A moving account of a bygone age.

The following account was passed on to me by a fellow lover of Welsh history. It conjures up a by-gone age which we will never see the like of again, and so I felt it was important to share it.  It was written by Jenkin Lloyd, Tregaron Registrar, and the article is a translation of the original which was published in the Cymru, 1912. So here it is, enjoy!

A funeral in the Highlands.

In our minds the word “Highlands” seems always to be associated with Scotland because that country is divided into highlands and lowlands and the word is seldom used in connection with Wales. But Wales too has her highlands, where we find people who live almost entirely some 1000ft or more above sea-level. I refer to the wide range of mountains which divides Radnorshire and Breconshire from Cardiganshire together with the people who inhabit these grassy expanses so well described lately in these pages by Mr Daniel Davies, Ton.

Small holdings and farms can be seen scattered here and there on this wide plain – although fewer now than formerly – where, from generation to generation there has dwelt, a race of people who have remained more faithful to old Welsh customs than their lowland brothers, a race of people with characteristics and habits peculiar to themselves. Nevertheless, these people differ among themselves in certain respects, for example, while the western side is completely Welsh speaking, the eastern slopes have been subjected to English influences, so that while shepherds on the one side work their dogs in Welsh the dogs on the other side are worked in English. Neighbours, whose animals graze side by side, attend places of worship situated as far as 12 miles apart and while some of these speak English in Builth Wells market, others do their buying and selling in Welsh in Tregaron market. We, in the lowlands, refer to these Welsh people as “the people of the mountains” and it is natural that the chapel on the river Camddwr where these dwellers congregate to worship is called “Soar of the Mountains”.

But my intention was to give an account of a funeral in these highlands. Of all our national characteristics nothing is more peculiar to us than our funeral customs and in the mountains there are particular reasons why these old customs have survived without being influenced in any way by outside agencies.

On the morning of the first Sunday in the year 1876, at Bethesda Chapel, Llandewi Brefi, Tomor Lloyd, having made the usual announcements, made a further announcement somewhat as follows:

“The funeral of Shan, wife of John Jones, Pysgotwr, will take place next Wednesday. Mr Abraham Oliver will preach at the house at 10.30 and the burial will be in the church of Llandewi Abergwesyn.”

Jac and Shan Pysgotwr were two people who lived in the mountains. It is from warm-hearted respect that I give them the familiar names by which they were known to their neighbours. Shan came of a family from the borders of Breconshire and Radnorshire – the burial place of her ancestors was at Abergwesyn and there too she wished to go. Jac came from the valley of the Upper Towy and the story goes that when Shan was the senior maid at Nant-yr-euch he used to visit the farm to court the junior maid. On his arrival there one evening, after the usual greetings, Shan came to tell him that her junior was not at home, and somehow from that night onwards Shan, the senior maid, became Jac’s sweetheart.

They got married and after several moves from place to place, eventually settled down in Pysgotwr, and it was there Shan ended her days at the age of 85. They lived a quiet simple life throughout their long span and according to what I can gather the main ambitions of their lives were: to be hospitable to the stranger, to help the poor, to pay the old debt before incurring the new, and when the end came to leave sufficient to settle all accounts, and to have an oak coffin and a gravestone. And all their hopes were fulfilled. When I returned home after the service on that Sunday morning they announced Shan’s funeral, I could hear my father and mother, while at dinner, speaking of the old lady as if no one but they were present. At the end of their discussion my father glanced towards the long table where I and some others were partaking and said, “You must attend Shan’s funeral, they will need help to carry”. The news of the old lady’s death was no occasion for rejoicing but at the same time I could not suppress a smile because a funeral was almost the only excuse for a “day out” for a spirited and healthy lad. It was not long before I found company for the journey, namely our genial neighbour, Joseph Morgan the shopkeeper, who was the family’s “universal provider”. And so, on a fair winter’s morning, we set out from Llandewi. I was in my element, riding a high-spirited cob that was to be sold at Garon Fair the following March: neither horse nor rider one would think had a care in the world.

From the village of Llanddew our path was to the east along the bank of the River Brefi, rising to that part of the mountains which forms the watershed dividing the waters of the Teifi from those of the Brefi. It was along this path that Rowland, Llangeitho, travelled on his way to Ystrad Ffin and in his lament for Rowland Williams, Pantycelyn, refers to these mountains as the Dewi Hills and the name is most appropriate for to the west stands Llandewi Brefi and to the east Llandewi Abergwesyn, with, in between the two places, some 18 miles of wild mountainous country.

