Ice on Bala Lake

Thames Frost Fair early 19th Century

Thomas kept precise and unfailing records of the weather, but in February 1895 there was much to report. His temperature records are, of course in Fahrenheit.

Friday the 22nd some severe frost during the week–20° on the 18th, 11° on the 19th, 13° on the 20th, 15° on the 21st, 19 ½° on this the 22nd.  Frances, the children and myself have had colds for three weeks; they have left us now. We have not been at church for several Sundays.

Saturday the 23rd. Frances, Francie, Carrie, Millie, and myself went to Bala by the 3.16 train to see the lake frozen over.  It was a strange sight to see such an extent of water frozen over– say between three and 4 miles in length, and three quarters of a mile in width.  We stood for a few minutes on the bank at the North East end of it to view the scene. There were many people on it some skating, some walking about, and a large party playing at hockey on skates.  The snow covered the slopes of the surrounding hills, which  made it look very wintry. But at the time it was rather pleasant, for there was a slight thaw. The scene reminded one of a fair or suchlike. It was so very strange to see the smooth expanse of level ground where I have often seen wild waves rolling along before the winds.  We met Henry on the ice and we all walked about for about an hour. The little ones were sliding part of the time. The ice seems to be very solid and quite strong enough for any ordinary weight. I found a hole broken through it in one place and the ice was about 4 inches in thickness. It averages six or 9 inches over most of it. It is a rough ice, much spotted with white specks and has huge cracks all over it.  There were fewer people there today than usual owing to it being market day at Bala.  I met several people I knew such as Mr Evans, Master of the Grammar School, Mr. Gracie, Mr Owen of the White Lion Hotel etc. and Mr Owen told me he drove over the lower end of the lake on Thursday in his dogcart and a tandem. He zigzagged it afterwards towards Eryl Aran and back again to the lower end.  He, the tandem and people were photographed on the ice. 

This is quite extraordinary as there had been a fatality on the frozen lake on February 19th, reported in at least one newspaper. From the Montgomeryshire Express, Tuesday 19th February 1895:

 Nevertheless, the local population, including the Ruddy Family, seemed undaunted: Several people have skated and walked all the way to the upper end of the lake, and bicycles are frequently running over the ice. There was much of the lake frozen over in January 1881, and in the winter of 18 60–61 too, that there has not been such ice on it as it presents since the winter of 1854–55.  That was the time of the Crimean war. I am told by Mr Peter Jones of Bryntirion that he was taken across the lake that Winter from near Llangower to Bala.  There was a very deep snow that winter and it covered the ground for weeks.

There is not much ice on the Dee, but the river Tryweryn was frozen over from near Rhiwlas to the junction.

We were all very pleased to be on the ice for we may never see such a scene again. We were about three quarters of a mile from the east shore of it.  I never saw such an extent of ice before; and Frances has hardly ever been on any frozen water.

Henry went right across it twice and back on Wednesday afternoon.

Despite Thomas’ report that photographs were taken, I have been unable to find one online. Instead I give you one of my favourite pictures!

Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Lock by Sir Henry Raeburn (about 1784)

Raeburn painted his Skating Minister 100 years before the Bala skaters had fun on the ice.

Friendships in Geology 1894

St Nicholas Church Blundellsands, the area laid out by Thomas Mellard Reade

Although the major all-consuming interest in Geology which had marked Thomas’ early and middle years had somewhat given way to family concerns, and an ever widening interest in a number of natural history and historical/archaeological topics, in 1894, his fifty second year, Thomas continued to increase his circle of friendships with amateur geologists. His collection of fossils seems to have continued to be on permanent display in the ‘Fruit Room’, and callers both local and from further away visited to view them. Such visitors were usually also treated to a viewing of Thomas’ other collections, dried botanical species, birds’ eggs (alas!), coins and archaeological artefacts, many of which were brought to him by interested local to be added to the collections. Sir Henry Robertson seems to have been pleased to bring his guests to view the unusual and unexpected display.

There is little or no mention in the journals of the 1990’s of the Chester Society for Natural Science and its President, Professor Thomas McKenny Hughes, the researches around the identification of the Silurian strata of the Bala having been largely resolved, and the Society and its related Scientific Associations locally having moved on in their interests. Some of the members of the Chester Society who had most encouraged Thomas were elderly. His particular friend, George Shrubsole had died in July 1893.

