Thomas had lost his first wife Mary in June 1879, and by 1881 he was drawing nearer to the Pamplin family, and in particular, to Frances Harriet Williams, niece of his friend William Pamplin. In particular he refers to a significant visit from Frances H and her mother Frances Williams, nee Pamplin, in February 1881.
Walking was always central to Thomas’ life, and several walks are recorded in the journal of the first half of 1881. His friends, made mainly via the Chester Society and further acquaintances recommended by friends from the Society seem to have been central in his rehabilitation following Mary’s death.
A Bank holiday walk on April 18th with Mr. Jebb, whom he met on the highest summit of the Berwyns, took him on a 20 mile round trip, ending with a meal at the ‘smartest’ hotel in Bala, the White Lion. Thomas’ friends were usually from a ‘higher’ echelon of society, as discerned by the scrupulous social order of Victorian Society, but his geological and botanical knowledge gave him the edge in any expedition into the hills.
On May 4th the Vicar of Runcorn, the Revd. William Preston arrived, introduced by a letter from Mr. Shrubsole of the Chester Society, to view Thomas’ fossil collection, and be taken on a fossil hunting expedition.
On May 10thThomas walked with Mr. Dean, the brother of Mrs. Robertson, wife of his employer. Thomas quite frequently spent time in the company of John Dean, who seems to have shared his interest in the countryside, and who no doubt relied on Thomas as guide and interpreter of the environment.
On Tuesday 4th June Thomas set out from William and Margaret Pamplin’s house with Mrs. Williams, mother of Thomas’ future second wife, for a lengthy walk to Pont y Glyn. William was at this time 75 years old, and Frances Williams 73. It is interesting that Frances, who had been a widow since 1866, was visiting alone, since the friendship between Thomas and her daughter had become so close. Was she perhaps visiting to enable Thomas to ask her permission to propose marriage to Frances Harriet?
The walk was about 7 miles, over testing mountainous country, to a height of 430 metres (400 ft) Thomas comments on the sprightly nature of his companions (Margaret Pamplin was younger – only 43 at the time.) From Pont y Glyn they returned by ‘a conveyance’. Would it be necessary to book this in advance, I wonder, or could one find a conveyance in the village, or stop one passing on the road?
To end an exciting day, Thomas records feeling a sizeable earthquake in the evening. his own world was certainly in the process of change. I wonder whether he regarded it as an omen?
Thomas’ diligent and painstaking collection of Bala fossils and his careful and accurate labelling and display were beginning to bring interested visitors to his door on a regular basis. Thomas was obviously able to converse with local worthies as an equal, and was seen as an authority on his chosen subject. Mr Dean, brother-in-law of Thomas’ employer Henry Robertson had obviously recovered from his severe illness of the spring of that year. It would seem that the Robertson family were very happy to allow Thomas to show visitors his collections. Although, sadly, he almost never mentions the Palé gardens in his journals, his work must have been satisfactory to the family as they allowed, even encouraged his geological and other activities.
 July has been very remarkable for fearful and frequent thunderstorms, heavy rains and high floods.
During the month my collections were visited by the Revds. Ellis Edwards, Professor at the Methodist College Bala, and Ogwen Jones of Rhyl. Mr. Dean brought Mr. Edmund Aitken, surgeon of London, to see them, also the Revd. Wynn Williams, and his son, from Fronheulog, to whom I gave a collection of Bala fossils.
It is interesting that so many clergy came to view and discuss the fossils. The hostility of the church to Darwin’s ideas, and the clash of views over the dating of fossils vis à vis the Biblical view of the date and process of creation led to much discussion during the second half of the nineteenth century. By the time of Darwin’s death in 1882, the Church of England was ready to give him a state funeral and burial in Westminster Abbey. This article details the growing reception of the ideas of the formation, dating and geology of the earth by the Church of England over the 23 years between he publication of The Origin of Species and Darwin’s death. For the clerical visitors to the very ancient Silurian and Ordovician fossils, the questions raised must have ben theological as well as scientific.
