Ellen Williams & the Women of Coed Gwydr
Nantperis, 1873 - 2019
This is a story of life (and death) in a quarry household over time, of the way in which the lives of women were 'hidden', of the gradual change from Welsh to English language, of the longevity and continuity of the household through the women (and through a connection with literature and art), and the interconnectedness of lives between past and present households in Nantperis.
The story is from Coed Gwydr, the house where I now live, and through researching it (initially inspired by digging the 'treasure' from the old middens in the backgarden), I feel like I've created myself a geneaology through habitation rather than blood. This is me. This is my family.
"Yma ywf finna i fod"
1. Teulu Williams 1873 - 1895
In the 1870s, Ellen was the first woman to live at Coed Gwydr, Nantperis. Here she lived with her husband, Owen Williams, her father in law, Griffith Williams and her brother in Law, Robert Williams.
Owen, Griffith and Robert worked in Chwarel Dinorwig. They built Coed Gwydr, facing dead south, from stone extracted from a small quarry in the garden. Griffith was in his 60s, and Ellen and his sons in their 20s. Although they built the house, Coed Gwydr was owned by the Vaynol Estate, the owners of the Dinorwig Quarry.
Within a couple of years of moving to Coed Gwydr (in around 1873), Ellen gave birth to a son, Griffith, who died at 3 months on 13th December 1875.
Their second son, Humphrey was born 18 months later in 1877.
Just 18 months after that, Ellen’s husband, Owen died aged 32, on 18 December 1878, while she is pregnant with their third son, John.
Owen’s gravestone is made of limestone, because he died in a quarry accident. The stone is so worn away that it is hard to read the writing: the words were only revealed as they imprinted on the paper.
The long inscription on his gravestone also includes an Englyn, perhaps composed by Ellen? Or his family/co-workers in the quarry:
O'r cor chwarelwyr cywrain - collwyd dyn call a doeth i' gelain, myned ymaith mewn damwain O'n rhwysg mae amryw o rhain. A smart and wise man of the talented quarryman’s choir - sent from here in an accident, one of several of those lost to us.
Owen was very respected in Nantperis: he was mentioned in 'Fy Atgofion' by Mrs Mary Davies, Y Llythyrdy (which is full of little stories of notable characters in Nant) thanks to Gwilym Roberts, Cerrig Drudion, for showing the book):
"OWEN WILLIAMS, Coed y Gwydyr. Yr oedd ganddo ddawn siarad lli'r afon. Yr oedd yn un da am gadw rheolaeth arnom, ac am ennill ein meddwl a'n bryd ar y wers. Yr oedd yn weddïwr gwresog. Cyfarfu â'i ddiwedd yn y chwarel yn dair ar ddeg ar hugain oed."
Now a widow, Ellen gave birth to John in 1879. And the same year, Ellen’s brother in law, Robert died at 30 years old, on 9th May. His gravestone is of purple slate, so he didn't die in the quarry....
It turns out that he basically just fell down in the garden, dead.
Elin Tomos also found details of his older brother Owen's death: it was a gruesome accident in the quarry, where he was blown 60 yards (from one level to another) after going back to check on explosive that hadn't gone off. The article below is written with a broken heart, ending with the author saying he is writing with tears in his eyes... and more poetry by Ieuan Peris, Pant-y-Fron:
Ellen Williams continued to live at Coed Gwydr, with her elderly father in law and her two sons. She was here for more than 20 years. The plates and metal farm animals and the circle-decorated slate and old fire place and maybe even the old beds that I have found in the garden middens are very likely to have been put there by Ellen.
I found out in the Nantperis graveyard that Ellen died at Coed Gwydr at 43, on 10th September 1895. I only discovered her name on the bottom of Owen’s gravestone while doing a rubbing of the inscription – I hadn’t seen it at all while trying to decipher the text from the stone itself. The inscription is just an add on ('Hefyd'), a note that she was Owen’s wife and the date and age of her death. No mention that she is a mother or loved or anything else about her. It suggests there was no-one left to write her a decent inscription, her sons being 17 and 15. It feels good to be re-remembering her now.
Did Ellen’s father in law Griffith survive her? I've not found Griffith’s grave, but he was already 84 in 1891. What happened to the two boys? One may have moved to Mynydd Llandegai....but there are also records of many from Nant moving to Pensylvannia, so perhaps that's why there is only a faint record of them?
