On The Trail of Edward Greenly

One thing leads to another. While working on the new section of my Anglesey History website on Prehistoric Monuments I wanted to compare the geology of one site to the types of stone that were used to build the monument. I thought I had a geological map of Anglesey, but couldn’t find it, so ordered a new one. It arrived yesterday, and my wife and I spent part of the day poring over it with a magnifying glass, looking for interesting features.

Coventry, Gertrude Mary, 1886-1964; Edward Greenly (1861-1951), DSc., Anglesey Geologist
Edward Greenly (painting by Gertrude Mary Coventry, image from Bangor University)

This map is mainly based on Edward Greenly’s pioneering work on the geology of Anglesey. His two volume 1919 work The Geology of Anglesey, followed by the geological map of 1920, are considered classics in the field. The geology of Anglesey is fiercely complex, and his 25 years of surveying the rocks of the island, with the latest geological theories in mind, unravelled its mysteries.

In looking into accounts of his life, most said that Greenly and his wife Annie were buried in Llangristiolus parish churchyard, under “a fine headstone of red ‘Balmoral’ granite.” I distinctly remember visiting a grave of a prominent geologist with an unusual headstone, a large boulder inscribed with the details, many years ago, but this was in Llansadwrn, not Llangristiolus. Which was correct? After another cup of coffee we hopped into the car and headed off on a circular route to both churches.

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Ramsay’s grave in Llansadwrn

When we got to the church we spotted the unusual grave stone, a boulder of Carboniferous limestone, before we even got out of the car. We crossed the graveyard and turned to face the headstone, only to discover that this was the grave of another very well known geologist with Anglesey connections. Sir Andrew Crombie Ramsay was a Scottish geologist who published The Geology of North Wales in 1881, as well as many other earlier important works. He rose to become the president of the Geological Society of London and director-general of the Geological Survey. He retired to Beaumaris, where he died in 1892.

The inscription on his gravestone explains his Anglesey connection. His wife, Mary Louisa Williams, was the daughter of Rev. James Williams of Llanfair-yng-Nghornwy and granddaughter of John Williams of Treffos, in Llansadwrn. Her brother Owen was the grandfather of the famous Anglesey artist Kyffin Williams, thus making her his great aunt. In his autobiography Across the Straits, Kyffin Williams talks about playing with the Ramsay children when he was young.

So, I guess Greenly was really at Llangristiolus. Back in the car to head towards Llangristiolus. We decided to take the narrow lanes from Llansadwrn through Rhoscefnhir and Ceint, which once formed the major post road from Beaumaris to Holyhead (more in this in another blog soon).

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The Greenly’s headstone at Llangristiolus

After a bit of a wander around Llangristiolus churchyard I spotted a grave of distinctive red stone that stood out against the grey slate and black marble of most of the surrounding ones. Here was Edward Greenly and his wife Annie, “reunited”, as the inscription said.

Edward was born in 1861 and died in 1951, having been widowed since 1927 when his beloved Annie died. They first met when he was just 14, when she and her parents visited his family home. She was 11 years his elder, but their similar intellectual and scientific interests soon blossomed into a close friendship, then love. But after four years their parents, worried about such a relationship between one so young with one so much older, forced them apart. Eleven years later they met up again, and this time married in 1891.

Their’s was a close scientific working relationship as well as a loving marriage. Annie also had a keen interest in science from a young age. During his years surveying the geology of Anglesey (and before that in the Highlands of Scotland) she was usually at his side. Although Edward’s name is solely on the publications, he always readily admitted she was instrumental in developing ideas and in organising the publications. She died just days after they jointly finished a short geological textbook called The Earth. To mark her contributions Edward set up an Annie Greenly Fund through the Geological Society of London to support detailed geological mapping.

On the way home we stopped at Oriel Ynys Môn for a bite to eat and a look around the galleries. Who should we run across there but our new-found friend Edward Greenly, in a display in the history gallery, with a copy of his map alongside his portrait and biography.

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.

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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.