RHUTHUN LOCAL HISTORY BROADSHEET Issue No 47 September 1996
GRACE ROBERTS (1879-1962)
Politician and Novelist
By John Williams
With a General Election not far away, it seems appropriate to remind ourselves that a native of Ruthin, Grace Roberts, was one of the first two ladies in Wales to stand for Parliament, the other being Megan Lloyd George. Grace was brought up above a saddler's shop, which has since been absorbed into the premises of Edwin Jones' butcher's shop in Clwyd Street. Both the father and the grandfather were saddlers. Their mother was born and bred on a farm called Pencraig, Bontuchel - the family's roots going back at least 300 years in the Vale and its surrounds.
Grace's older brother was Alderman T.J. Roberts, J.P., (1869-1952), a chemist at 4, Well Street, a local historian, a prominent figure in public life and Freeman of the town. He was author of the official guide to Ruthin published in 1925, and subsequent revisions. For the last 24 years of her life, from 1938, Grace Roberts lived at Rhydwriel [RLHB No: 32], and was then known by her married name, Annie Grace Bowen Jones.
Grace qualified as a teacher at Bangor Normal College. At the time young David Lloyd George was beginning to make his mark, and she became keenly interested in the Liberal cause and took-up journalism. She worked in London for the Daily News and later for the News Chronicle. She was chosen to serve on Lloyd George's panel of speakers and fought an unsuccessful campaign as Liberal candidate at Caerphilly in 1929. During this campaign, she probably met her future husband, George Arthur Bowen Jones, of the N.P. Bank in South Wales. They married in Cardiff in 1930. She was 51 years of age and was given away by her brother Alderman T.J. Roberts. Grace joined the Labour Party, but was not active in politics thereafter.
Grace Roberts addressing a political meeting in the presence of Lloyd George.
Ill-health led to her husband’s early retirement and in 1936 they were living at Plas Newydd, St. Dogmael's, Pembrokeshire, her husband's home town. She was a member of the Executive Committee of the Fishguard National Eisteddfod, and in demand as a speaker in both languages. Her subjects included "Betsi Cadwaladr", a native of Bala who served as a nurse in the Crimea War. and "The Humour of Ioan Tegid”, a poet/clergyman who also hailed from Bala. She became a member of the Gorsedd at the Denbigh National Eisteddfod of 1939. and decided to write an English novel based on life on a small farm in the Vale of Clwyd in the latter half of the 19th century. This may have been partly responsible for her move to Ruthin in 1938. In the meantime, she worked on a long novel called The Two Hesters, based on the life of Hester Sainsbury, born at Bodfel Hall, Criccieth and a member of the Salusbury family of Llewenni, Denbigh. Hester later became Mrs. Thrale, a close friend of Dr Johnson (and eventually Mrs. Hester Piozzi of Bryn Bella, Tremeirchion). The novel was rejected 19 times.
It was extremely difficult for any publisher to embrace a first novel during the war years and afterwards because of the shortage of paper. Her manuscript was returned to her finally in 1952 by her agent with the following comment by a leading reader at the firm of Hodder and Stoughton:- "It is very long. It is difficult to see who is going to read it as it tells the story of Hester Salusbury not Hester Thrale. The novel is well constructed but alas! it has no market, not in my book anyway."
Another novel, Lowri, was written during World War II, but she again received many rejection slips before finding a publisher in 1956, when she was 77. The Brython Press (Hugh Evans & Son) of Liverpool agreed to publish provided that Grace Roberts invested in the venture. This meant very few reviews. The main weeklies and dailies adhered to a policy of not reviewing novels where the author paid for publication. The Daily Post did comment in its "Day to Day" column: "No novel on rural Wales in English is better written than 'Lowri', which reminds one of the great country classics." A reviewer in the periodical Dock Leaves wrote: "As social history, this is an important book." The author must have been gratified to read the following in The Times Literary Supplement: "…..a slight plot with a force behind it, like a slender stream in spate….. The author successfully
establishes the dynamic quality of her Welsh Valley both by means of a flowing style which conveys the cadences of native speech and her knowledge of the daily doings of the people."
