The Diaries of Henry Fothergill: Family Connections

For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of transcribing Henry’s diaries has been researching the backgrounds of the people he names – his family, friends and business associates. Getting to know the Fothergills’ history animated Henry’s words and sparked my imagination.  I started to see the family as characters in a novel rather than real people experiencing real events (I think I’ve read too much Alexander Cordell!).  So who exactly were the Fothergills and what role did they play in Glamorgan’s industrial development?

Fothergill interests in the South Wales iron trade began with Henry’s grandfather, Richard (1758-1821). He left the family seat at Lowbridge, Westmorland to become a builder in Clapham, South London. After marrying Elizabeth Rowland in 1788, he moved his family to Caerleon, living for a time at Back Hall. Following his ironmaking success at Pont Hir, he became a partner in numerous other works including Tredegar, Sirhowy and Penydarren.

Richard and Elizabeth had 3 sons; Richard II, Thomas and Rowland. In 1846, following an acrimonious court case, his son Rowland became owner-manager of Abernant and Llwydcoed Ironworks (also known as Upper Works) in Aberdare. He modernised both works and increased output until Aberdare Iron Co. became a major supplier of wrought iron rails and chairs for the rapidly expanding railway network.

Meanwhile, Richard II, who married Charlotte Elderton in Lambeth, London in 1822, inherited Lowbridge House, Westmorland. They went on to have 11 children – 4 boys and 7 girls: Richard III (1822-1903), Charlotte Elizabeth (1824-1907), Elizabeth (1825-1859), Mary Anne (1826-1851), Harriet (1828-1873), Martha Isabella (1830-34), Emma (1831-1914), George (1833-1915), Agnes (1834-1850 or 52), Henry, diary author, (1836-1914) and Thomas Rowland (1839-1909).

Richard III, the eldest son, was apprenticed to his Uncle Rowland to learn everything he could about the technical and business aspects of ironmaking. When Rowland retired to Hensol Castle in 1848, he left Richard III as overall manager with his 3 younger brothers working with him – Tom and George at Taff Vale Ironworks and Henry at Llwydcoed and Abernant.

Henry’s diaries begin in 1860 when, at the age of 24, he moves from Venallt, in the Neath Valley (the Fothergills owned Venallt Ironworks in Cwmgwrach) to Canal (Head) House. Henry gives detailed descriptions of the renovations he makes to his new home, including the addition of an aviary where he indulged what was to be a life-long passion for collecting exotic birds. Despite the move, he maintained close ties with his colleagues and friends in the Neath Valley, such as the Miers family of Aberdulais Forge.

By 1860, Henry’s older brother, Richard III, had married twice. His first wife was Elizabeth Lewis, daughter of Edward Lewis, canal agent, and sister to James Lewis of Plas-draw. James Lewis and his brother Evan became good friends with Henry. James, a coal master, bought Aberdare Iron Company following its liquidation in 1875, although he soon closed the ironworks to concentrate on its associated coal mines. He also took over Abernant House when Richard III retired to Sion House, Tenby.

Elizabeth died in 1849, soon after the birth of their daughter, also called Elizabeth, who later became the 3rd wife of Charles Kemys-Tynte (1822-1891) of Cefn Mably.

In 1850, Richard III married Mary Roden (1833-1909), sister of William Sargeant Roden, a Staffordshire ironmaster, and Richard Brown Roden, of Pontypool and Abersychan ironworks. The couple went on to have 6 children: Richard Thomas Fothergill (1852-1877); Mary Roden Fothergill (1853-1889); Helen Constance F. Fothergill (1855-1907); Ada Francis Fothergill (1858-1939); Sydney Roden Fothergill (1864-1943) and Theodore Roden Fothergill (1869-1895). They lived at Abernant House, which Henry often visited. Originally built by James Birch, one of the founders of Abernant Ironworks, but extended and modernised by Richard, Abernant House later became Aberdare General Hospital.

Mary Roden came from an illustrious family of Staffordshire ironmasters. Her mother was Ann Brown – sister to Thomas Brown, managing director of Ebbw Vale Company, and daughter to Richard Brown. The latter made the mechanism for Trevithick’s locomotive in 1803 and also established successful iron bar mills at Nantyglo.

Mary Roden’s brothers were also influential ironmasters. William Sergeant Roden (1829-1882) became a partner in the Shelton Bar Iron Company, Stoke-on Trent in 1857 and moved with his family into Etruria Hall, former home of Josiah Wedgewood.

Richard Brown Roden (RBR) married Henry’s sister, Emma Fothergill in 1855 in Westmorland. They had one child, Emmeline Roden Fothergill born in 1856. Emma petitioned RBR for judicial separation in April 1869 citing RBR’s adultery with their parlour maid, Mary Pritchard. The case was dismissed in May 1872. Emma’s brothers seemed to be very supportive of her, accompanying her to court in Westminster. RBR later moved to Corsica to oversee work at the Argentine Silver and Lead Mines at Calvi when his works manager died. Finding the mines overemployed, he discharged some of the workers.  This may have been the motive for his murder – he was shot in the back while leaving his residence, allegedly by a disgruntled former mine carpenter, in March 1887.

