The worst Christmas ever?

Apparently, storm Barbara is heading for the British Isles just in time for Christmas with the risk of disruption to transport and power supplies and some possible structural damage. The one thing we all share, wherever we are in the world, is our powerlessness in the face of severe weather. For our ancestors, the consequences were far more devastating.

It’s a sobering thought, but exactly 200 years ago, running up to Christmas of 1816, people were in the midst of a famine right here in Britain thanks to a volcanic explosion on the other side of the world.

In 1815, the effects of the massive volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora, Sumbawa island, Indonesia,  were felt across the world and led to devastating crop failures across the Northern hemisphere in 1816. It has been dubbed ‘the summer that never was’.

The summer of 1816 was so severely cold and wet it led to one of the worst famines of 19th century Europe. Red snow fell in Italy, Eastern parts of North America were under a cloud of volcanic fog, snow fell in Albany, New York in June, and riots broke out in Britain and Europe following the cataclysmic failure of crops.

Families in Wales are said to have traveled great distances begging for food, such was their hunger.

I may not have learned of this extraordinary disaster if I hadn’t been recently researching some unexplained deaths in my family history.

My 5 x grandparents, born in Ceredigion, both died within a month of each other in the summer of 1818. They were younger than I am now. Also, one month later, their oldest son died at the tender age of 30, in the same house. In the neighbouring house, another two relatives had died in that summer; aged 28 and 36. The obvious nagging question was why had so many died before their time and over such a short period?

Causes of death were not entered in the parish registers, so any one of many diseases such as smallpox or typhus may have been responsible. In Cardiganshire, even malaria was not uncommon in marshland areas. But looking for possible diseases led me to the historical occurrence of’the summer that never was’ in 1816.

People weakened by hunger are more susceptible to disease, and disease follows famine as surely as night follows day. In Ireland, also affected by the famine, a typhus epidemic ran from 1816 to 1819.

I will never know for sure what killed those ancestors of mine in 1818 but one thing I can be sure of is that they suffered unimaginable hardship and hunger in the two years leading up to their demise. Luckily for me, their son, my 4 x great grandfather and his wife survived and my 3 x great grandfather was born in 1820.

I’ve discovered many tragedies in my family’s past but this one has shocked and saddened me more than most. It brings home to all of us, I think, how powerless we are against the forces of nature.

We in the Western world live in an age of excess and never is this more evident than in the weeks running up to Christmas. This year more than ever following this most recent research, I am giving thanks for and appreciating how lucky we all are not to be enduring the hardships our ancestors did and which too many people across the world are enduring as I write.

In wishing a Happy Christmas to all my followers here on this blog, I particularly wish you a stress-free holiday in which you and yours do not angst over whether everything is perfect but simply enjoy and celebrate our great good fortune not to have been born in a time or place of great hardship.

 

 

 

Honouring the dead.

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Bryngwynfel, my mother’s birthplace.

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The view from above Tyn-y-beili, where my mother grew up.

It is the anniversary of my mother’s death and I thought it would be a good time to share a particular family story she told me, because it is one that has been passed on by word of mouth through three mothers – my mother, her mother, and now me. It is a story which had remained untold since her own mother died and which would not have come to light if the memory had not been prompted by my research into our family history.

I unearthed many tragic stories while doing the research, things my mother would never have known about her ancestors, otherwise. But this particular story would have disappeared with my mother if she had not told it to me. My mother was told it by her mother, my granny Annie, and my mother was eighty-five years old before she related it to me. How many such family stories are lost for the want of someone who wants to know, or for the want of telling?

I’d been recording my granny’s sisters and brothers on the family history chart and was asking my mother if she remembered any of these aunts and uncles of hers. Well, she had something to tell about each of them but I shan’t go into those stories now. What she did say, in her lilting Welsh accent, and which made my ears prick up was ‘But wait a minute, there was another one, you know’.

‘Was there?’ I was incredulous.

‘Yes! A baby! She was named Medi!’

I had no knowledge of this child, at all.

‘Well, now, you listen, and I shall tell you what my mother told me’, my mother said…

‘The baby was poorly. From the start, you see, there was something wrong with her. And her father, Huw – he was a lay preacher, you know – he was very worried because it didn’t look like the baby would survive and she hadn’t been baptised, you see. And so Huw decided they must go to the chapel and get her baptised. And off they went. But it was a terrible day, pouring down rain, and they all got drenched before they even got to the chapel. They only had the pony and cart, you see. Well, the upshot of it was the baby died, anyway, but that wasn’t the last of it. Medi’s mother, my grandmother, caught pneumonia that day and never recovered. Six months later, she was gone, too. My mother, Annie, was just six years old when her mother died, you know.’

It was my daughter who realised the significance of Medi’s name. Medi is Welsh for September, which turned out to be the month of her birth. After my mother told me this story, I searched the BMD index for a Medi, and there she was; her death recorded in the last quarter of 1896.

