Part 2: Ancestral Voices

Chapter 5. Llandygái – Caernarfon  2001

So the boys’ ffolant was restored to the current Griffiths home. We were back before Tad, and laid it on the kitchen table. When he arrived we led him to it, without comment. For a long time he gazed wordlessly, and at last he said, simply, “Tell me.”

We told him, all the little we knew, and Tad was visibly moved.

“Bless them. It must have been even tougher, in those days.” He sighed. “I only hope this John is our John.”

“The censuses should tell us tomorrow.”

“So they should. By the way, I rang up Rhiannon Morris the archivist — I know her because I sell her books from time to time — to see if she was happy about youngsters like you looking at her precious stuff. And yes, no problem. Just take some ID with you and she’ll give you tickets.”

We spent the evening listing what we knew and what we wanted to find out, and we cleaned the ffolant and set it in the place of greatest honour, the centre of the living room mantelpiece.

Tuesday morning found us at the Archives in Caernarfon, waiting for the doors to open at 9.30. Rhiannon Morris welcomed us, wrote out our tickets, and showed us how to find the census returns we wanted and how to feed them into the microfilm readers. Huw knew from bitter experience that searching takes time, and to speed things up we divided the work. I started with the Llanfihangel y Pennant census for 1861, the only one that fell within the working life of the quarry, which was in that parish. In the event things proved remarkably easy.

The parish might be large in size, but it was small in population. The census, we knew, was taken on a Sunday, so that we expected to find only true residents, not barracks-men who would be away for the weekend. Up Cwmystradllyn there were only four addresses with quarrymen present. The Gorseddau barracks had an elderly labourer from Anglesey spending a solitary weekend. A nearby farm had one miner as a lodger. Plasllyn House had Thomas Evans the foreman and his family. And Treforys village had a mere nine families. Sadly, the census did not give the house numbers, and our hopes were dashed of finding who lived in which. But one of those nine households comprised:

Daniel Griffiths, head, aged 42, slate quarry miner, born Dolbenmaen
Ellen, wife, aged 43, dressmaker, born Llanystumdwy
John, son, unmarried, aged 19, slate quarry miner, born Beddgelert
Elizabeth, daughter, unmarried, aged 17, house servant, born Beddgelert

There was no Rowland Jones. Either he was a barracks-man at home for the weekend, or he had left the quarry. But the rest was crystal clear. This John Griffiths had been fifteen in 1857, and he had lived in Treforys. He must be Rowland Jones’s lover. And not only that. He fitted exactly with the details of the 1881 census we had seen online. Unless there was another John Griffiths born in Beddgelert at the same time, he was Owen’s father. He was my great-great-grandfather. And Daniel was his father. As for the photograph …

That was what Huw was working on. He found John Williams, photographer, Tremadoc, in a trade directory of 1859 but nothing earlier, and in the Ynyscynhaiarn census of 1861 but nothing later. The dates fitted. We reckoned, because John looked quite young, that the picture was taken in 1859 when he was seventeen, which was much as Tad had already deduced. And, from the likeness to me, we were now as certain as we could be that DG and JG were Daniel and John.

For the next step, Huw left the microfilm reader and asked for the parish registers which should cover Daniel’s and John’s baptisms and marriages. I stayed with the censuses, starting with 1841, the first which included any detail, in search of them at other dates. This was a protracted job, since I had no addresses to guide me, and all I could do was look in likely parishes for the names. There were a number of red herrings which proved to be different John Griffithses or occasionally (since the first name was much rarer) different Daniel Griffithses. Huw had similar frustrations ploughing through the registers, but also an unexpected bonus.

At one point I looked up to see him gazing at me across the room. His eye held a gleam of glee. Then he asked Rhiannon something and consulted a book that she pointed out on the open shelves. Then the office closed for lunch. As we went out, Huw showed me an entry in a large volume lying open on his table.

“Dolbenmaen baptismal register,” he said. “1818.”

‘6th March,’ it read, ‘Daniel Griffith, son of Griffith Robert, Garn, transported 7 years, and Dorothy.’

“I told you your family had black sheep in it,” Huw said when we got outside. “Every proper family has black sheep.”

I was still fumbling. “Black sheep? You mean Daniel’s tad was a crook?”

“Maybe not much of a crook, by our standards. Depends what his crime was. But he was convicted of something and sentenced to seven years’ transportation.”

“What, you mean sent to Australia as a convict?”

“Probably. And if he was, the chances are he didn’t come back. Most of them didn’t. But I looked up Transportation in an old encyclopaedia. It said that some of them weren’t sent to Australia but were tucked up in convict hulks moored in the Thames.”

