"Morgan the Sieve Maker"

Morgan Griffith was a native of Tudweiliog by all accounts. He married Elizabeth the daughter of Penllech Farm in the parish of Llangwnadl, and they moved to live to Bwlch in the parish of Rhiw. It is recorded that he christened at least two of his children at the church in Rhiw – a son called Griffith who was christened on July 3rd 1737 and a daughter Catherine who was christened on November 25th. According to Myrddin Fardd (poet) Cathreine married William Williams the second son of Edward Williams, Llwyn Celyn, in the parish of Llanberis and their son was Gutyn Peris who was a renowned poet.

Some historians say that Morgan was a carpenter, whilst others maintain that he was a stonemason. Of course at some time or other he must have made sieves for the farms as is suggested in the ‘interlude’ (morality play) that is associated with his name. In addition to this there is a common belief that Morgan was a country cantor and some kind of music teacher for the country folk of the area. It’s rather difficult to ascertain what talents Morgan Griffith possessed and what exactly his contribution was. In ‘Henwau’r Chwareddyddion’ (names of the players) at the beginning of the morality play he is described thus ‘Morgan the Sieve maker the teacher of women’, but this is obviously a tongue in cheek description and also rather an unjust one that Morgan and the Methodists were effeminate.

‘Goleuad Cymru’ (Light of Wales) describes him thus:

‘He was educated early; and he became a teacher to the Cantors of the area. He was often called upon, and the youth of Lleyn would flock to him to learn about tunes and tune notation’.

Morgan heard Howel Harris preach at Rhydolion Farm in the parish of Llangian and experienced a conversion after which the cantor became silent and the carpenter laid up his tools and all his energies went in to preaching the gospel. Did he feel a tension as he ploughed a new furrow and took a new path in life? Undoubtedly so, the road to devotion, is a profound and unifying one according to Saunders Lewis as he analysed the life and work of ‘Williams Pantycelyn’ (Wales’s foremost hymn writer). Of course Morgan had less imagination and talent than Williams Pantycelyn, but it was incumbent upon Morgan also to give his all to devotion. Its highly unlikely that Morgan knew much if anything about the teachings of the classics, as would be found in school or college, but he had a culture richly steeped in the Welsh tradition. He inherited a simple way of life and a talent for entertaining, he learnt skills that enabled him to better himself. Perhaps it was the culture of his craft rather than the culture of books that was Morgan’s talent and skill. However he sacrificed everything after his conversion and he was convinced that simple preaching of the gospel from the wayside was a far better virtue and would lead him victorious to the world to come and eternity Morgan possessed a strength and depth of conviction that lead him to devote his life so utterly to preach the gospel.

In his book ‘Welsh Calvanistic Methodism’ John Roberts explains:

‘These men appealed to the hearts of their listeners – to their hopes and fears, their shame and guilt, their gratitude and love, and to reach the hearts of their listeners they spoke with a passion found within their own hearts, speaking, shouting and singing from the depths of their souls. Their sermons were to be explained, debated over and taught to others, that’s how they were spoken with passion, words flowing from the heart words that took over their whole being’.

Henry Hughes of Bryncir did the Methodist Movement of Llyn a great favour by collecting much of its history. One of those was an account made in March 1895 when he took note of Richard Jones Ty’n Lon Rhiw’s memories. Here is a quote from that chronicle:

‘I was working on a farm with Rich Parry Bodwyddog. We were at the Crown Pwllheli and old W G Bodwrdda was there as well, both were engaged in a hearty discussion and W G said “ No parson will ever bury me”!!! He also said that Morgan The Sieve Maker was taken prisoner in a barn at Mellteyrn Farm and that he had his Bible with him and that it was open on the page that contained the verse he was preaching on. He also said that Morgan was preaching at Fantol Rhoshirwaun when he was caught a second time.

In ‘Drych and Amseroedd’ Morgan was described as an occasional preacher in the locality, and it appears that he was not a preacher of note, but one used to giving sermons to simple country folk, in accordance with his talent and influence but it was his zeal and perseverance for preaching in barns, farmyards and by the wayside and that against the law of the Church at the time that caused him to loose his freedom twice. But he had a freedom that knows no bounds and a spirit that could not be imprisoned. It was said that the first time he was caught was below the farm of Mellteyrn in Sarn.

His orphaned children Griffith eight and Catherine six were brought in baskets either side of a mule, by their uncle John (their late mother’s brother) to the court at Pwllheli in an attempt to gain sympathy for Morgan by the gentry. The scene in the court would be the very stuff of ‘Metro Goldwin Meyer’ epics – punishing the innocent by imprisoning the breadwinner. However the Methodist historians have done quite a good job in giving us the story in ‘glorious technicolor’!

