Saturday 30 April 2016

47 Edward II: from Caernarfon to Neath Abbey

47 Edward II (photos: Neath Abbey, Edward II, the Oxwich brooch) – 30April 2016                            
What connects Neath Abbey with the castles at Swansea, Caernarfon and Oxwich?  What I have in mind is that tragic individual born at Caernarfon Castle who became King Edward II.

Caernarfon was one of the castles designed by James St George - along with Harlech, Beaumaris and Conwy - and built for the Plantagenet King Edward I as he consolidated his conquest of North Wales.  On 25 April 1284 his fourth son Edward was born at Caernarfon Castle to his wife Eleanor of Castile – after whose death the 12 carved stone crosses including Charing Cross and Waltham Cross were erected.  Each one marks where the procession carrying the Queen’s body rested overnight on the journey from Nottingham, where she had died in 1290, to Westminster for her funeral.  Her husband Edward I - known as ‘Longshanks’, as in the film ‘Braveheart’ – stayed two nights at Oystermouth Castle in December 1284.

Their youngest son, the future King Edward II, was in legend presented as a baby to the Welsh princes at Caernarfon as a Prince of Wales who spoke no English: in reality there is no historic basis for this unlikely event, which first appeared in writing nearly three centuries later.

When Edward was born, his two eldest brothers had already died, which made him second in line to the throne, and then his remaining brother Alphonso died.  Edward of Caernarfon was tall and athletic like his father, but very different in character – weak and easily led.  He was interested in the theatre and gardening, not ideal activities for a Plantagenet prince, and he became one of the least suitable rulers of Britain, as depicted in Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play “Edward II”.  Though married in 1308 to Isabella, daughter of the King of France, he preferred the company of male flatterers to that of European princesses.  After years of misrule, trouble with the barons and the decisive defeat at Bannockburn by the Scots, the king fled from London in 1326 before an invading force led by his estranged wife and her lover. 

Along with his corrupt favourite Hugh le Dispenser, who was Lord of Glamorgan, Edward reached Neath Abbey in November 1326.  From there he sent ahead armour, documents, charters and money to Swansea Castle, intending to follow later, possibly to sail to Lundy Island.  But he turned back and was captured near Llantrisant at Pant-y-brad.  Dispenser was hung, drawn and quartered in Hereford, while in January 1327 Edward was deposed, and later murdered in Berkeley Castle. 

With news of the king’s capture, a number of items were taken from Swansea Castle, causing a hunt for missing royal possessions by the new regime.  Suspicion fell on Robert de Penrhys (Penrice), though nothing could be proved.  Two of the purloined items emerged in peninsular Gower centuries later - one being the marriage contract dated 1303 of Edward’s betrothal to Isabella, daughter of the French King.  This document, written in medieval French, set out the terms of the dowry and had important financial implications.  Sometime during the nineteenth century it was given by a Gower patient in payment for services to Dr Nichol of the Royal Institution of South Wales.  For many years it hung on a wall inside Swansea Museum, though it is now safe in environmentally-controlled storage at West Glamorgan Archives. 

There was also a 40mm diameter gold ring-brooch with six elaborate settings dating from medieval times, discovered in 1968 during restoration work at Oxwich Castle, formerly part of the Penrice estate.  Though we cannot be certain, this brooch, which is displayed in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, most probably belonged to the king. 
If the Oxwich brooch, like the marriage contract, had been purloined from Swansea Castle, then those items are a tenuous link between Neath Abbey and the castles of Swansea, Caernarfon and Oxwich, and the story of the ill-fated Edward II. 

Saturday 23 April 2016

46 William Griffiths 'the Apostle of Gower'

46 Apostle of Gower (photos: Lady Barham, Burry Green, Wm Griffiths, Fairyhill) – 23 April 2016

The life of a nonconformist minister in rural Gower born at the time of the French Revolution might appear of little interest, compared with events elsewhere while Britain was becoming an industrialised nation.  Welsh-speaker William Griffiths, who had served in the militia at the time of the Napoleonic wars, became a familiar and respected figure throughout the peninsula during a lengthy ministry, being described on his gravestone as “The Apostle of Gower”.

Born into a religious family in north Pembrokeshire, William Griffiths was conscripted when aged 19 into the Carmarthenshire militia, which involved such duties as guarding French prisoners of war in Bristol, and marching to Durham to quench a miners’ strike.  In the challenging surroundings of the regiment he stood firm with others of Christian faith.  After five years he was demobbed in Manchester, and replaced his brother as a Pembrokeshire schoolteacher, where he was encouraged to preach in local chapels. 

