01 May 2022What was Martha's Gift?

Martha's Gift


This is the story of a family that today we would say lived under the radar.  No family announcements and no news articles relating to family members are to be found in local newspapers.  But one family member is acknowledged for a good deed with a brief account in the parish magazine and by a simple plaque erected inside the Church.  The parish magazine informs us that 'Martha James was all her life a parishioner and one of the oldest Communicants in Cadoxton Church.  She was one of the most kind hearted persons and ready to help her neighbours in all troubles.  She was very quiet, unassuming and devoted to her Church.  Her interests were entirely local and her two deceased daughters were members of the Cadoxton Branch of the Girls Friendly Society.'

Her memorial reads:

In Memory of MARTHA JAMES wife of Evan James, Collier of Penywern Road in this Parish who died Feb 3rd 1917 aged 73 Years.  She Bequeathed the First Gift £100 towards the Re-Endowment of this Benefice after the Passing of the Welsh Church Act 1914.  “Will a Man Rob God! Yet Ye Have Robbed Me But Ye Say Wherein Have We Robbed Thee?  In Tithes and Offerings”.  God Loveth a Cheerful Giver.

The Welsh Church Act of 1914 was an Act under which the Church of England was separated and disestablished in Wales leading to the creation of the Church in Wales.  However, due to the outbreak of World War One the Welsh Church Act of 1914 was passed together with the Suspensory Act of 1914, meaning that the Welsh Church Act would not be implemented for the duration of the war; disestablishment finally came into effect in 1920.  The Bill was politically and historically significant as one of the first pieces of legislation to apply solely to Wales.

Disestablishment meant the end of the church's special legal status, and Welsh bishops were no longer entitled to sit in the House of Lords as Lords Spiritual.  As the Church in Wales became independent of the state; tithes were no longer available, leaving it without a major source of income to maintain all its churches, properties and glebes.1 

Disendowment, which was even more controversial than disestablishment, meant that the endowments of the Church in Wales were partially confiscated and redistributed to the University of Wales and local authorities. Endowments before 1662 were to be confiscated while those of a later date were to remain. This was justified by the theory that the pre-1662 endowments had been granted to the national church of the whole population and hence belonged to the people as a whole rather than to the Church in Wales.  Understandably, this reasoning was hotly contested, but to no avail. 

Martha Lewis, as she was known before she married Evan James, was born in Cimla in 1843, one of eight children born to William Lewis and his wife Margaret James; five of Martha’s siblings had been born in Pembrokeshire before the Lewis family moved to 'Crunallt' in Cimla.  Martha’s father initially worked as a labourer before the family moved to Mount Pleasant, Cimla where he found employment as a gardener.  By 1861 and still employed as a gardener, William and his wife Margaret had moved to Cadoxton Village and living with them were their son John and daughter Mary.  At this time, along with two other young ladies from the Neath area, Martha was employed as a domestic servant in the Cardiff suburb of Roath.  A burial record in 1864 of one William Lewis of Glyncorrwg, may refer to Martha’s father as her brother Levi was living in Glyncorrwg and Martha’s mother was recorded as being a widow at the time of the 1871 census.  Whether Martha returned to Neath before or after her father’s death is not known.

Martha married Evan James in 1867.  The couple lived at Cwmbach with their daughters Margaret and Elizabeth but moved to Traws Dir (a location somewhere between Cadoxton and Neath) where Evan may have found employment in the mine at this location.  Martha’s daughters died in the April and May of 1889 and were buried in St Catwg's Church; (newspapers of this period were reporting an outbreak of Scarlet Fever in the Neath and Swansea localities).    

By 1901 Martha and her husband had moved to Penywern Road and the census return records Evan as being a Colliery Fireman, a role which usually carried some responsibility with extra pay and a guaranteed week’s work.  The couple remained in Penywern where Evan died in 1915 aged 70; Evan’s effects were valued at £737.8s with Martha the sole executrix of his Will.  Just over a year later Martha died and following her funeral the Vicar for Cadoxton-Juxta-Neath was asked to attend the reading of Martha’s Will.

Martha appointed William Bowen, a provisions merchant in Queen Street, Neath as the sole executor of her Will.  Among the beneficiaries of her Will was the Vicar of the parish of Cadoxton-Juxta-Neath who was to receive £100 'to be applied by him in such a manner as he may think best for the purpose of Church Work in the Parish'.  The parish magazine published after Martha’s death informs us that the legacy was so very unexpected but very welcome as the anticipated reduction in endowments would leave the Church with an annual income of just £8.  The writer of the article also informs us that Mrs James had intended that a gift of £50 was to be made to the Cadoxton Branch of the Girls Friendly Society.  However, we are told the Parent Society in London intended to claim the sum.

