The Rees Family Tree
By Sue Winch, February 2003
The Rees family tree began with stories told to me by my mother, Sadie Forward (nee Rees) when I was a child. She had been told these tales by her father, William Philip Rees, who had, in turn, been told by his Aunt, Sarah Jones (nee Rees). I was told that,
(a) Our family originated in Bettws Newydd, a small rural village, about 8 miles from Blaenavon, the industrial mining town where I was brought up.
(b) We had family in Pennsylvania, who had kept in touch with Sarah and her sisters until their deaths in the 1930’s, and
(c) Someone in the family had been transported to Australia, from Bettws Newydd, for some unknown crime.
Bettws Newydd (pronounced “bet ooss new ith”) is a small, rural hilltop village, lying in the South East Wales, in the old County of Monmouthshire. Today Monmouthshire has been renamed Gwent, but it amounts to the same place. It was within the Lordship of Abergavenny, and is not far from the ancient market town of the same name. From the centre of the village, by the relatively modern red telephone box, look out towards the hills. In the centre can be seen the Sugarloaf Mountain, on the right, to the east, the Skirrid, and on the left, to the west, is the Blorenge Mountain, where most of Alexander Cordell’s novels were set. Bettws Newydd was never a particularly large community – more people probably live there now than ever before – but there were more people there before the Industrial Revolution. Before the advent of the big coal and iron industries South East Wales was a thoroughly agricultural area. The only industry was small “cottage” businesses, so-called because they were carried out in the home. (William Rees 1804-? is described as a “cottage mason” in the parish records).
However, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700’s, South East Wales changed forever. Bettws Newydd fortunately remained a rural, beautiful place, along with Abergavenny, but the Blorenge Mountain was ripped apart by the search for natural resources.
Blaenavon is a big contrast to Bettws Newydd, although it is less than 10 miles away. It was a town built on the coal and iron industries. Rows and rows of terraced workers’ cottages cling to the mountains on either side of the town – the Blorenge on the east and the Coity Mountain to the west. Poverty gripped the South Wales valleys for many. As late as 1936 King Edward VIII, before his abdication, visited Blaenavon and remarked, “something must be done.” Nevertheless the town hummed with life. There were countless chapels (nonconformist religions were very popular in Wales) and countless pubs! The 1901 Kelly’s Trade Directory lists many small businesses. Many of the ancestors of the Blaenavon people are not old Welsh. Many migrated there from Somerset, Wiltshire and the Forest of Dean, to find work in the late 1700’s and throughout the 1800’s. There is considerable Irish blood too. Yet all of these people took on Welsh culture and tradition. All people in Blaenavon today consider themselves to be Welsh, despite the fall of the Welsh language in that part of Wales.
The iron industry closed down in Blaenavon almost a century ago, and the last coalmine shut in 1981. The little town has been in decline for some decades, with few small businesses remaining, high unemployment and even less pubs. Nevertheless there has been some hope in the last few years. In 2000 Blaenavon was granted the status of a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, in recognition of the town’s importance to the British Industrial Revolution. Tourism is just beginning to open up, a new library has recently opened and the last coalmine, Big Pit, is now a thriving museum.
We know, as far back as the mid 1700’s, that the Rees’ were stonemasons. It is highly probable, given that sons followed their father’s profession that this trade dates back many centuries. Stone-masonry came into its’ own in medieval times. There were different types of mason. Firstly, the Master Mason was both a builder and an architect. Secondly there was the Freemason, the elite who cut and dressed the good quality freestone, which was used for carved work and blocks. The medieval mason needed good leadership skills too, to organise a large workforce.
Under the Normans, the eastern edges of Wales came under the Marches – Lordships ruled by the Norman barons. It was here that Edward I (the King who defeated “Braveheart” William Wallace) built his great string of castles, to contain the turbulent Welsh. From Chepstow in the South Wales, to Wrexham on the northern edge, these great stone keeps dominated the landscape and the people around. The nearest castle to Bettws Newydd is Raglan Castle, dating a little later than Edward’s castles, but several others are in close contact – White castle and Abergavenny castle, for example.
