Tuesday 3 July 2018

Discovering Mary Jones

Hello, thank you for popping in.  Thank you for your kind comments on my last post.  We are still sweltering here but I would like to share with you a different kind of day, a very wet day at the end of May.

Who do you think is the most famous Welsh woman in the world?  Catherine Zeta Jones, perhaps?  Charlotte Church?  Shirley Bassey?  If I had asked you that question one hundred and twenty years ago there would only have been one answer: Mary Jones, the girl who walked twenty-six miles through the mountains in bare feet in the year 1800 to buy a Welsh language bible.  Have you heard of her?  I don't know whether her story is still told to Welsh children but she certainly doesn't seem to be well known in England now, even where I live, in a county which shares a border with Wales. 
The story goes that Mary, the Welsh-speaking daughter of a poor weaver and his wife, committed herself to the Christian faith when she was eight years old and desperately longed to own a bible.  She began doing jobs for people to earn pennies - she swept floors and yards, she collected eggs and as she grew older, she kept her own chickens and bees to sell the eggs and honey, she looked after cattle and she took in sewing.  For years she saved and then, when she was fifteen years old, in 1800, she walked barefoot the twenty-six miles to Bala to buy a Welsh language bible from Rev Thomas Charles.  Unfortunately, Thomas didn't have one he could sell her as the only bibles he did have were reserved for other buyers.  There are differing versions of what happened next: in one version, Thomas was so impressed with her effort that he gave her his own bible, in another he gave her a bible which was reserved for somebody else and in the third version he invited her to stay with his servant for a couple of days until fresh stock arrived.  Whichever version you read, Mary walked the twenty-six miles home with at least one bible.  The important result of her venture was that she left such a great impression on Thomas that in 1802 he used her story to persuade the Council of the Religious Tract Society to establish the British and Foreign Bible Society, now often known as Bible Society, which has distributed millions of bibles across the world since 1804.
It's a lovely children's story with a good moral: the impoverished, determined little girl who became a single-minded teenager and trekked through the mountains, enduring pain and discomfort, to achieve her goal.  However, there were four things about the story which made me sceptical:
  • At a time when the overwhelming  majority of the population was illiterate, how could the child of a poor weaver have learned to read?
  • How would Mary have known the way through the mountains to Bala and would she really have been able to walk there by herself?
  • If her first language was Welsh, why is she known as the anglicized Mary rather than the Welsh Mari?
  • Why wouldn't she have been wearing boots or clogs on such a trek?
Five weeks ago, two friends and I set off in pouring rain on a road trip to Wales to find out more.  Our destination was Byd Mary Jones World at Llanycil on the shore of Lake Bala, the redundant parish church which has been bought by Bible Society and converted into a visitor centre.  It's been well-designed to appeal to people of all ages, whether Christian or not, with plenty of seating for those who can't stand for long and we spent a very happy couple of hours there.  (We adults particularly enjoyed the children's dressing up box with mob caps, aprons, shawls and preaching tabs, but I really can't show you those photos!)  There are picnic tables, nice toilets and a children's playground as well as access to the shore of the lake and although we had to pay for parking, the cost was entirely refunded when we bought our tickets to the centre.  There is a also a café, which we didn't use (because we had taken a picnic).  I recommend a visit.

The rain had stopped and in the churchyard, outside the east end of the church, we found the grave of Rev Thomas Charles, who was known as "Charles of Bala", behind some railings which enclosed it with the graves of his wife and other members of their family.

I discovered that thanks to Rev Thomas Charles, Bala was really the centre of the Calvinist Methodist movement in North Wales.  He had moved to Bala in 1784 and set up the Welsh Circulating Schools, training men to go into a district for six months and teach reading and Christian principles.  Those men were funded by collections taken in the Calvinist Methodist Societies and after they moved on to a new district, local people would carry on their work in the district they had left.  Controversially, they even taught on Sundays (Sunday Schools) so that adults who were working during the week could learn to read.  In 1786 there were seven schoolmasters and by 1794 there were twenty.  It was due to these schools that there were proportionally so many more literate people in Wales in the eighteenth century than there were in the rest of the United Kingdom and so it was perfectly feasible that little Mary Jones would have been able to read.

