Fiery Exhalations in Wales
As we approach the darkest time of the year and my neighbors have hung their pale blue, corpse-candle Christmas lights, Dr Beachcombing has posted an intriguing series on the Durham Lights and The Professor at The Big Study is reporting on weird claims of light phenomena.
Wales is a land of mystery lights: the usual will-o’-the-wisp, the stars and rumors of stars of Egryn, and the Welsh Revival, as well as UFO/earthquake lights reported by British UFOlogists. I’ve previously posted on lethal spook lights and corpse candles and I also wrote about a strange and damaging flame in the Welsh Marches in the post called “Owl Blasting.”
Today I rekindle my interest in the strange lights of Wales with the “fiery exhalations” of Merionethshire. An account appeared in the William Corliss Sourcebook series [Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights and Related Phenomena] and in a lengthy article on “Psychological Aspects of the Welsh Revival,” The Rev. A.T. Fryer, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. XIX, 1905-7. I have a feeling that everybody in the Fortean world has heard of these mysterious flames and they are all privately yawning behind their hands, so, in keeping with my penchant for collection rather than analysis, this post will provide a convenient compilation of various reports on the phenomenon. I certainly have no explanation.
We begin with what seems to be the first mention in English (Regrettably I don’t read or speak Welsh) of the exhalations in John Evelyn’s memoirs.
1694. April 22.– A fiery exhalation rising out of the sea, opened [spread is also given in some versions] itselfe in Montgomeryshire a furlong broad, and many miles in length, burning all straw, hay, thatch, and grass, but doing no harm to trees, timber, or any solid things, onely firing barns, or thatched houses. It left such a taint on the grasse as to kill all the cattle that eate of it. I saw the attestations in the hands of the sufferers. It lasted many moneths. Memoirs Illustrative of the Writings of John Evelyn, F.R.S., comprising his Diary from 1641 to 1715. 2nd ed., 1819
It should be noted that Montomeryshire is actually the county to the south of Merionethshire. It has been remarked by later writers that most Englishmen had a muddled idea of the geography of Wales, so the mistake was to be expected! Merionethshire is the most mountainous of the Welsh counties (think earthquake lights?) and a stronghold of the Welsh language, possibly leading to the retention of folk beliefs such as corpse candles long after they had been forgotten or discarded in other places.
Here is another account from 1694:
Part of a Letter from Mr. Edw. Lhwyd, to Dr. Lister; giving some farther Account of the Fiery Exhalation in Merionydh-shire. Dated Oxf. Aug. 23, 1694.
I Discoursed with an an Intelligent, Sober Person,that lives near Harlech in Merionydh-shire, who assured me the Fire still continues there; that it is observed to come from a place called Morva bychan in Caernarvonshire, about Eight or Nine miles off, [over part of the Sea.] That Cattle of all sorts, as Sheep, Goats, Hogs, Cows and Horses, still die apace; and that for certain, any great Noise, as Winding of Horns, Drums, &c. does repel it from any House, or Barn, or Stacks of Hay: on account of which Remedy, they have had few or no Losses in that kind since Christmas. That it happened during this Summer, at least one Night in a Week, and that commonly either Saturday or Sunday; but that now of late it appears something oftner. The place whence it proceeds is both Sandy and Marshy. This is all I could gather from him, material. Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), Vol. 18 (1694), p. 223
Now we enter on some 19th-century inquiries into the exhalations, where things get a bit complex with quotes within quotes within quotes. This article from The Red Dragon: The National Magazine of Wales begins with an account of some earlier fires and an astrological explanation, going on to a first-hand description by the Rev. Maurice Jones.
Natural Phenomena In North Wales (viii.—616).—Some light will be thrown on the passage from Evelyn, quoted by your Cambridge contributor “W. A.,” by the following extracts from the Gossiping Guide to Wales, a work by another contributor of yours, the late Mr. Askew Roberts, J.P., Croeswylan, Oswestry. I quote from pp. 121-122 of the work:
“The district composing the western coast of Merioneth was known as far back as the tenth century as Ardudwy, and although the scene of many a bloody fight before gunpowder was invented, was never visited by a more formidable enemy than a mysterious fire that rose out of the sea and devastated the land in 1694. True, fire had claimed its victims in 1542 and 1567, but those fires were attributed to what would then almost be deemed ‘natural causes;’ at least they were explained in the Philosophical transactions thus :—’The eclipses of the sun in Aries have been very fatal to this place ; and that in the years 1542 and 1567, when the sun was eclipsed in that sign, it suffered very much by fire; and after the latter eclipse of the two, the fire spread so far, that two hundred houses in the town and suburbs of Caernarvon were consumed.’
