Thanks John Williams, you can relax now: the Llantood Letters are safe

The excellent news that the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust, in conjunction with support from CyMAL, part of Welsh Government, have awarded Ceredigion Archives with funding for the conservation of some of my very favourite documents has been all over the media this week. The documents in question are the letters of Morris and Daniel Williams, and of Owen Williams their uncle, and John Williams their father. All the letters were written between 1811 and 1824, a period of some excitement in British history.

Morris was in the Pembrokeshire Militia, and when on active service in Southern England he volunteered to join the 23rd Regiment, the Royal Welch. As a result he went overseas and found himself at the Battle of Waterloo. Daniel had a quieter time – he went to Hounslow – but the letters he sent home are probably livelier and more full of news than those of his brother. His uncle Owen, near whom he lived in Hounslow sent regular news to Daniel & Morris’ father John Williams who lived at Penrallt Ddu, a farm near Cardigan, and John replied to his sons and brother, although only a few of his letters are preserved.

Williams006

Daniel’s Letters

The two letter-books, ‘Daniel’s Letters’ and ‘Morris’ Letters’ were transferred to Ceredigion Archives amongst other family papers, from Ceredigion Museum, where they were deposited in 1979. They consist of the original letters in most cases, sent from Gosport and Portchester, from Hounslow, from ‘a camp near Paris’, from Limerick and Winchester and other places. The letters survived their journeys in the early nineteenth century postal system remarkably well, and were subsequently made into two letter-books.

Williams004

Morris’ Letters

We do not know who decided to keep and arrange the letters. We do not know who bound them, with careful if inexpert sewing. We do not know who –  and there must have been many people involved – kept them so safely through nearly two centuries, but to those people we owe an enormous debt.

I like to think it might have been the boys’ father, John Williams, who initiated the process. The letters were sent to him, and to Esther his wife, and it was John who annotated some of them with the dates they arrived, and sometimes with his own responses.   Every time I look at them, I am struck by his care and his concern.

One part of the conservation process will be to separate the letters and permanently to remove the stitching that holds them together. At first I found this very difficult to contemplate. I felt that at the least those stitches were a demonstration of great care; at most an expression of love. Someone had decided to keep those letters as mementoes, but more than that : they were made into a narrative, reflecting the relationships within a family, and in a world which extended far beyond the familiar fields at Penrallt Ddu. They were souvenirs of a son lost in France, and a new family created over two hundred miles away from Cardigan.

There was, in the collection, retention and stitching of this correspondence a very clear intention to preserve and pass on the material. Often documents seem to survive by accident, but Daniel and Morris Williams’ letters were intended to be kept. Whoever it was that started that process, it is now our responsibility at Ceredigion Archives to continue it. Of course, it’s true that we must do our best to preserve all the records in our care, but we seldom have such a clear statement of intent from the past to follow.

The stitching will be removed because it’s done its job. Nearly two hundred years after the letters were sewn together the thread is beginning to damage the paper. The conservators at the National Library of Wales will photograph the books so we have a record of the way they were sewn, before separating, cleaning, and presenting the letters in a way which best preserves them.  So the story will go on, and that person who wanted to pass on the letters has done his job. They’re here for posterity, for us.

I hope in subsequent blogs I can include some extracts from these very fine documents, before we publish a complete and annotated transcript later this year to celebrate the return of the conserved correspondence.

 [HP]

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4 Responses to Thanks John Williams, you can relax now: the Llantood Letters are safe

  1. Rhodri Dafis says:

    What exactly does this have to do with Ceredigion?
    What benefit is there for Ceredigion Council Tax payers?
    Why are you spending money on items that should be in Pembrokeshire Archives?
    The Penralltddu Catalogue demonstrates that you have no idea who this family was.
    The only connection to Cardiganshire is that Mary Edwards of Clos, Bridell who married John Williams as his Second Wife (Esther was his third wife.) had been previously married to Griffith Edward of Clos, Bridell and she was the daughter of Griffith John of Llwynduris, Llandygwydd.

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    • Helen Palmer says:

      Thanks for your comment Mr Dafis. The collection of which these letters form a part was given to Ceredigion Museum and passed on to Ceredigion Archives. Many of the letters are about Cardigan (others feature Hounslow, Portchester, Ireland and the war in Europe) so we were pleased to comply with the wishes of the depositor in accepting them in Ceredigion. You may notice that we are not spending Ceredigion Council Tax payers’ money on the collection; we are pleased to be in receipt of a grant from a very distinguished conservation trust. The benefit to Ceredigion Council Tax payers – and to the wider audience – is that the conservation will help to preserve this astonishing collection of letters for the use and enjoyment of all. You have evidently done a lot of research and we would be pleased to revise our catalogue entry to better reflect the history of the families involved if you would like to offer us advice on the matter.

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  2. Simon Carter says:

    The fact that these letters are with Ceredigion Archives rather than Pembroke RO is not particularly important. What is important is that they will be looked after properly and the proposal to conserve, digitise and even transcribe them is to be welcomed. This is a rare survivor and whilst much material may be “family gossip”, the material from someone who fought at Waterloo is a real treasure.
    I have more of an interest than many, in that John Williams, although not a direct ancestor, is (I believe) my 6G-Uncle, his father Stephen William being my 6G-grandfather. I also have a link to John William’s second wife (Mary Edward nee Griffith – they were married less than a year before she died), whose father (Griffith John) I believe was also my 6G-grandfather. This probably says more about the numerous inter-marriages between west Wales families than it does about me. Pembrokeshire has often been referred to as a “County of Cousins”.
    I look forward to seeing the results of this programme.

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  3. Pingback: My work experience at Ceredigion Archives, by a history student | Ceredigion Archives

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