William Howe and Mary Hopkin

The Day They Married

My 3 x great grandparents William Howe and Mary Hopkin married on 24 August 1850, a Saturday. They married in the church of St James, Pyle, two miles from their homes in South Corneli. Originally, this church was built in the nearby medieval town of Kenfig. However, due to frequent sandstorms during the thirteenth, fourteen and fifteenth centuries, the burgesses abandoned Kenfig and settled elsewhere, including Pyle, where they re-erected the church, transferring it block by block. A wall plate in the nave confirms that the burgesses had transferred the church of St James to Pyle by 1471. One of the walls of the church was built ‘upside down’ with the smaller stones placed first, as they arrived from Kenfig.

St James’ church, Pyle, the ‘upside-down’ church.

In 1850 the Great Western Railway arrived in South Corneli. On the day William and Mary married, the chairman of the Great Western Railway announced himself pleased with the profits the line was making, despite missing a thirty-mile section of track between Gloucester and Chepstow. Those profits, including £1,084 accumulated during the third week of August, came from passenger services. At this time the Great Western Railway had yet to secure goods or mail contracts.

Bridgend railway station, 1850, a picture commemorating its opening.

The arrival of the Great Western Railway with its steam locomotives must have been quite a sight for William and Mary, particularly as the railway line ran at the top of their street. Maybe they boarded the trains on occasions. I have found no reference to that, but Mary was mentioned in the newspapers along with her friend, Mary Francis. They used to walk fifteen miles to the market at Neath to sell bonnets, made at home. No photographs of Mary exist, but the fact that she used to walk such distances suggests a high degree of physical fitness, and that she possessed a slender frame. Certainly, her walks to Neath market ensured that she had plenty of exercise. Her sister Anne probably walked with her to the market and there she met her husband, David Price.

As stated above, no photographs of Mary, or William, exist. However, maybe they did have their pictures taken at some point. In 1850 the newspapers carried advertisements for photographers  and a number of photography businesses did establish themselves in the area, in Kenfig Hill, Porthcawl and Bridgend. Indeed, in 1875 J Bowtell was listed as a photographer living in South Corneli. It’s highly likely that William and Mary knew him, but there is no evidence to suggest that he took their pictures.

On 24 August 1850 the newspapers were reporting outbreaks of potato blight, a disease responsible for the 1840s European, 1845-1852 Irish and 1846 potato famines. While not to the degree of the sad events listed above, potato blight did trouble local farmers and gardeners at this time. The Merthyr Guardian reported that the use of lime without dung, as recommended by some farmers, alleviated the problem.

Margaret Hopkin and Catherine Lewis witnessed William and Mary’s wedding. Born on 19 November 1825, Margaret was Mary’s younger sister. She married William Phillips, a coal miner, and the couple produced four sons. At the time of William and Mary’s wedding Catherine, a friend of Mary’s, was in her early thirties and unmarried. She survived financially by lodging labourers – men, women and children – who had moved to the village to work on the local farms.

When William and Mary married, Mary already had a child, Thomas Reynolds, born on 15 January 1842 in South Corneli. Mary was twenty-three at the time and three years older than baby Thomas’ father, also Thomas. Thomas Reynolds senior died in 1845. He did not marry Mary and it would appear that he had no plans to do so. Thomas was baptised on 18 January 1842 in St James’ church, Pyle as Hopkin and Reynolds, but he carried his father’s surname throughout his life.

Thomas lived with William and Mary after their marriage. He worked on the local farms as a carter and on the developing railways. On 15 May 1875 he married Mary Morgan and the couple produced three children.

William Howe was born on 31 August 1823 and baptised on 14 September 1823 in Southerndown, St Brides, Glamorgan. As a teenager, we worked his way west to labour on the farms. In 1841, aged eighteen, he found himself working as an agricultural labourer on Cadogan Thomas’ farm in Merthyr Mawr. From there he travelled five miles further west to South Corneli where he met Mary Hopkin.

Where did William and Mary meet? There is no definitive answer, but a farm, market, pub or church are the main contenders. I suspect they met through his work on the local farms. Incidentally, Mary was born on 27 August 1818 in South Corneli and baptised on 20 September 1818 in St James’ church, Pyle, so she was five years older than William, a slightly unusual age difference, but by no means unique.

William and Mary’s first daughter, Margaret, was baptised on 16 February 1851, which means that Mary was three months pregnant when she married William. Unlike Thomas Reynolds, at least William did the honourable thing and married Mary.

Mary gave birth to five children: Thomas Reynolds in 1842, Margaret Howe in 1851, Hopkin Howe in 1853, William Howe in 1855, and Mary Ann Howe in 1858. However, only one of her offspring, my direct ancestor William, survived her.

