profane language of the shipyard would spill out in front of his wife and daughter.

This much I remember.  After he died, we learned more from Mum: that he had not been Sallie’s first husband.  She had been married to a man called Davy.  While serving in the First World War with the Royal Engineers, Jack met Tom, Sallie’s older brother.

tom and jack001
Jack (right) with Tom

When visiting Tom, Jack presumably met Sallie and they fell in love.  Eventually Sallie divorced Davy – a scandalous and expensive business in the 1920s – and married Jack.

Mum herself only learned of this from Sallie after Jack died.  And there were still many details of Jack’s life of which I knew nothing, or if I had ever been told them, I had forgotten.  Genealogy has revealed more.

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Jack was eleven when his father James died, leaving Jack’s mother Helena with seven children.  Within eighteen months, on Christmas Eve 1906, Helena had married James’s older brother, Jack’s uncle John.  This marriage was illegal: at the time the law would not allow a woman to marry her deceased husband’s brother.  So Helena gave her maiden name of Jones, rather than her married name of Brockbank, which would have given her away – as she was now marrying her second Brockbank.  John signed his name, while Helena marked X.

john and helena marriage certificate001

They chose the lesser of two evils by breaking this archaic law rather than living “in sin” together.  We can imagine the registrar sceptically contemplating Helena, the 39-year old “spinster” who had in fact borne seven children, but deciding not to raise any questions.  The marriage was likely practical as much as romantic, with Helena presumably in urgent need of money, while John, himself widowed a few years earlier, still had young children to care for.

Sadly the arrangement didn’t last for long: within ten months they had a son together, but Helena died of childbirth complications.  So by the age of fourteen, Jack had lost both of his parents, and as the second oldest child, he presumably had a good deal of responsibility put on his shoulders.  By the age of sixteen, he was employed as a boat builder’s apprentice carpenter.

Some time during or after the First World War, he must have met Sallie.  Her childhood had common ground with Jack’s, in that her mother had also died young – in her case, at the age of 31, when Sallie was just fifteen months old.  And in her case, her father then partnered his deceased wife’s younger sister, although in this case they didn’t marry.  If they had, this would also have been illegal: in the nineteenth century there were regular unsuccessful attempts to change this strange biblical law, referred to by the Queen of the Fairies in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe:

He shall prick that annual blister, marriage with deceased wife’s sister“.

Davy’s divorce petition cites Sallie as having “deserted” him in July 1921 “without reasonable excuse”, and names Jack as the respondent.  The petition goes on to colourfully state that Sallie and Jack “frequently committed adultery” in Chester, Runcorn, and “divers other places to your Petitioner unknown”.

This has cast Chester and Runcorn in a new light to me.

sallie and jack

When as teenagers we heard of this affair, my brother and I liked to think of Davy as some sort of brute, and of Jack as the handsome knight rescuing her from his clutches.  But family anecdotal evidence has provided no support for our fantasy, casting Davy instead as a sweet and gentle soul.  In any event, Sallie must have found something she preferred in Jack, and her choice was not an easy one: many in her own family strongly disapproved of her scandalous behaviour – for example her sister Bella, who stood by Sallie, would often row with her husband over the matter.

Divorce was a lengthy business in the 1920s, and the lovers had two children, Philip and my mother Kath, before the divorce was final and Sallie could remarry.  My mother always believed herself born after they married: perhaps Sallie decided to spare her this detail.

Last year my daughter got in touch to ask about an inscription she had found in a book of Tennyson poetry we had passed on to her from my parents.

dedication

The dedication, dated Christmas 1919, read

“To Sallie, My very dear Wife & closest companion.  From her sincere & devoted husband Jack”.

The divorce record tell us that Sallie did not “desert” Davy until 1920, and that Sallie and Jack were unable to marry until early 1927.  So what to make of the dedication?  Was Jack being presumptuous in calling Sallie his wife as early as 1919?  Was he offering her a guarantee that he would marry her as soon as he could?  Or perhaps the inscription – or at least the date – was added later to provide evidence to help deflect any questions over Philip and Kath’s legitimacy.

In her later years my mother wrote down her memory of Jack’s experiences looking for work in the 1930s. Life was not easy for her parents:

I gained one further glimpse of Jack’s character when clearing my father’s garage a couple of years ago.  I uncovered two issues of a magazine that Jack had edited and part written in 1943.  Called “Slipway Scrapbook”, it was produced for employees of William Cubbins Ltd, the shipyard where Jack worked. Jack was a committed trade union man: but the tone of his writing was that the workers should now focus on winning the war rather than battling with management:

History yields up more facts than understanding.  But now when I look at a photograph of the old man I knew, I think of a man who served at Gallipoli and survived.  I think of a man who fell in love with and courted a married woman, and I think of a man desperately seeking work in the depression.  Mostly, I think of the vast difference between his early years and – separated by sixty-two years, two generations and two world wars – my own comfortable childhood.

But memories trump history – my mother used to say that a person has not died while anyone alive still remembers them.   I remember Jack with his pipe in his mouth, although often it was not lit.  He used his old Ogden’s St Bruno Flake tins to store his screws and nails. He had a soft odour of pipe smoke and tobacco: as a child I liked it – it was his smell, and I loved him.