The medieval stonemasons who worked on these great edifices rarely leave a name. The only personal marks left by them are the amusing little faces of gargoyles and strange characters, mostly found on the huge medieval cathedrals of England and Wales. Sometimes the Master Masons, who were architects as well as stone carvers, leave a mason’s mark that identifies them.
It is just possible that some medieval Rees ancestors carved the stones for Raglan Castle, after a Marcher Lordship was created for William Herbert in 1465. It was a grand home, rather than a purely defensive castle. Even though the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War destroyed it in 1646, it remains a beautiful, imposing ruin.
It would be good to think – and certainly not beyond the realms of possibility – that our Rees ancestors worked on the stone that built Raglan. It is also very probable that our ancestors were touched, in some way, by the English Civil War, from 1645 – 1649. Monmouthshire was strongly loyal to King Charles I, who visited Raglan Castle in 1645, shortly before its’ fall.
Today stonemasonry is little more than a specialist sideline of construction, but the artists and architects in our family, on both sides of the Atlantic, may have inherited the skills of our mason ancestors.
For a family, within the narrow space of 150 years, to spread out to 3 continents, would not have been likely before the Industrial revolution. Before the 1780’s the majority of families remained within their own parish for many generations. However, in the late 1780s, and throughout the nineteenth century, fast industrial change combined with a serious agricultural depression in Britain, forced many to migrate to the bigger, harsher new industrial towns.
Our ancestors, who made the first move, from a rural to an industrial life, were the brothers John and William Rees. They were born in the 1830’s to an illegitimate father, William Rees, and Mary Jones. Their father William was born in 1804 to a 32 year old spinster, Margaret, from Bettws Newydd. He took his mother’s surname and inherited his Grandfather’s Christian name. It is not known whether old William Rees, born around the mid 1700’s, lived to see his daughter give birth to an illegitimate Grandson. Margaret was no naïve maid to fall pregnant, at 32. Perhaps she had formed a later relationship in her life. Perhaps it was against her will. Perhaps, even, it was from an impossible match with local gentry.
Her son undoubtedly had a difficult young life, probably never being allowed to forget that he had no legal father. On the other hand, it’s possible that the unknown father took a hand in young William’s future. William is described in Parish Registers of the 1830’s as a stonemason, like his Grandfather before him. Such a trade did not come without payment for the apprenticeship. It is possible that Margaret approached her former lover for money for her son’s future. On the other hand, perhaps his father played no role at all – if his Grandfather was still alive young William may have trained with him.
Yet from our knowledge of his trade, it is clear that the illegitimate William Rees had ambition and determination to make something of his life. Not the Farm Labourer’s life for him, a flimsy living which could so easily result in destitution. At the age of 24 he married a Mary Jones of Goetre, a parish just a few miles from Bettws Newydd. The Curate, David Jones, married them in Kemeys Commander, a nearby parish. It’s interesting to note that both William and Mary sign their marriage entry in the parish register with an x. Clearly both were illiterate. Mary was 11 years his senior. At that time, a 35 year old spinster could probably hope for no better than an illegitimate husband, and would have been lucky to land herself a man with a decent trade.
William and Mary Rees settled in Kemeys Commander. Their early lives could not have been easy, despite William’s trade. It is a mistake to assume that country life was pleasant. It was not. Thomas Hardy, in “Tess of the Durbervilles”, gives a vivid portrait of the hard slog of 18th and 19th century country life. Long hours and poor wages were commonplace. A poor harvest could devastate a family. Following the Napoleonic Wars the price of corn was very high. This was wonderful for the great landowners who made fat profits from such high prices, but for the common people it was crippling. Bread was far too expensive, yet the people could not buy imported, cheaper corn – the Government of the day brought in the Corn Laws to stop such cheap importation. It was the Corn Laws that partly led to the growth of working class movements like the Chartists, described in, “Rape of the Fair Country.”
