Silver John Killed for Buttons

 

In the true spirit of Welsh Ballads, Kingsley  Lloyd of Pembrokeshire, has written "The Ballad of Silver John"

Many have asked me about Silver John Lloyd, the Bonesetter, and how he relates to our family.  The truth is I do not know.  From the story given below, Silver John died some time in the early 19th Century, when he was "elderly".  On this basis he is probably from the generation prior to Hugh Lloyd of Baynham Hall and as such I have no evidence of a family connection.

The earliest known version of the Silver John legend dates from 1881 and it does not mention Silver John’s surname or bonesetting, but says that he “seems to have been a combination of a Welsh drover and a freebooter”, whose nickname derived from his habit of wearing silver buttons on his coat when he appeared in public.

To further complicate things, the Court of Great Sessions records the case of the murder of John Jones of Llanfihangel Rhydithon at New Radnor after a drunken fight on 12 December 1773, which states that Jones was known as Silver John. His corpse was found on 4 April 1774 “upon the forrest” and was carried down to New Radnor and home to Llanfihangel Rhydithon. The records also state that a witness saw two or three people walking on Llyn Hilyn when it was frozen over and that there appeared to be “a dark place” in the pool.

A later account states that John lived at Llanfihangel Rhydithon, and at an inn in New Radnor, there was an argument and John was followed on leaving, killed, and buried on the hill above Nibletts Quarry. The main difference is that Silver John is said to have lived “About eighty years ago”. Again, John’s surname is not given and there is no mention of bonesetting.

In short, Silver John may or may not have been a Bonesetter, he may or may not have been a Lloyd and he may or may not have been buried or dumped in the lake and it may or may not have happened anywhere between 1770 and 1880.  For all that it is a good story and part of Family folklore.

 

The Legend

His coat, smothered in silver buttons brightly glowing like the reputation earned during his long life spent in the folds of the Radnor Forest under the shadow of the Great Graigau.   But the buttons – “thank yous” of hundreds of folk John Lloyd had helped with his healing skills – brought murderous glints to the eyes of an evil gang.

John Lloyd was born in the 18th Century and lived on a little sheep farm up Harley Valley on the border of Herefordshire with Radnorshire.  In the course of his work of tending to the sheep on the steep and rocky hillside he often came across an animal with a broken leg.  He would boil herbs to make what we now call antiseptics and his simple surgery proved successful.

One day, the miller’s son from Haine’s Mill, lower down the valley, broke his leg and, for the first time, Lloyd was asked to mend a human being.  With the utmost care he set the boy’s leg, set it in splints, bandaged it and helped the father carry the lad down the valley to the mill.  The grateful miller offered payment, but Lloyd declined requesting simply “a little thanks offering”.  He was given two silver buttons.

During the years, Lloyd’s reputation as a bonesetter grew, and with it the knowledge that he accepted only a little silver gift for his work.  Soon he had enough buttons for his waistcoat and then sufficient for his coat.  Not all his silver gifts were buttons, for Sir William de Broase of Tomen Castle – whose ancestors came over with William the Conqueror – gave Lloyd a pair of silver shoe buckles for treating his broken ankle.  The parson gave him a silver snuff box for a like service to his hunter.  Another gift – a  heavy silver knobbed stick – became a familiar sight in the area.

Lloyd’s coat grew heavier with the silver buttons which covered it and it took on an appearance akin to shining mail.  His son, John Lloyd junior, took a pride in polishing the buttons.  The coat was worn only on high days and holidays and when Lloyd went to Builth Market to buy or sell sheep. He would don it to attend to any broken bones.   Thus Lloyd became affectionately known along the border country as “Silver John the Bonesetter”.

One day, the elderly Lloyd was returning home in his gambo – a two-wheeled Welsh cart – from a visit to the Michaelmas fair at Builth market in September.  It was dark by the time he arrived at the crest of the road near Llyn Hilyn.1  Later that night the faithful horse brought the gambo to the farm gate alone.  Old “Silver John” had disappeared.

Early in the next year, during a great frost – it was decided to hold the Radnor Candlemas2 fair on Lyn Hilyn, which was frozen solid, providing an excellent site.  In addition to the usual exchange of farms, hiring of farm servants and sale of livestock, there was a variety of festivities.  Fires burned on the fringes of the frozen lake.  Cakes were savoured and washed down with hot cider and hundreds skated on the ice.  When the fun and merriment were at their height, Mary, daughter of the Fforest Inn’s landlord, went sliding to the far end of the lake.  Suddenly she slipped and fell face downward on the ice.  She was not hurt, but let out a piercing cry of horror.  The crowd, rushing toward her, saw the girl point to the ice beneath her then cover her face with both hands.

The forest folk looked down and there, ghostly in its icy shroud, was the face of an old man, his features preserved as in life.  It was “Silver John”.   Fear the removal of the body in its frozen state could lead to broken limbs – and unquiet slumbers for the old bonesetters spirit – prompted the shocked crowd to leave the scene well alone until a warm spring day several weeks later.

As Lloyd’s corpse was lifted tenderly from the shallow waters of Hilyn Pool, it soon became obvious he had been murdered and thrown into the lake for the sake of his silver buttons.  His great coat was gone, the silver buckles had been torn off his shoes and the snuff box and stick were missing.  A great procession followed the dead man down the road and up the Harley valley as he was borne on his old gambo.  He was laid to rest on the slopes of the hills where he had tended his beloved sheep and healed the the limbs of his kinsfolk.

The murderers were never apprehended but a local rhyme implied they came from New Radnor:  "Silver John is dead and gone, so they came home a-singing. Radnor boys pulled out his eyes and set the bells a-ringing".


 

[1] Just off the A481 near Fforest Inn

[2] Normally held in early February