Mar 17, 2017

Oakley Leigh Biography

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Oakley Leigh (1716-1788)

This Oakley Leigh is usually referred to as the "infamous" Oakley Leigh. What genes made him different from our usually moderate and law-abiding Leigh family? Unfortunately there is no impartial and objective account of Oakley Leigh's life, so we must gather whatever documents we can find to help understand him.

Oakley Leigh was the second of that name in Lampeter, 1716. His father, Oakley Leigh, apparently was the last son of the earliest Oakley Leigh in Carmarthen, and thus the youngest brother of Bridgett Leigh. Unlike the Carmarthen Leighs, this Oakley in Cardiganshire was not a clothier, as was his "brother John Leigh Clothier," according to his will dated 25 November 1720 (Film no.105240) before his burial on 23 July 1721 (Film no.104502). The pastor of Lampeter pont Stephen must have considered this Oakley of some importance, since the Bishop's Transcripts always give his name in large letters, though without a title or function. We cannot know what this means, but expect that it signified Oakley's relation to the Lloyd family. He gave his own name as "Oakley Leigh of Millfield, gent" (Millfield being the English name for Maesyfelin) indicating that he lived or worked on the estate of Maesyfelin, where the lord of the manor by this time was Bridgett Leigh's second son Sir Charles Lloyd, Baronet. We assume that Oakley of Millfield was a steward or other official on the estate, but have found no documents proving it.

This Oakley died young while his three children were still minors, and his son Oakley, born in 1716, was only five years old when his father was buried. Did the young boy grow up with his mother Blanche Thomas, with his uncle John Leigh Clothier in Carmarthen, his uncle William Rees of Capel Dewi, Esq., or with one of the other trustees of his father's will? Or did he even grow up in Maesyfelin with Bridgett's grandsons and his own cousins Sir Charles Cornwallis Lloyd and Lucius Christianus Lloyd? We don't know. We are sure he was educated, and as the elder son he inherited his father's house in Lampeter, then acquired his own home at Brongest.

Oakley's Home at Brongest. This watercolor of Brongest house was painted by a member of the Davis family who later owned the house, and given to Leigh descendant Gene Hetherington. It is dated 1923 but shows the house as it must have looked at the time of Oakley Leigh.
Already called "Mr." at age 35 he was renting lands at Maesyfelin before 15 June 1750 (NLW Gwernyfed Millfield Rent Roll 1750 (a) pp.2-3; NLW Gwernyfed Rent Roll of Millfield Estate for Mr Montgomery ... 15 June 1750 pp.2-3).

Oakley became infamous by working as steward for Sir Herbert Lloyd (1720-69), the last Lloyd owner of the estate of Maesyfelin and squire of the nearby estate of Peterwell, where he was "firmly entrenched ... and] ruled the surrounding country like a despot with none daring to oppose him" (Inglis-Jones p.40). Sir Herbert was a younger brother of John Lloyd, who inherited Maesyfelin from his cousin Sir Lucius Christianus Lloyd, Bridgett Leigh's last male descendant. Sir Herbert, in turn, inherited the estate at his childless brother John's death in 1755. John had at least tried to improve the financial status of Maesyfelin with new mortgages to help pay off its accumulated debts, but Sir Herbert simply regarded Maesyfelin as a means to embellish and support his own estate. He plundered its treasures and set them up in Peterwell.

More important than the estate to Sir Herbert was his inheritance of the Lordship of Lampeter, which not only gave him lucrative fines and tithes, but also control of the Lampeter court sessions (Phillips 84). By this means he became Member of Parliament in 1761. As a young Justice of the Peace he was so avaricious and vindictive that he was finally removed from the Commission, and late in his life a movement began to unseat him from his second term at Parliament. He was by then considered incurably unjust; a contemporary said of him, "...till he ceases to exist. he will never cease to persecute. It is become second nature to him" (Phillips 184). His evil life seemed almost mythic in its extremity especially to the common people. He probably died in bed of illness, but folk rumors insisted he shot himself in the head (Inglis-Jones 47-48; Edmunds 34). The country people of the region hated his cruelty, his overreaching vanity that enhanced Peterwell by plundering Maesyfelin, his financial ruin of both estates, and finally his inability even to provide an heir to revive either estate. He was "regarded by his contemporaries and later generations as the very epitome of evil" (Stephens 360). His infamous reputation affected that of our Oakley.

