During the Christmas/New Year break my wife and I have been talking a lot about local Pentraeth history. A freshwater ecologist, she has been building up a thread on Twitter about the Afon Nodwydd, the river that runs through Pentraeth to the sea at Red Wharf Bay/Traeth Coch. The thread explores its ecology, history, and local importance.
Yesterday we were talking about The Royal Charter disaster of 1859. Most of the victims were buried in the churchyards near the wreck site at Moelfre (as described in my blog about the local parish records), but we knew a few had been buried in Pentraeth. After lunch we took a stroll up to the church to explore.
We soon found the graves; six simple anonymous stones, plus a larger one added later to commemorate the victims. A later search of the Pentraeth parish records shows they were buried in mid-November, about two weeks after the wreck.
Close to these graves was another one I’d wanted to find. When asked about famous women of Pentraeth the first to pop into my mind was Mary Owen. Newspaper reports in 1911 trumpeted her as being “King George’s oldest subject” at the age of 108. She lived at Fron-oleu, a small cottage on the slopes of Mynydd Llwydiarth overlooking Traeth Coch. The story goes that two strangers tracked her down and arrived at the cottage with a camera. She was asleep when they first arrived, but they photographed her both asleep and awake. The photos were made into postcards, celebrating her longevity. She died just a few months later, in December 1911, an event that was reported in newspapers ranging from the Dundee Evening Telegraph and the Cheshire Observer to Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper of London.
As usual, I wanted to find out more about her, so I first turned to the censuses. The 1911 census page for Fron-oleu shows it occupied by Mary and her nephew Owen, with two visitors on the day, Mary Owens and John Glyn Owen (a shoemaker). Oddly, Mary is listed in 1911 as being 105, rather than 108. She is also listed as single. I had assumed the John Owen, who is also listed on her gravestone, was her husband, but apparently not. He died in 1898, aged 80, so I checked the 1891 census for Fron-oleu, where they are listed as brother and sister. Nephew Owen was there again, as well as another nephew John.
John and Mary were the inhabitants of Fron-oleu all the way back to 1861, with their occupations variously listed as “farmer”, “labourer”, “housekeeper” or “living on own means”. Owen also lived there as far back as 1871, when the 15-year-old was listed as a “scholar”, presumably going to school at one of the two recently founded schools in Pentraeth. John had lost his wife early, as he was widowed in all these census years. His 10-year-old son John was a schoolboy in the house in 1861.
Step back another 10 years to 1851 and Mary is still living in Fron-oleu, but this time with her parents Richard (a labourer) and Ellen. Going further back to 1841 finds Fron-oleu a very full house, with Richard and Ellen there with sons John, Richard and David, and a daughter Elizabeth. John was the one who later occupied the house with his sister, and Richard is listed as a shoemaker. But where was Mary? She was an adult, the oldest of the family, so must have been living somewhere else. In fact, a Mary Owen of the right age was one of two young women working as servants in Marian, a large and old house between Pentraeth and Talwrn. I suspect this is her. Most other Mary Owens in the area were living with either parents or spouses.
Looking through all these censuses raised some questions about her story of being the oldest subject in 1911. First, the postcard and news reports all state she was born in Trefriw, which is best known as a village in the Conwy valley near Llanrwst, but is also the name of a place in the south of the island in Llangadwaladr. But all the censuses say that she and her brother were born in Pentraeth. Maybe there was a nearby house by that name, but nothing like it shows up in the Pentraeth censuses.
Of more concern is the age. Although she was supposed to be 108 in 1911, the census that year actually shows her as 105 years old, which would make her birth year 1806 rather than the 1803 usually cited. Ten years before, she gave her age as 89, making her birth year 1812. Going back another 10 years to 1891 she reports an age of 65, which would make her birth year 1826!
In the earlier censuses her reported ages stabilize to the usual interval of ten years. So, it looks like Mary was actually born around 1816-1818. Turning my eye to the baptism and marriage records, I found that her parents Richard Owen and Ellen Thomas were married in Pentraeth church on 25 May 1815. Scanning through the baptism records for Pentraeth (which only cover the baptisms at the established church, St. Mary) I can find no children of Richard and Ellen until youngest child in the 1841 census, David, was baptised in 1825. But searching another online database, the Wales Births and Baptisms, 1541-1907 at Familysearch.org, turns up a Mary Owen, daughter of Richard and Ellen, christened on 11 January 1818 in the nearby village of Llanbedrgoch. Some of her siblings also appear in that database, baptised in Pentraeth. Perhaps they were nonconformists and were baptised in chapels rather than the established church.
Mary had her five minutes of fame for being the oldest British subject, but the truth is she died at the respectable, but unremarkable, age of 94. How she became known as the oldest is not recorded, but this goes to show that we can’t always rely on stories like this without looking into the actual records.