Who Do You Think You Are?
Cynthia Williams believed that her great grandfather had worked in Russia, and been recognised by the Tsar for his achievement. Her husband Bill has carried out intriguing detective work to discover more about this family legend. By Gail Dixon
Bill Williams explains how his detective work uncovered his wife’s great grandfather’s adventures in Russia
During the 19th century, southwest Wales led the world in the coppersmelting industry. Its skilled workers emigrated to the USA, Australia and Chile where major deposits of copper ore had been found. Other Welsh smelters, including Henry Davies, made arduous and dangerous journeys across Europe to take employment in isolated copper works. His descendant’s husband Bill Williams tells us more…
My Brick Wall
My wife Cynthia had always believed that her paternal great grandfather Henry Davies had travelled to Russia in the early 1900s to advise on copper smelting. Apparently, the Tsar rewarded his efforts with a pocket watch and a letter of thanks. I was keen to establish the truth.
Henry was born in 1857 in Conwil, Carmarthenshire. In about 1875 he moved to Burry Port, near Llanelli, and began smelting lead and later copper at Elliot’s Metal Company. He became a highly skilled foreman cupola smelter. This was heavy work in a dangerous environment, surrounded by fumes, sparks and hot molten metals.
Henry married Mary David and they had 12 children, including Cynthia’s grandmother Gertrude. Cynthia’s living relations had only limited knowledge of Henry’s journeys to Russia, although it was believed that Elliot’s Metal Company received a request from the Russian government to establish a copper works in Siberia, possibly Yekaterinburg.
This was all the information I had to go on, until I saw the collection of memorabilia that Cynthia had inherited about
Henry’s time in Russia. Although treasured, these documents had never been examined properly and it wasn’t until I reviewed them that the true story emerged.
My Eureka Moment
Henry had journeyed to Russia twice and sent 31 postcards home that he acquired en route to his destination. This helped me to build a timeline of his ventures.
The first trip was made in 1903, probably on secondment. A letter of recommendation from Elliot’s Metal Company describes Henry as an “excellent workman in smelting difficult ores”.
The journey to Russia would have taken at least a fortnight. An agent of the hiring company would have acted as a translator. However, it was a risky time to travel. Workers’ strikes, peasant unrest and military mutinies were edging the country towards the
1905 revolution. Would Henry have known of the dangers?
The belief that he worked in Siberia proved to be out by at least 1,000 miles. His destination was Georgia’s Black Sea coast and the village of Dzansoul (now Murgul in Turkey). The village was high in the Pontic Mountains, 40 miles south of the city of Batoum (now Batumi). A postcard gives the Mattievich & Co smelting works address where Henry worked as a consultant.
Finding photographs among the collection was a real coup. One of them depicts Henry standing by the smelter with his Russian counterparts, who were dressed in thick fur hats and coats.
The initial venture must have been successful: Henry’s passport and other postcards reveal that he returned to Dzansoul in 1906. This time he was accompanied by his son Samuel and Burry Port colleagues David Rowlands and John Williams. Henry had taken the risk of resigning from his job at Elliot’s to work independently.
One photograph in particular emphasises the dangers that the men were facing. It was taken in January 1907 and shows Henry, Samuel and David standing by a graveside in Russia. John Williams had contracted smallpox and died on 31 December 1906.
The Llanelli Mercury reported that John’s death had taken place in Siberia. However, the graveside photograph must have been taken in Dzansoul, not least because if it had been taken in Siberia then it would only show a whiteout.
Henry returned to Wales in May 1907 and never ventured back to Russia. He worked as a tin smelter and later in Nobel’s Explosives’ munitions factory near Pembrey. He died of a heart attack at work in 1916.
Sadly, I think it’s unlikely Henry was awarded a letter (now lost) and watch by the Tsar, although the watch face has a portrait resembling Alexander II, who was assassinated in 1881. It’s a Hunter piece and has a Swiss silver hallmark dated after 1880. It may have been a commemorative piece bestowed with gratitude by Mattievich & Co.
It has been so satisfying uncovering the story of these plucky Welshmen, and I couldn’t have done it without my wife’s treasure trove of memorabilia.