Jenny Jones

I will never leave you nor forsake thee

She is buried in the untidy cemetery at the end of the lake, where the water flows out into the Afon Dysynni. Drive along the B4405 and you will find it quite easily. A squat and ancient church, and there, immediately on the right hand side as you go through the lych gate you will see her, at the top of three stone steps.   

When we were there the daffodils were just pushing through. Someone must have planted them but we don’t know who it was. Neither does anyone know who erected the stone above her grave. But people have always cared about her. 

There are inaccuracies. It is no surprise when you try to piece together the details of a long life that goes back long before efficient record keeping. Jenny lived so long that she herself forgot some of the details of her life. Not much of it was written down after all, but the essentials are real enough. 

Here in the churchyard of St. Mary’s Church in Talyllyn there lies Jenny Jones, a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo. 

Her story and her longevity were remembered for a while in popular horse brasses, in commemorative china bells and figurines.  But the world soon moved on. Now she is a collectable, an antique in a window.  

But how many know the story of this little figure in a Welsh costume? 

She was born Jane Drumble in Ireland, though no one is quite sure when. It is recorded on the grave in St. Mary’s as 1789, although the census records suggest a more probable date of 1797. Whatever date you chose, she lived a long and eventful life, spanning almost the whole of the nineteenth century. And the key moment in her life was meeting Lewis Griffith. 

Napoleon played his part of course and perhaps she was always grateful for what he did. Conscription was necessary to form an army to confront him and the parish of Talyllyn in North Wales was obliged to provide one man for the Militia. A ballot was held and immediately the winner broke down in tears. He had indeed “drawn the short straw”. Help was at hand in the shape of a young local farm worker, Lewis Griffith, who agreed to enlist in his place. For him this was an adventure. An unrivalled opportunity to see the world beyond the dark hills that had surrounded him from his birth, perhaps in 1795.  

He was posted first to far away Wrexham and then on to Dublin for training. There, one Sunday morning on Church Parade in Granard, Lewis saw Jane. In later years she couldn’t remember how old she was, except that she was very young. The meeting probably took place in 1811, when she was 14. They began to see each other secretly, for she came from a wealthy family. Jane was an educated town girl; he was an illiterate farmer’s boy from the hills. They were both young but were both convinced by their love for each other.   

When Lewis was due to leave Ireland he vowed that they would not be separated. The colonel gave him permission to marry, with the banns called twice in one day to expedite matters. They were married in Granard and she was immediately ostracised by her family for it. Now all she had was Lewis and so she followed him. 

Jenny didn’t know when this happened and there are few records available from which we can piece together the order of events in this period of her life. It is likely that she was a camp follower and accompanied her husband to war, perhaps tending the wounded and washing uniforms. What we do know is that he joined the 23 rd Royal Welch Fusiliers on 6 April 1814, when he gave his age as 19. When the regiment turned up in Ostend in 1815, Jane was with them, with her six month old daughter. She joined the march that took the troops to the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815.  

No preparations had been made to feed the army as it headed through Belgium. They foraged for what they could, killing farm animals when they could find them, but what little Jane could find, was stolen from her in the camp. 

On the morning of the battle, she marched on to the field with Lewis to the section of the battle known as Hougoumont where the Fusiliers were ordered to clear the French Imperial Guard from the field. She stayed with him whilst he loaded his gun. He was in the front rank and at the point at which he was commanded to kneel in order to fire the first volley, Jane was ordered to return to camp and take her baby out of immediate danger. As she retired a French volley filled the air, narrowly missing her. She took refuge in a chapel which was soon destroyed by cannon fire that killed many sheltering there. From where she was there would have been no shape to the events around her; merely death and destruction and Lewis would have been in the heart of it. 

Jane was not the only woman on the field that day. When the bodies were buried there were many female corpses. The two armies were communities on the move and they brought with them many members. 

 French regiments were accompanied by women called cantinieres or vivandieres who wore a type of uniform. Their job was to sell tobacco and brandy to the troops and to care for the wounded. In the British army normally only about 6 soldiers in each company were permitted to take their wives on active service, but those that were there acquired similar duties to the French. It was inevitable that they should become casualties themselves in the chaos of the battle. A cannon shell killed the wife of a sergeant of the 28th Foot as she carried her injured husband from the field. Another woman was found dead, with her child by her side. 

There were happier stories amongst the carnage. 

Private Peter McMullen of the 27th Foot was seriously wounded and as his wife carried him out of battle she was hit by a musket ball that fractured her leg. They were both taken to hospital in Antwerp where she was safely delivered of a baby girl. She was christened Frederica McMullen Waterloo. 

Martha Deacon walked back to Brussels in the pouring rain dressed only in a black silk dress, together with her children, looking for her husband. There she found him safe and promptly gave birth to a baby girl who was christened Waterloo Deacon. 

Margaret Tolmie found her husband still alive in a pile of bodies ready for burial. She too gave birth to a baby girl the next day. 

There seem to have been girls everywhere. One of the last surviving witnesses of the battle died in 1903, aged 92. Barbara Moon had been the 4 year old daughter of a colour sergeant and had ridden in a cart across Waterloo as her mother searched for her husband.   

For many of the camp followers however the victory was followed by the awful process of picking over the remains of battle. The battle itself may have lasted the whole of a day, but the aftermath went on for much longer. Women would carefully pick through the twisted piles of bodies for traces of their husbands. Some would be found wounded; others dead and horribly mutilated; others not found at all. It must have been an awful place to be. The blood, the vermin, the smell. The women competed with looters of both sexes, who would cut off fingers, even from the living, to steal their rings. For them this vast sea of bodies was merely an opportunity.  

Even after the corpses had been cleared, bereaved women still wandered the field, sometimes in a state of increasing hysteria, as they came to terms with awful reality. And soon, for many of them there were no more straws at which to clutch. 

In such an atmosphere, Jane spent three days looking for Lewis. He had not answered to his name in the roll call on 19 June, the day after the battle. She would have known at this time that the regiment had suffered many casualties. In fact they had lost 10 officers and 89 men, either killed or wounded. She must have feared the worst, though the absence of a body must have been of some comfort. 

Jane wandered through the tents of the wounded looking for him. The sights she saw must have been truly awful.  She was told that he had already been taken to Brussels for treatment. There she searched for two days without success. But on the third day Lewis was eventually found in the Elizabeth Hospital, where seven pieces of shrapnel had been extracted from his shoulder. Remember what it says on her gravestone.  

“I will never leave you nor forsake thee.” 

They stayed in Brussels for a month whilst he recuperated and then rejoined the Regiment. All the Fusiliers received a medal and an additional payment of £2. 11. 4d for the defeat of the Imperial Guard.  Lewis’ medal was later stolen. 

Lewis saw out his seven years in the army, with Jane continuing to act as laundry maid nurse and, of course, mother until April 1821. He was not entitled to a pension, receiving instead £5 blood money for his wound.  

With their service over they returned to Lewis’ home. Where else could they go? Her family had disowned her. So they settled at Talyllyn,, and Lewis went to work in the slate quarries in Corris. All that drama and excitement of war, reduced to a hard life of unrelenting physical labour. But perhaps it was preferable to the dangers of shrapnel. Here in this tiny place, The End of the Lake, they made their home. The low grey scattered houses formed their community. The huge dark hills their horizon. 

Then in 1837, Lewis was killed by a rock fall. The love of her life, to whom she had devoted her life, was gone. What the French Imperial Guard couldn’t achieve was accomplished simply in the grim rocks of Corris. 

But a harsh economic reality dominated the lives of our ancestors. She had once married for love; now she needed to marry for survival.  This time Jane married John Jones of Talyllyn.  She worked when she could, washing the laundry for the local hotels, just as she had done for the regiment. She may also have worked as a school teacher, or more likely as an assistant, at the Maes Pandy School in Abergynolwyn. But the longer she lived, the less capable she was to work. John Jones died and Jenny was then maintained by the parish of Dolgellau at a rate of 5 shillings a week. She lived out her life in this tiny place by the clear waters, amongst the dark hills.  

Jane – or Jenny as she became known – had lived through exciting times with the man whom she loved. Waterloo was a tumultuous day, truly a turning point in history. A close run thing, as Wellington described it. If Napoleon had triumphed then all our histories would be entirely different. And Jenny was there. The boundaries of her life may have subsequently reduced to those of a low slate cottage in Snowdonia but she had been part of it. In a time and a place where many of her neighbours would struggle to speak English, she could converse in French.  Nothing could ever change that.  

Census records were often inaccurate and as you track through the details recorded at ten year intervals, hers contain inconsistencies. Whilst her grave may suggest that she was 95, a more accurate figure is probably 87. It is still, nonetheless, a remarkable age, lived when life could be so harsh. She died on 11 April 1884 and was buried 4 days later.  It was by John Jones’ name that she was known by others. It is this surname that appears on her grave. But it was by Lewis’ name that she knew herself. 

The sponsor of that gravestone is unknown. Those words “I will never leave you nor forsake thee” could have been the words of Lewis. Was it one of their children who put it there? Or perhaps a member of her Irish family? We do not know. But the words bring a moving conclusion to a love story defined by the battle and adventure.   

In the 1881 census she is described as handicapped and blind.  

Perhaps, thus shut away from daily reality in her own world, she was once again back with Lewis, the man who changed her life. 

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