1893 A Rural Enterprise

Sometimes Thomas’ journal demonstrates his narrative ability as with his keen eye and lively writing he records an event. Here we read of the stir caused by (possibly) a nightingale, and of the opportunity this provided for a money-making enterprise for the fortunate locals. Without further comment, I leave you to enjoy the tale.

Saturday the 13th. [May] Mr Armstrong and I went to Llandrillo by the last train and walked from there to Tynycelin near Cynwyd to hear a so-called Nightingale, which has attracted hundreds to hear it every night.  I was doubtful about the bird being Nightingale, so got Mr A. to go with me to hear it.  We had a warm and dusty walk from Llandrillo, and it was more of a walk than I thought it was. We hardly met anyone all the way after leaving Llandrillo; in fact that people seemed to have gone to bed.  When we got to Cynwydfechan we distinctly heard the loud notes of the bird in a little wood close to Tynycelyn, the house of Mr Jones.  We got quite excited and after listening for a short time, we walked on until we turned in at the gate leading to Tynycelyn.  As we went up a lane, we passed some people listening in the lane to hear the bird.

The road from Corwen to Cynwyd, 1967 © Ben Brooksbank,
used under Creative Commons

On arriving at the gate, there was a man there with a lantern to make all who entered the gate pay a penny. On paying, we found ourselves in a little grass field with Tynycelyn House on our left and a small wood to the right.  Here was a curious scene; several groups of persons were either standing or squatting all over the field, and about the middle of it were displayed two lanterns where are man had sweets, cakes etc spread out on a canvas on the grass.  We walked over to the side of the plantation where the bird sent forth its shrill notes within 3 yards of us. The bird was in a thick bush about a yard from the ground. There was a tall ash tree in the fence close to it, and here’s several people of both sexes were sitting on the grass quietly listening. The bird sent forth very loud notes. It began with three or four no, rather sweet notes, and then went into shrill, shivery notes for a few seconds, and then stopped. After a short interval it went over the same notes again, and repeated them at time after time with short intervals of rest. The notes were something similar to the notes of the wood wren, but much louder.  

We went to different parts of the field to hear it – I thought before going that it might possibly be either the sedge warbler or the reed warbler, because both sing at night, but I soon came to the conclusion that it was not a sedge warbler and I did not think it could be a reed warbler.  Curious to say, there was a sedge warbler in the same plantation singing in opposition to this so-called nightingale, I was pleased to hear the sedge warbler as a night singer, and it hardly ever ceased.  I heard the nightingale when in France, but it was very different song from the present one; but some people who said they had heard a nightingale in England, declared the present bird to be a veritable one. On the other hand several people who had also heard the nightingale in Middlesex, were positive that the Cynwyd bird was not a nightingale. The bird was new to me and it pleased me much to hear it.  I was glad I went so as to be certain about the bird if possible, for several so-called nightingales are said to have been heard in Wales. We arrived there about 10.15, left there a few minutes before 11 o’clock.

 I made enquiries of the gatekeeper about it, and he said it was first heard on the night of the 24th of April, and attracted the notice of some persons by its louder singing at night.  The bird commenced with two or three low plaintive notes which suddenly rose to loud rich notes, then gradually fell to a long drawn twee twee several times repeated and shivery as it were. The same were repeated after an interval of silence without any variation. It usually began to sing at 10 or a little before, and kept on until about midnight.

When we were leaving the field, several young men entered and began tripping one another and playing on tin whistles. Several have told me that it has been very noisy and rough there some nights and that there have been several fights.  Many were in drink, for they stayed in the public houses, Cynwyd, until closing time; and when many of them got to the field they could hear nothing but quarrelling and uproar. The Prince of Wales Hotel, Cynwyd, was kept open all night for the accommodation of those who came from a distance. The coach went from Bala several times; bicyclists from various parts; horses and traps from Cerrig-y-Drwidion, etc.  The man has had as much as 17 to 18 shillings of a night as gate money.  Many of the people were much disappointed when they heard it, for they believe the nightingale was about the best of singing birds, that many were so pleased to say they heard the nightingale sing for once in their lives.

When Mr Armstrong and I were going down the lane to the road we heard some of those in the field join in choral singing as is the usual custom in Wales. They sang as loud as they could for some time and as soon as they stopped, donkey took it up and kept braying loudly for a long time.  It is said that there is only a step between the sublime and the ridiculous. The donkey belonged to the man with the sweets. The noise quite drowned the notes of the bird.  We had a long and dusty road before us, but we kept trudging on steadily. A wagonette from Bala passed us on its way to Cynwyd; it was crammed with people who were shouting and singing loudly. On getting to Hendwr bridge, we heard a sedge warbler singing at the side of the brook.  Several people told me they heard a bird singing in several places near the river as they walked along the railway, from Tynycelyn, and that it was nearly as good as singer as the nightingale, but not as loud.  Corncrakes were calling in many of the fields all the way home. We disturbed a white throat near Hendwr in the hedge, and another near Llanwen Cilau; both gave three or four notes and suddenly stopped.