Now, every September, I remember Medi and her mother, and poor Huw who must have suffered greatly for the decision he made on that fateful, wet day and through which he lost so much. Huw had already lost one wife to childbirth. He never married again after he lost the second one. And I am haunted by the fact that I have failed, still, to find their graves. Another September is come and gone. This time, this year, I will find them, I tell myself with every September that goes by. Perhaps I will, this year.

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Cwmchwefru, where Medi and her mother died.

My mother, had she been born to a different life, would have loved to write stories, I think, for she certainly loved to tell them and told them well. She was very proud of me having written two novels (she did not live to see the third). She read the first two and greatly enjoyed them, then lent them to all her neighbours and friends, saying ‘my daughter, Jenny, wrote these, you know. She’s an author!’

The moral of this story is; if you have elderly relatives, be sure to ask them questions while they are still here, and pass the stories on to your own children. My mother was the last one of her brothers and sisters to die, and one thing I’ve often regretted is that her siblings had died before I began researching our family history. There was so much they died not knowing and so much more they may have contributed.

Imagine if my mother had died without telling this family story. Little Medi and her short and tragic life would never have been recorded as it deserved to be. Ask the questions and pass on your family stories!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An unforgettable writer’s paradise.

It was at Tonfannau, in 2015, that I began writing Anywhere the Wind Blows. A major character in the book is called Cai Traherne. He appeared to me first in a dream and then over the coming weeks his story began to unfold as I sat on this remote beach where the Dysynni river meets the sea.

There is a scene in the book which is instantly recognisable as Tonfannau. Aptly translated ‘the place of waves’ (of which there was a myriad when the wind blew off the sea), it was the place where I conquered my fear of visiting remote beaches alone after recovering from the freak accident of 2014 – it was like jumping back on a horse after being thrown.

I spent many hours here, hand writing the first draft of Anywhere the Wind Blows or combing the beach for driftwood thrown up by the tide, while Morgan and Jess explored the rock pools. I didn’t see another soul along this beach. My only company was Morgan and Jess, and the cormorants and wild swans that came flying down the river valley to land on the shoreline.  I stayed for over six weeks with the motor-home parked up in an idyllic location nearby – this place, translated from the Welsh, is called ‘the parish of the blessed’. Blessed is how I feel to have so many memories of my time spent in this paradise. It was the one place I visited which I wished I didn’t have to leave. It was devilishly cold some days with the January and February winds blowing off the sea…

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…in the distance is the snow capped mountain of Snowdon.

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Tonfannau is a place where the wild sea has reclaimed cliff top buildings and moulded them into the shapes of waves…

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…and stone walls are things to gaze upon with awe at the craftsmanship involved…

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…and gate posts are works of art….

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Of all the places I stayed, it is the one I most lost my heart to and wish to revisit one day to walk this road which was the daily one back to our base.

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When I left here I traveled inland. Following the injury of 2014 I thought I’d never be able to climb another hill. What more romantically named place could I prove myself wrong than on Velvet Hill?  Velvet Hill overlooks Llangollen on one side…

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… and Valle Crucis Abbey on the other…

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Near here is the holy well which George Borrow drank from when visiting this fabulous ruin…

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After perhaps too long travelling hither and thither, I found myself longing for more familiar territory…

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I returned to retread those ancient paths which had led me to my ancestors and writing inspiration…

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I knew then where I needed to be. I needed to go home. ‘Home’ to me has always been among those beautiful hills and lanes where I grew up in Mid-Wales. I found a little cottage to make my home, along a country lane less than a mile from my birthplace, with nearby views of mountains I have loved all my life….

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…and places where I walk in the footsteps of my ancestors…

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When I climb Mynydd Eppynt and look from west to east, I can locate the birthplaces of my daughter, myself, my mother, my grandmother, a great-grandmother, a great-great grandmother, and the resting place of the great-great-great grandparents who came across the mountains from Strata Florida to make their home here….

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Perhaps home is not so much where our hearts lie but where the soul feels it belongs.

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

Leap the Wild Water new book cover meadow      The Calling of the Raven updated book cover      Anywhere the Wind Blows Book Cover - jpg

You can read about the books or purchase them by clicking on the links below.

Leap the Wild Water: http://ow.ly/jEoi302jXkd

The Calling of the Raven: http://ow.ly/4uRO302jXmd

Anywhere the Wind Blows: http://ow.ly/i1sy302jXXK

You can also follow the author:

Twitter; https://twitter.com/jennyoldhouse

Facebook; https://www.facebook.com/jennylloydauthor

Pinterest; http://www.pinterest.com/jennyoldhouse

 

 

 

 

A ghostly encounter on a journey into the past…..

I have never been afraid of ghosts, not even as a child growing up in a reputedly haunted house. In fact, I was thrilled and fascinated by the stories of an older sister who told of her too-close encounters with our resident ghost. The living have often scared me, but not the dead. My lack of fear is just as well, given what happened to me when I went in search of a house where my ancestors once lived, an experience which is the subject of this post.