William Hugh was the first preacher to live in Mary's parish and the Methodist Society met regularly in his house to listen to his bible readings and to pray together.  Although children didn't usually attend those meetings, an exception was made for Mary after her father died, so that her mother could attend, and it was what she experienced at these meetings which led Mary to declare herself a Christian when she was eight years old.  William Hugh would sometimes lead a group of neighbours on an overnight walk to Bala  after they finished work on Saturday evening; reaching the town on Sunday morning, they would join the crowds gathered on The Green to listen to rousing sermons before walking home again on Sunday evening.  So, there was an established walking route from the village to Bala which both Mary and her mother would have known about. My doubts were fading.

While we ate our picnic, we discussed what we had learned and decided that we wanted to venture further, to visit the place where Mary Jones was born and from where she set out on her journey.  In preparing for our day out, we had read this excellent blog post which included clear directions to the places of Mary's birth and death and so we set off, in the rain again, and drove southwest to the stunningly beautiful Dysynni Valley.  We drove to Abergynolwyn and carried on down hair-raisingly steep and narrow lanes until we arrived at Llanfihangel-y-Pennant, at the foot of Cadair Idris.  The rain had stopped, although the sky was still grey.  We drove past the church, along the lane, over the bridge and around the corner and there we were at the ruins of Ty'n-y-Ddol, the House in the Meadow, the little cottage which was Mary's home.  The drive from Lake Bala had taken almost one hour.  We got out of the car and looked around, wondering which of the several tracks Mary had taken when she set out for Bala and I imagined her mother standing on the doorstep, waving her off, telling her to be careful. 

A monument stands in the ruins of the cottage, erected by the Sunday Schools of Merioneth in 1907.  This is the inscription -


The ruined cottage stands by a stream, which would have been its only source of water and provides a picturesque setting for a home which must have actually been very basic. 

Our next port of call was the simple parish church, dedicated to St Michael.  The building was probably built in the twelfth century and has been altered several times since, most recently in 1871, long after Mary was baptised there, although the medieval font is the same one.  There is a display about Mary and her life in the vestry which includes copied images from the parish registers: the marriage of Mary's parents, her own baptism and her father's burial.  These registers, in a Welsh speaking valley, were written in English, the official language of the church!  This must be why our girl is always written as Mary Jones. I was troubled to see that her father was described as "a Peasant" rather than a weaver until perusal of other entries in the register revealed that all but a few of the men were described in the same way, those few being described as "a Gentleman".  There is also a photograph of the "unveiling ceremony" for the monument we had just seen, taken in 1907, with a crowd of people dressed in their Sunday best.  I like these kind of small local displays, I really don't mind their homespun nature but I did mind that this one doesn't seem to be looked after: it was very dusty and sort of thrown together, and there is a lovely commemorative quilt which has been hung wherever it could fit, rather than to its best advantage.  It felt as if nobody really cared.
Back outside the church we tramped through long grass to find the grave of Mary's parents and then after every one of the nasty, flying insects of the valley had tried to bite us in the car park we scuttled back inside the car and set off southwest again to Brycrug, a journey of seven or eight miles, to find the house in which Mary lived for the last years of her life and her grave at the Bethlehem Chapel.
We found the house, 6 Tyn y Winllan, an ordinary domestic house beside the main road.  It is, apparently, a Grade II listed building because of its association with Mary, but there is nothing to mark its importance, no sign or plaque so if you don't know about it, you would drive straight past, which is presumably what the family who own it want you to do.  It is their name which hangs on a sign over the front door, not that of Mary Jones.  We were disappointed.  Our second stop in the village was at the Bethlehem Chapel where a smart, slate sign on the wall pointed the way to Mary Jones' Grave.  Following the arrow, we walked around three sides of the building to find the enclosed graveyard.  This was not an easy walk because the grass and weeds were almost waist-high, the ground was uneven and on a slope and the graves were close together, so we could easily have tripped and fallen over hidden stones.  My eleven year-old friend almost disappeared completely!  We had to hunt around before we found Mary.  The sun had come out and the churchyard looked romantically overgrown, the bees and butterflies were loving it, but would it be so difficult for the owners to mow a pathway from the gate to the grave?  There is another monument here, also erected by the Sunday Schools of Merioneth in 1907.  I think people cared about the story of Mary Jones in 1907 far more than they do today.
My young friend picked some wildflowers, tied them together into a posy and placed them carefully on Mary's grave.  My heart melted a little bit when she did that.

