Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 59

History of Twm O’r Nant — Eagerness for Learning — The First Interlude — The Cruel Fighter — Raising Wood — The Luckless Hour — Turnpike–Keeping — Death in the Snow — Tom’s Great Feat — The Muse a Friend — Strength in Old Age — Resurrection of the Dead.

“I AM the first-born of my parents,” says Thomas Edwards. “They were poor people and very ignorant. I was brought into the world in a place called Lower Pen Parchell, on land which once belonged to the celebrated Iolo Goch. My parents afterwards removed to the Nant (or dingle) near Nantglyn, situated in a place called Coom Pernant. The Nant was the middlemost of three homesteads, which are in the Coom, and are called the Upper, Middle, and Lower Nant; and it so happened that in the Upper Nant there were people who had a boy of about the same age as myself, and forasmuch as they were better to do in the world than my parents, they having only two children whilst mine had ten, I was called Tom of the Dingle, whilst he was denominated Thomas Williams.”

After giving some anecdotes of his childhood he goes on thus:- “Time passed on till I was about eight years old, and then in the summer I was lucky enough to be sent to school for three weeks; and as soon as I had learnt to spell and read a few words I conceived a mighty desire to learn to write; so I went in quest of elderberries to make me ink, and my first essay in writing was trying to copy on the sides of the leaves of books the letters of the words I read. It happened, however, that a shop in the village caught fire, and the greater part of it was burnt, only a few trifles being saved, and amongst the scorched articles my mother got for a penny a number of sheets of paper burnt at the edges, and sewed them together to serve as copy-books for me. Without loss of time I went to the smith of Waendwysog, who wrote for me the letters on the upper part of the leaves; and careful enough was I to fill the whole paper with scrawlings which looked for all the world like crow’s feet. I went on getting paper and ink, and something to copy now from this person, and now from that, until I learned to read Welsh and to write it at the same time.”

He copied out a great many carols and songs, and the neighbours observing his fondness for learning persuaded his father to allow him to go to the village school to learn English. At the end of three weeks, however, his father, considering that he was losing his time, would allow him to go no longer, but took him into the fields in order that the boy might assist him in his labour. Nevertheless Tom would not give up his literary pursuits, but continued scribbling, and copying out songs and carols. When he was about ten he formed an acquaintance with an old man, chapel-reader in Pentre y Foelas, who had a great many old books in his possession, which he allowed Tom to read; he then had the honour of becoming an amanuensis to a poet.

“I became very intimate,” says he, “with a man who was a poet; he could neither read nor write; but he was a poet by nature, having a muse wonderfully glib at making triplets and quartets. He was nicknamed Tum Tai of the Moor. He made an englyn for me to put in a book in which I was inserting all the verses I could collect:

“‘Tom Evans’ the lad for hunting up songs, Tom Evans to whom the best learning belongs; Betwixt his two pasteboards he verses has got, Sufficient to fill the whole country, I wot.’

“I was in the habit of writing my name Tom or Thomas Evans before I went to school for a fortnight in order to learn English; but then I altered it, into Thomas Edwards, for Evan Edwards was the name of my father, and I should have been making myself a bastard had I continued calling myself by my first name. However, I had the honour of being secretary to the old poet. When he had made a song he would keep it in his memory till I came to him. Sometimes after the old man had repeated his composition to me I would begin to dispute with him, asking whether the thing would not be better another way, and he could hardly keep from flying into a passion with me for putting his work to the torture.”

It was then the custom for young lads to go about playing what were called interludes, namely dramatic pieces on religious or moral subjects, written by rustic poets. Shortly after Tom had attained the age of twelve he went about with certain lads of Nantglyn playing these pieces, generally acting the part of a girl, because, as he says, he had the best voice. About this time he wrote an interlude himself, founded on “John Bunyan’s Spiritual Courtship,” which was, however, stolen from him by a young fellow from Anglesey, along with the greater part of the poems and pieces which he had copied. This affair at first very much disheartened Tom: plucking up his spirits, however, he went on composing, and soon acquired amongst his neighbours the title of “the poet,” to the great mortification of his parents, who were anxious to see him become an industrious husbandman.