Margaret, sadly, died of ‘brain fever’ on 30 December 1853 in St Brides, Glamorgan. Through her husband, William, Mary had a number of relatives in St Brides, but it’s not clear why Margaret was there and why Mary wasn’t with her. Did Mary have the fever too and was too ill to look after her child? Whatever the reason for Mary’s absence, Margaret’s death was a deviating blow for the family.

Mary Ann was born on 20 June 1858 in South Corneli, Glamorgan. Like her mother, Mary Ann was a dressmaker. Amazingly, a letter written by Mary Ann in 1877 survives. 

As well as sentimental value, the letter is interesting in that it was written in English by a native Welsh speaker, it mentioned using the recently installed railway network and, more poignantly, Mary Ann stated that she was well ‘at present’. Mary Ann endured poor health throughout her short life and died on 21 January 1886, aged twenty-seven.

South Corneli, October 3, 1877

Dear Cousin,

I have taken the pleasure of writing these few lines to you in hopes to find you well as I am at present. Dear Cousin I could understand in Mary David’s letter the note you sent me that you was greatly offended to me and I don’t know the cause of you being so offended to me unless it is the cause of not sending your hat. The reason I did not send it because you told me you was coming to the tea party. You said that nothing would not keep you from not coming and I have not had no chance of sending it after unless I send it by train. Please write and let me know for what you are offended to me for. I am very uneasy ever since I did receive the note and I do think you don’t care much about me ever since you went away. I do only wish for you to write to me to tell me the reason by return.

So no more at present. From your cousin,

Mary Ann Howe

Mary Ann Howe died of ‘cardiac syncope’ or heart failure. Her brother, Hopkin, a Methodist Minister, was at her side. She died at Alexandria Road in Pontycymer, fourteen miles north of Corneli. What was she doing there? 

In 1882, the people of Pontycymer built the Bethel Methodist Chapel with modifications added in 1885. The design incorporated a Romanesque style with two storeys, a gable-entry plan and round-headed windows. It seems highly likely that Hopkin was visiting the chapel, accompanied by his sister, Mary Ann. Mary Ann fell ill and was taken around the corner to a house in Alexandria Road where she died. 

Because of her letter, I feel close to Mary Ann as an ancestor and remain grateful for her words and the insight into her life.

Born on 16 June 1853 in South Corneli, William and Mary’s son Hopkin became a blacksmith, learning the trade from an uncle, 

David John. In 1871, Hopkin was living with a Welsh family in Stockton, Durham while he plied his trade. However, his dream was to become a Methodist Minister, and he fulfilled that dream when he returned to Wales.

Hopkin married Elizabeth Jones in 1884. This event brought great pleasure and tragedy. Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth May Gwendoline Howe, on 27 November 1885, but died in childbirth. Deprived of her mother, baby Elizabeth died in infancy. One can only imagine how these events must have tested Hopkin’s faith.

Hopkin married again, Sarah Ann Jones, in December 1890 and he toured South Wales preaching the gospel. However, he died four years later, of a lumber abscess, an infection in his spinal cord, on 19 February 1894. He left a will bequeathing £119 to Sarah Ann, the equivalent of a year’s wages. 

Mary was 75 at this time. She still had her husband, William, at her side while her only surviving son, William, lived with his family next door.

Life for my 3 x great grandparents, William Howe and Mary Hopkin was hard, typical of working class Victorians. They lost four of their five children, in infancy, young adulthood and middle age. They also lost three of their grandchildren.

William’s working life reflected the changing landscape. Instead of labouring on the land, he left farming in his twenties to become a collier in the recently established coal mines. He returned to the land only to work in the local limestone quarry during the second half of his life. Meanwhile, Mary was a homemaker and a dressmaker.

Mary had strong material instincts. She brought up her niece, Ann Price, and looked after an orphan, fifteen-year-old Anne Beynon. Anne was the daughter of John Beynon and Anne Nicholl, who owned a shop in Corneli. John died in 1837 while his wife Anne died five years earlier, in 1832. With Anne Beynon facing destitution, it was generous of Mary to take her into her home. Later, she brought up her grandson, Edward Reynolds. Her house was a home for waifs and strays.

On 12 July 1897, aged 79, Mary died of ‘senile decay’. Her son, William, was at her side. The inscription on her gravestone, written in Welsh, reads, ‘To walk in honour to the land of peace. May the good lord return her soul to me.’

Those words on Mary’s gravestone were obviously written by her husband, William. He died of bladder and prostrate disease, and exhaustion, on 31 December 1903. Edward Reynolds’ wife, Rachel Thomas, was at his side thus maintaining a link with the Reynolds family that existed for sixty years.