However, it is clear that Thomas was in correspondence with a number of amateur geologists, probably because he had access to the Journal of the Geological Association – although he does not mention this point. I have already referred to his friendship with and assistance to A.C. Nicholson of Oswestry, whose paper on glacial drift inspired Thomas’ own researches in the local area.

In February 1894 we read for the first time of his meeting with Mr. Mellard Reade: Monday the 12th I had a visit from Mr. Mellard Reade of Blundellsands near Liverpool.  Are he was accompanied by his son Mr. Alleyn Reade.  They have been staying at the White Lion Bala since Friday evening. I have known Mr Reade for some years by his papers on Glacial Geology but this is the first time for me to meet him to speak to. Both got here by 9.35 train, and got here soon after. We first had a chat about geology and geologist friends, and then went to the fruit room to see my fossils which he so much desired to see.  After seeing the fossils for some time we went to Brynselwrn to see the glacial striae and sections of the gravel terraces on the railway and at Glandwynant.  We saw a large moraine below Palé Mill and got here again by a quarter to one.

Thomas Mellard Reade was an interesting character with multiple interests and abilities. He seems to have stood at the intersect between the professional and amateur status. As an engineer and architect he designed and planned the area of Blundellsands, part of the Crosby area (see the photograph of the church above, which was consecrated in 1874). It is notable that Mellard Reade shared the interest of Ruddy himself and Ruddy’s other geologist friend, A. C. Nicholson in glacial boulder drift. Nicholson investigation and published paper concentrates on an area of Shropshire; Mellard Reades’s on Lancashire and Cheshire, whilst Ruddy’s incomplete and unpublished researches would have filled in an adjoining westerly area.

Thomas Mellard Reade –
Photograph from his papers held at Liverpool University

An abstract of Reade’s obituary from the publication Nature gives a summary of Reade’s interests and accomplishments.

By April 1894 we can see that the friendship between Reade and Ruddy was deepening beyond their mutual geological interests, as Reade asks Ruddy to assist his family visiting the area: Thursday the 26th.  We had Mrs Reade and her daughter Miss Taylor to tea.  They are staying at the Derfel with another daughter of Mrs Reade – Miss Mary Reade.  Mr. Reade is my geologist friend from Blundellsands; he wrote to me to say that he would be pleased if I would call on his daughters at the Derfel and assist them in any way I could.  Mrs Reade came afterwards.  Miss Reade devoted all her time to sketching so that she did not come to tea. I showed them the gardens and fossils after tea and we had a short walk in the grounds. Mrs Reade said that her husband would be angry with her if she did not come to see the fossils.  Mr. Reade married a widow and there are eight children in all.  They are nice people.

By the next month, Mr. Reade was visiting in pursuit of Thomas’s local glacial geology, bringing his son:

I spent the evening with Mr Reade and his son. We chatted about glacial geology and Boulders etc.  We planned to have a day in the Hirnant valley on the following day.

I met Mr Reade and his son at the station and we went to Bala by the 9.10 train.  We had a waggonette at the White Lion Hotel to take us to the head of the Hirnant Valley.  We found boulders in abundance at Rhosygwaliau, mostly from Arenig.  Found one Aran boulder at Penygarth, where we found some of the striae (glacial) between the lake and PenyGarth to be W by S, those on the Rhosygwaliau side were W by 10° N. Altitude at Penygarth 700 feet.

We found a stray Arenig boulder here and there until we got to Aberhirnant, but not one after that all the way to the county boundary and beyond on the Vyrnwy side.  I found three or four fossiliferous stones immediately on each side of the county boundary.  They are from the Bala Limestone and must have been carried by land ice, either from Craig yr Ogof or Pen-cefn-coch.  Both places on the high ground along the county boundary to the west of the head of the Hirnant. The absence of boulders was a curious fact, and it was what I thought it would be the case after my experience up the side of another feeder of the Hirnant – Nant cwm hesgen. 

Altitude above sea level at the county boundary, 1660 feet by barometer, and at Aberhirnant 775 ft.  It was 1015 feet where are the road crosses the stream at Moel Dinas, opposite Cwm yr aethnen. [ SH 95228 30015 -Ed.]

The Hirnant Valley

Mr Reade was to continue in friendship with Thomas over the following years, sharing both geological interests and family concerns.

