RHUTHUN LOCAL HISTORY BROADSHEET                                                                          Issue No 41 March 1995

DICK NANCY (1797-1876) part 1

 

by John Williams

The subject of this article was the rather eccentric gravedigger and sexton of Llanfwrog Church, who, it is said, was never happier than when digging graves.Lewis Jones (Rhuddenfab,- 'Son of Ruthin'), poet, journalist and printer, before attaining the age of ten, on 8th April 1845 became a bound apprentice under Isaac Clarke (the first publisher of the Welsh National Anthem) in the printing office of Nathan Maddocks of Ruthin. Rhuddenfab is probably best known locally for his A Handbook to Ruthin, first published in 1884 and again in 1896. He also wrote other little books in Welsh including one entitled Hynodion Dick Nancy, published by Hughes and Son of Wrexham, probably towards the end of the 19th century. 


A short translation of its title would be "The Oddities of Dick Nancy", but the full title given on the frontispiece was: "The Amusing Friend, containing the oddities of Dick Nancy and several other amusing tales." Of the book's 112 pages, only 69 are concerned with Dick. The remainder contains poems and stories collected by Lewis Jones which had previously appeared in the Herald Cymraeg. An intriguing feature is the author's tendency to use it as a vehicle for airing his own opinions and prejudices. For example, he strongly denounces Nonconformist Chapels for following the Anglican practice of having the coffin within the place of worship during the funeral service, although he does not attempt to justify his view.

It was common in 19th century Wales to distinguish between two boys bearing the same name by using the Christian name of the mother of one of them rather than his surname. There is now a sufficient range of widely popular Christian names, but the present writer can well remember a young lad in Llanfair D.C. primary school in the 1920s called "Willie Maria". Whether or not he liked this is not known, but our "local worthy" genuinely enjoyed being called "Dick Nancy" and would rebuke any acquaintance who used his real name of Richard Jones. He had little or no personal pride, but when the virtues of well-known poets and writers were once being discussed, he was heard to say: "That's how it is, boys, in this old world. One can have only one Gwilym Hiraethog, one Nicander, one Eben Fardd and one Dick Nancy!"
 


The book is hardly a biography. We are not even given the date of Dick's birth, merely a casual statement that he was born "in the early years of this century" (i.e. the 19th). He died on Sunday 19th March 1876 at the age of 79, so he would have been born c.1797. We are told nothing of his wives, three of whom who predeceased him, and one would have liked to know more of his only son Bob, a tall lively youth who died suddenly "at the age of 22 or 23".

What the book does give us is a vivid picture of an unusual artisan, with his "warts and all" hinted at rather than fully described.

It has been said of the 19th century clergyman Sidney Smith that many people had a feeling of joyous well-being after meeting him and one young lady at the same dinner table as the Reverend gentleman suddenly burst out laughing not because of anything he had said, but simply as a result of looking at him. Dick Nancy had a similar effect on people. He may have been a mere gravedigger but his appearance alone "gave all men and women who met him a certain lightness of spirit." He was always cheerful and yet one would never hear him laughing. His way of laughing was to shut one eye, open one side of his mouth and smile, all in complete silence. "It was the funniest thing you ever saw."

Dick was not a talkative man. What he did say was purposeful and often amusing. He was honest and faithful with a complete absence of guile. Having suggested that Dick Nancy's motto could well have been "Say little, do good and work diligently", Lewis Jones falls short of calling him a good citizen and hints darkly that his morals could not be described as an example to others. Was he too fond of the bottle? Did he have an eye for the ladies? We do not know, but the author hastens to add that those who knew him did not find it difficult to overlook his weaknesses. His amiable and sunny disposition were all the more surprising, bearing in mind his calling and the harshness of his upbringing. His father, Robert Jones, "of the parish of Llanfwrog" was a horse breaker who spent his entire earnings on drink. Day in, day out his long-suffering wife would leave home early to beg for sufficient to feed her children.


In appearance, he was short of stature, being "less than a foot taller than Tom Thumb". He stuck his pipe in his mouth at such an angle that the blackened bowl appeared to be below his left ear.


A second article will consider further aspects of Dick's life and work.

KNIGHTS HOSPITALLER OF ST. JOHN OF JERUSALEM

Members of the Ruthin Local History Group are planning to pursue the Knights Hospitaller as a theme for two of their summer visits. The first of these will be to Ysbytty Ifan under the leadership of Mr Gwynn Matthews and the second will be to Dinmore Manor, Herefordshire.

The Knights Hospitaller stemmed from the Crusades and while originally military in purpose they eventually became monastic. The Order was organised geographically in areas known as "Commanderies", each being a centre where military training was given to those about to embark upon Crusades against the Saracens and later the Turks. It was also a place of recuperation for the wounded or injured on their return from crusades. This role eventually extended to pilgrims or travellers or to sick and needy persons.

