Your Stories

Bridgends Royal Harpist 26th April 2007 Family History
For more years than I care to remember, my wife has regaled me with the stories told her by her late father, passed down to him by his mother, born Mary Jenkins of Laleston near Bridgend.

On one such occasion a few years ago, I casually remarked that although these tales were interesting, they were just tales unless she could prove it.
Many stories handed down through the generations inevitably become unrecognisable from the original because of different interpretations and additions made by different generations.
Her reply was instantaneous and unambiguous, and I quote "you’re the genealogist, prove me wrong".
Well, having shot my mouth off what could I do?

I started researching the story, which could have been the script for a children's adventure book. The story was literally a rags-to-riches tale of a young boy, the son of a lowly Bridgend tailor who received the support and help of Lady Lovelace the daughter of Lord Byron.

This young boy was to become "Pencerdd Gwalia" Royal Harpist to Queen Victoria and Edward VII and the longest serving Royal Harpist ever. He was, it was said, a great uncle to my wife's late grandmother, Mary Jenkins.

I then set about learning all I could about this man. At the time Bridgend library could tell me very little about him, even though there is a commemorative plaque, (incorrectly dated), to the right of their front door.

In all fairness however, I have since been informed that they now have a short piece about John Thomas on their web site and also some newspaper clippings at the Library.
After much searching I did manage to find a few articles in various books and newspapers. I slowly put together the history of this celebrated Welshman.
"Pencerdd Gwalia", real name John Thomas, was born in Ogmore on St David's day 1826 to John Thomas, a tailor of Bridgend, and Catherine Jones.

John's love of music came from his father who was a founder of Bridgend Town Band. At only 12 years of age in 1838, he won the Triple Harp competition at the National Eisteddfod at Abergavenny, beating much older and experienced players. It was here that he first met Augusta Hall, (Lady Llanover and wife of Benjamin Hall after whom Big Ben was named), and Sir Charles Morgan of Tredeger Park,Newport, who invited John to perform at his London home.

Amongst other notaries, he came to the attention of Ada Countess Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, who was so impressed by such precocious talent she offered to pay the bulk of the fees for further education at the Royal Academy of Music.
The whole family, and by this time there were five children, moved to London in support of their young prodigy. John eventually became extremely famous. His bardic name, Pencerdd Gwalia, which translated means Top musician of Wales was bestowed on him at The Aberdare National Eisteddfod in 1861. He was extremely proud of this title and used it whenever he performed.

In 1862 he held a concert of Welsh music in St. James Hall London, and continued to hold Welsh music concerts on a regular basis for over 40 years. He would bring together as many as twenty harpists and several hundred choristers; you can imagine the effect this huge ensemble had on the audiences of the day.

In 1871, he was made Professor of the Harp at the Royal Academy London, and later became a chief examiner. He was also appointed as Professor of Music at the Guildhall School of music and the Royal College.

In 1872, he became Royal Harpist and was a firm favourite of Queen Victoria and her son Edward. He travelled widely throughout Europe, entertaining all the crowned heads including the Empress of Russia, and rubbing shoulders with all the famous musicians of the time. This included people such as Franz Liszt, and the equally famous composer Rossini, whom he visited on numerous occasions at his house in Paris. He also composed hundreds of pieces for the harp and piano. Many of which are still played to this day.
So it seemed the stories were true, and if anything, understated. The man was indeed a phenomenon in his day, but were they actually family related?
In Wales as everyone knows, even distant acquaintances of your parents were called auntie (or Bopa) and uncle. The search for a real family connection was now on.

The only real clue already in our possession was to be found amongst old newspaper cuttings kept by my late father in law, one of these told a story of an old harp which once belonged to Pencerdd, in the safe keeping of his niece Mrs Rachel Baker and her daughter Mrs Rachel Ridgeway of Bridgend.
On the reverse is an article about the retirement of Baldwin and the initiation of Neville Chamberlain as the new Prime Minister. This information allowed me to date the cutting to about 28th May 1937. Could it be that any of her descendents were still alive and living in the area?
After telephoning just about every Ridgeway in the book, I eventually contacted Olive, the grand daughter of the Rachel Baker mentioned in the cutting. Olive is now 85 years old but is still as bright as a button and extremely articulate.

