Otter Hunting on Cors Fochno

by The Curious Scribbler

It is difficult to engage with the mindset of the past, but my recent reading of The Otter’s Story by Dorothea Jones has given me a some fascinating insights on a now distasteful topic.  It is otter hunting, a pursuit which was not fully abandoned in rural Cardiganshire until the mid 20th century.  There are nice, cultured people alive today who will admit to having taken part in otter hunts in their youth.   Otters heads – the mask – turn up mounted in country houses and salerooms and their paws still surface as Victorian jewellery.   Not too long ago otter hunting was an accepted part of rural life and most people do not readily question what is normal in the society in which they grow up.

The cover of The Otter’s Story Etc by Gwynfryn
Published in London in 1880

The Otter’s Story was published in 1880 by Dorothea Jones, sister of the Bishop of St David’s, and author of a campaigning tract dedicated to the reform of British workhouses.  She was by then aged 52, an established author of articles in The Monthly packet of Evening Readings for Members of the English Church, and of two books.  Her pen name was Gwynfryn. She is an adept writer, well able to conjure up the beauty of a day or the drama of a scene in prose. It is perhaps the more shocking then, that from such an unimpeachable middle-class Victorian should come such a piece of writing.  Prose which is by turns cosy, lyrical, bloodthirsty and sexually charged.

If you want to understand what previous generations got out of pursuing a small cute fish-eating mustelid this is a remarkably good place to begin.  It can be read online via Open Library      (search for The Otter’s Story, Jacobs Story),  or on Nigel Callaghan’s estimable local site

She starts her account with several narratives about tame, pet otters.  Just as Gavin Maxwell made clear in Ring of Bright Water 80 years later, they make engaging pets.  The story potters along with captured otter cubs suckled by a domestic cat, otters reared with dogs, and grown otters catching fish for their masters.  You are in little doubt, the author likes otters.

But  the introductory pages have left a clue, like the pre-credit sequence to whet your appetite in the movies.  The scene was opened upon a glorious early May morning on Cors Fochno ( Borth Bog) “with the hedgerows greening over and sparkling with dewdrops in the level sunshine”, the dark river “blue in the shadow, silver in the sun” flowing off the mountains.  At the end of her anecdotes of captive otters, she rejoins this scene: to introduce the gathering of the hunt, the red and blue clad huntsmen some on horseback, the seething mass of excited hounds, and the hunt followers, “Welsh farmers in their old blue or grey coats, a rabble of wild hill boys awed by the novel sight of their betters” and two gaily clad village girls, one a smouldering Celtic beauty, the other, plain.

I won’t linger of on the details except to say that it is as sexist and gory as an episode of the popular historical fantasy drama Game of Thrones.  There is agony, blood, demoniacal screams and lots of whipped dogs. “How could hunting be hunting without lashing of hounds and cries of pain from writhing creatures, round whom the sharp whipcord is cut with all the force of a thick lash and a strong man’s arm, roused to passion by excitement?”  Men are men –standing tall and strong, violent, striding, shouting, digging out the otters holt to capture the cubs within.  Women are egging them on – there is a moment when the she-otter and her cubs might have been spared and the hunt called off early.  The master hesitates, and the pretty girl, like a spectator at a gladiatorial fight, seals the animals’ fate by her strident encouragement.

There is plenty of graphic death. In an early skirmish we meet the huntsman’s own terrier, Vermin,  who “with his large soft eyes looking up through his long hair might have sat for the begging dog in Landseer’s portrait”.  Vermin is unfortunately mistaken by the hounds for an otter, as he emerges from a hole in the bank into the water. He is torn to shreds before the men can rescue him, and his body is casually discarded.  The dog otter is caught and killed, “screaming in an excruciating minor key”, soon afterwards.