 A recent popular biography of Sir Herbert by Bethann Phillips calls Oakley one of the "lesser beings eager to serve their Powerful masters and to promote their wicked designs" (84) and Sir Herbert's "trusted acolyte" (153). Another popular biographer of Cardigan gentry, Elisabeth Inglis-Jones calls Oakley one of a "band of retainers as dishonest as [Lloyd] himself" (41), and the "infamous agent, whose bastards overran the town, who had his own methods of extorting votes for his master" (42). The only good they write of him is that unlike Sir Herbert's earlier crude and uneducated accomplices, Oakley Leigh was "literate, competent, and rose quickly to prominence in the town" (Phillips 84). Lloyd "ensured for him wealth and status and the term 'gentleman' was soon to be appended to his name in the records" (85). Neither writer seems aware that Oakley belonged to the educated and civic-minded Leighs and Oakleys of Carmarthen who were already referred to as gentlemen a century and a half earlier than Oakley in Cardigan, even when they followed a trade. Neither writer mentions Oakley's obvious relation to Bridgett Leigh and the Lloyd heirs.

Available documents suggest a more complex figure than the purely black picture painted by Inglis-Jones and Phillips. During the sessions of the Court Leet, which Sir Herbert controlled as Lord of Lampeter from 1755 to his death in 1769, Oakley Leigh as Port Reeve or mayor for five terms helped determine the destinies of the citizens. The Court Leet was both a criminal court and part of the city government to enforce sanitation rules, road repairs, trade, and commerce. During Sir Herbert's rule the fines and collections drastically increased (Phillips 93-95), and for a while Oakley as bailiff sternly collected them himself. But the documents from the Court also show a positive side to Oakley's competent sternness. Great efforts were made to improve the roads, water supply, hygiene, animal control, city jail, and general public order (Phillips 86-93). Even Phillips emphasizes that the town itself also benefited from the rigorous application of its laws and penalties; the frequently flooded commons were drained, fences were repaired, defective gates were replaced, footpaths and roads were cleared, and boundaries were clearly defined. (95)

The Court Leet also supervised the political process of qualifying burgesses to vote for Members of Parliament, and Oakley was said to bring in even servants and villagers to qualify them as voters (Phillips 27,84,196-98). Thus Lampeter had no choice but to elect Sir Herbert as Whig M.P. in 1761. Such political skullduggery was not new, however, and was actually standard in 18th-century Britain (Davies 300-01). Both Tories and Whigs, whenever in power, loaded the Court with their own adherents. In Carmarthen our William Leigh, who was twice Tory mayor, apparently participated in the mass import of "burgess" voters from outside the county, and our in-law William Rees of Capel Dewi Esq. was removed from the Carmarthen council by Whig maneuvering (Lloyd II, 39-44, and Derek Williams' study).

Was Oakley partly tarred with the broad brush of his master's sins, though he didn't actually participate in all of Sir Herbert's evil doings? We can say a little in Oakley's favor. As officially documented and described in contemporary letters, Sir Herbert's sins first involved his severity, greed, incompetence, and savage vindictiveness as Justice of the Peace from 1740 to 1753 (Phillips Chap.6, "A Rioting Justice"). This period was apparently before Oakley became associated with him. Second, Sir Herbert was faulted for his failures as a Member of Parliament, but Oakley was not known to accompany him to London. His third fault involved his extraordinarily selfish extravagance and his refusal to honor debts and bonds even to family members, which Oakley probably couldn't prevent or change. Oakley's known period with Lloyd covered the years 1755 to 1769, when the Court Leet harshly controlled the town of Lampeter, but Oakley's sternness had a positive side, as already said. Probably this is the best that is documented of Oakley's time with the evil squire.

Much worse, however, is the picture of Oakley that appears in the folk legends, particularly the story of the black ram, which is still so well known in Lampeter that the pastor of nearby St. Hilary's church in Trefilan told it to Michael Rudinsky and me when we asked him for directions and information about Maesyfelin during our visit to Wales in May, 1996. An opera on this story, The Black Ram, was composed by Ian Parrott in 1957.

The traditional version is dramatic and moving. It pits a poor peasant's faithful love for his small ancestral fields on the border of Peterwell estate, against the arrogant vanity of Sir Herbert, who wanted to gaze upon only his own lands from the extravagant rooftop garden of his mansion house. The repeated refusal by Sion (=John) Philip to sell his fields provoked Sir Herbert's diabolical idea of accusing the peasant of a capital crime and thus threatening him with the hangman's rope until he agreed to sell his fields.