“The nineteenth century very properly laughs at astrology, and—believes in spirit-rapping. The mysterious fires of 1694 have never been satisfactorily explained, and our first information of them is from the correspondence of Edw. Llwyd, one of Camden’s editors. He says :—’The Rector of Dol Gelheu sent me a dismal account of the burning of twelve hay-ricks with some kind of unaccountable fire, which did the men that endeavoured to save them no dammage at all; also of cattle dyeing, grasse poyson’d, &c. He and all others of the country suppose that all this has been done by witchcraft.’ The Rector of Dolgelley referred to was the Rev. Maurice Jones, and in a letter to the editor of the Philosophical Transactions, he enters very fully into particulars as follows :—
“‘ Dol Gelheu, Jan. 20,1694.
I Received this last Post from my worthily esteemed Friend Mr. Maurice Jones, Rector of Dol-Gelheu, the following Account of the burning of several Ricks of Hay and Houses, and also the Poysoning of the Grass, so as to render it Mortal to the Cattle that feed upon it, by a kindled Exhalation, or Ignis Fatuus. Be pleased to take it in his own words:
‘This letter contains no answer to your Queries about the Locusts, for I am wholly intent at present upon giving you the best account I can of a most dismal and prodigious accident at Harlech, in this County, the beginning of these Holy-days. It is of the unaccountable firing of Sixteen Ricks of Hay. and Two Barnes, whereof one was full of Corn, and the other of Hay. I call it unaccountable because ’tis evident they were not burned by common fire, but by a kindled exhalation which was often seen to come from the Sea. Of the duration whereof I cannot at present give you any certain account, but I am satisfied it lasted at least a fortnight or three weeks: and annoy’d the Country as well by poisoning their Grass, as firing the Hay, for the space of a Mile or thereabouts. Such as have seen the Fire say, ’twas a blew weak Flame easily extinguish’d, and that it did not the least harm to any of the Men who interpos’d their Endeavours to save the Hay, tho’ they ventur’d (perceiving it different from common Fire), not only close to it, but sometimes into it. All the Damage sustained happened constantly in the night. I have enclosed a Catalogue of such as I have receiv’d certain Information of. and have nothing to add, but that there are three small Tenements in the same Neighbourhood (called Tydhin Sion Wvn). whereof the Grass is so infected, that it absolutely killed all manner of Cattle that feed upon it. The Grass has been infectious these three Years, but not thoroughly Fatal till this last. Pray send me, with all convenient speed, your Friends’ Thoughts and your own of the Causes, and if possible also the Remedy of this Surprizing Phoenomenon, &c.’ [Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), Vol. 18 (1694), p. 223]
In this the Rector is cautious, and instead of rashly avowing the witchcraft theory, he asks the opinion of the learned Gibson comments on the letter as follows:— “Thus far Mr. Jones’s account of this surprising and unparell’d Meteor; since which time I receiv’d information from him and others, that it continued to the seventeenth of this present month of August; so that we know not the end of it. It has done no great damage by consuming their Hay or Corn, besides those above mentioned ; but the Grass or Air, or both, are so infected with it, that there has been all this while a great mortality of Cattle, Horses, Sheep, Goats, etc., and I pray God grant men may escape it. For a long time they could not trace this Fire any further than from the adjoining sea-shores; but of late those that have watch’d it (as some have done continually), discovered that it crosses a part of the Sea, from a place called Morva Bychan in Caernarvonshire, distant from Harlech about eight or nine miles, which is described to be a bay both sandy and marshv. Last winter it appeared much more frequent than this following summer; for whereas they saw it then almost every night, it was not observed in the summer above one or two nights in a week; and that (which, if true, is very observable), about the same distance of time, generally happening on Saturday or Sunday nights; but of late it’s seen much oftner, so that ’tis feared, if it continues this winter, it may appear as frequently as ever. They add that it’s seen on stormv as well as calm nights, and all weathers alike; but that any great noise, such as the sounding of Horns, the discharging of Guns, &c., does repel or extinguish it; by means of which ’tis supposed they have saved several Ricks of Hay and Corn, for it scarce fires anything else.’
