Success! I’ve been searching for Christmas for over 20 years and have recently found him.
My great-grandfather, Evan Christmas Thomas, was what we call in family history research something of a ‘brick wall’. I could trace him back to around 1900 but any further back was presenting a problem.
This year that brick wall came tumbling down and some interesting stories came to light. How did the story of him possibly being Wales’s first hit and run victim not get passed down through the family? There’s even an intriguing Roath connection – perhaps you can help solve that mystery.
The starting point to my research was information that had got passed down through the family. I knew he was originally from West Wales and had lived in the village of Cwrt Newydd on the Carmarthenshire/Cardiganshire border. After coming to Cardiff I knew he and the family lived in Birchgrove and he worked as a commercial traveller for a paint company.
Twenty years ago the family historian tended to have to leave the house and visit places like libraries to further their research. I was fortunate enough at the time to have a job which involved regular meetings in London onto which I could tag a visit to the old Family History Centre at Clerkenwell. There droves of genealogists would move around silently examining the large weighty volumes of birth, deaths and marriages. There would be tutting, sighing and occasionally whoop of excitement to signify success but the sound was mainly the clatter of the metal reinforced volumes being re-shelved.
Obtaining the marriage certificate for Evan Christmas Thomas was straightforward enough. From that I could see he was a woollen manufacturer and did indeed live at Cwrt Newydd. The wedding certificate gave his father’s name as James, a labourer. I also had a death certificate and the ages on both the death and the marriage certificates gave me a supposed year of birth.
Next job then to get the birth certificate. With a year of birth and an unusual middle name of Christmas what could be difficult about that. I searched and I searched but just couldn’t find him. Letters were written to registry offices in West Wales and family history societies in the area but all came back negative. There was no birth of an Evan Christmas Thomas registered.
When the 1901 census was released and up came Evan Christmas Thomas, owning his woollen mill in Cwrt Newydd giving his place of birth as Llandysiliogogo, Cardiganshire and speaking both Welsh and English.
I put the search for Christmas aside for a long time, concentrated on other strands of the family tree and then gave family history a rest all together for quite a few years.
When I picked it up again everything had changed. It had all gone computerised. I joined Glamorgan Family History Society and attended one of their ‘brick wall’ sessions at Cardiff Central Library – 10am to 2pm on the first Saturday of the month, non-members welcome, and free of charge! I went along armed with all I knew about Evan Christmas Thomas.
The wonderful Nick taught me so much and solved one mystery. After also failing to find a birth of an Evan Christmas Thomas he pointed out of the library window at Tabernacle Church opposite and said my answer may well lie over there. He explained that Christmas may well not have been my great-grandfather’s name at birth but one taken on later in life in adoration of Christmas Evans.
Christmas Evans (1766-1838) was a famous Welsh Baptist preacher, born near Llandysul, where my great grandfather also came from. He was a giant of a man, blind in one eye and much admired. He worked around Wales and at one time was minister of Tabernacle Baptist in the Hayes Cardiff.
That all sounded very plausible but now left the challenge me with the challenge of finding a birth for an Evan Thomas rather than an Evan Christmas Thomas. Anyone with ancestry in the West Wales area will be familiar with such a challenge. There seemed to be a shortage of names, both first names and surnames, to go around. You look at some census records and families living next door to each other all have virtually identical names. Talk about keeping up with the Jones’s.
The other thing that had appeared in the intervening years was the 1911 Census. Bizarrely this only served to confuse things rather than add clarity. Evan Christmas Thomas was now calling himself something else! Now he was Evan Ceridfryn Thomas. Yes, I’d never heard of the name Ceridfryn either. In fact there’s only about three people ever been called Ceridfryn and one of them James Ceridfryn Thomas (1856-1932) lived in Roath and was also originated Cardiganshire with a mention in a book on the history of Llandyssil.
In 1911 James Ceridfryn Thomas BSc lived at 93 Ninian Road, opposite Roath Park Pleasure Gardens. He was a retired headmaster having previously worked at Kingsholm School in Weston-Super-Mare. He had a degree in science, was also a minister and also an author, publishing books under a pen-name Keridon. He wrote in an erudite fashion on a wide range of matters much of it beyond my understanding.
So why did my great grand-father suddenly take on the middle name of Ceridfryn? I think he probably would have known James Ceridfryn Thomas. There was an active Cardiganshire Society meeting in the Cardiff at the time and maybe they knew each other through though Welsh chapel. Was it an admiration of his preaching or his writing or did James Ceridfryn Thomas maybe help secure Evan Thomas a job when he came to Cardiff. I’ll probably never know.
Another thing I found this year was my great-grandfather’s grave. It is in Pantmawr Cemetery in Whitchurch and on the headstone his middle name had reverted to Christmas once again. It will be interesting to see what he entered his name as on the 1921 census which is released in a couple of years time.
Breaking the rules
This year it dawned on me that I had broken one of the first rules of conducing family history. Whenever anyone starts looking at their family tree there are a few things to do prior to jumping online and immersing oneself in all the records. The first is to talk to all living relatives (talking to the dead ones is a bit of a waste of time as they don’t have a lot to say for themselves). Note down everything they say (apart from the bit where the offer you a cup of tea) . It won’t all be true. Some stories will have changed over time but there is usually an element of truth in each one. The second thing to do is to go through all old photographs and documents and make sure as much information is recorded about them as possible; names, dates, plates etc.