My journey to find my Welsh ancestors spanned two and half years, hundreds of hours of research, and culminated in the writing of three historical novels. When I began the journey, I never imagined what it would lead to. Of all the journeys I have made, it was the most moving, surprising, and inspiring of all.

Along the way, I had experiences which reignited my faith in there being more to our existence than can be explained away and diminished by science. The experience I shall write about here is an extract from the notebooks I kept at the time.

It was a journey in search of the place where my great-great grandmother had her illegitimate child taken from her to be boarded with a woman who took in these poor children for a living. When this great-great grandmother got married some years later, her daughter was brought home by her uncle Morgan to live with him and his housekeeper.

This story was to spark my imagination and lead to my writing historical fiction. The great-great grandmother, her brother Morgan, and her daughter, were immortalised as Megan, Morgan and Fortune in Leap the Wild Water, The Calling of the Raven and Anywhere the Wind Blows.

My journey to find the place where they’d lived, Caegwyn, was possibly both the eeriest and strangest of all. Its location on the old map showed it to be as remote as any place can be, high up on the top of the central hills of Abergwesyn. The modern map showed it to have been swallowed up by the dark, lifeless and ever-growing forests of the Forestry Commission. So I set out on the journey with little hope of finding much more than rubble. It seemed to me that ‘progress’ had wiped out all before it in its march, including the homes of my ancestors.

I park the car by Beulah Church, don waterproofs and walking boots, and hoist my rucksack on my back. It’s a blustery day, patches of blue sky disappearing and reappearing between threatening, pregnant clouds.

I take the track that goes past Caemawr and past the ruins of what was once Cefngardis farmhouse. Just above the ruins, this track joins the ancient, green ridge-road that comes up from Aberannell farm and over the hills of Abergwesyn, and goes all the way to Cardigan. It was the old drover’s route in the days before the railways came. Thousands of Welsh cattle and geese trod this route, over hundreds of years, to be sold in the markets of England.

I walk up this track under a canopy of trees which border the track on both sides. Then the avenue of trees comes to an end and the track goes over open hill before skirting craggy rocks. The hill falls away steeply on my right, smothered with ancient oak trees. I walk until I reach a summit on the track and stop to look down the valley that opens up below me. Way down at the foot of the hill, nestles the old farmstead of Tycwm. Up the valley sits Lloftybardd and further still, in the distance, the little chapel of Pantycelin where many of my ancestors are buried. From up here on this mountain, the shiny, black gravestones in the modern part of the graveyard resemble rows of black-clothed mourners at a funeral.

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I sit on a crag of rock looking down on this vista that my ancestors had looked down on before me, though there was no forestry then to blacken the hills and pollute the waters. From the buzzard’s-view on my perch, I see the mansion of Llwynmadoc in the direction from which I’ve come. The sun breaks through the clouds and a rainbow appears behind Llwynmadoc, over the beautiful hill of Garnwen, flooded with colour and sunlight.

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The dark clouds, which have been threatening over the horizon for the past half hour, choose to burst as they arrive over my head. I sit on my perch, eating my lunch, while being battered by rain and buffeted by the wind.

I don’t know how much further I have to walk, so set off briskly. In the distance ahead, the edges of the great forestry loom, and in front of me the track forks indecisively. The clouds pass away leaving a brilliant blue sky in their wake. A flock of twittering, chattering birds come flying from behind me, passing me by with a whoosh, and dipping and darting along the path ahead. The birds follow the left hand fork in the track and pause to perch on a little gate in the fence. Then off they go again. I follow their lead and head towards the forest.

On the other side of the gate, the track winds through pale, rough grass, rosebay-willow-herbs and purple heather before entering the deep, dark forest. The track through the forest is straight and wide and stretches far ahead. Overhead, there is a long strip of blue sky between the avenues of plantation but no light shines on the path; only here and there a small pool of sunlight breaks through the thick canopy, illuminating small areas of undergrowth of long-undisturbed moss. The air is drenched with the aromas of pine needles, fungi and mould; the only sounds are the screeching and creaking of branches rubbing together in the wind. The atmosphere is chilling and eerie.

I scan the plantation on my left for signs of a ruin. This is where Caegwyn seems to be marked on the map. The dank avenue appears to go on forever before finally opening onto a sun-drenched crossroads at its summit. I venture for a little way down a couple of these tracks although fearing that my search is futile. I decide if there is anything left of Caegwyn at all, it must be back in the direction I’ve come.

So I head back down the forestry track, scanning the forest floor again for signs of a ruin, feeling very tired and dispirited by now. I had come in search of Morgan’s land and the place where my great-grandmother grew up. As I reach the end of the plantation, I feel I have somehow failed them.

Then, as I step out of the forestry and into the sunlight, I feel overwhelmed by a strange and strong sensation; I am being not so much pulled but led, and I am compelled to follow, downwards away from the track. Over rows of concealed tree stumps I stumble, my ankles snarled by brambles which threaten to trip me up and send me flying with every step. I am going further and further from the track home and feeling exhausted. I stop and wonder where on earth I am going and why. This is ridiculous, I think to myself, I’m not going any further, I have to head home.

