Late 18th century Wales was a period of relative calm when contrasted with the continuous upheavals of previous generations. The fall of the Tudor Dynasty, Civil War, the continuous changing of monarchs with different religions causing dissent in the Kingdom, it was a hectic era. Importantly for the peace of the natives, Welsh revolt against the English crown had largely subsided and the people went about their daily lives.
A significant change in the country during that this period was the Welsh Methodist Revival which prompted great religious and social changes. Traced back to the religious conversion of Howell Harris in 1735, he began a movement of non-conformism along with David Rowland and the noted poet William Williams Pantycelyn. They were thus the de facto founders of the Presbyterian Church in Wales, which would eventually disestablish itself from the state-supported Church of England in 1851. This branch of Methodism grew quickly in the northern Carmarthenshire area where the founders were so influential with their preaching, which were emotional outbursts based on the gospels and enthusiastic hymn singing.
It was in 1770 that Peter Williams published the first Welsh bible to be printed in Wales, which became immensely popular in the Carmarthenshire area where it was published. Most families had a copy and it helped to keep the area away from becoming anglicized. The chapels also become that social hub for the communities, a gathering place for the villagers to come together and pray.
The Methodist revival claimed to preach to the heart of its followers rather than the reasoning of the mind, it encouraged the people to concentrate on saving their souls from eternal damnation. Customary pastimes, amusements and interests were regarded as devilish traps, painting a picture of a serious society overburdened with a continuous sense of sin and guilt. The Methodist’s considered human existence only as a preparation for death and the after world, the salvation of the soul. It was a dull and strict ideology.
It was with this in the background and during the time of King George III that William Griffiths lived, residing and operating the Tre-Wern farm between Talley and Llansadwrn. The rolling hills and vast fields of the Cothi Valley provided ample fields for such men as William to set up their enterprise. Talley or Tal-y-llychau, which aptly means “heads of the lakes”, is a village roughly 7 and a half miles from the town Llandeilo in the heart of Carmarthenshire, particularly noted for the medieval ruins of the once majestic Talley Abbey.
The Abbey was unique when it was constructed, in being the only one of its kind to be constructed for the monastic order of the Premonstratensians. It was also noted for being the place where the Lord Rhys Ap Gruffydd, the historic Welsh prince, settled in the 1180’s. His great-grandson Rhys Fychan would be buried in the grounds in 1271. With Henry VIII on the throne during the 16th Century, his spectacular fallout with the Vatican led to the English crown seceding from the Holy Roman church. The temperamental and supremely powerful ruler instructed his close ally Thomas Cromwell to destroy the famous Abbey’s, the legacy of this ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’ evident on the historic and picturesque site next to the Talley lakes.
An entry in the “Topographical Dictionary of Wales”, written in 1844 by an S. Lewis suggests that the small community had over a thousand residents surrounding the two impressing lakes that gave the place its name. Lewis goes on to describe the parish as a “continued succession of hill and dale, sideland and mountain top, and is rather woody”, picturing a rural scene ideal for agriculture and farming, much like today without the ease and quickness of modern transportation.
The two lakes next to the abbey are just as spectacular as any to be found in South Wales, but are often overlooked in favour of the more well-known bodies of water that are often more accessible to tourists. The lakes used to be used for fish farming to support the monks. After the aforementioned dissolution, the stones from the ruined Abbey were used to build much of the present village including the chapel that now resides next to the historic structure.
Born in Llandeilo in 1772, William Griffiths spent the majority of his life tending to his Tre-Wern farm, on the vast green landscape between Talley and nearby Llansadwrn. The farm was around 20 acres and it was here that he not only grew his crops and worked, but also where he raised his family. William married a local girl named Anne and by 1801 she gave birth to their daughter in Llandeilo, the nearest town. They named the child Sarah.
Anne was born to Margaret and Walter Thomas and was the granddaughter of Margaret John. Margaret John seemingly married twice, first to David James in nearby Caio in 1735 from which their daughter was born and after her husband’s death in circa 1743 she remarried. Margaret John, Davies and then finally Thomas passed away in 1797 at the age of 77 and is buried in Llansadwrn church. Similar to her grandmother, Anne Griffiths lived until she reached 73, a respectful age for the time, dying on April 17th, 1849. She was laid to rest at the picturesque Talley church, in a graveyard sandwiched between the lakes and the abbey. Reaching the twilight of his long life, the widower William left Tre-Wern and went to live with his daughter and her husband, who were by this time raising their own family.