In peninsular Gower Lady Barham had settled at Fairy Hill to establish chapels and schoolrooms, initially at Burry Green, Cheriton and Penclawdd.  When in 1816 the Calvinistic Methodist meeting in Fishguard received her request for an assistant, they recommended William Griffiths.  So the twenty-nine year-old left his schoolwork and set 1set out for Gower. 

William Cowper’s observation that “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform” would soon be demonstrated in his experience, for Lady Barham changed her mind; possibly she was persuaded to use college-trained ministers like those of the Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel, which used to stand near Swansea Museum.  Since William Griffiths had made the journey, Lady Barham permitted him to stay temporarily to assist in Penclawdd.  When Cheriton’s minister and schoolteacher contracted tuberculosis, Griffiths replaced him, before he was moved to a new work at Pilton Green. 

After two years, church politics intervened: Lady Barham requested that her secretary William Hammerton be ordained minister of Paraclete Chapel, Newton, without the customary probationary period.  This caused her to secede from the Calvinistic Methodists (now the Presbyterian Church of Wales), so out of loyalty to them and to the sadness of his congregation, William Griffiths left her employment.

With several supporters like William Voss of Nicholaston, the abandoned chapel at Oldwalls was repaired to become the centre of Calvinistic Methodist ministry in rural Gower.  The situation changed again after Lady Barham’s death, for her eldest son, who inherited the Burry Green and Cheriton Chapels, employed William Griffiths as their minister, with a manse provided after years of living in lodgings.  His ministry now followed the pattern of a fortnightly circuit of the three chapels, where he became a familiar figure riding his grey mare, as well as holding meetings in homes.  William Griffiths never minced words – when the 1833 equinoctial tides had unearthed Spanish dollars in Rhossili Bay from the fabled wreck of the “dollar ship” during the 17th century, and people rushed to dig in the sands, he deplored their eagerness to grasp transitory earthly treasures rather than seeking enduring heavenly ones.  What would he have said of our modern pre-occupation with entertainment, sport and the lottery? 

For many years he undertook an annual four- to six-week tour of North Wales, preaching twice daily, sometimes taking the paddle steamer to preach in Liverpool.  But the death of Rev. Samuel Phillips of Fairy Hill caused him much concern, for the Llanddewi Vicar had squandered the inheritance of both his wives (one a daughter of Lady Barham), and left servants unpaid and large debts outstanding.  Griffiths called him a “victim of his own extravagance and folly”, but it was a setback to the cause of the Christian gospel. 

When William Griffiths died aged 74 in 1862, his obituary in The Cambrian fittingly described him as “The Apostle of Gower”.  Perhaps his finest memorial is that amid all society’s changes, after 200 years Burry Green Chapel still proclaims the Christian message Sunday by Sunday.            

Saturday 16 April 2016

45 Local casualties from the 'Titanic' disaster

45 Titanic (photos: RMS Titanic, Cadoxton Church) 16 April 2016

St Catwg’s Church in Cadoxton-juxta-Neath is well-known for having in the churchyard a murder stone, seeking to awaken the conscience of the person who killed 24-year-old Margaret Williams in 1823.  Less familiar and inside the church is a link with a famous maritime disaster, for yesterday morning was the 104th anniversary of the sinking of White Star liner RMS Titanic, and the church contains a plaque in memory of a man who perished in that major peacetime tragedy. 

Robert Leyson was born in Kensington, London, in 1887.  He was a 24-year-old qualified mining engineer, who played for Sketty cricket club when his family lived at Bloomfield in Gower Road.   He had joined the Freemasons in Neath, and planned to go to America in 1912 to set up in business with his younger brother Thomas.

Robert Leyson had a ten guinea (£10-10s-0d) second-class ticket from Southampton to New York.  After Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, his was one of 306 bodies recovered by the cable ship MacKay-Bennett.  He had been identified because his keys had his name on them, and he also had a silver case with his initials RWNL (for Robert William Norman Leyson) containing £4 - a considerable sum when the second-class ticket cost ten guineas. 

His father Robert Thomas Leyson was a Swansea solicitor, with offices in Swansea at various times in Walter Road, Wind Street and Salubrious Passage, as well as an office in Neath.  His family claimed descent from the last abbot of Neath Abbey who became Vicar of Cadoxton, which could be why his memorial was in that church.

