Caernarfon Ddoe/Caernarfon's Yesterdays header


Have you ever thought what Caernarfon was like during the latter 19th and early 20th century? It was a hard life for the majority and with much poverty, yet many people succeeded in business and slates from the nearby quarries provided work for those loading vessels in the harbour. Others earned their living as seafarers and there were several ship builders and foundries in the town employing craftsmen, skilled engineers and apprentices.

Many ships from other countries visited the town and, as one would expect, the public houses were kept busy. Caernarfon was called 'Tref y trigain tafarn' (Town of the three score taverns). Here also were houses of ill repute where the pleasures of the flesh were available on demand. But there was another side to Caernarfon, religion and culture also prospered here. Another name for the town was 'Prifddinas yr Inc' (Capital of the ink) referring to the Printing Industry, for there were here many publishers and printers who produced newspapers, religious journals, educational books and so forth.

Society, therefore, was a mixture of the good and the bad and similar to what could be expected in any port in the country. The good, however, was represented by the Welsh Puritan tradition and it is the history of one such family that is the subject of this article - the Williams family; four generations of musicians who lived here in the town of Caernarfon.

One of them John Williams, Blacksmith, was a member of the Wesleyan Chapel and made a name for himself as a composer of hymn tunes and it is said that one of his compositions was very popular amongst members of that denomination and he gave it the name 'Pool Street' after the street where he lived. Unfortunately, however, and despite several attempts by the writer to obtain a copy of this hymn tune, it has proved unsuccessful and it does not appear in any modern hymn book.

John Williams' son, Humphrey Williams, Watchmaker, 6 Pool Street, was also a talented musician. He was conductor of a choir which was well-known at the time - 'The Welsh Harmonics,' who are referred to in the late Dr. Gwilym Arthur Jones' book 'Pobol Caernarfon ac Addolwyr Engedi.'

Humphrey Williams had three sons John, Robert and Howel, who entertained many audiences far and wide with their musical talents when they were young. Ann, the wife of Humphrey Williams, died at the age of 44 on December 2nd, 1866 and she was buried the following day in Llanbeblig Cemetery. This was at a time when nearly 100 Caernarfon people died of the Cholera Epidemic of 1866/1867, but proof was not found that she died of the pestilence although 9 people were buried in the cemetery on the same day and most of them were certified as having died of Cholera.

The children were aged between 6 and 10 when their mother died and their father deserved all praise for bringing them up and for the accolade that they achieved as soloists, instrumentalists and conductors at an early age.

It was Robert who starred as a soloist, Howel an exceptionally good violinist and John stood in front of audiences regularly as a soloist, instrumentalist and conductor.

Howel was taught to play the violin in Liverpool and in the Caernarfon National Eisteddfod of 1877, the first to be held at the Pavilion, he had the honour of being leader of the orchestra at the age of 16. He was presented with a gold medal for his performance and was photographed in the company of the Eisteddfod's adjudicators and artistes. He also had a fine voice and at an early age sang alto in local choirs and later became a choir conductor in the footsteps of his father and brother John.

He could well have become a musician of repute, but like many other young men of Caernarfon he was attracted to a life at sea. He sailed as an apprentice on the 'Bell of Arvon' (Capt. Jones), but on arriving in San Francisco, he left the ship. It is not known what his intentions were at the time - to look for work, perhaps, and settle in the U.S.A. This is a mystery, but the fact is that he stayed there for two or three years until a Mate called Richard Jones on the ship 'King Cedric' (Capt. D. Elias of Caernarfon) came across him in San Francisco and persuaded the Captain to take him on as a member of the crew on the voyage home.

One night, when the ship was awaiting loading in Queenstown, Richard Jones began to sing to the accompaniment of Howel on the violin and they received a deafening ovation from sailors and yachtsmen anchored nearby.