The female otter escapes upstream with hounds in pursuit while some of the men set to work to dig out her young.  One is mortally injured by the spade, two captured in a sack, one escapes to starve alone in the river. Gallant Mrs Otter comes back down stream where she is eventually speared on the two pronged pitchfork which otter hunters carry for this purpose.  Even then in her desperation she twists and turns and prises her impaled body off the tines and drops back into the water, to be eventually grabbed by the hounds. It is an unsparing account of gore and death.

At the end of this celebratory tale the female otter hangs skinned from a tree and the master of the hunt bestows one of its severed pads upon the pretty Welsh girl.  She colours prettily – “no charm, no jewelled gage-d’amour, could hold her with a sweeter spell than did just then that flabby, webbed, and mutilated foot”.  But the man, on the point of making his move, has second thoughts.  She is a bit too eager, “strangely hard…also she had been too conspicuous that day”, and he turns away.  The final words of this psychodrama are four italic ones. “The otter was avenged”.

It would be nice to imagine that this was a pro-otter polemic – a wake-up call for people so unthinkingly cruel.  But it was not written as such.  The messages it carries are about the beauty and excitement of an otter hunt on a beautiful day and about the heady excitement of a testosterone-fired mob of men crazed by the hunt.  There is only one lesson.  The forward hussy does not get her man, and that is natural justice.



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Lady Author Lost

 By the Curious Scribbler

I’ve been reading the work of a long-forgotten lady writer: Dorothea Jones of Gwynfryn.

I was led to her by the author Herbert M Vaughan  of Llangoedmor, who, in his round-up of eccentric Welsh Gentlemen ( The South Wales Squires, published 1926) included a throwaway remark in his chapter on Literary Squires.  “ At no great distance, on high ground that overlooks the great  marsh of Borth,  is Gwynfryn, the home and estate of Bishop Basil Jones of whose services to literature I have spoken elsewhere. The Bishop’s sister Miss Dora Jones was also a writer. There used to be a charming volume called Friends in Fur and Feather, which used to delight us in childhood with its accounts of the birds which haunted the swamps around Borth.  But I have never come across this book it later life —- Ils vont sous la neige d’antan”.

A postcard, pre 1910 showing Gwynfryn Hall, which stands above Borth bog and was built c. 1814

Today there is nothing easier than finding long-forgotten volumes lost in the snows of yesteryear.  In seconds, Google Books brought up the goods, an attractively bound volume in royal blue cloth ornamented with gold tooled  leaves and flowers and red squirrels on its cover.  I enjoy reading old books in the page view format, – except for the smell, everything of the material book can be enjoyed.

Published in 1869 it contains nine stories and a steel engraved illustration for each.  Taken together they blend a delight in nature, pets, and the Welsh countryside along with a fervent approval for fox hunting and cubbing ( even if the victim has been  a pet fox,  being torn apart by hounds is represented as  the most noble way to die).

We know that red squirrels were formerly widespread in Ceredigion and in the first story a baby red squirrel is reared as a pet, takes up residence on the cornice in the drawing room, and eventually returns to the wild.

An illustration from ‘Friends in Fur and Feather’. The pet red squirrel helps himself to rhubarb tablets

In another two horrid boys have stolen two buzzard chicks from their nest on Borth bog and are feeding them on mashed potato.  Our author rescues them and reared them on the abundant meat from fallen stock available to a gentry naturalist. “of suicidal mutton, drowned sheep, fished out of bog drains, they had plenty.”   A quite gentle story about a young blackbird explains its Welsh name pig-felyn.  Nothing to do with pigs, she tells her English readers, but the Welsh  name for yellow beak.  Unfortunately a cat gets the blackbird, much as last year a nestful of cute warbler chicks starring in Springwatch on the very same bog fell victim to a black cat.

