Secrets Set In Stone

1890 Bwlch Farm Deganwy Secrets set in Stone

Photo courtesy of Simon Simcox, Bwlch Farm (Deganwy) Ltd.

The sturdy stone exterior of Bwlch farmhouse near Deganwy lends a solidity to the story of Margaret Jones’s madness. What went on in the house during 30 years of remissions and relapses can only be conjectured but the Denbigh case notes may offer some clues.

Margaret was 23 when she first became ill – soon after the birth of her first child Paul Fisher. She was at the time an unmarried domestic servant and it is likely she had been dismissed from her post and sent home to be confined at Bwlch. She recovered after three months and when a daughter was born four years later there were no signs of a recurrence of her insanity.

It was not until 1885 that Margaret’s family noticed that she was low spirited, refusing to eat and neglecting herself. Her married sister Elizabeth Owen, who was by this time living at Bwlch with her husband and children, suspected Margaret was pregnant again and one of the certifying doctors diagnosed puerperal melancholia.

But Margaret’s apparently stuporose condition – “Sits quietly in the same place and is quite passive and insensitive. Takes no notice of anything.”[1]– had nothing to do with pregnancy and she began menstruating again after a few weeks in hospital. These case notes together with the records of her ten subsequent admissions to Denbigh Asylum may offer an alternative explanation for her insanity and provide an insight into the kind of life an unmarried and disgraced young woman might have led in the late 19th century.

Also living at the Bwlch farmhouse with Margaret were her father William Jones and three brothers, Moses, William and Edward. Just before Margaret was discharged from the asylum after her first admission, it is remarked in the case notes that: “This is a case which would certainly be benefited by a change of scene and life”. [2]

Such a cryptic observation might be explained by a closer reading of the earlier notes recording that Margaret was forced to wear tick gloves for several weeks to prevent her scratching her face and disfiguring herself. And by the note referring to a visit from her father in which they “conversed in an undertone”. In all subsequent medical certificates her language is variously described as indecent, obscene, offensive, filthy or foul. It’s not impossible that the suspected pregnancy which prompted her first admission disguised a much darker secret about Margaret’s life at Bwlch.

It remained her home however and, when she was well, Margaret helped her father on the farm and assisted with ‘the usual housework etc’. She also nursed a sick brother and this was suspected to be the cause of another relapse in 1899.

Relations with her sister Elizabeth were strained but it seems Elizabeth bore the brunt of Margaret’s maniacal outbursts when she threatened to hit her with chairs and large stones. Certainly, when ‘Peggy’ – as she had become affectionately known to the asylum staff – was ready to be discharged in August 1903 both Elizabeth and her brother William refused to take her home to Bwlch and she was sent instead to Conway Workhouse. Following another asylum admission the following year she was discharged on trial to her daughter in Rhyl. But the trial failed within a matter of weeks and Margaret spent the last three years of her life in Denbigh where she died in 1907 after a series of epileptiform convulsions.

It was not only Margaret’s regular relapses that the Jones family had to deal with. Her younger sister Jane Jones had become insane in 1897 while living at Bwlch with her husband and children. Jane was admitted to Denbigh with a diagnosis of mania thought to be caused by the loss of a child three weeks earlier and, like her sister, she was to suffer recurrent bouts of insanity and had seven further admissions to the asylum.

The issue of abuse is also obliquely raised in Jane’s case notes. Her claims of ill treatment at the hands of her husband Richard, a joiner by trade, and of his infidelity are lent some credibility by the observation made in 1900 that: “She has no delusions, excepting those concerning her husband, which may not be altogether untrue.”[3] By this time the couple were living in Trefriw and, whatever else might have been lacking in their relationship, it is recorded in 1915 that they had eleven children. Jane’s last admission to Denbigh was in 1925 – “in a nervous and apprehensive state … constant tremors of her face and lips and articulation impaired” [4] – when she was diagnosed with Senile Insanity and discharged home after three months to the care of her daughters.


[1] DRO/HD/1/337/Case no. 452

[2] Ibid.

[3] DRO/HD/1/341/Case no. 5458

[4] DRO/HD/1/356/Case no.10501

The ‘Clio’ Training Ship

1890 Clio Training Ship BANNER

The tiny pot-bellied orphan John ’Warrington’ may have found his short stay in Denbigh a welcome respite from the Clio, where he had been sent by the Warrington Poor Law Guardians to prepare for a life at sea.