It is not too difficult to find faults on reading Lowri. The dialogue is often unnatural. It is as if she was trying to emulate Richard Llewellyn who had an enormous success with How Green Was My Valley based on the Gilfach Goch area of South Wales in the thirties. Also, the ending is somewhat rushed and melodramatic. Yet one is amazed at the quality of her description of life on a small farm (in the Clocaenog area, perhaps, or Bontuchel?) in the third quarter of the 19th century. The novel received high praise from some eminent Welshmen of letters. The late Rev. E. Tegla Davies commented: "One of the best novels about Wales I have ever read. The prose throughout is rich and strong, the story well balanced. The author's grasp of her subject is firm from beginning to end and she handles it most ably. I know of no other story which understands so thoroughly what life in the country was like...."
There was high praise also from Caradoc Pritchard (author of One Moonlit Night) in the magazine of the London Welsh. He compared it very favourably with How Green Was My Valley. Gwilym Roberts of the Daily Post said that Lowri could be compared with Lorna Doone and Silas Marner. On 4th April, 1957, the late Lord Macdonald of Gwaunysgor wrote to the author as follows: "If anyone doubts whether there is a Welsh way of life, let him or her read "Lowri". It is not known how many copies were sold as the records were lost when The Gomer Press of Llandysul took over The Brython Press.
At the Wrexham Drama Festival of 1940, she won first prize for a play in Welsh called Pobol Bwysig ('Important People') and received 75 marks out of 100 from the late R. Wallis Evans. She also won first prize for a play in English, ‘New Moon Through Glass’.
Grace Roberts had many articles published in various periodicals. For example, ‘William Jones the Quaker’, in the Summer, 1950 edition of the prestigious Welsh language magazine Y Llenor ('The Literary Man’). Also, ‘Mrs Thrale and Wales’ appeared in the 1953 Transactions of the Hon. Society of Cymmrodorion, and ‘The Ladies of Llangollen’ in the 1959 Transactions of the Denbighshire Historical Society.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: To her niece, Grace Iorwerth of Osmaston, Gwent for much information. Also to another niece through marriage, Mrs Helena Evans of Radyr, Cardiff
100 YEARS OF “GOING TO THE PICTURES”
In 1893, two Frenchmen, August and Louis Jean Lumiere, developed a cine camera which they called the cinematographe. Two years later, on 28th December 1895, at the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris, the world's first motion pictures were shown using film projection to a paying public. Synchronised sound was not added until the late 1920s and, after 1927, it came from a sound track on the film itself. In 1897, a north Wales entrepreneur, Arthur Cheetham, filmed local events and scenes at Rhyl.
Other businessmen in larger towns built their own cinemas, while smaller towns, like Ruthin, had to wait for this new development to reach them. Even then, it was not local businessmen who were willing to take the risks but those from outside who were already successful.
This was the case in Ruthin and development was delayed by the Great War. The Borough Council were approached in March, 1919, by a Mr. S.G. Thomas of Colwyn Bay, in conjunction with the Ruthin Electricity Supply Company (of which the then Mayor, Alderman W.G. Lecomber, was a director), for permission to use the Town Hall for 'cinematograph shows'. The Ruthin Electricity Supply Company were involved as a change in the electrical installation would have been required. Councillors decided to invite tenders.
S.G. Thomas was not successful in his bid as the Council signed a contract with Messrs Bullen and Broome (through a J. Foster Broome) of Wallasey in September, 1919. This company, already in the cinema business at the Denbigh Town Hall since February, was given permission to use the Town Hall on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays for three months until the end of December at a fee of twenty five shillings a night with extra payment for the use of the piano.
On Saturday, 1st November 1919, the Free Press announced that the Grand Opening Night of the 'Town Hall Super Cinema' would be on the following Tuesday, 4th November. Doors were to open at 6.45 p.m. with the first film being shown at 7.00 p.m. PROMPT!! With seat prices at 5d., 9d., and ls.3d., prospective patrons were promised the showing of a Famous Super Production in 5 acts. Interest and comedy films were also to be projected. For details, the public were requested to see local 'bills' for further particulars. Unfortunately, these have not survived so the actual titles are not known. Future advertisements referred to its Denbigh cinema as the 'Town Hall Cinema' and the Ruthin one as the 'Town Hall Super Cinema'. The new venture must have been an immediate success as in early December the owners were requesting a renewal of their tenancy on a year to year lease and for an extension to four nights a week. Although the tenancy was renewed, it was for three months, and for only three nights a week.