Accordingly, trusted servants at Peterwell hid the master's prize black ram, conducted false searches for it over several days, then one dark night lowered the ram down the wide chimney of the cottage of the sleeping Sion Philip. Theft of a master's sheep was then a capital offense:

... as soon as the servants had left Peterwell on their mission, Sir Herbert Lloyd sent for Thomas Evans, the Lampeter Constable, and ordered him to proceed post haste to Sion Philip's cottage. It was a strange request at such an unearthly hour, but no one disobeyed the Baronet. As the Constable, accompanied by Sir Herbert and his trusted acolyte Oakley Leigh, hurried through the heavy night frost to the mean cottage, he must have wondered at the purpose of this strange excursion for he knew that Sion Philip was an honest man. Nearing the cottage, they must have noticed the Peterwell servants skulking away having carried out their master's command. Inside the dwelling, the scuffling of the ram had already awoken Sion Philip and his wife, and before the dreadful realization of what had happened had penetrated, there was a loud knocking at the door and in burst Sir Herbert and his companions. In the presence of the Baronet, the constable and the black ram, any protestations of innocence on the part of Sion Philip would have been totally useless. (Phillips 153-54)
The stubborn peasant was chained and marched off to jail through deep snow for thirty miles, then kept for weeks on bread and water. He still refused to give up his few ancestral fields, and after a trial before a judge and jury handpicked by Sir Herbert. he was convicted. To the end the poor old fellow proclaimed his innocence, but he was undefended and disregarded by everyone in fear of the evil Squire. When Sion Philip was finally hanged, some versions show Sir Herbert as sorry, but others show him in his rooftop garden enjoying his view of his new lands.

Is this legend true? It cannot be proved or disproved because the contemporary records of Cardigan jail are now damaged and incomplete (Phillips 162). No mention of such a trial appears in extant documents or letters, but sheep stealing was too common a capital felony to attract great attention. The main evidence is circumstantial. The man Sion Philip existed, his small fields bordering Peterwell ended up in the estate, and the legend of the black ram at once circulated orally though it was first printed by William Edmunds almost a hundred years after the event was said to occur (Phillips 162). Though I hate to think our relative took part in such an injustice, it may well be that he did.

Apart from his participation in Sir Herbert's misdeeds, what did Oakley do on his own? To fully answer this question we would have to know how he lived and worked before he became associated with Sir Herbert about 1755, when he was already 39 years old. Few records exist on this earlier period. Did he work at Millfield for Sir Charles Cornwallis then Sir Lucius Christianus? Neither young man was disliked, and they were remembered more for their frivolity and debts than any misdeeds in the town. Whatever time Oakley may have spent with them evoked no bad image in folk legends. So we know nothing of ill deeds in Oakley's earlier life, but have no evidence of good deeds either.

The major activity of Oakley's later life was as churchwarden and parish Overseer of the Poor, and he continued there for almost twenty years after Sir Herbert's death, until his own death in 1788. As Phillips writes, "his involvement with both Peterwell and the Parish brought him into close contact with the two extremes of the Lampeter social scale" (98). Was he at least a good man in this respect? I think he was. Can we infer that if he had been a faulty parish and city official, he would surely have been replaced as soon as the feared Sir Herbert died and his influence dissipated? I think we can. Oakley continued as Overseer of the Poor until he died, and his will specified "one annuity or Yearly Rent Charge of Two Pounds ... to the Poor of the parish of Lampeter ... or to the Overseers of the poor" (Film no.105253). This was a large donation compared to the much wealthier Sir Francis' one-time legacy of 40 shillings to each of two churches. Oakley also continued as a town official, and even at age 69 became Port Reeve in 1785. He remained steward of Peterwell for seven years with the new owner John Adams, who enjoyed a much better reputation than Sir Herbert.

