"People of Bardsey in 1885"

By the

Rev Peter Jones, Pwllheli

An important day on the island was the Cafn fair. On this morning you could see boats full of animals – cattle, sheep, horses and pigs all pointed in the direction of Aberdaron, and there’d be a lively race between them to see who’d be first to reach the haven. Many fat pigs would be sent away at this time, all of them in superb condition, all the islanders would come out to witness this marvellous spectacle, to herd the animals and see that they were safely aboard the boats and bid them a fond farewell, all this was done in a gentle and caring way. They were eagerly expected in Aberdaron by hoards of keen buyers. The islanders would also buy animals to replace and replenish the vacuum created on the island.

As a rule the inhabitants of Enlli are of strong character, mighty and powerful both physically and mentally. They are capable of suffering great hardship and able to deal with all kinds of labours. Many a fine and brave sea – captain has been descended from their lines – all tall, handsome and powerful men. Ancient history and recent discoveries have shown that their ancestors were great of stature and strong, if not giants of men. Recently coffins were unearthed containing skeletons that measured between seven and eight foot long, and the islanders nowadays are worthy descendants of these, and are good examples of the Old Britons. By now the islanders have advanced much in morals and civility and they compare very favourably to their brothers on the mainland. The children receive religious and formal education, and apart from a very few exceptions the islanders behave in a right and proper manner. Most of them are sober and a few even abstain from the evils of drink. The illicit trade in alcohol that used to be so prevalent on the island is now thankfully amongst those things that belong well and truly to the past. True to say there are a few who are to be found publicly drunk, especially after a visit to the mainland, and they bring shame on the island. They are very few in number and in every aspect it is true to say that the islanders lives have improved, and this is due in great part to the influence of the Gospel.

They have also recently grown in knowledge and understanding, not so long ago, hardly anyone on the island could barely read, apart from the very few that could read a little of the Bible. Presently many are avid readers, they read their Bibles not only in Sunday school, but also at home. Some even have other books that explain the Bible to them and better their understanding of it. Quite a few newspapers make their way to the island such as the ‘Y Goleuad’, ‘Y Genedl’ and even some of the English papers. Both of ‘Y Drysorfa’ as well as few other magazines are to be found here. In these affairs quite a revolution has taken place in recent times. Indeed one can say that the island has gone through a major and positive transformation. Everything is new here, the houses and all the buildings are new and the lives of the islanders, morally speaking, is renewed. And it is our hope that this trend will continue and that the islanders will truly become worthy citizens of this Isle of the Saints, and that the island will be a model community for others to see and aspire to.

The islanders are well known for their hospitality and kindness. Nothing is too much for them in their generosity to either islanders or strangers. During times of sickness and poverty they look out for each other. The island looks after its own poor, though it is rare to find anyone of this class on the island. But when it does happen, or someone is ill, every islander strives to show the utmost generosity and sympathy. In practical terms they are all equals and are all dependant on one another. When one suffers they all suffer together. This is how Mr Jones (the preacher) describes them “The kindness of the islanders is proverbial. They share their gifts from their hearts and when a family is suffering hardship, illness or the like, they are all united, just as one big family”. They also show the same kindness to strangers, they have not forgotten what the word hospitality means, and they especially show it to Preachers. Nothing is too much for them, even more so if the preacher is up to their standards.  It can be said that not all preachers match up to this ideal, especially in olden times, for example in dress and appearance. In olden times they could not take to a preacher that had a quiff in his hair or a ‘calf’s lick as they used to call it. We know of one very amiable, respectable young man who was also a commendable preacher, but because he had the mark of the ‘calf’s lick’ on his forehead it was like the mark of the beast, and he lost all respect and lost his ministry because of it. But their ideas and tastes have changed lately in such matters.