It is then that I see it.

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The ruins of Caegwyn have appeared, as if from nowhere before me, smothered and strangled under mounds of black-berried brambles. My breath catches in my throat and I gasp, my scalp tingling. Later, returning home and looking back towards the site of the well-concealed ruin, I am convinced I would never have found it if I had not been ‘led’ towards it by some unseen, spiritual force.

There is little left of the old Caegwyn to see, but from what remains of its outer walls, reduced to some four to six feet in height, one can see that it was once a traditional, Welsh stone long-house. At first sight, it seems precariously perched on the edge of the gorge beyond it, but in fact there is a distance of some tens of yards between what was once its front door and the edge of the ravine it lies parallel to.

It must once have been the most remote and romantic of settings, before the forestry came. The gorge carries the mountain stream down to the lake of Cefn-gardis below. When I lived in the village of Beulah, and my daughter was a little girl, I used to bring her and her friends up to this lake for picnics. I used to sit there by the tranquil lake, looking up at the hills beyond, and it astonishes me now to think I had no idea that my great-great grandmother and many of her relations had lived up there. This lake existed in their time, having been built by Henry Thomas of Llwynmadoc, sometime before his death in 1863. It is said that he employed the striking miners of South Wales to build it.

The aspect looking south from Caegwyn is breathtaking.

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The lake shimmers below, and beyond the lake one can see the old village of Beulah and its chapel framed between the slopes of the hills. Beyond Beulah chapel lies Garth bank and the long stretch of the Eppynt mountain. I stood and gazed at the view for a long while, thinking how privileged I was to have been led to find this place where my great grandmother grew up with her uncle Morgan; how lucky I was to have begun this journey in search of my grandmother, Annie, and her family; but sad too that such a place was now in ruins and beyond salvation. For this is a short-lived opportunity to go there, because although the forestry in which Caegwyn was buried has been cleared, it has been replanted. Soon, Caegwyn will be buried again, and even if I were not long gone by then, there will be little, if anything, left to see by the time the trees are harvested again.

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

Leap the Wild Water new book cover meadow      The Calling of the Raven updated book cover     Anywhere the Wind Blows Book Cover - jpg

You can read about the books and purchase them by clicking on the links below.

Leap the Wild Water: http://ow.ly/jEoi302jXkd

The Calling of the Raven: http://ow.ly/4uRO302jXmd

Anywhere the Wind Blows: http://ow.ly/i1sy302jXXK

Follow me:

Twitter; https://twitter.com/jennyoldhouse

Facebook; https://www.facebook.com/jennylloydauthor

Pinterest; http://www.pinterest.com/jennyoldhouse

Angels, whores, and wives for sale.

While researching for my novel, Leap the Wild Water, I was shocked by the extent to which women in the 19th century were suppressed in all spheres of their lives, and the appalling double standards they were subject to. Generally, women were seen as either angels or whores, depending on their virginal status at marriage.

Women were generally regarded as the property of men. In 1824, a woman called Lydia Jones was produced for sale with a halter around her waist. In 1815, William Jones, a 79 year old pauper of Llanwrst, sold his wife for 3 farthings having been married for only 3 weeks; as late as 1863, a man in Merthyr Tydfil sold his wife to a fellow workman for the grand sum of £3. Not until 1870 were women allowed to inherit property without it passing immediately to their husbands.

Unmarried mothers, like Megan in Leap the Wild Water, suffered worst of all. They were publicly shamed and such was the trauma of this that many abandoned or killed their babies rather than suffer it. Up to 1834, the parish poor law authority would prosecute men for maintenance of the children of unmarried mothers. Then this law was changed so that the Poor Law Unions would start proceedings on behalf of an unmarried mother, only if she could ‘provide corroborative evidence of paternity’ – a practical impossibility, sex being a very private activity, and given the shame and approbation heaped upon a woman’s head were she to admit to engaging in sex before marriage – she would hardly be likely to do so publicly!  Such was the farcical nature of laws made by men in relation to women. The Poor Law Royal Commission was responsible for this change and it  was brought about to protect ‘ eligible but innocent bachelors and accused men of being coerced into unwanted marriages’.

The Bishop of Exeter warned against such a change in the law as he feared that it would lead to a great increase in numbers of babies being left at the workhouse doors. He said; ‘You will harden the heart of man and increase his selfishness to an intensity of which we have never yet believed him capable’. Similar sentiments were expressed by the Times newspaper and the poet, Coleridge. In 1864, John Brownlow expressed sympathy for these ‘basically decent girls’ who were seduced by promises of marriage, and spoke of how they were humiliated in open courts in front of a gawping male audience. Few were this sympathetic to the plight of these abandoned young women. To the puritanical chaplain in the New Forest, Rev. Herbert Smith, all unmarried mothers were ‘fornicators and adulterers’ and their children deemed ‘offspring of sin and profligacy’.