“Before I was quite fourteen,” says he, “I had made another interlude, but when my father and mother heard about it they did all they could to induce me to destroy it. However, I would not burn it, but gave it to Hugh of Llangwin, a celebrated poet of the time, who took it to Landyrnog, where he sold it for ten shillings to the lads of the place, who performed it the following summer; but I never got anything for my labour, save a sup of ale from the players when I met them. This at the heel of other things would have induced me to give up poetry, had it been in the power of anything to do so. I made two interludes,” he continues, “one for the people of Llanbedr in the Vale of Clwyd, and the other for the lads of Llanarmon in Yale, one on the subject of Naaman’s leprosy, and the other about hypocrisy, which was a re-fashionment of the work of Richard Parry of Ddiserth. When I was young I had such a rage or madness for poetizing, that I would make a song on almost anything I saw — and it was a mercy that many did not kill me or break my bones, on account of my evil tongue. My parents often told me I should have some mischief done me if I went on in the way in which I was going. Once on a time being with some companions as bad as myself, I happened to use some very free language in a place where three lovers were with a young lass of my neighbourhood, who lived at a place called Ty Celyn, with whom they kept company. I said in discourse that they were the cocks of Ty Celyn. The girl heard me, and conceived a spite against me on account of my scurrilous language. She had a brother, who was a cruel fighter; he took the part of his sister, and determined to chastise me. One Sunday evening he shouted to me as I was coming from Nantglyn — our ways were the same till we got nearly home — he had determined to give me a thrashing, and he had with him a piece of oak stick just suited for the purpose. After we had taunted each other for some time, as we went along, he flung his stick on the ground, and stripped himself stark naked. I took off my hat and my neck-cloth, and took his stick in my hand, whereupon running to the hedge he took a stake, and straight we set to like two furies. After fighting some time, our sticks were shivered to pieces and quite short; sometimes we were upon the ground, but did not give up fighting on that account. Many people came up and would fain have parted us, but he would by no means let them. At last we agreed to go and pull fresh stakes, and then we went at it again until he could no longer stand. The marks of this battle are upon him and me to this day. At last, covered with a gore of blood, he was dragged home by his neighbours. He was in a dreadful condition, and many thought he would die. On the morrow there came an alarm that he was dead, whereupon I escaped across the mountain to Pentre y Foelas to the old man Sion Dafydd to read his old books.”

After staying there a little time, and getting his wounds tended by an old woman, he departed and skulked about in various places, doing now and then a little work, until hearing his adversary was recovering, he returned to his home. He went on writing and performing interludes till he fell in love with a young woman rather religiously inclined, whom he married in the year 1763, when he was in his twenty-fourth year. The young couple settled down on a little place near the town of Denbigh, called Ale Fowlio. They kept three cows and four horses. The wife superintended the cows, and Tom with his horses carried wood from Gwenynos to Ruddlan, and soon excelled all other carters “in loading and in everything connected with the management of wood.” Tom in the pride of his heart must needs be helping his fellow-carriers, whilst labouring with them in the forests, till his wife told him he was a fool for his pains, and advised him to go and load in the afternoon, when nobody would be about, offering to go and help him. He listened to her advice and took her with him.

“The dear creature,” says he, “assisted me for some time, but as she was with child, and on that account not exactly fit to turn the roll of the crane with levers of iron, I formed the plan of hooking the horses to the rope, in order to raise up the wood which was to be loaded, and by long teaching the horses to pull and to stop, I contrived to make loading a much easier task, both to my wife and myself. Now this was the first hooking of horses to the rope of the crane which was ever done either in Wales or England. Subsequently I had plenty of leisure and rest instead of toiling amidst other carriers.”

Leaving Ale Fowlio he took up his abode nearer to Denbigh, and continued carrying wood. Several of his horses died, and he was soon in difficulties, and was glad to accept an invitation from certain miners of the county of Flint to go and play them an interlude. As he was playing them one called “A Vision of the Course of the World,” which he had written for the occasion, and which was founded on, and named after, the first part of the work of Master Ellis Wyn, he was arrested at the suit of one Mostyn of Calcoed. He, however, got bail, and partly by carrying and partly by playing interludes, soon raised money enough to pay his debt. He then made another interlude, called “Riches and Poverty,” by which he gained a great deal of money. He then wrote two others, one called “The Three Associates of Man, namely, the World, Nature, and Conscience;” the other entitled “The King, the Justice, the Bishop and the Husbandman,” both of which he and certain of his companions acted with great success. After he had made all that he could by acting these pieces he printed them. When printed they had a considerable sale, and Tom was soon able to set up again as a carter. He went on carting and carrying for upwards of twelve years, at the end of which time he was worth, with one thing and the other, upwards of three hundred pounds, which was considered a very considerable property about ninety years ago in Wales. He then, in a luckless hour, “when,” to use his own words, “he was at leisure at home, like King David on the top of his house,” mixed himself up with the concerns of an uncle of his, a brother of his father. He first became bail for him, and subsequently made himself answerable for the amount of a bill, due by his uncle to a lawyer. His becoming answerable for the bill nearly proved the utter ruin of our hero. His uncle failed, and left him to pay it. The lawyer took out a writ against him. It would have been well for Tom if he had paid the money at once, but he went on dallying and compromising with the lawyer, till he became terribly involved in his web. To increase his difficulties work became slack; so at last he packed his things upon his carts, and with his family, consisting of his wife and three daughters, fled into Montgomeryshire. The lawyer, however, soon got information of his whereabouts, and threatened to arrest him. Tom, after trying in vain to arrange matters with him, fled into South Wales, to Carmarthenshire, where he carried wood for a timber-merchant, and kept a turnpike gate, which belonged to the same individual. But the “old cancer” still followed him, and his horses were seized for the debt. His neighbours, however, assisted him, and bought the horses in at a low price when they were put up for sale, and restored them to him for what they had given. Even then the matter was not satisfactorily settled, for, years afterwards, on the decease of Tom’s father, the lawyer seized upon the property, which by law descended to Tom O’r Nant, and turned his poor old mother out upon the cold mountain’s side.