A cable ship is a deep-sea vessel designed to lay underwater cables, though other ships have been adapted for such purposes, most notably I.K. Brunel’s colossal PSS Great Eastern, which after an unprofitable career as a passenger liner laid two transatlantic telegraph cables in 1866 to establish communication between Europe and North America.  With its double hull the Great Eastern could have struck an iceberg head-on and still remained afloat, but by the time RMS Titanic was built half a century later in the Belfast shipyard of Harland and Wolff, many safety features of the Great Eastern had been discarded on the basis of economy.

The cable ship MacKay-Bennett was chartered by White Star Line to recover bodies after the Titanic shipwreck, and sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, having taken on board embalming supplies to handle 70 bodies, 100 coffins, ice in which to store the recovered bodies, as well as a minister from All Saints Cathedral, Halifax, and the chief embalmer of Nova Scotia's largest firm of undertakers.  Because of the limitations of space and the quantity of embalming fluid, even in death class distinctions applied.  All bodies recovered of first-class passengers were embalmed and placed in coffins – the decision being justified by the need to visually identify wealthy men to resolve any disputes over large estates.

For second-class passengers some bodies were embalmed and wrapped in canvas, while third-class passengers - and some of the second-class - were buried at sea.  Robert Leyson’s body was among the 116 buried at sea, of which only 56 were identified.  After seven days the CS MacKay-Bennett sailed for Halifax with 190 bodies on board.
Also from this area among the approximately 1,520 who drowned were miners William Rogers from Alltwen and Evan Davies from Bryncoch, who were travelling third-class.  Owen Samuel (related to the firm Astley Samuel Leeder) was a steward in the second-class saloon who had worked in Swansea’s large Ben Evans store; his body was recovered and he was buried in one of three cemeteries in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which contain bodies from the Titanic.  But third-class steward William Foley, originally from Fisher Street (lower Princess Way), survived in lifeboat no. 13, and was rescued by RMS Carpathia.  He is numbered among the 705 survivors of that major peacetime maritime disaster. 

Saturday 9 April 2016

44 'Baron' Spolasco

44 Baron Spolasco (photos: portraits of Spolasco, panel on the arch) – 9 April 2016

Apart from the sound that a duck makes, a ‘quack’ is defined as a person who sets himself up as having skill (particularly medical) that he does not possess.  Since the formation of the National Health Service in 1948 there has been no need to consult a ‘quack doctor’, but in former times, and especially among poor people, it was a different matter.

In the Marina, near the gold-painted post-box in Trawler Road celebrating the gold medals of Ellie Simmonds at the 2012 London Paralympics, is an arch leading to the promenade.  This contains 25 panels about a larger-than-life character calling himself ‘Baron Spolasco’, who visited Swansea from 1838 to practise as a quack doctor.  Inevitably he was a fine self-publicist, who advertised in newspapers and on handbills with bogus testimonials as to the alleged efficacy of his medicines: some of those claims are on the panels beneath the arch in Patagonia Way. 

He was probably born around 1800 in the north of England, possibly named John Williams, and fraudulently practised as a doctor and a surgeon in various parts of Ireland.  Perhaps in order to exploit a fresh area, he intended to cross from Cork to Bristol in January 1838 in the paddle-steamer ‘Killarney’.  There were 37 people on board and 600 pigs, but - with similarities to the ‘City of Bristol’ shipwreck two years later in Rhossili Bay - the vessel was wrecked in a violent storm.  This wreck was infamous, due to the survivors having to cling to a storm-battered pinnacle of rock for two days awaiting rescue.  Spolasco was among the thirteen who survived: among those who perished was his eight-year-old son.

Spolasco set down an account of this in a pamphlet ‘A Narrative of the Wreck of the Steamer Killarney’, which he brought out soon after settling in Adelaide Street in Swansea, near present-day Morgan’s Hotel.  To mark the first anniversary of his deliverance from drowning, he paid for a whole ox to be distributed among the poor - while making sure this act of generosity became widely known. 

But in 1839 he was charged with manslaughter following the death of 23-year-old Susannah Thomas, who had consulted him with abdominal pain.  From her aunt’s testimony at the inquest it emerged that Spolasco claimed that he had no need to hear about her symptoms, for he merely supplied her with two pills and some powder (which he evidently administered to most of his patients), for 22s 6d - a considerable sum in those days.  At his trial, the surgeon could not say with complete certainty that his medicines had caused her death, so Spolasco was found not guilty.

