John Harries (Shon Harri Shon) was probably born at Pantycoy (Pant-coi), Cwrt-y-cadno, Carmarthenshire, and was baptised at Caeo on 10 April 1785. He was the eldest of the six children of Henry Jones (Harry John, Harry Shon), Pantycoy (1739-1805), a mason, and his wife Mary Wilkins. He received a relatively formal education, educated at The Cowings, Commercial Private Academy, Caio, until he was ten years old, and then as a boarder at Haverfordwest grammar school until he was eighteen.
It is not clear where he studied medicine - there are many conflicting accounts including suggestions that he had a practice in Harley Street, London, with his astrologer friend Robert Cross Smith (Raphael; 1795-1832), before returning to Caio to establish a practice when he was in his forties. However, his medical transcripts and accounts (NLW MS 11702F , NLW MS 11703E , 97, NLW MS 11701C , 672A) dated 1813-31, show that he was practicing in Cwrt-y-cadno throughout this period.
Several sources state that he married Elizabeth Emily Lewis, a lawyer's daughter from Fishguard. However, a marriage licence for 8 August 1821 records that John Harries, surgeon and bachelor of Caio parish, married Lettice Rees. His widow is named Lettice in his will (13 May 1842, SD/1842/199 ).
John Harries is one of the best-known examples of the dyn hysbys or 'cunning man'. He and his family were famous throughout Wales and neighbouring counties on the English border as highly professional medical practitioners, clever surgeons and skilful astrologers who held an important position in society. People travelled from far and wide to consult them on matters involving the recovery of lost or stolen property, healing of humans and animals, charms, fortune-telling, astrology and prophecy, combating witchcraft, and invoking benign spirits. Distinguished visitors are said to have called at Pantycoy, including the famous actress Sarah Siddons in 1851, and George Borrow during his walk around Wales in 1854.
They were, however, severely condemned by the religious establishment of their day. One of John Harries's fiercest critics was David Owen (Brutus), who wrote in Yr Haul in Sept. 1840, p.286 : 'Because men insist on being fools, they can only be left to consult Mr. Harries, Cwrt y Cadno, and go to expense on account of his lies and deceit … he should be arrested and set on a tread mill for a few months, as happens to his fellow deceivers in England.' In 1889, John Rowland ('Giraldus') observed that Dr. Harries was 'a conjurer, fortune-teller, and quack doctor … He gulled the credulous for many years and reaped a bountiful harvest.' (Carmarthenshire Notes, Antiquarian, Topographical, and Curious , I (1889), p.29)
The family had a substantial library of books and manuscripts in Greek, Latin, English and French at Pantycoy, reflecting their medical, astrological and magical interests. It is said that John Harries kept one of his books padlocked and hidden away, and only dared open it once a year in a nearby secluded wood where he would read various incantations from it to summon forth spirits. Once opened, the book was said to create a very severe storm. This led to the notion that the Harrieses derived their power from this large volume of spells, bound with an iron chain and three locks. J. H. Davies mentions in Rhai o Hen ddewiniaid Cymru published in 1901, that when he visited Cwrt-y-cadno a few years previously, the only book that he found resembling this description was an old black book the size of a family Bible with two locks, which contained miscellaneous medical equipment. He suggests that this was the aforementioned book.
Ithiel Vaughan-Poppy includes detailed descriptions of John and Henry Harries and their wives in her essay 'The Harries Kingdom - Wizards of Cwrt-y-cadno', and states that she deposited photographs of all four in the National Library of Wales. However, since ambrotypes did not come into use until the early 1850s, it is unlikely that these are photographs of John , his 'wife' Elizabeth Emily Harries and Henry and his wife Hannah taken after their wedding on 4 November 1842. Therefore her descriptions, based on the photographs, should be viewed with caution.
John Harries died in a fire on 11 May 1839 aged 54. It is reported that he had a premonition that he would die by accident on that date, and to avoid this happening he stayed in bed all day. During the night the house caught fire, and he died as a result. He was buried on 13 May near the east window at Caio churchyard.
John Harries' son Henry Gwynne Harries was also a well-known doctor and 'cunning man'. Several sources suggest that he was born on 30 June 1816, but the Caio parish register records show that 'Harry, the eldest son of John and Lettice Harries of Pant-Coi', was baptised on 7 November 1821. He apparently followed his father's footsteps and was educated at The Cowings and at Haverfordwest grammar school before possibly attending London University.
Henry lived with his mother at Aberdâr, a house on their estate between 1839 and 1842, while Pantycoy was being rebuilt after the fire that killed his father. He married Hannah Marsden, a teacher at Caio, the daughter of a workman on the Pantycoy estate, at Caio church on 4 November 1842. A copy of their 'bidding letter ' can be seen at NLW. His family felt that he had married beneath his social status, and the marriage allegedly turned out to be an unhappy one. He nevertheless accepted his fate and stated, 'I cannot help it. I must marry her. I dare not cross my planet' (NLW MS 11119B ). They had three children, Victoria Letitia, born March 1843, John, born March 1844 and Henry Harri Harries, born April 1846. He died from consumption on 16 June 1849 aged twenty-eight, and was buried three days later.
John Harries' other son, John Harries, (c.1827-1863) was the last of the renowned cunning-folk of Cwrt-y-cadno, Carmarthenshire. He dabbled a little in astrology 'but never shone' (NLW MS 11119B), and it is suggested that he traded on the reputation of his father and older brother. His sister Ann was also considered to be skilled in that art.
Published date: 2023-08-31
Article Copyright: http://rightsstatements.org/page/InC/1.0/
Son of JOHN HARRIES, Pant-coy, Cwrt-y-cadno, Carmarthenshire. Henry Harries and his father (who died in 1839) are considered to be among the most famous of Welsh conjurers of modern times; they are known to have been consulted by people from all over South Wales and the borderland. The father had received a formal education considerably in advance of the community in which he found himself, while his extensive library contained all the important medical books of the day, together with works in Greek and Latin; some books from the library are today in the National Library of Wales. Father and son later worked together, and Henry Harries issued shortly before his father's death a short prospectus of their trade in which he claimed to calculate nativity; to tell the fortunes of all who consulted them; to tell 'friends and enemies, trade or profession best to follow; whether fortunate in speculation, viz. lottery, dealing in foreign markets, etc., etc., of marriage, if to marry - of children, whether fortunate or not, etc., etc., deduced from the influence of the Sun and Moon, with the Planetary Orbs at the time of birth. Also, judgment and general issue in sickness and diseases, etc. …' They could also charm away pain, detect thieves, counteract the effect of witchcraft, and summon spirits to appear. There can be no doubt that men like John and Henry Harries played an important part in the life of the rural community of their day. It was a community that had little access to orthodox medical aid, or to an efficient police force to detect crime, or to veterinary surgeons in cases of illness among the livestock. The conjurers offered help under all these headings.
Published date: 1959
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