New Welsh Review
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Chris Moss looks at the colourful past of Owen Rhoscomyl and its depiction in John S Ellis literary biography, following the popular commercial writer through his time as a cowboy, frontiersman, soldier and mercenary, as well as exploring his deep connection to Welsh tradition.
Owen Rhoscomyl was the pen name of Arthur Owen Vaughan – which was, in turn, the ‘Welsh name’ of Robert Scowfield Mills – a Lancastrian and Englishman. Codebreakers may have noted that he used the first syllables of his three English names to create the Welsh pseudonym.
All this name changing is not incidental, for, as John S Ellis’ excellent literary biography makes clear, Rhoscomyl was a man who wore many hats during the fifty-odd years of his life. He travelled widely, worked as a cowboy, soldier and mercenary, and also took on a variety of civic and quasi-political roles, while also gaining a sizeable following as an author of popular fiction.
Born in Rochdale in 1863, Rhoscomyl (we’ll use the one surname here on in to make things simpler) was brought up by his maternal grandmother, Anne Jones Gill. His father had died days after his birth and his mother perished from TB in 1869. Granny Gill, by all accounts, was an able storyteller, wont to spin romantic tales set in the Welsh mountains close to her birthplace of Tremeirchon, Flintshire. Prior to relocating to Manchester, she had spent some time living among Mormons in Nauvoo, Illinois and later in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah.
Young Robert, a beneficiary of the 1870 Education Act, was a fair scholar, and liked to read the Boys Own Paper and The Three Musketeers. But, as his class dictated, he took on manual work in a cotton mill. When Granny Gill died in 1879, he saw his chance to escape the drudgery and see the world she had conjured for him in her stories; he sailed west, probably aboard a slate-carrying brig sailing from Portmadoc to Rio de Janeiro.
The American frontier was pretty much open to anyone who could ride a horse, shoot a Colt 45 and rough it with ranchers, rangers or rustlers. The buffalo had largely been wiped out and the gold was running out, but still a handful of British-born wannabes showed up in search of adventure and lucre.
After learning to ride in just three days, Mills became a cowboy, nicknamed variously ‘Roving Rob’, ‘Panther Killer’ and ‘The Kid’. Letters home indicate he enjoyed the freedom of the open country, rounding-up and driving thousands of cattle and horses and also the kit, including guns: a photograph from the period shows a squat, pugnacious man – still in his teens – posing in leather leggings and broad-brimmed hat. He survived drowning, a prairie fire, a shootout with a foreman over wages and a brush with a grizzly. But, for all the dangers and derring-do, the cowboy life was not especially lucrative and in 1884 he began to save money for the long passage back, from Montana to Britain.
A colourful, detailed version of the account outlined above provides the first chapter of Ellis’ book. It established a template: escape from confines, pursue a goal, never quite succeed, go somewhere else. The second, titled ‘Romancer’, focuses on his first short stories – inspired by his youthful escapades on the open range – and his novels, which, bearing titles like The Jewel of Ynys Galon and Battlement and Tower, tended to be elaborate versions of the kinds of story his granny had told. That one hand was scribbling the yee-ha cowboy tales while the other was elaborating myth-filled Welsh sagas is perhaps telling. Ellis notes that the latter are examples of what scholar Stephen Knight terms ‘first-contact literature’, aimed at an English audience and interspersed with definitions and explanations of Welsh place names, customs and legends. The Welsh native is shown as a tribal, atavistic hero, deeply rooted in a mysterious, mystical landscape. Ellis points out, though, a key difference with other works in this genre: Rhoscomyl’s novels protagonists were not wandering Englishmen but ‘assertively Welsh’.
Rhoscomyl had no literary pretensions as an author, but he had a mentor and promoter – AP Watt, the first professional literary agent – and soon garnered plenty of readers. Fame as an author gave him a platform to voice his opinions on Welsh culture and identity. He got involved in the Young Wales movement, and, while residing in Conwy, he became a prominent nationalist, proposing a new Welsh capital at Ludlow, which was ignored, and a new Union Jack flag featuring a bardic symbol superimposed on the crosses – a suggestion taken up by the organisers of the 1898 National Eisteddfod in Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Rhoscomyl was a restless re-patriate. During the above period he joined the 1st Royal Dragoons but, struggling to keep pace with the expenses incurred by a member of an elite regiment, he found himself a mentor and patron, wealthy widow Elizabeth Surtees-Allnatt. There is hazy evidence that Rhoscomyl fought in South America around this time, too, and possibly visited the Welsh colony in Patagonia. What we do know is that he fought as an irregular in the Boer War (and married the young daughter of a South African society family).
When he finally returned home and settled in Wales, Rhoscomyl repackaged himself as a scholar and public speaker, then as scriptwriter and lead promoter of the Welsh National Pageant, which took place in Cardiff’s Sophia Gardens in 1909, and also as campaigner for a Welsh Horse Yeomanry. He also fought in First World War. When he died, in 1919, Rhoscomyl was just 59. He was buried, at Rhyl, with full military honours. But there was confusion in the town. Who was this man? Was he local? Was he even Welsh?
What emerges from this energetic, episodic life is a portrait of a man who was a chancer, a charmer and a chaser – of action and adventure, power, and celebrity. Each project he pursued he did so with the same zeal, and Rhoscomyl seemed as able to write new parts for himself as he was for his fictional characters. In some ways, he was always an outlaw, a cowboy, a marginal figure, and no doubt Welsh nationalism appealed to him as a kind of psychodrama, a noble adventure for an oppressed man (and people), a new (quite) Wild West, even. What we can never quite determine is how serious, how sincere and how studied Rhoscomyl’s passions really were.
Ellis, a history professor at the University of Michigan-Flint, does not overload this narrative with jargon or academic circumlocution, offering us instead a smooth, skilfully wrought, well-indexed biography. It won’t send many people back to the primary sources – and that’s not its intention – but it does fill in many gaps in a life that seemed, at times, especially adept at conjuring them.
Chris Moss is a travel writer.