Martyn J Griffiths

The grave of the man who created the world’s first passenger railway has been found in Cadoxton churchyard.

In 1807 the world’s first passenger railway started operations between Swansea town and Oystermouth.  It was the vision of one man, Benjamin French, who was a director of the company that had originally set up a tram road to carry quarried stone to the town.  So who was Benjamin French?  Well, very little has been written about him. He is mentioned only vaguely in documents associated with the railway and until today has remained something of a mystery man.

Now a grave has been discovered in the churchyard at St. Catwg’s, Cadoxton, in the name of Benjamin Thomas French, gent (1771-1843) who would appear to be the railway man himself.


In 1804 an Act of Parliament allowed the creation of a railway for the transportation of quarried material from Oystermouth to the harbor at the mouth of the River Tawe.  That railroad began operations two years later and one of the directors is named as Benjamin French of Morriston.


Within a year Benjamin French had a vision.  He believed that the picturesque scenery of Mumbles Head would be an attraction to travellers.

French’s proposal was to convert the iron carriage used to carry limestone into a wagon suitable for passengers.  In order to go ahead with his plans he agreed to pay the quarry company £20 a year in lieu of tolls, for the privilege.  He supervised the engineering of the work and set up a suitable time-table and on the 25th March 1807 the first passenger train ran.  It was an immediate success; so much so that the quarry company increased its rental terms to £25 per annum.

People’s Collection NLW

Mumbles Railway c.1865 - (this was a larger version of the original carriage)

The track itself was five miles long and passengers paid one shilling each way for the pleasure of a ride in a twelve-seater, horse-drawn carriage.  Steam power was already in use but an experiment with a steam engine found that the track buckled under the extra weight and the idea was abandoned.  Horses were not replaced until 1877 (on sturdier rails).

The Scottish author Elizabeth Isabella Spence wrote a letter dated 3rd August 1808 in which she extolls her delight at this new mode of travel:

'I never spent an afternoon with more delight than the former one in exploring the romantic scenery of Oystermouth.  I was conveyed there in a carriage of a singular construction, built for the convenience of parties, who go hence to Oystermouth to spend the day.  The car contains 12 persons and is constructed chiefly of iron, its four wheels run on an old iron railway by the aid of one horse, and is an easy and light vehicle.'

However, just five years later Richard Ayrton travelling around the British Isles wrote:

'It travels over an iron railroad at the rate of five miles an hour, and with the noise of twenty sledge-hammers in full play.  The passage is only four miles but it is quite sufficient to make one reel from the car at the journey’s end, in a state of dizziness and confusion of the senses that t is well if he recovers in a week.'

We know that French hailed from Morriston but his family origins were probably in Gower as his brother, James, who was a witness to Benjamin’s marriage and a named life on Rhyddings estate deeds, farmed at Kilvrough between 1801 and 1817 and there are other families near Pennard of the same name.  The earliest information about Benjamin is that on 2nd September 1801 he purchased the lease of the Rhyddings Estate near Neath from Lord Vernon (Ref. D/D T 299/1-2).    This included ‘Rheedings’ Farm and grist mill and two public houses named in later deeds; the Travellers’ Rest and the Coopers Arms.  Unfortunately this purchase again begs the question, why?  What was his connection with Neath?  Where did his wealth come from?  At the time of this agreement he was living in Llansamlet.

Another mystery is his marriage on 24th November 1804 to Anne Evans of Danyrallt, near Llangadog, Carmarthenshire.  Llangadog is a long way from Swansea and even further from Neath.  What were his links to that place?  Certainly his wife was well off as Danyrallt was a substantial dwelling and her father Thomas Evans probably regarded himself more of a gentleman farmer.  All of their ten children, with the exception of the eldest, were baptised in Llangadog and the records show Benjamin variously named as ‘gent’ or farmer at nearby Ynysmoch.  (Surprisingly none of his children produced a grandchild).