What is fascinatingly dated about the stories is their strong flavour that all is right with the world.  In childhood her dog is bitten by an adder, becomes ill,  and is later euthanized by one of the servants:  “I was afraid to ask, for the sack and the bowstring had been familiar institutions amongst our pets of late”.  In another story a donkey is tormented by three young gentlemen on horseback wielding their riding whips and chasing it across country.  The fallen donkey’s injury is regretted, for it was a charming and reliable animal but somehow the young men, who do not provide their names, escape without undue censure.  A story on the newly opened home for lost and starving dogs in London (the early RSPCA) remarks cheerfully that unattractive stray dogs unlikely to be re-homed  will be happier to have their lives terminated  “ then they have to take prussic acid and their poor little troubles are over. ”

‘Homeless’    an illustration from ‘Friends in Fur and Feather’

Another dog story glorifies the military campaign of Bob, a middle sized mongrel, with Her Majesty’s Scots  Fusilier Guards in the Crimean war.  Having escaped all injury during the two year campaign he was knocked down in the London streets when marching with his regiment, and subsequently  stuffed and displayed in the United Services Museum at Whitehall.

‘Bob’ of Her Majesty’s Scots Fusilier Guards. ( a likeness taken after he was stuffed)
An illustration from ‘Friends in Fur and Feather’.

Friends in Fur and Feather was clearly a bracing if sentimental read for Victorian children like Herbert Vaughan and in 1883 a slimmer and un-illustrated edition of eight of the stories was published by George Bell and Son of London in the Bell’s Reading Book Series for schools.

The true identity of the author, ‘Gwynfryn’  is in danger of being lost to sight.

The copy I had read on Google Books was stamped ‘Bodleian libraries’, so I sought it through the Bodleian electronic catalogue.  My indignation was aroused to find that the book has been attributed to the output of an American nature writer, Olive Thorne Miller, (1831-1918)  who included amongst her output a book called ‘Little Folks in Feather and Fur and Others in Neither’ which was published in 1880. Miller, though, was an urban New Yorker, not a Welsh woman and could not have written these stories.

I am in correspondence with the Bodleian to reclaim Gwynfryn for Wales!

Dorothea Jones can, with a little effort still be traced.  She was born one of twin girls on 18 March 1828 at Gwynfryn to William Tilsley Jones and his wife Christiana.  Already in the household was an older brother, William Basil Tickell Jones who was later to become Bishop of St Davids.  He was the only child of an earlier marriage to Jane Tickell of Cheltenham.  In the following ten years six further children were born to Christiana but it must have been a harrowing time: between 1835 and 1838 five children died, including Dorothea’s twin Christiana, and her nearest sister Josephine.  Perhaps such a  childhood  fosters a robust attitude to death.

Dorothea Jones is one of the few women to have been awarded her own entry in the Dictionary of Eminent Welshmen by T.R. Roberts published in 1908.  In it there is a reference to another of her books, which is described due to a misprint as “The Other’s Story”.  It took a bit more searching to find this, but the result was gratifying, as I at last came across “The Otter’s story” by ‘The Author of ‘Friends in Fur and Feather’, ‘Sick and in Prison’ Etc., Etc.’.  It was published in 1880 in London, also with a pretty blue and gold tooled cover, and is dedicated in print  ‘Affectionately  and gratefully inscribed by the writer to her  brother William Basil, Bishop of St David’s’. This too is in the Bodleian and attributed to Olive Thorne Miller!

The cover of The Otter’s Story Etc, by the Author of ‘Friends in Fur and Feather’
Published in London in 1880

The National Library of Wales also has a number of copies of Friends in Fur and Feather, but  simply catalogues them under the pen name of Gwynfryn.

There are other traces of lost history to be gleaned from these old story books; the identity of their first owners.  A nice 1869 copy in the National Library of Wales is inscribed as a gift to Louisa Frances Best on December 7th 1869 and was given with Arvie’s Best Love.  A reading-book version from 1883 was the property of Florence Richards, while another 1869 copy in the New York Public Library was given to Jennie Ryder, Xmas Gift from the SS of the Chapel of St Christopher, Thomas Sill, New York, to mark the Feast of the Holy Innocents in 1870.

