I’ve been trying a bit of detective work over the last few weeks, to find out who might have been throwing away the ‘rubbish’ that I’ve been digging up as treasure in the garden of my home, Coed Gwydr. I’ve been to the Caernarfon Record office, on the ancestery websites and to the incredibly atmospheric Nantperis graveyard. I did some rubbings of the gravestones yesterday, one of which (the one which turns out to be very significant in my detective story) was not legible until I’d done the impression of it.
What I’ve discovered makes, I think, for an amazing story.
The first inhabitants here at Coed Gwydr in the 1870s, were the Williams’. Griffith, the father, in his late 60s, with his two sons, Owen (mid 20s) and Robert (early 20s), and Owen’s wife, Ellen (early 20s).
Coed Gwydr was originally owned by the Vaynol Estate, the owners of the Dinorwig Quarry. The Williams’ most probably built the house as a family, using their quarry skills to extract and dress the rock from the cliff behind the house. From what I can glean so far about the age of the fragments and objects I’ve been digging from the garden, it was the Williams family that must have been the throwers away (see other blog posts/Horde section on the website).
Within a couple of years of moving to Coed Gwydr, Ellen gives birth to a son, Griffith, who dies at 3 months on 13th December 1875. Their second son, Humphrey is born 18 months later in 1877.
But just 18 months later, Ellen’s husband, Owen dies at 32, on 18 December 1878, while she is pregnant with their third son, John. Owen’s non-slate grave is unusual, with mention of his death in a quarry accident, his being a member of the talented quarry choir and being a ‘smart and wise man’. The stone is so worn away that it is hard to read the writing: the words were only revealed as they imprinted on the paper.
Now a widow, Ellen gives birth to John in 1879. And the same year, Ellen’s brother in law, Robert dies at 30 years old, on 9th May. I don’t know if he also died in the quarry. His gravestone, as was Ellen’s son Griffith, and most stones in the graveyard is of purple slate.
Ellen continues to live at Coed Gwydr, with her elderly father in law and her two sons. She was here for more than 20 years. The plates and metal farm animals and the circle-decorated slate and old fire place and maybe even the old beds that I’ve found are very likely to have been put there by Ellen. No other family lived here with children until after the 1960s.
I found out in the graveyard that Ellen died at Coed Gwydr at 43, on 10th September 1895. I only discovered her name on the bottom of Owen’s gravestone while doing the rubbing – I hadn’t seen it at all while trying to decipher the text from the stone itself. The inscription is just an add on, a note that she was Owen’s wife and the date and age of her death. No mention that she is a mother or loved or anything else about her. It suggests there was no-one left to write her a decent inscription, her sons being 17 and 15. It feels good that I’m re-remembering her now.
Did Ellen’s father in law Griffith survive her? I haven’t found Griffith’s grave, but he was already 84 in 1891. What happened to the two boys? I am trying to find out – I think one may have moved to Mynydd Llandegai.
By 1901, the bilingual Jones’ family were living in Coed Gwydr. I was struck to find out that the head of the household was (as in the Williams' family) called Griffith (age 48, also a slate quarryman) and his wife was called Ellen (51, listed as a lodging housekeeper). Ellen is widowed by the 1911 census, and lives (at 62) with her daughter, Annie (33, listed in the census as 12 years married). I haven't looked yet for their graves. [Update: September 2016, I was told that someone had seen a notice in the Caernarfon and Denbigh Herald of 1910 that a man hanged himself at Coed Gwydr. Presumably this was Griffith Jones]
The Jones’ live at the house until 1925 when they are replaced by the Lynas Grays, an English speaking household – father John, mother Mavie and two daughers, Sarah and Ina. Ina stays in the house until the 60s (her husband Harold has moved in by 1955), buying it from the Vaynol Estate in 1956, with her sister Sarah in the house next door (Ty’n’coed). Ina is still talked of very fondly in the village - she was incredibly popular, and known as Mrs Smith.
What a story! Of life (and death) in quarry households, of the gradual change from Welsh to English language, of the longevity and continuity of households through the women.
When I first moved into Coed Gwydr, I had to get two people to ‘clear’ the house, as many visitors, (including my neighbours’ children, Gwen and Elin who fed my cats) felt uncomfortable at the top of the stairs, as though there was a presence there. Was that Ellen? Or Owen? Or one of the Jones' [perhaps Griffith?]... I wonder what they’d think about my connecting back to them, starting with their rubbish, and finding out about their lives? The house certainly feels warm and friendly and, well, very cosily feminine. I feel very proud and lucky to be another of the women who bring their families here: My Essex-born husband and step children Odette and Edison love it too.
I wonder how long I’ll live here – 10 years so far, the longest I’ve yet ever lived in a house. I cannot ever imagine moving. Perhaps my grave will be in the new Nantperis graveyard? I hope so.