Part 2: Ancestral Voices

Chapter 4. Cwmystradllyn 1857-58

Pre-eminent among the Gorseddau miners was Daniel Griffiths, a short but wiry man and a born leader, who lived hard. He had learned his trade in the small copper mines of Cwm Pennant and Beddgelert. He was employed as a contractor on piece-work, agreeing with the company to blast away so much rock for such and such a price, from which he paid his specialist gang. Both in the community of Treforys and in the hierarchy of the quarry he was a man of standing. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he had a fair command of English. Like most of them, he was a bit of a rough diamond. What with all the development work still needed, Daniel prospered mightily. When he was paid at the end of a contract, he doled out generous wages to his gang. But he had plenty left over. Some he would give to his wife. Then he would disappear to Portmadoc to enjoy himself until the rest ran out.

He was lucky. For more ordinary quarrymen the life was hard, but they knew no other. Their pay averaged 3s 6d a day or less than £1 a week. Barracks-men brought their own supplies with them on Monday mornings, enough to see them through till Saturday — bacon, butter, bread, eggs, potatoes and tea, all in a pillow case slung over their shoulder. For families in Treforys, though some things might be bought from neighbouring farms, the nearest shop was in Penmorfa five miles away, most easily reached by hitching a lift on the tramway. Most of them kept a few chickens on their own plot, and a pig to be slaughtered and cured in the autumn. Their fuel was peat cut locally, or coal bought at a price from the quarry company. Their houses were damp, respiratory diseases were rife, and sanitation was non-existent.

Daniel lived on the middle street in Treforys, in Number 19, the fourth house from the spring. His wife Ellen described herself as a dressmaker, though in practice the clothes she made and mended were almost entirely for the quarrymen. She was assisted by their younger daughter Elizabeth, now aged thirteen, for hers was a thriving little business. The oldest child, Catherine, was no longer at home, having gone into service. The next oldest, Evan, had also left, to work in the quarries in Dyffryn Nantlle.

Daniel was proud of his mining gang, and treated its members well. Most of them were older and experienced men, but every trade must have its apprentices. His included two youngsters. One was his second son John, the apple of his eye, who for the last three years had been working with him and learning the art of mining. He was now fifteen and not far into puberty. The other was a new recruit. Rowland Jones, sixteen-turning-seventeen, was one of the many children of a small farmer near Llanllyfni who doubled as the assistant overseer of a little quarry there. At first Rowland lodged in the barracks at the quarry, returning home at weekends. But then the pattern changed.

Treforys had been intended for families but, because fewer than expected had moved in, many of the houses were empty. The obvious solution was to use them as barracks and reduce the pressure on the barracks proper in the quarry. Daniel’s competence gave him not only money but standing, and in July he rented Number 20 as an overflow. He hardly needed it for his own family. Currently, parents and daughter slept in the two bedrooms and John in the living room: luxury, compared to some families — Ellis Jones’s totalled seven, crammed into an identical house just down the street. Daniel’s reason for renting the new accommodation was to offer it to his mining gang. But, unexpectedly, almost all of them preferred the camaraderie of the barracks and only Rowland opted to join the Griffiths menage. This now lived, in terms of space, more luxuriously still, for John moved out of Number 19 to join Rowland in Number 20, although they ate with the family next door.

While as fond of horseplay as any of their mates, both boys were quiet by nature, modest and intelligent, odd men out in a community of coarse, loud-mouthed and shallow extroverts. Both went in some awe of their confident fathers. Both had been to school and could read and write reasonably well. Beyond a superficial lip-service, neither had much regard for religion.

The same held true of the whole Griffiths household, as it did of the quarry at large. Elsewhere it would become a commonplace for men in barracks to spend winter evenings singing hymns and debating the doctrine of the atonement. Not at Gorseddau. The Methodist revival of 1817 had blossomed in the main centres of population and among the farming communities, but had withered among the wandering labourers. They were not, with few exceptions, that sort of men; not at any rate when away from their families, if they had any. The image of quarrymen as God-fearing and sober sons of toil was largely foreign to Gorseddau.

Here they were rough men. A sizeable part of their pay went on drink, mostly gin. Sometimes they brawled, but for the most part they lived in a loud and boisterous comradeship. In the embattled local farms, and even in the respectable homes of Treforys, ‘lock up your daughters’ became the watchword. Two prostitutes, following the trade, established themselves in the village for a while, quite unofficially, and their enterprise paid them well. Men without ties would spend their weekends living it up in Portmadoc, and even family men like Daniel who could afford it might go on a longer randy, womanising out of their wives’ reach.

