On this day in 1853. #Wales #history

On the evening of the 9th July, 1853, the residents of the Duhonw valley of our local Epynt mountain had no idea of the terrifying events which were about to unfold.

On the banks of the Duhonw brook stood a little cottage called Dolfach. A Mrs Lawrence lived there with her daughter and two grandchildren, and a maidservant. Mrs Lawrence farmed 25 acres around the cottage. A 164 years ago, it would have been a simple life, keeping a few sheep, and a cow perhaps, eking out a small living in this tranquil, idyllic location.


Location of the former cottage of Dolfach

The weather on that day had been heavy and sultry with dark thunder clouds bubbling up over Builth – not unusual at this time of year…


View of the Epynt mountain from my house, this morning, 9th July. The Duhonw valley lies on the other side of the Epynt.

On the night of July 9th, a storm began in the little village of Penybont in Radnorshire and worked its way south. The heavens opened and a deluge of rain fell over Builth, followed by hail-showers which left a covering of hail some four inches deep. Thunder, sheet-lighting and fork lightening illuminated the Epynt as the storm increased.

Then came a cloudburst as had never been seen before and a waterspout fell on the Epynt mountain. Such was the volume of water that fell in a short time that the Duhonw brook became a raging torrent. While the inhabitants of the cottage slept, the fork in the Duhonw brook above the cottage became jammed by the large boulders and trees which had been uprooted by the volume of rainwater and carried downstream. The raging torrent was now forced down a narrow channel towards the little cottage.

Further up the valley stood Dolau-newydd mill worked by a Mr Thomas Evans. In the flood, part of the mill was swept away and the floodwater rose so high that Mr Thomas urged his family upstairs. As the floodwater rose ever higher, he and his family were forced to seek refuge in the attic while Mr Evans frantically began cutting a hole in the roof through which his family escaped onto the roof.

Back at Dolfach, a cottager living on the opposite side of the brook witnessed what happened next. He’d been stirred from his sleep by the noise and discovered that rainwater was flooding his home. Looking out, he saw that the kitchen and outbuildings of Dolfach had already been swept away. As he watched, powerless to help, he saw water gushing through the upper windows of his neighbour’s cottage. The scene must have been one that nightmares are made of as he then saw two trees come crashing down with the water, into the back of the cottage. Before his eyes, the cottage crumbled and the debris and inhabitants carried away by the ferocious torrent.

The dawn of the next day was to reveal the extent of the devastation all down the Duhonw valley. A total of 18 bridges were destroyed by the floodwater. Along with the bridges destroyed, chasms had been torn in roads and the farms on the hillsides and further down the valley turned to mud, their crops destroyed.

Poor Mrs Lawrence’s body was found the next day, 18 miles away down the river Wye along with furniture, trees and debris from her cottage. She was still dressed in her nightclothes. The bodies of her daughter, grandchildren and maidservant were discovered some days later, near Builth. Her grandson had only time to put on his trousers, her granddaughter was still wearing her nightdress but had managed to put on one boot, and the maidservant’s body was found clutching a blanket – all signs that they were about to make some attempt at escape before they were swept away.

Now, as then, we are powerless in the face of freak weather. When I go to my bed tonight, I shall give a thought to those poor people destroyed by the ‘Epynt Waterspout’.

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

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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.