“These fires alike puzzled the learned and alarmed the ignorant; and they have never been satisfactorily explained. Evelyn mentions them in his Diary as appearing in Montgomeryshire, but, then, Merionethshire and Montgomeryshire was all one to our English ancestors. Gibson supposes the flames to be caused by the spontaneous combustion of the carcases of the locusts; but the Rev. John Evans, writing a century later, thinks the carcases were more likely those of herrings, driven on the shore by whales. It would appear that strange lights are by no means of uncommon occurrence on those shores. About 1869 there was a little collection of them hovering over the low ground between Borth and the Dovey (places already described), and only in 1875, lights in the shape of ‘sheaves of corn,’ and other fantastic forms, appeared at Pwllheli.”
Cardiff. Blackletter Folio
[Mr. Geo. H. Brierley (Oswestry) is thanked for a similar reply. Ed. R.D.] The Red Dragon: The National Magazine of Wales, Volume 9, 1886
The “learned Gibson” was Edmund Gibson, Lord Bishop of London. He is cited in the following passage: Bishop Gibson has conjectured that it might have proceeded from the corrupted bodies of a quantity of locusts, which came into this kingdom about that time, but from the coldness of the climate were destroyed. He says that a considerable quantity of them were seen lying dead about the shores of Aberdaron, in Caernarvonshire. [Gibson’s Additions to Camden’s Brittania] Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), Vol. 18 (1694), p. 223
The following note sheds a little more light on the Pwllheli lights, whose fantastic shapes suggest the showers of fireworks. Maddeningly, I can’t find a more detailed description of the sheaves-of-corn lights. This letter in Bye-gones, Relating to Wales and the Border Counties, triggered a whole spate of responses and reminiscences.
THE CURIOUS LIGHTS AT PWLLHELI.
(Mar. 3, 1875).
When I first saw a notice of the curious lights at Pwllheli in the Cambrian News I wrote to Notes and Queries on the subject, and drew the attention of the editor of that interesting publication to the “Harlech Exhalations” of 1694, mentioned by Evelyn in his Diary, and by Gibson in his continuation of Camden, and put a query on the subject. I observe that Mr Picton-Jones has been reminded of these fires, and has given you an outline of Pennant’s account of them. The “Mephitic Vapour” made its appearance on that portion of the coast called Morva Bychan—Little Marsh, in the winter of 1693-4,and was described as a “blue lambent flame” that burnt nothing but hay and straw, and was dispersed by the firing of guns or blowing of horns. It so poisoned the grass that cattle died if they grazed. The damage was always done in the night. Some months previously a swarm of locusts visited the coast, and died from cold,their carcasses strewing the shore. More than one suggestion as to the cause of the vapour was hazarded by the historians of the time: and other latter-day tourists besides Pennant, have tried their hands at a solution of the mystery. One of the most reasonable of these was the Rev. John Evans, whose botanical tour was published in 1800. He says, “Animal bodies in a state of decomposition emit large quantities of bydrogynous gas; this is pernicious to animal life, and, mixed with a small quantity of oxygen, becomes highly inflammable; and when it meets with electric matter, with which the atmosphere abounds, will instantly explode. A continuance of the cause would for the time produce a continuance of the effect.” Mr Evans was inclined to think that the lights in this case and their duration were much magnified, and his supposition was that they proceeded from the carcasses of shoals of herrings driven by whales on the strand. The curious lights recently seen at Pwllheli don’t seem to have anything in common with the “lambent flames” of 1694; but when they take the form of “sheaves of corn” they are more difficult to interpret than “Joseph’s Dream!”
The Author, Of The “Gossiping Guide” [to Wales].