We had one more place to visit: Bala, the home of Rev Thomas Charles.  Using the satnav to find our way meant that we had no idea where we really were which made it all the more exciting when the view opened up before us and we saw the sea.  There we were on the edge of Wales with nothing between us and Ireland.  We stopped the car, got out and just drank in the view as the light danced over the water.
It was after 6pm and pouring with rain when we arrived in Bala but that didn't deter us.  First we found the man himself, or rather his marble statue, standing outside the Jerusalem Chapel in Chapel Square, off Chapel Street(!).  He looked as if he needed a good wash.  Then we found his house, which for many years was a bank but now stands empty with a For Sale sign attached to its frontage.  It looks clean and bright and there are two plaques which announce its significance, one in Welsh and the other in English.  There is also an information board outside the building.

And so we drove home, chatting all the way about the things we had seen and learned.  My young friend read aloud to us from her book about Mary Jones and we interjected each time we discovered a factual inaccuracy; we interjected a lot!  The journey was long because the weather was appalling so we had to drive slowly.  The roads were so high and the clouds were so low that we were in them, so we really couldn't see very far ahead at all.  High up in the mountains, water coursed down both sides of the road, filling and overflowing the drainage channels and flooding the roads - at one point, the water was actually bubbling up through the road surface.  As the road came down and we drove through villages the roads were flooded in many places and we passed many cars which had broken down, as well as a couple of fire engines.  On a corner of the road at Llangedwyn, the road was completely flooded and a few people were standing in the water to show the traffic how deep the water was and direct us through the shallow end.  Such kindness.  We arrived home after 9pm, having been out for almost twelve hours, happy, brimful of admiration for Mary Jones and all of us keen to tell the world about her.  So if you're sitting comfortably, I'll begin.

Jacob Jones and Mary Jones were married at the church in Llanfihangel-y-Pennant on 25th May 1783.  Both uneducated weavers, they were unable to read or write and so left their marks on the parish register instead of signatures. 

Their only child, Mary, was born just over eighteen months later on 16th December 1784 and baptised in the same church when she was three days old.


Although baptised Mary Jones, everyone called the child Mari Jacob, after her father, to avoid confusion with other girls called Mary Jones - Mary's mother was known as Mari Sion, after her own father, and later, young Mary would marry a man called Thomas Jones who was known as Thomas Lewis after his father, Lewis Jones!  The family scraped by, earning money from weaving and agricultural labouring, growing their own vegetables and keeping a few animals.  Comforts were scarce in Mary's life and they became even scarcer when her father died in March 1789, when she was four years old.

A year later, William Hugh came to the parish and Methodist Society meetings were held in his home, up on the hillside above the parish church; William's task was to read the bible to the people, to pray for and with them and to "disciple" them, while still encouraging them to attend Sunday services at their parish church in order to receive holy communion.  Although children did not usually attend these meetings, an exception was made for Mary because she attended other religious events with her mother in the evenings, carrying the lantern to light the path for their feet as they picked their way up the mountainside from T'yn-y-Ddol, and  three years later, when she was eight years old, Mary became a member of the Methodist Society herself.

When Mary was nine or ten years old Rev Thomas Charles sent one of his teachers, John Ellis, to the area to open a school and a Sunday School.  As often as she could, Mary walked the two mile path over the hill to Abergynolwyn where first John Ellis and then Lewis Williams taught her to read and write.  She was bright and keen to learn and apparently, she had a very good memory.  Once she could read, Mary became desperate to own a bible, a Welsh bible, so that she could read it whenever she wanted to.  However, bibles were expensive and Mary's mother certainly had no spare money to buy her one, so Mary set out to earn money however she could - collecting eggs, sweeping yards, earning farthings and halfpennies and sometimes a whole penny.  As the years passed and she grew bigger she looked after cattle, took in sewing, kept her own chickens and bees and sold the honey and eggs.  She saved everything she could so that one day she would be able to buy herself a bible.

