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Editor's Choice: The real Captain's Wife of Eiluned Lewis's novel of the same name


Eiluned Lewis (1900 - 1979) was a novelist, poet and journalist born near Newtown. Honno has republished two of her critically acclaimed novels Dew on the Grass and The Captain's Wife which was written during the Second World War and looks back nostalgically on a period, sixty years before, when the rhythms of traditional Welsh culture were still intact, though losses and tragedies were still a part of women's daily lives.

Sally Rackam, Eiluned Lewis's niece writes of the real Captain's Wife:

Martha Griffiths

Martha Griffiths


By the time she was 23 years old Martha Griffiths had been half way around the world. Recently married to Thomas, she accompanied him to India on the inaugural trading voyage of the ship John Elliot of which he was Master and in which he owned a small share. Martha gave birth to their eldest child Arthur in Howrah, Calcutta in the middle of the trip. How proud Thomas must have been to have her on board, and what an adventure for Martha. After their return from this voyage they lived in Liverpool for the next six years. Thomas continued to sail regularly to the East Indies, and Martha gave birth to two more children here before they moved back to St Davids, to be close to their families.

So, who was Martha Griffiths? Outside the family she is known because she is The Captain's Wife, the central character in the book of the same name written by Eiluned Lewis and republished by the Honno Press in their series, the Honno Classics. The new edition of the book was launched recently in the National Trust shop in St Davids, an appropriate location as it was the house where Thomas and Martha lived for about 10 years in the early 1870s on their return to Pembrokeshire and it is the setting for this novel about a very real family. When the family increased in size they moved to the house in Peters Lane, St Davids now owned by John Rogers and used as an Art Gallery. In The Captain's Wife Martha is called Lettice Peters and the other main character Matty, is Martha's daughter Eveline who was Eiluned's mother, and my grandmother.

In many ways Martha had a lot in common with the wives of other mariners both in Pembrokeshire where so many families were involved with the sea, and all over the world where shipping played such a vital role in trade. Their husbands were often away for long periods, they had to bring up their families and manage their domestic lives in a world where it was uncommon for women to be so independent. What makes Martha different is that this novel brings her everyday life into focus.

She was born into a local Pembrokeshire family. Her father, Peter Perkins, farmed Llanvern y frane on the north Pembrokeshire coast near Abereiddy. He was the son of Henry and Mary Perkins who had links back to the Perkins family of Pwllcaerog. The Perkins family were used to the idea of the family leaving Pembrokeshire to find a better life elsewhere. Two of Peter's brothers had gone to Australia in the 1830s. In the mid 1860s Martha's sister Sarah went to live in Queensland with her husband John Howell and in the 1870s their brother Thomas went to live in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Peter and his wife Margaret nee Griffiths would have been pleased when Martha returned to St Davids to live.

Martha's maternal Grandfather was the Rev James Griffiths, a well-known Congregational minister. He had been born in Carmarthenshire and received his call to the ministry in Machynlleth. On a visit to Pembrokeshire to preach he met Sarah Phillips of Llanferan and subsequently married her. They settled in Pembrokeshire but he still visited the Machynlleth area to preach on a regular basis. He had given a plot of land in St Davids in 1815 for the first Ebenezer Chapel, and another chapel was also built at Berea where the Perkins family attended the services he held.

Captain Thomas Griffiths

Captain Thomas Griffiths


Thomas Griffiths, the Captain, was no relation to the Rev James. He had been born in Knighton, Radnorshire but brought up by his maternal grandparents in Solva after the early death of his parents. His grandfather, Moses Cormack was a Scottish Master Mariner who had married a Pembrokeshire girl. He was clearly influential in Thomas's choice of profession. It seems that Thomas was a good seaman. He rose quickly from being a 2nd Mate to being a Master Mariner. His ship the John Elliot caught fire and sank in the Indian Ocean in 1874, but after spending fourteen days in the lifeboats the Master and crew were able to make a landfall in Mauritius. After his death in 1894, an agent of the firm of John Elliott with whom Thomas had worked with in India wrote 'I can most conscientiously assert that a more noble-minded upright and honourable Christian Gentleman I never met in all my experience.' 'With one and all he was always much respected and considered a perfect seaman and Master of his profession'.

In the novel Thomas is portrayed with much affection but also as a man who was reluctant to change from sail to steam. He was however a man with a vision of the future. In 1885 he applied for a Patent for the design of a jet propelled engine for a ship. An article written 100 years later in an Engineering magazine credited Thomas with producing a workable design way ahead of his time, a true fore-runner of jet engine technology.
The Captain's House

The Captain's House


There were good reasons for Thomas and Martha to move back to St Davids. This had been the home of their childhood and Martha would now have the family to support her and the growing family during Thomas's long absences at sea. The period covered by the novel depicts a family of four children, the youngest of whom dies of a fever towards the end of the book. The real family also suffered this loss but went on to have two more sons and another daughter. Sadly, the second daughter called Ann also died at a young age. She was staying with her sister Eveline in Newtown in 1897 at the time and it must have been a tragedy for all the family.