In order to cross the shoulder of Bryn Caregog we had to climb over 1000 feet, then we descended to a spot where, within the short distance of about 100 yards, five small streams unite. This is the beginning of the river Pysgotwr. Near the same spot, where about the same number of roads and paths meet is a place called Postgwyn, named (it is said) after a fingerpost that stood there once upon a time, but the old post with its directions had disappeared years before we passed there that morning. Old Daniel Jones, Y Bryn, used to say that he remembered seeing the remains of the fingerpost there in his young days. What fitter site for a fingerpost? Not a house within miles, and how different from the idea of the present generation, which is to place fingerposts near towns, villages, stations. I see no reason for this, other than the rules bearing of good manners, namely, that to ask a question of a fellowship to whom one has not been formally introduced is gross effrontery.

After leaving Postgwyn we followed the river Pysgotwr for about a mile and arrived at the home of Shan and Jac where the neighbours had congregated. Here the bier had been brought the day before on the backs of little mountain ponies (how, I cannot say). It was a lonely place. If a circle of 4 miles radius were drawn with Pysgotwr as centre, less than 70 souls, counting men, women and children, would be found living within its limits. Hence, one could not expect the congregation to be a large one.

The Reverend Abraham Oliver had already arrived and while those who proposed carrying Shan to her distant resting place were taking a little nourishment, he delivered the funeral sermon to the old people, the women and children of the neighbourhood. It was not the numbers of mourners nor the costliness of the mourning apparel that was the dominant feature of the funeral but it’s pure, unostentatious simplicity.

The sermon over, we set out for the place of burial some 12 miles away. At the head of the procession, riding a shaggy pony with a horse-hair halter was Nathaniel, Y Ddinas, an old neighbour of Shan’s. He led the way, holding a long hazel stick in his hand like the sword of a general, and indeed he was a general for it was his duty to decide the route our journey was to take along this vast pathless expanse, and how long each team of four bearers was to carry its burden. Nathaniel’s judgement on the latter important problem was not determined by distance or by time: if the way was fairly level the team had good measure, but if the path was rough the measure was shorter. Careful judgement, sound common sense and a good eye for country were Nathaniel’s strong points, and of these we had ample proof before our journey was over.

Before we had gone 100 yards from the house we turned eastward where a long slope faced us. Every ditch was full of water and every bog was dangerous to both man and horse, but in spite of all these difficulties everybody was in a good mood as we now climbed the high mountain which separates the Pysgotwr valley from that of the Doethie. The number of bearers was but 20, and eight of us would ride in turns and lead the remaining horses for all would be mounted on the return journey that evening.

We soon reached Maes-y-Betws where it was necessary to decide which team of four bearers would ford the rivers. After crossing the two Doethie rivers we faced the mountain and climbed Rhiw’r Gelynen, or Rhiw’r Gelynion (as some call it). The ancient paths and tracks in these mountains are very steep and fall sharply sometimes, for they were intended for sledges and are still used as such. Such a one was Rhiw’r Gelynen and it was not surprising now, to notice that progress was slower with conversation very much on the wane.

Before reaching the crest of the mountain the path turned south along the ridge for a short distance and below us was Cwm Nant-Y-Benglog with a lonely house of the same name at the bottom of the steep valley. When he travelled along this path some years previously, Cerngoch composed the following verse:

Behold a rugged “cwm”

That only cat or hare could climb:

O spare me from rearing children

Within sigh of Nant-Y-Benglog!

The old bard had lost a child there through accident a short while before this and the place must be seen before the full meaning of the verse can be sensed.

In spite of the extreme cold at the bottom of this steep valley we found the ascent out of it warm work and when we reached yet another crest, the Camddwr valley opened out before us. As we descended towards the river the path took us near Soar chapel and I recollect well what struck me most forcibly at the time was the similarity in size between the Chapel itself, the caretaker’s house and the stable. This equality of size seems particularly appropriate; and I leave it to the reader’s imagination to find out the circumstances which call for it.

(The writer implies that the size of the congregation in such an isolated chapel was so small that the chapel and stabling for the worshipper’s horses did not need to be any larger than a house. J.)

