My Grandmother's Difficult Life


My Nain (grandmother) Catherine Thomas was born in Bodgyri, Sarn, Caernarfonshire, Wales in 1893, the eighth child of John and Ann Thomas. At the time of birth she had two elder sisters Jane (19) and Elizabeth (16) and five elder brothers Charles (15), Thomas (14), William (10), Hugh (7), and John (5). Bodgyri was a small holding with a few acres of land accessible by a dirt lane a few yards off the main road between Sarn and Botwnnog. The children all helped their parents scrape a meager living off the land but life was difficult for such a large family and the children went off to find alternative work at an early age. Jane and Elizabeth worked as live-in housemaids on a nearby large farm and were only home on an occasional weekend. Charles and Thomas left home around 1900 to find work in the coal mines of South Wales. Catherine then did not remember much about her elder siblings but she was very close to younger brothers William, Hugh and John and later to her younger sister Ruth born in 1901.

In 1905 when Catherine was twelve, Charles and Thomas came home from South Wales and told their parents they were emigrating to America where there were better opportunities. They had been in contact with their uncle Richard Williams (their mother's brother) in Rome, New York and he had volunteered to accommodate them until they got established. They sailed from Liverpool on the liner Teutonic in 1905. After a short stay in the Rome area, they found work in the coalfields of West Virginia, Southeast Ohio and Eastern Kentucky. Sadly for young Catherine, they were followed to America by brothers William and Hugh on the Baltic in 1906 and by John on the Baltic in early 1907. The Bodgyri family had scattered and only two children remained at home, Catherine and Ruth. The family moved to a smaller house called Penllech Bach in 1908 and in 1909 Catherine herself found work as a housemaid on the Plas Madryn estate. Later the family moved yet again to another smallholding near Bryncroes called Ty Rhos.

On a visit home one weekend in 1911, Catherine befriended a young man named Robert Hughes who lived in Tan y Ffordd, Bryncroes with his mother Ann Jones, stepfather William Jones and younger half-sister June Ellen. Robert was over a year younger than Catherine and he worked as a stable boy on the Plas Newydd estate at Llanfaelrhys near Rhiw. The friendship blossomed and they cycled to meet each other on the country lanes around the Lleyn area. Robert did not get along with his stepfather and, when he was thirteen years old, he decided to run away to sea. He was always interested in the Navy after hearing sea stories from his Nefyn born grandfather. The runaway got as far as Liverpool before he was caught and returned home. Robert shared a lot of this information with his new friend Catherine since she was a willing listener. In early 1913, much to everyone's surprise and consternation, a daughter was born to Catherine out of wedlock.

The strict non-conformist religion in the Lleyn area was not in any way sympathetic to such an occurrence. Illegitimate children were strongly condemned from the pulpit by the ministers and male deacons but the religious condemnation did nothing to solve the problem. With no means of birth control available, illegitimacy was rampant all over Lleyn and the poor children were shamefully treated through no fault of their own. It was an embarrassment for the Thomas family but, like previous occurrences of this type, the face-saving habit kicked in with the baby absorbed into the family and raised by Catherine's mother Ann as one of her own. Those were indeed stressful days for the parents. The Titanic sank off Halifax, Nova Scotia in April 1912 raising concerns about the boys overseas who traveled across the Atlantic. John had returned home in late 1907 and William had a brief visit before going back to America on the Lusitania in 1908. Thomas returned home in 1914 on the Lusitania the year before the liner was sunk by the Germans off the west coast of Ireland in May 1915. Ann was now nearly sixty years old and raising three grandchildren as well as daughter Ruth.

The relationship between Catherine and Robert continued and in 1915 when Catherine indicated she was pregnant again, that was the final straw. They agreed to get married. Robert had signed up to join the Royal Welsh Fusiliers (RWF) to fight in the War and arrangements were quickly made for them to marry in Llanbeblig Church near Caernarfon on July 6, 1915 when he was on embarkation leave. He left a few days later for Sulva Bay and the Gallipoli campaign. Catherine meanwhile moved from home to a small holding called Pencoed near Sarn. She was given a cow and a few chickens by her parents and to make it easier, she left her first daughter Jane in Penllech Bach with her mother. Her second daughter Margaret (my mother) was born in Pencoed on January 2, 1916. In the middle of 1916 Robert moved with the RWF to Egypt and then on to Palestine. His regiment went on to France in 1917 but left without him since he was hospitalized in Jerusalem with pneumonia. He later rejoined the regiment and found that most of his friends from Lleyn had perished in the trenches. He had not been home since the day he embarked.