A distinguished visitor to Palé who chatted to the Head Gardener was Sir Theodore Martin, with his wife, a noted actress. Like Henry Robertson, Theodore Martin, was born in Scotland, and had moved to nearby Bryntysilio Hall. He had been chosen by Queen Victoria to write the biography of Prince Albert; this had been finished, and Martin knighted in 1880. A Biographical note is here.
His wife, born Helena Faucit [written Fawcett by Thomas] had been a noted Shakespearean actress. She had appeared as Beatrice, on the opening of the Shakespeare Memorial at Stratford-on-Avon on 23 April 1879. For a portrait of Lady Martin see here and a biography here.
Sept 7th Tuesday I had a long chat with Sir Theodore Martin of Bryntisilio near Llangollen; he was very chatty and pleasant to talk to. In asking me the name of a plant I gave him the only one I had: Salpiglossus; he said it would take a lifetime to remember such a name. A great author like him to say that. His lady was with him here on a visit. She is no beauty, and she has a peculiar unhappy like expression. Lady Martin was well known as the famous actress Miss Helen Fawcett.
It is little wonder that we can sometimes view Victorian culture as being inclined to melancholy and mourning. Death and dangerous illness were always nearby, and no class of society was exempt from their touch. In the first few months of 1880, when Thomas had been a widower for less than a year, tragedy struck the Robertson family and the staff of Palé.
First, Alexander Sherriff, the husband of Mr. and Mrs. Robertson’s second daughter Annie, died at the family’s London house; they had been married less than eight years. She had become a widow at 25.
February 8th Sunday Mr. Sherriff died at Lancaster Gate London aged 32. This has cast quite a gloom over us all, but especially Mrs. Sherriff and Mrs. Robertson. Mr. Sherriff to my knowledge was most honourable and straightforward, free from all mischief making, and deservedly popular. He used to come to see my collection, and was always amiable and humble in manners.
Within ten days Mrs. Robertson’s brother John Dean fell ill:
Feb. 18th, Wednesday Mr. Dean took Scarlet fever, which has cast another gloom over Palé. Feb 25th Mr. Dean in a most critical condition.
A member of Palé staff was the next victim, but fortunately Joh Dean survived.
March 8th Monday Miss Jarvis the head housemaid died of the fever after 4 days’ illness. She was a quiet, good and industrious servant, whose untimely death all deplore.
Mr. Dean, I am thankful to say is past danger, he came out of doors today for the first time March 19th.
Thomas’ family escaped the illnesses on the estate that winter, and so Little Mary Emily began her education, just nine months after the death of her own mother.
March 23rd Mary Emily’s first day at school.
These are mournful journal entries, the only ones until May of that year, but they bring sharply into focus he realities of life and death in the nineteenth century. The rest of the year becomes more cheerful!
The journal entries after the death of Thomas’ wife Mary in June 1879 almost all concern geology and walking expeditions. Reading more closely, it is clear that his friends and acquaintances accompanied him on days out, perhaps sensing that his lifelong love of the natural world and geological studies in particular would be the means of his coping with bereavement. It is also clear that he must have been confident in the care of his young children during his absences, either by the maid living in at the Garden House or with staff at Palé.
The family at Palé and a local friend were the first to encourage Thomas to go on an expedition. John Dean was brother of Mrs. Robertson, and a frequent companion to Thomas over the years. I have not identified Mr. Brandt. Inevitably, the day involved geological and botanical exploration. See here for Cwm Prysor:
July 2nd I went with Mr. Dean and Mr. Brandt from Bala to Cwm Prysor [SH757368] on the Bala and Festiniog line. …… During the day I examined with great interest the ash and slate rocks of the Llandeilo and Lingula beds. I got no fossils, but I brought specimens of rocks and minerals. I only got salix repens and galium boreale in the plant way.
Later in July two friends from the Chester Society of Natural Science took him on an expedition.
July 23rdI had a day at Hafod-y-Calch near Corwen with my friends Messrs Shrubsole and Palin of Chester. We were very successful in getting fossils and enjoyed ourselves very much. Both these friends were very kind to me.
