Why the surname "Powell-Davies" ?

When I was a boy, my double-barrelled surname stood out as being unusual – and perhaps a bit ‘posh’. However, I just knew it to be part of my family history, one which had been told to me from an early age.

My Dad was in no doubt that his surname’s origin was linked to his father being an illegitimate child. My grandfather had been brought up by the Davies family as Tom Davies. He then discovered that his real mother’s name was Mary Powell, so then combined the two to make “Powell-Davies”. But was this tale based on fact? Thanks to so many genealogical records now being online, it has become much easier to find out.

Thomas Davies - Born at St.Donat’s Castle 

My grandfather, Thomas, had passed on more details to his sons, including my father, Dillwyn. They were certain that their father had been born at St.Donat’s Castle, on the Glamorganshire coast at Llantwit Major. The buildings are now the grounds of Atlantic College but had been owned - and ostentatiously developed - by the US tycoon William Randolph Hearst (the man who was the main inspiration for “Citizen Kane”). 

In 1880, when my grandfather was born, the estate was owned by Welsh landowner John Whitlock Nicholl Carne. He claimed to be descended from the Stradlings, the family who had owned St.Donat’s as their ancestral seat since the fourteenth century.  My Dad certainly liked the idea that our family could possibly be traced back through them to marcher lords, crusader knights and even local folklore - like the tale of ‘The Doom of Colyn Dolphyn’ which tells of the kidnapping of one of the Stradlings by a Breton pirate.  St.Donat’s Castle certainly provides a geographical connection, but any genealogical connection is much less certain. 

Mary Powell – A Dairymaid

One of the first records I managed to find when carrying out family research gave firm confirmation to the family tale of the unmarried Mary Powell giving birth to my grandfather at St.Donat’s.

The birth certificate for Thomas, born on 30 April 1880 in Llantwit Major, lists the mother as Mary Powell, a Dairymaid. The section for the father’s name is left blank. (The certificate does, however, raise a further mystery – why does it state Mary Powell “formerly Davies” in one of the sections? I have no answer – apart from wondering if the wording was possibly to somehow cover for the Davies’ adoption?).

The 1881 Census compiled the following year confirms that an unmarried 26-year-old Mary Powell is indeed ‘in service’ at the castle, although now listed as a Laundrymaid:

Brought up by the Davies family in Glyntaff, Pontypridd

There is, however, no infant Thomas listed on the 1881 Census at St.Donat’s. Instead he is recorded as being a ‘nursing child’ of 11 months living with the Davies family in Graigalfa Road, Glyntaff, Pontypridd:

Thomas Davies, with his wife Barbara and two children, is listed as the head of the household and as ‘General Labourer and Local Minister’. This is the family that raised my grandfather.

This undated picture shows Mr and Mrs Davies. Barbara died in 1928 and Thomas at some point after that. However, he was in attendance at his daughter’s wedding – which actually took place in August 1928. 

Thomas Davies is pictured (seated with a hat) together with his son, Joan, known as ‘Uncle Jack’, and Jack’s son, Thomas’ grandson, Henry. His foster son, Thomas Powell-Davies, my grandfather, is the vicar standing at the back and his son, my father, is the young man standing on the left. My grandmother, Isabella, is sitting next to Jack.

The Davies family

As the 1881 census shows, the foster parents, Thomas Davies and Barbara (née Morley) had originally come from parishes to the south of Pontypridd, Llantrisant and Llantwit Fardre. Their history illustrates how the area was rapidly changing under the impact of the iron and coal industry.

They married in October 1871 and the census from earlier that year shows them both living within a mile of each other - Barbara in Tonteg and Thomas in Church Village/Cross Inn. Interestingly, given that Thomas Davies became a Baptist Minister, the Salem Baptist Chapel lay between their homes. The Chapel is the burial place of John Hughes, who wrote the famous Welsh hymn tune Cwm Rhondda. However, I have not found any detailed records of where their marriage took place.