About two miles away from Mary's cottage was a farmhouse called Penybryniau Mawr and in this farmhouse a bible was kept on the table in the parlour.  The farmer's wife knew how much Mary loved to read the bible so she invited her to come to the house to read it - as long as she took her clogs off before she entered the parlour!  For years Mary visited the house once a week, whatever the weather, so that she could read her beloved bible and learn passages from it off by heart.  One morning in early 1800, when Mary was fifteen years old, she was making her way to Penybryniau Mawr when she met a stranger.  Here is Mary's own account of that meeting:

"One stormy Monday morning I was walking to a farmhouse about two miles from my home, a gentleman riding on a white horse and wearing a cloth cape came to meet me and asked me where I was going through such wind and rain. I said I was going to a farmhouse where there was a Bible, that there wasn’t one nearer my home, and that the mistress of the farm said that I could see the Bible, which she kept on a table in the parlour so long as I took my clogs off. I told him that I was saving up every halfpenny this long time to get a Bible but that I did not know where to get one. The gentleman was ‘Charles of Bala’, he told me to come to Bala at a certain time, that he was expecting some from London and that I should have one from him."

Mary Jones was not the only Welsh speaker who wanted a bible of her own and so the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) had published a new edition of the Welsh language bible in 1799, a run of ten thousand copies.  Rev Thomas Charles was able to secure seven hundred of them, to be delivered to him during the spring of 1800 and to be offered for sale at a price of three shillings and sixpence each. 

Mary must have been so excited.  I think she must have waited for the summer, when the daylight hours are as long as possible and the nights are mild, to make her journey to Bala.

When the time came my mother put the money and a little bread and cheese in one end of the ‘wallet’ and my clogs in the other, and I set off for Bala on a fine morning, resting where there was a stream of clear water, to eat the bread and cheese. I came to Bala trembling and knocked at the door of Mr Charles’ house. I asked for Mr Charles and was told that he was in his study at the back of the house. I was allowed to go to him and he told me that the Bibles had not arrived. I started to cry because I did not know where to stay. He sent me to stay with an old servant of his who had a house at the bottom of his garden, until the Bibles came. When they came Mr Charles gave me three for the price of one. I set off home with my precious burden, I ran a great part of the way, I was so glad of my Bible”.
There is no handsome prince in this story, no rescue, no rags-to-riches.  The pot of gold at the end of Mary's rainbow was her bible.  This is a real story about a real girl.  In 1813, when she was twenty-eight years old, Mary married Thomas Jones, another weaver, in the church at Talyllyn.  Both Thomas and Mary signed their names in the parish register.  They had six children, five of whom died when they were young. 
Later, the family moved to Bryncrug where they worshipped at the Bethlehem Chapel, Thomas becoming an elder there.  He and Mary continued to work as weavers until they were unable to do so any more - there was no retirement, they needed the income.  Mary was well-known for her faith and for her love of the bible.  She still kept bees and divided the income from the beeswax between the Calvinistic Methodist Missionary Society and Bible Society and in 1854 she donated half a sovereign to Bible Society's appeal to send one million New Testaments to China in celebration of its fiftieth anniversary.  Mary knew how important it was to have a bible of one's own to read.
By this time Mary was a widow.  In 1862 a young woman named Lizzie Rowlands came to work nearby as a governess and upon being told that Lizzie was from Bala, Mary asked if she would come and see her so that they could talk about the place Mary knew.  Lizzie obliged, and visited Mary every day for almost two years.  Thirty years later, when a book about Mary was published and her story became known, Lizzie recalled these visits and the things Mary had told her about her life.    Here is Lizzie's first impression of Mary:
"She was thin, living in a small cottage with an earth floor, a small table with a rush candle on it and two or three three-legged stools.  She wore the old Welsh dress, a petticoat and bed gown, blue and white gingham apron made of linsey and a long cloak and hood, a plain cap and kerchief on her head."
By this time Mary had been blind for several years and she was quite frail, although she was still able to walk to chapel.  On 29th December 1864, two weeks after her eightieth birthday, she died; one of the bibles she had bought from Rev Thomas Charles lay on the table beside her bed.  A facsimile of that bible is displayed at Byd Mary Jones World.
When I think of Mary Jones, I don't think of the frail old lady in the gingham apron; I think of the fifteen year-old girl walking through the mountains in her bare feet, carrying her clogs in her wallet and hope in her heart.  I would like the world to remember her story again, this story of the poor girl who set her heart on a goal and worked hard to achieve it, even though it seemed out of reach.  Please tell the story to anyone who will listen, but especially the young people you know, and if you are able, visit some of the places I visited that epic day in Wales.  When Tom Kitten is older I intend to take him to Byd Mary Jones World (although I shan't expect him to dress up in a mob cap and an apron!).
So why did Mary carry her clogs to Bala?  The answer is that her mother wouldn't let her wear them to walk there because they had to look presentable when she put them on to meet Rev Thomas Charles!  That seems entirely plausible to me.
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x