Sometime between 1832 and 1835 Benjamin French moved to The Parade in Neath where he died on 8th November 1843 and was buried in Cadoxton churchyard.  Why did he move to Neath?  His second eldest son, James, had qualified as a surgeon at St. Guy’s in London.  In June 1835 he applied for a position at the Swansea Infirmary and on failing to obtain that position he too settled in Neath, but he probably arrived after his father.

James was active on the Neath Council being twice mayor in 1851 and 1852 when fears of cholera encouraged voters to seek a solution from a man qualified to help them.  He retired to Cheltenham in the 1860s and was buried at Bath Abbey in September 1890.

Two other sons were active in Neath.  Paul Evans French had a shop in New Street and advertised as a ‘druggist, chemist, bookseller and stationer.’  He died at the age of 28 in 1847 and left the business to his youngest brother, Benjamin.  The latter did not stay in Neath long and by 1851 was a surgeon at Cardiff goal.

Although this article throws a light on the man who created the world’s first passenger railway, it also raises many more questions.  Benjamin French obviously was a wealthy man with sufficient money to buy a small estate, run a farm, invest in railways and to educate his sons.  His eldest son, Thomas, went to Oxford before being ordained.  Benjamin’s brother, James, farmed for a short while at Park Farm in Kilvrough before turning to a career as a flour merchant in Swansea and lastly becoming Guardian of the Poor in Swansea.  Whilst a respected person he did not have his brother’s means; perhaps as the younger son he inherited less.  Regrettably historical records never supply all the answers!





14 April 2019Were we Graced by his presence!

WG Grace at Neath, 1868

In May 2018 I attended a funeral reception for someone who had enjoyed spending summer Saturday afternoons watching cricket from the balcony of the pavilion at the Gnoll Ground. It was a first visit to Neath Cricket Club for me, which under the circumstances, was a pleasant afternoon with the weather very seasonal.

I had always known that the great WG Grace had played at the Gnoll and had famously failed to score, but I knew little detail of his visit and decided to take the opportunity to learn more.   I began by looking at the dust jacket of 'Old Neath & District in Pictures: Volume 4' by the Neath Antiquarian Society, which shows a representation of the event painted by a young artist named CW Campion (1830-70).  The painting carries the rather wordy title 'Grand Cricket Match between the Eleven of the United South of England and the Neath & Cadoxton Cricket Club under the Patronage of JTD Llewelyn Esq. 1868.'  The framed original, a handsome delicately painted piece, is carefully preserved and in the ownership of the NAS.

JTD Llewelyn[1] who was captain of the home side (which had twenty-two players) had insisted on the inclusion of Cadoxton in the name of the club for this game.

I now had a date for the event: 21st to the 23rd May 1868, exactly 150 years to the very week before the occasion of my own visit to the Club. The website www.welshnewspapersonline  would provide the rest.  In fact, I found Campion's painting to be remarkably faithful to the description of the scene recorded in the full match report in the Brecon County Times & Neath Gazette dated 23rd and 30th May 1868, from which the following is a summary:

The large meadow belonging to the club was fenced on three sides for the occasion and canvas hoarding, strained on poles, extending more than a quarter of a mile was fixed early on Thursday morning. Members were able to watch the game without payment; non-members were charged two shillings for the three days.

Four tents, in addition to the pavilion, were erected on the ground, one especially for the use of the eleven, another for refreshment of visitors, a third fitted as a dining saloon, and the small dressing tent attached to the pavilion being reserved for the twenty-two. A refreshment tent, not connected with the club, was also erected outside the field. Mr. Whittington had erected a printing press inside the pavilion, to report on the progress of the game. The cricket ground itself was like a piece of velvet pile, from the continuous rolling, machine mowing and sweeping which had taken place in the last month.

Play began at noon. Neath having won the toss put the opposition in to bat first. ... After an interval for pelting rain, there was a pause for the entrance of Captain Evans' brass band, seated in full uniform in their band carriage. Play resumed briefly but rain once more came down in regular 'Neath Niagara' form and a retreat was made towards the tents and pavilion. Lunch was provided by Mr. Hutchins of the Queen's[2] Hotel and the band played an excellent selection of music during the repast. Play was abandoned for the day as the rain increased in heaviness as the evening drew on. The band lingered behind and continued with its programme until everyone had left the ground.