Before their marriage, and after her parents’ death, Barbara had worked as a servant in nearby homes (see picture). Her census records show family members being both miners and farmers. I have not traced any earlier census records of Thomas Davies, but he is also recorded as being a collier in the 1871 census.

Thomas Davies – Foreman at Brown and Lenox

Thomas Davies’ census records list the following professions:

Graigalfa and Pentrebach roads were close to the Newbridge (as Pontypridd was formerly known) chain and anchor works where Thomas Davies, and his sons, were employed.

The chainworks, operated by Brown and Lenox, became the town’s first big industrial concern when it opened in 1818. Its growth, alongside coal mining, was one of the drivers of the rapid expansion of Pontypridd at this time. Brown and Lenox supplied chains to the Royal Navy up until 1916 and produced those for the Great Eastern that are pictured behind the famous 1857 photograph of Isambard Kingdom Brunel:

So, around the time when he was fostering my grandfather, Thomas Davies was promoted to being Foreman of the Testing House at Brown and Lenox – presumably quite a significant and skilled post. It would be interesting to know if the company records in the Glamorgan Archives contain any reference to him or can shed any light on his record of employment and skills. The 1901 census records (below) show that his sons also gained employment at the works.  The 1911 census shows Uncle Jack had then progressed from a Smith to a Stamp Cutter at the chainworks and then, in the 1939 census, had also become a Foreman in the Testing House.

However, Tom, my grandfather, is described in 1901 as a student at a Training College. When he marries Isabella in 1902, his profession is listed as schoolmaster but his father’s as ‘Foreman’. Notably, he has already taken the name Tom Powell Davies (although no hyphen is used in the surname on the certificate):

Thomas Davies – ‘Cyfaill John’, the preacher and Minister

Thomas Davies also had another profession listed – that of Baptist Minister. Under the pseudonym of “Cyfaill John”, it appears he wrote regularly in the weekly Welsh-language newspaper ‘Tarian y Gweithiwr’ (The Worker's Shield) as well as in the ‘Seren Cymru’ (The Star of Wales), which became owned by a Baptist company.

This is a translation of the article carried about him in the Workers’ Shield on September 1 1904 after he had become the Minister of the Calfaria Baptist chapel in Penheolgerrig, Merthyr Tydfil (pictured):

“We believe it would not be irrelevant to have a little bit of the history of the Rev T Davies in the pages of Y Tarian. The brother is better known by the name T Davies, Trefforest, than T Davies, Penheolgerrig, for the reason that he has spent 28 or 29 years in Trefforest, while only a few years in Penyrheol. He has been in the ministry for many years with acceptance and praise from the Welsh and English. Our brother has not been settled until recent years, as he has been holding an important and responsible position for years with Brown, Lenox & Co, Pontypridd, but there was frequent call for his services as the Sunday worship was full, and more than that, through the years. At one time the brother was not reaching large circles but serving small and weak churches. We know of virtually no-one who has been more ready to help the weak, as this was always his delight. He has served some of the largest churches of his denomination, as well as other denominations, with great praise. He has been energetic and industrious throughout his life and always very acceptable in his home where he has preached scores if not hundreds of times with a great reception.

He won great respect among the workers in his care, as well as the respect of his master, throughout the years he was in his service. The brother has proved himself one of the most faithful throughout his life – an ardent Baptist, a Temperance supporter, an acceptable preacher, and a splendid character. As Mr Davies has had encouragement to bring out his own story, I won’t go further. A bit of the story of his work and travels would be interesting, as I believe he has walked and preached as much as almost anyone in this age. We know that his writings in Seren Gymru (The Star of Wales) and y Tarian, as well as other publications, are very acceptable and it can always be said ‘Sweet again’. We hope he will have many years at Penyrheol to sing the praises of the Man he has served faithfully for many years. There are great things to relate about the work and travels of the Rev T Davies”.