Within 2 years Mary bore William a daughter, Margaret, a touching memorial for a much-loved mother perhaps? William was born in 1834, and John followed in 1837. There may have been a fourth child, Mary, born in 1841. What was South-east Wales like at this time? It was really a country waking up to political unrest. The 1830’s were a very active time for the Chartists, led by John Frost of Newport. It is known that there were regular Chartist meetings in nearby Abergavenny, attended mostly by the ironworkers and coalminers of Blaenavon, but a few rural workers attended these meetings too. Meal tables probably heard a lot of political discussion and argument.
Economically times were tough. The great landowners – the local gentry were the Herberts of Clytha – raked in good profit from their high corn prices, but for the lower classes there was little sign of such wealth. Undoubtedly Margaret, William and John grew up in uneasy times. Certainly, given their father’s trade, they would have been better off than other families of farm labourers or tenant farmers, but poverty would always be a short step away if something became of the breadwinner in the family. Rural housing for the lower classes was usually of poor quality in 18th and 19th century Wales. There is evidence that some peasants lived in little more than makeshift, mud hovels. Perhaps William, Mary and their family were relatively better off – given William’s trade they probably lived in a cottage built of stone.
It may be, however, that something dramatic happened to the family. The 1841 census records show that William, the father, was not living with his family at that time. Instead it is Mary who is described as the Head of the family, now living in Bettws Newydd once again. (The family returned shortly after the birth of John). If she had been widowed then it is likely that the census would record her status. No census record, from that time onwards, records William Rees. In 1861 Mary is finally described as “widowed”. Here is something of a mystery. The parish register for Bettws Newydd records the birth of a Mary Rees, daughter of Mary Rees, in June 1841. No father is recorded, but the child is not described as “base” or “illegitimate”. If Mary is a fourth child then her father, William, must have been around up until September 1840. British censi, since 1841, are always recorded in June. So William Rees “disappears” some time between June 1840 and June 1841.
The reason for his disappearance is unknown so far. Death is, of course, the most likely answer. Yet no death record for the area records him. Desertion is another possibility. Yet why would an established stonemason desert his established place of trade? He may have found that work dried up around Bettws Newydd, so moved to one of the new industrial towns for a new project. If this was the case, however, he would have sent money to his family, and Mary would not be described as “Head” in 1841. Instead we see a picture of a struggling family over the following years: In the 1851 census the 16 year old son, William Rees, is a farm labourer, with no land of his own, and no trade. He is living apart from the rest of his family. His mother lives with his possible young sister, aged 10, and there is no sign of John. My own feeling is that the illegitimate William Rees, aged 37 in 1841, is our mysterious transported ancestor. In time, with a closer examination of the records, we may find out the truth.
This was the situation in the 1850’s – little income, a rural depression and few prospects in Bettws Newydd. By 1860 it is very likely that the much shrunken family decided to leave behind generations of living in the Bettws Newydd area, and try their luck elsewhere. From Bettws Newydd, near the “Bear Inn” – a very old pub – you can see the Blorenge Mountain. Beyond lies the Sugar Loaf and Skirrid Mountains near to the old Roman town of Abergavenny. But it would have been the Blorenge, to the west, that caught their eyes. Just over the tip of the Blorenge lay the new industrial town, Blaenavon. Alexander Cordell gives a vivid description of this town in the 1800’s – beyond it would have looked, at night, as if the whole place was on fire, with the constant flames from the blast furnaces of the ironworks. Cordell describes the streets, the poverty and the intense dangers of industrial work. How the ironworks, now a cold ruin, never stopped working. How the making of iron could blind and kill. And how the green landscape had been turned into a black, dirty heap of iron and coal slag.
By 1860 William Rees had certainly come to Blaenavon. He married there in May 1860. It is very probable that John and their mother, now 67 years old, came there too. (Mary must have been a tough old girl. She lived until 1882, aged 88, a tremendous age for that time. She died in Blaenavon, living with her son William, but is buried back in Bettws Newydd). It is not known what job William or John did between until 1871. It is likely that both men took jobs in the coalmines. Given that John became a coalminer in Pennsylvania eventually makes this a strong possibility.