The word ‘homosexuality’ had not yet been coined, in any language. The law regarded buggery between males, otherwise known as sodomy, in the same way as other sexual crimes — fornication, adultery, bestiality — and in practice treated it as a catch-all offence covering all ‘unnatural vices’ as well as the specific act. Sodomy was still in theory punishable with death. It was endemic in gaols, in the navy, in parts of the army, and in some public schools. Male prostitution was widespread in London. Even there, sex between males was always casual and furtive. In rural Wales it was simply not part of the culture. People knew in principle, from apocalyptic sermons, what sodomy was and almost all, as the preachers instructed them, abhorred the thought. Even in ungodly wildernesses like Gorseddau it was virtually unknown, for it was regarded as effeminate and unmanly. Boys were safe in barracks: safe from the attentions of men. But no girls within reach were safe from boys. Early experimentation was the norm. Youths were almost expected to follow the tradition of pre-marital sex, and a large percentage of brides arrived at the altar already pregnant.

John and Rowland had become firm friends. John missed the companionship of his older brother Evan, and Rowland, as the only other youngster in the mining gang, came naturally to fill the gap. The friendship which sprang up between them was nothing remarkable. But the love affair into which it grew was a rare phenomenon indeed. At first, it progressed imperceptibly. It was standard practice of a summer evening for men and boys to strip off and swim in the lake, both for the fun of it and to wash off the sweat and dirt of the day. Thus John and Rowland knew, and secretly admired, each other’s bodies. Both were shapely and muscular, neither was too much marred by bites from bedbugs and fleas. Their interdependence and their friendship grew closer. They became almost a pair of brothers, almost inseparable. When they moved into Number 20, they shared a bed.

This was absolutely normal. At home, John had shared with Evan. In barracks, Rowland had found himself sharing a bed with an ex-sailor full of marvellous tales of the exotic places where the Portmadoc slate brigs and schooners had taken him. An interesting character; but in bed he farted with the monotonous regularity of a foghorn. Rowland was not over-fastidious, but months of this torment had been one of his reasons for accepting Daniel’s offer. The other was his friendship with John.

It was clear, their very first night together, that John did not fart, but that he did have other pressures which needed release. Although he was an unobtrusive about it as he could, it is difficult in a none-too-wide double bed to masturbate without your neighbour knowing, at least if he is awake. It happened all the time in the barracks, where it generated nothing more than friendly jocularity. But the knowledge that John, handsome friendly John, was giving himself relief within his reach turned Rowland on as he had never been turned on before.

“Enjoying yourself?” he whispered. John froze. “Don’t stop. I don’t mind. Who’re you thinking of? Margaret?” — she was one of the few desirable girls in the village.

John, when he finally replied, was giving nothing away. “No, not Margaret.”

“Well, if you don’t mind, I’ll enjoy myself too.”

There was no answer. So he did, and John resumed as well; and neither needed to be unobtrusive now.

Next night they started, and finished, simultaneously. And the next two nights as well, enjoying the companionship of it. The fifth night, as they got into bed, John asked hesitantly, “Rowland, have you ever been with a girl?”

“No, never. Have you?”


Rowland took a big risk. “John, remember I asked who you thought of? You didn’t say. Iawn. But you never asked me.”

“All right, who do you think of?”

“Of you.”

There was a gasp. “Iesu Grist. And I think of you.”

“Ahhh! Then … John, shall we … help each other?”

“Ought we to?”

“Nobody’d object if we had it off with Margaret. Except her parents. And our parents, if we got her pregnant. And this wouldn’t be going nearly so far, would it? Only helping out, not … doing anything. And I can promise you it’s good, John. I tried it once, with a friend in Llanllyfni. Helping each other. It doesn’t harm anyone. Nobody else would know.”

John had never heard of anyone doing such a thing, but could find no fault with Rowland’s reasoning. Yes, it was another step in their friendship, in their trust. He wanted it. He needed it. He reached out his hand and laid it on Rowland’s pidyn, and Rowland laid his own on John’s.

Their nightwear was their underwear, the flannel vests and long johns which all quarrymen wore all year, whatever the weather. The slits in front gave limited access. Within a minute they found it much easier to help each other when naked, even if the straw in the mattress felt more prickly. And John quickly found that Rowland was right: how much better it was to be helped than to do it by himself. For that night, they went no further. Then Rowland went home for the weekend, leaving John in an agony of frustration, and deep in thought.