‘When he appeared before the magistrates at Pwllheli, both his children were brought there by their uncle, in the hope that upon seeing the poor unfortunate children, the magistrates would take pity and show mercy. But such was the anger of the magistrates that this scene drew no sympathy whatsoever. They placed a book in front of the boy, who was about eight, to see if he could read, and they did the same with his sister who was two years younger, and as they saw that both children could read they took this as a further affront and a villainy that could not be forgiven as it meant that Morgan intended bringing up his children in the same heresy’.

Morgan was pressed ganged into the navy twice in succession and sent to a ship moored on the River Thames. En route to the prison in Conway when he was at Caernarfon someone stole his food whilst he was asking a blessing upon it he was then walked to Conway and imprisoned there. Whilst there he preached to the crowds gathered outside either out of curiosity or to support him.

‘…. It has been said that the sermon was not without its effect, so impressed were two young men of the area that they took it upon themselves to go about preaching the gospel’.

If Morgan was a carpenter by trade the court in Pwllheli deemed him to be a revolutionary or a waster, two good excuses to transfer him to the press gang and force him into helping the British navy in their war against the French and others on the high seas. His crime in reality was no more than preaching in public and in places that were not consecrated and not intended for preaching the word of God.

What became of Morgan after he left Conway? Morris Thomas describes what happens, although it’s probably half history and half fantasy.

‘After a long and tiring journey we reached Nore, and then we were taken aboard the frigate Colchester, master Captain Digby Dent. We suffered a lot of scorn and humiliation from the sailors for being Methodists and not used to life at sea. Morgan was taken on as a carpenter’s mate as he was a skilled carpenter, and the five of us were sent to help the cook and undertake general duties on board ship. Because we were sober industrious men the officers came to like us and depend on us and in time we soon earned the sailors respect. The Colchester was sent to the shores of Scotland, where we sailed for weeks keeping watch for French ships lest they took the Pretender as he was known to the Highlands of Scotland’.

The frigate Colchester with 54 guns was built in 1707 at the port of Deptford and re built in 1721 in Chatham. If it was at the beginning of the forties that Morgan was on board she would be getting on in years then and her condition would have deteriorated. However its more than likely that Morris Thomas just took the name of a ship and that its not a conclusive historic fact that Morgan ever set foot on the Colchester, especially as she was deliberately broken up in 1742, hardly likely but not impossible that Morgan The Sieve Maker was on board before that date.

Whatever the name of the ship and wherever he sailed to it was certain that Morgan walked the valley of Bacca and hung up his harp in a land that was foreign to the carpenter from Llyn. The treatment Morgan and his like got on board a warship was harsh and cruel, whipping and hanging being meted out as common punishments. The constant beatings and fear of further punishment was enough to break men mentally if not physically. The advantage of having a broken body meant freedom would come sooner a cripple was no use to the British Navy. Apart from the strict discipline, living conditions were atrocious. On such a ship living quarters would be very confined for man and beast, and below decks the cabins would be dirty and squalid to the extreme. The result of living in such an environment was the proliferation of diseases of all types – including the plague, smallpox, scurvy, and dysentery. Also the injuries and wounds they suffered as they were thrown and hurtled from starboard to stern when the ship was being tossed about amongst the waves would have caused problems.

According to the fathers of Methodism Morgan was overcome by fever died and was buried at sea:

‘Morgan Griffith did not survive much longer. He suffered a serious disease from which he died. This was told by his fellow prisoners that were no longer of use to the British Navy and were returned to their homes and villages; they all proclaimed that Morgan ‘s demise was in the peace and love of God’.

In addition to this, those like the Sieve Maker had other crosses to carry; burdens that the Methodist from Lleyn could not share with a crew so diverse and different as was to be found on a warship in the 18th century. Yet perhaps it was this difference that he could not share fully was what sustained him.

                  …. What was bound is now free.

Morgan Griffith was an ordinary man and Morris Thomas’s description of him constantly longing for Llyn and his loved ones is not merely poetic licence. This was the great century of freedom. Many sought the treasure and died in the attempt to gain it. The freedom to worship was the root cause. The passionate belief that man has a moral right to express his deepest emotions and beliefs according to his conscience – and a right to express his atheism as well. Morgan the Sieve Maker was trapped by the conviction of the belief in the freedom to worship whether it was at the crossroads at Fantol or the patch of grass below Mellteyrn he insisted on preaching about it and compelling others to share his beliefs.

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With thanks to the Rev Harri Parri for allowing us to use and translate extracts from his book ‘Morgan y Gogrwr o Fwlch y Rhiw’.

 

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