2. Teulu Jones 1895 - 1912
By 1901, the bilingual Jones’ family were living in Coed Gwydr. Just as in the Williams' family, the head of the household was also called Griffith (age 48, also a slate quarryman) and his wife was also called Ellen (51, listed as a lodging housekeeper).
I could find out only a tiny bit about them - Ellen is widowed by the 1911 census, and lived (at 62) with her daughter, Annie (33, listed in the census as 12 years married), and two children.
After a lot of searching around the graveyard, I found Griffith's grave: He died September 26, 1910: It says he'd come from 'Corporation Gallt y Foel, but I can't find anyone who knows what that might be.
But then Gwilym Roberts (who lives at Cerrig Drudion, in the centre of Nant, part of an 'age old' Nantperis family, and father of a good friend, Eifion), told me he'd seen something in an old article in the Caernarfon and Denbigh Herald about a suicide. And then, Elin Tomos found lots of stories of him - through online newspaper articles. It turns out that from a young age, Griffith was a successful marrow and pea grower (winning several prizes, although none were first prizes - this may have significance later), and had enjoyed literary success too: He performed a number of recitals and was the President of the Nant Peris Literary and Debating society in 1902. [By the by, this literary society was hosted by Mrs Elizabeth Closs, who put on feasts for the 38 members ... not exactly the 'silly, lazy, slovenly' quarryman's wife of legend!]
Elin also found out that Ellen had discovered her husband, Griffith "hanging from a beam" at 5am on 4th December 1910. After trying unsuccessfully to cut him down, she hailed Robert Ellis from next door Frongoch, who was on his way to work in the quarry to help. Sadly, Griffith was already dead... Note in the obituary below, Ellen is not named, she is just referred to as 'his wife':
Strangely enough, when Elin and Gwen Tomos used to come round to feed my cats (2005 ish), Gwen always felt 'a presence' at the bottom of the stairs, and didn't like to go near there. This is the only place where a beam could have been used by Griffith to hang himself.... it was so strong that in the end I got someone from Mynydd Llandegai to come and 'clear' the space, inviting the presence (he said it was a man) to leave. It's been fine ever since!
3. Teulu Roberts 1912 - 1925
Margaret and Thomas Roberts lived in Coed Gwydr for a short time, after the Jones' moved out. Perhaps 1912 - 1925? Again, with thanks to Elin Tomos, who found these records of the Robert's family in the on line newspapers: Including the first obituary to a woman in Coed Gwydr. In it (see below), it turns out Margaret Roberts died in Caernarfon hospital, and was the daughter of Mr and Mrs Griffith Williams (same name as the original Coed Gwydr head of household, but not the same) - 'an old Nantperis family' - who used to live at Blaen y Nant. They had three sons and two daugters, and their stories illustrate the way that local welsh-speaking population was moving away: The two daughters had moved to Manchester, one son to America and one to Australia.
Meanwhile, Margaret's husband, Griffith and her son, Tommy, did recitations at the Christmas fair. They also sang to the accompaniment of the harp, played by a woman living in Ty'n'Twll, where Elin Tomos now lives..
4. Teulu Lynas Gray 1925 - 1992
By 1925 the world-populating Roberts' are replaced by the Lynas Grays, an English speaking household from the Wirral. The father, John (an artist, who did rather awful ochre coloured romantic pictures of thatched cottages and some rather better of welsh scenery, the old paint pots I found in the middens are still stained ochre), his daughter, Ina, his second wife, Sarah Mavena (Ina's step mother) and two of their own children, Elizabeth Mowena (born 1920) and John Iveagh (born 1918)
On John's death in 1933 (aged 64), Sarah stayed in the house with Ina and the two small children. But something mysterious was afoot. In 1934, three Coed Gwydr children were baptised in the church within a week: Sarah's two children (then about 13 and 15), together with an illegitimate child - Margaret Dawn - daughter of Ina (age unknown, although as we'll see later, she must have been at least 3 at the time... perhaps she was even the reason the family had moved to Nantperis in the first place? Driven out of the Wirral, making a fresh start? Or was John in the spirit of Augustus John, a wanderer, seeking inspiration for his art...?).