Born at the beginning of the century in Llandeilo, Sarah Griffiths grew up with her parents at their Tre-Wern farm helping out the family business whilst planning for her own future as a wife and a mother. Her teenage years would have been spent learning of her mother how to create a home for when she got married. Lessons would have been in cooking, housework and vital skills of the time such as knitting stockings or basket weaving, all of which would contribute to the survival of the household. In some cases, the woman would sell these products to supplement the husband’s income to further provide food. Women would also join in the farm work, helping out of the primitive wooden ploughs or even riding on the horses and other farm animals to help sort out the crops.
A report in 1776 by a person who was visiting Carmarthenshire showed that the people of the Llandeilofawr area lived on a diet of barley or oaten bread and cheese, with meat maybe once a week. It wouldn’t be until a couple of decades later that potatoes would become a dietary mainstay for the poor working classes, an easy vegetable that could be grown in any form of soil.
At the end of the 18th century the earnings of small farmers remained very low, especially considering the work on the fields tended to be long and arduous. Most days were from 6am to 6pm in the warm summer months and then from dawn to dusk in the brisk and chilly winter. The typical housing conditions were also poor, even amongst the better class of farmers. Many of the cottages the families resided in often consisted of single rooms with mud walls, unpaved floors and thatched roofs.
After meeting and marrying a local carpenter from the nearby hamlet of Laine, Sarah settled down and began a busy decade of raising her children. Her husband David Davies was born in 1798 and initially kept up his previous job as a carpenter, putting the great natural resources to use and making everyday items such as chairs and tables. Some time between 1841 and 1851, David came into the possession of 60 acres of farmland. Llwyncelyn, as the farm was known, stayed in the family for over a century, serving as the home for over three generations. It is in fact still a working farm 150 years later. Their children had already been born by the time David moved his wife and offspring to the farm, undoubtedly a time of excitement for the young ones as moves often tend to be. Their eldest child, William Davies, was born 1827, soon followed by Hannah in 1834, Joshua in 1838 and Elizabeth in 1839.
The first four decades of the century, 1800-1840, were tough years for the people of Carmarthenshire. The growth of the population increased competition for farms and agricultural employment. The wages were low, food prices were high and the rents were also rising uncontrollably. A succession of bad harvests, importation of foreign corn, a slump in the overall price of livestock and a number of disastrous floods had left many of the regions farmers on the verge of destitution and hopelessly bankrupt. With food already scare, the country finally erupted into chaos when new tollbooths were built on the roads crisscrossing the county. The tolls were charging exorbitant rates for the farmers to pass daily, rates that just weren’t feasible during these financial tough times. The riots against the booths soon erupted into a nationwide rebellion, and went down in history as the ‘Rebecca Riots’.
The middle of the century proved turbulent and joyous for the Davies family at Llwyncelyn, with the children growing up and branching out into lives of their own. Joshua got married to Rachel, a woman the same age as him who was a daughter of the Richards family of Cymbyr farm and who would have had a similar upbringing to her new husband. Together they had three children; Mary, Elizabeth and Rachel, who took her name after her mother. Joshua’s sister Elizabeth also met and married a person known in the local community, David Thomas from Llansadwrn. As her parents drifted into old age, she took over the everyday running of the family premises, playing the dutiful wife role as well as giving birth multiple times.
Tragedy struck in the first half of 1866, when the elderly family patriarch William Griffiths passed away on May 1st. He lived to the remarkable age of 95, especially when taking into account the limitations of medicine available to the poor working classes in the early Victorian age. He was laid to rest at Talley Church and next to his wife Anne.
His granddaughter Elizabeth was pregnant during his traumatic episode and Sarah Thomas was eventually born on the 27th October 1866. Death wasn’t far away however, David Davies passing away just two and a half weeks after the birth of his granddaughter Sarah. He died on November 15th aged 68. He would also be buried at the local Talley Church, not far from his in-law’s. It would prove to be a dismal end to an emotional rollercoaster of an autumn.
