Interracial love in 18th-Century Wales - John Ystumllyn, gardener and first recorded black person in North Wales, and Margaret Gruffydd, maid

John Ystumllyn

As a result of Black Lives Matter protests, many sectors have looked inward on diversity. The protests provided the urgency and spotlight that was needed in terms of the lack of representation in horticulture. The Royal Horticultural Society is to hire a diversity and inclusion manager to start a series of programmes with under- represented groups in August 2020.

What has not yet been talked about is a stimulus that captures the collective imagination. Britain is a nation of gardeners, and gardening has provided much solace during the isolation and anxiety of Covid19 lockdown. In such divisive and uncertain times, why not use gardening to build bridges between communities? A national campaign could attract people from diverse backgrounds to gardening.

I am the founder of the 18-month-old We Too Britain campaign that aims to build cohesion and inclusion through physical representation on legal tender, public monuments, and outside spaces.

Let us not forget that ethnic minority communities in the UK bring their own history and cultural connections from countries themselves rich in flora and fauna. Many are avid gardeners, including many across allotments and inner-city community gardens.

There has also been a history of gardeners from ethnic minority background in the UK since the 18th century. Horticulture may be well served to showcase that ethnic minority gardeners have always been part of its rich tradition.

For example, the historian Jeffrey Green and Advolly Richmond, a researcher in garden, landscape and social history have long highlighted the life and legacy of Rev. Thomas Birch Freeman (1809-1890). He worked as a botanist and head gardener to Sir Robert Harland at Orwell Park in Suffolk. When Freeman relocated to the Gold Coast in Africa act as a missionary, he corresponded with Sir William Hooker (1785-1865), the first Director of Kew Gardens on West African flora and researched and collated specimens on tropical fauna for Kew Gardens.

However, I would like to highlight one lesser known story. In my view, it could capture the national imagination as much as it has become folklore in North Wales. 

John Ystumllyn, also known as Jack Black or Jac Du (d. 1786), was an 18th-century Welsh gardener and the first recorded black person in North Wales. Writer Robert Isaac Jones has provided the most detailed account of his life drawn from oral records, but it is characterised by some racial stereotyping. The story of John Ystymllyn is ripe for a historical fiction re-imagining.

Sometime about 1746, John was abducted as an eight-year old boy from Africa and brought to Gwynedd, North Wales. He came to live with the Wynn family of Ystumllyn and was placed in the garden to learn horticulture. The Wynns discovered that John could do just about anything in terms of gardening, crafts, or floristry. He quickly became fluent in both English and Welsh.

In that house, John found love with Margaret Gruffydd, a maid. They eloped to where she subsequently worked. The couple eventually reconciled with the Wynne family and were given a cottage with a significant garden called Y Nhyra Isa or Nanhyran in recognition of his service. By all accounts, he was well liked and respected in the local community.

The story of John and Margaret Ystumllyn survived and grew in North Wales, passed down in folklore, as a testament to resilience and enduring love against racial and class barriers. It was one of the very first, if not the first, record of a mixed race marriage in Wales.

Several years after his death, a small monument was constructed in his place of burial, St Cynhaearn’s Church in Ynyscynhaearn, now managed by the Friends of the Friendless Churches.

In 2018, John was included Wales Online’s list of 100 “Brilliant, Black and Welsh” people. In 2019, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography introduced 23 new biographies of Black British people. John was cited as a man “whose settled life existence in rural Wales reminds us of the persity of the historical experience of black people in Britain”.

In these divisive and uncertain times, why not use the story of John and Margaret Ystumllyn to inspire? At We Too Built Britain, we have been suggesting new statues that could be erected around our country that show greater diversity.

Memorialisation matters because it shows who we, as a community and a nation, have decided to value and honour. As there already is a small monument to John Ystumllyn at St Cynhaearn’s Church, I would like to pick up on the tradition at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show of seeing new rose breeds announced. Why not name a new rose after the memory of John and Margaret Ystumllyn? This might be the first rose named after someone of ethnic minority heritage.

The use of gardening as a tool to build empathy between communities might not only inspire a new generation of gardeners but might also provide cheer for us all as we slowly exit lockdown. Summer is upon us. Gardening is a national pastime. And like John and Margaret Ystumllyn, we are all romantics, in the end.

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