[By the by, illegitimate children were rife in Nantperis: According to Gwilym Roberts Cerrig Drudion's research, during the 19th Century, the majority of children baptised at St Peris Church were recorded as illegitimate! I'm not clear whether this is all the baptisms (were most baptised in the Chapel?) or whether this is just births relating to Gwilym's family?]
But I had heard from Rosie who lives a few doors up, and who remembers Ina (later to become Mrs Smith) well, that Ina had had an illegitimate child, and she'd heard it was perhaps by her father. One day, the daughter came back to clear the house, on the death of Mrs Smith. She burnt everything and was 'very angry'. Records suggest that Margaret stayed in the area, and got married in Caernarfon in 1949. That suggests that she was born well before her baptism in 1934, and therefore she was born while John Abernathy Lynas Gray was still alive...
Meanwhile, our neighbour, Phil-the-Box (an undertaker) said he'd heard scandal about John Lynas Gray having moved to his house next door, (Ty'n Coed) and having an affair with the housekeeper. Once, someone turned up looking for John Lynas Gray and he went off to the graveyard to find his grave. The grave digger was busy (digging), and refused to tell him the location of the grave of 'that bad man'. Quite what he'd done was not clear....perhaps it was too awful to say out loud.
By 1939, Sarah was running Coed Gwydr as a Guest House, with 3 lodgers (one quarryman, a truck driver and an electrician) as well as Anne Alexander (a military nursing sister) and Joyce Fletcher who was at school. No mention of the Sarah's own children, and Ina was to be found living in a guest house at 7 Bay View, Pwllhelli, being a 'laundry packer'. Had Sarah got all children baptised before packing them off?
At some point, perhaps on the death of her (possibly evil) step mother, Ina moved back to Coed Gwydr, and stayed here until well into the 80s. She was joined by a husband Harold Smith (who was in the army) by 1955, but he died in 1958. Both Ena and Harold are buried in the newer Nantperis Graveyard, but still face back to Coed Gwydr, with Dinorwig quarry behind.
In 1956, as part of the Great Estate Sell Off, Ena bought Coed Gwydr from the Vaynol Estate. I have a set of incredibly complicated negotiation letters, including all sorts of dealings with officials, neighbours and farmers which would enable the buying of a bit more land to 'create space for a septic tank'. It seems Mrs Smith was very much Head of Household : At one point, the Estate ended up talking to Mr Smith and very quickly realised that 'he seemed not to have the authority to make any useful input'!
It also seems that she had greater ambitions: She took over some of the garden of the neighbouring house (Ty'n Coed) and created a 'show garden', that apparently coaches would visit! Gwilym Roberts (Cerrig Drudion), whose son, Eifion is a great friend, and who does gardening work for us, also used to garden for Mrs Smith. One day, he came round with a friend, the leading botanist in Wales at the time. As they worked around the garden, the friend named each plant in Latin, causing Mrs Smith to comment "You've a knowledgeable assistant!" We are gradually uncovering the structure and exceptional planting that she created.
Ena (originally Ina) is still talked of very fondly in the village - she was incredibly popular, and known as "Mrs Smith".... in her later years she'd be found wandering the roads, and people would pick her up and take her home. Peter Bishop (next door at Frongoch) described her as 'redoubtable'. She seems also to have changed her name to Mary (Mae) for her grave, which is a bit confusing.
5. And then...
The Vicar of Fulham bought Coed Gwydr from Mrs Smith, and turned it into a holiday home for the first half of the 90s.
He sold it to Steph and Martin Evans, who worked at the Countryside Council for Wales, and their two boys. Before I bought the house, I spoke to them - via a friend, Gethin Clwyd, who used to work with them - because I was concerned about traffic noise and wanted to know if it had disturbed them. It hadn't: they'd been "very very happy there".
After them came Scottish Sally Peters and her husband Ian, who ran Plas y Brenin. Like me, they'd find out about Coed Gwydr via Peter Bishop (they met climbing the Eider), who had bought next door Frongoch as a holiday home in the 70s. The Peters left to go back to Scotland, so Sally could run a horse therapy business.
So modern times bring in holiday homes, happiness, conservation and outdoor activity to Coed Gwydr.
... and then came me! Born 20 miles on the wrong side of the border and trying to make up for it now. And the quarry is at the heart of it all.
Here is the film that celebrates these women's lives...