Only a few years later the Thomas and Griffith’s were again back at the Talley Church they had frequented so often, this time laying to rest William Davies. He had passed away during the night of October 13th, 1870, almost four years later than his father and the grandfather for whom he was named after. He would not however reach the age his resilient ancestor did, leaving the world aged only 43.
During this up and down period, Elizabeth overcame the triple blow of losing her grandfather, father and brother to successfully mother a brood of children with her partner David. After the birth of their first child Sarah, a year later she celebrated her first son Benjamin Thomas (1867), rapidly followed by John (1869) and David (1870), who was named for both his father and grandfather, the two men who meant the most in his mother’s life.
After the birth of three strong boys in a row, Elizabeth again confounded the odds by giving birth to four girls successively. Jane Thomas was born in 1872, Anne in 1874, Eliza (Lizzie) in 1876 and the youngest of eight Mary in 1881, when Elizabeth was 42 years old. Like the rest of their ancestors, the children were born in Talley, the lack of capable travel not allowing a pregnant mother to travel too far from the home to give birth.
Elizabeth Thomas’ life was punctuated by the highs of giving birth to a number of children and the lows of losing a host of her loved ones prematurely. In her mid 40’s she encountered the terror of every mother, her youngest daughter Mary, the baby of the family, dying at the tragic age of just 6 years old. It was April 20th 1886. A heartbroken Elizabeth lived for another 18 years, passing away in the cusp of a new century on the 22nd September, 1904. She was aged 65 and was survived by the rest of her children, a small mercy in a lifetime defined by the deaths of those closest to her.
37 at the time of her mother’s death, Sarah had already left the family farm at Llwyncelyn, Talley to set up her own home with her husband and children. Her husband was a man originally from Pembrokeshire rather than the Talley are previous generations had tended to marry from, highlighting the increasing ease of travel as the 20th century began. John Edwards was born in 1872 and was around 6 years younger than his wife. His father was allegedly Thomas Evans, the name that would appear on his marriage certificate, suggesting John was in fact an illegitimate son. Illegitimacy was a taboo subject at the time of John’s birth and would remain so in the eyes of the law until the Legitimacy Act was passed in 1926 allowing bastard son’s to inherit equally from their parents. This may have been a stigma for the young John growing up and made his productive years troublesome. It could also have played a role, along with job opportunities, in him relocating from the area of his birth.
At the time of his betrothal John was also employed at a farm, ideal considering his marriage into a family of proficient farmers. Having moved from the coastal county of Pembrokeshire further inland and into the Pontardawe area, John was working at Nantygaseg Farm in Cwmgors, employed as an agricultural labourer. This would have been tough strenuous work but although the pay was low-wage, the job was important for John to provide for his burgeoning family. Soon after their marriage the first child was born, Sarah naming the child Elizabeth in honour of her mother and a pleasant lasting memory for the woman who would pass away a short while later.
The 27th June, 1901 also brought the couple their first son, continuing a family tradition from the maternal side of the family by naming him David Robert. Mary soon followed in 1906 and the youngest child Tom Emrys two years later completed the Edwards family.
In the same tragic way of her mother, Sarah would also suffer the heart wrenching pain of losing not one, but two children whilst they were still young. Mary passed away in 1912 aged only 6, whilst Elizabeth managed to reach adulthood and indeed have two surviving children and a husband. She was only 21 when she died from tuberculosis. Before her untimely death she married Thomas Dawkins Williams and had two children, Sally and William John, whilst a third continued the horrible family curse and died whilst still in infancy.
Only a short time after her children’s births, and indeed it was whilst they were still babies Elizabeth contracted the contagious lung disease of TB. Despite the BCG vaccine having been recently discovered it would be another 20 years before it would be put into production. Even then it would be hard to get for the lower classes. In the early years of the 20th century, Britain was suffering from a TB pandemic, a disease that was known to be particularly virulent amongst the working classes straddling the poverty line. It was commonly referred to as the “endemic disease of the poor”. It was the middle of this hysterical panic that Elizabeth succumbed to the symptoms of the horrible disease, and due to the economy of the time was tragically buried in a pauper’s grave in Cwmllynfell Chapel.