Meanwhile Catherine was managing in Pencoed with support from her parents and brothers Thomas and John who lived locally after returning from America. Her younger sister Ruth also helped with baby-sitting. But in early 1917 an incident occurred which was to have a profound effect on her young family. The details of the incident are not fully known and most likely never will. Catherine was having difficulties handling the cow and her husband's step-father William Jones of Tan y Ffordd volunteered to help. He took advantage of the young woman during the visit. She was twenty three years old and he was thirty seven! I am not sure if she raised the alarm about the incident or even if she felt confident enough to confide to anyone in her family or to her mother-in-law, but I doubt it. Given the social male order of the day, it probably would have been viewed as an internal family affair and ignored by the authorities. Rarely was a criminal judgment in such instances in favor of the woman. Catherine later found she was pregnant! Her husband had been away from home for nearly two years so the situation was now dire! She continued to interact with her parents in Penllech Bach and with her in-laws in Tan y Ffordd. On September 24, 1917 her third daughter Nellie was born.

Imagine the total surprise for the husband when he returned home finally in 1918 and found his wife now with two children. I do not know how the situation was handled by Catherine. Perhaps she told Robert she was helping her mother with all the babies, who knows? But if he suspected his wife had been unfaithful, he certainly was not told who the father was.

After the homecoming, they seemed to settle down as a family. Robert went out to find work and in August 1920, a son John was born. With another mouth to feed, Robert decided he could do better by joining the Merchant Navy and off he went to sea. He had frequent leaves to come home when his ship docked in Liverpool and in 1922 another son Robert, Catherine's fifth child was born.

In 1923, the family decided to move to a house called Truan in Dinas. Truan is the Welsh word for wretched, a fitting description perhaps for the series of sad events that were to occur to the family. In 1923 news was received that Catherine's brother Hugh had drowned in the Erie Canal in Rome, New York. Brother William, now a US citizen, returned from New York in 1924 perhaps to explain to the family in Ty Rhos what had happened to Hugh. The father John Thomas was very ill at the time and Will decided not to return to America but to remain in Wales. (I have not found any evidence that he lived in the US, or traveled across the Atlantic, after 1924). In 1926 John Thomas died of prostrate cancer. Also in 1926 Catherine's uncle Richard Williams died in Rome after the bicycle he was riding was hit by a car. Richard had graciously accommodated all her brothers as they arrived in the America. The only brother left in the USA now was Charles, living somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

Then in 1927 came the most difficult news of all. Catherine's husband Robert finally learned what happened with daughter Nellie and more profoundly who the father was. He was very upset and viewed it as the ultimate betrayal by his step-father. He was upset with Catherine as well because, after departing on his next trip to sea, he never returned home. Catherine was left in wretched Truan with four children to raise by herself Margaret (11), Nellie (10), John (7) and Robert (5), a daunting task for a family without a bread winner in the 1920's.

The following year Catherine was in desperate financial straits trying to continue to live in Truan and support all her children. She initiated court proceedings in Pwllheli against her husband's stepfather William Jones for child support for Nellie. She realized the action was going to be traumatic for both the family and in particular for Nellie, but her situation was so dire she had no alternative. Foster care was the only possible solution for the children if the impoverished state of the family did not improve. She won in court in Pwllheli with the case not aggressively contested but, as expected, the publicity generated locally in the Dinas area was devastating.

In 1929, she moved her family to live in 2 Fron Terrace, Nefyn with a new school for the children. To my knowledge, she did not pursue child support against her husband for her other children. Perhaps she was hoping he would still come home. She had found work at Plas-yng-Ngheidio where she cycled or walked back and forth every day, while daughter Margaret now thirteen reluctantly terminated her schooling to stay at home to take care of her younger brothers and sister. A year or so later, Margaret herself found work as a housemaid in the Nefyn houses of Gorse Cliff and Sarnlys bringing a little more income into the family, and it became Nellie's turn to take charge at home. Catherine also had become friends with a single man named David Jones (Dei Fron) who lived nearby and who allowed her the use of a small plot of land in upper Fron for raising chickens. In return she cooked his meals, washed his clothes and helped out with a few cows and sheep he had in pasture around the area. She was also supported by her brother Will and younger sister Ruth.

Those early years in Nefyn were extremely difficult for Catherine but things started looking better by the late 1930's. Her daughter Margaret married Lawrence Owen (my father) in 1936 who worked for a company bringing electricity into the area and who also was a part time fisherman on Nefyn beach. The young couple moved to a house on Church Street to start their own family. Her sons John and Robert joined the Merchant Navy and sent money home to further support their mother. Meanwhile, Catherine continued to work and also became a devoted member of the Capel Fron Seion Baptist chapel which gave her a lot of comfort. She attended services regularly with her good friend Jane Evans from Upper Fron. In the 1940's, daughter Nellie worked in Calibra in Pwllheli and later married John Griffiths before moving to live in Caermarthen where he was a college teacher. After returning from sea, her son John was a policeman in Caernarfon and married Gwen from Bangor, later becoming the village policeman in Llanberis and eventually Criccieth. Likewise, her son Robert was employed by the Great Western Railway in Pwllheli and married Catherine from Abererch.

In 1942, Catherine's mother Ann Thomas died at the age of eighty five still raising children. Catherine's eldest daughter Jane took over from her grandmother in Ty Rhos and provided nursing care for her American uncle Will who was now suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. Will died in 1944 when he was sixty one years old. Catherine continued to be visited regularly by younger sister Ruth who traveled via a Crosville bus from her home in Bodantur, Pen Groeslon with news about the family. The two sisters were very close. Auntie Ruth, as I called her, continued her visits to Nefyn into the 1950's and 1960's, and I well remember the chats they had together over tea in the Fron There were references to Ruth's husband Sion Bodantur and her daughter Brenda who was my age, and to their brothers Thomas living in Tir Dafydd, and John living in Tyn Ffoes. Auntie Ruth was also very close to her niece Jane in Ty Rhos who had a son Ifor, also around my age. Catherine was devastated in 1968 when Ruth passed away unexpectedly at 67 years of age.

Fast forward to the present times and to my cousin Bethan Jones, Catherine's granddaughter, who did some diligent research work in London in 2013. She found out about the existence of grandfather Robert Hughes and uncovered all the above details about the family. Following his departure from home, Robert spent a couple more years in the Merchant Navy. He then re-enlisted with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and spent time in Berlin, Germany in the 1930's. His pay in the RWF was meager and perhaps he got out of the UK to avoid paying child support. Although Catherine was not informed of a divorce, he got married again and had another son whom he also named Robert. The family lived through the WWII blitz in London where Robert worked as a bus driver. In the late 1940's, son Robert visited his grandmother and step-grandfather in Tan y Ffordd and also his Aunt June Ellen who by then owned a shop in Abersoch. Robert Hughes himself came back to visit his mother and his half sister once in 1953, but only after his step-father had died. During the visit, he did not stop to see Catherine in Nefyn or any of his other children living in the area.

Robert Hughes died in 1974 when he was seventy nine years old and was buried in Luton, England. Catherine passed away in the Fron, Nefyn in 1981 when she was eighty eight years old. They never saw each other after that fateful day in 1927 in Truan, Dinas when Robert departed to go back to sea. Son Robert indicated he never heard his father speak any Welsh until he had a stroke a few months before he died, and during those final months he spoke only in Welsh. Nobody in the family knew what he was saying. Catherine was a terrific grandmother who doted on all of her grandchildren. I was one of three grandchildren who lived close by in Nefyn and we visited her often in the Fron. We had some fun times together.

In closing, the facts in this story only surfaced after my grandmother and all her children had passed away. The existence of an estranged grandfather living in England came as a total shock to everyone since nothing had been shared at all about him with the grandchildren. I was always puzzled why there was no grandfather in the Fron. I assumed he did not survive the Great War and that he was buried somewhere overseas. My assumption was based on a framed print that hung over the sideboard in my grandmother's parlour showing a woman in a shawl coming out of her house and a child at the gate pointing towards a wounded soldier coming down the street. It was a print she was very reluctant to talk about. Maybe the print provided a boost to her wishful thoughts during those many lonely years, who knows? My mother never mentioned anything about her father, whom she must have remembered well. She was a bright, eager student and expressed only sadness and disappointment of having to leave school at thirteen years of age after her father had left home two years earlier. Still, she and her siblings always talked proudly about their dear mother's toughness and her determined struggle through a difficult life to keep and provide for the family. Perhaps now, I know why.

Catherine's parents John and Ann Thomas

Catherine (seated) and younger sister Ruth circa 1916

Robert Hughes with the RWF circa 1915

Robert Hughes's mother and step-father William Jones at Tan y Ffordd, Bryncroes

Catherine's daughter Nellie in front of Capel Fron, Nefyn

Robert Hughes circa 1960 in Luton, England

Catherine's daughters Margaret (left) and Jane circa 1980 on Mynydd Rhiw

Catherine and granddaughter Bethan and friend in Fron, Nefyn

Dr. Brian Owen
Emmaus, PA, USA

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