After leaving the Chapel the way improved compared with what had been our lot till then and our General was quick to take advantage, for he signaled the changes with his stick less frequently. The carrying now was easier and Nathaniel at the head worked his legs on either side like two wings moving in rhythm with the movements of the pony. Nature too seemed to have taken a hand by cleaving a way through the back of the merciless mountain, and once again we lost sight of Cwm Camddwr while Cwm Tywi opened out before us. But before we take a last look at the old chapel I must quote Cerngoch’s verse:

On the banks of the Camddwr river

Stands a temple to our Saviour;

Whoever comes over such country

Proves himself a true Worshipper.

Shan was one of the ‘true worshippers’ all her life, and she had great regard for Soar but she wished to return to her own people for her last long rest: and in this respect she remained a typical Welsh-woman.

As the panorama of the Towy valley opened out before us we saw ahead Pant-y-Clwydau on the eastern bank of the river. The way to Abergwesyn ran along a small brook that had scooped a bed for itself down the mountain side and after crossing the Towy we climbed Rhiw-yr-Yeb (as it is called). This was far the steepest place where I ever shouldered a bier and indeed I almost believed that Shan had become much heavier in the course of the journey. To this day I consider that it was a feat to have carried Shan up this steep incline and Cefn Coch, the mountain that Rhiw’r Yeb was but a preliminary test.

Eventually we reached the top whence, for more than 3 miles we covered places so rough there was not a sheep track even for us to follow for any distance, but we felt perfectly safe under the leadership of Nathaniel who soon brought us within sight of the Irfon Valley. My spirits rose once again as Abergwesyn and the end of the journey appeared in the distance, and as we went downwards to the church through Llwynderw woods I placed my shoulder under Shan’s coffin for the 47th time. By now everybody – both man and beast – presented a worn-out appearance and as the sun disappeared behind the mountains it cast long shadows across the valley.

We turned into the graveyard and passed through the doorway of the ancient church. There were signs of neglect everywhere in the churchyard and in the church itself the walls were bare and the roof had fallen in except for a small portion that remained above the rickety pulpit. The priest went through the service with due solemnity and never, I am convinced, did he face a more sober congregation; and while he spoke of the sure and certain hope of eternal life I confess that my mind wandered back to my father’s house in Cardiganshire the other side of the mountain over which I had plodded my weary way till the end of the day. Shan’s grave was filled and I bid it farewell feeling that I had faithfully fulfilled my duty by her. After nourishment (for man and beast) we set out on our return journey across the mountain and arrived home shortly after midnight.

After making a fair reckoning of ascents and descents made during the outward and return journey, I consider it as if we had carried the bier and corpse over Snowdon from Portmadoc to Llanberis and back again. How different were the feelings of the rider, and his poor mount too I fear, on the return journey. I felt so heavy that I wondered how my horse could bear up beneath me, and the horse, poor creature, walked as clumsily as an old 15/- hack from Rhos Fair.

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

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A writer’s country strife alias ‘clueless’ in Wales.

I’ve been revisiting blog posts I’ve written over the years. I’ve moved house since writing the following piece, so I am no longer the owner of the two darlings who are the subject of this post.

I’ve always approached anything mechanical with some trepidation. I generally distrust any machine, including my car, if I don’t know how it works. So it was with unusual recklessness that I decided to try a ride-on mower to keep down the grass in my half-acre paddock. It was a second-hand mower, hence it came without instructions. I assumed it would work like my car; turn the ignition, the engine will start; let your foot off the clutch and away to go. All of which happened, but it was only when I found myself hurtling towards a tree with no room for manoeuvre that I realised I didn’t know where the brakes were and didn’t have the luxury of time to find out. I leapt from the beast and hit the ground running. I’m guessing I’m not the first person to have abandoned ship in this way because someone invented a mechanism which automatically cuts out the engine when the seat is vacated; thus the mower was saved from being wrapped around said tree.

Following this experience, I decided what I needed to keep the grass down was a more manageable kind of beast, and I set about a quest to buy myself a couple of sheep. After all, I’d grown up on a farm, what could possibly go wrong? I asked one of my brothers, Phil, to come along with me to a forthcoming sheep sale, based on another wrong assumption; that he would have more idea than me. Off we went to the sale.  I’d set my heart on a couple of Welsh Black Mountain sheep, though heaven knows we had more than a couple of ‘black sheep’ in the family already, including me.