I picked up a glow-worm near Crogen it was very bright, and kept so in an envelope all the way home. It was luminous on the following evening. When near Tydyn Inco, we heard a sandpiper sending forth its shrill notes near the river. We were very glad to get home, for we were rather tired; having walked in all about 11 miles on a dusty road, and the weather was very warm. It was very warm walking for it registered 69 ½° in the shade during the day, and the night temperature was 42 ½ and a half on Sunday morning. There had been 11 ½ hours of sunshine on the Saturday. I got into the house here at 1.35 in the morning, and Frances was very pleased when she heard me come in, for she was anxious about me.

1891: The weather and the birds

Sunshine recorder invented by John Francis Campbell (1821-1885)
Thomas must have used such an instrument, as he records monthly hours of sunshine. (Science Museum)

By 1891 Thomas was 49 years old, settled with his second wife Frances Harriett and father of eight children, ranging in age from 22 years old to a few months. His employer, Sir Henry Beyer Robertson, son of his original employer at Palé, had himself become a family man. There was a settled air about the estate, although perhaps its most affluent days were already waning. Thomas had needed to lay off some of his garden staff after the death of Robertson senior.

The white hot days of geological investigation were over, although its study would continue for the rest of his lifetime. The investigation of the Silurian geological period, to which his collection of fossils and in depth understanding of the strata in the Bala area had contributed so much, was largely settled. People continued to call by appointment or at random at Thomas’ door to view his fossils, and he continued, although less frequently to lead occasional geological and botanical expeditions for various scientific and field study clubs.

His mentor, Professor Thomas McKenny Hughes received the Lyell Medal for geology in 1891, and as well as his professorial duties and family commitments (he had three sons) he was deeply involved in fundraising for the new Geological Museum in Cambridge which was to be named the Sedgwick Museum in honour of his distinguished predecessor. Thomas had supplied fossil specimens to London, Cambridge, some are in the University collection in Swansea, and I suspect he had provided some to his Swedish contact, Professor Törnquist.

After the intense excitement and activity of Queen Victoria’s visit in 1889, Henry Beyer Robertson’s Knighthood and marriage in 1890, the fourth volume of Thomas Ruddy’s journals is more settled and domestic in tone. We do find new aspects of Thomas’ careful observation of the natural world, however. He has obviously been recording bird observations for some years, although he records only occasional sightings prior to 1891.

Now, with his children growing up, he records a number of ‘birding’ expeditions, alone or accompanied by Frances and one or more of the children. He obviously shared his interest with his employer, Sir Henry. Egg collection, sadly, was commonplace and not regarded as improper.

Sunday the 19th [April] After tea I went along the railway to near Garth Goch. It was very nice walking, clean and dry.  I found the nest of a thrush ready for eggs, and to my surprise saw a flock of about fifty field fares.  Sir Henry has seen a few at Gaerwen on the 21st last year, but I have no record of seeing them myself so late.  Saw no other birds of interest.

Fieldfare

Saturday the ninth [May] I got Willy and Henry to go with me bird nesting up the hills.  We went as far as Tynant old slate quarry. We found the nest of carrion crow about 30 feet up a birch tree; it had five eggs, and as they were quite fresh we took them for my collection. We also found the nest of a ring-ouzel with four eggs; these we left in the nest. We saw a flock of a dozen goldfinches high up the Brook (Calethor).

As well as interest in and records made of the local bird life, Thomas had obviously been recording the weather on a daily basis, and he now begins to give a weather summary of each month, in particular rainfall and sunshine – measured no doubt on a device such as that shown above. He looks back over his records to comment on particularly extreme events, remarking on when such a record was last made. Temperature is, of course, in Fahrenheit.

Tuesday the 12th [May] This has been a very warm day –74 in the shade. It has only been twice so warm as this so early in May since I began to record the temperature in 1875.  May fourteen, eighteen seventy-five, it was 77° in the shade, and on 11 May 1884, it was 75° in the shade.

1891 it would seem, was a year of extreme weather events. Thomas records them throughout the year.
Sunday the 4th. [January] Roads  very slippy; icy almost all the way.  Some of us managed to go to church; Frances went with us to the laundry gate, fell down once, but not to hurt, and as she could not walk without slipping, even when holding my arm, I got her to return home.