After returning home to Caernarfon Howel again went to sea and decided to study in earnest for his examinations to qualify for his Master's ticket. Eventually he succeeded and was employed as a Mate on an Elder Dempster Co. ship the 'Merrimac.' Then, on April 2nd, 1895, fortune smiled on him. A ship was observed in difficulty and Captain Morgan of the 'Merrimac' sent Howel across to her in a boat and when he returned and reported to the Captain that there was no-one on the ship and that the cargo had moved causing the ship to list badly. The Captain agreed for Howel and a ship's carpenter to re board the ship to carry out further inspection. This was done and they convinced the Captain saying that they were of the opinion that the cargo could be trimmed. The following morning 9 sailors were sent to assist Howel with the job of righting the cargo. During the day, the 'Merrimac' attempted to tow the ship, but the rope broke. The Captain sent another four sailors to the ship and with their help and working through the night the ship was righted.

Ten of the sailors volunteered to sail the ship back to Britain under the command of Howel and in his own words he describes what happened afterwards:

'We succeeded in bending the sails and sailed for the Channel. We got around Cape Clear on April 22, not having seen land until then. We hove to in a severe gale on the 23, having picked up a safe anchorage. We dropped anchor in Cardigan Bay, and wired Liverpool for a tug. That evening Captain Rattery the Co. Marine Superintendant and seven men arrived in a tug and took us in tow and anchored her in the Mersey on April 25. Later she was taken to the Herculaneum Dock, Liverpool. She had been navigated 1700 miles. Thus the vessel that had been abandoned was restored with her cargo to the owners.'

For this brave act Howel was promoted to Captain on one of the Elder Dempster ships, the 'S.S. Loango,' and on his first voyage as Master, Captain Howel Williams went to help another ship that had lost a propeller and towed it to Madeira. He did not, however, enjoy a long period as a ship's Master due to his eyesight deteriorating and he was forced to retire early.

He died on June 6th, 1926, aged 65 and lies buried in Llanbeblig with his wife Margaret Elizabeth, who died on November 17th, 1901 aged 38. They had three children, two sons and a daughter. His second son, John Richardson Williams, drowned, having been swept overboard from the ship 'S.S. New Brighton,' two days off Cape Verde Islands on February 18th, 1925 aged 29.

Carnarvon Choral Society, London 1909
Carnarvon Choral Society, London 1909
It is not possible to know what successes Howel Williams would have achieved had he decided on a career in music, but it would appear that the sea was his first love, even taking into consideration those early days in San Francisco.

Hitherto, only members of the family that were musicians, but earning a living through other means have been discussed. John Williams, the composer of hymn tunes who was a blacksmith by trade, his son Humphrey, a watchmaker, who was also a Choir Master, and his son Howel, the instrumentalist who became a sea captain. However, Howel's eldest brother John became a professional musician, even though the 1881 Census describes him as a watchmaker like his father at the age of 24 and that the family had moved from 6 Pool Street to 20 Castle Square, which was only across the road in fact. But by 1895, according to Slaters Directory, he is referred to as 'Teacher of Music,' living at Preswylfa. By this time he was also a paid organist of Christ Church, Caernarfon. His father Humphrey died in 1883 and by 1895, again according to Slaters, 'Williams & Pritchard, Watchmakers & Music Warehouse' were the occupants of 20 Castle Square. It is likely that John had gone into partnership and extended the business to include musical instruments.

He was born in the year 1856 and it is known that his career as Choir Master began in 1875 when he was only 19 years old and the following year, 1876 his choir won in the National Eisteddfod at Wrexham. His record in the National Eisteddfod is one to be coveted. He won six first prizes and one second prize in competitions for mixed and male voice choirs. Côr Meibion Eryri beat three other choirs from all over Wales in the London Welsh Eisteddfod in 1897 held at the 'Queen's Hall.' After the competition Mr. David Lloyd George M.P. took the members on a tour around the Houses of Parliament and the following day the choir sang at the Surveyor's Institute, Westminster. The President of that meeting was no less a person than Caernarfon born Sir William Preece to whom there is a plaque on the Post Office in Castle Square, Caernarfon.

Probably John Williams' two greatest achievements as Choir Master were at the London National Eisteddfod in 1909 and the Wrexham one in 1912, when his choir beat all the best choirs in South Wales and through these successes Cymdeithas Gorawl Caernarfon became the undisputed best choir in Wales. In a tribute to him in the Caernarfon and Denbigh Herald dated November 30th, 1917, following his untimely death, it was stated that John Williams was one of the two best Choir Masters in Britain. Not Wales, but Britain and what accounted for his success as an instructor was the talent he had for analysing a piece of music and teaching the members of the choir to sing it exactly in the way the composer had intended for it to be sung. He paid particular attention to the words and made them subordinate to the music rather than vice versa. He took the trouble to explain the meaning of the words in detail, the way to pronounce them and where to put the stress. He believed wholeheartedly that the music should be the accompaniment for the words.

