Rhys Williams and his wife Mary

Page 1

Rhys Williams


The life story of an old Elenydd shepherd

The way of  life of mid Wales shepherds could be lonely and hard .  Little is known about it outside farming.

Erwyd Howells [1]

Rhys Williams was born around 1849. His father, also named Rhys Williams, was a shepherd at Towy Fechan – a hill farm of around 1700 acres (mainly a sheep walk) situated on the Elenydd mountains about four miles south east of Strata Florida (click here to see map)

Rhys Williams (senior) and his wife Jane Williams had six children, four girls and two boys. According to the 1861 census they were :

Originally the term “Cambrian Mountains” was applied in a general sense to most of upland Wales. Since the 1950s, its application has become increasingly localised to the geographically homogeneous Mid Wales uplands of Pumlumon, Elenydd, and Mynydd Mallaen.

Cambrian Mountains Society

Maryborn 1835
Janeborn 1839
Elizabethborn 1842
Margaretborn 1846
Rhysborn 1849  (census returns,  birth certificate etc. refer to Rhys as Rees – never Rhys)
Evanborn 1854

The children were brought up at Towy Fechan, but they all left home soon after reaching their early teens. Rhys Williams went to work at a hill-farm close to Towy Fechan called Hafodnewydd (some 2½ miles north-west of Towy Fechan). In the 1871 census, he was listed as a farm servant, but his duties would have included a substantial element of shepherding. Soon after his 21st birthday, he left Hafodnewydd to become a full time shepherd, employed by Mr John Jones of Nantstalwyn.

Nantstalwyn was, then, a large mountain farm situated some two miles (as the crow flies) south-southeast of Towy Fechan, just inside the Breconshire border in the parish of Llanddewi Abergwesyn. John Jones was a tenant farmer and his land (mainly sheep walks) extended over 3400 acres of the Elenydd range ; it included Esgair Garthen (on the northern end of Elenydd, 4½ miles east of Strata Florida and roughly the same distance from the town of Rhayader), Moelprysgau and Nantstalwyn itself (click to see map)

Colonel Powell

W T R Powell of Nanteos

 (1815 – 1878)

Member of Parliament for Cardiganshire 1859-1865.  In his later years he was confined to a wheelchair, and died in 1878. He left the estate to his son George [2]

In 1867, John Jones and the landowner, Colonel Powell of Nanteos, built a house at Esgair Garthen and placed a shepherd there ; the aim was to stop farmers from the Rhayader area (mainly the parish of Llanwrthwl) sending livestock to graze the eastern ‘esgair’ (the eastern ridge) of this sheep-walk. The shepherd’s name was Stephen Lloyd whose family was, originally, from Ffair Rhos in the parish of  Gwnnws. He was around 30 years of age and had been working for John Jones as a farm servant  for many years previously. The Llanwrthwl farming community was fiercely opposed to this development ; they saw it as a blatant move, whose sole purpose was to deprive them of their centuries-old right  – a right to use the land for summer grazing. They were adamant that this was common land, and was being unlawfully ‘enclosed’ into the Nanteos estate.

Stephen Lloyd must have been very effective in carrying out his “masters’ wishes” given that in September 1868, the dispute boiled over when a group of about 15 to 20 people marched to Esgair Garthen (their faces blackened and their coats turned inside-out to avoid recognition) and set fire to the house along with with the hay and peat stacks. This incident hit the national papers and was described by The Times as ‘AN AGRARIAN OUTRAGE IN SOUTH WALES’ [3] :

A  few days ago a determined outrage was perpetrated on a sheep walk named Moelyprisk, in the county of Brecon the property of Colonel Powell, of Nanteos, formerly M.P. for Cardiganshire. The sheep walk consists of some thousands of acres, and in order to prevent the land being grazed and otherwise made use of  by the farmers on the border of the walk, and the right of common thereby acquired by them, the landlord about two years ago in conjunction with the tenant, built a house on the waste (Esgair Garthen) and placed a man to live in it as shepherd. This person with his wife and child only six weeks old were the only occupants of the house so built. The husband being away and the woman and child in bed, a party of about 15 men entered and ordered her to get up because they intended to pull the house down. She did so, and immediately afterwards the whole building, together with the hay and turf stacks on the premise, was set on fire. The woman was not allowed to dress herself previously to being evicted, and accordingly in her night dress had to travel with her child for several hours before finding shelter at a hospitable farmhouse called Garreghoyd. A handsome reward has been offered by Colonel Powell for the discovery of the guilty parties

Colonel Powell’s reward was, in fact, £50 which must have been a very tempting offer at the time. Details of the offer were written in Welsh [4], obviously assuming that most of the perpetrators came from a predominantly Welsh speaking community :

Ar nos Iau y 10fed or mis hwn neu yn fore dydd Gwener canlynol darfu nifer od ddynion drwg a maleisus losgi i lawr ty’r bugail, tas fawn a thas wair mewn lle a elwir Beudy Esgargarthen ar lluest ddefaid Moelpeiske yn naliad Mr John Jones Nantstalwen, plwy Llanddewi Abergwessin, Sir Frycheiniog . . . Pwy bynnag a rydd y cyfryw dystiolaeth i Capt Phelp Nanteos Aberystwyth neu i Superintendent of Police Brecon ag a fydd yn foddion i ddwyn y troseddwyr i gosp am y weithred a dderbyn y wobr uchod – neu os rhydd un or troseddwyr dystiolaeth yn erbyn y lleill bydd iddo gael maddeuant rhag am ei ran yn y gwaith.


The term ‘waste’ refers to uncultivated, poor land, often uninhabited. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the bulk of Elenydd was, basically, ‘waste’ and, largely, Crown property.

The principal estates of Ceredigion had a history of appropriating large chunks of Elenydd by encroaching on unenclosed wasteland ― and what was, in the eyes of the law, Crown property. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, formal boundaries on Elenydd were non-existent and with Crown agent thin on the ground, it was an open invitation tor the main landowners to enlarge their holdings by encroachment. However, in doing so, they often deprived local people of age-old rights (principally, the seasonal use of upland pastures) ; sometimes, this led to local resistance, accompanied by force and bloodshed. (as witnessed at Esgair Garthen). R.J. Moore-Colyer, writing about the landed gentry of Cardiganshire said [5] :

A useful, if illegal, means of extending the bounds of an estate was that of encroaching on unenclosed land. This procedure, coupled with strenuous efforts to establish legal title to encroachments, was practiced with alacrity by landowners of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the rolling upland country of mid and east Cardiganshire, there were few clearly marked boundary lines, and in many cases only custom and word-of-mouth dictated the points at which private property ended and Crown land began.

John Jones, it appears, was a good and effective hill-farm tenant. He could be relied upon to guard existing boundaries, robustly if necessary, and, if the opportunity arose, to extend them, sometimes, by doubtful means.

To read about Rhys Williams’ time at Nantstalwen click here or the Page 2 button below.


[1]Erwyd Howells, Good Men and True, Erwyd Howells Capel Madog Aberystwyth, 2005.
[2]See Caroline Palmer, Nanteos : A welsh House and its Families (Ed. Gerald Morgan), Gomer 2001, p 45.
[3]The Times, 26th September 1868, page 8.
[4] NLW, Nanteos 1(B), L2376.
[5] R J Moore-Colyer, Cardiganshire County History (Ed. Geraint H. Jenkins & Ieuan Gwynedd Jones) 1998, p 55.