It was a brave young woman, indeed, who would make any attempt at obtaining justice. An example of the treatment women received in court is that of Agnes Roberts. In court, she said she had attempted suicide by throwing herself in the Llanelli dock, after being abandoned by the father of her unborn child. Thomas Ludford, the defence lawyer asked if she referred to the new dock, adding, ‘it has no water in it yet’. This was met with laughter from the all male audience and her case failed.  There was also the case of John Lewis, who in 1900 was up for three charges of rape against a 14 year old girl in the dock district of Llanelli. Judge Bingham threw the case out of court, claiming it was ‘ a trumpery of a case’ and that the girl in question had suffered ‘nothing more’ than an indecent assault.  He went on to say that such cases were scandalous – because they gave that part of the world a bad reputation!

Given the age of consent at the time, many of these young women so cruelly treated were no more than girls. The age of consent in Western countries during the mid-19th century was between 10 and 13 years old. In Britain, it was raised to the upper limit of 13 years in 1868 following a long campaign by William Thomas Charley, barrister and MP for Salford. He had campaigned for it to be raised to 21. Not until the end of the 19th century was it raised to 16.

Seventy-five percent of births in workhouses were illegitimate – being pregnant and unmarried meant absolute poverty for a woman. Turned out by their families, and shunned by their communities, many were forced to abandon their babies on workhouse or church steps rather than see their babies starve. The insanitary conditions of the workhouses were such that most of these babies died, anyway, of disease. In a society where women were regarded as the evil seductresses of men, it made no difference if a woman’s pregnancy was the result of rape – she was likely to be seen as having brought it on herself, and the man involved viewed as having been provoked.

In recent years, I’ve heard similar arguments brought against women who have been raped while intoxicated by drink. It seems to me that we’ve come a long way; we’re no longer chattels and we are able to be financially independent, but to what extent do sexual double standards still prevail?

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

Leap the Wild Water new book cover meadow     The Calling of the Raven updated book cover     Anywhere the Wind Blows Book Cover - jpg

You can read about the books or purchase them by clicking on the links below.

Leap the Wild Water: http://ow.ly/jEoi302jXkd

The Calling of the Raven: http://ow.ly/4uRO302jXmd

Anywhere the Wind Blows: http://ow.ly/i1sy302jXXK

You can also follow the author:

Twitter; https://twitter.com/jennyoldhouse

Facebook; https://www.facebook.com/jennylloydauthor

Pinterest; http://www.pinterest.com/jennyoldhouse

 

Resources and interesting further reading on the subject of this blog;

Secret Sins by Russell Davies.

Hope and Heartbreak by Russell Davies.

Massacre of the Innocents by Lionel Rose.

The brutality beneath the rural idyll.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Leap the Wild Water new book cover meadow      The Calling of the Raven updated book cover      Anywhere the Wind Blows Book Cover - jpg

You can read about the books or purchase them by clicking on the links below.

Leap the Wild Water: http://ow.ly/jEoi302jXkd

The Calling of the Raven: http://ow.ly/4uRO302jXmd

Anywhere the Wind Blows: http://ow.ly/73tq302Ov71

You can also follow the author:

Twitter; https://twitter.com/jennyoldhouse

Facebook; https://www.facebook.com/jennylloydauthor

Pinterest; http://www.pinterest.com/jennyoldhouse

 

A journey in search of a stolen life.

 

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This cross was hand-carved by my daughter to mark my grandmother’s grave.

My grandmother, Annie, died in 1959 and the marking of her grave also marked the end of a journey which began some years ago; a journey to discover the truth buried beneath the wreckage of Annie’s life.

I requested and obtained permission to view the records that were kept by Talgarth Mental Asylum when my grandmother, Annie, was incarcerated there for 18 years of her life, from 1930. The victim of terrible domestic violence, her husband had Annie committed for depression. Annie was taken from her nine children, one of them still a babe in arms. The records show that she tried to escape to get home to her children but was captured and taken back.

My mother grew up believing Annie didn’t want to come home to them because that was the lie their father told them.

The records made for harrowing reading. I spent a day in the archives, faithfully recording every entry in that massive, leather bound tome, and did not allow myself to weep until the journey home. I vowed I would write her story one day. It is a promise I intend to keep. I didn’t write it at that time because it was too close to my heart, too harrowing, just too overwhelming in every way.

My day at the archives was the end of a long journey which had begun with researching my family history and ended with a burning passion to write fictional stories portraying the real difficulties faced by women in the past, the culmination of which is my three novels in the Megan Jones trilogy.

Here is an extract from my journal, recorded on the emotional day I went in search of Annie’s birthplace;

At the end of the farm lane I saw a signpost and my heart leaped with hope because I’d imagined the old place would  be no more than a derelict pile of stones in some isolated place. As I drove up the track, with the wind blowing and the April sun breaking through the clouds, a flock of crows rose up, as one, from the field. Flying against the wind, they twisted and turned overhead before soaring away and my spirits soared at the sight of them. The mass of the Eppynt mountain loomed ahead as the lane steepened towards a brow in the hill. I felt a tug of the heart and a sob rose in my throat – on the edge, as I was, of arriving at the place where dear Annie’s life began.