Into the ring they came, in groups of two or four, and the bidding began. With my heart pounding, I proceeded to wave my programme in the air at intervals, and got the winning bid on a lovely pair of six month old, Welsh black mountain lambs. Only when I went to pay did I realise the figure I had bid was not for the two but the price of each. I raise an eyebrow at Phil who avoids my gaze. He was obviously not as knowledgeable as I had hoped or he would have known this, wouldn’t he? At this point I should have had a sense of foreboding.

To be fair, since leaving the farm of our childhoods, neither of us had been involved in farming in any way. It’s astonishing how much one forgets over forty years. This lapse of memory was to become more evident over the coming hours.

With receipt of my payment in hand we go off in search of my lambs. They are not in a pen of their own, all ready and waiting for me as I’d expected. What we are faced with is a large pen of thirty black lambs all huddled together in a corner with their backs to us, and all seemingly identical.

“Which two are mine?” I ask Phil.

He gives a nonchalant shrug of his shoulders, “I suppose you just take your pick?”

“Oh! Great! Those two look sweet, I’ll have those,” I say, pointing out two from the indistinguishable crowd.

Welsh Black Mountain lambs are WILD. They race, they kick, they bleat, and they buck like untamed horses. After chasing these beasts around the pen for some minutes, we decide to grab hold of whatever we can and hang on for dear life. They are strong; it takes all our strength to carry them, kicking and writhing, out of the pen and down into the waiting trailer.

“Phew! A bit wild, aren’t they?” Phil says, as we bolt the trailer gate behind them.

Job done. Off we now go to the supermarket because Phil needs to do a bit of shopping. All the while, the lambs are trying to kick and buck their way out of the trailer. On returning with his shopping, Phil takes a peek inside.

“Oh! Come and see this!” He says. “Look! They’ve got numbers on them.”

So they have. Buried in the wool under their chins are paper tags with numbers penned on them; eight and twelve. The penny drops. Phil looks at me. I look at Phil. We hadn’t seen the numbers earlier because while we were chasing and catching the beasts, they were naturally facing the other way.

“Oops,” Phil says.

The two lambs I should have taken were the third and fourth of the group of thirty that were brought into the ring, and so would have had the numbers 3 and 4 attached to them. It was obvious now we see they are numbered.

“What a stupid idea. They could at least have put the numbers where we would have seen them,” says Phil.

No doubt the auctioneers weren’t expecting two complete novices to turn up or they’d have stuck the numbers on their backsides.

“I thought you said you’ve done this before,” I say to him with an accusing glare.

“Oh, well, we can’t take them back now. It won’t make no odds, anyway, they all look the same,” he says.

We head for home, accompanied by the loud bangs of our wild companions trying to kick their way out of the trailer. Perhaps they sensed they had been wrongly abducted.

By the time we get to my place, some two hours or more have passed since we had abducted those lambs. We back the trailer up to the open gate leading into my paddock and unleash the beasts. They race across the paddock and do something I’ve never seen lambs do before. They hop, skip, jump, then take a flying leap over the stone wall boundary, straight onto my neighbour’s hill.

“Well! Ruddy hell!” Phil says in his most infuriating laid-back style, while I am wringing my hands with angst.

“You’ll never catch ‘em now, they’ll be gone,” says he, stating the bleeding obvious.

I go indoors to make a cup of tea; the only thing to do when you don’t know what to do next. A light is flashing on my answerphone. While we wait for the kettle to boil, I play back the message. It is a woman’s voice and she sounds furious.

“Please phone the auctioneers immediately you get this message.”

“She doesn’t sound very happy,” Phil says with a hearty chuckle and I give him ‘The Look’ that tells him this is not in the least bit funny.

When I phone the auctioneers I discover the mayhem we have left in our wake.

“The sheep are numbered for a reason!” I am informed in an officious voice.

“So buyers get the sheep they have bid on, not someone else’s sheep!” The woman goes on, her voice rising higher with each word.

“You have caused a great deal of confusion and trouble!” She says, her voice rising to a crescendo.

“I’m ever so sorry,” I squeak.

“And so you should be! Well! Someone else now has your sheep!” she says with a note of triumph in her voice which makes me suspect the ones which have gone to someone else must have been the better pair.

“We’ll never be able to go there again,” Phil says, when I put down the phone.