Having read the account by Mr Picton-Jones of the strange lights seen by him near Pwllheli, I beg to say that I witnessed a very similar phenomenon on the marshy ground near Borth. Some five or six years ago, owing to an accident on the Cambrian Railway, I had to post from Machynlleth to the neighbourhood of Towyn, where I was then residing. It would be about twelve o’clock p.m., when I came in sight of the low ground and sandy dunes between Borth and the Dovey, the night being perfectly clear and still, and the stars shining, when to my astonishment I saw four or five lights moving apparently on the sandhills near the farm of Ynyslas. I called the post boy’s attention to them.and never did I see a man so paralysed with fright; I thought that he would have fallen off the box, and the perspiration as I could see by the light of the lamps fairly ran down his face. He evidently considered them of supernatural origin as he told me an incoherent story of a boat’s crew of shipwrecked foreigners having been murdered when they came ashore there many years ago (upon further enquiry, I found there was some tradition of the sort.) However, there the lights were, moving about in a sort of aimless way until, as near as I can remember, we reached within a mile or two of Aberdovey. They were white, and about the size and brilliancy of the lamps carried by railway guards and porters. There is yet another phenomenon of which no satisfactory explanation has ever been given. On the 24th of September, 1864, (I refer to my gamebook for that year), a friend was shooting with me in Herefordshire, the day was perfectly still, the sky cloudless, when sounds like discharges of heavy artillery came from the west, which striking against a range of wooded hills running north and south under which we were shooting made most wonderfully distinct echoes. These discharges or whatever they were, continued for several hours at regular intervals of about two minutes. Since then similar sounds have been heard two or three times, (judging from the letters to the papers), and principally by persons living in Cardiganshire, but their origin has never yet, so far as I can see, been discovered.
Having read in your impression of the 19th inst. a letter from Mr Picton-Jones, in reference to “the curious lights” which have been lately seen near Pwllheli, I see he quotes “Pennant’s Tour in Wales.” where “a mephites or pestilential vapour” is spoken of as having been observed in 1694, and as having also seriously affected animal life. In a book entitled “The Antiquities of England and Wales.” by Francis Grosse, Esq., F.A.S., and published in 1787, there is the following curious allusion to the county of Merioneth:—
“This county is very mountainous and unwholesome. The soil is rocky, reckoned the worst in Wales; yet produces some corn, sheep, deer, goats, fowls, game, and both fresh water and sea fish, particularly guiniad, salmon, trout, and herrings. It is subject to a livid fire or vapour that has destroyed everything in its course except its inhabitants, which made great devastation in 1542 and 1564.” It would be a singular fact, if in 1875 we were revisited by the “livid fire” here referred to!
Of Dolserau. 22nd March
Bye-gones, Relating to Wales and the Border Counties, 1874-5, 1892
Curious Appearance of Lights.—Mr G. T. Picton-Jones, Yoke House, Pwllheli, writes to The Field as follows: “Some few days ago we witnessed here what we have never seen before—certain lights, eight in number, extending over, I should say, a distance of 8 miles; all seemed to keep their own ground, although moving in horizontal, perpendicular, and zigzag directions. Sometimes they were of a light blue colour, then like the bright light of a carriage lamp, then almost like an electric light, and going out altogether, in a few minutes would appear again dimly, and come up as before. One of my keepers, who is nearly 70 years of age, has not, nor has any one else in this vicinity, seen the same before. Can any of your numerous readers inform me whether they are will-o’-the-wisps, or what? We have seen three at a time afterwards on four or five occasions.” Bye-gones, Relating to Wales and the Border Counties, 1874-5, 1892
In the same volume of Bye-gones, we find this curious, possibly related story, although it comes from Cardiganshire, the coastal county south of Merionethshire:
Peculiar Phenomenon.—The Rev James Lewis, of Llanilar Vicarage, writes as follows to the South Wales Daily News :—”Whilst returning from service at the parish church of Rhostie, about 8 15 p.m. on Friday, the 24th ult., in company with two members of the congregation, my attention was called to a remarkably strange phenomenon. In walking across a field on the farm of Cwmclyd, it was noticed that our footsteps were marked by a peculiar light, which could be traced back for several yards, each footprint being as distinctly marked on the ground as when one walks in snow. When we got into the adjoining field the light disappeared until we got near to the end of it, when it was observed that our footsteps were again marked by the same luminous appearance. In colour the light was similar to that of phosphorous rubbed on a wall in a dark room, or a mass of glow-worms, of which insect, however, there was no trace on the surrounding ground.” From this it would appear that “Curious Lights” are not confined to Pwllheli (See Mar. 24,1875.) Bye-gones, Relating to Wales and the Border Counties, 1874-5, 1892
Next we come to excerpts from a lengthy article by the Rev. A.T. Fryer, which links the fiery exhalations with the lights at Egryn and those associated with the 1904-1905 Welsh Revival.
