John Brown – he sounds ordinary…

As a child I always remember my father having a book about the Glyn Valley Tramway, it was something I looked at from time to time. I knew  we had a family connection to it, and that my paternal grandfather had been born in Glyn Ceiriog, in Denbighshire, Wales. We used to go there regularly during my childhood, visiting Glyn Ceiriog and nearby Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog. I knew that one of my ancestors was featured in this book of my Dad’s, I’d seen the photo several times but never really thought about it that much until I started to become interested in my family tree back in 2003. So when I was working for my parents and had decided to look through the photo albums I also made sure I had a proper look at the book – and not just that book, but another local interest book my father had – 100 Years in the Valley (or Y Glyn a Fu) by Dewi Parry & Robert Owen Jones.

The photograph from the Glyn Valley Tramway book by W J Milner was this one –


John Brown – my 2x great grandfather

I also knew that Tom Brown – the man who had donated the photograph to the author for use in the book, was a relation of my father’s grandmother – or Nain as he called her.

My father’s Nain was Sarah Brown, daughter of the John Brown pictured above and Tom Brown was her brother who remained in Glyn Ceiriog all his life.

I was in touch with a second cousin of my father’s who was the daughter of John Brown’s youngest child Hannah. She had said that her mother had always told her she was one of about 13 children, but so far I have only located 11.

John was born in Trefnanney, near Meifod, Mongtomeryshire on 13th July 1850. His parents had married just four months before he was born, but sadly his mother Mary, nee Taylor died just under six months later in nearby Shrewsbury, Shropshire of Fever. She was just 30 years old. In 2020 I discovered that John had actually been a twin, with a twin brother George. I had wondered about whether this might have been the case as his birth certificate gave his time of birth – which often is only given when twins are born (apart from in Scotland when it was commonplace to note the time of birth on the birth certificate.) Sadly George did not live long, he was buried in Shrewsbury on 5th February 1851 just a month after his mother’s burial at the same church. At the time of their burials John was living at Castle Foregate in Shrewsbury.

John first appeared on the 1851 census living in Domgay, Llandrinio with his recently widowed father and his grandfather – all called John Brown. John senior was a Bricklayer, as was his son John and his other sons. John junior was not long a widower as he married another Mary in 1852 in Shrewsbury – Mary Hughes with whom he had a further four children, two daughters named Eliza – the first having died in infancy in 1853 and the second born a year later, Emma and Thomas. In 1861 the family were living at Tyddin, Varchoel near Pool and young John was at school.

In 1867 John married Sarah Matthews from Glyn Ceiriog in nearby Llangollen. It is unclear whether John had been living in the area for long, but at the time of their marriage it seems they were both living at Tynygraig, Pengwrn, Llangollen. John was a Farm Labourer and Sarah a Domestic Servant. By the 1871 census they had two sons, David and John Owen and were living at Turnpike Cottage in Glyn Ceiriog and John was a General Labourer.

In 1878 John got in a spot of bother with the local police and the incident was reported in The Wrexham and Denbigh Weekly Advertiser of 30th November reported that John Brown had left a waggon on the highway on the road from Llansanffraid to Llanarmon and was fined 5s and 8s costs.


John appeared again in the local paper the Llangollen Advertiser the following year on the 28th November – this time about his pigs.


By 1881 they were at The Gatehouse – which was probably the same house they were living at in 1871. By then John had become the Waggoner for the tramway. They’d had three other children, Hannah, Mary Ann(e) and Edward. I believe they had also had another son Thomas who was born and died in 1874. Sadly their daughter Hannah died in 1889 aged 14.

His wife Sarah then was the next to appear in the local papers – in the Llangollen Advertiser on 30th May 1890 in relation to a friend Edward Hughes who was accused of being drunk.


In 1891 they were still living at the Gatehouse. John’s occupation was described as Carter, but was no doubt the same job he had been doing back in 1881 for the tramway. Sarah was a Wool Picker, there was a flannel factory close by which employed many in the village in various jobs from picking to weaving. They also had more children – Sarah, Thomas, Eliza and Noah.