A neighbour and his dog eventually found my two on the top of the hill, a couple of days later, and brought them home to me after I’d erected a fence above the wall to keep them in.

Not surprisingly, it took them some time to settle in and grow to trust me. They were the best of friends, their relationship cemented during their shared trauma of being abducted by a couple of ne’er-do-wells. At first, their capacity for jumping walls and fences knew no bounds. They had a few adventures over the following months until I made all the fences high enough to restrain llamas. On one of their adventures they ended up a mile away after taking a trip down the country lanes. I suspect they were going in search of their rightful owner.

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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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

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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:

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

Finding magic and legend in a sleepy Welsh village.

WP_20140522_12_21_17_ProMyddfai is little more than a cluster of pastel-coloured cottages encircling a church. Yet, in the 11th and 12th centuries it was a centre for healing, inhabited by the Physicians of Myddfai, renowned across Wales. The remedies of these herbalists were recorded in the Red Book of Hergest; one of the most important medieval manuscripts written in the Welsh language.

 

WP_20140522_12_00_59_ProBeyond the little village, a lane takes you up to the mountain of Myddfai. This is where the physicians gathered the herbs and flowers used in their remedies.  Beyond Myddfai is the Black Mountain range and the mountain lake of Llyn y Fan Fach.

The first physician of Myddfai was named Rhiwallon. He was court physician to Rhys Gryg, Lord of Dinefwr Castle, about 1200AD. Rhiwallon was awarded land at Myddfai and he treated the poor for free. He passed on his knowledge to his descendants who carried on his work for over 500 years. Legend has it that Rhiwallon was the oldest of three sons born to ‘The Lady of the Lake’ who is said to have appeared at Llyn y Fan Fach, pictured above. The tale of The Lady of the Lake is one of those recorded in the Mabinogion.

According to the legend, a farmer once saw a beautiful woman sitting on a rock in Llyn-y-Fan Fach. After three refusals, she agreed to marry him so long as he promised to treat her well. But should he strike her three times without cause, she told him, she would return to the lake. The farmer then took her to live with him in Myddfai .

The lady had mystical powers of prediction and cried at her first son’s christening because she saw he would be harmed by the sun. Mystified by his wife’s tears, the farmer tapped her once to bring her to her senses. Soon after, she cried at a wedding because she saw the bridegroom was going to die soon. Her husband now tapped her for crying at a wedding. When she laughed at the bridegroom’s funeral because his suffering was over, the farmer tapped her again and the lady sped back to the lake. The heartbroken farmer was left to raise their three sons, alone.

The sons inherited their mother’s magical knowledge and powers. The Lady of the Lake reappeared to Rhiwallon upon Myddfai mountain and told him it was his mission to relieve mankind from misery and pain. She gave him a bag of medicinal remedies and instructed him on how to use them. So began the long line of the Physcians of Myddfai.

Incidentally, as we walked along the lane, I spotted two herbs growing in the hedgerow.

WP_20140522_12_19_14_ProOne was Comfrey (left) and the other was Yellow Archangel WP_20140522_12_12_14_Pro__highres

I like to think that these plants, too, may be descended from a long line of those picked by the famed Physicians.

Did you know the remedies have been published? Available here; http://ow.ly/xb1Gp

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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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

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

 

Weird and wonderful superstitions.

Even though you may not think of yourself as superstitious, the chances are that you will have told someone you will keep your fingers crossed for them, or you may have used the phrase ‘touch wood’ or ‘knock on wood’.

Most superstitions go so far back in human history it is difficult to be certain of their origins. Touching or knocking on wood is said to originate from the times when people believed that spirits inhabited trees and knocking on the bark of a tree was said to invoke the help of the spirits living there. Crossing your fingers to invoke good luck is thought to originate in early Christianity and the sign of the cross.

Though a few superstitions, like these, are still in common usage, most have fallen by the wayside including some of the more bizarre listed below.

Ass-riddling; A superstitious custom practiced in the north of England upon the eve of St.Mark, when ashes are sifted or riddled on the hearth. It is believed that if any of the family shall die within the following year, the shoe of the fated individual will leave an impression on the ashes.

Divination by apple-pips; To ascertain whether her pretended lovers really loved her or not, the maiden takes an apple-pip, and naming one of her followers, puts the pip into the fire; if it cracks in bursting from the heat, it is a proof of love. If it is consumed without noise, there is no real regard in that person towards her. (Davy’s M.S.)