1894 Walking with the children

The children circa 1895: top l-r Millie (Amelia), Henry, Francie (Frances) bottom l-r Carrie (Caroline) Alfie (Alfred)

In 1894 the five children of Thomas and Frances were aged between 12 and 4 years. Thomas, sometimes joined by Frances, enjoyed taking them walking, choosing the expeditions according to the abilities of the children. Each walk gave him opportunity to teach them about the sights and sounds of the countryside. His journal entries suggest that in some of the walks the children were able to decide for themselves whether to join in the walks, as varying numbers and combinations join different expeditions. Over the mid and late 1890s, Henry, the eldest, seems to have been Thomas’ most constant companion, followed by Millie (Amelia). The two elder girls, Francie (Frances) and Carrie (Caroline) were less likely to join in, perhaps being expected to help in household tasks. At this point Henry was 12, Francie 10, Carrie 9, Millie 7 and Alfred 4.

July 21st 1894, Henry and his father made a lengthy expedition too strenuous for the younger siblings. Henry and I went by train to Llandrillo and from there we walked to the top of Cader Fronwen.  [Cadair Bronwen on OS maps] We went over the village bridge, then followed a lane until we got to nice upland pastures, across which we walked until we got to the circle upright stones on Moel ty Ucha.

We next got to a splendid spring of pure water on the top of the ridge where the road turns towards Clochnant at the base of Cadair Fronwen (now Cader Bronwen).  [SJ077 346]. The well has rough slates replaced as a square and is well known from time immemorial as ‘ffynon Maen Milgi” the Greyhound’s stone well.  Some are inclined to think that it is a Roman well from the name Greyhound because it is believed the Romans brought this dog from Italy. We left the road at the well and took to the mountainside until we got to the top of Cader [294] Fronwen by 3.35.  We found the cloudberry or Berwyn raspberry on the way up, but there were neither flowers nor fruit. It had evidently been injured by the frost in May.

On the ridge near the upright stone there is a mound of earth, mostly peaty with a few stones in it.  It is certainly artificial and marks a sepuchral place. From here we went up a steep slope to the top of Craig Berwyn. On top we found many plants of the raspberry in boggy ground.  On our return we followed the same road all the way to Llandrillo where we got to the station a few minutes before train time. Observed the kestrel on the very top, but interesting birds were scarce. We were highly pleased with our visit to the mountain, and were in good condition on our return home.

Not all family expeditions were so extensive. Family members walked ‘after tea’ on many days, observing rocks, flowers and trees and birds and their nests. Each month Thomas would faithfully record details of the weather; his reports were published in the Oswestry Advertiser.

Family walks continued throughout the 1890’s joined by elder step brother Willie when he came home from his work in Wrexham. The frequency of his notes of these walks in the journals of these years (journals 4 and 5) show Thomas’ delight in sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm with his children.

A Curious International Encounter

A dancing bear. Image via Wikimedia commons

Anyone believing that mid-Wales was a remote and scarcely visited area in the 19th century would be surprised by Thomas’ diary, as a remarkable number of people of great diversity seem to have passed the road leading to Palé Hall. In reading the following account, please note the difference in outlook of Thomas’ time and our own in the matter of animal cruelty.

March 1894. I took Alfred with me in the spring cart to Tyddynllan. It was very fine and sunny. We passed three three men, 3 women, several children, two brown bears and the monkey when going and returning.  They were sitting by the roadside as we went and walking along the road as we returned. [Tyddynllan was an estate near Corwen which seems at this time to have been in the hands of the Robertson family. it is now an upmarket restaurant.]

All of us went to the bridge in the evening to see the strange travellers.  They were halting at the bridge.  The men were pretty reasonable, but the women and children were impudent beggars; each of them asked us for “a few pence”.  I returned with Francie, Carrie and Millie to the encampment on the island by the bridge with some food and clothing for them, for which they were very thankful. They could speak but little English, and that very imperfectly, so I asked the leader if he could speak French, this he could speak very well and related to to his travels to me in French.  He said he was from Constantinople, that the two grown-up men were his sons and the women were the wives of his sons and self.  They had travelled most of Europe with their bears.  The bears were from the Balkans and the monkey (an ape) from Saigon.