The Fothergills were also close friends and business associates of the Crawshays of Cyfrarthfa. Henry’s diary [D553/2, pp.93-94] contains a description of the celebrations surrounding the double wedding of Henry’s brothers George and Tom to Isabel and Laura Crawshay respectively (Francis Crawshay’s daughters):


Thurs 10 April  The Wedding Day!!  Crowds of people about & lots of flags flying triumphal arches etc.  We drove over to the Forest after an early breakfast, found Uncle Roland arrived we all started for Llantwit church, a mile and half off amid immense cheering, 6 carriages altogether, 4 horses in some,  6 bridesmaids in one including Helen Crawshay, she looked a perfect little angel so beautiful and fair in her white dress etc. everything passed off well at the church.  I shook hands with Laura & gave Isabel a kiss of congratulations.  Then back to the Forest amid tremendous cheering, splendid breakfast & 2 magnificent wedding cakes. No speeches, only Uncle Roland proposed health of brides & bridegrooms to which George responded in short but telling words.  They all four left amid a shower of old shoes.  I raffled my musical box 10/- per share & got #17.10 for it.  Mr C took 10 shares & won the prize…. 

George and Isabel had 7 children. Tragically, Isabel died of scarlet fever two days after their son John Rowland was born in 1876. Their oldest son George Algernon Fothergill (1869-1945) became a renowned artist whose work is exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery.

Tom, Laura and their family spent much of their time in Europe, eventually settling in Switzerland, where Tom died of a heart attack while out walking in the Roseg Valley, Pontresina, in 1909.

Henry spent a lot of time with Francis Crawshay and his family, frequently corresponding and making regular visits to Treforest, Barry Island (where Francis kept his boat) and Bradbourne Hall, Kent (which Francis bought in 1870 and where he died in 1878). It seems Francis had a soft spot for Henry. Ten days after the double wedding, Henry writes:


D553/2, p. 102, Sat. 26 April 1862, letter from Mr. Crawshay from London stating he had had his likeness taken for me purposely (very kind) and suggesting a wife for me, I don’t however want one for some six years

Henry may already have had his own marriage plans, involving Francis’ then 12 year old daughter, Helen Christine Crawshay. Henry writes:



D553/2, p. 120/121, Wednesday 28th May 1862, With George and Isabel to call at The Forest about 11 o’clock. Mr C come back from Barry, he not very well. Thinks of going down again on Saturday and asks me to accompany him he most kind to me…

Isabel a long lecture upon to me a most thrilling subject. I gave my best attention to it and intend profiting thereby for the next few years, when I look forward with hope and pleasure unutterable to a perfectly and truly heavenly reward and pray God that I may be so blessed


p.133, Friday 20th June 1862, Found a letter here last night on our arrival to me from Laura of a nature that has completely crushed me down.  I feel low, dispirited and perfectly miserable. It was about dear H. and gave me little if any hope of ever being owner of such a precious treasure as she is. Still I will live on hopes.  I wrote a long letter in reply to Laura dwelling strongly upon the whole matter and now anxiously await a half expected and half promised letter from Mrs C (as to her C.d.V)[Carte de visite]. 


p.181, Wednesday 9th July 1862, Gresham Hotel Dublin, Fine & warm, breakfast with strawberries & cream at 8.30.,walked to Post Office found a splendid lot of letters from, dear Mother, Hall, Mrs Crawshay, Stella, De Barry, Adams, half a dozen tradespeople, and a precious one from my own little darling H.C.C. Mrs. C’s from London very long interesting & touching most kindly on “the point” I live for..


D553/3, p. 46, Thurs 11th Sept 1862, …Last train to Woodlands. I found Mr Crawshay was coming over to talk to me a bit about Her. He and William did come over to tea but the subject was not touched upon after all. I was on pins all the time.


p.74, Wed 12th Nov 1862, …by last train to The Forrest found George, Isabel, Tom there, we all sat waiting till about 9 o clock, when the coach of 4 horses arrived with Mr and Mrs Crawshay, Francis, Tudor, Helen, Stella and De Barri and all the servants. We welcomed them at the door steps , I had not seen her for more than five months, she looks more perfection than ever, and has grown an inch and a quarter.


p.139, Thurs 15th Jan 1863, Fine-by first train to Woodlands and up again by return train. Tom and Laura well – baby not quite well – had breakfast and returned with a pill stuck tight in my throat, that Laura gave me, about Her , that Mr C had put his veto upon it, there is however plenty of time and in so good a cause with plenty of perseverance and patience I’m sanguine still.

p.154, Wed 4th Feb 1863, …A long and kind letter from Mrs Crawshay The Forest about Her, wanting promise etc etc I replied by Bag to Mrs Crawshay and promised everything she wished, though very hard to do so, indeed terribly hard, how shall I feel next time I see her?

It seems Francis Crawshay refused Henry’s proposal and sought assurances that Henry would abide his decision. Perhaps he feared having three Fothergill sons-in-law would threaten the Crawshay dynasty.

Did Henry’s disappointment contribute to his decision to leave Aberdare? Or was he just aggrieved, working long hours for little appreciation from his brother, Richard? Did he foresee the collapse in the iron trade, due to the dominance of steel making, which brought about the Company’s downfall in 1875? Who was the mysterious ‘Jones’ and why did he stir up trouble between the four brothers, leaving Richard in sole ownership of the Company in 1864? Could  ‘Jones’ be Henry’s code name  for Richard himself?

It’s clear from reading his diaries that Henry enjoys word games and solving puzzles – it took me a while to decipher the words ‘gnittis sliob’ until I realised it was actually ‘sitting boils’ backwards!. He’s certainly left me with a lot of questions. Finding the answers is becoming addictive!

Corinne Evans, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s