Olive told me she remembered my wife's grandmother (Mary Jenkins) very well, and that Mary Jenkins was her own mother's first cousin. Their respective mothers were the sisters - Mary Anne and Rachel Thomas born in Aberkenfig, who were in turn, the only daughters of Rachel Thomas, the favourite sister of John Thomas (Pencerdd Gwalia) - whew !

This was at least independent corroboration but still only hearsay, and with no practical evidence, the acquisition of this evidence was now down to me.

I set about tracing Mary Jenkins, she was born in Laleston to Mary Ann and David Jenkins. A Birth Certificate showed her mother Mary Ann's maiden name was Thomas, so we were on the right track.
A Wedding Certificate for Mary Ann showed that she was 24 years old in 1889 and her father was Joseph Thomas. So it was now down to finding Joseph.

Census returns for 1881 showed Mary Ann at 16 which was about right, but her father was Jehoshaphat Thomas and her mother Jennet, with no sign of her sister Rachel, could this be correct?
After a closer examination, I noticed that there was a large age gap between the children, some 12 years between Mary Ann and the next born. I assumed, correctly as it turned out, that Jennet was in fact her Step mother, and later found her sister Rachel had gone to live with her paternal grandfather, Robert Thomas, in Newcastle, Higher Bridgend.

In the meantime I had traced Jehoshaphat Thomas and his family through preceding Census Records back to 1841, when he was two months old.

There were no signs of a musical family, they were a long line of metal workers and skilled moulders, certainly not musicians. Therefore, it had to be that one of the wives in the Thomas line, was a Thomas both before and after Marriage. The prime candidate was of course Mary Ann's biological mother, Rachel.
In the 1871 Census for Newcastle, higher (Bridgend), I found what I was looking for; Mary Ann and her sister Rachel, father Jehoshaphat and mother Rachel born in London! It had to be her!
A Marriage Certificate for Mary Ann's mother- Rachel, proved that she was also Thomas before Marriage, and her father was a master tailor, John Thomas.
Was this the same John Thomas a tailor and father of Pencerdd? Surely it must be.

In the 1841 Census for London, I found Pencerdd and his family "within the walls". John 35, wife Catherine 35, son John 15, son William 12, son Thomas 10 daughter Mary (Catherine) 7, and son Llewellyn 2.

I knew from her Wedding Certificate that Rachel would have been born circa 1842/3, and so I was not surprised when she was not included in the 1841 Census.

By 1851, the family had dispersed and most were living in separate lodgings in London. Strangely Rachel, her mother and youngest brother Llewellyn, were in Jubilee Street Brighton, probably taking the air!
In the 1861 Census for Lower Coity, Bridgend, I found a Rachel Thomas, 19 a dressmaker born St. Pauls, London, and mother Catherine, 52, a bonnet maker born Bridgend.

A piece of good fortune now landed at my feet. I found another Rachel or so I thought, in the same Census. Rachel Thomas aged 19, a dressmaker born London, a visitor to her sister Mary Catherine Miles age 27, a Harpist, and her husband Thomas Miles, a Stone Mason and living at the Welsh Harp, Llangynwyd.

The chances of there being two Rachel Thomas's, dressmakers and of the same age, born in London and living a few miles apart in thinly populated Welsh villages in 1861 were astronomical.

I assumed that Rachel had for some reason spent the previous night with her sister, and so was correctly included in the Miles household, and she was back home with her mother on the Sunday the Census was taken, where the enumerator mistakenly included her in the Coity household.

Later research found that Mary Catherine had lost an eleven month old baby girl also Mary Catherine on the preceding day, this would explain why her sister Rachel was with her.