Eveline Griffiths

Eveline Griffiths


It seems that among the children Eveline was the one selected for a special sort of education. She is depicted in the novel as lively and intelligent, and these very real traits were enhanced by the powerful influence of her headmistress Medina Sarah Griffiths, also a grand-daughter to the Rev James and therefore a cousin to Martha. Medina had been appointed by Sir Titus Salt as the first headmistress of the Girls High School at Saltaire near Bradford in 1876 where she soon established an excellent reputation. Eveline spent several years boarding at Medina's school, first in Saltaire then in London when Medina moved there. Eveline excelled at school, went on to University where she achieved a 1st in Moral Sciences for which she had studied in Wales but the degree was awarded by London University as the University of Wales was not able to confer degrees on women at the time. Eveline planned a career in teaching and was appointed a headmistress to the Girls Intermediate School in Newtown, Montgomeryshire soon after her graduation, but it was a short-lived appointment as she had to resign when she got married.

Of the others in the family, the eldest two sons, true to their characters in the novel, became Master Mariners. Arthur, the oldest worked for the Shaw Saville and Albion Line and (Peter) Osborne the younger worked for a while for his father's old Company, run by John Elliot, and also served in the Royal Navy for a period. The younger two boys Elliot and Rupert did not go to sea, one became a business man and the other a scientist.

This then is the background of the real family used by Eiluned in her novel, with much of her information having come from her mother Eveline. Once written books can take on a life of their own, however, and this one played an important part in linking the wider family around the world and has continued to bridge the generations.

The characters Tom and Edward in the book were both uncles to Martha. Edward was John Perkins, who had emigrated to Tasmania, Australia in 1838. Martha's second son, Osborne Griffiths, had visited his Perkins cousins in Hobart in the early 1900s and then contact seems to have been lost between the families. A few years ago, when reading some of Eiluned's correspondence, a letter written to her came to light which is pertinent. It was written from Hobart in May 1944, only 12 months after the book was published.

I hope this letter will reach you through the kindness of your publisher. I have just read with great pleasure and interest your book "The Captain's Wife', a very lucky dip from the lending library, as being old and an neuritis patient [infirm] I cannot go to town myself and choose, so often books go back unread. The interest arises chiefly from the fact that my paternal grandfather John Perkins was born on the farm Llanvirn near St Davids in 1812, and your St Idris seems to correspond with St Davids.

The writer, Mrs McElroy was a second cousin to Eveline. Even in war time, or perhaps because of it, this letter sparked a renewed period of correspondence between the families and when my husband and I emigrated to Tasmania in 1971 the personal contact was also resumed.

Tom, the other uncle, whose real name was Thomas Perkins emigrated to Sydney in 1833 where he was a successful merchant. He returned to Pembrokeshire three times in the next twenty years and it seems more than likely that he brought home on one of his visits, the picture of Sydney Harbour mentioned in the book. This picture, a hand-coloured engraving, is still in the family but now it hangs in our house in Tasmania having been around the world. My father thought it should return to the Antipodes so we took it with us when we went. It turns out to be the work of Conrad Martens, an artist who accompanied Charles Darwin on the Beagle.

There are other stories in the book which resonate for me. For example, I have a version of the tale of the customs men chasing Martha's father, hand-written by Eveline; and I own a piece of the muff chain that Matty (Eveline) describes. So for me, Martha and her Pembrokeshire story are an important part of my heritage. Staying recently at a property near Llanvirn, I felt a strong connection to Martha and Eveline as I looked out at the view over Abereiddy. Both Martha and Eveline had both loved that view and I could understand why. Part of me belongs in this rugged beautiful land. Martha may have been an ordinary woman but her story as told in this book will give a glimpse of her life to a new generation of readers.

Sally Rackham

Sally Rackham has lived in Tasmania, Australia for over 30 years. She has
always been interested in family history, particularly the Pembrokeshire connection through her paternal grandmother Eveline. The stories Eveline told which were put together in The Captain's Wife by Sally's aunt Eiluned Lewis encouraged Sally in this endeavour. She and her husband Chris now spend several months each year in mid-Wales where she is able to spend time on her research. She has written several articles on different branches of the family and in the 1980s she wrote a history of the Construction Towns of the Hydro-Electric Commission
in Tasmania.

Article reproduced by kind permission of Pembrokeshire Life. The article originally appeared in the November 2008 edition of this magazine. For subscriptions contact: eleanorswanhouse@btinternet.com
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