Sadly, on my arrival I was to discover that nothing remained of the house where Annie was born. It had been demolished to make way for cowsheds. It is symbolic, in a way, because the life my granny Annie expected to live was raised to the ground, obliterated, as surely and ruthlessly as the house where she was born.

My family history, like all history, is liberally sprinkled with women whose lives were blighted; by the inequalities of society or through the neglect, stupidity or downright cruelty of others – a pattern I’ve seen repeated in my own life.

Most of what I know of Annie comes from the stories of other people who knew her, and from the medical records of the asylum.  The medical records state bald facts, which in the light of all else I know, are all the more distressing.

My granny had beautiful black hair of which she was very proud. By day, she wore it plaited and rolled into a bun at the nape of her neck. At night, she undid that plait and let her hair fall down. It was so long, she could sit on it and with the help of her little girls, it was given 100 brush strokes, every night before bed.

When she was carted away to the asylum, she believed she was going to have a short rest. Her nightmare began on arrival. The first thing they did was to chop off her hair, her beautiful long mane of glossy, black hair. It was a standard procedure; head lice being rife in such institutions, long hair would pick them up and spread them like wild fire.

She must have been a stunner, Annie, before hard toil, nine children, and a poor diet ravaged her. It was noted in their ledger that she had grey eyes; a stunning combination with that long black hair. She was underweight and undernourished and had an overactive thyroid. She was on her last legs when she entered that place and they all but knocked her legs from beneath her.

What hellish place must she have thought she’d been brought to? This was no rest home, no holiday, this was hell itself. She tells them a mistake has been made and they must let her go immediately; home to her children who would be worrying where their Mam had gone.

She tells them why she has been unable to cease crying (the reason given for her admission); that her husband knocked her about and threatened to kill her. The following are some of the comments written in their ledger, repeated year after year.

“She is suffering from delusional psychosis. States that prior to admission, her husband desired to get rid of her and had made several attempts on her life.”

“Her delusions change little as time goes on. She still believes her husband was trying to get rid of her and made serious attempts on her life.”

“She remains much the same mentally. She gives a very poor account of herself. She continues to state that her husband used to knock her about a great deal and several times threatened to kill her.”

For eighteen years, every time she was interviewed by a psychiatrist, Annie told them the same story about her husband. Every time she told it, it was seen as evidence of her delusional madness.

The tragedy is that she spoke the truth. Her husband was a brutal man and he had, indeed, knocked her about for years, and attempted to murder her, strangling her by the throat in one of his rages. He would have succeeded if he had not been dragged off by his oldest daughter and two sons.

It was her husband who was the lunatic, and he had succeeded in carrying out his threat to get rid of her, not by killing her but by having her incarcerated in the asylum he should have been in himself. The reason for her committal was her continuous crying. One of the psychiatrists described her, unsympathetically, as emotionally unstable, confused, and lachrymose. I’m sure if he had been in her shoes, he would have been all those things himself, would not have diagnosed himself as insane but as showing a normal response to the irrational and abusive treatment meted out by her husband.

Annie suffered a most terrible injustice. She should have been protected but instead she was locked up in the asylum in 1930 and did not get out until 1948. Cold blooded murderers do less time. Annie suffered what she did, for as long as she did, because she spoke her truth.  She had no idea that in speaking the truth, she was providing them with the ‘evidence’ to back up their misguided theories as to her mental state.

I would like to be able to say that such injustices were few and far between, but in truth they were all too common. As recently as 2007, a lady of 85 years of age was finally traced by her family, 70 years after being committed to an asylum in 1937, under the 1890 Lunacy Act. She was 15 when she was committed for the ‘crime’ of stealing half a crown from the doctor’s surgery where she worked as a cleaner. The money was later found, but too late for this poor girl. She spent the rest of her life being shunted from one mental institution to another, until she was moved to a care home in her old age.

Many of these dreadful places were closed down towards the end of the 20th century. Stories abound of how these elderly ladies then being released had been placed there as young girls of fourteen or fifteen, for the ‘crime’ of having illegitimate babies. Yet, no man was ever imprisoned for having fathered one.

So many lives were never lived. Such cruelties were commonplace. Before her death in 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft was writing a novel entitled Maria; The Wrongs of Woman. The novel’s heroine, Maria, has been placed in a madhouse by an abusive husband who seeks to control her money and her liberty for his own ends. In those days, it was only too easy for a man with money to have his unwanted wife committed to a privately paid asylum.