“Well I’m damned.” I didn’t feel any shame at having a convict for an ancestor, not that far back. “Better than being descended from Edward I, anyway!”

Huw merely grinned, as he always did when I reminded him of the blackest sheep in his own family.

“Can you find out what he did?”

“I’ll try. I’ll ask Rhiannon where best to look. And at least we’ve got a date. He can’t have been shipped off more than nine months before Daniel was born, can he?”

That, and the rest of our current tasks, took us most of the afternoon. But, to cut a long story short, we eventually got what we were after. Our findings, when pooled, added up to this.

Griffith Roberts of Garn Dolbenmaen was convicted earlier than we thought, at the Caernarfon Easter Assizes in 1817. The black sheep’s crime was sheep-stealing — stealing just one sheep — and the report in the North Wales Gazette gave virtually no details. The offence, it seemed, was common enough to raise no eyebrows and excite little comment. By 16th July, the Quarter Sessions Order Book revealed, he had been taken by sea from Caernarfon Gaol and dumped on a convict hulk in the Thames. Huw beckoned me over to look. “So he probably didn’t go to Australia,” he whispered. “But look at the dates. Dorothy must have visited him in gaol and they must have, you know, there!” He didn’t dare put it in words, not in the innocent silence of the search room.

Daniel Griffiths took his father’s first name, Griffith, as his surname. In our family, this was the final fling of the old Welsh system of patronymics, until I revived it by calling myself Elfed Maelor. When in 1839 he married Ellen Jones he was working as a copper miner at Aberglaslyn near Beddgelert. She signed her own name, but he could only make a mark. Five months later Catherine was born, followed in 1841 by Evan, in 1842 by John, and in 1844 by Elizabeth. All of them were baptised at Beddgelert. Some time in the 1850s Daniel moved to Gorseddau, and by 1871 he was back in Garn Dolbenmaen as a slate quarryman. By 1881 he was evidently dead, for when we looked later at the online census he was not recorded anywhere.

John was born at Aberglaslyn on 15th February 1842. He was the only John Griffiths baptised in Beddgelert anywhere near the right date. That clinched it. He had to be Owen’s father. He really was the right man. In 1851 he was a schoolboy, in 1861 a miner at Gorseddau, in 1871 a quarryman at Nantlle. There in 1878 he married Mary Pierce, and there in 1880 his son Owen was born. He was still in Nantlle, still a quarryman, still married, in 1901, the last census available.

So far so good. The outline was clear, though there were masses of loose ends waiting to be followed up — Griffith Roberts’s forebears, for a start, all the wives, and all the deaths. And Rowland Jones had not yet shown up. The trouble was that we had no idea where to start looking for him. A blind search of the 1861 census for the whole county was out of the question, and one of the slate-producing areas alone would still be a monstrous task. There was only half an hour left before closing time when fate stepped in. We had told Rhiannon that we were after Gorseddau quarrymen, and when we handed back the last of the parish registers she asked how we were getting on. Well in one direction, we said, stuck in another.

“Have you seen Chwareli a Chloddfeydd yn y Pennant? That’s got more of the social history of Gorseddau than anything else I know.”

She showed us where it was on the open shelves. It turned out to be a slim booklet, the write-up of a public lecture on the mines and quarries of Pennant, with only ten pages devoted to Gorseddau. But a quick glance showed that we had struck gold. There was just time, before we were kicked out, to have the pages photocopied.

Back at home with our trophies, we reported to Tad, who was delighted that John and Daniel were confirmed as ancestors. He was also intrigued by the black sheep.

“Poor man!” he said. “1817, eh? It was a tough year, that. A bad depression in the wake of the wars. The harvest had failed the year before, and there was famine. And at Garn, you say? That was when squatters were carving out smallholdings from the common land there, to try to make their own living. The temptation to steal must have been very strong.”

“Well, at least we now know why sheep always give Elfed a wide berth,” said Huw. I blew him a raspberry.

We also read the lecture properly. On the matter of the moral standards of Cwmystradllyn, it quoted a contemporary source. This made plain that while the quarry school catered for the increased population, chapel-goers were few and far between. It was only with the religious revival of 1859 that their number grew because, until then, ‘the worldliness and ungodliness of the quarrymen was proverbial. There is nothing strange about this when we recall that the dregs of almost every neighbourhood had congregated in the valley.’ And another contemporary, in a graphic phrase, had called Gorseddau ‘a sort of Johannesburg for quarrymen.’