Elizabeth’s eldest son, David Robert, married when he was 35, reasonably late compared to the tradition at the time. He was wed to Catherine Matilda Jane, a daughter of the George family from Solva, Pembrokeshire. The George’s had operated a woolen mill at Porth-Y-Rhaw on the coast since the middle of the 19th century, which would remain in business until the death of Matilda’s father in 1955.
David Robert, known popularly as Bob and his wife Tilly were wed on the 30th October 1936 when both bride and groom were in their mid-30’s. They would suffer two painful losses in their first four years of marriages, their daughters Mair and Mary dying shortly after their births, in 1938 and 1940 respectively. During the war Tilly finally gave birth to two children who would survive their infant years; Grace was born in 1942 and followed two years later by Muriel, by which time she was already 43 years old.
Bob originally spend his early years, much like the rest of south Wales, underground working the treacherous mines. It was hazardous conditions with a constant worry of disaster. A former churchwarden, Bob was also for many years branch and benevolent secretary of the British Legion and was thus granted his life membership certificate in 1944. As he got older he switched careers, becoming a locally respect member of his community as a Justice of the Peace. He was first elected to Llandeilo Rural council in 1946, serving over 25 years and becoming the third in seniority on the council. He was also chairman of the council in 1957-58 and also became chairman of the council’s rent arrears committee, before being placed on the Commission of Peace for the county of Carmarthenshire. Serving in the executive of the Divisional Labour party, Bob had also been secretary of the council’s Labour group for many years as well as secretary of the Brynaman, Cefnbrynbrain and Ystradowen joint wards. After living to see the births of his grandchildren Paul and Catherine Salter by Grace and her husband John, and Gail, Michelle, Gregory and Alethea Davies by Muriel and her husband Randall, Bob passed away on the 8th December 1971. He was 70 years old and was buried in Cwmllynfell, the community he had served well throughout his life.
His living wife Tilly remarkably survived her husband by almost 30 years, spending the twilight of her life surrounded by numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, something she once professed she thought she’d never see. Tilly passed away in a Swansea hospital in October 2000 aged 98 after being admitted originally with a broken hip. She was buried alongside her husband at Cwmllynfell chapel, a place where she had regularly played the organ.
His younger brother Tom Emrys Edwards was born on April 17th, 1908. He was born in the Brynmelyn Cottages which were opposite the colliery high up on the Gwryd mountain. Not enamoured with school, Tom Emrys would often miss school in order to work on the farm by his parent’s new residence. The farm, on the Rhosfa area just outside Rhosaman, was a more pleasurable venue for the young boy rather than the stifling surroundings of the classroom although he never lost his capability for maths and numbers. Upon reaching adulthood, he began working at the Bryn Enllys colliery in nearby Ystradowen, employed as a foreman on the coalface. Respected by his colleagues, he helped out a great number of them from exploitation by using his natural ability for mathematical sums by calculating the amount of bonuses each individual was due from the owners. Many workmates often praised his helpful attitude for ensuring they took home a decent wage to support their families. Tom Emrys was also present during the 1926 strike that occurred in Fishguard, working for the only time in his life to that point away from the coalface as a labourer. After falling foul of his bosses concerning his disobedience regarding his stature as the mouth of the workers, Tom Emrys initially worked for a short period in a concrete works before obtaining a role at the Ysgu Colliery, also in Ystradowen. Falling ill, he ended his working life and concentrated on returning to health whilst vacationing in his caravan in Aberaeron for parts of the year.
Having met and married Margaret Moses, Tom Emrys also settled into fatherhood, his wife giving birth to Mary Elizabeth (Bessie) in 1928, Charles Garon and then John Elwyn in 1932. Losing his wife in 1934 at the young age of 28, Tom Emrys lived out his live raising his young family before passing away at the age of 69 on the 21st January, 1978.
Today the original Griffiths family has dispersed and multiplied into numerous small knit family units, each individual in name and location, all linked irrevocably by their common ancestors William and Anne Griffiths. Today the blood and legacies of the Griffith family lives on in the many branches of their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.