It is impressive that Thomas had kept his grasp of French learned initially in the Bothy as an apprentice at Minto, and honed during his time studying horticulture in France in 1865-6. Perhaps he was glad of an opportunity to use it again.

The bears were having their supper of bread when we went; he said they fed them on bread, for meat would make them savage.  After one of the bears was fed they made him dance for the children to the music of a tambourine.  The elderly man was much pleased to have me speaking French with him. He said he said that they intended going to Bala, Aberystwyth, Cardiff, Brighton etc. They were evidently a hardy lot, for the women and children were barefooted and bareheaded, and one had a baby only three weeks old. They left Liverpool a fortnight ago. My French has got rather rusty, but we got on pretty well. The children were much pleased to see the bears and monkey.

Thursday the 29th. The bears and monkey here and performed at the Hall, and afterwards one of the bears danced in front of our parlour window to please Alfred who said when he saw the three performing at the Hall “Well Alfie never saw anything like that before”.  One of the sons who danced the bear here could speak French with me.  The travellers caused a great sensation in the village and here. The larger of the two bears stood quite erect when dancing and danced in a circle from right to left, that is going against the sun. He ended by placing his right fore paw on the crown of his head.  The smaller bear would not keep upright and was more clumsy at his performance.  The monkey was an ugly brute; it walked it sometimes on all fours, sometimes on three, and sometimes on 2 feet, went on 2 feet it was much like a boy walking.

And after the excitement, all returned to normal: Saturday the 31st.  It came on a shower of rain in the afternoon, but I went in the evening to the top of Palé Hill.

Marriages 1894

What happens when a biographer suddenly comes across an event in the life of their subject which they find difficult to understand, and in some senses seems quite shocking? It is impossible to understand the context and circumstances of the event, or to interrogate an objective contemporary bystander. I have been acquainting myself with Thomas Ruddy through his journals since I inherited them in 2005, finding much to admire in his character and endeavours in gardening, geology, and as a family man. I rarely read ahead in the journals; following the ‘story’ being a major factor in keeping on with the task of transcription.

So it was that I came to April 1894, and a grand wedding in the Robertson family, when the youngest daughter of the late Henry Robertson, sometime MP, and the sister of Sir Henry Robertson, Henrietta, married, at the somewhat advanced age of 36, the clergyman Eustace King. There seems to have been much rejoicing in the Ruddy family at this happy event. On Friday the 6th of April, Miss Robertson presented Thomas and Frances with a gift:

Miss Robertson gave me a handsome photo frame for two photos. One has a photo of the Rev. Eustace King (her intended husband) and she is going to send me one of her own soon to put in the empty frame. It was very kind of her to give it and we appreciate her kindness.

A gift was given in return on the 12th April: Presented Miss Robertson with a wool handmade hearthrug as a wedding present. We had it made for her. She was much pleased with it, said it would be a nice remembrance, and that as it would suit the pile carpet that we could not have given her anything more acceptable. She took it away with her.

And then comes the shock: Saturday the 14th Tom (his eldest son) married at Southsea much against our wish.

Seemingly entirely unmoved, Thomas continues to enthuse about the wedding of Miss Robertson: Wednesday the 18th Miss Robertson married with the Rev. Eustace King at the church here. It passed off nicely – see account in Oswestry Advertiser. The report is my composition, but Lady Robertson gave me the list of presents to copy. See above.

Thomas continues: I had plenty of white and other flowers for the occasion. Mr King told me he liked the way I decorated the church. I had a beautiful Spirea as a table plant to put in the Queens silver bowl the cake was decorated with Deutzia.

I have now transcribed as far as the end of 1895, and there is no further mention of Thomas’ eldest son, Thomas Alexander, Tom. This is particularly heartbreaking as records show that in February, Tom’s wife Elizabeth Ann, nee Roberts gave birth to a son who lived just three days. They called him Thomas Alexander.

Despite this family rift, Thomas Alexander did well for himself. My future transcription will show whether the rift was ever healed. Tom and Elizabeth did finally have a son, Reginald Harold, born in 1900 and a daughter Beatrice Rosamund born in 1903. I have been in touch with a descendant of Reginald.

It is tempting to quote L.P. Hartley: ‘The past is another country, they do things differently there.’ However, family feuds and rifts still exist, and how is it possible for an onlooker to understand what happens in the human psyche?