Ysbytty Ifan was one of two Commanderies in Wales and one of four Hospitaller churches in the area of the Diocese of St. Asaph. The original hospice is believed to have been founded in 1190. In the 14th century, it was made subject to Halston, near Oswestry, the head quarters of the Order in north Wales. The old church was demolished in 1858 and the present church was opened in 1861. While the present building is thus relatively new, there are many ancient remains within and the history of the area, and of the colourful people associated with it, is fascinating.

Dinmore was one of some fifty Commanderies in England, but because of its strategic placing in the Welsh Marches, it ranked as third or fourth in importance. The Manor itself comprises structures both ancient and modern. There are parts dating from 14th - 16th centuries, but most is relatively new, commenced in 1932, completed in 1936 and described as "modem medieval". The oldest part is the Chapel, dating from about 1370, but little else remains of the 12th century original. There are beautiful gardens and pools, with a collection of acers and a 1200 year-old yew tree.

References and Acknowledgements: Dinmore Manor, Richard Hollins Murray, O.St. J, [1936]; History of the Diocese of St. Asaph, Vol. II (1910), D R Thomas.

THE RESTORATION OF NANTCLWYD HOUSE

by Jon James.


The townspeople of Ruthin have fond re-collections of Nantclwyd House as a historic building of architectural quality and as a frequent venue for social gatherings, when the former owner would throw wide the great front door. Appropriate furnishings, pictures, lighting and furniture added to the ambience.


When acquired by Clwyd County Council, the house lost a loving, live-in owner and sadly it began to deteriorate. The funding hoped for its restoration did not materialise and financial cutbacks in local government expenditure combined to make conservation unlikely. Where government agencies, such as the former Manpower Services Commission could be used, some work such as the repair and restoration of the garden walls was undertaken and an exploratory archaeological dig through the floor of the house was carried out by the Clwyd/Powys Archaelogical Trust.

With the formation of the Clwyd Historic Buildings Preservation Trust, the house was given a lifeline and the Trust a 99 year lease. Financial contributions and grants enabled restoration to start in 1992. Surveys were carried out to determine how this large house had extended and developed over nearly 500 years. The 'dig' uncovered foundations and post holes of an earlier house recorded in 1360 and the original section of the hall house was stylistically dated to about 1430 with the help of the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historic Monuments. It soon became clear just when the later additions were built and further structural examinations started to piece the jigsaw together. There were to be some surprising discoveries!

It was essential that the roofs should be restored first and it was not until the roof covering came off that the condition of the trusses, beams, purlins and rafters could be seen. Wall plates which had been supported on timber framing subsequently buried without any means of ventilation in recladding brickwork had perished at the bearing ends. Framed walls which once stiffened the structure internally had been removed in an attempt to make rooms larger, thus causing the roofs to spread. The tie beams of trusses had been cut through to provide access to later extensions resulting in wall plate deflections of 9 inches in some places.

One alarming discovery was made, - a valley rafter rather than being properly fixed to a wall-plate was jammed in at its base with a wedge to the existing floorboards! But, undaunted, roof restoration was completed at a cost of £50,000. Then it was time to examine and restore the external walls, most of which were originally timber framed but had been subsequently buried in brickwork and covered with hard cement renders and pebble dashing


Two very different timber structural systems came to light. The original hall house of c.1430 to the right of the central porch used posts and curved braces very similar to the Old Court House on St. Peter's Square, whereas the section of the building to the left of the porch and the later extensions had been assembled as a rigid box frame. At least, they had once been rigid! But probably not in this location. The box framed front elevation had been inserted somewhere in the mid C18th when the roof was raised by some two feet and used recycled timber which could have come from anywhere. Earlier in this century, larger windows were inserted into the front elevation by removing large sections of timber frame until there was precious little left to tie the structure together. Alarmingly, the larger window frames were held in position by pebble dashing on the outside and wall panelling on the inside.


Fortunately, all the evidence needed to carry out an honest restoration was there in the fabric, the sizes and proportions of windows, door positions, wood mullions, cills and windows heads. This is not a conjectural restoration, and is being superbly carried out by Robin Woolley of Edmund Kirby and Tom Smith and sons of Historic Carpentry Services.


 

EYARTH HALL


While 'Eyarth' is historically a very interesting Tref or township in the commote of Llannerch within the parish of Llanfair D.C., the existence of both Eyarth Hall and Eyarth House in such close proximity can be very confusing. The original Welsh names 'Eyarth Uchaf ' and 'Eyarth Isaf ' respectively would perhaps have helped, but this usage is not consistently followed. However, of the two houses, the 'black and white' half-timbered structure of Eyarth Uchaf suggests that it is the more ancient. Eyarth Isaf seems to have been little more than a farmhouse until 1814 when great changes were made, and again in the early 1930s.