Divination by flowers;

The campion flower was also called Batchelor’s Buttons after the ancient custom amongst country fellows to carry the flowers of this plant in their pockets, to divine whether they would succeed with their sweethearts. Hence arose the phrase ‘to wear batchelor’s buttons’ meant to be unmarried.

Divination by Bible;

One old superstition was to use a bible and key for the purposes of divination, and is described in the Athenian Oracle, as follows;

A Bible having a key fastened in the middle, and being held between the two forefingers of two persons, will turn round after some words said; as, if one desires to find out a thief, a certain verse taken out of a psalm is to be repeated, and those who are suspected nominated, and if they are guilty, the book and key will turn, else not. At the turn of the twentieth century, this was still practiced in Lancashire by young women who wanted to divine who their future husbands would be.

Blessing-the-fire-out is described thus in Moor’s Suffolk M.S;

“An operation performed generally, I believe always, by a female. She wets her forefinger with spittle, and moves it in a circular slow manner over and round the part that may have been scalded or burnt, at the same time muttering inaudibly a suitable incantation or blessing, in the mysteries of which I am not initiated. This I have often seen done, and have, indeed, not unfrequently experienced the benefits, be they what they may, of the process.”

Blind-days referred to the first three days of March which were formerly considered so unlucky that no farmer would sow seed at this time.

The following was a charm against sciatica, then known as bone-shave;

The patient must lie on his back on the bank of a river or brook of water, with a straight staff by his side, between him and the water, and must have the foregoing words repeated over him.

Bone-shave right,

Bone-shave straight,

As the water runs by the stave,

Good for the bone-shave.

In Wales, a corpse-candle was a not uncommon sight. This dancing light, seen hovering close to someone’s home at night, would portend that a person was about to die there. Corpse-candles get a special mention in Anywhere the Wind Blows.

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

 

 

 

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.

I’ve been called some things in my time but never any of these.

As is sadly still the case today, it has always been the way that women who go against society’s norms will find themselves the subject of some derogatory terms. The following lend us a window into the acceptable standards of female behavior in bygone days.

A Bartholomew-baby was a gaudy doll, such as were sold at fairs. It is referred to in Poor Robin, 1740, thus;

‘By the eighth house you may know to an inch, how many moths will eat an alderman’s gown; by it also, and the help of the bill of mortality, a man may know how many people die in London every week; it also tells farmers what manner of wife they should chuse, not one trickt up with ribbands and knots, like a Bartholomew-baby; for such a one will prove a holiday wife, all play and no work.’

A woman who dressed so gaudily may have found herself the subject of bibble-babble (idle gossip) and seems to have been generally frowned upon.  If she were profligate, she would have been called a Baudy-Basket. In Mrs Behu, City Heiress, 1628, the word betawder was used, meaning to dress gaudily; ‘Go, get ye home, and trick and betawder yourself up like a right city lady,’ the woman was told.

If a woman’s hair or head-dress was loose and disordered, or decorated with vulgar finery, she would be called a blouse.

If an adulteress, she’d be referred to as a bed-swerver; a bed-suster, if she was the concubine of a married man; and should her bed-fellow be a dull, heavy fellow, he would be called a bed-presser.

If a woman addicted herself to study or author-ship, she was called a blue-stocking.

A woman vicious by nature was deemed a boggler and if a woman was thought to be a common strumpet, she was named a buttock.

If she lived in the 1500’s she may have worn a bongrace to protect her complexion. This was a border attached to a bonnet or hat. Cotgrave, 1600’s, speaks of it as outmoded apparel; ‘Cornette, a fashion of shadow, or bongrace, used in old time, and at this day by some old women.’

The bon-grace is also mentioned in The Pardoner and the Frere, 1533; ‘Her bongrace, which she ware with her French hode, when she went oute always, for some sonne burnynge.’

If a woman was the wife of a common vagrant, she was a bitch, whereas a bitch-daughter was an alternative word for night-mare.

Being the Bawdy-Basket that I am, methinks I shall dare to go and betawder myself like a buttock for a spending spree in town. I shall surely invite some bibble-babble but hope not to meet any bogglers and bitches along the way lest I should suffer a bitch-daughter during the night!