Whatever the reason I now had a connection between Rachel and Mary Catherine and therefore Pencerdd. However I still needed a Birth Certificate or some other form of proof as to her parents.

I searched 1837 online for a Birth, but to no avail, there just wasn't one at around that time, certainly not in London.

I knew from other Census Records such as 1861 and 1871 for Bridgend District, that Rachel had been born in St Paul's district London at about 1842/3. So where was Rachel? I now had proof of Birth of virtually every one of the family except Rachel!
Frustrating to say the least, but I plodded on.

Then the L.D.S. web site came to my rescue, I found the Birth and Christening Record of Rachel Thomas, born to John Thomas, a tailor, and Catherine in St Martin's Ludgate, London.
A copy of the original record arrived a few weeks later, it showed Date of Birth 14th January 1843, Baptism 26th February 1843 and living in 1 Creed Lane, St Pauls. - Bingo !!

Most of the family returned to Bridgend in the early 1850's, but Pencerdd of course embarked on his future career and lived in London at 53 Welbeck Street for most of his life. He moved a year or so before his death, to a house he named Llandulas in New Barnet, where he died on March 19th 1913 and is buried at West Hampstead cemetery. One of his sons was knighted and became General Sir Gwilym Ivor Thomas. But that is another story.

Johns' brother Thomas, (Pen name Ap Thomas), emigrated to the USA and was a celebrated harpist and author, both there and in Canada, where he also died in 1913 the same year as his more famous brother.

Another brother, William, also became a harpist married and lived in London. His younger brother Llewellyn emigrated to Australia. He too was a harpist, but died at the relatively young age of 47 of T.B.
He was buried in New Cemetery Melbourne.

His sisters Mary, (full name Mary Catherine), and Rachel, returned home with their parents.
Mary Catherine who also taught the harp, married Thomas Miles in September 1853 at Llangynwyd, Thomas was a skilled stone mason and in 1870 he along with many other skilled Welshmen went to the famous Russian site of Hughesovska, to build the iron foundries there. Sadly he contacted cholera and died within a few months of his arrival.

During September of 1871 the widowed Mary Catherine took her six chidren and sailed off to the USA and, because of this research, I am now in touch with her descendants in New York and Texas.
Jeanne and her husband Fred from Austin, Texas, U.S.A. were over for a short visit last Summer. Thomas Miles is remembered on his parent's tombstone in St Cynwyd's, Llangynwyd.

Rachel Thomas married Jehoshaphat Thomas, (later known as Joseph), on the 5th January 1864, and they set up home in Aberkenfig. They had five children, three of whom died in infancy.

The two remaining girls, Rachel and Mary Anne, brought up families of their own and lived long and productive lives.

Sadly their mother Rachel my wife's Great Great Grandmother, and now proven sister of Pencerdd), died of T.B on the 25th May 1872 aged only 29. She is buried with three of her children Sarah, Jehoshaphat and Catherine at Smyrna Baptist Chapel, Pen y Fai. (Grave number 67).
Her mother, Catherine Thomas, died on December 1st 1863 aged 56 and was buried at St. Illtyd's churchyard Bridgend. The stone, just to the right of the church door is in the form of a Celtic cross. It has a Welsh inscription, a poem which speaks about the writers' mother, and I believe it was written by John Thomas himself, who by this time had been made Pencerdd Gwalia.

The father John Thomas senior died on January 30th 1895 aged 87 and was also buried there with his wife. On the reverse is an inscription which shows there was an earlier Llewellyn who died at only 20 months old on the 15th February 1833.

What an incredible journey, I have learned a fantastic amount about Pencerdd and his success as an internationally famous musician, and the rest of this fascinating family. Not to mention the Miles family and Hughesovska, and many other gems uncovered along the way, but, at a price, - my wife was right all along!! There must be a moral there somewhere, so in future I'll keep my casual remarks to myself.

P.S. If anyone would like to know more about this research. I have a wealth of information I would be more than pleased to share.

e-mail - [email protected]

Graham Hall

Please login if you wish to rate this article.