The Irishman in Church Island Cemetery

When visiting historic churches, I always have a wander around the cemetery, looking at inscriptions old and new. I often wonder what this person was like, or how that person lived their life. Occasionally, the inscription gives a tantalising clue to an interesting story, which I will sometimes try to follow up later. On a recent trip to the St Fagan’s outdoor museum in south Wales I had a look around the village churchyard. Towards the back was a Commonwealth War Grave stone on the grave of John Heritage, who died in 1982. I assumed he was in the Falkland War. Once home I looked up his somewhat unusual name, to find that he was actually killed in the IRA bombing of the Royal Green Jackets military band in Regent’s Park, London.

img2014-03-30_131010A more puzzling grave can be found hidden behind St. Tysilio’s church on Church Island in Menai Bridge. I spend a lot of time in Ireland, so I stopped in my tracks when I spotted the grave of Thomas Fane Uniacke “of Lynnbury, Co. Westmeath, Ireland”. How did someone who lived in Ireland wind up buried in Menai Bridge?

He was also blessed with a rather unusual name, which made tracking down information about him relatively easy. I first turned to Ancestry.co.uk, where I found several family trees that have him listed. Most of them gave the same death date as on this grave, March 2 1857, but there seems to be uncertainty about the circumstances of his death, as two different death places are given. Some say he died in Co. Cork, Ireland, whereas others say he died in Rifle Township in North Dakota, USA. Many give no death place at all. None say anything about Menai Bridge or Anglesey.

I contacted some of the people who had posted these family trees, but none was able to tell me much about him, other than the basic facts in the trees. He was a side branch of all their families, rather than a direct ancestor.

The basic facts are these: Thomas Fane Uniacke was born in 1792, son of Redmond Uniacke Esq. and Elizabeth Fleming, of Carrig, Co. Cork. He and his family are listed in Burke’s Landed Gentry Of Ireland, and were prominent landowners with their seat at Mount Uniacke, near Youghal, Co. Cork. His grandfather, James FitzGerald Uniacke, was a commander in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, who apparently gave up his horse to King William when the king’s horse was shot in the battle.

The family is full of military men, and Thomas was an officer in the Rifle Brigade. His two brothers were also military men, with Capt. John Uniacke being killed in the Siege of Ciudad Rodrigo, Spain, in 1812, and his four sisters all married officers.  His two sons were officers in the Highland Light Infantry and his daughter married an officer.

Thomas somehow made the move from Cork to Co. Westmeath, perhaps through an arranged marriage to Elizabeth Rochfort, daughter of Gustavus H. Rochfort, Esq, M.P. for Westmeath and grandson of the first Earl of Belvedere. Thomas owned land in the county and was a land agent and a magistrate. His name crops up regularly in newspapers related to court cases and other legal matters, and even as a steward at the races in Mullingar.

The most interesting newspaper article I found about Thomas was one from the Dublin Evening Mail in 1840, headlined “Conspiracy to Murder a Magistrate”. Police in Westmeath got wind that four brothers named Kelly had stockpiled arms and ammunition, apparently intending to assassinate Thomas Uniacke, who was the agent for their landlord. The Kellys were insolvent and not paying their rent, but also refusing to vacate the properties. The article praises Thomas, saying “As an agent, we believe there is no man in the country, filling the same office, more kind-hearted and indulgent – indulgent, perhaps, to a fault – to the tenantry under his charge.”

The last record I find of Thomas Uniacke himself before his death is related to a court case in 1853. What happened to him after that, and why did he wind up dying in Menai Bridge? One clue is the death notice of his wife Elizabeth, just a year before his own death. Curiously, she died at Glenavon, Haverfordwest, in South Wales. Did they have some connection to Wales?

Their daughter Frances, who married Capt. Seton Lionel Smith, settled in Laugharne, about 25 miles from Haverfordwest, after he retired from active military service, probably sometime in the 1850s-1860s. Perhaps Elizabeth had been travelling to visit her when she took ill? Perhaps her husband had also been travelling there a year later when he died? It’s still a mystery, but I’m still looking for clues.

