John Thelwall at Llyswen

April 29, 2022 0 Comments
John Hazlitt (attrib.), John Thelwall (c.1800-05) (National Portrait Gallery)

Next week we’ll be completing the Wye Valley Walk, and one of our stops will be the Griffin Inn in the village of Llyswen, on the banks of the Wye half way between Brecon and Builth.  Years ago, my colleague Jean Dane and I would often pause there for a coffee on our way from Cardiff to meetings in Aberystwyth.  Back then I’d never heard of John Thelwall, or his connection with Llyswen, but this time I’ll be sure to seek out his home, next door to the church.

Few people remembered John Thelwall until he became a central figure in E.P. Thompson’s classic work of history-from-below The making of the English working class, published in 1963.  In his youth he was regarded by William Pitt and fellow reactionaries as one of the most dangerous men in Britain.  He was a political radical – ‘radical’ in a political sense was a new word in the 1780s – with powerful oratorical and literary skills.  He was inspired by the French Revolution to argue for a more democratic parliament, freedom of speech and social reform.  In 1794 he was arrested on a charge of treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London.  Though he was acquitted by the jury and escaped the death penalty, Pitt’s spies continued to hound him, opening his post and reporting on his movements, and thugs would disrupt meetings at which he spoke.

Llyswen Farm (Tŷ Mawr)

Late in 1797, at the age of 34, Thelwall decided he’d had enough of this cat-and-mouse game, and with his new wife Susannah or Susan (she remains a shadowy figure) he moved to Llyswen, ‘embowered with orchards and over-shadowed by grotesque mountains’, in the heart of the Welsh countryside.  Why he chose Wales is uncertain, though his family originally came from Denbighshire and he was well aware of the connection.

Thelwall now devoted himself to running a small, 35-acre farm (Llyswen Farm, now Tŷ Mawr) and writing.  He could turn his hand to most kinds of writing, but Wales and agriculture were both new challenges. In October he wrote to his friend and fellow-radical Thomas Hardy, the secretary of the London Corresponding Society, ‘the house (a handsome & roomy cottage) is most deliciously situated on the banks of the River; [and] is embowered by a capital Orchard, & is altogether as desirable a literary retreat as Fancy could have suggested, or poetry has ever described.’  He dreamed of the place as ‘a sort of an enchanted dormitory, where the agitations of political feeling might be cradled to forgetfulness, and the delicious day dreams of poesy might be renewed’.

Waterfall at Llyswen

In January 1798 he wrote in another letter to Hardy:

Our habits are, I assure you, very simple & frugal. We drink no wines, no spirits, no sugar [abolitionists boycotted Caribbean sugar]. The small ale brewed for use of the farm satisfies us – & frequently I drink nothing but water Cyder or Small beer. – We eat as our servants eat – & (as far as the differences of strength produced by different habits will permit) work as they work. I dig – I cart dung & Ashes – I thresh in the Barn – I trench the meadows when the fertilizing rains are falling, & the waters rush from the mountains, to convey the stream over the grass – In short the political lecturer of Beaufort Buildings [Thelwall’s London base] is a mere peasant in Llyswen; & you would smile to see me in an old thread-bare jacket – a pair of cloth pantaloons rudely patched, & a silk handkerchief with my spade & my mattock trudging thro’ the village or toiling on my farm …

In a letter of 1798 Thelwall gives a picture of his rural retreat:

Across one end of our orchard flows a pretty little brook buddling & babbling thro a small romantic dingle to empty itself into the Wye; in which with hobbyhorsical industry I have built a cascade of 8 or 9 feet height & am making a rude hermitage (a sequestered summer study) in the dingle beneath … my maxim is, that Seneca and Socrates preach well—but rocks & brooks & waterfalls much better. 