The parallels between Annie’s story and Wollstonecraft’s heroine, Maria, are obvious. Both were sent to the madhouse by duplicitous husbands and for spurious reasons. I’m sure Mary Wollstonecraft must have hoped that one hundred and fifty years after her death such things would not still be happening. In Annie’s case, it seems that her continued incarceration for so many years was due to laziness on the part of those who could have properly helped her; they chose not to investigate whether what she was saying was true, and chose instead to reaffirm their own misguided beliefs.

There is no changing the past. What is done cannot be undone. But I hope that in the telling of Annie’s truth some small piece of justice will finally be hers.

Incidentally, the mental asylum that played such a part in the demolition of my granny’s life, was itself demolished in 2011.

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

Leap the Wild Water new book cover meadow      The Calling of the Raven updated book cover      Anywhere the Wind Blows Book Cover - jpg

You can read about the books or purchase them by clicking on the links below.

Leap the Wild Water: http://ow.ly/jEoi302jXkd

The Calling of the Raven: http://ow.ly/4uRO302jXmd

Anywhere the Wind Blows: http://ow.ly/i1sy302jXXK

You can also follow the author:

Twitter; https://twitter.com/jennyoldhouse

Facebook; https://www.facebook.com/jennylloydauthor

Pinterest; http://www.pinterest.com/jennyoldhouse

 

 

Treasures amid the ruins of past lives.

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A passage from Leap the Wild Water;

We had reached the ruins of Hafod by then, and I remembered how, years ago, Morgan and I had played in this ruin as children. We’d ride over here on our ponies. Back then, there were still remnants of a roof and the outside walls were intact. We’d light a fire in the hearth, though the chimney was full of crow’s nests. Sian talked as we picked our way round the crumbled walls of the house, stepping over roof slates overgrown with weeds, and stooping to pick up bits of broken china cups and such.

A ‘ hafod’ was a summer dwelling or place. My earliest traced ancestors lived in a place called Hafodeidos. Its English translation conjures up an 18th century rural idyll – the summer place of the nightingales.

The name of Hafod has ancient origins, harking back to a way of living which was practiced by the early Welsh people. They lived according to a semi-nomadic system of transhumance. In summertime they lived in summer dwellings called ‘hafod’ which were situated up in the mountains. Their animals grazed on the rough mountain pasture while the family lived in the ‘hafod’, which was no more than a roughly built hut but served as adequate shelter through the summer months. They lived off the milk and cheese they acquired from the freely grazing cows and sheep. Loving to roam the Welsh mountains as I do, this seems to me to be the most idyllic of existences in summertime.

Only when winter drew near would the family make their way down the mountain to live in their winter dwelling. This was called a ‘handref’ and provided better shelter from winter weather while offering some protection for people and animals from the wolves which then roamed the Welsh countryside.

I failed to find anything but ruins of many of the homes of my ancestors. Long abandoned, due their remoteness or inaccessibility when transport became motorised. Many of the old tracks remain, now marked as bridle-paths or footpaths, when once they would have witnessed the weekly trundle of cartwheels, carrying the family to market or chapel.

If you walk anywhere in the Welsh countryside, you will still encounter the occasional ruin, tucked away on some remote hillside. Often, as in the photos above, the only thing still standing is the chimney wall, complete with beam-topped fireplace. Slate tiles litter the ground amidst the fallen stones, and the remains of broken china lie scattered about among nettles and grass; a cup-handle here, a shard of plate there. As I walk amid the ruins of long-since crumbled homes, I am always left wondering how many children were raised or died within that house; how many couples lived, loved and died between its walls?

That is the pull of old ruins, for they hint at the stories lost to history, leaving us writerly souls to fill the gaps with our imaginations. As I trample among them, I fancy I hear the sound of children’s laughter, and their footfalls chasing about boarded rooms that no longer exist. I imagine glimpses of petticoats, pinafores, waistcoats and breeches; always just around the corner, hidden from sight.

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A family of eighteen children were raised  in the house above, within living memory.

As a child I often played amid the ruins of an old chapel which lay a few fields away from our house. Its roof was gone but its walls remained, and it was said that the roof had been struck by lightning when the congregation were singing inside. The roof caught fire and the congregation fled. A Baptist chapel it was. They must have thought that God himself had finally come to smite them down for their sins…

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Opposite that chapel, was the ruins of what was once the chapel house. Damson trees grew behind what remained of its walls and we’d clamber up those trees in autumn, to harvest their purple fruit. There is nothing but grass and weeds to be seen there now. The earth has swallowed its remains and covered them over as if they had never been.

The same has happened to the cottages which were once said to exist below our old farmhouse. Not even a grass-smothered outline remains of one of them. Nature has gathered them all into her bosom, obliterating man’s attempts at permanence, and returned the fields to her beloved green.

The extraordinary is to be found beneath the ordinary. Within the lives of ordinary people, extraordinary stories can be found. Inscribed on ancient tombstones, between the lines of census entries, or beneath the scattered slates and stones; dig deep enough amid the ruins of the past and there is treasure to be found.

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

Leap the Wild Water new book cover meadow      The Calling of the Raven updated book cover      Anywhere the Wind Blows Book Cover - jpg

You can read about the books or purchase them by clicking on the links below.