By August, Thomas was in sufficiently good spirits to lead an expedition of a local Scientific Society:
August 25th Monday I went to Bala and acted as guide to the members of the Wrexham Society of Natural Science. I took them up pat Wenalt to Cornelan. Here we lunched, and I then showed them the first ash bed with the Orthis alternate zone. We next examined the beds of Brynbedwog, where we got plenty of fossils. I next took them down the side of Afon Cymmerig to Gelli Grin. Here we found fossils. We got into Bala by 4.30 pm, and had a most substantial meat tea at the Plas Coch Hotel. I was very highly honoured by the whole party, had lamb to carve. I sat by the side of my old and valued friend Mr. Bennion Acton of Wrexham.
As we read between the lines, it is touching to see Thomas’ friends rallying round him in bereavement, recognising that his dedication to geology and natural history would be the best means of helping him through the difficult summer months of 1879.
Read the full account of his expeditions and entries for the rest of the year here.
By 1879 Thomas had established himself for ten years as Head Gardener at Palé. His new wife Mary had accompanied him from Derbyshire to his post at Llandderfel, and their children Thomas Alexander aged 10, William Pamplin aged 7 and Mary Emily aged 6 were growing up at the Garden House on the Palé estate. Then, in the spring and early summer of 1879 a tragedy struck.
1879 Up till April I have nothing particular to relate, except that my dear wife has been very ill, which causes me a great deal of anxiety. I have geologised a little and fished some to pass the time.
June 9th, Monday 11o’clock. My beloved wife died at a little after 11 am. This has been to me the most distressing thing it has ever been my lot to bear; for two months I have slept but little. I never seemed to be asleep, for I could hear the least movement during the night. Her illness was rapid consumption, so that she suffered no pain, but dropt off calmly to a better world. Mrs. Robertson was most kind and anxious about her. Mrs Pryce of Bronwylfa brought her a preparation of her own make, Mrs Richards of Fronheulog was also most kind, and all my neighbours showed the most sympathy and kindness to me during her illness.
June 12th My dear wife was buried; the neighbours showed their sympathy by coming from all parts, and by carrying the bier all the way. The village people had drawn their blinds and the shops their shutters, all of which was so kind of them, especially for a stranger. I have lost a kind and feeling mother of children, a wife but seldom equalled, a quiet living, good natured and reserved companion, but beloved by those who knew her. Mrs. Robertson in writing to me said that I little knew how much she and her family respected her, and how deeply they felt her loss. Her old and respected friend Mrs. Owen was with her in her last moments, and showed her all respect and kindness. [Probably Elizabeth Owen, Housekeeper of Palé, originally from Devon, and aged 61 in 1879 – ed.]
Mary’s death left Thomas with three young children of 10 and under. He does not comment in the diary about how he managed to look after them, do his work in the gardens, and continue with his geological and botanical excursions. In the Wales census of 1881 a servant, Jane Richards aged 21 was living in the house. Mrs. Robertson of Palé Hall probably ensured that there was enough support for the children. Thomas gives no clue in the diary about the children’s reactions to their loss of a mother at an early age – a relatively common experience among Victorian children.
Thomas’ journal for the years 1877 and 1878 are remarkable in that there is hardly any subject mentioned except geology and geologists, and the new and related subject of microscopy, recently added to the list of topics covered by the Chester Society of Natural Science. Even more remarkable is the way in which by 1878 the Robertson family of Palé were becoming interested and in some degree involved in Thomas’ geology. In particular the elder daughter of the family Annie, who in 1872 at the age of 17 had married Alexander Sherriff, together with her unmarried sisters in law were accompanied and tutored in geological expeditions by Thomas.
In 1877 Thomas conducted both the Geological Society and the Chester Society of Natural Science on field expeditions:
July 20th Thursday The members of the Geologists Association and friends to the number of 34 came to Llandderfel station where there were seven conveyances waiting for them to take them to Llangynog. I had an invitation to go with them, so that I got ready. Mr. Davies acted as guide, so that he brought them to see my collection of fossils. I was glad to get introduced to some leading geologists such as Professor McKenny Hughes of Cambridge, Prof. John Morris, London University, Dr. Hicks of London, Mr. Hopkinson and other minor stars.
