RHUTHUN LOCAL HISTORY BROADSHEET Issue No 55 September 1998
RUTHIN'S ROLE IN GEE'S PRINTING PRESS
by John Williams
The printing and publishing business known today as Gee & Son (Denbigh) Ltd., celebrates its 190th birthday this year. The 28th September will be the 100th anniversary of the death of Thomas Gee who made it "the most productive press in the history of Welsh printing", according to Ivano Jones, the Cardiff librarian, whose volume Printers and Printing in Wales and Monmouthshire was published in 1925.
However, the birthplace of this business was not in Denbigh, nor that of the founder of the firm, Thomas Gee the Elder. The initiative which led to the establishing of the firm was that of Thomas Jones (1756-1820). Thomas was a remarkable man whose achievements and contribution to the Welsh way of life are remembered mainly within the Welsh-speaking community, and perhaps even there, by a dwindling few.
Thomas Jones' background is worth scrutinising. He was born at the ancient house, Plas Penucha, Caerwys, of a well-to-do family. He spent the first 39 years of his life at this house, which is still occupied by descendants of his sister Mary. Among the family archives is a marriage settlement dated 1575. It seems that this, if not the origin of the family fortune, provided it with an interesting boost as part of the dowry was in the form of pirated Spanish gold. It is ironic to think that some of this, some three centuries later, may have contributed to the provision of reading material for Welsh nonconformist Sunday Schools.
Helpful though his background may have been, Thomas's own talents were considerable. He acquired a knowledge of Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Welsh and English without the benefit of a university education. He became a Welsh Calvinistic Methodist at the age of 16 and began to preach at the age of 27. He became supervisor of the Mold Society from 1795 to1804; Ruthin's from 1804 until 1806; and Denbigh's from 1806 to 1820. He was one of the first to be ordained in this connexion in 1811.
His involvement with this denomination was such that it was inevitable that he should have met Thomas Charles of Bala in 1784 and a close friendship was quickly forged. This broadened his horizons and he became even more deeply involved in the connexion. He took up writing, translating religious works into Welsh, editing and publishing. His literary activities, however, were often frustrated in getting material printed and so, with Mrs. Sally Charles as a business partner, he became directly involved in printing. This did not last long and the firm was taken over by a larger concern from Chester. Thomas was not well served, having on one occasion to wait for twelve months for one of his books to be published. Thus, Thomas decided to set-up his own printing firm.
In 1804, Thomas Jones moved to Ruthin and took up residence in Castle Street. Here he married his second wife, Miss A. Maesmor of Llanelidan. He sought to overcome his publishing frustrations by setting-up his own printing works and, through his contact with W.C. Jones of Chester, employed Thomas Gee senior [1780-1845], at the age of 28, as printing works supervisor. Gee was experienced and familiar with printing in the Welsh language. His first output, in August 1808, was endorsed "on behalf of Thomas Jones." The printing workshop is said to have been located "behind The Antelope", near the junction of Station Road and Well Street. The Ruthin arrangement was of short duration. In fact, his only work known to have been printed and published in Ruthin was his translation into Welsh of Part IV of Gurnal's The Christian in Compleat Armour. Jones removed to Factory Place, Denbigh in April 1809, where the business continued under the name "The Ruthin-Denbigh Press". 1813 was a milestone for the business, which was then acquired by Thomas Gee, senior. The fortunes of this press from then on are a really remarkable story of enterprise. Gee died on 13th November 1845 at the Liverpool home of one his son's, Dr Robert Gee, a successful medical practitioner on the continent and in Liverpool, and was buried at Llangynhafal.
Thomas Gee had taken his second son, another Thomas, into partnership in January 1845. The young Thomas was to build on successful and substantial foundations laid by his father and embarked upon a quite remarkable career, not only in printing and publishing, but also in politics and in the religious life of the area. Both Thomas Gees can lay claim to have made indelible marks upon the lives of their contemporaries leaving a heritage which has outlived them both.
RHOS STREET BRITISH SCHOOL. PART II.
Hard evidence of the date of the foundation of the British School in Rhos Street is difficult to find. Seaborne in his masterly Schools in Wales dates the building as 1846 and names the architect as Richard Cash, son of Thomas Cash, architect and Ablett of Llanbedr Hall's agent. He was also responsible for the Church school in Borthyn. Nonetheless, the British school (not the building) predates this by three years. Until then, the schoolroom was provided by Edward Jones of Brynhyfryd, a local solicitor.