Martha’s effects were valued at £938.18s.4d, which was a substantial sum for the majority of households in 1917. 

1 Hence the quote at the end of the memorial from Malachi 3:8 King James Version (KJV).


02 April 2022SMOG



The London 'pea-souper' fog of 1952                                    Getty Images - public domain

Older readers will remember the horror stories concerning the London Smog in the early 1950s that gave rise to the Clean Air Act of 1956.  Younger ones will certainly remember the pictures of China’s smog laden cities prior to the Beijing Olympics and the concerns about the health of athletes taking part. 

The word SMOG [a mixture of smoke, gases, and chemicals, especially in cities, that makes the atmosphere difficult to breathe and harmful for health] was not coined until the early years of the twentieth century, but its constituents – smoke and fog combined – had been around a very long time. Even in ancient Rome, Seneca complained about 'the stink, soot and heavy air.'  In 1285 London's air was so polluted that Edward I established the world's first air pollution commission; and centuries later Shelley wrote: 'Hell must be much like London, a smoky and populous city.'

However, these are not just tales of distant parts.  Neath had its own smog problems connected to the industrial revolution which had come early to the area.  In the eighteenth century, for two-thirds of the year a cloud of smoke emanating from the many factories, would descend on the town.  The autumn months were the worst when, during calmer periods, smoke particles, mixed with fog gave rise to a yellow-black cloud.  The problems probably started when the first of the Mackworth's started his copper works in Melincryddan, at the start of the eighteenth century.  Other factories produced smoke but copper smoke was the worst of all.

Chimneys at Melyncryddan                                                                                                NAS Image

Many of the tourists who came to the Neath valley to view the beauties of its waterfalls and its abbey were appalled by the marks of industry.  Some of their remarks were included in the article on Traveller’s Tales last October.  Their comments stretch over nearly a century:

1774 - Henry Penruddock Wyndham : 'the country here … is spoiled by the neighbourhood of copper works, lime kilns and coal works, which here abound, and the air is poisoned, and even darkened, by the continual smoak arising from them.'

1798 - Rev. Richard Warner speaking about Gnoll House: 'The great Manufactories standing at a distance of not more than a mile to the south-west of it, the general prevalence of the wind must wrap the House in highly disagreeable and perhaps pernicious, fumes, three-fourths of the year.'.

1824 - Margaret Martineau:  'at Neath comes the end of the beauties.  A thick smoke closed the scene and we drew in copper at every breath.' 

1850 - Ellen and Emily Hall:  'Drove to the Valley of Neath, much choked at times, with the terrible copper smoke – Up to this little town the valley is all more or less injured by the effluvia from the works – but after passing that, the green trees look fresh and healthy. … Before the whole country side was blasted and destroyed by this abominable copper smoke the situation of Neath Abbey ruins must have been most lovely.'

1861 - Samuel Carter Hall:   'Neath is now a town of smoke through which its rare and valuable antiquaries are all too often but barely seen.'

Everyone knew the problem but how to deal with it was another matter.  A prize fund was established in Swansea in 1821 'for obviating the inconvenience arising from the smoke produced by smelting copper.'  A number of ideas were put forward but none were deemed worthy of an award.

In 1832 at the instigation of Dr (later Sir) Charles Hastings, physician at Worcester Infirmary, meetings were held in different towns and cities of the United Kingdom each year to discuss the national problem of smoke pollution and to endeavour to come up with a solution.  In Swansea the works were 'zoned' on the edge of the town so that the smoke was carried by prevailing winds over wasteland to the east; but in Neath the smoke from the copper works was carried by the same winds towards Neath town.

From Llanelli to Neath there were so many copper works that the area became known as ‘Copperopolis’.  South Wales was reckoned to account for up to 90% of the United Kingdom’s copper production and 50% of the global supply.

Stac-y-Foel was built above Cwmavon in the 1830s, the intention being to keep the smoke away from the town.  The structure, 1200 feet above sea-level, had the desired effect but although the smoke dispersed, the dust settled on more distant parts, including the Vale of Neath as far away as Rheola. 'It settled upon and destroyed the grass for twenty miles around, while the sulphur and arsenic in the fumes affected the hoofs of the cattle, causing gangrene.'   Nash Edwards Vaughan of Rheola did try to whip up support to take on the copper companies and called a meeting of landowners at the Castle Hotel on 27th May 1860, but only ten or twelve (the press were not admitted) attended, led by Howel Gwynn, J. Bruce Pryce and J. T. Llewellyn.  A committee was formed and subscriptions taken but nothing more is heard and the lack of support must have been disappointing.