1890 Clio ship

                                                  Photo courtesy of Gwynedd Record Office Caernarfon

The Clio had been towed to the Straits in 1877 and, for the next 40 years, provided care and training for homeless, destitute and poor respectable boys aged 12 to 16. Discipline aboard ships like the Clio was strict and the birch used to enforce it. From his asylum case notes it appears that John was a boy who frequently required corporal punishment. Sleeping arrangements provided their own punishment. The boys slept in hammocks which must have been icy-cold in winter, despite the provision of flannel drawers, and the Clio’s 1879 Annual Report records several cases of frostbite during the previous winter and that “one poor little fellow lost some of his toes”.[1]

The ship had room for around 260 boys but by 1879 only 10 had been brought from North West Wales and at least 70 per cent of the boys came from Poor Law authorities in London, Liverpool and Manchester.

The Captain Superintendent’s Report of 1879 notes the need for an agent to be appointed in Liverpool “to dispose of the boys when Trained, as there are no means of disposing of them at Bangor”[2] It would be this officer’s job to obtain situations for boys going to sea and to take charge of them before they joined their ships and between voyages.

The Admiralty provided a grant for boys who left the Clio to join the Navy but the ship was largely financed through fees paid by Poor Law Unions and School Boards for the paupers they found difficult to contain in workhouses. Few of these boys had stable families and, like John “Warrington”, many were orphans or motherless or fatherless. In 1879 only 5 boys were presented for training by their parents.

A typical day aboard the Clio began at 5 am. After washing themselves, the boys had to scrub the decks before a breakfast of oatmeal and milk. After breakfast there would be “simple family worship and Bible reading” followed by lessons in “reading, spelling, ciphering, vocal music, history, geography, drawing and religious instruction”.[3] Dinner was served at noon – usually meat and potatoes – and then after a recreation period there were lessons in seamanship. One very important lesson in seamanship – learning to swim – was catered for on the Clio by the installation in 1879 of a “swimming bath”.

Boys of all religious denominations were accepted and any not already baptised were baptised and later confirmed at Bangor Cathedral, the Bishop of Bangor being an active member of the Society’s committee.

1890 Clio tailor's shop

Expenditure on the training ship inevitably increased and there were regular appeals to the public for assistance. A special fund was set up to raise money for improvements to the sick bay, the tailor’s shop, the carpenter’s shop and the drying room. Another fund was set up to provide boys with outfits on leaving the ship and in 1879 the executors of Mr. Griffith of Caerhun, near Bangor, were warmly thanked by the Committee for a generous donation of £500. Useful savings were made by making, repairing and laundering the boys’ clothes and boots on board.

                             Clio’s Tailor Shop –Photo courtesy of Gwynedd Museum Bangor

“The Tailoring and Shoemaking accounts show

good results, and a great saving of expense has

been affected. 459 Serge Frocks, 458 pairs of Serge

Trousers, 262 Flannels, 534 pairs of Drawers, 73

Canvas Suits, 103 Check Shirts, 70 Bed Sackings,

152 pairs of Boots, and several miscellaneous

garments have been made at a cost of £300. These

things if made on shore would have cost at least

£500: and some hundreds of garments have been

repaired, as also have 392 pairs of Boots and 800

Bed Sackings at a cost of £59. These if repaired on

shore would have cost at least £150. 37,000 pieces

have been washed at a cost of £18.”[4]

The boys were simultaneously given the chance to learn skills apart from seamanship. John ‘Warrington’ told the Medical Superintendent at Denbigh that he could sew and he may well have worked in the tailor’s shop on the Clio. Although possibly not very hard. His Denbigh case notes record that:

“He soon became tired of sitting all day on the Tailor’s bench and have sent him out on the farm where is so far equally useless!” [5]

Records suggest that while some boys were unable to tolerate shipboard life because of ill health or a hardened resistance to any form of discipline there were other boys who relished it. Enoch Williams of Llandudno was sent to the Clio in 1887 at the age of 12 for stealing washing from a clothes line but, after leaving the ship, was valued by employers as a very reliable man who always wore a naval sweater and a peaked sailor’s cap even when he was working ashore.[6] And whatever concerns local residents may have had about the ‘naughty boys’, 298 Clio lads marched at the proclamation of the Bangor Eisteddfod in 1890.[7]

