Lady author re-instated after 123 years!

by The Curious Scribbler

Regular readers may remember that in April I set out on the trail of 19th century local author Dorothea Jones, who wrote under the pen name  “ Gwynfryn”.   She had been a prolific contributor to improving magazines and from these articles her first book Friends in Fur and Feather was published in 1869, and later followed by Sick and in Prison, and  The Otter’s Story.  Always coy about her real identity, Dorothea Jones dropped additional clues in her later books, referring to the titles of her previous publications and dedicating The Otter’s Story to her brother William Basil the Bishop of St David’s.

The otter's story, title

Title page of her second book, a collection of articles, The Otter’s Story Etc.

All Dorothea Jones’s work has subsequently been misattributed to the American nature writer, Olive Thorne Miller, who published in 1880 “Little Folks in Fur and Feather and others in Neither” and the similarity of titles doubtless led to this error.

I am pleased to report that after correspondence with the Bodleian Library, which holds one of the misattributed copies, Dorothea Jones is re-instated in the catalogue and her transatlantic mimic is no longer credited with her book.   The Head of Collections wrote explaining that the error goes back to the 1890s when a Bodleian cataloguer made an incorrect identification based on similarity of title.  Dorothea Jones had died in 1885.

In the ensuing years and especially the recent past, the error has been compounded, for Dorothea’s other two books are also attributed to Olive Thorne Miller in major libraries around the world.  The reproduction out-of print books which can be ordered on the internet these days also all attribute her titles to the American author, and the online scanned original editions displayed by Google Books, Open Library and other sources are similarly mislabelled.

It has taken one hundred and twenty three years to correct the original fault.  It may well take a further century to correct the fan of misinformation which has followed.  I am sure that the Bishop’s sister would be delighted to know that Friends in Fur and Feather is listed on page 2409 of the august modern edition of The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature.  However she might be less pleased to find it attributed here too to Olive Thorne Miller!  If the dead really did spin in their graves there would surely be a deep hole at her burial site by now.

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A medieval deer park and Bushell’s Well

by the Curious Scribbler

Not far up the road from Gwynfryn,  birthplace of our forgotten author Dorothea Jones is an area of wooded, rising ground overlooking the Dyfi estuary.  In Dora’s day it would have been predominantly scrubby oak woodland,  – the Sessile oak, Quercus petraea which clothes the Cardiganshire hills.  At its feet, the low lying land towards the estuary was pasture, for in the early 19th century much of the salt marsh had been drained by a system of dykes and embankments. Today the surviving salt marsh habitat is best seen in the ribbon of land cut off by the railway line which snakes northwards from Aberystwyth to Machynlleth, and through mid Wales to Shrewsbury and the wider world.

This high ground woodland had long been part of the lands of the Pryses of Gogerddan and was known as Parc Bodvage, later Lodge Park.  In 1637 a lease of Park Bodvage granted  by Richard Pryse of Gogerddan reserved to himself and his heirs “the pasture of three horses, nags geldings or mares at all times during the said terme within the said parke, and common of pasture for his and their deare [deer] within the said parke, with free access egresse and regresse thereunto to hunt course chase or kill the same at his or their pleasure…”  By the 19th century the deer were gone, but the Pryses remained indefatigable sportsmen and their game books in the National Library of Wales list the yield of the hunt.  In addition to foxes, otters and pine marten, rabbits and hares, the woodland and the marshes yielded pheasant, partridge, geese and duck in season, snipe, woodcock and even the odd corn crake.  In the 20th century, the family fortunes became extinct, and the estate broke up.  The Forestry Commission soon enrobed the high ground in conifers and the dwelling at the centre, which by 1800 had become a substantial gentleman’s residence was sold off with less than half its garden.  The pasture land became separate holdings with its former tenant farms.

It is through this divided patchwork of history that a group of Welsh Historic Gardens Trust  enthusiasts sought, last week, to unravel the traces of the original land-use, for Lodge Park is thought to have been the only medieval deerpark in the county. Like the many better known parks in England it is a lozenge shaped area of woodland grazing, around 100 acres in size, which had at its centre a lodge, a building used by the parkers in managing the deer and possibly as a place of refreshment when deer hunting became less of a larder activity and more of a gentleman’s sport.  Like other parks it retains on parts of its circumference the characteristic ditch and bank construction, which would originally have been topped by a palisade.  The ditch is on the inner side of the park, while the outer side of the bank is constructed of carefully placed vertical stones set into the earth bank, quite unlike the traditional herringbone arrangement of diagonal stones seen reinforcing field banks throughout the county.

Vertically placed stones hold back the bank and ditch boundary of the deer park

Vertically placed stones hold back the bank and ditch boundary of the deer park


The park wall construction is distinctive

Some interesting people occupied the enlarged parker’s lodge in the 17th century.  This was the time of great mineral exploitation in the area and much of the British coinage of the time comes from Cardiganshire silver, minted at the Tower of London, and later at Aberystwyth Mint.  The leases of mining rights were granted by the Crown, first the Hugh Myddleton of Chirk Castle (1620-31), and later to Thomas Bushell (1637-42) and both men leased the house at Lodge Park from the Pryse landowners.  It must have been galling for the Pryses of Gogerddan to receive only their rent, while riches in lead and silver were extracted on behalf of the king.  Eventually Sir Carbery Pryse, 4th baronet, was influential in bringing to the statute book the Mines Royal Act of 1693.  Thereafter Cardiganshire experienced its own “gold rush” as landowners could exploit and profit from their lead and silver mines themselves. One of the great legends of the county is Sir Carbery’s ride, virtually non-stop and at a gallop from London to Gogerddan to bring the news home and commence the exploitation of his lands. Mining villages sprang up to meet the demand and a great influx of Cornish migrants brought their expertise from the tin mines of home.

Another legend perhaps arises from the hasty disappearance from Wales, during the Civil War, of the royalist mining engineer, Thomas Bushell.  Later he made peace with Oliver Cromwell, and also mined in England for the protectorate and for Charles II.  But his name remains linked in local folklore with a rock cut spring on the north flank of Lodge Park, “Bushell’s Well”.  Considering the number of mines which Bushell opened, driving adits into the hills and retrieving others from flooding, this seems a very slight structure to bear his name.  But in Bushell’s Well, the oral history goes, Bushell drowned a woman, variously a maid servant or his wife.   It is a tidy drinking place, cut into the living rock in the manner of a mine entrance, the clear water pooled by an 18 inch lip of rock at the entrance to the recess.  No one could drown in such a well unless they were held down in the water.


The shallow drinking pool in which Bushell is alleged to have drowned a woman


The well is rock cut in the manner of a mining adit and probably dates from the mid 17th


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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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