Several years ago I was contacted by a woman looking into a family who were connected to the nearby slate quarry – Chwarrel Wynne. My Brown family had married twice into a family with the surname Bather. My father’s second cousin’s wife was a Bather and her cousin had married one of the son’s of Tom Brown. I had looked into that family because their surname interested me, and I found a connection to an Edward Bather who had married into the Wynne family. I helped this woman a fair bit with her research into the family and it then turned out she was working with a man who was writing a series of books about the industry of the Ceiriog Valley. I knew my father would be really interested, so I bought him the first two books (waiting for the third to be published!) The first book – Slates from Glyn Ceiriog: The History of the Slate Industry of the Ceiriog Valley 1529-1948 and Its Influence on the Creation of the Glyn Valley Tramway by John Milner was greatly received by my father, who had seen the book on a trip with me to Ruthin Records Office. It had such a wealth of information including photographs of the quarry workers (many of my family members were in those photos.) It had a section about the Cambrian Quarry – which is where my great grandfather (John’s son in law) worked. It mentioned John –

‘John Brown and his horse, who also did the ‘village shunting’ would take the empty waggons back from Pontfaen to Glyn Ceiriog and up to the loop on Quarry Road.

Then the second book was to bring me some great new information – The Rails to Glyn Ceiriog: The History of the Glyn Valley Tramway 1857 – 1903 (Industrial History of the Ceiriog Valley). It contained copies of weighbills relating to John.


Collection of weighbills


Close up on detail of one of the weighbills

The records show that John was the principal waggoner and that some years later the GVT company bought the house he and his family lived in. This house, you would imagine might be roomy, big enough for a man with a large family? Think again. This house was tiny, it later became Midland Bank.


An old postcard showing the Gatehouse in the middle of the picture – that little orange building was where John lived with his wife and 10 children!

The book also had some further photographs with John in. Until that point I had only seen two photographs of him, one the photograph at the start of this post with his fabulous horse, and this photograph from the 100 Years in the Valley book, which was hard to make out.


John photobombing!

You can see John leaning into the shot with his white jacket on.

I was so pleased to find these additional photographs in the second book by John Milner.


John down by the track  (from Welsh Railways Research Circle Collection)


John over on the far right.


Again John over on the far right – possibly holding one of his own children.

(Photos from the Slates of Glyn Ceiriog and The Rails to Glyn Ceiriog: The History of the Glyn Valley Tramway 1857 – 1903 are reproduced here courtesy John Milner and Beryl Williams, the copyright holders.)

Sadly the family were to lose their hardworking patriarch when John died on 1st April 1897 at Groeslwyd, Glyn Ceiriog. He died of Leucocythemia (the same as Leukaemia) and Exhaustion. His youngest child Hannah wasn’t yet one year old. His widow Sarah was again mentioned in the Llangollen Advertiser on 20th April 1900 relating to the schools inspector having had a letter about attendance relating to one of her children. One can only imagine how difficult life had become for her, bringing up her children without the main breadwinner, to then find she had been reported for not sending her children to school.


In 1901 Sarah was living at Groeslwyd with three of her children, Thomas, Noah and Hannah. The eldest children were married and had families of their own, the younger ones were working away from home, although Eliza was working for her married sister Mary Anne in nearby Llanfor.

The children had various mentions in the newspapers over the years through their activities at school. In 1894 Edward was mentioned in the Llangollen Advertiser on 18th May for his performance at a school concert singing a comic song called “Laughter”. Eliza was mentioned in the Llangollen Advertiser on 15th July 1898 for coming first in the 60 yards race at an event for the Glyn School. She was mentioned again in the Llangollen Advertiser on 29th Sept 1899 for gaining a certificate at school for Group I, as was her brother Noah in Group III. Noah was again in the Llangollen Advertiser on 6th Sept 1901 for getting a prize for merit in a school exam. He was mentioned again in the Llangollen Advertiser on 25th Apr 1902 for appearing in a concert put on by the Glyn School, he played a character called Joe Justout. Hannah was mentioned in the Llangollen Advertiser on 20th July 1906 for winning a Head Teacher’s Prize at school. She was mentioned again in the Llangollen Advertiser on 29th Nov 1907 for getting the second prize in the ‘Mending for Children’ category at a local competition.