Who was my grandfather’s father?

One part of our family tree will always be uncertain – who was my grandfather’s father? Family folklore suggested that the father must have been one of the sons of John Whitlock Nicholl Carne, the owner of the St.Donat's estate. That would certainly seem to give a valid explanation for why this illegitimate child was then well looked after as a foster child – so much so that he grew up to be a schoolmaster and then a clergyman.

Unless there is some further evidence hidden away in the Stradling-Carne papers in the Glamorgan Archives, we can only guess the father might be one of the two sons John Devereux Van Loder Nicholl Carne (1854–1905) or Mansel Sydney Berkrolles Nicholl Carne (1864–1892).

Having looked at the Ancestry records for the two sons, I suspect it could be the eldest, John Devereux Van Loder. A year later, in March 1881, this son is no longer at St.Donat’s but is marrying Alice Annie Austin in Melcombe Regis, Weymouth, Dorset. But while he is listed on the Banns as a ‘Gentleman’, Annie’s profession is not listed. But in the 1871 census for the same town, she is listed as a ‘Draper’s Assistant” and is already an orphan with both her parents having died. It’s an unusual match?

The youngest, Mansel Sydney Berkrolles, is listed in the 1881 census as still residing at St.Donat’s, as an undergraduate (at Oxford). In 1890 he marries Grace Hawkins, the grand-daughter of an oyster merchant, who, in the 1881 census is boarding as a scholar in Midhurst, Sussex. This seems a more orthodox ‘gentleman’ but that certainly doesn’t mean he couldn’t be my grandfather’s father of course. Mansel Sydney Berkrolles later dies, according to his probate record, on 7 January 1892, at Loomis Placer, California, once a gold-rush town. What he was doing there is another mystery! 

My father’s story was corroborated by his older brother, my Uncle Mervyn. He also had other stories to add, although I have no way of knowing if these are correct. Mervyn told me that ‘Uncle Jack’ once told him he remembered going to the castle to visit after the adoption. It seems plausible that, if one of the Nicholl-Carne’s was the father, some arrangement may have been reached. What the arrangement was, and what connection existed – or was made – with the Davies family for looking after Tom, may well never be known.

What happened to Mary Powell?

Mervyn also claimed that Mary Powell later visited the Davies household and also married a miner called Dauncey (?) and they had a daughter. However, I’ve found no trace of Mary Powell after the 1881 census.

All we really know for certain is where Mary was living before my grandfather’s birth. She was born around 1855 in Glyn Neath and may have had three sisters and a brother. There are only ongoing ancestry records for her older sister Johanna, who married a local miner John Daymond. The couple ended up in charge of the St.Ives Inn in Old Market Street, Neath – which still exists today.

Mary and her sisters are recorded in the 1861 census living with their parents in ‘Pentre-Malwod’ in Glyn Neath.  The area is now housing but today’s “Pentre Street” turns down to the river Neath at the same point. 

By 1871, Mary’s father, another miner, has died. Johanna is recorded as being a servant but is still living in Pentre-Malwod, close to her widowed mother and the youngest sister, Jane. Mary herself, now 16, is living as a ‘general domestic servant’ to an old farmer of 60 acres, David Morgan, in Ty Mawr, Pentyrch, near Efail Isaf. This is not far from where Thomas and Barbara are also living. Intriguingly, the farmer’s grandsons are named as John and Oliver John from Llantrisant. In the same 1871 census, Thomas Davies is living with his old mother, Mary John, also from Llantrisant. Is this just another coincidence of common Welsh surnames? 

While the full tale will never be told, I hope that the story of the origin of my "Powell-Davies" surname is one that also opens a window on the wider social history of South Wales. 


Popular posts from this blog

The Dekemvriana defeat of ELAS in Athens - through the eyes of a British Officer

From Mariners to Mayors - getting rich from slavery in Liverpool

Gifford White - Life after 'transportation for life'