In 1845, there were 205 boys at the school. It was to be another two years before it was to be opened to girls. The Denbigh and Caernarvon Herald of 30th August reported the second public examination of the children. The chairman on this occasion was T. Downward of Bathafarn Hall and in his introductory speech he regretted that a more competent Welsh speaker had not taken his place. These public examinations, for master and pupil alike, must have been harrowing experiences. Initially, the boys read from the gospels and then spelt words from the reading. This was followed by questions on the life of Christ. Next, there were questions on 'Natural Philosophy', or 'science' in modern terminology. Answers to questions on mathematics were calculated on their slates and then presented to the local dignitaries. Mental arithmetic questions then followed. There was a brief pause in the ordeal whilst the boys entertained the audience with a song. The examination resumed with questions on geography, history, grammar and, finally, drawings made by the pupils were exhibited. The whole event was conducted not in the familiar surroundings of the schoolroom, but in the County Hall.
Probably the most notorious examination of schools in Wales was during 1847 which resulted in the report that became known as 'Brad y Llyfrau Gleision ' ("The Treachery of the Blue Books"). William Williams, M.P. for Coventry, born in Llanpumsaint, Carmarthenshire, was a successful businessman turned politician and in 1846 he proposed a government enquiry into the state of education in Wales. His motivation was a general concern over the neglect of formal education in the Principality. The Commission was organised under the auspices of James Kay-Shuttleworth, physician, educationalist and civil servant. Sadly, he appointed three Commissioners who were young Oxbridge scholars, monoglot English with the inbuilt prejudices of the establishment.
The result was that a long and detailed report, generally, objective, was marred by a short section of about ten pages devoted to the opinions of embittered Anglican clergymen. They resented inroads into their congregations made by the nonconformist evangelists. The impression given was of the Welsh as uniquely lax in their sexual behaviour and it was this brief section that attracted attention and resentment. Nevertheless, the bulk of the report is valuable testimony to the state of education at that time.
Rhos Street came out of the examination with comparatively glowing praise. The school was reported as a boys' school of 173 pupils. The master was a farmer who had six months training. One comment made about him was "A Welshman not yet perfect in the English language." The report continues: "Great pains are taken, and with success, to teach the English language - an exercise that calls into practice their knowledge of interpretation, writing, spelling, and grammar ... The master has inspired his pupils with a desire for knowledge." Great praise indeed. However, there was a sting in the tail. Regarding the discipline of the school, it tells how they pushed pell-mell and were ill-mannered.
The fees at that time were 1d. to 6d. per week. In those early days, money was a difficult problem. The governors were committed to a new building and this was completed in 1846. However, in 1847, they were borrowing money to pay off the costs.
A great deal has been written about the dichotomy between the established church and nonconformity in Wales. In Ruthin there was a different ambience. What was basically a non-conformist school was supported by Anglicans. The chairman of the governors was James Maurice, confidante of the Wests of Ruthin Castle, Churchwarden and Mayor of the town, - a pillar of Anglican rectitude. When they were in debt to the builder, who bailed them out? The local landowners, Anglican to a man. Later this shortage of money became acute.
The 'monitors' were paid a small (even by the standards of the time) salary. There is an entry in the minute book that reads: "The committee will assist parents of pupil teachers as may be unable to wait until the government money is received." Clearly, the school had insufficient funds to meet its obligations to pay the youngsters. Their pittance would make a difference to family budgets which were nearly always at breaking point with the spectre of the workhouse ever present. Again, Anglicans were helping. Yet if the rhetoric could be believed, they would have closed the school.
About this period there were a number of Dame Schools. These were unsupervised and uncontrolled, but provided some form of education for the petite bourgeoisie. The cost of attendance was of course beyond the purses of the labouring poor. In 1844, there were six schools other than the British School. These were, - the Grammar School, the National School in Borthyn, William Davies' School in Upper Clwyd Street, Elizabeth Jones' in Clwyd Street, Mary Ellis' in Mwrog Street, and Rev William Williams' in Borthyn. In 1856, there were eight schools, and in 1868 there were seven. With 200 pupils at Rhos Street, coupled with those at Borthyn, it might be argued that education was provided for the poorest sector of the community.
This is emphasised by the fact that in January 1849, the children from the workhouse were admitted to Rhos Street school. It was, of course, another way of gaining funds for the school. The chairman of the governors was able to negotiate a fee from the Poor Law Board. The same gentleman was also chairman of the Board of Guardians, - further evidence of the toleration of the Anglicans towards the British School. There was no evidence of any attempt to segregate nonconformists and Anglicans.
In December 1847, a tea party marked the opening of the Boys and Girls School. Two hundred hand bills were printed, half in English and half in Welsh. Thirty 'special' invitations were to be provided for the gentry and admission was one shilling or six pence. The minutes are not explicit on what the differentiation in price implied nor have any of the handbills survived. Sufficient to say that in 1847 the school became co-educational.