Part of the reason for this was that patrons were not able to see the screen over the heads of the people sitting in front. During 1920, the Council made several attempts to enforce the cinema to raise the height of the projection box. The company objected on the grounds of cost in relation to the shortness of their leases. Matters were resolved by September, 1920. The Company did the work at their own expense on being awarded a six month lease until the end of the financial year in March, 1921, when a twelve month lease was agreed upon. A year later, matters improved again when an agreement was signed between the company and the council for a two year period at a fee of £5 per week. Only after the contract was signed did they realise that this fee had to be paid for every week of the year, including the time the cinema was closed for the summer.
However, films had previously been shown to local audiences. Mr. Neville Williams. a Ruthin octogenarian and well-known local florist, remembers being taken by his father as a seven year old boy to watch a film show in Crispin Yard (now a car park alongside the River Clwyd), possibly in the summer of 1919. The show was held in a marquee with planks on boxes for seats. The projector was owned by a Mr .Manders of Ruthin. The projectionist was Bert Jacks, brother of the late Jim Jacks, painter and decorator. The ticker seller was Mrs. Laura Broughton (née Simon) of Clwyd Street with a Miss Ellis, daughter of a local policeman, acting as usherette.
Mr. Manders' projector was again in use on 26th July 1919. This the national day of 'Celebration of Peace' with an ox roast on St. Peter's Square, the ox haying been provided by the Mayor, W.G. Lecomber. At 7 p.m., a free film show for children was given at the Town Hall by Mr. E. Gratton Milloy of Manchester (formerly the Tyldesley Film Company). Mr. Arthur Tyldesley, its previous owner, had come to live in Ruthin from Manchester as W.G. Lecomber's (himself a Mancunian) private secretary and estate agent. Tyldesley became Mayor and Alderman of Ruthin in 1949.
By 1923, Ruthin's own businessmen, seeing the success of the operation, became interested in providing a purpose-built cinema. To this end, the Ruthin Cinema Company Limited was set-up and registered (registration Number 198038) on 19th May 1923, with a nominal capital of £2,500 and shares at £1 each. The first directors were J.H. Davies of Berwyn, Llanfair D C (better known locally as J. Howard Davies, butcher, of Crown House and later of Bryn Goleu Farm, Llanfair D.C.) and a G.E. Tonge of Southport. To qualify as a Director, the articles stated that each had to have a minimum of fifty shares and their remuneration was to be voted upon by the company. Derelict cottages in Well Street, adjacent to Plas Tirion, were acquired and a new cinema was built with a sloping floor and luxury seating, incorporating two shops with office accommodation upstairs.
On 13th September 1924, the Free Press announced that on the following Monday, the 15th the new cinema would open with Harold Lloyd topping the bill. The film shown was 'Safety Last - Why Worry?'. During the 1920s Lloyd's films drew more patrons than those of his rivals, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. The Grand Opening Night was a time of celebration in the town with the town band in attendance. Seats were advertised at 6d., 1/- and 1/6d., including tax. Matinees were held on Saturday afternoons at 2.30 p.m. with children at half price. By this time, the cheaper seats were in the front of the cinema. Initially, as with the theatres of the day, the cheaper seats were at the back. It had taken some time to convince patrons that in purpose-built cinemas with sloping floors, a better unhindered view was obtained from the rear of the cinema.
It is not known how long the tenants of the town hall were able to continue, but they did request a re-negotiation of their lease. The council disagreed and through advertisements placed in various newspapers invited applications for the tenancy of the Town Hall Cinema. With the success of the new cinema, no applicants were forthcoming and the venture ceased. The cinema was a place of escape from the humdrum and rigorous world outside and became highly successful until the advent of television in the 1950s. Audiences dwindled and the Ruthin cinema was forced to close like so many others.
Thus, Ruthin was without a picture house for about forty years, but on 1st April, 1995, matters turned full circle when the town hall assembly room was once more used for the purpose when Cymdeithas Teulu, Ruthin Family Association, started a series of cinema shows for young people. The main film on that occasion was 'Stargate', while the following month Rudyard Kipling's 'The Jungle Book' was the attraction. These presentations, which have since continued on a regular basis, are presented by the Stoke-on-Trent' Reels on Wheels'.