It is at this time that the paths of the two brothers diverged. Or did they? We know that William was living in Blaenavon in the 1871 census, and that John had, by then, emigrated to Pennsylvania. From the records it looks as though John Rees, after marrying Sarah Steed in Bettws Newydd in May 1866, emigrated on “The City of Paris” Inman Line Ship, in steerage, landing in New York on April 1 1866. He and Sarah are alone. I learned this very recently, in September 2002, from long-lost relative, John Richard (Rick) Rees, who contacted me via an Internet message board. I do not doubt that John and Sarah emigrated together at that date. However there is a slightly different, more dramatic story, told to me by my Great Aunt, Lois Rees, the Granddaughter of William Rees.
Lois told me that her Grandfather, William Rees, stood bail for someone, following some unknown crime. The date of this tale is unknown, but probably occurred in the early 1860’s. The bail was to be repaid on the man’s release. However, on his release the man skipped bail, let William down and fled to America. Lois related that William and his brother followed the man to the United States. They found the man and extracted the money from him. She had no idea as to the name of the brother, and it wasn’t until my own researches that I discovered William had a brother John. The brother decided to remain in America, but William wanted to return to his homeland. My own feeling is that this is an accurate story – William and John may have journeyed to America together in the late 1850’s. Perhaps they returned to Wales together also. There, John married his sweetheart, Sarah Steed, then returned to America permanently.
So the story of the Rees’ diverges, and yet there are parallels in the families on either side of the Atlantic. The brothers lived in mining communities, both had the ambition to make something better of themselves and both would have children who owned their own, small businesses. William left behind the life of a farm-labourer and eventually became a stonemason then a Master Mason. He helped to build the grand, gothic building, the Workman’s Hall, in Blaenavon. He built and owned two rows of workers’ terraced houses, then opened a grocery shop. He died in 1902. The shop passed to his son, Albert, who made a good living, especially at a time when the majority of workers in Blaenavon were poorly paid coalminers.
John too aspired to better things. In his obituary, in April 1913, the Scranton Tribune-Republican described him as, “a respected old resident…the deceased was a man of noble character and high standing among his people.” John’s son, John Steed Rees, also went into business, opening the Rees Coal Mining Company.
Perhaps the two brothers were driven by a need for respectability and standing in a community. Their father would have been plagued by his illegitimacy in 19th century Wales. Furthermore, if their father was indeed transported to the penal colonies of Australia, then it is small wonder that the brothers had ambition to better themselves. They may not have become millionaires, but self-improvement was very difficult in a class-ridden society, where the majority of people were trapped by their poverty. The brothers travelled a long way, in circumstances and in miles.
I wonder what our ancestors, William and John Rees, and their father William, would think of us all today, spread across 3 continents? Well, we haven’t done too badly! It seems, on calculation, that there are more Rees in America now, than in Britain. There they stretch from Florida to New York and San Francisco. In Britain some Rees’ remain in Wales, but others have left for Leicestershire, further north, Cornwall and Somerset. In Australia too the Rees’ thrive, although where, and in what field, is as yet unknown. Let’s hope that particular branch have left behind their criminal past!
For many years the Rees’ kept in touch, on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Sarah Jones (nee Rees) certainly wrote to her first cousins in Pennsylvania, until her death in 1937. The other correspondent may have been Lillian Warring. Perhaps these letters may, one day, come to light. Who knows what we may have learn about their everyday lives, their hopes and fears, and perhaps may reveal a little about Sarah and Lillian’s possible, transported Grandfather.
It is a sign of our times that the two branches of the Rees were able to make contact once more, in 2002, after so many lost years. A simple message left on an Internet Message Board has filled in so many gaps about our family, and brought new and hopefully lasting friendships.
For most of the history of our family tree, I have examined the family bible, which took the line back to the marriage of William Rees, born in 1834. The parish records proved to be invaluable – there was the proof of old William Rees’ illegitimacy, and the evidence for stone-masonry being the family trade. Birth, marriage and death certificates date back to 1837 in England and Wales. At £6.50 per copy, careful selection is important, but they can be very helpful for addresses, trades, and spouses’ families. The censes of England and Wales began properly in 1841. The ten-yearly censes from1841 to 1901 are now available, and slot into place the addresses and trades of our ancestors. Of course, the modern Internet was the key to the American Rees’, providing invaluable information and friendships.