Despite the drizzle, many more spectators turned up on the Friday, especially in the evening. On Saturday a perfect hurricane of wind and rain continued until nearly 12 o'clock. The canvas hoarding around the field was blown down, and considerable damage was done in other parts of the locality. Play was possible in the afternoon and, ironically, by Saturday evening the weather was fine and bright. Both sides wished to play on, but the umpires kept to the rules. Stumps were drawn at 6.30pm and the match was declared a draw.

The police arrangements were very simple but admirable.  Not the slightest disorder or annoyance occurred throughout. But unfortunately expenses were far in excess of the receipts.

The report, of course, carried a comprehensive record of the score for both sides. A point of interest was the umpire's name: Julius Caesar, would you believe! As for WG Grace himself, despite being the leading batsman in England that season, he did indeed fail to score in either innings (one of only four occasions in his long and distinguished career when this happened). As if to rub salt in the wounds, his skills as a fielder were questioned as well!  He apparently caught Middleton with 'a catch off the daisies, if it was a catch'. [ouch!]. Having only ever visualised him as a bearded, portly middle-aged man, it came as a shock when I discovered   that WG was still a teenager at the time, a couple of months shy of his twentieth birthday. He was born in July 1848, coincidentally the same year in which Neath Cricket Club was founded.

Sandra Davies, April 2019.

[1] Sir John Talbot Dillwyn Llewellyn was the son of photographer and scientist John Dillwyn Llewelyn and Emma Thomasina Talbot, youngest daughter of Thomas Mansel Talbot and Lady Mary (née Fox Strangways) of Penrice.  He was created a baronet, 'of Penllergaer in Llangyfelach and of Ynys-y-gerwn in Cadoxton juxta Neath both in the County of Glamorgan', on 20 March 1890. Previous generations of his family had resided at Ynysygerwn House.

[2] Sadly, the Queen's Hotel (latterly The Canterbury) closed for business early 2019.




David Michael

Gnoll Estate Bond Certificate

Without access to banks and building societies and before the modern welfare state, how did working people of Neath guard against ill-health and accidents and avoid the indignity of the Workhouse and a pauper burial? The answer is that they set up their own benefit clubs and friendly societies to provide self-insurance. Extraordinary as it may seem to us now, those clubs and societies met in the many public houses of the town.

Previous generations might have received parish benefit at home but, after the reform of the Poor Law in 1834, the likely outcome for the sick or injured at work was destitution, loss of home, break up of family and, ultimately, admission to the workhouse with everything that entailed.

The central financial function of the friendly society was simplicity itself; the members paid a subscription to the society while they were working, on the basis that, if they were unable to work in the future through sickness or unemployment, then, in return, the society would pay them a weekly benefit by way of relief.

In the early years of friendly society development, the whole thing centred on a box.  Money received in subscriptions was deposited in the box and drawn out as necessary to pay benefit; the societies were known as 'box clubs' and when a member received that benefit he was said to be 'on the box'. It was box clubs like the Britannia Friendly Society of the Bull public house in Water Street that the mining overman Jeffery Jeffries was referring to when he told the Children’s Employment Commission in 1842-

‘Most of the men subscribe to a benefit society held at the Bull in Neath, and when an accident occurs they are allowed about 7s a week.  I subscribe to the society myself; there are about 140 members’.

Not all assets were held in ready cash.  Before the development of the local banking system some societies deposited money with the Gnoll Estate. From 1775 to 1781, ten societies lodged sums of money with the Gnoll estate ranging from £20 up to £200.   In the years 1793-97, the estate took deposits of £100 a time at 4 per cent interest from the Amiable Society of Women, the Black Cock, Coal Miners and White Hart societies, the Young Bucks and Faithful Friends, all secured by bonds.  Sometimes these investments ran on for decades. Copies of the bonds are held in the Neath Antiquarian Society archive at the Neath Mechanics' Institute under reference numbers NAS Gn/E 20/25-30 and the investments are recorded in the Gnoll Estate accounts. Later in the 19th century the societies lodged money with the banking system, granted loans backed by mortgages and even acquired property themselves.