It is important to notice that the coast in the neighbourhood of Dyffryn has been favoured or disfavoured with lights of many shapes and sizes in former times. Pennant in his Tour in Wales gives a full account of the appearances of mischievous blue flames that alarmed people and did material damage near Harlech in 1694. Lights of a blue colour appeared also in the neighbourhood of Pwllheli in 1875, and the publication of Mr. Picton-Jones’ account of what he then saw elicited from a correspondent the relation of a similar occurrence in 1869 or 1870. Again in 1877 lights of various colours were seen moving over the estuary of the Dysynni [River]. Through the kindness of the editor of the Oswestry Advertizer I have received the extracts from his “Bye-gones ” columns, which give the notes on lights for the three years 1869, 1876, and 1877…
I am not satisfied with the investigations that have taken place, and I think now, as I did at the first, that the Society might well employ a geological expert to go over the district and discover, if possible, what conditions are present favourable to the natural production of incandescent vapours. Mr. Bernard B. Redwood (son of the well-known scientific expert. Sir Boverton Redwood) was sent down by the Daily Mail in February, 1905, but his report, which I give in the Appendix (17), is not to me conclusive. He planned his investigation on the supposition of electrical disturbance, and I am not surprised that he was disappointed at the result. He says, with more approximation to what I think is the cause of some of the lights, that it is just possible that there may have been some lights caused by spontaneous ignition of phosphuretted hydrogen generated in the marsh at Egryn and distorted by mist. He adds that “Methane or marsh gas is never self-ignited, and may be left out of the question.” With his personal opinion of Mrs. Jones I am not disposed to agree; but granting its truth, we have still to reckon with the witnesses I shall quote as to the reality of both subjective and objective lights. The evidence received I proceed to give, first, however, stating my conviction that Merionethshire has been the scene of late of a large amount of exaggeration and misconception, and perhaps trickery. But having made all allowance for persons who mistook meteors, brightly-shining planets, farm lanterns, railway signals, and bodies of ignited gases for tokens of heavenly approval of Mrs. Jones and the Revival, there remain sufficient instances of abnormal phenomena to encourage further inquiry. Evidence of misapprehensions I have received.
There follow a number of descriptions by various witnesses of light phenomena associated with the Revival. These are too lengthy to quote here, but well worth reading, although we do not seem to find in the Egryn lights the noxious qualities of the fiery exhalations. The Rev. Fryer quotes another note from Bye-Gones, a collection of columns on antiquarian subjects, which appeared in the Border Counties Advertizer, Oswestry.
From ” Bye-Gones,” March, 1875 (p. 198).
