People ended up in the workhouse for many reasons, usually because they could not find work or through age or infirmity were thrown onto the mercy of the parish.
Bala Poor Law Union was formed in 1837 – the year Queen Victoria ascended to the throne – taking in the parishes of Llandderfel, Llanfawr, Llangower, Llannwchyllyn and Llanycil, with a population of 6,654, and the sum of £1970 was agreed to build the first workhouse fronting Bala High Street.
It may be thought that the vast majority of residents would be local to the area, but an 1881 Census shows this was far from the case. Of the 44 residents at the time, no less than 11 of them were originally from England and Ireland, and many from other parts of Wales. Twelve were children under the age of 13.
They included 76 year old widower John Morris, described as a pauper and a former relieving officer, which was someone employed by the parish to administer relief to the poor. Life was tough in those days, long before the National Health Service or state pensions, and John had obviously fallen on hard times himself.
Another such inmate was John Meyrick, from Llandderfel, who came from a very illustrious family in Wales who had connection to the British royal family, but he still ended up dying in the workhouse. He was distantly related to Edmund Meyrick, who founded Bala Grammar School.
The Meyrick’s, or Merrick’s, ruled Anglesey for centuries and are descendents of the Princes of Wales of the Welsh royal family and of King Edward 1.
The royal connection exists to the present day. When Prince William was stationed at RAF Valley on Anglesey he and Kate stayed in a house on the Meyrick estate. Sir George Meyrick is one of the countries wealthiest landowners, worth an estimated £125 million,and he and his wife Lady Tapps Gervis Meyrick used to have Kate and William over to the big house on the Bodorgan Hall estate for Sunday lunch. Both were also guests when the royal couple married at Westminster Abbey in 2011.
Our John Meyrick was from a rather more humble branch of the family, and worked as a horse breaker. Sadly, he lost his sight and could no longer earn a living. By 1851 he was in the Bala workhouse.
The noted Welsh poet David Roberts, who adopted the Welsh name Dewi Havhesp also died in the workhouse in 1884. He was also an itinerant tailor and had an irregular income – often destitute. Related to the better-known poet Robert Williams of Pandy, Dewi was said to be one of the best composers of englynion, a traditional Welsh and Cornish form of short poem.
*Another notable workhouse resident, down the road at St Asaph, was a five year old orphan called John Rowlands, who was put there in 1847 after his foster parents were refused more money for the boy’s maintenance. He stayed there until as a teenager in 1856 he fought with a brutal schoolmaster and gave him a thrashing. Fearing retribution the boy fled – eventually making his way to the USA where he changed his name to Henry Morton Stanley. As a journalist for the New York Herald, he tracked down the missing missionary and explorer Dr David Livingstone, finding him on the shores of Lake Tanganyika and greeting him with the famous words “Dr Livingstone, I presume.”