It was indicative of the quality of the teaching at that time that when the master resigned, - and it was one master to 200 pupils, - applicants for the post had no training but were willing to study for their qualification whilst teaching. This, of course, was of little use as the British and Foreign Society would not grant aid the salary unless the master was qualified, basic though this was.
The school struggled on until 1870. The Education Act of that year, the Foster Act, allowed the creation of school boards and the raising of funds on a separate rate. This scheme was opposed by nonconformists and Anglicans alike. A School Board was elected in Ruthin, but the National School in Borthyn opted out even though Rev. Bulkeley Owen Jones, the Warden, served on the Board. This struggled on until the 1902 Act when the County Councils took responsibility.
See also the Rhos Street School Project, on this website here .
CROWN HOUSE, WELL STREET, RUTHIN.
This series has in the main dealt with houses in the countryside. This particular house is virtually in the town centre and though its recent history has been blemished by misuse and notoriety, it was not always thus. As with so many town properties, Crown House was once an inn of some kind.
Nineteenth century guides recorded that the earliest residents then within recall were the Butters, a London family who established a peppermint and lavender distillery near the Galchog farm, Llanfwrog. Those premises survive, appropriately enough, as "Distyll House".
It is difficult to determine the age of Crown House by superficial examination. The frontage to Well Street is stuccoed, probably from its Victorian period. However, as our illustration shows, the rear elevation from Wynnstay Road has half-timbering and changes to the roof height.
Crown House is likely to have been the town house for one or more of the local gentry families. Deeds in private ownership and dated 1776, with some retrospection to 27th May 1679, indicate that this and other properties passed from the Goodman family to Sir Roger Mostyn, sometimes described as "of Brymbo and Well Street." Sir Roger came into this property on his marriage to Susan Goodman, daughter of Charles Goodman of Glan Hesbin, Llanelidan [RLHB. No: 33]. Charles was of course a descendant of the well-known Goodman family of Ruthin, whose most famous son, Gabriel, was Dean of Westminster and a great benefactor. Gabriel's father, Edward, had been a prosperous mercer and he may well have acquired this property.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, it was owned/ occupied by a Mr Simon Griffiths, born in 1747. He was described as "mercer, property owner, malster, Alderman and bankrupt." Although not born in Ruthin, he lived here for some forty years and died in 1816 at the age of 69. However. when Simon was 27 years of age in 1775, the Crown innkeeper was a Daniel Giles, who died in the following year and was succeeded by Edward Williams, formerly of The Harp on St. Peter's Square. Simon obtained the victualler’s licence which he kept for most of the next forty years. Griffiths evidently prospered as he acquired several other properties in the district.
However, by 1780, there were signs that Simon may have overstretched himself and in January, 1781, bankruptcy proceedings were instituted as a result of which he lost many of his properties. Simon must have been an honourable man for in the four years following his bankruptcy he was no longer resident in Ruthin, but visited twice annually. He then stayed at The Cross Keys (now 'Castle Mews'), almost opposite The Crown, of which the landlord was Eubule Jones, Simon's tenant. On these visits he would collect his rents and see to his properties, arranging for any repairs that might have been required. It was at this time that the Rutter family were his tenants at The Crown.
In this way, Simon Griffiths discharged his debts, amounting to £400, plus interest, and was able to resume his business activities. By this time, he had married and had two daughters. His wife, Mary, and an Edward held a victualler’s licence for The Butchers' Arms, also in Well Street, while Simon himself was back at The Crown. It would appear that after 1796, it was renamed "The Crown Tap."
In 1884, the Town Clerk, William Lloyd and his family lived there.
Old photographs of c.1900 shows its use as a butcher's shop with the name of "T. Williams" displayed. Some of these photographs also show the hanging sign. The Denbighshire Free Press of 8th January 1898, reported that new signs had been placed outside Tudor House, Crown House and The Cross Keys. The latter two had been made by Joseph Williams, blacksmith of Prior Street. The Crown House sign was described as "elaborate and highly artistic."
Mr Thomas Williams' obituary appeared in the Free Press of 25th June 1904. Well-known as an agriculturist over a wide area, Mr. Williams had been a town councillor since 1890, was created Alderman in 1901, and was a deacon at Bethania Chapel in Mwrog Street. He was interred at the C.M. Chapel of Llanarmon yn Ial, where his descendants farm to this day. He was survived by his wife and three daughters.
Thomas' eldest daughter, Mary, died at Manchester in 1915, but the two surviving sisters, Misses Annie and Edith, resided at Crown House for many years and were well-known in the town and district.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS Mr W. Edwards, Brynhyfryd Park, Ruthin; Mr S.D. Bunting of London; Denbighshire Record Office, Ruthin.