Throughout the period societies continue to meet in public houses and, in the early days, members were required by club rules to contribute toward the purchase of beer which would be drunk on club nights. One of the earlier clubs, the True Nelsons, required members to pay 10 pence to the box and two pence to the club which would have paid for beer. The clubs may have had free use of clubrooms but were expected to reimburse the landlord in 'wet rent', that is, by the purchase of a certain amount of beer. Although these practices   diminished over the years, they continued to attract criticism from the temperance cause.

The regular lodge night was the private face of the friendly society, but the anniversary or annual feast increasingly became its public face.  The celebration took place on the anniversary of the formation of the club or lodge. It was its 'birthday' and the culmination of its year. The press sometimes called these events 'demonstrations' and they were indeed a public opportunity for the societies to demonstrate the strength of their membership and its respectability. Hundreds of friendly society members turned out for these processions clad in colourful regalia, bearing banners showing the symbols of their order and very often accompanied by brass bands.

Broadly speaking, the development of the Neath societies had followed the general pattern with some Welsh and some more specifically local features. Up until the mid -1830s all of the Neath societies had been local and independent, but the later century came to be dominated by ‘affiliated’ orders organised on a national or sometimes a regional basis. The affiliated orders first arrived at Neath in 1835 with the formation of the Caractacus Lodge, number 934 of the Oddfellows of the Manchester Unity.  By 1839 the lodge was meeting in the King’s Head, New Street, which was a respectable house popular with many friendly societies. The Oddfellows were followed by a Welsh order known as the Ivorites, by the Foresters and the Alfreds.

So, what kind of people were friendly society members?  There is only a very limited answer to this question as full membership lists are rare and it had been thought that none survived for Neath. However, in 2018 an account and contribution book for the Prince of Wales Lodge was donated to the Neath Antiquarian Society. Research has confirmed that this society was affiliated to the Independent Order of Loyal Alfreds; it met at the Prince of Wales public house which once stood in in Bridge Street. The book, which is found under reference NAS Z 105/1 contains lists of members from the 1860s and details the benefits paid for sickness and of child funeral costs - it will provide much valuable material for future research.

Friendly societies went into steep decline following the development of the modern welfare state in the 20th century. The last surviving Oddfellows Lodge in the Neath area appears to have been the Friend in Need Lodge which met the Dulais Rock public house Aberdulais from 1859 to 1980. Material relating to the Friend in Need Lodge can be found under reference NAS Odd 1–5. The papers of the Lily of the West Lodge at Glynneath can also be found at the Mechanics' Institute under reference NAS Z 70 1-7.



While looking for visual material to illustrate a talk on the subject, the author was asked by an NAS member whether he could identify a mystery ceremonial sash which had been handed down to her family; was it a piece of friendly society regalia and, if so, which friendly society did it relate to? Although the sash bore symbols which were similar to other friendly societies and those used in Freemasonry nothing on the Internet seem to be a complete match. Enquiries were made with various museums and eventually photographs of the sash were circulated amongst curators of collections relating to social history. One of the curators saw similarities with photographs of societies elsewhere that enabled us to link it to The National United Order of Free Gardeners. The letters PGHE on the shield denote the biblical rivers said to have flowed out of Eden - Pison, Gihan, Hidekkel (Tigris) and Euphrates - Adam after all was the first Gardener. The Order came to the Neath area in 1893 and achieved some substantial growth within lodges in Neath, Crynant, Resolven and Tonna. In fact the order held its national conference at the Gwyn Hall in Neath in 1896 and a local man David Matthew Parry Evans was installed as Grand Master, which we can think of as the national chair, in 1910.

South Wales Daily News - 22nd May 1896

The author would be happy to assist other historians who wish to research the history of friendly societies in their own area. Briton Ferry, Skewen, the Dulais Valley and the Vale of Neath all had substantial friendly societies and research in these areas will further develop our understanding of these important organisations.


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