Many strange adventures occurred to Tom in South Wales, but those which befell him whilst officiating as a turnpike-keeper were certainly the most extraordinary. If what he says be true, as of course it is — for who shall presume to doubt Tom O’ the Dingle’s veracity? — whosoever fills the office of turnpike-keeper in Wild Wales should be a person of very considerable nerve.

“We were in the habit of seeing,” says Tom, “plenty of passengers going through the gate without paying toll; I mean such things as are called phantoms or illusions — sometimes there were hearses and mourning coaches, sometimes funeral processions on foot, the whole to be seen as distinctly as anything could be seen, especially at night-time. I saw myself on a certain night a hearse go through the gate whilst it was shut; I saw the horses and the harness, the postillion, and the coachman, and the tufts of hair such as are seen on the tops of hearses, and I saw the wheels scattering the stones in the road, just as other wheels would have done. Then I saw a funeral of the same character, for all the world like a real funeral; there was the bier and the black drapery. I have seen more than one. If a young man was to be buried there would be a white sheet, or something that looked like one — and sometimes I have seen a flaring candle going past.

“Once a traveller passing through the gate called out to me: ‘Look! yonder is a corpse candle coming through the fields beside the highway.’ So we paid attention to it as it moved, making apparently towards the church from the other side. Sometimes it would be quite near the road, another time some way into the fields. And sure enough after the lapse of a little time a body was brought by exactly the same route by which the candle had come, owing to the proper road being blocked up with snow.

“Another time there happened a great wonder connected with an old man of Carmarthen, who was in the habit of carrying fish to Brecon, Menny, and Monmouth, and returning with the poorer kind of Gloucester cheese: my people knew he was on the road and had made ready for him, the weather being dreadful, wind blowing and snow drifting. Well, in the middle of the night, my daughters heard the voice of the old man at the gate, and their mother called to them to open it quick, and invite the old man to come in to the fire! One of the girls got up forthwith, but when she went out there was nobody to be seen. On the morrow, lo and behold! the body of the old man was brought past on a couch, he having perished in the snow on the mountain of Tre ‘r Castell. Now this is the truth of the matter.”

Many wonderful feats did Tom perform connected with loading and carrying, which acquired for him the reputation of being the best wood carter of the south. His dexterity at moving huge bodies was probably never equalled. Robinson Crusoe was not half so handy. Only see how he moved a ship into the water, which a multitude of people were unable to do.

“After keeping the gate for two or three years,” says he, “I took the lease of a piece of ground in Llandeilo Fawr and built a house upon it, which I got licensed as a tavern for my daughters to keep. I myself went on carrying wood as usual. Now it happened that my employer, the merchant at Abermarlais, had built a small ship of about thirty or forty tons in the wood about a mile and a quarter from the river Towy, which is capable of floating small vessels as far as Carmarthen. He had resolved that the people should draw it to the river by way of sport, and had caused proclamation to be made in four parish churches, that on such a day a ship would be launched at Abermarlais, and that food and drink would be given to any one who would come and lend a hand at the work. Four hogsheads of ale were broached, a great oven full of bread was baked, plenty of cheese and butter bought, and meat cooked for the more respectable people. The ship was provided with four wheels, or rather four great rolling stocks, fenced about with iron, with great big axle-trees in them, well greased against the appointed day. I had been loading in the wood that day, and sending the team forward, I went to see the business — and a pretty piece of business it turned out. All the food was eaten, the drink swallowed to the last drop, the ship drawn about three roods, and then left in a deep ditch. By this time night was coming on, and the multitude went away, some drunk, some hungry for want of food, but the greater part laughing as if they would split their sides. The merchant cried like a child, bitterly lamenting his folly, and told me that he should have to take the ship to pieces before he could ever get it out of the ditch.