The Towns Improvement Clauses Act of 1847 (section 108) tried to address the issue.  It stated that any furnace constructed after the passing of the Act should be constructed so as to consume the smoke arising.  All well and good, but in Swansea the council were more concerned with such action placing them at an economic disadvantage with their competitors.  When a motion was put to them to enact section 108 it was almost unanimously rejected 'and the copper smelters may make as much smoke as they please without molestation.'

Coppermasters argued that the smoke was beneficial.  In a Report to the Board of Health in 1854, Dr Thomas Williams of Swansea said that the presence of copper smoke was in fact extremely beneficial since its antiseptic properties acted as a protective cordon to keep disease at bay.  As it contained sulphur and arsenic there were probably not many who agreed with him!

Dr Williams added that 'there were about 300 furnace chimneys near Swansea and the region was practically denuded of vegetation as a direct result of the action of sulphurous copper smoke which, in fifteen decades of smelting operations, had transformed the smiling valley into a barren desert. Drifting before the wind, the lurid vapours darkened the air, concealed the sun and stifled the breather. The fumes emanating from the stacks of the furnaces, consisting of the combined products resulting from roasting the copper ore and the combustion of coal, had helped to pollute the soil and render it sterile. With the exception of wild chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) not a tree, shrub or blade of grass could be seen anywhere in the locality.'

Getty Images - public domain

The problem in Neath seems to have disappeared by 1870 as newspaper complaints trickled out.  Perhaps this was due partly to copper works moving further down the valley to the Red Jacket area although the Crown Copper Works at Neath Abbey continued until 1881. The move, however, merely shifted the problem elsewhere.

In 1853 a Birmingham land agent named Dougdale Houghton bought the leases of two farms Coedyrallt Uchaf and Coedyrallt Isaf.  His family had business interests in Briton Ferry, Tonmawr and Cadoxton from the early years of the century but this was one venture that did not bear fruit. Ten years after his purchase he took Arthur Bankhart, proprietor of the Red Jacket Copper works, to the Glamorgan Assize where he claimed over £8,000 in damages.  His claim was listed for the three years 1857-1859 and showed claims for loss of sheep, horses, cattle, rabbits (there was a warren on the land and because the animals were affected by the poisoned ground they could not be sold), barley, oats, wheat, hay, clover, turnips, grass etc..., etc…  It was claimed that the nearby copperworks had, when it opened, adopted methods to deal with the smoke (originally it was a spelter works), but these methods had more recently been abandoned and the smoke 'impregnated the land and air; the air breathed by the plaintiff’s cattle were thereby injured and by eating the grass.… died.'  Houghton was believed by the reporter to have been offered £1,700 compensation before the three-day trial but refused.  The jury eventually awarded a paltry £150 damages but did state that the copper works was a nuisance and that it was not in a convenient place.  Houghton had previously been awarded damages of £450 in a similar case for the years 1855-6.

Elsewhere the effects continued unabated and did not end until the mid-1890s when competition from abroad meant local production was not profitable.

According to the World Health Organisation, today over four million people suffer premature deaths each year due to air pollution – only the pollutants have changed.


The Environmental Impact of Industrialisation in South Wales in the Nineteenth Century: Copper Smoke and the Llanelli Copper Company - Edmund Newell and Simon Watts (1996)

The South Wales Copper Smoke Dispute 1833-1895 - Roland Rees (Welsh History Review 1980)

Evading constraints? 200 years of uncontrolled pollution by the Swansea copper industry - Malcolm Bailey [Open University dissertation] (2019)

Copper Industry - Clive Trott (Neath & District - A Symposium 1974)

Various newspapers


02 March 2022George Sims - Accident or Suicide?



George Sims’s brass and black marble memorial tablet on the north wall of St Catwg’s Church, Cadoxton, was subscribed to by about seventy of George’s friends and colleagues and was supplied by the then well-known London firm of Hart, Son and Peard.   The tablet bears the following inscription:

'In remembrance of George Sims, Of Ynysllynlladd, in this Parish, Who died 8th May, 1900, In the 62nd year of his age. This tablet is placed here by many of his most intimate; friends, as a token of their regard and esteem.  A faithful friend and well-beloved brother.'

George was born on in 1839 in the Parish of Speen, Berkshire (two miles north-west of Newbury).  He was the second child of George Sims and his wife Harriet Worman.  At the time of the 1841 census the Sims family were living in the property known as Ynysllynlladd, located between Cadoxton Village and Aberdulais, and the property was to remain the family home for over 60 years.  Three children were born at Ynysllynlladd: James Worman Sims in 1841 and in 1846 the twins Joseph Brown Sims and his sister Sophia.  Sadly, Joseph died that same year aged 10 months. 