In 1899 Côr Meibion Eryri sang in Caernarfon Castle in front of the Duke a Duchess of York, later to become King George V and Queen Mary and at the end of that year the choir was invited to sing at Windsor Castle by Royal Command and amongst the audience were the Prince and Princess of Wales and the Emperor and Empress of Germany. Queen Victoria was unable to attend due to bereavement in the family. The members of the Royal Family were greatly pleased with the performance and at the end of the concert the Prince of Wales - on behalf of the Queen - presented John Williams with an expensive diamond studded baton as a token of appreciation. The choir also had a new name Côr Meibion Brenhinol Eryri (The Royal Eryri Male Voice Choir) and from then on was in much demand and sang in many cities and towns in England such as Northampton, Kettering and Wolverhampton, but by the end of the year the choir had dispersed.

In the meantime the Caernarfon Operatic Society, under the guidance of John Williams, was formed. Many of the old favourites H.M.S. Pinafore, Mikado and Pirates of Penzance were staged and the proceeds went towards the cost of building the Cottage Hospital, which was opened in 1900. John Williams, himself, took on the main male parts in the performances, but after a few years he decided against continuing as Director and that signalled the end of the Operatic Society. He re-established the Choral Society and in 1911, he conducted the Choir at the Investiture of the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle.
John Williams, conductor of the Carnarvon Choral Society
John Williams, conductor of the Carnarvon
Choral Society
The Choir's performance on that day was such a success that innumerable requests for its services followed and concerts were held in London, Liverpool and other large cities in the U.K. Afterwards, there was no doubt that John Williams of the Caernarfon Choral Society was the most popular Choir Master amongst the population of the whole of Britain. But he was still Joni Williams, Côr Mawr to the good people of Caernarfon and the writer recalls listening to his mother and aunts reminiscing about the time they spent in their youth as members of his choir.

There can be no doubt that he was the most noted member of this exceptionally talented musical family, three generations of which has been covered and one remains. John Williams had five children, two sons and three daughters. The eldest was William Humphrey Williams, born in 1891, and the second son was the youngest child, John, who was ten years younger than his brother.

At the age of 12 William Humphrey went as a chorister to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he remained for four years and being that he was one of the most promising there he was often chosen to take part as a soloist. Then under a scheme called ex-choristership he spent a further twelve months at the college. Upon leaving, he commenced on a career in business with Alexandria Slate Quarry in Caernarfon and two years later was apprenticed to 'Turner Brothers Asbestos and Rubber Manufacturers, Rochdale.'

Soon after he completed his apprenticeship war broke out and he was amongst the first to enlist in August, 1914, as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 6th Lancashire Fusiliers. In July 1915 and after a period under instruction in Southport and Crowbridge he was posted to the Dardanelles and he took part in the Gallipoli Campaign. In fact he was the only officer in his Company that survived. He could not, however, continue in that theatre of war due to being suffering from a poisoned arm. Then in November 1916, when he had recovered, he came home on leave to Caernarfon. By this time he had been promoted Lieutenant and was then posted to Alexandria in Egypt, where he joined the Royal Flying Corps and after three months training he passed out as a pilot. He was again promoted to the rank of Captain and within six months was made a Flight Commander. Then, on March 3rd, 1918 he joined a squadron in Palastine and on May 3rd was killed in action in aerial combat with the enemy, exactly a fortnight after becoming engaged to marry a Miss Ormerod of Castleton, near Manchester. This was another severe blow to the family, as it was less than six months since the death of his father. His name and address W.H. Williams, Preswylfa, can be seen on the Cenotaph on Caernarfon's Castle Square.

His younger brother, John, also was at Magdalen College as a chorister for a period, but little is known about him. One fact only was uncovered during research which was that Master John Williams was present at the funeral of his father in November 1917.

© T. M. Hughes 2013