Saturday the 28th.[February]  I observed a good specimen of the Painted Lady Butterfly (Cynthia cardui) on the violets and walk near the fruit room.  I disturbed it several times, but it soon returned to the violets again.  It was sunny and fine at that time, but there had been 7° of frost in the morning. It must have been hibernating somewhere and was tempted out by the warm sunshine. I never remember seeing a specimen of the above earlier than May. The month of February has been sunny and fine, and it has been the driest month on record here. Rainfall 0.19 inch.

Exceptionally warm weather was followed by equally unseasonable cold, and Thomas hears a sad story from the past:

Sunday the 17th [May]  This has been an exceptionally wintry day for the middle of May. The hills were covered with snow in the morning, some snow during the day, and a heavy fall of snow between 4 o’clock and 6 o’clock. The snow fell in large flakes, just like half crowns, and soon covered the ground and trees, although much of it melted as it fell. In the evening, the surrounding country had a beautiful but very wintry appearance. Frost is set in in the evening. 

Some of the old people about here tell me that there has not been such a snow in May since 9 May, 1854. Edward Evans, one of the gamekeepers at Palé tells me that he and his younger brother came over the Berwyns from Llanarmon D.C. on that day; the snow was blinding and drifting, as it was freezing on the mountains he and his brother were up to their waists in snowdrifts at times, because the mountain road from Llanarmon to Llandrillo was obscured with the snow.  It was a fearful journey, and after hours of it, the brother became so exhausted that Edward had to carry him on his back. Edward too began to get exhausted about 3 miles from Llandrillo (he was then about 19 and his brother that about 17 years of age), but his cries brought a shepherd from the farm of Hendwr to his assistance.  But by that time his brother was dead.

Cadair Berwyn in snow: © Richard Webb via Geograph

Monday the 18th. [May] The snow on the ground and the fruit trees in bloom with icicles hanging to them.  There were only 5° of frost, but the bush fruits and some of the apple trees in bloom were so wet that all froze and destroyed the fruit crops wholesale. It was the same all over England. The young gooseberries and currents dropped off like hail under the bushes a short time after. I have never seen anything like it since I came to Wales.

Wednesday the 24th [June] we had a severe thunderstorm in the afternoon. The lightning was  frequent and seemed very near and the cracks of thunder shook the ground and kept roaring fearfully loud and prolonged.  The rain fell in torrents for a time, accompanied by large hail– Nearly an inch of rain fell in about an hour.  The lightning struck an ash tree at the entrance to the station; it went through the tree, came out in three places and then rang down the tree into the earth, tearing off a strip of bark in its course and also making a groove in the solid wood.

The intemperate weather continued through the summer, with yet another tragedy:

Wednesday the 26th wet and stormy yesterday and the same all-night, 1 ¼ inches of rain fell since 9 am yesterday morning; this has brought down a heavy flood and did much damage to trees, flowers, vegetables and fruit. Some trees were torn up by the root and many large limbs were broken off. The flowers were almost all disfigured and the trees have been much denuded of their leaves. I have seldom seen so much damage done.

A sad fatality happened at Brynselwrn this morning. Our family from Crosby, Liverpool, occupy apartments there; the family consists of father, mother, two daughters, and two sons. All are grown up and the sons have been in the habit of swimming in the Dee every morning, and went this morning as usual, much against the wishes of their parents. 

After entering the water, they were carried away by the swift current for about 300 yards, when the younger one got out by being cast against a projecting tree and bank.  The other was carried away and drowned, and his body was found entangled in a tree about an hour afterwards, and about 300 yards from where the other brother got out. When carried away, they kept well together, swimming with the flood, and for a time a younger one supported the elder one as he was getting exhausted; they tried to reach the side but failed, and at one place they held on for a few seconds to the overhanging branches of a tree; when they let go they were sucked under water under a tree that leaned over the river, and immediately after the one got to land, he gave the alarm, and the father with Mr Hughes the farmer of Brynselwern with his ploughman searched the river sides, and the ploughman found the body near Tyndol, and nearly opposite Palé.

The month of October has been unusually wet, the wettest on record here, with the one exception, and that was January of last year. Rainfall  9.11 inch; nearly 3 ½ inches of it fell in two days; that is 1.69 inch on the 13th and 1.76 inch on the 14th. Registered sunshine, 76 hours. The corn crops were out in an almost continuous rain for about three weeks; it was much knocked about and had commenced to sprout before it was got in in the last week of the month.

And so to December:

The weather during the month–we had the heaviest rainfall in any month since I began the record in 1874. Rainfall 10.42  inch. Max temperature in shade, 57 deg.  Min 10 deg – 22 deg of frost. Registered sunshine, 32 hours.

Total rainfall during the year 1891: 57.00 inch, being 8.50 inch above the average of the last 15 years. Rainy days 231.