Politically speaking they are all staunch Liberals, with few exceptions. However it is true to say that they do not have a vote because the island is not privileged (?) However their political creed is Liberal. How much knowledge and understanding they have of politics is a different matter, and it is felt that they wish to follow their landlord in his aspirations and beliefs. But whatever their intentions they were very enthusiastic when the liberal candidate won the recent election. Here is how Mr Jones wrote about it:- “ We have now received the news of Mr Watkin Williams’s promotion. No one can imagine what it was like for us, having to wait days for confirmation of his victory, looking out across the Sound to see if any indication was forthcoming as to who had been victorious. We saw huge bonfires ablaze over in Aberdaron on the unforgettable Wednesday evening, but here on Enlli we had no way of knowing who the victor was. Shortly a boat came over from the mainland and we eagerly awaited it’s landing. As it approached we could see that it was the boat of a staunch liberal, he sent a signal from the ‘storeroom’ to the whole island and the news went like wildfire amongst the islanders. In the evening we lit a huge bonfire on top of the mountain to celebrate the occasion and shouted ‘Watkin Williams forever’! and ‘Lord Newborough for ever’ for hours on end !! Something similar happened when Mr Rathbone won the election. Mr Gladstone is very dear to the hearts of all the islanders and indeed they were very saddened when they learnt of his illness, but were overjoyed to learn that it was not a fatal illness”.

The present owner of the island is Lord Newborough. Pennant says in his book ‘Tours of Wales’ that it was first given by Edward V1, to his uncle Sir Thomas Seymour and then to John Earl of Warwick. After changing hands many times, the island was bought by the late Sir John Wynn from the eminent Dr Wilson of Newark. That’s a brief history of how it came into the hands of the Glynllifon Estate.

But in one of the volumes of the ‘Transactions of the Cymrodorion’, it was said that Edward V1 gave the island along with Cwrt, Aberdaron to John Wynn ap Hugh form the Bodvel family for his services as a Standard Bearer at the great Battle of Norwich. He was a High Sheriff for the County of Caernarvon in the year 1551. Even though it’s not possible to exactly trace the islands history it is now evident that the present owner is Lord Newborough, and his Lordship takes a keen and personal interest in his treasured inheritance. Recently he has rebuilt all the buildings, and there are many farmhouses here that cannot be equalled anywhere in the land, and all of this funded personally by his Lordship. His Lordship also built the islanders a very fine chapel and a beautiful and extensive house for the minister, which we will mention later. The island’s total revenue is £120 per annum. His Lordship is very highly and respectably thought of by the islanders and is very much at home amongst his tenants. It could be said that he is their hero, nay their idol. The folk from the mainland have a saying ‘The islanders have only two masters’ Death and Lord Newborough’.

There is one peculiarity pertaining to this little community, that as far as I am aware is unheard of elsewhere, in so much as the islanders are not wearied by having to pay taxes and tithes. Here there is no poor law tax, no dog tax, church tax or in fact any tax from any Board on earth. After paying the landlord his rent, there their responsibilities come to a close, and they can cock a snoop at all the authorities from Pembrokeshire to Caernarvon, who wish to oppress them and they can say ‘We are freemen’!! It is however a historical fact that over the years from time to time attempts have been made to try and tax them, Edward 11 tried, but to no avail. Indeed in recent years a summons was brought against the Rev Robert Williams, as representative of the island, for the poor law rates. But however hard they tried to administer it they were always unsuccessful, as the Reverend Gentleman had his hiding places where he would escape from the officials. Once he was preaching at Penycaerau one Sunday morning, when one of these officials was sat in front of him, summons in hand which he was going to deliver after the service had ended. However some amongst the congregation persuaded him that this was not acceptable behaviour for the Sabbath or the chapel, and that he could carry out the deed the following morning when the preacher had returned home. However when the following morning came the Reverend gentleman was nowhere to be found and had once again escaped to one of his secret hiding places. And there he stayed until the coast was clear!!

Taxation was quite a debating point at one time, but Lord Newborough declared that if the islanders were taxed, then everyone visiting the island would also be charged for doing so, and he said that that would amount to the same thing in the end. And that’s how the matter was brought to a head. So far despite many attempts the island is free from tribute (tax).

As for the islanders well they were always suspicious and jealous on the subject of taxation. They looked warily upon strangers that approached them, just in case they might be tax officers. And they were suspicious of bringing anyone across to the island, unless they knew whom they were, and that they had no connections with the tax officials. Fairly recently a Schools Inspector wanted to come across to inspect the small island school and make a report for the Education Authority. But there was no way the islanders would let him aboard their boat, as they were fearful he was one of the ‘family of suspects’ and that the end result would be taxation for them. Ashore he stayed and he could not comprehend how they came to leave him there so unceremoniously. And the school remains un -inspected. What sane bailiff or taxman would venture to cross the sound with them. He might get to the other side, but the experience would not be pleasant, and he’d have had many a watery baptism along the way, and he’d be certain to return without having delivered his message!!!