The big question now is where are our Australian cousins? Elvira White (nee Rees) told the story of a young ANZAC visiting the Rees family shop in Blaenavon during the First World War. He wanted to see his family – he was the direct descendant of the man who was transported. However, Sarah Jones (nee Rees) sent him packing with a flea in his ear. She was ashamed of the link to a common convict. Clearly the convict survived the harsh life of the penal colony, and settled down with a family after he had served his sentence. However, perhaps the line died out between 1918 and the present day. Who knows if the young Australian soldier was the last of the line? Who knows if he did not die in the trenches of Flanders?
Then, my mother remembered a story – about 10-15 years ago, back in the 1980’s, an Australian couple visited Blaenavon, hoping to find their family. They wanted to know if Rees Shop still existed. The couple asked a local shopkeeper, who said that the shop had closed, but forgot to add that the family still lived in Blaenavon. The couple left, somewhat disappointed, no doubt. The shopkeeper later realised his mistake, and told my mother.
Somewhere, in Australia, lies the key to the last mystery of our family – who was transported, and why? Hopefully, the Internet will provide us with the good fortune that it has bestowed upon us in 2003.
In the meantime, I hope to continue my search through the papers of Assizes records, hoping to find a clue. Unfortunately, we have reached the end of parish records and Bishops’ Transcripts for Bettws Newydd, but perhaps there may be local indenture papers, or stonemason guild records, that will give further clues about our ancestry. But with the help of Rick and other Rees members over in America I think we may fit a few more pieces into this jigsaw of our family.
Bettws Newydd Church, Monmouthshire (now called Gwent). The village was under the Lordship of Abergavenny. The Church itself is very small, accommodating no more than 100 people.
The Bear Inn, Bettws Newydd. This must be one of the oldest buildings in the village.
The view from the centre of Bettws Newydd. In the far distance, to the left, is the Sugarloaf Mountain. To the right is the peculiarly shaped Skirrid or “Holy” mountain, so called because The Apostle Paul is supposed to have visited it on his many travels.
This is the Workman’s Hall, Blaenavon. William Rees (1834-1902) was a one of the stonemasons on this grand, gothic structure, opened in 1895. In 1901 William is described in the census as a Master mason, showing his skill in architecture.
Here is Rees’ shop in Blaenavon, Monmouthshire. Outside is standing Albert Rees, with his young son, William Philip Rees. Albert’s father, William, built the shop.
Sarah Rees (1870-1937), the sister to Albert, who corresponded with her American cousins for many years. She sent the young Australian soldier away, when he came to Blaenavon looking for his family around 1914-1918.
Another son of William Rees, David Rees (1872-1944) is shown here, third from the right. He was an ironmould pattern maker. This picture is taken at Blaenavon Company in about 1900.
Albert Rees (1877-1939) with his wife Jane and two of their children. The couple had ten children, but only five survived to adulthood.
The children of Albert and Jane Rees. William Philip, Alice, then Ida, Olive and Rhys. Ida died shortly after this photograph was taken. Her twin, Lois, lived until she was 81.
My Grandfather, William Philip Rees (1903-1969). Apparently he was a warm, jovial character, with a wicked sense of humour! He may resemble his American cousin in looks, John W. Rees(1910-1977).
My Grandfather loved motorbikes, and once rode the famous, and dangerous, Isle of Man circuit. He has clearly run into trouble here! This is an interesting picture for the people in the background – the woman on the right is clearly wearing a traditional Welsh hat. (Not dissimilar to the Pilgrim Fathers’ hats).
Three young Rees cousins here, taken in about 1946. David Rees, Sadie Rees (my mother) and Lyndon Groves. All were born in he 1930’s.
Alice Groves (neeRees, 1904-1996), mother to Lyndon Groves. She was a gentle, thoughtful woman. She was a daughter to Albert and Jane Rees.
Olive Jenkins (neeRees 1905-1990), a sister to Alice. She too had a warm sense of humour.
Finally, my darling girls, Lauren and Sophie Winch. Lauren is 3 here, and Sophie 22 months old.
SW February 2003.