The lecture also quoted a later reminiscence about Daniel Griffiths, who lived in Treforys and was known to his contemporaries as Daniel Bach. ‘I have not heard that there was anything special about Daniel Griffiths’s work as a miner, but he certainly succeeded in giving that impression to his employers, because he could earn as much as he wanted, wherever he was.’ Having paid his gang, he would have £50 or £60 — a fortune — left for himself. For afew days he would fish the lake, then on the Saturday go down to Port with a shotgun and a dog or two at his heel. He would spend a week at a hotel in the company of those he supposed to be gentry, shooting game on the Traeth by day and returning for convivial evenings. When his purse was empty he hired a carriage to bring him back to Treforys. The state of the upland road, especially in winter, was indescribable. The carriage sank to its axle, the driver fumed, but Daniel insisted, ‘Drive on, my boy! I’ve paid to be set down at my doorstep!’

“Persistent sod!” remarked Huw. “Just like his great-great-great grandson!” I blew him another raspberry.

Even more to the point was a quotation from the Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald for 16th January 1859.

Accident. — On Tuesday last a serious accident occurred at the Gorseddau Quarry, Cwmstrallyn, to a man named Rowland Jones, aged 18 years, son of Mr Wm Jones, assistant-overseer, Ty’nllwyn, Llanllyfni. By means of a machine in use at this quarry, a hole had been bored in the rock, which was charged with about 30 lbs of powder for blasting, in which operation Jones was engaged. He lighted the fusee and retired, but finding that more than the usual time had elapsed without an explosion, he returned to the spot. The blast went off just as he arrived there, and the poor man was thrown up into the air, a height of about eight yards, and in an upward direction, so that he fell outside the level on which he had stood, down to the next gallery — the depth from one to the other being about 17 yards. The entire fall would therefore be about 25 yards. He alighted on his feet, and the clogs which he wore were split into several pieces. His face was severely burnt and lacerated, but the most serious consequences of the accident were the effect of the fall on his intestines. We hear, however, that hopes are still entertained of his recovery by Mr Evan Roberts, surgeon, of Penygroes, who has been unremitting in his attention to the sufferer.

The lecturer added the comment that he seems to have survived, because his death is recorded in none of the local parish registers.

“Iesu Grist!” I said, looking in amazement at Rowland’s ffolant on the mantelpiece. “Surviving a fall like that! I wonder if he really did survive, though. He could have been buried somewhere else.”

“Well,” suggested Tad. “Isn’t it worth trying your magic online census? 1881? If he lasted another twenty-odd years, he’ll be there. Jones is a needle in a haystack, but Rowland wasn’t a common name at all.”

Why hadn’t we thought of that? Huw got busy. There proved, in the whole of Britain in 1881, to be no fewer than 206 Welsh-born Rowland Joneses.

“Hmmm. Have to narrow the search. In place and in date. Let’s look just at the county. When was he born?”

“Let’s see, eighteen in 1859. He must have been born in 1840 or 41.”

Huw limited the search to those born in Caernarfonshire between 1838 and 1842.

“Good, only four now. Born in Edeyrn, Pistyll, Aberdaron and Llanaelhaiarn. Oh dear. None of those is in a slate area, is it? Which is the nearest?”

“Llanaelhaiarn, surely.”

“Let’s look at that one, then. Oh dear again. Aged forty — that’s OK. But he was living in Penmaenmawr, Calvinistic Methodist minister, married with children. Can that be right?”

Aros funud!” said Tad, clapping his forehead. “Hang on! Rowland Jones in Penmaenmawr … that rings a bell. Yes. Quite a well-known poet. Bardic name Rolant Llyfni. He’s bound to be in Y Bywgraffiadur. Look him up, Elfed.”

I did. “Full marks, Nhad! Yes, here we are. Rowland Jones (Rolant Llyfni), Calvinistic Methodist minister and poet, 1840-1913. Born Llanaelhaiarn, son of a farmer, family moved to Llanllyfni. Wheeee! — ‘first worked at Gorseddau quarry where he was seriously injured in an accident. On recovering, he was drawn to the ministry and, after training at Bala, was ordained 1863.’ Minister of Ebenezer, Penmaenmawr for 50 years … Member of this and that … Trustee of something else … Poetic works … Won chair at National Eisteddfod 1893 … Sources include ‘Papers in Caernarfon RO.’ Wow! So his affair with John can’t have lasted all that long. I suppose he was converted in the 1859 Revival. But we’ve got to find these papers. Caernarfon RO? What does that mean?”

“Caernarfon Record Office,” explained Tad. “Later became Gwynedd Archives Service. So look tomorrow. But don’t expect too much. A teenage quarryman in the 1850s would hardly have kept a diary recording his love affairs. Though I suppose in later life he might have written up some discreet memoirs.”