The above examples were selected and compiled from the Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English compiled by Thomas Wright, M.A., F.S.A. 1904.

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

 

 

Could this be the greatest Indie achievement of all time?

Indie authors have been around for longer than you may think…

.JosephWright.jpg

Dr Joseph Wright, born at Thackley, near Bradford, on October 31st 1855, was known in his time as the outstanding authority on dialect. Realising that dialects were fast disappearing, he created The English Dialect Dictionary which ran to six immense volumes. Publishers, however, shied away from it and Joseph decided to self-publish from his Oxford home and achieved instant success. The volumes contained over 5,000 pages, recorded approximately 100,000 words and some 500,000 quotations. The total cost of production was estimated at £25,000. He was already respected as one of the greatest philologists of his time and occupied the Corpus Christi Chair at Oxford, but when he died on February 27th, 1930, it was for his dictionary he wanted to be remembered.

Joseph’s life was remarkable in many ways. This brilliant scholar began his life in the workhouse. His father, Dufton Wright, was the son of a wealthy farmer, but Dufton was a ne’er-do-well who worked as a wool-weaver, then as a quarryman, and upped and left his wife and children to the care of the parish.

At the age of six, Joseph was working as a donkey-boy. At the age of seven, he was a bobbin-doffer at the Soltaire Mills of Sir Titus Salt. For the first fourteen years of his life, Joseph lived in a one-room hovel with his mother and siblings – when not in the workhouse. He had no education until the age of ten, when he went to the Saltaire factory school for half-timers. There, he learned the alphabet, some arithmetic, and part of the scriptures.

When his time as a half-time student ended, he began to educate himself and at the age of eighteen he set up an evening school in his mother’s cottage while working by day at the mills.

In 1876, he spent the money he had saved to travel to Germany where he studied for eleven weeks, and returned to Bradford as a junior teacher. In 1878, he matriculated from London University.

How did I discover the rags-to-riches story of Dr Joseph Wright? I bought a couple of antique books entitled The Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English, in two volumes, published 1904, compiled by a Thomas Wright. Within the age-spotted pages, many of which were still uncut, I found a newspaper cutting, dated 29th October 1955, which was written to coincide with the centenary weekend being celebrated 100 years after Dr Joseph Wright’s birth.

Further to reading the newspaper article about Joseph, I have found more about him on Wikepedia. He was an important influence on J. R. R. Tolkien, and in the course of editing the Dictionary he corresponded regularly with my literary hero, Thomas Hardy. Virginia Woolf said of him in her diary, “The triumph of learning is that it leaves something done solidly for ever. Everybody knows now about dialect, owing to his dixery.”

In 1896, Wright married Elizabeth Mary Lea (1863–1958), with whom he co-authored his Old and Middle English Grammars. She also wrote the book, Rustic Speech and Folklore (Oxford University Press 1913), in which she makes reference to their various walking and cycle trips into the Yorkshire Dales, as well as various articles and essays.The couple had two children, both of whom died in childhood. (Source; Wikepedia)

The dictionaries I have are chock full of all manner of weird and wonderful words and phrases no longer in usage, or words of which the meanings have radically changed over time.

To kick things off, here are a few words chosen from the dictionary for your delectation;

The delightful phrase, ALAS-A-DAY, was an exclamation of pity.

I recall AJAX being a toilet cleaner some years ago but its association goes back a long way. Sir John Harrington, 1596, published a celebrated tract called “The Metamorphosis of Ajax” which referred to his invention which was the improvement of the ‘jakes’ or privy into a ‘water-closet’. The book was considered an offence to delicacy for which Queen Elizabeth kept him for some time in disgrace.

ABRODIETICALL, adj.  described “A daintie feeder or delicate person (taken from Minsheu’s Guide of Tongues, 1627).

AFTERMATH once referred to the second crop of grass.

AGATEWARDS, adv. To go agatewards with someone was to accompany him part of his way home, which was considered the last duty of hospitality towards a guest.

An AGINATOUR was a hawker of small wares. This word occurs in Cockeram’s English Dictionairie, 1639.

To AMUSE once had a very different meaning in some dialects, and referred to the action of flinging dust or snuff into the eyes of the person intended to be robbed.

An ANATHEMATISM was a curse.

Further reading about Dr Joseph Wright’s life and works can be found here; http://ow.ly/uEs1s

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

 

 

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.

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