One man and his wonderdog
Blinded in the First World War, Tomos ap Rhys struggled to adjust to life without sight. Then he met a very special companion – and together they blazed a trail that made history…
Tomos and his pioneering guide dog Folly, 1931
Dit is 1931. A curious hush falls over the cobblestone streets. The small, tight-knit community of Garth in Bangor, Noord-Wallis, has never seen anything quite like it. Net curtains twitch, housewives neglect their steps and the boat builders of Dickie’s Yard down tools to stop and stare as blind war veteran Tomos ap Rhys walks by.
For the first time in years, Tomos is sure-footed, for calmly leading him up the street is his new companion, a handsome german shepherd by the name of Folly.
Man and dog are in perfect harmony, moving as one. In the interwar years no one in the UK had ever seen a blind person being guided by a dog. What the people o fGarth saw that day 90 years ago as Tomos and Folly took to the streets, was a pioneering experiment that led to the liberation of thousands of blind and partially sighted people.
Today the charity Guide Dogs is the world’s largest breeder and trainer of working dogs. And it is celebrating its 90th anniversary by sharing the inspiring stories of those brave First World War veterans who took a chance to prove that dogs could lead the blind to a life of freedom and independence.
Tomos, along with war veterans Musgrave Frankland, Allen Caldwell and G W Lamb, were paired with german shepherds (though such was the sensitivity of that name in the immediate postwar years, they were called alsatians) and walked their way into the history books with their canine companions, the first guide dogs in Britain.
‘One day after his 20th birthday on 5 Julie 1917, Tomos was discharged back to his Welsh home, officially declared blind from the effects of gas. He survived the slaughter of a generation in the war’s mud-sodden battlefields and trenches, but a deep anger and bitterness had taken root,’ explains his granddaughter Helen Trevor Davies, a 72-year-old retired social worker from Abergavenny in South Wales. ‘He struggled to make sense of it all. He’d lost his sight, not even directly because of the enemy, but because of a faulty gas mask provided by his own side.’
Dan, in a twist worthy of a Downton Abbey plotline, Tomos was sent to convalesce and learn Braille at St Dunstan’s Hostel for Blind Soldiers and Sailors in London… and fell in love with the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse who cared for him there.
‘My grandmother, Evelyn Kenrick, came from a well-to-do family from Bletchingley in Surrey,’ says Helen. ‘My grandfather was a proud Welsh-speaking Welshman. Both sides of the family would have had misgivings about the match, but neither Tomos nor Evelyn cared. They were devoted to each other.’
Tomos with one of Folly’s successors, Pero
Tomos couldn’t see his new sweetheart’s fair hair and kind eyes, nor her tall, slender frame. Instead he fell in love with her voice as she read the newspaper to him or held his arm as they walked around the grounds. After a winter wedding in Wimbledon in 1919, the newlyweds moved to Wales and started a family. Elizabeth was followed by Ceridwen, then Tomos, named after his father.
In 1920, Tomos (senior) enrolled on a degree in philosophy and history at Bangor University. For the next four years, despite raising a young family, Evelyn still found time to help him continue his studies. ‘My grandmother used to read all his textbooks for him,’ says Helen. In 1924, Tomos graduated with a first-class honours degree.
‘My grandfather was restless and very energetic,’ says Helen of a man who never let the possibility of failure stand in his way, despite his disability. ‘Under Evelyn’s watchful eye, he regularly managed to swim in the Menai Strait [which separates the island of Anglesey from mainland North Wales], the waters of which lapped at the rear of his garden. On one occasion he got stung by a jellyfish as he couldn’t see it and was in terrible pain – but it didn’t put him off swimming.’
Tomos on his wedding day to Evelyn, 1919
These adventures did nothing to quench his thirst for new experiences. In 1929, Tomos stood as a Labour MP for Caernarfon, polling 4,536 votes but losing to David Lloyd George from the Liberal Party.
‘I can only guess at how he felt when he was selected to take part in a new trial, pairing dogs with blind men to act as their eyes,’ she continues. ‘But given his curious nature, he must have jumped at the chance.’
En so, in 1931, two years after he stood for parliament, Tomos found himself in a lock-up garage in Wallasey, Merseyside, about to embark on a radical experiment with two innovative women.
‘Muriel Crooke and Rosamund Bond were inspired by similar projects happening abroad,’ says Deborah Rees from Guide Dogs, picking up the story. ‘During the First World War, a doctor in Germany, Dr Gerhard Stalling, found out by chance that dogs could help guide the blind. He left his german shepherd dog alone with a blinded soldier. Toe hy terugkom, he saw signs from the way the dog was behaving that it was looking after the blind patient.
Deur 1923, a training centre was established in Potsdam, Duitsland, and the idea caught on, with other countries developing guide dog programmes.’ With the backing of the Institute for the Blind, Muriel and Rosamund began work with 28 german shepherd bitches. They tasked Musgrave Frankland, the secretary of the Liverpool branch of the Institute for the Blind, with finding suitable candidates for their new experiment.
Musgrave found a willing participant in Tomos and within six months he was paired with Folly. ‘Folly was my grandfather’s eyes and gave him back his freedom,’ says Helen. ‘She was sleek and strong.
My grandfather was tall and handsome. Together they made a striking sight. They went out walking twice a day until he knew every piece of pavement beneath his feet. When it was fine, my grandfather lay in the hammock at the end of the garden that backed on to the sea, listening to the sound of the waves, Folly lying devotedly at his feet. Her place was next to her master at all times.’
Folly was the key to unlocking Tomos’s contentment, and after her arrival everything fell into place. ‘When the National Health Service was launched in 1948 he got a job as a masseur at Caernarfon and Anglesey Hospital in Bangor, where he was known affectionately as “Mr Ap” says Helen. ‘He treated a lot of veterans wounded from the Second World War. His heightened sense of touch and empathy for their plight made him an excellent practitioner.’
Folly retired aged ten and was followed by a succession of guide dogs, including Pero, a border collie, and Sheba, a labrador retriever, but Helen says Folly always held a special place in her grandfather’s heart.
Apart from Folly, Tomos’s other rock was Evelyn. ‘They weren’t demonstrative, but they were devoted to each other,’ says Helen. ‘When my grandmother was nearing the end of her life I went up to the hospital with my grandfather. He was typical of his generation. He didn’t want to talk about how he lost his sight, or his experiences in the Somme. He kept his emotions under wraps. But when he realised she was dying, his feelings bubbled over and he wept. “Cariad”, he whispered – which is Welsh for “my love”.’
In 1978, two years after Evelyn’s death, Tomos died. Hy was 81. He had been in the final day of training with a new guide dog, a dark, long-coated german shepherd called Opus. ‘My grandfather achieved so much in his remarkable life, but of all his accolades I think the one he was most proud of was paving the way for other blind people to find freedom. I can picture him now, striding fearlessly up the pier with his dog on his left-hand side,’ says Helen.
The Guide Dog movement has come a long way since 1931, but thanks to Tomos, who took that first bold step into the unknown, it continues to make giant strides. Helen is immensely proud of her remarkable grandfather – a man who, thanks to the brilliance of our four-legged friends, always blazed his own trail.
To find out how you can support Guide Dogs, besoek guidedogs.org.uk. For more information about volunteering with Guide Dogs, besoek guidedogs.org.uk/how-you-can-help/volunteering-for-guide-dogs