He had long known that he admired Rowland, that he liked him very much, for his brotherliness and his fun. They understood each other. He was simply a good person to be with. That he could love him as well as like him had been so unthinkable that he had never thought it. But he had now found a new and deeper element in the friendship, and in a flash of intuition realised that he already loved Rowland as well as liking him. Was that right, or was it terribly wrong? For an answer, he had to wrestle with the limitations of his own mind-set.

Pulpit talk weighed lightly with John. Normally, he thought little about it. But he could not entirely escape the moral instruction which school had tried to instil in him. He neither accepted it uncritically nor totally rejected it. True, his intelligence and his sense of fair play rejected the stern and unforgiving portrait of God painted by his teachers, and replaced it with a loving and supportive one. He did believe, loosely and generically, in God as creator, as a benign being who presided over humanity. He accepted that God made us the way we are: tall or short, bright or dim, musical or tone-deaf.

This creed was no doubt shaped by the two guiding principles he had picked up from his parents. One was love, warm and caring from his mother, rougher but equally genuine from his father. The other was loyalty. In their marriage, he knew, his mother was a paragon while his father was not. But, however lax in this respect, Daniel did insist on another brand of loyalty. Quarrymen worked in teams where trust was essential. If you failed to take care in belaying the rope from which a colleague was dangling over a rock face, in levering free a block of slate with men working below, in setting and firing a blast, then you might well kill someone. A team’s success depended on all its members being loyal and trusting and playing their part. Rockmen usually worked in partnerships of two, often for life. The core membership of mining gangs had to be bigger, but could be just as long-lived. Brief partnerships were the least successful. So love and loyalty lay at the core of John’s simple philosophy.

He took another step forward. Most men were attracted to women. It was totally acceptable to love one to the tune of marrying her and living with her in, sometimes, life-long fidelity, and of having children. That was how the human race continued. It was natural. In addition — in his society at least — it was acceptable and even normal, despite the disapproval of the preachers, to lust for a woman and, casually and furtively, to tumble her. These couplings were not intended to result in babies; nor, for that matter, were many couplings in marriage. So coupling wasn’t solely for reproduction. It gave pleasure, it satisfied cravings, in some cases it expressed love. Yet John had never felt the remotest desire to couple with a girl, whether in lust or in love.

Take a step further still. To some extent there was a symmetry. John was aware, without knowing any details, that some men, a very few, also coupled with men. That too was a casual and furtive lust, practised supposedly only if a woman was not available. Almost everyone regarded it as deviant and unspeakable. But — and here the symmetry broke down — he had never heard of men positively loving men, of living with them in lifelong partnership as husband and wife did, of even of wanting to do so. He had never heard of it because it did not happen, in any walk of society. The very concept of alternative sexual orientation had not yet emerged. The only distinction lay in what one did, not in what one was. In John’s culture, a man who did not marry and did not tumble women was regarded as unmanly, as an object of suspicion, unless he was a saint of such obvious piety that he was above suspicion.  

He moved on yet another step. Love or lust for women, being almost universal among men, was clearly natural and God-given. So why did John not share it? Why was it boys — or rather Rowland — who turned him on? Was this his sin? No, it couldn’t be. He had clear views on wrong-doing. He knew that stealing, or beating someone up, was wrong. Those were things he could choose to do or not to do. But loving Rowland rather than a girl was not a choice: it was a simple unchangeable fact. And therefore, being unchangeable, it was a God-given fact. It was on a par with his being left-handed, which he was quite proud of as a part of his individuality that distinguished him from the majority. His teachers had tried to drill him out of it, with singular lack of success. Nobody else minded one jot. God made us the way we are.

His simple theology therefore told him, and the influences on his short life confirmed it, that his desire for Rowland was God-given, and to be accepted. It was not a casual spur-of-the-moment impulse, like stealing something or beating someone up. It was not comparable to those randy sods in barracks shagging every girl in sight. That was lust. This was love, a love which he felt should be life-long. He was well aware that his thinking was out of the ordinary. He was not aware that, for his day, it was revolutionary. And everything hinged on Rowland feeling the same way.

Rowland, as it turned out, did. When he came back on Monday morning his first words were, “John, I’ve been thinking. Can we have a talk?”

There was no opportunity until work was over. They made their way back to Treforys together and, for the sake of privacy, climbed a little way up into the heather.

“I’ve been thinking,” said Rowland again. “Thinking about what we did on Friday. That was good, wasn’t it? And, you know, John, I don’t love girls. I love you. I’ve worked that out now. I want to love you with more than my hand. I want to love you with my body, and with my soul.”