Eyarth Uchaf occupies a commanding position overlooking Plas Einion [RLHB. No: 26] and the Vale of Clwyd. It first comes to notice in the early 17th century when it was occupied by Mr Rice Williams, probably more correctly Rhys, distinguished by the rank of 'gent.' and his former post as Verger of Westminster Abbey while Gabriel Goodman was Dean. Goodman had the reputation for looking after his friends and Rhys may have been one of these.

Rhys Williams built or rebuilt Eyarth Uchaf for the date '1599' is found in the hall and the initials "R.W." are over the front door, resplendent with studs. His family coat of arms, bearing the figure of a lion bordered by eight roses are to be found in the house. Another date, '1606', appears on a plaque on a split landing. Powell, a local historian of the 1930s, suggested that the house was of even earlier construction, in the 14th or 15th century, because of the presence of wattle and daub panels.

Rhys Williams was of distinguished Welsh lineage, his 13th century ancestor being "David filius Madog", whose tomb is in Llanfair church. At some stage, according to Lloyd's History of Powys Fadog, ownership of much of the tref passed to the Wynne family, also descendants of the illustrious Madog.

Rhys Williams left more than his house for posterity. He and his brother John founded Jesus Chapel, Llanfair, [RLHB. No: 24] in 1619 and provided an endowment of £5.13s.4d. by means of a rent charge. He was buried at Llanfair on 29th November 1627 and left £4 in his will for the poor of the parish. He had two main objectives, viz., to provide a more convenient place of worship for his neighbours and, secondly, to accommodate a school where the curate of the parish could provide his parishioners with basic education. One cannot help but wonder whether this second aim had been inspired by the example of his patron, Gabriel Goodman, who re-founded Ruthin Grammar School and who had been so actively interested and involved in Westminster School.

The history of the house and its occupants does not enjoy a high profile. Local tradition has it that it was a royalist stronghold during the civil war but there is no record of any active military involvement. A Free Press report of 22nd July 1905 claims that there were numerous articles of armour and weapons in the house, which had been found on the estate. It was also said to possess a priest hole from which a tunnel passed to the valley below.

It is difficult to ascribe ownership/occupancy at any given time. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, its status may have slipped somewhat, being listed by Edward Lhwyd in his Parochiala to seventh among 'houses of note' in the Llanfair parish and in the ownership of Rhys Price. It remained with the Prices until c. mid-18th century when it passed for the lack of male heirs into the Matthews family of Wrexham Fechan, where it formed part of the far larger Cefn Park estate, which in 1828 passed by marriage to Sir William H.R. Palmer. His son, Sir Roger, when a Lieutenant in the 11th Hussars, participated in and survived the charge of the Light Brigade.

On the death of Archdeacon Richard Newcome [RLHB. No: 20] in 1857, his widow moved to Eyarth Uchaf, presumably as tenant. Her youngest son, William Charles, aged 45, already farming in the Llanfair district, married Eleanor Broughton in 1864 and took up residence with Mrs Newcome at Eyarth Uchaf, where they lived in some style. Five men were employed on the farm and six other servants lived in with reinforcements coming in on a daily basis. The family unit included Eleanor's sister Rhoda Broughton [b.1840 at Segrwyd, Denbigh], the well-known novelist who lived there for fourteen years. Rhoda was able to devote her time and energies to writing and wrote six of her popular novels and several short stories during this period. William Newcome had died by 1877 and Rhoda and her sister left the district for Oxford, where she continued her writing amid some controversy.

Nicholas [c.1872] refers to Eyarth as "late the seat of Major Wynn, now of James Goodrich, Esq." Goodrich, a Gloucester J.P., had in 1839 married Mary, daughter and heiress of Major Richard Miles Wynne, who died in 1871. James and Mary had 7 sons and 5 daughters. In 1877, the Eyarth Uchaf estate was sold by auction to Mr Eccles Jones, Vice-Principal of Jesus College, Oxford and Fellow 1859 - 1881. It is understood that there was a severe fire in the house towards the end of the eighteenth century.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS AND REFERENCES: Cefn Park Mss., Clwyd Record Office, Ruthin; Denbighshire Free Press; Nicholas, Thomas, Annals and Antiquities of the Counties and County Families of Wales, Vol. 1, (Longmans), 1872; Lloyd - History of Powys Fadog, Vol.111 p. 57; Rhoda Broughton - Profile of a Novelist, Marilyn Wood, Paul Watkins (1993). I am grateful to Mr Peter Randall also for his assistance.

POSTSCRIPT: EYARTH HALL


Mr John Idris Jones points out that another scholar. Philip Henry Wicksteed, lived here as a nine-year old child in 1856. He attended Ruthin Grammar School with his elder brother.
Philip's father had resigned from the ministry and had come to Eyarth for health reasons. They left after two years to take up farming further down the valley. Philip became a writer and lecturer on the Economy, Society and Literature. He had a love of Italian literature, especially the works of Dante.
Philip's son, Joseph, shared his interests and is known for his writing on Wordsworth and William Blake.