Acknowledgements: Clwyd Archives Service; The Denbighshire Free Press; Minute Books of the Ruthin Borough Council, and Mr. Neville Williams.
PLAS DRAW, LLANGYNHAFAL
Edward Hubbard refers to Plas Draw as an early or mid-c18th building, possibly with Victorian alterations. One of the earliest references is to a Dr. Edward Wynne of Plas Draw. Dr. Edward Wynne has been described as a freeholder within the lordship of Ruthin, who paid £2.19s.-0d. a year chief rent. According to a pedigree compiled by the late Mr. H.R. Hughes of Kinmel, he was a younger son of Mr. Humphrey Wynne of Llangynhafal and of Maes-y-coed in the parish of Caerwys. He matriculated at Jesus College, Oxford, on 18th March 1686-7 aged 18 and died at Plas Draw, Llangynhafal, where he was buried 24th November 1730. This may suggest that a house, if not the present structure, existed somewhat earlier than Hubbard's estimate. It is not helpful either that at about that time, it was also known as Plas Pella.
John and Elizabeth Hughes owned the house in the 1760s and following the marriage of their daughter Judith to Thomas Davies of Bronington, Plas Dolben, Tyddyn Norbury and Wern Fawr were added to the estate. They had one son who died in infancy and five daughters, the eldest of whom, Elizabeth (1780-1827), married John Denton in October, 1808. A pedigree of the "Denton Family of Plas Draw" (NTD/492), taken from a family bible, is to be found at Ruthin Record Office.
John Denton and Elizabeth had three sons and one daughter, Eaton Davies Denton, Tanat Wynne Denton, Hughes Ridgway Denton, and Judith Denton. Eaton died unmarried on 20th August 1846, and Tanat was the heir at law. Tanat occupied Wern Fawr where he occasionally resided.
Records among the Plas Coch MSS. at the Ruthin Record Office suggest that Plas Draw formed part of the Plas Coch estate for there is a lease dated October, 1792, with Thomas Davies of Plas Draw of "a capital and other messuages in Llangynhafal". There is also a copy of Thomas Davies' Will dated November, 1829 and a copy of Probate of Eaton Davies Denton. The property was conveyed to Tanat Wynne Denton of Plas Draw on 29th February 1868.
An obituary notice published in the Denbighshire Free Press in January, 1932 reported the death of Mr. J. Lloyd Denton, the eldest surviving son of Mr. and Mrs. John Denton of Rhyl, and grandson of Mr. Ridgeway Denton, K.C., of Plas Draw. Lloyd Denton had spent his youth in Denbigh and Rhyl and had joined the army in 1900, serving in the South Africa war of 1900-1902. Thereafter, he lived and worked at Wrexham and spent two or three years in the U.S.A. before returning to Ruthin and then Llanrwst. While at Llanrwst, he rejoined the army and served in W.W.I, being discharged as a sergeant following wounds. In his youth, he had been keen on athletics and sports, playing football for the Druids, Rhos Rangers and Denbigh.
By 1871, the house was tenanted by Sir Charles James Watkin Williams [RLHB Nos: 10 & 12], educated at Ruthin School, University College, London, Oxford and the Inner Temple. He was a son of a Rector of Llansannan, but details of his birth are not known with certainty and he may well have been born whilst his father was Vicar of Llangar (c. 1831/32). By the age of 26 he had qualified as a surgeon, becoming President of the Royal College of Surgeons, and as a barrister. Following the 1868 general election, he became M.P. for the Denbigh Boroughs. He stood for the seat at Caernarvon at the 1880 election and was again successful but following that he left Plas Draw to reside within his new constituency. He was knighted on becoming a judge of the Queen's Bench in 1880. He died suddenly in 1884 in somewhat embarrassing circumstances.
Following the turn of the century, a Col. Bromhead, a veteran of the Zulu Wars, was in occupation. Local press reports of 1935 refer to an unfortunate accident sustained by Mrs. Lydia Bromhead, aged 45, wife of Major Richard Freckleton Gronville Bromhead of Plas Draw, who was accidentally shot by a gun which was kept for bird scaring.
Acknowledgements: Chirk Castle Accounts, 1666-1753, W.M. Myddelton, 1931, p.275, n.1522; Plas Coch MSS, DD/PC/..., Ruthin Record Office.