He proceeded to spell out his own homespun philosophy, which chimed remarkably closely with John’s.

John’s answer was to kiss Rowland, inexpertly. “And I want to love you, Rowland,” he said. “Love is good, whoever it’s for. And good things are sent by God, aren’t they? He won’t mind. And if he doesn’t, why should we?”

Why indeed? But other people would mind that they deviated from the norm. So nobody else must know. They agreed on that.

Later, as they went to bed, they took off their underwear with the rest of their clothes, and without any further debate they set off on a voyage of exploration. Relying solely on mother wit, they discovered lands which others, unbeknown to them, had charted long before, but were new and exotic to young innocents remote in Welsh mountains. It was the first of August, Rowland’s seventeenth birthday.

The following day, as he sheltered from a squall under the overhang of the Wailing Wall on his way back from work, Rowland was moved to scratch a message on a soft stone:

RJ ♥ JG 1857

A few days later he looked at it as he passed, and beside it was now written


An autumn of new-found bliss turned into a winter of deep satisfaction, but not without alarms. A Gorseddau man on the spree in Portmadoc, thwarted of the services of his favourite tart but desperate for relief, offered the same price to a not unwilling sailor, and had him, bent over a bollard on the public quay. He was caught at it. The sentence of death was later reduced to twenty years’ hard labour: nobody had been executed for buggery for the last two decades.

“Don’t worry, John,” said Rowland when news reached them. “That was lust, not love.”

Rowland still sometimes went home to Llanllyfni at the weekends, but more often he stayed over to keep John company and to help with his domestic chores — digging peat from the turbary, carrying it home when dried, collecting milk from a nearby farm, fetching a sack of flour from the local mill, picking up slops from the barracks to feed to the pig.

One such Saturday afternoon in February, the day before John’s sixteenth birthday, they walked down the tramway to Ty Mawr to see how things were going there. The sluices were shut and the waterwheel was still, but there were noises from within. They found Robert Owen the quarry carpenter and Ellis Jones, a specialist in carving and finishing chimney-pieces, absorbed in moving the drive-shaft bearings of a polisher. They prowled round, looking at the great sawing and planing machines on the ground floor and the chutes which fed rubbish down from the floor above. They wrote their names and drew pictures in the thick layer of slate dust which covered everything. Then Rowland’s eye lit on a sawn slab, too small to be saleable, lying on top of a waggon of waste and destined for the tip.

“Ellis!” he called. “Could you lend us a small chisel and mallet for the weekend, please? I’d like to try my hand at carving.”

Iawn. So long as you look after them and bring them back first thing Monday. Here you are. But the payment is another pair of hands to help with these bearings.”

“John, bach, would you help Ellis? I want to get on with this.”

“What are you going to carve?”

“Hah. A secret.”

Nineteen years before, when he was courting Ellen, Daniel had carved an elaborate love-spoon for her, and it now adorned the living room of Number 19. It was Rowland’s inspiration, though his material was not wood but the less tractable slate. He carried the slab back to Number 20 and set about cutting an inscription, drawing faint guide lines and lightly scratching the letters until they were spaced to his satisfaction. Luckily the mallet was wooden, so the noise was not too obvious. It was a couple of hours before John returned, and Rowland was ready to display his handiwork.

“There you are, cariad. This is for you. Dw i’n dy garu di. I love you, and here’s a token of it. A ffolant, a valentine, for today. As well as a present for your birthday tomorrow.”


Beneath it was a heart, and beneath that the date,


A professional stonemason might have turned up his nose in scorn, but for a novice it was creditable enough. He had fully earned the hug and kiss he got. Then Ellen called them to eat.

Later, by candle light, John looked at the inscription again, and felt it was incomplete.

“Rowland, there’s plenty of space either side of the heart. Can I add my message there?”

Which he did, unskilfully, less neatly, but with just as much love.


When it was finally done, he had his reward. The slab stood on the windowsill and oversaw their lovemaking, but next morning an awkward question arose.

“What do we do with it, Rowland? We can’t leave it here.”

“Why not? Your tad can’t read.”

“No. But Mam can.”

“Oh. Well, let’s hide it under the bed.”

“But Mam sweeps there. Sometimes.”

“Umm. Well, what about the wall outside? Swap it for one of the coping stones. We’ll know it’s there, but nobody else will notice.”

So they removed an ordinary coping stone and put the ffolant in its place. Nobody else did notice, not for nearly a hundred and forty four years.

Meanwhile, their idyll continued …