Leap the Wild Water: http://ow.ly/jEoi302jXkd

The Calling of the Raven: http://ow.ly/4uRO302jXmd

Anywhere the Wind Blows: http://ow.ly/i1sy302jXXK

You can also follow the author:

Twitter; https://twitter.com/jennyoldhouse

Facebook; https://www.facebook.com/jennylloydauthor

Pinterest; http://www.pinterest.com/jennyoldhouse

The healing power of nature.

In my novel, Leap the Wild Water, there is a market-place scene where Megan is introduced to an elderly woman called Martha. Martha is a healer, selling the potions she has made. She embarrasses Megan when offering her a small bottle of Heartsease essence for mending broken hearts.

Martha has a sixth sense for the underlying cause of Megan’s unhappiness. It was this intuitive sixth-sense which set people like Martha apart from others. From ancient times, knowledge of healing herbs was passed down orally through the generations. Ordinary people had a wealth of knowledge about how to treat common ailments which afflicted them or their families.  Women like Martha were consulted when usual treatments were ineffective and more intuitive or specialist knowledge was required.

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When researching my family history I discovered that my great-great-great grandmother, Mary Jones, nee Morgan, was a herbalist of some renown. Born in 1796, near Strata Florida Abbey (picture above)she moved to Breconshire, Wales in 1838. It was said that people came from all over the county and beyond for her cures, travelling many miles on foot or horseback. Though no written or oral record survives of the remedies she used, they were likely to have been her own unique combinations of plants which were commonly used to treat ailments at that time.

I suppose it must be from this ancestor that I have inherited my love of wildflowers and fascination with their past usage. Personally, I believe that just to walk among nature’s bounty is healing in itself. Walking the Welsh mountains and vales has provided great comfort to me when I have needed it.

Below I have listed a few of the plants which were widely used;

  • The bilberries which grow in profusion on the slopes of Welsh mountains were used to treat eye problems. Their efficacy has been borne out in more recent times when British pilots in WW2 were given supplies of bilberry jam to aid their night time vision.
  • COLTSFOOT
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  • Pictured above growing in an old quarry, Coltsfoot flower tea was an old remedy for coughs. Also, the shredded leaves were smoked in a pipe to ease a bad cough.
  • Dandelion was used to treat diseases of the liver and kidneys. I remember as a child being told that if you picked dandelion flowers you would wet the bed. This was a corruption of the truth as dandelion was originally used to cure bed-wetting in children.
  • The flowers and berries of Elder were used to treat colds and fevers.
  • FEVERFEW
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  • The aptly named Feverfew, above, was used to treat fevers and is also known to be an effective remedy for migraines.
  • The use of Mugwort can be traced back to pagan times. Mugwort placed under the pillow at night was deemed to produce prophetic dreams. It was also worn as an amulet to ward off evil. The famed physicians of Myddfai, in 13th century Wales, recommended hanging it in the house to ward off flies and fleas. Burning Mugwort inside the house was said to ward off bad spirits.
  • Nettle was an ancient remedy for gout.
  • Plantain leaves were used as a poultice for wounds.
  • RED POPPY
  • red poppy
  • Pictured above, another remedy offered by the 13th century physicians of Myddfai was an infusion of boiled red poppy seed-heads to aid sleep.
  • The appropriately named Self-heal was used to staunch bleeding and treat wounds.
  • The effectiveness of St John’s Wort for the treatment of depression has been proven, like many other old remedies, by modern day science.
  • An infusion of Wild rose petals was a popular and effective remedy for a broken heart, as was the Heartsease mentioned above.
  • WOOD BETONY
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  • Wood Betony, above, was a common cure for those plagued by nightmares and insomnia.
  • YARROW
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  • Yarrow was valued for its properties of divination.
  • LUNGWORT
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Herbalists like my ancestor were also guided by the Doctrine of Signatures in divining which plants to use. According to this ancient wisdom, each and every medicinal plant carries a ‘signature’ which donates its proper usage. For example, the spotted leaves of the lungwort plant (pictured above) were said to resemble the insides of lungs, and walnuts were used to treat diseases of the brain due to their strong resemblance to the lobes of the brain. Here is a link to an article on the Doctrine of Signatures on Wikipedia. http://ow.ly/kgFRp   Please do not try remedies at home without verifying their safe usage!

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

Leap the Wild Water new book cover meadow        The Calling of the Raven updated book cover     Anywhere the Wind Blows Book Cover - jpg

 

You can read about the books or purchase them by clicking on the links below.

Leap the Wild Water: http://ow.ly/jEoi302jXkd

The Calling of the Raven: http://ow.ly/4uRO302jXmd

Anywhere the Wind Blows: http://ow.ly/73tq302Ov71

You can also follow the author:

Twitter; https://twitter.com/jennyoldhouse

Facebook; https://www.facebook.com/jennylloydauthor

Pinterest; http://www.pinterest.com/jennyoldhouse