There were several ladies in the party. I gave them some refreshments, showed them my fossils which highly interested them, and took them afterwards to Brynselwrn quarry to get some graptolites. We next went up the Berwyns to the phosphate mine which was examined with interest and then to Llangynog where there was an excellent lunch ready for us at the expense of Mr. Doveston of ‘The Nursery’ near Oswestry whose two daughters were with us.
All were happy and enjoyed the lunch. I had to carve ducks, which I managed very well. Several amusing speeches were made after dinner. We also had Geological addresses outside in the evening. The day was very warm. The party proceeded to Oswestry in conveyances from there and I came home by those returning to Bala. I felt very much pleased to be with such high geologists. See paper for report of it [Paper not found – ed.] I may add that I had with me Mr. Barrois of Lille, France, Mr. & Mrs. Barbec of Pinner, Watford.
A key introduction was to Professor Thomas McKenny Hughes of Cambridge, who was to influence Thomas’ researches greatly, and who in subsequent years sent geologists from all parts of the UK and further abroad to Thomas’ door to view his fossil collection and discuss the geology of the Bala area. By the time he was guiding the Chester Society, only a few days later, Professor Hughes had become ‘my old friend’!
July 31st Monday. I went to Bala to act as guide for the members of the Chester Society of Natural Science. The morning was wet, but we faced the hill by Wenalt [SH927340], then to Brynbedog [SH931 330], lunched and went on to Bryn–y-Gwyn [SH934330], where many fossils were got. From there to Gelli Grin [SH936331], and back to Bala where a first-rate tea was ready. I made the acquaintance of several new geologists, amongst which was Mr. Shore of Chester, and my old friends Mr. Shrubsole and Professor Hughes. All the party enjoyed themselves very much.
In May 1878 Mrs Sherriff (nee Robertson ) and her sisters in law were staying at Palé, where they caught Thomas enthusiasm for geology:
May 3rd Miss Robertson brought Miss Sherriff, and Miss Alice Sherriff to see my fossils and general collection; they were very much pleased. After seeing them we went together in the wagonette to Garnedd [SH896355] to see the Bala beds and to collect fossils. Mr. H.B. Robertson went with us. We got several nice fossils and walked back together.
May 18th I went with the Misses Sherriff & Mrs. Sherriff [nee Robertson] to Gelli Grin, to geologise. The first two worked uncommonly hard at stone-breaking – I never saw more enthusiastic ladies fossil hunting. Mrs Sherrif was painting a sketch. They all enjoyed themselves very much and were very courteous.
May 21st The above party went with me to Cynwyd, where I first showed them Cynwyd falls. I next led them up to the fossil ground, but it wasraining, so that it was not very encouraging, but the ladies were cheerful and willing to proceed. When we got up two miles, the rain suddenly ceased, and it turned quite a fine day. On looking back we could see the Arenig white with fresh-fallen snow. We got several interesting fossils at the first ground. After luncheon we went to work at the upper beds at Bwlch-y-Gaseg, where we were unusually successful. Miss Sherriff was continually calling out that she was getting fat ones – that is large shells. We got Trilobites, shells and corals. Mrs. Sherriff sat sketching the distant view. They were very free, courteous and kind, and we got home well pleased with our trip, although it was a hard day’s work.
May 22nd Mrs. Sherriff and the Misses Sherriff here for three hours. I was naming their fossils, owing to their time being up to depart from here. They were very thankful for all my assistance.
I presume that the management of the garden at Palé continued satisfactorily since Mr. Robertson was content to foster his Head Gardener’s geological passions.
The journal entries for the first three of Thomas’ years as Head Gardener at Palé are brief; it is clear that he was much occupied in setting out the gardens and creating and managing a workforce of gardeners – although sadly, we do not hear anything of them. Did Thomas take on apprentices, and did he give them as thorough a grounding as he himself enjoyed at Minto House?
The short journal entries for 1872 demonstrate a range of activities and interests which made up the fabric of Thomas’ life at that period. We read of the activities of the Robertson family, the increase of Thomas’ and Mary’s own family, Thomas’ growing influence among the local owners of large estates needing development, and his spare time activities of botany and geology.
