The brutality beneath the rural idyll.


There is a place not far from where I was born which is one of the most idyllic settings I have set eyes upon. It is reached by a narrow, winding mountain road where craggy rocks overhang on one side and a wild, meandering river follows the narrow valley on the other. It is not far from the famed ‘Devil’s Staircase’ which is now a popular tourist route; its popularity due to the rugged, untamed beauty of the landscape.  The house sits on the far side of a tumbling, mountain brook, set among majestic, Scot’s pines with the mountains rising up behind. It is a tranquil place with nought but the sounds of the breeze sighing through the pines and the brook babbling alongside. Standing there, it is hard to believe the brutality which occurred in this beautiful place.


Ancestors, on my grandmother Annie’s side of the family tree, once lived in this rural idyll. Annie’s grandparents lived here for a time, and her father is the subject of this piece.

When I was a little girl, I recall visiting a relative’s house and seeing a dark and sombre portrait hanging on the parlour wall. The elderly man in the portrait was apparently my great-grandfather, Hugh Jones, and the image of him scared the daylights out of me because he had only one eye. Where his right eye should have been, his eye-lid was stitched together like this; +

It wasn’t until I began researching my first novel that I discovered the story behind the loss of Hugh’s eye. I was in the library, trawling through old newspapers, not looking for anything specific but generally searching for stories which would give me a flavour of rural life at that time. I wasn’t looking or expecting to find anything about my ancestor’s there, so when I came across a report of “A Shocking Brutality” in The Brecon County Times, my heart missed a beat when I realised I was reading about my own great-grandfather, the subject of that portrait which so frightened me as a child.  At the time of the assault, Hugh was just 25 years old. His assailant was another shepherd working for a large land-landowner living nearby.  Though few shepherds suffered such brutal assaults as my great-grandfather, disputes between landowners were commonplace at that time, following the enclosures by the large estates of the upland areas where people had hitherto been afforded grazing rights for generations. The shepherds employed by these landowners often became pawns in their ongoing disputes.


Here is what the newspaper reported of Hugh’s testimony on the 21st June, 1875;

On the 24th of May last, about noon, I saw Rees Williams driving some sheep that I look after. I went to meet him, and asked him where he was going to take them. He began to curse, and accused me of coursing his sheep that morning. He was on a pony. He came onto me and asked me to strike him, and brushed his pony against me. I touched the pony with the stick that I had in my hand. He then got off the pony and pulled out a knife and threatened me. The knife he put back into his pocket and pushed against me again, and I tripped him up. When the defendant got up he struck me down with my stick. I was quite insensible for a time. When I came to myself I found the defendant was trying to gouge out my right eye with his finger. I was then on my back under him. He bit my two cheeks. He had hold of my right ear for some time, and tried to tear my lip. I bit his finger when he put it in my mouth (defendant’s left hand bore severe marks as of biting). He gouged my two eyes till I was quite blind with blood. I tried to get up, but defendant prevented me. He put his finger in my mouth again to tear my lip, and I bit it as hard as I could. He then begged of me to loose him and said he would go away. I loosed him, but instead of going away defendant struck me again in the face with his fists repeatedly. I was covered with blood and had great difficulty in getting home, because I was almost blinded. A doctor was telegraphed for, and he attended the same night.

Hugh survived the terrifying assault, though his right eye was lost.  But he appears to have been hounded by ill luck, thereafter. Four years after the assault, he married a young woman who worked as a maid on the farm where he was employed. They had only been married a year when both she and their baby died in childbirth. Some years later, he married Annie’s mother but this wife also died of pneumonia when my grandmother, Annie, was just six years old.

Jenny Lloyd is the Welsh author of The Megan Jones trilogy; historical suspense novels set in early, 19th century, rural Wales.

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16 thoughts on “The brutality beneath the rural idyll.

  1. Must have been difficult for you to read about that Jenny – bringing up childhood fears as well. But from a reader’s point of view an interesting glimpse into the past.

    • Hi Judith. Tragedy seemed to follow my ancestors from one generation to the next. From the moment I began researching my family history, I began unearthing one heart-breaking story after another. It all made for tough reading at times.

      • I bet. But, if you can bear to use, what a wealth of research. My trouble is, once I start to research I get lost in it and don’t get around to writing. And that’s not even when it’s so personal

      • Yes, it becomes compulsive! I spent almost three years researching just my maternal grandmother’s side of my family history and I could have gone on forever. That then led to a long foray into Welsh social history which led to research for my novel, which then took four years to complete. Once you start, there is no knowing where your research will lead!

  2. Great post, Jenny. How amazing to come across such a detailed account of your ancestor. It must have been a fascinating read and an exciting discovery despite the details of what happened to him, which sounds horrific!

    • Thank you. It was sheer luck, or maybe not depending on whether you believe in coincidence or serendipity. In family history research terms, it was an amazing find and I would not have found it if I hadn’t by then moved on to researching for my novel. Conversely, while researching my family’s history I found a wealth of sources of inspiration for my novels.

  3. Extraordinary story to come across by chance but the portrait that you remember from childhood sounds the stuff of nightmares. I wonder why he had it painted. A local artist, another family member volunteered perhaps? Or was is a sign that his financial fortunes had improved even if he lived with personal tragedy. I teach on a course where students write the biography of a family member(s) and every term I hear the most fascinating stories, all the more interesting because they reveal a world that once existed.

    • Hi, Bridget. I certainly know that his fortunes improved. He went from humble shepherd to the owner of his own farm. Your comments have raised a question for me as to how he did so well for himself. Most farmers in those days, in that area, were tenant farmers or the land was inherited. Perhaps he was compensated for his loss?
      I love that your students are writing their family stories. I think it’s a wonderful thing to pass on to future generations. I uncovered so many fascinating and often tragic stories when exploring my family’s past, which I’ve been able to pass on to other family members.

  4. What a fascinating post. Amazing synchronicity to discover that piece in the paper. I’ll bet you were covered in goosepimples when you read it. I do admire your depth of research and bravery in tackling something so close to home. Leap the Wild Water is on my TBR list and its at the top.

    • Thank you, Alex. Indeed I get the goosebumps! I’ve had many serendipitous and synchronised moments while researching which have left me with the feeling that my ancestors are giving me a helping hand in uncovering their stories. Delighted to hear Leap the Wild Water is on the top of your TBR list! Are you a writer, too?

      • That thin veil has parted between time zones for you. I love that mystery.
        Yes, I’m a writer too. Daffodils is set in WW1, working on the sequel at the mo, and The Twisted Vine is based on grape-picking experiences in France in the 80s. Thanks for asking!

  5. A great post, Jenny. Your heart must have skipped a beat when you came across that piece in the paper.

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