The following year he had another brush with the law for forging government stamps on his pills, yet after some months in jail he was again acquitted.  After these setbacks Spolasco moved on to London, and thence eventually to New York, where he fell on hard times before he died, probably aged in his mid fifties.  In spite of the prosperous appearance he tried to create, Spolasco was one of the people mercilessly lampooned by Walt Whitman – “what a bald, bare, wizened, shriveled old granny he would be” - in the poem ‘Street Yarn' published in 1856.

While such eminent medical people as Louis Pasteur are among those who have been accused of being quacks, Spolasco intentionally produced bogus testimonials and false medical test results.  He played on people’s gullibility, using medicines which were basically laxatives.  The improvements in the health of some of those consulted may have come through the placebo effect, whereby confidence in the cure and in the physician can contribute to the sick person recovering, or that with certain ailments recovery is inevitable, given time. 

We have good reason to appreciate our National Health Service, and are thankful that we need not consult the likes of Baron Spolasco!  

Saturday 2 April 2016

43 The Bathing House

43. The Bathing House (photos: Thomas Rothwell & T Baxter prints, Ann Hatton) - 2 April 2016

The 1974 reform of local government in Wales divided the county of Glamorgan into Mid, South and West.  In order to build County Hall (now the Civic Centre) for West Glamorgan County Council, an old building on the seafront was demolished.  This stood at the Mumbles end of the present Civic Centre, having been built in the eighteenth century as the Bathing House.

During the eighteenth century some medical persons recommended sea bathing and drinking sea-water as beneficial to one’s health – particularly for those who were already unwell!  Visits by the gentry to seaside towns like Scarborough, Brighton and Margate became popular, and from roughly 1770 Swansea had ambitions to be “The Brighton of Wales” - before copper smelting and the development of the port ended such aspirations. 

A 1762 Act of Parliament enabled the Burrows, which lay to the south of the town, to be enclosed, and a plot was leased by cabinet maker and builder William Angel on which he built the Bathing House.  The Corporation purchased it in 1789, improving and extending it with a new wing.  The building was leased to various people to provide dining, dancing and accommodation for gentry and the more refined visitors.  The 1802 Swansea Guide enthused that the Bathing House was “commodious for visitors, and from an excellent ball-room commands a fine view of the Bay and Somersetshire Coast …  Board and lodgings a guinea and a half per week, ditto for servants one guinea per week…” (£1 1s 0d).

Bathing machines (wooden huts on wheels) would be provided by the lessee, and were stored at the Bathing House.  John Morris of Clasemont sent to Weymouth for a model of the best type of bathing machine available - these would be drawn into the water to enable bathing to take place shielded from public view, with a flight of steps for bathers to enter the water.  They were not available solely from the Bathing House but could be rented from some local people.  An 1811 description stated: ‘one of the machines is so admirably constructed that a lady may bathe without a guide in perfect safety, and, though completely enclosed from view, have the same advantage of sea-water as with the common machines.’  With the tide ebbing so far out there were different rates for bathing depending on whether it was high water or low water.

Visitors sought amusements like walks, rides and excursions: the Duke of Beaufort had constructed a walk on the Burrows, gardens were laid out and trees planted; from 1785 Swansea had a theatre in Wind Street, from 1807 there was also the New Theatre in Temple Street, and later the Assembly Rooms in Cambrian Place.  But being over half-a-mile from the town centre, the Bathing House was not conveniently sited, and bathers needed to negotiate pebbles and stones to reach the machines.

From 1817 the Bathing House was converted into Swansea’s Poor House – a House of Industry – with part used as an Infirmary.  The 1851 ‘Guide to Swansea’ described it as being “to afford warm and cold sea-water bathing, and medical and surgical relief to the sick poor, from every part of the kingdom”, when it was being run as a charity.  It was demolished in the early 1980s.

The Bathing House’s best known lessee was Ann Hatton, known as Ann of Swansea, a younger sister of actress Sarah Siddons.  In 1799, with her second husband William Hatton, she leased the Bathing House for £34 4s 0d, until Hatton died seven years later.  Ann wrote rather verbose Gothic novels and poems - Dylan Thomas felt she managed to keep her verses “on a nice drab level of mediocrity”. 
On the wall of the Civic Centre facing Swansea Bay she is commemorated with a blue plaque, which also states that it marks the site of the Swansea Bathing House.