George Sims, senior, was employed by the Lord Dynevor as his Land Agent and was very prominent in the affairs of the Dyffryn Estate over a period of 44 years.  Whilst his son James became a carpenter, George, junior, from an early age was engaged in a teaching profession.  However, in October 1859 he took employment as a clerk with the Vale of Neath Railway Company which subsequently amalgamated with the Great Western Railway Company.  George, who had risen to the positon of chief clerk, now became the chief clerk to the head of the GWR South Wales Division.  In 1872 George moved to the Swansea office to work for the District Goods Manager and when that positon became vacant, George was duly promoted to that positon. 

Being of a reserved character, George never married and associated with comparatively few people, so as a result he had a limited number of intimate friends.   George was, however, very active with his greatest delights which were his roses and his dogs.  His colleagues said he did the work of four men and was an extraordinary man of business and so it was that the general manager of the Company held George in the highest esteem.  But it was his work ethic which impacted his health.  Retirement under the Company was optional at 60, but George opted to continue working and at 61 years of age, he had spent nearly 40 of them in the employ of the GWR. 

Prior to his death George had been complaining of feeling unwell but continued working; some four years before his death he was forced to go abroad to recuperate his health following a sudden breakdown.  Colleagues at the Swansea office reported that on the evening before his death he seemed fairly well, and, indeed, was rather more cheerful than usual.  George generally got up at 6.20 am and on the morning of his death Mary Lloyd, a domestic servant, saw George in the sitting-room at about 6.35 am.  He told the servant to tell his sister that he was going out for a walk (as was his usual habit) and taking his gun from the hallway he left the house accompanied by his dogs.

Ynysllynlladd                                                K Tucker 

 The garden of Ynysllynlladd sloped down to the Neath and Brecon Railway line where on this fateful morning platelayers George Davies and Samuel Hawkins were working.  At about 7.10 am the men heard the report of a gun followed by the screams of a woman.  Jumping over the fence, which divided the garden from the Neath and Brecon Railway, they entered the garden and discovered the body of George Sims lying on the ground surrounded by hysterical women.  The body lay in the path, with the head resting among some roses, and close beside it was a double-barrelled breach-loading gun, with the muzzle pointing in the direction of the head.  The right barrel had been discharged and the contents of the cartridge had entered the left eye, with part of the charge finding egress by the left ear.  From the nature of the injuries, death must have been instantaneous.  With the aid of Thomas Thomas, the Ynysllynlladd gardener, the body was taken in to the house and Dr Thomas Price Whittington was hurriedly sent for.   When Dr Whittington arrived he could see that the face was badly disfigured.   He confirmed that death would indeed have been instantaneous. There were no other injuries. 

The following day at the Police Station in Cadoxton, the County Coroner Mr Cuthbertson held an inquest into the circumstances of the death of Mr George Sims.

First to be called was George Thomas Sims of Millbrook, Neath, (nephew of the deceased) who confirmed that when he last saw his uncle he seemed the same as usual. The nephew confirmed that his uncle was very fond of shooting and owned a 12-bore double barrel gun.

A deposition from Mr W H David stated that Mr Simms had complained that one of the triggers of the gun had a very light pull.

Mary Lloyd, one of the domestic servants at Ynysllynlladd, said she saw the deceased leave the house, carrying a gun.  She had been at the place [Ynysllynlladd] two months, and never once saw him take a gun out before.   

Thomas Thomas, the gardener, confirmed the deceased had been in the habit of shooting birds in the morning. He had seen him do so many mornings. 

When called to give evidence Dr Whittington stated that he knew the deceased very well.  He had not attended the deceased for ten to fifteen years, but he had seen him lately. The deceased seemed to be all right then.  He was attending a fishing meeting and there was nothing about the decease to lead him to think that he would take his own life.

The Jury, having been addressed by the Corner, returned a verdict of Accidental Death.

The remains of George Sims were interred at Cadoxton Churchyard on Saturday, 12th  May 1900.  In addition to family members his funeral was attended by representatives of several railway companies and the most prominent people of the Neath district. 

The family’s health history was not brought up during the inquest as it might have been thought not to be relevant to the death of George.  But had it been, the inquest would have learnt that Maria, the eldest sister, had been admitted to the private asylum Vernon House, Briton Ferry, where she was a resident patient.  The sudden breakdown to George’s health was not scrutinised during the inquest.





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