Some time ago the island was considered to be a kingdom with either a king or queen as its head. The royal family was and still is the family at ‘Cristin Uchaf. The king and Queen have been dead for many years, but their three children remain and they are in possession of the regalia, which are a crown, and a snuff box. During the time of the present Lord Newborough’s uncle, John Williams, Cristin, was formally crowned King of the island. There was much pomp and ceremony at his coronation. The ceremony took place in the open air down at y Cafn. The king elect was placed on a chair, and when he was crowned all the islanders cheered ‘Hip Hip Hooray’. There were as many as twelve yachts in the bay, full of aristocratic personages, who had come especially for the occasion. On celebrating the crowning the guns fired from on board the yachts and fireworks were lit all night from the ships, and money was shared out amongst the islanders in honour of the day. It was a great day of merriment and ceremony and enjoyed by all. The kingdom is still in the family of Cristin Ucha, even though there is no official or crowned king or queen. The regalia remain with the family and they have great pride and pleasure in showing them to visitors. It is noticeable that the late Rev Robert Williams was seen by mainlanders, not only as the ‘bishop of Enlli’ but also as its king, this was also true for the Rev W T Jones at times. But the old Rev Williams, also thought this of himself it would appear. He was once preaching in Bettws y Coed and his subject matter was abstinence and temperance. He told the congregation that where he came from the king and queen had signed the pledge, and were staunch abstainers. The congregation were amazed by this, even more so when they learnt that the preacher and his wife came from Enlli and that the minister was king and Sian Williams, his wife was queen. This is surely proof that when the Reverend Gentleman was abroad he thought of himself as the king of Enlli and a true representative of ‘Melchisedec’on the island. This little anecdote also proves this fact. Recently when the late Dr William Rees was preaching at a quarterly meeting at Llithfaen and Robert Williams was preaching before him, having thanked the brethren for being allowed to preach at their quarterly meeting he added this “ Such a privilege I have never before experienced in my life, that is preaching after the king” He refers of course to the Rev Robert Williams. But the true royal family are the Cristin Uchaf Family and everyone else only imposters and pretenders to the throne. Their ancestors gave to them this right and the royal relics are in their possession as proof of this.

The lighthouse is an important and blessed institution on the island. It stands on the southerly end of the island and there are three houses for the light keepers and their families, of which we have made mention previously. The lighthouse was built by the government in the year 1821. We have been told that the father of the famous brothers from Liverpool, namely the Drs Thomas and their brother, worked on the building. For many years now its guiding light has been a saving grace for many vessels and kept them from destruction and sinking to the deep.

Within this institution is another strange but saving grace – the Fog Horn, which serves the same good purpose as the guiding light. It’s bellowing noise, guides ships in fog. This machine was completed in 1877. Mr Jones says this of it “Inside the building there are two engines that work together, they are of the power of six horses and they work to heat the air without the aid of water – this propels two large cylinders, which compacts forty pounds of air pressure which is sent up through a copper pipe three inches in diameter. After completing two thousand revolutions each minute, a most awful sound comes out of the ‘trumpet’, which can be heard for ten miles or so, even in a strong crosswind. It sounds every five minutes each blast lasting seven seconds. When the sound was first heard the animals and especially the horses couldn’t understand what the noise was, and they would raise their heads, prick their ears and be so startled, they would refuse to work. But by now they have got used to things and barely notice the Fog Horn. This is as accurate a description of the Fog Horn as I can give”.

When someone from the mainland wants to cross over to the island, they must firstly draw the attention of the islanders. This they do by lighting fires on the Aberdaron side. Having seen the fire from the highest point of the island, if they choose to and if the weather is favourable, they will cross over to fetch the ‘passenger’ – or they will do nothing. The boat crosses the sound in the mighty and capable hands of the men and the traveller is transported safely back to the island. One golden rule – although unwritten – are the signals which no one must break – they are One fire for an ordinary person, two for men of the Trinity House and preachers and three in case of illness or death. Woe betides anyone who breaks this rule. We once heard of a woman who had lit three fires and she was given a reply by the islanders, who naturally thought something was wrong, they hurriedly rowed across the sound, but shortly after reaching the shore, what they saw coming towards them was a women with a bundle on her back, a sack-full of gooseberries, she looked happy enough and told them she wanted to go over to the island to sell her gooseberries saying how good they were!!! You can imagine the force of the anger and rage felt by the boatmen at encountering this kind of ‘hardsell’. They quickly rowed out to sea leaving the woman and her gooseberries behind.



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