Finally, however, regardless of any good Oakley may have done in the town and parish, what can one say of a man who fathered at least fourteen illegitimate children, mainly by different mothers often of less social power? Even when we consider that in Wales from the days of Dda through our time, children born out of wedlock were little stigmatized (e.g. Parry Jones, pp.124-8), Oakley looks like a sexual harasser on a large scale. Phillips calls him a "notorious philanderer, using the power he gained in the shadow of his master to gratify his own lusts and desires ... for the Parish Register records with astonishing frequency the births of his many 'natural' children" (85). Among his earliest children (and the only one found in the extant Bishop's Transcripts) was Thomas, son of "Mary a maid servant of James Rees" of Lampeter, baptized on 19 March in 1741, when Oakley was 25 years old (Film no.104502). We know no more of this Thomas, not even his mother's last name, but two other children with their mother and two other mothers were found by Leigh descendant Gene Hetherington. Of his known children, eleven were named in Oakley's will, and two were mentioned by Parry Jones (p.126). Details are in the Leigh Ancestry Chart.

To Oakley's credit he provided for his children financially and socially. His elder son John, like any eldest son, received most of his property and was responsible to pay the bequests to the other children when they were no longer minors. If he died without heirs, the next sons Watkin and George were to receive the two main farms inherited by their elder brother. Oakley's younger son John was "to be kept at School two years by my executor John Leigh the elder, who also is to allow him one pound and Five Shillings a Year ... till he attains his One and twentieth year" (Film no.105253). Unfortunately, young John lived only four more years before he froze to death crossing the mountains in midwinter to visit his mother (Phillips 86). There is no information on how Oakley treated the mothers of his illegitimate children, but since he gave the children his name he must have supported them financially at least. As Overseer of the Poor he would have been required to charge himself to spare the parish the cost of their upkeep.

One can only guess at the hard, childless life of Oakley's long-suffering first wife Judith. Older by 13 years, she died in 1780, after being aware of all those illegitimate children. Oakley married again on 15 October 1781 by license (NLW SD/17/ 389) to a widow Mary Jenkins, who outlived him and married again in less than six months.

We are left with an interesting psychological question. Did Oakley's children and second wife take a sort of quiet but public revenge upon him by not engraving his name upon the memorial stone he had made for his first wife, Judith? The only inscription reads

In Memory of Judith
Leigh the Wife of Oakley
Leigh of Brongest Gent in this
Parish, Who departed this Life
the 12th day of July 1780
Aged 77 years

It fills the top of a large and strikingly beautiful black granite stone, but leaves over half of the stone blank, ready for a eulogy of Oakley, or at least his name with date of death. To this day the rest of the striking black granite slab is shiny and empty as it hangs high on the wall of the vestibule of St Peter's church in Lampeter, for all to see, and wonder about a husband who made an epitaph for his wife and left a large space for himself, but no one engraved his name there.

Photo by Michael Rudinsky
Click to enlarge
Be that as it may, Oakley's children that we could trace seem not to have suffered.

The will of one of Oakley's earliest sons, Chelton, indicates a fairly low economic status for his mother, as he bequeaths her "one Shiling a week and to be paid duly every week -and six cart load of turf and fifteen shillings towards paying her rent for an House every Year during her life" (Film no.105253). Yet Chelton himself was not poor and had at least two leases to leave to his wife and a friend. He was church warden in 1780 and Port Reeve or mayor of Lampeter in 1777, 1782, and 1789, according to records found by Gene Hetherington. Interestingly, these years came after the death of Sir Herbert Lloyd, and the last term came after the death of his father, so presumably Chelton was put in office on his own merits.

The will of Oakley's eldest but childless son, "John Leigh of Lampeter, Gentleman," left the considerable property he had received from Oakley to his younger brothers (or step-brothers) Watkin and George, after providing 300 pounds and a widow's third to his second wife, Mary Morgan (Film no.105258). John's will and also the younger men's wills suggest that they led a comfortable life as gentlemen farmers. Their various farms with their picturesque Welsh names passed down through several generations. Watkin had two young daughters whose tombstone in Lampeter cemetery testified that Oakley Leigh was not so "infamous" as to preclude mention of him with family pride:

In memory of Ann the daughter of Watkin Leigh (grand-daughter of Oakley Leigh) of Tynyrheol in the parish of Pencarreg who died on the 15th September 1815 aged 16 years and also Eliza who died on the 8th September 1817 aged 18 months.
For lack of a male heir Watkin's farm passed to a daughter (Film no.105119). George had five adult sons, and especially his sons Watkin II and Thomas farmed the ancestral acres (NLW SD/1850/154 W x1 x3). Numerous descendants still live in the same area, and from George's sons Watkin and Oakley have come two family historians, Gwladys Irvona Leigh (wife of Noel Watcyn William Leigh) and Helen Georgene (Gene) Jones (married name Hetherington). See the Leigh Ancestry Chart. 