Mr. Picton-Jones has been kind enough to address to us the following letter, in response to the request which we made last Week for further information :
“Yoke House, Pwllheli, 2nd March, 1875. — The curious lights appeared again on Sunday night. We saw twelve at the same time; two were very bright, the one of a red, the other of a blue colour. They were inland, the same as before, but from what we could observe they did not confine themselves to marshy ground, although at first they seemed to rise from the ground where we knew there were swamps. It was a very dark and foggy night, and my brother, my son Percy, my keeper and I went out about a mile to see if we could get near them. When we had gone about half a mile we observed four or five behind us. We went to the farm adjoining, and called their attention to them. Mrs. Picton-Jones and two servants watched them for an hour and a half, and had, from their description, a better view than we had, as we were occasionally in hollows. On our way home from Bryntani farm we saw a bright light at Yoke House, which we all thought was a lamp put out to direct us home, the night being so dark and our course across country. The other servants by this time, having come home from church and chapel, were watching the curious antics of the lights. I should mention that we had a lamp with us, but it was darkened, except when we came to banks or ditches. Those at Yoke House saw the same light, and thought it was our lamp, but were all mistaken, as, when we got within about 200 yards of our pond, the light turned into a deep blue colour and disappeared. In front of the other pool there are some sheds, and one light that had appeared before we started seemed to go in and out, round the comer, on to the cart horse stable, round its gable end, then on to the barn, exactly the same as if it were a human being, with the exception of rising to such a height that even ‘Tall Agrippa’ [a tall bogey-man character from a Victorian children’s book] could not come up to it. Their movements and the distance which they spread were the same as described before. Our house is about three-quarters of a mile from the Cardigan Bay, and the promontory is about seven miles as the crow flies. Last night they did not appear, but we saw several flashes of lightning. — I am, sir, your obedient servant, G. T. Picton-Jones.” (Cambrian News).
Fryer also gives this extract from Pennant’s Tour in Wales, Vol. II., p. 372, ed. 1810:
“Winter of 1694. — A pestilential vapour resembling a weak blue flame arose during a fortnight or three weeks out of a sandy, marshy tract called Morfa Byden, and crossed over a channel of 8 miles to Harlech. It set fire on that side to 16 ricks of hay and 2 barns, one filled with hay, the other with corn. It infected the grass in such a manner that cattle, etc., died, yet men eat of it with impunity. It was easily dispelled: any great noise, sounding of horns, discharging of guns, at once repelled it. Moved only by night, and appeared at times, but less frequently; after this it disappeared.”
He finishes with an intriguing suggestion of a “race origin” of the light-forms:
…of the six persons who witnessed the lights four are known to be North Walians, like Mrs. Jones herself, and I think this fact tends to support my theory that persons of the same race or tribe have similar modes of mental action. The cases of collective hallucinations quoted, so far as they are genuine, have a strong family likeness, and as the seers are all in sympathy with Mrs. Jones, probably her mind is the originating cause of the appearances. In my correspondence with these lightseers I have made a point of asking whether they had any of them ever seen a corpse light (canwyll gorph). Not one of them had done so, some of the witnesses had not even heard of such a thing. The persons who see the corpse light are, I believe, not from North Wales, but from Cardiganshire, and possibly are Iberian in race. Professor Barrett has traced the dowsing faculty to Somersetshire, and if the various forms of lights seen in Wales could be properly classified we should no doubt find that as the race-origins of the light-form.
“Psychological Aspects of the Welsh Revival,” The Rev. A.T. Fryer, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. XIX, 1905-7
Naturally lethal lights rising out the sea suggest Ivan Sanderson’s USOs. I haven’t scoured the UFO literature for modern sightings of the Merionethshire exhalations. The most recent one I’ve found is this from this site:
Type: Mystery aircraft, daylight disk, lights in the sky
Place: Wales, California, USA, Atlantic Ocean
Date: September 22, 1922, early 1927, and August 29, 1929
September 22, 1922 – Barmouth, Merionshire, Wales: John Morris, steersman of the local lifeboat, and another witness saw what they thought was an aircraft falling, with extraordinary slowness, into the Irish Sea. They took a motorboat out to investigate but found nothing. There was no reports immediately afterwards or any terrestrial aircraft having gone missing.
Of course hay, both in ricks and stored in barns, has a penchant for spontaneously combustion. The poisoning of the grass is more difficult to account for unless some toxic plant had (coincidentally) sprung up in the area, although the one account says that men were not harmed by eating the “grass.” Obviously the mysterious lights have features in common with the corpse candle or will-o’-the-wisp, but what kind of swamp gas actually burns vegetable matter and is driven away by loud noises? I have a vague memory of some deadly fog (Cornwall? Brittany?) that was also warded off by loud noises. It has been observed that spook lights often seem to respond to human stimuli, so that is one possible avenue to investigate.
Any other theories about the exhalations? Lighten my darkness, please, at Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.
And may your holidays be Merion-Bright!
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.