As family history enthusiasts search the past for their relatives on the web, it is not impossible that Louisa, Florence and Jennie may one day be spotted by their kin, led to this website by the re-publication of their names.

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Dubious dates of Anno Mundi

We found  some puzzling inscriptions on last week’s visit to South Ceredigion.

At Alltyrodin we went to view the handsome stable block adjoining the Georgian house.  The central doorway is set in large ashlar blocks from the nearby estate quarry, Gwarallt at Bwlchyfadfa.

The handsome ashlar central doorway in the stables at Alltyrodin

The handsome ashlar central doorway in the stables at Alltyrodin

And above the door is a carved plaque with lion rampant which reads:

J LL Esq.,
AD 1840
AM 5841

Inscribed owner's initials and date on the stables at Alltyrodin

Inscribed owner’s initials and date on the stables at Alltyrodin

J LL  represents John Lloyd, who inherited Alltyrodin on the death of his older  brother David in 1822.  He was unmarried and childless ( though there is a deed for a prenuptial settlement  in 1826, when he was about to marry Dorothy Alicia Seymer of Bath, spinster)  He was still alive and signing deeds in 1836. On his death his estate duly passed to his niece and her husband John Lloyd Davies is identified as master of Alltyrodin by 1843.

AM 5841 represents the date as Anno Mundi; years since the alleged creation of the earth.  It is a slightly problematical date.  Bishop Ussher  (1581 – 1656) decided upon 21 September 4004BC for the creation of the earth, while the Masonic convention is to use 4000 years. Jewish sources use 3761 years BC instead.   Assuming the stables were completed in or after September 1840, the carving is consistent with the Masonic convention: 4000 plus 1840 plus 1 if after September, would generate the observed date Anno Mundi  5841.  Fairly easy to interpret, then, except that the modern  Masonic Dictionary would designate a date of AD plus 4000 years as Anno Lucis, and  AD plus 3761 as Anno Mundi.  Perhaps they thought differently in the 19th century.

Not far away at Bwlchbychan a handsome gateway with three posts and connecting walls frames the drive down to the house.  Here the mason is identified in the inscription as D James mason.  The sandstone blocks are neatly stippled with chisel marks like those remarked on at the chapel inTanygroes in the foregoing blog.

The gates on the drive leading down to Bwlchbychan

The gates on the drive leading down to Bwlchbychan

On one post the inscribed plaque reads Erected 5861 and the other bears the same information  Cyfodwyd (was raised) in Welsh and the year 5861.  Assuming the same convention, these gateposts went up in  autumn 1860, and this looks consistent with their architectural style.  At Bwlchbychan the dating is uncorroborated Anno mundi, whereas at Alltyrodin the more familiar Anno domini date appears larger, and above.

Right hand gatepost has the English inscription

Right hand gatepost has the English inscription

The left hand gatepost has the Welsh inscription

The left hand gatepost has the Welsh inscription

The house was home in the 19th century to John Pugh Vaughan Pryse, third son of Pryse Pryse of Gogerddan.  Shortly after his second marriage (to Decima Dorothea Rice of Lwynybrain),  it was rebuilt in 1850 “ in the plain domestic style of architecture”, and presumably the gateposts and lodge were built shortly after.  Herbert Vaughan in his book, The South Wales Squires, described it as a rather dismal house and its occupant John Pugh Vaughan Pryse as a man who chased the fox as often as he could: ” in the dining room alone were 30 foxes masks, varied by a few heads of hares and otter’s poles. On the hearth rug lay a footstool comprised of a complete stuffed fox.” Pryse died in 1903, at the age of 85.

It is not clear to me whether these Anno Mundi dates indicate membership of the Freemasons on the part of the squires of Alltyrodin and Bwlchbychan, or whether instead they represent the beliefs of the actual masons who worked the stone on their behalf.

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