"Fulfillment" of the Maesyfelin Curse 

This peaceful picture of Oakley's descendents seems undisturbed by the legendary curse of Maesyfelin. Unlike the lives of Bridgett Leigh and (speculatively) Stephen Hughes, the life of Oakley Leigh was only indirectly related to it. Yet chronologically the curse was being "fulfilled" during Oakley's lifetime through the tyranny of his employer, Sir Herbert Lloyd, whose name acquired the dark mythic aura of the curse itself.

The demise of the Lloyd family and the destruction of the estates of Maesyfelin and Peterwell were prophesied by the curse upon the family:

May God's curse be upon Maesyfelin
On every stone and every root ....
May God with heavy curses chase
All Maesyfelin's villain race .....

When Oakley Leigh died in 1788, over one hundred forty years after the death of the Vicar's son in the 1640s, Sir Francis' sons and grandsons were dead without male heirs. Even their mansion house was being dismantled or falling into ruin, its stones carted away to other houses. After the death of Sir Herbert Lloyd, Peterwell estate was set upon the same road to ruination. Superstitious folk said the Vicar's curse was extended to Peterwell in the stones carried there from Maesyfelin.

Quite apart from the curse legend, this period saw the end of an era, the passing of the "squirarchy" government that allowed such tyrants as Sir Herbert to oppress their neighbors and tenants, and (we must also say) enabled such men as Oakley Leigh to practice easy sexual harassment. Historically the age of privilege was dwindling away. Numerous gentry families and estates were dying out similarly, though with less drama and mystique than the Lloyd family of Maesyfelin and Peterwell, which acquired a status almost symbolic of the passing of an age.

Now not even a picture exists of either mansion. Maesyfelin, a large stone house with eleven "hearths" built in the early 1600s by the father of Sir Francis, was said to be in the Jacobean "pointed style." Peterwell, built about 1696, had a handsome tower on each corner and later an elaborate rooftop garden with trees and fountains (Phillips 22). Neither building survived intact into the 20th century, and Dafydd Dafis (1745-1827), a poet who had seen Peterwell in its glory, described its last state:

To the dust it went when its time came,
And its great merriment ended.
The silent owl breeds in its walls.
Its beautiful wide hearths
Will become gardens and green hedgerows,
And often the ox from its yoke
Will graze the floor of its magnificent parlours.

(cited in Phillips 225; he is also called David Davis)
Where Maesyfelin stood is now a modest housing development and nothing more. The old Peterwell mansion house is now a pile of stones near the remains of its avenue of stately trees. Some distance away, it was supplanted by a Victorian country house built in 1859 by new owners, who called their home "Falcondale." It is now the "three-star Falcondale Country House Hotel situated in 14 acres of parkland overlooking the University/market town of Lampeter," as advertised in a Cardiganshire Tourist Office brochure.

With the curse "expired," these three Biographies of Bridgett Leigh, Stephen Hughes, and Oakley Leigh related to it now conclude. The legend caught the interest of Welsh historians and thus gave us more references and information than we would otherwise find about these ancestors and relatives. Exploring and speculating about the curse also suggested new ideas about their possible characters and personalities. They comprise a variety  of relatives: those we can be very proud of and those who keep our pride in check, who embarrass us and keep us humble.


Davies, John. A History of Wales. London: Penguin Books, 1994.

Edmunds, William. On Some Old Families in the Neighbourhood of Lampeter, Cardiganshire. Tenby: R. Mason, Printer, 1860. (Film no.839711).

Evans, George Eyre. History of Lampeter. 1905.

Inglis-Jones, Elisabeth. Peacocks in Paradise. Carmarthen: Golden Grove Book Co., Ltd., 1988.

Jones, Francis. Historic Cardiganshire Houses and Their Families. Ed. Catherine Charles 

Jones. Newport: Brawdy Books, 2000.

Jones, Parry. My Own Folk. Gomer Press, 1972

Lloyd, John E. A History of Carmarthenshire. 2 vols. Cardiff: London Carmarthenshire Society, 1935, 1939.

Phillips, Bethan. Peterwell. Gomer Press. 1983.

Stephens, Meic. The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

By Norma Leigh Rudinsky

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