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History of the House in the Marsh

Most history about buildings is written about large and interesting houses, churches, castles, shops and other places. However, sometimes the history of small, remote and obscure dwellings can be just as intriguing.

Ponies on the boardwalk, Cors Bodeilio

One of my favourite nearby places for a short walk is Cors Bodeilio. This National Nature Reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest lies between Pentraeth and Talwrn. It is a nationally important nature site as it is an uncommon lime-rich fenland supporting rare plant life, including a variety of sedges, rushes and reeds, as well as a number of orchid species. The pools contain medicinal leeches, and many species of rare flies, aquatic beetles and moths make their home throughout the area. It is also the home of some Welsh Mountain ponies, whose grazing helps maintain the fenland.

1899map
Map of Cors Bodeilio, 1899. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The boardwalk through the marsh eventually takes you to a slightly raised and dry spot. Disappearing into the trees at the edge of a meadow is a long abandoned house. It is named on the maps as Ynys. Welsh for “island”, Ynys might seem an odd name for a house, but closer inspection of the maps and surrounding topography shows that it is indeed an island of dry land in the middle of marshes.

The house and surrounding nature reserve are now owned by Natural Resources Wales, but the mid 19th century tithe maps that have been digitised by the Cynefin project show that this, and much of the land around it, was ultimately owned by the Right Honourable Lord Vivian of the Plas Gwyn estate in Pentraeth. It was leased to Evan Rice Thomas as part of the nearby Bodeilio estate. The parcel of land called Ynys is listed in the 1841 tithe apportionments books as just 9 acres of pasture land, with no hint of there being a house, and indeed no house is shown on the map itself.

Ynys, Cors Bodeilio, 2005

Also, Ynys does not appear in 1841 or 1851 censuses, but it is listed in 1861, suggesting it was built sometime in the 1850s. The first recorded tenants are Thomas Hughes and his family, wife Jane and sons William and Owen. As might be expected in a small cottage in the middle of pastures and marshlands, Thomas was an agricultural labourer, as was his 14 year old son William. Eight year old Owen was not yet old enough to be working and was listed as a scholar, so was attending school.

In the 1871 census the house name Ynys isn’t found in this part of the Llanddyfnan parish. But, among the houses nearby to Ynys is one called “California”, occupied by one Thomas Hughes. The name California doesn’t appear in any other censuses in this area. Did Thomas decide to start calling the house California instead, for some reason?

This Thomas Hughes is listed as widowed, a farmer of 8 acres and a labourer, and living with his 13 year old son John and a servant named Elizabeth Owen. By 1881 the house is again listed as Ynys, and Thomas had remarried to a much younger woman, Elizabeth, who was 28 to his 61 years. They had been busy, producing five children aged 1-9 by this time.

By 1891 the tenancy of Ynys had changed hands to William Williams, and he was living there with his wife Ann and daughter Margaret, who was a domestic servant. William was listed as a labourer in this census, but in the previous census in 1881, when he was living at nearby Heulog, he was a shoemaker. He again gave his occupation as shoemaker in 1901, when he is listed as living with his wife Ann and son William.

Curiously, his son William is listed as a copper miner. Copper mining on Anglesey usually means Parys Mountain, but that is a long way from Ynys, probably about a four hour walk. Also, by this time the copper there was almost worked out, and there were just 141 copper miners, down from thousands at its height. As he was still single at the age of 33, perhaps he usually lived near the mine, but happened to be at home visiting his parents on census day.

What I’ve so far been able to discover about the history of Ynys ends here. It is not listed in the 1911 census. Perhaps it had been abandoned by then, although usually even unoccupied houses will be listed in the census. Maybe the census-taker missed this remote house on his route through the parish.

Ynys, Cors Bodeilio, 2014

As the house disappears into the vegetation, its abandonment becomes poignant. What was it like in the late 19th century when occupied by the Hughes and Williams families? Did Thomas’ five children play games in the meadow and go searching for frogs in the surrounding bogs? My favourite time to visit is in the autumn, when the plum trees behind the house are bearing delicious fruit. Perhaps these were planted by Thomas Hughes. Did they also have a garden patch somewhere around the house? In the absence of a time machine I can only guess.