St Cynhaearn’s Church: The North Wales secret spot where one of the first Black men in Wales is buried
Shaded under a canopy of dog roses and thorns stands a grave that tells the tale of racial tolerance in 18th century Wales.
The extraordinary life of John Ystumllyn is succinctly etched on this slab of stone in a hamlet near Criccieth.
The verse, translated, says: ‘I was born in the Indies – and then in Wales I was christened; Here in this dark, cold place I lie under a grey slate.’”
John, known as ‘Jac Ddu’ by friends, was brought over to Britain on a slave ship in the early 1700s. Of African descent, he was reputedly captured in the West Indies, and was just a child when he reached Gwynedd, to become a servant of the Wynne family.
It was fashionable at the time to have a black servant, and historians of the day claim he was one of the first black men to live in Wales.
Baptised and christened John Ystumllyn, the talented gardener was held in high esteem by the community.
“John was a very honest man, and was respected by the gentry and common people alike,” writes Alltud Eifion in his 1888 book about him.
“He was considered by the old folk as a very moral man; he told a neighbour, when he was on his death bed, that his main regret was that he played the crwth (fiddle) on Sundays.”
He married Margaret Griffith of Trawsfynydd, had seven children and owned his own small holding called Nhyrra.
His wife adored him, and was completely blind to his ethnicity.
“When Richard, her son, was around two years old, she took him on her arm on the afternoon of the Mayday Fair, as was the practice in those days, John Ystumllyn went to the fair in the evening,” said Eifion.
“The child saw his father a distance away and shouted ‘Dada, Dada’; then his mother said to her friends: “Have you seen such a smart child as this one, recognising his father among so many people?”
Last month, The Institute for the Study of Welsh Estates and Race Council Cymru, organised an online conference celebrating John Ystumllyn as the Father of Black presence in North West Wales as part of Black History Cymru.
The exact location of his resting place can be found at the porch of St Cynhaearn’s Church in Ynyscynhaearn, near Pentrefelin and Criccieth.
The church itself, dedicated to the fifth century saint of Cynhaiarn, is well worth a visit. Its nave dates from the 12th century but most of the interior fittings are Georgian in style.
No longer a serving church, it came into the care of the Friends of Friendless Churches in 2003.
The ancient, Grade II listed church and its graveyard once sat in the middle of a lake.
The lake, Llyn Ystumllyn (OS Ref: SH525388), has since been drained, but the causeway survives.
It’s a narrow lane, best taken on foot. Beware of the local livestock though. The cows see themselves as gatekeepers, and can be quite intimidating.
Other men of note buried in the grounds of the church include an 18th century blind musician called David Owen, who allegedly wrote a well known tune called Dafydd y Garreg Wen on his deathbed.
There is also a memorial to James Spooner (1790–1856), the surveyor who built the Ffestiniog Railway.
For more information, visit friendsoffriendlesschurches.org.uk