The year begins with the planting of trees in the new garden at Palé (already detailed in a previous post.)
January 15th Monday Master Robertson planted a Deodar and a Picea Nordmaniana on lawn, each near the ends of the walls of the fruit garden.
Miss Robertson planted a Deodar on lawn in front of the pantry window. Miss Annie planted a Deodar and a Picea grandis, both near the library. Miss Henrietta planted a Deodar and Picea pinsapo, both near the little walk leading to the flower garden.
Later that year, a significant event in the Robertson family is chronicled:
December 4th Wednesday Great Rejoicings here over the marriage of Miss Annie to Mr. Sherriff. All the neighbourhood was in holiday and all passed over very nicely.
Alexander Thomas Arthur Sherriff was 24 at the time of the marriage and the son of the MP for Worcester. His family home was in Sunbury, Surrey at the time of the 1871 census; other members of the family are recorded as being Members of the Stock Exchange. Alexander himself is recorded as ‘BA’. After attending Shrewsbury school, Alexander had gone up to Trinity Cambridge in 1865. Somewhat unusually marrying before her elder sister, Miss Annie had made a good match, but it was to end tragically when Alexander died at the Robertson family home in Lancaster Gate, London in 1880, less than eight years after the marriage.
[In brackets at foot of a page: William Pamplin Ruddy born January 19th, Friday at 3.15 am.]
William Pamplin Ruddy was born when his brother Thomas Alexander was two years and eleven months old. I had originally assumed that his second name was given in honour of Thomas’ greatest friend William Pamplin, but I have since learned that it was in fact honouring William’s wife Caroline, neé Hunneman, who was his godmother. At this point no-one could have guessed that in due course Thomas was to become ever more closely related to the Pamplin family.
The next recorded item is the first of many mentions of Thomas’ visits to nearby estates to advise on horticulture and garden design. We can deduce that Henry Robertson was already very proud of Thomas’ work, perhaps showing nearby landowners round his recently acquired estate, and promising them the assistance of his knowledgeable and confident Head Gardener. Thomas was still only just 30.
Sept 25th Wednesday I went to see Dolserau Hall, the seat of Charles Edwards Esq. [now a hotel Ed.] Mr. Lawson the gardener was very nice and showed me all of any interest. It is in a very pretty situation, And a very nice place. Mr. Lawson took me to see the ruins of Dolgyn Hall where he pointed out an old smelting kiln where iron had been smelted. I saw very good specimens of the Taxodirum distchum and tulip trees. We went afterwards up the romantic Torrent Walk, which is a charming place. A large stream is either sliding down rocks, forming small cascades or dashing down at headlong speed for two miles nearly. The sides of the dingle are nicely wooded and studded with flowers and ferns. At the head of it we got to the house of Caerynwch the seat of the late Mr. Richards. Caerynwch is a small but nice place. The torrent is on its property. [Grid ref SH7518]
There was time for family and friends; William Pamplin’s sisters Harriet (1803-1875) and Sarah (1804-1873) moved from London to be near their brother. His third sister, Frances, remained in London. She was married to Parish Clerk of Newington. Their daughter Frances Harriet would become Thomas’ second wife.
It was a very pleasant year all through – not too warm. I had good fishing during the summer. Mr. Pamplin’s sisters came to live at Dr. Richard’s new house – Bronwylfa – very nice people, so that they were and are nice friends.
I am able to trace little about Jane Blackhall, Thomas’ Scottish sister-in-law. Did she emigrate to Australia permanently, or was this a visit? A long journey for a single woman, in either case.
My sister-in-law Jane Blackhall was staying with us for a time before she left for Melbourne in Australia.
As he sums up the year, Thomas reflects with satisfaction on his progress, finding time for both hard work, family concerns and pursuit of leisure activities. and proves himself to be a tireless and self-motivated student, as ‘working up’ the birds and geology obviously point to study in books as well as field research.
Last January our second child was born here at Palé. By this time I have got Palé into a nice state – everything very satisfactory.During the year I have been hard at work botanizing the district, also working up the birds and the geology of the neighbourhood which I find to be very interesting.