“I told him that I could take it to the river, provided I could but get three or four men to help me; whereupon he said that if I could but get the vessel to the water he would give me anything I asked, and earnestly begged me to come the next morning, if possible. I did come with the lad and four horses. I went before the team, and set the men to work to break a hole through a great old wall, which stood as it were before the ship. We then laid a piece of timber across the hole from which was a chain, to which the tackle, that is the rope and pulleys, was hooked. We then hooked one end of the rope to the ship, and set the horses to pull at the other. The ship came out of the hole prosperously enough, and then we had to hook the tackle to a tree, which was growing near, and by this means we got the ship forward; but when we came to soft ground we were obliged to put planks under the wheels to prevent their sinking under the immense weight; when we came to the end of the foremost planks we put the hinder ones before, and so on; when there was no tree at hand to which we could hook the tackle, we were obliged to drive a post down to hook it to. So from tree to post it got down to the river in a few days. I was promised noble wages by the merchant, but I never got anything from him but promises and praises. Some people came to look at us, and gave us money to get ale, and that was all.”

The merchant subsequently turned out a very great knave, cheating Tom on various occasions, and finally broke very much in his debt. Tom was obliged to sell off everything, and left South Wales without horses or waggon; his old friend the Muse, however, stood him in good stead.

“Before I left,” says he, “I went to Brecon, and printed the ‘Interlude of the King, the Justice, the Bishop, and the Husbandman,’ and got an old acquaintance of mine to play it with me, and help me to sell the books. I likewise busied myself in getting subscribers to a book of songs called the ‘Garden of Minstrelsy.’ It was printed at Trefecca. The expense attending the printing amounted to fifty-two pounds, but I was fortunate enough to dispose of two thousand copies. I subsequently composed an interlude called ‘Pleasure and Care,’ and printed it; and after that I made an interlude called the ‘Three Powerful Ones of the World: Poverty, Love, and Death.’”

The poet’s daughters were not successful in the tavern speculation at Llandeilo, and followed their father into North Wales. The second he apprenticed to a milliner, the other two lived with him till the day of his death. He settled at Denbigh in a small house which he was enabled to furnish by means of two or three small sums which he recovered for work done a long time before. Shortly after his return, his father died, and the lawyer seized the little property “for the old curse,” and turned Tom’s mother out.

After his return from the South Tom went about for some time playing interludes, and then turned his hand to many things. He learnt the trade of stonemason, took jobs, and kept workmen. He then went amongst certain bricklayers, and induced them to teach him their craft; “and shortly,” as he says, “became a very lion at bricklaying. For the last four or five years,” says he, towards the conclusion of his history, “my work has been to put up iron ovens and likewise furnaces of all kinds, also grates, stoves and boilers, and not unfrequently I have practised as a smoke doctor.”

The following feats of strength he performed after his return from South Wales, when he was probably about sixty years of age:-

“About a year after my return from the South,” says he, “I met with an old carrier of wood, who had many a time worked along with me. He and I were at the Hand at Ruthyn along with various others, and in the course of discourse my friend said to me: ‘Tom, thou art much weaker than thou wast when we carted wood together.’ I answered that in my opinion I was not a bit weaker than I was then. Now it happened that at the moment we were talking there were some sacks of wheat in the hall which were going to Chester by the carrier’s waggon. They might hold about three bushels each, and I said that if I could get three of the sacks upon the table, and had them tied together, I would carry them into the street and back again; and so I did; many who were present tried to do the same thing, but all failed.

“Another time when I was at Chester I lifted a barrel of porter from the street to the hinder part of the waggon solely by strength of back and arms.”

He was once run over by a loaded waggon, but strange to say escaped without the slightest injury.

Towards the close of his life he had strong religious convictions, and felt a loathing for the sins which he had committed. “On their account,” says he in the concluding page of his biography, “there is a strong necessity for me to consider my ways and to inquire about a Saviour, since it is utterly impossible for me to save myself without obtaining knowledge of the merits of the Mediator, in which I hope I shall terminate my short time on earth in the peace of God enduring unto all eternity.”

He died in the year 1810, at the age of 71, shortly after the death of his wife, who seems to have been a faithful, loving partner. By her side he was buried in the earth of the graveyard of the White Church, near Denbigh. There can be little doubt that the souls of both will be accepted on the great day when, as Gronwy Owen says:-

“Like corn from the belly of the ploughed field, in a thick crop, those buried in the earth shall arise, and the sea shall cast forth a thousand myriads of dead above the deep billowy way.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 14:50