These bucolic high spirits were not to last.  Thelwall and his wife seem to have led an isolated life.  His own name for himself was ‘The Recluse’.  He shunned the English-speaking Brecon bourgeoisie (probably the feeling was mutual), and was too much of a monoglot and a gentleman to fit in with his local community.  He acknowledged that his habits – his abstracted air, his solitary rambling, his abstention from alcohol and tobacco – hardly endeared him to the locals.  He did, though, keep in contact with other radicals.  In August 1798 Wordsworth and Coleridge paid a visit.  Government spies reported regular visits to Hereford, and in 1800 he was apparently spotted at Merthyr Tydfil during popular disturbances over high food prices. He corresponded with a fellow-spirit, Iolo Morganwg.

Stonework at Llyswen

What brought his stay in Llyswen to an end was not social alienation, but the weather.  The years in Wales coincided with some of the wettest weather seen for a century.  Crops failed, food prices rose steeply, and Thelwall and Susan were unable to make ends meet, despite their hard work on the land, with the aid of local labourers and the services of Susan’s brother Jack.  In September 1799 Thelwall wrote in despair, ‘I am almost harassed & tormented to death by the perverseness of the season; & likely to suffer incalculable injury from the Torrents of rain that are deluging our fields & destroying the most valuable part of our crops.’  On top of this misfortune, the couple’s elder daughter Maria died suddenly, aged six years old.  In 1800 they left Wales, never to return, having paid the owner to bring the lease to an end prematurely.

Penelope Corfield, who has researched Thelwall’s time in Wales in detail, summarises his failure in this way:

Sadly for him, he fell between all worlds. He had no local identification, unlike Wordsworth and ‘the Lakes’.  Social conservatives, whether of liberal or die-hard persuasion, first feared and then ignored him.  Radicals also in time moved on from the 1790s, which remained a difficult era to assimilate.  When Thelwall announced that he was returning to activism in 1818, he was not welcomed.  Nor were his polymathic interests admired.

John Thelwall, Poems chiefly written in retirement (1801), frontispiece

There was a positive side to the Welsh experiment.  It was a productive time for Thelwall’s literary work.  He published his Llyswen output in 1801 as Poems chiefly written in retirement, and some of the pieces clearly reflect his Welsh environment – and his knowledge of Welsh history.  The lengthy verse drama The fairy of the lake – the ‘lake’ is Llangorse Lake – tells the counter-historical story of how an evil Saxon princess, Rowenna, is defeated by Arthur, who resumes his crown and ensures the independence of Britain.  It contains a section in praise of Welsh beer (‘cwrw’).  ‘Paternal tears’ is an elegiac poem prompted by Maria’s death.  One of its sections, or ‘effusions’, is set on ‘Enion’s tomb, Pen-Heol-Enion, Brecknockshire, August 1800’.  ‘Enion’ was said to be Einion Clud, a Welsh leader murdered by the Normans, and a memorial stone to him was supposed to lie near Crickadarn, to the south of Llyswen. Thelwall provides an etching of his own drawing of a female figure mourning at this place, as the frontispiece for his book.  Others effusions refer to ‘the banks of the Wye (Wordsworthian enough), and ‘the vale of Taff’ and ‘on returning from a journey to Merthyr Tydfil’ (most unWordsworthian landscapes).  The volume also contains a third-person ‘prefatory memoir of the life of the author’, including a lengthy section on life at Llyswen.  These works all repay study from a specialist Welsh perspective.

Another production of Thelwall’s Llyswen period was his only novel, The daughter of adoption: a tale of modern times.  He wrote it with money in mind, to make up, in part, for his lack of income from farming, and walked to London with the first chapter under his arm to sell the book.  A publisher happily gave him an advance, which enabled him to return to Llyswen and ‘cultivate his farm with the mortgage of his brain’.

Plaque at 40 Bedford Place, London

On finally leaving Llyswen Thelwall embarked on a third life in London, as a pioneering elocution teacher – a combination of speech therapist and trainer in the rhetorical arts.  Though his days as a powerful advocate of political and social change were at an end, he remained a radical to the end. 

Penelope Corfield ends her 2009 article with a plea for a plaque to be set up at Llyswen, to commemorate the time John and Susan Thelwall spent there.  She makes a strong case (a plaque to Thelwall was unveiled in London in 2018). 

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