In 1911 Sarah was living at Upper Factory Cottage in Glyn Ceiriog with Eliza and Noah and her married daughter Sarah. Sarah was still a Wool Picker. The information Sarah gave on the census form states she had 12 children of which 3 had died. I cannot account for this third child she lost. So far all I know about are Thomas b. & d. 1874 and Hannah b. 1875 d. 1889. I’ve not found any other Brown births or deaths in the registration district that covers Glyn Ceiriog over the years of her marriage. My only thought is that she counted a stillbirth – which technically was not supposed to have been counted on the census statistics, but no doubt still very much counted in her heart.

Sarah Brown senior apparently used to smoke a pipe and in her old age had one leg shorter than the other and would walk in the gutter to even out her limp. People in the village called her ‘Drop one carry one’. She died on 17th November 1919 of a brain haemorrhage and hemiplegia – which is paralysis often due to a stroke. She was living with her married daughter Sarah at Bryn Villa, High Street, Glyn Ceiriog.

A lasting memory of John Brown and his wife Sarah is passed on in our family as my mother’s wedding ring is the same ring John gave his bride Sarah in 1867. It was passed down to their daughter Sarah and was engraved with her and her husband’s initials when they married in 1903. I would imagine that eventually this ring may get passed down to another member of our family – but I am in no hurry for that to happen!

10 thoughts on “John Brown – he sounds ordinary…

    • Thanks! It is always so amazing to find your ancestors mentioned in books, photos I would never known existed! Sometimes the most ordinary seeming people can be anything but!

    • I think it is so important to remember the things your parents tell you about their grandparents and great grandparents! Yeah I love that she has their ring, at first I thought it was just my Dad’s grandparents but Dad explained that it had belonged to Sarah’s parents and I was bowled over!

  1. I have noticed that someone keeps visiting this page after searching for Tom Brown Glyn Valley Tramway images. Whoever you are – please do send me a message – I’d love to hear from you!

  2. Hi Alex, I visit this page as John Brown is my fathers great grandfather. His mum, my nana was Ethel Brown `Tom Browns` daughter who married george jones snr in 1930 approx. My dad is Gordon Jones living on the race course in oswestry,his brother is George Jones the artist living in Glyn Ceiriog on the high st. I am a blacksmith/horseshoer and my dad has had this photo for years and one of Tom on a turntable on a little steam engine in the slate quarry probably circa 1918. regards Guy

    • Hi Guy
      Lovely to hear from you, Tom’s sister Sarah was my great grandmother. She married Henry Griffiths and their son Clifford was my grandfather. I would love to keep in touch and swap information. You can email me on
      All the best

  3. Hi Alex, looking at the big centre fold page village photo, i think the chap centre right with the top hat is standing next to John brown.. the long `ish` face shape seems to fit the other images.. my father Gordon Jones said that both his grandfather and great granfather were both called `Tom`… maybe John Brown was J Thomas Brown.. hence `Tom`. also Pritchard features heavily in the family line… apparently `the missing Pritchard millions` were always mentioned.. i shoe horses still in the glyn valley for miss S. Mathews.. part of the famous Bernard Mathews `turkey` family line.. she tells me that the `mathews`were gamekeepers that moved up to the area.. which would explain the `poultry` connection.. regards Guy

    • I think you might be right Guy. I wouldn’t be surprised about John Brown senior being referred to as Tom as both his father and grandfather were called John too, so no doubt had a nickname to differentiate between them and perhaps his cousins who were also named John! He certainly never seems to use the name Tom or Thomas on any official documentation – but his great grandfather was a Thomas and he did have a little brother called Thomas who died young, so the name does have significance in the family.
      I’ve not come across any Pritchard’s as yet, the only millions I know about are to do with the firm of Jack Brown the bookmakers – started in the Porthcawl area by John’s grandson via his son Edward. They were sold several years ago to Ladbrokes for many million. I understand from my Dad that over the years of the bookmaking business that millions were earned and squandered. No idea about any other details!

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