Files reveal Chilean president’s Welsh great grandfather – wasn’t actually Welsh

By Rosemary Collins, 25 March 2020 - 4:25pm

Newly declassified documents reveal how the Foreign Office hired a genealogist to uncover Patricio Aylwin’s family tree

Patricio Aylwin family The National Archives Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The newly declassified file refers to Patricio Aylwin's state visit in 1991 (Crown Copyright courtesy of The National Archives)

Plans by the UK government to welcome President Patricio Aylwin of Chile with a family tree showing his Welsh roots hit a snag when a genealogist found his great grandfather wasn’t Welsh, according to newly declassified files.

File FCO 7/8013, which has just been released by The National Archives, records efforts by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to research Aylwin’s heritage for a state visit in April 1991.

Aylwin’s great grandfather Richard Patrick Aylwin (who later changed his name to Ricardo Camilo Aylwin) emigrated to Chile in 1833 and became British vice-consul at the port of Constitución.

Aylwin believed his family to be Welsh and had discussed his origins with British politicians Sir Geoffrey Howe and Tristan Garel-Jones when they visited Chile.

A letter in the file from 7 November 1990 by private secretary S L Glass says: “President Aylwin is proud of his origins, and his trip will include a visit to Cardiff.

“He has expressed interest in his antecedents on a number of occasions.

“We believe that an imaginative gift to mark President Aylwin’s visit would be a family tree, and we are looking into the possibility of producing one.”

The year before the visit, Aylwin had become Chile’s first democratically elected president following the 16-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

He oversaw the transition to democracy, anti-poverty initiatives and the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, which investigated the killings and disappearances of political dissidents under the dictatorship.

The Latin America Department of the FCO commissioned Timothy Duke of the College of Arms, the official heraldic authority for England, to research Aylwin’s family tree.

Timothy told Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine: “I think this is probably the most unusual case I’ve ever had.”

Using wills, parish registers, marriage licences and other genealogical resources, Timothy proved that the Aylwins were English – not Welsh.

“They turned out to be tallow chandlers in London and then they were yeoman farmers in Sussex, where Aylwin is quite a common name,” he said.

Richard Aylwin’s father, Robert Patrick Aylwin, was baptised in Haslemere in Surrey in 1762.

The family’s only Welsh connection came from Robert Patrick’s brother, George Allen Aylwin, a wealthy oil broker, and his son Frederick Arthur Aylwin, who had business interests in Wales.

Patricio Aylwin family The National Archives
Timothy Duke's letter explaining that the Aylwin family was English, not Welsh (Crown Copyright courtesy of The National Archives)

The file reveals that Timothy Duke’s discoveries disrupted the FCO’s plans for the visit.

A document marked ‘Restricted’ warns that any visit to Wales by President Aylwin “would have to be on a different basis from that originally visualised”.

Dr Juliette Desplat, head of modern overseas, intelligence & security records at The National Archives, said that the quote “resonated quite a lot” with family historians.

“It’s interesting because obviously family tradition is what people start or base the beginning of their family research on,” she said.

Graveyard visit

Despite the unexpected family history discovery, UK prime minister John Major still referred to Aylwin’s ancestry while giving a toast welcoming him to the country.

He said that the president’s British ancestry was “well established” and presented him with the family tree drawn up by Timothy Duke.

Timothy also accompanied Aylwin on a visit to the villages of Treyford and Didling in Sussex, where he visited the graves of his ancestors and met his Aylwin relatives.

“He didn’t speak English so we had an interpreter, but he was delighted with the reception he got in Sussex,” Timothy said.

“He just seemed delighted to be back in a county from which his forebears had come and to discover the truth.”

Patricio Aylwin family The National Archives
1991 newspaper cutting reporting on Patricio Aylwin's visit to Treyford


Schoolgirl's letter

The file also contains letters to the Chilean Embassy from Britons who shared Aylwin’s surname.

A schoolgirl, Fenella Aylwin from North Nibley Church of England Primary School in Gloucestershire, wrote: “I would be most grateful if you could send me details and a picture of your president together with interesting facts and pictures of your country.”

She added: “PS. My headmaster keeps calling me President of Chile.”

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine spoke to Fenella Aylwin, now aged 40, who said she was delighted the letter had been rediscovered.

She still has the information the Embassy sent her and her family have visited the Aylwins of Chile.

“It reminds me of a childhood moment,” she said.

“I found some fame in myself when I was young and I remember repeating it to various people throughout my life.”

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