Do I keep to the above rules? No of course I don’t. This year I re-discovered an old bible belonging to Evan Christmas Thomas hidden away on our bookshelves. This wasn’t one of those large family bibles with the family history all neatly written out on the inside front cover. This was a small Welsh bible with Evan’s addresses inside and dated 1894. It wasn’t from his childhood either. Evan would have been 28 at this time. I realised that it was telling me his ‘present address’ of Penybont, Velindre and what was probably his ‘home address’ of Bwlchyfadfa, Talgarreg.
We happened to be holidaying in Cardiganshire this year so one day visited Bwlchyfadfa and the chapel and well-maintained graveyard. I was particularly looking for a James Thomas that may have been Evan’s father. There were lots of Thomas’s. One James Thomas looked very promising though somewhat older than I expected.
The next stage involved many hours pouring over census records, old maps and other various genealogy sources until yes, I eventually found Evan. I could trace him back from 1901 as a woollen mill owner, to 1891 working as a woollen spinner to 1881 being a woollen spinner’s apprentice and in 1871 being in Bwlchyfadfa as a five year old grandson to James Thomas, aged 64, an agricultural labourer. Also present in the house was an unmarried daughter Mary and an unmarried son David. It was all beginning to make sense.
The next stage involved a leap of faith. Spending the money and ordering what I thought was the correct birth certificate for Evan Thomas among all the Evan Thomas’s listed. A tense week followed whilst I waited for the certificate to arrive. Then bingo! There he was, Evan Thomas, born to Mary Thomas, Bwlchyfadfa, an illegitimate birth, no father mentioned. He was born on January 2nd 1866 so it was sort of a Christmas birth.
It was satisfying to find him eventually. A number of things had obviously thrown me. Christmas was not a name given from birth but one adopted later. The James mentioned on his wedding certificate as his father was no doubt his grandfather that had helped bring him up in the absence of a father. In fact Evan’s mother Mary dies when he was just nine after long illness. And the different birthplaces that kept being mentioned on census records i.e. Llandyssil and Llandysiliogogo, is explained by the fact that the parish boundary goes straight through the middle of the village of Bwlchyfadfa.
Having pieced it all together I got in contact with Wyn Thomas, the minister at Bwlchyfadfa Chapel to see if I could access any baptismal records etc. I wasn’t necessarily expecting a positive response as such records are often missing or been transferred to record offices or the minister is just too busy. Wyn however couldn’t have been more helpful and I paid another visit to the chapel to meet him.
Bwlchyfadfa is a Unitarian chapel. Christening in such chapels weren’t as common as in other denominations or necessarily recorded and preserved. Unitarianism was however big in the area with quite a lot of chapels and a magazine that went back to the 1800s. One possibility was that there would be a mention in the magazine of the Thomas family. The copies of the magazine stored at Bwlchyfadfa chapel didn’t go back far enough but Wyn had an idea, another chapel nearby may have the older copies of the magazine.
As we travelled though the lanes of rural Cardiganshire he pointed out the mill, Gelliaur, where Evan had been a woollen spinner in 1891, now converted into a house. We arrived at the chapel and climbed up onto the balcony and there, sat in dusty piles, were copies of Ymofynydd magazines dating back 150 years. A quick search and we found the obituary to my great-great-great-grandfather James Thomas. It tells of a man strong in his faith but one so hard of hearing that he used to sit on the steps of the pulpit so he could hear the sermon. So that’s where I get my hearing deficiency from!
The obituary of Evan’s mother Mary was also in the magazine and makes harrowing reading. Wyn later found her grave, her brother David and mother Elizabeth at Pantydefaid Unitarian Chapel, Prengwyn. The inscription on the tombstone was also incredibly sad and roughly translates to ‘We suffered very long with illness, looking for help but failing, until God the one who knew when released us from our suffering.’
We should never forget what a wonderful invention pain relief drugs are.
A slight mishap
There was another shock to come. Back home I continued to search for any mention in the newspapers of Evan Christmas Thomas and I stumbled upon a story of him I’d never heard. In 1907 it is reported he was cycling on the road from Merthyr to Brecon when he was knocked off his bike by a car travelling at 9mph on the wrong side of the road and he was rendered unconscious. The chauffer-driven car didn’t stop. After regaining consciousness it took him six hours to wheel his damaged bike to Brecon where he caught a train back to Cardiff.
There are so many questions I have over these reports. What was he doing there. He was a commercial traveller for a paint and varnish company. Was he working or a just very keen early cyclist? I can’t imagine the roads were very good back in 1907. And the big question – was he Wales’s first cycling hit and run victim?
And so there we have it. Some of the life of Evan Christmas Thomas has slowly revealed itself together with his sick mother Mary and hard of hearing grandfather James. A lot more stays hidden away waiting to be discovered.
Postscript: some additional information-
James Ceridfryn Thomas from Ninian Road, Roath:
Evan Christmas Thomas – more reports of his mishap with a chauffeured driven car: