Researching family history can throw up some surprises.
The gravestone was leaning against the wall of the church. I walked over and read the inscription, 'Watkin Watkins, Farmer, Departed this life 8th June 1730.'
'Who was he?'
'He's your nine times grandfather,' replied my wife. I touched the letters. The slate crumbled in my hand. After three hundred years of mountain wind and rain, nature was reclaiming the rock and the words would soon be lost. My wife's research into our family history had brought us to the little graveyard in Vaynor, her enquiries drawn back a veil revealing our ancestors; farmers, stonemasons, engineers and family skeletons adding colour to our family's past. One Watkins from the upper Taff Valley was convicted at Brecon Quarter Sessions of stealing a cow and transported to New South Wales in a convict ship. What happened to him, whether he lived to became an honest man or died in misery we don't know.
I turned to look at a nearby grave, bigger and more imposing; an eight ton slab of pink granite surrounded by iron railings. The words were simple, 'Robert Thompson Crawshay, Died May 10th 1789, aged 62 years, God Forgive Me.' My curiosity took command. Who was the man buried beneath the enormous rock and what terrible wrong did he do that needed God's forgiveness? Robert Thompson Crawshay's monument would be my muse. From it would come the idea for a book.
The outing to Vaynor churchyard was six years ago. It was the beginning of a journey, one where I would need to research history and learn new writing skills. The story of the Crawshays is well known in South Wales. They were wealthy iron masters who built Cyfarthfa Castle, a mock gothic castle in Merthyr, from where they watched the foundry that made them richer than Croesus. Robert Crawshay's nickname was 'The King of Iron.' Later, when the Crawshays had gone, Glamorganshire County Council purchased Cyfarthfa Castle and my grandmother went to school there. The Crawshays fought with other iron masters to supply cannons to the Navy. The iron masters built canals and the first railway in the world to transport their cannons to the docks at Cardiff. Merthyr cannons were aboard the Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar and mortars, cast in the ironworks of Merthyr, bombarded Fort McHenry, Baltimore as Francis Scott Key composed a song that would become the American national anthem and set his words to a popular British tune of the day. As the adventure began to form in my mind, other interesting facts emerged; a corrupt Lord of the Admiralty impeached for misappropriation of public money, a nabob from India returns to Carmarthenshire with a fortune to invest and an evil emperor who wants to rule the world. My plot, a fifty year quest for fortune and wealth, was developing and taking on a life of its own. More than forty character, profiles pinned to a huge timeline, made their entrances and exits as the chapters emerged.
Nye Vaughn, a farm boy from the mountains of the west, would be my iron master and Isaac Thomas, a bully who inherits his wealth, his nemesis. Their battle would be epic as their weapons crossed the globe defending the empire and defeating the French. But there was more, the women behind the iron masters. Their schemes would add new twists that I didn't expect. They say, 'Truth is stranger than fiction.' It's a lie. All fiction has an element of truth. Without truth, the story would be nonsense but with it a story will fly and imagination can run wild. Take poor Bethan, for example, killed in my book, by accident, by her lover. The story of Bethan is based on a real tragedy. In 1816, nineteen year old Elizabeth Jones who was unmarried and pregnant took a potion, purchased by her lover, to abort the unwanted child. He didn't know it but the potion contained arsenic. Her lover fled to Liverpool then surrendered himself in a fit of remorse. He was convicted of murder and died on the gallows at Carmarthen watched by 10,000 spectators. Elizabeth's body lies in the graveyard of my home village on the Brecon Beacons. Such was the life of 18th Century Wales where a few brave men grew rich while others lived and died in misery.
This was a world of extremes where the iron masters towered above all others, masters of men and metal. They ruled without mercy and their word was law. War made them rich but, after decades of bloodshed, Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated at Waterloo and the wars were over. The demand for cannons collapsed and the iron masters faced a new, deadly threat. How would Nye Vaughn, now an old man, protect his family and ensure the survival of his empire.
Six years after starting the novel, I still find it strange to think that my family were minor players in such a fantastic real life adventure. Being modest, I thought it better not to include them in the novel. Besides, I think, there are already enough exciting and interesting characters strutting confidently across the pages and it's time for me to move on. All I need now is another ancestor like Watkin Watkins to fire my imagination.