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.