Any boy who could cope with the stern routine, regular beatings and endemic bullying might have found some things about the Clio to like. The ship was proud of its brass band and the 1879 report notes that: “The Band has made real progress since the appointment of Mr. Jackson as Musical Instructor and the Boys now sing remarkably well.” On special occasions the band put on public concerts like the one below and sometimes on a Sunday Bangor residents willing to donate a shilling were welcomed aboard the Clio for a religious service followed by afternoon tea and a concert performed by the boys.

When war broke out in September 1914 naval recruitment became a priority and the Clio boys were set to making kit bags and ammunition pouches. Forty four boys joined the Navy and another 163 joined the Army. After the war, the Clio lay neglected in the Straits until in March 1920 she was towed away and scrapped.

Another training ship with connections to North West Wales, the Indefatigable, had a longer history. Moored on the Mersey at Birkenhead, the ship was loaned by the Admiralty to provide naval training for the “sons and orphans of sailors who are without means, preference being given to those whose fathers had been connected with the Port of Liverpool”. The original ship became unfit for use in 1912 and was replaced by another vessel until 1941. But then the establishment was forced onto land by the war and after a few years in temporary accommodation, it became based at Plas Llanfair on Anglesey where it remained until quite recently.

Further Reading: Local historian Emrys Rhys Roberts has written a comprehensive history of the Clio.

1890 Clio book cover


[1] Third Annual Report of the Society of the Industrial Training Ship ‘Clio’, 1879.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] DRO/HD/1/366/Case no. 503

[6] C Draper (2005), Paupers, Bastards and Lunatics: The Story of Conwy Workhouse, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch

[7] North Wales Chronicle, January 25th 1890.

Damned by the critics but read by the Queen

In the 1890’s Marie Corelli’s novels were best sellers and although critics belittled her work as commonplace and overly melodramatic, she was read by Queen Victoria and William Gladstone.

1905 Marie Corelli photo

Born Mary Mackay, the illegitimate daughter of the Scottish poet Charles Mackay and his servant Elizabeth Mills, she changed her name to Marie Corelli in 1886 and claimed she was part Italian. She pretended to speak Italian and, after moving to Stratford upon Avon in 1899 was seen boating on the river in a gondola, complete with a gondolier she had brought over from Venice.

Corelli never married and explained:

‘…There was no need. I have three pets at home which answer

the same purpose as a husband. I have a dog which growls every

morning, a parrot which swears all afternoon and a cat that comes

home late at night..’

For 40 years the author lived with her companion Bertha Vyver. Although she never defined herself as a lesbian – and her unrequited passion for the artist Arthur Severn was well known- Corelli’s biographers have speculated that her relationship with Vyver may have been romantic and support this theory by citing the erotic descriptions of female beauty which often appear in her books.

In addition to 25 novels, Corelli wrote books of short stories, poems and numerous articles and pamphlets on themes especially popular during the Victorian period such as romance, spiritualism, mysticism, fantasy, science and religion. She died in 1924 largely unremembered but her literary legacy is once again becoming recognised.

If Pa killed Ma, who’d kill Pa? Marwood.

1890 William Marwood Executioner

William Marwood, a Lincolnshire cobbler and devout Wesleyan Methodist, executed 176 people during his career as principal public executioner. And apparently slept like a child.

He is often credited with inventing the ‘long drop’ method of hanging. If the weight of the victim was taken into consideration when calculating the length of the drop, death would be instantaneous. Before Marwood took up his post, hanging carried the possibility of protracted strangulation or even decapitation. In further efforts to ‘improve’ his service, he made sure the ropes and tackle he used were made up to his personal specifications.

Marwood travelled to Ireland disguised as a clergyman to hang the Phoenix Park murderers and during his final illness in 1883 rumours circulated that he had been poisoned by Irish sympathisers as revenge for the executions. His wife Ellen survived him long enough to sell his clothes to Madame Tussaud’s but the rest of his possessions were auctioned off, including his dog Nero.[1]

[1] Bill Greenwell, Lost Lives,