  1. Yes! I do know Mary Jones! I might have even written a post about her, I have to go and look, I might just have it as a draft, not sure! LOL!
    Anyway, I LOVE your wonderfullly written post about her and I think you should write a book and then, make a movie from it so people will REALLY know her! (You know, nothing is real until is is on film these days.)
    I can't remember how I found out about her...but I was glad I did and glad that you have written about this here! Wonderful, moving post. x

    1. Thank you Kay, you are very kind. I'm glad you enjoyed the post and thrilled that you already knew about Mary Jones! I am trying to encourage my young friend to rewrite Mary Jones and Her Bible for children. We are on a bit of a mission to spread the word about her! x

  2. I have never come across this wonderful girl before but it is certainly a story that I would love to share. Sounds like an epic journey of discovery and a joy to read it.

    1. Thank you! It really did feel like an epic day and I think a lot of that was due to the variable weather, but it did feel like a real adventure. I think many churches celebrate Bible Sunday in October and tell the story of Mary Jones then so perhaps your church might do that? x

  3. I remember a story about Mary Jones when I was in Sunday School many years ago. How wonderful to read about her now, with her story verified. This is such a great post.
    It makes me a little bit sad that we have such access to Bibles of all sorts, even digital ones, and few people seem to read it and love it as Mary did.
    A truly inspiring post.

    1. Thank you so much Lorrie. I am absolutely thrilled to learn that Mary Jones' story has been shared so far and wide! I know what you mean; in one church I know the young people are encouraged to take out their smartphones and read the bible reading through Bible Gateway during the service, now even some of the older people do that, too. I was a bit taken aback at first but it works. x

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  5. Oh goodness Mrs T what a wonderful story and so well researched, I've been back to your post a couple of times to continue reading about Mary's life. How wonderful that you were able to visit all the places connected with her story - I recognise some of the place names, especially Bala which we pass through on our way to Tremadog:)

    1. Thank you Rosie, I knew it was risky to write such a long post but I didn't want to leave any of it out, either the story of the day or Mary's story. Thank you for sticking with it! It was good to visit all the places and feel that we had travelled through all of Mary's life. Funnily enough, I went to Tremadog for the first time for my birthday in February - we stayed in the Golden Fleece and ate an amazing meal at Y Sgwar. I am hoping to go again! x

  6. Have just found your blog by chance and read this. I have heard of Mary Jones as a musical was made of her story. My Sunday school used to do a concert every year and so I played Mary Jones as a little girl over 30 years ago! Thank you for bringing back some memories. Anna x

    1. Hello Anna, you are very welcome here. I didn't know about the musical, thank you, and you had the starring role! I'm always glad to "meet" someone who knows about Mary Jones. x

    2. Have just googled it-Greater Than Gold it's called.

    3. Ooh, thanks Anne. You are a star! I'll have to check it out. x